Fly-By: Still here, just busy

Hey there!

Sorry I haven’t been able to update at all this week…I’ve had an extremely busy few weeks with Day Jobbery stuff — training, office visits, and whatnot — which has put a bit of a strain on my writing schedule.  You probably know already that I hate it when that happens, but it is what it is.  I was really looking forward to drawing and posting my next character sketches, too!

On the plus side, I’ve been using what writing time I do have on a new Mendaihu Universe story, which I am writing completely via longhand in a trusty 3-subject notebook.  I’ve also been working on a ‘secret project’ on my daily words as well.

[What’s that, you say?  What happened to Walk in Silence and Blogging the Beatles?  Well, long story short, let’s just say I was a bit, er, generous about my assumptions as to where I was in terms of having them finished.  WiS needs a major retooling and BtB is off the table for now, for various reasons I won’t get into at the moment.  The Curse of Announcing Best Laid Plans and all that.  Still–the shopping around of the Bridgetown Trilogy and related projects is moving quite nicely, so it’s not a complete loss.]

ANYWAY.

Due to said Day Jobbery stuff and multiple personal events going on, I will most likely not be able to make any updates here until at least after 7 April.  So hang tight, there’s more coming!   Thanks for waiting!

Look!  New words! Yay!
Look! New words! Yay!

A Division of Souls: More Character Sketches

20150317_190725Please welcome Alec Poe, emha si edha!  Alec looks a little tired here for his mug shot, but that’s because HR took it first thing in the morning, and he’s not a morning person.  More to the point, he’s definitely a night owl.

A little bit about Alec, who’s often referred to as “Poe” at HQ and by his closest friends: he’s half-Meraladian and was given up for adoption when he was an infant, and grew up with the Poe family in the blue collar McCleever South district, where he still lives in the same apartment.  Like his ARU partner Caren his extrasensory abilities are above average (this will be a major plot point later on).  He’s very protective of his friends and extended family.  He’s a semi-habitual smoker who often lights up when he’s under severe stress.  In large crowds he’s more of an observer than a participant, but within his inner circle of friends he’s quite intelligent and chatty.

On Writing: More About Submission

[Note: I’ll state here and now that I’m still at that point where I have not yet been accepted by a publisher or an agent.  These are merely thoughts and ideas that have come to me over the years via the submission process and the numerous articles, con panels and books that I’ve encountered.  These entries are not about how to win at submitting; they’re more about giving you things to think about.]

After I posted last week’s entry about submitting to an agent, I had a few more thoughts about it that I’d like to share.  These aren’t exactly how-to-query thoughts, but more along the lines of FYIs; stuff to think about when you’re at this stage.

Multiple Submissions. This one’s confusing to a lot of people, especially new authors, and that’s totally understandable, because it can be a very vague phrase and misintepreted easily.  You’ll see submission guidelines that say “no multiple submissions.”  What does that mean, really?  Does it mean “you can only submit to us and no one else until you hear back from us (whenever that turnaround time is)”?  Or does it mean “don’t submit everything you’ve ever done to us all at once”?  Or does it mean “don’t submit the same novel query to my co-agent Bob that you’re also sending to me”?  For those like me, this could mean just about anything.  I need a bit more to go with.

Thankfully, most agencies and publishers have more detailed submission guidelines nowadays, which they have on their websites.  One agency I submitted to last week said “If submitting to me, please do not also send it to the other agents on my team.”  To put it another way, it’s a bit like getting one of those “Reply All” emails you sometimes get at work.  Should you work on this issue, or should James?  Or do you both ignore it and thus nothing gets done?  Pick one agent you’d like to work with at that agency and stay with them until they say yes or no.

I’ve also seen agents where they want exclusivity; if you’re sending to them, do them a favor and don’t send to another agency, because that’s just bad business.  [Granted, there are some writers and agents who take umbrage to exclusivity, and I have my own opinions about it which I won’t go into here.  How you want to handle your manuscript is completely up to you, not me.]

On the other hand…

Do you really want to send to one agent at a time?  Do you want to send your Awesomesauce Novel to an agent, hope for the best, and have no idea what your answer may be in the next six to eight weeks or however long it takes?  Maybe so, but what if you don’t get any bites until, say, the twentieth agent that says yes?  Do a bit of quick math, and that’s a good year or so between the first submission and the final successful one.  Do you really want to wait that long to maybe achieve your goal of being published?

This is why some agents and publishers state off the record that they accept that you’re more likely submitting to multiple places at once, to cut down on the time.  Remember, you’re not entirely at their mercy…they want to do business with you, if your novel is what they want to work with.  If you get a yes in the meantime and you’ve made your informed decision that you want to work with that particular agent or publisher, at least be courteous and tell them you’ve withdrawn your submission.

As always, if in doubt, check out their submission guidelines. They usually have their own linked page on the company’s website, and many of them are totally fine with you asking for clarification if need be.

What Agency and/or Publisher to Choose.  This one can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.  When I was growing up I had dreams of getting published at a Big Name Publishing House.  I took these dreams a bit less seriously in the 90s, though at the same time I started paying attention to who was publishing most of the books I enjoyed.  It’s a little like noticing how a lot of my favorite late 80s albums were released on 4AD, or how many great bands I liked were distributed by Warner.  Take a look at what you’re reading and why you enjoy it so much, and think about whether or not your novel would fit in their roster.  I have a small list of genre publishers in my head that I think would like the Bridgetown Trilogy, and am aiming to submit to them.  I also have a list of agents I’ve been researching over the years and have been submitting to them as well.

At the same time, I’m keeping an open mind.  I could just as easily check out a few small presses who could suit my needs as well.  And I could even try my hand at indie publishing (read: going the self-pub route — I like the “indie-pub” moniker better, as it makes more sense logically).  Don’t be afraid to have backup plans.  I’m reasonably sure that agents and publishers are also well aware of these alternate routes. Keep in mind, they’re also looking for new work, so they’re not about to say “oh–well, he might be skiving off and using BookBaby instead, screw him.”  That ain’t good business sense.  If you can get picked up by them, both you and they will be happy for it.

I buy Writer’s Digest’s Writer’s Market every other year or so, just as a reference guide to see which agents and publishers are out there and doing business, and I also subscribe to various magazines: The WriterPoets & WritersWriter’s Digest, and Publishers Weekly.  [That last one can be pretty expensive for those on a budget, but it’s extremely worth it for the news coverage, book reviews, and other business-side issues.  Ask your library if you can’t afford it.]  Keep an open mind about it, and use these reference tools to come up with a good solid idea of how you want to sell your novel.

Social Media.  There are so many things being said about this right now, many of it contradictory.  On the one side, you’ve got pros suggesting you have some kind of social media platform: a blog, a Twitter account, and so on, and reminding you to be visible as much as you can.  On the other, you’ve got people howling in frustration that so-and-so spends way to much time tweeting that their new book is out.  There are others out there suggesting you must have an extremely professional website if you want to make it…and George RR Martin only shows up in person on LiveJournal.

There are no hard and fast rules, no matter what anyone says, save one: all in moderation.  You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a pro website when you can get a free one via WordPress (or drop an annual Benjamin for an upgraded version, which I do).  Your social media visibility should be at your own pace, design, and comfort level.  I post a lot of unique blog entries over different platforms, depending on the subject, maybe once or twice a week.  I’m on Twitter a lot, though I don’t always actively tweet.  I balance all this with a lot of offline activity as well, which I don’t always make public.

You may need to sell yourself to some extent, especially if you’ve got a book coming out or you’ve got an appearance at a con or a local book store, and that’s totally fine.  You may even want to occasionally remind people that your book can be nominated for a Hugo or whatever award.  [I know there’s a lot of guff about this subject, but again–all in moderation.  A sticky note on your website or an occasional reminder on Twitter is fine; hourly announcements probably less so.]  If you feel you can get away with livetweeting your life, by all means go for it.  If you’re more an analog person like me and enjoy not being plugged in 24/7, that’s fine too.

Do you have any other thoughts about submission you’d like to share?

A Division of Souls: More Character Sketches

image

A two-fer this time, featuring Sheila and Nick. They’re Caren and Alec’s team two on the ARU.  Admittedly rough (eyes and eye symmetry seem to be the hardest for me), but I like how they came out.  These two are my favorite secondary characters in the Bridgetown trilogy, as they seem to have that “we’re from a different book but somehow we got dropped here” aura about them.  They do have very important roles, however.

Sheila Kennedy is Caren’s former ARU partner; they split up while Caren was on LOA due to her parents’ deaths.  They have an extremely close friendship that transcends some boundaries — they were lovers for a very brief time as well — and though they are on separate teams now, they remain very close friends.  She’s that girl you knew in college who was loud and silly and friends with everyone, and you’d better be far away if you piss her off.  Her extrasensory abilities aren’t as strong as, say, Caren’s or Alec’s, but she has a knack for using them in unconventional ways to get the job done when need be.

Nick Slater on the other hand comes from the darker edge of Bridgetown; he was both part of the B-town Metro Police and a bodyguard for various government visitors.  He left the BMPD because he felt he could do more working for the Alien Relations Unit.  This is an interesting decision, considering unlike most of ARU agents, he shows no outward signs of having any extrasensory abilities.  He is, however, extremely observant and stronger than he looks.

Edit: I’ve gone back and done a bit of similar description for the Caren and Denni drawings, if you’re so interested.  It’s two entries below!

On Writing: The Submission Process

From past experience, I would say that manuscript submission is both the most exhilarating and most frustrating process a writer has to contend with.  On the one hand, we’re absolutely thrilled that we’re sending our finest work off into the great big world like we’re sending our five year-old child off to kindergarten.  It’s an immensely proud and exciting moment, and we can’t wait for the point where our handiwork will be seen by many on the shelves of bookstores.  Yet at the same time…

At the same time, we have absolutely no idea if the agent and/or the publisher will think our book is the best thing they’ve ever read, or if it’s absolute drivel and all our beta readers were just being nice to us out of pity.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad…it’s not always a bad manuscript that gets the rejection, and a writer needs to remember that more than anything else during the submission process.  I know I certainly do.  There are a lot of reasons for rejection, and “because it’s drivel” is actually pretty low on the list, from what I’ve seen and heard from the professionals.

Here’s a short overview of issues one might face when submitting your novel:

You’re not paying attention to the guidelines.  A lot of newbies run into this.  It’s understandable, but it’s really something you should be vigilant about.  I just recently sent out two agent submissions for A Division of Souls, and I made sure I followed directions. Both agencies request e-queries only; they even went out of their way say snail mail queries will be recycled unopened.  Frustrating for some, yes, especially if you’re not wired…but this can be easily rectified by a trip to the local library or anywhere that has a connection.  Most agencies actually request the first few pages within the body of the email, which makes it even better for those unable to attach files.

Many agencies and publishers request a specific page amount; one agency I submitted to requested the first chapter, whereas the other asked for the first twenty pages.  When I submitted to Angry Robot’s Open Door last year, they asked for the first fifty pages.  They all requested a short synopsis (one agent had no length limit, the other requested one paragraph), maybe a short personal bio, and contact information.  Point being: what you put in your query really does depend on who you’re sending it to.

They’re just not interested.  Well…this doesn’t necessarily mean your novel bored them, nor is it proof that your novel is in fact drivel.  This merely could actually mean that you’re trying to sell Noel Gallagher’s latest High Flying Birds album to someone who can’t stand Oasis.  You could be trying to sell your zombie novel to someone who thinks zombies are the stupidest trope ever, and would be doing both you and their agency a disservice trying to sell something they don’t like.  Or on the other hand, it might not be their personal taste but the agency’s or publisher’s tastes; sometimes they state they’re looking specifically for hard science fiction but no swords and sorcery books.  Again…it’s all about the guidelines.  Instead of trying to shoehorn your book into a spot where it doesn’t quite fit, look for a place where they would fawn over it like adorable fluffy kittens.  [Or puppies.  Your choice there.]

You can write it, but you just can’t sell it.  This is the problem I run into the most; I consider myself a pretty decent writer, but I can’t sell you sliced bread to save my life.  I’m no salesman.  I hate the process of trying to sell something to someone.  [The only exception to that was my job at HMV.  I can upsell you music like no tomorrow.]  But how the hell do I distill a novel that’s around 150,000 words down to one paragraph?  I don’t mean the one sentence elevator pitch, which I can kind of get away with.  I’m talking about explaining the entire book’s plot in about ten sentences.  What do I keep in?  What to I leave out?  How do I best describe what goes on without rambling incoherently, as well as explaining the entire arc?  It’s pretty damned hard, I tell you.

I spent the other night forfeiting a writing session just so I could focus on explaining A Division of Souls with just enough detail to spark the agent’s interest.  Here’s what I came up with:

In A Division of Souls, the delicate supernatural balance between two spiritual factions is threatened when a renegade leader sets off a powerful ritual that escalates a mass psychic and spiritual ascension well before the alien Meraladhza and the human race are ready for it.  In the process, he’s also awakened their deity, the One of All Sacred, much earlier than anyone expected.  Alien Relations Unit agents Caren Johnson and Alec Poe are assigned to find and stop this man, but as they learn more about his ritual and its aftereffects it becomes a bigger race to keep this enlightenment from spiraling dangerously out of control.  They must not only come to terms with a changed city, but the change within themselves, and what it means to be a part of a new conscience.  And Caren must face her worst fear: her lone surviving family member, her young sister Denni, is in fact the resurrected One…and a spiritual war has just been declared in her name.

I’d like to think this covers most of the bases: the main plot of the spiritual war between the Shenaihu and the Mendaihu (names taken out here to avoid too much confusion…just mentioning the imbalance is enough); the introduction of two of the major characters who have to fix the conflict (Alec and Caren); the other main arc of the awakening of the One of All Sacred (and the fact that she’s a lead character’s little sister, thus showing further conflict); the fact that the awakening ritual had affected more than just Denni.  [Note: as a follow-up paragraph, I gave very brief one-sentence descriptions of Books 2 and 3 to show that the trilogy was in fact already complete, and what they would entail.]

So did I sell it?  Again, I have no idea…I’m a horrible salesman when it comes to selling my own work, and I thought I did, but I could be totally wrong.  I do know that I can talk convincingly about my trilogy because I’m so familiar with it from the many versions and revisions.  If any questions come up, given a few moments I can probably give a detailed and reasonably concise answer.  But the hardest part of this query was not the writing of it…it was trying to see my book from the perspective of someone who hasn’t yet read it.  I had to back away from all that Mendaihu Universe knowledge just enough so I could give the novel the leanest yet most informative description I could.

All told, it’s one of the toughest pieces of writing I’ve ever had to do, but I’m proud and relieved that I forced myself to do it despite the odds.

 

Of course, at this point I’ve been hitting the refresh button at my GMail account in hopes that a response will have arrived.  And I’m sure I’m not the first or last writer who’s done that after they send their book off into the wild.

A Division of Souls: Character Sketches

Something I’ve been doing lately as part of my whiteboard schedule is doing some kind of drawing at least once a week.  I’m trying to break out of my doodly comic style (I call it my “Murph” style after the character I used to draw in college) and attempt something a little more realistic.  The last few weeks I’ve been trying out characters from the Bridgetown Trilogy.

Here’s a perky looking Denni:

022415 Denni

Denni is an extremely intelligent girl for her age and nearly all of her classes are Advanced status.  She’s amiable with everyone, but she saves her real emotions for her closest friends, of which there are few.  Her closest friend is a boisterous and diminutive girl named Amna Ehramanis, a half-blood human (she has both Earther and Meraladian blood from both sides of the family and damn proud of it).  She seems to have taken the deaths of her parents (also ARU agents) a bit better than Caren; she still mourns for them but instinctively feels that their spirits have remained close by to watch over them, and that has helped her heal.

And here’s her older sister Caren, wearing her Alien Relations Unit uniform:

030315 Caren

Caren Johnson doesn’t look too happy here, and it’s because she hasn’t been truly happy for a long time, not since their parents died under questionable circumstances.  She herself did not know how they’d died while on a case until nearly six months later.  She’s healed somewhat, but she now feels frustrated and directionless, and feels she needs to do more to make everything right, especially now that she’s taking care of Denni.  Despite all that, she still cares deeply about her fellow ARU partners and everyone else close to her, and will go out of her way to do what is right for them.

This is actually kind of a fun exercise!  I know these characters so well, and yet all this time I never really got around to visualizing them in this manner.  [There’s also the fact that this is a half-serious attempt at drawing the characters for a possible webcomic version down the line, but that’ll be some time in the future.  For now I’m just trying to get them onto paper!]

I will of course add more sketches as they pop up!

On Reading: Be Not Afraid

I just finished reading AM Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea last night, and absolutely loved it.  It’s one of those books where you end up staying up past your bedtime so you can finish it up.  Fast-paced and fun, it straddles between YA and adult fantasy, following a girl named Sophie Hansa as she travels — first accidentally then purposely — to an alternate world full of magic, seafaring piracy, and family intrigue.

I mention this because I think it ties in nicely with a recent blog post by writer Shannon Hale called “No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer”.  She talks of her tours of schools to talk about her Princess Academy books, specifically the problems she has at some schools where her audience is all (or nearly all) girls, with nary a boy in sight.  More to the point: the fact that the boys weren’t invited, or needing permission to join in.  It wasn’t just expected that boys would have no interest in a writer who writes about princesses…even if it was unintentional, they’ve also reinforced the idea that boys shouldn’t have an interest in stories about princesses.  It’s just not a manly thing to read, even if you’re 10.

This reminded me of an event in seventh grade, between myself and the school librarian.  [I mention it briefly in the comments section of Hale’s entry.]  They had this special event every month or so where kids could buy cheap paperbacks from a bookseller; they were your typical MG and YA novels, maybe some comic collections and kids magazines, that sort of thing.

I took an interest in that partly because my dad and I had started taking road trips on weekends to Northampton or elsewhere to stop at bookstores, and I’d pick up something to read every now and then.  This book club was an easy way for me to find more things to check out.

At the time, I was interested in a lot of YA novels from Apple Paperbacks and other publishers; the covers may have been kind of dorky and the stories somewhat simple (strangers following you, problems with your friends, having weird yet really cool magical abilities), but they were fun reads.  I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t that interested in stories about sports, or men of action, or any of those other typical boy-centric stories.  The reason was simple: I like a good story, regardless of the gender of the main character…but the subject has to interest me.  I wasn’t going to waste time reading about a kid trying to make the baseball team when I had no interest in baseball and sucked at it anyway.

Mind you, this was also the time where I’d started becoming interested in writing fiction.  The Infamous War Novel I started in 1984 was the first one I completed, but I’d had at least a dozen or so incomplete ideas dating back at least a few years earlier than that.  This had little to do with passive reading.  I was gravitating to what I knew I enjoyed and wanted to write.

So when I’d ordered a few of these Apple Paperbacks (including Willo Davis Roberts’ The Girl with the Silver Eyes — one of my first forays into the SF genre, come to think of it!), I was excited to start reading these things.  However…

However, the school librarian had side-eyed my choice in reading.  In fact, if I remember correctly she actually pulled me aside.  “Are you sure you want to read books like this?” she’d asked.  “Don’t you want to read about sports or spy novels?”  I stood my ground and kept reading these things, but there was something in the back of my mind that nagged at me: was I reading the wrong things?  Was it wrong for me to like books with female leads?  I shrugged that off just as quickly as it came, but that was probably the moment where I realized I would not be able to confide in this particular librarian.  After all, she was also the one who had seen me pick up a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer in the school’s library and asked if I would really ever get around to finishing it, considering it’s over five hundred pages long.  And now I had it in my head:  Would other boys think I was a fag (and I mean that in that wonderful 80s teen way) because I liked books about girls?  Did I have to keep these books to myself now, for fear that others would side-eye me as well?

She apparently had my number well before I had it myself.

The sad thing is, this was also right about the time where my attention span had started to wane.  Not out of any emotional or mental deficiency, but because I was starting to get bored.  I didn’t figure it out until many years later that my grades really started slipping right around that time because I’d lost interest.  I’d rather be listening to music or writing (yes, even then at 13…especially then) than reading some assigned book that I just didn’t want to deal with.  The end result was that I would end up with my first failing grade in my entire school career.  I got an F.  In English, of all things!  I wanted to be a writer and I loved reading!  What had happened?

Thankfully, I turned it around and managed to squeak by with a C- by the end of the semester and didn’t have to stay behind or take summer school. I knew I wasn’t dumb, I just needed to make a concerted effort to get the work done.  It was a slog and I did a half-assed job most of the time, but I did well enough to graduate with the rest of my class.

But the damage really had been done in junior high.  I don’t blame that librarian…she was of an older generation and was safe in her Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Girls world.  My bad grades were my own damn fault.  But if it wasn’t for my 7th grade English teacher assigning us Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (one of my all-time favorite novels), my mission to write and finish a novel, and a stubborn will to read what I wanted, I’d probably have done worse.  I remained a B- student pretty much all the way until I graduated college.  And I barely picked up a book for pure entertainment purposes, even though I was still attempting to be a writer…that wouldn’t happen until around 1995.

I know it sounds petty, but this is what happens when you throw preconceived expectations on kids of that age.  Let me explain — I know you mean well, and I can see where you’re coming from (even when the gender segregation is a dumbass thing to do).  You’re giving them anchors and guidelines, something for them to base their life experiences on.  You’re trying to train them to see potential roads they should follow for future education, and that’s a good thing.  But at the same time, you’re not paying attention to how the kids are processing it.  A. and I have similar tastes in some things, but wildly different tastes in others.  I don’t even have the same path of logic as she does half the time.  We should learn how to think critically, but we also have to remember that each person thinks, lives and reacts differently.

I like what I like, and I choose not to be afraid of admitting that.

This is also partly why I chose to put Denni and Caren Johnson as the most important characters of the Bridgetown Trilogy — I remembered those Apple Paperbacks (and I was reading Kate Elliott’s Jaran series at the time) and enjoyed reading female lead characters.  I had no other reason, political or feminist or what have you, for centering the story around them.  They. Are. Important. Characters.  And they were not extensions of me.  That’s all.

I know this is kind of a long diatribe, but I felt it was important to share.  I’d like to believe that the boundaries we should teach kids are not external such as gender roles or conformity, but internal, such as respect and awareness.  Read what you want to read.  Write what you want to write.  Learn what needs learning.  And don’t edit your reading preferences because of someone else’s opinions.

Be not afraid.