Evolution

By Joe Daly

Memoir

The Happy Time Page was a kick in the balls for a kid like me.

On any given Sunday afternoon, 10 year old Joe Daly would have enjoyed building a Lego fortress and defending it against Cold War adversaries, watching the Boston Red Sox find a new and eye-watering way to lose, or listening to KISS albums on the little turntable in his bedroom.

Tragically, that was not how 10 year old Joe Daly spent his Sundays.

No, in those formative years, Sunday afternoons were reserved for the soul-whipping agony of writing for The Happy Time Page.

It was my mother’s idea.

The Happy Time Page was a feature in our local Sunday paper, wherein kids were encouraged to submit essays or poems on a generic subject that changed each week.  The front page featured winning essays and poems, as well as the results of the weekly drawing competition that would make a guy like Ted McCagg head straight for the bourbon. Think of it as a print-version of The Nervous Breakdown, but without all the drugs, sex, travel, and introspection.

The best works were displayed on the front page of the section, with the author’s name prominently displayed beneath each piece.  This is what everyone was shooting for- publication.

The only requirements for the essays were that they be on topic and at least fifty words.  Fifty words.  That’s where I hit the wall.

With a gun to my head (or the threat of television privileges being revoked), I could probably come up with twenty five words about baseball, spring, or some other subject like that.  But fifty words?  That was a whole afternoon, shot all to hell.

See, I had zero ambition to write.  I was as motivated to write fifty words as a heroin addict would be to take a spinning class.  I could speak relatively well for my age, but transcribing my thoughts with pencil and paper (I made too many mistakes for a pen) was a Herculean challenge for both my young mind and my tired hands.

Nonetheless, at my mother’s insistence, I would spend Sunday afternoons slogging through fifty word essays with the speed of climate change.  It would take me upwards of two to three hours to churn out one of those pieces, with my mother requiring me to sit at the dining room table and write until I had a finished product.

During those two hours, after finishing each sentence, I would count the words on the entire page, praying that I had just completed the sentence that brought me past fifty words.  On the odd occasion when I would allow myself to finish a thought even after reaching the fifty word minimum, I would expect the type of recognition generally reserved for Nobel Prize recipients, and would be baffled and resentful when such accolades were not received.

My mother would proofread each essay and returning each to me with several suggestions, all of which I would adopt without debate, simply to see the exercise come to a close.  Although my mother’s own schooling ended at the age of sixteen, she had a great sense of the written word and she would coach me on finding concise and at times, even elegant ways of re-stating my thoughts.

Most of the time she would just ask me what I meant when I wrote a particular sentence.  I didn’t realize it then, but the way we would discuss each sentence and the different ways of expressing a single idea gave me a new approach to writing.  I’m not saying that I enjoyed it, but as the process evolved, churning out fifty words became a less odious task.

When the essay was finished, she would proofread it a final time and direct me to write out a new copy in pen, which she would then drop in the mail the following morning.

I stopped submitting pieces for The Happy Time Page as soon as I reached the maximum age requirement.  I think my mother was bummed.

***

I ignored writing as a form of anything other than homework for the next twenty years.  My first real publication came in law school, when I wrote an article for my law school’s IT Journal.  If my article was approved by the editorial board, I would not only receive academic credit, but more importantly I could add the distinction of “Law Review” to my transcript and resume.

Articles were either accepted or rejected, with a select two or three being published in the school’s law journal, alongside the works of prominent judges, scholars, and attorneys.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the hell out of the process of writing my paper.  Weighing in at a couple hundred pages, the format required that I submit two pages of footnotes for every single page of original thought.  I had an editor who, unlike my mother, received quite a bit of resistance in matters of style and tone.  It was exhilarating to feel passionate about something I wrote.

My friend Michelle also wrote for the Law Review and we agreed that if one of us were published, the other would have to buy a pair of cowboy boots for the lucky writer.  More than anything, we both just wanted our papers to be accepted so we could collect the credit and graduate on time.

When the articles were reviewed by the editorial staff, we were stunned to discover that we were both nominated for publication.   A week later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Chicago’s west side, we went boot shopping together.

Here’s how I earned those cowboy boots.

***

The first true labor of love that I published was an article about a band from San Diego called The Rugburns.

I spent colossal chunks of free time on AOL’s music message boards in the mid-nineties, becoming a regular on the boards for The Rugburns after hearing their anthem, “Me and Eddie Vedder.”  Ironically, one of the people whom I met on those discussion boards would, years later, draw my attention to Brad Listi’s blog, and eventually to The Nervous Breakdown.

I found immense pleasure in writing about music on those discussion boards- especially where I would write a lengthy essay on an interpretation of a song or how certain music made me feel.  My posts were pompous and at times self-important, but gradually I learned to discuss music in a way that allowed me to express my point of view without insisting that others agree.  Writing about songs and artists flowed very easily for me, and the writing skills that I acquired in law school helped me present those ideas with clarity and in some cases, persuasion.  I loved the challenge of finding creative ways to express my feelings about music.  Talking about music was a passion, but writing about it was a rush.

One day a girl contacted me about The Rugburns.  She had read some of my posts about the band and wondered if I would be interested in submitting an article for a zine she had just launched called “Lunatic Fringe.”

I agreed and a couple months later, I published my first piece about music.



***

Even after I began practicing law in 1994, music was always my number one passion.  I would much rather be listening to Soundgarden bootlegs than working weekends to impress my bosses.  In 1996, I spent a week touring around the midwest with The Rurburns.  It was one of the most significant experiences of my life.  So much so that when I returned to Chicago, I quit my job as a lawyer and began immersing myself in all aspects of music.  I took up guitar, I expanded my musical tastes into new genres, and at the suggestion of an entertainment attorney, I began studying how the music industry worked.  I had amassed a number of contacts in the music business- artists, managers, and quite a few contacts at some pretty big record labels, and I soon found myself writing promotional biographies for bands.  When a band was in the final stages of preparing to release a new album, their label or management would pay me to write a short biography of the band that would be included with the CD and press kit that was sent out to radio stations all over the country.

The pay was lousy, but money mattered little to me in that regard.  I did it for the sheer enjoyment, although at times it was a character-building experience.  I received a request to do a bio for a solo artist, and without much guidance, submitted a first draft to the artist and label.   The artist’s PR agent ripped the draft apart so ferociously and so personally, that I took almost a year off from writing any other music bios.

Another time a label hired me to do a biography on a band whose music I could not relate to at all.  It was a hard rock band and I’m a hard rock guy, but I just could not get there from here.  Still, I had to sit down with the band and find out what made them tick.  The following exchange actually happened:

I asked, “So what are you guys trying to convey when you play live?”

“Dewd, we just like, want to like, try to you know, like, get people with jobs and shit to like totally forget their day, you know?  It’s like, some guy works like forty hours, you know, and we just want him to come to our show and like, forget about his week.  If we can make just one person forget about their week, then it’s all worth it, dewd, you know?”

“But they could just stay at home and get drunk to forget about their week.  We need to highlight what makes you guys different.  They should forget their week not because they’re drunk, but because your music is memorable.  Does that make sense?”

“Exactly, dude!  See, you get it.  Alcohol only makes our music sound better!”

On the other hand, I had the privilege of writing biographies for some fascinating artists who were releasing jaw-droppingly good music.

To this day, I still take on the odd band bio, although an inflexible requirement is that I actually like the music.

***

SPIN Magazine is, depending on the reader, either a pretentious conclave of indier-than-thou hipsters, or a vital alternative to the commercially-savvy and creatively bankrupt Rolling Stone.  While SPIN can sometimes trip over its own emo-ness, overall it gives exposure to bands and music that other mainstream publications might ignore.

Other than reading the magazine occasionally, my first real connection to SPIN was sleeping on the floor of their suite at the Driskill Hotel during the South By Southwest music festival in 1997.  My college roommate Dan was interning for SPIN, doing a lot of hustling for the magazine for little or no pay.  In return, we received a place to crash, a great view of the main stage, and we got to smoke pot in the suite with The Supersuckers.

Dan went on to secure the best job in the world- making mix tapes to send to college radio stations for the magazine.  He spent his days listening to new (and free) CDs and making mix tapes of his favorite songs. Thirteen years later, I have yet to hear anyone describe a better job.

As Dan became more plugged in at SPIN, he made many connections, one of whom oversaw the magazine’s online column, “It Happened Last Night.”  IHLN featured reviews of notable concerts and events across the country.  They kept a list of writers and photographers in major cities across the country so that when a cool show was happening that they wanted to feature, they would reach out to the local writer and get him or her to the gig.

One day, while literally stepping onto a plane in Cabo San Lucas after an entirely undeserved vacation, I received a text from Dan.  SPIN needed a San Diego writer.  Black Francis (The Pixies, Frank Black) was playing a solo show there that they wanted to review.  They had seen one of my artist bios and wondered if I might cover the event for the magazine.

A couple weeks later, I published my first music article for a major publication.  I remember sitting backstage with Black Francis and Warren Zanes (The Del Fuegos), talking about our favorite pizza joints in Cambridge, MA (where I used to live), and thinking how awesome it would be if this were my actual job.

***

My friend Dana had been a Brad Listi junkie for quite some time.  After hearing her incessantly raving about his writing, I began following his blog, and eventually The Nervous Breakdown.  I instantly fell in love with TNB.  The authors were talented, down-to-earth, and they wrote about subjects to which I could easily relate.  Also, the comment culture was fun and people seemed to actually support each other, with fascinating conversations occurring along with the featured articles.  I chose to lurk rather than participate in any of the conversations.

Dana would pepper me with entreaties to apply to write for TNB, which I resisted for a number of reasons.  Mainly, as someone who had neither published a book, nor had any sort of platform, I was worried that I would have nothing to offer the site.  I am grateful that she persisted because sometime at the end of 2009, I submitted an application.  A month later I received a welcome letter from TNB with instructions on how to get started.  The only thing left to do was write.

I agonized over my first article for two weeks, starting and scrapping ideas for three or four different columns.  Finally I chose to write about my first band back in Chicago, and on a Saturday morning in February, 2009, I began writing.  I finished that evening and spent the next 48 hours proofreading the piece ad nauseam.  Each time I started to publish it, I chickened out and proofread it again.

Finally I threw caution to the wind and hit the “Publish button.”  J.M. Blaine left me my first comment.  As the day wore on,  I began receiving and replying to comments from the very people I had always read and admired.  Nine months later, I have met many of these authors in person and I am in contact with several on a regular basis.  TNB is my online home.

***

As I published articles on TNB, I would post links to each piece on Facebook, asking my friends to take a look if they were interested.  One day after posting a link, I received a note from a college friend whom I had not seen or heard from in close to twenty years.  He had read some of my work on TNB and said he enjoyed them- especially the pieces about music.  He wondered if I might be interested in talking about book ideas.  As fate would have it, he was a literary agent.

***

In July, 2010, I was laid off from my job.  Instead of jumping right into a job search, I decided to see what it would feel like to write for awhile.

I am now in the process of completing a proposal for my first book.  It might never see the light of day, but in the course of the past month, it has been the most fulfilling work I have ever done.  I sit at my laptop in my kitchen or at a local coffee shop, and with the sounds of Sigur Ros, Dead Confederate, or The Stone Roses wafting from my headphones, I write about things that matter to me.  I laugh out loud, I research obscure details about bands and music, and I occasionally run upstairs to sift through papers and photographs to jog my memory as I write.

When people now ask what I do, I really have no answer.  I clumsily say something like, “Well, I’m out of work now, and just writing to make use of the time…”

But once in awhile I boldly answer, “I’m a writer.”

It feels fucking awesome.

***

My mother would have been 77 years old next week had she not succumbed to cancer in 1989.  The older I get, the greater the clarity I have with my past, and especially my time with my mother.  As I look back on those Sunday afternoons in the dining room, wishing I were doing anything but writing for The Happy Time Page, I now see the gift that she has left me.

I am both humbled and grateful.

Thanks, Mom.



I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.


Remember in the olden days, when movies were based on nothing more than a screenwriter’s brainchildren? Now movies are based on novels, childrens’ books, even theme park rides. And which superhero is helping bridge the publishing world with the glittering stardust of Hollywood? That’s right, a hard-working, bookstore-scouring, voracious reader like one Ms. Sarah Self, literary agent at The Gersh Agency and champion of writers everywhere.

WordHustler sat down with Ms. Self to get the skinny on the convergence of Hollywood and the publishing industry, the kind of queries that hook her, and the lure of a good, old-fashioned zombie story. Read on to fill your cup with the elixir of publishing (and Hollywood) SUCCESS!

WordHustler: How did you get your start in the industry?

Sarah Self: I went to school at Northwestern University and got my start in the industry by working/interning for Lynda ObstJodie Foster, and Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg at Jersey Films. In college I knew that this was the business I wanted to work in, so every summer I would come to LA and do internships. I did a lot of coverage and started building my resume.

Then when I graduated everyone told me I should get agency experience but didn’t think that I wanted to be an agent. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do- maybe more in line with being a producer- I definitely knew I wanted to create. But agency experience really helps, despite what some may think. Agencies put it all together. Of course the project starts with the writer, but the agency is really the link that connects everybody. That’s where you have directors, writers, talent and they all come to an agency as the center point. It’s the perfect place to start if you’re not sure what you want to do, because you work with all the elements. So I started working at CAA for Bob Bookman, who’s the head of CAA’s Film Department and still my mentor today. He’s at the top of his game.

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WH: Going from a Hollywood agency background to working for an agent who is also involved in book publishing, were you drawn to the publishing industry?

SS: I started working for Bob as his assistant and found that it was my dream job: working with authors who are in the movies. I worked for him and became a junior agent CAA, but didn’t think I wanted to be at an agency long-term so I worked in development. But then had this moment where I looked around LA and looked around my peers and didn’t feel inspired. I found the development process to be stifling and dismal. You see the same people going after the same scripts and everybody is so reactive- no one is really taking any risks.

I started to freak out, so I decided to move to New York because I’d romanticized New York from when I worked at CAA with authors. I knew I had to shake it up. I knew that The Gersh Agency had a NYC office and didn’t have anyone doing books. WMA, Endeavor, ICM and CAA [other Hollywood agencies] already had saturated NYC book departments. So I went immediately to the company that didn’t have anyone doing it and I created my own job. If you sit and wait for your dream job to come, it never will. You have to be proactive. So I created the job and said, “Let me run your New York book department.” I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have any clients, I had never even been a real agent. To be an agent you have to know the ins and outs of making a deal. But I just jumped into it.

WH: As one of the few book agents working in Los Angeles, do you find your job to be challenging since you’re one of the lone bridges between Hollywood and the publishing industry? Especially now that Hollywood is leaning more heavily on the publishing industry- are you over-saturated?

SS: I think every agent is probably over-saturated. We’re part of a bigger trend, which is that agents are more and more becoming producers. So the role of the producer is being diminished in the traditional sense in that it’s not just about me taking a book and sending it to producers, and them sending it to the studio and making the movie. Now I have to package the book- attach talent, directors, etc- and then give it to the studios. More often than not, I’m starting to go to manager/producers or go to agencies and package materials there. I also package internally within Gersh. I have no need to keep it internal, it’s what’s best for the client.

I think Hollywood is relying on publishing yet is also reluctant to take big steps with material from publishing unless publishing has already performed. The book ofTWILIGHT, everyone forgets, had already been optioned a couple of times before Summit finally made it. It all comes down to risk. It’s all about having an opinion and having a voice and taking a stance. If you try to like what everyone else likes, you’re going to be at the end of the trend. If you try to wait for someone to find your book and your script in their huge stack, they’re never going to find it. You have to keep pushing and keep being proactive.

WH: Do you find you have a lot of agents calling you with a tiny book that isn’t published yet and they’re trying to sell movie rights? Or do you deal with books that have already been published?

SS: I think that everything is changing. Book agents are still calling with that little book they just sold. But this amazing zombie book called BREATHERS was something that I found in Publisher’s Marketplace. It had been sold and I called the agent because I love zombies and said, “This sounds great.” She sent it to me and I loved it, so I packaged it. On the other end of the spectrum, I got a call from an agent yesterday who is sending me a small, literary difficult book. Overall, publishers don’t know what Hollywood is looking for because everyone wants to have the small, perfect Oscar nominee and no one knows what that is.

WH: What draws you to a book? Is there a particular genre you like?

SS: I love anything dark. I love horror- especially psychological horror. I love worlds and subcultures. I’m really interested in death metal, for example, or anything that’s a unique world.

WH: Do you ever find books that you love that you don’t think would translate to the screen?

SS: Yes but if I love it, I figure out how to translate it to screen.

WH: What’s the last thing you read and absolutely loved?

SS: The last thing I read that I loved is Dame Darcy’s book, which is akin to THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS, called THE HANDBOOK FOR HOT WITCHES. The parallel she makes is how to be a strong, sexy, confident woman and the parallel being that it’s a witch, not a bitch. You can be tough and be smart and do your thing and if guys call you a bitch, you’re a witch. The whole book follows the witch theme with a how-to spell guide and witchy recipes. It is so awesome. I love it. I fell in love with this book and was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but I will sell the movie rights.” It’s all about passion.

WH: Why do you think Hollywood is moving away from generating original content and relying on remakes, sequels, and books?

SS: I think for a while representatives were getting really lazy. There were certain people in town called “The Spec Boy,” which were reps who would just go out and sell spec scripts and create this fake buzz. There were so many instances of slamming not totally ready material out there and studios were being duped into buying it because there wasn’t anything else and because it was on a “list.” So it became this “We should be buying this” herd mentality. Finally the studios looked around and said, “We have so much bad material, let’s go back to what’s always been consistently viable, which is books.” There’s also a platform to books, remakes and sequels that screenplays don’t have. That’s I think the number one thing.

But look, if there’s still great material, it gets put together. Great scripts still sell. Producers still have deals with studios, who are still making movies. But today people have to rely on platforms and branding- I know that’s a word everyone hates hearing, but that’s the way the market is going.

WH: Well put. What types of book adaptations are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?

SS: Something that’s really about a cool world, a non-fiction world or a sub culture that I might not know about yet. Whether it’s related to music, etc, I don’t care. I sold this book- it’s a great story called THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI. It’s a nonfiction book written by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. It’s very clinical and dense – these guys knew everything about Houdini. They are amazing researchers. But it was a book that when I sent it to producers, people were just tuning out.

So I kept sending it and sending it for four years and finally I was like, “You know what? This isn’t working and I believe this is a movie. I’m going to change the pitch and turn this into something else.” So I changed the pitch to: “This is the next SHERLOCK HOLMES and DARK KNIGHT.” All the big superheroes have already been exploited, who’s a big international star that we haven’t done yet? Houdini. Its Robert Downey Jr, it’s Warner Brothers, it’s glossy, and there you go. Done. So I pitched it to someone at Summit Entertainment [makers of TWILIGHT], they loved it, and it sold. My point is that if you love something, you can sell it.

WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers, both prose and screen, out there?

SS: Don’t write what everybody else is writing. Just because THE HANGOVER is making a ton of money and won a Golden Globe, please don’t write something that is THE HANGOVER meets DADDY DAY CARE. By the time you write it, it will have already been done. I think Diablo [Cody, screenwriter of JUNO and Sarah’s client] is a great example in that she wrote a movie about a 16-year-old girl who gets knocked up and decides to keep the baby. If she had pitched that to any producer they would have said, “Huh? What are you talking about? No way.” But she did it anyway.

It’s true when they say: write what you know. Stick to that. Don’t try to write what people want you to write and don’t copy what’s already out there. There are so many reps tell their writers to: “Go write THE HANGOVER” and that’s so wrong. It’s all about showing that you have a voice and being provocative and being different. You have to do it as a representative and you have to do it as an actor- you have to have a different look and a different style. Look at music – it’s a perfect parallel in that you have all these one hit wonders and then you have Lady Gaga who doesn’t give a f#$% and she knows if she looks crazy and is amazing, people are going to notice her. And it’s worked! You have to get people to notice you.

When I get queries all day long, I usually hit delete. I delete them because they are really long and the writers don’t know how to craft a query and they’re boring. So I just started hitting delete. Then today actually, for the first time in a long time, there was a query that stuck out. I was going through emails and I was swamped and there was something funny in it and the title really summed up what it was going to be. You could tell this person had done their research and knew what deals I had done, too. So I wrote back: “Yeah, send it. I’ll read it.” I’m not encouraging people to send ridiculous things, but be bold. Otherwise, it all just goes by really fast and you’ll just get lost in the sea.

She speaks, we listen. So what are you waiting for? Tighten your prose, polish your query, then spend some time seeking out agents who match your aesthetics and aspirations. Targeting your submissions to agents who you’ve researched shows them you’ve put in the time and you’ve got the drive to succeed. Why not sign up for our Digital Submission System to help keep track of all those wonderful queries you’re sending out to the world?

WordHustler wants to help you find your perfect agent, editor, and writing future. Hopefully soon you’ll catch the eye of an accomplished agent like Ms. Self then be on your way to publishing (and Hollywood) success! Fingers crossed!



Remember that over-achieving kid in your high school class who was on the varsity basketball team, President of the Student Body, AND played a mean guitar solo in the talent show? That’s J.E. Fishman…only in the publishing world. He’s been an accomplished editor at Doubleday, owned his own literary agency, and is a published non-fiction author. Did we mention he has a few novels and a screenplay in the pipeline?

But the best thing about J.E. is that he’s willing to share his experiences to help aspiring writers out there learn the lessons he has accumulated over his many years in the business. WordHustler sat down with J.E. to discuss how fast the industry moves, how much moxie it takes to survive, and why no one owes you a read. Hint: make sure you grab your reader from the start!

Read on to learn from J.E.’s heartaches, triumphs, and vision. You won’t be sorry!

WordHustler: You’ve been involved in pretty much every aspect of the publishing industry, from editor to agent to author. How long have you been writing?

J.E. Fishman: Like anyone who aspires to be published, in some sense I’ve been writing all my life. I wrote stories as a kid.  Wherever I go – walking down the street, driving in the car – I see stories.  Recently, I was getting rid of an old office computer and had to laboriously wipe the hard drive clean one file at a time.  It was full of reading notes, book ideas – most important, story ideas.

WH: When you were an editor at Doubleday, which types of books/authors did you work with?

JEF: The books ran the gamut of non-fiction, from the equestrian library to true crime, business, sports, narrative non-fiction.  When I left Doubleday, I had a lot of credibility with journalists, so I ended up specializing in narrative non-fiction, though I agented the occasional novel.

WH: What is the main difference between being an editor now and when you were one?

JEF: I’m not sure.  When I was coming up, the industry was already beginning to consolidate and become more corporate.  My guess is that today, at the big houses, editors are even more buried in process, giving them less time just to think.  In the old days, if a respected editor really believed in a book, he or she might be able to drive the acquisition process.  Now, it seems, a greater part of the process is out of the editor’s hands.  It’s a team decision and everyone gets a vote.  Also, when I was an editor Amazon didn’t exist, e-books didn’t exist.  Now they’re having a huge impact on the business.

WH: Then you opened your own agency- had you been amassing talent when you were editing that you represented in your agency? What inspired you to make the switch?

JEF: I did take a few authors whom I’d edited as my early clients, but amassing talent would be an overstatement.  It was only a few people.  The reason I left was I was feeling ground down by the corporate thing.  It has its good and bad points, but I couldn’t see myself doing it forever.  Plus, it seemed like editors were spending more and more time selling the books on their lists to all the other departments in the house.  I figured: if I’m going to be a salesman, I may as well be trading on my own account, so to speak.

WH: Then another switch- from agenting to writing. Do you think a lot of agents are also writers? Did you feel it important to your writing career to spend your time doing just that and not repping other writers?

JEF: I don’t think a lot of agents are also writers – certainly not the successful agents.  Good agents are big fans of writing, though.  And some good fiction agents are great editors.  Everyone in book publishing, I think, lives for the act of discovery, as all readers do.  Successful agents are very good at communicating their enthusiasm in those discoveries to others.  As for writing exclusively, yeah, for me it’s important to have immersion in the writing process.  Agenting is difficult.  I don’t think an agent is doing much justice to his or her clients if he’s off working on his own stuff half the day.

WH: What are you working on right now?

JEF: I’ll probably be doing some revisions on my first novel, PRIMACY, which I hope will be ready for sale soon.  I’m working on two more novels and a screenplay, all on spec.  One of the novels, CADAVER BLUES, is being serialized on the web right now.  I also write essays – hate the word blog – for TheNervousBreakdown.com.

WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today?

JEF: I read really eclectically.  Among living authors, I’m still a big fan of Philip Roth, after all these years, Pat Conroy (though I haven’t read his latest), E.L. Doctorow, Richard Price, Junot Diaz – you don’t need me to tell you, but these guys can all really write.  I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch out, and my women friends say I don’t read enough women.  They’re certainly right.

In thrillers and mysteries, Dennis Lehane is very good.  C.J. BoxJanet Evanovich is fun.  There’s a woman!  Elmore Leonard. Daniel SilvaJames Lee BurkeHarlan Coban.  I’m sure I’m leaving out someone important.  My favorite writer of all time is probably Saul Bellow – no longer living, of course.  But there are so many others.  I find flaws in much of what I read, because clean story telling is much harder than it appears, but there’s a lot of talent out there.

WH: If you could put on your psychic hat, what trends do you see making a splash soon? Or is following trends a waste of time?

JEF: The only thing I’d say about trends is that they seem to be shorter and shorter lived.  Some genre catches fire and then everyone chases it so manically that the quality declines and people get bored.  If I could predict trends – if anyone could – they’d be a lot richer.  As a writer, I don’t think you can chase it.  I had an agent recently ask me to write a novel that emulates Lee Childs, whose Jack Reacher series is fun and hot right now.

But – setting aside the issue of whether I could just order this stuff up from my brain – by the time you get the book finished, it’s likely that the world has moved on.  You just have to follow your muse, I think, and hope for the best.  That said, I think it’s most important to understand existing story forms and be creative within those forms rather than try to defy them.  It sounds boring to say so, but there will always be demand, I think, for great stories with beginning, middle and end.  Making it fresh within that is the hard part, and it has to come from authenticity, not chasing trends.

WH: What’s your overall take on publishing today? In dire straights or blooming and flourishing?

JEF: I think book publishers in general are facing significant challenges going forward.  Bill Gates said people overestimate the effects technology will have going two years out and underestimate their effects ten years out.  There will always be authors and stories, but the book publishing business will probably look much different in another decade or two.  Publishers will have to find new ways to add value or they’ll be gradually disintermediated.  It’s a scary time for them, and yet the big ones have to figure out how to change while making their quarterly numbers and carrying big overhead.  Like much of the media, their business is changing rapidly.  The same could be said of bookstores.  A big part of the growth is electronic, and that will only accelerate going forward.

WH: To return to your editing/agenting roots for a moment: how important is the query vs. the sample pages?

JEF: On and off, I’ve attended a high-level writing workshop in Philadelphia the last couple years called the Rittenhouse Writer’s Group.  Before I started, I hadn’t done a writing workshop since I was just out of college – certainly long before I went into book publishing.  Now the thing is, people go to these workshops and you’re obligated to read everyone’s stuff, no matter how good or bad, no matter whether they’ve grabbed the reader by the lapels on Page One or have sauntered up to the reader and finally got around to their story on Page Twelve.  The thing you can lose sight of in that environment is that all writers, in a sense, are in the entertainment business.

Editors, agents, publishers – at least in the fiction area — all in the entertainment business.  So when writers ask for advice with regard to getting an agent, I remind them of this single truism: no one out there owes you a read.  No one.  You have to grab their attention.  In the realm of non-fiction, the query letter may be more important than the sample pages – because if the author’s concept and credentials are strong, an agent can always find them a writer to do the proposal.  In fiction, you’re going to live and die on those first ten sample pages.  But it’s all important.  Agents are so pressed for time.  It’s easy to shout, “Next!”

WH: What are the main things in a query letter that make agents/editors want to read more?

JEF: For non-fiction: credentials, concept, a platform for promotion.  For fiction: consistency between the demands of the genre and the ambition of the writer, originality, and some sense that there’s an authorial voice there.

WH: What are the main things that let agents/editors know this project/writer isn’t for them?

JEF: In my opinion there are really only two things.  First, is this a genre in which I’m working?  An agent who has no interest in science fiction isn’t going to look at a science fiction manuscript.  Period.  Second, does it capture my imagination?  People – even editors and agents – read with their gut.  If they like it, they’ll ask themselves whether they can come up with a coherent pitch that has a chance of succeeding, based largely on their experience in the market over the past year.  If they don’t like it, they can come up with ways to rationalize why, but the bottom line will always be a matter of taste.  Presuming, of course, that the writer was able to string sentences together.  A certain level of competence is expected.

WH: Do you think with the rise of digital publishing that there’s a difference between hard copy queries and e-queries? Does one seem more disposable/less serious than the other?

JEF: It’s all up to the preference of the agent.  Some still won’t read e-queries, but if I were still an agent, my thinking would be: why waste your time re-stuffing the envelope?  Words are words.

WH: What advice would you give aspiring writers out there?

JEF: Someone asked this of Carl Reiner once.  He said, if you’re a writer, then write!  Nothing else matters if you don’t bring your vision to the page.  You’re a painter: paint!  Malcolm Gladwell notes that excellence in any endeavor requires a ten-thousand-hour investment.  For writers, that’s not ten thousand hours dreaming about the book tour, it’s writing.

Joan Acocella observes that the single thing most successful people in the arts have in common is perseverance.  Don’t just talk about doing it, strategize doing it, worry about how the world will receive you…  It starts with product.  You want product, then produce!  Amazingly, it takes some of us a lifetime to realize this.  But most of the great writers you know are banging it out every day.

WH: Well said, Sir. So do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there, professionally and effectively?

JEF: It sounds that way.  The brilliance of WordHustler, I think, is that it has the potential to give creative people more time to create.  If you enjoy sending queries more than writing, then you should be an agent, not a writer.  That’s why I’m a writer now.  I’m happier telling stories than making pitches.

Straight talk from a man in the know! So take J.E.’s advice and put in those hours to perfect your craft, focus on persevering even when the going is tough, and spend some time crafting your queries and projects with the za-za-zing that will grab an editor or agent’s attention right from the start.

Why not submit your masterfully-written prose to an esteemed literary agency like Writer’s House? If you want some help nailing your query letters, take a glance at our Cover Letter Clinic here! Write your best, edit your best, then do your homework so you can send your work out to the best publishing professionals out there. And WordHustler is here to help. Write on!

Fresh out of college in 1993, I landed a job with a literary agent. Don’t ask me how. The job, however plummy it seemed, was actually insane. Every day was a lesson in Real Life.