Last year at ConCarolinas, I was given feedback on Paradisa’s opening that sent me into a year long spiral of self doubt. In this past year, I had to decide whether my style and POV choices needed to be modified. I had to decide if I was going to stick with present tense. I also had to figure out how to open my book in a realistic way, and how to reorient my plot to be fueled by character agency instead of relying on the characters to go along with my plans.
I am now on the other side of those choices. I have a manuscript that was well received by my second beta round and, in general, only requires a few more cosmetic upgrades before completion. I have decided to switch the book to past tense, in order to increase my marketability (and I really don’t miss it that much tbh). I also came to the conclusion that while the live slush readers were entitled to their opinions about voice and POV, I cannot force myself to write in a way that is unnatural to me. I asked my second round beta readers about whether the book is “deep enough” in the characters, and one actually said it was too deep. A couple of them said it was too shallow. Most said it was fine. So obviously psychic distance is a matter of taste and I’m not going to chase something unnatural to me just because it appears to be a trend. Deep POV annoys me. I’m sure it annoys other people. Those people are my audience.
I have not changed the opening to Paradisa much since October (although Millie Ho guided me to which line is my perfect opener, and it was a line that originally existed three paragraphs down the page.) I think editing it anymore at this point would be unwise, but I was still scared to have it reviewed by Legitimate Official Gatekeepers. It was my best effort, but that rarely is enough these days.
On Saturday morning at ConCarolinas, I saw that the slush reader for Baen Books was doing a very interactive and intimate face-to-face feedback session for submission packets later that day. He needed a synopsis and a cover letter, along with the first five pages. I had no synopsis or cover letter. Cue me writing like a mad person trying to summarize my book in two pages and give it a back cover blurb. If nothing else, this exercise forced me to create two very valuable pieces of a submission package that I can use later though.
At 4 PM, me and five others entered the room to face the slushmaster general. I didn’t really think of this as a pitch to Baen as much as a gauge of “will submitting my book to a place that takes 9-12 months to respond and doesn’t allow simultaneous submissions be worth it?” And also “are there glaring errors that I need to fix, because seriously, I wrote this blurb letter in 20 minutes of sweaty frenzy and no one has seen it before?” Baen, for those who don’t know, has published John Ringo, David Weber, Mercedes Lackey, Larry Correia, Catherine Asaro, Larry Niven, David Drake, and Tim Zahn. They are one of the smaller SFF presses, but their works have gone on to be nominated for Hugos and other awards. On the downside, their catalog contains the leader of the Sad Puppies, but there are Sad Puppy authors in pretty much every SFF publishing house. And Niven, Flint, and many of Baen’s other authors are far more progressive than I am, so they represent all stripes.
One by one, we brought up our packets. He read our letters aloud, and commented on their execution. He read the first five pages of everyone’s books until he reached a point of doubt/disinterest. When he hit that point, he would go to the synopsis and see if the story was going anywhere. A few times, based on these summaries, he commented that the participants did appear to have a story, but their opening started too early or had too much noise. He said that if he had the full, he might find a point in the synopsis where things kick off and start reading the manuscript again from there.
Honestly, he was one of the most generous slush readers I’ve ever heard of. Most agents offer a rejection if they aren’t captivated in the first line of a query. This guy gives the summary, the writing, and the synopsis a fair chance, and literally hunts for the story. He gives everyone a huge benefit of the doubt and treats manuscripts with great care. I respect that greatly, although I recognize that most agents or publishers will not be so thorough.
Still, out of the six of us, Paradisa was the only submission where he did not stop reading the manuscript pages until they said my time was up. He was engaged enough by the story that he didn’t feel the need to check out the synopsis. I was pretty stunned. Even though he was a nice man and a generous slush reader, he was still very honest with all of the participants. He pointed out areas of weak writing, of confusion, and even of things that annoyed him. He wasn’t sugarcoating things for the sake of it, which makes me feel like his very few words of critique against Paradisa may in fact mean something. Although I may have eventually lost his attention with the rest of the book, I haven’t done anything wrong yet.
I mustered up some courage and spoke to him one on one after the panel. We chatted a bit about what makes a book “a Baen book” and whether mine could fit that mold. It’s still a long shot, as I believe only three books from his slush have been published by Baen in the last eight years. I’m still not sure I will submit to them first, as their waiting period is so incredibly long. But it’s nice to know that I’m on the right track and have gotten the thumbs up from at least one pro. It’s given me the confidence to knock out Paradisa’s final edits this month and maybe start querying it in July.
As a footnote, I also participated in the same live slush panel as last year with the first page of The Shadow of Saturn. They had more positive things to say about it than they did about Paradisa. They just advised me to cut out a paragraph of some poorly paced exposition that didn’t serve the character. But they liked the opening paragraph, and that’s what I wanted to know the most. I wondered if I should open with a paragraph from my childhood, and they seemed to enjoy it, so we’re going with it!
2016 has been a great year so far. I’m stoked to have this renewed confidence in Paradisa, and to take the leap into publishing it. Maybe there’s an agent or publisher for me out there, after all.