Monday, December 31, 2012

What Craigslist gave me for Christmas

The holidays, what with their departures from schedules and late nights of mulled wine and gingerbread, aren't always the most productive time for regular work, but they can be great for other projects.

For about a year, I've wanted to put together a treadmill desk, but I hadn't (yet) felt like hacking it together myself, and the desks made specifically for the purpose tend to be expensive. Great was my delight when I checked Craigslist and found a TrekDesk for a fraction of its original price. Cheap treadmills also abound.

Now, two pickup truck expeditions and many Lysol wipes later, I have turned the fruits of other people's garages into a new workstation.

I've only been using this setup a few days, and I can already tell you that it is awesome. A walking desk is great for someone like me because:

  • I tend to pace while talking on the phone.
  • I sometimes pace while having a conversation face-to-face, provided there is a kitchen island to orbit.
  • I have often wished it were possible to pace while writing.
  • The two o'clock lull hits me with a vengeance.

May you find something that excites and energizes you in the new year.

*Note: TrekDesk did not compensate me in any way for this article. Nor did Lysol, for that matter. If I had found Steve-O's homemade OSB masterpiece on Craigslist and the price was right, I would just as likely be writing about that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Queries: winning.

Most writers who have done their research obsess over the query letter like nothing else. We read countless templates, lists of dos and don'ts, agent blogs, and examples of successful query letters. The blogs and guidelines tell us to be brief, be clear, avoid rhetorical questions, don't get into backstory, prove we know something about the agent, give a word count (and it had better not be more than 100,000 words), and, above all, get the story on the page.

So, what do the successful queries have in common? Quite often... not much.

Take this recent GalleyCat post listing successful queries from a wide swath of genres. They're attention-grabbing (which is really what matters), but several of them break at least one rule that an agent blogger somewhere has railed about.

Let's start with the adventure query. The novel is about 50,000 words longer than many publishers will accept from a novice, and the writer appears to be querying a young adult novel (though this isn't totally clear) based on the agent's interest in "adult fiction."

Then there's the fantasy query, which has one paragraph full of rhetorical questions and another that is almost as long as some query letters. While many agents insist that 250 words is the target, this query is over 400. The thriller is 500, and a large chunk of that is author bio.

The literary fiction example has plenty about themes and Big Ideas, but almost nothing about the novel's plot.

Of course, one of the most memorable winning queries for me was a letter read aloud at the recent Backspace Seminar. There were three or four agents on the panel, and after explaining why several query letters failed (no sense of the conflicts or story, rhetorical questions, beginning with backstory, vague pronouncements of doom, too much scene-setting, etc.), they read a handful that had enticed one or more of the agents at the conference. And then they got to an Iliad of a letter that had been chosen... by an agent who was absent.

It broke just about every principle they had just discussed. It was sprawling in length (almost two full pages) and meandering in its content (the plot summary described several different settings without giving any idea of how the characters or stories connected). As they read, you could see the agents struggling to explain how this one had succeeded.

In the end, the answer was that there wasn't a specific reason--something in this query had just resonated with the agent who had picked it or matched with something she was looking for. And that was the same explanation the agents gave when they disagreed at other times during the panel. A character description would strike one agent as vague and another as clever. One agent liked a chatty bio, and another thought it was too personal. Several queries were nixed because they contained too much backstory and set-up while another of the winners had a long paragraph that was nothing but world-building.

My takeaways from this are threefold:

  1. As in writing, you can break the rules if you break them well. In most cases, however, it's probably safest for me to assume that I'm not going to break them well, so I'll stick to the guidelines as much as is feasible.
  2. You'll be forgiven some query-writing sins if other aspects of the letter are excellent. But again, I'd rather avoid giving any agent a reason to say "no," so I'm going to assume that I'm not the exception.
  3. Most importantly... a certain part of this process seems to rely on getting the right query to the right agent at the right time. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Perfect Christmas gift

I'm not trying to advocate extravagant Christmas gifts, but this would be awesome.

Or I could just buy a $100 treadmill off of Craigslist and hack the rest of it together.

Monday, December 17, 2012

An unexpected trailer

GalleyCat reports that select theaters played the book trailer for The Wheel of Time before screenings of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This is a great idea, since movie theaters already run ads for cars, soft drinks, and all sorts of other products. Not to mention that Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series will appeal to many Tolkien fans. What baffles me is the nature of the trailer.

Picture this. You have theaters packed with moviegoers, each of whom has a stadium seat view of your trailer. This is the film's first weekend, so you've got the attention of the most avid fans. The Hobbit may be The Phantom Menace to the original trilogy, but who cares, these people want more medieval magic! And, by golly, you've got fourteen* books for them.

So you show them... all fourteen books. Including pans of COVER ART. With epic music in the background.

While it says something about a person's attention span and love of narrative that he/she will wait in line to be one of the first people to see the first of three three-hour movies (which are themselves prequels to three other three-plus-hour movies) that doesn't make a list of fourteen books inherently enticing. You want to focus the comparison between the books and the movies on the thrills and adventures, not the amount of time it will take a person to get through them.

If you're going to spend the cash to put a book trailer in front of a major holiday film, why not make it an interesting trailer? This feels like a print ad in motion. It doesn't make good use of the big screen, unless of course you consider fitting half of the book covers in the series on-screen at one time a good use.

Some book trailers feel like previews of low-budget movies that will never be made. But there are plenty of ways to make good use of the limited medium.

  • Embrace the camp and do something tongue-in-cheek. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
  • Leave the soap opera actors out of it and communicate the feel of the book through moody art and music. A Monster Calls
  • Many people buy books based on a recommendation, so let the author tell the story of how she found her story. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Let a quirky or unusual narrator tell the story... especially if this is one of the book's selling points. The child narrator's straightforward description here is chilling. Room
  • There's always the Denis Leary Ford commercial. Make words do interesting things while the narrator says them. You Are Not So Smart
  • Do something unexpected. WTF! How Did You Get This Number

*Excluding the prequel, of course.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Too much of a good thing?

When it comes down to it, most people will say that books are usually better than their movie adaptations. For one thing, you can't pack all of the detail and richness of a 400-page book into a two-hour movie.

But what if you have three three-hour movies? NPR film critic Kenneth Turan suggests that this is giving the filmmakers behind The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey too much time to draw events out.

I'll reserve judgment until I've seen it myself. Preferably with a drinking horn in hand.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doing the impossible: a (mostly) spoiler-free Wool summary

Scanning GalleyCat today, I saw a story about Hugh Howey, author of the self-published Wool series, signing a book deal with Simon & Schuster (you know, to go with his movie deal).

What struck me most wasn't Mr. Howey's incredible (and incredibly unique) success, but rather a paragraph reprinted from Simon & Schuster's press release. It's a near-perfect example of the kind of book summary paragraph we try to write in our query letters. Here it is:

Wool is the thrilling story of a post-apocalyptic world in which a community lives in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. Inside, men and women live within a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them from the toxic outside world. But a new sheriff is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how deeply her world is broken. The silo’s inhabitants are about to face what their history has only hinted about and never dared to whisper: Uprising.

What makes this example so impressive? Let's make a list.

  • Satisfying plot tease. I know enough about what's going to happen in this book to be interested. Things gone awry in an underground silo? Political uprising? And... A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN? Yes, please. 
    • One could argue that "how deeply her world is broken" is too vague (and what is she "fixing her silo" from?), but the setup gives us an idea of what's gone wrong ("regulations they believe are meant to protect them").
  • No spoilers! I'm most of the way through the Wool Omnibus Edition, and each of the five stories contains at least one major surprise. This summary doesn't really give any of them away.* What it does give me is a feeling of envy that whoever wrote this managed to walk the line between teasing and spoiling.
  • Succinct setup. One of the hardest things in writing a query letter for speculative fiction is explaining your setting. You have to give the reader some sense of when and where you are (Narnia? The Horsehead Nebula in the year 30,000?), but you can't spend all day doing it. As the author, it can be hard to know when you've done enough. Your readers need to know that your story takes place in a silo. 
    • Wait, a silo? Why? Well, see, bad stuff happened, and now the outside air is all toxic-like, and so people have to live in a silo to be safe.... 
    • Here, the writer gave us just enough information for the rest of the description to make sense. "Post-apocalyptic" is a good signal, and the "toxic outside" comes up in the context of mentioning the (problematic?) rules that govern silo life. I don't need to know what happens if people go outside. I don't need to know how long people have been in a silo. I don't even need to know why the outside is toxic. I know that the outside is toxic in a post-apocalyptic kind of way, and that explains why people live in a silo. Any sentence beginning with "In the years after [terrible crisis or something]..." would be too much of a digression.
*Unless you're think it's a spoiler to say that Charlton Heston travels to the future and finds talking apes in Planet of the Apes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Blogging Lessons 101: The Deadline

I started blogging for lots of reasons, but one of the big ones was locking myself into a commitment of writing (and publishing) something every day. It forces me to think of something to talk about and then to put the words on the screen.

Even if it's short.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Be unapologetic about what you love

Loving openly makes a person vulnerable, and we all learned in middle school that this is dangerous.

So it's sometimes easier and cooler to snipe at the things we don't like. There is value to this sniping as part of a longer conversation about what makes certain ideas and pursuits worthwhile, edifying, or interesting. It's also helpful to get the crankiness out of one's system on books, movies, and ideas, which can't feel.

But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we like, and we need to share it with other people. We need to keep the things that motivate and inspire us front and center, even if that means hanging them out there for the world to see. Because it's rewarding to share the things that get you going, and it's even better when someone stops you just to say, "Hey, that think you love? It's awesome."

Some of the things I unapologetically love are:

  • classic Sierra computer games
  • Aliens (I was slightly devastated when my spouse pointed out how 80s some of the dialogue is)
  • Neal Stephenson books
  • skiing moguls
  • mulled wine
  • indoor rock gyms
  • Battlestar Galactica (the re-imagined series)
  • bread pudding
  • the f'ed up worlds of China MiĆ©ville
Mask of Eternity didn't count, anyway.

Happy Monday.

Friday, December 7, 2012

WTFriday: Brett Easton Ellis

While it's tempting to just ignore it and deprive Ellis of the attention he seems to be seeking, the biggest WTF moment for me today was his tweet that "Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she's a very hot woman she's really overrated."

It's fine to say that you don't like her movies, but if being a "very hot woman" were really such a boon in filmmaking, I suspect Ms. Bigelow wouldn't have been the first lady to win the Oscar, BAFTA, and Directors Guild of America Awards for Best Direction.

You can still argue that the Oscars (or whatever other award ceremony) are political/overhyped/biased/etc., but there isn't really much to support the idea that attractive ladies get a big break in the director's chair from critics or anyone else.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The question new writers hate

Being an unpublished writer is kind of like being a high school senior in that there is one dreaded question everyone asks you. You feel bad about hating this question, because most everyone who asks it means well and is genuinely interested in your answer.

When you're seventeen and primarily focused on surviving exams and clearing up your skin before the prom, everyone wants to know:

Where are you going to college?

This question reminds you that you have a stack of applications to fill out and you'd rather just enjoy your virgin eggnog right now. Or that you've applied and you're still waiting to hear back, and the suspense is killing you enough as it is. Maybe you've received a string of acceptances (lucky you), and you're agonizing over a decision that will affect the rest of your life, no pressure, by the way. Maybe you didn't get in, and you haven't figured out how to say this. Maybe you got in, but you don't know where the tuition money will come from.

And sometimes, you loathe this question simply because you get it so much that you have prepared a stump speech, and holy crap you just discovered the Harry Potter books and you love them, can't you just talk about that (or anything else) for a change?

When you're an unpublished writer and people who know you know this, they ask:

How is the book coming?

Until you get to the point where you get an agent or a publisher, the answer is usually some variant of "still critiquing/editing/revising/rewriting and resubmitting." That makes it sound like you really haven't been doing anything. And if you drill into specifics ("I wrote 3,000 words yesterday!" or "I completely rewrote the first two chapters!" or "I am in the process of switching to a first-person POV."), it's going to get boring unless your interlocutor has read your book.

But what really makes the question awful isn't that it's a small talk dead end, it's that it reminds you of your lack of measurable progress. It reminds you that you've been churning away since the question was first asked, and you still don't have a shiny New York agent or publishing contract to show for it. It reminds you that you may continue this way for years without getting any closer to achieving those things.

As an unpublished writer, I do solemnly swear that once I get an agent and/or a publisher, everyone I know will know. You will not have to ask me. I will volunteer this information shamelessly and enthusiastically, in the way that mothers-to-be reveal that they are pregnant and have already painted the nursery in Behr Pumpkin Butter. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The modern serial part 2

Yet another sign that the publishing industry is changing: on Monday, we looked at the Wool series for its unique success as a sequence of novella-length books. Today, there's news of Cosmopolitan and romance publisher Harlequin joining forces to produce 30,000-word contemporary romance ebooks. 

Cosmo isn't the first magazine to jump into ebook publishing: Newsweek, Playboy, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post are also publishing content for ereaders. However, of these new endeavors, the Cosmo program focuses the most heavily on (new) fiction. Esquire, Playboy, and The Washington Post, in particular are using digital platforms to repackage and resell classic content.

While 60,000-100,000-word novels seem to be the safest bets for publishers, shorter forms could be more appealing to readers who don't feel they have the time for a full-length novel. And it will be interesting to see if an affiliation with a well-known brand (like Cosmopolitan) entices new readers.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Don't water down your own Scotch

One habit (of many) I've worked to break is that of letting certain words dilute my prose. Words like really, kind of, very, somewhat, sort of, a bit, a little, and rather.

I used to like them because they inflated my word count, but they're like air pockets in cement. Sure, they fill space, but you can't build anything on them.

Words that don't serve a critical purpose slow the reader down. And dilutive words are like the friend from college who crashes on your couch for a month: not only do they avoid adding anything useful, but they also take away from their surroundings. Nobody is interested in kind of epic mountains or somewhat bloodthirsty werewolves.

And I cut "very" and "really"-type words, too. They seem at first to add emphasis, but like adverbs, they're usually a signal that I need a stronger word or phrase. Consider the following.

Imagine that a friend has set you up on a blind date. Which description sounds more promising?

  • "He's really nice. He's also very funny. And he's really, really (ridiculously) good-looking."
  • "He's one of the kindest people I know. He's also a riot. And he's got a smile that could stop traffic."
Writers usually aren't on the witness stand. A little exaggeration is fine. But if I have to be precise, I'm going to be precise. I won't say "a pretty tall girl" when I can describe someone as "a six-foot Amazon." If the steak was only a bit tasty, I'll say that it was on the favorable end of the charred rubber to grilled perfection spectrum, but I won't be making reservations again any time soon.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The modern serial

There are some books that get self-published because they're not well-written enough for traditional publishing, and there are some books that get self-published because they're not initially perceived as marketable enough for a traditional publisher. The Wool series falls into the latter category.

Please, sir, may I have some more?

Back in the good old days of deerstalker-wearing detectives and orphan boys-turned-heirs, many works of fiction were serialized. We don't see this so much any more, but Wool makes a good case for reviving this tradition in the age of ebooks.

The first Wool novella is free to download on Amazon, and subsequent stories are available for between $0.99 and $2.99. This allows the reader to try the series with no monetary commitment and little time commitment (the first segment is short and reads like a self-contained story).

You can see why printing and distribution costs would make the first-segment-free strategy untenable for print books, and serialized novellas are a bit too experimental for most traditional publishers. But this is perfect for e-publishing, where authors can offer a cost-free preview.

I'll be surprised if more writers don't make use of this format, even if it means offering a free sample chapter of a 90,000-word novel.