Friday, February 25, 2011

If you go

If you go outside of town to the junkyard on a warm spring day,when everyone else is at work and the ground lies open and bare-brown for acres, and you drive past the washing machines and couches, empty pallets and stare-eyed dolls, past rusting yellow metal contraptions and broken glass shimmering like ice, startling the hulking shapes of vultures, you may find a group of empty oil barrels collected like muttering old men.

And if you dig in your pocket for a five, press it into the glove of the site overseer, and hump the barrel into the back of your car, it will roll around and deposit showers of rust and spider carcasses.

And if at home, you wonder how to get it open, wishing you had a giant can opener, you may instead settle for a cold chisel, sledgehammer, and brute force, and by the end of the afternoon, as winter reclaims the air while the sun sets behind bare trees, you peel the top off the barrel.

Inside it is slimed with oil residue, aromatic and rotten and industrial. The steel smells like ice, like industry, like cooking oil, and you think of clanking machinery. Gouts of black smoke. Mechanical contraptions never seen in our world: strange and ungainly walking machines, ships floated by a thousand balloons.

And always, always you hear the steady footsteps of the man with the bats limping his way through the fallen bricks of the old city.

And you think: there is a story there.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stop saying query

Query the Third lies jumbled at the bottom of a notebook, coiled like a sleeping snake. When the time is right I shall release it to strike!

What surprises me is how similar these all are. That suggests two possibilities:

1) I have Hit The Mark, and now it's just a matter of reworking sentences. Sentences which must be reworked. I need to revise sentences. Certain sentences demand improvement. Fixing sentences. Reworking phrasing. See what I mean?

2) I've deftly avoided an effective query, but can't jump out of the rut because I've gotten used to it. Human beings can adjust to almost anything: this is our salvation and our curse. In this case I worry that I'm so accustomed to this basic query that it's blinding me to possible alternatives.

Meanwhile, winter's bite is gone from the wind and trees are showing their first tentative buds. Spring trickles in and reminds us that the clock of winter ticks away, ticks away, ticks away.

Yet the boat languishes, a victim of cold weather. How can I glue things -- I bleat plaintively -- when it's too cold for the glue to set? How convenient, I answer, that cold weather arrived just when the revision and query process jolts into high gear.

But with winter ticking away I find myself peering into the garage at the skeletal boat. Soon.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Query the Second

The trouble, as you will soon see, is that different versions of the query don't seem all that different at first.

At first.

It's hard to say whether I love the sentences so much I'm loathe to revise them, or whether I'm keeping what works and changing what I can, but probably half of this is similar to the first version.

This one focuses on my the character's emotions and perspective more*. It also shrinks the focus to his immediate motivations ("strike back against the invaders") and avoids highlighting the larger themes of memory, guilt, revenge, etc. This is because in something this short -- 200 words or so -- it's hard to do much more than just list those larger themes. And lists are boring. So this one follows the principle of: "If I can't evoke the emotion in the reader, it comes out."

For three hundred years, the great sailing vessels have called at the port city of Quartermoon Bay. Until one bright morning, when six strange ships arrive carrying not spices, timber or silk but an invading army.

Thirteen-year-old Rigel’s first instinct is to resist. That’s how he’s overcome every other problem, from Da leaving to learning the old fairy tales Grandmother insists are so important. But the soldiers -- some of them children with terrible power -- burn Quartermoon Bay to the ground. They slaughter the weak and the old, and enslave Rigel along with anyone else strong enough to work.

New prisons rise from the ashes of the city, and Rigel’s world shrinks to hard labor, public executions, and whispered escape plans in the dark. As his fellow prisoners succumb to exhaustion and madness, Rigel’s determination withers into despair.

Then he learns Grandmother’s final story: across the mountains, hidden in a sea cave, lies the last Ship of the Light, a half-mythical relic of the old wars. Now he has to do something even harder than fighting: he has to believe. Rigel escapes the work camp, abandons his ruined city and flees into the mountains, chasing the wild hope that he can find the Ship and strike back against the invaders who have destroyed everything -- and everyone -- he’s ever known.

*Yesterday morning I found a way to go deeper. Closer to his emotions. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Query quandary

Okay. How many ways are there to write a query? How wet is the sea?

I've settled -- FOR NOW -- on three. First, from author Jodi Meadows, a technique posted last summer to the Writeoncon site, and reposted on Elana Johnson's blog. Second, the approach which, as far as I know, agent Kristin Nelson developed, focusing on the inciting incident. Which had better be found in your first 50 pages.

And lastly, the hideous and rarely spoken-of Third Method, where I build sentences through sheer force of will and stubbornness. If the first two methods are shiny-faced children performing piano recitals and eating politely, the Third Method is the thing under the stairs that keeps eating cats.

In any case! The result of many hours of brow-furrowing, talking to myself, gesturing at the cats, and consuming Stygian amounts of coffee is that I have three separate queries. All for the same book.

In the coming days I'll post them here. Note that each will have an opening and closing -- these are letters, after all -- but what you see is really the meat of the sandwich. Or the peanut butter and jelly if, like me, you have tasted this food of the gods.

Ready? Here we go. We'll begin today with The Third Method. I should note a strange situation: this query was originally written for a much longer book, which I've since revised, focusing only on the events in the first third. That first section has become the standalone book I am now querying.

Oddly, the original query for the longer book still applies, as it refers to events and situations which still endure in the new book. I myself am often surprised at life's little quirks.

So. Here is the Third Method query: a taste of the world of the book, the character and his conflicts, a few seasoning details, building up to what seems to be an unresolvable situation.

The port city of Quartermoon Bay teems with shipbuilders and captains home from the sea, fishermen and priests and menders of nets. People call fire from the air with a twist of their fingers, and an old woman’s storytelling silences a pub of rowdy sailors.

Thirteen-year-old Riga has never seen much point in the stories Grandmother keeps trying to teach him. Until one bright morning, when six strange ships attack and burn Quartermoon Bay to the ground, slaughtering the weak and the aged, and enslaving the rest. Grandmother has time to whisper one final story to Riga: across the mountains, hidden in a sea cave, lies the last Ship of the Light, a half-mythical relic of the old wars.

Riga escapes, killing two guards and fleeing into the mountains. He’s driven by the wild hope that he can find the Ship and strike back against the invaders who destroyed everything -- and everyone -- he’s ever known. But as he grasps the terrible significance of the ancient stories, and his role in them, he must weigh revenge against survival, and loyalty to his friends against the true burden of carrying the stories of the dead.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Here is what I love about writing

It's better than a movie, watching these ideas -- scenes -- visions -- go flitting past my mind:

A flock of crows explodes like shaken pepper from the stubble of a November cornfield.

A fiery old woman with the map tattooed on her tongue.

Tap, tap, step, step: a tall figure dressed in black and crowned with a well-worn top hat, picking his way through the brick piles of the old part of town. He may wear an eye patch and a monocle. From his moleskin vest hang three small bundles that upon closer inspection prove to be slumbering bats, swinging as he favors his right leg. The left was torn open by a six-inch claw in the old wars no one likes to remember.

Only the very old and the very young show their true expressions; in between we learn to hide what we feel. On the very old the lines on their face are a map of their lives, all the experiences, every pursed lip or guffaw, clenched jaw and knotted brow, all worked into the hanging skin until they look exactly like what they've always felt. Which is why when I realized my son had frown lines at the age of nine, I called the police, my wife, and then the psychiatrist.

Winter seawater smells like salt and iron. Swamps stink of life.

Baby's teeth are the size and shape of sweetcorn kernels. But, thinks the monster, they taste different.

In a small and old town in Europe, the sun sets over a landscape of snow and spires. On the hill leading past the butcher's and the old church, a townhouse leans against its neighbor. The windows are dark, the glass hanging in fangs, but smoke dribbles from the chimney. Inside the floor is too old, the boards spongy and curling up at their edges. Upstairs there is a room where the furniture is covered with sheets turned yellow with age. In this room is a small closet. Inside the closet ...

On and on and on....

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Two steps forward, one step back

At least it's better than "two steps forward, three steps back."

It's occurred to me that writing a query is not unlike kick-stepping up a steep and somewhat loose ramp of snow (which I spent much of last week doing): You plant your foot hard, hoping to pack down the snow for more traction, then lean up and onto it. If you're lucky the snow holds, if not ... it slides and you end up either falling over or crossing your leg behind your other as you half-collapse into a squashed X-shape.

Either way it's a struggle, and the trick is to step up MORE than you slide down. And so as I grind through the caffeine-fueled early morning conversations with myself I call "figuring out the query," it often seems like what I'm doing is trying new things and eliminating options that don't work.

So far I have found many things that do not work.

The scary moments come when the whole slope threatens to slide away and send you snow-gusting and pinwheeling downhill. Moments like the one where I wondered if the reason I was having so much trouble describing the book in a compelling way is that the book isn't that compelling.

Uh-oh! Negativity alert! Stand up, stretch, swing the arms, sip some coffee, and focus. Put away thoughts of turd-polishing and remember what I first loved about this story in the first place.




Two steps forward, one step back.