Thursday, December 25, 2014

Very Christmas

Zestful Blog Post # 85

I expected to rise up bright and early this morning and write another lengthy post in my ‘publishing history’ series, but to heck with that. Apart from slight dehydration from last night’s Christmas cheer (great euphemism), I’m filled with loving thoughts of you, my readers and friends, and just want to say thank you for being there. Thank you for your enthusiasm for writing well, for living life to its fullest, and for always being open to something new and good. I hope you're having a perfect day.

Just for fun, here’s a photo I snapped the other night in my neighborhood, which some of you might have seen yesterday on my personal Facebook page. (If you’re not my friend yet on FB, please shoot me a request.)

The quintessential Florida roof decoration.

Love and cheer to you today and always, whatever your religion or belief.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Moving Into the Mainstream

Zestful Blog Post # 84

The series about my publishing history continues today.

5) Moving Into the Mainstream

When an artist belongs to some sort of minority, that artist must decide what kind of art to make. Shall I make art that I think/guess/hope will be understood/appreciated/purchased by a mainstream audience, or shall I produce something that speaks more specifically to my own smaller group, whatever that is, and take the risk of obscurity? Shall I be myself, or pretend to be someone else?

Leaving aside the question of figuring out one’s identity (which can take a lifetime right there), this can be a challenge. Charlotte Brontë, for instance, knew that in the male-dominated public sphere of her time, female authors were “liable to be looked upon with prejudice” and thus wrote Jane Eyre under the male name Currer Bell. She was just one of many female, or black, or Jewish (etc.) authors who concealed their personas in order to come across as one of the mainstream.

A main stream, with tug. [photo by ES]

Some authors who were gay / lesbian / bisexual or otherwise not part of the bicameral sexual culture have written books strictly about straight people and their lives. And some have been criticized for it by the politically-correct contingent. A subject for another post, perhaps. Incidentally, I believe a lot of gay writers who didn’t want to come out turned to mystery writing, because you can write gripping stories that have little to do with characters’ inner lives.

Finding some success with my Lillian Byrd series, I hungered for a larger audience. That could be achieved if I got published by a major house. And the major houses wanted, almost exclusively, mainstream stuff.

While trying to get Holy Hell published, I wrote a mainstream novel about the bookselling scene, which sparked some interest among the agents I queried, but again no offers for representation. So when strategizing again about getting picked up by a major publisher, I left aside that book and decided to write another novel, a mainstream mystery. This was a business decision.

The story, called Crimes in a Second Language, involves a retired schoolteacher who befriends her Latina cleaning woman by offering to teach her English. Their developing friendship leads to trouble with the cleaner’s husband, who appears to be involved in some dark business. And so on.

I sent excerpts to agents, and finally heard from Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass agency. “I can tell you’re a great writer,” she said, “but I don’t think I can sell this book. Do you have other ideas?”

Yes, I did. I sent her a batch of three or four ideas for crime / mystery novels, including a series of linked stand-alones, and she got back to me with some enthusiasm. She loved the concept of The Actress, in which a struggling actress is approached by a high-end defense attorney to coach his client, an unsympathetic society mom who’s up for the murder of her own daughter. The actress is a divorced mother of a little boy, with a gay best friend and a nasty ex-husband lurking in the background. “If you can write this one,” Cameron said, “I think I can sell it.”

So I spent a year on the project, and sure enough she did sell it to a major publisher. There’s a story to that, which I’ll detail next time.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Breaking Through

Zestful Blog Post #83

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’m writing a series of posts about my publishing history. Herewith today’s installment:

4) Breaking Through

Weary of querying agents who failed to recognize my brilliance, I set about querying publishers directly. This ruled out the biggest ones in New York, who only took agented submissions. I queried some of the smaller mainstream publishers, but none were interested. How to get through that brick wall between me and publishing success?

The leading LGBT publisher at the time was Alyson Books, named after its founder, Sasha Alyson. The editors there were discriminating, they paid advances, and they published most of the top authors. Unsurprisingly, their authors’ books sold well and won awards, most notably the Lambda Literary Awards, aka the Lammys.

A rung down from Alyson, for my purposes, was Naiad Press, a women-only concern that published broadly (OK, pun intended), did not pay advances, but published some significant books and fostered many a career. A number of authors started out with Naiad, then switched to Alyson once they became better known. The co-founder and publisher, Barbara Grier, was committed to the feminist/lesbian literary cause. She was outspoken, loved and feared, she was a good businesswoman, and many authors and readers are grateful to this day, years after her death.

I felt that Holy Hell and the sequels I intended to write, would be a good fit for Alyson, so logically I should have approached them first.

But was I logical? No, I was insecure. I had felt the slings and arrows of outrageous rejection. I believed that Naiad, which in my opinion published lots of crap along with their good stuff, would surely go mad for the quality of writing in Holy Hell. I wanted the sure thing. So I sent in a query, and as I expected, received a letter of interest asking for an exclusive look at the whole manuscript. I sent it.

[Gotta break it…]

A few weeks later the phone rang. My partner, Marcia, answered it. “I'm calling for Elizabeth Sims,” said a gruff voice on the line. “This is Barbara Grier. Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, I do,” answered Marcia. She ran to tell me.

Barbara Grier herself!

Surprised, flattered, and thrilled, I closed the door to my office and took the call.

“Hello, Ms Grier.” I picked up a pen and made notes of the conversation, having gotten into the habit of doing that for important business calls.

“Well, you have some talent,” she began without preliminaries. Her tone was not, however, one of encouragement. She sounded like a woman suffering from a grave disappointment.

Barbara explained that she gave the manuscript to three of her “readers”, as was her protocol. Their report: one felt “lukewarm” about the book, the other two were frankly thumbs-down.

“It's just not a good book,” she said bluntly.

I felt dismayed but not crushed. I listened carefully, determined to glean whatever wisdom I could from this highly experienced publisher, who cared enough to phone me and talk. Maybe she'd suggest I make some changes and submit it again. “You obviously don't understand how to write a good lesbian novel,” she went on. “You don't understand what women should be reading. This main character of yours—”

“Lillian Byrd,” I interjected.

“She gets herself into all these dangerous situations—I mean really life-threatening situations—and that's not the kind of message women should be hearing.”



“I see.”

The whole point of Holy Hell was to let Lillian learn things the hard way, thus entertaining my hoped-for readers. But the book's black humor was completely lost on Barbara and her staff. I realized that she and I were unlikely to find much common ground.

Barbara paused, and I got the impression she was referring to some notes. “She goes into these dark alleys, I guess. Right?”

“Right. It's a crime novel.”

“She gets shot!


“That's stupid! That's just stupid to have her do that!”

At this point I had to bite my finger to keep from laughing. Barbara paused, as if waiting for a response. But I couldn't think of anything to say. I certainly wasn't going to try to defend my work to someone who was so profoundly missing the point.

“Well, let me give you some advice,” Barbara said at last.

“Yes, please do.”

“You should find a writing group. Like I said, you've got some talent, but you have a long way to go.”


“We publish a lot of lesbian books.”

“Yes, I know.”

“We don't give advances, and frankly, I've never seen a book that deserved one. But our books sell. Our hottest-shit writer, Claire McNab, makes a good living! You could too, if you learned a few things.”

After hanging up, I let my laughter out. The conversation had been so ludicrous, and Barbara's belief—that women shouldn't read fiction about a woman who blunders into dangerous situations—was so stunningly idiotic, so patronizing, that laughter was the only possible response.

I opened the door to my office and went to find Marcia.

“She hated it!” I announced.

Marcia, seeing me smiling, thought I was joking.

“No, she really hated it.” I related the conversation.

“She called to tell you that?” Marcia couldn't believe it. We dissolved into laughter together. How bizarre! How insane!

After that, I decided to go to the top of the quality heap, Alyson Books. They read my query and asked to see the manuscript. I sent it, they loved it, offered me a contract (with an advance!), and published it.

Before the book went to press, I inserted a scene near the end in which Lillian Byrd's ex-girlfriend scolds her for getting herself into such awful trouble. She uses the same words Barbara Grier said to me in that phone conversation. Just my private little f*ck-you to Barbara, though I doubt she ever saw it.

Holy Hell saw three printings between 2002 and 2006, and has continued to sell steadily in e-book form. (I’ll soon release a new edition of the paperback.) Holy Hell's sequel, Damn Straight, won the 2003 Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian mystery. I wrote two more books in that series, Lucky Stiff and Easy Street, before deciding I wanted to break into the big time.

That story next time.

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[Brick wall photo by ES.]

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Flower Watered With Tears

Zestful Blog Post #82

Last week I said that Holy Hell took a long time to write, and a longer time getting published. Here’s more on that. I’ll call this installment:

3) A Flower Watered With Tears

So I was working for Borders as a floor clerk, shelving books, ringing up books at the registers, gift-wrapping books (yeah, really, olden days) and thinking, as I pushed package after package across the counter, This could be me. This could be me.

I saw how well the pulpy novels in the gay-lesbian section sold and thought I could toss off a novel along those lines. Frankly, I thought I could bring better quality to the genre, which was notorious for low standards. I figured if I could get one published and start building a backlist of potboilers, I could perhaps have a career as an author. Then I could branch out into other kinds of fiction—literary stuff, which might not sell very well. Incidentally, I find a lot of authors don’t know what the term potboiler means. It’s pretty literal: work that sells reasonably well because it’s pleasing to popular tastes, thus it keeps the soup pot boiling on the back of the stove so you can be a well fed artist instead of a starving one.

[I like to draw too.]

I worked on Holy Hell on and off for the last eight of the ten years I was with Borders. During that time I got promoted from floor clerk to assistant manager to general manager. Then I got a major promotion to regional director in charge of West Coast expansion, which required a move to San Francisco. A busy, exciting time! I flew around the West, hiring and counseling managers and opening stores. At that level, you have precious little time for creative projects; you’re writing emails in your hotel room at eleven-thirty at night, and when you’re home you’re doing your laundry and paying bills. In the space of six months I earned super-premier status on two airlines (United for north-south, Northwest for west-east). I used to wake up in hotel rooms not remembering which city I was in, and having to get up, open the drapes, and look out the window to get it straight. Portland was the easiest, because our travel coordinator always booked me in a room in the downtown Marriott with a view of Mt. Hood. Seattle: Space Needle. Anchorage: Lake Spenard. And so on. My novel languished.

One day my boss called and said he wanted to talk to me about another opportunity within the company, but it would involve a move back to Ann Arbor (the homeland). I knew that was code for ‘vice president of something or other’, which would have been nice. But the internal pressure to be an author was building. So I said, “Don’t tell me about it. I want to stay in California.” And I knew it was time to commit to my writing.

Meanwhile, the company was changing in ways I didn’t like, and I left Borders soon after that conversation. I had stock options, only some of which were vested. The value of the options I left behind was a little over $300,000. This caused me some lost sleep until the stock price dropped drastically months later due to overexpansion and the Amazon effect, and my former colleagues saw their retirements go up in smoke. This was around 1997-98.

I worked on Holy Hell and got it into what I felt was publishable shape. I started querying literary agents without immediate success. While I kept at that, I wrote a new novel, this one based on my experiences in the bookselling business. This took a couple of years.

A few agents nibbled seriously at Holy Hell. One highly successful one asked for an exclusive look at the manuscript, then got back to me and said the story got going well, but ended poorly. I was a ‘such a great writer,' this agent said, and it was a pity they had to decline this book. Several other agents seemed interested, then ultimately said no.

The most instructive experience was with a New York agent who took a look at the manuscript and phoned me to talk about it. If I could make the plot more complex and increase the length (from I think about 55,000 words to more than 65,000), she thought she could sell it to one of the bigger publishers. I said I could do that, and we chatted amiably about life and books, finding we had many things in common. I felt this woman could become not only my agent, but my friend. Moreover, I was excited to learn she might be able to place the book NOT with one of the niche publishers known for LGBT pulp, but with a publisher with higher standards and a broader reach.

So I set to work, and three months later got in touch. There was a slightly different tone in this agent’s voice, which aroused my anxiety, but she told me to send her the manuscript. (This was still in the days when everything was done via U.S. post. Things were starting to change, though, with higher-speed connectivity that soon allowed for a book-length file to be sent and received without tying up your system for half a day.)

Shortly after she received the manuscript, the agent phoned me. As soon as I heard her voice, I knew something was wrong. The book was wonderful, she said. I listened guardedly. She said I’d done exactly what she’d requested, and gosh, the manuscript turned out great.

Right. OK. Listening.

But except. Except. “Except I signed another author two weeks ago, with a book that’s somewhat like yours. So we really can’t take you on. I’m sorry.”

Sorry didn’t begin to describe how I felt, given the height of the stack of rejection letters I’d accumulated by then. But I thanked her politely for her time and, after letting myself feel absolutely horrible for a few hours (including pleading with God for a sign), then positively crappy for a few days, then fairly down for a few weeks, decided I needed to take a different course.

Publication is near.

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