Jan. 24 at the 2015 SDSU Writers’ Conference: Crime Fiction Debut Panel with Author Neal Griffin

If you’re a writer with a dream, get one step closer to becoming a writer with an agent by attending the SDSU Writers’ Conference.

Among the many info-packed workshops is The Crime Fiction Debut: Author/Agent/Editor Panel on Saturday, Jan. 24. Learn how the process of discovering an author (or being discovered) happens from the point of view of the author, the representing agent and the acquiring editor.

The presenters are Neal Griffin, author and 25-year police veteran; Jill Marr, literary agent with Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency; and Melissa Singer, editor with Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, publishers of Forge, Tor, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen (commonly referred to as Tor/Forge).

Neal Griffin

Neal Griffin, Debut Author, Benefit Of The Doubt

Q & A with Neal Griffin

You attended the SDSU Writers’ Conference several times, and the fourth time (2012) was the charm?
Each time I attended the SDSU Writers’ Conference was important. There’s no better way to learn about the craft of writing than meeting those who do it for a living. The writers are incredibly gracious and accessible at the SDSU Conference. That’s where I met Joe Wambaugh, Don Winslow, Jeff Parker, and a number of other writers. The academic side of it is important, too. At each conference, I sat through several workshops that provided me with “a-ha moments” where I walked away saying, “Okay, now I get it.” Also, it’s important to meet the people behind the scenes; the editors, the agents, the execs. They’re also quick to make themselves available. Really important to take advantage of the read and critique sessions. Invaluable opportunity.

So more than any sort of charm, I think it was my persistence that was ultimately rewarded. I came away from each conference a better writer and having picked up a few tidbits on how the industry operates. Most importantly, each of the SDSU Writers’ Conferences I attended provided me with the kind of energy and desire to hunker down every morning and keep writing.

But for sure: the 2012 conference was kind of a breakthrough event for me.

Which editor did you meet with who ultimately chose your manuscript as his/her favorite with an Editor’s Choice Award?
Stacy Creamer who at the time was VP of Touchstone Publishing. HUGE break. Thanks a ton, Stacy!

Did you submit the first 10 pages of your manuscript? How do your first 10 now differ from those in 2012? What was your opening line back then?
Funny about opening lines. Sitting here with no reference, I can type it verbatim:

Harlan Lee took one last hit off the joint, then popped the glowing stub in his mouth, a habit left over from prison life.

I don’t even feel the need to double check it. I know that’s it. I’ve been over it so many times, I could probably do the whole first chapter but that might come off a bit weird.

That has been the opening line for a very long time, but yes: I did submit the first 10 pages and those pages have gone through several iterations. I once had the opportunity for NYT best-selling author Andy Gross to read my first 10 pages. He gave it back and said, “It’s good but this should be five pages.” I couldn’t believe it, but turns out he was right.

It seems to me the editing process just goes on and on.  I have a friend who is an artist and he says at some point you just have to step back and say, “The painting is finished.” I’m not really sure when you say that about a novel.

When did you meet your agent, Jill Marr?
Jill and I actually met at another conference and we began to correspond regularly in a sort of mentor/mentee relationship. If we had been dating, she absolutely would have been guilty of stringing me along, not to mention earning the ire of my wife, but it was my success at SDSU in winning an Editor’s Choice Award that caused Jill to actually sign me as a client. I think it proved to her that I, like any good boyfriend, or in this case wanna-be writer, was seriously committed to our relationship.

At what point in the process did you get paired with editor Melissa Singer?
Ah, Melissa … my editor. (I love saying that.) She is wonderful. If Melissa were a cop she would be the Precinct Sergeant. When it comes to big-time editing, Melissa is so old school I don’t know where else she would work other than at the top of the Flatiron Building in NYC.

Melissa is the editor who actually read my manuscript and said to her boss, Tom Doherty of Forge Books, “We need to buy this.” That was in November 2012. She and I have worked together closely since then. I was in NYC a year or so ago and we actually got to have lunch which was nice. I toured the Flatiron Building (touristy or what?), the Tor/Forge offices, met all the folks in publicity, sales and so on. I enjoyed that a great deal.

Yes, it has been a long and at times challenging process (for me … not so much for her) but it’s been worth it. I feel so fortunate to have won her support. No Melissa = No Pub Date. She is a terrific editor.

Have you pretty much been editing your manuscript for the last two years?
Yep. Melissa read it back in 2012 then sent me a 13-page editorial letter. I re-worked the heck out of it in the spring and early summer of 2013. Resubmitted, although the correct terminology is apparently “delivered.” She read it again, we tweaked a few things. Then it was off to another editor for line editing. I wrote something called a “style sheet” and I’m still not sure what the hell that was about. Back and forth a few more times. I got one last pass at it just before the ARC’s (editor’s note: advance reading copy) came out. But as of now…. The painting is finished. (I think.)

I get the sense that you didn’t necessarily query a lot of agents and accumulate a lot of rejections, but rather had a methodical approach by attending conferences and targeting specific editors/agents. Is that accurate?
Are you kidding??? I’ve got enough rejection letters to pass out at the conference in January, and have everyone in attendance go to the bar and cry into a beer. I think I’ve got a few returned SASEs with .42 cent stamps, so do the history check on that. Repeated rejection is part of the process. I haven’t spoken to anyone who writes for a living that didn’t go through a long period of learning through the pain of rejection. I know a writer who has eight wonderful novels that have all done very well. Now she wants to write in a new genre and she says it’s like starting all over, getting rejection letters. How crazy is that? Early but necessary lesson: Rejection is a blood brother and evil twin of Publishing.

Did you meet with a critique group while writing your novel or labor in solitude?
I wrote Benefit of the Doubt pretty much on my own, but I have been in a writing group for the past two years and it has been incredibly helpful. I found the group through San Diego Writers, Ink. We meet once a week under the guidance of Tammy Greenwood who is a great mentor and an accomplishment novelist. I have submitted my second novel to Forge (by contract it is a two-book deal) and every word has been read by my fellow writers in the reading group. Incredibly helpful. Great feedback.

Do you have any formal training in writing or is your skill the result of being a prolific reader?
I’ve written a few thousand police reports, but no. I don’t have any formal training in creative writing. My training is strictly grunt work along with reading every day. I try to write for a couple of hours every morning.

How did you fit the writing of your novel into your schedule?
As a detective lieutenant, my day job is just that: Monday through Friday, during the day, with the occasional ‘call-out’ that can last from 2-20 hours or so … depending on the amount of blood, carnage and intrigue.

I try and set the alarm for about 4 a.m. so I can write a couple of hours every morning. My wife, who is incredibly supportive, is resentful of that one thing. She pretty much sleeps alone for half the night, so it’s good we don’t live in Wisconsin (she has cold feet issues) but it’s what works for me.  Once I start my day, it’s hard to get back to the uncluttered, clear-minded state I need to get into the head of a character.

Was your novel complete when you attended the 2012 conference?
Yes, my novel was complete in 2012, or at least I thought so. Turns out it still needed a lot of work.

Do you get recognized a lot on the job? Has anyone handed you a manuscript or tried to pitch their project while you’re trying to protect and serve?
That sort of thing has started on a small scale. Nowadays when you Google my name, all sorts of references to writing come up. The book, the website and so on.  And then there’s social media. So it’s no longer a secret (I was in the closet for a long time). Some cops give me a hard time, good-naturedly, but in almost every case they want to know how I did it. They find it interesting. And yes, both cops and others often say “You know, I’m working on this book….” I like having that conversation. It’s great that people seek out my encouragement and want to hear my story.

When people learn I have a contract with Forge, an imprint of MacMillan which is one of the “Big 5,” they usually think that is pretty damn cool. I know I do. Even other writers sort of sit up and say, “How did you do that?”

Is Benefit of the Doubt still on schedule for a May 2015 debut?
Yes. Pretty much cast in stone at this point: May 12, 2015. Epic launch party tentatively set for May 23rd, location to be announced. Price of admission is a copy of the book.  J

How far along are you on your second novel?
My second novel is in the hands of Melissa at Forge. The title at this point is NHI: No Humans Involved and no, it’s not about zombies.

Benefit of the Doubt is the story of Sergeant Ben Sawyer and a crook named Harlan Lee but readers also meet a young woman named Tia Suarez. Tia is a former Marine, combat vet, scrappy as hell Mexican-American cop living in a small town in Wisconsin. While working an undercover detail she comes up against a couple of guys running a human trafficking ring. Problem is when she goes to take them down, she’s not getting any cooperation from the DA or her department. Tia is not one to take no for an answer, so then … go Tia! It gets pretty crazy. NHI is her book. She is center stage. There aren’t a lot of Tias in the world and that’s too bad. We need more cops like Tia Suarez.   Readers are going to love her.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Since I know everyone is looking for a formula, I guess at this point, I can share mine.

Desire + Alarm Clock + Rejection + SDSU Writers Conference + More Rejection + ‘X’ more visits to SDSU Writers’ Conference + Agent (Marr) + Editor (Singer) + Time and Patience + Random acts of kindness by others and no shortage of luck + More Desire + New Alarm Clock = Publishing Contract

Hey … no one said math was easy.

In addition to the above equation, there are a few critically important rules.

Rule #1:  Don’t quit.

Rule #2:  Don’t break rule number one.

Rule #3:  Read and write every day. Read your genre. Read craft books. Read articles on writing.  Read a book that you like at first, but then can’t seem to finish and figure out why you lost interest.  Read the first book of a really successful writer that you respect and see how they’ve grown. Bottom line: Read everything. After that (or before, or in between; whatever works for you), get 800 to 1,000 words about something on paper every day.  Then, when you go to bed at night … read.

And network. Meet people who are in the industry. Meet other writers. Surround yourself as best you can with experts and listen to what they’re saying. That’s the value of the SDSU Writers’ Conference. The up-close and interpersonal experiences I’ve had at the SDSU Writers’ Conference made all the difference.

If you want to write professionally, or just write really well for your own personal reasons, at some point it has to become something you are public about. The SDSU Writers Conference is a great place to take that first step.

Anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?
Hmmmmm … I think this is where I’m supposed to say things like “Go to my website” and “Like me on Facebook” and “Follow me on Twitter,” right?  Feels weird but here goes:

My website really is pretty cool and damn it, it wasn’t cheap. So go to nealgriffin.com. From there you can go to my Facebook page and follow me on Twitter @NCG207. Definitely follow me on Twitter. I just started, but so far it’s like the lonely hearts club ….

Oh yeah. And advance sales are awesome. From the website you can pre-order Benefit of the Doubt.  Remember, it’s like an admission ticket to what will be a great launch party. You only get to launch your first novel one time, right? So mark your calendar: May 23, 2015.

Jill Marr

Jill Marr, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency

Q & A with Agent Jill Marr

You and Neal met at another conference and stayed in touch. What did you see in him/his work that was promising?
He struck me right away as having potential because of his background as a cop. The reading public (and of course agents and editors) love it when a writer writes what he knows. And this was what appealed to me about Neal right away. We just talked at the conference and I agreed to read his work. When I first read Neal’s manuscript I liked how gritty he was and his style appealed to me but I knew it needed some work. And he did some really good work, even hired a freelance editor to make the story really tight.

So his winning an Editor’s Choice Award at the 2012 SDSU Writers’ Conference was the tipping point for signing him as a client?
We had been working together but that was definitely the point where I felt like I’d better sign the guy now, or someone else is going to snag him.

Do you have an anecdote to share about working with Neal?
The very first time I met Neal was at a session I was giving at a writers’ conference. Neal sat near the front and asked smart questions. I thought right away that if his writing was any good, he was going to do well. You could tell he had the drive and the tenaciousness that it takes to make his book stand out. And those qualities have both paid off. He worked hard to make his manuscript the very best it could be before we took it to market. THEN, he went above and beyond by reaching out to big name authors to see if they would be willing to endorse or blurb his book. I expect nothing less of him once the book comes out in May.

How would you describe an agent’s dream client?
A dream client is someone I’d actually like as a person, someone I’d hang out with. This client writes a best-seller each year and enjoys what he does. It’s as easy as that. My boss often refers to the agent/author relationship as a marriage and I think it’s fitting. As long as each partner respects and treats the other well, the marriage works.

Melissa Ann Singer

Melissa Ann Singer, Editor, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC (Tor/Forge)

Q & A with Editor Melissa Singer

How did you get Neal’s manuscript, and how hard was it to convince your boss to buy it?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of agent outreach, particularly on Twitter, trying to attract submissions from agents who hadn’t previously sent projects to Tor/Forge. Even though Tor/Forge is 30 years old, many agents seem not to have heard of us, or think we only publish science fiction and fantasy—and we do have many imprints that focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal fiction, for adult, teen, and middle-grade readers. But … our Forge imprint is for everything else for the adult reader: mysteries, suspense novels, thrillers of all kinds, women’s fiction, westerns, historical novels, etc. Really everything except category romance, which we don’t publish.

So I was talking about this on Twitter, and how I was particularly looking for good suspense and thrillers and loved procedurals, and if I recall correctly, Jill Marr, Neal’s agent, was one of the agents I made contact with that way, I think in a conversation about old cop shows like Dragnet and Adam-12. She sent the manuscript to me directly, via email.

I knew within the first few pages that Neal had real talent and the farther I read into the manuscript, the more I liked it. But I rarely buy anything—especially from a brand-new writer—without finishing it; far too many novels tick along quite well until the climax and then fall apart. So I’ll generally read to the end to see if the author finished the book well and if not, to see if I can figure out how to fix whatever the problem is.

Tor/Forge doesn’t have a traditional acquisitions process—we have no editorial board and no editor-in-chief—so when an editor wants to buy something, they go directly to Tom Doherty, our publisher. And Tom trusts his editors to recognize publishable books. So it’s rarely difficult to convince him to take something on if the profitability projections look good and the editor has genuine enthusiasm for the work. Which I definitely did, from day one.

Neal referred to a “style sheet” (specifically, “I’m still not sure what the hell that was about.”) Can you explain what it is?
A style sheet is used to help ensure consistency in the names of characters and locations, and other important elements in a novel (for instance, in a fantasy novel I edited not long ago, the style sheet included words in an invented language used by some characters)—to pass to production along with the final manuscript. Most of the time it’s better if authors prepare this, so that they can make decisions about spelling (for instance, if there was a character named Mathew, I’d ask the author if that was correct or if it was really supposed to be Matthew).

Do you have an anecdote to share about working with Neal?
I’ve really enjoyed working with Neal because he’s a very thoughtful writer. I think one of my favorite times was when we were figuring out how old Ben and Alex’s son, Jake, had to be in order for the plot to work. His age in the original manuscript just wasn’t right. I know that sounds terribly subjective, but it actually impacted the structure of the novel. What I loved was that when I brought this up with Neal, he understood immediately that this wasn’t merely a cosmetic matter. We had a couple of good exchanges talking about developmental differences as children grow up and deciding how old Jake was going to be.

What tips do you have for an author going into his/her first-ever partnership with an editor? 
1) It should really be a partnership. If the author and editor don’t share a vision for a book, then the editing process is going to be a struggle.

2) It should also be a give-and-take. Yes, there are sometimes things I will insist on, but usually, I want to hear an author’s ideas for changes and fixes. After all, it is the author’s book, not mine; my name’s not going on it. I really love it when I ask a question or make a suggestion and it sparks something in the writer that they take and run with in ways I could not have anticipated. Knowing that I’ve triggered someone else’s imagination is incredibly rewarding to me.

3) I know it’s hard, but try to detach, at least a little, from the work. I know the manuscript is pretty precious to the writer, especially if the writer has lived with the story for a while, and it’s important for a writer to defend the work, but coming in with the feeling that every word and concept is inviolate does not make for a good working relationship.

Anything else you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?
On the publishing side, one of the things I’ve loved about having Benefit of the Doubt on my list has been watching people here at Tor/Forge react to the book with the same thrill I did. When I bought it, I was the only person here who had read it, and I started handing it out to people in all different departments here, because I wanted to build a good publishing plan for it. There’s always a moment of trepidation when you do that—“what if I’m the only one who sees how terrific this is?”—but when other people like the book, then you know you’re on the right track. I’m grateful to all my colleagues who read the manuscript at various stages and saw the novel’s potential and have worked hard to help try to achieve it. Now we’re all waiting on tenterhooks to see what readers think!

Editor’s note: Check out the Tor/Forge blog for an article that compiles Melissa’s tweets on her reasons for rejecting manuscripts over the course of several weeks. Very helpful. torforgeblog.com/tag/melissa-ann-singer/