Archive for November, 2009



11
Nov
09

Post With Four!

(No relation to Game With Four, as you can probably tell from the language.  Serious posts will follow eventually; sorry to be so fluffy of late.)

Four books that always make me cry:

  • Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
  • Nation, by Terry Pratchett
  • The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle
  • Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy Sayers

Four elements I’ve always wanted to work into a story and haven’t (yet):

  • Locks. Not in the sense of keys and locks, but in the sense of canal locks. I don’t know nearly enough about the dynamics of them, but something about them appeals to my sense of Grand Metaphor. It may be for the best that I’ve never written about them.
  • A conspiracy theory as a pernicious and harmful (and potentially sentient) meme or a curse.
  • Figured bass notation. At least once every ten months I’ll get this Gene-Wilder-in-Young Frankenstein look, yell “IT COULD WORK!!!” and scratch out an outline for a story about this, then realize that it’s either so bogged down in infodump or too flimsy to go anywhere and junk the whole thing.
  • Surrealist art — specifically, Max Ernst’ collages. I know this is triggered by a story I read some time ago involving these collages, but I can’t remember the author or title or even the anthology. I had a big long outline worked out for a novel along these lines, and even a rough first draft, but it collapsed under its own symbolism.

Four books for which I’ve wanted Cliff’s Notes:

  • Vellum, by Hal Duncan
  • The Mistborn series, by Brandon Sanderson (Luckily, I think notes for these exist; I’ve just been lazy in finding them)
  • The Urth of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
  • Infinite Jest (oh GOD Infinite Jest) by David Foster Wallace

Four scenes for which my internal soundtrack involves far too many overwrought guitar riffs:

  • Temeraire and the Divine Wind.
  • The battle at the end of The Book of Three.
  • “No living man am I.” YEAH.
  • The last climactic scene of Wild Hunt. I refuse to feel bad about this.

Comment with four?

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09
Nov
09

Interview: Lindsay Ribar

I’m delighted to introduce y’all to Lindsay Ribar, assistant to my agent, Matt Bialer, at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates literary agency. Lindsay’s been working with Matt for long enough that she has a terrific insight when it comes to queries and slush, and was willing to answer some questions for us. There’s a lot of great information here, especially for those of you who are–or will soon be–agent-hunting. (Psst.. by the way, Lindsay’s always on the lookout for potential clients!)

Thnaks for joining us, Lindsay! I’ll cut right to the chase: How many unsolicited submissions do you normally get per week?

I had to go back through my epic “Rejected” folder to get a better idea of this, because I am long past the point of reading everything as soon as it comes in.  The average looks to be around 60-75 per week via email, with an additional 30-40 via snail-mail. 

Of those, how many follow the guidelines for submission?

A surprising amount! I would have to guess that about 85% (yes, I’m making up numbers) follow the guidelines.  (The guidelines, by the way, are on our website.  They will not be different if you call me on the phone and ask me about them.  If you do that, I will merely point you toward the website.)  Some  don’t include a synopsis.  Some don’t include a separate biography.  Neither of those is really a Kiss of Death in my book.  The biggest mistake that authors make is not including sample chapters with their queries – not because it’s “against the rules,” but because it’s a wasted opportunity for the author to show off.

Think about it this way: as someone who has been reading slush (among other things) for over two and a half years, I am (a) lazy, (b) jaded, and (c) LAZY.  I do read everything that comes in (until I have read enough to make a decision), but… well, say I read a query letter that maybe isn’t wonderful, but is interesting enough to make me want to check out the author’s writing.  If the sample chapters are attached to the email, I’ll double-click it and read.  If they are NOT attached, what are the odds that I’ll go to the trouble of contacting you and asking for a partial?  Not great.  By sending sample chapters in your initial email or query package, you are saving me a lot of trouble.  Which makes me like you more already.

What are your biggest peeves?

Oh, there are SO MANY!  These are just a few that came immediately to mind – and please keep in mind that these are my own personal pet peeves.  I know a lot of people who actually really enjoy vampyres-with-a-Y.

– Query letters that pitch a concept instead of a plot

– The word “feisty” as used to describe either the heroine or the token female love interest

– Authors who use their query letters to tell me why they think fantasy (or fiction in general) is an important part of our culture

– Authors who say that their chosen genre is basically a cesspool of shit, but their novel will single-handedly redeem it

– Authors who don’t understand the subtle difference between phrases like “my book would fit nicely on a shelf next to the Harry Potter series” and phrases like “I AM THE NEXT JK ROWLING”

– Authors who pitch their book as a Guaranteed Insta-Bestseller, or berate the slush-reader for “missing out on a golden opportunity” if they dare to send a rejection letter

– Fantasy novels featuring characters with utterly unpronounceable names

– Fantasy novels featuring character and/or place names lifted directly from Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling, Lewis, etc.

– Intentionally misspelled words like “magyck” or “vampyre,” especially in urban fantasy

– Overuse of prophecies, destiny, fate, and anything else that kickstarts the action  without anything actually happening.

– Authors who quote bits of my boss’s website bio in their query letters

 Is there anything that’s an instant “kiss of death”?

YES.  Stupidity – which can often be found in the following forms:

 – Impersonal query letters, i.e. “Dear Sir or Madam”

– Query letters in which my boss’s name is misspelled

– E-mail queries that say little more than “Please see attached.”

– Queries in which the author asks permission to submit a synopsis / sample chapters / proposal

– People who insist on pitching their books over the phone

– People who call every week to follow up on their submissions

– “My manuscript is complete at 945,000 words!” Seriously. That happened once.

– Authors who include their own cover art (bonus points if it’s poorly drawn in MS Paint!)

– QUERIES WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS

– Snail-mail queries consisting of one copy of the author’s self-published book… and nothing else

– People who include the first three chapters of their book… even though each of those chapters is 75 pages long

– People who include chapters 4, 11, and 23, because “that’s where I feel my writing is the strongest.”

 What makes you keep reading?

I really enjoy finding a narrative voice that is unique, yet still accessible.  (Think Jeff Lindsay.  The “Dexter” series is an exercise in pure genius.)  It’s a fine line to walk, since stylized narratives are often a very tough sell, even when they’re done well.  My boss pegged my taste in writing right away: I like things that are “clean and crisp.”  A good example: the writing of one Diana Rowland.

I also really enjoy finding vivid, memorable characters.  Coming from the world of fandom as I do, I know how much readers enjoy falling in love with characters, because I do, too.  Now, at the risk of seeming like a total shill for the authors I work with, I’ll say to look at Rachel Aaron’s first chapter of THE SPIRIT THIEF for an example of How To Write A Character With Whom People Will Fall In Love.

So, in short, voice and character.  I like an author with a good sense of story structure, too, but if the natural talent for voice and character are there, structure can be taught.

 What makes you bounce in your chair and make “squee!” noises?

Werewolves.  Unique systems of magic.  Brand-new takes on age-old themes.  Ironic use of phrases like “DOOM!”  And, seriously: werewolves.

What are you seeing way too much of?

Vampire romance novels.  (Bet you didn’t see that one coming!)  See, the thing is, vampire romances are still selling like hot cakes, so we’re actually actively looking for them.  But the more popular a thing becomes, the more people write them – and the harder it becomes to find good ones among the crap.  Many writers pitch themselves as “the next Stephenie Meyer” (on which I will not comment, because my thoughts on her series are the subject of a whole separate essay), but I find that 99 times out of 100, those authors are rehashing the same old vampires tropes that we’ve all read a million times, without adding anything new.  And whatever you may think of sparkling vampires… let’s face it.  That was new.  It was enough to get somebody’s attention, and now Stephenie-with-an-E, Twilight, RPattz and K-Stew, Bella Swan, LOL RENESMEE, and Team Edward vs. Team Jacob are phrases that you can avoid only by moving into your very own apartment complex under the rock of your choice.

My point is this: if you’re going to write in what is arguably the world’s most popular fiction genre right now… do something different.

 It’s also worth mentioning that I am still seeing a lot of epic fantasy, and that’s just not selling well right now.  Which brings me back to “do something different.”  It’s great if your “tale of an unlikely group of companions who must band together in order to rid the world of evil” is well-written, well-edited, and well-reviewed by your friends and family… but so is everyone else’s.

What are you seeing not enough of?

Werewolves.  Let me rephrase: werewolves who are NOT Jacob.

What do you wish more people would do in their queries?

Spell things correctly.  Write in complete sentences.  Display a working knowledge of (a) the querying process and (b) the publishing business.  Sell me on your plot, your characters, or whatever it is about your book that makes you stand out from the crowd.  Most of all, be nice.  Nobody wants to work with an author who isn’t nice.

How many queries do you pass on to Matt?

When I first started working here, I passed along a few every week, just so I could get a sense of what he was and was not looking for.  He would tell me what to request – and what not to bother with.  Now that we’ve worked together for a while, though, I’ve been able to figure out where our tastes overlap (which is pretty often, at least when it comes to fantasy stuff), and I only show him things that I think have a really good chance at selling.

Does he always recognize your genius and good taste?

Heehee!  Well, we usually tend to agree on what’s good.  Oddly, we often have differing opinions on what’s NOT good.  For instance, right now he is reading a book that my (wonderful, delightful, speed-reading) intern passed along to me.  It wasn’t really my style, but he sees potential and is determined to prove me wrong.  Verdict pending.  Make your wagers now.

Do you have any advice for people trying to break into publishing?

Oh, lots.  But I think the most important thing is that if you really want to be in this industry, you have to do it for love.  It’s a slow-moving industry, and it’s notoriously hard to get a foot in the door – as it is with any creative business.  The starting pay for most entry-level jobs is… let’s say “not great.”  You’ll have to work on projects you don’t like, and you’ll have to smile while doing it.  But if you really love books, then it’s all completely worth it.  If you don’t… well, I guess if you don’t, you aren’t reading this blog anyway.

06
Nov
09

On Batman

When I was a kid I was never really in to American comics or superheroes. That said, I LOVED Batman. I watched the animated series religiously every day after school (favorite episode: Harley and Ivy), and later I stole my boyfriend’s Frank Miller Batman comics (which are what I miss most about that relationship). I never really did become a comic reader. I couldn’t stand how convoluted and unending the stories were (they never END! No one stays dead! There’s never any closure!), but my love of Batman has never really let up. Conversely, I hate Superman with a burning passion.

Even though Bruce Wayne is handsome and impossibly rich, he’s still only human. Everything he uses to fight crime – the toys, his strength, his connections, he has to work for them. Superman was just born with his powers, and while he struggles nobly not to abuse them, he still has freaking eye lasers. Where Superman is treated as America’s weapon of mass destruction with a conscience,  Batman is a detective. Superman punches holes in walls, bounces bullets off his chest, then fries the Ant King with his laser vision. Batman follows clues, makes deductions, and then is waiting in the dark in the drug lord’s hideout before the evil doer even knows he’s been caught. Batman, SO COOL.

When I wrote my very first novel (which, thankfully, I never finished),  I had a main character who was the only one of her people born with great magical power. I wanted a heroine having to accept the greater destiny she was born to. Classic first novel stuff, I don’t have to tell you how bad it was. I worked and worked on this novel, but I could never get it right, and eventually I threw it away as a failure. Years later, while I was thinking about all the novels I’ve started and never finished (it’s a long list, folks), I found myself getting caught on this story again. I still like the magical system and the basic world premise I created, so why hadn’t it worked? I kept thinking on this question until, a few days ago in the shower, it came to me.

I’d written a novel with Superman, not Batman.

See, by giving my main character fantastic powers at birth and making her the only person to have them, she never had to do anything for herself.  Any challenge I made for her she could overcome by using her fantastic powers, and she never really had to suffer or fight for her choices. This isn’t to say there weren’t fights, the book was pretty much a running string of fights, but the MC was never pushed, never sent to the edge. She never had to think or grow, she wasn’t even a character really, more like a talking jar with generic humanist values I stuck super powers in. In short, boring.

Contrast this to the book that made it, The Spirit Thief. I’m not saying my main character, Eli Monpress, is Batman, but lets’ just say he would have had Batman pajamas as a kid.  Make no mistake, Eli is powerful, but he lives in a world full of powerful people, which means power is no longer enough. He has to use that power in new, clever ways which, by default, gives me, the author, conflict to play with right off the bat.  His power is not what makes him interesting, it’s how he uses, or doesn’t use, that power. In fantasy I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of giving your characters too much power, of making them Superman. This can be done overtly, by just giving them super powers, or subtly, by giving them an inescapable destiny of victory.

This set up can work just fine (hell, it worked for Superman), but I prefer Batman stories where the power is in the person, not the magic or the sword or the alien artifact. After all, take away Superman’s powers and he’s just this guy. Take away Batman’s money and he’s still god damn Batman (which is why, whenever the Justice League travels into the dystopian future, Batman is always the only one still alive).  Like most authors, I’m a sum of all my influences, and I think there’s a little bit of Batman in all my main characters. If any one of my characters were stripped to their barest parts, they would still be themselves, still be dangerous, still be able to get things done.

At the end of the day, I’m happy with that. Batman for life!

06
Nov
09

Tired Nora is Tired

30 minutes to spare!

There will be no thoughtful, chewy post today, because I’m sick. I had a cold earlier in the week, but from the way it seems to be rebounding, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have con crud too. (Thanks, immune system. Just kick a girl while she’s down, why don’tcha.) Therefore, I lack the energy for thought and chewiness, or even a decent con report. As evidenced by the fact that I’m posting half an hour before my posting-day ends. Sorry.

In the meantime, let me gleefully shout-out to fellow Districters Tim Pratt and Greg van Eekhout, both of whom I finally met in person at World Fantasy Con last weekend. Rachel, you’re now the only one of us I haven’t met yet! Get with the program, chica!

In the meantime, it’s official: I now have spare The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Advanced Reader Copies available. Just a couple! So I’ll be giving away one of them here in a week or two, and another at my own site — just as soon as I think up a suitably interesting contest. (Suggestions welcome, BTW.)

Until then, please send healthy wishes my way. The crud is powerful.

04
Nov
09

The book as an object

I’m not a bibliophile of the first order by any means.  I may be perpetually running out of shelf space, but having seen houses where the stacks of books dictated where you could walk, sit, or sleep, I know I’m not even close to that level of book hoarding.  My library’s a mess, organized by what will fit where rather than any real system. (I visited a friend’s house recently and had an attack of book envy when I learned that not only did they have separate rooms for fiction and nonfiction, but that the nonfiction was arranged by Library of Congress rules.)  And with some exceptions, I don’t treat my books well.  Paperbacks get bent, creased, rained on, used to hold recipes in place, bled on, and used to prop up furniture, though hardcovers work better for that purpose.

But I still assign a certain power to books, and a certain quality that’s entirely independent from their contents. I have real trouble throwing away or recycling a book, no matter how bad it is or how unlikely I am to ever read it again.  I feel better carrying a book around with me, just for the knowledge that if I’m stuck somewhere, I’ll have reading material.  There’s almost a talismanic quality to them.

Which is what makes it so weird to open a book and realize that the words in it were words I strung together.  It’s as if there’s a block between the first perception of the book and the story that I wrote.  I can’t quite match one to the other, and whenever I read something of mine in print, there’s always this strange disconnect, as if I’m reading through a mask or as if someone else is reading the words in my ear.  It’s like one last separation between me and the text.

I recently received my ARCs for Wild Hunt and my contributor’s copies of Best Horror of the Year 1, and that’s what’s driving this particular line of thought.  (That, and having handed over my draft of the third novel to BRAWL, I’m in that scattered, vacant state of thought perhaps best expressed in Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp.  Concentrating on anything more than a short story is a little difficult at the moment.)  It’s very strange to have worked on something for so long to bring it to this point and then be unable to recognize it.

I don’t know if this is just one of those weird author neuroses.  (Lord knows I’ve got my own complement of those.)  And of course, this is all changing now with the advent of the Kindle and other e-book readers.  I haven’t yet used one of these, so I have no idea how I’ll react to text in this new format.  (I don’t have quite the same reaction reading work online; maybe it’s just that I’m used to reading my work off a screen.)

Does anyone else have this weird talismanic relationship to books, or the same reaction to seeing their work in print?  Or can I just add this to the list of strange reactions to writing?