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.

Still Alive

Just got back from our visit to the States. Got 2 more rejections on Travelers queries. In October I plan to send out another transport of 10 queries,* maybe submit a short story, and actually write something for Air Pirates (I've got 0 words logged for this month - yay, vacation!).

I've also picked up about 13 books to read - sci-fi and fantasy all - so I'm looking forward to that too. It's a nice mix of true classics, modern classics, and modern midlist.** Though unfortunately I couldn't find the books I was really looking for. I guess I'll have to inspire my own airshipping.

In all other wise I'm just trying to get my house back in order after others have been caring for our kids for 3 weeks, and in less than 5 minutes I hope to pass out. I hope to wake up approximately 14 hours later.

* With draft #7 of the query letter.

** That could be classic any day now.

Travelers Plans

I apologize for the lack of posts. We've been visiting the States, and I've gotten very little writing done, let alone blogging. It's been a good trip, though. In particular, I got to talk to a friend of mine about my plans for Travelers, and I more or less pitched Air Pirates for the first time, which went well.

I've sent out 40 queries so far for Travelers, of which 29 are negative - they didn't get past the query - and the others haven't responded yet. So it doesn't look good, but I'm learning a lot about writing as an industry, and I intend to put that knowledge to good use when Air Pirates is finished. Until then, I'll finish the list of agents I have. When that's through, I'll try publishers that accept unsolicited submissions, and then I might look at small presses. I don't think I'll go the self-publishing route, mainly because I don't have the time for it.

The thing is, Travelers was always a novel I wrote just to prove to myself it could be done. At the time, I had two ideas I thought could be made into novels, and I chose to start with the one I liked the least (so that the one I cared more about would be that much better when I got to it).

So in some ways, Travelers is a story I don't care about. In some ways. I mean, I like the story. I care about what's being said in it. If an agent or editor thought it had potential, I would work hard on it for sure. But if nobody else is interested, I may not care enough to redo the whole thing myself just to maybe sell it later. In the far future, perhaps, but as long as I've got other stories tugging at my imagination, Travelers would be put on a backburner.

But it's not over yet. I've still got a couple transports-worth of agents to query, and each batch gets a revised query letter which (in theory) increases its chances. Speaking of which, sometime next summer (about a year after I sent out the first transport), I might resend to the first batch of agents. Some of those agents were the most likely to be interested, but they got the crappiest query letter. I don't think it'd hurt my chances to send them the best revision of the letter over a year after they rejected the first one.

Anyway, we'll see. Hopefully before it comes to any of that Air Pirates will be done and I can focus on that. I'd rather get an agent for Air Pirates and then see what they think about Travelers and its chances.

On Writing About Airships

I love airships. I'm not sure why, but they've always captured my imagination. From the first one I can remember in Final Fantasy to my koala pilot in Mutants Down Under. Those were the hooks, but it became an obsession when I saw Laputa for the first time. I've gotten other hits since, but mainstream media seems to be lacking in strong airship-based entertainment. I've been itching to create something with airships for a long time, and it's exciting to finally be doing so.

The other day, I got to the first airship combat scene in Air Pirates. I thought writing it would be a breeze. Like chase scenes. I hardly ever have to plan a chase scene ahead of time. So long as I have a mental picture of the location, the action just happens and all I do is record it. Imagine my surprise when I realized that airships are slow, ponderous vehicles, and combat between them isn't inherently exciting at all.

It worried me at first, but I though about similar vehicles - seagoing ships and submarines, for example. Sea and undersea battles are also slow, boring affairs, but that didn't keep me from enjoying Pirates! or The Ancient Art of War at Sea. Nor did it keep Pirates of the Carribean, Master & Commander, or Hunt for Red October from their exciting action sequences. It's just a different kind of action.

One I need to learn to write.

Why I Do Write

Everyone has their influences and teachers. These are some of mine:

From J. R. R. Tolkien, I learned about sub-creation.

From Orson Scott Card, I learned that a world is only as good as its characters.

From George R. R. Martin, I learned that every character should have a name. From Masashi Kishimoto, I learned that every character should have a story.

From Chris Avellone, I learned that a well-designed character, no matter how complex, is definable in one interesting sentence.

Also from Orson, I learned that cliche is not a bad place to start, but a terrible place to stop.

From Chris Baron, I learned that revision can make anything better. From George Lucas, I learned that it is possible to revise too much.

From David Mack, I learned that writing is like exercise - the hard part is sitting down to do it. On my own I figured out that, most of the time, I don't actually want to write; I just want to have written.

I'm still working on that last one.