Thursday, June 28, 2012

Author Interview - Sarah Hoyt

I'm thrilled to have been able to interview award winning author Sarah Hoyt.  She has written in many genres, but science fiction and fantasy remain her favorite.  Her novel Darkship Thieves won a Prometheus Award in 2011, and she is currently working on her next work, Darship Renegades(due out in December).  As if that wasn't impressive enough, Sarah is a member of Mensa, SFWA, MWA, and RWA.  Check out her blog if you get the chance.

1.  Why and how did you become a writer?
I don’t know.  I have this theory the fates hate me.  Honestly?  I really don’t know how or why I became a writer.  It might have been because I was born very premature and had a very sickly childhood at a time and in a place when it was believed bed rest was the cure for almost everything and quarantine at least good for half of it.  I think I spent most of my childhood alone, and since my parents – at the time – rented a shotgun apartment without windows (glass at the front and back door).  I didn’t even have the amusement of looking out the window.  There was only so much reading I could do, even after I learned to read at four.  So, it was logical to sit there making up stories.  When I could write fluently (at around six) it became natural to write them.  And when I was about ten I figured out that’s what I wanted to do for a living.  When I figured out the realities of publishing and writers’ pay it was already too late.
2.  How has the landscape for writers change over the past 15 years?
Fifteen years?  For most of that time it was getting bleaker.  The number of publishers accepting submissions diminished, the number of PUBLISHERS diminished.  The number of  bookstores diminished and most of it started being picked locally.  You can track how much influence your publisher’s decision had on your final success by the number of books being published on “how to write a blockbuster novel.”  In a free market this sort of book is nonsensical.  Blockbusters emerge out of nowhere, suddenly and wildly (Like Harry Potter).  There will be some books on how to do this that will compare books that did well and isolate their elements.  But in a system that is controlled by the publisher, and where they can essentially control laydown and thereby sales, because there’s no other way to buy books, it makes sense to write books saying “you need these markers, because they impress the publishers.”  Concomitantly to seeing this happen as a writer, as a reader I found it harder and harder to discover things I WANTED to read.  I remember going into Barnes and Noble about five years ago with a hundred dollars burning a hole in my pocket, and literally finding nothing to buy.
I could see this from both sides – because as a writer, I was reading the books saying “you shouldn’t write cozies because they’re not real mysteries” and the interviews with the editors mocking cozies because “that’s not how crimes are solved” and as a reader, I couldn’t find any fun, light mysteries – and I wanted to scream “I’m your ideal buyer.  Why isn’t anyone asking me?”
In the last five years things have changed as a reader.  I think savvy book stores are looking at what sells on Amazon.  The non-savvy ones are going under.  And, oh, yeah, I can always buy on Amazon.
And as a writer, my books are making it onto the shelves even when the editors aren’t all that invested.  From my perspective, this is progress.  At the same time, though, the publishing houses are buying less and reporting smaller numbers.  (In general.  One of my books is selling very well indeed.) 
It would be enough to make me pull out my hair… if it weren’t for indie.
3.  What do you think of the current transformation within the market concerning traditional versus indie publishing?
I think indie publishing has the opportunity of becoming a great boon to both writers and readers. 
We’ll get crap of course, as if we didn’t from traditional (Yes, I know Kris Rusch says traditional publishes very little crap.  Well, I don’t know what crap is, but I know what I will not read, even if it’s the last book available, and my alternative is want ads in a newspaper that used to contain dead fish.  And about half (if not more) of what traditional has put out – or actually got onto shelves -- the last few years falls into the “I’d rather put my eyes out with a grapefruit spoon than read that.”  It might, mind you, be competently written, exquisitely worded crap.  As far as my reading goes, it is still crap.)  The readers are more than capable of picking what they want to read despite and around the crap.
There’s a chance, if we don’t screw this up too badly, that we’ll end up with less crap – defined as stuff people want to read.  And already I have more stuff I want to read.
Goodness all around. 
Of course, traditional houses will need to adapt or die.  *shrug*  Why should they be immune?  They are NOT too big to fail.
4.  Where do you get your ideas, and how do you map them out?  Do you brainstorm, outline, or just write on the fly?
Well, I, like every professional, get my ideas from Hays Kansas, in return for a SASE.  We keep trying to convince them to go electronic, but there’s no reasoning with some people.
Oh, okay, fine.  I get my ideas from everywhere and everything.  Actually the hard part is keeping from having ideas.
I’ve had ideas that are “responses” to books I read.  Like you know, I’ll read a book and go “But it would never happen THAT way.”  I’ve had ideas that take a phrase from a song and suddenly spin out an entire character or situation on me.  I’ve had ideas in dreams.  I’ve had ideas while I’m peacefully ironing, and suddenly there’s this guy – or gal in my head – telling me his story.  Which, btw, is how most of my ideas manifest.  Not all, but most of them.  One of my publishers (the only one I continue to work with) used to throw me for a loop in the early part of coming up with a book, because she would say “Yes, but what is the book about?  What are you trying to say?”  Because… blessed if I know.  Until I’m about halfway through the book, I often have no clue.  It’s more “It’s her and this guy who changes into a dragon, see, and then his father.”
Weirdly, that particular book was completely outlined, but I had to be in his father’s head to realize it was a book about redemption and families (Actually the whole series is).  So… do I map ideas?  I’m not very visual.  Other people keep talking of diagrams and outlining with color.  Doesn’t do a thing for me.  Usually when I have an idea, I write out a page with the general story.  Then when I’m getting ready to work on it (and I’m assuming a novel, here.  For a short, I just WRITE it.) I’ll write an outline that can range from ten to fifty pages, depending on the book.  Then I “unpack” this onto a chapter-by-chapter outline, ten chapters at a time, just before I write it.
Now… this is the theory.  I have had stories that unspool in my mind, in trilogy-length down to the last word and punctuation mark.  One minute they don’t exist, and the next they’re all there full fledged and I’m COMPELLED to type them out.
AND I’ve had stories that won’t let themselves be outlined, and where I have to write them a chapter at a time, as though blindfolded and unable to see ahead into the next chapter.  It’s very annoying, but when it has to be done that way, it has to be done that way.
Weirdly, once finished, that’s some of my most structured work.
5.  Editing our work is one of the hardest things for a writer to do, especially a newbie.  Describe your editing process.
Now, or when I was a newbie?
When I was a newbie I often cut out as much as two thirds of a book in editing.  In editing I held the book to a rigid linear structure, cut out all humor and anything that didn’t IMMEDIATELY advance the plot.  I used to do about ten passes before I was satisfied with something.
Now…  well – the typical editing process?
As you can see in the novel I write on line, the process of writing is very messy for me, even with an outline.  Though Witchfinder is probably messier, because I only do it once a week and I work on other projects the rest of the week.
However, a lot of its issues are issues I’m prone to ANYWAY.  One of them is changing characters names without notice mid-book.  Another is getting the timeline completely messed up.  Another is dropping what I thought was one of the main themes halfway through.  Then there’s the surprises which my characters hand me, even if I plotted in advance.
What this adds up to is that when I take a finished draft off the printer – and I always edit in print.  I’m a dinosaur – I go over it for plot/theme and discontinuities FIRST, making the thing a coherent whole.  Then I read it again, to make sure it still makes sense, and add in any foreshadowing/pay off needed.
Then I send it off to my betas.  At this stage, it’s often only been cursorily spell checked, which is why I HAVE to train my betas to stop sending me lists of typos and missed punctuation.  I CAN catch those myself.  And either in traditional or indie, the work will go through one person or a couple of people whose sole job it is to catch those typos and such. 
What I want from my betas at that point is “this doesn’t make sense” or “uh, this character died in chapter three.  How come he saves the day on chapter fifteen?  Is he a zombie?”  But mostly I want the emotional resonance.  Did they cry in the right places?  Laugh in the right places?  Do they like the right guy?  Hate the right villain?  More importantly, did it pay off for them?  Did each thread do so?  Or are they saying “I didn’t understand why the thread with the kitten ends in that stupid way.  What was I supposed to think?”
Then I take back their opinions and do one final go over for plot, etc.
And then I do a manual spill chucker and general check.
Now, as with the writing process, this varies.  I’ve had two books that emerged from the printer ready to go to the betas, and then the betas found no issues.  So these books are essentially first draft, with careful copy-editing.  No, I’m so not telling you which books.   (Though one of them did very well.  The other hasn’t been published yet.)
6.  Is there any one novel or story you're most proud of, and why?
The temptation is to say “all of them” but of course, some stories will always be heart’s blood while others are merely darlings.
A lot of these are “firsts.”  I’m fond of my first-published short story Thirst.  I’m very fond of my first mystery, Death of A Musketeer.  Draw One In The Dark was the novel where, for the first time, I felt I was in control of the novel-form. 
Then there’s the genre I always wanted to write, which seemed impossible for over a decade.  I love Darkship Thieves, because I love the characters and the world.  I love the sequel (coming out in December) and right now, up to this moment, I think A Few Good Men, due out from Baen in Spring, is the best thing I’ve ever written.

7.  What projects do you currently have in the works?  What kind of timeline can we expect them released on?
What do you mean by “in the works” – I’ve delivered Darkship Renegades.  It has a cover.  It comes out from Baen in December.  I have delivered A Few Good Men.  I don’t know about a cover.  It comes out from Baen next Spring.  I’m finishing Noah’s Boy for Baen, I don’t know when it will come out yet.  I’ve delivered A Fatal Stain to Prime Crime, and it comes out in October.
If you mean, though, in the works as in writing them – I’m working on The Brave And The Free, a space opera taking place 500 years after Darkship Renegades, which I hope to release next year.  I’m also working on the first of the Orphan Kitten mysteries, which will come out from Naked Reader sometime at the end of summer.
The reason I’m not sure on time is that while I’m working with traditional, my entire timeline can get upended in a moment, as I get a rewrite request or even “just” page proofs dropped on me.  These will cost me weeks and then it takes me a while to get back into the current project.  Also, this year has been unusually difficult for health, which might be related to last year being unusually stressful.
However, I’m planning on doing more Indie mysteries and space opera and those reading my blog or friending me on Facebook will be kept abreast of indie releases, as well as traditional ones.  For the traditional ones, I’d like to request advance ordering wherever possible, because that really influences the laydown these days.
8.  What kind of books do you like to read?  What's your favorite and why?
Uh…  I like to read books with letters.  I prefer them in one of the languages I understand, though I’ve been known to invest unending time in reading books while learning the language.
If you mean genre I read everything: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical, lately for my sins romance (Well, I was taught it was wrong, wrong, wrong.  It’s too bad because I enjoy them immensely).  I read non fiction of all types (Yes, of all types.  I was once held captive for several weeks of a series of nineteenth century books on biology for college students.  And the reason my kids HAVE to call if they’re going to be late, was this fascinating series of books I found at a flea market about the most gruesome murders in history.)
Now, I do have a strong need for plot and for novelty, when reading fiction.  Oddly biology manuals and tourist guides for places I’ve never visited rarely need a plot.  If a book has no plot or is a collection of clichés, I’m not likely to like it.
My favorites?  Well… I have  multiples for each genre, so this is difficult, but off the top of my head and missing a lot of them: most of Heinlein, particularly The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; most of Pratchett, particularly Night Watch; most of Rex Stout, particularly Fer deLance; most of F. Paul Wilson, particularly Hosts; most of Ellis Peters, particularly Brother Cadfael; Steven Saylor’s Roma Subrosa; all of Clifford Simak, particularly They Walked Like Men; Georgette Heyer’s romances; PJ O’Rourke’s Eat The Rich; Andrew Ward’s Our Bones Are Scattered.  I could do this forever, but I won’t.  I’m sure I forgot a dozen others I like as much as the ones named, but if I start looking through the shelves, this will never be finished.

9.  Besides writing the manuscript, what responsibilities do you see for an author in order to have a successful career?
Keep an eye on contracts; keep an eye on statements; keep an eye on the industry.  Don’t offend anyone you don’t need to offend (By this, I don’t mean be timid; I mean don’t go gallivanting around picking fights for the sake of making yourself disagreeable).  Keep an eye on other writers and what they’re doing and what works.  Keep in touch with friends, network, help out those who need a hand.  You’ll find a hand extended to you in return, but even if you don’t, giving a hand to those who need it are the dues one pays for being human.  And for the love of heaven, live.  Have kids or a spouse, or a lover, or a cat.  Get out of your office sometime (train the cat to walk on a harness ). Volunteer, or take courses, or take an unhealthy interest in your neighbor’s lives (I’ve never done this, but I understand a pair of binoculars is useful.  Just don’t get caught watching).  Eat at diners and at five start restaurants.  Go to a museum.  Take a walk through an area of town you have no real reason for visiting.  Learn how to wax moustaches or how to cook squid.  It’s important to stay connected to life and people to write new stuff.  Otherwise you’re just regurgitating someone else’s work, either in print or movie.  And that stuff feels… recycled.
10.  What advice would you give to writers who are just getting started?
Be very careful before you sign a contract.  Some of the traditional publishers are getting very odd.  Don’t give away your copyright, or if you do, be very sure what you’re getting for it – be it money or exposure – is worth it to you.  Do NOT under any circumstances sign away your right to work again if that publisher stops publishing you, or your right to work for any other publisher, for that matter.  This is one of those “NEVER DO THAT.”
Try indie, even if you’re committed to the traditional route.  First, the results might surprise you.  Second, it’s always good to have more than one outlet.  If you find that you don’t want to do it under your own name, do it secretly, under a pen name.  NO ONE NEED EVER KNOW.
Read Dean Wesley Smith’s Think Like A Publisher.  Stay on top of Dean’s blog, Kris Rusch’s blog, Konrath’s blog, The Passive Voice, and any other blog that seems to be on top of what is happening in publishing right now.
And work.  Never stop yourself from writing something because someone tells you it’s unmarketable.  There’s no such thing as unmarketable, though there might be stuff you want to bring out under a pen name or a DBA.
In the same way never force yourself to write that which you REALLY don’t want to.  There’s no reason for it and life is too short to waste writing stuff you hate.
In fact, my advice is the same you get when going into unknown territory “Keep your eyes peeled, stay on the move, and be equipped for survival no matter what the conditions and you’ll do.”
Actually I’ll pass along something Kris Rush told me over a year ago now, and which re-oriented my entire perspective.  Don’t write for indie, don’t write for traditional.  Write for the fans.  Then publish each of the works in the way they’ll get in front of most fans.  Sometimes that’s a particular publisher.  BUT it never is “in your drawer.”  If nothing else, put the stuff out indie.  Allow it to find fans.  (And for some books, indie will always be the first choice.  You’ll know which they are, if you’ve studied the market.)
Oh, yeah, and good luck.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Indie versus Traditional - Part Two

This should come as no surprise to the people who know me, but I'm a control freak.  I get very uncomfortable when other people make decisions that have more than a fractional impact on my life.  This is probably the main reason I'm leaning towards indie publishing.

The first thing that jumps out is the amount of creative control retained.  In traditional publishing, everyone from an agent to about 10 different editors not only put their hands on your work and suggest changes, but you're pretty much forced to make those changes or your book will languish forever in the "sorry, you'll never get on shelves" pile.  I don't know about you, but when I write something, I write it a certain way for a reason.  When there are suggestions that should be incorporated, those come from beta-readers who have made mostly the same point.  I'll do a post on advice later, but for now just know that multiple people making nearly the same point are to be listened to, but one person doing so is a subjective taste that might take away from the overall intent.

I'm not talking about not getting a professional editor to look over your book, but I like the ability to push back on content suggestions.  A good copy editor is essential, but an indie author can hire a decent one for around $1000(possibly less in some cases...but be wary of going too bargain basement on this want quality in this area).  I think that putting too many editors in the process fouls the water and renders the original project unintelligible.  There are reasons that folks like JK Rowling and Anne Rice have editing control clauses in their contracts.

The next point of creative control comes with the in with a traditional publisher you have no control over it.  Like I discussed earlier, a good cover can make or break a book, especially for a newbie.  Unfortunately, most authors have little control over their book's presentation in this way.  Sure, you can make suggestions and plead with others in the publishing house, but, in the end, you have to take what you're given.

What could possibly be the reason for giving up control over something so vital to the final product?  As the writer, don't you have a better understanding of the artistic flow of the book?  If so, why surrender this important task to someone who may get the point wrong?  There are plenty of graphic artists and other sites out there who will do a great job and actually collaborate on the cover.  As an added bonus, if you don't like the final product, you aren't forced to use it.

Traditional publishers use their superior bargaining position with newbies to grant themselves rights they won't need unless the work is wildly successful.  Many newbies, desperate to get in bookstores, willingly sign away these rights without fully realizing what they're doing.  One example is the right to the work's copyright.

Most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to your work for the duration of your life plus 75 years.  Hell is easier to escape than these kinds of clauses, and folks don't realize the power they cede.  The biggest one is that if the publisher decides your book isn't worth it and won't print or distribute it any more, there ain't a damn thing you can do about it.  Not only can they ignore your pleas, but you have no legal way to put the book out there on your own.  A few people want to check it out?  Tough.  An old librarian impressed enough to start word of mouth?  Too bad.  You can't print, distribute, or produce your work for anyone else.  I'd have trouble counting the number of writers I've heard bitch about this very thing.  A few spend years in legal fights trying to get these rights back, and even fewer win this fight(usually because a publisher will feel the fight is no longer worth their time, not because the writer won a legal argument).  Think about whether signing over your artistic license for not just your lifetime, but the lifetimes of your children and grandchildren, is worth it.

Further, a lot of publishing houses get writers to sign multi-book deals.  This sounds great to a struggling newbie looking to break in, but it basically means that they own you and your work.  Want to sign another and better deal with someone else?  That sucks.  Can't quite make that deadline for your third book because writer's block won't let you figure out the ending?  They can take away your advance.  Additionally, your advance will be spread out over the books, so that $25,000 pile of cash you were so thrilled with will be spread out amongst the books and nothing further paid until each book earns out its advance.

Then we come to the penultimate piece - money.

Let's get the biggest part out of the way - author royalties suck.  A first time author who has never been published before can expect a royalty of 7.5% to 10%.  Once fame and fortune settles in, that author can expect a whopping 12.5% to 15%...of something they poured their heart and soul into for Lord knows how long.  Tack on the 15% agent fee and the fact that most publishers expect their writers, especially new ones, to use the vast majority of their advance on marketing(yes, you get to pay for the initial marketing in most cases) and that you won't make a dime in royalties until after you sell enough books to cover the advance, and the writer suddenly wonders who's getting all the cash they supposedly earned from their masterpiece.

Further, traditional publishers pay royalties twice a year.  Book pick up steam in the second month of the cycle?  Tough shit - you get to wait five months before seeing a dime.  With indie publishing, there are multiple avenues to making a steadier stream of income.  First, selling through your website nets immediate profit, so long as you set your profit margin correctly.  And when it comes to digital, Amazon pays out its royalties monthly.  That's right - at the end of the month, Amazon looks at how much you've sold, what rate you managed to set, and sends you the amount you're owed.  Plus, if your e-book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99, you can make 70% off of each sale(this price point is set to allow for discounting yet enable a healthy margin for the distributor).

I've spoken to a lot of authors who have to go over their royalty statements with a fine tooth comb because they've discovered that they're short money they were owed.  This is sometimes due to inept accounting on the part of the publisher, and other times it's done through some legalese that shunts more money than it should to the publisher.  However, as an indie, you have greater control over the accounting, and you get paid more often.  I'm sure it's great seeing that bulk check every six months, but I like to be able to afford more than bologna and tap water in the interim(not that there's anything wrong with bologna; it's just that I prefer greater variety in my diet).

Publishers say that the rate of royalty payments is needed to determine sales points, but this is the 21st century.  They really can't devise a more efficient system that pays more often?  This doesn't pass the laugh test and speaks more to an industry that resists change at every opportunity rather than adapting to the modern world.

Okay, I was hoping to get all of this in two posts, but I now see that's not going to happen.  I've blathered on long enough for now, so I will do more at a later time.  Not too long down the road, but I have something cool planned for the Thursday night post. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Indie versus Traditional - Part One

First of all, this subject is far too involved to cover with a single post.  I'm hoping to cover the major points in two posts, and I'm not sure that even that will give the topic the justice it deserves.

I am leaning very heavily towards indie publishing, or what used to be(and still is by some) called self-publishing.  I'm leaning so heavily, in fact, that it will take a massive shift in my thinking to move me back to traditional publishing.  This is not a decision I've come to lightly, but it is a decision that I think should be explored in depth.
In the past - and by that, I mean barely three or four years ago - those who took the indie route were seen as inferior, a group of writers whose work wasn't up to the standards of the publishing world, so that person had no choice but to go the indie route.  Indie books were sneered at and thought of in the same way a lot of people look at hookers - sure, it technically meets the definition, but you only paid for it because no one with standards would give you the time of day.

However, the stigma associated with indie publishing is lessening as more authors move in this direction.  Before, no writer worth his or her salt would even give indie publishing the time of day.  Bigger name writers like JA Konrath, Terry Goodkind, Sarah Hoyt, and Kevin Anderson have chosen to publish through the indie route.  These aren't no-names who couldn't make it elsewhere; they're best-selling authors who either want to try something new or see benefit to indie publishing.

Traditional publishers offer three things as advantages.  The first is a brand name.  You can call your publishing company whatever you want, but chances are that it won't have the same cache as Random House or Simon & Schuster.  When a reader picks up a novel and sees it was published by HarperCollins, there's a certain sense of implied quality.  Most people feel that a publisher wouldn't waste time and resources on a novel that wasn't up to snuff, and they'd usually be right.  Getting published in the traditional way means that others have looked at your stuff and decided it was at least good enough, so there's less risk to picking up this book as opposed to something done on the indie circuit.

Second, traditional publishers have access to all the stores, so there's a decent chance your stuff will make it to the shelf of a bookstore near you.  You can go and see your work being sold by an honest to God bookseller, and isn't that the dream most of us share?  Of course, the problem with this is uncertainty about the future of the brick and mortar bookstore.  If these outlets aren't around in a few years, or are at least getting harder to find and make profitable, how much of an advantage is this?

The third benefit that traditional publishing gives a writer is distribution.  Traditional publishers will print and ship your books all over the world(assuming the demand is there).  You, as the writer, don't have to worry about inventory or the cost of printing.  Nope, you can focus on churning out that next great novel because somebody in the marketing department of Penguin will worry about getting your novel into stores.

However, there have been two big game changers in the past few years - Amazon and Print on Demand.

Amazon has really revolutionized the industry, especially when it comes to digital sales.  Traditional publishers are still trying to get their heads wrapped around the whole e-book phenomenon and they don't seem to understand that most folks aren't going to pay $12.99 for a digital book, no matter who wrote it.  Amazon, on the other hand, gets this and has set up itself as a "bargain basement" for digital books.  Further, since Amazon will publish anything a writer can slap together, those previously denied access to the market can e-publish and get their stuff out there without going through the gatekeepers in the publishing world.  That doesn't mean what they publish will be any good, but it opens things up in a way that was impossible a decade ago.
The other thing that has changed things is Print on Demand.  Actually creating a physical book has always been a barrier to entry.  Traditional publishers could churn out a quality product without batting an eye while those who self-published usually did so through cheap binding and a cover that looked like it had been produced by a third grader.

But in response to demand, graphic artists have risen up and are able to produce top quality covers for anyone willing to shell out the $500 or so required.  I challenge you to look at the cover for JA Conrath's The List and tell me it was anything but professionally produced.

As far as printing high quality books, Lightning Source and CreateSpace both produce high quality work for a reasonable price(and those prices get even more reasonable if you're willing to order in higher quantities).  It no longer takes a traditional publisher to make a good looking novel, and nowadays it's virtually impossible to tell the difference between the different routes, so long as the indie author takes the time required and lays out the necessary resources into putting forth a professional product.

As the indie route has become more viable, a very contentious debate has sprung up.  Traditional publishers and a lot of writers have long looked down their noses at the indie authors and are uncertain how to react to the trend.  Is this a fad, or is it something that will have a long term impact on the market?  At the same time, a lot of indie writers have reacted with a chip on their shoulder like the oppressed masses who have finally risen up against their overlords.  I'm not sure this spat is doing anyone any good and is making a lot of folks look petty.  However, as things continue along this line, the tone of the debate is likely to darken as more and more indie writers wag their fingers at traditional publishers for ever forsaking them, and the traditional elements jab back that they only accept quality so they wouldn't want such trash anyway.  There aren't a lot of folks undecided in this debate - at least of the ones commenting - and it's taking on the same kind of tone I spoke about in my last post about what happens when people discuss politics or religion.

I'd like to say that those who have no talent would never be picked up by a traditional publisher, but have you seen some of the stuff on shelves recently?  One of the discouraging things to non-published writers is picking up something that they know is crap, but it somehow made it through the gate.  With that in mind, however, indie writers would do well to remember that while there are a lot of good writers going the indie route, there are even more bad ones who are doing it too.  Slapping a book together is no indication of quality, as evidenced by some of the stuff in the traditional market, so indie writers should be careful about proclaiming victim status and how we just couldn't get through the process.  Yes, there are some unfair obstacles out there, but sometimes the writing just sucks.

I told you guys this was an involved topic.  Part Two will discuss my personal reasons for favoring the indie route.  Bottom line is that it boils down to control...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Stay on Target

There are a lot of things we have to do as bloggers.  We have to figure out what topic to blog about, write an engaging post, mix it up with readers, and be somewhat consistent with our frequency.  However, we ultimately need to listen to that fat guy in the x-wing who tells us to "stay on target" even when there are tie fighters bearing down on us and we'd like to change course.

A lot of blogs fail because the blogger strays from why people came to the blog in the first place.  I like to talk about writing and publishing books.  I'd venture that 99% of the people who come to this blog expect that, and all of the returning readers are probably like that as well.  However, were I to suddenly begin talking about other things, I'd risk losing the audience that likes this site.

There are tons of political blogs out there.  Some lean left and some lean right.  Almost all court controversy and encourage folks to mix it up.  People go to these places because they're spoiling for a political fight.  On the other hand, the mention of politics on a site that isn't about politics and never has been is a sure way to split the audience, especially in today's climate.
It's not enough nowadays to support one side or the other.  No, in today's environment, you also have to define yourself by which side you oppose as well.  The mere mention of a politician or political group you despise is all a lot of folks need to be whipped into a frenzy of hate and vow to crush the person who holds a differing point of view.  To blog about such on a website that purports to be about writing is akin to turning off half the audience(at least), thereby alienating a large portion of your potential readers.  As Michael Jordan once said when asked to explain why he wouldn't endorse Harvey Gantt for US Senate in 1990, he replied, "Republicans buy shoes too."

Religion is another area that splits people, only this topic does it even more than politics.  Mention God, and an atheist will say your forcing religion into your blog.  Talk about Mormonism, and a Catholic will talk about how misguided they are.  Bring up the Torah, and a Muslim will say that Mohammed is God's only prophet and those who don't listen are enemies of God.  Most folks react very poorly to another religion saying theirs is the only true path, and the merest hint of that on the part of the blogger can send people screaming for the hills.
There are a few other topics that will split people - sports comes to mind, especially following a painful playoff loss - but these are the main two that divide your audience.  If that's your intention, then go for it.  However, I want to bring together as many writers as I can on this blog and have them engage each other on the state of books and publishing.  If they're always damning another person to Hell or screeching that the other side is about to bring down the country, I have a feeling that dialogue about writing might get lost in the mix.

As a blogger, part of the point is to mix things up.  It's okay to be controversial...within the parameters of your subject.  On a blog such as this, we should be talking about indie versus traditional publishing or why Stephanie Meyer is or isn't a talentless hack.  It's good to get the juices flowing on these things because that's part of the purpose of the site, but if I accidentally mention something about Lyndon LaRouche, I don't need every political junkie in the world dropping by to yell about how they'll never read the blog again.

Talk to your readers and engage them on your main topic, but be careful where the conversation goes.  This may come off as shying away from some stuff, and that's valid.  For me, it's better people debate whether the stories I write are any good and how they should be improved rather than storm off in a huff because I said something religious that had nothing to do with the topic at hand.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Writing as Therapy

As a group, writers are slightly off-kilter.  We seem to have something deep within us that compels the sharing of stories with people we'll probably never meet.  Deep seated personal hopes and fears, sometimes decipherable only to ourselves, come flowing from us and give the tiniest insight into the maze of our minds.  It's cathartic for most of us and releases us from a burden that sometimes we realize we carry, and sometimes we don't.

Writing is like talking to an old friend, except that you don't have to worry about being interrupted by anyone or being told on the spot that your feelings aren't worth their time(that comes later during critique sessions with beta readers).  Yes, I'm sure there are some gruff types out there who will deny this, but the rest of us, in our most honest moments, will cop to using our writing as a way to express that which we normally have trouble sharing.

As I've mentioned before, my daughter had some issues when she was born.  This was a very difficult period in mine and my wife's lives, and sorting it out was hard.  It took me a couple of years to understand what I was feeling, so I used writing as a way to do that.  The premise of Salvation Day was born from that troubling period, so in addition to making the story much more in depth, I was able to use it as a way to sift through my emotions from that time and put them into a framework from which I could better understand them.

I've used writing from time to time as my own personal psyschiatrist.  I've deleted some of what I've written as soon as it got on paper.  Other stuff I've saved and re-molded into the background of a story.  Of course the raw emotions will mean little to people who aren't me, and that makes the tale all that more compelling to write.  I can give readers something they'll enjoy, but these things hold just a little more personal meaning to me.  It's a way to make the story wholly my own while not hiding it from people.

Now, it's not all sunshine and buttercups.  A couple of times when I've completely let loose, the results have frightened me.  Some of the times when I've been at my lowest have been coupled with my darkest writing.  These are things that will likely never see the light of day, and I'm even a little scared to go back and look at them.  They remind me of times when I wasn't totally right in the head(as if I ever truly am) and I thought I could go no lower.  However, they're a necessary part of my psyche.  I could pretend those parts never existed, but I know that would mean they'd just resurface at the most inappropriate time, so it doesn't hurt to acknowledge the strange and dark part of us that we like to pretend doesn't exist.
(Imagine this person staring back at you from the mirror)
As I write, I'm coming to realize that a lot of people may look at this post and wonder whether I should already be fitted for a straitjacket, but those folks probably aren't writers.  I'll bet that any person who is even moderately creative understands the value of writing as therapy, and even if they'll hide what comes out of their insanity, they'll acknowledge its benefits when they're alone.  We know that while what lies underneath that facade we present to the world isn't always pretty, it makes us better writers and allows us to craft those crazy stories that people claim to adore.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Pat on the Head

Now that I've finished my most recent book and am about to start yet another - the sequel to Akeldama - I find myself pondering the way ahead.  I am leaning very, very heavily towards indie publishing for my novels.  I plan to do a post on this in the coming weeks as to why, but the short version is that the more research I've done, the less enamored I am of going the "traditional" route.

However, I'm as human as the next man, so there are parts of my psyche that will be affected by this decision, and the biggest one is the so-called need to be accepted.  I may have a great and profitable career, but there's still a desire on the part of most to become part of the cool kids club.  Most people would love to pretend this need doesn't exist and we can carry on without caring if anyone else likes us, but that's not the world most of us live in.
For a writer, there are multiple levels to being accepted, the first of which is getting a literary agent to request a partial or full manuscript from you.  This shows you have talent and stand out from the rest of the pack.  The next level is for that agent to actually take you on as part of his or her stable.  Then there's your novel being bought by a publisher, usually from one of the "big 6," which is the Holy Grail for most newbie writers.  Indeed, this is where the fantasy often stops for a lot of my peers, because this means you've made it - you've gotten past the velvet rope and are now part of the club.  What happens beyond that is all gravy because others have accepted you as a good writer.
Most of us know in our hearts that the only crowd that really matters to us as writers is made up of our readers.  After all, they're the ones who will or won't buy our books and recommend us or not to their friends.  Our readers give us the true power as authors, since it's sales to our readers that ultimately determine the extent of our career.  This is why it ultimately doesn't matter in the end whether we indie publish or traditionally publish since we won't be successful if readers don't buy our books.

However, writers have been taught to believe a certain way.  We've been browbeat that only bad writers who couldn't make it went the indie route, and that getting accepted by one of the major publishing houses is a sign we have talent(unlike all those talentless hacks out there who wish they were as good as we are, right?).  By going the indie route, we'll never get that stamp of approval that most writers so desperately crave.
This is a hard thing to accept.  Even though I know which way I'll probably go, there's a part of me that wants to attend the next Pitch Slam at the writers' conference that will happen here in Hawaii over Labor Day(don't worry - I plan to go to the conference so I can improve on the craft; what I don't know is whether I'll seek the approval of an agent there to help my ego).  I look at my latest novel and know it would fit in well with the YA paranormal market, which is one of the few book markets truly thriving at the moment.  The number of agents that specialize in this area are staggering, and I would like to send them a query so that one of them will request a manuscript.  The trouble is that even though I may say to myself that I just want to see if I can get anyone on the hook, if one requests a partial or full submission, I'd be more tempted than Jesus in the desert to provide it.  I might even rationalize it with, "Well, I'm just getting feedback.  I don't have to accept an offer of representation."  However, two additional points come to mind here - first, would I indeed be able to say no, and second, would that be fair to other writers trying to break into the market and gain an agent's attention?

Part of me thinks that publishers keep this acceptance thing alive to try and find their way through a transition period in the industry, even though going such a route is no longer vital to success.  And a lot of them might not even be doing it intentionally, but it's out there, and as a writer, it's hard to shake off the mindset that I have to please "those people."  Though most of us go through something similar in high school, we usually grow out of it by our mid-20s.  I wonder if a writer can ever fully overcome that yearning.  I'm sure if, as a group, we can manage to get past that, we're in for one wild ride.  After all, it's the readers who should ultimately matter - I just wish more of us really understood that, including myself at times.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I ran across an interesting post over at The Passive Voice that generated a lot more heated debate than I expected.  It concerned reader reviews of books and whether or not a writer should ask his or her audience to provide them.
Let me say something up front - I don't believe in going out and telling your friends and family(commonly referred to as F&F) to go to Amazon and flood them with how awesome your book is.  First of all, that's cheating.  Second of all, it becomes very transparent once people look at the reviewers and find that they haven't reviewed but a single book.  In my opinion, that's a quick ticket to losing all credibility with the potential market base.

I am also opposed to driving a reader towards a specific rating.  You don't give them the work and say, "By the way, please go tell everyone how great I am.  I would like you to post a five star review on Amazon."
On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with asking people to rate your work.  I view this as analogous to a business asking a customer to fill out a comment card.  That business is taking a risk by doing this, because the customer could come back with an enormous "YOU SUCK!"  However, you're banking that more folks who like you will chime in and outweigh the shitty reviews.

There seemed to be an almost visceral reaction from several writers when I said these things.  To be fair, it wasn't all folks - the split is about 50/50.  But man oh man, the ones opposed acted like you were trying to get them involved in cracking dogs over the head with a hammer.

The general tone was one of trying to stay above the fray.  A lot of writers said things along the lines of, "Your work should speak for itself.  If your readers like your work, they'll recommend it to a friend or write a review on their own.  Flat out asking them to do it is unseemly."  The ones who saw it the other way said it was just another marketing ploy, akin to promotion, and that people were more likely to believe reviews than if you just shouted from the rooftops how great you were.  The general consensus among these folks was that, as long as you're not spamming people every hour, this is perfectly legitimate.
As someone fairly new to all this, I can't yet get a full sense on it.  From my vantage point, there doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule on this, so I can't really say if it's appropriate or not.  I lean towards there being nothing wrong with asking for a reader to write a review, so long as you don't steer them to a specific kind of review.  Let's face it - some people are more into reviews than others, and their voices will be heard more often, and some people will do it but need to be spurred there.

What do you think?  I'd be real interested to get some feedback on this.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wrongful Death - Lessons Learned

This past week, I finished my fourth novel, one with a working title of Wrongful Death.  I won't go into too much detail on the book itself, since I've previously discussed the main thrust of it here and here.  Suffice to say that it's finally done...or at least the first draft is.  Therefore, I thought I'd talk about the lessons I've learned while writing this soon-to-be-recognized literary masterpiece.

1.  Stop trying to edit in midstream.
I've written three novels previously, and I've fully edited two of them.  As I began to write this book, I found I was tripping over myself.  I'd write a sentence, and then I'd start wondering which parts would make it through the editing process.  Was I being too wordy?  Would another phrase work better in this spot?  Even when I would finish for the day, I found myself going back before restarting and trying to edit.  It drove me insane and took a lot of the fun out of writing.

Therefore, I made the conscious decision to not try and self-edit until after everything was done.  Sure, I could write a paragraph and decide that I wanted to re-word it, but I've done that lots of times before and consider it to be a natural part of the process.  No, I'm talking about second guessing yourself as you write.  Instead, I let the words flow freely and accepted that lots of them would have to go or be re-written,  Shit, a decent portion of content would even have to be flushed.  However, that was something I could worry about after the main work was done.  After all, a logger doesn't worry about what the final house will look like - he just cuts down the tree.  The delicate work shaping it into something else is for after the primary glop has been thrown down.

I liken this to tuning out white noise.  If you don't focus yourself onto getting the story out so you can enjoy it, your brain will constantly go back to what you just wrote and say things like, "You know, you used way too many adverbs in that part, so go ahead and go cut them now."  Of course, this disrupts the flow required to let a story run seamlessly from one part to the next.  Editing will come - for now, just enjoy writing the damn thing.

2.  A story will end when it ends.
I had it in my mind that since editing would likely cut out 12,000-15,000 words, I would need to write a story that was at least 80,000 words in length.  The trouble is that the creative process didn't want to cooperate.

Any experienced writer, and even most inexperienced ones, will tell you that they don't really tell the story - they simply follow it where it goes.  I followed Wrongful Death along its natural path.  Every time I tried to give the story "more meat," it felt artificial.  I knew I was stuffing the book with nothing more than filler material in the vain hopes I would get something of decent length.  The results weren't pretty, so I went back, found those parts I used to fatten up the manuscript, and cut them out.  They were boring and made no sense in the context of what I was trying to say.

In the end, Wrongful Death came out to right at 68,000 words.  Once I edit, I expect it to be around 55,000 to 58,000 words, which is about what it should be for the audience it's targeting.  The story came to a natural conclusion and "felt right."  And not trying to put on more just to make it meatier made it a better book.

3.  Don't get too wedded to your working title.

We writers agonize over the title to our book.  We spend hours upon hours trying to find just the right thing that captures the spirit of the book.  Once we find something we love, we're crushed when we discover that it already belongs to someone else.

I was gratified that the title to Wrongful Death came to me so easily.  I basked in my brilliance at coming up with such an easy title, one that no one had yet thought of.  Upon further research, I discovered I was wrong.

So I'll go back to the drawing board.  But the thing is, I know I can come up with the right title.  Wrongful Death sounded so cliché, even though it captured what I wanted it to capture.  However, I'm going to view this as an opportunity to stretch my creative mind and figure out something even better.  It'll be tough, but that's part of the fun.

4.  Try something new.
I did several new things with this novel, but two of them stand out.  First, I'd never written a novel in first person limited before.  Doing so forced me to change my approach to the story.  I couldn't just write things from the main character's point of view - I had to become the main character.  Instead of describing the actions of a person who was bewildered, I had to describe the feeling of bewilderment without saying "I'm bewildered."  Further, to create a good story, I couldn't just write a journal.  Journal books can be okay - Rise by Gareth Wood is decent - but they're limiting in that they give the feel of talking too much in the past tense, thereby removing a lot of suspense, and they have little real interaction between the characters.  I wanted my main guy to have conversations and be startled.  A journal wouldn't allow for that, so figuring it out took time.

Second, changing my perspective changed the audience I was going for.  Wrongful Death is more a YA paranormal, suited for the mid-teen crowd.  Some first year college folks might like it, but I tend to think that once you're able to legally drink, this one might not be for you(I could be wrong - I thought Twilight was just for high school girls, and look where that went).  In describing an 18 year old high school senior, I had to talk and act like him.  That's more than just remembering what those days were like.  For example, my vocabulary is much expanded since my teenage years, so if I talk too much like I do now, the character won't be genuine.  That meant lots of word changes - "I pondered" became "I thought about," and "a surge of emotion washed over me" became "I got pissed."  I had to constantly remind myself that I was talking from the point of view of a not-quite-mature 18 year old, so I needed to sound like one.

5.  Lesson reinforced - write what you like.

I love pizza.  And cheeseburgers.  And chocolate cake.  So, basically any kind of junk food.  Why then would I want to suddenly switch to caviar and bean sprouts?

Write what you enjoy reading.  I'm not a mind reader, so I have little idea what some random guy down the street wants to read, let alone how to write it for him.  I write stories I want to read.  Notice I didn't say I write what I know, because I haven't met a lot of aliens or spirits trying to come back from the other side, but since I enjoy reading these things, I'll write what I'd like these kinds of stories to be about.

It's one thing for changing perspective to modify how you write, but if you try to write to the latest fad or because you think your daughter's middle school class would enjoy something, you'll never be successful.  People can smell a phony a mile off because it comes through in the writing.  It sounds forced.  Therefore, forget about trying to impress some random audience member and focus on what you'd like to see in print.

That's it.  That's my experience from this latest work.  I'd love it if some writers out there shared with us what lessons they learned while writing something recently.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Marketing Yourself

I'll be totally honest up front - this post is mostly speculation on how to achieve success. I'll tell you in a few years if it needs to be revamped.

Most writers have starry-eyed dreams of what it would be like to make it big. We usually imagine throngs of adoring fans lined up for several city blocks just to catch a glimpse of us at a big signing or appearance(usually in New York). When that's not the daydream, we envision waking up when the sun is nice and warm, pouring ourselves a cup of our favorite beverage - be it coffee or a bloody mary - and typing up our next masterpiece.
However, despite our most fervent dreams, we have to do more than just write if we are to succeed in selling our books. Yes, Stephen King and Dan Brown can live off of residual sales of their works, but even they had to figure out how to market themselves when they first got going.

Marketing yourself is basically building your brand.  You have to not only get your name out there, but you have to get others to feel a certain way about your name and your work.  At the beginning, this can be very exciting.  Your brand is totally without form and can morph into almost anything.  Do you want to be seen as intellectual, a serious source people come to when looking for mental stimulation?  Or do you want to be known as the person who always makes others laugh?

Of course, the dangerous thing about being so new is that one gaffe at the proper, or improper moment, can scar your brand forever.

I have a degree in business, oddly enough with a concentration in marketing.  Despite currently being employed outside my field of study, I've still had to conduct a great deal of marketing for various enterprises throughout my career.  Along with following the careers of several writers, both traditionally published and indie published, I've begun to look at what building a brand would take and how to get the word out to the potential market.

First of all, you have to build a platform, a home base if you will.  That's what this blog is - yes, it allows me to tell my stories to the half dozen or so folks who like to read my ramblings, but it also gives people who want to learn more about you a point of entry.  When I tell people I'm a writer, those who are curious to learn more can come here and find out my thoughts and motivations.  It gives them a starting point from which to jump.  Think about it - when most of us find an author we like, we go to one of two places - Amazon(to look up reviews) or Google(to see if they have a website).  It's difficult to control the ratings on Amazon - even those who try to flood with friends and family often fail b/c it's obvious what has happened when the only reviews their five-star reviewers have done have been for this particular author.  However, you can control your website.  Indeed, you should run it like a tight fisted tyrant.
Post consistently.  Interact with your readers.  Link to other websites that have similar points of view or provide interesting content.  Provide an exciting layout.  These things may not be the main part of what draws readers to you, but it can be a big piece of keeping them.

To go along with the above point, interact with others on the Internet.  Social relationships used to be so difficult to establish, limited mainly by geography.  However, you can now establish relationships with people you've never met in person.  There are tons of websites out there that feature content similar to yours.  This isn't limited to writing - if your thing is lion taming, there are plenty of sites out there that share your interest, thus allowing you an opening to establish a relationship.  And by interacting on these sites, you can raise your profile, in addition to providing a potentially insightful voice to their community and learning a few things from those who run those sites.  Unless you're a troll and a dumbass - if that's the case, then please don't speak.

A writer whose books I've purchased from time to time made an intriguing suggestion that I might never have thought of on my own - college campuses are ripe for spreading your message, and if you can gain one devoted follower at a school, it's worth reaching another 100.  As a writer, hit college bookstores.  See if they'll give you a table.  When you're there, don't just sit there - interact.  Be willing to give away a few copies of your book...for free.  The influence you could gain will be well worth the $4 or so it cost you to produce that book.  You can't look at it like you've lost a profit margin - you have to look at it as a way to penetrate a new audience.

Also, in talking to proprietors of independent bookstores, offer a copy of your work for them to read if they'll consider stocking your work.  Notice I didn't say to make it a condition of getting a copy for them to definitely buy your book, only that they consider it.  If they like it, you might be able to find a distribution outlet, and a further inducement to that store owner would be for you to give them a large share of the margin(say 30% of the sales price, plus the ability to return, at no loss, any unsold books).  However, don't try to put your book on the shelf of a store that doesn't stock your book and walk away thinking you've been sneaky - the trick isn't new and is likely to get you blacklisted by the store.

Then there's the holy grail - getting a major publication to review your book for its customers.
Thing is, you have to be realistic.  As an unknown, you aren't going to end up in the Style section of the New York Times.  Try a local, free publication at first.  If you know someone at the local paper, try to yank on that string.  Ask a devoted reader to ask the publication for you.  The key here is that while shooting for the moon is nice, being realistic is more likely to build some credibility.  Slowly but surely get your name out there with these folks until you've gained enough recognition that you can try to move from Ma & Pa Kettle's Weekly Gossip Report to the Watauga Democrat(and hopefully beyond after that).

The most effective kind of marketing can be the most time consuming, but it can also be the one with the highest percentage of payoff - to the individual.  If you're just starting out and have the time, don't be afraid to talk to individuals.  Be polite - ie, at Uncle Joe's funeral is probably a bad idea - but try to bring your friends onboard.  If you're in a conversation with someone you don't know well but they indicate a reading preference, mention what you do.  I've met several contacts on airplanes as I wrote on my laptop and they got curious as to what I was doing, so I turned their nosiness to my advantage.  Several are now on the email list I'm building for Akeldama.

There are other ways to market, especially if you have the money or contacts to make it happen(radio, TV, buying print ads, etc.).  At the end of the day, you're the one who has to build your brand.  Newbie's are usually expected to do most of their initial marketing themselves, so while it would be nice for someone to show you the ropes, it's best if you have a plan before you find out there are limited lifejackets and a sea full of icebergs up ahead.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What Do You Want In An Agent?

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently on which route to pursue when it comes to my novels.  Do I want to go the traditional route or chance it by going indie/self-publishing.  As I pondered these things, I dwelled upon some of the aspects required for each, and one of the most prominent ones in regards to traditional publishing is the need for an agent.

An agent is supposed to be the one with all the contacts.  I've discussed this before, as the literary agent is the one with all the contacts in the publishing world and supposedly has the ability to get you past the gate and to where you need to be in order to have success.  However, I've recently begun to have doubts about the true utility of agents.  Oh, not whether or not they're really the ones who can get you the access you need, because clearly they can, but whether or not they really have the writer's best interests at heart.

Recent events have made me wonder if some of the agents out there are more interested in maintaining contacts than in looking after their clients.  I understand that they can't piss off the publishers too much or they'll find a lot of doors slammed in their faces, but some of the cozying up they do at the expense of better returns for their clients clearly shows a conflict of interest.

However, beyond that, I've begun to wonder at the role played by agents.  Not for the contacts, but for what they're supposed to do once they've gotten their client in the door.  Once the agent has gotten a publisher to show interest in a book, doesn't the main job become getting the best possible terms for the clients?  Shouldn't the nuances of contract law be an agent's bread and butter?
Most agents got into the business because they love books.  However, once I've gotten in, I don't care if they love books or not - what I want at that point is someone who knows how to get me, the client, the best deal possible.  You can bet that the publisher has a team of lawyers working to make sure they get as good a deal as they can.  It's not in the interest of the publisher to give perks to the author unless it benefits them in some way.  With that kind of firepower arrayed against you, shouldn't your agent be just as well versed in how to negotiate a contract?

Unfortunately, most of what I've seen tells me that most, although not all, agents really don't understand the varying clauses and their meanings.  Yes, there are a few who both love books and are lawyers, but those are rare, and their client lists are already mostly full.  For the rest of us, having a great book lover who wouldn't know the difference between a consideration clause and a considerate person sets us up for an epic fail.

Further, most agents I've encountered seem more to want to be writers than agents, except that they don't want to go through the messy work of creating the book themselves.  Instead, they'd rather someone else write most of it, then they'll critique it and tell you what you should change to make it better.  Well shit, don't most of us have ideas on what would make a story better?  Would that make us good agents?  Isn't re-framing the book and helping cut parts out or re-working other parts the job of an editor, not an agent?  When I want an editor, I'll hire one, but I'm asking for an agent.  Besides, don't the major publishers have tons of editors anyway?  Why are we adding yet another layer to the mix, and one whose edits are likely to be edited again?

Yes, this is a critical post, and it's meant to be that way.  The agents I've encountered are all good people, but I truly wonder if they have the skill sets required beyond simply having contacts on the inside.  I want a firebreather who can get me the best deal, not a starry-eyed book reader who thinks pro rata is a nifty new pasta dish down at the Olive Garden.