Querying Travelers, Postmortem

My previous postmortem was for the process of writing Travelers. It occurred to me there were lessons I learned in querying it as well. Although technically I'm not finished with the querying process, I'm close enough that I think I can examine it.

What Went Right
  1. Querying statistics - As I've said before, I like statistics. Keeping track of who I've queried, what batch they were in, what I sent them, and if/when they responded not only helped me to stay organized, but also kept me going. I don't like rejections, but at least when they come I get to update my Excel sheet.
  2. Queried in batches - A lot of people recommended sending queries in batches of 5-10. This is extremely good advice. It gives you a chance to evaluate your query package based on the responses you're getting. It is much easier to stay organized and make sure you send the right things to the right people. And it gives you a more-or-less steady flow of incoming responses.
  3. Enlisted help with snail mail - I have queried something like 60 agents, half of which prefer or require snail mail. I live in Thailand, making this an expensive venture (plus we only have A4 paper out here, and I'd hate to get rejected because my paper was the wrong size). Fortunately, I had my friend MattyDub to help me with that. I couldn't have done this without him.

What Went Wrong
  1. Queried all the best agents first - As you research agents, you'll find that some of them look like perfect fits for you and what you like to write. You should be able to separate the agents you query into an A list and a B list. Then in each batch you send out, you should have a mix of agents from both lists, so that when you get to your third or fourth batch, you still have some A list agents to query with your new, improved query letter. I didn't do this. So when my query letter was finally good enough to grab someone's attention, all my A list agents were used up.
  2. Not enough research - I did a lot of research before writing my query letter, but I could have done more. Not just research on agents, but mostly research on writing query letters. If you're thinking about sending out that query letter, here's what I recommend you do first:
    • On Nathan Bransford's blog, read every post listed under "The Essentials" on the sidebar.
    • Read at least 100 posts on Query Shark and Miss Snark and the "Face-Lifts" on Evil Editor. When you start to see patterns, don't stop. When you are able to predict patterns, then try fixing your own letter.
  3. Not enough critiques - Before I sent out my first query letter, I had some of my friends read it. As much as I love them, this wasn't very useful (except for one friend who had taken a class related to the business of writing). What I needed was a serious critique group. There are lots of these online, but here's a couple that I've found useful. These are places you can throw your query at again and again until you get it right (and you should):
    • The forums on AQConnect, specifically the Query Critique Corner.
    • Evil Editor (again). The turnaround time is pretty quick here. Query Shark is another good one, but she's way backed up at the moment, and you probably won't see your letter anytime soon.

Published on Thaumatrope

I just got a story accepted on Thaumatrope, to be published April 12th. Yeah, Easter. I'm pretty excited about that, and I got paid a whole $1.20 for it. You can subscribe to the e-zine here.

So does this make me a professional writer now?

Dealing With Critiques

Over at SFNovelists.com, Kelly McCullough suggested the attitude that "whatever book or story you are revising or getting critiqued at this very moment, is a solid piece of work that can and will be improved if you work at it and learn from comments."

That's the ideal, and I hope to have that attitude one day. Unfortunately, my attitude towards critiques tends to mirror the stages of grief:
  1. Denial: "I don't need anyone's help critiquing my story. Heck, I could probably sell it right now."
  2. Anger: "The story's perfect! They just don't get it!"
  3. Bargaining: "Do I really need to make that fix? Maybe a smaller fix will be good enough."
  4. Depression: "This story's terrible. I'll never get it right. I might as well throw it away and write something else."
  5. Acceptance: "I can do this. I can make it better, I just need to work through the critiques one comment at a time."
Actually, it's a little unnerving how closely this mirrors my actual reactions - like getting critiqued is some kind of life tragedy. That's totally the wrong attitude to have, I know, but I haven't yet had enough practice with it to get better.

Really, Really, Really Short Fiction

Twitter: a free social networking/micro-blogging service, that allows its users to send and read other users' updates of up to 140 characters in length.

Thaumatrope: A sci-fi/fantasy/horror online fiction magazine that uses Twitter to accept and publish speculative fiction of 140 characters or less.

What a crazy, great idea. They pay authors $1.20 per story. That's almost two plates of Pad Thai. I just might get in on this.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, you can read Thaumatrope for free. Either on their website or, for instant gratification, via Twitter. And because it's Twitter, you can get these stories sent to your cell phone if you want.

Ship Names and the Definite Article

The other day, I was trying to figure out if it was grammatically correct to use, or not use, the definite article "the" in front of a ship's name. This is something that never occurred to me until I saw Firefly. In one episode, Inara corrects an Alliance officer on the use of the definite article with regards to their ship - "Serenity," not "the Serenity." Grammatically, I found no consensus, but here's what I found out.

The only really useful sites I found were style guides. The US Navy Style Guide says don't use it, ever. But that's a relatively recent decision and is meant primarily for formal use, and fiction is not necessarily formal. According to Wikipedia's naming conventions, "the" is not needed, but neither is it wrong.

Ironically, the most useful discussion I found was in a forum of Wookieepedia* editors. Ironic because it's the least official of the three, but it's the most useful to me because it's the one most closely related to fiction.

Their final decision is not really relevant, but the discussion raised some interesting points. In particular, they could not decide to "always" or "never" use the definite article, for primarily two reasons: the Millenium Falcon and Slave I.** Try to use the definite article with Boba Fett's ship, or remove it from Han Solo's, and you will understand.

So for now, I'm going to make the decision on a case by case basis and keep track of what I decide in (yet another) document to help me stay consistent. Basically, I'm going to pick the one that feels right, or sounds the least stupid, and stick with it.

* Wikipedia for the Star Wars universe.

** Those weren't the only reasons, but they suffice to summarize the point.

Travelers Postmortem: What Went Wrong

On Saturday I talked about what went right while writing Travelers. Today I have some things that went wrong.

Not Enough Planning
This is controversial. Some writers prefer to just write and see what happens, fixing it later. I'm not one of them. My goal is to streamline my writing process until there are 5 steps: plan, write, revise, peer review, sell - each performed but once. Unrealistic? Perhaps. I won't beat myself over the head if I have to revise more than once, but I will figure out what went wrong to avoid it in the future.

That said, I didn't plan Travelers well enough. Characters popped up from nowhere. Necessity dictated their existence, but when I started thinking about their backgrounds I began to like them better than my protagonists.

That's part of the fun of writing, I know. But it only served to highlight how little I developed my protagonists. I just didn't care about them. In the beginning they weren't even characters, they were just points of view, giving me an excuse to explain this strange, decrepit future to the reader. I tried to fix it in revision, but I think the problem still shows. That could've been prevented if I had planned the characters and the plot out in more detail before I started writing.

The lack of planning also reared its head in certain climactic moments. I'd throw characters into a crisis and, in the outline, I'd write the ever-helpful "They escape" or "They fight and protag wins" without ever thinking about how they win. It wrote me into a corner a couple of times, and I don't like corners. When I write, I wanna run.

No Thought for Theme Until the End
This has happened to me more times than I'd like to admit. I get to the end of a story (short or long) and find myself asking, "How do I end this? What's this story about anyway?" I was just writing a bunch of cool stuff that happens, like an action movie. But like an action movie, it lacked any punch or purpose.

I never really understood theme back in highschool. I'm only starting to get it now, and realizing that it's something I should think about before I outline the plot, and then again everytime I write anything.

Useless Statistics
When I started Travelers, I didn't know what would be important. I chose to keep track of word count, # of pages, # of scenes, and dates of drafted chapters and revised chapters. The word count and dates were good, like I said, but # of pages was meaningless (being based on my personal writing format, which is very different from manuscript format) as was # of scenes.

Another problem was that I counted words only at the end of every chapter, and my chapters were really long. It would've been better to keep track of word count per week or month, in addition to chapter dates and word counts.

No Deadlines for Beta Readers
I had two beta readers. One finished reading the manuscript in 3 weeks, the other took 9 months. At the time, it honestly didn't bother me. The feedback was more important to me, and I figured it didn't cost me any time because I just worked on my next book while I waited.

In retrospect, with 35 rejections and no requests of any kind, it didn't cost me anything to wait, and it taught me a valuable lesson. Next time the beta readers are getting a deadline, and I'm moving on without them if I have to.

Travelers Postmortem: What Went Right

In the gaming and business worlds (two of my past lives), we would do postmortems at the end of a project to determine what went right, what went wrong, and how we could improve our process. I've unofficially done that on my own with Travelers, but "unofficially" means "not very well," so I'll do it more officially here now. It'll help me to think about my writing process, and I hope it can help others too.

I'll start with what went right. This isn't so much about the specifics of the story as it is about my writing process in general.

Developed Character Backgrounds Beforehand
For every major character, I made a chart like the one below. The information in these charts is out-of-date, poorly thought-out, and mostly never used, but if I didn't do it then every character would have been much flatter than they are. Knowing who the character is supposed to be, and used to be, helps when I'm writing and thinking to myself, "What would they do here?"

Random Passages
Before I started officially writing the manuscript, there were a number of scenes that seemed clear in my head. Often they were the ones that excited me most (my candy bar scenes), though sometimes they were scenes from a character's past, or scenes from a future book that may never be written.

Whenever I got stuck in my outline, or I got bored of the story or some character, I'd go write one of these scenes in a file called "Random Passages," prefixed with some note about the context of the scene. For Travelers, I wrote 9 such scenes over the course of the novel. Six of them ended up in the novel. Four of those were rewritten to the point of being unrecognizable (and one of the remaining 2 "scenes" was just a line of dialogue, three sentences long).

Even though they were almost never used as-is, writing these scenes kept me interested in the story and gave me a place to play with the characters before they were "committed" in the story. I read the scenes now and groan because they're bad and make no sense to the story anymore, but I also read them with fondness because I remember how much I enjoyed writing them.

Microsoft Word's Document Map Feature
I learned this during my life at Black Isle. Here's a quick run-down of the feature.

I didn't use the document map for an outline, though. The top-level headings were my chapters, and the sub-headings were the first lines of my scenes. It worked amazingly well to keep me organized and to remember where everything was.

Word Count Statistics
Most authors I've heard of keep word count statistics. I love statistics anyway, so for me, seeing my word count increase and dates of how long it took me to write a chapter kept me going. One of the things that motivated me to finish chapters was that I knew I got to update my stats file when it was done. It's geeky, but it worked.

Alpha and Beta Readers
Beta readers are the folks who read your manuscript before it gets sent out. For some authors, they read it when the draft is finished, for others they read it as each chapter is done. I have both, and call the former my beta readers and the latter, alpha.

For me, I had one alpha reader - my wife. She was both my encouragement and my insurance that I was on the right track. My beta readers were immeasurably helpful as well (in particular because my wife is not a sci-fi reader), but I don't think I would've gotten to the beta stage at all if I didn't have an alpha reader to push me through.

What's the Point of Writing Queries?

By and large, authors hate the query process. It's like you just spent years crafting "the perfect novel," only to be rejected by someone who never read it, who only read your short letter that you wrote in a day.

When I started this, I honestly thought query letters were just a formality. It was only after I realized that agents judge authors by the quality of their query that I started to hate the process. "Just read my stuff!" I cried at my computer screen. "I'm good for it!"

But no matter how we feel about them, query letters are a necessary evil. Agents get hundreds of these things a week. They can't read hundreds of manuscripts, or even sample pages, in a week and expect to get anything else done (like, I don't know, sell novels). They have no choice but to make snap judgments based on a 1-page pitch.

But more than that, I'm learning that the agents are right. They already know this, so I guess I'm speaking to the authors (besides, what agents spend their time on this blog? Pah!). If you can't write a solid, gripping, concise query letter, then chances are you can't write a good novel either.

Don't hang me yet! Hear me out!

We tend to think that writing a query and a novel are two separate skills, but they're not. They aren't the same skill, but they do overlap considerably. Sentence structure, word choice, clarity, word economy, etc. are just as important in a novel as in a query.

In learning how to write query letters, my novel writing has improved as well. I find myself being more concise, choosing words more intentionally, focusing on clarity and logic flow. I've also found that in focusing on what's important to the story for the query, it keeps me focused in the novel.

The biggest mistake writers make in queries is trying to tell everything that happens, losing focus on what's important. If can't stay focused in the query chances are you'll lose focus in the novel too, though it will be more difficult to see.

Finally, before you decide to execute me, remember that I said "chances are." It's still possible to write terrible queries and amazing novels, just as it's possible to write amazing queries and terrible novels. But by and large, the agents have a point; our query writing skills say a lot about our writing skills in general.

And in the end, if I, as an author, dismiss any aspect of writing as unimportant - if I am unwilling to learn how to write a query letter well because it "has nothing to do with writing good novels" - how good of a writer can I really be anyway?