Back when, before I got ready to send out query letters, synopsis letters and the like, I read alot of advice online. I'm new to this part of the process, and I'm finding it all very structured and almost militant in the way format is dictated to potential authors. The first query letter I sent out (rejected, but that was not unexpected. Nobody gets lucky on the first try), was sent out so nervously that I forgot to put my name on it. I wanted to make sure that the query letter, the part describing my story, was as perfect as I knew how to make it, and I just overlooked putting my name on it. I didn't worry too much, because I knew they had my email address if they wanted to get back to me. In keeping with the militant theme, I had this vision in my head of a drill instructor leaning over me, yelling into my face, "If I wanted your name, private, I would have ASKED for it!" The resulting laugh was strangely reassuring.
I completely understand the reasons for all of the formality-time constraints placed on agents, a test to see if the author can write succinctly and cleanly as well as to make sure that the author understands what their own story is about before the agent commit hours of their life to reading all of it.
So, if the rules are all the same, there should be a fairly solid central idea of how to go about this process.
Oh, there is a metric shit ton of advice online. As with all online advice, I'd recommend an inverted 3/4 rule. 25% of it will be worthwhile, 75% of it suspect at best. Certainly getting your tips from more credible sources will improve the likelihood that the advice is sound, but even then that advice might not be right for you.
I read articles, I bought books and magazines, I asked trusted friends that had done it before. After all of that, the main thing that I discovered (and this is going to sound incredibly obvious, but hang with me), is to be able to reduce your own book into a one sentence description. Don't think it can be done? It can, trust me. My novel is 108,000 words, and even I whittled that down to the central theme of the novel. That sentence can be a long one, but it still qualifies.
I'm going to share my single sentence "hook" below, and feel free to tell me what you think in the comments.
22 year old college dropout Miles Torvalds must assemble a team of high tech, white collar hacktivists in order to steal $1.5 million to save his mother, who is dying of cancer.
This is what the book is about, in a nutshell. There is so much more to it than this, but every chapter moves the reader towards the climax-whether or not he can save his mother in time. Looking back on it, I'd even recommend, as a plotting exercise, to write your hook before you start writing your novel. I didn't do that, but sharing my mistakes on this site is just as important as sharing my successes. There are so many authors that have helped me, that I try to do whatever I can to help, even if it's just contributing to the deluge of suspect advice on the internet.
So once you have your hook, you know what the central theme of your story is, but one sentence makes for a very short book. You need to add more to it, ancillary storylines, plot twists, additional characters, setting and place, etc. Outlining, in whatever form you do it, is a great tool. Personally, when I hear the word "Outline", I cringe a little, and part of my childhood dies a little inside of me. I'm not someone that enjoys structure, but holding my nose and giving in to it a little makes for less wasted time writing later on. I don't think it's healthy to script things to death, either. I like to stick to a bullet list. Structured enough to have it in front of you, mobile enough that you can reorganize things, and coherent enough so that you don't lose your place in the narrative.
Getting back on topic, I decided three things that I wanted this book to be. I enjoy science fiction novels. I enjoy science fiction movies. Shit, I just enjoy science fiction. My favorite parts are the actual technology, the new gadgets, machines, and science that separates a science fiction novel from a thriller or a literary fiction piece. So there is plenty of that in there. Oh, is there plenty of that in there. Probably should patent some of the stuff in the book, but I'll let it slide in the hopes that someone mentions, "hey, I read about that in a book a year ago, this can't be new!" Yeah, I'm not holding my breath either.
The second thing I wanted the book to be fun. I wanted it to relate to my generation. There is a character in the book that sneaks in a lot of references to 80's and 90's pop culture. It's something I enjoyed greatly in "Ready Player One", by Ernest Cline, and I thought it fit with what I was trying to do here as well. (No, I am not just copying what Mr. Cline did. I love that book and it is untouchable in my eyes. I know not to try to climb that mountain.) It stays mostly constrained to that one character, and it works for them because, well.....you'll have to read the book to find out ;-)
The third thing I wanted it to be is important. I wanted it to make people think about the world they live in, where it's going and why. The future in this book looks a lot like our own, because it's only set about 25 years into the future. There are tons of novels out there where you find yourself on a space ship or battling deadly robots on page one. This is not one of those novels. Futurists have perpetually been early in their forecasts for when we get all of the cool shit we've been promised. Hoverboards? Nope. Light Sabers? Uh uh. Flying cars? We were closer in the 50's (only because they cared about it more).
I saw a gap in between the dystopian interstellar robogasm popular science fiction has become, and had a story that I wanted to tell that just so happened to take place in the gaps of what I've seen out there. Don't get me wrong, I love those stories too, I just see a missing link. We have a saying here in Maine, "You can't get there from here." It's sometimes meant as a joke, sometimes as a warning, as in "You can get there from here, but you really don't want to. It's not worth it." Right now, there are things standing in the way of getting to that promised land, obstacles that need to be mantled before we take our place in the stars, and they are largely of our own making. Our own hate and selfishness for one. Oh, that's the big one, too. The free flow of money that spreads hope for the future and the belief that there is an American Dream(TM) out there for everyone. But if you consolidate too much of that wealth in too few hands, all it takes is a few skittish news stories to convince them they don't have quite enough to ride out the storm, and the flow stops as they horde their loot like Smaug under the mountain.
That's where we are now, as I write this in the summer of 2013. Those with money are content to keep it, and those without are not being given enough of an opportunity to earn their share. Poverty is only beginning to become the problem it will be if this trend continues. Surveillance, such as the recently uncovered PRISM project? That's just the rich and powerful protecting their investment, and why I consider Edward Snowden a patriot while the mass media wants us to think of him as a terrorist or traitor. I consider Obamacare a good idea poorly implemented. You cannot force people to pay for something that they cannot afford, even if they need it. You need to allow people to fight for their own survival in the way they best see fit, so long as it doesn't harm others. It's a fundamental freedom, whether it's written on some piece of paper somewhere or not. People need hope, they need to see the right thing rewarded when it's done, not punishment for choosing to live a little differently from the guy down the street.
Back in my divorce, the first thing I decided that actually moved the needle in my emotional recovery was the promise to myself that I would do the right thing, no matter what. I even have a tattoo designed to reflect this, which I am saving as a present to myself once this novel sells. I want that tattoo to reflect the promise I made to myself, how I decided to remain my own person and to be true to myself no matter how hard it became. I don't think the world has a shortage of good people. I still have faith that if those people find the hope to fix whats wrong, we can get back that dream for most of the population.
That's why I think this book is important. Another political rant telling everyone to wake the fuck up is not going to make progress against the cultural malaise that we are faced with. They're approaching it from the wrong angle, the way to shift public opinion is through entertainment. That's why The Daily Show and the Colbert Report have such huge followings-they get it. It's not about pushing people one way or another, it's about providing transparency. It's about creating compelling messages that force people to care, even if it's just about a fictional book character that reminds you a lot of someone you know.
If you can care about a fictional character, if you can see his struggle and identify the wrong in it's necessity, perhaps you can start seeing the wrong that's all around you as well. You can't club people over the head with these concepts and expect them not to feel preached to. I hate being preached to as much as the next guy. You need to entertain them while it's happening, so that they make the connections to their own reality on their own. You need to show them ways that the future might be better. You need to show them a way out, an exit strategy, not from the country, but from the way things have been done. Making them smile and enjoy the ride as it happens can also help.
Please understand I'm not talking about one specific politician, party, or government. I'm speaking in generalities. Generalities are what got us here, allowed us to be played off one another so easily. The same tactic of using entertainment as a distraction while you are fed information isn't a new strategy. Those that would rather you not know how powerful we can all be have been using it since the dawn of time. I'd rather our country not have to go through some form of revolution for things to get better, I'd rather we start holding our politicians and CEO's feet to the fire a little more. Accountability. Let's start there. In this novel, there is accountability to be had for those that abused their power. In the following four or five novels, there will be even more, but this series is not a militant manifesto.
It's not a simple bashing of the status quo, either. There's enough of that out there now already. This series in general is about improving the world we live in, and all of the cool, badass toys that will help us do it. It starts small, with a single man trying to save his mother from a fate facilitated by the selfishness of others. It starts now, with Miles Torvalds.
I hope that you all will continue to support me as I do my best to write entertaining, hopeful, and important stories. I promise to put in the effort to make them worth your time, and hope that when that day in the near future comes when you get the opportunity to make your own purchasing decision on it, you will choose to do so.