Agent or Nay?

When I first started querying (1.5 years ago... geez, that's it?), I didn't know if I should query agents or editors. I was only vaguely aware of what agents did. Based on my experience with real estate agents, I knew they handled the legal stuff and took a cut, that was about it.

I wanted help with the legal stuff, and preferred an agent to a lawyer. I figured I'd get one eventually, but I wasn't very adamant about it back then. Two things tipped me over the edge.

The first (though I don't remember where I read it) was this: say you submit to all the hundreds of agents and they reject your work. You can still submit to the editors.*

But, if you submit to all those editors who accept unagented queries and they reject you, any agent you get afterward will be quite disappointed to find half their prospective editors already said no.

* Though if all the agents are rejecting you, I don't know why you'd expect different from the editors.

The second was Tobias Buckell's author advance survey. I love statistics, and Tobias got some good ones from a decent sampling of authors. If you're at all interested in what authors make, I suggest you read it. But basically: the median advance for first-time authors with an agent was $6,000; the median advance to the unagented was $3,500.

Some quick math: the agent's cut is 15%. For the agented authors, then, the net gain was $5,100. Still significantly more than that of the unagented.

As far as I know, that 15% is the only downside to having an agent. If agents are making back 3x that, while simultaneously haggling for your rights, selling those rights for more money, and generally ensuring you don't get screwed -- all while you are busy with the task of actually writing -- the choice of agent or no seems like a no-brainer.

On the other hand, it seems to me that publishers could save a lot of money by encouraging writers to submit to them unagented. (Though for a third hand, see Moonrat's list of reasons why editors would prefer to work with agents anyway).

So do you need an agent? No. Should you have one? Absolutely yes.

That Thing Where I Draw: Savage

The pirate known as Jacobin Savage is ruthless, cunning, and afraid of nothing. In over 15 years, the Imperial Navy has never captured him. Rumor suggests he had a part in the Savajinn invasion of Endowood seven years ago. Although his attacks are rarely as spectacular as those of Azrael, the Navy considers him even more dangerous. Most notably because he's still at large.

Jacobin commands some 400 pirates, three dropouts, and his karaakh (a large gunship), the Blind Savage. He was last seen in the skies above Providence on Mercy Island where, if you believe the rumors, he is looking for Azrael's Curse.

He came out younger than I intended. He's supposed to be in his fifties. I'm not sure how to fix that. Fatter? Gray hair? (And how best to do gray hair with ink? I guess... less.)

The cool thing about this drawing, though, is I did it all freehand -- no reference pictures or anything. It was really hard, especially the hundredth time I erased it because it looked stupid. That was the kind of thing that made me quit drawing multiple times before; what I drew never matched what was in my head. So it makes me feel all good inside that I didn't give up.

For me, that's what drawing one thing every week is really about: overcoming my fear of failure. I'm not sure if it makes it easier in a general sense (like for writing or talking with people, etc.), but the fact that I can overcome it once a week, every week, is a pretty cool thing on its own.

Points of View: Third Person Omniscient

There are three major POVs used in fiction. Last time, I talked about first person. Today it's third person omniscient.

Whereas a first person story is narrated by one of the characters, third person omniscient is narrated by someone outside the story -- specifically someone who knows what everyone is doing or thinking at any given time.

The most obvious benefit of this is tremendous freedom. You can present anything that anyone's thinking in any place. This allows you to tell a tale with fewer words and to reveal information however you see fit. And for some reason, third person feels more immediate, like it's happening right now (yes, even though it's written in the past tense).

But like first person, these advantages are omniscient's disadvantages as well. The freedom to be anywhere, in anyone's head, doesn't mean you should be. You can drain a lot of tension and do a lot of telling (as opposed to showing) if you're not careful.

The other disadvantage is that third person omniscient puts a barrier between the reader and the story: namely, the narrator. In first person, the narrator is part of the story. There's no barrier because the story is being told by it's owner. In third person omniscient, the reader is constantly -- sometimes annoyingly -- aware that they are being told the story by someone who wasn't there.

This can be a good thing. Mark Twain's voice was eminently obvious in his novels, but we liked it (well I did). His commentary on 19th-century southern America could not have been made in first person. With third person omniscient, Twain got to tell us what he thought about (for example) the schoolmaster's pomp and what Tom thought, not to mention what the schoolmaster thought when his "prize student" Tom couldn't recite a single verse.*

So, some tips:
  • Find the narrator's voice. This is usually your voice, but not necessarily.
  • Don't hide things from the reader just to be tricky. This really goes for any POV, but it's easier to hide information with omniscient so it needs to be said.
  • Know why you're using third person omniscient. Again, this goes for any POV, but I think it's easiest to slip into omniscient without realizing it. Use omniscient for its advantages above, not because you don't know what else to do.
If you're not sure about the voice, or you're not sure why you want to use an omniscient narrator anyway, you might consider third person limited. I'll talk about that one next week.

* Don't worry if you don't know/remember what I'm talking about. I wouldn't either if I hadn't just gone through Tom Sawyer with my niece.

An Interesting Editing Discovery

I'm almost halfway through the 3rd Edit of Air Pirates (as you can see on the sidebar, or you could if you also knew that there are 28 chapters). I always notice interesting things when I edit. For one thing, there are always more typos. I mean, what's up with that?

For another, I've discovered that there are certain words -- words I think are cool, or that make me love the story or the world -- that I use way more often than necessary. Pirates, airships, monks, names of ships, etc. I use them over and over again when, after the initial introduction, I could just say "men" or "ships" or "they." I think I just find the words so cool that I want to use them over and over again, not realizing of course that their coolness gets diluted with use.

Does anyone else do this?

That Thing Where I Draw: Panchiwa

My latest experiment with pastels. This is our foster daughter, Pan,* though she's a lot more beautiful in person (one more thing I wish I could take credit for).

Mostly I wanted to try out realistic, non-cartoon colors and shading. Skintone, in particular, is really hard, but like every other pastel I've done, I had a lot of fun with this, and really that's the point.

Though there was a moment -- after I'd finished the pencil sketch but before I put down any color -- when I considered just detailing it in pencil. Maybe my creative mind is saying it's time to go back to that.

* That's pronounced bpahn. For you linguists, it's an unvoiced, unaspirated p. For you Thai readers, it's ปาน.

Points of View: First Person

Points of view are tricky things. What kinds are there, and what's the difference? Why would you choose to use one over the other? Can you switch POVs mid-novel? This mini-series is intended to answer those questions. (Quick tip: the answer to the last question is yes).

Grammatically, first person just means "I" instead of he or she. But in fiction, if all you're doing is changing the he's to I's, then you're doing it wrong.

First person is a chance to get inside a character's head. Done right, the reader will identify with that character strongly, feel what they feel. The reader will get to know them more personally than with other POVs; they will see the world through their eyes.

First person also has the advantage of feeling more truthful. The narrator is involved in the story -- they were there when it happened -- so it feels less like fiction and more like an eyewitness account.

What makes first person work can also be limiting. For example, the reader only knows what the narrator knows and only sees what they see. Depending on how you want the tension presented, this can take some planning. Also, first person is inherently a flashback. This isn't so much a limitation as something to be aware of. If the main tension is that the narrator might die, well, that tension is gone every time the reader remembers that the narrator is telling the story.

Some tips on writing in first person:
  • Find the narrator's voice. The biggest thing first person has going for it is that you get to speak in the voice of a character all the time. If the narrator's voice is just a third person narrator who says "I" instead of "he," it's almost a waste of the POV.
  • Know why the narrator is telling the story. Are they trying to vindicate themselves? Keep others from making the same mistake? Tell their side of what happened? It doesn't have to be a unique reason, nor does the narrator ever need to say it explicitly, but as the writer you should know what it is.
  • Know who the narrator's audience is. Like above, it doesn't have to be stated explicitly, but you should know who the narrator is telling the story to.
  • Don't slip into other character's heads. WRONG: "I watched Nora from across the room. She was upset -- worried about the upcoming deal." BETTER: "I watched Nora from across the room. She looked upset -- probably worried about the upcoming deal."
  • Don't show what the narrator is doing without ever getting into their heads about why. This is just as bad as not giving the narrator a voice.
  • The narrator should be present at all major events. Otherwise the narrator might only hear about the climax from a friend, which is lame. A corollary to this is that the narrator should be active at the major events, not just a bystander.
One last thing: the unreliable narrator. Like the name says, this is a narrator that cannot be trusted. They might be insane, have a strong bias, or might simply be trying to deceive the reader. Done well, this is a powerful device that can make for some crazy twist endings. But like most powerful devices, it's hard to do well, and done poorly, it's just annoying.

DONE WELL: Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk.
ARGUABLE: Beach Road, James Patterson (I liked it, but others who saw the twist coming, or who just got mad, didn't).
DONE POORLY: "The Stillborn Dead", a short story by me, which you will never read (failed because the narrator's secret was lame and/or didn't make sense).

Because the World Needs Another NaNoWriMo Post

I must not have been very connected to the writer's blogging world last year, because I can't ever remember hearing so much about NaNoWriMo all at once. Why am I writing about it too? Because I'm aware that not all of my readers are writers, and may not even know what NaNo is. Friends, this one's for you.

NaNoWriMo is short(ish) for National Novel Writing Month. Each year in the month of November, thousands of writers and wannabe writers disappear as they attempt to write 50,000 words in one month. The idea is primarily twofold: (1) to prove to yourself and others that you actually can write a novel -- time is not lacking, only motivation -- and (2) to give yourself said motivation with deadlines and accountability (i.e. all the other writers who are doing the same thing).

The contest is free. The rules are loose. There is no prize.* It's just fun. As someone who once wrote a novel just to prove to myself that I could do it, I can fully appreciate the heart behind NaNo. I've always wanted to do it, but I don't think Cindy would understand why I had to disappear for 2-5 hours every day until I wrote 1,667 words (really 2,000, because I would need days off). Or rather, she might understand, but she wouldn't put up with it.

Also I'm not sure I need it. Not like I'm some crazy-fast writer or anything (I'm really, really not), but I know I can finish, and I figure I'll get faster with time. Plus this way, I don't have to abandon my wife and children any more than I do already.

If you want to know more, the NaNoWriMo website has all the information you could ever want and more. So what about you? Are you doing NaNo? Why or why not?

Also, because I wasted about a half hour on MST3K clips today, I found one to share with you.

* Other than the use of an image on your website and self-confidence... Come to think of it, that's a pretty good prize. I could use some more images.