Agents and Plot Advice

A friend of mine wrote a historical urban fantasy manuscript that has a great voice and wonderful plot. In short, I think it has a strong chance of getting picked up by an literary agent and published. I’m not an expert in these things but I know engaging reading when I encounter it. I have great faith that it will be published someday.

Agent feedback leads to worry

She’s now worrying over it because one literary agent said “it is not what I thought it was going to be so you need to change it this way.” I’m sure my friend’s frustration blossomed because enacting the changes meant an extreme rewrite of the plot. Her thoughts flowed the same way mine would have if I had received that advice. “If I do it, the agent will accept it.” Except that is not guaranteed. Then I hoped that second, possibly wiser voice whispered to her, “but that is not my story.”

My friend tried to make the requested changes and the story ground to a halt in her mind. The characters didn’t want to walk that path. She grew frustrated trying to create the plot the agent wanted. However, it wasn’t the story she wanted. Any writer who has dealt writer’s block in the middle of a manuscript knows that they need to back up and reevaluate. If the plot stops, then you’ve wandered down the wrong mental road.

Carla At Printer's Row

A memory from Printer’s Row Festival 2013. The Festival is taking applications now for the 2019 season.

Now I’m not saying don’t listen to agents. They are the experts. So if they say, “it just didn’t grab my attention” or “the plot slows in the middle”, then you need to think about what they are telling you and probably rewrite parts of the story. Possibly a lot. I’ve edited many of my manuscripts based on agent feedback and feel the story is much stronger for that. I’ve started using developmental editors at the request of an agent who I thought would invest in my property after making all those changes. She didn’t represent the manuscript for other reasons, but it still helped me grow as a writer.

Agent advice with a grain of salt

I’ve also heard stories about how a now famous writer did massive rewrite because an agent or editor commented on the strength of their plot or a unique character. At one conference, an agent told a story about Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The original focus of the book was on the publisher, Mikael Blomkvist, who is an unremarkable person. The remarkable character in the book is the hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who was only a minor character. A literary agent (or maybe editor, I don’t remember which) encouraged Larsson to rewrite the book to prominently tell Salander’s story and give her more importance. Larsson did the rewrite. His book went on to be a hit thriller and was adapted to two motion pictures. Moral of the story: feedback on your material is always good because writers can’t always see the weak spots in our work.

Where I differ from this moral is in when the ideas sound wrong to you. It is your story after all. In the case of my friend, it seemed like the agent had a story in mind already and tried to layer it onto my friend’s plot. But it wasn’t the story my friend had written. So she had a choice: force her characters into a different plot or keep the story and look for a new agent. My choice would be look at the manuscript again to see why the agent felt she was misled. Make possible changes but keep the story intact. In short, I would listen to the advice but also find a new agent.

Know the experts/Know yourself

In conclusion, remember that while advice is always good to a point, you are the master of your story. Imagine what would have happened if someone, say the angel Michael, said to the Lord, “Really? A duck bill on a beaver body? And you’re making it poisonous and electric? Isn’t that kind of weird?” Perhaps Australia would not have such an interesting and yet undeniably odd animal.

At the same time, what if Michael said, “hey, I think butterflies should all be the same size and color. It will them easier for humans to follow.” Then we would have lacked some of the true beauty and glory that exists on spring and summer days. The world would have become a grayer, sadder place.

As the author it is up to you to decide what to change and what to leave alone. Agents and editors are a blessing to serious writers. They often help us be better. But we must always remember that they are only human too. Each one has their visions and their specialties. So sometimes wrong advice simply means you are listening to the wrong person. Agent feedback can help us shape our vision, but not replace it. When you are editing and the story simply doesn’t want to bend that way, then your characters, your muse, and probably your heart are simply telling you that path is the wrong way.

Happy writing.

World Building: What are Your Characters Eating?

Food is a basic need for life, yet it is one of the factors that many science fiction novels gloss over. What’s for dinner probably isn’t important to most science fiction storylines. I agree with this most of the time but you, as the world builder, should know how your character’s basic needs are fulfilled. The space ships often have some high-end tech, like air scrubbers, in order to deal with replenishing air and water, but carrying tons of groceries for a long voyage isn’t feasible. Of course, some stories use cryogenics to avoid issues, but if it isn’t available in your world? How do your spacemen get food?

Some examples

Star Trek simplified the problem of unending supplies of Saurian brandy and Earl Grey tea by inventing replicators. The early 1966 show mentioned chefs in the first season episode, “Charlie X” but after that, food simply appeared when the right memory card was inserted. Otherwise, the cuisine had a tendency to look like Play-doh geometric shapes whether the crew ate on the ship or planetside.

Star Trek food

Makes you wonder if Capt. Kirk ever sang “Cheeseburger in Paradise”.

In Star Wars, the writers didn’t deal with food since much of the action took place on various settled planet. In those cases, they ate whatever fruits, veggies, and grilled indigenous creatures that wandered by. One wonders if some of the Storm Troopers might think, “Ewoks, thems good eatin’!” Most trips on the ships were so short that a few bagfuls of groceries could allow everyone to get by.

Several episodes of Firefly focused on vittles being a finite and valuable resource for the frontier planets. They stole and sold protein bars to colonists and smuggled cows to backwater planets. It also pointed out how rare and expensive raw vegetables and fruit were since Shepard Book used a small box of strawberries to gain passage on the ship.

Yet in my opinion the one that handled food as a limited resource the best was The Martian. This film showed eatables coming in a finite number of vacuum-packed allotments until Mark Watney began growing potatoes to survive. How much would this story have suffered if he simply used a replicator? A lot. The film’s tension was all in how he survived, which included stress over dwindling supplies and partial starvation.

My Choices for My Book

In my manuscript, Ride the Comet, my people live in asteroid mines. Water and air are purchased by the huge tankful and put through scrubbers to make the resources last longer. However, no process is 100% effective, so the miners must occasionally buy more. Since the families live within the rocky walls permanently, I felt that shipping foodstuff in from old Earth should be expensive enough to cripple the buyers. Therefore, somehow the miners had to produce food for themselves.

The idea of greenhouses and hydroponics is cool because they can help clean gray water and scrub the air. The one thing an asteroid mine could provide is a large room. Dirt from the mine  mixed with composted trash could eventually lead to enough soil for crops inside a cavern and hydroponics basically works soil-free. Yet that answer isn’t as simple as picking any seeds you want and jamming it into the ground. I had to think about what crops grew well in these conditions. Wheat and sugar cane require a lot of space, water, and air to get the end products of flour and sugar, so they aren’t good candidates. On the other hand, lettuce, beans, peas, tomatoes, and strawberries produce large crops without a lot of soil depth or leftover biological trash.

What about meat? Lifting cows out of Earth’s gravity well and transporting them to the Belt would waste considerable resources. Some stories solve this by only shipping fertilized eggs and artificial wombs, which I suppose would work if you had that kind of tech. However, once the cow, chicken, or pig (for examples) are born, they still need to eat something. Growing grass for cows takes valuable area from human-supporting crops.

No cows

Bossie is not welcome in the Asteroid Belt

My solution in Ride the Comet? Some small animals, like chickens, mini pigs, or rabbits are transported from the home planet and bred for food. Tanks could be set up for growing fish while purifying water. Beef would likely stay a pricey canned or dried treat while a thick steak could cost a month’s salary. Most likely, the average cook would use supplies like meats, dairy, flour and sugar sparingly because they would all be imports and therefore expensive.

I got my ideas about the meats from my year of living in Japan in 1989. Since the country is an island, beef was costly compared to pork and chicken. In addition, any non-fish meat tended to be expensive and most were purchased as small chunks rather than roasts or whole chickens. Japanese recipes only called for a quarter of the amounts I used in America. For example, I might use a pound of hamburger in my spaghetti in America but only a quarter pound while cooking in Japan. I filled in the rest with mushrooms, olives, and onions and held off on the Parmesan cheese. Also, dairy products were not as common as in the United States either. We found milk, cheese, and sour cream in small quantities in the grocery stores but they are not used in most traditional Japanese recipes.

Of course, your story probably doesn’t have to go to this much detail, but you should know them in your head as you write. Food acquisition must make sense. If your Captain Courageous Spaceman has a hungering for hamburgers all the time, you must know where the beef and buns are coming from even if the captain doesn’t. Little details like this is what makes the reader dive into and stay in a story rather than going, “Hang on! They’ve been on a five-year mission for three years. Where’d the apples come from?” Keeping the reader engaged in the hardest part so make sure the answer to “what’s for dinner?” actually makes sense in your world.