I’m back!

Well, more or less. The months-long grind at work is over, culminating with a swift kick to the professional groin as I missed my deadline despite working every waking hour (after a while I enforced a five-hours-of-sleep rule) for a couple of months, and even before that at least ten hours a day, weekends included, since January.

My apologies to those I’ve snubbed in the last while, especially those passing birthday wishes my direction. What I had planned as a glorious celebration of my half-century on this planet turned out to be a really shitty day.

I’ve taken a little time off from work since then, to get my feet under me, to get my health habits restored, and to generally feel human again. I still dream about the project, and find myself lying in the early mornings going through the solutions to some of the pending tasks on a project that no longer exists. It was so very close to being so very very cool.

The last few days I’ve managed to get a little bit of creative juice flowing, and perhaps soon I’ll be ready to write that retrospective on the last fifty years. April 2th (rhymes with ‘tooth’) has come and gone, but still deserves some observation. In the meantime I’ve got The Monster Within, which by God I’m going to see in book form this year if I have to publish it myself.

Next week I might be ready for human interaction again, so those I’ve been ignoring should be hearing from me soon. Thanks for your patience!

Time to Let Hunter Run Free

I’ve spent a lot of time writing a novel called The Monster Within. If you ask me, the thing’s pretty damn good. While I may not be the most unbiased judge of the story’s merit, I have to say that even after spending countless hours honing it, I still enjoy sitting back and reading it.

The thing is, I suck at selling stuff. I sent the novel off to some of the top agents in the biz, and got kind rejections. Almost universally the rejections actually contained specific commentary, which is unusual. The main message: We like the writing but way too many pages. The length is a problem because a) there are a lot of 300-page stories trapped in 700-page manuscripts out there, and b) the book would have taken too much physical space in a rack (can’t fit in as many copies), and would cost more to print.

As to a) above, I had completely failed to convey the complexity of the story. I kept trimming the message to the agents, smallifying the synopsis to fit submission requirements, but in the process losing so many elements of the story that of course the agent would say, “125k words for this little story? *Yawn*” The navel-gazing preamble did nothing to reassure the reader that a tight story was to follow.

Regarding b), Monster is a fantasy novel, and readers these days expect them to run fat. That doesn’t change the economics of cutting down extra trees for a guy no one has ever heard of before.

In the end, my poor sales skills and lack of perseverance led to my failure to form a partnership with someone trained in exactly those qualities, and Monster rests idle.

Since those failures, the Kindle came out, and Amazon stabbed the already-wounded bookstore chains in the soul. Nook and iBookstore followed. Books aren’t necessarily made of paper anymore. A fat novel costs the same to distribute as a pamphlet. (Well, almost.) I could publish Monster myself. Charge a lot less yet put more money per book into my own pocket.

That’s great, right? Stick it to the man! Who needs all those editors in their New York offices?

Actually, the reading public owes those guys quite a lot. The stuff the big publishers put out falls into two categories: good writing and crap that will sell anyway. In the Kindle bookstore, there is a frothing cauldron of sewage with a few choice works bubbling to the top. When you pick up a book made of paper, at least someone somewhere thought it was worth cutting down a tree. If that book has a name on it and it turns out to be a worthless piece of shit, you know to avoid that name (and perhaps that publisher), and to disregard all the glowing reviews by people who don’t actually read the books. Eventually you will find those you do trust, and by letting them screen the novels before they reach you, they protect you from a lot of crap.

Unless you get caught in a spiraling disaster like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which doesn’t fall so much into the ‘crap that will sell anyway’ category as it does in the “remember the good old days at the start of this series when Bob had an editor?” bin. I suspect the publisher would have loved to help him tighten his story, only Jordan, as a self-proclaimed genius (I heard him proclaim it), would have none of it. The only people reading the series by then were the people with so much invested in the roughly ten bazillion pages that had already gone by that they were willing to tough it out just to get to the end.

Um… I’m drifting off-point here. I started to say that editors helped readers with a major signal-to-noise problem and then I provided two concrete counterexamples. I think in debate class this was a frowned-upon tactic.

But, signal-to-noise. That’s the key here. Editors and agents are filters, reducing but not eliminating the noise. If I self-publish Monster, I will be living in the realm of pure noise. As bad as it is in the dead-tree publishing world, it’s far, far worse in the self-publish world. There’s a lot of really bad fiction out there.

So how does one float to the top of the cesspool? How do I separate myself from the blather and unmitigated horribleness? How do I convince people who have never heard my name to spend a couple of bucks on my book?

There are two things I must do:

  • Have a great cover.
  • Make a lot of noise.

Yep, to overcome the signal-to-noise problem, I have to make more noise. It’s like being at one of those parties where everyone is talking really loudly and you realize that nobody would have to shout if everyone would just stop shouting. But to sell this book, I’ll be calling on all of you to amplify my voice. I will be resuming my podcasts. I’ll probably fire up a Web site for the book. And I will relentlessly bug everyone I know to buy the damn thing, and if they liked it to leave reviews on Amazon and iBookstore. I’ll be emptying out my address book on this one. Just tellin’ you now, so you can be ready for the awkward conversation later.

First, however, is the cover. I’ve had the cover in my mind for a long time, and one thing about self-publishing is that no joker who’s never read the story is going to put some generic “insert standard hero here” shot on the cover. (Hunter is a non-standard hero.) The biggest problem with my vision is that it will be both difficult to pull off and not especially powerful when viewed as wee icon in the bookstore. So you all have a reprieve while I get that into place.

Woefully Unprepared

At the start of September I had a plan: 1) Spend September finishing a draft of Dark War that my brother could critique and maybe even hand to people. 2) Spend October working on The Monster Within and get it ready for some serious flogging at the World Fantasy Convention. Simple enough.

Dark War started running long (other projects pushed in, I got stuck a couple of times) but I wasn’t too worried. October is a long month. Then, as regular readers are aware, I got a job. For the most part a job is a good thing, what with paychecks coming in, keeping up with technology, and getting to apply my programming skills to make the world a little bit better. It comes at a price, however, and when you jump in on a project that is running behind and people aren’t even sure how behind it is, you can run into a pretty major life suck.

And so it was that I finally took most of today off to prepare for the WFC (after a work meeting that had the benefit of getting me up early this morning). Monster is untouched, which really sucks because the first chapter could have a lot more impact, and my goal in the next few days is to get people to read that chapter. I have no current synopsis, no other sales materials prepared.

This morning I went to the WFC Web site to check out the program, and see what time things were starting tomorrow. The answer: the festivities start tonight. I’m not going to make it. I don’t think I’ll be missing anything critical, except a chance to rub elbows with people who might give me money for my work. Tomorrow I’ll hit the ground running.

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World Fantasy Convention!

Well, it’s official; I’ve paid my money and everything. I’m going to this year’s World Fantasy convention, and I’m not at all sure how to prepare. It’s the sort of event I should have been attending for years now, and being able to do stuff like this is a fortunate side-effect of living in North America.

On that subject, aren’t these things supposed to have wacky names that end in ‘con’?

So what is this convention? As far as I can tell, it’s an event where boatloads of writers and publishers and agents and other industry folk gather for three days of… stuff. Elbow-rubbing. Looking for deals. Writers trying to get published, publishers trying to find writers that don’t suck. Panel discussions and whatnot. A few key people who are paid to come and encourage the masses. Others who have come simply for the love of the genre.

If all that sounds pretty vague, it’s because I’ve never been part of one of these things before. It’s an important part of my chosen profession, however, and contacts I make at this thing could turn my career. Or not. Or maybe I’ll make an impression with someone that pays off years from now. You never know.

I do know it pays to be prepared. To have things to hand to publishers and agents that they will love, things that at a glance will tell them that they are just dying to read my novel. “Stop the presses!” they will shout into mobile phones, “we have to rearrange the 2010 catalog!”

Another opportunity I have is to impress people in person in ways that anonymous submissions never can. I can talk to important people and leave them thinking “That guy’s an intelligent, articulate guy with a refreshing vision of the fantasy novel.” This will simultaneously be the easiest and most difficult thing for me to do. Once I get into a conversation with the right people, I’m sure I’ll do well. (I’ve been lying awake at night devising my elevator pitch.) The thing is, I’m really, really bad at getting into those conversations in the first place. I’ve been to other industry conventions and utterly bombed at networking (even at the conference about networks).

So, anyone out there have any suggestions? Both for specifics that I should take with me and for the more general hob-bobbing? Any help will be greatly appreciated!

Common Errors

Got an email from an agent today, which was exciting until I realized that I had submitted my work to the agent the same way. Still, I’d never had an email from an agent before, so I dared hope.

The message read, in part, “You have a nice storyline and a flair for storytelling. The problem is you’ve made a number of common errors that most writers fall victim to.”

Of course, there is no enumeration of what those common errors are. Clearly the agent is not prone to false pedantry about non-rules like ending sentences with prepositions. This is one reason I spend time critiquing a book after I read it, so I can identify those “common errors” and address them in my own work. In this case, the common errors may not even exist. This might just be the standard rejection email, praise and criticism alike. Everyone who submits may have a “flair for storytelling”.

So, how does one spot and stamp out these common errors? First, of course, is friendly but critical feedback from friends. If a few of you out there would like to read The Monster Within and you promise to criticize it ruthlessly, I’d be happy to send it along (although I’m reworking the first three chapters a bit at the moment, to better stun prospective agents).

Second, there’s writing school. I’ve been thinking about writing school for a while now; as with almost any other discipline professional instruction has to be beneficial. Nowhere would I find such consistent criticism than at school, and I would have a chance to air out my more literary musings. Putting a Masters of Fine Arts onto my biographical data in submissions would likely help as well, at least some of the time. I guess it’s time to look into what something like that would cost, and where the likely candidates would be.

Of course, once the Dark War screenplay is turned into a blockbuster, my worries will be over. Better get back to work.

The First Fruits of the Submissions Drive

I got home last night to find a letter waiting for me on the stairs. I really wasn’t expecting to get anything back this quickly, and I assumed that a rapid response was not probably not a good sign.

I opened the envelope and found my cover letter with some notes written on it. That is unusual; most agents have a simple form letter they return. This saves the agent time, but more important it shields them from indignant rebuttals from would-be authors. So that was nice. Normally you have no idea why you’ve been rejected, and therefore you have no idea what to do about it.

I was rejected for two reasons, and both of them may be problematic. The manuscript is too long and i break a Rule. Cut 35% of the text, change it so there is no broken Rule and they would be interested in taking a closer look.

The note went on to say that judging by the opening few paragraphs I should have no trouble finding the words to eliminate. Ironically, those words are there more for the agent than for the story, setting the mood while I demonstrate my style. (Although I have tightened it up a bit since submitting to this agent.) Then it gets right down to the action and never stops. I’ve already gone through the manuscript a few times chopping out any deadwood I could find. (Well, OK, there is one action sequence that does not ultimately change the outcome of the story, but I like it. In a pinch, I have about 5,000 words to give. Only 35,000 more and I’m golden.)

There’s another way I could shorten the thing easily. I could just chop the damn thing in half, hang the reader out to dry when they thought they were buying an entire story only to get to the end and find out that they’ve bought the first of a series. I’ve read some books that make no pretense whatsoever at providing a satisfying ending, and it pisses me off. Some of them may as well break mid-sentence for all the concern they show for their readers. Still, it’s an option…

Then there’s the Rule. I’ll have to review how I present it in the cover letter; the response seemed to think I broke the Rule for humor, which can’t be farther from the truth. Breaking the Rule is intrinsic to the way the story works, and I’m certain that if someone would read the thing they would agree with me that it works pretty dang well.

So, naturally, my first impulse was to write the very sort of rebuttal that makes agents afraid to give me helpful information. The thing is, even once I get an agent, that person is going to have to turn around and defend the length and Rule-breaking to a publisher. These aren’t arbitrary biases on the part of the agent, they are things that will make selling the manuscript to a publisher more difficult.

Hm… chop it in half, then sell the second part first. No Rule-breaking there. I can just pick up mid-sentence and carry on!


Working on the @#$&! Synopsis (again)

I’ve been concentrating the last few days on sales and marketing, trying to connect my words with people who may actually want to pay me for them. Short stories are (relatively) simple — a potential publisher (or overworked minion) reads the story and decides if it’s worthwhile. So, for that effort I need only a simple cover letter with a one or two sentence blurb about the story, a bit of biographical data, and the story does the rest, living or dying on its own merits.

A novel is a more difficult sell. Nobody has time to read all the crappy writing that comes over the threshold every day, so the evaluation process has been streamlined. This makes things more difficult for the deserving writer, but it makes things possible for the agents and editors (and their minions) who have better things to do than read bad fiction. (Better things like, for instance, reading my fiction.)

The chaff is separated from the wheat based on a few criteria; the initial submission to an agent is the minimum amount of material required to prove that the writing is not so badly flawed that it’s not worth any further consideration. The reader has a giant ‘NO’ stamp hovering over the page during the entire evaluation. An agent wants to know a few key facts: 1) Can this guy write? Does he have command of the language, with coherent paragraphs and facile use of imagery? 2) Can he put together a coherent narrative — an actual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? 3) Are there interesting people who grow or change? 4) (bonus) Is the writer a pro who will be reasonable to work with?

Question 1 is answered with a sample of of the actual work. This is often (but not always) the first three chapters of the story. The bonus question 4 is answered with a polite, informative, and coherent cover letter. That leaves two questions which much be answered by a separate piece of writing, a marketing piece drafted solely for this purpose, called the ‘brief synopsis’. I have been wrestling with this beast off an on for more than a year, now. It is not a simple exercise. How do you distill a whole damn novel into a few paragraphs, give some idea of characters and events, and somehow retain the drama you just used tens of thousands of words to build?

I had a synopsis I was satisfied with, but increasingly I discovered that the definition of ‘brief’ that my first effort was based on was by no means typical. Back in I went with the text machete, but when I chopped out a bunch, the remainder wasn’t compelling. I started from scratch. Somewhere back in time on this blog you can read about my pleasure with the result. I managed to maintain this happy feeling for quite some time by avoiding rereading it. Now I’m pretty sure that although it sucks less than the first attempt, it still sucks.

Quite by accident I stumbled across a description of a synopsis that carried one helpful bit of information that none of the others ever did: Start with a paragraph that describes the structure of your story. The Monster Within takes place in four parts that are defined by the progression of the main character through four stages of personal change. By starting with that simple fact, then by describing the four stages, the synopsis is much more coherent and focuses attention on the character-driven nature of the story.

That synopsis advice runs counter to other help articles I’ve read, but hit me as such an obvious and practical tip that I wonder why I never did that before. Perhaps I even did, but then read too many “how to write a synopsis” pieces that focussed on simply condensing the story. (Actually, I still haven’t gone back to read my current synopsis. Maybe I snuck the structural information in there anyway. I’ll check after I finish the first draft of the new one.)

Once more must I muster all my skill to write a nonfiction article about a work of fiction, that somehow is a faithful representation as well as a compelling read in its own right. This time I’m ignoring the advice of all those helpful ‘how-to’ articles, and just trying to be natural. It’s been going pretty well, although I haven’t checked the length yet. That could come as an ugly surprise.

I should say it was going pretty well, right up until I got to the end. I left out so many plot points through the course of the synopsis that I’m stumped about how to make the ending make sense. Instead, I am sitting here writing about writing about my novel. (I suppose I’ll have to leave a comment about writing this episode.)

It just occurred to me that I could write a completely different ending that works for the synopsis. Once someone bothers to read the whole novel, the mismatch won’t matter… right?