Saturday, April 30, 2011

IDIOT AGENT #1 (part one)

I've done a lot of things my own way. Sometimes it's served me well, sometimes it hasn't. Well, MOST of the time it hasn't. Hopefully, a few of you will be able to learn from the mistakes I've made and avoid the pitfalls that have plagued my "career". I thrown quotes around my "career" because, let's face it, I don't have one.


After working with five agents, two publishers, and 24 edits (or is it 25 now?) on one...ONE goddamned novel, I'm still languishing amongst the unpublished. Yet every day, I still sit down at my computer, open my e-mail and hope.

Am I an idiot myself?



Yes to all. Is it the same hope that I had nine years ago when I started this journey? That would be a resounding no. But there's still enough there to get me through the dark days when I kick myself for being so naive, so goddamn stupid in the earliest part of my "career". Some of it has been my fault. Other times I've been lied to, had contracts broken. Been led to believe in another's credibility when there was none. But my experience is neither exclusive, nor does it apply across the board with others. What I'm going to detail is MY experience, and I sincerely hope that it will enable and alert other writers to notice the red flags that I was too inexperienced, too stubborn, too hopeful to pay attention to.


One of the first places where new writers heads will be filled with bad information is in the so-called trade magazines. They fill up writers heads with overstated stories of exceptional successes, leading them to believe that This Could Be You! And they're not wrong. It can be you. It probably won't be. But if the trade magazines actually filled their pages with the depressing truth and statistics about the business, they wouldn't have any readers left, the majority of hopeful writers slashing their wrists, leaving suicide notes written in their own blood between the pages of Writers Digest.

What they're really selling is hope. The bad news is that they're also selling a certain amount of bullshit. It was one of those articles that led me down the wrong path for the first four years. Here it is. Got your pens?

MISINFORMATION: It doesn't matter where your agent is based. In the digital age, New York no longer has the geographical stranglehold that it did in the past.

That statement isn't true.

A lot of things have changed in the digital age, making access a hell of a lot easier for writers to make contacts, send submissions faster, etc. But New York is still the center of American publishing, and the top agencies are all based in New York for good reasons. That reason is personal access. An agent in New York has direct and personal access to the editors and publishers that some one in Milwaukee doesn't. They can shake a hand, make eye-contact, and work angles that another agents simply can't over the interwebs.

To use another term, they can do lunch.

Are there exceptions? Of course. There always are. But these are ex-cep-tions.

But the article I read sold the exceptions as the new rule. And I was too goddamn naive to know better. So it was with this misinformed hope that I sent out my queries.

Now here's the first place where I did my own thing, and it served me quite well, to an extent. I didn't follow protocol. What you were supposed to do, was:
1. Send query letter
2. Wait. Sometimes as long as months.
3. If an agent replies favorably, send in sample pages.
4. Wait. Months.
5. If an agent replies favorably, send in whole novel.
6. Wait. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.....
7. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz....


Instead, what I did was send out 150 portfolios which included the query letter AND the sample chapters along with a synopsis and my sparse credentials. All I did was streamline steps 1-4, cutting potential months off of the exchange. Keep in mind, this was when a majority of agents still hung onto brick-and-mortar queries, no e-queries allowed, self-addressed stamped envelopes a must. And I included everyone, coast-to-coast who said they represented crime fiction.

Then I waited.

Over the first couple of weeks, the rejections cascaded in, envelope after envelope with my address written in my own hand. Somehow seeing my own handwriting made it worse. I can't fully explain why, it just did. Like I was rejecting myself from the past, had forged the knife that was now being repeatedly stuck between my ribs. A couple of agents even went out of their way to crap on what I'd sent them.

I still remember their names, by the way...

Then I got two letters of interest. On the same day. I celebrated, getting stinky drunk with my roommate that night.

The next day, hungover to hell, I started printing out the novel. As I went down the stairs, on my way to the Post Office, I checked the mail. In the mailbox, another letter of interest.

Then another.

Then another.

Woo-hoo, right? Sure seemed like it at the time.


Over the next month, I got sixteen letters of interest, peppered in with dozens of rejections. But at that point, the rejections didn't matter as much. The rejections could fuck themselves. The knives didn't sink in as deeply.

Problem was, they all wanted to see the novel exclusively for two months. Now, I understand that nobody wants to have their time wasted. Nobody wants to take the time to read an entire novel, only to have that rug pulled out from under them if somebody snatches it up. This was going to be a problem. I wrote them all, stating that if any of them were willing to waive exclusivity, I could send them the book immediately. Otherwise, the guys at the end would have to wait up to three years before the novel hit their desks.

None of them were willing.

This is where I got stupid. In the interest of fairness, I decided to send the manuscript to agencies based on order of their interest, rather than starting with the ones that may have had more credibility. Didn't matter to me that the agency was based out of Wisconsin. Hell, the trade mags told me over and over that it didn't matter any more where your agency was based.

The first agent, the first person in the industry to ever read my novel, agreed to represent it.

Wow, right? Awesome, right?





Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Literary Herpes

Okay, I lied. I said that I was going in with IDIOT AGENT #1. But then I realized that there was another incident at the beginning of my so-called career that made an indelible mark on the delusions that plagued me regarding the business of writing.

And if you don't think writing is business, stop right now. Seriously. Stop reading here. Not just this post, but this blog as a whole. I've met many a writer who lives with the dream that all it takes is a book deal, then you spend the rest of your life on a red carpet. If you do, you're an idiot. I can say this, because I was that idiot.

There's an old saying: The worst thing that can happen to a gambler is that he wins.

Come back with me now to the halcyon days of 2002. We were all apologizing to Ms. Jackson, and a young Vin Diesel was confusing the pornographically-minded in xXx. I was finishing a novel and had a couple of short stories in the trunk.

And I didn't know what the hell to do with any of them.

I read the trade mags, which didn't tell me much. If I want bullshit inspirational platitudes, I'll spend an afternoon in the Hallmark store. The advice and feel-good success stories would have been useful, had I been a brain-damaged lunatic, shoving nuts and berries up my holes. But being a human being of reasonable common sense, telling me to present myself professionally wasn't anything earth-shattering. And success stories just pissed me off. I didn't want to read how wonderful other writers' lives were. I wanted advice on how to become that success story. I got zip.

The only two magazines publishing the genre regularly (that I knew about at the time) were Ellery Queen and Hitchcock -- not the most literarily progressive tomes. Needless to say, I sent my stories in. They were rejected (file under: No Shit).

Then, lo and behold, Writers Digest was holding their annual short story contest. Figured, what the hell. Sent 'em three short stories.

Then the worst possible thing happened. I got two honorable mentions (although I do believe that an honorable mention in this contest is tantamount to getting a medal at the Special Olympics - pretty much everyone gets one). Then I took third in genre fiction with So Long, Johnny Scumbag. AND they wanted to print it in their Years Best Writing issue! AND they were paying me cash money!

Holeeeee sheeeeyit! This writing thing was going to be a piece of cake. So Long, Johnny Scumbag was only the second story I'd ever written. And there I was, making a months' rent just like that. I immediately began banging out short stories, figuring:
1) I must be good at this shit.
2) There's money to be made.
3) I want that money, and they will give it to me since I'm so good at this shit.

The reality:
1) I actually wasn't very good at this shit. So Long, Johnny Scumbag is a story I'm still proud of, but I think it was more of a broken clock being right twice a day scenario. I still have a couple of those quick bang-out stories. They're irredeemably awful. There's one in particular, and I'm not even sure why, but just seeing the title makes me want to write a letter of apology to Lawrence Block.
2) There's pretty much no money to be made.
3) I still want that money. I hope I've gotten better at this shit, but since that glorious month back in 2002, I've published 15 short stories for a grand total income of $25.00. That's not even a months' rent in Detroit.

The lag time between what I figured and what the hard reality was occurred over three years, give or take. Month after month, my (over)confidence deflating, rejection after rejection.

The bad news was that I wasted three years under the delusion that I could maybe not only make a living doing these short stories, but at least supplement my income.


The good news is that those early stories never got published. Today, with the glut of magazines on the web, I'm sure that somewhere, there's an editor shoving berries in his holes. An editor who might have thought those stories were as good as I thought they were nine years ago. And once that berry-smeared story is out? In the digital age, man, that shit doesn't go away. It's out there, with you forever.

Literary herpes.

Oh, and Mr. Block? I am so, so sorry.

Where To Begin?

Had a lot of conversations over the years about the various paths of my writing career. For the most part, those paths have led off of a cliff, into a bear cage, onto train tracks, etc...

It ain't been easy, in other words.

So for a lack of anything better to say, every now and then, I'm going to drop those little pieces of my history into this blog, pepper it with some bullshit, writing thoughts, any other crap that I think those without anything better to do might want to read.

By the way, you ALL should have something better to do. But what the hell, here we go. Tune in later for my second post: IDIOT AGENT NUMBER 1