Outlining The Bliss Gun, an iterative process

While Agent 97:4 deals with her fading faith and failing power. She and Dr Park cross paths with Jennifer and Josh, two teens abducted 34 years ago by astral aliens, twisted into monsters, and released on Earth. The Montauk Project meets Natural Born Killers.

I had a good conversation with my agent this morning about the outline. Which was a relief. Our previous conversation didn’t go so well. These were my mistakes:

  • The Title. MKIntra was a play on MKUltra, the US Army psychic warfare unit. A reference my agent didn’t get. More importantly, in a series the titles should have a theme. Following the [feeling] [device] template, I renamed the outline after the secondary antagonists’ weapon.
  • More Mind Control. Jennifer originally had mind control powers. So did 97:4’s primary antagonist, in The Faith Machine. No body wants to see the hero fight the same power back to back. I’ve tweaked her power. Now she’s capable of full body possession and astral projection instead of the old order people around kind of mind control.
  • Moth Men. I didn’t realize we’re coming out of a glut of giant insect monsters. At least, that’s what been being pitched. Cutting the Moth Men severs one connection to the Montauk lore, but that’s fine. I replaced that monster with a swarm of scarabs wearing a man’s suit. I may replace them again with stone-age style clowns. We’ll see.
  • Format. I’m used to writing outlines for myself. Scene by scene breakdowns of the entire book. Fine for me, a painful read for anyone else. Rather than bouncing back and forth between protagonists and antagonist every sentence, I collected the scenes into paragraphs. An outline isn’t a scale model of the book.

Fortunately, the second outline only had a few minor problems, mostly typos and clarity. Taking feedback gracefully works!

Also, my short story The Ginger Jar is available for free on Kindle until Friday. Download it now, before the price skyrockets to 99¢!


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.

Let’s Pitch Again Like We Did Last Winter

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.

Shifting Labels, Your Favorite Genre is Marketing

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.