Queries

My First Lessons From Querying

Your first queries, I’ve been told, are for practice. Your first choices of an agent or publishers should wait until you’ve made mistakes and learned from them. Usually, I’m skeptical about conventional wisdom, but I followed this advice, and I’m glad I did. After half a dozen queries, I have not received any personal rejections I could learn from, but I have learned a lesson or two about querying, and found reason to revise the start of my novel.

The first lesson should have been obvious: the smaller the sample of the manuscript requested, the quicker the response. This tendency matters, because for all everyone knows about the importance of a hook, a small sample and quick response may mean that a submission was not taken seriously. I worry that, rather than looking for quality or a story that will seller, agents with such criteria are most interesting in clearing their desks. So, unless someone proves otherwise, such agents will go to the bottom of my preferences.

My second lesson is more of a suspicion. My manuscript contains snippets of four to twelve lines of poetry. I believe that those snippets are a useful way to convey backstory and atmosphere. However, when I stop to think, mentioning poetry in my query might cause agents to believe I was offering an overly literary manuscript. What agents want, of course, is a saleable manuscript, and seventy years after Tolkien, many readers shy away from poetry. Because of this likelihood, I revised my query letter to omit any mention of poetry. Let the agents actually encounter my scattered bits of poetry, and I believe they will find that it works. At the very least, my manuscript will not risk being rejected out of a blind preference or prejudice.

However, it was when I looked at my novel from the perspective of trying to sell it that my first queries helped me the most. The story begins with a pivotal event in the past, and how it effects the protagonist, his mother, and his sister. I have always worried about the prologue, mainly because it starts with the mother, which might make readers think she is the main character. But I kept it because a professional writer who was a trusted friend suggested I keep it. But it was only when I started to query that I decided to change it. The prologue wasn’t the best sample I could offer, and meant less of the much stronger opening chapters could be included. At first, I wondered if there was a way to start with the main character, but, I was unable to find a way to give the necessary backstory.

Then a revelation struck: why mention his mother and sister at all in the prologue? Both are introduced later, so their inclusion in the prologue is unnecessary. I re-wrote the prologue entirely from the main character’s perspective, and the result is a much stronger story, and one which shows my writing to greater perspective, since I use the limited understanding of a child to reveal things of which he is not wholly aware. And, as an added bonus, I cut two thousand words. As a result, I believe that the manuscript now presents me much more strongly.

These improvements are largely assumption, but they show how querying can focus your mind and give you a new perspective on your own work. I look forward to further insights, both into querying and my writing as I plunge back into the maelstrom of submission.

General Writing, Queries

Debunking Three Fallacies About Querying

I’ve barely started to query. Yet already, I have found three cases where the conventional wisdom of aspiring writers is incorrect, or a half truth at best.

For instance, the popular assumption is that an agent is a necessity. This belief is so ingrained that several people say they will sign with an agent no matter what. Considering that your agent is important to your career, that is a rash position. However, more to the point, that belief is not true. No doubt an agent, with a knowledge of publishing that you lack, can ease a new writer’s way. Yet early in my planning, I discovered that both DAW Books and Tor accept submissions without an agent. Almost certainly, others do as well. Of course, if a publisher does make you an offer, the first thing you might do is find an agent, although you might get along with the SFWA’s model contract as a guide to negotiation. But going directly to the publisher does have the advantage of removing one obstacle in your journey towards publication.

Another common fallacy is that 95 thousand words is the required length for an adult work of fantasy or science fiction. It seems a good average and target to aim at, yet requirements vary. To use the same examples, DAW Books has only a minimum length of 80 thousand, while Tor will consider works of up to 130 thousand. Unless you have a work in progress whose hardcopy would break your big toe if dropped on it, there is far more flexibility than new writers believe – in which case, you can try the more difficult task of pitching a series instead of a single book.

A third mistaken assumption is that your manuscript must be in MS Word format (.doc or .docx). That may have been true a decade or two ago. Yet today many agents and publishers are a lot more flexible, especially if they use Submittable. .Pdf, .doc, .docx, .txt, .rtf, .wpf, .odt (LibreOffice and Open Office), and .wpd may all be acceptable. Personally, I prefer .pdf, because it sidesteps the problem of font substitution, assuring that people will see your work as you intended. However, you may not have a choice, because, to avoid the possibility of viruses, many agents and publishers require the manuscript be added to an email in plain text, which is a nuisance if you use styles and have to find a simple way to add spaces between paragraphs (Using LibreOffice, I used the Alternative Find and Replace extension, saving myself hours of dull manual labor).

I expect to find even more to debunk as I get deeper into querying. For now, one thing is clear: don’t make any assumptions – especially about issues that everybody thinks they know. Each agent and publisher posts their submission guidelines, which can usually be found quickly. The lack of uniformity may sometimes seem like a form of literary hazing, but you are hopping to be accepted into a fraternity of sorts, and the first step to acceptance is to follow the guidelines.

Announcement, General Writing, Poetry

Just Released: The Raven Ballads

As of September 23, 2021, I am releasing as a free download Raven Ballads, a collection of fantasy poems mentioned in my recently completed novel The Bone Ransom. In a perfect world, the poems would be given in full in the novel, but it is over eighty years since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, and modern audiences no longer tolerate that. Some readers even go so far as to say that they never read poetry, which causes problems for writers who want to use poems and songs as part of their world-building. I have compromised by including only snippets, most under six lines and all under twelve. However, having written a snippet, I always find myself compelled to write the complete poem, which explains this collection.

Perhaps, though, I lie. I say I wrote Raven Ballads, but the truth is that my main character Talson Ravenpiper wrote — or, at least, at the start of the novel, he is collecting the material for a book of the same name. Talson’s Raven Ballads are about his family, and he hid his when he had to flee a series of unfortunate events. By contrast, my Raven Ballad carries a wider variety of songs and poems, only some of which are about the upstart Ravenpipers. So maybe I am a plagiarist, or at least an imitator, and Talson should be given the writer’s credit, as he insists in the small hours of the night. He’s quite persistent, in his polite way.

It’s all very confusing, but since no one will make one silver pence from the publication, perhaps I shouldn’t worry.

I hope to see The Bone Ransom published soon, and in a couple of years the rest of its trilogy. Meanwhile, for those who wonder how I (or maybe Talson) has spent the last few years, or for those who want a foretaste of the novel, you can download my Raven Ballads from:

Fiction, General Writing

Why I Don’t Plan to Hire an Editor

When I announced that I had finished writing my novel, several friends immediately suggested that I hire an editor. I thought about this advice, but in the end decided not to. I already have the necessary resources on hand, and, as my critique partner points out, doing so may not be the best tactic when I query.

I am what I like to call a recovering academic. I’m an ex-university instructor, whose teaching duties included composition, and I must have marked several thousand essays for both content and grammar. So long as I wait a few days in order to get some distance from my work, I have faith in my ability to edit my own work. And that is not a false conceit, either: for twenty years, the editors to whom I have sold non-fiction – over 2200, before I lost count – have remarked on my clean copy. Besides, if I miss something, my critique partner, who is another teacher and successful seller of her own non-fiction, is bound to catch it. She also has the added advantage of being more familiar with my work than anybody other than me. So I think I more or less have editing covered.

In addition, my critique partner points out that in traditional publishing, hiring an editor is generally frowned on. For one thing, it’s an extra expense. For another, publishers generally have their own in-house editors, so an outsider can be a needless complication. Even more importantly, agents and publishers often prefer to see what you can do on your own, so they can see your level of skill. Anyway, on the road to publication, there are likely to be countless changes, so that the best time for editing is usually near the end of the process. Edit too soon, and you are likely to have to do it twice.

Perhaps if I eventually decide to self-publish, I would reconsider and hire an editor. In that circumstance, the editor I hired would take the place of a publisher’s in-house editor. However, despite the conventional wisdom among aspiring writers, hiring an editor is by no means a required step for any form of publication. It depends on your level of skill and your available resources.

General Writing

Finishing a Novel

Ever since I was twelve, I wanted to write a novel. Over the years, I tried several times, but I never got very far in my efforts. Usually, I never got past the first chapter. Somewhere, though, I gained the necessary knowledge and persistence, and on July 23, 2021, at 3:20 pm, I wrote the last words of a fantasy called The Bone Ransom. The fact that I noted the time so exactly indicates how important the milestone is to me.

I have written three non-fiction books: a critical study of the fantasy writer Fritz Leiber, and a how-to about LibreOffice and another about making ebooks with open source applications. They are satisfying accomplishments in their own way, but definitely consolation prizes. For me, the first prize has always been a novel.

So how do I feel? I am still struggling to understand, but my first reaction is that I feel like I can rest. I struggled with the last few chapters, seeming to have a block against finishing. Months ago, I settled into the routine of drafting, and part of me wanted to stay in the safety of that familiar territory. One day, my anxiety about moving on became so extremely that I literally was unable to touch-type. Now, I feel that I can take some time off, or maybe try a short story or two that I can finish in a few weeks.

More importantly, I feel justified. Not many people, I suspect, manage to fulfill their lifelong ambitions. I have achieved my self-chosen, existential goals. Fiction, I believe, is what I have chosen to do, and my life has not been wasted. The result is a quiet, but definite satisfaction, accompanied by a paranoid obsession with backups so that I don’t lose the manuscript. Backup glitches were disturbing enough when the work was incomplete. Now, I don’t want to lose any of the 95,000 odds words, except through editing.

Both these reactions, of course, are tempered by the fact that, as satisfying as completion of the manuscript might be, it is only just a start. Ahead of me lie final edits, and after that the process of querying agents and publishers. I may not know for several years whether my novel will be picked up by a traditional publisher, or if I will self-publish. For this reason, as I contemplate my accomplishment, my strongest feeling is simply: Good start.

General Writing, Uncategorized

Story conflict without violence: Victoria Goddard’s The Hands of the Emperor

Writers often talk about conflict, but much of what they say is wrong. Too often, they are likely to see the word “conflict” and assume it means violence, especially in their opening hook. This assumption can quickly become a problem, because –let’s face it — many writers have no experience of violence. Moreover, if you start with a sword fight or a chase, you create the additional problem of making readers care about a character they know nothing about. Even more importantly, if you identify conflict with violence, you risk a crude and unsubtle story.

So what’s the alternative? In The Hands of the Emperor, a long self-published novel that is currently attracting widespread attention, Victoria Goddard offers one alternative: instead of external conflict, try internal conflict instead. Here’s how she does it:

Her main character, Cliopher Mdang, is the only member of his family to seek a career abroad. He has become personal secretary to the Emperor, the manager of the imperial bureaucracy, and a byword for efficiency. He rarely has time to return home, where everybody in his extended family knows him simply as Kip. Cliopher is proud of his accomplishments, but he is unmarried and sees few friends or family as he goes about his work. He needs balance in his life.

At the start of the novel, Cliopher has a distant relationship with the Emperor. The Emperor is ringed with tabus, and Cliopher is not one to presume, and avoids any familiarity. Then, tentatively, alarmed at his own daring, he suggests that the Emperor take a holiday. To his surprise, the Emperor accepts the invitation, taking Cliopher and several other leading members of the court with him. During the holiday, the Emperor learns to relax and Cliopher sees someone as isolated as himself. Slowly, a friendship develops between two lonely men who barely know what friendship even means.

As Cliopher assists the Emperor, he starts to think about his own retirement. The trouble is, home and family irritate him. His friends and family do not realize that he is the second most important person in the empire. They seem him as an amiable mediocrity, and he is too modest to correct them. Just as his pride in his accomplishments is tempered by a wish for a life of his own, so his love of home is tempered by irritation. The story is about he struggles with this ambivalence and —

–And that’s it. The violence is next to non-existent, and the magic is largely ceremonial, or a display at festivals. Yet those who rank their reading by the body counts –the higher the better — may be surprised to learn that result is fascinating. Cliopher is an intelligent, quietly humorous man who is impossible to dislike, and his journey from the stiff and lonely Cliopher back to plain Kip is quietly moving and impossible to put down.

This is not the first time I have heard that conflict does not imply violence. In the early 1990s, Ursula Le Guin discussed “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” championing narrative over conflict. However, Le Guin never altogether managed to make her narratives as interesting as stories of conflict, and, without saying anything, slowly returned to a more conventional, if broader perspective.

By contrast, The Hands of the Emperor shows that at least one successful alternative to our traditional ideas of conflict and story structure actually exists. Based on this example, I am no longer thinking in terms of conflict, let alone violence, in structuring a story. Instead, I am thinking of story structure in terms of a lack of harmony, or perhaps an imbalance that the main characters struggle against. This re-framing, I believe, can only deepen our understanding of story.

Uncategorized, World Building

The Lost Art of Names

The Lost Art of Names

I published poetry before I published fiction. As a result, I focus closely on words –and none more closely than the names of characters and geographical features in my imaginary worlds. All by itself, the choice of a name can create or destroy a tone. Yet it’s a concern that very few writers seem to share.

Oh, many agonize over the names in their stories. The trouble is, they don’t try hard enough. Too often, they fall back on an online name generator. Some name generators contain hundreds of words, but the makers of name generators are no better than anyone else at coining names. More importantly, all names are specific to cultures, and the best any generator can do is create names for generic roleplaying cultures, with separate filters fo elves and dwarves, and so on. These generic cultures are not your cultures, so using a name generator can result in names inappropriate to the cultures of your world, and in making your world-building derivative. Worst of all, they can result in the same name being used by several writers.

Too often, writers seem unprepared for name coining. The need for a name arises, and they panic, not wanting a blank to stand in for the name until they can think of a better one. Instead, they fall back on several inadequate tactics. Some steal randomly, placing names like Mycenae and Illyria in anachronistic circumstances. If they need a character name, they fall back on a 19th Century upper class English name, like Damian or Justin. If they need a geographical name, they will name places as though the discoverers had an aerial view. Under this system, an island that looks like a crocodile becomes Crocodile Island, and a strait between two bodies of land become The Jaws. I have seen maps in every feature is named in this way. With maps, still another alternative is to turn poetic, and populate the blank places with names that would never be used in daily life, like The Mist-Shrouded Sea, and The Islands of Mystery. Such tactics are sure signs that the names are an after-thought, and are borderline effective at best.

So how do you invent names that are really work? Few of us have the knowledge and the patience to invent languages, the way Tolkien did. However, like Tolkien, we can plan ahead, keeping a dictionary of assorted names that we can scan as necssary. At the very least, you can use rearrange the syllables of other languages until you come up with acceptable names.

Often, it is useful to consider how actually coined. For instance, far from falling back on poetry, European explorers usually named geographical features for their ships, their ship’s officers or the members of the royal family of whatever country served them. By contrast, settlers of the American west often named towns for their founders, or sometimes for their ambitions, such as Motherlode or New Jerusalem. Often the position of related names can indicate when a region was settled, so that you see English and French names on the eastern seaboard of North America, and Spanish names on the southwestern seaboard. Just by positioning names on a map, you can create a sense of history.

When it comes to people, popular names are usually generational in the last few centuries. It is relatively uncommon, for instance for a person of twenty to share a name with one of seventy. If they do, the younger person has usually been named for a family member, and may use a different version of the same name — Lizzie, for example, rather than Elizabeth. And in earlier cultures, certain suffixes often indicated a name. For instance, in Germanic cultures, “hild” often ended a woman’s name (such as Brunnhild), while in Old English, “wine” often ended a man’s name (such as Aelfwine). Invent your own snippets, and you can hint at your cultural setting.

When using any of these tactic, you also need to make sure that the name fit the circumstances. Minas Tirith, for example, would not be one quarter as evocative if it was called Smokeville. Nor would Aragorn be so heroic if he was named Hank — a fact that Tolkien was well-aware of, since he includes some discussion of whether the ranger might be crowned as Strider, the name he is known by in the north (Aragorn does eventually use Strider as the name of his dynasty, but in another language in which “it will not sound so ill”). Sometimes, you can fit the name to the circumstances by inventing a name around an association. For example, the Germanic suffix “grim” might be used for a melancholy man, and prefix that with syllables that sound like “skull, and you could have the historic Skallgrim, who sounds like someone you wouldn’t invite to parties.

Some of the old masters of fantasy, like Lord Dunsany or E. R. R. Eddision were skilled at naming. They chose sparkling, evocative names that never failed to be appropriate. Over the decades, however, that skill has been lost. And in doing so, one of the strongest tools of fantasy has been lost.

Language

What would Robert Graves Do?

On a writing forum, a poster proposed to call his novel Maelstrom Burning. I had the lack of sense to ask how a maelstrom could burn, and greatly offended him. If I couldn’t be constructive, he told me, I shouldn’t say anything at all. But I was being constructive, or so I thought. Ever since I was a teen, I have believed that, no matter how poetic a phrase might sound, it must also make literal sense.

I caught this conviction by being exposed to the critical lectures of Robert Graves while still a teen. Graves also debunked Ezra Pound’s pretensions as a translator so thoroughly that, decades later, I still can’t read Pound without laughing – but that’s another story, and a less important one.

To understand Graves’ comments about poetry and literal sense, have a look at Tennyson’s often reprinted fragment “The Eagle.” You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t name the lecture; the collection it appeared in did not make it on to the Internet, and even if a library was open during the pandemic, it’s too dark and cold as I write to brave the outdoors.

Still, I remember the gist well-enough to re-create the important bits,
or at least their spirit.

“The Eagle” begins with the impressive-sounding line, “He clasps the crag with crooked hands.” Graves’ response? To ask if the eagle is doing a handstand. After all, the limbs an eagle stands on is its legs. The verse ends with the eagle standing, so either Tennyson knows this basic bit of biology, or has the eagle doing a back flip, so that it is now standing on its wings.

And the eagle is close to the sun? Sure, give or take 150 million kilometers.

Graves has more to say, mostly about the fact that, while Tennyson preserved the fragment, it says almost nothing. Three times, we are told that the eagle perches, with a different word choice each time. Then the eagle dives, but for what? We are not never told what the bird’s dinner might be. Despite all the times the fragment has been reprinted, it is illogical and trivial.

That’s a cruel, unsympathetic verdict, but Graves was a prominent poet and critic, so he had more of a right than most to offer it. Possibly, too, he was being satirical; Graves did enjoy going against academic orthodoxy. Yet he has a point. It is all too easy for writers and readers alike to forgive triviality because they are seduced by the poetry of a line. A writer should know better.

I am sometimes known to commit poetry myself, or poetic metaphors in my prose . Moreover, just after finishing, I am often besotted by my own cleverness. But in more sober afterthought, I am apt to ask myself what Graves might think of my alleged brilliance – and, at least two thirds of the time, I end by deleting what I wrote and laughing at how I was lost to common sense because of the sound. Then I re-write in plain English, as I should have had the sense do from the first.

Uncategorized

Handwriting vs. Typing

I learned to compose on the computer when I became a full-time journalist. I had no choice; it was the only way I could write fast enough to earn a living. For years, the only time I wrote with a pen was when I woke in the middle of the night to record stray thoughts. In the last month, though, I have returned to regular hand-writing, and I conclude that there really is a difference between how my thoughts come when I write by hand and by the keyboard.

I am not writing on paper. Instead, I am writing on a Remarkable 2, a tablet designed to take the place of a notebook. The Remarkable company boasts that it makes the thinnest tablet on the market, and uses an e-ink screen like the one used by ebook readers, which means characters have a higher resolution than the average screen and a lack of glare. The company claims that the Remarkable 2 is the closest electronic equivalent to handwriting, and, from what I can see, the claim is true without any exaggeration. In addition, it has the advantage of organizing my notes and of transferring them to my workstation without the nuisance of having to write them twice. It is not an all-purpose tablet, but one designed for handling text, a hybrid of the best of handwriting and the computer.

That is fine with me. For years, I have had a notebook on a lectern beneath my monitor, for the simple reason that it is faster to scribble a note by hand than fumbling to open up a text editor on the computer in the hopes of recording a stray thought before I forget it. I replaced my notebook with the Remarkable 2 seamlessly, and immediately enjoyed the improved organization. At night, I carry the tablet into the bedroom, and use it to scribble the thoughts that might come in the night. The next morning, I carry the tablet back to my workstation, and upload any notes that seem worth preserving.

So far, I have only written short passages on the Remarkable 2. However, what I have done is to do a lot of planning and background notes on it. The planning always seems to come more easily than at the keyboard — something I had not expected.

I have been aware, of course, of the arguments in favor of handwriting. Authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have long shown a fascination with handwriting, especially, in some cases, when they use a fountain pen. Tentative studies have suggested that handwriting is useful for visual learning, that it helps with memory retension, has an aesthetic quality of it own, and minimizes distractions. But I have listened to these claims — claims I used to make myself, sometimes before I bought my first computer — and thought them nostalgic exaggerations, of the same kind that lead people to buy computers disguised as typewriters.

However, now I take them more seriously. My ideas seem to come more easily on the tablet. Part of the reason may be that when planning seems necessary, I often leave my work station to work at a table or sprawled on a futon or my bed. The change of locale may be enough to relax me, which in turn makes the ideas come more readily.

Yet I think something greater is going on. The motions of the fingers on the keyboard are very much the same. By contrast, when I grasp a pen — or, in the Remarkable 2’s case, a stylus –the muscular movements of my fingers are more numerous and subtle. In other words, handwriting carries more information than typing can. For this reason, I am more easily aware of my mental activity. Possibly, the relation between the muscular movements in my fingers and my brain activity are not one to one, but more channels are open. Just as importantly, because my muscular movements and much of my brain activity happen on a largely unconscious level, when I write by hand, I can more clearly access my mostly unconscious imagination.

By contrast, the muscular motions for typing are fewer, which means they can carry less information. Moreover, because they are regular, I ignore them more easily. It is not impossible to access my imagination when I use the keyboard — I do it all the time — but it takes more practice, and perhaps it is less efficient or at least takes more effort.

Some time soon, I will have to try composing a story or scene on the Remarkable 2. Meanwhile, it remains well-integrated into my work flow.

https://www.gizmochina.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/reMarkable-2.jpg
General Writing

Connotations in Fantasy

For me, nothing kills the mood of a fantasy faster than modern language. I don’t expect writers to use Old or Middle English, still less what used to be called “speaking forsoothl” in the Society for Creative Anachronism — an imaginary dialect cobbled together from swashbuckling books and movies that no one every actually spoke and does ungrammatical things like adding “est” at the end of every word. I understand, too, that just because the culture in a story is medieval, it doesn’t have an exact copy of the actual Middle Ages. However, nothing is more jarring that modern phrases that carry a whole set of associations that are dependent on our culture.

Let me give you some examples I recently found. I won’t mention the title or the author, because it’s a first publication, and my point is not to shame anyone. Still, here are five example from the first fifty pages:

  • “estimated time of arrival:” An obsession with time and time-tables is no more than a couple of centuries old. It began with the regular running of coaches and later of trains and airplanes. A culture at any less advanced technological stage would have no interest in the implied concern with exact time.
  • “maximum potential”: This is the language of self-help, which is no more than a century old at best. Probably the closest most past eras would have to this concept is the idea of living a godly life and being concerned with charity.
  • “a feeling of weightlessness:” This phrase only makes sense if you understand that mass and weight are two different things in certain circumstances. Seventy years of space flight makes that concept familiar to most people today, but people of the past would know nothing of the theory. At most, they might notice that they felt lighter when submerged in water.
  • “toxic”: We talk all the time about people being psychologically toxic. However, that usage is no more than a couple of decades old.
  • “doing the math”: High school blurs the distinction between mathematics and arithmetic. However, that distinction would not have existed more than a century ago. Before that, it is doubtful that the average person would have heard the word “mathematics.”

I could continue, but I think these will give a sense of what I am talking abut

The trouble with these words and phrases is that they are tightly connected to modern culture. Hear “estimated time of arrival,” and visions of an airport arrival and departure board are likely to flash through your mind. Similarly, “maximum potential may bring visions of a room full of people on their yoga match. Nothing is wrong with such connotations in a modern setting, but in a different setting, they can take you out of the story and kill the atmosphere. At the very least, they are a distraction. In extreme cases, they can spoil the story.

A concern for connotation can, of course, take you too far. Technically speaking, for example, a story set in the Renaissance should avoid the word “Mind” because the concept of mind originated in the Enlightenment. But this example is obscure, and is unlikely to ruin the story for more purposes. In addition, some fantasy, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, uses such connotation for comedy. However, connotation is something fantasy writers need to consider in their editing — perhaps even more so than typos or grammar.