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10 hurdles my submission could fail at

Those hurdles ahead of me look awfully big.

All these hurdles

All these hurdles to overcome… (Image cobbled together from free bits’n’pieces.)

I know at some intellectual level that my chances of overcoming them are almost infinitesimally small. But… some people do make it, right? So it’s gotta be possible.

So you think you can write?

Granted, I could be one of those self-deluded people who go on some gameshow or public contest, actually believing they have what it takes and will blow everyone away with their awesome talent that’s been simmering inside them all these years… only to make a complete fool of themselves and discover in the most embarrassing way that they’ve become the laughing stock of everyone.

I choose not to believe that of myself. I refuse to believe that my awesome beta readers and my close friends and relatives who’ve read my work were just “being nice” to me or couldn’t bring themselves to tell me the truth.

My toolbox

I’ve drawn up my battle plan. I’ve done my research. I know which agents I want to query first. Only two agencies here in Australia actually accept submissions for epic fantasy, and that’s only via snail mail – I’ve kept the printer busy lately – another accepts only a short pitch with synopsis, but without sample chapters, and two more are maybes that aren’t exactly clear on their website about what they do or don’t accept. I’ve found a few more agencies in the U.K. that sound good; for now, I won’t be submitting to U.S. agencies, mainly because I’m not sure whether I’d need to go through my manuscript and change things like “colour” to “color”, and Australian “-ise” endings to “-ize”, and “talk/speak to” to “talk/speak with“, and so forth. I have no idea whether they might think I just can’t spell or realise (ahem, realize) that that’s just how some people spell things in other parts of the world.

I’ve registered on Query Tracker, and checked Preditors & Editors to make sure I’m not submitting to the wrong sort of agents. I’ve done research on them to pick those who have published authors in my genre before with respectable publishers.

My query letter has been written, edited, thrown away and re-written more times than I can remember. The same goes for my synopsis. But… I think I’m as ready as I’m going to be.

Let me count the hurdles… 1001… 1002…

If I start to calculate the odds of finding an agent and a publisher (let’s say each agency gets 50 submissions per day, 6 days per week, maybe accepts two new clients per year… ouch!) I’ll just go insane and give up. But if I make the bold assumption that I’m actually good enough to be published – just for the sake of argument (and my sanity) – then… what hurdles are left, i.e. what might still go wrong?

  1. The submission might not even get there. Lost in the (snail) mail, an accidentally deleted email or a server crash, and I’ve lost before I’ve had a chance. Not getting a response is essentially a rejection, and as far as I can tell, following up or (God forbid) asking for reasons, is a big No-No. Can’t be helped; out of my hands.
  2. They might not like my cover letter (which some people call query, though I’ve also seen that word used to describe the whole submission). I’ve studied several “successful queries” and have tried to learn from them, about being succinct, polite, and professional, to minimise the chance of that happening. That’s all I can do, I think.
  3. They might consider my word count to be too high. At about 130k, my word count is a vast improvement over my first attempt a couple of years ago (where I stopped sending out submissions after realising that rejections were coming back less than 24 hours after I’d submitted, from agencies saying they’d take 8-10 weeks to respond, and figuring out that my 185k word count was just too ginormous for agents to want to take a chance with an unpublished author), but still somewhat on the high side. (Hey, it’s called epic fantasy for a reason, dammit!) Too bad I won’t get the chance to argue that point, and bring up all the wonderful, successful, oversize books from first-time authors.
  4. They might not like the title. With agencies receiving such a staggering number of submissions, from what I’ve read, any reason will do to reduce the size of the slush pile, even if it’s something that can be changed quite trivially. Nothing I can do about it.
  5. They might not believe the author is marketable. Even if the product (the book) is considered marketable, in this day and age, authors need to be prepared to do more than just write. Media obligations, promotions, and that sort of thing, they all come later, and you can’t really tell from a submission whether the author has what it takes. But the thing they can assess is the author’s social media presence. Can they interact with their fans (once they have some), do they have a platform on which to promote their work, are they tech-savvy enough to use Twitter, Facebook, and whatnot? I think I’m actually doing ok on that one. My blog and social media accounts are purely for my “writing persona”, separate from my private life, but I think that’s ok. I have them, and I’m not afraid to use them.
  6. I might accidentally hit the pet-peeve-nerve of someone. I blame the many, many bad writers over the years for that one. They submitted their below-par work, and made the agent to whom I now want to submit not just dislike but actively hate a certain phrase or habit to a point where they’re not just against its overuse but against it appearing anywhere, ever (adverbs, anyone?). The turkey city lexicon is, to some extent, based on some of these pet peeves. Beyond what I’ve tried to do already, I can’t do much more about that one.
  7. The right person might not get to read it. By necessity, agencies can’t possibly completely read through every sample chapter of every submission and need to have ways of reducing the pile. For a submission to make it through to an offer of representation, it needs to be read and liked by a chain of people. The agents who have authority to actually make such an offer, especially in larger agencies, won’t read material unless it’s passed through the ranks of “readers” or junior agents. If anyone in that chain doesn’t like it (even though someone higher up might have), it gets rejected. Again, out of my control.
  8. The agent or reader might just not be in the right mood. Quite possible that a submission can get rejected on one day but would’ve been accepted on another day. Maybe the one they read just before was extremely bad (or extremely good), or reminded them of something, and their mind isn’t completely on what they’re reading now. Maybe it’s just before lunchtime, or they’re about to go home. Not sure how realistic this one is, hopefully it doesn’t happen often, but who knows? Beyond my control.
  9. They might not believe the story will sell. That one is such a subjective point that I would have to admit that they could be right. I’d disagree completely, of course, but I don’t have the experience in the publishing world to be able to claim I know better than… well, anyone else. I can only go by my experience as a reader, what I’d like to read, what I would buy in the bookstore. I’ll have to grind my teeth and concede, “Fair enough.”
  10. They might like it, but happen to know that the publishers they’re in contact with aren’t looking for that sort of thing right now. Ouch. But possible. The market is a fickle thing, and different things sell or don’t sell at different times, based on the whims of… who knows? That one would probably hurt the most, falling at the last hurdle.

Scary, isn’t it? I’m sure there are others I haven’t even considered, these are just the top 10 that come to mind.

Seems very unfair, seen from the angle of the authors submitting their work. Also… necessary, I suppose, seen from the agency’s point of view. They have to get through all those submissions somehow. I get that. I do.

The thing that’s hard to take is that I could fail at pretty much any of these hurdles with any given agent, and I’ll never know what it was that I should’ve done better.

So should I give up?

If everyone stopped just because the odds are daunting, humanity wouldn’t achieve much at all.

Let’s do this!

My submissions will start going out before the end of the week.

Wish me luck… (*swallows audibly*).

Drumroll… Blurb reveal!

It is with much excitement, spiced with a hefty dose of trepidation, that I’d like to reveal a couple of versions of my blurb. No big deal, I’ve only worked on this for, oh, 11 years or so now.

First off, here are some details about my debut novel.

The Essentials

Genre: Epic Fantasy
Name of book: First Drop
Name of trilogy: The Mage Academy Journals
Approximate word count: 130,000
Status: Polishing and finishing epilogue
Intended audienceAdults (not necessarily YA)

Tropical Island

Quite close to how I imagine the tropical setting of my novel. Heavily influenced by my experiences of growing up in Papua New Guinea. (Image taken from public domain and modified to smudge out anachronisms, etc.)

One-sentence Pitch

I find it extremely hard to sum up my story in a single sentence, but it’s something that is often requested, so here is what I think is its essence:

My story is about a boy who returns to his tropical island home after years amongst pale-skinned northerners to find himself the focal point of intrigues and prophecies due to his unique heritage and blend of abilities.

Extended Pitch

If I had a few more sentences to pitch my work, it’d go a little something like this:

My story is about a boy who returns home after years amongst the pale-skinned northerners to find himself the focal point of intrigues and prophecies due to his unique heritage and blend of abilities.

His own people won’t accept him unless he undergoes their initiation rites. The martial Vennar want to deny his family even exists, let alone escaped from slavery. The pale Nothrans, who’ve built a Mage Academy on his tropical home island, want to manipulate him.

All he wants is to be reunited with what’s left of his family.

Longer Blurb (250 words)

So this is what I’d ideally like to have on the back cover if it were up to me:

Having the potential to learn the magic of the pale-skinned Nothrans, who have been allowed to build their Mage Academy on his tropical home island, Miniri, opens up a whole realm of possibilities for fifteen-year-old Kentos. But, having already spent several years amongst the Nothrans in their lands far to the north, he knows he will have to endure racism from those who cannot see past his dark skin, and studying at the Academy will only serve to further ostracise him from his fellow Quemin.

Carrying the blood of the reviled Vennar in his veins means Kentos can master their ability to discern the visualised intentions of others, which makes that martial race peerless fighters. Yet this stain upon his family’s honour must remain secret, for the Vennar’s enslavement of the Quemin was officially supposed to have ended many generations ago.

These are challenges Kentos believes he can handle, even as he recovers from an attack that killed his sister and crushed his foot. What he has yet to learn, however, is that his parents have escaped from slavery with even more secrets – secrets that will make him the subject of prophecies, and of manipulation attempts from multiple unexpected angles.

As his friendship with fellow student Tesliah, who uncovers his story by reading his journals, begins to blossom into a tender first love, and as his path converges with that of Ri, a Vennara he once called friend, Kentos will have to face decisions: most of them difficult… one disastrous.

Shorter Blurb (169 words)

If I had to limit myself a bit more, although cutting each word hurts like heck, I might be able to live with shortening it to this:

Having the potential to learn the magic of the pale-skinned Nothrans, who’ve built their Mage Academy on his tropical home island, opens up a realm of possibilities for fifteen-year-old Kentos. But, having spent several years amongst Nothrans, he knows he must endure racism from those who cannot see past his dark skin.

Carrying the blood of the reviled martial Vennar in his veins means Kentos can learn to discern people’s visualised intentions, but this stain upon his family must remain secret, for the enslavement of his people ended long ago – at least officially.

These are challenges Kentos believes he can handle. What he has yet to learn is that his family has even more secrets that will make him the subject of manipulation attempts from multiple unexpected directions.

As the friendship with fellow student Tesliah, who uncovers his story by reading his journals, deepens, and as his path converges with that of Ri, a Vennara he once called friend, many decisions Kentos must face will be difficult… one disastrous.

What’s Next?

Well, once I finish up the epilogue of Book 1 (quite tricky getting the right threads tied up and leaving enough open to promote interest in the larger story) and complete my current editing run, I’d love to get feedback from beta readers. I have two fellow bloggers who have expressed an interest, and I hope they’ll be as honest as they can with things like pacing, repetition, character development, whether dialogue feels natural enough, whether I have some “pet expressions” I’m not aware of, etc. Thus far, I’ve only had family and close friends read my work, and as grateful as I am to each and every one of them, it’s not quite the same as feedback from objective readers, especially ones who have been through the writing process themselves and know what to look out for.

After that (and I have no idea how long that will take), I’ll have to go through the whole daunting submission process, reading rejection letters and so on. Fun times! 🙂

Excitement building about building excitement

The reason I’ve been slacking off with my blog-writing lately is that I haven’t been slacking off with my book-writing. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally finished the major rewrite of the section I was, er, rewriting.

I’ve written about what had happened and what I was planning to do a while ago in The Road So Far, from finishing a manuscript to early rejections to planning to do a huge revamp of my work, and now I’m done with what I set out to do. I’ve completely transformed the story while keeping core aspects of it, constructed a “story around the story” that I think works quite well, brought in a bunch of new characters to join the reader in discovering the main storyline, woven together the pre-existing threads with new threads and the threads around them, and I think it helps to give the whole thing a sense of building up to something.

It’s taken me a fair while (I have a family, a day job, and hobbies…), and to some extent it’s been frustrating because I had to slow down from my normal “just let it happen in my head” style of writing and think more about how all the individual threads interact and make sure that the story as a whole is cohesive, that some bits don’t contradict others and that the timeline is consistent from all perspectives. I even went to the trouble of using a mind-mapping tool to plan out my timeline visually for myself, with all the little occurrences noted of where a character may say something happened “three days ago” or was planning to do something “in three days” to make sure it all matches up with what’s in my head and what everyone else says. A very different aspect to writing than what I’m used to, but it’s been an interesting exercise, and most likely one I’ll have to repeat as the series progresses beyond Book 1 (which I’m hoping it will).

Of course, as I’ve read through it all multiple times to make sure all the little details are lined up, I’ve also let my inner editor run amok and did lots of reviewing, correcting, and polishing.

I think I’d even be willing to let some people read what I’ve got so far… which is both exciting and scary.

Now that I’m done with all the “weaving”, I get to finally go back to really writing because it still needs an ending to round off the first book (much, much more material in the series is still spooking around in my head, and I’ve got over 150k words from one character’s first-person perspective already written that I can use/adapt/weave into the main story when the first book is ready to send off… hey, it’s epic fantasy). I’ve got some ideas of how it’s going to go, but the details will grow like an independent organism writhing in the back of my mind while I try to keep up with putting it down on paper screen.

At a little over 70k words, the story should need about 15-25k more to give the reader an ending that will hopefully offer some explanations, some excitement, tie up some threads while leaving others dangling to be woven into Book 2, and leave her with an aftertaste of, “Hey, that was a great story set in an interesting world. I’m looking forward to visiting again and finding out what happens there next.”

Oh Boy Oh Boy Oh Boy!

Excitement ahead! (Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

The end is so close I can smell it! I look forward to seeing where the story will take me.

Wheel of Time – A to Z: W

W is for the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (or James Oliver Rigney, Jr., his real name). The release of the books spans 23 years, or nearly 30 years if you start from when Jordan began working on The Eye of the World in 1984 (published January 1990) until Book 14, A Memory of Light, concluded the series in January 2013.

Due to Robert Jordan’s death from cardiac amyloidosis in 2007 before the final volume could be released, Brandon Sanderson completed the series using notes and recordings Jordan had made, though Sanderson and Harriet McDougal (both Jordan’s editor and his wife) decided to do what Jordan had tried to avoid, namely to split Book 12 into three books.

The series is as long and as complex as no other (that I know of), with a cast of so many people it was sometimes hard to keep up with who was who without consulting a wiki. In fact, I found some of the “middle books” quite tedious to read, because, as interesting as the story was, the “main main characters” were getting about one or two chapters per book and the story got caught up in so many side-plots that it was getting a little annoying. However, it’s worth sticking with the story, as the plot threads come together nicely again in the later books.

As I mentioned in my post for “B-Day” in the A to Z Challenge, I love book series, and I love thick books with many pages and details galore (as long as it’s well-written and interesting, of course). I don’t think there’s much (any?) competition for Jordan’s series when it comes to length and page- or word-count. The total word-count for The Wheel of Time is over 4.4 million (yes… million), with a couple of books getting close to the 400k mark. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to keep track of all these characters and plot threads over such a long time.

Many references to mythology and legends from a number of cultures can be found throughout the series, including of course the reference to the concept of time being cyclical, with several ages repeating themselves over and over, from Hindu mythology. The attentive reader can find references such as tales of the great giants, “Mosk and Merc”, battling with spears of fire (Mosk being Moscow, and Merc being America). (There are many more such references if you’re interested.)

The world Jordan created is rich in detailed history and a variety of cultures. Although the epic storyline builds up to an inevitable Tolkien-style face-off between the forces of good and evil, Jordan’s sense of humour and his ability to make this rich fantasy world seem utterly believable pervade every chapter.

If you haven’t read this series, you’re missing the benchmark against which other fantasy works are measured.

Patrick Rothfuss – A to Z: P

P is for Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy author who has written two of my favourite books and is currently working on the third of the series (The Kingkiller Chronicle).

Patrick Rothfuss

Patrick Rothfuss (image from Wikimedia Commons)

He looks a little like a cross between a yeti and a hobbit, or maybe between Hagrid and a garden gnome, but I mean that in the nicest way. According to his about page, his breakthrough in his attempts to sell his manuscript came when he won a writing competition by submitting a chapter of his book. (See, even those seemingly dull short story competitions can be useful!)

Book 1 of The Kingkiller Chronicle was published in 2007 and is called The Name of the Wind. Book 2, The Wise Man’s Fear, followed in 2011. Although I only came across them relatively late (reading them in 2012/2013, both are excellent reads and I can highly recommend them.

One of the little things that nag me in his books is that Rothfuss is one of those people who believes that “a couple” should no longer be followed by “of”, as you sometimes hear in spoken (mainly American) English. To me, written English shouldn’t drop the “of” and every time I read something like “a couple minutes later…” or “… gave me a couple apples” the (to me) sloppy grammar rips me out of the story enough to “break my immersion”. There are a couple of other quirks and several errors (which I can never help but notice, whether I want to or not), but mainly Rothfuss writes very well, interspersing the narrative with the occasional use of great poetry, and creating some wonderfully memorable characters (how great is Auri? Or Elodin?) along the way. The great dialogue between the characters makes the story very believable within the context of the carefully crafted fantasy world, rich with its own history and legends. The magic in his books is one of the most well-thought-out I’ve ever come across, to the point that each of the “laws” governing it make immediate sense to the reader.

What I also really like (possibly because I’m attempting to do something similar in the manuscript I’m working on, maybe I’m biased there) is the use of a “story around the story”. In it, the main character, Kvothe, is recounting tales of his life to “The Chronicler”, who writes them down over the course of three days while staying in Kvothe’s inn. Kvothe, once famous (and indeed notorious), has settled in an out-of-the-way village and is only known there as “Kote”, not wishing to reveal his true identity. Each of the books covers one day of storytelling, and the reader is left to wonder at the discrepancy between the lively younger Kvothe and the older version who seemingly wants nothing to do with his own history.

In the “story within the story”, the characters tell more stories, making it a case of “stories within the story within the story”, if you’re still following me. (Reminds me a little of Inception, where you have a dream within a dream within a dream….) I think it’s a great way to give the reader a hint of things to come without spoiling it; that is, the reader still desperately wants to know what exactly happened to get Kvothe from his younger self to his older one. Fascinatingly, the switches between the “inner” and “outer” story (in “interlude” chapters) never broke my “sense of immersion” at all.

The blurb on the first book has to be one of the best I’ve ever seen – this is how to immediately give the reader picking up your book in a book store a sense that she is holding something epic, something special:

My name is Kvothe

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

With all the makings of one of the grand epic fantasy series of this century (I know it’s a bit early, but still), I am eagerly anticipating the release of the third and final book, The Doors of Stone.

Book One – A to Z: B

Book One – more than anything else, that is what I look for when I’m at the bookstore searching for the next great read to sink my teeth into. I’ll admit it – I’m a sucker for series. A book that ends after a few hundred pages without hope of ever encountering its characters again? Hmm, if it’s really well-written, great, I might read it. Personally, though, I’d be much more reluctant to invest my emotions in it than if I knew it’s just the start of a series.

There’s a reason that, these days, a larger and larger section of the Blu-ray and DVD shelves is dedicated to TV series. And even when it comes to films, many studios see the allure of producing sequels. In my genre of choice – fantasy – what are the great films people know, what are the best-selling books? Feel free to give counter-examples in the comments if you disagree, but to my mind, they mostly consist of multiple parts. From Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time to Robin Hobb’s series to George R. R. Martin to Patrick Rothfuss. Too many more to name.

Maybe it’s a bit too melodramatic if I say something like, “A truly great story doesn’t fit in one book.” Some really great ones are very short. Nevertheless, I enjoy intricate character development, following a character’s convoluted trains of thought without being rushed from action scene to action scene like a tourist on a bus tour. “Got a photo of that building? And that tower? Good, let’s go, we’re on a tight schedule, people!” Life moves pretty fast, but (thankfully) it isn’t like that.

What about you? Do you prefer epic series of doorstopper-sized books like me, or shorter, more succinct, more poignant, stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.