You Get One Debut... But That's Not All You Get

My friend and former query twin* Krista Van Dolzer wrote this excellent post for authors trying to get published.
There have been a few exceptions...but for the most part, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Stated another way, you can only be a variable when you're actually a variable. If you don't have a sales record, publishers have to rely on a set of complicated formulas--and possibly their tea leaves--to determine how much your book is worth...

But once you have a sales record, it will follow you around for the rest of your career. Publishers no longer have to guess how much your books are worth; your sales figures will tell them.
Her point (which I totally agree with) is that you should be careful how you debut and whom you debut with. Don't jump at the first small press or self-publishing option you get without really thinking about it. People generally put more value in unknown potential than they do in someone who has a record we can look at. Publishers and the reading market are not immune to this. (This has recently become an additional reason for me not to jump onto Kickstarter with my beloved-but-rejected novels. Not yet, anyway.)

However, I would submit that you're more likely to write a bestseller in your 3rd or 4th or 10th book than you are in your first. I'm basing this on the fact that many of the bestselling novels I know and love were not debut novels:
  • Orson Scott Card. Best known for Ender's Game (1985). It was his 8th published novel.
  • Suzanne Collins. Best known for Hunger Games (2008). It was her 8th published novel.
  • Scott Westerfeld. Best known for Uglies (2005) and Leviathan (2009). Uglies was his 8th published novel (dang, a trend!).
  • Brandon Sanderson. Best known for Mistborn (2006) and his contributions to the Wheel of Time series (2009+). Mistborn was his 2nd published novel.
  • Neil Gaiman. Best known for Sandman (1989+), Neverwhere (1996) and a bunch of other stuff. But his first published novel was co-written in 1990 and he'd been writing graphic novels since 1987.
  • Chuck Palahniuk. Best known for Fight Club (1996). This actually was his first novel, but according to Chuck it "was a huge failure" and the film (released three years later) "was a flop."
Of course we know plenty of debut success stories: J.K. Rowling, Pat Rothfuss, Kiersten White, Stephanie Meyer. But I hypothesize that they are the exceptions. (I admit I could be totally wrong about this, of course. I would love to see some data on this :-). Most of the big authors I've seen have worked and failed** and worked hard again until FINALLY they had something that hit that elusive golden snitch of a nerve that every publisher is looking for.

My point is that, yes, your debut is something special that you should take care of. Don't squander it the first chance you get. BUT if selling stories is something you really want, don't stop writing. Ever. No matter how you debut, no matter what publishers or the market thinks of you, there will always be a way for you to get new words to your readers. There will always be a chance that the next thing you write could be The One.

Statistically, the more you write, the better that chance gets.

* Krista and I were on surprisingly parallel querying-agent-submission paths for about a year or two, before she got a book deal and I got a job.

** Maybe not "failed" so much as "didn't hit it ridiculously big."

Status of the Update

For those of you who don't read every single one of my Facebook posts (it's cool; even my wife doesn't read them), here's a quick rundown of what's going on and where.

I sent Ninjas off to my agent. You probably know this. She's still reading it, but I'm naively hoping she likes it and wants to start submitting like really, really soon. Cuz getting published (and paid) would be rad.

I went to California. I spoke at my church, had meals with a quarter bazillion people, played and occasionally acquired new games, and then spent a week at inXile HQ where...

I got promoted to Torment's Design Lead. That does not mean I'm in charge of the whole thing (thank God; Colin's still Creative Lead (making sure the story, characters, writing, etc. are awesome) and Kevin's still the Project Lead (making sure the game actually gets done)). It does mean I'm in charge of the game's rules, systems, interfaces, and other designy tidbits. It's pretty much the same stuff I was doing before, except with higher expectations and less ability to blame others when things go wrong. Should be fun.

I watched like 8 movies/shows on the plane trip back. And I have determined that Disney's The Lone Ranger is stupid. BBC's Sherlock, however, is intelligently awesome.

I got home. Wherein I've played a bunch of games with the boys, given out cheap American candy, seen Catching Fire with the wife, and done very little work (except the work of getting over jet lag, which is ongoing).

Tomorrow I plan to play Wasteland 2, write >= 500 words (I've lowered my standards, for reasons), and entertain a 3-year-old tyrant. Among other things.

What have you been up to?

Coming Up with a Book Title

I am preparing, finally, to send Post-Apoc Ninjas to my agent. "Post-Apoc Ninjas" is the title I use for it online, short for Post-Apocalyptic, Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!). While that title is perfectly descriptive of what's in the book, it isn't quite the right tone for the novel.

I have another working title for the novel, which is The Con of War. It's meant to be a play on Sun Tzu's The Ancient Art of War, but (a) I don't think it really comes across and (b) it's just not cool enough. The thing is, I usually just go with whatever title comes to me. Turns out that doesn't always work (shocker!).

So instead I came up with a process (super shocker!).

STEP #1: What does a winner look like?
I thought about what the above titles were lacking in, and what I thought a good title should do. I came up with four general categories. Note that these were just my categories. You may have your own (you should probably look at titles you particularly like or something; I was too lazy):
  1. Tone and Feel: A measure of how well the title hints at what is to come. For my novel, this meant as many of the following as possible: an Asian feel, ninjas, dragons, mechs, post-apocalyptic setting, con game, and war.
  2. Multiple Meanings: A measure of how many ways the title can be interpreted (the more, the better), and the relevance of those interpretations to the novel.
  3. Use in the Novel: A measure of whether the title is a phrase from the prose itself and how relevant that phrase is to the novel's theme(s). Is it an important phrase? Repeated? Does it have special meaning, or is it a throwaway term?
  4. Overall Coolness: A measure of how cool the title might sound to someone who knows absolutely nothing about the story.
STEP #2: Enter the contestants.
Brainstorm. Just make up titles out of whatever. Scan or all-out read the novel looking for metaphors, themes, and cool turns of phrase. Write them all down. I ended up with twenty entrants (including the two contenders above). It helped that I was reading through the novel for a final revision and writing down anything that sounded remotely title-worthy.

STEP #3: Battle Royale. Fight!
Stick them in a table (or an Excel sheet, or Post-Its, whatever floats you) and judge them. Come up with a scale for your categories (I rated all categories from 1 to 3, because I don't need or like a lot of granularity).  Try to be objective. Try to judge them without comparing one to another. Hire someone to clean up the blood and teeth afterwards.

STEP #4: Semi-Finals.
Now that all of your contestants have been judged, determine your criteria for moving on. It might be an objective look at the totals across categories. Maybe you require that one of the categories have a certain score. Maybe you give a special pass to ones you like. Copy only the winners of the Battle Royale to a new place, so you can see them against each other, without the losers cluttering them up.

My criteria was at least 8 out of a possible 12 across the categories (although a couple of 7's passed because I liked how they were used in the novel). It cut the field down from 20 to 12, which wasn't much, but when I sorted them by total, I realized that the only ones I really liked were the ones that achieved 9 and up. These three titles became my Semi-Final winners.

STEP #5: Championship.
The next thing I did kinda surprised me. Instead of choosing a winner from among the three (although I did have a favorite at this point). I looked at all three and tried to make them better.

In my case, I realized most of them were a little shy of the Tone and Feel I wanted. I clarified to myself what that feel was (mostly kung-fu), looked up a bunch of related titles (mostly kung-fu movies), and figured out what made those titles sound like they were related (basically became a human kung-fu movie title generator: Way of the Master's Deadly Dragon Fist!).

It was pretty fun.

STEP #6 (Optional): Poll Your Audience.
Because I'm nothing if not shameless (and also I think by this point most of you want to know what my finalists were). Yes, I am serious. No, I won't necessarily use the most-voted as the title. Yes, you may vote whether or not you've read the novel. (If you're reading this from e-mail or a feed reader, you'll have to click through to see the poll):

Feel free to expand upon your vote, say how stupid these are, or even suggest other titles in the comments.

My Boys' First RPG

I've been wanting to try my boys out on an RPG for a while now, but I wasn't really sure how. I'd given away a lot of my sourcebooks, so all I had left was the d20 SRD which, while great, wasn't quite what I wanted.

Then I got this fancy schmancy Numenera corebook in the mail. This system is what I wanted: simple, flexible, and with a heck of a lot of leeway for a GM who wasn't sure how well his players would get things. But the Ninth World can be kinda . . . creepy, at least for 6- and 7-year-olds. I wanted something they could be excited about.

"Why don't you just make something up?" said my wife, ever supportive of even my geekliest dilemmas.

"Are you kidding?" I said. "Do you know how much work that would take? Even if I adapted what I have, I'd still have to make up a bunch of equipment and powers. Though the types would be pretty easy to adapt, I guess. Most of the esoteries are basically Force powers anyway. And the descriptors work okay. . ."

And then I couldn't stop thinking about it.

The next couple of days looked like this:

Now all I have to do is figure out the rules for lightsabers before they earn theirs. . .

Loving What You Write

I've had a hard time writing lately. Oh don't worry, there's still a novel on sub, and another novel ready to go after that one. This page is still up to date (wait, is it up to date? . . . Yes, now it's up to date).

What's been hard is writing something new. Part of that has been RPG crafting systems and dialogue design (who knew two full-time jobs would be so much work, am I right?). Part of it is in that first paragraph: I'm on sub, have another ready to go, and my brain is saying, "Why are you writing more?"

BUT I've figured out something that makes it hard to write no matter how many jobs or kids I have: I'm bored of the book.

It sucks, I know, but it has two very easy fixes:
  1. Find what you love about the book (you did love something, right?) and do that.
  2. If all you're left with is things you don't love, fix them until you do.
For me, that played out in a few ways.

I read ahead in my outline until I hit a scene I was excited about. Once I remembered the cool thing I was working toward, it gave me motivation and ideas for how to get there. SO much better than thinking, "Okay, now I have to write a scene where he goes to school again . . ."

(Obviously if you're Zuko-ing it, you won't have an outline, but you have notes, right? Ideas? You can at least think ahead even if you can't read ahead).

World-building. You may know I love me some world-building. A lot of times when I'm bored it's because the world is boring. So I fix that and add something cool. Like mechs or displacer beasts.

I made up some slang. This is part of world-building, but it's become such a fundamental part of my process (and it was such a fundamental part of me getting unstuck today) that it deserves its own paragraph. I HEART SLANG. I came up with six new words and a system unique to this world for just a couple of pages (which, for you math-minded, means that about 1% of the words on those pages are completely made up).

If those don't work for you, then maybe it's the characters, maybe you need to know what they want or fear. Maybe you need to talk to yourself about the story a while, or maybe you just need to get out.

The important thing is that if you're bored with the story, your readers probably will be too. Find what you love and fill the story with that.

Fact: NYC Has an Airship Dock

A friend of mine visited New York City recently and sent me this very important information along with photo evidence.
"The top section of the Empire State Building, including the spire, was actually designed  to allow dirigibles to dock at the building and passengers to disembark at the top. The interior of the spire has a massive winch installed where a drag line from the blimp could be attached and reeled in, then a small walkway would be extended to the bridge of the ship."
Click to enlarge
 Apparently the only reason it was never used was due to high wind speeds at that height.

Click to enlarge
Such a freaking shame. We were just a few gusts away from a steampunk utopia.

"Do you credit a Most High God?"

John Scalzi recently described himself as "an agnostic of the 'I'm almost certain God does not exist, but intellectual honesty requires me to admit I just don’t know' stripe." That's a belief I have a lot of respect for.

I'm both similar and opposite (yes, I can be both). I'm certain God exists and cares for us, but intellectual honesty requires me to admit I could be wrong.

I said I have a lot of respect for beliefs like Scalzi's, and that's because there isn't proof of a God -- not in the way we want there to be. If there were, the internet would have a lot less to argue about. And so of course I struggle with my own belief.

I'm certain God exists; I wouldn't be out here, doing what I'm doing, if I thought He didn't -- I'm just not that good. But why am I so certain? That's harder to quantify, and certainly I can't do it in a way that would irrefutably convince an atheist I am right.

But I don't believe blindly. As I said, I struggle constantly. I question why I believe what I do, and why others believe what they do. I question every word I teach my kids, refusing to teach the Sunday School lessons I was given unless I believe them myself. I frequently answer their questions with, "I don't know." I teach them what other people believe. Most importantly, I teach them that I won't ever make them follow God, that they have to make that choice for themselves.

To the point of this post, sci-fi/fantasy is usually so unabashedly atheistic, that I am always surprised -- quite pleasantly -- when it speaks directly to my own heart struggles. The passage below is from SFWA Grand Master Gene Wolfe's The Wizard. Sir Able, the narrator, is a knight more noble than any I have ever read about, who wrestles daily with what it means to be good and honorable. The sister of the king meets him in secret on an unrelated matter, but during the conversation, she asks him if he believes in God.

I'm sure it won't hit you the way it hit me, but I have to share it anyway, because I see a lot of truth in Sir Able's answer:

"Do you credit a Most High God?"

The question caught me by surprise. I said, "Why of course," stammering like the boy I pretended not to be.

"I do and don't." She smiled, and the smile became her laugh. It was music, but I never ached to hear it again as I did Disiri's. Even then, I thought her less than human, and that laugh was at the root of my opinion.

"I don't and I do." She cocked her head like a bird.

I bowed again. "Just so, My Lady. We can think only of creatures, of things He's made. Creatures are all we know, and can be all we know until we know Him. When we think of Him like that, we find we can't believe. He can't be like a creature any more than a carpenter is like a table."

Writing Game Dialogue

A lot of you know I'm a multiclassed programmer/writer. Before I drafted four novels and got an agent, I had a Computer Science degree, scripted for Planescape: Torment, and completed a few dozen Project Euler problems (until they got too hard). Unfortunately, since I've been more focused on writing, my levels in programming have gone largely unused.

Until now. It turns out game dialogue is the perfect job for my class combination. It's nowhere near as complicated as writing a program to solve Sudoku, but it's got all the puzzle-solving aspects of programming that I love.

And it's not as hard as it sounds. Here, I'll show you.

Typical dialogue in a novel goes something like this (excerpt from Post-Apoc Ninjas):

     "Tell me who you really are," the Marshal said.
     Here we go. The Marshal had already guessed much. Kai would have to be careful. "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday, though the mercenaries themselves were from all over."
     "Ah, so the story changes. How much did my grandson pay you, then?"
     "Pay me?"
     "In reward. Surely a mercenary would not rescue the Lord of Gintzu and take nothing in return."
     Kai hesitated. Marshal Aryenu was much sharper than his appearance made it seem. It felt very much like talking to Domino. Better to turn the questions on him. "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
     "Your reward, mercenary?"
     Both sharper and more stubborn than his grandson. "Two thousand."

     "A lie. The boy doesn't pay anyone he doesn't have to."

Game dialogue is not so different from this, at least for a game like Torment. Prose-wise, there are only a few changes:
  • Dialogue tags ("the Marshal said") are rarely necessary, since the character speaking is usually indicated on the game screen.
  • The Player Character's thoughts (in this example, our PC is Kai) are not tied to the PC's lines, if they're included at all; sometimes all information is conveyed through dialogue or item description instead.
  • PC lines are typically very brief. (In some games, you don't even get a line, just a motive or emotion that the game designers interpret for you).
  • Any description is written in present tense and second person (though I suppose it doesn't have to be).
So a more Tormenty version would look like this (speaker tags added for clarity):

Marshal: "Tell me who you really are."
PC: "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday."
Marshal: "Ah, so the story changes. How much did my grandson pay you, then?"
PC: "Pay me?"
Marshal: "In reward. Surely a mercenary would not rescue the Lord of Gintzu and take nothing in return." He examines you carefully. Suddenly, he seems much sharper than his appearance first suggested.
PC: "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
Marshal: "Your reward, mercenary?"
PC: "Two thousand."
Marshal: "A lie. The boy doesn't pay anyone he doesn't have to."

Those differences are primarily cosmetic. The real difference, and the most fun, is that game dialogues allow the player to choose what they say.

Marshal: "Tell me who you really are."

[Lie] "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday." 
2) "I'm a ninja."
3) "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
4) Attack the Marshal.

Each one of those choices goes to a different branch of dialogue (or exits dialogue and starts combat, in the case of the last one). It's pretty much exactly like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel combined with a combat mini-game.

But a game should be better than that, no? We can respond, not just to what the player chooses to say, but to their other choices as well -- things they've done in the past, how they've customized their character, who they choose to travel with, etc. We call this reactivity.

Marshal: "Tell me who you really are."

[Lie] "As I said, I grew up among mercenaries in Rivaday." 
2) "I'm a ninja."
3) "How much of what Lord Domino told me was true?"
4) Attack him.
5) (If the PC betrayed his clan) "I'm a ninja, and a fugitive from my clan."
6) (If the PC killed the guards outside the keep) "I'm the guy who killed your guards."  
7) (If the player took the Read Minds ability) Try to read his mind.

And then each of those responses might have reactivity as well. The lie in (1) might succeed if you have a high deception skill, for example. What you learn from (7) might change depending on your level in the ability.

What you end up with is a branching, interlinking dialogue tree, hopefully one that is every bit as interesting for the player to navigate as combat or exploration.

It might seem overwhelming, but really such a thing evolves gradually as you write each line and think about what the player might want to say in reply. In fact, it's difficult NOT to write a huge, unwieldy conversation tree. For me, that's half the fun: trying to figure out how to guide the player to all the information I want them to get, without forcing them.

Here, if you want to play with a free, online example, try this online game where you play a dragon. But, um, don't blame me for any productivity loss.

So You Launched a Kickstarter Campaign



So, you know you're ready for Kickstarter, and you've put your entire pitch together. What can you expect from the campaign itself?

Most Kickstarter campaigns follow the same general trend:
  1. A large amount of pledges on the first day.
  2. A quick drop-off of pledges over the next couple of days.
  3. A long "lull" where the amount of pledges per day is about the same.
  4. A spike of incoming pledges on the last two or three days.
From this, I can tell you a few things.

First, don't freak out during the lull. It's perfectly normal, and there's nothing you can do about it (almost nothing; see below). Instead, interact with your backers and continue your non-spammy publicity (again, see below).

Make the first day of your campaign count. A lot of projects, even major ones asking for millions of dollars, like to throw their project up one day and surprise everybody. Mostly, this doesn't go like everybody thinks it will.

A better idea is to float the idea of a Kickstarter to your existing network (you do have one, right?). These are your core fanbase and your early backers. By telling them what's going to happen ahead of time, not only do you make sure that some people show up on that first day, but you can also get a sense of whether your Kickstarter is even a good idea. Are they excited about it? Worried? Do they have ideas for rewards you can offer? You can learn a lot from your core fans, so don't hesitate to include them on the idea.

Prepare for the last days. You'll have spent the lull interacting with the core backers who hang around the Kickstarter page, but on that last day you'll see an influx both of people who haven't been to the page in a while and who have never heard of your project at all. Make sure the information on your front page is still clear to someone who knows nothing about your project or stretch goals. Make sure your updates are inclusive.

Every Kickstarter campaign has a lull. It's perfectly normal, but your backers might not feel so. You can educate them on the basic life of a Kickstarter, but there are other, better things you can do to make them feel like the campaign is still moving.

Interact with, and listen to, your backers. I cannot stress this part enough: people want to feel like they're making a difference. If people suggest good ideas -- stretch goals, rewards, ways to improve the product -- take them, run with them, and don't forget to credit the people who submitted them.

Also answer their questions or just hang out with them in the comment threads. People are much more likely to invest in a person than a project, so make yourself real and personable to them.

Make stretch goals. Now, stretch goals are not appropriate for every project, but if they make sense for yours, then do them. In fact, plan them even before you launch (you never know when you might, you know, break the fastest to a million dollars record). They won't break the lull (more on that in the next section), but they'll give your core backers things to watch and root for.

Some of them might even plunk down more money just to meet a stretch goal.

There is very, very, very little you can do to break the pattern of the Kickstarter lull. For the most part, there are only three things that can give you a spike in the middle of your campaign:
  1. Get to within a few percent of your funding goal. If you look at the pledging stats for other projects, you will notice that almost every single one has a spike of new pledges and new backers on the day they met their goal. Once again: people want to feel like they're making a difference.
  2. Get publicity to an audience that hasn't heard the news yet. This is about marketing. By the middle of your campaign, your core fanbase knows about the project. Their friends have heard about it. Is there anyone else in your target audience who might not have? Find them. Find the forum or news sites they hang out at, and tell them too. (But DON'T SPAM. Spamming only reaches the same audience repeatedly, thus annoying them. Even well-intentioned fans can be guilty, so be careful.)
  3. Make an announcement that changes the nature of the project (in a good way). For example, say you launched a Kickstarter to get internal illustrations for your book. Halfway through the campaign, you announce that Tony DiTerlizzi(!) has agreed to do the illustrations. Whether it's a newly revealed stretch goal or not, this sort of announcement can give you a huge spike in pledges once people hear about it.
Don't freak out if these spikes don't create a new level of daily pledges. Very likely, the pledges will jump up for a day or two then go back to the normal lull. But that's okay. You've created excitement, given your core backers something to talk about, and made just that much more money. And that ain't bad.

Hopefully this little mini-series (written while my novella is in the hands of the most awesome critique partners in the world) will help you, should you ever decide to Kickstart a novel. Or anything, really. You can't predict everything, but neither is it all completely random. Let me know if you have any more questions.

So You Want to Launch a Kickstarter Campaign

I think one of the reasons 56% of Kickstarter projects fail is because people tend to believe it goes:
  1. Have idea.
  2. Click 'Publish.'
  3. Rake cash.
But a Kickstarter campaign, a good one, is a lot of work. Not as much work as writing a novel, but it's not something you just post on a whim. Before you click "Launch," you need to know (or have) ALL of the following.

This is every backer's first question: "Why are you coming to me for money instead of doing it yourself?" There are lots of great answers to this question. For example, you might want to:
  • Gauge interest before spending a year of your life writing it (though be warned: if you have no writing experience, people are going to wonder what, exactly, you're gauging).
  • Fund a nice print run, limited edition hardcovers, etc.
  • Fund a marketing campaign for a novel you've already written.
  • Hire an illustrator for the book cover, a map, or internal illustrations.
  • Hire an editor to give the book you've already written the polish it deserves. 

Whatever your reason, it's part of your pitch, and part of the reason people are going to back you. They want to be a part of something important, so make them feel that.

How much money are you trying to raise? This is more critical than you think. People often judge a campaign based on how much it asks for. If you ask for $1,000, people don't expect much, but you lose some respectability. Ask for $10,000, and now people expect something serious -- a midlist author or a book that had a publishing contract but backed out for some (respectable) reason, for example.

Obviously it's not just about appearances either. How much do you actually need? What are you using it for? Are you barely covering your costs or did you build in a profit? Did you remember to take into account Kickstarter's fees? Rewards? Shipping? Once you are successfully funded, you are responsible for all the promises you made during the campaign. Make sure that, if you hit your minimum funding goal, fulfilling all those rewards will still be worth your while.

What are you offering your backers in return? Obviously a copy of the novel, but in what format? For how much? Do you have more rewards for people who want to back you at a higher level? Think carefully about this, because fulfilling rewards (especially physical ones that have to be mailed) can eat up a lot of your budget. But at the same time, people won't back a project if the reward they want is too expensive.

You're a writer, so what do you need art for? Well, you don't have to have it, but if you can get good-looking art -- maybe concepts of your story, a map of your world -- it can make an average pitch look great.

Be careful, though. Bad visuals are worse than no visuals at all. 

You might think that because the Kickstarter is meant to determine whether or not you'll even make the product, you shouldn't have to do any work on the product at all. This couldn't be further from the truth. The more work you put into your novel (or whatever you're pitching) ahead of time, the more faith your backers will have that you can pull it off.

There's a balance though. If your product is completely finished, people will wonder why you need to raise x-thousand dollars for it, and they could be more hesitant to put their faith in you. Again, people want to feel like they're making a difference.

This is the first thing people see when they hit your Kickstarter page. You don't have to have one, but some people are more likely to watch a two-minute pitch than read all the text on your page. How to make a good video is beyond the scope of this post, but in general:
  • Keep it brief.
  • Pitch what you're doing, why you're the one to do it, and why you need the backers' help to do it.
  • Show off any art you've got, even if it's just concepts.
  • Don't show anything that makes you or your product look bad. Kickstarter is about transparency, but you can go too far.
This is the meat of your Kickstarter page. It's got to have all the information listed above, plus more to pre-emptively answer any questions a potential backer might have. The better you anticipate and handle potential questions, the better your launch will go.

What happens after launch? I'll deal with that in the next post.

So You Want to Kickstart a Novel

Kickstarter has funded the hopes and dreams of thousands. Could it do the same for you?


First things first: Kickstarter is not the new self-publishing. A quick look at their own stats will prove it: less than half of the projects put up on KS have been funded. The statistics for the publishing category are even more grim: only a 31% success rate.

Still, it's better than querying, amirite?

I want to spend a couple of posts talking about what you can do to get yourself in that 31%, and why you might want to do it at all. Kickstarter isn't a magic bullet.


But it does have a couple of benefits over publishing straight to Amazon. Specifically:
  1. It shifts the risk. Instead of spending a couple years writing a novel only to discover nobody wants it, you can learn the same thing after only a couple of months.
  2. You can get input directly from the people you're writing for on what they like and don't like.
What Kickstarter can't give you is writing experience, which is admittedly kind of critical. So I can't really recommend it to inexperienced writers. But if you've been writing a while, and you've got this great idea for a story, but nothing of yours has ever sold really well and you're not sure if it'll be worth your time, well.... you might look into it.

There are 3 things you should probably have to run a successful Kickstarter. If you're only asking for a little money (say $1,000 or less), maybe you can get away with one of these. From $1k-10k (where most of the successful publishing projects are), you want at least two out of three.

(1) A great idea. Be careful here. Everybody thinks they've got a great idea. You've got to have an idea people want. No, more than that: an idea they need. It's hard to pitch something innovative, and a lot of great-but-untested projects fail right here. This is why nostalgia and spin-offs sell really well. But if you're an author looking to self-publish, you don't have the luxury of a license. High concept is your friend.

(2) Evidence that you can pull it off. Because everybody has great ideas, people are hesitant to back someone if that's all they've got. They want to know why you're the person to put this together. Anything that proves you can write: short stories, a blog with a following, even a popular Twitter feed. If you don't have anything, try an excerpt of what you're planning to make.

(3) A network of people to spread the word. Kickstarter does not mean instant visibility. While it's true your backers have a vested interest to spread the word on your behalf (another benefit of Kickstarter), you have to get some backers first. Having a platform to start from can help a lot.

If this looks a lot like what you need to succeed in self-publishing -- or querying agents and editors, for that matter -- you shouldn't be surprised. Kickstarter doesn't change the playing field. It just shifts things around. Instead of WRITE => BUILD PLATFORM => MAKE MONEY, now it's BUILD PLATFORM => MAKE MONEY => WRITE.

These are all just guidelines, of course. It depends very much on how much money you're asking for, and even then there's no guarantee that any of these will make your Kickstarter successful (see what I said before about magic bullets). Though if you've got an idea people are craving, a history that shows you can pull it off, and an audience just waiting for you to launch so they can tell their friends about it, well . . . then you might have something interesting indeed.

But you still need a campaign. We'll talk about that next time.

First Impact: THE ANKULEN by Kendra E. Ardnek

It's been a while, but we have another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, and more. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

This week we have the back cover copy for a fantasy by Kendra Ardnek (I see what you did there) called THE ANKULEN. My overall thoughts are at the end. As always, this is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Back Cover
When she was seven, Jen had an amazing imagination - one she could make real. Then her parents adopted Chris. He disappeared a few weeks later - and with him went her imagination. But when her adopted brother Chris disappeared, her imagination went with him.

Eight years later, he reappears and makes a startling revelation. He was her imaginary friend. Indeed, she has an entire imaginary world - and it still exists!

That's a mouthful :-)

The world-building is confusing me
here a little. See my thoughts below.
But it's dying - eaten by a horrid creature called the Polystoikhedron. She must find her Ankulen - the special bracelet that brought her imagination to life in the first place, and fight for her world. She's willing to fight.

But is she willing to die?

I'm assuming these are two versions
you want me to critique.
Or ...

Not a fan of this opening sentence.

Why is she wishing it now? Also it
seems odd that what she's worried
about is her imagination, not her
probably-kidnapped brother.
Stuck outside until her notebook shows signs of a story, Jen makes a wish that the adopted brother who disappeared when she was seven, shows back up and tell her what happened to her imagination. Which disappeared the same day. Of course, she never expected him to actually do so.

How did she not know she had this
bracelet? Wouldn't she have noticed
it ALSO disappeared the same day
Chris did?

I don't understand her 2nd task.
Turns out, he was actually her imaginary friend, and she had an Ankulen, a special bracelet that brings imagination to life. With her imagination in reach, there are only three things she needs to do to get it back: find the Ankulen, find her missing memories of building her imagination, and fight off the Polystoikhedron, a hydra-like monster that has been making a feast of her imagination in her absence.

All in a day's work, you know?

Adam's Thoughts
I like the concept, but I don't know if I'd read the book based on this back-cover copy. It raises a lot of questions for me in a not-good way, which makes me wonder if the author has thought the implications of everything through.

Here's the thing. As soon as I read that her imagination became real, I immediately begin thinking what *I* would do with that kind of power. I'm willing to grant a lot of leeway because she's seven at the time, but still, I'd expect unicorns and dragons and princesses in castles. Or SOMETHING totally fantastic that doesn't belong in this world. (And that's not even counting things like infinite candy/pizza/video games ;-).

But then what does it mean that it became real? Could her parents and other people see this stuff? If so, wouldn't that have freaked everybody out? And if not, what does "real" mean? Was it a world she went to? Did anybody believe her? Because the opening makes it sound like it was really, definitely real -- especially since her parents could presumably see Chris. But then why is she the only one who notices when it goes away?

Two other overall comments: (1) this feels like Middle Grade, though the submission labeled it as simply "fantasy." That probably doesn't matter for the back cover, but it's something you might want to know as you seek out your target audience. (2) This feels a LOT like The Never-Ending Story. That's not necessarily a bad thing (as I said, I like the concept), but I do think your back-cover copy could add something to distinguish it from that classic.

What do the rest of you guys think?

Dead Boys, Invisible Girls, and Teens That Can't Read Minds

I apologize for the blog silence. I'm deep in the drafting tunnels of a certain science fantasy novella and/or role-playing game. I'll resurface once I get this novella worked out. Until then, please see the last part of the official blog schedule.

But I'm sending this missive via miner's canary* because there are three very important books I need to tell you about. All of them are cool, written by exceedingly cool people, and I think I'm in the acknowledgements of two of them (which ones? You'll just have to read them to find out!).

* Please send the canary back, by the way. The air in these tunnels is starting to smell funny.

Jack of Hearts by Ricardo Bare
Jack lost someone, causing a deep pain he could no longer endure. Most boys would take their own life. Jack gave his heart to the Lady of Twilight and has become her heartless assassin. Now he feels nothing, even as he does the Lady's bidding in hunting a thieving wizard.

But when he meets a beautiful girl trapped in a mirror, something stirs inside of him. A shadow of what he used to be. He wonders if he made the right decision after all, but getting his heart back from the witch will prove more difficult than any mission he's been on.

Jack of Hearts, is Ricardo's debut novel that came out just a couple weeks ago. He is one of my most awesome critique partners, and also happens to be the lead designer of the critically acclaimed stealth action/adventure game Dishonored, released last year. Check this book out, folks.

Transparent by Natalie Whipple
Touted as X-Men meets Godfather. Fiona McClean was born invisible, which makes her the perfect daughter for Vegas's biggest crime lord. But when her father pushes her too far, she goes on the run and tries to live a normal life in a small town far from her father's reach. Far, but not far enough. When her father tracks her down, she has to decide how far she'll go to protect the people she loves.

Transparent is Natalie's debut (that doesn't actually come out until next week, but you can pre-order it now). She's a good friend of mine, and it's been both heartbreaking and exhilarating to watch her journey to publication these last few years. She is (as I've said) hugely imaginative, and it shows in her ideas. She is also part of our writing team for Torment, which makes her and Torment extra awesome. 

Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn
Kiera is a zero, a non-reader in a world where everybody can read minds. Until the day she accidentally control's her best friend's mind and discovers she's an entirely different kind of freak: a mindjacker. It turns out she's not the only one, and she's soon drawn into an underworld that she never suspected existed.

As it happens, this was Susan's debut as well. Yes, okay, this book came out two years ago, AND I've already talked about it. But I'm bringing it to your attention now because Open Minds is, now and forever, free to download.

So what are you waiting for?

First Impact: HARD TRUTHS by Anonymous

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, and more. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

This week we have a query for an upper middle-grade fantasy called HARD TRUTHS. My overall thoughts are at the end. As always, this is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Not sure what a "peacekeeping"
dragon is, but otherwise okay.
Fourteen year old Reyna longs for more in her life. High tea behind higher castle walls isn’t enough. But she gets more than she bargained for at an annual festival where she becomes bonded, by blood and magic, to a peacekeeping dragon.

Last paragraph makes it sounds
like she doesn't want to have a
dragon. Now she's determined to
be the best Dragoneer.
Fiercely proud, Reyna is determined to become a great Dragoneer, even though she lacks any useful skills. Seriously - any useful skills. Etiquette and embroidery don’t exactly prepare you for endurance and espionage.

I'm a bit confused here. Don't know
what his scheme is or why the
dragons are in the way.
Her father, however, has different plans. His nefarious scheme will lead to the death of the peacekeeping dragons that stand in the way of a war to expand his kingdom. He will let nothing, not even the safety of his own daughter, stand in his way.

Not sure about "be a good person,"
but I'm glad to see a choice :-)
Confronted with the truth Reyna must choose to either be a good daughter or be a good person. Maybe if she were any good at being a Dragoneer maybe the choice wouldn’t be so hard.

Hyphenate "50,000-word".
DRAGONEER: HARD TRUTHS is a 50,000-word upper middle-grade fantasy.

I am a member of SCBWI and have written commercial scripts. HARD TRUTHS is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Adam's Thoughts
If Reyna ends up being the queen, her name might be too on the nose ;-)

Overall, this is pretty good. It's clear and easy to read, with just a hint of voice.

I would like a little more voice, if possible, but it's not critical. Part of me also wants to know more about Dragoneers and their peacekeeping dragons, but that might clutter the query.

What I'd really like is to better understand Reyna's father's plan and (therefore) the choice she has to make. What makes her father's scheme nefarious? (The query says, but it's not as clear as it could be). What does it mean for Reyna to be a good daughter? Does she kill her own dragon? What does it mean for her to be a good person?

I think it's close, because I get the feeling from the query that you have answers to these questions; they're just not coming across yet. I'd request pages, but I think this query could be even stronger.

What do the rest of you guys think?

Three Kickstarters I Would Throw All My Money At

1. A successor to Crusader: No Remorse. This game destroyed an entire quarter of my second year in college. Oh, man, but it was a good quarter.

You play an elite super-soldier, trained by a dystopian government that you spend the entire game betraying and fighting against. Technically, it's an action game, but it's a smart action game. You have to decide which weapons you will bring with you on each mission (of those you can afford). You can either sneak through missions or blast your way through them. And because what you bring with you is limited, you have to figure out how to conserve your ammo or find some more during the mission.

And the story is just cool. The government you served betrayed you, but the resistance you join in the beginning doesn't like you much either. So you have to prove yourself to them by undertaking increasingly dangerous missions. And then, of course, there's secret dystopian weapons projects, double agents, betrayal, and even a full-on dark night of the soul before you have to decide to get off your butt and save the world.

2. A successor to Chrono Trigger. I'm not gonna lie, I'm a fan of JRPGs (technically, I'm a fan of all RPGs, but JRPGs comprised most of my childhood, so...). And Chrono Trigger was probably the best. It had everything I loved about Final Fantasy (I), Crystalis, and Secret of Mana plus: time travel.

And not just time travel -- where you go to different eras the same way you take your airship to different islands -- but time travel that mattered. Plant a seed in the past, collect magic fruit in the future. Tell your robot companion to spend the next four hundred years restoring a forest, then travel forward to see the results. All the while trying to stop a giant alien parasite that crashed to Earth millions of years ago, awoke in 1999, and created a post-apocalyptic world for the remainder of time.

Or not. Cuz, you know, you can change things.

3. The reanimation of Tony Jay. Or, you know, at least his voice.

Obviously I'm not thinking about this very hard, because this is all nostalgia, but what would you Kickstart?

First Impact: THE FIRE LOTUS (First Page) by Renee Ahdieh

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, and more. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

This week we have the first page for THE FIRE LOTUS, the YA urban fantasy from Renee Ahdieh, whose query we critiqued last weekMy overall thoughts are at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

First Page
The storm was closing in on the family of five.

Not sure why this paragraph is
separated from the previous one.
In the distance, a grumble of thunder gave a final warning.

“Hurry! Wrap everything up!” the mother urged.

I'm used to YA being 3rd-person
limited, so this detached viewpoint
threw me.
Two teenaged girls packed away the remnants of a picnic. Their father discarded the trash while their mother shook a blanket in the air to dislodge the lingering crumbs from its surface.

“Please, don’t throw away the silverware, Jia!”

“I won’t, Mom!” Jia yelled. Under her breath, she added, “Chill out,” she continued under her breath.

“Where’s your brother?”

Jia shrugged and started lugging a cooler towards the parking lot. Droplets of rain began to splash on the hot asphalt. Wisps of coiling steam rose in their wake.

Tolls? The thunder?
The echoing tolls rolled closer as grey clouds swirled above and the horizon hissed with a charge of menace. Wet moss and bitter earth perfumed the air, leaving behind a metallic tang as an afterthought.

“Quick! Use ‘ominous’ in a sentence!” Jia joked to her sister Minar.

“Such a Nerd Queen. Help me with this friggin’ basket or I will go ominous on you.”

“Yeah, not quite, Mini. It just lacks that sense of impending doom,” Jia said with a chuckle. “By the way, have you seen Daniel?”

“I saw him a few minutes ago; behind that big tree over there. He was still practicing with his bow and arrows.”

Jia sighed and held up her right fist. Minar mirrored the gesture without a word.

One, two, three . . . shoot.

Minar’s rock smashed with triumph into Jia’s scissors.

“Yeah, buddy. I guess fortune does favor the—what was it? The bold?” Minar teased.

Mirth, even though she lost?
“In this case, I think you mean ‘the wicked.’ As in, downright twisted.” Jia’s green eyes sparkled with mirth.

“You wish.”

Mindful of their mother’s ever-watchful gaze, Jia quickly gave her twin the finger before traipsing the distance to the large oak tree.

Adam's Thoughts
For me, the main problem I have here is I don't feel connected to Jia at all. I think you did a great job making the scene feel ominous (and I think I like that you even lampshade it in the dialog (warning: TV Tropes link)), and I thought the dialog between Jia and Minar was fun. But I didn't understand why Jia was so flippant about a threatening situation.

For me, part of the problem is understanding what point of view we're in. I'm used to YA being 3rd person limited, meaning we get focused attention on one character's thoughts and feelings. That doesn't mean you have to do it that way, of course, but for me, it's a little jarring that the narrator clearly feels the scene is ominous, but Jia doesn't. I kind of expect one or the other to mention that fact.

For example, if this were 3rd person limited, then we'd see the storm from Jia's point of view. Stuff along the lines of, "In the distance, a grumble of thunder gave a final warning. Jia snorted in reply."

If it were 3rd person omniscient, however, I'd expect the narrator to point out the fact that Jia either didn't know or didn't care about the threat. Something like, "Jia shrugged and started lugging a cooler towards the parking lot, oblivious to the looming storm."

So that's my advice: be aware of what POV you're using and who your narrator is (whether omniscient or in Jia's head). There's a lot of fun writing here, but foundational things like that can lost your reader's trust.

What do the rest of you guys think?

First Impact: THE FIRE LOTUS by Renee Ahdieh

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, and more. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to firstimpactAE@gmail.comDetails here. 

This week we have the query for THE FIRE LOTUS, a YA urban fantasy from Renee Ahdieh. My overall thoughts are at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Nice hook.

Jia Ryan was supposed to start college in three weeks, not get struck by a bolt of lightning and die in front of her family.

I like the voice, but there's a lot of
stuff going on here all of a sudden.
Simplified sentence structures might
What’s more, she’s pretty sure she wasn’t meant to wake up in a lab days later with a scientist hovering over her, welcoming her into the world of the living dead.  Yeah, and that’s not even calling to question the irritatingly serene genie nearby.  Or his strange request that she take up arms in their ongoing struggle against reanimated corpses held under the sway of a powerful sorcerer.  Right.  Not so much, Master Yoda.

After all, this isn’t her fight.  She’s only eighteen, for crying out loud.

I feel like the questions are getting
to be a little much. Just my opinion.
Wait.  She gets to train in a slew of martial arts?  Learn how to wield a katana?  And, hold the phone, somebody probably should have mentioned that the young samurai teaching her is darkly enigmatic and sexier than sin.

Okay.  This might not totally suck.

As she settles into her new role as an undead warrior, Jia soon learns that the aforementioned baddie sorcerer intends to unleash the full brunt of his mind-controlling blood sorcery onto mankind.  Once she begins to grasp that the idyllic world she existed in for eighteen years is being threatened, there’s no going back.

This is now her fight.

THE FIRE LOTUS is an 80,000-word work of YA urban fantasy with series potential.

Adam's Thoughts
This is pretty good. I love the voice, and there's a clear conflict here. There's no sadistic choice like I keep harping on, but I think the mentions of samurai and undead warriors sufficiently distracted me from that fact ;-)

One thing to be careful of is to make sure the voice doesn't get in the way. It's a great voice, like I said, but there were a couple of times I felt it was a bit too much. Now that's totally just my opinion; others might feel differently. And really, it's just a nitpick.

And if you did have a sadistic choice to build up to at the end, I think this might be perfect.

But that's just me. What do the rest of you guys think?

7 More Things You Never Wanted to Know

A follow-up to this post.

Cardboard people freak me out.

Most days, I sit down at the piano to plunk out the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. Also, I cannot pull out my guitar without playing "The Ballad of Serenity" at least once.

When I count things slowly, I always end up saying "two-WHOOO" like that owl from the Tootsie Roll commercial.

In 6th grade, I spent an entire church service drawing the map of Bowser's Castle from Super Mario Bros 3.

I have seen every single episode of So You Think You Can Dance.

Surf Ninjas is awesome, and you cannot convince me otherwise.

I am pathetic when I get sick. If my wife is to be believed (and she's very smart, so I do), I am so pathetic that it makes the times I wasn't sick seem even more pathetic than they were at the time. So basically, my patheticness transcends the space-time continuum.

Tell me something about you.

First Impact Update

First, the randomly chosen winner from among March's critiquers is . . . . . KayC! Please e-mail me to let me know whether you'd like the 20-page critique from me or the $10 gift certificate from Amazon or B&N.

Second, as you may have noticed, there have been no First Impact posts for a while. This is not due to my over-busyness, but rather due to the fact that we have run out of First Impact submissions.

Honestly, no submissions is okay with me (see the aforementioned over-busyness), though I will continue to publicly critique any submissions that trickle in.

I think I will not, however, be continuing the monthly prizes. For one, there's really only a few faithful of you who've been critiquing anyway, and I tend to end up handing out prizes to the same people over and over ;-) But two, offering prizes doesn't make as much sense if we're only critiquing things once a month or so.

I do hope that you faithful will continue to critique things if and when future First Impact posts come up. I know most of you do it because you're awesome, not because the prizes are awesome. And for that I thank you.

Final Torment Info

So the Torment Kickstarter is in the last week of its campaign. We've raised over $3.25M, but we hope to raise even more to make this game bigger and better, to make a game that truly lives up to the Torment tradition.

So this is the last you'll hear me plug it, but I wanted to bring to your attention a couple of things, including one bit of news that hasn't made it to the Kickstarter page.

Bit #1: Pat Rothfuss is on our writing team. I know, right? MIND. BLOWN. It might even be part of my job to review Pat's areas which, if I remember correctly, is one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Bit #2: Natalie Whipple is on our writing team. I know that's not as big as Pat (which is one of the main reasons this hasn't hit our Kickstarter page), but though this announcement might not excite the internet at large, for me this is HUGE.

I've been following Natalie's career since way back when she won one of Nathan Bransford's 1st Paragraph Contests, and since then I've been lucky enough to critique a few of her novels. I even got to read the first chapter of her upcoming "X-Men meets Godfather" debut, TRANSPARENT. Guys, it would not be a mistake to pre-order that.

Natalie is hugely imaginative, and she brings a cool, new perspective to the Torment team that I'm really excited about. Seriously, I cannot wait to work with this team and see what we come up with.

If you want to help the project, you can still do so. I, personally, would really appreciate it, considering the bigger this game gets, the bigger my job gets and the better I can support my family :-) We've added new tiers and rewards since the Kickstarter began, and you can see them all here. Some of the new rewards are additional novellas and a digital comic book (which it sounds like I might be co-writing :-).

I know not all of you are gamers but are still interested in supporting us, or maybe in reading the novella I'm going to write. Well, you can get certain rewards -- like the digital novella compilation -- without even getting the game. Information on how to get these "add-ons" is here.

I still cannot believe the series of events that has led me here. It's like the weirdest road to publishing ever, but I ain't complaining :-)

First Impact: THE EYELET DOVE by Lindsay Kitson (First Page)

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, and more. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments this month is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have the first page for THE EYELET DOVE, a dieselpunk novel (yes, that's a thing) from Lindsay Kitson. You might remember we did the back cover copy of this book last year.

My overall thoughts are at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

First Page
Claire wanted to fly.

The last sentence here makes me
immediately think of LEVIATHAN.
I'm hoping this differentiates itself
from that soon.
It was an overcast day but the clouds were high up when she walked out onto the River City Base tarmac for pilot tryouts. Claire had tucked her shoulder-length hair up under her flight cap and drawn her goggles down over her face. With any luck, no one would guess her sex until after she’d proved herself in the sky.

She’d never felt so lucky to have a less than feminine jawline and small breasts.

That was why she’d joined the Ladies Division of the Avaline Air Guard in the first place, whatever she told
I'm confused. If there's a Ladies' Air
Guard, why does she have to hide?
people. She didn’t tell people the truth because she knew they would only laugh at her.

The truth was, working alongside the men who flew the machines that sailed among the clouds was the closest she might ever come to flying them herself.

But even that wasn’t enough for her any more.

The concrete airstrip stretched out to her left, bright white in the diffused sunlight. Some of the dreadnought crew had come out to watch the tryouts. Some of the hangar deck crew were out of their canvas coveralls, but the fly-boys wore their leather flight jackets like badges of pride.

Creepy. I hope the very next sentence
explains why she's still with him. I
guess because he teaches her?
Thomas wasn’t there though, thank Pete. Her boyfriend would have recognized her for sure, and he wouldn’t have hesitated to out her. It had taken no end of cajoling to convince him to teach her. He was a
creep—enough that the other girls wanted nothing to do with him. He made her skin crawl every time he laid his hands on her, and he bragged to the other pilots that she liked to do it in the sky, with no end of uncreative puns applied to the word cockpit.

Adam's Thoughts
I like the setting, but if you recall my comments from your back cover copy, you knew that.

I think I get the Ladies' Division thing, but it took me a couple of reads. I guess the Ladies' Division isn't allowed to actually fly, yes? That could be clarified.

I don't have a lot to add beyond my comments in the text. It does immediately bring LEVIATHAN to mind, perhaps too much for someone who has read that. So I personally want to know what makes this novel different as soon as possible. And the last paragraph creeps me out, so to keep Claire sympathetic, I want to know why he's still "her boyfriend," rather than her ex or something.

Other than that, I'm anxious to get to the action :-) What do the rest of you guys think?