Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Theme-Plot-Character-Worldbuilding Integration Part 4 - Sidewalk Superintendent

Theme-Plot-Character-Worldbuilding Integration
Part 4
Sidewalk Superintendent
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Previous Parts in this 4-way Integration Series:




My objective in this long series of blogs on writing craft is to dissect the Romance Novel into components, dissect the Science Fiction novel into components, then blend the compatible components of each genre into something like Science Fiction Romance, Futuristic Romance, Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, Mystery Romance, or whatever combination that can attract the respect we all know that "Romance" (as a human experience) deserves.

Our Civilization as a whole once discarded the importance of "romance" in the form of "love" -- assuming that love had little or nothing to do with marriage.

Then an era came in that elevated Romance (marrying for love, even if it was just infatuation) to the absolute epitome of the Value System.

Then Romance as the touchstone of finding and cementing Relationships for life was discarded.

Today physical infatuation (instant and irresistible sexual attraction) has replaced Romance at the epitome of value systems that direct young people into marriage or other Relationships intended to be Lifelong. 

Meanwhile, millions read stories about finding a Soul Mate and living Happily Ever After.  The contradiction (the conflict which forms the essence of Story) is sidelined in the plot.

As we have developed disposable gadgets, replacing rather than repairing them, so too have we developed disposable Relationships. 

I suspect that long-term trend of disposable gadgets/Relationships is again at the verge of reversal. 

And here's an article on a widely read source (never mind the auspices) that might be a harbinger of this shift in attitude.  I disagree with a lot this article says, but the departure from the prevailing attitude is stark.  Find out why you disagree with this article, and your reason will make the Theme of a whopping-good Romance.

Still, that bit of propaganda is nothing compared to the underlying misconception that so many of us carry around consciously or subconsciously, because we’ve seen it on TV and in the movies, and read it in books a million times since childhood: namely, that there is just one person out there for us. Our soul mate. Our Mr. or Mrs. Right. The person we are “meant to be with.”

We think that our task is to find this preordained partner and marry them because, after all, they’re “The One.” They were designed for us, for us and only us. It’s written in the stars, prescribed in the cosmos, commanded by God or Mother Earth. There are six or seven billion people in the world, but only one of them is the right one, we think, and we’ll stay single until we happen to stumble into them one day.

And when that day happens, when The One — our soul mate, our match, our spirit-twin — comes barreling into our lives to whisk us off our feet and take us on canoe rides and deliver impassioned romantic monologues on a beach in the rain or in a bus station or whatever, then we’ll finally be happy. Happy until the end of time. We can get married and have a perfect union; a Facebook Photo Marriage, where every day is like an Instragam of you and your spouse wearing comfortable socks and sitting next to the fireplace drinking Starbucks lattes.

Yeah. About that. It’s bull crap, sorry. Not just silly, frivolous bull crap, but bull crap that will destroy you and eat your marriage alive from the inside. It’s a lie. A vicious, cynical lie that leads only to disappointment and confusion. The Marriage of Destiny is a facade, but the good news is that Real Marriage is something so much more loving, joyful, and true.

    I didn’t marry The One, I married this one, and the two of us became one.

We’ve got it all backwards, you see. I didn’t marry my wife because she’s The One, she’s The One because I married her. Until we were married, she was one, I was one, and we were both one of many. I didn’t marry The One, I married this one, and the two of us became one. I didn’t marry her because I was “meant to be with her,” I married her because that was my choice, and it was her choice, and the Sacrament of marriage is that choice. I married her because I love her — I chose to love her — and I chose to live the rest of my life in service to her. We were not following a script, we chose to write our own, and it’s a story that contains more love and happiness than any romantic fable ever conjured up by Hollywood.

Indeed, marriage is a decision, not the inevitable result of unseen forces outside of our control. When we got married, the pastor asked us if we had “come here freely.” If I had said, “well, not really, you see destiny drew us together,” that would have brought the evening to an abrupt and unpleasant end. Marriage has to be a free choice or it is not a marriage. That’s a beautiful thing, really.

God gave us Free Will. It is His greatest gift to us because without it, nothing is possible. Love is not possible without Will. If we cannot choose to love, then we cannot love. God did not program us like robots to be compatible with only one other machine. He created us as individuals, endowed with the incredible, unprecedented power to choose. And with that choice, we are to go out and find a partner, and make that partner our soul mate.

------------END QUOTE----------


Just after I wrote the words above that quote, "the verge of reversal," I noticed return tweets from the author of the book I set out to discuss in this blog entry. 

He plans a sequel to the novel of interest here, and that news changes the way I will discuss this novel.

To make a lifelong career in writing, you should learn these trends of Civilization, the root reasons for them (roots which this 4-way Integration series is discussing), and how to leverage the prevailing trend to sell your own fiction without trying to write just what the Market wants. 

Today, however, you don't have to try to sell Mass Market at all, since there are many successful self-publishing writers creating whole new markets.

Writers often ask which way should they go, Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing, or Small Press.  My answer is, "That's the wrong question."

The term "Rebranding" has risen to public notice the last few years.  You even hear the term on TV News.  It is a way of controlling the public image using Public Relations techniques (which I've discussed in this blog at length).







Your byline is your brand.  So your decision of whether to go Self-Publish, Small Press, or Traditional Publisher is not an either/or decision.  It is a both/and/and decision.

The real question is not whether to do this or that or the other, but rather under what brand name do I do this, and what brand name do I use when I do that? 

The question is: "Should I use the same brand name (byline) for this publishing venue as for that?"  Many professional writers do Mystery under one name, Science Fiction under another, Romance under a third.  Many have been required to do so by their editors. 

I used the Daniel R. Kerns byline for my space-action-adventure novels, HERO and BORDER DISPUTE (on Kindle in a combined edition) because the acquisitions editor required it since they are a different Brand than Sime~Gen etc etc.  But HERO and BORDER DISPUTE are Alien Relationship driven novels.

The Branding wisdom is that a brand should define the product in the most narrow terms possible. 

That's why big companies like Pillsbury buy brands from other companies, the put Pillsbury in tiny print on the back of the package and keep the brand name in large print on the front.  ConAgra does that, too.  Publishers establish Imprints and do the same. 

As a writer, you are Pillsbury or ConAgra, and you may own many Brands, many bylines. 

Each of these fiction markets is targeting a different set of readers looking for a different product.  If your current product differs from your previous products, use a different byline or Pen Name.

Here are three posts on the use of a pen name.




If your product has a common thread that connects all the works configured for different markets, then use the same byline.  Brand the thread. 

Sensitivity to the tastes of the market at the end of the pipeline you choose to put your product into gives you the best chance of success in that market. 

Way back when I took my first formal course in writing, I learned the trick of this from the textbook.  They warned that students tended not to believe the advice.  Those students rarely launched a career as a selling writer on the 4th lesson of the course, but those that followed the advice generally did.  I know one other student who rejected the advice and did not sell.  I took the advice and sold the homework assignment for the 4th lesson.

That was my first short story sale, and it is posted online for free reading -- the first Sime~Gen story sold:


The advice was simple in its complexity:

Study the editor or agent you intend to sell to.  Craft your piece to push that individual person's buttons. 

It does  not mean write something your heart isn't in.  It doesn't mean violate your personal standards to be commercial.  It means nothing more than what it takes to revel in a good conversation -- pay attention to who you are talking to, and listen to what they are saying.

It is exactly the same advice that is followed by successful social-networkers.  If you join a Group on Facebook, or a "Community" on Google+ or any such social grouping (say at a cocktail party), lurk for a while and let the conversation soak into your head, develop an idea of "who" these speakers are and why they are saying what they are saying -- and to whom they are saying it.

Then when you have something to say that adds to their enjoyment of the social interaction, say it, paying attention to the silent-gaps that indicate an invitation to comment.  Watch the body language.  Pay attention, then participate. 

It's that simple.  If you can socialize, you can sell fiction. 

The only difference between a cocktail party conversation and publishing is that at a cocktail party, people speak in half-sentences, innuendo, raised eyebrows, and Toasts.  In publishing, people speak in books and stories.

Each novel you read, each short story in a magazine, is a sentence in a conversation among a Group.  In Science Fiction, that Group consists of about 1500 to 1700 professional writers who are members of the Science Fiction Writers of America (and its foreign equivalents).  Romance Writers of America is bigger.  Mystery Writers of America is probably bigger.  And there are umbrella organizations for writers.

Novels are sentences in a conversation among writers -- readers are the sidewalk superintendents.

The Market for a Manuscript is the Agent.  The Market for the Agent is  Editors.  The Market for Editors is the Committee with cover artists, Publicity specialists, managing editors, budgeting people, and all sorts of business functionaries who have not and will never read the book in question, but who will decide on the basis of a 3 sentence description whether to allow the infatuated editor to buy it.

Marketing, Genre, Branding and byline about summarizes my twitter-conversation with Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, author of the (almost) Futuristic Urban Fantasy Romance Mystery that does not quite (yet) fit any Genre label. 

He is inventing a new Genre, but has two major plot-threads that dominate the novel we'll examine, Murderer in the Mikdash. 

This novel is Futuristic Romance, and it is Futuristic Mystery.

It is a bit akin to Isaac Asimov's Black Widow mysteries in intellectual sharpness, but I think of it more like Randall Garrett's forensic magician stories, or even Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, magic using private eye. 

This novel's Characters and Theme are nowhere near (in fact rather opposite) those examples, but the worldbuilding behind the story belongs to that category. 

Since Dresden Files has over 20 (long) novels and counting, and has had a (short) TV Series made from it, I see no reason this novel won't develop into the same sort of Urban Fantasy publishing property. 

Here's my interview with Jim Butcher. 


As I noted, the novel we're exploring is titled MURDERER IN THE MIKDASH and it is by Gidon Rothstein. 

This novel is nothing (at all) like Jim Butcher's work, yet it fits the same publishing niche, and is part of the same "conversation" among writers that all of the series I've mentioned so far have created.

 Murderer in the Mikdash is THE SAME but DIFFERENT, just as you learn in SAVE THE CAT! 

Murderer in the Mikdash is not "Occult Fantasy" -- it is the exact opposite (which gives it the "but different" property).  No magic,  just a "just the facts ma'am" near-future world. 

Writers need to study Murderer in the Mikdash both for where it succeeds at an impossible task of depicting "the future" (it is genuinely Futuristic) and where it fails at depicting Romance within the Romance Genre rules. 

I have read a few of Rothstein's short stories in the collection called Cassandra Misreads The Book Of Samuel.  In the years between writing Murderer in the Mikdash, and the Cassandra material, the author learned a lot about writing, so the observations I've made about "Murderer" here will not apply to any sequels -- in fact, this first novel may be rewritten and re-released as part of a set. 

Therefore, grab yourself a copy of it as it is now because it warrants your study, and if a rewrite shoots it to a higher profile, you will want to know why that happened and what changes caused that to happen. 

So starting with this one now, you will be ready to follow where this discussion leads in a couple of years.

Here's the book I'm talking about:

So we're going to discuss this novel which is excellent in itself, but could not "make it" in Mass Market because it appears to be aimed at a narrow, specifically defined readership which marketers have not identified. 

The reasons Mass Market editors would reject this novel, in the form it is in right now, are detailed in my 7-part series on what it means to be an Editor.


That Part VII post has links to the previous posts in the series. 

Different sections of Murderer in the Mikdash are imprinted with the genre signatures of different genres.  Today you can "mix" genres, but not splice them together unmixed. 

Many of the scenes in MURDERER IN THE MIKDASH have "Romance" written all over them, but the ending veers into a more "Literary" signature -- avoiding even the HFN ending. 

So to me, Murderer in the Mikdash screams for a sequel. 

Therefore I was beyond delighted when the author answered my Tweet and told me he has material for a sequel and is working on it. 

But he also said he wasn't able to sell it to Mass Market after great effort.  So in this analysis of the novel, I'm going to probe into the under-structure to illustrate why that happened to an otherwise excellent, pristine, perfect, totally amazing, commercially viable Work. 

What's wrong with publishing that it could REJECT such a book?  Why aren't you seeing it advertised all over Amazon, etc.? 

Would I have risked my job as a big traditional publishing editor (which I've never been) to accept this book?  Probably not. 

Would I have taken this author on as a client if I were an Agent at a big Agency?  Probably not. 

Would I have taken him on if I were an Indie Agent?  Again, probably not because, as currently styled and written, this book had to go to an ebook Indie Publisher and they mostly don't do business with Agents. 

This situation is wholly unacceptable.  It's too good a book to be buried without honors.

But how to fix the situation? 

Direct contact with the author via twitter has given me a bunch of clues about what to do with this material, and in the next few posts I will share some of those ideas with you -- because I firmly expect many of you have similar properties in your desk drawers that failed to make the Mass Market cut, and you don't know why. 

As noted, Murderer in the Mikdash has earned my A+ grade for the integration of a long-long list of the techniques we've discussed in these Tuesday blog entries. 

Here's why I titled this Part 4 of this series "Sidewalk Superintendent"

A sidewalk superintendent is a passer-by on the sidewalk around an urban construction site which is partitioned off by a safety fence.  The passer-by peeks through a knot-hole in the fencing and criticizes what the workers are doing (or not-doing).  Mostly the passer-by sees men standing around (on the clock; paid with his tax dollars) doing nothing visible.

So the passer-by who knows nothing of construction criticizes what the Builder is doing.

And that's what I'm doing here with this novel.  I'm peering into it from outside, admiring the achievement I could NEVER have achieved -- but have vast ambitions to achieve -- and finding flaws in the execution.

At the moment, staring through the fence with one eye, I see a ragged hole in the ground, a lot of mud at the bottom where it rained, a cement truck backing up, and a faded picture on a sign that indicates what the building may be when it's built. 

Before the author tweeted me back, I didn't know there would be a sequel, and didn't know he was aware of the steep learning curve it would take to get this book into Mass Market.  I didn't even know it was his first novel, or he'd tried to market it to Mass Market.

So I had read the book with the assumption that the author thought the story was DONE.  But through the hole in the fence, I see that very big pit, some cement forms that had been knocked together, and a crew standing around doing nothing with their hard-hats under their elbows.

Now, with the Twitter exchange, suddenly, I see a work crew arrive on a big transport, jump down, clamp their hard-hats on, and begin pouring cement and wheel-borrowing loads around the site.  It'll be a building in no time!  It's going to be beautiful!!! 

As you read this novel, keep an eye out for Dialogue that should be narrative, and narrative that should be dialogue.  Watch for exposition that should be scenes.  It's subtle, and occurs only in a couple of places, but it's a no-sale flaw for a first novel. 

After buying a few novels from an author, some editors will accept a draft with this issue, blue-pencil the troublesome paragraphs and just X them out and scribble an indecipherable marginal note, relying on the previously demonstrated skills of the author to tell the author how to fix the issue. 

The appropriate techniques to use for various sorts of information feed are different in different genres and all genres differ from Literature.  Editors rely on authors to know the genre signature of the line the Editor is buying for. 

The choice of what to narrate, and what to detail in a scene, is entirely dependent on genre.  Just reversing narration and dialogue information feed  can shift genres.  For example, if you introduce a sex scene and then end the chapter with "Go To Black" (as in screenwriting, HARD CUT, in playwriting, CURTAIN), you get one genre. 

If you write 5 pages of athletics, detailing who did what to whom, with long paragraphs of what it means to each of them, you get a totally different genre. 

In various places in Murderer in the Mikdash, the decision to couch the information in dialogue, exposition or narrative was made using the rules of different genres, not always with the rules of Literature though the book was aimed at the Literature (general fiction) Market somewhat like THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION ...


Most editors would not know why they have to (regretfully) reject the Murderer in the Mikdash manuscript because of that variance in narrative and dialogue styling. 

Many younger editors would blame their rejection on the futuristic element and/or the Biblical element or the Jewish element -- even though they had bought manuscripts with one or another of those elements before and knew of all the Awards THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION had won, and even of the stellar sales performance of other novels rooted in Jewish tradition such as the award winning Historical (radical feminist) series titled RASHI'S DAUGHTERS


Or the hysterically funny Interview with a Jewish Vampire ...


...which might not "click" with a reader who had not read Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire that became such an incredible media phenomenon and triggered a flood of Vampire Romance novels


Or the incredible best selling Mystery Series by Faye Kellerman that I've raved about in these blogs (mostly because of the Romance/Marriage/Life-building narrative) The Decker/Lazarus series.


That Goodreads page lists the novels in order.  Remember Goodreads is owned now by Amazon, but you can sign in with your Facebook account.

Good editors have sensibilities that align with the sensibilities of their target readership -- so they tell writers, "I just want a good story."  They have no clue what "good" means, but they just know it when they see it.

If they don't see it, they don't know why, and don't know how to fix that -- but mostly they've learned by harsh experience that most writers just wouldn't know what to do with the editor's complaints. 

Editors don't have time to mess with writers (which is why they only deal with Agents, but today Agents don't have time to teach writing)  -- and there's more than enough material to fill the editor's pipeline, so they reject what isn't up to snuff.

Subtle things like getting the narrative and dialogue portions sorted out can make the difference.

We will dig deeper into the structure of Murderer in the Mikdash next week.  I hope by then you'll have read the book.  It's not very long.

Here it is again:

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Even though I write several different kinds of spec fic, as well as nonfiction (literary criticism, but always about horror and fantasy, mainly vampires), I use the same byline for everything because of the common thread. All my work grows out of my passion for human-Other relationships in general and vampires in particular. My nonfiction book DIFFERENT BLOOD: THE VAMPIRE AS ALIEN (which includes a discussion of your works) analyzes the kind of fiction I like to read and write.

    Different Blood

    I agree with most of that quote about marriage. It echoes what we learned in the Marriage Encounter program (a weekend retreat, with follow-up small groups available, designed to "make good marriages better"): "Love is a decision." You can't promise to love someone until death if you think of love as solely an emotion. You can promise only actions, not feelings; we act lovingly even if at the moment we feel like strangling our spouse. :)