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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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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Revising Using JenManuel.com’s ‘Narrative Space’ As A Guide

Apr 19, 2018 by

Revising Using JenManuel.com’s ‘Narrative Space’ As A Guide

I’m Revising my debut novel again, this time using JenManual.com’s Narrative Space tool as a guide and what an eye-opening experience this has been.

Before beginning her The Reimagine Course, which costs $249, I’d done something daring. The manuscript of The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club, then weighing in at 112,000 words, was way too long for a debut novel of any sort. So, I took the first five chapters and set them aside, cutting the book to 72,200 words. Talk about killing your darlings. That’s 39,800 words of darlings.

Some of them are going to come back because I’ve realized I’m not writing a middle grade book, I’m writing something of a nostalgia book—something between To Kill A Mockingbird and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. My book is something adults would more relate to–those who were children of the 1970s, but also I’ve found middle grades do like, so I’m torn at the moment. My next quest is finding an agent who reps Nostalgia….

Regardless, that left me with what was chapter five becoming my new chapter one.

What is Narrative Space?

In its simplest definition, according to Manuel, “Narrative space is how much space on the page the parts of your story occupy. How much space these narrative parts—or moments—take up on the page.”

What she recommends, and I’ve done with my first chapter, is gone through with highlighters in MS Word and the hard copy, and highlighted the narrative spaces or significantly different moments.

JenManuel.com’s Narrative Space Tool helped me see what I needed to add and cut from my first chapter without even looking at the words.

I started with the opening paragraph and highlighted it in green. Then my main character dives right into a first conflict in the book and it is highlighted in red. A few paragraphs later I go into what amounts to a data dump—something I’ve decided I, too, can reduce if not eliminate (in light blue), followed by a paragraph in red, another light blue, back to a red, then a second conflict introducing a new character and a third conflict in purple, the antagonist jumps in highlighted in black, back to red, back in black, more red, to pink, another conflict and a different color, more purple, back to orange, one line in black with the antagonist, two lines in red, another conflict in orange, a little red, then we jump into yellow, more purple, yellow, purple, yellow, purple, yellow, purple and more conflict, a little more black with conflict, and the chapter ends.

Whew! That looks confusing on the surface of it. But it is telling me all sorts of things.

Narrative Space Interpretation

Without even looking at the text, I zoomed out, so I wouldn’t even see the words, here’s what all of this is telling me.

Most importantly, my antagonist, highlighted in gray, isn’t getting enough time on the page in the opening chapter to make him the goon that he is. There needs to be more about him and less about what’s in light blue to follow.

The light blue, see above. This section needs to be reduced to give more play to what’s highlighted in gray.

The green at the beginning. This section begins the book and nothing else is done with it the whole chapter, but the other sections support what is laid out in the beginning. To provide more impact to this section, I need to come back to it with the chapter’s end. At present, I do not. So, to revise, I need to brush in elements of red, black, purple, yellow—the most prominent sections of the chapter—the longer sections of narrative space that provide the greatest emotion and experience to my future readers, a sandwich effect, if you will.

Conclusion

Pretty cool stuff, eh? Jen Manuel is Canadian, so I threw the “Eh” in for her. This is the only tool from her course I will feature. For me it’s like clouds have been overhead and God has appeared and pushed them aside with his mighty hands, the tool is so amazing. This is such an impactful and different way of seeing my work.

Suffice it to say that Ms. Manuel’s course is money well spent for any writer wanting to hone his/her craft.

Check out her site. You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

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Cameron, Fitzgerald, Hanks & Hemingway

Apr 5, 2018 by

Cameron, Fitzgerald, Hanks & Hemingway

Credibility, May Day, The Past is Important to Us & Fifty Grand

I witnessed a cosmic literary alignment this week when reading selections of Julia Cameron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Hanks, and Ernest Hemingway randomly together. Each of them fit together in a unique way.

Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron’s essay “Credibility” taken from her Right to Write fits with the others like a glove.

Four great writers who sat down and wrote to overcome their fear of whether or not they were good enough.

The essay says that in America we have a conviction “that being published has to do with being ‘good’ while not being published has to do with being ‘amateur.’ We treat the unpublished writher as though he or she suffers an embarrassing case of unrequited love.”

Her male counterparts understood the importance of the act of writing.

What if F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Hanks, and Ernest Hemingway had all said to themselves, “My writing isn’t good enough to publish. I’m just going to stick it in the drawer.”

Or worse, “I’m just not good enough.”

Or worse still, “I’ll never be good enough, so I’m not going to write at all.”

You may think I am joking about this, but how many people do you know who have said this? The answer is too many.

Anyone can sit down and write. And the more they do so, the better they will get. As long as they are reading, too.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “May Day,” his first great novelette, was published in July 1920, and related to a series of events that took place in his life in 1919. He feared that he had “unsuccessfully” woven the events into a pattern in his story. But he published the story regardless and it is a wonderful piece of writing.

His story details a Yale reunion on May 1-2, 1919 in New York and follows the antics of Gordon Sterrett, Phillip Dean, Edith Bradin, Carrol Key, Gus Rose, and Peter Himmel. The tale is sad, but has moments of color, yet is told masterfully.

Gordy is caught in a pickle and a situation of misery he seems to have created on his own. But reading the story one gets the sense of the true genius of Fitzgerald’s writing.

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks’ “The Past is Important to Us,” in his book, Uncommon Type, introduces us to Bert Allenberry, also in New York City, who has developed a time machine that allows him to go from near future to June 8, 1939 where he frequents the World’s Fair and finds himself infatuated with a woman from another time.

Hanks weaves a great tale of Bert not being happy with what he has, all the money he could want, and longing for something he can’t have. Like Gordy, Bert’s demise is created out of his own greed. The underlying theme is very much the same between the two stories written almost 100 years apart.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Fifty Grand,” from The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Hemingway Library Edition, involves a washed-up boxer named Jack Brennan who is facing his last fight and puts $50,000 down on himself to lose.

This is another story set in New York city. In this edition, there are extras with previous versions of the stories included. Right behind the published edition is exhibit 12A which has the note, “1st 3 pages of story mutilated by Scott Fitzgerald with his—.”

Boxing stories aren’t really my thing, but Hemingway’s writing is so rich and concise. Remember, he says 80 percent of a story should be like an iceberg—with the bulk of it unseen.

Conclusion

So how is it that I can pick up four books randomly and read four separate pieces together and they have overlapping themes?

That remains a mystery, but in part, Hemingway and Fitzgerald hung out together as best friends. They fed off each other. Tom Hanks has been an actor, screenwriter, director, and producer. His writings also have appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. His book Uncommon Type, where every story features a typewriter, is his first collection of fiction.

Each of these writers overcame what Julia Cameron wrote about in her essay “Credibility.” They, like all writers, heard the call all writers hear and did something about their need to write. They sat down with blank sheets of paper, pricked their fingers and poured their hearts out onto the pages before them. Then they went back time and again and revised and made their words better and better and better.

I’ve been studying and writing short stories of late. Writing short stories is a pathway to the soul of writing. They don’t allow for lengthy writing. A writer must be concise. The transformation of the lead character must happen in a few paragraphs. The whole story is contained to about 1,500 words. This demands practice and determination. Once a writer perfects such a medium, he/she is better prepared for novel writing. Or so the theory goes.

I’m about to do my fourth revision of my novel The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club. I’ve been writing short stories for about two months now. They are a joy to compose and challenging as well. My word usage is much tighter than before. That’s the biggest thing to come from this exercise, but so is the joy of telling new stories. I highly recommend such a study. Not to mention reading from masters like the four authors above. You will be surprised how much you will learn.

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A Moveable Feast

Mar 16, 2018 by

A Moveable Feast

In my writing and reading, I am studying Earnest Hemingway. That led to my reading of A Moveable Feast, published in 1964 after he had died. The version I have includes a foreword by his son, Patrick, and an introduction by his grandson, Sean. There are also many newly released sketches about his son Jack and first wife, Hadley.

Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”

The chapters about F. Scott Fitzgerald and the subsequent descriptions including his wife, Zelda Sayre, formerly of Montgomery, Alabama add a new level of color to the first celebrities of the Jazz Age. (Check out the short film I did last summer on Zelda as a ghost in Montgomery–going back home one night and visiting her old haunts in modern Montgomery.)

Hemingway paints a picture of Zelda that is anything but flattering. He all but says that Zelda ruined Scott’s writing career out of jealousy. Fitzgerald is portrayed in firsthand stories that show why he only produced a limited number of books in his career.

For instance, when they first met, Scott invited Hemingway to take a train with him from Paris to Lyon to retrieve a car Scott and Zelda had left broken down. Hem arrived at the train, Scott did not. Hem boarded, Scott did not. Hem arrived in Lyon, Scott arrived an hour later. Hem booked a room and wired Zelda where he was staying, but the message never got to Scott, who found Hem the next morning. Then there was the matter of where the two would eat breakfast. Zelda apparently hated cars with tops and so their’s had none and it was raining that day. Scott and Hem made it an hour before they had to stop in the rain. Once they stopped for the day, Scott said he felt like he was catching his death of cold. Hem kept insisting that he had no temperature and that he was fine. Scott insisted he was dying. He insisted Hem find a thermometer. The pharmacy was closed. Hem found a waiter who located an odd thermometer which he told Scott, “You’re lucky it’s not a rectal thermometer.” No temp, but that didn’t satisfy Scott. But after some doing, he then went downstairs to call Zelda and talked to her for an hour. This, he assured Hemingway was the first night the two had spent apart since they’d been married. The way Hem told it, it was a gross case of co-dependency before anyone used the term. The whole bit makes one wonder how stable Scott was himself. Then to see how Hemingway portrays the constant fighting between Scott and Zelda is eye-opening.

The first season TV series on Amazon shows they have a contentious relationship but Hemingway paints a much harsher picture. At one point they are arguing with their chauffer from France about whether or not they can put oil in their car, or whether or not their driveway is their’s or not.

But there are a few segments of the book where Hemingway writes about writing. “On Writing in The First Person,” Hemingway says that if a writer does a good enough job, “you make the person who is reading … believe that the thing has happened to him too.” He goes on to say that if one can achieve this it will “become part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory.”

The observations and sketches about living in Paris in the early 1920s are colorful and enjoyable. He shares what it was like to live poor and to work hard at honing his craft. He was in love with Hadley and focused, intent on becoming a serious writer and loving living in what he felt was the best place in the world to be a writer at the time.

The chapters about Gertrude Stein and her calling Hemingway’s “the lost generation” are informative, as well as his summation that every generation is a little lost.

I enjoyed the read and will likely go back through this one a couple more times in my studies. There are Easter eggs hidden here among his feast of words.

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Gonna Write You A Letter….

Mar 8, 2018 by

Gonna Write You A Letter….

Not long ago, I bought resume paper and matching envelopes. Not to send out resumes but for something more special–letter writing.

Once I load the paper into my 1951-model Smith-Corona Silent, (taking care to ensure the letterhead is correct), I write someone I’ve not corresponded with in a while. Maybe someone I have never written before. 

My penmanship is better after months of hand-written Morning Pages. But how often these days does anyone receive the gift of a letter composed on a typewriter? Yeah, rarely.

My goal is a letter a day. One-page to let a special person know they were on my mind. This is so much better, not to mention cheaper than Hallmark. More original. More personal. More caring.

I don’t ask for a letter in return, though a typing pen pal would be nice. these days we dash emails and texts off with so little thought behind them. I enjoy my time at the typewriter taking the care to send genuine thoughts and to do my level best not to make any typos.

Dumping By Snapchat

A friend of mine had her son dumped by a girlfriend recently. She sent him a Snapchat message. He read the Dear John and it disappeared, forever. They’d been going steady for more than a year. They are 14, but still. This from a girl born in Alabama. She knows better and her mother taught her better, too. Emily Post is rolling in her grave.

Better Mail

My friend Harold Duncan often tells his mail carrier he wishes the Postal Service would bring “better mail.” The other day Harold had his wish fulfilled with a one-page letter thanking him for many years of friendship and support.

Typing With a Butter Knife

Owning a typewriter is rare these days. I bought my first last fall–a Smith-Corona Super Sterling like my dad had when I was a boy. In the documentary California Typewriter, Tom Hanks turned me onto the Smith-Corona Silent model. Hanks says that of the 250 typewriters he has, the Silent is the one he could not do without. I concur. It’s like typing with a butter knife.

My typewriters have changed how I write. The rhythm of the intricate machine slows my thought process. Words form pictures in my mind as the letters flow to my fingertips, depress a key, activate a series of levers and springs before compressing the fibers of a black ribbon and leap onto the white canvas of the non-glowing, porous page.

I revised my novel “The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club” on my typewriters. Instead of cutting, they helped grow the story into something new and magical. Yesterday I started querying agents.

Times are crazy busy. I’ve enjoyed the responses from friends who’ve received my letters. Writing them was worth it. Every clickety-clack….

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