Wednesday, February 01, 2006

First Sale Stories: P.N. Elrod, "The Vampire Files"

Lynda: What was your first book?

Pat: My first novel was Bloodlist, published in 1990 from Ace Science Fiction. It's about a hard-boiled vampire PI in 1936 Chicago whose first case is to solve his own murder. The Vampire Files series has gone on for 11 books now with a few spin offs set in the same universe.

Lynda: What was the inspiration for the book?

Pat: I decided it was time I got serious about writing. The premise was inspired by a role-playing game-- NOT the vampire one that's out now, but another one that was more like an Indiana Jones thing--and my love of film noir, old monster movies, Dark Shadows, and pulp mysteries.

Lynda: What's your favorite aspect of your book?

Pat: That I wrote it, that I finished it, that I sold it.

Lynda: How long have you been writing fiction?

Pat: All my life.

Lynda: Is this your first paranormal manuscript?

Pat: The first one, yes.

Lynda: Is paranormal your main focus?

Pat: I focus on whatever gives me that creative buzz. I don't think of my stuff as paranormal; I just tell a story.

Lynda: What attracts you about vampires (or whatever persuasion your paranormal characters might be)?

Pat: My version of the folklore is that they're tough bastards but generally have a sense of honor. I tend to keep things angst-free and practical. If someone gets killed, there are serious consequences. Matters of life and death are to be taken seriously. Even spear carriers have a life, and it's important to them.

Lynda: How long did it take to sell your book, from the time you finished your manuscript?

Pat: Two years--after 25 rewrites of chapter one and at least 3-5 rewrites of the whole manuscript (on a manual typewriter, yet!) and half a dozen rejections. (I got off light!) I had to make it better. Even when I thought it was perfect, it wanted tweaking. Here's a tip--always write that first page in such a way that it can distract a reader from a subway full of muggers. That's how you make a sale.

Lynda: Thinking about the notion of "It's always darkest before the dawn," what was the lowest point in the process for you? Was there a time you almost gave up?

Pat: I never did. I knew it would get published because I knew I was a good writer. I'd read some piece of crap, throw it across the room, and was confident I'd sell sooner or later, because I was a much better writer than that hack. You keep sending stuff in. That's how you get in print. While your first book is making the rounds, be working on your second. And stay out of chat rooms. They'll eat your writing time. Chatting about writing doesn't count as writing.

Lynda: Did you have an agent when you sold your book?

Pat: No. I sent queries to a couple, but didn't like their vibe, so I kept sending the MS in to publishers who accepted unsolicited books. I have an excellent agent now, and am very glad to have her. She's been selling my books in Europe, which tickles me to no end.

There are a lot of sharks in the publishing tank, so always research any agent you contact or ask a print published writer who represents them. I'm repped by the Spectrum Literary Agency and happy to be there.

NEVER pay an agent to read your book. NEVER pay to get published. ALWAYS get an advance. A real advance, not the token 1.00 advance like PubliSHAMEerica does. (PA has the worst rep in publishing, with whole pages of woe on most "predators and editors" sites, so leave them alone.) Remember that you contact an agent, not the other way around. Any agent contacting you out of the blue is probably a scam artist. They just LOVE hungry, desperate writers, oh-my-yes-indeedy, they do-do-do.

Lynda: Do you recommend that a pre-published writer focus on finding an agent first, or do you think it's OK to submit directly to the publisher?

Pat: You do whatever works to make a sale. Query agents who represent writers with work similar to your own. If you make a slush pile sale like I did you can ask an agent to close the deal for you--which I strongly recommend. Most reputable agents will rep a one-time "orphan" deal for you, and they might take you on as a regular.

In 1986-88 when I was selling Bloodlist there were NO other books like it, so the odds were not in my favor, however, I knew my writing would click with someone, sooner or later. As for the sale/contract when it came, I read books on negotiating my own contract and was able to get a couple points in my favor, but was not able to get film rights, etc. For a few years my publisher got half that money. It wasn't much, but I'd like to have gotten all of it!

Lynda: You don't have to mention numbers, but did you get a nice advance?

Pat: It was below average for a new writer, but I did get a 6-book contract, which was unusual, certainly a statement of their confidence in me to produce a good read times 6. That was good and bad, in that it locked me in on a low advance until they were all turned in. Thankfully I knew to get rid of the "joint accounting" clause in the contract, else I would not have gotten royalties on the 1st book until the 6th one had paid out. It's a nasty clause, but you can draw an X through it easy enough. It's just one more way for a publisher to get more money from the deal.

I'd read the how-to on the business end of publishing--it's NOT rocket science--and that kept me out of trouble. Every writer wanting to make it in the profession should get educated on the business end, if only so you know to ask the right questions.

Lynda: What was the process of revisions/rewrites like?

Pat: A pain in the ass. They gave me 14 days and I had a manual typewriter, but that's the norm, then and now. I did it, too. You learn to focus, you get it done, and you stay professional. I'm very prickly about my writing, so I warn the editor about how I like to work. Just point out a problem to me and I'll fix it, don't fix it for me. That's my own style as an editor. I point out a problem and leave it to the writer to sort it out.

Lynda: If you had an agent, did she/he suggest changes?

Pat: I had an editor who suggested significant changes concerning a minor character. The suggestions would have thrown the whole balance of the narrative off and thoroughly screwed up the climax, so I eliminated the character's importance to the story. The editor just happened to like that spear carrier, there was no logical reason for him to have a larger part. I trusted my own instinct on that point and it paid off.

Lynda: Were the changes something you could live with?

Pat: The best way to get me to like changes is to make me think they're my own idea. I'll consider suggestions or solutions to a problem I know exists, but ordering me point blank to change A into B without a damn good reason for it makes me very unhappy. (Think Clint Eastwood on a bad day unhappy.)

Lynda: What was it like, working with the editor at your publishing house?

Pat: Educational. I've worked with several editors at several houses, and they each have their own styles. The way to get anything done is to be absolutely professional. You both have the same goal of getting a good book out, but may have different approaches. Sometimes the other guy doesn't see that, so you fall back on total professionalism and learn to think really, really fast. If I feel strongly about a point I better have a dang good logical argument for it. Happily I'm really good at problem-solving, which is what writers DO. Most of the time I get along great with them all. A sense of humor helps, that and seeing things from their end. They have someone looking over THEIR shoulder asking where YOUR book is and thinking about money issues. This is a creative business, but it IS a business.

The best way to get along with an editor is to make sure they don't have any work to do on your book. You use the spellcheck, you get Strunk and White's Elements of Style and READ it so your grammar is good and your sentences make sense. Remember that hack writer whose book I threw across the room? Chances are he or she took the trouble on the details.

I'm editing now myself, and the writers that get invited back again and again are the ones who turn in a clean manuscript on time. Don't kid yourself that your incredibly wonderful story will win them over because the writing is so great. If your work reads like you failed 5th grade English they will toss it in the trash. They don't have the time to waste fixing what's your responsibility. There are ten other writers out there who *did* bother to make a good job of it, and they will make the sale instead.

Lynda: Do you have any words of wisdom for us about revisions/rewriting, etc.?

Pat: Do the best you can, and get a good friend to read, nitpick, and critique. Said good friend should also be a writer and be able to tell you the truth without you throwing a fit. You don't want applause, you want to make it better. If you just want your ego stroked get into another business.

Lynda: Were there any surprises for you about the contract you signed?

Pat: Nope. I read the how-to books. You find them in the 808 section of the library. The more you know, the less you get ripped off. Read the whole 808 section for that matter.

Lynda: Do you get a lot of help with marketing your book, or do you have to do most of it yourself?

Pat: I read the how-to on that as well. I now get full color handouts on cardstock. They slip into a paperback, look slick and are cheap the mail. There are a LOT more resources available now than then. You used to have to go to an offset printer or a copy place for bookmarks & such, and now people are doing the same thing with their desktop units.

Back then I got on local cable shows that spotlighted books, sent press kits to the local paper--oh, they won't be that interested, you have to be from out of town to get them to call you back. That's just how it is. You be pleasant, positive, and unpretentious and say thank you.

I made up fliers and sent them to conventions; I got on the guest list at Sci Fi conventions and made sure I got people's names spelled right, and I said thank you a lot and meant it. They didn't have to have me there, y'know.

Lynda: Did you have input about your cover?

Pat: None whatsoever. Writers rarely do. I was able to influence a couple covers with one publisher, but that was a huge exception.

Lynda: Have you done any events or book signings? If so, what was that like?

Pat: Tremendous fun. No one showed up, I signed and sold ONE book, handed out fliers, and that was pretty much it. However, I knew to expect that. Writers don't get a lot of respect, so you create your own, be positive, friendly, and say THANK YOU because they didn't have to stop by your table. No one wants to see you pouting. Next time out I invited several friends to come show support. They already had copies, but they made a crowd by the table, and they bought other books from the store--which the manager liked. Having a shill or two in the crowd ain't cheating--just make sure they know to make space for the curious to get to your books. Don't let your feelings be hurt if no one buys anything and thank the manager a lot.

Lynda: If you could go back and do something differently, what would that be?

Pat: Nothing. Changing one's history can cause it to totally unravel, didn't you see that Next Generation episode with Captain Picard???

Lynda: What would you do exactly the same way?

Pat: Everything. Though I might embrace tech a bit sooner. It took a long time before I got a computer. They were pretty intimidating and VERY expensive then. I wasn't a technophile, but you adapt to change or you go under.

Lynda: What's your next manuscript about?

Pat: It's another Vampire Files novel. The twelfth in that series. Jack gets into trouble and finds a way out of it again. He changes. He grows.

Lynda: What's the one book you absolutely must write?

Pat: Whatever one I'm working on at any given time.

Lynda: What advice are you willing to give to all the pre-published writers out there?

Pat: Don't assume that getting published means instant fame and fortune. Most writers have a day job and keep it because a book sale isn't that much money. Don't expect people to come flooding to your website in search of an autographed picture or seeking your hand in marriage. Don't expect invitations to posh literary events or publisher-paid book tours movie options or guest shots on Oprah. Get real! You write because you can't NOT write. Anything like fame and fortune is frosting on the cake.

Don't take the easy road of e-publishing, POD, vanity press or rip off artists calling themselves "book doctors." Many of them troll the writer chat rooms. No matter what they tell you, that's not what the publishing world or other writers see as a professional publishing credit. The ads are tempting, but a real publisher who can write you a check won't have an ad in a writers' magazine, nor will they e-mail you with friendly offers. Just delete such contacts unless you want to be disappointed and broke.

You can learn a lot from some of the blogs out there kept by professionals in the business. This stuff did not exist when I started, so neos have a huge advantage learning from them. If they tell you something, pay attention!

P.N. Elrod can be reached at:


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