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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rat-Zombie Roundup

Sometimes, Google reads my mail. Do you notice this, if you use gmail at all? It reads your mail and suggests things that you might be interested in. Like if you write to your friend and say, “I so need a giant picture of George Washington’s head,” a little banner will appear at the top of your page with a George Washington resource on it.

This is weird on two levels. One, Google is reading your mail. Two, Google is not very smart sometimes. Like today, when it suggested I go here.

Why Google thinks I want to go to RatMart is anyone’s guess. I hadn’t mentioned rats. Maybe Google knows something I don’t. But I saw the link and I had to click it, because I’m me. Put a rat link in front of me, and I click.

I have to admit, I’m kind of fascinated by RatMart. This is partially because I once went into a PetCo and discovered that they sell two kinds of rats there: regular rats and fancy rats. Seriously. That's what they're called. For a buck more, you get a fancy one. It seems worth it. One needs a higher quality of rat if one is to be accepted into Society.

RatMart held it's own charms. First, what’s with Sherry? Sherry, owner of RatMart, is looking WAY too happy here on the phone.

If I ran RatMart, I would hire someone who looked like this:

Welcome to RatMart. I sell rats. You probably despise me, don’t you?

Don’t get me wrong. I like that Sherry is putting some glamour back in the rat business. I would just do things differently. Say you want to buy this nice fleece rat hammock.

Here are the two approaches:

SHERRY: Check out our totally cool and awesome rat hammocks! They’re great for the summer months, when your rat is just chillin’!

MY GUY: Theese ees a rat hammock. Eet ees good eef you want to sweeng your rat. *scary laughter*

The natural companion of the rat is the zombie. They go together like salsa and chips. And there obviously IS a theme in my e-mail, because I got this today from my dapper friend, editor J.Z. Migraine. J.Z. has been under a lot of stress, and has been resorting to playing Resident Evil all night to alleviate it. Today, he made this very apt comparison between deadlines and zombies. Since deadlines are a favorite subject of mine (and Deadline is still living with me—he sits on the couch all day and commands the TV), I thought I would share what he wrote, as a thought for the day.

You know, zombies are a perfect metaphor for life. Or, if not for life, at least for deadlines. You see a group of five lumbering idiots shambling menacingly toward you, but they're still 20 yards away and not approaching all that fast. So you roll your eyes and take out your gun and go to work on them.

But after you pick off two or three, they're all much closer, so you start frantically pumping bullets into them, and just as one falls, another one's stabbing you in the side of the head with a pitchfork.

It's pretty nice to work out these real-life stresses in the context of a video game. Plus, it's more fun than in real life, because in the game you can save up money and buy a bigger gun, and next time things will be different. Whereas with deadlines it's always the same. Always the dumb handgun with low caliber bullets, against a never-ending sea of zombies.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Because you asked . . . part two of mj's HOW to get published series

A few days ago, when I wrote about Sandra Nicholson and her one-woman Festival of Ineptitude, I was furious mad. I spent a good half hour ranting the situation in the general direction of Oscar Gingersnort, who was visiting from England. He spent a good bit of his visit watching the World Cup on television. That’s what he was doing when I was explaining why Sandra was so troubling. He tried to listen, but couldn’t help erupting with an occasional, “COME ON ENGLAND!”

Oscar doesn’t really get this so much, nor do most English people. Book banning is (bizarrely) an American pastime, much like baseball. It’s not going on so much elsewhere, except in places that we’re told we’re really not supposed to like. This is the bitter truth.

The last time I got that high strung, I was writing the first part of the “How Not to Get Published” series. And now, triggered by own outburst, I have come to fulfill my promise and bring you the second part.

The reason I am doing this is because “How do I become a published author?” is the question I get asked most frequently. All writers get it. I wanted to write one long, complete response.

The truth is, I really don’t want to answer. Not because I am trying to keep anything from you, but because the real issue is a bit complex, and it presumes something huge.

Namely, that you can write.

I have no doubt whatsoever that there are lots of really good writers out there. No doubt at all. As a kind of sweeping generalization, though, it still takes a lot of practice—and a few years of experience just so you have more things to write about.

But let’s leave all of that aside for the moment. This is the positive part, where I explain how the publishing business works in grander, more sweeping generalizations that make the generalizations in the paragraph above look very, very specific indeed.

So here it is, for better or for worse . . .


Okay. So you’ve written a book. That’s often question number one. “Do I need to write a whole book, or just part? Or can I just tell someone about my story and write it after I am accepted?”

Answer: Usually, yes to the first. If you are a first time author, you should have the whole book done. There are times when someone will purchase a book based on the first 60 pages or so, but as a general rule, don’t think about submitting until you’ve actually done the work.

So. Book. Now what?

Agent is now what.

The person you have to pitch to and impress is the agent. For the most part . . . (See, this is the problem . . . none of these things are absolute. But 98% of the time, they hold. You are probably not in the other 2%. Don’t feel bad about that. Those people are normally celebrities, pseudo-celebrities, and their ilk. Basically, freeloaders. Anyway . . .)

For the most part, authors don’t pitch to editors. Your task at this point is to find an agent to do that for you.


Getting an agent is an extremely competitive process. There are agents out there who reject 99% of everything that comes into their office.

Having said that, you first you have to find one. This, fortunately, isn’t too hard. There are ways of locating agents. Try a guide like this one.

The guides will give you the names of agents and agencies, and will tell you a bit about how many books they’ve sold and what they are interested in. Pay attention to this information. If you have written a murder mystery, don’t query an agent that says, “I only represent non-fiction books about Civil War-era ballerinas.” Sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment, you may be tempted to try anything.

You can also research using books you like, and books that have the same “feel” as you book. Look in the acknowledgements to see if agents are thanked. Often, they are.

I can’t stress enough that you should watch out for scam agencies. They exist. There are lists out there (I talked about these in my previous blog) that tell you about these scams. Read them. Believe them.

Once you decide which agents you are going to submit to, read their submission guidelines. Follow the instructions exactly. If the submission guidelines tell you to send a manuscript ONLY if you are asked to—believe it. They say it for a reason.

Most will ask for something called a query letter. A query letter is a concise, professional pitch. You tell the agent about your book in a page or so. You should spend lots and lots of time perfecting your query letter. There are many guides on how to write these. It goes without saying that the query letter must be clean, clear, and have no errors.

The best online advice on getting an agent that I know of can be found on Miss Snark’s blog. Miss Snark is a New York City literary agent. She disguises her name, but she is quite real. Her advice is solid. She’s not always nice, but that’s okay.

This is a critical point: publishing is a business. It’s not always nice. Agents are usually polite people, but they aren’t there to make you feel better. They’re doing a job. They just happen to be dealing in your work, which means your feelings can get hurt. Rejection is part of the deal.

Think of football. (This is probably the only time I will ever say the phrase, “Think of football.” And by football, I mean American football. But you can think of Rest of the Entire Planet football if you like. COME ON ENGLAND!)

Think of football . . . you don’t go into a game expecting that everyone will step gently around you. Getting knocked down once or twice is part of the game. Don’t worry. Everyone’s been through it. Many writers collect their rejection letters. When I was in high school, I remember reading a story about F. Scott Fitzgerald wallpapering his room with them. That’s the right idea.

A lot of people will say no. All it takes is one yes.

(Incidentally, I meant all of that tackling stuff metaphorically. If anyone physically knocks you down, you probably aren’t dealing with a literary agency. You may be on a football field.)


Let’s say you have an agent. You’ve polished up your book, and now it is ready to go into the world. What happens then? I will illustrate, using my own agent. She has a real name, as all of us do, but in this blog she will be known as Daphne Unfeasible.

First, Daphne will look over her long list of editors at various companies and decide who might like the book the most. (It’s an agent’s job to know these editors and what they publish. They’re like stalker fans.) From this list, Daphne will choose the editors she wants to concentrate on.

Once she knows where she wants my book to go, Daphne will send it off, along with a nice letter on Unfeasible Enterprises letterhead. She will make followup calls and have lunches to talk about my book. (Mostly, agents are there to have lunch with. Agents excel at having lunch. Daphne can handle a menu like nobody’s business.)

Publishing is a slow, personal business. Editors have a lot of things on their desks. There’s really no telling how long it will take them to get around to having a look at my book. It could be days. It is more likely to be weeks. It will seem like time is at a standstill. It will seem like an eternity. It will seem like I have been forgotten. But I haven’t been. Daphne watches this process carefully.

After they’ve had time to look it over, the editors will tell Daphne if they want the book or not. If I am lucky, one of them will say yes. If the gods really like me, more than one will say yes.


If the answer is yes, the editor will also say how much they are willing to pay for the book. This is called the advance.

EVERYONE wants to know how big of an advance they will get if they sell a book. That is like trying to guess what the weather will be like on this day, twenty years from now. There is no telling. There’s no set amount that’s the “right” amount.

[Okay, there is a science behind the advance offer, however. It’s called a P&L. It stands for Profit and Loss. It’s a spreadsheet that tries to guess how much profit the book might make. Publishers frequently lose money on books, so P&Ls are important to keep the industry alive. If you really, really want to know more about P&Ls, read this. Otherwise, you can just move on. My basic message here is, don’t ask what an advance is supposed to be, or what the usual amount is. There is simply no answer that will work.]

Okay. So an editor has read the book, wants to buy it, and calls Daphne and says, “I like it. I will pay $10 for it.”

[$10 is purely an illustrative figure because it’s nice and simple. I can safely say that advances are usually much more than that.]

If that editor is the only one interested, Daphne may still try to get her to pay a bit more, if she feels she can. Maybe she can get $12 or $13.

If more than one editor bids, then things get interesting. Now Daphne has an auction on her hands. Unlike those auctions on TV, a literary auction is done in a normal voice, and usually happens over phone or e-mail. Editor one offers $10. Daphne tells this to editor two, who offers $15. Daphne goes back to editor one and says that the bid is now $15, so editor one may match that or go higher. And so on, until they stop. Along with money, editors can offer other things in the contracts that agents really like. For example, the publisher can sweeten their offer by promising to spend a certain amount publicizing the book.

I don’t get involved in any of this. I sit at home, eating canapés and making paper airplanes. The process may take an hour or a week or more, so I have to make sure to have enough bread and paper to wait it out. Daphne will call me and tell me the progress of things. When the bidding is over, Daphne gathers up the information and presents it to me. I decide which deal to accept. There is champagne, and maybe some dancing.


From there, Daphne and the lawyers from Unfeasible Enterprises will hammer out the details of the contract. This process takes a bit of time, so I engage in longer-term activities, like building a ship in a bottle or learning the trapeze. A few weeks later, my ship complete and my aerial back flip much improved, the contracts are sent to me for signature.

For Daphne’s time and trouble, Unfeasible Enterprises takes 15% of whatever money comes from the sale. I never have to worry about that. Part of the job of the agency to is to collect the money from the publisher. They take their 15%, and they send me the check for the rest.

Publishing contracts are usually a good number of pages in length, and they cover many issues, like who handles foreign sales and film rights, and the rate of royalties.


Royalties are another thing that people always want to know about. Royalties are a percentage of the profit from the sale of your book. So, for every copy sold, you get a little bit of money. Publishers do their account statements twice a year, so if you made any royalties, they come in once every six months.

The thing that surprises most people is that you just don’t automatically get royalties. Your book has to earn back its advance first.


You don’t get any royalties until your book makes a profit. Remember how they paid you $15? Well, they need to make their $15 back first. Then the book is making a profit, which you get a part of. This usually falls somewhere between 8-15%.

Here’s another shocker: many, many books never make royalties. It’s true. For every Da Vinci Code, there are a hundred books that don’t make back their advance. It doesn’t mean they are unworthy books. Many very, very good books simply don’t sell that many copies.


Here are the basic steps in the publishing process:

1. You write book
2. You search for agent
3. Your agent sells your book
4. Your agent works out the contract with your publisher
5. You sign, and the games begin

So, there you have it.

In the meantime, please don't forget . . .

Saturday, June 17, 2006

No reading allowed on the school board

Last night, I was at a dinner. The lovely Maryrose Wood (who you might know as the author of Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love) was there. She leaned over to me and said, “Guess what. I got banned.”

Well, by banned, she explained, there was a hubbub about her book in Hernando County, Florida. It seems that a school librarian was making her book order list for the year. A school board member named Sandra Nicholson had been doing an appearance on a local radio station, and somehow became inspired to scour this list, looking for things to remove. She chose ten, and Sex Kittens was one of them.

Hernando County School Board member Sandra Nicholson, looking very relaxed for the camera

Now, Sex Kittens isn’t exactly the world’s most racy book. It’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t have any sex in it. It’s been described as “squeaky clean.”

See, the trouble was, Sandra hadn’t actually read the books on her Big Bad Ten list.

This fact was embarrassingly highlighted by the fact that she also put on the list a book called Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices: Flaws and Fallacies in Scientific Reading Instruction. Not only did she not read that book, it looks like she didn’t even finish reading the title.

The book is about phonics. Yes. It’s about how to teach reading. Luckily, the principal knew what it was and made sure it was kept on the list. It was there for the teachers, anyway. Because it was about teaching reading.

Ironic? Ho ho! You bet it is!

Ah, getting banned. I remember wondering if my book, The Bermudez Triangle, was going to get banned. It hasn’t yet, but ones never knows. It can only be because it hasn’t been noticed yet.

You know, I almost feel kind of neglected.

Since I know some don’t take the time to read the books they want to ban (Sandra: this one is for you), I’ll give any potential banners a tip off to help them out: it has gayness in it. Yes! And nachos with Guinness mixed into the delicious chili topping! Homosexuality and alcohol. Trust me. You guys who hate everything, you’ll hate Bermudez. You had better ban it. Quickly, now. Quickly. I’ll wait.

(elevator music plays)


Now, it just so happens that I have some experience interacting with school boards. Admittedly, my opinion of them is pretty grim. If you aren’t already aware, I think I should tell you a bit about the people who may be controlling your school.

It really depends on where you live, but in general, school board elections are not hotbeds of controversy. Many people don’t even notice that there’s a school board election going on. They often just kind of . . . happen.

You don’t need anything special to be elected to a school board. Usually, anyone with a high school diploma who’s old enough to vote can run. Sometimes, very motivated people who really care about schools run. And other times, people who just really, really want a title run, so that they can walk around and say, “I am on the school board, therefore, I must know something.”

So, no experience in education necessary. No education in any relevant area necessary. You must simply possess the will to run. It’s sort of like student counsel, except the stakes are much higher. School boards approve budgets. And they can do things like demand that Ten Big Bad Books be taken from the shelves of your school, even if they haven’t read them.

Schools must toady to their school boards. I worked at a school while I was in college, and we had to run around and prepare like the Queen of England and her fifty best friends were coming to tea whenever the school board showed up for a meeting.

I was never too impressed watching the school board. Only two people at the meeting seemed to be paying any kind of attention. One guy would just walk out if any members of the public questioned his decisions. Another guy fell asleep on a regular basis and his snoring would get picked up on the mike and echo throughout the gym.

These were the fine minds controlling the financial resources and direction of an entire school with 1,200 students.

So does Sandra surprise me? Not at all, dear readers. I’ve seen it, done it, and gotten the t-shirt. Are there some very good, hard-working school boards out there? You bet there are. Are there school boards so full of idiots that you’d think you were at an all-you-can-vote-for idiot bar? Oh, yes.

I’m just saying.

So, what do we do about this? I mean, we always talk about how bad this book banning is. What can we do about it?

Well, for a start, let’s learn from our mistakes. Hernando County isn’t taking this sitting down. And New York County isn’t either. So, why don’t we get rid of the book banners!

I mean you, Sandra.

A little bit of research (10 minutes online while refreshing facial mask is drying) reveals that Sandra Nicholson sounds just like those lordly school board divas I used to have to dust the seats for. Here’s what the Hernando forums are saying about her.

And it also looks like she has set her sights on higher things. It seems that she is thinking about running for the Florida House of Representatives, representing district 44!

Can you just imagine all the non-reading that she could accomplish from that lofty post?

Let’s look at some of Sandra’s other fine accomplishments. In 2003, Sandra supported removing books from schools, even if the material was just under consideration. In this case, it was Judy Blume’s Deenie. In other words: she was saying it was okay to remove books until she had had time to not read them. Excellent work.

Here she is, in 2004, apologizing for illegally bulldozing a 38 acre site and uprooting protected trees. Well done, Sandra! Her reply? “We screwed up.” (It pays to read, Sandra. Why not try that phonics book?)

And here’s Sandra voting down an effort to donate five unwanted school buses to the effort to help evacuate refugees from Hurricane Katrina! Superb, Sandra! You sure showed those guys!

So, won’t you join me, gentle readers? Let’s let Sandra know that she is not the Queen of Us. Have you seen any stories about Sandra? E-mail them to me, please!

Don’t bother e-mailing her. Maybe send her a picture.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The return of mj; a new feature

As promised! It is Thursday, and I am back. Spaz and Deadline are still here, though they are considerably less amused than they were just a few hours ago. I’ve turned in a draft, which means that I can get down to other things, like catching up with my e-mail, which has been piling up. And I’ve noticed something. My mj books account gets spammed like crazy. Dozens of notes every day.

It has made me wonder: is there anyone out there actually buying things they are spammed about? Is there really a sentient human being who reads spam and thinks, “Hmm. I don’t get this part about the moss-inwoven pride-sick thought transference
brass-hilted Non-Arabic wood cleaner, but I really would like a 3.4% interest rate. I’ll give these people a try.”

Someone out there is spending a lot of time writing this crap that just goes out into the void, never to be replied to.

So, there’s going to be a NEW FEATURE on mjbooks! I have decided that I am going to answer some of my spam. I’ll print my replies here, and we’ll see what happens.

(In all cases, I will delete the web address included with the spam and replace it with one I think is better, so the links are safe to click.)


Hi !

I'm a very young and energetic lady! I have very positive attitude to life and people. I do enjoy new experience life can offer me: to see new interesting places, to meet new people.
I do try to enjoy every moment of life and accept everything the way it comes without complaining.
Though my life seems to be quite enjoyable there's one important thing missing. It's LOVE!
Without my beloved one, my soul mate, my King my life is not completed.
I wish i coud find him very soon so that we could share together every momement of the life-time romance!
What about you? Could you be my King? If answer is "yes" - you can find more about me

Galusya B.

Dear Galusya,

I’m sorry to report that your effort here is wasted. I am not your King. I am a female author from New York City, and believe me, my lineage is anything but regal.

For years, my father has regaled me with tales of the many relatives I will never be permitted to meet, largely because they are in jail. While other people talk about figures in their genealogy that were honest workmen, lawyers, bakers, and doctors—I can point to several people in my recent DNA stream who were “second story men” and cheap hoodlums. “Not killers,” my dad told me. “More like guys who’ll beat people up for a hundred bucks.”

In our house, we didn’t put a return address on the Christmas cards, and we spent many a nervous holiday with the blinds drawn, just in case some of our family had made bail and tracked down the cousins out in the suburbs.

On my mother’s side, the family is lovely. Or they were. Sadly, many of my wonderful relatives have passed on. The ones who remain are really cranky. Really cranky, Galusya. I have an uncle who used to make fun of people when they caught cancer. He and his wife drove past our house when we were caught in a flood and slowed down just to laugh and point. That’s pretty mean. They’re famously mean, as a matter of fact. Everyone in our entire town knows they’re mean. They’re like Scrooge, and we’re the friendly, festive nephew Fred.

What was the question again, Galusya? Oh right. You are looking for love.

Well, Galusya, it seems that otherwise you have your head on straight. You’re a happy person. You can’t spell, but that’s okay. And they way you stress not complaining is really admirable. I live to complain, another reason we’re not a good match. I could complain for the U.S. official team. I’m really very skilled.

While I like that you’re putting yourself out there to me like this, I feel like maybe you aren’t giving yourself full credit. Do you really need a King to make you complete? Gloria Steinem says that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Words to think about, Galusya.

And there are a lot of very scary people out there, Galusya. The internet is riddled with creeps and freaks of every stripe. It worries me to think that you might send this note to someone else, someone not as upstanding as myself. Like one of my relatives, presuming they can get e-mail in jail, and presuming that they can read. You got lucky this time.

Why not try match.com, or join a local club?

Still, I’m flattered. Maybe in another place, at another time, it could have been different for us.

Yours truly,

Next time: more spam answers, and part two of How Not to Get Published.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Little visitors

That special time has come. Spaz and Deadline are with me around the clock now as I complete the first full draft of the new book. They have no intention of leaving. Spaz has consumed every Diet Coke with lime in the apartment.

So I’ve been silent for a few days. I’ll probably be silent for just a few more, and then I’ll be back with an extravaganza of blogarificness. That includes my second part in the two part series, How Not to Get Published. And so much more! So much more.

I don’t even have much to talk about now, as I’ve spent most of the last two weeks at this desk. Even if I was making stuff up, it would be pretty desk-related. Would you really want to read:

- Q&A with my mini Swingline stapler
- 29 famous people I have seen on my fire escape, naked
- The magical world on the other side of my magnetic note board
- How to spin your desk chair so fast, you go back in time

No. No you wouldn’t. I can’t blame you. That’s why I’m not going to write any of it.

Stay tuned. I will be back on Thursday. Back with a vengeance.

Not as helpful as they appear.