Thursday, July 30, 2009

How Not to Query

by Michelle Gagnon

Recently there was a query letter discussion on one of the lists that I frequent. Everyone chimed in with differing opinions about what works, and what almost guarantees one of those soul-crushing form letter rejections. It made me reflect back on my own letters (and yes, you read that correctly: letters, plural).

Out of curiosity, I asked the multi-talented Luc Hunt from my agency (the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency) to dissect two of my query letters. The first was for a book that was roundly rejected (rightfully so, I must say) by every agent I queried.

The second was the letter that got me a nibble for a full manuscript, which eventually led to representation.

So here's the good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy. Luc's analysis is below each letter:

Dear Mr. Hunt,

I am looking for an agent to represent my book.

“Adventures of the Almost Wed” tells the story of Alexandra, a young woman attempting to rebuild her life after a failed engagement. The novel takes place over the course of a year, opening with the break-up of the central relationship, and concluding on what was to be their wedding day. In the interim Alexandra confronts obstacles ranging from long-distance maternal disapproval to the challenges of dating a movie star. At the end Alexandra faces the future with a renewed sense of self-worth, and the knowledge that there’s more to life than love and marriage. Written in the first person, the style is similar to that of Helen Fielding in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Melissa Banks’ book “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing.”

Although this is my first novel, my non-fiction articles and columns have previously been published on numerous websites, including and

Thank you for considering “Adventures of the Almost Wed.” I look forward to hearing from you.


Michelle Gagnon


This starts off with an all too obvious statement. No one queries an agent unless they are looking for representation. Personally, I respond best when the author gets right to the story. Michelle then goes on to tell about the plot, but does so in a way that overly simplifies the trajectory of the character's development. She goes so far as to point out the moral. A more engaging summary would reveal an exigency latent in the narrative, and leave out the didactic conclusion. Michelle also compares her work to others, which can be positive, but is a matter of interpretation, and possibly tenuous. It is good to identify both what is familiar and unique about your manuscript. She concludes with an almost apologetic mention of her publishing credits. Politeness is welcome, but if you have little history or are not confident in the prestige of your previous venues, then just state that you are a first time author. There's nothing wrong with not having a record.

And here's query letter #2:

Dear Mr. Hunt,

I’m hoping that you’ll consider representing my novel “The Tunnels,” a suspense thriller set at a small East coast university. A serial killer is ritualistically murdering the daughters of powerful men in the tunnels below campus. Special Agent Kelly Jones, a jaded Clarisse Starling ten years into her career, is called in to investigate.

Kelly confronts a daunting list of suspects ranging from tweedy professors to one-armed janitors. Complicating matters further, a grief-ridden father pulls strings to get an investigator with his own agenda assigned to the case. Together, they must find a madman obsessed with pagan sorcery before he claims another victim.

My non-fiction articles have appeared in Glamour, San Francisco Magazine, and CondeNast Traveler, among other publications. The book is set on the campus of Wesleyan University, my alma mater. I researched Norse mythology and neo-paganism extensively before writing “The Tunnels.” All of the rituals outlined in the story are based on fact. I’m planning a series of books featuring Agent Kelly Jones and her continuing efforts to track down serial killers.

I’ve included a brief synopsis and the first chapter of my manuscript. Thanks for considering “The Tunnels.” I look forward to hearing from you.


Michelle Gagnon


Michelle's second query is immediately compelling. She begins with a journalistic statement of the facts that quickly answers the who, what, why, and when of the proposal. Due to this introduction, it is easy for me to be drawn in by the action of her story. She follows the opening with an interesting communication of some of the particulars, grounding her query in what makes it unique. Michelle also gives a more developed biography of herself as an author, and provides us with details of her personal connection to the setting of the novel. This leads me to believe that not only is she an authority on her subject, but that her perspectives are likely to be well researched and credible. The query closes with a brief mention of future projects, and that a synopsis and sample chapter follow. Well done.


In conclusion, one could certainly make too much of a query letter. It is essentially a one page introduction of the work and author to their prospective agent. The nature of the thing is surely subjective, yet I hope to have shown at least a few helpful parameters.

Luc wanted me to mention that sadly, the Spitzer Agency is currently not accepting submissions. But his comments apply to most agents, in terms of what they're looking for and what gets tossed aside.

He also said that recently, the agency has been experiencing a blitz of "spam queries." Apparently there are companies that will assemble a query letter for you, then send it out en masse to every agent in the business. He recommended against using one of these companies-the deluge has been such that it's off-putting. The next Da Vinci Code could be buried in that pile, and they probably wouldn't bother reading the query.


Oh, and by the way...look what I found when I dug through my files. That's right, a form rejection letter. From my current agent (boy, did we have a good laugh about this).

So if you're at the querying stage, take heart. Never underestimate the power of persistence. If your letter doesn't seem to be garnering a good response, take another look at it. Show it to a few people whose opinion you trust, or sign up for a workshop that teaches you to hone it, then send it out again. It might take a few years (it sure took me that long) but in the end, persistence pays off.

For more query submission tips, check out John Gilstrap's last post here.

Playing Fair is Overrated

By John Gilstrap

No, I know it's not my usual day, but Michelle and I are switching blog dates this week . . .

At the Midwest Writers Workshop last week, I taught a session called, “Quit Whining and Send Another Query,” in which I shared what I know about the mechanics and emotions of finding an agent and dealing with rejection along the way.

Students expressed huge frustration with the snail’s pace at which the process unfolds. You submit a query and you wait weeks for a response. Sometimes the response never comes, so the wait stretches out interminably. I suggested that they just forget about that one and send another query. Oh, no! they cried. At a previous conference a visiting agent said that when agents request sample chapters or an entire manuscript, they expect exclusivity; they expect that no other submissions will be made to other agents until the requestor makes up his or her mind. If you send out other queries during the exclusive period, you'd be breaking the rules.

Huh? When did business become such a genteel sport? When did it become one party's responsiblilty to make the other party comfortable during a negotiation? “It’s only polite,” a student told me. Okay, I can buy that. It’s certainly more polite than waiting five or six weeks to finally send a form rejection letter that might or might not have a hand-written signature. If the manuscript is rejected, how has the writer benefitted from losing momentum on his submissions? It it's accepted, how has he benefitted from not knowing if there's another agent out there who's even more passionate about his work?

Sorry, folks, but this is business; an “implied exclusive” means as little as an “implied million-dollar advance.” Implications, like assumptions, have no place in a competitive marketplace.

Please understand that, as I told the class, my word is my bond. I unfailingly deliver what I promise. I never lie. I'm a terrible liar anyway, and I jealously guard my integrity. That said, where there’s silence in a business negotiation, there’s also a poker game in progress. Agents know that, and publishers know that, and they play the game accordingly in every negotiation.
So where is it written that the writer is supposed to sit politely and observe implied exclusivity? Did I miss a meeting? A memo?

Maybe—maybe—if the implied arrangement included a 5-day turn-around, I could buy into it; but I’ve heard too many horror stories of eight-week responses and year-long silences to see anything but a woefully stacked deck.

“But publishing is a small community,” someone said. “If you break the implied rule and submit partials to more than one agent, won’t they get angry?” In a perfect world, hell yes someone will get angry. Well, maybe not angry, but at least disappointed. That's what happens when you're rejected. Welcome to our world, Mr. Agent.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that three prospective agents have requested manuscripts from you. There are only three ways for the scenario to play out, and all of them are either neutral or they play to your benefit:
1. All three reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
2. One accepts you, the others reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
3. More than one accepts you. Woo-hoo! Now you get to go shopping. You get to decide which agent is your preferred choice. You accept one, reject the others. You don’t have to tell the losers why they lost, but even if you do, and the rejected agents get pissed, what do you care? You got the agent you wanted.

Let me emphasize that I am not talking about deception. If an agent asks for an exclusive and you agree, then you honor your word, pure and simple. Short of that, I think you’re free to submit at will. Want to really play hard ball? Consider this: if the prospective agent tells you outright that he expects an exclusive and you say nothing, he might assume that the deal is closed, but there’s still no contract. There has to be an offer and an acceptance. One does not guarantee the other.

I would love to hear from people who think my position is unreasonable. What am I missing? Are we writers truly honor-bound to play politely in an industry that fights dirty?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Houston, we have a problem!

Last week, Lynn Sholes and I completed our fifth novel together. The working title is THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. Let me tell you, collaboration is tough, but collaborating on fiction is insane. Somehow we manage to pull it off—at least our books get published. I think that’s a good sign. All our previous books dealt with complex plots, but our newest thriller is the most complex so far.

Here’s the premise: A journalist discovers that someone is stealing the burial remains of the most heinous mass murderers in history. She uncovers a plot involving the human sacrifice of thousands in the name of an ancient cult. As her life becomes threatened because of what she knows, she learns that the only way to stop the threat is to find and destroy an obscure religious relic dating back to the time of Christ.

As you can guess, this is not a lighthearted cozy. We’re talking high concept, high stakes thriller.

So now Lynn and I are into the rewriting phase of the book. This is a two-part process. First, there’s the line editing; catching all the typoz, grammer and punktuasion issues. The second part of the process is dealing with plotting problems. And the more complex the plot, the more chances there are for holes. We’ve all heard of the phrase, “painting yourself into a corner”. At last count, we’ve managed to do that at least 5 times in this book. But here’s where collaboration comes to the rescue.

Lynn and I have a favorite phrase for when we’re in big trouble. “Houston, we have a problem.” During the rewrite of this new one, we’ve said it too many times. But because there are two minds at work here—some may argue two damaged minds—we’ve been able to brainstorm our way out of every corner so far. Now, mind you, it wasn’t easy. It took many hours of conference calls to resolve huge holes discovered in the rewrite process. One in particular was a deal breaker—literally if we didn’t solve it, the book would collapse under its own weight. But through persistence and the liberal use of “what if”, we waited in the corner until the paint dried, and then we walked out of the room.

So, how do you handle it? What do you do when you find yourself in that lonely corner and you realize your book is sinking like the Titanic? Who do you turn to? Do you have a sounding board? Your spouse? A fellow writer? A trusted beta reader? Or is it all up to you alone? How do you work yourself out of that proverbial corner?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Crazy-writer deadline syndrome

By Kathryn Lilley

I recently sent a note of apology to someone who had requested information from me. I had been extremely remiss with this person--not sending her info on a timely basis, and forgetting to respond to emails. In my apology note, I lamely mentioned that I'd just emerged from a writing deadline, which to me is the equivalent of a free-diver trying to surface from deep water without blacking out.

"Oh, I didn't realize you were on a deadline, no problem," she replied in her gracious response, as if the deadline totally excused my flakiness.

This poor woman has to deal with writers all the time, I realized then. She's used to us.

Then I started thinking about all my other deadline behaviors that could be considered annoying, or even strange, by family and friends. My crazy-writer deadline behaviors include:

The Big Tune-out

It's not that I deliberately don't listen to people (Okay, sometimes it is deliberate), but I frequently tune them out. This mostly happens when I'm on a deadline, which means it happens a lot. I might even respond to someone during a conversation, but not remember it later. It's kind of like brain on auto-pilot.

To Kill a Magpie

When I'm out and about with my husband, I frequently dive for a pen and write detailed notes about our surroundings: the full moon hovering between two palm trees at night, a bag lady sitting in a bus shelter, the timbre of silverware clatter--I take notes about anything I can use later in my writing. Inevitably, I have left my notepad at home, so I drag home notes scribbled on scraps of things: a napkin, a flyer, even the back of a business card. My husband must think he lives with a magpie.

Hair on Fire

It's predictable: Six weeks before any deadline, I go on a tear. This means that I'm a) Constantly hunched over the laptop, muttering, b) Setting the alarm for 4 a.m., then groaning my way to wakefulness over the course of several Snooze cycles, and c) Bounding out of bed at odd hours of the night to tap out some problem-solving idea that struck me.

I do not talk very much during this time. And when I do, it's not pleasant.

So there it is. I could go on, but the length of the list is starting to make me feel bad about myself. I would like to feel that I'm not alone in my crazy-writer deadline syndromes. Have you any to share?

Take the crazy-writer quiz

Just found a fun quiz that tells you what kind of writer you are. (You have to be logged into Twitter) I'm Tom Wolfe, per the quiz.

Crafting The Synopsis

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week I sent my agent a synopsis for my new WIP - a proposed YA novel that blends history, fantasy and suspense. I haven't actually written it yet but I crafted a synopsis to achieve two things: First, to get feedback from my agent on my idea for the book and second, to focus my own mind.

The concept of writing a synopsis of a book that has yet to be written may seem strange to many people but I find it an invaluable first step. For me the synopsis precedes a more detailed chapter outline (as you can see I'm a planner) but also provides a global view that helps solidify in my mind the key elements for the novel: the tone, characters and setting for the book. Though my synopsis provides an overview of the plot it doesn't go into any more detail than the summary you might find on the dust jacket of a book. In the case of my YA novel, I found I could craft the synopsis even though, as yet, I have no real idea how the problem presented is actually resolved.

In many ways I find writing a synopsis harder than writing the book itself - for it has to be a succinct encapsulation of all the facets of the story and should also be a vehicle for presenting the 'hook' or premise that will (hopefully!) generate excitement for the project. I spent many, many hours tearing my hair out over my first synopsis (for Consequences of Sin) which I was going to use at a (helpful but horrific) speed dating for agent session. I ended up handing it over at lunch to the woman who would go on to be my first agent and I truly think it was the synopsis that 'sold' her on the idea for the book. Though producing that first synopsis was a stressful experience it taught me the value of the exercise and now I prepare a synopsis before I write each book.

To me the value of the process is threefold:
  • It forces me to compress my ideas into one or two unifying themes that give an overall flavor for the tone of the book.
  • It provides me with the one to two line 'hook' that I can then use when pitching the idea and which my agent can also use when talking to editors and others about the project. I also send my agent multiple project synopses to get input on which is the best, strategically, to work on next.
  • It already starts me thinking about how I will frame the book - and by this I mean in marketing terms: What kind of book is it? How would a publisher categorize and market it? What other books is it likely to be compared to?
Now this may all sound very anal and weird but I find the exercise to be a critical first step for me. It comes after I've done my initial research and once the idea I have for the book has crystallized in my own mind, even if the details of plot still remain unknown.

So how about you? Does anyone else put together a synopsis at the beginning of a project? How difficult is it for you to distill down your book into a one page description? What elements do you think make a synopsis compelling?

Sunday, July 26, 2009


by James Scott Bell

Today is July 26, a day of celebration for me. For one thing, it marks my debut on The Kill Zone, and I couldn't be more pleased to be included with six writers I admire. I've learned a lot from this august company, and am proud to be added to the mix.

This date also happens to be one that changed my life forever—for it was on July 26, 1980, that I met my wife.

I was at a birthday party for a friend. It had spilled out into the courtyard of his apartment building, where I sat at a table with a couple guys, yakking. I happened to look up and saw a blond vision of loveliness heading up the stairs to the apartment. I turned to my comrades and said, "I'll see you later."

I got to the apartment just as she was hugging my friend. Her back was to me. I silently motioned for my friend to introduce me. And that, as they say, was that. I fell like five tons of brick and mortar. It took me all of two-and-a-half weeks to ask her to marry me. (Perhaps this explains why I favor first page action in my books). Eight months later we were wed and my life has been richly blessed ever since (in no small part due to Cindy's sharp editorial eye; she's always my first reader).

When I think of these events, the word serendipity comes to mind. It's a word derived from a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (an ancient name for Sri Lanka). The story tells of an eminent trio making happy discoveries in their travels, through accident and observation. The English writer Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity to describe this combination of chance and mental discernment.

Which is a long way of saying that some of the best things that happen to us in life are "happy accidents" because we've shown up, and are aware.

Much of the best writing we do is serendipitous, too. As Lawrence Block, the dean of American crime fiction, put it, "You look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for."

Doesn't that describe some of the best moments in your writing? I once had a wife character who was supposed to move away for a time, to get out of danger. That's what I'd outlined. But in the heat of a dialogue scene with her husband, she flat out refused to go. Turns out she was right and I was wrong, and the story was better for it.

Can we ramp up serendipity as we write? I think so. Here are a few suggestions.

Don't just be about imposing your plans on the story to the detriment of happy surprises. Be ready to shift and move.

Write what you fear. Go where the risks are in the story. Challenge yourself.

Research. When you delve deeply into the areas you're writing about – by reading, talking to experts, or doing something in the field – you inevitably come up with gems that will enliven your story or even change it into something other than what you had planned. And that's not a bad thing.

Finally, write first, analyze later. It is in the heat of production that diamonds are formed – a striking image, a line of dialogue, a new character. But you have to be prepared to go with the flow, to play it out and see where things lead.

The way of serendipity is open to every writer, be you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants type, or anything in between. It's just a matter of showing up and being aware. And the more you write, the more you'll recognize serendipitous moments when they arise.

Has serendipity played a role in your own writing? Tell us about it.

And thanks again to The Kill Zone for the invitation. A happy surprise indeed.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is There A Thread Here Somewhere?

John Ramsey Miller

I got an email this week from Jennifer Chappelle. She is opening a new bookstore in downtown Locust, NC called Uwharrie Books (U War EE). Her new shop is going to feature books by North Carolina authors and she intends to make Saturdays author event day where authors can come in and sign their books for local book lovers. Locust is a small town, but one with a Walmart for serious competition. If there are enough readers in the area who will shop at an independent, hopefully Uwharrie Books will do well. It’s refreshing to see someone willing to swim upstream against a swift current. We’ve seen the trend of readers to buy cheap at any cost (the small hand sellers who were once the backbone of the industry), an erosion of customer loyalty, and a trend away from reading for the TVs, Gaming devices, and PCs. All of these trends can change when people get fed up with insipid TV content, winning an imaginary war, and shopping at giant box stores that are taking over the world. If and when “they” decide to try thinking and imagining once again, and decide that a few cents more to maintain stores owned by actual members of their community, who reinvest in that community, strikes a chord. Please, don’t the Waltons have enough in the bank yet?

Walter Cronkite was buried Thursday in New York. Uncle Walter was a fixture for my generation, a supreme and trusted journalist who had watched from the sidelines as the news he was devoted to reporting (without injecting his own bias, well, except for declaring the Vietnam War lost, which is still being debated) evolved into a cross between a carnival fright ride and a candy store. The media seems intent on keeping the populace scared to death, depressed about the state of the world, and aware of the importance of keeping up with the latest fads. The Today Show is nothing but one long commercial for products, punctuated by celebrity shenanigans, quick bursts of terrifying news and sound-bites of political propaganda. It bothers me. It bothers me a lot. Newsmen seem to be chosen for their pleasing appearance, rather than their journalistic abilities. Just as people get the Government they deserve, so goes it with the news. We are asking for this and for it to continue. Hard to imagine this superficiality is so widely accepted. It is our job as thriller authors to entertain and scare the crap out of people, and the news outlets are usurping our positions. Why do people need us if they can get the crap scared out of them every time they turn on their TV sets?

And the trend toward reality shows should be helping bookellers. I’d rather read War & Peace in Russian than watch Survivor, Bridezilla, Housewives of Orange County, New York City, or New Jersey, or I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! So you’d think people would be reading more as TV hurdles down the slippery slope greased so thoroughly by Jerry and Maury. The sad thing is I see it getting much worse before it gets any better.
What does that say about us? You know very well what it says.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The First Page

By John Gilstrap

Greetings from Muncie, Indiana, where I have the honor of serving on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference on the campus of Ball State University. As part of my responsibilities, I'm evaluating students' manuscripts. I had forgotten how much I learn about my own writing by helping others improve theirs.

The manuscripts submitted to me are all thrillers, and the submissions were limited to five pages in length. As you might expect, the competency of the writing--from a commercial standpoint--varies fairly significantly among the students I'm evaluating, but I've noticed a common denominator among all of them that I think is a potential trap for writers everywhere: Slow first pages.

In this particular batch, the slowness trap is mostly about physical description. We open with a detailed rendering of eye color, fabric, hand gestures or in one notable case, breast size. In six of the ten manuscripts I evaluated, literally nothing had happened by the end of the five-page submission.

In the early drafts of everything I write, I seem to need a few pages of warm-up before I really get down to the business of telling the story at hand. That's my process, and like all things process-related, I don't even try to understand it anymore. It just is what it is. But I always go back and edit out all of that stuff. At least I try to.

I occasionally hang out in bookstores and watch people shop for their next book. The pattern is universal: Look at the cover; read the jacket notes; read the first page. Inexplicably to me, a significant minority also read the last page. Then they make their decision. I make my decision the same way. Don't we all?

Those first few pages need to really sizzle. With any luck at all, the first line really sizzles. Ditto lines two, three, four . . . all the way to the end of the book. There's probably some forgiveness somewhere in the middle, once you have the reader hooked, and they've already spent their money, but man those first pages are the audition. They're the sales pitch. Thy've got to scream.

Do you obsess about your openings? Do you re-write the beginning a dozen times like I do? Are you constantly aware of that reader out there who's judging you from a cold start based only on those first words?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Writer/Reader Pact

by Michelle Gagnon

We've all experienced it- you stumble across a book that grabs you from page one and doesn't let go. As an author, it's always my goal to create that experience, a connection with a reader who hopefully becomes a devoted fan. And as a reader myself, I love that thrill of discovery.

A few years ago, I had this experience with a new-to-me author. The book kept me up most of the night. As always with a book that I really love, I caught myself slowing down in the later chapters, not wanting it to end. When I realized the book was actually fourth in a series, I rushed out to buy the rest and proceeded to devour them over the course of a week.

Then I got to the final chapter of the latest installment, the most recent release. There were three main characters whose storylines arced through all of the books. One of them was suddenly, inexplicably killed off. Not in the climax, mind you, but in the denouement, after the storm in the book had passed and everything had been neatly resolved.

It was one in the morning. I dragged myself out of bed, powered up my laptop, and went to the author's website, only to have it confirmed. (I hate spoilers, so I'm not going to name the author). In a letter to her readers she explained that yes, that character was indeed gone for good. There would be no "Bobby Ewing/it was all a dream" turnaround in the next book. In fact, she was starting an entirely new series, although she wasn't shutting the door on the previous one.

I know that it sounds needlessly melodramatic, but I was shocked. I felt betrayed. There's an unspoken pact that writers and readers enter into, especially when a book is a series. Terrible, horrible things may happen to the heroes/heroines, but chances are they will survive. If they don't, they'll most likely die heroically during the book's climax, probably saving at least one other life before expiring. This felt wrong to me, a slap in the face. A lot of other fans agreed-whole chat room forums were devoted to people lamenting the loss of this character, and swearing off the author's books forever.

I initially felt the same way, but decided to give the new series a chance. Two books in, I still wasn't convinced. I liked the new series, but it didn't grab me the way the other one had. I didn't develop the same connection to the characters, and ended each feeling slightly unsatisfied.

When I discovered that her latest book merged both series, I was intrigued and decided to give it a chance. By the end of the first chapter, I knew the connection was back. The two series had been blended believably and seamlessly. Oddly, characters that had left me cold in earlier books suddenly came to life when paired together. It was all new and yet familiar. And behind it all was the unmistakeable hand of someone who knew what she was doing.

Experiencing that had a profound affect on me as a writer. Reading the forums a few years ago I had been struck by the tenor of the complaints. The outcry was such that I thought the author had made a tremendous mistake. She'd alienated her base, and sales would invariably fall. It was the equivalent of Lee Child suddenly killing off Jack Reacher-would his fans remain as devoted if he did that, in an effort to try something new?

I have no idea what happened on the sales front, but I can say that for me at least, this went a long way toward revitalizing a series that was in danger of stagnating (and, considering the setting, falling victim to Cabot Cove syndrome). And it shifted my own perception of where that line was drawn, and what the rules of this particular writer/reader pact were. In her latest I feared for every character at different points, since the author has now made it clear that any of them are fair game, and the completely unexpected can and might happen. No one is safe. And in a thriller, maybe that should be the rule.

So what's the consensus- is killing off a main character in a series beyond the pale, or will you keep coming back for more regardless?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Criticizing the critic

Novelist Alice Hoffman created a dust-up recently when she used Twitter to fire back at a less than glowing review of her latest novel, THE STORY SISTERS.

Reviewer Roberta Silman wrote in The Boston Globe: “This new novel lacks the spark of the earlier work. Its vision, characters, and even the prose seem tired.” Hoffman posted a number of tweets calling Silman a moron. She asked, “How do some people get to review books?” Hoffman also posted Silman’s phone number and email, inviting fans to contact the reviewer and “Tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

By Monday, Hoffman had issued a statement of apology through her publisher.

OK, as authors, we’ve all received negative reviews somewhere along the line. As far as I know, no one has ever written a book that was accepted and loved by 100% of its readers. And even the most famous or best-selling books of all time have been lambasted with negative reviews. Just ask Dan Brown.

So what would cause any author to lose it and publically shoot back at a reviewer? Don’t we all know that when we take that giant, risky step into the public arena by having our words published, that we are aware the results might be positive AND negative? What could possibly be accomplished by criticizing a critic? Would it encourage the reviewer to be gentler next time? Doubtful. It might even narrow the number of future reviews by other critics.

There’s an old saying that if you do the crime, be ready to do the time. If you write a book and have it published so anyone can read it, be ready for the good and the bad, because that’s what you’re going to get.

How about you? Have you ever wanted to shoot back at a reviewer who gave you a less than favorable review? Did you? Should you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Does being a writer make you a lousy reader?

By Kathryn Lilley
I brought home many, many books from Thrillerfest. So many books that Delta charged me an extra fifty bucks for the sardine flight back to LA.

As soon as I settled into my seat, I opened the first thriller from my TBR bag. I was looking forward to it. The book had an eye-catching cover that was plastered with snippets of positive reviews, accompanied by blurbs from BNAs (Big Name Authors). Best of all, the story opened with a plane crash. I'm a nervous-Nelly flier, so I was ready to be terrified.

But ten pages into the book, I was yawning. Worse, I was getting
irritated with the author.

As the pages dragged on, I started pulling apart each paragraph in my head, muttering things like, "This dialogue is way too symmetrical. You should have changed up the rhythm here, lost that attribution tag there. How the heck did you get those BNA blurbs?"

After a few more pages, my mental rewrite got too exhausting. Thriller #1 was a bust. I tossed it back into the bag.

Thriller #2 was a winner, but I still couldn't get into it fully. Every time I hit a taut scene or a seamless transition, I detached and thought, "Okay, so how did this writer pull that off? What can I learn here?"

Unfortunately, being a writer has spoiled the reading experience for me. I can't lose myself in books the way I used to. I'm like a nosy, jealous chef, sampling dishes and trying to figure out what spices were used.

My reading rut started about the time that I started writing my current series. I had no time to read due to a combination of deadline pressures and my day job. Now that I'm shifting gears to write in a new genre (and am sans day job, say hallelujah), I'm reading again. It's like I'm mapping brand new waters, separating the sharks from the flounders. (I know: Block that metaphor!).

It's good to be reading again. But darnit, the thrill is gone.

How about you? Does being a writer kill some of the joy of the reading experience?

Fighting for Author Rights Down Under

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Many of you may not be aware but there's a battle brewing down under - pitching Aussie publishers and authors against the chain booksellers and the government - all in the name of cheaper books. Now as a reader I am all for cheaper books, particularly in Australia where book prices are (in my opinion) ridiculously high (typically about $45 for hardbacks; $25 for paperbacks).

Recently the Australian government asked the productivity commission to evaluate the current restrictions on the parallel importation of books into Australia. Basically this law protects publishers and authors who hold the Australian rights to a particular book from competition by suppliers of foreign editions of that book. On July 14th the productivity commission released its report. The recommendation? Screw territorial copyright for Australian authors and publishers. Although the commission backed away from full abolition of parallel importation restrictions they recommended that territorial copyright last only 12 months from date of first publication. I'll spare you all the boring legal details, suffice to say that if this recommendation is accepted and the copyright laws in Australia are amended it could have significant ramifications for the Australian publishing industry as well as Australian authors.

Many of my fellow mystery and thriller writers in Australia have warned that they may lose their Australian publishers all together, see a significant decline in income and feel that it will be even harder for Australian writers to get published...all so that the big chain book stores can import cheaper books (even with no guarantee that they will actually drop book prices to consumers as a result). Sounds a little like madness...and it is yet another reminder of how precarious our author rights can be. It's hard enough to get published, even harder still to make a living at it - and without full copyright protection, even harder to hold on to the slim opportunities we have...

So this is Monday's rant - and a reminder for us all to support the Aussie writers down under who are facing this very real threat to their livelihoods. If you want to learn more here's a link to a great website: It also provides perspectives from authors such as Tom Keneally and thriller writer Michael Rowbotham.

And one question - How do you think places like Australia should go about trying to balance the demands for lower book prices (and they get no argument from me on this) and the desire to maintain a thriving local publishing and writing industry?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Writing What You Know: Missing People

Today, our guest blogger is Julie Kramer, a freelance network news producer. Her debut thriller, STALKING SUSAN, won the RT Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Mystery, the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction, and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. It's also been nominated for Best First Novel in both the Anthony and Barry Awards.

Her second book, MISSING MARK, is available now from Doubleday.

by Julie Kramer

kramer-julie If authors are going to take readers inside a fictional version of their own world, it helps if that world holds some natural intrigue to outsiders.

That's where I lucked out, working as a career producer in the increasingly desperate world of TV news. By coming clean about some of my profession's flaws, my debut, STALKING SUSAN, (recently out in paperback) takes a little of the mystery out of the media. And my readers seem to appreciate the insider knowledge on how news decisions are made to how hidden cameras work.

Of course, some of my news colleagues wish I hadn't been quite so candid. They ask: Did you have to tell them all that stuff about ratings? Did you have to tell them "If it bleeds it leads?"

In my sequel, MISSING MARK, my TV reporter heroine answers a want ad reading "Wedding Dress For Sale: Never Worn" and is drawn into a dangerous missing person case during sweeps month.

susan1bAs a journalist, I've covered numerous missing people and I never know how the cases are going to turn out. Some victims, heartbreakingly, end up dead (Dru Sjodin - North Dakota). Others, miraculously, turn up alive. (Shawn Hornbeck - Missouri) Some, hauntingly, are never found. (Jodi Huseintruit -Iowa) Some are abducted. (Jacob Wetterling - Minnesota) Others stage their own abduction. (Audrey Seiler - Wisconsin) I used MISSING MARK as an opportunity to show readers how newsrooms decide which missing people get publicity and which don't. It can be a provocative discussion.

When a child disappears, the media goes into action. And those actions, from broadcasting Amber Alerts to interviewing sobbing parents, are fairly predictable. Children should never be missing, so missing children are news.

It's when adults go missing that the situation gets tricky because grownups are allowed to leave without sharing their plans with friends and family. And hey, often enough they do show up just days later. Back from Vegas. Sheepish. So without signs of foul play, there's some controversy in how long the police wait to investigate a missing adult. Often journalists take their cues from law enforcement. If the cops don't appear to be taking a case seriously, the media might not either. Some states, such as Minnesota have recently passed legislation like "Brandon's Law," requiring police to more aggressively investigative missing adults deemed to be "endangered."

Whether a missing person gets news coverage can depend on how slow the news day is, or if a holiday is approaching and other news events come to a standstill. I don't think it's any coincidence that lots of missing people who became household names disappeared near holidays. Remember Lacy Peterson and Christmas?

How accessible the victim's family is for interviews and photographs can also make a difference in publicity. That's content. And newsrooms seek content. Without a family pushing the police to search and the media to broadcast descriptions, the missing tend to stay missing. And until someone reports them gone, the missing aren't even considered missing. That's why serial killers who target prostitutes or the homeless tend to stay under the radar longer.

One of the most controversial aspects of missing people and the media is why attractive, white women seem to get the most national media attention. There's no good answer for that. I know for a fact, news managers don't consciously decide coverage based on the victim's appearance. But if you look at the faces of the missing who have gone viral, that seems to be a common denominator.

stalking-susan Certainly it's more understandable that missing women get more coverage than missing men because, historically, missing women are more likely to be in jeopardy. But as for appearance, it might be one of those chicken vs. the egg quandaries. Are attractive victims more likely to get publicity because that's who viewers watch and that's who draws ratings? Is the media merely giving the public what it wants? Or is the media deciding what the public wants? As a journalist and as a viewer, I don't know the answer to that debate. But I know newsrooms are troubled by it.

When I started writing what eventually was titled MISSING MARK, I had in my mind that the bride was the missing character. But after my neighbor, a West Point cadet home on leave, went missing, I decided to make my victim a man to discuss some of the challenges missing men face.

So instead of Here Comes The Bride, my story became There Goes The Groom.

A MISSING MARK case in the headlines recently involves South Carolina governor Mark Sandford going AWOL to visit his Argentina mistress. If you dropped that kind of plot in a novel, critics might call it improbable. But that's just one example of truth being stranger than fiction.

What do you think about how the media covers missing people? What do you think about how they're portrayed in fiction?

Saturday, July 18, 2009


John Ramsey Miller

Here I am, a once-upon-a-time-NYT-best-selling author, back at the beginning of my career yet again, but with a couple of million books in print. This is the third time I’ve been writing a novel without a publishing contract and I’m not getting any younger and other than writing novels I have few prospects for an alternative career. Writing thrillers is easy for me. Everything else looks really hard.

In my life––if you count the part time gig in high school––I’ve had exactly four jobs as an employee of someone else. I drove a delivery truck for Solomon’s Dry Cleaners in the eleventh grade. I got fired after my fourth accident in two weeks. Mrs. Solomon was nice about it. Her insurance company insisted she replace me. After high school I worked a summer on a tow boat that ran up and down the Mississippi River non-stop at five knots maximum from New Orleans to somewhere up the Ohio River. The engines were so loud you couldn’t have a conversation except out on the barges. The food was excellent. They had to put me off in Greenville, Mississippi after I got sun poisoning after spending a day on the barges outside New Orleans. Fair skin made a day laborer in the sunshine a pipe dream, and truthfully it lacked something crucial. My third actual job was as a graphic artist/photographer for a TV station in the Mississippi Delta. I got fired because I hid Martha Mitchell out from the media and the TV station thought that was some sort of a breech of media ethics. Evidently I was supposed to hold her down while they skewered her. I was glad I got fired. Working at a TV station sucks. My fourth job was in 1978 as the official disseminator or public information for Leflore County Schools, the poorest county school district in Mississippi, which means poorest in the free world. The predominantly black county schools had books from the 1960s that the white school students had dog-eared, scribbled in until they looked like redacted documents from the FBI, and could either burn or hand off to the county. There were actually high-school teachers at the county schools who didn’t have a college degree and were no more than babysitters. In Mississippi the county schools were historically parking places until crop season. The federal government paid my salary. That job I quit. I can’t remember exactly why, but I guess it was being that I figured being depressed was something I could manage on my own without the government’s help.

Before I started writing, I made a living as an artist or a free lance photographer or something else I did to earn money and I never went hungry. I’ve made my living writing since the mid-eighties. First as an ad copy writer, a journalist, a non-fiction author, as a scriptwriter, and a thriller author. I have made a living at it, although not as good a living as some, better, I suppose, than most fiction authors. I do have a book in the can and I'm going to do some painting and sculpting before I start another book. This writing thing keeps me off balance and maybe I'm as insecure as most other authors I know. It's just a weird business, and its the business side I don't think I'll ever understand or master. I'm not much for politics, and self promotion has never been easy for me. I grew up in a "be modest" and "don't blow your own horn" family. I guess I need a larger ego than I possess, more self assurance or something.

Writing has always been easy for me. I just sit down. I see the scenes and I transcribe them. Maybe it’s too easy. It’s something I know I’m good at. I enjoy doing it. It has been my art form and I have painted my words, told my stories, on an international scale. I have touched people, made their lives better for a moment or two. I am blessed and lucky and fulfilled in the writing thing. As long as I enjoy it, I will keep doing it, but not one moment longer. You have to make a living, but life is too short to do a thing you don't love doing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Nobody Pinch Me

By John Gilstrap

I’ll start with an apology for shirking my blogging duties last week. I was at ThrillerFest and had neglected to plan ahead. I suppose I could have just ignored the parties and . . . Nah, people who know me understand that I am incapable of ignoring the parties.

Those who’ve been to T-Fest know that the parties there are different. Those other people in the bar or at the receptions aren’t just regular folks that you see at work every day. To a person, the people I met there in New York—from fans to fellow authors and everyone in between—were friendly, intelligent and fascinating. It’s what makes the conference a not-to-be-missed event for me every year.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon on the heels of some media events in Boston the previous day, and I went to dinner with Jeffery Deaver. We had drinks at a little hotel bar on 44th Street, and then we ate at a largely forgettable restaurant whose name I’ve in fact forgotten. We were done by 9:00 and not yet ready to go our separate ways, so we wandered into the bar at the Algonquin Hotel. THE Algonquin Hotel, of Algonquin Roundtable fame.

That’s when it hit me: I’m living my own dream. Sitting there in such a famous room, I realized that had I been around in 1925, I might have had a place at the table. I might have participated in the conversations of those literary and critical giants, laughing at their jokes and maybe even offering up a few of my own. (Conversely, I might have been rejected as a commercial hack and banned from their presence, but this is my fantasy, so let me run with it.)

Now, of course, all of those giants are dead. Instead, I spent my time engaged in conversations with Joe Moore, Jeff Deaver, David Baldacci, Harlan Coben, Andrew Grant, Gayle Lynds, Joe Finder, Brett Battles, Kathryn Lilly and dozens more brilliant, witty writers. Forgive a moment of aggrandizement, but it occurred to me that collectively we might all be remembered as the next famed group. Given the level of talent in the room, I'm certain that at least a few will be tagged with greatness.

And I was there. God willing, I’ll be there again.

When I was a kid, I was in awe of writers and writing. I had little opportunity ever to meet an author in person, but on the occasions when I did, I stood there star struck. To think that I might ever join that elite club—if not as an equal, then at least as a colleague—was beyond my ken.

Yet there I was in New York, surrounded by talent. During the course of the next few days, I would have lunch with Anne Hawkins, my agent, and dinners with Michaela Hamilton, my editor, and Sam Franco, the producer who optioned Six Minutes to Freedom.

I’ll say it again: Agent, editor and producer. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that the guy at those meetings would be me.

Last Wednesday, as we sat in the Algonquin sipping scotch and chatting about whatever we were chatting about, I asked Jeff if he ever stopped to think about how cool this whole experience is, about how lucky we are.

“Every day,” he said.

Exactly. Every day. I am an author. I am what I’ve always wanted to be, and every day I wake up wondering what I did to deserve the good fortune.

And I pray that I don’t do something to screw it up.

Does anyone else find themselves amazed at where they are, and fearful that it might all go away?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wagging the Dog

by Michelle Gagnondog tail

I recently heard from a friend who has written a number of critically acclaimed but only moderately successful standalones. Her agent is pushing for a switch to a series character. Another friend's publisher wants him to do the opposite, abandoning a series for standalones (the Harlan Coben model). A third is working on a YA novel, since apparently that's all that's selling these days.

As I hung up the phone, I thought about the tail wagging the dog. The advice that's always offered at conferences is, "Don't try to chase trends, just write the book you want to write, as well as you can write it," (or some variation therein).

But that's not always possible. Everyone from agents to editors has a say in your next book. Sure, you can give them the brush off, but then there's always the risk that they won't be excited to shop that manuscript, or market it if it is slated for publication.

For writers, this can serve as a real wake up call, especially since occasionally the advice you're receiving stands in direct contrast to what was offered by the same source months earlier. I might be mistaken, but at times it seems as though no one has any idea what will sell in this marketplace. I know a lot of writers who are racing around trying to figure out which project they have the best chance of selling, especially if they're writing it on spec. Which is perfectly understandable- devoting months or years to a manuscript that doesn't sell is incredibly disheartening (and I speak from experience). Moreover, for writers who rely entirely on their books for income, the prospect of not getting another contract is downright terrifying.

For the first time recently, I received some negative feedback on a synopsis I'd submitted for my next book. All legitimate concerns, I realized as I re-read what I'd written. However, the suggestions offered for the direction the book should take didn't sit well with me; that wasn't the book I wanted to write. In the end, after some brainstorming, we came up with a solution that (hopefully) makes everyone happy, but I'll confess that I did experience a moment of panic. In the past I've worked as a writer for hire; most of my freelance articles were written for money, not for love of the subject matter. The thought of doing the same for a novel, committing months to a project I just wasn't that excited to sit down and write, was nervewracking. But then again, to have that manuscript rejected would have been far worse.

Join us on Sunday, July 19, when Julie Kramer, thriller author of MISSING MARK and STALKING SUSAN will be our guest blogger.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Should you write a series?

Last October, THE 731 LEGACY, the last installment in our Cotten Stone thriller series was published. It ended the 4-book series. My co-author Lynn Sholes and I are about to finish writing a new standalone that could develop into a series if the literary gods smile down on us. But in taking on the task of a new set of main characters—something we haven’t done in many years—it got me to thinking about the pros and cons of writing a series as opposed to a standalone.

I think the biggest advantage is that we know our main characters really well having lived with them through four books. We’ve watched them act, react, and grow. Dealing with a character that we're familiar with presents less challenges that starting from scratch with a new main protagonist. And with that knowledge, we can concentrate more on plot. In keeping our series heroine fresh in each book, we always begin by asking, “What does she still need to learn?” The answer to that question is our challenge for new character development in the next book in the series.

Of course, with a new series main character, we have to learn all the idiosyncrasies and motivational forces as we go through the development process. Rather than springing off the starting line, we must first crawl, then learn to walk all over again.

There are a number of things to remember when writing a series. Don’t assume that your reader has read the first book in your series when he picks up number two or three. Add a few reminders with enough details so if the reader didn’t read the first book, he can still understand what’s going on. Make sure that each book in the series has a solid resolution. Include themes that thread through the series. Document your characters and their reoccurring haunts such as where they live, their jobs, their families, births and deaths, habits, settings. You never want to show a lack of historical knowledge about your characters in a later book.

One of the biggest challenges of a series is backstory—how much do we have to retell with each new book? Where do we draw the line between bringing the new reader up to speed that may have started reading in mid-series and boring the established fan who has already read the previous books and just wants us to get on with the new story?

For the series authors out there, are you happy to keep the story going through multiple books. How do you keep your characters fresh and interesting. Do you ever get the urge to cleanse your creative palate and take a chance now and then by writing a standalone?

Join us on Sunday, July 19, when Julie Kramer, thriller author of MISSING MARK and STALKING SUSAN will be our guest blogger.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Notes from Thrillerfest

I just returned from my first Thrillerfest--it was a fantastic conference! Fellow Killers John Gilstrap, Joe Moore, and James Scott Bell were there, and it was great to see them. Thanks to everyone here for holding down the blog-fort while we were in NYC.

A few notes from the Thriller front:

Drumroll, please!

As a former journalist I know better than to bury the lead. During the conference it was announced that our own Joe Moore is the incoming co-president of ITW!

Joe moved onto the board of directors last October as Vice President, Technology, and will officially take over the co-presidency on October 1st 2009. He replaces James Rollins as he steps down due to term limits. Joe's fellow co-president is Steve Berry. Joe and Steve are in charge of setting the direction for the future of ITW as well as acting as executive directors.

Congratulations, Joe! You deserve the honor; we're proud to be your blog-mates.

Star power

Thrillerfest '09 featured some of the brightest lights in the thriller-writing cosmos: Sandra Brown, Clive Cussler. Robin Cook, David Baldacci, David Morrell, and many more! We got to ask them lots of questions during the breakout sessions. I brought home many writing tips that I'm already putting into practice.

Panel fun

I was on a panel with NYT bestselling author Peter De Jonge and Kathleen Sharp, where we shared stories about what it's like to jump from journalism to a career in fiction. I got a lot out of all the panels I attended, especially "Can you cross genres?" with James Rollins and Jon Land. I hate to miss anything, so I brought home CDs of many of the panels I was not able to attend.

Goin' to the dogs

There was a dramatic K9 demonstration of "tactical" dogs (the preferred term instead of attack dogs) and explosives detection. The very brave Panel Master, Andrew Peterson, put on a padded sleeve to demonstrate how the tactical dog takes down a suspect. An ATF officer explained that the dogs think they're playing a game when they attack. But this is one game that the criminals are bound to lose!

To sum up, Thrillerfest '09 was indeed a thriller--I can't wait until next year!

The YA Market

Now that I have finally finished the third Ursula Marlow book, Unlikely Traitors, I'm turning my attention to a few ideas I have for a young adult novel and I need help! This is pretty much an entirely new area/market for me. I confess I've always been a sucker for children's and YA books - I've devoured Harry Potter, guiltily polished off the Twilight series, relished the Luxe books and when it comes to TV and movies I have been known to have more than a passing interest in all things high school. I guess I just never grew now I want to indulge my passion for history, mythology and mystery in the YA market - but where to start in terms of looking at the YA market? Here's where I need some help.

My first question is the state of the YA mystery market...Is there even such a thing? It seems from my initial research that the YA market is dominated by paranormal and fantasy books. Even in the historical context what I've read has a decidedly paranormal bent - either that or it's Gossip Girls for the 1900 set. So does anyone have any recommendations or insights into YA mysteries? Are there any that you would highly recommend? Is there even a market for YA mysteries anymore (most seem designed for a younger more middle grade or elementary school readership...)

The second question is - does history totally suck for most YA readers? This is another concern I have - that history equates with deadly dull - do you think that's true? What about recommendations - any really cool historical YA books out there that I should check out?

Finally I have to wonder, am I actually thinking about a YA book or is it an adult book with a young protagonist??? At this stage it's difficult for me to tell. I guess what I'm really wondering about is voice and which authors out there have a strong grasp of what I'd call the YA voice...Again any recommendations?

I'm at the research phase at the moment so any insight or recommendations you could provide would be greatly appreciated. It's my first foray into the YA market but it feels right...Of course, writing the next Twilight series would definitely feel very, very, right...but at the moment I'll settle for just gaining some insight into this market and (hopefully) writing the best book I can...

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Anne Hawkins is an agent with John Hawkins & Associates, which was founded as Paul Reynolds Literary Agency in 1893, and makes it the first literary agency founded in America.

Anne is not only a highly respected, and beloved agent with a list of best-selling authors in her stable. She is a consummate professional with impeccable instincts, a devoted advocate for her authors, but she’s also a blind hoot. It is with great pleasure that I welcome Anne here as my guest on The Kill Zone.

John Ramsey Miller

Why do Agents Turn Down Good Books?

Anne Hawkins, Literary Agent
John Hawkins & Associates, Inc.

Rejecting authors’ projects is one of the least pleasant aspects of my job. It’s no fun to feel that I’ve ruined someone’s day, even though I always try to be gentle and courteous. How much nicer it is to call or e-mail and say, “I love what I’ve read. Please send more.”

Of course, the most common reason for rejection is a perceived lack of quality, a natural reaction to a misbegotten query letter or sloppy sample pages. Sometimes, however, I have to turn down projects that are actually quite good. Subjective judgment plays a large role in that sort of decision, but so do other business considerations. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that influence an agent’s choice of books for representation.

PERSONAL TASTE: A literary agent sinks or swims professionally because of her taste in books. This taste impacts the kinds of books she represents (her list), her contacts among editors and publishers, and ultimately her success in the business. Good agents learn to trust their taste and only represent projects that inspire them, because those are the books they’re likely to sell.

Most of us concentrate on the areas we enjoy and where we consequently have the greatest knowledge and expertise. If we don’t “get” it, we don’t handle it. You may be the next Dr. Seuss, but if the agent you query doesn’t fancy children’s books, she’ll almost certainly turn you down.

Authors can minimize this kind of turn-down by researching the kinds of books each agent does represent. Jeff Herman’s GUIDE TO EDITORS, PUBLISHERS, AND LITERARY AGENTS (most recent edition) is the premier print resource, since each listed agent states specifically the sorts of books she does and does not handle. Some of the best on-line resources are the searchable databases on, Publishers, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) website. Sad to say, certain other writer-friendly sites perpetuate information is that is either out of date or downright wrong. (One has me listed as a top agent for horror fiction, even though I have never represented a single book in the genre.) There is good information on the internet, but do yourself a favor and cross-reference. Don’t rely on any single source.

PASSION: For me to take on a new book by a new author, especially a novel, I simply have to love it. It’s not enough to “like” it or “admire” it or consider it “salable”. We’re talking about real passion here. Even at the very beginning of the submission process, editors can sense when the agent is on fire about a book -- and the feeling is contagious. Chances are, that’s the book the editor will choose to read first. Later on after the sale, down the long, bumpy road to publication, an agent needs this kind of wild enthusiasm to continue to be a strong and persuasive advocate for the author and his work. “Lukewarm” just won’t go the distance.

KNOWLEDGE OF MARKET: An agent needs to keep track of the markets for the kinds of books she represents. This knowledge may be as general as the track record of an entire genre or as specific as one publisher’s immediate needs. In short, agents need to know what’s hot -- what’s not -- and who’s looking for what. Market factors are a huge topic, so here are just a few examples:

Publishing is in the business of selling books, lots of books. If an agent wants to place a book with a major publisher, she has to believe that book has the potential to attract a substantial number of readers. If she judges that its market is too small or too specific, she’ll most likely decline.

The existence of a recent, successfully published book (or books) can make a similar project extremely hard to sell. Even if your book is better, somebody has beaten you to the punch. The concept is no longer “new news.” This is particularly true for non- fiction, but it applies to novels as well. If the market appears saturated with a certain kind of book, an agent will be reluctant to take on a new project in that category, knowing that her chances of placing it are slim.

Sometimes, an agent will know that the market for an entire genre is on the decline, so she’ll be hesitant to take on any book of that sort. At other times, a market will be on an upswing, so she’ll be champing at the bit to land an author in that genre. Historical fiction, for example, was a tough sell for many years. Recently, however, its popularity has surged to the point that agents who wouldn’t have touched the genre five years ago are now actively looking for it.

EDITORIAL CONTACTS: To put it bluntly, if an agent doesn’t know the right editors for a book, she has no business representing it. From time to time, every agent reads a wonderful project that she has no clue how to place. Believe me, she’s doing the author a favor by declining.

Here’s why. As a general rule, an agent can submit a project to a particular publishing imprint once -- and only once. If the original editor declines, it’s very difficult to get another editor at that house to reconsider the book. Obviously, the key is to get the submission into the hands of the right editor the first time around, since you usually don’t get second chances.

SUITABILITY TO GENRE: Some kinds of books have specific conventions as to format, word count, style, content, etc. If a book strays too far, it may be unsalable – no matter how good it is. Of course, authors can cheat this unhappy fate by doing some homework on the particular requirements of their chosen genres.

Mixed genre books are another dicey situation, since an agent or publisher needs to feel that there is a definable market for a particular book. When an agent reads a book that is “kinda mystery, sorta horror, with strong romance and science fiction elements,” she’s going to wonder just who the audience might be. Projects like this have a history of falling through the cracks in the marketplace, so an agent will have to think long and hard about her chances of placing it.

LENGTH: A related subject is the matter of length, or word count. For adult fiction, most books range from around 70,000 to 130,000 words in length. There are exceptions of course, but very short or very long novels can be problematic to sell because of pricing, production, and distribution issues. In the case of books for children and young adults, the length must be appropriate for the targeted age group. There’s a bit more leeway for certain kinds of non-fiction, but even there inappropriate length can be a deal-breaker.

AUTHOR: Generally speaking, an agent takes on an author and his project because she is interested helping him build a long-term career. This is almost invariably true for fiction, where the name of the game is to increase readership over the course of many books. Agents may shy away from a novelist whom they believe to be a “one book wonder” because of the enormous investment of time and energy for only a single book. (This is not necessarily true in non-fiction, where one-off books, such as celebrity biographies, are more common and can be quite profitable.)

It goes without saying that if an agent has reason to suspect that an author might be the “client from hell,” she’ll have to carefully consider whether representation is worth the hassle. Then again, everybody’s different, and what’s poison to one agent may be ambrosia to another.

CREDENTIALS AND/OR PLATFORM: For certain types of non-fiction, an author needs relevant professional or academic credentials. For example, to write a credible diet book, it’s best that the author (or co-author) be a physician or a nutritionist with demonstrated knowledge and experience in the field. Agents know that publishers aren’t likely to go out on a limb with a book that can’t speak with some kind of authority.

“Platform” is a different animal. It’s usually defined as the existing audience that an author can bring to his book. Authors often develop their platforms through such vehicles as speaking engagements, syndicated columns in magazines or newspapers, media exposure, or a very strong internet presence. Platform is essential to selling some kinds of nonfiction. Without it, an agent will surely turn down the project, no matter how good it may be.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Weirdly enough, this situation comes up much more frequently than anyone would suppose. If a new author approaches an agent with a project that is uncannily similar to one she’s currently representing, the agent has to turn it down. There’s simply too great a chance for misunderstanding or possible legal action if one author suspects that his agent has discussed his ideas with a competitor. This is the kind of situation that can ruin an agent’s reputation, and no book is worth that.

SUITABILITY FOR AGENT/AGENCY: This is somewhat of an odd-ball issue, but it does happen. Once in a great while, an agent will have to turn down a project simply because representing it could cause hard feelings among her established clients or publishing contacts. To use an extreme and fictitious example, let’s say that an agent does a lot of business in the Christian publishing market. She’d be hard pressed to take on a book with raunchy or irreverent content that would be deeply offensive to the authors and editors with whom she works every day. Most of the time, agents are pretty eclectic in the projects that they choose -- and authors and editors accept that -- but there are some lines that just can’t be crossed.

IN CLOSING: Good books draw rejections for a variety of reasons, and many of these reasons have nothing to do with the quality of the work. I know for a fact that I have has turned down books that other agents subsequently took on and sold. Then again, I’ve had some major successes with books that quite a number of my colleagues had previously rejected. If a book is truly outstanding, it’s only a matter of time until the right agent steps up to the plate and offers to represent it. Don’t give up too soon!

Friday, July 10, 2009


By John Ramsey Miller

[Author's note: John Gilstrap is at Thrillerfest, and I'm not, so I am filling in for him by appearing a day early. I feel like the lone Jewish staff member who is working on Christmas Eve. So, close the bar for me, JG.]

The one question people ask me most, and I’m sure this is universally true, is the origin of my ideas for my books. I usually tell them I get ideas from running reality through my own “what if ?” and “paranoia” filters. When an author needs inspiration for a character, a scene, or a plot, all they have to do is to look to real life.

The inspiration for my first published novel, THE LAST FAMILY, originated from a story I read in the early 90’s about how the DEA confiscated property of a Florida doctor whom some informant––a drug addict––said was dealing drugs. They took everything the doctor had, based on the word of a liar paid for each name he gave the DEA. There was no evidence whatsoever except for the word of a man who was paid to hand drug dealers over to the DEA. He was a relative of, and had a grudge against the physician for throwing him out of his house for abusing drugs. The doctor was never tried for the alleged drug dealing. He lost all of his worldly possessions, his practice, and his wife left him. It was a typical case of government gone wild without any worry of normal consequences. Ah the arrogance of power, and the innocent bones crushed to powder in the exercising of such power. The feds do not usually apologize or acknowledge mistakes because it’s bad for bureaucratic careers.

I thought about the real doctor from my perspective. I went farther wondering how innocent pediatrician who had been in a similar situation––except maybe his wife was upset and was in a car crash that killed her and his kids––would react to such a perfect tragedy. Would he hate so much that he would become unbalanced and homicidal? How would he get back at the DEA? Might he pay them back by murdering their families in retribution. As I constructed the story the doctor became a character played by the man who’d lost his family and blamed a specific DEA team. In fact the team had not been responsible for the man’s loss of family and position, but he blamed them. Over time, the doctor evolved and was replaced by a sadistic, CIA-trained psychopath and master of disguise. More believable adversary, I thought. But I saved the “understandably” demented pediatrician for another story some other time.

Just the past two weeks, we’ve had:

1) a whacked out media circus surrounding the death of a performer, who, as usual is being rehabbed in death. For the past few years, the media had no interest in portraying this performer’s positive side, because, until he was good and dead there were more ratings in keeping his weird and controversial alive. Am odd emotionally immature, wildly extravagant “and flawed was again joined by an amazingly brilliantly talented angel” side. Plus he’s got a new album that will be coming out very soon. NOTE: After he died, James Brown lying in his casket toured several cities (complete with costume changes). If I’m not mistaken, that was the “Say it loud, I’m Dead and I’m Proud” Tour. Last I heard his casket is still in is living room. Use your imagination. Is a comeback tour in the works? Maybe a “This is a Dead Man’s World, but it wouldn’t be nothing…

2) A spree killer here in the Carolinas. A man with hundreds of arrests, out of prison five weeks and killed at least five and maybe as many as seven people in a few days before police shot him after they caught him partying in an abandoned house.

3) A governor (a presidential contender no less) who lied about his whereabouts over a Father’s Day weekend so he could shack up with a mistress in South Carolina. A governor who isn’t resigning, by the way.

4) A man driving while intoxicated and speeding who it turns out has a dead body in the back of his van. The body was that of a woman shot multiple times. The murder weapon was one of four guns found in the van. The killer’s wife was in the passenger seat. I guess he was one of those guys who won’t let a woman drive his vehicle.

5) Famous pitchman Billy Mays died and they are advertising today that he will be in one last ad promoting a new product (purportedly filmed before he died, but who knows). It isn’t merely ghoulish, it’s seemingly greedy of the company to use the ad, much less advertise the fact of the ad is on its way to a tube near you. It’s called creating buzz for a new product. Lots of material there.

6) How about LA doctors who write narcotics prescriptions for any celebrity who asks and is willing to pay. Doctors lead dull lives, so they worship heroes and glamorous people and they love the almighty dollar. It’s a recurring story in the news, and a great plot with hundreds of possible spins.

So that’s just a few off the top of my head, and each of those news stories had hundreds of possible tangents. Those are just news stories. Each of our lives are filled with things we see and hear that we can use later in a story to add texture, accuracy, or personal touches that resonate with readers, or maybe just a reader here and there out of all the readers who pick up our work. Everyday we absorb things we may not even pay attention to. As one who walks in a self-absorbed fog most of the time I can attest to that.

I am known to occasionally throw a weird character or two into my novels. My agent calls those characters “Miller People.” These are people I build from bits and pieces of people my mind collects. I see low cut Ostrich cowboy boots on someone. A year or two later I remember those boots but I put them on a rail thin RV salesman. It says something about the salesman, adds a dimension, puts questions about the salesman in a reader’s mind. The boots are a story the reader doesn’t get to know, but they know there’s something of a complexity of a personality in the boots. Maybe the salesman can’t see how people see him, and he thinks the boots make him a man of style and mystery. I’m off on a tangent here. It’s the bits and pieces that add flavor.

So open your eyes and start running things through your own filters. I’m sure most authors do precisely the same thing in their process.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Clutter Hound

by Michelle Gagnon

I want to start by apologizing for my missing post last week--especially since, as many of you know, there was a Flort on the line. Any and all complaints should be directed to customer service at, thanks to their annoying habit of lying repeatedly about sending a cable installation team to my house when no such team ever materialized (and rest assured, I sat on the porch and waited for hours at a stretch). It is truly astounding how bad their customer service is, which I'm guessing was the inspiration for their brand name.

But that's all in the past, and I'm pleased to announce that not only am I back online and able to follow critical breaking news such as the Michael Jackson memorial service and the Palin resignation, we also have a Flort winner!

Congratulations to Basil, whose used the IKEA product "UPPTACKA" as the inspiration for his coming of age story about a boy and his llama (the mountains are not as lonely as they seem).
I still laugh every time I read that, which makes it worth the cost of shipping a Flort to Alaska.
Honorable mentions are in order for James Scott Bell, Rob, Sue Ann Jaffarian- heck, you all did me proud, that was a fun exercise.

This week I'm still recovering from a truly brutal move, with highlights ranging from my husband coming down with norovirus, a painter nearly taking a header off my roof, my contractor losing my car keys (who puts a set of keys on the roof of a car, then drives off?) and other assorted dramas.

One thing that struck me, as I sifted through a drawer I haven't looked at in years, is the amount of clutter I've managed to accumulate. I have stacks of notebooks filled with notes from conference panels, classes, and the worst: page after page filled with ideas. After hearing Annie Lamott admonish an audience of writers once to "always carry a notebook, otherwise you'll forget all of your good ideas," I got in the habit of keeping a steno pad in my purse. And yes, I diligently jot down things that occur to me, whether they be seemingly brilliant three AM inspirations or something that struck me in line at Walgreens.

But the truth is, not once have I glanced back at and/or used any of those ideas.

So what do I do with these books? Are they worth saving, on the off chance that someday my idea pool dries up? Will I find anything worth using? Or will all these books just continue to sit in a drawer gathering dust? I'm wondering if I'm the only clutter hound out there...