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.

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.

General Writing

Lessons in Pacing

As I make my final revision before I query, one of the last aspects of writing that I am learning is pacing.

I long ago learned the trick of varying sentence length to increase tension. I’ve learned, too, such tricks of spacing dialog at regular intervals in a scene to increase or decrease readers’ attention, and half a dozen other tricks besides. However, I never learned how to pace an entire book until I had a nearly complete manuscript.

Like many writers, in my first draft or two, I had no idea of how long my finished manscript might be. I originally planned on a single book. However, two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that the complete story would need to be divided into two books at a minimum. At the same point in the second draft, I realized that I would need a trilogy – something I swore that I would never write. I could persist in one or two books, but the story would be rushed and poorly told.

However, I didn’t worry much about the pacing until I accepted that I was doing a trilogy. Deciding where to end the first book, I found a natural climax almost immediately. However, in the first two drafts, the climax took a chapter. It was not that important, although I had always felt that the next chapter was a new start. To serve as a climax, the chapter had to be expanded to two or three. So, right away, I had to find a way to draw out the action and keep it interesting.

That was just the start of the change in pace. With the climax’s increased importance, I had to change the pace throughout. If the story were to rise to an exciting climax, I had to replot to have more encounters between the protagonists and the antagonists. That meant three new chapters, and heavy revision of several more. Mindful of the fact that Dracula works largely because the titular character has limited appearances, I also wanted to find ways to limit my antagonists’ appearances.

These changes had a ripple effect, throwing off the pace of the romance between my two main characters. Their personal story also needed to be re-paced, interwoven reasonably seamlessly around the main conflict. I was especially proud when one of the new chapters managed to advance both the main conflict and the romance sub-plot at the same time.

As I write, I am wrapping up the first book. However, already, I can see the ripple of changes continuing, and meeting other currents of revision. Most notably, the name of the second book means that events that originally started towards the end of the second book now occupy the whole of the second, and that another sub-plot has become much more important. As I turn my attention to the second book, I expect still more ripples, some scenes gaining importance and others becoming less important, rearranged, or even deleted altogether.

In the middle of this process, I have also learned that the distinction I once had between outlining and discovery writing has changed. As I think about pace, I have to outline far more than I did in my first drafts. Yet, at the same time, while revision of the whole means that I have to define my goals more clearly that in early drafts, I still need to allow room for innovation as I write. The distinction has far less meaning than I once imagined – both outlining and discovery, I have learned, are necessary to my way of working.
I doubt I would have learned any of these things except for refining my story. For that reason alone, I am glad that I persisted.

Fiction, General Writing

Good Intentions vs. Imagination

“Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
-Philip Pullman

Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival would feature one country each — preferably one undergoing social strife. My wife and I used to refer to this habit as the revolution of the month. Reading the frequent discussions online about diversity in writing, I am reminded of those times, and my mixed reaction to them.

You see, the problem wasn’t that I disagreed with the sentiments of each revolution of the month. I was a supporter of the causes, and even donated to them. However, it was a music festival, so I thought it only fitting that musicianship be at least as important as a band’s political opinions. For me, choruses like “US Out of El Salvador” lacked a certain artistry, no matter how loudly they were shouted, or how many of the crowd joined in. The bands meant well, but they were so caught up in their causes that they had forgot that they were supposed to be musicians as well as activists.

Reading recent discussions about diversity in fantasy, I have much the same ambivalence. Posters frequently discuss representation in their stories, and what stories they have the right to discuss. They talk about how to depict people of color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. All these topics are major concerns of mine, and I cannot fault the earnestness and sincerity of the posters. Yet, aside from the occasional reminder not to make a checklist of representation among your characters, I rarely see much discussion of technique.

Often, it sounds as though diversity is the aim, not storytelling. When samples of writing are posted, often they are wooden and unconvincing. Some posters are so focused on diversity that they fail to see the unintentional humor of developing stories concerned with the socially aware name for demons. Many more agonize so much about doing representation properly that they nobble themselves and never write out of a fear of doing something wrong.

Part of this lopsided focus is a matter of age. With rare exceptions, few writers in their twenties have developed their social awareness far more than their writing skills. So, for many, it is unsurprising that they dwell on what they are most familiar with.

However, the problem is not just one of age. At least once, I made the same mistake without the excuse of inexperience. In my current work, I wanted to make the ghost of my main character an example of toxic masculinity, and give him his comeuppance. I thought of several creepy things for him to say –some of which, much to my surprise, were later said by Donald Trump, which suggested uncomfortably that I had understanding of such a character. I thought of even creepier ones for the ghost to do. But do you think I could make that ghost interesting? Nor in the least. He refused to become a character. He remained a puppet, with his strings clearly visible, through several drafts. I could hardly write him, because I was bored with the contrivance.

In my desperation I remembered the advice that Carl Gustav Jung was supposed to have given to his students of psychoanalysis. He told them that the first thing they should do to prepare for their careers was to learn everything they could about symbols and metaphors. The second thing, he added, was to forget everything they had learned.

Jung did not mean that his students should totally ignore their study of symbols. Rather, he meant that they should learn it so well that they no longer had to think consciously about their knowledge. They had to let their knowledge become part of their unconscious, freeing their conscious minds for interaction with their patients.

The same advice, I realized, could help me with my writing. I tried and tried until I could hear the ghostly father speak and imagine how he would move. Then, I carefully submerged my knowledge that the ghost was a satire of the ultra-macho. Even more importantly, I did not let myself think how clever and woke I was in making the portrayal. Instead, in the scenes where he appeared, I focused on my main character’s reactions and the drama of the encounter. The scenes were still a struggle, but I inched forward, and completed the scenes at last. In the end, the ghost was stronger, I believe, because the character was not simply a piece of heavy-handed didacticism.

From this experience, I learned something important: My well-meaning political opinions could only take my writing so far. To write even halfway decently, I had to think about storytelling and suspense first, and my political outlook second. Otherwise, I was writing propaganda, not fiction, and wasting my time, as well as that of any future readers. I don’t know why that surprised me — after all, which would most people prefer to read, Ayn Rand who never forgets her purpose for a moment, or George Orwell, who tied his political purposes in Nineteen Eighty-Four to the life of an average man?

Social awareness, I discovered, might be desirable, but it was not nearly enough. To work, it needed to take second place to storytelling. Once the social awareness is fixed in my mind, I need to switch my focus to storytelling if either is to succeed.

General Writing, Queries

How to Improve Your Odds When Querying

Writers who are querying love to drive each other into despair by citing the odds against them finding an agent. The odds of success vary – two or three out sixty, or even a hundred I’ve heard – but they are never in a writer’s favor. However, citing the odds on social media is always an occasion for despair laced with stolid determination to push on through. Yet while the despair is understandable, and I admit to sometimes succumbing to it myself as I prepare to query, I believe that it is based on a fallacy: that each writer is a fallacy. After all, a statistic is not a prediction – just an average.

I first learned this fact from science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was diagnosed as having peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the abdomenal lining – and was told that he could only expect to live another eight months. But Gould was a researcher and a trained statistician, and instead of preparing for an early death, he researched his condition. He soon found out that his own odds were much better than average. Even more importantly, by making some changes in his lifestyle, he could improve his odds. He made those changes, and lived another twenty years. Gould’s example showed me that while the statistics are useful to know, they are not all you need to know.

A querying writer can learn a lot from Gould’s example. Sure, the odds are not good. For every writer who finds an agent, there are dozens who never do. But browse the online writer groups, and you soon notice that the average is low. Many writers are working on stale ideas borrowed from anime, and many more struggle with grammar and spelling. Few have any sense of how to develop a story, and react to suggestions for improvement with hostility. Under these conditions, becoming above average is easy enough so long as you are willing to do the work.

However, the struggle to stand out only begins with the quality of writing. Look at blogs like Query Shark, where pitches and queries are criticized and improved, and you soon realize that most writers are not very good at the query process, either. Despite no shortage of blogs where we can learn, most of us have no idea of how to structure a query, or what its structure should be.

So not only can the quality of your writing lift you above average, but so can mastering the query process. As long as you are willing to put in the work, whatever statistics you hear are not a prediction of your failure. Rather, they are a sign of how many people are querying ineptly. Make up your mind that you are not going to be average, and your odds can improve significantly.

General Writing

9 Signs A Fantasy Is Not Worth Reading

In Facebook groups, dozens of people post pieces of their fantasy works every day. Often, they ask for readers of their entire manuscripts. However, I, couldn’t possibly read all of them, even if I cared to. As a result, I’m become skilled at predicting the quality of the whole work. These are some of the warnings that the work is likely to have problems:

  • Maps without any sense of geography: If continents are shown, do they look like continental drift occurs? Do cities occur at crossroads, or key points where a city would spring up? Is there a gradual transition from desert to forest?
  • Dull or awkward names: Names should create a sense that the people or places that carry them might actually exist. On the map, the names should create a sense that people with different languages have crossed the map. They should not be full of apostrophes – those are for contractions, not just cheap atmosphere, or, in some cases, meant to indicate a particular sound. In addditon, they should be believable. Nobody is going to name an ocean The Silvery Depths or a wooded area the Forest of Fear. They’re just not.
  • Use of anachronistic language like “Okay:” Unless the story takes place after about 1820 in our world, seeing “Okay”on the page is like grindng your teeth over tin-foil. It destroys the mood. In the same way, a character in medieval fantasy is not going to “change gears” – cars haven’t been invented yet. Nor are they likely to go for a workout or a date.
  • Tolkien races: Like many would-be writers, I grew up on Tolkien. But unless I’m reading fanfic, where the rules are different, any variation of dwarfs, elves, or orcs is just plain lazy. More important, races defined by morality are so out of keeping with modern sensibilties that even Dungeons and Dragons is finally dropping the concept.
  • Anime and Blockbuster Movies as Influences: I like animation and film as much as anybody. However, they are different media to the written word, with both advantages and limitations to it. You are unlikely to learn to write from anything except books. If you are more drawn to film than books, you really should consider writing screenplays.
  • Making Social Awareness the Only Priority: Diversity and racial issues are a social priority, and the publishing world specifically needs change. However, while representation and writing the Other are skills that every writer should learn, they need to be developed hand in hand with learning writing skills. You can learn to balance them from dozens of books, like Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Dispossessed. And if you’re not equally interested, perhaps you should consider non-fiction?
  • Commodified or Pseudo-Cultures: Is your China a place of tea-houses amid the rocks and the mist, with every second person a martial artist? Do your First Nations have a single culture across North America, with Sasquatches and dream-catchers? If so, then you haven’t done your research, and you need to live with the actual cultures.
  • Self-Published Works Full of Typos: Nothing is wrong with self-publishing. It’s a legitimate way to present your work. However, if you’re going to self-published, take the time to do it right. Hold yourself to the same standards as traditional publishers – or even higher.
  • The Writer Is Looking for Rules: Beware of writers who ask things like: how long should my chapters be? Am I allowed to delay the inciting incident to the fifth chapter? Such questions reveal a crippling inexperience. Worse, they show a desire for rigid rules that simply don’t exist. A writer who wants rules may outgrow their desire, but it’s not a promising start.

What these practices have in common is a lack of effort – a decision not to put in the research and practice that is needed for an original work of fiction. They steer me away from reading because they suggest that the writer is looking for shortcuts, a way to make writing easy. A writer may outgrow one of these warning signs, but the more they display, the less likely they are to produce anything worth reading.

Unfortunately, what I am discovering in my own efforts is that there are no shortcuts. And maybe that’s the way it should be. If writing wasn’t hard, then anybody could do it.