I don’t have a lot to blog about at the moment regarding my own stuff. I’m immersed in all things Space Wolf at the moment, and enjoying every minute of it, but it’s a long time before any of that will see the light of day.
I’ve been thinking for a while about blogging on the craft of writing, and the things I’ve learned since starting out as a neophyte with BL. Gav Thorpe beat me to it, though, and as he’s been at this game a lot longer than me, I reckon it’s best to defer to experience. Good advice on that blog, there.
However, BL have recently changed their submissions policy. It used to be that the only way to get a commission from them was to be hand-picked by their roving talent scouts or win a place in the regular open anthologies. That appears to have changed now – there’s a submissions window for book proposals that currently runs from May to July – for more details, have a look at the guidance on the website.
Since the change, there’s been a fair bit of chat on the forums about what BL are after, and how you might improve your chances of picking up a commission. As someone who’s fairly new to this writing gig, and can still remember those first faltering steps, here are a few thoughts that might prove helpful.
This is the most important bit of a novel proposal. It’s your sales pitch, the bit where you convince your editor that you’ve got something worth pursuing. People seem to get very hot under the collar about this, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what works here. My advice is to keep it short and snappy – think of it like a newspaper headline: you need to keep the editor interested, and stop him throwing the rest on to the slush pile. Don’t write it ‘in-style’, with all the verbiage you might out into your actual prose – strip it to the bare bones of the story. If you can’t do this in 500 words, are you sure you actually have a decent story? In essence, almost all plots are in pretty much the same format: The Marines Synopticon are really cool because of x, y and z; here’s what happens that places them in massive jeopardy; here’s how they address it using their unique characteristics, and what happens in the end. Try taking your favourite BL novel and giving in the synopsis treatment – what are the really basic story elements?
If you’re pitching a novel, BL are going to need reassurance you can sustain a story over 100,000 words. That means maintaining pace and structure, not letting the action flag, and getting the balance right between jeopardy and pauses for breath. Many fantasy writers got their first bug for writing from massive books like Lord of the Rings. Now, I’m as big a fan of that as the next guy, but it’s a terrible guide to writing tightly-plotted action-based fantasy/SF. If your chapter breakdown has large sections where the heroes are travelling from A to B (albeit with lovely descriptions of the lower Reik valley or the nebulae around the Eye of Terror), then you’re failing. Every chapter should advance the story in some way – there might be a decisive battle, or a revelation about a key character, or a major twist. If each of your chapters takes up a paragraph in the synopsis, think about what’s driving the story in that paragraph. If there’s nothing there except ‘The Marines Synopticon advanced slightly closer to the Planet of Death’, then it’s failing again.
The most important bit. Lots of fan-fic (which I often like a lot) gets this wrong. It assumes that we’re interested in the Marines Synopticon, whereas we’re actually interested in Brother Bolterhead of the Marines Synopticon. Tie-in fiction in the Warhammer world can give the impression it’s about types of warrior or unit. But that’s just the background – it’s characters that readers care about. Over the course of a book, your lead characters should be fully fleshed-out, and they should develop. A great example of this, and so much else, is Helsreach – read that to see how to draw differentiated characters, and how to show their progress as events march on around them. And then read it again, just because it’s awesome.
Final thing – get your technical stuff right. That’s grammar, spelling, formatting, and fiction conventions. Some might say that this isn’t important, and that a good story can shine through ‘idiosyncratic’ delivery. They’re wrong. Having good grammar won’t ensure a good story, but having bad grammar will ensure a bad one. Learn how dialogue is formatted, how scenes are broken up, how punctuation works. It’s dull, but it’s essential. Only once you’ve got that down can you really start to play with style and find your own voice. That’s as true for your synopsis as it is for the full novel.
So that’s it – my lightning guide to pitching. Some of you might have read some of my books, of course, and seen how far short some of them have been of these goals (What, characters? In Masters of Magic?). Yeah, well, we all take time to learn these lessons. The only hope for any of us is to keep reading and keep working at it. But it’s a lot of fun, so good luck, and keep at it.