What I Learned From 52 Rejections

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

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

So what did I learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Excerpts

You've heard of this Lucky 7 Meme? I've been tagged for this thing so many times, I actually got tired of not posting it. So lucky you, you get a tiny bit of Air Pirates flavor this morning.

The idea is you go to page 77 of your MS, 7 lines down, then copy/paste the next 7 lines as they appear. Here they are for Air Pirates:

      "You have my stone."
      Sam knelt beside him, picking at the cobblestones with a knife that seemed to come from nowhere. "I do have the stone, aye."
      "I . . ." Hagai sat up straight. "I want it back."
      "Nay." Sam looked at him with those piercing blue eyes. He would see right through Tobin's charade, Hagai was sure. Suddenly he was afraid he wouldn't be able to play it through.
      Well, not suddenly. He thought it was a bad idea from the start.

I'm not going to tag anybody else except for all of you who are reading this. So, you know, if you want to play, go ahead and play.

And here's a bonus excerpt, because Air Pirates is kinda sorta really polished, and the meme is more about drafts, I think. So from my mid-revision WIP, currently titled Post-Apocalyptic Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!):
On either side of the iron doors towered two giant mekas—stone replicas of the metal monsters that helped destroy the Old World.
      They had a long ride ahead of them yet. The wall enclosed an entire town over two square kilometers in area, and the road to the central keep was a winding maze to hinder invaders. Domino had plenty of time to figure out what he would say.
      "What does the baron have against you?" Ko asked.
      "I guess we'll find out."

So yeah, you got dropped into the middle of my world-famous weak description. That's what happens with these memes, I guess.

If you play on your own blog, drop a link in the comments so I can read it too.

First Impact: Haphazardly Implausible by Miss Jack Lewis Baillot

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember you are eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me if you share your thoughts in the comments. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

Big thanks to Miss Jack for letting us take a look at the back-cover copy of his steampunk novel (we do love steampunk around here). My in-line comments are off to the right, with overall comments at the end. Keep in mind that this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.

Back-Cover Copy
I like that Peter has a goal and an
obstacle. Nice start!

I do feel like some words could be
trimmed though.
Peter Jones was left at the Scottish Royal Air Force Base at the age of seven and a week later his parents were killed. He was raised by the general, a man he has come to trust as a father, until the day he learns the general wants him dead. Peter has a secret locked in his past, but how can he discover it when he isn't even sure who he can trust?

This is interesting, but I kinda want
to see how it connects to Peter. Is
Peter the missing person? Or maybe
Singur (the guy below)?
Isidore Thaddeus Reichmann is a brilliant German detective who rarely fails on a case. His newest case is to find a missing person, and investigations take him to England, the one place in the world he truly hates. He knows he can solve the case, but he doesn't know what he is supposed to do with the little British girl who has taken to following him around. 

I like this start, but it feels vague.
What has he invented? What is his
mission? How will he alter history?
Singur is truly the smartest man in the world, an inventor and genius who is bringing the world into the future. He should be looked up to by many, but he is forced to hide his real name and flee Italy or be killed. He is about to embark on a dangerous mission, one that will forever change the course of history.

Is this one of the World Wars? That
should be made clear up front, I think.
These three young men have never met but they are slowly being brought together by a war that is threatening to tear the world apart and the mad man standing behind it all. His actions will thrust all three together on board an Air Pirate Zeppelin called the Black Beard, and their choices will either destroy the world, or save it.

Adam's Thoughts
Back-cover copy is an unusual beast. It's not a query, and yet it is: your goal is to compel the reader to want more. And I think the way you do that is the same: compelling characters, conflict, and a sadistic choice.

This has the beginning of those, I think. All three have goals and conflict, but I feel like the specifics are missing. I kinda want more than just a secret, a missing person, and a dangerous mission. And I want to know what their choice at the end is, not just that they have some.

Lastly, I feel like there could be a stronger connection between the three. Is Singur the missing person? Is the British girl Peter's secret? Is the general the mad man behind it all? These might not be true, but if you connect one character to the other, it will draw the reader in much more smoothly, rather than forcing them to restart with each new paragraph.

But that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you guys think?

If you would like your material to be critiqued, send it to firstimpactAE@gmail.com. See here for details.

A Steampunk Chart and Writing to Trends

This data comes from Wikipedia's list of steampunk works. I didn't see any glaring mistakes or omissions, so I ran with it. I've called out a few moments in steampunk history, though they are not meant to be comprehensive or even telling. Mostly, they're just some of the steampunk works that influenced me.

Data from Wikipedia, retrieved July 7, 2012.

You can glean what you like from that chart. Here's my (almost certainly biased) analysis:

Something new hits the populace. People get excited about it and create more stuff like it. Then eventually they get bored of it and the trend goes back down.

But, if enough people still haven't heard of it and a second new thing comes along within the trend, the cycle could start again. It could even get bigger as a whole new group of people get into it, and the old people go, "Wait, that's a thing again? I was into that when we called it 'steam-driven punk.'"

I think it's safe to say THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE and its precursors sparked that first little bump from '92 to '95. I don't know what triggered the spikes in 2001 and 2004 -- maybe PERDIDO STREET STATION, or maybe the manga STEAM DETECTIVES or even WILD WILD WEST (a bad movie can start a trend as much as a good one, as people think about what might have been great).

Now we're in the middle of a whole new wave, triggered by movies like STEAMBOY and THE PRESTIGE, books like AIRBORN and MORTAL ENGINES, along with everything that came before it as more and more people explore the history of steampunk. This wave is big, though I suspect it's coming to its end in the next couple of years (at least on the book side, see below).

It was interesting to me that almost every bump in the graph started with books, then film and TV carried the cycle while books backed off the trend. This really shouldn't be a surprise, since most movies are based on books.

But it's important to remember: if you write steampunk because of SHERLOCK HOLMES or LEGEND OF KORRA (for example), you might be too late to cash in.

We see something we like and go, "Cool! I want to make something like that!" So we do, though even with self-publishing, it takes a long time to make a (good) book from scratch and get it to market. That's why bumps tend to occur a couple of years after certain inspirational works.

But here's the thing: we're not the only ones who have that idea. That's why agents get hit with waves of similar stuff: vampires, werewolves, angels, people who control the elements. They're often triggered by the earlier release of something that inspired a bunch of people.

That inspiration is a good thing, but chances are, by the time you've heard of a trend, you're already behind the curve. This is why we're told not to write to trends.

What do you do about this if we genuinely love the trend? I mean, I've loved steampunk for as long as I knew it was a thing (I think that would be Brisco County Jr. in '93). I still love it. But what if nobody else does?

I think there are two reasons this doesn't matter:
  1. Because eventually it will trend again. Maybe. Just hang on to the idea and try to time it later after the hype has been forgotten.
  2. Because if you really love whatever it is, you could be the one to trigger the next up-cycle. When someone writes something just to cash in, it shows. Steampunk for steampunk's sake is boring. But when you write something out of true passion, it can transcend the trend to become something awesome.
So no new conclusions here: Screw trends. Write what you love. But being aware of what's trending -- and what hasn't trended in a while -- is a good thing too.

What do you think? Have you ever written to a trend? Are my chart-based conclusions way off?

What Constitutes a Real Critique

This is primarily for First Impact, though I think it applies to critiquing in general. I offer the monthly prizes to encourage critiques, but I don't want you to think you have to work hard for it.*

Your critique does not have to be long. When I say only "real" critiques are entered for the prize, I mean useful critiques. Saying "This rocks!" or "This sucks!" is not useful.

However: "This rocks! I love how clearly you lay out the protagonist's choice at the end" is useful, and those 15 words totally count towards the monthly prize.

You don't have to be an expert, just a reader. The point of first impact material is to compel someone to read on. Agents are readers just like you and me, compelled by the same things. All you have to do is say whether or not it worked for you.

You will learn by critiquing. I've talked about this before, but the more you critique something -- anything -- the better you will get not only at critiquing but also writing. The critiques are for you as much as anyone else.

All that to say: DON'T BE AFRAID TO LEAVE A QUICK CRITIQUE. Writing is subjective, so multiple quick critiques can actually be more useful to a writer than one person's (points at self) verbose opinion.

When in doubt, just say whether or not you liked it and a brief note of why. That's all you gotta do. Here, why don't you practice now.

* Although the long critiques are most certainly appreciated. ALL critiques are.

First Impact: Averagely Extraordinary by Utsav Mukherjee

First Impact is where I critique first impression material: your query letters, back-cover copy, opening pages, etc. Details here.

You are encouraged to share your comments as well. Every (real) critique will be entered to win a prize at the end of the month. This month's prizes are: $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

UPDATE: Just a reminder that a "real" critique does not have to be long (though long critiques are certainly useful and awesome). Mostly, all you have to do is say whether or not you'd want to read more and (the important part) why.

A huge thanks to Utsav Mukherjee for being brave enough to submit the first query. His superhero sci-fi sounds intriguing, so let's get right to it. My in-line comments are off to the right, with overall comments at the end. Line edits are in red. Keep in mind that this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.
Not bad, but I'm always wary of
"logline" openings. I don't think
this one is necessary.

Superpowers have not changed the one thing Jimmy Ranfaz hates - he is still average.

This is a good start, but I feel like
that first sentence could snap more.

Also, the highlighted terms raise
too many questions for me. Maybe
they can be cut or, at the least,
Academics, sports and life; -- Jimmy has always been ordinary. When, until the tree-descended super-powered people from Ulfitron pick him to be their new saviour, and the daydreaming teenager from Earth believes he finally has the opportunity to be special. Being the doppelganger of their previous hero means he has latent psionic abilities. And he can stop a returning nemesis, who wants to annihilate the Ulfitronians.

This paragraph raises a couple minor
world-building questions for me, but
mostly I love it. It has good movement
and great emotion.
He begins training on Ulfitron, only to discover that he is average at handling his powers as well. Anger and disappointment builds when he is unable to stop an attack which wipes out almost everyone in his enclave and his frustration mounts when he is forced to team up with the only other survivor, Juvall Spelding. A powerful Ulfitronian, his disdain of Jimmy's limited abilities is only outstripped by his determination to save his people.

I think the highlighted part here is
too vague. Vague secrets won't make
an agent want to
compelling choice will. Because
we don't know what the deception
is, we don't know what Jimmy's
real choice is.
When they learn of an even bigger invasion looming, their only hope of saving Ulfitron lies in tracking down the legendary trees whose unparalleled cosmic knowledge had helped the previous hero save Ulfitron. But within the journey lies a deep deception; one which reveals Juvall’s real intentions and Jimmy’s true origins, forcing him to question his loyalties. With time running out, Jimmy must decide where his priorities lie;: the heroism in attempting to save countless people or pursuing limitless power to finally rise above mediocrity.

I'm not a fan of telling comparisons
like this. I'd stick with the standard:
"available on request."
AVERAGELY EXTRAORDINARY is a 90,000 word YA sci-fi with a touch of fantasy. It can be encapsulated as a Clark Kent story with a Darth-Vaderesque twist
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Adam's Thoughts
I gotta say, Utsav, this sounds like a cool story that I'd totally read. I love that even with latent psionics, Jimmy just can't escape his ordinariness (though I hope he does by the end!).

The big issue for me is the choice at the end. You have one -- which is great! -- but it feels to me like a false choice. For one, I don't see why Jimmy can't do both. But also saving the people vs. personal gain seems like a no-brainer for a likable hero.

I suspect that knowing more about the nature of the deception will clarify how sadistic this choice really is. I don't think you need to give it all away, just enough that we know what Jimmy is choosing between and why it's so hard.

But that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you guys think?

If you would like your material to be critiqued, send it to firstimpactAE@gmail.com. See here for details.

Self-Pubbed vs. Traditional: Which is Better?

Someone asked me this recently and my answer got kind of long-winded insightful, and I figured why not inflict it on you guys? I'd save myself the trouble of writing another blog post you guys might be interested in what I think talking about it.

Although my personal neuroses have staunchly led me down the traditional path so far, the short answer is I don't think either path is objectively better.

Traditional publishing is harder to break into. You have to please more people (agents and editors need to believe they can sell your book, and sometimes they're done with a genre that readers still want) and you have to deal with more rejection. It will stretch you though, and if you make it, the benefits are pretty huge: an agent to partner with, professional editing, cover design, print distribution, etc.

Self-publishing, obviously, is easy to get into. I could do it right now. But success is more difficult because you have to do it yourself. You have to edit it (I recommend paying someone). You have to get a cover (again: pay someone). You have to find your audience by yourself (and hope they're into self-published e-books). The benefits are freedom, speed, and control.

But in my opinion, the biggest danger in self-publishing is fooling yourself. Susan Quinn addresses this really well in her Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing. I've seen a few folks go to self-publishing before they were ready. Some had been rejected by traditional publishing and didn't take the hint. Some thought the praise of their writer friends meant that perfect strangers would feel the same way. Some believed the hype of the self-pubbing community and were surprised when they only sold 200 copies.

Which path you choose depends on a lot of things: your writing, your personality, the market. But very generally, my advice is don't self-publish your first book.

But do query it.

Most likely it will be rejected, but I think you can learn a lot by querying, without harming your reputation or your status as a debut author. (I should note that weak sales in self-pubbing might not be a lot of harm, but I personally think you can learn more from querying anyway, so why risk it? You can always self-publish it later).

But no matter which path you take, no matter how low the sales or how high the rejections, don't give up and don't stop writing. Not if this is what you want. There are a lot of ingredients for success, but I've become more and more convinced that the most important one is stubbornness.

What do you guys think? Is there a better path? Why?