Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Signings

And so it begins. (Lord of the Rings quote from The Two Towers in case you don't know.)

Yes, I'm beginning to get the calls . . . Will you do a book signing at Annual Conference? Can you sign books after you speak to our group? How about doing a book signing in June? Well . . . okay, since you insist.

But actually, I don't relish book signings. It's often one of the most depressing experiences a writer can have. Especially when no one shows up at the signing and the writer just sits behind the little desk peering over the top of a pile of books that no one will buy . . . not then, not ever. Oh, every now and again someone will amble over, perchance, and say something like: "So, you're a writer, huh?" or "Hey, the guy on this book looks like you!" or "Did you really write this?" or "How much did it cost you to get this printed?" or (my favorite) "Someday, when I have a free afternoon, or it's raining or something, I'm going to write a book."

God save me.

I even had a book signing one time when, after an hour of sitting by myself in a Borders, my wife ambled over, looking lost and lonely, pretending she didn't know me at all, and whispered as she whisked past, "Do you care if I buy some shoes at Target that are on sale?" I thought she was going to make me a better offer than that, but that's the way it goes, these signings. A writer can't even get a proposition from his wife. Just more shoes.

The more book signings I schedule, the more depressed I become. I'd like to believe I might meet an adoring public, but the truth is, there won't be any public at all.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Some years ago, I heard a writer say, "You know you have arrived when the publisher hires someone to write a 'Foreword' to your book." Well, I don't know about that, but later this fall I will have a third book published in 2009. And that book will have a Foreword written by an expert . . . and expert touting me, and my ideas, and my book. It's all so mesmerizing.

I read the Foreword for the first time last week, and it goes something like this:

Mr. Outcalt has written the quintessential book for youth ministry in our time. This book is the greatest thing since bread was sliced and cut into little cubes for communion. The ideas you'll find in these pages are so astounding . . . believe me, you'll pee your pants. You won't be able to contain yourself. After you read this book, people will want to commit you to a loony bin . . . you'll be that excited. And folks, I'm an expert. I've actually been committed!

But Mr. Outcalt needs your help. For a mere $12.95, you can help a starving writer like him earn a decent wage. Otherwise, he's hurling fries when he turns 65. Breaking your book purchase down, that's only 5 cents a page. That's right, for 5 cents a page you can help Mr. Outcalt purchase bare essentials like deodorant, a Sham-Wow, and perhaps one or two donuts. He needs your help. And surely, even a busy youth leader like yourself can spare a few nickels. Have you checked under the sofa cushions in the youth lounge?

So please, for the love of God . . . buy this book. I mean, look at the dude. He's languishing people. In a few years, he won't even be able to tie his own shoe laces or remember his middle name. So, won't you help? Don't make me call Sally Struthers. I know you can do it. Thank you.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From New York to California

Over the past two weeks I have received a fair amount of correspondence from people who have read something I have written (why they read my writing, I'll never know). For example, I received a nice letter from a lady in New York, NY who read a column I had written recently. She actually wrote of lovely things, flowery accolades that filled my brain with endorphins and made me feel rather good about myself. She lifted me out of the miry clay.

And a fair number of people have emailed or written to me saying they read a reflection I had written last month for The Upper Room devotional. How they noted my name in that tiny print is a miracle in itself.

And I also received an email from a friend in California who noted that my newest book was available on How did you get on Amazon? she wanted to know. I didn't have the heart to tell her than everyone is on

Oddly enough, I actually feel a bit embarrassed when people tell me that they have read something I have written, or they tell me they enjoyed one of my books. I don't know why I feel this way. But I always have.

Perhaps it goes back to my adolescence, when I got my start by writing on the bathroom stalls at the high school. All of my friends knew my work well (I was a cult hero). But I had to hide my identity from the administration. In many ways, I still feel like I'm in hiding. I'm not comfortable with success, and I always worry about what might happen if my old high school principal or my English teachers actually read my work. "That idiot!" they'd say. "How does he have the audacity to show his face in public? This stuff belongs on bathroom walls!"

Monday, April 27, 2009

My New Book

I have two new books. The first, Your Beautiful Wedding on Any Budget, was to be published May 1, but the publisher was able to get it into circulation a bit early. I'm grateful to the wonderful people at Sourcebooks for giving me this opportunity to write a book that can benefit brides (especially those who desire to create a debt-free wedding). I thank Shana and Deborah and everyone at Sourcebooks who saw the promise in this title. It's a beautifully published book, if I do say so myself.

Helping brides and grooms to have a debt free wedding today is a difficult task. The average wedding in America (including reception) now tops the charts at a whopping $28,000. This is average!

Heck, when Becky and I got married twenty-five years ago (we do have our 25th wedding anniversary this summer) we had a very simple ceremony. The greatest cost consisted of the rented tuxedos and my wife's wedding dress (which she only wore the one time, but don't get me started on that waste of money). And our reception was held in the church fellowship hall and included nothing for the guests but cake and punch (and it was probably Betty Crocker and High-C). Our honeymoon consisted of driving across country in a rattletrap car to Myrtle Beach, for one day only, as I had to return to Duke the following Monday and begin paying out huge boatloads of money for tuition.

Total cost for our wedding. . . I don't even want to mention how absolutely CHEAP it was. And now I get to pass along my financially-savvy wisdom to other brides and grooms who are totally out of control.

Hope they buy my book. It WILL save them a lot of money and heartache if they do. And I'm convinced it will save many couples from financial ruin.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Writing Break

It's a fact: I sometimes run out of steam and cannot write. Or, to put it more accurately, I get so tired I just can't think well enough to write.

On Saturday, I decided to work outside and try to make the yard look like the plush, garden paradise you see on the left. But, in fact, our house and property is more akin to sophisticated "white trash" . . . and our property looks more like the scene on the right.

One thing is for sure. I burned calories. I lost weight. I am officially wasting away inside this thin emaciated shell of a he-man body. I'm tired. And now it is time to sabbath.

And with sabbath rest comes a renewed energy for late night writing sessions . . . and I'm going to have to step into that sandbox more frequently as the year presses on. And some day, I'm going to earn enough to buy myself a new car.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Beautiful Experiments

It's been a few weeks since I read a new book, but I did enjoy The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, by George Johnson. This book appealed to me on several levels. First, it was not written by a pastor, theologian, or religious person . . . so I was not bored out of my skull when reading it. Second, it is a fascinating glimpse into ten great scientific leaps, discoveries that were made through experimentation.

Just a few of the names you'll encounter here: Galileo, Newton, Pavlov, and Millikan. They created great scientific experiments that changed the course of knowledge and helped to bring humanity out of superstition and darkness.

But we all have our own experiments, too, I suppose. For example, did you know that if you combine a can of Lima beans with a can of sweet corn niblets you end up with a rather good suckatash dish? Or, did you know that common household bleach works just as well as those fancy toilet bowl cleaners that cost four-times as much? Or did you know that if you leave a pile of dirty laundry on a tile floor for three weeks, it will actually grow mold? And, did you know that the Sham-Wow is available at Wal-Mart and CVS, so you don't have to order it off the TV add, and they really can "do this all day!"

These are just a few of the discoveries I have made over the years . . . and I am happy to contribute to humanity in this way.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Writing Sermons

Writing yesterday's blog, it occurred to me that when people ask me about writing (particularly other pastors) they may really be asking: "How do you have time to write anything other than a sermon each week?"

Well, now that's a legit question. Allow me to give a demented answer.

My sermon prep is a lot like brewing a pot of coffee. First, I clean out the old grounds (I dump last week's message out of my brain . . . and I do this every Sunday at 12:15 p.m.). Out with the old, in with the new. Then I add a new filter to make a new pot (I begin doing this Sunday at 12:16 p.m. on the drive home from church). Then, at various stages during the week, I add fresh coffee, add water, turn the little light on, wait a spell, and then add cream and take a sip to see how it tastes. If I don't like the flavor, I add more cream, etc. until I can stand to drink what I've manufactured.

It's the same with a sermon . . . but with a few caveats.

Caveat one: Sometimes I dream a sermon (really!). I wake up, write the whole sucker down, and I've got the message. These are usually my worst messages. And if you've ever heard one of my sermons where you've said to yourself, "He must have been asleep when he wrote that one", well, I probably was.

Caveat two: Sometimes I mow a sermon. Same as above, but I get the sermon while riding the lawn mower. Maybe you've said to yourself, "He must have been inhaling grass when he wrote that sermon", well, I probably was.

Caveat three: Sometimes I receive a sermon directly from God. Well, it does happen. Maybe you have said to yourself, "He must have gotten that sermon from God, 'cause he certainly couldn't have written that one hisself!" Well, you are right.

Anyway, I do write sermons, too. And many of them I have already completed. I have them in a holding file in my mind years in advance. For example, believe it or not, I already have my Easter message completed (holding here in my mind) for 2010. My message will be entitled, "Don't be amazed!"
Isn't that amazing?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Got Time?

These past two days I have attended a large gathering for pastors . . . one of those events that is designed to inspire us, provoke us, encourage us, and educate us. Well, maybe.

I do enjoy seeing familiar faces and talking with colleagues I have not encountered for some time. This year, I met some new friends, too.

Inevitably, however, when I am in a larger company of pastors, someone will ask a question like: "How do you find time to write all your junk?"

This year, I had four such questions posed. One was, "When do you write?" Another was, "How do you manage it?" And the other two were similar: "How do you find the time?"

The question of time has always been an interesting one to me. I could ask the same question of anyone, from any walk of life, and in any line of work. I could ask, for example: "How do you have time to watch three hours of television each night?" or "How do you have time to spend two hours on the road each day driving to and from YOUR work?" or "How do you have time to watch NCAA basketball, pro football, or a Pacers game four nights a week?"

I mean, the question of time isn't really about time at all. It is about choices. I might even say that it is about priorities or desires or passions. Some folks like watching four hours of television each night. Sometimes I do it, too. Some folks like spending hours in a summer garden, or hiking each evening, or even talking in a restaurant or a bar (some do it all night).

Me? It's not about time. I just like to write. And so my answer is simple: "I just do what I do because that's what I do every morning and every night (most days)." And, of course, if one does something every day, in time one manages to get a whole lot accomplished. I hope I do this in my pastoral work, in my family, in my writing. I just work it, baby. But it's not the time that produces anything. It's the actual work, the doing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writing Notes

Years ago, I wrote with pencil on lined paper. Whole books this way. But with the advent of the PC my handwriting went to pot. Now, it's all I can do to keep my handwriting legible.

I do, however, keep an ample supply of pencils nearby. I use them to write notes around the house. Stuff like:

Dear Becky,
I have cleaned the toilets, mopped the floors, washed the dishes, and fixed a batch of sandwiches for dinner. Enjoy.

Dear Cable Guy,
I have left a door key under the mat for your convenience. Thanks for fixing our TV. You may use the toilet if you need to. It's clean. Sandwiches are in the fridge.

Dear UPS Man,
Thank you for delivering my new toilet cleaning supplies. Wanna sandwich? My wife won't eat 'em.

Thanks for eating all of the sandwiches. Please flush if you use the bathroom.
I love ya', man!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New Tools . . . Same Results

A few weeks ago my wife and son finally wore me down and I agreed to buy a new laptop computer for the family. Well, I was against it then, but I'm all for it now. The fact is, I'm loving my new lap top option for writing.

Take, for example, this Sunday afternoon. After a fantastic confirmation (thanks Michelle and Andrew), I came home, reclined on the couch, turned on the lap top, and have made plans to write for three hours. I didn't have to sit in a chair. Didn't have to prop up my spine with a yard stick. I just lay there on the couch, in silence, eating an entire bag of Jujjy Fruit (the 25 pound, Sam's Club variety) as I typed. Eventually I fell asleep and began to lose weight since I wasn't eating.

I'll soon be three hours closer to another great book proposal and I'm actually rested. Sure, I fell asleep at one point and slobbered on the keyboard, but that's part of the fun. Spittle is a blast. I might even write an article about it.

Now . . .Heigh-O-Silver . . .onto the youth meeting at church!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Piles & Piles

During the past three weeks, while I was writing my "Secret Agent" blogs, I was working frantically each night rewriting a manuscript that I had to produce before April 15 (D-Day). There were 10 consecutive nights when I stayed up to write until my eyelids were so heavy, I finally just dropped off into sleep. But as Larry "The Cable Guy" says: I got'er done!

The result was a very thick pile of manuscript that is now in the hands of capable editors, and they are frantically culling through my words and sentences now to bring another book to press by September. This will be the fastest turnaround and book production I have participated in . . . ever! It was a whirlwind effort on the part of many, and it will be interesting to see how the publisher gets this one onto the shelves so quickly. Talk about fast-tracking.

On Friday morning, however, I rose with a new-found energy. (I always feel great after I complete a writing assignment, especially a BIG ONE, and can then focus my attention on the next project.) I decided on Friday to begin my own summer project . . . culling through mounds of writing I have literally dumped into a closet in my home study. Most of this stuff is junk, but I hope to discover a few diamonds in the rough. It's going to truly be a summer project that will require my grit and determination, not to mention a strong back, but I'm looking forward to sorting, organizing, and filing work that I literally dumped on the shelves when I moved to Brownsburg. (The picture above is not far off, though a bit over the top . . . I mean, I haven't written THAT MUCH.)

But I will wish myself luck. LUCK!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fairy Tale

Now that my agent blog series is defunct, I can get back to talking about some of my reading habits. I'll begin with this little fairy tale written by James Thurber.

A bit about him. Thurber was a shy and elusive creature who wrote for The New Yorker magazine for many years. He was part of the Algonquin round table that met in the Oak room at the illustrious hotel of the same name. His drawings also became popular with the magazine, and it is not so well known that he also wrote children's books.

The 13 Clocks is one of his best fairy tales, and is worth the read just to marvel at the language itself, the phrases and choice of words that Thurber used to tell this odd and intriguing little tale.

I've got a few of these tales myself that I wrote for my children years ago, but I'm sure no one cares about invisible elephants and a land called Tiddly Diddly. But that's just me.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued (But Barely)

(continued . . . last installment)

Thanks for following my blog series on my literary agent woes. All of it (with a bit of poetic and satirical license tossed in) is, unfortunately, all too true. I have had four literary agents, and all of them have dumped me. What makes this series all the more fascinating is that, today, when I arrived home around 11:45 a.m., the UPS man pulled into the driveway and handed me two boxes of books, from two different publishers. These boxes were loaded with my author's copies of two books that will be released into bookstores May 1. Both accomplished without an agent. And a third book on the way later this year. And heck, I'm still writing every night producing more of my junk!

So, if there are any agent wanna'be's out there, better WRITE ME a letter this time, or call. Because I'm not pursuing YOU any more. I'll continue writing for full royalties. Any agents out there want a 15% cut? Why don't you send me YOUR resume for a change?

But hang with me here . . . I've actually learned a lot about myself through these experiences with agents. Including--for example--a deeper awareness of my own sins.

Sins? you say! Yes, sins! Such as . . . envy and coveting.

You see, I have always been envious of other writers who have had an agent as a friend and guide for, oh, say thirty years. An agent who has made all the great book deals, and allowed the writer to just, well . . . write. I envy those writers. Sorry to say it, but it drives me nuts. I could care less about the other stuff that comes with that kind of commitment, but it would be nice to find someone who would actually say, "Hey, Todd, old buddy old pal, I'm gonna stick with you like ugly on a monkey's butt. I'm gonna sell your work and cherish it like it was my last Cuban cigar. I'm gonna write you every Christmas and call you my friend."

Heck, I'll just settle for someone who wants to sell ONE of my books!

I also hate to say it, but I covet those matching pen and pencil sets that agents are fond of giving to their writer friends as gifts. You know, the engraved sets that say things like, "You've got the write stuff!" or "Write On!"

I see these sets and I covet them. My wife tells me, "Hey, you want a pen and pencil set, I'll buy you three. They cost five bucks. We can afford it."

But I tell her, "No way. I want one from an agent! I want to make someone grovel in a pile of my rejected manuscripts. I want to overcome this sin with a victory!"

She buys me a can of Lima beans and thinks that's the same thing.

Not hardly . . . but I am still waiting for that special someone. That special agent. The secret agent. Anybody out there want to represent an ageing writer (or maybe a writer in his PRIME) who can get books published on his own (three in one year . . . and maybe more on the way)? Free money! FREE MONEY! I've already done all the work. Come and get it! All I ask is that you do SOMETHING to earn your 15%!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

For some reason, my agents have always called me at the oddest hours. When NUMBER FOUR calls for the final time, I'm actually driving my son's soon-to-be piece-of-crap pick up truck. I answer my jingling cell phone and greet NUMBER FOUR with a hearty "hello" as my son sits next to me and listens in on the conversation. (But then, I listen in on his conversations, so turn-about is fair play, I guess.)

NUMBER FOUR greets me with a thick sigh and then says, "I'm afraid I have some bad news." I don't even flinch. I just turn off the truck engine and listen to the heat popping and crackling under the hood. I'm not sure I even say anything.

"Our agency has made a decision to represent only 'sure bets'," he tells me. "Only best-selling authors and big books. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut you loose."

Now there's a phrase I haven't heard in years. Yeah, coach Jones told me he was cutting me loose in the fourth grade when I didn't make the team . . . and my mother told me she was cutting me loose in 1982 when I moved to Durham . . . and Becky still threatens to cut me loose from time to time . . . but hearing it from NUMBER FOUR really made me sad. I found a Wendy's napkin on the truck seat that had little dabs of mustard on it, and I used it to wipe my eyes.

"I think you are going to have great success," NUMBER FOUR tells me. "You've got all the contacts you need and I think you should work it all to your advantage. I don't think I can help you. I'm sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news. But good luck."

I am gracious in defeat. I thank NUMBER FOUR for being my agent for close to a year, and I wish him all the best. I sing him a line from Whitney Houston's "I will always love you!" and then I hang up.

My son is still sitting next to me with an odd look on his face (but then, he's genetically challenged, like his old man). "Who was that, Dad?" he asks. "Sounded kind of serious. Are you all right?"

I dab the remaining tears from my mustardy eyes and the only thing I can say is: "He made a big mistake."

"Whatever," Logan says as he slides out of the truck.

Thank God for algebra, I think to myself. And then I pull myself together, bound up the front steps and into the office, and start writing again. Always, again.

(continued . . . )

Monday, April 13, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

Eventually agent NUMBER FOUR calls to inform me that he has reached the end of his contact list. He's approached all of the big time publishers and nobody has even heard of me. In fact, the publishers have not heard of Indiana either. But he's not giving up. He's going to pull out all of his stops and sell, sell, sell.

"You keep writing," he tells me. "Write something brilliant. Astounding."

I don't tell him that I have written articles about mattresses, men's cologne, or "Six Spectacular Ways to Keep Your Sex Life Sizzling". Nothing I've written has been astounding. If I could write that well, I would have written it when I was young and optimistic.

Weeks pass. Months. Eons. Occassionally I receive smoke signals.

Then one day it happens . . . in fact, it happened just a few weeks ago. It was a Friday in early March, 2009. And I was driving home. My cell phone jingles in my pocket and I answer. It's NUMBER FOUR.

(continued . . . )

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

It's a great thing for a writer to have an agent. The agent is supposed to guide the writer and sell his/her work to publishers (in the best-of-all-possible worlds). That means the writer can concentrate on writing, which is what writers do. Write!

So during the months that NUMBER FOUR is out there in the wide world peddling my wares, I'm doing my thing. I'm not worried about contacting publishers, conversing with editors, writing cover letters, or sending emails. That's my agent's job, right? Well, one would think.

But as the months go by and I get no report from my agent, I begin to wonder . . . did this agency meet with a tragic asteroid accident? Why the silence? It doesn't take much time to drop an email, leave a voice message, or write a post card.

Eventually, however, in this high-tech world of ours, I do begin to get snatches of information from the agent. Some of it arrives by carrier pigeon. Other snippets of information is handed to me by out-of-breath boys who inform me that they have just run eight hundred miles to hand deliver this important scroll. A couple of times I receive unfounded rumors that the agent is having difficulty moving my products, but these rumors have been written in smoke signal, and I'm not good at translating in cloud. Do you see what I'm saying here?

But heck, I'm a writer, and so I wait.

I wait . . . wondering . . . what horrors could I possibly have to confront this time?

(continued . . . )

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

I had now reached a verbal agreement with my fourth agent. In essence, we'd shook hands on the deal (that's me on the right!)

But writing about my fourth agent . . . let's call him NUMBER FOUR . . . is going to be tougher than writing about agents one, two, and three. Especially since NUMBER FOUR was my agent up until just a few weeks ago. Read on.

Anyway, like my previous agents, NUMBER FOUR wants to see what I can do, so I send along a small mound of proposals and books, junk that I think represents my best work, pages that will give NUMBER FOUR a sneak peek into my dementia as well as my broad range as a writer (you know, stuff that can also make my wife cry or make my children shout: I didn't know that dad knew about THAT!)

NUMBER FOUR takes a week or two to read my thick stack of paper and then calls me on my cell phone to talk at length one afternoon.

"I'm just curious," he says, "but how many of your books have you published without agent representation?"

"All but one of them," I say. "For all intents and purposes, I've done everything on my own. I also cook my own food, brew my own coffee, and wipe my own bottom."

"That's astounding. I didn't think it was possible to even get a manuscript through the front door without agent representation these days. You must have a lot of contacts."

I run through the list of all the editors and publishers I know. "You probably know more editors than I do," he tells me.

I'm not sure what to make of this. A bad sign? We talk on, our conversation stretching toward the dawn, and we reach an agreement and a plan concerning my work and how he will sell it. NUMBER FOUR seems very eager to represent me, though, and like the agent before him, he's particularly high on my presidential death book. (I like death, I tell him. It's one of my specialties! You should see me do a funeral.)

At long last we close our conversation and I yell upstairs to Becky, "Hey, sugar, I've got a winner this time! By next year we'll be livin' on a private island off the coast of Florida!"

But it's three a.m. and she's asleep. I brew myself a pot of coffee and get back to work on Old Sparky.

(continued . . . )

Friday, April 10, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

After my third agent, Davey, dumps me--I decide to take a break from writing. Or, rather, the circumstances of my life dictate that I take a break. From 2005-2007 I find myself engaged in a massive moving effort. Not only has my family moved to a new town, but I'm also engaged in moving a congregation. Packing boxes, reviewing building plans, raising funds, setting up, tearing down. It's an all-out effort that drains all of my creative energies and with so many long weeks and evenings dedicated to committees, architects, building plans, and moving trucks, there's nothing left in the tank for writing.

But in March of 2007 I suddenly realize that I can begin writing for a few hours each evening. I get back to work at Old Sparky. One evening, after a fifteen-hour writing session, I take note of the stacks of book proposals and ideas I've accumulated. That night, I tell Becky, "I need an agent."

"You've had agents," she reminds me. "You need a shrink!"

"I'll bet I could get an agent this time by making a single phone call," I boast. "I've got connections."

The next day I work up a plan and settle on an agency that is second-to-none. It's an agency whose voluminous list of best-selling authors have sold, in the past ten years, more than 200 million books. This agency is, indeed, the envy of the agenting world. This sounds like the agency for me, I says to myself.

So I make a call. I tell the receptionist that I am a young, virile, aspiring writer who is looking for THE BEST agency in the world (is it okay to lie?). I run through my list of qualifications and ask if I could speak to the top dog. And, by golly, she actually patches me through to the big dog hisself.

I talk to this big-name agent (really BIG in the agenting world) and he tells me that he can't take me on (he's too busy with successful writers to worry about losers like me). However, there is another agent in his agency who would love to work with me. I hold then line, then I talk to this other agent for awhile, and he says, "Sure I'll work with you. You sound like just the type of idiot our agency can help." I don't declare my love right away, but I do plan on buying some chocolates later. I wonder if he likes hard centers or cremes.

When I finish the call, I yell upstairs to Becky, "Hey, sugar . . . got myself another agent. Number four! I told you I could do it, sugar! And with just one phone call. Just like Emeril. Baaamm!"

"That's nice, dear," she says. "When you gonna clean these toilets?"

(continued . . . )

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

A few months go by and, like the patient writer that I am, I wait for David to call with good news while I continue writing like a mad man. "He's never going to call," Becky tells me. "You're holding out hope in this guy like you're waiting for the second coming of Jesus."

"Oh, Dave will call,"I tell her. "He's gotta! He's gonna!"

And one afternoon, he does. I pick up the phone and yell upstairs to my wife, "Hey, I told you, sugar. It's Davey! Didn't I tell you. I knew he'd call. Hey, Davey! How ya doin' old pal?"

David, my gorgeous third agent, reveals the good news. "I've got a contract worked up with a west coast publisher," he tells me. "I'm overnighting it to you. Look it over, then get back to me ASAP. And congratulations!"

The next day the contract arrives. It is the thickest contract I have ever seen in my life. I brew a pot of coffee, go out onto the back deck to read it in the warm spring air, and immediately fall into a deep depression. Because I've worked up so many of my own contracts (again, no agent!) I've learned how to read lawyerese rather well, and also how to read between the lines. I note that the publisher is willing to give me a $1000 advance, but is requiring that I sign up for public speaking courses, media classes, and must invest considerable sums of my own capital in marketing and advertising the book THEY are going to publish.

I call David collect. "Hey, what is this?" I ask.

"What's wrong?"

"This isn't a contract," I say. "It's a robbery. I can't sign this. I'm not enrolling in public speaking and marketing courses. I speak to hundreds of people every week. I'm no good at it, but I think I know how to talk to people."

"My advice," David says, "Is that you don't sign it."

I don't. I won't. My wife knows I'm an idiot, but I'm not about to sign a piece of paper that will reveal my idiocy to a broader audience.

But I can tell that David, my gorgeous agent, is miffed. I don't sign. And as the weeks go by, when I call, email, or write, he never responds. Not a good sign. And as far as writer/agent relations go, this is the sign that I should go screw a light bulb into some other socket. And so ends agent relationships number three. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

(continued . . . )

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

There's another old saying: "The third time's a charm." And as far as my literary agents were concerned, I had good reason to believe that my third foray into literary marriage would work out. After all, I was experienced now. I had it all figured out. But then, I'm an eternal optimist and my wife has always been there to bring me back down to reality. (Thank God?)

At home that night, I declared my love privately for David. "He's a bum," my wife told me, "just like all the rest."

"But you don't understand," I said. "I actually met this one in the flesh! I shook his hand. He's beautiful. He gazed at me with his big blue eyes and said he'd sell my book!"

"Oh, he was selling all right," Becky said. "And I'm sure he was shoveling, too."

Somehow, I felt like I was confessing my unfaithfulness, sort of like telling her I'd been sleeping around but had finally found someone compatible, someone who understood ME for me, who would stand by me through thick and thin and whisper wonderful lines like: "You iz zee spitting image uf John Steinbeck" or "Zeez ez wonderful proze."

"He'll drop you like a hot potato as soon as he finds out you're bruised goods," Becky admonished. I felt cheap. Violated.

"But he's a lawyer and everything!" I said.

"Oh, well that explains it all," she said. "Stand-by for heartbreak number three. You'll be crying on my shoulder before the month is through."

"You're wrong about David," I said. "He's a go-getter, a warrior, a champion, and, well . . . a real stud in the literary world."

Of course, I was still trying to convince myself that my wife was wrong (even though, yes honey, she's always right.)

(continued . . . )

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

Funny thing about food. When someone slides a plate of spaghetti and meatballs underneath my nose, I'm going to eat it. So while David is reading my material, I'm slurping up spaghetti like a fish sucking the last drops of water out of a fishbowl.

Eventually David glances over the top of my manuscript and asks, "Where did you get all of this information about Jerry Ford's death?"

I wipe away all the spaghetti sauce residue with my shirt sleeve, burp twice, and say, "Well, I talked to people at the Ford Presidential library in Michigan, and then it also helps to be a pastor sometimes. I was also able to interview a couple of pastors who were with Ford in the days prior to his death."

"This is a unique book," David says. "Why don't I take this one and shop it around. I've got a couple of publishers in mind."

"Super-duper," I say. I've now got a verbal commitment from my new agent, my third in seven years. It feels good.

I can't wait to get back to my 1991 Caprice wagon. I realize I didn't cram any coins into the meter and I'm probably getting towed even as I slurp spaghetti. But then I may not even bother picking up the car. Now that David has promised to sell my book, I'm already dreaming of being able to buy a used Volvo that I'd had my eye on for several months. It's only got three dents in the bumper, and most of the writers I know drive Volvos. Or perhaps I'm thinking of the GMC Pacer?

(contined . . . )

Monday, April 6, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

After the waiter leaves, my new friend David leans back in his chair and says, "Why don't you show me what you've got."

I'm somewhat shaken by this initially, but then I realize he's talking about my writing. He nods toward the thick Manila envelope I have placed on the table, a collection of work that I have brought along that I hope will impress and astound him, perhaps even shame him, into become my agent.

As I open up the envelope, David notices that I've got more than one proposal. "Why don't you do this," he tells me. "Just show me your top three book ideas."

I riffle through my pages and pull out three of the paper-clipped proposals, a couple of them probably twenty or so pages in length. I hand them over to David and sit idly by while he scans my work, his eyes sometimes brightening with the proposition of easy money.

And me, I'm trying not to look too hickish. Oh, maybe I'm cleaning my ears with a car key, or biting my fingernails, but other than that, I'm just an average writer sitting in a darkened restaurant with an agent who looks like a GQ model.

David eventually settles into to reading the longest of the proposals I've brought along, a fifty-pager that I have entitled, All the Presidents' Deaths: The Fascinating Stories of Their Final Hours. It's a proposal that took me a year to create. A book that I would love to research and write about how each of the (dead) U.S. Presidents met their demise. I had already written the chapters from Washington to Madison, and then tossed Gerald Ford into the mix, too.

David glances at me from time to time and smiles. "This has a lot of promise," he tells me at one point.

I'm about to ask him a few questions when the waiter arrives with our food.

(continued . . . )

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(Continued . . . )

For the first time in my life, I am about to meet a literary agent face-to-face. My previous two agents were, in essence, long-distance relationships. Sure, we had exchanged photos via the Internet, talked on the phone, exchanged emails . . . sort of like an e-harmony for writers, or one of those clubs where you can "meet hot singles". But this was different.

A few days later, I drive downtown Indianapolis to meet the guy I hope will be my new agent. Let's say his name is David. (Actually, that is his name, but for the sake of this blog, let's just pretend his name is David.)

I suggest we meet at The Spaghetti Factory, since it is near his hotel. As I drive into town, I realize I am driving a 1991 Caprice station wagon with an interior that smells like cat urine, so I park fifteen blocks away and walk in through a blinding December snowstorm toward the restaurant. I don't want to take a chance on having to drive him back to the hotel in my car and nixing the whole relationship because my floorboards haven't been cleaned since the Reagan Administration.

I have never been so nervous.

When I walk into the restaurant, a guy walks over to greet me, and I am astounded. Now, I think it is perfectly okay for a straight guy with one lifetime partner to say, but David was drop-dead gorgeous. He was young, virile, well-groomed, and he looked like he had stepped right out of the pages of GQ. Next to him, I am just an old gray fat man with a sheaf of papers under his arm. I can hardly stand to look at him without my eyelids fluttering.

David asks the waiter to give us a table "in the back" so we can talk without being disturbed, and I wonder if we are going to discuss writing, or if he plans to give me a lap dance. The waiter gives Dave a wink and leads us back to a dark corner of the establishment. I am thinking to myself, I'm glad I shaved this morning and cut my nostril hair, and I wonder if he will appreciate my choice of cologne?

We sit down, and the first thing David says is, "Tell me about yourself."

I'm not sure what to say: Well, I'm a Libra . . . I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I try to take care of myself. I eat right. I work out. And in the summer, I sometimes shave my chest hair.

No, but instead I tell him about my thirty-year courtship with writing, how I write my guts out every day, and that I would do anything short of biting the head off a chicken to have an agent like him. As I talk, I can imagine David standing by my side a booksignings and speaking engagements, overhearing the whispers among the throngs of female admirers who would say things like, "The author ain't much to look at, but good Lord ain't his agent pretty!" or "I've never heard of this author before in my life, but any writer with an agent who is that scrumptious deserves to sell a book . . . I'll take a dozen!"

An author can only dream of an agent like David, and as he leans into the candlelight on the table and asks me what I want to order, I make sure he sees my wedding ring as I order spaghetti and meatballs.

(Continued . . . . )

Friday, April 3, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

There is an old saying (I guess some old dude said it): "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Actually, it should be "whom" you know, but then a lot of old sayings aren't grammatically correct.

At any rate, I managed to secure a third literary agent because of a fortunate phone call on a very fortunate day in December, 2004. Here's how it happened.

I was talking to an editor on the telephone and just happened to mention a new book proposal I had worked up. "Who's your agent?" she asked, sort of miffed, like she should be talking to my agent instead of me.

"I don't have an agent right now," I said.

"You don't have an agent?!" She was incredulous. Perturbed. Deeply troubled to the point of death. It was her Garden of Gethsemene and I could hear the great drops of blood falling to the floor of her office in Manhattan, a chorus from The Producers echoing in the background, Matthew Broderick singing to Nathan Lane.

She sighed and then said, "You need to get an agent," which really meant: I'm not talking to you anymore until you learn how to play the game or What a lonely bastard-man you are or Didn't your mother teach you proper literary manners?

She blurts out the name of an agent she knows who is looking for new writers. "He's coming to Indianapolis next week," she tells me. "He would love to meet you. I'll set it up."

Suddenly, I feel like I'm on a blind date. That, or I'm about to meet a high-priced hooker who will be asking me questions like: "Am I the first you've worked with?" or "Where's a good place to meet so we can talk in private?"

The following day, I do get a call from this agent. And by golly, the agent asks, "Am I the first you've worked with?" and "Where's a good place to meet so we can talk in private?"

After the brief phone conversation in which we arrange a meeting time and place in downtown Indianapolis, I go upstairs and take a long shower. I feel so dirty, and I haven't done anything yet.

(continued . . . )

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . .)

In order to understand my pursuit of a third literary agent, it is helpful to first gain a perspective on what happened to me as a writer. From 2001 forward, my writing took on a new meaning. No longer was I a twenty-something, thirty-something guy who was feeling his way through the maze of publishers, editors and book sellers. I now had a plethora of personal contacts and connections from New York to Nashville to Los Angeles. In short, I truly began to think of myself as a professional writer. I knew how to write proposals, as evidenced by the fact that from 1998-2008 I had personally orchestrated the publication of some fifteen books, and had written at least four times that many in that same period. (Writing and Publishing are two very different things!) With one exception, all of these had been accomplished without an agent. In that same period, I also wrote hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of short stories, articles, essays, poems, and even songs. I had also written hundreds of sermons, newsletter articles, columns, and presentations.

As one editor asked me, "Are you a pastor who writes, or a writer who pastors?" And my answer then was: I do both, and put 100% into all of it.

Essentially, I knew how to write. I still wasn't very good, but I knew how to write.

My connections with writing were long-lived. When I was nine years old, a teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said a writer. She laughed. She had jailbird in mind for me, and I'm sorry I disappointed her.

Even today, I always read the acknowledgement page of a book first. I look for the name of the person who edited the book, perhaps the name of the writer's agent. I know which editors are working at which publishing houses. I follow editors around like some people follow trades of baseball players and coaches. When I watch a movie, I am the type of guy who wants to know, "Who wrote these lines?" I could care less about meeting Brad Pitt, but I would run across the street to meet Eric Roth. And I would say the the gospel WRITERS have been the most influential writers I've ever known.

But in 2004, I once again became overwhelmed with the sheer number of book proposals I was carting around. I had novels, notebooks filled-to-overflowing with non-fiction book ideas, a brothel filled with articles and essays that needed a decent home and the promise of being redeemed from their sins.

"I think I'll try to find an agent,"I told my wife one afternoon.

"That's nice dear," she said. "God knows you need to find something!"

(continued . . . )

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Secret Agents . . . Continued

(continued . . . )

Naturally, when anyone begins a conversation with, "I've got some bad news", I figure there is bad news coming. Experience tells me this. If, for example, my wife begins a conversation with, "I've got some bad news," I am led to believe that she has either wrecked the car, or has decided to leave me and marry an acrobat, or perhaps has received a phone call from my doctor who has decided that I have 24-hours to live (and that was eight hours ago). Or, say, my son says, "Dad, I have some bad news", I figure he has either flunked algebra, or has shot out every window in the house with his paint ball gun, or, oh, perhaps has decided to pursue a career in the church. Or, well, if my daughter says, "Dad, I have some bad news", I know she has either wrecked the car, or has decided to marry an acrobat, or has found a far more expensive university and expects me to flip the bill.

Yeah, I know all about bad news.

So when Madeleine says, "I have bad news", I already know what is coming. "I'm only going to represent ghost writers," Madeleine says.

I didn't see that one coming.

Ghost writers? I didn't know that ghosts could write anything!

"But if you want to do some ghost writing, I have a project for you," she tells me. "Otherwise, we're through."

I'm desperate. So I ask about this ghost writing possibility.

"It's a book for the retired boxer, George Foreman. Why don't you draw up a proposal for a children's book and send it to me. George is tired of selling grills. He wants to try his hand at children's literature. But, well, George can't write. He can barely speak. So he's going to need a ghost writer."

I draw up a proposal in three days, but I already know the end of the story. Madeleine and I are through. George ain't gonna pick me. I'm not a ghost writer. And if I write anything, I'm vain enough to want to see my name on the book jacket, not George Foreman's.

This is the last conversation Madeleine and I have. Literary agent number two has divorced me.

Later that night, I do jump off the roof of the parsonage. But all I do is sprain my ankle.

(Continued . . .)