Follow Up Thought on Selling Out

For all my worrying about it, it just occurred to me that by the time I get to the story after Air Pirates, YA could easily be as saturated as male-focused sci-fi is now.

Sigh. Probably better to just tell the story I want to tell, I guess.

Genre Popularity and Selling Out

I was talking with my friend Matt the other day about this post on query effectiveness. It's about what kind of responses you should be seeing based on how hot your genre is right now. Here are a couple of bottom lines that interested me.

What's hot:

So what's a hot genre these days? YA and middle grade, but especially middle grade. Romance and mysteries are always hot, but their respective subgenres go in and out of favor). Graphic novels are "in" right now. High-concept commercial fiction (this never goes out of favor). And we've heard a lot of murmurs about serious women's fiction; agents are on the lookout.

What's not:

The market for traditional genre fiction has been saturated, especially for the type of fiction that was popular a decade ago. Also, genre fiction geared towards a male audience is a harder sell because women are the readers nowadays. That's why there's been an explosion of fantasy and science fiction with female "kick-butt" heroines, and thrillers and mysteries with female lead detectives.

So if you're writing traditional genre fiction geared towards men, then you're going to have a harder time.

Because I tend to write what I enjoy reading, I fall into the latter category. That kinda blows. Mysteries and commercial fiction aren't really my thing. I'd love to write a graphic novel, but I have very little experience in that area (and reading Civil War now is showing me just how different the writing style has to be). I'm not even gonna touch romance.

But here's the silver lining. The YA (young adult) genre is pretty danged freeform. Essentially, all a book needs to be YA is to have a teen protagonist, and beyond that whatever you do with genre doesn't matter. In fact, what with the tendency of my stories to mix sci-fi and fantasy, YA seems perfect.

So now I'm thinking of selling out, but not really. I mean, in order to sell out, I would have to hate YA but write it anyway. Thing is, I like YA. That's how, on the drive from Pattaya to Bangkok the other day, I found myself thinking about the next story - the one after Air Pirates that I've already planned a little - and wondering how it might change if the protagonist were one of the teenagers instead of an adult near one of the teenagers.

And what if that teenager were a female "kick-butt" heroine...

Query Tips

I've spent most of the weekend at a writer's discussion forum at AQ Connect and reading every single post of the Query Shark. After much agony, I'm starting to get a sense of how to write a query. Here's some of what I've learned a query should be:

The most common mistake I see (and make myself) is to try to tell everything that happens. To the author, everything is important, but not to the agent. Your novel is like a five course meal, but in the query the agent only wants to know about the main dish. If the main dish is liver and onions, the agent's not going to care that they get their favorite soup, salad, and dessert with it.

A good guideline I discovered is to limit your query to two or three named characters. Any more than that and your characters tend to get distilled down to stereotypes, which is Bad. Also, focusing on two or three characters - what happens to them and what they do - helps to focus on what's really important in the story.

Logical. Every sentence should lead to the next, and every sentence should have a reason for being there. If there's a sentence that doesn't fit, try taking it out - sometimes you'll find that it didn't need to be there in the first place (even if that character or event was important in the novel, see above).

Terse. Likewise, look at each, individual word in the query and decide if it really needs to be there. A lot of words writers use in queries ("that", "when", "as", "just", etc.) can be cut easily and the sentence will still mean the same thing. Other sentences can be trimmed by moving things around or combining sentences. In either case, every word you can cut will make your query better.

But knowing what to do is not always enough. Like most things, it takes practice to get good at this stuff. For that, I recommend the following: (1) read critiques of others' queries, (2) critique queries for others, and (3) get your query critiqued by others.

I don't know if my query is good enough or not yet, but it's definitely better. I also learned this weekend that an effective query should be getting about a 30% request rate or better. Meaning 3 out of every 10 queries sent out should be getting a letter back asking for more.

So for I'm at 0%. I'll let you know how that changes. The third transport is on its way out, and I'm due to send a fourth one in the next week or two.

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 War of Art, VI

From David Mack's Kabuki: The Alchemy. (Read Parts I, II, III, IV, and V). This is an idea I'm not sure I understand completely yet. Maybe I'm not a true artist, but when I get in the zone it's usually because I already know what needs to happen. Sometimes ideas just come to me, but it's rare. More often than not, even when in the zone, I'll have to stop at some point where I don't know what happens next, or the protagonist is seeing an airship for the first time and I don't know what it looks like, or he is escaping out of a window ledge and I need to figure out what's there and how (or whether) he can possibly escape.

Usually I brainstorm at this point, and one or two of the things I end up thinking of will be kind of good. Maybe I'm defining "in the zone" differently. Or maybe I get distracted too easily (that's not hard - I'm usually writing in a room with 2-3 other kids that are sometimes vying for my attention in ways ranging from respectful to naughty).

Part VI of VI:

Pressfield cites
the other secret true
artists know that
wannabe writers don't:
"When we sit down each
day and do our work,
power concentrates
around us".

What Pressfield
calls professionalism
others may call the
Artist's Code,
or the Warrior's Way.
It is an attitude of
egolessness and

When you get
in the zone, don't
second guess it. Your
ideas are smarter
than you are.

A natural principle
of organization channels
through you, even if you
cannot initially comprehend
its larger implications.
are made.

Dedication and
concentration put
us in touch with our
natural talent.
Our genius.

The Romans
used the Latin
word genius to
mean an inner

guides us to
our calling.

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.