Agented

Stepping into the SDSU Writers’ Conference, I was sure it was The Faith Machine’s last chance at traditional publication. I spent the year querying agents by email, 163 of them, and over $2000 on editing. I hadn’t given up hope in the manuscript, but I was giving up on the process. Years of being a single guy have given me a thick skin for rejection, but I was running out of agents to query, and there’s only a handful of publishers with slush piles out there.

Four pitch sessions with editors were my last best chance at vaulting over the slush pile. Three of them requested the full manuscript. I thought I’d use these as leverage with my remaining open queries. Fortunately, Jonathan Maberry, host of the San Diego chapter of the Writers’ Coffeehouse at Mysterious Galaxy, had a better idea. He knew me from the Coffeehouse, and put me in touch with Cherry Weiner (she’s so good, she doesn’t need a homepage).

Days later, she’d read the manuscript and was working on the editors from the conference. My head was spinning. Until now, agents had only given me silence and form letters. Now I have one working on my behalf, and working hard.

If you’re an author seeking publication; email queries aren’t the end all and be all. In fact, they should be your plan B, maybe plan C. Get networking. Get to your local branch of the Writers’ Coffeehouse or such. It’s not a sure thing, but the odds are shorter.

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The SDSU Writers’ Conference is fast upon me, starting tomorrow in fact.

There’s three main reasons to attend a writers conference:

  1. Classes on the business and craft or writing
  2. Networking with other writers, editors, and agents
  3. Consultations and advance reading sessions with agents or editors (networking that you pay for)

These ten-minute face-to-face meetings are why I dropped over $600 to attend. They get better results than email. Off the top of my head, about 5% of my email submissions have resulted in a manuscript request. These in-person sessions, 50% or more.

At my last two conferences I went after agents. This year, I’m going straight to editors. This is a little backwards, but I can pitch to an agents anytime. Access to publishers is far more limited.

I’ve rewritten my pitch for The Faith Machine to emphasis Dr. Park. The book is an ensemble cast, but I wouldn’t/shouldn’t try to cover all seven characters and their powers in ten minutes. Now I just have to memorize it in the next 24 hours:

   The Faith Machine is a science fiction thriller, a spy novel with a superhero subgenre. James Bond leads the X-Men through a case from the X-Files.

   Dr. Ken Park is a Korean-American psychiatrist and spy. Highly skilled, but not a one man army like Jason Bourne or James Bond. In fact, he’s not great in a fight, but he does have a team of six agents, all psychics whose powers are linked to their mental disorders.

   So not only is Park the team leader, he’s also their doctor. Unfortunately for him, saving them from themselves involves putting them into danger.

   Because they’re not the only psychic spies out there. Every intelligence agency in the world uses psychic power. America recruited psychics. North Korea harvested their psychics’ brains for their power. And the old Soviet Union built psychotronic installations called Faith Machines around the world to weaponize religion.

   And that’s where our story begins. When Dr. Park and his team discover a mad warlord is using the African Faith Machine to become God.

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Find me between Milan and Milburn.

I’m embarrassed that I was so catty, and pleased that I’ve come along way since then.
I hope Stephenie Meyer can someday forgive me.

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At this month’s Writers’ Coffeehouse, Jonathan Maberry advised me that The Faith Machine is a thriller because:

  • The protagonists are spies
  • It hits on the Stargate Project in its backstory.
  • The fate of the world is at stake
  • At 98,000 it has the right word count
  • Thrillers typically command larger advances

Okay, sold.

I called it science fiction, because I figured that readers of science fiction reader would be more forgiving of the spy stuff, than the thriller reader would be of E.S.P. But Maberry’s own Joe Ledger novels fly in the face of that assumption. They’re science fiction, sometimes they’re even fantasy, but they’re marketed as thrillers, and that’s working out pretty well for Jonathan.

These labels, man, I don’t dig them. I understand that marketing needs them to communicate to the audience, but if a book is shoved in the wrong genre that’s sales death. Part of me blames Picking Up the Ghost’s poor sales on its miscategorization (long story). Many writers get pigeon holed by their genre, or they used to. Those walls are breaking down, and cross-genre is increasingly acceptable. But they’ll still slap one of the accepted one or two word labels on the spine.

It’s easy enough to search/replace “science fiction” with “thriller” in my query letter. It’s difficult to stop thinking about the ten agent queries I sent out last week.

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#PitMad is tomorrow’s event to connect writers with agents on Twitter. The writers tweet pitches. If an agent likes what they see they like the tweet as a request for a submission, a whole lot faster than the usual 40+ day wait. I don’t know if Brenda Drake started it, but she sure seems to be running it. Makes you wonder if agents are all so overwhelmed with queries because they spend all their time on Twitter.

I have ten traditional queries for The Faith Machine floating out there. But I figure, “What the heck?” The more you swing the more often you hit. The hashtags mean: #A for Adult, #SF for Science Fiction, and #T stands for Thriller. I’m luck to have such short hashtags to work with. Here are the three tweet pitches I’ll make tomorrow:

Superspy & his team of psychic agents chase a Soviet psychic weapon, from Africa, across America, & into North Korea. #pitmad #A #SF #T

A Korean-American James Bond leads the X-Men through a season of the X-Files, from Africa across the US to North Korea #pitmad #A #SF #T

Psychic agents with mental disorders. Soviets weaponized religion. Heroes chased across America. Showdown in North Korea. #pitmad #A #SF #T

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Dead Women – The Cast

Then it comes to a cast, I like to start with The Five Man Band: The Leader, the Lancer, the Smart Guy, the Big Guy, and the Chick. Put in Star Wars terms, that’s Luck, Han, R2-D2, Chewbacca, and Leia. Despite the wordage these tropes are gender-less, handy for me and my all-woman cast.

The Leader vs Lancer is the core dynamic. The Leader leads and the Lancer challenges that leadership, Superman and Batman or Cyclops and Wolverine. They typically share the spotlight, which becomes a cake and eat it too situation for the author. Not everyone likes the squeaky clean hero. In fact, most people seem to like the bad boy. With this trope, we get both right out there in front.

The remaining three slots are about ability and only imply personality. They represent the three human elements of mind, body, and soul.

After some thought I came up with:

Vampire – The Leader. Vampires are the most charismatic of the undead.
Skeleton – The Lancer. Who better to contrast the bloodsucker than a woman without veins.
Ghost – The Smart Guy. Ghosts of folklore have access to forgotten knowledge.
Poltergeist – The Big Guy. A given, Poltergeists don’t do much more than throw things around.
Necromancer – The Chick. Since the Necromancer is both the person looking for help and a member of the team, her agenda is the one that brings and keeps the team together.

But this is an homage to the Seven Samurai. What about the haunted axe and the zombie? That’s where Cast Calculus comes in. When expanding on the Five Man Band there’s a number of tropes that can take that sixth and seventh slots, like Team Dad or The Mentor. For this cast, I’m going with:

Zombie – The Tagalog Kid
Haunted Axe – The Sixth Ranger

Like all outlines, none of this is set in stone and I already see the Chick being the real Leader. But putting characters in this framework has already started to flesh out their personalities in my head. Even the skeleton.

Next post: Cat saving.

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Dead Women – Elevator Pitch

As the release date of Picking Up the Ghost drifts further into the past, I’m feeling like cold product. A product that wasn’t very warm to begin with. Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work reminded me that I’ve failed to produce and failed to put myself out there.

So here’s the idea: While The Faith Machine is busy finding a home, I’ll be working on shorter pieces; seven short stories featuring the agents from The Faith Machine and a few of comic books pitches. I’ll blog the process. To teach what I know, and learn quite a bit from you while I’m at it.

This week; the elevator pitch for Dead Women. That’s a sales pitch for the story that’s short enough to tell in an elevator ride.

“The Seven Samurai, but the heroes are undead women; a vampire, a ghost, a skeleton, a zombie, a poltergeist, a haunted axe, and a necromancer.”

Unpacking: “Seven Samurai.” These two words tell the plot, the mercenary nature of the cast, and the bandit vs. villager conflict.

Two more words provide the hook, what’s unique about this story. “Undead women.” Why undead women? Is there a reason they’re women? Undead heroes? It’s an invitation to ask me more about the pitch and the angle that makes this story mine.

A pitch in two parts. Establish the ground rules, and hit them with the hook. What do you think?

Next week: Seven women in the Five Man Band.

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How We Write – Sunday, Feb 14, 2016 11:00AM (Le Chanticleer – 9th Floor)
Ever wonder how a story gets made? They don’t fall out of the sky. Our panel of professional writers will share how they put pencil to paper and build worlds from the sweat of their brows. (Anina Bennett, James Hudnall, David Lemmo, Jonathan Maberry, Tone Milazzo, Phil Roberts)

Mental Disorders in Fiction – Sunday, Feb 14, 2016 1:00PM (Le Chanticleer – 9th Floor)

An estimated one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, and popular culture is starting to consider these disorders beyond the typical approach of, “The Villain is Crazy.” What are the challenges of writing protagonists with mental disorders? Who has done it well? And what are some common mistakes? (Andrea Letamendi, Tone Milazzo, Janina Scarlet)

Why Every Character Needs Kryptonite – Monday, Feb 15, 2016 11:00AM (Le Chanticleer – 9th Floor)

We’ll discuss the Achilles heel in fiction and why it’s important. We’ll share some weaknesses of our favorite paranormal creatures, superheroes, and villains, and talk about why the vulnerability leads to strength of character. Eben Brooks, Lisa Kessler, David Lemmo, Tone Milazzo

There’s still time to get your passes for Comic Fest

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Annnnd Done

2016-01-30 20.06.31
It spent years in the incubator, due to day jobs and other commitments, but I can finally say The Faith Machine is a complete, readable, and finished. At least until an editor tells me otherwise.

I processed the feedback from my gracious beta readers, made cuts, fleshed out descriptions, and added a whole new chapter to show what’s at stake if the bad guy wins. At 96,993 words it’s a little on the heavy side but within the limits.

While I query agents, I’ll be working on 7 short independent pieces that follow up after this book, to build a body of work around my heroes, Project Dead Blind. Short fiction can reach into markets that a novel can’t, published or not.

But for tonight, I’m just happy to be done.


The Query letter, for the curious:

The Faith Machine is a science fiction novel of international action, espionage, and E.S.P. What if James Bond were to lead the X-Men through the X Files? Where psychic powers are linked to mental disorders, and a little bit of power means a life spent resisting corruption, and dodging assassination.

Doctor Ken Park is a Korean-American spy with a PhD in psychology. He’s the field commander of Project Dead Blind, a team of six unruly, paranormal agents. Among them is Park’s right-hand woman Ainia, a Latina who believes she’s a reincarnated Amazon warrior, Isaac Deal, who can mimic the skills of those around him when he’s on a bi-polar high, and Pollyanna, a depressed cynic with the unreliable power of positive thinking.

Sent to Africa to recover a Soviet psychotronic super-weapon, their mission is a failure. An agent is wounded and their target is destroyed. The team is scattered and pursued across America by the FBI, the Chinese Bureau of Spirit Suppression, and the mysterious Casemen.

The Faith Machine will appeal to readers of Tim Powers’ Declare, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, and Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s complete at 96,993 words.

My first novel, Picking Up the Ghost, was published by ChiZine in 2011 and optioned for film by Breaking the Cycle Films LTD.

Thanks for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you.

Sincerely, Tone Milazzo

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1984
Thanks, mom.

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