I think I’m starting to sniff around my concept for this year’s NaNoWriMo. It started with the kind of question you ask yourself after reading the same trope for the fourth time in a row, then became something I thought I might be able to explore. Once it started looking like it would be A Thing, I opened up a document to start tracking my thoughts.
This document isn’t in with my manuscript drafts. It’s not with my character worksheets, my outlines, or my random research snippets. It’s in my queries.
It sounds kind of crazy, right? The query (or blurb/back cover copy if you’re self-publishing or already agented) is something you’re not worrying about until you’ve gone through several rounds of drafts and revisions. Certainly, it is the highest of high crimes to send out a query for something that’s not fully complete and polished; sending out one for something that hasn’t even been started would probably have an agent checking to see if she’s developed the power to light you on fire with her mind.
We’re not talking about sending the query, though. Just writing it. And it’s something I’ve found to be tremendously helpful. Really, it’s just another approach to outlining, and one that’s quite appealing to me as an inveterate pantser.
I first started doing this a couple of years ago, when I had finished as much plotting and planning as I could stand with a few days to go before the November 1st starting bell. By that time, I had just recently completed my dive through the glory and majesty that is Query Shark, so I naturally started applying those lessons toward my own story and took a crack at it. That first draft had too much introductory cruft and the villain’s plan at that point was something something fate of the world, but it wasn’t that far from what I sent out to agents a year later (after revising to reflect the finished product, of course). Not only that, but it actually provided me with some rather illuminating details; the heroine’s relationship with gaming turned out to be a huge and integral part of her character, and it came from a quip about being “a first-person shooter kind of girl” that I found amusing.
So, what does this have to do with outlining? After all, a query absolutely should not tell you the entire story, just enough to tease and get someone wanting to read the whole thing. It does this by establishing three things:
Hero – Problem – Stakes
Essentially, we’re told who the main character is, what choice or dilemma they face, and what they risk to lose by failing or choosing a certain way. I’m basically just regurgitating Her Sharkness here (seriously, if you haven’t read the Query Shark archives, DO IT NOW), but I’ve heard again and again from multiple agents, editors, and other publishing types that these are the key elements of a good query.
I help people polish up their queries through various communities and forums, and one reason that a lot of people struggle to get these three elements into the query is that they’re not in the book. Their main character isn’t well-defined. They don’t have a clear goal or desire. There’s nothing important standing in their way. There’s nothing really on the line to give us reason to fear their failure. But authors frequently don’t recognize these problems in the manuscript until they try to articulate them in the query.
Pictured: Something I’ve actually done in outlining.
Figuring out these essential elements at the start helps ensure that they’re clearly defined and baked into the whole manuscript, so you’re not trying to clean it all up later. You’re not committed to what you decide at the outset, and you get to leave yourself a great deal of wiggle room for how it will all play out (which is what I love as someone whose outlines tend to be on the Underpants Gnomes side of the spectrum), but you have some guideposts to keep yourself on track.
Trying to answer these questions early on lets you know where your concept is weakest while you’re still planning, so you can focus your research and development more efficiently. For instance, in the one I’m working on now, I know that I’m pretty solid on the hook and the hero, but less clear on motivations, goals, and setting. So as I gear up in the next couple of months to flesh things out, that’s where I know to concentrate. Plus, I generally find it’s easier to toss something into the query that sounds cool and try to work it into, rather than trying to come up with an elegant, concise, and pithy way to describe a finished work. It’s basically like giving yourself a writing prompt.
Maybe I’m just that weird kid who actually likes writing queries. But this isn’t some magic ability that comes out of nowhere. It’s a skill you can acquire and hone. And if you’re like me, trying it at a different point in your writing process could make a big difference.
Well, here we are. I’ve just sent off the last query letter for Ignition.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean I’m withdrawing the project, or that I’m scraping the bottom of the vodka bottle. (That might not be the right idiom.) The order of my list was more about when I found an agent than how much I want to work with them, and I am still hopeful that one of the responses I haven’t gotten yet will be an enthusiastic “Yes!”
But, you know, I’m a realist. I’ve been patiently putting this thing through its paces–querying, pitching, and entering contests–for over a year now. I’ve gotten enough interest along the way to assure me that what I’ve got to offer isn’t a hot mess, but I’m starting to realize that it is a bit of an odd duck. Not quite YA, not quite NA. Certainly not played straight, but not quite a satire. Part of the appeal for me is seeing how the science-minded main character reacts to a somewhat standard fantasy plot, but that still leaves me pitching a somewhat standard fantasy plot. Perhaps it’s just a crowded market, or perhaps it’s that something slightly weird and hard to classify is an easier sell from an established author than a debut, but it’s becoming pretty clear that it might not be the right time for this one, and there’s no further effort I can put forth that will make it the right time.
I’d love to be proven wrong, to hear from just the right agent that they know just the right editor to make this thing happen. I still love this book and am tremendously proud of it, and I still haven’t found a character quite like Lacey, with her complex relationship with femininity and her cheerful vulgarity, on the market. More than anything, I believe in this book.
But time, energy, and brainspace are all limited resources, and I need to make sure I’m using them most productively. The thing you’re supposed to do while waiting on the interminable publishing cycles is to write the next book, but I’ve been stalled out in that. I’ve always struggled to keep multiple active books in my head, and it’s clear that I need to kick this one out to make my way forward. I’m starting to sniff out a new story that’s more high-concept, with unique selling points that are easier to describe, and I need to give it room to breathe.
And hey, if all goes well with a new one and it hooks me an agent who asks what else I’ve got, I’ll have a pleasant surprise for them.
On Friday and Saturday, I attended ConQuesT 46, a long-running local Kansas City convention that I heard about for the first time this year, despite having lived in the area for going on four years now. (Advertising in the Planet Comicon program was a good move.) I’ve only really attended big industry cons in the past; hell, SDCC was my first one, which is kind of saying something. So this is probably the most intimate con I’ve ever attended, which I dug.
A few thoughts:
- The programming was really densely packed. The schedule was organized in hour-long chunks, and each panel ran pretty much from the top of the hour to the bottom. But this leaves no time at all between panels, and that’s a real problem. People were coming and going constantly during the panels, which could get really distracting (especially when panelists were running late). One panel going over in a situation like that has a cascading effect that messes with everything else after it. Most of the panels were on the same floor, but not all, and the elevator situation was kind of a mess. There was very little chance to grab water or take a bathroom break if you didn’t want to miss your programming. And honestly, spending six straight hours in panel discussions is draining as hell even when the panels are all great. If they’re going to stick to a block schedule, I’d have preferred to see the panels limited to 50-55 minutes rather than going the whole 60. Speaking of which…
- Moderation was kind of hit and miss. Some mods were great at keeping things on track and keeping any one panelist from dominating discussion, but for the most part (especially on my Friday panels), things had a tendency to wander. Stronger moderation might have also prevented a couple of unfortunate situations where a random dude in the crowd basically decided that he was on the panel, including talking over the designated panelists. Perhaps some sort of survey system would help the organizers identify who their best moderators are and leverage that information in the future.
- I attended eleven panels over the course of the two days, and every single one was mixed gender! Gender representation on panels is a well-documented problem in the industry, and it seemed like the organizers made a conscious decision to combat that. There was also a clear harassment policy and a phone number for reporting that was listed on the back of every badge. These don’t seem like huge steps, but they’re very important components of making a convention feel safe and welcoming, and the folks in charge deserve recognition and commendation.
- Other kinds of representation, on the other hand… I was really glad that there was a black dude on my final panel, because room after room with just white people was getting a bit awkward. That might be a function of it being a smaller con in the Midwest, so to a certain extent they have to work with who they can get. Still, I’d love to see more development and outreach in that area.
- I was really surprised by the hospitality on offer. As I mentioned, I’d never been to a hotel con, so it wasn’t until opening ceremonies the first evening that I heard about the Consuite, a giant room with couches and free food. My husband had opted not to attend, but said he might have changed his mind had he known about the room parties (which weren’t mentioned on the website). I ended up spending quite a bit of time chilling in Consuite on Saturday when I needed a breather or a sandwich. Definitely a perk of attending a smaller event; no way something like that would be possible for attendees at SDCC.
- Story in a Bag was great! At a convention largely based on writing, it’s nice to have an opportunity to, you know, write. I may be a little biased toward it, since my story, Model Operative, was one of the winners in the sci-fi amateur division. Also, immense gratitude to the Lawrence NaNoWriMo contingent who brought a printer and kindly let me use it, because no one would have been able to read my atrocious handwriting.
Overall, it was a lot of fun. I took loads of notes at the panels and got some good ideas I’m looking forward to applying. I’m definitely planning on going back next year. (Which, given that KC is getting Worldcon and I’m very likely going to New York Comic Con, is going to be a pretty busy year…)
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Guardians of the Galaxy.)
This is probably the biggest stretch of any of my letters, but shut up, it’s the end of the month. Anyway, we all know that beginnings are hard. You have to very quickly orient your audience in your new world and get them rooting for the right characters, and you have to do it in a way that feels natural while making the whole thing interesting enough to keep people hooked. We’ve already looked at a couple of examples of this balance that were less than great, so let’s go for one that does it really well.
I’m not the first person to express admiration for the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but really, it’s glorious. After the gut-crushing cold open, we see the adult Peter landing on a dead planet. He takes off his imposing mask, slips on some headphones, and starts grooving. Right away, it establishes the tone of the movie, alternating between grandiose and goofy. But more importantly, it establishes the character of adult Peter within seconds. By the time that title card appears, with Peter dancing his heart out underneath it, you know who this guy is: he’s a space pirate with a shameless sense of fun. There’s a little more to him than that, but you’re already on board after that opening. (Cleverly, there’s actually plot being foreshadowed with this sequence too, since Peter dancing to his mix tape winds up being a surprisingly crucial part of the climax.)
Star-Lord’s intro gets the most attention, but they do it with others, too. Let’s look at Rocket and Groot’s intro on Xandar. It’s no accident that it starts with Rocket’s voiceover; a talking raccoon gets dangerously into kiddie movie cute animal territory, which was one of the big reasons people were so skeptical about this movie’s chances for success. But you get the sarcastic, misanthropic running commentary first, before you see that it’s coming from a tiny fuzzy guy. It cuts off any preconceptions toward cuteness before they can take root. Meanwhile, Groot is playing adorably in the fountain, and pouts when Rocket yells at him.
It’s not just the heroes getting this treatment, either. Ronan’s first appearance shows him ritualistically preparing to brutally murder a member of the Nova Corps. He doesn’t actually get a lot of screentime in the movie; his presence is more felt by the other characters’ fear of him, and of what he could do with the Orb. But that’s not quite enough to make the audience feel that same fear, hence he gets a more… impactful introduction. (I would apologize for that pun, but nope, not gonna.)
Even if you’re writing a more plot-driven story, it’s still characters that people connect to, and so their introductions should be handled carefully. What’s the most important thing that we need to know about them right off the bat? Where is their character arc going to end up, and what’s an effective way to contrast that? What kind of impression do you want this character to make? Answering these questions can help you craft an electrifying and memorable opening that lets the audience dive right in.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Quick and the Dead. Also, this page has several images and large GIFs, so you might want to give it a minute to load before proceeding.)
I love me some dialogue. There’s nothing quite like a good snappy exchange, and great quotes are the kind of thing that becomes timelessly viral (as evidenced by the average quantity of Monty Python quotes in a given D&D session). But dialogue isn’t everything, and there’s a whole lot you can do without ever saying a word.
As befits a story about a stoic badass riding into a town full of stoic badasses, The Quick and the Dead is practically a master class on this topic, packed with just about every kind of visual communication you can imagine.
Here’s one silent exchange from very early on, when the Lady first arrives in Redemption:
The creepy mustached guy, Eugene Dred, will be her secondary antagonist, right behind Herod. Notice the way she shows him her gun, and his reaction? Their enmity gets set up immediately, in just under 15 seconds.
Another similar exchange of glances establishes Herod’s primary challengers (Ed. note: This GIF cuts out a couple of shots in the middle):
In both cases, pretty much all it takes to set up these relationships is eye contact. There are a whole lot of characters in play and not a lot of time to set everything up, so this method efficiently builds audience expectations, so we already know what’s going down even before individual beefs get explained.
Efficiency occasionally leads us to an entirely wordless scene. The Lady meets with Cort to work out the rather complicated conspiracy that will see her fake her death and blow up half the town, but we naturally don’t see that whole discussion. All we see of it is this:
Of course, it’s not a silent film, and there’s quite a bit of dialogue. But the visuals still don’t slouch, frequently providing crucial subtext:
The barkeep is talking about the food and drink Herod is paying for. Later on, Dred will rape the girl, and the Lady will kill him for it.
And, of course, there’s the trailer-friendly, not terribly subtle but still rather awesome:
The movie is thick with background details, too. I’ll spare you examples of the gun porn (every fighter carries a unique, frequently blinged-out and customized, weapon) because this page would be about eighty screens long. But look over the Lady’s shoulder in the saloon for a wanted poster for one of the other contestants:
Or the skulls and bones that are all the hell over that scene:
The saloon scene is a good example of how the film divides its focus well among its large ensemble cast, and they’re frequently worth watching in the background throughout. For instance, you can spot every character who makes it past the first round as they watch the first duel:
Here’s Foy’s priceless reaction to the glass of water that almost hit him in the face:
Or watch Cort’s hands twitch after he’s held a gun for the first time in years:
Those little details help keep the character present and active, even while the lines are going to other people.
Okay, so that’s an awful lot of examples, and admittedly, things like subtle acting choices or set dressing aren’t really major tools in your arsenal as a fiction writer. Still, there are a few things that can be drawn from this for writers in any medium:
- Don’t forget who’s in your scene. If a character is there, they’re going to have a reaction, even if they don’t have any direct involvement.
- Well-chosen details in the setting can reveal a lot. For instance, describing in prose everything happening in the densely-packed saloon scene would take dozens of pages, but it would be easy enough to include the skeletons.
- Don’t be afraid to pare down. If you can establish something with just an exchange of glances or a gesture, maybe you should, especially if it helps build the tension.
- Remember your other senses! Though we’ve mainly discussed visuals here, the click of a gun and the thunk of the clock are omnipresent throughout the film.
In short, make sure you’re making the most of all the ways people communicate and interact. There’s a lot more to it than just words.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Finding Nemo and John Carter.)
This one isn’t so much “original analysis” as “Brittany watches directors’ commentary so you don’t have to,” but it’s still a good lesson for writers to learn (especially because the filmmaker seemed to forget it later).
In early drafts of Finding Nemo, the story started with Marlin taking Nemo to school for the first time, and the opening scene played out essentially the same as in the finished film, with Marlin being overprotective and neurotic. As the film went on, the tragedy in Marlin’s past would be hinted at through snippets of flashbacks until a late reveal of the full version of how he lost his family.
What the filmmakers realized was that, without knowing what he’d been through, Marlin came off as obnoxious, whiny, and unlikable. You could sympathize with the loss of his son, but he was still a pain in the ass that you didn’t want to spend ninety minutes with. Further, they realized that there wasn’t even any dramatic benefit to withholding the information. It was readily apparent that something bad had happened without even flashing back, and pretty much as soon as you showed Coral, the audience got the gist and the specific details didn’t make a difference. It was a reveal for the sake of a reveal, so it was scrapped in favor of a straightforward prologue scene.
“But wait!” I hear you saying. “Agents hate prologues, don’t they?” If we’re talking novels, yes they do, and for good reason. I talk about different media a bit interchangeably around here, because to a certain extent, story is story and the lessons carry over. However, fiction has certain tools at its disposal, like narration and internal monologue, which film tends to use rarely because they’re awkward as hell in a primarily visual medium. So while a novel version of the story could use a little authorial intrusion to let us know in a couple of sentences that Nemo is the sole survivor of a predator that killed the rest of Marlin’s family, the simplest way to convey this information in a movie is just to show it.
To get an idea of how the original plan would have played out, you need look no further than another film by the same director, Andrew Stanton.
It’s not that John Carter lacks for prologues, oh no. First, we get one showing how Pretty Much Always Evil Mark Strong gives Pretty Much Always Asshole Dominic West the secret magic weapon thing. Then there’s the framing device of Burroughs getting filled in on the peculiar circumstances of his uncle’s death. Then after that there’s the setup with Carter searching for gold. When the Army tries to pressgang him back into service, we get this bit:
CARTER: Colonel Powell, sir, whatever it is you suppose I owe you, our country, or any other beloved cause, I have already paid it.
(Meaningful closeup of Carter’s hand, where he wears a man’s and a woman’s wedding bands)
CARTER: I have paid in full, sir.
It’s quite an elegant bit of exposition, really. With that one image, we get an illuminating glimpse of Carter’s past, which helps us understand his desire to be left alone.
But Stanton doesn’t think we’ve gotten the message, because the next hour is scattered with flashbacks to Carter’s tragically pretty family, until the midpoint, where it’s “revealed” as some sort of big climax. The argument could be made that the specific details of their fate do matter: it’s not just that they died, but that they died while he was fighting someone else’s war, and that’s why he tries so desperately to stay out of things.
But really, that’s the same problem as with Marlin, isn’t it? Without understanding that detail, Carter looks like kind of a dick for persisting in his refusal to help people he clearly seems to like. By the time you really see where the character arc starts, he’s already most of the way along it, so the whole thing loses quite a lot of its effectiveness.
The reveal is a useful tool, one that can elevate a story into something exciting and memorable. But it is not intrinsically valuable and it is not an absolute good. It’s okay if the details about a person’s past aren’t shocking game changers, but if they’re not, perhaps it’s better not to pretend they are.