Friday, December 19, 2014

The Christmas Tree Expedition

from Jacqueline


The ritual of buying and decorating Christmas trees took me by surprise when I first lived here in America. The fact that so many people were putting up their trees really early in my estimation - the day after Thanksgiving, in November for heaven’s sake! - then whipping them down on Boxing Day (and no Boxing Day in America either!!!), just seemed ludicrous to me.  Had no one ever heard of the twelve days of Christmas?  Didn’t Americans know it’s unlucky to remove a Christmas tree before January 6th??  Clearly not!  When I was growing up, most people put up their trees about a week before Christmas - though there were those who stuck to tradition and put up the tree on Christmas Eve - then took them down on January 6th.  Mind you, some were fed up with the needles all over the floor, broke down around January 4th and took their chances with Luck when they chucked out the tree. 

To me, the festive season in childhood would be nothing without a picture of the Christmas tree in my mind’s eye, or rather, bringing the tree home, and to this day I confess, I begrudge paying for a tree. My brother, in honor of our childhood, always goes to a Christmas tree farm where he can choose and cut the tree himself.  It brings back memories you see, of childhood, and Christmas tree theft.


OK, so before you think I come from a family of crazy kleptomaniacs, let me explain.  Kleptomaniacs, maybe, but crazy - never!  Or maybe it IS the other way around ....

When I was born my parents were living in a “tied” cottage (which meant it was tied to the land and the job) on a farm in the middle of a massive conifer plantation.  In those days it was “Crown” property, with the farms leased to families who had worked the land for generations, the lease being passed down from father to son.  Those farms were sold off many years ago now, with the conifer plantation now under the jurisdiction of Britain’s Forestry Commission.  There was also a park - in my early childhood barely used, but now a very well-attended tourist attraction - that housed an ornamental collection of conifers and broad-leafed trees from around the world. I loved that park as a child, but today it has changed so much, with a large visitor center and places to have coffee and tea and lunches, I can hardly bear to walk there.


The proximity to the main plantations meant that it was easy to acquire a Christmas tree and there was tacit understanding that workers on the farms could choose their own, though you were expected to be pretty circumspect about when you marched off with your tree, and you certainly didn’t go for something the size of the thing that graced Trafalgar Square.  So, all the time we lived in cottages tied to the farm, we were OK for a tree at no cost. Then we moved - but the house was still not too far from the forest, about four miles as the crow flies.  Close enough to walk, for a fit man - especially one who had become rather used to having a free tree.

I always knew when Dad went out to choose our Christmas tree.  I’d see him gathering the necessary bits and pieces he needed for the expedition. There was a length of sacking, some heavy twine, a small saw and his knife.  Then, as soon as we were in bed, I’d hear the back door open, and the sound of my father’s footsteps as he made his way up the road, the dog at heel. He would return several hours later, his boots heavy on the path.  That’s when I’d scamper downstairs, to run into his arms and smell the aroma of pine on his jacket.  Putting my face against his cold cheek, I knew the Christmas tree was outside, waiting until the following evening, when it would be raised in the sitting room, the lights woven around its branches, and then decorated with old baubles and tinsel. Then of course a bulb would explode, the lights would go off, and hey - its Christmas!!



One year my father agreed to take my brother and myself along on the expedition for the first time - John was six and I was ten.  We were wrapped up in our winter coats, with thick socks inside our Wellington boots, scarves wound around our necks and woolen hats pulled down - it was a wonder we could see. We went on our way in the dark, the dog slightly ahead - she knew the way.  Dad pointed out the stars above, telling us stories of space and rocket ships, of exploration, predicting that one day, maybe not too far in the future, a man would walk on the moon. Then we were there, our legs aching, our cheeks glowing, our noses red and runny, and our eyes peeled for another human being. Dad was inspecting each tree as we walked, hardly speaking, after all, we no longer lived in the forest, and that tacit approval for what we were doing had been relinquished years before.  Then, out of the blue, my brother - never known for being quiet for long - let us know, in a loud voice, that he had seen “the one.” At the top of his voice he yelled, “Over here, Dad - get the saw in here!”  

I rugby tackled him to the ground, one hand around his neck.  “Shut up!” I said, through gritted teeth into his ear.  The dog looked both ways, then to my father, as if to say, "Did we really have to bring them?".  He shook his head.  “Too big, that one.”  We scrambled to our feet and walked on.  The tree was chosen, and my father dropped to his knees to saw away at the trunk. With a deft hand he used twine to close the branches, wrapped the tree in sacking, creating a handle with more twine. Then we were off - the walk home was before us, the air was crisp, the ground hard, and the stars shone ever more brightly.  



Hot cocoa and an open fire greeted us when we walked into the kitchen. The dog hunkered down beside the grate, and chairs were pulled up as we took off our cold coats and damp scarves.  We toasted thick slices of crusty bread over the coals, to be spread with best butter - a late suppertime treat before bed.  The tree was outside, still wrapped in sackcloth.  And though we knew we’d have to go through a bulb or two blowing out, and the frustration of watching dad replace them and fiddling with the socket until the room was illuminated, we were filled with excitement. Our Christmas had begun. And we hadn’t been caught!



Wishing you all a skirmish-free week ahead - do your best to avoid the shops (do we really need the "stuff" anyway?) and many blessings to you and yours, and for a Holiday season filled with peace and joy.  Especially Peace - our world needs Peace so very much.

 .

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Blog by guest Mario Acevedo

Mario Acevedo is the author of the Felix Gomez detective-vampire series. Keep an eye peeled for Rescue From Planet Pleasure, due March 2015 from WordFire Press. He's also a great guy who has served his county and made me laugh, the two most important things anyone can do. 
-----Jim Born


Jim has been after me for some time to contribute an article with writing advice to his blog. It’s taken me this long to submit something for a couple of reasons. First, I have been busy. I mean like work busy, not like watching House of Cards on Netflix busy. Second, I couldn’t think of anything to add about writing that hasn’t been written a bazillion times already. If you’re a newbie writer, then you tend to soak up all the writer advice you can and hope it’ll stick. Maybe, you’ll get an A-Ha! moment. But mostly I get the impression that writers are always on the prowl--like raccoons scrounging through a dumpster--in search of that one morsel of advice that will carry you over that elusive threshold from unpublished to published, from unwashed to still dirty, but at least with credentials!

But as for any advice that might help you, other than keep writing and stay positive and all that, here my two centavos:

POV doesn’t matter. I can hear a collective sucking of breath on that one. Again, Point-of-View doesn’t matter. I say that because I can’t think of one novel where violating the Commandment Thou Shall Not Head-Hop made one difference (measured in WTF’s) in terms of sales or acclaim. And I can’t think of one reader who ever said, “The story was great. The characters were amazing. The plot, compelling. But I put the book down because of the shifts in Point-of-View.”

What confuses the new writer is to get back a sample chapter and have it redlined up by a teacher or a critique partner with notes admonishing you of POV shifts within a scene. But wait, you protest, here’s my beloved, international bestseller, rock-star rich author and he, she, hops around POV like a frog on a hot George Foreman and that hasn’t hurt their career. “But,” the teacher/critique partner replies, “the different are rules because those writers are published. “

Advice like that is enough to make you go from head-hopping to head-lopping. However, before you go all nutzo with head-hopping, I’ll admit that at first, you have to understand POV. A tight POV helps you develop what’s going on in the character’s head, whether you write First Person or Third Person. Newbie writers who skim from head-to-head miss opportunities for dramatic immersion. But at one point, you’ll figure it out. So why not vary POV?

Old hands will tell you, okay, but if you shift POV, then you must either rely on a chapter break or a paragraph drop-down. You see, they argue, readers are morons with the attention span of bottle flies. You can’t depend on them to keep track of anything. Even though you might have introduced a huge roster of characters and a plot so intricate that readers needs index cards and a highlighter to follow the story, but if you hop one head, BOOM! you’ve lost them. So why the writer witch-hunts on POV? Because a POV shift is easy to spot. It’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to say, POV shift! bad writer.

In my critique group (all old hands at this writer game), anytime one of us introduces an abrupt POV shift, the others act as if we’ve written kiddie porn and killed puppies. Shame on you! Then when we discuss the latest book we’ve read, we’re all: “It was awesome. The prose, so colorful. The characters were magic.” What about POV shifts? “Like a crazy mo-fo, but it didn’t make a difference. I loved the story.”

So here’s my advice to you. Go ahead, remove the shackles. Indulge in head-hopping. Have fun.


Monday, December 15, 2014

American Sniper and the role of the sheepdog

Patty here

Earlier this week, I attended a screening of American Sniper, based on the true story of Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal who served four tours of duty in Iraq as a sniper, charged with picking off the enemy to protect marines as they patrolled the streets. The Navy credits him with 160 confirmed “kills” among 225 probable kills, making him the most lethal sniper in American military history. Kyle authored a best-selling book about his experiences titled American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is based on that book.

Chris Kyle

A bulked up Bradley Cooper, who gained 40 pounds to play Kyle, aced the steely demeanor of a sniper on a mission.


Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

The film gave the audience a glimpse into the noise, dust and peril of combat, but, for me, those scenes became repetitive and tedious over time. You may know already how this story ends. I won't tell you here, but the most moving moment for me was the rolling of credits after the film ended. There was no background music, only silence as the names glided by.

Something else in the film caught my attention. An early scene depicted Kyle as a young boy on his first deer-hunting trip with his father, the first time he had stopped a beating heart with a bullet. That experience became a thematic element in the movie.

During the hunt, Kyle’s father shared a theory that the world was made up of sheep (victims), wolves (predators) and sheepdogs (the only thing standing between the two). That episode might have been forgotten had it not been for a video sent to me a couple of days later from a homicide detective friend of mine that referenced the sheep/wolf/dog story.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zyhOW-8Zcc&sns=em 

Curious to see two references in a short span of time, I searched the Internet for the original text until I found its source: Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, who wrote On Killing and On Combat. In the video below, he defines each player in the triad.

http://www.policeone.com/police-trainers/videos/6097267-The-sheep-the-wolf-and-the-sheep-dog 

Grossman believes the wolf is a predator with a propensity for violence without empathy. He also believes it takes a predator to hunt a predator. The sheepdog has a propensity for violence but only for a worthy cause. Sheepdogs yearn for righteous battle, which is why Chris Kyle enlisted in the Navy Seals after 9-11. In the film, soldiers who lost their stoic zeal for the mission often lost their lives as a result.

Grossman's philosophy can be applied to writing crime fiction, as well: victims, villains and sometimes less than noble heroes. Thought provoking.

HAPPY MONDAY!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ramblings On Being In The Game

from Jacqueline


I remember the excitement I felt when I knew I’d found an agent to represent my novel, MAISIE DOBBS – but it was an excitement tempered with a degree of reality.  Landing an agent was no indicator of actually finding a publisher.  “Don’t worry,” said my husband, whatever happens, you’ve got an agent – you’re in the game.” He’d said the same thing when I started the novel, and when I finished the manuscript – “You’re in the game.”

I might not have been a seasoned player, more of a substitute brought out at the last minute – but it was a good feeling to be on the field and in the game.    Events moved on apace and soon there was a publisher or two interested, and I reminded myself that, however it went down, I was in the game.  Finally,  one stood out above the others, and I signed the contract. 

Maisie Dobbs was published the following year and I could not have wished for a better outcome – I had some great breaks and a few home runs, as you might say.  In time I was asked about a second book, and even though I had an idea, I was really, really worried. Would I ever be able to write another novel?  “Just get going and write your story,” counseled my husband.  “You’ve nothing to lose - you’re in the game.”  Indeed, I had put myself in the game many years before, when I decided to do something about becoming a professional writer.

I think the reason why being “in the game” really resonates with me, is that it was always the underlying lesson before me from childhood onwards.  My parents were far from wealthy people (really far from wealthy) but there was always a sense that in trying you were achieving something – that you could play the game as well as someone with the best boots and kit.  You just had to swallow your pride or fear, or whatever was holding you back, and you had to go for it – and you didn’t have to wait for anyone else’s starting gun.  It was your responsibility to make the move. 

I love reading stories about people who have made that leap, who have joined the game when being on the field seems far away, and the journey is one of endurance and faith – my leap to being a published author pales beside the stories of others who have just gone out and made the dreams of their heart come true.  Here’s a few that spring to mind (out of many I could have chosen).

I’ve written about Yali Derman before, a survivor of childhood leukemia who decided she would find a way to give something back to the hospital where she spent most of her time while in treatment.  She designed the “Carry On” bag, which is now sold to raise funds for the hospital and inspires people to “carry on” in the face of adversity.  And the latest news?  She is now a RN specializing in children’s oncology, working in the same department where her life was saved so many years ago. Yali was thrown into a dreadful game as a child – and then changed the rules with her generous and creative spirit.

Here’s another – I believe he was featured on 60 Minutes some years ago.  Robert Howard Allen, a Tennesee poet and teacher, had not set foot in a school until he was 32, because he was living with older relatives who didn't want to send him out to be educated. He taught himself to read with comic books, then he moved on to the family bible.  It was a librarian named Pearl Harder who broadened his world.  I have great respect for librarians, and this one helped bring him off the sidelines and into the game.  In the interests of brevity (something I am not famous for), I will just add that Allen gained his Ph.D at Vanderbilt University.   What fortitude that man has – and I thought writing a novel was hard! Shame on me.

A couple of years ago I read about a young girl in the UK named Shelby Holmes.  Shelby gained outstanding results in her “A” levels (exams you take at the end of high school), and as a result won a place to study at Oxford University’s Trinity College, one of the world's most prestigious seats of higher learning.  Nothing mind-blowing about that story, except that Shelby had to work really hard and not always in perfect circumstances to achieve her goal – for she comes from a gypsy family, travelers who go from place to place with the fun fair.  Her family were behind her, but she still had to pay her way – and on the day she received news of her acceptance, there was no big party, for Shelby had to work the fair.  It should be noted that many gypsy children never make it through any level of schooling, and moving onto higher education is another game altogether; Shelby’s an inspiration for them.

I wish I could remember the names of those three African American young men who challenged each other, from boyhood, to achieve more than was expected of them – they really went for the game in a big way.

There are a couple of names I’ll mention here, only because I was at school with both of them – and funny that these two really put themselves in the game.  The first, a name perhaps not immediately recognizable, is Piers Sellers.  From his early teens, having watched TV coverage of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, he had a dream of becoming an astronaut. You don’t get many astronauts in Britain, given the lack of space programs, and if you’d told the school careers advisor that you wanted to be an astronaut, you'd have been brought down to earth with a thump.  Piers Sellers became a scientist and later, an American - he is a veteran of three space shuttles, logging more time on space walks than any other NASA astronaut.  I remember him as the teen who gained his pilot’s license before most of us had our driver’s license, because he loved to fly - and was nailed for “buzzing” the school in a light aircraft.


That really is him, up there ...

The second is a guy named Tim Smit (actually, Tim Smit now has a knighthood, so it’s Sir Tim), who was a good friend in high school.  He founded two of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions – The Lost Gardens of Heligon, and The Eden Project, which is also at the forefront of environmental advocacy.  Clearly Tim took an earlier game to another level - I always remember his interest in a particularly fragrant variety of herb; you could smell it a mile off!


The people here have all been in the news, one way or another, but finding the inspiration to get into whatever game catches your attention often begins closer to home.  My mother had to leave school at 14, and was denied the opportunity to take up the scholarship she’d won to a top girls’ school in London.  Immediately after her 14th birthday, her mother took her to the laundry where she was to begin working.  But that evening, her hands raw, she walked along the road and signed up for night classes in subjects she knew would get her a better job.  By the time I was 15 she was working for the civil service, in a role usually reserved for graduates.  At age 48 or thereabouts, she went back to night classes – to prove to herself that she could do what her kids had done, though we certainly had no doubts about her ability.

My dad was plucked out of school at age 13 by the air raid patrol, who went to London schools looking for the fastest sprinters to be “runners” throughout the bombings. Dad was one of the fastest.  But here’s what my Dad loved beyond anything – the stars and astronomy.  He had a telescope at home to watch the goings on in the universe, and on walks he would point out the different constellations.  He taught us how to find our bearings in the night sky. “Look for your north star,” he would say. “If you can find your north star, you can find your whole universe.”

I would add to that, “And then you’re in the game.”

So, what game do you want to get into?  Are you inspired by Our Jim’s weekly posts about writing and getting published?  Or perhaps something else you won’t tell anyone about.  Now’s the time to make your move, to get into the game, even in a small way.  Life’s too short to do otherwise.  I’ll  close with one of my favorite passages:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:  “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” (W.H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition)




I’m flying to the UK on Monday for the Christmas Holiday, so I may not post for the next couple of weeks.  In the meantime, may you be blessed this Holiday Season, with the gifts that count – beloved family, dear friends, fine health and good cheer. 



(And that's Rye in Sussex, where I will be)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

J.T. Ellison guest blog on How She Found an Agent

After my over-long trilogy of how I found an agent, my good friend JT goes right to the point and is as entertaining as always. After the first of the year, we'll hear about our own Jackie's experience.
--- Jim Born


How I got my agent - sheer freaking serendipity.
Long story short - I’m sure you’ve heard of Publishers Marketplace. Publishers Marketplace has a neat little function where you can setup your own webpage. I built that and made it my website. I put a little query, a little synopsis of the book I was getting ready to query, and I check marked the box that said this writer is looking for an agent.
After doing a lot of research, I had decided who would be the best agent for me. His name was Scott Miller from Trident Media Group. He was in the news selling crime fiction everywhere and they were calling him the ‘it boy’ of crime fiction. That’s who I wanted. But Scott Miller and Trident Media - that's Harvard. It was a pie in the sky wish, and I knew it.
But I was determined, and so I began crafting the perfect query letter. And while I was doing that, I received an email from his office asking to see the manuscript. They had seen the synopsis on Publishers Marketplace and were interested. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was one of my friends playing with me, but it wasn’t. I sent the manuscript, and the next day they wrote back and asked for an exclusive. Two weeks later Scott called and offered representation. We never looked back.
A good agent is worth his or her weight in gold. A good agent is your business partner, but even more so, your career manager. I trust mine implicitly, and we spend an awful lot of time planning my next moves, in addition to all the other things he does to earn his 15%. I'm really grateful his assistant all those years ago was from Nashville and liked my book enough to recommend it to her boss, and grateful I have a solid agent from a solid agency behind me. 

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including When Shadows Fall, Edge of Black, and A Deeper Darkness.

She is also the co-author of the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter.

Her novel The Cold Room won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original and Where All The Dead Lie was a RITA® Nominee for Best Romantic Suspense. She lives in Nashville with her husband. 



Friday, December 05, 2014

Another Life

from Jacqueline

A few weeks ago, just before my riding accident, I picked up a copy of Michael Korda’s book Another Life (published in 2000) in my favorite used bookstore, Bart’s Books in Ojai, CA – so in that first week, while languishing in my bed wondering if that bone poking up a bit close to my neck would actually burst through the skin if I moved the wrong way, I set about reading.  Another Life brought back a raft of memories - and though I have written about this part of my life before, I'm giving it another go-round.

Korda was the Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster, and became their “Editor Emeritus” in later years (He’s now 81 years of age).  The book is a memoir of his many years with S&S, from the lowly position of editorial assistant, and because I once worked in the publishing industry, albeit when I was still very green and young, I enjoyed the book immensely – it brought back memories.

Now, just to get one thing straight – working as assistant to the sales director at a  publisher of general books for all of one year at age 23 does not help to get one’s novel published when one is 46.  I went from that company into academic publishing, and though I made lifelong friends in the job, not one of them could have helped me get a book published.  I say this because there are people who have said to me, upon hearing that I once worked in publishing, “Oh, so that’s how you got your book published!”  And all I can say is, “Chance would have been a fine thing!”  In fact, I became incredibly disillusioned about my chances of ever becoming a writer.  But let me tell you about those days (and Sybille, are you reading this?).

I was a flight attendant when I came to the conclusion that I wanted to get a job in publishing.  This made perfect sense to me – after all, when I left college, I knew I wanted to travel, so I landed a job with an airline because I could not afford to travel and needed a way to see more of the world.  My theory was, go straight to the source.  If you want something, find a cheap way of getting it.  And because I had a book habit that was going to bankrupt me before age 25 if I wasn’t careful, publishing seemed like a good idea.  However, getting a job in a serious industry if you’re a flight attendant has its challenges – I might as well have been a bunny girl trying out for the nunnery. 

One of the points Korda makes in his book, is that at one time publishing was a job considered acceptable to the debutante class of young women while they waited to land a husband – and though things had changed by the time I went into the industry, there was still a sense that it was a job for nice young society “gels.”  Not flight attendants.  I applied to a raft of publishers, to no avail.  But fate stepped in – my flatmate’s boyfriend’s parents’ neighbor (that’s how these things go) worked for a London publisher, based in Fitzroy Square.  Corinne – yes, of “Travels With Corinne” – arranged it so I would meet this man over drinks in her boyfriend’s parents' back garden one summer weekend.  Mr. Kiek was a lovely gentleman, close to retirement, and he mentioned that his boss, the Sales Director, needed a new secretary.  He asked if I could type.  “I can learn,” I said.

I had a meeting with Mr. Roy (only other directors called him by his first name) the following week.  He had been a Battle of Britain pilot at age 18 – which meant he was lucky to be alive at 19.  We talked about aircraft for half an hour and he offered me the job.  My friend Diane, who was the export director’s assistant, before she moved into Contracts and Rights, later told me that when word went round about Mr. Roy’s new secretary, everyone was saying, “And she’s an airline stewardess???”

I sort of learned to type, but the great thing was that Mr. Roy's "Assistant Sales Manager" left after I’d been in the job three months, and recommended me to be her successor – phew!  Now the only typing (oh the joys of a Selectric typewriter) I would have to do was my own.  Soon I was responsible for (among other things) the reprint program, which entailed monthly meetings with editors, haggling over whether a book due to go out of print should be reprinted. I had to gauge the sales history against possible future orders, and before I knew it, I was deciding the fate of some pretty big authors.  Looking back, there was no way I would have given that amount of responsibility to a 23-year old.  Mind you, I took to it like a duck to water – and the best thing about my job? Free books!!!!

Oh it was fun – and what a great gang I worked with – Sybille who had the desk next to mine, Fiona and Maria in Export Sales, Diane in Rights.  I loved sitting out in the square at lunchtime on spring and summer days, and there was always a well-known author or two around the office, though they didn't necessarily inspire one.  Soon I was going with Mr. Roy to meetings with the big bookstore buyers to present the new list, or I was meeting with authors and planning book tours.  I often think of those days when I’m in the midst of a grueling book tour – I can think of at least one author who must have cursed the ground I walked on for planning so many events in one week.

Korda’s memoir encompasses many of the changes in publishing during his tenure – from being a “gentleman’s business” to a market-driven industry of big companies buying other big companies.  Indeed, during that year I worked in the industry, I saw those changes happening. On the one hand you had stores like Foyles in London, where reps lined up in a dingy Victorian basement to have their orders stamped by the general manager, a crazy Serbo-Croatian (who, if you believed his stories, had fought with both the Russians and the Nazis during the war, when he was in the Resistance – go figure that one out).  I had seen him make grown men cry – bringing seasoned publishers’ reps to their knees with fear of him ripping up orders he didn’t like. Yet on the other hand, all sorts of new merchandising was coming in, and advertising on TV and radio.  It fascinated me, and I loved it.  But the more I found out about this “world of books” – the more I believed my dream of one day publishing a novel would remain just that – a dream.  And it was the man who worked the post room who showed me just how fickle the industry could be.

The post room was in the basement of one of the rather grand buildings in Fitzroy Square – it was the building that housed “editorial” (the “posh” department).  The sales department was across on the other side, in a much smaller building.  I often stopped to chat to Maurice, the man who sorted and delivered the mail to the different departments.  Maurice would be sorting while we talked, and on this day I noticed that every so often he would fling a package into a giant canvas bin.  It had a sort of rhythm to it, this sorting – letter, letter, letter, package, fling – letter, letter, letter, package, fling.  “Maurice ,” I said. “What’s in those packages – why are you throwing them in that bin over there?”  “Oh,” he replied, “they’re manuscripts people send in, you know, wanting to see if they can get published. I just throw them over there, then if one of the girls in editorial hasn’t much to do, she’ll come down and grab one, have a quick read, you know.”

I was crestfallen as I walked across the square that day, thinking about all the hard work and hope that had gone into those manuscripts (typed, no doubt, on old black typewriters, on kitchen tables, or in bedrooms in the half-light, so as not to wake a spouse), only to be flung into a bin and languish there until a girl from editorial came down to the basement looking for a quick read.

But times change again, and arguably, there has never been a better time to have a crack at being published.   Look at all the opportunities that abound today. OK, it’s still not easy, but not only are there new smaller publishing companies pushing up, but there are self-publishing and e-book options that weren’t available even ten years ago. New media has a hunger for fresh stories, and the bigger publishers are vying to stay ahead of the game.  And if you’ve been following Jim’s posts on finding and landing an agent, remember that the agents are looking for authors, fresh talent and new writing to put in front of editors.  You just have to give yourself the best possible shot, and write the best book you can possibly write. 

Why did I leave a job I enjoyed after only one year?  I wanted to work in outside sales for the company, and I was told that women didn’t go out to sell – and that was in the late 70’s.  So I moved into academic publishing, where women indeed went out to sell.  You see, by that time I needed a car, and well … with outside sales they gave you a company car. 



Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Final Act of Getting an Agent

James O. Born

Once again I won't bore you with a complete summation of the past two weeks (excluding the Thanksgiving break). I tried to get an agent, I finally landed one, but he couldn't sell the novel. Same old story.

I sent my third novel, Walking Money, to my friend, the private editor, who called me within a week and said, "This is a pretty good story." He had a few suggestions and I remember them clearly. He wanted the protagonist, Bill Tasker, to be more proactive. He suggested that minor elements be cut out of the plot and the ending sharpened. They were not drastic changes. It wasn't a rejection. And I was more than willing to make the changes.

I worked on the novel for another few months and in May of 2003, I sent him the revised manuscript. Perhaps a week later he called me to say he liked it and he had a friend who was an agent who had looked at it and wondered if I needed representation. I should mention that by this time I was completely without an agent because the first gentleman who showed interest in my work was no longer in the business. I gave him permission to give as much of the manuscript as necessary to this new agent. A week later the agent called me directly at my office. He immediately started talking about sending it out to publishers and I naïvely stopped him and said, "Does this mean you want to represent me?" He chuckled and said, "Yes." It wasn't like other times when an agent reluctantly agreed to look at my work or even show it to a publisher without much enthusiasm. This guy was excited about it. I was giddy with excitement. I don't often get giddy. I don't even like using the word, but for a week, I was on top of the world.

He had me make a few minor changes. Nothing big. And by mid-June, he was sending it out to several publishers. Just a few days later he called me. It was the call. The one every writer waits for. The one every novelist dreams of. He had an offer. A good offer. An offer for this novel and another one. I remember how I scurried from around my desk and closed my office door quietly so I could talk to him without distractions and not worry about anyone else hearing my conversation. My heart started to beat like the percussion section of the Miami Sound Machine. I had done it. I had crossed the finish line to a marathon. I had wanted to give up 1000 times and now my perseverance was paying off. We took the offer and Walking Money was published by Putnam about a year later. I won’t say I haven't had ups and downs in my publishing career, but I can say I have been consistently published and employed since the sale of that first book and I have no regrets whatsoever.

The funny thing is, I kept every rejection letter ever sent to me. Now that I have some perspective and distance, I even use the letters when I teach classes on writing. The actual letters. The ones I could barely read in the privacy of my own room. Now I read them out loud to students and get great enjoyment from their horrified reactions. It's like watching a movie of your own car accident. You survived it, recovered and now it's just part of your life. It's who you are.

I hope this three-week exploration of my painful journey to publication has given at least a few of you renewed hope because that's what life is all about. If you don't have hope it's difficult to go from one day to the next. Hope is what pushes all of mankind to achieve. We once hoped to travel to the moon. We hoped to end segregation. Now we hope to cure cancer or protect all children. We hope to end hunger. It's what keeps us going. Once we're satisfied as individuals or as a species, there's not much more that will happen. You might as well lay down in front of the TV and turn into a giant gelatinous blob. 

Dare to hope and don't give up. And you have my permission to smack anyone who tells you otherwise.

Next week I hope to hear from some of our colleagues about their challenges in finding an agent.