June 30, 2009

Literary agents–what they said

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 7:00 am

Since I’ve been poking fun at my own excess excitement and hubris in the early (early, early) days of TTGP (Trying To Get Published), I’ll fill you in on another gem.

After this, I did get a little more humble.

Funnily enough, though, I retained a certain core optimism. I somehow always had the belief that the very next query letter would bring me a response in a matter of hours, some agent oohing and ahhing over my work. After months of form rejections and almosts-but-not-quites, you’d think I would have well and fully wised up. But now I think that if I didn’t labor under that optimistic delusion, I may not have been able to keep going as I did.

It happened, by the way. Finally. The quick response, even an ohh and an ahh. But it took a while, didn’t lead exactly where I thought it would, and…that’s for another post.

Anyway…hubris. Remember how I queried Al Zuckerman because of the influence his writing book had on me? For this reason, I made him my top choice agent. Lucky guy! I sent him my query, then sat back and waited.

And waited. When a week went by without his writing (or calling…or visiting me at my house…) I began to frown. Shot him off another letter–and by “shot” I do mean Fed Ex–politely saying something like, I sent you my query on an exclusive basis. Please let me know if it interests you as I would be very excited to provide additional materials.

When I STILL didn’t hear back–can you believe the nerve of this guy–joke–can you believe the nerve of me? I really had no idea that a busy agent can take months to respond. Or s/he might never respond. I’ve now heard stories of writers getting requests after an entire year. Anyway, when two weeks went by–that’s like a minute in geological time–with no response, I sent to the other five agents.

Virginia Barber sent a form rejection. Chuck Verrill never responded. After some months, Al Zuckerman sent a form, too.

But Anna Cottle sent a detailed critique of my first seventy-five pages–more than enough to set me editing the baby I had previously dubbed perfect. Elizabeth Pomada requested pages. And Barney Karpfinger requested a 100 page partial! I was on my way…to something.

June 29, 2009

Made It Moment: Stefanie Pintoff

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 7:35 am

Stefanie Pintoff -- In the Shadow of Gotham

I discovered Stefanie’s novel In the Shadow of Gotham via this mystery listserv I’m part of. The listserv is always leading me to real treasures, and Stefanie’s was one of the biggest and brightest. It is a moody, atmospheric story of old New York. Stefanie manages to weave elements as disparate as feminism, mathematics, and murder into one spellbinding tale. This novel is literally a winner, as she is about to tell you…

When I was outside the business looking in – with no agent, no editor, no publishing contract, only a dream that I’d like to write a book – I thought that making it as a writer meant one thing.


After all, to be published was the ultimate validation of one’s work.

Then I was lucky.  I took the Cinderella route to publication when I won the inaugural Mystery Writers of America / St. Martin’s Minotaur Best First Crime Novel Contest.  Given how hard it is for a new writer to get the attention of first an agent, then an editor, the contest offered an amazing opportunity for an unpublished writer.  When I got the phone call letting me know I’d won, I spent one glorious day basking in my success:  I was going to be published by a leading mystery imprint; my editor was terrific, at the top of her field; and the contest win put me in the company of very talented writers who’d won similar St. Martin’s-sponsored contests, including Steve Hamilton and Michael Koryta, Donna Andrews and Julia Spencer-Fleming.

The next day, reality hit.  I was going to be a published writer.  And that suddenly meant something very different than it had only a day before.  I had a tremendous amount of work ahead of me as I confronted new issues large and small.  I learned what my publishing house and editor expected; how to promote; and how to create realistic goals to move my career forward.  I also learned how much was beyond my control as I embarked on the beginning of this new career.

Now my book sits on bookshelves across the country, and I still sometimes pinch myself to make sure it’s real.  I’ve passed one major hurdle, but there are plenty of challenges ahead.  To “make it,” I’ll need more of the luck – and hard work – that got my writing published in the first place.

Still, I’m reminded every day why I do this.

The blank page before me – though it’s unknown and mysterious, sometimes terrifying – is also reassuring.  It holds out the promise of what I crave most:  unlimited possibility.

Stefanie was thrilled to have her book launch at the wonderful Partners & Crime in New York, and sent along a picture of the occasion:

June 26, 2009

Literary agents–the first ones

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 9:34 pm

Here are the first six agents I queried:

Albert Zuckerman of Writers House

Barney Karpfinger of the Barney Karpfinger Agency

Anna Cottle of Cine/Lit (can you blame me for thinking my book might be made into a movie ;)

Elizabeth Pomada of Larsen/Pomada

Virginia Barber of the Virginia Barber Literary Agency

Chuck Verrill of Darhansoff & Verrill

I queried Albert Zuckerman because of the book I read by him on writing the blockbuster. I queried Barney Karpfinger because he repped Jonathan Kellerman and my book had a psychologist protagonist, too. I queried Anna Cottle because her agency was mentioned in the book by Elizabeth Lyon that taught me how to write queries and synopses. I queried Elizabeth Pomada because I read her husband’s (and co-agent’s) book on getting an agent. I queried Virginia Barber because she repped Rosellen Brown, whose book I had the gall to compare mine to. And I queried Chuck Verrill because Stephen King, who is probably the single biggest contemporary influence on my writing, praised his editorial skill.

I chose a hefty percentage of agents based on their connection to authors whose work I admired. It’s a tip that comes up again and again.

Go to your bookstore. (Buy some books). Or library. (Take out some books).

As you browse, read the acknowledgments section. See if the author mentions his or her agent. Then look up the agent.

You can do a lot of this on line, by Googling for references to authors you love and adding the word agent to the search. When I was first querying, it was all cloth volumes and telephone books. (Maybe not quite on the latter).

On Monday, I’ll tell you what those six agents had to say.

Happy weekend!

And may I suggest that if you happen to find yourself in, near, or within a 200 mile radius of a bookstore…that you buy some books?

June 25, 2009

Your mother’s always right

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 6:13 pm

When I started trying to get my first novel published, my mother had some words of advice for me.

“I think you’re really talented,” she said. “And I think you’ve got passion, and drive. I think this is going to happen for you.”

We can all tell when a but is coming, can’t we? A big ole but was just hanging there.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight,” my mother went on. “I think this is going to take time. You’re coming at it as a total outsider. It’s going to take time to build connections, to establish yourself.”

My mom could probably see the protest building on my lips. So she hauled in other resources.

“Whoopi Goldberg says every overnight sensation is ten years in the making.”

When did my mother give me this advice? Oh, about ten years ago.

Man, I hope she was right on the timing!

But for sure she was right about the other parts. Maybe there are authors out there who sit down and write a novel and send it to one agent–or egads, one editor–and it is immediately snapped up and the author becomes a star. We hear about such people, although I am hard pressed to actually name one.

But for me at least, I have spent the last ten years doing the following:

Honing my craft. Learning to pace and plot a novel so it doesn’t reach 180,000 words. Learning to trust my reader so my writing and characterization can be subtle. Those were the biggies of craft for me; we all have different ones, I think. Peg Brantley has blogged about this on her excellent site.

Getting close enough to offers that when I contacted agents I had a proven track record of interest in my work. (More on that to come.)

Meeting and supporting authors so that I could learn what they were doing and try to emulate it.

Realizing that at the end of the day, aspirations to Oprah and claims of film potential aside, what I really want most to do is tell a story that the reader can get lost in.

Oh, and one other thing these past ten years have taught me.

Mom, you were right.

June 24, 2009

A really disastrous query letter

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 6:17 am
This bit is part of Technorati registration:

People say, “Don’t tell [the powers that be] your plans; They/He/She will only laugh at them.” Oh, how that power must’ve been chuckling at me. My goal is to write my second novel fulltime?

Let’s just see, They/He/She must’ve chortled. Let’s give her, oh, ten years or so of not earning one thin dime. By then she will be good and humbled.

Believe me, I am humbled now by this thing called writing as well as the business it exists in. And so I humbly present…

November 17,  1998

Ms. Anna Cottle
Cine/Lit Representation
7415 181st Place, Southwest
Edmonds, WA 98026

Dear Anna Cottle:

Today, maybe more than ever, children kill.

This pressing, yet timeless, societal problem propels my suspense novel, Arugula’s Mother.  The novel recalls Stephen King’s Firestarter and Misery, and Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks.  Because the characters explore the theme that children are sometimes better off without their mothers, Arugula’s Mother is also serious mainstream fiction, with echoes of Rosellen Brown’s Before and After, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.

When four year old Lucy Benson begins to kill small animals and attack people, her strange, fragile mother seeks help at Wedeskyull Community Hospital in their Adirondack town overshadowed by mountains.  The case is assigned to Dara Davies, a young psychologist-in-training with a love of children, a weak left hand, and reasons for backing away from danger.  Dara’s race to find the causes of Lucy’s problems entangles her with a family in desperate trouble, and forces her to expose the secrets of a rural community that is cruelly split.  As Dara gets closer to the truth, someone begins stalking her.  Dara’s need to save Lucy – despite danger – bears down on her career and marriage until both start to crack.  She struggles to stay close to her husband John, but his own tormented past draws him away just when Dara needs him most.  Finally Dara’s life is threatened, and only a feat of unexpected bravery can free Lucy and Dara herself from the horror she uncovers.  It is an act that brings Dara face to face with the fact that love between mothers and children is stunning in its depth, and those depths can be fatally murky.

Arugula’s Mother has a gunshot pace and will appeal to the huge audience that reads suspense rapaciously – the more plot twists and falls the better.  Its keep-you-guessing plot, realistic dialogue, and menacing sense of place also make the novel highly adaptable to film.

As a clinical psychology student six months from my doctorate, I have spoken about violent children to hospitals, schools and community centers.  Childhood violence would be an important topic on national talk shows such as Oprah, and I can discuss it from both fictional and psychological perspectives. I am in a position to promote my novel to specific target audiences – children’s advocacy and crime prevention groups, mental health associations – in addition to everyone enthralled by the world of child psychology.

I wrote and revised Arugula’s Mother in seven months, including fact-checking with a child custody expert, a journalist, an architect and a veterinary pathologist.  I did this while completing an internship working with violent children.  I am currently at work on my second suspense novel, An Absence of Wind, and my goal is to write it full time.

I decided to contact you because Elizabeth Lyon quoted you and Mary Alice Kier as saying, “If it entertains, it enlightens; if it enlightens, then it empowers.”  This belief struck me as a wonderful mirror of my primary goal for Arugula’s Mother.

I would be thrilled to send you the completed manuscript if this query intrigues you.  I look forward to your prompt response and thank you very much for your time.

Most Sincerely,

Jenny Milchman

June 23, 2009

Sheer embarrassment, but I’ll risk it…

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 2:34 pm

First let me say that I haven’t looked at this query letter for more than a decade. (Yes, I’ve finally named a figure that shows my years in this business.) Second let me say that my cheeks heated with shame when I looked at it today.

I’m going to post it for two reasons. First, this query did earn me requests from agents, so despite its glaring flaws it did something right. Second, perhaps you’ll be able to learn from my mistakes.

What were those mistakes? It is so overblown and arrogant!! I can’t quite believe myself, comparing my work to extraordinary authors, Stephen King and, gasp, William Styron. My face is red again.

It has too many ridiculous adverbs. Rapaciously?!

If I really wrote and revised in seven months (I did) that fact was not to my credit and shouldn’t have been broadcast.

Not to mention my strange practice of addressing the agent by first and last name. I assume I got this tip from a book that cautioned against addressing a Mr. as a Ms. or vice versa.  But really.  Couldn’t I have done some research? And there aren’t too many male Anna’s walking around.

Then I go and mention how well the book would do as a film–a huge no no. The process by which a book sells to Hollywood is incredibly complicated–and quixotic. It has more to do with factors I still know nothing about than with the author imagining how much Julia Roberts would love to perform that love scene.

And finally, I talk about myself going on talk shows! Oh, I am cringing even to write this post. But as I say, some wonderful agents ignored all that, which I’ll discuss later on. And since seeing is believing, I will post my first query letter–names included, and definitely warts and all–tomorrow.

June 22, 2009

The query letter

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 8:02 am

If you’re looking for an agent, or even just planning to look for one, you’ll need to master the art of the query letter.

Firebrand Literary Agency once held a query holiday: a brief period where you could basically just send in manuscript (ms) pages with your name and address. The reasoning behind this was that some people can write great fiction, but a query is a whole other can of worms.

It is. A query is like nothing else you will write. It must be short but provide a good look at your project–and yourself. It should fairly burst with vivid, illustrative details. Most of all, it must stand out from the slew of other queries the same agent is getting that same day.

Some literary agents get 1000 queries a month. Can you imagine reading that much on top of all the other work the agent has to do? What will make her look at yours long enough to decide, Hey, this is a book I really want to see?

There’s a literary agent named Noah Lukeman who’s written extensively on the topic.

For my own queries, I followed something of a formula. I had a two line opening that provided a hook. For example, What if an 800 pound, man-eating shark swam into the seas by a beachside resort?

I then wrote a very brief, 100 or so word synopsis, almost like flap copy. I put it in bold and inset it from the rest of the letter.

Then a little about me (bio), then why I was interested in that agent in particular, and boom, I was done.

Sound easy? It took me months to get right.

How did I know it was right, or at least good enough? I didn’t, but I was somewhat encouraged to get a few nibbles.

When 1000 queries are pitched like fastballs every month, getting a request means you made it to first base.

I’ll show you what mine looked like tomorrow, but for now here are some great links. Once I started sending queries, I really wanted to know how it went for others, and also how the agents might view us writers!

June 19, 2009

So you say you want an agent

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 10:16 am

I began looking for an agent before the internet age.

There were no agent guides on line–I read Literary Marketplace and Jeff Herman.

I snail mailed (or in my crazy case Fed Ex-ed) queries and printed out partials and boxed up fulls. I used boxes from a special writing supply house called Papyrus because theirs looked especially slick.

No email for requests or rejections. I hovered by the mailbox, checking for those SASEs onto which I laboriously slathered labels. One good thing about this method–you only had to look for a response once a day.

I came up with a list of six agents to start with. From what I know now, this was a vanishingly small number. I should’ve expected six form rejections.

My top choice agent was Albert Zuckerman of Writers House. I’d learned of Mr. Zuckerman after reading his wonderful book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. This book is my first recommendation if someone asks me for one–whether s/he hopes to write a blockbuster or not. To my mind, Mr. Zuckerman’s dissection of story surpasses Joseph Campbell’s.

Because I was so wowed by the guy, I decided to give him the great honor of an exclusive query. I would give him a week to get back to me before sending out any of the other five!

You can tell I’m being ironic here, right? Oh, was I naive. I had no idea how the business worked. Its molasses slowness. The sheer numbers I was up against.

If I had, perhaps I never would’ve dropped that 100% cotton sheet of resume paper on which was typed my lovingly honed query, plus a synopsis, and the accompanying number of pages–precisely what was requested–off at the Fed Ex office.

The Fed Ex will show you that I thought we were dealing in days here. Possibly hours. Probably I didn’t go so far as to pay extra for morning delivery. There was an upper limit to my delusionality.

Tomorrow, I will post a copy of that first query letter if I can get my hands on it.

And Monday I will tell you what Mr. Zuckerman had to say, and what I did then.

June 18, 2009

Did I mention that my baby weighed 180,000 pounds?

Filed under: Backstory,Uncategorized — jenny @ 5:18 am

I hope I never forget the first words of feedback I got about Arugula’s Mother. My parents and sister were vacationing in the Adirondacks, and they left a message on our answering machine. It will date this entry to say that the machine in question had an actual play button, if not a real cassette tape.

“We’re reading this on the rock beside the river,” my mother said on the machine. “And we’re passing the  copies back and forth as fast as we can read.” Pause. “I LOVE this novel. So does Dad, so does…”

You get the idea.

It was extremely gratifying.

But did I mention how long the novel in question was?

180,000 words.

Those of you who write will know that this was a completely unworkable word count. A few multi-generational sagas, some fantasy epics, run to such lengths. But psychological suspense? I daresay never.

I got plenty of criticism from my group of trustys, and it led me to my third, fourth, and fifth drafts. But no one criticized the length. No one knew that the baby I was so proudly showing around was not cutely pudgy, or even bordering on fat, but obscenely, grotesquely overweight.

I knew it. I’d been reading books on writing and publishing and manuscript preparation. One of the deeper points I was picking up on was that there’s a reason books of certain genres settle at a certain word count, and when they are in the ballpark of the “right” length then they are tight reads with a good flow. Pushing the boundaries on this produces all sorts of flaws in the manuscript: meandering plot threads, characters that serve no purpose, dialogue and scenes that wander.

Somehow my writing was interesting enough that my trustys didn’t object on this level. They were willing to follow all the extraneous material. They critiqued it when it fell off in any number of ways, but they didn’t suggest cutting it.

One of the books I devoured during that period was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel and in amongst the many pearls of this great writer’s wisdom was one grain of sand I glommed onto as if it were a life buoy and I was drowning.

To paraphrase, Mr. Block said something like, “Certain big books sometimes run to greater lengths, even upwards of 150,000 words.”

Well, there you go! Or rather, there I went! I was writing a big book, wasn’t I? Hadn’t Dorothy compared it to the best selling Deep End of the Ocean? Of course it needed every one of its bloated, rotund 180,000 words.

Between Dorothy , Mr. Block, and my own naivete, I was about to jump in at the deep end myself.

June 17, 2009

If you want to publish a novel you have to…

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 9:13 am

Uh oh. Did you think a secret would follow? One simple (or complicated) thing to do, and then presto, on to the next rung of the ladder. Like, maybe, finish your manuscript? Edit it? Get an agent even?

Tears–of pain and laughter–are rolling down my face right now.

Well, not quite. But it’s really not so simple as any one step. Like I said to Amanda, the journey of ten thousand miles begins with…

This is a journey of many, many, many, many steps. Many. Did I say that already?

Still, once Dorothy made the absolutely world shattering connection for me that people might actually like to read my work, I did decide to pursue publication.

And this is what I did as soon as I’d finished my novel and edited it as best as I was able.

I found a group of trusty readers.

Now, everyone will tell you that your trustys should not be family members. However, I believe this is because many family members will sugarcoat their reactions in the hope that they won’t have to hurt the one they love.

My family members don’t do that.

That doesn’t sound so good, does it? But I happen to be extremely close to my mom and dad, my brother and my sister, and also my husband, and that closeness can be boiled down to one thing.


The fact that my mother, father, and sister are avid fiction readers, as well as writers themselves (psychology, philosophy, and cultural criticism respectively) helps. My brother added a dose of skepticism and fact checking, and my husband has an eagle’s eye for line editing, in addition to being a master problem solver in all areas. This translated wonderfully to spotting and fixing plot glitches.

Between them all I thought I had a pretty fair group of trustys to hand over my draft of Arugula’s Mother.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you what they said.

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