June 27, 2010


I made it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award’s top 50 young adult novels – out of some 4000 entrants.

Minnesota author, Judith Guest’s book, ORDINARY PEOPLE was discovered in the slushpile of Viking Press and published in 1976 – it was the first slushpile discovery Viking had published in 26 years.

Nathan Bransford (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/) and Rachel Gardner (http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/) are agents whose blogs are followed by nearly 4000 and nearly 3000 people respectively.

When people found out about my status, I was contacted by the local SunPost newspaper and the district-wide online news and interviewed by both at length.

Judith Guest’s book received the Janet Heidiger Kafka Prize for best first novel and was optioned by Robert Redford, who made it into a movie that garnered Oscars in 1980 for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Actor.

Virtually every post Bransford and Gardner make has between 25 and 150 comments.

I didn’t make the next-to-last cut into the Top Three young adult novels. Neither the local newspaper nor the district news ran my interviews.

Judith who?

If Bransford and Gardner announced that they were retiring from the agent business but would continue to write their columns, I GUESS (mind you, I am no clairvoyant or seer, just an observer of the human condition) that their popularity and comment numbers would plummet and they would no longer be on the “most read” lists.

My point? Not sour apples; I’m hoping I’m pretty much past that stage of my writing life. I also don’t believe in the “luck myth” (http://www.ninc.com/blog/index.php/archives/luck-myth) except as the smallest part of the publication equation. I’ve sold enough things to CRICKET, CICADA, ANALOG, a book that’s been selling for 12 years (http://www.csspub.com/prod-0788012940.htm) and other various and sundry publications to know I’m an OK writer.

I also understand the whole networking thing. But that’s what I’ve come to loathe. I have sold to several publications and I also teach writing and come into contact with aspiring writers at school and work. Often these people ask me about my agent. More than once they asked if I could introduce them to an agent; most of them were brand new writers or had one or two projects they wanted represented (sometimes the projects aren’t even done…)

When I say, “Oh, I don’t have an agent. I’ve been submitting over-the-transom…” I find I’m talking to thin air.

It’s not that I don’t know “famous writers”: Jeff Kooistra, Bruce Bethke, Mary Casanova, John Coy, David LaRochelle and Kate DiCamillo all have agents. I have resisted asking them for an introduction or reference because I feel obscurely uncomfortable; like I don’t want to be known as part of a Hunting Pack out to get their endorsement or something. I know the publishing process includes networking, but I guess I see networking as between me and “an agent” or “an editor” and something I do myself. Maybe this just shows my lack of faith in Humanity. Then again, my faith has always been in Jesus Christ, so I guess there’s no surprise there.

I’ve thought about this “networking” thing for a long time, and I think I’ll stay the course I’ve been walking all along: http://www.footprints-inthe-sand.com/index.php?page=Poem/Poem.php.

June 24, 2010

The Advent of Ebooks (HalleLUHjah!)

I don't recall having ever done this, but I just thought I'd point out that OTHER people have oogy feelings about the ultrahype over the "wonder" of the coming ebook age, in which agents, editors and publishers will go the way of the dodo bird allowing all the REAL writers, oppressed by the Literary Establishment to no longer kowtow to the whims of the Viscous Gatekeepers of Literary Super Stardom. When the REAL AGE OF THE EBOOK arrives, anyone who wants to can publish their MOST FABULOUSIST MANUSCRIPT that the editors and publishers and agents they approached didn't see the brilliance of...


I recently blogged about this:

Laura Miller at salon.com has some interesting light to shine on the Advent of the Ebook:

And Ian Randall Strock Facebooked about it here:

What do YOU think?

June 20, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Nathan Bransford 4 – Formula Query

Nathan Bransford is a West Coast agent with the New York literary agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd. For the past nine years, he has been writing a popular blog reflecting on and illuminating the publishing world. Humorous, serious and ultimately enlightening, I’ll be looking at how THE ESSENTIALS (PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU QUERY) have had an impact on my writing. I am using them with his permission and if you’d like to read his blog (which I highly recommend) go to http://blog.nathanbransford.com/.

How important is the query letter to a writer’s career or even the hobbyists happiness?

Sheesh! How important is breathing to life?

Even more, how can you write a good query letter…oops…GOOD query letters don’t even get responses. Queries are your first presentation to a possible future. They’re the difference between acceptance and the cold shoulder. The question should be, “How do I write KILLER query letters?”

Let’s look at my life in regard to this question.

Most people reading this have a job of some sort (unless you’re younger than 15), but imagine if you’d shown up at your very first interview wearing a plastic bag with rotting garbage glued to it.

The manager of that burger joint/restaurant/grocery store/car wash/lumber yard/whatever would never have hired you. Then where would you be today? I know exactly where I’d be…

So: query letter. I went through my computer files, and since I started submitting electronically more often than by snailmail (December 2007), I’ve sent out some 120 queries that generated SOME sort of response and didn’t just disappear into the ether. Of those 120, thirty-one generated communication (25.8%) that resulted in the publication (or in one case, the acceptance and “kill fee”) of four manuscripts (I wrote a total of 34 manuscripts during that period. In a separate series intended for a blog, the query resulted in five UNpaid requests for and publication of manuscripts (at http://thefridaychallenge@blogspot.com/). That means that I had 9/34 successfully published manuscripts or 26.5% of what I produced as well as two invitations to submit to anthologies run by a Famous Author (Julie Czerneda and Bruce Bethke). One invitation was ultimately turned down, the other is still pending.

Not ONE of those would have reached publication without a killer query letter.

I started reading Nathan Bransford’s column in December of 2007 and submitted my first query to him in February of 2008. It resulted in an immediate request for the first 30 pages of INVADER’S GUILT. He ultimately declined representing me, but (as my wife and daughter say http://onceinawhile-liz.blogspot.com/ ) “I’m just sayin’”. It was successful at doing what it was supposed to do – intriguing an agent enough to request a partial manuscript.

Nathan Bransford’s site helped me sharpen my query skills to a point where I pretty much submit with confidence now. I’m fairly sure that the “passes” I get on the manuscript I’m submitting have less to do with the form and functionality of my query letter than the subject, market viability, my writing skill or even the agent or editor’s taste.

So visit Nathan Bransford’s website. It’s a goldmine of information and it has allowed me to send successful queries.

image: http://www.transformationalnovels.com/4_query_letter__3_.jpg

June 15, 2010

I've got a post up at THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE!

I write an occasional essay or two for an old friend of mine, Bruce Bethke over at The Friday Challenge (http://thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com/). I've got a piece up there today in which I tried to generate 100 ideas from a book detailing the global history of AIDS. If you're interested, head on over, grab an idea and write a story. Or two. Or more...

June 13, 2010

SLICE OF PIE: Editors and Agents – Arks in the Deluge

I know many who are gaga over the revolution brought on by ebooks. I’ve heard very little but undiluted awestruck raving for the past five or so years. I’ve heard those who would sing the praises of paper books pooh-poohed, laughed at and downright insulted. I’ve heard it from an online writer’s group I’m in. I’ve heard discussions from an old friend of mine who is not only “into” computers but has worked for “Cray, Inc., the Supercomputer Company” ever since I met him. I work for Barnes and Noble for heaven’s sake – we just took over the world with Nook®! (At least according to company talk.)

That’s why I thought I’d try one last time to raise the alarm. I’m allowed. I’m over fifty and am a qualified “big, old, fat, white guy”. No one seems to have heard my concern that the switch from paper to digital spells the end of literacy advance in Less Developed Countries (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Worlds_Index). It is my totally unfounded belief that there will no longer be any free books to send people in LDCs. Electronic readers – even if we send them (which, given the price tag seems highly unlikely) require a “not free” power source which must be purchased at some point or another. As well, many of the Less Developed Countries have environments that will expose advanced technology to unfriendly conditions (= desert, jungle, rainforest, mountains, snow), increasing the likelihood of tech failure.

Maybe someone will hear THIS warning:

In a recent essay in the Huffington Post, Nathan Bransford (an agent I respect immensely and has a great sense of humor) had this to say,

…People fret as a swarm of books hit the market, many of poor quality, but I don't see any reason to fear the deluge at all.

“Let's face it, folks: the Digital Deluge is already here…Walk into any large suburban bookstore and you'll find tens of thousands of books to choose from, more than you could possibly read in an entire lifetime. Head on over to your friendly neighborhood online superstore and you'll find hundreds of thousands more. We're already faced with (literally) millions of options when it comes to choosing a book. And guess what: faced with all that choice we are still able to find the ones we want to read.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-bransford/the-rejection-letter-of-t_b_607979.html#

My UNFOUNDED FEAR is that, as Nathan Bransford points out, the deluge is already here. For example, it takes a staff of 20 six hundred hours a week to keep one brick-and-mortar in order by not only cleaning and cataloguing and finding, but also receiving, clearing and remaindering. Multiply that by however many brick and mortars you think there are and that’s A LOT of time and effort and money.

Now we will eliminate the people. Eliminate the publishers. Eliminate the system of agents, editors, marketing and public relations. Instead of a constitutional monarchy, with the CEOs of publishers as a parliament responsible to the Queen of Literature (she, of course has only ceremonial duties), the digital revolution will create an absolute democracy. One person, one vote and that’s it. In theory, an absolute democracy is a good thing. Everyone is equal; everyone has one vote; everyone has a say. But is revolution always a good thing and is absolute democracy a form of government (in reality or in bookland) what we REALLY want? Does “everyone” know enough to make informed decisions?

I think our system of constitutional monarchy with Queen Lit and a parliament of agents and editors is one we need to maintain before we slip into an uncontrolled state of absolute democracy.

Without agents and editors, a million books becomes a billion books. Anyone who wants to can put their novel into the Literature Ocean. Even excluding a good writer’s tendency to believe that the draft they would normally send to an agent is “it”, you now have an unedited, un-critiqued, unrefined oil slick floating on the Literature Ocean.

Absolutely, the ocean can stand a small slick. Agents and editors make mistakes and we simply skim the slick off or soak it up by not buying the mistakes and they eventually disappear. HOWEVER, the ocean can only have so much crude floating on it before I finally look at it, say “That’s impossible”, and go back to the cement pond safely filtered on shore. It will probably be the Cable TV cement pond. Eventually, I’ll ignore the ocean and it will dry up – with the slick becoming a gummy, decaying mess…OK, I’ll stop the metaphor there.

My fear is that the slick will grow so large, that I will be unable to skim off enough to see what I want and give up.

Agents and editors should be running my ark. By taking on a limited number of animals (a metaphor for “books”) and keeping them safe from the deluge and oil slick, the ark attendants can direct me to what I want to read. I can be moderately confident that the books they “save” are competently written and won’t contain major plot holes, totally insipid characters, derivative plots (OK, so maybe the system ain’t perfect!) or be so devoid of structure as to be completely unreadable.

Once the deluge began…well, you know what happened to the rest of the world after Noah got on HIS Ark

image: http://www.gono.com/vir-mus/village/newadditions/noah's%20ark/ark2.jpg

June 11, 2010

A SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH 12: July 7, 1946 – July 8, 1946

This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So I added some imaginary elements and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom. (BTW - I'm late because FINAL, Final grades were due yesterday at 5:00 pm, as we checking out of my classroom followed closely by graduation...)

Long after the farm and the gangsters; long, long after the witch in Anoka and longer still after being abandoned at Lake Minnetonka; Tommy Hastings and Freddie Merrill walked beneath a burning, dry sun.

“This is what the Sahara Desert would feel like,” said Freddie.

“There’s no trees in the Sahara,” said Tommy.

“There is, too!”

“No there ain’t.”

“There’s palm trees,” snapped Freddie as he stomped alongside Tommy.

There was a long silence. “Oh, I guess.”

Freddie said, “I’m dyin’ of thirst.”

“You ain’t dyin’,” said Tommy.

“How come you didn’t bring water?”

Tommy shook his head and finally said, “I figured we’d drink out of like, rivers and lakes and stuff.”

Freddie looked around them and said, “I don’t see no rivers or lakes or stuff.”

“Shut up.”

The sound of an engine in the distance made both boys stop. They looked back up and back down and finally saw an old pickup truck heading toward them from the south. “What if it’s the mobsters?”

Tommy squinted, “I don’t think mobsters drive pick up trucks.”

Freddie grunted then said, “Maybe it’s Leo Hartkopf.”


“The guy who left us at Minnetonka. Maybe he felt guilty and he came up to get us.”

Tommy looked at his friend and shook his head. Instead of hitting him, he faced the truck and stuck out his thumb. “Stick out your thumb,” he said.

They waited, squinting in the hot summer sun as the truck thundered toward them, its muffler obviously dead a long time ago. The truck slowed down. Pretty soon, they could see the face of an old, old man peering over the dashboard – but under the top of the steering wheel. The truck stopped, but the old man left the engine running. In a surprisingly loud voice, he shouted, “You boys need a ride?” He leaned forward then and the muzzle of a shotgun came up, though it was pointing at the roof of the cab and forward. It was clear he wanted them to see it.

Tommy swallowed hard then nodded and said, “Sure do, Sir.”

“I’m goin’ to Milaca with a load of early corn in back. Hop in, make yourself to home – but don’t bruise the ears,” he said then looked away, lowering the shotgun and fixing his eyes on the road again. Tommy got the impression he’d hit the accelerator the moment they got into the bed of the truck.

“Let’s go,” he said to Freddie. “Stand right behind the cab and hang on as soon as we get in. You first.”

Freddie frowned but got in. Tommy waited until he was in before swinging himself in. Sure enough, the instant his feet left the ground, the old man hit the accelerator and they thundered off down the highway. Freddie screamed. Tommy struggled to get a grip on the roof of the cab and not step on the ears of corn piled in the pickup’s bed behind them. The old man laid on the gas until they were roaring along the road, ankle deep in corn, the sun still blazing down on them and bugs pinging against their fingers and faces.

Freddie shouted, “Can we sit down?”

“No! The old man’ll shoot us both if we hurt his corn!”

Freddie looked back. The mound of corn was half as tall as they were and shifted constantly as the truck hit bumps. Once a dozen ears flew out – and Freddie nearly with them – when the old man hit a pothole. They roared on, the boys standing, eyes closed against the wind and bugs as the sun continued to creep across the sky.

He finally slowed down as they came to a T in the road. Ahead of them was a lake bigger than any lake either of them had seen before. Freddie said, “Is that Lake Superior?”

Tommy could only shake his head. He shouted back, “We ain’t in Duluth yet.”

The truck rolled to a stop and the old man stuck his head out of the truck and shouted, “You boys gotta get off here!” The snout of the shotgun lifted just a bit from the inside of the truck.

Freddie and Tommy scrambled out of the bed on the opposite side and a moment later, the truck roared away, leaving them staring at the lake. Tommy said in awe, “I ain’t never seen so much water in my whole life.”

“Me neither,” said Freddie said. He added a moment later, “What is it? A ocean or a lake?”

As they stood in the hot sun – though it had finally started to drop toward setting – Tommy whispered, “Gotta be a lake. But it’s the biggest dang lake I ever seen…”

image: http://minnesotahistory.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/ml-shore-web.jpg

June 6, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Rewriting History to Manufacture Evidence, Part II (and a whole bunch of other stuff all mooshed together)

This essay is inspired by my continuing ruminations on Reggie McNeal’s book, MISSIONAL RENAISSANCE – but not about the book at all…

As I said here http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2010/05/possibly-irritating-essays-rewriting.html , I don’t disagree with McNeal’s intent to push the church – which is the people who follow Jesus Christ and confess Him as Lord and Savior – into serving Him and bringing people into His presence. What I DID disagree with is the massive rewriting and selective vision of McNeal’s “emerging or emergent church” movement.

So, when I went to get gas for the van late last night, I stopped at our neighborhood convenience store with a coupon for three cents off per gallon from a competitor. The store is in an area I grew up in whose demographics have shifted from white, blue collar workers to recent African emigrants and former Mexican migrant workers who have chosen to stay in the US. Some people think it’s “not a safe neighborhood”. A student from the school I work at was gunned down a month ago during a fight three blocks up the road from the convenience store.

After I was gassed up, paid and was headed to the van, I saw a couple of black boys. One of them was totally freaking out, whipping his black hooded sweatshirt around and screaming swear words while his friend laughed at him.

Truly frightening, right? Until I add the following bit of information: he had a junebug on his jacket that wouldn’t let go.

Ever have that happen to you? Those suckers are GROSS! I mean, look at that picture above. Creepy! And tenacious. And they fly smack into your screen windows while you’re watching TV and sound like a bullet hitting a window when they bounce off.

That was when I saw it. People have changed. Demographics have changed. Language has changed. The church has changed.

But in the grand scheme of things, in the eternity eyes of God, it’s all the same. We are fallen sinners, destined for destruction if we continue to live without Christ.

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

It doesn’t matter if we’re “emerging” or sitting in our pews oblivious, if we are in Christ, we are free. Can you be in your pew, oblivious and still be in Christ? Yes. Can you be emerging and be out of Christ? Yes.

Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 says: “For it is by GRACE you have been saved by faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the free gift of God, not as a result of works that no one should boast.”

(So, it’s OK to sit on our butts and do nothing then? Is that what I’m saying? Nope. But if you’re reading this and you think you heard me say that, then I must have said it. To you at least. And what you do with that is up to you.) More on this subject…next time!

image: http://www.digitaldreammachine.com/blogimages/ddm/June23JuneBug01.jpg