Sep 05 2016

Keep Calm and Query On

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Snoopy Deals With Rejection

Including the first cold submission to Tor, I have now been sending queries for Sky Pirates of Calypsitania to publishers and agents for five months. I have received:

  • Six form rejections
  • One personal response that my writing was strong but the agent didn’t feel a personal connection to these particular characters
  • Four chirping crickets

But today starts a new week, and so this morning I’ve sent off two more queries (including one to an agent who, even if she doesn’t care for the book, just seems like a cool person and I started following her on Twiter). As more responses come in, assuming they are more form rejections, I’ll keep sending more queries out, until this book sells.

Because that’s the thing, I believe this book will sell. It’s the kind of book I keep wishing somebody else would write so I could read it– and if I want a book like this, surely other people must too. It’s just a matter of connecting Book A to Readers B. I don’t expect it to become the sort of thing that makes it to supermarket shelves, necessarily, but I do think it’s a very entertaining first novel and is the good launching point of a career. I have seen (and read, and have in my personal library) books that are weaker on all fronts and yet are quite successful, and if those books can do it, so can mine.

So I keep calm and query on. There are hundreds (thousands?) of good literary agents out there, and if I get through the list, well, I’ll start over. And in the meantime, I will continue to work on the next book while waiting for responses.

We’ll get there.

-The Gneech

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Aug 20 2016

In Which I Deal With Rejection

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It has often been observed that writing is a tough racket. Like, suspiciously so– people have been predicting the death of the written word pretty much as long as there have been written words, but particularly the death of the modern publishing industry as long as there has been a modern publishing industry, despite the fact bookstores tend to be full of people happily shelling out their hard-earned dollars for books even in this post-internet age and that book sales are actually up rather than down. The rates for writers are largely un-moved in decades, and editorial budgets are slashed, but book prices keep going up, so… that money has to be going somewhere.

However, for the time being at least, I am not interested in figuring out that mystery. Publishing for me is largely a giant black box where I put words in one end and, theoretically, money comes out the other. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Granted, I have not submitted that much for publication in the grand scale of things, being largely self-published or having worked mostly with editors who were also friends and colleagues already. But over the course of my writing career, I’ve had far more successes than rejections. In fact, I can only think of three rejections off the top of my head:

  • A creature write-up sent to White Wolf for a Werewolf line “monster book” in 1989 or so. This was done hastily, because Bill (the line editor at the time) was in a pinch, and I basically threw together something that belonged in Call of Cthulhu instead. I’m not surprised he didn’t use it– in fact, I would have been more surprised if he had.
  • Out In the Cold, my first full-length(ish) novel, sent to an agent c. 1996 in a fit of youthful enthusiasm. This was a cozy mystery, and it didn’t totally suck but it wasn’t great, either. It did at least garner me a very nice handwritten reply praising the narrative voice and depiction of the characters. I eventually decided that mystery writing was probably not where my strengths were and shelved it after that. And finally…
  • Sky Pirates of Calypsitania, which as of yesterday has been rejected by one publisher and seven agents, and “soft rejected” by a handful more agents who simply did not respond (“If you do not hear in 4-8 weeks we aren’t interested.”). Of all these, yesterday’s rejection was the hardest.

The reasons why yesterday’s hit me so hard are twofold. First, this agent was specifically seeking steampunk novels– a genre which is notoriously tricky to get people interested in. I was very jazzed to see someone actually wanting steampunk, instead of having a subtext of “Okay, I guess I’ll look at it, but don’t you have any doorstopper fantasy or military SF we could check out instead?”

Second, after the initial query, the agent wrote back to me and asked for a larger sample, which was the first response of any kind on this book beyond a polite form rejection. I knew it wasn’t guaranteed that she would want to move forward after that, but I did think it was quite likely. She wanted steampunk, she liked the first chapter, and her agenting portfolio seemed like just the right fit for this particular book’s eccentricities. Alas, “After a careful reading, I am sorry to say that I don’t believe this project is right for me.” I sent her a thank-you note, and who knows, maybe something else will work later.

But in the meantime, we carry on. I really like this book– even if it weren’t my own it would be one of my favorites– and I honestly think it’s as good as anything out there. I know that steampunk is a long shot, and I know that first-time novelists always have a tough hill to climb. Yes, I’m disappointed, but I’m going to put it away for the weekend and then, come Monday, pull up the next three agents on my list and send it out again.

It is, as has been observed, a tough racket.

-The Gneech

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Jul 21 2016

Agent Seeking and Self-Pub Pondering

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So far my efforts to get Sky Pirates of Calypsitania to market have not met with success. The rejections have ranged to form “not at this time” letters to more personal “not at this time” letters, but the net result is the same, i.e., “not at this time.”

I’ve been pretty carefully targeting my pitches to maximize their chances, but alas I am starting to run out of “top tier” possibilities and I have to consider what to do next. As this is my strongest book to date and what I hope will be the beginning of a personal “franchise” (to coin a marketing term), I don’t want to make any giant newbie mistakes that will come back to bite me later, but at the same time, I do need to start making some headway.

So I am now considering self-publication. It’s not really where I wanted to go with this book– my long-term goal for this one is “See it on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.” However, I also need to actually get books out there being read and making money, which they can’t do just sitting on my hard drive receiving rejection letters.

I think I’ve also started making headway on the next book, although it’s still quite vague in my mind, to wit: another book in the same setting as Sky Pirates. As much as I love Verity and Tanya and I want to know more of their story, they’re only two people in a much wider world, and they’ve earned a rest from adventure for a while, the poor dears. Plus, they’re getting out of the airships business (or at least trying to), but I’m still interested in following that thread. So that means finding someone else to write about!

So while what is probably the last round of agent pitches goes out, I’m going to hit the Scrivener corkboard and start plotting. If any of my writing industry friends have suggestions for getting the current book rolling, however, I’d love to hear them!

-The Gneech

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Sep 09 2015

Having Written, Now to Read

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Because I have a terrible sense of timing, I spent August writing a novel. (Alas, no NaNoWriMo bragging rights for me this year!) After being consumed by the muse for a month and a week, I wrote the last sentence of the first draft yesterday, and did the mental equivalent of flopping over in exhaustion.

In a day or two, I shall attack the next project on the stack, which will be either to finish off a few more commissions or to draw Dungeons & Denizens, not sure which yet. But before I do that, I’m going to read a mother-hugging book.

Mere words cannot describe how important books were in my life once upon a time. My mother was a librarian until I was five or six, and never lost the temperament even when she left the job. As such our family hoarded books the way some families hoard cats, Beanie Babies, or collectible holiday glasses from fast food restaurants. Since the advent of the internet, however, books and I have somewhat drifted apart. As in, I still have more books than average and going to the bookstore is still my favorite recreational activity… but I don’t always have one in my pocket and pull it out whenever there’s a lull in the conversation, and I don’t have a room full of bookshelves stacked three deep any more.

I regret this state of things; going from someone who read two books a month to someone who reads two books a year has left me feeling out of sorts and given me the gnawing fear that my brain may be atrophying from disuse. But the reason I don’t read any more is because I tend to work myself to exhaustion, then not feel like I have the “time” to read. Generally once I start a book, I have a hard time putting it down until it’s finished, and if I try to read in small chunks over time, I lose the thread and get bored. In short, if I can’t read a book all at once, I have a hard time reading it at all.

But reading, and reading a lot, is fundamental to being a good novelist. You have to read in your genre of choice, so you know what’s going on and what’s “been done,” and you have to read outside your genre so you don’t become myopic or stale, and you have to read nonfiction to learn what the world is actually like, not just to add to the verisimilitude of your stories, but also to know how to actually be a proper human being.

Recognizing this, I have decided to treat reading as a project. When I finish one project (such as the manuscript I just wrapped up), I will read a book, and then move on to the next project. Besides getting me back into reading, hopefully this will also act as a mental palate-cleanser. When I’ve been deeply involved in a big project, even once it’s “finished” I tend to spend the next few days or weeks wanting to tinker with it, like somebody coming back and saying “And another thing!” after the argument is long over. Sometimes these thoughts are improvements, but usually they’re just puttering, and occasionally they’re making Greedo shoot first, so on the whole I’m better off ignoring them. By picking up a book, wildly different from the last thing I worked on, I hope to make my brain shift gears more quickly.

So! Having written a potboiler adventure novel about steampunk air pirates, today I delve into Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James, a nonfiction social studies book. Once I finish my next project, which is likely to be furry art or comics either way, I’ll probably re-read Soulless by Gail Carriger, or one of the various short story anthologies that have been building up by my bedside for the past few years.

By making it an assignment for myself, I can make reading a thing I don’t feel like a slacker for doing during the day, and doing it in binges is totally doing it right. Win/win!

-The Gneech

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Aug 27 2015

The Most Steampunk Song Ever Written

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“Hymn to Breaking Strain” by Julia Ecklar and Leslie Fish

The careful textbooks measure: “Let all who build beware!
The load, the shock, the pressure material can bear.”
So when the buckled girder lets down the grinding span
The blame of loss or murder, is laid upon the man
Not on the steel– the man!

But in our daily dealing with stone and steel, we find
the gods have no such feeling of justice toward mankind!
To no such gauge they make us, for no laid course prepare.
In time they overtake us with loads we cannot bear
Too merciless to bear

The prudent textbooks give it in tables at the end:
The stress that shears a rivet, or makes a tie-bar bend
What traffic wrecks macadam, what concrete should endure
But we poor sons of Adam, have no such literature
To warn us or make sure

We hold all Earth to plunder, all time and space as well
Too wonder-stale to wonder at each new miracle
’til in the mid-illusion of Godhood ‘neath our hand
Falls multiple confusion on all we did or planned
The mighty works we planned

We only in creation! How much luckier the bridge and rail!
Abide the twin damnation: to fail, and know we’ve failed!
Yet we– by which sole token we know we once were gods–
Take shame in being broken, however great the odds!
The burden or the odds

Oh, Veiled and Secret Power Whose Paths We Seek in Vain,
Be with us in our hour of overthrow and pain!
That we– by which sure token we know Thy ways are true–
In spite of being broken
–Or because of being broken?–
Rise up and build anew!
Stand up and build anew!

-The Gneech

EDIT: It has since been pointed out to me that Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem that comprise the lyrics of this! Which, as someone with a degree in English and who actually, y’know, studied some Kipling, makes me feel like a bit of a nimrod. ^.^’ What I said about it being the most steampunk song ever written still applies, tho!

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Aug 15 2015

The First Rule of Write Club

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For the past two weeks, when not sending off job applications, most of my time has been spent writing another novel. I had intended to hold off until November and do it as a NaNoWriMo project, but for whatever reason the book said, “NOAP, you will write me NOW!” and so I have been. As of last night, I hit 20,000-ish words at the end of chapter seven, and I’m taking a “creative recharge and look back at the progress so far break” today before attacking chapter eight.

I have to say, I am very pleased with how the book is coming along, and as far as this story is concerned, it’s about damn time. This story started out as a nugget of my Arclight Adventures comic project, then morphed into my Coventry idea, then emerged as its own thing, then got shelved, then informed the creation of Rough Housing, then got shelved again, and now has finally re-asserted itself with forcefulness that will not be denied. Verity and Tanya want their story to be told, and they want it to be told in the right way, dammit! And when characters yell at me that loudly, well, I’d be a fool not to listen. The book is coming fast, and solid, and fun, but also with a lot more depth and texture to it than I expected. As I tweeted last night, I think this is going to be my best book yet, and this is the one I finally feel is a good candidate for publication.

The revamped Brigid and Greg novel is another good candidate, actually, and I may put that into the NaNoWriMo slot if this book is finished by then. That one would probably have been finished by now if the house sale hadn’t knocked me out of my groove.

A major factor in this level-up of my writing craft has been Scrivener, which has turned building an outline/story structure from a horrendous pain into an absolute joy. For both the B&G book and the new one, I have started with five notecards:

  • Act One: Setup
  • Act Two: Conflict
  • Act Three: Rising Action
  • Act Four: Catastrophe/Falling Action
  • Act Five: Denouement

Drilling down from each of these, I put in 4-6 more notecards with major story beats. On each of the story beat notecards, I then drill down and put 3-5 short scene summaries– not even whole sentences, just things like “Brigid and Isadora argue”. That whole process takes me a few days, and by the time I’m done I have a nice and solid skeleton to start hanging my story on. From there, it’s just writing out each scene as described in the summary, usually in a 500-1,500 word chunk, of which I can write around three on a “normal” working day and more on a really good day. Just looking at the math, you can see what happens: four scenes of 1,000 words each make a 4,000 word chapter; five chapters of 4,000 words each make a 20,000 word act; four acts of 20,000 words, plus a denouement that’s probably one or two chapters tops, make an 80,000-90,000 word novel.

(Of course, nothing ever goes completely to plan. In the current story, in order to twist the emotional knife on a particular scene, I decided to elevate something that was basically speed bump in my outline into a major catastrophe, which in turn made complications that had to be coped with, but which had not been factored into the original plan. Using Scrivener, that was relatively easy to fix, basically by just shoving in some more notecards for new scenes or chapter. Since it’s just shoving little pieces around at the outlining level, it doesn’t feel like major plot surgery.)

Anyway, I think that with this book, I will actually be making the transition from perennial dabbler to true professional novelist. Not just because of the quality of this piece, but because I now feel like I have the tools and the experience to repeat the performance. I can now confidently build a novel-length story, and I know both what I want out of the process and what the process will need out of me to pull it off. And honestly, I think that when I actually finish something my writing is as good as anybody’s out there.

Building an audience, translating these books into earning a living, and all that stuff, is something else I will need to tackle, of course, as is integrating all of this with my desire to keep Suburban Jungle alive. But those are all topics for another day.

-The Gneech

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