Of Hooks and Snarking

Miss Snark has been running a marathon Crapometer recently, this time dubbed the “Happy Hooker Crapometer.” No, it’s not for that type of fiction. The entry rules were to send a hook, not a full query letter, just the 250 words that would make an agent want to read your story. Miss Snark would read all of the submitted hooks (hence the marathon part, since she got almost 700 entries) and those that hooked her could send an additional first page for critique. Since I’m nearing completion of my novel, and this year hope to start submitting to agents, I decided this would be a great exercise.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that writing a good hook is hard. Incredibly hard. I have never slaved over three paragraphs so much. I went through dozens of variations, at least four or five major versions that I’d put significant time into before I reached anything even vaguely respectable. I guess it’s a good sign in some ways–I mean, if summing up your 70,000 novel in less than 250 words is easy, either you’re a genius or you’ve got a mind-numbingly simple novel. 250 words is not a lot of space, and there’s this insane desire to cram everything in that you like about the book (and it’s your book, so you probably like tons of things about it that don’t belong in that hook).

Suffice to say, Miss Snark’s was not impressed. No, I’m not going to point it out–public critique is one thing, reveling in it another entirely. As painful as it was to see my carefully crafted words torn to pieces, it’s a huge help.

While writing the description of your book in only 250 words is hard, the toughest part is determining what’s important enough to serve as the focal point. In my hook, I missed giving a clear picture of the antagonist and the main character’s motivation. These needed to be the core, but instead I focused on world-building, thinking that was the essence of my story. While portraying the world is important, it isn’t enough (and from the other comments, it’s pretty plain that my work setting that up wasn’t clear enough either.)

Not a fun time, but I’m glad anyway. Why? Because I get to hear what an agent might have thought receiving this hook in the mail a few months down the line. Rather than conveying back to me how I missed the essential motivation of the story, they would have sent a “not right for us at this time” letter, and I’d be left wondering why. The Crapometer has given me the chance to glimpse that reaction, and do something about it.

Miss Snark has started reading entries that passed the hook phase. Should be good reading, and although I didn’t make the cut I’m sure I’ll continue to learn from her snarky advice.

Long time…

Hard to believe that I haven’t posted since September. However, the time of blog silence has ended (for the moment at least) and the quiet period has been put to good use.

Over the past few months, I finally reached the point in my rewrite where the balance has shifted from lots of editing with some new writing, to entirely new writing. It’s an odd feeling to dive back into new composition after long months with the red pen in hand. At times it has been a little awkward. I’ve gotten a lot better at editing in short bursts as time allows, but crafting new material requires more attention than that. It’s invigorating too, though, to scribble on pure white pages and spin out the story I meant to tell in the first place.

The first block of 50 pages has migrated from the handwritten page to the computer, and made it through critique group. It has confirmed that I’ve banished the most persistent issues that plagued the last half of the book and forced the rewrite–lack of adequate motivation for the choices the characters make, and the drifting, travelogue feel I was so enamored with during the first draft (what was I thinking?)

With that block finished off, I’ll be drafting to the end now before stepping back to edit again. I’d originally hoped for a New Years finish, but with that out of the question, I feel comfortable that it’ll get on the page by sometime next month.

Other writing news to come, along with a review of one of my favorite series by Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun.

Deleted Scenes

I remember with the advent of DVD’s how exciting it was to get special features along with your movie. In the world of VHS or the theater, you never had the chance to get all that juicy information, to see what happened behind the scenes on set, to hear the creators talk about their work. Back then, the top of the heap for me, though, was delete scenes, those snippets of the movie that never actually made it to air. Whenever I watched a movie on DVD, I would religiously work my way through the delete scenes.

Over time, though, a strange thing happened. Although I still watched the delete scenes, I found myself becoming less and less interested in them. At first I thought maybe it was the lack of post-production–no music, grainy pictures sometimes, little editing. But that didn’t explain why these extras, these tidbits I had always looked forward to were leaving me less than fulfilled

The reason came clear to me just a couple weeks ago, though. The answer stems from a recent trend in my thoughts about writing. I’ve been working on determining what the core of my novel is, paring down what I’ve written so that everything on the page supports and builds on that central arc. In the process I’ve dumped probably 200 pages worth of material as either unnecessary or so far off the mark that it’s easier to rewrite it from scratch than to rehabilitate it in place.

And that’s the problem with the deleted scenes for movies–there’s a reason they ended up being removed from the film. If you listen to the commentary, often it’s because the pacing just wasn’t right, or the information is already conveyed elsewhere, or the scene didn’t quite gel. Like my discarded pages, the filmmaker discovered that these pieces weren’t necessary for the story, so they stripped them out, only to return them to a half-life in the “special” features for the DVD.

A good story stands on its own. No amount of deleted scenes and creator commentary can change that fact.

Miss Snark’s Crapometer

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Miss Snark on this blog yet, but I’ve been faithfully reading her for the past couple months. She’s an anonymous agent in New York, and she fields questions from the world with, well, snark! She’s frequently quite hilarious and always cuts to the meat of what matters in the publishing industry. I’ve learned a ton from just reading her blog posts every day.

Anyway, as great as that is, she also has periodically run what she calls the Crapometer. She accepts submissions of query letter and first page from people, randomly selects from them and reads them like she would the slush pile. The only difference is that she then posts the results online for everyone to read and learn from. It was really quite amazing to read through, and I’m sure that when I’m getting ready to pitch I’ll go back and study in more detail. In any case, the take-aways:

  • That’s Miss Snark. Not Ms, Mrs, or “Dear Agent.” You’ve heard it before, but properly addressing your letter to a person is vital
  • Query letters need to indicate plot. I remember reading that over and over again–“This isn’t a plot, just a bunch of events.” Plot has conflict, a course of action and resolution.
  • Less common, though, plot is also not a complete synopsis. Keep it sharp, keep it short.
  • Only publishing credits count. It doesn’t matter where you live, what your job is (unless it’s pertinent to the story), or how many of your stories you posted online have gotten great comments. If you don’t have publishing credits (like yours truly), just don’t say anything at all.

Hopefully I’ll be able to put these tips into practice in the near future.

Clear sailing ahead

Don’t know if I’ll feel that way in a couple weeks here, but at the moment, the world of writing is full of hope and excitement. I’ve reached the point in my editing where I am leaving the old behind and charting a (mostly) new course to the end of my story. Once more, I’ve got broad spans of blank pages before me, and nothing to do except to fill them up.

Coinciding with that, my wife is helping her parents paint and finish projects around their property, so I’ve had several very quiet days and evenings completely to myself. The writing has gone quite well, and I feel invigorated and ready to keep blazing a trail forward. Having long stretches to come and go at writing has helped matters a lot more than I would have thought. If I’m in the flow of things, then I can keep going for a long time. But if the writing is hard, or there’s a new scene to chart out in my mind, being able to step away for a half-hour, do something different and return when I’m ready has been quite useful.

For the moment I’m simply basking in the joy of creating something anew, making over the old last half of my novel into a better, stronger story that will carry the reader along. Editing, aw, that can wait a couple weeks!

Review: My Name Is Asher Lev

My sister-in-law loaned us My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. It came with several other books, and she didn’t say much about it other than to suggest that we read it. My wife read it first, and I watched her devour it in the course of a couple days. Afterward, she had a sort of shell-shocked look in her eyes as she told me “You have to read this.”

Encouraged by her reaction, I put it on the short-short list (the one with only about a dozen books on it), and finally got around to reading it as I set off on a business trip. The trip back was delayed by several hours, but in light of the book, that couldn’t have been a better thing!

The story chronicles the life of a young artist, Asher Lev, growing up in a Hasidic household in Brooklyn. The atmosphere of Jewish culture is rich and thick throughout the book, lovingly shown in details that help to build up the neighborhood that Asher lives in. The place has a central position both in Asher’s life and the story. However, Asher’s artistic abilities, urges and impulses that he can’t seem to control threaten his place with his people.

The language in the book is fantastic, so sharp and beautiful. Asher’s viewpoint, how he sees the world in lines and shapes, tones and colors is brought vividly to life in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I found myself engulfed in his development as an artist, sucked into a world that isn’t my own.

It’s also a story about family, the ways that we hurt the ones we love most. The characters are so well drawn, they feel like your own family. And as the conclusion draws near and you see the shape of the world that Asher’s choices make, it’s breathtaking to behold. My heart pounded hard in my chest, and my mouth went completely dry as I read the last chapters of this book. I can’t remember the last time that a story has grabbed hold of me as powerfully as this one did.

“Dialog’s easy,” he expounded. “It’s just people talking!”

Dialog seems like it should be the easiest part of fiction writing. After all, people talk all the time. We’re constantly immersed in the speech of other human beings. Duplicating it should be a straight-forward process.

Sadly, the contrary is true. Good dialog takes a tremendous amount of work, and doesn’t bear as much resemblence to the way people actually talk as you might think. Here are some things that I’ve learned about writing dialog. By no means do I claim to have mastered any of these, but they’re mostly points I have on my editing list to keep track of as I’m working.

  • Avoid embelished dialog attribution — As a new writer, it often feels awkward to continually write “he said” or “she said” throughout the dialog. There are so many great synonyms to liven up those little tags with! Quash this urge. Those fancy words you try to slip in instead of “said” (or occasionally “asked”) often detract from the flow, and don’t give it nearly the boost you think you’re adding.
  • Avoid unnecessary dialog attribution — This goes hand and glove with the first point. If it’s clear without attribution who is speaking, drop it all together. This has been recently pointed out in my own work. I’d heard it before, but taking a good hard look at it, I see I’ve slipped too many of those in. Especially in scenes where two people are talking, must of the dialog should carry itself, without much modification.
  • Do include action — It is entirely appropriate, in fact desirable, to mix up your dialog with characters doing things. This is a great way to clarify attribution (if necessary), convey extra information about how the characters are responding to the dialog and move forward the action in a scene. I avoid doing this in each block of dialog, but every couple paragraphs it will often keep things moving along.
  • Tighten, tighten, tighten — Unless you have a character who specifically talks in a more formal manner, your dialog should be tighter than actual speech. When people talk, there are tons of pauses, unnecessary phrases, hmms and haws, stuff that gets really boring to read. I wrote a story in college once where I had lovingly constructed all the dialog to sound incredibly accurate detail. Several classmates pointed out how well I’d done at mimicing people’s speech, but the professor (rightly so) called out how much that accuracy dragged down the pacing. When in doubt, keep dialog short and punchy.
  • Name usage — Another recent find in my writing was the use of first names between characters. I often skirted past overdoing the attribution by having the characters refer to each other by name, “Kyle, we should….”, “Doesn’t that seem dangerous Emily?” Don’t do what I do! Once it was pointed out, I started paying attention to my own speech. It is quite rare that I’ll actually use someone’s name in conversation, except possibly in a greeting.

So there it is, my current recap of my own dialog’s rehabilitation!

Review: The Fionavar Tapestry

I’ve previously reviewed A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, and concluded there that I would be reading more of him in the future. My good friend Tina from critique group loaned me Kay’s trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry and I found it equally as impressive as my first excursion into Kay’s writing.

Probably the thing that impressed me most about this trilogy was its interactions with the typical cliches of fantasy. If I told you I was reading a series with the following elements in it, what pops into your mind:

  • A world, Fionavar, which is the central world in a sprawling multiverse
  • A dark lord, bound for a thousand years after a devastating war that has shaped the world
  • Five people from our world, magically transported to Fionavar, where each is revealed to have special traits for the war against the newly freed dark lord
  • Exiled princes and kings coming home to their thrones
  • Heroes of old reincarnated to fight in this, the most critical of all wars

If you’re reaction to that list is anything like mine would be, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to pick up the series. Each of those ideas has been pounded to death in thousands of D&D-derived, poorly written, door-stop fantasy novels. The list reeks of cliche and shallow stories relying on these concepts to give it any sliver of weight.

And here’s the amazing thing–it worked. I read the series and watched as Kay breathed life into each of these old, worn ideas. Each of the characters from our world had something unique to contribute in Fionavar, but they were fully fleshed-out characters first. Kay worked with all these common ideas, but never once fell back to relying on the idea itself to lend the story power. He made you care about the people, made the world come alive, and it didn’t matter that summarizing the series lends a set of hackneyed tropes overused ever since Tolkien.

I’ve heard it said many times before that as long as you understand a fiction writing rule well enough, you can break it. Writers like Kay and Wolfe (whose duology The Knight and The Wizard struck many of the same chords for me) can take the most cliched idea and make it dance before us. Man, I hope some day I can do that!

Application_Start and ASP.NET identity impersonation

Now if that isn’t a gripping title, I don’t know what is!

Found out an interesting bit of trivia about ASP.NET and its processing life-cycle. The code I was working with has a per-application cache that was being loaded during the first web request that came in. There was an immediate problem with it reloading the cache multiple times under sufficient load, so I just put a locking solution into place to get around the problem. For a longer term fix, I thought the right solution would be moving the cache load from Application_BeginRequest out to Application_Start.

That’s when I ran headlong into the trivia. The system was using ASP.NET’s built in identity impersonation to pass credentials to our SQL Server backend. As soon as a moved the code to Application_Start, though, I got failures to connect to the database because the user wasn’t identified.

A little digging turned up this reference which explained it pretty well. ASP.NET doesn’t start impersonating a Windows identity until after Application_Start has finished. That meant that when my code was running, it was as the local ASPNET identity, which didn’t have the rights to access the database. Given our setup, that wasn’t about to change, so the code remains, healthy and happy in Application_BeginRequest.

Mali Journal

I talked a little about the trip I took recently to Mali in “And now for something completely different.” Finally had a couple people read through, corrected some typos and added a few things, and now it’s ready to go. You can check it out at http://home.comcast.net/~jason.r.clark/mali/mali_journal.doc.

My wife also took a bunch of absolutely wonderful photos, and those are at http://tinyurl.com/ra2nn. (Went with Snapfish because it has unlimited upload, although getting a sharable URL took a step or two–they really want you to ping everyone with an e-mail from their system).