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Pirates of Pensacola

Keith Thomson joins us this month to talk about blogging, writing, and becoming a published author for the first time.

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Tripod Book Cult
BOOK (n.): A printed or written literary work
CULT (n.): An exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric, usually artistic or intellectual interest
BOOK CULT (n.): An online community obsessed with books, blogs, and the people who make them.
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Wednesday, 29 June 2005
Secrets of Agents
Topic: agents
This is far and away the most popular question I get, mostly through back channels, as if the subject matter were a narcotic: How do I score an agent? Three other questions I get plenty: 1. Can you, Keith, score me an agent? 2. Do I really need an agent? 3. Aren’t all agents the spawn of Satan? I’ll try to answer these today.

Late last century, when I wrote my first screenplay, an actor friend introduced me to a literary agent at his agency. The guy was the portrait of slick, and anything he said—based on the way he said it, his body language, tone, and eye contact (or lack thereof) made you assume he was lying. If you were at a restaurant and he asked you to pass the salt, you’d think, “This man wants the pepper.” Mr. Slick proved the exception. The seven I subsequently met were bright, highly-educated, well-spoken, enjoyed the chess game that is the bureaucracy and politics of the entertainment, and were good players. Certainly there is a faction in the entertainment business comprised, literally, of gangsters, and Mr. Slick might be the one to represent should you aspire to be doing business there.

Why do you need an agent? Your screenplay will be messengered to thirty producers, your manuscript to upwards of ten editors. And the people will read it, quickly, motivated as much by your agent’s recommendation by the fear that their competitor will beat them to it. Screenplay deals within 24 hours are common. If you can line up dozens of buyers and have them reading your manuscript instantly, then construct elaborate deals, then sell the film rights, then fight your own battles when problems arise, you do not need an agent.

What’s the secret to getting one? Simple: Have something to sell. As it happens, historically, pirates had agents. They'd anchor their booty-laden brigs in Carolina or Florida and the agents would come aboard, take inventory, and say something like, “Okay Captain, I can sell the gold but not the silk—it’s out this year—or the stale breadfruit.” If you have a marketable commodity, you’re in business. Agents who are friends or colleagues of people you already know are easiest to reach. Good places to get noticed: film festivals and websites like atomfilms.com, and magazines and sites like Zoetrope that run short stories. Also there are lists of agents looking for new clients, on the Writers Guild of America website for instance. Finally, if you buy 350 copies of my book, an agent will be calling you.

Posted by Nelson Cooke at 12:01 AM EDT | Post Comment | View Comments (9) | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 13 June 2005 10:57 AM EDT
Friday, 24 June 2005
How Getting Hepatitis Can Help Your Writing
Topic: research
I’d worked for five or six years as a screenwriter before deciding to write a book. Knowing I didn’t know enough, I enrolled in Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Fiction Program in the Fall of 2002. The first semester was great. In December I came down with a 103-degree fever. Not all that bad though. But after six days I still had it. So I went to the MD for a WTF. Turned out I’d contracted hepatitis A. How? Bad burrito. The result?

“You’ll have to spend six to eight weeks in bed,” said the doctor.

Two of my favorite things in life are sleeping in and reading. How often do you get to spend two solid months doing nothing but? I was delighted. My family and both of my friends took it as delirium. The only significant downside was I could keep only toast down for the first month or so, and suffered haunting, recurring dreams of cheeseburgers. Also, I wouldn’t be able to return to Stanford.

I wanted to continue with the pirate story I’d begun though. While in bed, I read about 50 maritime books, mostly non-fiction. Ships are complicated, and I didn’t know my elbow from my poop deck. Several chapters of my novel Pirates of Pensacola involve a pitched cannon battle between a superyacht and a clipper sailed by a bunch of pirates who hide in plain sight in the Caribbean posing as a “troope o’ pyrat reenactors.” To write it properly, I needed to know how a clipper is rigged and sailed, and about most every part, because about most every part is blown sky-high at some point. If I didn’t have that time in bed, I don’t know when I could possibly have done all the research.

Would I recommend hep A to all aspiring novelists? Absolutely. Just follow doctors’ orders very closely or you could wind up getting published by Davy Jones.

Posted by Nelson Cooke at 12:01 AM EDT | Post Comment | View Comments (2) | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 13 June 2005 11:01 AM EDT
Monday, 20 June 2005
An Actual Pirate Compelled Me Write To Write My Novel
Topic: research
I grew up in a small coastal town in Connecticut that for me was whatever the opposite of fun is. However, as anyone who’s looked out at it knows, however, the ocean offers boundless possibilities. There was a somewhat famous pirate in the early 19th Century named William Thompson. He spelled Thomson the wrong way (with a P), but pirates weren’t known for their literacy. He disappeared in around 1825, but being eight, you can look out to sea and believe there’s a pretty good chance your pirate ancestor’s mast might appear on the horizon one morning, or that his proxy might show up and say, “Kid, we need you to go on an adventure to get gold.”

This is basically the premise of my book, “Pirates of Pensacola.” A landlubbing accountant’s life is anything but exciting until his estranged pirate father shows up after twenty-some years in jail and says, “Let’s hit the sea, lad, there’s treasure to be got.”

Incidentally, a common misnomer about pirates is they buried treasure. Think about it. You swing through cannon fire and onto an enemy deck full of dark smoke with rapiers whining all about. You somehow manage to persevere and get away with a bunch of gold. Why in the hell would you drop anchor at some island and stick it in a hole? William Thompson did bury treasure though. Click here for details of Capt. Thompson’s treasure

P.S. This, by the way, is Capt. Thompson:

Posted by Nelson Cooke at 12:01 AM EDT | Post Comment | View Comments (5) | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 13 June 2005 11:01 AM EDT
Monday, 13 June 2005
How I Went from Novelist to Blogger, then From Blogger to Novelist
Topic: blogging & writing
At the same time St. Martin’s Press bought my manuscript (December of 2003), I’d been developing a sit-com for MTV based on a series of short animated cartoons I’d made for atomfilms.com called "Annibelle Scoops." It was about the life of a pop starlet and her mother/manager compared to whom Lady MacBeth is a slacker. For a change Fortune seemed to be smiling upon me, I have to say. I must have made the mistake of saying so out loud, because, just like that, Fortune did an about-face. As noted in the previous entry, reality soon set in with the novel. Reality also ended the MTV show. Literally. MTV decided to go with reality shows. That precluded my show (a euphemism for: it was dead).

It did not, however, preclude a show about the life of an actual celebrity. A then-novel way of spurring interest in the concept: a blog. Very quickly, the blog chronicling the stranger-than-fiction life and times of the “Rance”—a pseudonym for an actor whose identity would always remain a mystery—had hundreds of thousands of hits per day. So things were looking good. Or so I thought, and, yeah, made the mistake of saying aloud. Almost immediately the HBO show “Entourage” debuted and did well enough to end the Rance project.

In the process though I’d gotten an idea how I might use blogging to garner an audience for my pirate novel: a maritime-themed blogged. I’d also discovered I loved blogging. The result was Gus Openshaw?s Whale-Killing Journal the chronicle of an Oakland cat food cannery worker’s vendetta against the sperm whale who ate his wife, young son and arm.

Above: a scrimshaw from Gus Openshaw?s Whale-Killing Journal by the harpooner, Flarq.

I had no idea how the story would go when I began. Writing it (blogging as “Gus”) was very much like a kid playing sea captain. The readers’ advice to Gus and discussion about his predicaments made it even more fun. Writers need no longer lament that theirs is a lonely art. And the writing itself was enhanced. As anyone who has solicited opinions from their real-life friends on a new boyfriend or girlfriend can attest, honest feedback is hard to come by. Same story with as little as a limerick you’ve written. On a blog, however, with the buffer of anonymity, readers are less inclined to spare your feelings. Also, they had a vested interest in my story. They were on the adventure too. When Gus did something stupid or unmotivated, they let him hear about it. When Gus did something right, or that moved them, they patted him on the back (digitally). As a result, I wrote much more than a promotional piece for my novel. I should note that thanks solely to the blog’s readers, Pirates of Pensacola went to #1 on Amazon’s Early Adopter List, for books prior to their publication. Much better though, “Gus Openshaw’s Whale-Killing Journal” was a treasure in terms of learning about writing. Also the journal will likely be published as a novel in and of itself in 2006 (details to come). So as it turns out, MTV killing my show was a great thing. Although now that I have just put that in writing…

Posted by Nelson Cooke at 12:01 AM EDT | Post Comment | View Comments (20) | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 13 June 2005 10:57 AM EDT
Friday, 27 May 2005
How Selling A Novel Can Kill You
I want to take the first sentence of this blog to express a boatload of gratitude to the folks at Tripod for asking me to be Book Cult’s first author. My aim is to share my experiences as a rookie novelist with you, fellow Book Cult members, answer any questions you have, and, hopefully, get a decent percentage of those answers correct. So let’s get under weigh.

D-Day, landing at Normandy, unsure whether you’ll live or die: that’s more suspenseful than the wait once your agent has sent your manuscript to publishers. With a good literary agent, whose recommendation can have editors reading within hours of receiving it, you’ll know whether you are an about-to-be-published novelist or not within two weeks. Two weeks that will seem like five years. If you have a crappy agent, take consolation that the process will be more months long, offering you hope relatively ad infinitum. I have a good agent. Nothing I’ve experienced was as suspenseful as the days following his sending out my manuscript to potential publishers. Not College Admission/Rejection Letter Day. As much as going to Yale meant to me, I figured that if I didn’t get it (and I didn’t), one of the other places I’d applied would have me. Others in the Big Suspense category: Awaiting the gender of a child? No. Either way you’ll be happy. Awaiting the birth of a child? Maybe. It’s been argued though that odds are much, much greater Labor & Delivery will go okay than that a novel will sell. Other Big Suspense suggestions, anyone?

In any case, I spent two solid years writing Pirates of Pensacola. Authors routinely devote half a dozen years. You hope yours will sell of course. You dream of nothing else. But if it doesn’t, not only will you feel devastated and ruined and judged as crap by an expert panel, you’ll have to face your friends—and worse, your enemies, and even the best answer to “How’s the writing going?” will still eat at chunks of your guts each time you give it. Also you’ll have to put up with your father telling you he “told you you should have gone to law school.” And, perhaps worst of all: your creditors.

No, Dad’s worse.

Here’s how the process might, hypothetically, go:

Day 1: No sweat. You feel good actually. All 350 pages of your ms (publishing lingo, which you’re hearing now, and think is cool, for “manuscript”) have been xeroxed, boxed, and messengered out! After two long years sitting and drawing blood from a stone, a large, powerful agency is sending your ms to a bunch of great publishing houses.

Day 2: No word. You know that sometimes editors will read a hot property that night. Ergo yours is not a hot property. You’re a loser.

Day 3: Still no word. You resist impulse to be like every other client and bug your agent for word as to whether there might be word of potential word.

Day 4-5: Still zip. See day 3, multiply by five and subtract two years from your life due to anxiety. Get prescription for anxiety medicine, triple whatever amount doctor prescribes (unless doctor has had a manuscript up for option, then just double it).

Day 6-7: Weekend, so no word expected. But still, part of you hopes some editor reading it will love it and not be able to contain herself ’til Monday. So you’re discouraged the phone hasn’t rung. Then you realize it was ridiculous to have expected smart, literate, busy, busy publishing people who are deluged with books and proposals to be reading your stack of paper at all, let alone on a weekend. You go online for applications for law schools and to investigate loans. Make note to google Peace Corps.

Day 8: Monday. Agent calls and tells you there are bites per weekend reads. This is wonderful news, but you know with certainty that the Fates have it only to make the fall harder for you. In unlikely event that the Fates have finally grown bored of conspiring against you, you sit by phone like a fifteen year-old girl and eat your remaining nails (interestingly, prior to this auction, you didn’t bite your nails. Also, though you’ve been eating compulsively, you have, oddly, lost eight pounds. Likely from the pacing.)

Day 9: Agent calls and tells you to go at once to your church or spiritual equivalent and light candles or whatever you can light that a particular editor who liked it’s boss now likes it. You know 4 in 5 who have read it have not liked it, so odds that this new guy will prompt you to consider. Also, given that it’s your ms, the Fates, those bastards, will somehow ensure the guy has heartburn while trying to read it and/or his sixteen year-old son will total his car.

Day 10: You awake (somehow you finally got to sleep) to e-mail from agent that you have a publishing deal. You suspect it’s a practical joke. You call your agent and delight in hearing even the most mundane detail, like the floor number the editor works on.

Day 11-14: You notice yourself humming hallelujah a lot. And the feeling of hot chocolate warming you on a cold day? It’s 24/7.

Day 15: You get advance word of some of the edits the publisher wants. You realize the Fates were behind the whole deal from word one.

So it went, pretty much, for me. Except on Day 15, things got much worse.

(to be continued)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Thomson, 39, grew up in Connecticut and now resides California where he has been making a living as a screenwriter for eight years.

The above scrimshaw is not a picture of Keith Thomson but the pirate William Thompson, a major influence in the writing of Pirates of Pensacola for reasons Thomson may or may not reveal in a future post.

Posted by Nelson Cooke at 12:01 AM EDT | Post Comment | View Comments (23) | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2005 3:23 PM EDT

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