Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Process Examination #9: Variations on the Theme

I should've known better than to submit a query letter for critique by an editor who doesn't publish SF. I tried to quibble a bit in the opening paragraph and highlight elements that might be more fantasy than SF so it wouldn't look totally stupid to be submitting this query to her attention. Unfortunately, in that quibbling, I opened the letter with this lovely sentence and got appropriately dinged for it: "I don't know where to draw the line between fantasy and science fiction." So, of course, the editor talked about how unprofessional that sounded, that you don't know your own field, etc. An excellent point, but it made me wince all the same.

She then went on to say that query letters don't need to summarize the plot and to stay away from big blocky paragraphs that belonged more to a snyopsis. The query letter needs to get to the heart of theme and characters that create an intriguing concept to entice the editor to ask for more. Another excellent point, phrased in a way I either hadn't heard before or hadn't absorbed as it wasn't my own query letter on the chopping block at the time.

That got me thinking, can I even begin to distill this novel into its selling concepts yet? I've got some ideas, but it's hard to mention the one element I know that's fun and sets my story apart--80s hairmetal throwbacks--in a way that explains why that element is in the story without bogging it down in a worldbuilding infodump. So I turned to that squirrelly concept of theme to look there for something that might make a query letter stand out.

OK, I also looked at the characters, examining what makes them unique and fun to write, what conflicts they get tossed into that make the story interesting. But that, in turn, brought me back to theme as I started noticing, well, themes in my characters and conflicts.

Unfortunately, all I've got are words: chosen vs blood family, decisions under pressure, corporate shenanigans, and breaking the rules. I had the first three more or less from earlier contemplations on the concept of theme. The last one came up while considering the query letter and what stood out about it as strong. Every single one of my characters breaks the rules in some fashion and often for interests that aren't self-serving. Well, my bad guy's the exception, but even there, he's more concerned about his family's company surviving, not really about his own power and interests. I guess the key difference is that my good guys don't break rules that put others in danger without the consent of those others, whereas my antagonist doesn't see a need for any such thing. To him, everything is expendable as long as his family's company endures.

While all of these meditations on theme and characters and conflicts are enlightening, I still don't have a theme I can articulate in a sentence or two. I still can't convey clearly the awesome in my book. I know, I know. I'm not even at 20K yet, so I shouldn't be fretting about this too much. I'm sure by the time I get to "The End" in this draft I'll be able to express theme and Teh Awesome in a way that's going to make a wicked query letter. But I don't think I'm going to stop analyzing THUMB for theme and intriguing elements as I work through this draft. It's helpful. It keeps me on top of what my characters are doing, on how my conflict is twisting and shaping.

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