Ten Tips From Sheet To Shelf

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Last weekend, I spent four glorious days in Seattle at the 14th Emerald City ComicCon selling and signing my new release, surrounded by other authors, throngs of readers, and more than a few aspiring writers. It’s pretty easy to spot the serious ones. Those people right on the cusp of making a real go of it.

Now, normally I do my best to sabotage these people with terrible advice to thin the herd and reduce future competition. But my marketing guy tells me people like it when you’re helpful or whatever, so here goes. What follows is a list of ten things you can do (or not do) to greatly increase your chances of seeing your novel on the shelves of your favorite bookstore.

1. Do: Set realistic goals for daily word count.

The key word here is realistic. Every writer has their own pace, and it can vary immensely from day to day. Some of us are capable of cranking out five thousand words per day and a novel every other month. Others struggle to write a thousand. Track your progress and find your average over a span of a couple of relatively uninterrupted weeks, then set your target appropriately and aggressively pursue it. Personally, when I’m writing on a deadline, I aim for between 1,500 and 2,000 words per writing day.

2. Don’t: Beat yourself up for days you fall short.

We all have days when we have to stay late at the day job, days when family obligations take priority, or days when we’re just not feeling it. The people who say “To be a writer, write everyday,” are full of shit. Outside of breathing, no one does anything every single day. Life has a way of intruding on our ambitions. It happens to everybody, and mentally putting yourself through the ringer when the inevitable happens only hurts your motivation tomorrow.  Just dust yourself off and come back to the keyboard in the morning, fresh and enthusiastic to continue.

3. Do: Finish your manuscript before editing or rewriting it.

Trust me on this. Before you can effectively rewrite the beginning of a manuscript, you have to have an end of said manuscript. Otherwise, how are you going to know what needs to be change at the start of the book to strengthen its conclusion? I remember a young lady in an old writer’s group I used to frequent who for two months rewrote the first chapter of her book a total of six times, each time bringing it back for another round of critiques, when instead she could have had the first six chapters done. Don’t do this. “The End” should be when your rewriting begins, not before.

4. Don’t: Start submitting to agents or publishers until you have a completed manuscript.

The opposite of being too eager to start rewriting is being too eager to start submitting. There was a time long ago when an aspiring writer could pitch and sell a book to an agent or publisher based on nothing more than a synopsis. With very few exceptions, those days are over. Agents need to know that you are able to do the most important thing an author needs to do; complete a novel. Publishers simply aren’t going to take the risk on an unknown writer being able to produce a quality manuscript within their deadlines, because that’s a skill so few people possess in the first place. Once you’re established and have proven yourself, then you’ll build up enough trust in your professionalism to justify that risk. But unless you’re a celebrity, or a politician, or an athlete, it’s just not happening these days.

5. Do: At least one thorough rewrite.

You reached “The End.” Excellent. Now, walk away for several weeks, or even a month. Go fishing. See some movies. Run a marathon. Whatever, just don’t look at your manuscript for a while until you can approach it again with fresh eyes. Because your rough draft of your first novel will need close examination. It’s going to have problems with pacing, characterization, plot, all of it. It’s probably too long. It’s probably got at least one character who doesn’t need to be in there. It’s probably got loose ends that need tying or plotlines that need pruning entirely. Nobody sticks the landing the first time. Few stick it the tenth time. It’s not ready, trust me.

6. Don’t: Rewrite it a hundred times and never finish.

Here’s a little secret. Nobody ever finishes a novel, they just run out of time to keep tinkering with it. There are a dozen things about the two books I have on shelves right now that I’d love to change. Some of the things I wasn’t satisfied with in the first book I tried to address in the second. Some of the things I didn’t like in the second book, I’m tackling in the third. The important part is they’re on the shelves, and not trapped in the purgatory of my computer. I did four major rewrites on THE ARK before it was printed, and three on TRIDENT’S FORGE. After the first go through, the rest were under the direction of my agent and or editor. Don’t second-guess yourself. There will be plenty of other people to do that for you.

7. Do: Find a few beta readers to read your manuscript.

Let’s start off by defining the term. Beta readers are nothing more than people who are willing to read through your entire manuscript and give you honest, constructive feedback. They can be anyone from your family and friends, to other writers at any level who you have a good relationship with. Often, writers will agree to do a beta swap where each reads for the other. Betas, whoever they are, need to understand from the get-go that they aren’t there to stoke your ego with platitudes. Their job is to give your manuscript a stress test, find and identify its weak points, and to flag them for review and revision. Your job is to listen to what they have to say and consider it objectively without getting defensive.

8. Don’t: Pay someone to read or edit it for you.

Say it with me. Money flows to the author. Again. Money flows to the author. Good. If you’re pursuing the traditional publishing path, at no point should you be giving out money to anybody, either to read your manuscript, edit your manuscript, produce cover art for your manuscript, format your manuscript, or print your manuscript. Legitimate agents and publishers provide all of these services as part of their costs of doing business. The only thing you should be doing with money is depositing it, (then spending it, obviously).

9. Do: Get started on the next project.

Once your manuscript is cleaned, pressed, and has started being passed around, its time for you to move on. It’s out of your hands now, and it’ll often take many months before you start getting responses. The best thing you can do in the meantime is start your next book. Experience is the best teacher, and nothing makes you better at writing books faster than, well, writing books.

10. Don’t: Start writing Book II until you’ve sold Book I.

Seriously, don’t do this. I know you’ve got outlines for all fifteen books of your ‘Lord of the Rings’ slaying fantasy epic just burning a hole in your soul, but do not start writing the second book in the series now. Nobody buys Book II by itself. Instead, pick something very different, even a different genre, and challenge yourself. Push boundaries in your characters and story. Go dark if your last book was lighthearted, or light if your last was brooding. Switch to sci-fi if you just finished a fantasy. Throw in a time-traveling mermaid. Whatever. By so doing, you’ll expand not only your chops as a writer, but you’ll double the number of books you can submit, and the number of agents and editors who might be good fits for your work.

But most importantly, don’t take any of this too seriously. Take time to daydream. Stare out a window. Play a game. For its here that you plant the seeds your imagination will grow into the ideas you’ll harvest later. Good luck, and for God’s sake, buy my books.

THE ARK     TRIDENT’S FORGE

Follow Patrick on Twitter @stealthygeek

After the Draft: Let’s Talk Money

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There’s been a movement among authors lately to be more open and transparent about what they earn.  Jim C. Hines has been sharing an annual report for seven years already, while Hugo winner Kameron Hurley made waves last week with her own blog post.

The purpose of these reports is not to boast. Far from it. Instead, these authors and many others are trying to give aspiring writers more realistic expectations of what a career in publishing looks like. And if more people understand that not all creatives are swimming in Scrooge McDuck money, just maybe a reader or two will think twice about torrenting or otherwise pirating the next book they want to read.

I support this drive towards greater transparency, so I’ve decided to add my own data points to the conversation. As readers of the blog will know, I’ve recently signed my very first book deal with Angry Robot Books for my debut novel THE ARK and a sequel. Here’s the final deal:

THE ARK (Fall 2015)

Advance: £3,000 ($4,500 at current exchange rate)

TRIDENT’S FORGE (Summer 2016)

Advance: £3,000 ($4,500 at current exchange rate)

As far as I can tell, these advances are a little on the low end for a debut author from a major publisher, but that is not a reflection on Angry Robot Books’ generosity. In the case of this deal, my agent and I decided to take smaller advances in exchange for retaining audio rights. This gives us opportunities for more sales in the future and multiple revenue streams, although there are certainly no guarantees.

I think I’ll follow Jim’s example and make this a yearly report for those who are interested, and I encourage other writers to do the same.

9 Blogging Tips for Writers

If you’re an aspiring author working your way through the minefield of today’s publishing environment, you’re probably looking for every way you can to stand out from the crowd and draw attention to yourself and your work. Pressure on authors to build a “platform” is higher than it’s ever been. Fortunately, your options for building that platform are more numerous than ever before as well.

Many contemporary authors use blogging as one means to build audience, and I’m no different. So I thought I’d jot down some of the basics I’ve learned over the last couple of years and save y’all the pain of learning through trial and error.

1: Your blog should be targeted to a particular market, topic, sub-culture, product, or service. Blogs that stay on target tend to build stronger, more loyal audiences over time because people come to know what to expect and recognize you as an authority on a given subject. So a writer should probably blog, first and foremost, about writing and writing related topics like the state of the publishing industry, book reviews, etc. A couple of examples of very successful blogs I follow that fit this description are author Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds, and John Scalzi’s Whatever.

If your experience follows mine at all, there will be a strong temptation to chase after whatever type of content drives the most traffic. Historically, my most popular posts haven’t been about my writing, but instead covered current events or political topics. But while running up the page views feels great, the analytics shows that the people who pop in for these off topic posts don’t tend to stick around. They are far less likely to peruse the rest of your site, maybe even convert into customers, because it wasn’t interest in writing or your work that brought them there in the first place.

This is not to say you can never color outside the lines. I certainly have, maybe more than I should. But try to stick to a ratio of say 3:1. For every off-topic post, you need to write three posts directly related to what you started the blog to talk about. I came up with this ratio through the time-honored tradition of totally making it up, but it feels about right, you know?

2: Your blog works in concert with all of your other social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+ (if that’s still a thing) etc. Posting and tweeting whenever you have a new blog post will alert your friends and followers that it’s time to head back to your website to read it, share it with others, and expand your reach far more than simply throwing it up and hoping for the best.

3: Titles of your blog posts should be short, on target, and catchy. Short titles fit into tweets and other cross-platform promotion better and are more likely to get people to click on the link. And no puns, for God’s sake. People hate puns. They’re the death of comedy.

4: Pictures. Posts should always include an image of some kind. This way, when people are sorting through their feeds, your post isn’t just a dry title. Images draw the eye and draw interest, and drastically increase the odds someone will click on your link.

See? Caught your eye, didn’t it? No, I don’t have the first idea what’s going on here. Not the point.

5: The length of your posts are actually less important than you might think. You’ll find a lot of advice online that tells you to keep the posts themselves short, no more than 500 words or so, because people have such short attention spans these days. Ignore these twits. Personally, I think 500 words should be considered a minimum length. My most popular posts have all been in the 1,000-1,500 word range. If your writing is engaging, people will stick around to the end. And even if they don’t finish and wander off somewhere in the middle, you still got the traffic. You lose nothing by writing a post long enough to complete your thought and tell the whole story. However, if your post starts looking like a Dickens novel, you might want to rein it back a little.

6: Frequency. When your blog is updated, and how frequently, is of enormous importance to its reach. At a minimum, your blog should have new content weekly. Less than that, and there simply isn’t enough on the buffet line to keep people coming back for seconds. You need to stay fresh in people’s minds, and you do that through providing them with content to chew over.

7: Timing. There are specific days of the week, and even times of day to put up your posts to give them the best chance at the widest possible audience. Weekends are where blog traffic goes to die. Once Friday afternoon rolls around, don’t bother putting anything up until noon on Monday. If you have a great idea for a post and pound it out on Saturday night, save the draft and publish it once the work week starts. People have better things to do on the weekend.

The same is true of evenings. After around 8:00 or 9:00pm, blog traffic collapses. People are at home, relaxing, drinking, watching Netflix, doing chores, what have you. The same is true of other social media posts linking to or otherwise promoting your blog. The best time to put up your post is Monday-Friday, and Noon to just after dinner time. This is when your audience is captive to their office desks, busying themselves playing on their phones and avoiding work. They’re looking for things to waste time on. Give them something.

8: Mobile devices. Two thirds of your audience will be reading your blog on mobile devices. Probably in traffic while eating Arby’s, but that’s not your problem. Your blogging software MUST support mobile viewing, or you’re giving up the majority of your audience before you’ve even started.

9: Everything should be arranged in a goddamned list. Someone just pointed this out to me, so I remade this post into a list. Let’s watch the page counter skyrocket.

But the final question you probably have is simply, “Is a blog worth it?” And honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know of a good way to measure the cost-benefit ratio for the time and effort you’ll put into your blog. There are examples of very successful authors writing blogs with enormous reach and influence, and examples of those with none who still manage to routinely crack the NYT bestseller list. In the end, how and where you spend your finite time promoting your work is entirely up to you.

Personally, I find my blog to be rewarding and cathartic in a way. It’s a platform for me to express my thoughts on certain topics more completely than is possible in a tweet or a FB post. Maybe it’s helping, maybe it isn’t. And I’m okay with that.

Like this? Want to see more? Follow me on twitter @stealthygeek.

After the Draft: The Contract

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Mission Accomplished? You wish.

So, you’ve spent years writing hundreds of thousands of words, dozens of stories, and probably a couple of trunk novels you’d rather not talk about. Like ever. And after all that, you’ve finally written a novel that isn’t complete dreck. Your beta readers even seem to like it. You’ve gone through a couple of rounds of rewrites to smooth out the rough edges.

Now what?

Well, the first big question most authors are asking themselves these days is whether to go with “traditional” publishing or self-pub. I’m not going to get in the middle of that argument. There are pros and cons of each, and I know people who have found success through both paths. Personally, I decided to go the traditional route, because I believe it will give me more time to write. Maybe I’m wrong, we’ll just have to wait and see.

But, if you’re like me and decide to go traditional publishing, or even a hybrid of the two, the next big question you’re going to ask yourself is whether or not you should pursue an agent. Again, I’m not going to replay that argument, and there are plenty of examples of unagented authors succeeding in publishing. But again, I decided to go the agent route because I felt a good agent would afford more opportunities for my book to be seen by the decision makers.

And as anyone following the blog already knows, not only did I land a very good agent, but he in turn sold my first book and a second one within a few short months.

“But why should I give somebody 15% of my hard earned money?” you might be asking. Well, the answer to that came to me when I saw my copy of the actual contract I was going to sign.

Ask yourself a few questions. What do you know about Audio book royalties? eBook pricing? How long should your publisher be given to sell foreign language translations before those rights revert back to you? Is it better to sign a multi-book deal or a single book deal? What is a fair advance? What do you know about negotiating volume-based royalty bonuses? What experience do you have with merchandise and TV/Movie adaptation rights?

If you’re like me, the answer was “Fuck all.” A book contract is a very complex document with a dozen or more moving parts, any one of which has the potential to greatly impact your bottom line. As debut authors, most of us simply won’t have the experience or knowledge base necessary to know what fair terms are. Unfortunately, the actual business of writing isn’t something that’s taught at the majority of writing MFA programs, workshops, or writer’s retreats. And even if it was, the reality is the publishing industry is in such a state of flux right now that what was true five years ago has been tossed out the window.

But while aspiring and debut authors don’t have that knowledge, agents do. It is literally their job to know. So the math for me was pretty easy. I could have 100% of a much smaller number because the publisher was able to take advantage of my naiveté, or 85% of a much larger number because I had someone with both the knowledge of contemporary publishing contracts and a monetary interest in seeing that I made the most money I could.

Looking back at the contract, I think I made the right choice.

In the final tally, we signed a two-book deal with Angry Robot, with an option on a third should THE ARK and TRIEDNET’S FORGE prove popular enough to warrant rounding out the trilogy. I accepted a slightly smaller advance than the average, but retained audio rights on the advice of my agent. I’m happy with that decision because it can mean another sale later and multiple income streams going forward, something that wouldn’t have occurred to me without his guidance. Additionally, my royalty rate gets a boost if certain sales volume targets are met, something else I wouldn’t have known to ask for.

In the end, everyone walked away with a fair deal that gives all parties a chance to make money. No one feels like they’re being exploited or not getting their fair share. That’s why I wanted an agent.

I hope that helps. Soon, we’ll get into the fun stuff. Working with an editor for the first time, rewrites, and cover art. See you then!

 

Like this? Follow me on twitter @stealthygeek

Building Worlds in a Hostile Universe

Hey gang. I’ve been spending the last few days building a new world for the rest of The Ark series and it got me thinking back to a wonderful project I was involved in called Eighth Day Genesis. It was meant to be a world-building textbook of sorts, and I had the honor of writing the first chapter. If you’re an author or GM who loves really digging in and getting the details right, it’s a great resource well worth the investment.

Here’s the article I wrote for the project. It’s on the long side, so grab a cup of coffee and have a seat. Hopefully it will give you some tools and insights on how to make your own imaginary worlds shine:

Building Worlds in a Hostile Universe

By Patrick S. Tomlinson

So you want to build a world? Excellent. The current record is six days, see if you can beat it. I have faith in you. But wait! Where are you going to put your world once it’s finished? Just like the suburbs, not all galactic neighborhoods are created equal. Some are pretty rough places to crash. Some are so vanilla and boring that nobody would choose to live there. Let me be your real-estate agent to the stars… literally.

Choosing a Galactic Neighborhood:

Just like with the decision to build a house, the first thing you should consider when building your world is location, location, location. If your story is taking place entirely “dirtside,” then your planet’s place in the galaxy may never come up, but there are some interesting things you may want to consider that can help drive the story regardless.

Most of us have heard of the concept of a solar system’s “Goldilocks Zone,” commonly defined as the orbital area around a star that is at just the right temperature that liquid water can exist without freezing or boiling away. We’ll talk more about this zone later, but what many people do not realize is that galaxies have their own Goldilocks Zones where conditions are more favorable for life.

Just like inside a solar system, your world can be too close or too far from the galactic center to give life much of a chance. Not surprisingly, our own Sol system sits smack dab between these zones. This is not to say that life would be impossible outside this neighborhood, but it would definitely face new challenges. Let’s start with the galactic boondocks.

The sticks of any galaxy possess several unique characteristics that could impact your world and how your story develops. But they all revolve around one element; scarcity. The further from the galactic core one travels, the thinner the density of stars becomes. By the simple law of averages, there will be fewer planets, and thereby fewer chances for life to evolve in the outskirts. While this is obvious, what may not be so obvious is that fewer stars, especially very large ones, also mean fewer heavy elements.

As you likely know, all of the elements, save hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of lithium, are formed inside the core of stars. What you may not know, however, is that a small to medium sized star can’t manufacture elements past iron on the periodic table.

This is because iron is a star killer. At the heart of a star, elements fuse together, releasing energy and fueling the furnace. In young stars, this fuel is hydrogen almost exclusively, but as they age, other elements are introduced to the fire. Each new element can be fused into the next, releasing progressively less energy, until the star reaches iron. The problem is, when you fuse iron, the process actually absorbs energy, rather than releasing it. Instead of gasoline, iron acts like a bucket of cold water thrown onto a camp fire, snuffing it out in a matter of seconds.

If your star is about twice the size of ours or smaller, the story ends with iron. It is only when you get to stars large enough to collapse into supernova can all of the other elements be created. In the outer rim of the galaxy, gasses are less abundant, which means the stars that do form trend on the small side. The interstellar medium this far out, therefore, will not be nearly as rich in heavier elements as it is closer to the core.

Fewer heavy elements mean less material available for rocky planet formation, and therefore even fewer Earthlike planets. Among the terrestrial worlds that do manage to form this far out, the CHNOPS elements may be abundant, (the six elements critical to life as we know it: Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur) but the elements of civilization and industry might be scant indeed. Your characters may live on a world where metals like nickel, copper, zinc, and lead are as rare as silver and gold here on Earth. Plutonium and Uranium would be almost unheard of, making nuclear fission impossible. In the near absence of such materials, building a technologically advanced society would be very difficult. Of course, so would building nuclear weapons, so there’s that.

On the other side of the habitable zone is the galaxy’s inner core. Here, overabundance is the issue. Stellar density increases the closer one gets to the core. More stars have the potential to bring more than just beautiful nighttime viewing.

The core would bring much higher levels of high-energy radiation. Somewhat counter-intuitively, somewhat higher radiation levels might not be all bad for life on some worlds. The bedrock mechanism of evolution is mutation. On Earth, most mutations start when a stray high-energy particle crashes headlong into a DNA strand, altering a bit of code. Most of the time, the result isn’t good for the organism. Every now and then, however, the change is actually beneficial. With slightly elevated radiation levels, evolution on your world could be supercharged. But outside that narrow window, things would become difficult for complex life, with higher rates of cancer and genetic damage overcoming the increased rate of evolution.

In addition to the obvious dangers posed by radiation, the density at the core brings other issues life would have to contend with. Our solar system is surrounded by a shell of trillions of comets and debris known as the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud. This region starts just past the orbit of Pluto, extending perhaps as far as an entire light year into deep space. It is expected that most solar systems have a similar feature. Normally, objects in the Oort cloud are of little risk to life on Earth. However, every now and then, either through collisions or gravitational disturbances, a comet is knocked loose from its stable orbit and plunges towards the inner system.

In the core, the tight proximity of other stars means that gravitational interactions between different solar systems will be far stronger than they are in our neck of the woods. This could lead to dramatically higher orbital instability in the Oort clouds of core systems, meaning higher levels of comet and asteroid bombardment of any planets. Ask a dinosaur how that worked out for them.

Picking Good Neighbors:

So you’ve settled on the right stellar cul-de-sac for your planet. Good, but before you pack the moving starship, maybe you should meet the neighbors. Just fifteen short years ago, exoplanets were and unproven theory, and believed by many astronomers to be a rare breed.

Today, we know better. As of this writing, over seven hundred exoplanets have been detected, with another thousand potentials waiting to be confirmed. However, while planets are plentiful outside of our solar system, most of them truly deserve the name ‘alien’.

Our solar system isn’t unique, which is great for sci-fi lovers, but its arrangement may be fairly unusual, presenting even more complications for life.  A large portion of the planets we’ve found are Jupiter-range gas giants, simply because their large size makes the easier to detect. What surprised astronomers was the diverse range of orbits these giant occupied.

Many of them are what are known as ‘Hot Jupiters’, gas giants that orbit unbelievably close to their parent star, sometimes close enough that they complete an orbit in only a few days. Under our current understanding of planet formation, gas giants condense far from their star. Therefore, these hot Jupiters are believed to have migrated on a decaying orbit towards their star until finally stabilizing closer in. On their downward spiral, these monsters would have either destroyed  and absorbed any rocky planets they came across, or ejected them from the system, dooming them to float untethered through deep space. It is nearly impossible that any system with a hot Jupiter could also be home to a terrestrial world in a habitable orbit.

However, while some gas giants are world-devouring monsters, others act as guardian angels. Such is the case with our own Jupiter and Saturn. Their stable orbits far from Earth, coupled with their huge masses mean that any asteroids or comets with ill intentions first have to run the gamut of the outer system. Jupiter’s immense gravity has absorbed countless impactors, most famously illustrated when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere in July, 1994. The resulting impact scars were larger than Earth herself.

It is impossible to know how many bullets Jupiter has jumped in front of for us, but the number is probably very high. A solar system without stable gas giants would be like living on the fifty yard marker of a shooting range. A world without such a shield would have a rich history of asteroid cataclysms.

Speaking of asteroids, let’s clear up one thing real quick. Asteroid belts are not like in the movies, okay? So sparsely populated is the asteroid belt, that when NASA sent Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons into the deep solar system, they didn’t have to make a single course correction to avoid a collision.

While there are millions of objects in the belt, they are very dispersed.  The total mass of all objects in the belt is less than one percent that of Earth. They are the remnants of a failed planet whose formation was interrupted by orbital resonance with Jupiter, (acting the bully this time). Much denser, and the belt would have had enough material to overcome the gravitational disruptions from Jupiter and form another rocky planet.

So while we can all agree that the asteroid scene in ESB was really awesome, it was also really impossible, (the ring scene in EP: II was better, but had its own problems).

Another potential danger is the discovery that many exoplanets circle their parent stars along highly elliptical orbits, which bring them scorchingly close, then sling them far from the heat of the star. Any terrestrial planets on such a path would bake in sterilizing heat and radiation, before freezing solid, with only brief periods spent inside the system’s habitable zone. Any gas giants on such a path would make it impossible for any other worlds to maintain stable orbits.

But those are neighbors on the next block. What about the one right next door? Moons can have huge influence over their host worlds, for good or bad. Of the eight planets in our solar system, (sorry Pluto, take it up with Neil Degrasse Tyson) only two are moonless; Mercury, and Venus. Yet even among all the dozens and dozens of moons swarming around the rest of the planets, ours is unique, which was very lucky.

Earth’s moon is strange in several ways, but most prominently is its size relative to Earth. Mar’s twin moons are just large rocks, probably asteroids captured by the red planet’s gravity well after being knocked loose from the asteroid belt. Jupiter has four large moons, yet these bodies are all miniscule in comparison to Jupiter’s bulk. The same is true of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Our moon is a massive body by contrast, so much so that a small group of astronomers prefer to think of us as a twin planet system. It is also very dense, second only to Io. The Moon’s large size gives us more than just the tides, its gentle tug helps to stabilize the Earth’s rotation, preventing our axis from wobbling more than a few degrees, keeping our seasons and weather patterns stable and predictable, (larger ‘Super Earths’ may have enough mass to maintain a stable rotation on their axis, but they have other issues we’ll talk about shortly). And as the Moon’s cratered surface can attest, it has taken more than a few hits in our defense.

But the relationship wasn’t always so rosy. The Moon has been moving slowly away from Earth since its formation four and a half billion years ago, at the rate of about an inch and a half per year. As it goes, the Earth’s rotation slows ever so slightly. In the distant past, however, the Moon was much closer, the Earth’s day was much quicker, (only six hours!) and the tidal effects of the moon’s gravity were absolutely devastating.

In the early days of Earth’s oceans, the moon was so close and its gravity so powerful that the tides swelled not the handful of feet we see today, but hundreds of feet. These immense walls of water swept inland dozens of miles, every day. Beachfront property would be a hard sell on such a world. So, while our moon today is Earth’s greatest partner, things could have been very different.

Moons aren’t limited to just a supporting role in sci-fi, however. Star Wars, Firefly, and Avatar all prominently featured moons filled with complex life, even whole civilizations, (yes, the Ewoks were a civilization, stop whining). But not so fast, life on a moon has hidden dangers to consider.

Of all the dozens of moons we know about from our own solar system, none of them are even a significant fraction of Earth’s size. The largest in both diameter and mass is Jupiter’s Ganymede, which also has the distinction of being the only known moon with a dipolar magnetosphere powered by a liquid metallic core. Yet even mighty Ganymede is only two and a half percent as massive as Earth, with only fifteen percent the surface gravity. This is not to say that much larger moons are impossible elsewhere in the universe, but it appears such bruisers would be rare.

So, your moon-men will probably be living in very low gravity. Low gravity typically means a very thin atmosphere. The exception, (there’s always an exception) is Titan, Saturn’s famous moon. Its atmosphere is actually denser than our own. However, this has more to do with how far from the sun Titan is, which protects its atmosphere from being stripped away by the weakened solar wind. However, bring your long-johns, because this far out, it’s about three-hundred degrees below zero.

Low mass also typically means a metallic core that has already cooled and solidified, which means no magnetosphere, or a very weak one, which leaves whatever atmosphere there is vulnerable to the fate of Mars. However this is less of a problem than it might first appear.

Thus far, all of the major moons featured in the movies, such as Yavin IV, Endor, and Pandora, have orbited gas giants. These giants can themselves have very powerful magnetospheres, extending many millions of miles into space and shielding their satellites. Unfortunately, gas giants can also sport massively powerful radiation belts, enough to cook the surface of any moons that orbit too closely. In the case of Jupiter, it actually emits more energy in radiation than it receives in light from the sun. So, lead long-johns for everybody.

Home Sweet Home:

Congratulations, you’ve finally found a good neighborhood, populated with neighbors who aren’t completely crazy and or violent. Now it’s time to pick a plot and draw up some blueprints.

Let’s pause to consider how big of a yard you want. As mentioned previously, solar systems all have a Goldilocks zone around their parent stars, the area in which a planet could potentially have liquid surface water. Our system actually has three rocky planets inside this zone, Venus at the extreme inside edge, Earth snuggly in the middle, and Mars at the extreme outer edge.

“Wait!” you’ll say. “Venus is way too hot, and Mars is way too cold.” True, but this has as much to do with their size and the composition of their atmospheres as their distance from the sun. As best as we can determine, Mars once had a thick atmosphere and water lakes, rivers, and even shallow seas. But, as previously discussed, its small mass meant that its molten iron core cooled and solidified billions of years ago, switching off the magnetic field protecting its atmosphere. Venus had the opposite problem, way too much atmosphere with way too much CO2, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect. If Mars had formed with the mass of Venus, John Carter wouldn’t be nearly so far-fetched.

What kind of star you’re swinging around directly controls where and how big the habitable zone is going to be. Also, each star type is going to bring unique conditions for life to contend with.

Small, red-dwarf type stars are far and away the most numerous in the universe. An advantage of their small size is that they can continue to burn for many tens, even hundreds of billions of years, giving life on any planets a long, long time to get up and running. However, their habitable zones sit in a very tight orbit, which presents two challenges.

First, a terrestrial planet orbiting so close to its star would probably be tidally locked to said star, which is just a fancy way of saying there would be no day/night cycle because the same side will always face inward. It was once believed that this would bake one one side of the planet, while freezing the other side solid, leaving only a small strip of habitable land around the terminator. Today, we may know better. The study of several “Hot Jupiter” planets has shown that strong convection currents in the atmosphere can cool the bright side, while warming the dark side of a tidally locked world. So things may not be so bad in that respect. Instead you’ll just have constant hurricane force winds to deal with.

Secondly, close proximity to the star also brings your world into a zone of strong radiation, solar wind, and even occasional lashings from solar flares. Any life that develops here will need to be pretty hardy, and carry a lot of sunblock. Incidentally, while not impossible, it’s unlikely that such a planet would have moons, as the proximity of the parent star would make maintaining a stable orbit problematic. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the only planets in our system without moons are also the closest in. By the way, no moons and no rotation also means no tides and no seasons.

By contrast, very large stars would feature habitable zones far from dangerous radiation and flare activity, and wide enough to fit multiple worlds. The only real downside is the cops are going to get called to break up the block party early.

The larger the star, the shorter its lifespan. While life on Earth started very early in the planet’s history, perhaps as short as half a billion years, it took several billion years more before anything more advanced than pond scum came about. The very largest stars burn for not billions, but mere millions of years, scantly enough time for planets to form, to say nothing of cooling enough for life to have a shot.

We’re nearing the end. Finally, you can submit your blueprints to the city and start lining up contractors to build your dream home. But what should it look like: an efficient starter house, or a full blown McMansion?

We’ve already talked at some length about the perils of small planets, (weak gravity, thin atmosphere, no magnetic shield) but there could be some upsides, too. If life does get up and running on a lightweight planet, the low gravity would allow plants and animals to grow to stupendous proportions. This has been touched on in sci-fi several times, with the nine foot tall Tharks of Barsoom, and the similarly framed Na’vi of Pandora and their massive Home Tree.

What sci-fi has largely overlooked, (up to this point, because you’re writing sci-fi, right?) is the effect low gravity would have on the landscape. Less gravity means tectonic forces could push mountains higher. Volcanoes would grow closer to the sky. Erosion wouldn’t be able to pull either down nearly as quickly. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, everything would be bigger on a small world.

Now, what about the heavyweights? They have some alluring qualities. More surface area, for starters. More gravity can better hold an atmosphere. A stable axial rotation without need of a large moon is a nice feature. And while higher gravity will mean shorter mountains and a dearth of svelte blue cat-women, erosion would cut deeper valleys, canyons, and rivers.

So, everything’s cool, right? Plop down the extra cash for the upgrade. Slow down a step. Recently, computer simulations have shown that the higher pressure at the center of super earths may keep the core solid. No liquid core means no magnetosphere, just like on smaller worlds. More sunblock for everybody.

Alternative Living:

After reading the above, you’re probably feeling a little hemmed in. like the universe is out to get us, and that Earth is the one, tiny speck of dirt where life has a chance to thrive. That’s probably a mistake.

My intention in writing this was not to scratch every other type of planet and solar system off your list of potentials. Instead, I wanted to convey just how improbable our planet, and therefore our type of life, may be.

If you need inspiration, look around our planet’s forgotten corners. We find organisms living in complete darkness, under crushing pressures, scalding temperatures, in pools of acid, without oxygen, eating rock and metal, photosynthesizing radiation, and generally carrying on in a fashion that drives biologists into alcohol dependency.

Judging by life’s tenacity and ingenuity here on Earth, I believe we will find organisms clinging to every planet, moon, asteroid, and nebula that hasn’t gone out of its way to completely sterilize every cubic inch of real-estate. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we discover some critters swimming around Europa’s that would go nice with butter and lemon juice.

Instead, the lesson you should take away from the rarity and good fortune of our planet is that, as a writer, you’ll need to be creative. The habitable zone for water-based creatures would mean instant death for creatures based on liquid ammonia or methane. Radiation zones and thin atmospheres are meaningless to fish swimming in an ocean buried under ten miles of ice.

Worlds aren’t built for creatures. Creatures are built for worlds. So take what you’ve learned from this article, the good and the bad, and run your aliens through the same evolutionary gauntlet that your ancestors actually went through. Make them face adversity and overcome challenges on their way to civilization. They will be all the stronger, more alien, and yet more believable for your efforts.

See what comes out the other end. The more surprised you are, the more impressed your readers will be.

All done. If you liked that, there are nineteen more great essays to be had in the full textbook, each one focusing on a different aspect of world-building from biology, to religion, even building realistic economic systems.  So please consider grabbing yourself a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Like this? Follow me on twitter for more @stealthygeek.

What Counts as Writing?

Hanging around with friends and other panelists of the GenCon Writer’s Symposium this year, I was hit with an unexpected question several different times.

“So, are you trying to be an author, or a comedian?”

The question caught me off guard, although in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have. People love labels and categories. It makes things easier to separate and understand quickly.  But the tendency also builds up artificial barriers that make it hard to see the whole picture.

To outsiders, I can understand why stand-up and writing fiction might look like different disciplines. Stand-up requires a degree of human interaction and public speaking absent from putting words to page. Many of my more introverted writer friends can’t imagine the “bravery” it takes to get in front of a crowd and do something like this.

But from my perspective, the bravery needed to get on stage isn’t greater than the bravery needed to send out a billion query letters, just different. Both involve putting yourself out there to be judged by a harsh and often unforgiving public, and both risk a mountain of rejection. The only difference with the stage is rejection comes in real-time instead of after weeks or months of delays. I’ve done both, and I’ll take the live audience every time.

The secret is both writing comedy and writing fiction are still writing. I don’t see any functional difference between them. Both are forms of the oldest and most human of activities; storytelling. I write and tweak jokes just like I write and edit short stories and novels. Both of them go through many drafts before their final versions emerge. And in my experience, both mediums inform and strengthen your talents with the other.

Storytellers are all performance artists. Whether you perform on a stage or on the page doesn’t matter. You are still putting on a show to entertain your audience. The borders between the mediums are disappearing in our age of cross-platform interconnectivity. How many comedians also write books or maintain blogs? How many authors do interviews, panels, and seminars?

I’m not saying that all writers should immediately go out to an open mic and start slinging jokes, but with the changing nature of the job, I think it’s important to build your platform and grow your fan-base through any available channel. There’s nothing wrong with using whatever your other strengths are to accomplish that.

I don’t want to be known as just a comedian, or just an author. I want to be known as an engaging and entertaining storyteller. The labels don’t matter to me so long as the audience comes along for the ride.

Slushie Machine: Escape the pile

Hey gang. I’ve just returned from GenCon in Indianapolis, and while I had a wonderful time as always, (more on that later) after talking to a group of aspiring authors, I was once again struck by how often the same questions about submitting stories and working with markets keep coming up. This stuff is old hat to me, but only because I had to wade through my own mistakes waist-deep for the first few years.

I’d written an article on this very topic that appeared in The SFWA Bulletin a while back called “Confessions of a Slushie Machine.” Those of you who’ve been following the blog from the beginning might remember it as a six part series of posts, but I figured it might be easier just to put it all in one place. So, in the interests of helping writers new and old float to the top, and to save slush readers from a mountain of bad submissions, here it is. Please help it spread far and wide:

Confessions of a Slushie Machine

 

So you’ve decided to become a professional writer. Congratulations, for you have embarked on the only career path with a one hundred percent success rate. No one traveling the path of the author has encountered so much as a pothole on the road to publishing a best seller.

What, you don’t believe me? Have your efforts been met with resistance, frustration, or even, *gasp* rejection? In that case, the odds are good that you have run up against someone like me, for I am a Slushie Machine.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the nomenclature, the slush pile is the stack of unsolicited stories, poems, or book manuscripts that publishers receive everyday. Submitting a story through the slush pile is the literary equivalent of selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in a neighborhood already infested with salesmen. Even a good writer, with a good story, is going to be rejected more often than not.

However, hope is not lost. As a slush editor for a prominent online publisher, I sort through dozens of stories per week. One thing I’ve learned after reading the work of hundreds of aspiring writers; not all tales are created equal. Many, if not most stories in the slush pile are hobbled by errors that are easily avoided.

Though writing often feels like a solitary pursuit, the slush pile reveals otherwise. Without careful management, it can quickly grow to overwhelming heights. These stories aren’t writing themselves, at least not yet. There are thousands of writers pecking away on their laptops in the hope of nabbing one of a finite number of publishing slots. Your job as a writer (and never forget that it is a job) is to cut down on the errors that annoy slush editors. For your story to get through to the actual decision makers, and therefore have any chance of seeing print, you have to get past me.

There are as many ways to self-destruct a story as there are writers, but the bulk of unforced errors fall into a handful of categories. In rough order of obviousness, these include: Cover Letter Crimes, Formatting/Guidelines, Market Incompatibility, Slow Starts, Where’s the Story, and Haven’t I Read This Before?

Cover Letter Crimes: In short fiction, less is more. Cover letters should consist of your name, a pseudonym if you use one, the title of your story, word count, and a handful of your most impressive publishing credits; if you don’t have any yet, no problem. Got all that? Good, now stop.

Wait, why are you writing a three-hundred word summary of your three-thousand word story? Stop that. Your last thirty publishing credits? Cut it out, I mean it this time. All the authors you’ve talked to at cons and books signings? Now you’re just making me angry.

And for the love of ink, if you don’t have any publishing credits, don’t come out and say so. Do you want to know that the guy about to cut into your chest is doing his first lung transplant surgery? It would make you a little apprehensive about what came next, wouldn’t it? Well the same is true here. There is no reason to put a Las Vegas sized neon light over your story, blinking ‘Unpublished Author’ before the eyes of the person who is about to read it. Clear enough? Okay, moving on.

Formatting/Guidelines: This should go without saying, but please, read the submission guidelines of the market you’re submitting to. Twelve-point, Times New Roman or Courier font, and double-spaced is a good place to start. This may seem like common sense to many of you, but I am consistently amazed at the number of manuscripts submitted that do not follow this standard formatting.

The next item to tick off your pre-flight checklist is word count. Most publishers of short fiction work within tight constraints, especially those printing hardcopy. As a result, most prefer stories of a certain length. For example, the market I work with has set a hard cap of 7,500 words. This should be self-explanatory, however I return between one and three stories unread each week because they exceed our limit. This doesn’t have to happen.

All of the previous mistakes can be avoided with very little effort on the part of the writer. These are simply good habits to develop. The next step requires a bit more work.

Market Compatibility: There are many hundreds of paying literary markets, each trying to carve out their own audience. Think of it as a market ecosystem, with every magazine, website, and anthology series acting as a unique species.

Just like in nature, markets evolve to fill specific niches in their environment. Some are generalists that publish work from diverse genres. However, most markets are specialists who have built a reputation around a specific genre, be it high fantasy, hard sci-fi, urban supernaturalism, steam punk, space opera, etc.

The market I read for has established a reputation for horror and suspense stories with a fantastic or supernatural bent. It’s what our subscribers have come to expect. Yet still I get stories every week that contain no horror elements. Many of them are quite good, but are incompatible with our goals; so back they go.

Before you hit the ‘Send’ button, or lick a stamp, take some time to read a handful of selections from the market you are considering submitting to. Figure out the genre and tone of the stories the editors liked enough to print. If your story feel like it’s in good company, send it along.

However, if it doesn’t mesh, then don’t send it to that market. This wastes not only your time, but the time of the reader on the other end, which won’t endear you to that editor should you send another story in the future. Some of us have surprisingly long memories for that sort of thing. As I said earlier, there are hundreds of paying markets. You can always find one that will be a good fit for whatever you choose to write.

Everything we’ve talked about so far: cover letters, formatting, word count, compatibility, has been about preparation. These are things you can do to improve the odds of any story being accepted, without changing a single word of text. Now, we’re going to dig into the content itself, and teach you the importance of avoiding…

Slow Starts: Novels and short stories are a fundamentally different reading experience. With a novel, the average reader will gladly plough through the first chapter or two waiting to get snagged by the ‘hook’. People commit to reading books and realize that character building, back story, and scene-setting takes time.

Short stories are another matter. In the short format, the first page, even the first paragraph, is critical. This is doubly true for getting past slush editors, because if the first page of your story doesn’t make us want to read the rest of it, most of us aren’t going to. We don’t have the time. Odds are your story is one of anywhere from five to ten that we need to read that day, in addition to our own writing, paying jobs, and families. You have to show us that your story is worth the time we’re going to spend reading it, and you need to do it fast.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. As a writer, I find it appalling that someone would pass judgment on my work before finishing it. But as an editor, I find myself doing exactly that. Here’s why; if a story can’t hold the interest of an editor, odds are it won’t hold the interest of our readers either, and they have surprisingly long memories as well.

There is a simple test to determine if your story suffers from Slow Start. Find a five-to ten year old. If this is a rare species in your vicinity, a teenager with ADHD or a twenty-something with a hangover can act as a substitute. Corner them in a room with only one door, and stand in the exit. Start reading. If they sit in rapt attention, you’re probably fine. However, if they are trying to escape through the window before you’ve finished the first page, then there may be a problem.

Where’s the Story: A weakness that plagues many of the submissions that I read is a simple failure to tell a complete tale. Short stories are a challenging format, because scene-setting, character introduction, conflict, resolution, all of it has to happen inside a very small space. Like conducting an orchestra from inside a closet.

When writing short fiction, many new writers fail to include one or more of the elements that makes a self-contained story. To be complete, a tale needs characters the reader can relate to, a conflict, and a resolution.

For example, little Suzy is eight years old. She has lost her cat. She embarks on an epic journey to find her cat that will span many years, several oceans, and every imaginable mode of transportation, while being pursued by her parents, and some Somali pirates.

So, scene, characters, and conflict are all present. Now there needs to be a resolution. If Suzy spends the rest of her life in a futile search for her lost cat, which any reasonable person would know had died many decades ago, that isn’t really a story.

There needs to be some satisfying resolution to the central conflict; Suzy finds the cat under her bed. The resolution doesn’t have to be what the reader is expecting; Suzy finds the cat, but it has died. Suzy finds the cat, but an evil scientist has set up Schrodinger’s box experiment, and she can never open it out of fear of collapsing the wave-form. Suzy finds the cat, but it turns out that it contained the reincarnated soul of a man that Suzy had murdered in a past life, and traps her in a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption lifted from the Saw franchise. Whatever tickles your fancy, but the resolution has to be there.

Haven’t I Read This Before: Here is where the rubber meets the road. Above all else, short fiction needs to be original. That is the deathblow for many stories I have read. They can be well written, with full characters and a complete story, but if it doesn’t feel new and fresh, then it will almost invariably fall flat.

Several times, I have read a story, only to find it is a well-known tale with the serial numbers filed off. One stands out in my memory as a carbon-copy of Blade Runner. The writer in question had never heard of the movie, or even the book it was based upon.

The best way to avoid this trap is also the most time-consuming; read lots of books and magazines, watch loads of movies and T.V., and play video games and RPGs. The only way to learn the tropes of your genre is to immerse yourself within it.

This is not to say that a story cannot include familiar elements. Sci-fi will always have space ships, aliens, and ray guns, and fantasy will always have elves, dwarves, and wizards. But find ways to tweak the conventions and make them your own, unique version. By defying expectations, you will grab the reader’s attention. Think of all the successful authors of vampire fiction.

If you follow these relatively simple steps while crafting and preparing your work, you will have positioned your story ahead of as much as two thirds of the deluge we have to wade through every time we open our inboxes.

Of course, you still have to get past the Senior Editors. But that’s another article.

After the Draft: Episode XI, Rolling with the Punches

Brief update on Let Sleeping Gods Lie. A second agent has gotten back to me after reviewing a partial manuscript (the first four chapters in this case) to let me know it wasn’t quite what they were looking for in epic fantasy. This agent was timely, polite, and sent out a personalized rejection. In short, they were very professional. So instead of giving up entirely on them or sulking in a corner somewhere, the best thing you can do when you find a good agent is put them on a list and keep them engaged. Here is the email I sent out in reply to the rejection:

 

Dear XXXX,

Thanks for the quick reply and the personal note. Both are rare these days and I appreciate them. I’m about 3/4 through a sci-fi murder mystery that might be more of what you’re looking for. If you don’t mind, I’ll query you in a couple months once it’s finished. Have a great day.

 

I thanked them for their professionalism, didn’t question or criticize their decision to reject the last book, and gently opened the door for another project. Quick, direct, and painless. Brevity is very important. The shorter your email, the more likely it is they will spend the time to actually read it. Remember, time is an agent or editor’s most precious commodity. If they’re spending any of it on you, whether to read you query, review your manuscript, or even send you a personal rejection, they are showing your efforts are valuable. Respect the time they’ve put into you, even if it didn’t give you the result you’re ultimately after, and they will remember you more fondly.

As it happens, this agent replied almost immediately to the above email and encouraged me to query them once The Ark is finished. Cool, huh? That’s it for today. I have another post percolating in my brain for next week, and I’m busy lining up new guest posts for the coming months. Now I have to go write, and so do you.

After the Draft: Episode VII, Michael R. Underwood

Well, it’s Monday everyone, and if you’re here in the Midwest with me, you just got walloped by storms and the temperature dropped thirty degrees overnight.

As a consolation prize, this month’s guest post comes from fellow author and geek extraordinaire, Michael R. Underwood. He’s here to share his story of unusually sudden success, and the extra work it entailed. The journey of Geekomancy is a reminder that there is no one true path to publication, and that you need to be ready for anything. As always, please take a moment to peruse my guest’s websites and blogs, and consider supporting their work. Enjoy!

 

Michael R Underwood:

From Rough Draft To Pub-Date

I finished the rough draft of GEEKOMANCY, my debut novel, in late November of 2011. I did a quick revision in order to prepare it for a novel contest in at my online writing group. Even as I turned it in there, I knew it was a bloody mess that needed a lot more work. The first round of revisions were big things like “This opening is terrible. I’ll cut and start with the actual character introduction,” and “This can be in 1st person or 3rd, but not both. Bad Mike.”

At the same time, I went ahead and posted several chapters of the barely-revised manuscript on a site called Book Country (an online writing community with strong discussion and critique elements). My intent was to show the book’s entire revision process on the site, to get some extra feedback and give myself additional external accountability.

Little did I know that an editor from Pocket/Gallery, Adam Wilson, would be browsing projects on Book Country, looking for novels to acquire for his list.

In January 2012, I got a message from Adam noting that he’d read the excerpt of GEEKOMANCY on Book Country and saw on my blog that I’d finished a draft, and could he perhaps take a look at it?

This is not a normal thing in publishing. I got really really lucky, and for that, I am very grateful.

But as I said above, the manuscript was a total mess, and I *knew* that there was lots more revision to be done. But Adam wanted to see it anyway.

And when an editor asks to read your full manuscript, You. Say. Yes. (a corollary of the GHOSTBUSTERS rule).

Less than two weeks later, I had an offer for GEEKOMANCY, and a rather early pubdate. Ebooks are much easier to drop into a schedule, since you don’t have to bother with the physical distribution and sell-in process.

To zoom through some steps, I signed with an agent and signed the deal, and moved very quickly into revisions.

After you sell a book or submit a book that’s under contract, the editor gives you an Editorial Letter. They vary in length depending on the work and the editor. The letter gives the editor’s overall evaluation of where the manuscript is, and what big-picture changes they would like the author to consider.

Adam’s main notes included a request to bring more of the Geekomancy magic system into the spotlight, and to zoom in on a sequence where Ree (the main character), is testing out her powers. In the first draft & revision, I just kind of had her leap into the deep end and hope things worked out. Following Adam’s suggestion, I found an appropriate subject for Ree to emulate (Geekomancy allows people to watch a film/TV show they love and then emulate some aspect of said film/show), which in this case was the first episode of the BBC SHERLOCK. That sequence came out really clearly right away, and judging by reader feedback, did exactly what Adam said it needed to in terms of setting the rules and putting some ‘wow’ on the page.

One by one, I took Adam’s notes and went at the manuscript with a mission, my focus targeted to specific efforts instead of being stuck looking at a 90K word chunk of prose and telling myself ‘make it better.’ This, my friends, is where editors are worth their weight in gold. Having an experienced reader who is invested in your success give you challenges on very specific ways to improve your work is an incredible asset.

Shortly after I turned that in, Adam came back and said ‘so…what if we could get this book out for San Diego Comic-Con?’ which was only three months from that point, and four months earlier than we’d discussed for the book’s release.

It meant two incredibly busy and stressful weekends doing the copy edit and then the page proof pass, but with the Pocket Star Production team overclocking their awesomeness, we got GEEKOMANCY out into the marketplace for SDCC, all less than six months after it had sold in the first place.

The whole process was a whirlwind, where publishing is usually very slow. My experience was uncommon, but in this publishing climate, uncommon is getting far more frequent.

If there’s one piece of takeaway from my journey from rough draft to publication, it’s this: give yourself every opportunity you can.

Bio:

Michael R. Underwood is the author of GEEKOMANCY, CELEBROMANCY, and the forthcoming ATTACK THE GEEK, YOUNGER GODS, and SHIELD AND CROCUS. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books.
Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiance. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes homemade pizza. Mike blogs at michaelrunderwood.com/blog and Tweets @MikeRUnderwood.

After the Draft: Episode III, Getting CONned

Hello gang. I’m back home and ready to step back into my ‘regular’ life. This installment of After the Draft was supposed to focus on writing a good query letter and synopsis for your novel, (an exercise I’ve previously compared to editing the complete Director’s Cut Lord of the Rings trilogy into a gif file), but as often happens in life, events didn’t adhere to my carefully planned timeline.

I spent the weekend in San Antonio at WorldCon. For those of you who do not know, WorldCon is short for The World Science Fiction Convention. It is home to the Hugo Awards, often called the Nerd Emmys. At six to eight thousand people, WorldCon is a medium-sized convention by today’s standards, but as opposed to the throngs of fans tens of thousands strong at places like ComicCon, WorldCon is a haven for industry professionals and amateurs, veterans and upstarts. Here, you’ll find authors, agents, publishers, editors, podcasters, artists, and illustrators all cavorting through whichever series of bars or pubs happen to be close by. It is, in short, exactly where you want to be if you’ve just finished a novel.

Granted, I hadn’t written a synopsis yet, or even a query letter, and I had only heard back from one of my Beta readers by this point, but I had a first draft (finished the read-through and line edit in the hotel room the first night of the con, actually) and it would have been silly to pass up the opportunity to network, shake hands, and talk to the Key Masters of the publishing industry face-to-face. Now, I’m not saying that new writers trying to break into the industry MUST attend conventions. This kind of dynamic social environment isn’t for everyone, and the ranks of writers have more introverts among them than society at large. Conventions are expensive, and can be both physically and emotionally draining.

My excellent roommate and I described going to conventions as an aspiring author like this: Imagine going to one of those speed-dating nights at a local hotel bar… for five days. Just like speed-dating, you have to dress up, remain witty and charming, not appear desperate, needy, or creepy, and basically maintain a polite lie about your true intentions. Just as you can’t sit down across from someone you’ve just met and say “Hi, I think you’re attractive. We should go have sex now,” you also can’t just come right out to an agent or editor and ask them to take a look at your shinny new manuscript and sign you to a multi-book deal. Social norms insist that some lubrication is required to get the wheels spinning first. Oh, and speaking of lubrication, you’re probably going to be drunk and sleep-deprived for the majority of the time.

So, not for everybody, and there are plenty of authors who have broken through and gotten their work published without ever attending a professional con. However, if you’re one of the more socially-capable among us, these events certainly don’t hurt either. Let me be very clear, after seeing what I have and watching several friends break out into amazing debut authors, I do not believe this is a who-you-know industry. Talent and hard work are absolutely critical. Without them, you’re not going to get very far.

But there are many thousands of talented people out there shouting into the void, and you need to find advantages, no matter how small, that will make you more visible to the people making the decisions so your talent has the opportunity to be judged in the first place. One of the best ways to do that is face-time. We are a social species, and in the age of vast networks of virtual-friends, the simple act of shaking hands and sharing a laugh over a drink has more power to connect than ever before. Human beings are just going to show preference to people they actually know. Fair or not, that’s just how it is folks.

Once you’ve decided to go to Con and network, there are some things you must do to prepare. First and foremost is to work up an elevator pitch. This is nothing more than a short, thirty second spoken commercial for your book. There are many dozens of sites and blogs that can help you write one, but you MUST practice it. Say it out loud many times so you can hear yourself saying it. Just like speed-dating, you must be ready to whip it out smoothly and confidently when the time is right. Fumbling your presentation probably isn’t going to get you the results you want from either situation.

I failed to do this, which with my stand-up comedy side project, is a rather inexcusable unforced error. I found myself in the embarrassing position of having my book pitched better by the friend who introduced me to the acquisitions editor of an important house than I ended up doing myself. Fortunately, it was the last day of con and everyone was exhausted, so there may have been a little more wiggle room given.

So, as of a couple hours ago, Any Port in a Storm has been read by one Beta reader, line-edited, formatted, and submitted to exactly one agent and exactly one editor. And there it will remain until I get word back from them. I have previously learned that it is very bad etiquette to submit a partial or complete novel manuscript to more than one editor at a time. Doing so will not make you friends.