Agent Boot Camp

I pushed the SEND button with my first 10-pages this morning. It’s the second time I’ve done this Writers Digest boot camp. Getting feedback from an industry professional is invaluable and money well-spent.

I anticipate the “I can’t sell this kind of story” comment since the market is flooded with urban/contemporary fantasies. But I believe my story is different and stands apart from the typical fare. Why? Because my story is plot is a treasure hunt, a cross between National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark and Angels and Demons.

I’ll come back and give an update about the feedback I receive. So please stay tuned.


AND THE RESULTS ARE IN:
I received four valuable pieces of feedback from Paula Munier, Senior Literary Agent & Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary.

The First Scene
The first page is confusing. We don’t know where she is–on a plane, at the office, in a meeting, at her house? All of these settings are referenced, but none is established. You need to ground every scene in setting and point of view in the opening lines of the scene.

I cringed when I first read this comment. Why? Because most of my chapters start with setting. I lost my way by focusing on making a thematic statement. My understanding is the opening sentence of a novel should be about your theme. It’s the only time it is explicitly mentioned. The good news is learning that starting chapters with setting is agent-approved. At least for Paula anyway.

This opening is confusing and boring–nothing of importance really happens until the Councillor shows up and even then most of that conversation is just a poor excuse for backstory and info dumping.

Ouch, this one hurt. But after letting it fester for a bit, I better understand the importance of balance. Based on feedback from my critique partners and beta readers, I added more worldbuilding. They told me there wasn’t enough for them to understand the created world. Likewise, I received feedback that the readers didn’t know what was at stake. Why was restoring Absolute Power to the Society so important? Hence, the backstory. While they liked this updated reiteration better, the agent accused me of info dumping (the worst criticism for a writer other than “show, don’t tell”).

After much reflection, I concluded that the balance is subjective. Readers want more whereas agents/publishers want less. While I’m a little unsure about which party gets preference, I like to think there’s a sweet spot where everyone is happy.

You need to cut this scene by at least 50 percent. Focus on the Councillor telling her they need her, her balking because of her parents’ death at the Vice Lord’s hands and the grandfather magick pulling her back in. Then get her on to the mission. THAT’S when the story really begins.

And that’s exactly what I did, but only 30%. Some of the backstory could not be cut because it plays a major role in the story. It isn’t revealed until the end, but it’s an ah-ha moment for the reader. A question raised early on finally gets answered and completes the big picture.

USP
This genre can be a tough sell these days as the market is glutted so a strong USP is very important. USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition. That is, what makes your story unique. What sets your story apart from the others of its ilk? What are your comps? How can you articulate your USP in your pitch? How soon in your story do you make the USP clear in your story?

There it is: the anticipated “I can’t sell this type of story.”

My USP is National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Angels and Demons with magick. Easy enough. What wasn’t easy was integrating it into the story narrative. I managed to get it done in Chapter 1, but it sort of felt like it was author-placed to me.

The good news was the agent thought it sounded a fun project and love it. 

Tired Tropes
Because this is an over-published area, and the tropes are tired, you have to find a way to make your story different, to set it apart from all the other stories like it out there. The sooner you get to the main action, the better. And the sooner you show us how you reinvent those tropes for your story, the better. Especially the magick.

More comments about a tough sell, but the door seems to be cracked if I reinvent the tropes I use. In particular, the magick (my purposeful spelling). Some of my magick is mundane: mind control, telepathic communication, etc. Yet part of it is different, but I’ll keep it under wraps for now.

Line Edit
You could use a good line edit.

  • Fix all typos, misspellings, missing words, grammatical errors, incorrect formatting, etc.
  • Murder all your darlings. This basically means that whenever you come to a sentence that you are inordinately proud of, you need to cut it. Or as Elmore Leonard liked to say, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
  • Go through and eliminate all redundancies, cliches, repetitions, etc. Aim to trim by 20 percent. That will help pick up the pacing.
  • For example, you should rework cliched lines like this one: I huffed a laugh of indignation and rolled my eyes.

I was a little surprised by this feedback. Admittedly, my submission was rougher than I normally present for review. The changes that I mentioned above had been added, but I didn’t get to do the usual 15-20 edits required to meet my own personal standard. So I’m kind of okay with this feedback. Just don’t like to hear it.

I disagree with the typos/misspellings. It’s the easiest part of editing/proofreading, and Word does it for you. Plus my other tools include spellcheck. I rechecked the submission afterwards, but 3 different checks found no typos/misspellings. I’m passing on the comment and moving on.

The cliché part might be a stretch for me because I use cliches in my everyday conversations. I know, but don’t roll your eyes at me. Likewise, I have a penchant for using fragmented sentences. I love the emphasis and tension they add to the narrative. Albeit, I use them judiciously because they break the rules.

The biggest take away (not included in this feedback) was to hire a professional copyeditor to review the first 50 pages. I thought it was a good idea because I have some doubts about some of my grammar usage.

Overall, the agent said my writing was solid and voice was strong. She thought I was a good writer. For me, this is the most valuable feedback.

I revised Chapter 1 accordingly and expected final comments back by July 6.

Inspiration: Story Idea

I recently had a discussion about story ideas with another author. It spurred me to share the inspiration for my work in progress, The Venerable Dawn: Ascension.

In August 2019, I took a writing class after being eliminated from a Corporate America job for the third time in my career. The first homework assignment asked us to browse through Discover Magazine and find an article that captured our imaginations. The piece I found was “They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code and Found a Secret Society Inside.” Two parts grabbed my curiosity.

First, this article told how a linguistic specialist used algorithms to crack the Copiale Cipher. But it wasn’t the use of computer technology that interested me. Instead, it was who created the code, the Oculists, a group of ophthalmologists loosely tied to the Freemasons. Throughout history, freethinkers like these doctors formed secret societies to escape the suppression and persecution of the Church, who deemed such groups as heretical.

I’ve always been fascinated by such well-known groups as the Freemasons, Illuminati, and Rosicrucians. Many people are familiar with the Freemasons from the National Treasure movies and the Illuminati from Angels & Demons. Another clandestine group, Priory of Sion, is featured in The De Vinci Code. Nowadays, there are many collegiate not-so-secret societies. The Ivy League groups such as Yale’s Skull and Bones and the Quill and Dagger at Cornell are some of the most notable. Look them up; they are interesting and fun to see who former members are.

The cracking-the-code part of the article caught my attention because of my interest in armchair treasure hunting. It began in a roundabout way, starting when I discovered that Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass included moves for a chess game in the narrative.

Like most everything with me, this fascination dovetailed into the discovery of two incredible books, Masquerade and The Secret.

Masquerade is a picture book by Kit Williams, published in 1979. It includes clues to the location of a golden hare hidden somewhere in Britain. The answer to the elaborate puzzle is hidden in fifteen illustrations. The whereabouts of the gilded woodland creature remained unknown until 2009.

The Secret is a treasure hunt created by Byron Preiss. The clues were included in the book published in 1982. The quest involves searching for twelve boxes buried at secret locations across the US and Canada. The author would reward the finder with a precious gem in exchange for the chests. Only three of them have been found as of October 2019. Some speculate that the remaining boxes may never be found.

In many ways, geocaching and Pokémon Go are today’s treasure hunts. Fun stuff for kids and adults alike. I mean, what’s not to love about going on a quest to find a cache and reviewing the log for those who came before them? Or capturing virtual creatures in real-world locations?

I’m so pumped simply writing this post. It tells me that I followed the right path of inspiration for my story. Now tell me about your inspiration. Or let me know what you think about secret or not-so-secret societies and treasure hunting.

World History 101

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

I’ve spent the last few days organizing my created world file for The Venerable Dawn: Ascension (working title). This file includes everything from the initial dump of my worldbuilding thoughts to the most recent reiteration of its elements. During the first draft, I layered in bits and pieces of worldbuilding throughout the narrative, and like the story, my world evolved. As I worked on the second draft, I experienced a moment where I felt a few of the pieces weren’t cohesive. The logic didn’t flow in my mind, and I decided I needed to spend some time on my World History 101 textbook.

Speculative fiction is set in a created world. Depending on the genre, these universes can be quite elaborate. Those in science fiction and high fantasy, the most intricate. As a contemporary fantasy, my created world parallels our own universe with a slight deviation. Humans with a genetic variation, a magick gene.

Like their terrestrial peers, college-aged trubreds are required to take two courses of World History as part of their indoctrination. And like other gen ed course requirements, the material becomes vague over the years. Many of us can relate to the mandatory US Government classes in high school and college. We remember the basics, but many of the finer details are lost.

Hence, my late thirty-something main characters are continuously reminded to do their homework to refresh their memories by their mentor. Their destinies depend on it. Not one to follow anyone or anything, my protagonist realizes it’s in her best interest to use the history textbook to help her understand and accept her unwelcome fate. If she has no choice in the matter, she’s determined to be prepared as much as possible. Even if it’s nothing but a bunch of hocus-pocus to her.

Someday, I’ll publish my World History 101 textbook as a companion to the series. The current word count is about 17,000 or 40 pages, with more organizing and editing to be completed. For now, I’ve organized the pieces that caused me to pause, and to my delight, they are cohesive. I just needed a refresher.  Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, chapter four.

Happy New Year!

Earth’s Bounty

One of the most challenging parts of writing The Venerable Dawn: Ascension are composing the magick verses. I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination. Yet the verses are poetic in nature. Recently, I penned my favorite.

As summer sets, Gaia offers her bounty,
Ripe fruit as black as night, sweet as mulberries.
But beware. Like the queen’s apple, eternal rest certain,
Unless tempered by the light of fauna, uniquely singular,
And the milk from the fruit on the pregnant vines.

Tell me what do you think. Yes, no, maybe?



Follow me for more updates about progress of The Venerable Dawn.

Book Research: The Sphinx and The Art of Seduction

Research for my most recent submission to my critique group included the Sphinx and the art of seduction. Let’s talk about the Sphinx first and save salacious discussion for later.

THE SPHINX
First, the correct spelling of the monolith standing guard over the Great Pyramids of Giza is S-P-H-I-N-X. Someone who shall not be named kept spelling it “sphynx” which is not the same as the Sphinx. A sphynx is a hairless cat. The Sphinx in Egypt is a mythical creature with the head of a human and a lion’s body.

The internet is full of information about the Sphinx, but I was more interested the monument’s little-known facts. Some of its secrets and mysteries. The first is the underground tunnels and chambers. They can be accessed at five points: a hole in the top of the head, another in its back, one at ground level at the end of the monument, a crud doorway on its north side, and a hole between its paws behind the dream stela. Fringe speculation suggests another access point under the Sphinx’s ear, but it has been debunked. It’s actually a fitting used to affix a beard, the remnants of which were found near the paws. Sadly, the underground world of the Sphinx has been excavated more than once and doesn’t hold any more secrets or mysteries. And unlike the Great Pyramids, visitors cannot venture into these tunnels and chambers.

Tunnels and Chambers inside the Sphinx

What’s the dream stela, you ask? It is a rectangular stele (an upright slab similar to a gravestone). According to archeologists, the Sphinx’s stela is about a dream Thutmose IV had as he rested in the shade of the monument. At the time, the Sphinx was covered in sand up to its shoulder, and it promised to make Thutmose ruler of Egypt if he clears the sand away. Thutmose did, and he became king.

The most interesting facts are the Sphinx’s riddles. In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes. She would ask travelers a riddle to allow them passage into the city. Anyone who could not answer it was devoured by her. The first riddle: which is the creature that has one voice but has four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon, and three feet at night? The answer: Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a cane in old age. Oedipus solved this riddle, and according to the myth, the Sphinx killed herself. There’s a second riddle: There are two sisters; one gives birth to the other, who in turn gives birth to the first. Who are they? The answer is “day and night.” Technically, the riddles aren’t connected to the Egyptian Sphinx, but they are still really cool.

Now for the fun stuff…


THE ART OF SEDUCTION
Bad boy antagonist, Damion is a master of seduction, a purveyor of sensuality. I, on the other hand, am not so proficient at the art. I needed a little help to make his actions and dialogue fit his persona and stumbled upon Robert Greene’s book, The Art of Seduction. Who knew there were nine types of seducers? Not me, so a little bit about each of them for future reference:

The Siren plays on the notion that men are always searching for new experiences and adventures. Her calm, unhurried demeanor combined with a dazzling appearance instantly captures man’s attention. There’s a danger about her. She makes him pursue her, always a bit out of his reach. You know, men like the chase.

The Rake is a man who incessantly pursues a woman by showing her ardent devotion. He seems to be madly in love with her and uses words and language to show his devotion. Like the Siren, there’s a sense of mystery about him. He uses his reputation as a lady’s man and recklessly in love to his advantage. Every woman wants him, but she’s the only one who has him.

The Ideal Lover is a fantasy lover who makes himself irresistible to a woman by giving her what seems to be missing in her life. Think Casanova, who presented himself as the epitome of what a woman desires. Or Madame de Pompadour, who become the adventure that King Louis XV needed in his life. Your homework is to google both of these characters to enrich yourself.

The Dandy offers the kind of forbidden freedom that most people can only dream of but never achieve. A non-traditionalist, a dandy often relies on insolence to attract the opposite sex. But a male dandy is not aggressive. He’s sophisticated and graceful. A metrosexual man. A woman dandy has masculine qualities in her appearance and attire. Examples include Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, and Lou von Salome. as prototypical examples of male and female dandies. All of them seduced a large number of people using their ability to break conventions and represent an almost forbidden freedom. More homework for you.

The Natural has an irresistible innocence about him. He’s impish, vulnerable and defenseless, open and spontaneous, traits that make the object of her desire lower his guard. His persona, a refreshing experience in contrast to the daily seriousness of adult life. Greene’s example of this type is Charlie Chaplin. Who do you think is a more contemporary Natural?

Charlie Chaplin, circa 1920

The Coquette plays with emotions. By alternating between unexplained warmth and coldness, he creates tension with anticipation. A sense of insecurity, not knowing what is coming next. A bit narcissistic by making his target relentlessly pursue him until she reaches the point of no return. Then he pulls her back in with a show of warmth and attention.

The Charismatic is self-sufficient and driven. He uses his powerful personality and his way with words to sway emotions. His target looks to him to save her. He seduces her by creating contradictions like cruelty and kindness, power and vulnerability, etc. I admit I fall for charisma because I’m a romantic at heart.

The Star is a fascinating creature with a larger-than-life persona. He appeals to his target’s attraction to the strange and mythical while playing up his human qualities at the same time. Jack Kennedy is a classic example of this type of seducer.

John Fitzgerald KENNEDY. 1952.

Now you have your homework assignment. Let’s have some fun and post your answers (thoughts and questions, too) in the Comments.

Book Research

I recently finished my latest submission for my critique group. My usual routine is to take the week off while waiting for my critiques to come in. The time away from writing lets my story simmer for a bit and refreshes my mind in preparation for the next round of 8,000+ words. Something fun I like to do during this time off is look back at what I researched for my latest submission.

My obsession with research comes from two sources: my career as a tax professional and a science fiction literature class. First, substantiation plays a huge role in the field of tax and accounting. An auditor is not going to buy your explanation without proof substantiating your claim. The key to indisputable proof is thorough research of the law as it applies to your facts and circumstances.

Also, a college literature course ingrained the concept of plausibility in my mind. Readers must be able to suspend their disbelief in the created worlds of speculative fiction. Plausibility is achieved on several levels, but research is essential for factual believability. In my created world, a human subspecies is threatened by extinction. In order to be credible, I spent the good half of a day researching extinction.

Hence, research accounts for a lot of my time at the computer. Sometimes, I spend more time researching a topic than writing about it. While I’m a firm believer in doing my homework, I stress about the time it takes away from adding word count to my manuscript. An inner struggle inherently ensues to rationalize that this time is well spent. When I find myself in this place, I remember what I learned from a virtual class with best-selling author, David Baldacci.

An entire lesson of Baldacci’s lecture series was dedicated to research. During one part, he talked about his collection of binders full of notes. As an example, he referenced a 3-inch notebook with his research about nuclear weapons. He used these notes for only two paragraphs in one of his books. Vindication; my research time is a good investment. Oh, and I have a lovely collection of binders, too.

For my last submission, my research topics included:
~ Burns as in first, second, and third-degree burns.
~ Swordsmanship for one never knows when a character might need to lob the head off of a menacing creature.
~ Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit
~ Body language of horses
~ Ancient woodlands
~ Barn floorplans

Always a fun exercise, but heaven help me if my computer is ever search by authorities of any kind.