Writers Wednesday War Room—Blog

The Writers War Room is dedicated to two pursuits. One is commentary on the experiences of thriller writing—what’s involved, what works and what doesn’t, and tips for improving your product and chances for success. 

Also, stay tuned to this page to follow developments involving Whelan, Larsen, Stensen, Kirkland, Thomas, Almeida…and Christie, Levell, Maksym, Federov and others in the Sleeping Dogs series. CAVEAT: I'm not a daily, or even weekly, blogger. Unless I believe I have something of interest to share, I don't spam my own blog site.

Literary Agents: Part Two

Literary agents are a principal avenue to becoming published in the traditional fashion—through a publishing house, as opposed to self-publishing. Last week I wrote about how to identify agents who may be receptive to your manuscript. I suggested using QueryTracker or a similar service to do this. Let’s assume you’ve compiled a list of agents that are receptive to submissions in your specific genre. In the interest of keeping that list manageable, you’ve also filtered it by location (USA, for example) and query method (such as email). You probably still have a very lengthy list.

My initial list had 239 agents on it. Some of them were closed to submission at the time. Many were with the same literary agencies, and agencies are clear that they don’t want more than one of their agents queried at the same time. As a result, I ended up with a list of 59 prospects. So, how many should I query at any one time? There are arguments against doing more than a few at a time. I don’t subscribe to that position. J.K. Rowling—yes, the Harry Potter lady—had over 250 rejections before a publisher took a chance on her. I take two lessons away from that experience: expect rejections; thus, query as many agents at a time as you can.

Alright, you have your list of agents. Now, you need a query letter, but agents get dozens to hundreds of them a day. As an unknown entity, the odds are against you, so you must have an attention-getting query letter. You can Google “query letters” and find immeasurable amounts of materials. After sorting through a lot of it I learned that the subject line of your email should start with “QUERY” followed by the title of your book (in caps) and the genre. You should be querying only agents who are looking for books in your genre. The subject line tells them you’re not trying to waste their time by pushing a book in a different genre. Consequently, they probably will move on the body of the letter.

Start by addressing them as “Dear (Mr./Ms.) Whoever:” Hold the content of the body to three SHORT paragraphs. In my query letter, the first paragraph identifies my protagonist, the peril he must overcome, why his success matters, and the challenges that stand in his way. The second paragraph states the number of words in the book, why people would want to read it, and identifies bestselling authors whose books are very similar to mine. The third and final paragraph is biographical. It mentions how many books I’ve written and published, what my sales numbers, reviews and ratings are, and that Lee Child was very complimentary about my latest novel (he was).

I signed off by thanking the agent for his or her time and consideration. Finally, I made sure to list my pen name, four earned degrees (also for biographical reasons), mailing address, phone number, email address, and website.

There is one more thing you need to know before you fire off that query. Go to each agent’s website and read what they require in addition to the query letter, if anything. Some want a SHORT (read, 1-page) synopsis, some want your first 5 or 10 pages. Some want the first 1, 2, or 3 chapters. Some want the first 25 or 50 pages. CAVEAT: whatever they ask for they will want it copied into the body of the query letter, NEVER attached. Agents have learned the hard way not to open attachments. They’ll simply delete your query letter—unread.

What About Literary Agents?

I don’t recall ever discussing the important topic of agents on these pages. I believe that’s because I have always favored self-publishing over the traditional method. That stems from an unfortunate experience with a senior vp at what was Harper & Row. He liked my first novel, The Quixotics. He asked me to make a single change—lose my protagonist and replace him with minor character, a dweeb. His reasoning was that my protagonist was an antihero, and readers didn’t like antiheroes. Apparently, he’d never heard of Jack Reacher.

Writers rarely get published traditionally without first securing representation by a literary agent. The problem, as Lee Child correctly articulates it, is that there are good agents and there are bad ones. Unfortunately, there’s no handy, reliable Google list to categorize them. Sure, you could Google “Literary Agents.” But little of what you’ll get is empirical information. It’s mostly self-serving and anecdotal. So, what’s an aspiring author to do? First compile a list of prospective agents. How?

Research Lots of it. Here are the main keys you’re looking for:

Information available on the Agency’s website:

  • Is the agent currently accepting queries or proposals?
  • Is the agent looking for books in your genre?
  • What does each specific agent ask for—Only a query letter? A synopsis too? How long is the synopsis to be? A sample too? How large is the sample to be? DON’T SEND ANYTHING NOT SPECIFICALLY ASKED FOR!
  • Your fiction book must be complete, double-spaced, edited
  • Your query letter must be masterful (more about that at another time)
  • Do not query two agents in the same agency at the same time.

You’ll also need information from sources other than the agent’s website, such as:

  • Does the agent respond to queries a high percentage of the time?
  • Does the agent actually respond (even negatively) to books in your genre?
  • Who are some of the clients represented by this agent? Any in your genre?
  • What percentage of the agent’s responses are positive (asked for more materials)?

Where can you  get this information? There probably are a number of sources, but I prefer QueryTracker (https://querytracker.net/). It offers a free version and a premium version for $25/year. I like the premium version—more useful goodies. With its filters, you can narrow your search down from thousands of agents to only those actively soliciting queries and looking for materials in your specific genre. While it provides answers to all of the above questions and more, you still should review your selected agent’s website. They may no longer be accepting queries. Or they may no longer be looking for books in your genre. It also helps you avoid sending queries to two or more agents in the same agency simultaneously. Most important, the agent’s website will tell you exactly what to send and how to send it.

NEXT: The perfect query letter.

Writers Wednesday War Room—Where do you start?

Do you ever worry that you don’t know your full novel—characters, storyline, subplots, POV, etc.—before beginning to write it? That’s not as big a problem as you might fear. Do you assume that all writers of consequence have a detailed out line of the novel prior to starting it? Not so. It’s commonly said that there are two approaches to writing a novel: plotters and pantsers. In simple terms, plotters are the writers that do the outlines first. Pantsers “fly by the seat of their pants.” They may or may not have a good plan for what the book will be about. There also is a hybrid—writers that have a general outline, maybe a page or two of bullet points, or a list of chapter concepts.

Some of the top bestselling writers, Lee Child among them, say that when they sit down to write their next book, they have no idea what it’s going to be about. Not even what the first chapter will be about. That may be an exaggeration, but there’s more than a grain of truth to it. Child says he approaches the book with the goal of crafting a really good first sentence then moves on to the next one. He says that about the time he approaches the middle of the book, he has written sufficient material that he knows what he has to start wrapping up in the second half of the book.

I sometimes use a system that approaches the hybrid style. In my current project, I have on several occasions in Part One used chapter prompts such as the following:

  • Where is Larsen?
  • Why is he there?
  • What’s driving/motivating him to be there and do that?
  • How does he intend to deal with the situation?
  • What events occur that force him to change those plans?
  • Who else becomes involved? Why?
  • How does it end for Larsen?
  • What’s the hook for the next chapter

To see how those prompts became a chapter, click on “Previews” above.

Writers Wednesday War room—Is There A Formula for Writing Books?

First, what happened to the weekly War Room posting? And today isn’t Wednesday?

What happened was a combination of things, principally Hurricane Irma. It scrambled a lot of schedules and routines for those of us who live in Southwest Florida. Although we’re still dealing with roof repair issues, I’m happy to be able to return to the War Room even if today is Friday, not Wednesday.

Is there such a thing as formulaic writing? Yes. Do many writers use it? YES. Wikipedia defines formula fiction as literature in which the storylines and plots have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable. But it’s been said countless times by countless “experts” that there are no new plots, only variations on a theme. Other observations hold that it is “a type of fiction where multiple books or fictional works share many common elements, to the point of being ultimately predictable.” Also, that “formula fiction is a fixed set of characters.” But I would argue that any sequential series, as opposed to books in a stand-alone series such as the Jack Reacher books, utilizes many of the same characters in each successive novel. 

Sequential series in many genres probably require a certain degree of formula writing. For example, my Sleeping Dogs series intentionally involves some formulaic elements. The novels are sequential and involve a number of recurring characters such as the Sleeping Dogs, Cliff Levell, and Mitch Christie. Because a new reader may not begin with the first book in the series, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, it’s necessary to introduce the characters in each book. I try to accomplish this in a different manner each time. Also, an explanation of why the Dogs are a bit different genetically from you and me is required.

And then there is that “rule of good fiction” that says a novel should be written in three acts—a beginning, a middle, and an end. That truly is formulaic. My first book, The Quixotics, was probably a 3-act novel although I didn’t realize it, but all the books thus far in the Sleeping Dogs series have been in four or five acts, underscoring my belief that most rules for writing are bullshit. Your foremost obligation is to entertain the reader, not follow “rules for MFAs,” most of whom will never write a successful novel.

In most genres, a certain amount of formulaic writing is all but impossible to avoid. The critical aspect is to avoid writing the same novel each time, just moving your characters to a different local. Your readers will quickly catch on to that and abandon you.

Next: How do you actually start writing a novel?

How Do You Write A Book?

Every writer of any consequence and many not-quite-there-yet writers have fielded questions over the years about their methodology for writing books. Most of them seem to say they get up early—4 a.m. - 5:30 a.m. on average—and begin writing. The majority of these writers say they work steadily until some point, such as so many words or pages or some specific time later in the day. The page count ranges from two to ten or more. The timeframe can be from three or four hours to the entire day. The word count ranges from several hundred to several thousand. Other writers, notably Lee Child, start writing around one in the afternoon and continue until they too have reached a word or page count or some general time limit.

So, what are we to take from this? That individual’s writing methodology differs across the boards. There is no set formula for writing a book. For one thing, some novels require considerably more research than others. Does research time count as writing time? I believe it does. Obviously, the more research time involved, the longer it takes to reach the end of the book. Also, some writers are more prolific than others—Brandon Sanderson comes to mind. Other writers, such as James Patterson, frequently co-write novels with other authors, so they may produce six or more books per year.

My writing preferences are to get up early and get my workout out of the way so I don’t end up skipping it later in the day. Then I try to get all of the non-writing tasks completed. Finally, around one or two in the afternoon, I start writing and continue until five or six o’clock. Because my ratio of research to writing is 4:1, it takes me longer to complete a novel than someone who eschews research. My goal is to write, on average, a minimum of 1,000 words per day. For example, in the past eight days, I’ve written 9,650 words in my next Sleeping Dogs novel. That’s an average of 1,200 wpd. I typically don’t write on the weekends because of other commitments. 

So, at an average of 6,000 words per week, it would take me about 17 weeks to finish the first draft of a 100,000-word book. Wouldn’t that be nice. Unfortunately, there are interferences and long hours of research plus editing (and re-re-re-editing), working with beta readers, rewriting, cover design, and a plethora of other requirements including, principally, marketing. That typically means I publish about one book per year. 

Incidentally, the 100,000-word example doesn’t mean all novels come in at that length. Established writers in certain genres often write much lengthier books. Other genres, such as Romance, come in at around 60,000 words. For new authors trying to attract an agent, you should try to keep it under 100,000 words. Apparently, publishers have a phobia about publishing newbies whose books exceed that threshold. 

Keeping It Real: Part 2

Series vs One-off?

What’s most beneficial for authors, a series or separate, unrelated novels? You probably would get a pretty even split of opinion on that question, depending on an individual writer’s preference. In my own case, I definitely prefer the series approach. My first novel, The Quixotics, was a one-off tale of intrigue, adventure, and suspense set in the Caribbean in 1970. I’ve followed that with four (and counting) novels in the Sleeping Dogs series, which focuses on current international intrigue and geopolitics. That statement definitely reveals my preference as a writer.

I’ve found that with a series I don’t have to create a whole new cast of characters with each book. I have come to know my characters very well, and enjoy the process of continuing to develop and expand their personas. Not to be overlooked is the fact that your readers become fascinated with and invested in your characters and want to know more about them, as well as experience them in new situations.

Also, a series allows for an overarching storyline that twists and turns through each novel. I try to end each one slightly enigmatically, leaving the readers in suspense and looking forward to the next book in the series. Subplots can be added to each separate book in order to keep my stories current and timely.

All in all, I’ve found that with a series, I grow more comfortable with the style of writing, the individual characters, and opportunities for future storylines.

Keeping It Real: Part 1

Today isn’t Wednesday but the Writer’s War Room is open. Today’s topic for writers in our struggle to find success as novelists is “Keeping It Real: Part 1.”

For a novel to find widespread acceptance, it has to appeal to a broad range of readers. This means, among other things, that the reader has to become invested in the story. There are many ways to capture and captivate the reader. Foremost, of course, is to write a compelling story with fascinating characters—good and bad. But there are many other elements too. Among them is the need to engage the five senses—taste, touch (or feel), smell, sight and hearing.

The visual arts have an advantage over the non-visual ones such as literature. A movie can show you the scene graphically and supply the elements of sight and hearing. A character’s visible reactions can convey information to the audience about the qualities of taste, smell, and touch. It’s becomes more challenging in the printed word.

Here’s the opening scene in the third paragraph of my novel Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening

“It was early morning, a few days into a new year, and cold. Whelan wore thin glove liners, partly to counter the chill and partly to avoid leaving fingerprints in the rented Jeep. A stranger in a strange land, particularly one under a death warrant, takes precautions. A soft rain, not much more than a heavy mist, blurred the landscape, creating halo effects around the streetlights. The only sounds were the hiss of the tires on the wet streets and the Grand Cherokee’s wipers wagging slowly across the windshield. The hypnotic rhythm didn't help his fatigued state. Even the odor of stale cigarette smoke from a previous user didn’t seem as annoying now.”

What are Whelan’s senses telling him? It’s cold. He’s wearing glove liners against the feel of the chill. He sees the mist blurring the landscape, creating halo effects around the streetlights. He hears the hiss of the tires on the wet streets and the car’s wipers sliding across the windshield. He smells the stale cigarette smoke from a previous driver of the rental car. In the paragraph that follows, he touches the ON button for the radio and listens to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” The element of taste isn’t directly involved in the scene, but I might easily have mentioned that he had been traveling from Ireland for almost 24 hours and had a stale taste in his mouth. Or that he’d eaten a spicy meal and could still taste the garlic.

You get the point. Whelan isn’t some empty, one dimensional character that a reader couldn’t identify with. He’s fleshed out, real, experiencing what the reader would experience in those circumstances. The reader can identify with him and feel that he knows him. He or she is becoming invested in the character and wants to know more, such as where is he going at 2:30 a.m., and, with a Presidential Decision Directive calling for his immediate death, what’s he doing in Georgetown if he lives in Ireland?

Latest Developments from the Field

The three newest developments in the life of this writer are:

1. A video of me reading an excerpt from Dogs of War is available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/HApxESefS2I. I purposely selected Chapter 14 from the book because it features dialogue involving 8 of the principal characters in the series. I created it in PowerPoint for Mac, added audio to the pptx file, then converted it to an MP4 file. From there, it was easy to upload it to my YouTube channel. Links appear on my FaceBook timeline and in a few locations on this website. I also posted it in my next Newsletter.

2. An audiobook version of the first book in the series, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, is in production. It’s scheduled for completion in mid-September. The voiceover artist/producer has a great baritone and nails the various accents and speech characteristics of the characters. His pacing also is excellent.

3. I’ve caught the eye of a literary agent following last month’s ThrillerFest in New York City. At her request, I’ve edited the total manuscript from 111,500 words to 107,500. She would like it to be beneath the 100,000 mark, but that would impair the storyline. I did the research and put together the table that follows below. My argument is that the top sellers in this genre average 146,000 words per book, and publishers are only too eager to publish them. The agent said she’ll read it and decide whether it qualifies as an exception to the 100,000 word cap. The good news in all of this is that she’s agreed to read it. From there, who knows where it may go.

AUTHOR              BOOK                                 PAGES            TOTAL WORDS*

Daniel                 Silva House of Spies       544                   176,936

Lee Child              Night School                     496                    161,324

Ben Coes             Trap the Devil                   496                    161,324

Brad Taylor          Ring of Fire                       448                     145,712

Alex Berenson    The Prisoner                     432                    140,508

David Baldacci    End Game                        416                    135,304

Vince Flynn          Enemy of the State        400                    130,100

Brad Thor             Use of Force                    368                    119,692

                           AVERAGE                        450                    146,363

J W Falbey          The Dogs of War            329                  107,867**

*Using 325 words per page, which is the average number of wpp in Dogs of War

**104,876 words exclusive of title page, TofC, Cast of Characters, description of previous books, and preview of next book. With those sections, the word total is 107,867.

ThrillerFest 2017—Report #1

The best way to improve at some athletic endeavor is to train with and compete against those who are better at it than you are. If you want to be a better tennis player, play against those whose games are superior to yours. Faster runner? Train with a group of runners who are faster than you are. If you train solely on your own, you’ll quickly plateau and cease to improve.

The same advice applies to writers too. Where do you find an opportunity to spend time in the company of internationally bestselling writers? At writers conferences. For thriller writers, the Big Daddy of them all is ThrillerFest, an annual gathering in New York City in July. It’s sponsored by the International Thriller Writers or ITW. Membership in ITW provides much more than access to ThrillerFest. It publishes a number of helpful publications such as the weekly The Thrill Begins and the semi-month The Big Thrill. There’s also a weekly online roundtable in which a panel of authors discusses a particular aspect of thriller writing.

But it’s at ThrillerFest where an aspiring writer meets his or her favorite authors in person. Every one of them that I’ve met has been friendly and personable, willing to take time to chat with you and discuss the trade one-on-one. The conference begins on Tuesday with Master CraftFest. Small groups spend the day with a well-known bestselling author and go over a sample of each class member’s writing efforts. For example, this year I was in a group of ten that was led by Lee Child.

Wednesday and half of Thursday is devoted to CraftFest, a series of concurrent presentations and panel sessions involving the best in the business and covering all facets of the craft of writing thrillers. Thursday afternoon is PitchFest. This is where attendees meet one-on-one with literary agents and publishers’ representatives. This process has led to the discovery of a number of talented new writers.

Friday and Saturday are termed ThrillerFest. Again, it’s a series of concurrent sessions presented in panel format. These cover every genre of thrillers, as well as advice from the masters on publishing, marketing, and much more.

Overall, being exposed to the best-of-the-best all day everyday for a week will do wonders for your own writing.

Next in the Writers War Room we’ll begin discussing topics such as improving your craft, what currently works and what doesn’t, and directions in publishing and marketing.

A Lot of Great Things Are Happening!

A self-published writer has to play a lot of roles—author, publisher, publicist, marketer, salesman, scheduler, and many more. I’ve been engaged in all of those roles over the past few months. As a result, the latest book in the Sleeping Dogs series, Dogs of War, was released on July 4th, an appropriate day for the debut of a political thriller. It’s available on Amazon, iBooks, Nook, Smashwords, and all other online booksellers. The print version also is available at Amazon, Nook, and bookstores everywhere.

In addition, I compiled and published a three-book set of the first three books in the series: Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening; Endangered Species; and The Year of the Dog. It, too, is available at Amazon, iBooks, Nook, Smashwords, and all other online booksellers.

As a part of a Facebook ad program, I also have made the first book in the series, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, available for FREE in ebook format for all devices and platforms. Click here. It’s a great, no-risk way to introduce yourself to the members of the most dangerous hunter-killer black ops team ever.

Also, I’m in the process of creating an audiobook of Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening. If that goes well, the rest of the books will become audiobooks.

© John Wayne Falbey 2017 All Rights Reserved