Three Rejection Letters – Finding an Agent 

Jun 22, 2018 by

Three Rejection Letters – Finding an Agent

Yesterday I received three rejection letters for my novel, The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club. One of them I took pretty hard. I’d pitched the agent at the recent DFWCon in early June and had really hoped she’d rep me. 

In her rejection letter, she said, “This story has all the elements I love—an interesting premise and a well-built world. The writing is solid with a nice voice. A dynamic, interesting protagonist.” She concluded by saying she didn’t feel the love she needed to sell the story. 

The two others were more to the point. 

Voodoo and Explorer.

The intersection of Voodoo Avenue and Explorer Street, KI Sawyer AFB, Michigan.

“I’m afraid this doesn’t seem like the right project for me, but I’m sure other agents will feel differently.” 

“Unfortunately, I’m afraid I’m not the right agent for this project. I wish you much luck in getting THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB published.”

I still have several queries out and there are other agents who have asked for pages, so all is not lost. 

I am early in the query process. Just a few months in, and in that time, my query has improved. 

Because of what the first agent I mentioned taught me at DFWCon, my query letter is now a mere NINE sentences. It’s tighter, to the point. It targets what is important to the structure of the story and I don’t get into the subplots and things that might confuse a slush-pile gatekeeper in New York deciding whether to read more or not. Since DFWCon I’ve also gone through the book and cut 10,000 words. If it was not about four boys in the woods building a treehouse near a Russian spy, it went. Period. My inciting incident is in the first 25 pages. Boom. 

I learned these important things from the agent who said my story has the elements she loves. 

For that I am grateful and a thank you letter, I send them typed on my 1948 Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter, will say that. She’s like that high school English teacher we all had. The one who was the hardest on us. In the end, the one who taught us the most, and not just about literature but life itself. 

Finding an agent is like asking a pretty girl to dance in middle school. You know so little about her. You’re nervous. You think you know how to dance. You’re worried about your blemishes, if your hair is straight, pants and shirt are fashionable, if she will say “yes.” Whether she will fall in love with you just the same. The odds seem so remote and extreme. On one hand, it seems like the best thing to do is sit on the bleachers and watch the cooler kids dance. But at the same time, you know you can dance. You’ve been watching yourself in the mirror for weeks, months, years. And you’ve gotten better and better and better. It’s time to be under the disco ball at center court with a pretty girl.

I am a good writer and I have a solid book and I will get published. I know I will. 

I didn’t meet my match yesterday, but there is always today. There is always tomorrow. And I have more books to write. I have two other books already written needing revision.

What I learned yesterday is that I am looking for LOVE. I want to hear a reply that says, “I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” Hedging, doubt, all of that, won’t do. I very much respect and enjoyed the agent who wrote me. I will keep her as a friend. But there wasn’t a spark. There are others to dance with. There must be love or the result will not be good in the end.

And thank goodness, I have other writer friends I have talked with overnight who are in the same boat, beating on against the current….

My current query/pitch: 

THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB

In 1977, four teen boys, led by KIRK CARSON, build a tree house near the secret hideaway of a Russian spy. The historical commercial fiction work is 88,000 words.

Kirk is fighting his own Cold War among friends, a bully, and himself. He tries to type “I’m trying to change my life,” but instead his typewriter clacks out, “I’m trying to change my lie.” He wishes he could use white out on the whole year.

How Kirk handles the ultimate test of a December blizzard in Upper Michigan and the Russian spy who has been trying to scare them all out of the woods means life or death for his friends.

THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB is a nostalgic reminder of an America where kids played outside until their mothers signaled a summer’s day’s end by turning on the porch light.

I have written in journalism and public relations, and for governors and school superintendents for more than 30 years. Since 2014, I’ve been part of Southern Methodist University’s Writer’s Path program. 

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My Reading List Last Week

Jun 4, 2018 by

My Reading List Last Week

Last week my reading list included Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, his first novel, The Torrents of Spring, one of Hadley Richardson Hemingway’s favorites by Henry James, The Figure in the Carpet, and the incomplete novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon.

At present I’m reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

A Farewell to Arms is a lovely book, a simple love story about a wounded soldier. An American in Italy during World War I who fell in love with an British nurse. He met her before getting wounded, and then once wounded, their affair really takes off. The book is semi autobiographical. Hemingway really did get hurt and really did fall for a nurse and once he got back to the states she wrote him and broke it off. Hem intended to marry the woman who was several years older than him. The story is very well composed and a must read for any Hemingway fan. Plus it is marked as great American literature.

A Farewell To Arms

Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms is still a wonderful read in 2018.

The Torrents of Spring took an afternoon to read. This is a book Hemingway wrote in a few week’s time and is a satirical attack on Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter. I will tell you, it is much easier to read than Dark Laughter. And that is in part the point. Anderson uses a lot of lofty language that is often hard to follow. I’m about 70 pages into Dark Laughter and have wandered down the Mississippi River with its main character and I honestly don’t know where we are going. The Torrents of Spring made fun of the Anderson book, though I am certain I missed half of the attack.

Henry James’ The Figure in the Carpet is an interesting read. A critic has written a review of a famous author’s book and is presented to the author who says he really doesn’t read reviews. But he reads this one, and goes on to tell the critic that he has a theme that runs through all of his works but it is clear that the critic has missed it. The critic begs for the author to part with this secret and he tells him to look further. This sets the critic on a mad chase to figure out what it could be. He has two friends who join him in this quest and finally, one of the two says he has figured it out. But before he can reveal it to the critic, he is killed in a car wreck. But he is said to have told it to the other, but she says she will not part with the secret. She marries another man, and then dies later. The critic befriends the man and approaches him about the secret well after the woman has died, and the widower takes offense when he learns that his wife never shared with him this secret. And does the critic ever figure it out?

The Last Tycoon is a novel that Fitzgerald wrote in his late 30s early 40s. He died at 41 of a heart attack. He never finished the book. But just reading what is complete is a wonderful reminder of how wonderful a writer Fitzgerald really was when he was writing and not under the spell and distractions of Zelda. Maybe she will haunt me for saying such, but it becomes more and more clear the more I study about Fitz that the world lost out on many a grand novel by the distraction she brought into his life–by keeping him from writing–once they were married, once he had money and they were consumed by fame, fortune and flappers. I enjoyed the book and wish it had a real ending. But it is also a good read.

 

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I Don’t Wear Red–A Character Sketch

May 31, 2018 by

I Don’t Wear Red–A Character Sketch

It’s time to start revising Pretty Has A Price, a novel I wrote in 2015-16 about a writer who is doing a writing in residence in Montgomery, Alabama, around the corner from the last house lived in by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald when he falls for a local married woman, Sterling James, who is neck-deep in the scratchy politics of the elaborate annual balls of the capital city.

From time-to-time I toy with ideas about the book, which I need to revise. Sometimes I do sketches. Here is one of them:

I Don’t Wear Red

Her lipstick smudged the page. Or was that the red of the typewriter ribbon? I could not tell, the red was so stark, and just the day before at the café she had been so defiant with me, so pronounced, so assuring. Almost indignant.

I don't wear red

Character sketch from “I don’t wear red.”

“I do not wear anything red. I don’t even own anything red,” she said as though I had offended her. Like I had said she were in an Auburn sorority.

But the incontrovertible facts were right there in front of me, as sure as the sounds of the typewriter had been. There was a smudge of red on the page.

What was I to make of it?

It’s Time To Revise–A Sketch Within A Sketch

I am ready to pry open the notes that I took of those painful days in Montgomery. Days that I have long put behind me; like those who escape from the city must all do once they are able to finally break free. When you are living there, you tell yourself you want to leave, but can’t, that you can never live anywhere else. Montgomery has you locked in its orbit. Bound by some mysterious gravity that restrains you and binds you in ways that are not easy to comprehend.

To escape you must tear yourself away. Make no mistake, getting free of that town is no simple task. There is something about Montgomery that seeps into your inner core like a resin leaking into every pore and cell of one’s body, permeating every fiber and staying with you long after you have left the city limits.

 

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Before We Were Yours

May 26, 2018 by

Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than 35 weeks now and shows no signs of dropping from the list any time soon. Having aspirations of my own to equal such an accomplishment some day, I read books that make the list and hold on, to see what level of writing it takes to make the big time so that I, too, can hone my skills.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is a good read, but there are issues with the craft.

Sometimes, however, I’m left wondering.

The story itself, historical fiction of the Memphis, Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and the fictional Stafford family of South Carolina is good. I think Ms. Wingate has done a good job of blending enough research fact with her imagination to make a compelling story. In fact, I did like the storytelling.

The Craft

What bothered me, however, was the actual craft. And it’s here I am trying to be careful as I have a query in to the same agent who reps Ms. Wingate–of which I’m likely to shoot my chances to hell and back. But I found it amazing how loosely edited this book was.

Just last week I read an agent, might have been on Writer’s Digest, and the agent was saying the easiest way to spot an amateur writer was by the wrongful use of the ellipses in one’s writing. Particularly by using an ellipses as a comma or a dash in a sentence instead of … a comma. (sic)

Ms. Wingate uses an ellipses as a comma or a dash and they are … everywhere.

Now obviously, this is not affecting sales. So maybe that doesn’t matter then, one might argue. But as writers, don’t we have an obligation to use grammar properly?

I also realize this is women’s fiction, but it’s also clear that Ms. Wingate is unfamiliar, even as a “former journalist” of what the life of a U.S. senator is like. Particularly one in South Carolina. She often has Avery Stafford, the daughter of the senator, talking about how they’re getting in and out of a “limo.” Um, no. Not even the governors I worked for in Alabama rode around in limos.

Showing v. Telling and Telling and Telling

This book sets a new record for me for the one thing every creative writing course, manual and website I’ve ever seen says not to do and that’s to show vs. tell. In fact, as the headline for this subsection goes, Wingate tells and tells and tells and tells. Part of that she gets away with because she’s doing first person accounts in alternating characters to tell the story–female characters with all their emotions at that. But Heavens to Betsy!

This book drips with telling. There were points as a writer I wanted to get out a red pen and start marking through portions as I read where what was included was not necessary–or wasn’t left for me to decide how the characters were actually feeling on our own. It was all force fed.

Look, I enjoyed the book. Don’t get me wrong. But these technical aspects bugged me like scratching fingernails on a chalkboard. Most readers most likely won’t care. The book being on the bestseller list so long is proof of that. The story about what happened in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society should be told loud and clear. This novel is a great messenger for getting the word out and I applaud the effort made by Ms. Wingate and the people who worked to bring this book to market. And congrats to all of them for being on the NYT Bestseller list for so long. That is quite an accomplishment in this day and age, and one, clearly earned by the story in this book.

It’s just hard to stomach seeing a book be so successful when so many rules we’ve been told not to do have been broken in this one and it has done so well. Like May Weathers and Rill Foss, I’m trying to figure out who is to be believed….

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The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

May 12, 2018 by

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, the Hemingway Library Edition is a collection of 26 short stories written by the late master, which also includes a foreword by sons Patrick Hemingway and Introduction by Seán Hemingway. Just as important is section entitled “The Art of the Short Story” by Hemingway himself.

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway contains 26 short stories by Hemingway plus an essay by him on the art of the short story.

This book is critical for anyone working to hone their skills in the art, and writing short stories is truly an art, and something of a skill that all writers should seek to develop, (I will not use the word perfect).

Hemingway said that writing short stories was something that if you can do, you do it. “You don’t have to explain it. If you can not do it, no explaining will ever help.”

He goes on to say that “If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless.”

In his own words, Hemingway said, “The test of any story is how very good the stuff is that you, not your editors, omit.”

This book is a must read for anyone wanting to write a better short story. The bonus in this book is that the Hemingway Library has added the rough drafts of each story and also marked where Hem crossed out language he didn’t use. This is quite beneficial as one studies each story to get a better understanding of his thinking.

There are so many good stories in this book, the ones he is famous for, and of course, the ones that aren’t as well-known, but they are all here for one who is truly the student of Hemingway. “Up in Michigan,” “Fifty Grand,” “The Killers,” “A Canary for One,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” just to name a few.

This book is a treasure in my collection. I will pull from it many times in the future. There is much to learn from in these pages.

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The Paris Wife

May 11, 2018 by

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is a fictional account of the marriage between Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway as told through by Hadley.

Most accounts, A Moveable Feast, and Hemingway In Love, are told by Ernest or A.E. Hotchner. I don’t know how much of The Paris Wife is fact or fiction. I have yet to read the biography Paris Without End, The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife by Gioia Dilberto, but it seems plausible.

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is about the marriage between Hadley and Ernest Hemingway.

McLain’s book tracks right, I mean the events within line up against those mentioned in other works about the Hemingways, so by now, I’m beginning to feel like I know them fairly well. This book is a splash of color, certainly, one that I did enjoy reading. I wish there’d been a note or two at the end that spoke about her assumptions.

The book reads matter of fact. McLain handles her assumption of the mind of Hadley Richardson with great poise and authority. One feels like he/she is in the head of Hadley the entire read and that is quite an accomplishment. When the noose of Pauline begins to tighten and Hadley is unaware it is happening, the story reads innocently. Only from having read other accounts did I know what was going on. McLain handled this perspective so well.

She also handled the revelation, the realization, when Hadley figures out that Pauline and Ernest are having the affair, well. I do not know if there are diary accounts or letters that explain this, again, I’m looking forward to Dilberto’s book—maybe I should have read that one before McLain’s—to better understand how McLain chose to write these scenes. I know how Ernest described the trip to château country in France, what I don’t know enough about is how Hadley truly reacted to Pauline, her sister and Hadley all riding off together and Hadley coming to the realization that Pauline and Ernest were having an affair while they off on the trip.

For anyone studying Hemingway, as I continue to do, this is a must read. Even though it is a fictional account of their lives, it helps to see another side of the story of their lives. I enjoyed this book and recommend it, even if you’re not studying Hemingway. It’s a good story and you’ll learn something. The accounts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda are funny, too.

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