Agents and publishers and editors, oh my!

If you’re reading “My Grave Is Deep,” or planning to read it, thank you.

If you’re an agent, or publisher, well, I have other words.

I’ll come right out and say it. I hate agents and publishers.

At least some publishers. All agents.

Here’s why.

I published my latest Noah Greene mystery myself. My previous publisher, whom I loved, went out of business a few years back.

Word Branch was an independent publisher out of North Carolina run by a wonderful woman, Cathy Trobaugh, who loved books, and writing, and writers. And her stable of writers loved her.

She cared deeply about quality and did her best to help make our books a success. But it wasn’t easy. You’d think that independent booksellers, like Joseph A. Beth and others, would welcome independent publishers and authors.

You’d be wrong. The issue is a buy back policy. The big publishing houses, that ones that publish books by Stephen King, or Michael Connolly, agree to buy back unsold books from bookstores. A small independent publisher such as Word Branch can’t do that. So, they’re not welcome at Barnes&Noble, and Books-A-Million. If a book isn’t physically in a bookstore, it severely undercuts sales opportunities. Which is why it’s nearly impossible for an independent author to be a breakout success. It happens – Andy Weir managed it with “The Martian” – but not often.

So, while I’d love to see “My Grave Is Deep” atop the New York Times bestseller list, I’ve got as much chance as that proverbial snowball in hell.

Knowing Word Branch wouldn’t be available to publish my novel, I went in search of another publisher and/or an agent.

I sent out many, many queries, got many, many rejections. Most of the rejections were very nice. Told me that my writing was good. Loved the ideas. But … there were lots of buts.

The decision to publish the book myself on Amazon’s KDP platform was made after one publisher, who specializes in thrillers, told me my novel was “too thrilling” and an agent wrote me saying, “I’m thrilled to be reading your novel. Is it still available? I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the passion for it.”

Well now.

I decided that I didn’t need an agent or a publisher.

But I did need an editor. I was lucky to find two, Fran Allred and Michael Johnson of We Edit Books. Both are former journalists who know their stuff. They challenged me, pushed me, asked pointed questions, criticized (nicely) and made me a better writer and “My Grave Is Deep” a better book.

I’m working on a fourth Noah Greene mystery and unless Ben Affleck calls wanting to buy the movie rights, I’ll be publishing it myself.

Ooohhh, I’m so angry

I’m in a foul mood.

Which means I should probably write a foul mood scene for my next Noah Greene novel, the working title of which is “Close to Death.”

The reason for m foul moodness?

Just came out of the grocery store to fine the side of my car with a long scrape down to the metal. Someone decided, what the heck, I’ll just bang my car door into his car door.

I know. It’s happened to all of us. But here’s the thing, and I’m telling the truth here. I’ve NEVER done it to someone else. Never. Not once.

I’ve had five back surgeries — if you have a bad back and a surgeon says “Hey, let’s operate!” don’t; 80% of people with one back surgery have a second and 50% of those have a third — and I will contort myself into a pretzel not to have my car door touch another car door.

Plus, I’m old and feeble. If I can get out of my automobile without banging someone else’s automobile, anybody can. (Wait, my wife says I shouldn’t admit to being old and feeble. “Old yes, but you’re still able enough to do the laundry.”)

Cars are expensive and for some of us, we love them like our children. In some cases more. Now I’m not saying that I love my BMW convertible more than my son, but … it’s close.

So, after off loading the groceries, I’m headed back to the parking lot to see if I can find the culprit and … wait, my wife is telling me I can’t do that. “Laundry, remember?”

Okay, but when “Close to Death” is published and if you buy it, you just might find a scene where Noah is asked to solve the murder of a serial door banger and he refuses. On general principle.

No graphic biography for me

I’ve been thinking that maybe I should write a biography. Everyone’s done one, so why not me?

Problem is, I got nothing to write about.

My father wasn’t a twitchy junkie, or my mother a lady of the evening. They didn’t beat me, starve me, chain me to a bolt in the basement, or lock me in a closet.  They didn’t grind lit cigarettes out on my naked flesh, didn’t score my back with a whip. The house wasn’t strewn with trash and feces, and I never had to scrounge through the cracks in the couch, or lick crumbs from the floor, for something to eat.

Mom did once send me to my aunt’s house for the weekend so she could give away my dog, which was, you know, traumatic – I mean it was my dog – and her excuse was that Rusty jumped up and removed a piece of her shoulder when she tried to swat me. Other than that, my childhood was pretty much normal.

Which pretty much disqualifies me for writing a memoir. To chronicle your own life these days, you need to come from a background where the people you live with have no teeth and struggle with addition … or addiction, take your pick. You also have to be struggling with depression, or alcoholism, the terrors of violence, angst, chain-smoking, the heartbreak of psoriasis, or because your life sucked so bad you can barely stand under the weight of its suckiness.

But my life didn’t suck.

If not that, then what? Well, I would hope to make readers laugh a little, cry a little, let the clouds roll by a little (cue Bette Midler music, please). I would hope to make them think deep thoughts that will help them cure cancer and heart disease, to inspire them to learn Farsi, ask that person they’ve admired from afar out on a date, talk to the animals, master the ukulele, become famous for their origami, commit to memory the Talmud, navigate the Pacific in a canoe, and swim with great white sharks while nursing a cut finger. By the time they’d finish reading, I believe that answers to the great mysteries of the universe will be revealed, including:

  • Where the apple goes when it doesn’t fall far from the tree
  • Why the grass is always greener on the other side
  • How actions speak louder than words
  • Why you can’t please everyone
  • Why bliss is blind and love is ignorance (No wait; switch that.)
  • Where’s the beef
  • The inability to judge a book by its cover (Proved by the very fact that you actually paid good money for this one.)
  • Why what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (Really? Cut off your legs and see how strong you are.)
  • And, why there’s no time like the present

Okay, maybe not, because let’s face it, there really is no answer as to why you can’t please everyone.

Much of what they’d read would be true. I mean, completely true.

Mostly.

My mother constantly accuses me of making things up.

“That’s not true,” she’ll say. “You’re making it up. You’re always telling stories.”

Yeah, ma? Tell me then. Where’s Rusty?

“Opportunities” = “Money”

If you’re Stephen King, or James Patterson, or John Grisham, you’ve got a lot of people standing behind you, in front of you, beside you, all doing their best to make your novel a bestseller.

In other words, the room is crowded!

These people take out ads in publications and on TV. They set up book signings. Publicists contact journalists — what few are left — to see if anyone is interested in interviewing their clients.

Those “opportunities” equal “success” equals “money” in the bank.

If you’re E.E. Williams and your third novel, “My Grave Is Deep” has just been published on Amazon.com, the room is pretty much empty.

You’ve got, well, you.

To be fair, only the best of the best of the best get a crowded room. Most authors are kinda stuck promoting their books and themselves.

A friend of mine, Robert Strauss, spent months calling folks to set up his own interviews and book signings, and driving around the country to promote his book, “Worst President Ever.”

He did a great job and the book sold pretty well.

Robert is one of those people who has no trouble promoting himself.

Me, not so much. I think my reticence comes from my dad, who, when he was alive and would visit my wife and I in California, would stay in a hotel rather than with us because he didn’t want to “put us out.”

I don’t want to put anyone out. My wife is constantly reminding me to promote “My Grave Is Deep” on my Facebook pages. I do, but reluctantly. Because most of these people are my friends and I don’t want to appear as if I’m strong-arming them.

Not the best way to promote a book.

But, I have other “opportunities.”

Kirkus Review, which gave my book a very nice review, wants now to “discuss” my “opportunities” to promote the book. The Independent Press read the Kirkus review and also wants to discuss “opportunities” to further promote my work.

The difference between E.E. Williams and King, and Patterson and Grisham?

My opportunities mean money going out the door, not in.

Any independent author has to weigh the economics of these opportunities. Is it worth it? Will I sell more books?

Or will I someday be homeless, cold and hungry and be thinking, “I wish I had those opportunities back.”

Writing … maybe

I like writing.

No, that’s a lie.

I kinda like writing.

No, that’s a lie.

I like having written.

Some authors I’ve interviewed over the years — Richard North Patterson, immediately comes to mind — write their novels longhand. The late Robert Ludlum, he of Jason Bourne fame, used to write every day on a tablet. A paper tablet. With a pen. That had ink.

He’d hand his pages to his wife, who would then type them. In the morning, before he started writing again, he’d review the pages, make changes — in ink — and hand them back to her for the final typing.

After speaking with several successful authors who did something similar, I bought a bunch of yellow notepads, a couple of good pens, and set to work on my first novel, “Tears in the Rain.”

A couple hours later what I had was a cramped hand, two ink-smudged pages and a lot of irritation. Not to mention frustration.

My problem is this. I believe books and stories should have a rhythm. I want sentences and paragraphs to sing. And I want each paragraph to seamlessly lead into the next.

I want what I write to be perfect.

So, I write a paragraph and another, then go back to the first paragraph because I think of something that I believe will work better, then go back to the second graph, then back to the first, and so on. I can write for several hours and only have a few paragraphs of work to show for it.

When I was working at the Miami News, I became friends with Charles Willeford, a big bear of a man who wrote a column for the paper, always pushing deadline up to the last second. He also wrote book, mysteries, that were very successful. The first in a series of Hoke Moseley novels, “Miami Blues,” was made into a movie starring Alec Baldwin and Fred Ward.

I took a writing class from Charlie and the best advice he ever gave me was “write four pages a day.” Just four, he said. Not too many, not too few.

“If you write 5 days a week, that’s 80 pages a month. In three months you’ll have a 240-page novel.”

I’ve tried that. The best I’ve been able to do is write four sentences a day.

Which is why it took so long to birth that first novel.

I’m getting better, though. I’m up to four whole paragraphs a day.

Agents, and publishers, and editors, oh my!

You want to write a book, make sure you get yourself an editor. Someone that will critique you, push you, make you better.

I learned a long time ago that a writer is the worst judge of his or her own work.

Of course, that’s not how I started out. In the beginning, I believed my words were pearls and strung together, they made a really fine necklace.

Then I discovered that the pearls were often still in the clam shells and needed to be pried out by an editor.

I was lucky in finding two wonderful editors for my latest novel, “My Grave Is Deep.” Michael Johnson and Fran Allred of We Edit Books were honest, tough, and so easy to work with it barely hurt when they said I could kill a few darlings and still have a fine book. I love them both. If you write a book, hire them.

What you may not need is an agent, or a publisher.

I had a terrific little independent publisher put out my second book, “Tears of God” and then re-release my first novel, “Tears in the Rain.” Unfortunately, Word Branch went out of business, leaving me with the decision to try and find an agent, or a new publisher.

I tried. Send out lots of queries. Lots of sample chapters.

Got lots of rejections. Nothing new. Many, many famous authors were rejected at first. Most of the rejections were nice though. Agents and publishers saying the writing was terrific, but the “project” — a word I despise when talking about a book — just wasn’t for them.

Well, one rejection wasn’t so nice. A publisher of “thrillers” told me my query letter was among the worst he’d ever read (this on the same day I received a response from an agent saying she wished other queries could be as well written as mine), but that he’d “take a look at the manuscript anyway.”

He did, and came back with this: “The book has too many thrills.” He said that, yes he did.

Patience isn’t my middle name. Or first or last, either. I was getting antsy about getting the book on the market.

I finally decided I’d had enough when an agent wrote this: “I am THRILLED to be reading your manuscript. The writing is wonderful. Is it still available? I must say, however, that I’m not sure I have the passion for your project, but thank you for thinking of me.”

It was then I decided I’d publish this myself on Amazon’s KDP platform.

There are limitations, of course. You can only find the book in Kindle and paperback formats and only on Amazon. Barnes & Noble is out. So is any other book chain. And, the book isn’t in stores, which cuts way back on its ability to become a bestseller. Or seller for that matter.

But it’s out there and I hope some people not named Williams will find their way to it, along with the other two Noah Greene mysteries.

If for no other reason than the fine editing job by Michael and Fran.

A long time coming

It took me 25 years to write my first mystery novel.

Here’s why.

Life.

I got married my senior year in college at Kent State. I graduated with a degree in journalism and got my first job at the Dayton Journal Herald, now defunct. From there I went to the Miami News, now defunct. And then the Dallas Times Herald, now defunct. (Yes, I was a serial newspaper killer.)

It was when I worked at the Miami News that I decided to get serious about writing the book I always wanted to write – a mystery. A surprise, that. Until then, mine was a strict regimen of Sci-Fi novels. I devoured everything written by Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Ursula K. Le Guin. (Now, of course, I devour everything written by John Scalzi, James S.A. Corey and Richard K. Morgan.) I thought if I were ever to write a book, it would be Sci-Fi. But … before I hit the shift key for the first time, I read an Esquire Magazinepiece that stated some of the best writing being done by novelists was in the mystery genre. They recommended Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and John. D. MacDonald.

It was John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series that I first picked up. Travis lived on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, and did investigative jobs for hire. There was a color in each of the book titles. “The Deep Blue Good-by.” “The Girl In the Plain Brown Wrapper.” “Nightmare in Pink.” “The Dreadful Lemon Sky.” I was hooked. I devoured all 21 McGee novels like a starving man. Then chomped down Chandler, followed by Hammett, the other Macdonald and Robert Parker. I was fascinated by the stories of world-weary detectives overcoming long odds to turn back evil. That was the kind of book I wanted to write.

I dove into the book with gusto, determined to make it a bestseller. The gusto didn’t last long. I had a family – a wife and young son. Could I afford to take a risk on writing books, I asked myself. I was good at newspapering. What if I failed as a novelist? What if I failed my family?

So I put my energy and focus on writing about sports stars, and actors, and yes, other novelists. I did it well enough to keep getting promoted, a velvet fist if there ever was one. I bounced from one paper to another, – 14 in 42 years – working at some of the country’s biggest and best, including the New York Daily News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Fresno Bee (where I met the estimable Mr. Scalzi).

Oh, it wasn’t as if I didn’t work on the book. I’d write for a day or two, sometimes three, and put it in a drawer and go months before starting again. By which time, the thread of the plot was lost, requiring a do-over. I did a lot of do-overs. Then I lost the manuscript in one of those 14 moves (remember, everything was on paper, not in a computer). Began again. Moved and lost it again. My wife, once threw it out in the trash, something I prefer to chalk up to as a tragic mistake rather than a comment on the book’s quality.

The years stacked atop one another and when I looked up, 25 of them had passed. I told myself it was because I had that day job. And yet, so many of my friends and colleagues were successful novelists – John, of course, and Sherryl Woods and John Katzenbach – and they all had day jobs just like me. I was embarrassed by my own inability to do what they’d done. I decided it was either do what I always dreamed of, or stop dreaming.

Eventually, I found the will and discipline to drag “Tears in the Rain” over the finish line and get it published.

Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.

Still, I loved the characters I’d created and gave it another go with “Tears of God.” It’s a better book and only took me 17 years to write.

Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.

Nevertheless, I continued to enjoy writing and seeing my characters grow, so out poured (can something that takes five years really be described as pouring out?) “My Grave Is Deep.” It is, I think, the best of the three.

If history is any indication, stardom, fame and fortune won’t follow. Regardless of its reception, I’ve started to write a fourth Noah Greene mystery and I have but one hope.

That it doesn’t take 25 years to write. Because, you know, death.