Back in the Game – Part 2 of 3

8 07 2008

It was deja vu, all over again…

I woke up in my Westin Heavenly Bed™ at around quarter of 8 am. I usually take at least four or five snooze buttons to emerge from slumber, but not on this day. On this day I bound from the bed, ran through the shower, and was dressed in minutes – the euphoria never leaving me.

See I was headed to the Book Expo America writer’s conference and I was ready to face the fifty or so agents who had “volunteered” to participate in the annual pitch slam.

A pitch slam is where the author has exactly three minutes to convey the key elements of their story, tell a bit about themselves and answer any questions the agent may have – all in the hopes of getting the green light to contact them post event. Why is this so important? Well in previous blogs I have detailed just how difficult the business of publishing can be. Being a literary agent is like being bombarded by junkmail – loads and loads of junk mail that you are obligated to sift through – all in the hopes that you may have won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse.

Participating in a pitch slam is like the junk mailer (writer) getting face to face time with you (agent). The likelyhood of you (agent) throwing said piece of mail out diminishes once you have seen the living breathing organism (writer) that put their blood sweat and tears into said mailing. Or so you might think.

The one thing I have learned so far throughout this whole process, is that literary agents are tough. They don’t really give a damn about throwing away junk mail – be it in person – through e-mail – or snail mail. They are ancient gunslingers whose bullets are NO’s, blowing holes through the hopes and dreams of writers like myself.

So obviously as a writer you have to really prepare for this once a year opportunity to get shot down to your face.

How did I prepare, you ask? Well, having already participated in the 2007 pitch slam in NY gave me a heads up on the competition, plus I had great support from fellow writer-in-arms Stephanie Casher (www.stephaniecasher.com – read her blog!). It’s really all about putting your mind in a positive space and being open to hearing criticsm.

In 2007 I pitched 5 agents and 4 of the 5 requested pages from me (The DREAM). Then those 4 proceeded to summarily reject my work for every reason from my sentences being too long, to lack of identification with the characters, to no explanation whatsoever. And I was excited about the opportunity to relive this, you ask? Am I mad?

No. Yes. Maybe.

Look, I would rather take the chance at being shot down to my face, once a year, than to suffer through mailing query after query to agents who don’t know me from Adam. At least live I could make the agent feel my energy and zeal and attempt to make some sort of connection. But I still felt like Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happiness – working up my client list.

So after drinking my grande chai latte from Starbucks in the convention center atrium, I ascended the escalator into WRITER WORLD.

Let me be the first to tell you – writer’s are some interesting folks. Most of us stick out like a porcupine’s thorns. The caffeine induced lively eyes and jitters. The fashion sense of a color blind private eye. Computer screen induced ocular corrective devices. The disturbing habit of conversing with the people in your head. You’ve seen us. We are the fiction writers.

Then there are those perfectly coifed, gym toned, well-dressed (and even more well spoken), confidence oozing individuals who are of the non-fiction sect – of the self help variety.

Throw us into a giant conference room together with six hours and counting until the pitch slam and you could tranquilize North Korea with all the anxiety medication working that room.

I had the opporunity to participate in a number of interesting workshops during the day as well with titles like: Fire in Fiction, Plotting a Novel They Can’t Put Down, Revising Said Novel, and the keynote speech on the elements of all great stories. It can’t be said enough that writer’s must do two things to be successful. They must read incessantly and they must have a relentless dedication to improving their craft. I will provide some of the tips I learned in another blog, but I definitely got something out of the workshops.

So after a morning workshops, an excellent plated lunch (with cheescake for dessert!), and one workshop in the afternoon, it was finally time for the pitch slam.

Here’s how it works. Each writer received a conference booklet upon registration. Within this booklet, amongst other useful information, was a list of each agent, their background, and their respective interests – fiction, non-fiction, and/or screenplays. With more than 50 agents in attendance, it was up to the writer to sift through the list and prioritize the 5 or 6 agents who represented the writer’s respective genres. Hopefully the writer also did some research prior to the conference – googled each agent, read their blogs, tried to find out their track record – in order to be even more precise in agent selection.

I cannot stress this point enough. As a writer, choosing your agent is like choosing a midwife. Would you trust just anyone to shepherd your baby into the world?

So after providing the ground rules, the meeting organizer provided a list of room numbers and names of each agent. Up until this point, none of the writers had any idea where their respective agent choices would be located, so imagine 400 so coffee crazed scribes trying to get their hands on that list.

To make a long story just a little bit longer, I managed to pitch 7 agents during the 2 hours alotted for the pitch slam. All 7 agents requested pages (The DREAM!). I was exhausted and elated. Stephanie did very well also.

We went to this place to celebrate. I drank a cayenne pepper laced martini that nearly burnt my mouth off. The Celtics beat the Pistons. All was right with the world.

Little did I know that a month later I would be re-writing my entire novel…





Back in the Game – Part 1 of 3

15 06 2008

In the words of Kanye West, “Feels good to be home, Baby!”

I recently embarked on a whirlwind two week trip back to the US. It’s amazing how your life can gain perspective in such a short window of time, but when you surround yourself with people who love and challenge you, growth can only come as a result of your interactions. The trip began with a 16 hour flight from Sao Paulo to L.A. by way of Houston.

I landed around 10 a.m. at LAX and proceeded to Avis where I learned I would be receiving an upgrade to a Cadillac CTS.

So here’s how I was rolling in the city of angels, looking like a big dog, feeling like I had already arrived!

I used Starwood points to reserve a room for two days at the Westin Pasadena – nice place.

Upon checking in, I immediately began running through my volumes of poetry, trying to decide which poem I would rip later that evening at Da Poetri Lounge in Hollywood. I have been performing spoken word poetry since 2001 when I joined the black on black rhyme family in Tallahassee, FL, while in college. After deciding on an older piece of mine, entitled Workshit, I headed to lunch with one of my best friends in the world. He worked right down the street from my hotel, so I dropped by his job and scooped him up.

After reconnecting and making plans to attend the Lakers vs. Spurs game six matchup later in the week, I finally was able to get some z’s.

I awoke some four hours later feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. I got in the CTS and put my location into the GPS (I love those by the way!) and headed out.

My good friend and fellow Kindred spirit in writing, Stephanie Casher met me at the venue and we headed in.

Here’s how it works: if you are a poet and want to get your chance to shine, you have to get your name on the list – usually a wrinkled ripped out notebook page. I was the last person in line, so it was not looking good. The last time I was in L.A., a few months ago, I missed the list, but luckily got to perform anyway. This time I got my name down and then the waiting began.

The poets brought their A-game that night. I thoroughly enjoyed most of what I heard, especially Marc Marcel’s piece about whether Jesus would even be a Christian were he alive today. Just brilliant stuff.

I went up after the intermission and did my thing. Here’s the poem for the curious:

work shit

my brains fried
tired of this computer screen
this working waking dream makes me want to scream
i need a new screen saver
better yet a screen savior
white collar labor is my excuse for bad behavior
can’t see the forest for the trees
i have no clue why the caged bird sings
maybe he just likes his job
but i don’t like mine
will this day ever end
i can’t even fake a grin when these silly ass corporate cretins
come knocking on my office door
they probably think i’m a bore
but to me there’s just so much more to live for
than working forty or ninety hours a week
putting money down some white man’s jeans
i sometimes daydream that one day
i’ll be like that white man
driving a white luxury sedan
to a beach with white sands
demanding to speak to the white manager of the resort
because i need extra white towels
to wipe my ass with
i need to lay down on a great white king size bed
and wear white satin sheets on my head
while drinking white star champagne
i forget about my black pain and my black name
cuz i’m sinking my white fangs
into this white american pie
every day we got people tryin and dyin to live like this
because where i come from
my people live in slum-like conditions
and some like the conditions they live in
because a concrete jungle is still better than living in prison
isn’t it
interesting what people will put up with
things like racism and stereotypes
they gripe and complain but remain relatively calm
you’d probably need a bomb to light a fire under their asses
but then you’d just blow them off
like we do everyday
inconveniences
such as weather or gunshots or war
war?
good god what are we fighting for
blacks don’t even fight for our own rights anymore
i thought we gave that up in the sixties like meat for lent
what is the relevance of my last statement
to the whole of this master work
well
we used to do our massas work
and now i’ve got my masters and i still work for the massa
ain’t shit changed
but now there’s more of it down the drain
clogging up the pipes
and ain’t enough drano in the world to break through it
bit by bit sanity’s slipping away
like sand in the ocean’s hand getting dragged out to sea
finally seeing that there’s nothing more to see
nothing more to believe in anymore
the poor are gonna die poor
and the rich are gonna choke to death on bits of caviar
because ain’t no heimleck for the homeless
and economic desperation got us all hopeless
pressed to make a dollar wherever and however we can
that’s why i’m stuck in this damn dead end job
that’s why niggas grab the gat and try to rob somebody
all for the love of money
and because i love makin money
and i got bills and shit
i shut up smile and take it
until it’s time to hit the showers and wash off the grime and dirt
from another miserable day at work
can’t wait to take off this soiled white collar shirt and monkey suit
in my pursuit of this white american fantasy
that’s giving me ulcers and hemorrhoids
but still not filling the void
that
there’s got to be more than this
just got to be something better than this
work
shit

The audience was very receptive and I left the stage with the boyant feeling I always get after performing. Public speakig for me is torture before I speak and heaven while I’m doing it. A very interesting confluence of emotions.

So I finished up and we rolled out. I headed back to Pasadena to get some Z’s because the next day was the Book Expo America wiriter’s conference starting bright and early at 8:30 am…





Execution Can Always Improve

11 05 2008

In the last entry, I mentioned that I was having a professional manuscript editor take a crack at my novel. After researching the editor in question and even having an interesting online run-in with her on her blog, I decided that she had the appropriate level of frankness to give it to me straight. What is that old addage, be careful what you wish for? I’m updating it to be careful what you pay for. So after paying her $2 per page and waiting five weeks, I finally have my feedback.

Needless to say, I am not overjoyed. I respect most of her comments regarding story flow and flashbacks (she is not a fan of these devices). What I strongly disagree with was the fact that she just didn’t get it. But I think the fault may lie in the execution of the story.

She constantly referred to my story as a crime novel, when it is most definitely a supernatural suspense novel. I think the confusion began there and carried through. She kept wanting the book to be one thing that it refuses to be. I can understand that. But calling One Blood a crime novel is like calling Beloved a historical fiction novel. The genre cannot possibly encompass the size of this idea. Which is why I take pains to make the supernatural elements quite obvious in the context of the story. Which she takes pains to tell me to cut out from the fabric of the story.

So I am at an empass. She is the industry insider, and here I am, on the outside. Should I aquiesce, take her feedback to heart, and re-write the story? Or should I stick to my guns, take her more mechanistic comments, and leave the soul of the story intact?

One thing is clear, the whole Quentin Tarantino flashback/flashforward thing only works in movies. It just kills me that I have to dress up like everyone else to get into the party. But, such is life.

In any event, I am pleased with my decision to have a professional look over my work. It reaffirms the journey I still have ahead. But I’m not as far off as this individual may think. The elements of a great story are all there (maybe not in the ideal chronology), but there. I just need the right brave individual to give One Blood a real shot.

“I wrote for twelve years and collected 250 rejection slips before getting any fiction published, so I guess outside reinforcement isn’t all that important to me.”

– Lisa Alther





Rejections #11 and 12

8 05 2008

I’m feeling quite hopeful although I received rejection number 12 today. The agent in question mentioned that I had a deft hand and that my story definitely had publishable potential. Her issue was having the time to dedicate to a new client. In the future though, I still expect to work with this agent, if not on this project, there are so many others.

Moments like these I turn to my booklist. I currently have 17 novels I need to complete, 6 screenplays, 1 poetry book, and 7 or so non-fiction books. This ever expanding list reminds me that I am meant to do this. I’m just waiting for someone to crack open that door an inch, then I’m going to throw it open. The publishing industry isn’t ready for Qwantu Amaru yet, but ready or not, here I come!

I made a decision recently to have my manuscript evaluated by Anita Diggs (www.themanuscripteditor.blogspot.com). Anita has worked as a book editor for Random House, Time Warner Trade Publishing and Thunder’s Mouth Press. This was a major step for me as my entire manuscript has only been reviewed in its entirety by one other industry professional in 2006. I eagerly await her feedback on how I can sharpen the story even more.

For the time being, I’m focused on completing my second novel. It feels good to be writing again, not worried about the fate of One Blood. I will be attending the Book Expo America conference at the end of this month. Once there, I will soak up tips, network, and pitch agents. My time is coming and I am hungrier than ever.

“Dear to us are those who love us. . . but dearer are those who reject us as unworthy, for they add another life; they build a heaven before us whereof we had not dreamed, and thereby supply to us new powers out of the recesses of the spirit . . .”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson





Reviews – April 2008

25 04 2008

So, it’s been a minute since we did this. I wanted to keep you all abreast of what I’m reading, watching, and listening to. Next week I should have more updates about the publishing journey. Without further ado, here goes:

Books:

Anyone who picked up the Kite Runner, knows that Khaled Hosseini can flat out write. His tragic characters and stories from halfway across the globe captivate the imagination. In his second novel, he has the unenviable task of one-uping his own classic, but he does so admirably. From Amazon.com – The story covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women, Mariam and Laila, who couldn’t be more different, but who are destined to be thrown together.

This story broke my heart and put it back together again. I look forward to more of Hosseini’s work. A must read!

I was first introduced to Wilbur Smith back in 2003 by a great friend. The first book of his I picked up was River God, a novel set in ancient Egypt about a beautiful princess, Lostris, destined to become queen, her warrior lover, Tanus, destined to become a general, and a eunuch slave, Taita, destined to become the saviour of all Egypt. It was and still is one of the best novels I have ever read in my life. The Quest is the culmination of the series that begins with River God and continues with The Seventh Scroll and Warlock.

From Amazon.com – The Quest continues the story of the Warlock, Taita wise in the lore of the ancient Gods and a master of magic and the supernatural. Egypt is struck by a series of terrible plagues that cripple the Kingdom, and then the ultimate disaster follows: the Nile fails. The waters that nourish and sustain the land dry up. Something catastrophic is taking place in the distant and totally unexplored depths of Africa from where the mighty river springs. In desperation, Pharaoh sends for Taita, the only man who might be able to get through to the source of the Nile and discover the cause of all their woes. None of them can have any idea of what a terrible enemy lies in ambush for the Warlock in those mysterious lands at the end of their world.

After reading the book you feel like you’ve gone on quite a journey. Still I was satisfied with the ending and think this was an excellent conclusion to one of my favorite series. I wouldn’t start with this one, start with River God and work your way forward.

I picked up this book in support of another author favorite – Tananarive Due, the brilliant mind behind My Soul to Keep, The Living Blood, The Good House, and Joplin’s Ghost, to name a few. She writes this book in collaboration with actor Blair Underwood and her husband Steve Barnes. I must admit to a bit of hesitation, because I’m not really into the whole erotic novel thing, but this book surprised me.

From Amazon.com – Tennyson Hardwick—semisuccessful actor, ex-gigolo and incipient sleuth—has the mixed fortune to reconnect with rap superstar Afrodite, a former client, for a night of more than just sex. The next day, she’s found dead in a plastic bag with a split skull, and he’s a suspect. To clear his name, Hardwick draws on all of his considerable assets: good looks and charm, a $2.5 million house inherited from a devoted client, martial arts skills (Barnes’s stock in trade) and connections on both sides of the law. The authors have mixed up a cocktail of exotic elements—the sex for pay industry, the grind and glitz of Hollywood and the rap biz, a smart leavening of black film history—and topped it with a double shot of brutal murder. Handsome Ten Hardwick has not only a great backstory but a very promising future.

Like I said, I really enjoyed the book, it’s a great summer read. I can’t wait for Tananarive’s next book The Blood Colony, coming out in a few months.

Music:

After listening to this album, you will be seeing all the colors of the rainbow. This album is a sonic soundscape, so rich and lush you can almost see the sounds. This album was my introduction to Radiohead, but I’m eager to get my hands on all their work after this.

From Amazon.com – On the deliriously satisfying In Rainbows, Radiohead returns to a more straight-ahead (though subdued) rock sound. This is not a record that hits you over the head with how far this group is pushing the envelope; it’s simply a phenomenal, well-crafted, and exciting album. As soon as it’s done, you’re playing it again.

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

So I know you’re probably sick of Love Song, her big ubiquitous pop hit of the moment, but the rest of the album is just as good.

From Amazon.com – Like the portrait on the back of the CD–Bareilles in strappy black dress and lace-free high-tops–the piano-playing chanteuse combines the sweet with the scruffy. While her jazzy pop melodies are radio-ready, her relationship-oriented lyrics can be unexpectedly salty (“Bottle Up” and “Come Round Soon” wouldn’t pass FCC muster). A little profanity here and there, however, doesn’t indicate tough-girl attitude–Amy Winehouse can rest easy–so much as a desire to express herself freely. As Bareilles explains in “Love Song,” “I’m trying to let you hear me as I am.” (Not surprisingly, her degree is in communications.) Fans of Sarah McLachlan and Alicia Keyes will find much to like here.

My favorite tracks are Love Song, In Between the Lines, City, and Gravity.

I picked up this album last week on a whim and I can’t stop listening to it. This guy is like prince and r.kelly combined.

From Amazon.com – The only positive byproduct of an industry asleep at the wheel is a dream. With over a decade of hit-making experience and a certified smash in Rihanna’s #1 single, “Umbrella” Terius “The Dream” Nash is stepping from behind the scenes with a wake-up call. The Dream was born in the Bankhead section of Atlanta and his debut CD, Love Hate, is a sonic gauntlet thrown down against complacent, cookie cutter music. Propelled by the first single “Shawty is a Ten” the mastermind behind the Britney Spears and Madonna collab, “Me Against The Music” will do nothing short of redefine RnB for 2007 and beyond. The Dream has combined all of his hit-making talents for his debut, Love Me All Summer, Hate Me All Winter. Throughout his career Terius has seen people change like the weather, but in the coming months he is forecasting a 100% chance of reign. The Dream says, “It’s more of what I’m giving other people. It’s like the 80s, it’s musical. I’m doing the `Umbrella’ routine to this whole album. All of my records are singles. I don’t think a record has been done this good since Thriller.” Songs like the soulful “She Needs My Love” will solidify Terius’ status as a triple threat, singer, writer and producer.

R&B is back!

DVD’s

I had been looking forward to watching this movie for some time and just got around to it earlier this week. Needless to say, I was not dissapointed. Both Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck should have won Oscars for their strong protrayals of Jesse James and Robert Ford respectively. The thing that struck me as strange before watching, was the title. In my conception it should have read, The Murder of Jesse James. But after watching the movie, you understand why Assassination was the correct word choice.

From Amazon.com – Of all the movies made about or glancingly involving the 19th-century outlaw Jesse Woodson James, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the most reflective, most ambitious, most intricately fascinating, and indisputably most beautiful. Based on the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, it picks up James late in his career, a few hours before his final train robbery, then covers the slow catastrophe of the gang’s breakup over the next seven months even as the boss himself settles into an approximation of genteel retirement. But in another sense all of the movie is later than that. The very title assumes the audience’s familiarity with James as a figure out of history and legend, and our awareness that he was–will be–murdered in his parlor one quiet afternoon by a backshooting crony.

Well, that’s all for now. Check this out if you haven’t yet had the chance. You won’t be sorry!





Rejections 8, 9, and 10

21 03 2008

Well, I have finally hit the double digit rejection mark for One Blood, but I remain undeterred. This week I am going to post some advice from fellow writer, Sandra Lee Gould Ford,(pick up her book Faraday`s Popcorn Factory). She has been an inspiration and constant source of encouragement over the last few years.

There are some shady literary agents out there. Agents who are looking to take advantage of authors desperate to get published. Agents who will take your money, sell you a dream, and then hang you out to dry. I queried one such agent this week and received the following reply:

Dear Writer

Thank you for your email submission to BigScore Productions.

Due to the thousands of submissions we receive each year, your submission (a complete proposal) will now only be reviewed if you pay a small $50 Processing Fee. Otherwise your email will be unread and deleted.

Just as with almost all editors and agents today, BigScore does not have time to give careful consideration to unsolicited manuscripts. These have increased dramatically with the advent of the internet, the tightening of publishers’ lists, and the necessity of having to have an agent. Even many published writers are now faced with having to find representation to get their work seen.

We actively consider manuscripts that are referred to us by our own authors and editors we work with. This always leaves us wondering what potential bestsellers we may be missing in the many unsolicited manuscripts we receive. So we decided the best option would be to give you the writer the chance to know your work is being looked at.

The BigScore submission review “will not” be a manuscript critique. We will only respond with a short paragraph on why we want to further consider your work, at no additional cost to you, or why we are passing on your work. If we do accept you for representation, your work will be submitted to the best publishers. Please go to http://www.bigscoreproductions.com and learn about our successes if you have not done so already.

BigScore is not interested in looking at poetry, erotica, children’s books, or movie scripts.

To continue on with the $50 Processing Fee:

Put “$50 Processing Fee” in the in the subject line of a new email, your “email address” and “name of your work” in the body of the email, and send to bigscore@bigscoreproductions.com.
You will then receive an invoice from PayPal requesting payment with a major credit card.
Once payment is received we will ask you to resend your work (your complete proposal, not just an email query).

David A. Robie, Agent

BigScore Productions

So I sent this to Aunt Sandra and here was her reply:

Qwantu,

I had some dealings with BigScore several years ago. Beyond the fact that quality agents never charge reading fees, my experience with BS leads me to advise absolute avoidance. There are web sites that assess agents for integrity and professionalism. When I checked, BS was not listed favorably. While not predatory, I found BS under handed and manipulative.

In your search for an agent, start with those who represent books like yours that were written by successful and respected authors. Take your time. Conduct a quality search. Check the web site for the American Association of Authors Representatives. Even their membership can do unethical things, but at least you can report member agent mis-behavior. BS, as I knew them, could not hope to join.

I’m surprised BS is still in business…

“Every rejection is incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work.”
-James Lee Burke





Rejections # 6 and 7

16 03 2008

E-mail queries are the best. Seriously. Under normal circumstances it might have taken me 3 times as long to collect as many NO’s. But even well established writers like Jodi Piccoult and Stephen King were rejected numerous times before getting the call up into the big leagues. Not that I’m comparing myself to writers of their caliber, just using them for inspiration. Like how in high school, my friends and me of the end of the bench posse on the high school basketball team took solace in the fact that even Michael Jordan had been cut. I’m not sweating it.

This post is really all about passing on some good writerly advice passed on to me blog hand from super agent Anita Diggs. It’s about story and character building and I’m passing it on because it is a good solid gut check.

Reposted from http://www.thebookagent.blogspot.com (2/16/08 post)

Here is a very simple formula that may help you in the future. Plan your novel before you start writng it. The plan should include the following:

1. Who is your main character?

2. What does your main character want? (World peace? Romance with a special coworker? A three bedroom duplex in a brownstone?)

3. Why can’t your main character have it? (Not enough power? Too timid to ask for a date? Not enough money for the duplex?)

4. List eight things that your main character will do in the novel to get what he wants.

5. List seven ways that your main character gets knocked down while attempting to get what he wants.

6. The eighth attempt is the resolution of the novel. He either gets it or he doesn’t but the journey has changed him along the way. He is not the same person as described in Step # 1.

Numbers four and five are what makes for great reading. It is STORY. Number six is the climax. If you’ve done a good job with numbers four and five, the reader is still anxiously turning the pages. Otherwise, don’t worry about number six because the reader closed the book a long time ago.

As an agent, I should know the answers to Numbers 1-3 by the time I’ve finished your 25 page sample. I should know the answers to Numbers 1-6 by the time I’ve read your synopsis.

Pick up Gone With The Wind, The Lovely Bones, The Devil Wears Prada, The Godfather or Waiting to Exhale and read the first 25 pages. Then look at this formula again.

Thanks Anita…

“There are countless ways of attaining greatness, but any road to reaching one’s maximum potential must be built on a bedrock of respect for the individual, a commitment to excellence, and a rejection of mediocrity.”

-Buck Rodgers