I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.
What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.
Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.
They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)
It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.
It occurred to me a few days ago that perhaps the reason I was having such trouble with a synopsis for Ghostkiller wasn’t because of me or the story, so much as the way I was thinking about the story, categorizing it. Determining a story’s genre is basically figuring out which box you toss it into, so people who are looking for books of that type can go looking in that box. It’s a time-saver for publishers, booksellers, and customers, but like all such things it runs the risk of dropping a lot of stories that don’t fit in a box, or fit in more than one.
I think a lot of the advice I found on the web for writing query letters falls into this trap. A query for a genre novel is described very simply.as one hero with one goal and one antagonist. The goal for the hero is very clearly spelled out, etc. It’s all pretty simplistic, which is probably why genre novels are considered a lesser variety of literature than a literary novel. There are other reasons, too, I guess. One of the arguments I heard against an important philosophical article in favor of abortion was that the author was using more and more farfetched hypothetical constructions to make her point. The further she got away from ‘real life’, the less merit her arguments had. A genre novel about werewolves is fun but can’t tell us much about real life since there are no werewolves in real life.
Which isn’t a mark against genre novels as a class but against poorly-written ones being taken as representative. There’s no reason a single genre novel can’t have monsters, chases, mysteries, and true love, except that the author is only aiming for one box at a time. (I had a reviewer of one of my stories refer to it as being a 2D writer, rather than a 3D writer.) I’ve read many genre novels with important insights to human concerns in them, made more available by the fantastic nature of the story, not less.
The issue, I think, is whether the novel is driven by characters or by some other element. A ‘literary’ novel is a story about people and their lives, no linear plot, no arch-enemies. This is not to say that a novel about characters can’t have genre elements. Magical Realism seems to me to be that sort of story, but a little further along the spectrum you might find what I will call Realistic Magicism, where the genre component is larger, and independent of the lives of the people in the story, even though it is mainly explored through those characters. The more genre stories have the characters more subordinated to the genre elements. Some stories can have more than one genre.
Ghostkiller is not solely or even predominantly a genre novel, I think, and my mistake was in thinking it was. I thought it was some variety of paranormal, like Urban Supernatural, but now I think it’s further along the spectrum than that. I write genre novels through the characters. Everything, the plot, the setting, even the action, is described and presented from the point of view of the character doing it or perceiving it. If you see me, I did it wrong. As a result my stories are complicated, with lots of people each doing their own things at the same time, none of whom necessarily know why. The ‘plot’ is usually all of them reacting to some unseen not-necessarily-natural force, which they may know nothing about at any point and are certainly not moving intentionally to counter. The ‘Big Bad’ of St. Martin’s Moon was lycanthropy itself, but no one was trying to defeat that.
The standard methods for summarizing this type of story don’t apply, or maybe I wasn’t clever enough to see how to apply them. I couldn’t see how to render it through the lens of a single actor, whose intentions are so limited. Unfortunately, I also had a great deal of trouble finding any examples or instructions in how to write a query for a more literary type of novel. If I had, perhaps I would have come to this conclusion much sooner. I have a new synopsis done, which took far less time and effort than any of the aborted efforts I have for the older view of the story. Every paragraph begins with ‘they’. The story is presented not as a sequence of plot elements but as two lives and how the events of the book will change them.
Which is what the book is about.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I haven’t yet managed to come up with a decent synopsis for Ghostkiller. I haven’t come up with one for Unbinding the Stone either, and I wrote that 13 years ago. I was fortunate enough to receive a very nice review comment from no less than Tanya Huff, in which she described Stone as being ‘remarkably complex and often very funny’. The complexity wasn’t intentional then, and isn’t now. It’s just a function of how I write.
What should come as a surprise is that I’ve actually been considering self-publishing Ghostkiller, a prospect that fills me with very little pleasure. One thing that did give me some amount of pleasure was the act of designing the cover art for it, and even some of my other unpublished stories.
A friend of mine at my job, before she moved on to a new company, told me about a graphics program called GIMP, which I promptly downloaded and found very confusing. But I wanted to create a cover for my Chuck fanfic called ‘Nine2five‘, so I pushed on, using trial-and-error to make the damn thing do what I wanted. I don’t think I did anything right, but still I managed to come up with this image, which has been the cover art for all three seasons of the story (over 600K words, equivalent to seven novels, written over four years). I really should have separate images for each, but I forgot how I did it, and trying to recreate this image was a daunting task. I might try it again, now.
The idea for the Ghostkiller cover was pretty nebulous at first. I remember years ago talking to my publisher about it, when the story was little more than the first chapter. Ghostkiller is a story of more than a little strangeness and complexity, one of the reasons I’ll have to self-publish if I ever want it to be published. (Most publishers, most ‘entertainment industry’ types in general, especially the big ones, shy away from words like ‘complex’, and anything that hasn’t been tried and tested.) It started out as a story about ‘a man who kills ghosts for a living’, but it didn’t stay that way for long. The technique for killing ghosts was the focus of that first chapter, since ghostkilling was a unique idea, as psychic talents go. I had to show it in action, which involved swords and coffins. (Really the thing in the coffin.) My original idea for the cover was very complicated, and unworkable, at least by me. It also wouldn’t have been especially eye-catching, and that’s what covers are supposed to be, right?
Undermind is a short story I wrote a long time ago, for a contest. The idea was to write a story of a certain length that employed a specified phrase in some way. The first time I entered the contest it was for the phrase ‘hard port’. I used it five different ways, but didn’t win. (The story was eventually released as ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, which I have just discovered is no longer available. Something else to think about releasing on my own.) This time around the phrase was ‘dark glass’, which gave me lots of ideas, most of which I’m still trying to write. In this case the dark glass was a mirror, to reveal one’s inner and darker nature. My problem with the cover is simply that mirrors as cover images are pretty trite. The story is much more original than that, but the originality isn’t really visually striking, so I swallowed my pride to come up with something that was.
Hopefully I can use these. There’s more to the game of cover art design than simply making interesting images, which is one of the things that makes me reluctant to jump into the self-publishing biz. This is the way I’d go if I had to do it all over again, so I have that at least. I find myself wondering if creating a cover first would help clarify the story, or make it harder to develop.
At one point FanFiction.net had a button on their pages, so a person could share a story link on WordPress, which made it very easy for me to talk about the chapters of my fanfiction stories as I was writing them. Unfortunately they lost the button at some point. I’ve still been writing, I can’t really stop, but when a story dominates my mind I have a hard time doing something else in addition, like make blog posts. I did just two posts last year, and I still see people hitting my blog at some ridiculously low rate.
Hopefully that will change this year, as I have just yesterday written the last chapter of the last episode in my fanfiction epic ‘Nine2five‘. I started it in April of 2012, just a few months after my favorite show, Chuck, had aired its series finale, a very unsatisfactory finale. It prompted me to write a story to fix it. This led me to think of another story idea, somewhat more experimental in nature, but that’s one of the things fanfiction is good for.
While I was writing that, it occurred to me to write a story about a season of Chuck that I saw great value in, but most others did not, season 3 (S3). Chuck started out simple, about a nobody who got stuck with a computer database in his head and gets sucked into the world of international espionage, It quickly grew more complicated, with a strong romantic comedy element taking over from the spy drama. In S1 and S2 they maintained a decent balance. At the end of S2 they seemed to be firmly in the romcom camp, but S3 starts with them firmly in the spy-drama camp. Needless to say the fans were unhappy, and the show never recovered that balance.
I decided to rewrite S3. 19 episodes, broken into 4 chapters each. Not the story I saw underneath the plot (which was a darkly dramatic tale of betrayal and the recovery of trust), but the plot itself, written to mesh better in tone with the first two seasons (a humorous mix of adventure and romance), but do the same things, i.e., follow the same major plot points and come out at more-or-less the same place. And I did, although it came out to 80 chapters for various reasons. Then I decided to move on to S4, and then S5, in addition to making a prequel episode for the first one. In some ways this was a mistake, S4 is by far the weakest and most poorly written season of Chuck, while S5 is stronger plot-wise, but utterly devoid of humor or charm. I really ruined the latter half of the show for myself. Fortunately I’ve got my own version to take its place.
And now I’m done at last, with the last chapter written. I still have to post them on FF.net, but that’s easy enough, and doesn’t involve any more writing. All told I think this series will come out at over 600K words, or approximately 7 novels. (If I revised the first several chapters to have the amount of narrative the later chapters do, it’d be even bigger. I originally thought of it more as a script, with dialog and action, but not much scene-setting. As the story went on this didn’t work so well.)
This means I can spend a bit more time blogging, as well as working on my other stories, which have been hanging fire for years now. I met Tamora Pierce at Confluence years back, and she was very interested in one of them, which I came up with for their writing contest, so I’ll probably start with that one.
One of the things agents and editors look for in a query letter is a comp title (I think I talked about this before, but if I haven’t, it isn’t too hard to find many blogs that have). This is supposed to be a title of a book of reasonably recent vintage, which is cited as an example to a) give the agent/editor in question a good idea of the type of book that they’ll soon be flogging on your behalf, and b) some idea of the marketability of your work. Claiming that ‘anyone who likes Twilight will love this’ may not work as well as it once did, but at least it gets the point across.
A third use is to show that you the author have kept current with the market yourself, that you know what books are or aren’t like yours, and most important, how they’re not. This third point doesn’t work so well for me, since my immediate reflex would be to change anything I’d written that was like some other story I’d just read, and make it so it wasn’t like that book at all. Great for those originality points, not so great for corporate metrics.
Plus, if you come along with your query letter and say ‘there’s no book like mine anywhere, ever’, the odds are they won’t believe you. They may even whip off a few names right off the top of their heads, and you look like a jerk. Unless of course there is no book like yours, because, like me, you go out of your way to make your books unlike every book you’ve ever read. I don’t claim to have read every book, though, so some other genius may have done what I did. Good for him (or her, but my default pronoun is male).
My real question, though, after all this backstory, is why does the comp title have to be a book? We do sort of live in a multimedia world now, and sooner or later books will come with embedded music videos, or some such, to set the right tone when you reach that steamy love scene or exciting chase sequence. It also broadens the pool of prospective titles, to be able to say that anyone who loved Animal House will love your book. Third, it seems to have bypassed my filter against writing stories I’ve already read, since I didn’t actually read it.
After many months of not thinking about it, focusing on my fanfiction, wallowing in despair over my poor, utterly original story, I suddenly had an idea for a synopsis pop into my head this morning. I wrote it down, talked about it with the fam, and realized along the way that the perfect comp title was not a book but a movie, Van Helsing, in point of fact. Which, while not a great movie, is to my mind a lot of fun, and has a number of points (on a high level, where it’s hard to avoid having commonalities) in common with my novel, which may be why I like it so much.
And if there are any books that read like Van Helsing feels, I hope you’ll mention it in the comments, so I can check it out for myself.
So I discovered Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.was available on Netflix a few days ago (the movie-TV business would go broke if it depended on me, I don’t rush to see anything on day one, that’s for idiots with a lot more willingness to part with their money than I have), and being a fan of the Superhero Genre I decided to see if it was as good as I hoped. For the most part it was. Since I’d just gotten The Winter Soldier recently, I even had the context for everything that happened (I saw Jasper Sitwell and knew what was coming). It’s a pretty clever idea, filling in the gaps between movies with a TV series that follows a representative group of lesser characters. We can’t all be superheroes, but we could be ordinary agents, just trying to do our jobs.
I wasn’t even very happy with the introduction of superpowers into this context, until it became clear that these abilities were technologically developed and highly experimental. Hopefully they’ll go into greater detail about how these specific individuals were chosen. The guy with the fire powers I can understand, but most of the other Centipede subjects seemed like regular guys.
The dialog and characters were spot-on, of course, what with the series being created and overseen by a comic-book geek. I liked Buffy and Angel, and I loved Dr. Horrible. It wasn’t perfect, of course, TV scripts don’t seem able to avoid falling into a pit of tropes anymore. They’re a good shorthand (Chuck season 3 only makes sense if you view it in terms of the tropes underneath the plot), but they also make the story predictable, and need excellent characters and actors to make them seem anything other than lazy writer collecting a paycheck. Fortunately one of the more blatant instances of this, Fitz’ reluctance to tell Simmons he loves her until staring death in the face, is offset by a much better counter-trope, with two major characters not going the wt/wt route at all, even though the guy was tagged as the lady’s SO, a bit of a joke since it means something totally different.
So I consider it terribly unfortunate that the main plot for the series, the basis for the first two-thirds of the series which culminates in the events of Winter Soldier, is so sloppily done. Only the idea that they live in a world with super-powered people makes it even remotely plausible, but even then it violates the principle of Occam’s Razor and should never have worked. The main villain of the first part is called the Clairvoyant, a person who predicts the actions of everyone in the scene with startling accuracy. The Agents spend a great deal of time looking over their lists of gifted individuals, trying to determine who it could be.
Except that no security force would ever do that. If I was a policeman and someone called me, claiming to be a psychic who could predict a crime, the first thing I would suspect is that the ‘psychic’ committed the crime. The first thing Coulson should have suspected when he heard about this Clairvoyant is that there was a mole inside SHIELD, but that would have given the story away far too soon, and prevented the sudden explosion of HYDRA, so they had to be stupid on purpose, which is a terrible way to write a show.
In a slightly different form of deliberate stupidity, this so-brilliant mastermind, when the time comes for him to be found out, is betrayed by the most inane bit of stupid characterization in Trope-land. In trying to cast doubt on some other agent, he lets slip a detail which didn’t happen to be in Coulson’s report, and the jig is up. Not a large flaw, in the scheme of things, and it gets him captured, which means he gets sent to the Fridge by someone else’s order, which was what he wanted, so perhaps he did it on purpose. As a piece of surface-level stupidity it’s inexcusable that a guy who has never yet made a mistake should make such a blatant one. As a piece of double-duplicity I can see otherwise intelligent agents falling for it, given the chaos they were in at the time, but again it’s deliberately arranged stupidity. I would much rather the Clairvoyant got caught because of Coulson being smart, than because circumstances made him temporarily stupid.
The usual method of deduction we see in the mysteries proceeds from a given state of affairs, from which the detective deduces the actions that have resulted in that state. The carpet reveals a circle crushed into the material, from which he deduces a man standing there, moving his foot in a circular motion. He’s got a dead guy to explain, after all, and people to question about what they were doing at the time. Unless it’s a show like Pushing Daisies, where they usually start by questioning the dead guy.
A story, like a computer programs, can be represented as a series of transitions from one state to another. The detective looks at the state and deduces the previous transition (or series of states and transitions). This is not the only way to use this series, though. One can also look at the transitions (the actions of the characters), and deduce the states that caused them. Which is sort of what I do as a Production Support specialist. I look at the behavior of the program and deduce the initial state that created it.
This works because computers are logic boxes, with nicely determined behaviors. Well, the behaviors that the programmer thought about were nicely determined. It’s usually in the incomplete specification of the behavior, the intersection of behaviors, the addition of new code, or the creation of new inputs, that we find our problems. Or the failure of any of these when they’re expected to occur. I like to read the code backwards to see where the tangle (the unanticipated state) could occur.
Characters are less straightforward than that, but still I prefer to treat my characters as rational beings possessing an internal logic which drives their actions. For the most part. Pure Vulcans are dull people. Completely random actors technically aren’t actors at all. I’m not nearly as interested in the werewolf as I am in the guy who becomes the werewolf. How does he deal with his curse? Once the curse strikes he’s just a ten-ton death machine, ho-hum, but before that he’s a guy scrambling to minimize (or maximize, if he’s not a nice person) the fallout, or get it lifted, or something. Far more interesting.
To me, the most creative moments in the writing of a novel are not the actions but the states. States aren’t really of interest to me, except as they provide a springboard to action. Read my stories (please) and you will find very little extraneous detail about the environment in which the characters live and move. I’m not nearly so interested in the stand of oak over there minding its own business as I am in the piece of earth on to which Joe is about to step, and even more why he’s about to step there, and where his further steps will take him. Spinning out the logic of Joe’s actions is child’s play. Inventing the world he acts in, not so much.
In A Warrior Made, I remember being stuck in the middle of the book, because I’d written myself into a place where the characters were walking down the road from one place to another. Boring, and already done by lots of other people. I was there for quite some time before I had a sudden flash of inspiration, a state that caused all my characters to go off in wildly divergent directions. The rest of the book was told as a set of intertwining adventures as each set of characters followed their own path until it all came together somehow at the end. St. Martin’s Moon took that idea a step further. Five divergent and unrelated plot threads, that intersected to resolve a situation that none of the actors even knew existed.
Maybe this is why I don’t write mysteries.