Monday, October 29, 2012

Kill the Boring Characters

Liz and I were chatting the other day, and somehow we started talking about Tenchi. I don’t know if any of you have seen Tenchi, but I’m sorry if you have. I’m about to say not nice things about Tenchi. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Tenchi—no wait, there is.

See Tenchi is an average boy with a mildly extraordinary gift: exotic women are infatuated with him. The problem is, he couldn’t seem to care less. He has magic wielding babes dancing around him trying to get his attention, and he seems to spend most of his time moping on the roof wondering why he was chosen for this destiny.

Earth to Tenchi: participate.

So Liz and I decided that Tenchi could be played by an inanimate object with the ability to speak, say a supped up speak and spell. That’s right, I think you could meaningfully replace Tenchi with a speak and spell and cause no problems to the plot of Tenchi.


If you have a character who could be played equally well by an inanimate object, they aren’t pulling their weight. Think of your novel as an elite team of soldiers. If everyone can’t pull their own weight, they’re slowing you down. They could get you all killed. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but if you have a Tenchi in your manuscript you’re endangering your chances for agents, publication, even a solid readership. I won’t claim that I watched all of Tenchi, but when they played Tenchi at the Anime club, half the people would get up and leave. I sat through more Tenchi than I should have, but I just couldn’t believe that anyone would have a character so… well… boring.

Tenchi is a Gary Stu.

If you find yourself stuck watching Tenchi (and you just might, there are people out there who dearly love Tenchi), I have a way for you to make it more fun to watch. Just pretend that Tenchi is a supped up, evil, Speak and Spell, and all the women around him are captured by the dark, magical lure of the nerdy toy. That is to say, the magic of it is twisting their minds. They are hallucinating Tenchi, and they are all caught in its thrall, not unlike the One Ring.

Sorry if I just ruined Tenchi for you.

Monday, October 22, 2012

On Contests and subjectivity: Hook Line and Sinker Stats

I love contests.

No really, I LOVE contests.

In fact, at one point, I’d entered so many contests that I didn’t even know where I’d entered all my contests. I got a somewhat annoyed email from someone saying I’d won a contest and had never emailed them back. Whoops.

But those were the “win an ARC” kind, not the PUT YOUR MANUSCRIPT IN FRONT OF AN AGENT!!!!! kind. I think you can see the difference for me. So I entered a contest last week, and I didn’t make it past round one. While obsessing, I read through all the entries in my category and ranked them. If you’re wondering this isn’t to be rude or cruel, it’s to get a handle on something really important: subjectivity.

And let’s face it, subjectivity plays a HUGE part in the whole publishing journey. Need more convincing? Fine, do you like Twilight? If you post that in the comments it’ll be an even 50% for people who love it and people who hate it. I think I might be the only person in the world who has less passionate opinion of the book. My point is simple: Twilight made a ton of money. A ton. It sold millions of copies and spawned a huge movie franchise that’s poised to smash a bunch of records. No matter how you feel about the book, you have to admit, someone made some money on that book. And that’s one of the ingredients.

Now imagine if Stephanie Meyer had received 14 rejection letters, decided she was never going to make it and stopped querying that book to write the next. It’s easy to look back and say, “that would be a bone-headed move.” But in the thick of it, imagine how crushing those 14 letters could have been. Especially if she’d been querying in batches, sent out five at a time, waited for those to trickle in, then sent out another 5. She could have been querying for months with nothing but no. Ouch.

And yeah, we’ve all been there, and that’s why I love contests. They feel like a backstage pass at wildly popular concert. Maybe you’ll get the lead singer’s autograph.

Or maybe not.

That’s the downside of contests: we get excited and forget how subjective it is. I know we all want to be the query contest beauty queen, but when we don’t make it to the next round, or get a single request, or don't get picked to play in the Baker's Dozen, well, that hurts. So it’s time to remember two things:

Thing one: these things are SO SUBJECTIVE it kills. What if one of the judges is a magic realism fan, and you’ve got an urban fantasy with magic wielding faeries? Yeah, you’re gonna have a hard time getting past that judge. What if you’ve written a portal story that’s beautifully conceived and everyone loves it, but the judge just read a trite portal story that gutted the take off and botched the landing? Yeah, that story isn’t advancing either.

Thing two: I know I’ve said this before, but we writers really aren’t looking to win a popularity contest with the agent hunt. We are looking for one (un, 1, agent in the singular) who gets our book on a profound level. I know that if only one agent takes the bait, it seems like the prospects of landing a publishing deal seem slim, but it’s possible that all those other agents looked at your book and thought “that’s cute, but I don’t have time for that today.” Seriously, just because they don’t rep it, or don’t want to rep it, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t buy it. All you need is one agent to love it.

And without further ado, proof. I said I read through all the entries for MG Hook, Line, and Sinker and I ranked them, so here’s how my picks stacked up against the judges.

When I read entries for a contest, I rank them into Yes, maybe yes, maybe no, and No. Both the “yes” and “no” votes are emphatic. That means for a no, there’s pretty much no way I’d read it, based either on concept, or writing. For a Yes, I’m really excited to read. Then there’s the maybe category. I split the maybes into yes and no because there’s usually some reluctance to drop entries into the emphatic category, but let’s face it, sometimes there's a problem with an entry. Like maybe the concept was awesome sauce, but the writing a little awkward. That’s a maybe, and the yes or no sub-tag has everything to do with the severity of the flaw (crummy concept with spectacular writing: maybe yes, for instance).

Right, and here they are.

In my initial read through, I have 10 yeses, 11 maybe-yeses, 8 maybe-no, and 9-no. I’m sure those of you good at math are wondering where that last entry is, since 39 people entered. I don’t judge my own because I’m biased about it.

Of those who advanced to the next round (twenty total), 7 were my original yeses, 7 were maybe-yeses, 3 maybe-nos, and 3 nos. Yeah, three nos made it to round two. Advancing to the final round (with agents!) 5 yes, 5 maybe-yes, 2 maybe-no, and 2 no.

So yeah, five of my original ten yeses didn’t make it to the final round. That's half. Half of the books I would have picked up based on the blurb to read the first chapter in a store didn't get to the agent round. That’s how subjective this whole publishing thing is.

As always, good luck to the winners! I hope everyone meets their perfect agent match between now and Wednesday!

p.s. I have way more stats, like genre and gender, and if people are really interested, I'll post those too, but people are probably a little bored with looking at data sets. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Naming Habits of a 3.5 year old

Right, so I noticed my daughter playing with her toys, and I realized that I'm working on becoming titled something that she associates with villains.

Maybe I should give more explanation before I declare myself the real life villain. So, kids name their toys, it's just a fact of life. Sometimes they name their toys really inappropriate things (like this video from the Island of Misnamed toys, at least none of ours live there), and sometimes pretty innocuous.

For instance:
Bear, as advertised.


Right, so far so good, right.

This is Dog:

Dog. No really, Dog.

This is Gug:
This is the beloved Gug.

And then there's the villain toy, Dr. Tam. No really, she named her villain toy Dr. Tam.

Dr. Tam. That's right, the only one with a PhD is the villain...

Right, so here I am furiously working on getting my PhD, and my daughter associates people named doctor with being the bad guy. I'm looking at you Phineas and Ferb.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Use the whole buffalo

Right, so one of the biggest problems I have with all super hero stories is that they don't do a very good job of actually using their powers (I'm looking at you Hal Jordan). Now I understand that part of it is that comic book writers and illustrators are still trying to tell a good story, but every time I see Green Lantern make a fist with his power ring, I cringe. Could we be less imaginative? I guess the gun is an okay step up, but it still lacks imagination.

I have to confess, Green Lantern might actually be one of my very favorite comic books, but it really has some problems: unimaginative heroes. I mean really, all they would need is to make a pebble out of their will power inside the heart of a bad guy, and viola, big fight scene done.

Okay, it doesn't make a very good comic book, but seriously? I get tired of watching them slug it out with their fists when really all they need is one good solar flare to take care of all the bad guys on that one planet (no really, there's a scene where all the bad guys are on one planet, and they don't nuke the planet because they don't have the fire power). I mean really, did they forget that E=MC^2?

Then there's the last airbender. They really do it right. The benders use their powers for all kinds of things, in all kinds of ways. When I first saw water bending my first thought was that the body is almost 80% water, but I stored it away under the "this is a kid's show and they'll never go there." Then they went there with the blood benders. I was shocked. It was awesome.

So yeah, basically, it boils down to this: your characters don't need more powers, they just need to get creative with the powers they have. And if you want to see what it would be like for a firebender in the morning, just check out this video, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

IWSG: Gumption

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which means it's time for another installment of Insecure Writer's Support Group. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go visit the Ninja Captain, Alex, sign up on the linky-do-hicky, and release your fears and insecurities into the world. Today, I'm talking about a quality that will serve you well in life and writing: Gumption, otherwise known as sticktoitivness.

It should come as no surprise that my life has been more about grit than grace. Most people’s lives are. This may come as a surprise because all the ways we tell stories end on a neatly tied up high note. No loose strings. Freddy gets acquitted of murder just as the love interest proposes. In my life, every high note has come with a kick to the guts, a sucker punch or something so terrible that it almost cannot be spoken of. Once I’m down, life makes sure to send a few more kicks my way.

I wish stories did a better job of explaining that. I've spent a lot of my life wondering why I'm so different from the heroes and heroines of my favorite novels. Why did everything always work out for them? Why do they always get what they want in the end? How come they never dream of being a ballerina only to have a six inch growth spurt just before getting point shoes? 

In a way, I’m also glad stories aren't like the real world. I read to escape the real life, not learn that my grandfather has terminal cancer on the same day that my grandmother has an ulcer the size of a softball, and they’re just not sure she’ll survive the surgery. I read stories because I don’t want them to be like that time my phone rang to tell my they’d had to put down my first horse, or the time I got a phone message that told me my brother had had a stroke and they just weren’t certain he’d live, so hurry home. It's hard for stories to capture that in a way that wraps up nicely, because life doesn't wrap up. I heard a great quote by Robert Frost (thank you John Green) a couple weeks ago, and I think it says it all “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it. Goes. On.” Greatest quote ever because it’s so true.

In fact, it’s so true, that there are really only a two responses to the unrelenting breakers of our lives: surf or drown. Drowning is the easy option, and let me tell you, those waves are going to try to pull you under at every opportunity. They’ll sing their sweet song of surrender when you’re down. When you’re up, they’ll buck you out into the water. You’ll be going along, happy as a clam, and then the tip of your board catches, and shablohhy! In the drink you go. Even when you’re surfing right, you spend more time in the water than riding the waves. That is life, and it’s hard. And the most important advice anyone will ever give you is: “Get back up.” No one is going to do it for you, so stand up on your own. Realize that you will fall. Know that sometimes the breakers are easy. Know that sometimes the breakers will smash you into the rocks. Stand back up anyway.

That goes double for writing. So, take a few more moments to hop around the ninja captain’s exceptional blog hop, but then get back to it, the next breaker is coming. Every great writer has been where you are now, be that getting rejections, writing your first book, or checking the List to see if your most recent book hit it. Just remember, they got kicked when they were down, and they kept on going.