Today, I will attempt to do the nigh impossible–tie together my day job with my moonlighting gig of writing. I’m sure if I was to write something about my job as a manager with a national pharmacy chain, I could come up with a story or two, but they would likely be boring. I write, in part, to escape the stresses of work, not to relive them after hours.

There are areas of my retail gig, however, than can benefit my writing. For years, I have trained other manager, particularly in areas involving personnel and human resources. I have taken numerous managers under my wing over the years, teaching them my non-standard method of interviewing job applicants to find the best fit for the way I do things. I don’t look for the most qualified person, necessarily, or the person with the most experience. In many cases, those people have bad habits to break, poor attitudes, and preconceived notions from their previous jobs. What I look for is someone with the things I cannot teach–a good work ethic, integrity, intelligence, and a positive attitude, among other things. I can teach anyone how to put up stock, run a cash register, or take care of customers. What I can’t teach are those things that come with the initial package.

How I arrive at these choices varies a great deal from most of my peers, however. Most managers hate doing interviews, largely because they don’t do them enough to be good at them, preferring to interview only when the need for new staff is too great and they must hire someone yesterday just to survive. I, on the other hand, spent years interviewing at least three people a week. In doing so, I achieved several benefits–keeping a fine edge on my interviewing skills, a steady stream of possibilities in case of need, and the knowledge among my staff that if they do not perform, I can and will replace them with someone better.

Even odder to my fellow manager, is the nature of my questioning. Most interviews consist of the same boring stock questions, classics like “Tell me why you left your last job?” and “Where do you see yourself in X number of years?” and, my personal favorite, “What led you to apply with us?” I do ask a few of these chestnuts–I would be remiss in my duties if I did not give the applicants something familiar to grasp onto before I sweep the rug out from under them–but I mix things up with a series of questions that are completely unrelated to the job I’m hiring for. Federal law prohibits certain questions due to their possibilities of discrimination, but the questions I ask do not come near those lines. They may not be work related, but by their simple subject matter and off-the-wall shock value, they tell me more than just about any work-related question I can ask.

For example, I might ask a customer if they read. If they say no (which unfortunately happens more often than it should–see my last post), then I can make a general observation about the person that they might not even make themselves, usually one that suggests the person is lacking in intelligence. Most smart people I know read something, even if they aren’t spending their time plowing through Umberto Eco or John Milton. If they say yes, then I follow up immediately by asking what they read, and as anyone who reads can tell you, a person can be defined in simpler terms by the words they consume than by almost any other measure. Say what you will about eyes, but books are the true windows of the soul.

Other questions I might ask include “Do you follow sports?” followed by “What’s your favorite team?” Usually, a guy who follows sports has traditional male values and traditional views of male roles in society. If he follows teams close to home, then he has strong roots and ties to his family. If he follows teams far away, he generally longs for escape and has looser ties to home and family. I might ask “Who’s your favorite musician?” Again, a person’s musical tastes are very personal and show aspects of personality that one cannot hide. If I ask “Who do you admire and why?” I’m looking for a sense of the applicant’s values, usually without them having the slightest clue as to why I’m asking such odd questions.

I will say that these questions and the answers I receive from them allow my only to form general opinions about a person and that I don’t base my hiring decisions solely on the responses to these unorthodox queries. They do, with the proper follow-up questions, give me a true glance at what makes the person tick. And for anyone who suggests that a person might feed me false information in an effort to appear what they are not, I argue that I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s very hard to get something past me in an interview. I’m not saying it hasn’t or doesn’t happen, but you better eat your Wheaties if you think you’re getting something phony past me on my turf.

Now, what the hell does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, this. I have learned to pick out the best employees possible by asking questions that allow me to learn the true nature of the person I’m talking to. For writers having trouble getting to know your characters, I would suggest something similar. Imagine, for instance, your problem character sitting before you, wringing his or her hands, waiting for you to decide their fate. You are, after all, the employer of all your characters. You decide who is the right fit for your story based on what they have to offer. So, sit them down and ask them questions. For example, if I have a female vampire that I’m just not feeling it for, I might start out with . . .

Me: So, you’re applying for the position of antagonist?
Vamp: (nervously wringing hands over her leather-clad lap) Yes, that’s correct.
Me: Well, what are the top three strengths that would make you a good candidate for this job?
Vamp: (considers for a moment) Well, I suck blood. That’s pretty scary. I’m hard to kill. I think that’s important. And . . . gee, this is a tough question . . . um . . . I look really good in leather.
Me: (careful not to nod in agreement to the leather comment–don’t give them false hope or a reason to think your sexually harassing your applicant) Okay, what’s your favorite board game and why?
Vamp: (after a long, confused stare) Huh?
Me: Your favorite board game. And why.
Vamp: (another long silence) Um . . . I’d have to say Battleship.
Me: Really?
Vamp: Yep.
Me: Why?
Vamp: The . . . the implied violence. (Raises voice in mock surprise.) You sank my battleship!
Me: (makes a note on my pad) Uh huh. What’s your favorite television show?
Vamp: Angel.
Me: Why?
Vamp: Shows that vampires are people, too. We can be sympathetic characters as well as terrifying fiends.
Me: (makes another note)

Obviously, this character would not get the job. When I interview an applicant for any job, I’m already set against hiring the person. All I’m looking for through my questioning is a reason to justify my initial bias. Only when I’ve asked all the questions I can think of and have found no facts that back up my preconceived views, do I consider hiring the person. In this case, the attitude of my vampiress toward sympathetic vampires proves to me that she would make a poor antagonist, who I’m thinking of as the incarnation of evil. No room for sympathy there. Of course, I would ask a few more specific job-related questions to fill out the interview, but at this point I’ve made my decision. The rest is just to make the applicant feel better.

If your character is feeling like a character, sit them down, pull out a notepad and get to know them a little. Ask them odd questions and see how they cope, how they respond under stress. You don’t want your POV character to back down in the climax, but at the same time you don’t want them to go out of character and start kicking ass o’plenty after being a wuss for 300 pages. See if they have a backbone first, then allow them to show it in bits and pieces, a vertebrae here and there, until the final conflict.

In my store, if I don’t have the right people in place, the whole staff falls apart. Backbiting, gossip, and frustrations spread like a plague. A story is the same way. If you don’t have the right characters, with the right motivations, the tale doesn’t hold up. Choose your characters, get to know everything about them, then they will seem to act on their own rather than you dictating how they should act. That, more than anything, leads to interesting, believable characters.

Work on Superhero has been improving and I have made decent progress the last few nights, including a rather scary scene that came, literally, from nowhere. I’m also working on a new short story that is going rather well and I hope to have it finished in the next few days. Dead and Dying is currently in the hands of three different literary agents, so I’m spending way too much time with my email open. Ah, the life of the anxious writer!

Currently Reading: Small Favor by Jim Butcher, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

I’m always disturbed by the people who say they don’t read. I do understand that, particularly for people like many that I work with that are in school and have to read constantly anyway, that pleasure reading is often put on the back burner. Still, I managed to always be reading something on the side, even when I was buried in school work. Even worse than these, though, are the ones who proclaim that they don’t read in a tone that suggests it is something to be proud of. This, to me, is simply intolerable. If your idea of cultural expansion is watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard, then we’re probably not going to see eye to eye on much.

Anytime someone tells me that they don’t have time to read, I always offer the same suggestion–picking up an audiobook from the local library. The general problem with reading, at least the problem everyone else seems to have, is that when you do it, you’re usually just doing it. It doesn’t allow for any other activities you might be doing. With audiobooks, however, you can do any number of things and still be getting a good dose of the literary experience. For example, I do all sorts of things while I’m listening, usually those tasks (read cleaning the house) that I don’t particularly enjoy. By throwing in a good story to take my mind off the mundane thing I’m doing, I trick myself into looking forward to what I don’t really want to do.

Then, there’s the commute. I drive an hour each way to and from work and I often employ audiobooks to break up the monotony and take my mind off the outrageous price I just paid for gas. Listening to a good book as I drive really helps me make the most out of what would otherwise be a large chunk of mostly wasted time. Still, it does have its risk. I got a speeding ticket not too long ago because I was paying more attention to what was going on in the story than I was to the posted speed limit signs. Those dangers, though, are rare and worth the risk.

I’m such a geek about audiobooks that I even have my favorite narrators. A lot of people know of Jim Dale from his fantastic work on the US audio versions of the Harry Potter books. I’m still in awe over his ability to produce so many distinct voices–as many as 125 per book–and keep them all straight. Even if you have read the books multiple times and seen the movies, I encourage anyone who has not done so to find the audio versions and listen to them–they add a whole new depth to the experience. I’ll wager that you will not see (or hear) the stories in the same light after you have heard Jim Dale performing the wide variety of characters in the series.

There are other audiobook narrators that simply draw you into the story with a vice-like grip and won’t let you leave. Frank Muller, sadly no longer able to perform due to a motorcycle accident, is a master of the spoken word. A trained Broadway actor, Muller’s amazing voice in a wide range of works, particularly some of Stephen King’s stories, is a true example of the power of audiobooks. I admit that I had a hard time getting into the Dark Tower series until I found them on audiobook and listened to Muller’s reading of the first three, the ones he completed before his accident. Also, in some of King’s other works such as The Talisman and Black House, Muller makes you a participatory part of the story from the first line. I’m such a fan of Muller’s that, as I’m writing, I hear his voice reading the words, a trick that I believe makes my prose much stronger. If it sounds awkward in Frank Muller’s voice, then it must be really bad because he could read the phone book and it would sound riveting.

Another excellent narrator, George Guidall, finished the Dark Tower series and rivals Muller in his ability to draw the reader in through a combination of his voice and his grasp of what he is reading. In other works, particularly works of suspense like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, show off Guidall’s rich, precise voice and his wonderful ability to portray character.

Several authors, even, make excellent audiobook narrators. I realize that I’ve worn out my love affair with King’s On Writing, but he does an excellent job of reading the book without sounding like he’s reading. He avoids sounding preachy or pretentious simply by believing what he has written and speaking as if he’s having a casual conversation with the reader. Even in narrating some of his other work, King’s odd voice matches up perfectly with the material. Ian McEwan is another author who reads his material probably better than anyone else probably could. He captures the wit and emotion of his writing and, believe me if you haven’t read him, there’s a lot of that to capture.

Sometimes in my idle moments (the two or three minutes I have per week), I wonder if any of my work will ever reach audiobook format. If so, I would like nothing more than for George Guidall, in place of Frank Muller, to read my story. Should that not happen, I would be more than happy to read it myself, just for the sheer experience of doing an audiobook. The only downside would be knowing that I’m not Frank Muller, no matter how much I would try to sound like him.

So, if anyone is reading this, I encourage you to go out and find yourself an audiobook to read today. Just about anyone can work it into his or her busy life. I’m about to start Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and am looking forward to my myriad of choices beyond that. Also, be sure to check out http://www.frankmullerhome.com to find out how you can help Mr. Muller’s efforts to recover from his near fatal accident.

Now that I’ve received a partial and two full manuscript requests, it’s probably time for me to start considering what kind of agent I want to work with just in case I do get an offer or–jackpot!–multiple offers of representation.

The obvious answer is, to any unagented writer, “any agent that wants to represent me.” This sounds great, but for the sake of my writing career and the career of any agent that wishes to spend time selling my work, it’s a bit oversimplified. There are a lot of things to consider–from both sides–when deciding whether an agent and a writer will work together. I believe it’s very similar to what I encounter when I interview applicants in my “day job” as a manager of a retail store. I tell anyone I interview that while I talk to people to figure out if they will work well in the environment I have created in the store, he or she should also be decided whether I will fill their needs as a manager. I encourage my applicants to ask a lot of questions because it shows interest beyond just receiving a paycheck–it shows interest, curiosity, and planning for the future. I know I ask my potential new hires a lot of questions, sometimes ones that are completely off the wall and silly, but there is always a method to my madness. I can learn more about people from the questions they don’t expect than I can from the tired, old questions you hear in every interview and, should the need arise, I’m prepared to use the same tactic to determine how well I’ll work with a potential agent.

Now, there are a few things I know right now that I’m looking for:

Optimism and interest in my book—I would seem to go without saying that any agent offering to represent my work would be optimistic about his or her chances to sell it and, moreover, interested in it. Still, one of the traits I have always looked for in potential employees is unflappable optimism. I have not come this far without feeling pretty darn good about my chances to be published some day and I want my agent to have as much faith in me as I have in myself. Sometimes, I have moments of doubt, sure, but I want an agent who understands where I am emotionally and can say the right things to keep my chin up.

Understanding–I’m probably never going to sell like Stephen King. I’m probably going to have to keep a regular job with a regular paycheck to support my family, and I want an agent who understands those facts. I feel comfortable saying that I can do one pretty decent book per year without killing myself. Amidst all the requirements of work, family, and other interests, I have less time to write than a lot of other people trying to be published. I am a workaholic, yes, but I do have my limits, mostly dictated by physical exhaustion. I may not be prolific, but I can produce one, maybe two, full manuscripts a year and that will have to be enough unless I turn out to be better than I thought.

Willingness to let me reach–A lot of writers get pigeon-holed into a particular genre–some by choice, others not. Even if Dead and Dying does sell and I produce another book or two along the same lines, I want an agent who will let me try something different. I have a lot of stories I want to write and they don’t all fall into the fantasy fiction and literary horror groups. On my way home tonight, I was thinking of a wonderful literary story that has been begging to be written for some time, one that I keep pushing back until I can clear my current projects off my slate. I also have ideas in the suspense genre that I would love to explore further down the line. Hopefully, my potential agent will encourage me to try new things and hope, like I will, that it will be worth the effort and risk.

Good communications skills–I’m not a very needy person. I have moments where I might seek my wife’s approval on something I’ve done, but I certainly don’t want an agent to email or call me with every step he or she is taking with my book. If I agree to let someone represent my work, then that is a sign of trust on my part, a trust that the agent will do what they do and I, in turn, will do what I do–write more stories. An occasional update on the progress of submissions would be great, but I don’t have time to sit by my email or phone waiting to hear about the latest rejection from Whatever Publishing. Keep me updated, sure, but unless the book has sold, I’m not that eager for news.

Perhaps a blog–I’m addicted to publishing blogs. I read several agent and writer blogs every day, usually when I should be writing. It’s great how so many people who appreciate books can come together and learn from one another, particularly those of us looking to break into the business. Also, it’s a great forum for promotion–both for the agent and the authors they represent. When I go onto a blog and read a congratulatory post on an agent’s blog praising a clients accomplishments, I want to go out and read the praised book and see what the fuss is about. I’m sure there are many others like me, making a good blog an important marketing tool for the writers. Granted, a blog is not a necessity, but it’s good to have that public means of keeping up with news.

For the most part, that’s it. Just like with the interviews I conduct at work, looking for the best person for the job I’m hiring for, I want to speak to anyone offering to represent my work to get a sense of how the person thinks and speaks. I have learned through long years of interviewing how to read what is behind the words a person speaks. Most of all, I want to feel comfortable with the person I’ll be working with. There is an intangible link that I form with my best employees, an unspoken and vague bond that seems to form out of nowhere, but actually comes from understanding exactly where the other person is coming from. That “certain something” is what I hope to find in my agent hunt, that indefinable quality that speaks to my subconscious and says, “Yep, this is the one.”

Anyway, inventory preparation at the store is killing me. Less than two weeks to go and we are nowhere near ready. I’ve been working on other projects in addition to Superhero and will hopefully have another chapter of Golden Sepulcher by the weekend. I also came up with another idea that will have to sit in the back of my mind until I get some of these other projects finished. If the lineup of stories in there now was a line at a register, I’d be calling for more cashiers. Unfortunately, there’s only one of me to write them.

On Saturday evening, my wife called me at work to tell me I had received a request for the full manuscript of Dead and Dying from one of the agents I queried. This came as a very pleasant surprise to me considering that I botched the query by not including the requested sample pages, then resent it with the sample and a cheesy “Now with sample pages!” added to the subject line. Apparently, Diana Fox likes cheese.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled by this new validation of my writing. Even though further research (i.e. reading Ms. Fox’s blog) informed me that she generally only requests full manuscripts, it is still a big deal to me that someone wants to see the whole thing. I understand that she may only read part of it before rejecting it, but it does save me a step if she likes it, allowing me to spend more time on my work in progress and less time worrying if I’m going to make the next cut. Since I revamped my query letter, I am two for two on the positive responses from agents I have queried and will probably be sending out altered versions of the same letter to a few more agents today or tomorrow in hopes of widening my net.

There are others, on the other hand, who have not had the early positive feedback I have received. One of the publishing blogs I follow is The Rejecter. The blog, written by an anonymous assistant in a New York literary agency, offers wonderful insights into the business of creating books and, on this occasion, reprinted a confusing email the blogger had received from someone claiming to be a literary agent who had received over 4000 rejections for his/her manuscript. I replied in a one-line comment, something I thought would amuse those familiar with other literary blogs, and the alleged lit agent blasted me in another comment, along with others who commented on the first post. In return, The Rejecter posted that comment on her blog, complete with the description of me as an asshole. The commenter obviously has some bitterness issues with the publishing industry, probably relating to his/her inability to write a coherent sentence. Typically, if my understanding is correct, writers who cannot write well find little success in publishing.

All in all, comedy of the highest degree.

There is a lesson to be learned here. I think the two most important things a writer can have aside from the ability to write a good story, are patience and common sense. The publishing industry moves at glacial speeds and trying to speed up the process by mass emailing everyone you can does not help, as common sense would dictate. If everyone had those two things, even those without talent would understand that there is a right way to seek publication and a wrong way. Using spamming software to query everybody who ever picked up a copy of Literary Market Place would fall in the “wrong way” category. I also consider scathing remarks against established professionals in the industry a poor way to promote your budding career.

Also, there is another thing to consider–if you’ve emailed a query to 4000 agents and have not received a single response, the chances are high that your writing is not that good. Perhaps you should try another field more in line with your skill set. I think if I tried something 4000 times and failed each and every time, I probably give up. There’s a line where persistence crosses over into lunacy and it lies way before 4000 rejected queries.

Work on Superhero is progressing slowly. I have four chapters done and will likely start on the next chapter tonight. My fanfic short story on Mugglenet was also finally validated and the reviews have been very flattering so far. In the midst of everything else, I am testing the job market and preparing for inventory at my store, a nightmarish prospect considering how overstocked we are. I am preparing for long days that will likely test my dedication to writing.