Tag Archives: #GUTGAA

More #GUTGAA–with analysis this time

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:

  1. 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?)
  2. 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:

  1. The entire Game of Thrones series (these are all massive)
  2. The entire Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (~600 pages each)
  3. The Hunger Games (~100K words, the rest of the series was a little shorter)
  4. Spell Bound by Kelley Armstrong (350ish pages, so approximately 100K)
  5. 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.


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A different pitch

September 20, 2012 8:56 am by MRM in Projects, Writing

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.


Title: Blackout

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Word Count: 98,477

Pitch:

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.

First 150:

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.

 


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#GUTGAA Agent Pitch Contest

September 17, 2012 8:48 am by MRM in Projects, Writing

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


QUERY:

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!


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Gearing up to get an agent

September 3, 2012 12:10 pm by MRM in Writing

Hello and welcome to all fellow #GUTGAA participants and my regulars. It’s been something of a tumultuous year for me, both writing-wise and life-wise, but I’m getting back into the social side of writing and getting query letters ready for my manuscript to finally send it out and make a push for publication. In between finishing the polishing of my book and now, I simply couldn’t help myself from writing a completely different book, several issues of my web serial, Those Who Die Young, and toying with ideas for a third full novel. It occurred to me that I had to take a step back from writing new stuff to put out the books that I’ve finished, so here I am. I also bought my first house, ran three marathons, and went through a handful of other changes in how things go day-to-day.

To get back into the blogging habit, I joined another blogfest, which worked great to get me a-blogging the first time around (see all my old posts tagged REN3, which I loved). This one is called Gearing Up To Get An Agent, giving rise to the awkward acronym of GUTGAA. It’s actually the perfect blogfest for me, as that’s my main goal in writing right now and something I’m doing anyway. Thanks to Deana Barnhart for hosting!

Today is just the meet & greet, for which we’re supposed to post a brief bio and answer a few questions. Without further ado, questions first:


  • Where do you write?

I write in my living room, legs extended on the couch, laptop in proper lap position. I have an espresso lungo at my side and a corgi curled up at my feet. There could be lots of distractions, but in the morning I have everything off and the house to myself.

  • Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?

To my left is a picture my wife bought of Pioneer Square in Seattle taken in 1905. It’s always interesting to look back into the past like that. It’s been a few years since we’ve been to Pioneer square today, but it’s a different world now.

  • Favorite time to write?

In the morning before work. Writing for an hour is part of what I do to get my head in the right place before I walk over to my office.

  • Drink of choice while writing?

Espresso lungo. I usually have one or two while writing for an hour in the morning.

  • When writing , do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?

I’ll often play some music, either Chinese symphony or Medeski, Martin, and Wood. I can write with noise, but not if the television is on.

  • What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?

My latest manuscript (not the one I’ll be talking about in the pitch part of this blogfest, because it’s not polished yet) was inspired by a writing dare to myself. I’ve never written in first person POV before, so I wanted to try that. When I sat down to write a scene, I was thinking of cliches. One of the most cliche things you can do is start a story right after a murder (unless you’re writing a murder mystery, in which case this is forgiven). It’s also incredibly cliche to start a story with someone waking up. I decided to one-up this level of cliche-dom by having a scene that starts with a character waking up during a murder, just to see if I could make it work. Obviously, if he was the person getting murdered this would be a short and morbid story, but I thought it would be more fun if he was the killer. And I also thought it would be more fun (and less cliche) if, instead of being surprised or horrified, his reaction was "Damn it, not again." I loved the scene so much I made a book out of it.

  • What is your most valuable writing tip?

Write the scene you know. I never would have finished the manuscript for my best novel if I had given in to my impulses to stop when I didn’t know what happened next in the story. I might not have known what happened in the next scene, but I knew what happened several chapters later, and I went ahead and wrote that. It’s easier to connect two disparate points in time when you know what happens at either endpoint than it is to push forward not knowing where you’re going.


That’s all for the questions. As for my biography? I’m a thirty-one-year-old software engineer from North Carolina who loves reading and writing science fiction and fantasy when I’m not reading and writing in code. I’ve been writing for a little over a decade now, and only last year completed my first manuscript. This year I completed another. I’m also the author of an ongoing ebook serial, Those Who Die Young, which is currently for sale wherever fine ebooks are sold.

My interest in writing started back in college when I was editor of a student publication, though there I did more news and opinion writing than fiction. As I drifted into graduate school, collecting a handful of accidental degrees before settling on computer science, I started really believing I could be a writer and putting more effort into polishing my craft. I’m married to a  wonderful woman who is a fantastic critic when she has the time, and I have a Pembroke Welsh corgi who does everything in his power to stop me from writing if he hasn’t been exercised enough before I start. Jerky sticks can distract him, but only sprinting in circles for fifteen minutes can truly satisfy him.

I’m excited to meet all of the other GUTGAA participants out there, and I want to give a special thanks to one of them, Meredith Mansfield, without who’s heads up I never would have known about this.


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