Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Writing is cumulative, in many senses, and if an agent doesn't like your opening, that will at best color their perception of the rest of your sample. At worst, it will make them reach for the form letter without reading any more at all. Our job is to have exceptionally clean prose and get to the point as quickly as possible during those first pages. We need to give the reader reasons to keep reading, while at the same time giving them NO reasons to stop reading. With stacks of queries as bad as what Rachel Vater discusses being pretty common, I've read statements from agents who say that they are actively looking for a reason to put down those sample pages; they already have a fairly full client list, and they only want new unsolicited work that is absolutely immaculate.
I've gone through a number of drafts of my opening with the help of a number of really talented editors (my wife, and author Beverly Swerling being at the top of that list). I felt like the version that I first posted on this blog earlier this month was about as strong as I could get it. Overall, I think that perception may have been close to accurrate, but there was one thing that I was being too subtle about. That has been corrected now, and I think it makes my opening a lot stronger.
The issue is that my prologue includes an exciting event--a death--and then chapter 1 has Sean Sunderland--the main character--waking up. A lot of agents don't like wake-up starts to novels, but mine is handled differently enough that I think it is okay. The problem, however, is that even though we've just seen this death in the prologue, it isn't obvious from the start that the issues in chapter 1 are anything but normal work stuff for Sean. When the start of a novel seems too ordinary, with no concrete promises that anything different or life-changing is coming, readers start to wonder why the story is starting where it does. This problem resolves itself by the end of my first chapter, but in order to really pique the interest of agents and readers I realized I had to resolve that issue much sooner. As Miss Snark likes to say, we need that "flaming corpse."
Thus, my opening line has been changed to now immediately indicate that something significant is about to happen: "On the night the demons came for me, I awoke in a cold sweat, sitting straight up in bed." The highlighted section is what is new, and I think that this really helps to change the tone of the entire opening scene. Something unexpected is happening at work--okay, if I don't know anything beyond that, it sounds really prosaic. But if you first tell me that demons are coming for you that night, then the unexplained event at work suddenly seems sinister and dangerous--which it is. It just wasn't coming across before.
I had already set up a number of phrases and small events in the first chapter that served to create tension, and now they all feed into this one statement of "on the night the demons came for me," and serve to strengthen that tension: the way Sean finds his coworker Derrick comatose, the way Thomas appears behind Sean in the courtyard, the way Sean stays behind while the others leave. . . all of this takes on new meaning with just a small addition.
I made this first edit a couple of days ago, but didn't mention it then on the blog. Today, I've made a second small edit: at the start of the second scene of chapter one, when Sean has just arrived at the office, the line previously read: "I walked quickly as I crossed the parking lot to the back entrance; I found the nighttime silence uncomfortable." It now reads: "I walked quickly as I crossed the parking lot to the back entrance; the deep silence seemed unnatural." I had originally intended for this statement to be mildly creepy, but I was just being far too subtle about it for that to work. The new wording reinforces the fear that a demon could potentially be jumping out to kill Sean at any moment. The fact that the situation doesn't quite resolve itself in the way one might expect is irrelevant; I think that it is actually stronger that the demons "come for him" in a way that is unexpected.
Anyway, these are two extremely small edits to the first chapter, but I think that they help bring to the surface the tensions that I had already set up. Hopefully they will both go a long way towards convincing agents (and later editors, and then readers...) that they want to read more of my book.
This underscores the importance of a strong query package more than ever for me. I've been working on my query letter a lot over the past few days (in case I get rejections from the agents I currently have queries out with), and now I'm even more glad I've been revisiting it.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Oh, and one other side note--the quote in Latin at the very start of the book is something that I wrote myself; Gnaeus Furius Eboracum is a character in my world, not a real historical person. Ten points if you can tell me what modern European city he lived in! I'll give you a hint: the etymology of his name tells you everything you need to know. Ahh... my Latin teachers will be proud to learn that my five years of Latin weren't for nothing, I imagine.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
The first problem that I was facing was that I just wasn't certain about some of two of my main characters' motivations early in the story. I had enough backstory that I knew each character quite well, but the situation they were in was ambiguous enough that they could each react in a couple of different ways. I was having trouble deciding in which way to have them react. This is normally something that I would just let work itself out on the page, or in my last stage of prewriting for a chapter, but this time it wasn't happening. After a rip roaring start, I was stuck.
Fortunately, no three week break from writing was required this time (that's happened to me before). Tonight, I realized that it wasn't a problem of characters' motivation at all--that wasn't the root problem, anyway. The problem was that I didn't know exactly where the plot was going. I had the general plot arc all set up, and all the themes, setting, characters, and so on designed to perfection, but I still didn't quite have a story. Or rather, the story that I had in mind was enough for a long short story, or a short novella, but not a full-length novel.
It just wasn't complex enough, and also would have required a lot of boring, ruminative exposition to really address my central themes. When I realized this, I realized that I had neglected my fundamental rule of novel writing: a great novel must have TWO strong ideas. For THE GUARDIAN, my first idea is what is highlighted in my overview--the Otherworld, Sean's abilities as a Thaumaturge, demons lurking, the world is based on a lie. Those are actually multiple ideas, I know, but they all essentially fit together to create the basic premise and setting. These are the elements that you learn about early on into the story. What comes later, which I've referred to as a 'twist' thus far, is what makes the story really unique.
I was thinking about how I'd set all that up, and knew that was lacking in ALDEN RIDGE. You've basically read about the general gist of that book's first idea in my overview--the zombies, broken earth urban fantasy--all of that again addresses the setting and the premise. There's some other very cool stuff along those lines that you don't know about yet (naturally), but nothing that would be completely unexpected to a really smart reader of the genre.
To address this problem, I kept coming back to my central themes: lots of ruminative exposition would kill the book, even if I was actually able to finish writing it (I have a really hard time writing things I know aren't interesting). I needed a way to convey all those ideas, to build those themes, without requiring them to ever be explicitly stated. Obvious, you say? Well, that is how themes generally work, I know. But early into a project, things like that can be forgotten--at least by me.
The solution to my themes problem and my second-great-idea problem turned out to be exactly the same: externalize the themes. This idea isn't original to me: I once heard it said that (to paraphrase) "the greatest strength of fantasy is its ability to externalize the internal conflicts of the characters." I did this in a major way with my twist in THE GUARDIAN, and now I have what you might call a twist in ALDEN RIDGE using this same basic technique.
I need to remember this for the future. I need to remember that this is why I've always loved fantasy more than any other genre (even more than sci-fi, thriller, or horror): fantasy is able to take unique characters and setting, and blend them into a cohesive whole in which one is reflected in the other.
P.S. - There is also now going to be a much larger element of romance in this story. Romance is an important aspect of THE GUARDIAN, as well, but also something that I'm largely deferring to later books in that series (just because of how the story goes). I hadn't anticipated having the opportunity for a strong romantic sub-plot in ALDEN RIDGE, so I'm excited to suddenly have that.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
This is more of a vague book jacket description, if anything--though it's not really in the right format for that, either. It has some elements of a Project Description for a nonfiction book, but doesn't even stay to that faithfully. So, my point is that a description in this fashion isn't good for much of anything inside the actual publishing arena, but I think it will suffice for giving blog readers an idea of what the heck this story is even about.
THE GUARDIAN is set in the present day, but follows an alternate timeline in which computers are of little importance and the Internet does not exist—instead, twenty years ago, the Otherworld was invented. The Otherworld is a magical plane, apparently endless and initially featureless. Over the course of the last two decades, these virgin lands have been built up and settled by citizens of nearly every country of the world we know, which people now call the Outside.
The one blot on the history of the Otherworld is that its inventor was brutally and unexpectedly murdered only five years after he revealed his discovery. His death, and the death of the research team that had worked alongside him, sealed a secret of the Otherworld that only they knew: it was not created by any human hands. The Otherworld has seemingly always existed, and the undetected human civilizations there stretch back well over ten thousand years—perhaps even predating the earliest recorded Outside history.
The protagonist of the story, an Outsider named Sean Sunderland, works in the Otherworld as a guardian magi—one who maintains magical systems and protects his company’s Otherworld facilities from magical intrusion. When Sean passes through a door that inexplicably appears in his office building, he finds himself in an entirely unknown part of the Otherworld, filled with ancient towns, mythical creatures, and an evil that has reigned since the birth of humankind. This is Ivoria, the oldest realm of the Otherworld, separated by a great abyss from the Far Reaches that the Outsiders inhabit.
Ivoria is lorded over by an entire civilization of demons, who hope to capture Sean because of powers he does not even realize he possesses. They hunt the last of the Thaumaturges, powerful magi who are able to control magic without the aid of the runes and amulets which are normally required. As Sean discovers more of Ivoria, he becomes increasingly aware of the connections between it and his own world, and the danger that the unsuspecting Outside populace is in. At the same time, he is forced to face his growing power and the potential threat that he represents to those around him. While Sean tries to reconcile all the conflicting parts of his life, it becomes progressively clearer that he must face the demons if he is to save not only himself, but the masses of innocents suffering under demonic rule.
Last night I started working on the actual writing itself, and I managed to get the entire prologue and first chapter written--that's 3,756 words already, and that's really an unusually high amount for me to write in one sitting, especially at the start of a story. These are good signs that I've done my homework and my concept feels solid to me. Also, looks like this is going to be dark urban fantasy with a lot of suspense--as opposed to horror, or even sci-fi. I'm glad for that, because that's more in line with THE GUARDIAN.
I'll post the first bit of the book up here once I have more time to revise the start, but for now I'll just leave a brief description that I've cooked up. The description is adequate, I think, but not really wonderful. It's also too long to use in a query letter, and not specific enough about the ending (which I wouldn't post on my blog, anyway). So, with those caveats that this is still a work very much in progress:
In the year 2018, Elaine Levine Ward has hit the end of her rope. The Dead have ruled the earth for nearly a decade, the remaining populace of the rural town of Alden Ridge is dwindling along with its supplies, and all the happy futures Elaine ever imagined for herself are long gone. She lives in the ruins of an old electronics factory with her husband and a few other survivors, away from the main body of the town itself. Ever since That Day nine years ago, life has been little more than an endless string of tasks that have to be performed in order to just have food, warmth, and shelter from the unrelenting pursuit of The Dead. It seems that this is humanity's final hour; there have been six suicides in the town in the last year, and recently Elaine has started to entertain such dark thoughts herself. Her dreams of children, leisure, and meaning have only been pulling steadily away.
But everything starts to change when a doctor and his daughter arrive seeking solace that September. For the first time in a long time, Elaine has to start making important decisions on her own, and she is surprised to find that she can still take some kind of power in this world of horror. With this realization returns the hope that, even in a world so dominated by death and evil, she can still create that which she has been seeking all along: a good life.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Instead, on Beverly's advice, I'm going to start working on an entirely different project for now, and I'll resume work on the sequel once THE GUARDIAN is actually sold. I have a number of other projects that I'm really interested in working on, and so this is actually exciting for me. I don't want to work on any of the other series/trilogies that I have ideas for right now (since these are harder to plan and to sell), so instead I'm going to work on a standalone novel. It's a breath of fresh air just to be able to work on a project that doesn't require preplanning seven novels!
This is also good for me because it separates my current writing work from the stress and anxiety associated with the book I'm currently trying to sell. It's a bit of a shame, because everything was just starting to fall into place for the sequel, but I'm saving all my notes and will revisit them as soon as things are more settled with THE GUARDIAN.
So, expect more thoughts on writing in the coming weeks, but I wouldn't expect anything on sequels for a while yet.
That's the sort of rejection that doesn't hurt too much, thankfully. I see THE GUARDIAN as being comfortably sci-fi-like, but he didn't and I'm not about to hold it against him. Nathan is a relatively new agent, but he's with a major house and is so knowledgeable and personable that I had to send him a query even though mainstream fantasy isn't his thing. At least it's not like he read any substantial portion of my work and just didn't like it.
Thanks very much for the note, and for being a regular commenter on my blog, I really appreciate your very smart comments. I’m afraid, as you allude to, that I don’t represent very much fantasy and thus I don’t feel that I would be the most appropriate agent for your work. However, I wish you all the best in your search for representation, and I wish you every success.
The second rejection that I got was in my inbox this morning, and was just a form letter from Nadia Cornier over at (her own) Firebrand literary agency. I don't have any idea what didn't rub her the right way about my query letter, but something obviously didn't. I guess I can't really argue with that, but I always hate not getting more of a chance than just the query and partial. But I understand that agents can't go reading everything that comes their way, so when I don't come off right in the query, that's just my own fault. Or just plain incompatibility with what the agent is looking for. (Hey, if this was easy, everyone would be published.)
At any rate, that brings me up to 13 rejections total. I can't pretend that it's not severely demoralizing to get so many rejections, but at the same time I have gotten enough that were personal or otherwise "near misses" that I can't complain too much. (Unless all I ever get are near misses, I suppose.)
This morning I sent off the last of my third round of queries. I'm very hopeful that one of these will be the one that's the right fit, but it will probably be a while before I hear anything. USPS Priority Mail should get the queries in NY by Monday, so it will probably be a few weeks yet on those. I do have one other query that was electronic, so perhaps I'll hear something on that sooner. As always, when I know something, you'll know something!
(Miss the start of this story? Start with: My agent story so far.)
UPDATE 2/20/07: Another pass
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Monday, February 12, 2007
Now that things are properly kicked off, so to speak, I expect to be making a couple of posts per week. It's not that I'm losing interest, but blogging really has to take a backseat to my real job, and writing. And hey, my wife would like to see some of me, too.
I've said from the start that I'm not going to be putting up daily word counts, or the daily adventures of our cats, and the number of informative posts that I can generate per week is probably less than five. But we'll see. I just don't want anyone to get irritated because their expectations for this blog are different from my own.
To all of you who have kept checking back with me: thanks! Expect another post on writing later this week, probably Thurday or Friday.
Friday, February 9, 2007
I have a number of possible plots for use in the series (which is intended to be seven books), and though I know the overarching story and themes that I want to cover in each installment, the specifics of the sub-plots and smaller-scale events are not mapped out. I think that this is pretty common; it gives my entire series room to grow in unexpected directions, etc.
Well, anyway, this is the second time that I've scrapped a large chunk of this second book, and gone back to start writing it again. This time I'm pretty confident that I have it right, though--the solution that was found last night is actually kind of obvious: write a closer continuation of the first story, which is what I had intended to do from the start, rather than trying to branch off in too many other directions at once (with the sub-plots, that is). See, THE GUARDIAN is a complete book by itself (as it has to be, of course), but it also leaves a number of things open, or in progress, at the very end. In other words, its strongest sub-plot is resolved to satisfaction, but all the secondary sub-plots continue. This was by design, and is just part of how one sets out to write a series, in my mind--there are a lot of single-books-that-turn-into-trilogies that don't do this, but that generally makes for a jarring leap between books 1 and 2. And even those trilogies tend to do this between books 2 and 3.
My whole goal with the way I ended the first book was to avoid that problem in the transition between the first and second book, but somehow when I started working on the sequel I still ignored a lot of that. The problem, then, became that the sequel was just feeling too separate to me. Each book in a series needs to be its own individual story, but the books all need to be connected in numerous ways, too. It's when those connections start feeling too tenuous that readers get irritated and drop the series (there are other reasons too, of course, but that's a big one).
Sequel-writing has a lot of challenges to it that simply do not exist in writing a first book, or a standalone book. I've broached the topic a little bit today, but expect to see a lot more on this subject in the future. This is a particularly interesting subject to me, both because that's what I am currently trying to write, and because it's something that is discussed so much less among writers. I think that the general sense among a lot of people is that if you can author one book, authoring the followup is much easier. There are a few senses in which that is true, but a vast many more in which that is a horrible lie: the bar is set that much higher in every installment in a series, and it's the writers who understand that who write the really stellar series.
Here again, I think the old axiom "whatever works for you" is best. Personally, I tend to be pretty erratic in my writing. I don't try to keep myself to short-term schedules, and I don't set word count goals for the day, week, or month. I try not to treat this like a job--not yet, anyway. Maybe that will change once an agent and publisher get involved, but that's not something I'm going to worry over just yet.
For now, my goal is two write a solid rough draft of a ms about every year to year and a half. That's outside of work, family, and everything else. If I'm ever at a point where writing becomes my only job, then suddenly I'll have a lot more time to sink into writing. Then, my goal will be to always have two different books (not in the same series) going at once. Orson Scott Card does that, and has commented before (both on his website and in his writing books) about how helpful that is to him--the two stories feed off each other, and each is improved by the act of working on the other, etc. And when he gets bored or stuck with one, he can just change to working on the other until he breaks through that block. Sounds good to me, but I don't have that kind of time or attention while I'm also working at my daily job as a programmer; my attention is already split enough as it is, these days.
For the moment, I take a totally different approach to my writing from what is generally recommended: I write when I feel like it. You might think that would work pretty poorly, but fact is that in most hours of most days, I feel a pretty strong desire to write. It's almost always there in the back of my mind: I wish I was working on my book. Or I could be writing my book instead of this. I'm thinking it now, quiet in the back, while I'm working on this blog post. So any time I have the energy (both physical and emotional) and a large-enough block of time (2-3 hours), I generally try to sit down and do some writing.
The exceptions are when I've hit some sort of blockage with a scene, but I've discovered something: when this happens, it's generally because I'm just not ready to write that scene yet. Either I just haven't thought it out well enough yet, in which case I need to do some more prewriting (using my handy Outlining program), or the scene just doesn't resonate with me yet. Maybe that means there's some problem with my current conception of the scene, and that means I need to go back to the drawing board on the general idea, or maybe that means I'm just not in the right mood. When this sort of thing happens, I try to do what I can at the time without actually doing any writing (so, thinking, prewriting, or editing), or else I just leave it and do something else, knowing that writing session was a lost cause.
The result of all this: when I'm really in the flow, I can write for 3-7 hours per day (in the evenings), 5-7 days per week. One way or another, those sessions usually end up letting me edit 2,000 to 5,000 words, as well as writing 1,000 to 4,000 words. I always start by editing the content that comes right before my new content. My standard goal is 2,000 new words, but I don't hold myself to that (higher or lower). When I hit a place where I'm stuck, sometimes I go as many as three weeks without writing. Usually when that happens, the reason I start again is because I have the epiphany that I've been waiting for. That usually spurs my most productive times, when I can write 3,000+ words per night for a week or two. On super-rare occasions, I've spent 12-17 hours in one weekend day, and written 8,000 words of content. That's only happened like three times, and is usually surrounding some sort of climax in the book. Most of the time, it's pretty consistently 2,000 words per sitting.
All of that is how THE GUARDIAN got written, anyway. In fits and spurts. I didn't write anything that I wasn't genuinely excited about for whatever reason, and I didn't just "press on" when my good ideas were drying up. Instead I read, watched movies, listened to music, or just generally relaxed until those good ideas started returning, or until something I read or watched or heard triggered a new idea in me.
Some unpublished writers talk about keeping their ideas "pure" by not reading anything else while they do their work. I had to do that at first, before I really found my own voice, but now I try to do the opposite. If I'm having trouble writing, I do all I can to take in quality, unrelated media, music, and literature, and see if anything sparks something new.
Overall, this would be a hard approach to recommend to somebody. I mean, I can't in good conscience even recommend it to you. The only reason it works for me is because I have that underlying drive to write, and that's what keeps me coming back to the keyboard. Since I have that drive, I essentially get a manner of quality control by limiting my writing to my really prime times. It works for me for now, but I'll let you know how things change as writing becomes less hobby and more career.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Anyway, I want to go on and clear one thing up: sure, part of the reason that CAYENNE didn't get published was because I approached the industry all wrong. I didn't do a very good job of research (though, in my defense, the 2001 Internet didn't hold a candle to the 2007 Internet), etc. All of that is still true.
But, the fact remains, even if I had done things right, the only difference would have been a bigger collection of rejection letters. And I bet I wouldn't have gotten any personal notes. I have some friends who legitimately loved the story in CAYENNE, but they were my friends... and very forgiving of all my many faults as a writer at the time. They slogged through the uninteresting 15 page prologue, they read all the page-long, italicized, "history of my science fiction world" blurbs at the start of every chapter. They even kept their suspension of disbelief through wonky plot twists that had (normal, non-magic) knights in full armor dodging bullets!
I'd love to say "bless them" here, but that's not really something I say. Hmm. But you get the idea.
Here's the deal: I really liked the book when I finished it. I mean, I liked the story. Most of it. When the book was really following the story, there were some parts that I really loved--and still do. However, there was also a fair bit of what I call "running around." You see this in action movies all the time, but it's okay then because you have car chases and explosions and gun battles. It's not exclusive to action movies--Beverly Swerling has called them "highways and byways that don't get you where you want to go", and I think that's apt. It happens in a lot of books, and perhaps even more movies--anything that's not quite as well written as it should be has those sequences where there's a lot of motion, but nothing's really happening.
Well, when I finished the book, I knew it had these flaws. I doubt I would have admitted it at the time, but I could tell. The book was so full of stuff that was just a little off key that I doubt even the best editor would have been all that much help. I spent over three months trying to edit the thing myself, chasing these phantom issues, but the most notable thing I was able to accomplish was to change 70% of the character's names (I'm not kidding. My pilot readers really didn't like that).
But here's the thing I kept coming back to: I had finished a book. I figured I had to be able to get it published, even if I knew it wasn't my best work. I didn't personally know anyone else who had ever finished a book, and my impression was that anyone who did so was more-or-less going to get it published. I mean, there are enough not-so-good books on supermarket racks that you can see where I would get this impression. So I submitted it, and you already know how poorly that went.
That could have been the end of it. I guess for a lot of people it is--by the time I knew that CAYENNE was hopeless, I had spent seven years trying to write and publish a first novel. You might think it would have been difficult to try to start the next project. But the funny thing was, I wasn't even that discouraged. I mean, in some ways I hardly even noticed.
Because I was already on to the next project. If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation with your first book, and you're really a writer, you won't give up. You won't be able to. Hopefully, you're already past this point in your career, or are never going to hit this point, but for those of you who are there now: take comfort in the fact that you're not the only one. In fact, if you skipped the "first finished failure" step of your career, I think you're in the minority. You probably know all the stories of the massive numbers of rejections to various famous authors as well as I do. Mark Twain, John Grisham, Frank Herbert. It's just part of the writing process.
But when you have your next book, the one that's really ready for prime time, remember not to mention that first book in your query letter. It doesn't give the right impression--did I give the right impression here? I hope this wasn't the first thing you've ever read by me! Consider.
Here's the other story. (dum, dum, dum...) Okay, I don't have any idea why I decided to make this sound ominous/funny. I guess it was because I was just reading something humorous over at Nathan Bransford's blog. That guy is very sharp, but he cracks me up--and have you ever noticed how you start writing like the people you read? Yes, you have. Everyone notices that. See? I'm writing banter--and I never write banter, because I'm not good at it and we all know that banter doesn't generally carry over too well into written form. I blame Bransford for this. But never fear, it will wear off shortly.
(Ahem. My posts tend to trend long, but it's not normally because I'm so rambly. I'll get on with it.)
My story of trying to find an agent for THE GUARDIAN is long to read because a lot happened. Also pretty long because it covers about eight months of time thus far (that story hasn't yet ended). However, I also have a much shorter story about a book called CAYENNE--even though it covers about... oh, let's just say two years of my life. This story is so much shorter because, when I finished writing CAYENNE in 2001, I did something very stupid: I tried to submit directly to the publisher.
My thought was: who wants to pay 15% to an agent for the rest of his life? I can do this on my own! So I printed up the ms at kinkos, sent that sucker off to Tor, and waited... for nine months. And then: still nothing happened. So I waited another four months, and then decided that probably meant they weren't interested.
I was a bit more distanced from my book at this point, and starting to see all its many flaws. I was trying to write another book, and though I wasn't yet having much success, I was seeing a marked improvement in my writing since finishing CAYENNE. Oh well, I figured. I never thought the book was going to be hardback, anyway. Surely there's a house that wants to publish this mass market.
So I decided to send it off to Baen. They actually were way ahead of their time at this point--they actually let you submit online via email! Well, that was great--I was sure to get a response quicker! So I sent it off, and I did get a very fast response (under a minute!). I still have it:
Baen Manuscript Submission
Do not reply to this message as it is an automated response.
Thank you for your submission. Please note the following requirements
as given on our submissions page.
[etc, etc, etc]
The email actually came from an address with the name "slush." That was a good hint right there, but I went on and waited the requisite nine months anyway (but no baby. or offer. or response).
If you've been reading anything about publishing and agents, you already know the many reasons why this route didn't work for me. If you don't know why this didn't work out, you really should be going to places like Writer Beware's page on literary agents. And let my tale of CAYENNE serve as a warning--the "middle men" (who are women in the majority, I believe) are your dearest friends.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
To complicate matters, I was jotting down all sorts of things in a spiral notebook, too. That was convenient, because I could easily work outside in the sun on my back deck, or jot down notes from bed while I was half asleep. I often found myself coming up with a lot of ideas on the commute into the office, but I would quickly jot those down in an email to myself when I got to work, and then integrate those notes into my electronic files when I got home.
That approach worked all right during the course of writing THE GUARDIAN, but by the time I was ready to start working on the sequel, it was becoming unwieldy. This past weekend, I checked and I had five MS Word outlining-related files on my computer that contained over 45,000 words of content. Holy cow! I was introducing some new characters in the sequel, and having a really hard time cross-referencing them and their place in my story plans. Plus, there was still older content in that spiral notebook (50 pages front and back, and I write reasonably small). Something had to be done.
I started looking into some sort of software specifically for doing outlines. As a software designer, I've used numerous tools for planning out software architecture (Visio is my favorite), and I figured there had to be something of that sort that was more suitable for writing. At first, I mostly came up with a lot of old-as-the-hills programs, most dating from pre-95, and one nice-looking one that is only for the Mac (which I don't have). There were a couple of more recent ones that I found, but they were either expensive or strangely complicated (I'm trying to make this task easier on myself).
Finally, I stumbled upon what I felt were a couple of viable options. Here are some of the features common to many of the programs:
- Tree-based left sidebar for easy organization.
- Ability to add cross-reference links between one topic and another.
- Built in Rich Text Editor.
- The ability to link to external files (like documents or emails or whatever, if that's important to you).
-Compression that makes the outlining database take up much less space than the original MS Word files (30% less disk space, in many cases).
- Spell Check.
- Cross-topic search and replace.
- Topic bookmarks.
- Word Count.
- Mouse-based and keyboard-based commands.
The first program is Treepad. It's very simple on the surface, it's cheap, it's fast, and I've ported all my MS Word files into it (A manual process, I must warn you. It took me some four hours to do this). This program has a wealth of options that was unmatched by any of the other programs I looked at. The formatting of most anything can be adjusted, including icons and colors, etc, for the tree nodes. This was also the only editor in which I noticed a tabs and indents control bar like in MS Word (you must turn on Advanced Mode for this to appear). It also has a handy little backup option that doesn't require you to shut off the program to make a copy of your database file.
On the downside, Treepad's word count feature only works in the current article you are looking at, and the ability to drag-and-drop sections from one location to another is a little buggy. The drag and drop works, but it takes me a several clicks sometimes. At least this isn't something that I need to do very often. Also, the spell checker is only available in their Business version or higher. That's only $20 more expensive than their Plus version, so I don't see this as really being a big issue. Some of the other programs still cost a little more than the Business version, anyway. Finally, topics can be cross-linked via making a literal link inside one topic to another (it's very easy), but there isn't a way to add a "virtual node" on the sidebar that is actually a link to another topic somewhere else. That's a feature I really liked in some of the other software.
The second program, ActionOutline, is also pretty good. The interface is certainly prettier than Treepad, for what that's worth, and the program also has a better "feel" to it. It just felt better when I was clicking around and doing things. The drag-and-drop feature for moving topics around in here is really easy, which is nice. A lot of the features of Treepad are also found here.
However, it doesn't have any sort of a word count feature (and hey, I like to quantify my planning for whatever reason). Also, changing the icons of the nodes just isn't as easy. You can define all new node types, but then it takes extra clicks to be able to use them. I'd much rather just use the Insert key, and adjust the icons later at will if I need to. The Rich Text Editor here is beautiful to use, very easy, but a little simplistic. But even these things can be worked around pretty easily. The main killer for me is the lack of a spell check here. There also doesn't seem to be any way to add cross-reference links between different topics in the database, but honestly that's a feature I doubt I will be using much. The tree view is just too useful for me to bother with the cross-links yet.
A third option is WhizFolders, which just didn't rub me the right way from the get-go. It has cool features like file linking, spell check, and even full word count support, but it's design is perhaps best described as "fidgety." It's always doing the not-quite-right thing as I click around and add topics and such (and I'm not one of those people who double-clicks everything. Their software is just set to do operations such as rename on way too short of a time interval with clicks). But, you can also do cross-links between topics using "virtual node" urls, which is a really nice touch (I must say). I'm not sure that I would use that feature much, since these outlines are really just for my own personal use (but I might in the future).
It's strange, because their software is a mix of really bad and really good design, in my opinion. The virtual nodes concept is awesome, and their Rich Text Editor is pretty darn good. But the way the windows are handled (one "listing" window has to be open in the background at all times, for instance) is just crazy. Give this program a try, and if you can look past it's quirks you might find you really like it a lot. I was very, very tempted, but ultimately decided to go with Treepad's much more solid-feeling design. Treepad still has more options in general, anyway.
The final good option that I found is Ultra Recall, which is really more for business users who want to keep track of what they are doing. It's got great journaling features and calendars and all sorts of file-linking options, but it's not what I would call a convenient outliner. It has loads and loads of features, but that's just not quite the sort of thing I found I was looking for. But if you're looking for an everything-organizer, this looks like it might be pretty good for that!
In the end, as I've already mentioned, I settled on Treepad. It had the right blend of features-to-sanity that I was looking for. I've sent them a note requesting that they fix the issues with the drag-and-drop, and asking if they would consider adding more comprehensive word count functionality. I haven't heard back yet (I sent it two days ago), but that's not entirely unsurprising. I'll let you know if I ever hear anything there.
What changed? Planning. With CAYENNE, for the first time in my career I did detailed planning and outlining before I began the novel. I had about 25 single-spaced pages of detailed scene plans and such for that book, and during the year and a half it took me to write the story, I didn't deviate much from that central plan. That turned out to ultimately have a negative impact on the believability of the story (due to faults and oversights in my original plan), but it did aid me significantly in writing the book. CAYENNE turned out not to be worth publishing, but writing it was a great step in the right direction for me. It helped me learn some of the patterns of being a real novelist.
I was generally preoccupied with my career as a software programmer from 2001-2004, but I did make a about six halfhearted attempts at writing a second novel. Three of them I planned extensively, but those plans didn't resonate well enough with me, and so I ultimately dropped those stories. The other three I did not plan at all beyond the basic premise, and they died even faster.
It was in mid 2004 that I had some of the first ideas for THE GUARDIAN, and I spent a good number of months jotting down ideas and plans for a series based around those concepts. I didn't write any actual narrative at all, or any particular low-level plot, but I did write some 40 pages of world planning, magic design (it's a fantasy), character development--all that backstory stuff.
In early 2005, I actually started working on the narrative of the book itself. At that point, I had loads and loads of planning done, and I knew many of the places, characters, devices, etc, extremely well. I also knew the shape of the over-arching story and themes. What did I not have? Actual play-by-play notes for the individual chapters. I struggled through about 20,000 words in this manner, but the going was very slow. I was basically planning as I went, and that worked pretty badly. I mean, the result was fine, but it was agonizing for me and quite slow.
But, because of all the other planning I had done and my commitment to the story, I didn't let that stop me. Instead I shifted tack, and started planning out just the next chapter or two before I wrote them. This was a little bit awkward at first, but over the course of the rest of the book I got very used to this approach. For me, it turned out to be the perfect hybrid--I didn't have to try to mix planning and writing together as one activity (agony and slowness), and I didn't have to plan out the entire book in advance.
The top advantage of not having the entire book planned out at the start is that it gives you flexibility to do the unexpected. If you've planned out your component parts (characters, settings, overall conflicts and motivations, world rules, etc.) well enough, then this sort of approach gives you room to just let the characters be themselves and take you somewhere unexpected. Trust me--I would never have planned on the things that happen in the second half of THE GUARDIAN. There would not have been a character named Valdur if I hadn't taken this approach with my outline. And it's exactly that character, and the events surrounding him in the second half of the book, that readers find so compelling. It would have been an okay book with my original general ideas for the book, but nothing all that special.
Truth be told, a lot of the stuff I originally planned just wasn't that interesting. It set up a nice framework, but the really unique stuff developed on its own because I gave it the time and space to do so. But on the other hand, I never would have made it to the latter half of the book without all the preplanning I did. For me, it takes a little of both approaches.
I recently saw an interesting post over at Caitlín R. Kiernan's blog that was comparing her original proposal for DAUGHTER OF HOUNDS to what the actual finished product was. I confess to not having read the book, but it sounds as if Kiernan is pretty glad that the finished product was divergent. It sounds like she experienced the same sort of "transformation on the page" that I did.
I've read what a lot of writers think on the subject of outlines, and everyone thinks something different. Like anything else with writing, I think the best answer is that you have to find out what works for you personally. There aren't any magic formulas. But one other thing has also become clear to me: it seems that nearly every writer uses some form of outline, be it the full deal, a matrix, or just a starting synopsis. If you're trying to decide on some form of outline, I think the best way to approach it is to consider what form of outline might have the best payoff of usefulness, while having the lowest cost in terms of distraction from the actual business of writing.
Because that's what it's all about. Letting yourself write. The reason I need the kind of outlining I do is simply that not having it distracts me while I'm trying to write. It's hard to even make myself sit down to type if I don't have some sort of plan. For me, that makes the outline absolutely invaluable. But to each his (or her) own.
Monday, February 5, 2007
To my mind, you need to be arrogant enough to press onward in the face of the nearly insurmountable odds that all new writers face, and yet you also need to be humble enough to recognize that everything you write isn't gold. There seem to be some writers who almost think of themselves as being godlike just for having finished writing a book at book at all, but they don't know just how many other people have also already finished unpublishable books. I certainly didn't know. I guess I kind of assumed that if you finshed a book, it would probably get published.
At any rate, arrogance like that means one thng: you'll never grow, because you'll never see your faults past your own ego. If you're going to be that touchy when anyone makes a suggestion to you, people are going to stop offering suggestions--but you might find that no one is offering representation, either.
On the flip side, I've seen too many people who just assume that writing a book is impossible, and so never even try. Or those who find out that writing is harder than they thought at first and then just quit. I hate to say it, but there are probably even people who complete legitimately good, publishable books, but who give up when they see the mountain of work, stress, and probably rejection that comes with actually getting it published. Or those who let a rejection or five stop them in their tracks.
Well, I don't think anyone claims that writing is easy. Lots of people in the business have written that it takes a "certain amount of insanity" to actually become a writer, and I think they are right. It's a special breed, that kind of person who is so weirdly confident and insecure at the same time. But that's the only type of person who's going to make it through the publishing gauntlet, save those with uncanny natural talents or unusual (possibly celebrity) connections.
I've thought about putting my query letter up here, but frankly that reveals a little more information about the book than I'd like to have on the Internet right now. I know that nobody cares about my little book right now, but my hope is that someday they might, and I don't want to have a bunch of spoilers posted right in my own blog. If you're just dying to see it (haha), let me know and I'll be happy to send it to you.
But here's a great time to note that, when it comes to things like query letters, my knowledge is second-hand, anyway. If you want a true expert on things like that (and agenting in general) you should talk to Bill and Beverly at Agent Research & Evaluation or (the famous) Miss Snark. But my purpose here is not to talk about agenting and querying agents, and how to get published (though I may on occasion). My purpose here is to talk about something I know much more about, namely: how to write a book that is actually worthy of being published in the first place. I don't have any fail-safe tips or some sort of bestseller recipe (I wish), but I do have some ideas that you should consider and think about on your own. I'll have more on that later.
Everyone objects to cliches, especially in entertainment, and this seems to distress a lot of unpublished writers. "But I want to write a book about a group of children who go through a portal and defeat a dark lord!" they cry. I saw a rather interesting discussion on this at Rachel Vater's "Lit Agent X" blog. As part of her blog, she commonly critiques her queries, listing common themes (among other strangeness) that she finds among the ones she rejects.
The problem is, a lot of the themes that she identifies as cliches (midlife crisis, woman going out on her own, etc) are things that a lot of her blog readers seem to want to write about. Ms. Vater's point, which I think isn't clear to some of her blog readers, is that such an idea can't be the sole content of the book. One great idea is almost never enough to create an entire book from in the first place, and the problem is only compounded if the idea happens to be overdone or cliche at the time of the pitch (what is cliche at the time the book is pitched might well be different from what is cliche when the book is written).
The thing to focus on, then, is having sufficient sub-plots, minor themes, and character development. All of these things are what create context and depth, and these are what really make a book great. It's all well and good to have a cool central idea--"an historian goes back in time to see the effects of the plague," for instance. But Connie Willis' DOOMSDAY BOOK wouldn't have been both a hugo and nebula winner if it wasn't for the depth of the characters (the unforgettable Kivrin, Collin, Aunt Mary, Mr. Dunworthy, and so on), all the twists and turns in the narrative (no one knows exactly what has happened, everyone is operating on various wrong assumptions, and there is both a sense of dread and mystery that compels us to press on with baited breath), and the vividness of seeing these other places and times that Willis describes.
A lot of that might seem to have little to do with overall themes or ideas, but it actually does. If books were just a single strong idea, they would only need to be a few pages long to express that idea. The novel is in the story, the characters, the interplay of multiple ideas and scenarios. A 50-word abstract of a book has to let people understand that these necessary elements exist, and that there is something new and interesting going on.
While my original description of THE DOOMSDAY BOOK is not exactly cliche, it is two dimensional. Time travel has been something of a popular topic in science fiction for a while, and "person X goes to see time Y" is not a very original idea. What might be a more appropriate description for this great book: "An historian from the future goes back in time on a routine time travel expedition, and finds herself in a dangerous situation at the same time that a mysterious illness arises in her home time." That's still not the world's best description (I'm sure Willis herself has much better ones), but it highlights the intrigue and interest and genuine newness of her story.
So, to me the actual problem is not cliches themselves, but rather what a cliche implies: a two dimensional story that we've all heard before. No depth. No imagination, just somebody imitating something else they read and liked. Not a real writer, just a starry-eyed reader that perhaps wanted to read more of story X, and so decided to write story X all over again. At least, it sounds like those are the thoughts that pass through the agents' minds when they see something they feel is cliche. You need to show with your brief description that you are a real writer, and an original thinker. You can use cliche story elements in fresh new ways in your story, but when you do that in the proper way you wind up with something else entirely: an original story. Just make sure your one-liner does it justice.
P.S. - Another thing to remember is that when querying an agent you shouldn't be coy about your ending. This isn't a book jacket. You want to convey the uniqueness of your story, and if that requires spoiling some major plot twists or ending elements, then so be it. My description of the DOOMSDAY BOOK was less interesting because I didn't reveal said major plot twists (but it's not my place to spoil someone else's book).
It happens that my brief description for THE GUARDIAN that I use in query letters does spoil rather a lot, but that's life. If I didn't do that, I'd come off with a description that was cliche, confusing, or both. As it is, the description I'm using has piqued the interest of at least two agents and one professional writer (I guess I'll find out how much that's worth later this year).
Sunday, February 4, 2007
What can you expect here? Well, I'm not going to be posting my daily word counts, what my cats are doing (we have three), or anything like that. That's not the kind of blog I like to read, and it's certainly not the kind of blog I'm going to write. Why do so many blog writers feel the need to fill the Internet up with trivial, uninteresting items? Once again, I think there are a lot of valid answers that can be given to this question. However, as a writer I think that the most compelling answer is that... they can't tell the difference. Call it narcissism, call it what you will--some people just can't tell the difference between personal trivia and a story that is going to interest someone else. That holds true whether the clueless individual is writing, or talking to you in person--come on, we've all met "that guy." The trick is to not be that guy, and that takes some degree of critical self-examination. I'm sure I'll have more to say on this topic in later posts, as this is a fundamental and very oft-overlooked aspect of writing well, but for now I'll leave that there.
At any rate, I hope you'll stick around for a while. Check out my art on picassa, and always feel free to leave questions in the comments section if there's anything specific you'd like me to address.