Although I found your query interesting, …

All you “numbers people” are doubtlessly wondering: “For a site titled ‘How’s Your Book Coming’ we don’t really have a good handle on…like…how your book is actually coming.

Fair enough. My first book, Beautiful, is done. Has been done for a while, actually. Of course, if a literary agent requested revisions so that they could sell it better, they’d get their revisions. I’m easy, just so long as the agent and I share a vision for my work. My editor, Julia, would tell you I’m perfectly willing to kill my darlings to make the manuscript stronger.

Following Beautiful, I had two ideas: a sequel to Beautiful that I’ve given the provisional title Beautifully Made, and an unrelated novel, also contemporary YA with elements of magical realism, with the provisional title Out of Sight. For a while, I tried to work on both simultaneously but for me that didn’t work. Therefore, I made the call to complete Beautifully Made first. The first draft was completed in August 2020 and is currently out to the second beta reader. I’m about 15,000 words into Out of Sight. I actually wrote an outline for it, which is a new thing for a “pantser.”

The reason I decided to finish the sequel to Beautiful first is because I’m proud of it and I have no doubt it will sell…if I can find a literary agent who will advocate for it. If I cannot find an agent, then I’m not sure how people will read my first two novels.

Which brings us back to the numbers. To date I’ve queried 70 literary agents, of which 25 were polite form letters saying essentially “Thanks for querying me but no.” The remainder have not yet responded. After four months without a response, I close the query on QueryTracker. That leaves 20 or so that are still open. I’ll send another batch in the next couple of weeks to make sure they’re out to agents well before Thanksgiving. From what I’ve read, the holiday season is a poor time to query.

Have I changed anything based on my results? Hell yeah! It takes a while to get actionable data since most queries are sent out into the void and disappear without response, but last fall I paid for a query and first five pages review through Writer’s Digest that I didn’t find helpful (told me my query was fine as is but I should tell the story from Cara’s perspective rather than Adam’s, which didn’t make sense to me and she provided no explanation). I tried again this past August with a “First 10 pages Bootcamp,” again through Writer’s Digest. This time the agent connected with my characters, understood what I was trying to accomplish, and gave me actionable advice. When this agent explained why she didn’t like my first chapter (that I had believed was a very strong start to the novel), her explanation made sense and I was pleased to kill another darling. Note for non-writers or new writers: “kill your darlings” means to get rid of something you wrote that you were really proud of. She liked my revisions and asked me to resubmit to her once I’d made those revisions throughout the entire novel. Done and done! I hope she likes what I did because she’d be great to work with.

Big News: New Novel 1st Draft!

Whilst I am banging on the doors of Traditional Publishing, I have completed the first draft of the sequel to Beautiful. I haven’t found the perfect title yet, so until I do I’m calling it “Beautiful 2: Needs a Title.” Clever, huh?

My original plan was for the sequel to continue with Cara’s story. Now that it’s written, I see that we do learn more about Cara but the true main character — the one who grows the most — is Adam’s little genius sister Wendy. Be excited: you’ll get to see the parts of Lelia Fortune’s lair that Adam and Cara never visited in the first book. You’ll see a bit more of how Lelia’s unique business works. But mostly, the three teens will have to overcome greater challenges than they could have ever dreamed. Their lives have been thrown in disarray. Oh, for the good old days when the worst thing they had to deal with was a gang of criminals and a suspicious police detective!

With a new first draft comes the opportunity for beta readers to help me improve this novel till it’s good enough to give to an editor. Think of it: your name in the acknowledgements in a real published book that will be in libraries and bookstores all over the world! I know, that and $5 will buy you a cup of coffee in Starbucks. But still, there is something cool about seeing your name in print. Let me know if you would be willing to give me real, honest feedback (NOT “Oh, that was very nice.”).

I also need beta readers with specific expertise or backgrounds. I want at least a couple of Black ladies or teens who, in addition to being beta readers, would edit the language I’m using regarding a new character who I wish to treat with the respect she deserves. I would also like someone who has worked in the Merchant Marine and, ideally, has personal experience with Conley Container Terminal in Boston.

I think Traditional Publishing is behind this door. Trying to open it.

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?

Ego on the Line

Last month, my wonderful editor gave me the third round of her thoughts, and I made the final few changes she recommended to my manuscript. My first novel, Beautiful, is completely done. I’m proud of it, which is why I decided to use my real name as the author rather than a pseudonym. I believe many people will enjoy the story.

But there is a serpent in my garden of happiness post-first novel. You see, I’ve decided to go the route of traditional publishing. My personal serpent has a name: Querying Literary Agents.

Today I stroked the serpent’s head in an attempt to make friends: I emailed my first query. Then I sent another few, which were easier.

I don’t like this feeling that my immediate future depends on a gatekeeper who has way more applicants than available openings. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt! I disliked this feeling when I applied to university and also when I applied to medical school, I hated it when I applied for my residency in Internal Medicine, and I loathed this feeling of “please like me, please like me, please give me a chance” when I applied for my fellowship training in Cardiology…although each time it turned out great for me. And here we are again, hoping and praying that someone will request my manuscript.

What will my agent, whoever she turns out to be, get? She’ll get a professionally-polished manuscript (though I expect she’ll want to make changes, which will most likely be fine with me), a sequel that’s about halfway done, and a client writer (me!) who has shown himself willing to delete or rewrite entire chapters and characters. I’m easy to work with, I do what I promise by the deadline I promise, and I pay my bills. I’m about 15,000 words into a totally unrelated novel. I figure I have over twenty productive writing years left, and I have lots of ideas.

So…I’ll keep you informed. It’ll work out well, I feel!