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Archive for March, 2009

Keep Your Data Safe

I’m not the first person to say it.  Not by thousands and thousands of sayings (many of which were from my father).  I will not be the last person to say it, because it seems no matter how many times you hear it, you just don’t seem to hear it.

Back up your work.  Always.  Get an external hard drive, burn it to a CD or DVD, use a floppy disk if you have to and you can still find them, but back it up.  It seems like those tiny packets of electrical information are indestructible, but only until they are destroyed.

I got a Trojan horse last week.  I’m still not exactly sure how it happened, I got a warning from my virus software, told it to quarantine the file, and then ran a scan.

It was too late.  It had already gotten through the filters, even though the software found it and claimed to have cleaned it.   The Trojan horse snuggled itself into the registry.  It made itself known when I tried to run a Google search and it didn’t work, the screen nothing but white with a blue frame.  I sound much calmer now talking about it than when I was staring at an infected machine, when a person might have described me as hysterical.

That person was my aforementioned father.  Who exponentially increased the world supply of “back up your work,” on that occasion, although it sounded a little more like “why haven’t you been backing up your work?”

“You can lecture me when I get there,” I said at 10 p.m., right before I jumped into my car to drive to the suburbs to see if he could a) salvage my computer or b) salvage my unbacked up work.  No to the computer, yes to the work. 

Did I mention that my dad is a genius who acts as my own personal IT?  Also, that he was very nice to be willing to deal with both me and my computer at a time significantly past 10 p.m. on a weeknight?

So luckily reincarnation is much more tangible when it comes to technology, and with a freshly cleaned hard drive, my computer is back in action.  There were a few data casualties, but the important stuff is intact, and for that I am grateful. 

But if I had been regularly backing up, I wouldn’t have lost a thing.  Let me pass my lesson on to you: back up your data.

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I’m hunting and gathering for round two.  I have to get the right envelopes and target different agents than in the first round, now that I’ve settled into a genre (I even learned that my manuscript, as a sub-genre, is science fantasy.  Who knew?).  I have also noticed something interesting.  A large proportion of agents who are seeking science fiction do not take e-mail queries.

 

Intriguing.

 

Maybe they have learned a little from what the genre has to offer on the future, and maybe they know something about e-mail the rest of us don’t.  Honestly, when you read an article about humanizing artificial intelligence, or creating fish that glow in the dark, don’t you wonder if those scientists ever actually finish reading the books?

 

We all know that it doesn’t turn out well, usually.  Perhaps those agents, more than anyone else, have taken that to heart.

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So I got a pretty nice pep talk (ok fine, if you want to share in it too, I can be generous) from Darcy in this post about writing in a genre.   While I had been complaining about preconceived ideas of lighthearted fiction, I was making my own judgments on writing in a genre.

 

Hmmm.

 

The reality is that I love those little details that (usually) push a book out of the mainstream shelves.  Those touches of the impossible which let you wander into a “world of pure imagination” to borrow a lyric that just floated into my head and now won’t leave (thank you Gene Wilder in the best scene of “Willie Wonka.”  I think it’s world.  Maybe it’s land.  Really, this isn’t the point).

 

A long time ago, I read a book on writing which said that you should write what you love to read.  The author (I would credit her if only I could remember her name), said that everyone wants to write the Great American Novel, but very few of those people, when asked, actually read the various versions of the Great American Novel.

 

I came to terms with that fantasy a while ago (though not as soon as I should have after reading that advice).  So where was the big leap from writing something I enjoyed every soul-sucking moment of writing to realizing that I’d done exactly what that book had told me to do, all those years ago?

 

Writing is about telling the truth, whether it comes from aliens, school teachers, or succubae (can’t get that query for Hell’s Belles out of my brain).  I just happened to find my truth after I finished the book. 

 

As an aside, and in the spirit of truth, I would like to state for the record I would never deny my geekdom.  Not that anyone suggested otherwise, but I wanted to clarify.  It’s been disguised over the years (one of my friends still giggles every time I mention that I was in a sorority in college), but my ambivalence over genre wasn’t the fear that I’d be outed (my geekiness is kind of obvious, anyway).  It was just good, old-fashioned snobbishness, as stated above.

 

I would hate for geeks anywhere to feel maligned, and thus I feel that I must state in the affirmative:  I am a geek, I have always been a geek, and I am very likely to remain a geek in perpetuity. 

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I can see it glittering in the very near distance, my finished query.  It is now worlds different from the previous one, much more voice than before (of course anything over zero is an improvement), and I’m pretty sure it shows, not tells.  My protagonist was definitely hovering around during the creation of it, unlike the first version, when she was off doing whatever she’s off doing while I’m not writing about her (come on, you know that characters have lives during the down time.  And if you don’t, you should read The Eyre Affair and its progeny).

 

Every source I’ve read about writing a query talks about how hard it is.  They were not kidding.  For me, writing the novel was a fun adventure, intense, yes, but because I didn’t know what was going to happen while I was writing it, it was somewhat like reading a book for the first time.  I loved the surprise of thinking that it was going to go one way, and the characters and the story telling me that it wasn’t.  I enjoyed that moment when I’d put something in, puzzle at it for a second while feeling compelled to leave it, only to discover why it was there pages and pages later.   Or in some cases, after the first revision, when I could see the pieces all together but they didn’t exactly fit. 

 

Queries have none of that.   Worse, they have almost no space in which to convey the whole sense of the book, as well as a lack of access to the tools (point of view, misdirection, foreshadowing) which really add depth to the story.  Basically, you get a template and are told to make it unique.  That you need to write a “business letter” with voice. 

 

No wonder writers hate them. 

 

You’ve just had the wonderful expansiveness of hundreds of pages to tell a story, and now you get to retell it in half of one percent of the words.  Sounds a little like something I once heard in a song somewhere about a camel and an eye of a needle.

 

I’m closing in, though.  Phew.

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So since last week, I’ve been doing a lot of research on crafting a query.  Before I sent the first one, I thought I’d taken enough time to really get a sense of what it was supposed to look like, sound like, feel like.

 

Just one week after sending it out, the idea of it makes me cringe.  Especially after reading the example for Hell’s Belles which I think is the most engaging query I’ve read yet (I’m running out to buy the book, and I’ve never read a novel about a succubus.   Or a stripper.  No wonder she was snatched up).  Some of the other samples, ones that left agents breathless and reaching for the phone, I still don’t get.  It’s hard to understand the magic if you don’t see the magic in it, but then again, I suppose everyone’s taste is different.

 

The most challenging part—and apparently the most mandatory—is showing, not telling, in what is essentially a business letter.  Somehow, you have to demonstrate voice, even while following a formula.  It’s like saying here, follow this template, but do it uniquely.  Huh?

 

Everything I’ve read was so accurate, writing the novel was the easy part, it’s the query that’s killer.

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I just made some changes, albeit, minor ones, to the opening paragraph of my manuscript, which got me thinking.  When do you ever stop?  Once it’s published? 

 

I know I’ve been zipping along, reading a new novel, and hit a clunker of a sentence, and wondered if the author, after the type was set and the presses rolling, ever found it and thought “oh no.”  I can almost envision myself, if I am so lucky as to get my book in print, sneaking into bookstores to remove the offending sentence by hand.  Much better to obsessively go through the story again and again, waiting for the words to grind to a halt.

 

I think it’s better now, but if I change my mind after several cups of coffee and finally firing synapses, I’ll thank the mighty Microsoft for “track changes.”  Which, if you haven’t tried it, is the best thing ever.  You can actually read your notes (particularly relevant if you, like I, have the handwriting of a chicken with beak-rot.  I assume chickens write with their beaks).

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So over the weekend, I pondered the advice given to me by Darcy in the comment under “Literary Broccoli.”  I began with the very first question: “What is your genre?”  This question cut straight to the very heart of my problem.

 

I’ve kind of been in denial that perhaps, my story could be described as a (gasp) genre novel.  You know.  Genre.  That scary thing that all those agents say not to bother pitching.  But it’s not really about that element, I tell myself, utterly unconvincingly.  My book is about the characters, not the one little device that just happens to set the story in motion.

 

My brother was relentless after reading the manuscript a while ago. 

 

“It’s science fiction,” he told me.  My brother should know, he’s read nearly every science fiction author out there (that is not hyperbole.  He can finish a book in under two hours.  He’d definitely win the competitive reading contest at Coney Island, if only they had one).

 

“It’s not science fiction,” I said, “because it’s not about that element.  It’s about the characters.”

 

“It’s science fiction,” he repeated, just to annoy me, because that is what brothers do.

 

And then there was my father.  “Science fiction,” he pronounced for the millionth time we discussed it.

 

“But it isn’t really.” 

 

My father, who does not like to annoy me, kept silent.   And then there was my mother.

 

“It’s science fiction,” she said. 

 

“Not really,” I said, “not totally.”

 

With that one simple question posed in a string of useful tips, I returned to my well of denial and grabbed the rope.  What on earth was I fighting?  Many of my favorite writers are classified as science fiction, or were, until they were bumped over to literature.  Kurt Vonnegut, for example.  In fact, I met him once (I know, it was like the most exciting moment of my life, I could barely speak, and suddenly those pictures of girls screaming over the Beatles made sense), and in my one allotted question (I cheated, I asked two, and they practically had to drag me away so the line could move, it might have been a little embarrassing) I asked him if he considered himself to be a science fiction writer.  In that sardonic way, with that little smile, he looked me dead in the eye and said, “I write about science because that’s what I know, so they call that science fiction,” or thereabouts.  What a delightfully perfect answer.

 

But it’s not only Vonnegut.  Margaret Atwood, Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, Audrey Niffenegger.  What on earth was my problem?  The catalyst for my protagonist’s growth was unquestionably borne of science fiction.  So what?

 

I called my brother early on Saturday morning, hoping to wake him, but with no such luck.

 

“Hey,” he said.

 

“Ok,” I said, “It’s science fiction.”

 

“Told you,” he said, and then took the moment to laugh with a gloat perfected over a lifetime. 

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