My Top-5 Trades of 2016

Continuing on from last week’s post, here are my top-5 comic trades that came out in 2016.

5. Black Road Vol 1

Written by: Brian Wood

Art by: Garry Brown

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Road is a cold, brutal look at the spread of religion through swords and power told more through visuals than words. It’s a story of vikings, theology, and desolation, and while it is never once happy, it is always compelling and great to look at. Brian Wood is a fantastic character writer, but more than that, he knows that writing a comic means letting the artist do just as much as the storytelling as the author. Black Road is a drought of words, the kind of story where the Black Road speaks volumes while the characters trudge along in silence. Their facial expressions and posture say more than their words could. You can feel the wind blow across the pages. You can hear it howl. I don’t know where the story will go, but I’m very much along for the ride.

4. Negative Space Vol 1

Written by: Ryan K Lindsay

Art by: Owen Gieni

Publisher: Dark Horse

It’s not every day that an author can perfectly pair comedy with depression, but Ryan Lindsay managed it with Negative Space, a dark comedy with a Lovecraftian twist. The series opens up on a writer struggling to finish his suicide note. It’s a brilliant idea that continues on in a mostly-brilliant way that is, above all else, unforgettable. The middle sections of this book are somewhat strange to be sure, but it’s beginning and end are perfection: utterly bleak yet forcing you to crack a grin all the while. The way this book ends will haunt you. When it comes to the artwork, Owen Gieni is carrying just as much weight as Ryan. Depression is hard to get right without coming off as too extreme, but Owen nails it on every page. The sorrow is real, and so are the Lovecraftian monsters.

3. How to Talk to Girls at Parties

 

Written by: Neil Gaiman

Art by: Fabio Moon

Publisher: Dark Horse

It’s Neil Gaiman at his most Neil Gaiman. To say anything more would be redundant.

2. Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash

Written by: Dave McKean

Art by: Dave McKean

Published by: Dark Horse

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash might be the most important comic to come out in 2016. It’s a strange story to be sure, a surrealist mix of historical fact (artist Paul Nash as a real person and painter) and historical fiction (his paintings, and what happened to him during World War I); the surrealism makes it hard to tell one from the other. Plot points meander in and out of focus as Dave McKean treats us to an absolutely stunning array of surrealist art that seems to shift in style ever handful of pages. Nothing ever looks the same, and hell, almost nothing ever looks traditionally pretty. That’s on purpose though, and the effect it has is nothing short of profound. This is a story of one man attempting to cope with the horrors of WWI through his artwork. Pretty is not the way to cope with war. This book really has to be experienced to be believed, but it’s the kind of book everyone should experience.

1. Troll Bridge

Written by: Neil Gaiman

Art by: Colleen Doran

Publisher: Dark Horse

One of my favorite things about 2016 is that Neil Gaiman wrote us a fable. Troll Bridge is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Jack meeting a monster that wants to eat him and twisting his way by making a deal: He’ll come back when he’s older. He’ll be a better meal that way.  The rest is a character study of Jack and the bumps in his road that turn him into a cynical monster not worthy of a troll’s dinner. The rest is a hopelessly realistic portrayal of growing up and losing your childlike fantasy. The rest is about depression. The rest is about monsters and how they’re people too. The rest is, well, about life. Like all good fables, Troll Bridge has more to say about the world than it first lets on; it’s a kind of intellectual food, and it would be remiss if you didn’t take a bite.

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My Top-5 Comic Series of 2016

2016 is the year I jumped out of my comic-book comfort zone. I sampled as much as I possibly could, and to me, that’s the spirit of the medium. Super heroes are what the general public see, but anyone who’s stepped foot into a comic store knows that when it comes to putting words over pictures, anything and everything is fair game.

It’s wonderful, and 2016 saw the release of many wonderful books. We had more I Hate Fairyland, more Wayward, more The Autumnlands, a new series from Jim Zub, two different Alien runs from Dark Horse, two Neil Gaiman trades, tons of scifi and fantasy from Image, a Lovecraftian crime noir miniseries featuring a talking cat, New Superman, and whatever wonderful piece of literature A.D.: After Death is turning into.

That all being said, picking my top five series and top five trades for 2016 wasn’t all that difficult. This was a good year for comics, but the best-of-the-best truly stood out more than ever. Plus, I gave myself two very strict rules to follow:

  1. No repeats from 2015
  2. The comic must have at least four issues out or completed its first arc.

This means that while A.D.: After Death is probably the best thing I read this year, it isn’t on the list. It also means I Hate Fairyland, Wayward, and The Autumnlands aren’t on here either, since those were my big favorites from 2015.

The idea is to promote new series or series with strong jumping-on points. Plus, talking about how good Wayward is at this point is just boring. I’ll be doing my top-five series in this post and my top-five trades next week.

5. Aliens: Defiance

Written by: Brain Wood

Art by: Tristan Jones, Tony Brescini, Stephen Thomson, and Dan Jackson

Publisher: Dark Horse

If you count the comic books and novels, the Alien franchise is actually jam-packed with content, and a lot of it sees the same ground being tread over and over. It’s perhaps never boring, but even I’ll admit that some of the franchise’s biggest tropes are starting to feel a bit derivative. Brian Wood seems to know this, because Aliens: Defiance is all about taking long-running tropes and expectations and shattering them. Zara isn’t your standard badass heroine, Davis isn’t your standard synthetic, and their fight against the titular Aliens isn’t your standard action romp. Everything about this series is character driven and outright lonely, because no one can hear you scream if no one is around. This coupled with a fantastic lineup of artists that know how to make great use of shadows have turned this into my favorite, non-movie Aliens series to date.

4. Glitterbomb

Written by: Jim Zub

Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan & K. Michael Russell

Publisher: Image

In my introduction, I said that anything and everything is fair game in the realm of comic books, and Jim Zub is certainly proving that with his new series, Glitterbomb. Take one part drama and one part horror and stick both into a very dark, very strange character piece set in the worst parts of Hollywood. That’s Glitterbomb. Farrah is a down-on-her luck actress with a pig of an agent and barely enough money to pay her babysitter, and while that’s enough for a compelling story on its own, she encounters something otherworldly and…turns. It’s nail-biting horror through and through, though not because Farrah herself is scary but because she’s completely unpredictable. Well, she’s also a little scary. Her shift is some grade-A body horror, and the brutality on display would make Stephen King nod his head in approval. Djibril Morissette-Phan and K. Michael Russell excel at facial expressions that say more than words cannot, and they do blood and gore pretty darn well too. Everyone looks and feels human until they are not.

3. The Hunt

Written by: Colin Lorimer

Art by: Joana Lafuente

Publisher: Image

If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m a big fan of horror. I don’t like the gore-ridden, slasher kind though; if you want to keep me up at night, you need to give me terrifying ideas first and great characters second. The Hunt is both. The idea is that upsetting monsters that are well versed in magic is an awful, awful thing to do, and the character is Orla, a high-school girl who knows just enough magic to think she’s in control when she very clearly is not. The rest is a kaleidoscope of Irish mythology, changlings, threats of damnation, and a small beastery of monsters. The artwork here is never short of phenomenal, so much so that I find myself going back and just flipping through the pages. The Hunt just might be the prettiest comic to come out of 2016.

2. Black Hammer

Written by: Jeff Lemire

Art by: Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart

Publisher: Dark Horse

As someone that isn’t well-versed in super hero comics, it’s impossible for me to talk about the structuralism of Black Hammer, which is one of its biggest selling points. Intellectually, I know know what it’s doing, but I don’t have the experience to really appreciate it. Yet as an average fan of comics–and someone who has a strong dislike of superhero comics–I find Black Hammer to be astounding in its execution and scope. Jeff Lemire is a wonder at characters and voice, and superhero status or no, it’s the characters that sell this series. From their motives to their flaws to their backstories, each one feels ridiculously real, like they’ve been around for twenty or more issues and not six. The writing is truly exceptional. Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart match the tone and characters perfectly as artists, and while Black Hammer is never pretty to look at, it’s interesting and fits the writing.

1. Black Monday Murders

Written by: Jonathon Hickman

Art by: Tomm Coker & Michael Garland

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Monday Murders is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the last five years, and I make it a habit to read a lot. It’s a crime story, one with a detective trying to solve a murder, yet it’s also a story of cults, satanism, magic, money, bankers, economics, and perhaps immortality too. Everything about it is strange in the best way possible. Each issue is oversized and paced with brutal perfection, because Jonathan Hickman is a genius and he knows what it takes to tell a good story. He also knows that telling a good story sometimes means breaking rules. Black Monday Murders is not afraid to end a scene with a series of blank pages, and it isn’t afraid to use outright prose either. A character might die on page ten, and on page eleven there’s a confidential dossier with half of its words redacted out. The two are related, and it’s up to you to figure out how. Tomm Coker and Michael Garland match Hickman’s written precision with their artwork. The book is gorgeous, and like Black Hammer, the artwork fits the tone, characters, and style perfectly. It’s rare to find a team that so clearly play off of each others strengths, but every scene is better for it.

On Writing My Third Novel

Back in August, I wrote a short essay titled, “Permission to Fail,” where I vented about writing and editing my second novel which concluded with me hinting at starting a third novel. I then went on a 100-day break of no blog posts.

Gee, I wonder what I was doing!

I finished the first draft of Toyland sometime last week. It measures almost 75,000 words and, as far as first drafts go, is a complete mess. Good god the amount of work I’ll have to put into this thing to get it into shape is staggering. Continuity errors, continuity errors everywhere! Not to mention the slipups in writing, the overly-long action sequences that are hard to follow, and the immature level of cursing that goes on.

Seriously. I think I drop over a 100 fuck bombs in this one. I haven’t counted yet because I’m afraid to.

Before I continue, here’s a quick-and-dirty plot summary of Toyland:

BP6 is the sixth pawn in the black kingdom. He’s a chess piece, and he hates being a chess piece. It’s a pretty shitty gig, so he spends his free time snorting sugar, drinking soda, and sexually harassing Darbie Dolls as a way to forget how much he hates himself. Things change when he drunkenly sneaks into a G.I. base and steals a top-secret weapon that’s actually just a lighter.

BP6 takes this weapon back to his kingdom, lights everyone he hates on fire, and then proceeds to go on a drunken rampage through Toyland. His long-time friend John (G.I. John instead of G.I. Joe because trademarks) is after him, but it doesn’t take long for half of Toyland to join in the hunt. This is a weapon that works!

The novel itself is one parts action, one parts dark comedy, and maybe six parts existential angst. Much like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story movie, all of the toys in Toyland think they are real save BP6. BP6, however, is ill equipped to handle the realization that he’s not real, so he turns to violence and drugs.If he isn’t real, then neither is anyone else and who cares who dies?

It’s a strange, strange novel.

The ideas behind Toyland are old. I created the basic premise somewhere around 2011 when I was working a job I loathed and wished I could burn the place to the ground. I felt like a pawn. It was then that I wrote the first line to the novel, one I’ve been carrying around for five years:

The plastic man in army fatigues walked through the cardboard castle.

See, BP6 isn’t really the main character, his friend John is. John’s the one who has to come to terms with the fact that his best friend is a monster, that the army he trusts keeps dark secrets, and that Toyland isn’t what he’s been lead to believe it is. There are monsters out there.

Or that was the idea. As it turned out, there are four main characters in this novel: BP6, John, Frank (he’s a Viper Commando), and White Knight 2.

This was a delightful surprise at first. The best part about writing is the discovery; however, the worst part about writing is the discovery. I wrote myself into more complex situations than a dumb book about a pissed off talking toy really needs, and juggling multiple characters isn’t exactly easy. I don’t know how George R. R. Martin does it.

Each character winds up meeting more characters as the story goes on, so what started with four people wound up turning into over 20. John has three squadmates, Frank has three squadmates, and both BP6 and WK2 find all sorts of crazy folk on the floor of Toyland. Then there are the main villains, a Mega Brick Kingpin that I based off of Samuel L Jackson, a depressed underground railroad train that was built under the ground and can’t escape, and a pet lizard that showed up out of goddamned nowhere. Seriously Casey, why?

There are characters I created to move the plot along assuming they’d offer some exposition or direction that wound up living all the way to the end. Because writing is about discovery, and that’s a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t kind of game.

It was fun though. My biggest worry about writing is that it’ll turn into a chore, that I’ll get used to it and start going through the motions. This book though, this book was damn fun to write. I got to create the most bizarre, stupid world of my writing life thus far, and that’s saying something as I’ve written high fantasy.

I have fight sequences where transforming robots are trying to take a water fountain so they can steal water balloons, and I have another fight sequences that takes place inside a giant Mega Brick city. Think The Lego Movie but with more dismemberment and swearing.

Almost all the characters are out of their minds in some way, too.

If I learned anything, it’s that the reasons I enjoy writing haven’t changed. Discovery is fun, and outlining ruins that. I did almost zero planning for this book, and yeah it threw me into some really hard directions to work with, but it was always fun. I’ll fix the problems later.

I also learned that keeping a sheet of notes as you go is as necessary as ever, even if I once again didn’t do that. Old habits die hard. Less also continues to be more, adverbials are still the devil, and describing a stuffed animal burning to death is a lot harder than it sounds.

Toyland did mark the first book that I shopped ideas with a writing circle. I’ve stumbled upon a few places via Facebook and Neogaf this year, and they really proved their worth. I never asked for feedback on wording, paragraphs, or chapters, but going, “Hey what if” wound up being super valuable.

Corners are easier to navigate out of when you have outside perspective.

I don’t know what will happen with this book when it’s done. I also don’t know if this blog post has any value other than my own self wanking. Regardless, I hope there’s entertainment to be found somewhere, because while fun is the first rule, I try to make entertainment the second. I’ve read too many bad books to not want to at least be entertaining.

Permission to Fail

About three months and some change ago, I finished my second novel. I meant to do a post-mortem on it right away, but finishing draft five feels no different than finishing draft four or three. It’s just by draft five I’m so sick of my stupid self that I can’t take another look without wanting to gouge my own fucking eyes out.

I guess it’s also better than drafts three and four, but eh.

The last two months have been awash in sending my query package to agents along with sample pages. So far I’ve had one bite and 13 official rejections, which is a nice ratio all things considered. It’s hard to really feel positive though; the one maybe cannot outshine 13 no’s.

It’s also worth noting that about four days ago I rewrote the first paragraph again. An editor’s job is never done and an author will forever hate his books regardless of how many times he or she looks at them.

I’m pretty sure if you LIKE what you’ve written, you’re doing it wrong. Stop being so positive. It hurts me on a philosophical level.

At any rate, come Sunday I’ll get up early, fire on my PC, toss on some heavy metal, and then go through another few pages of a literary agent database and send my stuff out. Next week will be a trickle of, “go away please” whenever as I check my email when I get home from work. Rinse, lather, repeat until a year has passed.

Fun fact: This whole endeavor causes me to grind my teeth at night. I try to overcome stress with a constant stream of self doubt and loathing, but I just can’t shake the little hope I have every time I check my email when I get home. With that hope comes dread, and that usually wins.

Why the fuck do we do this, guys? Good god. It’s insane.

Failure isn’t just a possibility; it’s an inevitability. The odds of getting picked up by an agent who can then sell my fucking book are so terrible that the only thing keeping me going is blind stubbornness. Well, that and spite. There are worse reasons to do something stupid.

Because at this point, hope can fuck right off. I’m sick of that scrawny little bastard.

However, despite the above vomit of negativity, I’m feeling pretty alright. See, I’ve had this novel idea kicking around since 2012, and as of two days ago, it’s starting to yell at me again. It’s very persuasive.

Back when I had the idea, I never thought I could write a novel. I was too inexperienced and needed to cut my teeth on short stories first, which I never got around to writing because I was a lazy asshole. It wasn’t until…what, 2014? that I wrote my first book because the idea would not stop yelling at me until I tried.

Two novels later and now I know the game…well, somewhat. I know that it’s fun if I do it right and that first drafts suck. I know that it’s at its best when I give myself permission to fail.

I did not do this for my second book. That was a big mistake.

I just got done penning myself a little note in a Word document. It reads thusly:

Just so you know, future self, it’s okay if this book is complete garbage. Honestly, it will be at first. That’s how this went the last two times, remember? So please, please, please don’t stress out about that shit and just have fun. This one needs to be fun. It’ll be the biggest shame in your writing life if this isn’t fun. Enjoy. Worry about quality later.

AND DO NOT OVERTHINK EVERYTHING WHILE YOU ARE AT WORK YOU STUPID CUNT OR YOU WILL RUIN EVERYTHING LIKE LAST TIME

I mean, it isn’t poetry or even good, but it’s important. It’s the difference between me approaching this thing with my head up my ass and me approaching this thing to have a good time and maybe tell a fun story.

It’s also the difference from me stressing out about quality if things aren’t going my way. It IS okay to just stop, to scrap a bad idea that isn’t working. I’m really, really bad at that because of that aforementioned stubbornness and spite, but hey, at least I know it’s an option this go around.

I don’t know if I’ll start this next book tomorrow or not. I want to, but I’m also drowning in projects and am not sure what will need to be cut from my life to work on this. However, sooner rather than later, I’ll pledge a hundred days of writing a day until I have a shiny new turd of a first draft. I’ll then spend a year polishing said turd.

Because that’s what writing means to me!

C.L. Roman Blog Tour: Practical Advice for the Beginning Novelist

FireCandidate2

I had the pleasure of running into C.L. Roman recently, and she’s just about to release her next novel in the Witch of Forsythe High series, Fire Candidate, which can be preordered here. It releases March 24th. As a novelist, she has some advice for those about to take up the craft, and I thought ya’ll might enjoy it (I know I did).

But before we begin, here’s a brief blurb about her upcoming novel.

Most girls don’t set their birthday party on fire, no matter how rebellious they feel. But Lila Stuart isn’t most girls, and she never has been. Now her brand of strange is attracting a very bad crowd. She and her family must relocate, leaving everything she knows behind.
Tracked to her new home by a predatory demi-god, Lila is sold to a human trafficking cartel that specializes in people like her, first generation angel-human hybrids with powers that could make them heroes or deadly villains.

When the cartel threatens her family, Lila must choose: serve as an assassin or live as a slave. Will she find a way out, or is the cost of fighting back just too high?

The second installment in The Witch of Forsythe High series is a fast paced fire-storm about the choices life requires of us and the consequences they bring in their wake

“How do you come up with all that cool stuff in your novels? Your characters and settings are awesome. When I’m reading your novel, it feels like I’m right there. And your villains…” (shudders delicately) “…super evil.”

This is a portion of the fantasy conversation I’d love to have with a reader someday. It ends with the fan asking for my autograph and assuring me that I deserve a Pulitzer. For writing fantasy genre fiction. Hey, if you’re going to dream, go big or go home, I always say.

My fantasy also includes a secluded writing spot; four clean, white walls and a huge bay window through which I can see little forest creatures cavorting on a wide, green lawn ringed by ancient redwoods. No phone, TV, or (gasp) Facebook. Best of all – hours upon hours of uninterrupted writing time.

But the operative word here is “fantasy.” These are rare scenarios, unless, of course, you are Dean Koontz or Nora Roberts. (Seriously, have you seen their houses?) For many authors, the writing life looks more like this:

Get up at five a.m., go to your day job. Work all day, constantly distracted by story ideas, terrified that they will escape before you can capture them. You steal the odd moment and write on whatever is handy: file folders, notepads, the desk calendar, napkins. Frustration sets in because you end up accidentally filing, covering, losing or throwing the notes away. You consider getting a notes app on your phone, but you worry that your boss will accuse you of making personal calls on company time.

The work day is over; you hurry home. Ideas are still buzzing between your ears as you maneuver through traffic. You arrive home and the kids/spouse/pets need your attention, so you feed and brush everyone and then, finally, the house is quiet and you hurry to your writing space and….your mind goes blank. You fear you’ve used all your creativity just to get through the day. But you power through. You pull out the crumpled napkin, power-gulp an energy drink and you write. Sometime around four a.m. you stumble into bed where your spouse gives you a sleepy side-eye but you are too tired to notice. You fall into the bed, already unconscious. The alarm goes off at five. Time to start over.

Alternately, you save your writing energy for the weekend and your spouse complains that they never see you, because you spend Saturdays and Sundays behind a closed door with this sign on it:

The writing life is challenging whether you work a day job or not. Business, family and writing all pull you in opposing directions. Plus, you have to sleep sometime. But for authors, giving up isn’t an option. Not writing causes mental and emotional agita. So you steal the moments and write the words that torment you until you put them on paper. It isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. So do it.

That’s my best advice. Create the space in your life for the passionate art of writing well. Surround yourself with like-minded people who support your efforts and dreams. Explain to your significant other how important writing is. Ask for their support. Be courageous enough to say, “no,” in order to guard your writing time. And write. Every chance you get, consistently, creatively, bravely. Write.

And of course one last friendly reminder that C.L. Roman’s newest novel can be preordered here

A Complete Guide to Finding a Literary Agent

I finished my first novel January 27, 2015. I know this because it’s 27 chapters long and I edited a chapter a day until it was complete, not because it was a huge event or anything, though it totally was. First book, guys! Once finished, I took a short break, and in March of 2015, I set out to try and hit that next big step all writers want: representation

I uh, didn’t get it.

However, I did spend almost an entire year aiming for publication, in both seeking out an agent and sending my manuscript to publishing houses (jury is still out on those since they take so darn long to get back to you), and it might be helpful to others to detail some of that information here. The internet is filled with tons of resources on this, but I’m not sure all of them are what I’d like to call complete.

So hey, welcome!

My goal with this post is to offer a comprehensive guide on agenting, what you’ll need, where to start, etc. I’ll also be waxing poetic about feelings and other nonsense because this is my blog. Sorry.

But first, let me [try to] establish some credibility. I sent out my query letter/cover letter to around 150 agents. That’s a lot. Of that many, only three of them asked for my complete manuscript. That’s not a lot. Now, depending on who you ask, that’s either really good (some agents will respond to 1/100 unsolicited queries) or really poor (other agents will respond to 10/100 unsolicited queries). In my case, The Ninth Life is an epic fantasy novel and a very long one at that.

As a brand new author, long novels are risky, and one no one was willing to take. I know this because a few agents told me this outright in ways that can only be described as rude.

Of the three agents that read my manuscript, none of them had any negatives to say on it, and one of them even said it was darn well written! It just wasn’t quite the fantasy affair any of them were looking for. They kindly wished me well on my endeavors.

I think I did alright, on the whole. Yeah, I got nothing, but it was a big shot in the dark. It always is though. There’s your first lesson.

So now with that out of the way, let’s begin.

Getting Started

Before you start hawking your manuscript to agents, you’ll want the following:

  1. A finished, well-edited manuscript
  2. A query letter
  3. A cover letter
  4. A three-page plot summary of your story
  5. A one-page plot summary of your story
  6. A first set of pages ready for copy/pasting
  7. A database or two (or three) of agents
  8. A spreadsheet to keep track of who/where you sent your queries to
  9. A bunch of envelopes, some self-addressed
  10. A few miscellaneous things that we’ll get to later

A Finished, Well-Edited Manuscript

Okay, so this one is pretty obvious, or at least should be. You can’t just finish the first draft of your book and assume it’s ready to be sent out to the world. However, as someone who reviews books on this blog and for WeTheNerdy.com, I get too many requests to read poorly edited, poorly written fiction that’s clearly only seen one pass through.

Common sense ain’t very common, as the saying goes.

“Finished” is relative to each author. I went through The Ninth Life five times before I was sick of looking at it, which is my barometer for, “It’s done!” You might need more drafting, or you might need less. Odds are you’ll need less because five drafts feels like a lot. It takes me a month to go through a draft, so I spent five months editing my damn book.

I can’t get those months back, people.

My quick-and-dirty editing tips are: When finished with a draft, immediately reread chapters one through three again to make sure they are stylistically in line with the rest of your novel; control + F every curse word to see which ones are really needed; control + F “ly” to find every adverbial to see which ones are really needed; control + F every semicolon to see which ones are really needed, and if you’ve noticed any other words you tend to crutch on, search them up to.

Stephanie Meyer likes the word, “chagrin.” I know this because I’ve read her books and lost count of how many times that one popped up. It isn’t even a common word!

Don’t do this.

But really, it is all up to you. Editing is a slippery, crazy ride with no right way about it. I just hope you find a way to have fun with it, because damn I do not.

 

A Query Letter

The query letter is the primary way you’ll be interacting with agents. It’s a brief blurb about your book, a brief blurb about you as an author, and ultimately, a brief blurb that tells an agent how well you can write and how well you prioritize your novel.

It’s a complete and utter pain in the ass to write, and if you do it wrong, you’ll get nowhere.

Before you begin your query letter, you absolutely must read through QueryShark to get a big sense of what to do and what not to do. It’s an invaluable resource. However, because this is my blog, you also get my query letter as an example:

Dear [Agent]

Animals are migrating north, slaves are turning against their masters, the devout are desecrating temples, and the moon is missing from the sky. The world is changing, but for one cat cursed with nine lives, none of that matters.

It’s hard to care about the living world when the door to escape the afterlife is almost closed.

Kitgazka has lived and died eight times, and every death has ended the same: a dark forest, monsters made of fire, and a small door, shining far off in the distance. Hell is a real place, and once the door closes for good, it will last forever.

So for the last 500 years, Kitgazka has roamed the world, hoping to find the place where life and the afterlife meet, but still the door remains hidden. Now on his last life, desperation sees him once again turn south, to a desert wasteland filled with bad memories, cannibalistic lizards, and an army of walking corpses. What’s beyond the desert, no one knows, but it’s the only place Kitgazka has not been.

Accompanied by a naïve gerbil who wants to be a knight and his terrible squire, Kitgazka finally feels answers within reach. This time will be different. It has to be. Failure means an eternity of suffering.

Little does Kitgazka know that he’s walking into a warzone, and the answers he’s craved for the last 500 years are more terrible than he ever imagined.

THE NINTH LIFE is 132,100 word heroic fantasy novel with touches of high fantasy near the end. It’s an amalgamation of everything I love about the genre with direct inspiration from Brian Jacque’s Redwall series, which was my first foray into fantasy so many years ago. It’s my first novel

[What’s included with this email] A completed manuscript is available upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

[Signature]

The above ~350 words took me six hours to write and more drafts than I care to remember. I think it’s darn good though.

I had the pleasure of accidentally running into a young lady we’ll call Monica who interned at a literary agency. We got to talking about books and writing, and when it came time to write my query letter, I of course implored her to help me.

She did!

Her advice was basically: focus on plot, characters, and be as clear as possible. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. This is writing though, so nothing ever is.

Your goal is to keep your query letter to one page in length. I’d also try and keep it under 500 words. Thick paragraphs are scary, and if you’re cramming your letter with giant walls of text, that might drive some away.

Monica also suggests keeping your bio/publishing credits to the bottom. Start strong with your novel, get an agent interested, and then disappoint them with yourself. If you start them off sad, you’re just fighting an uphill battle.

When it comes to an actual author bio, some agents really want one while others don’t ever mention it. This query letter doesn’t have one because I have little bio to tell, but for those that wanted one, I’d vomit a quick little paragraph about my degree in English, my attempts at starting a video game company, and my general hatred for free time. If you have publishing credits from short stories, novellas, or poetry, then you’ll want a full bio.

If your publishing credits are all nonfiction and you’re peddling fiction, I’d consider not making a big deal of that since those are very different markets and styles of writing.

Now, let’s talk about what I have in brackets. As you send your query package out, agents will ask for different things, and these are what you’ll be changing.

Starting at the top with the greeting, I always used Mr. or Mrs. and then the agent’s last name because if I’m not sure what is or isn’t appropriate, I default to formal. For the second set of brackets, each agent is different, meaning each will want something different from you as a package. If you’re only giving the agent a page, then say, “attached is the first page of my novel;” if you’re giving an agent six chapters, then you change that to, “attached are the first six chapters of my novel.”

It’s not rocket science, but once again, it needs to be perfect and exact or you’re going to look careless. If you’re careless in your query letter, you’re careless in your novel. That’s bad.

 

A Cover Letter

For those few agents who don’t want a query letter, you’ll be sending a cover letter. It really serves the same purpose as a query letter, though it’s shorter and more formal. I saw one agent write something along the lines of, “A query letter shows me you know how to write a query letter; a cover letter shows me you know how to write a novel.” I personally think that’s bunk, but we do what we can to appease the agent gods.

For your cover letter, keep it short and businesslike, and absolutely to the point. Once again, since this is my blog, you get to read mine!

[Signature]

[Agency Address]

Dear [Agent]

THE NINTH LIFE is about a cat desperately trying to find out why he has nine lives and what will happen once he dies for good. It should appeal to fans of large-scale fantasy adventures, where characters travel across strange worlds to complete important quests. It measures 131,000 words.

While the world changes around him, Kitgazka continues his search for the Door that separates the living world from Hell. He has lived and died eight times, and his ninth life will be his last. Then the Door will close for good. Desperate and afraid, Kitgazka plans on crossing Snaetar, a large desert filled with cannibals and walking corpses. Accompanied by a naive gerbil and his terrible squire, the trio plan to wade through a warzone in search of answers, but the answers will prove to be more terrible and catastrophic than they could have ever imagined.

I have enclosed a [what you’ve enclosed]. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

You’ll notice that this one reads like a business letter. It’s only three paragraphs long, the publishing/bio information is at the top, and I’ve condensed my entire plot summary into one paragraph in the middle. The first paragraph acts as an intro and a poor attempt at marketing. You aren’t selling a story with a cover letter; you’re selling a book, and that means you should know your audience and the kinds of novels within your genre. If you have other publishing information, I’d stick it up top as well.

Honestly though, my reasoning for this format is simply that I saw someone else do it and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I wish I had something better to offer you than that. Sorry.

And if I’m truly being honest, I do think my cover letter is somewhat weak. It’s not terrible, but it could be better. It did get me past the gatekeeper at Penguin though, if that counts for anything!

As with the query letter, change the things in brackets as needed. I’ve noticed that most people who want cover letters work at publishing houses, and they usually want your query package physically mailed to them. Screwing this up not only burns a bridge, it also wastes time, paper, and money.

It will also make you feel like a complete idiot.

 

A Three-Page Plot Summary

No one ever told me I’d need to condense my novel down into three pages. I spent something like eight months writing, editing, and perfecting (ha, as if) it at 430 pages, and now I have to break it down into three? Are you kidding me? That’s rude, and impossible, and a third thing that makes me sound angry and petty!

Honestly, it isn’t that bad. I mean, you should fret a bit because it’s still somewhat bad, but not impossible, and there’s a sort of puzzle aspect to it that’s kind of fun. As always, starting is the hardest part.

It should be said that in this case, three pages equals three double-spaced pages in your standard format (one inch margins, 12 point, Times New Roman font). I know, I had hoped for single-spaced pages too.

Books are big and filled with details, and while I love me a beefy, image-heavy paragraph, those have no place here. Instead, focus on major plot points and character arcs only, and if you have a ton of characters, focus on the three main ones. You won’t have room to fit any others in.

I won’t share my entire plot summary since I’m not going to give my novel away, but I’ll post the first paragraph:

After winning a royal melee, a desperate calico cat named KITGAZKA requests voyage to Snaetar as his prize. He doesn’t want to return to the large desert, but he’s been everywhere but the far, far south on his search for the Door. This is his last life and his last chance to find it. However, when he’s asked to kill a gerbil named TAZ, he refuses, believing the lost creature might be of use. This act of defiance causes the strangely violent crowd to burst into a riot, and the two combatants are forced to run for their lives. They eventually flee the city with the help of a runaway slave.

So, what I’ve done here is introduce my main protagonist and his backstory/quest alongside my second main character, though his backstory/quest are detailed in paragraph two. For The Ninth Life, this paragraph is the first chapter of the book. I felt like I needed to get everything about Kitgazka out in the open right away before I continued, though of course the information is better paced in the book.

This will become a challenge for you as you go. Your revelations and backstory are of course well-presented in your novel and given proper context. Somewhere in the latter half of my novel, Kitgazka sits with a ghost and learns every secret he’s been searching for. The chapter is a hair exposition heavy, but tonally it’s great, mixing dream logic with magic. I’m a big fan of it.

In my plot summary, I had to cut everything but the revelation. It comes off as a bit stupid and nonsensical; talking ghosts? Come on!

However, I do think that’s the norm here. There’s no other way around it because three pages just isn’t very many. What you can do to mitigate this sting is focus on your sentence structure and variety. You’re stuck with machine-gunning the details of your book, but you aren’t stuck with simple sentences or the same drab sentences over and over.

The content might feel rushed, but the summary itself shouldn’t read that way.

 

A One-Page Plot Summary

Oh come on! I spend all this time forcing my amazing (ha, as if) fantasy epic into three stupid pages, and now you want me to shove it into one? How. Dare. You!

Okay, so the bad news is you need to start from square one. Taking your three-page plot summary and cutting doesn’t really work—or it didn’t for me—but the good news is, this isn’t that hard to write. You’re stuck with one page yes, but that’s almost more freeing in a strange way. There’s no fleshing out here, just your main character and his story.

Also, it should be noted that my one-page summary is single spaced. It’s possible that’s a faux paw, but I did enough Googling to not give me a concrete answer on how big this should really be.

Plus, The Ninth Life won’t fit into a half-page, single spaced entity. I can’t do it.

Like my three-page summary, I’ll share the first paragraph of my one-pager:

After winning a royal melee, a desperate calico cat named KITGAZKA requests voyage to the desert in search of a mysterious Door. When he refuses to kill a mystery fighter named TAZ, a lost gerbil from the desert, he causes a city-wide riot, and the two are forced to flee. Once safe, they talk about the strange changes and rumors going on in the world. Something bad is about to happen, and shadow cats are at the center of it all. As they lay down for bed, they notice that the moon is missing from the sky.

So, the difference is pretty big: I cut out Kit’s major reason for questing here. It’s now located in a different paragraph where I found it fit better. Plus, my query letter and cover letter contain enough of Kit’s motive for that to suffice. In all honesty, I maybe didn’t even need to start off with it in my three-page summary, but what’s done is done and it reads better with it than without.

Plus, it’s more dramatic.

When you start your one-page plot summary, you’re basically going to have to either focus on character or plot. For my book, I went with plot. I did this because The Ninth Life is a fantasy epic, and most people who read fantasy epics are looking for plot reads first. We all want great characters yes, but a fantasy story can get by on a fun magic system and a crazy world with crazy locations.

In reading up on how to write these, one rule I came across was to hit your “point of no return” right away, at the end of the first paragraph. One example used was Star Wars: A New Hope. Luke’s point of no return is the death of his parents and him fleeing Tattooine with Han and Obi-Wan.

It’s good advice, I think, but it doesn’t really apply to The Ninth Life. Kit’s major point of no return occurs a few chapters in, when he and his companions board a ship to the desert, and I had to spend some time to get there. It really gives this summary a more rushed feel than I’d like.

My personal advice is to play around with this as much as you can. Draft a few versions of it, and above all else, make it readable. The content will be rushed and choppy because you’re fitting a big work of art into a small space, but it doesn’t need to read that way.

 

A First Set of Pages Ready for Copy/Pasting

All agents are different, which I suppose is cool in theory but in practice it’s annoying. You won’t know what one will want until you do some reading. I’d like to tell you that all want sample pages of your novel, but even that isn’t true. Some just want a query letter or a cover letter. If they like your premise, they’ll ask for more.

Those ones never asked me for more, by the way.

However, most agents do want a sample, and to make your life easier, it’s best to create separate documents you can easily copy and paste from. Early on in my agenting quest, I’d just open my final version of The Ninth Life and take what was asked for, but that got to be annoying. It’s a big book and three chapters worth of pages equals a lot of scrolling.

There is a better way!

I’d advice three separate documents, though you can go four if you want. The first should contain your first ten pages, the second your first chapter, the third your first fifty pages, and the fourth your first three chapters. If there’s overlap there, then hey, good for you! That’s one less document on your computer’s hard drive.

Some agents will ask for different page amounts, but on the whole, the above four where what I ran into most often. I’ve seen everything from one page, to four pages, to five pages, to 10,000 words, to the whole darn novel itself! At least it’s never a dull moment.

Whatever the case, never attach your sample pages to an email unless specified to do so. Not every agent is specific about this, but given how easy it is to disguise a malicious file, it’s best to err with caution. Unless told to, copy/paste your sample chapters into the body of your email.

I asked Monica what an agent is looking for in the first five or ten pages. That’s not a lot—for The Ninth Life, that’s only half of chapter one—and she gave me a pretty great answer that I’ll paraphrase for you:

An agent can tell a lot by the first few pages of your book. How do you handle imagery? How do you handle exposition? How do you handle dialogue? How do you handle simple grammar? What’s your main character like? What’s the ratio between dialogue and action/exposition?

All of that can be gleamed from a small sample of pages. If that feels unfair because your book only starts to get good at page 11, then you need to chop out the first ten pages. It should be good from page one.

Monica also mentioned something many novice authors do: They put too much information too early on in the book. There’s a fear that you won’t be understood, that you have to justify your world and characters, and the knee-jerk reaction is to place an entire history lesson in the first ten pages. The problem is, your book won’t read like a book but like an encyclopedia. Agents don’t want that (and neither does the public, I’d wager).

This all goes back to editing and writing, but examine the first ten pages of your novel and go through those above questions. How do you handle the various aspects of writing, and how much information is frontloaded in your novel? If it’s too much, you might want to scale it back.

 

A Database or Two (or Three) of Agents

So, you have your well-written and well-edited query package ready to go. You’re happy (you stupid, naive fool!), and ready to find some agents. You open up Google and realize you don’t know where to look because no one told you where to start.

Well darn.

My quest for an agent ran me through three databases, and because the purpose of this blog post is information, I’m going to talk about all three right now. This is where you start.

The Writer’s Market is our first stop. It’s a paid service that costs $6.00 a month and will give you a very nice, very easy-to-customize list of agents and publishing houses. There are check boxes all over the place, and all you need to do is click the ones that apply to your book. The database will sort the rest.

Paying for this might sound kind of annoying at first, but the quality is worth it. Every agent I sent my query package to was certified in some way or another, and none would ever dream of sending me to a vanity publisher. Yes, this happens on occasion. No, it’s not cool.

Agent Query is our second stop. It’s a free database and much bigger than Writer’s Market, though its search options are a little less refined. There are some, but you’ll be doing a bit more sifting as you go along.

I really, really like this database and actually got two of my three bites from it. The only reason I’m listing it second is you should get the paid one out of the way first, since there will be overlap.

Predators and Editors is our third stop, and not a very fun one. There are no search options here, just lists of names in alphabetical order. It’s daunting to look at, and half the agents listed have some red warning about why you should avoid them.

By the time I landed on P&E, I was so sick of this process that anyone not recommended I just outright avoided on the spot. It cut down a lot of options sure, but there’s no point in sending your manuscript to an agent whose been accused of working with a vanity publisher or making you hire his friend to edit your novel. That’s bad.

When it comes to sifting through these databases, take it slow. Don’t burn through one in a weekend. Send out a few letters at a time, ten or fifteen, and let it all breathe. It’s possible you’ll get some responses that you’ll want to take into account for later emails, for example. I never had an agent point out a typo, but the Internet says it’s been known to happen.

Plus, you don’t want to wake up one day with fifty rejection letters in your inbox. That’s just sad to look at.

So you know, let ‘em flow in slowly so you can be only a little sad for a year!

And hell, while we’re here, let’s talk agent websites. You’ll be visiting a lot of them on this journey of yours, and you should be prepared for one, enormous fact: Most agent websites are trash.

There are two types of website you’ll find. The first are small and were clearly made a long time ago. They have little information on them—I’ve found a handful that were just a cover page with a physical address and nothing else—and their color scheme or layout will probably hurt your eyes.

The good news is they are more-or-less easy to navigate. A small website only has a few pages to click around on.

The second kind are the opposite. Big and sprawling with more gimmicks than any one website should have, you’ll be stuck here for awhile. Agent information might be spread over multiple pages, bios might be a thousand or so words—and not always with any useful information—, and the “Submission” link might be buried in some strange corner for no conceivable reason.

When I first started looking for agents, I felt compelled to read as much as I could about them and their organization. By day three, I didn’t give a damn about anything more than if they would take my brand of fantasy. My first stop was always the submission guidelines to see what they wanted, be it a query letter with a few pages or maybe just a cover letter and a plot summary, and then to the agent list themselves. From there, I’d skim until I saw the words I was looking for, “Genre fiction” or “Fantasy.”

Because here’s the thing: You don’t want to waste an agent’s time. Ever. Sure their websites might waste yours, but as a writer, you already know that the world is cruel.

I was very respectful of what an agent wanted when I first started this hunt. If I didn’t see, “Fantasy” listed anywhere, I wouldn’t send my query package. It’s not a genre for everyone. By the end though, I was growing desperate, and that meant if an agent didn’t specify not wanting fantasy or magic, he or she got my query package!

No matter how you tackle this, just be respectful. If an agent says, “I don’t want mystery,” and you have a mystery novel, don’t send them your query package. You’re only wasting time. If that agent makes no mention of mystery though…well, it’s probably fair game. Look at what else he or she might be interested in and use your best judgment.

 

A Spreadsheet to Keep Track of Who/Where You Sent Your Queries To

This might not seem like rocket science—it isn’t—but one of the big mistakes I made in hawking The Ninth Life was not keeping very good records of where I sent the darn thing. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but as it turns out, adding every agent you email to your contact list becomes annoying.

Just, don’t do that. It’s really obvious, but yeah. Don’t do that.

Thankfully, spreadsheets are easy to make. Open up Excel or some program similar, and make the following columns:

Agency Name | Agent Name | Date Sent | Date Rejected | Multiple Submissions (Y/N) | Website URL

When it comes to multiple submissions, most agencies will tell you that a rejection from one agent is a rejection from all of them. Case closed. Some, however, are more than happy to allow you to keep trying. It’s nice to keep track of that information so you don’t write off a series of agents based on one denial.

And hell, I suppose now is a good time to talk about rejection, since that’s the point of this spreadsheet.

It sucks.

The good news is you’ll get used to it, and the bad news is you’ll be getting a lot of it. Most agents reject through simple silence, their websites saying something akin to, “If you haven’t heard back from me in two to four weeks, consider that a pass.” Others will send automated emails, the contents of which boil down to, “I have thoroughly reviewed your query package and am afraid it isn’t for me. Publishing is a subjective business, so while your book doesn’t fit my needs, another agent might fall in love with it. I wish you well on your publishing adventures.”

I wish all agents set up an automated response like the above. It’s a bit more work on their end, sure, but it’s courteous. There’s just something a little childish about the silent treatment, I think.

There are a few agents who will give you a personalized rejection, though they normally follow the format of an automated response. The few that didn’t for me either praised my writing abilities or were just flat out rude.

You will remember all of the rude ones.

Don’t ever respond to a rude rejection. I wanted to, even typed up a scathing email to one bastard, but I made myself delete it. This is a business, and that means you want to look professional. Calling someone a fucking cunt defeats that purpose. No one wins when you do that; you only burn a bridge.

(But that dude was a total fucking cunt.)

You should also take to heart the message that this is all a very, very subjective thing. Agents don’t want to represent books they hate, even if the market for them is good. I wrote a big fantasy novel with talking animals, and talking animals aren’t for everyone. I imagine that got me booted out the door right away by more than a few people I sent my query package to.

That being said, being marketable helps. There’s a reason my second novel is a young adult thing. It’s what’s selling now; it’s what’s hip with the cool kids! I’d say 90% of agent profiles I looked at want young adult material in some capacity, even if it didn’t seem to fit their personality.

So I guess my big advice is to sell out with your next book!

 

A Bunch of Envelopes, Some Self-Addressed

We live in a world where emails, text messages, and Skype calls make up most of our communication, so if you’re like me, you might find it surprising that a lot of agents and many more publishing houses will want a physical query letter mailed to them.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

You know what’s easy? Attaching a file and clicking send. You know what costs upwards of $30? Printing off my whole damn book and sending it to a publisher.

The good news here is you can claim Media Mail and get a discount if you’re sending your whole book. Or maybe even a few chapters. I’m honestly not all that clear on how this works, but if I mentioned it at my local post office, the price went down no questions asked.

Whenever you send something by mail to an agent or publisher, you’ll need two envelopes. The first goes to them, and the second returns to you with a response. The second goes inside the first, if that isn’t clear. It also needs its own stamp. The response will always be a rejection because if an agent wants your book, they’ll call you. Or email you.

Probably. I’m speaking from what I assume is common sense, but as we’ve established, common sense isn’t common.

I’ll assume you all know how to send a letter, so let’s skip that and talk about hand writing. If yours sucks (mine does), then be extra careful to make sure everything looks neat and nice. I don’t honestly know if a query package will be thrown in the trash because your handwriting looks like alien scribbles, but we live in a world were presentation matters.

It’s why ties exist.

(It must be noted that ties are the dumbest thing ever and so is dressing in formal attire.)

And don’t misspell anything either! I had to throw an envelope or two away because my hands are dumb and forget letters.

 

A Few Miscellaneous Things that We’ll get to Later (or Now)

These last few words of wisdom aren’t so much things you’ll need but things you’ll want to do or consider that didn’t fit in with my above subheadline formatting. Let’s start with something basic:

Set your email up so you can undo sent emails. I’m not entirely sure how you go about this with every client, but I know it’s possible and you should absolutely do it before you begin. Clicking “send” only to realize you forgot to change a name or edit your signature sucks. It also happens from time to time, and if you can click “Undo,” it’ll save you some sad feelings.

Plus, it’s just really convenient to have available.

I suppose the next thing to talk about is what you should do if you actually get a bite. Unless your package/novel are really, really bad, the odds are in your favor that out of a 100 agents, at least one will want to read what you’ve written.

It’s funny, because those emails are usually really, really informal. I recall one going, “Yeah sure, I’ll take a look. Send me the whole thing.” I don’t even remember him attaching a signature!

What you do is exactly what they ask for. My standard form is to mention my happiness, reiterate that what they’ve asked for is attached in the manor they want it, and to thank them for their time. I also make sure to include my original query letter so they know who I am.

Then you wait a long time for bad news.

If a long time has passed—generally six to eight weeks—and you haven’t heard back, it’s time to give the agent a little nudge. I had to do this once, and this is the email I sent:

Dear Mr. [Redacted]

I’m writing to check on the status of my manuscript The Ninth Life sent to you on 10-23-15. I understand you are very busy; I just wanted to make sure it arrived safely in your inbox. Thank you again for your interest in my work. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks,

[Redacted]

You probably don’t need to sound so stuffy, honestly, but I like defaulting to formal. It assures me that it wasn’t my shitty personality that got me the boot but the quality of my shitty writing.

So, this is all I have for you. This document is 13 lovely pages and over 6,000 words. I think I’ve covered everything, but if you find this and have questions or comments, let me know. There’s always room to expand and grow, and as an opinionated idiot, I’ll gladly keep talking if you ask me to.

Cheers and good luck in the publishing world everyone. I don’t really mean that because I’m a petty, emotionally stunted human being, but doesn’t it sound nice to read anyways?

Now where’s a beer. I need one.

 

 

 

A Christmas Conversation About Death

About a month ago I rerolled my ten-sided die and wound up with a new job at a machine shop. It’s…a strange fit. I’m technically in maintenance, though in reality I’m probably closer to accounting or I.T. because I certainly don’t know how to machine shop and have no business around power tools, let alone large-scale machinery. Watching press operators reach into closing 16-ton clamshell cutters makes me cringe. But I don’t do that. Instead, I accumulate stacks of paper while trying to get this company’s new software up and running within the next six months so 2016’s audit won’t be as scary as last year’s.

It’s a job.

The upside is my coworkers are all very nice, the kind of “manly men” who know how to fix anything that breaks save for computers or the human body. When they aren’t machine shopping at work, they’re putting cars together in their spare time between early outings of hunting and ice fishing. I as a book nerd who likes cartoons just a little too much for my age wind up nodding often as they talk about this and that and why the color pink shouldn’t be worn by anyone with a penis.

I’m wholly indifferent to the color pink myself, but that’s maybe not important.

What is important is that these blue-collar machine shoppers are, unsurprisingly, very religious. Call it a cliché or a trope, but the parking lot is 70% giant trucks with Scott Walker, NRA, and religious bumper stickers. I as an atheist-on-a-good-day and agnostic-on-a-bad-day (or vice versa depending on how you view the world) liberal can only shrug and nod along because battles must be picked with care.

But it has been awhile since I’ve been surrounded by religion, and given that winter has come (dun dun dun!) alongside the dark, cold depression that it brings on a yearly basis, the idea of death is now firmly on my mind.

I’d like to talk about it.

See, I get what I like to call “white people’s depression” during the winter. It’s never bad enough to get diagnosed, but it does a fine job of preying upon my insecurities and failures just the same. It makes me feel sad. Sometimes it makes me want to slip into a coma for a few months or, you know, drive into a river to see what might happen.

Always it makes me think about death, typically in the form of angsty poetry, which is kind of funny since I’m 26; I like to think I skipped the angst years in high school and am only now getting to them. Cue the Linkin Park please (I actually love that band so that’s not a joke. I’m listening to Hybrid Theory as I type this (shh, don’t tell anyone)).

Death as a concept is strange. Sometimes it terrifies me in ways that little else can, and other times it, well…I guess straight up fascinates me?

I am not a religious person, but like most people, I was raised with the idea of God looming over me, and like most people, I find that hard to shake. If I were to place my bets, however, I’d say there’s a 90% chance that death is simple nonexistence, a 1% chance that the Abraham religions are right, and a 9% chance that I’ll wind up being eaten by Azathoth.

Let’s run down that list in detail because why not?

Nonexistence is a hard concept to grasp because we as people spend our entire lives existing. We can’t remember not existing because that’s impossible. Yet it isn’t something I find all that scary, though I’ll give it props for hitting unsettling. Despite how damaged and strange my brain is, I’m quite attached to it. Blame the brain stem there. To think of nothing, of not existing, is to think of black or grey, but that doesn’t work because it’s still a thought.

However, I do have a frame of reference for nonexistence that I think works quite well.

The other day I got home from work and decided I wanted to take a nap. I love naps, though I’m honestly really bad at taking them. The best I usually do is lay down and doze a bit while my cats demand I feed or pet them, and on the whole, it’s mostly a waste of time. Yet that day my cat curled up on my chest and purred, and twenty minutes later I woke up feeling really confused and positive that I was late for work.

(The cat was nowhere to be found because he’s a rat bastard.)

And in that brief time I didn’t exist, and to me, that’s death. The phrase, “dirt nap” is less tongue-in-cheek and more literal. It isn’t so bad, not really. There’s no cold or pain or boredom or depression or anything! It’s just a blink frozen with your eyes shut.

Honestly, I believe this dirt nap to be the better of the three outcomes I listed earlier. It requires the least amount of work (none) and doesn’t involve me being tortured for eternity.

So let’s move on to the Abraham religions and Hell, because you can’t have one without the other. And yes, I’m going to focus on Hell because I’m quite positive I won’t get into Heaven. My ten-sided die isn’t quite that lucky, all things considered, and anyways, Heaven is never painted as a fun place to be. It’s boring at best and some strange, subtle torture at worst. You can’t be happy forever and not have any drawbacks; I’m sorry. God might be all powerful, but he isn’t that powerful.

Hell is an interesting place because Milton and Dante exist and have made it much more than the three religious texts bother with. As a white person from the Midwest, I grew up with Christianity and The Bible. I won’t comment on the book, but I will say that its depictions of Hell are few and far between. And hell (pun intended), Satan doesn’t even enter the place until after the end of the world in Revelations, so the fire-and-brimstone your preacher spews every Sunday means less than little.

I love Milton and Dante. They’re excellent poets. However, I’m less inclined to take anything they’ve written as literal, despite the influences they’ve had on religious thinking. There’s just no way Hell is filled with ironic torture or a megalomaniac of a ruler, though if it does possess a river or two, Styx and Archeron are damn fine names (even if both were pilfered from Greek mythology).

Instead, I look at Hell as a dark, bleak place, like a bar with a few too many burnt out light bulbs and a broken juke box. You can still order a drink and pick up a hooker, but it’s all meaningless. Satan is a slow bartender who doesn’t care and the hookers are…well, they’re hookers. They offer meaningless sex.

The place is depressing, but it isn’t overly hot or cold. It’s just a place, and you’re stuck there forever. The upside is there is bourbon, and any place with bourbon can’t be all bad. Though maybe the bourbon in Hell sucks; not every place can brew it as well as Kentucky.

Because when you look at Satan and God as their biblical characters, there’s no way they’re both still pissed off about whatever happened billions of years ago. At a certain point, you really do have to make a Hell out of Heaven or you’ll go insane, and it’s at that point that the place becomes a dark refuge for those not worthy of Heaven.

“Welcome to the Shitty Splatoon, how sinful are you?”

“I once ate a bowl of nails for breakfast…Without any milk.”

It won’t be pleasant (who wants to hang out with a guy who eats nails for breakfast?), but it’s also going to be filled with zany characters in possession of strange stories. I’m down for that.

I’ll admit that I’m only down for that because I’d rather not admit that the alternative is right. To create a place of torture that lasts forever is just damned unfair and not worth my time to think about, and if God really made such a place, then he’s more worthy of my contempt than worship.

So that leaves our third option: Good ol’ Azathoth! You know, I have a picture of him as my computer wallpaper at work? It’s delightfully creepy yet surprisingly enchanting too. I find myself staring at it sometimes, thinking about this and that and how the Macroverse is probably a real thing filled with monsters who dream us into existence.

(Sorry.)

“God works in mysterious ways” is a statement I’ve heard both ironically and unironically, yet it is a statement worth examining. Anything possessing the power to create the universe and sentient life really must work in mysterious ways, and there’s zero chance in hell it thinks like we do. “We cannot understand God” a religious leader says to handwave some tragedy or piece of science, and I nod because we cannot. The power it would take to create matter (damn you Newton and your laws of Thermodynamics!), let alone mold it into rationality is something my head cannot work with.

I’ve been outside at night and looked at the stars, and it has taken my breath away. You remember that blood moon we had a few months ago? I checked that out with a high-powered telescope and almost broke down at how amazing it was. It’s hard to think random chance will throw something so spectacular and pretty our way, but it happens. Our universe really is amazing in every definition of that word. It’s gorgeous and wonderful, and if there is a God out there, I can’t help but shudder and feel like he doesn’t think those same thoughts.

God, for all intents and purposes, is an alien, an Other who exists on his own timeline and who doesn’t care about us. At best we’re an experiment and at worst we’re his food.

Blame Stephen King or blame H.P. Lovecraft, but when I think of God and death these days, my thoughts turn to eldritch horrors first and Jesus second. What’s the under/over of a God that made us because he’s just so jam-packed with love that he’s bursting at the seams vs. a God who made us because he’s really hungry and likes feeling us kick and burn as we struggle inside his lower intestine?

I’d feel a bit better off if I knew how to play the flute, but I don’t.

I don’t know what happens after we die. No one does. Anyone that tells you they have any answer in this regard is 100% full of shit and should be avoided at all cost. We literally cannot know, and I suppose that’s okay.

It won’t stop the idea from keeping me up at night though. It won’t stop me from wondering what’s behind this reality, this pasteboard mask, and if that thing is nothing, love, or some horror that’ll drive me insane before the end.

At least if I’m insane, a life of being devoured won’t be so bad.

Is it fucked up that I paint nonexistence as the best of these options? Because I sure as shit don’t like the idea of reincarnation. Once around is enough, thank you very much (unless I can be a pirate in my next life. That would be rad). No, I’ll take the dirt nap. I understand that in some capacity, even if it’s minute and based on dreamless sleep.

I don’t trust the macro creatures that do dream.

On Editing My Second Novel

*Note: I did a post on writing my second novel, which can be found here. Also, this blog post is kind of a mess because it’s been a weekend. Hope ya’ll had a happy turkey day*

November was not a fun month. October saw a big decrease in my work hours because downsizing, and that lead to me getting a new job in November. The catch is that it’s temporary hours until they feel like I’ll be worth keeping. That’s because Wisconsin. I’ve been stressed out, I’ve been drinking more than normal, and overall, I’ve just been extra tired.

Strangely enough, it’s been the perfect month to edit. Working part time means having four extra hours in the day; though sadly enough, I’ve needed all four of those hours.

And that, friends, is my roundabout way of saying, “Editing The Grimoire Library was a bitch!”

It started on November second, actually. I wanted two full months of space between draft one and draft two, which was a red flag going in. I was chomping at the bit to edit The Ninth Life (my first novel) and really excited to return to Amp (a novella I wrote earlier in the year) when that time came around, but with this book, I really, really didn’t want to look at it. I was terrified it would be a nightmare mess, and in some respects, it really was.

My first rule of writing something big is this: The first draft always sucks.

It’s a rule because if the first draft didn’t suck, there wouldn’t be any editing. It’s a rule because I’m a flawed, stupid individual with his head too far up his ass. It’s a rule because it’s just really obvious, isn’t it?

I go into projects explicitly stating, “The first draft will suck,” yet always I come into the second draft disappointed and shocked at how much the first draft sucked. You’d think I’d be used to it, especially in this case where I knew it was a mess. I’ve always been one to procrastinate though, which means I didn’t really prepare over these last two months.

November 2nd! I opened up my rusty draft one document and remembered I forgot to add chapter breaks to this novel because originally it was supposed to be a novella. When the project changed from novella to novel, I felt some tickle of OCD kick in; the first half had no chapter breaks, so the second half won’t either! It could wait. Whoops. The rule of thumb with chapter breaks is, “Chapters are as long as they need to be” which is nice when you’re writing a chapter book but kind of a pain when you’re chunking a huge wall of text into something manageable.

I also decided I wanted to name all of the chapters, and in my typical stupid fashion, I went with a convention that wasn’t the easiest thing to work with and stuck with it for all 25 chapters. Silly me!

So the first day of editing was hard. I spent four hours going through 12 single-spaced pages over and over again trying to fix things to my liking. I rewrote the last three or so pages . I finished late at night and poured myself a stiff glass of whiskey while contemplating the futility of even finishing.

Melodramatic? Yes. But all good authors are alcoholics and while I’m not a good author, I can at least meet half of that criteria.

Day two went a bit better, as did days three and four. On the whole, after the first initial shock, I just got kind of used to what I had to do. Editing sessions were always long though, averaging about two and a half hours regardless of chapter length. I recall spending two hours rewriting one single-spaced page somewhere in the middle of the book because I just couldn’t make it work.

The thing about editing is I don’t like it. Well, that’s not entirely true; I do like taking a thing and making it better. Hell, if I could get a job as an editor, I’d grab it in a heartbeat. It’s fun. But editing your own big projects isn’t fun. It’s basically looking at yourself in the mirror and pointing out every flaw you have and then hoping you can fix all of those flaws.

I’m an insecure person when the door is closed and the windows are shut. I keep that from most people, but my writing abilities or lack thereof do keep me up at night.

(I suppose I’m lucky in that’s what gives me anxiety and not, say, credit card bills or you know, real problems.)

But I’m getting off track. Sorry. So back to editing: I did a lot of rewrites this go around, moreso than any other projects I’ve worked on save maybe The Regret of Vitrerran which kind of doesn’t count. Video game writing is way too different than novel writing—I consider writing for that game to be kind of a puzzle, which gives it a nice flavor and makes the headache of, “This sucks; how do I fix it?” much more bearable.

What I found in rewriting The Grimorie Library is that I hate the style I wrote it in. Well, that’s not entirely fair, but it’s close. It started off as a novella, so I was going with something a bit more minimalistic to fit everything into a tighter space. As it grew, I kept that style, and going back meant getting rid of that a bit. The writing was bland—and if I’m being honest, still kind of is.

This dumb little blog I keep is a big mess of book reviews and other things, and if there’s one thing I’ve kept consistent, it’s I don’t really care for young adult fiction. Some is okay, but on the whole, the prose is very “telly” with not enough show. It’s boring, or at least, not very engaging.

As bitter fucking irony would have it, that’s what I wrote!

What I found myself doing time and time again was taking big, chunky paragraphs, deleting them ,and writing shorter, descriptive scenes. I paired this book down by about 7,000 words, and I made it more engaging. Well, that’s the hope.

There are places with a lot of life in this book, but there are still too many that are lifeless. That needs to be fixed.

This leads me to my second rule of editing: Draft two sucks too.

I learned that rule the hard way, when I went into draft three of The Ninth Life. I was so sure I had made it perfect on the first sweep—because I’m an idiot—and realized that nope, it was still a mess. It took four rounds of editing to get that into a worthwhile reading package, and hell, it could still probably be trimmed here or there.

So draft two of The Grimoire Library is finished and still a mess. That’s maybe okay though because it’s supposed to be a mess. It’s at least better. I plan on shipping it off two a few people that I trust, and they’ll yell at me and tell me what to fix.

December is going to be a break, which is good because I’ll be getting more hours at the new job. January though, god damn that month is going to be rough.

Why Alien: Resurrection Isn’t a Bad Movie

I’ve had a long history with the Alien universe, starting when I was around five or six with the Kenner toys and a secret viewing of the second film that scared the hell out of me. It’s one of two things that I’ll dub myself a fanboy for, and I’ve managed to find the good in anything associated with it, including Aliens: Colonial Marines and the two Aliens vs Predator movies. The first two films are spectacular in pretty much every respect, but unlike some—or most as the Internet leads me to believe—I quite like the third and fourth installments as well. And, because it’s Halloween, I thought it might be a good time to re-watch Alien: Resurrection (the most despised of the four movies), and defend it.

Because guys, it’s not a bad movie.

I will, of course, fully admit that Alien: Resurrection isn’t a great movie. It’s…well, strange as hell, perhaps one of the strangest movies I own. I think that works in its favor though. The Alien universe has the pleasure of never repeating itself. The first movie is straight horror, the second is an action flick, the third is more of a thriller, and the fourth is a dark comedy. Of the four, Alien: Resurrection is the odd man out, because while the other movies had little elements of humor, the setting and universe don’t conclude themselves to comedy.

We’re looking at a monster that literally rapes its way into existence, and there’s nothing funny about that.

And really, Alien: Resurrection isn’t funny at all. It tries often, but it never succeeds. Yet in that failure, it becomes something really bizarre and interesting, and I find that to be its biggest strength. Watching Alien: Resurrection is like watching a fever dream, one that’s oddly coherent yet still filled with illogical dream logic. Everything makes sense, yet nothing makes sense at the same time.

alien4

The beginning sequences are unsettling, with Ripley’s clone being taken to an operation table so a queen alien can be removed from her chest. When that’s a success, the doctors decide to keep her alive as a social experiment of sorts. She knows nothing, yet memories from her past keep flashing back, memories she shouldn’t have. She also has a new set of attributes: acidic blood, heightened strength, and a high tolerance for pain.

The first half hour or so of Alien: Resurrection is just strange, though it’s less in the plot department (which I admit is ridiculous) but in the way everyone is acting. From the doctors to General Perez to Ellen Ripley herself, it’s like none of the people are real people but only pretending at it. The way everyone moves, talks, acts, etc is all just off. Ripley has an excuse for this; she’s a clone and relearning pretty much everything, but that winds up making her seem like the only normal person in the whole space installation.

This dream-like quality never leaves the movie, though the crew of The Betty seem to be outside of it at first. There’s a natural rhythm to them that everyone else lacks, and when they show up, they become this strange glimpse of normalcy in an otherwise illogical place. Yet as the movie progresses, even they become stuck in this dream world, one where Johnner (Ron Pearlman) makes bad jokes after seriously twisted scenes and Christie (Gary Dourdan) acts like he’s an unstoppable badass in an action movie.

Whatever movies The Betty’s crew thinks they are strolling into, it means little when the Xenomorphs break free and start killing everyone.

Alien: Resurrection isn’t really a scary movie. It’s unsettling throughout, but not because of the creatures themselves. At this point, it’s hard to find them scary. They’ve been in three other movies, numerous comic books, some regular books, and even video games. We’ve all seen, killed, and even played as them enough to find a comfort in their designs and lifecycle. Watching them slaughter everyone this go around is more fun than anything else, yet it’s the way everyone acts that makes the whole package seem unnerving—and no, it has nothing to do with the screams or terror.

For example, when a Xenomorph runs into an escape pod, General Perez throws a grenade in to kill it and everyone else. He then gives a salute that’s so earnest you start to wonder if he thinks himself in a different place or time, and then gets attacked. An alien bites out a chunk of his skull, but instead of flopping onto the ground and dying, he reaches back and pulls out a bit of his brain. He looks at it.

I imagine this sequence was supposed to be funny, yet I found it really creepy. Like I said, so many characters seem to be acting as if they’re in a different movie and just don’t know what to do, or worse, are stuck like marionettes on a string and are forced to participate in their own demise.

Alien-Resurrection-Dan-Hedaya's-expressive-face

Ripley is the only one who really gets it, but she’s also off her rocker the entire film. She also knows that the last time she dealt with the aliens, she wound up dead. It’s honestly kind of great, and Sigourney Weaver’s performance is wonderful. The way she moves, talks, and touches everyone is just so strange, and her new relationship with the Xenomorphs is also really fun.

As she says, “I’m the monster’s mother.”

One of the things I like most about Alien: Resurrection is how it works with the source material. Ripley’s quest has always been about motherhood in some way, and those tables are flipped on their head here. I wish the movie actually did more with this concept than just force her to kill her own children, but it’s still interesting and, like everything else, unsettling. There’s something a little tragic in the final, climactic battle when she kills the Newborn.

The plot too works with the source material. Every Alien movie (and most of the comics and games too) prior to this one has involved some human entity trying to capture and control the Xenomorphs, and we as viewers all know how that will end up. Alien: Resurrection finally gives us that story, and I find catharsis in it. To be sure, I think the idea is handled a bit better in the old Dark Horse comics, but it’s nice to see it on the big screen regardless. It’s nice to get to shout, “I told you so!”

Even bringing Ripley back from the grave works with the original source material. The theme throughout the series is that the aliens are inescapable. Ripley spends every movie running from them and only escapes through death. As it turns out, she can’t even escape them that way. She’s forced back into the realm of the living, and she’s brought all her old demons with her. This fact isn’t really talked about in the movie, yet it’s there, and I find it really important and really tragic too.

Some characters deserve rest, and Ripley is one of them. It’s a shame the universe won’t let her have that.

Those are the big nods, but there are little ones too. Ripley falls through the floor and is captured by the Xenomorphs like Newt was in Aliens, only now Ripley has to save herself since no one wants to go back for her. When everyone gets to The Betty and leaves, there’s still an alien on board, and like in Aliens it comes down to Ripley, an android, and the monster. The nice thing is, Call comes away mostly unharmed while Bishop didn’t. I’m sure there are more little references throughout too that I missed.

The last big part of Alien: Resurrection I want to talk about is the Newborn. I get that some hate the creature, but honestly, I love his design. Like I said earlier, after three other movies, a bunch of comic books, and even some video games, the Xenomorph isn’t scary. Alien: Resurrection needed to come up with something new, something seriously screwed up, and it did.

Newborn-attack-gediman

The Newborn hits the uncanny valley for me. It’s clearly a monster, yet there’s enough emotion in his face to make him seem more than the sum of his parts. He stumbles around like a child, and when he isn’t being a destructive monster, he even interacts with the world like a child. He croaks and chirps in a cute manor, but he also bites the heads off of deranged scientists. Also, his eyes and the human-skull face he has going on freak me out.

I admitted in the second paragraph of this write-up that Alien: Resurrection isn’t a great movie. It isn’t. Despite all the things I like about it, it’s still a crazy mess of bad pacing, has more tonal issues than an unturned bagpipe, and in general, tries to do a bit too much with itself. It wants everything, from horror to comedy to serious drama, to deep themes, and it just can’t have it all. I don’t think anything can, at least nothing confining itself to a two hour runtime.

But damn it all, I do like the flick. It isn’t a bad movie, and in fact, I think it’s quite good. It gets under my skin in ways that the other movies simply cannot, and you can chalk that up to an accident of poor acting or directing or whatever, but I certainly think it works.

I also think it’s a movie worth watching. Sometimes the strange films just need to be seen for the sake of seeing something strange.