Thursday, December 15, 2011

Query on Query Letters

I started off this blog several months ago with questions about how to write the proper query letter. Things haven't changed. I am still facing the same question: Is my query letter the proper way to pitch my first book?

My latest crisis of faith came from an agent's reply. I have avoided agents who take only snail-mail queries, but I decided to try one: John Ware in New York City. I knew of his reputation, but an interview with him I found persuaded me that he would be a good agent to present my work to. So I bundled up my snail-mail request and sent it off to Central Park West, relying on Ware's pledge that he tended to reply to queries within two weeks (which is like light speed for most agents). Well, Mr. Ware replied within two weeks ... with a rejection. But he simply took my query letter, circled three words in it and said, "Alas, not for me. But thanks and good luck."

Those three little words taught me a lesson about my query approach. Now I will look at revising my query and see where that leads. You see, this getting published game has new lessons that are taught throughout the process. OK, I am learning, I am learning. And here is a sincere thank you to all of my teachers.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Quick Addendum

My session on the dreadmill helped a lot. I feel like the obese fellow in the Old Spice commercial, the one in which chunks of his body suddenly start falling off to reveal a hunk of a guy underneath. I'm not to hunk stage yet, but a couple of pieces of that exhaustion have fallen by the wayside. Oh happy day!!

How Do I Find the Time to Write?

I have learned the value of AIC ... ass in chair ... as a guideline for authors. I try to follow it as closely as possible. I take time from almost every day I have to work my "day job" and spend some time on my latest novel.

Sometimes that pledge gets kicked in the teeth. The past week has been one of those times.

Part of the problem is the weight of that day job. I am a copy editor in sports at The Denver Post, and fall is our busiest time. It used to be that one day of my work week was a "light day" in comparison to the others. Not anymore. The weight of copy stays the same, but the number of people to do it has dwindled. We have had people leave the department for other opportunities or take a buyout (The Post just had 19 people with more than 400 years' experience walk out the newsroom door that way), but there have been no replacements. That same amount of work is now being carried by fewer workers. There have been a few nights lately when we will push the last story to print just before deadline, and someone will quip, "Did you get the number of that train that just hit us?" And then I might have four page proofs to read in detail after that, then the next wave of new copy for the next deadline.

That has a gradual grinding effect on the body. I spent a few days being physically and mentally exhausted. Where does the novel fit into that? That's the problem. It doesn't. AIC has to be abandoned. The good news is that I have a little more bounce today, thanks to back-to-back nights of 10 to 12 hours of sleep. I will find time for a workout on the treadmill (or dreadmill, as my wife calls it) and I will have AIC.

Work on the novel has not stopped despite the lack of AIC. I have been up in the middle of the night and spinning story ideas through my brain. I am reaching a point where I will introduce a new antagonist to my second novel ... the BIG antagonist in this work ... and I spent time honing down this person's background, etc., in those middle-of-the-night sessions. Now it is just a matter of AIC and putting all those thoughts onto flash drive.

Oh, lest I forget ...

I forgot in my last blog posting to put in my thoughts on how I would rewrite a screenplay for a new movie version of "Sometimes a Great Notion" ... but here they are. I would start with Hank as the young guy just out of the Navy riding his motorcycle west and meeting Viv in Rocky Ford, Colorado (which isn't that far from Ken Kesey's birthplace in La Junta). That would meet the "great drive west" aspect of the Stamper family's life while introducing us to two main characters and Hank's combative nature. Then I would do a time warp and fade to the logging family's life on the banks of the Wakonda Auga.

OK, AIC time. Be creative. Be hopeful.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Are Agents Thinking? Here's An Insight

There is nothing more pressing for all aspiring authors than figuring out what agents are really thinking. We toss all our hopes in the form of a query letter into the river of possibilities. We wait for replies. We hope for success, which means I have to encounter some type of Vulcan mind meld with someone who holds the keys to the world of traditional publishing.

But just where do we find out agents' thought processes? Here is a great source. Put your fingertips to a Google search and ask for "interview Kleinman Barer Zuckerbrot" and you will be directed to a roundtable interview published in 2009. Those taking part are Jeff Kleinman, one of the founders of Folio Lit; Julie Barer and Renee Zuckerbrot, who have agencies bearing their names; and Daniel Lazar of Writers House. Those are familiar names to any of us who have tossed our hopes into that river. (I have filed with three of them, and the results are ... without matching names to results ... 1) no reply at all, 2) a polite letter from the agent's assistant saying no, 3) a request for a partial, then a rejection because I did not have the proper voice for which the agent was looking.)

The interview is rich with detailed information supplied by each agent, but one comment caught my eye more than any other. It came from Jeff Kleinman. Here is the section: "I have three criteria (for accepting a project). The first is missing your subway stop. The second is gushing about it to any poor slob who will listen. The third is having editors in mind immediately. ... I want to be thinking, 'Oh my God, I've got to send this to so-and-so. So-and-so would love this.' "

That final part is what caught my eye. It is so elemental, but so many aspiring authors overlook it. We concentrate on the first part: The writing has to be good enough to lure an agent who is inundated by material from creative people. But that final part is a bit of gospel truth: It's all about the business.

Part of me accepts that without flinching. An agent has needs (paying the bills, making sure the integrity of the work being sold meets his or her standards, etc.) We as writers have to meet those needs by producing literature of a high enough quality.

But here's what troubles me. Does that previous agent/editor connection result in literature that doesn't push the envelope and challenge barriers? If an agent knows an editor to whom he or she can sell, is it only because they have sold something similar before? That gets back to one of my fears in this business, that the need for an agent to sell and pay the bills keeps him or her locked in established parameters. We see the same old stuff wearing a different mask ... vampires, wizards, similar detectives, similar spies, similar romances, etc. As I've said before on this blog, there hasn't been a truly revolutionary bit of fiction published in the past decade-plus other than the Harry Potter series. Is this a big reason why?

I am not touting myself as that magical writer every agent is overlooking. My first novel aims straight for the heart of mainstream America, and my writing style is very mainstream. I have journalistic training, and that is what we aim for. I want to touch readers' sensibilities by confronting them with the familiar, albeit with characters and situations that are adequately literate. I wrote the first novel to tell a story, not to present something that is easy to pigeon-hole. (I will admit that my second novel, which is about a quarter of the way to acceptable skeletal structure, is designed more for a genre. You see, I have to pay the bills, too.)

Keep believing. Keep creating. Keep casting your hopes into that river.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Sometimes a Great Notion" a Sad Movie

I was channel surfing a couple of weeks ago and tripped across the movie version of "Sometimes a Great Notion" ... and it hurt to watch it as much as the first time I saw it. Paul Newman, in his second shot at directing a movie, was hopelessly overmatched. He turned out a nice, little movie with so many holes you could pour water through it, instead of genuflecting to one of the great pieces of American fiction.

Casting wasn't a problem. Newman played Hank, and Henry Fonda was old Henry. Lee Remick as Viv could be believable, and even Michael Sarrazin as Leland is adequate. There also were some gripping scenes, especially the big scene with Hank and Joe Ben near the film's end. (I will not insert any information that requires SPOILER ALERT in here, just in case some readers are unaware of the book or movie. But here's a tip: Read the book first, then see the movie. I think you will weep when you see Kesey's work gutted on film.)

The rest of the movie was simple desecration. Were the Stampers brought to life with the vigor Kesey intended? Not even close. Was the tension Kesey brought from the earliest pages infused into the screenplay? Please. Even little touches were missing. There is the final scene (again no SPOILER ALERT), and I was struck by all the clean-shaven loggers watching the proceedings. For any of us who grew up in Oregon and actually lived in logging towns, that was so false. Now, having all those guys in oil-stained jeans with a few days' worth of stubble would have looked realistic. Adding a beer or bottle of whiskey in the hands of a couple of them would have fit, too.

I will provide absolution for Newman in one way. "Sometimes a Great Notion" is impossible to translate to film, but there needed to be a better effort as far as directing, acting and screenplay. What was done was hideous.

But let's play a little game. Imagine yourself writing a screenplay for the book. What is your opening scene? How do you introduce this amazing Stamper family to viewers? Leave comments. I will give you my ideas at the end of my next blog later this week.

Here's one last point on Kesey and this novel. He regarded it as his greatest work, for good reason. It has amazing depth of character, and the style in which it is written is stunning. You have to keep a sharp mind as Kesey wanders from character to character to character ... going from Hank's tough-as-nails recollections to old Henry's bluster to Viv's somber recollections to Leland's drug-hazed world to Floyd Evenwrite's worried mind to etc., etc., etc. ... all in the same paragraph. An interviewer asked Kesey much later in his life why he hadn't written another book that was as good. His answer was succinct:

I can't.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What Is MY Platform?

Platform is a big word tossed around in the publishing world these days. It means identifying the target audience you want to reach as an author, then making good use of various social media to foster your cause. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube are all seen as avenues for getting you into the public eye. Some agents put a sharp accent on platform, and I feel they reject some authors because they don't have the proper number of YouTube hits, or haven't reached a certain number of Facebook friends.

I can see value in that view, but only from a business standpoint. Some authors keep their social media presence only to the business of who they are, an author seeking publication or one who already has projects to pitch.

I am not like that. I understand the business side, but I don't want to be solely a business entity. I have a heart and soul, somewhat of a sense of humor, a deep commitment to those I embrace within family and friends, and other parts of my life I give priority. Those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will see plenty on the success of the Oregon Ducks, little comments I trade with old high school friends, some comments with current coworkers, bits shared with family. Those comments have nothing to do with my novels or my business. I like to keep it that way.

I want people ... be it agent, editor or friend ... to know me as a person, not a business entity. I have loves and I'm not afraid to show them. I have biases, especially against negative people or those who love criticism first over understanding. I am a guy who wears my love of the Ducks on my sleeve, quite literally. I am a guy who read the eulogy for Steve Jobs and said, "Yeah, that's it. He found some foundational truths and based his life on them. Hooray for him." (Thanks to my brother Steve for leading me to that eulogy.)

I am a guy with great loves and passions, and a deep appreciation for those who have been close to me through the years. I treasure those for whom I have a great deal of understanding, and they understand me. Some are friends, some are family, one of them is my wife of more than 35 years. Those are the greatest things in my life, and I want people to see that. I am not Author, Inc. I also will let some of what is most important to me spill onto the pages of my novels, but people can guess just how much of my characters is really me. I like that air of mystery. (That last part is a line from my first novel, BTW.)

I am me. I want people to see that. That is MY platform.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

An Anthem For Novelists

I get to blend a literary theme with my love for Paul Simon again. My son Stephen told me about this song a few months ago. I loved it, and I hope you will, too.

Parts of it are so honest. I often arrived home after work and headed straight to my computer because some idea started rolling around my brain on the drive home. I have bolted awake in the middle of the night with another brilliant idea, and I have tiptoed downstairs and hammered away at my keyboard to bring it to life. A 2 a.m. writing session stretches into a 4:30 a.m. writing session ... but that's part of the deal. And I have taken my title and tossed it in the trash.

Of course, there are parts of the song at which I rebel. I hope my compatriots regard my brain cell count as higher than Simon's character, and I don't it just for the cash ... although financial reward would be greatly appreciated.

Anyway, enjoy.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Dealing with Literary Agent Rejection

Rejection ... it is as much a part of a novelist's life as plot lines and character development. You put out good queries to various agents, and you WILL get rejection notices.

OK, what next? Agent Rachelle Gardner dealt with that on her blog within the past week. Her post couldn't have been more well-timed with my own circumstances. I received notice from one agent ... I won't identify the agent ... who wanted a partial manuscript of my first novel. She requested the first 50 pages, but I sent the first 54 in order to include a full chapter rather than breaking it in the middle. The result was something I have encountered before ... request for partial, followed by a rejection letter. How do I read the context of the rejection letter?

Here is what I received ... "I enjoyed reading it. While your pages are interesting and well-written, after careful consideration, I feel that your project is not right for my list at the current time." That is as much depth as any rejection letter will contain. What do I take from those words? I like "interesting and well-written" because it validates my own feelings. Beyond that, there is nothing to grasp.

Rachelle Gardner says that is typical. Agents don't have the time to detail things that might have swayed them this way or that. As an author, I have to go with the flow. I will take "interesting and well-written" as some sort of validation. That means I will send out more queries soon ... but not today. I have writing tasks I want to complete and a day job to give my full attention to. My days off will include queries to at least three agents whose areas of representation fit the parameters of what I have written.

None of us like rejection, but there will be that day when my novel and an agent will make the right connection. That has to happen, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Thank You to Paul Simon

I attended the Paul Simon concert in Broomfield last night. It was a blast ... dancing in the aisles, people singing along and adding backup on a song like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and there's just the joy of spending time with a man of massive talent. I am biased here. I think he does a better job of blending music and lyrics than any other performer of my time.

But for all the amazing moments, one brought tears to my ears ... but it brings tears to my ears every time I hear the song. It is "The Obvious Child," and if you know me or have been reading this blog, you will understand. It is at once joyous and challenging, somber and celebrational. Paul brings it to life as only one of the best writers of our time could. I think it fits nicely in a literary blog because it is a novella in slightly more than 4 minutes. Simon simply is able to get to the essence of the story. What a master.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Should a Christian Write?

Before launching into my thoughts, I need to make an important distinction. There is a difference between being a Christian writer and a Christian who writes. A Christian writer is someone who writes for the Christian publishing market (referred to usually as CBA) and creates to exacting standards on issues such as using profanity or not being detailed in matters of sexual activity, to name just two areas of concern. A Christian who writes is a believer who is not bound by those rules.

I fall into that second category, by design. Part of it because of intended market, the readership group I want to reach. I think there is a market of Christians out there who want real characters because they are real characters themselves ... complete with flaws, sins, weaknesses. There also is a general class of readers who know enough about Christianity to understand the moral boundaries, and they will be able to relate to my characters. When I use characters in my novels, I want them to be REAL ... complete with flaws, sins, weaknesses. Second, this need to put flawed characters out there is something that is screaming inside my creative soul, and I want to let it out.

That being said, let me get back to the basic question here: What should a Christian write? Obviously, going outside CBA rules means barriers are erased, but that could take a writer in any direction from a slightly spiritual book to a Dan Brown novel to pure erotica. There must be something within that mosaic of possibilities at which a Christian who writes must aim.

I taught a fiction writing class at a church in Eugene, Oregon, about six years ago, and I made that question the centerpiece of one class. It was easily the best subject I covered.

I came up with one dominant theme: Christians should write something that is in some way redemptive. Now, that doesn't mean redemptive in any spiritual sense, such as a character answering an altar call, but that character must do something or undergo some change that makes his or her life better. That change also has to be in something foundational, not in something ethereal like money or status. It can be forgiveness or simply getting real with who you are. By extension, that change will impact other characters around them, and that impact must be positive in some way. After all, our own actions in real life are just pebbles that we cast into a pond. (Of course, sometimes we throw boulders.) We are not isolated human free agents. Those pebbles (or boulders) cause ripples that have an impact on others in our pond, and they may extend into other ponds.

Why is that redemptive quality a prerequisite for a Christian who writes? Because it is what our belief system is all about. We are to varying degrees (and I apologize to anyone who is offended by my metaphor here) lumps of spiritual dung. The good thing is that God, through Christ, won't allow us to stay in that condition. He will mold us, shape us, hammer at us, lure us, persuade us to get better. My fictional characters will face those same challenges, even some who have no background in churches or spiritual belief systems.

How does that character look when freed from CBA rules? Each character differs, but he or she will drop f-bombs, connive, have sexual backgrounds that would make a nun blush, have a spiritual life that is dead with no impulse to become spiritual, have family backgrounds where huge weights are part of the baggage they carry, be divorced and happily so, have abandoned their children, be spiritual searchers ... the possibilities are many. Why do I build characters who some say are so rough? Because church pews and the general populace are filled with real characters just like that.

How can I be so sure? Just listen to the sermons. Even in very conservative churches, the truly honest pastors will talk about things like Internet porn, sex outside of marriage, tensions that tear away at married couples, recovery from divorce, etc. Those tensions are part of life as a Christian. Anyone who says they have overcome those things is one of two things, either someone who has encountered a spiritual level not common to most Christians or a liar. I think the second option is truest. Statistics say that divorce is as prevalent in Christian homes as in the general populace. I have heard that per capita subscriptions to porn sites are highest in the state of Utah. Go figure. The perceptions we'd like to have about ourselves and those around us in church is one thing; reality is something else. We reach for a standard many people don't understand, but we encounter serious obstacles along the way. I think God intends for those obstacles to be there. It's how we grow.

In short, people are real, even when they occupy church pews every Sabbath. Many pastors will agree because they face these things when they counsel troubled congregants. I simply put those factors into my characters. That doesn't make it easy on me, because I run the risk of being too Christian for secular and too secular for Christian. So it goes. I would rather be true than hypocritical in order to carve out a little niche of success.

Peace, love, long life. Strive to get better every day. If you have the gumption to do it, allow God to lead you along the way.The rewards can be overwhelming.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Getting Started on The Second Novel

I have been pretty quiet on Facebook, Twitter and this blog over the past couple of weeks. Reason? I have started my second novel. Well, actually, it is the third start on my second novel, which makes sense if you have ever sat down to write a novel.

Here's my explanation:

I started a second novel about five months ago that is a sequel to the first. I put that on the back burner for one reason. Sequels are bad ideas unless you are already published. Publishing houses don't buy that idea, which means that agents don't accept it, which means that first-time writers should put those novels on the back burner.

I started my second second novel, and it glided onto the page. I loved the character, and I loved the setup of the story line. But I put it on hold because the subject matter is SO different from my first novel, and what I intend to write in the future. Again, an experienced author can get away with that. James Patterson can almost simultaneously release one of his thrillers and release a second book about the tensions of being a middle schooler. One is adult thriller, the other young adult. A newbie can't get away with that, so my great character and setup ... which will be a young adult growing into a real world with real challenges ... will wait for a later date.

Now I am starting the third second novel. It will fit snugly into thriller/mystery territory. It will use areas with which I am familiar ... the Seattle area and Northern California to a small extent, Los Angeles and the surrounding area to a much larger extent. I have written five chapters, and I believe it is a solid setup. I have been spending the past few days gathering and tossing out plot ideas ... you know, those middle-of-the-night reveries when great ideas interrupt sleep. Now I will sit down and begin building on that solid foundation. There are no twin story lines in this one, no single character existing in a fantasy world while the other resides in the real world. It will be easier to craft than the first one, but no less challenging.

So it is time to put the first principle of being a novelist into action: Put your ass in the chair and begin creating. I love doing that. It will be a great ride.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Swimming Against the Tide

I never intended to become such an iconoclast as a novelist. I never intended to make things so rough on myself as far as becoming published. I just sat down and wrote my first novel because I liked the story lines, not to satisfy some marketing guidelines.

Let me backtrack here. I know most of you are unaware of what that first novel is about, just because I have been so tight-lipped about the content and you weren't given a manuscript to read. I have done that because all the feedback from agents has been that my idea is original, hence my hesitance to divulge my secrets. I will try to give a general idea of my novel's structure without giving away too much info. So here goes:

One part of the novel is based on the fantastic, a story about a man thrown into an uncomfortable world where he must face his greatest fears again and again. That repetition of facing fears and the reality that he is powerless to stop it put him on the knife's edge of sanity. If you read my little exchange on this blog (Aug. 3, Turning a Character's Life Upside Down ... Again), this is the John Craft story line.
The second part of the novel is based on a real-world set of challenges, the kind of challenges you and I could face any day of the week. I want readers to see themselves in this second story line, the Sean McNabb section of the novel. Sean might not be you or me, but we probably know a Sean McNabb at work, at church, in our personal history. I want to make him very approachable to readers, the kind of character someone can examine and say, "Yeah, I know that guy." They might not like him at times, but he's just the real deal.

The problem with this approach is that I obliterate the lines between literary genres. Most writers try to carve a little niche within a genre and then "build a platform" within that genre. My approach takes me into crime story, romance, military references, spirituality, etc., etc. That wandering through many genres means my work is categorized as "mainstream fiction" ... which is a catch-all that really equates to "every novel that doesn't fit anywhere else." It is a crowded field of novels.

The reactions to my approach have been interesting. One agent loved my premise but said she couldn't see the subject matter being an easy sell to her established contacts at publishing houses. She passed on my project. Another loved my premise but said I wasn't using the type of narrative voice he was looking to represent. He passed on the project. Several others have given the generic "this isn't what I am looking to add to my list of representation at this time." I had an editor show interest, but she said that my book would have to be a tome of immense size if I developed the story lines the way they needed to be developed. Well, I am an experienced journalistic copy editor. One part of our job in something of this size is to sift out the b.s. and keep to the main points. Hence, my novel comes in at just a little more than 92,000 words. That means it is a good-sized novel but nothing of "tome of immense size" volume. (I pulled the plug on that editing relationship, for more reasons that I detail here.)

So what am I left with? It's a good novel, or at least a great premise. It's just not an easy sell. But I will put on my best "Kathryn Stockett as suffering writer" mindset and trudge on in order to get published in the standard way (get an agent, who gets me a book deal). There is an agent out there who will accept my focus, stand beside me and help polish a diamond in the rough. The sooner the better.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writer's Block Meets Writer's Honesty

That chapter that haunted me last week ... it came back to haunt me again. I once again stepped back and looked at what I had written. This time I put on my reality glasses.

The chapter had bothered me since the earliest stages, back when the novel was in its skeletal stage. I rewrote the chapter several times, and finally reached a point where the writing and subject matter were acceptable. But something kept nagging at me. It felt false ... like a literary work. I don't strive for that, opting for real characters and situations. But my "real" characters were in a situation that never quite fit. That led to my seeking of different entry points into the chapter, and the resulting mess I made. I went back to my original idea because it was the best of the five I crafted.

The problem? It still missed the mark. I finally sat down and ripped apart about 15 pages of manuscript last week. I tossed preconceived notions out the window. Some of my original ideas survived. Others hit the cutting room floor. What resulted is a solid chapter. I am happy that the false feeling to the work is gone. It is just a supporting chapter, but one in which I trace the growing dynamics between a man and woman. I want that relationship to be real.

Now comes the important part: An agent has to accept my grand idea and think it is good enough to pitch to a publishing house. That means today is query day. Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Writer's Block and Other Maladies of the Mind

My writers block this week took a different form. I had no problem coming up with ideas. My problem was coming up with too many ideas.
It centered on a single chapter. It isn't an important chapter, so it wasn't like I was working on a load-bearing wall in my house, but I kept coming up with flaws in the construction. I tweaked my first idea with a second idea. Later I considered a third idea ... and a fourth ... and a fifth. I stepped back and looked at the result. It read like a shattered mirror, with the broken pieces reflecting different angles. It was a mess.

So I did what any self-respecting author would do ... I threw up my hands and screamed to the skies. I asked for wisdom. I posted a note on my Twitter account and asked other authors who follow me for ideas. I was greeted by silence. OK, someone is trying to tell me I have to solve this problem on my own. So then I did what any self-respecting author would do ... I stepped back, looked at the chapters leading up to the problem chapter and examined the following chapters I had planned out. The result? I went back to my original idea, with some minor tweaking.

I simply spent too much time and energy working on alternative ideas. The chapter centers on the expanding relationship between a man and woman, and you would think that a guy who has been married for more than 35 years could handle that task. But it is a fictional relationship, and it is a supporting chapter ... kind of like filling holes in a brick wall with mortar. I spent so much time looking for the right mortar that I forgot about stacking the right bricks.

Am I alone in this problem? I think not. I am open to suggestions. Helpful hints, anyone?

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Best Literary Blog, Etc., Etc.

Here are a few random thoughts to toss out today:

I have a new fave for a literary agent's blog, and I don't have to leave the Denver area for the source. Agent Rachelle Gardner rolls out a new entry almost every day, and almost every entry is designed to help the unpublished author sharpen his or her game. It is a marvelous resource. Gardner's blog is all good info all the time.

It took me nine months to come up with the skeletal structure for my first novel. It also took that much time to get it completely polished, and then there probably will be more polishing when I find an agent. That's just part of the deal. If anyone thinks they have that great idea for a novel and can whip it out and have it published all within a few months, I will have to pop that balloon. One author wrote that writing is the second-toughest job in the world, topped only by alligator wrestling. I also laughed out loud when someone related Mark Twain's reply when someone asked him what his favorite part of writing was. "Having written," he said.

I read that many publishing houses say about 20 percent of their revenues are now coming from e-books. I think that's just the tip of the iceberg. Digital books will take more and more of the market share. We live in times where younger readers are visually oriented, and the e-book trend just plays into that fact. There's also the ease-of-use factor. A reader can have 10 e-books on a Kindle or Nook and tote it around easily. Those same 10 books in print format would be a bother to transport. Easier is better, and authors have to take that into account, especially if they self-publish.

I was just about resigned to going the self-published route, but someone in the publishing business (I won't say exactly who) urged me not to do that. (Unfortunately, that somebody isn't an agent.) He advised me to stay the course, put up with the sting of rejection and press on. I will follow that advice. I keep getting rejection notices that say things like, "great project idea, but I don't think it is a fit with editors I work with ..." or "this isn't the type of work I am looking to represent at this time." That gets me back to the basic lessons I have learned about my novel: It is a great idea, but it will be a tough fit. I believe in the project completely, and I will press on.

More later. Good luck in whatever your dreams are pushing you to do.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Iron House: John Hart Stops Being Comfortable

You don't have to spend much time going over my pantheon of favorite authors of fiction. There are two: John Hart and Ken Kesey. The reason is simple. Both write characters who are very real, very universal and exist in worlds I can touch every day. Kesey could take the Stampers and make them Maine lobstermen and not lose a thing. Hart could take Work Pickens or Johnny Merrimon and drop them into Idaho and it would feel right. Kesey wrote about his beloved Oregon, and Hart does that with his native North Carolina.

But I believe Hart missed that basic point with his latest novel, "Iron House." Hey, it's a great novel, and I loved reading it. It is a marvelous work. My problem is that universal aspect of his characters got lost in this one. Let me explain.

I have no problem with the main character, Michael, who, as Hart says, is "a cold-blooded killer." But there is a basic human foundation to Michael despite his line of work, and I can accept him. He loves a woman deeply and wants to do what's best for her. He wants to change his life. He is willing to do whatever to make that happen. He has a horrendous personal history. OK, Michael is fine.

It's some of the other characters I don't accept as readily ... the senator, his wife (who becomes a main character on which much of the action centers), his brother Julian. The universal quality to Hart's earlier characters were that they were taken from Hart's Rowan County roots, that North Carolina foundation. Every detective, every protagonist, every supporting character could have walked the streets. The senator and his wife in "Iron House" are disjointed from that familiarity just by their status. Julian is disjointed because of his afflictions. They went from being universal characters to literary figures ... from comfortable folks to people of the imagination. That is a great distinction, in my opinion.

But no character jarred me more than Jimmy, who is the other major "cold-blooded killer" in the novel. I can understand how Hart almost HAD to make Jimmy as irksome as he is. If Michael is the protagonist, then Hart must make an antagonist who makes Michael look like a choir boy. And, my, Jimmy is that kind of antagonist. The level of violence Hart lays out is close to "Silence of The Lambs" violence. Jimmy is that twisted and that intent on exacting punishment to get what he wants. Give me the "simple" murders in Hart's earlier works ... "King of Lies," "Down River," "The Last Child."

I wrote a scene of murder-suicide in the novel I am trying to sell, and it was a difficult thing for me to sit in my office and detail what was happening. I'm just not a murder-suicide kind of guy, which I'm sure is good news to my family members. But it is a basic foundation to part of my novel as I put together issues a protagonist must face. I have talked to and exchanged e-mails enough with Hart to know he's a basic good guy, a real Rowan County type of person. I wonder whether he had problems taking Jimmy to the levels he took him.

I will make one more link between "Iron House" and "Silence of The Lambs," and it is a good link. No novel grabbed me by the shirt collar and pulled my along more than "Silence of The Lambs" ... I started reading it on vacation, and I couldn't let go of it. The first 100 pages of "Iron House" have that same grab-the-shirt-collar quality. I think it is Hart's best writing as far as character development and pacing. Some of that pacing ebbs later in the book, but never to the point that it becomes a problem. It went from being simply sensational to merely great. I would like to be able to write as well as that.

How can I praise "Silence of The Lambs" and give "Iron House" a rap or two on the knuckles? Notice I don't include Thomas Harris, the author of "Silence of The Lambs," on my list of great fiction authors. He writes great stories, but there is a disconnect with me as far as characters. No author will make it to my lofty-author status without nailing characterization to which I can relate. So few are able to do it.

My original thesis on this blog entry was that readers had a similar disconnect with "Iron House" characters and sales suffered because of it. I saw that "Iron House" showed up at No. 10 on the New York Times bestsellers list, but it can't be found on the list now, or even on the USA Today 150. I sent John an e-mail detailing that argument, and he shot it down by using the facts. (As a journalist, I like that method of disagreement.) Early sales on "Iron House" were 3-to-1 over early sales on "The Last Child" ... and both showed up at No. 10. It's just a matter of timing ... a No. 10 at one time doesn't equate to a No. 10 ranking at another time. OK, that part of my argument is gone, but my basic feeling about characters remains.

Read "Iron House" ... you won't be disappointed ... but take time to read John's other novels as well. He is a master craftsman. I treasure my time of reading his novels. I wish him the best (as if he needs my goodwill). I just hope his next novel gets back to what he does best.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I Know Why Publishing Is On Life Support

I understand why the publishing industry is in trouble, and why there hasn't been a major work of fiction recently that will be talked about by later generations ... save for the Harry Potter series.

Publishing is running scared, and it has retreated into a bunker mentality as far as fiction. Books are accepted that follow established norms. We have Harry Potter wannabes and Twilight clones. We have established spy stories and established detectives. Where is something the quality of "To Kill A Mockingbird"? Why does someone like Kathryn Stockett have to go begging for more than three years before her "The Help" is allowed to reach the public?

The problem is systemic. I know this is gross generalization, and generalization invites error, but here is the way the system works.

There are thousands of English majors or those with degrees in fiction writing who populate agent and editing jobs. They all have been taught a paint by the numbers approach to novels. A writer must do this, and do this, and do this, and do this, then do this. Any variation is reason for rejection. I will confront three areas of The English Major's Commandments I think lead to problems.

1) A character must be larger than life. What's wrong with a character a reader can relate to because that character is familiar? Think of Scout and Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird" ... larger than life? No. I think readers are thirsting for characters and situations they can wrap their minds and emotions around. The "larger than life" commandment works if a novel must be escapist in nature, and current publishing is filled with escapist novels and characters ... wizards, vampires, spies, etc. But, again, people want a different sort of literary main character. The current publishing industry isn't built to give that. The rules are stacked against it.

2) Don't use backstory too early in a novel. What's up with that? Backstory can give great context to a character or characters. I will go back to one of my blog entries and highlight the work of Ken Kesey. His "Sometimes a Great Notion" begins with a long, long chapter, and almost all of it is backstory. Today's agents and editors would either reject Kesey outright or urge a rewrite of that opening chapter. And can you imagine an agent who wants to see the first four chapters of a novel and Kesey delivers 200 pages of amazingly intricate copy? I can hear the gasps on Fifth Avenue or Wazee Street right now. I can see the email in the Kesey inbox: "Dear Ken, thank you for your submission, but your project does not fit what I am looking for right now ..."

3) Don't use passive voice. Passive voice is not the best, but it can be used well. Any number of stories can bring a reader to tears by emotional appeal or tease their moral outrage while using passive voice. But today's agents and editors see passive voice as something akin to touching the third rail. It has been drilled into them in lecture after lecture. It causes a knee-jerk reaction. I have never encountered a reader who told me, "I stopped reading that novel when I detected passive voice. I find that unacceptable." Readers want to know characters, understand their lives, feel their pain, feel the touch of a lover's skin under their fingertips, etc., etc. They don't care whether it's in passive voice. Only English majors trained to paint by numbers do that. Some of them get quite uppity about the matter.

My next blog? I will talk about John Hart's latest book, "Iron House," which I loved. Its original sales were strong, but I don't see it anywhere on the NYT or USA Today bestsellers lists these days. I think I understand why.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Kathryn Stockett Is My Hero

We like to make heroes of those who press on against mounting odds, so Kathryn Stockett qualifies. For those who don't recognize the name, she is the author of "The Help," the hugely successful novel about African American domestics in Mississippi during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights movement. Do I praise her for diving into sensitive subject matter? Not now. If she had written the book in the 1960s or early 1970s, then yes.

I regard Stockett as a hero because she stayed with her dream. She received 60 rejections from agents before one finally took "The Help" as a worthy project. Sixty!!!! She went for more than three years, sending out query after query. Rejection letter after rejection letter followed, some of them with nasty wording about her ability to write.

But let's analyze this just a bit. There were 60 agents armed with extensive college background in fiction writing, 60 agents with experience in the publishing trade, 60 agents who had dealt with varying degrees of writing success with their clients. They all took that experience and knowledge and deemed Stockett as not worthy of being published, or even requesting a partial manuscript. But here is the really delicious part:

They all were dead wrong!!!!!!!!!

"The Help" has been near the top of the NY Times bestseller list for numerous weeks. Why? Because readers liked it!!!! What a novel (no pun intended) idea. Writing something that readers like, even though it is out of the box. Sticking with your dream even after agents with Sarah Lawrence and Ivy League degrees say you aren't worth their time. Staying with your project until someone takes a chance. "The Help" is a major movie, and a pretty darned good movie at that. (I thought it could have been better, but it's a cut above most of the garbage Hollywood is putting out these days.)

Kathryn Stockett has taken a place next to Ken Kesey and my mentor Lyman Jones as heroes. Here's to those who stick to their dreams despite considerable pain. (By the way, I just finished the second chapter of Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion" ... which goes from page 43 to page 99 and includes sections with five different characters talking about unrelated things in the same paragraph and a rambling stream of consciousness by a drug-influenced young man who just tried to commit suicide. Great stuff, tough to get through, but worth every bit of effort.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spending Time With Ken Kesey ... And Others

Ken Kesey and I have been spending late nights together. That's one of the great things about literature ... the ability to spend time with an author even though he has been dead for almost 10 years. His work lives on.

I have been struck by Kesey's opening to "Sometimes a Great Notion" when compared to some of the publishing do's and don'ts that many agents accent. One don't is, "Don't put backstory early in your novel." Another rule, judging by just about everything I've read lately, is to make chapters shorter ... don't let things drag on.

So what is Kesey's opening to "Great Notion" all about? The first chapter is nearly 45 pages long. Almost all of it is backstory. I can imagine Kesey's reaction if some agent tried to tell him that opening would never work. Oh, my, what a ruckus!!!! Pity that poor agent.

One of the early mentors in my journalistic career was a brilliant man named Lyman Jones. He had been a top editor at one of the Dallas newspapers, but he had an affinity for the drink. It caused him problems and he bounced around. I had to bail him out of jail one night, and we both went to a San Francisco Giants game one Sunday in what was one of the most memorable days of my young life. I will relate that story sometime, but not today.

I met Lyman while we both worked at The Sebastopol Times in Northern California in the late 1970s. It was a weekly newspaper, and Lyman knew the old curmudgeon who ran the paper, an equally memorable character named Ernie Joiner, from their days in Texas. Lyman wasn't around for that long. He just suddenly disappeared one day, and I haven't seen him since. He always claimed that he could just vanish and take on a new identity if he wanted to.

Anyway, he was a great mentor. As I said, he was a brilliant man, exceptionally intelligent. I take one bit of advice he told me to heart. He said I must learn every rule of proper English, then break those rules when the situation calls for it. He said some of the greatest works of the language had been done by people who had committed such violations.

I think Lyman and Kesey would have had some enjoyable moments together, and they would have rebelled at some agents these days.

I can still spend time with Kesey because of what he left behind. I wish I could do the same with Lyman. But I will write on with their lessons as part of my life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Little Touch-Up, And Then ...

My latest rewrites have been a fantastic experience. My first John Craft chapter is split into two. The introduction to Sean McNabb is completely different ... much more streamlined, much more to the point. I have added a bit of a preamble, in which one of my characters is up at night and thinking about one of the main points of the book ... which I will detail later.

I also am learning to write. Not write in a journalistic sense ... I have done that for 37 years ... but as a novelist. My biggest flaw earlier was that I was still writing like a journalist. When we write a story for a newspaper, we have 10 to 30 inches (that latter number is generous on most newspapers) to tell about the event or person. We get in, establish facts, give supporting information, wrap it up. I was writing the opening of my novel the same way ... and it doesn't work. Or at least good novels don't work that way.

The key for me? I am relaxing as a writer. My later chapters let events and characters flow, but my opening chapters were burdened by that journalistic pace. That isn't the case now.

I am approaching a select few agents with my changes. Most of them will be those who have shown interest before but thought my writing needed to be upgraded. One will be an agent I sent to but never heard from, but I hold him in such high regard that it is worth another shot.

I have some touch-up to do on my manuscript ... page numbering and such ... and then it will be a go as far as casting my hopes onto the publishing waters again. I am dedicated to this project, and I know it will work. I also want to get back to my second novel, which is a kick to write.

So, away we go ...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Turning a Character's Life Upside Down ... Again

None of you know Sean McNabb, because I have been keeping him a secret. I have trumpeted this great writing project I have done but told you very little about it. I don't want to give away plot, don't want to put sections of the novel online lest I start the publishing clock ticking. I am still sold on the idea, but I need to improve the writing. The silence from agents is telling me that. So that is what I'm about to do ... and Mr. McNabb is none too happy that he is going to get jerked around again.

So, with no more hesitation, here is Sean, one of my two protagonists. Young man, not quite 30. Divorced, talented, committed to his job and his dreams, damaged goods by history, motive and happenstance, recovering self-absorbed fool and still addicted to hope. He is trying to smoothe the rough edges of himself and his life, and some others are happy to take part in the project.

Sean: So, what's all this crap I'm hearing about you changing me? Haven't you done enough damage already?

CM: Changing you is not entirely correct. I am not planning to revise plot ... at least those aren't my plans now ... but I am changing the way you are presented. Your life was told in third person; now it is going to go to first person.

Sean: And you are stripping me bare before the world for what reason?

CM: To let people understand your heart and soul better. I think by letting people climb into your body and mind that they will feel more of what you are going through. That way they will understand your wants, your needs, your desires, your transgressions. You know, you aren't the easiest guy to get along with sometimes.

Sean: The problem is not me, it is other people.

CM: One of my points exactly. We will still confront that, and that is rock-solid promise.

Sean: You novelists are all alike. You think you are your own little God.

CM: That is true, but with a difference. God gives you a choice. You can believe ... or not. You can hear good advice like "thou shalt not covet ..." and you can take it to heart ... or not. It is all free will and choice, and those are gifts. A novelist doesn't allow choice. If I want you to feel the thrill of holding a woman you love in your arms, then tear her out of your life, I will do it. If I want to build a dream you reach for with all your heart and soul, then deny it, I will do it. If I want to put you on the knife's edge as far as life or death, I will do it.

Sean: That is my greatest fear. Be honest here ... am I going to die?

CM: We all do, Sean, but in the context of the novel ... no options are off the table. It makes no literary sense to take away one color from the palette.

Sean: Well, if you are going to be that cavalier with my life, then screw you.

CM: Ah, it's not wise to be sharp with the one who holds the keys to life and death in his hands. I can erase you simply by putting fingertips to keyboard ... but I prefer to mold you, put the knife to your faults and make you dangle in midair a bit. You know all those literary devices ... goal, conflict, black moment. Maybe I will postpone resolution. And maybe I am acting a little more like God here. It is all for your own good.

Sean: How long is this going to take?

CM: Could be weeks, could be months. The standard I need to reach for keeps taking me a little deeper all the time. I am big about reaching for certain standards.

Sean: Are you going to continue to toss so many elements into this story ... all the crime, passion, romance, spirituality? You would make it easier to sell this story if you stuck to a single genre.

CM: Oh, you sound like a novelist yourself. The answer is yes. I want you to read like a real life, and every life has elements of love, loss, tension, defeat, renewal, great questions and search for answers. I will lead you through various phases. Maybe I want people to see a bit of themselves, feel great triumphs and face their greatest fears. If it makes it harder to sell, then so be it. I have never been one to worry about going against the grain.

Sean: And you think you can do that, form my story and make that happen?

CM: Why do you think I am rewriting so extensively. I am committed to making you and John Craft that real.

Sean: Ah, poor John.

CM: Yes, poor John. As I said, no options are off the table.

Sean: I have one last question: Will this hurt?

CM: I promise you you won't feel a thing ... until your pain makes literary sense.

Sean: Oh, screw you.

CM: Sean, I warned you once ...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Little Heart to Heart

I just completed a discussion with one of the protagonists from my first book, and he isn't a happy man. You see, I am considering changing him ... well, considering changing how he is presented. A novelist has that power, and that is why he is mad. He already has enough people interfering with his life. You will see what I mean once the work is published. I am trying to talk him down off the ledge. I have told him I will give him about a week to process the changes I have in the works. My advice to him: Prepare questions about my plans so he can unburden himself of all his worries.

He says he will use that time constructively. His advice to me: I better have some pretty damned good answers. (He has a rough way of talking when he's backed into a corner.) I assured him I will.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Oh, for some good news

When I started this blog, I presented myself as someone with great journalistic experience but little knowledge of publishing. I was a man with high hopes. I had an undying belief in my project. I figured it was just a matter of time before some agent felt the same way.

I feel the same today. I'm just a little older and a little wiser about how all this works.

There are two ways to get your foot in the door as an author. You have to hit the right agent the right way on the right day ... have the pixie dust fall, as one agent put it ... or you have to be so gifted as a writer that you can't be ignored. I don't think many writers today fall into that second category. I have read too many who have hit the right combination because they write the right stuff ... stories of spies, medical examiners, cops, wizards, sorcerers, vampires and the like. They all hit the right agent the right way on the right day, or else they had such a long list of established work that a publishing house is comfortable going back to him or her on a regular basis.

The way publishing is going these days has forced those changes. Borders is dead, and Barnes and Noble is trying to find ways to keep from dying. E-books are rising. Self-publishing is becoming attractive even for authors with serious skills who can't find the combination to the lock in the agent-publishing house world. That might be my reality in the not-too-distant future. But I am waiting for my latest round of queries to go through the system, and I am going to approach two agents who showed interest earlier but eventually decided not to seek more from me. Maybe things will be different with the changes I have made.

I will be published, and I will work my butt off to make it a successful venture. I have never taken the easy way out, and I won't start now. In the meantime, I have started another novel unrelated to this first work. I have at least two other good ideas rattling around, and there is the possibility of doing followup novels to my first story if things click as far as sales. I am in this for the long run. I will make this work.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Query Questions

I have taken an anti-Query Shark stance. I believe Janet Reid's work is great in getting an overblown query down to size, but that 250-word limit is not a set standard. (Use it only when sending to the Shark herself or if an agent asks for the 250-word limit ... I've seen exactly one other who requires that.)

My greatest advice on queries? Tailor them to the agent you are targeting. Check out the agent's web site, blog, etc. to discover what his or her main points are, then point out how your novel fits into his or her view. There are still pitfalls. I wrote to one agent who liked my work but rejected it on one point ... it wasn't the correct narrative voice being sought for that agent's representation. Who could have guessed?

I am not sending out more queries now. I am waiting for replies from several I sent out recently, and those may take two to eight weeks. In the meantime, I am going to get back to writing ... and it's a different project that the one I have already started. The already-started project is linked to my first novel, and I'm going to hold off until I see what the response is to that first novel. I have another novel in mind, in a completely different genre with completely different goals.

I just need to get back to putting fingertips to keyboard. I need that creative fix ... now.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

It Was Time to Grow Up

I started out a couple of months ago to let friends and fellow writers know what a query letter meant to a first-time novelist. That little diatribe was interrupted by reality ... the writers conference, a pitch session, a push by an agent that my work needed work, and then extensive rewriting.

What has been the result? For me, it means I'm a little more grown up in this publishing world. I always knew rewriting would be a big part of the deal as my novel would advance through the process. I welcomed it. I'm a veteran copy editor, after all, so I know the need for editing in a "finished product" is usually necessary. But I am more realistic ... and just as committed to my notion that this is a novel worth publishing.

I have to bare my soul here. I always have enjoyed newspaper story ideas that went "outside the box" and examined something other newspapers wouldn't do. I call that originality. I crave that in my own novels, and I have achieved that here. My novel includes elements of crime, romance, spirituality (especially Christian belief) and even a hint or two of science fiction and political overtones.

So, how can something that is such a mixed bag deliver? The only thing I can say is that it works. It is unique and original, which means I have to find an agent and publishing house that is willing to go "outside the box" as well. I will work like mad to make it happen via the agent/publishing house method, but if that fails I will self-publish. (I talked to other authors who claim self-publishing is the only way to go, but I don't want to take the easy way out. Never have. Never will. I will go that route only as a last resort.)

I have grown up about what it takes to write a really good novel and in my commitment to my own work. I have put my second novel on hold while I have attacked these tasks, but I will get back to that soon. These ideas I have been creating need a way to reach the page. I am more than happy to make that happen.

In the meantime, I am a very patient man. Thank you to all of you who have stood by me, read my manuscripts or partials and supplied feedback. You are wonderful friends. I value that more than you will ever know.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Comfortable Place For A Unpublished Writer

I am still in a waiting stage ... one agent has replied, another rejection ... but I am so much more comfortable with where my novel is now versus where it was. And I was confident in what I had done before. Now it's just a matter of finding a match with an agent. Time will tell.

I haven't made it easy on myself. My work is fiction, and fiction is harder to sell. My work is mainstream fiction, and that is hard to sell. My novel doesn't dovetail nicely with any established work, so I can't hook onto the coattails of "True Blood" or "Harry Potter," and there aren't spies, detectives, goblins or ghouls running around my pages. I like it that way. I like being original, and from all my research, my novel is very original. I have Googled plot line aspects, and there are no direct hits. That's a good thing. One of the people who read my opening four chapters suggested I check out "Sarah's Key" to see how closely that matched what I had done. It brushes my novel only in the most obscure manner.

And I have to get back to writing the second book in this trilogy. I enjoy advancing these characters, and they have been in limbo for far too long.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Rewrite, rewrite

I have to thank my son Stephen for turning me on to Paul Simon's song "Rewrite," which has become a sort of personal anthem. It is perfect for what I have been doing!!!! Check it out on YouTube. LOL.

And my rewrites are done. I have a finished product, and a much better product, thanks to Ms. Bond and Mr. Kleinman. I have much more confidence in opening chapters, story lines, story flow, etc. How confident? I sent a query to Donald Maass. He wrote the book about how to be a great published author, "Writing the Breakout Novel" ... a sort of writer's bible. I didn't have that kind of confidence before, but I do now. Will I separate myself from the hundreds of other queries he's received in the past couple of days? I don't know. Not my decision. But I didn't back away from submitting.

And for those interested in such things, Maass is due to be at next year's Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Pencil me in for that session ... although I'd love to be out on a publicity tour for my book at that time. You never know.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mea culpa, mea culpa ...

I have committed a grave sin. Or, actually I am in the process of committing a grave sin. One thing agents say is to have a completed manuscript when you send in a query. I believed I was at that stage when I first sent out queries. But my Sandra Bond moment forced me to change my start, and now I am filling in cracks throughout my manuscript.

What I had before was the nice skeletal element of a novel with some sinew on it. Now I am adding more muscle and covering it all with skin. There will be a complete, deep novel in place in the next few days. I have been hammering away at changes for the past week, and I am dedicating the next two days off to continuing the process.

So, excuse me, but I must get back to my sins.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Inspiration strikes

I kept running back Sandra Bond's points in my mind and started brainstorming about possible new ways to enter the story line ... better ways to enter the story line. Inspiration hit at about 1:45 a.m. this morning, and I rolled out of bed with possible lines running through my head. I went to bed at 4:50 with a completely new first chapter completed. It is MILES away from my original in tone and approach. The original story line didn't change one bit, but fleshing out the main character and ramping up the tension did.

So, thank you Sandra Bond for kicking me in the butt and making me dig deeper. Jeff Kleinman tried to do the same thing and I brushed off the advice. Bullheaded, you know. Sure MY way was the best way. It wasn't, and the new chapter shows that. It is THAT much better.

Oh, about the plot line? I'm being very coy on purpose. The most positive point anyone has made is that my premise ... my story line ... is very good. I have Googled to see if there is a similar plot line, and I haven't found any matches. Not to say that it's an absolute original idea, but it doesn't seem to follow an established work. That's good.

Now I am turning my attention to my second chapter and seeing what inspiration will bring. I think it's solid, but maybe a little rambling. I try to introduce a few characters who will show up later in the novel ... and introduce my SECOND main protagonist ... and give adequate backstory so the reader will understand my second main character better. (Well, knowing him better might be misleading. The second chapter is seen through his eyes as he examines some of the main people who have hurt him in his life. But maybe seeing this through his eyes distorts reality a bit. The first character trait when I did a character profile on this guy is "classic victim" because he projects the reason for all his failures onto someone else.) Anyway, the second chapter needs to be tighter, so I await new inspiration. We'll see if 1:45 a.m. tomorrow brings anything of substance.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Maybe yes? Sadly, no

I attended the Pikes Peak Writers conference last weekend. What a great experience! There were great sessions on the craft of writing and the business of marketing, and I attended sessions on forensics and covert operations to glean details to use in future story lines.

But several things made the conference very, very special.

The first was the pitch session with Sandra Bond, an agent based in Denver. My research showed she was very nice and very professional. Both facts were true. I did most of the talking during the eight-minute session, and Ms. Bond interjected to ask a few questions for clarification. Then she ended with the words I wanted to hear: "Send me your first two chapters. It sounds intriguing."

I sent in my material and waited for a reply. I got that reply. The result? I will tell it by using parts of the note I left for my wife this morning.

"Sandra Bond said no to requesting more of my manuscript. She said she was excited about the premise ... the second agent to say that ... but she thought my writing was too rough and my lead-in too disjointed. She is VERY BIG on opening chapters being strong enough to grab and keep readers. Ah, there is a lesson here. Two agents target the same problem."

Once I got over that original "well, crap" moment, I started putting ego aside and thought about what Ms. Bond and Jeff Kleinman had said. None of the people I had read my manuscript had said my opening chapters needed work. Well, I am going to ask three friends or acquaintances with experience in publishing novels to critique those opening chapters. I want them to be ruthlessly honest. That is how we learn.

Now I have two more people who have, or will have, the opening chapters to review. One is an representative for a major agency in New York City, and I just stopped her to ask a question about a term, upmarket fiction, that is a buzzword these days. I told her I wanted to pitch to her because her background and material she wants fit my work, but I had sent in a query to another agent at the firm earlier. She said to send "a nag" to her anyway and that she would in turn "nag" her boss. She requested the first 15 pages of my manuscript, which has three full chapters and starts the fourth. I await her reply.

I also stopped to ask an editor for a Christian publishing house a question about incorporating Christian worldview in secular novels, because that covers part of my story line. She asked what my story is about. I gave her a short overview, what is referred to as an "elevator pitch" because you can meet agents in elevators, the hallway or at lunch and try to sell your material. I never thought she would be interested in my novel, not with the level of violence in spots and the use of swear words, including an assortment of f-bombs. I told her about those details. She said she wanted to take a look because her firm was starting a new imprint that was looking for "edgy" material. Trust me, my novel is "edgy" by Christian standards. She wants a query, synopsis (an overview of the entire plot) and the first four chapters. Putting together that package will be my work once I sign off here.

The keynote speaker for the Saturday night banquet was John Hart, who is one of the best and best-selling novelists around. He has had three best-sellers, "King of Lies," "Down River" and the book I'm reading now, "The Last Child." John is a marvelous writer and the winner of many awards, and he's also one helluva nice guy. I had two short conversations with him. I asked him the best piece of advice for a first-timer such as myself. He said it was to have a thick skin, because you will get rejection after rejection. He had several for "King of Lies" when he was among the first-timer ranks, and that novel eventually was on the New York Times and London Times best-seller lists for months. He said he still has every rejection letter he received ... now on yellowing paper ... as a reminder of where he came from and what it took to get where he is today. His advance for "King of Lies" was $7,500. His advances now are in seven figures.

Hey, I have to sign off. I have lots of work to do. Last day of vacation, and it's been a working vacation filled with very valuable experiences. Onward and upward!!! I love doing this.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Query letter? Gotta make it sing

I have been writing quite a bit in the past several days, hence another long break between posts. Or to be more precise, I have been writing and then rewriting chapters for my second book in the series. That much rewriting? What do you expect a veteran copy editor to do.

But as I have gone over the matter of query letters, I have reached a conclusion. I have to tweak mine. It is obvious my current query isn't catching enough attention. The problem? I think it makes the book sound too dark, too foreboding. There are dark parts in the book, parts that made me feel uncomfortable while I was writing them. (I am not a violent man by any means, but I have one chapter devoted to a crime, and the violence gets very detailed at the end. But that chapter is so basic to why one of my protagonists reacts the way he does that it has to be included.) My book is more about decisions we make, why we make them and the impacts they have on our lives and the lives of those around us. Dark and foreboding? Well, maybe dark and foreboding only in how real lives happen, but not dark and foreboding in overall tone. Now I have to make that thought be more apparent in my query letter. So, part of today will be spent honing that most important aspect of trying to become a published author.

I do have big news. I am attending the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs later this month, and I am stoked! How stoked? I think I might have been the first person to register for the conference.

But here is what I am most stoked about: I have a pitch session scheduled. A pitch session is basically an oral query letter. I will be presenting to Sandra Bond, an agent in Denver with an excellent reputation. I have researched Ms. Bond (isn't Google wonderful?), but I will not tailor my pitch to fit aspects she favors. My novel will stand on its own. I know that. Now I just have to sell that idea and get the ball rolling in the right direction. I will have eight minutes to accomplish that.

I will keep you posted.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The best query letter ...

Writing a novel with strong characters isn't hard for me. Putting twists and turns into a plot and creating a world of challenges for my protagonists is daunting but fun. Dialogue? I love doing it. But if you want to see my resolute confidence shaken, have me sit down and create a good query letter to submit to literary agents.

Why such fear and trembling? Oh, I can write a good query, but there is the nagging question when I'm done ... Is it the right wording to sell my novel? Have I done the best job necessary to make some agent in New York City, or Denver, or Tiburon, Calif., sit up and take notice? I may feel fine about my current query letter, but am I separating my work from the 100-200 other queries a single agent will handle during a week? Is my query good enough to avoid being lumped into the dreaded slush pile?

Judging by results, the answer is a resounding no. I still haven't persuaded an agent that I'm the author for them.

I will press on and refine the art. My first query letter was overblown, but then I made an acquaintance many authors make ... I met the Query Shark. The Shark is Janet Reid of FinePrint Lit in New York City. She invites aspiring authors to swim around the reef as she seeks new prey ... and then rips them apart. But in the feeding frenzy there is some very good information. The best of the Shark's nuggets of wisdom: Keep the query short (she suggests 250 words or less) and keep the wording very focused, with no soft or wasted words (which has to happen under that guideline).

My time with the Shark has been alternately interesting and vexing. I'm a veteran journalist and copy editor, so honing my query to Shark-specific length was rather fun. The vexing part is wondering whether the resulting nugget is good enough. It might be good enough for me ... I felt good about sending the query to a few agents ... but is it good enough for that agent wading through piles of queries in the press of high rises in NYC? I can only guess.

I will get into query letters more in my next few blogs, but I will leave you with a little knowledge of what we First-Timers go through. Since I started writing this blog, I have received a reply from one agent. One ... single ... agent. She rejected my work simply because she no longer handles fiction. The others I haven't heard from? I don't have the ghost of an idea what is going on.

In the meantime, I will press on. I am writing a sequel to my first book, and there will be a third book in the series. I keep hitting on ideas for later books I will write. I believe in myself, and I believe in my work. One of these days, the right agent will reply. You don't know how eagerly I wait for that day.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Best Literary Agents

(I was sick, so pardon the long break between posts. But I'm feeling better. Now, where was I?)

Jeff Kleinman isn't one of the true gentlemen in the literary agent business just because he asked for more of my manuscript to review ... but maybe it didn't hurt. He eventually decided not to take me on, but I was impressed by Jeff's commitment to searching out new authors who suddenly show up in his e-mail file. I sent to Jeff one day and got a reply the next. In the world of agents, that's megaspeed. Every agent should appreciate what it means to an author to get that kind of response time. I had done lots of research on Jeff before I filed with him, and he has built an impressive background. He's one of the agent/lawyer combinations, the head of Folio Literary Management. In one interview, he said his day often consists of checking his e-mail at home, going to the office and checking e-mail, getting home and checking e-mail, etc. That kind of commitment to authors without the necessary publishing street cred is laudable.

Kristin Nelson reportedly gets the most queries of any agent, and she takes on a precious few new authors. She rejected my project ... in a form letter no less ... but I put her up near the top of my list for one reason. She writes the best blog in the business. It's called PubRants, and I highly recommend it. Kristin tells a lot in her short postings ... just the kind of stuff we First-Timers need to understand the publishing world a little better. She's witty and professional, informative and entertaining. I really hoped we could establish some kind of Denver connection ... her office is just a few blocks from where I work in downtown Denver ... but I still hold out hope.

Three agents earn honorable mention. Sorche Elizabeth Fairbank writes an almost lyrical rejection letter, and some of her interviews contain vital information for any aspiring author. She is a true professional. Andrea Somberg at Harvey Klinger did a one-day turnaround on replying to my query, and that was much appreciated. Molly Friedrich just sent out a letter to every author who has filed with her, bemoaning the fact that her agency had to abandon its long-time policy of replying directly to each author because the flood of queries has become so much. I appreciate her contact, just because I know the situation she and her agency faces.

I have empathy for all the agents I have contacted. Judging by Friedrich's letter, the number of queries has increased greatly. I can't isolate a reason, but I can imagine being on the receiving end of hundreds of queries a week. Help!!!!

One of these days, that first date of query letter-to-agent will work out for me. I am a patient man. Good things take time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Gate to the Gatekeepers?

I wish I could talk about literary agents with some degree of certainty. I can't, simply because of limited contact. But that isn't going to stop me from commenting.

Oh, there are some things I know. They are overburdened, getting an avalanche of contacts every week from aspiring writers like myself. They have their areas of interest regarding genres with which they will work. They are writers, editors and lawyers all rolled into one (or at least they know good lawyers) and guide their clients through the tricky world of publishing. Ah yes, there is the most important fact for someone such as myself: They are absolutely vital to my future, because they hold the first set of keys to getting published. But that is a mighty tough first step to take.

Here is a quick statistic: I have contacted 23 agents since mid-December; I have heard back from six of them. All were rejections. I'm not shaken by that fact, for two reasons. First, I don't have a big ego, so rejection doesn't hit one of my more vulnerable spots. Second, one agent posted on her blog that contacting an agent is a little like a first date. Some first dates work out, a lot don't. (I have to dig back into my memory banks to comment on that, since I've been married for a long, long time.) OK, I'm fine with that fact.

But remember, I'm that guy looking for that wedding night experience. First dates that end with a polite goodbye at the door aren't exactly what I was looking for. And what about all those agents who haven't contacted me yet? Is my work under review, or have I been kicked to the curb? (It was a bit disconcerting to see that two of the agents I've sent to are on the list of the top 10 agents least likely to reply. Marvelous.) Where is that agent who believes in me as much as I believe in myself?

Of course, I have definite impressions from my contact with the few agents I've heard from. There are two of them I absolutely love, and I will talk about them in my next post. (I'll give a couple of honorable mentions as well.) And later I will deal with the query letter, that first contact with an agent that is one of the most difficult writing assignments imaginable. (Hint: Take a manuscript of more than 200 pages and boil it down to 250 words or less ... and make it good enough to sell that agent who is wading through hundreds of similar works. And for added weight, those words could determine your future in this business.)

Keep writing, keep creating, keep believing.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Alice in Wonderland

I have written enough during a 35-year career on newspapers to fill a small library. I have been part of several departments that have been ranked among the 10 best in America. I know how to be a manager. I know how to write for journalism. I know how to edit other writers. But nothing ... absolutely nothing ... in all that experience prepared me for the world of publishing ... the agent-and-publishing house side of creativity.

I know I'm not alone. This blog is designed for all the first-timers to get together and commiserate.

Good agents get hundreds of queries (the name of the short pitch an aspiring writer sends) a week. Very, very few of those aspiring writers are invited into the select circle of published authors. Hence, I know there is a crowded world of first-timers out there, so let's share some of our stories.

I believe there is one thing that unites all of us: We believe intensely in our work. I spent a year of my life carving out time to write and edit my novel, all while working a fulltime job and handling the duties of spouse/son/father/grandfather/etc. I would arm myself with a few cups of coffee to shake off the early morning cobwebs, head to my computer and compose. If the creative spirit was really moving, I would bury myself in this world I was creating until a glance at the clock showed it was midafternoon and I had to get ready to go to my other job (which has a much smaller window for creativity). But I would emerge from that writing session feeling so energized. I counted the hours until the next splashes of coffee and immersion into the world I was building.

Now comes the hard part ... getting this labor of love sold. I don't want to go the self-publishing route, which means I have to find an agent. Easier said than done. There are hundreds of them, but an individual agent is pummeled by authors who are just as committed to their works as I am to mine. I called this blog The First-Timers knowing that there was a bit of a sexual context to the title. Getting an agent and getting published is a little like a single person imagining a wedding night. You know it probably will be great. If you are realistic, you also know the ensuing marriage will take lots of hard work and a fair bit of sacrifice. But reaching the wedding night and getting an agent have a similar dilemma ... you have to find someone who believes in you as much as you believe in yourself.

I'll touch on that agent part of this world in my next post. In the meantime, keep writing, keep creating, keep believing.