J Reed Rich

Fiction

Book Review: A Dangerous Fiction, by Barbara Rogan

A Dangerous Fiction: A Mystery

Jo Donovan is a widow who’s inherited a literary agency from her late husband, an infamous philanderer and celebrated author. On the surface, she’s flawless: intelligent, a great agent, stoic and strong but tender and emotional. She’s built a safe life idealizing her husband’s memory, but that life is threatened by blow after blow to her reputation, personal life, employees, and clients. When her best friend is murdered, she begins to seriously doubt her memories and must confront her past.

A mystery set in the world of New York literary agents and publishers–with spot-on descriptions of the writer’s plight. A few quotes:

“Writers. Every one I’d ever met was bipolar, the poles being arrogance and insecurity.”

What writer hasn’t felt that way? Ack.

“One has to make allowances for writers, especially the unpublished ones. Rejection gets to everyone after a while, and those poor bastards swim in a sea of it.”

Why, yes, it does get to us, but we don’t really swim in the sea–we tread water at best. In choppy waters.

Although I’ve worked in nonfiction publishing, the world of fiction publishing is very different. If you’re in the midst of the submission process, you’ll find this an intriguing story. Be forewarned: It echoed my feelings so well that it was depressing. The characters are interesting, the pace steady, and the plot layered. The gradual realization that Jo has been lying to herself is fascinating. It’s a bit more than a cozy mystery, but it reads like one.

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Writing Spaces and Rituals

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For Christmas, my husband installed a midcentury modern teak standing desk for me. I absolutely love it. I was tired of sitting at my old desk, tired of using a kitchen chair and a makeshift (no pun intended) keyboard slider tray. The old way was okay. It got the job done. But it didn’t satisfy some secret need in my soul.

I think we all need rituals that inspire us. They may change over time, but they serve the purpose when we need them.

Curious, I googled authors and found we’re a fussy lot. Some, like Capote and Wharton, wrote in bed. Kierkegaard, Woolf, and Dickens wrote while standing. Some listened to music, others demanded complete silence. E.B. White penned his novels in a stark boathouse with nothing but a table, bench, and typewriter. I believe Roald Dahl loved writing in an easy chair. Quite a few wrote in bustling cafes with never-ending supplies of coffee.

Sometimes it spurs me on to read about other writers; sometimes it depresses the hell out of me. I still do it. Writing is a solitary journey (even if you’re in that cafe), and I suppose I just want to feel connected. The whole point of writing a blog, eh?

I’m sure there are weirder ways to write out there, and that writers probably vie with baseball players for odd superstitions. Lucky pens. Wearing the same clothes. Writing in secret (that was mine for a year.) A dedicated playlist. A dedicated fill-in-the-blank. 

Now, I stand. It’s taken me awhile to find the perfect place. My new desk calls to me, and I just walk over to it. Easy peasey. For some reason, when I stand there’s less commitment, less trepidation. Maybe those aren’t the right words. So many nuances. Duty? Responsibility? Pressure? Whatever the best word is, I feel less of it.

Of course, writing in my Moleskine (another ritual) while lounging in a recliner, basking in the sun is nice, too.

What about you? What’s your favorite or weirdest place to write? Your can’t-miss ritual?

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Write the Damn Query

What’s more difficult than coming up with a plot, creating complex characters, controlling pacing and dialogue, and actually stringing together 80,000 words? You guessed it—writing a 250-word query.

We’ve all been told we need one. A good query distills your book into its essence, helps ensure your story stays on track, provides an answer to the ever-present-and-dreaded, “what’s your book about?” And, of course, it will get you an agent.

Even accomplished authors struggle with writing queries. It’s telling, not showing. It’s sales copy. Each word must be perfect, and all 250 of them must intrigue the reader enough to want to read more—while illustrating your story, writing style, and voice.

It’s an intimidating task. There are hundreds of books and websites and seminars—and opinions—about what you should include and in what order. Some want one-sentence log lines at the beginning; some tell you that your query will be thrown out if you start out that way. Some want the word count and bio in the first paragraph, others want it tacked on at the end. All agree that it’s imperative your query is compelling.

I recommend QueryShark.com, Janet Reid’s blog devoted to analyzing and critiquing queries. She posts them online and works with queriers, providing feedback and suggestions. Readers can comment. It’s brutal, but effective. I know. I was lucky enough to have my query chosen, to become one of her “chum,” as she calls it. I put my ego quietly aside as she mauled the query I’d worked on for days into bits. It was a compressed exercise in rejection, editing, wordsmithing, and perseverance—all things that writers confront daily.

Although soul-shattering, it was effective. After incorporating her comments and ignoring anonymous critics, I had a query I was proud of. A query that landed me an agent—and a publishing offer.

Exciting times. After working with my agent, the incredible Marisa Corvisiero, I suddenly understood the importance the query. Agents are some of the busiest folk out there, and they’re committed to selling your book to beleaguered editors. They don’t have time to create a blurb to pitch your book; they want something that’s ready to go. It’s a win-win-win combination: You know your book better than anyone, so you write the damn query. They use it to get your book in front of editors, which is what they do best.

So, spend time on your query. Draft it when you begin your book.  Visit QueryShark and other query-writing websites, read books, analyze online samples. Be the query. Your query will help you leap over one more hurdle on your way to publishing your baby.

But—don’t forget the synopsis. Sigh.

 

Should You Join a Writers Group?

Pros and Cons of Joining a Writing Group

The pros and cons of joining writing groups has been debated for years. Objectively, having a group of dedicated writers commenting on your work seems like a no-brainer. Being part of a caring coffee klatsch of fellow writers will make your writing better. Having honest feedback can only help, right?

I’m not so sure.

Cover by Committee

When I was designing book covers, there was a term the design department used for most of the covers we designed: cover by committee. You see, once you’ve designed your initial cover, you show it to your work mates, who make suggestions. You incorporate some of them and now have a few alternative cover designs. Next, you pass your revised covers on to your department head. She makes comments, and you rework the covers to include those. The editorial department evaluates the covers, giving their input, and you revise again. Then it’s time for the marketing department’s review. Seven people stand around giving their opinions—and often their demands—on your three prototypes. “It’s not sexy enough.” (Whatever the hell that means!) “I want all caps for the title.” (Which, of course, goes against the best typographic principles.) “I only like black and red covers. They sell the best.” (Great. Scrap the carefully thought-out color palette that’s supposed to echo the book’s theme.) Finally, the publisher adds his ideas, and the resultant cover looks nothing like your original design. Oh, mustn’t forget the author. She has a say, too, but it’s usually overridden. The “good” authors love their covers.

What Does This Have to Do with Joining a Writing Group?

More than you’d think. Really. You see, no matter whether they’re online groups or forums, or in-the-flesh circles, they’re essentially committees. Groups of people meeting for a specific function [fill_in_the_blank]. They call themselves something else and boast that they’re all about “friendly competition” and “constructive criticism.” They’re still committees, composed of individuals of varying backgrounds and experience, meeting to help others write better and have others help them.

I Don’t Want Lumpy

I’m sure that the contributions are heartfelt and sincere; I just don’t want to hear them. I’ve learned that committees take the essence of an idea and massage it until it’s so lumpy that it doesn’t resemble the original. Lincoln said it best. You can’t please all the people all the time. There will be those who love your work and those who hate it. There are even some who didn’t like the Harry Potter series. (Gasp. Twelve agents rejected the first book. My husband said it was boring. I loved it.)

Many of my favorite books –

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater  ScorpioRaces

anything by Robert B. Parker                     books

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller                    DogStars

aren’t loved by others—as evinced by GoodReads reviews. That’s the nature of communication in general and writing specifically: There’s no universally accepted right or good. It’s all about interpretation and perspective and individual taste.

Reading Buddies, I Love You

Am I antisocial? Maybe. Am I afraid of criticism? Absolutely. Am I oversensitive? Admittedly. It’s not that I don’t want feedback. I do. But I think that having a few reading buddies you trust, with whom you’ve built  relationships, works best. At least for me.

You might not agree, and that’s fine. What works for some doesn’t work for others. My point, really.

Writer or Author?

Writer and Author. Loaded terms. In the past, you became an author when your book was published. If it wasn’t published by a traditional publisher, you were a writer, but not an author. Now, of course, the distinction becomes blurry. When you publish a book using CreateSpace or Smashwords and distribute it online are you an author? And to further muddy the waters, does it make a difference whether you’ve produced a print book or an ebook?

As I try to decide whether to go the indie route or continue to submit to agents, I’m bothered by the labels. Currently, I call myself a writer. (Even that sounds, I don’t know, presumptuous). Yes, I’m writing: I’ve written two novels, but they’ve yet to be published. If I use CreateSpace to publish them as paperback/ebooks, can I call myself an author? I’m not sure. If I did, and someone were to ask about my publisher, I think I’d blush. Stammer. Change the subject.

What are the criteria for calling yourself an author, then? Opinions vary widely on the Net. The problem is, most individuals writing about the distinction are from the publishing world. And publishing folk are notoriously elitist. Snobby, actually. I know. When I was working in publishing, the first thing I’d do when picking up a new book would be to check for the publisher. There were good publishers, so-so publishers, and then there were the self-pubbers. Now that I’m on the other side, I’m embarrassed by my narrow-mindedness. In my defense, it was before the advent of Amazon and indie publishing. Nevertheless…

I still look to see who publishes the books I read, but I’m convinced that most of the reading public doesn’t. Do you know who published the book you’re currently reading? No? Boom.

If I like a book, I don’t care whether the author published traditionally or not. Some are not as tolerant. “Indie authors and self-published authors who claim they are real authors makes me laugh,” writes Michael Kozlowski. “I would like to see the process simplified, you are either a writer or a professional author. If you can earn your living from your writing, you are a professional author, anyone else is just a plain old writer.” Methinks he’s contradicting himself. If a self-published author earns a living from writing, isn’t that a “professional” author, according to his own statement? And conversely, if you publish with a traditional publisher but no one buys your book, aren’t you still an author?

I think Stephen Hise said it best: “The published writer becomes an author by virtue of making his or her work available to the masses. Notwithstanding the degree of favor with which that work is received, authorship has been attained. We do not need the imprimatur of a publishing house, the acclaim of critics, the approval of our peers, nor even the adulation of the public…. There is no need to eschew a rightly earned title. The fact is not contingent upon approval by any group or institution. An architect is still an architect even if he is not Frank Lloyd Wright. A doctor is still a doctor even if he is not Michael DeBakey. Not every baseball player is Ruth, even though he may have worn the same uniform and played on the same field. I am no Faulkner, I am no Ed McNally, but I have published, therefore I am.”

I guess I’ll call myself an author when I have a book out there for people to read. Traditional or indie. Printed book, ebook, or mixed-media.

Moving on …

With more than 20 years in the nonfiction publishing industry (as editor, book designer, website manager, and publisher), I can tell you that the mystery and élan of publishing is mostly a facade–at least in the nonfiction arena. The hours are grueling, the pay paltry, and the wear and tear on your eyes fierce. However, you work with words all day, learn about the writing process, get to know authors, and create books. You also discover that publishing is a business, not an art. It’s all about the bottom line, about the profit margin.

And the profit margin is slim at best. As the definition of the book (digital? print? mixed media?) changes, publishers are struggling to change their business models and outdated systems. How does the publisher stay afloat when information is cheap and ubiquitous? The very role of publishers is threatened. Before the digital age, publishing options were limited and production costs prohibitive. Books were printed and sold in bookstores. Period. The initial costs to print a book were high, making small print runs unfeasible. Books that failed to sell were returned to the publisher, remaindered (yes, it is a verb in the publishing world), or thrown out. Self-publishing was expensive, difficult, and generally not worth the time.

Now, anyone can print a professional-looking paperback for less than $50 and distribute it via the Internet (read Amazon) for almost nothing. We no longer believe that publishers and agents can predict what the public wants to read. The publishing industry’s skill at making, selling, and managing the distribution of books threatens to become a thing of the past. Authors can hire copy editors, publicists, and website consultants. They can tweet and blog and put their book up on a marketing websites like GoodReads. Repeat after me: We don’t need no stinking publishers.

At least that’s the current thinking.

Why, then, am I submitting my recent novel to agents? I have the editorial and production experience, the software and the time, to produce high-quality books. Publishers–and individual authors–have paid me to do just that.

I don’t know. As logical as the above analysis is, I still want to publish via the traditional route. The odds are against me; if I do beat them and acquire an agent and land a book deal, the money probably won’t pay for my current vet bills. But after writing this, I’m clicking over to QueryTracker.com to submit to a few more agents. Go figure.

Too old to be a chickenshit

I’ve crossed to the other side. No, not that one—the I’m-done-with-querying-I-hope one.

When I began blogging, I thought I’d write about the query process and the struggle to get an agent.

I thought I’d write about how many queries I sent out (21 in two weeks), how many rejected my novel (12), how many didn’t reply (6) how many requested full manuscripts (2), and how many called me the day after reading the manuscript (on a Saturday) to tell me she couldn’t put my book down and wanted to represent me (1).

Yes, that’s right: I have a literary agent. I’ve received an offer of representation, which means I am now past the querying stage. Like they say, there’s a lid for every pot. Woo hoo!

Of course, navigating the agent phase is tricky, too. Contracts, revisions, questions. Making sure we connect and have the similar visions. And I’m still on tenterhooks: Having an agent is by no means a guarantee that I’ll be published. But it’s a step closer.

There’s that pesky human nature creeping in. It seems that as soon as I achieve a goal, I’m ready to move on to the next. The last accomplishment fades and becomes no big deal. I still haven’t “arrived”; I’ve got to worry about the next one.

What’s up with that? Why do I keep myself in forward-land, never savoring my successes? Oh, sure, I’ll celebrate for a moment with a perfect (thanks, Don) mimosa. And lose my appetite for a day or so. But then it’s on again to the next unattainable goal.

It took me a year to write The Novel. Typing with RSD is slow. And for that entire year, I told only my husband that I was writing (had to justify hanging around the house all day). After I finished it, I had one person read it, and I incorporated her comments. My husband hasn’t even read the whole thing—just the first three chapters. I kept my baby close, protecting it from the bad old world. I struggled with telling my friends, much less the world. No querying for me.

But then I decided that I’m too old to be such a chickenshit. I’ve faced other fears and occasionally succeeded. If I truly intended to write for a living, I’d have to, well, show my stuff to people.

When I was eleven, and decided I’d be a Writer, like Harriet in Harriet the Spy, I secretly read some of my mother’s romances. (More about that later.) They all started with quotes about how wonderful the book was, how talented the author. So, in my naiveté, the first two pages of my novel were filled with quotes from made-up people, saying made-up things. Before I started with Chapter One. My parents thought it was hilarious.

Thinking back on that, I’ve decided to do something similar—write down my achievements. Jot down a few made-up reviews. Blog about it. Putting words on paper forces me to acknowledge—and enjoy—what I’ve worked so hard for.

They say that the odds of signing a literary agent are slim. One agent reported that her agency received 12,819 queries in one year and, from that, requested 478 partial manuscripts (a 3.7 percent success rate for the mathematically challenged). After reading the partials, the agency requested 87 full manuscripts, and offered representation to just 7 authors, 5 of whom accepted. (So 0.05 percent of queries were successful.) Another agent received more than 10,000 queries that same year, and offered a contract to no one. When I type that, my heart starts tap-dancing in my chest and my mouth goes dry. I’m overwhelmed and amazed.

Now back to revising…

Queries!

This is going to be a short one. You’ll see why in a minute.

Yesterday I was ready to blog (still hate the verbing-the-noun thing, but, oh, well) about the query process. How the actual process itself wasn’t so bad–more like a challenge. A writing exam. (Yes, I’m one of those who enjoys taking tests. Especially essay exams.) It’s not the actual querying process that I had trouble with, it was the lack of feedback. Every rejection is a failure–no matter what they say–and, like other wannabe authors, I hated the not knowing why.

I know I can write. In fact, in school, I always felt like a fraud for getting A’s just because of my writing ability. I worked in publishing for more than 20 years, where I worked first-hand with authors and critiqued their writing. And–my friends like my thank-you notes! But this lack of knowledge about why I wasn’t making it past the gatekeepers was eroding my confidence.

That is, until I sent a query out, and an hour later got a request for a full manuscript. Even better, she commented on my query and writing sample. She liked the writing! She loved the plot! She had spot-on comments about what I needed to work on. And I had thoroughly researched her, and I loved her blog and background, as well. Suddenly I can’t eat or sleep.

Now, I know you’re thinking–wait. She hasn’t signed you. You’ve only taken the first step. It doesn’t matter. At least I know I’m in the right race. I’m not in the wrong city on the wrong starting line. It’s so hard to tell in a vacuum what’s going wrong. Is it the query itself? The first chapter? The plot? Characters? Who knows. Form rejections are cruel at best. And the stats are so low (agents receive 1,000 queries a month), that it seems like a futile, and soul-robbing, exercise.

But I got something back!

It’s like golf. You swing and swing and tramp through the rough, trying to get a little white ball in a far-away-hole. You curse at the sand. You over-chip and under-chip and miss the ball entirely. Sometimes you’re not even on the right fairway. (Okay, I’m not the greatest golfer.) Once in a while, though, you hit that ball so surely and true that it sucks all the oxygen from your lungs. And suddenly you love the game. You have to keep trying, because you know that you could do it again. Life is brilliant.

Professional Writer

My husband (the techie network administrator) accused me of overthinking last night. Me? Overthink? Ha!

The conversation went something like this:

— JReed: So, do you think I should query agents or self-pub?

— Hubby: You’re overthinking it. Just shoot out 50 queries, and if you don’t hear back, self-pub.

— J: It’s not that easy. It takes at least 2 hours to research an agent, tailor a query, submit, and track it. That’d be 100 hours. I could just about write another book in that time.

— H: Then skip the agent. You know you’re a good writer. Why is having a publisher so important? Only people in publishing care who publishes a book. Until I met you, I never even looked at the publisher. You’ve got no perspective.

— J: The only reason you read is because you have a wife who keeps saying, ‘You gotta read this! It’s amazing!’

— H: True. But I still read a book a week. I think that qualifies me as reading a lot. And I’ve never noticed if any of them were self-pubbed. Self-pubbing is a good fit for you. You can produce a book and do the marketing. You know how it works. And it’s gotten easier with the Internet.

— J: You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right. But then it’s self-pubbed.

— H: Like I said, no one the fuck cares. Besides, didn’t you say that it was easier to get an agent if you already published a book?

— J: But I don’t know if agents consider a self-pubbed book a real book.

— H: What’s a real book anyway? Is an ebook without a hardcover equivalent still a book? If you post a chapter a week on your wordsmith blog (ahem), is it a book? If you let your friends read your manuscript, is it a book? If it comes out on a CD, yadayadayada. Look, you love writing, right? And you want to make money from it, right? Then stop agonizing and do the expedient thing.

— J: I want to be able to say that writing is my profession. I guess having an agent provides some legitimacy.

— H:  You don’t need someone to tell you you’re a professional. Being a professional means getting paid for what you do. If you signed with an agent, there’s no guarantee a publisher would pick it up. And even if they did, it still might not sell.

— J: Okay. I need to think about this some more …

So, what do you think?

  • Do average readers care about who publishes the books they read?
  • And what’s s a real book these days?
  • Does having an agent make you a professional writer?
  • Or does selling your work do it?

Making a Living as a Novelist. Really?

I am old enough to remember when typing and shorthand were offered as classes in high school. I took them both and became a very fast touch typist and even went to the “shorthand olympics.”

But now, after having developed RSD (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy–look it up) in my wrist and hand, I have to hunt and peck and can only spend 15 minutes at a time on the computer keyboard. I’ve also had to give up my favorite pastimes: canyoneering, technical climbing, bicycling, and tap dancing. (Apparently you use your wrist while tap dancing. Go figure.) In addition, I can’t work consistently on the computer, as there are days when I have to just sit by the fire and mix medications. So no freelance editing or book design for me.

However, I’m fortunate that we can scrape by on one salary, although we’ve had to cut back on vacations, extras, and profligate frolicking. My understanding husband has taken up the slack, and we are moving to a smaller house that doesn’t require as much maintenance.

But I’ve painted a gray-black picture when it’s actually splashed with purples and greens and reds: I now have time to write, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. I enjoy setting my own schedule and working in a warm office flooded with sunlight. Having been forewarned that it’s extremely lonely writing full time, I’ve actually found that I love spending time with my characters. Of course, email and social media are godsends.

I’m hoping, though, that I can actually supplement our income at some point. But having been in nonfiction publishing my entire career, I understand skimpy royalties. That it takes luck and timing–in addition to, and sometimes in place of–talent. And that really, the successful writers often know someone in the biz.

Maybe it’s different in fiction?

Self-publishing (horrors!) provides more money on one level: Instead of receiving only a dollar for every book sold, you receive up to half of the retail price. And there are no agents involved. But, they say, your book doesn’t receive any marketing hand-holding and doesn’t show up in chain bookstore racks. Hmmm. Again, maybe fiction publishing is not like nonfiction. My experience in the nonfiction arena is that marketing is minimal at best and that the staff turns over as quickly as a tap dancer’s taps click. The margins are abysmally small, so the advances laughably tiny. New paradigms are colliding with tried-and-true models. And agents are overworked and behind (see my post tomorrow).

My question is, with the advent of online distributors like Amazon, and with ebook availability, iPads and Kindles, social media, and author websites–should a savvy author eschew the traditional route? As a book designer who has helped budding authors publish using CreateSpace, I know what to do and can do it well. Is self-publishing the best way for a novelist to actually make a living?

–btw– I now use my shorthand to quickly capture ideas and observations instead of typing them. Yay!