Showing posts with label Travelers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travelers. Show all posts

What I Learned From 52 Rejections

A couple weeks ago, I suggested people query their first novel, even though it would probably get rejected. I said this because I think you can learn a lot from querying even a bad novel, and your reputation as an author will be none the worse for it.

Can I put my money where my blog is? Well, yes. Some of you may recall that I queried my first novel and that query got 52 out of 52 rejections.

So what did I learn?

1) I learned how to write a query letter. My first query really, really sucked. But by the end of that query round, I'd done a ridiculous amount of research and revision and actually got professional feedback that my final query did not suck (though the opening pages did).

And if you're thinking you don't have to write a query because you're self-publishing, think again. The back-cover copy you have to write for every book-selling site is essentially the same thing.

2) I can do this. The feedback I got -- a little from professionals but mostly from other aspiring authors -- was encouraging. It told me that, even though I wasn't there yet, I could be.

3) I WANT this. While my query was out, I spent a lot of time online trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, how to make it better, how to write, what my publishing options were. And at some point during all of that, I realized I really, REALLY wanted to be a part of this world.

4) If I want it, I have to keep writing. I can't learn by waiting for 52 rejections or for the responses of beta readers who might never get back to me. I can't learn if I'm spending all my time on promotion. The only sure way for me to learn is to write (and revise) something new.

Could I have learned these same things by self-publishing that monstrosity first novel? Probably. I have no doubt that's the path others have taken. Maybe those first novels with 200 sales are a badge of pride for some people, like my 200 rejections are for me. Maybe that's the motivation they need. But for me, it would've felt like quitting.

Have you written more than one novel? What did you do with your first one? What did you learn?

3.5 Years + 231 Rejections = 1 Crazy Author

(I've been using my temporary insanity tag a lot lately. That's what querying will do to you, I guess.)

So here are statistics on three rounds of querying, including some highlights and A Chart. Let's jump right in!

("Queried From" counts from the months in which I sent out queries; it doesn't count when I got responses. "Rejections" are of the query itself. Consequently, "No Response" are also rejections.)

Queried From: May 2008 - Jan 2009 (8 months)
Queries Sent: 52
Requests: 0
Rejections: 41
No Response: 11
Request Rate: 0%
Representation Offers: 0

Air Pirates (Adult SF/F Version)
Queried From: Feb 2010 - Jun 2010 (4 months)
Queries Sent: 41
Requests: 5 = 4 partial + 1 full
Rejections: 16
No Response: 20
Request Rate: 12%
Representation Offers: 0

Air Pirates (YA Version)
Queried From: May 2011 - Oct 2011 (4 months)
Queries Sent: 140
Requests: 16 = 5 partial + 11 full
Rejections: 72
No Response: 52
Request Rate: 11%
Representation Offers: 2

Obviously, I sent out a LOT more queries for this latest version. Part of that is there are just a lot more agents repping YA than adult SF/F. Part of it is I got excited/desperate sometime around my 10th request, and, thinking I had gold on my hands, started sending queries to EVERYBODY.

It didn't work though:

Air Pirates (YA Version)
Request Rate in the 1st Half of Queries Sent: 17% (12 out of 70)
Request Rate in the 2nd Half of Queries Sent: 6% (4 out of 70)

Across all three rounds of querying:

Slowest Request: 78 days (one of two requests I got after following up on a lost query)

Fastest Request: 3 hours 45 minutes

Slowest Rejection: 1 year 24 days (the query had gotten sent to the agent's spam, but she fished it out along with a number of others)

Fastest Rejection: 55 minutes. That was Michelle Wolfson, who also gave me my...

Best Rejection: In which Michelle said she recognized my name from the comments on Kiersten White's blog. The rest of the letter was a pretty standard form, but because of the personalization, I felt like she meant it. (I also started following her on Twitter. She's fun.)

So, a couple of months in, I wanted to see a graphic of the responses to my query. I'm not sure what I hoped to glean from it -- probably I just wanted to make a chart. Here it is.

(RED = query rejection/no response deadline passed; BLUE = partial request; GREEN = full request; BROWN = partial rejected; BLACK = full rejected; GOLD = offer made).

I did learn a couple of things. (1) Most agents responded on Monday (being Tuesday here and on the chart), with Tuesday and Wednesday coming in second. (2) My emotional state in any given week had a very strong correlation to the placement of green and black circles.

(The chart also makes it look like summer responses are few, but keep in mind, too, that I doubled my query rate in the middle of August)

The fact that I got an agent exactly where the chart ends was completely unintentional, or coincidental, or God telling me something. Take your pick.

Was there anything else you wanted to know? I got all this data here; might as well do something with it.

How I Got My Agent, Part I

I don't know about you, but when I read these stories, I'm always more interested in how long and difficult the journey was (it encourages me when I'm dealing with The Long and Difficult myself). So this first part is everything leading up to the call. The part where Tricia chose me comes on Friday.

2003-2008: I wrote a novel (Travelers). I learned what a query letter is. I got rejected a lot.

2008-2010: I wrote another novel (Air Pirates). I got lots of feedback on it, learned how to delete whole chapters, and queried again. I got rejected less, but still . . . rejected.

(Side note: I also spent some time writing three short stories, getting one of them published, and drafting another novel (Cunning Folk)).

2010-2011: I revised Air Pirates from adult SF/F to Young Adult and, in May, queried it again.

Querying the YA version of Air Pirates started off fantastic. Three agents from the adult round said they'd be interested if I did revisions or had another novel, but more than that, I had the Holy Grail of the Unpublished Author: a referral.

As part of my, ahem, "networking" I lucked into a couple of beta readers who have agents and/or book deals. One of them LOVED Air Pirates (still does, I believe) and thought her agent would too. Her agent requested the full within hours.

Three weeks later, she passed.

She was really nice, and said her client was right to refer it to her, but she just wasn't passionate enough to represent it. And I learned something I thought I had already known: a referral can only get your work seen, not sold.

That rejection hurt the most, I think, because I'd put so much hope in it. Over the next month I got a couple more requests and a couple more passes (always with the same thing: "There's a lot I liked, but I just don't love it enough to offer representation."). I also wrote this post and found myself in Stage 6 of this one.

Then in August I got 8 more requests(!). I thought I was level-headed about it, but I also doubled the rate I sent out queries so . . . maybe not.

In September, my manuscript was with 10 agents. A month later, half of them had passed -- some that I'd been really excited about -- all with the same comments as the others. I was still querying, but emotionally I was in the final stages.

This is another post, because it comes with warnings I think every Professional Aspiring Writer should hear. For now, know that I got an offer that may or may not have been a real offer and probably wasn't a good idea even if it was. I turned it down.

And I realized I was sending my 140th query letter to agents I probably wasn't going to be very excited about even if they offered -- agents I might even have said no to. I stopped sending out new queries.

I was done. Yes, there were still a few manuscripts out there, but I'd lost hope in most of them. I didn't even know some of the agents who had requested them. Would they turn out to be the same as the offer I turned down? I let it go and focused my efforts on drafting another novel.

It was less than 24 hours after finishing that draft when I got an e-mail with some hope in it. (Continued here)

Statistics, Milestones, and Statistics

As of this morning (last night for you in the Americas), the first draft of Post-Apocalyptic Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!) is finished, and I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Not because the work is done (far, FAR from it), but because drafting is my least favorite part of the process.

To celebrate, I'm posting these pre-revision statistics on the four finished novels I have sitting on my computer. (What, you don't think statistics are fun? Perhaps you've mistaken this blog for someone else's.)

I also submit these in the hope they will encourage any of you who feel you write slow: It Gets Better.

Time to Draft: 4.5 years, both planning and writing (mostly writing).
Outline: None (GASP!), but lots of notes.
Draft Length: 76,000 words.
Avg Drafting Speed: About 1,600 words/month.

Time to Draft: 19 months.
Outline: 244 words.
Draft Length: 100,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,200 words/month.

Time to Draft: 9 months.
Outline: 5,500 words (if you think I'm proud of that, read on; it gets better).
Draft Length: 48,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,300 words/month.

Time to Draft: 4 months.
Outline: 9,100 words (<--- !!).
Draft Length: 79,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 19,800 words/month.

I'm not quite at NaNoWriMo speeds yet, but I am finally at a place where I feel like I could produce a book a year, if I had to. You know, if someone wanted to pay me to do that (do you think that's too subtle?)

Why Haven't You Self-Published Yet?

A couple weeks ago, blog reader Lexi left this comment:
I'm interested in why you guys aren't self-publishing.

It needn't stop you querying agents, if you're set on that. Meanwhile, you could be making money from your writing, and if you do well enough, agents may approach you. Win/win approach.
 It's a totally valid question, and I answered briefly in the comments, but I thought it deserved a bit more explanation.

Understand, of course, that this is just why I haven't self-published yet. I can't speak for anybody else.

(1) I still believe I can make it traditionally. I got zero requests for my first novel. The next novel got five requests -- it was rejected, but three of those agents said they wanted to see revisions and/or my next novel. This round (which is really a revision of the second novel), I've already gotten significantly more interest than last time.

That tells me I'm getting better and leads me to believe I will continue to do so. Until I hit a wall (like where the statistics are no longer going up), I'll still believe I can do it.

(2) Self-publishing is still, statistically, a lot of work for not a lot of gain. I have no doubt the numbers have increased since I ran through them a few months ago, but I haven't seen a lot to encourage me. I'm still not convinced that self-publishing should be more than my last resort.

(3) Pursuing traditional publishing stretches me. I talked about this a couple of years ago, when self-publishing still wasn't quite legit. I think one of the reasons for the growth curve of (1) above is that I've actively gotten feedback and tried to get better. I might still do that if I self-published, but I know myself. More likely I'd revise less and sacrifice quality for churning out novels.

(4) Poor sales on a self-published novel could affect my chances of getting traditionally published. At least according to Rachelle Gardner. I'm inclined to agree with her. For me, making a little money now isn't worth killing the dream. Speaking of which...

(5) Self-publishing isn't my dream. I once had a friend who tried to shoot the moon on every round of Hearts. He lost points most of the time, but he won overall (and won big). But he didn't change his strategy even when I started sacrificing points just to take him down. When I asked him why he kept doing it, he said, "The game's just not fun otherwise."

I kinda liked that.

Traditional publishing is changing, we all know that. But it hasn't actually changed yet. It's still here and larger than life, and so is my dream. So I'm going to keep shooting and see what I can hit.

Besides, what's the worst that could happen?

For you, have you self-published or are you still shooting for traditional? Tell us why in the comments.

Another Look at Revision Fears

When I started writing Travelers, it was just to prove to myself that I could do it, I could finish a novel. Sometime during that process, though, I decided (possibly because other people said so, though I don't remember now) that Travelers might be good enough to get published.

That was before I knew anything about the publishing industry. Before I'd read Nathan's FAQ, the Questions and Face Lifts on Evil Editor, or every single Query Shark query. Regardless, once I got that idea in my head, whatever I was working on became The One That Would Get Me There.

This was mostly a good thing. It made me work hard and write with confidence. But now, as I plan my third novel and prepare to revise my second, I'm discovering this idea has a dark side. The newest novel is the one that will get published (in my head), therefore my old novel -- the one I have to revise -- is not.

I'm wondering if this is the real reason I stopped work on Travelers even though I'd gotten a couple of enlightening personal rejections. Because I'm looking at the work it will take to get Air Pirates to a place I'm happy with, and I wonder if it wouldn't just be easier to write novel #3.

It wouldn't, of course. I'd get to the end of The Cunning, send it to beta readers, and the cycle would start again with novel #4. Nothing will get published if I don't revise it, usually multiple times.

Plus, I really, really like Air Pirates. It's a world I want to write at least a trilogy in, if not more. That, more than anything, is why I will polish that thing until my spit hurts. Really, all this self-doubt is just because I haven't started yet.

Travelers on Hold; Air Pirates Nearly Drafted

If you look at the status of my works in progress on the sidebar, you'll notice two things.

First, I have changed Travelers' status from "Querying agents" to "On hold". In truth, I haven't really done anything for Travelers for two or three months now. There are still a few agents who haven't gotten back to me, but given the overwhelming number of negative responses, I'm not optimistic. Some statistics...

Queried: 60 agents
Form rejections: 39
No response: 19
Personalized rejections: 2 (thank you, Ms. Gendell and Ms. Meadows!)
Partial requests: 0
Full requests: 0

From the personalized rejections, I've gathered that (1) my current query letter doesn't suck, (2) neither does my voice or writing style, but (3) the characters in the early parts of the novel are not characterized very well and/or the agents didn't feel as connected to the characters as they wanted to (Arad and Garrett were mentioned, in particular).

I'm leaving the first chapter online for now. I may consider a rewrite later, but I'm not going to think about that until I'm farther along in the query process of Air Pirates and am thinking of my next project.

Which brings me to the second thing. I'm writing the final chapter of Air Pirates (Whee!). It's taken me 1.5 years to write the whole draft. That's a lot slower than some people, but it's about 3x faster than the last novel I wrote (so that means the sequel will be done in 6 months, right? Right?).

I'm excited (obviously, since I'm posting about it before I've actually done it), and I'm ready. I have the query letter all set. I've got a 4-5 month timeline for the beta/revision phase of the project. I even have a first draft of "instructions" for my beta readers. That's right, I'm that neurotic.

I guess that's all I have to say. I'm excited. When the draft is finished, you'll hear it here. When I need beta readers (I have 2, but I think I want a few more this time around), you'll hear it here. Maybe I should give you guys some excerpts or something. I'm just so excited!

Okay, I need to outline the chapter before I have to eat all my words. Words are gross!

The Voices in my Head

Tony Jay is an English actor, best known for his voice acting in various cartoons and video games. He's played many roles, but it was always his villains I loved. His smooth, British baritone lent an air of danger and superiority to characters like Shere Khan (though not the one in the original Jungle Book) and Chairface Chippendale.

Now you may have no idea what I'm talking about. You may never have seen Tale Spin or The Tick. Odds are good you've never played Fallout, Torment, or Icewind Dale either, all of which starred villains voiced by the late Tony Jay.

But for me, these were some of my favorite stories, and now it's presenting an odd sort of problem. See, the other day I discovered that no matter who my villain is, no matter how well I know them or plan their background and character or even pretend to talk like them - when I sit down to write the dialogue of that villain I involuntarily write the voice of Tony Jay.

Like Arad, the nigh-omnipotent tyrant of Travelers. In my head, he speaks with Tony Jay's voice. Now I didn't realize this at the time because the voice fit. Arad is a dangerous being who considers himself superior to, literally, everybody. So I thought it was just Arad's voice.

But then the other day, I was trying to write Jacobin Savage, the cruel pirate captain from Azrael's Curse (slash Air Pirates). The pirates in this world tend to speak like something between the Irishman from Braveheart and Pirates' Captain Barbosa - fast and flippant, with heavy use of slang and light use of grammar. Savage was supposed to be no different, but when I tried to write his dialogue he sounded less like Captain Barbosa and more like Commodore Norrington.

The difference is relatively subtle on the page, I suppose. For example, Tony Jay's Savage might say, "You want to change the world, isn't that it? You want to rid it of folks like the Imperium, and you think by hitting military targets instead of random merchants, you might do that. What you don't see is that you're just scratching an itch."

But Savage's words need to be more like, "You want to change the world, aye? Want to rid it of the Imperium, and you reck you can do that by hitting Navy marks 'stead of chance merchers. But you're just scratching an itch."

Subtle differences. And for all I know they both sound like Alan Rickman in your head. But it's hard when I want Savage to have a unique voice, and all that comes out is Tony Jay.

So thank you, Tony, for portraying such memorable villains that I can no longer imagine evil in any other voice. You've simultaneously enriched and ruined my life. Well done.

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.

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.


When I was writing Travelers, I usually only had a couple of documents open: the manuscript and an outline. I'd open other files as needed, like if I needed to find some old notes or update my word count statistics, but it was rare.*

The other day, I was working on Air Pirates, and one of my kids came up and said (as teenagers will), "Wow! You've got a lot of stuff open!" I have the taskbar expanded to double, and at any given time it's packed with manuscripts, world docs, outlines, brainstorming notes... Well, let me just show you an example:

I mean, just in that screenshot, I've got 2 time management docs (TODO and Writing Statistics), 4 story docs (manuscript, timeline, outline, character bible), 6 world docs and notes, plus the directory they're contained in and Firefox. That's normal. Sometimes I'll also open "Details to Remember,"** "Random Passages," or any of 100*** other files containing various notes on different story-related topics.

I don't feel disorganized yet, but I can sense that I'm getting close. If I have to write three books in this world, I may have to find a better way to manage all of this stuff.

* For example, at the time I only kept track of word count each time I finished a chapter. Travelers only has 11 chapters and an epilogue, and it took me three years to write. So I only got to open this file about once every 3 months.

** An increasingly obsolete document in which I attempt to keep track of little details, like how much money the protagonist has on him, and which leg was broken of a particular minor character.

*** One hundred twenty three, at the moment. Character notes, maps, old dead stories in the same world, old drafts, early outlines... I even have a flash animation of the world, its 3 moons, and 2 suns.

Premise and Adam's 3 WIPs

Under extreme duress, I've added the followers widget to my sidebar. Two of you have already noticed it. Feel free to make use of it, and know that seeing little boxes up there makes me happy.

At the end of my first mission trip, we spent a few days preparing for reassimilation back to the States. One thing our leaders told us was that everybody would ask the question "How was your trip?" but not everybody wanted to know everything. We had to be prepared to answer that question, lest we just say "Good" or else ramble on until we noticed that our listener had walked away some time ago.

The leaders suggested we have three answers to the question: a 5 second answer, a 1 minute answer, and a 5 minute answer. Each answer was meant to be concise and informative, giving the listener the information they really wanted (you can usually tell who wants a 5 second answer vs. 5 minutes), yet hopefully causing them to ask questions and start a discussion.

Your novel is the discussion you want to have with someone. Your synopsis is your 5 minute answer. Your hook is the 1 minute, and your 5 second answer is your premise.

The premise is everything the story is about in one sentence, less than 25 words or so. It's the one-line blurbs TV Guide uses to describe the movies in their listings, the tagline at the top of Amazon items, the first answer to "What's your book about?" It sucks to write because you have to cut out everything, but it's a great place to start before writing a query.

Today I'm going to elaborate on the status of my works in progress, and give you a 20-word premise of each.

Premise: A father and son must rescue an extraordinary girl from an immortal tyrant in a post-apocalyptic future to save humanity. I've put the first chapter online.

Status: I've sent out 50 queries, and received 33 form rejections. Fun, huh?

Plans: I have another 8-14 agents to query. After that, I'll try revising the query at AQConnect and Evil Editor some more before querying big publishers directly. If that doesn't work, small press.

AIR PIRATES (working title)
Premise: A future-telling stone makes a young man join an air pirate crew on a quest to find his long-dead mother.

Status: Tentatively titled "The Curse of Samhain." I have just finished chapter 14, putting the manuscript at 50,000 words.

Plans: The current outline calls for 29 chapters, maybe 110,000 words. I can't yet estimate when it will be done though. During the first six months, I wrote at 2,700 words/month, but in the last six I've more than doubled that. If I can keep it up, the draft might be finished in another 9-10 months. But take that with a bunch of salt, because (a) I'm getting faster all the time, (b) life gets in the way a lot, and (c) my wife and I are still trying to balance my writing with my life/job, and the net effect of this balancing on my writing speed is unknown.

I have a three-book story arc planned for Air Pirates.

JOEY STONE (working title)
Premise: A girl who controls fire with her mind joins an academy for her kind and learns about trust and sacrifice. (Give me a break, I haven't even figured out a plot yet!)

Status: Still brainstorming. Whenever I have ideas, I jot them down in a Word document set aside for that purpose. Otherwise, I leave it alone.

Plans (such as they are): The powers in the story are largely psionic in nature, but I may decide to refer to them as mutant or witchly.* The powers are based on a PBeM world I created in another life.** I was going to set the story in that world too, but now I'm thinking about leaving it on Earth, maybe modern day or near future. Heck, if I can figure out a way to place it in Thailand, I will. You can see how nebulous this story still is.

I very, very loosely have three books planned for this story. I don't know if I will start it after finishing Book 1 or Book 3 of Air Pirates though. Right now, Joey's just a seed that I'm interested in, but not a story. That seed has to bounce around my head for a while before it really sprouts.

* And you thought that other post was theoretical. Ha!

** In the world before 9/11.

Christian Science Fiction, Revisited

A few months ago, I mused aloud on whether Travelers was too secular for the Christian market. Last weekend I found some interesting information on that very thing (if you follow the link, we'll be talking about Tips #16-18).

Back up first. There's this guy, Jeff Gerke, who looks like exactly the blend of Christian and geek such that we could be good friends, if we ever met. He writes Christian speculative fiction and is making a decided effort to try and get similar stories published (more on that later).

He has 95 writing tips (5 more to come, I guess), some of which are on the business of publishing, some on the business of Christian publishing, and some on writing as a Godly calling. Anyway, in answer to the question, "Is Travelers too secular for the Christian market?" it seems the answer is it's too speculative for the Christian market. Why? Because, says Jeff, "the main readers of Christian fiction are... white, conservative, evangelical, American women of child-raising to empty nest years," and "97% of all Christian fiction titles [are] romance, chick-lit, female-oriented Biblical/historical fiction, female-oriented thrillers, and women's fiction."

Apparently Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, and LeHaye/Jenkins are the exceptions, and nowhere near the rule. A new author trying out a male-oriented, Christian speculative fiction novel is likely to get shut down.

So where does that leave Travelers? All it really does is close the door to major Christian publishing houses, and it tells me that I shouldn't use the word "Christian" when I'm querying agents. However, should I run out of agents to query, and should none of the big sci-fi publishers be interested, it turns out Jeff also has his own small press alternative that I will definitely look into.

No Examples

I've been looking at the Query Shark and the query project for good examples of what I was talking about the other day, and though I did find some, I discovered something else. While all of these queries are good enough to get a request for pages or representation, all of them are very different. Many of them break the rules, a number of them are too long, and a bunch could easily be written better.

What does that tell me? The should-be-obvious, I suppose - that writing a good query letter helps, but the story is what matters. So I guess the advice you can get from this post is: think about whether the concept of your story is a good one - one that others will want to pay to read. If it isn't, fix it.

This is not what I did with Travelers. When I first started sending out queries, my thought was that they would just have to read the book and they'd buy it. That's why my first query letter sucked - I thought it was just a formality. It's much more than that, and I'm starting to suspect that the long string of rejections is because the concept is... not bad, necessarily, but not very marketable the way I've written it.

Here's for trying one more time. This example is mine:
Trapped in a post-apocalyptic future, Dr. Alex Gaines must rescue an extraordinary girl from an immortal tyrant to save not only the future, but all humanity.

Protagonist: Dr. Alex Gaines, Antagonist: an immortal tyrant, Goal: rescue extraordinary girl, Stakes: save the future, save humanity, Conflict: (implied) tyrant has the girl, Setting: post-apocalyptic future, Theme: *crickets chirping*

Yeah, so I'm kinda low on themes here. For all my thinking about it, I still don't know how to shove the theme in there without being all obvious/cheesy about it (e.g. "Travelers asks the question, is there more to being human than we've been told?"). But this is only one sentence. All the parts that are implied or weak or that leave the questions "What? How?" can be padded out in the rest of the query.

And this isn't perfect. I haven't gotten representation or anything. As with everything on this blog, these are just my thoughts and I hope that they can help others on the same road.

Still Alive

Just got back from our visit to the States. Got 2 more rejections on Travelers queries. In October I plan to send out another transport of 10 queries,* maybe submit a short story, and actually write something for Air Pirates (I've got 0 words logged for this month - yay, vacation!).

I've also picked up about 13 books to read - sci-fi and fantasy all - so I'm looking forward to that too. It's a nice mix of true classics, modern classics, and modern midlist.** Though unfortunately I couldn't find the books I was really looking for. I guess I'll have to inspire my own airshipping.

In all other wise I'm just trying to get my house back in order after others have been caring for our kids for 3 weeks, and in less than 5 minutes I hope to pass out. I hope to wake up approximately 14 hours later.

* With draft #7 of the query letter.

** That could be classic any day now.

Travelers Plans

I apologize for the lack of posts. We've been visiting the States, and I've gotten very little writing done, let alone blogging. It's been a good trip, though. In particular, I got to talk to a friend of mine about my plans for Travelers, and I more or less pitched Air Pirates for the first time, which went well.

I've sent out 40 queries so far for Travelers, of which 29 are negative - they didn't get past the query - and the others haven't responded yet. So it doesn't look good, but I'm learning a lot about writing as an industry, and I intend to put that knowledge to good use when Air Pirates is finished. Until then, I'll finish the list of agents I have. When that's through, I'll try publishers that accept unsolicited submissions, and then I might look at small presses. I don't think I'll go the self-publishing route, mainly because I don't have the time for it.

The thing is, Travelers was always a novel I wrote just to prove to myself it could be done. At the time, I had two ideas I thought could be made into novels, and I chose to start with the one I liked the least (so that the one I cared more about would be that much better when I got to it).

So in some ways, Travelers is a story I don't care about. In some ways. I mean, I like the story. I care about what's being said in it. If an agent or editor thought it had potential, I would work hard on it for sure. But if nobody else is interested, I may not care enough to redo the whole thing myself just to maybe sell it later. In the far future, perhaps, but as long as I've got other stories tugging at my imagination, Travelers would be put on a backburner.

But it's not over yet. I've still got a couple transports-worth of agents to query, and each batch gets a revised query letter which (in theory) increases its chances. Speaking of which, sometime next summer (about a year after I sent out the first transport), I might resend to the first batch of agents. Some of those agents were the most likely to be interested, but they got the crappiest query letter. I don't think it'd hurt my chances to send them the best revision of the letter over a year after they rejected the first one.

Anyway, we'll see. Hopefully before it comes to any of that Air Pirates will be done and I can focus on that. I'd rather get an agent for Air Pirates and then see what they think about Travelers and its chances.

Travelers, First Chapter Online

UPDATE (Feb 23, 2010): The first chapter of Travelers is no longer available online as it no longer represents my best work (far from it, in fact). If you really, really, really, really want to read it, you can try and e-mail me for it. But no promises.

For other samples of my work, see "Published Works" in the sidebar, or try the writing samples tag.

Seriously Overreaching

Microsoft Word is a lesson in feature creep. To be fair, I still use the version they made in 2002, but I've never known a company to remove features in later versions. Which is part of the problem.

One feature that should never have been added, probably never even attempted, is the AutoSummarize feature. A few seconds after selecting this option, Word boldly states that it "has examined the document and picked the sentences most relevant to the main theme." It then offers to highlight the key points for you, create a new document of the summary, or "insert an executive summary or abstract at the top of the document."

Seriously, has anyone ever used this thing to write an abstract for them? They probably don't have a job anymore if they did. Now, I've been having trouble writing my own mini-synopsis, so for fun (and procrastination!) I thought I'd let Word have a shot. Here's what it came up with in 100 words or less:

Alex groaned. Tom replied. Tom. Tom nodded. Alex laughed. Alex froze. “Arad’s soldiers. Doce nodded. Alex nodded. “Doce! “Doce! Doce!”

Alex nodded. Tom nodded.

Tom’s dad shrugged. Tom nodded. “Dad! “Doce? Alex.”


“Alex. “Alex. Alex yelled.

Alex yelled. Alex nodded. Tom thought. Alex chuckled. Alex sighed. Alex responded. Tom’s dad asked.

Alex exclaimed. “Dad! Arad stopped. “Doce!” “Doce!” “Doce!” Alex hesitated. Doce waited. Doce stopped running. “Dad?”

* * * * *

“Dad,” Tom started.

Dad screamed, “Tom!” Alex blinked. “Dad?”

Alex gestured.

Alex thought. Alex shouted.

Alex pressed. Alex screamed. Doce!”

Alex shrugged.

Alex waited.

Alex thought aloud. Arad pointed.

Just beautiful.

It's sad that it couldn't even get basic punctuation right. Nested quoting should be a basic, especially for a company that also makes grammar checkers and compilers. For the heck of it, let's see what Word can do in 10 sentences:

Tom. “Doce! “Doce! Doce!”

“Doce? Alex.”


“Alex. “Alex. “Doce!”

Dear Microsoft,

Thank you very much for your query, but unfortunately this doesn't sound right for our agency. We encourage you to keep submitting, however, as the right agent may be just around the corner. Thank you again for thinking of us.


Every Agency Out There

The Pain of Querying

Writing a query letter is a skill. It's one I don't have yet, and I'm not as committed to acquiring that skill as I am to the skill of writing. Probably because somewhere in the back of my mind I think that if I can get past the query just once, then the book will sell itself, and then I won't have to write queries anymore. Wouldn't that be nice?

Part of the difficulty is that nobody agrees on what a good query is. Everyone agrees that they are short and to the point, professional and not annoying, but beyond that it seems like there's no consensus. Some suggest the body should be a mini-synopsis, others say it should be a pitch selling the book. One agency says they want to know your influences, another website says to include nothing of the sort as it might sound arrogant. A number of examples have rhetorical questions as their opening tagline, and a number of agents are sick to death of them.

So? I just keep on revising the letter and sending it out. I take some solace in the fact that I have yet to hear from any of the agents who asked for 40-50 pages with the query. Maybe it means they're considering it?

You've seen my original mini-synopsis. That was my first trial, where I was trying to explain what the book was about rather than sell it. It's okay, but not terribly clear and, in most places, not very exciting. It really is a synopsis, in that it tells what the story is about just without giving away the ending.

Below is my second attempt. One of the agents in the batch this was sent to asked for "sales material" along with the query - a promo sentence, back cover summary, etc. It got me thinking about the query in a different way and this was the result.

How can you stop a tyrant older than the oceans and faster than time?

In the mid-22nd century, the Earth is all but destroyed. The survivors live under the heel of a man named Arad who, if the rumors are true, is something more than a man. They say he can dodge bullets, turn invisible, and kill with a prayer. Some believe he is the savior prophesied before the war began, but others call him the devil.

Only a small group of rebels remains to oppose him, and they are quickly losing hope. There is a young girl that can save them, but they are as afraid of her as they are of Arad. And when the girl is hurt and hopeless herself there is no one to believe in her, except for a father and son who are strangers themselves – travelers from the past, trapped in a time that is not their own. Can Alex and his son convince the rebels they should help this girl? Will the girl’s powers be enough to stop Arad?

And when Alex’ son betrays the rebellion, who is left to save them?

Better, but it still doesn't get directly to the point. Part of that is that I don't know what the point is. That attempt was closer to the original seed of an idea I had for Travelers, but that seed has evolved so much since then, I can't say that it's the same story anymore.

Below is my current draft. A couple of days ago I found agents saying they hate rhetorical questions, so I tossed it. The pitch didn't need it anyway - not if I got to the point fast enough. This is the version that will go out with the third batch. Will it make any difference? I don't know. This whole thing is just a learning process for me anyway:

Arad rules the future with a mixture of persuasion and fear. He is not a man; he dodges bullets, turns invisible, and kills with a prayer – if the rumors are true. There is one who might be able to stop him: a young girl with equally strange powers, but because she cannot control them, the people are as afraid of her as they are of Arad.

Enter Alex and Thomas Gaines – father and son, accidental travelers from our time trapped in this post-apocalyptic struggle. They want to help the girl, but can they help her gain control of her powers before it’s too late? Will it be enough to stop Arad?

And when Thomas betrays them so he can go home, is there any hope left at all?
Looking at it again, the middle paragraph needs work. Or maybe that entire aspect of the plot needs work, but I can't toss out Alex and Thomas anymore. The last sentence, which I really like, is the main reason why.