245 sample queries later…

I just finished going through all of the Query Shark’s posts. I’m not sure why, I’m not really in the querying stage for any of my writing. But there’s something beautiful about schadenfreude, and about watching bad writing get torn to pieces. It’s addictive.

In this case it felt even better, because the Query Shark does it out of a sense of kindness – or, at least, purpose. People submit their queries and she critiques them so that we have the chance to learn how to sell that novel we’ve got in the wings. Because query writing is a lot different from novel writing, and far more complicated than I had considered before I read through all the archives.

One of the things she would often say when a query had been rewritten to her satisfaction was, “Now go back and apply what you’ve learned about writing to your novel. It won’t do any good to have a good query letter but a novel full of all these mistakes.” I’m paraphrasing, obviously, and I would suggest that anyone interested in publishing go read through those archives. Even if you don’t want an agent, and even if you plan to self-publish, there are some great writing tips in there.

One of the things that Query Shark suggests is the removal of excess words. This isn’t exactly new advice, but it’s a piece that’s easy to forget. My old creative writing teacher used to say, “Write prose as though you’re paying a dollar for every word you put down, and write poetry as though you’re paying five dollars for every word.” Despite this advice, my prose can be bloated and my novels are full of subplots that have nothing to do with the actual story.

The other piece of advice that stuck with me was the removal of gerunds. It can be easier to  write in that more passive tense, but it makes the writing less interesting. I have a tendency to use gerunds in my writing as well.

Just a warning: it can be a little depressing to read Query Shark. I, at least, felt inadequate when looking through the criticism. But there’s some encouragement in there as well, and a lot of people have written to the Shark thanking her for her harsh but needed words.

On with the writing! Perhaps one day I’ll send a query to her myself. But for now, I need to focus on Camp Nanowrimo. I’m bombing it this year, and not in the good way. Which is ridiculous, because in Camp Nanowrimo you set your own goals and can basically do whatever you want.

 

The Art of the Invisible, the Beauty of the Complete

One of the ways in which I try to keep an active writing life is by meeting with other writers in the real world. We don’t spend much time writing when we meet, but it’s a nice way to remember that there are people behind those mysterious blog posts, short stories, poems and discussions that I get embroiled in online.

One of my friends is a guy who’s been working on fantasy stories. He’s very passionate about writing, and very dedicated to fantasy. But he despairs at his chance of publishing traditionally, because he perceives that he writes fantasy that’s too untraditional for the publishing world.

When I incredulously but politely inquired as to the thought behind his reasonings, he gave me a number of answers. Some were good, some were bad, and one stuck in my mind. “I don’t do world building,” he told me loftily. “I do action, and characters, and people.”

This statement intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, this guy writes in a fantasy, otherworldly setting. So if his world is poorly constructed, it’s gonna show. Doesn’t he want his work to be the best it can? Secondly, revealing the world is kind of like revealing exposition. It should be done a little at a time, at points of relevance, so that by the end of the story we have a complete picture without any boring word dumps. Does he think that the people in his story have to bum around with someone like Tom Bombadil for fifty pages or so in order for a publisher to give him the green light?

Ah, Tom Bombadil. People either love you for the world you reveal, or hate you for impeding the story.

Of course, Tolkien is the Grand Maestro of worldbuilding. But we don’t have to be like him. We don’t have to invent loads of different languages, stories, races and religions that never show up in the completed work. Even George R.R. Martin didn’t do more than write key phrases of his languages. HBO hired a linguist to work the rest of them out.

In October 2012 I wrote another post on worldbuilding, detailing the sorts of things that we often forget but which make the world we write in so much richer. My friend is clearly of the opinion that the world doesn’t matter. How true is that?

My first reaction to his statement was that it was preposterous. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to think about it –

Yep. Still preposterous.

If you’re a fantasy author who writes about people in a world different to our own, then you’ve already started to build a world. The magical rules they follow imply a different kind of physics. The social rules they follow imply their traditions, their politics, and to some extent their history. Even using vague monetary denominations such as copper, silver and gold pieces implies mining practices and the social value of these metals.

As fantasy authors we ask readers to accept our new world rules. So we’d better know what they are ourselves. If it helps, we can think of our world as yet another character that needs development.

Whenever I come to an understanding of how something works in my world, I write it down. Let’s take the money example. Is it metal money? How do they get it? Do they make coins from it, or do they use pieces by weight (such as the anglo method of clipping pieces off an armband)? If people use paper or other kinds of money, how is it printed/made? How can they ensure that no one will counterfeit it?

How much of that information gets used in a piece? Almost none. But if you mention the mines down south, or the Grand Treasury, that’s all you need to hint that those procedures are in place and that you’ve thought about them. It enriches the world without shoving the worldbuilding aspect under a reader’s nose.

All authors look upon certain writing chores as unfavorable. Sometimes you just have to buck up and do it. Worldbuilding is one of those times.

Otherwise, urban fantasy could use a refit from all those sparkly vampires.

Missed Opportunities

Today I was reminded of one of the benefits of self publishing – you do things on your own time and don’t have to feel like you missed an opportunity.

In this morning’s email sat a message from one of the publishers I follow, declaring that they were now accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I read the post two, three times, racking my brain for possible submissions and cursing myself for each one’s inadequacy.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to get myself out there and prove to myself that I didn’t have to be afraid to show others my work. It’s not that I think that the writing on my blog is a masterpiece or even necessarily publishable. But I did think I might get some feedback and encouragement. And at the same time I made a rookie mistake. I treated writing like it was a hobby, something casual to do when I had the time.

My hard drive is full of half-finished pieces, barely-started novels, outlines, character sketches and all the little things that mark the beginning of something. I don’t think I have anything that signifies the end – something that could be sent out as, say, an unsolicited manuscript.

It’s easy to say that I’ll finish it later, that I need more research, that I need to be in the right mood. But the reality is that writing is a test of fortitude. It’s easy to write the beginning of something, when the possibilities stretch out before you in all directions. It’s less easy to finish something. And then there’s the really hard part: going back and tweaking, untangling all the inconsistencies, turning it into something that a stranger could read an enjoy.

I’m trying to establish a writing regimen so that I actually get things done. I want to re-flesh some of the old skeletons buried in my hard drive, and turn them into submissions. Where I’d submit them, I have no idea, but even if I change my mind and take steps toward self-publishing, well, that would be an opportunity I created for myself.

My fellow writers, I salute you! Be steadfast, and good luck with your submissions, if that’s the kind of writing you go for.

Maybe This Time…

I try to participate in Nanowrimo every year.

By that I mean, I get at least one hour down the pike before giving up. Sometimes I get a couple thousand words in. And a few times I’ve gone all-in, and finished that novel with hours to spare.

I’m subscribed to the OLL blog and last year I was pretty active in my little writing group here in Copenhagen. During (and after) the Big Event, I kept hearing about these amazing people who had not only managed to write a novel in a month, but had managed to rework it, polish it, edit it, send it off to an agent or publisher, and sell it. Some of the people in my writing group were preparing to self-publish their work.

All this made me take a long, hard look at my previous novels. What I found was – lack.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 1: I seem to recall I started on this one rather late. A young man receives a very rare book from his dead grandfather, along with a note saying he has to protect it at all costs. In finding out what, exactly, the book is, why some people want to destroy it and others want to protect it, he ends up getting into all kinds of trouble.
What it lacked: Substance, really. While my main character did a lot of things, I don’t think I ever clearly explained why it was he had to do them, who was after his book, or what it was all about. It was an entertaining story but I’m not sure I’ll revisit it.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 2: It took me four years to complete a Nano challenge again. I’ll admit I was a little surprised, since I had no idea what I was doing and had absolutely no plan until November 1. My story centered around a vampire protagonist who was the main villain of a gothic novel – only she didn’t want to be the bad guy. The book followed her efforts to become self-aware and change the plot, with the help of some (and hindrance of other) secondary characters.
What it lacked: Although I enjoyed writing it as a humorous piece, I don’t think this will make it to a publishing house in its current incarnation, because it lacks originality. A vampire we can sympathize with? Been there, done that. Characters of a novel becoming self-aware? Likewise. It was fun to write a mock gothic novel, but the angle isn’t enough. I’ve got plans for changing this one, but not this Nanowrimo.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 3: Emboldened by my success the previous year, I decided to try re-writing the second novel I ever completed. When I was 16, I produced an irritating, plotless adventure that even I didn’t really understand. It focused on a young girl who had a singular magical ability, and forged an unlikely and disapproved of friendship with the nearby magician’s son. I then spent the next six years trying to figure out what to do with it. I always liked the characters, but needed something more substantial for them than the wandering adventure that I had. So I made her the subject of an early-teen marriage to an older man, had them placed in a powerful position at some foreign court, and put in some mystery. Oh, and then I killed her.
What it lacked: I liked the way the manuscript started. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do from there. The decision to add in a little murder came towards the end, and then I realized what I really wanted – my novel was supposed to start with the murder. That led to something entirely different that won’t resemble, in any way, the mess I began six years ago. This manuscript lacked certainty. It’s something I hope to bring back to its latest incarnation – and maybe I’ll finish it this time.

This year’s novel: After a little tribulation, I decided to go with what I described in my book blurb # 1. It’s not the most original premise of the ones I posted, but I picked it because it has strong characters. That means they won’t be waffling around while I’m trying to figure out where the plot goes next. I have a clear picture of them all in my mind, so I won’t have to force actions on them or think up a reason or two. The plot doesn’t really have an unsolved mystery, which I’d have to figure out before the end, and it doesn’t have complicated magic, science or world views.

I’ll be blogging daily during Nanowrimo, in an attempt to stick to my word count. I’ll probably vent some frustrations about writers block, the cafe where I’ll do most of my morning writing, balancing Nano and thesis, and so on. I know that there are fellow Nano’ers out there in the blogosphere; maybe we can all put together a support group of some kind.

Anyone interested in Nano support, let’s hear it. Problems in previous years, trends you’ve noticed, suggestions for some kind of group…