March 30, 2011

Sonny Liston

If you know the name Sonny Liston at all, you know it's the guy on the mat in the famous Mohammed Ali photo. It's one of the most highly recognizable/promoted sports pictures in American sports history. There's Ali talking smack and some boxer on the mat he's just knocked down in the first round. That's Sonny Liston1.

In the world of publishing, you are not Mohammed Ali. You are Sonny Liston. You need to focus on the fight you're in and not think of the fight that comes next. If you're not focused, you'll get an Ali jab to the face that will drop you to the canvas and then they'll publish your humiliation for decades to come.

I submitted a query on Monday. It was a damn fine query. One of the best I've ever written (and while I only have four completed novels, I wrote eight different queries for WANTED alone, so plenty of queries for comparison's sake). I submitted it to an agent that had previously requested a full manuscript. I then started doing wat I always do. I started a new project to take my mind off the wait. But, I skipped back to the completed manuscript. I had rewritten the beginning and wanted to make sure that this new content was as good as it could be. I wanted to make sure they requested a full again and not just sample pages.

Do you see what I did just there? I'm working to make sure they request a full when they haven't even requested sample pages yet. A solid query + a desired genre + previous positive history with the agent summed a presumption that they would want to see more. So thirty hours later when I got a rejection, Ali got me right in the face. I have never had such a strong reaction to rejection as I did yesterday. Why? Because I wasn't focused on the fight I was fighting. I had moved on.

Don't do that. Publishing is hard enough. There are so many steps along the way where someone can tell you that your awesomeness isn't good enough. Put your effort into staying emotionally strong. Learn from their criticism, improve, continue. You need to put the next foot forward and you can't do that if you're lying on the mat getting your picture taken.

This is only one rejection. I still have plenty of other agents who--if they have any sense at all--will want to see my manuscript. ;) There's another fight after this one, and it's time to prepare for that one2.


1 Sonny Liston had a record of 50-4-0 and was world heavyweight champion when he faced Cassius Clay for the first time. The famous photo is from the rematch. Clay had changed his name to Ali, the Nation of Islam was at the height of its national power, and Liston took a considerably light jab in the first round and dropped. The ring ref was so occupied with getting Ali to a neutral corner that he never started the ten-count. It was a sports reporter who informed the ref that Liston had been down for longer than ten seconds that prompted the ref to call the match (even though the rules of boxing require the opponent to be in a neutral corner before the count can begin). Years later, according to Wikipedia, Liston admitted to taking a dive because he was scared of retaliation from the Nation of Islam if he should win.

2 The next fight involves a synopsis. I hate synopses. They just suck the life out of a story.

March 29, 2011

Sweet, Sweet Crazy

I don't hop on the bandwagon too often, but this was just too much fun not to share. I've seen it a couple places, but Pat at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist convinced me to click and read the comments.

It's best if you read the review (which I think is incredibly fair), but then you have to read the comments. My favorite is the 8th comment. That is the epitome of professionalism. Epitome.

(And if Jacqueline Howett should find my blog, your sentence structure is atrocious.)

March 28, 2011

Query'd

So I posted a three drafts of the query for JEHOVAH'S HITLIST (twice as primary posts and once as a response). I got some ingenious feedback from Elizabeth Poole following my third draft that took in it a whole new but slightly different direction. I am withholding the final draft until querying has passed and/or my brand spanking new agent says it's cool to post it.

Today I sent out the first query for this manuscript. Hello anxiety, my old friend. I haven't seen you for awhile. Welcome back.

March 22, 2011

Comments, Questions, Criticisms

We've all seen the blog posts and Tweets by agents of the horrible responses some queriers send them a rejection. It can be fun to rubberneck such responses, watching the car wreck that is that person's nonsexistent career and wonder What were you thinking?

That's a no brainer, though. I assume none of you would think such a reply appropriate, but there's a more subtle trapping that more authors (well-intentioned authors) fall into. Having recently received beta comments for JEHOVAH'S HITLIST, I had to mentaly prepare myself for criticism. It's like running a marathon. You gotta be in shape!. You have to be ready for someone to criticize your work and then thank them for it.

Here is a general rule of thumb: YOU WILL NOT BE PRESENT TO EXPLAIN THINGS TO THE READER. Occasionally a detail might be missed, but for the most part, if your beta reader points out something that didn't make sense, this is not the time to explain it. You missed that chance. Now is the time to fix YOUR mistake.

If your writing cannot communicate what you want it to without further input from you, then it's wrong.

Now, that's easy to accept when reading a blog, but just as easy to forget when receiving criticism. When someone offers constructive feedback, your first response is THANK YOU. They may not be right. They may be. But yours is not to defend your novel but to revise it to be the best that it can be.

So to train for feedback, go through mental exercises. Remind yourself that the goal is to get good feedback not for the beta reader to love your book. You want the world to love your book and an important step toward that is fully accepting and implementing feedback.

I DO NOT NEED YOU TO LOVE MY BOOK. I NEED YOU TO HELP ME MAKE IT BETTER. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMENTS, QUESTIONS, AND CRITICISMS.

March 18, 2011

QUERY: JEHOVAH'S HITLIST (another draft)

In September '10, I made a first draft of a query for Jehovah's Hitlist. It's a rule peoples, never go with your first draft. Of anything. Not your novel. Not your query. So I've written a few drafts of JH (and will be doing one more) so it's time to put the nose to the grindstone and get a quality query.

...of course, I suck at queries, so I need your help! Read the below. Help me make it better. PLLLEEEEEAAAAASSSSEEEEEE!!!!!!

Jehovah knows a secret. On Sundays when they parachute down the charity box, he can see where they open the sky to make the drop. First one to the box gets the best charity: ration bars, medicine, ammunition, and what all. Jehovah gets himself real leather boots meant for the Hanged Man with a list of five names stuffed inside.

It lists five people who can lead him up above. He must find them and kill them or the Hanged Man says he will destroy Missouri Avenue. That ain't a threat to take lightly. When the folk on Alaska Avenue betrayed the Hanged Man to the deputies, he pulled himself out the noose and leveled the entire block. He'll do the same again lest Jehovah does what he's told. Go up above and deliver a note for the Hanged Man. Do that and all is forgotten.

That's the dream of everyone in the Nation. Escape the jackals and the marginalized, the spikers and the snake oil addicts to the platform city above. That was Jehovah's mama's dream. She sold him and his brothers to buy her way up and here the Hanged Man was giving him the opportunity. All he need do is kill five people and don't look back. Leave it all behind, friends and family, violence and vice. But at the end of all things when the waters have risen and humanity has fled to the sky above, all one has left is family.

JEHOVAH'S HITLIST (or DOWN BELOW THE UP ABOVE) is a completed 94,000-word adult, dystopian science fiction.

March 17, 2011

Patapan

The year is 1816. President Benedict Arnold made the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon Bonaparte thirteen years previous. Defeated at Leipzig and driven from the French throne by the Sixth Coalition, Bonaparte fled to New Orleans. There French loyalists rallied around their emperor. They seceded as a US territory and declared themselves New France (Burgundy?).

Napoleon's army marched northward, following the Mississippi river. Now it approaches Arnold, a Missouri town still loyal to the United States. They prepare to defend themselves, but with Napoleon to the south and Saint Louis to the north, can they hold out long enough for President Jefferson to send troops to save them?

March 16, 2011

I'm a Back!

Hey ho! I had some roll-over vacation that had to be used by the end of the month and PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) East happened in Boston this past weekend. Serendipty! I gathered some friends and experienced my first video game convention.

This was not my first convention. I love role playing and was actively involved in the RPGA (role playing gamers association), writing adventures, playing games, and even organizing conventions of my own. What I learned this weekend is that I'm an old man. Skipping meals, not drinking water, staying up until 3 in the morning? Yeah, that's a young man's game.

I did have some genuine days off. Most of that time was spent playing Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2 (again, I'm getting ready for Mass Effect 3 to release later this year). I did go out to breakfast and revise JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. I should be done with that draft by the end of the week...just in time for Beta Feedback! Wheeeeeeeeee!

I'm going to write up a full con review for The Way of the Game podcast, so I won't get into it any further. I'll let you know when it's up. Also, if you've never listened to the PodgeCast, I was one of the founding hosts. Though I've been gone for awhile now, this week's episode (#131) was AWESOME. You might not get it if you haven't listened to the show, so the best solution there is to listen to the archives and then listen to 131. I actually laughed out loud. Podcasts are hard pressed to get me to laugh at all, much less out loud.

I'm still kind of worn out. Add in the daylight savings time switch, and I feel pretty jet lagged even though I didn't fly anywhere. I'm also still grinding through emails. 250 down, plenty yet still to go.

So what about you peoples? What kind of hobbies do you partake in when you're not writing?

NOTE: If you have no hobbies to fill time when you're not writing, this is bad. You need more in your life than just work and writing. Find something to do and do it. If you need a primer, I will assign you a hobby. Just comment below.

March 8, 2011

Do I Still Count?

When was the last time I wrote something original? I'm trying to remember and quite frankly, I can't. I edited the TRIAD SOCIETY then I revised JEHOVAH'S HITLIST then I started rewriting WANTED: CHOSEN ONE and now I'm doing yet another pass on JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. Somewhere in there I wrote six chapters of THE 7TH SACRIFICE but I honestly can't remember when that was. It must have been January because I remember finishing JH right before Christmas.

It's been two months since I wrote something for a brand new story. The last time that happened it was the beginning of '09. It feels weird to have that absence, like I've given up being original and just dwelling on work I've already done. But that can't be, JH is a brand new story! It's never been queried. But I finished it in December. Hell, I should be 2/3 of the way through a new draft of a new story!

This is so outside my normal method of writing that it doesn't feel like I'm writing at all. I write [edit] every day but it doesn't feel like I'm doing anything at all.

The Five As



So after a very direct post telling you to publish for the money, I turn around and say I'm not in publishing for the money. ...okay, I'm not only in publishing for the money, and I doubt you are either. I've been a long-time fan of George Carlin and even got to see him for my birthday in 2001. I prefer his earlier work, that time when he was first really hot, going on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson1. He did more intelligent humor and less antagonistic humor, which was the trademark of his '80s and '90s work.

He spoke of his progressive school in some of those early jokes but never the Five As. You have to watch toward the end of the video, but as soon as I saw it, I thought, YES! That is why I am publishing!2

  • Attention
  • Approval
  • Admiration
  • Approbation3
  • Applause


1 I also prefer Johnny Carson from that age. Really, I'm just a sucker for Golden and Silver Age comedy. The straight man/clown dichotomy is the source of my very dry humor. To this day I sometimes have to wave my hand above my head so that my wife knows I'm joking. You can imagine how hard it is for me to be funny over the internet.

2 And much like Carlin, if my mother ever read the kind of stories I wrote, she would only approve of it if the church said she could. She always wanted me to be a priest. ...yeah, that didn't work out so much.

3 And if you actually knew what that word meant or took the time to look it up, yes, one of the five As is the definition for one of the other five As. Carlin was a rebel like that4.

4 According to the wiktionary, approbation and approval have the same general meaning, but approbation is considered stronger and more positive. ...like Carlin's earlier work5

5 See what I did just there? Bring it full circle, baby. That's writing!

March 3, 2011

If this is YA, Society is Coming to an End

I have mentioned previously that despite the popularity of YA, I have little interest in trying to cash in on the genre. I like writing adult work. I like deep moral and ethical exploration that comes from an environment of violence, sex, and all the topics that a YA book can ricochet off of but never delve into too deeply.

Admittedly, the genre has been getting grittier. I continue to claim that Janice Hardy's Healing Wars series has become too violent to be considered Middle Grade. That's YA. And YA is getting more violent as well, but it hasn't reached where I write yet.

I'm revising JEHOVAH'S HITLIST to submit for querying next week. The story is much more solid than I remembered and I am pleased to find it so. The main character (Jehovah) is 15 years old. This is perfect for YA, yeah? Teenager. Protagonist. YA dystopian is hot. Here we go! Of course, he kills four people in the first chapter alone. The book has profanity, public nudity, drug use, prostitution, slave trafficking, masturbation, underage sex, racism, and lots of killing. It's a dirty, gritty world, and I would not diminish that a fraction to cash in on the YA market.

...now, if the publisher thinks parents won't mind their teenagers reading about a Nevada Avenue fuck whore or a marginalized too doped up on spike to get hard, then I wouldn't complain about the higher advance that comes with a YA sale. ;)

March 2, 2011

A Dollar Fifty in Late Charges at the Public Library

I have two degrees, English with a focus in creative writing and theatre with a focus in playwriting. When I finished college, I considered myself a playwright. With the exception of two classes, my English education had been crap1, 2. Of my required creative writing classes, I had the same professor for all but one and she was just there for the paycheck. I learned absolutely nothing from her other than, yes, there are bad teachers out there.

While I had dreamed of writing novels when I was younger, I found plays more fulfilling3. I planned on going to graduate school, and maybe teaching writing while writing plays of my own4. That derailed in the spring of 2000 when my college best friend asked me to move to St. Louis and help him with his business. There went grad school and St. Louis doesn't have a strong theatre community. A few oases in the desert, but nothing like Boston. A decade later and I'm back to pursuing fiction publication.

The thing is, I'd still like to get a higher degree. Not because I think it'll make me a better writer (my college classes certainly didn't), but because I said I was going to. I don't like that hanging over me. I told my college mentor on two separate occasions that I was going to go to grad school and here I am 11+ years later without a single graduate class under my belt.

I don't pursue that impulse. Time is a factor. Add in the strong desire to never have homework again. Then season that with I don't think graduate programs teach writers what they need to know. I run into a lot of writing graduate students. Most of them have rolled into the program directly out of college. They're 21, wet behind the ears, and no everything. As any old man will tell you, someone that young can't know everything. You have to get to our age before you know everything.

Joking aside, graduate writing students love to talk about the business though few of them have any experience with it other than submitting a short story or poem to an online magazine. A couple might have been published once or twice5, but they all know how the industry works. What kills me is when they start telling me how the industry works, they're so often totally and inextricably wrong.

Frankly, they'd all be better served by a week of intensive reading of blog archives by Kristin Nelson, Nathan Bransford, Moonrat, and the other heavy hitters of the publishing blogosphere. The thing I hear most often is that it's not how you write but who you know6. There are claims as to costs and midlist authoring and querying.

Oh the querying. I think college professors intentionally teach their students how to query wrong to diminish competition against their own works that they're still trying to get published. I can't figure out why else they would tell them to do the things they do. (One student talked about the importance of listing his MA at the top of the query so that the agent would know they're weren't just any writer, but someone truly talented. He did not appreciate it when I started laughing at him.)

I try to set them right. I try to pop those bubbles that I can. I tell them who to Google and what blogs to read. Listen, student, you seem like a nice person. I'm not trying to rain on your parade, but you're spending graduate level dollars on information that will net you nothing in return. You'd be better served getting a library card and signing onto the internets where they keep the truth. You're in for a rude awakening. Prepare yourself so you can be the first of your classmates to successfully navigate the rocky shoals of publishing.

This leads to the inevitable, what have you published? Me? Well, I have three completed manuscripts, two of which received full requests. I have a fourth I'm about to start querying, but I have not published a novel yet.

And that seals the advice of my fate. If I don't have the bookshelf to prove myself a better source than their instructors, they'd rather believe what they already believe. Don't take my word on it! Just go to these blogs. Look through the archives!

They never do, of course. They have homework, after all. This irks me only a little, but I probably would have done the same in their situation. I feel bad for the older students, though. The ones that aren't still claimed as a dependent by their parents, but have a spouse and kids and a job on top of their school work. They're draining the family funds for an experience they think will ready them for publishing.

Writing readies you for publishing. Reading readies you for publishing. Information readies you for publishing. You can get all this without a graduate program. You don't need to spend 150 grand for an MFA, only a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.


1 Folklore and Advanced Writing: Poetry, in case you were wondering (and no, I'm not a poet).

2 My Shakespeare English class (as opposed to my Shakespeare theatre class I took the semester before) was so atrocious and factually inaccurate ("all Shakespearean plays are tragicomedy") that I complained about the professor to the department. My grade was then dropped from an A to a B.

3 There was a play my senior year that--while pretentious--had a woman scream while the lights were out. No movie, audio recording, or any other medium of delivery had ever evoked such a strong response from me. She reached into my stomach and tore out my intestines. I almost came out of my seat it was so powerful.

4 You think it's hard to get a book published, try the theatre. The people that make a living in that art are not only incredibly talented but wicked lucky as well.

5 This demographic is obviously changing as more and more young authors are published as undergraduates and even teens. Hannah Moskowitz had a good blog post on what it's like being a published author as an undergraduate.

6 Knowing the right person can open a lot of doors, don't get me wrong. It can be maddening for those of us who don't. But in the end, if your writing isn't up to snuff, you better know the owner of the publishing company or it doesn't really matter.

March 1, 2011

Realigning the Thought Tracks

There is some common wisdom shared among authors that has gotten twisted by the internets, like playing a game of operator/telephone (depending on where in the country you grew up--basically a message is relayed through a number of people and it warps with each passing). The very wise advice was, "Don't quit your day job and think to support yourself with a writing career."

Fewer and fewer authors are able to write full time, especially those that don't have spousal revenue/benefits to take advantage on. Certainly it's challenging to make a living when you don't have a backlist to generate revenue on top of your new advances. George RR Martin once said that an author should not quit his day job until his backlist royalties equal his advances that total sum can support his lifestyle. I think this is a good and simple rule of thumb to follow.

Unfortunately, the advice has been warped to say "Don't get into publishing to make money."

Bull. Shit.

There is no better reason for you to get into publishing. It is the best reason to get into publishing.

You want to write a book because you love to write? Fine, write it. You don't need to publish it to satisfy that goal. You wrote it. Goal accomplished. What are you trying to get it published for? The one is completely independent of the other.

You want to be published so more people read your story? Self-publish on Amazon and set the price for as low as it can go. If you just want people to read it, nothing gets your work out there like a free book on a major distribution platform. The numbers say a first-time midlist author can expect to sell only 2000 books. You can pass that total if you're just giving it away, can't you?

So why are you publishing? You just want to hold the book in your hand. Go to Lulu or Ingrams or hell even Publish America will get you a paperback for you to hold onto. Certainly they don't have the thousand hoops you have to jump through to get published by a major house.

Why are you publishing? To be a professional. And professionals get paid, kiddies. Don't think that getting paid for your writing makes you any less noble. Don't think it besmirches your art. If you're going to publish, you do it for the money. Know how royalties work. Know quarterly statements and quarterly taxes. No rights and revenues and plan strategically.

If you are querying agents and pursuing publishing, you are announcing to all parties that you expect to get paid. Don't shy away from that fact and for the love of god don't tell people not to get into publishing for the money. Just tell them not to quit their day job.


Which reminds me of a second thing I've been hearing lately. Actually, I've been hearing it for awhile but it seems to connect with this post very well. There are some agents out there who have VERY helpful blogs that really get into the challenges that agents/authors face in terms of boilerplate negotiations and rights disputes, royalty statements, etc etc. Someone will inevitably comment to the post saying, "See, this is why I want an agent. So I don't have to worry about this stuff."

Bull. Shit.

You will learn the business of publishing, my friends. You know what they call people who let other people manage their business? Suckers. You want an agent because they know people in the industry. They know the workings of the publishing contract. They know likes, disklikes, preferences, and dirty tricks. They're your consigliere. But you're still the motherfucking godfather. All those numbers and percentages and conditions and timed changes may seem intimidating, but you will learn them all. Because in the end, the only person that's really looking out for you is you. There's no guarantee you'll end up with a top shelf agent. There's no guarantee you'll end up with a top shelf editor. You are your business and you need to protect yourself from the failings of others.

Having an agent and an editor are good things, in my opinion. They are powerful tools for publishing. Their DeWalts not piddly Black & Deckers. But you need to read the instruction manual and make sure you don't put a screw right through your thumb.

You're not alone in this great endeavor, but you are the captain of your ship. Know how to sail.