R is for … Reversal

Warning: this blog post contains spoilers. They will be called out, but the onus is on you to decide whether you want to continue and read a spoiler for a novel you haven’t read.

Now that’s out of the way, what is a reversal? A reversal can take many forms but is generally either a drastic change in circumstances for a character, or a change in direction for the plot. Reversals can help prevent your story from becoming predictable.

You could have a story where a man goes from rags to riches in a short space of time, changing his fortune (Brewster’s Millions), or one where the opposite takes place. Or, where an unreliable narrator turns out to be the ‘baddie’, after getting the reader to sympathise with them through the story.

One of the more memorable reversals I’ve read, was at the end of Lord of the Rings.

SPOILER ALERT

The spoiler will appear after the following pictures, so scroll at your own risk.

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If you’re still here, you’ve obviously either read the book, watched the films, or you don’t mind spoilers. All right, let’s begin.

For the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the main plot follows Frodo Baggins and Sam Gangee. From the moment they set out from Rivendell, they’re on a quest to go to Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. Yes, there are lots of other plots happening all the way through, but this is the major plot line. One awful thing after another befalls them, but they make it through. At the climactic moment, Frodo stands over the volcano with the One Ring in his hand and … he can’t do it. Wearing the ring and carrying it have affected him to the point where he becomes convinced he can make everything better if he holds on to it. Of course, we know that this is how the ring works, and that if he doesn’t destroy it everything will be lost, but the ring is affecting his judgement and he decides he’s going to keep it. Oh Frodo! What a betrayal.

Then, out of nowhere, his own madness from the ring at the forefront of his actions, Gollum comes shrieking into view to try to take the ring from Frodo. He bites off Frodo’s finger (ring and all) before hurtling to his death in the volcano below. First time readers of the trilogy don’t see that coming.

We have more than one reversal going on here.

  • Frodo’s desire to do good is subverted by the ring, and despite knowing the importance of destroying it, he decides to keep it in the belief that, for him, everything will be different. He, where everyone else has failed, will wield the ring and become a benevolent ruler.
  • Gollum, the most pathetic character in the trilogy, saves the day. However, it’s not altruistic on his part; again, the ring is exerting its influence over him. His need for the ring drives him.

Of course, to make a good reversal work well, it can’t come as a total surprise. You have to lay a groundwork of subtle signs to mark the way for when you reach that point, without making it obvious beforehand. The trick is to make your reader think that the story is going to go one way (Frodo’s struggles to get to Mount Doom and his eventually reaching there), but also drop in enough foreshadowing for the reversal not to be completely out of the blue.  Tolkein does this by having Gollum tracking Frodo for most of the story. He’s seen following them down the river; he becomes their captive at one point, before escaping, so we’re used to seeing him turn up. And then there’s the line where Tolkein foreshadows everything by literally having Gandalf tell the reader what’s going to happen. This comes when Frodo asks Gandalf why Bilbo spared Gollum:

“And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.”

It’s cleverly buried in a conversation where we might not think much about it at the time, but here the scene is set for what ultimately takes place.

In my novel, The Lost Weaver, I have a similarly dramatic reversal take place in the climactic scenes. I’m not going to go into detail because the novel hasn’t been published, yet. You can bet, though, that I’ve both hinted at and misdirected all the way to that moment. I can’t wait to see if readers see it coming.

If I do it right, they won’t until it happens. And then they’ll say, ‘Oh! Of course.”

 

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Q is for …Query

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If you’re serious about publishing your writing and you’re not going the self-publishing route, you’ll need to start querying agents at some point (or publishers if they accept unsolicited submissions).

What is a query? I hear you ask.

A query usually takes the form of a letter, or a letter and sample of your writing, to an agent who represents writers in your chosen genre.  The latter is important. Do your research. Don’t send a query for an epic fantasy trilogy to an agent who only wants books on fly fishing.

If you’re in the UK, a good place to look is the Writers and Artists Yearbook. You can search their database by genre, or, if you prefer, use the hard copy to make your own list of possible agents. There’s also a list of UK literary agents on Wikipedia.

If you’re in the US, there’s a Directory of Literary Agents.  I haven’t used it, so I can’t vouch for how useful it is but it looks as though it might be of use. Perhaps my American friends can let me know in the comments, if they’ve used it. I have used Writer’s Digest to look for agents, however.

Another way to research is to do a Google search on, for instance, ‘US Literary Agents who represent fantasy‘. Just be wary of what comes up. If an agent or publisher wants to charge you money up front, run the other way.

Now you have your list of agents, the next step is to read their submission guidelines. What do they want to see from you? For some, it’s just the query letter, others might want the query letter and a synopsis. Still others might want a query letter, synopsis and the first fifty pages. Make sure you send exactly what their guidelines state. The biggest complaint I’ve seen from editors and agents when they discuss querying, is that writers don’t read the guidelines, or that they ignore the guidelines altogether, as though they don’t apply to them. Gentle hint: the guidelines always apply to you.

Query letter requirements seem to vary from one side of the pond to the other. For instance, an American query letter seems to require more of a punchy, high-concept blurb, as well as a brief introduction to the writer. Cover letters to English agents, however, seem to be looking for more about the writer and what the main themes of the novel are. So look around. Google is definitely your friend. There are a plethora of examples of good query/cover letters out there, on both sides of the pond.

Most query guidelines ask for a synopsis, which is something that most writers agree is one of the most difficult part of querying. What is a synopsis? It’s a summary of the plot. It needs to be more than a back cover blurb, because it should include how the story ends. It doesn’t need to be a blow-by-blow, or chapter-by-chapter account, either. Include the main characters and the major plot events and write a one-page summary (it can be single-spaced). Again, there are many examples online.

If query guidelines request a sample of your novel, send only what they specify. For example, if they are asking for the first fifty pages, don’t send fifty-eight. If they want only the first chapter, don’t send the first two (or chapter 28 because it’s the most exciting).

You can query more than one agent at a time, but don’t query them all in one email.  One email per agent. Use their name and tell them why you are querying them in particular. Use what you’ve learned about them to show that you’ve done your research. It’s okay to follow up, but not until after their guidelines state. For instance, if they say they expect to answer queries within three months, don’t follow up until after three months have passed.

When selling yourself, be confident without being arrogant; be polite and be engaging, without looking as though you’re trying too hard. Don’t try to be funny – save that for your novel, if it’s humorous (and if it’s not, why try to be funny in your cover letter?). Use the kind of tone you might use to write a cover letter for a job application.

Above all, be professional. If an agent ultimately rejects you, don’t write back, except perhaps to thank them for their time. Absolutely don’t try to tell them what a huge mistake they’re making by not recognising your genius and signing you and your future best-seller. The publishing industry is a small world and agents, like people in any other profession, will discuss badly-behaved writers and compare horror stories. Don’t be an agent’s horror story. Even if you vehemently disagree with any feedback they send, move on. Once you’re over the disappointment, you might find they have a point. In fact, on the rare occasion I’ve had feedback from an agent or publisher, it has been of enormous value to me as a writer. If an agent or publisher has taken the time to do more than send you a form letter, they obviously felt it was worth the effort. Don’t spoil that with a churlish response; no matter how cathartic it feels at the time, it will only damage your reputation as a writer before you’ve even begun.

Happy querying!

M is for … Manuscript Format

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I’m a day late updating the blog this week.  An idea for a story caught hold of me and wouldn’t leave me alone all weekend until I had completed the first draft.  It’s rare that they come to me like that, so I had to comply. It’s quite a long story, and has themes of motherhood and empowerment, along with strong mythological influences. It still needs a lot of work before Ican start sending it out on submission, but I’m pleased with the shape it has taken.

Which brings me to this week’s subject: how to prepare your writing for submission to publications, agents or publishers. While most have their own submission guidelines, they will nearly always ask for submissions to be in standard manuscript format.

So, what is that?

If you google the subject, you’ll find lots of answers to that question, including William Shunn’s excellent advice, which hasn’t much changed.  But you won’t go far wrong if you use at least the following:

  • Standard font: Arial, Times New Roman, Courier, etc, set at 12 pt.
  • A4 size paper (letter in the US)
  • Double line spacing.
  • 2.5 cm (1 inch) margins all round.

UK First Page

 

If you’re in the UK, you’ll need a cover page, with your name, address and contact details in the top left corner and the word count in the top right.  In the middle of the page, you’ll want the title of your story, and underneath, your name, or nom de plume.

 

 

 

 

 

US First Page

 

If you’re in the US, you’ll need all that on the top half of the page, and start your story half way down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the top of every page after the first or cover page, you’ll need to have your last name, the title and the page number:

MS Format - Top of page

This is so that if any pages come loose, they can be matched up to the right manuscript. On a UK manuscript, this would start on page 1 because the cover page is not counted. On a US manuscript, this would be page 2 as the story starts halfway down the first page.

If a publication calls for blind submissions, it means they don’t want any information that reveals your identity. Some do this because then they are not biased by the writer and can judge the story on its merits. When submitting blind, you still use standard manuscript format, but your submission will only have the word count, title and page numbers from the above examples, and none of the identifying information.

It used to be the case that two spaces were required after a full stop (period), but most places these days will ask for one. As someone who learned to type when two spaces were the norm, I find it difficult to train my thumb to hit the spacebar only once so I don’t try.  Instead, when I’m editing, I use ‘find and replace’ to change all the double spaces to single ones.

There was also a rule that italics must be underlined, but these days most places will accept manuscripts wth italics. It’s always best to check their submission guidelines to make sure, though.

First line

 

 

Paragraphs should always be set so that the first line  is a half inch, or 1.27 centimeters indented. In Word, you can set the formatting to do this automatically every time you hit the enter key.

 

 

 

I can’t stress enough that you should always read the submission guidelines. It will save your story from being rejected without being read. It might still get rejected (I’ve had far more rejections than acceptances), but at least you’ve given it every chance to succeed.

If you haven’t submitted before, I hope this helps. Now get those stories out there!

 

 

H is for Hook

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It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, journalism, marketing copy, or an essay; if you want to claim your reader’s attention, you need a hook. The hook is what makes the reader want to continue reading and comes within the opening paragraph.

Since I mostly write fiction, I’ll be concentrating on that, but hopefully this will be helpful for writers in all fields.

Think of all the stories you’ve read, whether they’re novels or short stories. What makes you continue past that first paragraph? For me, it’s the promise made that this is going to be something I will enjoy reading. The author doesn’t always follow through (I’ve stopped reading novels and stories that had great openings because they didn’t fulfil that promise), but for the most part I can usually tell that this is going to be my kind of read from what’s in that first paragraph, or even in the opening line.

We see lots of advice on not to use certain things for openings because they have been done so often they become cliché: someone looking in a mirror, the weather, someone talking, someone waking up. And yet, a good writer can take these clichés over-done openings and make them into something new and original. Here are some examples below:

“Polly cut off her hair in front of the mirror, feeling slightly guilty about not feeling very guilty about doing so.”  – Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett.

monstrousThis is the opening to one of my all time favourite novels. Polly Perks is cutting off her hair, so she can pretend to be a boy and join the army to look for her lost brother. When people use mirrors, they tend to do so to describe the character’s appearance, which is a cliché, but in this case, Pratchett used it to show us something about Polly’s character rather than her appearance. Cutting her hair off is something she is expected to feel guilty about, so we can tell immediately that she’s in a world where society believes women and girls should have long hair. The fact that she doesn’t feel guilty enough tells us that she’s independent and can think for herself. I’m immediately interested in Polly.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer, William Gibson.

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I like this opening because it gives me a sense of something being not quite right. The language is stark, and the image is foreboding. It’s also unusual as far as a weather description goes. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a sky that colour before, so perhaps it’s somewhere other than earth? I’m pulled in to read further so that I can find out more about this place.

 

“A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.” – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick

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This opening has someone waking up but it’s the mood organ that makes me want to read on because I immediately know we’re either not in this world, or if we are it’s somewhere in an imagined future.

 

 

“They’re made out of meat.” – Terry Bisson

“They’re Made out of Meat”  is one of my favourite short stories. Not only does it open with dialogue, but the whole story is a conversation between two disembodied voices. There is no narrative, no description, no action, just dialogue. Everything about this story is a literary ‘no-no’, and yet it works perfectly.

Of course, these are all notable exceptions. I’m not saying that we should all go out and ignore the advice on not using cliched openings. These are examples of what a skilled writer can do with something that is considered a cliché.

A good opening line or paragraph sets an expectation of who or what the novel, story, article or essay will be about. It also sets the tone of the piece of writing, whether that be matter of fact, foreboding, humorous, etc. In speculative fiction, it also often gives us a glimpse into another world.

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Old Man’s War –  John Scalzi

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This opening starts off normal enough for a seventy-five-year-old man. Then boom, Scalzi turns that impression upside down and we’re immediately asking ourselves questions because joining the army is probably the last thing we’d expect a man that age to do.

 

 

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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I love this opening. If you know anything about the galaxy or solar system, you immediately know that this is earth we’re talking about here. There’s a self-deprecating humour in the way it’s written that is so English and so endearing that I immediately want to read on.

 

 

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

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This one is so matter-of-factly talking about something so odd that it is an immediate draw. There’s no sense of panic, no terror, which creates a kind of morbid fascination. Just what has happened to Gregor? We need to know.

 

 

I’ve often found that I don’t know the opening line until I’ve written the whole story. I start at the beginning, of course, but it’s mostly just a placeholder until I’ve written the whole thing and know how it ends. Then, when I’m going back to edit, I look at the opening and fiddle with it until it becomes the hook I need for that particular story.

What was the most memorable opening line you remember reading? Or better still, give me an example of an opening line of your own. Here’s one of mine to leave you with:

“Whispers flitted across his mind. Distant voices murmuring words he could not quite grasp; like moth wings, they brushed memories he had tried for so long to forget, wafting loose the shrouds he had wrapped around them over so many years with so many empty wine-skins.”  The Lost Weaver