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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Time For A Little Social Media Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough already.

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

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

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

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

Maybe. 

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!

The Problem with “Game of Thrones”

 There’s a joke I read online somewhere that starts this post beautifully: “GRR Martin, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon walk into a bar, and everyone you’ve ever loved dies.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

The Emmys were on a few weeks ago. “Game of Thrones” won big with a capital B. And I couldn’t help but think “why?” When I finished the past season, I sat back and wondered whether I would watch it anymore. The end of every season always finds the internet all atwitter with the various “shocking” deaths of certain characters. Why anybody is shocked by a character death, or at least maiming, in this show by now is beyond me. George RR Martin makes a regular habit of killing of whatever character strikes his fancy.  So I knew what was coming when I finally watched the finale of season five.

Was I shocked by the deaths? Not really. I’ve come to expect it. I’ve come to expect that any character that I might grow fond of is probably going to get the ax (figuratively and literally). And that illustrates the fundamental problem with “Game of Thrones” the show and “A Song of Fire and Ice” the book series.

Before we go on, let’s be up front, shall we? There WILL be spoilers below. Oh yes, there will be spoilers.

You’ve been warned.

Let’s get the problem on the table right now. GRR Martin has left us with nearly no character with which to emphasize. Every time we begin to get close to a character, that character meets and untimely and often ugly end. Let’s recap everybody who got killed off in the last episode of season five, shall we?

  • Selyse Baratheon, who hangs herself with guilt of what she let her husband Stannis do to their daughter
  • Stannis Baratheon, defeated in battle by Lord Bolton, and, after fleeing to the nearby wood, is discovered by Brienne of Tarth, who avenges her former sworn lord, Stannis’s brother Renly, whom Stannis killed
  • Myrcella, Lannister or Baratheon, depending on your allegiance, the young daughter of Queen Cersei who was sent to Dorn to be betrothed to a Dornish prince, but who is murdered by poison by the vengeful consort of another Dornish prince, who himself was killed by a man of the Lannisters
  • Jon Snow, Commander of the Night Watch (and fan favorite and apparently the biggest shock of the night, though I don’t know why since he meets this fate at the end of the fifth book)

That’s four major characters in a single episode. So major that two of these deaths, Stannis and Selyes, effectively close off an entire subplot, with Stannis’s effort to claim the throne for himself ending in utter bloody defeat.

I don’t mention Arya Stark, youngest surviving daughter of Ned Stark, (Ned, who you might remember was beheaded by Joffery in an act of malicious cruelty that Joffery reveled in). In the finale, she kills a man out of vengeance for that man’s killing of her first sword master. She’s been training to become a Faceless Man, which is akin to a ninja, a stealthy assassin that does his work then disappears. Except she didn’t have permission to kill the man she killed, so her punishment is…blindness.

This doesn’t begin to cover the other deaths that happened this season, the most brutal of which was the death of Shireen, Stannis’s daughter. Stannis, in a moment of blind faith to the new god he worships, sacrifices his only daughter by burning her at the stake, believing the sacrifice of king’s blood will bring him victory. Did I mention that Shireen is (was) eleven, maybe twelve?

Are you catching all of this?

It’s insane. And this is just the show. The books have a far greater number of characters. It’s a cast of well over a thousand characters. It’s a huge amazing epic that I’m not sure has ever been attempted in modern fantasy novel/series history.

And I won’t bother to read it.

And by the way, I might be done with the show as well.

Why? Because as I watched the season five finale, it dawned on my why I’ve felt less and less interested in investing time into this brilliantly complex story. It’s all about empathy.

Let’s baseline a little bit before we go on. What is the primary purpose of a character driven story? To make you empathize with the protagonist so that you care what happens to him/her. Think Harry Potter. There was another large series, lots of characters, several deaths (though rather bloodless compared to “Game of Thrones”). Kids, and adults, gobbled these books up. They would pick them up at midnight on release night and swallow them whole, unhinging their jaws like starving python. Why? Empathy.

The simple fact is that Martin, in his sprawling epic, has repeatedly given us characters for which he elicits from us empathy. He lets us get close to these characters, let’s us see their struggles, gives us a brief amount of hope that they will persevere…then he kills them. Sometimes gruesomely.

(Oh, who are we kidding? Most times its gruesome.)

I understand that Martin is basing a fantasy series of a real-world morals. The War of the Roses was the initial basis for the first war we see in GoT. Yorks versus Lancasters in England became a template for Starks versus Lannisters in GoT. It’s not that hard a stretch. In England, the Lancasters won, and so in Westros the Lannisters won. So I get it. High fantasy without the clear cut definition of black and white, good and evil. This is not the Lord of the Rings.

And yet, without some character around with whom the audience can rally and put their hopes for a win for the good guys, what are we left with? We’re left with twists and turns and plot yanks that no one sees coming, to the often fatal demise of its characters. We’re left with maybe two characters for whom we can empathize, Daenerys and Tyrion. For now. There’s no guarantee that they’ll survive the series. In whom should we out our feelings? Who will be left at the end of this sprawling epic, and will we even care? As all others perish, so too does our patience and interest. Why should we continue to invest in a show that promises us nothing but pain and misery? So we can talk about it over the watercooler the next day?

No, thank you. I think I’m watercoolered out.

Valentine’s Weekend Special: How It Ends

20140629-114004-42004110.jpgHappy Valentine’s Day!

It’s the holiday when we go out of our way to celebrate love.

What better way to celebrate love that reading about a robot that falls in love with a human and the tragic results that follow?

Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. But for this holiday weekend, you’ll find Part One of How It Ends free on Amazon, and starting tomorrow and Monday, you can get the full novel of How It Ends for only $0.99.

For $0.99 you can read about how the end of the world came about. What a bargain, right?