Writing Algorithm

There are two kinds of writers*: planners and non-planners.** Planners think, brainstorm, outline, and do all of the other stuff that your writing teachers taught you to do in elementary school. Non-planners just write. Both methods are valid, but if you know me at all then you can guess that I'm an obsessive-compulsive planner.

I have to plan.

Mainly, this is because I don't like major revisions. I know, I know, revision is part of writing - the most important part even, but to me it still feels like wasted work. The idea of writing half of a novel only to then figure out what the story's really about, and consequently throw away that whole first draft, is too painful.

That doesn't mean that everything goes according to plan. It hardly ever does, and no matter how much planning I do, the beginning bits often get heavily reworked by the end of the novel. And so far, in both novels, I didn't really know how the ending would work until I got there.

I've never been good with endings.

Anyway, once the writing begins, I have a pretty established process - so much so, I refer to it as an algorithm:
  1. Given: A chapter-by-chapter outline in which each chapter has a 1-2 sentence summary.
  2. Brainstorm events/scenes that must happen in this chapter.
  3. Create an event outline of the chapter. The event outline is what actually happens, whether behind the scenes or not.
  4. Convert the event outline to a plot outline. The plot outline is how I choose to reveal the event outline to the reader - it's what I actually write.
  5. Write the chapter.
  6. Read the chapter once and revise it.
  7. Give the chapter to my wife, Cindy.
  8. When Cindy finishes reading it (this could be in four days or four months, but I'm writing while I'm waiting), go over it with her.
  9. Revise the chapter again based on Cindy's critiques.
As you can see, I revise as I go. If I make a major plot change, that ends up being wasted time, but most of the time it makes the draft mostly usable by the time I get to the end. It also helps me to feel like I'm accomplishing something; when I say I'm done with X chapters, I mean I'm really done. Basically.

*Actually that's not true. There are as many kinds of writers as there are writers. But stereotyping people with convenient labels is what separates us from the animals.

**I've often seen non-planners referred to as "pantsers", a reference to writing by the seat of one's pants, but since for me this word only conjures images of junior high school bullies, I won't be using it.

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.

On Transports (and Why I'm Glad I'm Doing Them)

In Agent Query's advice on submitting to agents, they suggest pacing yourself, querying batches of no more than 10 agents or so. This is really good advice, I've discovered. Through the evolution of language, my batches have become known as transports. Here are some reasons I'm glad I'm doing transports, and a couple of pieces of advice that I'd wish I'd known:
  1. Querying agents is hard. Every single agent has unique requirements about what to send. Even in the query letter (which they all want to see), each agent is looking for something different. What that means is that each query is a unique package, and must be treated as such. I could send a form letter to a hundred agents, but well over 90% of them wouldn't even read it because I didn't follow their rules.
  2. Querying is a skill. The query letter and synopsis go through revisions just like the novel, and the more I revise and learn about it, the better I get. If I had queried every agent with my initial query letter, my chances would've been a lot worse than after using what I'd learned.
  3. Querying takes time. I probably could've put a whole lot of time into revising the query letter to perfection and personalizing a hundred packages before sending any out, but it would've taken me forever (and some things I wouldn't have learned until I actually did it). And if I had done that, I wouldn't have gotten on to writing the next novel.
  4. Waiting takes forever. Every agent takes 1-90 days to get back to me. That's a long time. Emotionally, sending them out in transports is better because I get a more-or-less steady stream of responses to appease my curiosity.
  5. ADVICE: When selecting potential agents, there will always be agents that look perfect (A list) and agents that could work (B list). Each batch should have a mix of A-list and B-list agents, so that when you get around to your fourth and fifth batch (if it goes that far), and your query letter and synopsis have been polished even more, you still have A-list agents to query. I wish I had done that.
  6. ADVICE: As exciting as it is to query, it really is better to spend a lot of time polishing and researching good query letters beforehand. I did a lot of polishing and research, but not enough. Obviously, I wish I could've sent my current query version out to my first batch of agents, but watcha gonna do?
Of course, I still have yet to receive a positive response from any query, and that's kind of depressing. I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that most authors didn't become published on their first novel. What keeps me going is that Air Pirates is already better than Travelers, and I'm much more well-equipped to query for it when the time comes.

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.