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Back Story, Details, and the Like...

Feb. 24th, 2010 | 09:03 am
mood: hungryhungry

Dear Dragons,
What has helped you learn what to leave in and what to take out concerning back story, details, and the like?
MG


MOONCHILD
A lot of it involves feeding your internal editor. Generally, I try to know as much as I can about a character. Where was she born? What kind of family? What major traumas did she suffer? Decide what the impact of these events would be. You may want to write out a short biography of the character. Then put it in a file of its own, and ignore it, for the most part.

There are things we may have to know. Alexander McCall Smith, in "The No. One Ladies' Detective Agency," tells us that his heroine, Precious Ramotswe, once had a short-term, disastrous marriage, and had a child who lived only a few hours. This is an important, formative event in the character's life. It has helped to make her who she is by the time we meet her. Her Author may well have a brain full of other things that happened to her, but we see only hints, shown in her actions. You've heard the phrase, "Show the tip of the iceberg." McCall Smith does that, in Mma Ramotswe's initial refusal to give in to the suit of Mr. JLB Matekone. We readers understand she is afraid she is repeating her past mistakes.

This dragon certainly has felt the impulse to say, "But this! And this! And then…" The truth is, the readers don't care about ordinary days in the characters' lives. Reading it aloud helps, or having a good beta reader. "Good," in this case means, "someone who will be honest with you." Be aware that things that fascinate you may not fascinate other people. Not too long ago, I ate a hiker who had in his possession a book that might have been very enjoyable – had the author not spend a good 60 pages out of the 350 explaining current technology. As I already understood the technology involved, I found it boring. Similarly, you may wish to show your character's home life, because you worked so hard to create the culture. Your reader, alas, probably doesn't care. Sometimes hints are enough. McCall Smith's books are popular because of the window he gives us into a culture with which most of us are unfamiliar. If we move to more Sfnal examples, Tolkien did write out histories and cultural notes. But he set them aside and just told the story, letting the reader figure things out as they went along. If you're lucky, you, like Tolkien, might get the chance to publish your history separately. Don't count on it. Even dragons can't force editors to agree to that.

In short fiction, the conventional wisdom is to ask yourself if each sentence moves the story forward. In longer works, you can go by paragraphs, or even chapters. If Mr. JLB Matekone was not in the story, would Mma Ramotswe's past bad experience with marriage matter? Probably not as much. Knowing about it matters in a later novel, when her ex-husband shows up, and we understand her unreasoning terror. But without the possibility of a second romantic involvement, it might not have mattered for the initial novel.


OLD B&G
Dear MG:

That’s an excellent question. So many humans who stumble upon our lair waste time babbling out their entire life story- the famines of the past ten years that drove them to try to rob their dragonly neighbors, every boulder they struggled over to get here, how many tender, squalling offspring they left behind- when what they should have mentioned was the cabbage-and-garlic stew they’d just eaten, rendering them inedible.

As a Dark Muse, I specialize in lurking in nightmares. I’ve learned that the most effective nightmares are the ones with the most emotion per detail. Not just What, Who, When and Where, but Why. For example, I could give you many details about what’s in our hoard: gold coins, swords with jeweled hilts, cups, bowls, scrolls, tomes, armor, jewelry…

Or I could point out that dagger over there, with scorch marks on the hilt and blood still wet on the blade, and the sapphire necklace that screams when I touch it.

What, leaving already? We were hoping you’d stay for dinner.

Ol’ B&G


IN-PATIENCE

This dragon is vegetarian from Monday through Friday but she tried to bake cookies without eggs and butter. Yuck! Some things you just can't leave out. Writing is very similar but not exactly the same as cooking. You don't always want to stick to the recipe as you master your art, but experimenting is for the master and not for me, yet. I like my story to have a beginning a middle and an end and I learn my craft from reading, critiquing, mentors and discussing the stories.

Having someone else read my story helps me to see that I might have too much back story in the piece, especially if it's a short. Nothing like another dragon's eyes to see what I'm not seeing. I like details but if they're not moving the plot forward they should be cut as hard as that is to do.

In-Patience


BOB
As you know, MG, different people have different tastes (and I am not referring to the garlic issues above.) My point is that some types of fiction require more backstory than others. If you're writing a 200 word flash...there's not much. If you're writing a 38K novella, you get a lot more, so that's the first consideration.

Your POV character is only going to think about certain things at certain times--so that should limit what backstory is revealing itself.

But my recommendation it to have a first reader look at it for you--preferably one who is not aware of the backstory already--and ask them to tell you where you're putting in too much (boring them) or too little (mystifying them.) Clean that up in the next draft. This is where having second reader might come in handy--having a fresh set of eyes (not to eat) will affirm whether you've fixed the problem.

I must confess, I have this problem myself. It's always a struggle, compounded by the fact that certain readers simply want things laid out for them, and other readers prefer subtlety. So my final recommendation is that if an editor wants something changed to address this problem, listen to their request, because they know best what their readers want. Be willing to be a little flexible.

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Tension

Feb. 2nd, 2010 | 05:24 pm

As an addendum to the previous question, Gnome left this second scroll outside the lair:

Also, but it is tension-related, but how do you supply interesting action when most of the story is people talking?
Gnome


ORION
Dear Gnome, I have ruminated on the question of your second scroll.

*sharpening claws, I mean quills* Who says talk is cheap! Dialogue is ideal for tension. Here, then, is a crudely quilled example of how a dialogue can convey tension between two or more characters.

The Prince looked at me and smiled sardonically, but then he turned and addressed the Duchess, "I'm sorry, but Princess Rosalyn will not be able to attend your luncheon. She must finish organizing this year's ball." He gave a lecherous glance to the chambermaid, who hovered near him to take his cloak. She giggled behind her fist. When I glared at her, she stalked off with the Prince's cloak.

"Oh, dear," said the Duchess, her shapely lips curling into a gloating smile. "I'm sorry, Rosalyn. We're certainly going to miss you, and I'm sure that the Welsh Bard will be disappointed by your absence."

"My dear Prince," I said, controlling my anger behind a tight-lipped smile. "I finished the preparation for the ball three days ago. The plans now await your approval."

I hope this is helpful. Go forth and scheme.
Ravenously Yours, Orion


OLD B&G
Dear Gnome,
Ah yes. I remember you. You left the first part of your scroll last time. I promised not to devour you then.

I wasn’t hungry then.

I am hungry now.

Come closer, Gnome. I see that you took my advice last time, and left behind your fireproof suit.

You stirred up the Lair, little Gnome. Did you know that? Moonchild accused me of messing up her scrolls. While I was sleeping. I don’t like being falsely accused, little Gnome.

Come closer, little Gnome. I can smell your sweat. Sweat is mostly salt, you know. Natural seasoning. And you’re not wearing your fireproof suit now. Let’s see; am I hungering for legs or thighs?

Were you actually sweating? Then my quick claw-sketch worked, creating tension with just (one-sided) dialogue.

If it didn’t, I’m overdue for a fang-sharpening. For soft fangless creatures like yourself, I advise short sentences and gradually increasing stakes to increase tension in dialogue.

Now go write, before I really do get hungry.



IN-PATIENCE
"How do you supply interesting action when most of the story is people talking," you ask?

Action should flow naturally from the characters' goals and story goal. What the other dragons said. Mix it up with exposition, action and dialog. It can't just be people talking. If you are still stuck my little Gnome, I will be glad to guard your treasures. Look at your milieu as another character in the story and find ways to supply action to your story through naturally evolving conflict.



MOONCHILD
Remember our politicians who wanted to make war and peace, but couldn't agree which countries to do which with? (If you don't, scroll down to Moonchild's answer to the previous question.)

Narrative tension in stories that are mostly conversation is even more difficult. You need to convince us that what the character wants is a Good Thing, and that we want it too, that Terrible Things will happen if the character does not achieve this goal. This is where it gets tricky, because if you have characters with conflicting goals, the reader needs to understand why each character wants that goal. Which, in turn, means getting inside each head. Not necessarily in POV, which is difficult to change in short stories, but you, the writer, need to know why each character wants it. As with the Real World, understanding doesn't mean agreement. Just that you know where the character's coming from. You've been inside his head, then used Mental Floss to clean up, but you remember what it felt like. Write as if war with Country X was the best possible option, even though you, the writer, want the trade agreement with Country Y.

If you feel the story is lagging, try stepping away for a short while, but not too long. Grit your teeth and write on. Ask a (good) beta reader to look it over and give suggestions.

It also helps, even if it's conversation, to blow things up. Or at least have a fight break out.

Or blow things up…

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Plot Tension

Jan. 19th, 2010 | 08:37 am
mood: hungryhungry

From a note left outside our lair:
It's so great to see our scaly friends back again! *Dons fireproof suit*

How do you build tension into a story? Well, say you have three strong characters, and they all have their own sort of story, how do you show these differing story goals and yet keep the tension high?

Thank you so much for your thoughts on this, I really appreciate it. ::Removes the suit, heh!::

The Gnome


OLD BLOOD & GUTS
Dear Snack- er, Gnome:
3 characters at once, all with different goals? Sounds like life in the Lair, with Dragon roasting knights throughout the day, when a sensible being would be sleeping, and Moonchild riffling through scrolls until you just want to unsheathe your claws and… but I digress.
Or maybe I don’t. If the various goals differ, they can conflict. Where there’s conflict, there’s tension, as other denizens of the Lair have mentioned. From the way you speak of “three strong characters,” I suspect that these could all be protagonists. In that case, you have an extra edge to your claws. The reader wants to root for all of them. She wants them all to win.

And if the characters care for each other, and their goals require them to hurt or betray each other or risk losing their goal...Delicious. How will they choose?
By the way, leave the suit. Asbestos can be quite tasty on properly-flamed BBQ.


ORION
Hello Gnome,
No need to don your fireproof suit. Mm, yum, gnomes are tasty little morsels. *roar* Stoking the firestones. Ahem, please ignore the stomach rumblings of this dragon.

To answer your first question, this dragon thinks that it is highly unlikely that three strong characters would have the same goals, so right there is conflict. What kind depends on the characters and their wants and motivations. Do they all want to achieve/obtain the same thing and go about it in different ways? That's conflict that can be presented in various ways: one scene can show a character depressed, and that's a low tension scene but it is still a conflict. Then the two other characters can have a heated argument, which would be a high-tension scene. This would provide high and low tension for variation, so as not to wear out the reader.

This dragon thinks it's also important that all three characters' desire/motivation/goal be tied into the theme of the story. For example: Rosalyn wants to be a singer but is tone deaf. She could remedy this with the magic of a star stone. Johann needs to obtain the star stone to secure the throne to the Kingdom. The evil magician wants it for himself, to use it in wicked mischief.

I hope this is helpful. Go forth and plot.
Ravenously Yours, Orion


MOONCHILD
Mmm...Gnome.... Oh, wait. Promised not to eat petitioners.

After much discussion in the Lair, including B&G (again!) messing up my scrolls, we decided that this is indeed two questions, and we should address them separately.

For the first part, this dragon has to think of who each character is, and what their goals are. Do any of the goals conflict? (Hint: This is a Good Thing.) Is there one character who you want to win his/her goal, even at the expense of the others? Examine your reasons. This dragon has in the past had to change stories from their drafts into an almost unrecognizable form when she realized "because I want it," wasn't a good enough reason. Neither is, "because it would be cool." Keeping the tension high throughout the length of the story can be very difficult, and not always desirable. Some dragons go to movies to watch things blow up, others go to watch (shudder) _relationships_. The same is true of reading stories. But even if things are blowing up, it's okay to have a cool-down scene afterwards.

The important thing is this: What does the character want? What's the worst thing I can do to him/her to keep him/her from attaining it? How can I make it even worse? Is the character even sure of what s/he wants? How can I make that worse? (Example: Your story is set in the American Civil War. Your character is a white Southerner who is also an Abolitionist. Does your character want the North to win?)

The only warning I would give with cool-down scenes is that it depends on the length of the story. If your story is only 2000 words, you probably don't want the reader to cool down at all. If it's 2000 pages, on the other hand, a few pages on which things don't blow up is okay.

Back to differing goals, imagine your story is political in nature. One character wants to sign a trade agreement with Country X. Another character thinks Country X is full of murderers who should be wiped off the face of the planet. A third character doesn’t feel extreme in one direction or the other, but he wants the political effort expended in favor of Country Y.

Look at why each character wants this, and what will happen if each gets what they want. Keep in mind that they cannot all get what they want, but going to war with Country X might not preclude a trade agreement with Country Y. Unless, of course, it would…mwhahahhaha…


IN-PATIENTS
"Slurp, slurp...burp...ahhh...just gobbled the last of the inpatients."

What did you say my little gnome, guardian of Earth's treasures? How do you show three different characters' story goals and still keep the tension high? This dragon says, have the character state their story goal, or one of the other characters state it for him/her. Not once but twice and maybe three times as naturally as possible. More if necessary. For example. This dragon wants the Gnome's hidden treasure by the end of the story. This puts Gnome in grave danger. Build tension through dialog to move the plot forward. Your characters are put in danger and then beaten to a pulp in order to reach their story goal.

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Where Do I Send My Masterpiece?

Jan. 7th, 2010 | 09:33 am
mood: hungryhungry

The Dragons fell through a dimensional portal some time ago. We have fought our way through legions of knights-errant, alien space fleets, killer robots and evil wizards (okay, several dimensional portals) but we are BACK! The lair was fairly well-trashed while we were gone, and DRAGON was distressed to find her treasure hoard sadly reduced. B&G’s collection of vintage armor was sadly rusted, and even now, she is hard at work with WD-40™, trying to clean it up. (Hey, some of those dimensions had really useful stuff in them!) But we’ve just about set the lair to rights and are ready to resume our advice line.

So we'll start with this letter, left lying near the lair's entrance. Looks kinda recent...

Dear Dragon,
How do you pick where to submit your stories? I have a fine, finished manuscript in hand, and no idea where to send it.
- Lost Outside Laredo



DRAGON:
Where does a 2 ton dragon submit her stories? Anywhere she wants. Of course, threat of death is so gauche.


MOONCHILD:
Dear LOL,
Where to send finished stories is a puzzle that has puzzled dragons for many centuries. Here in the lair, some of us will fiddle and tweak stories for eons past what is required. Some never send stories out at all. So many market lists, so little time!

The thing is, a story that is sitting in the Lair is not a story that is going to get sold. So we start with research.

First, what are your goals? Do you just want to see your name in print? Do you want to get paid big bucks...

(Er, sorry about the scorching. Bob and B&G can’t hold in their flames when they laugh.)

Back to your goals. If you want to become a professional, you need to send to professional markets, meaning markets that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America recognizes as a professional market. The list of these markets can be found here: SFWA Membership Requirements

If remuneration is not a key factor (you don’t care how much you get paid) there are a number of reliable market reports out there. This dragon is partial to Ralan's Webstravaganza, but by no means is that to imply that you should be exclusive. Several market report links are available elsewhere in the lair.

Read the market reports. Read the publications, whenever possible. (This can get expensive; sometimes at conventions, editors will give away older copies for free.) If you don’t like any of the stories in a magazine, or even if you don’t like most of them, chances are, the editor will not like your story, either. Look at the guidelines carefully. Everyone can state examples of people who sold things to Some Famous Magazine that were well outside the stated guidelines, but unless your name is Gene Wolfe, I wouldn’t try it.

Simply put, if the guidelines state, “no excessive violence” and you have a graphic virgin sacrifice on page 2, don’t send it. If the editor indicates that s/he hates dragons (we try not to take it personally) then don’t send your dragon story to that editor.

So, you want to be paid? Start with the highest-paying market that matches your story and work down.

Minimize rejections by not sending work to the wrong editors. If they specifically state in their guidelines that they do not want a particular type of story, don’t waste your time and theirs by sending a story outside their guidelines. (Most editors will say that if something is on the borderline, send it to them anyway and let them decide.) That said, the borderline is not wide. “No vampires with AIDS” means just that. (And how would an immortal being contract a disease, and what would it matter if he did? He’s not going to suffer any ill effects, and anyone he bites is going to be kind of dead to worry about antiretrovirals.)

It all comes down to research, research, research. And remembering that an editor can neither accept nor reject a story that never leaves your hard drive.

At one time, submitting stories always meant trips to the post office, tons of postage and long, long waits. Now, most editors accept email submissions. Which, for some reason, doesn’t eliminate the long waits. But it sure is cheaper, and considering how much of DRAGON’s hoard got looted while we were gone...


OLD BLOOD & GUTS
Dear LOL:
(Mmmm...I’ve been dormant for so long my claws have gone dull. Must find some steel plate armor to sharpen them.)

Some mortals would tell you to start small, to test your strength against lesser imps and goblins first. I say: Sink your claws in and go for the treasure! (Well, not ours. We’ll roast you for a snack and take turns picking our teeth with your editing pencil. But you get the idea.) After all, how will you know if you have the key to the Hoard of Shiny Brass Rings if you never dare to try the lock?

Moonchild summed it up well. I would add that some markets don’t pay much, but have reputations that make a sale to them worth several lesser hoards. Don’t rule those out too quickly.


IN-PATIENTS
Dear Lost Outside Laredo,

Well, little Lost Outside Laredo. Listen here. While you're gobbling up venues think about where your fine manuscript fits and when you do seek a home for it, carefully consider the submissions guidelines. What Moonchild said. It bears re-eating. Check the guidelines. Sometimes the better fit is not the pro-market but if you're bent on sending them to the top markets first consider the faster responding ones. In-Patients doesn't like waiting long herself but must chew on patients in the long bleak waiting room of response times.

Don't feel bad if your short tails are being neglected because you're working on your big tails but don't forget them entirely. The little tails are rudders to help you make the big sails fly straight...


BOB
As you know, this issue appears to have caused a kerfuffle in the internets lately. The truth is...different writers have different paths.

Here's Bob's plan. For each story, make a planned submissions list:

1) Research the markets
Do some on-line market research (This Dragon likes Duotrope.), read the guidelines, and do some physical research. Actually look through some of the magazines to which you're considering submitting. Purchase some--you can spread the cost out over several people by swapping copies if the gold horde is running low. But get an idea of what the market publishes before you waste postage or electrons sending inappropriate words to them.
2) Pick your targets, considering:
a) Market Fit, b) Market Pay, and c) Market Response Times
If it fits the big markets, start there. Then work down your list. Does Bob ever submit to lower-paying markets, you ask? Yes, sometimes the story fits better in a niche market. Or sometimes the story will fit well in a market that doesn't pay a great deal, but is so full of editorial awesomeness and quality that the limited pay is offset by that factor.
3) Start submitting.

That's it. Go forth, hatchlings...and devour.

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Cover Letters

Jul. 10th, 2007 | 06:10 pm

Question of the...OK, we'll just call it Summer '07

Dragons…
Uh, like, I've written the greatest story evar, and need to send it into all the big pro markets, but I need, like, a cover letter. Not a query letter because those R 4 novels, right? So, what do I, like, put in my cover letter? Should I tell them about the poetry I have posted on my blog? Perhaps a link to my MySpace page? What about all my credits? I had a story in my high school folio, too, The Quirky Monkey. That's the book, not my story. My story is, like, about a unicorn and three girls who meet him at a RenFaire. They go down to the river, and the girls get wet and…oops, I don't want to give away the ending, but the unicorn isn't what he seems, if you get my drift. ;o) It's a really cool story. Oh, yeah, so what do I do in a cover letter? I don't want to have the editors miss out on my story, just because I left out my IM address or something…

Thanks 4 UR Help,
An Avid Reader and Future Famous Authoress.


MOONCHILD:

Dear Dinn... er... Reader,

A cover letter should be brief and to the point. Don't try to wow the editor with your expertise or accomplishments. The cover letter is the wrapping for your story. Just like a shiney suit of armor, it's lovely to look at but impossible to digest. You want the editor to get right to the juicy knight -- I mean story -- inside. If an editor asks for a full list of credits, send them. If an editor asks for a bio, send it. Otherwise,

"Dear Mr. Editor,
Enclosed (or, in the case of email, 'attached' or 'below') please find my story (poem, or whatnot) The Greatest Story Ever Written. I hope it finds you well.
Best,
Moonchild."

That's really all there is to it. If you have some particularly impressive sales, you can list them if you chose. It's unlikely, however, to move you up in the slushpile. (Unless those credits are along the lines of, "My story, The Second Greatest Story Ever Written, appeared in the April 2020 issue of Analog, and was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula.") While I like a shiny suit of armor as much as the next dragon, it's the yummy knight inside that matters. In short, the cover letter identifies you and your story. It should not contain your _life_ story. It should not explain your story. If your story needs to be explained, then it's not ready to send out yet. Let the story speak for itself, and both you and the editor will be happier.



BOB:

Dear FFA,

As you know, the story has to stand on its own. No cover letter can make up for a lackluster plot, insipid characters, or poor grammar. There are only a few things that you need in the cover letter. A greeting, a list of enclosed or attached items, and possibly a mention of a few of your publications.

It's easier to say what NOT to do:
1) Do not lie in your cover letter. They WILL find out.
2) Do not give a synopsis of your story.
3) Do not list anything as "published" if it's on your web-site or blog, on a friend's web-site, or in a forum. Editors don't consider these publications.
4) Do not tell them why they won't like your story, or why it doesn't really fit their market.
5) Do not tell them that it's the greatest story evar. Just don't.

That's about all I've got to say about the topic. My note here is longer than a good cover letter should be. Keep it simple.


OLD B&G:

Dear Uncovered One:

Thank you so kindly for taking the time to deposit your missive outside our lair. I hope you’ll find my answer satisfactory, as I’ve labored over it for hours, composing each turn of phrase while dismembering my latest meal, an especially plump, succulent specimen of…

There. That’s what you DON’T do. Don’t waste your time, or the editor’s, by singing his praises, or those of your work. Don’t delineate every inspiring thought you had while writing it. Keep it short and to the point. For example, if you were trying to catch MY interest, you might write:

“Dear B&G:

Outside your lair, please find my latest catch, a Horned Swampwallower weighing 95 lbs.

(A BRIEF description of your offering goes here.)

I have caught Swampwallowers before, and offered them to Dark Muses like Black Annis and Poe’s raven.

I have included a basket for the inedible bits. Thank you for taking the time to consider eating it instead of me.”

Of course, you’ll need to make certain substitutions, such as genre for species and word count for weight. The principle is the same, though. Identify your offering, give the editor a chance to taste for himself (but don’t force-feed him!), state your hunting credits and thank him for his time.

And now, I’m off to find a Swampwallower. 


DRAGON:

Dear Fledgling,

 
Cover letters are optional.  They keep getting stuck in my teeth.  If you don't have anything to say, why say anything?
 
The work should speak louder than any introduction.  Make it swift and to the point.  The most important piece of advice I've heard, though, is not to tell the editors how to react.  If you've ever had anybody tell you that you'll "absolutely love" something, you'll know what I mean.  


 
IMPATIENCE:

Dear Fledgling,

Whatever you do, don't do what I do. Don't chase your cover letter around in circles, never getting it out the door. If you're aiming for perfection, stop. Part of it is nervous energy. Let it out in a healthy way. Go fly around the castle a few times instead.

Quiet your thoughts, yes, all those ones telling you to nervously write a three page introduction.

Keep that cover letter sweet and short, only pertinent stuff, and get it out the door.


 

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Query Letters

Apr. 11th, 2007 | 10:34 am

O Mighty Dragons:

Scared as I am to approach you, I’m even more scared to approach those all-powerful beings: Editors and Agents. Yet I find that if I’m to venture into the world of publishing I must master the dreaded Query Letter. Can you help me?

Timid Yet Determined Writer


Ol’ B&G:
Tim, you’ve already done something far scarier than writing a query letter. You’ve woken a Dark Muse from hibernation. For Inspiration’s sake, stop groveling and get to the point!

Yes, mortal, that’s my advice, right there. A query letter is a business letter. Keep it short (no more than a page-two if you must) and professional. Explain why you are contacting this particular agent/editor with this proposal. Pitch your book-what makes it special enough for readers to pick it over dozens of other, similar books on the shelf. Include a bit about yourself, as long as it’s relevant to the query. Thank the agent/editor for taking the time to read your query.

Don’t brag or grovel. You’re not selling your soul, just words on paper. Which makes editors and agents easier to deal with than cranky Dark Muses. Now go forth and query. I have a nightmare to finish.


MOONCHILD:
Dear Dinn.... er Writer,

A query letter is essentially a sales pitch. You have, basically, one page -- less, if you consider the space both addresses (yours and the editor's) the salutation and the sign-off -- to sell your idea, whether it's a novel, a non-fiction book, an article or whatever. You need to pitch the most desirable things you have to offer in that page.

It's like those Girl Scouts who stopped by the Lair last week. They talked about the other cookies, but they mentioned the Thin Mints first. (They were delicious. So were the cookies.) Don't waste time telling the editor about your six cats or you vintage Star Wars Action Figure Collection, or your MBA. The only exception to this rule is if that is what your book or story is about. If for example, you are writing a novel in which cosmic string theory figures prominantly, and you happen to have a doctorate in astrophysics, by all means, mention it!

You basically want to make your letter concise and to the point. Describe your project. Explain why YOU are the best person to write this. What makes you uniquely qualified? In that page (or less) you want to grab the editor's interest, to make her think that she has to have this work, and has to have it from you. On the other claw, there are things you DON'T want to do. Many a newbie has fallen by the wayside by attempting to leave a cliff hanger in the query: "And then Frodo and Sam realize that Gollum is sneaking along behind them..." This will not amuse the editor. It will more likely get your query tossed aside with a "no way."

On the other claw, if you can briefly describe what your book is *about* (this is not the same as a synopsis, which is another Question for another Day) and make it sound interesting, you are well on your way. This dragon only recently learned a new trick; describe the story, sure --but describe the *world*. In fiction, it is most often the writer's unique view of people and the way they interact with their world that attracts editors. That...and good spelling and proper grammar. (And yes, our Grammar Dragon was very proper.)

For non-fiction, naturally, you want to point up your particular skills in that area. This, as we mentioned before, is where your education, cats and Star Wars figures can become important. Just make sure you keep straight which are appropriate to which project.

BOB:
As you know, different editors/agents like different approaches. Many editors and agents actually have posted on their web-sites what they want in a query letter--make certain you check that before you send anything to them. If they make a specific demand, and you ignore it, that makes you look unprofessional.

Bob's Suggestion: 3 body paragraphs, no more.
1) Name, name of project, genre, and length. (Not everyone wants that last) If you have some qualification that gives you special knowledge in that field, put in a short sentence here. (Ex. You're querying a book about a young camel driver coming of age in Ethiopia…and you've actually trained camels yourself….and lived in Ethiopia.) Mmmm…crispy fire-baked camels…..Sorry, off topic!
2) SHORT summary of project. 2-3 sentences. This is not your synopsis. If the E/A wants to read that, they will ask for it.
3) Short credits. You do not have to list every single bit of flash you've ever sold, and PLEASE do not list something self-published in that section or bits that you've put up on your web-site. If you don't have credits, skip this paragraph.

Finally, thank the editor for his time, and close it off.

Important side rules:
1)This is a business letter...NOT FICTION. Do not make up credits or stretch the truth. E/As talk to each other. They know you didn't actually win the Nebula last year. If you don't have credits, then leave out that paragraph.
2) Do not describe all your other WIPs just in case the E/A wants to buy them all at the same time. You pitch items one at a time.
3) Finally, don't query about an unfinished mss. Don't offer them something with the expectation that you'll finish it in a few months….

FINAL NOTE:
Our lovely Guest-in-the-Lair, Charlotte Dillon, has compiled a wonderful web-page listing a horde of on-line and dead tree resources on query letters. (Thanks B&G, for luring her in.) Although Charlotte writes romance, the same rules apply. As she says, "A query or synopsis for a fiction is the same beast no matter the genre."
Visit her excellent site at: Charlotte Dillon's Sample Query Letter Page..

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Research

Feb. 5th, 2007 | 06:28 pm

Dear Dragon --
I love pirates, and I know they're all the rage now. I'm working on a book about a Pirate Queen on the Spanish Main. I'm finding that I don't know that much about sailing ships. But when I went to the library, the librarian led me to an entire shelf, six tiers high, filled with books on sailing. I was hoping to do the Cliff's Notes version. How important is research? Can I just watch Pirates of the Caribbean over and over again, and wing it?


MOONCHILD:
Dear O&U,

Reseach can certainly be a pain in the tail, as any dragon can tell you. However, it is essential to get the details right. Some people think that research is less important in speculative fiction than in, say, historical fiction or police procedurals. Alas, not so. Oddly enough, people who are willing to believe in fairies (or, for that matter, dragons) are just as unwilling to accept that you don't know port from starboard, or a cutlass from a stilletto. And Heaven forbid you have the wrong kind of glass in 14th Century France! When you write a story, be it mainstream or genre fiction, you are painting a picture in the reader's mind. Errors in research can destroy that image faster than almost anything else.

That said, you can put too much research in. You may indeed have to study 14th Century glass-making techniques to write a three-page scene in your novel. You must resist the urge to pour everything you've learned into the scene, just because you've learned it. If you do this, you run the risk of boring your readers at best, and destroying your word-painting as surely as an error would have. And, of course, your three page scene will become a 30 page scene.

I like to devour books as much as the next dragon, but I also realize I only need to show the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the ice is down there, if I need it.


OLD BLOOD & GUTS:
Dear O+U:

There are readers out there who will sniff out your every weakness--and that includes factual errors. Your job is to create a world so vivid and realistic that your readers get lost in it. Every slip--every penguin at the North Pole, every Betsy Ross sewing a flag with 50 stars--cracks the illusion just a bit.

On the other claw, if you obsess over minor details at the expense of the story--ex; pointing out that giraffes have purple-black tongues just because it’s TRUE, to the point where your readers are looking in giraffe’s mouths instead of at the oncoming poachers--you’ll also have disrupted the flow of your story.

So: Strive for accuracy, but don’t start shedding your scales over it! The story always comes first.


INPATIENCE:
Dear Overbooked and Underwritten,

I can be impatient too, and if some story idea tugs on my tail and I just have to write it right then and there, that’s okay, but if you think you can do all your research from watching a movie...well, that’s just down right lazy. Get the ants out of your pants and do your research online. But be forewarned, not everything on the internet is reliable and you’ll need go to the library to validate your facts.

If all else fails get out those scales and weigh your tales. If they’re too light you won’t have any ballast and if they’re too heavy your ship will sink. Immerse yourself in the history of the time and place; your story will be rich and fluid from the treasures of your research. So set sail for the library and brush up on a little Spanish while you’re at it. You won’t be sorry.


BOB:
Dear OU,
As you know, there's always someone out there who knows more than you.

I recently read a story where someone had their sailors consulting maps. Uh, MAPS? That was the first sign that I was dealing with someone who hadn't done the most BASIC research. (They're called charts, folks.) You DO have to know your basic stuff.

Conversely, some people suffer from what Ansen Dibell (in her excellent book Plot) called "World Builder's Disease." These are the people who spend all their time researching, inventing languages, drawing pictures of their characters, and making maps...possibly hand-painted on leather. If you do this, you'll never find time to write.

Here's the balance I suggest:
If something in the scene hinges on a device, a place, or a person...you must know the basics about them. Spend your research time there. If it's extraneous to the scene, the research isn't quite as vital.

Ask among your writing associates what books they would recommend on a subject (to save you time). Different people have different areas of expertise. Talk to them. (Bob can recommend books on dead bodies and poisons, but don't bother to ask about American History.) Check out Speculations, where there's a page for "Ask the Expert". Research efficiently.

DRAGON:
Details are important. One way to avoid details is to be deliberately wrong. If you are trying to be funny, this can work. Put a microwave in the galley! Go ahead and add extra rooms in the viking ship! If you are trying to be authentic and historical, this would be bad. However, no matter how detailed and grounded your story is, at some point you do have to stop researching it and write it instead. The best thing is to get the basics down, write the story, then run it by a historian or pirate fanatic on a test run.

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Spelling and Grammar

Dec. 1st, 2006 | 11:09 am
mood: rejuvenatedRested

Dear Dragon:

I love to tell stories, but spelling and grammar aren’t my strong points. Is it possible to become a writer without mastering the mysteries of the semicolon? Should I hire an editor? How can I work around this problem?

Stuck and Whiteout



OLD B&G:
Dear Petitioner-with-the-almost-familiar name:

Dark Muses don’t spell all that well either-although if you breathe a word of how much I rely on my spellchecker I’ll haunt your nightmares. Grammar’s a strange thing: some people seem to have a feel for it and others don’t. Studying books like The Elements of Style (You’re CERTAIN you aren’t related to Strunk and White?) can help to a degree.

Beware online spelling and grammar checkers- There not too grate at spotting sum errs. The previous sentence, for example, checks out perfectly. This doesn’t. A human with a good ear for such things is better. Capture a few for yourself.

Being a naturally selfish and greedy sort of being, I’m hesitant to pay others to work with my words. I’d rather let editors pay me. The ability to tell a story matters more than mechanical errors, as long as they aren’t drastic or frequent enough to be distracting.

If you’re fortunate enough to have any of the following, I find that the best tools for spotting common mechanical faults are friends, educated minions, or a good writer’s group.

And read! The best way to absorb that elusive feel for the written word is to devour as many words as possible.


MOONCHILD:
Dear Saw,

Is it possible to become a carpenter without mastering, well, saws? Or a cook without mastering spices? Probably not.

That said, there are many fine points that even the most professional of writers might need to look up on occassion. Spelling is practice. Any Dragon in the lair can tell you, I did not used to be the Spelling Queen. I wasn't happy with this situation, but the Wizard of WordPerfect(tm) helped me greatly. You see, spell-check helps those who help themselves. Check out the sentence below:

Eye c their r sum problems with yore program.

A computer spell-check program will go right through that without stopping. But if you need to spell histocompatibility (it's a long story) a computerized spell-check can totally save the day. Assuming, of course, that you get something approximately close to the correct spelling to begin with. Now, the point is, you pay attention to the correct spellings the computer suggests, and use them. I now have coworkers call me all the time to ask how to spell things.

On the other claw, this dragon believes that computerized grammar checks are for the birds.

There are rules to good grammar, and they can be memorized. I learned them early on at dragon school. Why some people remember these rules and never forget them and others cannot is a mystery better left to the Elder Gods, who are better left in their crypts. I would recommend a good style manual, such as those who are so close to your name, or the Little, Brown Handbook. Webster's Dictionary also has some basic grammar and punctuation rules in the collegiate edition.

Under no circumstances should you pay anyone to "edit" your opus for you. If you are yourself uncertain of the rules of grammar, you have only their word for it that they have done so correctly.

Of course, if you find yourself ripped off by a professional editing service, my advice is to first contact SFWA's Writer Beware, then curse them (um, that would be the crooked editor, not the lovely folks at Writer Beware) and all their progeny unto the seventh generation.


BOB:
As you know, Stuck, writers aren’t exactly paid well.

This is really a question of economy. For most short stories, the amount you will get paid for them will not cover the hiring of an editor. A novel might, but you would need to pay the editor/book doctor...before you ever had any assurance of a sale. It's a chancy investment. Remember, money is supposed to flow toward the writer.

So what are the alternatives?

1)Did you even read what the other dragons recommended? As far as grammar guides go, I'm particularly fond of The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style.

2)Find a critiquing group. Critters comes to mind, but there are others. People there will slice and dice your grammar in an effort to help you become a better writer...and you don't pay them anything save your own critiques in return. On-Line Workshops

3)Find a buddy who will do the old manuscript swap with you (preferably one who has a good grasp of grammar).

4)Study the writing of authors you like.

As a last note, you can find lots of interesting takes on writing and grammar rules in the internet. I particularly like Cherryh's Writerisms and Other Sins. Make certain you read the rule at the very bottom!


DRAGON:
Dear Stuck:
Many new wrtieres think that whatevr you put down in on the paper is there to stay, but it aint so. Let me try that again. Create your story, work out the details of the plot, the characters and the world. Then come back and look at it with an editor's eye. Look up words you are unsure of in a dictionary. Listen to the way sentences sound. Have a friend read it over.

I would also recommend getting a book on common grammar errors and common spelling errors. Find out what catches you every time, and make a little poster of reminders next to your desk. Computer programs will catch typos most of the time, but we shouldn't rely on them totally. Also, read well and widely.

The more you read, the more you can see how other writers put sentences together, until it becomes ingrained. Or is that engrained? No.

Dragon


INPATIENCE:
Namaste Stuck little Lotus,

I would remember the words of my old master,

"You must NOT compare yourself to the best, grasshopper; look at where you were when you first started writing and see how far you have progressed."

The most important thing is that you are improving. Pay attention to how others use the semicolon and if you cannot master it now then don't use it. Everyone grows differently little Lotus and as long as you study and work hard, your work will blossom.

InPatience

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The Big Bucks....

Sep. 3rd, 2006 | 06:44 pm
mood: hungryhungry
music: Clicking of claws on the cave floor....

Question of the Month: September '06


Dear Dragon:

I’ve read so much about bestselling Fantasy series these days, I’m thinking that writing a book would be a great way to start a “treasure horde” of my own! What do you think? Is the Dragon’s lair full of gold and jewels?


OLD B&G:
Golden Girl
My dear tender little morsel, right now the fantasy is in your head. Why do you think there are so many of us sharing this lair? Treasure goes a lot farther when you split expenses.

That’s not to say you can’t earn a few doubloons scratching away at parchment, but if you’re doing it for fame and fortune alone the tooth-and-claw reality will shred your dreams faster than a dragon can strike. (And unless you want to find out how fast that is, stop standing on my tail.) Now, if you really want to write, if the stories, not the money, are what really matters, you will write. You will submit your writing. Some of it may sell. This may or may not lead to significant money. Keep your source of mundane dollars and cents, and then reach for the treasure.


MOONCHILD:
Dear G.G.
Multi-volume series are a hard sell. Publishers are always looking for fresh talent, but they usually would prefer to start with one book. Why should they commit to a ten-book contract when they don't know for a fact that you can deliver the goods. If you research the authors of those mega-series, you will find that they have lots of previous publishing credit. Sometimes, you can write a stand-alone novel, and happen to strike gold. Once you've written (and published) a few novels, you might -- and keep in mind this is very rare!) manage to hit that magic formula that has readers writing to you and to the publisher saying, "When are there going to be more books about Glasko the Wonder Troll?" Then you'll know it's time.

Until that happy day, you'd literally have an easier time selling iceboxes on the Arctic Circle (Hey, it's the only way to keep food from freezing!)

If the lightning bolt scar strikes, then yes, gold and jewels will be yours. Reality is that the average full time fiction writer makes about $6,000 a year. And yes, that's figuring in Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and any other block-buster author you want to add in.

So basically, don't quit your day job


BOB:
As you know, GG, not all writers make it big. In fact, most of us don't. Many talented authors start out well, and then for one reason or another, they founder. It's not always even a matter of talent, but of placement, promotion, and patronage. Even for fantastic authors, every single book sale can be a struggle.

Don't take this to mean that you shouldn't write, but keep in mind that success is never guaranteed. Yes, you might sell a book, or even do a three-book deal, but to plan much further than that is a pipe dream.

Finish what you're working on and promote that, honey. Don't count on the money materializing until the check is in your hand. Don't think that selling a book or two is a guarantee of eternal success. Even fantastic authors sometimes have to switch to a pseudonym because they just can't sell anything under their own name anymore….

Fans are fickle (unless you're Robert Jordan).

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On-Line Resources

Aug. 2nd, 2006 | 04:00 pm
mood: hungryhungry

Question of the Month: August '06

Dear Dragon,
Can you recommend any on-line resources for an Aspiring Writer?


DRAGON:
My advice to you, harsh as it sounds, is to turn off your internet during writing times. Also, turn off the ringer on your phone, get someone to watch the pets/kids, put on earphones and lock the door. Do not do laundry. Do not look at your pictures or go through your writing books or magazines. Sit down. Write. Yes, solitaire is right out.

Once you have a finished piece, I recomment a market website: Ralan's Webstravaganza. Carpe Libris is also a fun place to visit.

MOONCHILD:
Dear Asp.,
There are a variety of useful websites that exist to assist and support writers. They run the gamut from reasearch resources to support services to market listing to everything in between. CL Favorites might be able to give you a jumping-off pint, but keep in mind that this is by no means a comprehensive list. In fact, you may find some wonderful site we've never heard of. If you do, and want to have a link added, contact our webmaster.

We're always looking for excuses not to work. Speaking of excuses.... *runs off to try http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/games/game_0/*

OLD B&G:
Dear Asp:
Resources or temptations? You mortals fall prey to distractions so easily. There are legions of lovely websites and blogs out there, just waiting to beguile you. Many offer helpful advice and camaraderie. Here's the catch: When you're on them, you're not writing! Choose your temptations wisely.

My personal favorite is The Rumor Mill. So many writers gathered in one place, handing out advice, chatting, setting out whatever delicious tidbits of thought tickle their fancy...it's enough to set a Dark Muse slavering! Old B&G

BOB:
Hmmm, web-sites. As you know, we've got a load listed on the CL Favorites page, and are always looking for new ideas there. We add some every few weeks. You've got a great suggestion of a handy page, put it in to comments below, and we'll look at it.

Personal Favorite? Critters, an on-line workshop for Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror. Ralan's Webstravaganza and Speculations (The Rumor Mill) are also important to me.

We keep harping on it. Don't spend all your time doing the web. Set limits for yourself and keep to them!

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