Tuesday, July 27, 2021

My nemesis is everywhere

 I recently began reading Lawrence Block's A Writer Prepares.

And saw this!

It was Forti-midable!


(This is a really interesting book, well worth the read.

The first 50,000 words, which he wrote years ago, is brilliant.)


Monday, July 26, 2021

So, I'm slow, but I get there

 Recently Twitter coughed up this gem:

I attended a writing conference where a literary agent said during a Q&A panel that he didn’t appreciate it when writers sent queries via email in the evening. He wanted them to look at what time zone he was in and send it during his morning. Does that seem reasonable to you?

 My first response was eye-rolling disbelief.

Then I sputtered and spewed for a day.

Then I realized it had to be a joke. (Yes, I am slow on the uptake.)

Clearly some acerbic, mordant wit of an agent got tired of the question "when's the best time to send a query" and had some fun with the audience.

Of course he didn't realize that authors have almost no sense of humor about submission guidelines.

 Why does it have to be a joke?

Because no one I know reads queries the moment they come in.

And anyone who expects people to calculate time zones clearly doesn't realize that sometimes even if you know a state, you could be led astray (Oregon, Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Florida, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alaska all have more than one.)

Even if your address is NYC, a lot of agents are working remotely.  At least three I know of aren't even in the country. 

Even Rick wasn't sure:

“If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?”

So what's the take away here?

When you see something this absurd, don't just think "oh gosh, this is from the horse's mouth, I better pay attention" cause it's actually from the other end of the horse.


Monday, July 05, 2021

Rant: of all the ways to shoot yourself in the foot

 I saw this on Twitter a while back. It was a promo for a workshop on honing your elevator pitch:

For starters, it's PenguinRandom House but that's just me being churlish.

And PRH ONLY accepts work through an agent. Even stuff they like.

There are lots of reasons to have a killer elevator pitch, but this is NOT one of them.

Think about it this way: when you're juggling your bag, your conference folder, and you need some coffee, what do you want to hear?

1. Hey Big Shot, my book is about

2. Hey, let me get your coffee while you get organized.

Who do you want hearing about your work?

1. Jet lagged, exhausted editor who hopes the kids haven't burned the house down?

2. Agent who is sitting down, pen in hand, coffee in her favorite mug, looking for something she loves?

This kind of "take advantage of opportunities when they arise" misses the point that someone should be OFFERING you an opportunity. You should not be pouring it over their head.

If we're talking in the coffee line, and I say "hey, what's your book about" THAT is when you need a killer elevator pitch.

In other words, do NOT pitch people who haven't asked you about your book.

This is one step up from the manuscript in the bathroom story, but ONLY one. 

Pitching is selling, yourself and your book.

If you are so tone deaf as to pitch me like this, it makes me wonder if you'll be one sending out blurb requests like this.


Happy 5th of July!

Friday, June 18, 2021

"Hi, remember me?"

Several years ago, I had a novel picked up by an agent that made the submission rounds.  Sadly, it didn't sell. The contract was for that book only, so that was the end of that. I also had a previous novel that said agent didn't think would work, so back into the drawer it went.

A bunch of life got in the way (and honestly I was kind of soul crushed) and I didn't write much for awhile.  However, I have a new book in the works, and I have also begun a major revision on old book said agent didn't think would work out that I think will fix the major issues with it.

I liked my old agent, he's from a great agency, and he has a great reputation. I'd love for him to pick up this revision and/or the new book that I'm working on. But I don't know if it would be stupid to write to him and say, "Hey, remember me?" Especially when the revision is for a book that he had previously turned down.  Especially when the last book didn't sell.

Do I write to him and tell him that I had revised the old book and see if he's interested in seeing it?  If he turns it down, do I mention the new book and see if he has any interest in that (the revision will be finished first), or do I just query agents for the revision and see what happens? I don't to pass up a chance or burn any bridges.

What's the down side of getting in touch with Agent Old?

None as far as I can tell.

Remember the guiding principle of querying: agents are looking for things they can sell. You have such a thing. While I won't go so far as to say you're doing him a favor by querying, you're certainly not wasting his time.

Let him know you have something new.

That's always more interesting than anything revised.

You can mention the revised ms at the end of the query for the new one.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Joint projects

I have a joint project with another author. The project is represented by the other author's agent, and I'm querying elsewhere for the rest of my work. In the query forms (which seem to be the norm these days) it asks whether I'm represented or have been represented by another agent. Do I check yes or no, and/or mention the situation in my initial query?

You check no.
You yourself do not have an agent (more on that to come.)

You DO mention that a project you worked on is being shopped by Agent X of Flex, Hex and Vex Literary Represtidigitation.

Now to the more.

Please tell me you have a collaboration agreement in place with The Other Author.
If you do not, please get on in place immediately.

The agent may say s/he represents the project, but when a publisher offers a contract, the project doesn't sign on the dotted line. You do. That means you need advice and guidance from someone who is Team YOU not Team Other Author.

Your interests are aligned but not identical. 

This is even more true if you are NOT going to be part of the contract, if you're being treated as a contributor NOT a partner.

A lot of agents will brush off your concerns with "we've done this a lot and it always works out."

All I can say is: you have a contract to protect you for when things DON'T work out.

You don't want to find out anything the hard way.

Get a collaboration agreement, or a participation agreement in place NOW.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Stay or go?

 I have had an agent for the last five years or so. She’s submitted two novels for me over that time (we had a lot of nice personal responses but no sale). Since the second one going back in the drawer she has become less responsive, which makes sense - I’m going down the priority list. I sent her a new one last April, just as the COVID situation was kicking off. It’s now going on ten months and she’s sent me a couple of apologetic emails but hasn’t read past the prologue, citing being behind in her reading due to COVID. Now I haven’t heard from her in four months. 

My question is, is it reasonable / sane for me to pull the plug on our relationship after ten months? I wrote this book because she liked the pitch and I’m terrified of never being able to get another agent, but I’m losing my mind!


Talk to her.

Don't dither.

Don't ask for opinions from other people.

Talk to her and say "I'm losing my mind."

 The only reason I know you're not talking about me is cause you mentioned where she's located, and I'm not there.

 Every single colleague I've talked with in the last month is STILL behind on reading.

I cut my list in half, stopped daily blogging and I'm still not caught up.

 There are days, sometimes several, where I just can't read critically.

It's a problem, and the only way I know to solve the problem is communication. Your agent hasn't realized this yet, and she's probably mortified to be so behind and so out of touch.

 Get in touch.

Ask what's going on. Ask if she's lost interest.

Don't be afraid to be direct. It's better than losing your mind. 

Monday, May 03, 2021

Querying a novel and short stories

 I'm wondering how agents feel about publishing querying a short story collection and a novel at the same time. Should I only query for the novel, and then later mention the collection? 

They go in the same query.

Weird, I know.

You query the novel, and you also say you have a collection. It's a separate paragraph, after comps, before pub credits and bio.

And pub credits are crucial.

A collection should (must!) have stories that have been published already. Probably at least 50% of them, and 50% is new material.  That percentage isn't carved in stone.

Here's how this looks.

Felix Buttonweezer has had it.

Zoom meetings during the pandemic forced him to see his living room with fresh eyes. Stuffed cats were everywhere. Shelves, couches, on top of the flat screen.

Felix has decided the plushies must go.

He's laid in a supply of plastic bags, zip ties and tongs.

He's ready.

The problem is, the plushies aren't quite ready to leave.

Felix Unstuffed (890,000 words) is noir crime fiction.

It will appeal to the readers of John Davis Frain's blog comments, and Steve Forti's flash fiction entries.

I also have a collection of 21 Felix Buttonweezer short stories. "Felix vs the Ottomon" was published in the Carkoon Gazette; "Felix vs the Fold Out Couch" was published in the SudsYerDuds Journal; and "Felix vs Betty: the later years" was pubished in the AARP Journal of Marital Discord.

I am this, that and the other.

Any questions?

Friday, April 30, 2021

Why I said no isn't something you can fix

 I try to read the books shortlisted for major crime prizes: Edgars, Malice, ThrillerFest etc.

Sometimes it takes me a while to read them all but I really like to see what caught reader's attention, and think about what those books mean for acquisitions in the future.

Recently I started one such book.

I read about 23 pages and put it down.

There's nothing wrong with the book. It's well written. It's shortlisted for a good prize.

But the story held absolutely no interest for me.

Given the scarcity of my reading time, I elected to not finish the book.

This happens in the incoming queries as well.

Sometimes you've written a book I don't want to read.

There's nothing wrong with you.

There's nothing wrong with me (ok, never mind that)

There's nothing wrong with your book.

Fretting about how to revise to garner my interest is NOT what you want to spend your time on.

You want to spend your time querying widely.

No list of "what I'm looking for" or MSWL will prevent you from querying agents who just don't connect with your book. 

Pinning your hopes on some dream agent ignores the very real possibility that your tastes are not sympatico.

These are rejections you cannot avoid even with the spiffiest of queries and the most compelling book.

Any questions?

Monday, April 26, 2021

All resume, no writing

I've had a recent batch of queries that begin with the author's bona fides.

Degrees in something.

Published papers in their field. 

Links to previously published books.

All well and good except they're querying a novel.

Who you are or what you've done doesn't matter so much as the story you want me to read.

Start with that.

Your bio comes at the end of the query, and it's more important to sound like someone I want to work with than someone who assures me they're important enough to consider.

Your dogs and cats (bunnies and raccoons, gators, snakes and of course your plants) will get you further in your bio than almost anything else.

Any questions?

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Further on questions

 Craig F commented on the post about questions in a query

I think that starting a query with a question would work better with an elementary or mid-grade book. I am stealing from one of my favorite vommenters, but here goes. What is that sound from the fields? It's Clara, the singing cow. Her song can pull the moon down from the sky.


I want to underscore the point that the question shouldn't be yes/no.

What is that sound from the fields isn't a yes/no question.

Who killed Roger Ackroyd isn't a yes/no question.

Both Craig's example and Dame Agatha Christie's seminal book are examples of a question that DOES work; it engages your reader's interest.

Any questions?

(yes? no?)

Friday, April 23, 2021

Have you ever?

 I've had a spate of queries recently that start with a question like "Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a vampire?"


I haven't.

Which means I'm not engaged with your narrative, and that means PASS.

That's really not what you want, is it?

Don't start with a question that has a yes or no answer cause you really do NOT want to let the agent pass on you so quickly.

Instead, talk about how your character wondered what it would be like to be a vampire, and now she's getting the chance.

Monday, April 05, 2021

I told you to pick me!

I queried my first novel a few years ago. Several agents wanted it, and I signed with one. The agent then was not able to sell the book. I parted ways with that agent due to some concerning behavior that had nothing to do with the MS (I was always aware it would be a hard sell). 

Now I have another book. I'm wondering how it would be perceived if I sent this novel out to some of the other agents whose offers of representation I had turned down. Should I mention that they had previously extended offers, or not say anything? 
Mention it?
They will not have forgotten.
Trust me, I remember every single person who says no to an offer.

Your problem is not requerying them. 
It's not telling them they were second choice.
It's the "concerning behaviour that had nothing to do with the manuscript."
If you part ways with an agent, you must be prepared to explain why you did so, and what went wrong.  
To answer your question: if you query agents who previously offered rep, mention it, and say why you're back out looking for a new agent. 

Any questions?

Monday, March 29, 2021

How do you get better?


I recently received a query from a new writer.

It was clear the writer was committed to building a writing career; intent on making a success of it.


I passed on the query with a form rejection but then heard back from the writer.


The essence was "if this isn't working, how do I get better?"


I was taken by the gracious reply to what can feel like heartbreaking news, particularly at the start of a career.


So, how do you get better?


The writer thought maybe working with an independent editor was an option.

I disagreed.


The time for an editor is when you've got good stuff on the page.

The question right now is HOW to get good stuff on the page.


These were my initial ideas:


1. Write more. Looking back over 10+ years of almost daily blog posts, I think I got a lot better (slowly to be sure, but overall.)


2. Read more. Read with a writer's eye. How does the author introduce characters? How do they twist the plot?


3. Force yourself to WRITE the assessments of books you've read. Having to explain something in writing really helps you clarify things. Then assess your writing of the assessment. Is it clear? Focused? Logical?


4. Type out word for word a novel you think works really well. It gets you into the novel at a granular level.



These are my things.


What are yours?


Please feel free to contribute in the comment column.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

She asked, she answered, opined, rued and dithered.

At the risk of blowing up the internet, what are your views on dialogue tags other than "said"?

From what I've read, there seems to be two schools of thought:


1. "Said" becomes almost invisible


2. "Said" is overused, writers should vary their dialogue tags.


Similarly, is using "asked" telling/unnecessary due to the "?" used (and therefore better replaced with "said")? Thank you very much for your insight!


I'm glad you asked, she replied.

These questions come up a lot, she opined.

And yet, never laid to rest, she rued.



This kind of question falls under style, and style preferences vary publisher to publisher and certainly agent to agent.


Most publishers have style guidelines to help authors get their finished manuscripts into good shape.


But I can't think of a single time I've passed on a manuscript cause the writer opined or fretted or worried rather than said.


Those problem (and to me they ARE problems) came with enough other stuff that I could simply say "lack of tension, lack of narrative drive" and be done with it.


My goal is to find or maybe help refine a ms that is an immersive read. That means the prose is like a comfy duvet that you crawl under, get warm and go off to a new world. No bumps or lumps to distract you.


So, to answer your question, there is no real right answer here.

Does the word pull you out of the narrative? she asked.

Do you notice it?


If you're noticing things that aren't important, that's when you want to revise.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

I'm a perfect match, why did you say no?

It's hard to not respond to these kind of emails. I know it's frustrating to think "I’m everything she's looking for!" and then get a pass.

Particularly when you've done a lot of research.

(which is one of the reasons I've always thought personalization is a vast waste of a writer's time: just query)

What the last plaintive writer didn't realize, what most writers don't want to know, is the default answer to a query is no.

With 100 queries a week, even if I requested ONE (1%!) full every week, I'd still only sign one or two writers a year.

I see agents on Twitter who talk about signing what seem like dozens of new clients in a year.

That's not me. That will never be me.
I just can't work at that volume.

Which means when you query, expect no.
And most often it's not cause you did anything wrong.

I've passed on books that have gone on to be published.
I've passed on books that have gone on to win prizes.

What gets requested isn't a matter of ticking off all the boxes.
There's a fourth dimension here, one that's impossible to see or hear.
And very hard to quantify.

I love words, but they fail me when I try to tell people what I love.
Yes, you can see what I've loved by reading the books my clients have published.

But that still won't help much, cause what I'm really looking for is something new and fresh.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

How much of Book #1 should I mention in query for Book #2?


I sold my first novel (a western) in 2019. Since then I have written a sequel. Quick question: How much of the first book should I reference in the query for the sequel (e.g., should I mention it at the beginning in terms of where the sequel picks up the story line)? 

That's not the question you're going to run aground on.
It doesn't matter what the first book is about.
It matters only that there is a first book.
Most publishers don't want to acquire Book #2 in a series if they don't have rights to Book #1.
Why is that you might wonder.
It's because a decent percentage of readers like to read series in order.
Which means all the promotion Publisher of Book #2 does benefits not them but Publisher of Book #1.
There are exceptions to this of course.
Generally an author is able to move a series if Publisher Next thinks a wheelbarrow full of money is to be made.

But to answer your question: you don't mention any of the plot of Book #1 in a query for Book #2. You say only that it's the second book in the series.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Losing your mind is not a requirement for being an author, all evidence to the contrary

I have had an agent for the last five years or so. She’s submitted two novels for me over that time (we had a lot of nice personal responses but no sale). Since the second one going back in the drawer she has become less responsive, which makes sense - I’m going down the priority list. I sent her a new one last April, just as the COVID situation was kicking off. It’s now going on ten months and she’s sent me a couple of apologetic emails but hasn’t read past the prologue, citing being behind in her reading due to COVID. Now I haven’t heard from her in four months. 

My question is, is it reasonable / sane for me to pull the plug on our relationship after ten months? She’s in London and I’m in Australia and I’m aware that the COVID situation there is bad, but I’m just not hearing from her. I wrote this book because she liked the pitch and I’m terrified of never being able to get another agent, but I’m losing my mind!

Until you said she was in London, I was wondering if you were talking about me.

I have gotten behind on my client reading this past year.

I'm more caught up now but I'm still not as current as both my clients and I wish I was.

But, it's time for a heart to heart with your agent.

Don't try to make this decision in a vacuum.

Talk to her. Tell her you're feeling like a low priority. Tell her that if she doesn't like this new book, just say so. It's better to know than be left wondering.

Yes, we're all navigating strange new ways to do business, but this problem is one I've seen for decades. It's NOT a function of the pandemic.

 An agent who is not reading and subbing your work is just as career stalling as no agent.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Dodging a Bullet vs Missing Your Chance


I recently received an email from a writer who had queried me in 2015. The email was to inform me they were self-publishing, and I'd missed my chance.

To hang on to the sting of rejection for five years, let alone now take the time to email me about it  now, indicates a tenacity I wish was put to better use.

And what Righteous Writer doesn't know is that this kind of email means I dodged a bullet, not missed a chance.

Here's why: the writers I want to work with get better with each book. Ask most working writers about something they wrote five years ago, and before you even stop speaking, they've got a red pen in each hand, and a fourth behind the ear to mark up what they want to fix and improve.

My own limited experience here on the blog bears this out. When people link to an old post of mine on Twitter, I'm glad for the shout out, but I'm even happier to get a chance to go back and fix some things I didn't notice at the time.

Does your experience support this?

Are you a better writer now than you were five years ago?

Did I dodge a bullet or miss a chance with you?  

Wednesday, January 27, 2021


On a whim, with COVID time on my hands, and after doing some research and finding mixed opinions, I paid my $75 and entered a novel in the (Contest). I was surprised (and pleased, I guess) to be named a finalist.

The question is, does it mean anything? Judging is anonymous. Is placing in the contest worth mentioning in queries etc.? 
The first question you want to ask about any contest is how much does it cost to enter.
You've told us $75.

That means the contest is intended to make money for someone NOT find the best book in any category.

If the goal is to find the best book in any category, you want to choose from the widest pool not the one determined by who's got an extra $75 lying around. And an entry fee like that precludes most publishers from entering their best books. The cost for them would be a big factor.

The second question you want to ask is who won the year before.
Do you recognize ANY of the finalists or the winner?

If you win a contest and no one notices, does it help you?

As for including this info in a query, don't.
It doesn't help and it could hurt.
It's not a deal breaker by any means, BUT including it as though it was something to indicate your book is good, well, that just demonstrates lack of knowledge about how contests work.
It's ok not to know things of course, but you don't want to flaunt that lack of knowledge as a big plus.
There are some other blog posts on this topic
Any questions?


Monday, January 25, 2021

Avoid this error

I recently received email that I'm NOT going to describe as snippy cause I think that was more my response to it than the intent of the sender.

It said "oh gosh, sorry, thought you'd be interested" and the "quote email" was a read notice.

This author had queried me the day before and gotten the read notice.

And no reply from me.

And assumed I'd passed.


You get a read notice if I OPEN the email, which I do (at least google thinks I do) when I pull it out of my inbox and file it in INCOMING QUERIES.

I hadn't passed at all.

In fact, I hadn't read past the first line.

I responded to the author, pointing out the error of the assumption.

And honestly, as things go, this isn't even close to ass-hattery.

BUT, don't do it.

Don't assume a read notice is a pass if you don't get a reply.

And really don't email someone if you're assuming a pass, UNLESS you've let enough time pass.  I don't reply to my queries every day.

I save them up for when I'm gripped by blood lust for tasty tasty writers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Things to leave out of your query

1. The manuscript is complete.

2. You're seeking representation.

3. You're willing to edit

4. You're willing to promote

5. You hope I'll respond.

6. You hope I'll like your book

You don't have to say them because an agent reading your query assumes those things already.

Save your word count for developing the plot.

Monday, January 11, 2021

When your reader is a dunderhead

 I subscribe to Poetry Magazine.

It comes once a month, and if I diligently read one poem a day, I can finish the whole issue. (I fail at that goal more often than I succeed.)

Because I haven't gone to the post office for ten days, I'm still reading the December issue even though it is now January.

I'm glad I had the extra days cause I found a poet this morning that really caught my eye.

First with this

and then with a poem called "Friendly Skies, or, Black Woman Speaks Herself Into God"

After I read that poem, I checked the author listings to see if the poet had any published collections. The bio mentioned a book called Reparations Now, due out from Hub City Press this year.

So I googled Hub City Press and found the tab Bookshop.

 I clicked and because I've had this happen before, I understood I was now at the indie alternative to Amazon site, Bookshop.

 Which is lovely, but it's got All The Books, not just Hub City titles.

 And Ashley M. Jones was nowhere to be found, most likely cause her book Reparations Now isn't due out until September.

 But I pressed on cause I REALLY wanted that book.

I went to Amazon. Aha!

 The Amazon description mentions this is her third book.

And since I like math, I knew that meant there were two other books.

So I clicked on her Amazon Author profile.

And sure enough there was one book.

I bought it.

And when I did, Amazon's algorithm coughed up the second.

And so I bought that too.

 Now, here's the thing: Ashley M. Jones has lovely, wonderful website. It's right there.

In plain view.

But I didn't even google to see if she had one.

Yes, sometimes I am my own best example of idiocy.

So, figure on some of your fans being complete dunderheads. Just like me.

Make SURE your bio (on Twitter, on reviews you write, on short stories you get published) mentions the place you want readers to find you. Most often this will be your website.

But also, think about how people will look for you. Will they google the title of your book? Do that to see where you come up on the search results.

What about your name? Google yourself to see where your website shows up in the search results. 

It's the start of a new year.

This is a good project for you.

Any questions?

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Using Casablanca to think about tension


The prologue to the movie sets up the theme of the movie: people are desperate to get out of Europe and Casablanca is the last stop before Lisbon and "the Clipper to America".

The story starts with news of the murdered couriers, couriers carrying documents, being broadcast by the French police.

The tension begins because the murderers are believed to be headed for Casablanca.

The desire to leave Europe is given a face by the Bulgarian couple who see the plane to Lisbon. The woman says wistfully "perhaps tomorrow we'll be on the plane."

Thus the two elements of the story are introduced: the letters of transit and the people who want them.

Signor Ugarte is revealed to have the transit documents when he gives them to Rick to hide.

Now we know what the documents are, their value, and who has them.

Tension rises when French police captain Renault tells Rick that notorious freedom fighter Victor Laszlo will be in the cafe that evening, and that Laszlo is in dire need of exit visas.

(A character must want something for there to be tension; Laszlo wants the visas. Often in editing notes this is noted as "what does the main character want?")

Laszlo and Ilse Lund come to the cafe. They're told Ugarte has been arrested and thus will not be able to sell the transit papers as promised.

The tension rises when the solution to the problem is blocked. (Ugarte has been arrested, the papers no longer available.)

The audience is left wondering what will happen next which is the essence of tension.

End of Act 1

The next morning, the location of the transit papers is discussed by German officer Strasser and Captain Renault. Strasser theorizes the papers are at Rick's cafe and tells Renault to search.

The tension here is that the audience knows the papers are there because we saw Rick hide them the night before. We wonder if Renault will find them.

The tension abates somewhat because he does not find them.

This is a smaller incident of tension, it doesn't really address the problem Laszlo has.

Laszlo and Ilse come to Renault's office and are told they cannot leave Casablanca without an exit visa signed by Renault, which he will not get.

Tension increase not because the problem has changed (the need for exit visas) but because the solutions are disappearing. First the transit visas from Ugarte are out of reach, now any kind of legal exit visa signed by Renault is out of reach.

Laszlo turns to the black market and visits Signor Ferrari who offers one visa, just for Ilse. She refuses.

"I'll be honest M'sier, it will take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca, and the Germans have outlawed miracles" Ferrari tell Laszlo.

The tension rises again because the third option for exit visas (the black market) is now also out of reach.

But then, a ray of hope:

Ferrari directs Laszlo to Rick, whom he believes to have the papers that Ugarte stole.

Laszlo comes to Rick, and asks him about the transit papers. Rick tells Laszlo the papers aren't available at any price, and if he wonders why "ask your wife". (Ilse and Laszlo are secretly married, something Ilse told Rick earlier in the day.)

Just as Laszlo and Rick are talking about the exit papers, they hear the Germans singing their national anthem raucously in the bar.

Laszlo immediately goes to the band and says "Play Le Marseillaise" The band looks to Rick, who nods, and the band strikes up the French national anthem.

The Germans are drowned out, the entire cafe is on its feet, and the audience understands that Laszlo has just sealed his fate.

Strasser orders the cafe closed at once (the now-famous "your winnings, sir" scene)

Later that evening, Ilse goes back to the cafe. She tells Rick that if he doesn't help them, Laszlo will die in Casablanca.

"What of it," Rick responds.

Ilse pulls a gun and Rick still refuses to hand over the papers. "Go ahead and shoot me, you'll be doing me a favor."

While this scene is tense, the audience isn't really worried that Ilse will shoot Rick, if only cause we know the "rules" of movies: if the hero dies it's at the end of the movie, not the end of Act 2.

But we also can't see how Laszlo and Ilse will get exit visas. We're glued to our seats to find out what happens next.

End of Act 2

Later that night, Laszlo and Karl (the waiter) return to the cafe after an underground meeting is raided by the police.

When Rick sends Karl to escort Ilse home, he and Laszlo stay at the bar. Laszlo asks Rick to give the transit papers to Ilse if he will not sell them to him. Not only give the transit visa to Ilse, but asks that Rick escort her to America.

(this escorting of ladies is nicely laid in twice earlier in the movie: when Yvonne has too much to drink; and when Ilse is in Rick's upstairs room at the cafe.)

Just then the police break in and arrest Laszlo.

Laszlo is now in the hands of the Germans, and Strasser has made it clear that he has no problem killing Laszlo.

The next morning, Rick tells Renault that he will be using the transit papers for himself, and Ilse.

The audience wonders if Rick will do this very selfish thing: leave Laszlo to die in Casablanca. Our sympathies are with Laszlo, we want him to carry on fighting the Nazis VERY much.

Rick has long maintained he "sticks his neck out for no man" but we've seen him act contrary to that twice now: once when he rigs the roulette table to pay out on #22 so the Bulgarian couple wins the cost of their exit visas and second, most tellingly, when he agrees to have the band play Les Marseilles.

Rick says what he's going to do, but our eyes are still glued to the screen to see if he does. We think he will because what other option is there.

The tension is both the lack of options, and the one option that does seem available is one we don't particularly like.

Rick arranges with Renault to set Laszlo up for a bigger crime, one that will certainly get him sent to a concentration camp. Laszlo comes to the cafe with Ilse believing he is bringing Ilse to Rick and they will get on the plane.

Renault arrives to arrest Laszlo.

Much to everyone's surprise, including the audience, this time it is Rick who has the gun.

When all four of them arrive at the airport, Ilse still expects it is Rick who will go with her.

But of course, Rick gives the papers to Laszlo and tells Ilse to go with him.

The climactic moment is catharsis of the best kind. Ilse and Laszlo get on the plane and Major Strasser gets shot.

The End

The problem for the characters in Casablanca is pretty simple: the need for exit visas. Tension builds when the solutions to the problem becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible to find.

A lot of other things contribute to making this a great movie (my favorite of all time in fact); tension doesn't exist apart from the other story elements. But tension is the fuel for the engine. Without it, the story doesn't move at all.

Any questions? Feel free to disagree in the comment column of course. A variety of opinions is welcome.

Monday, January 04, 2021

2020 query and request stats

Queries: lots (and quite tasty!)

probably close to 2000 but that's down by about 50% from previous years 

Requested fulls 2020: 16 

Of those 16, 2 were revise and resend requests from previous years

Of those 16, 15 were requested after receiving a query in the slush (93%!)

Of those 16, 1 was from a referral. 


Inventory carried over from 2019: 26
Requested, not received: 1
Still pending: 1 (received on 12/25/20) 

Total ms read in 2010: 40
Still pending: 1 (received on 12/25/20) 

I requested far fewer manuscripts this year

34% of the number I requested in 2019 (46)
18% of the number I requested in 2018 (86)
13% of the number I requested in 2017 (118)

Some of that was on purpose: I was very tired of always being behind on my reading; of asking writers to be patient past 90 days as a norm and too often for more than 180 days. I HATED that, and the only way to get on top of the problem was to quit feeding the queue. I got VERY particular about what asked for.

Some of it was the pandemic: Almost nothing looked appealing for almost five months. I know it was my eye, not the mss. It took a long time to regain my appetite. I spent much of that five months reading old favorites: Dick Francis, Robert Crais, Lee Child.

The most consistent flaw in requested mss was pacing and tension. Without tension there's nothing to hold my interest. If I'm not actively wondering what happens next by page 50, it's an almost certain pass.

(more on tension in a blog post tomorrow)

The good news though for those of you who did get passes from me: 

Two of the books I passed on now  have publishing contracts, and one writer signed with another agent but has not yet sold. So three of the 16 books (or about 18%) had favorable results, just not with me. Remember this when you get a pass. Keep querying. What's not right for one agent can be just what someone else is looking for, and you've just seen the stats that support that.

Final tally: 

New clients signed in 2020: 2

1 from 2020 query; 1 from 2019 query. 

Any questions?

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Nine things that drive me crazy

I've been burrowing into my incoming queries, hoping to get most of them answered before the holiday shutdown.

Several recurring problems:

1. Not sending pages. 

I've heard tell there are agents that don't want pages.
I'm not one of them.
Show me you can write. Most of you can't write queries for shit. Give yourself a fighting chance with something you CAN write: pages from your novel.

2. Not telling me the start of the story/the precipitating event/anything about the plot

At some point you need a plot on the page.
The query is a good place to start.

3. Effusive compliments/ANY compliments really.
I don't want someone who talks like I walk on water.
I don't.
I do want someone who wants to be on my team, not revere me.
It's brutally uncomfortable to read balderdash like "you're one of the greats." My new favorite though is "your agency has a world-wide reputation" which is hilarious cause JetReid Literary is about five minutes old.

4. Repeatedly sending what you think is a query (and isn't)
in the misguided assumption that I haven't already read it and discarded it because you didn't fucking tell me about the book.

5. Telling me you're a previously published author as though that's a big plus.

Unless you've sold one million copies, it isn't.
Compounding this is when you don't include any info about the new book, leading me to think that you expect me to want you, not your book. #NopeNopeNope

6. Responding to a pass with "well, what about this"
as though I am browsing in the Casablanca souk. Even if I just responded to your first one, queries go in the incoming query pile. I don't read it right that minute. And if you're just responding quickly, by the time I read it, I won't have any context.

7. Telling me you're referred by a "a friend".
Querying isn't espionage. Also, my friends know better. 

8. Leading off with the college you went to.
If you want to come off as an asshat right away, that's a good strategy. 


9. Making up a category for your book. 

This generally means you haven't done enough (or any) research on where your book would belong in a bookstore.  When you have a category I've never encountered, I don't assume you made it up, but I do dig around. If I can't find it, you're off to a bad start.  Contemporary fiction works. A novel also works. I don't care if you have the wrong category (other agents DO) because I only really care about the story. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

SGC Flash fiction results, this time for real

 Remember when I said I'd post the results "later today"?

Well, clearly that turned out to be Bald Faced Lie.

(what's a bald face?)

It's two weeks now and you all have been quite patient with my dawdling.

It's kind of felt like being on vacation not doing these daily posts, but I do miss it, and I'm going to get back to posting. Not daily, but at least not silent!

So, the results

I went back and read the ones that caught my eye again.

Sometimes a day or two can make me change my mind.

But not this time.

The winner is Jennifer Rand.

The prize is

Thanks to all of you who wrote and posted entries.

You are a talented bunch, and I have the post that proves it!

Monday, November 30, 2020

Snot Green Couch Flash Fiction Contest Results

Curt David

    2020 was almost over. The election? Still not decided.

    "Let's pick randomly," Ms. Bell suggested.

    "Liberty, no. We need to all agree; need to find someone to join our team," Uncle Sam retorted.

    "Nothing positive happened this year," Mr. Baldy squawked.

    "His lackadaisical comment aside, does anyone have someone to nominate?" Ms. Flag asked.

    "The winner will join the ranks of us quintessential symbols of the United States of America!" Statue of Liberty exclaimed. "Who exhibited such bravery, heroism, compassion, and strength this past year?"

    National Anthem thought a moment, then belted out, "What about Front Line Workers?"

    Unanimous decision.


Love this concept a lot!


Craig F

    The morning broke queasy, punctuated with pieces of a dream in a snot green medium.

    Pulling the slack from some remaining brain cells, the green crap became a sofa

    The glass of tea on the floor wasn’t tea. Suppressing a gag, I saw flecks of something like rust on my hands.

    Struggling to the bath my eyes popped open, then shut, then wouldn’t pass a squint. In the tub was the dream, in pieces; that wasn’t rust on my hands.


The morning broke queasy is a perfect phrase.


Marie McKay

    She keeps the screams in the cushions, the strain in the sofa seams, the tears in the tea cups, the cracks in the broken plates, the pain in the squint of the photo frame, the shame in dark corners; sadness in cupboards, dismay in closed doors, sadness in blankets, wounds in loose clothing; her courage in the chink of the curtain, her hope in the green of the trees. Her plans in the blue of beyond, her mettle in a suitcase.


and, Mari McKay saunters in and drops perfection on the desktop.
This is just plain amazing.

It's not quite a story but who the hell cares.

Jennifer Rand

    All she has are suspicions.

    Her husband and her best friend, Paige.

    How long?

    Confronting them would be messy. Paige's son, Jimmy, is her own son's best friend.

    With tea in hand and a desire to deny, she joins the teenagers in the rec room. The boys lie sprawled on the sofa watching the game.

    "Who you rooting for?" she asks.




    "Which team is that?"


    "Green jerseys," Jimmy says.


    "They're blue, dumbass!" her son chides.


    The words thunder in her brain.


    She steps back slack-jawed and squints to hide her tears.


    "Hey, mom! Jimmy's colorblind just like dad."


oh my godiva.


    Mallory Love


    “It’s further than it looks, old sport, but it’s always there."


    I followed his gaze out to the slack water, steamed with fog. Squinting, I could see the green light in the distance.


    So familiar, yet different.


    This time I didn’t tell him I was a time traveler or that I had lived many variations of this moment. I didn’t say that sometimes the light was red or blue. I didn’t warn him of the fate that awaited him, because he was always succumbing to it. Overdosing, hanging, drowning.


    The only thing that ever remained the same was the dream.


It took me three reads to get this.

How about you?


Michael Seese

    "I can make you a star, sweetie. But first..."


    "Whatever it takes," she teased, lying back on the sofa, flattening it

    "Cut!" I yelled.


    "I simply can't work like this," Rex whined, throwing up his tiny arms.

    I agree not everything had gone as planned. Indeed, this quintessential labor of love of mine appeared headed for divorce. On paper, it looked perfect; in reality, it's lacking a plot, competent actors, and passion.


    "Perhaps I could lose weight," Vela offered.


    Not before the asteroid hits, I thought. Some movies simply should not be made. Apparently "Jurassic Tart" is one of them.


After I stop laughing, I will be able to tell you how much I love Michael Seese's pun-ch lines.




    Me: So, 2020, coronavirus has kinda stolen your thunder like the green grinch stole Christmas. Wanna give me a gift early and share what the tealeaves say for 2021?


    2020: What’s the fun in that?


    Me: Gotcha. But a lot of people would appreciate it.


    2020: Sorry, no.


    Me: Holding your cards close, huh?


    2020: I’ve done a good job so far, haven’t I?


    Me: Yeah, but you haven’t trumped us, yet. How about a squint at next month?


    2020: Patience...


    Me: ...and maybe 2021 will cut us some slack.


    2020: Hindsight is 20/20!


oh god, this is right up there in the Punchine Pantheon!


Colin Smith

    I don’t normally do art, but Rob insisted. Said my brain was slack and I needed a fresh perspective on life. That’s what friends are for.

    So they say.

    So, fact is, I went. Not that I agree. Not for any reason other than to placate Rob.


    It was all weird, but the weirdest was the crowd around the last painting. Their scowling faces seemed so angry.

    The painting was a mess. Lines and colors that had no cohesion.

    Just like me, I thought.

    And then I saw the title:

    “Sea with Squint Tea Ice”


    And it changed my life.

What is it about this week that you're all playing with these punch lines so deftly?

It took me two reads to get this, but I finally did.



    Welcome to the Greenfield Library Online Catalog: Place Holds.


    03/13/2020 Requests:

    Quintessential Kale Cookbook 978-1510738164

    12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos 978-0141988511


    04/02/2020 Requests:

    Slack: Getting Past Burnout 978-0767907699

    Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea 978-1416954125


    05/11/2020 Requests:

    What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters 978-0399581892


    05/31/2020 Requests:

    Didn't See That Coming 978-0063010529

    Personal Bankruptcy Laws for Dummies 978-0471773801

    Unf*ck Yourself 978-1473671560


    09/18/2020 Request:

    So Far from God 978-0393326932


    11/03/2020 Requests:

    A Promised Land 978-1524763169

    Error: Not yet available.


    11/30/2020 Requests:

    How to Build a Time Machine 978-1250024220

    No Time Like the Future 978-1250265616


We need a non-fiction category in these contests!




    If she tilts her head and squints, she sees it clearly:


    The odd green that never matched anything

    (they were young, hopeful, it was on sale)

    Firm cushions supporting breastfeeding babies

    Increasingly stained, kids climbing, jumping, napping

    Snuggling close with books

    Remnants of spit-up, grubby fingers, embedded pet fur

    Cushions sagging, muffling tear-filled nights

    Waiting up, corners worn thin as slackened faith

    Relegated to the playroom, still no match

    Seldom used now, kids grown, moved out

    All things have their time

    Some linger



    Careful, she tells the junk removers, that sofa is far heavier than it looks.


The only thing missing here is the residue from the week I spent on the SGS with the second worse case of bronchitis I've ever had.  Couldn't sleep lying down at all, so on the couch. I'd put on DVDs of The Wire, a show I know so well I can nap through an episode and not be lost in the slightest.


I think I watched all five seasons at least three times that week.


By the time I could stagger down to the trash bins, I had three 13-gallon bags filled with used Kleenex



C. Dan Castro


    The massive, blood red demon squashed my sofa. Despite log-like fingers, he picked up his teacup and sipped.


    He stopped, phosphorescent green eyes squinting at the ceramic.


    I quavered. "N-needs sugar?"


    "Tea's excellent. Almost...heavenly." He seized the teapot. Guzzled it. Belched. "Your soul's due. Today."


    "But...ten years..."


    "Millennials. Trade for a fortune, then slack off ten years."


    "I didn't. I researched. Contract expires if the demon expires."




    "And if you drank holy water..."


    The demon looked at the teapot.


    And exploded.


    Ugh. Sulfurous demon guts everywhere. But I can pay someone to clean.


    I've got a fortune.


I'm so glad I have a vial of holy water from Lourdes.

Who knows when a demon may show up!



    "I quite agree," nodded Watson. "So far, the experience has been less than convincing. I'd even say it's lacking its quintessental aspects." He passed the steaming beverage under his nose, once more.


    "Indubitably, my dear Watson," the master detective replied, putting down his own cup. "When it comes to the great British tradition of infusing hot water with subtle flavor, it is every gentleman's honor-bound duty to not short-change himself."


    "Quite so," the doctor confirmed eagerly, walking toward the door of the scarlet study. "I shall teach the new cook how to prepare a decent cup of coffee, at once."


Nice twist!


french sojourn


    He placed the old green book back on the table beside the sofa. “Le Masque de la mort rouge,” talk about one a day plus irony. He thought about all those slack jawed people. He squinted at the clock on the wall… “Fuck it, might as well check the numbers,” he switched on the tv.


    “… so, you’re saying that since mammoths roamed the earth, mankind’s instincts have only ever been fight or flight?”


    “Exactly… now with this pandemic there is no fight or flight… we have to do something else… let each family isolate.”


    “Shouldn’t be that hard.” (coughs)


One a day plus irony is a great phrase.

(will younger folk get the allusion?)



AJ Blythe


    Sofia adjusted her apron, took the tray Chef thrust at her and on silent tread entered the dining hall. After a careful curtsy, she served the old tyrant his buttermilk radish soup.


    “Green pepper oil, sir?” She held out a small bottle.


    At his nod she trickled a teaspoon over the hot soup. Stoppered the bottle. Took a step back.


    He slurped from his spoon. Paused for a rattling breath. Slack-jawed he squinted at her, his face turning a sludgy toad green.


    “So-fa.” Drool slid down his chin.


    Sofia slid the indenture-ending bottle of green peanut oil into her pocket.


ohhh, clever clever!



Amy Johnson


    If only she could have known.



    Starry eyes finally collide.


    After three stints, quints.


    Dolly tea parties, little jeans with green knees.


    Seven snuggled on the sofa for nursery rhymes, story times, movie nights.


    Their silver anniversary, five contributing to society, her second master’s degree.


    Wrinkled hands writing letters: lacking stop sign, lights to prevent crime.


    Volunteering on that hotline.



    If only she could have known.



Very very subtle.

This is a classic illustration of leaving your reader wanting more and resisting the urge to fill in

all the details. A very delicate balance. 





I have a winner in mind but I'd like to hear what you think.

Did I miss anyone?

Did I overlook something amazing?


Let me know in the comments column.


Final results later today! 

"Later today" didnt account for the burp in the space time contiuum.

You felt it, right?