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.


Book Review: “Made To Kill” by Adam Christopher

81ufyzQWMuLMade To Kill” is a book by Adam Christopher that I really wanted to enjoy. Like, *really* wanted to enjoy.

Alas, I couldn’t even finish it.

There have been a lot of reviews for this book that praise it lavishly for marrying two genres into one good, old-fashioned, B-movie pulp fiction novel. Which is exactly what Christopher is going for in “Made To Kill”. The concept is deceptively simple: What if Raymond Chandler had written science-fiction? It’s an interesting thought, considering how notoriously down on the genre of science fiction Chandler was. In 1953, Chandler sent off a really fantastic letter to his agent regarding science fiction. It’s too fun not to include, so here it is below:

(Source: Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler)

6005 Camino de la Costa
La Jolla, California

Mar 14 1953

Dear Swanie:

Playback is getting a bit tired. I have 36,000 words of doodling and not yet a stiff. That is terrible. I am suffering from a very uncommon disease called (by me) atrophy of the inventive powers. I can write like a streak but I bore myself. That being so, I could hardly fail to bore others worse. I can’t help thinking of that beautiful piece of Sid Perelman’s entitled “I’m Sorry I Made Me Cry.”

Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

They pay brisk money for this crap?


It’s Chandler’s love affair with detective fiction and his loathing for science fiction that inspired Christopher to combine the two in a single story.

The main character is Ray Electromatic, the world’s last robot. He (it?) just happens to be a private detective in 1960’s Los Angeles. But, due to some basic reprogramming, he now operates more as the world’s last robotic hitman than detective, though being a private detective certainly has it advantages. It lets him move around, ostensibly investigating private cases for clients, but actually killing people for money instead. In this endeavor, he is assisted, if not guided, by Ada, a supercomputer that acts more as an operative handler than a receptionist, though it’s as a receptionist that Ray imagines her in his mind (circuits?). The book opens in a way that has become synonymous with the beginning of a hard-boiled detective novel, a dame walks into the office.

There is so much material in the basic premise that could have been mined for gold. A robot investigating crimes: how does he relate to people who can’t get over the novelty or fear of being questioned by a robot? How does he react when faced with a situation that would willfully go against his base programming?  How does he handle himself in a bar fight or a high speed car chase? Or is he perhaps his own vehicle?

Christopher wastes these and other opportunities by making the character a reprogrammed killing machine. Clearly he’s playing against Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Because Ray is a robot, he has no feelings to feel. He’s simply carrying out instructions as fed to him by Ada. Even when stumbling into a weird variation on the commie-Red-Scare motif, around which most of the primary plot takes place, there are no emotional reactions from him. Because our character is nothing more than a thinking piece of metal who kills people for a living, we have no accessible way to empathize with him. He is an anti-hero who is not interesting.

Therein lies another major fault with the book, the distinct lack of character development. Any possibility of making the character of Ray, or his situation, interesting is completely overlooked. A good example is how Ray’s memory works. He runs on a data tape system (this is the ’60s, after all). He has twenty-four hours of data tape, and a battery that lasts on a 24 hour charge. Essentially, if he is not back at his office by midnight, he turns into a pumpkin. This offers so much potential that is missed. The opportunity to turn this into a “Memento” style mystery, where the character must relearn things again each day, could offer such a complex and twisting narrative that you cling on every word, wondering what mystery will be revealed next. Instead, every morning, Ray is filled in on the day before by Ada, then sent on his merry investigative-cum-murderous way. If Ada is filling Ray in at the start of every day, why bother having the prop of a data tape in there at all? Even if Ada feeds Ray bad information for her own purpose, and I suspect maybe she eventually does, it still does not make the characters any more compelling than a hunk of walking metal. 

Perhaps the book picks up as it moves along, redeeming itself in the final act. I gave a good 100 pages before I gave up looking for reasons to continue it. 

Much of what Christopher is going for is striking a balance between the noir and the fantastical, while keep things from becoming so heavy they sink the book. But in the end, it simply a boring read, with little interesting in the way of character development, to keep you asking “What happens next?” Instead, as we see Ray go and ask another person another question, we ask ourselves, “Who cares?”

The answer is, “Not me.”

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:


NaNoWriMo: 2015 Edition

Shield-Nano-Side-Blue-Brown-RGB-HiResIt’s November 1st. That means it’s time to kick off NaNoWriMo. And once again, I’m participating. And new this year, so is my nine year old, Maggie!

Throughout the month I’ll post various updates on the progress for both of us. Tomorrow I’ll explain how I got Maggie, and her whole 4th grade class, involved.

But for now, it’s time to write. NaNoWriMo has begun.

Aaaannnnnddddd GO!

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.

NaNoWriMo – The Lessons Learned

Let’s start off with this brief summary of my participation in this year’s NaNoWriMo:


Yes, that’s right, I won the NaNoWriMo contest this year, where anyone who hits the 50,000 word mark in a brand-new-never-having-written-a-word-of-your-NaNoWriMo-novel inside of thirty days wins. What do we win? The ability to say we won. That’s it. No cash, no prizes, though there are some nifty T-shirts you can buy. So, in short, you win bragging rights.

Which is saying a lot for a free contest where there are thousands of winners.

That out of the way, I want to reflect on the lessons I learned from cranking out 50k words in a month’s time.

1) You are not alone. There are lots of people out there willing to lend encouragement and good thoughts and happy vibes and whatever else they feel like throwing your way for support. There are communities out there supporting writers, there are meet ups where you can all sit down together and write and lend an actual hand for someone to hold if they need it. There are professional writers who have lent their voices in encouragement, and there is no end to the number of people tweeting about NaNoWriMo on a daily basis.

2) You are absolutely alone. No one can write this thing for you. It’s you by yourself, mano-e-mano, man versus machine versus calendar. It’s a gnarly threeway brawl that you and you alone must fight. Nobody else can jump in. This isn’t the WWE. You can’t tag somebody else in if you feel like you’re fading. You are the only one who can write your book. Otherwise you fail the contest.

3) You are not alone. Think your special? Just because you did it? Just because you hit your daily word count? Get in line. There are thousands and thousands of people who jumped into NaNoWriMo and have hit their daily word counts. Thousands have hit their word counts sooner, faster, higher than you have. Take that in, realize this, take a big deep breath…then let it go. You can’t get caught up in how far ahead or behind you are in reference to anybody else. To do that invites disaster. If you start doing some sort of comparison project with your fellow writers, you’ll get into a mine-is-bigger-than-yours mentality that is at best a complete waste of time, and at worst mojo-wrecking. If you’ve got your mojo working, who cares if your mojo is better than somebody else’s? Who you trying to impress with that shit?

4) Write as much as you can as early as you can. Cause you never know when your gonna get an injury that requires you to be carted off the field. My goal was to finish my word count by Thanksgiving (which I did, by the way). I wanted to get it done so that I could enjoy my holiday, maybe spend the day picking at some words but not feel forced to hit a daily number. Besides, the food coma was gonna be epic this year, man, epic.

You know what I enjoyed most on Thanksgiving? Pedialyte. Thursday morning I got a case of the stomach flu and that was all she (or in my case, he) wrote. For two days my colon sounds like the French countryside in 1944. By Saturday I was finally starting to feel better, but it was slow going. I didn’t have a lot of energy since I hadn’t had a decent calorie in two days. By Sunday I felt well enough to open up the laptop, type in one paragraph, and that was it.

5) When the month ends, the motivation does too. It’s good to feel the pressure of the deadline. It makes you work for it, forces you to make time for writing. Even if you’re just picking up the story, writing 200 words for the fifteen minutes you have leftover from your lunch break, and closing it again. The deadline manhandles you into writing during any snippets of free time you have.

When the deadline has passed, the pressure goes with it. Now you’re not up against a wall, trying to squeeze words in, desperate to hit a daily word count. Now you start to think “Well, I couldn’t quite get to it today, I’ll just pick it back up tomorrow.” WRONG! You will not! Stop kidding yourself. If your motivation for writing starts to flag, then so does the writing, then it’s six months after the end of NaNoWriMo and you’re sitting on 55k words instead of 50k. Stop that shit! Open up your laptop and lay down some magic!

6) The choice of word processors makes all the difference. If you’re using a word processor or a typewriter or a pen and paper, that’s your business. I’m not going to tell you you need to use this one over that one. What I am going to tell you is that, no matter what you use, you’ve got to have it handy at a moment’s notice. You never know when you’ll get five minutes to hammer out two really great sentences. With a pen and paper, that’s a lot easier than just about any other writing medium. You can carry them with you anywhere and be ready to write in five seconds flat. With a typewriter, that kind of thing is a lot harder. You can’t really lug a typewrite around with you everywhere you go. I mean, you CAN, but you’ll get a lot of looks that suggest it might be time for the men in the white coats.

My choice of word processor was Google drive. Again, this goes back to the available-at-a-moment’s-notice requirement. Google drive is all cloud based, so your fictional manifesto is available anywhere you have an internet connection.

Using Google Drive, I created the document and was able to access it from any machine I happened to be using at the time. All I needed to do was to log into my Google account and viola! there it was. I could access it from a laptop, or a desktop, or even my phone. How’s that for ubiquitous? It was like having a pen and paper with me at all times. The best part? I didn’t have to type in all the things I had hand-written earlier. Best of both worlds.

7) Finishing feels like the frickin bomb! Nuf said there.

That’s what I learned this go-round. Maybe I’ll learn more next year. Already got the idea forming. Just have to let it stew, do some homework, and, oh yeah, finish the current one I still haven’t finished.

“How It Ends – Part One”: Free Book Promotion (Shameless Marketing)

c45394dc3c76377ad4e38898ed06df782bf09266In honor of NaNoWriMo (okay, not really, but I was trying to figure out how to tie it into what I’ve been blogging about lately), I’m dropping the price of Part One of How It Ends to nothing. That’s right, a big $0.00.

(Yes, I brought one of the serials back, despite the fact that I explained why I took them off here. I reserve the right to change my mind about things.)

Okay, actually, technically speaking, the price for Part One is already $0.00 on B&N.com, Smashwords, and iBooks. But Amazon doesn’t let you price something at $0.00. There are ways around that (I talked about it here) but that hasn’t worked for me yet.


I’ll keep trying to fight the system.

*shakes fist in Amazons direction*

The point is, in the meantime, for the next five days, on Amazon, Part One of my science fiction robot apocalypse love story How It Ends is free. So go pick it up. Why not? What could it hurt? It’s a free book. Who doesn’t like free things?

You do too! Put your hand down!