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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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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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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Problem: I have a team seven protagonists and this isn’t an origin story. Since they all know each other, they’re mobilized right away. Originally, the team leader spent two chapters traveling the country and activating his agents in a sequence not unlike Ocean’s Eleven.

However, that’s a lot easier to pull of in a visual medium. No one watching a movie is going to confuse Bernie Mac with Brad Pitt. In particular I had two women on the team that readers were confusing, Polly and Gabby.

Initial solution:
Clearly, the spellings of Polly and Gabby are too close, so I replaced Polly with the full name Pollyanna. I also increased Pollyanna’s potty mouth and her a love of literature (dropping lit references in conversation) while cleaning up Gabby’s language and dumbing her down a bit.

Further solutions: 1) Cold Open: I’m going to extend the book with an action sequence at the beginning that’s loosely related to the rest of the novel, like in some James Bond movies. That’ll give me 2000-3000 words to introduce three of the four characters before jumping around the country for the other four.

2) Character Dossiers: Since this is an espionage story I can write up one page reports on the protagonists from the point of view of the spy master. They’ll come in after each character’s introductory scene and if the ink bleeds into the edge of the page readers can easily use them as reference. Like how fantasy novels used to have a reference appendix.

After this rewrite, I’ll try it on another series of beta readers. If they’re not confused then I’ll know if it worked.

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Done & Done

I’m going into Comic Con in a good head space with baggage cleared.

Well, mostly.

One the software front, I released the Android version of Texts From Jesus last week. Software is never really done. We have plans to add multiple languages to the app starting with Spanish. Once we have all the major languages covered… Texts From Buddha

In fiction news, The Faith Machine is almost at the end of its second draft. I’m working shopping the last three chapters tonight. I have a few more versions to make, plot and character threads to cut or tie off, and a cold open to write, but if all goes well and if Con leaves me as creatively charged as it usually does I should be into third draft next month.

I’ve been attending Jonathan Maberry‘s Writer’s Coffeehouse meet-ups at Mysterious Galaxy. It gives me that same creative charge Con does, but in a more manageable amount. Like an IV drip.

What I don’t have is a series of good pitches for Comic Con, a skill I really need to work on. But there’s two days until Con and who needs sleep anyway?

How about you? How are you doing?

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The Hard Part is Over

The Faith Machine first draft… done. 88,227 words is a tad on the short side. But I have a lot of scenes in the last act that need fleshing out beyond the dialog. And I plan on throwing on ten action packed and unrelated opening pages, ala a James Bond movie. Not to mention everything I forgot to write. That Hellfire missile I foreshadowed in the second act, totally forgot about it in the third. And I never showed the consequences of the villain’s success before he was defeated. That’s got to go in there somewhere.

Next: I take a week off to clear my head, even do some camping. Then I give the entire document a few pass-throughs. Like an iron pressing out the wrinkles. I’ll be looking for plot threads that changed or were lost over the last year. There used to be three clones floating around in tanks, now there’s one. Most importantly, make sure everyone’s agenda leads them to the climax. And I’ll be looking for opportunities to foreshadow elements I thought of while writing the last half.

I like the second draft. This is where I pretend that someone else tried to write my novel and it’s my job to fix it. I mean look right here, he forgot about the Hellfire missile.

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And the only one who can do anything about it is me. So I gave the Magic Spreadsheet a try (almost). The gamification of writing.

The rules as I understand them:

  1. Write at least 250 words (equivalent to a page) everyday. Every 250 words is a point.
  2. Keep score with continuous blocks of goals met. Ex. If you’re written 250 words a day for a week your score is 7. 500 words a day for a week, 14. But if you miss a next day your score drops all the way back down to 0.

As this chain builds and your score gets into the two or three digits it taps into the compulsive part of the brain, the seed of game addiction. Using that nasty bit of neurology for good instead of evil.

So far I’ve only played by the first rule with a macro-less spreadsheet. Eventually I aim to write a full web app to calculate the score. In the meantime I’ve written up this basic version using ZingChart.

Setting a daily goal of 500 words a weekday and 1000 a weekend I managed to get 27,922 words written these last two months. That’s almost half of my total words written so far and I didn’t make my goal everyday, not by a long shot. I was only a third in, now I might be done by mid February. The desire to fill cells on the spreadsheet is a great motivator.

(Note: This isn’t a fair comparison. I was work-shopping as I wrote the first 40,000 words. They’re in their second draft, while everything I’ve written since November is a rough first draft. But the goal is to get the first draft done since that’s the hardest part.)

The Third Act is my Complication

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy and neither did my outline survive contact with the third act. Changes I made in the first act invalidated large parts of the third. Major characters had their roles changed and needed to be replaced. Motivations no longer lined up with actions. Moles reconsidered their treason. Characters that died lived and vice versa. The warranties expired on my MacGuffins. I hit that wall and I spent Christmas weekend re-plotting the last five chapters. Gotta blue that print, measure twice, and proper that planning if the words are to flow.

Because done… done is beautiful.

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