For Love of the Story

I watched For Love of the Game last night, but a different version than the one that was released in theaters or on tape or DVD.

My deceased life mate/soul mate was sick for many years, and one way kept himself busy when he hadn’t the strength to do much else was to tape movies. He started with our favorites, then went on to taping good parts of bad movies, and finally edited movies that we didn’t like. (It’s rather amusing — he turned a few dreadful serial killer movies into sweet romances by ending the movie before the charming killer showed his evil side.)

baseballThe problem we both had with For Love of the Game was the constant intrusion of the backstory. Billy Chapel is pitching the last game of his career and he keeps stopping to reflect on his past — detailed flashbacks that would take up more than a few seconds between his pitches. Would fans in the stands really care that he was pitching a perfect game if he spent most of his time on the mound staring glassy-eyed into the past? Would he really be able to “clear the mechanism” so easily if his mind wasn’t on the game?

My version is told in chronological order, from the meeting of the girl in the beginning to the remeeting at the end. When Chapel is pitching, then, his pauses are short, and seem more evidence of exhaustion than anything else.

So why am I mentioning this? I’ve been working sporadically on my novel about a grieving woman. A few years ago I wrote many scenes or parts of scenes, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to arrange the scenes and tell the story. As it stands right now, the story begins when the funeral people deliver the urn with her husband’s ashes, which is a good place to begin. (In a classic beginning, either a stranger knocks on the door or the character goes on a trip.) The only trouble is, there is a vast backstory that needs to be told, which is okay because it is about a woman grieving, after all, and much of grief is about unwinding the backstory, figuring out who you are, where you are, and how you got to that point.

Sometimes — most times, actually — stories need to be told in chronological order. It might serve my story better if I began when the husband got sick. It would show her dealing with his illness and would explain how she ended up in love with someone else while her husband was dying. This way, there would need to be only a few mentions of the past, such as when the met, what happened to her parents, etc, and not the constant intrusions into the past that are required if I were to start with the knock on the door.

But . . . a gun plays a role in the story. Finding the gun and eventually discovering the significance of the gun makes the grieving wgunoman realize that she put so much of herself into the marriage, and if she doesn’t know who her husband is, then how can she know who she is? If I told the story chronologically, the gun wouldn’t show up until the middle of the book, and it would lose its significance.

I suppose the best thing for me to do is to forget about the chronology and just type up the scenes. Afterward, if necessary, I can edit the book and put everything in chronological order. Either way, it’s all for love of the story.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

How to Write a Query Letter

A fellow writer asked my advice today about composing query letters, and being as susceptible to flattery as anyone else (she says she likes my writing), I am obliging her.

Most important is what not to include in a query letter, and at the top of that list is: refrain from mentioning how much your family and friends like the story. An agent is only interested in her own opinion and does not care what your mother and best friend think. Mentioning them is the mark of an amateur. Unless, of course, you are a friend of Kevin Costner and have just written Dances with Wolves and Kevin wants to make a movie about your story and needs a published book to show his backers. Then definitely put that in your query letter. (Interestingly, despite that endorsement of Dances With Wolves, the book was published as a short-run paperback because the publishers thought it was an historical romance with limited appeal.)

The second most important thing to leave off is anything that is self-evident. I cringe when I think of the first letters I sent out. “I am an unpublished writer,” began one. “I am looking for an agent,” began another. Both of those statements fall under the category of “duh.” Of course I am unpublished, otherwise I would be leading with a list of my published works. And of course I am looking for an agent. Why else would I be writing a query letter?

So how do you write a query letter? Lead with a hook. Something that will make the agent read further, something that will tell her you are not like the thousands of others who are clamoring for her time and attention. Be sure to include the number of pages, the genre, the title, and a description.

My best query letter for More Deaths Than One began: The painting is of a pond with no ripples, surrounded by forest. Very serene. As he studies the painting, however, disquiet begins to creep over him, and he can almost feel the monstrous thing that lives in the slime deep down at the bottom of the pool. “I was trying to paint what’s in here,” Bob says, tapping his chest with a fist. Then he gestures to the painting. “I don’t know how that happened.”

This letter caught the attention of an agent, though he was never able to find a publisher for it .

My advice? Spend as much time perfecting your query letter as you do perfecting your book. It’s the only way to show that you are ready to be a professional writer.