Writing, Sharpening, and Preparing My Query

Three things accomplished.

1) Finished the second draft of the WIP. Beefed it up a little, added a couple of things the story needed and did so in a way that advances the plot a little quicker.

2) Performed one of the most pleasurable things an author can do. Wrote the first draft of the query letter, the letter where you’re trying to get an agent excited at the prospect of representing your book to publishers.

It’s a very specialized kind of writing, with a very specific audience. All you’re trying to do in it is get an agent to request you send the full manuscript. It’s gotta be short, sharp, and give enough of the story that the prospective agent will “get it,” and be interested enough to want to read it.

If you don’t know how to write a query or what “the rules” are, but have a manuscript you’re ready to pitch, I strongly recommend you visit the Query Shark, a service provided by literary agent Janet Reid. At query shark she evaluates queries and provides feedback for why one works or doesn’t. Just reading through the archives will prepare you to write your own.

Why should you follow some arbitrary set of rules? Because you’re trying to attract an agent, who will (with luck) sell your book to a publisher. You can’t ignore it when an agent says “this is what I want you to supply so I can decide whether I want to represent you.”

Why do you need an agent? I don’t have time for this discussion right now. Just suffice to say – YOU NEED AN AGENT. If you don’t think you do, good luck to you but you’ve reduced your likelihood of getting published from slim to virtually non-existent.

Oh, and this is very important, a legitimate agent will NEVER require payment up front. An agent gets paid when you get paid, as a small percentage of your royalty. Good agents are worth every penny of their commission. If they ask for money up front, they ARE NOT a legitimate agent. As seductive as it is to hear someone say, “I really like your book and think I’ll be able to sell it,” if they ask for money up front, they are not legitimate. Run, don’t walk, for the exit.

Moving on …

3) Began the less fun but equally important task of compiling a list of agents to whom I will submit my query. It’s not as easy as just compiling a list of every literary agency in New York (they’re almost all in New York, and there are hundreds of them.) You’ve got to go through each firm’s list of agents finding the one that represents what you’ve written – contemporary fiction, romance, adventure, middle school, young adult, whatever – and is currently looking for submissions. I’ve been at it all Saturday afternoon and have come up with ten so far.

With my last novel, “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” I eventually ended up sending out 82 queries. The one that ended up deciding to represent me was the 77th I sent out.

And just to cut to the question you’re already asking, no, that agent no longer represents me. Technically, he never represented ME, he represented the book. It’s sort of like a high school romance. At first the agent is hot in love with your book, and is convinced he’ll be able to sell it and make a little money for both of you. But it’s a long process and a lot of work and at some point, if there’s no pay off, the agent “falls out of love” with you and your book. So after a year and a half of trying to sell Chrissie, the agent waved the white flag on both the effort and the book. You part ways, and he/she goes on to fall in love with other authors and other books, leaving you to sit up late at night eating a tub of Ben & Jerry’s finest while weepily watching old rom-com movies. Or whatever the literary equivalent is.

And that agent was actually my second. A different agent had fallen in love with the book of pirate humor I had written with Cap’n Slappy – “Pirattitude!” – and was able to get it published, along with a sequel that wasn’t as good and didn’t do nearly as well. Then he was in love with my first novel, “Chance: A Tale of Caribbean Buccaneers,” which he called “‘Treasure Island’ for a new generation.” But a year and a half later, after he’d almost gotten it sold to a very big publishing house (seriously, I would have pissed my pants if he’d placed it with them), he fell out of love with both me and “Chance” and it was another breakup.

Both of those agents are on the list of ten I’ve come up with this afternoon. Because you never know, and at least we have that old relationship to fall back on. It’s like going to the prom with your old girlfriend. Maybe not your first choice, but at least you’re at the prom!

Anyway, I have a lot more names to add to the list. I’m using a spreadsheet with columns for the agent’s name, the agency, the address, any special instructions for submission, and a column to check off when I sent and if I ever heard back. You’d be surprised, only about a quarter even write back to say “no thanks, not what I”m looking for.” And I don’t blame them, they probably get hundreds of queries a week. They can’t spend a lot of time on things that don’t have potential.

I am NOT sending them out yet. I suspect the WIP will need at least one more pass before I think it’s agent-worthy. I just want to be ready.

How Many Words? How Many Pages?

I allowed myself one day to be excited about the children’s book I talked about yesterday. Now I have to get back to the serious business of writing a funny horror story about Christmas – for young readers.

But I gave myself a chance to think about it and do a little research. I have read many, many children’s books. After all, as our friends say, Tori and I have “many, many children.” So I am more than familiar with the genre. One thing I wasn’t sure about is how many words. Obviously not a lot but, generally, what’s the range?

I’m not trying to be proscriptive here. You can write any genre of book, any length you want. There’s no rule that says you can’t. If you want to write a 470,000 word young adult novel, got right ahead.

But if you want to be published, you have to understand that publishers are risk averse, they like to do what they know and what their experience tells them will sell. The book business is, after all, a business. That doesn’t mean something wildly out of the norm won’t sell, but unless you’re James Patterson (don’t we all just hate him?) or Stephen King or a celebrity, they’re not likely to give you a chance to see if you’re the exception to the rule.

Don’t you want to stack the odds in your favor? That means giving publishers something they recognize, that they think they can sell and make money on, and part of the equation is fitting into general length guidelines.

There’s a lot of information about this available online, and I got the answer I needed. If you’re interested this one has a good discussion and this one was kind of funny.

And they agree on the main point.

So I’m looking at writing the story in about 500 to 600 words. And you might think, “Hey, only 500 words? That’s easy!” And if you said that to me I’d spit in your eye.

Write a 110,000-word epic fantasy and yeah, that’s a lot of words. You’ve got plenty of room to play around with. You can take all the time you want to describe the dragon, scale by scale, or explain the physics of your fictional universe that allows a ship to blast across the galaxy in a heartbeat.

When you’re limited to 600 words, every word has to count. Let me say that again. EVERY WORD HAS TO COUNT. Which means you have to know exactly what the story is, exactly what it’s supposed to mean, and then be able to convey it in that 600-word span. And, by the way, they need to be short words that kids know. You can’t use the 2 bit words, like proscriptive.

So the three rules (so far) are:

– Know the story.

– Know the audience.

– Make every word count.

And, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway – NO RHYMING.

Seriously, I don’t know why people think a little kids book has to rhyme, or even should rhyme. In fact, most publishers and agents won’t even look at a book that rhymes. Nobody likes rhyming books that weren’t written by Dr. Seuss. When you’re as big and famous as Dr. Seuss, then you can rhyme to your hearts content. When I was reading books to my kids, which I did a lot, I HATED reading rhyming books, except of course, “Green Eggs and Ham.” (By the way, my reading of that one is classic.) But that wasn’t a big problem because we had very few rhyming books in the house. Those stilted rhythms and bad rhymes used to drive me nuts.

People who think it’s easy to write a kids book, you  know, just pick up a pen and knock one out, full of rhymes, obviously have not done any research. Look at the library. Look at the local bookstore and see what’s selling. I guarantee you publishers are looking at what’s selling and basing their decisions about what to publish accordingly. How can you have the nerve to try writing a kids book if you don’t read kids books? And I don’t mean back in the day. I mean yesterday.

OK, let me just step off my soapbox now (yes young ‘uns , a soapbox is a thing. Along with the rotary telephone and the horse and buggy. Look ’em up on Google.)

And speaking of word counts, let me finish with a memory I hope is amusing.

When Mark and I decided to write our first book and had interest from an agent he asked me, “How many pages do we have to write?”

I said, “About 40,000 words or so, I’d guess.”

“But how many pages is that?”

“It depends,” I said. “How big is the page? How small is the type? We only have to write one page, if it’s big enough to hold about 40,000 words.”

It took a couple more passes to get the point across, but eventually we got to work and cranked out 40,000 words of funny.

And now, back to work. I have to make sixth graders excited and a little scared. And it’s gotta be funny!

My Pirate Platform

Ol' Chumbucket greets a three-year-old pirate at Saturday's Talk Like a Pirate Day party in Studio City, Calif.
Ol’ Chumbucket greets a three-year-old pirate at Saturday’s Talk Like a Pirate Day party in Studio City, Calif.

Saturday was another grand Talk Like a Pirate Day. My friend, Mark Summers, and I started the holiday as a private joke twenty years ago. When we told syndicated newspaper columnist Dave Barry (who we now refer to as “our close personal friend, Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Barry”) and he wrote a column about it in 2002, the day just keeps going and going, getting bigger and more outrageous and – I’ll just say it – more absurd, year after year.

We’ve traveled the country with it. We’ve performed in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and New Orleans and Philadelphia. We’ve done our schtick in museums and libraries and bars. We’ve done hundreds – that’s not an exaggeration, hundreds – of radio, TV and newspaper interviews all around the world. I suspect by now we’ve been on just about every radio station in Australia and New Zealand. This year I did an interview with a station in Germany.

It’s not the way your parents might have hoped you’d come to the world’s attention, but when the wave comes up, you ride the wave.

In the book business – maybe in others as well, but definitely in the book business – you hear a lot about platforms. You have to have a platform. There’s a lot of definitions as to the exact meaning of “platform,” but you’ve gotta have one. It’s the area you’re known for, how people identify you, sort of the reason anyone can be expected to buy your book.

There are good discussions of the exact meaning here and here. But the point is, you have to have one.

And my platform is pirates. A lot of people in the pirate re-enactor community – or as I prefer to call it, the pirate world – know me, recognize my name. At least, they recognize my pirate name – Ol’ Chumbucket. And most know that that’s me.

So my first three novels were all pirate adventures, including “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” which I thought was the best of them and the most ready to self-pub. And that gives me another venue for going out to sell the book. Along with libraries (I’ve got my first library reading tonight!) and bookstores, I’m looking at pirate festivals all over the south and east. Hope to have more to say on that very soon.

Getting very excited about this evening’s event at the East Jefferson Parish Regional Library. I’m one of three authors presenting their debut novels. (Between you and me, I’ve looked at the other two online and mine is head and shoulders above theirs.) I don’t know if many or even any people show up, but I’m looking forward to it. At least the other two authors will be there, so that’s something.

I didn’t sell as many books as I’ve had liked in Los Angeles, but the venue really wasn’t right for it. Place was crawling with pirates but there wasn’t really a schedule or set up to read or sign. Still, it was a case of showing my face and getting out there so the public – or your public – can see you and get excited.

You take these opportunities and you do the best you can with them, learning from them, and move on.

With a Song in My Heart

We had this idea back in June to record “Pirate Feeling,” a parody or satire of the classic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers, one of my favorite songs of all time. But what visuals would go over the audio? No one wants to look at me singing. They barely want to listen to me singing.

We settled on the classic slide show montage. And asked friends from all over the pirate community to toss a couple of slides my way. We ended up with about 120. We needed about 40.

Then we let it sit for a while. Good ideas, like good wine, need to age. Who said that? Anybody? Probably not, because we realized that was a terrible idea. Strike while the iron is hot would have been more to the point. Talk Like a Pirate Day is almost here (it’s Saturday, for those not in the know) and we had to get to work or give the idea up. We didn’t want to do that.

So that was our weekend. We figured on, maybe two takes. Maybe three. We’d knock it out Saturday morning. Turned out it took almost all of two days, about 40 takes, at one point we had to run out and buy a microphone (the Blue Yetti, I highly recommend it. A great mike for not that much money.) We had to learn some interesting things about the audio software. Latency – what a stupid idea!

And then when we finally had a take we could live with (we’d given up looking for perect around take 18) Tori took the audio and the e-pile of photos and her new computer and got to work weaving it all together. Only instead of weaving, it was more like pounding pegs into random holes when none of them quite fit.

Thank God I’d bought her a new comptuer a week earlier. If we’d been counting on this serviceable, dependable, but four-year-old Macbook we’d still be working on it. When it was knew it was the greatest. Now the new Macbook Air blows its doors off like it was standing still, which a lot of times it is. The newer versions of the photo and video editing software cause it to crash with some regularity.

But she got it done, and we’re happy with it. Got it posted on youtube, linked to Facebook and now linked here.

Look, I know I’m no Bill Medley, or even Bill Murray. I’m a passable singer whose falsetto doesn’t go nearly high enough. But it was fun.

And the rule of using social media is 9 to 1 – for every “buy my book” thing you post, try to post nine of you just being you. “Social media” is, after social.You’ll do nothing but annoy people if you try to turn it into your personal sales megaphone.

Now I’ve got the trip to Los Angeles coming up (in support of the book,) a pirate party at Studio City Tattoo where I will try to sell as many copies of the book as I can. Then back to NOLA, where I have a reading slated next week at the library. And more stuff in the works.

Because social media is good, but getting out there and meeting people face to face still can’t be beat. And if you sing ’em a little song? All the better.

(And yes, my throat has been pretty sore today.)