Category Archives: Stray Thoughts

Devilbox

Well, it’s official.  The end is nigh.  At least that’s how it felt when I plunked down my cash and bought a dreaded devilbox.  This step into the brave new world of electronic publishing was one I had put off for a long time, and when I did finally venture into the world of digital texts I certainly didn’t think I’d be getting a Kindle.  I don’t relish the idea of having to buy everything for this electronic reader through a single source and the inability to borrow electronic books from libraries and other readers strikes me as a near-fatal flaw; however, for an easy on the eyes (read, non-backlit) reader that’s also easy on the pocketbook, the temptations of this devil we all know are damn hard to resist.

A month into having the thing, I’ve got to admit that I actually really enjoy having it.  While I still refuse to purchase things for the Kindle that I can buy in hard-copy, there are enough electronic-only publications that I keep the thing in my go-bag and always have something to read.  Without this transition, I never would have discovered Noir Nation, Beat to a Pulp or Crimespree, not to mention the excellent books published by up-and-coming new Snubnose Press, nor any number of deserving electronic-only self-published authors like Anthony Neil Smith and Nigel Bird.

I know I’ve previously expressed my skepticism about the DIY world of self-publishing and I still maintain that electronic publishers with actual editors are necessary to help separate the wheat from the chaff and help readers find quality work rather than sifting through the massive sea of poor-quality products; however, as digital publishing continues to find its way I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing.

Stay tuned to this blog for more in-depth reviews of some of these electronic publications.

I’ll also keep you posted on my own adventures into publishing at electronic magazines and journals.

 

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The Waiting Game

In some ways, this should be a very exciting time for me.  At a one-on-one meeting at the Willamette Writers Conference in August, an editor (who shall for now remain nameless) at a major publishing house (also nameless for now) requested the full manuscript of my noir novel, The Lawn Man.  After the conference, I sent it off per his request – the whole thing plus a short synopsis.  He also wanted to hear about the next book I have in the works, so I wrote him a pitch for that as well.

Just telling you about my current situation, the thrill comes bubbling back up inside of me.  An actual editor is looking at my novel.  Wow!  That’s amazing.

But, to tell you the truth, mostly I try not to think about it.  After all, that novel is written and done – at least until somebody offers to publish it and asks for revisions.  For now, there’s nothing more I can do to improve the chances of that novel seeing the light of day.  And it’s been two months.  The editor warned me up front that it would likely be as long as two or three months, so I’m practicing my patience, playing the waiting game.  And of course there’s no way I can maintain such a high level of anxiousness anyway.  I’d drive myself crazy for no good reason.  Instead, I try not to think about it.

Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of other things to distract me.  There’s this new blog for one thing.  For another, I’ve always got a few short stories in the works.  What can I say?  I love the form, even though Lawrence Block convinced me in one of his excellent writing books that the early-career writer these days should focus his efforts on composing novels.  Which brings us to my real work at the moment – I’ve got that new novel to write.  And it’s coming along.  Breaking new ground never happens as smoothly as I’d like, but I’m getting the new novel written.  My goal is to complete the first draft before the end of December, and I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.  So far, so good.

While the manuscript of The Lawn Man is with the editor, I’ve also been querying agents more actively than ever.  I figure that whatever the publisher decides, this is my moment to be able to tell an agent my work is being actively considered.  You’ve got to use whatever little trick you have to up the ante and make yourself seem more tantalizing to an agent.  So far, no agents have signed on, though I’ve gotten some truly kind rejections.  I’ve found that with most agents, you hear nothing from a query.  A few, the polite ones, at least send you a “not for me-thanks anyway” (true quote, and yes, that was the entirety of the reply).  The really wonderful ones give you a glimmer of hope even as they turn you down.  You can tell they’ve actually read the query letter and the sample materials.  They’ll say the story seems interesting or the writing is good, but that it’s just not for them.  These are valuable responses because they keep your spirits up.  Of course if you’re anything like me, you also comb through the few sentences of any scraps of added significance, but this activity is probably more the neurotic energy of a compulsive over-reader than any valuable lesson for an aspiring professional writer.

The real lesson, and the one that was driven home for me at the Willamette Writers Conference this year, remains: you can’t take rejection personally.

As an avid lifelong reader, a busy and prolific writer, a long-term bookstore employee, and a literary scholar, I’m used to hanging around readers and writers.  We love books for the magic they contain, the power to connect you with another mind, transport you to another place, allow you live a strange and exotic life while you wander among the pages.  Agents and editors are a different breed.  I’m sure most of them came to their careers because from a deep love of reading, but for them books are a serious business.  Yes, they can seem to make snap judgments, but in the business world time is money, and you can’t waste either on things that don’t serve you, things that don’t meet your immediate needs.  It can sting to be on the receiving end of a quick brush-off, but ultimately everyone is better off.  It’s like speed-dating.  You can’t agree to see everyone again just to be polite.  You need to focus on the one or two that seem like they might be what you’re looking for.  That doesn’t mean the others aren’t perfectly wonderful, lovable people.  But you can’t marry them all.  Or to put it more directly and less metaphorically, when you go to a bookstore you look for something you want to read and you take a few things home, maybe half a dozen selections from a store full of thousands of books.  That doesn’t mean all the other books at the store are worthless.  It simply means you have limited time to read, and you want to read what strikes  your own personal fancy.  Same goes for agents and editors.

Ultimately, all you can do is get out of your own way and write the best novels and stories you can.  That’s the best thing about playing this waiting game.  It reminds me that being a professional writer boils down to one thing: writing.  Not “being a writer” with whatever social cache you imagine that entails, but actually sitting down at your desk and doing the work, writing.


How I Got Here

I don’t remember learning to read.  I’m sure it I did at some point, but I don’t remember it any more than I remember learning to walk or talk.  I do remember that my first favorite book was Stuart Little, so presumably I was born with good taste.  E.B. White continues to be an influence and role model.  I also remember that when I was about five or so my mother was startled to discover that I could read upside down as easily as right side up.  The position of the text seemed irrelevant as long as you could orient yourself and follow the same basic rules.  In fact, I can still read upside down pretty well to this day, though I’m not quite a fluent as I used to be since by this point I’ve had a lot more experience reading things right side up.  Still, it’s a fun trick and handy snooping device to be able to read things people are writing at a quick glance.  It’s a very useful writer’s trick when you’re trying to be very observant about the people and things around you.  But I’ve learned you’ve got to watch out for this.  Sherlock Holmes makes it seem cool to make casual observations and surprise people with easy deductions and insights.  However, in the age of stalkers and identity thieves, people tend to be more alarmed than impressed if you notice too much about them.  These days I keep it all to myself and save the details to feed my fiction.

In addition to always being a reader, I’ve always been a writer.  My first creative piece that I still have around was screenplay of sorts.  In first grade, we built television screens out of construction paper and created a long sheet of paper with frames containing pictures, dialogue, and narrative.  The sheet could be fed through this makeshift idiot box and the frames told a story.  My story was called “Lost in a Tuba,” and it was about a guy who fell into a sousaphone and couldn’t find his way out.  Okay, I didn’t know that style of tuba was called a “sousaphone” when I was six.  I wasn’t quite that precocious.  But I did start thinking of myself as a writer.  It seemed to go hand in hand with reading, and reading and writing were always the things I did best at in school and enjoyed the most when I wasn’t in school and had the freedom to do whatever I wanted.  Around this time, I also started reading more grown-up books.  Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson kept me up late at night, reading under the covers with my flashlight long after my prescribed bedtime.

I soon learned that apparently if you ignore one prescription, you’ll be given another because it wasn’t much after these late-night reading habits started that I met my first optometrist.  Combined with my tendency to wear my shirts buttoned all the way to the top, my department store glasses helped me bring geek chic to grade school with a vengeance.  Throughout junior high and high school, my bookish demeanor kept me from being especially distracted by girls or sports.  Instead, I got a lot of reading done.  The writers who influenced my adolescence are too many to name, but two stand out above the rest in my memory.  William Styron and F. Scott Fitzgerald cemented my ambition to become a writer.  When I was fourteen, The Great Gatsby became the greatest novel I had ever read, a stature it maintains to this day though it shares the podium with a few other works I’ve encountered since.  At sixteen, I read Sophie’s Choice and first glimpsed the path one takes to become a novelist.

Turns out the path to being a successful writer isn’t so neat and narrow.  In fact, my life has been a long, bumpy ride since those days.  But through it all, reading and writing have been my constant companions.  In fact, I can’t imagine my daily life without both activities.  For a while, studying literature (and literary theory) in graduate school burned the joy of books out of me.  But it came back.  It returned slowly and in the way it first began in my life.  After a few years of only spotty and infrequent reading, I dove back into reading mysteries and crime fiction.  I read the things that felt fun.  And gradually, I realized that instead of trying to write the Great American Novel (which I had done three times without success), I ought to write the type of stuff I read for fun.  So, I did, and very quickly I started publishing short stories in magazines and anthologies.

Now I’ve written a new novel.  This one isn’t the Great American Novel.  It’s a short crime novel, a noir piece, the type of nasty little thing that Jim Thompson or James M. Cain might write if they were still around today.  If it’s not a masterpiece that will find its way onto the college syllabus of the late 21st century, it’s still the type of book that says something about who we are and how we live now.  And, more importantly, it’s the type of book people like to pick up and read.  Because it’s fun.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I had a lot of fun writing it too.  It’s called The Lawn Man, and I’m shopping it around to publishers and agents right now.  I have a feeling somebody’s going to pick it up because the fun shows through.  I can’t wait till you have a chance to read it.