How NaNoWriMo led me to Tor
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.