Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sucker Punched

             Grrrrh. Running behind again. Sorry.  Juggling too many things right now.  Honestly, I think I’m thinking about juggling too many things and just being hit with a paralysis by analysis situation...
            Anyway...
            Speaking of things that aren’t immediately apparent, I wanted to talk about a problematic character point for a moment.  It’s one I’ve stumbled across a few times (and fallen victim to once or twice myself), and once I worked out exactly why it was problematic, I thought it was worth mentioning.
            A few quick examples...
            I saw an older movie recently from the dark era of superhero films. You know, that time before Blade when studios (and writers, and directors...) really didn’t believe you could do a serious superhero movie. Well, not without changing everything about it. Play it more for laughs.  Minimize the costume.  Avoid logos. Avoid masks.  Absolutely no capes.
            Really, how could you hope to do a movie about superhero characters who wear masks and capes and get anyone to take it seriously?
            Anyway, this film had a scene where the superhuman hero waded into a minor gang war while wearing his street clothes.  To be clear, at this point, the hero knew the full range of his abilities. Super-strength.  Near-invulnerability. Enhanced reflexes.  So the bad guys were throwing themselves at this skinny guy and ending up with bruises, cracked knuckles, broken limbs, maybe even one or two concussions in there.  By the time they figured out something wasn’t right, the hero’d probably sent a dozen of them to the emergency room.
            Here’s another example from the book side of things.  As usual, names, genders, and genres have been changed to protect the innocent.  Or maybe they haven’t, just to throw you further off the trail...
            A friend of mine had been doing a western horror story recently and asked me to take a look at his current draft.  His main hero, Wakko, was a pretty solid gunslinger/sharpshooter type (yeah, named his lead Wakko—weird coincidence, isn’t it?).  At one point, Wakko and the other heroes find themselves taking refuge in an old frontier fort that’s run by some less-respectable types. Wakko wanders around and finds the local tough guy, and inwardly notes a few things that confirm the guy may have been the best in the fort, but that doesn’t mean he’s particularly good.  To prove it, and make a point, Wakko teases and insults the other guy until he finally leaps up, grabs for his pistol
            And Wakko flicks out his own gun and shoots the guy dead.  Justified, of course.  That guy was trying to draw.  Everyone saw it.
            I made a note that this scene didn’t make Wakko look particularly heroic.  In any sense.
            This sort of thing is a hustle.  A con.  If you’ve ever played pool, nothing annoys people more than to discover the cute “rookie” who tricked them into wagering everything on their third game is actually a pool shark with countless notches on her belt.
           One thing about a hero—in real life or in a literary sense—is that we expect a sense of fairness and general decency from them.  They shouldn’t abuse their power.  They won’t deliberately harm people.  Yeah, they might have to do awful things at some point, and they might not hesitate to do them when they need to, but it won’t be something they want to do.
            Y’see, Timmy, a superhero in regular clothes is... well, just a dick.  Yeah, even when it’s Christopher Reeve.  Let’s be honest, that was a cheap move, beating up that guy in the diner.  A green beret who goads people into taking a swing at him is also a dick.  Or a gunslinger who forces somebody into a quickdraw contest.
            Honestly... it’s a bully move.
            Now, when my villain (or just a general antagonist) does something like this, it often works well for my story.  How often have we seen our hero throw a punch or kick or hail of bullets that had no effect?  What appears like a minor obstacle  just became a much more serious challenge for my heroine or hero to deal with. And challenges are great.
            But bullies aren’t.
            Especially when they’re supposed to be my protagonist.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about some thing.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Response To Your Query...

            Hey, a quick bonus post or Writers Coffeehouse folks.  Or any of you who are interested in such things...
            One of our Coffeehouse topics this past weekend was querying agents, and I told the folks there about how I actually got attention from two fairly well-known, high profile agents because I had a good query letter and could talk like a professional in one-on-one meetings. And I thought it might be useful to some folks to have said letter as a rough template.
            Ironically, the book I was querying with was The Suffering Map, my early novel that I use so often here as an example of how not to do things.  Seriously, I use it so often there’s a tag for it.  A big one.  You could figure out a lot of the book  just by reading about all the elements I screwed up in it.
            Anyway...
------------------------
                                                                          May 15th, 2003
                                                                          My Old Address
                                                                          San Diego CA 92116
Name
Agency
Address
New York NY

Ms. ########,

            If you could travel in an instant to anywhere, or any-when, in the world, where would you go?  Now, what if there was a price?  What if each journey submitted you to a nightmare of pain and torture before you arrive, unharmed, without a mark on you, at your destination.  Getting there is not half the fun.  So why would Rob Fable do it a second time?  Or a third?  And what would happen if he got addicted to it?

My novel, THE SUFFERING MAP,  is a suspense/ horror novel that also involves a great deal of mythology, history, and a sprinkling of pop culture.  It's set in my home city of San Diego, and the title refers to a mysterious device, found (well, stolen) by Rob, which allows him to travel while submitting him to the whims of a being called Bareback.  It also brings him into contact with Sondra, who develops an unusual bond with the Suffering Map, and Gulliver, who has his own plans for the mechanism....

        Rob comes to realize the financial potential of the device and travels with it more and more.  When he discovers some of the historical results of using the Suffering Map, though, he finds it isn't that easy to stop using it.  In the end, Rob must come to terms with his addiction to the ancient machine as his friends try to save him and themselves, for Bareback has his own plans, and the power of history is on his side.

            I would like to send you either the full manuscript of The Suffering Map (approximately 120,000 words), or some sample chapters and a synopsis, at your preference.  Please find a SASE enclosed for your convenience.

                                                                          Sincerely,

                                                                          Peter Clines
-----------------------

            So, look at what we’ve got here. First off, it’s short and simple--one page only.  I introduce the four major characters and explain the title.  Also notice that while pretty much the whole thing is talking about the story--this could almost be a back of the book/inside flap description,  I also slip in a bit of humor (okay, maybe he didn’t find the Suffering Map...) and some credentials (I’m not just writing about a city I’ve never been to or visited once).
            I wrap it up with a professional closing.  At the time this particular agent hadn’t set out firm guidelines past “query first,” so I suggested some options, each one showing that I have an understanding of the process.  By offering the full manuscript (with a word count) I’m confirming it’s done, and I have an idea how long such a book should be.  Offering a synopsis implies I either have one ready or know how to prepare one.  And all of that helps show that I’ve got an idea how to use words to convey ideas.  Y'know, like a writer...
            One more thing. The little device of asking questions—good, semi-rhetorical questions—encourages people to consider answers.  So even though I address these questions a bit later (to some degree), I’m still leaving room for the agent to wonder about what the answer is. The Suffering Map, as implied, has a mystery element to it, so questions worked well for me. YMMV.
            However... I hear that "asking rhetorical questions" has been getting used in queries a lot of lately, and the device is bordering on being a gimmick.  Most agents hate gimmicks, because even though it may be new and clever to me, odds are they've seen it a hundred times.  This week.  Some might just roll their eyes and keep reading, for others it may be a dealbreaker.  So be cautious with gimmicks.  Or something that may be bordering on gimmick-hood.
            And, again, please don’t forget—this is an example of what worked for me. Your individual query letter needs to reflect your book and your skills as a writer, so copying this and making minor tweaks won’t really help.  This is just a guide, so when you’re talking about your book you’ll have a sense of what to say.
            On our regularly-scheduled Thursday post, I wanted to talk about sucker punches.
            Until then, go write.
            And if you’re at that stage... query.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

But What Do You Think...?

            I know I said I’d talk about chefs when I got back from SDCC—which, granted, was two weeks ago—but I want to put that order on hold for a little bit.
            Over the past week or so, I’ve interacted with a few different folks online.  And while online interaction doesn’t work the same as face-to-face conversations, it still got me thinking about communication and points of view and characters.
            Which, of course, made me think about Go-Bots.
            I’ve got to be honest. When I was a kid, Go-Bots baffled me.  More to the point, people who liked Go-Bots baffled me.  I mean, seriously. Why would anyone play with Go-Bots when there were perfectly good Transformers to be had?  Go-Bots kind of sucked. No, not kind of. They were dumb and clunky and their robot-to-vehicle change usually amounted to standing them up. They had a lousy cartoon with a lousy theme song.
            Hell, there were Go-Bots that turned into rocks. Seriously.  Rock Lords turned from robots into lumpy, dull-gray balls.  That’s some serious, hardcore play action right there.
            Kids who liked Go-Bots were stupid.  No question about it.
            Thing is, as I got older, I actually came to realize why some people had this odd affection for Go-Bots, and still do to this day.  Their simplicity wasn’t a flaw, it was a feature. They had a different story behind them, and what they were worked fine for that narrative. In the end, they were just a different kind of toy for different kinds of kids (or nostalgic collectors).
            Of course, as adults we can argue about X-Box versus PlayStation.  Or Hunger Games versus Twilight.  Or socialism versus capitalism.
            As a writer, though, I need to be able to see both sides of any of these discussions.  That’s how I end up with a great cast of characters—a group of people who embody different beliefs and cultures.  They don’t all act and think and sound the same.
            I’ve talked about this a bit before with villains. Everybody in the story thinks they’re the hero, including the baddie.  They believe what they’re doing is right and just.  So to have a good villain, I need to be able to see things from their point of view. I need to be able to identify and understand with how they feel.
            We all know what it’s like when every character sounds just like the author. Or when they all agree with all the author’s beliefs.  We’ve all read that short story or the first few chapters of that book or sat through the first half of that movie.  It usually means I’m pounding home a message.  Or I’m just not a very good writer.  Sometimes both.  And if this is the kind of story I’m writing, I almost always end up with muah-ha-hah, mustache-twirling villains that feel like they’re... well, straight out of a Go-Bots cartoon.
            Female or male.  Progressive or conservative.  Pro-life or pro-choice.  Young or old.  Rich or poor.  Christian or atheist.  Black, brown, white, or Asian.  Omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan.  Straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual.
            Y’see, Timmy, in order to be a good writer, I need to be able to see things more than one way.  This just isn’t a profession for the narrow-minded, unless I’m looking to only appeal to a similarly narrow-minded audience.  I have to be open. I have to be willing to learn.  I have to be able to see other viewpoints
            One of the main characters of my Ex-Heroes series is a black, bisexual woman.  I work like hell to make sure she sounds as real as possible, despite the fact that I am not one of these things myself.  It's important to me.  And I worry constantly that I’ll have her do or say something that will offend somebody.  But I don’t want to be the straight, progressive white guy who only writes about other straight, progressive white guys and makes everyone else a secondary character at best.
            Because if I couldn’t see anyone else’s viewpoint... that’s all I’d be able to write.
            Next time—unless somebody wants to make a request in the comments—I’m probably going to go all passive-aggressive on you.
            Until then... go write.