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.

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The History of “How It Ends”: Part 7 – What’s Next

HIE_Serial_Omnibus_CoverIn Part 1 of the History of How It EndsI talked about where the idea for the novel came from.

In Part 2 of the History of How It EndsI talked about what drove the writing forward and the genesis of some of the character names.

In Part 3 of the History of How It EndsI talked about the onerous task of editing the beast.

In Part 4 of the History of How It EndsI talked about how I procrastinated about which direction I should go in trying to get the novel published.

In Part 5 of the History of How It EndsI talked about how I finally got over my fear and procrastination and made the decision to self-publish.

In Part 6 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about the mechanics of self-publishing.

This is the final installment in the History of How It Ends posts. For me, it’s been an interesting exercise in revisiting all of the effort that went into a single book. I imagine it’s both harder and easier for other writers, given that everyone’s process is different. I used to think that process was the magic skeleton key, that if I found the right one, I’d suddenly be able to churn out high-quality story after story with the greatest of ease. The truth of the matter is that, for the majority of writers, high-quality stories don’t just appear, they have to be crafted, and that takes consistent work. I say “consistent” because that’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to overcome, namely my ability to “grasshopper” the work.

This ability to put off until tomorrow what I should be doing today is one of the primary reasons How It Ends took me six or seven years to write, edit, and publish. Editing alone became such an onerous task that I couldn’t stand to look at the manuscript anymore, and it was only in the moments when I felt a more compulsive need than desire to edit did I pick up the red pen.

This ability is also why the work on How It Ends isn’t done yet.

What’s Next

swlogoThe next thing that I have to do is to get How It Ends out there in ALL formats. Right now, I’ve only got it on Amazon, available for Kindle. What I really need to do is to put it on Smashwords, which will make it available to be pushed to B&N, iTunes, I can even output it as a PDF and have it available for purchase on this blog. Smashwords calls the process the “meat grinder”, which feels about right. The story goes in, preferably as a Word doc, and out come all the different ebook formats. Plus, by putting it on Smashwords, I can control the price point better on Amazon. How? Read my musings on this topic here.

What’s kept me from really getting going with Smashwords is their, if not insistence, then at least strong recommendation that you read through their style guide first so that your book doesn’t get rejected. Their 110 page style guide. Here’s where Amazon does a lot better than Smashword. Amazon, as I outlined yesterday, is two step process. Smashword requires me to pick through their style guide, large chunks of which don’t apply to me because the guide covers Word documents and EPUB formats, before I really get going. Again, it’s not a requirement, but by circumventing the process you risk looking like a newb.

So Smashwords is next. This will be in two parts. The first is to get the How It Ends omnibus up there and out to the other venues. The second will be to get Part One of How It Ends up there and priced to zero. Once priced to zero, my hope is that readers will find it and keep finding it because it’s a zero cost that floats to the top, and after reading Part One, will buy the remainder of the book.

This would wrap up the ebook side of things. But what of the physical book?

logo-csp-no-tmAmazon has a program now that allows you to take your finished work and create it as a physical book. It’s called CreateSpace. I haven’t spent too much time researching this yet, but it’s on my list of things to do. One of the things I have seen and that appeals to me is that indie publishing on CreateSpace gives you the opportunity to push your book out to other venues, like funneling it out through Baker & Taylor’s catalogues to libraries. It increases the “discoverability” of your book.

CreateSpace also lets you buy your own book at a pretty good discount. So if I were to put my salesman hat on, I could buy 50 copies of my own book and haul them around to places asking people if they wanted to buy them. Who knows who might pick up a copy and discover it? Mayby Stephen Spielberg will be filming his next movie in my town. You never know.

The last thing I need to do is get the word out more about the book. This is also something on which I’ve dragged my feet. I’m not a terribly good self-promoter. It makes me uncomfortable. It feels like bragging, and that’s so not my style. I’m an introvert at heart, so to have to shout about my accomplishments to total strangers–heck, even friends–is not in my wheelhouse. But there again, if I don’t take charge of it, no one will. So I need to get the word out more.

How will I do this? I’ll start with reviews. There are a number of blogs and websites that review sci-fi books and ebooks. Some of them get a lot of readership, and some of them push their reviews to Goodreads, Amazon, and B&N. There’s a danger in that, of course. I’ve done the best I could with How It Ends, which doesn’t mean somebody else will like it. A negative review can certainly happen.

In addition to online websites and blogs, Kirkus Review offers to review books. It’s a total cash cow for them, because you have to pay for the review, but you’re guaranteed a review. Again, you’re not guaranteed a good review, but if you pay them they will review it. Once they finish, you get to review their review and decide if you really want them to publish it. It’s not cheap, running something like $425, but it can be another great way to get your book (and your name) out there.

That’s about it. That’s the story of How It Ends, from concept to published ebook. I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts. I’ve certainly enjoyed the trop down memory lane. Off to finish editing my next book, which might be out by this fall, if I focus.

Hope you’re in the mood for hard-boiled crime fiction!

nameless-detective

The History of “How It Ends”: Part 5 – The Decision to Self-Publish

HIE_Serial_Omnibus_Cover

In Part 1 of the History of How It EndsI talked about where the idea for the novel came from.

In Part 2 of the History of How It EndsI talked about what drove the writing forward and the genesis of some of the character names.

In Part 3 of the History of How It EndsI talked about the onerous task of editing the beast.

In Part 4 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about how I procrastinated about which direction I should go in trying to get the novel published.

It was a long a difficult decision to self-publish How It Ends on my own.  I found myself so terrified of making a mistake when I published it that I didn’t do anything at all. If I had to describe this, I’d called it “self-publication constipation”. I felt like the quality of the publishing would be a direct reflection on the book, and eventually on me, and if I produced something that was total crap, then I’d never get a second look by anybody.

So I decided to test the waters a bit. I took a short story (like, really short. Like fourteen pages short.) and put it on Amazon. I created a cover in an old version of PhotoShop and packaged the whole thing up. I posted it online. That was when I hit the first reality check. Price point.

For fourteen pages, I wanted to charge a quarter. After all, it’s only fourteen pages, and it’s the kind of material that doesn’t appeal to everyone, sort of a slasher short, so I had planned to charge twenty-five cents. I was a little dismayed to find out that I couldn’t. The best I could to was to charge $.99 for the story. I couldn’t go lower than that. Already, out of the gate, I was running into trouble. But I had to continue with this first effort. I had to get a sense of how it all worked, because I figured once I pulled the trigger, I was stuck.

519FXNQgakLI finally got the short story, The Girl In The Red Hoodie, published. It was a pretty proud moment. I’d finally really put my writing self out there. I was ready to go forth and conquer with How It Ends.

Except I wasn’t.

I spent the next year hemming and hawing. Like my editing, I found excuses not to sit down and go through the process of publishing How It Ends. I couldn’t afford a cover image (you can get two images on stockphoto websites for about $20), I didn’t have a final edited version (all I was doing was moving words around at this point, shuffling between thirteen different ways to say “love”), I wanted an agent (I sent out zero submissions to agents during this time frame). Lots of excuses, none of them good.

I reached back out to Paul, asking him if he’d be willing to print How It Ends, while I retained digital ownership. His answer, rightfully so, was no. Why would he waste money on a print edition when he couldn’t get any decent sales on them without having the digital edition as well? Print had become a loss leader for him, as I expect it will become for many small indie publishers in the near future.

I waited some more.

91qqolPllyL__SL1500_I don’t remember exactly when I made the decision to finally publish it, but I do know it was related to my discovery of Hugh Howey. Hugh Howey, for those who don’t know the name, made a name for himself serializing his now best selling Wool series. The series didn’t start as a series, but rather as a long short story. After having two books published by small presses, he decided to put the first story in the Wool series on Amazon himself. A few months later, there was a clamor for more. He began writing more and suddenly he had a phenomenon on his hands. And that was the point where I said “A-ha! I’ll serialize it!”. I’ve written before about how Hugh Howey is to blame for the reason I serialized How It Ends.

Before jumping forward, I ran the idea past my friend Russell. He’d been my editor for How It Ends and a sounding board for some of my ideas for years. His first question was whether I thought there were logical breaks in the story. I told him I thought there were and explained where each one would be. He considered this and replied that the breaks I had in mind would work pretty well. And, of course, since I was embarking on this self-publishing trek before he was, he was dying to know how it went.

I broke How It Ends into four distinct parts, each where I thought the most logical break would be. I reached out to Paul to let him know what I had decided. He congratulated me on the bold move and praised the decision. Turns out he had started to steer a lot of writers toward self-publishing as well, given that this seemed to be the direction the wind was blowing.

So here I was, self-publishing How It Ends, as a serial, yet again. I revved up the ol’ self-motivation engine, striped part one of How It Ends out of the main work, slapped a cover on that bad boy, and clicked Publish. Scariest damn thing I’d done all year…

Tomorrow: The mechanics of self-publishing.

The History of “How It Ends”: Part 3 – The Editing

HIE_Serial_Omnibus_CoverIn Part 1 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about where the idea for the novel came from.

In Part 2 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about what drove the writing forward and the genesis of some of the character names.

Part 3 is all about the editing. This will likely be the longest and most difficult part to write about, since this was the toughest part of putting How It Ends together.

When the final chapter of How It Ends was written, polished, and published on Silverthought, I took a big deep breath. It was more a sigh of relief. I couldn’t believe that I had actually completed what I’d set out to do, which was write a full length novel. But that relief was short lived, because I knew, written and published as is, the novel was a clunker.

kingHow It Ends needed major work. I had characters I didn’t need, scenes that didn’t belong, an internal time frame that had continuity problems, the list (in my head) ran on and on. In short, the final first finished product of How It Ends needed editing. Stephen King talks about this process in his really great book about the craft of writing, appropriately titled On Writing. It’s one of my favorite books because it has such a conversational approach to the craft, and whether you like him or hate him, he knows how to tell a story. King will be the first person to call himself “America’s Schlockmeister”, a name he once claimed he loved. I don’t know if he still does. Regardless of his “titles”, his advice on writing and editing is fantastic, partially because he gives the first draft of your novel permission to suck. He says that once you sit down with it and begin to go through it, you’ll find all kind of things wrong with it, including continuity holes “large enough to drive a truck through.” This was the case with How It Ends.

While the keyboard was still cooling, I discussed the idea of having Silverthought’s print division publish the finished novel when it was complete. Paul, owner of Silverthought, and I talked about it several times, and I was on my way toward doing that, but eventually changed my mind. More on that in a later post. Before it got to the point of printing, however, it needed to be edited.

Mark Brand, who was then even more deeply involved in the day to day operations at Silverthought, was the first editor. I spent some time cleaning up the novel, moving pieces around, patching holes. I sent this revised version to him. He went through the first compiled version and came away with a lot of notes. I took these and started to execute on them, but stopped. It just wasn’t working. I tried to get the novel into a shape I liked and kept failing. I couldn’t get basic things like plot and character to work correctly. I was writing more and more connective tissue to band-aid over the problems. It wasn’t that Mark’s direction was bad or that he offered poor guidance. He went through the novel and offered a lot of great advice, provided a ton (literally hundreds) of notes with in Word document. But it still wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t able to pull the damn thing together in a way that satisfied me.

51tfbb9lImLAt some point, and I can’t remember how the transition happened, my good friend Russell took over the editing. I think part of this was due to the heavy time commitment Mark had to devote to Thank You, Death Robot, the second Silverthought anthology, and the first for which he was entrusted as the primary editor. Russell had become an associate editor for Silverthought, so it was still being managed “in-house”. Plus, Russell had read so much of my prior material that he knew my writing style and what I was (and was not) capable of very well by that point. It also didn’t hurt that he was one of the most widely read science fiction fans I’ve ever met.

The-roadThis transition should have gone smoother. But it didn’t. Because in the middle of my current iteration of rewrite, I changed styles. Nothing makes an editor work harder than when you hand the a revised version of what they’ve already read and it’s nothing like what they’ve already read. The blame for this style change can rest squarely on the shoulder of Cormac McCarthy. I finished reading The Road that fall and the way I wrote suffered as a result. Suddenly everything had to be McCarthy-ized. I stripped sentences down. I made the book meaner. I removed nearly all the punctuation, including of course the quotation marks. It was a fire-sale on my previous style and everything had to go. Though he never complained about it, I imagine Russell probably took a look at the new version of the manuscript and thought “What the f—?”

These changes were completely unnecessary and totally my fault. I lacked any kind of confidence in my own style. I wanted to make How It Ends a Novel, not just a novel. All this change totally stalled me. I couldn’t get past them. Every time I touched How It Ends I felt like I was breaking it a little more. I questioned everything in the book and every change I made. I rewrote the beginning I don’t know how many times. It got more and more frustrating and I grew to hate the book. I couldn’t even look at it.

My frustration over the editing of what I now saw as a steaming pile reached a point one particular evening. I had finished the latest rewrite of the first few chapters and had fired it off to Russell. It was about seven in the evening. He was supposed to call me the evening and discuss it. But I was done. I hated everything I wrote, wanted nothing to do with it, and was ready to move on. I had a paper copy I’d printed out they I was red-penning, and the soft copy on the computer. I made a decision. By about seven-thirty, if I hadn’t heard from Russell, I was going to throw the paper copy in the trash and delete the file from my machine.

Russell ended up calling me around seven-fifteen. We talked a little bit about how it was going and I told him I hated everything I wrote and was ready to call it quits. It was at that moment that Russell saved How It Ends from execution. As I finished stating emphatically that I hated the latest rewrite, he said something along the lines of, “That’s funny, because as I was reading it I was thinking to myself ‘This is the best stuff Scott has ever written.'”.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked. I was. Russell went on to explain what he liked about it, which was largely in the characterization. I can’t remember how he described it. It was something about them being vividly drawn, or something like that. I do remember one of his descriptions. He said of the character of Brain Coleman, the smarmy college professor that Anita is dating, that he wasn’t drawn as a villain, because he definitely isn’t in the story, but he’s also not supposed to be a terribly likeable character without the reader flatout hating him. Rather, he’s “drawn as a douche-bag, and you let us revel in his douchey-ness without us hating the guy.” I think that might be a direct quote.

That evening was both the lowest and highest point in the process of editing How It Ends. It still took me another couple of years to get it done and completed. I work slowly, am prone to distraction, and often times can’t get over the mental hump of having to open the file and work on it some more. But if Russell had not called when he did, when I was feeling like an absolute failure as a writer, and had he not said what he said, How It Ends would never have happened. Editing was still an uphill process after that, as it took several more years to complete. But that evening phone conversation gave me enough power to pedal up the hill.

Tomorrow: Finally done! And now what?

Where Does The Time Go?

I looked up today and realized it was Wednesday. I was both surprised and a little sad about this. I felt like the week was flying by, which it is, and yet it’s only Wednesday. Seems like Friday is So. Far. Away.

I’ve been ridiculously busy recently. And not with anything I’d consider a huge amount of fun. There have been some things that have been enjoyable, but mostly it’s not. It’s closer to sat that the usual stuff that gets in the way of everything is getting in the way. For that reason I haven’t had much chance to update this blog.

I did manage to get part four of How It Ends out in ebook form. That was big. That concludes my experiment with serializing a novel. I’ll have some thoughts on that at a later point in time, but for now, that’s done. Up next is to take all four parts and put them together in a single volume. I hate to call it an omnibus, but I guess that’s what it is. The text assembly for that is done, but I don’t have a cover yet. And since I’m creating all the covers myself, I guess the single volume won’t come out until I get around to put together the cover.

I’m also editing my hard boiled crime novel. I won’t lie, that one is a lot of fun. And so far, the continuity holes are much smaller than I had anticipated. My big hang-up now is that I don’t know if it’s any good. I’ll ask a few crime readers I know if they want to take a spin through it and let me know their thoughts once the editing is done. In the meantime, I’m trying to just enjoy the ride as I reread it and edit it.

There’s all kinds of Excel work I’m doing. Some of it’s for work, and some of it’s for fun. Among the fun things, I’m currently finishing up a utility that I plan to make available right here on this blog. It’s a Find/Replace utility that let’s you compile a bunch of different changes and run them all at once. But I have to finish it first. And it’s more than just coding. If it were just coding I’d have been done weeks ago. But if I make this available, I want the code to be as bulletproof as I can make it. I want it fully commented. I want somebody who pulls it down off this site to be able to read through it and learn from it. Or read through it and suggest better ways of approaching it. I’m close to done. What’s left is primarily the instructions for use, which I haven’t started yet, but I will.

Add to these three big items all the typical day to day shit and you’ll understand why I haven’t updated this blog as much as I’d like recently. There’s cooking and cleaning and commuting and kids activities. There’s bouts of sickness (one daughter had a fight with the stomach flu a few weeks ago and lost). There’s some down time with The Walking Dead, Justified, and my new addiction, COSMOS. There’s reading. Can’t not read. I’m chewing through Craig Johnson’s Longmire series right now, enjoying the hell out of them.

You might notice that, in the list above, running is missing. Yeah, it absolutely is. I’ve gone for two runs in the month of March. I’m done with the cold and the dark. I just can’t get up and get out in the mornings anymore. I slogged through it since November, and I hit the wall in February. Spring starts tomorrow. We’re getting 1-2 inches of snow tonight. I’m hoping to bust out of this rut this weekend. I think I’m finally gonna spring for the Magellan Echo with the heart rate monitor chest strap. That’s some good motivation right there. Plus there’s a 10k I’m interested in at the end of April.

So that’s where I’ve been. I’ll try to get some better posts out soon, hopefully something that will interest you guys more than just me complaining about how little time I have. It’s all about keeping the content fresh. But that’s another topic for a different day.