Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodreads Review of Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable book and a must read for fans of the 1980's. This is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets the Goldbergs. 80's nostalgia is riding high at the moment. The characters were very likable if not wildly fleshed out. The overall plot was compelling. The main character of the book is ... the 1980's, especially the video games. If that was your thing, this will be an amazing read. I will say, hopefully without sounding sexist or something, but this book definitely felt like it was written by a dude. And I'm a dude saying this. There were just lots of opportunities where feelings and emotions and stuff could have been expounded on a little and the result would have been a more immersive reading experience. In some ways, diving into the book was a bit like being in the OASIS (it's like the Matrix). It was enjoyable, but lacked a certain multi-dimensional quality. Still, a fun read and I'm very interested to see what the movie looks like.!

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sweating the Small Stuff

But how many votes does it take to make a quorum in the Senate?

We take a brief pause in our "How I Got An Agent Series" to discuss this.

Star Wars!

This blog entry will be my spoiler free review ... eh, that's not quite right.  Spoiler free, yes, but more my personal musings on the experience of seeing the most hyped movie of all time.  I mean, really, it is, isn't it? 

Full disclosure, I'm a major Star Wars nerd.  People closest to me know this all too well.  Most strangers seem even able to pick up on this despite the fact that I don't go around in Jedi robes trying to explain away the different kinds of hands (flippers, hooves) on Ponda Baba in the cantina scene of A New Hope.

But that aside, I do love me some Star Wars.  I was indoctrinated into the series at a young age, much like a militarized clone trooper, and have never looked back.  My interest and appreciation of the various movies have changed and morphed as I've aged and I love the original three for all new reasons as an adult and dad as I did as a kid.  And yes, my son loves them too.  He wasn't so sure at first, but he enthusiastically confirmed it after a long, cold night spent sleeping on the ground in the backyard.  It's all good!

All kidding aside, my son actually sees merit in the prequels.  And I try to fake it for him.  But, really, while die hard fans will find a way to espouse the virtues of Episodes 1 -3, everybody knows they pretty much blow.  Take away their association with the three better movies, and Star Wars would never have been a big thing.

That's why Episode VII was and is such a big deal.  That's why it's the most anticipated Star Wars movie ever.  The series has been coasting by on goodwill for decades.  And the original three were that good.  But the goodwill was just about dried up.  Even Uncle George recognized it, selling off the property and the farm (just not the ranch) to Disney while the getting was still good.  Now I can enthusiastically say (without a night spent in the backyard).  It's all good!

I was one of the nuts who saw The Force Awakens on Thursday night.  The movie pulled me in immediately.  It's sooooo Star Wars!  The acting was excellent, the dialogue was excellent (ok, in those ways maybe it wasn't very Star Wars) but I loved the new characters.  Yes, J.J. Abrams leaned heavily on what came before, but how could he get away with not?  And there was at least equal measures of freshness as well.  A great balance, a balance to the force that whiny chosen one Annie Skywalker never accomplished. 

At the end of the movie I was left with a nagging feeling.  Did I love it?  Could I love it the way I did when I was so young, is that even possible anymore?  I actually left that first showing a little disappointed.  And that was inevitable.  You can't live up to the hype this movie has experienced.  And I realized, as a writer, I was over-analyzing the plot.  Yes, I do that a lot.  The big strokes were there, but I was worrying about the details.  Some of the backstories, the political state of the galaxy at large.  I felt I'd missed something.  For a second, I actually longed for Uncle George's wooden exposition.  I just need to know how this galaxy resolves trade route disputes!   

So I let a few days pass.  Thinking back, I realized I actually didn't remember what was in the opening crawl.  I remembered most scenes, but very little of what was said in them.  During the weekend, I picked up a couple of awesome books that included backstory and exposition on the state of things thirty years after the Endor Ewok Dance Party.  I satiated my writer's need to understand the hows and the whys.  I also came to understand why it wasn't included in the movie.  It's great for a read but it would have greatly slowed down the movie, and I'm really happy they stuck close to the two hour mark.  I never felt LOTR was well served by it's 74 hour running time.

On Monday, I went back and had the Star Wars experience I'd been waiting for.  I was able to be swept up in the excitement, the drama, the stakes.  Everything was there and I was literally on the edge of my seat.  Star Wars was back!  It's true.  The rave reviews, the critical acclaim. All of it. 

The force was calling to me all along.  I just had to let it in!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Call

So, to make a long story short ... Too late!

On September 28th, I sent another nudge to the agent I'd first queried December 22nd.  I had sent her my second set of revisions about a month earlier.  I had nudged once in between. As it turns out, this agent is very busy, but she was also communicative and let me know when to expect a response and pretty much stuck to it when I was patient enough to let her.  I decided to nudge a second time because my birthday was coming up in a few days and I'm a spoiled child angling for a special present ... a shiny new agent to hug and squeeze and call George!

The response was, "I have some notes and would love to talk."

Oh, joy!  Oh, rapture! Oh, crap!  Notes?  Did I not deliver the witch's broom?  Did my proton torpedo not perfectly penetrate the thermal exhaust port and (wait, this is getting weird).  What do "notes" mean?  More changes?  Is "notes" code for, "I have a prepared speech I'd like to give you over the phone explaining the many reasons you are not fit to have your work published and why I will not be representing you."

Ok, that last thing seems a little unlikely (and sadistic).  As it turns out, "notes" means, "I'm ready to talk to you in person, but if for some reason you are a lunatic, I may need a parachute to get out of your crazy plane."  You see, having an agent take you on is a big decision not just for the author but also for the agent.  If you write wonderfully but spread your bread with a big ole' helping of nutty peanut butter, then you might not be the best person to essentially go into business with.

On the day of the scheduled call, my agent phoned right on time (isn't that lovely?)  Introductions were made, basic biography type data was exchanged.  Yes, we spoke of the weather, but only briefly.  We do live in dramatically different climates.  For about an hour, we basically had a normal, human-to-human conversation.  We spoke primarily about the business, the marketplace, and trends.  Most importantly, we talked about my expectations and what I wanted my career as an author to be like.  We did not speak too much about the book.  The fact that the call happened at all was evidence she liked the book.  The purpose of the call was to make sure we liked each other.

And on that phone call it became official.  I had an agent.


There was the issue of letting other agents with my work know I had an offer of representation.  So I had an agent, but it was kind of a secret and not really official.  Yes, I'm learning that's what this whole getting published process is like: standing on an iced-over ledge in slick-soled shoes trying to grab wet marbles being dropped from another ledge just above you.

So the next week was weird.  But we'll talk about that, well, next week.  See you then!


Saturday, December 5, 2015

I Loved Your Revisions So Much, Let's Do More!

Ok, thank you very much, sir.  I think I have everything I need ... oh, just thirty more things!

At this stage of my query process, I'm working with an agent.  Query, partial, full, all received.  And now I've completed a first round of revisions.  A change to the ending and an adjustment to one of the main characters throughout.  The ending change was pretty straightforward and mostly just an expounding on what was already done.  The character change required many tweaks but also not an impossible task.

That was easy.  It's time to go get published now, right?

(awkward dramatic pause)

More months pass.  Check ins and responses occur.  The sun goes up, the sun goes down.  Flowers lose their spring blooms and the shadows grow longer across the lawn.  This agent has an obligation to existing clients that takes precedence over an unsigned client.  I understand that.  I appreciate that.  I'm even encouraged by that.  I want that to be me someday.  After another nudge, I receive a reply.

She likes it.  Still.  Maybe some more.  And now she's had a trusted beta reader weigh in as well.  Is this the equivalent of being vetted by the BFF?  Beta reader has some notes.  Agent has a lot of notes.  And as a tease, she makes mention of "the call".  This is new territory for me.  I've done revisions.  I've had nice things said about my writing.  I've never had mention of "the call".  

The agent is close to falling in love.  She just wants a little more.  And by a little more, I mean kind of a lot more.  But the notes.  Oh, the beautiful, detailed, notes.  This agent knows my book.  Her observations are insightful and probing.  She's seeing things I missed.  She has perspective and experience needed to see the holes in my plots.  She has a whetstone and a cleaver queued up for my darlings.

This rewrite is going to be a bloodbath and I don't even have a commitment from this agent yet to represent what's left over after the massacre.

But this in depth rewrite request is what I've been waiting for.  The agent has actually committed more than any signed contract can.  She's spent her time on this and invested herself in the process.   She'd called in other people.  These aren't just spelling and grammar edits, these are changes that get at the heart of the story, the characters, and the essence of the book.  The only thing left is to do it.

Am I able to do it?  Should I do it?  Will these changes make the story something it's not?  If after so much work it turns out I wrote the wrong story, should I be writing books at all?  And how much can I push back on any of these requests if I don't see eye to eye with their aims?

How many questions can I write in a row?  (Seven)

Come back again to find out how the rewrite went.  And if I ever stopped writing questions?     

Sunday, November 29, 2015

You like me! You really, conditionally, like me!

In my continuing saga to secure a literary agent, I'm three months into my current query and have obtained a request for revisions.  This is a critical point in the querying process.  I've overcome several large hurdles.  My query has managed to stand out in the slush pile, my sample pages have passed the initial smell test, and now my entire manuscript has been read by an honest-to-goodness agent.  And the only catch is, she wants me to rewrite some of my story.

How quickly can I jump through that hoop, right?

Just hold your horses there, mister.  I've actually done rewrites.  Even on this very story.  Let me tell you something.  They are heart wrenching.  When a story has been built up layer by layer and every piece of information, every scene, every thought a character has is connected in some small or large way to many, many other scenes, themes, and plots in a book, asking for a little change, like, oh, let's say, "I really like the book but I want the protagonist to be confident instead of timid." is like pulling a string on a sweater.  It doesn't take much tugging before you're completely topless.

Now, to clarify, the rewrites this agent was asking for were well within reason.  There was nothing about them that made me think, "Oh, lord, she doesn't get what I'm going for here.  We're never going to see eye to eye."  On the contrary, the main request was one I knew in my gut was much needed ... the ending.  It had a slight, "I'm exhausted and I want this book finished, and so much of it is cool and great, can't you cut me some slack at the end," feel to it.  She called me on it, and I'm glad she did.

But the actual request for a rewrite was brief, considering the amount of work necessary to affect the changes asked for.  And having been down this road before, I had to think, "Is she as into this book as I need her to be?"  I felt confident that with the proper direction I could make satisfying changes - I just needed to be sure I understood the direction she was looking for.  I didn't want to guess and lose my chance to keep her engaged and have butchered my book for no good reason.

So I asked for clarification.

That's right.  In this tenuous relationship we had formed as prospective client and potential agent, I asked in my best Oliver Twist voice for some more, please.  I basically said, in the nicest and most professional way possible, "I have received your terms for continuing on and here is what I require." 

This felt nervy.  It felt daring.  It felt idiotic.  It was a necessary test. 

I decided, if this agent is truly interested, a little expounding on her feelings about the book shouldn't be too much to ask.  If she can't be troubled for that, she can't possibly feel strongly enough about what she's seen to be impressed by anything I could do with it in rewrites.

So, to make a long story short (Too late!) I asked for clarification, received it, did a part of the rewrites, sent it in, was asked nicely to do all the rewrites, and then sent that in.

And that takes us to the seven month mark on this particular query.  Roughly Christmas to Fourth of July.  It's time for the happy ending, right?  Fireworks, streamers, touchdown dances, a sudsy, lavender scented bubble bath (hey, you celebrate your way ...)  Shirley, after all this time, we've reached the end of our odyssey and I'm a signed author, right?

Check back soon for my next entry to see if it was time to celebrate.  I'll give you a hint - my rubber duck had a long, lonely summer ahead of him.    


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Goodreads Review of Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss (Anna and the French Kiss, #1)Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've seen this book listed on many people's favorites lists for a while. After reading it, I can understand why. There is a lot to like about this book, even if it wasn't an absolute home run based on my personal tastes. It's a straight up romance and it really does well doing that thing. It's also a bit of a travel book. Paris is very much a character in the story. I'm not always too crazy about an author trying to show off everything they know about a foreign location, but this didn't feel that way at all. I enjoyed Anna's experience in Paris right along with her. I never felt excluded or like I was looking in from the outside. Main characters often have a hobby or interest that dominates their personality and Anna's interest in becoming a film critic was also handled nicely. The characters of the story were well written and multi-dimensional. The conflicts didn't feel manufactured and the will-they-won't-they was balanced in a realistic way. The author has an authentic voice. I cared about Anna and St. Clair pretty equally which can be difficult to accomplish, especially in a first person perspective.

My only minor complaint is one of personal preference. Even in a purely contemporary, romance, YA book, I like a little action. The stakes were never much beyond getting that kiss in by the end of the book. There were some secondary conflicts but it was easy to see they would be resolved happily by the end. Fortunately, the writing was such I could overlook the linear story line without much trouble because Anna was a very appealing character and her adventure in France was one I was glad to tagging along for.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Let's Talk About My But

I can work with those odds.

So an agent asked for my manuscript.  I've been here before.  And now I've waited a couple of months without hearing anything.  Also familiar territory.  So I send what is affectionately referred to as a "nudge".  You try to make this email sound like something other than a desperate cry into the dark.  It's kind of like when you ask a waiter if your food is ready.  The obvious answer is, "Is it on the table in front of you yet?"  Well that's a response that will kill a tip percentage, but you get the idea.  I think the nudge is useful if used appropriately.  I gave it two months, and my nudge generated a response.

And that response was, "I like it but ..."

So now we have to talk about that my but.  The letter was full of I-liked-this-buts.  I don't like big buts and I cannot lie.  They were issues with characters, issues with the ending, and a general problem with the way the romantic elements of the story unfolded.  It was far from the "sorry I didn't get right back to you, I was busy dropping all of my other clients to focus completely on you, my new favorite author and client!"

But ... it wasn't a no.  In fact, there was an honest to goodness offer to revisit after revisions. And you know what that is folks in the terrible, beautiful dance of the query process?  That's a second date.  So my first impression wasn't a disaster.  This agent had read my entire work, spent a couple of months thinking about it, and made suggestions about what she thought was needed to push it from the 'like' column to the 'love' column.  Because that's what it takes for an agent to commit to representing your work.  They see stories they like all the time, probably many they enjoy more than actual published books they've read.  But they really have to connect on a deeper level to go all in.

And now was my call to action.  Three months into the process with just this particular agent and I have a nibble.

In the famous words of Lloyd Christmas after being told his odds of ending up with a girl like Mary Swanson were one in a million,

"So you're telling me there's a chance!"

Friday, November 6, 2015

If You Give 'Em An Inch ...

I've noticed a lot of agents are foodies.

You really have to watch these agent types.  Within one week of sending three chapters of my book, this particular agent I queried wanted me to send her all the rest of them!

As a querying author, this is actually a wonderful if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie moment.  This is called a "request for full" and it's kind of big deal in the querying process.  This signals that two things have happened: 

1. You have caught an agent's eye with your query letter.  They like the tone and style of your letter and are intrigued by your premise. 

2. Now that they have read several thousands of your word lined up together in the first three chapters of your manuscript, they believe you have the skills necessary to complete an entire book.

When you are asked to submit a full, you can reasonably expect that a real, live agent is going to read your manuscript.  As I've learned, many agents have a trusted cadre of beta readers they farm the initial read out to in case the whole thing falls apart after the first few chapters.  But any way you slice it, your book is about to be read.  That's exciting!

Or is it?  It's one thing for an agent to pass on your book based on a short query letter.  I'm sure many brilliant authors crash and burn on the query letter just like brilliant students can be miserable test takers.  I know the query letter that landed me his particular request was far from the first version I sent out.  I really stunk up some inboxes with my first tries at that letter. 

And having your first three chapters read gives you a great feeling that your grammar skills and ability to form coherent sentences are up to snuff.  You could even feel confident that your general voice for the submitted material is interesting and compelling.  These are all very good feeling feels to have.  So with all that in your favor, what could possibly go wrong?  How can an agent like the beginning of your book and your writing in general and not want to represent you?

Guess what?  You're going to have to wait to find out!  And by 'you' I mean 'you' the reader of this blog as well as 'you' the abstract subject of this story.  (It's a multi-purpose 'you').  I hope you'll check back in to find out what the next response from my someday-agent was!  Today's blog chronicles the third exchange between myself and this agent.  This represents a time period of approximately 22 days.  The email chain for this exchange ends up being 36 messages long!  Don't worry, I will be summarizing many of these.

See you for the next installment! 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Following Directions

It's really simple.  Just follow the directions.

So, in our last post we looked at the query letter heard round the world.  Ok, it wasn't that big of a deal and little did I know at the time it was going to be "the one".  But 15 days after sending out the email (and through the holiday season no less) I received a response.  It said: 

Send me three chapters.

Wait a tick, you think.  That query you sent.  You didn't attach a sample?  Three chapters is kind of standard.  Even if the agent didn't ask for sample pages, what's the harm in including them, right?  If they don't like your query they can just ignore them and if they do like it they can get right to the good stuff.

Well,the point is, the agent didn't ask for sample pages in their submission guidelines.  It was very clear: send a query letter only.  These were the instructions put out into the world by the person you are hoping will be impressed enough by your writing to take you on as a client.  Kind of a first interaction between author and agent.  The agent is saying "I have a certain way of doing things.  My methods may not be understood by you, but I have stated them clearly.  Can you respect my time and profession and respond in kind?"

And my answer was, "Yes.  Here is specifically what you asked for.  No more, no less."

I think it is critical to research your agent before querying.  Not just for an indication of what kind of work they want to represent, but for how they want to do the dance we call querying.  Dragging someone into a Tango that's trying to Foxtrot is only going to result in bruised shins and broken toes.  If your first impression on an agent is that of a.) Someone who doesn't do a minimum amount of research into a very important process in their professional career or b.) Someone who doesn't respect a potential business partner enough to comply with a simple request before the relationship is even formed, then I think it's unlikely the relationship will even get off the ground.

It's also entirely possible that something as innocuous as asking that the query letter be sent without a sample could be a simple test to weed out the serious queries from the spammers.

So off go my first three chapters.  I've entered a new chapter in the process with this particular agent:

The request for a partial.

Tune in next time for the next step.  I'll give you a hint: It's not a request for chapters 4 through 6.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Query Letter

This is about how much progress it feels like you're making writing your query letter.

So here it is. The one that got me the golden ticket! This was probably the four-thousandth version of my basic pitch for the book. The first two paragraphs set up the basics of the story and hopefully engaged the reader enough to keep going. The third paragraph is a little more indulgent, trusting that the first two, brief paragraphs had earned me enough capital to spend on a few flourishes, a few fun turns of phrase. This paragraph also revealed more about the conflict of the story and concluded without a resolution to that conflict; in fact, the query only takes the reader to the halfway point of the book.

Paragraph four is straight genre, word count and title along with a minor info dump of themes. It's scary putting that last part in, but I was trusting the first three paragraphs did their job. Agents are interest in knowing what audience the story will appeal to and identifying some of the issues explored in the book help them do that. Some people put this at the top of the letter, but I think, just as in an actual book, you have to grab your audience from the first sentence.

Finally, the personal touch. I was prompted to sen this query to Laura due to a tweet I saw that morning. Mentioning the tweet as well as how my story lined up with her personal tastes as expressed on the agency website allowed me to connect my work to this individual, not to a mass audience. I believe even when everything else is in place, forgetting to make this small personal connection will prevent even the best query letter from standing out in the mountain of slush sent to an agent everyday.

Take a look at the actual letter below. You'll see there is no magic in the prose. It takes constant revision and tightening to get a proper rhythm to this kind of letter. And it never feels natural to reduce an entire book (or even half of a book) down to three paragraphs. Furthermore, what appeals to one agent may not appeal to another. Everything is subjective and timing is something you can't predict or control.

Tune in next time to see how this letter resulted in an immediate offer of representation! (That's a little joke for the newbies).

Dear Laura,

Coming into her senior year after a jilted suitor posted private sexting messages onto the school Facebook page, Mila Cavanaugh is struggling with her new notoriety.  When she meets Rup, an unnervingly hot and domineering college student, she learns any problem can be solved by a master manipulator for the right price. 

Each time Mila stumbles Rup is there to help her back up, but each new favor requires Mila to fall deeper into Rup’s sphere of influence.  As his recompense goes from inconvenient to criminal, Mila finds herself moving away from Rup and toward her best friend’s brother Blake who is always there for her, asking nothing in return. 

Just as Mila’s life starts to resemble normal again, a new threat emerges: a grainy video taken after a long night of partying, one that could ruin more than just her reputation.  In trying to contain the video Mila learns that Rup has been behind every problem he’s ever solved for her.  Now he’s offering to make the video go away forever, but his price is a night alone with him.  Giving herself over to Rup could bury her worst mistake under the weight of an even greater one, costing her something she can only give away once.  If she can learn Rup’s true identity and expose him as the monster he really is, Mila may be able to get the upper hand in a game she didn’t even know she was playing.

UNSEND is my 65,000 word YA contemporary novel inspired by the RUMPELSTILTSKIN fairy tale.  While there are no angry dwarfs or spindles of spun gold in this retelling, there is peer pressure, manipulation, sexting, stalking, and self-image issues.

Seeing your tweet this morning about unexpected retellings of classic tales and reading your wish list at Red Sofa's website gives me hope this story will be a wonderful fit.  Per your submission guidelines, I have not included sample pages and will keep myself from being incarcerated until I hear back from you.


Shawn Keenan