Sunday, March 31, 2013

I Found a Flaw

There was a mistake I left in my manuscript through numerous edits. It didn't escape one of my middle-of-the-night review sessions.

It concerns a secondary character and his recognition of my main character, Daniel Pace. Early in the book, he sees Pace's name on a list and shows no recognition. Much later, near the end of the book, he informs Pace he knew about him for years. No!!!! Inconsistency!!!!

But that's what is great about fiction. I took a few minutes to go back to that first incident and rewrite. Secondary character recognizes Pace's name at first glance. End of mistake.

I will have more blog entries later, but this is going to be a busy author's day. AIC, for sure. Fire up Pandora for classical Latin guitar and get into that creative groove. Love it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lesson Ten: The Perfect Query Letter

Welcome back to The Weekend Blogger.

Let's contemplate the query letter. There is only one thing that is more important to an author trying to break into the publishing business, and that's the quality of the novel. But before the novel can have an effect, the query letter has to interest an agent enough that he/she will ask for part or all of that novel for review.

That makes the query letter a high-stakes game. In a way, it's the author pushing in all of his/her chips. The problem is that some agents get hundreds of query letters a day, all delivered into what is charmingly called the slush pile. That query of mine has to stand out among all those other queries or else it will be treated like slush in your driveway. The agent will sweep it into a pile and never think about it again. End of a chance to be published, at least with that agent as the guide for that project.

The perfect query letter has to have one trait: It has to lead to publication. All the nice verbiage in the world doesn't measure up if it doesn't lead to publication. That's a very stark assessment, but we are talking about a business here. Agents can talk about a loving for good writing, but the business requires that writing must sell. That query letter must persuade the agent, who then must have an editor at a publishing house in mind who would absolutely LOVE this project.

The advice you hear most from agents is that you must make the first part of the query read like the blurb on the back cover of a novel. I think I reached that point with my current query. If I was a guy waiting to get on an airplane, and I wanted to snag a thriller at the little bookstore on the concourse, I would pick up my novel based on this query. It gives a nice capsule of my main character, and sets up the conflict. I end that first part with a line that is more a tease than a revelation.

The second part of the query is succinct: The (insert title here, IN ALL CAPS) is a complete (insert genre here) of (insert word count here).

The third part is a brief personal biography. Tell the agent what you do in your day job, especially if that job lends credence to your writing skills. (If you do nails at Trixi's House of Bling, forget that information.) Tell the agent what separates you from the rest of the slush pile hopefuls. Tell the agent about your previous publishing history (that's a big seller), or writing contests you have won, or give a list of writing conferences you have attended. I include my participation in Pikes Peak Writers Conference events (a well-respected conference, for good reason), and that I am attending Donald Maass' week-long writing workshop later this year. I want that last part to give evidence to something at the center of my soul: I want to be a full-time published author, and I make strides to make that happen.

Here's a big tip: RESEARCH each agent to whom you are directing a query. Some have special parameters they want in a query that deviate from the standard format. Some want information on other writers with a style similar to yours. (I list John Hart and Lee Child, not to curry favor but because that is an accurate assessment.) Some want information on your ideas on how to properly market your novel. Some want the word "query" included in the title line. Others want "new submission." Learn what an agent wants, and tailor the query to best fit those needs.

See how easy that is? In order of performance, write a great novel, research each agent, write a boffo query letter, craft that query to fit that agent's needs, send off your query. Of course, there is the reality that you will only reach the slush pile, and your query will get a few seconds of time. If you strike a chord with an agent, you move closer to the Promised Land. If you don't, you join the crowded ranks of Slush Pile Rejects.

I have to be honest here. I can regard myself as a good guide on the perfect query letter only if I get published. Otherwise I am like a Catholic priest giving advice about a good marriage. I might have all the information, but I don't have the experience. Experience means knowledge, and knowledge means success. Or at least that's how I think it works.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lesson Nine: Listen to Your Voice

When I launched into this literary world, I couldn't give you a proper definition of "voice" in a novel. I figured it was something akin to the time-honored explanation of "what is pornography?": It is hard to define, but I know it when I see it. That view has changed.

Here's the explanation I give today: Voice is your creative side speaking through your characters, setting, pacing, dialogue and detail. Let me accent the part of that definition that needs it. Voice is YOUR creative side. You can't force yourself into creating a character or writing in a genre with which you aren't comfortable. So what if vampires are the big literary hook these days, or zombies? If you don't have Anne Rice's heart and mind and aren't interested in detailing vampires, don't go there.

Which brings me to my main character in the novel I just completed. His name is Daniel Pace. Nice, simple name. He has a simple day job, but he has made extraordinary strides within that job. He has a history of violence. He isn't afraid to use violence now. OK, in many minds the name Jack Reacher just surfaced. Lee Child's creation is probably the most famous thriller hero out there. I won't go into detail about what separates Pace from Reacher, but there are many variations. (I will gladly talk about those differences with an agent or publishing house, however.) Those variations will take Pace far away from the Reacher story line. I am going to have fun detailing those variations and putting them up against bits of tension in later plots. Again, I won't go into detail, but I have the main story line for the third novel in the series as I continue to write the second Pace novel.

Of course, I have to talk about myself here because that character comes from my creative side. Those people who know me well know large parts of the Pace character are miles away from who I am. Violence? It's not my thing. I am the kind of guy who grabs a paper towel when my wife is spooked by a spider, picks up that spider and drops it outside. (Well, something like a black widow or brown recluse will become familiar with my boot heel, but a common house spider is spared.) However, I respect many of the attributes that lead to Pace's violent side, and I weave those attributes into Pace's character and plot line. If you read the first chapter of my first novel, you get certain insights into Pace. It is a short introduction to him, and the action follows in subsequent chapters.

I also deviate from some thriller writers in that the development of Pace's character won't be overpowered by action scene after action scene. I want to make Pace a real person caught up in this thriller world, not an automaton who surfaces to right the world's wrongs. He has a history that is separate from that violent side. There are things in his history that he wouldn't want others to know about, but readers will know about them about 80 percent of the way through the story line. He has a heart he guards carefully.

If I had to say why I came up with Pace as a main character, it is that I wish I knew the guy. He's an interesting fella. There are those attributes of his that I admire. There are those secrets. There are events I would love to sit down and listen to him give details. I would love to sit down and have a beer with him, but he's not a big beer drinker. Not much of a drinker of anything alcoholic.

Here's another part of my style I must mention in any discussion about voice. I have a history in journalism, and I can't shake that. Know what? I don't want to shake that. My writing style is very direct. This first novel in the series is 103,000 words only because complexities within the plot require it. I still get to the point in my storytelling.

I am reading "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn. It is a fantastic novel, but her style and mine are on separate sides of the spectrum. She takes a long time to detail her characters. I am 100 pages into the novel, and there are few parts of the main plot that she has unveiled. Her character development, however, is absolutely marvelous. I love the novel. She has ways of describing characters and little events in their lives, or little worries that surface, that are beautiful. It is one of those novels I can't wait to get back to reading. But Flynn and I walk down different paths in how we tell the story. I am much more plot-centric, but I leave room for character development.

I admit I have areas of creating voice I have to work on. It's part of the process, but like everything else in my literary efforts, I love being in that process.