Three years ago, my brother-in-law (the finest pastry chef in the Centennial State) challenged me to write every day for an entire month. He was going to do it and I’d been making noises about a storyline that wouldn’t go away. So, we signed up for a once-a-month writing challenge called NaNoWriMo and off we went. Thirty days later, after many late nights at Panera and Starbucks and my kitchen table, I had 50,000 words staring back at me, a can-do space Marine named Promise, and the bones of a military space opera.
Then I did what most would-be writers do. I filed it away in a graveyard of best intentions and ill-conceived plans. December came and went. Snow accumulated in the Rockies. Late at night - before bed, when my boys were sleeping and I had that rare moment of solace - I thought of Promise and her exploits.
She kept calling my name. “William, I’m not done yet. Finish my story.”
I kept answering her with the same excuses. “Seriously, do you know how much work that entails? I have a day job, which requires me to travel…weeks out of the year. I have a wife and three boys. Ink Master, Cinemark, and Once Upon a Time will miss me. But, Promise wouldn’t shut up. So, back to the kitchen table I went.
When I passed 100,000 words I knew I was in this for good. I was hooked. I wanted Promise out there, storming the shelves of booksellers everywhere in her powered mechboots. When it got personal I made a list of next steps.
1. Rewrite and focus upon quality verses quantity
2. Gather early readers and knowledge experts to vet my work
3. Research my knowledge gaps
4. Find a killer agent
5. Sell the book
The rewrite was an invaluable learning process. I threw whole sections out. Entire characters died on the cutting room floor. Frankly, offing them was a lot of fun. Promise changed her last name. Close family read early drafts. Their candor hurt at times but thickened my shell. And, I discovered as much about what not to do as I did about what works on the page. Promise and her Marines came to life.
Developing a focus group was no small task; actually, it’s still a work in progress and I suspect it always will be. Many well-meaning people said yes, I’ll read it, and then never did. A few people actually read it but had little to say beyond the self-imposed, obligatory “I really liked it.” I needed more than that.
Then Mark Gabriel stepped into the gap. He’s a retired Navy commander turned teacher-of-troubled-teens and part-time gunsmith. Mark became my no-holds-barred beta reader. At one point, I crashed a shuttle with a platoon of Marines aboard. There was just one glaring problem with that scene, and Mark spotted is immediately. “What? No ejection seats?”
My mother, Doctor Deborah Bauers, became my in-house editor. I’m a crappy speller and grammar is no friend of mine. Just ask my mom. In case I haven’t told her lately, thanks Mom, you’re aces.
Quality readers are like rare earth ore. There’s not enough to go around. Find one and you’ve discovered Lucky Charm’s cauldron of gold. I had to seek them out. Living in a military town certainly helped. Soon, I had a corps of retired Sailors and Marines given me feedback. Coming from a military family filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge but by no means all of them. I followed Stephen King’s advice in On Writing: write until you run into something you don’t know and then go find out about it, and then write some more. I read and interviewed and listened and asked questions. The veil fell away. I started talking in military acronyms. Stuff became “gear.” The wife became my “alpha unit.” When I left the house I ordered my boys to “look lively” and “stay on me.”
Finding an agent required a solid year of patience and stick-to-itiveness. A. Solid. Year. I queried over thirty agents and researched many more that were not good fits. Cherry Weiner was near the top of my list and the first to respond to my query. She told me to come back in six months if I still didn’t have an agent. As the months rolled by so did the rejection letters. Several agents responded with encouragements and “keep goings” but ultimately chose not to take me on, and the reasons were strikingly similar: I didn’t feel as strongly about the writing as I hoped; there were moments, William, but not enough for me to want to take this further. Stuff like that. One of the top SF agents in the country flat out told me my book wasn’t marketable. Six months later, I went back to Cherry. She read the book and asked me to revise a small list of items. This was her test and thank God I passed it. Less than two weeks after she signed me I had a book deal with Tor/Forge.
Cherry Weiner is worth her weight in gold-plated contracts.
My debut SF, Unbreakable, the first in the Chronicles of Promise Paen, is out in less than three months. January 13th, 2015 is P-day (publishing day). The sequel is scheduled for a year later. Unbreakable is releasing in hardcover, e-book, digital audio, and at least one publisher has inquired about foreign language rights. Unzerbrechlich? Maybe. Two years ago I had a manuscript and a dream. Now, I’m walking in high cotton: great agent; great editor; great publisher; and a very small but growing list of converts/fans. I even have an evangelist or two.
I owe a lot of thank-yous to a lot of people. This list is by no means exhaustive:
To Jeremy, my brother-in-law, for encouraging me to try.
To NaNoWriMo, for some much-needed structure and encouraging dailies.
To Lauren Kaplan and Ronie Kendig for their early reads and encouragement.
To Bryan DeBates at the Space Foundation Discovery Center.
To Lt. Col. Gary Foster, USAF (ret.); Col. Tim Hill, USMC (ret.); and Maj. Mike Heath, USMC (ret.).
Special thanks to Cmdr. Mark Gabriel, USN (ret.), for advice and technical assistance.
To Mom, for tolerating less-than-stellar writing and line edits.
To Cherry Weiner, for seeing something there.
To Marco Palmieri and Tor, for giving a fledging writer a shot.
To the author of life. You wrote a crazy story and I can’t wait to get to the end.
I just wrapped up the edits to UNBREAKABLE, book one in The Chronicles of Promise Paen, and Tor accepted it for publication. Thank you God!
Sometime during the Winter of 2015. Date to come. And I learned a few things along the way.
Track changes in MS Word is powerful and it will save you hours. After your first good draft is on-screen (defined as quality writing that still needs work), instead of making changes right away - particularly large changes like swapping chapters and rewriting key elements of the plot - set the manuscript aside for a few weeks. Let it, and your mind, rest. Then go back for another read. Make notes as you "read through" the entire manuscript because you're probably looking at a substantial amount of re-working. And your initial thoughts may not be your final thoughts. Expect them not to be. Make notes as you go, read through to "the end" (but please don't be so obvious), then go back and reread your notes. Revise them first, then your book. You may decide to nix certain ideas, replace them with others. Doing this will save you even more hours.
Create a "Cast of characters." Record every habit, eye color, saying, and factoid about each of your characters. Major, even minor. That way, you don't turn your leading blond into a brunette, or discover she grew a pair and became a he. Yup, happened. And note when you "off" someone. Just saying.
As you world-build, draft a legend or key. If men's hair is fashionably long, note that. If you're writing Mil SF like I am, details about uniforms and weapons matter and culture can make or break your book, particularly if you're inconsistent. In Promise's world, the "Lusies" say "All Hands To Action Stations." But not the "Publicans." It's "All Hands to Battle Stations" for them. The difference matters.
Watch your date stamps too. Lay them out chronologically so you don't jump days unnecessarily or hop back in time. I created a one-to-three-sentence synopsis of each chapter, in order, which was invaluable. For instance, wounds take time to heal, some more than others. You have to allow for that in your writing. Unless there's "quickheal." Then it doesn't matter, but that's an altogether different matter.
Bottom line...If the detail is important, write...it...down, because writing fiction is hard and you can't possible keep all the details in your head. That's a sure recipe for #authorfail. At least I can't. Wasn't born with that gift and you probably weren't either.