In search of a rudder

Back when my first book was published, I had an idea for a column at LitReactor: I’d reach out to authors I knew and ask them to tell me the one thing they wished they’d known when they released their first book. I figured I’d get some good anecdotes.

I scrapped the piece because I kept hearing the same thing: “I wish I had an agent.” I heard this from some well-respected, big-time authors. And I couldn’t write a piece that was just the same piece of advice over and over.

There’s a lot of debate about whether you should have an agent. I’m firmly in the “should” column. At least, when it comes to me and my goals.

I work in publishing, I deal with contracts, I understand the language and the subrights and all that—but I also don’t want to deal with that shit. I’d rather someone else do it for me. I’ll pay 15 percent to let someone do the heavy lifting. That’s time I can spend writing.

It’s also nice to know someone has your back. To rein you in, to give you advice, to commiserate. To give you a guiding hand when you need it.

I never appreciated how important those things were until a few months ago.

My agent, with whom I had a good relationship, decided for personal reasons to leave the field. It’s not an acrimonious situation and I wish her the best. It was a little disappointing—I considered her a friend—but it’s also a problem with a solution: Go out and find another.

There are a couple of things counting in my favor: In the past two years I’ve published four books, to pretty strong reviews and sales. Publishers Weekly gave some nice kudos to my next book, The Woman from Prague (starred review, naming it one of the best books of the summer). I’m co-writing a novella with James Patterson, which is kinda fancy. My agent didn’t drop me, which can really count against you (potential agents will wonder if your sales suck, if you’re a jerk, if you’re difficult to work with, etc.).

There’s one big thing counting against me: I don’t have anything done. I can’t really search in earnest until I have a book finished, in hand, ready to go.

Immediately after my agent skedaddled, another agent—someone I respect—offered to take me on. It was tough but I declined. Given my genre and my goals, I thought it would be better, career-wise, to work with someone more intimately familiar with the players in the crime and mystery field.

It’s a weird thing to say no to an agent, considering how much of the query process feels so sacred, and so imbalanced in terms of who has the power.

For the past few months I’ve felt rudderless. I threw myself into researching new projects. I read a lot. I outlined. I wrote 70,000 words of a novel I’m not sure is coming together.

I’ve cracked open the fifth and final Ash McKenna book, for which I don’t have a contract. The book is tentatively due by the end of the year and I’m sure I can hit that deadline, but now I’m left wondering what comes after.

For a while now I’ve been stuck between three potential projects. Two are big swings (one of which is the 70K I already have down).

The third is, I think, a little “safer.”

So there’s a lot to consider. Do I go with the safer project, knowing it might earn me the goodwill to take those big swings later? Do I come out with the big swing now because, fuck it, sometimes you gotta go yard?

I kept thinking it’d be nice to formulate a game plan with an agent, who understands the wants and needs of the market, the potential salability of what I’m kicking around…

(For the record, this isn’t a “woe is me” story. I’m doing okay. And I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t give a shit about the artistic end. I do. But given I work in publishing it’s pretty easy to divorce myself from that and look at my situation with an outside, dispassionate eye.)

So, the point is, the more I thought about this, the more I dug myself into a hole of self-doubt and shiny-thing syndrome.

Until I realized I’m creating a problem for myself.

I’m breaking one of my own rules: Shut the fuck up and write.

The distance between a writer and a published writer can be measured in finished projects.

Having an agent isn’t a magic bullet. A lot of the writing process is knuckling down. People ask me how I write so much and it strikes me as a silly question. I write. How else is it going to get done? There’s no incantation to slow the rotation of the earth, no exercises that allow me to type 200 words a minute. The work gets done or it doesn’t, and I like when work gets done.

It’s hard, too, when you have a lot of ideas (you should see my Google docs…). Depending on my mood, the time of day, the direction of the wind, I might think one is better than the others, and ten minutes later that could change.

Again, creating a problem for myself. I let myself lose focus, and put the blame for that on not having an agent—like I need supervision and permission to write.

I don’t. What I need to do is pick a project and commit to it and finish it and then start the query process.

Honestly, I think I’m having a bit of a publishing-life crisis, where I’m on the verge of leaving the safe confines of an ongoing series, setting a course in uncharted waters. My next project will likely be in third person. Third person! How the fuck do you even write a third person narrative?!

It’s all pretty nerve-wracking. Especially because of how easily it is now to slip into Ash’s voice. I feel like I blinked and had the first 10,000 words of the fifth book.

Whether my first post-Ash book is salable or the “right one” or a big swing or whatever, it doesn’t really matter.

All it needs to be is something I believe in, and done.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that. To get lost in the mud of uncertainty. Because, god, what a fleeting fucking profession this is. Sometimes you need to remind yourself of certain things.

So I wrote a come-to-Jesus blog post.

I’ve got my project. The one I want to be next, after Ash.

It’s a big swing. I’ve got a loose outline and 20,000 meandering words and tons of research. It’s the project I feel passionately about. It does that thing I love about books, that made me want to be a writer in the first place.

It speaks to a problem.

I want to take a big swing. That’s who I am, and that’s what I want. That’s all that matters in any of this. It took me a few months to realize that. It feels like lost time, but also, it’s not. It’s the space I needed.

Back to work, and come what may.

Talking ‘Hannibal’ at Split Screens

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Next month is IFC’s inaugural Split Screens Festival, celebrating all that’s cool and awesome on TV.

As part of that, on June 8, they’re screening “The Wrath of the Lamb”, the show’s very excellent series finale (where Hannibal and Will should have kissed but didn’t and that made me a little sad).

Afterward, there’s going to be a Skype chat with series creator Bryan Fuller, along with a panel of people talking about the show’s artistic impact.

This is the kind of event I’d love to just attend… so it’s real damn cool that I’m actually going to be one of those panelists, alongside some very cool, very talented folks.

Check it out. Then check out the other events. The whole festival looks aces, top to bottom.

Me and PW

IMG_7496.JPGI was flying into Chicago for an event. Usually I’m a sucker for in-flight wifi, but given that I didn’t have my laptop and I was in the middle of reading a really good book (The Force by Don Winslow), I didn’t pony up for it.

When the plane touched down, I turned off ‘airplane mode’ and the first e-mail to pop up on the screen was from my publisher.

The subject line was: “Holy. Shit.”

I figured it was good news. I was shocked to find out how good it was: Publishers Weekly, the premiere trade magazine for the publishing industry, picked my next book, The Woman from Prague, as one of the best reads of the summer.

Time for some real talk: A lot of authors will tell you reviews and lists don’t matter. I think at least some of those authors are lying. Whenever a new “hot books of the season” list comes out, of course I check it, on the off chance one of my books made the cut. This is rarely the case. That space tends to be reserved for the Big 5 publishers or the hyped literary darlings. It’s rare to see something like what I write: A genre book from a smaller publisher.

So to make a list like that is pretty incredible. And it meant a lot coming from Publishers Weekly. Here’s why: They said some nice things about my first book, but dinged me on the plot (fair). For the second book, they praised the plot but dinged me on tone (also fair). For the third, it was smooth sailing. All praise, no dings.

I hoped for the fourth book I’d make it a step higher—a starred review. If I was improving as a writer, that would be the natural progression. Maybe it’s a silly benchmark. Maybe that’s not even how I should be thinking about it. But I did. I wanted that star.

When the list came out, there was a little blurb about The Woman from Prague, and under that there was a link you could click to see the full review. Every time I clicked it (and I clicked it a lot), it would say the review wasn’t available yet.

Weeks passed. Every now and again I’d be working on something and click over to see if it was posted. It went from habit to tic. I’d do it without even realizing I was doing it.

Even knowing that new reviews tend to go up on Fridays, I would do this all week long. Morning and night. When the review finally posted, I froze.

IMG_7497.JPGI got my star.

And a hell of a nice pull quote: “Hart’s Kafkaesque fourth novel featuring amateur PI Ash McKenna has great pace, a fascinating relationship between the central characters, and superb atmosphere… Noir fans will be enthralled.”

They went one better, too, putting a picture of my goofy mug at the front of the review section. I don’t tend to keep mementoes, or else I do and end up tossing them after a few years because I don’t like clutter.

But this is a thing I’ll keep.

From a technical book-selling standpoint, this is great: A starred review tends to mean more orders from bookstores and libraries. And the timing couldn’t be better. This is the first book in the series that’ll come out in hardcover, a format which tends to be more popular with libraries.

So right off the bat, more copies should (in theory) go out the door.

It speaks to the importance of trade reviews. The average reader doesn’t know what Publishers Weekly is, but the people who keep the gears of the industry turning—they do.

And, it’s a nice little feather in my cap, as I’m currently without an agent. Mine retired, which means when I finish my next book, I’ll be back on the market. This certainly will not hinder the search.

For as happy as I am from a business perspective, I’ve even more happy from a writing perspective. The trajectory of the reviews was going up, which I took as a good sign: My first book will always be special and important, but I also want it to be the worst book I ever write.

I want the last book I ever write to be the best.

Whether I accomplish that, who knows, all this shit is subjective. But it’s nice to see something that could serve as evidence that, yeah, maybe I am getting better at this.

(Oh, and, hey, The Woman from Prague comes out July 11—you can pre-order it here.)

Join the street team for ‘The Woman from Prague’

WFPDo you want to read The Woman from Prague before anyone else? Then join the Ash McKenna street team!

Here’s how it works: Sign up at this link, tell me your preferred eBook format, and I’ll send you an advance reader copy.

(Sorry, print galleys are limited at this time—I can only accommodate people who’ve sold their soul to the electronic devil that is the eReader.)

Nothing in life is free, of course. This is mostly free but I’m going to ask a few things in return.

  • Add it on Goodreads and post an honest review when you’re done (if you have a Goodreads account).
  • Post an honest review of the book on Amazon the day of release (July 11).

That’s it! You might get some swag in the mail at some point too. We’ll see about that.

So, you down? Want to join? Get moving. Spots are limited. Click here.

Naked Girls Reading on April 14

On April 14, Naked Girls Reading will host a Night of Noir at Vol 39 in Chicago.

For those of you unfamiliar with NGR, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Naked woman reading from books. ‘Cause as they say, you can’t spell literature without T and A.

(Literally, that’s what they say—it’s their slogan.)

One of their readers will be presenting excerpts from New Yorked. And while I don’t need to be there for it, it seems dumb to stay home. I’ll be there, selling books and signing them.

So, if you’re in or around Chicago, and you’re comfortable with adult-themed activities, come to this thing! More info and ticket information at this link.

I’ll also be around most of the day and some of the next morning (hangover pending) so if you just want to say hello, that could work, too.

2016 in Review: The Non-Fiction

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Here’s a bunch of the non-fiction stuff I did in 2016!

A Story and a Scar – Pediatric Congenital Heart Association

On Overcoming a Deadly Case of Writer’s Block – LitHub

10 Authors with Tattoos Inspired by Their Own Books – Electric Literature

Eight Writing Lessons from Hamilton: The Revolution – LitHub

Yes, Road House is a Western – Birth.Movies.Death

Eight Tips For Increasing Your Writing Output, From A Very Busy Writer – LitReactor

On The Rituals Of Writers: New Books, Burnt Offerings, and Fried Zucchini – LitReactor

Finding Story Inspiration in Strip Clubs – LitReactor

Path to Publication: The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Second Novel – LitReactor

2016 in Review: The Interviews

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I’m a big fan of interviews, and this year I interviewed a lot of people at LitReactor. I’m not going to lie to you—a lot of these people are folks who had books coming out, and I wanted to read them early, and this gave me an excuse to request advance reading copies.

But hey, whatever works!

As we close out 2016, and my last interview for the year has officially up at LitReactor, I wanted to share them again. There’s a lot of really cool folks here, offering up good, fun, thoughtful information.

A Conversation With Alex Segura About PR, Archie Comics, And His New Novel ‘Down the Darkest Street’

A Conversation with Nick Mamatas About Lovecraft’s Legacy, Writing Conventions, and His New Novel ‘I Am Providence’

A Conversation With Todd Robinson About France, Gay Characters in Crime Fiction, and His New Novel ‘Rough Trade’

A Conversation With Chloe Caldwell About Truth, Sugar Packets, and Her New Collection ‘I’ll Tell You In Person’

A Conversation With Chris Holm About Editing, Redemption, and His New Novel ‘Red Right Hand’

A Conversation With Ben H. Winters About Racism, Outlining, and His New Novel ‘Underground Airlines’

A Conversation With Dana Kaye About PR, Harsh Realities of Promo, And ‘Your Book, Your Brand’

A Conversation With Bracken MacLeod About Work-For-Hire, Horror Versus Crime, and His New Novel ‘Stranded’

A Conversation With D. Foy about ‘Gutter Opera’, The Rigors And Worth Of Touring, And His New Novel ‘Patricide’

A Conversation With Tobias Carroll On Short Stories Versus Novels, Teaching, And His Two New Books, ‘Reel’ And ‘Transitory’

A Conversation with Tiffany Scandal About Portland, Second-Person Narratives, And Her New Novella ‘Shit Luck’

A Conversation with Kelly Abbott, Founder of the New Short Story App ‘Great Jones Street’