Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch
After the Fall 2016

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Good Dog or Doggone Good?

This is a true story it would be nice not to believe.  One of the country's most famous and high-powered female agents stated in a published interview:  she preferred to handle inexperienced new writers because she could teach them more easily to be good dogs.  To the best of my knowledge, I'm offering the first words of protest about that remark.

Big dogs, bad dogs, even mad dogs were the fashion years ago.  A famous horror writer told me, back when my first book had just hit the stores, to fire any agent who failed to listen when I cracked the whip...and tell any editor to stick it if they corrected my prose.  Well, he's long dead and out of print, and times have certainly changed.

But a new race of good dogs, panting to crawl on their bellies for a pat on the head or a bone, is a more frightening prospect if we think of the future of art.  It's more frightening because it would require a race of agent-masters prepared to turn down artists who refuse to be their pet good dogs.  The best agents want well-mannered clients--of course.  But they also want clients with vision, passionate convictions and the ferocious drive to excel.  The best writers want tough-minded agents--of course.  But they also want agents who'll listen, at least, to wild, risky new ideas--like, say, Pillars of the Earth?    Thank God, Ken Follett refused to play Good Dog.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Would It Scare You to Send the First Page of Your Book?

In the past, the agents who scared me the most were those who requested a query and 2 or 3 pages, no  more, of the book.  A year ago I spotted an agent's demand for the first page alone.  Now, other agents also scared me with requests for 10, 20, 30 or up to 50 pages--by which time I'd have just finished clearing my throat and be moseying along to the Good Part. starting to tie things together, etc.  Part of me could see their point...but 1-3 pages?  How could even the best of those agents spy the epic grandeur of my work, its marvelous complexity, from a sample that small?

My thinking has changed on this matter.  High time, too, I might add.  After all, when I go to a bookstore and a new novel's cover has captured my eye, what do I do every time?  Flip through a couple of pages.  I'm not necessarily looking for an action-packed opening set piece.  But in the books I choose to buy, some magical something has spoken to me:  something in the prose or authoritative tone has led me to know that I'll be in good hands--even though I may not know where the heck the book is going.

Luckily, my thinking had also changed on the writing itself.  Though I took my time unraveling the new book's central mystery, I'd come to feel that certain things should happen at definite stages if I were to draw readers in.  And my beta readers had also saved me a couple of pages of lard at the start.  Result:  for the first time in my career, I felt as confident in sending out a few pages as I did fifty. 

A little later on, I plan to post a detailed chronicle of my querying process for this book.  For now, my advice is this:  if you're fearful of showing small bits of your work, the writing's on the wall:  Rewrite!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Killer questions for query writers

Which query serves you better for a wonder of a book that is new, fresh, bold and dazzlingly you?
1)   The formulaic 'speed query'  of 200-250 words, selling the sizzle of the plot like an Egg McMuffin or a bucket of Chicken McBites, while skimping or ignoring completely such unimportant issues as style, character, credentials, your reasons for choosing this agent, etc. 
2)  The untraditional or flow query of 300-350 words, whatever you need--while still under a page.  While you still give the beats of the story, you're selling the steak, not the sizzle.  And the heat in the kitchen may grow damned intense, the percentage of form rejections rocketing up through the roof.  Because the flow query springs from this and not some other book, from yourself and not some clone, from your drive to touch hearts with your talent and not make pocket money.  The flow query takes balls of brass on both the query writer and the agent who receives it.  And balls of brass are rare indeed.

Who wins and who loses at the numbers game?
1)  Speed query writers may rack up more requests for full or partial reads because mastery of the speed format does require a certain pizzazz...on a par with that of a flipper of those fatty Egg McMuffins.  But speed-flipping is a high-risk game, since next to nothing's being told about the real heart of the book, the soul of the lead character.  In nailing the beats, the tale's heartbeat is lost.  And the writer remains a mere cypher.  But nothing can be hidden long when the full or the partial arrives.  The agent sits, panting with pleasure--then sees his or her Hot Date strip down to who they really are...and the poor agent groans, 'Oh, Gawwwwwwwd!'  What do fifty requests for a partial or full amount to if the McMuffin results in tossed cookies?
2)   Now, then.  Let's assume that a serious flow query of 325 words receives a 90-95% form rejection rate...and 1 or 2 requests for fulls, along with a couple of partial requests.  No guarantees, not even here.  But these requests are grounded in real interest in substance, not sizzle...real appreciation of the style and personality that come alive in the query.  All it takes is one acceptance--from an agent on fire for your flow.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rebel Yell: Conclusion--The Great News

The center of power is shifting.  We don't have to prowl the streets of ancient Rome in threadbare, filthy togas, begging for crumbs from a patron--or fearing, like Virgil and Horace, the loss of our heads if we ticked The Man off.  (Yes, Augustus, you are a god!)  Today the public is the patron.  And from 50 Cent to Justin Bieber to authors Michael Prescott, Amanda Hocking, E. Lynn Harris, Jack (Chicken Soup) Canfield...musicians and authors have made their cases, and won, with the ultimate court of appeals.

The great news is better than the fact that writers can reach the public directly, more quickly and cheaply than ever.  It's better even than the fact that Direct Publishing has lost its stigma and is beginning to acquire a certain cachet.  The great news is that, finally, we get the one thing no writer has ever been able to get without getting into print:  coast-to-coast feedback from readers who aren't at all shy about voting in their Amazon reviews.  We may not always like the votes, but that isn't the point:  we are now getting votes that empower us to grow and write better and still better books.  We get the chance to roll the dice, and even go for broke, on getting our Happy Feet onto that stage to prove that we know how to boogie.

And it doesn't get any better than that.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rebel Yell: Part Three--The Good News

The Good News is really terrific and seems to work out on all fronts.

1)  First things first:  You the writer.  Or for the purpose of this post, let's tone that down a bit to Us.   As writers we can and should resist any derogatory reference to our e-books as "self-published".  First off, the term suggests poor quality--while at least as much hardcover crap hits the stores as first-rate writing goes online.  Second, one of the hallmarks of self-publishing has been the fact that writers have paid vanity publishers to print, but not really distribute, their work.  As a result, self-published writers who went on to score--such as E. Lynn Harris--.had to pack their vans with books and drive around the country.  E-book publishing is so new and different that it deserves a different name.  After all, we don't pay to get published and the books are available to anyone willing to part with $.99 or a couple of bucks.  Plus, I understand, royalties are higher than most publishers pay...and they're paid promptly several times a year.
    b)  The term I propose is:  Direct Publishing.  Most of us know this scene well:  we're moving along on a project we love...we're really smoking, on all eights...when the whispers begin to go off in our ears:  Our agent will never approve of this scene...Our editor will red pencil this page in a blink--or, worse, she';ll pass on the next-book option clause...Or:  readers don't want this kind of book from me.  Meanwhile, our hearts pound with excitement and love for the weird wonder that we're working on...and, God help us, we can't stop ourselves.  I do not advocate not listening to our agents.  I do not advise anyone, in today's market, to flip off their editors.  I  do say:  Now we have a choice for books we cannot help but write:  we can take the Clint Eastwood approach of Two or three for our fans/agents/editors...and one, now and then, for ourselves:  Direct Publishing gives us the freedom to gamble on our guts.

2)  Agents also reap from what we sow Directly.  And several agents are on record, on line, as scouting out new talent through writers' online work.  Their existing clients will be happier and better behaved when 'noncommercial' projects aren't doomed to rot in drawers.  And these DP labors of love will keep their clients' names alive and help to build their audience.

3)  Publishers are only beginning to discover how to hustle their writers through clever DP.  A recent story in USA Today spoke of cult mystery favorite, George Pelicanos--whose new book was introduced as a $.99 Kindle book, price soon to be raised to $4.99, while it's also released as a trade paperback and hardcover.   Time for word of mouth to build and help prevent those speedy store returns.

Things are about to get more and more interesting.  For now, enjoy the Good News:  We are not self-publishing--but empowering ourselves through DP.