Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Road to Publication, Part One

It’s a long, washed out, pot-holed road that goes in circles, or takes weird detours to cliff edges or turns into muddy dirt and disappears into the scrub. But I’m cruising it again now, for better or worse, and I thought it might be interesting to document the journey. If this particular stretch of cracked macadam winds up at a sinkhole or a chain-link fence with big NO TRESSPASSING signs, so be it.

The trip may still be interesting.

I’ve traveled this route before. Three years ago I cold-queried an agent with a different book: Owners, the one I’ve been posting on Open Salon for the last month or so. The novel was set on Nantucket and this agent loved the island. She asked to see pages but felt uneasy when I told her the book was incomplete. Still, she liked what she read. We worked together for a few months, but she was having a baby and getting out of the business. She passed me on to a New York agent she knew. I worked with this guy for a year, finishing and revising-- and then he sent my nicely buffed and polished 92,000 words out on auction to twelve publishers.

I was riding high.

Then they all rejected it … and he retired.

I went from having a hot book and a big-time agent to having an un-publishable pile of pages and no representation -- in less than two weeks. Career whiplash happens on the road to publication: fasten your seatbelts.

I’m obviously hoping this time will be different. I have a few more advantages now. Some I earned – like my MFA degree; some I didn’t: like my name. After many cold queries and very few requests for pages and no real progress I finally decided to query my father’s agent. I had met him at Dad’s memorial service and he seemed like a decent guy. A Google search proved he was a major player in Hollywood. It felt like cheating but I no longer cared.

Here’s the query letter I sent out to all those agents (It took slightly less time to write than the book itself):

HEAT OF THE MOMENT, complete at 78,500 words, tells the story of an ordinary high school English teacher whose obsessive sexual passion for a student drives him to statutory rape, blackmail, grand larceny and finally murder. Invoking novels like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and Josephine Hart’s Damage, as well as a history of film noir movies from The Blue Angel to Body Heat, the hero of HEAT OF THE MOMENT is always at least two steps behind his teen-age femme fatale, never fully aware of her actual intentions until it’s much too late. At the end of the book, after destroying a man’s life and getting away with it, she has the bad luck to cross paths with the serial killer and snuff-film auteur whose exploits have formed a counter-point to the main story. His wry “You’re pretty enough to be in the movies” makes it clear she’s met her match, at last: barracuda vs. shark.

Part crime thriller, part cautionary tale, this journey into the land of worst possible outcomes would be a hellish trip to experience, but (I hope) a perversely entertaining one to read.

I'm a member of the WGA(west), with numerous script options and assignments( from such production companies as Hemdale, Tetragram, Concorde New Horizons, Howard International, and Arama) behind me, but no screen credits yet. I recently received my MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and have built a modest but discernible readership (as much as 3000 hits for my most popular posts) on Open Salon. Several of my essays have been featured at Salon.com, including recent eulogy for Robert B. Parker and a belated valentine to the NFL. If you'd like to see all or any part of the book, let me know.

Thanks for your time and attention –

The query netted a variety of responses over the next few months, but the main reaction was silence. Personally, I prefer that. I send out masses of queries, to names picked out of a fat paperback guide to agents, and I promptly forget about them. If they’re not interested in me, the last thing I want is to be reminded of their irksome, critical existence. It’s a kind of arrogance, anyway -- this assumption that they’re important enough for me to be hanging on breathlessly to read their comments.

Anyway, in the interests of full disclosure, (and vicarious entertainment) here are a few of the more interesting responses:

Thanks for sending along those opening pages of HEAT OF THE MOMENT. The writing is great and it certainly held my attention, but this one is just a bit too creepy for most of the editors with whom I regularly do business and I worry that the lack of sympathetic characters will further limit its appeal. I’m going to pass with some reservations. Another agent may know just the right editor but unfortunately I don’t.

I am going to turn you down for strictly personal, arbitrary, some would say snotty reasons. I hope you receive my comments as nothing more damning than had I written "I prefer Indian food to Italian."

I think you've crafted a plot that would appeal to a number of agents.

But, as a reader (and thus as an agent) I am more steeped in reality based writing than a plot twisting page turner. The meeting one of Susan's previous victims in rehab and especially the revelation that the whole scenario was actually her machinations for someone else to take the fall for murdering her father may well work for a best selling novel and film, but it hits my reading taste buds as artifice I just can't buy into. I could say the same thing about 90% of the books on The New York Times bestseller list.

Please don't change a comma on my account. You simply need to find the right agent.

I appreciate your sending over the manuscript; I read into it, and you definitely do what you do nicely. But it feels much more like a modern thriller than the sort of classical hardboiled/noir crime fiction we look for, and these days we have so few slots that we really have to focus on books that fall right in our sweet spot. I wish you all the best with it -- but we're going to pass.

I made the crucial mistake of answering this rejection. On the road to publication that’s like doing a fast lane change without signaling or checking your blindspot. It tends to irritate the other drivers.

Here’s our subsequent e-mail exchange:

Thanks for the quick response ... I understand your view, but the story does evolve into much more of what I think you want ...and as the book came out a little too long for the series, some of the early part could be cut for pace. I don't mean to presume on your time or your patience, but I now regret not sending the 1,100 word synopsis. It would have to given a sense of the bigger picture. I'm pasting it below, so you can take a look if you have time. Anyway -- thanks for your courtesy and attention.


I don't doubt that what you say is true -- it might evolve into all sorts of things. But if the opening isn't right for us, our readers will never get to find out what it evolves into, since they'll put the book down, the same way I did. I don't mean to be harsh, but I figure it's best to be honest. I hear this all the time from people -- "The book has a great ending!" or "Just wait till you get to chapter 8, it's amazing!" Well, maybe. But I'll only get to chapter 8 if I find chapters 1 through 7 compelling.

Could it be cut? Could it be edited? Sure; any book could. But what I've got to look at is what you sent.

And in the 10 days since you sent the book to me, I've received 20-30 other books by other writers, all of whom as just as eager for us to publish them and all of whom have passion for their books, and most of whose books are also perfectly good (if not necessarily right for us). Most likely the answer will be no to every one of them -- and to the next 30, and the 30 after that -- and that means I can only spend so much time on any of them.

Apologies again if I'm coming across as a jerk -- I don't mean to -- but the only way I can survive the flood of incoming submissions is to read quickly, make the best decisions I can, and move on.


Note to self: don’t do that again.

The rest of the responses were just the usual “Not for us” rejections, but my final effort produced this note:

Thank you for following up with us. We're very excited to read the sensuous, drug-filled adrenaline narrative you've whipped up. Godspeed on any concurrent projects, Steven, and have a great rest of the week.

That sounded refreshingly positive. It was written by an assistant, but I Googled her and saw that she was a cool twenty-something with her own web-site and some sharply written flash fiction published in various e-zines.

To proceed with the submission, I had to download an agency document giving all kinds of waivers and permissions and promising not to sue them under a variety of what I can only call drastically litigation-appropriate situations. No problem: I’ve signed these release forms before. I never got around to filling this one out, though, because my Dad’s agent sent me this short e-mail:

I'd love to take a look at the first 100 pages - can we do that?

I didn’t have much hope at that point; nepotism usually backfired somehow, and it was frowned on in my family, anyway. I remembered my Dad’s favorite anecdote about Verdi’s son, who wrote a requiem mourning his father and gave it to the old man’s music publisher, whose devastating response was: “You should have died. Your father should have written the requiem.”

But it was worth a try, and it turned out to be the real beginning, the on-ramp to a road I hadn’t traveled in quite a while.

Pack a lunch -- we’ll start the trip together, next time.


Joe Iriarte said...

I've been on that road for a while now--or maybe staring at the road from a scenic overlook or something, since I've only just recently begun querying agents on my current novel. It sounds like my novel may be more commercial than yours--I assume you won't take that as an insult--but I wish I had your writing chops. The way you string words and images and allusions together makes my writing feel pedestrian and flat to me.

I wish you luck on this segment of the road. If a family connection ends up being what breaks you through, I really wouldn't worry about it. The more I talk to people who've found publishing success, the more I hear stories of being in the right place at the right time, of knowing the right person, and of being open to opportunity. That's not to say that it's who you know, but rather this: everybody who gets out there and hustles will have those little moments of opportunity--some bigger than others--but not everyone will be able to pounce on them because not everyone has the goods or the wherewithal.

In the meantime, if you being on the road to publication means you're going to blog more, I welcome that. Ever since I stumbled across your blog I've looked forward to your posts, even when they're on things I know nothing about.

Joe Iriarte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pandora said...

Keep on keeping on, Steve. I forgot when you wrote this but I hope you have had or will have more express way and less ramp or pot holes from now on.