Judge A Book By Its Cover

We find new successes to measure in this web age.  I recently had my highest response ever on a Facebook post.  My wife Ruth says this was because it is a picture, and people are visual.  I wonder if it is just timing, so a post on a weekend captures more idle surfers instead of being submerged into oblivion by the endless, oncoming pile of midweek information.

The post was my book cover. Rather, a mockup of a cover for my thriller novel APPREHENSION prepared as a sales tool for an upcoming writers’ conference. At Thrillerfest in Manhattan next month, I will spend four days with authors and wannabees learning writing, publishing and editing tips within the mystery genre. For a fee, I can hang the cover as a poster in a hallway to be seen by thousands, or at least dozens, attending the conference between classes.  Classes like Glock, Kevlar or Squirtgun: Kitting Out Your Character.  Or Cardiologist, Neurologist or Proctologist: Ask Your Medical Questions.   One class I won’t attend but typical at these is on what the Secret Service really does, designed for neophyte writers outside the law enforcement realm.  Not me.

Here is the mockup cover.

Photo by Jim Craige- www.jimprophoto.com
Photo by Jim Craige- http://www.jimprophoto.com

The most important part for me will be a speed-dating session with literary agents. They don’t actually call it speed dating, but for four hours one afternoon about 30 agents will sit in a big room, and we unsigned writers will line up for three-minute sessions with them (less if they cut you off because you’re boring.)  In the book world nowadays, writers no longer mail manuscripts directly to publishers.  They sign with agents who act as middlemen.  This is reportedly good for publishers no longer overwhelmed by a flood of unsolicited and unremarkable manuscripts, and good for agents because it makes work for them, picking out the ones they like and sending them along to publishers who may like them. Or not.

For a new writer trying to break through, the trick is getting an agent’s attention, done almost always via the query. A query is a short letter, most often in email form, outlining what you wrote generally, a short synopsis and an author’s biography.  The agent, on his or her website, tells you (and of course, hundreds of others at any given time) what to put in the query.  The real trick, therefore, is rising to the top of the so-called slush pile of ten, 20, 30 queries an agent receives every day, by making your query shine in the pile which, if you fancy yourself a writer, should not be hard.  But it is. Whole conferences, books and on-line seminars are dedicated to writing killer queries and getting published. I attended one in Cleveland earlier this month (See my blog: Cut Off One Toe, right here on this website.)

Writers for whom the query/agent/publisher gateway remains closed have another way to go: self-publishing. No longer the “vanity press” last chance for losers it was when I grew up, self-publishing has grown in numbers and respectability with the rise of e-readers like Kindle and Nook, and the ubiquity of tablets and pads, “I” or otherwise.  I could have APPREHENSION in your hands in two days, and may go that route still. There is more money in it per book sold for the author, which is always good ( and since I’m giving ten percent of my profit to anti-police-suicide charities even better.) One problem is the Washington Post doesn’t review self-published work, and I admit, vainly, this matters. Libraries won’t shelve it, book stores won’t stock it, and it exists in a web netherworld generally unknown and unrecognized unless you find (read: pay) a way to advertise or a reader trips over it on the Amazon sales page or, as rarely but miraculously happens, it breaks through to bestseller-dom.  THE MARTIAN, FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY and OUTLANDER jump to mind. Three among thousands.

So self-publishing is my last resort, though the choice looms closer each month.  I began writing after stopping work at the police department in 2013 for cardiac  rehab after my heart attacks, wrote through my  actual retirement in March 2014, and finished in January 2015.  I naively gave myself a year to get an agent, and am six months overdue.  I console myself with the opportunity for rewrite.

But here is an unexpected thing.  I already knew self-publishing gives the author great control over production, pricing, advertising.  But envisioning my cover, contracting its creation, contributing to its look, all have been extremely satisfying.  Though my friend Jim Craige, a former police sergeant and now professional photographer, did the shoot, he depicted an idea of mine.  I think it looks good, and from the response on Facebook, others do too.   If readers don’t judge it, but notice it by the cover, I may do okay.

Here’s the (probably) final conference poster with the cover and some begging, if Jim and I don’t tinker too much more with it. Pretend it is on a two-foot by three-foot board.  Oh, and it has my first blurb, thank you Ken Howard, my former boss and creator of the Alexandria Police Street Crimes Unit, aka The Jumpout Boys, fictionally depicted in the book.

Photo by Jim Craige- www.jimprophoto.com
Photo by Jim Craige- http://www.jimprophoto.com

Wish me luck at the conference. It will probably be worth a blog, in three weeks.

Cut Off One Toe, or What I Learned at Writers’ Camp

I had lunch recently with Tom Young, a good novelist who lives in Alexandria and was gracious enough to meet with a fan.  Since I finished my novel I’ve learned that getting published no longer involves sending a full manuscript to publishing houses and waiting for their review and approval. It now requires sending “queries” to literary agents who act as the gatekeepers to the publishers, reviewing and vetting manuscripts and sending them on as they feel appropriate (read: profitable.) Young suggested a different path.

His advice on how to get an agent was to attend writers’ conferences and meet agents personally, rather than continue my so-far failed process of sending cold queries via email and hoping they rise to the top of the “slush pile,” the stack of hundreds of such queries agents receive every week.

Writers’ conferences? What manner of strange cult or coven could these be? Writing is a solitary sport, a narcissistic drive to pour your soul onto pages and force them on the purchasing public.  We writers hide in attics and lonely rooms while sticking pencils in our ears and stirring out words to be hammered into sentences and chapters and books. We do not have conferences.

Turns out we do.  So I attended a conference in Cleveland (Go Cavs!) on the topic of How to Get Published, part of which offered the opportunity to sit down with real, live agents and pitch my work.  A pitch is sometimes described as the “elevator talk.” It’s what you would say to an agent if they were trapped with you on a short elevator ride. (And, apparently, “Please, please, please help me sell my book, it’s the best you’ll ever read and we’ll make millions” is not proper form.) Prearranged, ten-minute agent talks.  Like speed dating.

The two I met with were most kind to this first-time pitcher, and their questions walked me through my awkward and shy stumbles trying to describe my 101,000-word masterpiece, er, manuscript in just a few sentences. I tried to tell the plot, themes and characters of a 400-page book in a paragraph or two. They nodded and smiled, their eyes didn’t glaze over and they asked me to send samples so I must not have failed.  But I learned, to my horror, that the rigid rules of the publishing houses decree that mysteries and thrillers are unsellable at lengths above 90,000 words. “They won’t even look at it, it won’t get on the shelves.”

“Go cut ten percent of your book.”

Sure, that’s easy. I’ll take my precious words, my blood poured out on the page and wipe it away.  I’ll delete the efforts of my intellect, my life’s work…to date.  I could easier cut off one of my ten toes.

Editing and cutting and the word count limits imposed by publishers were part of a lecture by Chuck Sambuchino, the god of agent issues who edits the annual Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.  (Read him at  guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog)  Main topics were: How to Get Published (my main target); Your Book Publishing Options Today (to include traditional paper and e-books); Everything You Need to Know About Agents (more on the inescapable need to query); and How To Market Your Books by, for example, hawking them in Facebook and blogs. (Do you feel hawked? You will.)  Or by linking your blog to others already well-established [see what I did with Sambuchino, above]).

More than 200 people just like me were at the conference – excited, wide-eyed and staring forward to absorb the expert advice that we pray will pull our works out of the pool of unpublished prose and slap it on the New York Times Bestseller List.  Some of us may get there, after we “murder our darlings.”  This is advice written by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1916, a Britisher known, at least to me, less for his famous Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 than for being the namesake of novelist Adam Hall’s spy character Quiller. (If you’ve never read The Quiller Memorandum, you’ve never read.)   What he said was this:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (Emphasis his.)

I had five hours to consider this heinous process driving home from Cleveland, envisioning what scenes or characters would expire under my editors’s knife. Whom would I kill? What would go unsaid? What detail, description or drama would go away.

Turns out, maybe none. During my slash-and-burn editing sessions this week I am finding dozens of words, phrases and passages that are not necessary and even in the way. Sure, they looked cute when they fell on the page but with a mandate to kill, I can see they are chaff that covers the real wheat of the book. My goodness, I can writer flowery. I can use ten-dollar words where dimes would do. I can repeat a point like nails holding on a bootheel. And I can cut this dross without losing a line I need. Not themes, nor characters, nor plot. So far, six chapters edited, and 2,000 words cut. This is easier than I thought.

And somewhat embarrassing.