Aug 29, 2014

Treating the Book 1 Beginning Problem

I thought I was finally ready to submit Book 1.  It turns out I wasn't.

The good news is, I finally understand why the beginning of Book 1 has been such a problem.  It's not the prose.  It's not the main character, per se.  It's not bad luck, or a hatred of telepaths, or anything arcane.  It's jaded reader expectations.  Jaded readers see a child-genius-orphan-telepath-wheelchair-user, and expect a bland character who cruises through life with ease and saves the day.  They're expecting him to turn into Artemis Fowl + Professor X.  Or, as another writer put it:  How do you imply that there's more to a character than there seems at first, without giving the whole game away?

I've written myself into a corner on this one.  The character doesn't follow the tropes, but if I tell you that, it gives the whole game away.  His trope attributes are all vital to the story.  There's simply no way to change this character without ruining the story--and no way to introduce him without turning off jaded literary agents.  He is what he is.

But knowing is half the battle.

I spent the last decade wondering why I couldn't get the beginning right, no matter what I did.  Now I'm able to zero in on the root of the problem.  I might never be able to fully 'fix' it, or make it palatable to a jaded reader who expects the worst ... but I can treat the symptoms.  I finally have the correct diagnosis.  After so many years of wondering why the first chapters never worked magic on readers while the rest of the book did, this is a huge relief.

I wanted to start querying agents in March.  Now it looks like it will be September or later.  I wish it hadn't taken me a decade of start+stop frustration to figure out the root of this problem.  But, as the slaves in my series say, knowledge is worth a bit of pain.

My treatment plan is as follows:

1) Add a prologue from the point of view of the only person on Earth who knows that the main character is not what he appears to be.  Prologues are out of vogue and this is a minor antagonist, but it seems necessary, given the problem.  Her POV can explain quite a lot.

I wanted to let the reader discover the main character's true nature along with him ... but a jaded reader assumes they already know the main character's true nature.  This prologue will give them a more accurate estimation.

2) Have a character comment on one of the tropes.  This proves that I didn't include the trait subconsciously or out of ignorance.

3) Make everything else in the first chapters as un-trope-like as possible.  I'm focusing on having other characters act in unexpected-yet-still-believable ways.

4) Re-purpose my query letter to emphasize the main character's failure to save the day.  This is extremely tricky, since query letters are supposed to making the main character sound heroic.  I need to make him sound heroic, yet emphasize the fact that he's not the hero they expect.  Urrrrgh.

Here's my August 2014 query pitch:
Thomas never lets anyone take advantage of him.  As a 12-year-old with spinal muscular atrophy, he relies on caretakers ... yet dominates adults because he knows their secrets.  No one else has his powers.  Or so it seems.  
When other telepaths invade Thomas's mind, ripping into his embarrassing secrets and peering through his eyes, he's amazed that his powers are commonplace.  Trillions of telepaths like him rule the galaxy.  They transport Thomas to an alien metropolis where his most indulgent fantasies are actualized through advanced technology.  Here Thomas is normal--but everyone who isn't a telepath gets brutally enslaved.  Elite telepaths will kill Thomas in a nanosecond if he aids slaves such as his foster family and friends.  Or if he reverts to 'savage' emotions, such as compassion.  Unable to outwit or deceive his brethren, Thomas begins to suppress his emotions and give up.  
His desperate friends must prove that slaves are superior to the master race of telepaths.  They must convince Thomas to challenge his own conceits ... before he becomes just another brilliant, depraved slave-master.  The freedom of the universe is at stake.

Aug 2, 2014

Subverting tropes: a hard sell

I like to subvert tropes. I take traits that readers have seen too many times before--a gentle giant, for instance--and turn that character into something unexpected. Readers figure that a gentle giant will be misunderstood, considered a monster when he really isn't. The reader rolls their eyes ... until the plot takes an unexpected turn, and the gentle giant gains dangerous berserker tendencies that get innocent bystanders killed. Now the reader must reexamine their assumptions and wonder if he really is a monster, despite his depiction as kind and gentle.

The main character in my novel (Book 1 of the epic series) is front-loaded with tropes. He's a child genius. In a wheelchair. With telepathy. Mistrusting readers are rolling their eyes, thinking they've seen this before, in Artemis Fowl and Ender Wiggin and Professor X. Such readers assume that he's going to save the world (or his friends, or whatever) with his genius and telepathic abilities. They'd go on assuming that ... until he doesn't. About 30% into the novel, the story takes an unexpected twist, causing the reader to reexamine their assumptions about geniuses and telepaths and disabled protagonists. His strengths are being a child and being disabled; his weaknesses are being a genius and being telepathic. It's the opposite of what audiences are trained to expect.

I should have expected that this would be a hard sell. Holy cow. I'm running into a roadblock where industry professionals see the trope, assume that's all it is, and stop reading before the trope gets subverted.*

One beta reader suggested that I plant hints of trope subversion in the first chapter or two. I'm not sure that's feasible, since the beauty of trope subversion is setting up reader expectations before blowing them to smithereens.

Has anyone else run into this problem when subverting tropes? Have you found a way around it?

* The first chapter has other red flags for industry readers, but the trope assumption seems to be one of two 'kill switch' factors.  The other major red flag is the protagonist's young age, which industry professionals consider wrong for YA crossover or adult markets, A Game of Thrones and Ender's Game notwithstanding.