When Not Writing my Next in the Sterling Novels, I Blog to Amuse...

When Not Writing my Next in the Sterling Novels, I Blog to Amuse...

June 25, 2011

The Query that Worked

Folks, here's the query that got me moving forward, but, I warn you, it wasn't without numerous blisters atop my typing fingers; a number of new gray hairs, and plenty of middle fingers thrust forward at my laptop screen upon successive rejection emails:

Dear Mr/Mrs Agent

Finished with the danger inherent to clandestine missions, CIA Officer, Dr. Michael Sterling, is content with a career drafting policy.  While attending Middle East peace talks in Damascus, he is secreted a book of intelligence value by a Syrian agent.  Stolen from an esoteric organization, the book tells of their penetration into numerous governments, and of their plan to assassinate two high profile government and religious leaders.  During the peace talks, Hezbollah attacks killing all but Michael; hours later, the Ayatollah of Iran is assassinated and Michael is blamed.  Stalked by a rogue CIA team, his extradition demanded by Iran, and hunted by those responsible for the attack, Michael is forced back into covert action and disappears unable to trust anyone.  Learning that the real assassin’s next target is the Pope, whose death is designed to look like retaliation from a seething Iran, Michael relies on his expertise, skills, and network of resources to track down the assassin, clear his name, and avert an orchestrated war between East and West.

Michael tracks the assassin to the Vatican, but discovers a number of overlapping conspiracies along the way, including one where the CIA gave Iran the blueprint to build nuclear weapons.  Ultimately, Michael finds that the organization responsible for the attack has placed moles in the CIA, Hezbollah, and the Roman Church through political, financial, and subversive means.  Known as The Order, they used their mole in the CIA to gain control of Iran’s nuclear arsenal and Michael must work to stop them before they launch the missiles at the United States.  Believing that the Pope is the ultimate target, Michael soon realizes that the book he carries has the codes needed to fire the weapons – codes that only he can crack – and that it is he who is in their cross-hairs. 

Mr./Mrs. Agent, Iran has made it no secret that they desire to be a nuclear power, and their stance towards the US has grown increasingly hostile in recent years.  Unknown to most, the CIA botched an operation called “Merlin”[1]; it is believed that the failed mission gave to Iran the blueprint for a nuclear weapon.  The 158,000 words of my action-packed and topical thriller, THE HAND OF CHRIST, make the possibility of a nuclear confrontation between the two countries more plausible.  My novel will also take the reader on a blistering and scenic tour of Syria, the US, Rome, and the Vatican by using fascinating descriptions of art, architecture, military and commercial technology as rhetorical devices, which forcibly inject the reader into the scene.

A number of things have been instrumental in helping me to write this novel: my work in Military Intelligence as an Interrogator and Counter Intelligence Specialist, my unique experiences as a member of an elite unit of the 82nd Airborne, my current role with the firm that launches US Government payloads into space, and my insatiable affinity for art, architectural, and religious histories.

If you are interested in reading THE HAND OF CHRIST, the completed manuscript is available at your request; thank you for taking the time to read this far.

Well folks-that's it; it ain't fireworks, but it's close enough to the standard template-here's where it led me: http://amzn.com/B003PPDB2G

Let's Talk Queries; Derivative Work

The word brings dread and beads of cold sweat to the armpits of every writer...Query.

I hate it; I hate doing it; I hate the format; I hate the explicit and pretentious nature of the agent receiving it; and I hate every person that I send one to.  Dramatic?  Maybe, but I think most of you are jiving to the same tune.

It begins with optimism: you send out fifty, a hundred queries, feel good, head to the coffee shop and wait while smiling over the wafting steam of your hot, frothy cappucino.  But then the day goes on...and on...and on...soon it ends with form rejection after form rejection - if you're lucky.  Rarely, one receives back an actual and personal response from the agent - rarely.

This might be my cynical, mean-side coming out, but I tend to find that most agents are MFAs that want to write a best-seller, but haven't, or can't.  Again, it could be that angry, frustrated side of me that believes that.

I tried the traditional approach - it never worked.  Here's what did.

Busting ass...


But first, what didn't work: I spent my own dough on print ads; have been interviewed for radio; newspapers have put me in their pages, and, sure, I saw some movement in sales, but it was all a waste of time.  These things do not get one a target audience, nor does an agent.

An agent only sells what the publisher knows will bring a return on investment (ROI).  Wrap your head around that.  What sells today? Patterson, Brown, Clancy, Bush, Palin, Athletes, Whore Hollywood Chicks, etc, etc, etc...

The common theme: known people that will bring a predictable ROI.

Are you an heiress whose hoo-hoo was caught on YouTube?  Well then, yes, you too can be a NY Times Bestseller!  Are you a right-wing, undereducated, wacko, bible-thumper who looks good doing the parade-float, 100-yard-stare wave?  Come on down!  Every publisher in the country will make you an "Author" and get good ROI!  The thought of this makes me want to wretch.  I, like most of you, actually write. I work on prose, sentence structure, grammar, pacing, character development, and so on...  I have a physical, wrenching reaction when I see a "Bestseller" and I know that they don't know shit about how to actually write!

So where does that leave real writers?

In a not so pretty place, I'm afraid.  Is the query dead?  I argue no, not quite yet - it did get me through a few front doors - but the coffin lid ain't too far from being closed. 

So how does one get into an agent's office?  For starters, your stuff had better be good and not derivative.  Most of us are not followed by papparazzi, so we need to separate ourselves from the pack.  Do you write about vampires because vampire books sell?  Do you write about time travel because you loved Time Traveler's Wife?  Do you often say your work is like a "stream of conciousness"?

Derivative.  Derivative.  Derivative.

Of course, there is a place and a market for these themes, so write 'em if you love 'em, but you have to accept the reality of the marketplace.  If it's oversold, overdone, overcooked, overburdened, overstated then you will be overly-frustrated.

Agents are not our friends (What, you say, how can that be?!) No, they are not.  They are sales people looking to make an income on what the market (i.e. Publishing Houses) demands.  Period.  You (we) must understand the market when writing our books; the agents certainly do.  Does than mean that you shouldn't write that book about all the places you've traveled, or that book about teenage vampires running the local high school?  Of course not: write what you love, but be realistic when it comes time to selling.

If you want to make money as a writer, it is imperative to understand the current trends of the book market; you must understand the business.  An agent's job is to sell work to publishers, who, in turn, commit capital (money) to edit, market, and distribute a piece of work.  The agent's only thought is: commission; the publisher's only thought is ROI.

Write your query, but know this: if it's for a derivative piece of work, you'll be lucky to receive a form rejection.

Soon, I will post my most successful query - would love to read your thoughts and to see yours - (your query that is.)

Take care,


June 24, 2011

Why I'm Blogging

I have three goals with this Blog (not necessarily in order):

1) I like to talk.  Period.  I think my wife has pretty much heard everything that I've had to say, and more than once.  I'm fairly certain that she knows exactly what's about to come out of my mouth next based on body language and facial expressions; I love her and I love this marriage, so I'm doing this for her and for us (I guess). 

I needed a new forum to chat about the things I love, and the things that she has heard me say countless, eye-rolling times: books (fiction and non-fiction); writing (all aspects of it); origins of religious worship (no, I'm not a wacko, bible-thumping nut-job - the opposite really - but I do spend a fair amount of time studying ancient christianity; and the historical relevance of religious Egypt (Osiris, Isis, Horus, et. al - call me a dork if you want, but a fundamentalist, right wing, nut-bag, I'm not...).

2) To discuss the characters; the structure, your questions, points, and counter-points, etc., about my Thriller(s); yours too.

3) To grow as a writer from your thoughts, ideas, arguments, suggestions, etc...


(P.S. I was going to add a fourth thing: my tendency to talk to other cars pointing out their driving deficiencies (note: I did not say the drivers of those cars) while I'm driving, but I thought that might make me sound a bit crazy...)

June 22, 2011

The most asked question

So, when a reader sends me an email, typically their question goes like this:

"Joseph, I've read your book and your bio, Dr. Michael Sterling is you isn't he?"

My answer is always the same: 

"Parts of him are, but parts of Private York are too."  (I can just see their eyebrows lift; I love it.)

(Private York is Dr. Sterling's unannouced, and unwanted side-kick; he appears in my next novel, too.)

You see, I think most of us that write inject a bit of our reality and subconcious into our work, but not into just the hero.  Dr. Sterling is certainly me - not literally - but he represents much of what I've done, accomplished, and believe; he is, to some extent, who I am now and represents from where I've come and to the level I aspire.  He is part fantasty and part reality.  His attitude and demeanor reflects a bit of my own, but so does Private York's.  I've often replied to these questions with this:

"Dr. Sterling is a culmination of my life as a mature man, and is how I see myself, or would like to see myself, but York is certainly me when younger, brash, and inexperienced, but full of all the arrogance, confidence, and swagger that comes with being twenty-something.  He is the asshole with fantastic potential that I was."

When reading a piece of fiction, think of this: the protagonist, supporting characters, and even the antagonist, represent bits of the subconcious of the author - Makes you wonder about the author of the "Dexter" serial-killer novels; if that doesn't blow your mind, I don't know what will...