Agents of SHIELD and Fulfilling Your Promises

One strong bit of writing advice I’ve seen repeatedly over the past few years is: fulfill the promises you make to the readers. By “promises,” what is meant is an indication within the story that something will happen or be explored. Writers make many promises to their readers throughout a story, sometimes without even realizing it. This ties in strongly with the “Chekhov’s Gun” concept or trope (look it up). This is not quite the same as foreshadowing, though the two concepts are linked.

For example, in the opening pages of my current novel, a surprising character wields a very expensive looking sword. A few pages later, that sword is missing. If I never mentioned the sword again in the book, that would be a pretty flagrant breaking of a promise to the readers. Obviously, the sword must be important somehow, and I need to bring it back up again later. That’s a clear promise to the reader. 

This whole concept has really come home to me the last couple of weeks. I’ve been rewatching the TV series Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD with my son (it’s his first time seeing it). I had vague memories of season one, which started back in 2013. Mainly what I remembered is that much of the first season wasn’t very good, as if the series was kind of just spinning its wheels until Captain America: Winter Soldier came out and changed everything. After that, it took off, got steadily better season-after-season, and never slowed down again.

marvels-agents-of-shield.jpgAs I rewatched it, I was reminded of the promises concept. Many times in the first season, the show threw out names and concepts familiar to long-time comic book readers, and then never followed up on them. It was a classic example of not fulfilling what was promised. 

Before I go any further, I’m giving a spoiler warning. I’m going to discuss some very specific plot elements from multiple seasons of the show, including the most recent (five). If you don’t want that, stop reading now, go watch them all, then come back. I’ll wait. 

Actually, no. I won’t wait. That’s a lot of TV for you to binge through. I’ll just keep going now.

Here’s the big surprise in all of this: Agents of SHIELD DID fulfill some of their biggest promises – but not until season five! I have no idea if this was planned all along or not.

In some of the very first episodes of season one, the agents uncover this strange element called “gravitonium” (stop laughing; still better than “unobtanium”). They also meet the scientist studying it: Dr. Franklin Hall. All of that added up to one thing to comic book readers: Graviton! In Marvel Comics, Graviton is a massively powerful super-villain, with the power to manipulate gravity itself. And he started out as an ordinary scientist named… Franklin Hall. In the show, when Dr. Hall is absorbed into the gravitonium itself, and one final stinger scene shows his hand reaching back out of it… it’s a clear set-up. It’s a promise to the viewer: Graviton is coming!

Except he didn’t. The gravitonium showed up briefly in a couple more episodes late in the season… and then was never mentioned again. It was a huge disappointment. So why did the TV show do this? Budgetary concerns? Marvel telling them they couldn’t use that character after all? A change in the direction of the show? We may never know.

But then something happened early in season five that made long-time viewers sit up and pay attention. Someone name-dropped gravitonium again. It became an important plot element all of a sudden. Wow.

And then: shock of all shocks. In the final storyline of season five, Graviton arrives. Yes, it was totally different from the comic book in the way that it happened, but it made perfect sense for the show. One major element had me kicking myself for not guessing it ahead of time.

The promise from early season one was finally fulfilled in late season five. Amazing. 

That’s not the only example. Multiple other plot elements that seemed to be tossed aside or forgotten came back at least briefly in season five. I have no idea if any of this had been planned ahead of time. More likely, the writers group for the show looked back and asked something like, “what can we bring back here during what might be our final season, that will reward our long-time viewers?” 

Either way, it was immensely satisfying. And that’s what writers should be aiming to do for their readers. 

But hopefully, it happens sooner than five books into a series…

The Problem is Not the Games

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Recently, this comic strip popped up in one of my social media threads. The responses ranged from “so true!” to “this is nothing. Try playing Diplomacy.”*

This bothered me for a number of reasons, especially since the posting was in a group dedicated to board games! I pondered it for a while, and why none of this was true for me. You see, I’ve been playing board games my entire life. I have a large collection of games that I love to play. I’d rather play board games than just about any other leisure activity.

And I’ve never experienced the level of anger/problems depicted in this comic strip.

I can recall times that people got mad over the style a game was played. We adjusted the play style for them and kept going. I can recall one game of Diplomacy in which a friend couldn’t believe I betrayed him… and the only reason I recall it is because he brings it up every time the game is mentioned. But we’re still friends. I had a guy get really angry in a game of Terraforming Mars a few weeks ago, but he was a complete stranger I was playing with for the first time.

That’s the key right there. The friends I play games with? Some of them I’ve been playing against for decades. We’re still friends. No one’s ever kicked over the table. No one’s ever held a grudge (except, apparently, that one friend and the Diplomacy game…). I haven’t lost any friendships over any games, most of which are far more cutthroat than Uno or Monopoly (and Scrabble? Seriously, people?).

This leads to a very crucial but controversial conclusion: the problem is not the games; the problem is the people. 

If the people with which you’re playing games are going to take it personally when you play a “Draw 4” on them, perhaps you should be playing with other people. Seriously. Everyone involved needs to accept the nature of the game, how it’s played, and how it’s won. Otherwise, it’s an exercise some people should just avoid.

This principle applies to so much more than just board games. We live in a culture where people are offended by so many different things. Outrage is the new normal. Social media is full of it. Today’s equivalent to flipping the game board, quite often, is tweeting.

Surround yourself with the right people. If your friends, acquaintances, co-workers, etc., are always on the verge of exploding, it’s probably better for your own mental health to not spend a lot of time around them.

As I continue in my process of querying literary agents for my novel, I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I see some agents that fall into this category of perpetually outraged. I don’t think I’d want them working for my book, honestly. I’d be terrified of offending them at any given moment, if I slipped up and said anything whatsoever about politics, religion, or even pop culture (“No, THIS superhero is the greatest ever!”). Needless to say, that makes this process even harder. How do I find someone who loves my book and wants to see it published, but I’m also excited about working together? It’s a minefield out there.

The conclusion? Find people with whom you can enjoy life, even if the process takes a long time. Don’t compromise your beliefs (or your game-playing style).

 


* Diplomacy, for the uninformed, is a classic board game of negotiation and strategy in which players are forced to make alliances to get ahead… and probably break those alliances in order to win. Betrayal is practically guaranteed.

The Query

I meant to make this blog post a couple weeks ago. Time got away from me.

Since my last post, I sent my query letter out to a small group of carefully selected literary agents. So far, in response, I received three form rejection letters, and two rejection letters that were only partially form. One of the form rejections set a new record by arriving less than 24 hours after I sent the query. Since most agents say their responses will usually take weeks, that’s… not encouraging.

The two not-quite-form letters each had at least one comment from the agents. And they contradicted each other. So… for now I can only ignore those comments unless/until I receive other comments that re-inforce one of them.

I said I’d give you all a look at my query, so here it is. For more on the details as to how this relates to the overall story, see the previous post.

Marshal’s entire life has been one of isolation and persecution. He wants nothing more than to escape the curse given to him by his father, one of the Lords who twisted the world’s magic to guard themselves against the consequences of their own selfish actions. But now a leprous assassin pursues him, sent by his half-brother Volraag. Volraag cares only about inheriting their father’s immense magical power, and Marshal stands in his way.

Meanwhile, Seri-Belit arrives at the Conclave of Mages determined to become the first and greatest female Master Mage. When she discovers a unique ability to see sources of magic, she realizes magic itself is unraveling, caused by the Lords like Marshal’s father. If magic unravels, cataclysm follows. But to fix it, Seri needs enough power to alter the laws of magic that have stood for centuries.

While Marshal desperately seeks to elude the assassin and find a way to lift his curse, Seri’s power grows exponentially. But it may not be enough. Volraag doesn’t just want his father’s power; he wants the power of all the Lords. To stop him, Marshal must escape his curse and claim his father’s power, while Seri must face Volraag himself. If they fail, Marshal will die, and Volraag’s power will tear the world apart.

UNTIL ALL CURSES ARE LIFTED is a 142,000-word adult epic fantasy that will appeal to readers who enjoy the works of Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks. This is a stand-alone with series potential.

And that’s it. Did that make you want to read the book? If so, let me know. If you have questions, let me know.

For now, the process continues. Will an agent be interested in this story? Stay tuned…

Writing a Query Letter

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing a query letter. And re-writing a query letter. Also, I re-wrote a query letter. Over and over and over.

I thought I had it down fairly well… and then I let an editor look at it. I had the help of the fantastic Haley Sulich (link) and we went back and forth for a while. Wow. Every time I got an email from her, I would dread it and be excited at the same time. Dread, because this meant she was going to point out something I did wrong, probably. And excitement, because every time we did this, the letter got stronger and more exciting.

A query letter is often described as being similar to what you would read on the back cover of a book. In other words, it gives a brief summary of some of the main plot elements and teases things just enough to make you want to read more. The goal is to convince a literary agent to want to read your manuscript.

However, the more I worked on this one, the more I realized that there’s a better comparison than back cover copy, and that is movie trailers.

Many times, a movie trailer will focus in on one specific aspect of an upcoming movie and play that up. The most obvious examples I’ve seen in the past weeks are the trailers for Ant-Man and the Wasp. While the trailers have focused heavily on the humor of the movie, at least one of them played up the concept of the villain Ghost. She’s portrayed as having incredible powers and Luis even says she wants to take over the world “or something.” Later on, a voice over mentions “saving the world” again. Clearly, this Ghost is terribly powerful and the entire movie revolves around stopping her.

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Except it doesn’t. From what I understand, Ghost is a part of the story, but not the primary focus. In fact, several of the reviews have said there really isn’t a “villain,” per se, in this movie, at least not in the traditional sense. (Of course, this could be totally wrong; I haven’t seen it yet myself.) Some reviews don’t even mention her.

Yet by playing up the conflict with Ghost, the trailers will attract more viewers, especially those expecting standard superhero-style throw downs with a bad guy. It’s focusing on what those viewers want to see, even though there’s much more to the story.

I’ve written a 142,000 word epic fantasy. It has a lot going on. But my query can’t possibly begin to include all of the major events or even characters! And that’s okay. The query has to have a tight focus. In my case, it includes the two main protagonists and one main antagonist. A host of other characters and their stories aren’t even mentioned, including a second primary antagonist. If I included all of them, it wouldn’t be a query any more, it would be a synopsis (and that’s a whole other hassle).

I’m on a fascinating journey here, through the whims of the publishing process. I’ll keep you all updated via this blog. Next time, I’ll let you get a glimpse at the final query and let you know a little more about this particular novel.

Reviewing a Couple of Recent Reads

I’ve always been a lover of books, especially fantasy novels. Now that I’m working hard on writing, I’m even more motivated to read. Even if I didn’t feel that way personally, all of the “advice” sites encourage writers to read, read, read. So I keep reading.

The hazard I’ve found now is that too often I find myself analyzing the writing and story-telling. While that’s part of why I read now, it also has the potential to diminish my enjoyment of the stories themselves. I find myself getting pulled out of the story and into the world of craft-analyzation. Let me try to explain with the two more recent novels I just finished reading:

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First up is The Shadow of What Was Lost, by James Islington. Recommended to me by one of my beta readers, I got excited when I saw the thickness of the book. Yes, I like very long books with deep stories, so long as they keep my attention. Fortunately, this book managed to do that.

Islington uses a lot of epic fantasy tropes at first. The story starts with one of those mysterious prologues that’s intended to show you that the real stakes in this upcoming story are far larger than you can tell at first. Some writers have used this extremely well. Others… not so much. This one kind of falls in the middle. I found it mildly interesting, but it could have been left out completely and wouldn’t have changed much of anything (or used as a flashback for the character involved, which would make sense since he gets numerous flashbacks later).

Following that, the story begins with the typical young male protagonist who’s kind of a failure at his pursuits, living a somewhat menial existence. And yet, of course, he’s destined for greatness. I’m not mocking this trope – it’s one I use myself to some degree. Just pointing out how I immediately notice these things now.

From there, the story escalates rapidly into all kinds of subplots that somehow tie in to the greater plot, leading to an eventual climactic battle, but also setting up tons and tons of stuff for the next book or two.

And while I generally enjoyed the book greatly, I couldn’t help noticing that maybe, just maybe Islington went a little overboard. Maybe too much backstory revealing too much ancient history of the world. Maybe too many characters all tied into that backstory somehow. Maybe too many seemingly average characters that are actually (Surprise!) super-good at magic, or fighting, or intrigue, or also just happen to be hidden royalty or somesuch. There’s a lot going on with every single character and sometimes… it just feels like too much.

Islington switches the POV character many times, but somehow manages to keep that number fairly limited. Even so, I found myself somewhat annoyed at some of the POV shifts. Also, the closer I got to the end, the more I wondered if it would end on a cliffhanger. Still in the “all is lost” part of the climax and there aren’t too many pages left… how can this get resolved? (Spoiler: it did. Sort of.)

Yet… I still enjoyed it. It’s not my favorite, but I’m definitely going to read the next book. And isn’t that the main goal of a writer?

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The second book is In the Region of the Summer Stars, by Stephen R. Lawhead. I had this on preorder, because… well… because I’ve been a fan of Lawhead’s writing since the 1980s. I adore the Pendragon Cycle, and think Byzantium is one of the greatest stand-alone novels on my shelves. His Song of Albion trilogy is, quite possibly, my second favorite fantasy of all time (after Lord of the Rings, of course). So I’m quite biased here.

That’s not to say he hasn’t disappointed me over time. I found the Celtic Crusades all right, but nothing spectacular. The King Raven trilogy (Robin Hood as a Celt?) was kind of the low point, in my opinion. And then came the Bright Empires series. Ostensibly, it’s about Ley line travel to other alternate worlds, but really there’s almost no distinction between that and time travel. It also disappointed me because the promos before the series promised high fantasy… and it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the story overall, but it wasn’t what was promised, and dragged in places (far too much time is spent on a previously minor character suddenly thrust into the spotlight and, um, inventing coffee in Europe, for example).

Now Lawhead has returned to Celtic-themed fiction again, which is what he’s excelled at in the past. I found myself looking forward to it, though suspicious when early reports again promised some kind of “high fantasy.” Yeah, that’s what you said about the last series and it wasn’t. When the book arrived, I was disappointed when I saw how thin it was, in contrast to the other book discussed above.

However, this time the promos seem to be turning out mostly accurate. Lawhead returns to a quasi-historical Celtic world (Eirlandia), but much like his Pendragon Cycle, the fae are also in existence. I halfway kept expecting one of the characters from Pendragon to show up; they seem that similar. Here are almost all of the things one would expect from a Lawhead book of this kind – swords, amicable banter between warriors, dire circumstances, cruel villains, gritty and visceral violence, and magic. (Curiously, no intricate description of a feast. That’s unusual.)

Here’s where the writing analysis broke my enjoyment somewhat. I ran across two paragraphs where Lawhead shifted out of deep POV with his main character (Conor) into omniscient narrator. Both instances were very brief, and I might never have noticed if I weren’t so deeply into craft study lately. An editor should have caught those, I kept thinking.

Even so, I enjoyed In the Region of the Summer Stars, and I’ll almost certainly get the next book. The main problem I had was: it’s too short. Way too short. I don’t know word count, of course, but on my shelf, it’s Lawhead’s shortest-looking book since Dream Thief (1983!). I can’t help wondering if this was a publisher’s decision to break apart a longer story.

 

Writing update: I think I’m almost done with revisions to my novel. Waiting on a little more feedback while I work on my query letter. And then I’ll be looking for an agent…

Writing Update: Dealing with Praise and Nervousness

I’ve written two other blog posts over the past couple of weeks and deleted both of them. One came across as too depressing, and the other just didn’t work. Maybe I can get this one actually on the web.

Currently, I’m deep into editing my novel. After making a lengthy list of revision notes, I did one pass to correct/change all of those. Then I searched out all passive voice and killed it (well, most of it). I also did work on limiting adverbs and other boring stuff that you probably don’t care about.

After doing enough work to proclaim that I was on the second draft, I printed the entire thing out. I’ve been going through it, sentence-by-sentence, and making more edits. Looking at it on paper provides a different perspective than my computer screen. At the same time, I’ve made another list of revision notes to go through. 

Meanwhile, I got a lot of feedback from a beta reader. And I mean a LOT. Two hours and thirteen minutes worth. And 99% of it was good.

Now, if someone is willing to rave about your book for two hours and thirteen minutes, then maybe, just maybe you have something there. He told me I had to write the next book, even if I don’t get published, because he needs to know what happens next.

Yet I can’t help but feel wary of too much praise. I’ve been there before, only to see failure. I’m cautious that way. After all, I have another reader who has had the book longer and has only gotten through about 50 pages. Sure, it could be that he’s a slower reader. Or maybe it only appeals to a certain type of person, like the raving reader.

At any rate, I have a plan now, mostly. I need to finish my edit of the printed version, and make all the corrections I find there. Then I need to finish the new revisions list. By then, maybe the final beta reader will have more feedback for me.

Meanwhile, I need to start working on a query letter. This one’s hard, as the plot is harder to communicate, more involved than my previous book. 

If that weren’t enough, I’ve also outlined and plotted a short story set within the world of this book. Perhaps I’ll finish that at the same time, and use it for additional promotion.

I have a lot of work to do.

 

Funniest moment from the beta reader conversation: he’s comparing characters and talking about where they might end up, speculating… and I couldn’t help but say: “Are you… shipping my characters?”

(He was.)

Finding the Best Writing Advice Online

Advice.jpgAround a year and a half ago, when I decided to get back into writing, I looked for some advice online. Guess what? The internet is full of advice about writing. In just a couple of days, I had 20+ websites bookmarked and kept finding more. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking for advice on other topics, but the sheer quantity of writing advice online is almost unbelievable. It seems that everyone and their cousin’s neighbor has something to say on the topic.

However, like anything in life, I soon discovered that you need to be careful about writing advice. Some of it is not necessarily beneficial. This applies to any topic, of course, but I found it especially true with regard to writing. Sometimes, that cousin’s neighbor doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

I’m not going to dispense my own writing advice, though I’ve thought about it. I don’t feel qualified. I’m mostly writing about my own experiences. And from time to time, I may throw out my own opinions about something I’ve read. But that’s all it is: my opinions. I have no great wealth of knowledge to give out… yet. Maybe someday I will.

You see, that’s one of the key things I discovered about the writing advice online. Some of it is written by people who have no business giving out advice. I’ve seen websites filled to overflowing with advice, and yet the writer of this advice has never published a single book. Others have even larger sites with even more advice, yet they’ve only self-published a couple of titles on Amazon. Then there’s some that have only written books (sometimes self-published) that are ABOUT writing, but they’ve never written anything else. Perplexing. The ones that make me really roll my eyes are the sites that look like they were designed in 1992 and never updated since. I saw one that said something about “this month’s focus is…” and the topic hasn’t changed since I discovered it.

My point is that we should use discernment in choosing where we get advice. Some people are doing this just to make money off of gullible wannabe authors. Some are doing it because they think they know more than they actually do.

Let’s use a ridiculous example. I work on a Mac computer. If I start having problems with it, where should I go for advice? Should I ask my neighbor, who almost never touches a computer, from what I’ve seen? Should I ask my friend who hates Macs and insists that Windows is far superior? Should I ask another friend who used to use Macs back in the 1990s, but now swears by Linux? Or should I ask a genius at the Apple Store? The answer should be obvious. Why listen to advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about?

That’s where I come down. When I seek out advice, I want the best advice. Some choices are obvious, like Writer’s Digest, which has been a standard for all things writing for close to a century. Then there are legitimate best-selling writers who are willing to give out advice and share their experiences. No one can question Brandon Sanderson’s success, for example. He regularly teams up with a couple of other authors to produce a short podcast on writing topics. It’s been going on several years and is full of great advice. I’m a big fan of David Farland’s writing tips (he’s also a best-selling author), and James Scott Bell, who is extremely prolific, has also written some helpful books on writing.

Since publishing is an industry, sometimes advice can come from non-authors; it can come from those involved in the business side of it. Agents are a good source of advice on how to get noticed. Query Shark, run by an agent who gleefully rips writer queries to shreds and then shows how they can be better. It makes me laugh, but has definitely improved my query game. John Adamus is an editor/writing coach who has been in the business for decades. Besides his blog, and his paid services, he dispenses free advice on Twitter daily. Jane Friedman is an editor that has over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry and a website chock-full of brilliant tips. And so on.

Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. Seeking out advice on both sides of the issue is a good idea. Just make sure you’re getting advice from people who have your best interests in mind.