Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Business Side of Writing: the Agent Hunt

I've been talking to Heidi Mack, my Website Manager Extraordinaire, about putting some pdfs full of my take-it-or-leave-it advice for new writers on the sidebar of this blog. If I can get the technical side worked out, I'll create a little library for those of you who come here looking for information about the business side of writing.

I am going to pursue, as mentioned, the topics that the story in yesterday's post bring to mind, and that will be included in the library. However, I got an e-mail today that made me decide to postpone those posts a day or so in order to write about the agent hunt.

I won't repeat the whole e-mail message here or identify the sender, because even though I frankly found a lot of it ludicrous, I believe it was sent with the best of intentions and I don't want to expose the sender to ridicule.

The e-mailer wanted help for a friend who writes. He wants me to introduce the friend to my agent. (Both the e-mailer and his friend are complete strangers to me, by the way.) He is by no means the only person who has written such an e-mail to me. If this is something you've been thinking of doing, please don't.

Within this message, he made a statement that I suspect is believed by a great many people who don't know much about publishing:
As you know, you can only meet with a literary agent if you have a recommendation from another author.
This simply isn't true.

In fact, when I found my first agent, I didn't know any published writers.

There's a trap in the kind of thinking that's often behind statements like those of the e-mailer, a trap that I believe leads more new writers astray than almost any other. It's a trap that passes itself off as a balm for the hurt feelings of the rejected. It says publishing is an insider's game, a cabal of evil greedy bastards who delight in crushing the dreams of the artist before its golden altars of crass commercialism. The aspiring writer is told that only someone anointed by an insider will be allowed to be published.

What utter crap.

If you hear this kind of talk, walk away. Walk away from the embittered and impatient folks who offer supposedly easier paths, who love to strike poses as leaders of the rebellion for the downtrodden and rejected. What's often oppressing these folks isn't the publishing industry -- it's their own sense of entitlement and self-importance.

It's easy to be angry if someone turns you down, and to be lured by this kind of talk into making huge career mistakes.

So what's the deal with finding agents? Do you need a published writer to open the door for you?

Few of the writers I know got the help of published authors when looking for agents. Most writers I've talked to did a lot of homework, queried agents, and persisted like hell. They found someone who took an interest in their work and went on from there.

For the ones who had an author introduction to an agent, I know of no one who e-mailed a request to an author they barely knew (or never met) and got help that way. I'm sure someone out there will now post a comment about someone they heard about who did just that. I could probably find a stuffed two-headed calf in a taxidermy collection somewhere, but that doesn't mean I believe there are barns full of living ones all over the U.S..

So how did the new writers who got help from published authors manage to do that without begging for help from strangers by e-mail?

A few got involved in writers' organizations, got to know published writers well, and got advice from them on agents who might represent that type of manuscript -- although not necessarily a hand-carried introduction to an agent. Others took courses from authors at places like the UCLA Extension's Writers Program, and if they met an instructor who was willing to pass their work on to an agent, found one that way. A few were in writers' groups that included published authors, and got help that way. (I have mixed -- okay, mostly negative -- feelings about writers' groups, but that's for another post.)

So what else can you do if you have a polished manuscript ready to go? (Oh, you're worrying about this without having finished a manuscript? Stop reading now and get back to writing.)

You can also meet agents at the San Diego Writers Conference, the Book Passage Mystery Conference and other major, legitimate writing conferences.

These are important features that lead me to recommend these conferences, and you should look for similar features in other conferences you consider:
  • Well-established (the SDSU was founded in 1984, the Book Passage Conference is in its 14th year)
  • Connected with a reputable institution or organization
  • Offers an opportunity to meet with editors who are from major publishing houses and agents with established client lists
  • Offers an opportunity to have pages of your work read
  • Emphasizes teaching and has nuts-and-bolts workshops

What else should you do to find an agent?

Before you begin the hunt for an agent, you should carefully read the advice here:
Writer Beware
Writer Beware is must reading for all new writers -- and I wish more established writers, especially those who teach writing, would take a look at. If you're a new writer, you should read the pages of this site again and again, until you are sure you have grasped the warnings and advice there. Especially important -- read the Writer Beware List of the 20 Worst Agents.

Look for agents to send queries to here:
Association of Authors Representatives

Remember that there is no licensing requirement or other standard that must be met before a person can refer to himself or herself as an agent, so at the very least, protect yourself to some degree by going with agents who are in this professional organization. It’s important to read the Frequently Asked Questions section of the AAR site.

You can also get agents' names and information from a book available at most public libraries:
Literary Marketplace.

I recommend looking at these blogs:
The Writer Beware Blog

Miss Snark

Jennifer Jackson, especially this recent post.

Why do I recommend them? Writer Beware will help you to see why you don't need an agent, you need the right agent. I think the other two will help you to get a sense of the reality of the worklife of agents, and why some things new writers do to try to become their clients work well and others backfire big time. You'll get information from people in the business about the business. You may find agents who operate quite differently from these two, who disagree with them. But I think you'll learn something from reading their blogs. For example, Jennifer Jackson's statement that she gets 100 queries a week might help you to see why it might take a little time to get a response to your query. Miss Snark explains how it is that even those who meet her at conferences must query. (By the way, she's about to run the crapometer again, so you might take time to figure out what that is and how it may help you.)

I'll talk more about this at some point in the future, but I hope this has given some of you something to think about. I sincerely wish you all the best -- all writers benefit when talented new writers join our ranks. I also wish you the courage you'll need to remain persistent.

Photo above courtesy Mike Conners, from

Friday, March 30, 2007


A friend brought a Publishers Weekly article to my attention, about a scam used to get bookstores to order a title by a POD press.

You should also read this lively entry on the Seattle Mystery Bookstore's blog by JB Dickey.

And don't miss the Writer Beware blog information about the "publisher" in the post, Author Identity Publishing Redux.

I'll soon write more about some of the issues this story raises for new writers.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Goodbye Bloodstains, Hello Biohazards

Ever see the old movie Car Wash? Did my asking that make that Rose Royce song go through your head? For a couple hours? Sorry about that.

I thought of it today when I read a story from the 3/26/07 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer, "Bloody mess no crime scene."

It tells about the custodian at the Mr. Spotless Car Wash finding a big bunch of blood and bloodstained material near the vacuums. Understandably, he or she called the police.

Turns out a woman drove a friend (who had been injured in a fight) to the hospital, and after driving someone else around, decided to stop by the car wash and clean the blood out her car. I am curious to know how this was figured out, but the article doesn't give details.

The song says "you never know who you'll meet working at the car wash." Apparently you never know what you'll meet, either. Be careful out there!

Friday, March 23, 2007

More About the Tommy Bowman Case

Kenneth Todd Ruiz of the Pasadena Star News wrote several stories that appeared in local papers this week about the new progress in the investigation of Tommy Bowman's disappearance, the case I talked about in a post here yesterday.

"Caltrans documents may lead to bodies" tells of new efforts to search CalTrans archives for information about freeway construction sites where convicted child killer Mack Ray Edwards worked. He was known to bury victims near those freeways. If you click on that link, also take time to watch "Disappearance of Tommy Bowman," a video interview with Weston DeWalt.

Another story,"Author sought closure for family of missing RB boy " gives more background on DeWalt's investigation, which has resulted in new leads in the case. (RB is an abbreviation for Redondo Beach, California, where Tommy's family lived at the time of his disappearance.)

Today, the 50th anniversary of Tommy's disappearance, a story about Tommy's father and family, "After 50 years, father still mourns," was published.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Half a century later, a cold case may be solved

This story, which I first saw in the Los Angeles Times, is remarkable in a number of ways. It's the chilling cold case story of Mack Ray Edwards, a man who confessed in 1970 to molesting and killing six children in the Los Angeles area. A man who, before hanging himself in his prison cell two years later, said the number of children he molested and murdered was actually eighteen. The 1957 disappearance of a child who may be one of those eighteen -- and cases of several other possible victims -- are receiving new attention.

Also remarkable is how the new attention came about. Weston DeWalt -- perhaps you know him as the co-author of The Climb or from his Salon debate with Jon Krakauer -- is a Pasadena writer who has been researching the disappearance of Tommy Bowman, an 8-year-old boy. Bowman disappeared fifty years ago, during a family outing in Arroyo Seco. DeWalt came across an old newspaper photograph of Edwards under arrest. DeWalt felt he had seen Edwards's face before -- and remembered a sketch in the Pasadena Police Department files on Bowman's case. Later, he uncovered other evidence that points to the possibility that Bowman was murdered by Edwards.

I'll let you follow the link to see more about this, but although you may be drawn to the other aspects of the story, I hope it will also give you a sense of how great and unending an impact a missing person case can have on a family.

As those of you who've read my books or who visit here regularly know, I believe one of the areas where we severely underutilize the promise of forensic science and other investigative processes is in missing persons cases. We don't put enough funding or effort into getting DNA samples loaded into national databases, in helping medical examiners offices to make better use of the Web for John and Jane Doe cases, for staffing of investigative units, or other relatively straightforward steps help solve these cases.

According to the FBI, as of Janurary, 2007, there are nearly 51,000 active cases of missing adults in U.S. -- and 6,218 active cases of unidentified persons. Yet the nonprofit National Center for Missing Adults is severely short of funds. If you do nothing else today, please stop by their site and donate a buck or two or whatever you can afford.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports on the numbers for children, based on two studies by the Department of Justice:

To date, two such studies have been completed. The first, entitled National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-1), was released in 1990; the second, known as NISMART-2, was
released in October 2002. According to NISMART-2, an estimated
• 797,500 children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period, resulting in an average of 2,185 children reported missing each day;
• 203,900 children were abducted by family members;
• 8,200 children were abducted by persons outside the family; and
• 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping. These crimes involve someone the child does not know, or knows only slightly, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.
Think of missing a loved one for years at a time, without knowing what has become of him or her, and you will just begin to imagine what a hell hundreds of thousands of people in the US alone are living through. Here's hoping investigators in LA County are able to end that hell for a few families.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Feeling better

Thanks to those of you who contacted me here and off-list. I'm feeling much better.

I'm not usually one who talks a whole lot about minor illnesses, having too many friends who've battled major ones to feel that a case of the flu is much to talk about. But I realize that some people make an art form of it, and I've been reflecting on some of the styles of reporting minor illnesses I've observed among friends and others over the years.

The Historian
This is the person who answers your question, "How have you been?", with a recital that starts with "Well, two weeks ago, I think it was Tuesday, I felt a little tickle in my throat. And then on Wednesday, I sneezed three times...." He or she will continue in this vein, building symptoms, recovery, and relapse into a saga worthy of a six-hour mini-series, and it will seem to you that you've already been on the phone about that long.

The Effluence Detailers
These folks feel compelled to describe in great detail the appearance anything that came out of any orifice during the course of their illness. The people who inspired others to coin the phrase "too much information."

The Child Effluence Detailers
These are parents who forget that with the possible exception of a child's grandmothers and one or two mothers at the day care center, absolutely no one wants to hear about the frequency with which things that were in the child ended up on the outside of the child, nor do they want to know about the quantity, color, or rate of acceleration of such effluence. If you think you might be tempted to use this phrase:

It was like something out of The Exorcist...

do not tell the story.

This goes double for pet owners.

The Hypochondriacal Reviewers
These are the people who tell you about all the pangs of anxiety they experienced while contemplating the horrible diseases their flu symptoms might have represented. It doesn't matter that they have known for days that it was the flu -- that's really not the point. No, it's a journey of one freakish self-diagnosis after another. "And then I was really worried, because you know, a fever of 100 degrees is a symptom of [name any deadly disease]." They will congratulate themselves on narrowly escaping a fate that was not within a thousand miles of real likelihood.

I am sure there are others....

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Hurricane Damaged Libraries

...still need your help. But don't send them books.


Libraries have to build collections carefully, so imagine what happens if they get nothing but truckloads of old bestsellers, worn paperbacks, and outdated science textbooks. (You wouldn't do that, I'm sure, but the rest of the country isn't always as smart as you are.) Besides, they need to repair buildings and replace shelves, and things like that. So how can you help?

You can read about ways to help the recovery efforts of the New Orleans Public Library here.
You can even order a T-Shirt that will help raise money for the library!

The State Library of Louisiana site asks that people please stop sending books, however financial help for Louisiana's other libraries affected by Katrina and Rita is still needed.

Checks may be made out to:
Louisiana Library Foundation
PO Box 2583
Baton Rouge, LA 70821

For libraries in Mississippi, Friends of Mississippi Libraries, working with the Library Commission and MLA, has established a fund for donations to rebuild those MS libraries severely damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Tax-deductible donations can be made by sending your contributions to:

Rebuild Mississippi Libraries Fund
c/o AmSouth Bank
210 E. Capitol Street
Jackson, MS 39201

Thanks in advance for your generosity!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


That's the politest of my several proposed names for the virus that currently has me Flat On My Ass.

I'll spare you the ugly particulars...the only thing worse than having the flu is listening to someone describe their symptoms in whining detail.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

It's Not Just for St. Patrick's Day Any More

If you live in or visit the San Diego area, and want to find some great Irish food, I highly recommend Thornton's Irish Pub & Chop House in El Cajon, California. I was there a few days ago, celebrating my sister Tonya's birthday.

Any gathering of people in my family supplies fine company -- you're on your own for that, sorry I can't help you there. But if you happen to be in the area, I can recommend that you stop by Thornton's. The friendliness of the place, the attentive service, and excellent food make this one worthy of a visit.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

My least favorite day of the year approaches

It's a sin to go to bed on the same day you get up.
~Jimmy Walker, Mayor of New York City in the 1920s

Although I've long known the quotation in a slightly different form, I've finally found out who said it. By 1920, Daylight Saving Time had only been around for a couple of years, and I wouldn't be surprised if it led to Mr. Walker's proclamation.

If you think it's a bit much to label the "early to bed" behavior a sin, I can only tell you that you must try walking around in the night owls' shoes to realize how amusing it is to see the tables turned.

Night owls are constantly labeled as lazy, just because they don't adhere to the "larks'" schedule. Most night owls try not to disturb the larks' sleep, while forced to try to sleep through the larks' extreme daytime noisiness. Over the years I've heard my lifelong circadian rhythms labeled a "sleep disorder," been told that only people who are up to no good are up at night, had larks who spend far more hours lying about than I do tell me that I'm a slug-a-bed if I don't want to answer the phone at nine in the morning. We night owls are often forced to live with the larks' business hours, or were until the Internet freed a lot of us with its 24/7 convenience.

Some of you who have been in Sisters in Crime for a long time may remember my "Night Owl Manifesto." As I said then, I loathe "spring forward" and love "fall back." So you can imagine how unhappy I am that this year, Daylight Saving Time arrives here in the U.S. a month earlier than usual, on March 11 at 2 AM. Since I'll probably be up when it suddenly becomes 3 AM, it may not be as disorienting for me as for some. But there goes an hour of the lovely night.

I found an interesting discussion and history of Daylight Saving Time on the "Web Exhibits" site. Made me realize how much we take standardized time itself for granted. For many years, the time was whatever the locals agreed it was. (Makes one wonder about those time machines in futuristic fiction that can take a person back to "4:15:01 PM on January 10, 1608." I'll save the calendar discussion for another day.) As the site mentions, "Britain was the the first country to set the time throughout a region to one standard time," and most of the country was on GMT by 1855, although the law establishing it throughout the country didn't pass until 1880.

This desire to standardize time was in response to the demands of the railroads, who also exerted pressure in the U.S., although the first person to try to make a push for it in the U.S. was an amateur astronomer and correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, William Lambert, who brought the idea before Congress in 1809. (I suspect many amateur astromers are night owls, too.) According to the Web Exhibits site:
Standard time in time zones was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads on November 18, 1883. Prior to that, time of day was a local matter, and most cities and towns used some form of local solar time, maintained by a well-known clock (on a church steeple, for example, or in a jeweler's window). The new standard time system was not immediately embraced by all, however.
Apparently, Daylight Saving Time was an idea of Ben Franklin's that took a couple of centuries to take root. Too soon for my tastes.

All of this probably falls under the category of "more than you really wanted to know," and if so, just take this as a reminder for those of you in the U.S. to set your clocks forward and check the batteries in your smoke detectors this weekend.

For my fellow night owls, let's just keep to ourselves all the finer aspects of the long, quiet hours of the night and of greeting dawn at the end of one's day.

Maybe old Ben meant something entirely different by "early to bed."

The lovely photo of the owl, above, is used courtesy of Bob Wragg, who kindly made it available on

Another fun addiction

A friend sent me a link to this site, which will tell you how popular your name or your friends' names were in the U.S. during the last 100 years, provided the name was in the top 1000 names during a given decade. The stats are derived from Social Security records.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Calling all Californians

Please take a minute to go over to the CLP Forum and read the post "AB 1079 - A New Crime Lab Bill in California" and then take another minute to use the links on that post to contact your Assembly member in the California legislature.

It's important! Assessing the forensic science needs of the state is the first step in making sound plans.

Feel free to forward this message to every Californian you know.

Friday, March 02, 2007

My fascination with the CMOS Q&A

I've asked myself why I like reading the Chicago Manual of Style's Q&A page so much. The answer isn't that I'm fastidious in matters grammatical. (To phrase it awkwardly.) I never get a manuscript back from a copy editor without realizing that I have caused that person to do a lot of work.

As with my heavily marked-up manuscripts, I do always learn something when a new Q&A is posted on the CMOS's Web site. But that's not the attraction.

Alas, I must admit that what I really enjoy is reading the entries where the "Q" is posted by someone who is high dudgeon over the perceived misuse of some phrase, term, or punctuation mark by his or her colleagues, and in the "A" the questioner is told -- in the politest way, of course -- that he or she is trying to force others to adhere to a rule that doesn't exist.

Kind of a double-reverse schadenfreude on my part, I admit, but there you have it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


So, as someone asked in Marathon Man, "Is it safe?"

The Schedule is Updated

Think of the above as the way I'm beginning to feel about my to-do list, from the view of the mother bird. One of those weeks, but I did manage to get a note off to super-Webmaven Heidi Mack to let her know about a few additions and changes to my schedule of public appearances. So, if you're wondering if I'll be in your area any time soon, you should take a look at this page of my site.

Photo above used courtesy of Shadetree, from