I’ve been asked by a number of people how progress is coming on my latest project, and it seems I never have a very exciting answer.
Until now, that is. I’ve decided to finally compile my entire sordid story here, in one central place, to save myself having to relate it multiple times. (Plus, this way I can make all my embellishments official! Haha!)
I’d be lying if I said I’d always dreamed of being a writer. Certainly I’ve always enjoyed writing, but as a kid I had any number of career goals (astronaut, president, film composer, NBA all-star, the list goes on…).
This isn’t to say I didn’t write a lot, because I did. The problem was this: early on in an American male’s life, he learns that skills associated with reading and writing aren’t exactly…”cool.” In 5th grade I won the school spelling bee and almost started crying – half from embarrassment, half from excitement. In 6th grade I let my mom talk me into entering a poem in the “Reflections” contest, and the poem went on to win the school competition, district competition, and regional competition. (I still have the trophy in my office.) But poem-writing is not exactly among the coolest things a 6th-grade boy can do, and when I was told I had to read my award-winning poem in front of the school I wanted to die…especially because the poem took almost ten minutes to read (it was an epic poem, of course).
Based on input from my wonderful 6th-grade peers – most of whom are probably in jail now – I made the mistaken assumption that writing poetry was not among the list of skills that I should lay claim to. Loogie-hocking, foreign curse word repertoire, and humorous names for human anatomy were much more in vogue at the time, so I didn’t pursue creative writing much throughout junior high and my freshman year of high school.
By 10th grade I had matured (slightly) and I think I finally realized that popular opinion among my peers was useless when it came to assessing career skills. Not coincidentally, I also started work on my first video game project – what would be the first of several.
It was in 10th grade that I was first introduced to the RPG genre of video games and Final Fantasy 7 in particular. If you’ve never played a Final Fantasy game, I pity you. The name is a bit silly, but the game itself is a brilliant accomplishment on every level. FF7 tells an intricate story of life and death through the age-old mechanism of epic conflict between good and evil, but it does so in an interactive medium that is hard to describe. The artwork is beautiful, the music transcendent, and even the gameplay is a phenomenal balance between simplicity and strategy. The game – though 12 years old – continues to inspire fan art, spin-off games, even full-length films, and while none of these comes close to the original, all are welcome tributes to what may be the most influential RPG in history.
FF7 was inspirational to my 10th grade mind on a multitude of levels. I am still amazed at the way that video games (well-made ones, mind you) are capable of blending the visual and aural arts with interactive storytelling. Games are a peerless medium, one too often used to less than its full potential.
But that is another topic for another day.
As a fairly accomplished musician and a closet writer, I remember the epiphany that accompanied my first play-through of Final Fantasy 7: here was a medium where I could combine a love of good music with a desire to tell complex and engaging stories, all through a medium made possible by my growing interest in computer programming. It was then that I resolved to someday create a video game that would do for others what FF7 did for me: awe, inspire, and entertain.
Unfortunately, creating a complex story-driven video game is not well-suited to being done in the spare time of a high school student. To combat this, I tried assembling online teams to help me on my path to world video game domination, but surprisingly people weren’t very reliable while working for free.
Imagine that. :)
Years passed, and video game project after video game project slipped out of my grasp. I tried every combination of local teams, international teams, professionals, amateurs, hobbyists, men, women, adults, teens – and never could I assemble the right mix of people to make my dream video game.
The problems with these various approaches are obvious now, in retrospect. I suppose I was a bit of a narcissist in my leadership endeavours. I thought that my perception of the ideal game story, score, artwork and design was clearly best, and that undoubtedly hampered my ability to work in a team environment. I also had a bad knack for getting people really excited about these projects, recruiting tons of participants, only to realize I had no idea how to run a project of that size and scope.
I also realize now why there are so few well-made video games. Coordinating the logistics of production with a vision of what makes a great game is an unimaginably difficult task, and those who do it are truly remarkable individuals/teams/companies.
Anyway, during my years of attempted video game production I amassed a number of meaningful souvenirs. One of my favorites is the free collection of original music now available on this site. There aren’t many places online where you can find 2+ hours of quality original music available for download – especially places that allow you to download, copy, and distribute that music without legal entanglements.
Another souvenir is the thousands of lines of free programming resources also available on this site. It’s no coincidence that most of my programming tutorials and examples are game-related – after all, most of these examples stem from video game projects of varying scope and size. I have (literally) hundreds more examples and tidbits lying around, and I hope to someday get the bulk of these posted to this site.
Finally, perhaps the best souvenirs from the entire era are a collection of original stories that have never seen the world outside my hard drive. Some of these stories are complete and almost ready for publication; others are mere frameworks around which a compelling novel could be wove. I spent a weekend several years ago reading through my archives of original literature, and wow – I really think there is some great stuff there. (Of course, this could just be my nostalgia speaking… :)
By no coincidence, this epiphany happened during my senior year of college. I was less than a year from completing my degree in bioinformatics, and I was starting to have nagging doubts that a career in bioinformatics was right for me. Deep down, I still dreamed of a career in media, something that I had decided against years before because of the logistics of making a decent living with a liberal arts degree. (No offense intended to all you liberal arts majors out there – I’m sure there are tons of jobs for people with degrees in medieval literature analysis!)
And then it hit me – one doesn’t have to be an English major to be a successful writer. Some of my favorite writers (Michael Crichton, Terry Brooks, William Forstchen) are guys with normal careers who turned their expertise and interests into brilliant and compelling storytelling. Michael Crichton in particular is a great example of this.
So I made the decision to finish my degree in bioinformatics, but under an important condition – that I would have my first novel written before I graduated.
I didn’t quite make that goal, but I was able to finish a complete draft by the end of September 2007 (I had graduated in April). I immediately embarked on sending out my masterpiece to agents and publishers everywhere, hoping that one of them would sign me up and I could forgo having to commit to a so-called “real” job.
Thus began my first eye-opening experience (of several) related to professional writing. Almost no agents responded to my queries, and those that did used form letters that meant nothing to me.
After several weeks of going about this, I finally received a reply from a small publishing house in the northeast. To summarize it, the email read something like this:
Dear Tanner Helland,
Thanks for sending us the 20 pages of your manuscript.
I liked the prologue very much–the tone and the content–I wanted to read more and hoped the rest of the book would live up to it. Unfortunately, it didn’t for me. . . I felt the setting was unrealistic, and it seems to me that fantasy only works in a setting where most of the details are realistic.
Please realize that any editorial judgement is idiosyncratic and that another editor might leap at your manuscript. Of course we wish you the best of luck in placing the book elsewhere and appreciate your letting us see it.
To this day, I am extremely grateful for this simple email. The advice was spot-on, and exactly what I needed to motivate a strong rewrite of the text. Unfortunately, I had already submitted my manuscript to the first ever Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition, but that didn’t prevent me starting work on a much-needed revamp of what had been a hasty and somewhat ill-conceived first shot at a formal novel.
While I feverishly wrote and rewrote my novel (“v2.0” as I thought of it), the original manuscript progressed nicely through the ABNA contest. It made the first cut (5,000 people) and then progressed through to the second round (~800 people). As part of the semifinalist reward, I received a manuscript review from Publishers Weekly. It read as follows (this is verbatim):
In this promising debut, clearly the first in an intended series, fifteen-year-old Teal and his family move to the city in hopes that doctors there can save his gravely ill father. Seeking refuge in the janitor’s closet from a bully, Teal and his friend Eddie discover a portal that leads to an underground labyrinth built by an alien race called the Zargansk. Soon, they are on the run from men in black suits determined to kill them. Sixteen-year-old Kyralee saves them, but her presence raises more questions than answers. Teal’s feelings for Kyralee weave through this action-packed narrative, reminding us that while he is humanity’s best hope against the Zargansk, he is still a typical ninth-grader. Though the novel doesn’t break any new ground in the genre, the fast pace and cool gadgetry is enough to keep the reader engaged and rooting for Teal and his friends to the very end. — manuscript review by Publishers Weekly, an independent organization
As part of the process, I was also entitled to received a short (and somewhat useless) review from an Amazon Top Reviewer:
Very well written, but just not my cup of tea, as I don’t care for science fiction stories. But the author has a good imagination and excellent writing style and I liked his use of dialogue – it was appropriate for the characters.
In addition to those two pieces of “formal” critique, I participated in “story swaps” with over 30 other writers – where I’d swap them a chapter of my book for a chapter of their book, and we’d trade comments. That was an immensely useful process, and by the end of it I had a MUCH better idea of what my fledgling manuscript needed.
My manuscript didn’t progress beyond the semifinalist round of the ABNA contest (genre fiction in general faired very poorly – apparently the judges were interested primarily in literary fiction), but that was okay because I knew the story needed a serious overhaul in several regards. One of my first orders of business was changing the POV from 3rd-person to 1st-person, a decision that I believe fits the tone and style of the story much better. I also rewrote the entire first half of the book with a renewed focus on character and setting, striving hard to create the realistic world to which my first customized rejection letter alluded.
I also took into account the Publisher’s Weekly comment of “…the novel doesn’t break any new ground in the genre…” by working in some new ideas, things I had never seen before in middle-grade fiction. I’m hoping these improved the overall novelty of the novel (sorry for the awkward wording).
This “v2.0” rewrite took almost as long as it had taken to write the book the first time, but I believe both I and the story were much better for the experience.
Once I had the novel at a point where I couldn’t stand to read through it another time, I cashed in my final prize from the Amazon contest (a free self-publishing contract with Amazon’s new CreateSpace service) and got myself a real printed copy of Teal, my first novel. (You can pick up a copy yourself from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teal-Zargansk-Wars-Book-1/dp/1434886956) I mostly did this so I could see my name on the cover of a book – and it has admittedly been fun to hand out copies to friends on family – but I have always intended for Teal to be published properly, and that is where my story sits today.
Before continuing, I should mention that in the months since self-publishing I have come to realize that revising is a horribly addicting process. I know now that the back cover of my self-published book has a typo (d’oh!), and there are a number of minor issues with the novel itself that I’m itching to change. But if I continued to fiddle with the story, it wouldn’t serve much purpose. I need to let Teal rest for awhile while it treads through its second round of horrible, painful, ultra-humbling query letters.
As much as I gripe, this second round of query letters has been much better than the first. After two months of waiting, I received a full manuscript request from the top agent on my list (an expert with YA fiction, including – gasp – YA science fiction and fantasy!) and I am now trying to be as patient as possible as I wait to hear what he/she thinks. (I’m keeping anonymous so he/she has a chance to review the manuscript fairly!)
While I would give my right arm (and maybe my left one too) to work with this particular agent, I realize now that writing is not about being published. Writing is about doing what you love – about telling a story that only you can tell. This is what all great writers have done, and if they are “published” then that’s just the icing on the cake.
Great icing, to be sure – but icing nonetheless.
I have already started work on a new novel totally unrelated to Teal. This one is much less science-fiction, much more modern thriller. My experience in bioinformatics should prove especially useful for this book, and you can bet I’ll post more about it as progress continues.
And that’s where my writing efforts are as of now. Did I miss anything?
Finally, while I’m thinking about it I want to leave a short bit of advice to any would-be writers out there – something that I wish others had shared with me.
Get your first book done as quickly as possible. Write as fast as you can possibly write, and don’t worry about anything but storytelling. Dump that first story out of your brain and onto your computer/notebook ASAP.
Once that’s done, review your manuscript while it’s hot and make sure you are okay attaching your name to it. Assuming you are, throw together query letters for any agent that might accept your manuscript and send ’em out like gangbusters.
It won’t take long before the rejection letters start pouring in. In my case, about one agent in four actually responded with a form rejection. None sent customized rejections until they had requested a manuscript. The vast majority never responded at all.
Regardless of how this works for you, wait several weeks, and when it seems like the rejection letters have finally stopped, take a deep breath.
You’ve successfully survived your first round of rejection letters. It’s painful – really painful – but at least there is a light at the end of your tunnel. By now, you’ve had some time away from your novel. You should have a good idea of what can be improved and what areas need the most help. You’ve also survived the horrible pain of rejection letters – and best of all, you can shrug the majority of them off because you know you can do better. Hopefully you’ve also gotten a good taste of what it takes to write a quality query letter, and you can keep that in the back of your mind as you work on revisions.
I think I made the mistake of placing too many hopes and dreams into the first version of my first novel. I felt like I had gotten it to perfection, and that made the initial round of rejection letters more painful than they probably needed to be. There’s something to be said for rushing a product out the door, then being able to blame the “rushed launch” for any problems that arise.
Is that horrible advice? I hope not. I wish I had known what query letters entailed before I started writing Teal. I think that would have helped me a great deal.
I also could have used a greater sense of detachment from that first novel. It would have allowed me to be a bit more severe in my trimming and rewriting, and then I think the entire revision process would have been much more seamless and streamlined. As it stood, I was much too sensitive to properly revise the first draft, and it wasn’t until multiple readers pointed out the same problems that I finally relinquished and fixed some glaring flaws. I hope I can spare you the trouble of having to experience the same.
At any rate, sorry for the enormity of this post, and I hope to have good news regarding Teal in the “near” future…