Rise of the Mages

IRE has a new title: Rise of the Mages.

It also has a new form:

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Ahhh! It’s real! Fifteen year old me would have been blown away to see my name (pseudonym, at least) on a Tor book, even an advance copy. Hell, 31 year old me is pretty blown away.

My editor, Jen Gunnels, will send these manuscripts out to fancy authors in hopes that we can get a blurb from them. Jen wisely won’t tell me who she is sending these to. Fancy authors get a lot of these in addition to being busy people, and reading a book isn’t a small favor. In the event that any of them can’t find the time, or doesn’t like the book enough to attach their name to it via blurb, I won’t know about it and can (maybe) still be friends with that person in the future. Regardless, I’m excited that even just a few more people get to experience my book. I can’t wait until all of you can get your beautiful hands on it.

Can it be 2020 now?

 

-Scott

How to Write a Publishable Book

It has been proven to me time and again that very smart, amazing people have very different tastes than I do. And that’s okay. They might disagree with many of the things below, but this is my take on how to approach writing a book that is worth publishing.

 

Appeal/Resonance: The story needs a strong foundation of something the reader will care about. This can mean many things, but in general, this means that you need to help the reader see themselves in the story. The breadth of appeal of your story will directly correlate to the foundational elements you include. You can control this. A few examples of variables:

  • Characters for whom you give a backstory and/or page time: People want to see themselves in your characters. Diverse + deep cast of well-executed characters = broader appeal.
    • Example: I believe that we love to read about believable villains because we like to explore our ‘dark side’. We see characters as believable when we could see ourselves taking the same actions they do, given the same context. That’s why it’s just as important to show why a villain does what he/she does as it is with your hero… assuming your story has some version of a hero and villain.
  • Character motivations: this is easy. What are some common things people want in life? Power, wealth, fame, revenge, sex, drugs, freedom, safety, food, etc…
  • Setting/Worldbuilding: This is tricky, but I believe that people want to experience a setting that is familiar, but new and interesting in some way. I’ll let you decide how to interpret that, but consider that the vast majority of earth’s current population lives in a major city/suburb setting. Familiar yet interesting could be a story set in the wilderness/countryside (something that is familiar, but yearned for), or it could be a unique twist on an urban setting.
    • That this is why so many successful stories are set in some sort of school (but with some fantastic twist – be that magic, grandeur, or just a conveniently attractive and generally perfect romantic interest way out of our MC’s league that just so happens to fall for him/her). It’s a setting everyone, even adults, can identify with. We spend a good portion of our lives in a school, and then send our kids off to school just a few years after we escape.

Structure/Purpose:

I’ve run into a few writers that are really good at writing, but they write really stupid stories that nobody will connect with in a meaningful way. Here are a few things (not meant to be an exhaustive list) that I think people want to see from a story, in loose but meaningful order:

  • Character Internal Progress: Characters changing, progressing in some fashion – achieving an internal goal or milestone, usually becoming more (or less) capable at a thing and demonstrating it
  • Relationships: Romance, friendships, alliances, rivals, enemies… humans are social animals, and we want to experience various relationships in our stories
  • Character External Goal: also known as “protagging”. Usually includes a main character achieving an objective after struggling to do so at least a few times so it feels “authentic” and difficult (try/fail cycles).
  • Conflict: between characters, leading to conflict resolution in some form
  • Exploration: of setting, other unique aspects of the story (especially in SFF)
  • Problem Solving: solving a mystery or puzzle, letting the reader solve it with the MC as it unfolds
  • The Final Countdown: Achieving a final victory, usually after a seemingly insurmountable setback or hurdle

Execution: 

This could all be boiled down to “write good”, but I’ll try to lay down some sub-categories that I pay attention to:

  • Voice/Style: This may be the one element in this entire article that is difficult – though not impossible – to control completely, as it is a subjective measure. I find that my written voice is primarily affected by:
    • The characters I’m writing, and how well I “know” them
    • My emotion associated with the characters and the plot of the story
    • The stories I’m consuming at the time, both written and visual media
    • My ability to make time not just to write, but to sink deep into my story as I write
  • Clarity: grammar, sentence construction, paragraph spacing, word choice, and description are all critically important
  • Pace: be efficient with your words. Hit multiple story objectives with every scene.
  • Flow: portray a constant, consistent narrative, as close to the subject as possible
  • Repetition: repetition of “tags”, or common descriptions, can aid in recall and familiarity with important aspects of your story
  • Consistency + Limitations: character actions should be consistent, settings/magic systems should be consistent, and all should be limited so as to force your characters to work for anything they achieve
  • Write the damn book: this one cannot go unmentioned. Incredible writing talent is squandered constantly by those who just never sit down and write until a thing is done.

Write What You Love: 

My final bit of advice: write the stories you want to read. You can easily do research on and arrive at logical conclusions about what kinds of characters and stories are likely to appeal to large groups of readers, but unless you are also writing what you love, it will likely fall flat. I’ve seen many a respected author claim that there’s no difference between works written with passion vs. those written through sheer force of will. I’m here to tell you that this is not true for my work, and I can absolutely tell the difference between someone who is writing for money or appeal instead of out of genuine interest in their work .

Patrick Rothfuss is one who (I like to believe) writes from a place of passion for his work. He’s obviously a talented writer and has many widely appealing elements in his story, but the level of depth and authenticity present in the Kingkiller Chronicles would be very difficult to replicate without caring about your work on a personal level.

It’s important to note that often, mass appeal and personal appeal are a spectrum (or perhaps a 3D space with many axes), and the way to win this game is to find a point on the spectrum where your genuine interests align with those of a sizable target audience.

 

Good luck.

 

-Scott

The Write Life

I’m not entirely comfortable writing about my own life, my own family, but I write this for a few reasons:

  1. The life of an author is often romanticized, and I think people should understand what it’s really like (at least for me). I’m in a pretty awesome situation in life, and still the creative struggle is real and has a real effect.
  2. I think people should understand how much work and sacrifice goes into producing a solid work of art. Many, many artists out there sacrifice way more than I do.
  3. I want to see, I want to feel other people’s stories, what drives them, what their challenges are – writers, especially. It’s only fair that I start by sharing a bit of my own story.

 

This, my friends, is what my life looks like as a soon-to-be published (coming in 2020) author.


I park my car in the garage after a day at the office – a day of being the boss, the grunt, the leader, the follower, sometimes the village idiot. My eyes, my head, my ass, my back hurt from sitting in a chair and staring at a screen all day. I feel brief satisfaction for what I’ve accomplished today, but something is missing. The work was mine, but the result will not be, not entirely. I feel frustration, helplessness, impatience, inadequacy. I know I’m lucky to have what I have, be what I am, do what I do, but I need more. I need to be more.

I turn off the car, close my eyes, and lean my head back against the headrest as I finish listening to the last of the song that had been playing. The evening heat begins to creep into the car now that the A/C is off, but it feels right to let the song finish. I breathe deep, knowing that my incredible wife, my beautiful little girl, and my faithful dogs are waiting for me. Still, I take these few brief moments for myself. Nobody expects anything of me for these few moments. Better, I don’t expect anything of myself – for a sweet minute or two.

The song ends, I walk inside. A rush of cold air, two wet noses, and a cry of, “Daddy!” greet me. My daughter’s radiant gray-blue eyes, her wide, toddler-toothed smile warm me. My wife’s simple words, “Hi Babe,” are music to my ears.

For a time, I forget everything that isn’t my little family. My wife playing with my daughter at the table – letters, or painting, or play-doh. The dogs wiggling and groaning for attention.

Soon, the daily question: “What are we doing for dinner?”

As we cook dinner and eat, the outside world returns. The article or tweet I saw earlier that promises to make me a better writer, a more successful businessperson, a better father or husband. The text from a friend, the email from work. I am distracted by my phone often.

Dinner is done, dishes are cleared. We have time for a game or two, perhaps half an hour to sit on our deck, check the garden, play outside in the dwindling summer sun. Maybe I sneak in a moment of reading a book just for fun, or chase my daughter, or play catch with her and the dogs.

“Okay little kid, bed time!”

The next hour is filled with tickles, screams, wrestling clothes off of and ‘jammies’ back onto the toddler. We read a story (or two or three), we turn the lights off and snuggle (a nightly requirement).

Doubt wars with joy in my heart, my mind. Am I doing enough for this tiny human next to me? Have I been, can I be the dad she deserves? Are the short hours after work I spend with her – usually mentally exhausted (or lazy) after work – enough? Do I make enough money to provide her the right experiences, opportunities? Will I ever make enough to be able to spend more time with her?

I hear her breathing change to a deep, regular rhythm. I kiss her forehead, roll out of bed, walk downstairs and into the bedroom. It’s a writing (or other work) night, so the air is humid and smells of lavender. My wife has drawn a bath for herself and has a book ready, knowing that I am not hers tonight. She has worked a full day as well, and takes care of most of the parenting and household duties besides. She deserves to wind down with a good book, or the latest episode of The Bachelor.

“Hi honey, how were snuggles?”

“Good. We have the cutest kid ever.”

“Yep. Are you writing tonight?”

“Yeah, still working through edits. Like always.”

“Okay, love you.”

I set my laptop at the desk we have in our room, plug everything in, get spotify running, my appropriate windows up. I buy the thing on amazon I’ve been needing for a few days (or more likely, yet another book to sit in my tbr pile for months), then close my browser and dig in. But for the first ten or fifteen minutes, I stare at the page without really seeing the words. I wish I were relaxing with my wife. I remember a thing I wanted to talk to her about. I worry about all of the undone to-do items from my day, what meetings I have the next day that I need to prepare for. I worry about the other things I am trying to do to improve my family’s life on other nights: prep applications for business school, the lunch/dinner date I haven’t scheduled yet, the startups I’d like to build. I check the baby monitor. I check twitter. I chat with my friends on slack.

Finally, I settle in and drop into my story. Wonder of wonders, it’s actually pretty damn cool. I edit dialogue, tweak descriptions, change details. It’s as if I’m really living this story that I have completely fabricated. Most days, I love it.

Other days, I sit and stare longer. The words don’t come, my brain is broken. I change a scene, then change it back when I realize I just ruined several other scenes.

I get an hour of writing in – maybe two if I’m lucky – before my gaze strays to the clock. It’s 11 PM or later, my wife wants to go to sleep. I need to as well, for tomorrow it starts all over again. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to pursue my passions full-time? I could write several books per year. I could build other products/companies I dream about. I could home school my child, or at least be more involved in her daily life.

But that’s not real life. Most other writers – even some successful, well-known ones – fight the same battle I do. Their battle may be even harder, as I realize that I’ve been very fortunate with my “day job” career, and many don’t have an incredible life partner who shares the burden of supporting the family financially. Or worse (in my opinion), many writers who have gone full-time constantly stress about whether they will be able to make ends meet, and suddenly their passion has become their prison.

Writing just doesn’t pay well enough to be a full-time occupation for most of us. ‘Why’ is a question for another ramble.

Even knowing this, I can’t stop, because progress is the only thing that makes me feel like myself. I am a creator, so I create; a dreamer, so I dream.

My wife turns off her bedside lamp. I save my word doc, close my computer, and pad into the bathroom by the light of my phone to brush my teeth before bed. I feel the familiar stab of disappointment for everything I didn’t get done today, satisfaction for what I did accomplish. Still, something is missing. I know I’m lucky to have what I have, be what I am, do what I do. I was just writing on a MacBook, for hell’s sake. My wife and I don’t worry about finances like we did eight, even five years ago.

Still, I need more. I need to be more.

I turn off my light, close my eyes. The dog beside my bed farts, I can’t breathe.

Finally, I sleep.

 

Tomorrow: my beautiful struggle repeats.

Ire Has a Home

I finally signed a contract. Ire will be the first book of a trilogy written for Tor. The first book is tentatively scheduled to be published in late 2020, and the other two books will follow shortly thereafter.

Working with Tor is something of a dream come true for me. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy novels, and the Tor name has always been synonymous with the kind of book that’s not just enjoyable, but that can transport you to another reality. The Wheel of Time is a series that influenced me profoundly as a young man, and continues to be almost canon to me. The Recluce series provided example after example of realistic people living realistic, (mostly) honorable lives. More recently, Tor authors like Brandon Sanderson, Brian Staveley, and many others have continued that legacy in their own ways, and now I get to add my name to that list. I’m ecstatic to have my work published, but being a Tor author means a great deal to me even beyond that.

I’ve got a lot of writing to do, and a good while until my work sees the light, but I’m stoked about the path I’m on and the people I have on my side. Huge shout out to Matt Bialer for guiding me through the process and putting in years of work with me to get this deal.

Ire is going to be awesome.

 

-Scott

Elements of a Query Letter

Hey people – I’m part of a query workshop at LTUE on Friday at 10 AM. I’m putting this post together primarily as reference material for that event, but it should be useful for anyone writing a query letter.

General Advice:

  • Try to keep it as close to 250-300 words as possible. Shorter = Better.
  • I like to use a lot of spacing. Short sentences. Short paragraphs.
  • Have a complete work to pitch if you are a debut author
  • Follow the damn submission guidelines
  • Prepare your favorite anxiety remedy. I like chocolate.
  • Check out:
  • See my query that worked HERE 

 

Here’s the basic structure I used for my query:

1st Paragraph: Intro, or the Personal Hook

  1. Personalize the Letter:
    1. Address it to the agent
    2. Have and mention the specific reason you are querying them
      1. Also, have a specific reason to query them
  2. Intro your work:
    1. Genre
    2. Title
    3. Status (Complete?)
    4. Length in word count

2nd/3rd Paragraphs: The Story Hook

  1. Intro your primary character(s)
    1. Use the same tone/style as your manuscript
  2. Intro the scene/setting
  3. Present the conflict/inciting incident
  4. Dramatic statement

4th Paragraph: Summarize the theme

5th Paragraph: Info about you/your work

  1. Compare your work to similar works, if you wish
  2. Is this your first work, or do you have other published works of note?
  3. Do you have some relevant qualification to be writing what you are? Mention it.
  4. I chose to also mention that I’m working on the next book in the series to signal that it is not a standalone novel

6th Paragraph: If attachments or inclusions are asked for in the agent’s/publisher’s guidelines, mention them here and ask to send a full MS.

Sign off w/ your personal info

 

Good luck! Go query, my friends.

 

-Scott

Literary Agents and Why I Want One

At a very basic level, literary agents take a 15% cut of the amount their authors make in exchange for selling your book to a publisher. They should have the contacts to make that happen. Essentially, they are gate keepers for the publishers. But that’s not all! They’ll typically handle the funds coming from a publisher, negotiate contracts, and the good ones will even help you edit your book.

Whether to acquire a literary agent is a debate I’ve seen circling among writers on the interwebs for a few years now.

One side of the spectrum would seemingly give a precious body part just to have ANY agent. It seems to be a mark of validation for these people, a sign to themselves and others that they are legitimate writers. I get it. It can be hard to justify thousands of hours spent writing, especially to loved ones who have to put up with you sitting in front of a computer all the time. Having official representation (validation) would feel great.

The other side of the spectrum not only balks at giving up 15%, but does not see any value added by an agent (and usually they don’t see any value in establishing a relationship with a publisher in this era of Amazon e-publishing). I also understand where this camp is coming from. I’m very entrepreneurial by nature, and being able to control my own future has a lot of appeal.

However, I fall somewhere in the middle. I realize that my 15% will be well spent if I get the right agent. But I don’t want just any old agent. Some pretty standard criteria to look for are things like past sales in your genre and experience with publishing in general. The things that I am specifically looking for in an agent are:

  • Willingness and ability to help edit a book into elite shape
    • Ever read a book with more than 5 typos in the first chapter? I haven’t. You know why? Because they suck. I put them down and typically refuse to read anything from that author again. If an “author” can’t take the time to catch glaring grammatical errors, I know they won’t have put work into crafting engaging characters or story arcs. Editing is usually associated with publishers, but many of my favorite authors seem to have agents who also aid with editing. The typo example is only a small part of what a good agent should be able to help you catch. Story lines, characters, consistency, style, and flow should all be part of the deal. I look forward to working with a knowledgeable agent who can help my book be the best version of itself.
  •  Legal and financial expertise
    • These guys will be negotiating my contracts and handling all of my money. They had better have their shit together.
  •  Approachability/people skills
    • I have only met a few literary agents, most of them at the World Fantasy Convention 2013. Even with just a few days to meet and observe them, however, it quickly became clear that not all agents are created equal. I think the skill set of a good agent is a pretty diverse one, and that’s why certain successful ones are in such high demand. Some may excel at editing and the creative portion of the writing process, but not have the business acumen to secure great contracts. A serious author should demand both from an agent.
  • Selectivity
    • I want an agent who is extremely selective. These agents are likely to spend the time and effort on each of their authors necessary to make them a success. It’s a quality over quantity mindset, and that benefits the author as well as the agent.

I may write some future blog posts highlighting some of the literary agents I have found that seem to fit these criteria. They are some of the agents I’ll be querying relatively soon.

Publishing Process for New Authors

I may have unintentionally deceived some of you with my previous blog entry. I do not currently have anything lined up as far as publishing goes. That process begins when you have not just a complete first draft, but a complete fourth or fifth draft, or however many drafts it takes to turn the manuscript into a polished, sellable book.

I’m currently on page 386 of my first draft, and I’m planning on wrapping things up around 450 pages…if the story wants to wrap up that soon, that is. My writing rarely turns out exactly as I think it will, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

It has taken me nearly seven months of writing evenings, weekends, and every spare minute I can to get to 386 pages. Yes, much of that time has been spent climbing the steep hill that was my learning curve at the outset of my writing career, but the point is that writing takes a lot of time. If I’m to be realistic, I probably won’t be done with my first draft for several weeks. My list of planned edits is rather large, so those will take at least another month or two, and will only be that fast because I’m a much better editor than writer.

All of this tedious information means that the process will begin here in a few months. I’m shooting for late September.

The first step in the process is querying a literary agent who represents your genre and is open to new clients. Many new authors don’t seem to care who their agent is as long as they are reportedly a real person. I, however, have my heart set on a select few agents (or agencies) who will remain nameless for now, because I want them all for myself. I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment since the statistical odds of securing a deal with any one agent sit around 3% (according to the blog of one of the agents I am stalking), but I’m going for them anyways.  I’ll update you when I submit my work to them.

When I’ve found a good agent to represent me, the second step in the publishing process will be to go through more rounds of editing based on my agent’s suggestions (a very important step, I feel). The agent then presents the book to publishers that she/he is familiar with, and hopefully before too long we will have signed a contract with a publisher that will be willing to not only print my book, but help me market it and get the word out that it’s awesome. Then the editor from the publishing house will help me through another few rounds of edits.

From what I have read/heard, that’s when the waiting happens. I’m not positive why there is such a long wait between finishing a final manuscript and the book hitting shelves, but “the Internet” says that there is, so it must be true. I plan to fill the interlude with awesome marketing to help my book sell, but most likely I’ll be writing the second book in my spare time, much like I wrote the first.

Oh and just to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea about what authors typically get paid, the interwebs also say that the average advance for a debut novel is somewhere around $5,000. If you do the math (and I did, I promise), I’ll be making about $1/hour if all I receive is the advance. I intend to sell WAY more than that, but selling the first book is far from having “made it” for most authors. I’ll be keeping my day job, for now.

And there you have it! That’s the summary of what I know about the publishing industry and my road to becoming a published author. I’m not sure why the prospect of doing all of this work just to receive $1/hr in compensation excites me, but it does. This is the first time that I’ve been one hundred percent invested and excited about something I’m producing, and I love it. I think you’re going to like it too. I can’t wait for you to read my books and tell me what you think.

Now back to the book. Work work.

-Scott