Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Books: Giants in the Earth

Inspired by my good friend Nate, I'm planning on blogging more about what I'm reading. Kicking that off is a book that I read earlier in the year, meant to write about, but didn't actually get to at the time. Better late than never!

The book is Giants in the Earth, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag. Nate recommend it, and given how highly he spoke of it, I couldn't refuse. It falls well outside my normal reading, and that made it even more fascinating and unique. Written in the early 20th century in a dialect of Norwegian, even the translation is clearly a work from another time and culture. For the first couple pages the wording and pace seemed odd, but after a while the rhythm gained familiarity. In the end, it became an integral part of the story, evoking the setting and pace of life in ways that more modern structure and syntax wouldn't have.

Giants in the Earth tells the story of Norwegian settlers coming to the Dakota prairie. It follows one particular settlement, and focuses mostly on a single family--Per Hansa, his wife Beret, and their children. It goes into great detail about the day to day struggles they faced just living on the plains of Dakota. Normally, I wouldn't associate this with an exciting read. However, the book manages to bring alive the toils of simple survival in those times. It taps into something primal, and suddenly how they constructed shelter, how they sowed crops, how they fought against the elements becomes vitally important and engaging.

Beyond that, the story also had a surprising darkness. Often we get a picture of the hardy American pioneers suffering through adversity with a moral fortitude that isn't realistic. It simply isn't human to be in the type of pain and difficulty those people endured and not at least wonder whether you made the right choice, worry for your life, or wish you could be somewhere else. Giants in the Earth portrays that vividly. Here's a pioneer story fraught with depression, home-sickness, fear, even thoughts of suicide and murder. I'm a sucker for a grim book, and this worked powerfully to transform how I think about those people who headed out west into danger.

And the ending... wow. No spoilers, but suffice to say, you ought to read this book.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Polish, polish, polish

With partials in the mail, it's time for my "final" pass through my novel, Dreams of a Shaper. You'll note the quotes around final, and they're there for a good reason--I don't actually think I'm done. On that happy day when I get an agent and/or publisher, I expect more work for certain.

However, here final means I'm closing on the limits of what I can see to do myself. I'm finding typos, hastily disposing of unnecessary adverbs, and fixing occasional clunky sentences (often the result of prior editing), but by and large the pages say pretty much what I meant them to. I'm not a writer drawn to the eternal revising some find so attractive. I've already spent seven years with this book. Frankly, that's too long and I'm ready for something different.

But before I can wholeheartedly move to the next project, this last polish has to be done. I've got to look at it again, because the next person to see it after that will be an agent or publisher who's requested a full.

How do you finish off a long project? Are there any tricks you use to finally set it aside, or are you already prepared to move on once the first draft is in the bag?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Oh, the questions they ask

An interesting part of the pitching experience that, in retrospect, should have been ultra-obvious was the question I might get asked. I didn't consider it much before-hand--combination of nerves and other fish to fry, such as nailing down the essence of my story.

But questions were asked. Some I fared all right with, others I muddled through. This is clearly not the list to end all lists, but here's what I was asked:

Stand-alone vs. series--This fell into the easy-to-answer category, and is particularly relevant to sff where long epic sagas proliferate--especially unpublished, long, epic sagas. My answer seemed to be what they wanted to hear: stand-alone, with potential sequels. Although a series can get sold, it means convincing someone to fork over for not one book, but three (and I hope it's only three for your sake). Better to hit them hard and leave them wanting the next installment.

What books would you compare it to?--This one nailed me. I've thought about it before, but never come up with a compelling answer that I feel captures the style and world of my book. It wasn't a deal-breaker, but I sure didn't feel sharp scraping my brain on a moment's notice for something intelligent to compare it to.

Earth-based vs space-based?--This actually highlighted in my first pitch that my setting wasn't crystal clear. Especially if you are working in an alternate universe, grounding is important. I filled in at the time and made more direct references to locations in the later pitches. I definitely recommend listening carefully to what's being asked, though, to see if it signals something you should have given in the main pitch.

What's the ending?--I actually had some preparation on this one since my pitch leaves it hanging. No one asked directly, but my friend Heather has been asked it in pitching before. I'm glad I'd considered how to succinctly answer that because otherwise it would have been easy to blather.

Where can we back up the truck-loads of money?--Haha, just kidding. Certainly didn't get asked that... at least not this time around :)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ship it

So I've just posted my big high-level recap of pitching at the Willamette Writers Conference. While I finished up editing that, I actually got to the (short-term) finish line, and the partials are in the mail--two hard-copy, one electronic.

Now for that most dreaded of all games... the waiting game. Actually, it takes a lot of the pressure off. I have a bit of final polishing planned for the rest of the book, but otherwise I'm not going to be fretting too much more over it (until such time as someone else points out something to fret about).

Soon I'll start gathering other agents to query, but first there's a pile of closet doors I've been putting off painting the whole summer. They're calling my name, I can hear them.

The Main Event -- Willamette Writers Conference 2007

I know, it's been a week since the big conference, and the blog has been eerily silent. Well, rest assured this is a good thing. The silence comes from my feverish work in almost every spare moment (apart from a little Wii boxing for tension relief, and quality time with Amber) revising my synopsis and first fifty pages.

Yes, my pitching at the conference resulted in partial requests from each agent/editor. I'm not naming names, but suffice to say that most of the pitches were an enjoyable, if slightly nerve-wracking experience.

A couple things I learned:
  • If possible, don't take your notes. I knew the material well enough to not bring the notes, and oddly it helped me be more at ease, more conversational. No notecard in hand, less to fidget with.
  • Interacting with the "pitchee" is the whole point--if you're just going to give a stilted summary, why not just send a letter? The personal (if short) conversations after one pitch was actually the highlight of the conference for me.
  • Ask questions. Be prepared with specific questions for each agent or editor. I wasn't ready enough on this count, although I pulled a few interesting questions out at the last moment.
  • Ask more questions! I asked for clarification on a few points about what they were requesting, and I'm glad they did. One editor asked for three chapters, then said, "But we really mean about fifty pages." I mentioned this to the next agent who also asked for three chapters, and he said, "No, we just want three actual chapters." If I hadn't asked, I might have cut one short or flooded the other with almost twice what they'd really wanted.
  • Enjoy the experience. This was a unique and exciting time--I'd never had a novel ready to sell before, never met people in the industry, never had trotted my tale out to people who could actually get it published. It's easy to lose sight of this in all the worry and nerves, but as my wife kept reminding me, keep perspective on what this is--a great chance to sell face to face that you won't have too often.
  • Materials--although you probably won't have to hand out copies during the pitch, have the following together:
    • Query Letter--better now than when you're pressed to put a cover letter on your partial.
    • Synopsis--I got requests for a shorter synopsis, about two pages. Thankfully, I'd already drafted one that could be pared down, or I would have been even more slammed this week.
    • 50 pages--like I said, I got requests for three chapter (~30 pages for me), and for 50-75 pages. Glad I had 50 together already.
The pitches were the highlight for me, but there were also some good sessions. I especially enjoyed Larry Brooks with his "Voice" and "Breaking in/Breaking Out" talks. Great information, and he's a really engaging speaker. Also, Liz Gorinsky doled out some excellent sci-fi specifics, along with links to some fantastic web resources.

All in all, I'm glad I went. Now to get those partials in the mail!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pitch It!

So tomorrow is the day I've been preparing for most of this year--the Willamette Writers' Conference begins! While I'm looking forward to the sessions and meeting with other writers, this year's focus for me is the pitching.

There are three agents and one editor at the conference who deal with sci-fi, so I'll be presenting my fresh and clean, nifty smelling novel to all four of them. This is an entirely new experience for me; I've sent stories and queries out a few times in the past with material I now realize wasn't really there, but I've never pitched in person before.

I've done a lot of reading on different agent blogs, and gotten plenty of good advice. One of the biggest themes is keeping it somewhat casual and conversational. If you're just going to show up and read a scripted synopsis, why are you doing it in person?

The carefully crafted script was where I started off, branching from a hook I wrote for Miss Snark's crapometer last year. It was a decent place to begin for me, since it helped me to really nail down the flow and what elements were at the core of the story. But when I came to actually giving the "pitch" verbally to my wife, Amber, it fell utterly flat. It was almost painful to see how all those beautiful words I'd agonized over just didn't work when they came out of my mouth.

Amber's suggestion was to take that and turn it into a set of bullet points. It wasn't too hard to carve it down to a first draft of those essentials since I'd been thinking about this for quite a while already. Then I ran off that and just talked. I won't claim that it was an immediate success--it's taken a week worth of practice, revising the bullets, reordering, pitching to people who haven't read the story to find any incomprehensible gaps. But now I'm actually feeling pretty good. At first, everyone I pitched to had lots of things to suggest. The last few, though, that's been trailing off.

Nerves will play a big part when it comes down to the actual event, but I'm as ready as I know how to be. Bring it on!