I’ve been busy working on a world book for the Fate Core role-playing game system. It’s turned into an interesting exercise in world-building. In the process, I accidentally created a series bible.
ESPionage is based on The Faith Machine, my psychic espionage thriller. This body of work consists of a novel, two novel outlines, half a dozen short stories in various stages of completion, and a comic book pitch, not to mention a notebook full of incomplete ideas. I had a lot to draw on. Spilling it out on the page was easy. Organizing and filling that information’s given me a new perspective in the material.
For example; early on I based the spy lingo for psychic phenomena on poker and card expressions. But I hadn’t got further than ‘Card’ means psychic. The glossary of a game book can’t stop at one word. That’s not even a sidebar. So then…a team of Cards, that’s a Hand, clearly. And an agency that operates multiple teams, that’s a Table. Many nations will have more than one Table, like a casino or House. Then the entire psychic espionage community at large, that’s the Strip.
Organization’s the bomb, yo.
And not just details. This goes for themes too. I received a piece of advice at the Writers’ Coffeehouse; At the beginning of a novel make a list of six things the story is, and six things it’s not. This isn’t for the audience. It’s for the author. But it made a good introduction for the game book:
- ESPionage is stale beer with martini moments, more Jason Borne than James Bond. It takes its queues from John le Carré with an occasional nod to Ian Flemming. A secret world that’s less about good guys verses bad, and more about getting the job done whatever the cost.
- ESPionage Cards are the most powerful individuals who ever lived, but still have to watch their backs. A bullet to the skull doesn’t care how powerful the brain inside was.
- ESPionage is about characters with mental disorders living their lives and doing their jobs, without being defined by their conditions.
- ESPionage is about characters getting their hands dirty in the field. It’s not about rooms full of servers crunching data.
- ESPionage is about teamwork. A small group of talented agents who depend on each other to accomplish the mission and look out for each other. It’s not about calling Homeland Security for help with a threat. Sometimes, Homeland Security is the threat.
- ESPionage is about a secret war with many sides. Nations, terrorists, gods, and ghosts pushing forward with their agendas at the cost of anyone who gets in their way. It’s not about safety or working toward retirement. Once you’ve played on the Strip you’re in the game for good.
I’m closing in on a first draft. If everything goes right, I’ll run it online and make a YouTube channel out of it.
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.
The SDSU Writers’ Conference is fast upon me, starting tomorrow in fact.
There’s three main reasons to attend a writers conference:
- Classes on the business and craft or writing
- Networking with other writers, editors, and agents
- 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.
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
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.