Friday, July 27, 2012

Advice for a Query Letter

A couple of months ago in my writing group, we applied the advice by Kelley Lindberg in a query letter workshop. I took in a query letter that I thought was a pretty decent first draft, but quickly realized it needed a lot of work. But doesn't everything?

Of course they gave me specifics to fix, but they helped me realize some things that are more general to any query letter. Mostly, through their questioning, they helped me understand my own story better.

First of all, I thought my opening paragraph was fairly intriguing, but quickly discovered it absolutely was not accomplishing my purpose. I had written, "Late medieval England is not the place to find a love triangle between a peasant girl, a nobleman's son, and a prince...or is it?" I was trying to show that my character was unconventional, but that opening paragraph did not capture that for my audience.

Instead, my group suggested I use a specific scene that would capture her character. Near the beginning of the story, Anna punches a bully in the nose, whom she later finds out is a friend of a prince. My group suggested making her actually punch the prince, which I am still debating about for a couple of reasons. But they definitely agreed this should be the scene for the opening paragraph because it would quickly capture the tone of the entire story, as well as the personality of the character.

Where I received the greatest understanding in my own story is when they asked about the inner and outer conflicts. Not every story needs both, but stories are definitely stronger and more interesting if both are present.

In some sense of my story, because of the time period, my conflicts are actually in conflict with each other even. My outer conflict, the one that everyone else sees, is that Anna must take care of her family all by herself. Her parents are elderly and ill, so they are little help. She is a female peasant in medieval England, so her acceptable behavior is limited. She must act outside the acceptable limits in order to care for her family.  Thus everyone else in her village hates her for her abilities. My inner conflict is that Anna desires to be accepted and loved for herself. But very few people can look past her unorthodox behavior.

Through this workshop, I have discovered that a good letter illuminates your story sometimes in a way that nothing else can. The trick is to get someone else see that too when they read your letter.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Power of Good Dialog

I have a friend who got me interested in a graphic novel series: Fables by Bill Willingham. It is a series that supposes all fablekind was forced out of their lands and now have a secret society in NYC. It's a fascinating story, but most definitely for adults.

Graphic novels are not a genre I'm terribly familiar with (for those who don't know the lingo think "comic books"). Before this series, it had been years since I had read Persepolis and decades before that since I had read comics. And it is a genre that you read differently from other genres.

Because of the nature of the genre, nearly the entire story is told via dialog with an occasional time or place marker. Especially as I started reading the series, however, I read it like a novel. Meaning, I followed along from frame to frame reading all the dialog and forgetting to look at a lot of the pictures. I would kind of have to force myself to actually look at the images.

But the interesting thing was, although the artwork is amazing, I didn't really feel like I was "missing" much when I didn't look at the pictures. And that is due to the incredible writing ability of Willingham. His dialog literally told the story to me without needing extraneous information. I knew exactly what was going on, and usually which character was speaking.

Ah, that we all could be that good.

That is something that even prose (novel, short story, etc.) authors strive for. Dialog that is important and adds to story. Dialog that distinguishes characters clearly from one another. And dialog that stands by itself. Proven yet again that the experts are correct - you don't need many tags, descriptors, adverbs, or other explanations for your dialog when you just write good dialog.

Unfortunately, I don't know how to do that. I'm still trying to figure it out. Some people write great dialog where their characters really come alive. I don't think I write bad dialog, but I think I could write better...if I could just figure out the trick. I can tell you when I see good dialog, but I'm still working on how to distinguish the technical differences between good and bad. I've heard the analyses before, but applying that is completely different. But that's what a writer is here for, right? To keep striving to write better and tell better stories.  This is just one stop along a lifetime trail. Learning from masters like Bill Willingham is the best way to move forward.