The Imaginary Line

There is an imaginary line dividing science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction is space and aliens and the future. Fantasy is magic and elves and dwarves. Right? As a reader, I'm glad it's not that simple, but as a writer, trying to find where I fit, I wish it would be a little easier. We categorize books so that readers can find what they like, and so publishers can find the right folks to sell to, but so so many books defy categorization.

Example: Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The book is no doubt science fiction what with Martians, space travel, a sole survivor of a defunct colony on Mars, etc. But halfway through, and most peculiarly at the end, there are characters both major and minor that have become angels in Heaven. That's not science, is it?

How about McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern? It has dragons, telepathy, medieval societies... but if you've read farther you know that Pern is a colony of Earth, and dragons the result of genetic engineering. The series appeals to fantasy fans, but the author insists it's sci-fi. If there's a line between science fiction and fantasy, then Anne McCaffrey is sitting right on top of it.

Now try this. I'll give you the premise of a story, and you tell me if it's sci-fi or fantasy: "New students arrive at a private academy for witches whose highly-trained agents must oppose a powerful terrorist witch organization."

Fantasy, right? Maybe urban fantasy (the words "agents" and "terrorist" suggest modern-day). What if I told you the sentence originally said "mutants" instead of "witches" and is, in fact, the premise of X-Men?

X-Men is science fiction, but merely by changing the perceived source of their powers - not changing their powers or the story or even their costumes one bit - the genre of the movie suddenly slides towards fantasy. (In fact, Marvel 1602 does just that, calling them "witchbreed" rather than mutants, leaving their powers unchanged).

Granted, if we altered X-Men by calling them witches, the story should change, at least a little. But it doesn't have to change a lot for it to suddenly become urban fantasy. It's all in perception.

What's my point? I don't know if I have one. Just that with every story I write, I find myself sitting on top of that imaginary line and wondering how to sell the story. I wish we could call it all speculative fiction and be done with it, but it's not to be. I know.

Anyway, here's to steampunk and science fantasy. My favorite blended subgenres that will never see their own sections in a bookstore.

Hook Examples from Television

A few weeks ago, I talked about 7 things that need to be present in the hook (the mini-synopsis, the query... whatever you call it, it's the thing you send to agents and editors in the hopes that they will want to read your book). I had a hard time finding real-world examples of query letters, but I did find some examples from good, old-fashioned television. That's what we're talking about today.

One thing most television shows do is resell themselves with every single episode. You never know when a new viewer is going to tune in, and you don't want them to tune out just because they don't get it. You need to hook them from the beginning. Sometimes, that hook comes in the form of a voice over that explains the show's premise in a cool, interesting way. See if you can find the 7 things in each of these examples.

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.
This example is 50% setup, but all the elements are there, and the setup goes a long way towards establishing the characters - not individually of course, but as a team, which is really what the show was about. After this voice over, the visuals that played during the theme song would give you a sense of the characters. In a query letter, you've still got a whole paragraph or two to do the same thing.

Knight Rider: a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man, who does not exist. Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.
This is not a good example of specificity (what the heck is "a shadowy flight"?), but it is concise. All the elements, except for maybe setting, are presented in only 45 words. Of course this hook omits the coolest thing about the show, namely Kitt. That's what needs to go in the rest of the query (and, again, Kitt is everywhere during the rest of the theme).

The alien world of Myrrh is being devoured by dark water. Only Ren, a young prince, can stop it by finding the lost 13 treasures of Ruul. At his side is an unlikely, but loyal crew of misfits. At his back - the evil pirate lord Bloth, who will stop at nothing to get the treasures for himself. It's high adventure with the pirates of dark water!
This is from a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon I used to watch. It's crammed pack with cliche (hey, it was a cartoon!), but every element is there and it tells you what to expect: adventure, pirates, a quest, treasures, and even a little fantasy. All in only 67 words.

Water, earth, fire, air - long ago, the four nations lived in harmony, then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years later, my brother and I discovered the new Avatar - an airbender named Aang, but though his airbending skills are great, he's got a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.
Last example. This lacks a little in that it's unclear how one can be a "master of all four elements" or what "airbending" is without being able to see the accompanying visuals. The other thing about this one is that first person in a query is a no-no, unless it's a memoir. Both of those things can be tweaked to make this appropriate for a query letter. Even so, I think the first person works really well here. Mainly because that last sentence gives you a sense, not only of Aang's character, but of the narrator's character as well.

These examples aren't perfect. I present them to show how the 7 things - protagonist, antagonist, goals, stakes, conflict, setting, and theme - can be presented in an interesting way in a short space. None of these examples is longer than 100 words. That leaves you with another 150-250 words to clarify the 7 elements, talk about your credentials, and mention why you chose that particular agent. If you can do all that concisely, you will have gone a long way towards your goal.

Last tips for today:
(1) Read your query out loud to yourself. You can catch a lot more errors that way.
(2) Imagine your query being read by the guy who does movie trailers. I'm not joking. It helps.

Why Do I Want To Be Published?

Bit of a God post. You've been warned.

In the last couple of weeks, I've repeatedly come against the question:* why do you want to get published? It's forced me to think, especially in light of the fact that writing is not, and can never be (at least for the foreseeable future) my main priority.

It's a hard question, because I won't deny that I like the feeling of being mini-famous,** but that's hardly a Christian attitude and certainly not a good thing to prioritize over my family.

* See Tip #88
** That is, famous only within small circles.

So I did what I always do when I'm in doubt. I went to the balcony and prayed. God didn't talk to me, but he opened my eyes. Or maybe by opening my heart and being quiet, I was able to see. I looked at our lawn - the lawn that only a couple months ago was a barren wasteland - and a bunch of birds flew onto the lawn, hopping around looking for bugs, and I thought, "That's cool. They couldn't do that before. Those birds are enjoying the lawn we made."

That's what hit me. I liked that the birds were enjoying something I made. I felt satisfied in my work. That's why I want to be published.

See, I already know that I love to - no, I have to - create. Writing is just my current outlet for that. And I'm completely convinced it's because I was made in the image of a creative God.*** And even God wasn't content with creating for himself. He needed someone who would get his Creation. Someone who could enjoy it.

I realized I create so that I and others can enjoy what I've created. Even though I do want to be mini-famous and make some money, my writing ultimately isn't about me. I could make it so pretty easily (and I'm sure I do in my mind all the time), but it's liberating to know the basic drive is much more pure than that.

*** That's essentially what "Author's Echo" means. We are echoes of the Author, images of him, children trying almost pathetically, yet purposefully, to emulate our Father in the things we do.

Christian Science Fiction, Revisited

A few months ago, I mused aloud on whether Travelers was too secular for the Christian market. Last weekend I found some interesting information on that very thing (if you follow the link, we'll be talking about Tips #16-18).

Back up first. There's this guy, Jeff Gerke, who looks like exactly the blend of Christian and geek such that we could be good friends, if we ever met. He writes Christian speculative fiction and is making a decided effort to try and get similar stories published (more on that later).

He has 95 writing tips (5 more to come, I guess), some of which are on the business of publishing, some on the business of Christian publishing, and some on writing as a Godly calling. Anyway, in answer to the question, "Is Travelers too secular for the Christian market?" it seems the answer is it's too speculative for the Christian market. Why? Because, says Jeff, "the main readers of Christian fiction are... white, conservative, evangelical, American women of child-raising to empty nest years," and "97% of all Christian fiction titles [are] romance, chick-lit, female-oriented Biblical/historical fiction, female-oriented thrillers, and women's fiction."

Apparently Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, and LeHaye/Jenkins are the exceptions, and nowhere near the rule. A new author trying out a male-oriented, Christian speculative fiction novel is likely to get shut down.

So where does that leave Travelers? All it really does is close the door to major Christian publishing houses, and it tells me that I shouldn't use the word "Christian" when I'm querying agents. However, should I run out of agents to query, and should none of the big sci-fi publishers be interested, it turns out Jeff also has his own small press alternative that I will definitely look into.

No Examples

I've been looking at the Query Shark and the query project for good examples of what I was talking about the other day, and though I did find some, I discovered something else. While all of these queries are good enough to get a request for pages or representation, all of them are very different. Many of them break the rules, a number of them are too long, and a bunch could easily be written better.

What does that tell me? The should-be-obvious, I suppose - that writing a good query letter helps, but the story is what matters. So I guess the advice you can get from this post is: think about whether the concept of your story is a good one - one that others will want to pay to read. If it isn't, fix it.

This is not what I did with Travelers. When I first started sending out queries, my thought was that they would just have to read the book and they'd buy it. That's why my first query letter sucked - I thought it was just a formality. It's much more than that, and I'm starting to suspect that the long string of rejections is because the concept is... not bad, necessarily, but not very marketable the way I've written it.

Here's for trying one more time. This example is mine:
Trapped in a post-apocalyptic future, Dr. Alex Gaines must rescue an extraordinary girl from an immortal tyrant to save not only the future, but all humanity.

Protagonist: Dr. Alex Gaines, Antagonist: an immortal tyrant, Goal: rescue extraordinary girl, Stakes: save the future, save humanity, Conflict: (implied) tyrant has the girl, Setting: post-apocalyptic future, Theme: *crickets chirping*

Yeah, so I'm kinda low on themes here. For all my thinking about it, I still don't know how to shove the theme in there without being all obvious/cheesy about it (e.g. "Travelers asks the question, is there more to being human than we've been told?"). But this is only one sentence. All the parts that are implied or weak or that leave the questions "What? How?" can be padded out in the rest of the query.

And this isn't perfect. I haven't gotten representation or anything. As with everything on this blog, these are just my thoughts and I hope that they can help others on the same road.

Hook, Crook, or Aduncity

The hook is the first part of the query letter. It's what you say when your friends ask, "So what's your book about?" It is the fundamental concept behind the plot of your story, written in such a way as to make the reader say, "Cool, tell me more."

But how the heck do you distill 100,000 words into 2 sentences of cool? It's not easy. The internet has some good tips already, but I'm going to throw my own version into the mix because with something as subjective as a novel hook, I don't think you can have too many ways to think about it.

There are 7 things the hook should have:
  1. Protagonist. Who is the story about?
  2. Antagonist. Who or what is against the protagonist?
  3. Goal. What does the protagonist want to accomplish?
  4. Stakes. What will happen if the protagonist does not accomplish their goal?
  5. Conflict. What is keeping the protagonist from accomplish their goal?
  6. Setting. Where/when does the story take place?
  7. Theme. What is the story's main subject or idea?
Figure out that information, then write it in a sentence or two. That's your core. The entire rest of the query, synopsis, and even the novel is focused around that. That means that your query (hook + mini-synopsis) has all of that information and, more importantly, does not have anything that confuses or detracts from that information.

The more I learn, the more I think that the best way to do this is to write the hook before I outline or draft the novel. It would help keep the novel more focused and make writing the query/pitch/synopsis much easier later on. Unfortunately, Travelers was an attempt to prove something to myself, so it got away from me long before I knew what a query was, and now I find myself having to wrangle it back in. I have more hope for Air Pirates, but that was also outlined before I figured this stuff out.

I'll start talking examples in the next post or two. And if I finish my other plans for the month, I might try writing a hook for Air Pirates using this method, and I'll show you that too. Finding a hook is like a Sudoku puzzle: it totally sucks until you figure it out, and then it's the most awesome thing in the world and you want to do it again.