Beware The Trap of Genericville!

August 10th, 2010 • Kate

generic_cola_can_jewelSo I was going through queries today, as is my wont, and came across a book description in an email that looked a little like this:

It’s a world of breathtaking beauty and despicable horror, of adventure, magic, and death-defying duels, with an ordinary boy-turned-hero and his compatriots, most of them wonderfully three-dimensional female characters. The land they must cross in their quest is both bucolic and deadly, sometimes both at the same time; nonetheless, it is above all else utterly realistic. It is a place where good and evil are at constant odds, no one side ever winning, where nice people don’t always finish last, the bad guy is drawn in shades of grey, and the hero’s battle to victory isn’t an easy upward climb.

In other words, as Rexroth says in Movie Preview Guy voice, “Imagine a place where everything you need to believably generate a believable story is believably present.”

So what’s wrong with this? Well, nothing, if your goal is to describe any of a billion possible plots. But we don’t want generic adventure! We want specifics.

I often joke that I don’t want to represent any novel I could play as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, but the serious fact behind that witticism is this: all too often, particularly with a newbie GM/author, the elements of a D&D campaign feel like they were assembled out of that red box from 1981, and you don’t want your novel to feel similarly pieced together. Your half-elven adventurer and the friends he meets in a tavern and convinces to help him on his quest feel a lot like hundreds of other half-elven adventure stories.

So how do you fix it? How do you tell a fantasy story that doesn’t feel like a pre-generated campaign? Get into the details. Don’t waste a full paragraph in your query telling me nothing about the characters! I want to know who they are, why they’re on a mission to save the world, or whatever. Tell me about the bad guy that thwarts their every move — not in generalities like “evil wizard”, “power-mad sorcerer”, or “inept king”, but in specifics that could only refer to YOUR character.

To bring this back around to gaming terms — level your characters up! Put your points into skills and traits that make them unique, that add up to a build no one’s ever seen before. Not that they can’t be level ones, but if they are, spend some time with their backstory so that you know where you’re going to spend your experience points on the way to the level cap.

Don’t just pick an archetype and stick with it — make it yours, and have fun on the way. If you do, maybe you’ll interest me in playing/reading along.

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13 Responses to “Beware The Trap of Genericville!”

  1. Elizabeth Briggs Says:

    I give this post a +10 to awesome.

  2. Elena Says:

    Okay, hangs head in shame. Guilty. I spent four years working on the "next Harry Potter", and became so focused on writing a series of books with so many side-plots and twists and turns that by the time I was working on my 100th draft I didn't even remember what the beginning was.

    Once I decided it was time for something original, this very sarcastic girl walked into my head, sat herself down, and said "look, I've got this novel that I want to star in, so maybe you should give me a shot."

    I gave her a couple of pages to prove herself. Never looked back.

  3. Adam Heine Says:

    I've heard I'm supposed to base my top agents on things like sales and such, but I can't resist the ability to craft an effective D&D analogy. You've made my list.

  4. John Robbins Says:

    Daphne wrote: "So how do you fix it? Get into the details. Don’t waste a full paragraph in your query telling me nothing about the characters! I want to know who they are, why they’re on a mission to save the world, or whatever. Tell me about the bad guy that thwarts their every move — not in generalities like “evil wizard”, “power-mad sorcerer”, or “inept king”, but in specifics that could only refer to YOUR character."

    What would be incredibly helpful would be to offer example summaries of the characters in Fantasy staples like Lord of the Rings or The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Eragon, or even of Star Wars (which is really just a fantasy set in space). The same is true of the villian, too. What was unique about Darth Vader or Sauron or even the White Witch? In my mind, they seem like nothing more than evil wizards, power-mad sorcerers, and inept kings.

    I would have liked something a little more concrete – such as examples of fantasy character summaries. Because, truth be told, I don't know how someone would summarize characters like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins or the four children who step through the wardrobe closet; because, in my mind, they were all pretty normal, uninteresting people in and of themselves.

    So, in your opinion, how could an author of a traditional fantasy summarize an ordinary-boy-turned-hero, when that premise is the very heart of fantasy and science fiction?

  5. Adam Heine Says:

    I think, John, it's like she said: get into the details. Zoomed out too far, Luke is a boy-turned-hero like every other. Zoomed in, he's a crack pilot who dreams of joining the Rebellion against the Empire, but his uncle — afraid that Luke will turn out like his father — keeps him on the moisture farm season after season.

    Likewise, Darth Vader is just an evil sorcerer bent on ruling the galaxy. Zoom in: he's a half-man/half-machine charged with bringing the galaxy under the heel of the Emperor, and obsessed with wiping out the Jedi Knights — an order of sorcerers of which Vader was once the most powerful.

    These aren't the best examples (they're really long sentences, for one thing), but I hope they give the right idea. The specifics make them unique. Their dreams and obsessions make them believable. How far you zoom in depends on how much space you have. In a query, for example, I'd focus on Luke to this level, but maybe not Vader since it's not his story.

    Or maybe I would, since bringing up the Jedi can lead to why Luke becomes important. Queries aren't an exact science after all.

    Hope that helps!

  6. Derrick Camardo Says:

    I think you need to put a lot more things into gaming terms.

    As for me and my friends, we always used character driven campaigns. The GM would sit down and say, "Okay, what do you want to do today." And the rest fo the GM's job was to ref the mayhem.

  7. Erin Says:

    LOVE this post! (Especially the analogy. /cheer!)

    I'm going to pull out the Tolkien here, because I love his essay "On Fairy-Stories." In it he argues that fantasy deals “with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting."

    A fantasy story should still be, at its core, an interesting story with interesting characters. Setting it in a fantasy landscape with magic doesn't instantly make it more interesting than setting it in Cleveland, and telling me someone is a wizard doesn't make them more interesting than telling me they're an accountant. As a reader, I don't look for the fantasy and the tropes as the hook to get me to read the story. I expect any wizard I read about to be as fully three-dimensional as any person I meet on the street. Saying a protagonist is a wizard or a half-elf or a demon or a [Insert Fantasy Thinger Here] doesn't tell us who he is, and that's what I want to know!

  8. Derrick Camardo Says:

    @Erin: That's exactly why I read across genres, because like you said, the setting doesn't determine the story.

  9. Sarah Stellpflug Says:

    Hm. Interesting thoughts. However, wasn't D&D in and of itself based on a book? More specifically, wasn't it based on Lord of the Rings? It shocks me to think that a literary agent would forgo representing the Magna Carta of fantasy.

    My brother is a huge D&D aficionado, and between watching him play and listening to him talk about it (his two very favorite things in the world) it occurs to me that the fantasy genre is largely based on Tolkien's work. So, saying that you wouldn't represent a fantasy novel that you could play as a D&D campaign seems rather ridiculous.

    Back to queries: While Adam offered some great ideas, the examples he gave didn't quite check out. Most of the information that he supplied wasn't even explained to the audience until the second, fifth, and sixth movies. So, if a new author was shopping the Star Wars story around, they would have little more than a really evil dude with a mask and a little guy with a bunch of pluck (which is what almost all fantasy can be condensed to).

    As an unpublished writer myself – and I'm sure others agree with me – I frequent blogs such as this so that I can avoid making the same mistakes that rookie authors often make. My question is this: was that excerpt from the query embellished or re-worded? It would really help to see the original version, and what you would do to fix it, specifically.


  10. Kate Says:

    Sarah – why would it shock you that a literary agent who doesn't represent traditional fantasy would forgo representing traditional fantasy? As for D&D's origins, I will ask the expert when he gets home. My understanding was that the campaign setting grew out of a general love and interest in fantasy, and the books came later — out of a group of players who did, in fact, write up their gaming adventures.

    To answer your question, the book description I shared was not direct from a query — I don't share any part of authors' queries unless I have explicit permission, and in this case, as it was an example of something I didn't want to see, I wasn't about to ask the author for permission to poke fun at his writing.

    What I'm looking for in a book description isn't the kind of generalities I wrote up, but specifics, whether that's about the character OR the setting. Sure, Frodo may be a simple halfing, but the world of the Lord of The Rings, a civilization preparing for the end of the time of the Elves and the next age of Men, in which a powerful ring thought lost is found and must be destroyed, brings specifics into it, in the same way that Adam's examples above about the characters of Luke and Darth Vader add depth to the tropes.

    The fact is, in a query, you have about a page to describe your novel. In a single sentence, you may have to stick with generalities: four children step through a wardrobe and into a battle between good and evil, or a farm boy dreams of escaping his boring life to fight on the side of the Rebellion. But when you've got several paragraphs to set up the story, and tell me something that's going to stick about the characters AND the setting, then you have the room to be more specific.

    If I were rewriting the original (made-up) quote above, I'd start with something like:

    Restlyn was happy on his farm at the borders of Snowden Forest. He was learning to train the new foal, and hoped that the coming week would bring an opportunity to ask Hestia to the Harvest Festival. But in a night that would feature in his nightmares for years to come, the Overlord of Jervis and his men descended on his village and wiped out most of Restlyn's family and friends. With nothing but a half-trained horse, a rusty sword, and the help of a seemingly-insane mercenaries with her own axe to grind against the Overlord, Restlyn sets out across the war-ravaged plains of Jervis to seek revenge… etc. etc.

    Do you see how that's more specific? It's not perfect — but then, it's not a real book, just a plot I made up as I was writing it. But the difference between "boy-turned-hero" and Restlyn, the farmboy who trains horses and is in love with Hestia, whose entire family is killed for a reason he doesn't understand, is, I hope, pronounced.

  11. Sarah Stellpflug Says:

    Thank you very, very much for clarifying. Despite its roughness, that was a very beautiful paragraph you wrote. I have to admit I'm a bit shamefaced.

    That being said, your blog succeeded, in that, I learned some very necessary information. I am re-working my own query with a much smarter strategy in mind.

    Another question on queries, while I'm here: When seeking representation for a series, should I inform the agent that it is a series, or do I pitch the first book only?

  12. Elena Says:

    @Sarah Stellpflug

    Most agents prefer that you pitch only one book at a time. The first book in a series should be stand-alone. I've seen some queries say "This is a stand-alone novel with series potential", or something similar.

  13. Suzanne Casamento Says:

    Hats off to Adam Heine for providing great examples of getting into the details. Nice work!