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.

What My Work in Progress Isn’t

I’ve been sitting down the last few days with a printed copy of the work in progress, reading and taking notes and getting ready to get to work on the second draft. I’m even using several different colored markers, although truth be told the different colors don’t actiually mean anything other than “this is the pen that was at hand when I had this idea or spotted that typo.”

I haven’t mentioned anything about what the story’s is about, or even the title, which would give the whole thing away. And I’m not ready to yet except in the most general way. I wouldn’t say it’s a “bad luck” thing to talk about it before it’s ready, but it sure doesn’t feel right. So I’ll keep my lips sealed about that, for now.

But I will discuss what it is not, and why.

It’s not a pirate story. Not because I don’t like pirate stories or have abandoned the pirate community, or have no new ideas for pirate stories. Far from it. I have one all but finished, as a matter of fact. I thought I’d have it out for Talk Like a Pirate Day last year, But there’s a problem wth the story and I haven’t figure out yet how to solve it. Something doesn’t quite work. Otherwise it’s a good story. One day I’ll pull it out, look it over, and the answer to the problem will be so blindingly obvious that I’ll rush it out. So I’m not out of the pirate game at all. (See below.)

But the work in progress is not a pirate story. It’s a contemporary story about three kids – two boys in middle school, troublemakers, and the high school sister of one of the boys who is grudgingly along for the ride (since she has a driver’s license and they don’t.) They’re in a very, very bad situation and the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. I’m aiming at a very specific market and the reaction I’ve gotten from reading the chapters to Tori’s sixth grade class tell me I’m on the right track.

It’s an idea that has been floating around our house since 2010, and where it came from I’ll discuss when I’m ready to reveal the book. But first I have to finish it, and that means a second draft, and a third. You just never know.

There’s a very real, very practical reason for doing this, for writing an adventure story that’s not in the pirate vein. First, it has the potential for being a series of books, and I like the idea of a steady stream of income. Second, I would very much like to sell my book to a publisher.

I had an agent who tried for a year and a half to sell my first young adult pirate adventure, “Chance.” Nobody said there was anything wrong with “Chance,” it was well written, a good story, great charactes. A friend – a retired college professor – read it for me and said he’d expected it to take about a week but he was done in two days because “I just couldn’t put it down.”

Chance made it to the last pre-publishing meeting at one of the very big houses. I would have been thrilled to be picked up by that publisher. Any writer would have.

But –

“No one is interested in pirate stories,” they said. “No one’s buying pirate stories.”

And other houses gave similar responses. “Good book, but we’re not looking for pirate stories.”

When I finished “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” it was even better than “Chance,” and “Chance” was good. Not “pretty good.” Good. A new agent was very excited about it, and tried for another year and a half before telling me, “No one wants a pirate story. It’s not the writing, it’s the pirates.”

So I decided to prove them wrong and self-publish “Chrissie.” I had a sales number in mind that I was pretty sure I could hit, and it would show the “know it alls” at those publishing houses that they were wrong. That people DID want pirate stories.

And you know what? The publishers were right. I have received a lot of great feedback on “Chrissie,” and sold a lot of copies, but nowhere near what I’d hoped, nothing like a number that would convince a publisher to take another look.

So I thought I’d give a try crafting a story I want to tell in a genre publishers think will sell. I’m having fun with the story and the reaction from Tori’s kids tels me it works. They laughed where I’d hoped, even showed me places where it was funnier than I knew, prompting me to double down on those bits. And they really get into the peril.

More importantly, by their reaction (or lack thereof) the kids pointed me to places where it needs work. I have a bunch of notes for the second draft based on their reactions.

But first I took April off for two other projects. Both of a pirate nature.

One is a podcast idea Tori and I had a year ago that will amuse us, even if no one ever listens to it. And yes, it’s a pirate story, of a sort. The other is a proposal from a friend in the pirate community to collaborate on a couple of projects that are exciting and different for both of us, and I was only too happy to take him up on it. They’re both his ideas, so I don’t want to get too far ahead. I got a good start on it during April.

I’m still in the pirate game. But the work in progress has taken me in a different direction, and it’s a good book. It’s a book that has a good chance of being published. I’ll be back with a pirate story sooner than you think.

First Draft of WIP Is Done

reading to Tori's class 04252019Finished reading the work in progress to Tori’s class today (spring break got in the way) and it was great. The ending is really good, cliffhangers and payoffs and heroic sacrifices and laughs and everything. All in three chapters, a space of a few thousand words.

I had their attention, and I kept it.

End of next week I embark on the rewrites. Maybe a lot. But I don’t think it’ll be too bad. The ending is really good. The beginning is good, needs a few tweaks, not much more than that. The middle is perhaps the most problematic, I’ve got to come up with a few more “events,” close calls and peril and a bit more humor. Nothing in the middle is “bad,” there just needs to be a bit more going on, and it has to drive harder towards the conclusion.

I know this because I have the kids’ reactions (and sometimes lack of reactions) to tell me so. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I don’t see how anyone can write a book for middle school aged kids without having a classroom full of them to bounce the story off of. The kids in Tori’s classes were, as always, invaluable.

I am not starting the second draft until May 1, because I’m in the middle of a project that is a real change of pace for me, and a lot of fun. But that draft is almost finished and then it’s back to the novel. I think I can have something to show agents by summer – when everything in the publishing industry sort of goes on hiatus. Oh well, it is what it is. I warned the kids that it could be a year or more before I know if there’s any hope of the book getting published by a traditional house.

It was funny, I talked a little about the whole publishing process and the kids were aghast. Why would anyone intentionally go into a business as dicey as that, where everything takes so long and your fate is in the hands of other people?

As I told them, sometimes you just can’t help it. You write, because writing is what you do. You’re a writer.

Another Classy Morning

Just spent another invigorating morning with Tori’s sixth-grade ELA students. I honestly think I get more out of it than they do.

I started by telling them what author James Scott Bell had to say about story. Sometimes writers fall in love with their characters. They don’t want them to have any dark spots, any flaws. They don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And that’s boring. As somebody or other said, “No one is going to go to a movie about ‘Another perfect day in the village of happy people.'” Story, Bell tells us, is taking some characters and getting them stuck in a tree with hungry wolves circling below them Then you throw rocks at the characters. Then you set the tree on fire. Then you let them figure out how to get out of the tree.

In our story, the one I am reading to them a couple of chapters at a time, we just got the characters up the tree, I told the kids. Now we’re starting to throw rocks at them, and pretty soon the tree will be on fire.

As I read the next two chapters, I could see them react when something I’d set up earlier suddenly “paid off,” To me that meant they were getting it, not just the narrative of the story, but the technique.

But the real fun part came after I was done reading the two chapters. Tori had them get out paper and write for 10 minutes. They were supposed to write dialogue with the characters from the story. What might happen next? What are they going to do?

It wasn’t about them guessing what I have in mind, wasn’t about them “getingt it right.” I kept telling them, “This isn’t a test. It’s the first draft, it doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be done.” It was just about them writing for 10 minutes and exploring what THEY would do, and usinng the conventions. They struggled a bit at first, but suddenly you could almost read by the light of all the bulbs going off over their heads. At the 10-minute mark, many of them were eager to read what they’d done, and others we coaxed. It wasn’t bad at all. And I played on my bad hearing. Made them read out, they got stronger as they went along.

And a couple of them DID get what I plan to happen next. Not the way it’s going to happen, of course, but the general idea.

Towards the end one girl asked me the classic – “Where do you get ideas and how do you put them together for a story?” (Apprently she’s hooked on the writing thing!) I went to the back shelf and pulled a couple of books from the class library.

“Where did Judy Blume get the idea for this one? Where did Dav Pilkey get the idea for “Captain Underpants?” Just an idea, a thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if … ? That’s really all it takes to start. J.K. Rowling wondered, ‘What if a boy who thought he was normal went to wizard school?’ Just ideas. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if?’ ‘You know what really scares me?’ ‘What if a middle school student ran for president?’ What interests you? Your ideas are just as good as theirs. Even as good as J.K. Rowling’s. That’s where ideas come from. You just have to learn how to take that ‘what if,’ and then the next one and the next one until you have a story.”

I guess this is all good for them, good for them to see the process, to get excited and to practice writing and to learn the conventions of how to write dialogue. But in all honesty, I think I get much more out of it than they do. Their excitement is contagious and I’ll be coasting on it for another week. And there were one or two little things they wrote that I very well might steal. (I mean, be “inspired” by, of course.)

So back to work, got two chapters to write before next Thursday.

Why I Threw the Book

Had to throw a book across the room the other day. Had to.

It was not something I did lightly or without thought. I love books and respect the effort required to write them, even when they let the reader down. This was only the second time I have ever done it.

But boy, this book deserved it, and it felt good.

Most nights I read to Tori when we go to bed. It’s relaxing. The only problem is that my voice is apparently so soothing, my dulcet tones so soporific, that she’s usually asleep within a couple of pages. On occasion we’ll make it through a whole chapter, but she’s more likely to fall asleep within a few paragraphs. It took us something like six months to get through Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” that way, and “Good Omens” took us almost a year.

Maybe a mystery, I thought. That might keep her interest piqued enough to battle off Morpheus for a chapter or two. So I brought home from the library what is referred to as “a cozy,” a subgenre of the mystery field in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.

This one had “beignet” in the title and I figured it must be set in New Orleans, since beignets are a particularly New Orleans thing. But no, it turns out the story is set in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. So strike one.

There’s a smugness to the cozy style. They apparently tend to feature amateur sleuths who work in quirky, trendy jobs. The kind of jobs that people in Hallmark Channel movies seem to flock to. In this one, the woman had just gone through a divorce and had opened a beignet and coffee shop in a small town. Because small towns deserve beignets too, I guess.

The author, who has apparently quite a lot of success in the “cozy” genre, has a peculiar style. If you or I were writing dialogue, we might choose to write it in a coherent, chronological fashion. He said this. I said that. He asked me a question. I answered it. You know, a conversation.

Not in this book. In this book, someone would enter the shop, approach the counter and say something, often just one or two words. Then there’d be two paragraphs of exposition and/or a completely irrelevant digression, then the other person would answer with one or two words and you’d have to go back because you couldn’t remember what the question was.

For me, the crowning example was when the a character walked in and asked, “Am I too late?” What followed was FOUR PARAGRAPHS about the javelina, a pig-like animal that runs wild in the American southwest. Four paragraphs. 223 words. On javelinas. There was also a bit about a local artist, but it was mostly about javelinas. Then the main character asks, “Too late for what?” and I have to flip back a page to remember who was talking. For my money, the ONLY way this makes sense is, after the murder eventually takes place, it turns out that the crime was committed by a pack of javelinas. Or the mystery is solved by them. Or something.

One of Elmore Leonards’ “rules” for writing novels is, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” By that standard, this book is a failure by page 11.

Tori was more taken with this passage, when the dreamboat of a local, unmarried sheriff walks in. “His brown suit and tie were dull, but his M&M brown eyes were as scrumptious-looking as the candy-coated chocolate morsels.” Seriously. At least Tori wasn’t sleeping. The ridiculousness of the book had her attention. (And I have to point out, scrumptious looking should not have been hyphenated because it’s not used as a compound modifier. If the author had written “his scrumptious-looking eyes,” yes, that would have been correct. So the author is both ridiculous and not quite as smart as he thinks he is.)

But neither of those were what prompted the launch of the volume across our small bedroom. It was two pages later. The hunky sheriff says he’s going to some Halloween party with a woman who appears to be the arch rival of the book’s hero. She and the sheriff are doing some kind of matching Victorian costuming. The following ensues.

“‘Like Lady Audley?’ I quipped,” … (Seriously? “Quipped?” Just say the line and let the reader determine if it’s a quip or just more useless information. But I digress.) … “in reference to a Victorian-era novel called Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I had read the sensationalistic story in my downtime between clients while working as a hairstylist over in Phoenix. The lurid novel had made an impression on me.” Apparently so, since the next paragraph – 42 words – offers a precis of the plot and why it would be a good comparison to the sheriff’s date.

There really is such a book, I looked it up. It was published in 1862 and it’s impossible to see how this presents any information that will be helpful later when the murder occurs. But I’ll never know, because that’s when I snorted and threw the book across the room. Tori applauded. It was the most entertainment we’d gotten since we’d cracked the damn thing open.

I have to keep in mind that this author is very successful. Lot of titles in several different series. That doesn’t excuse such a – there’s only one word for it – ridiculous book. It’s kind of maddening.

So why haven’t I given the name of the author or the title or anything? Simple. I made a vow a long, long time ago that I would never directly pan a book or attack an author’s work. Life’s too short and karma’s a bitch. I know how hard writing a novel can be, it’s hard bloody work, and I honor the effort that goes into it, even when the result is disappointing, or in this case, ludicrous. And hell, it’s not even the worst book I’ve ever read. That was a pirate novel sent to me by the author to review about a dozen years ago. It featured as nonsensical plot, a main character who was so unpleasant that her best character trait could charitably be called pigheadedness (Pigs? Javelinas?), and significant, almost hilarious historical inaccuracies. And if I never named that one, I’m not going to do that now to this absurd waste of paper and ink.

Just know that it has beignet in the title and it’s set at Halloween in New Mexico. You’re on your own.

One other way you might be able to tell is, if you are looking at the Jefferson Parish Public Library, there might be a slight dent in the spine – where it collided with my dresser.

Back to Class

Great day Thursday. Tori asked me to come in and talk to her her sixth grade English classes about writing, which she wants them to concentrate on this semester. She wants me to come in each Thursday and talk about how I write and read them my latest chapters. Thursday was the first time.

I’d done this before, back on St. Croix. I’d come in every Thursday afternoon with the new chapters and read to them. It let them follow the process of writing a novel and let me gauge their reactions to what eventually would become “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” It was invaluable. I don’t know how anyone can write a story for middle schoolers without having real kids to bounce it off. I assume they got something from it as well.

So I was looking forward to to it, although not without trepidation. The kids on St. Croix were fifth graders, these were sixth graders, and there’s a world of difference between the two. And unlike on St. Croix, where Tori taught one class of 13 motivated kids, she has two classes of about 30 kids each, ranging from bright, polite kids to kids who are, shall we say, less motivated and more difficult. And she doesn’t have the luxury of deciding the day’s schedule, when she’ll teach a subject and for how long, she’s got a firm schedule ruled by bells. I couldn’t just show up in the afternoon. I have to be there to get the last half hour of her second period class, then stay for the first half hour of her third period group.

But it went great. The kids were more curious than anything, but they listened and for the most part they stayed focused. I talked about writing, and the fact that I had been earning a living at it for more than 40 years. I tried to tie my own experience and ideas about writing into things that I knew they’d talked about on other subjects, why writing is important, how shared stories tell us who we are as a society, what we think is important.

And I talked about the magic of writing. It’s not an original ides with me, it may even be a cliche, but books are made of trees that are cut down and pulped then have ink smeared on them and are glued together. And when you look at those ink smears, the voice of the writer is in your head. It could be my voice, if you’re looking at “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” Or the voice of someone who has been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years: Shakespeare, Homer. And that’s sort of magic, isn’t it?

Then I read them the first two chapters of my WIP, a sixth grade story about two friends who always get in trouble but are the world’s only hope in the circumstances of the story. The kids laughed when I hoped they would, seemed interested, and got a big laugh where I hadn’t really expected one. I took note and will be revisiting that issue repeatedly.

Afterwards I asked for feedback and ideas, and many of them had thoughts about what should happen next. (They were wrong, but I wasn’t going to tell them that.) I also talked about how you want to start a story as close to the action as possible, but you also have to set things up – the characters, the kind of world they live in, the circumstances of the story. Plus there are things I’m planting in the first three chapters that will pay off at the end, that will enable our heroes to figure out how to save the day. I told them the ancient Greeks (who they’re learning about in social studies) invented drama as we know it, and sometimes in their plays the situation was doomed, only to be saved at the last minute by an intervention from the gods.

“The Greeks called it deus ex machina, the machine of the gods,” I said. “Today we call it cheating. You’ve got to set up the story so that the solution is always there, but the reader doesn’t necessarily see it until you spring the payoff. Then they go, ‘Aahhhh! Of course!'”

In all, I was pleased. And Tori was even more pleased. And I’m looking forward to next Thursday morning. And working hard so that I’ve got fresh chapters for them.

Note: I haven’t written in a while, obviously. No excuses, but I’m back at it. The more I write, the more I write and that’s a good thing.

Dorothy, Heywood, the Babe and My Brain

I recently learned that Dorothy Parker did not say, “This is not a book for lightly tossing aside. It should be thrown with great force.” Turns out it was coined by one-time L.A. Times sports editor Sid Ziff. All this time I was certain it was Parker.

I know, what possible difference does it make? None, really. It’s still a great quote. But now I have to figure out what IS my favorite Dorothy Parker quote. No small task.

And this is how my brain works. I had started because I wanted to confirm the exact wording of the quote. I hate it when someone quotes something and I know they’ve got the words wrong, even if just slightly. It’s jarring, and I didn’t want to do the same thing. So I looked it up in several places and discovered to my chagrin that she didn’t say it, Ziff did. This led me to a precis of Sid Ziff’s life – interesting guy, he became sports editor of the L.A. Express at the age of 19 – then to Dorothy Parker and finally to a website – one of many – dedicated to the celebrated wits of the Algonquin Round Table.

From there I was drawn to a review of a play about Dorothy Parker being staged in Los Angeles (too late, it closed last week) and thence to a collection of some of the less-known members of the Round Table.

That’s where I found this short essay by Heywood Broun. It has several laugh-out-loud moments and it’s amusing all the way through. Reminds me of of the tone of Wolcott Gibbs, James Thurber. E.B. White and others of that era.

Broun is comparing Ruth and Roth – that is, Babe Ruth and Filibert Roth, a professor of forestry at the University of Michigan. Don’t ask, just read the story here. It contains this great line:

“Just what difference does it make if Mr. Roth errs in his timber physics? It merely means that a certain number of students leave Michigan knowing a little less than they should – and nobody expects anything else from students.”

I loved the essay. Also, in my poking around, I was relieved to discover that Dorothy Parker’s most famous line is both genuine and well documented. During a word game, she was challenged to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence and came up with this: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

A gem.