Happy Thanksgiving

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Querying Literary Agents, or How I Slowly Lost My Mind and My Confidence In My Ability to Tell a Story

This has been a pretty quiet blog for several months. Truth be told, I have had a number of things to focus on, not least of which was finishing up a new book and getting the queries ready. If you’re an author, published or not, you can attest to how grinding the process of querying can be.

If you’re not an author, then I’ll try to give you some understanding of what it’s like.

The book I’m currently querying for is called “Skin Trade”. It’s a hard-boiled crime novel that I started about four and a half years ago. By way of some background, I had been reading a lot of Robert B Parker, among others, when I decided I wanted to write a book like this. Parker’s Spenser series is a lot of fun, and having lived in Massachusetts for nearly twenty years, I felt like I understood it in a way I never could have before I moved north. And I hadn’t yet come across a crime novel set in Worcester, MA, and I felt like it was time to try and change that. In addition to Parker, I had been reading works like the Travis McGee series by John MacDonald, and the Parker series by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake). This isn’t a comprehensive reading list, mind you, and there are still giants of the genre with whom I have only scratched the surface. But it should give you a sense of the type of book I was interested in writing.

I started with a simple premise, a man whose family is the victim of a mob hit gone wrong, and he seeks revenge. Plain enough, no? Well, like all things, the final product ended up being wildly different from the original concept.

Fast forward about three years. Nine revisions later, I had a book I thought was complete. I liked the book, I thought it was solid, and I started querying. Back then it was titled “Fighting Traffic”, a title I absolutely hated, but I couldn’t come up with anything better. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not overly fond of “Skin Trade” either, but it’s the best I’ve come up with to date.) I ran through AgentQuery and compiled a list of agents for crime/mystery in a spreadsheet (of course I did) and started sending them out. I queried forty agent and got thirty-nine rejections. I had one request for the full manuscript, which I got back six months later as a rejection, but with some very helpful notes and an invitation to resubmit upon revision.

Sadly, that revision took me a year and a half. In that time, I worked with two editors, one great, one not. The first one was an author who does side work as an editor. She had a few helpful suggestions, but her communication style was blunt to the point of rude and when I had additional questions, they went unanswered. (Since we hadn’t fully discussed payment, she was never paid for her effort, but it was never a complete effort, so my feeling is that payment was never warranted.) The second editor was amazing (and happens to be the wife of an old friend of mine) and showed me what can happen to a work in progress when the right editor comes along.

There was, however, one interesting tidbit I took away from the first editor. I told her I had forty submissions and thirty-nine rejects. Her response was “If you’ve submitted forty times and gotten thirty-nine rejections, there’s something wrong with your book, your query, or both.”

Fast forward to now. I’ve retitled my book “Skin Trade” and it’s gone through the hands of a professional editor, who also helped with my query. I’m addition, I worked up three different versions of my query and sent them to a number of friends for a bit. The one that grabbed them the most was nearly a unanimous decision. I’ve also moved on from spreadsheets to using QueryTracker, which is a fantastic way of tracking your progress. Yes, it costs money as a subscription service, but it’s been totally worth it.

So how am I doing?

I’ve sent 110 queries, and have received (so far) sixty rejections or “no response”.

So, in a word, lousy.

What does all this mean? I’m not sure. When you’re a writer (or a bookseller) you hear countless stories about the number of rejections famous authors got. You hear that you need to be stubborn, to be patient, and to keep writing. You hear that it just takes your book to resonate with one agent–the right agent–to get an offer of representation.

But the process is an awful one for a writer’s state of mind. You send out five or ten queries a week and just want a response. You figure, how hard is it to read through a three or four paragraph query and give it a yes or no. It should be easy, right? But it’s not that easy, and you have to wait four to eight weeks, sometimes even twelve weeks, before you can go through your list and cross off yet another name that never responded. And with each crossed line, you ask yourself again and again, “Why am I even bothering?” You begin to think about alternatives, which these days really starts and ends with self-publishing on Kindle and Smashwords. You think that you’re own writing is not good enough, or perhaps is t good enough isn’t a strong enough statement. Perhaps your writing downright sucks. Even when you’ve put forth the best effort you possibly can, even with the help of a professional editor who made it even better than you thought it could be, you start to feel that nothing you try will ever be good enough for someone to pick up. As one blogger I read once put it, you eat your head.

That’s where I am right now. No, this is not a plea for pity, all writers who submit end up here. I’m just commenting on state of mind. For now I’m stuck in limbo, waiting. I still have nearly fifty queries outstanding, and the right agent may still come along and say “I’ve been waiting for this book for my whole career.” In the meantime, I continue to try and write, picking away at things that I can’t quite get my head or heart around. But that’s what you do if you want to be a writer. You keep writing.

Keep writing.

Harry Potter at 20

Quite a lot can happen in twenty years. When I think back on my own life in the last two decades, I marvel how much it’s changed. In the last twenty years, the following has happened: I got married, moved to a different state, bought a condo, had two kids, sold the condo and bought a house, changed companies six times, gone through half dozen cars, lost two cats, gained one dog, written several first drafts of novels, self-published one, and read an untold number of books. 

Seven of those books were the Harry Potter books. 

The last twenty years were not quiet for J. K. Rowling, Jo to her friends, celebrated author of the Harry Potter books. From that fertile mind sprung seven books of the Harry Potter story, which in turn spawned eight feature films, at least three side books such as Tales of Beedle the Bard, one of which has now spawned a new feature film, which is the first of a planned five, plus a two-part play that is essentially the eight Harry Potter book, not to mention a copious amount of ancillary writing that appears on the official Harry Potter website, Pottermore. Hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, scores of magical spells, potions, charms, and encantations, all in the course of twenty years. 

And then there’s that little thing about Rowling getting married and raising a family. 

I was in books when Harry Potter emerged on the scene. At the time of the first book release in the US, there was little to no fanfare. It was just a book. I worked for Borders Books & Music back then, and our initial stock of the Sorcerer’s Stone was a whooping three units. But despite the fact that there wasn’t the worldwide media buzz that all things Harry Potter generates today, you could still tell that there was something special happening. Those three units were always sold out. Without fail, when someone would request it, a quick search for the book in our database would show that, yes, once again, the book was out of stock. It came up in morning team meetings, and then in emails from the corporate headquarters. Something was happening. 

It wasn’t long before the publishing phenomenon that became the full Harry Potter franchise was in full bloom. Bookstores were hosting wizarding parties, and opening at midnight for the release of each new book. By the time the releases hit the mega frenzy they would become, I was out of the book industry, and working my way through corporate America. But I went back to the bookstore for those release parties. Not to buy the book, mind you, though of course I did. No, my interest was drawn far more by the crowd and the excitement and anticipation and overwhelming exhilaration a buyer displayed when they got the book in their hot little hands. There was the sense that you were witnessing something special that would not be matched again for a very, very long time, if ever. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact Harry Potter, and J. K. Rowling had on the publishing world. Certainly, there had been huge publishing successes, and books that sold out in record numbers despite anyone’s expectations. Books like The Bridges of Madison County and Angela’s Ashes stayed on bestseller lists for years. But Harry Potter was different somehow. The way I saw it was in the children. Kids, who otherwise might not be interested in reading, were picking up Harry Potter books willingly. It was not uncommon to see a child with a Harry Potter book plunked down in the middle of the Children’s Section, plowing through page after page, while their parents continued to shop. These same children would be a quarter of the way through the book before it had even made it to the cash register. Harry Potter, perhaps more than any set of books before it, got children reading. Willingly. 

And why not? Who doesn’t want to feel special the way Harry did? Who doesn’t want to think, when they are young, that the hospital made some kind of awful mistake, and that the people who are raising us that we call “mom” and “dad” are not really our parents, but that we are the scions of extraordinary people, and that we are called on to do extraordinary things? Literature is full of these stories. From Little Orphan Annie to Frodo Baggins, from Ender to Sparrowhawk of Earthsea, across the spectrum, literature of all kinds is filled with instances of outcasts reaching for something higher. 

And, of course, with success come critics. They come in all forms and flavors, from those with legitimate gripes to those who are simply after a money-grab. There was the person who sued Rowling for supposedly stealing the idea of “muggle” for use in Harry Potter. There was Ursula K. Le Guin, who didn’t decry Harry Potter but didn’t think it was all that original, wishing Rowling had done more to acknowledge those who came before. It was a fair gripe, considering her own fantasy series had an orphan wizard learning how to live in his world predated Harry Potter by decades. But while there’s certainly merit to the idea that Harry had progenitors, but it cannot be said that Harry Potter was derivative. There is simply too much packed into the million plus amount of words to describe it as derivative. Some critics had nothing better to do than to bash it for being simply commercial escapism and not aspiring to something higher. Those critics are full of stuffing. They spend countless hours and wasted breaths decrying the wasted opportunities of the written word, yet are incapable of contributing anything worthwhile to the very body of literature they deem themselves experts in. They can, proverbially, pound sand. And what would a book about witches and wizards be without concerned parent groups having those books banned, ostensibly because of concerns their children would become wiccans or satanists?

I was not without criticisms of Harry Potter as I read it. From some unimaginative descriptions in the early works (the “deluminator” was, in the first book, described awkwardly as a “light put-outer”), to the speed of some of the action scenes that I had to read again because they went too fast for me to take it all in (of course, that could be, I sheepishly admit, my issue), to the editorial largess that crept into the fourth book and continued to until the end, to the unpleasant read that was The Order of the Phoenix, I certainly had my own issues with aspects of the narratives. In the case of The Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry go through that awkward, hormone-driven, mopey, unpleasant teenage period was simply not fun. I realize all teens go through it, and if you’re charting a story arc that starts when the boy is eleven and continues until he is eighteen, you are required to deal with it. But I didn’t really care to read it. 

However, these things are minor annoyances in a grand, monumental achievement. When taken as whole, the world, story, characters, and villains are some of the most memorable in all of literature. I still maintain that Dolores Umbridge is most insidious villain in the last fifty years of literature. She is the Nurse Ratchet of the wizard of world and she’s absolutely horrifying. It is no mean feat to create such memorable moments such as the kind found in nearly every chapter in every single volume. 

Twenty years goes by fast and slow. For Jo Rowling, the time spent crafting the Harry Potter works must have been both a great toil and positively a blur. I can state from experience that waiting for each one to be released was a toil, and reading was a blur. But, looking back, I can say that I witnessed something incredible, something, yes indeed, magical. For many writers, Rowling is the embodiment of the “unicorn”. A struggling, single mother, writing in cafes in Edinburgh to keep warm, strikes it big with a sweeping epic magical fantasy that turns her into the most beloved children’s author since Mother Goose. The real life story is a magical epic in and of itself, one in which any author, especially those still struggling, would use the Cruciatus Curse to be in. But while we can’t all share in that kind of success, we can say we were witness to something that we may never see again in the publishing world. And that’s okay. Because, while the anxious eagerness of the wait for each new book may never come again, the joy of discovering the magic for the first time will never leave. And few things were more enjoyable than watching my own eleven year old devour the books, one right after another, with the same hungry anticipation that we all had we began the journey Jo Rowling set forth for us twenty years ago. 

Time For A Little Social Media Break

It’s been a while since I last posted something. The truth is, I haven’t had much to say. I haven’t been taking a lot of pictures that I want to post, I haven’t had a lot of random observations or thoughts to bore you with, and I haven’t had a lot of unique Excel stuff going on at work that I can turn into a post. 

(Side note: thinking through the things I’ve posted here, largely lumped into the three categories above, makes this a strangely discordant blog.)

Truthfully, my time has been spent doing a lot of writing, a lot of editing, a fair amount of bass playing (started taking lessons a few months ago), and a lot of news watching. Probably a lot more than is healthy. Anyone who knows me knows that I run on the liberal side of American politics, but regardless of your affiliations, you have to admit that the months since the current president was elected have been a ten for the non-stop entertainment value. Depending on your brand of politics, it’s either been an action movie or a horror movie, but it’s been interesting to watch.

Truth be told, the political climate has been the most contentious I have ever seen. There is no more middle ground in American politics, and there is no more middle ground in the political discussion. Hell, we have ordinary citizens now shooting at the other party simply because they are the other party. We’ve reached that level of crazy. 

I’m sure there have been studies and analysis, but anecdotally, at least as I view it, the chief cause of this seems to be the growing prevalence of social media as the world’s primary choice of media consumption. 

It’s self-fulfilling in its way. Facebook, with all of its fancy algorithms, customizes your news feed to offer you media choices that align to the things you’ve liked or watched before. It’s trying to anticipate other things that you might be interested in reading. Which is fine, I suppose, but limiting. By offering only those things that align to your previous reading, you lose the perspective of the other side of the argument. By reading and/or liking Jacobin, your feed will start to include other similar sites like In These Times, Media Matters, and The Mary Sue. But you’ll never see Reason, The Federalist, and TownHall.com. 

Twitter likewise tries to offer you things that fall into your political spectrum. You follow a few people, and then retweet something that falls into your brand of politics, so then you follow the person who they retweeted, and on and on until you have a bloated list of people you follow who subscribe to the exact same conversations you do, and those who are on the other side of your arguments you lump into Twitter Lists with titles like Tools, or Assholes, or Dipshits. 

There seems to be no more middle ground, with our news and opinions curated for us so that they are no longer really our own, just a regurgitation of the same things we’ve already read, liked, or retweeted. And what’s worse is that the dangerous influence of social media is extends beyond mere politics. It’s a total disconnect from actual human interactions, and so we forget how to connect with actual humans. Yesterday, a girl in Taunton was convicted of pushing her ex-boyfriend into suicide via text messaging because she wanted the attention. How have we reached that point?

So I’m taking a break. I’m dropping off Facebook and Twitter for a while. I’m not flat out deleting my accounts, disabling or deactivating them. I’ll remain a part of the social media world, if not active in it. I’m starting out for just this summer, and I’ll see how I feel come autumn. Because I feel social media is hurting me in some ways. Hurting relationships, hurting how I interact with people, and quite frankly, hurting how I think. I’ve seen first hand how social media posts can trigger anxiety attacks and render a person useless for an entire day, just because of a few words or a picture thrown out in cyberspace. 

Enough already.

If you want to get a hold of me, text me. Or call me. Or Messenger me (I’ll keep Facebook Messenger running). DM me on Twitter if you like. Hell, if you’re feeling industrious, write me a good old fashioned letter. I haven’t gotten one of those since college. I don’t even know if people remember how to write letters. Need my address? Contact me privately. If I know you, I’ll give it to you. Send a postcard if that’s what you’ve got in mind. The point is, if you want to talk to me, then talk to me. 

But mass posts that target a bunch of people at once? I probably won’t see them.

I’m not trying to target anyone with this post, this isn’t about calling anyone out on the mat. This isn’t about anyone but myself. This is how I feel, and the actions I’m taking. I’m not telling you that you have to follow suit. Do what you feel you need to do. 

In the meantime, have a great summer. See you in the fall. 

Maybe. 

Dec 31 Photo

And with a final shot of the view from our old home, thus ends this year of photos.

It’s been an interesting year in many ways. There’s been a new dog and a new house, among other changes. As far as photos go, it started off strong with a picture per day. Somewhere in the middle of the year the picture per day fell apart and became more of a picture whenever I happened to have time. That’s the thing about deciding to do something every day. It takes time. Even if it’s something as simple as taking a picture with your iPhone, you still have to find time to take the picture, edit it if needed, and post it. And quite honestly, the taking can be the hardest part. Finding something interesting to frame as a photo, something different than all the pictures you’ve taken before, that can be the biggest, not to mention the best challenge.

So, with this picture, I wrap up this year of pictures. I’ll still be taking them and posting them here occasionally. But my primary place will be a public instagram account I’m creating specifically for my photos. No pictures of family, just photos I take that I want to share with you. I hope you’ll drop by and check out a few.

Dec 24 Photo

If you’ve never seen a Christmas pyramid before, or sometimes called a Christmas carousel, then here is your first glance. They’re very cool. It’s essentially a scene, usually nativity, that’s set on a rotating platform. There is a rod that goes up through the pyramid and connects to vanes that sit above the scene. Small candles are placed around the edges and lit, and the heat from them makes the vanes turn, which in turn moves the scene. This one is my father-in-law’s. He’s had it for nearly forty years. But you can get your own if you want to spend the money.

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