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.


TV Review: “And Then There Were None”

I’ve been posting nothing but photos everyday for the last three months, it felt like I needed to get back to some posts with more than three words. And the perfect way to do that is to post a review of a TV mini series that hit Lifetime about a month ago.

And Then There Were None is the most recent adaptation of the Agatha Christie book of the same name. (Historical note: actually, before it was called “And Then There Were None”, it went by the more disparaging title of “Ten Little Indians”, which in turn was not the original title. The original title substituted the N-word for “Indians”.) It was commissioned for the 125th birthday of the First Lady of Crime.

If you’re not familiar with the story, if you come to it with no advanced knowledge of the story, then it ends up being an edge of your seat thrill ride. It’s slow moving to be sure, but at no time does the pacing impact the enjoyment of viewing. Rather, it is a slow burn where each scene ratchets up the tension from the scene that came before. The visuals are lush and dark and moody, as if Guillermo del Toro decided to direct a locked room mystery. Despite it being grounded in reality, there are ghosts and phantoms and haunting memories that plague the characters almost as much as the killer does. These manifest as visuals within the series, some of which are truly frightening.

And there is a killer. If you have read the book or seen the stage version, you already know how it ends, though the endings of the book and the stage version differ significantly. I had seen the stage play many years ago when a high school put it on for a summer theater program. It had been so long, I thought I misremembered the ending, but then the killer is revealed, and my memory was vindicated. And yet, even if you know the ending, that knowledge is irrelevant in this version. This version hues closer in tone to the book, and that, plus moody direction and a wonderful cast, are what make this rendition so special. When your cast includes Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, to name a few, you know you’re in for a treat.

That is because the story is all about character. Each one has been lured to an island retreat, only to find they are being hunted for their supposed crimes. Each one must face who they really are and acknowledge their failures before facing down an unknown Grim Reaper. Some of these characters admit their transgressions openly, while others hold on to their secrets to the bitter end. The characters are wonderfully drawn and portrayed by the cast, with most having multiple layers motivating them. There are subtle points to the characters past, hints of homosexual desires for example, and there are not so subtle motives as well. Greed for fame or fortune or fidelity are all on full display. One of the magical things about this version is how it keeps you guessing about the characters, and their pasts, right up to the last moments.

But the true fun comes when the final credits roll, and you back it up to the beginning and start all over again, this time noting all the interactions, hints, and little gestures that betray the characters. I’ve watched it twice already. I’m contemplating a third.

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.

Review: “The Cold Dish” by Craig Johnson, and A&E’s “Longmire”

Today I’m feelin’ generous, so it’s a two-fer. Two reviews in one post. Lucky you! I recently read Craig Johnson’s debut mystery novel “The Cold Dish“, which introduced his character Walter Longmire to readers everywhere. After finishing the book, I powered through the first season of A&E’s original series “Longmire“, which is based on the characters in the Johnson novels.

cold dish

Let’s start with the book. “The Cold Dish” introduces us to Sheriff Walt Longmire, Sheriff of Absaroka County in Wymoing. He’s an aging sheriff, looking forward to a retirement that doesn’t appear too far off. He’s a widower, having lost his wife to cancer about four years back, and has, in many ways, lost his zest for life. Longmire is not the first hero of hard-boiled mysteries to be introduced to the reading public as a cynical, drinking, down-on-life-and-maybe-himself character. Nor will he, doubtlessly, be the last. But he has a voice all his own, part of which comes from the proximity to the sweeping landscapes of the American West. Longmire is a man who knows himself, knows his limits, and is cautious about pushing them.

But push them he does when the situation calls for it. And in “Cold Dish” the situation calls for it quickly. Walt is called to the scene of a crime where the body of a young man is found, shot through the back. The complication here that Walt must deal with is the fact that this deceased young man is one of four that were acquitted of raping a Native American girl with fetal alcohol syndrome a couple years back. It’s a perfect, though perhaps cliched set-up for Walt Longmire to show us what he’s got. Joining him on this venture is a cast of characters that are fairly well-drawn, even if one or two of them ar characitures. There is the female deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti, a tough-as-nails, unwilling transplant cop from Philly; there is Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s long-time friend and connection to the Native American community on and off the reservation; there is Ruby, the dispatcher and Sheriff’s Office manager who keeps the office moving along while giving Walt stern matronly glares whenever appropriate.

I found “The Cold Dish” a fun read that kept me reading, which is saying a lot these days. At approximately 400 pages, it’s too long, and suffers from a certain laziness in the editing process. I’m used to the sharp crisp sentences of Robert B Parker, and if you’re looking for those here, you’ll be disappointed. There is also a section that starts off as spiritual and quickly borders on supernatural as Walt fights his way up a mountain through a blizzard. It reminded me of the Halloween episode of [insert cop show name here] where the good guys are plagues at every turn by events that seem other-worldly to them, but turn out to be completely plausiable.

But not to leave you thinking I didn’t like the book, because I did. The scenery is well-described so you get a strong sense of the Wyoming countryside. In addition, Johnson, a resident of Ucross, Wyoming, (pop. 25)  gives us insight into the relations between Native Americans (who are called and call themselves “Indians”) and the white population living outside of the “Rez”. These are insights that, coming from a different writer, would feel forced, but never once do they feel so with Johnson at the wheel.

I’m definitely looking forward to the next in the Walt Longmire series. So much so that I decided I had to check out the TV series “Longmire”.

And how is “Longmire”? So glad you asked.


As a cop show, it’s average. The plots are standard murder plots, with the usual number of twists and somersaults built in in order to keep you guessing until the end. One of these days, somebody is going to come up with a cop show where you know whodunit, and you (and the detectives) spend the rest of the episode trying to get enough evidence to convict. That’s not this show. There is also, not unlike a lot of shows these days, and over-arching plot that slowly threads its way through each episode and ties itself together in the season finale. The season ends on a sort-of cliffhanger. There’s clearly a lot more story to develop with the characters, but you’re not left wondering who shot JR.

But this is no different than any other cop show these days, which leaves the question, why watch it? The answer: Robert Taylor. Taylor is an Aussie actor who American audiences will only recognize as Agent Jones from “The Matrix”.


This role couldn’t be farther from that, and Taylor makes the character of Walt his own. His widowership is only a year (whereas in teh books it’s four years) which makes the pain much closer. He’s aided by Katee Sackhoff in the role of Vic, and she too makes the role her own. Described in the books as a handsome not pretty, square-jawed woman, Sackhoff’s features seem cut to order for the role. Add to that her ability to play hard-nosed, characters (see “Battlestar Galactica” for reference) and she is perfect in the role. Rounding out the cast is Lou Diamond Phillips in the role of Henry Standing Bear. Phillips is not the first person who comes to mind when you think of a bar-owning native American friend of Walt, especially since they are approximately the same age. The first person I thought of for the role was Wes Studi, an excellent Native American actor (see “Last of the Mohicans” for some amazing work). But Phillips, like Taylor and Sackhoff inhabits the role and you never once question whether he belongs there.

I really enjoyed the first season of “Longmire”, for as run-of-the-mill as the murder plots are, the characters are fun to watch and the scenery, well, it can’t be beat.

So there you have it. “The Cold Dish” by Craig Johnson, and “Longmire” the show inspired by Johnson’s characters. I’d recommend both.