Monday, July 3, 2017

Backstory Blues

Copyright © 2017 Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

One thing that drives me nuts as a reader is the overuse of backstory in a novel, especially when the genre is not literary fiction.

What instigated my grumbling at this time is Alex Kava's A Necessary Evil, which I'd read about one-third through. It introduces a number of characters, some of which are detectives or investigators and such, and some are perpetrators. But what I find, in chapter after chapter, is a story crawling at a snail's pace as the author plunges into the character's miserable past or dysfunctional old relationships. For example, the main character, a female FBI agent, must work with a local female detective on a murder. But in the past, the detective had made a pass at the agent, and now their working relationship is strained. Added to that, the detective once saved the agent's mother from suicide. But also, the agent had once rescued the detective's father from a serial killer. Can you say contrived? But that's just the start of boring backstories whose purpose seems mainly to fill page space and give the impression of conflict.

In my opinion, a murder mystery or suspense thriller is about the story, the plot. It's certainly mandatory to create compelling characters in a genre novel, but that can be done by showing their actions and relationships in the now - often through dialog - not by contrived family backgrounds. I'm not against giving a bit of character history, such as explaining how the protagonist became widowed, or how she inherited wealth from her industrialist father. Just weave it naturally into the story - a paragraph here and there - rather than constantly dumping out several paragraphs of the stuff time after time.

And, of course, the worst backstory sin of all: filling Chapter One with it. Arrrgh! Does anything make a reader gag more that that? Yes, sadly. Finding even more in Chapter Two.

I was having lunch with a few writer friends recently, and one author described a novel of his where the plot seemed to rely on a series of implausible character and family relationships that would do any TV soap opera proud. I cringed at the inevitable pages of backstory it must contain to untangle all the mess. And, in the end, would it have any discernable plot?

So, I did not bother finishing the last two-thirds of A Necessary Evil. I found myself skipping over paragraphs whenever a hint of dreaded backstory crept in. It just isn't worth it, wading though all that to try to get back to the actual story.

Many good articles exist online that discuss the evils of backstory done wrong and how to do it better. So I won't attempt to expound on it here. Suffice to say, it's a disease that plagues aspiring writers and experienced, published authors alike.

And please ... don't get me started on flashbacks. But, that's for another time.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Agents and #MSWL

Copyright © 2017 Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I ran across the MS Wish List website the other day while searching for more agents to query. It looks like a great resource. An author can select a genre and see a list of agents/editors/pubishers who are interested in that genre. And, the genre selections are numerous. After choosing a few candidate agents, I poked around a bit more on the site.

From what I can tell, this site is a filter for various Twitter hashtags related to agents/editors/publishers. The one I used to select agents by genre was #MSWL. A selection menu along the top chooses other hashtags, such as #AskAgent, #Querytip and #Pubtip, and various hashtags giving reasons why queries are accepted or rejected. I'm not sure how it all works, but I suspect the agents, etc. register on the site and then their hashtagged tweets are snagged and displayed in the proper category.

One disconcerting thing is the tweets come with no context, especially the query tweets. It gets confusing. I suppose you have to navigate to the original tweeter site to see more. Another thing: looking at the tweets shows lots of other interesting hashtags related to writing and querying (#amwriting, #amreading, #amquerying, #QueryMe).

One exciting thing I saw on the raw #MSWL Twitter site was that February 8, 2017 was proclaimed as "MSWL Day" on the site. I gather it means agents/editors/publishers were tweeting like mad what they're looking for. I was quite interested to see what it looked like, and found several leads for sending out queries.  I also saw trends that I need to keep in mind for future projects, such as women protagonists or characters/heroes from "underrepresented groups."

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Book Review: Deadly Inheritance

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Sir Geoffrey Mappestone returns from the Crusades in 1103 to his family's Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire, only to find that his brother, Henry, has been murdered. His sister, Joan, his brother-in-law, and servants show no interest in finding the killer. Geoffrey learns that everyone hated Henry, who was brutal and addicted to drink. The lords of neighboring manors distrust Geoffrey because knights of the Crusade have a violent reputation.

Geoffrey is determined to find his brother's killer. But he is also nagged by Joan's demand he immediately get married and produce an heir. Without an heir, he is a likely target for murder himself by neighboring manor lords who desire to absorb his estate into theirs. So, several women are proposed as mates, none of which appeal to Geoffrey. In addition to the woes he already has, a prominent priest asks him to investigate another murder, one that happened months ago over in Normandy. Other murders soon occur, seemingly related to Henry's murder.

When later one of his neighbors launches an attack on Goodrich, Geoffrey is forced to mobilize the men of his estate into a fighting force.

The "author", Simon Beaufort (in reality a pseudonym of Susanna Gregory and Beau Riffenburgh when they write jointly), fills the pages with rich details that seem authentic for the period. They pile more and more demands on poor Geoffrey, who simply wants to live in peace on his estate. Deadly Inheritance (number six in the Mappestone series) is hard to put down as the action and mystery keep rolling on. It is definitely worth the read.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Finding a Literary Agent to Query (Part II)

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I wrote earlier some tips on where and how to compile a list of literary agents who you can query for your novel (see Finding a Literary Agent to Query). I wrote it because I was doing just that for my latest novel: looking for agents who were interested in cozy mysteries.

Well, I must have done something right because last August an agent I queried asked to see the full manuscript! That is, of course, just the first step toward signing with an agency and then getting published. But it feels like a big step. Especially since, up to then, all I received for this novel from other agents was a terse, "It's not for me" response.

Now the hard part: the waiting. It is now November, and the agent has told me she's finally going to get around to reading my manuscript soon.  Hopefully, "soon" is sometime this year.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Finding a Literary Agent to Query

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

The subject of literary agents came up recently with some of my aspiring writer friends. Specifically, "I'm ready to send out a query, but where do I look to find agents?"

The first and standard answer is to buy a copy of one of the Writer's Market series of books by Writer's Digest, such as Guide to Literary Agents 2016: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published. In addition to listing tons of agents, it has tips on queries, synopsis writing, and other how-to articles.

Another place to find agents is online information for writers conferences around the country. The organizers often prominently list the agents who are attending and what kind of works they wish to represent, such as non-fiction subjects or certain fiction genres. This will lead you to that agency's website, and once there you may browse its whole stable of agents to find an even better fit.

Another source is published authors themselves. You might attend an event at a local bookstore, where the author's work matches your genre and, if you can get some facetime with her afterward, ask for an agent recommendation. Alternatively, some authors list their agent in the book's acknowledgements up front.

Some online resources specialize in agents and agencies. One I've used is AgentQuery, which bills itself as "The internet's largest free database of literary agents." It has a cool search feature that allows you to specify a genre. It also has query tips and success stories. The site Preditors & Editors is popular and useful for checking out an agency's reputation. Its format is primitive, but it can give some comfort that the agency you're considering seems reputable. The Science Fiction Writers of America maintain a Writer Beware site that not only has great information about bad agent practices, but also has a Resources for Agent Hunting section.

Of course, you can search Google for terms like "literary agent thriller" or whatever and see what you get, then use some of the resources above to narrow down the choices.

However you choose to search, once you start looking, you should find a dozen or more prospects quickly. Then, it's a matter of researching each one to make sure they've had recent book sales, no complaints of scams, they're actually accepting queries, and the genre/subject still seems like a good match. Sometimes, you can find a recent interview with the agent posted online that may give you better insight into their likes and dislikes, their dos and don'ts, and personality.

Summary of Writing Craft Posts

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I've posted a lot of articles with my observations about the writing craft over the years, so figured I should post a summary of them here so they're handy in one place.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Observations About Literary Contest Submissions

Copyright © 2016, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I was selected again this year to evaluate manuscripts submitted by aspiring writers to a local literary contest. My task was to read the submitted pages and provide a critique and a score for a half-dozen aspects, such as Dialog, Plot, Synopsis, etc. Here are some observations about what I read.
  1. Following contest guidelines is half the battle. Of the five manuscripts I was assigned, three were disqualified! The most common mistake: the author's name was included. The manuscript is supposed to be anonymous. Hello! The next mistake: too many pages were submitted. If the guidelines say 25 pages max, don't submit 30 or 40. Another: placing page numbers at the bottom, when rules called for upper right corner. Bottom line, if you simply sumbit a clean manuscript that follows all the rules to the letter, you'll jump past half the other entrants right out of the gate.
  2. Know how to properly format a manuscript. An author who wishes to be taken seriously (let alone win a contest) ought to know standard manuscript formatting rules. One entry did not indent paragraphs, but did insert blank lines between them. Another did not understand the punctuation and formatting of dialog tags. These are basic things any aspiring author learns quickly simply by reading books or having their work critiqued by a local writers group.
  3. Write a compelling synopsis. A couple of the authors clearly did not understand the concept of a synopsis. One gave an introduction for a couple of main characters, and then a glowing bio of himself and his great talent. And, yes, exceeded the page limit. Another introduced the main character and her conflict well, but gave vague generalities about how the plot unfolded. Most of the authors just couldn't bring themselves to give away the story's ending, which is what contest judges and literary agents expect to see. I wrote a blog article some years back about synopses ( What's In a Synopsis?) that discusses some of what I have learned about them.
  4. Some writers don't understand viewpoint. This is common for newbie writers: they don't understand the concept that a scene is normally told inside the head of one particular character. I know, because I, too, got it all wrong when first starting out. The reader should only know, see, hear, smell, feel, and think through that character's brain and senses. A few contest authors' character viewpoint wandered all over, one becoming so omniscient the narrator expounded on what will happen in the future. A corollary to wandering viewpoint is the verb tense used by the narrator: one entrant mixed present tense with past tense.
  5. Overuse of backstory. Often, the author has a good grasp of her main character, and decides to tell the reader all about her life and history and miserable angst in the first couple of chapters. Unfortunately, the actual plot and storyline are trampled like a mouse in a stampede. One entrant used so much backstory, it was difficult to figure out what was happening in the "Now."
  6. No scene setting. I'm a big fan of telling the reader "who" and "where" and "when" in the first paragraph or so of each scene. Where are we? Who is there? What time is it? Added to that, what does the character see, hear, etc? What does the room or street look and sound like? In most of the entries, setting the scene was done poorly. Often, the author supplied reams of narration about the character's pitiful life, or launched into unbroken dialog. For me, this gives the story a disembodied feel, as if the scene takes place in a wispy white netherworld.
I could go on about trivial dialog, lack of gestures or facial expressions by characters, and slow pace. But you get the picture. Don't get me wrong. A couple of the manuscripts I read were excellent, and might even end up a contest finalist. For the others, I hope my gentle critiques encourage them on to better things. Good luck to them all.