Friday, November 30, 2007


Yesterday, I listened to the CBC's excellent news radio program "The Current", and a joking comment from it has made me ashamed of my own reactions to a particular news story.

It also made me think about creating empathy for one's fictional characters, but I'll get to that discussion--which seems embarrassingly trite in comparison--in a moment.

You've probably heard this story: An English schoolteacher working in Sudan allowed her class of seven-year-olds to name a teddy bear Muhammad. This was deemed insulting to the prophet. As a non-Muslim, she might have been sentenced to 40 lashes and six months in prison. A Muslim could have got the death penalty.

The Sudanese courts have been as reasonable as they can be, given they're constrained by Sharia law. The teacher was sentenced to fifteen days, with credit for time already served, and she's to be extradited. The authorities have already said she doesn't have to serve her full sentence once she has clearance to leave the country. They're being as sensitive and lenient as legally possible, and I applaud them for it.

Yes, there were protests today calling for the woman to be executed, but the demonstration was only about 1000 strong. Those are the wingnuts. Sudan might not be a particularly nice place, but please don't judge the whole country by its bigots. Every country has 'em.

All the same, I was feeling pretty outraged on behalf of this teacher. I'm an instructor at a college. I'm a woman. I've dreamed of working in an exotic country and I consider extremism in any religion to be frightening and evil. I really empathized with this woman.

What the radio announcer said that re-coloured all my perceptions of this issue was that if the teacher wanted to give the teddy bear a name that elicited zero response from the world, she should have named it "Darfur".


Hundreds of thousands of people have faced starvation in the Darfur region of Sudan. Why did this story about one schoolteacher elicit a stronger emotional response from me than all that horror?

The key is empathy. In my imagination, I can put myself in this woman's shoes pretty easily. I can feel terrified confusion on her behalf. Those in Darfur live radically different lives than I do, even when things are going well, and my ability to empathize with them isn't helped by the fact that I think of them as the number of people affected, not as individuals who are suffering.

Show me one person suffering, and you've got me. Show me a hundred thousand and my heart just faints; I end up feeling very little. It's emotional self-defence that has awful repercussions for humanity.

Robert McKee makes the point in his writing book, Story, that your protagonist must be empathetic. That's not the same as sympathetic; the main character doesn't need to be nice. However, the reader must see something of themselves in the protagonist--they cheer for the main character because they're really cheering for theirself.

Part of the power of fiction is that you can make a bland middle-class person truly understand what it feels like to be a junkie shuddering with desperation for their next fix, or a starving child riding with a desert caravan. In all cases, however, that happens because you made the reader see the parallels between that exotic character's life and their own. This really ties in with my previous post's point, that the reader goes into the world of the novel in order to discover theirself there.

The lesson to take away from the schoolteacher's tale is that if you want your reader to feel horror, make things specific. Focus on one person, not thousands. Then make sure the reader will recognize their own pain inside the character's. You've got to find what's universal and then make the reader see it also.

When you create a character, what do you focus on to get the reader on-side? How do you create empathy for your protagonist?

Do you focus on the character's internal life--on pain, fears, or universal aspirations and yearnings? Or do you create situations to put the character in that the reader will recognize from their own life--perhaps a fight with a malign boss, an immature lover or a hypercritical mother?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Science Fiction and the Art of Striking a Chord

I promise this post will be about more than just science fiction. However, you will have to wade through most of it to discover that.

I finished the first draft of a short story today, which is a breed of beastie I have not written in a long while. What makes this doubly unusual (for me) is that the story is science fiction rather than fantasy. It was also inspired by photographs of Posh Spice, but we'll just ignore that bit of weirdness.

This story got written both as procrastination and preparation for my next novel. I am frankly weak in understanding how to structure a story, so to remedy this, I've been re-reading and slathering highlighter all over Robert McKee's screenwriting book Story. I also decided what I was learning from Story would be best absorbed if I wrote a story of my own as I went along.

I'm very pleased with the result of that exercise, but in a fine example of the cross-pollination of ideas that chronically turns my brain into a flighty little wad of ooh-shiny distraction, this story got me thinking about why science fiction's appeal is waning.

And it is waning--although it's far from dead. Fantasy has taken up the slack, but there has to be a reason why science fiction doesn't grab the attention of general audiences the way it used to when the original Star Wars movies came out. Today, we're all loving Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Beowulf instead. (Although The Matrix got people's attention too.)

In Story, Robert McKee notes that if society changes, genres of story (e.g. science fiction, western, romance) must change their conventions also or lose appeal. He says:

The audience wants to know how it feels to be alive on the knife edge of the now. What does it mean to be a human being today? Innovative writers are not only contemporary, they are visionary. They have their ear to the wall of history, and as things change, they can sense the way society is leaning toward the future.

And that's practically gospel for what science fiction strives to do. Science fiction writers look at today and see a vision of tomorrow in it.

So why have audiences become less interested in that vision?

I went to a physics conference once where the student delegates stayed in the hosting university's residences. The residence doors were controlled by key-card and I remember a friend walking up, swiping his card, grabbing the now-unlocked door and jauntily saying, "Yep. It's the future!"

I think this is the heart of science fiction's problem: It is the future; we're practically the Jetsons. It's hard to fear or be awe-inspired by the familiar, so it has become very difficult for writers--using science fiction's classic conventions--to invoke fear or awe in their readers.

Robots? They're everywhere, with no Father-Of-the-Revolution in sight.

Space travel? Humanity is quite expert in space travel, via robot, and those 'bots send us back interesting data at a nice dependable pace. Space is no longer exciting.

Aliens attack Earth? The cold war ended and we're not feeling paranoid about The Big Lurking Evil anymore.

The perils of virtual reality? Again, it's hard to fear the familiar. Who's afraid of their copy of Halo III?

I could go on. The point is that for science fiction to succeed, it needs to tap into things people are afraid of right now, or excited by right now. Western society has become so technologically sophisticated audiences no longer respond to flashy gizmos and hints of strange new frontiers. The really cool strange new frontiers come to us via fantasy and paranormal stories.

I'll finally get a bit more general: Any genre of writing is susceptible to becoming outdated. If you want your book to really resonate, you need to tap into something that your audience cares about today. Even in historical novels, the audience is looking to see a reflection of itself there in the distant past. They want a story that is relevant to their current life, even if it's set in another world.

Here's an example, and I apologise if it's a touchy one: In the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001, people started thinking a lot more about religion and faith. Extremists of both Christianity and Islam were scaring the hell out of us, and that gave a lot of people reason to examine Christianity and Islam very carefully--especially if one of those happened to be their own religion.

Then The Da Vinci Code came along in 2003 and sold a ba-zillion copies. At that point in time, the world was extremely interested in questioning the politics of what organized religions tell us. The plot of the The Da Vinci Code tapped into that beautifully.

Look at the bigger themes in your current work-in-progress. How do they tap into your fears, or your sources of excitement? Do you think those themes are going to resonate with the rest of the world?

And on a more general level, what sort of things do you foresee the world caring about in the next few years? What shifts in society do you smell lurking over the horizon? As writers, these are the things we should be on the lookout for.

As an aside, my own short story is about how vacuity is winning--gorgeous airheads are adulated, rather than great thinkers and talented artists. That's what bothers me about today's world, so that's what I wrote about. Hopefully, the story will strike a chord with others.

Friday, November 16, 2007


EDIT: There's a rewritten version of the pitch in the comments, if anyone wishes to take another look.

'Tis only natural after doing Goblin's Crucible and writing up my thoughts about it that I would rework my own pitch. After all, that's why the subject was on my brain in the first place; I needed to do this.

Thinking carefully about someone else's work, and then trying to explain your reactions clearly, is one of the best ways I know of to give yourself to a deeper understanding of any subject, so I sincerely thank everyone who participated in the Crucible, because I really do think that experience helped me a lot.

But as usual, I can't tell if my own writing is succeeding at what I set out to do. If any of you are up for a spot of critiquing, here's your opportunity to strike back at the Goblin!

Below is my new pitch. If you're willing to donate a bit of your time and energy, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Does it make sense? Does it work as a pitch? What do you think could be made stronger?

As always, I am completely open to constructive criticism, so don't hesitate to leave negative comments; I appreciate those also! Thank you very much to anyone willing to let me know what they think, good or bad.

Katirin is smart, courageous, and bold, but she's also a princess of such intensely embarrassing parentage her family forced her into a convent to get her out of the royal succession. Katirin can't think of any fate worse than becoming one of the convent's bland and blissful priestesses, women who share a communal mind, speak on behalf of the god, and do little except sing.

Or rather, she can't think of a fate worse until Esfirre, a fellow disciple, tells Katirin the priestesses aren't the god's mouthpiece at all--they're empty husks puppeteered by a demon. If Katirin and Esfirre don't find a way out of the convent, the demon will devour their souls.

For Katirin, however, escaping telepathic priestesses and an irate nobility isn't enough--not when she can see the demon's predation will one day destroy the nation she should have ruled. Katirin is determined to stop the creature, but she needs to answer one question first--how can you kill a demon that lives in a thousand bodies?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How to Write a Query Letter Pitch (maybe)

Thank you to everyone who participated in (and is still participating in!) Goblin's Crucible. The following post is my summary of what I think I've learned by doing the Crucible.

As usual, I word this as if I know what I'm talking about, when I probably really don't. However, I do want to share what I've figured out, so please take from this whatever you think is useful, and otherwise, just trust your instincts! You're the writer, and you know what you're doing. :-)


How to write a query letter pitch:

If you can write a great book, then you can write a great query letter, because an effective pitch requires nothing more than the same elements a gripping novel requires.

You have stringent space constraints in a query letter however (one paragraph, possibly broken up into two or three short paragraphs for dramatic purposes), and for this reason, you want to slurp the reader's interest into the story as efficiently as possible.

So let's think about how you first grab the reader's interest in a novel:

Your story's inciting incident--the event that kickstarts the whole plot--is the one thing that convinces a reader to plow through another three hundred pages to find out what happens. For this reason, the inciting incident is also the thing you want to focus on in your pitch. It's the event that most efficiently makes the reader want to read more.

The inciting incident will provide the body of your query pitch paragraph, but it isn't quite enough by itself. The purpose of a pitch is to convince an agent or editor they want to read the whole book, so you want to give them the sense that there is a much larger story about to unfold. You also want to make them intensely interested in finding out how it unfolds.

Since you can't make a person curious by satisfying their curiosity, you do not want to explain the book's plot in a synopsis-like manner. Instead, you want to get the reader emotionally attached to finding out what happens. So--let's think about how that gets accomplished in a book:

Emotional attachment occurs when you introduce the reader to a sympathetic character, and then put that character into a situation that demands the character must act in order to avoid some horrible outcome. The reader is drawn deeper into the story's plot by (1) increasing stakes, (2) intensifying conflicts, and (3) deepening mysteries. (There are probably other things, too; add to this list as you see fit.)

So these are the things you want to include in your pitch also.

Creating a sympathetic character means adding something to the pitch the reader can emotionally relate to. A bit of tragic backstory might make them feel empathy for the character, and showing a laudable personality trait makes the reader want to cheer that character on. You must be very sparing with this stuff, however, because backstory and superfluous elements kill your pitch simply by slowing it down too much.

Your rule for including extra information should be: If it doesn't increase the impact or drama of the inciting incident, remove it. You haven't got space to include pace-killing filler; you must focus on those things that whet the reader's appetite for reading the book--which are the elements detailed in the next paragraph.

(1) Increasing stakes, (2) intensifying conflicts, and (3) deepening mysteries (ect.) are the plot "intensifiers" that draw the reader deeper into the story. Since these suck the reader into the book, you really want to pack them into your pitch also. Due to space constraints, however, you probably only want to focus on two or three of them.

Inspect your story, especially right in the wake of the inciting incident, and pick the plot intensifiers that are most dire, and which will most obviously force your protagonist to take action in order to avoid disaster. Again, remember that your purpose is to make the reader curious about how the situation will be resolved, so focus on the buildup and don't talk about the resolution. At the end of the pitch, you want the reader to understand the protagonist is in a horrible jam, but to only have the vaguest idea how the protagonist might get his-or-herself out of that jam.

The last sentence of your pitch in particular should contain some kind of teaser that makes the reader very agitated to know more. Again, think about the plot intensifiers that follow directly from the inciting incident. Now, pick the one that increases the stakes the most, or ratchets the interpersonal tensions up the most, or which is the most fascinatingly mysterious. This is the thing you end the pitch with--you leave the reader dangling, wondering about how that one last oh-so-horrible complication can possibly be resolved.

In summary, your pitch should be structured as:

1) Inciting incident (with a very sleek minimum of world-building, empathy-building and backstory attached to it)
2) One or two complications that make the protagonist's situation more dire and which will obviously demand action from the protagonist
3) One final whopper of a complication that leaves the reader intensely curious about how that complication can be resolved

The good news is, all of these things are already in your book. Your task is (simply; ha!) to figure out what they are, and use them to write a pitch that is juicy, riveting and which makes the reader so rabidly curious about how the story resolves that they must read the book. Good luck!

A useful trick for verbal pitches:

Spoken dialogue in screenplays is often structured with a modifying phrase at the beginning of the sentence, such as:

If we're going to save the farm, we have to sell that horse.

The reason why this is done is that it forces the audience to pay attention right to the end of the sentence. The modifying phrase lets the audience know that they've only heard half the thought; they need to keep listening if they want to know the full story. It's easier for a person to let their attention drift when the sentence is structured as: We have to sell that horse if we're going to save the farm.

If you're giving a verbal pitch to an agent or editor, you can use this trick to hang onto their attention on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Structure what you say so your sentences have a modifying phrases at their beginnings. Read the two examples below aloud and see if you agree that your attention would wander more during one of them than the other:

1) Jimmy will be stuck taking his sister Lila to the dance unless he can convince the lovely Stella she'll look better on Jimmy's arm than on the rakish Cole Stanton's. Lila is the one who can teach Jimmy to waltz beautifully, however, and she won't teach Jimmy a thing unless he does promise to take her out. Jimmy can get his lessons and get out of his obligation if he can convince his friend Rhett to ask Lila out. Rhett thinks he might be able to woo Stella away from Cole also, unfortunately, and the last thing he wants is competition from Jimmy.

2) Unless Jimmy can convince the lovely Stella she'll look better on his arm than on the rakish Cole Stanton's, Jimmy will be stuck taking his sister Lila to the dance. However, Lila is the one who can teach Jimmy to waltz beautifully, and unless he does promise to take her out, Lila won't teach Jimmy a thing. If he can convince his friend Rhett to ask Lila out, Jimmy can get his lessons and get out of his obligation. Unfortunately, Rhett thinks he might be able to woo Stella away from Cole also, and the last thing he wants is competition from Jimmy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Goblin's Crucible

Agent Kristin Nelson has been running a series of pitch workshops on her blog, although most of them are really examples/dissections of pitches she thinks work. The original post clarifies what she believes the logic behind a working pitch is; specifically, she thinks you should focus on the story's inciting incident--the thing that starts all the havoc--and not give away the book's ending or too much of its plot. She believes the pitch should read very much like the backflap copy on a published novel.

Keeping in mind that different agents think different things are "right" in terms of what makes a pitch work, and that some may prefer a more synopsis-like query, this approach is making more and more sense to me. The inciting incident of your novel is the one thing that makes a reader willing to plough through 300 pages to find out what happens. In light of that fact, of course the inciting incident is also the perfect thing to hook an agent's interest with.

While I was studying Kristin's examples, I noticed something that ties in with logline advice given in the screenwriting book Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder, which Josephine Damien pointed out recently on her blog:

"You must be able to see a whole movie in [the logline]."

A lot of the example pitches include a sentence (usually at the end) that performs this function. That sentence doesn't tell you how the story ends; it just gives you the impression that there is a big, interesting story to be told. That sentence is the pitch's hook, and often, the rest of the pitch is there only to give that one sentence its punch.

For example, here's the sentence that ends the pitch paragraph for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

"But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches..."

That sentence not only tells you what the book's inciting incident is, everything in the pitch up to that point has been backstory or world-building to set the sentence up so it has maximum impact. The rest of the text was there so that when you read that line, you could see a world of possibilities bloom out of it.

If you haven't noticed, Jessica Faust at BookEnds, LLC has been critiquing pitch paragraphs, and (O happy day! O mindbogglingly-masochistic literary agent!) she has quietly reopened submissions on it. If you want to add your pitch to the queue (of 150+), you can do so here. She probably isn't going to get to it until 2008, but this is still a great opportunity.

Regarding the title of this post: may I suggest a workshop? Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to try to rewrite your pitch paragraph according to this prescription: focus on the story's inciting incident and include at least one line that prompts the reader to envision what the rest of the story is likely to be.

Then, if you submit your pitch as a comment to this post, I'll critique it. (This is because I believe critiquing others' work is a great way to learn things myself, not because I think I'm a fabulous expert or anything. Still, I'll be your beta reader for free, and that's not a bad deal, given the price.)

Try to keep it under 250 words, and if you submit the pitch to the BookEnds blog afterward, then when Jessica gets to it, you'll get to see whether Goblin is a moron or not. :-D

Other people are welcome to comment on any of the pitches, provided they give constructive criticism. While ridicule can be extremely entertaining (as my beloved Evil Editor proves), it is not an effective way to teach. Forcing yourself to dissect the reasons why you didn't like something is an excellent exercise because it sharpens your own understanding. Sneering does not, and it hurts someone's feelings, even if other people do find your comments amusing.

Goblin's Crucible humbly awaits your bravery and submissions.

Monday, November 05, 2007

"Surprise!" said life.

Last night, my husband and I went for a walk, and on our way home, we heard a bizarre noise. El Husbando thought it was a particularly weird bird. I thought it sounded like a mutant cat. We walked by, but something about the pitch of that odd noise made me turn back.

It was a kitten.

Remember the old toy commercial's line, "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down"? Clearly this cat is not a Weeble, because it manages both activities just fine. We estimate it's between three and four weeks old. And yes--given the possibility of a raccoon coming by to clobber it--I am typing this post with a small (very small) black puffball sleeping on my lap.

We saw no sign of Cat-mum last night, nor did our hallooing of the nearby apartment patios turn up any results, so we took Puffball home and did our best in terms of making a bed and litter box for him (her? Seems rude to check.) El Husbando went back to post signs for the owner, but we really can't hang on to Puffball for very long. If I don't get a call by noon, I'll have the SPCA pick him up and will change the posters to let the owner know where to look.

My husband and I are both cat lovers, so this experience is a bit of a hassle and a bit of a treat at the same time. Puffball is adorable but seems so fragile. He wobbles when he walks and falls over when he tries to scratch himself. We're worried about him being away from Cat-mum but can't help enjoying his uber-cute mojo. I'd take a photo of him but, as mentioned, I'm currently pinned in my chair by a snoozing kitty.

I'm also listening to my landlady vacuuming in the hallway and really hoping Puffball stays asleep, because this would be a bad time for a bout of mewing to occur.

Puffball is now safely at the SPCA, having slept through the entire bus ride there. It turns out he has an abscess in his mouth, so he'll need a bit of medical treatment. I donated $50 toward that. After I got back, the owner called also, so it looks like Puffball will be reunited with his family. And...and...

And although I'm sure none of you need to hear this, is there anything quite so stupid and rude as complaining to the person who just did you a favour that the aforementioned favour should have been done in a way more convenient to the one receiving it? Exactly what is the merit of saying things that logically imply you think the favour-provider should at the very least be psychic but preferably that they should own a time machine and go back to readjust the universe to suit you?

@#$& twit; I almost hope the woman balks at the SPCA's vet bill so that Puffball can go to a home containing nicer humans. Yeah, lady; I'm so much more sympathetic to your plight now you've told me the reason a three-week-old kitten was outdoors for the night was because your 12-year-old niece dropped him and you decided it was too dark to keep looking. We found him at 6:30 PM, after all; it's not like it was past your bedtime. Hmm; do I detect a tendency to put your own concerns before those of every other living thing on the planet? Why, yes...I think I do...

Grumble, grumble. </rant> Thank you for your patience, kind blog readers.

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