Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Some perspective

First, thanks to everyone who cheered me on while I was at the Writer's Digest Conference in New York City last weekend. You'll never know how much your support meant to me.

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to post since getting home. I've been crazy busy with both writing stuff and non-writing stuff. It's funny how, once things start to pop, things start popping all over the place.

But in all honesty, there's another, even stranger reason I haven't posted.

I'm superstitious. I don't want to do or say or write anything that might screw things up. For reals.

Anyway, here's my conference story. It's going to be brutally honest and somewhat long, so hang with me if you can.

I had some really bad moments in NYC. Like when I realized my pitch was all wrong and that I was going to bomb horribly and come home embarrassed and unable to face my wife and kids (who had such faith in me).

And, frankly, I was fearing facing all of you here on this blog. Because you have all been so supportive, so confident that I would do well.

So when things went horribly awry, I was terrified. I remember sitting in my hotel room less than two hours before the pitch slam -- with more than 50 literary agents already arriving at the hotel -- and calmly telling my wife on the phone that I was going to skip the pitch and just "soak up all the good writing advice here."

She wasn't buying it, of course. Instead, she offered to help me. So between the two of us (and my 13-year-old), we went back and forth trying to come up with a pitch that would accomplish two things: Do the book justice and not put the agents to sleep.

A word about my wife. She believes in me. No, that's not accurate. She BELIEVES in me. Period. She refuses to accept that I will fail at getting my book published. In fact, I have several friends like that, people who are so absolutely certain that I will succeed wildly at this book-writing thing that to do anything less would be a complete failure on my part. There were people at the conference, important people who I have been lucky enough to become friends with, who believe in me, who spent several minutes talking me down from the ledge when I was ready to jump.

While I love and appreciate their utter support, it has sometimes weighed heavily on my shoulders. Mainly because I know that the vast majority of writers DO NOT GET PUBLISHED. Most DO NOT GET AN AGENT.

I know the odds. You know the odds. And they aren't good.

Now don't get me wrong. I, too, can be very confident of my abilities. And I understand that their support is heartfelt and genuine. And it's appreciated.

But it also, to be brutally honest with you, scares me to death sometimes.

It scares me because sometimes I start to believe it. I start to believe that I am going to succeed. That I am going to snag an agent, snag a big-time book deal and spend the rest of my life doing what I love most. Writing. And making money at it.

I understand that being confident is a good thing. I am confident. But I know from experience that being overconfident is almost always a bad thing. Because it sets us up for major disappointment. And frankly, I've pretty much had my share of those in life.

I've always preferred to remain a realist. A slightly optimistic pessimist.

I didn't realize sitting in that NYC hotel room how important having family and friends who believe in me really is.

Back to the conference: We finally came up with a pitch that worked. Or so we thought. When I sat down across from the first agent, she stopped me seconds into my pitch and said something like, "I don't like that. Why in the world would I root for a protagonist like that?"

I stopped, blinked once, and swallowed hard. Shit. This was not going to go well. We spent all of this money to send my worthless ass to New York, and I AM GOING TO BOMB.

My life flashed before my eyes in the space of about five seconds. And then something happened, something amazing.

I started to talk to the agent. I more or less tossed the prepared pitch away and just told her about my book, about me, why I'm the perfect person to write this book. I even got her to smile and, memorably, to laugh a couple of times. And this is an agent who is not known as a nice person.

My nerves disappeared. I forgot all about the pressure to succeed. Suddenly, connecting with this agent was the most important thing in my life. I made eye contact and kept it. I smiled. I cracked a joke or two. And I pitched that goddamned book live I've never done anything else in my life.

She asked for a partial. And so did the next one.

I connected beautifully with the third agent. By then, I was cooking. She seemed to get my book. Her eyes widened at the exact right moment when I was telling her what it was about and how I had come to write it.

She asked for a full manuscript on the spot.

I walked away to the next agent line with tears in my eyes. I nearly pulled a John Boehner and started bawling on the spot.

Holy crap. I was going to do this! I really was. An hour before, I was ready to quit, and now I had won over a New York agent. It's hard for me to put into words the gratitude I felt at that moment -- gratitude for all of those people who hadn't given up on me even after I had given up on myself. Gratitude that I have the best wife, kids and friends in the world. Gratitude for my friends on this blog, those of you who comment and exhort and just generally care about another writer they don't even know in real life.

Gratitude. It's the only word I can think of to describe what I was feeling.

The final agent I pitched asked for a partial and just like that, the bell rang and the two hours were over.

I could have gone on forever.

But now, after a few days have passed, I look back on it with some perspective. And I can feel the old me coming back. A slightly optimistic pessimist once again.

Because I know the odds. And so do you. They aren't good.

But I'm also convinced that as long as we have each other, and our families, we can do this. One way or another.

We can do this.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Well, the pitch slam is over

And I'm still alive. Sort of.

I had a tough day, culminating in my calling my wife two hours before the agent pitch to tell her that I had decided not to do it. My pitch sucked (it really did; people told me so), and my confidence had swooned.

Naturally, she tried to talk me out of it and -- even though her roller derby team is bouting tonight and she had every reason to think of herself and no one else -- she rolled her sleeves up and wrote me a brand new pitch idea. It was good.

Then I stepped outside the hotel (all right, fine. I had a cigar. Quit looking at me that way) and bumped into the managing editor of Writer's Digest -- the guy who had critiqued my manuscript all those months ago and told me it was good. While we both agreed that being a good pitchman shouldn't be a requirement to get your manuscript in front of a top agent, it remains the reason for the weekend.

So I reluctantly agreed to go ahead with the pitch slam. I rewrote my pitch using my wife's fine idea and took a deep breath and waded into ...

... a freaking zoo! Holy crap. Hundreds of writers lined up 15 deep before each agent, many of whom looked exhausted and a little shocked. Long story short, it's damned hard to pitch a complex novel in 60 seconds to a bored NYC literary agent. It takes every damned ounce of whatever it is that gives us that extra boost when we need it most. For reasons known only to the angels, I had it today.

I only had time to pitch four agents (my top target had to cancel at the last minute due to a family emergency; hope everything is okay there). Four agents who rep my genre. I watched writer after writer leave their tables looking a bit ashen. There were the occasional looks of relief, so some folks were getting bites. But it was nerve-wracking, believe me.

I will spare you the gory details of my pitches (some went well, some didn't), but I will say that when push came to shove, I lost my case of the nerves. I don't know what happened, except I guess I got it all out before the pitch slam. But I was calm and collected and actually enjoyed myself.

And the results? Not bad, actually.

Four agents pitched. Three partial requests. One full request.

Thank you to everyone who supported me on the blog, Twitter and Facebook. But most of all, thanks to my wife, Jennifer.

I could not have done this without you, babe. That's the stone-cold truth.

Friday, January 21, 2011

NOW I'm nervous

I made it to the Writer's Digest Conference in New York (midtown Manhattan to be precise) in one piece, although I'm a bit droopy from lack of sleep.

The first night was low-key but exciting nonetheless. Famed NYC literary agent Richard Curtis gave the opening talk on the future of publishing, saying in a nutshell that books are by no means going extinct and that right now is both the most terrifying and the most exciting time in publishing history.

He also thinks the future will see a split between print-on-demand books and e-books. It was a very interesting talk that, while chronicling the tough times traditional publishing is going through, ended up offering that finest of emotions -- hope. Let's hope he's correct.

Many of us then walked a few blocks to a nearby pub for a Writer's Digest "Tweetup," which I guess is today's version of the old-fashioned meet-up. It was great fun and I met lots of interesting writers and folks within the industry. But man, was it cold walking back.

Tomorrow is the big day. Seminars and workshops all morning and then the Pitch Slam for two hours in the afternoon. Fifty-five agents (three canceled) will be sitting at tables in the hotel's main ballroom and we get three minutes to pitch our novel to them.

My pitch sucks. It really does. I imagine I will be polishing it right up until I sit down across from the first agent. Unless I pass out first, in which case I won't have to worry about having a lousy pitch.

I am tired. Perhaps you can tell. But I am also totally pumped about this weekend. The hotel is incredibly beautiful and located in the midst of some of the finest real estate in the world.

Life is both frightening AND good. And it doesn't get any better than that.

More tomorrow, hopefully after a good night's sleep. Wish me luck.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I'm not nervous

Really. I'm not.

(You buying this?)

Okay. Fine. I'm nervous. As hell, actually. My plane leaves tomorrow morning at 6 (Ack! Why do all my flights leave at the crack of dawn?) for New York City and the Writer's Digest Conference at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in midtown Manhattan.

Let's say it together, shall we? Oooohhhhhhh.

See, there's all these literary agents who are going to be there, and I plan to pitch my book to any of them who will listen. I've been busy honing my pitch (more or less) and polishing the manuscript for the eleven-thousandth time and ... I think I'm ready.

Or, as ready as I can be with a raging case of the Oh Shits. As in, oh shit I can't believe I am putting myself through this. Really.

And to make things more interesting, things are exploding in my other career and this weekend is shaping up as one the most important in the 11 years I've been with the company. It's huge and it requires my full attention. Which I can't give, because I will be in NYC pitching my novel, which is also kind of huge.


My wife designed business cards for me and gave them to me for my birthday last week. They are totally, completely awesome! Me. A writer! I am, because my shiny new business cards SAY I am. I plan on handing those babies out like condoms in a free clinic.

As time allows, I'll post some blog updates from the conference. There's also going to be real-time Twitter updates from the attendees and agents. Use the hashtag #wdc11 to find us.

Friday night will feature a workshop led by Janet Reid on pitches, and I'm going to be there, front and center, soaking it up. She had asked for volunteers to give their pitch so she could critique it, but anyone with the nickname Query Shark ain't getting her fins on me. No way, no how. Just thinking about it gives me the willies.

There's going to be nearly 500 writers there from four continents and 57 literary agents. That should make for some major league networking. While I tend toward anti-social (like many writers), I always seem to rise to the occasion when I need to be charming and all that. Let's hope I can pull it off once again, when it counts most.

Wish me luck, especially from 3-5 p.m. EST Saturday, when I will be engaged in the writer's version of speed-dating -- spending 90 seconds pitching my baby to some of the most powerful and influential agents in the heart of the literary capital of the world.

Me? Nervous? No way.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What's your favorite song?

This is a tough one for me, because I've always had difficulty choosing one song. In fact, my wife claims I have about a thousand favorite songs.

It does seem that about every third song that comes on the radio, I crank it up and tell her it's a favorite.

Basically, I sort music by age. Mine, that is. So I have faves from childhood, faves from middle school, faves from high school. Well, you get the idea. Taken together, these songs form the soundtrack of my life.

Take my mp3 player, for instance. I have songs on it that date back to the 1960s (Beatles, Stones, The Who) through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and up to right now. And they are shuffled, so I can listen to the Beatles doing "Ticket to Ride," followed by Lady Gaga singing "Paparazzi," followed by The Clash, Springsteen, The Jam, Matt and Kim, and ELO. Oh, with a little Lily Allen and the Doors thrown in.

But favorite song? Sheesh. You might as well ask me which of my three sons is my favorite (hint: It changes daily).

So I'm going to sort them into three basic age groupings and then come up with my absolute favorite (which will have likely changed by the time you read this).

Younger years favorite: "Thank You" by Led Zeppelin. It's a gorgeous, lush ballad by one of the most kick-ass rock bands ever. And it reminds me of a girl I loved in eighth grade. So, shoot me.

Middle years favorite: Tie between "Streets of Fire" by Springsteen and "That's Entertainment" by the Jam. OK, and maybe "Man Out of Time" by Elvis Costello. See?

Latter years favorite: Hmmm. So many to choose from, believe it or not. I really like today's music. I'd have to say "The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire, followed closely by "Rebellion (Lies)" also by Arcade Fire.

And now for my favorite song of all time (which really hasn't changed since I was a kid). It's ... "Baby Blue" by Badfinger. Best. Damned. Song. Ever.

What's yours?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What's your favorite band?

Since I can't seem to find the time to blog regularly about things like, you know, my writing, I thought perhaps we could take some time and get to know one another a little better.

With that in mind, I've decided to post a few short pieces about my favorite things, like bands, songs, books, authors, films, etc. And I would love for you guys to chime in with some of yours, as well. Not only is it always interesting to get to know people better, but perhaps we'll find some overlap, something in our psyche that makes us as writers more alike than different.

Or not. Who knows?

Anyway, I decided to start with my favorite bands (or musicians, if you'd like).

Back in the day, I'd have to say Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were my favorites. Shortly after I cut my hair and went punk, I discovered Elvis Costello and the Attractions and The Clash. One consistent band throughout my life has always been Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I've seen them live five times over the years. I've also seen Zeppelin and Costello, too.

Funny story: My wife and I saw Elvis Costello and the Attractions in Chicago shortly before we were married (probably in '95 or so), and the drummer hit on my wife! Seriously. We had met the band outside the arena and got Elvis to sign his own handwritten set list my wife had managed to sweet talk away from one of the roadies. I was both jealous and proud that my wife would attract the attention of a world famous rock star. Of course, I'd have killed the bastard if he had actually, you know, put the moves on her. But he was very nice about his flirting.

Needless to say, she became a huge Costello fan and remains one to this day.

The band I'm currently in love with is Arcade Fire. They are completely, totally awesome. Right up there with the best of them, in my opinion. We haven't seen them in concert yet, but if they come around, you can bet we'll be there.

So. How about you guys. What's your faves? Any stories behind them? Do tell.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Derby, revising and tragedy

My wife's roller derby team, the Hard Knocks, have announced their second bout later this month. That's the poster at left and yes, the cute one on the far left in the red shorts is my wife.

The only problem is, the bout is scheduled for the weekend when I will be at the Writer's Digest conference in New York. Damn it. Oh well, I'm sure the team will survive without me (just kidding).

I know I've been absent around here a great deal lately, and there's a good reason for it: I have been (once again) rewriting The Devil You Don't Know. I had another book editor go through it and she made some excellent suggestions designed to tighten up the plot and quicken the pace a bit in the first 150 pages.

Well, once I got started revising I started rewriting. So now the book has gotten even smaller (I've cut another thousand words) and better (I think). Next up will be polishing my query and creating a pitch that I can take with me to the conference, where I will find myself face-to-face with 57 literary agents! Gulp.

And finally, I've been glued to the television and the Internet in the wake of the mass killing in Arizona on Saturday. How very sad. I will refrain from posting a political diatribe (although I would LOVE to) and will say only that it's time to knock off all of the hatred and name-calling and divisive rhetoric and try to become a united country again. Before it's too late.

Have a good Sunday evening. We'll talk to tomorrow (which is, wait for it ... my birthday!).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My New Year's gift to you

Please watch the following video. It's a wonderful reminder of what's really important in life.

And turn up your speakers. The music is awesome.