How I got an agent

So before Movie Title Typos, I wrote novels. Plural, because I wrote two. The first I finished three or four years ago. It was about sidekicks in a world where superheroes had been wiped out. I got more than 20 rejections from agents, all with the same feedback, “You’re a good writer and we like your voice, but this won’t sell.” I was also told at least a half dozen times to turn it into a graphic novel. That had me like:

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Which, yes, fine, it would make more sense as a comic, but at the time I really wanted it to be a novel. Still, I had been to enough writing conferences to see more than a few of those mid-50s writers holding on to that one manuscript they’d written over 20 years ago, convinced it was just one more revision away from getting published. You know the type. Just this in repeat:

I didn’t want to be that, so I shelved that book and considered my time spent on it a learning experience.

Then I wrote another novel, this one a contemporary take on Aladdin. It’s set in high school, and there’s no princess, or magic carpet, and the genie is kind of an ass. I finished this one in late 2012 and started sending it out to agents.

Quick aside, I’ve been asked how I found agents and how I queried. I used agentquery.com, which would often lead me to Publisher’s Marketplace or an agency’s website, and then to a specific agent’s twitter feed or personal site. I would look for agents that represented work like mine, then I’d send out personalized queries, no more than five at a time. It’s a long process, and it can take months to hear anything back from agents, but that’s how it goes. 

I had some early readers going through my Aladdin book while I was sending it around, and one of them came back to me and told me I needed to change the perspective from third to first. That would mean rewriting the entire book. At first I was like:

But then I rewrote the first chapter and was like:

So I spent the next year or so slowly rewriting the book. Turns out it’s more than just doing a find and replace on pronouns. Every description was now coming from the main character, so if it wasn’t something he’d say, it had to be changed to fit his voice. It took a while. 

While I worked on that, life happened. I left Red Ventures, then went back three months later. I had another kid, I took a bunch of art classes online, and then there was this:

I’ve always been a writer who liked to draw, but for many, Movie Title Typos swapped my talents. People thought of me as an artist who could write, despite writing being my main profession for nearly a decade. I bring that up only because it’s still crazy to me that my first published book was a bunch of illustrated jokes, not a novel.

So I got through the book launch, finished off that novel rewrite (and totally included a link to Chronicle Books' Movie Title Typos page in my query, to show I'm a legit maker of things), and started sending it out again in October 2015. This time I was trying to be even more deliberate and picky with who I sent it to—I wanted an agent who could rep me as an author and an illustrator. Normally when people see author-illustrator they think children’s books. While I’d definitely like to do those, I didn’t want to be pinned to them. I needed someone who could rep me as a creative person, someone who could support my whole career, not just my current project. 

That’s where Allison Devereux of Wolf Literary Services comes in. I sent her a query immediately after getting a rejection from another agent (protip: when you get a rejection, immediately send out a new query, or at least start researching who you’ll send it to next. For me, it helps me move on and not take it personally. An agent has to be pumped about your book, and if they’re not, you don’t want them anyway).

Allison liked my query and my sample pages and requested the full manuscript just a day or two after the initial query. I got her request right after landing in Arkansas for a visit to my brother’s house. I got off the plane like:

I sent her the full thing on a Thursday night, then on Sunday night got an email from her. She’d bumped my book to the top of her to-read list and blew through it over the weekend. She loved it! She wanted to talk on the phone Monday morning! I did a bit of this:

Then responded all cool like:

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The next morning I borrowed my brother’s office and talked to Allison. She really did love the book! If it seems like I was surprised it’s only because the only people that had read it so far were the people who rejected it. I mean, I thought it was good…but I’m biased. Allison loved all the things I’d hoped people would love, and she also totally nailed the themes I was going for. For the first 15 or 20 minutes of our phone call she told me all the things she thought were great and I just sat there with a mixture of this:

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And this: 

Then we got to talking about her and her agency and how we might work together. As thrilled as I was to have someone pumped about my book, I needed to make sure this would be a good working relationship. 

Allison had no problem with my “do all the things” approach, in fact she said I was her favorite kind of client to have. She said the agency would be happy to help with illustration stuff if I wanted them to, they’d even help me with big contracts if I needed some assistance. This was looking pretty good, but what sealed the deal was when I asked Allison about herself and career and she told me the first book she ever sold was a book of illustrated parodies. 

Huh. Where have I seen one of those?

I told Allison I’d like to work together, and she said she’d get right to work on line edits of my novel. She said my book didn’t read like it was my first, and that most of her suggested edits would be small—no big sweeping structural changes. That’s pretty cool. 

Once I get those back and make the revisions, we’re off! Allison will send it out to editors, and hopefully we’ll get this book sold. Then I’ll have a novel AND a book of goofy illustrations on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

No big deal.

Wanna Be in the Book Biz? Do These Things

Occasionally I get emails from people looking to get a book published. They usually go something like this:

“I have an amazing idea for a children’s book and I’d love if you illustrated it. My daughter/nephew/grandchildren love when I tell it. I’m sure it will make tons of money. If you will illustrate it we can split the profits.”

Or something like this:

“I see you write. I’ve written some stuff too. A full novel actually. Would you like to edit it for me? Do you have any contacts I should send it to?”

The answer to both of those emails is no. It’s not because I don’t care about what you’re doing, it’s because I’m not the man to do it. I’m super busy working on my own stuff over here. Plus I’m pretty selective about the projects I take on because my time is limited (husband, father, day job--that kind of stuff). What I can do is provide you with a handy checklist. A place to get started if you haven't done so already.

You Should Do These Things

The following is a list of things you should strongly consider doing. They won’t guarantee your book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but they will help you create meaningful connections and teach you a thing or two you might not have known otherwise.

Join the SCBWI

If you write children’s, middle grade or young adult books or illustrate, this is a must. It’s a goldmine of information. Join here.

Go to a SCBWI conference

Regional conferences are everywhere. Go to one. Meet people, attend lectures. Learn. I guarantee you will walk away from your first conference with a headful of things you didn't know before.

Join a critique group

They aren’t hard to find or get in to. You might be able to find one through SCBWI connections (which you've already established right?). Some are conducted in person, some over email. Get people that aren’t related to you looking at your stuff. People that know more than you and/or are striving toward the same thing.

Read!

With the Kindle app available for just about everything with a screen, there’s no reason to not read books in your genre. You learn through osmosis with this stuff. It’s easy and enjoyable education.

Practice

You should be writing or illustrating as much as you can. Write short stories, scribble out doodles. You will get better just by doing it. Practice might not make you perfect, but it will make you confident.

Diversify

Don’t write one story or draw one picture and cling to it as your only project. In other words, put those eggs in multiple baskets! You never know where the market will go next. That amazing vampire romance novel you just finished is probably going to need to be shelved for a while. That’s okay, work on something else.

Stay in the loop

You don’t have to have a blog or a Twitter account as long as you follow those that do. Get online and follow some authors and agents. Keep an eye on the world you want to be a part of. Join the conversation—the book world is full of friendly folks.

Research

When it’s time to submit to agents or editors, take the time to do your research! Make every query letter unique. Send only to people you know would be interested in what you do.

There you go. I’ve been seriously working on the things in the list above since late 2008. Yep, that’s four years of work on top of a day job. Two written novels and two illustrated books and I feel like I’m almost there. For some people it’s a faster process, for some it’s even longer. Like I said, you don't have to do these things, but you should. Be warned, they'll cost time and money.  If any of the above seems like too much work, then bad news bears: you don’t really want it. For reals. There are no shortcuts. I’ll leave you with my favorite Thomas Edison quote:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

My Influence map

This is a meme that's been around for a while, but one well worth participating in. We all have different creative influences in our lives. These are mine. They aren't in any order--some influenced me more than others depending on where I was in my life at the time. Some of them continue to influence me, even inspire me at times. What does your influence map look like?

Update: Jim asked if I’d explain my influence map, so here it is:

Numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 9, and 11 are my art influences. You may notice some stylistic similarities between them. They all have a cartoonish, heavily stylized look to them, and they all emphasize smooth flowing lines and detail through simplicity. Number 1, Bobby Chiu, is the most practical influence because I took a class at Schoolism.com taught by him. He gave me personal instruction and tips that helped improve my art a great deal. The art of Penny Arcade influences and inspires, mainly because I’ve been reading the web comic for years and I’ve watched it improve, which is cool. The artist at Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik, has mentioned Stephen Silver (9) and Ben Caldwell (3) as influences for his art as well. As for Disney’s Aladdin, that was just a watershed moment for me when I was a kid. The animation, the story, the computer animated magic carpet ride (which hasn’t really aged well); it was all amazing to me. I was the only eight year old raving about the quality of animation and design in a movie.

Number 5, video games, influenced me in a number of ways. From the music I listen to, to the stories I’m interested in. I’ve been playing them since I was old enough to grip a controller, so I’m deeply ingrained in game culture. Video game magazines like EGM and Next Generation got me interested in writing and journalism. Watching the technology, storytelling opportunity and industry grow over the years has been a lot of fun. Video games inspire and excite me and it’s great to be a part of the culture as it grows and matures with me. 

That leaves my writing influences.

Number 2 is Stephen King and particularly his book, “On Writing”, which I consider a must for would-be writers. I’ve also always admired King’s characterization skills. He can craft some amazingly deep characters, especially villains.

Number 7 is Christopher Moore. He writes humorous novels, and I’ve read most of them. I like Moore because he writes comedy with heart. He can pull off crass and heartfelt on the same page. His book “Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” is hilarious, well-researched, sad, heartwarming and, like many of his books, a tad bit insane.

Number 8 is mythology in general. I took a course on mythology in grad school and it shifted my entire worldview. There’s a weird connectivity in mythology that spans cultures, classes, religions and continents. It’s fascinating. Joseph Campbell, the author of “The Power of Myth” and other influential books on mythology, spent his life drawing meaning from and interpreting mythology. His work has influenced numerous storytellers, most famously George Lucas and the original (as in, not the crappy one) Star Wars trilogy.

Finally there’s number 10, “Life of Pi”. It’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times, and the only book I have more than two copies of. I think I read it at an important time in my life, because Pi’s journey struck a chord that continues to resonate. I enjoy his quest for spirituality—with his earnest and honest mixing of religions—in the early part of the book as much as I like the harrowing journey at sea with the tiger.

There are other influences I could have included, but I tried to narrow it down to the biggest influencers. I also had to really think about which things influenced me and which inspire me. My inspiration map would be much larger and feature some of the artists and writers above. 

The End of LA Noire

Warning: The following blog contains SPOILERS for LA Noire, Red Dead Redemption, the first episode of Mad Men, and The Departed.


It feels like it took me most of the summer, but I finally finished LA Noire. As a whole, I really enjoyed the game--it took some risks, and in some areas, it paid off. But the ending? Man, that was totally unsatisfying. And I feel like the best way to show why, is to start from the final scene and go backwards. Let the nerd rant begin!

Who cares?
The final scene takes place at Cole Phelps' funeral. The eulogy is delivered by a crooked cop and the stage is filled with crooked government officials--all of which Cole had hoped to bust. It's a scene very similar to the modern noire movie The Departed. The viewer is left feeling sad, tricked, vengeful and angry for the main character, but also a tiny bit happy, because in a small way, he did some good.  It's a tone that reminds you how fragile life is, and that in the real world, it takes more than one man to topple a corrupt system. At least, that's how you feel at the end of The Departed. Why? Because the makers of the film were able to build a connection between you and the main character, in two hours or less.

You do not feel that way about Cole Phelps at the end of LA Noire. There is no connection, which is amazing since you spend not just two, but more than 12 hours actually controlling the man. Unfortunately staring at the back of a guy's head for hours on end is a poor substitute for character development. Let me be clear, I'm not upset that Cole dies at the end; happy endings aren't exactly a noire staple. These type of stories usually deal in pessimism, nihilism, cynicism and several other pejorative "isms". What bothers me is the incompleteness of the entire package. I couldn't shake the feeling that some important scenes got cut from the game, at least I hope they did. If not, that means the developers just outright forgot to include them.

Wait...what?
Don Draper, the main character in the AMC drama Mad Men, is a scumbag. That's not really a spoiler. I've only watched the first two seasons, but I've seen him sleep with enough women that aren't his wife to know that he's got a problem. I don't like infidelity, it's terrible, and I hate that men are stupid and cheat, but I still enjoy Mad Men--a show where just about every male with a speaking role is cheating on his significant other. The reason I can get past it is because the show does a great job of showing you why Don Draper cheats, beyond the whole sleazy scumbag thing. Sometimes it's because of the cultural and social issues of the time (people didn't talk about how they felt). Sometimes it seems as if he's attempting to salve old, never-mended wounds. And then there are times where it seems he cheats because, despite his age, he doesn't really know who he is. None of those are good justifications for infidelity, but they are justifications. If we squint our eyes and tilt our heads, we can kind of see where he's coming from.

Not so with Cole Phelps. His affair with Elsa is a major plot development, a catalyst that sets a number of gears in motion for the end game, and yet it's totally underdeveloped. It just doesn't mesh with who he is. You spend the first two thirds of the game playing as a straight shooter, a borderline extreme rule follower. Cole seems morally unflappable. He mentions his wife and kids a couple of times (though you never see them), and he even seems to take issue with always having to go after the husbands in a string of female homicides. Midway through the game Cole goes to Elsa's apartment, paces in front of the door, and then knocks and enters. That's it. That's the affair. I wasn't sure what to make of that scene when it happened. I remember thinking, "Did he just cheat on his wife? Surely this is for a case right? It's going to seem like he's up to no good, but eventually we'll find out he was just working with her to bust the bad guys. Yeah, Cole wouldn't do that."

The developers sold the boy scout image too hard. When Cole gets caught and demoted, I was confused. The first and only time we see his wife, she's throwing his stuff out on the street, and he starts to tell her that she doesn't understand. I didn't either. At this point I was still holding on to the straight shooter image. I thought, "Here we go, he's going to say it's all a mix up. Elsa was a witness and her life was in danger or something." Wrong again!

At that point every one of Cole's colleagues hated him for his cheating ways, and as a player, I did too. An extended flirtatious scene with Elsa (beyond the time that Cole goes to watch her sing), a tense scene with his wife prior to the affair, or even one of the traumatic war flashbacks thrown in at the end of the game could have humanized Cole a bit. Cole's affair is so abrupt that you get the feeling that something was cut, that maybe they did include a scene that would have explained it more, or developed his character a bit before, but it got cut for some reason. The abrupt switch might have worked in a short movie, but not here, not after you've spent hours playing an infallible super cop that plays by the rules, busts bad guys, and reprimands anyone that shows even the slightest bit of moral laziness.

I would have been willing to follow Cole and go along with the infidelity plot twist if I had any idea why it happened. I know before the first episode of Mad Men is over that Don Draper is a troubled man. He's troubled, but still likeable, I still want to root for him. Cole Phelps isn't written that way, and he should have been--it would have made his death much more poignant. Also, it's hard not to compare the writing in this game to Mad Men because they take place around the same time, and much of the supporting cast in the show--including the actor that plays Cole Phelps--make appearances in the game.

What a way to go
You know what else would have made his death more poignant? If he didn't go out like a loser. For reasons unknown, the sewers Cole finds himself in at the end of the game are flooding. This isn't some kind of simple storm-induced overflow. This is a manhole shattering, dam-busting surge of water. Where did it come from? It felt so incredibly contrived. If they were going to kill Cole, they should have done it with a shot to the back by one of the many corrupt cops he was trying to stop. They wanted him to die doing something selfless, I know, but man, what a dumb way to go.

Following our "this was done better somewhere else" format, let's take a look at Red Dead Redemption, another Rock Star game. It was a shame to see John Marston die, and that was because we knew how happy he was. If John would have died before reuniting with his family, it wouldn't have been as sad. Instead he spends the whole game talking about his family, and then he returns to them, a free man. You play a handful of slow missions that show John working around his farm and attempting to mend his rocky relationship with his son. Then, in a cruel twist, John is gunned down by the men that put him in the initial predicament. He's not mauled by a bear or swept off a cliff in a rockslide, he's shot dead, and as the player, you're there squeezing his trigger finger as he dies. It's a tough pill to swallow, and when you take control of his son and find that secret mission that lets you track and kill the man responsible for John's murder, it's mostly satisfying.

Close, so close
What's frustrating in LA Noire is that you can see what the developers were trying to do, and you can see where they messed up. Cole is a troubled man; a war "hero" that doesn't deserve the accolades. He made some huge mistakes and got rewarded for them, and now he's trying to live up to the heroic image he accidentally created. You don't get a sense that this bothers Cole until the very end of the game. The vague flashbacks show you some of the things he did that obviously scarred him, but the important ones are all stacked at the end of the game, after he has an affair. Had we seen some of that stuff early on, we might have understood why he fumbled the ball and screwed up his marriage.

The final nail in the coffin is the late game switch to Jack Kelso, a private investigator that served with Cole in the war. Cole and Jack weren't friends, but as Jack says at Cole's funeral, they weren't enemies either. Jack is far better developed as a character than Cole. We see him get into some trouble early in the game, and we know that he had issues with Cole's leadership abilities in the war. We also see that he's a morally upright man that does his best to do what's right, even when there doesn't really seem to be a "right" option.

Playing as Jack is great because you feel like you can really get behind him--you understand his motivations. When he finally meets up with Cole and the two agree to work together, it's Jack that starts to clear things up. He gives Cole a talk about bravery and courage that shines a light on the source of their friction, and Cole's personal struggle. It's at this point that I finally started feeling for Cole. I was still a little mad about how sloppily his character was developed up until that point, but at least I understood him more. This would have been an excellent point to turn control back over to Cole. You should have finished the last few missions with him, not with Jack. We should have played as Cole. We should have seen him break the rules he lived and worked by in order to save Elsa and stop the bad guy. The game sets you up for that--as Cole you help keep crooked cops off Jack's tail on his way to the sewers--but then takes it away.

In the final sequence, after the car chase, Jack and Cole meet up at the sewers to get to the bad guy. The two split up and instead of following Cole, the game drops you in Jack's shoes and puts you through a series of bland firefights with non-descript thugs that have no reason to be there. The Call of Duty-like mission is bad enough, why do you have to play it as Jack? He served his purpose--he showed us who Cole was. You should have played as Cole during that last bit. He should have been the one to gun down all those guys to get to Elsa. It would have made the final scene, where Jack talks him down from killing the guy that took Elsa, hit so much harder. That was their last opportunity to save the game and deliver on the noire tone ending they were obviously trying to create, and they screwed it up.

So I've now officially spent way too much time complaining about the end of LA Noire. As a gamer, a writer and a storyteller, I was pretty disappointed with how it ended up. Overall, I really enjoyed the game, especially early on. There's nothing else quite like it. The narrative structure and pacing is a mess, but the gameplay is a lot of fun. As a video game enthusiast, I'm happy I played it, even if I am a little let down by the story. Have you finished LA Noire? Have you read this far down? What did you think?