Steven Mayfield, author of Delphic Oracle U.S.A and looking to publish his new novel The Treasure of the Blue Whale, both of which were tested at BookHive, has just signed with Jody Rein Agency! Today he answers some questions for BookHive about this exciting new development.
KB: What do you feel are the advantages of signing with an agent?
SM: The obvious advantage is a much larger foot in the door of big publishing houses or those smaller presses that won’t read unsolicited admissions. For me, it offered an opportunity for an expanded readership as well as guidance through the maze of the industry by someone who knows her/his way around. However, with Jody I gained much more. She spent nearly a year with me in an editorial role and the book is so much better for her efforts.
KB: How did you find the Jody Rein Agency and why did you pick that particular agency?
SM: I connected with Jody at the 2016 San Francisco Writers Conference. Like many conferences, they have “pitch” sessions with agents. I wrote “The Treasure of the Blue Whale” over two months at the end of 2015 thinking I’d self-publish, but after hiring Jennifer Bowen and BookHive to provide feedback, felt the book had some legs and decided to pitch it. Jody was sitting at her table at one of the pitch sessions while I was in a line at the next one. I hadn’t planned pitching to her as she focuses on non-fiction. However, she looked like a really nice person and I said so. She invited me to pitch my book. Informed that it was fiction, she said, “That’s okay. Pitch it anyway.” I did and she requested a full copy of the manuscript. A few weeks later her assistant contacted me; Jody a month or so afterward. She liked the book but felt it needed work. She was right. We went through several drafts together over the next year, and earlier this month, she sent me an agency contract. I was thrilled, but even if she’d declined to represent me I would have been grateful. Jody was a senior editor at Random House and knows what she’s doing. She kept pushing and I tried hard to listen. Many of her suggestions didn’t fly with me at first blush. However, I eventually caved in, and in every case, her advice was dead-on and the book got better.
KB: Could you tell us a bit about your editing process leading up to signing with Jody Rein?
SM: I worked as an editor and can do a good deal of the line and copy editing myself. However, I’m blind to things in my own work that an outside editor can quickly discern. In a previous book, still in revision, “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.,” I worked with Mary Rakow — the editor, teacher, and marvelous novelist — whom I met at the 2015 SF Writers Conference. I gave her a 185,000 word monstrosity that is presently around 88,000 words. I did virtually all the cutting, but Mary took full responsibility for writing “I’m drifting” in the margin of page after page until I got it through my thick skull. With “The Treasure of the Blue Whale” I went first to my wife, Pam, who suffered through the first drafts of one or two chapters at a time. I trust her judgment as a reader and revised accordingly. Next I used my writing group. We’ve been together a long time and understand that feedback is not turning someone else’s work into one’s own work. They were terrific; indeed my friend Leslie Gunnerson has read “Blue Whale” so many times it’s likely been committed to memory. Before pitching the book to Jody, I ran it through BookHive. They’d helped me with the shorter version of “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.” and I found their input invaluable. Since then, the editing has been a collaboration with Jody. Each step of that process as described produced changes.
KB: Any advice for those looking to get a book published?
SM: Any advice I’d offer would be utter hubris. I’ll quote Mark Coker from Smashwords: “First, write a good book.” Actually, I do have some advice: Listen to people in the industry — agents, editors, publishers. They’re not the enemy. They like writers.
KB: What is your personal writing process like?
SM: When writing new copy I try to get something done every day. I revise what I wrote the previous day before adding new words. I don’t try to push if it’s not coming, but can usually get 250-500 new words even on a bad day, 3000 on a good one. Using that approach I typically average about 1000 useable words/day over the course of a first draft. Line editing is fun. I smooth out the speed bumps that slipped through on second and third drafts. However, the developmental editing that precedes line editing is tough. The sheer volume of work is daunting and makes one prone to procrastination. I tend to go off on tangents in first drafts, which means I have to kill a lot of my babies. It’s become easier since I read Norman Mailer’s last book The Castle in the Forest where he goes off-track for a hundred pages or so of nebulously related Russian history. It encouraged me to cut my own tangential narratives, as I shouldn’t pull the crap Norman Mailer did unless I win a Pulitzer or get nominated for the Nobel Prize. Neither occurrence is likely, and thus, the Delete key remains my best friend.
KB: Could you tell us a bit about the book you’re working on with your agent?
SM: “The Treasure of the Blue Whale” takes place in 1934 and is about a huge, mysterious, stinking mass that washes onto the beach of a small Northern California coastal village. It is thought to be whale ambergris, a compound prized by perfumers of that time and very rare, selling for as much as $1800/ounce. The specimen discovered by ten year old Connor O’Halloran weighs nearly 1000 pounds and Connor decides to share the treasure with the entire town. With the Great Depression in full force, this makes the townsfolk rich beyond their wildest imaginations. Subsequently, as negotiations with perfumers proceed, they impulsively borrow money from a local financier of questionable repute — Cyrus Dinkle — using their ambergris shares as collateral. Dinkle is a swindler and has written language into the loan agreements that will allow him to steal their ambergris shares after ninety days. However, no one in town fully reads the contracts and a buying frenzy ensues that includes purchases of a monkey, a porcelain commode with a jeweled seat cover, a couple of genuinely fake rare documents, and a mail-order bride. Several weeks after Connor finds the ambergris, the town leaders discover their treasure to be mostly a mixture of sewage, lard, and sawdust thrown off a Portuguese freighter, the Baleia Azul (translation: Blue Whale). Most in town are heavily indebted to Dinkle by then and face financial ruin should the old scoundrel discover the truth. So the town’s leaders and Connor devise a plan to trick Dinkle into confiscating the ambergris shares as he’d planned, making the borrowers whole while swindling the swindler. The book is a seriocomic satire with coming-of-age elements, the story told by ninety-one year old Connor, recalling the events of that long ago summer when he was ten years old.
KB: Any noteworthy differences in the writing process for this book versus your other work?
SM: As mentioned, Jody Rein was a huge contributor to the process. She kept gently nudging me into giving her “More” and the book went from novella to novel as a result. More important, her attention to detail forced me to more diligently examine the interior logic. Last and best of all, she gave me permission to be a little tangential in fleshing out the characters — making them live on the page as people rather than furniture.
KB: You tested this book with BookHive. How did you like the Beta Reading process? Did you find it helpful?
SM: I’m a huge Jennifer Bowen and BookHive advocate. I’ve used them for two books and found the process immensely helpful and encouraging in both cases. Jennifer makes good on every promise stated on the website and both the objective and subjective aspects of her report were terrific. I got pretty good reviews, but as one should expect, not everyone in the focus groups liked a given book. I found that comforting. Had every reader offered a glowing endorsement, one would have to wonder if the service was simply trolling for users. BookHive isn’t. It’s legit and I encourage writers, and agents for that matter, to try it out.
Thank you to Steven Mayfield for his thoughtful responses and his continued support for BookHive.
BookHive Corp. does beta reader editorial research for authors with Fiction (all kinds), YA/Middle Grade & Memoir manuscripts.
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Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.