Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The joy of query letters

I'm not quite at the stage of sending out queries for my novel yet. But I am drafting the agent query letter, which has turned out to be a pretty enlightening process.

The guidance I've found most helpful so far comes from agent Noah Lukeman, who has written a free e-book on query letters. He advises keeping the summary of your novel to one paragraph, three sentences long. Seems like an extremely tall order, but, with the help of some swift comparisons, it's actually doable. (The Brothers Karamazov meets A Canticle for Leibowitz! OK, I didn't use that one...)

I remember the agonies I went through trying to write the abstract for my dissertation, and it's safe to say I *never* succeeded in getting at the heart of what I was writing about. But maybe that's because I had 1-2 pages to work with, instead of three sentences. Actually writing it in one sentence first is even better (this is called the "log line" or "hook," I've learned).

Yes, your novel is complicated, but if you can't summarize it in one or three sentences--I mean literally cannot, after weeks of effort--you do have a problem. It means your purpose in writing your novel is not clear to you. And that means it will be unclear, not only in your synopsis or log line, but in the novel itself.

For me, the process of drafting the query has involved a dialog between the novel and the query. Between query drafts, I've found myself returning to the novel and revising. Not massively, but enough to clarify issues that caused the synopsis I was trying to write to sound false. In other words, I'd write a synopsis that seemed like it should be true, but I realized in the novel that it wasn't. I asked myself why not, and often decided the synopsis version was the better one. Writing the synopsis helped me figure out something that didn't yet make sense in the novel.

There must be a point when it is too early to try to write a synopsis and log line, but it seems to be a very helpful tool in later-stage revisions.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Borrowed Fire: What do authors know about their own intentions? Or, Jonathan, you idiot!

I have said it before: Keanu Reeves was the right choice to play Jonathan Harker in Dracula. First, a highlight reel to prove my point:

And now this week's reading. He and the boys have been out looking for the Count, and--amazingly--not finding him. Instead they have just managed to "count" (ha!) the boxes of earth in the chapel, and play with some schnauzers. From Jonathan's journal:

I came tiptoe into our own room, and found Mina asleep, breathing so softly that I had to put my ear down to hear it. She looks paler than usual. I hope the meeting tonight has not upset her. I am truly thankful that she is to be left out of our future work, and even of our deliberations. It is too great a strain for a woman to bear. I did not think so at first, but I know better now. Therefore I am glad that it is settled. There may be things which would frighten her to hear, and yet to conceal them from her might be worse than to tell her if once she suspected that there was any concealment. Henceforth our work is to be a sealed book to her, till at least such time as we can tell her that all is finished, and the earth free from a monster of the nether world. I daresay it will be difficult to begin to keep silence after such confidence as ours, but I must be resolute, and tomorrow I shall keep dark over tonight's doings, and shall refuse to speak of anything that has happened. I rest on the sofa, so as not to disturb her. (Emphasis added, because Jonathan is too dumb to see it.)

Two things. Thing One: after all the vampire-induced horrors that everyone, including Jonathan, has been through, he still misinterprets Mina's pallor as nothing more than womanly nerves--even though Mina has proven time and again she is not subject to womanly nerves. Jonathan is. Which leads us to Thing Two: IF Jonathan had given Mina her due and let her come out with the boys to look for Dracula, she would not have been left alone to be fed on by same.

Overtly, Stoker seems very keen on stifling any hints of feminine strength--bravery, sexuality, taking charge, knowing stuff. Witness Vampire Lucy's punishment when she makes the moves on Arthur. And maybe getting drained by Dracula is Mina's punishment for even vaguely wanting--without forcing the issue in any way, mind you--to be considered an equal. Surely the endpoint is the same: she will need to be rescued and redeemed by men. Still--Stoker seems to be making repeated efforts to reveal Mina's intelligence and strength in contrast to her husband's relative obtuseness and ineffectualness.

If this is the case, and not just me imposing my own beliefs on the story, my question is, does Stoker intend for us to read the story this way? I know, for readers, it ultimately does not matter: we see what we see. But for writers, is it incumbent upon us to recognize our latent intentions and draw them out? Is Stoker's treatment of Mina and Jonathan actually subversive because he did recognize the situation, and decided not to hit is over the head with it? Or do Mina and Jonathan's more nontraditional qualities come across as unintentional?

My Signet Classic version of the novel has an introduction by Leonard Wolf, who asserts that the novel "has embedded in it a very disturbing psychosexual allegory whose meaning I am not sure Stoker entirely understood." If Lucy were the main female character, I would tend to agree. But the dynamic between Mina and Jonathan suggests another level of awareness, if not full consciousness, that men sell women short. In fact, the way Jonathan always has to keep his wife down for her own good makes him a kind of author-insert. Stoker sometimes clumsily reins his female characters in--he may think it's necessary, but he also may suspect it's stupid.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The fear tax

Via The Daily Dish, here's Seth Godin's take on "fear taxes" that we pay in all kinds of ways. For instance, airport security. We pay in time, money, aggravation, and humiliation, to go through it--and we are not reassured. We feel more anxious.

We pay the fear tax every time we spend time or money seeking reassurance. We pay it twice when the act of seeking that reassurance actually makes us more anxious, not less.

Ah, how easily extensible the notion of this tax is. Let's see...how much time every day do I spend seeking reassurance about, say, the political future of this country, on, say the Internet...and feeling more anxious as a result? What are other supposed sources of reassurance that actually--maybe by design--increase our fears?

Should I be worried about this?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Dostoevsky does Dracula?

It is high time we got back to Dracula.

The vampire hunters band together to kill the title character. In her diary, Mina quotes the inspiring botched English of Van Helsing:

How then are we to begin our strike to destroy him? How shall we find his where, and having found it, how can we destroy? My friends, this is much, it is a terrible task that we undertake, and there may be consequence to make the brave shudder. For if we fail in this our fight he must surely win, and then where end we? Life is nothings, I heed him not. But to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him, that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best. To us forever are the gates of heaven shut, for who shall open them to us again? We go on for all time abhorred by all, a blot on the face of God's sunshine, an arrow in the side of Him who died for man. But we are face to face with duty, and in such case must we shrink? For me, I say no, but then I am old, and life, with his sunshine, his fair places, his song of birds, his music and his love, lie far behind. You others are young. Some have seen sorrow, but there are fair days yet in store. What say you?"

Whilst he was speaking, Jonathan had taken my hand. I feared, oh so much, that the appalling nature of our danger was overcoming him when I saw his hand stretch out, but it was life to me to feel its touch, so strong, so self reliant, so resolute. A brave man's hand can speak for itself, it does not even need a woman's love to hear its music.

When the Professor had done speaking my husband looked in my eyes, and I in his, there was no need for speaking between us.

"I answer for Mina and myself," he said.

"Count me in, Professor," said Mr. Quincey Morris, laconically as usual.

"I am with you," said Lord Godalming, "for Lucy's sake, if for no other reason."

Dr. Seward simply nodded.

The Professor stood up and, after laying his golden crucifix on the table, held out his hand on either side. I took his right hand, and Lord Godalming his left, Jonathan held my right with his left and stretched across to Mr. Morris. So as we all took hands our solemn compact was made. I felt my heart icy cold, but it did not even occur to me to draw back. We resumed our places, and Dr. Van Helsing went on with a sort of cheerfulness which showed that the serious work had begun. It was to be taken as gravely, and in as businesslike a way, as any other transaction of life.

This scene is rife with Dostoevskian potential. Because he is not Dostoevsky, nor does he care to be, Stoker breezes through the whole vampire-hunting dilemma in less than a page. Now, if he were Dostoevsky, he--in the guise of someone like Ivan Karamazov--would dwell awhile on the fact that if one is killed by a vampire while trying to rid the world of his evil presence, one gets damned by God for one's trouble. You might think it was the bravest, most selfless act of all to risk not only one's life, but one's immortal soul, to protect others from the same damnation. One might think God would want to offer an extra special reward for such a risk. Apparently not. However, apparently "duty" (as Van Helsing puts it) goes beyond the duty to God--the duty to humankind takes precedence.

Perhaps there's a reason why Stoker blew through all this rather quickly. It's a knotty theological problem. Our heroes have, sort of quietly, renounced God, or at least God's blessings, and we admire them for doing so. It can't have been Stoker's intention to reveal the limits of God's love, to suggest that by making the greatest sacrifice of all, you could end up damned forever. Then again, maybe that is what sacrifice really means--giving up God's love voluntarily for the sake of humanity. Leaping without the net, and never expecting the net to appear. It won't, because you are beyond it.

Or is that wrong? Because you give up God's love when you do bad things, also, so...

Anyway, here's a fun writing challenge. Put Van Helsing (minus the accent, please), or Mina (who would be more interesting)* into a dialog with, say, Jesus. Model it on the Grand Inquisitor, and let it explain the role of the vampire in leading us to or away from God.

*Note that in the scene above, Mina is afraid--not of what Van Helsing is describing, but that Jonathan (I will always think of him as Keanu Reeves) is losing his nerve. The touch of his hand reassures her that he is indeed a brave man. But we don't need that reassurance from Mina; we know she's brave. Stoker then has her clam up like a good wife, and let Jonathan answer for her. Too late: she's gotten out of her cage again.

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Short Fiction Series

I just learned that a selection of my stories will be performed at the New Short Fiction Series sometime in 2011. By "performed" I mean by an actual actor, not by me in my droning, deadpan voice. The series is in LA, so those of you planning to be within a 2,000 mile radius of the area in 2011 should clear your calendars now. I think we'll finalize the actual date this week.

UPDATE: The date is Oct. 9, 2011. The evening is called "What the Witch Wants and Other Stories." So a kinda Halloween theme.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back from vacation, with volcanoes

No, Swerve and Vanish did not vanish. We were on vacation. For the last few days we were at Mt. Lassen National Park, which is extremely beautiful and not crowded and full of fascinating, bizarre, somewhat creepy vistas. Also wildflowers, lots of them this year--probably due to global warming, but that is an old worry.

Because vacation is a time of reflection and renewal, I have discovered something new to worry about. Volcanoes. As it happens, Lassen is still technically an active volcano, and the park is riddled with evidence of past and present vulcanism.* However, Lassen is quite a small potato on the world's volcanic buffet table.

We have been watching How the Earth Was Made, a surprisingly informative documentary series about geology from the History Channel. Well, given that it is the History Channel, they feel obligated to scare the hell out of you at least once an episode, including a description of a gruesome demise that could be yours if you play your cards wrong. So what volcano should you be worrying about? How about Yellowstone? But there's no volcano in Yellowstone, you may say. That's because the whole thing is a volcano, or as they say on the HC, a "supervolcano." Which apparently erupts every 640,000 years. The last eruption was, oh, about 640,000 years ago. And they--i.e. geologists, who all seemed remarkably chipper, considering--are picking up increased signs of an approaching eruption, like rising land and earthquakes. If that thing goes, man, it is not going to be good.

Also Krakatoa has a son, which is ready to blow.

*That word is a keeper, isn't it?