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 But what about a no-name unpublished author?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.