One of the fun things about being a Book Doctor is that we get to travel to cool places and meet cool people. If you haven’t been to San Antonio, do yourself a favor and go. It’s a beautiful city. The San Antonio Book Festival was really a blast: great authors, great craft stuff for Olive, our daughter, and most importantly, lots of readers. While we were there, we met Lance Rubin at the party they have for authors. He explained what his first book is about, and it’s great. We decided to pick his brain about writing, publishing, and how he got his first book deal. To read on the Huffington Post, click here.

The Book Doctors: How did you get started as a writer?

Lance Rubin: Since I was eight years old, I always thought I was going to be a professional actor. So the writing I did through most of my life was often in service of that. When I was younger, I wrote skits and short films with friends that we would perform. In college, I wrote and performed a one-man show. After college, I co-wrote and performed a sketch comedy show called The Lance and Ray Show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Then, several years ago, I was finding my acting career frustrating and unfulfilling right around the same time I read The Hunger Games. I really loved it, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll try to write a YA novel.” It wasn’t a fully rational decision, but I started writing, and I was having such a good time–feeling empowered and creatively fulfilled in new, exciting ways–that I kept at it. Even though I hadn’t written long-form fiction before, I think all the various writing I’d been doing my whole life completely informed this book.

TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
LR: Some favorites include:

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Such brilliant storytelling: magical situations always grounded in humanity; a complex story that weaves and intertwines through seven books; humor that comes from a place of love; and fully fleshed-out characters who truly care about each other. I could go on and on. Anyone who’s been resisting reading these is a fool.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Not only does Chabon spin the most delightful, acrobatic sentences, but he tells a completely engaging story of friendship, love, comic books, WWII, and superheroes.

The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire by Deepak Chopra. This nonfiction is all about the power of coincidences and synchronicity. I try to read it every couple years because it makes life more fun; you start to find coincidences everywhere, like a code from the universe you have to solve.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. When I first read it as a kid, it made me aware of the way books can subvert narrative expectations and make you laugh out loud.

TBD: How did being a professional actor help and/or hinder you as a writer?
LR: As an actor, I was always trying to get inside the head of a character, figure out how that character thinks and responds to the world. When I started writing this book, with its first-person narrator, I realized there was a surprising amount of overlap, as I was essentially doing the same thing: figuring out how the main character (and all of the other characters, too) thinks and responds to the world. And it was even better because now I got to actually come up with what the characters say! That said, since I come from the world of acting and comedy, I’m often so focused on dialogue that the descriptive parts of my writing are severely lacking. But hey, that’s what rewriting is for!

TBD: The idea for your new book, Denton Little’s Deathdate, is so cool. How did you come up with it?
LR: I think about time a lot. I’m always taking inventory of my life in terms of dates. I’ll think things like, “What was going on in my life a year ago today? Two years ago today? Three?” And so on. And I’m usually able to remember. So one day I thought, “What if I could take inventory of my life in terms of a future date? Specifically, themost important date, the day I’m going to die?” I wondered how this would change the way I lived. Or if maybe it wouldn’t change a thing. And then I thought, “What ifeveryone knew the day they were going to die?” So then there was the idea: in a world where everyone knows their deathdate, the protagonist is going to die tomorrow. That was pretty much all I had for a few years. The rest came later.

TBD: How did you go about getting a book deal?
LR: I just Googled “book deal,” clicked on the first link that appeared, and signed up! Isn’t that how it works for everybody?

Apologies for that dumb joke. I did have a relatively charmed journey to a book deal, as my best friend since I was three, Zack Wagman, has worked in publishing for over a decade and is a brilliant editor, currently at Ecco. He was one of a handful of close people in my life who read the first draft of my book and gave feedback, and then was one of a duo of close people in my life (along with my wife, Katie Schorr) who gave feedback on the three or four subsequent drafts over the next year. Finally, once I had a draft that was in solid shape, Zack connected me to agent Mollie Glick at Foundry Literary + Media, who responded to the book and signed me. (I know getting an agent is not supposed to be such a smooth process, so I understand if writers out there want to spit in my proverbial soup. I’ve faced a ton of rejection in my life, too, if that makes you feel better. See: abandoned acting career.) Mollie is terrific, and she guided me through one last big rewrite before submitting to various publishing houses. In November 2013, Denton was sold to Knopf Books for Young Readers.

TBD: What was it like working with your editor?
LR: Super. I feel so fortunate that I ended up working with Nancy Siscoe. She’s smart and kind and funny, and she loves all the same things about my book that I do. By the time she got my first book, it had already been rewritten a lot, so her changes were minor but really insightful as to things that would make the story clearer and more satisfying. My second book, which comes out in April 2016, was pretty much a mess when she got it. So I was truly relieved when I received her pages and pages of single-spaced notes and they all resonated with me. It was like, “Oh man, she has great ideas about how to make this less of a mess. Thank god.”

TBD: We’re intrigued by the musical you’re writing. What exactly is Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!?
LR: Hey, thanks for asking! It’s a musical I co-wrote with Joe Iconis and Jason “SweetTooth” Williams about a veteran musical theater actress named Annie Golden (to be played by veteran musical theater actress Annie Golden, known to many as Norma on Orange is the New Black) who gets pulled into the world of bounty hunting and starts kicking ass in ways she never imagined she could. It’s a comedy highly inspired by exploitation movies of the 1970s and ’80s–both story-wise and musically–but it’s also about breaking out of the boxes society puts people into. It’s been an exciting project to work on. We’re hoping it will have its first production in the not-so-distant future.

TBD: Did you outline your book before you started writing? What kind of a routine do you have as a writer?
LR: Thus far in the two books I’ve written, I haven’t outlined before starting my first drafts. I generally have some broad ideas about where the story might go and a page or two of notes on characters and potential plot points, but then I just start writing and discover as I go. In the case of my second book, I got about 15,000 words in, realized I hated where the story was going, scrapped it, and started again. Outlining might have helped me avoid that, but it’s still the way I prefer to work.

As far as writing routine, I have several coffee shops and libraries that I bounce between. Last year, I worked almost exclusively at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. Then it closed out of nowhere in December, which was quietly devastating. I now keep a rotation of several spots because I’m not gonna get hurt like that again.

When I’m working on a first draft, I’m always aiming for word count, which was something I took from Stephen King’s On Writing. With my first book, I tried to get 1,000 words a day. With my second, I aimed for 2,000 (and often only got to around 1,700).

I work way better in the morning, so it’s often an 8:30 am – 3 pm workday, give or take an hour (and sometimes I’m needed on Dad duty for my 1-year-old son, so that timing’s always subject to change).

I usually listen to music while I write, and the headphones going in is my indicator to myself: “Okay, stop dicking around on the internet. Time to work.”

TBD: I noticed your book has been translated into several languages. It was really fun for me when I saw my book in Russian and its different covers. What was it like seeing the book you wrote in a language you can’t read?
LR: That’s absolutely been one of the most surreal parts of the experience. Each cover has had its own wonderfully distinct take on the story, which has been so cool, but it’s the different-language part that is truly hard to wrap my head around. I heard an audiobook sample of the German edition last week, and I think my brain exploded. This story I plunked out on my laptop in random coffee shops has ended up in a recording booth in Germany, being read aloud by some talented German actor. That’s nuts.

TBD: We admire the fact that you publicly admit to loving the New York Knicks. How are you holding up during this very difficult time?
LR: Oh man, it’s been so rough. I mean, maybe there’s some historical joy in knowing I just lived through the Worst Knicks Season of All Time. No, there really isn’t. What a joke of a season. I miss Jeremy Lin.

TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
LR: Ha, I love the disclaimer at the beginning of that question. Here’s my two cents: whether you’re published or not, you need to start operating as if you’re a published writer. Make writing a part of your daily routine, as if it’s your job. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike; just sit down and do the work every day. If you don’t take yourself seriously in this way, then the universe won’t be able to, either.

Lance Rubin is a New Jersey native who has worked as an actor and written sketch comedy, including successful runs of The Lance and Ray Show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. He’s also co-writing a new musical called Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! and loves Pixar, the Knicks, and Back to the Future. Lance lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. His debut novel, Denton Little’s Deathdate, is out now from Knopf Books for Young Readers, to be followed by a second Denton book in 2016. Learn more at lancerubin.com and follow him on Twitter @lancerubinparty.

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David has now been a writer for 15 years.  Before that, he was a professional actor for 15 years.  In that time, he located, lured and landed over 50 agents.  In fact, he got so good at it that he eventually got an agent to marry him and be the mother of his child.  Sadly, on their wedding day, she fired him as a client.  For those of you who don’t know, that agent is Arielle.

We’ve seen lots of agents try to tell writers how to find an agent.  The sad truth is agents have no idea how to find an agent.  All they have to do is look in the mirror, and there is an agent staring back at them.  They look around the office; they’re surrounded by agents.  Agents can tell you what things not to do and what things annoy them.  But they also often give bad advice because, quite frankly, they don’t want the competition.

We see lots of agents tell writers not to do multiple submissions.  But, in fact, it can take an agent nine months to get to your manuscript.  That’s how long it took Arielle to read David’s manuscript after he submitted it to her.  And we went on to get married! Imagine if it took nine months for every agent to get back to you, it would take you seven years to query 10 agents. Of course, agents don’t want you to do multiple submissions.  They want you all to themselves.

David also heard an agent say a writer should never submit a book that’s already been self-published.  She said it in such a dismissive and entitled way.  You find this a lot with agents; they tend to develop a dismissive, entitled, bitter, jaded, snarky outer shell.  You can’t blame them because they are constantly inundated, and everyone wants the agent to make their dreams come true.  In fact, a great agent can make your dreams come true. David is living proof of that.  However, he also did exactly what the dismissive, entitled agent said couldn’t be done.  One of his books went out-of-print, and people kept asking where they could buy it.  So, as an experiment, he decided to self-publish the book.  It was a great experience, and he learned an amazing amount from doing it.  It cost him nothing because the book had already been published; and he bartered with people to make him a new cover, a new layout for the printed version and an e-book.  He immediately started making money on the book.  At the same time, he went out to a number of agents and editors, and lo and behold, got a book contract.  When that happened, he immediately took the book down from where it was available, and no one was the wiser.  Mind you, he didn’t tell the people he was submitting a book that had already been self-published.  But if they had asked, he certainly would not have lied.  They didn’t ask.  He didn’t tell.

So how do you find an agent?

 

1. Research

There is a fine line between research and stalking.  The Book Doctors firmly believe it’s important to stay on the research side of that line.  The first thing David does is make a list of 10 to 15 books that are similar, in the biggest broadest sense of that word, to his book.  Let us emphasize in no uncertain terms that we mean big broad strokes.  And please, for goodness sake, don’t say that your book is like no book ever written.  Because that book will never be published.  Lots of our clients have no idea what books are similar to their books.  That’s a problem.

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to read, and you have to become an expert in the section of the bookstore where your book is going to live.  Recently, someone pitched us a piece of noir.  We asked him if it was more like Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or James Elroy.  He looked at us like a confused puppy and said, “Who are they?”  They’re only three of the most successful and brilliant noir writers in history.  If you are lucky enough to get an agent or editor interested, and they ask you if your book is similar to another book on the shelf, you have to be able to say, “Oh yes, I love that book, and readers of that book will love my book, but it’s different in these ways …”

2. Find Books Similar to Yours

Take a field trip to your local independent bookstore.  When the phones aren’t ringing off the hook and the cash registers aren’t going crazy, find a person who is the expert, or as close to an expert there is, in the kind of book you’re writing.  Then ask them what books they have that are similar to your book. Start making a list of books that are similar to yours, again in the broadest, largest sense. List books that looked interesting to you, that looked like they were done by people you’d like to do business with.  In the acknowledgments section of those books, look for the agent and/or editor.

3. Make a List and Create an Environment of Competition for Your Book

Your agent list should be a little bit like a high school senior putting together their college list.  You should have some well-known agents at the top of your list, some agents you admire but aren’t bigwigs yet, and some agents that have just started out or whose lists are small.

As soon as anyone expresses interest, you immediately email everyone else on your list.  There’s nothing that’s going to get you a response faster than having someone else interested.  That’s human nature.  It’s like the sorta cute kid in high school who shows up with a beautiful cheerleader on his arm.  Immediately, he becomes much more attractive.  He’s exactly the same guy he was yesterday; only now someone else wants him.  You see, every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has a recurring nightmare in which they’re walking down the street, people are pointing at them, laughing and giggling, whispering to each other, “There goes the agent who passed on Harry Potter!”  That’s because every agent has passed on a book that has become wildly successful.

4. Know Thy Agent-to-Be

Make a file on each of the agents.  Where are they from? Where did they go to college?  What are their hobbies?  Where have they been interviewed?  What books have they agented?  Are they a dog person? You’re going to use all this information when you write your query letter.

One of the biggest mistakes that most amateur writers make is that they just send anonymous letters without doing any research.  In lots and lots of places, it says that Arielle does not like fantasy and science fiction; and yet every week she gets another email from a writer that says, “Dear Agent, I know you’re going to love my book; it’s the first in a 37 book series. It’s called the Unicorns of Narnia.”  Arielle used to actually answer those emails.  She doesn’t answer them anymore.  They go directly into the trash.

5. Make it Easy for an Agent to Say Yes

Agents are trained to say no.  They’re just looking for a reason to reject you.  It sounds cold and cruel from a writer’s perspective; but having lived with an agent for so long now, David totally understands it.  They are inundated and overwhelmed, mostly overworked and underpaid.  They’ve got 50 submissions that arrived in their inbox today, they had 50 yesterday, and will have 50 tomorrow. It’s relentless.  That’s why they’re looking for a reason to say no. These reasons include:

  • Spelling or punctuation mistakes—we can’t tell you how many people have spelled Arielle’s name wrong
  • Over-promising and under-delivering
  • Too much horn-tooting and butt-kissing
  • Using obvious and overblown comp titles (i.e. Harry Potter, Eat Pray Love, Hunger Games)
  • Not following agent submission guidelines—you can’t believe the percentage of submissions that do one or more of the above.

That’s why if you just do the basics, it already ups your odds by loads.

6. Don’t Submit Your Book Until It’s Fully Polished

Writers are under the mistaken impression that an agent will help them fix their books.  The agent is almost certainly not going to help you fix your book.  If your book is not ready, the agent will reject you and your book.  Almost certainly, that bridge will be burned.

7. Develop a Coping Mechanism for Rejection

JK Rowling was rejected 25 times.  What makes you think you’re any better than JK Rowling?  Thicken your skin.  Everyone has her own method of doing this.  David subscribes to the Godfather model: It’s never personal; it’s always business.  He also enjoys accumulating lists of people who’ve rejected him; so that when he finally gets a deal he’s been looking for, he can send them all a very sweet email, and rub their noses right in it.  But again, everyone has to come up with their own personal method.

8. Keep Up-to-Date

Sign up for Publishers Marketplace and Shelf Awareness.  Keep abreast of who is selling books and making deals. Know what agents have awesome blogs.  Speaking of which, here’s a shout out to Jennifer Laughran, who has an absolutely awesome blogfor those of you writing children’s books.

9. Go to Writers Conferences, Seminars and Workshops

There are very few places a writer can actually get face time with an agent.  Conferences, seminars or workshops are one of them.  You can listen to agents make presentations, and sometimes you can even have one-on-one sessions with them.

10. Join a Writers Group

When David lived in San Francisco, he found an amazing writing group.  One of the writers was a very handsome, very charming, ridiculously talented writer.  Plus he was a doctor.  You wanted to hate him, but he was just too nice to hate.  You knew if he caught a break, he was going to be huge.  Well, he did catch a break. He wrote a little book called The Kite Runner and became an international sensation.  His name is Khaled Husseini. Now David is connected with his agent by one degree of separation.

11. Attend Readings at Bookstores and Libraries

Any time an author whose work is similar to yours in any way, shape, or form comes to town to do a reading, GO!  Buy a book.  Be the last person in line at the signing.  If someone comes behind you, get behind him/her.  This is important because when you get up to the front of the line to have the author sign the book, it’s very rude to have a conversation if there’s someone waiting behind you.  If you’re the last one, then there’s no pressure to move along.  Sometimes the writer will want to talk to you; sometimes the writer will not want to talk to you.  Pay very close attention to body language.  Ask the writers if they’re happy with their agent.  If they say yes, this gives you the opening to contact the agent and say, “I was talking to your client yesterday, and she said how much she enjoyed having you as her agent.”

12. Write a Killer Query

Three paragraphs.  The first is always customized.  Why should this agent be your agent?  The second paragraph is your pitch.  The third paragraph is a short bio.  The whole query should reflect the voice of your book whether that be funny, authoritative, lyrical or whatever.  This is your audition to show what a fabulous writer you are.

13. Persevere and Follow Up

Don’t ever assume if you don’t hear back from an agent that they are rejecting you.  Assume they haven’t even looked at your query or manuscript.  David’s maxim is: keep submitting until they say yes or the agent tells you to go to hell.  He tries to have the Zen attitude that it doesn’t matter whether they say yesor no.  Because when someone says no, it’s like you bought another lottery ticket.  You have increased your chances of winning.

However, there are two kinds of perseverance:  smart perseverance and stupid perseverance.  The Book Doctors highly advocate smart perseverance.  Always try to make your query/proposal/manuscript a little better.  Polish, buff, shine until is evolves into the best versions of itself.

Whenever you are rejected, ask if there’s anything you can do to make your work better.  Time and again, David has seen people be very generous with their advice.  When David first approached Arielle, he didn’t know her. In fact, David didn’t know anyone in the publishing business.  After making initial contact, he sent her his manuscript.  A week later he followed up, just to make sure she received the manuscript.  It turned out she had already lost it.  He sent another.  A month later, when he hadn’t heard anything, he called her on the phone.  Generally speaking, agents don’t want you to call them on the phone.  But this is David’s strength.  We had a very nice conversation; he never even mentioned his manuscript.  He found out afterwards that because he’d been so nice, Arielle felt very guilty.  One month later, he did the same thing.  This went on, as he mentioned earlier, for nine months.  One human gestation period.  Finally, he told her he was coming to New York for Christmas.  He lived in Venice Beach at the time, and in fact he wasn’t going to New York at all; but he had a feeling that if he said that, she would read his manuscript.  He was right.  As soon as they hung up, he went and booked a ticket to New York.  Six months later, after she had helped him craft his proposal, she sold it for six figures in less than two hours. Ten years after that, they had the most amazing daughter ever.

This article originally appeared in our monthly newsletter. You can view the full newsletter here. Join our newsletter to receive more FREE information on how to get your book successfully published.

The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, with their daughter

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