Thursday, September 20, 2012

How Searching for a Literary Agent Has Made Me a Headcase - Part II

So after all of the rejections, here's what happened:

I felt like a failure.

How could I not?  I spent four years on the novel, fully believed in it, had it where I thought it was ready to go...then nothing.  Close to 500,000 words over the course of seven drafts and little to show for it.  (I can hear it now - "Yes, but you learned a lot over those 500,000 words that you can use the next time." I get that, but that wasn't the goal, right?  I'm not bitter, I'm just being honest.  I wasn't writing for experience, I was writing to sell the novel).  It's probably a confidence thing - or a lack of confidence thing to be more accurate - but working so hard on something and having it sit unwanted has a part of me feeling like I wasted the last four years.  That's a lot of evenings, weekends, and early mornings working on something that ultimately rests in a folder on my computer.  By that way of thinking, yeah, I'm a failure.  No pity party asked for, I'm just being honest.

I had two options at this point:

Option A: I could revise the novel again.
Lucky Town's premise is a good one, all the agents said as much, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I could make it work.  I could make it a more clearly defined YA novel (Note: It turns out YA novels should have more than one teenager in it.  Wish I'd known that before).  I could print off all of the agents' comments, make a list of what was needed, and go from there.  It all seemed very doable.  But there was one problem - I didn't want to do that.

Ever go back to the town where you grew up?  Or revisted the college town you spent four (or maybe six, depending on who you are) years at?  Then maybe you know that feeling of "I used to love this place, and this place was very important to me, but I don't belong here anymore" feeling.  That's what I feel when I seriously considered the idea of returning to Lucky Town.  Then there's what Daryl Gregory said was "the danger of overcarving the pumpkin."  I could work and work on the novel until all of the life was beaten out of it and it wasn't the book I wanted and then still, STILL, it may not sell.  Then what?  Probably me in a tower with a rifle, that's what.

Option B:  I could punt and move onto the next novel.
I liked this option a good bit.  In fact, I spent a couple of weeks doing notes on another novel and had some real excitement about it.  I watched a couple of movies on the specific genre I was going to write, I read a few books, and even had the book's soundtrack figured out.  (That's another topic for another time, but I can't write until I figure out the music that would accompany the book's attitude - Lucky Town was written mostly to Trent Reznor's instrumental Ghosts cds).

But then, I froze up again.

Just when I would get some nice momentum, I'd get another rejection telling me how much they liked the book, how they'd like to see a revision, etc.  How could I just walk away from the book?  Wasn't that giving up?  But at what point is it best just to move on?  Plenty of writers don't sell their first book.  When did they move on?  But maybe just one more shot?

See, this is the mental illness - the push/pull - I've been going through.  Embarrassing, right?

My decision - and by no stretch does that mean it's a steadfast decision - came last week.  Stuck and stressed, I called Daryl Gregory who offered some advice - his verdict:  "Stick with the book.  People are interested in it for a reason."  And then that night I read an interview with Stephen Tobolowksy, one of the supporting actors in Sneakers, one of my favorite movies.  Tobolowsky once asked Phil Alden Robinson, the writer and director of the film, how he'd come up with such a great script.   Alden, "blushed and said he had worked on it for nine years. I know spending a long time writing something doesn’t guarantee success. But not giving up on a good idea almost always does."

I like that quote.  No, more accurately, I love it.  It was pretty much exactly what I needed to hear, even if it was said by someone I don't know.

The problem is/was manufacturing motivation to finish the project.  I gave this a lot of thought, and ended up thinking back to when I wrote short stories.  Usually it would take me a couple of months to complete a sellable short story because I would go through 10+ revisions to get it right.  The downside was that this took a great deal of time, but the upside was I always sold those stories.  Even before I started writing Lucky Town, which in the beginning was called Lockbox, I knew I would have to revise a lot to get the novel to sellable quality.  I just didn't think it would take over seven drafts.

In the end, the solution was fairly simple - it's what I used to do with short stories that I felt 'meh' about - I decided to blow up the novel.  What that means to me is taking a hard, objective look at the story and deconstructing it.  Nothing would be sacred, anything could go.  I'd been approaching the revisions like triage, quick patchwork surgery trying to keep the thing alive and stop the bleeding but not doing anything too radical.  But maybe radical is what is needed.  It's worked with my short stories.  And when I applied that to Lucky Town, I saw things and had ideas I never had before.  I've given myself a week to brainstorm this new approach to the book and see how I feel about it.  Already I have a better entrance into the book, and a better set-up for the premise, so that's good.  It'll change the book a good bit, but still remain true to my original idea that I still like a lot.  Oh, and I can put in more teenagers, which would be nice considering, you know, it's a YA novel.  The thought of writing this book excites me a bit, makes me want to write, a feeling I haven't had in a couple of months.  We'll see where it goes.

So that's about it.  There's no end to his drama yet, but it feels closer than before.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Onward and upward!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How Searching for a Literary Agent has Made Me a Headcase - Part I

I have a lot on my mind (for once) and need vomit it all out.  I'm waaaay out of sorts writing-wise for various reasons, and have decided to use this blog as a therapist's couch.  My plan is to go transparent about my writing life in hopes that it'll set me straight and clear my head.

The goods: Lucky Town is a 75K Young Adult novel I wrote over the course of the last four years.  That's a long time, but when you consider that it's gone through seven drafts, was once a 90K adult thriller, and there are very few similarities between drafts one and seven, it's understandable.  This last draft is good, and I sort of knew it.  Not great, but for a first novel, I knew I had a concept that would attract some attention.

The Numbers:

147.  This is the number of query letters I sent.  I'm not sure if that's a lot or not.  It probably is.  I wrote a decent query letter that was getting form rejected left and right, so I wrote one with some attitude that brought a lot of personal responses.  (I wrote a post about that a couple of months back.)

73.  This is how many form rejections I received.  You'd think this would hurt, but after the first ten or so, they become funny.  I have no problem with form rejections.  In fact, one day I'll get bored and write a post about the art of the form rejection.  Some are very business like, some are written by agents who are clearly afraid you're going to kill yourself and therefore write "Keep at it!" motivational responses.  But hey, at least they responded, so kudos to you.

55.  This is the number of agents who never responded.  They work for agencies who have a "we will only respond if we're interested" policy.  Don't get me started on this policy.

19.  This is the number of requests I got for either a full manuscript or a partial.  This, obviously, is what everyone who queries an agent is hoping for.  Get one of these and you're pretty sure you're minutes away from roping an agent.  The reality is that agents take about three months to get back to you.

15.  This is the number of rejections I received on the manuscript.  I'm not going to lie, these hurt bad.  I'm thin-skinned - a definite character flaw - and I took each one of these personally.  The wife and kids pretty much went underground when I got one of these because I got pretty moody.  The thing is, if you read these rejections you'd probably say the same things other writers told me when I forwarded the rejection emails - "This is a really great rejection!"  And I got plenty of "great rejections".  These are rejections that say things like, "There's so much of this book I love BUT..."  They praised the concept the most, and liked the characterization, and the writing itself was fine.  But the BUT was always waiting.  A majority of the time the BUT was "I can't sell this because it's not really a YA novel but it's not really an adult novel either.  It's too "in the middle" and I'm not sure how to fix that."

(What's sick is that midway through the writing of Draft 5, I told my wife this response was my biggest fear.  Turns out I was right.  Dammit.)

I had a few other BUTS - "I'm already shopping a book with a similar theme", "I didn't connect with the writing", "Too much happens off-screen" and conversely, "Too much happens on-screen and didn't give me enough chance to dream."  It's all subjective in some way, as you can see.

On occasion, I would email these agents with follow-up questions.  Some of them offered really helpful responses.  In fact, I'll name them: Sara Crowe, Kari Stuart, Molly Reese, Steve Troha, and Katie Grimm were all great.  I mean, yeah, they rejected Lucky Town and all, but answered questions I had and were so complimentary of the book that I didn't necessarily want to jump off my roof like I did with other rejections.  They also told me to email a revision if I chose to do one or to send them my next book.  I felt good about that, so at least I have that going for me.

4.  This is the number of manuscripts I still have out.  We'll see what happens.  But really, I sort of know now, right?  In fact, if I were to have someone say, "I want to rep this and we can sell it", I'd be wary.  I mean, the other fifteen agents probably know what they're talking about, right?  Or maybe it's just the "No, that girl can't really like me" syndrome, as my friend (and awesome writer Daryl Gregory) said the other night.  But I can't wait around for them any longer.  It's time to do something else - either revise as has been requested, or move on to the next project.  It's taken a long time - two months, maybe - but I've finally come to a conclusion on that.

(Okay, this is running long, so I'll explain the rest of this tomorrow and why the decision was so difficult.  That'll really be the therapist's couch post because, man, I've been a mess and it's all sort of embarrassing.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Conversation with Erik Williams

I first met Erik Williams back in - hmmmm - 2002 (?) in Baltimore at a writer's workshop.  I was new to writing then, showing up at a workshop where I didn't know anyone and with no idea of whether or not I actually had any ability.   At the first dinner on that first night, Erik, who I didn't know, leaned across the cafeteria table we were all at and said, "So I hear you have a car.  We should make a beer run."  That was pretty much the start of our friendship and our writers group, too, as the others who went with us - Sam W. Anderson, John Mantooth, and Petra Miller - are all still close today.

As you'll see, Erik is nothing if not incredibly prolific.  He writes at an amazing clip, finishing a handful of short stories and one or two novels a year.  And he sells them, too, something that not a lot of writers can say.  His latest novel, Progeny, is horror-based crime novel filled with death cults and one super creepy femme fatale.  We talked over the course of last week about his writing philosophy, pulp writers, and his awesomeness.

Me:  You know, I'd prefer to start simple, but I have no idea where to start with you. You seem to have a new book or short story out each month, the latest being Progeny. So let's start with this - how the hell is it possible that you turn out so many works? Or am I just blinded by the fact that it takes me months to finish one story and years to finish one novel?

Erik:  It's pretty simple, really. I just write awesome first drafts. That and I do a lot of cocaine. Talent and drugs are fantastic teammates.

Seriously, though, it comes down to my style. I'm a minimalist who likes the story to keep moving. Lots of dialogue. Short sentences. No dripping prose. By the time I'm done, I don't have that revision where I strip out all the useless adjectives or adverbs. They're not there. All that's left is making sure it all makes sense and flows nicely.

But being awesome helps. And if there's one thing I am, it's awesome.

Me:  I'm sure the coke helps, and yeah, your style lends itself to quick turnover, but what about actual plotting? Does the more creative aspect of the process - the plot, twists, story logic, etc. - slow you down at all? Or are you just awesome all around?

Erik:  I'm all kinds of awesome. But that's a whole different discussion.

Thankfully, plotting comes easy to me. Probably because I tend to visualize the plot like a movie. Lay it all out in my head scene-by-scene. But I don't lay it out in a way that it reads "And then this happens and then this happens and so on and so on..."

I buy into the South Park way. Rather than linking events with a "and then this happens" I approach with either "because this happened" or "therefore this happens". It's a great way of ensuring there's a logic to your plot from beginning to end. So, the plot starts to look like: "This happened because this happened and therefore this happens". A logic tree. Wee!

Then again, my plots aren't overly complicated. Which helps, too.

The only thing that slows me down is enthusiasm for the work. Let's face it, a novel, no matter how fast you write it, can be a slog. There's parts you love writing and parts you have to muscle fuck your way through. It gets easy with each passing book. You learn tricks like "Do I really need this scene that's crushing my nuts as I try to write it?" Nine times out of ten, you don't. Starting scenes closer to the end of them. In late, out early. Don't waste time with shit that doesn't matter. Nobody cares what your character did between work and dinner if it's not important to the character or plot. Just jump to dinner (assuming something important happens there, of course).

Another useful trick is ensuring your story follows a sine wave. If your character starts off a chapter on a good note, throw some trouble his or her way by the end of the chapter. The next chapter, start with the trouble and then end the chapter with maybe a reprieve or at least a sign of hope. The shifts back and forth help prevent the plot and characters from becoming...in professional terms...fucking boring.

Me:  That South Park example is great in terms of plotting. (Note: If you've never seen this clip featuring Parker and Stone, watch it now).  And you're right, your plots don't slog at all. Progency moves very quickly and is very cinematic - moving from scene to scene with very little fat. On one hand it's a detective novel, but there are definite horror elements here. I'm trying to think of a movie or book that smashes these together and Angel Heart is the best I can come up with. Was it difficult to combine these genres?

Erik:  Not difficult at all. If you think about it a moment, there's not much difference between horror and crime novels. The only thing that changes is the monsters is human in the latter. It's not much of a leap to take the natural elements of crime novels and mix in the supernatural.

The great thing about using the crime/detective novel to set a supernatural horror story in is the verisimilitude is already there. You know the characters, the criminal element. The smart ass detective. The femme fatale. The small problem that blows up into something huge and threatens to crush the protagonist. It's all there. We know it. We love it. And it's cool when we see that same smart ass detective try to explain away the supernatural, even as it threatens to eat him alive.

Your example of Angel Heart is dead on. The ending of that moving is so fucking awesome. Murder, mayhem, voodoo, incest, and the fucking devil! Holy shit!

SONG OF KALI is another example of a detective/horror novel, only the detective is an investigative journalist and the supernatural element is Hindu gods.

Me:  Combining elements like this has been pretty successful for you, right? I'm thinking of Demon which takes the basics of the military thriller and adds in horror.

Erik:  You are correct, Sir. Although I've labeled myself a horror writer, my stuff spans multiple genres. You mentioned Demon (military supernatural thriller) and we've talked Progeny (supernatural noir). But don't assume all I do is take a genre and add the supernatural in there. My next book coming out soon is a heartwarming tale about a Bigfoot hooked on meth that goes on a batshit crazy meth rampage. So, it's kind of a mash-up of crime and cryptozoology madness with a little erotica sprinkled in.

Let's be honest, my stuff ain't gonna win the Pulitzer anytime soon. I write pulp. I'm okay with that. But unlike a lot of pulp writers, you can't say one of my books is just like the other. When you get a book by me, you're in for something wildly different from the last one you may have read (unless it's part of a series, then it will be similar to the last book because if it wasn't, you'd just be confused. Fuck it, I'll shut up now).

Me:  Pulp writers get a bad rap, I think. The way I see it, pulp writers are focused more on the story - telling a good tale - than the actual crafting of the writing. Is that how you see it? Any writers you can point to and say, "Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do"?

Erik:  Pulp writers get a bad wrap from assholes literary writers who dig sniffing their own farts. The rest of us love them to pieces. Except the ones that suck. But those are also know as hacks.

To your point, though, yeah, telling a good story is key. And a story that actually goes somewhere is even more key. I mean, when you're writing about whiskey guzzling womanizers who kill monsters for fun, the last thing you're thinking about is how can I make this more like The Great Gatsby. Or Ethan Frome (Christ, that book sucked). Or where can I insert a great symbol like the Eyes of Eckleburg (unless the Eyes are real and belong to some evil lord overlooking his domain).

That doesn't mean there's no place for craft in pulp writing. Some of the best pacing, plotting, characterization, and dialog is found in pulp fiction. Basically, it lacks pretentiousness, characters that stair at the walls, the important symbolism of menstruation, and stories that go nowhere.

As to what I writers I try to emulate: James Sallis, James Ellroy, Norman Partridge, Charlie Huston, Quentin Tarantino, Ernest Hemingway, Robert E. Howard, to name a few.

Me:  It's funny you mention Ellroy in your list. Because as much as he likes to refer to himself as a pulp writer, I don't think anyone works on his prose more than him. The books he's putting out now are so stylized that I almost find them unreadable. But this is about you, not Ellroy so...

Just to finish up this pulp discussion, do you find the genre - this isn't the right word, but I'm struggling to figure out a classification for it - limiting in any way? You've talked about how freeing it is to write over-the-top characters and plots, and those are definite pluses, but I'm wondering about audience. I know you've put a lot of hard work into finding and maintaining an audience, but I think that's an audience that's hard to please in a lot of ways. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, but you're the one who can never shut up, so there's your topic - pulp audiences, growing an audience, etc. - go!

Erik:  You make the assumption that pulp writers don't give a shit about prose? Tsk. Tsk. You sound like a snotty literary type. Fart sniffer.

Anyhoo...

No, it's not limiting. If anything, you as the writer are limiting. There's tendency to box yourself in. I'm a horror writer. I'm a sci-fi writer. There's a desire to be identifiable but you end up making yourself a slave to a genre. You do that, the only audience you have will be the same one hundred or so mopes who buy all your stuff. Spreading your wings, Lone Eagle, allows you to build an audience. You can attract crime readers, horror readers, fantasy readers, by doing a solid mash-up. By writing what the fuck you want instead of writing what the fuck you think somebody wants. Pulp is freedom.

Fuck.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out this audience thing. How to build one. Attract one. What have you. It's tempting to want to tap into, say, the Thriller audience by writing a solid thriller. Guess what, so are about a million other people. That's a lot of competition. How do you stand out in that swamp? By imitating more highly successful people?

I guess I've gotten to the point where I write what I want to write. People seem to like my stuff (all two of them, yay!). If something of mine takes off, cool. But I'd rather people look for the next Erik Williams novel rather than just some ho-hum horror or crime novel. Writer as genre. Fuck yeah!

I tell you, Care Bear, you can worry about growing an audience, chasing an audience, but you still got to write the book. Care about the material. I mean, you can chase an audience and write the next "Fucked Fifty Shades from Sunday" but then, what does that make you? A writer or a copy cat? Desperate hack? Who wants to be that guy?

What, it's not called "Fucked Fifty Shades from Sunday?" That's not its name?

Seriously, that's not its name?

Me:  I'm not assuming pulp writers don't care about their prose, I'm simply going by my definition of pulp vs. literary writers. To me, pulp writers care much more about story than craft. Literary writers, on the other hand, focus more on craft than story. Those are my definitions. There's definite overlap, obviously (and hopefully), but all too often I read pulp novels where I think "this person has a decent story to tell but can't write" and literary novels where I'm thinking, "this person can write, but can't tell a good story." I can appreciate both for what they are, but like it best when the writer obviously (and clearly) cares about both. But then again, it could be that I'm working from faulty definitions.

So to wrap all of this up - what do you have coming out that readers should be on the lookout for? Promote away!

Erik:  Whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm not done with this issue. I have to disagree with you. Good pulp writers care just as much about craft as literary writers. The difference is they don't dwell for ages on a sentence or a paragraph. To Ellroy, yeah, he spends a lot of time on prose BUT he still pumps out a book every five years. He doesn't take a decade or two. And what about Vonnegut? He was a master of craft and his stuff, a lot of it at least, is pulpier than pulp.

I guess you could say pulp cares more about story. But for literary, I would say it cares more about theme. How that theme is conveyed. So much so that story doesn't become important. That's why they're so plot-lite. They're about characters and characters dealing with shit. The shit being the theme. I can see how that would take longer to write than, say, a really well written but also plot driven novel. A to B is easier than AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

Anyway, agree to disagree I guess.

As for me, PROGENY is out now. GUARDIANS, the sequel to DEMON, is out now in e-book and will be out later this year in trade paperback. CRANK STOMP, my Bigfoot-hooked-on-meth book will be out sometime later this year, early next year. And let me tell you, Thomas Pynchon himself couldn't write a better Bigfoot-hooked-on-meth novel. Just sayin'. To keep up with all things me, check out my website, http://www.erikwilliams.blogspot.com/