Friday, April 17, 2015

Living the Dream: Patrick Robbins Part III

[Update: I've now included a link to the video of Pat's Reading here.]
As some of you might recall, I did a few blog posts back in 2008 following my friend Patrick Robbins as he cloistered himself in an Airstream trailer to write his first novel. While the manuscript came together very quickly, it took six years before the book was published. Read my follow-up interview to find out how Charles Schulz, Greg Brady, and an old friend eventually helped to make Pat's dream come true.   

How does it feel to be a published author?

Oy! (To coin a phrase.) This is something I've wanted for years, decades even, and now that it's here... it's just as good as I always imagined it. Picture a combination of the satisfaction in a long-term job well done and the delirium of an oil well finally coming in. I would compare the whole thing to a sports team winning a championship - on the one hand, "Mission accomplished, gentlemen." On the other hand, "WE WON!!! WE WON!!!"

I mentioned in a previous post that your first book signing felt a little like a graduation party--it's one of those few events in life when you are surrounded by so much love and support from your friends and family. How do you remember that day?

Photo by Alina Pauksis
Sheer unadulterated joy. It was so much fun seeing people from throughout my past - grade school, high school, college, various jobs - mingling with my family, all of them in couldn't-be-happier mode. The event was originally just going to be a signing, but people were clamoring for a reading as well; major, major kudos to Stacy Shea, the Barnes & Noble community relations manager, who whipped up 30 chairs in nothing flat. I hadn't read aloud from my work in years, but I wasn't nervous in the slightest - who can be nervous about having their dream come true? The whole thing went great; people wanted to buy it after hearing it, and one of my coworkers was so overcome she couldn't speak, which was something to see. One friend took pictures and video of the whole event, so I've got a permanent scrapbook. And my dad said he never knew I could carry a tune (part of my reading included the singing of "Amazing Grace"). The expected snowstorm didn't even show up. It was just a perfect day.

Your road to publication was a little bit unusual. Tell us how it came about.

I started sending letters of inquiry to agencies and got between forty and fifty rejections. After a while, you start to believe these people really know what they're talking about. One [agent] said it was clear I had real talent, but my book didn't seize the reader by the throat within the first five pages and that's what was selling these days.

Looking for another way to skin a cat, I got in touch with a friend of mine who's a branding strategist. At the time, he maintained the Facebook page of Barry Williams, a.k.a. Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch; he said he'd have Barry talk about my manuscript  [on Facebook] and ask for help getting it out there. Ninety-eight percent of the responses were "Get it self-published!" or "Can't help, but it sounds great!" But one man said, "I think I can help your friend" and left his contact info. I called, we talked for a few hours, and he said to send the manuscript to his agency, with his recommendation. "But don't you want to read it first?" I asked. He said that it was his experience that when you do good, good comes back to you. I'll never forget him for that act of kindness to a guy he'd never met.

I sent in the manuscript and, mirabile dictu, they were interested and wanted to represent it. I took it through three more drafts per their request. After the third one, they wrote to say that it still hadn't come together the way they wanted, and they were going to step away from it. That was pretty devastating - so close and yet so far. On the other hand, it was three drafts better than it had been.

At this point, enter Thom Hayes. He was my boss [when I worked at] Barnes & Noble. He read a draft or two of the book and told me not to give up on it. But I had. When the world reaches a consensus, it's very, very hard to go against the world. I chalked it up to bad luck, consoled myself with the fact that I'd actually written a novel, and got on with my life.

Then, maybe a year and a half ago, Thom  said he was going to be starting a publishing company, 3 Wide Press, that was going to focus on sports titles. He asked if I'd let him publish my book once he got the company going, even if it was outside the company's mission statement. Hey, sure, I said, it's good to plan ahead. Then I promptly forgot about it.

Last December, Thom wrote and said, "Are you still cool with me publishing TMOH?"  By the end of February, I was holding my book in my hands. One with a bar code and everything. The whole trip took six and a half years; if it had taken half that long, the book would not have been as good as it became. My dad, who taught high school English for over 30 years and still reads two or three books a week, told me after he'd read his copy, "The first draft was the work of an adolescent; this is the work of an adult." I grew up with To Make Others Happy, and it introduced me to a lot of true heroes. I'm truly grateful that the road to publication was as long and winding as it turned out to be.

Publicity and marketing for a first-time author can be a real eye-opener. What has surprised you the most?

The biggest surprise was that I didn't get responses to emails that I sent stores. I crafted a hell of a cover letter, emphasizing my/my book's connection to the various towns these stores were in, and got no responses. I would've guessed that emails were how many of their author contacts were born, but apparently not. So I've switched to actually driving out to the stores, letting them hold the book, making eye contact as I make my pitch. It's worked a lot better. It's also nice to see their faces light up when I tell them the book has a national distributor.

Have you used social media to get the word out?

I've created a Facebook page and have taken initial steps on my author page for both Goodreads and Amazon. I'm also a regular contributor to two blogs - I'm features editor for Cover Me, a blog about cover songs, and I'm "Grandpop Culture" on Acts of Geek - and I spread the word there. I don't Tweet, but frankly, some might consider that a blessing.

You've said that TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY is inspired by Charles Schulz. What's the connection?

A series of Peanuts comic strips from 1961. Lucy asks Charlie Brown why he thinks we're put here on Earth, and he immediately responds, "To make others happy." Instead of saying "You blockhead!", as is her wont, Lucy dwells on this response over the course of three strips. [TMOH] is divided into three parts, and each part begins with the dialogue from those strips (thanks so much to the Schulz estate for granting permission). An even closer look will reveal that each part of TMOH is a sort of mirror to the Peanuts dialogue - but where I take a hundred pages to tell that segment of the story, Schulz only needed four panels. He was a genius. He had punchlines like "There's no heavier burden than a great potential" and "This world is filled with people who are anxious to function in an advisory capacity."

In many ways, the relationships at the center of the story reminded me of THE GREAT GATSBY. 

Very much so - of all the Books You Have To Read In High School, it's probably my favorite. I like books where the first person narrator isn't the center of his own story (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is another good example of that); you're as close to the hero as you can be without being in his head, and as the hero affects the narrator, so he affects us. Also, in TMOH, Ned and Nadine are second cousins, while in Gatsby, Nick and Daisy are second cousins once removed. And Tedd Long, Nadine's unpleasant partner, is a sort of Tom Buchanan. I didn't set out to write a Gatsby Jr., but as I wrote, I recognized that there were distinct echoes; I figured the best thing to do would be to not look at Gatsby at all during the writing and rewriting, for fear of being too influenced. But I couldn't resist one good tip of the cap; Nadine, talking about a restaurant says, "The place is full of money," which is a mini-tribute to Gatsby saying of Daisy, "Her voice is full of money."

At my last writing group meeting, we all lamented the fact that what we write is often so vastly different from what we love to read. For example, a friend of mine loves literary fiction with a gothic or fantasy element but is finding that her latest work is a straight-up genre piece. Do you find this disparity in your own work? 

To be honest, no, I don't. My work is grounded in old-school storytelling, in no small part because that's the kind of stuff I like to read the most. I'm talking William Goldman, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Stephen King, the short stories of Irwin Shaw, that kind of thing. But I also love the lyrical flourishes of Fitzgerald, Amy Hempel, Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mark Kram, and more. So if the writer is keeping the story moving, but also taking the time to have fun with the language, the field they're writing in doesn't matter so much to me. I see the genre as the clothing and the storytelling style and craft as the body. Keep the body in shape and you can dress it any way you want.

I met you when we were both undergrads at Colby, where we both studied with Jennifer Boylan and Richard Russo. You later went on to get your MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. What are your thoughts on the MFA/no MFA debate among writers?

I'm pro-MFA. Quick story: I was in a tavern with several others from the program, and there was a lot of griping going around about office politics, who taught which classes in which rooms, etc. Someone said I must be mad with the program, as I was unable to land a teaching gig and was therefore paying off the whole thing with student loans (I'm currently $49K in the red). I said that I couldn't be mad because I was becoming a better writer, which was exactly why I went there, so anything going on around me that didn't interfere with that was just white noise to me. Kind of brought the discussion to a grinding halt.

Where it helped me the most was with rewriting. Grad school was where I finally learned how satisfying it was to rip out the middle of a story, to arrange a sentence so the most important part came as close to the period as possible, to always look for better verbs, to seek and destroy the passive voice.

If you learned everything you needed to know about writing from a quality undergrad program and from extensive reading and writing, God bless you. Nothing wrong with that at all. Me, I needed that extra fine tuning, and in my MFA program, I got it.

Are you working on anything right now?

I've got two ideas I like - wunza road trip / treasure hunt, wunza story of an actor turned cop. I'm further along on the first idea - I've got the whole thing plotted out on index cards and have written about twenty pages - but I'm taking down good plot points and quotes for the second idea as they come to me. Now that I've quit my job of five and a half years, I'll get to make some real progress on both of them. That's the plan, anyway - if things progress like they did with the first book, we may not see them until 2021 or so. Well, something to look forward to!

Patrick is scheduled to read from and sign copies of To Make Others Happy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY, on May 9 at 3pm, and at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, on May 19 at 7pm. Good seats still available.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Professionalism (or, Don't Shoot Yourself in the Foot)

For those of you who don't know, I used to work in the accounting department of a literary agency. My job was to process royalty statements, but I'd often make the rounds to chat with agents and assistants. The mountains of unsolicited manuscripts the agents had to read was staggering. Stacks and stacks of paper would cover every available surface, bookshelves, and occasionally the floor (this, clearly, was before the age of electronic submissions). And every day the mail carrier would bring more. The assistants' jobs were to separate the wheat from the chaff. If the assistant liked a particular manuscript they'd write up a report about it and then pass it on to the agent. It's a wonder they ever had time to do anything else.

One time I remember chatting with an agent who was bemoaning the fact that she was interested in a particular manuscript, but found the writer to be difficult to deal with on a personal level. "He calls every a day to see if I've finished reading it and then I can't get off the phone with him," she said. "I can tell he would be a difficult client." After a lot of careful thought--and one too many calls from the author--she decided to pass.

It was so unfortunate that this talented author shot himself in the foot. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but I've seen it happen time and time again. While good manners won't make up for a manuscript that's lacking, bad manners can definitely tip the scales against you. There are simply too many talented writers out there and too many choices for agents. They have the luxury of being extremely selective.

I'll admit that the submission process seems a little backwards. You are submitting your work to gain the approval of someone who is ultimately going to work for you. It's like going to an audition before hiring an attorney. Since agents work on your behalf, some authors feel they have the right to be aggressive or intrusive during the submission process. Also, publishing is a competitive field and our culture rewards ambition. But really, the author-agent relationship is more of a collaboration and the submission process ought to be looked upon like a job interview. You apply for a job at a company that interests you and the employer decides if you're the right fit for the company. Likewise, you have chosen to submit your manuscript to a particular agent because you like their reputation and area of expertise, and now it's agent's turn to decide if they want to be in a partnership with you. If ever there was a time to be on your best behavior, this is it.

During the course of their careers, writers develop reputations based not only on their writing ability but also on their level of professionalism. We've all heard stories of famous writers who act like divas and I can't help but think that their lack of manners close doors on occasion. Likewise, those authors who are a joy to work with are revered within the industry. Agents and editors move around a lot in publishing. Whether you choose to build bridges or burn them, your past actions will likely affect you at some point in the future.

So what does it mean to act like a professional? Much of this is obvious and falls under basic manners.

Respect Other People's Time. Be on time for meetings, functions, appearances, scheduled phone calls. Honor deadlines. If you think you can't make a deadline, contact the person as soon as possible so they can plan around it. During phone calls a little small talk is appropriate, but keep in mind that the person you're speaking with has a lot of work and other authors to attend to. Read social cues. Keep it short and to the point.

Be Kind to Assistants. Sure, assistants are usually fresh out of college, but they are also the ones who picked your manuscript out of the slush pile. Most are sharp, friendly, and eager to please. They are also the ones who get things done. Treat them like the ally that they are.

Show Your Appreciation. Hand-written thank-you notes are rare and classy. So are gift baskets. When someone goes above and beyond for you, let them know how much you appreciate them. Kind words are free and always welcome.

Don't Talk Trash About Others. Not just editors and agents, but other authors as well. The publishing world is small and fluid. Snarky comments will come back to haunt you, guaranteed.

Be Humble. There are thousands of talented writers in this world-- remember that you are one of many. Nothing will alienate your colleagues faster than thinking you're God's gift to the literary world.

Respectfully Disagree. When the inevitable dispute arises, state your case calmly, clearly, and respectfully. As in any business partnership, being honest while carefully choosing your words to express yourself will get you much closer to your goal than failing to keep your anger in check.