Coming Soon – THE SWAMP

When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.

Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.

THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?

From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.

Read the first chapter to get a taste of THE SWAMP.

Books and Beer: Everybody Behaves Badly

Bell's and behaving badly
A Hemingway-themed beer to go with a Hemingway-themed book.

For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.

The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.

I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.

Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.

And it was recently named the best beer in America.

What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.

The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.

The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.

The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.

After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.

Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.

Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.

While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.

One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.

By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.

Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.

But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.

Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.

Remaindered Reads

Remaindered reads - this is a good one. Arts and Entertainments by Christopher Beha is a sendup of the highly scripted world of reality TV #books #reading #fiction

What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

The Barnes and Noble in Bethesda is closing. The last of the great literary superstores, it anchors downtown Bethesda, MD, providing a focus to the community and a convenient rest stop on the Capital Crescent Trail.

Books used to be big business. Downtown DC had several stores much like the leftover Barnes and Noble, from the sprawling Borders on L Street to the bustling Waldenbooks in Union Station. All gone now.

In my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block, a satire of American life in the new millennium, I have my alter ego Esalen McGillicuddy ponder the book business:

Laptop in front of me, I sat in the Borders Cafe. It was an absurd business, even back then. The store was several thousand square feet in a mall packed with luxury retail shops. But rather than selling thousand-dollar blouses or expensive electronics, they made do with $2 cups of coffee and the occasional paperback. Sitting there with a latte, watching the smattering of idlers in the store, it was a business that didn’t make any sense. How’d they pay their rent, much less eke out a profit? It was a leftover from the 90s, from that magical economic era, a dinosaur that had stumbled on into the age of mammals.

I’ll miss shopping at Barnes and Noble for the same reason that I miss reading the newspaper – serendipity. Online shopping is task-oriented – you know what you want and you search for it. Browsing in a good bookstore is about exploration. It’s about luck. It’s about stumbling upon the right book at the right time.

I had a gift card with $5 left on it. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I ended up in the remaindered section of the Bethesda Barnes and Noble, searching through the stacks of marked-down books at the front of the store.

I didn’t care for the cover of Arts & Entertainments but read the blurbs and the first couple pages and was sold. At $4.98.

This funny New York novel by Christopher Beha asks, “How real is reality TV?” The answer: not very. Like with scripted programs, reality characters have arcs – narratives imposed upon them by producers. We like pantomime villains and high drama so that’s what reality TV gives us, whether it’s true or not.

And once you join the reality world, it’s impossible to get out, for you become addicted to fame and money. The only escape is death and, even then, your demise will be used to anchor another story, another narrative arc, another turn of the wheel, your complex existence reduced to a single stereotype, whether that’s hero or heel.

I was thinking of doing a blog series on remaindered books, panning for gold among these leftover titles.

But, like the last Barnes and Noble, even these remnants of the publishing industry are soon to be no more.

People still read – 73% of adults read a book in the last year, most of them in print.

Bethesda will survive the loss of Barnes and Noble. In cities like Washington, we have other options, independent booksellers like Kramerbooks.

But, in most of the country, Barnes and Noble was the only bookstore in town. And it did more than just sell books, too, but provided a safe space for reading groups, online dates and Craigslist transactions. It’s a loss to the community.

No more will readers have the experience of aimless browsing, of searching through stacks of discounted books looking for something you can’t describe until you pull a black comedy out of the pile. The end of Barnes and Noble means the end of serendipity.

In a country enthralled by reality TV, Barnes and Noble is no longer needed. But what about all those remaindered books? Where will they go? To the great pulp mill, destined for recycling as flimsy wrapping paper, their contents unread.

The Way We Live Now: Incompetent Dystopia

Washington Monument, before the storm

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present.”

― The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

Dystopia deserves its own category in the bestseller charts. From financial collapse to the close of the millennial party, every novelist in America is working to end the world – on paper, at least.

As Lionel Trilling illustrates in The Mandibles, her account a family experiencing economic ruin, these dystopian fantasies tells us more about the present than the future. Seeing the world awash in debt, Trilling wrote a book about what happens when the facade of fiat money is exposed. More terrifying than the scariest of horror movies, The Mandibles is about the day our currency is revealed as mere paper.

Super Sad True Love Story is another novel of American decline, in which New York hipsters barrel toward a cliff which the reader can see but they can’t. Shteyngart presents Americans as willfully stupid, in love with selfies and sex, unable to admit that the world around them has changed. When it all comes crashing down, the Chinese – it’s always the Chinese – swoop in to buy Manhattan for pennies on the dollar, a reverse of the old Dutch barter, the impoverished survivors lucky to work as ditch-diggers for their Mandarin masters.

Previous generations did dystopia differently. The state in George Orwell’s 1984 is omniscient and omnipotent, able to spy on your very thoughts. No escape is possible, the boot stamping on a human face forever. Authors of the period, caught between titanic blocs, assumed that a modern administrative state forged by war would be used to comprehensively subjugate the people.

But what if the super-state wasn’t so super? What if the people in charge were more hapless bunglers than evil geniuses? What if our age is less 1984 and more Catch-22? Joseph Heller’s book, published in the 1960s and set during WWII, is a portrayal of the American government that rings true even today.

Heller’s story is one that we can all recognize – the story of a lone man fighting bureaucracy. Instead of battling for Obamacare subsidies or fighting a traffic ticket, Yossarian takes on the Army as it buries its enemies in bombs and its soldiers in red tape.

Like Yossarian, we think someone is in charge. There must be some sensible authority figure, who can undo what makes no sense. But bureaucracy is something that entangles all its participants, as anyone who has worked in government knows.

Now, however, Americans are discovering a new kind of dystopia, one of our novelists didn’t prepare us for – the incompetent dystopia. At its head is an erratic TV star, leading an administration that can’t even write a lawful executive order. Or a tweet that doesn’t enrage an ally. Or a press release without a typo.

Orwell would be disappointed. Big Brother is someone you rely on, to monitor and oppress, capable of shaping the future and erasing the past. But this government can’t even cope with the present.

Dystopian fiction is more than just entertainment, it serves a function. Novels like The Mandibles and Super Sad True Love Story are warnings, our most creative minds looking at contemporary events and extrapolating outwards. Shteyngart sees us undone by our vanity, while for Trilling the end comes from excess borrowing.

Fortunately, novelists are poor predictors of the future. Their dystopias never arrive, for they’re writing about the present, not the future. Of that we can be thankful.

The Terranauts: Adam and Eve Under Glass

good read: The Terranauts

T.C. Boyle has been writing the same story his entire career. But it’s the oldest story of them all – the story of man’s fall.

From his early short stories to his sprawling novels, Boyle explores the tragic nature of existence, in wildly comic fashion, as he reveals all of us to be creatures of our own desires, with no nobility, just advanced primates with super-fueled egos and ambitions.

Never has that been better expressed than in The Terranauts (now in paperback!), his account of scientists living under a dome in the Arizona desert for two years. Vaguely cult-like, the objective is to create a better earth, in case we destroy this one, and to pioneer methods for transporting man to the stars.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel is based upon Biosphere II, one of those 90s experiments that best lay forgotten. Like the Biosphere II team, the Terranauts descend into chaos as they slowly starve (and nearly suffocate), under a glass dome without enough nature to support them.

The book is written as an oral history of the project, with different Terranauts and crew telling their side of the story – and casting blame for their project’s infamous failure, the conceit being that the story is well-known to everyone.

One of the most compelling voices is Linda Ryu. Passed over to be an original Terranaut, she lingers on as support staff and is slowly driven mad by jealousy and rage, at one point wondering if the whole project was a kind of practical joke at her expense.

I’ve been a fan of T.C. Boyle’s work ever since reading Greasy Lake and Other Stories, a collection of fiction of that roared into my consciousness like a Bruce Springsteen anthem. I had never read anything anything so hilarious and contemporary before, a riff from a wild literary genius.

Since then, I’ve read most of his books, following along as Boyle explores how our desires take us out of the Garden of Eden. It’s fitting that, in The Terranauts, the action is set in a literal garden under a dome. But, like the original habitants of the original garden, the Terranauts give way to their desires, turning heaven into hell. In this petri dish in the desert, Boyle tells the oldest story of all, and has never done so more powerfully.

Victory Party: The Story of a Story

Victory Party in City Paper
Victory Party in the City Paper

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?

Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.

Idea

The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.

I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.

Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:

voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.

But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?

Conducting research with The Emperor's Clothes at McClellan's Retreat
Conducting research with The Emperor’s Clothes at McClellan’s Retreat

Setting

There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.

DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.

I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.

My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.

Characters

I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.

In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.

It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.

I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.

Plot

Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.

The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.

Writing & Editing

When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.

After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell. 

I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.

After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.

The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.

I also changed the title, from Her to the ironic Victory Party.

What’s Next

To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.

If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.

I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

I’m a writer. I’ve read a lot of biographies of Ernest Hemingway – it’s practically a requirement of the profession.

The first biography of Hemingway I read was the one that Papa wrote himself – A Moveable Feast. It’s a slim and sentimental ode to Hemingway’s early years, romanticizing poverty and Paris. And not exactly true. Hemingway uses the book to settle old scores and falsely claim that Pauline, his second wife, stole him from his first.

Michael Reynolds has written a series of books chronicling Hemingway’s life, such as Hemingway: The 1930s. They’re the best source for a comprehensive account of the author and his works.

The book that stands out for me is Hemingway’s Boat: Everything That He Loved and Lost. It’s a different kind of biography, more of a profile of the people around Hemingway rather than the man himself. And it’s fascinating, showing him as a bully and a braggart – but also hugely devoted to his friends and family.

I was reluctant to read another Hemingway bio but then I saw Ernest Hemingway: A New Life. With the 1922 portrait by Henry Strater on the cover, it’s a beautiful book.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life is a different kind of biography, one that focuses on the themes in Hemingway’s life:

Trauma – If Hemingway was alive today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. He suffered the trauma of war, nearly losing his life during WWI. Afterward, he suffered guilt, believing that the brave died while he lived. He also felt like a fraud, being an ambulance driver rather than a proper soldier. His trauma went unrecognized and untreated – as it did for millions of others.

Women – A man married four times has a complicated relationship with women. His mother was famously domineering and Hemingway didn’t even attend her funeral, blaming her for his father’s suicide. He needed a wife, afraid of being alone, yet he cheated on all of them. Interestingly, his best novels, such as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, all came into fruition when he was leaving one wife for another.

Sex – An academic industry exists to parse the sexual subtexts of Hemingway’s life and work. Zelda Fitzgerald called him “a pansy with hair on his chest.” His public image as a man of action was largely true – but it was also true that he was bookish and sensitive. He was the type of man who seduced women and then bragged about it. Psychologists can speculate if these hypermasculine displays concealed a more conflicted nature.

Reputation – Hugely competitive, Hemingway not only wanted to bed the best women, he wanted to write the best books. From the beginning, he looked for his place in the literary canon, placing himself up there with authors like Mark Twain. The decisions he made, such as his marriages, were made to further his art. He had a habit of marrying wealthy women so that he could write.

Madness – The Hemingway family is littered with suicides and mental illness. Hemingway, his father, his brother and his sister all killed themselves. Hemingway’s son, Gregory, died in a women’s prison, after being arrested by the police. He was going by the name Gloria at the time. Hemingway said that his son had the “biggest dark side” of anyone in the family, “except me.” Hemingway died after succumbing to the depression that had plagued him his entire life.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life emphasizes with its tragic subject, elevating the author to hero, not for his public image, but for his creative accomplishments in the face of so much pain and struggle.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Election Lessons from Gandalf

White House at nightIf you’re a progressive, these are dark times indeed. You’ve suffered a historic and surprising loss, one that seems to usher in a new age of evil.

Great works of literature, such as The Lord of the Rings, can provide consolation to discouraged liberals in the new Trump universe. Look for hope, not from the east, but in the big books of fantasy. From Gandalf to Aslan, the characters in these imagined worlds endured far worse than a bright orange politician. They took on and defeated enemies who would enslave them. Let their stories be your guide to surviving the Age of Trump.

When it comes to confronting evil, no one is more inspiring than Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings. Pulling together an unlikely coalition of misfits, he defeats evil in its purest and most implacable form.

His greatest weapon: hope. As he struggled with the impossible task that was destroying the One Ring, he rallied his companions by saying:

Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.

If you’re Gandalf, you fight on, even as you plunge into the pit with a Balrog.

His credo was simple:

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

That means that you do what you can, every day.

Gandalf knew how to deal with a two-faced politician, too. Lock him in a tower. After the treacherous wizard Saruman is defeated by the Ents, Gandalf keeps him trapped in Orthanc. Saruman pleads for release, with words whose very sound was an enchantment:

Those who listened unwearily to that voice could seldom report the words that they had heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to see wise themselves. When others spoke, they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.

Saruman possesses the oratory of Ted Cruz. And, like Cruz, he’s taken every side on every issue. He turned evil because evil was going to win. Better to be on the winning side. Gandalf wisely keeps him in Orthanc.

And if Saruman is Cruz then who is his treacherous companion, Grima Wormtongue? He tries to weaken King Théoden of Rohan and nearly succeeds. Playing the role of Wormtongue in the Republican Party would be Newt Gingrich, who sought to discredit the Republican establishment from within. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, the Grand Old Party never woke up from its spell. Rohirrim did not ride to the rescue at the Republican Convention.

C.S. Lewis would argue that great sacrifice is needed to cleanse the world. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it’s always winter but never Christmas (which feels like Washington today), it takes blood to put things right in this thinly veiled Christian allegory. Perhaps Hillary, like Aslan, should’ve sacrificed her political ambitions and let a more palatable candidate run for office.

George R. R. Martin dismisses these ideas about good and evil. You’re naïve to even think that way and liable to get beheaded if you embrace the hero myth. In the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die. Like Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger, it’s best to look after your own interest, without morals. His scheming and self-interest represent many in Washington.

I prefer the consolation of Gandalf. As progressives enter the political wilderness, remember the words of Greybeard:

Not all those who wander are lost.

In the years before the War of the Ring, Gandalf adventured throughout Middle-Earth, defeating monsters and learning about the people under his protection, from greedy dwarves to breakfast-loving hobbits. He could not become Gandalf the White without the forge of this experience.

From merry wizards to talking lions, the world of fantasy offers consolation to progressives looking into the land of shadow. At the very least, they’ll provide something to read over the next four years.

Three Ways to Find an Agent

reading at Kramerbooks

You’re the next J.K. Rowling, slaving away in obscurity somewhere. You’ve written a book that will change the world. How do you find an agent to get your masterpiece published?

At the recent DC Author Festival, Cynthia Kane from Capital Talent Agency, Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth and Dara Kaye from Ross Yoon spoke on an “Ask an Agent” panel about how aspiring authors can find literary representation. Before a packed house in the basement of the MLK Library in Washington, DC, they explained what they’re looking for and how writers can break in to the publishing world.

How do you find an agent? Here are their recommendations:

Get a Referral

The best way to find an agent is to be referred by an existing client, particularly when it comes to nonfiction. Dara Kaye at Roos Yoon said that most of their new clients come from referrals. Good authors know other good authors. Someone referred to the agency gets their query letter looked at more closely than someone unknown to the agency. Other query letters go into the slush pile, to be reviewed by interns and junior agents. If you know someone, use that connection.

Build a Platform

What is a platform? It’s a term that’s used a lot in marketing. In short, it’s a built-in audience of people who are excited to read your work. It could be an avid social media following or an audience you’ve built by being the expert in a field. You can create a platform by publishing elsewhere. For nonfiction authors, this means getting articles published in newspapers and magazines. Fiction writers should also publish, even if it’s only on their own blog.

Find a Junior Agent

If you’re interested in being represented by the Daniel Smith Agency, don’t write to Daniel Smith. He’s the head of the agency and is busy working with existing clients. Instead, send your query letter to someone further down the org chart. Agency web sites often have biographies of their staff. Look for a junior agent, one new to the agency with few clients. Read their biography, discover what they’re interested in and write a query letter directed at them. Writer’s Digest also has a great list of new agents. New agents need great clients. Be one of them.

Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth summed up “Ask an Agent” with a helpful bit of advice: the publishing business is a business. While authors and agents may romanticize books, titles need to sell. If they don’t, then she doesn’t have a job. While you may be creating art, the publishing world is going to look at your book as another widget to market. Your job is to write books – the agent’s job is to sell them.

Writing the Dreaded Query Letter

Marked-up query letter for DRONE CITY.
Marked-up query letter for DRONE CITY.

Can you get a literary agent through a query letter? That was the question I had before attending “Writing the Dreaded Query Letter” at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Alan Orloff answered the question in the affirmative. Not only has he obtained representation solely by an email query, he showed us how in this Saturday afternoon class.

The first point he made was perhaps the most important – a query letter is a business letter. It’s not a philosophical treatise. It’s a short, concise email communication that’s designed to get an agent to read your writing sample. That’s it.

Like a good business letter, a query letter has four parts:

Salutation: Address a particular agent by name. You can find agents online through resources such as AgentQuery.

Hook/Description: The hook is a catchy sentence or two designed to catch a reader’s interest. For example, “It’s Jaws in space.” Follow that up with a paragraph describing the plot of the book – what happens and to whom.

Biography: Mention your writing credits and any relevant experience you have.

Close: Thank them for their time and include the first five pages from your manuscript. No need to ask for representation – that’s why you’re writing them.

It was a workshop so I also received feedback on the query letter for my upcoming novel DRONE CITY, from the class and from Orloff (see above). He mentioned that he spends weeks polishing his queries. You only have one chance to impress an agent so you have to make sure that your letter is perfect.

The small class closed with participants exchanging email addresses and Orloff sharing copies of his book, Diamonds for the Dead.

I took this class because I’m working on another novel – DRONE CITY. In this satire, a drone lands on the White House lawn, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the end of the nation as we know it.

With my previous books Murder in Ocean Hall and Murder on U Street, I skipped over the “find an agent” step and self-published, thinking the publishing business was based upon referrals. Orloff showed that it was possible to find an agent through a professionally written query letter. After taking his class, I’m looking forward to finding an agent for DRONE CITY.