The search continues

Since October I've been looking for a new agent. I'm not going into detail here, though if you're a prospective new agent I can fill you in. I promise there's nothing scandalous. I am not a psycho hose beast.

Searching for an agent is an expedient way to wither your soul. It involves a lot of people telling you no. Sometimes it's a generic "Dear Author" letter. Sometimes it's an implied no, this conclusion being reached after four months of silence.

Sometimes--and this is uniquely painful--it's an agent writing back in response to your query, or your partial submission, or your full submission, with the apology that the book is really great but Urban Fantasy just isn't selling right now.

But my book is different. Really! If you'll just let me explain... Hey! Where are you going?

But my book is different. Really! If you'll just let me explain... Hey! Where are you going?

Dear prospective agents, if you're reading this, let's talk. Give me five minutes to convince you that I can make a splash in a saturated market.

I'll update here again if--

*clears throat*

--I'll update here again when I have secured a new literary agent.

High-level noodling

My nom-de-real-life frequently reminds me that she's already published one book and is under contract to write another. This would be impressive if anyone cared.

She writes boring articles related to her boring job as a librarian, and the book she wrote--also boring--is not something you've ever heard of. It was never meant to be consumed by a popular audience.

For academics and others who write technical or professional literature, the barrier to publication is fairly low. First you pitch an idea to the press, and if they like it, you go about writing the book, already knowing that it will have a home.

What I am trying to do is much more difficult. With popular fiction, you write the book first, even though probably no one will ever want to publish it. It's depressing as hell but it's the statistical truth: most novel manuscripts never get published.

If you want to be not just published but published by one of the big five (HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, or Hachette), you should paint landscapes or tutor children or develop alcoholism, whatever it takes to distract yourself from the slow realization that your dreams have failed.

There is a very small number of people who do break in to the big five, but again: statistically, you won't be one of them. Sorry.

If you refuse to listen to reason--if you are resolved to die on this particular hill--then you attempt to get a literary agent, because otherwise you can't even get your foot in the door with the big boys.

This is an arduous process in itself, but to cut to the chase: I got an agent. I got an awesome agent. I got an awesome agent and three months ago I signed with him.

Then nothing happened.

This was by design. I explained that I was moving and wouldn't have time to work on the manuscript. 

A common nugget of writerly advice is to write every day, even if it's only for a little bit. "Make the time," they'll tell you. "Don't make excuses. You have to sacrifice if you want to be a writer, you know."

I sort of want to push them off the balcony of my new house, but I'm sure they mean well.

My agent completely understood that my time would be consumed by little tiny things like maintaining a full-time faculty job and buying a house with a sufficiently high balcony. He gave me plenty of time and space to move and settle and unpack.

Actually I still have a couple of boxes to unpack but anyway.

Yesterday my agent sent me his proposed revisions. These are the changes he recommends to make my manuscript as attractive as possible to the five-count'em-five publishers we'll be courting. 

In other words, I just got a hell of a lot of free professional editing.

Noodling.

Noodling.

It's wonderful feedback. I was not sure what to expect when my agent told me he was working on some high-level noodling, but it turns out he was looking at the big picture. It's like he wrote a college essay on my book, only without the stuffy writing. He identified themes and character motivations and conflicts, and told me where they were strong and where they needed extra help.

So that's my project for the next few weeks, polishing this manuscript until it glows, preferably in the dark.

You'll have to ask my agent

A literary agent has offered to represent my first novel, WITCH WAY. This is significant, because without an agent, my novel will remain unread and unloved, languishing forever in a dusty Dropbox folder.

Not this type of agent.

Not this type of agent.

In a stunning display of maturity, I did not respond to the offer with "YES OKAY REPRESENT ME PLEASE. TAKE MY NOVEL. TAKE IT! TAKE MY NOVEL AND ALSO HERE IS MY FIRSTBORN! I DO NOT HAVE A FIRSTBORN BUT I WILL MAKE ONE SPECIALLY FOR YOU!"

Though I was tempted.

The thing is, my manuscript is sitting with two other literary agents. Out of professional courtesy I owe them a week to make their decisions. One or both of them might choose to offer me representation, too. If they do, then I get to pick whichever one suits me best.

If they decline, that's okay, too, because I'll still have a literary agent, who I quite enjoyed talking with.

Updates to follow next week, after I know which one I'm going with.

Not my fault

In a mad whirlwind of creative energy, I reached into the ether and found eight thousand words, neatly packaged, waiting for me to tack them to the end of my novel and call it good. The climax and wrap-up, a full ten percent of the finished product, was written in a single day, this time last year.

Then I turned around and started making headway on the sequel. My pace dropped from superhuman levels, but I was still throwing words onto the screen at an extremely respectable pace.

Then my cat died, and Goblin, who always was a naughty girl, took my creative mojo with her into the afterlife.

I told her not to get cancer, but she didn't listen.

I told her not to get cancer, but she didn't listen.

The book, previously so biddable, became stubborn. It fought me at every turn. It dragged its heels. It disobeyed even the gentlest suggestions. My darling had become a teenager.

For a few more months I plodded on, determined to write Book The Second through sheer willpower, but I got sidetracked. Some of the diversions were necessary and reasonable--I made some substantial revisions to Book The First, and I wrote a couple of short stories--while other diversions were Candy Crush.

Worse than cigarettes.

Worse than cigarettes.

Plus my nom de real life was making a mess of things. Attending to her problems took away from my writing time and my peace of mind, and that's not even counting the hugely stressful interstate move I undertook at her behest.

All this to say: in the year since finishing my first draft of my first novel, my creative output has been sabotaged by hostile external forces, although I personally remain blameless. I can only hope that the enemies of my free time will dial back their campaign.

Hexy Lady

I have been silent for several months. This is not my fault. My nom de real life decided to pack her bags and move halfway across the country, without pausing to consider how a move of 850 miles might inconvenience me.

Fortunately I was able to influence her into relocating to a strategically valuable destination. My car now serves as a marketing tool, for instance:

I'm not a witch, but my protagonist is.

I'm not a witch, but my protagonist is.

That's Lucy's license plate, completely accurate, even down to the state. Free publicity, every time I drive.

Our new home is ideally located for my research. We are near to Cherokee, Lucy's ancestral homeland on her mother's side, and Asheville, the setting of Lucy's first book, Witch Way.

Speaking of: in response to my queries, three literary agents have now asked to see my manuscript. That's not too shabby. According to the best stats I could find, literary agents solicit manuscripts in response to no more than four percent of the queries they receive.

Agents then offer representation to less than one percent of those manuscripts, but I'd rather not think about those odds just now.

Instead I will be grateful that I am now in the same time zone as New York City, the ancestral homeland of literary agents. There will be no confusing time adjustments, should one of those agents decide my manuscript makes the cutoff. 

Literary agents

Good news: a literary agent asked to see my manuscript. I obliged her because I am considerate like that.

You don't need a literary agent if you plan to self-publish. All you need is money and a rudimentary grasp of the written language, and honestly some people treat that second requirement as more of a suggestion. 

You can usually skip the agent if you plan to publish with a small or academic press, particularly if your book is nonfiction. Even some of the medium-to-largish presses will accept un-agented manuscripts, though looking through the slush pile is usually a low priority. It could be months before they get around to reading it.

If you have written the best novel in the history of Western civilization--Crime and Punishment (but more thoughtful) mixed with Jane Eyre (but more romantic) mixed with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (but funnier)--you will die in obscurity, impoverished and alone, or at any rate you won't get published by the Big Five.

This is what happens if you don't get a literary agent.

This is what happens if you don't get a literary agent.

Literary agents are flooded with requests to look at people's writing. These requests usually take the form of a query letter, which usually consists of a short pitch, a synopsis or outline, and a short sample of the manuscript.

If the agent is persuaded by the query, she will ask to see the full manuscript. (This is the stage I'm at.) If she thinks she can sell it, she'll agree to represent the writer, thought she'll probably suggest manuscript revisions before she's willing to shop it around. Only after all these hurdles have been cleared will the agent consider sending the book to the big boys: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

In other words, it's extremely difficult to get your manuscript into the hands of a Big Five publisher, to say nothing of selling it. The odds of achieving publication are infinitesimal. 

But it sounds more fun than other long-odds activities, like climbing trees in thunderstorms to see if you can get stuck by lightning.

I don't want to self-publish. I'm no Dostoevsky or Brontë, not even one of the lesser ones, but I'm not horrible. That's not enough to stand out in the self-pub crowd, unfortunately. Everybody and her brother (the one with the rudimentary writing skills from the second paragraph; remember him?) has self-published. My book, although not-horrible, would barely stand a chance of being found online. Nor would it be found in bookstores or libraries, which typical don't carry self-published books.

Books from the big publishing houses, on the other hand: those are findable. They are promoted by marketing professionals, and they land on the shelves of local bookstores, national chains, and libraries. They might fizzle and die, but even the least-promoted titles still enjoy more visibility than I could ever achieve on my own. 

So now I wait a while, weeks or months, to see if this agent will represent me, If not, I have a fallback plan that involves the Doppler radar and a tinfoil hat.

Fangirling with Christopher Buehlman

Of all the novels I read last year, my favorite was The Necromancer’s House, a blend of horror and dark fantasy and literary fiction. I liked it so well that I took the unusual step of sending a Facebook friend request to the author, Christopher Buehlman.

Somewhat surprisingly, he accepted my friend request; it is not every day that a World Fantasy Award nominee agrees to connect with an unknown reader. I dashed him a quick note to say I liked his books, he dashed a quick note to say thanks, and that was that.

Well, apart from that one time with Goblin, I mean. My dearly departed cat had a penchant for walking on the laptop keyboard. One evening she contrived, all on her own, to send an instant message to Mr. Buehlman. It was not a very well-written piece of communication, as Goblin was functionally illiterate.

Cat-texting: it’s drunk-texting for the single woman.

Months later, out of the blue, I received a message from the author: he was going to be in town, and did I want to grab coffee?

For those of you who may be confused, permit me to clarify: this is not done.

Authors do not seek out fans. Or rather, they seek fans in a in a very broad sense, as when they do book signings or attend conventions—but they do not go looking for individual fans to hang out with. Of course not. They’ve read Stephen King’s Misery.

But far be it from me to tell a writer how to conduct his business. On a recent Sunday afternoon I drove to a coffee shop and met Chris—and yeah, I’m totally on a first-syllable basis with him now—and spent a couple of hours talking about his novels and his writing process and sundry other bookish things.

He is a delightful person, funny and smart and thoughtful. You will have to take my word for this.

His books are among the best horror novels being written today. You do not have to take my word for this. See for yourself:

  • Those Across the River: This debut novel is better than most writers manage in their whole careers. It's reminiscent of Stephen King in that you've got an ordinary town that seems slightly off, but our hero can't put his finger on why, and the insular townsfolk aren't telling. Which of course leads to carnage.
  • Between Two Fires: Alternate title: One Bad Thing After Another. The demons of Hell are waging war on Heaven, and they have loosed a plague upon the earth. The people call it the Black Death. This is an apocalyptic story of good vs. evil, set against the backdrop of medieval France.
  • The Necromancer's House: Andrew is a wizard and a recovering alcoholic. He loves Anneke, but she's a lesbian, so he settles for sleeping with Nadia, who is a bloodthirsty mermaid, but nobody's perfect so let's not judge. But when Nadia unwittingly kills the son of Baba Yaga, Andrew must prepare to battle the most powerful witch in the world.
  • The Lesser Dead: Prone to introspection and teenage angst, Joey Peacock is Holden Caulfield, if Holden Caulfield drank blood and could be killed by sunlight. Joey is a monster--Buehlman's vampires are not the sparkly kind--but he might not be the worst predator in New York City in 1978. Some new vampires have just arrived, strange little children who don't know the rules, and their appetites are insatiable.

Remember: if you read Buehlman's books and like them, he will have coffee with you. Or at least that's been my experience.