To Answer the "Are You Published" Question? Working On It - Seeking Representation for "Tree Warden" + Prologue
Something I've been asked at all of my presentations and more than a few other public events is where people can buy my book. The truth, even now, is that I have no published works. None. This meager, badly-updated blog is the sum total of my literary achievements. Now, the reason why it has been so badly updated the last couple months, that is a bit of news I finally have time to report.
I have finally begun to query agencies on my novel titled Tree Warden: Trials of the Chosen. It was not the first book I completed, but I decided to focus on it over my other projects. Partially, this was because I thought it would be more easily marketed due to its relatively small size (only about 86k words in total), and partially it was because, as a novel which is written as a stand-alone but has the potential for future installments, it would be a good place for people to begin reading my work.
So, I'm going to talk it up a bit, plus give the first roughly five pages of the manuscript, the Prologue, for people to enjoy! That can be found at the bottom, but first I wanted to talk a bit about finding representation, and the particular difficulties someone like me - no publication history and trying to publish what has become an atypical example of my selected genre - faces when finding an agent.
Now, finding an agent is like finding a good job. You don't just throw your resume at some place because it looks like a place you have experience in. You research the company, the projects they've done, their business philosophy, and, of course, you make sure that they're hiring for your position. In a similar way, you can't just query every agent whose website you come across, using the same, bland letter every time. Doing that, you will likely find that you query agencies that are not even open for submissions, and might make a negative name for yourself among those you query.
But hold on, you might say - query? I see this word but do not understand it in the context of the conversation so far.
A query is essentially a fancy way of saying "submission" of your material. It usually consists of a query letter (like a cover letter in the aforementioned job hunt metaphor), a spoilerific synopsis of all the major plot points of your book, and the first five to... well, pages most of the time, though I've seen some agents ask for up to the first ten chapters, which in my case would encompass half the book! There are a lot of great articles out there that cover how to write such a letter better than I could, so I suggest searching around and finding reading as many as you can - they all have valuable advice.
The most important thing is to make sure that you look into the agent or agency that you query. Most of the time, agents will have specific email addresses for themselves on their agency's website, as well as preferences which go beyond what their agency has as the standard. Always abide by these guidelines, or else you may be rejected out of hand for a sloppy submission. I already have one query I expect to be rejected for this reason, a stupid little flub in my email's subject line. Also, research your agent. Interviews, their bio page, Reddit AMA's - anything to learn more about them. Just because you like the look or sound of an agent does not mean they are right for you. When you're looking for an agent, you want someone you can see yourself having a good relationship with. Finding an agent who does not only sell your genre to publishers that you want to have on your work's spine, but who you will want to work with with for as long as your writing career might last - maybe a lifetime.
Back to me personally, my novel's problem comes in several forms. Firstly, I am not published. No books, no short stories, no articles aside from what you see here, as stated at the beginning of this post. I've given presentations, yes, but only on an amateur level, so it's not like the cons I've gone to have front-paged me on their websites (which reminds me... is Otakon open for panel submissions yet? Not until February? Okay, I didn't miss it.). This means that in the area most people writing articles on query letters say to put your prior publication experience, I need to fill it with something else. Most suggestions are for you to put something from your life which makes you better-connected to your subject matter... but we're talking about fantasy here. Fortunately, this is one place where my upbringing plays to my advantage. Tree Warden is set, as one might guess, in a forest, and I have had the wilderness of a state park right across the street from me my whole life. A perfect prime source almost literally at my doorstep!
My second issue is the atypicality of my manuscript. It's very different from a lot of fantasy you see these days. It does have the standard fantasy tropes: youth x has abilities that none other possess, youth x faces hardship before saving the world from calamitous force/person/organization y. However, it is not gritty and realistic; rather, it is decidedly fairy tale-esque. There are a few moments of violence, yes - some fighting, check, and a guy getting stabbed to death just before he has the opportunity to stab someone else to death, check. Pretty metal, huh? Well, yes and no. These moments are few and far between, and are not by any means the focus of the novel. It's meant more to be about the inner struggle than an outer one, a tale told through the eyes of a boy without much control over his own life, let alone those who are trying to use him for their own means. I don't like it when main characters are immediately and conveniently the answer for every problem that crops up around them, and specifically wrote this book so that the main character was anything but convenient. If anything, it makes those rare moments when he gets it that much more magical, but also means that he runs around without solving anything until the very end.
Lastly is the way my novel starts: slowly. Now, this has proven to not be as much of an issue as I thought it would. Being that this is a low-action book, I have to hook people with mystery rather than some quick burst of fighting or a scene in the wake of a recent battle. I think I do this relatively well, and feedback from my beta readers supports this belief, but the fact is that this book starts without the metaphorical bang. That means it might languishing on shelves while other books with immediate scenes of action fly off beside it which, depending on how exactly the distribution method being used functions, could mean a lot of lost money for publishers unless it gets some positive blurbs from well-known authors and reviewers to push people into giving it a chance. Of course, not all great fantasy books are high action, nor do they start quickly. One of my prime influences, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, is a book such as this, but LeGuin had something I don't: an established history of publication prior to selling that book to a publisher.
So where does this leave me? Well, it leaves me hoping for an agent who likes what they see in the sample I give them via my query, or one who somehow takes a special interest in me personally. I have a lot more stories left in me to write, many of them more immediately marketable than Tree Warden, and one of which could turn into a multi-age epic spanning up to twelve books - not including side-stories I've thought of. I'm also working on a couple of short stories that have been rattling around my head for a while, one of which floored a writing workshop when I presented it and I think might be the basis of a full book at some point. But, for the time, I'm very proud of what I've written in Tree Warden, so let me tell you a bit about it.
Tree Warden: Trials of the Chosen is the tale of Eiben, a young man on the cusp of manhood. He lives at the far south-east of the Life Realm, a habitable stretch of land amid an otherwise inhospitable world. To the north and south are lands of extreme heat and cold respectively, and the west is cloaked in a pall of mist which chokes the ground and blots out sunlight. To the east, however, there is The Wood, a place of frightening legends and unplumbed depths. Brave Woodsmen enter when needed to harvest the wood and pelts abundant nowhere else, but always they must worry about The Wood's protectors, that aspect of the fay realm which is most frightening of all: the Tree Wardens.
By the events which take place in the Prologue below, Eiben is thrust into the world, destined to become a Tree Warden himself. As he proceeds with his training, however, Eiben comes to discover that not all is right in The Wood. A blight which turns trees to shadowy husks appears in seemingly random places, accompanied by a dark, featureless figure whom only Eiben seems capable of seeing. The Wardens, not knowing how to counteract this blight, become even more deeply entrenched on opposite sides of a hateful schism which has divided them for centuries. All the while, Eiben is acutely aware of his own shortcomings as a developing Warden, and of the dark figure's seeming attention on him in particular.
Tossed upon the crashing waves of unavoidable fate and pulled apart by the schemes of those he has no way of stopping, Eiben must stay alive and sane long enough to find his place in a design which has existed since time immemorial. What he discovers might simply be the final strokes against the Life Realm, which exists already on a perilous balance between continuation and destruction, or it might prove to be the sole salvation for all life, now and to come.
Now, with that being said, please enjoy the Prologue of Tree Warden: Trials of the Chosen.
After the years of his life had passed into their waning, Eiben would look back on the day his life began with a mixture of wry amusement and helpless wonder. It was such a small thing to be the catalyst of so much change; a child's toy given innocently to holocaust. Admittedly the toy had been a fine one. It had been a model Woodsman, obtained by Eiben’s parents from a traveling peddler. Eiben had idolized the intrepid souls as a lad, and this was a marvelous rendition of one such man, carved with intricate detail, with recesses for eyes and small hollows of nostrils bespeaking great care given and time spent on the part of the creator.
The craftsman had known his subject very well, or at least heard enough stories to know them head to toe; the likeness to the Woodsmen Eiben had known was extraordinary, from the lines of pained clothing to the stout leather of their footwear. It was not all one piece, either, but had legs and arms which could be moved, just tight enough in their fastenings that they could be positioned and expected to stay, making it possible for the figure to strike several poses. Perhaps most shocking of all was not the attention to physical detail or even the moving limbs, but the small axe clutched in the fellow's hand. It was blunt, yes, but made of real iron, a rich commodity even for the Jarl to whom Eiben’s parents paid tribute.
A fine toy indeed, but not one meant for his enjoyment. Eiben was practically a man, fifteen by the count of his winters, but his brother was not yet six. It brought a smile to Eiben's face to see his brother so enthralled, running around and showing his prize off to the rest of the children in the village. Eiben warmed at the sight every time, not spiting the boy for the simple happiness he himself was now too old to partake in, but allowing himself to take a measure of vicarious pleasure in it nonetheless. The toy might fade to dust, lost and forgotten long before its owner drew his final breath in old age, but for now it served its purpose in making the child happy.
The incident came some three count – sixty short days in all – after the toy Woodsman had entered the boy's life, practically a fifth member of the family. Spring was turning quickly to summer, and some folk from villages nearby had come to celebrate the season with dance, drink, and story, as since the days of old. Of course, that wasn't the gathering’s sole intent. Men made trades of tools and rarer commodities, the Woodsmen - true men, not simple toys - were huddled together discussing ranges into The Wood only they dared to enter, and all the while the women traded anecdotes, herbs, and, most pertinent to Eiben, none-too-subtle hints of whose daughters were of marrying age.
Eiben was growing older, his height filled in nearly to its fullest, and they eyed his thick, dark hair and strong, ponderous face appraisingly. Eiben’s mother took her son’s happiness into consideration, however, and so would never promise him away without giving him a chance to see and speak to those in whom she took an interest. Make him look she would, however, and many of those young ladies were surely about for just this purpose. Eiben was a thoughtful sort, and he might take some time coming to a decision, thinking of how his family stood to benefit and not just of whose face was prettiest, but he knew he would have to come to a decision before long. Such was his duty and his fate, a fate he would someday press upon his own children in one way or another. Or so he thought, at the time.
It was after darkness had fallen, with folk pressed closer to the fire pit than earlier, when it all happened. Nobody could have said what caused the accident, though few even remembered it in the shock that came after. In one moment, Eiben sat smiling at some bawdy joke told by one of the visitors, the women tisking and men roaring. Then, there was a cry from his right, and Eiben looked to see his brother reach a hand helplessly toward the fire, the shape of his toy Woodsman just coming to rest within the flames licking off the outermost logs.
Eiben sprang forward without a thought. He did not consider his own safety, what others would think, or how long it would take for his hand to heal. The value of the wood and paint was immaterial; what mattered to Eiben was that he acted to save a source of such great joy for the one he loved most in the world. His hand plunged into the blaze, clutching at the toy and ripping it from the deadly heat, a heat he did not think anything of not feeling in the frenzied adrenaline of the moment.
Eiben stepped back a pace or two, the crowd parting behind him as he did so. There had been a small number of shouts as he sprung up, more screams as he reached into the fire, and quite a few worried calls after he was out, but now a hush came over the assembly. Eiben waited one, two, three seconds for the burn to begin its throbbing, agonizing punishment for such foolhardy abandon. But, there was nothing. Eiben finally looked down at his arm, to the hand where the toy was grasped, and gaped. Instead of burnt flesh, there was instead a thin layer of glimmering frost which covered his entire right side, where he had been in and closest to the fire, from his chest down to the toy in his hand. Slowly - far more slowly than the warm summer night warranted - the ice turned to water and dripped to the ground. The toy itself was practically undamaged, the paint slightly burnt in a few places but otherwise in better condition than even such a short time in the fire should have left it. Eiben, however, could not say the same for his state of mind.
His eyes wide, Eiben looked up at the crowd, searching for the faces of his family. His brother was too young to understand just yet, but he saw his Woodsman uncle, brow lowered and mouth slightly agape, a look of disbelief colored and confused with anger. Most of the expressions in the crowd were fearful, but finally he found those of greatest consequence.
"Mother," Eiben said, taking a step forward, "Father, I-"
"You must be mistaken, stranger," Eiben's mother said, eyes staring straight but expression otherwise distant. "We have but one son. You hold his plaything in your hand." Her words were cold, and as she spoke them her husband sagged, pressing his face into her shoulder as he began to heave with silent tears.
"So it has been," Eiben turned to Old Halaii, who clutched her cane tight as she spoke, "and so it must be. From time unknown unto times yet to come. We all know the words, stranger, as surely must you, too."
Eiben stared at the old woman, back at his parents, and finally at the toy in his hand. Such a small thing, to be the catalyst of so much change. He wished to hurl it back into the flames, to deny what this all meant. He saw the villagers around him, staring as though at a monster – or worse, a traitor, and he wished to repay their resentment in kind. There was a tug on his shirt. Eiben's eyes focused, his gaze shifted slightly right, and he saw his brother staring up at him.
"What is it, Ben?" the lad asked, too young yet to understand. "What's going on? Why is father crying, why...?”
The boy trailed off as Eiben knelt down to look him in the eye. "You mistake me for a friend, child," he said, voice thick with emotion. "I do not know you, but it seems this is yours. Now," he put up a finger as the boy opened his mouth to speak, "no more questions. Someday, you will know why things are as they now unfold, but for now, I must leave." Eiben rose, and turned his face toward the east horizon. "I must go home."
The words Old Halaii had spoken of were murmured low and shouted loud the rest of the night. They were spoken by those who had seen it, those who would hear of it, and the rest of the world over, whether it was Eiben’s name which touched their lips or another’s. All who knew them knew such must happen from time to time, and they were Eiben’s mind loudest of all as he walked toward the dark swath of irregular contours which defined the Eastern horizon of the Life Realm.
Those who belong in The Wood, belong to The Wood.
Francis van Zandt writes about writing, fantasy, and fantasy writing. Updates come once a week or so, time and inspiration allowing.