Archive for June, 2009



19
Jun
09

The one that worked

Back when I was searching for an agent, there was nothing I obsessed over quite as single mindedly as my query letter. I wasn’t alone in this, everyone who had a book they wanted to get into an agent’s hands was freaking out over the things. They were the first test, the first blood on the sand, and, as someone who has great troubles with brevity, a personal agony that had to be conquered.

Of course, there are tons of sites for working on queries. I enjoyed Evil Editor and the late, much lamented Miss Snark in particular. But those sites particularly focused on what is wrong with a specific letter, so I thought I’d take a break from pontificating about writerly things and post my query letter as an example of a not-so-perfect missive that actually worked.

So here it is, the query for The Spirit Thief that got me my agent:

Dear ,

In a world where everything has a soul, and an opinion, Eli is a wizard with an uncanny knack for getting inanimate objects to do what he wants. He’s also the age’s most famous thief, with a price on his head large enough to fund a small war. But that’s not nearly enough for Eli, he has a higher goal: earn a bounty of one million gold or die trying. Of course, “die trying” is exactly what Miranda Lyonet, the wizardess in charge of catching Eli before he ruins the reputation of wizards everywhere, would prefer he did. The Spirit Thief, complete at 80,000 words, is about what happens when magic, money, and a royal kidnapping gone wrong change the rules in the old game of cat and cat.

When Eli breaks out of jail by literally charming a door off its hinges and kidnaps the king of Mellinor, a country that has forbidden magic since its founding, there’s nothing the nobles can do. Fortunately for them, Miranda is right on Eli’s trail. But things get complicated when the kidnapped king’s older brother, Renaud, himself a wizard banished by Mellinor’s law, takes advantage of the confusion to make his triumphant return. But Miranda is suspicious, would a banished prince really stick his neck out for the younger brother who took his throne?

She gets her answer when Renaud sabotages the king’s rescue, cheating Eli out of his ransom and framing Miranda for the real king’s death. To clear her name, Miranda must take on the traitorous prince, and for that she’ll need help. Unfortunately, “help” means swallowing her pride and teaming up with the thief who started this whole mess.

I’ve included the first four pages and a synopsis of the entire work below. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Sincerely,
Rachel Aaron
(contact info)

Man, that doesn’t sound NEARLY as good as I used to think it did.  Just goes to show, the proof is in the pages!

18
Jun
09

Optimistic… Fantasy?

I’ve been hearing a lot of calls lately for optimistic, upbeat science fiction. There are at least two anthologies coming soon that want it, and apparently there was a minor fracas in the blogosphere recently over one author’s calls for an “ethical” stand against negativity. (Is negativity unethical? But I digress.)

I have to admit that I haven’t felt much of an urge to heed these calls for a number of reasons, but probably the biggest among them is that I just don’t get it. I don’t feel like I’m drowning under a swiftly-rising tide of vitriol and nihilism; really, I’m feeling more hopeful about the SF/F/H fiction genre lately than I have in a long time. In fact I had to think hard to remember the last “downbeat” novel I read (Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man), and I’m not sure I could really consider it downbeat, because however ugly it got in the middle (and boy did it; PTSD-inducing tragedies happened to everybody in that book) I knew that by the end, good things would happen. (And they did, quite satisfyingly.) Not necessarily happily-ever-after, note; fantasy novels have no problem killing off major characters or invoking a bit o’ the old Armageddon. That said, there is a certain tendency in fantasy novels to “put the world to rights”* once the MacGuffin of Power is back on the Pedestal of Safety, and the Stoic Heroine has successfully landed a Stoic Hero in bed, if not at the altar. This happens even in dark fantasy, though with a bit of role reversal or moral relativism thrown in — the Dark Lord turns out to be a good guy with bad PR (e.g., Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology), or gets redeemed in the end (e.g., C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy), et cetera. It happens so consistently that I literally can’t remember ever seeing a true “rocks fall, everybody dies” ending in fantasy.

Which got me thinking: maybe 50% of what I read these days is fantasy. Could that be why I feel no desperate craving for optimism?

Maybe all these optimism-craving sciencefictionistas should just up their fantasy intake a bit, and then they’d feel better.

* There’s probably a lit-critty term for this, but hey — I majored in Psych, not English.

17
Jun
09

Armageddon married in the morning

I won’t have a post up next week, on account of I’m getting married this weekend.  Which explains some of my scatterbrained nature these last few weeks, as whatever originally passed for gray matter in my skull has since been turned into tulle and sparkles and vitally important questions like who’s taking care of the damn tablecloths.  (Answer: Why does it even matter?  They’re tablecloths, not important stuff like rings or licenses or making sure my bridesmaids don’t attach an ARE YOU LOOKING AT MY ASS sign to my back.)

I admit that when I thought up this post, I’d originally planned it as a long involved comparison between planning a wedding and writing a novel, ending up with some nice little platitude about the process being unimportant, so long as the ultimate result was good.  Only that’s not going to happen, because the two things are not at all alike.  Yeah, you can get them to match if you approach the metaphor in a Procrustean way, cutting off most of the details and stretching the remaining ones.  Do that, and the same comparison could apply to baking a loaf of banana bread as well.

So instead I’m going to just list a few things I’ve learned from fiction about weddings. Because that’s about what my brain can handle at the moment. Those who’ve gone through this already and those who just know what they’ve read/watched/thought up are invited to post more. Continue reading ‘Armageddon married in the morning’

16
Jun
09

Continuing Adventures

My background as a reader, and thus my direction as a writer, is heavily weighted toward fantasy, science fiction, and horror.Though I’m best known for writing an open-ended template series — where there are continuing characters but each book stands (mostly) alone — I didn’t have a lot of experience reading books like that.

When I read series, they were usually trilogies (or quartets or the occasional longer arc), which have a completely different shape; indeed, when writing my Marla Mason novels, I was probably guided more by the lessons of television shows than by anything I read in novels — the TV series being, in many cases, a perfect example of telling new stories about the same people again and again.

In books, the template series is most common in mysteries. There are countless heroes and heroines and duos and ensembles in the mystery, crime, and thriller shelves, each book expanding on their continuing adventures, something the current hot trends in urban fantasy borrowed from that side of the bookstore. I’d read some such mysteries — a little Peter Wimsey, at least — but decided to dive into a few other mystery series lately. Partly because I wanted a break from the all-SF-all-the-time nature of my reading, and partly because I want to see how these books tick.

I don’t know how well I’m analyzing them, but I’m certainly enjoying the experience. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels are marvelous, as a whole; some individual books are better than others, but the thug-with-a-heart-of-gold thing really works for me. I’m also a fan of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s Parker novels — the thief with a heart of stone, if he has any heart at all, which is an open question. (Though his occasional ambiguous hints of humanity are as impressive as they are rare.) And Westlake’s rather less brutal series, about the unlucky thief Dortmunder, are pleasurable in a different way, to see how the capers are set up, and how they fail to work out. Westlake is dead, so there will be no more books, something any reader should mourn. Robert Parker is getting on in years, but is still turning out prose with impressive regularity.

I’ve discovered what readers love about these books: opening a new one is like sitting down with an old friend. (Or, in the case of the Richard Stark books, like sitting down with a guy who’s incredibly creepy, but too fascinating to ignore.) If I come to no other fundamental discovery in these, uh, let’s call them “researches,” then I’ve still learned something of value. Create characters compelling enough that readers want to spend time with them, and the reader will grant you a lot of leeway in everything else.

-Tim

12
Jun
09

Editing is serious business!

I’m getting very, very close to typing those coveted final words on the most embattled, stubborn novel I’ve ever written. I am almost light-headed with joy at the thought of finally, FINALLY being done…

But, of course, I’m not done. The day after I type “The End,” it’ll be edit time. Worse, like all battle fields, this novel isn’t a pretty place. There are bits of abandoned plots, twists I totally forgot I was hinting at. All of this has to be fixed fast, and right. More right than fast, but still fast, because deadlines are closing in, and I’ve got another novel to get busy on. In short, it is time for SERIOUS BUSINESS editing.

Serious Business editing isn’t like my usual, in-novel editorial process, where I sit around and rewrite sections this way, maybe that way, until I’m happy.  We’re talking hardhat and waders, a bulldozer to bury the corpses of bad or abandoned ideas, and industrial superglue to stick the threads back together after I hack things to pieces. Since it’s on my mind a lot right now, I thought I’d lay out my novel boot-camp for you. Hopefully it’ll at least be entertaining in a schadenfreude kind of way:

First, I print out the whole book. On the cover page, I write my goals for this book. The short list of themes, elements, and plot twists I’m out to accomplish. Then, pens in hand and fresh notebook at my side, I start reading. I don’t do any rewriting here. I don’t mess with word choice or style. I’m looking for large scale problems – pacing, story, plot holes, dropped threads. Each of these is noted in the margin, and then in the notebook. I read it once as fast as possible, marking all the problems. This usually takes about 2 days. Once I’m done with read #1, my notebook is usually pretty full. My next task is to go through all these problems and try to solve them as elegantly and efficiently as possible. I also look at what areas are giving me fits and ask the tough questions, like do I need this section at all? Am I just writing to hear myself talk?

Once I’ve got a battle plan for solving my problems, I go back to the text and start making insert marks where the problem-solving changes will fit in. I cross out sections that get the ax, and make short, clear notes about what’s going to go there instead. I used to actually do these notes in the margins, but they tend to get very messy, and messy notes quickly become indecipherable notes. (After losing a good chunk of my notes on my first book, I switched to the notebook, which works better, but still isn’t perfect.)

So, short notes and another read through to try out the solutions in my mind. After this, I usually have a pretty good idea of what needs to change and how I’m going to change it, so it’s time to go back to the text, rename it as an edit file, and get to work actually making the changes.

This usually goes pretty fast when I know what my goals are, and soon I’ll have a new draft. By this point, I’m ready to hand it out to my most trusted readers (the people I can trust not to laugh at the awful word choices that proliferate on a first draft.) I used to slave away to make the manuscript read perfectly before this point, but that always turned out to be a waste of time. I’d work 2 days on one section only to have a reader point out I didn’t need it at all. Now I solve problems from the top down, largest first. Style and grammar are the very last things I worry about. After all, why fret over what may just get axed?

After I get my copies back from my readers, I look at the problems they marked and decide if they’re problems I need to fix. Sometimes I’m just not explaining things well enough, and the problem is more of a misunderstanding than a real plot issue. Other times, they catch me red handed in an act of pure idiocy. This is when first readers are truly worth their weight in rainbows. Once I’ve identified the problems, I decide how to fix them in the notebook, as before. Problem solving in the text only makes messy text and frustrating writing for me, notebooks are where it’s at!

Finally, now its time to edit in the traditional sense. As I’m going through and adding solutions to reader problems, I look at my text, fret with style, do checks for words I use too much, all that good stuff. This is the part of the edit that takes the most time because it’s the most nitpicky. When I finish this part, the manuscript is officially a final draft, ready for viewing by publishing people. This doesn’t mean it’s DONE. It just means I’ve got something that won’t embarrass me to tears when my agent/editor reads it. After all, my first readers already know I’m an idiot who can’t write, but my agent and editor are still fooled. I don’t want to blow my cover.

So, that’s pretty much how I edit a novel. It’s an evolving process, and I never edit any two novels the same way. Tell me, how do you edit your work? Do you have a process? I’m always eager to learn a new trick!

11
Jun
09

The Magic of Perspective

So my forthcoming trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its two sequels, is epic fantasy. Each book is first person, written from a single character’s perspective (different for each book).

I’ve read a lot of “on writing” books and forums and been involved in a lot of writing groups and workshops, and a consistent theme that I hear in these places — usually from less-experienced writers, but sometimes from the masters — is that first person is somehow problematic for a fantasy novel, particularly an epic fantasy. What people seem to think, variously, is that a) editors hate first person because it doesn’t sell as well, or b) readers hate it because they need more than one character to care about, or c) it’s too hard to unveil the plot through a single perspective, or d) it interferes with worldbuilding. Or any number of other complaints, all of which boil down to: First Person Is Hard.

I have to say, I don’t really get all this angst about first person. Sure, first person is challenging, but I think that’s because it’s unusual. It’s true that most genre novels (especially high fantasies) are written in third person.* Also, AFAICT most beginning writers start out writing third person in creative writing classes and such. Third person becomes the default mode of thinking — so of course we find first person disquieting, especially the first few times we encounter it; we don’t have as much experience with it. The solution to this problem, IMO, is not to declare first person problematic, but to get some first person practice. Go out and read some first-person epics. Write some short stories in that perspective. Then not only does it become clear that first person is no harder than third person — or second person for that matter — but the writer can then learn to appreciate the ways that first person can enhance a story.

Because let’s be honest here — first person isn’t hard, but it is different. You really can’t tell the same kind of story with it that you can with third person. And that’s fine. I think part of the problem many writers (and readers) have with first person is that they expect it to be the same as a third person story, except with a bit more “I” and “we” and “me”. When this doesn’t work, they get frustrated. And instead of doing the logical thing — changing the story to fit the perspective — they try to force the perspective to tell the story they want. Yeah, that default third person story that’s in their heads. This is the writerly equivalent of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It’s illogical to get mad at the peg or the hole; the real problem is the idiot trying to make them fit together.

OK, this is getting too abstract for my tastes, so let’s consider an example.

I’ve mentioned here before that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a rewrite of a book I wrote ten years ago. That book was called The Sky God’s Lover. SkyGod had the same setting as 100K, the same core plot, the same characters. IMO it was decently-written — not as good as 100K, but that’s not surprising; I was a much less-experienced writer at the time. There was a lot more flab. Still, I think SkyGod was good enough for publication — so good that when I decided to rewrite it, I didn’t really think it was “broken.” I just had the vague sense that the story needed to be told in a different way. So I opted for a total paradigm shift, and started messing with various elements just to see what would happen. I changed the protagonist from male to female, thinking that was pretty radical. But it was changing the PoV, I found, that triggered the most profound transformation in the story.

See, SkyGod was third person, with various scenes and chapters related from different characters’ perspectives. Much of the story’s tension came from following the protagonist, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, as he moved from point A to point B to point C and collected plot coupons along the way. Typical monomythic epic fantasy, in other words. When I decided to redo it in first person, and solely from one character’s perspective, I couldn’t unveil information the way I’d done before. A first person story needs more emotional tension to work, or the narrative gets boring; I couldn’t have the supporting characters just give away the story. The protagonist was going to have to work harder for those coupons — bargaining for some, stealing others, and even then it needed to be clear that some of the supporting characters just weren’t going to give that information up for anything. The protagonist would then have to deduce whatever information those characters were withholding through other means.

There’s a word for this kind of plot strucuture: mystery. So in changing from third person to first person, I ended up changing the story from a “hero’s journey” to a sort of fantasy “locked-room mystery.” Yet this was nowhere near as drastic a change as it sounds. The story really is the same. It’s just told in a different way.

(Did it work? Well, 100K sold, while SkyGod didn’t. Beyond that, you guys will have to tell me whether 100K succeeds as first-person epic fantasy when you read it. Just seven months to go! ::sigh::)

So here’s the bottom line: first person, second person, third — it doesn’t matter which one you choose. What matters is whether the perspective fits the story. If not, and you end up in a square peg/round hole situation, try changing the peg. Or the hole.

* Most, but not all. Notable exceptions include Storm Constantine’s genderbending Wraeththu trilogy and Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.

10
Jun
09

Powers

I’m just finishing up the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy (which I’m enjoying more than the first, for some reason), and while there’s certainly a lot about the books that draws me in, there’s one small, superficial thing that caught my attention. Several of the characters can, through the use of a particular kind of magic, enhance their senses, their strength, their endurance, or other qualities, thus resulting in some amazing and horrifying feats. In the middle of reading this, surrounded by intrigue and plot and The Fate of the World at Stake, I found myself thinking “wow. It would be really cool to be able to do that.”

Which is, really, a very shallow reaction, especially when the rest of the book is about much more serious topics. But I wonder sometimes if that’s why I read fantasy — to briefly, vicariously experience being someone with a special power.

Superhero comics (and superhero fiction in prose) play on some of this and draw on similar tropes. But in general, good stories don’t just stop there; they show the aftereffects of the powers, the responsibilities of those who have them. I can sometimes see the flaws in a story by whether the repercussions of the magic have been worked out and considered. (Of course, sometimes the story’s arranged itself so that I don’t care, but that’s another matter.) So a story can catch me by that wish-fulfillment potential, then draw me in further by showing the realistic effects of it.

Wish fulfillment is, therefore, one of the reasons I read fantasy. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit it — I always feel I ought to be citing the transformative power of imagination or the way fantasy and science fiction make us look at what it means to be human — but I’d be a liar if I denied it wasn’t a part of my gut reaction.  (That and making stuff go boom.)

I’m not sure it goes the other direction, though, at least in terms of writing. Yes, some of my characters embody some elements of wish fulfillment — Evie puts up with less crap and gets away with more, for example — but there’s not so much of a craving for mighty powers. In fact, I don’t like having my characters being superpowered; it makes them boring and harder to crush under my authorial boot.

When I’m writing to escape — writing to briefly get away from the grind of day job and groceries and who’s taking care of the tablecloths (don’t ask), I’m usually not writing for this kind of being-someone-else escapism. I’m writing for an escapism of setting, of a different world where the stress of ConHugeCo’s production metrics pales in comparison to, say, the Dark Lord’s evil plan or the giant air serpent bearing down on the dirigible or the logistics of transporting a talking severed head across post-apocalyptic America.

Is there a distinction in writing to escape and reading to escape? Does the difference hang on personal preference, or on something more universal? And, just for the heck of it, what kind of fictional power have you always craved? (Bonus points for the apparently useless ones.)