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Reply to an Interesting Query Letter

A writer who is interested in the Hardboiled Horror anthology sent me a detailed query letter today.  She's working on a story that she says will come in right at the deadline, so she'll only have one shot at getting it.

She asked three questions: do you want historical settings or contemporary ones?  How do you feel about multiple or single point of view stories? And then she gave me a lengthy synopsis of her plot to see if that sounded like something that might work.

Here's my answer:

Thanks for your query.  Those are all good questions, but the answer to all of them is "yes," "no," or "maybe" because the real issue is how well you do them.  As far as setting goes, I've put contempory and historical stories into the "hold" pile (plus fantasy and science fiction settings).  What I want, and don't see much, are settings that are so thoroughly a part of the story and the character's perception of that world, that the readers would have to feel like they are there.  Many of the stories I return to the authors don't have a "place" center at all.  The settings are generic.  Many of the rest may state where they are taking place, but there aren't any or there are very few confirming details.  And then a small group of stories make me take notice by putting the characters into a world that they can touch, taste, smell, hear and see.  That group of stories convinces me by the specificity of their carefully observed details that the story really happened.
Single point of view or multiple ones are both fine, although in my thinking as soon as you put me into someone else's head you are telling a second story, which has the same demands as the first (I have to know what the character wants and why the character wants it).  In other words, the character has to develop sympathy from the readers.  "Sympathy," in this case, doesn't mean necessarily that I feel sorry for the character or am rooting for the character, but for those moments when I 'm in the character's head that I see and understand the world the way that character does.  Mosty what I'm getting in the multiple point of view stories are mini-peeks into the villain's head, and many of those mini-peeks either leave me confused because they are too short, or feeling slightly gicky.  I have a tough time spending a paragraph with a character who is dismembering a living woman or child, for example (I've seen several of those).
That kicks me into a little rant about the pornography of violence.  The anthology is horror/detective/crime, but there is a corner of horror that I has always turned me off, which are the really violent tales where I start to get the feeling that the violence isn't a part of the story as much as a weird turn on by the writer.  It's like watching a rape scene in a movie where I'm pretty sure most of the men in the audience are watching it because they like the idea of rape.  I have a high yuck factor when I think I've stumbled into those.
As far as your plot goes, I'll say the same thing I always say when a writer asks me about plot, which is, "Sounds good.  Go for it."  The reason I say that is because the plot doesn't matter.  All that matters is how you handle it.  The most unpromising sounding plot can turn into a brilliant story if handled well.  I can't even tell you to stay clear of a plot that may have similarities with one I have in the hold folder because you might write one that knocks the other one out.
I can tell you that over half of the stories I've seen start with a detective standing over a corpse, or a detective sitting at his scarred desk in a low-rent office.  Not nearly half of the stories that I accept will start that way.
I hope this helps.  Normally I wouldn't write this much, but I'm going to transplant most of my answer to my blog (http://jimvanpelt.livejournal.com), because you asked good questions that made me think about how they should be answered.  I have posted some thoughts about how the editing process has been going so far.  If you click on the "editing" tag at the bottom of the post, you could see all of them at once.
I'll look forward to seeing your story.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
Excellent post! I think I enjoy reading your editing posts so much because they inspire me to write, rather than making me fearful and tentative.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
Hey, you're welcome. I always try to be helpful. It's the teacher in me.

What I'm afraid of when I read my own posts is that I might come off sounding high and mighty or arrogant. Really, I'm just another guy on the bus, trying the best I can to understand the how and why of writing, and what can make those little black marks on the page fly with such vigor, sometimes.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )