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.

Future Projects

I was going to log this somewhere just for myself but decided to make a blog post out of it. I’m a terrible blogger and have no idea where I should draw the line between personal and public when it comes to stuff I really care about. But you know what? We only live one life and I figure I might as well just let myself live and talk about whatever the hell I want. Can’t really hurt my reach at this point, right? (Please don’t leave me.)

Anyway. As I get closer and closer to being published and (hopefully) closer to being able to dedicate much more time to writing, ideas for books swirl in my brain constantly. I don’t actually consider myself an “idea” guy. I don’t just come up with crazy shit out of nowhere. I’m not a Sanderson type, pulling magic systems out of my ass every Tuesday. But I do have ideas and future projects that I’m going to write because I feel that I have a story to tell that will help me explore or express part of myself, or will help me understand humanity, reality, etc.

So here they are, the things I’d like to write over the next decade or so. I’m sure there will be more as well, but these are the ones that have stuck with me for a long while. If I’ve published a blog post similar to this in the past but have since forgotten, deal with it. I have to put up with my awful memory, and now you do too.

  1. Ire Trilogy – This one’s pretty obvious, as I’ve already signed a contract with Tor (yay!). It’s well underway: book 1 is almost to final revision (ish), and book 2 is underway (7,000 or so words in). Tor will be releasing it (tentative schedule) beginning in 2020, and I’m pumped. Ire is many things, but above all, it’s the classic fantasy story I’ve always wanted to read, but never quite got from existing works, no matter how wonderful.
    A morally agnostic guy is trying to figure out his place in the world, fighting for his brother and the people he cares about. Inspection of religions and differences stemming from a complex reality/history is also a major theme, as it has been a major theme in my life for the past decade and longer.
    The best part of this series is that if you all like it as much as I do, the world is big enough (yes, my “fictitious” world) and history rich enough for many, many more stories here.
  2. WWII Historical Fiction/Fantasy – This is something near and dear to me. My maternal grandfather, David Elder Lofgren, was/is a very important part of my life, and was a large part of my childhood. I grew up incessantly asking him for stories from his experience in WW2, and he frequently obliged, though looking back now it’s obvious to me that he was not altogether comfortable doing so. Some of his life experiences have been captured, but I have dozens of stories engraved in my memory that may die with me (and various relatives) if not recorded. He did and saw many remarkable things, as did many brave service members, and I can’t wait to capture a somewhat fictionalized version of them.
  3. Near-Future American Apocalyptic – There are strong feelings and opinions on both sides of the Second Amendment/gun control issue, but I wonder how many on either side realize how strong the feelings are on the opposing side- and how far people will go to protect what they believe in. This is a classic case of needing to employ win-win negotiation to achieve what everyone in the debate probably wants (though there are stark differences in motivation in some cases), which is safety, peace, and prosperity. I have something pretty damn cool planned to hopefully give both sides of this potential conflict (it’s boiling pretty hot right now) perspective of common goals.
  4. Contemporary/Urban Fantasy – This will very likely be a Norse Mythology themed militaristic thriller series. I’ve actually already outlined and started the first book. I liked where it was headed (was derailed by signing a contract for IRE), and though I already think some of my outline needs to change, I think I can write this pretty quickly, and I think it will turn out really well. For as much epic fantasy as I’ve read (and written), contemporary just flows so much faster. Nuance, character details, settings are easier to nail.
  5. Thrillers – I’m not sure where this will lead me, but it’s very likely going to center around my strong belief that modern wars (and probably most/all wars) are immoral and unnecessary. Specifically, I think America’s foreign policy is criminal. And what are stories for if not to show the human truth of a distant evil?
  6. Historical Fiction – I have to believe that I’m not the only person who loves to learn about history but struggle to enjoy most “history” books, even modern popular ones written by fantastic historians. Call me whatever names you like, but there’s a reason that TV shows like Vikings and books like Gabaldon’s Outlander perform so well (besides the fact that they are very well crafted). There must be many more out there that, like me, enjoy history in the form of a compelling, emotional story, even if many parts are fictional or embellished. I know they’ve been done, but I’d love to see – and write – more quality fiction set in Revolutionary War America, America during the Civil War, Frontier/Gold Rush times, Ancient America (Mayan, Aztec, etc), and several other eras of interest.
  7. Science Fiction – I really have no concrete plans here, but I’ve accepted that my love of new worlds, exploration, and “real” technology will lead me to write (or otherwise participate in the creation of) stories in the vein of the Stargate Atlantis series, Pierce Brown, etc.

 

* About the image tied to the post: the older I get, the more I think good old Nick Miller might be wiser than people give him credit for. Consider this your PSA to watch New Girl if you haven’t already. And shame on you if you don’t share my tastes and absolutely love it.

**I realized the pic didn’t show well in the header so here it is in all it’s glory:

Nick Stories Gif

 

 

 

 

Editing Is Writing

I am willing to bet that editing is what stands between most writers and their dreams.

The act of writing is romanticized at length in writerly circles, while talk of editing is typically met with derision, or at best, patience.

Editing is where the magic happens, people. Not all great writers follow this rule, but most of the writers that I hold in high regard are known to take significant time editing and perfecting everything they produce. Rothfuss, GRRM, Robert Jordan all fall into this category (at least I assume that’s what they are doing with all that time in between books). Even a writing-production freak like Sanderson has admitted that mastering the art of editing and revising is what propelled him from anonymity to the enormous success he is today.

Editing is where plot is perfected. It is the process by which characters of convenience become paper people with lives of their own. Pace can be fixed, molded to fit your narrative.

Here are a few things I include in my editing process that you may want to consider in yours:

  1. Cut >= 10% of your word count: many authors have vouched for this trick. I tried to cut on several of my previous edits, only to add more words in the name of clarity. Clarity in writing is of utmost importance and deserves an edit all its own, but when I did an edit pass with the sole purpose of cutting word count to improve pace, unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs started to jump out at me. I recently finished an edit pass and cut 17,500 words (12%) from my book! It took a great deal of work, but was a great experience. Precision is beautiful.
  2. Fill your plot holes: This is likely more of a problem for those who wing their books like I did with Ire. I ended up having to put A LOT of work into the book to correct plot issues and holes, and will likely never do that again. I recommend having at least some idea ahead of time of what your major plot points will be, where and how you’d like to build up to them and foreshadow, etc. But, even the best plot plan often changes, and making it bullet-proof is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up. This is also where smart Beta readers come in handy. Anything that any significant amount of beta readers come back with (or a particularly trusted reader) as a point of confusion, fix it.
  3. World Building and Character Elements: Writing characters is something I really enjoy and strive to do well. The danger of “knowing” your characters is that you (hopefully) write them well, but many of the endearing traits that make your characters interesting and lovable live only in your head or in your notes. Take the time to build character elements into the scenes that already exist, and to make sure that your character actions, dialogue, etc are all consistent. Similarly, this should be an opportunity to introduce any world building elements that are pertinent to your story.
  4. Read-throughs to improve flow, clarity, and continuity: The most time consuming edits for me are read-throughs, but they are also some of the most important. If your prose isn’t clear and doesn’t flow well, it’s frankly not worth reading. Everything is fair game here: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraph breaks, making your statements “active”, etc.

 

-SD

Writing Journal – One Big Thing

A discussion with my writing group led to a conscious solidification of a writing principle I’ve believed in for a long time but only now fully wrapped my mind around. It’s not new to the writing world, but it is new to me, so here is my take on it:

One KMAlexander suggested “One Big Thing” as a principle to follow relative to how much we can/should ask readers to suspend belief in works of fiction. This might apply to other genres, but it’s particularly applicable to Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror.

The idea is that all “unbelievable” elements of a story (or world in which the story occurs) stem from, and are logically consistent with “One Big Thing”.

For example, the catalyst for all of the fantastical elements in my book IRE was the idea for the spiritual metabolization (not a word, but I am trying to make it one) of energy as a magic system, which I call Infusion in my book. The theology (creation mythos) was constructed with this in mind, and the “bad guys” are all products of misuse of the direct and indirect (technology) use of this magic.

The alternative is world-building gone wild, where either the various aspects of the world feel artificially fabricated to fit the narrative, or the narrative feels fake – stretched to hit all of the world building that the author wants to introduce in the story.

Two more (somewhat related) principles that I’ve learned recently, in large part thanks to my agent’s awesome new assistant, Christine:

  1. Introduce ideas early in a book. Introduction of new characters, new civilizations, new arcs should be early enough to build to a meaningful resolution, or at least have a meaningful reason for inclusion within that book. Arcs spanning books, particularly from Book 1 to Book 2, may not be a good idea. I’m cutting a character from my book with this round of edits for this reason. A character I really like.
  2. Cut anything that doesn’t contribute to the story you are trying to tell. I’m cutting another scene with characters that I really like because their scene serves to give more depth to the world as it exists in my mind, but doesn’t contribute to the plot of this book. This is a hard lesson to learn, but a very valuable one.

 

-Scott

Plotting for Suspense

I have fallen at times into the trap of justifying plotting and suspense issues in my writing because some of my favorite bestsellers have the same issues. The problems with that line of thinking are many, but in general it’s never a good idea to ignore issues with your work just because someone else got away with it. Those bestsellers I referred to above have their faults, but they also each have great qualities that make them incredible books. Besides, a first book really needs to be as good as it can be to get attention above all of the great books being submitted to editors (or self published).

I’ve done soul-searching regarding suspense in my own writing, and here are some rules on plotting for suspense I’ve come up with for myself:

Set your stakes high and keep them high.

An interesting concept that I’ve come to understand embarrassingly late in the game is that plot isn’t all about action, or rather that action and suspense aren’t equivalent.

And lest my fellow writers think less of me as they assume I’m ignoring “suspense-fatigue” or whatever term you might want to use for unending suspense in a story, that’s not necessarily what I mean here. The point is that whatever suspense you create in the heart of the reader around your primary conflict should be kept in focus throughout the story, though fluctuations in suspense and action levels are necessary to create an engaging and enjoyable story.

Some of the most pointed (and correct) feedback I have received was about the main plot line fizzling out in the middle of the book. I figured that since my beginning and end were very related and resolve the primary conflict, the middle could wander a bit in the name of character development and world-building. But I was wrong. Which brings me to the next point:

Character development and world-building can and should happen during scenes that matter to the primary conflict.

I like to think that this is something I understood when writing this book, but again I think at times I confused suspense and continuity of primary conflicts with action. This forced me to rework or completely eliminate some scenes while editing. Therefore my mistake wasn’t (I hope) in the writing of the scenes themselves, but in the architecture of those scenes. Which is pretty embarrassing considering my whole professional life is centered on comprehensive processes (and I think a story and a process are very similar). So this was a fantastic lesson for me to learn for various facets of my life.

*I also want to call out that delayed suspense works, or is at least generally accepted in books with multiple POV’s like Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time because suspense is preserved (if done well) for each character in the story, while the reader skips to other characters and usually different stories, or at least different views of those stories. It does not work as well in books like mine where the vast majority of the book follows one primary character.

Secondary-level conflicts and story lines should be woven around (or intersect with, depending on how you want to visualize it) the primary conflict.

Because I am a nerd, I visualize this as oscillating signals, where sub-plots interact with the primary plot to form a cohesive and fluid combined oscillatory signal. If the plot lines are not aligned properly and on the same scale, it will result in a disjointed story. See visual example below.

The point is that the red line is the sum of the other two lines

Foreshadowing is your friend.

The only thing I have to add to the discussion on foreshadowing is that it doesn’t need to be complex and difficult to implement. It is generally just a matter of being conscious of your plot points and ensuring that you have a “beginning” to every conflict in which you resolve something important to your characters. For example, I’m writing an “interlude” scene to build reader connection with a character who is important to the protagonist but doesn’t appear until the very end of book 1 (and spoiler alert, he dies).

 

 

The Second Book

I’ve heard people say that the “sophomore novel”, particularly the second in a series, can be the most difficult book an author will ever write. Until I started writing mine, I thought that those claims were exaggerated. To some extent, I still do, but the second book does present some unique challenges.

The writing itself isn’t any harder. The process is the same, or at least very similar. I am a much better writer than when I started my first book, so in fact this book should be easier to write. I believe that it will be much easier, faster, and a better product when it’s done, but there are a few challenges that I didn’t anticipate.

The first challenge is motivation. I write because I love to create with words, I’m making progress, and I’ll likely finish at least three books in this series regardless of the outcome of any submission to publishers. But I’m a results-oriented man, and I can’t wait to get a contract and be able to see my publishing future clearly. Until that point, which will hopefully happen sometime in the relatively near future, I’ll likely spend as much time dreaming up my next project as I do writing the second installment of this one (Scandinavian/Native American Mythology themed contemporary fantasy, anyone?). Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I would like my focus back 100%. The “Infusion” world that I’m currently writing in is awesome, and deserves my undivided attention.

The second challenge I’ve come up against is indecision. Do I structure the book in the same way that I did the first to deliver a similar reading experience while furthering the overarching plot and character arcs? Do I let my characters take the book over and allow the series to devolve into a GRRM/Wheel of Time-esque monstrosity? Somewhere in the middle? My current plan is to use roughly the same structure as the first book to keep the writing tight and deliver another fast-paced, engaging story. But I am going to give other characters more screen time and explore the world slightly more than I allowed myself in the first book. Hopefully as time and my writing career progress, I don’t fall into the trap of letting my world take over the story. Keep me honest on this, people.

So, what do you think? What are some of your favorite sophomore novels, particularly that fall in a series? I’d love to hear about them and why they worked for you. I’d also love to hear what you’d be interested to read about on my blog…without a book out for you to read (or even a sample…hopefully I can provide that much before the book is out), I often struggle to come up with a blog topic that I think people will be interested in. I love to write these, though, so if you’d like to see a blog post on something specific, please comment or message me.

Beta Readers

This has been a very big month. Early this month, I finally sent my manuscript to a small group of beta readers who had expressed interest in reading my book and giving me feedback. I’ve only received detailed feedback from one beta reader, but the opinions so far from those who have finished the book has been positive. It’s a very good feeling to have other people enjoy something that took so much time to build and write.

I chose to use 7 or so beta readers, all people I trust to give me honest feedback. They are also people who are at least passingly familiar with the fantasy genre and can thus give a solid opinion on how my book will be received by fantasy readers. Perhaps most importantly, I’m lucky to have beta readers who are extremely intelligent people who will be able to offer detailed insight as to why they did or did not enjoy the book and it’s various aspects.

I’m now just continuing work on the second novel in the series as I wait for more feedback from my readers. I’m also working on perfecting my query letter that I’ll send out to literary agents as soon as I feel the manuscript is in top shape.

-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.

Book Progress Update 12/9/14

I’m doing my last read-through edit before sending to beta readers. I’m on page 260/684.

I’m willing to bet that at least some of you reading this are thinking something like, “Scott sucks at writing books. Why does it take him so long?”

Writing a book is quite interesting. And by interesting, I mean hard. Mentally, emotionally, and even physically, it’s a lot harder than I anticipated.

I’ve read of authors whose first draft is also their final draft. When I started writing five or so years ago, I thought that seemed doable. Now, however, I think that’s amazeballs. My book has gone through at least ten drafts already, though I don’t work linearly and keeping track of distinct drafts is therefore difficult.

I love lists, so that’s how I’ll summarize how my drafts have gone, and how I imagine the future ones will go:

  • Initial concept
    • This involved a lot of brainstorming, day dreaming, doodling, etc.
  • Outlining
    • I am not a fan of extensive outlining and support material. I have hundreds of pages of info on my world and characters, but they are not cohesive at all. I ended up with the equivalent of a five page outline of the plot lines, maybe a page or two on each character, and I went to town.
  • First Draft
    • Hooboy. This was actually a lot of fun. When I put fingers to keyboard, I found satisfaction. It’s really a neat thing to find something you love and unleash yourself.
  • About a thousand random changes
    • I killed characters. I deleted characters. I completely changed the setting of my story. I changed character relationships. Some changes were calculated, and some just felt right. But Jibbers Crabst, I changed a lot of things.
    • These changes slowed me down. A lot. It was kind of demoralizing, but in the end, I felt like I got it right.
  • Damn it, I still didn’t get it right
    • As I wrote, some things were bogging me down so badly that I “backlogged” things to a future-edit list. I had to go back and fix a lot of things.
    • This felt more or less like fixing up a favorite car. I knew it would be worth it, But hey, my engineering degree was basically five years of me doing hard things that I didn’t want to do, so I was well prepared.
  • Read-through edit (where I am right now)
    • At this point, I’ve edited most parts of my book several times. This is because the edits from my list (see above) were not minor, and generally consisted of me editing major elements that spanned the entire book. I’m still changing hundreds of things in each chapter that bother me as I read through. Style, grammar, flow, and consistency are the largest culprits.
  • Beta reader feedback edits
  • Agent feedback edits (post coming on why I feel an agent is in my best interest)
  • Editor feedback edits

There you have it. I’m sure my process will change over time. I sure as hell hope that I’ll get better at it with each book I write. But even though it was a ton of work with no sure payoff, it feels really good to have completed (mostly) my first book.

-Scott