#PitMad-ness

anxious_woman1Ah yes, querying. The process by which a writer crafts a few hundred words to describe their work in the hope of catching the eye of a Literary Agent. The electronic age has been a boon for this activity. Find an agent online, paste your query letter into an email, press send. Then you wait. We all do it, and we all hate it.

I can’t imagine the days when authors were forced to use a typewriter to generate a 300-page novel, box it up, and then ship it off to publishing houses through the postal service. Hand-wringing over sending emails seems juvenile in comparison. The downside, of course, is that now, because it’s so much easier to send a query, agents receive mountains of them. Not bothering to send a response is common, and shortcut keys generate the rejection letters with a single stroke. I guess it is what it is.

If you spend any time searching for Literary Agents, you’ll find that their list of wants often run the whole gamut from Young Adult Fantasy to Cookbooks, and everything in between. If they want to catch a whale, the agents must cast a wide net. But the agent’s website often doesn’t tell you what they are looking for *right now*

Along comes Twitter. I must check it 30 or 40 times a day, from my morning coffee to the swig of water at bedtime and in between; Twitter is my companion. The hashtag #MSWL — shorthand for Manuscript Wishlist — is a great thing. I wish all Agents used it. But it’s not enough.

Look, I’m all for inventing new ways to connect writers and agents. I understand the intention, and admire the gumption to set the whole thing up — but this #PitMad thing has just gone too far. Now we are supposed to reduce our work in 140 characters? It is less than that when you factor in the hashtags. And did I mention that this whole exercise happens in a 12-hour window?

I think we live in a world where technology can act as a great tool to break down old barriers. Disintermediation they call it. It seems that this whole process cries out for it. The one element of #PitMad that seems the most valuable is the response mechanism available to agents. See an interesting tweet, click favorite, submission process begins. But it’s more targeted; agents get what they want *right now* and authors submit to those who have expressed an interest, instead of blindly blasting out a scattershot email blast.

Imagine a system where authors upload their query letter and manuscript. Searchable, secure, reliable, flexible. Agent thinks, “I’d like to find a book about werewolves and vampires, set in Transylvania in the Dark Ages. Oh, and with a strong female protagonist.” Search, click, viola!

Sure, there will still be rejections. But maybe, just maybe, the avalanche of emails can be replaced with something that gives authors and agents a fighting chance to find each other.

Gruber’s 11-Point Mystery Formula

mysteryI picked up this tidbit here. Frank Gruber was a prolific writer. In a career spanning over 40 years, Gruber penned 300 stories for over 40 pulp magazines, published 60 novels and nearly 200 movie and television scripts. Over 95 million copies of his books sold in 24 countries. Prolific is right.

In 1967 he published The Pulp Jungle, an account of his early experiences as a (literally) starving artist writing and selling his work in NYC. The work included his eleven point formula for mysteries:

1. THE HERO. A hero must be colorful. He must have an occupation that is colorful or he must be a colorful person. In general, I have followed the theory that a regular policeman or detective is not colorful. Just think a moment about the greatest detective in all detective fiction – Sherlock Holmes – and you will quickly grasp what I mean by colorful.

2. THEME. This, to me, is the most important element of any mystery story plot. By theme I mean subject matter, what the story is about in addition to, over and above, the ACTUAL MURDER plot. To illustrate:

Death and the Main” is about fighting cocks. I give a reasonably inside account of how gamecocks are raised, how they are fought, etc. This is knowledge not possessed by the average reader and believe me, I did not know it until I read up on the subject, for the purpose of this story.

My book, The Lock & the Key, was about locksmiths. A liberal education in making locks and keys was thrown into the murder plot. I knew absolutely nothing about locks and keys until I did research on the subject. I know no more than is in the book.

If you have ever read Dorothy Sayers’ excellent English mysteries, you will find that THEME figures superbly. In The Nine Tailors, the reader earns all about church bells, the art of bell-ringing, etc. In Murder Must Advertise, Miss Sayres discusses advertising in all its phases.

HOWEVER . . . knowledge of a subject should be used sparingly. The mystery reader may not be as interested in the subject as you are.

3. VILLAIN. Let’s face it, the hero of detective fiction is a Superman. The villain must therefore be a super-Superman or have plenty of assistants. The odds must ALWAYS be against the hero.

4. BACKGROUND. The story must be played against a colorful or unusual background. The streets of a big city are not necessarily colorful. If they’re not, make them so.

5. MURDER METHOD. Here again, the “unusual” should be considered. Shooting, stabbing, etc., are acceptable, but the circumstances surrounding them should be “unusual.”

6. MOTIVE. Actually, there are only two reasons for murder – hate and greed, but there are many subdivisions of these and the motive should be as unusual as possible.

7. CLUE. Somewhere in the story, there must be a clue for the alert reader. Sure, try to fool the reader, but the clue must be there if the reader should want to check back on you, after the story is over.

8. TRICK. In the grand finale, when all seems lost, when the hero cannot possibly win out, he must snatch victory from apparent defeat. By a trick… and here the word “unusual” applies.

9. ACTION. The story must have pace and movement. It must not consist of talk, talk, talk, about the missing button, etc.

10. CLIMAX. A grand, smashing climax is necessary. Unusual.

11. EMOTION. The hero should be personally involved in some manner. He should be doing this, over and beyond the call of duty. Or, beyond the money paid him for doing it.

Work

late-for-work-runningAh yes, work. Get that money, chase the dream, work hard, get ahead. Someday you’ll be the boss, you’ll be running the joint.

That’s what I thought. Of course, it wouldn’t happen right away. When I started my working life I had no illusions. I was a drone. I did what I was told to do, and I watched the clock as I did it — whether that was making pizzas, bagging groceries, or tearing tickets at the local cinemaplex.

Those were college jobs, I told myself. There is no future here. This is just the shit that you do to get that paycheck so you can buy stuff. Folding money for girls, cars, beer, and weed. Oh, and albums. Lot’s of those. And concert tickets too. Yep, those were the days.

Then you finish school. Time for life to begin. A real job. Climb the ladder. Get on the fast track. Run the rat race.

At last, a career. I had a couple of those. All in all, the first one wasn’t bad. I hated it at first. But I was still learning. Eventually, I came to love it. It was challenging, I liked my boss, and my colleagues were also my friends. I spent a decade doing it. I knew everybody in the company. Then, poof! It all went away.

Everybody gets laid off, I told myself. Move on. You’re young. You’ll find something. And I did. It was even better than before. Within two years I was a manager, a boss. I was earning triple what I was before. I wore nice suits. I had a big house. I drove a Cadillac. Important boss, rewarding work. I had the respect of superiors, my peers sought out my help and advice, and my workers would run through walls for me.

Then one day. My boss quits. Moves on to the bigger and better. Oh well, no biggie. Let’s get his job, you tell yourself. Uh oh, the other guy got it? The one who hasn’t been here as long as you. The one who looks at you askance in the conference room. The guy you’ve maybe embarrassed once or twice in meetings. That guy.

At least he didn’t waste much time. Within a month I was in his office. The big one in the corner. The conversation starts out with “I’m sorry to inform you.” I didn’t hear much after that. But the story doesn’t end there. Nope, I was rescued by an executive elsewhere in the firm. Someone took a shine to me. Saved!

Same company, different job. Not as good. No longer the boss. Back to ‘single-contributor’ status. Limbo. Five long years. Toiling. Scratching. Seething. Planning. Then it happens. A merger. A restructuring. Back on top. Better get to Vegas, you’re on a roll, baby!

That lasts for a little while. Then a new boss. Oh well, everybody works for someone, right? But not like this guy. This guy was a monster. I dreaded going into the office. Drinks after work, mandatory. Not the “hey, let’s celebrate and bond” drinks. No, this is the “sit in silence and watch the boss get drunk and berate the whipping boy” type drinks. You just hope its not your turn in the barrel. Its like a Machiavellian nightmare. Everybody played against each other. Back stabbing, undermining, end-arounds. Everyday might be your last. It gets so bad that at some point you actually hope that it will be. How the fuck did this happen?

Then I remembered some sage advice I had received in days gone past. “Son, you can manage your career all you want. Volunteer for everything. Do all the right things. Get noticed. Network. But at some point you’re going to work for an asshole. It can’t be avoided. And when that happens, there ain’t shit you can do about it.”

Like it or not, one day my prayers were answered. I was done. Free at last. Big-ass severance package to boot. I promised myself that if I was ever going to work that hard again, I would be doing it for myself.

And that’s why I write.

#PitchWars

I submitted my first manuscript to #PitchWars. It was my first experience submitting my writing to a contest.

The purpose of #PitchWars, as I understand it, is to bring established authors and/or Literary Agents (Mentors) together with aspiring writers (Mentees). If selected, your mentor would work with you to polish your manuscript, hopefully to get it on the path to being published. I think its a cool idea, and I commend the mentors for contibuting thier time.

The results were announced yesterday. My novel did not get picked. I reckon I’m in pretty good company though, since I read that over a thousand submissions had been received and only a hundred or so were selected, maybe fewer.

I had a fair idea that this would be the outcome. The first clue was the dearth of mentors who were interested in the Mystery or Thriller genres. Had my book been a YA Fantasy, Sci-Fi or a Romance novel, I might have had a few more choices.

The second clue was that I didn’t hear anything back from the mentors that I did submit too. Had I been in the running, I surely would have received a request for a full.

I don’t take any offense though. In the end, I had already started to rewrite the book. Best of luck to all of the mentees. Maybe next year.

YA or NA?

19082044-surprise-read-book-humor As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been re-writing a book that I had completed in March. The original work was a dual-timeline thriller in which the protagonist begins the story at age eighteen, gets in and out of a pickle, only to find himself embroiled with some of the same characters again thirty years later. Shock, surprise, and drama ensue.

For a variety of reasons, mainly because of my failed effort to mix tense and POV, I decided to divide the work into two seperate and distinct novels. Now I’m rounding the bend and heading towards the finish line on the story with the young protagonist.

Here’s the dilemna: While it is still a thriller, the characters are young. The problems they face, the feelings that they have are of the type that teenagers in the 1970’s had. I know, because I was there. So what is the problem?

Well, I’m trying to decide if I can market the book to Literary Agents in the uber-popular genre of “YA” or Young Adult. I figure (hope) that might actually get the thing read. The characters face danger, they take drugs, they have sex, and they use the F-word. A lot. It is a thriller after all.

If I call it YA, what will the agents expect? It’s not something I would expect an average seventh grader would identify with — there are no dragons, draculas, or wizards.  I suppose I’ll just have to make it clear in the query letter and hope for the best.

 

Genres

I have this theory. It goes like this:

Writer spends inordinate amount of time crafting a query letter for her latest novel. She does meticulously research looking for the best agents; what they like, what they tweet about, what they have sold. She fires off the email and waits.

Sometime between fifteen and thirty days later, the letter is still languishing in the agent’s email inbox. An intern opens up the authors letter, and begins to read.

Protagonist does this, blah, blah, blah. Title is blah, blah. Ah, there it is — Genre-subgenre, wordcount XXXX. Nope. Not what we are looking for. Open rejection template, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, send. Next!

I hope my theory is wrong, but my suspicion is that it is exactly how it works. Agents sell books to publishers. Publishers sell books to readers. Those sales produce trends, which feeds back to the agents. Mystery/Detective is down? Don’t sign any of those — even though it is the third highest category behind Suspense/Thriller and Romance.

Pick your genre carefully

See, Hear, and Smell

ear I miss a lot of things about living in the city. Shopping, going to concerts on a whim, late-night dining choices beyond pizza or Chinese takeaway, and being part of a non-homogeneous cultural mix. Not too mention the short commute. Despite all the fun, we eventually took the plunge. We drove  until we saw nothing but farmland and said, “This looks good. Let’s move here.”

My darling wife, a city girl through and through, has surprisingly adapted very well to life in the woods. The internet helps, of course. With social media, FaceTime, and everything else it’s easy to stay in touch and not feel so isolated. Over time, you adjust to the weekly trips to Costco instead of the quick jaunt to the bodega. And who needs food delivery when you have a giant kitchen?

Don’t get me wrong, living out in the sticks has its challenges. But it also has its charms. It’s peaceful. Its relaxing. You can take the dog outside at one o’clock in the morning in your pajamas.

And one thing is for sure, its quiet.

I hadn’t realized just how much until one morning when she complained that she hadn’t slept very well. When I asked why, she told me that the damn frog outside of our bedroom window had kept her awake all night.

That’s right: a frog. This is the same girl who used to sleep right through police sirens, drunk pedestrians, garbage trucks at 3am, and all sorts noise. Some explained, some not. Somehow it had all become part of the tapestry.

I thought about my writing. Was I incorporating sounds and smells in my world building? Were my characters using all of their senses, or just sight? Was I showing, or just telling?

When the MC is walking through the streets of Hong Kong or Bangkok, was he aware of the heady mix of food stalls, car exhaust, and flora? Did he hear the chattering of foreign tongues in nearby cafes, the trill of bells from passing bicycle riders, the lapping of the surf up against the seawall? Or did he just march on to his destination, unaware of his surroundings?

 

Where Do You Want to Go?

Like Johnny Cash once said: I’ve been everywhere, man.

Chicago,  Los Angeles, and New York City? Yes, yes, and fuhgeddaboutit. Las Vegas? Of course, but I can’t tell you what happened. London, Frankfurt, Paris, and Tokyo? Yes, Ja, Oui, and はい

I’ve been lucky, actually blessed, to enjoy a long career in business that required almost non-stop world travel. It wasn’t always big cities, though. Sometimes the destination was a little farther afield. I’ve watched sunsets in Bora Bora, got caught in a sandstorm in Djibouti, and froze my ass off in the Aleutian Islands. Wanna know where to get a decent martini in Kowloon? I’m your guy.

Yes, there are some stories to tell. But my greatest regret is that as the miles piled up, sometimes two or three hundred thousand a year, I became jaded. It all became a blur. Airport, Hotel, Conference Room, back to the airport.

After a while, the shine wears off, and all you want to do is get in and out in one piece — hopefully without amoebic dysentery (Kuala Lumpur). For years, regardless of where I was, no matter what delicacies were on offer, I ate nothing but steak. That is, unless it was forbidden or at least frowned upon by local custom (Yes, I’m talking about you, Mumbai).

So now, I’ll try to relive some of those lost moments in my writing. See those missed opportunities through my characters eyes. Luckily, we have Google Maps. How else am I going to remember what that Sari Sari store in Balibago looked like?

Timelines, POV, and Tense

My first book felt like an ambitious undertaking. At least for me, anyway. I decided that I would write a dual timeline mystery novel; one that would begin in 1978 and conclude in present day.

Simple, right?

Not really. I wrote each timeline as a separate three-act story, and then I intermingled  them — 1978 for a chapter or two, jump to present day, go back to the past, repeat.  I spent some time outlining the story beforehand,  laying out where each chapter would lead, and ending each one with a little cliffhanger. But I was still a plotter. So while writing in one timeline, I would get  an idea for the other, and so on. It was fun to write that way, since everything felt fresh in my mind.

To make my task more difficult, I wrote each story from a different POV. The story in the 1978 was told in past-tense, 3rd person, while the other was present-tense, 1st person. I thought it would be cool, and was convinced that I needed to write it that way for the sake of the Main Character’s arc, that it would improve the ending, blah, blah.

I wrapped up the first draft, combed through it with some line-editing tools, and then shipped it off to a beta reader. Of course, my fears were realized. The first comment back was: “It is good, but it feels like there was a narrator in some parts and not the other. Were you trying to do that?”

What I thought was clever just seemed to confuse the reader. I could try to fix it, but by then I was halfway through book two. I let it cool off for a while while I finished the new work. When I finally got back around to reading it, I realized that the  hook between the two stories was tenuous at best, and clichéd at worst.

In the end, I decided that I had enough material for two books – one for each story. Maybe a when I am a little more experienced I’ll try the dual-timeline thing again, but for now I’ll stick to one murder story at a time.

Soft Boiled

I recently completed the first draft of my third 90K+ novel — all of them written since January. Once I started, the words just poured out. For a while there, I was averaging between two to four thousand words a day, seven days a week — for months.

Sure, there were occasional times where the average dropped, but those weren’t usually as a result of writer’s block — it was time spent doing research, editing, or patchy up those pesky plot holes.

The writing was the easy part. Then I tried to find an agent. That’s when things got tough. I went through at least a dozen drafts of my query letter. I couldn’t believe it was harder to write a 250-word letter than it was to write the whole damn book. But it was.

I finally had it where I wanted it, and I dipped my toe in the water. I read blogs, Twitter, scrolled for tips on Reddit, searched for agents using QueryTracker, verified them on Preditors & Editors,  and even managed to email out a few.

I waited. And waited. Then the rejections started to roll in. A few requests for the full manuscript too, but mostly form rejections.

I was disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? I had put what I thought were the best words my brain could string together down on that paper (well, not actually paper, just electrons. I’m too green and too cheap to print them).

Why didn’t everyone love it instantly? I had great characters, witty dialogue, fully fleshed-out storylines, and crackerjack endings. What’s not to like?

And then I re-read it. My supposedly hard-boiled private eye wasn’t very hard-boiled at all. He was soft-boiled. Maybe even poached. Sure, he got himself into a few scrapes, drank like a fish, and used language salty enough to make a sailor blush. But it wasn’t enough.

Maybe I chose the wrong genre? I thought. Should I turn this thing into a suspense-thriller instead of Crime-Noir? I could, but that isn’t what I want. That won’t get the juices flowing. And if it won’t excite me, how is it going to excite the readers?

No, I’m going to go back and crank up the volume.