Tag Archives: City of Magi
I have entered yet another pitch contest in #GUTGAA, this time the small press pitch contest. The only difference is that instead of agents being the ultimate judges (as in the agent pitch contest earlier), this time it’s small press… people. Editors? Talent scouts? I don’t actually know their titles. (But I’m sure they’re awesome. One of them has even voted for my entry so far!)
I decided to enter Blackout this time instead of City of Magi for a lot of the reasons I mentioned in earlier posts. Though I think City of Magi is my best work, Blackout is “pitchier.” I know I sound like a TV Singing show judge, but what I mean by that is that it’s an easier pitch to an agent. Blackout is Urban Fantasy with a religious mythological theme. It’s short (kind of—more on that later). It’s more modern, and it’s a lot more like stuff that’s getting a lot of press today.
Before I go further, I’d like to try and absolve myself: I don’t intend anything I say as an insult, though if you read it with the right voice in your head, it certainly can sound that way. You see, one thing this contest has taught me is that I understand very, very little about the modern female mass-lit consumer. And there are so, so many of them. I pitched Blackout in this contest because I specifically think it appeals more to women—not in its actual content (the female characters are much better developed and stronger overall in City of Magi), but in its pitch, and that’s largely because I hit all the checkboxes. Urban Fantsasy. Under a hundred thousand words. Protagonist is a mid-to-low income teacher. Part of the struggle is how the events of the plot affect his love life.
Now, my analysis here (pitch to women, because they’re the consumers) is not based simply on a hunch. In fact, I did a little compiling of the data. There were thirty-two entries in the adult literature category. One of them was a nonfiction analysis of humor essay that really didn’t fit in, so for the below data, consider that one as having been set aside. Hence, there were thirty-one entries.
Of those thirty-one, no fewer than 20 were what I would call (and again, not as an insult) “chick lit.” I mean this in the same vein as “chick flicks,” which, to my knowledge is not used in a derogatory manner except by people who hate romcoms. Chick flicks tend to do very well in the cinema, and I have no doubt (particularly now) that chick lit does just as well at the bookstore. I classified an entry as chick lit if it met one of the following categories:
- Its stated genre was “Romance,” “Romantic Comedy,” “Paranormal Romance,” or “Women’s Fiction” (and if you don’t want your book to be called chick lit, but you market it as women’s fiction… c’mon… really?)
- The first two sentences established the protagonist as a plucky, determined woman trying to right her life when everything gets complicated, and she has to deal with the sullen but handsome detective snooping around her… you get the picture. If it took me all of five seconds to say “Ahhh… this book is aimed at women,” then I lumped it in there. If I had any hesitation, I didn’t include it.
Of the entries mentioned, 12 were assigned to chick lit by their self-professed genres, and 8 were my own intuition. You’re welcome to do your own analysis (or try to guess which 8 that were not automatically assigned I thought were clearly for women) by seeing the whole list at Tara Tyler’s blog. Two thirds of the entries sounds a bit high for just chance. There’s a lot of it out there. By comparison, just 8 of the others were fantasy or urban fantasy, so if you add the three paranormal romances you’d be up to 11 out of 31 entries as fantasy. Six were mainstream or literary fiction (one of which I counted as chick lit), two were genuine hard science fiction, two were thrillers, and two were historical fiction. There is some double counting in there, so the numbers don’t add up to 31, but that gives you a sense of the breakdown. There’s some fantasy going on, but holy Mary mother of Jesus is there a metric ton of chick lit.
Now, I suspect some of this is just the nature of the contest I entered, the people who knew Deanna Barnhart (who I can’t thank enough for putting this together) or followed her blog, and in that way it may be skewed toward this audience. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s less skewed than it looks. Maybe that’s the shape of the modern reading market, and because I’m not a part of that audience, I didn’t know how significant it was.
Something else that really blew my mind was the length of the entries. Now, there was one monster at 240K, which is actually shorter than the non-split version of City of Magi, but if you throw out that entry and the essay, the average length of all entries was 82,456 words. That puts me on the long end with what I felt was my “short” book at approximately 99,000 words. Pouring through comments from the agent competition and the small press competition, there appears to be consensus that books should only ever be up to 90K or so in length. 100K was just excessive, and the absolute max publishable length (from one comment) was 150K.
I have to admit, this all leaves me speechless. I had researched this before, and I thought the target was 120K on submission (to hit something like 400 pages). This is particularly true given that the first thing any good editor is going to do is look for what she can cut out of the book. They want to trim the fat and they don’t do that by asking for longer descriptions. A 120K manuscript can easily become a 95K published book in the hands of a particularly vicious (and I mean that in a good way) editor. How long does a submitted 80K manuscript end up? I can’t imagine paying for a 70K book. I have literally never read a book that short, and I would assume something of that size was intended for a younger audience. Is this the face of chick lit? Am I missing the audience or am I looking at a completely different crowd from where I usually am, at least in fiction today?
In reverse order, the last books I have read are:
- The entire Game of Thrones series (these are all massive)
- The entire Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (~600 pages each)
- The Hunger Games (~100K words, the rest of the series was a little shorter)
- Spell Bound by Kelley Armstrong (350ish pages, so approximately 100K)
- The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson (333 pages, so approximately 95K)
I never read books that are shorter than 90K, it would seem. It isn’t at all the case that I think you need that kind of length to be complete or to be interesting. I don’t doubt that great stories can be told in 50,000 words or less. I’m just stunned by the view that you can’t be longer than 90K if you want to get published as a first time author, or that books longer than 150K are “out of style” as one commenter in the agent contest mentioned. Out of style? Did people never pick up any of the Harry Potter books? The first Harry Potter was 77K, but the last four were all close to 200K, and I enjoyed them all. Is Game of Thrones (first book, 284K, and that was the shortest one) not the most popular work of fantasy in the world right now? If I go back further in my reading queue, you’ll find Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (259,000) and A Wise Man’s Fear (399,000), both of which are insanely awesome and very long.
Again, I don’t think you need length, but I have a hard time seeing people get turned off by it.
UPDATE: With three out of four judges voting for Blackout, I moved on to the finalist round! Thanks to all the judges and congratulations to all the other finalists.
Things didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped in the #GUTGAA agent pitch contest, and while I’m a little disappointed, I’m not too upset about it. There were a lot of great entries, and mine wasn’t the only one I liked that didn’t get picked. I’m also happy with the transformation in my pitch that occurred because of the pitch polish week.
Sadly, the agents were very busy with all the pitches—too much to give feedback except in the cases where they were voting. I’d love to know what turned them away from CITY OF MAGI… though… I have my suspicions. The other entries were very heavy on chick lit and romance (I was in the “adult” section), and the judges were very fond of the genre.
I was particularly perplexed by a type of comment I saw rather often (paraphrasing here): “The pitch really could be tightened up, and I was confused as to whom you were talking about at [some part], but the idea intrigues me and the first 150 don’t have the same problems, so you’ve got my vote.” It certainly isn’t the case that only romances and chick lit went forward, but… the existence of a plucky female lead frustrated by a rough-and-tumble lawman who is on her side but sort of isn’t at first… that certainly didn’t hurt your chances. I could have played up the romance between Grayson Kearney and Zia Locke in CITY OF MAGI, but I feel like that would be getting away from the true heart of the book, which is the fantasy and intrigue.
This sort of sounds like grumbling or sour grapes, but I certainly don’t intend it that way. I’m very thankful for the opportunity and wish the winners the best as they go forward. The GUTGAA pitch contest was the first time anything about CITY OF MAGI was read by agents, and this has been fantastically instructive for me. The biggest lesson that I can take out of this when I continue sending out CITY OF MAGI is to read up on the agents to whom you submit. Proud chick lit lovers aren’t going to instantly warm up to epic industrial fantasy. Urban fantasy was big in this contest too. I would actually love to know if it was the subject, the writing, or just the length that turned the judges off. I’m leaning more towards splitting the story in two when next I query it. It’ll break my heart, but perhaps it’s for the best. It also means the inevitable trilogy is two thirds done instead of only one third.
The contest has also given me a theory about agent submissions. They care a lot more about the idea and the story sample than the pitch. Agents are the ones who do the real pitches. If they have a really cool story idea and the writing is good in the book, it doesn’t matter if an author can’t pitch to save his life. The agent will write a killer pitch to her contacts at various publishers. She’s the one selling it. A pitch to an agent, then, is only important in that it manages to pique her interest, not that it could get your book published. Of course, piquing an agent’s interest takes a well-written query… sometimes.
Sometimes you’re in luck and the agent feels like reading a sample anyway because they’ve never read a book where dragons are Indian-cow-style holy creatures that are also sort of a nuisance and are endangered by habitat encroachment, but the government doesn’t want to limit settlements, so it’s up to Caitlyn, who never wanted to be anything but a dragon biologist and wishes she could get out of the shadow of her famous, late, father, and is on the run from Agent Aidan Michaels, a gruff FBI field agent assigned to corral the dragon hippies but who just can’t take his eyes off of Caitlyn… okay… you get it. Also, I’m not writing a book about dragon hippies. Maybe a short story. But God help me if I ever name a main character Aidan. I’m pretty sure that name only exists in romance books. Hmm… this makes me want to do a quick check.
Names I have used for major characters:
Male – Grayson, Malcolm, Lear, Malloy, Alak, Remy, Ian
Female – Zia, Sundari, Pae, Erica, Mede, Quinta, Cindy, Srii, Susan
I don’t think there are any romance character cliché names in there. Maybe Remy.
In any case, #GUTGAA is far from over, and a week from Monday they’ll be starting a different pitch contest, this time for small press rather than agents. I’m going to take a cue from the above and pitch a different book this time. I’m going to go with BLACKOUT. It’s not as polished a manuscript as CITY OF MAGI, but it’s complete and is a much different story. It is urban fantasy, has religious overtones (another thing I noticed was popular), and is much, much shorter.
Without further ado, here is the first draft of my pitch for BLACKOUT.
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Word Count: 98,477
They say God doesn’t ask more from you than you can handle. Well, they never got drafted into a millennia-long battle because the angel of death needed a new body for his foot soldier. Malcolm Anders is a teacher and a part-time gymnast, at least when he isn’t covering up evidence at the site of a body he woke up over. He clings to threads of the life he crafted for himself, every day getting closer to having it destroyed by a spirit, Saraqael, who never asked permission to wage his holy war in Malcolm’s body. Saraqael costs Malcolm his stability, his plans for the future, and the woman he thought he’d be with forever. He seeks the help of a priest to get his life back, but what they discover only draws Malcolm deeper.
The demon Andras, Saraqael’s eternal foil, has chosen Philadelphia for this century’s uprising. His infernal legions possess the weak, the angry, and the criminals. With an army of demon-possessed soldiers, Andras plots to disrupt the divine plan and begin Armageddon before the world is ready. Using Malcolm, Saraqael hunts down Andras’s legionnaires one by one, as he has over the centuries. When the demons discover Malcolm’s identity, though, they bring the fight to him and kidnap his friend and wannabe lover, Pae, inspiring Malcolm to change the rules and bring Saraqael into his waking mind. Together they fight to save Pae, Philadelphia, and the world in a city that doesn’t even know it’s under siege.
I snapped out of it Thursday morning with a pain in my jaw. Someone had punched me in the face. The adrenaline coursing through my veins was all too familiar. Damn it. Again? The man underneath me moved. Wait, he wasn’t dead yet? I don’t usually come to until it’s all over. My victim clawed and scraped at the ground, desperately reaching for… oh shit, a gun. So much for trying to stop. My hands were bloody already. I hit him hard in the back of the head. It was frighteningly exhilarating. Despite my history, violence is kind of a new thing for me. Blood splattered out beneath him. Something snapped. He screamed.
Why? Why can’t I just go out to a movie like a normal person—a normal person who goes right the hell home after the show ends? I hit him again. I’d like to be merciful, but chances were that he didn’t have much left anyway and it’s not like I could just get up and apologize.
I’m officially entered in the #GUTGAA (Gearing up to get an agent) pitch contest today. You can see my entry here at Jaye Robin Brown’s blog. It was probably the most nerve-wracking 240 words I’ve ever written, but I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. For the very first time, a literary agent (several, actually) is going to read my query and decide whether or not she wants to see more. It’s not like the query is supposed to be exclusively on one site, so I’ll paste my entry here.
TITLE: City of Magi
Genre: Industrial-Era Fantasy (Adult)
Word Count: 272,888
When Astosen’s greatest military hero is found dead of an apparent heart attack, only Grayson Kearney, intelligence peddler, magus, and smuggler extraordinaire, suspects there is more than meets the eye. He enlists the help of Zia Locke, the hero’s daughter and a Magi Knight in the Astosenian military, and together they connect her father’s murder to a monarchist plot to overthrow Astosen’s fledgling democracy.
The enemies from within engage the help of continental superpower Valania, who is eager to weaken its former colony. Astosen’s independence was won with the discovery and production of the magi stones, a portable form of magic that even non-magi can use. Valania dreams of restoring its empire’s reach by seizing control of Astosen and its monopoly on magi stone production.
Grayson guides Zia through the depths of the capital city Dein Astos’s underworld to discover the truth, bring her father’s killers to justice, and fight to save the country. Dein Astos may not be perfect, but it’s the capital of the free world and the city that allowed Grayson to grow from an abandoned orphan into the architect of an underground empire. It’s a city unaware of his influence and guardianship, and one that only he has the power to defend.
CITY OF MAGI is a work of fantasy set in a magically-powered industrial society. It is the beginning of a saga spanning the length of the world war for control of the magi stones.
There are a few parts that I’m more nervous about than others. In particular, the beginning data that the reviewer begins with. I got more than a few comments about my word count in the “pitch polish” part of GUTGAA, some positive and some not. There is a school of thought out there that a 272,000-word book simply cannot be sold.
I get it. CITY OF MAGI is a pretty long book, and quite a few people told me to cut it in half. This could theoretically be done. There is a decent break point at about 150,000 words in, and to make the second half into a full book, it would likely take about an extra ten or twenty thousand words to encapsulate, so CITY OF MAGI very easily could be the first two books of a series.
Perhaps this is the whiney artist in me, but I just hate that idea. This whole book played as one story, and I’m putting it out there now because it really, really works. I’ve had several reviewers, some who took it a few chapters at a time and some who read it in its entirety, and the reviews have been almost embarrassingly positive. This is my best work, and it was written as one story. It works best that way. I paced this book very deliberately to ratchet up the action the further you got into it. The beginning isn’t slow at all, but it is more character and interaction based than Michael Bay-style holy-balls-did-that-just-explode action adventure. Which isn’t to say that things don’t explode in that first 150,000 pages. If I promise you nothing else about this book, it is that stuff blows up. I swear it.
In any case, it’s not the ‘splosions that get to me. It’s the arc and the closure of the story that I would most morn if the book were split into two. (Side note to agents and publishers: I will totally split this book into two if you want me to. I’ll just pout privately and then do as awesome a job wrapping the individual pieces as I did putting together the whole thing.)
The other part of the pitch I’m most nervous about is the tiniest part at the end. As the clock ticked down to submission time, I hemmed and hawed over whether or not to include one little word: the “It’s” in the last sentence: “It’s a city unaware of his influence and guardianship, and one that only he has the power to defend.”
I know what you’re thinking—without that word, the sentence isn’t a sentence. And the thing is… I really wish I had left it a fragment. I had it as a fragment for about a half hour prior to the submission, and then I got a case of nerves. What if the agents think I’m just a fragmenting fiend who doesn’t understand sentence structure? I mean, this is a contest for unpublished authors, so I’m not exactly George R. R. Martin, sitting on infinite amounts of writing credibility, able to twist the language and dare you to tell me I’m wrong.
No, I’m not a literary legend, but I still wish I had left it a fragment. The more I read the whole query out loud, the more I wish I hadn’t gotten nervous. I’d take that one word back if I could. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with it. Sure, it’s not a sentence that way, but the fragment has more power than the completed sentence ever could. The fragment is more true to my style overall.
Alas. I’m still happy with the entry, though. CITY OF MAGI is a long, awesome book. I had to distill the essentials of the plot, the magic of the world, all of the fantasy, and still gain the reader’s interest in just 240 words. There wasn’t actually a word limit, but your pitch has a very limited welcome on an agent’s desk, desktop, or iPad. You can see the original version of my pitch here (or just keep reading).
Grayson Kearney is the head of a smuggling enterprise in the capitol of the free world, Dein Astos. When a military hero is murdered, Grayson uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the stability of the nation. That murdered hero is the father of Zia Locke, a promising young officer in the Astosenian army. With her help, Grayson ties together the threads of a plot to overthrow Astosen’s fledgling democracy and restore the monarchy. They find that conspiring monarchists aren’t shy about reaching for unsavory sources of aid, even if it endangers the republic. This includes reaching out to the Valanian military, who hope to retake their former territory amid the turmoil.
Grayson isn’t Dein Astos’s most upstanding citizen, but he’s not about to let the city he loves fall back under the thumb of a despotic superpower or a power-hungry tyrant. D.A. may not be perfect, but it’s the capital of the free world and the one place where an abandoned orphan like Grayson can rise to the top.
City of Magi is a work of fantasy set in a magically-powered industrial society, and can be the start of a series.
The original version (besides being 50 words shorter) doesn’t have a hook at the beginning. You know that Grayson is a smuggler, but I gave that to you in perhaps the most boring way possible. “When a military hero is murdered…” is the action. That should lead (and in my agent-readable version, it did). The old version also separates the introduction of Grayson from some of the more interesting points about him without a decent expository reason to do so. This was also corrected in the second version.
The most thought-provoking feedback I got was that the fantastical elements of the story didn’t come through in my original pitch. My first reaction was “How am I supposed to explain the system of magic for my world in a pitch letter?” The answer took me longer to come to than it should have. I didn’t need to explain it. I just needed to put a fantastical hook in there. Much like the action hook at the beginning of the revised version, there needed to be something to promise the reader a hint of fantasy more interesting than “There are knights and stuff, and, uh… you know… magic. Yeah, that’s the ticket.” I did that with the inclusion of one item very central to the story: magi stones. My only explanation of the system of magic in CITY OF MAGI was to mention that magi stones are portable, universal magic holders. And that’s enough. That’s all that really can be in a brief, attention-getting letter.
Of course, I say this after only having revised my original pitch and submitted to a contest, so perhaps I’m marvelously wrong and one of the judges would have preferred the original, but I think I’ve put forward the stronger impression of my book with the revision. Thanks again to Deana Barnhart for putting #GUTGAA together. It has inspired me to stop just creating more stories and get back out into the business and social side of writing.
There is, of course, one more part to the contest, and that is to include the first 150 words of the book. I’d be an awful blog host exclude just that part, so without further ado, the opening of CITY OF MAGI:
The funeral march of Alexander Locke began at dusk. Grayson Kearney watched the crowd of politicians, family friends, comrades-in-arms, and reporters walk slowly through the spidery shadows of the weeping willows lining their path. For them, it was a tragic loss: Alexander Locke, great Magi Knight, hero of the republic, leader of men, felled by a heart attack at only fifty-five years of age. Grayson shook his head at their simple, ignorant grief. They should have been outraged. Locke had been murdered.
Hundreds long, the procession wound its way up the cliffs overlooking the Western Sound, through the gates of the National Cemetery, and came to a close at the end of the Trail of Remembrance. Grayson stood solemnly across the cemetery at the grave of a woman he never knew, watching the mostly black-clad crowd with occasional flashes of purple cloaks as they fanned out around the fresh grave.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!
First things first: TWDY 4 – Blood Money is out an in eStores now! Check it out in the Kindle store or on Smashwords. I’ve been pressed for time due to an abundance of projects lately, and I didn’t get a chance to post a big announcement blog when Blood Money went live last week. I did get the cover art graphic for the front page slider on my home page ready the day of publication, though, which is a first for me.
(Side note for people using Kindle Direct Publishing: it turns out you have to manually add books to your AuthorCentral page, which I had forgotten until I was checking the link to write this post).
As I mentioned last post, I’m sticking to a schedule of four main projects: TWDY, City of Magi (querying), Joyriders, and Blackout. I’m fighting the urge to spend too much time on Blackout, which is natural because that’s a brand new book and filled with all the shiny expectations and simple joy of putting a new story together. There’s really nothing else like it—that’s the reason I started writing in the first place.
To keep myself honest, I came up with a Google calendar schedule that emails me the assignment every morning. I spend at least three days on new material, be that Blackout or TWDY, and two days on query stuff and editing. Needless to say, I look forward to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings more than Tuesday and Thursday. I’m also going to be keeping more regular tabs on my progress and posting them here.
Joyriders Issue 1 is theoretically ready to be published, though I’ll be seeking at least one more editorial opinion before I pull the trigger. Part of my recalcitrance is that I don’t to commit to two regular series. Keeping TWDY going while querying my book and a short story (which I’ve been neglecting) is already a lot. Joyriders is a great story and deserves to be told. For that matter, it needs more of my mindshare than it is currently getting.
TWDY 5 is a work in progress, with two full chapters complete and probably six more coming. The first season of TWDY is going to wrap up with issue 6, and I’ll be creating a compendium from those to sell as Volume 1. I had originally planned to go just five issues, but there are some threads that need to be addressed that I just don’t see myself getting to in 5 issues. We’ll see. I also have the option of making Issue 5 a monster “season finale.” I don’t intend to lay off of TWDY afterwards—I’m having too much fun writing it and loving all the reader feedback that I’ve been getting. That being said, I do need to slow down a bit. I’m targeting April for the release of Issue 5, and if there is an issue 6 it will likely be June or July, depending on how much writing I do on vacation.
My City of Magi work is pretty close to finished, though of course things could always be tweaked. I have a synopsis that I’m trying to cut down. It started at 2100 words, and I’ve got it down to 1512. I’m aiming for 1000, so there’s still work to do. My query letter is more or less in final form. I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope soon.
Blackout is an interesting creature. It stands at just over 19000 words now, and it’s the first book of which I’ve done a complete plot outline before getting too far into it. I can tell you now how the book ends. But I won’t. It’s also the first book that I’ve ever written in the first person. I’m not going to go out and do present tense because I kind of hate that, but it is a fun experiment. It’s also the first writing exercise I’ve pushed out into a full book.
The only other project I’m jugging is the short story Magi Rebellion – Part One, a short story written in the world of City of Magi providing the backstory for the city of Dein Astos. I’ve shopped it once and need to keep putting it out there. If nothing happens after a while I’ll publish my planned trio of short stories using the magic of KDP. It’s a story worth being told.
I’ve been radio silent for far too long, and mostly it has to do with juggling a million projects at once, including an exciting new one that I’ll post excerpts from shortly. The projects of note are:
1. Those Who Die Young – Issue 4: Obviously. Barring a disaster, this will be published next week and I’ll have cover art up and ready for you later this week. Some of my more loyal readers might notice a title change. At the end of Issue 3, I declared (in the preview section) that Issue 4 would be entitled “Bloody Mess.” My wise editor thought that was horrible when she heard about it, and after much consideration, I think she’s right. I came up with the much cooler (and still applicable) new title, “Blood Money,” which we both agreed was a massive improvement.
2. TWDY – Issue 5: Next week will mark the first time in TWDY history I’ve published issue N without first completing issue N+1. I have written some of it and I know what happens, but I haven’t gotten a rough draft banged out yet.
3. Official Query Letter – City of Magi: I’m super excited about this one. City of Magi is complete, revised, and ready to be queried. There are two minor stumbling points to that, though. One is that to query, you need a query letter. I’ll post a little about that later, or perhaps just leave the interested reader to the eight million conflicting advice columns that already exist. The second is the submission package, which includes…
4. Synopsis – City of Magi: I’m still fumbling with this one, fighting to get it down to size. I didn’t end up reducing the size of City of Magi as much as I had hoped (final length, 273K words), but with a synopsis, your freedom is considerably restricted. This is very much a work in progress right now.
5. Joyriders – Issue 1: This is actually copy edited and almost ready to roll. I’ve had the cover art up for months now, and for some reason I just never judged this as ready for prime time. I suspect my focus on TWDY had something to do with that, and part of my reluctance is definitely that I won’t be able to push out issues of Joyriders like I have TWDY without sacrificing the latter, and I have a big emotional attachment to Lear and Erica, not to mention readers that actively bug me about publishing more. This could come out as soon as next month, but I’ll have to really consider whether I want to make a dangling commitment like that, particularly given…
6. A brand new book. I know, I know. Why? Well, this is something that I just got addicted to. The book is called Blackout, and it’s a supernatural thriller set in modern Philadelphia about a schoolteacher who gets periodically possessed by the angel of death to assassinate the members of a demonic cult threatening both the celestial and earthly worlds. The protagonist has no idea why he is being possessed, only that he keeps waking up over the bodies of people he has apparently killed.
I’ve been spectacularly hooked on Blackout of late, and it’s hard to deny the fun that this story is going to be to write. The difficulty is mostly in keeping my other projects moving, which I absolutely intend to do. My prioritization list reads something like
- City of Magi submission packet
I just have to get my time spent on each to reflect this, as I’ve been succumbing to temptation to write Blackout more than anything else. I also have some crits that I owe my fellow writers. In all of this, one other commitment has been left in the cold: blogging. I’m trying not to do that, and to a certain extent I’m being pushed not to do that by virtue of my upcoming publications, but there are only so many hours in the day that I can spend writing. I’m still learning to juggle stories well. It is taking considerably longer than it took me to learn to juggle actual objects (I can do pins and spheroids, but no more than three).
February is going to be an interesting month, and I’ll do my best to get my work out into the real world instead of the confines of my Dropbox.
Ever since I published Bearers of Bad News, I’ve been trying to push myself into a multithreaded writing mode. What’s multithreading? It’s how we should think of multitasking. At least, it’s how computers think of them. Each processing core, that is. Multicore machines can do true multitasking, but old-school machines can’t, and it’s debatable whether or not humans can. We certainly can’t write more than one thing at a time, thanks to the two-handed nature of typing and our regrettable lack of a second pair of hands and eyes. For the most part, your computer can’t really do more than one thing at a time (even if it’s multicore – most programmers don’t take advantage of that). If you’re playing a game and something is animating while the game is deciding on something logical (like, did you hit that target?), then you’re seeing multithreading. What’s really happening is that the machine is quickly switching back and forth between drawing that animation and making that hit calculation. If you could read the processor’s mind, it would go something like this:
Paint the screen, paint the screen, paint the screen. Divide bullet speed by time. Add to distance. Paint the screen. Paint the screen. Is distance to target less than hit distance? Paint the screen. Yes. Check probability for hit. Paint the screen. Probability is 35%. Paint the screen. Get pseudorandom number. Paint the screen. Paint the screen. Number is 54. Paint the screen. Bullet missed. Paint the screen…
It’s never painting and calculating at the same time, but it looks like it to you because it switches back and forth so quickly. That’s the only thing computers are actually good at—doing simple things extremely quickly.
The relevance to writing is more the one-thing-at-a-time issue, when I really want to be doing multiple things at once. I want to blog. I want to tweet. I want to edit issue 3 of Those Who Die Young. I want to write Issue 4 of TWDY. I want to finalize my short story for submission to a couple of markets. More than all of these, I want to get moving on edits to City of Magi to ready it for queries.
There is absolutely no chance I can do all of these at the same time. I’ve determined that I can do minor edits even when I’m not in full writing mode, so I can banish that to evenings and lunchtimes and still make some progress on it. The biggest conflict here, though, is between TWDY and City of Magi. I love TWDY. It’s by far the most fun thing I’ve ever done in writing, and I love that people are actually buying the first two issues. I feel a duty to my readers to further the story.
That being said, City of Magi is my dream book. It’s a powerful story that is something I want out there in front of the masses, published in for-realsies paperback form and sitting on the shelves at your local Barnes and Noble. And it’s not going anywhere if I spend all my time on TWDY.
Hence, multithreading. I can’t write both at once, but perhaps they can develop in tandem. So I’m going to try something. Monday and Tuesday are for TWDY. Lear, Erica, Mede, Quinta, and Roland will plow forward in their quest to keep the peace and re-enable Lear’s entry to the Infinitum. On Wednesday and Thursday, I’m in for City of Magi. The Grey Ghost lives. Friday’s a toss-up. Whatever needs development gets attention. It may also have to do with my mood after my Friday workout, or how close to my self-imposed deadline for TWDY releases I am.
We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully it’ll look like I’m successfully writing two things at once. At worst, it’ll be an experiment I do away with and I’ll go to single-mindedly prepping City of Magi for a month or so before switching to TWDY-mode for a similar amount of time. It’s all in good fun.
When I’m not
fighting crime writing fiction, I’m writing code: good old-fashioned, rocket-fast, wicked cool code. Also, sometimes boring code and long tech specs. There are a startling number of parallels I’ve found between writing fiction and writing code, and one of the biggest ones of them is the “Ship It” urge. Some background is perhaps in order.
I used to work for a little software company in Redmond. You may have heard of it. That company is known for a high level of polish on its code; say what you want about its programs, haters, but for huge software products that are used by almost everyone on Earth, very few real bugs are found. They have perfected an iterative cycle of code and test, code and test, code while testing, that successfully cranks out very solid products. To give you an idea of how big a deal this is, imagine publishing the most popular book in the world. Imagine that it’s over 1500 pages, and before you ship you need to know that there are absolutely no typos, no logical flaws in the story, that you got every detail about ships and horses right, that there are no anachronisms (Anyone have zippers on pants in the 1700’s? You fail.), and that the style is consistent and engaging throughout. Now imagine that half the planet is going to read your book, thousands and thousands of people are going to critique its every nuance, and the future of your company depends on you writing that solid a book. It can be done, but it’s not easy. It takes a process, and my old company has one.
Most other software companies imitate that company’s software engineering method to a degree. It is very deliberate, and I learned early on that the biggest “company secrets” I was ever privy to were planned features and release dates. If you are selling software, those are the last two things you ever want to tell the public (if they are paying attention to you). Another little software company in Cupertino has perfected the art of telling the public nothing until the product is already on the assembly line. They do this for a reason – if you say you’re going to have feature X in the product shipping in October of next year, it may be the case that come next May, you find out that feature X is very, very hard to do, and the product needs to go on without it. Feature X may cripple your product because of how big or slow it is, or it may not be as cool as you thought, or you may just not be able to figure it out. All of those things happen in software. Hence, the process goes like this. On day one of product planning, you (or a room filled with
blind monkeys marketing professionals) make a list of all the features you’d like to have in the next release, and pin a date down for when you’d like to release it. You also pick a series of “measurement dates.” As you get to each of these, you look at your progress and find what is and what isn’t working. For the things that are behind where you’d like them to be (and again, you can often only guess at how hard it is to write a feature, much like in fiction you can only guess at how easy writing that fight scene will be), you ask yourself – “Do I really think I can catch up?” Better yet, you assume you can’t catch up, and instead you ask yourself, “Is it worth delaying either the release or other features to get this done?”
You do these measurement steps as often as you can (though there is a point at which measuring is taking more time than it is saving), and eventually you’ll find that you can’t quite get to all the features you had planned for the next release in time for your target release date. You then decide to either delay the release or drop/pare back the feature. When your release candidate does roll around, you almost always find that 1) it took longer than you had hoped, and 2) it doesn’t have all the features you planned. This is why you never tell the public which features you are adding (unless you really need to, and then those features can’t be dropped, which is a dangerous attribute for a feature) and you never tell them when you plan to release until you are really, really sure that you can make the date. This should generally be whenever development is winding down and you are mostly in bug-bashing/user testing mode.
If this sounds complicated and easy to screw up, that’s because it is. Companies do it all the time. The company I worked for doesn’t do that very often, and the result is that when a product ships, it is a Big Deal. You have parties. If your project is big enough, you have parties that include people only tangentially related to the product, because, hey, you just shipped a terabyte of working, awesome, cool code that consumers are going to love. Often you’ve spent the last N years of your life working on just that code. It’s a good reason to have a party. When you “Ship It,” everybody involved gets a Ship It award. When I was there it was a cool plaque with the CEO and company founder’s signature on it next to your name. It’s a nice touch to celebrate a genuinely huge accomplishment. Shipping code is always an accomplishment.
Similarly, “shipping” fiction is a Big Deal. I worked on my novel for three years. There were points at which I didn’t think I was ever going to finish. There were other points where I thought it was crap that wasn’t worth finishing, and there were some where I just thought I was wasting my life. After all of that, though, I stuck with it and put together a novel that I am really, really proud of, and this past February, I got to write “The End,” (and then promptly delete it because nobody actually writes that in a book any more). City of Magi has been sitting on my virtual shelf ever since then, waiting as it cools for me to get some distance so I can come back and mercilessly edit it. I can’t deny, though, that there is a huge part of me that wants to just “Ship It.” I want to get to the stage where I’m shrugging off rejection letters, checking my mail hoping for that one agent to say that they’re ready to represent me, or better yet a publishing company that wants to put what I wrote on real, live bookshelves. But the fact remains, City of Magi isn’t ready. It needs an edit. And after that, it needs an edit. Maybe, maybe, after that it can go out to agents and publishers, who will of course say that it then needs an edit. I can resist the Ship It urge because I worked on City of Magi for three years and it is the coolest thing I’ve ever written.
While my novel is cooling, I decided to write serial fiction to be published in the great new world of epublishing, and that took off much faster than I ever figured it would. Now I’m sitting on two complete-ish issues of Those Who Die Young, and wondering… do I Ship It? How polished is polished enough? That’s the truly terrifying thing about epublishing: you are the publisher. Is it ready? Who do I ask? Ultimately – no one. I decide. And that authority is terrifying. The software engineer in me wants to cut any scenes that I’m not 100% sure of and publish, but there’s a risk. This is my first major foray into publishing fiction. Everything I do from here on out will be partially colored by this first attempt. Every rookie writer faces this dilemma. We want our names out there. We desperately cling to the idea that when our work hits the shelves, virtual or otherwise, it’s going to set the world on fire and we’ll be celebrity authors extraordinaire.
The realists among us understand how rare it is for that to occur. It’s actually quite difficult to make a living as a writer, even if you’re good at what you do and sell well. Books just don’t pay that much. The digital book revolution isn’t going to change that. Still, we do our due diligence and join writing groups and get all the feedback we can, and when we really think we’re ready… we’re not sure what to do. Say what you will about how unfair the traditional publishing industry can be. Plenty of great talent goes unnoticed, you’re never sure if you’re being paid what is fair, hell – you don’t even always know how many of your books are sold if you’re in print. Meanwhile, Pamela Anderson can “write” a book and it becomes a bestseller. No matter how difficult, at times insulting, unfair, and in many ways degrading to the writers the traditional publishing industry can be, it has the gift of telling you when you’re ready to be out there. More often than not, that answer is “oh hell no,” but you have an authoritative answer.
Enter the Kindle, et. al. Now I decide. Is 50000 words a good length for a 99-cent serial fiction? Is it enough to feel meaty, but not so much that I spend years of my life on it and sell it for less than a buck (and only get paid between 35 and 40 cents, depending on where you buy it)? I wrote each of the drafts for TWDY in a month, and I’ve spent about another month editing each. Is one a month a good rate? Can I keep that up when I start editing City of Magi next month? (Answer: no.) Should I have a bigger backlog of issues to keep me on a regular pace for a while?
There are a thousand questions that (should) come with the decision to publish, and none of them is more important than “Is this good enough to publish?” Am I ready to Ship It? We’ll see. I can still tweak; I can still rewrite. Unlike software, though, it’s never good form to publish “patches” for a book. Would you be happy buying a copy of Windows that can never get updated? I know I wouldn’t.
Shelter From the Storm will be out soon. But it’s terrifying to have that decision looming over me. Sooner or later, I have to pull the trigger and Ship It.