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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NaNoWriMo: The Kids’ Edition

nanowrimo ywp

I feel very fortunate because this year, my younger daughter Maggie is doing NaNoWriMo with me. There is an entire young writer’s program for NaNoWriMo that kids can sign up for. Maggie is going to do it, and so are most of the kids in her class. And that’s my fault.

During the annual open house/back to school night that school holds for the parents of students, I got to talking with Maggie’s teacher, Patty, about people who come in and volunteer and get the kids interested in something that pertains to the lesson plan. At some point in the conversation, NaNoWriMo came up. One of the Patty’s former students participated in NaNoWriMo last year. She mentioned how she would love to get some of her kids to do that again.

I didn’t say anything at the time because I felt like I wanted to think that through. Patty had no idea I had written and self publish book (insert shameless marketing plug here) or that I had done NaNoWriMo last year. I sat on it for a bit, wondering if I wanted to mention this and offer to help lead the class in a NaNoWriMo charge. I’m not a teacher and have no training in classroom management skills. I didn’t know if I’d be a good fit to come in.

In a phone conversation I was having with Patty one night about something else, I decided to mention it, and offered to come into the class and talk about what the NaNoWriMo challenge is, and see if there are any kids who were interested. Her response was unbelievably enthusiastic, and so, last week I found myself in Maggie’s classroom talking to her classmates all about NaNoWriMo, writing, and storytelling.

I have to tell you, it was a metric ton of fun. The class is great, excited about the project, and from what Patty tells me, chockablock full of writers.

I talked about what NaNoWriMo is, and what a novel is. I talked about the kinds of ways you could write a novel, from typing right into a computer to writing it all long hand. I had one person ask if the novel could be dictated to someone, or into a into a software program. Hey, if it was good enough for Paradise Lost, it’s good enough for NaNoWriMo. I talked about the process writers use to write: some write in the morning, some in the evening, some in their bedroom, some at the dining room table, some even in the kitchen. We talked about the kinds of books the kids are currently reading, and what their favorite novels are. We talked about the Inner Editor, which I dubbed the “Evil Inner Editor”, who constantly whispers in your ear telling you to stop, or slow down, or do things differently. One of the exercises from the Young Writers Program is to draw the Inner Editor on a worksheet. Once drawn, the kids are encouraged to hide him/her away so they can’t work their evil spells. We did that in the classroom and some of the kids’ Inner Editors turned out really well.

As I said, it was a ton of fun.

Patty had already come up with the word count she is hoping the kids will hit. She’s shooting for them to complete 250 words per day, which is about one page per day. That means that the kids will end up writing a 7,500 “novel” by the time it’s finished.

I’m headed back into the classroom in the middle of November to check in with the kids and see how they’re doing. I’ll be giving them tips, most of which will be plucked from the wisdom of the NaNoWriMo community. We’ll talk about the challenges they’re having and see if we can’t find ways to working around them. Most importantly, I’ll be giving them the encouragement to keep on truckin’, and to keep ignoring the “Evil Inner Editor”!

After that, I’ll head back into the classroom sometime in December to find out how they did. There is a program NaNoWriMo has this year with FastPencil, which will help kids publish their finished work. Hopefully, at the end of the month, and maybe by the end of December, there’ll be enough kids that finish and publish that Patty will have a whole new library.

After the class was over, tweets were tweeted:

 

Book Review: “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins

girl on trainThe last of the books I snarfed down at the end of this summer was “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins. This was the “it” book of the summer, the one everyone was talking about and that everyone couldn’t put down. It was supposed to be the page-turner with the twists you couldn’t see coming. And so I too engulfed this one to see what everyone was talking about.

Truthfully, if I had to sum the book up in a word, it would be “meh”.

It’s hard to give too much of a plot summary without giving too much away, and while I, unlike the rest of the world, did not think the book was all that and a bag of chips, I still don’t wish to spoil it for those you enjoy these things more than I do. Or as my wife would describe it, “everyone else but you.”

Fair enough.

The essence of the plot, then, is that a woman named Rachel, down on her luck and sipping gin and tonics from a can while taking the train back and forth to London, fantasizes about what the people in the houses behind the tracks do, the kind of lives they lead. Her own life has fallen apart and she takes a kind of solace in the lives these fantasy people lead in her head. She has even given them names, since their real names are unknown to her.

Then, one day, she sees something as she’s staring through the train window, something that turns her fantasy on its head. At that moment, her life changes from fantasies about these people to an all out obsession about what she saw. An obsession so deep, she risks her life and livelihood, and perhaps darkest of all, her integrity to get close enough to discover the truth.

It sounds like an enthralling premise, doesn’t it? Critics have been using the term Hitchcockian to describe it. It does have a certain “Rear Window” quality to it, that strange voyeuristic quality of Jeff Jefferies looking out his back window and seeing something he thinks is a murder. But that’s were the comparison ends. It starts with a voyeur and turns into a study of a life in freefall. In that regard, the book actually became hard to read. As the main character made bad, then worse, then catastrophic decisions, I wondered how much longer I could read until the unraveling of her life became too unpalatable. It never quite got there, but it came really darn close.

The plot relies largely on what the New York Times referred to as “unreliable narration”, meaning you can’t trust what the narrator is telling you. Except that you can. The narration flickers between three narrators, all of the women, all of whom are involved in the plot. Each one has their quirks and problems, each has moments of fooling themselves, but that’s really all they’re fooling. Unreliable narration only goes so far, and when at least one of the characters is a blackout drunk, you can readily expect that their memory will be a bit, shall we say, fuzzy.

Another of the devices used to confuse the reader is a jumbling of the timing of the scenes. The cutting is designed to bring the reader back and forth and possibly add some confusion, but a careful reading will show that each chapter is timestamped. You get a certain anticipatory feeling as you near the time when you know that the precipitating event happened, and that you’ll finally get to see it, feeling like maybe you’ll be surprised by what’s around the corner. But you aren’t.

Or at least I wasn’t.

Also, the book was written in the first person present tense. Don’t get me started.

The climax doesn’t twist nearly as much as everyone had been claiming it did. I found myself unsurprised at the ending, indeed, hoping for something different. I was disappointed when I was right. Of the four books I’ve reviewed in the last few days, having gulped them all down like a thirsty man in a desert, I’d have to say that “The Girl On The Train” was my least favorite.

Sorry everybody.

Queue up the backlash. 

Book Review: “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland” by Ace Atkins

wonderlandI needed something to cleanse the mental pallet after Lou Berney’s “The Long and Faraway Gone.” It was such an intense read, the way Berney knifes the reader in nearly every single scene, that I needed to visit some familiar friends. Queue up Spenser.

Since Robert Parker’s sudden death in 2010, Ace Atkins has been carrying on the Spenser tradition with the blessing of the estate. Hand picked to keep Spenser going, Atkins has written four Spenser books thus far, and will likely keep going for the foreseeable future. The first one, called “Lullaby”, I reviewed here. It wasn’t a bad book, so I thought I’d give “Wonderland” a try.

Doesn’t hurt that I got it on remainder.

This time, the client is Henry Cimoli, the owner of the Boston gym where Spenser and Hawk used to (and still do) box. He’s being muscled out of the condo he owns so that a Las Vegas casino developer can move in and build. The novel explorers Henry more than I remember Parker ever doing, and Atkins mostly nails him. There is of course the usual cavalcade of characters that Atkins likes to bring to the stage, and to a certain extent, this feels like Atkins is trying to prove to the Parker faithful that he knows the Spenser work so well. Despite the fact that the book is chock full of characters Spenser has had contact with in the past, the characterizations largely work to the novels advantage.

There is one exception. The relatively new player in the on-going adventures of Spenser is one Zebulon Sixkill, the American Indian that Spenser has taken under his wing to train as a private investigator. This relationship feels forced, as if Atkins picked up a leftover character from the Spenser dinner table and decided to do something with him. In the final Spenser book by Parker, “Sixkill“, we’re introduced to “Z”, as Zebulon has come to be called, but there is nothing to indicate that he’ll be a continued or recurring character. I’m not sure if this is Atkins taking liberties, or whether any of Parker’s notes indicate that Z will continue, but in this case, it feels forced.

As a crime novel, it’s a good one. The plot is more complex than the ones Parker used to set up, at least in the later Spenser novels. Spenser’s sarcasm is present, though more muted than it was in “Lullaby”, which isn’t a bad thing. “Lullaby” felt a little over the top with the hard-boiled quips. Spenser is still sarcastic in “Wonderland”, but he never ventures down the path of snarky. The prose is not as lean as Parker’s was, but then again, few hard-boiled novels written these days are as lean as Parker wrote. Parker, self-admittedly, loved dialogue because it “chew[ed] up a lot of pages.” One could look at this as being lazy, but I find that Parker’s style was such that the plot, characters, and danger were all conveyed convincingly through dialogue, and sometimes dialogue alone. A great example of how this works is through the Jesse Stone novels (which I highly, highly recommend).

After the last page is done, Atkins still isn’t Parker. They’re tough shoes to fill. But Atkins does a nice job with most of the characters and the location of Boston itself. Spenser will continue to live on, and in Atkins hands, that’s not a bad thing.

Book Review: “The Long and Faraway Gone” by Lou Berney

Right after reading “Third Rail”, I jumped into Lou Berney’s gut-wrenching “The Long and Faraway Gone“. And when I say guy-wrenching, I mean knife plunging into the gut, then barbs opening at the tip, and then twisting all around until your digestive tract is the groundest of ground meat.

long and faraway goneOstensibly a mystery, the book opens with a movie theater robbery prologue that leaves your legs wobbling before moving forward with the story proper. Picking up a couple of decades after the opener, we follow one of two main characters, Wyatt, as he comes back to the city of the prologue and face to face with doubts and demons that filled him before he left, being the only survivor of a brutal slaying.

At the same time, the book follows the story of Julianna as she wrestles with the disappearance of her big sister Genevieve, who vanished around roughly the same time period as the movie theater robbery. She’s been trying to find out what happened to her sister. It’s become an obsession for her, costing her money, and even potentially her job.

The book is, essentially, two separate stories that barely overlap and where both could just as easily be a book unto their own. Why Berney felt compelled to collect two crime stories, each with its own arc, into a single book is unclear. It gives the book volume, and allows the narrative point of view to flicker back and forth without staying with one character the entire time. Perhaps it’s out of a desire to avoid point-of-view reader fatigue that the individual arcs are combined.

Does it work? Sure, well enough for the stories. The tension Berney builds is at times intolerable and you beg for the release of a scene change. He invests the reader in the obsessions of these two primary characters so that you root for them to find the answers they’re looking for. Each chapter examines the characters, both as they are now, and how the events of their earlier lives have made them into who they are. But each examination draws on the sorrow and madness of the pivotal moment of their youth, and with each examination, Berney gives the reader another rabbit punch to the kidneys.

As Wyatt and Julianna crisscross the city trying to dig just a little deeper into their wounds, there grows in the reader the hope that perhaps they will cross paths. But if you’re expecting them to find each other, join forces, and help resolve each other’s quest for answers, you’ll be left wanting. Wyatt and Julianna intersect briefly, and then part, each continuing to pursue their own obsession.
Somehow, this theme of partial satisfaction was the major theme that emerged for me while reading. As I neared the end, I realized that neat answers will not be handed out like pretty little presents left under the tree. This feeling of partial satisfaction is overwhelmingly what the reader feels by the end. Wyatt and Julianna both find the answers to the questions they have been asking, but the answers provide no solace, no real closure. Maybe they have been asking the wrong questions. Or maybe life is messy and unsatisfying and sometimes the answers you get don’t get you anything you need or hope for.

Berney offers the reader only a slight small satisfaction that the protagonists never get. It’s contained in the final two chapters, which feel more like a concession to the journey the reader has taken more than a requirement of the story. By the end of the book, I was exhausted and when I closed the last chapter, I felt like I had read a powerful and moving statement on the human condition. And I was happy to leave it in the past and not look at it again.

Book Review: “Third Rail” by Rory Flynn

I was on a reading tear this past summer. I went through something like six books in four weeks, which, if you knew how slowly I read, you would understand what an unbelievable pace that is for me. And so, without further ado, here is the first of a couple of reviews that I’m going to offer for some of those titles.

The first book that I devoThirdRail_cover_277x419ured was called “Third Rail“. Written by Rory Flynn, it tells the story of one Eddy Harkness, a cop in a small town who used to be part of Boston PD’s narcotics intelligence division. After being set up as a fall guy for a crazy fan death that came during the crazier celebrations of the first  World Series Red Sox win in eighty-six years, the best job he could find is being a meter maid in the fictional small town of Nagog. He’s not a happy camper with this and, when he’s not spending his time drinking in bars and romancing twentysomething artists with underworld ties, he’s tying to find a way back to narco-Intel,

Then somebody steals his gun. Or maybe he lost it. In the morning-after haze of a boozy hangover, he can’t really remember what happened. But it looks like it was stolen, especially when somebody starts sending him pictures of it. This kicks off a desperate search by Eddy to find it, while at the same time, he starts looking into a deadly new drug called third rail that’s making people act cuckoo for cocoa puffs before they inevitably die.

The thing that works the best in “Third Rail” is geography. Flynn, a Massachusetts native, has a vice-grip lock on the voice of the region. From the moment the book opens the reader is plunged into the seedy scene of the Boston underworld. Flynn’s spot on here, from language, location, and the Southie “I don’t caah  who the f*ck you think you ahh” attitude.

The book is a study in the economy of words without veering into the iceberg philosophy of writing. Flynn’s tight prose almost dares you to read it. It’s tough and terse, like a character in and of itself growing up in Dorchester.

This is not to say that the book is flawless. The language, used well enough to drive the book forward at an almost propulsive rate, comes with a price. It is written in an increasingly popular style called “third person present tense.” So, instead of reading “he did, he went, he said,” the prose is instead “he does, he goes, he says.” This style movement (I’m not sure what else to call it) makes me bananas. There are few books I’ve read in this style that I’ve enjoyed. Chuck Wendig uses this, and his Miriam Black series works well as a result. Jody Shields used it to her advantage in The Fig Eater.

The book also has an “everything but the kitchen sink” feel. There’s cops, robbers, sex, drugs, rock n roll, mobsters, drugs, corrupt cops, a damsel in distress, a child in distress, and familial twists that leave you thinking “huh”?. If you took all the pieces of some of your favorite hard-boiled detective fiction and put it all into one book, what you’d have is “Third Rail”. There is a moment deep in the book where it teeters on becoming a parody. It skates by, just managing to avoid that, driving past the cliff edge, but just barely.

In the end, though, the books is far more satisfying than annoying, something which many books cannot claim. Another Eddy Harkness book comes out next June. I’ll be checking in with narco-Intel then to see whether Eddie’s first adventure was a one trick pony, or whether Flynn can beat the notorious sophomore slump.