Monday, November 21, 2011

Confession session

Okay, I can't beat Usher's confessions (she's got a what on the way?!), but still. I've got some things to get off my chest.

1) I see peanuts at the grocery store in the unsalted and lightly salted varieties and I want to know where the heavily salted option is. I like my legumes with a flavor of high blood pressure.

2) I like to collect random skillsets. I've worked as a barista learning coffee craftsmanship, I'm preparing for a black belt test in Taekwondo, I've flown a plane, I'm handy with ProTools recording software, and I can find my way around any subway system in the world. Next I've got my eye on glass blowing and archery.

3) Thank you, Facebook, for allowing me to spy on high school acquaintances without the awkward name tags and fruit punch of a reunion. Also, thanks for giving me enough info about my high school crushes to know how much I don't regret the past.

4) I love Disney movies. And I'm not talking about the classics - although I love those - I'm talking about Disney Channel movies. Avalon High, High School Musical, The Even Stephens Movie, Cadet Kelly - I've seen them, and I love them. And I also think I could do a better job of writing them. Which is probably a lie.

5) A coworker of mine brought in some satsumas for the entire office and I've eaten at least 70% of them. I also took a bag home with me. I should feel shame, but I don't.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sometimes we need a little backstory

My book club is reading The Time Traveler's Wife this month. I read the book a few years ago for a previous book club, but I was interested to come back to it as an aspiring writer. It is, after all, a very popular book that has done really well on the bestseller lists. Thanks to having the memory retention of a fruit fly, I only vaguely remembered the plot points of the book - he traveled through time, he had a wife - so I was coming to the story with a relatively fresh set of eyes.

Lo and behold, this book was breaking rules all OVER the place! There was a prologue, for one (I thought only J.R.R. Tolkien could get away with that). And what was the prologue about, you ask?


The insidious, not to be trusted, never to be included, BACKSTORY. Yeah, it's an all-caps kind of thing. The whole prologue basically establishes what happens when Henry, Mr. Time Traveler, time travels. Where he goes, how he ends up there, how he feels, what happens to him when he gets there, etc. It's not tied to a specific event in any way, it's really just to give the reader a basis for understanding what kind of time traveler he is. It's classic backstory info.

So why is it in there? How did it get past the keen eyes of beta readers, agents, and editors?

I obviously can't say for certain, but I can hazard a guess. Because while it is backstory, it's not an info dump. We're not getting his whole life history - in fact, we're not really getting a history at all - we're just getting enough information for us to understand the story that's coming up. They're details that are necessary to understand how the time travel affects his life, and rather than awkwardly integrating them into a scene, the author uses the opportunity to establish the character's personality and his relationship to the time travel. It's backstory, but it's character-building backstory, and it's intriguing enough to draw us into the rest of the story. It's an atypical time traveler scenario (she describes it as a disease), so the premise is set from the beginning, as is the conflict.

The lesson I took away from this book is that a little backstory never hurt anyone, SO LONG AS it helps the story. It should be accomplishing something else at the same time - establishing the conflict, introducing character personalities and habits, setting the hook of the story, etc. It's especially useful in cases like The Time Traveler's Wife, where we need to know the technical details of something but we don't want those details bogging down an actual scene.

I know BACKSTORY is a hotly debated topic, but it's still needed. Even if you only mention certain pieces of the story, we need that info before going into a scene so we as the reader are appropriately set up to understand the tension of the scene. The trick is knowing when to stop so you don't inundate your reader with unnecessary and tension-breaking info.

What about your thoughts on BACKSTORY? Do you agree, disagree, unagree, reagree? Weigh in!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Officially querying

Hello gentle readers, and a "sorry it's Monday but Friday's only four days away" to you as well. While most of you are deep in the NaNo trenches, I am deep in the querying trenches. I officially started sending out query letters for my latest project last week, and have been busily updating my spreadsheet of agents as I receive responses back. It's taken me this long to determine whether or not I actually wanted to talk about querying, but it's not fight club, so Tyler Durden probably won't show up at my house in the middle of the night if I post this.

First, and most importantly, it's a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would be. I knew there would be rejection, gentle readers (a word I'm growing to hate). I had prepared myself. I knew it was an uphill battle, that I would have to fight for agents to read my query, and fight harder for them to request additional materials, and fight even harder to find the agent who would be crazy enough willing to champion my work to an editor. And I knew the difficulties didn't end there, either. I had mentally prepared myself for all of this, to receive those form rejections, to obsess over a comma in an email, to read and read and re-read my work until I couldn't remember how to spell "the" anymore.

What I didn't anticipate - and what's been kicking me in the butt for the last week and half - is how it would feel to be rejected by agents on my carefully cultivated list of submissions. It wasn't just that an agent was passing on my material, it was that I'd spent hours/days/weeks pulling together a list of agents I thought were best suited to represent my work. They were the agents that work in my genre, that rep other authors with titles similar to mine, and if anyone was going to get my weird little story they would be the ones. So getting a pass from someone like that is almost like being rejected by the genre itself. It makes me question myself and my work, which is what I was trying to avoid all along.

But before you cry for me, Argentina, you should know I'm a fairly resilient person. Acknowledging the problem is the first step on the road to recovery, and my focus going forward is to keep honing my craft and keep cultivating my list. For the most part I don't know why they pass on my work, so I can't psych myself out with imagined reasons why they don't want to represent me. All I can control is my own effort, which is much better spent improving my writing and not crying over pints of Ben and Jerry's (who should totally make a Chardonnay flavor. Two birds, one stone).

Where are you in the writing process? Are you also querying your work? How do you handle your query journey?