Saturday, December 22, 2012

Not a Morning Person

I am always amazed/impressed by the writers (and other people I know) who say they get up early in the morning (like at 4 AM) to "get things done" while the rest of their household is still sleeping. Some of this amazement is that they can have the discipline and focus to be productive when they know they're going to have to stop in just a couple of hours to get ready for work etc. I tend to like my writing time (or any other kind of "me" time for that matter), to be more open ended.

I am also amazed that anyone can go to bed early enough get a good night's sleep while getting up that early. I've always needed eight hours of sleep to feel my best, and so getting up at 4 AM would require my being asleep by 8 PM. Yipes.

I haven't gone to bed that early since I was a little tyke, and even then, it was resentfully. I never fell asleep right off and often snuck a flashlight under my covers to read. When my mom caught me at it (she and Dad stayed up until midnight or so), she'd confiscate my book, and I'd have to tell myself stories until I finally got sleepy. The habit persists to this day, and some of those stories became the nuclei of things I've tried to write over the years.

As an adult, if I try to go to bed earlier than midnight, I'll lie awake until God knows when. I'm familiar with the insomniac's relentless mantra. "If I fall asleep now, I'll still get 5 hours...." And counting. But if I go to bed later, I tend to drop right off.

It really sucked when I had jobs that required me to be at work by 8 every morning. It also sucked when I was in grad school when everyone assumed people who weren't in their labs at the crack of dawn weren't properly dedicated grad students, even if we stayed later than everyone else in the evening (and where lab meetings were inevitably scheduled for 8 AM). It still sucks when I get an early morning class to teach, or when I want to enter a dog agility trial (they never start later than 8AM). Six AM feels like the middle of the night to me. Always has. Heck, these days, 9 AM feels like the wee hours.

I've been lucky over the past year or so. My teaching assignments have been afternoon and evening classes. This means I can do my writing until I get tired, go to bed (often between 2-3), wake up when I'm not tired anymore (instead of when my alarm tells me to), and still have some time in the late morning/early afternoon to grade, write lectures and answer student e-mails.

There is a down side, however. The older I've gotten, the fewer people I know who are night owls. Most of my friends want to engage in social activities that start (horrors) before noon. And not a week goes by where someone doesn't conspire to rob me of my sleep. Appointments and meetings with colleagues usually involve penciling out a block of time in the morning. And there are those mid-morning phone calls. Most people think it's entirely reasonable to call at 9:30 AM, even on weekends. My sleepy hello earns me a bemused, "Did I wake you up?" (asked in a vaguely disapproving voice). Most people are flabbergasted when I tell them how late I go to bed. I remember one time when a friend told me she thought my computer clock must be broken. When I asked why, she said, "The time stamp on your last e-mail read 2 AM. There's no way you'd be up that late ... would you?"

At a certain level it's silly for me to feel guilty or apologetic for being a night owl. It seems to just be how I am, and I know I'm not completely alone. But people like me are a distinct minority, and it always feels bad to be outnumbered.

And getting up early has traditionally been linked with industriousness, while sleeping in has been associated with sloth and indolence. I saw a link to a study that insists that morning people are happier than night people (wonder if being able to work and play on a schedule that works for you influences happiness). But I also saw one to a study that suggested that night people are more intelligent, if less cooperative (wonder if uncooperative is defined as refusing to get out of bed when nagged).

In my experience, night people are usually perfectly happy to let their morning-oriented friends and family members go to bed when they're tired and wake up when they're rested (I actually kind of like having the house to myself late at night), while morning people tend to want to get night people on their schedule.

It's a bit lonely being a late night person, but it's been a part of who I am for so long I can't imagine being anything else.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Query Letters are Fun--Not!

A year ago, aside from the vague notion it was some kind of cover letter you included with a novel submission, I had no idea what a query letter was. For the uninitiated, a query letter must include a really short synopsis of your novel's main plot arc with regards to its main protagonist. It's supposed to address the following questions.

1. Who is your main character or protagonist?
2. What does he or she want?
3. What stands in his or her way and must he or she do to surmount these obstacles.
4. What happens if he or she fails?

Easy peasy, right? Well, um, no. At least not always. First of all, there's the issue of deciding who your actual plot-driving protagonist is. Sometimes that's not hard. But what if there are many point of view characters, and they all have roughly equal point of view time? The answer is to find the character who actually drives the plot. If you've really written something with multiple story threads (akin to George RR Martin's Game of Thrones), most people suggest picking a single character, the one with the most interesting and compelling sub plot, and focus on him or her.

The second question can be tough as well, because characters usually have many wants, often competing. And those wants can change as the story progresses. With some stories, elucidating which of a protagonist's competing and ever-evolving wants is the overarching one can be harder than it seems.

The third question can be hard too. Often there are multiple obstacles and multiple things the protagonist must do to overcome them. You don't want to simply toss a laundry list out there. Again, it comes to boiling things down to the most important obstacle and the most important thing(s) the hero must do. A common mistake is for the query writer to assume it's obvious. "Well of course he's got to find the sword of awesomeness so he can kill the evil wizard and fulfill the prophecy." It's easy to get so close to your work and the common tropes of your that you forget that the agent reading your query might not "know" that in your world, evil wizards are not killable by mundane things like slips in the tub or poisoned wine.

Finally, what happens if she or he fails? This also may seem implicit. The evil wizard won't die and life will continue to suck for everyone. But wait! Life has sucked for everyone for a long time already. Why is it so critical that this protagonist succeed at this time?

The good thing about writing a query (or a longer plot synopsis for that matter) is it can help you see some of the weaknesses in your story--those things you're too darned close to to notice most of the time. It can also help you clarify for yourself what the central plot of your story is. Many people suggest trying to write a query well before your novel finished for this reason. It may alert you to a problem.

Once the major points are in place, the thing probably isn't done. First of all, all the points must be connected in a logical manner. You don't want to get bogged down in details but you don't want to be vague either. Not easy.

Then you have to have some voice in the thing. Getting my character's and novel's voice into my query has been an Achilles heel for me. When writing non fiction, I tend to slip into a sort of academic writing mode where I want to cram as much information into each sentence as possible. This results in a bunch of grammatically correct sentences that fail to capture any sense of how my novel's actually written.

But you don't want to err in the direction of trying to be too cute or clever either. There are some examples of writers who have done this and caught an agent's eye. But more likely, you will simply annoy a person who has 200 more of these things to get through before she even goes into the office.

And once you think you have something sharp in place, you need to solicit feedback (and get some from people who aren't familiar with your novel). For this, you must gird your loins, because the fur will fly. You'll quite possibly have to start over from scratch--or gut the thing down to its bare bones. It's frustrating, but necessary. I always find myself trying to explain things to the people who just aren't seeing what my story's about from the query. Problem is, you won't be able to provide the agents with notes.

And no matter how frustrated you get, don't forget to thank the people who take time to read and comment on the thing. Even if you think they're way off base or if their opinions contradict one another (and sometimes they will). As a rule, the people who provide feedback are trying to be helpful.

The final layer of query writing frustration is that there's a lot of conflicting advice out there about it. Some of it is simply out of date (anything more than 5 or so years old is particularly suspect, as technology and conventions evolve rapidly. Also, some things simply go in and out of style. A query that caught an agent's eye ten or more years ago might be dragged straight to the delete folder today.

And never forget that agents are individuals. They all have different tastes. Some of them put the specifics they want on their sites, though many don't. But if agent A says he wants a one paragraph, 100 word query synopsis as the core of your letter, he probably means it, even if Query Shark says queries can be up to 250 words long and that multiple, short paragraphs are better than single long paragraphs.

Since I am still very much a newb at this, I'll toss in some links to some sites that have been especially helpful in learning about queries and what they entail. When writing a query letter, it's important to check a particular agent's guidelines (or blog if one is available) to see what he or she specifically likes and dislikes in a query.

A great site where an agent named Janet Reid rips queries readers have sent her to shreds--all to get them revised to the point where she'd want to start reading the associated manuscript. It's very illuminating, and often funny.

An online writers' community that has a share your work forum that includes a "Query Letter Hell." You'll have to create an account to view the share your work forum and you must post at least 50 times in their forums before you can submit something there for critiquing. But reading (and commenting on) other peoples' work can be very helpful.

An author and agent who has a website that addresses many things of interest to a writer, including query and synopsis writing.

This one says to include a one-sentence hook or logline, which is considered by some to be dated advice. But some of the information in this guideline is still valid, if taken in the context of other things you've read about query writing.

Contains a list of agent blogs that discuss query writing.

If anyone reading this has any other favorite query advice sites, please let me know

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Where are the Dogs in Fantasy?

I haven't encountered many dogs in fantasy novels, and to be honest, I'm not sure why.

The dog (Canis familiaris) is thought to be the first animal to be fully domesticated by humans. The earliest remains discovered so far that are unequivocally domestic dogs are about 14,000 years old, though some estimates place the divergence between domestic dogs and wolves to have occurred 40,000 or more years ago (Serpell, 1995; Wikipedia). Although the relationship between humans and domestic animals have changed over time, there is evidence that humans living in ancient civilizations were often very attached to their canine companions.

Most dogs in industrialized countries are kept as pets or companions, though they still fill a variety of other roles. In the US alone, there are 78 million pet dogs, and approximately 40% of US households have at least one dog ( In less industrialized parts of the world, feral or semi-feral populations of "village" or "pariah" dogs are widespread, and may outnumber actual pets. Some anthropologists (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001) think this semi-feral state may resemble that of the earliest domestic dogs and that Canis Familiaris was essentially "self domesticated."

In spite of their popularity and important role in history, dogs seem to be strangely underrepresented in fantasy fiction when compared with horses, cats, birds of various kinds, and even their wild cousins the wolf.

One of the main characters in my novel has a dog, and it has been used to move the plot forward in a couple of places and to provide a little comic relief from time to time. Most of my test readers like Arrow (the dog's name) and want to see her playing a more prominent role in the story. But as a writer, I've found that slotting her in some places has been challenging. Arrow is not a trained war dog (she's more similar to a border collie), and although smart by canine standards, she is not a human in a fur suit. Her ability to understand the "big picture" of what is going on or to behave appropriately in novel and unexpected situations is no better than a "real" dog's would be. My experiences with my own dogs (who are probably better trained and socialized than the average pet out there) remind me that having an ordinary canine tagging along on a quest or getting underfoot during combat would be at best distracting and would likely end badly (for the dog).

Perhaps this logistical issue is the reason why dogs haven't figured as prominently in fantasy as some other animals. Horses are required for transportation in your typical pre-industrial fantasy setting. Cats (unless they are being portrayed as beings with human intelligence) are expected to go their own way and to disappear when punches start flying, so the logistics of writing your character's pet cat into a combat scene rarely figures in. Wolves, are either presented as adversaries or allies in fantasy, and intelligent wolves and wolf-like beings are a common trope. Perhaps the prevalence of wolves as a fantasy trope is one reason bona fide dogs are seen less often. Dogs are seen as being sort of mundane and ordinary, so a writer who wants to include a canine in the story will slot a wolf in.

Conversely, dogs are also seen by most as being heroic, so if they are included in a story, readers might expect them to play some pivotal role (aka, saving the protagonist's life at some point). Readers rarely ask the author why a character's pet couldn't drive the plot more or come in and save the day, but many expect this from dogs. This raises the issue, which I am struggling with in my own book, of how to satisfy my reader's requests to see more of Arrow and have her do something important during the novel's resolution without either turning her into a canine Mary Sue (aka Lassie) or having her lay down her life. Tearjerking isn't always bad, but the death of an animal character is something that needs to be handled carefully, as it has the potential for eliciting stronger emotions in readers than almost anything else. If "old shep" lays down his life for your hero, some readers may resent it or accuse you of milking their emotions. And to be honest, if I killed the mutt off, my own tears would probably short out my keyboard.

Below is a very short list of fantasy titles I've read or run across where dogs play a significant role in the story. If anyone can think of any others, they could be added.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Dogsbody by  Diana Wynne Jones

Dog Days by John Levitt

Prince of Dogs by Kate Elliot

The Dog Days of Arthur Cane by Ernesto Bethancourt

The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (thanks, Beth for letting me know about this one)

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (okay, this is sci fi, not fantasy, but dogs are underrepresented in Sci Fi too, and it's a really good read. It also has a cat in it).

There are a number of books for children, and even some for adults, where an animal (occasionally a dog) is the point of view character and is presented as being more intelligent that a dog "really" is, though still, in essence, a dog. One could argue for the inclusion of these in the category of low fantasy, but I am limiting my list to titles that employ at least some of the more traditional fantasy tropes (aka alternate worlds, magic, the paranormal or supernatural).


Coppinger, R. and L. Coppinger. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner, New York.

Serpell, J (ed). 1995. The Domestic Dog, its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.