Authorguy's Blog

I’m sitting here listening to yet another vlog post, to go with all the blog posts out there, on the subject of query letters. This isn’t really surprising, since it’s one of the most difficult parts to write, no one can really tell you how to do it, and if you need a topic for your weekly blog post it’s always there.

This particular vlog post is contributing to one of the things I consider to be the most perplexing parts of the mystery, namely, that people call the same thing by many different names, and sometimes multiple things by the same name. It calls the central component of a query letter the blurb, which has a hook inside it. Others call this component the hook, and the blurb is something else entirely. Then there’s the wonderful word synopsis.

When trying to interest an agent in a book, the query letter is supposed to describe the book in such a way that the agent will want to read more. This is a trick, as agents read a lot of these things every day and are more often looking for reasons to delete the query than they are to keep going.

This description of the book is the single most difficult part of the query to write, and the part that shows just how useless all of these vlog and blog posts actually are. No one can tell you how to write this, and no one will tell you they can’t. They can tell you how to write all the other parts of a query letter, which are fairly straightforward, but this part is unique to you, and the best they can do is talk around it. The usual suggestion is to go to a bookstore and read the back cover copy of books that have actually managed to get published, and hope that this will inspire you to do the same for your work. Which is fine, so long as your book hews to the came path (more or less) as the book you’re holding. The more you depart from that path the less good it will do you.

The back cover copy is what I will be calling the blurb. Other people may call it something else, which is fine, so long as you know what the differences are. That is my only point here, make sure you know what the agent means when they use these words because sometimes they don’t mean the same things.

The blurb actually has a lot in common with the description inside the query letter, which I will call the hook. The query hook is the short description of the book for the agent to be enticed by, and once enticed they will often take that hook and turn it into a blurb. Sometimes they don’t need to, because the hook makes a fine blurb all on its own. The thing to remember is that hooks are for agents, and blurbs are for readers. They are not being put to the same purposes.

When I first started querying, the word that caused me the most confusion was ‘synopsis’, which is what I always thought the hook was called. I’d see some people say it should be a paragraph or two, then others that it was 2-5 pages. It should be incomplete. No, it should contain the whole plot, including the ending. It’s one of biggest pet peeves about this aspect of the business. The synopsis is not the hook. Hooks are short, synopses are not. Synopses are complete, hooks are not

At least, until you ask the next agent. Good luck.

I was just reading one of my more favorite fan fictions and came across a scene where the female lead realizes she was betrayed and set up to die by her trusted boss. The author spends a bit of time telling the reader how furious she was. This is a case where the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ should have been followed.

The stronger the emotion, the harder it is to put it into words and the more phony it sounds when you do. ‘Joe was enraged’ doesn’t carry nearly the impact of something like ‘Joe attacked the punching bag. It lost.’ This version does sort of require the reader to know what punching bags are and the sorts of abuse they’re designed to take, so it’s not the best option. Those would be highly dependent on the genre of the story (the above example would work in a sports or boxing story, since it would be expected that the likely reader would know the necessary background), the context and the character.

This is one of the reasons I like dream sequences. They’re really good for showing the character’s internal mental state without all those pesky words getting in the way.

I have to say it was strange to find out that for a lot of people, their internal experience of the world is mostly cast into some form of interior monologue. In my case it is not, and I find books where the character’s internal states are put into pages of (usually italicized) text to be incredibly phony and off-putting. One, I hate reading pages of italics. Two, pages of the character going on about his internal state just reads like the author being lazy, telling me what the character is thinking and feeling rather than showing it.

In my experience only the most important things are worth the effort of putting them into words, and words are a way of keeping things distant. As I said recently in a comment on a youtube video about using the 5 senses in writing, “The goals of immersion and description oppose each other.”

Showing what a character is thinking isn’t all that hard, if you ask me. I developed my technique of what I call ‘experiential prose’ mostly to avoid having to describe the setting the character is in, but it works by focusing on what the character would notice in that setting, and uses only the concepts the character knows to understand it. If he’s walking through the forest I don’t want to describe every damn tree and shrub, just the ones he cares about. So I don’t. This makes the book more dynamic, since every piece if description is the product of some act of perception.

In a dream sequence we get the reverse, in which the entire environment is only the things he cares about, cast into some alternative form. Consider this, for example, from a story about a woman who has lost her memory and wants it back:

“She awoke on a cold, hard surface, one of the benches in one of the holding cells in [the base]. The entire facility was dark, and quiet, and she didn’t know what roused her. It wasn’t until she pressed the panel by the door that it occurred to her to think she may be a prisoner, that it might not open, but the notion hadn’t fully formed before it opened. She walked alone, into cold darkness. Down the hall she could hear whispers in the dark, a play of light in the shadows, and she walked that way.”

and contrast it with this, set later on and she’s much more desperate:

“She awoke in Castle, lying on a bench. When she pressed the button, the door moved but terribly slowly, and she yanked it back into its slot. The halls were dark, neither lights nor sounds to give her a direction. The cell block seemed much longer as she ran through it, but eventually she reached the end, and another slow door. This time she cut herself pulling it open.”

She knows she’s getting herself into trouble, and doing what she can to prevent it, but what she wants is stronger than what she knows. This is made clear later on, when she discovers a memory she’d lost on purpose:

“The blackness that had obscured the last image had crumbled to dust, although it still obscured the light glowing from beneath. She just had to…brush it off. She raised her hand and–

She bent and blew gently, unwilling to touch the thing.

-A room. A bed. A woman and a man, naked and coupling and the woman was-

[Her]body went from zero to sixty in no time at all. Her…her…the woman was…her, and the man, the man…[he]was…Oh God, he was…so perfect, waited so long…

She exploded in memory, she exploded in dream.”

You’d think that would be a good thing.

“Light played across the chamber, memories blazed across her mind, emotions seared her very soul, searching for channels that were no more. She had forgotten how to feel this strongly. Only [her later self] had ever learned, and she was not [her later self].

This was a mistake. She had to get away, and struggled to rise.

Her hand landed in the dust and she recoiled. Rage! Betrayal! Soul deep hatred stabbed through the vulnerable place he had made over her heart.

The [last]image burst into flames. The other images followed suit. The explosion caught her before she could reach the door.”

If I had to write this scene over, I’d do it a little differently, not for these parts but for the dialog. At the time I cast it as regular speech, but now I’d put most of it into the dreaded italics.

Dream sequences are, in my view, a great way to combine description and immersion. They present the character’s thoughts and goals into a visual form, showing what she wants, why she wants it, and sometimes the cost of getting it. Consider the classic movie Forbidden Planet, and its monsters of the Id made real.

Do you like dream sequences? Why, or why not?

SPFBO

Posted on: May 23, 2020

Just entered Unbinding the Stone into SPFBO 6, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. 300 titles get entered, 10 highly respected bloggers get 30 each to read, and they choose one to move on, so the odds of winning are very low. Basically the first reader for the first blog can kill you, which is kind of unpleasant. There’s no requirement that everyone on the blog reads all the books, either. The winning isn’t so much the issue as the network-building that goes on during, and you get at least one mention in a blog somewhere. It’s publicity of a sort.
And who knows, I might win.

I don’t know who said it, but the usual wisdom in writing is that you have to write a million words before you’ll come up with anything worth reading, or getting published. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, so far everything I’ve written has been published, but I will agree that the book I wrote after that million words was a significant level-up from the stuff I wrote before it.

When I started I had no real training in writing or being an author, nothing but a lot of books read, with attention paid to how they were written. I knew what I didn’t like, first among them being descriptive prose, and I created my own writing techniques so I wouldn’t end up writing the sort of stuff I hated to read. I ended up developing a technique for creating techniques, as every novel I’ve written is structurally different from the novels that have come before.

I was in the middle, well, not quite the middle, of my third novel when I hit a snag. I thought I was doing a story about my MC’s nephew Jasec, telling stories about his uncle in the town square, embedded somehow in a larger story. As I was writing it that larger story turned out involve a war, and after the war came a refugee priest, and…

I had to seriously consider the priest’s backstory. So I stopped writing that novel. And then a contest wanted a new short story, so I started writing that. And then I finished St. Martin’s Moon, and that turned out to be my third published novel. And then I met Ginjer Buchanon at Lunacon and she seemed vaguely interested in the story that would become Ghostkiller (her assistant didn’t take it, and Ghostkiller became my first self-pubbed title). At the same time I discovered fanfiction, and after a few short pieces I threw myself into an epic story, rewriting the last three seasons of my favorite show.

622K words later, I was able to get back to that third sequel, having written a story with a much stronger plot than any I’d ever written before. More characters doing more things, and a grasp of how to pace the things they were doing so they all came out where they were supposed to. I rewrote the text I already had for Tales of Uncle, rearranging it rather than writing a lot of new stuff.

The priest’s tale took over, with a much larger audience to hear it, and they spread that story to others, and the novel expanded to include a cast of dozens where my earlier works had never topped more than a handful.  Side characters threw themselves in my way, and were allowed to take center stage. One of them told me he was gay, the first time that’s ever happened. I put the book together in an entirely new style, one chapter of real time, followed by a chapter of story, alternating and slowly drawing nearer to each other until they meet and switch places, as the teller becomes a character in someone else’s story.

I can’t wait to see what will come to me after the next million words.

Everybody who knows what an info-dump is knows they are horrible things. Mountains of background information and other trivia that the author shoves into the mouths of his characters, or plugs up the narrative flow with, because he’s got so much strange stuff in the story that his audience will be confused without it.

I have written some stories in which a vast amount of info-dumping was necessary, since they were essentially prequels to other stories. So I had to learn a thing or two about handling info-dumps, so that they don’t traumatize me or my readers. Since most of my readers didn’t appear to be traumatized by them, and I wasn’t either, I’d say I did a decent job.

Whether anyone who reads this can have the same success is doubtful, however, because a) I’m not at all sure I have anybody reading this blog anymore, and b) the main ingredient in that success is my writing technique, which is very much character-centered (CC) and character-driven (CD). Most writers do not have techniques that I would describe this way, especially not character-driven ones.

To some extent, it’s a bit unusual to have a character-driven story that needs an info-dump in the first place. A CD story is driven by the characters, what they know, what they want, what they care about. Even the descriptive prose is based on what they perceive in their world, which is not at all what the author might have in mind. As an author I may know all about the causal chain of events that led up to the current situation (I don’t), but as a CD author I would never put that stuff into the mouths of my characters unless they cared about it first. Even if I was to attempt a Star Trek-style briefing room scene (I wouldn’t), the focus would be less on Spock’s global knowledge of the situation they face, and more on Kirk’s desire to get the job done without getting anyone killed, and hopefully not violate the Prime Directive this time.

Info-dumps are essentially the author trying to shove what they know about the story into the story, but I have always been a believer that authors ought to be invisible in their stories. The characters will learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it, in the way they want to learn it. They don’t need or want to know the whole story, just the part of it that’s currently causing trouble for the people and things they care about.

So when it came time to do my stories, I focused on what did one character know, what did the other character care about, and how did they manage this communication. I was not in the slightest concerned with what the plot demanded, although I did indeed have some plot-based concerns. In fact, it was only because I figured out a way to use the info-dump to advance the story that I was able to do it at all.

 

Last week I was at Heliosphere, a new convention arising from the ashes, more or less, of Lunacon, another convention in the same general area. It celebrated its last hurrah last year, with no clear plans to have any more such conventions. I heard a lot of explanations about how that all came about, but not being a Lunarian I have nothing to say on the matter. I had stopped going to Lunacon some years ago, but since I had released Ghostkiller I thought I would see if a new title or two would attract attention. Unfortunately this did not turn out to be the case, so I would not have returned to Lunacon even if there had been a Lunacon to return to.
I didn’t hear about Heliosphere until after Lunacon, and I was very interested to see if I would do better there, as a book seller. This was only the second convention for Heliosphere, so it’s hard to make comparisons. They did say that the membership was up by a decent percentage from the first one, so that’s good news. One former vendor from last year was quite impressed that our turnout was so much larger than his experience. I also had a large number of new titles, several of which were popular. Some of my older titles (some of them romances) also sold, to a new audience. I find myself hoping that they’ll have more panels, or that with enough time to ask I might find myself on some of them. I need to start presenting myself as an author, not just a dealer.
Some of the best events I saw weren’t panels, though. In the dining area outside the dealers room they had a number of events, such as a demonstration of sword-and-shield fighting techniques, or tables for authors to just chat about their books. The more popular authors held very large gatherings there. They were also floating the idea of hosting mini-cons within the con, as some of the more popular authors had their own tracks. I’m not sure how well that would work, but I don’t know how much crossover there was from the one track to any of the others.
We’ll see next year.

It’s been a bit busy around here, ever since I discovered a Facebook group that lets publishers and editors post opportunities for writers to submit stories. Part of that is due to me having quite a few stories lying around, in need of a good home. I have nothing against self-publishing them, but someone’s magazine is a much better placement if I can get it.

So it was the best of both worlds when I was able to place one of my existing stories with a new magazine. The pay wasn’t great, but the story was already there, and the magazine posted a number of stories by some fairly heavy hitters in the SF field, like Harry Harrison and Clifford Simak. Hopefully my story will be considered worthy of that company.

Black Infinity is a magazine harking back the good old days, when every alien wasn’t a beautiful humanoid female bent on seducing the captain. New planets were dangerous places, and explorers were risking everything to test them out. My story, ‘Noisemaker’, is about an agent for the Solar System’s de facto government, sent to a newly-discovered world, where all the animal life makes no sound, to find out why the research station there has suddenly gone as silent as everything else. The hero of this story, and others in this vein, is Robert Marquand, son of Joseph, which makes this series a sequel of sorts to my novel St. Martin’s Moon, which also has a creepy, outer-space-is-out-to-get-us vibe.

Dreamtime Dragons is a product of another Facebook group, called the Dreamtime Dragons. We decided to put together an anthology of our own work, almost all stories about dragons in some way or another. Rather than try to divide the sale price several different ways, all proceeds go to charity. My contribution to the work is an excerpt from my latest as-yet-unpublished novel, the third book in my Flame in the Bowl trilogy. The book is called Tales of Uncle, the story is called ‘A Soft Spot for Dragons’. Tarkas’ nephew Jasec has become the local teller of tales, and when his sister gets sick he tells her the tale of their heroic uncle’s adventure against the mightiest of monsters, the dirkins!

My son James got married yesterday, which is great, but not what this post is all about. When the ceremony was over and they were preparing to walk away from the altar, they played a song I’d never heard before, which isn’t surprising, as I stopped listening to popular music a long time ago.  But it was a nice sounding song, cheerful, and bouncy, with a very appropriate refrain, “Good to be alive, right about now.”

I got the name of the song and sat down this morning to see it on youtube. I was very unhappy with the video, and I said so in the comments. The lyrics to the song are as bland and banal as might be expected. My life sucks but now something’s changed. I kept trying to do anything that would get something going. I was a little bit put off with the use of a word like ‘deserve’, since nothing in the lyrics indicates that he deserves anything.

Then came the pictures. The official video has the singer and his back-up as valets for some hotel. The receive a fancy car from some rich guy with a big cigar and a trophy girlfriend. The proceed to drive around town in the car, then recklessly abuse it driving like idiots. Finally they return it to the hotel as if nothing was wrong and the stupid rich guy drives off, unaware that his vehicle has just been abused. The singer and his backup celebrate.

To me the video, the story of the video, was saying, you should be happy your pathetic tiny dreams got satisfied with a tiny crumb that fell from the High Table where only Big People sit. And apparently that’s all the hero feels he deserves.

There’s one thing that frightens me more than the thought that people can be so clueless, so lacking in awareness, that these are visual images that they think capture the power of the story. It’s the thought that the people who make these videos know exactly what they are doing. They create videos that take the power of the song and attach it to wholly unsuitable visuals.

There’s a reason musicals were so popular for so long. Music + Visuals = message, and the message appears to be this: “Be a peasant, a servant, and be so very happy with the little we allow you to have.”

Having just come from a wedding where this song was the endnote of the ceremony, clearly I have a much better idea of what a proper video for this song would be. Unfortunately happy married life and contentment don’t sell products, and I’m cynical enough to look for the profit motive over all others. At the very least I’m saddened that this guy’s life is so lacking that driving and mishandling someone else’s car fills him with such joy.

On a similar note, the video for Closing Time also strikes a totally false note compared to the song itself. The song is about a child being born. The video has two people kicked out of two bars running into each other on the street. While it’s unpleasant to see maternal love displaced in favor of a casual hook-up, it’s harder to see a malicious motive for doing so. Which is depressing enough. The power of the stories in these videos deserves more respect.

Once upon a time, there was a story called Off the Map, about a nice lady named Sandi who liked to take care of things. One day some of the things she took care of decided to show their gratitude, but the gratitude of dragons can be a little…harrowing.
Now, through the magic of Amazon KDP, the tale of Sandi’s frolics on the set of Interdimensional Survivor is once again available for your amusement and edification. But if you do manage to learn something from it, please don’t tell me what it is. Just leave a review and tell everyone else.

 

By far the most difficult and complicated story structure I’ve managed to develop so far is the VbP. Like a Hero by Proxy structure, the other characters play a significant role, lending their individual plotlines to the resolution of the story as a whole. There is also the same two-tier structure, which I called the inner and outer stories. The inner story is the actual plot of the book, while the outer is the overall setup of the world that makes the inner story possible.

The difference between the two is simple, but the effects of it are huge. In a HbP story, the outer story, such as the werewolf curse in the case of St. Martin’s Moon, doesn’t play an actual role in the story. Although it is affected by the actions taken by the proxies in the inner story, it’s not an actor. In a VbP story it is. In an HbP story, the characters know they’re in a situation, in a VbP story they don’t. The outer story is the proxy, and it’s only when the proxy acts in the story, that any of the other characters realize that they’re in a situation at all.

The example I came up with for this type of story, other than Ghostkiller, that is, is the Lord of the Rings, only an alternate version where Sauron doesn’t exist. The ring is the proxy, acting subtly on all the other characters to do its evil work, trying to get back to a Master that doesn’t exist. No one has thought about Sauron for 3000 years. Gandalf is a weird fireworks maker, and Frodo is busy dealing with all sorts of unpleasantness cropping up all over the Shire. Only when the Ring finally acts does anyone realize that there’s a subtle causation to all the stuff they’ve been dealing with, and then they spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what it is, so they can put an end to it.

The problem with this structure is that all of the characters, including the hero, are reacting to the situation. In LOTR Frodo may have delayed, but he took action before the Nazgul came looking. In a VbP situation, he is at best dealing with symptoms while unaware of the disease. This makes it very difficult to write a query, since there is no goal being pursued by the hero that carries him to the end of the story. I was never able to come up such a hook, and that’s one of the reasons why Ghostkiller has been self-published. The best I could come up with was to get my hero right to the top of that slippery slope, that moment just before the proxy struck, and just…let it go.

Unbinding the Stone

A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

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St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

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Ghostkiller

Chasing His Own Tale

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Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

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Steampunk Santa

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Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

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Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

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