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.
Just so you know, I never took a class, or one of those seminars in Creative Writing that people go on about, so if there is a ‘definition’ of these terms out there, I don’t know what it is. In fact I think I just invented the last two. The difference between them is in the relationship they have to the main plot, if there is one.
Subplots are usually pretty small, in the grand scheme of things. In Stephen King’s Dead Zone there is a marvelous subplot about the hero John Smith teaching a young man to sidestep a learning disorder. He also uses his precognition to save the life of the young man and most of his graduating class by keeping them away from a building that he knows will burn to the ground. It’s a great section, one of my favorites, but if the whole thing had been cut or replaced with a different subplot, it probably wouldn’t have hurt anything. At best it’s a foreshadowing of larger and more public displays. A subplot can be either a comic device, two bumblers attempting to do what the two MCs do so easily, or a tragic device, a gentle romance that mirrors the disintegration of the MC’s marriage. A story might be diminished without it, but not derailed.
A paraplot is much more important. Where ‘sub’ implies a lower or lesser status, ‘para’ implies an equal footing between this plot and the main. Han and Leia’s romance is a subplot to The Empire Strikes Back, but Vader’s pursuit of them in order to use them to lure Luke into his trap is a paraplot. It could even be considered the main plot. Only the fact that the main story of the trilogy is about Luke and the Jedi elevates his training sequences to paraplot status. My novel A Warrior Made has three paraplots, as different groups of characters have separate adventures inspired by the same event, that nonetheless interconnect and come together to resolve the main plot.
Like a paraplot, a coplot is also on an equal footing to the main plot, but where two paraplots are usually strongly connected, coplots are not. They might even seem like random and implausible coincidences if not done correctly. The Madness Season is a good story, but the necessary coming together of the elements needed to resolve it is extremely implausible. Given the relative stasis of the situation everyone was in, you can get away with saying it would have happened eventually, but that’s not a great motivation. The characters are much more colorful and save the book for me. Once they do come together they form a single coherent plot that works pretty well.
A different form of coplot is in my novel St. Martin’s Moon, where the MC’s presence in the lunar colony sets several other characters in motion, but not coherent motion. Each has a different reaction, and does their own thing for their own reasons. They come together to resolve the major and minor plots without any of the agents knowing what they are doing, beyond accomplishing their own ends, none of which are related to the main plot. These are the only two examples of a coplot that I can think of, and I just thought of The Madness Season while I was writing this. (The current publishing business model doesn’t really work for coplotted books, as query synopses are much harder to write, so I don’t expect many of them to make it to the shelves.)
I hope if you can think of any novels that fit into that category you’ll mention it in the comments.
I had a story idea the other day. No surprise there, I have story ideas almost every day. Some of them are for new stories, but most are for ongoing stories, of which I have only one active at the moment, but it’s a monster. I don’t know too much about how other people get their story ideas, but a lot of mine come out of my daydreams. Not directly, of course, that would be too easy. I’ll have a daydream about something stupid, for some stupid reason. A good one is a song playing on my phone, but there are others. The story part comes when I manage to step out of daydream mode just enough to look at that dream without destroying it, which is a tough trick. I’ve had many ideas come from trying to grab a dream too soon or too hard, and it falls apart in my hands, and when I think I have something I forget it before I get it written down. Once you have the idea, you take that sideways step that turns it into a story. This particular story idea was an embellishment of a dream brought on by a song, that became the basis for a space-opera of epic proportions. Then I made the mistake of mentioning it to my son, who’s read a lot more epic space-opera stuff than me. He immediately started comparing it to three different series that he knew of, to which it was similar in some relevant way. I can’t for the life of me remember any of the names he mentioned. Talk about synchronicity, he just called. Some of the books he mentioned were Iain Banks’ Culture series, and Warhammer 40k. And Mass Effect for the Reapers. No idea why, but he says my initial idea sounded depressing like Warhammer did. Which it was, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean the whole story after that had to be. Anyway, I reminded myself of both The Madness Season and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I don’t know about you but that sort of thing really kills my incentive. As an author I strive to write stories that are as unique as possible, so finding out that there are five famous or at least well-known titles out there whose dust mine would be eating is a downer. I would of course be writing it from a character-oriented perspective, so the book would still be pretty different, but still… How soon in your creative process do you want the comp titles to enter into it? I’d be good with never but maybe that’s just me.
One of the things we are often told to include in a query letter is the comp title, which is the title of at least one book which is available for public consumption and which you the querier believe is relevantly similar to your own work. That’s just the basic concept as I understand it. If the age of the work in question is a concern, I wouldn’t know, but since we are told to also keep current in our genres, I suppose at least part of the reason for that is so that we can be aware of current books for comparison purposes.
I can think of two reasons for this, which are basically that the further back you go in time to find your comp title, the more likely the story you are trying to promote will seem trite and old hat. I can’t imagine any publisher wanting another LOTR-clone, or a vampire story. A friend of mine, Sean Hayden, created a vampire story that he promotes as urban supernatural. The main character is a girl with the outward appearance of a vampire, but very different origins and capacities. If he were to go on about the vampire part, the prospective customer would wonder why he needed another one.
The other reason is that a current title means that there is a preexisting brand, fresh in the readers’ minds, that the publisher can hook this story on to. “If you like The Hunger Games, then you’ll love Kieryn Nicolas‘ Flawless Ruins!” (Which you will, by the way.)
Publishing is a business, for good or ill, and the business perspective of publishing requires something that would justify someone in charge saying ‘Yes, let’s spend money on this.’ The comp title is your way of hitching your book to someone else’s wagon, giving those decision-makers the confidence to put company money behind you. It’s also the reason why so many books and movies made today look and sound like so many other books and movies made yesterday.
Real originality is not a desirable quality, to the “entertainment industry.” The more of it your work has, the less they’ll be willing to take a chance, because the chanciness will be greater too. So in that sense, the explosion of self-published titles is a good thing, since many of these titles could be works that are as different, original, unique, and possibly more like your own unique work that the latest Hunger Games clone on the shelves. Finding it is the hard part. I stopped reading new books, in large part because they were all starting to sound the same, and I just got tired of it. (There are of course other reasons, such as the expense, or more structural issues, but they are for another time.) I follow some authors, whose voices I can usually count on to have something new and unique, and I go to the library often to see what might jump out at me, but less seems to lately.
My own work is as completely unique as I can make it, so naturally I expect no great success in my writing career. Fortunately I don’t write to make money, but because the story is there and demands I write it. I only wanted to be published because that was at the time the only way to get my books into the world, but that is no longer the case. I have one completed unpublished novel (everything else I’ve written has been published), and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it. The only comp title I can think of for it is: It’s a lot like The Dresden Files, but without magic, fae, or multicolored vampires.
Let me know if that works for you.
I was just reading some of the comments from the Query Shark’s recent rant on pitch sessions, when I came across one that I was, well, unhappy with. It’s a fairly common piece of writing advice, especially on the subject of query letters and synopses, and yet it’s also a bit misleading. The advice is to always let the agent/editor/reader know what is at stake for the hero. Kind of hard to object, really. Obviously something has to be at stake, a story requires conflict and something to win or lose. My problem with this advice is that it sort of implies one thing. “What is at stake”, not what things are at stake, not to mention the possibility of multiple stakes, which may or may not have anything to do with each other.
You can have the domino set of stakes, where the hero has to make bargain A to achieve Objective B, and then has to make Bargain C to achieve Objective A, and so on, a mounting collection of debts and obligations that become increasingly unlikely to ever be paid off in full. And they often aren’t. Stories of this type usually but not always have some ‘villains’ who end up losing whatever they risked to the hero. I can’t imagine how such a story would be pitched, unless the whole tangle is simply glossed over somehow, if that can be done without losing the point entirely.
But the title of this post isn’t ‘domino stakes’, so let me move on to the layered stakes I was thinking about, which, not surprisingly, are the sort of stakes my hero faces in my most recent novel. As I claimed (and feel free to disagree with me, it’s not like I’m any kind of an authority) in previous posts, plot point one is not necessarily related to the inciting incident of the story. The multiplicity of stakes reflects this. The II can have a very small stake which is sufficient to set up the hero for PP1 (note the clever use of shorthand notation so that I don’t have to keep writing ‘inciting incident’ and ‘plot point one’ all the time), but goes no further, in which case PP1 would need a totally different stake. This can of course be done well, but there’s not necessarily any link between the first stake and the second. it feels…accidental. I have a bias against accidental plots. I write by following the story and character logic, so to me each step should in some way proceed from the previous steps. An accidental plot shows the hand of the author, when to my mind the author should be invisible.
So my preference for layered stakes should come as no surprise. The first stake, whatever makes the II inciting in the first place, does not end with PP1. PP1 adds to it, layering on an additional bit of difficulty to the original task, but it doesn’t end or replace the original task. There is only one stake, but it gets bigger and bigger as the book progresses. John Smith’s sense of guilt is what sets in motion his drive to help the ghost of Francis, and that service to that spirit resolves the story, in spite of all the additional layers and complexities that have been discovered along the way.The difficulty here is keeping an eye on the original stake, and knowing how and why it grows at each step.