Monday, September 30, 2013

Query bitchin'....

Yeah, I'm going to bitch about query letters more. It's a thing I do, fixate on something that I either bitch or rave about. Sorry.

Because, you see, I feel as though I've hit upon my primary issue with writing query letters: I don't like the diction in which they are typically written.

"When Protagonist has X thing happen to him/her, he/she must then Y if the world is to be saved!"

Crappy example, I know. And more of a log line, I guess, than a query. Query letters are evidently supposed to be around 250 words (a single page, anyway, not more than one). You're supposed to have
The Hook - logline
The Book - A paragraph or two about your book
The Cook - a bit about you 
to quote Pam van Hylckama Vlieg's post on an "Ask the Agent" Absolute Write (isn't her name just awesome? Her web site is here, and she's an agent at Foreword Literary [who are, by the way, closed to queries in November and December. If you wondered. Up to the minute news, that's me.)

Of course, sometimes there's an unusual query that just rocks everybody's socks. The query for Premeditated, by Josin L. Mcquein is such an animal, and you can read it at Query Shark (run by Janet Reid, who if you don't know [I didn't used to], is an agent with FinePrint Literary Management). I read the query, and went "GIVE ME THIS BOOK NOW WHERE CAN I BUY IT?????" (the publication date is October 8 2013).

So, when I think about a query letter, before I even sit down to write (type) one, I try to think of the Premeditated query. I read a bunch of jacket copy, and think about why I like them, and why I don't. I think one of my hangups is writing in the present tense; I rarely do so on purpose, and rarely read books written in the present tense. On its own, it isn't enough to make me put a book down, but it's a strike against, certainly. I also once put a book down because it referred to a person as having been "hung" in the very first sentence (it's "hanged").

 Also, "stakes". I know I need to show what's "at stake". I know the stakes need to be apparent. Etc. Etc. But mostly, the "stakes" I'm interested in are the homonym, steaks, which come from moo cows. It's just one of those words. I don't like it, and I feel it's a word people will frequently trot out when they're critiquing queries but don't have anything else to say about it. Granted, I also feel people critiquing queries are being deliberately oblique, in a manner that has me talking to my computer screen in a "COME ON, what do you mean you don't know what that means?" kind of way. Not my own queries; I've only ever posted one, and everybody's comments were (mostly) spot on. I knew it was bad. But there are others I peruse on Absolute Write in which I understand the words the author is saying, but nobody else seems to.

And you know, I get it. A query needs to be good. Stand out. Be that flag that gets your book pulled out of the slush while others are left behind. However, when writing a query, there's so much at stake (amIright?) that it's hard to just relax and let the magic happen. It's more like agonizing over your tax return.

 Have you queried agents or publishers with your novels? Successfully? Unsuccessfully? What did you feel worked best for you?



 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dear Readers....

Hello, friends!

I was sick over the weekend, in a sudden and mysterious way. And, well, that's when my blog prep time typically is, so this week kind of flopped. Sorry about that! Thanks to you who came and checked in anyway.

While I was away, I

Clocked about 50% of Grand Theft Auto: V.

Finished re-watching the first season of Sons of Anarchy. I'm counting this as research for my NaNoWriMo novel. I think a bikerly theme is afoot, and I've long been interested in bikers, outlaw and otherwise. The outlaw types interest me in an anthropological way, in the same way the Maasai, Boers, or 1920's Irish might catch my fancy.

Watched The Last Stand. Y'know, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It was bad. So bad. Tragically bad. And I like action movies. But this one, it don't make no sense. In addition to having my "action females with hair in their faces" problem. The single good line was Arnold turning to Johnny Knoxville (see? I don't even know what their characters were named!) and asking "Do you have stupid names for all your shit?" (or something along those lines.)

Continued to go to work, most of those days. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, anyway. Though Tuesday was a half day because a different coworker was sick (the one who closes the library with me). And yet another coworker was out today. We're droppin' like flies here, I hope it isn't Captain Trips. Though I guess I'm one of the immune ones? I'll keep you posted whether I start dreaming about an old black woman, or the Walkin' Dude.

Started to reread Stephen King's On Writing, yet again. What can I say? Steve has a voice. I listen. I've also started reading Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft, which I've been meaning to read for a year or more but hadn't yet. I wish I had a writing group to work through the book's exercises with. Maybe I'll do them and post them here? Probably not. We'll see.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Whose family is that?

You've seen them, I'm sure. Boxes of sepia and black and white photographs in some corner of an antique or junk shop. Unlabeled, mismatched, scalloped edges. Nameless strangers staring from the past, some smiling, some not. Some dressed up, as clearly this was some occasion. New car, first day of school, the existence of the camera.

I've wondered, as I'm sure many have, whose family members those are. How does that happen, that those scraps of one's past end up in a store, a couple bucks each?

You can find them on Etsy too, of course. On this store, Family Tree Antiques, the seller even relates some of the history of the people in the photograph, which is pretty awesome. There are many stores selling many of these photographs, individually, framed, in lots, in digital downloads....pretty much every permutation you can think of.

But those unlabeled people, what about them?

I've been trying to decide if it's a great idea, or a creepy one, to look for pictures like this at the antique and junk stores in my area, to build the werewolf family tree of my main character in Learn to Howl.

I'm inclined to be enchanted with my idea, actually. I've spent some time relating the history of the family, not as a true infodump (I hope) but rather as family stories get told. You know they way, when somebody says something like "Did you ever know that your great great great aunt Hildegarde had a duel fought over her?" and "members of this family fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War", etc. More detailed that what I've just related, obviously, but you get the gist.

I've always loved old family stories (and more recent ones as well, obviously; few things beat hearing stories about people you know) and I hope to appropriately channel that in Learn to Howl and its sequels. I'm thinking this trilogy, and am currently editing what I have of book two, The Wolf You Feed, in addition to writing not-quite-a-story-yet notes about the still untitled Book Three.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Conversation I dreamed. Actually.

I dreamed this conversation. I'm not sure who the "characters" were; it was a Thanksgiving family get together that was apparently potluck. It was not at my house, nor a house I've seen before. 

Character 1: I'm very happy that anybody else is bringing well, anything, because I only bought the one steak that's a couple of pounds. I don't have a side of beef that's been turning on a spit since like, Tuesday, and don't have a meat fairy.

Character 2: Heh, meat fairy.

Character 1: I mean, I know we all want to have meat fairies....

Character 3: No, but you do have a purple Doberman statue, what is that?

Character 1: Oh, that? That's from when people from Jonestown were creeping about the house and I Nancy Drew'ed out their plan. And I had that purple SCUBA knife at the time, remember?

Character 2: How could we forget?

Character 1: And yeah, I stabbed one of them and it turned out to be the ringleader and then the FBI gave me that statue. To match the knife and because I like Dobermans.

Character 3: because who just has purple Doberman statues on hand.

Character 1: I know, right?


[non-dreaming note: It was the people in the Manson Family, not the Jonestown people, who would creepy-crawl in peoples' houses. So my sleeping brain mixed that up a bit, perhaps because my sleeping brain was thinking of the purple flavor-aid the Jonestown people drank.]

Monday, September 16, 2013

Character Questionnaire, revisited

Last year,  I posted briefly about using a character questionnaire, to ensure you knew your characters.

This is the kind of thing I think about a lot. Other authors/writers/creators do as well, I know it. I know (and of course I can't find it), that I saw Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content post that he had, in fact, worked out things like how much the baristas at Coffee of Doom make. But the reader doesn't need to know that.

This is an important consideration, I think, one I've kept in mind through editing Learn to Howl  and The Wolf You Feed these past couple of weeks. What does the reader need to know? What needs to be spelled out? What can one assume the reader knows?

Assumptions about what the reader knows can be a big problem for me. It's one thing if I make a literary reference nobody notices, because the sentence still makes sense. It's another thing entirely if I use a term not many people know, and go on at length assuming that everybody knows it.

But I digress.

Over at the Office of Letters and Light, they've posted The Official NaNoWriMo Character Questionnaire as part of their NaNo prep series. Since I did not post an actual questionnaire in my first post, rather assuming that people would write their own, I think it's both interesting and useful to look at somebody else's. Does it cover the bases?

As an example, it might be pertinent to know your characters' favorite band, or if they have a favorite band, especially if any of them fancy themselves a musician. With that in mind, thinking of the character's "theme song" (or even having a play list for the novel) is a further way to bulk up that snowball and keep it rolling. From there, if you're picking three words or so to describe that character, are their song lyrics that apply? What does the song as a whole evoke?

I write to music a whole lot. I think I reference it more often than intended, as well (other than in The Last Song; I wanted that baby to be chock-full-of music references). While I can't claim to do a questionnaire, officially, about every character I write, I'm confident I can answer the questions about my main characters. It would probably be a nice "stretch my legs" style of writing exercise to riff about somebody's favorite memory or their superstitions, and keep it in the "junk file" to add in at an opportune time.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Fears of Cultural Appropriation

As I've stated, I've never been to Detroit. I've also never been to South Africa. Why is this relevant?

Well, when I write Steampunk, though the first of my Steampunk novels starts in England,  it goes to Africa rather quickly, settling in South Africa as the location of Steampunk novels 2 and 3 (though 3 is severely flawed and will probably be cannibalized into another novel entirely). I need to do quite a lot of research about South Africa to make this work, even in a Steampunk world wherein I've altered the history of some things. Some architectural things still stand where in the real world, by the 1880's in which the first novel kicks off, they exist no longer. Or, they were a failed dream.

But alternate history does not change existing culture such that I can just run roughshod over it. I've avoided most issues of race and apartheid by writing about only displaced Europeans, or girls born to Europeans. A couple of my main characters are intended to be Afrikaner, though, and I need to know and represent, accurately, what that entails. I can't put words that do not exist into a culture's mouth.

Part of this is mitigated by the fact that my characters do tend to be teenage girls, and so have little to do with politics, or political current events. I've created a war that didn't really occur, but also rode on the coattails of the second Anglo-Boer war, about which I know more than the Wikipedia article, but cannot at current claim to be a scholar of. Being character centric helps, to a degree, as a fictional individual can think whatever he or she likes. However, I need to research my guts out, because I'm speaking from my white American middle class vantage point here. Hell, even if I was writing about the American Civil War, I'd do more research, versed though I am with Gone with the Wind. I've thought about doing American Steampunk, during about the same time period, but my thoughts go back to South Africa. I'm no sure what sparked my interest in the country; an anthropology professor I had several classes with in college used to live in South Africa, so that might be it.

My werewolf  novels take place in Appalachia and the American South, and I still need to know more, Yankee that I am. Being American helps here, and Google Maps is great for location, but it comes down to respect and accuracy. I'm creating a culture within a culture (wolfception), but even if I'm not hitting a home run on what people in the mountains of North Carolina are like (for the amount of time spent there), I still need to get to first base at the very least. Can't whiff or strike out. I need a reasonable facsimile of a place, not something that's only got the labels slapped on and is completely wrong otherwise.

Advice I read given to fellow writers is you can't worry about offending people. You can't let that paralyze you, or stop your writing, and I agree with that to a point. I use bad words (!), not everybody I write is nice people, very bad things happen sometimes. But as a writer, I feel a responsibility to be accurate, and to have respect for the types of people I'm writing about, even in the most fictional of examples. I am not the most sensitive of people; I'm occasionally an outright bitch, sometimes just for comedic effect and sometimes because I hate everything and really mean it. But I also hate getting things wrong, and I hate accidentally insulting people. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I do not think this means what you think it means

I don't want to get into any kind of "this isn't mine" trouble, so I won't link the actual picture here. But there was a political cartoon that happened in July that recently came to my attention: by Pat Oliphant

His cartoon was drawn to prove that racial profiling is appropriate, jacketed in his fear of BigScaryMeanDogs. Namely, two Dobermans in a dark alley vs. two...black kids? in a dark alley. "Don't profile, keep positive thoughts" are some of the words from the caption. He also added "approach them and pat anyway", not a bright thing to do with ANY strange dog (or random person) in an alley. "And run like hell" is in an itty bitty bubble at the bottom, a sure way to get a dog to chase you, even if he or she was not originally inclined to attack. If you approached two strangers in an alley, patted them on the heads, and then ran like hell, they would probably just be pretty confused about what your crazy ass was doing.

I assume Oliphant was commenting on perhaps New York City Mayor Bloomberg's July 23 vote to veto what was effectively a racial profiling law (though apparently in August, the city council overrode the veto). Wired magazine gives a brief overview to the percentage "success" rate of the stop-and-frisk implementation: 53% black, 89% innocent, .5% resulting in an arrest. The NYCLU compiled an "All the Stops" visualization, on the BKLYNR web site

I have a suspicion that Oliphant didn't want to challenge anybody's assumptions with his cartoon, not really; he wanted to show that hell yes we profile, for our safety, and we should continue to do so. Because of course Dobermans are scary baby killers and will always be. They will turn on their masters, they will attack you just as soon as look at you. Nobody should own a dog like that. 

If that's what he thinks about Dobermans (or if that's what he's assuming people think about Dobermans), now turn it back around. What is he saying about pretty much every population that is non white? He's saying black people and hispanic people will mug you and/or rob businesses, if they're not just drug dealers. He's saying Middle Easterners are terrorists. He's saying he doesn't want these people as his neighbors. He's saying....I don't even know what else he's saying. But it's these prejudices that the message of the cartoon relies on. Of course Dobermans are dangerous. Of course x non white population is dangerous (though I guess the "white Hispanic" category confounds these sweeping statements?)

It's bad enough when people make stupid assumptions about dogs they know nothing about, but it's "just a dog", right? It's unconscionable when people make stupid assumptions about people they know nothing about. 

I'm not in law enforcement. I'm not in corrections. I'm not an economist. I don't work with at risk inner city youth. I don't live in a city. But threat assessment has far more to do with "Hey that's a black kid" or "hey, that's an Asian guy". It has to do with context, and perceived behavior, and whether, at a glance, a weapon is present. Not all "profiling" is "racial profiling", to be clear. There is a certain criminal profile one works off of, and a certain psychological profile, and keeping things like that in mind solves crime and saves lives and all that jazz. The amount of innocent people who get accused and mistreated is alarming, and measures need to be taken to reduce that, not increase it, while still reducing crime.

Law enforcement is in an uncomfortable position in many, many places, and I don't envy them.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My "Dead" Genre Problem

I talk, frequently, about how I write for myself. Not many people are reading me, I might as well, right?

What's that? I need to write a query letter for that novel? Okay, trying it out. Up to 8 or 10 versions of the Learn to Howl query letter. Some are better than others.

What's that? Werewolves are a dead genre? Well fuck.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Use a Goddamn ponytail holder

I've bitched about this on Twitter a couple of times, but limited characters means limited bitching. Plus, I keep seeing new instances.

The issue? Inappropriate long, loose hair.

As a frequent owner of long hair that is occasionally loose, I'm aware of when I should have my hair tied back. When cooking, for example. While walking the dog. While driving. I love my long hair, and get many compliments on it, but that doesn't mean I need to be all flowing locks all over the place.

Televisions shows and movies don't seem to understand this. If a woman is a woman, then her hair is long, and loose, and flowing! Otherwise, how will she be free?  (while obviously wearing some kind of titanium bra, because boobs do not move).

In Masterchef, a "reality show" I confess to enjoying, I see this a lot (men and women). They're in kitchens, they're doing challenges, they're cooking. Their hair should be pulled back. Gordon Ramsay et. al flip their shit if they find a hair in their food. It's gross. Pull your Goddamn hair back.

If I'm watching a female do action-y things, she should pull her hair back. Or have short hair; that's a pragmatic decision. I will engage in combat today, I don't need hair in my face and mouth. I don't need a three foot long handle for my opponents. But you've probably seen, say, Elektra, or at least ads for it. Nope, loose hair. I yelled at the screen for a lot of the movie; my fiancè was not pleased with this. This was also a frequent issue on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though I loved it dearly for several seasons. Also Firefly and Serenity.

My latest example: forensic scientists on the television show Hannibal. What's that, you're investigating a crime scene? Looking through microscopes or whatever at evidence? Pull your fucking hair back, because you risk contaminating things.

Do we cling to Victorian ideals of "a woman's crowning glory is her hair" so much that we need a woman in any and every role to have long, loose hair? This has nothing to do with strong women, or gender roles. It's common sense. Hair gets caught on things. Pulled hair is painful. Use a ponytail holder.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dreaming, in Sixty Minutes or Less

I only had an hour left to sleep before work.

In that hour, I had a very vivid dream about somebody's....aunt? Girlfriend? Random girl roommate? Who was at our house. I was bitching about her to a clerk I knew at Walgreens when a local teenager I know from the library came by and we bantered. From Walgreens, I went home, where we lived with a police chief who was somebody's uncle or father or something (though not mine or my fiancè's); the woman was his daughter. She was also trying to kill him.

She was trying to kill all of us, actually, and it culminated in my doing combat and stabbing her in the chest with a pair of blue handled scissors, in a fight Elka couldn't help me throughout because she'd been shut outside. Then I called my boss to call out, because somebody tried to kill me and I had killed her. My boss said "Well, we really need you in. Can you just wait a couple of hours and come in at 1:30 or 2?"

And then my alarm went off and it was 9:00 am.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Steve was bitten by a zombie. Chelsea is coming down with cholera.

Me: I can't say I regretted going to Awakening, though.
Fiancè: I can. I wasn't even there, but I can regret it for the both of us. I'm Regretta Garbo.



Me: Wait, "The Girl From Ipanema" has words?
Male Coworker: Yes.
Other Coworker: Yes. Wait, why are you talking about "The Girl from Ipanema?"
Male Coworker: You're missing the point here. We both knew something that she didn't.



Me: So I was playing Organ Trail and live Facebooking it.  Like, my station wagon kept catching on fire---
Fiancè: Wait, you had fires in your station wagon?
Me: Yeah. Well, that would happen in Oregon Trail too, remember? But anyway, I blame that bitch Rolanda, who keeps getting typhoid and shit. And Larry got measles so I killed him. That shit's infectious.
Fiancè: Rolanda?
Me: Yeah. I was like "Rolanda, stop lighting up in here." And Larry got measles so I killed him. That shit's infectious.
Fiancè: What is wrong with you?

 

Bryan: and then you reach a point where you say "fuck this shit" and flip your goat. But you have to reach that point on your own. Nobody can teach it to you.



Fiancè: All right, but remember to share your flan
Me: After all, if you've got it, flan-t it!
Fiancè: .....it is so hard not to stab you right now.