After the Draft: Episode IX, Myke Cole

Good morning friends, lurkers, and mortal enemies keeping tabs on me. While Let Sleeping Gods Lie cools its heels in a new agent’s hands for a while, I’ve brought in an excellent guest post from the indomitable Myke Cole! For those of you who don’t know, Myke has been making a big splash these last couple of years in the urban fantasy genre with his Shadow Ops trilogy, the final installment of which, Breach Zone, drops tomorrow. Just go ahead and order the whole trilogy now. You’ll thank me later. In addition to being a rising star in the genre book world, Myke is an officer in the United States Coast Guard, and works cyber security for the NYPD. He also has a pet fish that has more twitter followers than I do.

I asked Myke a couple of months ago if he wouldn’t mind sharing his experience bringing his first book to publication in a guest post. What he wrote wasn’t so much a post as a manifesto. If you have any inkling, any desire at all to become an author, you want to read the whole thing through to the end. It is blunt, loud, profane, and above all, honest, just like Myke himself. Enjoy!

Nothing To It But To Do It

Myke Cole

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess why you’re reading this. It’s not out of an abundance of affection for some blocky dude with a buzz-cut, hunkered over a laptop in Brooklyn. You know I’m a writer, a published writer at that. You’re wondering what the secret is. You want to see how I did it.

You’re looking for the magic key.

Well, let’s get to the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front, as we say in the guard). There is no magic key. There are no gatekeepers. There’s a tiny sliver of who-you-know and a pinch of luck, but the lion’s share isn’t rocket science. It’s just work. Endless, relentless, grinding work. You push until you can’t possibly push anymore, and then you dig deep and find a way to push some more.

There’s no secret. Want to be a writer? Fucking WRITE.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll tell how I did it.

I did it the wrong way.

When I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I immediately went about it bckwards. Instead of focusing on my craft, I focused on everything else: I networked. I made connections. I read blog after blog to figure out how others had gotten their first book deal. I read posts much like this one.

That was a bad move. Because until you have a dynamite manuscript, a novel so good that it competes with the giants in the genre, nothing will help you land a book deal. Quality is king in this business. Bullshit walks. I would have probably got my first book deal years earlier if I’d just concentrated on learning how to write an amazing book. Instead, I heeded the wrong-headed advice of more than a few writers on the Internet. In retrospect, most of these advice-givers were writers focusing on short stories as a path to novel writing, which makes no sense to me. More on that in a minute.

But I was young and impressionable. So, I paid attention. The steps they laid out were these:

–          Write lots of short stories. Get good at them.

–          Submit to the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Finish on the podium.

–          Your WOTF podium finish will give you the credit you need to get associate membership in SFWA. It will also give you a cover letter credit that will get you out of the slush pile at the major magazines.

–          Get your 3 major magazine/anthology short story sales, and get active membership in SFWA. This will get you into the closed parties.

–          Go to the closed parties and meet your agent.

–          Agent signs you, sells you novel, mission accomplished.

There is SO much wrong with the steps I’ve just listed. For one thing, short stories are a different medium than novels. Developing skill at one does not necessarily translate into the other. For another thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly “closed” SFWA party. If some effort is made at closing it, you can have a friend get you in. We’re geeks. We don’t have bull-necked bouncers at the door checking membership cards.

But most important is this: If you write an AWESOME novel, and you have no short story credits to you name, and you’ve never won WOTF, and you don’t know industry people, your novel will still sell. Because it is awesome.

The myths about gatekeepers is a bunch of bullshit that people spin to try to get themselves off the hook. It’s easier to say “but the gatekeepers will never let me in,” throw up your hands and refuse to try. Or you can try the “talent” myth. “I don’t have a talent for this, so why bother?” Lock that crap up. Bleed until you have it right. Write an INCREDIBLE novel. It will sell. The so-called “gatekeepers” are people with decades of experience picking winning horses. They don’t pass on manuscripts they are confident will make their company a ton of money because they don’t personally know the author. Or because the author isn’t in SFWA. Or because the author doesn’t have a strong social media platform.

Bullshit walks. But great writing sells.

So, yeah. Those steps are all totally wrong. And I followed them anyway. To the letter. Every. Single. Step.

And whaddya know, it worked.


I firmly believe it delayed my first book deal by at least 5 years.

So, let me give you some alternate steps:

–          Come up with an idea for a novel. Not a short story. Not a novella. A novel. Because you want to be a novelist. Because maybe one person on this earth makes their living writing short stories, and it isn’t you.

–          Focus on the characters. Stories are always about people. Make sure that your characters are complicated and fascinating. Consume media that focuses on character. Read romance novels. Watch The Wire. Think about how complicated your own goals and hangups are. Make sure that kind of thing is making it on to the page. A book with an amazing plot and wooden characters sucks. A book with a weak plot and incredible characters is amazing.

–          Write the book. The whole book. Not a partial. Not an outline. The whole thing. Make sure it’s at least 80,000 words long. That’s approximately 320 double-spaced pages.

–          Give yourself permission to write a lousy first draft. If you edit as you go, fine, so long as excessive agonizing over minutiae doesn’t prevent you from actually finishing the thing.

–          Do not freak out over the font. Or the margins. Or whether you’re using “proper manuscript format.” Nobody really cares about that crap. Jut make sure it’s clear and readable. No editor every rejected a great book because the italics were actually italicized instead of underlined.

–          Print the Turkey City Lexicon. Read it. Then, burn it. Invent a machine that burns things that have already been burned and burn it again.

–          Take risks. Every major success in the arts has been an outlier. To play it safe is to commit yourself to mediocrity.

–          When you have written the entire book, not part of it, but all of it, take a break. Start thinking about people who might be able to give you feedback. I would select beta-readers thusly:

  • I would first look for people whose careers are where I want mine to be. If I want to be a published novelist, I would try to find a published novelist.
  • If I couldn’t find a person with a career that’s where I want to go, I will seek out insightful, critical readers who don’t blow sunshine and who give advice that has you slapping your forehead and thinking, “that’s so obvious! Why didn’t I see that?”
  • Don’t pick too many beta-readers. There’s such a thing as too much advice. I use two beta-readers. At most, three.

–          Pay attention to the feedback, but also remember that this is your book. You are free to disregard it.

–          Sit down and rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. Polish and perfect and obsess. CONTROL POINT’s 19th draft was the one that went to press.

–          Be fully prepared to have to throw away an entire novel. Accept the possibility that it can be unfixable. Accept the possibility, no, the probability, that you will have to throw away hundreds of thousands of words until you come up with ones you can be truly proud of.

–          And this: the hardest part – accept the possibility of ultimate failure. Accept that you could pour 20 years of your life into this pursuit only to come away empty-handed. It is a real possibility, and if you can’t take pleasure in the work itself, if you can’t find something worthwhile in the journey, then run away and do not look back. Not everybody wins in this arena. The odds are long. They are not ever in your favor.

–          And this: It never gets easier. When you finally do get that book deal, nothing will change. The grind will still be there. You will have to feed the beast for the rest of your life. Every novel is a debut. Every writer is one bad book away from the end of their career.

Here’s the thing. I felt a joint come unglued, a switch flip, when I finally crossed the threshold. But it wasn’t a networking switch. I never learned a secret handshake. The barriers fell away when I stared defeat in the face and smiled back at it. There was nothing else I wanted to do. Everything else had been stripped away. I realized at that point that I had some 50 years or so left to keep trying, and if I couldn’t pull it off in that time, well, the worms slowly digesting my remains could put up with the taste of disappointment.

When my goal was to get published, I didn’t. When my goal became to write a great novel, I did.

The magic key was this: I focused on being good above all else.

Get to work. I’m with you.

After the Draft: Episode VIII, Moving On

When we last saw our brave little manuscript, it had been lost deep inside the review process. Yes, finally I have some news to share about Let Sleeping Gods Lie, (which you may remember as Any Port in a Storm, that was the working title). Some of the news is good, some of it not so good. Which is exactly what you should expect during this stage. Even very good projects take months or years to find the right combination of agent and publisher, more often than not.

So, let’s start with the not-so-good. You may remember back in September an agent and editor had asked me to submit the book for consideration. Since then, I’ve been in contact with the editor in question, who sent me a note to let me know he had received the email, and again last week to let me know he was going to be in touch soon. Great, no problems there. The agent, however, proved to be a bit more of an issue. After sending off the manuscript in September, I never had any word back from them. Now, it’s only been four months, and one would not necessarily expect to have an answer by now. Agents often get hundreds of queries per month, and trying to keep on top of the pile is a daunting task. However, I never heard anything back from this agent, not even a quick note to verify receipt of the manuscript. After two months, I sent out a feeler email asking if they had gotten it. I did so again a month later, with no reply to either. So I made the difficult decision to abandon the attempt and begin actively querying new agents again.

That first day, I pulled out the stack of business cards I’d collected from agents at cons and receptions over the last couple years and sent out a half-dozen emails. Be very careful during this step to review each agent’s submission guidelines individually. These can usually be found on their agency website. Tailor each email to that particular agent’s wishes. Do not BCC or, heaven forbid, CC every agent in your address book. That looks simply terrible, and will probably mean your query gets deleted before it’s even opened. You can read a generic version of the query letter I sent out here.

And in the interest of total transparency, on five out of the six queries, I totally fucked up. Somehow in my rush to get them out the door, I completely forgot to include that last important bit of the email where you’re supposed to share your publishing credits, (if you have any). Dumb, dumb, dumb. I was excited, and simply didn’t take the handful of seconds needed to review the emails before hitting SEND. On the final query, I caught my mistake and added the information back in.

On Sunday during the drive back from ConFusion (which was great) I received a reply from one of the agents I’d queried. Low-and-behold, the one who actually got to see my pub creds had come back asking for more. I’m not saying that is the only reason the other five didn’t respond, but coincidences are hard to ignore. In his response, this new agent asked for a “partial” to review, which is nothing more than the first few chapters of a book to see if they successfully capture the agent’s interest before they commit to reading the entire manuscript. Some agents ask for partials, others just ask for the entire manuscript. It’s really up their individual taste. In this case, he wanted the first thirty pages of the book, which worked out to be the first two chapters, and a synopsis.

Now, writing a novel synopsis is possibly my least favorite thing to do in the world, right up there with changing a flat tire on the side of the interstate during a hailstorm, running the last mile of a half-marathon, and force-feeding venomous snakes. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, think of the synopsis as a Cliff Notes version of your book, except way shorter. Like 1,000 words short. Take that two-hundred page manuscript you’ve just spent a year writing and editing, and cram it down into two pages without losing any important plot elements, characters, or narrative flavor. It’s like trying to stuff a full-grown African bull elephant into a Russian nesting doll, without killing it or breaking the doll.

However, it must be done. And if you’re smart, which I wasn’t, you’ll have written and honed your novel synopsis before you even start querying. Just as with the query letter, there are a lot of great resources out there for nailing the synopsis. Here are a few:

My best advice is to read through a few examples of novel synopsises… synopsi? Fuck it, you know what I mean. Read a few of them to get a handle on them, then write a couple of your own. If you have a trunk novel or two, write a synopsis on them as practice. This will give you a chance to write one out without the stress of getting it totally right on the first try.

My synopsis for Let Sleeping Gods Lie came in at 1,600 words, or about two and a half pages of text. That’s a little longer than what some agents prefer, but this is an epic, second-world fantasy, after all. That was about as crammed as that elephant was willing to get. I would love to put it up here to let everyone read for themselves, but considering what it is, that would spoil the entire book and quite possibly hurt or end its chances at publication. However, if the book does get picked up, I’ll be happy to put it up as an example after that point.

Next week, After The Draft continues with a guest post from the indomitable Myke Cole. He’s stopping by to tell the tale of how his smash hit, Control Point, made it out of his brain and onto the shelves. And he’s doing so on the very day the final book of his Shadow Ops trilogy launches. See y’all then!

Hi, I’m a Conservative, not a Republican

For the umpteenth time, I’ve had the less than pleasant experience of having to defend myself after revealing that I identify as conservative. Usually, it comes from a liberal friend or colleague who assumed I was one of the faithful. Nearly as often, it comes from a republican who accuses me of being a Rhino, Blue-Dog, or simply not a conservative at all.

Well, I am, and I think I’m part of the very small minority to which the label actually works as it was intended. Here’s an explanation of why, so I can just point people to this post in the future.

Take a look at this chart:


Some of you already know what it is. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it is a graphic representation of all of the scientific papers on the topic of climate change published in peer-reviewed journals over the course of the past thirteen months.

The blue part of the graph are those papers written in support of the notion that the world is warming on average, and that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for most of the increase. The black slice represents those papers that rejected this idea. Actually, that’s not right. There’s no need to pluralize “papers,” because there’s only ONE of them. One, out of more than two-thousand. I actually had to open the chart into a larger window to see it at first, because my smartphone didn’t have enough resolution to display that tiny slice.

Yet one party in our government sides entirely with that barely-visible slice, that single paper. For them, the science is undecided, and ever so controversial. “There’s no consensus!” they’ll say on the Senate floor, “And it was really cold last week!”

For the GOP, reality is whatever their donors tell them it should be. Facts, evidence, and reason are the tools of “elitists.” This pattern of outright denial of confirmed, objective reality is repeated over and over, with their stances on evolution, abstinence-only education, homosexuality, the state of healthcare, global warming, everything. You don’t have to find solutions to problems if you can just pretend for long enough that they aren’t really problems at all.

And this, dear readers, is why I identify as a conservative, but never, ever Republican. The conservative movement, at its roots, was meant to be a rejection of the well-intentioned utopian impulses that so often lead to governmental overreach. The originators of the intellectual, (yes, intellectual) tradition of conservatism like Burke and Oakeshott wanted for problems and their solutions to be well-defined and based on solid evidence, not reflexive ideology and extremism. They wanted government to operate within the confines of the real world and human nature, and to stop pretending they could fundamentally alter either by force of law.

But what is present in the current iteration of the GOP is nothing but reflexive ideology. Dogma. The unfaltering belief that government is always the problem, that taxes should always be cut, the country was founded on Christian values, and that the market is an infallible, self-correcting machine that always spits out the maximum of human success and happiness for those willing to work. It is for these ingrained, unassailable assumptions that they have ceased to be conservatives in any meaningful sense of the word.

Conservatives would see the overwhelming scientific consensus on issues such as global warming and draft up solutions that met with their core beliefs of a small, unobtrusive government and maximum liberty. Solutions that relied more on steering the testing grounds of the free-market towards reforms without the heavy boot of government regulation stifling innovation. Ideas such as Carbon Markets, which not unlike another “controversial” piece of legislation that passed a few years back, actually started from inside the conservative movement as a market-based alternative to more liberal policies. Conservatives would argue their case on its own merits, and trust the American people to decide for themselves which approach would bear the most fruit.

But that’s not what Republicans have done, is it? Instead, they’ve latched onto that one single, almost invisible paper and decided to use it as a hatchet to chop the negotiating table into kindling. Instead of laying out a solution to the problem in line with their ideals, they simply deny that there is any problem at all, then go about doing their level best to misinform the public, muddy the waters, and deny objective reality. They’ve abandoned their own ideas the moment it looked like they might actually become law and labeled them “liberal”.

And they expect you to be stupid and ignorant enough for it to work.

You see, many of the causes and policy positions that have been long associated with liberalism, if actively investigated, actually turn out to be very conservative. If taken at their word that public policies should be weighted to maximize individual liberty and minimize government power, a real conservative would support everything from gay-marriage, to marijuana legalization, to abortion rights. A real conservative would be appalled at the idea of a government big and powerful enough to define the limits of love placed on two consenting adults. A real conservative would recoil at the enormous expense of an utterly failed War on Drugs and the expansion of the police-state at the expense of personal liberty and privacy that has resulted. And a real conservative would take up arms against a government invasive enough to override the requests of a husband and force a dead woman’s heart to continue beating just to serve as an incubator, against her own express wishes.

That is not conservative. It is the Modus Operandi of the very types of people which the conservative movement formed to oppose. It’s time to come back to the real world, not the one the GOP wishes it could create. Some of us have been here all along.

Fukushima is Not Killing Your Babies

Well, the Packers lost and now I’m mad and want to shout about something. So here goes.

It’s been almost three years since the tragic double-catastrophe of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami caused what is undoubtedly the second largest nuclear accident in history, crippling the Fukushima Nuclear plant and sending many thousands of tons of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and leaking into the Pacific Ocean. To call it a disaster is an understatement, and the people of Japan will be dealing with the after-effects for a generation. None of this is in dispute. Scientists, environmental agencies, and nuclear watchdogs throughout the world agree that continued study and work needs to be done to limit the damage.

But a funny thing has been happening lately, as the usual chorus of lunatics, conspiracy theorists, know-nothings, and the slick-talkers who make their money pedaling falsehoods to them have been flooding the internet with new accusations, unproven links, and wild speculation about the fallout and after effects of the Fukusima disaster on U.S. soil and sending many well-meaning people into a panic.

The headlines read like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie:

Radioactive Fish Invade West Coast!, Ocean Floor Covered in Corpses!, California Babies Dying by the Thousands! They even have big, colorful, very official-looking maps!


All very scary, to be sure. The problem, as is so often true of sensationalistic headlines, is that they people running them have used exactly the same standards of scientific rigor employed by the average Hollywood scriptwriter.

That is to say, none at all. Let’s calm everyone down one headline at a time.

Holy shit, there’s radioactive fish in my tacos!

Here’s the issue with that. The claim is absolutely true, up to a point. Samples of bluefin tuna have been found to contain traces of Cesium-134 and 137 that can be linked back to Fukushima. Cesium-137 is a byproduct of the fission process and does not occur naturally on Earth, so whenever we find it, we know it can be traced back to a nuclear reactor (or bomb). This is where the alarmists, kooks, and anti-nuke hippies want you to stop reading.

Still with me? Good, I figured you would be. Here’s what Paul Harvey would call, “The rest of the story.” The very scientists who took the tuna samples and discovered the contamination go on in their study to say that the levels of radiation in these fish is miniscule. Only 3% above naturally-occurring background radiation. That’s well below presenting any measurable increase in cancer risks to humans. Indeed you get a dose of radiation twenty times greater from the decay of potassium with every banana you eat. Here’s Nicholas Fisher, one of the authors of the study, speaking to Scientific American:

For fish that are harvested 100 miles [160 kilometers] out to sea, I doubt it’d be a problem.

To help you visualize why he can say eating these contaminated fish isn’t an issue, take a look at this radiation dosing chart. An airline flight gives you many, many times more radiation exposure than one of these fish ever could. Living in a brick building. Getting a mamogram. The list goes on and on.

But what about the ocean of corpses? Radiation kills things, so that has to be the answer, right?

Not so fast. Turns out, the study being misquoted in these headlines was actually referencing a natural cycle of something called “marine snow” which is the deposition of organic detritus onto the sea floor from higher up in the water column. This cycle goes through things called “Blizzards” where an unusually high amount of material falls to the seafloor. However, these blizzards have been observed many times before and after Fukushima, and have more to do with ocean currents, wind patterns, and temperature, as the study itself goes to some length to explain.

You may also have heard or read headlines about massive starfish die-offs happening along the West Coast. This is, just like the previous two claims, true, except that again it is not a new phenomena, hasn’t been linked to Fukushima in any way, and has also been observed recently happening on the East Coast as well, many thousands of miles removed from any possible water contamination for Fukushima. Often times, knowing only half the facts is worse than knowing none at all.

Wait! Babies are dropping like flies! Don’t you care about babies!

Yes, I do, which is why I really hate it when people lie about them to manipulate our innate parental fears and protective instincts. And incidentally, no, U.S. babies are not dying from radiation poisoning. But even after having this headline shot out from under them, the publicly anti-nuclear energy authors of the first ridiculous claim doubled down and, using many of the exact same methodological flaws, came back with this gem about an increase in infant hypothyroidism on the West Coast that is just as big a pile. As the link shows, the authors never even attempt to establish a causal link between the two, instead merely documenting a rather weak correlation and hoping a largely scientifically-illiterate public will connect the dots that they failed to, while ignoring important details like the fact Iodine-131 has a half-life of only eight days. It turns inert in a matter of weeks, yet three years and many thousands of miles later, people are still being whipped into a panic.

If these sorts of tactics sound familiar, they should. For years, we’ve seen the exact same kinds of distortion coming from all corners of the alarmist, denialist, and conspiracy theory camps. For example, nearly everyone by now has heard from the completely discredited anti-vaccine movement about how childhood vaccinations correlate with rising rates of autism. They point to vaccine ingredients that everyone recognizes as poison in sufficient doses, such as mercury or formaldehyde as the triggers. What they always leave out are important things like the fact the dose of mercury is massively overshadowed by other natural sources (including, ironically, tuna) while the formaldehyde that naturally forms in our own blood streams is many dozens of times greater as well.

Same pattern; find a correlation, throw out some scary scenarios, add a pinch of facts, but only a pinch, leave out the rest of the facts and important context needed to see the whole picture, then pass it around through channels that are not subject to peer-review and wait for a concerned, yet naive public to draw the connections you never had the evidence to prove scientifically. It works for anti-vax, global-warming denialism, 9/11 truthers, moon-landing hoaxers, the whole lot. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Okay, but what about that terrifying map of all the radioactive water? Surely that’s got to be something, right?

Wrong. In fact, it’s not even a map of water currents! What you have here is a map of the projected distribution of tsunami waves from the disaster, how they were expected to propagate across the Pacific, and what heights they were expected to be. And before you ask if the waves could carry radioisotopes, just stop. Waves do not carry anything except kinetic energy. A wave is simply a transfer of energy from one molecule to the next. Think about what happens when you’re in the deep end of a wave pool. Does the wave pick you up and carry you all the way to the shore? No. You go up, then come back down again as the wave of energy moves on and the next person goes up, then comes back down and so on.

The exception is right at the coasts where the water shallows out and forces the wave up until it ‘breaks.’ Only once the wave breaks in the last few dozens or hundreds of yards can it move anything forward with any speed. This is why you can’t catch a wave in Tokyo and surf to San Diego. And if you can’t, neither can radioactive cesium and iodine.

So why did they use the map in the first place? I don’t know. Lack of any fact-checking, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, it doesn’t really matter in the end, because now YOU know better.

The basic, foundational problem with all of the claims about Fukushima material causing species die-offs, habitat destruction, or human health risks on the west coast or anywhere else in North America is simply that the Pacific is absolutely, staggeringly massive. It is seventy million of cubic miles in volume. That’s one hundred and eighty-eight quintillion gallons. I’m going to write that number out: 188,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons.

Got that? By the time any contamination from Fukushima has been mixed into a volume that large, it will have become diluted many millions, even billions of times. Coupled with the fact that most of the more dangerous contaminants have radioactive half-lives ranging from days to a handful of years, and the danger is reduced even closer to zero. Once you understand this, the alarmists are left with a sort of homeopathic theory of radiation poisoning, with just as much supporting evidence backing the claims of both disciplines.

But I’ve rambled on long enough. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Now, my west coast friends, go take a swim in the ocean. Enjoy a plate of fish tacos.

And 49ers fans, you can go to hell.


Just a bit of fun on a snowy day

Last night, I had a vision. Captain James T. Kirk came to me in a dream, with a dire warning. For forty days and forty nights heavy, crippling snow would fall, blanketing all the world in white death. He ordered me to dig out a shelter, large enough and with enough provisions to see us through until the Thaw. It would be called Echo Base. Then, I was to fill Echo Base with two of each kind of nerd, geek, and dork to repopulate the world.

“But how will I get the MMO players out of their basements?” I asked.

“Set up a LAN party, with a Mtn Dew fountain machine and a case of Flaming Hot Cheetos. They will come.”

“Okay,” I said, “But do I really need to bring the LARPers?”

“Yes,” answered the Captain.

“What about the furies?”

“No, their suits will keep them warm and see them through to the Thaw. Also, they creep me the fuck out.”

“Thank God, but how are we supposed to repopulate the Earth when the cosplayers are the only ones who get laid?”

“Hmm. Hadn’t thought of that. You know what? screw it.”

I awoke in a cold sweat, while the snow tumbled down outside my window…