Querying Travelers, Postmortem

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

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

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

Published on Thaumatrope

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

So does this make me a professional writer now?

Dealing With Critiques

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

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

Really, Really, Really Short Fiction

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

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

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

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

Ship Names and the Definite Article

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

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

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

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

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

* Wikipedia for the Star Wars universe.

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

Travelers Postmortem: What Went Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travelers Postmortem: What Went Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's the Point of Writing Queries?

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

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

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

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

Don't hang me yet! Hear me out!

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Elements of Fiction: Why?

I've been reading this book, Blue Like Jazz, where Donald Miller talks about his Christian journey in decidedly non-religious terms. It's refreshing, and I highly recommend it, whatever your beliefs.

At one point, he talks about a lecture he went to on the elements of literature - setting, character, conflict, climax, and resolution - and he (and I) began to wonder why? Why do stories have to have these elements? Nobody invented them. Nobody said, "This is how it shall be done," and so we all do it that way. These elements are in the core of our being. Humans of all cultures identify with stories that contain these elements and have trouble with stories that do not (literary fiction, I'm looking at you).

The real reason (and this isn't my idea, but Miller's) is that these elements speak to things inherent in the human condition. Let's take a look at them.

Setting. This one is obvious. The fact that we exist means we exist somewhere. We cannot experience life without a setting in which to experience it.

Character. Likewise, there is no life but it has characters in it. Even the most secluded hermit has himself in his own story.

Conflict. Life sucks; it has hard things in it from the beginning. Pain. Loss. We want something, but there are always obstacles. There is no life without conflict.

Climax. As we face more conflict and more obstacles, eventually things come to a make-or-break point. Will I ask her out? Will I try out for the team? Will I propose? Will I win the contest? Will I have a baby? We must make a choice, we must act out that choice, and the experiences and decisions we've made up to that point all play a part in determining how each climax plays out.

Resolution. Whether the climax was a success or failure, the resolution is what happens as a result. Questions are answered. Loose ends are closed. Cliffs are left hanging towards the next climax.

The fact that these are inherent to life suggests some things too. Perhaps our lives build towards a climax and have resolution - maybe death is not an abrupt end to the story, but some kind of climax itself. Perhaps also there is something after death, with conflict and climax of its own (though of what kind, I cannot possibly imagine).

Because if there is one thing that is true about all stories, it's that they never end. After one scene reaches its climax, the conflict-climax-resolution cycle starts again in the next one. A few such scenes, and you've got a chapter. Many chapters, each with their own climax, make a book. Many books make a saga. Sagas make life.

And then it all starts again.

A Classical Education: 10 (or more) Sci-Fi Books You Should Read

A while ago, Nathan Bransford asked, "What book are you embarrassed not to have read?" A lot of classics were mentioned (and a lot of people haven't read Lord of the Rings, which astounds me), but it made me think: What books should a science fiction author(/critic/fan) have read?

Some caveats: (1) this is not a top 10 sci-fi novels of all time, nor is it my favorite 10 sci-fi novels; (2) I haven't read all of these (in particular, I haven't read #7, and #5 is waiting on my shelf); (3) I totally cheated because I couldn't pick just 10, so I'm giving you some options.

Without further ado, here's my list of 10 (or more) novels any sci-fi fan should read:
  1. Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. The first father of science fiction, Verne thought of things that didn't happen for 100 years, but they happened. That's like the heart of science fiction.
  2. The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, or The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. The second father of science fiction. Apparently also the father of table top war games.
  3. 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Classics in dystopian fiction. Really, you ought to read both.
  4. Dune by Frank Herbert. I consider Dune to be the Lord of the Rings of science fiction, largely for its scope and themes. Unlike the other novels above, Dune is more about the characters and the story than the science. It's one of the best examples of what character-driven, epic sci-fi can be.
  5. The Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. As mentioned, I haven't read these yet, but they're on my shelf. I have read very little Asimov, and I know this series is a must from a great science fiction author.
  6. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury or Red Planet by Robert Heinlein. If Wells and Verne are fathers of sci-fi, Bradbury and Heinlein are like their sons, or grandsons or something. These two classics explore the colonization of Mars before we realized there was nothing on it. (Alternatively, try Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land).
  7. Neuromancer by William Gibson or Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I haven't read either, but I've heard so much about them that I want to read both. Both books deal with the idea of cyberspace before "cyberspace" was a word my mom used. A lot of ideas seen in sci-fi since have come out of these stories.
  8. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I couldn't make a list of sci-fi books without mentioning my very favorite. Like Dune, Ender's Game is more about the characters and psychology than it is about science, but that doesn't make it any less scientific. I don't care if you're a sci-fi fan or not, you have to read this book.
  9. The Giver by Lois Lowry. More dystopian fiction, but more contemporary and accessible than either Orwell or Huxley. Plus, I have a soft spot in my heart for young adult fiction. It's a good book. Try it out.
  10. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. One thing about science fiction is that it's often really, really serious. Adams takes care of that, and I think any fan of sci-fi ought to be exposed to the funnier side of the genre.
So I guess that's over 20 books. That's fine, they're all worth reading. But hey, this is just my opinion, and any top 10 list is going to be missing something. So what do you think? What books would make your list?


I hate the idea of self-promotion. Who doesn't? Who wants to be that kid who says, "Hey, everybody! Look at me!!" Okay, fine, well I never wanted to be that kid. Now I find myself on the outskirts of an industry that requires it.

So I've been researching self-promotion a little. One thing I've discovered is that I've already been doing it. I mean, the missionary "industry" revolves around self-promotion just as much as the publishing one does. Perhaps more so.

(Speaking of which, those of you reading this from Facebook might like to know that this is being imported from my other blog - my writing one. I'm still importing the missionary blog such that it appears on my wall, but not into my notes anymore. I hope that's okay.)

How you promote yourself depends, apparently, on how much money, time, and morals you have. If you have a lot of money, hire a publicist. If you have a lot of time, build a website, make profiles on social networking sites, and spend time on other people's blogs, the social net, forums, etc. - all the while linking back to your website. If you're low on morals, this time can also be spent comment spamming and writing fake reviews.

It's like this. Let's measure the amount of time and money invested in self-promotion with what we'll call your Publicity Quotient. The more you invest in self-promotion, the higher your PQ (low morals increase your PQ slightly, with an increased risk of drastically lowering it when you're found out; high morals, sadly, do nothing). With that in mind, take a look at this completely unscientific, made-up chart:

Not terribly mathematical, I know. But beyond the general guideline that the more you put in, the more you'll get out, publicity is largely luck and magic - becoming a breakout bestseller even more so.

Also, anyone who tells you how to promote yourself, without mentioning in the same breath that you need a product worth promoting, is taking you in. If your book sucks, you can sell copies with publicity but it won't do you much good in the long run (see low morals).

That's my take on the whole thing, anyway. I plan on doing self-promotion the same way I've been doing it. I'll provide places for people to get hooked in, I'll get the word out with a non-spamming announcement, and most importantly I'll try to be genuine. That means leaving comments because I have something to say, not because I have something to link to. It means making profiles on social networks that I'm actually a part of (sorry, MySpace, guess that means you're out).

And it means trusting others to do the reviewing and word-of-mouth advertising for me. If it doesn't happen, it just means I need to write a better book next time.

And when that doesn't work, I'll upgrade my spambot.

No More Crichton

This is kind of out of the blue for me. I didn't even know he had cancer, but apparently Michael Crichton has passed away.

Michael Crichton is one of my early, and still present, influences in writing. It started with Jurassic Park which I read as a teenager, after which I went on to read practically everything he wrote. Though I didn't mention him before, Michael Crichton taught me that a novel should read like a movie. Ironically, I learned that from reading Sphere, which is a great book but a terrible movie - sorry, Michael, it was.

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.

The Imaginary Line

There is an imaginary line dividing science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction is space and aliens and the future. Fantasy is magic and elves and dwarves. Right? As a reader, I'm glad it's not that simple, but as a writer, trying to find where I fit, I wish it would be a little easier. We categorize books so that readers can find what they like, and so publishers can find the right folks to sell to, but so so many books defy categorization.

Example: Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The book is no doubt science fiction what with Martians, space travel, a sole survivor of a defunct colony on Mars, etc. But halfway through, and most peculiarly at the end, there are characters both major and minor that have become angels in Heaven. That's not science, is it?

How about McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern? It has dragons, telepathy, medieval societies... but if you've read farther you know that Pern is a colony of Earth, and dragons the result of genetic engineering. The series appeals to fantasy fans, but the author insists it's sci-fi. If there's a line between science fiction and fantasy, then Anne McCaffrey is sitting right on top of it.

Now try this. I'll give you the premise of a story, and you tell me if it's sci-fi or fantasy: "New students arrive at a private academy for witches whose highly-trained agents must oppose a powerful terrorist witch organization."

Fantasy, right? Maybe urban fantasy (the words "agents" and "terrorist" suggest modern-day). What if I told you the sentence originally said "mutants" instead of "witches" and is, in fact, the premise of X-Men?

X-Men is science fiction, but merely by changing the perceived source of their powers - not changing their powers or the story or even their costumes one bit - the genre of the movie suddenly slides towards fantasy. (In fact, Marvel 1602 does just that, calling them "witchbreed" rather than mutants, leaving their powers unchanged).

Granted, if we altered X-Men by calling them witches, the story should change, at least a little. But it doesn't have to change a lot for it to suddenly become urban fantasy. It's all in perception.

What's my point? I don't know if I have one. Just that with every story I write, I find myself sitting on top of that imaginary line and wondering how to sell the story. I wish we could call it all speculative fiction and be done with it, but it's not to be. I know.

Anyway, here's to steampunk and science fantasy. My favorite blended subgenres that will never see their own sections in a bookstore.

Hook Examples from Television

A few weeks ago, I talked about 7 things that need to be present in the hook (the mini-synopsis, the query... whatever you call it, it's the thing you send to agents and editors in the hopes that they will want to read your book). I had a hard time finding real-world examples of query letters, but I did find some examples from good, old-fashioned television. That's what we're talking about today.

One thing most television shows do is resell themselves with every single episode. You never know when a new viewer is going to tune in, and you don't want them to tune out just because they don't get it. You need to hook them from the beginning. Sometimes, that hook comes in the form of a voice over that explains the show's premise in a cool, interesting way. See if you can find the 7 things in each of these examples.

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.
This example is 50% setup, but all the elements are there, and the setup goes a long way towards establishing the characters - not individually of course, but as a team, which is really what the show was about. After this voice over, the visuals that played during the theme song would give you a sense of the characters. In a query letter, you've still got a whole paragraph or two to do the same thing.

Knight Rider: a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man, who does not exist. Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.
This is not a good example of specificity (what the heck is "a shadowy flight"?), but it is concise. All the elements, except for maybe setting, are presented in only 45 words. Of course this hook omits the coolest thing about the show, namely Kitt. That's what needs to go in the rest of the query (and, again, Kitt is everywhere during the rest of the theme).

The alien world of Myrrh is being devoured by dark water. Only Ren, a young prince, can stop it by finding the lost 13 treasures of Ruul. At his side is an unlikely, but loyal crew of misfits. At his back - the evil pirate lord Bloth, who will stop at nothing to get the treasures for himself. It's high adventure with the pirates of dark water!
This is from a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon I used to watch. It's crammed pack with cliche (hey, it was a cartoon!), but every element is there and it tells you what to expect: adventure, pirates, a quest, treasures, and even a little fantasy. All in only 67 words.

Water, earth, fire, air - long ago, the four nations lived in harmony, then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years later, my brother and I discovered the new Avatar - an airbender named Aang, but though his airbending skills are great, he's got a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.
Last example. This lacks a little in that it's unclear how one can be a "master of all four elements" or what "airbending" is without being able to see the accompanying visuals. The other thing about this one is that first person in a query is a no-no, unless it's a memoir. Both of those things can be tweaked to make this appropriate for a query letter. Even so, I think the first person works really well here. Mainly because that last sentence gives you a sense, not only of Aang's character, but of the narrator's character as well.

These examples aren't perfect. I present them to show how the 7 things - protagonist, antagonist, goals, stakes, conflict, setting, and theme - can be presented in an interesting way in a short space. None of these examples is longer than 100 words. That leaves you with another 150-250 words to clarify the 7 elements, talk about your credentials, and mention why you chose that particular agent. If you can do all that concisely, you will have gone a long way towards your goal.

Last tips for today:
(1) Read your query out loud to yourself. You can catch a lot more errors that way.
(2) Imagine your query being read by the guy who does movie trailers. I'm not joking. It helps.

Why Do I Want To Be Published?

Bit of a God post. You've been warned.

In the last couple of weeks, I've repeatedly come against the question:* why do you want to get published? It's forced me to think, especially in light of the fact that writing is not, and can never be (at least for the foreseeable future) my main priority.

It's a hard question, because I won't deny that I like the feeling of being mini-famous,** but that's hardly a Christian attitude and certainly not a good thing to prioritize over my family.

* See Tip #88
** That is, famous only within small circles.

So I did what I always do when I'm in doubt. I went to the balcony and prayed. God didn't talk to me, but he opened my eyes. Or maybe by opening my heart and being quiet, I was able to see. I looked at our lawn - the lawn that only a couple months ago was a barren wasteland - and a bunch of birds flew onto the lawn, hopping around looking for bugs, and I thought, "That's cool. They couldn't do that before. Those birds are enjoying the lawn we made."

That's what hit me. I liked that the birds were enjoying something I made. I felt satisfied in my work. That's why I want to be published.

See, I already know that I love to - no, I have to - create. Writing is just my current outlet for that. And I'm completely convinced it's because I was made in the image of a creative God.*** And even God wasn't content with creating for himself. He needed someone who would get his Creation. Someone who could enjoy it.

I realized I create so that I and others can enjoy what I've created. Even though I do want to be mini-famous and make some money, my writing ultimately isn't about me. I could make it so pretty easily (and I'm sure I do in my mind all the time), but it's liberating to know the basic drive is much more pure than that.

*** That's essentially what "Author's Echo" means. We are echoes of the Author, images of him, children trying almost pathetically, yet purposefully, to emulate our Father in the things we do.

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.

Hook, Crook, or Aduncity

The hook is the first part of the query letter. It's what you say when your friends ask, "So what's your book about?" It is the fundamental concept behind the plot of your story, written in such a way as to make the reader say, "Cool, tell me more."

But how the heck do you distill 100,000 words into 2 sentences of cool? It's not easy. The internet has some good tips already, but I'm going to throw my own version into the mix because with something as subjective as a novel hook, I don't think you can have too many ways to think about it.

There are 7 things the hook should have:
  1. Protagonist. Who is the story about?
  2. Antagonist. Who or what is against the protagonist?
  3. Goal. What does the protagonist want to accomplish?
  4. Stakes. What will happen if the protagonist does not accomplish their goal?
  5. Conflict. What is keeping the protagonist from accomplish their goal?
  6. Setting. Where/when does the story take place?
  7. Theme. What is the story's main subject or idea?
Figure out that information, then write it in a sentence or two. That's your core. The entire rest of the query, synopsis, and even the novel is focused around that. That means that your query (hook + mini-synopsis) has all of that information and, more importantly, does not have anything that confuses or detracts from that information.

The more I learn, the more I think that the best way to do this is to write the hook before I outline or draft the novel. It would help keep the novel more focused and make writing the query/pitch/synopsis much easier later on. Unfortunately, Travelers was an attempt to prove something to myself, so it got away from me long before I knew what a query was, and now I find myself having to wrangle it back in. I have more hope for Air Pirates, but that was also outlined before I figured this stuff out.

I'll start talking examples in the next post or two. And if I finish my other plans for the month, I might try writing a hook for Air Pirates using this method, and I'll show you that too. Finding a hook is like a Sudoku puzzle: it totally sucks until you figure it out, and then it's the most awesome thing in the world and you want to do it again.

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.

On Writing About Airships

I love airships. I'm not sure why, but they've always captured my imagination. From the first one I can remember in Final Fantasy to my koala pilot in Mutants Down Under. Those were the hooks, but it became an obsession when I saw Laputa for the first time. I've gotten other hits since, but mainstream media seems to be lacking in strong airship-based entertainment. I've been itching to create something with airships for a long time, and it's exciting to finally be doing so.

The other day, I got to the first airship combat scene in Air Pirates. I thought writing it would be a breeze. Like chase scenes. I hardly ever have to plan a chase scene ahead of time. So long as I have a mental picture of the location, the action just happens and all I do is record it. Imagine my surprise when I realized that airships are slow, ponderous vehicles, and combat between them isn't inherently exciting at all.

It worried me at first, but I though about similar vehicles - seagoing ships and submarines, for example. Sea and undersea battles are also slow, boring affairs, but that didn't keep me from enjoying Pirates! or The Ancient Art of War at Sea. Nor did it keep Pirates of the Carribean, Master & Commander, or Hunt for Red October from their exciting action sequences. It's just a different kind of action.

One I need to learn to write.

Why I Do Write

Everyone has their influences and teachers. These are some of mine:

From J. R. R. Tolkien, I learned about sub-creation.

From Orson Scott Card, I learned that a world is only as good as its characters.

From George R. R. Martin, I learned that every character should have a name. From Masashi Kishimoto, I learned that every character should have a story.

From Chris Avellone, I learned that a well-designed character, no matter how complex, is definable in one interesting sentence.

Also from Orson, I learned that cliche is not a bad place to start, but a terrible place to stop.

From Chris Baron, I learned that revision can make anything better. From George Lucas, I learned that it is possible to revise too much.

From David Mack, I learned that writing is like exercise - the hard part is sitting down to do it. On my own I figured out that, most of the time, I don't actually want to write; I just want to have written.

I'm still working on that last one.

Why I Don't Write

David Mack wrote, "It's not the writing that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write." I've been thinking a lot on what keeps me from writing, and recently I made a major change to help me work better.

The list of what keeps me from writing is huge. I'm married, have a toddler, homeschool, parent 5 kids, teach programming, blog, fix computers, write newsletters, fix the house, and on and on. But all of those are Things I Have To Do or Things I Should Do. There's an equally large list of Things I Don't Need To Do (or Things I Shouldn't Do Instead of Writing): e-mail, pointless research, blog reading, chicken counting*, books, Sudoku, and more.

I've always been aware that most of what distracts me is on the internet. I sit down at the computer out of habit, and the first thing I do is check my e-mail. I check my feed reader for any updated blogs. If I'm being particularly distracted, I'll do some research I don't need to do or check recent hits on my blogs. Only when I'm sure I've exhausted my interest in the internet, do I start to write. Needless to say, getting my head into writing after repeating this cycle a few times is difficult**.

So in the interest of Getting Things Done, I have made a change. As of yesterday, I check the internet once in the morning and once at night after the kids go to bed. The rest of the day Firefox stays closed. It's not easy, but I think I'll get used to it after a while, and I think it will help.

Mindy Klasky at SFNovelists mentioned a similar self-discipline technique, though she allows Firefox for research, et al. Unfortunately I can't do that. I know myself too well. Instead, I write blog posts offline to be uploaded later. If I need to research something, I make a note of it and look it up that night. If I need a dictionary or thesaurus, I *gasp* use a real paper one. I'm still working out where to get random names, as I make heavy use of online generators for minor characters. Yesterday I used my wife's highschool yearbook.

Mindy also talked about making daily goals for herself. It's a good idea I'm going to try and keep in mind. Today I need to write a blog post (done) and start a short story***.

* A reference to the fable whose moral is "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched." Also known as daydreaming. I waste much more time than I'd like to admit thinking about what things will be like after I get published.

** Everytime I get up, the cycle repeats when I sit back down, and with homeschooling and parenting a little one, the times I need to get up are many. Right now, for example, the Little One is quiet, which means he's doing something he shouldn't be.

*** I know. "Start a short story" is too small and vague to be a good goal. But I can't say "finish it" because I don't think I will, and I can't give a word count because I don't yet know what's reasonable for me, given the aforementioned homeschooling and Little One****.

**** Now that the day is done, I managed to write almost 1,600 words, or about 40% of the story. Not bad.

Better Words

If you didn't already know: in writing, use strong verbs. A common amateur mistake is to toss adjectives and adverbs into a sentence to describe what the character is doing, but strong verbs are so much better. For example:

“I want you to leave,” she said angrily.“Get out!” she shouted.
He jerkily got into his sporty little car.He stumbled into his Corvette.

Can you see the difference? If you can't, then trust me. The sentences on the right are much stronger because of the verbs "shouted" and "stumbled" (also because of the more self-explanatory dialogue and the more specific "Corvette").

I've found a thesaurus to be helpful for this, but not helpful enough. Instead, I keep three text files in my writing directory: said.txt, looked.txt, and walked.txt, filled with words to use instead of these common verbs. Today I'm sharing them online.

This is by no means comprehensive, and I welcome suggestions for addition. I'm sure most of you will enjoy suggesting, actually.

pored over
footed it
hoofed it

Pixar Sci-Fi

It's to the point now where my wife and I will see a movie just because Pixar made it. Finding Nemo and The Incredibles are two of my favorite movies of all time. Today, Wall-E didn't move me as much as those two did, but I think that's only because the family and father/son themes resonate much more strongly with me. Which is to say that Wall-E is a good movie, and it's not Pixar's fault that I wasn't moved to tears this time. (MINOR SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW).

I also thought it was interesting from a sci-fi point of view. I've already noticed in my own stories a recurring theme of world-destruction. It's what Travelers is about, and it lies waiting deep in the history of Air Pirates. So I immediately enjoyed seeing another take on what could happen to Earth and to all those colonists who fled and forgot where they came from.

Unfortunately, my brain can't help finding flaws. Part of that is because S.C. Butler wrote a post about Wall-E at SF Novelists. I couldn't get the plant-in-space thing out of my head the entire time, and I found myself watching for other logical absurdities as well.

There were a number of questions that were left unanswered, like how does reproduction work on the Axiom, and why did the Axiom fly so far away from the Earth if they always intended to return, and (perhaps most pressing) why didn't they just shoot the trash into space? Questions that could have been answered, but weren't quite.

One big flaw that bugged me was that the humans who (as far as I could tell) had never walked in their lives, could walk when the plot needed them to. After generations of sedentariness, I don't think their bodies would be able to support their own massive weight. I could've let it go if the movie hadn't specifically mentioned the possibility of "bone loss" (in a video that was meant for colonists returning after 5 years, not 700, but whatever, another unanswered question). It could be explained away by low gravity, but when they got to Earth they had no problems there either.

Like Butler's plant flaw, it didn't ruin the movie for me, but I won't be able to get it out of my head. I don't accept the excuse that "it's a kid's movie" either. The folks who write kid's movies should care about what they do (esp. at Pixar) just as much as those of us who write for adults. After all, when our kids watch a movie over and over again, we have to as well. And the movies that do really well are the ones that both kids and adults enjoy.

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.

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.