Friday, January 27, 2006

William Relling, Jr.

It’s hard to believe its been two years since my friend Bill Relling passed away. So much has happened since then. Things that without his help and influence would never have happened.

Bill was actually more than a friend. He was my teacher, my mentor. Under his guidance I was able to finally achieve the dream of writing a novel. And not just one, but several.

I wasn’t the only one he helped. There have been dozens of other, either through the classes he taught or the writing group he established (one which several of us still belong to) who have learned their craft from him. Many who came to him have not only written novels, but have also gone on to be published.

Bill, under his full name William Relling, Jr., had at least a half dozen books published. But his legacy is not just his body of work. It is all of us that carry on working hard to make it in the world of fiction. Each of us carries a little bit of Bill in our minds. I can feel him frowning at times when I begin to write something that isn’t fully thought out. I can sense him when I’m editing, saying “Kill your darlings.” And I can almost see him smiling when I craft a chapter that really works. He is always with me.

Sadly, he did not live long enough to see me get my own publishing contract. In a strange way, it was because he passed away that I am finally on the path to publication. If you’ve read the previous entry on the history of my publishing journey, you’ll recall I had a friend introduce me to Ugly Town Publishing. That friend was author Nathan Walpow. At the time, it had been several months since Nathan and I had seen each other…in face, it may have even been over a year. Then when Bill died, I saw Nathan and several other former members of the writing group at the memorial service. Of course we talked about Bill, laughing a lot and remembering what he’d done for each of us. Somehow Nathan and I got onto the topic of what we were working on at the time. That’s when Nathan offered to give me the introduction to his publisher Ugly Town. Part of the reason I think he did it was that’s what he thought Bill would want. That offer led directly to where I find myself today, with a book coming out next year from Bantam Dell.

While Bill was alive, he helped me develop my skills and becoming the writer I am, then even after he was gone, he helped to put me on my way.

I could not be more thankful. And I could not miss him more.

I think…no…I know Bill would be happy to hear that things happened the way they did. He’d think it was an interesting story. But he’d warn me not to make it too sentimental.

I guess there are still some lessons I need to learn.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Early Thriller/Mystery Influences

Jupiter Jones. He was the smart one. Ultimately he was the one who figured most things out. Maybe he was too smart. I definitely remember him being a little too sure of himself. I guess that’s why I probably identified more with Bob Andrews, or maybe even Pete Crenshaw…but Pete was more the muscle of the group. And no one has ever accused me of being the muscle.

Some people might not know who these guys are, but those that do will recognize them as the trio from the Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators mystery book series for kids. I loved those books when I was a boy. I must have read about twenty of them before I moved up to the likes of Robert Heinlein and Alistair MacLean.

Even with all the years that have passed since I read my final Three Investigator book The Mystery of Monster Mountain (or was it The Secret of the Haunted Mirror?), the memory of being a silent partner on the Three Investigator’s team still makes me smile. The stories were just so cool. How could they not be? Their headquarters was in an abandoned trailer at the Jones Salvage Yard, and the only way you could get to it was through one of several tunnels built under the piles of junk. What kid wouldn’t like that? Just thinking about it now makes me kind of wish I’d grown up near a junk yard…Mom. Dad. I did say “kind of.”

There wasn’t just the headquarters; there was the investigators relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, too. He’d make an appearance at least once in every book, giving advice. (I did read that later he was removed from some of the stories, and that he wasn’t in the books written after his death. Too bad, I loved that his involvement.) I think those books probably started my love of Hitchcock films, too. I even talked my dad into taking me to see Family Plot when it came out in the theaters. It was the first Hitchcock movie I saw in a theater and the last film he made.

Back to the books. The stories were fun and exciting – especially for a ten year old. I remember reading most of them multiple times, so much so that the cover fell off my copy of The Mystery of the Silver Spider. And though I did read a few Hardy Boys novels first, it was Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators that started my love of mysteries and thrillers, and solidified my love of reading.

A few years ago I ran across a couple copies at an antique/junk shop. They’re sitting on my shelf at home now.

How about you? What were the first books to make a difference in your life?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

History - Part 3: An Unexpected Ending

…so I went from the excitement of selling my first novel in January of 2005, to the very real possibility the book wasn’t going to get published at all in August, to suddenly having at least the faint light of hope when another publisher expressed interest in the book.

After the book was sent off, it was everything I could do not to send out an email everyday to see if there had been a response. I think about three weeks went by with no word. Then one day around the end of October, I got a call on my cell at work. It was from Jim at Ugly Town. He said the editor had finished reading my manuscript and wanted to talk to me. I was excited and a little nervous. I remember asking him, “Do you think that’s a good thing?” It may have been the stupidest question I asked all year. Hell, it may have been the stupidest question I ever asked.

I got the call that following Monday morning. Halloween, actually. The editor and I talked for an hour. It was a great conversation. She said some wonderful things about my book. Plus she went over some ideas she had which she thought would make it better. All her ideas were great. I was energized. I felt really good after we were done. But I still hadn’t heard anything definite on whether they were taking me on or not. Being your typical writer, I was still nervous. So as I waited for final word, I began working on integrating her notes.

A few days later, I got another call from Ugly Town. The other publisher wanted to buy my contract from them. Suddenly I was looking at going from high-quality but small press Ugly Town to Bantam Dell, one of the largest houses in the business. What a great, early Christmas present.

The deal was kind of complicated. Ugly Town and Bantam Dell needed to work out a deal between themselves. Then Bantam Dell was going to give me a new contract. It took a while for that to get all worked out. While this was all happening, I finished a new draft of the book and sent it to my “new” editor at Bantam Dell. I know it still needs some work. I should be getting to it next week.

And to bring things completely up-to-date, I’m happy to say I received my contract last night. After I take a few days to go over it, I’ll be sending it back next week.

Not the most traditional path to publication. But I’m finally on the road, and I couldn’t be happier.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

History - Part 2: The Rollercoaster Ride

Let’s recap: write, live, query, rejection, friendly introduction, manuscript submission, wait, wait, write, forget, wait, Starbucks, phone call, book sale, excitement, alone.

Okay, I wasn’t alone forever. In fact I called several friends and family members before I even got up from the table. And you can bet the next day at work I spread the news. One of my best friends had my favorite response when I told her the news. She said:

“What? Really?” Like she didn’t believe me. “That’s…uh…that’s great.” She did mean it, she was just surprised…not sure what that says about her confidence in me. But I’d rather not dwell on that now.

The next couple of months were spent working on rewrites based on notes I got from Ugly Town. The cool thing was that instead of waiting a full year for publication, they wanted my book to come out that following October or November, and in hardback no less. That meant working fast.

By May, the book was already so much better than the original draft I sent them. Also around that time, Jim sent me the first pass on the cover. It was awesome. It made everything seem that much more real.

June was spent doing some small tweaks, going on a research trip for the next book and visiting New York for a day-job related conference. As we got into July, communication with Ugly Town became less frequent. Finally there came a point where I wasn’t receiving any responses at all to my emails and occasion phone call. I knew then that something was up. And for some reason, I had an idea what it was. It wasn’t going to be good.

In early August, they finally called me. I was right. The news wasn’t good. It seems the previous year their then distributor went bankrupt. They had since signed on with another distributor, but the bankruptcy hit them harder than they first wanted to admit. (There was a short article in Publisher’s Weekly in October about this.) They had told me they decided they had to suspend operations for a while. What this meant was they were taking almost everything off their calendar. They were still excited about my book, though, and still wanted to find a way to bring it out. They decided to push my pub date back until spring of 2006, but I knew even that was sketchy. They’d know more later.

I was depressed by the news, but not surprised. My friend Derek had a similar experience, only instead of the distributor going bankrupt it was the publisher. His book never came out. This story was in the back of my mind even before Ugly Town called me.

If you asked me then, I would have said there was probably less than a 10% chance my book was going to be published. From feeling like I’d finally broken through, I was suddenly thinking I was back outside looking in. I didn’t blame Ugly Town, of course. They were trying to do their best. They genuinely love the material they work with. And their intentions have always been good. But what has been well documented is that it is very difficult for small publishers to survive. (A disclaimer is needed here. Ugly Town is by no means out of business yet. I think they are still working out what their next step should be. I hope they find a way to make things work. They put out such great stuff.)

The timing of the decision to put things on hold was also bad for another reason - well, I guess the timing of this kind of thing would always be bad. At the end of August, only a few weeks after the phone call, I was scheduled to go to Bouchercon in Chicago. I wasn’t really sure what to do. But after talking with Jim, I decided I’d still go. I would take the attitude that my book was still coming out. In fact, I decided I’d do more than take the attitude, somehow I would make it happen.

Bouchercon was an eye opener. It was amazing being around all these other writers. I met Barry Eisler, James O. Born, Sean Doolittle and J.A. Konrath. (James gave me a hard time for reading one of Barry’s books before a session…I think he said something like, “That book sucks. And you can tell Barry I said that.” It was my first exposure to Born-humor.) I attended seminar after seminar, some better than others, but all good. One of the most important talks I attended was unfortunately relegated to a small room and only 30 minutes. It was the marketing seminar paneled by Barry Eisler, Sean Doolittle and Jason Starr. There was something Barry said that really stuck with me. It’s also on his website which I checked out later. “Recruiting Your Publisher.” Basically he talked about getting your publisher excited about your book and on your side. (If you’re a writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, check it out. The link to Barry’s site is in the right hand column, then go to the bottom of his home page and click on the “For Writers” link. It’ll be under the Marketing section.)

As I continued to think about it after the conference, I realized it was exactly what I needed to do. Only I needed to put my own twist on it. I needed to convince Ugly Town that not only was my book worth publishing, but also worth staying in business for. So I immediately set about doing several things. The first was doing another complete revision on the manuscript. The second, and perhaps most important at the time, was the creation of a marketing plan for Hung Out to Die. It ended up being over twenty pages long, and was only what I would consider a first draft. But a lot of research went into the different ideas. I talked about reviews, radio, guerilla tactics, bookseller contacts. I even had a couple of ideas that could be considered long-shot “out-of-the-box” kind of things, but definitely worth a try.

I sent it to them before the end of September, and it definitely made an impression. I don’t know if it had anything to do with what happened next or not, but I guess it didn’t hurt. In the past, Ugly Town had sold mass paperback rights to other publishers. (Ugly Town’s own publications are either hardback or trade paperback.) Apparently they were talking to one of their contacts about some of the novels they had. Mine was one of them. I think, though I don’t know this for sure, mine was the only one that hadn’t been previously released by Ugly Town. Their contact was interested enough in HOTD to read the first three chapters, then interested enough to ask for a complete manuscript.

This was right around the time of the West Hollywood Book Fair in the park across from the Pacific Design Center. Ugly Town had already purchased a booth for the event, so despite their problems, they decided to still attend. The book fair was located maybe fifteen minutes from where I live. So I brought my updated manuscript to them to send off. As a side note, there was also one panel Ugly Town was in charge of presenting. They were a little short on panelist, so they asked if I wanted to sit in. It was kind of fun. My very first panel. We had maybe a dozen people at the high point, and one drunk in the front row asking really bizarre questions – note the panel was at around 10:00 a.m.

When the day was done, the Ugly Town guys took my manuscript with them and sent it off.

And another waiting game began…

(NEXT: History – Part 3: An Unexpected Ending)

History - Part 1: From the Known to a Whole New World

The beginning sounds familiar. Years of writing. A few novels finished and put on a shelf where they probably should always stay. (One I’m even tempted to put in a box, take out into the middle of the desert, and bury in a hole so deep magma from below the earth’s crust will get to it before any human can set eyes on it again.)

But I kept at it. Urged on by my family, the other writer’s in my group, and my late mentor, Bill Relling (aka William Relling, Jr.) Persistence finally paid off in January, 2005, when I was sitting at Starbucks. I was actually working on the rewrites of a new novel I’d just completed. My cell phone vibrated. I didn’t know the number, but I was in need of a distraction, so I answered. It was a phone call from Ugly Town saying they wanted to published the book I had sent them…

Wait. I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Back up a year and a half or so.

When I finished writing what would become to be known as Hung Out To Die (a title that is still probably going to change), I did the usual thing. Sent out queries – first to agents, then to publishers. I believe the final tally was over a hundred letter sent on this one. I had a few nibbles, but mostly I got form letters back saying they weren’t interested. This was over a nearly six-month period. Eventually I decided to give it a rest. Maybe this wasn’t the book I was going to sell. Too bad. I really thought it was good. It was definitely the best writing I’d done to that point. I thought perhaps it was something I could look at again in a year or two. For the moment, it was time to move on.

And then, maybe five or six months later, I ran into an old writer friend. The where and the why of our meeting I’ll save for another entry (it make the story even more interesting, but deserves its own spotlight), but the end result was that he offered to introduce me to the publisher who’d released his latest novel. The publisher was Ugly Town, a small press that has consistently put out high quality material. I thought maybe he just wanted me to send them a letter, but my friend said “send them the whole book and I’ll tell them it’s coming.”

So I did.

This was in late January 2004. By the end of summer, I’d heard nothing. So I assumed they weren’t interest. In my mind, I started to write the book off as more experience. Besides, I had a new idea for a story I was excited about. So I got to work on that and forgot about Hung Out To Die and Ugly Town. That is until the end of November (or was it early December?), 2004, when I received an email from Ugly Town.

Still, it wasn’t something to get too excited about. I could tell immediately that it was a mass mailing intended for a group of people who’d submitted material to them. Basically it said, “We’ve been very busy, but we hope to get to your submission soon. We’ll get back to you in a month.” I paid little attention to it other than to note it explained why there had been no response from them earlier. But I was already over halfway done with the first draft of my new novel, so I dove back in and forgot about everything else again.

A month went by. Nothing. Not that I was actually keeping track, though. I had finished the draft on my new book, and had begun my rewriting process. And there were the holidays in there somewhere, and the chaos that always comes with my day job, especially every January.

That brings me back to sitting at Starbucks in mid-January, 2005, almost exactly a year ago, and almost exactly a year after my friend had offered the introduction to Ugly Town. I remember which table I was sitting at. I remember exactly what I was doing. And I remember my cell phone vibrating…


“Is this Brett?”

“Yes,” I said cautiously. I mean, I don’t give my cell phone number out to everyone.

“Hi, it’s Jim from Ugly Town.”

It took me a moment to place the name, then, “Oh, hi. How are you?”

Some quick pleasantries, followed by, “We’re interested in publishing your novel.”

He continued talking for another minute or so, I, of course, barely hearing what was being said. I may have even asked him a question or two. I don’t really remember. But finally I realized what I really wanted to ask. “When you say you’re interested in publishing my novel, do you mean you are going to publish my novel?”

He paused for a moment. “Yes. That’s what I’m saying.”

I can honestly say that ranks as one of the five happiest moments in my life. To bad it had to happen while I was sitting alone in a coffee shop with no one to share it with.

(UP NEXT: History Part 2: The Rollercoaster Ride)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Reading, Tense, and a Recommendation (or two)

I love to read. I guess I have my parents to thank for that. They started me early, and by the time I was eleven or twelve, I was always reading something. So one of the things I’d like to do here is discuss some of the books I’ve read. Mainly it’ll be ones that have really made an impression on me. If you have recommendations, please share them! I’m always looking for something new.

To start off…

…have you read Bangkok 8 or Bangkok Tattoo yet? Written by John Burdett, they follow Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. His mother is a former bar girl and his father - a man he has never met - was an American solider during the Vietnam War. While Sonchai lives the life of a Thai man, he can’t help but have a connection with the west. A mix of Buddhism, police corruption, clashing cultures and everyday life in Bangkok all blend together to create an intriguing world that completely pulled me in.

Both books are told from Sonchai’s point of view, as he become our tour guide in a world few non-Thais have ever experienced. I read between forty and fifty books last year. These were two of my favorites. I anxiously await another installment of Sonchai’s world

I love learning about new places and new things. I love to be entertainment and surprised. I love to try to work out a puzzle, a mystery. For me, anyway, Burdett’s Bangkok novels have completely satisfied me. If you like crime fiction and thrillers, and are not put off by unfamiliar cultures, I can’t recommend these books enough.

One thing I want to point out. I have a hard time with books that are written in present tense. Hmmm…hard time is probably too soft…they drive me crazy. Within the first page almost every single time, I will put the book down and NEVER pick it up again (except to move it into the donate pile.) Present tense pulls me out of the story, makes me aware of the writer. Writing should never get in the way of a story. When you are reading a good book, you shouldn’t even be aware that you are actually reading. Though the words are written on the page you’re holding in front of you, and they entire your mind through your eyes as black symbols on a field of white, it’s the story itself that should consume you and cause you to forget the process. With fiction written in present tense it feels like I am aware of the process the entire time. It’s a personal bias, I know. And I realize not everyone feels the same. Hell, maybe I’m alone in this thought.

But it does add a little weight to my thoughts about these two novels as both are written in present tense. And I was unaware of the process throughout.

Bangkok 8 is the first. Start with that. You won’t be disappointed.