Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Hint Fiction Anthology is Here!

Yesterday was an oddly joyful day. On the way to work, I got pulled over going nearly double the speed limit, but got off with a warning (and a little humiliation: the cop who pulled me over was on foot. He just pointed to the side of the road and gave me the same look I give my dog Chester when he gets into the trash). I watched my six-week-old daughter roll herself over (gymnast, genius). And I watched the SF Giants win the World Series (joyful for a number of reasons, odd because I was actually watching a baseball game).

And… the Hint Fiction Anthology was officially released… and reviewed favorably in The New Yorker! Yes, that New Yorker.

I received my contributor's copy of the anthology, and it’s a handsome little book. It feels great seeing my name and my story nestled between the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Straub. My story is on page 53, right after Jack Ketchum's.

So I had to come out of  blogger retirement to urge you to buy the Hint Fiction Anthology on Amazon (where it was, for a moment, #1 in the anthology category), Like it on Facebook, and generally talk up its awesomeness.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Double-blind is done; The Leaf Blower takes a hiatus

The DOUBLE-BLIND project is officially done. For now, at least. I've completed my my first batch of agent queries. I sent out about thirty in total, which isn't a huge amount compared to what most first-time authors send. I could have sent fifty, or one hundred, but I wanted to make each letter somewhat personalized, and after a certain amount you're running into diminished returns anyway.  I've gotten rejections back on about half of the queries. And I've received six requests for a partial or full manuscript -- a stat that I'm pretty proud of! Although I've already gotten rejected on half of the manuscript submissions, too.

At some point, I'll probably send out query round two (I may do a snail mail round; I initially skipped any agent who only accepted snail mail queries, even though a few of these agents seemed promising. Which, I imagine, is the reason they request snail mail in the first place: if the thought of printing a few pages and dropping them into an envelop is too much of an obstacle for you, maybe you're not that serious about pursuing that particular agent -- or about your writing project in general). 

And, if the traditional publishing route doesn't work out, I will self-publish DOUBLE-BLIND and/or put it out as an e-book.

But for now... I'm moving on. I'm tired of DOUBLE-BLIND. I'm tired of revising it, I'm tired of writing about it, and I'm tired of talking about it. The proverbial desk drawer has been calling ever more loudly for my manuscript, and it's time to drop it there and work on some new material. I have so many ideas, I just need to write! write! write!

And finally, after 125 consecutive Tuesdays, The Leaf Blower Blog is going on hiatus for a while. My wife and I are expecting a baby in nine days (!) and I want to devote what precious writing time I'll have to working on some new fiction material. I enjoy writing this blog, and I look forward to the comments I receive each week. But, as Sherman Alexie said, every word on your blog is a word not in your book. So The Leaf Blower is going off the air -- probably for a few months.

Thanks again for reading... I will be back!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lunch with a homicide detective

At the back of any thriller or crime novel, on the acknowledgements page, the author always says, "I'd like to thank Detective Frank Drapo of the NYPD Special Victims Unit for telling me everything I've ever wanted to know about murder and forensics, and for letting me ride along in his police car and even shoot someone. All the bloody details are his; all mistakes are mine alone." Or something like that. 

Nearly every thriller novel involves a law enforcement agency at some point, and every author worth his blood spatter needs a knowledgeable, trusted police contact to help him get the details right. But I've always wondered, how do authors get these contacts? I mean, it's probably not too difficult if you're Michael Connelly or Dennis Lehane. But what about a no-name unpublished author? Do you just call up the police station and ask if anyone feels like reading your manuscript? 

During the process of writing Double-blind, I tried to establish contact with two people at the FDA (one of whom I actually spent a week with during an audit) and neither of them would help me. Although I did have some productive meetings with a rheumatologist -- to learn more about lupus -- but that's only because this doctor and I happened to work at the same company. With the police, I had no connection whatsoever. Until now. 

As with most things in writing, my police connection came fortuitously.While waiting in line to pitch agents at the San Francisco Writers Conference, I met a wonderful lady who was writing historical fiction. When I told her what I was writing, she said, "My husband would probably like to talk to you. He's writing a book that involves the pharmaceutical industry. Oh, and he might be able to help you, too. He's a retried LAPD homicide detective." Um, yeah. 

I never did meet the detective at the conference, but after staying in contact with him and his wife for a few months, I finally met him for lunch last weekend. I'll call him Mack, which isn't his real name. And I won't reveal too much about him. He's kind of private about his online profile. Not because, like the rest of us, he doesn't want unflattering photos of himself on Facebook, but because there are people out there who may want to KILL HIM. Also, he reads my blog, and he doesn't seem like the kind of guy you want on your bad side. All that said, he was just the nicest guy. Seriously, if I ever kill someone, I want Mack to be the one to arrest me. 

Mack and I had a fascinating conversation, and he had some incredible stories to tell. What's more, he's happy to help me in the future whenever I have questions about law enforcement. He's willing to read what  I've written and answer the key question: would this actually happen? In turn, I hope I can help Mack with his pharma/biotech questions, and we can both help each other with the writing aspect. Pretty cool, huh?

So Mack will be an invaluable resource for my writing. But he's also just fun to talk to. During our lunch, I couldn't help ask a few "cop questions" I've always wondered about:

Are people really that rude to the cops? Whenever you watch Law and Order, a suspect is always saying, "now, if you'll excuse me, detective, I have work to do." And they're usually walking full speed, in the middle of something ostensibly more important than talking to a HOMICIDE DETECTIVE. I don't know about you, but if a detective wanted to talk to me, I'd clear my calendar for a few minutes and try to be as polite as I could muster. Mack said that people are generally cordial, but he has run into the arrogant brush-off many times, especially from doctors and lawyers.

Do detectives really say "we can talk here, or we can talk downtown"? YES! Mack told me he used to say this all the time.

During a police interrogation, after all standard routes have failed, does a detective really come in Elliot Stabler-style and say, "I know why you killed him. I don't blame you. He had it coming, the son of a bitch. If you hadn't done it, I would've killed him myself, after what he did to you." And the suspect blurts out "Yes, he did have it coming -- that's why I killed the bastard!" Again, YES! Mack told me a story about a suspect who passed a lie detector test, but then inadvertently confessed when Mack confronted him later.

Is it true that the tough cases can only be cracked by a jaded, retired detective who's been living alone on a boat and battling his demons? I didn't actually ask this question, but Mack answered it. He was recently pulled out of retirement and hired by a private firm to solve a case that sounds like something out of a blockbuster movie. Although... Mack doesn't live on a boat, and he seems to be a pretty well-adjusted dude. 

And finally, do detectives really notice things that normal humans don't? Again, I didn't ask this question directly, but the answer seems to be Yes.  When we were having lunch, Mack said, "I'm trained to observe, and I notice things." He lowered his voice to a whisper "For example, I know that couple behind us is having marital problems." And I said, "what couple?" And earlier, when I first arrived outside the restaurant, Mack immediately came up to me and said, "you must be Brian." I'd never met him before that moment. Weird. Later, he was telling me how easy it is to put a tracking device on any vehicle. Hmm... I've got to go now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Email Intervention

Jonathan Franzen has said "it's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." Now, I probably shouldn't take advice from a guy who got upset when his book was selected by Oprah's book club, but he has a point. It's no secret that the Internet and email are the biggest time wasters in modern history.

I've always prided myself on being email efficient. I'm a strong believer in batching messages. Have you ever noticed how, when returning from vacation, you can go through a hundred emails in 30 minutes, when normally it would take an entire day? That's batching. That's sorting by subject and eliminating, chunking up, ignoring. I try to do this in my normal workday -- vacation or not. I never check email just to "see what's going on" and then leave the messages in my inbox to respond to later. I have a saying: you don't check email, you respond to email.

I scoff at those people who check their blackberries every two seconds. I cringe when I hear colleagues say that they check their email before they roll out of bed, and before retiring each night (all that's going to accomplish is interrupting your sleep and putting you in a bad mood first thing in the morning). And I'm incredulous when someone, in 2010, still has his or her computer set up to play a sound when a new email arrives, or  -- even worse -- a window that pops up saying, "You have a new email message, would you like to read it?" (okay, maybe that one went away in 1999, but you know what I mean).

So I try to follow these same principles with my personal email as well. And, for the most part, I've succeeded. But it all went out the window when I started querying agents.

When you have query letters out there, every email could be a request for your manuscript, an offer of representation. Even a rejection is better than email silence. I also get an automatic email every time someone comments on my blog, which excites me (hint, hint).

Not only is this constant checking extremely inefficient, but it sets me up for continuous disappointment thought the day: every time a new message turns out to be a LinkedIn update or something, a little part of me dies. Then it's like I have to fill the void somehow. So, since I'm already on my Google homepage with links to everything in the world, I end up checking an agent blog, exploring why the stock market is down, or watching those acrobatic cat videos on YouTube. More time wasted.

I've tried to set limits. When I was on a recent vacation, I had my phone with me most of the time. I didn't check my work email once, no problem. But I kept checking my personal Gmail. So I disabled that account on my phone. And then re-enabled it ten minutes later.

I have a problem. I need an intervention. I've considered some drastic measures:

  • Changing my Gmail password to an obscure set of numbers and putting the code in a safety deposit box.
  • Deleting Internet Explorer from my computer.
  • Dropping my iPhone into San Francisco Bay.

How about you? Have you found any email/internet-limiting strategies that actually work?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Still in the running...

Good news on the Double-blind query front: I got two more positive responses -- with requests for material. One agent said he'd like to consider my project "if it's still available." As if someone was about to snatch it up at any moment. Lucky for him, it's still available. Just barely.

The other agent's response was even more promising. She requested the full manuscript! And she asked for a two-week exclusive, meaning that she plans to read it in the next two weeks and wants to make sure no other agents are considering the project during that time. As if I'll have a parade of agents offering representation in the next two weeks.

Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Art of Querying (in the Rain)

Still querying agents, still racking up rejections. But... I just got my most promising response yet. Another agent asked for a partial manuscript, saying my novel sounded "right up his alley." Woo hoo!

Meanwhile, one of the agencies I queried has posted on its website an example of a successful query letter. And it just so happens the letter was for a book I've recently started reading. It's The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. My wife raved about this book, and I can already tell I'm going to love it, too.

So, what does a successful query letter look like? The agency, Folio Literary Management, posted Garth's letter along with the agent's commentary.

Now, Garth's letter isn't all that different from mine, except that I haven't published any previous books, haven't won any prestigious awards, and I don't already have an agent. Oh, and my plot isn't nearly as interesting. Wait, maybe I could have a dog narrate Double-blind...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thank you for your rejection. No, really. Thank you.

Still sending out query letters to agents. Here are my results so far, courtesy of QueryTracker:

The Closed/No Response are letters I sent out months ago and never heard back. The Rejections are, well, rejections -- all form letters (emails), with my name occasionally thrown in to make it sound personal. The exciting one is the Partial Request. That means partial manuscript. One agent read my query and the first five pages, and she requested the next 50 pages. A glimmer of hope on the sea of rejection!

Needless to say, querying agents is a very humbling experience. Especially coming from a work culture where we get positive reinforcement for every little thing (thanks for sending me this email... you're welcome, thanks for reading it... no problem, any time!... thanks again; here, I'll reply to all, so everyone knows how thankful I am!)

As the form emails roll in, you get starved for any type of personal feedback, even if it's bad. I've developed this trick to get some feedback (emerging writers, take heed). In an effort to stand out, I've made my query letter format a bit different than the standard formula. For the past few rejections, I've responded to them: "Thank you for the immediate response. A quick question: I know my query format is a little different -- I'm trying to stand out from the masses. Did the format work for you, or was it an automatic turn-off?"

A few agents have actually responded to this with a brief personal message. One agent said "the format is fine; it was the plot that didn't work for me." There it was, personal feedback from a genuine human. The way I felt, you'd have thought she'd sent me a love letter.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What would Abe Lincoln do... with an iPad?

A literary agent recently told me that the medical thriller is dead. At the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, she said that even established writers in the genre, like Robin Cook and Michael Palmer, are having a hard time selling their books to publishers. Obviously, this doesn't bode well for an unknown author trying to publish in that genre.

Like anything, getting a book published is about having just the right thing at just the right time. And just like with buying stocks, if something's super hot, you've already missed it. Not long ago, for example, you could have written a vampire romance that generally sucked Dracula balls, but if it had all the right elements, it had a good chance of being picked up. But that ship has sailed.

So, what's super hot right now? The Young Adult market is still on fire, but it's moving away from vampires. Paranormal romance is huge. And -- you're gonna love this --Amish romance. I'm serious. In this WSJ article, Barnes and Noble book buyer Jane Love says, "It's almost like you put a person with a bonnet or an Amish field in the background and it automatically starts to sell well."

But, do you know what's even hotter than Amish love? Do you know what all the agents are talking about, what publishers are snapping up like the next Apple product? It's called "steampunk." According to Wikipedia, Steampunk is a sub-genre of science/speculative fiction set in a world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era Britain — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

We live in a weird, weird world.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A novel by any other name

I was visiting today with my psychic dentist (another story for another time) and she asked me how my novel was coming along. I told about the frustrating process of querying agents. She said that my book is fine, and it will surely get published one day. The problem is the title. Now, I've never told her the title, and she didn't want to know it. She just said she had a feeling it would not appeal to a wide audience. It was hard to ask for clarification with an electric tooth-polisher in my mouth, but she did get me thinking.

Is my title, Double-blind, appealing to readers? Do I even like that title? Did I just keep it because I'd already registered the website? After all, I thought it up before I'd even written the book. But it does apply quite well to book's general themes. "Double-blind" refers to the type of clinical trial that's featured in the book. And the main character is, in a sense, "doubly-blind" in that he fails to see two very critical things going on in his life. So it fits. But is it catchy when taken out any context? Does it appeal to the layperson with no knowledge of medical research?

When you're trying to get someone to read an unsolicited manuscript, the title is critical. It is one of the first thing an agent sees: "I hope you will consider representing my medical thriller, "DOUBLE-BLIND."

If I was going to change the title, I'd like to make it relate to lupus, the autoimmune disease featured in the book. The name "lupus" comes from the Latin word for "wolf," because early doctors thought that the butterfly-shaped rash, which often signifies the onset of the disease, resembled the facial markings of a wolf. So maybe the title could have something to do with wolves or butterflies:

The Wolf and the Butterfly
In the Shadow of the Wolf
In the Shadow of the Butterfly
Red Butterfly Rising
Red Wolf Rising
Mariposa (butterfly in Spanish; most of the book takes place in Mexico)
La Mariposa Roja
The Mark of the Wolf
The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo

LB Readers: what do you think.... at first glance and without having read the book, do you like the title "Double-blind," or would you suggest something else?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tools of the Trade

After months of procrastination, I'm finally back to working on agent submissions (queries) for Double-blind. Researching and querying agents is way, way less fun than actually writing. But I want to give it my best effort, want give myself the best chance of finding representation. I also want to have a definitive end date for this project -- so I can move on to the next one. And I won't feel like I've hit that date until I've sent out a healthy amount of queries and gotten rejections on them.

The odds are daunting. Agents receive hundreds or thousands of queries a month, and reject 99.5% of them, usually with a form letter. Now, the quality of the query letters and sample pages has a lot to do with it, of course. But I think another reason why the rejection rates are so high is that everyone is out there doing the same thing -- sending a barrage of letters out to every agent who's ever sold the written word.

There's got to be a better way. I'm a strong believer in metrics, benchmarking, and targeted effort. In the clinical trials industry (my day job), patient recruitment is one of our biggest challenges. Time and time again, companies throw countless hours and millions of dollars into blanket recruitment strategy, without targeting the right geographical area and the right research sites with the right patient population. It's the old 80/20 rule again: 20 percent of your research sites will generate 80 percent of the results. So you should focus all your effort on those 20 percent. A cottage industry has sprung up to provide clinical trial data so companies can take advantage of this. And it's making a difference.

I'm guessing the same goes for querying agents. I bet it's less about your credentials and how perfect your query letter is, than it's about hitting the right agent at the perfect time with exactly what he's looking for. And for that, you need data. Enter QueryTracker.net

The concept of QueryTracker is simple -- and genius. The website offers a comprehensive list of agents/agencies, along with a nice tracking system to track your submissions. Now, the tracking system itself is no big deal, nothing you couldn't do in Excel. The big deal is the data they keep on the agents. By making the tracking system free, the service is able to collect a boatload of data about the query submission process. You can get a decent amount of this information for free, but if you pay 25 bucks for the premium service (money well spent, I think) you get access to a treasure trove -- agent genre/word count preferences, turnaround times, even the month they're most likely to request a partial manuscript!

Let me give you an example. Before I joined the service, I queried an agent who looked promising and seemed to represent the genre my book is in. Once I joined QueryTracker, I looked at his stats and saw that out of nearly 900 queries, he only responded to about 100, and rejected all but 5 of them. He requested partial manuscripts for those 5, and offered representation for exactly zero. And none of the partials he requested where anywhere near my genre or word count. Now, his rejection stats, while depressing, are normal. But his response rate is not. Most agents at least eventually respond with a form rejection. So why take the time to query an agent who's never shown interest in my genre, and who doesn't typically respond at all?

Obviously, I need to focus my efforts elsewhere. And I'm hoping QueryTracker will help me do just that. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Countdown to the Hint Fiction Anthology

Happy sixth of July!

Four months until the release of Hint Fiction: An anthology of stories in 25 words or fewer. The book's cover is finally up on Amazon, and it looks pretty cool.

I had a story accepted for the anthology, so I'm somewhere within those 192 pages, perhaps nestled between the words of Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Straub.

The anthology even has a blurb from New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult: "The perfect story collection for all of us with too little time on our hands is a brilliant reminder of the magic that happens when you string the right words together. A must-read for anyone who is or wants to be a writer."

Pre-order your copy today!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I'm going to play in the NFL!

People often ask me, if you get your book published, are you going to quit your job and write books for a living?

If statistics have anything to say about it, the answer is NO.

The fact is, very few people make their living as a fiction writer. The ones we hear about – the Dan Browns and James Pattersons and Stephen Kings – are such extreme outliers that we shouldn’t consider them at all. They skew our perception of the whole field. It’s weird that this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be as strong in other professional arenas. Maybe it’s because with athletes it’s easier for us to picture the physical requirements and sacrifices it would take to get there.

Take NBA basketball. I’m pretty tall, and I like to play a pick up game as much as the next guy. Statistically speaking, I have a much better chance of becoming LeBron James than James Patterson. Yet, no one catches me shooting hoops in the gym and asks when I’m going to the NBA finals. So why is it so different with writing?

J.A. Konrath likes to say that there are more NFL players than there are professional fiction writers. Think how hard it is to be become a pro football player. First off, there’s genetics. If you’re going to be an NFL player, you must have a certain body type: freakishly strong, freakishly huge, and freakishly quick. If you don’t have this, you’ll never be a successful pro player, not matter what you do. So that’s the foundation. Then you have to cash in that genetic lottery ticket at just the right time and place – get yourself into the right program, the right coach, etc. Then you have to practice your ass off.

To look at it another way: how many unique author names have been on the New York Times bestseller list (which still doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to make a living as a writer) over the past four years? I don’t know the number, but I can assure you it’s far less than the 11,000 athletes who participated in the last Summer Olympics. And those people were genetic freaks of nature who’d spent every waking second of their lives preparing for the event. Seems pretty unlikely that I’d become an Olympic athlete in my spare time, right? So again, why should a professional fiction writer be any different?
I’m not bitter about this – really. But lately, I feel like I’m throwing a Nerf football around the parking lot, and you’re asking me when I’m going to play in the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dear Editor

I wrote a letter to the editor of Writer's Digest Magazine, and they printed it. In a previous issue, Leslie Epstein, a distinguished writer and professor, had shared some tips on writing and life. I took issue with some of his "tips," and I wrote the magazine about it. As WD printed it, my letter looks like this:

In the MFA Insider article "Tips for Writing and for Life," Leslie Epstein tells us not to write such things as "He go out of bed, pulled on his pants." He says such constructions, leaving out the and or the then, are pretentious. Well, they're not as pretentious as Epstein instructing us not to pronounce the e in forte. How is that supposed to make me a better writer?

Brian Crawford
San Francisco, CA

It's embarrassing to admit how excited I was to see my name in print (reason enough for Epstein to give me no more notice than an errant thread on his tweed jacked). But I was disappointed, too. The magazine edited the content of my letter. In the printed version, my final sentence is missing:

Following that kind of advice is likely to get me punched in the head.

Come on, that was the best part. How could they cut it? Did WD think it was too incendiary for their readership? Or were they simply trying to preserve a modicum of hope that I could someday get into Boston University's Creative Writing Program, of which Epstein is the director? Regardless, this will no doubt be the first of many futile attempts to censor my dangerous literary genius...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brad Pitt vs. Chester

In the spirit of taking over the world, Google has developed Analytics, a program that can track your blog's visitors in alarming detail. It's the best free product I've used since the original Napster, and that one wasn't even legal.

It's fun to watch geographical trends, track the key words people are using, and to see how Leaf Blower's blog traffic changes depending on the topic, type of post, etc. I've noticed that on the days when I ask a question, about the same number of people visit, but they are much more likely to comment -- and to come back for a repeat visit. Presumably because they want to see what other people going to say.

The only thing that makes a big difference in the number of unique visitors is when I post a link on Facebook. On average, this nearly doubles my visitors for that post. Check out the graph above. The spikes are on Tuesdays, when I update my blog. On May 25th, I didn't post a link on Facebook; on June 1st and 8th, I did. But there's something else that appears to make a difference: the picture. A thumbnail is included with the link on Facebook. The May 31st post featured a picture of my poor injured dog, Chester. He's a real crowd favorite. But not, it seems, as much of a favorite as Brad Pitt. On June 8th, the Brad photo brought a 20% increase in visitors.

I guess sex really does sell, even with the sophisticated Leaf Blower readers. Just wait... next week, I'm really going to jump the shark.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sometimes Less is More

In my writing workshop, I read a lot of horrible stuff. I don't mean poorly written -- the group is filled with talented writers -- I'm talking about scenes where bad stuff happens.

The tendency is to put these moments "in scene," using vivid descriptions and dialogue so the reader can see and hear exactly what's happening. There is a place for this, of course. But I think that some of the most powerful moments are defined by what is not said, by what is not shown to the reader. Because, if left to his own imagination, the reader will conjure a version of the scene that is most horrific, most personal, to him. Something an author could never do, no matter how good she is.

For example, lately I've read pages where the character gets a call telling her a family member has died. And we hear these calls: "So-and-so is dead. He's dead... how? No, it can't be!" Now, don't get me wrong: these scenes were well-written and gut-wrenching. I'm just wondering if they would've been even more powerful if the reader was left to imagine how terrible the event would be. It brings to mind a paragraph from Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, one of the most powerful I've ever read:

"For, when the police sergeant early next May wakened me before daybreak, I rose and asked no questions. Together we drove across the Continental Divide and down the length of the Big Blackfoot River over forest floors yellow and sometimes white with glacier lilies to tell my father and mother that my brother had been beaten to death by the butt of a revolver and his body dumped in an alley."

Of course, this is only so powerful because up to this point, the author has already shown us what would be lost if Paul were to die. And this Maclean does masterfully.

LB readers, can you think of any scenes where the author accomplishes more with less? Or where the author gives away too much?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Cone of Shame

It only took a second. My black Lab, Chester, was chasing his beloved tennis ball in Golden Gate Park when another dog attacked him. The dog only connected with Chester for a second before the dog's breathless owner caught up and dragged him away.

After the attack, Chester paced around in a circle, a dark line of fur spiked along his back. He's a sensitive soul, and when he gets bullied he often hides his embarrassment by walking around and pretending he's doing something. To get his mind off the incident, I flung his tennis ball deep into the field. And then the most amazing thing happened. He didn’t move. He just sat there and watched the ball bounce over the grass.

That’s when I noticed the blood pouring down his leg. On closer inspection, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The soft skin of his belly had been torn open, exposing a wound deep into his body cavity. I mean, I could stick my fist through that hole.

At the emergency pet hospital, I burst through the door like a TV cliché: “Get a doctor out here now… my boy’s hurt bad!” The vet tech came out and started checking Chester's gums. I learned later that you check a dog’s vitals this way, but at the time I’m thinking, my dog’s got a gaping hole in him, and you’re looking for cavities? I point to the blood on my shirt and then to the giant hole in Chester’s belly, in case the tech missed it. “It’s down there -- see it? That huge, flapping hole? Doesn’t that need immediate attention?”

Turns out it didn’t. It was a big gnarly wound (her words), but it wasn’t life threatening. Six hours later, Chester came home with a tissue-glued wound, a fluid drain, and the Big Plastic Cone of Shame.

What, you may ask, became of the other dog and his owner? After the attack, I was so frantic, I wasn’t thinking straight; I was only concerned with getting Chester to the car. So I gave the guy my phone number, and didn’t take any of his information. He never called.

Now, I'd like to think that in my haste I gave him the wrong phone number. Why else wouldn’t I have heard from him? How could he watch his dog tear my dog open, and not call, if not to pay some of the vet bills, then to see if Chester was okay? If I remember correctly – and I see why victims of a crime make terrible eyewitnesses – the guy had a little boy with him. When his son asks later how the hurt dog is doing, what will he tell him?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Page Critique Mondays!

As if I didn't have enough reasons to procrastinate on Monday mornings, now there's Page Critique Mondays! Check it out on Nathan Bransford's hugely popular blog. Nathan is a San Francisco literary agent, blogger, author, and overall superhuman -- I don't know how he has time to sleep.
The first person to post a 250 word excerpt from their novel into the comments section gets a critique from Nathan -- and the rest of the world. It's educational to see real-life examples of what agents actually look for. It's fun to see what other people are writing, and what other people think about what other people are writing. And there's the train wreck factor, too: since it's first come, first served -- usually there's a filtering process for such things -- the potential for "interesting" writing is high.
So, would I ever submit my work? I don't think so. It would be great to get an agent's critique, but I'd prefer it to be a little less... public.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What's the longest book you've ever read?

As I rework my book on Lulu, I've been playing with the font and spacing. It's such a long document that minute adjustments can change the page count dramatially. Reminds me of those papers in college when you'd kick the font up to like 14 and put in two-inch margins just to meet your page quota.

But even when I adjust the font and spacing to near-comic book proportions, my novel doesn't stretch much longer than 500 pages.

This got me thinking about some of the longest books I've ever read. Stephen King's The Stand (1153 pages) comes to mind. But after listening to this podcast, the book came back to me, and you know what? -- I'm not sure I ever finished it. But I did finish It, Stephen King's second-longest novel at 1138 pages.

So, what's the longest book you've ever read? And by longest, I mean the most pages, or the one that took you the longest to get through.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Bound

I'm finally ready to send the Double-blind manuscript to my family and close friends to read. But I didn't want to send them a big stack of paper held with a binder clip, so I went to Lulu.com and had it printed like an actual book.

The Lulu service is awesome. You can go from basic self-service (which I did, and it only costs about 6 bucks a book) to a full editorial/publishing package that will make your book as polished as anything you'd see in a bookstore. You can even get an ISBN number and put your book up for sale on Amazon as a print and an e-book.

I didn't spend much time on the project -- I'm not self publishing the book, I just wanted to have some fun and make the manuscript more readable. So I sped through the basic process and ordered ten copies.

Still, I don't recall ever being so excited about receiving a package. Opening the box and seeing Double-blind in a real book format was so very cool. The cover and binding are beautiful. It looks just like something you'd see in the bookstore, with my name on the spine. And it's pretty thick -- the thing has some weight to it. It feels great to know that I've created this, that it didn't exist two years ago and now it could take up physical space on a bookshelf. Then I opened it.

The inside of the book has some issues. Lulu shrunk the MS Word page exactly as it was. Imagine a paperback book-sized page with a miniature Word document imposed on it. The font went from size 12 to, like, 7. It's barely readable. I asked my wife if she thought the text was too small, if it would be a deal breaker for anyone reading it, and she said, "It looks fine. I mean, both of your parents have reading glasses, right?"

So I'm doing it over, whether Lulu compensates me for it or not, in bigger font. Hold on mom, just a little longer...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

This is a busy slide, but...

I sit through a ton of slide presentations at work, and I've noticed an alarming trend. Being PowerPointed to death is nothing new, but lately it's reached a new level. It seems that 45 is the new 10. I swear that there used be 10 slides in the average deck. But somehow, quietly, insidiously, that number has grown to 45. Forty. Five. Slides.

What's the cause of this malevolent trend, this metastasizing cancer? Is our work getting harder, more complex? Maybe. But I think it's something else. You could call it laziness, but that's not fair -- I don't work with lazy people. It's more a lack of time. We have limited time to prepare for a slide presentation, so we don't prepare at all. We just throw every conceivable bit of information into our presentation. Every possible slide and bullet point. Every convoluted table and graph. No need to prepare a speech ahead of time if the words are there on the screen. No need to filter, edit or summarize. Let the audience sort it out.

Mark Twain once said, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead" (which, oddly, is the most common search phrase leading to my blog). It's hard to narrow down a complex topic into a few salient points. Believe me, writing a decent one-page summary of my novel was one of hardest things I've ever done.

What's more, every one of those 45 slides is so overpacked with stuff, I'm surprised Microsoft can handle the file size. How many times have you heard, "I know this is a busy slide, but..."
But what? You're going to waste my time with it anyway? Instead of that minuscule chart, that unreadable text, why not put up a serene landscape, or a picture of your cat, and tell me what I need to know. At least then I'll have something nice to look at. Often, this person will continue with "the key takeaway here is..." Why not put the key takeaway on the slide?

The other day, a presenter went to so far as to project a series of emails onto the screen. This is like taking the grandaddy of business faux pas, the old "I'll-just-forward-this-ungodly-long-email-chain-and-put the accountability-on-you" move, and forcing it on an audience. One might hope for the projector to fall on a person like this.

And don't get me started on excessive adjectives and dead words. A writer soon learns that the more adjectives, the less powerful the message. Yet, apparently every slide must say "effective and efficient" at least once. Tell you what, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you don't strive for inefficient ineffectiveness. That's the kind of guy I am. I know you're trying to "promote the effective and efficient implementation of the migration"; you can save me the eye drops and write "migrate."

A presentation is supposed to be a person talking to you, trying to convince you of something. Otherwise, why not just send the document to the audience and skip the presentation altogether? Actually, this is happening more and more. I work for a global company, with ever-increasing teleconferences and web-based meetings. It's hard to grasp the key message when you can't see the presenter, can barely hear her, and besides it's so early in the morning you can't absorb it anyway, so you just read the slides later. Hence, the need for more info in the slide deck. If this trend continues, I worry that the monster slide deck will replace the very oral presentation it used to supplement.

Am I alone on this?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The thing and the other thing

Next week, I'm going back to my writers' workshop. Now that my novel is done, I need some new material to share with the group. So I'm attempting to write a new short story. I haven't written much short fiction. I haven't even read much short fiction. What, exactly, is a short story?

The main distinction is that a short story is short and a novel is long. A short story is usually under 10K words whereas a novel is over 50K. But there are other, more subtle, differences. Unlike novels, which may have several waves of rising stakes and climaxes and resolutions -- not to mention subplots -- a short story has one single climactic event. It usually has one or two main characters and is told in one point of view. And there's not much room for detailed setting and long chunks of exposition.

But that doesn't mean a short story is simple, or easier to write. In fact, it's often viewed as the purer, higher form of literary fiction (probably by short story writers). A successful novelist by no means makes a successful short story writer and vice versa. For example, The New York Times predictably skewered John Grisham's attempt at a short story collection, equating it to Michael Jordan's unfortunate baseball experiment. Personally, I might have used the Garth Brooks - Chris Gaines analogy.

It's been said (by Hemingway, I think, or someone like Hemingway) that a short story is about "the thing and the other thing." In addition to what physically happens in a narrative, the best stories also have some deeper meaning or theme that, while not explicitly stated, is really what the story is about. In a short story, the writer has to cover the thing and the other thing quite quickly, in a limited space. He has to make more with less. This as opposed to the literary novel, which allows more space, and therefore can be about the thing and the thing and the thing, and also the thing, and, if you're smart enough to get it, it's really about the other thing.

It's all too much to consider. I'm going to shut my computer and go watch "The Hills," which is just about the thing. Although sometimes that's about the other thing, too.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hint Fiction Contest

As loyal Leaf Blower-ers may remember, last year I had a short-short-short story selected for publication in Robert Swartwood's Hint Fiction Anthology, which, by the way, is available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

As Robert puts it, Hint Fiction is a story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.

This week, Robert is a having another hint fiction contest. The first prize is $100 and the finalists will be judged by none other than James Frey.

Check out the contest and give it a shot. I did!

Monday, April 12, 2010


For my next book, I've been toying with the idea of writing something completely different, like a horror novel. I grew up reading horror books, but I've steered away from them over the past decade or so. I'm not sure why. I guess because so few of them are actually scary.

Last week I read one of the most disturbing books ever, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. It's about a group of suburban kids who, over several months, torture, sexually abuse and ultimately kill a young girl. They do this under the direction of their mother, while other neighborhood kids watch and participate. It's even more disturbing when you realize it's based on a true story.

I started thinking about other books that have truly disturbed me. Considering how many "scary" books I've read in my life, the list was surprisingly short. Here are six more of my most disturbing books:

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: Super-disturbing, but also kind of funny. The genius of books like The Girl Next Door (and one of my other favorites, Scott Smith's A Simple Plan) is that the author somehow makes the reader complicit in the events, and escalates them in a way that you could almost -- almost -- see how such a thing could happen. In American Psycho, however, the guy's just insane.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk: Just read the first short story, "Guts." One of the only stories I can think of where I felt physically ill while reading it.

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson: I read this about 20 years ago and it scared the hell out of me. I don't know if it would still be scary if I read it today, but I remember waking up at 3:15 a.m. a few times (like the guy in the book) and wondering if the evil had leaked out of the book somehow.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: Follows a band of outlaws hired to hunt Indians. Perhaps the most violent book I've ever read, but also one of the most beautiful.

Blindness by Jose Saramago: A city is hit by an epidemic of sudden blindness. What follows shows us the best and worst of humanity. This is another example of how, despite the horrors you're witnessing, the author escalates it in such a way that you can almost see how it could get to that point.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King: I had to include one Stephen King novel. Supposedly this is the one story that the master of horror was, for a time, too scared to finish. Much of my memory of the book is colored by the equally creepy movie, but I still consider this to be King's most disturbing book.

What's the most disturbing book you've ever read?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Special Agent

So begins my search for a literary agent. A literary agent is someone you hire to sell your book to an editor at a publishing company.
Do you have to go through an agent?
But do you really have to go through an agent?
Most publishers won't look at unsolicited, un-agented manuscripts. The slush pile is dead. According to this WSJ article, the last time Random House published something from the slush pile was 1991. At the SF Writers Conference, an editor told me that her publishing house still holds slush parties -- late night pizza feasts where the interns sift through the slush pile -- but only to slap on rejection slips and send the manuscripts back. The material goes unread.

It makes sense that publishers will only consider agented work. An agent's not going to waste her time -- and stake her reputation -- on something she doesn't think will sell. By the time a manuscript reaches a publisher, the agent's already taken the time to separate the wheat from the chaff -- so the editor doesn't have to.

That's why landing an agent is often harder than actually selling your book. And why this process is so tedious and discouraging. The only thing more depressing than searching for an agent is writing about searching for an agent. So I'm just going to go back to procrastinating by looking at these scandalous new pictures of Kim Kardashian.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Taking a week "off"

In honor of finishing my novel, I'm taking the week off from writing. So, in lieu of actually writing something, I'll leave you with a link to the hilarious "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks. Bottom line: don't use quotation marks to denote "emphasis."