Thursday, November 25, 2010

QUERY HELL

Queries are difficult. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a marketing genius or has never done it before. For me, it's even harder because I have a natural aversion to anything "business-like."

Ever since I was a child, I've always loved writing stories and being creative with my words. My teachers fell short of calling me a liar because I loved telling tales and embellishing my stories. Whenever my teachers asked us to write "fiction" (usually short stories in less than 500 words), I was so excited. I loved creating characters and thinking of twists, etc. I guess that was when I first realized I wanted to be a fiction writer, although I didn't know such a thing existed back then.

But when it comes to "formal writing" (letters, proposals, memos, etc.) I sucked. My stories would get A's, but my letters and memos would get C's, and I hated writing them.

Writing queries brings back all those bad memories. The idea of trying to sell a 120,000-word novel in less than 200 words is mind-boggling to me. How can I effectively convey the concept of the idea, develop the characters, and make it "sizzle" all in 200 words (this post, for example, is already longer than 200 words, and I'm not even done yet).

After drafting 12 versions of my query letter, I was still reluctant to workshop it because I truly believed it sucked. I sucked. I have nightmares and cold sweat just thinking about it. But I decided to put my fear aside and workshop it anyway, and my fear was confirmed: While it was a "decent" query -- competent and grammatically correct -- it had no X-factor. It didn't wow anyone. The best comments I got were along the line of "I like it" or "the story sounds fantastic, if only you can really convey it effectively."

I was pleased in that most people who gave me advice said the story did sound interesting. So at least it's not a dud. Now, how would I make it sizzle? I had no idea. I workshopped it for about two weeks and got increasingly frustrated, not because I thought my critics were crazy and unkind, but because I understood what they were getting at, but I couldn't see a way to do it. It was like seeing a mirage in the desert: I know it exists, but I don't know where it is and how to get there.

Then a fellow critter, Jim, who can be abrasive at times but also straightforward without any bullshit -- and I admire that kind of brutal honesty -- engaged in a lively debate with me. True to form, I started arguing because a) I was frustrated with myself for not getting it, and b) I wasn't exactly sure what he meant. I was trying to reconcile what I knew with what I needed to do.

And then something clicked.

It was this opening line of my query:  "My father spent four years in a labor camp during the Pacific War."

By itself, it says everything I NEEDED to say, but it was flat and uninteresting. It sounded like something an indifferent intern would write just to meet a deadline. However, I was intent to make this my opening line because my dad's personal experience really was the inspiration of my story and I wanted to make this personal and unique. Then Jim said, "Why not make it dramatic and personal?" and he offered two suggestions:  "I remember the pain in my father's voice when he told his story" and "My father weighed 85 pounds..."

At first, I rejected both suggestions. I thought the first one was cheesy, and the second seemed overly dramatic. And since this story isn't my dad's biography, I wondered how relevant it was anyway.

Then something really clicked.

Show vs. tell.

I've always advised other writers to show, instead of tell, when they write their stories, because "show" is more exciting and immediate and personal than some narrator "telling" us how to think or feel.

So why shouldn't a query be the same? Why am I telling you who the character is and how he/she feels and what is happening, if I can show you? And that's what the line "my father weighed less than 90 pounds" is -- show vs. tell. Instead of saying my father survived the camp, the visual of him weighing 90 pounds is so much more powerful and evocative.

EVOCATIVE.

And from there, I crafted another, almost completely different, version of the query. Suddenly, it has life. It has pizzazz. Most important, it has my voice, because that's what I do best: storytelling by "showing."  I found myself using vivid imaginaries and strong verbs instead of vague descriptors. I found myself using visuals and facts to convey ideas. Instead of saying "he survived," I was showing it. And that tactic made a world of difference.  From the tepid line "My father spent four years in a labor camp during the Pacific War" came this opening:


My father once said, "What doesn't kill you only makes you a guilty man." He weighted less than ninety pounds after four years in a labor camp during the Pacific War, and he believed he should have been the one who died.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fall 2010

Fall of 2010 turned out to be a really good period in my professional life. I really can't complain, even though sometimes my funks got in the way (you know, the usual "everything I do is shit" or "nobody likes me").

I've had four acting/modeling gigs since October. Not only they were great for my wallet, they were also great exposure as the products start to show up. For example, the medical commercial I did in October is starting to get me noticed (because, truthfully, I really do look like a doctor -- Grey's Anatomy, when are you folks going to call?) And now I'm in LA shooting a movie with Tyrone Power Jr. It's been really fun.

On the writing side, I finished the first draft of my novel in September and did four drafts since then. I also got my query in a good shape. I feel so much better now, about this whole process. I only need to hear back from my betas and finish with my "final" draft, and then I'll be off with the chase.

So, in general, I feel okay about these past few months. I've had my ups and downs, and serious self-doubts. I've had days when I felt like everything was crap. But over all, I feel good about things. And I'm ready to take on the world.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What If I'm Not Good Enough?

One of the questions we always ask ourselves, no matter what we do, is: What if we're not good enough?  What if we make mistakes?

I like this quote from DangerousBill on AbsoluteWrite:


When my students were about to deliver a paper to a large audience, I'd pump them by telling them that their audience wanted them to succeed, that they didn't travel all that way to look for mistakes and make fun of the speakers. I said if they slipped up, they should ignore it and just keep going, because the audience would forget the mistake and remember the good parts.

That's one of the lessons I learned as an actor. Actors goof all the time, but a skilled actor would make it look flawless and effortless, and the audience never need to know. I was in a play once and, one night, the main actress forgot a line -- an important line at that. All of us backstage gasped. "Oh no!" Fortunately, the actor playing against her continued and found a way to work that line back in. They didn't skip one beat, and continued to look professional and in character. The audience didn't suspect a thing.

So, what is the moral of that anecdote?

It takes skills and experience to look perfect. These actors couldn't have done that if they never failed, miserably, before. Also, they need good partners.

Failure isn't something to fear, if you can learn something from it. And find yourself a good writer partner/beta.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

DELETE DELETE DELETE

The "DELETE" button is probably one of the most used and most feared on a modern-day computer keyboard. Especially for writers.

For me, it's liberating. Did I tell you I already deleted over 15,000 words from my WIP (don't worry, they're in a file, so I can always put them back)?  That was soul-cleansing. Not that those words weren't good, or they didn't have a plot, etc. It's just that I needed to bring the word count to something more palatable. I can always "suggest" putting those words back in when I get an agent. Right now, I need the manuscript to be in the best form.

And yesterday, I deleted a scene from Chapter 1. I should have done that months ago. I never liked that scene, but felt it had to be there to move the plot along. Yesterday, however, I started to think: What if the scene really is gone? I selected the text, and hit DELETE. Gone (at least until I saved). And I read the chapter again and realized nothing was amiss. The readers are smart enough to understand. There was nothing in that scene that needed to be explained, except some characterization and introduction of a character. I could easily add one line later to explain. Or not. In fact, without that scene, the tension is tauter, since we don't know what's going on from that character's point of view, although we know something bad has happened.

Isn't that neat? I've been afraid to cut that scene for months, even though I always hated it. So why was I so afraid? After all, I could easily add the scene back if necessary. With computers, we can do so much magic with our documents. Move, cut, trim, replace... all with a few keystrokes. And then there's the UNDO button. So why are we so afraid to experiment? Can you imagine the days when writers like Stephen King had to be perfect while writing with their typewriters?

Unfathomable!

Monday, November 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo

I've been coerced, bribed, threatened, suckered... into participating in NaNoWriMo this year. For those who are not familiar with it: Every november, a bunch of crazy writers get together (virtually, of course -- there isn't a place crazy big enough to house them all) and write every day, for the whole month. The goal is to write at least 50,000 words in 30 days -- that comes to 1667 words a day.

Doesn't sound that bad, does it? Until you consider that's EVERY DAY for 30 days. I'd be lucky to write 50,000 original words on a novel in an entire year. So this is something new for me. Basically, I have to do a few things and make a few adjustments:

- completely turn off my inner editor - yeah, damn you!
- completely unleash my muse
- keep a tight writing schedule (good luck, pal)
- either write with a detailed outline, or completely at the seat of my pants and see what turns out (guess which approach I'm taking?)

Whether I succeed or not, I think it's a good exercise to do something different, and to change how I normally write. A) I'm a horrible perfectionist and my inner editor just won't leave; B) my muse comes and goes as she pleases; and C) I'm lazy and spontaneous and I hardly keep a strict schedule. It's gonna be REALLY interesting.

The problem is, I can't write every day, even if I try to. I already know I'll have problems keeping up with the daily schedule. I have two other projects (acting related) schedule for November. Then there's Thanksgiving and spending time with my family. Plus a few sick days here and there. So I'm trying to write as much as possible on a "good day."

Then again, whether I succeed or not, I think it's a good thing. I've been thinking of participating for a few years now, but it never worked out. This year, the timing is just write. I just finished my WIP, which is waiting on betas' feedback. And I'm itching to start on a new novel. I have no excuse, but much to gain. If nothing else, NaNo is going to give me a head start.