Monday, July 25, 2016

When It Rains, It Rains Frogs. Mutant Frogs.

So a few weeks ago, I confessed that I hadn’t been writing. Not for months. But now I’m back like a butterfly tramp stamp. And I’ve got a lot to write. Too much, actually.

It's not like the merciful end to a writer’s block, when the debris sort of sloughs away and the words and ideas start trickling, slowly at first, before picking up speed. Because this was unnatural. My brain had been active, but I had been willfully pushing all ideas back down into my psyche, waiting for certain external things to resolve, publisher-wise. But now that I’m writing again, I find myself somewhat paralyzed by the sheer number of things crying out to be written.

I might liken it to my favorite method of brewing coffee; the Toddy Cold Brew System. This method involves leaving nine cups of water and one pound of coarse-ground coffee in a carafe to brew at room temperature for twelve hours—or longer if you want it stronger. At the bottom is a special filter and a litter rubber stopper to keep the coffee in there, steeping for the designated period. (The result is a delicious, non-bitter coffee concentrate that can be used to make hot or cold coffee or specialty coffee drinks.)

So it’s like I put the stopper in when I stopped writing and this stuff has been percolating for months. And now that I’ve pulled out the stopper, it . . . You know what? Let me switch metaphors.

You know how they say, “When it rains, it pours?” Well, in my case, it's not normal pouring. It’s more like the frogs that rained down on Egypt. As soon as they land, they start jumping around, croaking and looking for attention. These ideas are alive and somewhat angry. Instead of ribbit, they say, “Write-Me.” And they’re not even regular frogs. They’re mutating before my eyes as they jump around!

What I mean by that is, I spent the last week as camp pastor at a Christian camp for 7th and 8th graders. As I was reflecting on some of the peculiarities of Christian camp culture, it occurred to me that it would make a great setting for a Young Adult suspense story. I’ve never written YA, but I actually still read it—both with my son and (certain books by J.D. Fitzgerald, Gordon Korman, and Frank Peretti) for my own amusement. On top of that, I do believe I have a gift for communicating with young people. Without my consent, one of my frogs (a book I’ve outlined and started) mutated before my eyes into a better idea for a YA novel. I sent my agent an e-mail about it and she agreed it’s a good idea. But they all seem like good ideas at the moment.

So the question remains, what to write? I’ve got the Playing Saint sequel, about which I’m jazzed, but which I’ve given up the idea of selling to a major publisher. There’s this semi out-there project, which is trying to morph into a YA novel. And, of course, the reboot of my gritty, urban retelling of the story of Elijah. Not to mention a sort of medical suspense thing I’ve been outlining in really broad terms, working title: Expiration. And two different nonfiction works.

Usually, one of those frogs is croaking far louder than the others; so you write the thing you can’t bear to not write for one more minute. But this time, they’re all hopped up (heh) on Red Bull, ribbiting at full-blast. I’ve been tending to each one in turn, a bit here and bit there. But I really want to attack one project full-force, and soon. Maybe the right answer will suddenly appear in a Writer’s Digest article about the current state of the market or in an e-mail from a reader. Or maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a singular desire to write one of these things and see it through to the end.

Either way, after months of writing nothing at all, it’s a good problem to have.

Update (9/12/16): It's the YA novel. I've used a push broom to corral all the other frogs into a large terrarium and I'm going full-speed on this one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Midlist Monday: Healing a Schizophrenic Brand

Note: If you don't know what Midlist Monday is all about, check out my last post here.

A few years ago, I decided to take the first few steps on the road toward publication. I’d written a few books, some of which a friend and I had put out on our own independent press, but I had one in the chamber that I really wanted to see on bookstore shelves, published by a traditional publisher. I knew it was good enough and I wanted to see how much better it could be with the editing, design, and marketing powers of a deep-pocketed corporation. I also, if I’m honest, wanted to receive a nice fat check before a single copy had sold.

For the uninitiated, this process begins with a whole bunch of “query letters.” The best way to get a book deal is to have a literary agent working hard to get you one. And the way to get a literary agent is through querying. So I started sending letters and copies of my book proposal to agents who represented some of my favorite authors. As is almost universally the case, I received an awful lot of rejections. The helpful ones came with some advice for how I could improve my book proposal or, more often, my “brand.”

I realized quickly that, even though I didn’t realize I even had a “brand,” I did, and it needed some help. The most common thing I heard was that my brand was too broad and diverse. When you googled my name, you found 1. my cheesy smile on the church website and a bunch of sermons, 2. the niche small press, known primarily for snark and satire,which I run with a friend, and 3. a fledgling web presence for Zachary Bartels, suspense author. It was too scattered, I was told. I needed to find a way to unify it or, better, trim it down so that Zachary Bartels’ online presence was largely limited to the suspense writer stuff. I did my best, removing most links and references to my sermons, nonfiction writing, podcast, and satire from my website and social media pages.

Eventually, I did land a great agent, who quickly got me a two-book deal with a major publisher (my first choice, in fact). But now I find myself feeling oddly pigeon-holed, like a type-cast middle aged actor who doesn't necessarily want to stop playing sitcom dads, but also wants to audition for some other roles.

Of course, conventional wisdom says that, if you must branch out to different genres, you should use a pen name. That way you can start cultivating a new brand identity without diluting the one you've already been working on. But conventional wisdom and I are not on the best of terms at the moment. And there are exceptions to every rule. My friend Carrie Stuart Parks has been writing award-winning Christian suspense under the very same name she uses for her instructional art books. Readers seem oddly unconfused by this. Steven James, bestselling suspense author whose endorsement has helped me greatly, has also written kids’ books, devotionals, and nonfiction without a pseudonym. And N.T. Wright, best known for his rather academic writing, uses the (non-)pen name Tom Wright for his popular-level books and commentaries.

At any rate, I’m in the process of re-consolidating my “brand,” as it stands. I’ve added nonfiction and satire to my books page on my website, and I’m currently working on a nonfiction book about pastoring a small church in the midst of a megachurch culture, another satire with my friend (and award-winning author) Ted Kluck, and two (or maybe three) suspense titles, obviously one at a time.

That’s an awful lot, you might be thinking. And you’re right. But more about that next Monday.

To learn more about querying agents and the 
different paths to being published, check out. . . 


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

#amNOTwriting: A Confession

So you should never begin a blog post by apologizing for “how long it’s been” since you last blogged or (worse) explaining why it’s been so very long. Writing (and Speaking) 101: always start strong, with a hook, not with a soul-suckingly boring laundry list of tedious events and obligations. But what if you’re writing about the dearth of posts? Is it okay then? Nah, still better to kick it off with something that grabs the reader, like . . .

Confession: I haven’t been writing.

If I were the kind of guy to use established hashtags on a regular basis, you’d still never see the ironically-broken-English-sounding #amwriting tag from me—at least not since last November, when I finished a short story double-header called God Rest Ye Motor City, which I think is some of my best writing to date, despite having been cranked out in just a few days. “#AmNOTwriting” is more like it (or maybe . . . “#aintwriting” to better mirror the janky grammatical issues of the original?). Yeah, every tweet and post since before Thanksgiving should be tagged with one of those. I’ve spoken at three writing conferences during that time, but I haven’t been writing anything.

I guess that’s not entirely true. I write a sermon every week. Often two. And sometimes a lesson. But that’s a whole different thing.

So what makes a just-starting-out novelist, briefly referred to as “The Suspense Author Everyone’s Talking About,” just . . . stop? I’d like to say it's kind of a Salinger thing. I’ve penned my Catcher and my Nine Stories and now I’m fading into obscurity while the world builds up my mythos. But that doesn’t work when your paperbacks are ranked in the neighborhood of 1,000,000 on Amazon and everyone’s not, in actuality, “talking about”  you. So, at the risk of reciting the aforementioned soul-suckingly boring laundry list of events, let me fill you in . . .

My two traditionally published books, Playing Saint (2014) and The Last Con (2015), have performed as one would expect the debut and follow-up of an unknown author to perform—neither breakout smash hits nor total flops. They were nominated for three awards, were finalists in all three, but won none. And, for a variety of reasons, my publisher and I parted ways. Which makes it sound like it was mutual, when in reality they had a contractual right of first refusal and they exercised that right (specifically on a proposal for a Playing Saint sequel).

So my agent sent the prop on to some other publishers, along with a proposal for a book I’m currently calling Clinch, which has a rather out-there premise, involving a paramedic, a long-lost treasure, an Indian tribe, and a woman who runs a junk shop by day and decides to become a super hero by night—all in a sleepy little Midwest tourist town. Not surprisingly, Breaking Saint (as I’ve been calling the Playing Saint, pt 2) was a none-starter. No one wants to do the sequel to a modestly-performing thriller owned by the competition. (In fact, a couple editors seemed kind of confused to have received the proposal.) And Clinch was just too unconventional, they said. Too fringe. Too niche. Too midlist. But we like the writing and please send us any future projects that are more marketable.

In early April, I decided to start another project while I waited to hear back from the remaining publishers considering these proposals. I would write a nonfiction book I’d been outlining for quite some time and serialize it, releasing a chapter at a time on The Blazing Center, an awesome online magazine that has published my work in the past. I was thinking I’d write one chapter every couple weeks. To date, I’ve written (waaaait for iiiit) one chapter. And, if I’m honest, that one was already written, almost a year earlier. Chapter 2 remains half-done. It’s been almost three months.

While #notwriitng, I’ve been barely-active on social media (at least on my author accounts), occasionally sharing the sort of stuff authors of Christian fiction are expected to share, along with a few things I actually wanted to. It’s been no secret that I’ve had something of an ongoing struggle with pandering, whether with my “image” as an author or with the actual content of my books. More on that in a future post. Suffice to say, in response to all this, I wrote most of a book proposal that I’m fairly sure would get picked up by an advance-paying publisher if I were to put it out there. And yet, I really had no interest in writing it. Or writing at all.

But wait! Come to think of it, I have been writing something over the past few months. Me and my buddy Ted Kluck have been writing a sequel to the end-times satire we put out in 2012. It’s the last thing any mainstream CBA publisher would touch. But I’m writing like an animal. Seriously, I can’t stop. Maybe because it’s refreshing to write without the pressure of trying to break out of the midlist, without dulling the sharp edges to suit the market, without subconsciously trying to target a demographic that is unlikely to get what I really want to say. Instead, I can write for the hundred or so people who actually e-mail and tweet me, asking when they can read my next book, because they loved the last one. I can write what I want to read. It’s stupid stuff at the moment (seriously, the plot involves a drug called “Ultragest” that shortens the human gestation period to six weeks), but it’s freeing in a weird way. It's the means, not the end, but it actually has me writing again.

So here’s the updated confession: My name is Zach and I’m a midlist author. (“Hiii, Zach.”) And I’m cool with it. I #amwriting, but I’m on no one’s 2016 list. It’s been nearly a year since The Last Con came out and I finally feel the desire to write again—not from without (you should have another book in the works or you'll be a year behind!), but from within.

And here’s what I see in my future: I’m not waiting for one of the Big Six (which I think have become the Big Four) to sign me again. I’m not waiting for anything.

  • I’m going to finish Chapter 2 of Out of Sardis and send it to The Blazing Center.
  • I’m going to finish Breaking Saint and it will be available to readers next year, even if I put it out independently. People keep asking if there will be another Parker Saint book. There will, God willing.
  • And I am going to reboot my gritty, modern retelling of the story of the prophet Elijah, through a new upstart publisher where a bunch of blood and bullets are not a deal-breaker. I’m hoping to make it a trilogy.

And I’ll keep you in the loop, right in this space. Here’s a hashtag I’ll actually use: #MidlistMondays. Most Mondays for the foreseeable future, starting next Monday, I’ll explore a different aspect of life in the literary limbo where I currently reside,having decided to just get comfortable here, light up a fine cigar, and craft some books that I would want to read. Books like Playing Saint. Books like The Christian Gentleman’s Smoking Companion, which I wrote and published with Ted and which has sold almost as many copies as either of my traditionally published novels.

While I respect all the podcasts and workshops and books about how to get your foot in the door of the Publishing Machine (I even contributed to one) as well as all the advice, freely (and not-so-freely) given by industry veterans, about how to keep your career moving up and your “platform” expanding . . . when it actually quenches your desire to write, it’s time to let all that go.

Walk into your local Barnes and Noble today and I’m not sure whether you’ll find one of my books on the shelf. I actually kind of doubt it. Maybe soon they'll be on the bargain table.

But I’m writing. And that feels good.