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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Last week I was celebrating the completion of my first ever synopsis, which was true but perhaps a bit premature. Unlike my fanfiction chapters, which go out into the world unedited and unrevised, this little piece needed a lot of very tiny modifications. Somehow, I managed to write a single page, using the standard formatting guidelines, and have it come out as over 700 words, when normally it’s 450-500 words. So even though an agent might be happy it was a single page, they might still be annoyed at the length. So for the last week I’ve been revising the damn thing, removing unnecessary verbiage, condensing, trimming the  passive constructions, all that good stuff. At the moment it’s at 550 words, and I think it’s probably about as short as I can make it without sacrificing content.

Anyway…

I wrote the synopsis based on a model from another blog post. The inciting incident is not the starting point of that model but it’s in some ways the most important, as it shows the MC (introduced in step 2) reacting to a change in his situation (described in step 1).

Plot point one is the next stage after the inciting incident, but it’s not always easy to call it a separate stage. In the Star Wars model, plot point one is the destruction of the farm while Luke isn’t there, freeing him up to follow Ben. The carnage that began the movie has reached as far as it can, with no further clues to lead it onward, The inciting incident thus directly feeds into the first plot point, like a minor surge that propels a bit of flotsam out of range of the tidal wave coming in right behind.

It doesn’t have to be like that. While the inciting incident of Ghostkiller is the hero’s awareness of his own failure, the first plot point has almost nothing to do with that sense of guilt. Trying to follow the Star Wars model was actually quite unhelpful in the writing of this synopsis.This could perhaps be a bad thing. I don’t know how connected the two are supposed to be, I simply know that in my story they are not very.

Ghostkiller, like all of my stories, is character-driven, rather than plot-driven, so the connection between the two is mediated through the character rather than the plot. The opening sequence shows John at work, mainly because the actual business of Ghostkilling needs to be demonstrated, since no one would have the necessary referents. (Star Wars is basically a standard epic adventure, set in space, but it’s the knights and the swords and the quest that are the story, not the lasers and hyper-drive.) John’s feeling of guilt is a direct result of the side-effects of his work on him as a person, as is the first plot point. It’s not nearly as neat and tidy as a plot-driven synopsis would be. (I think. I’ve never written one.)

The problem comes from a multitude of characters, each with their own plot, each responding to the actions of the others, in their own particular ways. I could describe the same story in many different ways, depending on which character viewpoint I took. (Try watching a movie called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the story of Hamlet told from the perspectives of some minor characters.) My stories usually start with one person, so I know who the primary player is at all times, but that’s just me.

It would have helped me a great deal to have known this before I spent a lot of time trying to warp a character-driven story to fit  a plot-driven model, but I don’t know of any character-driven models out there. Which is why I’m writing one, I guess. What’s the character equivalent of a plot point?

It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally beginning to move on from my epic retelling of Chuck’s third season, a 190K long, 20 episode, 80 chapter monster that consumed my life for more than a year. I finished it. I made an omnibus version, which I PDF’d and sent to a few people who asked for it. Then I read it and re-edited it and re-PDF’d it. I still find myself checking the special mail folder I set to receive mail from fanfiction.net, hoping that someone would have left me a comment. That’s a very addicting side effect of that site, getting feedback on what you wrote and put up there, pretty quickly. For my books I have to go searching for any comments people may have left about them, and that isn’t as often as I’d like.

I really need to start posting on Twitter and stuff, doing more blog posts here. I tend to get very single-minded when I have a project, I focus on it and not much else.

But eventually the PDF was as finished as two rereads could make it and then I put it away, and started watching Castle. Not that I like Castle all that much, but I’d already seen the first 2 seasons and discovered my library had the second two on the shelf, so I figured, “What the hell.” I have to say I’m liking these second two much better. I can’t say I hated the first two but I don’t really remember them all that well, which is indication enough. I do wish they’d get the romantic angst stuff out of the way, though, and move the story onto some other topic. I like the way they expanded the roles of some of the other players, and brought in a different Captain for the precinct.

I can’t help but think of Bones, though, and how they changed her boss from one season to the next. I can’t really say, since I don’t watch TV much at all, but it does seem like these shows are starting to cannibalize each other. I don’t care when the story is good. Seeing a little shout out to some great moment in another show I liked is kind of fun, then. When I can predict the entire course of an episode because it looks so much like some other TV show or movie, well, not so much.

But Castle is for the afternoons. In the morning I reread Ghostkiller, and try to add little bits of text here and there. I plowed through the last several thousand words by alternating with my Chuck stories, and I have to make sure they don’t read like that. When I’m in a hurry i usually focus on the dialog, and let the story just flow as characters talking to each other. I have to go back over the text to fill in the action and movements and stuff, which is what I’m trying to do now.. So far I’ve added about 1500 words, enhanced the backstory, etc. It’s actually quite a delicate business, since sometimes it’s adding three words to a line, and other times it’s rewriting 5 paragraphs to make the story flow work better.

I sometimes wish I had a beta-reader, though, I don’t know how much is really needed and how much is me being paranoid. One of the better aspects of my Chuck writing is that it pulled me into areas I don’t normally write, made me practice different styles. At the end I had to do an entire action-packed episode for my season finale, when my group, fractured into multiple groups, nonetheless manages to come together and bring doom to the villains, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It”s not a style I do much, and I had to figure out a lot about pacing to make it work. My ending for Ghostkiller needs some of that same attention. The climax is just a little too breakneck.

I’ll get around to doing that nine2five prequel. Just not now.

And everything looks different! I hope I can figure out how to post stuff in this new environment.

I just posted the very lastest chapter in one of the longest ongoing stories on Fanfiction.net, my story nine2five. It’s actually 20 episodes with 4 chapters each, so it doesn’t look as big as it really is. I’ve been gathering all the chapters into one document, though, and this monster is 190K words! On the other hand lots of the people writing fewer chapters have many more words in them, so from a word count perspective my story is nowhere near the largest.

I wouldn’t have thought I could do such a thing, and to be honest I think there are several factors that made it happen. Most important was my love for the show I was writing about, especially the characters. Second was the support from several readers on the boards, who would write in to comment on every chapter. This support is wonderfully encouraging, even though I would have written the story even if no one had said anything. (But I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much.) Last is the fact that the story already existed. I was rewriting an entire season of the show, which had a deep and subtle storyline that the writers buried under a mountain of poor writing, lack of continuity, and my own personal pet peeve, lack of story logic. While many call my story an AU, I think it is in fact very close to what the producers were really doing, even though it isn’t very close to what they were trying to do, and further still from what they did.

This project has been monopolizing my time for months, and the closer it got to completion the more I wanted to get it done, but at the same time, get it done right!

I think it helped that last weekend I was at Readercon once again. The man running the dealer room was trying to get more self-published authors in there, so he offered me a space (under my publisher’s name, but no matter) with the proviso that I would host these authors’ titles. So I was in Burlington MA last weekend, and with the press of business I didn’t really do much writing, so I ended up thinking a lot about what I wanted to do for this last chapter, and it came out pretty well.

Readercon itself was good, from a dealer perspective. A little cold in the ballroom, but we sold more books this time than we did last time we were there, so that’s a win. On the other hand I found only one panel I wanted to attend, on the subject of POV, which gave me some ideas for new panels which I suggested to the programming group. So if I’m lucky maybe I’ll be asked to participate in a panel or two next year. (Hey, I’m a fantasy writer, it’s practically my job to dream!) Last time there were four, on subjects of genre evaporation and interstitiality. Good stuff, but not everybody’s cup of tea, just as the dominant topics of this year’s con weren’t mine. I spent a lot of time in the con suite having fun talking about various bookish topics with just lots of people. I met the editor who rejected Ghostkiller, and I met another editor that I’ll be sending Ghostkiller to in the near future! But I want to reread it first. After so long on nine2five, I think I can bring fresh eyes to the project!


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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Click here to buy NOW!

Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

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