Let’s jump straight into the deep end: I’m going to write a sentence that may make you hate me. Ready?
I’ve never written a query letter.
Now that some of you have wiped the tomato juice from your screens, let me hastily add that my journey to publication hasn’t been as easy as that sentence makes it sound. I’ve had very good luck, certainly. You could say the same about any author with a book deal in these competitive times. But if fortune favors the prepared mind, then my mind – and manuscript – were fully ready for the luck to happen.
About a decade ago, our family moved from Seattle to California. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear Bill Murray from Ghostbusters 2 in my head saying: “If you had brain one in that huge melon on top of your neck, you would be living the sweet life out in Southern California’s beautiful San Fernando Valley!” That’s where we landed, and I had the opportunity to laze around for a few months before I had to find gainful employment.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not very good at the lazing. Instead of baking on the beach, I went to the nicely air-conditioned library every day and wrote in longhand on a pad, kinda-sorta writing a Bernard Cornwell-esque historical adventure, but really just figuring out if I liked the hard work of putting sentences together.
Turns out I did. And when a year or two later, the company where I had landed a job looked like it would be vanishing as fast as a cirrus cloud in the SoCal sun, I had some more time on my hands, so I took a class in fiction writing. Then a class in mystery writing. Then I formed a writing group, and paid to join a weekly master class of similarly dedicated souls (of which I’m still a grateful student).
Eventually a book started to take shape. And that was the whole point, at that stage – just to write a book. Not to see it published, or to live some imagined life of the celebrated author. I always pictured that life as being like one of villains in Columbo, a world of formal dress parties and bon mots and canapés, absent all the stressful homicide.
Although…seeing my novel on a bookstore shelf would be really cool. I started to dream a little bigger.
In early 2013, that manuscript was just about ready to show, but I was a sheltered little bunny. I’d spent no time researching the market or figuring out my unique hook. I’d just written the book I wanted to write, about a man raised by his grandfather to be a thief, who finds himself forced to re-engage with that world and his complicated emotions about it.
Someone in my class told me about ITW’s ThrillerFest conference, and that they had an afternoon called PitchFest dedicated to, essentially, speed-dating with agents. A dress rehearsal for queries. Perfect. I did my homework, ranked the agents in order of likely interest and influence, and bought my plane ticket to NYC. At least I could learn whether the book I’d written had any commercial merit.
This is the part where you might start hating me again.
Because from that afternoon, life shot forward like I’d dropped an Oxford English on the gas pedal. The manuscript garnered a lot of interest from the agents at PitchFest, and – after each had an opportunity to actually see the thing for themselves – that interest turned into a couple offers of representation.
Those phone calls are both delightful and terribly nerve-wracking. You’re interviewing that prospective agent (they may actually be pitching YOU, at this stage), but in truth, you’re interviewing each other. Your mutual working relationship will with any luck – that word again – last for many years. It’s important that you connect personally and professionally.
Both of the agents with whom I spoke were lovely. They took their time explaining their agencies and the likeliest approach for selling the book. As a greenhorn, I had a lot of questions. The agent I chose (and I thank those lucky stars here) was Lisa Erbach Vance of the Aaron Priest Agency. Lisa had invested a full hour talking to me about the best approach for a debut novel. When I told her I was on board, she laughed and said, “I was all ready to give you the hard sell!” None necessary.
Once the publishing world had returned from August vacations, Lisa began sending the novel out. We didn’t wait long. Among other nibbles, an offer came in from a top-flight editor at William Morrow, and Lisa nudged me in the ribs (telephonically speaking) that this was the way to go.
She was right, as usual. By October, we had ink on a two-book deal. Within weeks we had also made a UK deal with the renowned house Faber & Faber. Life got very fast, and immeasurably more fun.
But not easy. Writing is never easy. My debut PAST CRIMES went through the usual revisions, and then I wrote HARD COLD WINTER during the next year. After those two books were delivered, we worked hard on the proposal for the next round. You think query letters are tough to get right? Proposals laugh at query letters, and steal their lunch money. My third novel landed on my editor’s desk last month, and rewrites await. The fourth book looms. I can’t wait.
It’s been less than forty months since this all started. Only seventeen since my first book hit the shelves. Morrow has been a terrific home for me, and I’m proud to have Faber carrying the flag on the far shore.
What’s that, Ferris? You’re right, buddy. Life moves pretty fast. I’d better stop and look around, and celebrate all of my good luck.
And then get back to work. ‘Cause that’s how it happens.
Glen Erik Hamilton’s debut PAST CRIMES won the Anthony, Macavity, and Strand Magazine Critics awards for Best First Novel, and was also nominated for the Edgar, Barry, and Nero awards. Publishers Weekly and Library Journal gave PAST CRIMES starred reviews, and Kirkus called the book “an exciting heir to the classic detective novel”. The follow-up in the Van Shaw series, HARD COLD WINTER, was published to rave reviews in March by William Morrow (US) and Faber & Faber (UK). A native of Seattle, Glen grew up aboard a sailboat, finding trouble around the islands and commercial docks of the Pacific Northwest. He now lives in California but frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain. Follow his wet footprints on Facebook and Twitter @GlenErikH. glenerikhamilton.com
To learn more about Glen Erik Hamilton’s most recent novel, click on the cover below: