Sunday, August 25, 2013

Adventures in Query Writing

Throughout August, I've been hunting down literary agents on the web, identifying agents who seem to be interested in conventional fantasy fiction, and sending them query letters in the hopes of finding representation. For those who haven't participated in this exercise, it's a ... unique experience.

Most agents want some combination of the following:

  • A query letter
  • A synopsis of your book
  • Some portion of your manuscript, from a few pages to a few chapters
Every agent is different. I've been told that literary agents receive a huge volume of queries; their job is to sift through a mountain of broken glass and find a diamond in it. I do not envy them this task. So when I find that this agent wants five sample pages while this other agent wants ten, or this other agent wants my material inline within the email while this other other agent wants it attached as a Word DOC, I'm glad to comply. Whatever works best for their workflow is fine with me, and I'm happy to accommodate.

But every so often, I run across an agent who has very particular requirements. Some agents have online forms that you must submit through, instead of sending e-mail. A few agents want to see all material, including the query letter, in the form of Word documents. It takes a little more work on my end to get my stuff prepared to meet some of these unique requirements, but if I want to get published, I have to be willing to do the work.

And then there are the agents who just seem to be constructing an arbitrary and elaborate series of obstacles for reasons known only to them. I feel at times like I'm being made to pass some sort of examination to see how thoroughly I can follow instructions. This, combined with the steady stream of rejection letters I've been getting back, makes this an exceptionally humbling experience.

So, for anyone out there who's planning to try to find an agent for a book, I would offer the following advice: when you find an agent's web site, read it carefully, and try to find the following:
  • Try to find the agency's web site, so that you can find their up-to-date information. There are several web sites that have listings of agents, but the information on those sites might be obsolete. The agent you're looking at might be out of the business, or might not be looking for your genre of fiction any more. Don't just send a query blind to someone's email unless you can determine their status first.
  • While you're on their web site, check for any danger signs that might indicate that this isn't a legitimate agent. Anyone who wants to charge you money just to read your manuscript is not the kind of agent you want to associate with. A legitimate agent earns his or her money from the publisher by selling your book. (Here is a good place to start if you want to learn more about organizations and entities that you should avoid.)
  • Try to identify whether or not they're interested in your type of work. Most agency web sites will list somewhere what they're looking for. If the web site has agent bio pages, this is usually a good place to start.
  • Find their submissions guidelines, and read them closely. You probably have a pre-prepared query letter and synopsis, but you might need to tweak what you have to meet a specific agent's needs. Don't get yourself disqualified just because you forgot to send something that the agent asked for.
  • Don't take rejection personally. Don't get upset at the agent who sends you a polite "thanks, but not thanks." Be professional. Query someone else.
In short: if you're going to try to find an agent, be prepared to put in a lot of work.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: The Wolverine (Spoiler Warning)

Short answer: The Wolverine is an adequate superhero movie, but you've almost certainly seen this story before, even if you haven't read the exact comics this movie is based on.

Spoilers ahead, by the way.

I've never been that much of a Wolverine fan. When I was collecting comic books, I had a different first choice for my stories about a tough, cyncial, flawed hero. I was disappointed when the first three X-Men movies basically turned out to be "Wolverine and His Less Competent Friends". So it may not be much of a surprise that I thought this particular outing for the super-healing Aussie was lukewarm at best.

But the basic story of The Wolverine is completely paint-by-the-numbers. You start with your hard-edged hero, who's suffering from a painful past and hiding his bad-assitude under a basket. Then he's offered a chance to do something meaningful and noble. He tries to walk away, but eventually finds that he can't; he's become smitten with the story's damsel in distress, who is sufficiently helpless that the hero must come to her rescue. He succeeds, and by doing so, he rediscovers himself and his purpose.

The movie just keeps hitting the same old cliches, right down to the love-em-and-leave-em, "I don't fit into your world, babe" ending. I know that some of this story actually predates the movie, although there's not much in common between the original comics and the movie aside from a few characters and the general theme. With so much divergence from the source material, the scriptwriters certainly could have invented a less cliche Wolverine/Mariko storyline.

There are a few good moments in the movie, and Yukio is a fun character I wouldn't mind seeing more of. And, of course, there's the mid-credits teaser for the next movie, which by itself will probably justify the price of admission for hardcore fans. If you're keen to see Hugh Jackman beat up ninja or take his shirt off a lot, you're well-served by The Wolverine, but otherwise, there's nothing special or noteworthy here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: OUYA

Now that we've had our OUYA for a while, I have to say that the OUYA is a cool and inexpensive toy, but it's somewhat superfluous right now, and will continue to be until it gets some more compelling content.

I've seen a lot of chatter on the internet from folks who have incorrect assumptions about what the OUYA is supposed to be. Some people are assuming it's a Playstation/Xbox/Nintendo competitor, and are dismayed at the low-end graphics and the lack of AAA titles. Some people are assuming it's just a way to run cell phone games on your TV, and don't know why they should bother, since they already have a cell phone.

The OUYA is not supposed to be a top-tier console; the tiny size ought to be a dead giveaway. And it's not just for cell phone games; games like Bombsquad and Towerfall work best with four friends sitting around the same screen.

The OUYA is supposed to be a console platform with a low barrier of entry for independent developers. If I personally took a week off and locked myself in the house with a copy of Unity, I could have a game up on the OUYA store by the end of the week. (Disclaimer: I don't actually know how long the OUYA game review/approval process takes, but I've heard that it sometimes takes mere hours.) This is great for small developers; it lets you get your game in front of the public at minimal expense.

The problem is that the console doesn't offer a lot to the actual gamer, which is the person who's supposed to be buying the thing.

Are you interested in cheap console games? The existing consoles already offer a variety of cheap games for download. I could go right now and download a variety of PS1 classics that are priced less than some of the less-polished efforts available on the OUYA.

Do you like indie games? Again, the digital download stores for the big consoles have you covered there as well, though you won't find a lot of quirky, lone-developer, "I did this because I thought it was cool" titles on the big consoles. For those more obscure indie titles, the best place to go is still your Windows PC. (And you can plug your PC into your big screen TV and break out a wireless controller if you still want that console experience.)

Since the more successful OUYA titles are already available on more mainstream platforms (or soon will be) there's not really a compelling reason to rush out and pick up an OUYA at this point. This may change in the future; more games are coming out on the OUYA all the time, and it's possible that we'll start to see some high-quality, OUYA-exclusive games. But for right now, unless you're really interesting in supporting the platform, youre better off getting your fix for cheap games and/or indie games elsewhere.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: Shadowrun Returns

I've spent some more time with Shadowrun Returns since my last post, and I'm still enjoying it. The story and dialogue are well-written; the puzzles are pleasantly challenging without being frustrating; the combat engine is simple and fun. It's not a terribly deep or complex game, though the different character classes provide a lot of variety. I'm playing a mage, but I'm looking forward to replaying it so that I can try the adept, the decker, the shaman, the rigger, and the street samurai.

I've heard that the campaign isn't very long -- only about a dozen hours -- but honestly, that's fine for me, given that I don't have time to sink hundreds of hours into a game. With a story this short, I can actually look forward to finishing a few replays during my lifetime. Also, player-created missions and campaigns should provide a lot more material.

The campaign editor isn't as user friendly as Neverwinter's, but the online documentation helps flatten the learning curve a little. I've started building my own little adventure, and I have ideas for several more.

My only serious complaint is the same complaint you'll see on any public discussion about the game: your progress is only saved at the start of each map. So if you enter a map, conduct a few conversations, solve a puzzle or two, get into combat, and get killed, you have to start all over at the beginning of the map and run the same conversations and puzzles. This can be frustrating, especially if you have to stop play and step away from the computer for any reason. I'm sure this design decision saved them a fair amount of development effort, but it's a significant flaw in an otherwise enjoyable game.

Even with the checkpoint-based save feature, I'm still pleased with the game and I don't regret backing the Kickstarter in the slightest.  I've heard that the developers will be releasing a second campaign in October, which is supposed to be somewhat less linear than the first campaign. Since I'm a Kickstarter backer, I'll be getting it for free. I'm looking forward to playing it, and to releasing my own epic neo-noir cyberpunk adventures.