Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 5

Here's how I knew the book wasn't ready yet.

In November 2011, I joined an online writer's workshop that I had been referred to by a SEAK attendee: thenextbigwriter.com  Despite the grandiose name, the SEAK person had told me it was a supportive group -- and she was absolutely right.

The first person who reviewed me became a good friend, and we have remained so to this day. John Hamler, wordsmith extraordinaire and my nighttime buddy -- may he soon finish Antagony and be the next literary rock star. And then there's Jenn Nissley, an incredible literary fiction writer, who I am convinced will win the Faulkners and go on to superstardom.

Some of the others? Graeme Lipper, another SEAK doc and a great med thriller writer; Simi Monheit, fabuloso unabashed chick lit writer; Teri Taylor, hilarious creator of the 'Trailer Girls' books; Christina Michaels, Jeni Decker, Cathy Jones, all terrific crime novelists; Deedra Climer, intense as they come; Carlyle Clark, one of coolest guys ever; Terry McDonald, John VanCott, C Brass and Nathan B Childs, who were amazing reviewers; Felix Ulrich, who taught me a valuable lesson on 'filtering' verbs... see what I mean?

There are a lot of good people out there in cyberspace, not just stalkers who want to sell you Canadian drugs and sex tools, and want to invade your bank account...

I also hired a writing coach, Diana Amsterdam, who had come to my attention by way of a really excellent lawyer-writer friend, Allison Leotta. I'd never met either of them in person until mid-2012. Diana used the Socratic Method - something that drove me crazy in law school, as well as in Diana's  lessons, but damn, it worked! She and I differed on several major issues - most significantly, Casey's family history - but she really made me think hard about what I was doing, and more importantly, she helped me figure out how to do it.

I workshopped online with TNBW through about May 2013, which brings me to the four-year mark since Bob Dugoni told me to make the lawyer my lead. I spent the summer of 2013 polishing polishing polishing, and hired an editor that someone on TNBW referred to me  - Laura Kingsley, what a great pair of extra eyes!

By August 2013, I felt like I was ready to query/submit. I also felt that if I wasn't ready by then, I never would be.

The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 4

Okay, I'm in the middle of the story, so I'm not ready to sign off right now.

Casey Lang, now my lawyer protagonist, was a shitty to non-existent character. I'd made her a lawyer handling a case, and nothing more than that. Now she needed substance. Not just physical characteristics, but a personal background, a unique voice, quirks, traits, things to make the reader root for her (versus rooting for her client).

I spent the next two years developing her, and developing her story. I went back and forth with her. I won't even describe some of her initial character traits.  Let's just say she was dreadful.  Her first name changed three times before she became Casey. Her background changed even more. Her voice wasn't really fixed until late 2012.

Meanwhile, as I wrenched through her character and the story itself, I braved another Backspace conference, two Gotham Writers classes in NYC (where I met some terrific people), one Algonkian 'pitch and shop' conference (not a high point, although the attendees were great), an online Writer's Digest class, a few Writer's Digest webinars, and a Writer's Digest conference (yet another disaster for me!).

Steven King's 'On Writing' was one of my bibles. Another was Strunk and White's 'The Elements Of Style.' Also Turow's 'Presumed Innocent.' And always at my side was James Scott Bell's book, 'Revision And Self-Editing.'

During that time, the book had at least four titles, none of them very interesting. I think I came up with the final title, Client Relations, sometime in late 2010, while I was taking a shower, or maybe when I was half-awake/half-asleep. I thought of it, with its nuanced meanings, and said to myself, 'Whoa, this works.'

Taking advantage of being close to the NYC publishing world, I also joined the National Book Women's Association, NYC chapter, and went to three 'Query Roulette' nights in three separate years, most recently last May (2013). I can't say enough great things about WNBA's Query Roulette. Basically, you sign up for one-on-one pitches to up to ten agents for, like $20 a pop. The agent reads your query letter and asks you to talk about the book. If they're interested, they ask for pages. The atmosphere is charged but very personal, and I met some incredible agents there like Jenny Bent, Katherine Sands, Bill Contardi... really awesome, A-list agents.

I received quite a few requests for pages the first time I went, and my submissions met with one polite rejection and...deafening silence.

The second and third times (2012 and 2013), I received more requests, but decided to 'bank' most of them until the book was really really ready.

Whenever the hell that would be.

The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 3

Here it was, November 2008, and I'd more or less finished licking my wounds from the Backspace conference, although I certainly wasn't finished whining. Not that I'm ever finished whining.

Anyway, I spend the next six months working on my novel at a grueling pace. No kidding -- I was doing all nighters, sometimes thirty-six, even forty hours at a stretch. And I hate to admit it but, having always been a night owl ever since ever, those hours never changed for me over the next 4 1/2 years of writing. I doubt they ever will, either.

Anyway, come March of 2009, I thought I was done! I felt great. I signed up for another, much smaller, SEAK conference, this one held in Chicago in April 2009 with Robert Dugoni as the featured lecturer. 

Of course, this draft manuscript got totally trashed, too (albeit not quite as brutally as before).

However...the conference was probably the best I've ever gone to, for two reasons:

First, the attendees (mostly doctors writing medical thrillers) were a fabulous bunch -- fascinating, erudite and fun fun fun, and yes, I'm talking MDs here, mostly 20+ years into their practice!

Second, and even more important, Bob Dugoni changed my writing life.  

Let me tell you what Bob Dugoni did: He told me to make the lawyer the protagonist. As Bob explained, I'm a lawyer, people are interested in lawyer stories, I have a story to tell, and my lawyer character should be the one to tell it.

That meant a total rewrite of my novel, because the client, i.e., John Zambelli, Celebrity Chef, had been my lead. 

Back to the drawing board. 

Except I didn't want to abandon my chef.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 2

So now, step back in time to 2005 or thereabouts....

That's when I decided to write a book about how custody cases affect lawyers. I wanted it to be an insider's look on the process of what we do, why we do it, and how we live and breathe these cases. Except I couldn't -- the attorney-client privilege forbids revealing client confidences except under certain, very narrow circumstances (i.e., to prevent death or significant bodily injury).

That's when the notion of my writing a novel about a custody case took root.

There was a problem: Although I'd written a lot of professional articles, I hadn't written fiction since, oh, maybe high school... And writing fiction is light-years away from writing affidavits, briefs, and all other papers that I routinely crank out in the course of legal representation. (I wrote here, on this blog, about how different the two forms of writing are: http://bedroom-to-courtroom.blogspot.com/2012/01/lawyer-vs-writer.html.)

In a nutshell, the fiction writer SHOWS a character's feelings, both physical and personal; shows actions and scenes through dialogue, movement, description; paces the story to avoid glossing over nuances, and to ensure logical connections (i.e., someone has to actually get from point a to point b).

The legal writer recites factual information more objectively (albeit with the perspective and interests  of the client first and foremost), stating the facts and then weaving in the law to demonstrate how it applies to those facts.

It took me ten or fifteen years to master the art of legal writing. And then? I had to unlearn it -- completely -- in order to learn the craft of writing fiction. That process took me at least three years.

I started by taking a four-day writing conference designed to help lawyers learn how to write fiction. Every lawyer there wanted to be Grisham or Turow -- that was the essential concept behind the conference, anyway. The course was run by SEAK, and the featured lecturers were Stephen Horn and Lisa Scottoline. (Lisa is fabulous in person, by the way.)  Both are criminal lawyers who write  terrific thrillers, which is not my background nor was it my intended genre. That didn't matter at all for purposes of the conference -- these two excellent writers/instructors made me realize how much I needed to learn.

Over the next three years, I waffled about, then gradually drafted a shitty, cathartic manuscript (that looked nothing like Client Relations) in which I struggled to put my limited knowledge of fiction-writing, based on that one conference, to work.

I then went to another writer's conference, this time hosted by Backspace (an online writer's group), in May 2008, thinking I knew what I was doing. Wrong. At the conference, the opening pages of my draft were blasted into shards by breakout groups. The agents and attendees in my breakout groups were pretty merciless -- they'd use my (lousy) draft, and those of other aspiring writers, read the first paragraphs aloud, and then say how terrible they were. And they explained why. It was a disheartening, miserable experience. After I returned home, I cursed a lot and told myself to forget the whole damn thing.

It took months to get over that conference. Looking back, I believe that the conference itself was really really good. Being publicly drawn and quartered was quite a learning experience  - although I still wish it hadn't been so, well, PUBLIC.


By November of 2008, I braced myself for another attempt at the manuscript...

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Great Literary Agent Race: Part 1

I've decided to do a series of posts on the logistics of getting a literary agent. There are a ton of blogs on the subject, some more helpful than others. Many are by agents, some are by publishing professionals, others are by established writers.

This series is based on my personal experience as a new writer: I'll start at the end, i.e., where I'm at right now, then move backward in time to when I began to write fiction, in separate posts...


I just sent out the revised draft of Client Relations to my agent.

I pored over the draft for the zillioneth time, eliminating excess words, duplicative words, unneeded adverbs, repetitive sentence structure, missing prepositions, etc. --- after zipping up a plot point or two. Oh, did I say this was for the zillioneth time?

Imagine my bleary-eyed condition. Imagine how elated I am, too - because, day-um, I have an agent! And not just any agent. I have The Ultimate Agent.

So now? It's hurry up and wait (a) for my agent to approve of my edits; (b) for her to shop the book, assuming she thinks it's ready; and (c) for the rights to be sold.  I'm not thinking past that yet!