Saturday, August 29, 2009

My first contract

I’m happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Samhain Publishing for my manuscript Before the Storm.

Before the Storm isn’t the first novel I’ve written (it’s the sixth, actually). But it’s the first one where I kept the requirements of agents and editors in mind – so, no chapter-long flashbacks and no great epic unfolding over three novels, which featured in previous work. Instead, it’s a romantic fantasy with a scientific twist, contained in a single manuscript that was always under 120K words. I’m fond of it and always hoped to write the sequels (During the Fire and After the Rain) as well some day.

This summer I quit my job as a customer service agent for a medical laboratory network. I’d been accepted into college, and the job was best summed up this way:

And I thought it would be good to have some vacation time before classes started. So I handed in my resignation and ran away, just like the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

With the time and the energy to research publishers once again, I looked into Samhain. I’d heard good things about them from authors like Christine Norris, Kimberly Nee and Maria Zannini. So I decided to send Samhain my manuscript, since Before the Storm is a romantic romantic fantasy. Yes, it’s got one of those scenes I wouldn’t want my mother to read.

This post gave me an idea of which editor to email with my manuscript. I always like sending queries or submissions to specific people. One month later, I had a reply.

So… that’s the story of my first story.

It's a good end to the summer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Self-publishing success story?

I saw an article in Publisher's Weekly about Christopher Herz, a self-published author who is literally handselling his books on the streets. He quit his job to do so, and now works the neighborhood daily, his goal being to sell ten books per day. Since the publication date, June 15, the book has sold about 300 copies, which is good for something that's self-published.

However, one thing about the article bothered me.

But Herz did not start Canal Publishing because he wants to be a self-publisher. He hopes to publish other authors as well...

I have no doubts that if he said he was open to submissions, at least a few other aspiring writers will sign up, perhaps drawn by the grass-roots nature of the story. Writer makes good even without The Man (aka the publishing industry). Pursuing the dream. From such small acorns do mighty oaks grow.

But there are a few other factors which have contributed to Mr Herz selling more than the average self- or vanity-published book (and even the total number of sales so far isn't in the four-digit range which agents or editors would consider significant).

Firstly, Mr Herz's background is in advertising. He probably had an idea of how to package the book attractively and present it to strangers on the streets. He brings his customer-scoping skills to the daily search.

Secondly, the book is titled The Last Block in Harlem, and he's in New York. In other words, there's a familiar appeal for prospective readers; he's already got that selling point to begin with.

Finally, at $10, the book seems reasonably priced. This isn't the case for some books put out by vanity presses.

Still, the fact remains that he has had to quit his job to be his own distributor (and as for walking through the streets of a major city until all your books are sold... your mileage may vary). Plus, the article closes by saying,

Several bookstores have taken Harlem on consignment, but Herz says he has had no sales through this traditional channel yet.

I can't help wondering why.

If this method of selling books works for Mr Herz, more power to him. But I really hope he doesn't offer his services to other writers, especially if they're too inexperienced to realize what they're getting into. Personally, I'd be looking for a publisher with experience in, well, publishing, and with more effective ways to sell books.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Five uses for birds in fantasy

1. Head decorations

If you watch this video clip from Disney’s Fantasia, you’ll see a centaur’s hair being decorated with birds at 1:33. The doves used in Fantasia are probably too large and heavy, but what about hummingbirds? That could work for a lot of women, who might even have real flowers in their ‘dos to feed the captive hummingbirds.

2. Optical enhancement

In a world without binoculars or zoom lenses, birds of prey might make an adequate substitute. If you wanted to compensate for the refractive properties of water, you could look through a seahawk’s eyes instead. And in the dark, nocturnal birds might come in handy.

Of course, this would require magic of some kind that allowed people to see through the birds’ eyes. Perhaps this requires a blood-based bond between people and birds that ties the bird inextricably to the person, such that if the bird is harmed or killed, the same thing happens to the person.

3. Children’s guardians

I liked the idea of children having guardian daemons, a la Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but a lot of parents might prefer birds trained to report to them. Send the kiddies off to school with a intelligent parrot or mynah which will observe everything they do and sing out if they decide to play hooky.

Or if the wee ones need defense more than they need monitors, they could get a vulture or a kestrel instead. Imagine a dining room with children unwrapping their sandwiches, then taking out strips of raw meat for the birds of prey which land on their (padded) wrists and which glare in a territorial way at each other. As long as these weren't owls and used to carry letters, it could avoid infringing on Harry Potter too.

4. Psychopomps

This has been done a lot in fiction, but like any interesting concept, there’s still potential in it. Stephen King’s The Dark Half used sparrows to bear away a dead man’s soul; The Crow used, well, a crow. I believe that in Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, crows carry away the spirits of sorcerers.

But what if you lived in a place with relatively few birds, or even with flightless birds? Better hope no one dies in the Arctic.

Or what if you had to go out and physically locate a bird, then persuade it to carry away the soul of your dying loved one so that he or she would experience an afterlife? Maybe birds are tired of being hunted and exploited and refuse to do that any longer, even though they know that human souls cease to exist if they’re not borne away on wings.

5. Medieval storytellers

So you’re wining and dining your guests in your castle and it would be a good time for a story or a song as well. Unfortunately you have no fool or jester, nor are there any traveling bards whom you might have hosted in return for entertainment.

No matter. Your servants open a window, leave a plate of scraps on the sill and wait for the first bird to swoop in. It could be an eagle which will tell heroic stories in return for the food. Or a peacock with a tale of beauty will step delicately over the sill. Or perhaps a raven will come to say what happened once upon a midnight dreary.

Alas, it turns out to be a flock of squabbling gulls. They fight about who gets to tell the story, and even when they decide on one of their number (the biggest, of course), the others still interrupt and try to correct him about the details. What’s supposed to be a storytelling session looks more like a noisy domestic dispute.

Your dinner does not go so well and your guests never visit you again.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Zombie haiku

So I found out from Angela at the wonderful Bookshelf Muse blog that my entry for her zombie haiku contest was a runner-up.

I'm pleased because it's the first haiku I ever wrote, although I've read several. I've liked haiku ever since I read the poetry in Rumer Godden's Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, and my favorites are from Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa.

That gorgeous kite
from the beggar's shack.
Passage through August, Kobayashi Issa

What I enjoy most about haiku is that they're so compressed. Taut. Stark and streamlined. There's no space for rambling or for too many thoughts. A haiku conveys an image and a tone, and does so in a restrained framework of syllables.

So I decided to use the horror factor of zombie-ism, but to make that subtle, maybe even poignant. I've always liked the ending of Stephen King's Pet Sematary.

A hand fell on his shoulder. Rachel's voice was grating, full of dirt.
"Darling," it said.

Other than the number of syllables, that's pretty haiku-like too, now that I come to think about it. With that in mind, I wrote this entry.

Digs a shallow grave,
All that's buried must arise.
In cold hands, house keys.

The winner was a hilarious entry by Mary Witzl, but all the haikus were fun to read. And, I hope, to write.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Referring to other books in fiction

I came across this problem when I did my latest book review, of Jonna-Lynn K. Mandelbaum’s Unpredictable Crossing.

“War crimes. Everything Tristi told us is well-documented in a book, Wiriyamu: My Lai in Mozambique by Father Hastings.”

If characters refer to a real book in the course of the story (especially to quote principles or facts), there’s a risk the readers will see this as either the writer trying to provide evidence of having done the research or the writer trying to promote the other book to them.

Especially if the characters mention this book more than once, spell out its full title, or are careful to say who wrote it and what it’s about. It’s just too obvious that we’ve crossed over from the readers being told a story to the readers being educated or advertised to, and few people pick up a novel with the hopes of education or advertisement.

The only exception to this would be if it’s inspirational fiction and that book is the Bible (or whatever religious text is appropriate for the setting).

On the other hand, if the characters refer to a fictional book that is extremely important in their world, that will be much less intrusive. In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the characters sometimes refer to the writings “The Hegemon” and “The Hive Queen”, but these are a part of the worldbuilding rather than a reminder that whatever we’re reading about was previously documented in a real book.

This goes double for the book being one of your own. IIRC, in Stephen King’s “The Library Policeman”, the antagonist refers to Stephen King novels but never actually names any. That would have crossed the line between an amusing meta-reference and an attempt to plug King’s own work.

However, in one of the later V. C. Andrews novels, the heroine of that book receives a letter from the heroine of another Andrews novel. The letter mentions that their problematic lives are so similar “and if you’d like to read about all the things that happened to me, you can do so in Novel Title” (paraphrase). I never picked up another book in the series after reading that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thoughts on Tuesday

First, a couple of strange things I’ve seen on the Internet…

1. The publisher of Kunati Books advises authors to create not one, not two, but twelve blogs to promote their books. (Edited to add : As of August 27, 2009, Kunati is no longer in business and the publisher's blog is no longer available -- Marian)

Create multiple blogs, at a minimum twelve or more, each on separate themes

Writers are also advised to blog every day. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that this post (the most recent) was from May of this year and none of the previous posts on the front page of his blog had any comments. Perhaps as a result of Kunati’s problems with writers.

Hopefully no writers contracted with this press at the time took the publisher seriously and tried to maintain twelve or more blogs.

2. But it’s Internet law that no matter what odd thing you find, there’s something even odder out there, and that’s Alphar Publishing’s offer to readers.

Alphar… offers you, the reader, the opportunity to achieve a new form of immortality--by having either:

1) You or loved-one included as the character in a book...Just enter your name below.

2) Or... For a fee (except in the case of special promotions), we will include your preferred characteristics--such as appearance, location, idiosynchrasies, and even the additional character of a friend or adversary, and perhaps the name of your hometown or favorite hang out... enter in form below.

Where to start?

Firstly, it’s spelled idiosyncrasies.

Secondly, what author is prepared to write this kind of thing? I’ve included the names of a few people I know in my work – modified, done with their consent and not bearing any resemblance to the actual person. Not only were they my friends rather than strangers, they fitted into my world. They weren’t jammed in because they or someone else paid a fee for admittance.

Thirdly, I don’t want to imagine the possible legal repercussions of including a person’s “adversary” in the story, real name and identifying details and all.

Finally, if having your name in something printed and bound is immortality (which makes me imagine Brad Pitt in Troy shouting at his men, “Immortality! Take it! It’s yours!”), write a story starring yourself and have it bound by Kinko’s, or buy a copy from Lulu. Then put it in a strongbox and bury that deep underground, as a sort of time capsule that future generations can dig up.

On to something more cheery.

Marge at Muse Mountain awarded me a Kreativ Blogger award.

Thank you, Marge. :) I also have to name seven of my favorite things, so in no particular order…

1. Raindrops on roses Writing of every kind.

2. Tea. Tea is the drink of queens, specifically this one. Whether it’s grown in Sri Lanka or dumped into harbors in the United States, whether it’s drunk from billycans in Australia or futuristic teacups in space (in which case it should be Earl Grey and hot), tea is always a good thing.

3. The Internet. I’m very happy for my hi-speed connection and ability to look at so many sites. Back when I lived in the Middle East, not only was I on dial-up but a lot of sites were blocked by the government-controlled ISP.

4. The people who are part of my life.

5. Biology. Studying how life works has fascinated me ever since I was a wee one, and the more I learn about it, the more I want to know.

6. Music of every kind. I listen to Enya and Evanescence, to Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, Genesis’s “Jesus He Knows Me” and Clay Aiken’s “Mary Did You Know”.

7. Canada. I gripe about the weather and the taxes now, but when I was in the Middle East I thought of this as the Promised Land. And things have worked out pretty well for me here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Unpredictable Crossing

The first reason I asked to review this book is because the antagonist’s last name is Perreira and mine is Perera. The second reason is that the plot sounded interesting.

Unpredictable Crossing, by Jonna-Lynn Mandelbaum, tells the story of a coincidental meeting that uncovers an act of genocide. On a cruise ship, Tristi, a stewardess, realizes that a passenger called Colonel Perreira once ordered the massacre of everyone in her village in Mozambique. But another passenger, Amanda Allmond, is also someone Tristi knew in the past. Their three stories intertwine on the ship.

I like the setup and the international flair of the book. It’s also very obvious that the author has done her research. In fact, it’s too obvious. Every word and phrase of Portuguese in the story is accompanied by the English translation in parentheses, to the point where it becomes obtrusive and even repetitive (the words bom and querida are translated twice, for instance).

For an example of translations that don’t hinder the flow of the story, I recommend Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, which also features dialogue in Portuguese but which either switches to English quickly or assumes the reader can tell that “Nao ha problema” means “No problem”.

The other problem is the amount of information that this book presents on cruise ships, vacationing in the Bahamas, African traditions, genocide and women’s rights. Some of this is included in at least thirteen paragraph-long footnotes, and each time I encountered one of these it jerked me out of the story. Some of it is embedded into the text in infodumps.

Most is unnecessary. I was hoping the story would be about the growing tension between Tristi and Colonel Perreira in the closed confines of a cruise ship, but instead the story went into detail about the characters’ meals, diversions, clothes, etc. It also included long descriptions about every port of call and every tourist attraction. I like reading about this kind of thing in Judith Krantz’s novels, but it felt out of place here. Several lengthy flashbacks, told in italics, further slowed down the forward momentum of the story.

There was a good moment characterization-wise, when Amanda notices the colonel (who is evil incarnate in every other respect) teaching a boy how to swim. I enjoyed that; it was realistic and subtle. Unfortunately the narrative then took away the subtlety.

The exchange between the colonel and the boy reminded Amanda that as bad as a person seems, there is always a basic humanity that glows within, if conditions are right.

There’s no need to underline things like this, and I’m sorry to say that it lends a preachy feel to the story. Tristi and Amanda are decent people, and that’s pretty much all I remember of them (though the moment Tristi showed Amanda her spike-ring, I knew she would use it to get away from Colonel Perreira – it was so obvious a Chekhov’s gun).

This story could have been much tenser if the characters had been painted in shades of grey, if they had really clashed with each other. Instead it’s a cross between a travelogue and a history text, with a cruise where some nice people ate some great food and had a good time.

This book was printed by Outskirts Press and is a trade paperback, 175 pages, $14.95.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Now that I come to think about it, plant-people are underutilized in speculative fiction.

The first such species I encountered was in Jack L. Chalker’s Well World series, which featured well over a thousand sentient species living on an artificial world. One such species looked like large humanoid plants, but unfortunately I don’t have either the Chalker books or Wayne Barlowe’s Extraterrestrials, which included a painting of a member of that species. I just remember that each plant-person grew a huge leaf from its head, which was used in photosynthesis.

Then there are the cactacae of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels. These look like green humanoids covered with sharp thorns, which they file down if they want to avoid hurting people of other species. They also have sap rather than blood, which protects them from the predatory anophelii in The Scar.

There are also Tolkien’s Ents, though they’re so much larger than others that they’re ambulatory trees. Finally, today I learned about a manga called “Finding the Fallen”, which features a type of plant-people called Ruoens.

When severely injured, they strip naked, down a gallon of water and cover themselves in rich, thick potting soil and lay there for a day or two.

The more I think about this, the more potential it has. You’d have to bend science around the concept, of course – plant-people aren’t biologically possible for several reasons, one being that the average humanoid doesn’t have sufficient surface area for the kind of gaseous exchange and sunlight absorption that photosynthesis requires. But if you can disregard this, there’s a lot of possibilities for plant-people.

• Some plants, such as mistletoe, parasitize others. Could some species of plant-people do the same to others?

• Some plants have properties, medicinal or otherwise, which could be very valuable. For instance, an ounce of saffron can cost well over $20. What if some plant-people were killed or kept as slaves so that these products could be harvested from them?

• Plants have several interesting features that people don’t – stolons, flowers, roots, food storage in the form of underground tubers, fertilization through insects or wind. Would these be present on plant-people too?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth, a review

So I watched Pan’s Labyrinth.

It’s difficult to sum this up in a single sentence; calling it a beautiful film just does not seem adequate. A couple of things really stood out for me, though – the theme of obedience in the film, and the visuals.

Capitán Vidal: You could have obeyed me!

Dr. Ferreiro: But captain, to obey, just like that, for the sake of obeying, without questioning... that's something only people like you can do, Captain.

One of the themes in the film is that of choice – summed up perfectly in the Book of Crossroads and the concept of a labyrinth, where the difference between a safe way through and an unending trap depends on which path you take. Every character has a choice, from the doctor to Mercedes to Ofelia to the tortured rebel (he chooses to try to count to three, and fails. Then he decides to escape Vidal’s game, in the only way left to him).

And what’s interesting is that the theme of choice is first introduced by Vidal, the finicky and sadistic antagonist. At his dinner party, he makes it clear that they all have choices, and that turns out to be very true. All the characters hold their own destinies in their decisions, as the Latin legend over the entrance of the maze says. And I love the fact that Ofelia triumphs because she doesn’t blindly obey authority, but trusts her own judgment instead.

The symbolism in the film is deep and layered, but what stands out the most is what the director, Guillermo del Toro, points out in his commentary on the DVD. He mentions the parallels between the real world and the fantasy world, and for me that’s expressed the best in the measurement of time. In the real world, Vidal constantly checks his pocket watch. In the fantasy, there’s an old-fashioned hourglass and the natural phases of the moon, but all three show that time is running out.

There’s so much else – the girl eating fruit in the underworld (an echo of Persephone and the pomegranate seeds), the two laden dinner tables (both with a monster at the head of the table), the cold colors of the real world contrasted with the bright fires of the rebels and the golden glow of Ofelia’s true home… the motifs are extremely well chosen and presented.

This film is beautiful and brutal and unforgettable. I loved watching it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Real Church

I’ve sometimes been taken to church by well-meaning relatives and friends trying to convert me, so I thought I would like to read Real Church: Does it exist? Can I find it? by Larry Crabb. Thomas Nelson sent me a copy as part of the Book Review Bloggers program.

This is not a typical book. It begins with the author acknowledging that he felt inspired and alive during a liberal service in a church that embraced even people of different beliefs and lifestyles, although he’s a conservative and evangelical. That was honest of him. I also never expected to read the following:

After fifty-plus years of calling myself a Christian, I sometimes teeter on the brink of atheism.

I’m not sure what to make of this. The author comes off as devout in his faith in the rest of the book, so I’m not convinced of his flirtation with the Dark Side. For instance, he admits that God does not always answer prayers and this is sometimes very hard on the people doing the praying, but some level of unhappiness and suffering is necessary in this world to make us search for God. I’ve got my own thoughts about that, but I’ll move on to the main theme of the book, where I’m more in agreement.

What makes a real church? According to this book, not a Prayer of Jabez-type attempt to gain a better life, nor a constant emotional experience of God, nor a focus only on saving lost souls and keeping them in a suitable condition for heaven.

I don’t want to go to a church that believes Jesus came to earth only to get me into heaven when I die and to keep me good until I get there.

That’s quite a step away from the emphasis on conversion that I’ve seen in a lot of other Christian literature.

Larry Crabb believes a real church is one which recognizes the failed and fallen nature of everyone, without making this either a priest-to-confessor thing or a spectacle “where shamed sinners reveal all their secrets while grace-imitating voyeurs look on with empathy”. A real church is one which emphasizes a relationship with God, but one which surprises you (rather than the comfort of a situation where you always know what God is going to do, because he always agrees with you and gives you what you want).

A real church also recognizes that we’re all addicts to something – with some people, it’s a tangible addiction such as a dependence on a drug, and with other people, it’s less obvious because it’s a dependence on approval or attention, and this can even work for them under the right circumstances. There’s more that I won’t summarize because this review would be even longer if I did, but I found this book a refreshing and humble take on churches. I don’t agree with the theology, but I agree with the psychology.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Strategic Book Publishing

Dishonest vanity presses tend to be smart, both to deal with warnings about such presses and compete with each other for victims. So for instance, they claim they’re not vanity presses: they’re traditional publishers or joint-venture publishers. And they’re careful not to charge sums of money upfront. Instead, they shift their fees to some other aspect of publication that isn’t likely to register on writers’ radar.

For instance, in PublishAmerica’s case, writers are charged for their own (overpriced) books. Plus inflated shipping and handling charges. Plus advertising, corrections to mistakes made by the publisher, calls to the publisher (PA now has a 1-900 number), and so on. Strategic Book Publishing is similar. It’s amazing how many ways such outfits can take writers for the proverbial ride.

Just looking at their website first, Strategic Book Publishing claims,

We are a smaller "boutique" publisher. We seek authors that want a close relationship, and trusted counsel from their publisher. Our turnaround times are faster, and we believe we are more responsive than larger publishers.

Red flag right there. I don’t want a publisher that has a warm relationship with its “family” of authors, I want a publisher which sells books in substantial quantities or which has titles on the NYT bestseller list. Also, only vanity presses would boast of their fast turnaround times.

The rest of Strategic Book Publishing’s website doesn’t set off any DANGER WILL ROBINSON alarms, though the lack of testimonials from readers and heavy emphasis on authors doing their own marketing isn’t a good sign. However, what’s really fascinating is the link to Strategic Book Marketing - “Leading Edge Marketing Services To Help You Sell More Books”.

Cha-ching! (all color-enhancing is mine)

Book review blogs

Also, it is a good idea to optimize your Amazon listing as well, there are a some other techniques to enhance your listing, and we can do all the above for $295… We have been building a network of blog reviewers and we can get your work into their hands. We pay them a small amount so they prioritize our clients. Typically, we ask for $192 from the author to cover costs.

I’m a book review blogger for Thomas Nelson. I’m willing to bet they don’t charge their authors a cent for that service.

Internet radio talk show

A non-refundable one-time setup fee of $199.00 for our Author Exclusive package, or $149 for our 30 minute Author Showcase package, or $99 for our 15 minute Author Showcase package.

Additional shows cost
$75 for each half-hour. Remember, we do all the work, all you have to do is talk about your book, yourself, and your market.

All you have to do is talk about your book, yourself, your market and the new charges on your credit card.

Audio books

Audio sample of your book $99

There are more services, such as building a website, coaching, electronic press kits, author displays and so on, which don’t have charges mentioned. Instead, Strategic invites authors to email them for quotes. I can only imagine how much all this might eventually add up to.

Especially when you add fees to the list.

AEG/Strategic Book Publishing (a.k.a. Robert Fletcher) is currently offering authors a choice of buying 5 books a week for a year at list price (250 books total) or paying $675 upfront.

And all this is before the fact that if you’ve had dealings with Strategic, the Florida Attorney General wants to hear from you. This place is best avoided.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Five uses for whales in fantasy

Since I’ve done butterflies, spiders and dinosaurs, marine life was next… :)

1. Food gatherers

T. J. Bass’s novel The Godwhale features Rorqual Maru, a cybernetically augmented creature designed to harvest the oceans. It/she even has a small sentient robot called Trilobite which lives inside her but can emerge to assist her, go exploring, etc.

This enormous 'rake' is an ocean-going biota harvester built in part from a genetically-modified blue whale.

Fantasy worlds could have something similar to Rorqual Maru if magic or centuries of breeding/natural selection were substituted for cybernetics. Baleen whales could collect tons of krill, and sperm whales could hunt the depths of the ocean for giant squid to feed human populations.

2. Medieval explorers

This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I first read about sailing and exploration prior to the Age of Steam. Sailors had superstitions (that they would fall off the edge of the world) as well as reality-based fears, so why not have a whale or whales mentally joined to one of the people on that ship? A whalewitch could direct her giant familiars to explore ahead of them and make sure conditions were safe – especially useful at night (icebergs!) or with enemy vessels nearby (a la Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

Though those enemy vessels would have their own whales. Or great white sharks. Or a megalodon.

The confrontation would be really something.

3. Moat defenders

Smaller whales here, though what they lose in size, they could make up for in ferocity. Best of all, since they’re whales they could work in a pack and coordinate their attacks on whoever was trying to cross. This would be even more effective in deeper waters such as those of a lake, assuming the castle was on an island at the center of the lake.

And if there was a siege, the whales could be used as food.

4. City foundations

If there was a way to make a whale stay only partially submerged, and if that whale was large enough, why not have a city spring up on its back? The cityfolk would be assured of a constant food supply, if they could tap into the whale’s blubber or even circulatory system (the whale could still swim to its regular feeding grounds, just not dive).

If this was a symbiotic relationship then they would have to provide the whale with something as well, though I’d have to think about what that is. And what would happen to them when the whale eventually died? Would a mythos or even religion spring up around the giant creature on whom their lives depend?

5. Ocean despots

In the ocean, each whale stakes out a territory and defends it fiercely (using their song to indicate boundaries). Humans living or hunting within that territory obey the whales or face destruction.

What happens when humans want to cross over from one territory to another, though? Perhaps they’ve developed technology, such as explosive harpoons, which evens the odds against the giant predators.

It could be a whale of a tale.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Query submission services

I didn’t take much interest in query submission services until today.

A blog post on How Publishing Really Works made me a bit curious about what writers can expect from such services. Most of the reasons not to use these were covered by Victoria Strauss and Ann C. Crispin on Writer Beware, but I wanted to see if such sites had any good advice or support for writers.

We’ll call it giving them the benefit of the doubt.

So I looked through the query tips sections on Bookblaster’s and eQuery Online’s websites. Bookblaster’s advice is fairly basic – “Try to be original” – though on the plus side, there is a recommendation that writers not include personal background information that is not relevant to publication. However, this part really gives me pause.

A brief synopsis of several paragraphs should follow that identifies the theme, the plot hook, and describes your characters and the conflict they face. The goal is to create a compelling reason why this story needs to be told!

The query letter is not the place for a synopsis, and how will the theme make a difference to agents? It’s not as though they browse Publisher’s Lunch and say, “My goodness, there’s a shortage of novels with the theme of ‘uncontrolled ambition leads to a downfall’!”

This kind of description is fascinating and fun – to writers. I can go on and on about plots and characters and themes in my own work. But agents and editors are looking for what’s marketable – in other words, a story, rather than an analysis of the mechanics. I’d also be concerned that telling writers to describe their characters will lead to even more paragraphs of detail (at worst, this will include mentions of hair and eye color).

As for including “several paragraphs” about the story, this seems like a great way to get a rejection.

On to eQuery online. I’d checked out the testimonials on BookBlaster and they weren’t very convincing – for instance, they didn’t mention the names of publishers or agents. Some of the ones on eQuery Online did. For instance, Marilyn Kyd claims that “Penguin Group, Random House, Avalon Books, and Bantam Dell” requested copies of her manuscript. Which is even more impressive when you consider that Random House does not currently accept queries via email.

I also did an Amazon search with the names of some of the authors who provided those glowing testimonials. Few if any results came up for “Arthur Montague”, “John Hampton”, “Brad Meyer” (any relation to Stephenie?), “Mike Denison” or “Don Marnock”, and those few didn’t seem to indicate any significant success publishing-wise. Gerald Schoenewolf has a single book published in 2006, with no reader reviews. “Marilyn Kyd”, by the way, doesn’t come up at all.

Then I checked what eQuery Online had to say about query letters.

So your description should do the following:

1. Explain the central conflict, internal AND external if possible.

2. Give some idea of the plot.

I’d hesitate before advising anyone to “explain” conflict in a query letter, because I think that could be taken literally. The query letter isn’t the place to analyze or deconstruct any aspect of the manuscript. I’d say the conflict should be shown, and if there’s not enough place to show both the internal and external conflict, ditch one.

As for giving some idea of the plot, um… yes. I also suggest that you sign your query letters. With your name.

This section goes on to advise writers on infusing the query letter with that elusive quality of voice. Here’s where we get more subjective, because query letter writing isn’t an exact science. But the sample query letter provided didn’t work for me. It mentions only one character by name (the hero), and he’s mostly passive in the query. There’s no indication of an antagonist.

I also feel as though I’ve seen the “quirky assortment of allies” (assortment always makes me think of a box of candy) and the genetically-enhanced lovable sidekick dog before, probably in every Dean Koontz novel I’ve ever read. Plus, the entire second paragraph is a single juggernaut of a sentence.

In other words, even what’s to be had for free isn’t worth it, IMO. There's much better advice to be found elsewhere - on agents' blogs, for instance.

Another reason not to use these services, as Writer Beware and agents have pointed out, is that they don’t – and cannot- send out personalized queries. But they also cannot send out supplemental material tailored to the requirements of agencies. Are they going to include the first five pages of your manuscript? If one agency asks for these to be sent as an attachment and another wants them to be pasted into the body of the email, how will the query submission service take this into account?

Basically, avoid these places.