Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theme in Query Letters

Okay, before we get into the tricky concept of theme in query letters, we have to start off with a definition of theme itself.

Theme is the central idea which controls a literary work. It is the underlying meaning, the aphorism around which the plot and characters coalesce.

Theme can be broad and abstract. Most would say, for example, that the theme of Othello is jealousy. Othello is jealous of Desdemona, Iago is jealous of them both, and so on. This jealousy drives them to wild actions and tragic ends. Each character embodies a slightly different aspect of jealousy, and the plot explores the consequences of jealous behavior.

So, should Shakespeare include in his query, "My theme is jealousy"?

No. Nor should you state your theme so baldly. I really don't need to see the following sentences in any query letter:
  • Love conquers all.
  • Love heals all wounds.
  • Love is blind.
  • True love lasts forever.
Because, let's face it, these are cliches. They might be great themes for novels, but the statements themselves are about as interesting as a coma.

What is interesting -- or what, at least, has the potential to be interesting -- is the way you explore the theme in your query. Just as the theme can be the unifying principle for your novel, so can it be the organizing principle for your query. (Or synopsis. Or pitch. Think about it after you've read this whole post.) So your goal is not to present the generic version of your theme in a coma-inducing statement, but to illustrate it using specific detail from your novel.

Let's say your theme is love heals all wounds. Your first job is to do a little brainstorming. Get out a sheet of paper. Write the key words from your theme in the center of the page, and draw bubbles around each word. Like so:

And now you begin to probe each part of that statement as it relates to your novel. Look not just for plot and character details which support your theme, but also for details which contradict it.

We'll make up an example to see how this goes. Your story is about Marissa and Jake, who hate each other on page one but fall in love in the end. Along the way, their nemesis Dr. Badboy kidnaps Marissa's elderly but frail grandmother. He forgets to also steal Grandma's medicine cabinet, meaning her health will be in ever greater peril as the plot develops. Jake is the superhero/FBI guy/rogue cop who investigates the case, overcomes Marissa's trust issues from a past cheating bastard boyfriend, and gets shot in Dr. Badboy's lair. Grandma's poodle is the only eyewitness to the crime and plays a key role in the investigation.

We've all seen plots something like this before, right? Marissa has a wounded heart, and she must learn to love again over the course of the plot, hence the theme, love heals all wounds.

But there's more to it than that. Your plot will contain other details supporting the theme -- concrete, specific details -- and we're going to jot them down on our paper. The easiest way to do this is to think of each keyword in the theme one at a time. Ask the journalist's questions of each keyword: who, what, where, why, when, how? For example:

  • Love: Who feels love? Is it strong or weak? Does anyone feel hatred? On the first/last page, who feels love or hate?
  • Heals: Heals how? Automatically, as aspirin heals a headache? Or behaviorally, as changes in activity can create change in other areas of life? There's other medication in the plot. Hmm. And the villain is named Doctor -- not Mister or His Grace the Duke of Evil.
  • All: Oh, really? Are there any exceptions to ALL? Why ALL and not SOME or MOST?
  • Wounds: Here's a concrete noun. Everything else has been abstract so far. So can we list actual physical wounds or conditions, as well as psychic trauma? Which are healed and which are unhealed?
As you ask these questions, jot down the answers in bubbles around the central theme, and draw lines to connect them to the relevant keywords. Like so:

As you test the way your novel supports your theme, you'll discover some interesting angles you might not have thought about before. For example, Dr. Badboy, the villain, dies of his wounds. Bot nobody loved him, right? So that supports your theme, and it can be expressed thematically in your plot summary:

No one grieves when the hateful Dr. Badboy dies of his chest wounds, and everyone rejoices when Grandma's insulin shot saves her life.

Okay, not a brilliant sentence, but you get the idea. We have very specific statements containing plot details which support your theme. How about,

As Grandma recovers in the ER, Jake and Marissa join hands, proclaim their mutual love, and find an empty hospital bed in the maternity ward to seal the deal.

(tee hee) Maybe not in those words, but do you see the theme lurking in that sentence, too? Compare these two sentences to,

In the end, Grandma is rescued and Dr. Badboy dies.

Here we lose the sense of wounds, healing, and love which floats just under the surface of the first two sentences. Also, you might want to rethink whether to include this:

Pinky Poodlepiffle, Grandma's beloved dog, is caught in the crossfire and dies in Dr. Badboy's lair.

Because it doesn't support your theme.

You can be bold about this. You can include the words love, heals, all, and wounds -- just not together in a single sentence with nothing else. You can also be more subtle, and use synonyms for these keywords. (You can also brainstorm these synonyms on your bubble map.)

Now that you've examined your theme within the context of this process, can you revise it to get more story specific? Maybe it's not love heals all wounds, but love overcomes what hate creates. If you can generate a more specific and less cliched version of your theme, you might be able to get away with stating it directly in your query. Otherwise, stick to the ideas outlined above and focus on creating a plot summary which supports the theme without stating it in cliched terms.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Last month we posted a little sidebar poll about things you include in a query letter. Here are the results.

Word count
84 (96%)
Writing credentials
59 (67%)
Plot summary
79 (90%)
Log line
33 (37%)
Short character descriptions
27 (31%)
Conflict, conflict, conflict
59 (67%)
Theme or motif
28 (32%)
81 (93%)
Marketing plans
7 (8%)
Threats of suicide and/or murder
2 (2%)
Cold hard cash

Let's talk about each of these elements a little more. It's probably no surprise to experienced writers that the top winners were word count, genre/subgenre, and plot summary. Even the most skeletal query or cover letter should contain all three of these items. This is very basic stuff. (For nonfiction writers, instead of a plot summary, a short thesis will work.)

But why are these the big three?
- Word count tells me whether your story is appropriate for what my house publishes.
- Ditto for genre and subgenre, except that these also let me know how your book would be shelved or categorized by retailers so that its audience can find it.
- Where word count and genre tell me where your book fits into the larger publishing universe, the plot summary tells me about your specific book and why it might be of interest to readers.

This is partly why we tell you not to waste valuable query letter space explaining your target audience or drawing comparisons to other books. Just state the word count and genre quickly, and then move into what makes your book special.

In other words, do this:

"Space Opera" is a 110,000 word science fiction novel about an outlawed princess who needs one special warrior to help her steal back her crown from the aliens who conquered her planet.

Don't do this:

"Space Opera" is a 110,000 word science fiction novel with fantasy notes that mixes the adventure and heroic journey of Star Wars with aspects of fairy tales and mythology including a strong female protagonist, a romantic rescuer, a warning and moral to readers, and a touch of magic.

Do you see why? To me, the differences between the two approaches are glaring, but maybe we should point them out. The first lets me neatly categorize the story in the publishing spectrum before telling me about the actual story itself. The second takes me on a meandering tour of different story types and elements without telling me anything specific about the book itself. The first sentence tells me very plainly, "Shelve this with either scifi or scifi romance." The second might be scifi, but hints at fantasy, YA, and romance.

Next, the same number of voters (about 2/3 of you) chose conflict and writing credentials. Though the group finds them of equal importance, we'll talk about them separately.

Conflict is the engine that drives a commercial fiction story. It provides the structure to the book, the dramatic interest in the chapters, and the reason for readers to keep turning pages. You don't have to come right out and say, "My conflict is between the invading aliens and the native people led by the dethroned princess and her warlord boyfriend." A well-written query will have strong conflict evident throughout. Look again at our "do this" sample sentence and compare it to the "don't do this" sample. See the conflict?

Writing credentials are little nuggets that convince me you won't flake out and fail to turn in a finished manuscript on time. They demonstrate that you will meet your professional obligations because you take the craft seriously. If you don't have a publication history yet (and yes, these are the best credentials), then find other ways to demonstrate professionalism. Join a writer's group. Take online classes. Write a blog. Any of these things, and many more besides, can demonstrate your commitment and credibility.

About a third of you chose log lines, short character descriptions, and theme or motif. I was surprised in varying degrees by this.

Log lines are a handy way to shortcut the book. Our "do this" sample is essentially a log line, a one-sentence summary of the story. Because space in query letters is tight, log lines can be an effective tool for keeping things concise. That said, if you plan to include a 3-5 sentence paragraph describing your plot and a bit about the characters, it might make more sense to skip the log line and save that space for something else.

Short character descriptions are actually fairly important. Story is about people, after all.
These can be a few words or a sentence or two. These don't have to be character manifestos.

Think of it like this. Look at our "do this" sample and take out the words outlawed princess. Substitute a character name, say, Samantha Berber. Does making that substitution weaken the sample? Yes, because we don't know anything about this Samantha person, but "outlawed princess" indicates a lot about character. When you're revising your query letter, look for ways you can do this, substituting strong character words or adding little descriptive phrases to bolster the reader's understanding of the character.

Because here's the thing. I still don't know if our outlawed princess is a spoiled, pampered creature struggling to adapt to life outside the palace, or a strong-willed renegade with the leadership skills but not the battle skills. This one could go either way, and it's up to you to tell me which way it goes.

Theme and Motif. I'm not surprised that so few of you picked this, actually, as these are under-leveraged in most queries. Next time I find a few moments to blog, maybe we'll talk about ways to incorporate theme or motif into a query letter. If done well, it can really set your book above the herd.

As to the rest -- marketing plans, threats, and bribes -- these are probably best left out of your query. *grin* The one exception would be discussion of your platform (your established presence within a community of potential readers), which is one aspect of marketing that can help sell you up front.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Ring-a-Ding Kids

Today over on Romance University, I answered a question about writing a scene in which the pov character overhears a phone call. Our own friend Murphy provided the question. Check it out!

Posting on this blog should pick up speed again over the next week or so. I've been in major triage on a project which should be wrapped by the end of today, and Alicia is on the road. Thanks for your patience.


Saturday, May 15, 2010


I was reading a book review that said flatly that the plot was "over the top," and yes, it did sound sort of extreme. But that made me wonder-- what makes one plot "over the top" and another "innovative" or "clever" or any number of good synonyms for "different"?

What's the difference? Can you give some examples?'


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To Cap or Not to Cap

This question comes up in some form or another at least once a week. Which words do we capitalize, and which are lower case? Whether internet/Internet, Iraq war/Iraq War, or some other term, often we are unsure whether to hit the shift key on that first letter.

If you don't know house style rules, here's a safe way to find answers to these questions.

Check the AP Style book.

For the casual kinds of writing usually employed by genre fiction writers, AP style will be a safe fallback position whenever you run into these kinds of questions. Most of us use AP as a sort of baseline for a lot of technical questions like spelling, caps, hyphens, and so on. We may diverge from their rules here and there, but even when we do, it won't hurt you to follow AP. It's an accepted and recognized standard.

What if you don't have an AP style book and can't get to one?

Check Webster's. Not all dictionaries are created alike, and writers have been known to have bitter rows over which is a better standard. Some swear by the Oxford English Dictionary because of its comprehensive etymology. It's great for historical fiction writers. Some prefer American Heritage for its insightful inclusion of regional dialect and jargon.

So why am I advocating Webster's?

Because that's what AP does. When AP doesn't specify a particular spelling, it defaults to Webster's.

I keep multiple dictionaries on hand to check shades of meaning -- comparing definitions across dictionaries can often reveal subtle connotations. But for matters of style, when the Red Sage book is silent, we go to AP and, like AP, to Webster's.

Regardless of which method you choose, be sure to remain consistent. Don't use the OED variant for the first usage of a term and the Webster's for the next. Don't mix your internets and your Internets in the same document.

Which are your favorite dictionaries, and why?


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Disliking and deep pov

I was recently critiquing an opening for a friend, because she'd said contest judges always noted that they didn't like her heroine. It was a puzzle, because she'd set the heroine up to be admirable-- a social worker who has organized a charity to help poor women get out of abusive situations.

What I realized is... sometimes deep POV in the opening of the story is counterproductive. If the character isn't easy to like, consider easing into forcing the reader to "be her".

In this story, the heroine was snarky. Really snarky. She had snarky mental criticisms about everything, about her boss's choice of footwear and the mayor's speeches, about her best friend's latest boyfriend and her own inability to get a date. Since we were in her head deeply and exclusively, we were sort of surrounded by all these snarky comments and couldn't get away.

So at first I tentatively suggested that the author just tone that down, make her less snarky. "But that's who she is," said the author. "And it's important that she be skeptical and critical because she's the only one who figures out that the congenial old mayor is a killer."

Okay. Well, you know, point of view "depth of penetration" can vary throughout the book, depending on what you need and how much you need the inner reality of the character. This is really important to know: Deep POV is not some life choice you make and can never unmake. It's just a tool to get what you want. And usually when you use deep POV, the purpose is to give the reader the experience of being this character.

Not all characters are good to "be" right off. Sometimes it might be better to ease into the character. You know how some people you don't much like right off, but as you go on you realize they're wonderful people, just gruff or curmudgeonly or sarcastic or whatever is offputting? (Interestingly, this can often make male characters more intriguing and appealing from the inside, but can make a woman character really hard to like. Sexism? Or is that just women readers' response? Maybe men don't respond so negatively to sarcastic women characters? Or maybe I'm the only one who responds that way?)

Well, sometimes it's better to present the character as she is on the outside, and hint at her inner depths, and then, when the reader already has reason to like her (because the outside draws him in), unleash the Seinfeld-within.

Just a thought. But you know, deep POV is not the only approach to introducing characters to readers. I bet you feel like you know Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy pretty well, and they were presented almost entirely from omniscient viewpoint. Sidney Carton? ("It's a far, far better thing I do...") Omniscient. All those books in the 19th century: If they weren't first-person, they were probably mostly in omniscient, and they were pretty good, right? You never put down Dickens and thought, "Boy, I don't understand that Scrooge fellow one bit. Wish I could be deeper into his mind."

You can get to know characters by their actions too. In fact, "By their fruits, ye shall know them," should be emblazoned on the computer screen of popular fiction writers. What the characters think and feel might be important. What they DO, however, is essential.

So if you feel like your character isn't immediately likable, but will be eventually, try easing in on the point of view. Start in single POV, but a little more distant. (I think that might also help us concentrate on an active opening, btw, rather than a few pages of snarky introspection. What's happening, not what's being thought?) Show the character through his/her actions and reactions, and just slide in thought and feeling as needed.

You're in charge here. Never forget that. You are not controlled by your POV choice!


Quotation marks... still needed

Good article about quotation marks, or the lack thereof---

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Killing the Cat

Theresa's last post reminds me of something The Funniest Woman in the World said. She writes both romance and mystery. "You want to make romance readers mad. Kill a child. You want to make mystery readers mad? Kill a cat."

Ben (my cat) doesn't think this is funny.


That One Question We Always Hear

It never fails. At some point in every conference, some writer will ask a variation of this question.

"Can I ::insert controversial plot device here::?"

Can I have a lesbian sex scene in a straight romance?
Can I let my shifters mate in animal form?
Can I cover fifty years in a 60,000 word story?

And so on.

Every time I hear one of these questions, there's a suspended moment in which I want so badly to answer the question with one of my own.

"I don't know. Can you?"

Because, really, it all comes back to you. Do you have the writing chops to pull it off? Do you understand the pitfalls of the plot device, and do you know how to write around it?

Of course, I never answer that way, though I do frequently answer with references to authors who could, who did, and who might show you the way if you pay attention to their tactics. I offer that knowing that the real answer has little to do with who already "got away with it," and everything to do with whether you understand the mechanics behind your own question and whether you have the writing skills to make it work. Luckily, both of those things are within your grasp.

To begin, we must understand why the plot device is controversial or forbidden. Let's start with an example, one of the oldest rules in romance: Never kill the pet.

The stories behind this rule have taken on an almost urban-legend flavor.

I heard about this one book where the cat died in a fire/car wreck/hail of bullets, and the author got hundreds of hate letters over it.

But the thing is, behind those legends, there's a real author (or authors) with a pack of letters complaining about the damned cat (as she's inevitably come to think of it) -- which isn't even a real cat, but an imaginary cat in a made-up fiction book about people who don't even exist. Should she be flattered that her books seem real enough that people are angry about the damned cat? Hard to feel flattered when everyone's yelling at her. One thing's for sure. She'll never write a book where the pet dies again!

And now you want to write a book where Hester Heroine has a most beloved little chihuahua with a complete wardrobe of tiny little sweaters and booties. And you need an event in chapter 9 that will break down Hester's snarky exterior and let her warm woman's heart shine through, preferably also providing an opportunity for Horatio Hero to wrap his arms around her. Aha! you think. I'll have the bad guys feed poisoned steak to the dog! The Hester can weep and Horatio can squeeze and, what the heck, it's not like the chihuahua has a real role in the plot, anyway. No great loss.

Why is this a bad idea? Why do romance writers adopt the rule to never kill the pet?

It's because of the hero. On some deep primal level, chicks dig guys who can keep us alive. In fact, it's one of the two sociobiological purposes of the human male (the other being to father children). Men are supposed to fight off predators and thereby keep us from becoming dead. Are you surprised by that? Do you tend to think that hunting meat is the true male job? That's really just an ancillary benefit to a much deeper and broader purpose, most of which doesn't come up very often in modern life. Most of our natural predators are well in hand these days.

But the purpose itself lives on, hardwired into the male body and psyche. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's part of why women love men. Underlying many popular romance stories will be the notion that the female has to make sure that the man is willing to protect her. This is why heroes are so often cops and SEALs and soldiers. She has to believe she can trust him, that her life and the lives of their future children are safe with him. And if his job is to fight bad guys, well, then, we can bet he's tapped right into that lovely primal dynamic.

Enter the pet.

The pet, in this context, is symbolic of both the weaker creature admitted to the home's center (like children) and the tamed male (the guard dog, you might say, whose potentially harmful instincts are being channeled for good).

In other words, killing a pet causes two problems way down deep in our lizard brains. Because on that level, killing a pet is no different from killing a baby. AND killing a pet is the symbolic equivalent of killing off the male's better nature, the part of him that uses his wildness and strength for the greater good.

On a much more immediate level, we just don't like to see cute little chihuahuas in perky sweaters and matching boots get killed off by the bad guys. Not even imaginary chihuahuas in made-up fiction books about people who don't even exist. That's true, but that's also not enough to explain the depth of outrage when someone actually does kill a pet in a romance novel.

OK. Now, after we've thought all the way through the deeper reasons behind the rule, the next step is to try to understand when or if it would be okay to kill the pet. I'm going to pose this as a question to Team Comments now. Working with the example of Horatio and Hester and the chihuahua, is there a way to write that so that the dog can be offed and the reader's lizard brain won't go into seizures? What details might you introduce to make it work? These are hard questions, but if you can get through this, you can probably figure out the problems of shifter sex, lesbian sex, and enormous time gaps with ease.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Eep! Is It May Already?

If it is, that means it's time for the Brenda Novak Juvenile Diabetes auction.

I'm giving away an evaluation of a full manuscript. Well, I'm giving it, but one lucky winner will be paying for it. And there are loads of other great items up for bid. I've got my eye on an ARC of Me, Myself and Why by Secrets alum MaryJanice Davidson, but lucky for the rest of you, there are two available. :)

Go bid and have fun!

Sunday, May 2, 2010


I've been trying to figure out how to present my thoughts about RT2010, but it's a little difficult. There was little drama, lots of fun, and a good dose of uncertainty about the future. And it's been hard to take all the little snips and threads and coalesce them into a single fabric.

Let me give you an example. Lots of people are talking about the pending demise of UF. But when you ask agents, authors, or editors about sales in this genre, they say they haven't seen sales diminish yet. Maybe they're not growing any larger, and maybe a spattering of slots that would have gone to UF are now going to other types of stories. But does this mean that UF is in freefall? No.

I think -- and this is 100% my opinion, so take it for what it's worth -- all the talk about UF says more about a realignment of hope with reality than with anything to do with actual sales. It's a genre with a readership, and it will continue to exist in some familiar measure for at least some time to come. But it's not the next big market-sweeping thing, not the next paranormal or chick lit, and for a while there, people thought it might be.

Is steampunk the next UF or the next vampire craze? Will it be steady or explosive? Lots of interest in steampunk at this conference. The word was on everyone's lips. The panels were well-attended. (In fact, at the steampunk panel I attended, there were a surprising number of editors in the audience. We're paying attention to this niche.) Are people flocking to read the books? Will it explode? It feels like it might go that way, but only time will tell. My worry about steampunk romance is that we haven't yet had that one big breakout book to solidify the market. Several books have done well, but as of yet, no Bridget Jones or Edward Cullen. Nevertheless, it's an interesting subgenre that has the potential to appeal to a lot of readers in a lot of ways. It feels vibrant.

So, against this backdrop, almost every author I spoke to confessed to working on something in a genre other than their current genres. The surprising exception to this are the hearth-and-home contemporary writers, who seem perfectly happy right where they are. Romance plus domestic arts apparently equals happy authors.

My take-away? This market feels ready to jump in a new direction. But where? Authors are trying new things, genre-switching, bringing beloved old projects out from under the bed to see if they can breathe new life into the text. Editors eye sales reports and hold a damp finger to the air to test the wind. Historicals continue to surge, contemporaries continue to wobble, paranormals continue to look like a permanent presence.

So you tell me. What's the book type you want to read but can't find on the shelves? What's the book type that has captured your imagination lately? What books are your non-writer friends all reading now?