Monthly Archives: May 2010

How I Landed an Agent (part 4)

It took Carolyn a week or two to reply. She said it was more immediate, and that it definitely brought us closer to the main character. Very positive!

She also pointed out two issues — one unchanged pronoun (a “he” wasn’t changed to an “I” in a fairly complex construction) and a typo. This threw me for a loop as well; I don’t have a problem with being corrected, but she zeroed in on two minor mistakes instead of talking about the big picture stuff that I expected. It was a little surreal and unnerving.

Finally, she said “Let me know when the rest of the manuscript is done.”

Huh.

So obviously I was expected to carry on with the rewrite, all the way to the end of the book. This was a huge task, and would probably take several months to complete. And what if, at the end of it, she decided that it wasn’t good enough after all? The huge task of rewriting would have been for nothing.

I mulled it over for a week or two. I talked about it with… well, probably anyone who would listen. But my real saviour was a friend of mine from grad school, who has since left Canada and moved to England to become a literary agent. The talented Isabel White also happened to be returning to Canada around that time, meaning I could call her and beg for some advice! (Note that this was not the first time I had begged her for advice, and wouldn’t be the last. But she’s a wonderful, wonderful person and puts up with that kind of thing.)

Isabel gave me the verbal slap upside the head that I needed. She said that she’d mentioned my case to the top agent at the agency she worked for then, and they both agreed that they had never heard of an agent asking for a full rewrite, and promising to read the entire thing after it was done. And they both agreed that I should get the thing rewritten, pronto.

So I e-mailed Carolyn to tell her “it’ll be a few months but I’m on it”, and I got to work.

It was easier — not easy, but easier — to get going on the full manuscript, but it still took a while; I think it was about the beginning of February when I finished it. And then I asked my friend Karina (did I mention her before? I think so. Did I mention she was nominated for a Nebula award? I don’t think so. She’s a really good writer!) to do a full technical edit, specifically for the first/third person thing but also for any grammatical or stylistic flaws she found. It didn’t take her long and I paid her some money and chocolate and probably lunch too. She deserved it all!

I e-mailed it back to Carolyn. I fretted about this e-mail for a while, to be honest. I wanted to start it out with “I don’t know if you remember, but…” — but I didn’t want to sound like an idiot, or vaguely insult her by implying she wouldn’t remember me. I think I settled on something like “well, you asked for this a while ago, so… here it is.”

She replied fairly quickly and said she was very happy to get it, and — she had mentioned to her assistant just the week before that they should remember when setting her schedule that they would probably see something from me pretty soon, so they should keep that in mind. (I was pretty amazed by this. Does she know writers or what!?) And she said she’d get back to me soon.

…and this has become a longer segment than I expected. I promise part 5 will be the last one!

Rejection

Carolyn forwarded me a rejection e-mail from an editor yesterday. The editor’s response was that while he read it and liked it, the voice wasn’t right for him — too light. He wanted something darker, maybe disillusioned.

Of course, my first response was to worry. Is it too light? Should I be looking for ways to make it more of a noir book? Carolyn didn’t suggest it, but should I?

But that was just a reaction. I’m not going to worry about it unless this is the reaction I get from multiple editors. And I trust Carolyn will figure out when that time comes.

And there’s the opposite argument, too. There could be an editor out there who likes the thriller/crime type of novel, but wishes they weren’t all so bloody and dark. And that editor might love this book.

So I’m going to stay the course, and try not to think about it. Carolyn will be at BEA next week and will be seeing many, many editors there. I will sit tight and cross fingers, slaughter doves and calves, the usual stuff.

But I will admit to one bright light from this editor: he liked the book, and considered it. That he said no is one thing. That he didn’t just dismiss it as not good enough is another thing entirely. I might not be playing in the big league yet, but I might be drafted in an upcoming round! That’s a really, really good feeling.

In the meantime, back to writing.

How I Landed an Agent (part 3)

One more event from the conference got me very excited about Carolyn’s interest. The keynote speaker there was Ian Ferguson, a Canadian writer and a really nice, funny guy. His keynote speech at the gala awards dinner was fantastic, and I laughed throughout.

However, one downside to the gala dinner was that there was no wine served with it. You had to go outside the main room to buy any kind of alcohol, and bring it back in. This had to do with the funding and sponsorship for the conference, so it was a necessary annoyance, but it was an annoyance nonetheless.

So as soon as the dinner concluded, most of the members of my table, and a few friends from other tables, agreed to go off and find a pub where we could have a drink together. And on our way out of the conference building, we ran into Ian Ferguson and invited him along, and he agreed. Off we went!

As it happened I ended up walking beside Ian for a few blocks and chatting with him. I told him about my success with Carolyn, and he told me that she was a great agent, and if I could sign with her I’d be very happy with her. His brother, Will Ferguson, is one of her clients, and Ian said she’s got a great rapport with many publishers, but was a lawyer and takes no nonsense from them either. Will is apparently very happy with Carolyn.

Of course, we couldn’t talk shop all night, but Ian had said enough; I would do whatever I could to prove myself to Carolyn. I’d already gone a long way and hopefully, on the strength of the rewritten section, she’d say yes. Once I was done with the conference, and the flush of pride and new-found confidence wore off a little, I got to work on the rewrite.

I had never written fiction in the first person before, or at least nothing novel-length, and nothing for about 15 years or so. This book was written in third person limited, so the point of view was already okay; it was a question of perspective.

It wasn’t easy at all. I had to re-think each scene, to understand it as the direct reported experience of the character. I had to find ways to assume the character’s reactions to the scene into the narrative; by that I mean I had to think about how his reaction could be reported, subtly and interestingly, as part of the factual reporting of the scene. The problem was compounded by the fact that the I completely rewrote the first chapter, so it was now quite new to me.

I also had some more fundamental questions about writing in the first person. In a third-person work, the narrator is telling the story; even a narrator who is involved directly in the story is arm’s-length enough to be a surrogate for the author, and no further explanation is required. But a first person narrator is by definition self-conscious. I asked myself, why would the narrator be telling the story at all? To whom would he be telling it? In what form? And should that be part of the story itself?

A good example of what I mean is H.G. Wells’s The Time Traveller. The story is bookended by a host who has a guest, the time traveller, to dinner. And the meat of the story is the time traveller’s tale, which is told in first person to the host. All very logical and sensible, though the host is in the same position as my first-person narrator — whom is he telling the story to, and why, and how does he remember so much detail? I definitely didn’t want to make an explicit reference to the narration itself (like establishing that the guy was writing the tale down years later.

In the end, I decided to forget about the question. I figured that I would have to trust to the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and to do that I would have to get the story going quickly and interestingly.

Once that was decided, it wasn’t a huge task to go through and change all the pronouns, and at each change (especially where the main character’s reactions and observations were described), consider whether something could be done better or more seamlessly. It took about a month — I was working full-time so it was mostly weekend work — but I finished it and sent it off.

Continued in part 4. (Will it ever end? Possibly.)

How I Landed an Agent (part 2)

A few minutes after one, Carolyn came in. Her panel had gone long and she had had to run around gathering her things for the afternoon and just didn’t have enough time. Not her fault, but it always seems to happen to me at these things!

Ah well. First, she said, she really liked the book. Whee! So.

She had read the first six chapters in her room the night before. And she had ended in a scene where the gangster bringing the main character into the mafia world appears — suspense! — to have been shot. (SPOILER ALERT: he wasn’t.) And Carolyn realized she was very disappointed that the character was gone. And that led her to realize that she was far more interested in him (the gangster) than the main character.

“So I have a suggestion,” she said. “And you don’t have to do it. How would you like to re-write a couple of chapters in first person, and then I can take another look at them at that point?”

Erm, yes, I believe that such an event could come to pass. Such a thing could be arranged. One could see how — “Yes,” I said. “I can do that.”

Then Carolyn started talking about series potential. She saw the book as one that I could develop into a thriller series; did I think that was possible?

She liked my book! Anything’s possible. “Sure,” I said, nonchalantly you know, as if I talked about series potential with agents all the time. I pointed out that because of the shady and relatively unknown past of the main character, all kinds of possibilities existed — long-lost relatives, his own family’s connections.Not a problem.

At this point, one of the conference people began hovering around the edge of the table, suggesting, I imagine, that we had had our twenty minutes, even though we had had only about ten.

Carolyn told me to e-mail the rewritten chapters to her when they were done, and I said I would get them to her in a few weeks. And that was it.

I called my wife and my parents to tell them the good news, and that was that.

Coming up in part 3: the rest of the conference, and the rewrite.

How I Landed an Agent (part 1)

This is the story of how I landed a literary agent for my book, now slowly becoming a series of books. I’ll start with the book itself, and then go through the long process of getting her attention, then meeting with her, then the rest of the process.

Why go through this long exercise? First, because it’s something that other writers ask all the time. And second, because I think my story, while not at all typical, does say something useful about the writing and publishing biz.


In November of 2004, I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time. It didn’t go too badly at first, and I wrote 14,000 words in the first week; then I ran out of steam, and ended up with only 15,000 words for the whole month, 35,000 short of the goal. But I had a new novel underway, and I was pretty sure it was a good one.

Over the next couple of years, I worked at it, bit by bit. I was also editing my novel LMF, which I had finished in the spring of 2004. I also joined a local editing circle, which helped me to focus my work a little better, because there was an audience for the book and I had to stay ahead of them. By the time LMF was published, in the spring of 2006, I had finished about 100 pages of the new book.

It took another year, including a stretch of writers block that lasted from November that year to the following April, to finish the book. The last third I wrote in a single week, while Mei and I were away at a resort in the Dominican Republic. Each morning we sat on the beach and read; each afternoon and evening we sat in the bar and I wrote. The staff brought the gin and tonics and I got the words written. The last day of the trip, at about six in the evening, I laid the pen down. I was done.

That June, I was invited to attend a week-long workshop in Bayfield, Ontario, hosted by Dennis Bock. I and five other writers met and had a group critique, led by Dennis. That was the first run anyone took at the finished book, and it was very useful — not only did I have a lot of encouraging feedback, I also had a new approach to editing the book (which I’ll probably post about here eventually). We also talked about the title; my working title up till then was Senz Umbrell’, but Dennis advised me to stay away from obscure phrases like that, as they can turn readers off. That week, I changed the name to The Famiglia and I was done.

I edited the book for the next year, rewriting some parts, adding some scenes, and generally improving the book. One of the last things I did was to completely change the first chapter, which was a problem for many of the readers. That done, I felt ready to start submitting the book.

In the summer of 2008, the Canadian Authors Association conference was to be held in Edmonton. One of the highlights of the conference (and indeed most of the CAA conferences since 2005) was a ten-minute meeting with an editor or agent. I looked at the list of available publishers and agents, and the one that stuck out to me was the Canadian literary agent, Carolyn Swayze.

Why did she stick out? Because she is one of only a handful of Canadian agents. I had been researching Canadian agents, and really, it’s a tiny pool. I signed up right away for Carolyn.

The next step was to send my material in — we were able to submit in advance, so that our meeting would be as efficient as possible. There were no clear guidelines set by the conference, so I went with Carolyn’s submission guidelines as stated on her website. She wanted only ten pages, I think, and a cover letter. I can’t remember whether I rewrote the first chapter at that point or not, but I put together the ten pages, had a friend, the talented Karina, look it over and apply the Withering Criticism, and then packaged it up and sent it off.

About a week before the conference, I got an e-mail from Carolyn herself… asking whether I had finished the manuscript, and if so would I be able to bring a copy with me to the conference? Er, yes, I replied, I might be able to swing that, I suppose. We arranged that I would leave it at the registration desk the night I arrived (Thursday), and then we consulted the schedule. As it turned out, my appointment was at one o’clock Friday — I had apparently been the first to sign up for her. Unfortunately she was on a panel all Friday morning, so she wouldn’t have much time to read the manuscript in advance after all. Ah well.

On Thursday I was in CAA national executive council meetings all day, so around four p.m. I dropped the manuscript off at the registration desk. The next morning I attended Carolyn’s panel; she was extremely good on it (and I’m not just saying that — they were all good!) A couple of things Carolyn mentioned: she was looking for thriller series these days (was mine a thriller? probably not). And she was as interested in the person who wrote the book as much as the book itself; she didn’t want some drunk jerk who made an ass of himself at conferences as one of her authors. Sobering words, to be sure.

The panel ended, and I fretted all through lunch, wondering what she would say about the book. I was at the meeting room well before one, and was led to the table at one on the dot. And then…

And then part one ended, and part two began.

How I Write

I spent an hour and a half or so in a Starbucks today, and got about 1200 words written. A pretty good output for such a short period of writing. I’m very happy with the scenes I wrote, too; they are dialogue-heavy, include a little humour, and set up a lot of plot and conflict. I’ve been wanting to write this kind of stuff for a while now — lately, after I finish writing I usually think, well, this is going to be cut when I edit the novel.

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d describe how I do the writing I do.

First, I write novels longhand. Something about the tactile experience of pen and paper gets the creative juices flowing for me. Usually I buy reasonably nice notebooks to write in, too — not cheap composition books or spiral-bound notebooks, but higher-quality journals, leather-bound with good-quality paper. A novel usually fills two or more notebooks, and I try to use the same notebook for each volume, so that the word count per page (and therefore per book) is approximately the same.

I also prefer pens that provide a thick stream of ink. It’s kind of a stupid preference, because I’m left-handed, and more ink means more smudges. But if the ink is too thin or too light, I start unconsciously pressing harder, which tires out my hand far too quickly. Recently I bought a Lamy Accent Matte Finish on sale at a stationery store that was going out of business, so it was $35 instead of $140. It writes really nicely — the ink flow is caused by gravity, not pressure (as with a ball pen).

So much for the accoutrements. The other thing that I need to write my best stuff is space in public.

It’s a little bit crazy — I’m really easily distracted and annoyed by extraneous sound, and the general public is known for its noise-making. But there’s something about the human energy that I get sitting in a busy coffee shop that really gets me focused and helps the ideas, and therefore the words, to flow.

The sounds are a problem, so I usually have the headphones in and an energetic mix of music playing while I work. Almost any music is fine, actually, as long as it drowns out the noise around me, but guitar-driven rock or punk songs are what I turn on to start.

One feature that has emerged lately, thanks to my iPhone, is that I find myself needing to complain about the people around me while I write. Coffee shops — Starbucks in particular — seem to attract a good mix of the annoying and the unaware; when something particularly offensive swims into view, I can’t help but report it somewhere. That somewhere used to be my Facebook status, but since people have started to comment on it more and more often, I’ve switched to a Twitter feed instead. I find the 140 character restriction a little difficult but economy is the soul of &c. &c.

Anyhow, that’s how these novels of mine get written. And tomorrow, some coffee purveyor will be a little richer, one of their seats will be a little warmer, and I’ll have another scene or two down on paper — I hope.

Toronto Comic Arts Festival

Today was a bit of a wasted day for me — I couldn’t sleep last night, so I’ve been running in a pretty low gear. But Mei and I did manage to attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which is a really cool, free annual festival run out of the Toronto Reference Library. It runs today and tomorrow (May 8 and 9).

I’m not really into the comic arts myself, but there were a few people I did want to meet:

  • Brandon Bird is a painter who uses pop culture references in little jewel-like tableaux. We bought two of his prints (Sega and High Sea) and chatted for a while; he’s actually younger than I expected, and interesting to talk to. I complimented him on how he uses those pop culture references so effectively, to create these little in-jokes that somehow work for me as a viewer; he said that the difficult part is striking the delicate balance between the reference and the joke. He gets a lot of people saying to him “oh, you know what you should do?” and then listing a bunch of things he should reference all together. His skill really is in his restraint. Anyhow, we’re always on the lookout for new BB paintings and I recommend looking through his collection.
  • Jeph Jacques writes and draws the daily webcomic Questionable Content, which I have been reading for years. It’s a fun little comic, and he seems like a nice guy too. A few years ago, he left his job to write and draw the comic full-time, making up his income with merchandise and advertising. It seems to have worked for him, and I hope he continues with it. I bought a sketch card and chatted with him a little.
  • Jim Munroe is a writer and indie publisher through his company No Media Kings. His blog there is well worth reading for anyone who wants to flog a book out there in the real world; he’s enthusiastic and very driven. He was at the show to promote a couple of graphic novels he’s written lately, but I actually brought a couple of his books and asked him to sign them (which he graciously did). The thing is, he’s a fantastic writer himself. He was snapped up by HarperCollins for his first book, and he was so dissatisfied by the experience that he formed his own company and self-published the rest of his books. He’s got a really tight, readable style that I am actually envious of. Meeting him, he seemed like the kind of guy I would trust to reform the publishing market and lead the charge for the indie publishing approach. I forgot to ask him if he’s writing more novels but I hope he is. I encourage everyone to buy his books.

So it was a fun little outing. If nothing else, it’s great to see a thriving segment of the publishing world, as well as to see crowds of people flock to talk to the artists and buy their stuff. No matter what you hear about the publishing industry, people aren’t going to stop being fascinated by interesting stories, told creatively.

Smashwords

I recently converted my first published novel, LMF, to e-book format. My idea was to put it out there on the Amazon e-publishing site, to make it available to Kindle readers. I’m not expecting a lot of interest or sales or anything, but it’s nice to have the book out there somewhere. The publisher, Little Green Tree, did absolutely zero promotion, but maintained that distribution wasn’t necessary to get the book out there either. Thus I have a couple of boxes of books in my basement and I’m not going to do the work I did in the first couple of years to try to promote it.

So I completed all the steps to create the e-book in the required format, got the cover image all tarted up, everything that Amazon wanted me to do, and submitted it. I got an e-mail back saying that they were really overloaded but would get back to me in a couple of days.

That was three weeks ago.

As it happened, around the same day I came across a blog post about thriller writer J.A. Konrath. I probably came across it on Reddit’s writers group, but I can’t seem to find it now. No matter. Anyhow, while Konrath isn’t a writer I’ve read, and while he’s a little too… intense, let’s say, to keep me reading his blog regularly, he’s a master of self-promotion, and his books sell well because of it.

He was saying on this post that his e-book sales on a site called Smashwords were starting to amount to some real cash — as in, he pays his mortgage each month with his Smashwords income. Compelling! I thought I’d take a look at Smashwords, since my book was already set up for e-book sales.

Smashwords is an awesome name for a site, I think, and although it’s not the prettiest site out there, it’s easy enough to use. I got the book up on the site in an hour or so. And that’s when I hit a slight roadblock.

Their site provides “preferred” status to books that are formatted correctly, have professional-looking titles, and so on. And after fixing a couple of formatting glitches for my book, I submitted it for approval for preferred status, and was rejected. The rejection said “There is a white border around the cover image for the book, which needs to be fixed.”

Now, this white border was actually a major design element in the paper copy of the book. It really stands out because of it. (I still like the cover design of LMF, which is more than I can say for the job Little Green Tree did on the inside). So I sent a message back, explaining that that was how the cover was set up originally, and although I did understand that there are differences between paper and e-publishing design, would they reconsider? If not, I would change the image and use it without the border.

I got an e-mail back from the guy who had originally assessed the book. He said that his concern was that the book would look weird with the white border — it might just look like we had screwed up the image somehow, to someone looking at it. And he attached an image without the border, and said if I wanted to use that one, it would be fine. So he went as far as to do the work I needed to do, just to give me a hand and speed up the process.

Within a few minutes, I got a second e-mail, from someone else at Smashwords. This second guy said that he actually really liked the cover, and suggested that maybe I should add a thin border around the cover with the white space around the image, to indicate that the white space wasn’t a mistake. That would satisfy everyone.

So not only were they willing to do the work that was really mine to do — fiddling with the cover image to make it work for their site — they were also interested in finding a solution that would work for me, and were willing to engage in discussion about the solutions that were available.

Well, that sold me. I uploaded the cover modification the first guy sent me, and thanked them both for their time and thoughts. And now LMF is available on Smashwords for all.

This is what I love to see: a company that actually puts in a little time and effort to help its clients get what they need from the site. Most companies don’t have the resources, time, or commitment to make it happen for their clients. But Smashwords, a little e-book company, makes it happen.

Oh, and I still haven’t heard back from the Amazon site. And I don’t really care. Smashwords is the company I want to deal with, and I would suggest that anyone with a self-published or micro-published book should do the same.

Jon Wells, crime writer

I drove through a pretty intense thunder storm last night to see Jon Wells, the Hamilton Spectator’s premier crime writer, at a Canadian Authors Association meeting in St Catharines.

I’ve been a Spec subscriber for about a year and a half, since we moved back to the 905 after eight years in the Waterloo/Wellington wilderness. Unfortunately the daily routine hasn’t allowed for a long perusal of each weekday edition, but as a Hamilton native I do have a sentimental attachment to the paper. It turns out I like Wells’s work, too, although I had never really attached a name to the stories of his that I’d read.

Wells is an interesting case in journalism: a lot of his work has been long-form journalism, stories that are published daily for days or weeks at a time, his longest ones running thirty-one and forty-two days. He got a deal with Wiley to turn four of them into books, and the fourth has just been published (links below).

Where his skill as a writer lies, I think, is how tighly he grips the reader in the first two or three paragraphs. Sure, there are the elements that every reporter uses to hook the reader — gore and violence, foreboding evil, schmaltzy descriptions of the innocent victims and their grieving families. This is the stuff of crime writing though, and it’s nice to see that Wells is willing to provide counterpoint to the excesses.

An example: the grieving mother of Pat del Sordo in the series Witness. Pat was apparently beloved by everyone he’s ever met, and was bludgeoned to death in a senseless double murder, probably while he slept. His mother praises his goodness, how he was there for his parents whenever they needed him. Yet by the end of the story, the killer behind bars, she doesn’t provide the easy closure you’d expect from the story. She’s still really angry, still dissatisfied with the way the investigation went, how the case was solved. Hardly a cardboard cutout of the grieving mother character. So even the elements that I typically am less a fan of in crime writing are redeemed in Wells’s work, making his work that much more satisfying to read.

Anyhow, it was a great little talk, not only because he is an obviously skilled and experienced writer, but also because Wells is a really, really nice guy. I’m looking forward to reading a lot more of his work.

Books by Jon Wells:

Editing Circle

Tonight I met with my editing circle, a group of writers in Toronto who I meet with every two weeks or so to compare work. There are currently four of us.

Three of us started meeting a little over a year ago, at a used bookstore in Toronto’s east end. I answered an online ad; I assume the others did too. The group there was larger, but was run by a person who, although her heart was in the right place, cared more about the idea of a writing group more than she cared about the actual writing. After only a few weeks, the group dissolved amid great drama; when the dust cleared, the three of us who formed the core of the group were left to ourselves.

We started meeting every two weeks, first at one person’s house, and now at a building on the UofT campus. Recently one of our members found a fourth, who has been a valuable addition to the group.

For me, the most important thing about an editing circle is the attitude of the people who participate. There’s no room, honestly, for someone who is nervous about showing work to others for critique and criticism; similarly, there’s no room for someone who doesn’t want to hear when their work is sub-par, ineffective, or needs changes. Everyone has to act like a professional.

I have two more requirements for people I want to interact with in an editing circle. One is that they must be actively writing (or editing something already written), and bringing new or newly revised material for critique. That means that they are actively engaged with the writing process. It also means that they are subject to critique themselves; it’s a lot easier to stay humble and constructive when you are regularly on the hotseat yourself.

The other is that they must be actively and realistically working towards publication. I have no problem with writing to get one’s thoughts down, or to record one’s memoirs for the benefit of future generations, or just doodling away at free verse or prose poems or whatnot. People can and should write whatever they want. But I find that I get the criticism I currently need from people who are, like me, working towards publication.

I know it may sound a little elitist, but these are the guidelines I’ve learned work best for me. And I’m happy to say that the three writers in my editing circle nowadays are absolutely perfect members. Our interests and styles are very different, our rates of output are all over the place, and our approaches and responses to the work are very different. But the discussion is always enjoyable and lively, and I get enormous benefit from our meetings.

That said, I got about 600 words written today, too. Not as much as I should be getting written, but forward progress is forward progress.