Marathon Publishing

Writing–and I mean from the first moment fingers touch keys to the day someone buys something you wrote–is like running a marathon.  I can say this because I ran one yesterday, so unlike journalists who report about marathon bargaining sessions or marathon fund raising, I actually know what running 42.2 kilometers feels like.

Writing the novel is the easy part, the first half of the marathon, when you’re still excited from the start line and hoping for a quick and painless race to the end, to crossing that finish line, to getting published.  But once it’s written, you’re only half-way.

Editing is like 21k to 30k, when you realize that this is going to hurt, that you won’t get to the end without a fight.  You begin to consider dropping out, or at least slowing to a walk.  A lot of writers give up at this point.

Publishing is the wall at 32k.  Your body begs to stop.  Your mind starts to play tricks on you, like a cartoon devil on your shoulder whispering, “Just a little walk.  Just stop for a little walk and then you can make up the time.”  You’ll send to an agent next month.  You’ll search for a publisher after one more draft.

But luckily the cartoon angel on the other shoulder whispers, “Keep going.  Don’t give up.  Keep those legs moving.  Keep striving to get published, to get a reader to buy your book.

Promoting your novel is like the last three kilometers going uphill.  You’ve got nothing left, and it’s the most important part.  What’s the point of writing if hardly anyone reads your work?  What’s the point of running a marathon if you give up with the finish line in sight?

There is, however, one big difference between writing and marathons.  Marathons have a finish line.  Always.  You know success is there if you just keep going.

With writing there is no guarantee that you’ll reach a place where your sales are so good that it’s like having someone put a medal over your head and help you off to the refreshments tent with a pat on the back.

So when I think about it: running a marathon is a lot easier than writing and publishing.

But hopefully publishing doesn’t leave your muscles so stiff and sore.

A Necessary Evil

The second time I met The Fogel, we decided to chat while sitting on a bench in front the Marriott in Ottawa, the concrete cover above providing shade.  The Bloody Words Mystery Convention was winding down, and the authors who had packed The Fogel’s workshop were spilling out to hop in cabs and cars, waving to us as they headed home.

We’d worked together for years by e-mail but had only met briefly once before, so it was strange and pleasantly surprising to discover we liked one another in person, even after all the excruciating edits of the Sioux Rock Falls short stories.

The Fogel chained smoked while we talked, which didn’t bother me since the fumes from the cabs were way worse for my lungs than second hand smoke.  She’s a tough lady with a gravelly voice and the energy of the Eveready Bunny.  And you’d want her beside you in a bar fight.  She’s no bullshit.

Still, I’d prefer life without an editor.  They’re bossy, grumpy and snarky.  They have no hearts and don’t care about your feelings one bit.

They’re also damn necessary, unless you’re the literary equivalent of Mozart.

The Fogel has sent me a few links and notes about writing in the last few weeks, so I’ve decided to start a separate page, The Fogel Speaks, for anyone who wants to know more about writing.  I’ll add to it as the links come in.

But remember: rules are good, but sometimes they need to be broken.

When we finished our chat and got up from the bench, we discovered we’d been sitting in front of a NO SMOKING sign.  Yup, you heard me, a no smoking sign in a covered drop-off area, cars idling away, coming and going.  Now that was bullshit.

What the Agents Said

My novel, In a Country Burning, has been pitched to eleven literary agents since 1999–six times by snail mail or e-mail, and five times face to face, eyeball to eyeball.

Of the traditional approach (query letter to an agent I’ve never met) I received one e-mail rejection in less than 20 minutes, which makes me wonder if it was on an auto-responder.  The snail mail rejections took longer, although a few times I marveled at the efficiency of Canada Post, the U.S. Postal Service or the Royal Mail, depending on the destination.  It was like a boomerang coming back way faster than anticipated, forcing me to metaphorically duck for cover.

I was initially flattered by Simon Trewin’s response from PFD in London, although I can’t help thinking of the agency’s name as an abbreviation of Personal Floatation Device. He’s since opened his own shop, which was probably a good idea.

He described my writing as “fluent” but declined because he “didn’t connect with the premise.”   Okay, well that’s nice of him to say about the writing anyway.  I’m fluent.  Except I later read on a website that he has passed on other novels with that same rejection letter.  It’s a form letter.  Did he even read the sample pages?

That’s the problem with mail and e-mail.  An author could believe their novel had been given careful consideration when actually he/she had been rejected by the receptionist before morning coffee.

That’s why I prefer to pitch face-to-face.  They may never read the sample chapters, but at least I know they have a sense of the premise before they boot me out the door.  Now I’m not advocating pounding on agents’ doors.  I met most of them by appointment at conferences in carefully orchestrated pitch sessions.  They knew I was coming and were prepared to listen.

So here’s what they said:

Dominick Abel listened patiently and then said that this simply was not his type of thing.  That’ll teach me to pitch a novel about war and religion and guilt to an agent at a mystery convention.

Beverly Slopen I pitched by accident.  About three months after 9/11 I went down to her condo in Toronto to drop off the first 30 pages and query letter.  I thought I’d be told to leave it with the concierge, which is why I had no qualms about bringing my one-year-old son along for the trip in his stroller.  I was a stay-at-home dad at the time and figured the walk would allow him to get his morning nap.

I didn’t know that she had just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair and was eagerly awaiting a package.  She told the concierge to send me right up.  She met me at the elevator.

Awkward.  She was reaching for the envelope, saw my son and froze.  “Oh, this is yours,” she said, as if she’d accidentally grabbed my half-eaten Big Mac.  She didn’t wipe her hands off on her trousers after she handed it back, although it looked like she considered it.  She politely allowed me a two minute pitch, and that was about all my restless son was going to allow too.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I wouldn’t have any idea where to place it.  Everyone’s doing a novel about Afghanistan now.  Tom Clancy’s doing a novel about Afghanistan.”

Ms. Slopen let me down gently, the way you pass a crazy homeless person who is begging for change and raving about the coming apocalypse.

This is why I don’t recommend sandbagging agents at their offices.  It puts them on the defensive.  I sent her an e-mail apologizing for the intrusion, and she surprised me by responding, urging me to send the novel to other agents.  She’s a class act.

Jack Scovil was interested in my mystery novel (which I’ve shelved for now) but never responded even though he had invited me to submit.  He wasn’t at all interested in a novel set in Afghanistan.

Verna Dreisbach said she’d look at three sample chapters if I cut 30,000 words off the novel.  I spent three torturous months slicing it down, but she still rejected it.  What did I expect from an ex-cop who says on her website that she’s the editor of Why We Ride: Women Writers and the Horses in their Lives? My novel is just not going to excite her.

Stacia Decker of the Donald Mass agency wins the prize for asking the most intelligent questions about the novel.  After careful deliberation during the interview, she invited me to submit the first ten pages.  But she also set me up for the rejection that followed two months later.  She asked me how many agents I’d pitched this novel to, and when I said ten she shook her head.  “You’ve hardly dipped your toe in the water then.”

Which brings me back to publishing online.  An agency takes 15% of the meager royalties a publisher will pay to most first time novelists.  They’re great at vetting contracts with publishers, but what if a writer decides to go without a publisher?  No agent required.  I know that going without a publisher or an agent (the 20th century model) is controversial.  A couple of writers and my editor have already encouraged me not to give up on traditional publishing, but we’re in a new world with e-publishing.  Maybe I’ll have to eat my words.  That’s what’s fun about publishing right now.  No one really knows where it’s going.

Reader Wars: Sony vs Kindle

Nothing makes me crazier than wasting hours on the phone with a customer service representative.  Especially when he/she finally discovers that the corp has a fault with their e-store, which they attempt to blame on an external publisher.  Well, almost nothing makes me crazier.

But first: the hardware.

Touch is cool.  Sony’s e-reader has s shiny pen that lifts neatly out of the side and allows you to navigate or take notes right on the touch screen.  That’s truly great hardware, but unfortunately that’s one of the very few things that Sony does better than the Kindle.

I’ve got them both in front of me.  The Kindle has better contrast, sharper text and less glare from the screen.

But the real difference is content.  The Reader Store’s featured fiction today is mostly around $13, where as at Amazon’s Kindle Ebook store everything is $9.99 US or less, including the Man Booker 2010 prize winner The Finkler Question at $7.84US.  With the Canadian dollar essentially at par, and soon to be worth more than the US dollar if the pundits are right, this is superior pricing.

Kindle also wins for freebies.  Be it a mystery novel or the complete Sherlock Holmes, we’ve downloaded a lot of free books from the Kindle Store that were later offered at regular pricing.  Nothing is free at the Reader Store.

I admit that the e-pub format for the Reader is open source, which means there is content out there for free if you want to go sifting around the internet, but one stop shopping fits better into my schedule than visiting a dozen sites.

Apple’s i-pod took off not just because it was a spiffy gadget, but because the i-tunes store provided cheap, legal content–and lots of it.

Which brings me back to Sony’s Reader store.  The last book I tried to buy from them wouldn’t download even though I had clicked on Canadian edition.  It took two one-hour-long phone calls over two days for a customer service rep to announce that the publisher had done something wrong and the book wasn’t available to Canadians yet.   Now I bought this book because the Reader Store sent me an e-mail showing off the deals of that day.  Sure, maybe the publisher F-ed up, but the Reader Store needs to take responsibility for their content rather than just shrug their shoulders.

It took another phone call a month later to have the charges (that they claimed wouldn’t go through) reversed on my credit card.

So in my books (pun intended) Kindle wins over the Sony E-reader.  Kindle even has a better name.

Running Naked Through the Mall

The naked slating dream.  I know three other camera assistants who’ve had this dream, and I had it several times during the decade I spent as a Second Assistant Camera in Toronto’s film and television industry.

In the dream I was on set standing naked in a corner.  No one had noticed yet, but the 1st A.D. calls, “Roll Sound!”

Crap!  I’m the slater, the guy who holds the time-code slate in front of the camera and calls, “Thirty-six Apple.  Take One!  Marker!”  Smack the slate and get out of the shot ASAP without tripping on anything or ruffling the lead actor.  But I’m naked!  How can I jump into the middle of set?  The director, the producer, continuity, the A.D., the operator and the focus puller, this is the one moment they’re all looking straight at me, mostly waiting for me to do my thing and get out of the way.

But this dream doesn’t happen to just 2nd ACs.  Some of you have had this dream.  Maybe you were naked at the mall, running to get out before anyone noticed.  Worse, perhaps you were in your underwear in the high school cafeteria…and you’re a teacher.

Well writing is like that.

It’s easy to pose as an intellectual at a party.  No one really needs to know that your favorite show is Battlestar Gallactica.  All you have to do is spout back what you read in the newspaper.  It helps if it’s politically correct, or if you punctuate your found opinions with emphatic statements like, “We’ve each got our part to play in solving…”  Insert current crisis of the year here.  Presto!  You’re a thoughtful person—an intellectual.

But writing is like running naked through the mall.  People see you at your most vulnerable.  They can see inside your skull.  They can judge, they can smirk, and if they read on they KNOW what you were thinking.

If they’re smart.

So take a look.  Railroaded and Burning Moose are up there already.  The rest of my Storyteller Magazine stories will go up soon, to be followed by my contest winners and placers.  I’m letting you into my brain, my soul.

I’m running naked through the mall.

I like it.

My Editor Guts My Heart Out and Hands It To Me On A Plate

Mike’s second rule of publishing is to hire an editor.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m a genius, but sometimes that doesn’t make it onto the page.  There’s no one like an editor who can tease out of your brain what you were really trying to say, to make you laugh at what you had accidentally said, or cringe because he/she is so harsh.

Now I’m not talking about a copy editor here–that comes later.  I’m talking about a substantive editor, a pro who will critique the whole deal.

But danger lies in wait out there for unsuspecting writers.  The predator editors lurk on websites all over the cyber world.  They have no editing credentials, and they know little about writing and publishing.  I read one resume that shamelessly listed “tug boat captain” as if it had something to do with writing.  They will charge you as much as the pros, and they will do nothing for your work.  They are to be avoided at all costs.

So for my novel I went with the devil I know, an editor who’d driven me out of my mind when critiquing my short stories before she’d buy them.  Despite the damage to my scalp from all the hair pulling, my stories always ended up far better when they went to print.

Melanie Fogel spent fifteen years in the editing trenches at Storyteller Magazine.  She waded through piles of slush seeking short story gems.  She encouraged new authors, ruthlessly critiqued their work and fearlessly rejected even well-published authors if their short stories weren’t up to standard.

But Melanie’s credentials don’t stop there: she teaches creative writing, leads writers groups and is also a published short story writer, so she’s seen both sides of the editing process.

Melanie rejected the first short story I ever sent her, but she did something no editor had ever done before: she told me why.  Yup, she gutted out my heart and handed it to me on a plate.

I didn’t like hearing that the first half of my beloved short story was “irrelevant,” but I knew a golden opportunity when I saw it.  I slashed the first half of the story off, wrote another story keeping her comments in mind, sent them back to Storyteller and BAAM!  I had my first two sales: Burning Moose and Beer Truck.  The former even made it onto the 2002 Great Canadian Story Contest short list.  The neighbors must’ve wondered about all the shouting.

But Melanie won’t rubber stamp your stories even if she’s encouraged you to submit more work.  I sent her over a dozen stories between 2002 and 2007, when Storyteller closed up shop, and she published eight of them, summarily executing the others, even a Bony Pete contest winner.

So three weeks ago I hired Melanie to look at “In a Country Burning,” the novel that we’re going to take to e-publishing success, and she threw the first monster monkey wrench into the works.  Yup, she ripped out my beating heart handed it back on a silver platter.

“The writing, the actual line by line writing,” she states, is not as good as my writing of three years ago.  The misplaced modifiers are driving her crazy when they aren’t making her laugh.

What went wrong?  I’d like blame it on sleep deprivation (I have three very young children) but I believe it’s actually because I committed one of the greatest sins of writing.  I stopped.  After my youngest was born I stopped writing for nearly a year.  It shows.

Is it hopeless?  I received this e-mail from her this week: “I’m near enough the end that I’m starting to see what you were trying to do with this thing.”

That’s about as close to praise as I’ll ever get from Melanie, but that’s okay.  I didn’t hire her to pat me on the head.  The idea is to make the novel better.

If all I wanted was praise I’d go to my mother.  Actually, she can be pretty honest too.