A Varied Opinion

I had an interesting time at a writer’s conference yesterday.  I went primarily to pitch my novel (actually the trilogy of novels) to a representative of a well-known publishing house in New York.  This makes the third time I’ve pitched this novel to either a publisher or an agent.  I’ve gotten a different response each time.

As a bit of background, my science fiction novel, The Anthanian Imperative–Blue, concerns a group of people from another planet, Anthanos, who come to Earth about 15,000 years ago and look around.  Their planet is about to be destroyed by their sun which soon will undergo a nova blast and wipe out all life there.  Consequently, they have what they feel is an Imperative to find another planet to live on, hence The Anthanian Imperative.  The “Blue” indicates they are looking at Earth as a blue planet.  The next two books in the series are Green and Red.

The pitch went quite well.  I described the novel, touched on the two sequels, and got into a good discussion with her about the details of the story.  Everything went okay until I mentioned that a couple of the people were rescued at the end.  She didn’t like that at all.  Can’t have someone rescued.  “Would have been better,” she said, “if they’d died.”

“They can’t die,” I said.  “They have to live.  For several reasons.  One, and most simply, is to allow the series to continue.  Without those two alive, the series wouldn’t work.”  What I didn’t say, largely because of time, (this was, after all, a ten-minute pitch) was that that scenario was not the novel I wanted to write.  I set out to write a novel of a group of people who come to Earth to explore, but don’t find Earth to their liking.  But even further, her ending would be too predictable, too much expected by a reader.  In fact, it would be too Hollywood.  It wouldn’t work because I deliberately set out to write something different from what we see so much of.  I wanted something that gives the series, not just one novel, a sense of continuity and purpose.  But most importantly, it wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t fit with the development of the plot in rest of the book, a point that is difficult to get across in a ten-minute pitch.  In order to have that type of ending, I’d have to re-write the entire book, and that wouldn’t be what I started out to write at all.  You have to read the book to understand.

Her response differs from the reaction I got from another publisher two years ago, who was simply lukewarm to the book and didn’t say much about the plot line.  He just kind of blew it off without a real comment.

It also differs from the response I got from an agent last year at a different writer’s conference.  She liked the first chapter, but didn’t say much about the ending.  I suspect she was okay with it.  She didn’t like the book itself because she had a hard time dealing with the fact that the characters aren’t really human, even though they embody the best actions and traits of humans.  “Would be too hard to sell,” she said.  Well, that’s her opinion.

In short, I’ve encountered a wide variety of opinions about the book.  I’m going to another writer’s conference soon, and I’ll pitch to another agent and see what she thinks.  Her opinion will most likely be different.  Watch this space for a full report on the results.

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Adverbs Can Work

For those of us who are beginning writers, one of the rules of modern-day writing (as opposed to 19th century writing, for example) that is so frequently beaten into our brains is the concept that adverbs are to be avoided if at all possible.  They rarely work, the writing teachers say, and look down on us who use them.  Generally that’s good advice.  I suggest new writers learn not to use an adverb if something else will work.  But there are occasions where an adverb can work, and work well.  The key to using adverbs is to use them in places where their modifying ability can be put to good use and give more information that couldn’t be added any other way.  Remember, an adverb modifies a verb or an adjective or another adverb.  Don’t use them to modify the word “said” when using “said” as a dialogue attributive.

For example, take the quotation,  “‘I’ve got nothing to say to you,’ Dave said bitterly.”  Here, “bitterly,” an adverb (note the “ly” at the end of the word) is unnecessary, because the context of the quotation gives the reader all the information he or she needs to know about Dave’s mood.  What precedes that line of dialogue may also contribute to the context of Dave’s bitterness, but the reader should get the point without the adverb.  This is one of the most common misuses of adverbs.  The adverb in this example is also an instance of “Show, don’t tell,” where the author is “telling” the reader what Dave’s mood is.  Not good.

But I maintain that adverbs can be used well.  For example, “The woman walked across the street.”  Okay, she walked across the street.  Big fat, hairy deal.  Doesn’t tell you much.  But, add an adverb and it becomes: “The woman walked quickly across the street.”  Better.  From the context of the sentence, it might be obvious why she had to “walk quickly,” but in a situation where the context was minimal or lacking, the sentence at least gives more information.  There’s more action in the sentence.  It’s more visual.  I can visualize the woman walking in my mind’s eye.  It also rules out other possibilities.  She could have walked “slowly,” or “languidly,” or “drunkenly,” or even at her normal rate.  How’s the reader to know?  It’s in this type of situation that adverbs can work.  I certainly wouldn’t want to use adverbs in every sentence, of course not.  But in the right situation, an adverb can be important, and give a reader a better idea of what’s happening.

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The Book Beat

Do you remember the PBS show “Book Beat”?  It was on in the 1970′s, as I recall.  The host of the show was Bob Cromie, who worked for a long time at the Chicago Tribune.  It was one of my favorite book shows.  Come to think of it, what other TV shows about books were there?  “Book Beat” was about the only one.  (Anyone remember any other shows about books?)

The show was a half-hour during which Mr. Cromie talked with, usually, one author about a specific book.  I liked his approach to the discussion, though it’s been so long since I last saw his show, I’ve forgotten many of the details.  Especially with fiction, he’d ask the author how his/her book came to be, how the author wrote (in some detail, as I recall), and then discuss the book in detail.  I suspect it was his interest in getting down to details that I liked.  Did the author write an outline, or plot simply as he went along?  How much detail did he go into in the character’s backstory?  How much research did he do?  And so on and so forth.  It’s always good for an aspiring author to know how other authors work.

It’s unfortunate that TV shows about books aren’t popular any more.  (Nowadays the most popular shows on PBS seem to be cooking shows and shows about wild animals.)  Also it’s kind of unusual, given the tremendous upswing in self-publishing in the past several years.  There are more books out there–taking regular publishing and self-publishing together–than ever before.  You’d think that PBS could come up with a serious show about books, noting the best of the published and self-published.  There are so many to choose from.  However, I do understand that considering how many books get, for example, self-published only in digital format, that could pose a difficult problem in research.  How would you find the best of the best?  After all, someone would have to read all those books to begin with.  But with the radical changes that are taking place in publishing, a TV show highlighting the best of published books could be a popular show.  (Ah, yes, I realize, what do I know?)

Read any good books lately?

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The Overstatement

Fiction is basically an overstatement.  Or perhaps better terms would be exaggeration, or even caricature.  We writers do things in fiction that would be unlikely in real life.  Our characters act in ways that might be unbelievable if they happened in everyday life.  Perhaps I’m stepping a little out of line here, but consider the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370.  Assuming that flight never did disappear, a novel that used that scenario as its plot would be considered highly unlikely.  It just wouldn’t fly.  “Oh, that would never happen,” people would say.  But it did happen, and now it will be treated in the future as another starting point for many other plots that exaggerate the unusual features of the story, such as the fact that no one made any communication with the world outside the plane since the pilot said “Good night,” or the fact that the plane flew for so long before disappearing.  And any new stories based on this basic plot line will henceforth be regarded as unreasonable.  “That would never happen,” they would say.

Fiction can’t be stranger than fact, or it will be considered unreadable.  Fiction has to stay within itself, within unwritten rules of logic and consistency.  But truth and real life can do anything they want.  Airplanes disappearing off the face of the earth are perfectly okay in real life.  (It actually has happened before.)

I’ve been aware of this rule for a long time, and can’t even say when I first learned of it.  But I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when I re-saw the movie “Thelma and Louise” on TV.  (One of my favorite movies, see my list on this blog site.)  At the beginning of the movie, the character of Thelma (played by Geena Davis) is afraid of guns, yet brings a loaded pistol on her weekend vacation with friend Louise (played by Susan Sarandon).  That always seemed to me to be unlikely.  Nothing at the beginning of the movie indicated that their short vacation would be dangerous, but Thelma brings along a gun which she’s afraid of anyway.  She gives it to Louise.

There was, of course, a good reason for the gun.  It gets both of them in serious trouble.  Not unlikely under the circumstances in the movie.  (Louise shoots a man raping Thelma.)  Then the two become fugitives and the chase is on.  All because of the gun.

But what seems to me even more unrealistic is the fact that Thelma, initially afraid of guns and won’t have anything to do with them, makes a complete turnaround over the space of about two days, and not only likes the gun and embraces it, but actually uses it to rob a convenience store.  Then she and Louise shoot up a tanker truck.  So absolutely fantastic.  Not likely to happen in real life.

But it works.  Thelma’s change, almost forced on her by circumstances, makes sense.  It does not seem artificial or contrived.  The chances of that happening in real life are extremely small, but in the story, it’s not.  She does it and goes to her death off that cliff in the Grand Canyon as a woman changed from a brow-beaten housewife to a spunky, self-confident outlaw.  She’s even the one who first makes the suggestion that they drive over the cliff!  It’s Thelma’s movie, and that’s why she’s given top billing.

But in real-life?  I can’t imagine it.  How about you?

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One Space Or Two?

For several years a debate has raged in writer’s and publisher’s circles about whether there should be one or two spaces after a period between sentences.  How do you stand?

I like two spaces.  I learned to use two spaces back when I took typing in high school.  That was a long time ago (never mind how long.)  Back then, when typewriters wrote in proportional spacing only and every letter had the same amount of space, the rule was to always use two spaces between words.  I suppose this developed because there was a lot of white between letters, especially the really thin letters “i” and “j”, and the second space was seen as a way to more strongly identify a break between sentences (the presence of the period notwithstanding).  So I followed the rule and dutifully learned to click the space bar twice with my right thumb after every period.  There, I did it again.  It’s become so ingrained in my typing skills that I don’t think about it anymore, and haven’t for many, many years.

But with the advent of non-proportional fonts in computer-aided writing, such as the ever popular Times New Roman, where “i” and “j” get only the space they need, the amount of white space within a sentence has diminished.  Now some are calling for the elimination of the second space between sentences.  Makes it look better, they say.  We don’t need it anymore.

I say no.  I still click the space bar twice between sentences for several reasons.  First, and certainly the weakest point in my argument, I’ve become accustomed to two spaces because I’ve used it for so long.  If one space becomes an absolute requirement that all publishers and editors insist on and won’t even look at a manuscript with two spaces, I’m sure I could retrain myself to click only once.  That wouldn’t be a problem.  But secondly, and more to the point, I feel the presence of two spaces accents the separation of sentences better than just the period with one space.  To put it simply, it looks better.  It sets each sentence off by the spacing rather than by the period alone.  We still need the period, but the spacing helps.  It also helps in scanning a manuscript for a particular sentence.

Third, some have argued that when a book or article is published, only one space is used in print media, and we should follow their lead and submit manuscripts conforming to that rule.  I believe the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Handbook both recommend only one space.  That may be true, but when we writers submit a manuscript, that manuscript is judged largely on the basis of the writing, not on format.  The manuscript is not published in manuscript form.  The publisher makes the decision as to what font to use, what spacing, punctuation, spelling, grammar, and all the other details of format.  What difference does it make if there are one or two spaces between sentences in the manuscript?  The publisher will do it his way anyway, and the final result probably won’t resemble the manuscript at all.  I find it highly unlikely that a publisher or editor or agent would send a manuscript back solely because the author added a second space between sentences.  That’s never happened to me.  (Yeah, I know, it might.)

So, I will continue to put two spaces after a period until, well, until that requirement becomes a law.

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Over The Top

I’ve read a few science-fiction books in the past several years, many of which I’ve enjoyed, and a few of which I haven’t.  One of the most common things about a book, especially a new one, is the blurbs that appear on the back cover, as a way of selling the book.  These blurbs may also appear in catalogs of books, again as a selling point.  The blurbs are short quotes from reviewers, either paid or unpaid, posted in print or online journals.  They’re used by authors or publishers to try to drum up support for the book by giving the reader a taste of what a professional author/reviewer/whatever has to say about it.  Presumably the casual buyer, scanning the books in a bookstore or supermarket or airport shop, will read these quotes and decide to buy the book. Why?  Because someone said it was good or great or astonishing or fantastic, or some other superlative.  Personally, I don’t think they work very well.

The reason I don’t think they work well is two-fold.  First, I don’t pay much attention to them.  I’ve never bought a book based on a blurb on the jacket or in a catalog.  In fact, I rarely even read them.  I buy based largely on the first chapter.  Some people may decide to buy a book based on the blurbs, but if I’m one who doesn’t, there may be others who don’t either.  Second, I wonder about the blurbs themselves.  Some are so far over the top I find myself questioning what the reviewer was thinking when he/she wrote it.  Either they’re exaggerating, or they’ve been off the planet for a while.  Here’s a few examples.

“The best book I’ve read in ages.”  (Ages?)
“The world-building is incomparable.”
“The zombie novel Robert A. Heinlein might have written.”  (How would the reviewer know that?)
“The most original fantasy since The Lord of the Rings.”  (Yeah, right.)
“This book is definitely your new crack….”  (That’s hitting below the belt.)
“…will keep the reader impatiently waiting for the next book.”
“I don’t think a books [sic] like this come along more than a few times in a lifetime.”

Part of the problem with these blurbs is that they reflect only the opinion of the reviewer.  Another reviewer might feel considerably different.  So, I really wonder why the exaggeration.  Do the reviewers really feel that way?  It’s rather puzzling.  In any event, I’m not sure I want overstatement and hyperbole like that on my book.  (When I get my book(s) published, that is.)  Personally, I think I’d rather have an honest assessment of the book by an honest reviewer.  Let the reader make up his/her own mind.

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The Orphan Planet

Several months ago I read a story, probably on the Yahoo news, about a planet that doesn’t orbit any sun.  It’s just out there, moving through the darkness of outer space all by itself.  They’ve termed it an “orphan” planet.  That’s a good term.  It must be lonely out there.  No sun, no light whatsoever, except from the stars, and that’s not much.  No radiation striking its surface to power the development of life forms.  No one seemed to know where it came from, or where it’s going.  It’s just an orphan, doomed by fate and the fickle bonds of gravity to explore the galaxy all by itself.  The philosophical implications are considerable.

It had to come from somewhere, though.  Almost certainly it was born circling a star.  It probably condensed out of the dust and gas that surrounds new stars as they themselves are born.  But somehow it got ejected from an orbit around the star and was thrown into the void to wander around, a menace to celestial navigation.  At least by those civilizations capable of navigating the galaxy.  Star Trek anyone?

There is a theory among some astronomers that our solar system originally had three large gas giant planets approximately the size of Jupiter and Saturn, and the third one, in the early stages of the solar system, got ejected in a sort of planetary power struggle and is no longer with us.  The theory says that Jupiter and Saturn were opposite in position from where they are now, that is, Saturn was closer to the sun.  But in the re-alignment of the planets as the solar system matured, and as Saturn and Jupiter switched places, the third gas giant was kicked out.  Whether or not the planet that was spotted by astronomers is that planet I can’t say.  Probably not.  There may be many such “orphan” or “rogue” planets out there.  If we, in our infant ability to spot extrasolar planets, can spot one orphan, that suggests many more may exist.

As for life on that planet, it’s doubtful.  That planet must be awfully cold.  It may have a hot interior, as Jupiter does, but its surface may be frigid.  I find myself wondering if it, or another one like it, might find its way into our solar system and collide with a planet of ours.  Even Earth.  That would make an interesting science-fiction story.  We could see it coming long before it collided with us.  There would be a tremendous scramble to leave Earth in whatever type of spacecraft we could find or make.  If we had explorers on Mars (to postulate one scenario) they might be forced to watch as the two planets collided and their home destroyed in a huge explosion.  No more supplies from Earth, folks, you’re on your own.  A huge planet two or three times the size of Jupiter would probably engulf the Earth and continue on its way without much visible change.  Perhaps it might even go into orbit around the sun in a sort of astronomical game of bait and switch.  Perhaps I should say, “engulf and switch.”

On the other hand, suppose the orphan planet is a hard, rocky planet, the size of Uranus or Neptune.  The surface might also be cold, but perhaps an intelligent civilization could have survived by living deep below the surface.  They could gain heat from the interior and make electricity to power all sorts of gadgets, including life support systems.  An interesting possibility.  Maybe I’ll do something with that story line in the near future.  Before it collides with Earth.

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