Monday, November 2, 2009

Doing It Like You Mean It

"The writer’s state of mind is an effort of perception, a sustained devotion to the equal observation of things without and within."

My guest is Anthony Flacco. He's worn many professional hats in his career. Anthony writes both non-fiction true crime, has a historical crime series out with Ballantine, and screenwriter for Disney, Discovery, and NBC Studios.

Anthony is well aware of the difficulty writers face in pursuing publication. The sheer numbers of submissions we're competing against for attention. His topic covers the need of well crafted proposals and queries, as well as developing, what he calls, a writers state of mind.

It was just over six years ago when my partner of fifteen years left independent publishing in Hollywood to open her own literary management company (Sharlene Martin of Martin Literary Management). She was already an entrepreneur who had crafted a successful and nationally recognized business on her own, and by the time that she went forward with literary management her expertise had been fortified by her years of watching me engage in those same struggles known by all of us who write for commercial publication--especially with regard to the securing and maintaining of effective representation. She decided to specialize in nonfiction books because they are what she most likes to read. For her, the result was a rapid rise to success and power in the nonfiction book world. For me, there has been a backdoor benefit that I never could have anticipated beyond collecting jokes about sleeping with your agent or having a representative who returns my calls.

That unexpected benefit rose from my work as editorial consultant for her company, which I originally took on in the inevitable need to help her run her business in the afternoons while I did my own writing throughout the night.
  • My prior one-way experience of the literary marketplace expanded exponentially once I crossed to the other side of the desk and began to read and evaluate incoming submissions, edit book proposals and book manuscripts to put them into sellable form, and—most gratifying of all—converse with my partner every day on issues of writing and the publication game.

    That’s how an afternoon job that I never applied for became the most important one of my writing life outside of the writing itself. It stabilized my psyche in ways I could not have predicted, to the point that in a perfect world I would love to be able to rent my seat at the editorial desk to any one of you, perhaps charging by the hour or by the day (you know, just to keep the lights turned on), and thereby provide you with the same invaluable bird’s-eye view on the profession while you watch the tsunami of hopeful manuscripts wash across the transom. I’m pretty sure that the experience would change a lot of things for you as it certainly has for me, all for the better.

    You would find that the chance to watch and sometimes assist other writers who struggle with the same issues that you do is revelatory in its power to take the sting out of the blows that you often endure in the marketplace, since they turn out to be the same ones suffered by virtually everyone striving for authorship. (And I include the wildly successful ones who rake in royalties of seven figures.) Are there exceptions? Maybe. And they are about as relevant to the rest of us as the knowledge of who won this week’s Lotto—loose factoids.

    The revelation’s power arrives in two separate forms. The first is common to all who struggle to get published, since it involves the process. The second is typical of every writer—and this part includes those rich ones with the big waterfront mansions—because it involves living the writer’s life and maintaining a writer’s state of mind.

  • Regarding the first, the real and relevant truths about the struggle for a contract with major publishing houses is this: those publishing house slights, those yawning chasms of silence that loom up right where a response to your submission ought to be, were never the personal affronts that they seemed, not to me and not to you. The onslaught of material is daunting in the extreme.
For sad example, in the past I confess to having written to publishing house editors to ask if they would be willing to read and evaluate my work—and was genuinely disappointed by their indifference. If I had a rationale at all in wasting my time that way, other than that of seeking a toe-hold anywhere I could find one, it would have been something to the effect that I hoped for my work to be strong enough to grab them in the first few lines, they might be willing to invest their time and energy on my behalf out of sheer excitement over the stuff on the page.

It’s painful to admit to that now, because during the intervening years I have witnessed countless such requests coming in over the transom and I can’t help but appreciate the vast quantity of time and work that each would involve. Impossible. But the world is full of people who will ask for it anyway.
  • The result is that as a writer, I still look for feedback all the time—but never inside of the profession. Writers’ groups and literate friends are there to do what busy professionals simply cannot.

When you stop by to rent your time in the editorial seat, you will likely find that the amount of work and creative energy that you see being wasted by many prospective authors will knock you backward. The sight of it will permanently change the way that you go about things. Conversely, the stunning work of serious contenders who bear a passion to tell their stories will keep the high water mark clear before your eyes. Perhaps not all of us feel driven to seek the highest level of quality in our work—ordinarily—but you can bet that an awareness of the avalanche of competing manuscripts will amp up your energy for excellence.

And yet in our enthusiasm for a new book idea and our desire for a major contract, it’s easy to forget that ideas—good ideas, even great ideas—are like that shared anatomical trait on our collective nether regions. It takes so much more, more, more than that in the outrageously competitive world of nonfiction books.
  • From the editor’s side of the desk you observe how many intelligent and often supremely well-educated writers will try to cut corners on their queries, their proposals, their drafts. Even the most brilliant among them will frequently reduce their rationalizations for sloppy work to the same handful of familiar excuses that my ears burn to consider:

    “But I’m so busy (or) I can’t afford the cost of doing it right (or) Hey--if you appreciate my work, you won’t need a well-crafted query letter and a fully completed book proposal. You’ll cut me some slack and give me a boost. Why? Well, naturally, because I’m meeeeeeee…”

If that sounds laughable, it only emphasizes the extremes to which any of us can wander if we look for easy ways to publication. We ignore the broad statistics of more than a quarter million titles coming to the market each year, forgetting that each and every one of them represents a single find among a daunting pile of rejected works.

  • The second big reveal from this side of the desk:

I am now immune to the delusion that any amount of literary success can relieve a whittle or a jot from a writer’s responsibility to maintain the writer’s state of mind.

The challenge is difficult enough when you are balancing jobs and family along with your writing sessions, all the more so when you are juggling the endless temptations and demands of a life of privilege. No serious writer is ever free of the fear of wasting our fleeting moments on earth by neglecting opportunities to keep our thoughts primed and our discipline tight toward capturing those fleeting flashes that drove us to write in the first place. The writer’s state of mind is an effort of perception, a sustained devotion to the equal observation of things without and within. My time behind the editor’s desk has left indelible memories of those who achieve and maintain that state of mind, and who produce their work from within it.

As for me, I’ve started a collection of jokes about the wisdom (or folly) of sleeping with your agent. But the real result of my afternoon job has been to slap a pair of glasses onto my head with mirrors attached to the sides. They provide a clear and present view of the pack with whom I have chosen to run: countless thundering feet that will trample the ambitions of anyone who refuses to keep pace.
  • As for wealth and glory, they are always the most unpredictable girls at the dance. It does no good to chase them--they come to you on their own. We all know stories of brilliant writers with exquisite works who were derided by critics or initially ignored and then later rediscovered. Therefore, regarding the writer’s state of mind, “doing it like you mean it” reveals a writer who never forgets that public appreciation and acceptance of one’s work may be the result of someone else’s subjective call, but the excellence of it is there to be guaranteed by you.

Anthony is the author of the new historical true crime book, The Road Out Of Hell, which has just been released by Union Square Press at Sterling Publishing. It tells the true story behind the murders that formed the basis for the movie “Changeling,” but focuses on young Sanford Clark, the thirteen year-old who was held for two years at the Wineville murder ranch and forced to participate in the most gruesome of crimes.

Anthony’s primary research source for that story is Jerry Clark, the surviving son of Sanford Clark, which is why Jerry’s name is on the book. Anthony is also the author of the nonfiction book ”Tiny Dancer” from St. Martin’s Press, which earned high praise from the NYT Book Review, and the true-crime book, “A Checklist For Murder” from Dell Books, which sold to NBC Studios as a TV movie.

He has two historical crime novels from Ballantine books, “The Last Nightingale,” nominated by the International Thriller Writers Assn. as Best Paperback Original for 2007, and also the novel, “The Hidden Man,” in 2008, which continued the San Francisco murder mystery series.

He is a masters degree graduate of the American Film Institute, where he won A.F.I.’s Paramount Studios Award for his screenwriting. He has worked as a screenwriter for The Walt Disney Studios, NBC Studios, and The Discovery Channel. His work was also featured in the 1000th issue Commemorative Edition of Reader’s Digest.

He is currently a member of the Writers Guild of America/west, the International Thriller Writer’s Association, and the Mystery Writers of America.

Anthony Flacco website You can see the book trailer and blurb for the book here as well.