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Monday, September 27, 2010

The List Grows Smaller

Well, this last week saw some disappointing developments in the quest to get The Serenity Solution published. Those developments took the form of 3 form rejections in the space of 3 days. Oh well, at least I'm hearing back from them, right? And it only brings my total to 5 rejections, which isn't very much. Or, if you want to look on the dark side, it means I'm just starting down the long road of rejection. The list of possible agents I can send my book to is growing drastically smaller in a short period of time. I might have to raid the local library for the 2010 edition of Literary Marketplace and hope it has a greatly expanded list over the 2009 edition.

But I'm staying positive. Oh yes. I think...

Anyways, the last week also saw some positive developments, concerning the Bounty Hunter Quartet series I mentioned in the previous post. I dug up my old files on it and finished reading through them. I've come up with quite a few ideas about what I want to see in the books, especially regarding a much, much deeper level of character development than was there previously. I haven't had any brilliant flashes of inspiration regarding the plot yet; I'm still waiting on that. Partly due to the new character development, and partly in order to maintain originality and a more compelling plot line, I need to change things up from the original version.

I'm working on basic character biographies for it, and hopefully within the next week or two, I can have a rough outline of the first book laid out. Once that's done, I can start writing the rough draft of the manuscript. Theoretically, thanks to everything I've learned in trying to get The Serenity Solution published, this book should be even better. It'd be nice to have something solid ready to follow TSS with.

And of course, I'll post updates as they happen, regarding any and all of my projects.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shifting Gears

Not too much to report this time around. I haven't come up with any new insights regarding my attempts to get published. After the major re-writes and change-ups to the first chapters of The Serenity Solution last weekend, this weekend has been remarkably quiet. I did send to e-mail queries to agencies on Friday. I've actually already heard back from one of them, but of course it was a polite rejection. I think there was a grand total of fifteen words in it. But hey, at least it's better than not hearing back at all.

Despite the temptation to become obsessed with getting The Serenity Solution published, everything I've read about publishing says that I have to keep moving forward with other writing projects. There are two reasons for that: one, getting a book from manuscript form to the bookshelf in a store can take a long time, and I can't put my career on hold for it; and two, I have to face it - this book might never get published. I think just about every successful author has a manuscript or two that never made it to the shelves. That's just the nature of the business. So, I have to keep my options open and keep other projects going.

So, in the spirit of progress, I've been working on one of my old projects, a fantasy series that I started back in 2002 or 2003. Actually, elements of the story - characters, settings, plot lines - can be traced back much further than that, possibly as early as the late 1990s. It wasn't until 2003 and 2004 that these various elements began coming together in the form of the Bounty Hunter Quartet. The first book, tentatively named The Pillars of Heaven, reached a full 193 pages in MS Word, or 124,000 words, before it fell victim to a variety of issues. One was just the fact that my life was incredibly busy at that time, between going to school and then joining the Navy. Another was that I'd never really written any sort of cohesive plan or outline for it, so when I did get a chance to sit down and work on it, I couldn't remember where I'd been going with it. Somewhere around 2006 I decided that it just wasn't going the direction I'd wanted it to; it felt more like a patchwork of different projects rather than a single cohesive one. Then of course, in 2008 I began working on The Serenity Solution in earnest.

Now that TSS is finished as a manuscript, I've decided that I'd like to at least take a long hard look at the BHQ. Mainly, is it feasible as a story, and it what ways do I need to update it to fit my current writing style? I've already decided that I'm going to have to completely rewrite it, reducing those 193 pages to nothing more than extensive notes and reference material. Since the project has literally been over 7 years in the making, I won't be satisfied with it unless it's a true masterpiece of fantasy. In other words, I've got my work cut out for me. Switching gears from military sci-fi to fantasy is harder than I thought. And on a side note, I had a crazy thought the other day. What if I took the BHQ from a fantasy and turned it into an urban fantasy, complete with technology, guns, magic, etc? There are some serious pros and cons to that, of course, which I'll discuss more in depth later if I actually pick this project up and go somewhere with it anytime soon.

So you're probably wondering what the Bounty Hunter Quartet is all about. Not surprisingly, it's about a bounty hunter, at least in part. Mathen Nors is a mysterious man with a shady past, like most bounty hunters. He's attained the status of myth and legend among the common folk, who call him "Gray Death" because he's always cloaked and hooded in gray - at least, when he sees fit to reveal himself. But Mathen Nors isn't just a cold, heartless man who captures targets for whoever is willing to pay. He's a broken soul who carries with him the crushing guilt of past deeds, for some of which he truly is responsible, and some that he took up because no one else would. He has a strong sense of duty, but lately, the sense has become confused and clouded, mixed with a personal agenda and pride that he just can't quite shake.

After a demon shape shifter kills his sister, Mathen Nors embarks on a quest to bring the monster to justice, whether or not anyone is paying for its head. But at the same time, a shapeless evil is taking form in the far southern reaches of the Known Realms and extending its claws northward. Enslaving entire nations and using their peoples as proxy armies against those who remain free, it unleashes forces of chaos that will ensnare everyone. Mathen Nors will have to decide where his duty truly lies: with the rapidly diminishing free peoples of the world, or with the oath he swore to avenge his dead sister. Along the way, he'll begin to uncover pieces of his own mysterious past, and he'll find that it is far darker than anyone could have imagined.

That's just a quick look at what the BHQ is about, and of course there will be more details as it unfolds. Comments are welcome, particularly on what would be more interesting in this case: this plot as a traditional high fantasy, or as an urban fantasy. I still can't make up my own mind.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Quest for Marketability

Sometimes the biggest challenge for a writer isn't whether the manuscript he's written is any good or not. The plot may be good, the characters may be solid and original, and the action may be thoroughly gripping. But sometimes, I've discovered, this isn't good enough to get an agent's attention. My experience is still very limited, but I believe the greatest challenge facing me right now is getting my manuscript as marketable as possible.

I think my manuscript is good. The plot is solid and as original as you can get with military sci-fi these days. I think my characters are good and they fit well with the plot and each other. And there's no shortage of action. This isn't bragging really - after all, if I didn't think the manuscript was good, I wouldn't be trying to sell it to an agent. So then, what's the issue? After having read up on the subject, browsing numerous agents' pages online, and by researching how to write a good query letter, I've discovered that although agents may be writers themselves, they don't think the same way that writers do. No matter what an agent says, they have to think differently from writers.

In what ways? Basically, a writer - especially a new one - has the goal of telling a story. Creating a new world, new characters, getting the tale across to the reader. Because writers are a diverse group, there are innumerable ways to tell a story. Agents, on the other hand, have to sell that story. There are only so many ways to do that. While we as writers may think that a story that takes a long time to get to the point is redeemed by the glory of its ending, agents won't think the same way. They'll look at the beginning, see that it doesn't hook readers from the start, and move on to another manuscript - just for example.

So, I have to get myself into an agent's mindset, looking critically at the characteristics of my story, and polishing it so that it's as marketable as possible, without damaging the qualities that make it a unique story. Namely, I have to hook readers from the first line of the text, and keep them fully engaged until the last line. At the same time, I have to keep the plot unique, the characters solid, the action gripping, etc.

In the case of The Serenity Solution, I was told by a few of my readers that the book started out a little slow. I maintained it was because I was providing information that was necessary for understanding later parts of the book; it was setting up context. They agreed with me; however, it was still slow. This is a problem a lot of new writers have: trying to put too much background information at the beginning of the book. The key is to get the information in there, but work it into the action of the story so it doesn't slow things down.

For The Serenity Solution, this entails putting Chapter Three in the place of Chapter Two (introducing Harmony, arguably the book's most interesting character, earlier) and bumping Chapter Two down to where Chapter Three was (providing additional background information and further establishing the team dynamic with Zak et al.). That was easily done, a simple copy and paste and making sure the details still match up. Now I have to figure out if I can completely remove the "What Has Gone Before" section at the very beginning of the book and work that background information into the plot. A section like this is an easy way to establish general context, but it has the disadvantage of being a full block of nothing but background at the very beginning of the book. Plus, in my experience, it's usually used for books in series, where the reader has already been hooked and just needs a quick reminder of what happened in the last book. So, I have to figure out how to get rid of that. It will also help to tone down the misguided "Post-Apocalyptic" feel the book may initially give to an agent, and establish that it's really more "Post Post-Apocalyptic."

In other news, once I have this marketability issue resolved, I'm prepping yet another query to be sent by regular mail. I'll keep you updated on that as I get more news.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

"The Serenity Solution" Project, Part 4

One of the key aspects of any story is the setting. Sometimes the setting plays a major part in the plot of the book, while in other cases, it mostly stays in the background, simply providing a backdrop. One of the things I'm struggling with in marketing The Serenity Solution to agents is how much emphasis to put on the larger setting that the novel takes place in.

Here's a brief overview of the setting. Basically, around 150 years before the book takes place, World War III happened. Most of the planet got nuked and was turned into a wasteland. Over the decades since, various city-states were built in areas that were still inhabitable, and it is in these safe havens that the majority of humanity lives on.

Those of you who are well-read in science fiction literature are probably seeing where my dilemma starts to come in. The "post apocalyptic" setting - whether it was created by nuclear war, a plague, or even aliens - has been rather overdone. Movies and books both have beat this setting to death, and it would take an extremely unique and gripping plot to make another book in such a setting stand out.

The reason I chose a post-apocalyptic setting for my book was because it was the only one I could conceive of in which 1.) there are only a few city-states on the entire planet, and 2.) though some technology is much more advanced than we see today on Earth, a lot of it (primarily the weapons) remains similar to today's technology level. Furthermore, the plot of the book has almost nothing to do with the nuclear war or the wastelands that were the result of the devastation. All action in the plot takes place in a few of the city-states. However, I feel that making a note of the setting (including the nuclear war) is important to have at the beginning of the book; it's the foundation for why a lot of things in the plot are the way they are. It's true that setting can be integrated throughout the action of the book, rather than in a bulk paragraph at the introduction, but in the case of The Serenity Solution I feel this would leave readers in the dark for too long.

The problem is, getting agents to see past that intro and get into the main part of the book. Part of the reason why I think my first couple submissions met with polite rejection is because I emphasized the "cataclysmic war" that led to the creation of the city-states a bit too much in my query letters. This latest round of submissions have included query letters and a synopsis that tone that down quite a bit, referring more to the action of the plot rather than the setting - which is something I should have been doing from the beginning. But, I'm learning as I go.

Now that I've shared the woes of this issue with you, let me provide a few more details of the actual settings of The Serenity Solution. Most of the plot takes place in three different city-states.

Serenity: Serenity is the home city of Captain Zakariah Atheeda, Sergeant Avery Halberd, Officer Amber Kynterle, and Officer Chrissa Maxwell. Ranked as the second-safest city on Earth (after Unity), Serenity hasn't been involved in a war for over forty years, and it enjoys a remarkably low crime rate. Its citizens are highly independent and proud of their ability to sustain themselves, adopting a nearly isolationist attitude. Because of their self reliance, the average citizen sees very little need for the art of Politics. Unfortunately, this attitude has rendered the general populace sadly naive about the world outside their own city, and they are generally unprepared for any sort of "foreign" threat. They rely heavily on their Police Department for safety, although they regard those same Officers with a great measure of suspicion and distaste. Serenity is a beautiful city. Its building are predominantly white, arranged in concentric circles, with the buildings at the center of the city being the tallest, and all other building gradually built lower as they get closer to the edge of the city. The city prefers to use blue and turquoise lighting, which makes the city sparkle like a sapphire at night.

Intensity: During the course of the plot, Zak and his team find themselves undercover in the city of Intensity. Intensity is the most dangerous of all the city-states. Law and order collapsed there over two decades ago, and some people believe that the Tribunal actually allowed this to happen, for reasons unknown. People are allowed to do whatever they can in order to get ahead in Intensity. Those with the most money fare the best, as they are able to hire mercenaries to defend their assets or attack and destroy those of their rivals. Life expectancy is extremely short in Intensity, as an unwary traveler can be shot simply for trying to help someone in distress. Corporations are the ruling force in the city, as they have the resources and the manpower to enforce their will. The city itself is huge, the largest on Earth, and it is a danger in and of itself. Building are constructed wherever open space can be found, often one right atop another. In most places of the city, the ground hasn't been visible for years. The various streets, walkways, and bridges form a warren in which even an experienced street dweller can get hopelessly lost.

Serendipity: Serendipity is a city-state which has been constructed in orbit over earth. It originally started as a large space station, but was gradually expanded over the years to become a full-fledged city. Though it takes up considerably less space, Serendipity hosts a population comparable to Serenity's. It is one of the richest city-states, home to several large corporations, and it is constantly expanding as more and more people move there. As home to the Tribunal, Serendipity sees itself as better than its Earth-bound sister cities, and its citizens have adopted a rather haughty attitude.

That's just a very basic overview of the settings in which the plot takes place.

In other news, I made another submission today, this time via e-mail. I included my rewritten, shortened synopsis, and the first two chapters of the book. Hopefully, I'll hear something back within the next two weeks. I still haven't heard back from my previous two submissions, but those could take up to another two months, as they were sent by regular mail. Here's hoping.