To my great surprise, I finished the first draft of my first novel on Sunday, December 23rd, at 11:37 a.m.

My original goal had been the end of October, but work and personal obligations got in the way, and I hadn't been able to write at all until this last week. So by then I had completely forgotten how close to the end I was!

In celebration, hubby took me out to dinner, and to print a copy. I hugged that binder all the way home. ;-)

I just stumbled on BookEnds LLC and the incredible, ongoing pitch critique hosted there by Agent Jessica. In October, she invited commenters to submit their pitch:

...every author needs to be able to summarize his or her book in as little as five words, but no more than three sentences (or so). In other words, you need to capture an agent's, editor's, or reader's attention quickly.

She then went on to say that she was going to pick from the pitches submitted and post a critique of as many as she could. Well, she's still going, and has critiqued almost a hundred pitches so far! I really appreciate her willingness to keep doing this, because what helped me most when reading through was the sheer volume. If I see so many clear examples of what works and what doesn't, eventually it sinks in.

Some commenters have remarked that the exercise has really helped them think clearly about their plot, and to realize where it has weak points. I can relate! After reading all those pitches, of course I had to try my hand at one for my current WIP. It really served to reinforce the structure problems that I already thought it had. I think this will be a useful exercise to do *before* I start the next story.

So here's what I picked up from reading all those pitch critiques:
1. Convey the tone of the book. Don't stand back and narrate from a distance. Almost without fail, Jessica really liked pitches that were able to convey tone.
2. Don't include backstory. Start with the inciting event. What kicks the story off?
3. Make sure you communicate the conflict. A lot of pitches she said were interesting, but she just couldn't see what the conflict was.
4. Don't ignore the pitch. Or query letter, for that matter. You may have spent years perfecting the actual manuscript but if you don't spend enough time perfecting those, the first thing the agent will see, then you're screwed.

When I list those points out like that, they sound just like every other essay on pitch or query writing that I've read. I encourage you to take a look at BookEnds' actual critiques to see these principles in action.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a delicious story of revenge set in a fabulously well-constructed world full of corruption. It was entirely too gory and too vulgar for my taste. That, of course, didn’t keep me from dropping everything I was supposed to be doing because I just had to find out what happened.

There were three things that really stood out in this debut novel: the imagination of the author, Scott Lynch, the way exposition was handled throughout the book, and the non-stop tension.

Scott Lynch has a to-die-for imagination. The world he built was dark, seamy and rich in details, but what really caught my attention was its novelty. The story could easily have been wasted in the more traditional generic medieval setting. Instead, it’s set in Camorra, a canal-filled city that is brimming with character. There are terrible, treacherous monsters in the waters, there are thieves who hold court on a permanently anchored ship, there are smug nobility who believe themselves protected by the "Secret Peace" that keeps the thieves from preying on them. Adding another layer of mystery are the Elderglass towers, which are indestructible and were already in place when the current inhabitants found the city. The world of Locke Lamora is a living and breathing place. Lynch also has a flair for violence; his descriptions of torture and fights and murders were brilliant and creative. Also stomach-turning, but I can ignore that to admire the genius.

Exposition was also handled very creatively. The book alternated chapters between earlier incidents in Locke’s life and the main story line. The flashbacks almost always related directly to the chapter of the current events that followed it. In this way, we were able to see the significance of Locke’s best friend’s favorite weapons, the “Wicked Sisters” before we saw him use them, without a lot of straightforward exposition. It took a few chapters to get used to the abrupt switching back and forth, however, and toward the end the exposition chapters were used to explain bits of history about the city and its buildings and politics. At that point, the technique became blatant exposition, and I think it could have been handled better. It wound up reading like a history book or a tour guide. Also, there was some exposition fit into the chapters covering the main story line, and often the story stopped while Lynch explained some custom or feature of the city.

The level of tension that Lynch was able to maintain was impressive. I read this book just after reading an interview from Writer Unboxed with Donald Maas, author of Writing the Breakout Novel and president of the Donald Maas Literary Agency, where he talks briefly about how important it is to maintain tension in your novel. Here’s a short excerpt:

Q: I encourage all writers to get WtBN and read it for themselves, but I’d also like to provide everyone with a taste of what your book offers. What’s your favorite exercise, the one you believe offers the most promise?
DM: The absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, with every novel, is to toss the manuscript pages in the air and collect them again in random order. (The pages must be randomized or this won’t work.) Next, go through the manuscript page-by-page and on each page find one way to add tension. Now, that sounds easy enough but most people are quickly stymied. That is because they do not truly understand what tension means. In dialogue, it means disagreement. In action, it means not physical business but the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character. In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war. Study your favorite novelists. If they make you read every word, even while turning pages rapidly, it is because they are deploying tension in a thousand ways to keep you constantly wondering what’s going to happen. Tension all the time is the secret of best selling fiction, regardless of style, genre or category. If it sells big, it’s got tension on every page.

At first, Lynch’s novel seemed like a textbook example of this point. I was unable to put it down, and I was definitely turning the pages rapidly, but eventually, there was too much tension. I couldn’t keep reading every word- I committed the ultimate crime and skipped ahead. First I flipped to the end, to see who made it out alive. Then I tried to keep reading, but soon found myself skimming the remaining pages. I was about three-quarters through at that point, and I skimmed until I knew the rest of the plot points, and then I was able to go back and enjoy the story.

From Donald Maas’ point of view in the excerpt above, you can’t have too much tension. And yet, I found The Lies of Locke Lamora tense enough to break my strict rule about never skipping ahead. So that leads me to a question (two, actually): can there be too much tension? Or am I just a wimpy reader?

Overall, The Lies of Locke Lamora was a thrilling, fascinating book. I hope to learn from Lynch’s style, and I look forward to seeing how his writing grows throughout the remaining books in the series.

Nathan Bransford, literary agent extroardinaire, yesterday posted an actual query and the first page or so of a manuscript submitted to him (with the author's permission) and took the time to explain why he didn't like it.

A lot of commenters on his page (politely) pointed out flaws in the writing itself, and I agreed with most of them. However, I think the real problem is with the story idea itself.

Here's the main part of the query:

Katirin is a princess of such embarrassing parentage her family forced her into a convent to get her out of the royal succession. When she discovers the convent's bland and blissful priestesses--women who share a communal mind and do little except sing--aren't really the god's mouthpieces at all, but empty husks puppeteered by a demon, Katirin realizes she must find a way out of the convent or the demon will devour her soul.

For Katirin, however, escaping telepathic priestesses and irate nobility isn't enough--not when she can see the demon's hunger will one day destroy the nation she should have ruled. Katirin vows to stop the creature, but she needs to answer one question first--how do you kill a demon that lives in a thousand bodies?

Katirin sounds, well, vanilla. Generic. Like every other female protagonist in fantasy. She's good and noble and boring. This is a problem that I'm currently running into on my own manuscript, so I can relate. And for all I know, the author really develops Katirin into an interesting character later in the story, and just needs to work some of that flavor in here. But I maintain that some flavor is necessary. A query about a good, noble, selfless woman unexpectedly thrown into danger just isn't going to get the attention of an agent. What does she *want*, aside from not being eaten? Why should we care about her?

And that's the question it always comes back to, in all the advice I see out there. Make the agent care. Grab their interest. They get endless servings of vanilla in their slush piles- we've got to give them something different.

So I will be analyzing my WIP to make sure the main character's motivation is clear, and worthwhile, and something that people can really get behind. And to make sure that she's not boring. ;-)

…what if my hubby had left one of his throwing stars within my reach? Last I checked, I could get them to actually stick in the target at *least* half the time.

Booksquare’s “Quote of the Week” is taken from an article titled “Why don’t we love science fiction?“. I read some science fiction- more fantasy, of course, but I was still interested, so I checked out the article. Halfway through, I was stopped dead by the following quote.

“In a fantasy story,” Aldiss says, “there’s a big evil abroad, but, in the end, everything goes back to normal and everybody goes home to drink ale in the shires. In a science-fiction story, there may be a terrible evil abroad, and it may get sorted out, but the world is f***ed up for ever. This is realism. It’s certainly not beach reading, unless you can find a really nasty, shingly beach.”

The article calls Aldiss the “godfather of British SF”. I hope by the time I get that old (he’s 82) I will have learned to actually read the genres I talk about. Or the books I talk about. Am I making too big a leap to say that shires->hobbits->The Fellowship of the Rings? Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the end of that book, *nothing* goes back to normal.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of fantasy novels that have happy endings. I love HEAs! However, it seems like there are an equal share that don’t. Where the characters are forever changed, for better or for worse, and couldn’t go back to where they started and drink ale if they wanted to. Which they wouldn’t. Because of the aforementioned changes.

Fantasy aside, it’s pretty daring to make such a blanket statement about SF. I’ve read quite a few SF books that have happy endings. Maybe I’m sampling the wrong end of the spectrum? In SF, I would say that I read primarily female authors. Do you think the sex of the author can have an impact on the happiness of a novel’s ending? Or do you suppose that Aldiss wouldn’t classify the books I’ve read as science fiction?

While browsing at my local library, I came across a small hardcover turned backward on the shelf. In my never ending curiosity, I had to turn it around and see what book was hiding: In the Forests of Serre, by Patricia McKillip. I had never heard of her before, but it sounded interesting- I’m always watching for new* fantasy authors- so I took it home. A hundred pages later, I’m completely in her world.

I’m enjoying a lot about this book, but one thing that stands out is Ms. McKillip’s skill with narrative voice. For example, there is a scribe, who works in the palace library. He really likes his job and seems generally happy with his life. In an average fantasy, he wouldn’t be given much page time- he’s much too content. In In the Forests of Serre, he is an example of why minor characters are important. There is an old wizard who has kept logs and journals that no one has ever seen, that contain a lifetime’s worth of adrenaline-filled adventures. As the scribe copies the writings and cares for the wizard, who becomes ill, the wizard becomes more clearly defined because of the wonder with which the scribe views him.

Minor characters can define the main characters by how they interact with, perceive, and are treated by the main character.

I also think Ms. McKillip is going to be invaluable in learning how to make a villain wonderfullly villainous- but I will have to post on that later. After I’ve finished the book.

*new apparently means “new to me”. Ms. McKillip has been writing since the 70s.

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