Shoutout to My FBI Guy

My last post was serious, so I thought I’d have some fun with this one. I don’t remember how or why it started, but four decades ago my college roommate and I had a running joke. We used to laugh about the poor (fictitious) FBI guy who listened to our phone conversations and bugged our dorm room. How bored must he have been?

From there, my mind jumped to today. Technology has made it a lot easier for the government to keep track of us. I think I’m pretty law-abiding, but then there’s my search history! Aah, a writer’s search history. If I actually had an FBI guy, he’d have a field day with my search history. And if my FBI guy is actually a lady (I know two female FBI agents), she’d be just as puzzled.

image credit

Here are some of my recent searches. Again, these are all research for my current novel. I am a very gentle, law-abiding person, though my search history must be driving my FBI guy mad.

  • how to blow up a house (this was quite a few searches for amounts, types, and placement of explosives)
  • do police cars have GPS (can they follow you if you steal a police car?)
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • competitive chess, Judit Polgar vs Viswanathan Anand
  • German pastries
  • St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
  • tracking IP packets
  • the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago
  • The Peninsula Chicago
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra, layout of the symphony hall
  • history of guilds
  • famous swords
  • industrial 3D printers
  • railguns
  • Chinese naming conventions
  • Stargate Project
  • prepaid phones
  • how to disappear (live off the grid)
  • KATIM phones
  • spider anatomy
  • free energy minimization, Dr. Karl Friston
  • natural language processing
  • layout of a cargo ship
  • and more…

How worried should my FBI guy be? Tell you what, if he can figure out how I put all this information into a novel, I’ll buy him a beer.

How to Not Be Too Annoying

It’s been too long since my last post, but there’s something on my mind that I’d like to share. Those of you who know me know that I stutter, and have done so for as long as I can remember. I can imagine how talking with a person who stutters might feel awkward. Do you guess what they’re going to say and say it for them? (Hint: please don’t.) Do you look at them or somewhere else? (Hint: look at their eyes, just as you do when in conversation with a non-stutterer.)

In our culture, stuttering has an undeniably negative connotation. People who stutter are assumed to be at worst lying, and at best unsure of what they’re saying. Think of this trope as played in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. The great actor Benicio Del Toro plays the hacker DJ, a man who agrees to help Rose and Finn break into the First Order ship and disable the tracking device. But we know DJ is going to screw them over because…wait for it…he stutters. That’s how we know he’s lying.

Benicio del Toro as DJ in THE LAST JEDI

One of the things I wanted to accomplish with my first novel was to show a main character who is intelligent and honest, and who stutters. His stutter is not a part of the plot, it’s just a part of him. So the question is: how should a writer write stuttering in the manuscript? In Beautiful, I strived for accuracy, or at least a degree of stuttering that sounded reasonable to me (a lifelong stutterer) and to my wife (married to a stutterer for 32 years). Now I think that this may not have been the best choice.

Here’s what happened: I shared a chapter of the sequel, Beautiful 2 (haven’t thought of a good title yet), with my critique group. One person told me — and once someone verbalized the thought everyone else at the table agreed — that Adam’s frequent stuttering was annoying. That was the word they used: annoying.

This was interesting and potentially actionable news. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that Adam’s stuttering was annoying to read. The thing about a good critique group is that we have to be honest with each other. Not mean, but honest. So I thought about what the critiquer said. How did I handle the Russian accent in Beautiful? I mentioned that the man spoke with an accent and I left out the articles as Slavic languages do. The character said, for example, “I will release hand grenade.” rather than “I will release the hand grenade.” Subtle, but it gets the point across without beating the reader over the head with dialect.

See, in retrospect, that’s what I’d done wrong: In an effort to show that a stutterer could be honest and intelligent, I was beating the reader over the head with Adam’s stuttering. So I went through all 73,000 words of Beautiful and the 50,000 or so words I have so far in Beautiful 2, and rewrote Adam’s speaking voice so that he stutters much, much less.

I wonder if that may have been, consciously or not, part of why agents have been passing on my query and sample pages. And this is an example of why it’s so damn important for a writer to find a good critique group, and take their critique to heart.

One good resource for best practices in writing a stutter is here. The only thing I disagree with in her excellent article is that, in my experience, there are no specific sounds or sound combinations that are more likely to cause me to stutter.

News From the Front

This past weekend was incredibly exciting. I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, IN from July 25-27. Then this afternoon I was in the front row for Jane Friedman‘s workshop through the Indiana Writers Center on How to Get Published My head is buzzing with ideas and renewed enthusiasm.

It’s helpful, sometimes when I’m wondering if I should really be doing this, to be told by people I respect that I’m on the right path. My love language is Words of Approbation, which makes any arts-related career that much more difficult. Not everybody likes any writer. I get it. But I’ve been sending out query letters about Beautiful since January of this year. I’ve received maybe 3 or 4 “no thank you” form letters. Most queries just vanish into the void. Jane Friedman said today that silence on the part of literary agents is the new “no thank you.”

Over the past few days I learned that I am working the process correctly, though I should send out queries more aggressively, in batches of 6 per month rather than waiting too long to hear from any particular literary agent. I also learned that my first ten pages are strong, though yesterday Holly Miller showed me some ways to make them even stronger. My synopsis of Beautiful and my query letter are on the money.

Meanwhile, on the creative side (which is much more fun for a writer), I’m now about 50,000 words into the sequel to Beautiful. I’m excited for y’all to read it! It’s going to be really good! We’ll learn more about Cara, about her “little sister” Wendy, and about the enigmatic and reclusive Lilia Fortune. Adam’s, Cara’s, and Wendy’s world will be thrown into turmoil. TWO villains, independently of each other, want them dead. One of them may get their wish.

The only things I haven’t quite figured out yet are:

  • the exact ending, and
  • the title. I hope to come up with something better than Beautiful 2.

So! Back to work. I’ve said this before, but I’ll try to post more regularly.

Networking for authors

Three weeks or so ago, a good friend of mine who is working on his first book asked me if I thought it was worth his time to join a local writer’s group or two (he lives a couple of hours away from me). He wondered if it was “just pumping each other up” or if I was getting anything measurably valuable from the writers group I joined last fall.

As of the evening my friend and I spoke, I wasn’t able to identify a specific insight or value from my group. They’re good, intelligent, talented people. I enjoy the monthly meetings when I’m in town. But none of them have taken the path of traditional publishing that is my dream, so none of them would make a good mentor for me.

The following day, though, one of the writers in my group sent me an email. She had heard about an opportunity for authors to pitch their work directly to literary agents, she remembered I’d said I wanted to publish traditionally rather than self-publish, so she thought she’d tell me about it. I would have remained oblivious to this opportunity had she not emailed me.

The weekend of May 10 & 11, my networking efforts paid off. The Midwest Writers Workshop Agent Pitch Fest was without doubt way out of my comfort zone, but I’m so glad I participated. MWW brought in seven agents from well-respected New York literary agencies. I pitched Beautiful to three agents who specialize in YA. I thought the pitches went well. The agents were excited rather than just polite, and all three requested more material.

So we’ll see. We all know that “looking excited” is not the same thing as a seven-figure book deal. But my point is that networking with like-minded people is always a good idea.

Wait, don’t look at that one, look at this one!

One of the things I like about writing is that I get to make revisions before people see what I’ve written. Perhaps a beta reader or my editor has comments, I agree with their thoughts, and I make changes to my manuscript. From that point on, the manuscript is different, improved and nobody will ever see the old version. It’s as though the former version never existed, as though the manuscript was always as it is now.

Alas, it’s not the same situation with query letters. I research each agent, what they do and do not like, and I personalize each query that I send. Great, except that as I mentioned in my last post, the fish weren’t biting with my original query letter. So I modified it…a lot, to tell you the truth. In retrospect, I think my original query was too sterile. It was professional, and there was nothing wrong with it, per se, but it didn’t get the blood flowing. My query didn’t provide the prospective agent with a window into my brain so they could see what I’m trying to accomplish with this novel, and why it’s so important that it be said.

Now, after having written and sent many queries, I have the letter I wish I’d sent initially. It’s powerful, it’s moving, and I believe it will more effectively explain why Beautiful needs to be read. I wish there were a way to magically morph every agent’s copy to the newest version.

Addendum several days later: I received a couple of very quick “no, thank you’s” — unusually quick. So I just dialed my passion back a notch by deleting a sentence that I fear may be triggering worry. Somewhere, there’s a sweet spot. Agents want contemporary and raw, but apparently not too raw.

Is There Anybody Out There?

Yes, that was a damn good song by Pink Floyd, but that’s not the topic of this blog post.

You’ll remember that this blog is a peek into the mind of a new writer. Therefore, you cannot reasonably expect that mind always to be full of unicorns and rainbows. Sometimes I wonder if anybody’s listening.

I have been sending queries to literary agents since January 2019. To date, I’ve received exactly one response, from my dream agent’s assistant. She wrote a lovely email saying that the agent has many clients and “she wasn’t able to fully connect” with my project. Again, her email was polite and professional, maybe two or three lines long, AND she sent it within two months of my query. My other queries to date have vanished into the void.

This business of finding an agent to represent my manuscript (and hopefully future manuscripts!) to publishing houses is, I think, the hardest part of being a traditionally-published author. Writing is fun! Even the times when I have writer’s block are more fun than waiting…hoping…praying that an agent will read my query, request the full manuscript, and say, “Yes, I can sell that!” I’m proud of my first novel, and I believe that a literary agent who reads it will like it. Of course, I’m only sending queries to agents who have indicated that they’re looking for this genre of manuscript with the kinds of characters I’ve written.

Speaking of writing, my second novel — a sequel to Beautiful — is coming along wonderfully. So far it’s about fifty thousand words. I haven’t come up with a title yet. A couple of characters from Beautiful have expanded roles in the sequel, and I brought in some new characters that I think you will love as much as I do! I’m very excited. I almost wish I could leak some details or plot twists, but I suppose that would be a bad idea.

My wife and I have been doing some serious traveling; in the past six months we’ve been to Alaska, Spain, Scottsdale AZ, South Africa, and the US Virgin Islands. The latter three trips were all since mid-January. I did not take my MacBook Pro on most of these trips. It would have been one more thing to worry about and possibly have stolen. When my laptop is not available, I write with my iPhone (Scrivener has an iPhone app) and a notepad. They’re obviously not nearly as convenient as a real keyboard. I hate to complain too loudly, though, because I read that J.K. Rowling wrote her first two Harry Potter novels longhand in a notebook.

If You Ain’t Gonna Say it Right…

Question: Imagine a hypothetical author wrote a hypothetical novel in which one of the main characters is named “Linnea.” How would you, Dear Reader, pronounce this? Would you say

  • LIN-nee-uh?
  • Lin-EE-uh?
  • or Lin-AY?

I thought it was obvious when I wrote the story, but it doesn’t seem to be obvious to a lot of my readers. That’s a problem for me. I felt like an idiot when I read Harry Potter the first time and thought there was a major character named “HER-mee-own” rather than the correct “Her-MY-oh-nee.”

Anyway, I am thiiiis close (imagine thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart) to renaming her Wendy or Maddie. Everybody knows how to pronounce those “normal” names. It’s just that in my head when I first thought of the story, she was Linnea pronounced to rhyme with Hooray.

What do you think? Should I keep Linnea or change her name to Wendy? Maddie?