After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca
Like many writers starting out, I've dreamed of getting an agent. An agent was a pathway to a career. After spending 2015 working on Whittier and then writing my book, BURST!, I wanted to make 2016 the "year of landing an agent!" Thanks to my ever supportive producer, Barny, it didn't take long to achieve.
Barny knew Cheryl's story was one that needed to be told. All I had to do was write the book because he already knew a guy to help get it to the next level. Once it was done, he passed it on and thus our journey begins.
THE WAITING. OH! THE WAITING...
He sent it to... for the sake of today's story, let's call him William Tockman. (Major nerd cred if you get THAT reference). He sent it on January 25, 2016, to which Tockman responded:
Thanks Barny. Like I said, please give me one to two weeks to read.
I know that doesn't seem like a worthwhile email to share with you, but by the end, you'll see why I did. So just bare with me. LET THE WAITING BEGIN!
We writers must be masochists. We have, literally (pun intended) picked an art form that takes the longest to create AND takes the longest to get feedback. After all, people have to read the thing!
Although Tockman said two weeks, I figured it would probably take three. After all, things come up. On February 17, Barny checked in with Tockman. He responded:
I'm just two chapters in. I like the voice but it would be an impossible sale as is. Needs a lot of cleaning up. I can refer him to someone who can do that. But give me a couple more days to finish it and figure out how it should be structured.
On February 26th, he gave us our answer. Not two days if you're keeping track.
THE EBBS AND FLOWS OF HOLLYWOOD...
While waiting for Tockman, I was hustling on the film side of things. I had lunch with a long time manager friend of mine and she gave me a name of an agent to reach out to. He had been a long time agent at one of the "big three" and had broken off to start his own agency.
There were two things working in their favor. They had an abundance of experience and experience means connections. The size also meant that I could get more attention rather than being at a bigger agency.
On the way home from that lunch, I sent an email pitching Band of Misfits and Whittier. He wrote back almost minutes later:
I’m actually looking right now for something exactly in the FAST AND THE FURIOUS wheelhouse. Send that over.
Obviously, I sent both right away. Hollywood is a fickle bitch who will jerk your soul around for its pure pleasure.
On February 26th, the literary agent wrote at 11:31 am:
I had the chance to review BAND OF MISFITS and WHITTIER. Unfortunately I did not respond to either and will have to pass on those.
It was a punch to the gut. I walked to the bathroom exactly 10 steps away (yes, I counted). I'm at my sink thinking I should just give up. What was I even doing? If this small agency didn't want me, than the big ones never will. I should just pack it in.
As I finished that thought, my Apple Watch dinged. I looked at the notification, it was an email from Barny. Tockman was in.
The timestamp on Barny's email? 11:33 am.
Here's the email that Tockman sent to Barny:
After initially being annoyed by Manny's narrative voice I ended up getting comfortable with it and finally decided that it was the best way to carry the reader through Cheryl's plight in an edifying way. I don't think you can say "an enjoyable way," but it's undoubtedly amusing.
So yes, I'll take it on. I normally would ask the client to have something like this cleaned up by a freelance editor, but it's just clean enough to submit to the publishing houses as is.
He ain't wrong!
I mean, let's get real. I'm long winded, often too detailed and tend to swear a lot. I know this about myself so I pretty much found his comment comical. Hell! Who cares... I had an agent!
Before we move on, I think it's important to look back on a couple of things.
It's interesting, in that first email, Tockman states: "I like the voice." Whereas the second email said my voice was "annoying." Also, that first email says that the book: "Needs a lot of cleaning up." Yet in that second email, the book was: "clean enough to submit to the publishing houses as is."
So which was it?
These were all red flags that I chose to ignore because I had someone that wanted to represent me. I should have paid more attention.
Tockman and I were introduced courtesy of Barny. Here's Tockman's first email to me:
So Manny, as I told Barny, I think I can submit this to publishers as is. It's just "clean" enough not to need an edit. I don't think it will be an easy pitch because the audience will be small. But for that niche audience I think your distinctive narrative voice works well.
At any rate, before I say too much please let me know what your intentions for the book are and then we'll move forward.
Yeah...I know it's going to be tough and I know it’s super niche, but I assume that you wouldn’t take this on unless you had a little bit of confidence that it can be done. I’ve been heavily involved in a lot of online stroke/aneurysm support groups.
I’ve interacted with a lot of people that have gone through the same thing, either recently or currently and they have a lot of questions. Questions that I’m hoping the book can help them, so I know there’s an audience. I’m involved in 4 groups online that make up about 20,000 members. Maybe not Hunger Games numbers, but numbers none the less.
So, as for intentions, that’s first and foremost. I want it to help people.
Beyond that, I have a slew of ideas from very big, to very small. I’m not sure how much you want me to vomit at you right off the bat so let me just give you a couple of bullet points...
Ideally, I hope to do a three book series. This is the first one, the second one would be all about her post hospital rehab and the third would be a general “caregiver’s guide.”
Cheryl and I were working on a film script before this happened. When she woke up a year later, she spent a lot of time helping on rewrites of that script while we were developing it with a big named director. The project ended up falling apart, but I think there’s an angle there where one project could help the other. Who knows? It’s still in development with Barny.
I documented EVERYTHING. As you can tell, I took a lot of pictures, but I have videos and even more pictures of everything starting on day 2 of her in the hospital. I’d love to do a digital copy where we include all that stuff, or maybe an online component?
There are some other ideas, but that’s kind of the grandiose tip of the iceberg in short…I’m not really sure how all of this works, I’m more familiar with the screenwriting world than the book world so please, bare with me. Looking forward to learning on the job.
I’m open to any and all ideas. I’m also ready to put the work in necessary to make this a successful endeavor.
I do think this will be a fairly tough sell for me. It's definitely not the top-tier literary publishers who are going to take it on. It's got the niche thing against it, and it bends the genre boundaries of self-help and memoir (i.e., neither one nor the other). But it's big virtue is the voice, and I think it also does have film potential.
So those are two strong points. But I also think you need to grow a big media platform with lots of buzz for us to achieve critical mass. (You have to do that anyway in order to sell the book once it's published, not just to find a publisher. No publisher will ever do enough for an author in terms of promotion -- rule of thumb.)
You need a strategy to do this, to drive traffic. You can use Social Media Optimization (coined the term) but as you know that's a lot of work. I know you're both part of support groups, and maybe that will be the key, not sure. We should talk about it, do a brainstorming session (excuse the pun) sometime.
It's great you have so many photos and videos, so let's talk about how to incorporate all of that in something online.
of the three elements you need, you definitely have one (msg. with great story and great voice and a guaranteed niche audience), and two is partially there, the film potential, but three has to be worked on -- namely an SMO-energized media platform.
Re the three books: Whatever strategy we develop for Book One will work on the others.
Meanwhile, the msg. does need a bit of cleaning up. No structural changes, just a few things to fix. After that, we need to create a proposal. (Since this is a memoir it's non-fiction, and while it's fine if novels are submitted only as manuscripts, non-fiction needs a proper proposal, including synopsis, chapter outline, author bio and marketing analysis.)
I had a lot of work ahead of me, but I was ready for the task. We set up a phone call for March 5th.
THE AGENT'S PLAN...
We chatted for over an hour and at the end of the call, we had a plan.
Cheryl was going to have her one-year angiogram follow-up on the 7th. There were a slew of possibilities that could have occurred from that procedure. Best case scenario, everything would come out great and she'd be given a clean bill of health. Worst case scenario, she could have died during the procedure. Granted there was less than a 1% chance that death would happen, but it was still a possibility.
I wasn't afraid of that though, MY worst scenario was that she would suffer another stroke during the procedure and have all of her progress wiped clean. Meaning we'd have to start ALL over.
Tockman and I decided to wait until after her procedure because it would offer a perfect (or disastrous) ending to the story. I would add a paragraph or two to the epilogue, talking about the outcome.
Once updated, he would then pitch it to five to ten publishers to start. If they all passed, he would try five more, if THEY passed we would reconvene and discuss what was working, what wasn't and make any changes before we took it back out to the market.
I'm a planner so I was stoked that things seemed to be moving forward.
I was to call him after Cheryl's procedure to let him know how it went. Until then, my task was to put together a proposal that included a synopsis, author's bio, chapter outline and marketing research. I followed his instructions and knocked it out in a couple of days.
SETTING THINGS IN MOTION...
Cheryl received a clean bill of health after her angiogram. I called Tockman to tell him. During that phone call, we brainstormed titles. In the end, we had changed the title from "127 Days" to "BURST!" I was to add that bit about her results to the end, change the titles in the proposal and manuscript, design a different cover and then deliver that all to Tockman so he could start pitching "the following week."
In typical fashion, I did all of that within 24 hours and delivered everything to Tockman via email on Tuesday, March 8th.
Now it was time to, once again, wait. My book, Cheryl's story, my career... all of it, was now in the hands of someone else. A realization that was not a fun one to have.
On March 11th, I got this email:
Manny, I was wondering what happened to you and was thinking of writing you an email. Thought something had gone wrong with Cheryl. This morning I reviewed my spam folder and there you were: both this email and the ms. email. I think you ended up in spam because of MailDrop.
Anyway, will review both proposal and ms. this morning.
Well THAT was a red flag. The first of many.
THE RED FLAGS CONTINUE...
I was waiting for his notes on the proposal. He DID tell me he was going to review it that morning. After not hearing from him in five days, I emailed him telling him I was going to work on a couple of essays in order to try and get them in the NY Times. This had been another assignment from him in hopes of driving my social media traffic.
All which would help publishers connect to me and the material.
Sorry about the delay but have been even sicker than when I talked to you. Sinusitis, get it every year.
Looking forward to the op-ed. If you get stuck, call me and we can go over the concept.
Have been so swamped and sick I haven't reviewed the proposal but promise to do so tonight.
SPOILER ALERT: He didn't.
I'll jump ahead in the story...
I wrote three essays. He read those and gave me notes. His promise to review the proposal? Yeah, that didn't happen until April 19th:
Manny, sorry, have been on the road. On way to NY. Unfortunately, left my laptop in DC, so this will be brief as I hate writing emails on the phone.
Proposal is excellent.
Can you do the following with the proposal?
1. Add 2 sample chapters.
2. Remove all obscenities from proposal text but you can leave in samples.
3. Add table of contents for proposal.
4. Convert to pdf.
5. Add links in table of contents to that specific section.
I knocked out those changes and sent it back to him the next day. He responded:
I can't pitch until I can get to a computer. Returning home in a week. Or I may buy a new laptop in NY.
Two things: First, once again, things were on hold until "next week." Second, "I was sick," "I lost my laptop?" What was next? "My dog ate it?" Shit was starting to sound like excuses.
A COUPLE OF WRONG MOVES...
During this time, I had a disastrous meeting with one of the major agencies in Hollywood (more on that next time). Part of what went wrong was not having answers to specific questions that was asking.
I swore that I would never be put in that position again. I reached out to Tockman and asked if he could tell me which publishers he was pitching to. That way I could drop names and not keep saying, "my book is out to publishers," which to me, sounded fake.
Maybe asking was offensive. Maybe it wasn't. Who knows? He responded that he could do that but that he still had to make up a "target list" of publishers. That was on April 20th.
On May 11th, I sent the following email:
I just finished my latest script, so I have a little bit of a window before I have to jump into re-writes. Is there anything I can do to help move the process along with the book? Cheryl's medical bills are stacking up, I need to get her into a dentist (which is a whole thing) and I'm also trying to get a career started here.
Anything I can do to help, please let me know.
My goal here was try to jiggle SOMETHING free. He responded:
Manny, sorry, I'm on the road again. Just arrived. Should be settled in by tomorrow.
Even if I were to get this sold tomorrow you wouldn't see any money for a couple months. Slow process.
His response focused on the "getting paid" part, which wasn't my intention. I shouldn't have worded my email that way. I really wanted to respond with "THE BOOK CAN'T GET SOLD TOMORROW, IF IT DOESN'T GET FUCKING PITCHED TODAY, ASSHOLE!" But I didn't. I simply said, that I knew the process was slow and just wanted him to know I had a window.
Cheryl and I ended up having lunch with the great Sammy Montana (find his ScriptMag column HERE) and I was telling him what was going on. I read him my email and Tockman's response.
He told me that anytime writers throw a hint of "I gotta get paid," it makes managers and agents uncomfortable because it's too much pressure for them. Like if they don't do their job, you're going to be homeless. That level of pressure actually makes them back away, rather than have a positive effect.
I had never thought of it that way.
A NEW PLAN...
I opted to let go. To let the man do his job and not be "that guy" where I was bugging him every week. So I stopped emailing him. I wanted to see how long it would take for him to contact me.
After all, it was a "slow process," right? My last email to him was on May 12th.
Over the Summer, I had sort of an epiphany. In the beginning, one of the major issues we were facing was the "niche audience," we were targeting aneurysm and stroke survivors. Now, I hardly find that audience niche given the fact that the number of people around the world facing the challenges of an aneurysm and stroke are huge, but that doesn't mean others see it that way.
We needed a larger audience. That's when it hit me. This was a book for CAREGIVERS, not survivors. When it comes to caregivers, the numbers are astounding and it's not just geared towards one tragedy.
People who care for someone who have a loved one with cancer, would get something from this book. A person caring for a loved one with dementia, would get something from this book. Hell, a friend from high school just posted a thing on Facebook talking about being in the ICU with his wife after a serious allergic reaction... there are things in my book that would have helped HIM.
For every person suffering some health related tragedy, there's a FAMILY that has to care for them.
That's no longer a "niche audience."
It was time to break my silence and reach out to Tockman. We needed to change the plan and put my undergraduate degree in marketing to use.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL...
On September 8th (That's right... September), I emailed Tockman asking him if he thought it would be beneficial to the process if we shifted the book to more of a "memoir." That way it was technically less about Cheryl and more about me. This would solve part of the tough sell issue that he was dealing with when he called it a hybrid.
He responded on the 9th:
Don't you think it's like that to begin with? I mean, it's all from your POV. I suppose you could change the title, but the title as is is quite good. And the subtitle also gives a sense of your POV.
But if you were to make it a real memoir then indeed the text would change. There'd be stuff on your early life and more than you have now about trying to break into Hollywood.
I don't know -- your call. But why don't we see if it flies as is and then take a new course if it's rejected across the board?
Btw, have we talked about you getting some blurbs? One or two would really help. The best strategy would be to find a few people who write blogs or have written books on aneurysms and see if they can read the proposal and say some nice things. In the old days you'd seek the blurbs after you have the book contract with a publisher, but these days it's best to have them in hand before the agent pitches to the editors.
Well, I guess he was still on board. He did say "why don't we see if it flies as is..." The bad news was now, after months, had NEW HOMEWORK. Fine, I'll get some blurbs. A process that's not as easy as it sounds. First, I have to track down people who would agree to read the proposal. Second, they have to read the proposal. Third, they have to write the blurb and send it back.
All of that takes TIME.
It took me until October 26th to get the first two blurbs. He responded:
These are great, Manny. Can you get me two more, and then I'll start pitching the book?
We can talk mid-week, yes. I'm incredibly overwhelmed with projects, but am doing quite well with the publishers, so bring it on!
I got the next two blurbs two days later. After I got them, I updated the proposal to include the blurbs, added my work with Script Mag to my bio and added my info on my new site therealmanny.com, then sent it off.
Here was his response on November 4th:
Sorry, like I said I've been canvassing for Hillary a great deal.
This is all shaping up nicely. Your media platform is almost there. I urge you to create a section for guest blogs in THEREALMANNY. You might also do a section for interviews if you have time: Interviews of survivors, caregivers, experts, authors.
Also, I've been placing op-eds in newspapers, so if you want to write one up I'll try to place it. (I have a vague feeling we worked on an op-ed before. Did we?) It should be 800 words long, have a very strong spin and structually I recommend you use a lede, followed by your "thesis statement," then the presentation/argument, then the conclusion.
Try to get yourself covered in a local paper. Small papers are very hungry for local content. You just need a hook. Not sure what that would be.
The main point here is to truly build a devoted community. Keep track of how you want to constantly remind these people that you and your cause are front and center: email, social media, interviews, let them do guest blogs, tape them, check in with them.
When you've built this core group up to a thousand people or so, find a way to engage them in one vital project. I would suggest a crowdfunder for some noble cause having to do with stroke/aneurisms. Crowdfunders are an amazing publicity stunt, aside from raising money.
Finally, is there a stroke charity that exists that you could be a part of? Do it!
Meanwhile, thanks for the updated proposal. I'll probably start pitching next week. It will start slowly and not be my usual blitz because I'm doing another blitz next week. So I'll try to build up to critical mass after that other blitz is done.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END...
Every time I reached out, I felt like it was "do this and I'll start pitching next week." I'd do what he asked and then it was "AWESOME! Now do this and I'll start pitching next week." I started to feel like I was just getting jerked around constantly.
I reached out to Barny and voiced my frustration. He told me that it was my right to voice my opinion and that I should just be honest. He even gave me a couple of things that would be appropriate to say via email.
Here's my response to Tockman:
Thanks for the response. I have been more than patient and I respect all of your guidance and I have already implemented a lot of what you're saying, but we need to move this along.
You've had the book since March. Since then, pitching it has always been "next week."
Our country is literally facing the WORST election next week, obviously it'll be horrible time to pitch this book. No one is going to hear anything but regret.
That last line was to emphasize that, with the election looming, pitching was not going to happen "next week." That was my main frustration with this entire ordeal. From the beginning, unrealistic timelines had been placed constantly. I know this business is slow and drawn out and that's what I signed up for, but don't tell me you're going to do something on a specific day and then not do it.
If you tell me you're going to do something "next week," than guess what? I'm going to check in "next week!" And if you did nothing, I'm going to get frustrated and be a little pissed. I'm not wrong in having that attitude, right? I'd rather get bullshit phrases like "gimme some time," or "might take a couple of months," or even "when I get to it." At least that's honest.
It was always "next week." I hated that.
I doubt you have enough of a media platform yet to convince an editor, and that's why I'm going to take tentative steps with the pitch. You need to constantly appear in print, both as the author of articles but also the subject of articles. A website is not enough.
I had been beating around the bush for months and even, to a certain extent, taking the blame for why things hadn't been progressing. This was my first agent, I had finally achieved a goal and was too afraid to fuck it up. I was so worried about losing my agent, that I didn't stand up for myself.
Before I did any thing rash, I reached out to some friends that had more experience than me. One friend had gotten represented AND published. Although she is a fiction writer and admitted that non-fiction is a different beast, she informed me that she never heard that getting published "depended on the number of Twitter followers I had." Her limited experience with nonfiction told her that nonfiction was based on the strength of the story and the proposal.
I reached out during a Sunday night Twitter Scriptchat when one of the guests was a published author. SHE said she didn't even really participate in social media before she got published, nor had she heard that was even a thing.
Another friend just landed a three-book publishing deal. She barely uses Twitter, has no website and is a Facebook rarity.
So was this a real thing? Or was it just a way to keep me jumping through hoops and avoid actually pitching the book?
IT'S TIME TO MOVE ON...
I met with a friend of mine who used to be a creative executive that dealt with a lot of literary agents. Agents who wanted to get their client's books in her hands in hopes of the production company optioning the book to turn into a film.
She thought that the best way to go was to start looking for another literary agent and suggested some avenues I should pursue. She suggested, that before I pursue such avenues that I reach out one last time to Tockman and not only give him another opportunity, but also let him know that I might start looking for another representative.
On November 23rd, I sent the following email:
I would really like to move forward with you, but it doesn't seem as you're excited as you once were.
If we're still doing this together. Let's do it. We had a very solid plan in the beginning and I feel like we have bailed on that plan. If I'm wrong, clue me in.
Otherwise I'm going to start sending out query letters to find someone who's excited by the story.
Sorry, but I have a bad case of sinusitis. Fever and chills.
I can gradually get to pitching, but go ahead and make queries. It's going to be a very tough sell, so feel free to explore other options. I would be happy if you succeeded in getting the book published because of the good cause.
I don't think there's much money in it. No offense I hope.
And that was that. I never responded.
THE NEXT CHAPTER...
Look, I'll be honest with all of you, I don't know if I handled myself correctly. Maybe everything that happened was just one giant misunderstanding. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that it was a great learning experience and if I can pass that experience on to you, the readers, then it's a win.
MOST IMPORTANTLY... I have a great story and a well-written book. I'm building my "social media presence" and getting the word out there. I have a strong proposal and an audience that's looking to hear this story.
You wouldn't believe the number of people I've spoken to that hear Cheryl's story and can't wait to hear more. I have talked to caregivers, stroke survivors, aneurysm survivors, family members who have lost their parents to strokes and they all are amazed by Cheryl's journey and my involvement in said journey.
This book is for them. Regardless whether "there's much money in it."
So now, I'm sending out query letters to literary agents on a weekly basis. I'll continue doing so until I get a yes, because if there's one thing being a caregiver has taught me is patience. I'll keep you posted. Besides, as I have already pointed earlier:
A "yes" can follow a "no" two minutes later.
Get invaluable tips from TV Producer Chad Gervich in his book,
How to Manage Your Agent: A Writer's Guide to Representation