Thursday, December 22, 2011

Season's Greetings

This is just a short post to wish
all my Blogger friends a merry Christmas
and a blessed holiday!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Déjà Vu Blogfest

Today, I am participating in DL Hammon’s Déjà Vu Blogfest cohosted by Creepy Query Girl’s, Katie Mills, The World is my Oyster’s, Lydia Kang, and Nicole Ducleroir of One Significant Moment at aTime.  This blogfest gives participants the chance to resubmit their best posts for the benefit of all those who might have missed it the first time around.  I look forward to reading as many of the participants’entries as physically possible, and maybe make a few new friends in the process. 

The posts I’m most proud of are those I wrote on craft:  One on setting and another tension.  But the one I’ve chosen to enter for this bloghop has received the most hits and continues to do so every week.  I first posted this on July 13, 2011, and while my perspective has changed slightly, I still believe in the message.

Stories Don’t Happen in a Vacuum

I knew I would have to come up with something to post about today, but when I woke up, I still hadn’t thought of anything new, that is until I read today’s post at BookEnds Lit Agency.  Today is Workshop Wednesday at BookEnds, the day agent Jessica Faust posts one of the queries she’s received for critiquing, kind of like Janet Reid does at Query Shark.

I love query critiques.  I think it is the single most effective way to know what does and doesn’t work in a query.  Now, I don’t always agree with Ms. Faust’s opinion.  Case in point, a few weeks ago, she critiqued this query and loved it.  I thought the query was vague, at best, and had many of the qualities that agents advise writers not to include.  But she loved the “southern rhythm” of the voice.  Yeah, I didn’t get that at all, and I lived in the south for awhile, but whatever, just like books, it’s subjective and if she liked it then kudos to the author.  Well done!

But this week’s critique struck a nerve with me because Ms. Faust alluded to something I hear over and over again when agents are critiquing queries.  After reading the first two paragraphs of the query, she more or less said, this is all backstory; the real story starts here.  In other words, cut all this crap out and get to the meat of the story.  While I agree the query needs a lot of work, I find issue with the fact that the agent automatically thinks the first two-thirds of the query, and therefore the book, is all backstory.

In my opinion, this is the story, at least part of it.  It is how the author wrote it to give it structure and body, a reference point from which to contrast the conflict.  It bothers me that the agent thinks that everything that came before what she considers the core of the story is somehow irrelevant or that the story goes off track.  Yes, the author should have written the query differently to show the progression of the story and the importance of that progression. 
She implied subtly that the story might be about something else, or perhaps that was just the agent inferring that idea.  But even still, that doesn’t mean all those points the writer thought important enough to include in her query are not crucial to the story.  Some of the commenters, in fact, seemed very interested in the writer’s story, calling out the fact that those first two paragraphs were simply acts one and two.

My point is that agents toss aside stories based on assumptions that the reader doesn’t want to know all that happened before, that they simply want to get to the meat of the story.  Well, okay, I don’t need to know everything that happened to the nineteen-year-old protagonist during her first seventeen or eighteen years unless it’s relevant to the story, but from age nineteen on, all the things that happen to her forge her into the woman she becomes and adds dimension to her reasoning, to how she handles the conflict.  Stories don’t happen in a vacuum.  We need to care about the protagonist and her journey and we do this through knowing and understanding their history. 

I often wonder why everyone is always in such a hurry to get to the end.  It’s all about instant gratification so we can move on to the next thing.  Why not savor the time spent with a story and let yourself get immersed in the simmering heat of the layers as they buildup?  I’m not saying that everything the query writer put in her query is essential.  Personally, it comes off more like historical romance, not historical fiction, and so definitely not my thing, but I get that those details are important to understanding why there even is a conflict. 

Could you imagine if Winston Groom had to query Forrest Gump in today’s market?  Some agents would likely say to cut all that backstory about Forrest as a small child or in high school, but it is those details in the early chapters that show how Forrest changes later in life, how he manages to deal with all the drama that’s thrown his way.  How can we know if we weren’t privy to the backstory?

All this relates to me personally because last week I rewrote my query, for what must be the fifteenth time, based on advice from Stephanie DeVita in her post last week titled Slow Summer, where she says, “In most of the queries that I read, the writer isn’t giving me the most thrilling aspect of their book, the crucial element that should make me desperate to ask for more pages. In other cases, it’s unclear if that pivotal element is even there.” 

So I cut all the “backstory” out of my query and just alluded to it, then got right into the major point of the conflict.  But now I worry that any agent who requests pages will think the first third of my novel is all backstory when, in fact, it is the story, or part of it anyway.  Since the story is all about a man who changes, who becomes a different man due to some pretty terrible things that happen to him, that first third of the book is the setup.  It determines what he was like at first and how those events twisted him into a different man, made him act a certain way and do that one awful thing that drives the story.  The rest of the book is how he deals with the repercussions of those decisions.  Why would any reader care about how he changed and what he did if they didn’t know his “backstory?”

And by the way, I hate that word, backstory.  It makes it feel like all those early words are somehow illegitimate, a bastard to be cast aside.  Yes, it matters how that information is presented, that we feel it is part of the actual story and not simply dumped there in a lazy attempt to give context, but I like to think of it as the ice cream in my sundae.  It’s all those yummy bits on top that make it special, but you can’t just eat the yummy bits.  You have to savor it properly with the ice cream set below.  Otherwise, it’s not a sundae.


As an aside to this original post, I’d like to say that backstory in a query, while important, should only amount to a few words in a single line, and only if the content is of the utmost importance to the heart of the story. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Notes on Craft: Setting

Yesterday, I was reading Natalie Whipple’s post on World Building where she discusses how to write about setting in a novel.  She suggests focusing on the most important details, those that have immediate relevancy, that matter most to the character, what stands out to them, or what might foreshadow later events.  I think her approach is right on the money, but I also think she left out an important factor:  Emotion.

Setting in a novel is more than just the physical surroundings.  It is the social and cultural aspects of the period, the fashions people wear and why they wear them, the ideas the characters draw upon, and the historical and spiritual perspective or lens through which they view the world.

Most importantly, setting not just the place or even the time, it’s how the characters of a novel are affected by it, how they feel about their surroundings.  They must have a functioning affiliation with it.  The writer should permit the character to both discover those emotions then infuse them into the story.  That is what makes the setting important, to have immediate relevancy.  It is also what makes the character’s world come alive for the reader. 

A writer can spend pages describing what the countryside looks like on a breezy fall afternoon, but unless I know exactly how the character feels about all those details, how those details are affecting them at that moment or relates to their past, it will fall flat.  Because while I do want to know where the character lives, I don’t truly care unless I know the character does.

I’m not the greatest writer of setting.  In fact, when it comes to description, I’m probably mediocre, at best.  The first few drafts of my novel had very little detail in regard to place, and virtually none on time.  But as I progressed, I kept adding layers, including details about San Francisco, where the majority of story takes place.  Yet I never really describe what The City looks like.  What I did do was infuse the protagonist’s feelings about the place in which he lives.  From that was borne a symbol that repeatedly popped up when the character was frustrated, melancholy, or facing disaster.  That symbol is fog.  It is a legendary pillar of San Francisco’s lore.  It is also cold and oppressive.

My protagonist is a Brit, a native Londoner whose parents transplanted him and his toddler brother to Melbourne, Australia when he was twelve.  As a young adult, he yearns to return to London, but is distracted by a beauty with whom he falls in love while traveling through San Francisco.  He also falls for with The City, whose climate reminds him of London, where his fondest childhood memories are grounded.

He revels in his new-found freedom, his emancipation from his family overseas.  San Francisco becomes a symbol of his liberty.  But that independence is curtailed when his brother follows him to the States.  He becomes saddled with the chore of caring for his irresponsible sibling.  The fog becomes a symbol of his loss of autonomy.  And when his brother’s life is jeopardized by poor choices, forcing the protagonist into a life and death struggle to save him, the fog evolves to symbolize his battle.  It’s not until the end of the story that fog burns off, allowing the sun to return to his life.

The setting in my novel evolved into a character, rich with emotion.  This is the only way I know how to write setting.  The steep streets, the cable cars, the sparkling Bay, the vibrant cultures, none of that means anything until it means something to the characters.

So what does setting mean to you as a writer?  How do you infuse the character of a time and place into your stories?             

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

IWSG: What Gives?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month, time for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group.  I’ve been participating in this group since its inception, and have written of my many frustrations and insecurities.  After last month’s post, I asked myself, “Do I complain too much?”  I thought I probably did and planned on writing about that today, but once again, I found myself discouraged by events, or the lack thereof.  So if you’ll be so kind as to indulge me, I’d like to get something off my chest.

As a writer with a novel ready to go, I’ve been busy polishing my query.  It’s been a while since I actually queried any agents, but that’s because I still have a few requests pending.  But even though I’ve emailed the agents who are currently reading my novel, I haven’t heard back.  And that’s discouraging.

I figure it’s because my story is not quite ready yet, not quite there.  If it was, wouldn’t they have called me by now?  So, since sending out those requests, I’ve further revised my manuscript based on feedback from other agents.  I feel pretty confident now, because I’ve been busy reading and studying books on craft.  The most recent two, The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel, were written by literary agent Donald Maass.  After reading them, I noted all the important factors that make a novel great, and I can honestly say, I’ve included most of those, at least the ones appropriate for my genre.  But even though I’ve made some important revisions, those factors were already in there, before my last round of requests.  So what’s the problem then?

I have a premise and plot that are plausible with inherent conflict and gut emotional appeal, and with my unusual twist, it’s pretty original.  It has high personal stakes that continually escalate, and I believe the reader can sympathize with the strong protagonist, who while is sometimes dark, he also has inner conflict, self-regard, and strong relationships with the other characters.  The voice is authoritative, clearly articulating a personal belief system through dialogue that snaps with tension and immediacy, and the setting is linked with emotional details.  And most importantly, from the word go, it’s filled with constant tension.

So what gives?  I can only surmise it’s the writing, though I’ve been told by my critique partners that it’s pretty darn good.  But is that enough?  Hmm, I wonder.  Maybe it’s just the timing and the fact that adult thrillers aren’t selling like they used to.  I keep thinking, if I just had more agents reading it, someone is bound to love it as much as I do, as much as my beloved and talented critique partner, Lisa Regan does. 

But to do that, I have to have a kickass query.  After Matthew MacNish critiqued my query last week, I worked every day to fine tune those points he and his followers commented on.  I feel I clarified those key questions and am now ready to go.  Of course, now it the holiday season, so I’d be crazy to start querying before New Year’s.  It’s just one more thing to frustrate me.  But I suppose, if I’ve learned one thing in the last twenty months, it’s patience. 

What about you?  What frustrates you about writing, querying, and publishing?  And what have you learned from your frustrations?                

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Maid's Here & She's Biting Her Nails

She looks just like me!

So normally you wouldn’t be hearing from me until Monday, but I have a few items I need to take care of, and I won’t be posting again until Wednesday, December 7th, which, as the first Wednesday of the month, is reserved for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. 


So I’ve done something crazy:  I gave my new query to Matthew MacNish at the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment.  He posted it yesterday, December 1st, and critiqued it today.  You might be wondering why I would put myself through that.  Well, I participated in a query blogfest last July, but the query that blogfest produced garnered not a single request, so obviously I needed to revise it.  I came up with a formula for a new one and sent the new query to literary agent Suzie Townsend last month.  She offered a critique as a form of celebration for her recent move to Nancy Coffey’s agency.  For one hour on November 1st, she accepted all queries via email with a specific subject line.  Then she spent a couple of weeks critiquing those lucky few.  I was one of them, and she gave me some great feedback.  That revised query is now up for  critique on Matthew’s blog.  I have further revised my query after reading Matthew's comments and those of his followers.  You can find that version here on my blog under the tab marked The Query.  And feel free to comment.  I can only improve with feedback.

On December 16th, Nicole Ducleroir,  Lydia Kang, D L Hammons, and Katie Mills are hosting the Déjà Vu Blogfest, which gives participants the chance to resubmit their best posts for the benefit of all those who might have missed it the first time around.  After all, it’s easy to miss some awesome posts when you’re away or simply unable to keep up.  Joining this bloghop will instantly connect you to many others who are interested in your writing.  So go to Nicole’s site and sign up using the convenient Mr. Linky’s Magical Widget.  104 bloggers have signed up so far.  Don’t miss out on meeting some fantastic new bloggers and the chance to gain a few new followers of your own. 

And lastly, Murees Dupe at Daily Drama of an Aspiring Writer has bestowed the Liebster Award on me.  And while I have received this award a few times, I never miss the opportunity to spread the word and introduce a few bloggers with less than 200 followers.  So go visit these wonderful folks and follow:

1.                    The hilariously cheeky Al Penwasser
2.                    My best friend and talented cohort Lisa L. Regan
3.                    The brilliant and insightful, Lora Rivera
4.                    The always fun and kind Carrie Butler
5.                    The brave and compassionate Julius Cicero


That’s it for now.  I’ll be back on Wednesday for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Notes on Craft: Tension

I love stories, whether they’re told by mouth, expressed through song, or acted out on film.  But more than anything, I love books.  I suppose the one feature that makes books different from these other genres is the pace at which the story unfolds.  I can read a book at whatever pace I choose.  Some books are only good enough for short bathroom breaks, while others are so well written I can barely put it down long enough to get my chores done.  So what’s the difference between them?  What makes a book a page-turner?

There are many elements that make up a good story.  While characters may or may not be likeable, they must be vivid and dynamic.  Dialogue must snap with electricity and be free of accompanying actions that bog down the pace.  Every scene must crackle with both inner and outer conflict conveyed through specific and identifiable turning points.  Setting must come alive not through eloquent writing, but through how the characters wrestle with their emotional ties to it.  The voice, more than just syntax, should sing clearly in detail and delivery, articulating a belief system and personal perspective while overwhelming the reader with authority and relieving us of skepticism.  So how does a writer accomplish each of these?  That’s easy.  Through tension.

As writers, we understand that a story has ebb and flow, a cycle of ups and downs.  But you cannot construct a story that is always on the upswing.  A reader cannot appreciate such an upswing unless there is a downswing with which to contrast it to.  And in order to keep the reader’s attention through a downswing, you must maintain tension.  Literary agent, Donald Maass, calls this micro-tension in his book “The Fire in Fiction.”  In it he says:

Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.

Maass portends that micro-tension is vital in all aspects of a novel, whether it be in dialogue, in action sequences, or in exposition.  And more importantly, “micro-tension...comes from emotions, and not just any old emotions, but conflicting emotions.” 

Dialogue in a novel should never be truly natural, which is often stilted with interruptions.  If dialogue in a novel were written naturally, we would all be bored to death, wondering if the speaker was ever going to get around to his or her point.  Maass writes, “In dialogue, it’s not the information itself, but the doubt about the facts and the skepticism of the deliverer.”  It is “emotional, not intellectual,” that as readers, “we don’t want to know if the debate will settle the point of contention, but whether the debaters will reconcile.”   Also important, dumping information via dialogue only works “if it is infused with tension, and even then, it must be a tug-of-war.”  

This element of emotion is equally important in action.  Emotion, especially contrasting emotion, is what provides energy for each scene.  The same can be said for exposition, where the use of conflicting emotion keeps the reader involved.  They want and need to know if the characters will resolve their conflict.  This is where we learn of their “contradictions, dilemmas, opposing impulses, and clashing ideas…It puts the character’s heart and mind in peril,” explains Maass.

One area in a novel that frequently looses steam due to a lack of tension is backstory.  This is at its worst when backstory is used up front, before the story even has a chance to get started.  We lose interest simply because we don’t care about all those bits the author thinks we need to know in order for the story to make sense.  James Scott Bell calls this a first page mistake and warns never to front load with backstory, noting it will only serve to stall instead.  Maass contends that backstory may be added as long as it is not the point.  The point, he says, “is to set up the conflict of emotions and inner tension.”  He suggests using the past to create present conflict, that this will “stir curiosity to find out what will happen.

So while tension is not the only aspect of a successful page-turner, it is of primary importance.  After reading “The Fire in Fiction,” I read through my own manuscript.  For the most part, I did have tension is every paragraph, but I where it lagged, I pumped it up using the techniques described in Maass’s book.  I highly recommend it as a necessary tool on craft for every writer. 

Read through your own manuscript.  Is tension present in every chapter, paragraph, or sentence?