Showing posts with label agents. Show all posts
Showing posts with label agents. Show all posts

27 June 2020

What Went Wrong – (and pass the Scotch)


My friend and colleague John Floyd has inspired me many times, but this time for a singularly bizarre post:  Things that go wrong in the life of an author.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Publisher Version

1.  The publication that never was.  John, you mentioned in your recent post Strange but True, that you have received acceptance letters from publishers who then realized they sent them to the wrong person.  I can do you one better (if you really want to call it that.)

This year, I received a very public congratulations from the Ontario Library Association for being a finalist for their YA award.  I was thrilled!  It was my first YA crime book, after 16 adult ones, and they don't usually give awards to crime books.  I basked in glory and excitement for about five minutes until I realized the title of the book they mentioned was not the book I had written.  There ensued a very public retraction.  Everywhere.  And apology.  I am not sure there is anything more embarrassing than receiving a very public apology for an honour snatched back from you.

2.  It isn't often a publisher buys ads for your book and we all celebrate when they do.  The publisher of Rowena and the Dark Lord was out to create gold.  The first book in the series was a bestseller.  So they decided to throw money at book 2, advertising it at more than two dozen places.  And throw money, they did.  Throw it away, that is.  Unfortunately, the ad company misspelled the title of the book in all the ads.  ROWENA AND THE DARK LARD might be popular in cooking circles, but it didn't make a splash with the epic fantasy audience to which it was targeted.

3.  Back in the mid 90s, I was making it, or so I thought.  Had some stories with STAR magazine.  Broke into Hitchcock.  And later, big time, with Moxie magazine.  Remember Moxie?  Up there with Good Housekeeping and Cosmo? No, perhaps you don't.  I was really pleased when they offered me a 50% kill fee of $750.  Not that I wanted to collect it, but it was a status symbol back then to get offered kill fees in your short story contract.  Unfortunately, if you story is killed because the magazine goes under, ain't nothing left for a kill fee.  Big time becomes no time.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Event Version

1.  It's always tough when you are shortlisted for a prize and you don't win.  It's even tougher when you are actually at the gala event, and all your friends are waiting for you to be named the winner.  Tougher still, when you are shortlisted in TWO categories, and you don't win either.

But that doesn't touch the case when you are the actual Emcee for the event, you've just finished doing an opening stand-up routine to great applause, you have media there and a full house, you are shortlisted in two categories, and you don't win a sausage.  And still have to run the rest of the event from the stage.

This is why they invented scotch.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Agent Version

1.  No fewer than THREE big production companies have approached my agent about optioning The Goddaughter series for TV.  This has gone on for four years, and included hours of negotiating.  "Really excited - back to you on Friday!" said the last one.  That was last summer.  I'm still waiting to see any money.

2.  My first agent was a respected older gent from New York.  Sort of a father figure, very classy.  Like some - okay many - agents, he wasn't the best at getting back to us in a timely manner, particularly by email.  We kind of got used to it.  So it was with some shock that I got a phone call from another author, who had discovered that the reason we hadn't heard back from J is because he had died two months before.  Nobody had gotten around to telling us.

I have a really good agent now. She's still alive, which I've found is a huge advantage in an agent.

Here's the book that was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award last year, along with that short story that also didn't win (pass the scotch):



Remember the A-Team?  We're not them.  
But if you've been the victim of a scam, give us a call.  
We deal in justice, not the law.  We're the B-Team.
At all the usual suspects including....

22 June 2020

A Matter of Trust


A few weeks ago, a novice writer reached me through my web site. He said he went to the high school where I taught, but I never knew him. He told me had done "lots of research" on a crime or crimes in our city and wanted me to help him turn it into a real book.

The email had lots of problems. First, he attached a word doc instead of simply writing the message. I suspected he was recycling the letter, but most of it was specifically aimed at me. He said his MS was 100K words long, but I couldn't tell if he had a non-fiction book or a novel, and it makes a difference because my comfort zone is fiction.

I asked a few questions for clarification and told him to send me a five-page synopsis of his entire MS, then a one-page synopsis of each of the three shorter sections he identified in his first message. I warned him that was very difficult, but I needed a clearer overview of what he had. He also mentioned podcasts, and I said if that was his choice, it might be a good idea, but he needed a scriptwriter or someone with more experience in radio. I quoted an estimate and told him that could change when I knew more, and that I wouldn't commit yet.

The next day, he replied and made my decision easy. He said his lawyer wanted me to sign a one-year non--disclosure agreement for our work together. I told him he had just closed the negotiations.

Everything in the creative arts, especially writing, is about trust, and the non-professionals don't get that. If you send a query or manuscript to an editor or agent, don't put the copyright symbol on it. They aren't going to steal it for several reasons, lawsuits and a ruined reputation topping the list. They have to keep working with other people, remember? Besides, if they can't do better than something they find in the slush pile, they're in the wrong business anyway.

Do session musicians sign an ADA before performing on someone else's recording? Do museum curators sign one before displaying someone's painting or sculpture? Do actors sign one while rehearsing the first production of a play, when the playwright may still be revising the script as they go along?

Nope, nope and nope.

The same is true of writers to agents, editors, and readers. Writers ask people to read their work, so they have to create something worth a reader's time and effort. A reader doesn't pick up a book to be bored by stale plots, cliched characters, or mountains of description. That's why editors and agents reject such submissions. The publishers trust them to bring quality (salable) products to the table, and if they betray that trust, it goes away.

Agents and editors read enough so they remember something good when they see it, especially when they see it again. Yes, we hear stories about plagiarism, but they're rare, especially with a well-known writer as either the victim or the perpetrator. There's too much at stake to take such a stupid risk.

I used to teach senior English classes with students who read four to six years below grade level. I always thought it was an oxymoron and that we should have helped those kids much sooner, but go figure. Those kids, who didn't know better, frequently handed in rap lyrics as their own poetry. They were always amazed when I caught them. They didn't understand that people who need a rubber stamp to spell their own name on the paper (Make sure it's right-side-up!) probably won't use a beautiful extended metaphor (Which they thought was a sports injury, anyway).

Those kids were trying to fool me, but it was how they tried to survive in a world where they'd been set up to fail. I never told them I found "their " poems by Googling the first line because I wanted to perpetuate the myth of the omniscient teacher. I made them rewrite the stuff into something more their own. These kids weren't aiming at Harvard or Oxford, they just wanted to get out of a really ugly building and find a full-time job. OK, no harm, no foul.

But it's different in the writing world, which is sort of like golf, where you call a penalty on yourself if you accidentally drag your club in the sand trap. There's a lot of money out there, but most of us aren't getting any of it, so it's all about the handshake and who buys the beer.

And, except on really bad days, not about the lawyers.

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize


The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.



13 April 2017

"Afternoons in Paris" by Janice Law


You remember Francis Bacon:
  File:Pourbus Francis Bacon.jpg  No, not that one, this one:  

Francis Bacon, artist.  Francis Bacon, gambler.  Francis Bacon, bon vivant.  Francis Bacon, gay, asthmatic, Irish, autodidact, devoted to his Nan, louche, rough, crazy...

Well, HE'S BACK!!!!



Yes, my favorite gay artist adventurer is back in Janice Law's "Afternoons in Paris".  Francis is 18 and in the City of Lights, and very glad to be there after the craziness of Berlin (read Janice's "Nights in Berlin":  the book and David Edgerley Gates' review).  Now he's on his own, working for a decorator/designer by day (the somewhat susceptible Armand), visiting galleries with the motherly Madame Dumoulin, and cruising the city by night with the totally unreliable Pyotr, a Russian emigre who, like Francis, has a taste for quick hook-ups and rough trade.

Pyotr has two Russian friends, Igor, who's sinister, and Lev, who's quickly assassinated.  After getting robbed (by Pyotr), beaten up (by 'Cossacks') in Montparnasse, and finding two more waiting to do the same at his lodgings, Francis tries to avoid Russians by moving in with Madame Dumoulin and her brother, Jules, who needs a caretaker.  Well, it could be argued that Francis is the last person to be anyone's companion/caretaker, but our boy knows how to be appreciative.  And Jules, although a traumatized WW1 veteran, is an innocent (at least compared to Francis):  much like Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield", he builds complex machines and flies kites.  Francis can enjoy both.

And then Jules gets a chance to design machines for the theatre group Les Mortes Immortels, and it's back to Paris for all.  Jules' machines are the best part of a production about as audience-friendly as "Finnegan's Wake"; that and the character of Human Hope, played by Inessa, a Russian Helen of Troy who enraptures everyone around her.  Except for those who are using her.

Russians are everywhere, and they're all dangerous:  Pyotr; the NKVD assassin Alexi; the NKVD blackmailer Anoshkin; Inessa's missing brother, Pavel.  And, wouldn't you know it, who's up to his neck in all of this but Francis' Uncle Lastings?  Now known as Claude, art dealer and bon-vivant, but still up to his neck in intrigue, scams, sex, and spying.  Francis has a lot of fast talking, fast running, fast thinking, and fast acting to do to survive...

Soutine's Chemin de la Fontaine
des Tins at Ceret - Wikipedia
As always, it's fascinating to see the world through Francis' eyes, especially at 18, when he is still at the beginning of creating himself.  He has a knack for noticing details, from the "distinctive stink of French drains" to the "most brutal and vigorous thing I'd seen in France" - a dead rooster, painted by Chaim Soutine.  When he writes to Nan that "a glance at her makes me feel more hopeful", we know that Inessa is indeed a remarkable woman, someone to pay attention to.  And, when told that Pavel can't be wandering Paris without proper papers, Francis' reaction is "My own experience in Berlin led me to believe that Monsieur Chaput was exaggerating.  A teenage boy has a number of ways of eluding bureaucrats and busybodies."  And he would know.
Image result for jessie lightfoot
Nan

Emotionally, Francis is still developing, or is he?  At one point he says, regarding his commitment to Jules:  "I had promised Jules, and I believe in friendship.  It tends to be more stable than romance." Not to mention family. As he writes to Nan about his uncle, "I know this is a surprise, but He Who Must Not be Named has secured a job for me, and this time, I have asked to be paid half in advance. You can see I am getting wise to the ways of the world." In fact, the only person Francis trusts implicitly is Nan, in "Afternoons in Paris", "Nights in Berlin", "Fires of London", "The Prisoner of the Riviera", "Moon over Tangier" and in real life.  She will always be the most stable person in his life, not excepting himself.

But even at 18, Francis is already witty, sarcastic, honest, observant, hungry, lustful, reckless, and utterly sure that he will never be among the bourgeoisie. (And how right he is.) He always gives a master class in the art of survival.  Francis Bacon and Paris in the 20s - it's hard to ask for anything more.







25 March 2017

Advances and Royalties and Agents, oh my! A Primer on Traditional Publishing


(Bad Girl, who is being especially good today)

Many here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto.  In weeks 13 and 14 of the course, we talk about the business of publishing.  I’ve prepared the following primer on traditional publishing to bring new authors up to speed on the basics, and thought it might be of interest to readers here.  (Insert caveat here: this is a general primer. Your deal or experience may be different.)

Advance:

…is just that.  It is an advance against the royalties the publisher expects you to earn.

If your book cover price is $10, and your royalties are 10%, then you can expect to make $1 per book sold at that cover price.  (Often, your publisher may sell for less when in bulk. And when that happens, you make 10% of the amount the book sold for, so a lot less.)

So…if you receive an advance of $5000 (which would be considered a nice advance in Canada from a traditional publisher) then you would have to sell 5001 books before you would start seeing royalties.  (At least.  It may be more like 7500, if they’ve sold some of your books below cover.)
In Canada, royalties are supposed to be distributed quarterly, according to standards set by TWUC (The Writers’ Union of Canada).  But this standard is not law; often, publishers ignore these guidelines and pay royalties semi-annually. 

Royalty Example:  Melodie sells 1200 copies of Rowena Through the Wall from Oct. 2015 to Dec. 2015.  She has already ‘sold through’ her advance in previous quarters (see below for an explanation of sell through.) The royalties on these sales will appear on the March 15 royalty statement.  So in fact, for a book sold Oct. 1, she won’t see her $1.50 until March 15, nearly 6 months later.  And that’s with the best kind of publisher.

Sell Through:

This is the term to describe if you have ‘made up’ your advance.  If, in the top example (advance of $5000,) your book has sold 5001 copies, you have ‘sold through’ your advance.

This is a key event in the life of your book, and a critical thing for your book to achieve.  If your book doesn’t sell through, then you are unlikely to get a new book contract from that publisher.

You can see why a large advance comes with stress.  The smaller your advance, the easier it is to sell through. 

(Even if you don’t sell through, you keep the full amount of the advance.)

Agents:

An agent handles the business side of your writing (contracts, etc.)  Agents typically take 15% of your income. 

So, if you got an advance of $1000 (a not unusual advance for a first book in Canada) an agent would take $150 of your advance.  Now you can see why it is so hard to get an agent.  They don’t want $150 for all their work – they want $1500 or more!  So until you are getting advances of $10,000, it is hard to get an agent.

Why you would want an agent:

Agents get you in the door at the big 5 publishing houses.  Most of the big publishers will only take query letters from agents.  If you are a published author already with a house, the main reason you would want an agent is to ‘trade up.’  i.e. – move from a smaller publisher to Penguin. 

Time from sale to bookstore with a traditional publisher:   
Usually 12 months to 18 months.  15 months is typical.

Deadlines: 

Miss your deadline with a traditional publisher, and you are toast.  This means deadlines for getting back on publisher edits too.  Production time in factories is booked long in advance.  If your book isn’t ready to go on the line in its slotted time, then your publisher loses money.  Say goodbye to your next sale.

Print on demand publishers: 

Some smaller traditional publishers have let go of production runs and are now using print on demand technology via Createspace.  Usually this means shorter time from sale to bookstore.  (i.e. a book sold to a publisher in March might be for sale by June.)

How bookstores work:

Bookstores typically buy books from the publisher or distributor at 60% of cover.  So the bookstore makes 40% (less shipping costs).  Usually the shipping costs are born by the retailer, but sometimes publishers will have specials.

BUT – if a book doesn’t sell, the retailer can rip off the cover, send the cover back to the publisher and get a full refund for the book.  The coverless books are then destroyed.  (Yes, it’s appalling.  It all has to do with shipping costs.  Not worth it to ship books back.)

Problem – this doesn’t work with print on demand books.  You can’t return anything to Createspace.  So retailers are reluctant to stock books that are not from traditional publishers using the traditional print-run method, because they can't return books that don't sell.

How long is your book on a shelf:

In a store like Chapters (the Canadian big-box equivalent of Barnes & Noble), if your book doesn’t sell in 45 days, they usually remove it.  Gone forever from the shelves, unless you become a NYT bestseller in the future, and they bring back your backlist.  Yes, this is unbelievably short.  It used to be 6 months.  The book business is brutal. 

I think the third word in that last line is the key.  The book business is a business.  It’s there to make a profit for shareholders.  We are in love with our products, so we find that hard to face.  I saw a study that said approximately 40% of writers are manic-depressive.

The rest of us just drink.

Melodie Campbell does her drinking in the Toronto area, where she writes funny books about a crime family.  Is it any wonder?  www.melodiecampbell.com

06 June 2015

Proper Care and Feeding of Authors – in which our writer tries to be serious for a few minutes…


(Bad, bad girl!)

Here’s part one of the series (reprinted with permission):

What NOT to ask an author… (especially a Crime Writer who knows at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught)

There is nothing I love better than meeting readers, both those who already know my writing, and those who are new to my books. But recently, I was asked to talk about those things that are touchy for an author.  So here goes…a short list of No-Nos!

1.  Do not ask an author how many books she has sold.

Trust me, don’t ask this.
Really, you don’t want to.  It wouldn’t help you anyway.
Because honestly, I’ll lie.

I’m amazed that complete strangers regularly ask this.  Would you ask a lawyer how much money he makes?

Because here’s the bottom line: most of us with traditional publishers make about a buck for every book sold, whether paperback, trade paperback or ebook.  Sometimes, it’s less than that.  (Yes, we were shocked too, when we found out.)  So by asking how many books we’ve sold, you can pretty well figure out our income.  And frankly, I don’t want you to.  You see, I write comedies, and it would depress both of us.

Also:  our royalty statements are at least six months behind (at least mine are.)  We don’t KNOW how many books we’ve sold to date on new releases.  Which is probably a good thing for our egos, if we want to keep writing.

Dare I say it?  The supreme irony is: the only ones likely to make a living in the writing biz are those on the business end.  The agents, and those editors and others employed by publishers, booksellers and libraries.  Sadly, you can't expect to make a living in the arts if you are a creator.

2.  Do not ask an author to read your manuscript and critique it for free.

So many times, I’ve been asked to do this, in a public place, with people overhearing.  Sometimes, by people who don’t even have the decency to buy a single book of mine first. 

Why this is bad:

First: I am in a place that has been booked for me to sell my books and meet with readers. That’s what I’m there for.  You are taking precious time away from me and my readers.  Believe me, my publisher won’t be happy about this.  Ditto, the bookseller!

Second: Every hour I spend critiquing an aspiring author’s book is an hour I can’t spend working on my own books and marketing them.  Like most novelists, I have a day job.  That means every hour I have to work on my fiction is precious.  Most of us do critique – for a fee.  And many of us teach fiction writing at colleges. 

I’m happy to critique my college students’ work.  I’m getting paid (mind you, meagerly) to do so.  And that’s what I always recommend:  take a college course in writing.  You’ll get great info on how to become a better writer, and also valuable critiquing of your own work.

3.  Do not ask an author to introduce you to her publisher or agent.

Want to see me cringe?

Similar to number 2 above, this puts the author in a very awkward position.  You are in fact asking for an endorsement.  If the author hasn’t read your book, she cannot possibly give it (an honest endorsement.)

Second: You are asking the author to put HER reputation on the line for you.  Do you have the sort of close relationship that makes this worthwhile for her?

4.  Do not ask an author: where do you get your ideas?

Okay, be honest.  You thought I was going to lead with this one.
Actually, you can ask me this.  I’ll probably answer something fun and ridiculous, like:
From Ebay. 
Or: From my magic idea jar.
Or: They come to me on the toilet.  You should spend more time there.

Because the truth is, we don’t know exactly.  After teaching over 1000 fiction writing students at Sheridan College, I have discovered something: some students are bubbling over with ideas.  Others – the ones who won’t make it – have to struggle for plots.  It seems to be a gift and a curse, to have the sort of brain that constantly makes up things.

I’ve been doing it since I was four.  My parents called it lying.  That was so short-sighted of them.



Opening to THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE (Orca Books) winner of the 2014 Derringer (US) and Arthur Ellis (Canada)

    Okay, I admit it. I would rather be the proud possessor of a rare gemstone than a lakefront condo with parking. Yes, I know this makes me weird. Young women today are supposed to crave the security of owning their own home
     But I say this. Real estate, shmeel estate. You can’t hold an address in your hand. It doesn’t flash and sparkle with the intensity of a thousand night stars, or lure you away from the straight and narrow like a siren from some Greek odyssey.
     Let’s face it. Nobody has ever gone to jail for smuggling a one bedroom plus den out of the country.
     However, make that a 10-carat cyan blue topaz with a past as long as your arm, and I’d do almost anything to possess it.
    But don’t tell the police.
 
On Amazon

26 May 2015

Turnabout is Fair Play


Okay, time for me to piss everyone off. Well, at least some agents and editors I’m sure. I want to air some pet peeves about the above-named people. They have their peeves about us, so turnabout is fair play, right? They think it’s a crime if we don’t follow their guidelines—and everyone has a different set of guidelines. And I think it’s a crime that there’s no set standard so that we’re constantly scrambling to change our manuscripts every time we submit to a different person.

Peeve #1: No simultaneous submissions. Sure, I’ll send you my story or novel and I’ll just sit around for the next year and a half waiting to hear back from you....if I hear back from you at all. And lately, a lot of agents and editors are saying something to the effect of “if you don’t hear back from us within six weeks that means we’re not interested.” Nice. Whatever happened to manners—yeah, I know. But how hard is it to send a form e-mail saying thanks but no thanks. And if we never hear from them how do we know they got the story, especially if it was sent over the net. And then they put the fear of God into you if you dare follow up or contact them again. I think authors should rebel against the no simultaneous submissions policy and just submit everywhere you can. Then what? You go on some agent/editor blacklist that says “don’t accept anything so and so sends.” But what’s the alternative? Sit around and wait and grow old.


Peeve #2: Every editor or agent seems to want a different thing. The first 50 pages or the first three chapters. Some want a one page synopsis, some 2 pages. Another wants no more than one paragraph. Others want detailed outlines, another a summary. I don’t know about you but I get sick and tired of having to reinvent the wheel every time I submit something to someone. I understand they need guidelines, but do they realize how difficult they make it for us when there’s no set standard? So what if you send a 3 page synopsis instead of two pager? Or 2½ pages? You’re a malcontent. A subversive. It’s time for the balance of power to shift. Our time is valuable too. How about an industry-wide standard, so we don’t have to start over every time?

Peeve #3: They all have things that turn them off before you even get off the ground. There was a producer once who said if you submit a script with ellipses in it he would automatically reject it. Why? Did that make it a bad story? If a writer submitting to him, on their own or through their agent, would have taken out all the ellipses would that have made it a better story? Some agents or editors don’t like prologues. Well, what if there is a need for a prologue? Coming from a film writing background I understand the need to get into a story quickly. But one of the joys of books is that you can—or used to be able to—take a little longer to get off the ground. And sometimes a prologue is necessary. But I do know about cutting to the chase. In my rewriting gig I once chopped off all of Act I of a script and started on Act II, using just a few tidbits from the first act, inserting them where I could. I understand when the prologue is used for exposition and only exposition that’s not a good idea, but sometimes that’s what works for that particular project.

  Ricky_Nelson_free
Peeve #4: Everyone has a different opinion, so when you get notes from someone, but without a commitment, should you rewrite your manuscript every time? What if they still don’t like it? Or the next person who reads it doesn’t like the things you just changed for the last person? Write your story not theirs. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be open to criticism, but only if you agree it’s valid. I once optioned a script to a producer. He loved the dialogue. It was the best dialogue he’d ever heard. He gushed on and on about it. He gave it to a director who hated the dialogue. Magically and overnight the producer hated the dialogue. Another script I optioned several times went to an agent, early on, who complained that a scene was set in Union Station in L.A. “Nobody takes trains anymore,” he said. Should I have changed that? Would it have made all the difference and he would take me on? Well, I didn’t and he missed the whole point of why it was set in a train station, which was to contrast the “old” vs. “the” new in the context of a main character stuck in the past in some ways. So if you rewrite for everyone who has an opinion you’ll spend your whole life doing that. You can’t please everyone so please yourself. Like Rick Nelson said in his song “Garden Party,” “It's all right now, yeah, learned my lesson well, You see, ya can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

I’m not saying it’s wrong to have guidelines and rules, but they should be consistent and not so rigid that you lose before you even get in the door. Sure, margins should be an inch. Manuscripts should be carefully proofread and edited. But just like everyone one wants one inch margins, they should all be on the same page (pun intended) with other things so we aren’t starting from scratch every time we submit to them.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest. Let the arrows fly.

***

A little bit of BSP: My short story “Howling at the Moon” from the November, 2014 issue of Ellery Queen has been nominated for an Anthony Award. I’m very grateful to those who voted. And it certainly came as a surprise. Very cool, but very unexpected. If you want to read the story, click here and scroll down to the Short Story section. All of the short story nominees are here: http://bouchercon2015.org/anthony-awards/

Hope to you see at the California Crime Writers Conference

(http://ccwconference.org/ ). June 6th and 7th. I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30 a.m., along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.

And please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my soon-to-be-updated website www.PaulDMarks.com

Subscribe to my Newsletter: http://pauldmarks.com/subscribe-to-my-newsletter/



"Ricky Nelson free" by The original uploader was Mind meal at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ricky_Nelson_free.jpg#/media/File:Ricky_Nelson_free.jpg



20 June 2014

....and Handlers


(cont'd from two weeks ago)

If an agency doesn't have good procedures and controls in place for their assets and their Handlers, then they are looking for trouble in an area where trouble is easily found. Every agency now probably has its own system and policies in place, but the basics are generally the same, so let's take a look at them.

For security, it's best to give the informant, or asset, a code number to be used in all activity and debriefing reports. Within this code number file should be the informant's fingerprints, which may also help ensure he is who he says he is; a personal history or background, info needed to check up on him now and maybe in the future if he goes on the run; a records check to find any crimes charged with or convicted of in the past; a color photo; and a debriefing report to determine what value the informant may have to your agency.

Also in this file, it would be smart to have a signed copy of the Informant Agreement. This document lays out the parameters of what the informant will and will not do, such as realizing that he is NOT law enforcement, nor is he an agency employee. He also agrees not to break the law, unless specifically authorized, else face possible prosecution if caught.

Special permission is usually needed from some authority before a Handler can use a juvenile, a two-time felon, a drug addict, someone on parole or probation, a current defendant or a prison inmate. Doesn't mean a Handler can't use people in these categories, it merely means that extra steps must be taken and permission from the proper authority is required before use. Why? Because inherent problems need to be addressed before these people can be activated. For instance, use of a parolee requires permission of the affected parole or probation agency, a defendant requires permission of the prosecuting attorney and use of an inmate requires permission of that prison's authorities. The spy world has their own policies on restrictions and categories, which are considerably looser.

Two Handlers should be present at every meeting with an asset in order to prevent false accusations of wrongdoing on the part of the Handler, especially during those times when a Handler is paying funds to the asset. (This may not be feasible in some spy situations.) Informants are paid out of agency funds (or reward money) with paperwork and signatures to document the payments.

Handlers should not engage in personal socializing, joint business ventures or romantic entanglements with the asset, nor should they receive gifts from the asset. I think you can figure out some of the bad possibilities for these situations.

Informants should be searched before and after each controlled meeting with a targeted individual, thus if the informant brings back evidence from that meeting, the presumption is that evidence came from the target, not planted by the informant.

The asset should be debriefed at least every ninety days for new intelligence, else placed on inactive status. Supervisors should review informant status and manage controls.

The Handler should try to independently verify any information received from an informant to ensure it is good intelligence.

NOTE: Private investigators are not held to the same high standards as law enforcement, while spy agencies may have exigent circumstances allowing looser controls and procedures for use of informants.

How do things go bad? Ask the FBI agent who went to prison from the way he handled mobster Whitey Bulger as an informant.

And then there was the state agent who got his informant pregnant, lost his job and had to testify to all those facts during a defendant's subsequent trial in federal court.

We sometimes had one informant buy from another informant who was trafficking while working for us. The second guy went to prison.

Knew a state informant who without his Handler's knowledge, wired up his own house with hidden cameras and microphones and proceeded to act like his favorite movie character when dealing with other criminals.

One informant with a felony record which prevented him from carrying a gun, we soon discovered would sometimes show up at our meetings with his girlfriend who was carrying two concealed automatics.

I think you're starting to see why tight controls are necessary, cuz things can go really bad in a heartbeat. All of which could make good fodder for a crime novel. So, if you get any good writing ideas from the above, feel free to use them.

27 February 2013

BRUCE LOCKHART: Memoirs of a British Agent


Where do you start? This is the guy who smuggled Kerensky out of Russia after the Bolsheviks came to power. He was intimate with Leon Trotsky. He met Stalin, once, and Lenin more than once. He was present at the creation of the modern world, the 20th century in all its wickedness. He lived, in other words, in interesting times, and he perhaps changed history. He was, of course, a spy.
Sun Tzu remarks that war is deceit. And our intelligence services, to borrow a phrase from John LeCarre, reflect our different national characters. Le Carre also noted the odd attraction of the Scots to the secret world, John Buchan an obvious example. Bruce Lockhart, as it happens, was a Scot.
Lockhart

He was sent to the British consulate in Moscow by the Foreign Office in 1912. He was twenty-four years old, and by his own admission, no sophisticate. He set out to learn the language, the customs and courtesies of the country, and Moscow itself, but above all, to cultivate social and political connections. This led, inevitably, to late nights filled with vodka and Gypsy balalaikas, sleigh rides to outlying dachas, and some dubious associations. It led also to an adulterous affair (Lockhart's wife had come with him to Russia), a scandal that got him sacked.

But he'd spent almost five years in Moscow, and the insular young sport had toughened considerably. He'd experienced the popular uprising firsthand, the abdication of the Tsar, the rise of Kerensky and the Social Democrats. As well, he'd witnessed the rough beast slouching toward war. Great Britain and Russia were now allies against Germany, and in London, the primary political concern was keeping Russia in the fight. Six weeks after Lockhart's return to England, in October of 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the Provisional Government and established the groundwork for a Soviet state. Capitulation to Germany was widely rumored.

There were, in the corridors of power Whitehall, two, if not three, competing schools of thought. The first was to strangle the new enterprise at birth. The second was to treat with the Bolsheviks, to encourage their continued resistance to German advances on the Eastern Front. The third was to deploy both the carrot and the stick, and to this end, David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, and Lord Milner, heading up the war cabinet, decided Lockhart was the man for the job. They sent him back, in January, 1918. This time, however, he served two masters, the Foreign Office, which gave him diplomatic cover, and the Secret Intelligence Service. SIS had a rather different mission in mind for him, to set up a clandestine espionage network, and penetrate the upper Soviet apparat.


This wasn't quite the impossible task it now seems, in retrospect. Everything was up for grabs. The new Russian government's grasp on power was unsteady, and the Terror hadn't yet begun. For the moment, they were just trying to keep the trains running, and most of the people Lockhart met in Moscow and St. Petersburg were fatalistic about their chances. Lockhart suggested to Trotsky that he could allow Japanese troops onto Russian soil, to help fight the Germans, or an expeditionary force, perhaps British, but Trotsky wasn't having any. He knew an imperialist plot when he saw one. Lockhart was of course halfhearted in this endeavor, since he knew any intervention would have to be in strength, and the War Office wouldn't sign off on it. At best, it would only be a token number of troops, which was worse than nothing. He was also hamstrung by vitiation in London: they were still arguing which course to follow. In the event, Trotsky went to Brest-Litovsk, and negotiated a humiliating peace. German envoys arrived as conquerors.

Lockhart was in a vise. His sponsors back in London were fighting a rear-guard action---he himself was seen as an obstacle, if not already co-opted by the Commies, and the Russians didn't trust him worth a damn, either. He was hanging on by his fingernails, trying to follow conflicting instructions from home, and keeping the confidence of his hosts. Two events blew him out of the water. A bomb attack in Kiev killed the German commanding general who was a guest of the Kremlin. This was in late July. On the last day of August, a young Social Revolutionary named Dora Kaplan put two bullets into Lenin himself, at point-blank range. One of them hit his lung. "His chances of living," Lockhart reports, "were at a discount."
Sidney Reilly
Now the rubber hits the road. Lockhart and his chief agent, Sidney Reily (yes, that Sidney Reilly---Lockhart's son Robin later wrote ACE OF SPIES), were implicated in the assassination attempt. Their operation came unraveled. Was our man in fact involved? Unlikely. He seems to have been taken completely by surprise. On the other hand, what about Reilly? I wouldn't put it past him. He was a slippery character, with a shadowy past, and an uncertain future, but that's a story for another day. He slips through the net. Lockhart is arrested and jailed by the Cheka. He's taken to the dreaded Lubyanka prison, dreaded for good reason.

Dark corridors, unyielding guards, the stone cells clammy with tears. At the end of a long hallway, a man waiting in an interrogation room, lit only by a lamp on the writing table, a revolver by his hand. "You can go," he tells the guards. A long silence follows. He looks at Lockhart, his face still. "Where is Reilly?" is his first question. An eternity goes by, Lockhart playing dumb, but in point of fact, he doesn't know. There is, he tells us, no attempt to bully him. The threat is implicit. He asks, finally, if he can use the bathroom.

Two gunmen take him there. I suddenly felt in my breast pocket a notebook, he writes. It was compromising material. There was no toilet paper in the stall. As calmly as I could, I took out my notebook, tore out the offending pages and used them in the manner in which the circumstances dictated. I pulled the plug. It worked, and I was saved.

Furious cables are exchanged, the Brits trying to spring their guy. In the end, Lockhart is released, and even at the last minute, the story of his escape is full of suspense. He's traded for the Russian diplomat Litvinov, but sentenced to death in absentia, later on, by the Soviet courts. He never goes back to Russia.

Lockhart lived into the fullness of his years, and died in 1970, at the age of eighty-two. During the Second World War, he coordinated the British propaganda effort against the Axis. He was knighted, too, Well deserved. A man who put duty first, if his dick on occasion led him astray.

Lockhart published MEMOIRS OF A BRITISH AGENT in 1932. It was a worldwide sensation. Why the British government didn't suppress it is an interesting question, but it was the story of an extraordinary success. The final section of his book is titled 'History from the Inside,' and indeed it is, the record of a man who was in the thick of it. He leaves a lot out, for sure, particularly the spook stuff. His son says he scoured through his father's remaining notes and diaries, after Lockhart's death, and turned it all over to the Foreign Office. Was it too revealing? We can read between the lines. Lockhart knew where the bodies were buried.

29 May 2012

It's Alive!


Have you ever noticed that, as an adult, good news always seems to have a catch?  When I was a kid it was very different.  When something good happened, such as getting great presents on my birthday or at Christmas, I never questioned it and didn't have to hold my breath waiting for the dreaded catch.  After all, what more could be asked of me when I had lived up to my end of the bargain?  If I got a birthday present it was because I had survived another year--done!  As for Christmas, well, if I hadn't been good all year, then what were those presents doing under the tree?  Hah!  No take backs, no conditions.  Then I grew up and became a writer.
Writing, as we all know, is a odd profession that begins with a solitary writer pecking away somewhere all on his lonesome.  Then, once his/her muse has been properly summoned and appeased, said writer produces a manuscript.  This creation, upon subsequent readings, suddenly develops a life of its own and has to be wrestled to the ground in order to regain mastery.  This sad contest can go on for days, weeks, even months or years.  Meanwhile, our chastened writer must write anew, repeating the process over and over, thus populating his world with dozens of clanking, questing creations, some of which he may never drive forth into the greater world and readership.  Instead, they occupy dusty corners of his home, and worse, his imagination, occasionally sitting up and looking about in confusion at having been left behind and glaring with hatred at their creator; rattling chains and straining to have at him.  I believe I read once that the talented James Lincoln Warren has succeeded in having every story that he has written published.  And he should have...if you've read his work then you know that he's very good at what he does.  I have not fared quite as well, yet I persist.  And sometimes this persistence pays off...but there's the catch.

A few years back I wrote a horror novel set in southern New Jersey.  I know what you're thinking, "A horror novel?  Have you lost your mind--what do you know about horror...or even novels?"  Not much, I'm thinking, but that has never stopped me in the past, and it didn't this time.  I wrote it and was moderately pleased that I had come up with something fairly unique and readable; maybe even commercially viable.  Even my editorial board (Bridgid, Julian, and Tanya) didn't condemn it outright, but deemed it "entertaining".  I was encouraged by this ringing endorsement. 

Every agent I submitted it to disagreed.  Dozens...actually more than dozens (I don't think it benefits anyone to go into actual numbers), managed to turn down my generous offer of partnership on this merry voyage.  "Fools!" I cried.  "You damned fools...I'm letting you in on the blockbuster of the year and you say...no?"  They did.

Univeral Pictures "Frankenstein" 1931
After a while, I coaxed the monster back into its cell and padlocked it.  For months afterward, I would be awakened in the night by its cries, threats, and laments.  I drank heavily.  At some point, I can't recall when, the cries, which had been growing fainter and fainter, faded away altogether, leaving the house in silence.  I tried to forget.  I wrote and wrote.  There were successes and failures, but the "Novel" as I had come to call it, kept returning to haunt me at odd, unguarded moments.  Finally, one day when Robin was away for the afternoon, I dug the key out of the clutter of my desk drawer and went down there.  I opened the door...I opened the damned door!  It was still there, barely alive; covered with dust and cobwebs, breathing faintly, with a thready, uncertain pulse.  I dragged it out into the light.  And, of course...it all started again!  I made a few rewrites, a different beginning, tightened up a sentence or two.  It groaned and flailed weakly, but was still unable to rise and stand on its own.  What had I been thinking leaving it alone for so long?  I blamed Robin, she had never cared for horror and made no secret of it.  Perhaps her disdain (for now I could see it for what it was), had seeped into my work, poisoned my best efforts.  I found her watching me in unguarded moments; quickly looking away when I caught her at it.  She hated my novel!  I knew it!  She wanted me to put it away again!

But I schemed and plotted and soon I had found a way around both her and the damned agents!  E-publishing!  That's the ticket.  I contacted a reputable firm recommended by MWA to help me prepare my creation for its entry into the virtual world.  I e-mailed my manuscript to their proofreader.  I didn't need any stinkin' agents, or even a publisher.  I'm the publisher now, baby!  I'm my own man!

The firm contacted me a few weeks later.  After having read my novel, they wanted to publish it.

Say what?

Now this really screwed things up.  I had this all figured out; I didn't need anybody!  But as the words of the email sunk in, I began to chuckle, then laugh aloud.  The irony of it all!  And the wonderful feeling of smugness at being backed in my opinion by a perfect stranger.  This, I suddenly realized, was the gift...the perfect gift!

But then I continued reading...there was more--there was a catch.  The publisher deemed that for us to go forward together more work was required.  My manuscript was in desperate need of a good developmental editor.  If at the end of six months it failed to meet his requirements, then all bets were off.  Oh, how skillfully he had thrown out the bait, how cruelly he had set the hook.  How dare he!  More work?  And what the hell is a developmental editor?

So you see, my friends, there is always a catch.  They know us writers...they know what we want and what we'll do to get it.  We want our creations to stand up and walk on their own.  To breath and bellow!  To be allowed to walk in daylight along with all God's creatures.  But "they" always want more work, and then...more and more work! 

So now I have been graciously granted six months to accomplish what he wants, and he calls the shots--I'm just the writer again; little more than a temporary employee sans benefits.  But there's a chance now...just a chance, I admit, that my baby will yet be set free.  And on that glorious day the whole world shall hear me cry, "It's alive...it's alive!"


Universal Pictures "Frankenstein" 1931
By the way, I know that a lot of you have already been down this road and I'd appreciate hearing your experiences, especially about working with editors.