Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Break Out the Cheap Champagne.

And save the good stuff for publication.

Even as I edited from 184K, I continued to submit to agents, burning bridge after bridge and racking up form rejection after form rejection (over 100 in all, by my best guess).

In some query letters I spoke of my 140K word novel. A little while later, I was hawking a 135K word novel, and eventually, a 120K word novel. Somewhere in the 120-135K range, I started getting serious bites. Lots of agents asked for sample chaps. Several agents asked to see the whole MS--from big houses, too, like Writer's House, Nicholas Ellison and Curtis Brown.

One agent asked to see the whole MS based on the query alone. He requested "a fortnight's exclusive look." Although I had no way of shipping my book back to 18th century England, I sent it to him anyway. He rejected it.

One by one, they all turned me down, although very graciously and with helpful feedback. No one mentioned sheer length, though I knew it was still an issue. But in addressing the things they did mention (no one mentioned the same thing, by the way), I would end up cutting word count in the process.

Finally, I had it down to 109K. How, I still can't remember. Words are not the precious things I once considered them to be. I saved every cut in a separate, disjointed Word doc that I may drag out for readings some day--like a "deleted scenes" feature on a DVD.

Somewhere along the way, I wrote a prologue to set up the first chapter and cut the first chapter by 50-75% (all backstory). I had also rewritten my query for the third time. I had two versions I was test marketing. The only difference was the opening paragraph.

On August 11, I sent an equery to Robert Brown at Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency, the first line of which read as follows:

“People are so desperate to save a quarter on a cantaloupe, they’d give a urine sample at the checkout.”

Five days later, I had a request for sample chaps. Two days after that, a request for the whole MS.

And one month later, I had an agent. Nearly five years to the day I started outlining the novel and more than a year and a half since I thought I had "finished" it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ask and ye shall receive.

I'm in advertising, and we have a phrase that became painfully relevant to me after I attended my first writer's group meeting: "If it's on the rail, it's for sale."

In my day job, that means if you take a TV storyboard/print ad layout/logo, etc. into the conference room, put it up on the "rail" (a small shelf running the entire length of the wall), it's fair game to be praised, derided, bought or trashed. Every once in awhile, we'd throw in a decoy idea--one that was so laughably lame that the client couldn't help but see how superior the recommended idea was. Naturally, they'd buy the lame one, and when we protested, they said, "then why did you show it to us?"

Same principle here. I crammed my book with lots of hilarious backstory, pages of tangential anecdotes and entire scenes of throwaway comedy. My writer's group had the effrontery to point all this out to me. They'd seize on some inconsequential detail buried in the backstory and go on and on about how it didn't make sense, that the taillights on a 1966 Mustang pointed
out, not in as I described, and so on. Meanwhile, I'd be thinking, "Why are you so fixated on THAT? That doesn't even matter to the story!"

But if I didn't want them to comment on it, why was it in the book? And if it didn't matter to the story,
why was it in the book?

And that, my friends, is how I was able to take a 184K word novel down to 109K words. I'm not saying it wasn't painful. And I'm not saying it happened overnight.

But I am saying that until I did it, I didn't get an agent.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Speaking of Fiction...

Check out this take on getting published, courtesy of Lynn Johnston, Canadian creator of the long-running comic strip/sap opera "For Better or For Worse." FBOFW is one of the few strips that actually acknowledges the passage of time, so kids get older, men go bald, pets die, etc. You know, typical funny paper hijinks.

Also typical of comic strips is their tendency to stretch out a few days worth of action into months and months of material. How much can you cram into something that takes about ten seconds to read, after all?

Still, I was caught off guard when the novel that Michael Patterson was writing was suddenly picked up for publication. Very few references were made to him actually writing it, although there was one strip devoted to the day he finished it. (Note to Lynn Johnston--the day after you finish your first novel is not the day you start shopping it).

We've never seen anyone actually read this novel, but one day, after the only copy of the mansucript is rescued from his burning apartment, he gets a letter--
a letter--with a contract, offering him a $25K advance on his genreless, titleless tome. (Of course, keep in mind that $25K Canadian is like twelve bucks.) To my knowledge, this guy never wrote a single query letter, never received one form rejection from an agent, never attended a writer's conference and never joined a writer's group.

So congratulations, Michael Patterson, on the sale of your book to Mephistopheles Press.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Those agents can be so elusive...

Armed with a copy of The Novel and Short Story Writer's Market 2005, (purchased from Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents (library copy) and a bookmarked link to, I was on my way.

At first, my approach was alphabetical. Just go through the books A-Z, pick out the agents looking for my kind of book ("ungodly long" was not a genre I found listed--anywhere) and send off the ol' query letter.

Ah, the query letter. More unheeded advice, here. I probably spent an hour or two refining it, and when I was done, it was very demographically targeted. I was giving the agent more of a reason why it would sell and who it would sell to instead of a reason why he or she would want to read it in the first place.

Nonetheless, my first round of queries resulted in three requests to see some sample chaps (remember, the book is still 184K words at this point--I was not budging on this. Every word was GOLD, GOLD I TELL YOU! Wait a minute...aren't some false idols made of gold?). In hindsight, I have to seriously question the sanity of these agents (who, despite my gratitude at the time, shall go unnamed here). Naturally, all three politely declined after reading my opening chapter, which consisted entirely of backstory.

I plugged away like this for six months or so before one agent had the courtesy to point out that my length might be an issue (insert own joke here).

In the meantime, I joined a writer's group after attending a reading from a local published author David Terrenoire. Couldn't hurt, I thought. Might be nice to get some affirmation on those words 'o gold I was refusing to cut.

Yeah, right. 'Cause that's what writer's groups are for--ego-stroking.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Use the force, Luke. Or the 'delete' key.

I was watching a "making of" feature on one of the "Star Wars" DVDs with my son recently and discovered that George Lucas' original script for the first movie alone comprised about six hours of screen time.

Turns out it wasn't conceived as a trilogy after all--the script was just too darn long. He shot the first third and called it "Episode IV." (Where he got his system of numbering was not addressed).

Does "War and Peace"
need to be 1,400 pages? Maybe. But did the first draft of "Ring of Fire," my contemporary suspense (or so I thought at the time) novel need to be 184,000 words? Most decidedly not. But coming from someone who consistently writes 34-second TV spots (note: industry standard is 30 seconds. Always has been. Always will be), it was hardly surprising. The frustrating part is I spent nearly six months just planning the book: character outlines, chapter-by-chapter analyses of books I was trying to emulate, a chapter-by-chapter outline of my own book, and so on. And still I filled it with things that I needed to know but my reader did not.

With my less-than-stellar publishing history, I decided I wasn't going to tell my wife about this book--just in case I never finished it. So how did I write it? You've heard of the "lunch hour novel?" There was some of that. A little bit after work, too. But mostly at home, late at night or during times when Susan was out with friends or otherwise occupied.

Ultimately, it took about two-and-a half-years to "finish" it. And when I presented it to Susan, in December 2004, I couldn't have been prouder. I had finished my first novel, and I actually thought it was pretty good.
So confident was I, that I gave it to a few friends and relatives to be "test readers" for me. Not one of them took me to task over the sheer length of it, but my mild-mannered mother-in-law demurely asked "Does it have to be so...detailed?"

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, I decided to revisit it. I had heard others say "when you think you're finished, put it away for a month or two and then come back to it." Easier said than done, but oh, so true.

Meanwhile, having learned not to approach publishers directly, I began my search in earnest for an agent. I began shopping my
184K-word manuscript to agents. More on this quixotic endeavor later.

Friday, February 02, 2007

By George, I think he's got it!

Maybe it was 9/11, I don't know. But in the fall of 2001 I started getting restless to work on another book. After all, it had been a couple years since my last resounding thud--I had almost completely forgotten how useless and unfulfilling creating for its own sake could be.

But now, I'm kidding. Actually, after a dozen or more years of writing occasionally-inspired-but-mostly-insipid radio and TV spots, print ads and direct mail, I felt the urge to create something more "important." I had kids now, and if they were going through the box of my life in the attic decades in the future, I didn't want them to find nothing but literally unplayable audiocassettes and VHS tapes of McDonald's commercials.

And I finally had an idea that seemed like it could sustain itself for more than 30 seconds. Ironically, or maybe not, it involved advertising. In that sense, I was going to "write what I knew." But everything else would be made up.

I couldn't wait to start procrastinating, so the first thing I did was read a bunch of books about how to write a book.
I found Stephen King's "On Writing" and Anne LaMott's "Bird by Bird" to be the most down-to-earth and practical ones out there at the time. Since then, I've also read Larry Beinhart's "How to Write a Mystery" and Carolyn Wheat's "How to Write Killer Fiction," both good as well. John Gardner's books are incredibly dense and valuable, I'm sure, but he made me feel like I lacked the requisite elbow patches that would make me worthy of being a bonafide "author." Let's face it, my ambitions weren't all that high--I just hoped to finish it eventually.

The last fiction I had written (aside from advertising--zing!) was in college, and those were only short stories and first written in longhand. How could I possibly sit down at a computer and crank out tens of thousands of words?

One word came to mind: outline.

If at first you don't succeed...

Fail, fail again. My first book was self-published, which at least has the word “published” in it. My second book technically wasn’t even a book, just a bunch of sample chapters with a cleverly designed (if I do say so myself) cover.

My first attempt at non-fiction was inspired by my wife’s pregnancy with our twin boys. While she read the epic “What to Expect While You’re Expecting” (if you’re stuck on an icy road without snow tires, make sure you have a few copies of this in your trunk) I was at a loss for a guy-friendly read. Most of what I found was deadly dull and clinical or went too far in the other direction, turning the whole pregnancy into a big joke. I needed something in the middle—a splash of the medical, a dollop of humor—I needed “info-tainment” (complete with cartoons, naturally).

This time, I did several things wrong. Before I did any market research or looked into how to sell a non-fiction book, I wrote the damn thing, or at least a lot of it. Turns out, most agents and publishers don’t want a finished non-fiction book, just a book proposal. I could have saved myself a hell of a lot of procrastinating, and some actual writing and drawing time to boot.

Not only that, for about a year, I submitted directly to publishers. I sent a cover letter and a spiral-bound copy of my sample chapters, complete with a laminated, color cover. The height of unprofessionalism. One publisher gently told me the majority of pregnancy books are bought by women, so my strategy of appealing directly to men was…”misguided.”

After awhile, I went the agent route--which I recommend. Quite a few publishers won't even bother looking at "unagented" material. The most promising response I got was “Well, if no one else wants to represent you, call me back.”

How could I refuse? Yet I did. And that’s the story of Book #2.

Self-publishing doesn't count

Eragon is the exception, not the rule.

Having given up my dream of becoming a syndicated comic strip artist, I nonetheless undertook the arduous task of compiling all the comic strips I published in The Daily Tar Heel while at the University of North Carolina and self-published it on the 10th anniversary of my graduation. I soon discovered that some college memories fade fast, and the fans I had in college were no longer breathlessly awaiting my characters’ next moves. And it was extremely hard to market. If I had sold the damn thing DURING graduation weekend, while everyone was still in Chapel Hill, I bet it would have been snapped up like a quarter draft. Wait a decade or so, and my entire fanbase was scattered all over the country. An obscenely expensive ad in the alumni magazine generated a little interest—barely enough to pay for itself.

In the end, “UNC•ology, The Man from UNCle 1984-1988” sold in the hundreds. Which was hundreds less than I had printed. Someone astutely pointed out later that I probably shouldn’t have included “1984-1988” in the title, potentially alienating readers who didn’t actually attend UNC during those years. Probably right, I said, as I stared at the boxes upon boxes of freshly minted books.
But I stand by the work itself—it’s not very timely, so it doesn’t matter if you went to UNC in 1984, 1974 or 2004. Most of it isn’t even directly related to UNC, just the universal college experience.

Interested? For you, I make very good deal.