Sunday, April 22, 2007

cut the hook

I entered a "Hook" for my current Sci-Fi story in a contest sponsored by an online site of published authors, called "fangs, fur, and fey." It's basically an exercise in writing a short (300 word max.), book-jacket type blurb that will catch an agent or publisher's attention when reading a query letter. The site promised online critiques by their authors for each accepted entry. Apparently lots of us writers were interested in such an exercise, and feedback, because the site's 250 submittals limit was reached in the first twenty-four hours. It was fun, and I learned from it. Here's my entry and the critique received:

Josiah, an American mining engineer, discovers beryl ore—the source of a rare, space age metal, beryllium—within a powerhouse excavation in the Andes. He conspires along with his boss to sell the ‘waste’ excavation for personal gain. He’s getting on in years and needs a pension plan. Distressingly, he begins having hallucinatory, epileptic seizures, in which an ancient, woman warrior, Akla, tells him he’s a reincarnated space druid and orders him to destroy ‘the beryllium eaters.’ But who are they? He hopes he can finish his beryllium heist before he becomes further unhinged.

Soon after, he encounters two Skatha, creatures from another planet, who are formed like humans but are organically encased within a sheathing of beryllium. They arrived on Earth long ago to search for beryllium, and became hidden allies of the Inca in their conquest of South America. The Skatha stayed on, to allow Drost, the male commander of the mission, to continue pillaging the skin sheath of humans. He ‘fire-tongues’ his victims, bio-electrically depositing their skin onto his beryllium sheath, enabling him to experience the tactile pleasures of life for a limited time.

Eila, a female Skatha, is a reluctant subordinate of Drost, and still wants to remain true to their original mission—a complication after she falls in love with Josiah. Akla becomes increasingly impatient with Josiah’s incompetent efforts to carry out his assignment. Drost’s egomania grows, and he forms an international society with Inca trappings, where he slags people into computerized adherents of his will, by putting a programmed, bio-metallic compound of beryllium into their initiation drink. One of his slags, an Israeli Deputy Defense Minister named Vasthi, overcomes her slagging program and challenges Drost for the leadership of the slags. She and Eila contend for Josiah’s love during the fight to defeat Drost.

Reviewer's Notes:

Good: Fantastic eye for detail. The writer has a great imagination

Bad: Unfortunately, this is another short synopsis. The writer packed the entire story into 300 words (it's 300 exactly, I checked because I thought it might have been over.) This type of detail leads to information overload. The writer might have written a great epic story, but the hook is too complex and doesn't quite work.

Suggestion: the hook should read more like a back cover blurb. When a reader flips a book over in a bookstore and glances at the back, that blurb has maybe ten seconds to capture that person's attention. It's hard to captivate when there is so much information crammed into so little space. Less would have been more in this case.

I appreciate the intricate set-up, but unfortunately this is a pass.

So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said. Less would have been more. Too long for a hook. But the reviewer didn't fault the overall plot or characters populating the story. I liked that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

constructing characters

An interesting writer’s article appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of the SCBWI Bulletin, entitled “Character Building,” by Louise B. Wyly. Wyly discussed using the Myers-Briggs personality test groupings, to construct interesting characters that logically support or conflict with each other. For example, you want a boy or girl who places high value on cooperation from others—a born leader—one who takes for granted that he or she would be followed. For this, Wylie selects an ENFJ type individual. The test assigns four dominant personality traits for any individual:

E or I; Extrovert or Introvert
N or S; Innovative or Sensation/Practical
T or F; Thinking or Feeling
P or J; Perceptive or Judgmental

Once you’ve selected perhaps two dominant traits you’re looking for, you might complete the characters personality with two other tentative traits, and try to stay aware throughout your story how that character would logically react in each conflict or problem situation. Any grouping of four traits has a certain frequency of occurrence in the population as a whole, and this has been borne out in many years of M-B testing. That’s not to say that a fiction writer couldn’t have a character switch traits in a stressful situation, but it doesn’t run true to form, and the reader might need extra convincing.

My own grouping when I took the test years ago was INTP, which is something like five percent of the population, and representative of an engineer, my “other” profession. People can gradually change their grouping over time, though, as a result of changing life experiences. The book Wyly gives as a reference for her article is “Please Understand Me,” by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, available in bookstores. Might be useful stuff to think about for a writer.

Monday, April 9, 2007

hooks in queries

At the point where we finish our novels, we’re faced with the need for the dreaded query letter, with its required ‘hook’ content. The hook must lure the publisher or agent to think for a moment about whether to consider this wonderful opportunity a little further. How are we going to do that? How can one possibly condense the excitement and thrills of this literary gem that we’ve labored over for the past year, or years, into a make it or break it, attention grabbing, terse invitation to read the whole. Or at least to ask for a synopsis and partial. Criminal, we think, shouldn’t have to be done. But it does, and even if the novel is a fairly good read in its entirety, we may as well accept that the preliminary hurdle must be overcome, with class, with √©lan, before anyone might invite us to the next hurdle, the equally dreaded synopsis.

One informant tells us to consider the hook as a movie trailer for our story. That seems an apt approach. Get a clear sense of the problem, and of the people we’ll want to care about up and running, and show some emotional conflicts they’ll face in gaining a resolution. But don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by using unfortunate language while doing it. Easy, right? Well, no, but it's a necessary skill set to acquire. A few days of browsing the tons of aspiring writers' mail discussed on a blog like Miss Snark-Literary Agent is worth the cost of several craft books--and loads of fun.

There's a contest beginning April 13, where Fangs, Fur, and Fey, an authors' blogging site, will accept up to 180 hooks, in specified genres, 300 word maximum length, and will post on-line comments made by published authors who reviewed the hook submittals. Could be another learning experience, for those of us with thick skins (submitters will not be identified--thankfully).

More later on synopses.

Monday, April 2, 2007

techniques of distancing and close-up

“wait for me,” by An Na, her latest novel after her Printz Award winner, "A Step From Heaven," is able to summon a good deal of emotional response from the reader. It draws on the powerful, basic need of every youth to adhere to a parent’s expectations, but often trying at the same time to find a different life path than the one held out by the parent.

Mina’s mother, Uhmma, is intent on her oldest daughter going to a prestigious university, preferably Harvard, and the mother consumes herself, while ignoring her disdained husband, and her youngest child, Suna, in pursuit of her goal for Mina. But Mina has been deceiving her mother for years about her less than adequate grades at school, and has been pocketing money from the receipts at their dry cleaning shop, meant to help support herself when she will look for a job after graduating high school and leaving her difficult home life.

An Na manages to create reader sympathy for hardworking Uhmma, and a mystery is raised early on as to whether Mina may have a different father than Suna. The close relationship between the sisters is lovingly portrayed. A Mexican boy, Ysrael, is hired to work at the cleaners, and a tender relationship grows between him and Mina, though kept hidden from Uhmma. The story is brought to a strong resolution point when Mina must choose whether to follow Ysrael when he leaves for San Francisco to study music, or stay at home to nurture Suna until she is strong enough to overcome her dismal lack of acceptance by Uhmma.

The story has a number of points interesting to a writer. Alternating chapters give Mina’s first-person POV in immediate past tense, and Suna’s third-person POV in present tense. Suna’s story can move rapidly from distancing scenes to close, inner consciousness scenes. Sometimes the portrayal is ethereal, in keeping with her dreamy, sleepwalking nature. Mina’s dialogue with Uhmma is sometimes given inside quotations, and sometimes not. Possibly this, too, is done for distancing/close-up effects, but it wasn't always consistent. The writing of scenes between Mina and Ysrael can be deeply emotional, sometimes skirting a romance genre, but An Na remains overall a fine literary writer.
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