I recently received a short story rejection from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was a nice rejection; he explained what he liked about the story and what didn't work for him. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the things that didn't work for him were things I didn't like either. One of those things was the ending.

I have a problem with endings. I always have. I can remember getting reports back in 4th grade with all the red pen on the last paragraph. "Needs a better conclusion," it would say.

One problem is I don't plan them well. For all my neuroses about planning ahead, the truth is that I plan the near parts in excellent detail, with increasingly less detail towards the end. So by the time I get there, I am often left with all these plots and subplots crashing together, knowing who wins and who dies, but never knowing how.

This happens a lot in smaller scenes throughout the writing process, and I always figure something out, but for the ending that something has to be really good. That's hard to do when so much of the story has already been decided.

My other problem with endings, I think, is that I don't care about them. Oh, I know how important they are, and my very favorite books are those with amazing endings. What I mean is, when I first fall in love with a story I'm writing, it's never the ending I'm thinking of. It might be the world, or the speculative element, or one of the characters, but it's never the ending.

My Beloved Alpha Reader told me she loves the way I end chapters - could I just end the novel like that? The problem (I told her) is that what makes my chapters are the cliffhangers. I'm real good at cliffhangers. I can pull a decent scene- or chapter-ending cliffhanger out of almost anything. But if I ended my book like that, I'd make a lot of readers mad (including myself - I hate books that end with blaring cliffhangers).

Okay, so here we are. You're all readers. What makes a good ending to you? I know the basics - the logistics, if you will: It must answer most, if not all, of the questions raised earlier in the story. It must make sense, arising naturally from the plot and characters (e.g. no deus ex machina). It should not be boringly predictable (though it doesn't always have to have a major twist). What else, then? These things make an ending not bad, but what do you think makes one good? What are your favorite endings and why?

(Be kind with your answers to that last one. Mark spoilers appropriately.)

The Pillar of Skulls

Near the gate between the first and second layer of Hell, there lies a grotesque monument of the damned. Towering more than a mile high, howling and writhing with eternal torment, is a terror to match any other in the Nine Hells.

Here lies the Pillar of Skulls. It seethes with the frustration and hatred of a billion souls, moaning and wailing in endless, hopeless agony.

Yet here, too, lies the greatest store of knowledge in all the planes of existence. For among the Pillar's eternal prisoners lie great thinkers, world leaders, teachers, scientists... the entirety of the world's lore and experiences can be found within.

And so once in a great while, a seeker of knowledge will brave Hell itself to speak to the Pillar. But should they survive the charred wasteland, should they avoid the endless legions of Lord Bel's devils, should they escape the watchful eyes of the five-headed Tiamat, they must still contend with the Pillar itself.

When a visitor comes, the billion skulls fight each other to make themselves heard. The surface of the Pillar billows and pulsates, one skull appearing - howling unintelligible obscenities - then disappearing as quickly to be replaced by another.

Even should the seeker find the right one - a soul who has the information they are after - there is a price. For every skull on the Pillar, every soul doomed to live out eternity in the Nine Hells, wants only one thing. "I'll tell you what I know," they will say. "I'll do anything you ask. Just, please, take me off this pillar. Please, I...

"I just want to be published."

Keeping Up With the Internet

Depending on how you count, there are over a hundred social networking sites out there and God only knows how many blogs. It's impossible to keep up with everything, even if you cut out all the crap you don't care about.

My own personal slice consists of 57 blogs, 23 Twitterers, and 244 Facebook friends (at current count). I interact in these venues as well, writing tweets, commenting on Facebook and blogs, as well as updating two blogs of my own.

I don't have the time to do all this, of course. I've got five kids and a novel to write. I want to share with you a couple of tools that have made my life simpler and (if you haven't already found similar tools) can maybe make yours simpler too.
  1. Google Reader. In the year 2009, you have to have some kind of RSS reader (similarly, if you have a website, you have to have a feed - I'm looking at you, Homestar!). I like Google Reader because (a) it checks the feeds automatically, (b) it feels like Gmail, and (c) I heart Google - they may be the New Evil, but they know how to do a GUI.
  2. Twitterfox. I started using Twitter while looking for a way to update my Facebook status and Gmail status at the same time.* I stayed there because it connected me to certain friends and the cost in time to use it was small - but only after I found Twitterfox. There are about a thousand ways to read and send Twitter updates, but I like this one because (a) it's a Firefox extension, so I don't have to open another app to use it and (b) it's quiet and unobtrusive (once you tell it not to pop-up a window).
  3. Ping.fm. I like status updates. They're quick and informative. It started when some friends wrote Gmail statuses that started with "is" (as in "Adam Heine is..."). Facebook was doing the same thing when I got there. When I got around to Twitter, I found myself writing 3 separate updates to separate groups of friends. Ping.fm is a solution to that. Now I can write a single update (sent through Gmail chat even) that automatically gets sent to wherever I want.*
If these tools don't do it for you, I bet you can find some tools that do. Examine your internet surfing for areas of redundancy or wasted effort (e.g. manually checking 10-20 blogs to see if they've updated yet), then look for tools that solve it. If you look hard enough, I can almost guarantee someone has written the right tool(s) for you.

* I have found a way to get Twitter to update Gmail, but it still works less than half the time. I'm hoping they fix the problem soon, or ping.fm figures out a solution. (You hear me, Google Titans? I want you to work with other developers!).

Skipping Ahead

If you didn't already know, I'm mildly OCD. I hate reading books out of order. I won't watch a movie sequel if I haven't seen the first one. I don't even want to watch a TV series unless I start from the beginning. If I'm going to get into a story, I don't want to miss a thing.

That may help you to understand what happened to me the other day.

I was writing chapter 20, in which protagonist and friend are escaping from a pirate lord's prison. As in many of Air Pirate's chapters, there is a fight scene.* Fight scenes always stick me. Mainly because the outline says something to the effect of "Sam and Kiro fight. Sam wins," and I realize I don't know how he wins.

I'm aware that one way of getting through writer's block is to skip ahead to another scene. So I tried that. I started to type "[fight scene]" where the scene would go, intending to move on to what happened after the fight.

But hard as I tried, I just couldn't do it.

I've identified two reasons I couldn't skip ahead. The first is quite sane: I use past events to inform future ones. Minor details that I think of during one scene will come up again later once I'm aware of them. Like in one airship escape sequence (this one, in fact), the police hit Protag's ship with a harpoon-like weapon I made up on the spot. Also made up on the spot was how the protagonists then cut the cables to free themselves, leaving harpoons and severed cables hanging from the airship.

In the next scene, I realized these cables had to be pulled out, so Sam enlisted Hagai to do so. This made for an excellent opportunity to showcase Hagai's low self-esteem and uselessness, and it gave me a good place for Hagai to have a conversation with another character.

Now obviously these sorts of threads and connections can be added after the fact in revision, but as I've touched on before, I'd rather not if I can help it. I'd rather get it right, or at least mostly right, the first time.

But the second reason I couldn't skip ahead - and more likely the real reason - is far less sane. I couldn't make myself skip ahead because, just as if I'd accidentally hit Next on my DVD remote, I felt like I missed part of the action. I wanted to know what happened.

That's right. You think I'm writing for others, but the truth is I'm writing this story, and probably all the others, because I want to know what happens next. I guess that's not so insane. I'm writing for me as much as anyone.

* Out of 28 chapters, 18 have either a fight scene or a chase scene. What can I say? I like action.

Firebrand Literary's Query Holiday

Firebrand Literary, an agency known for doing things differently, is having a query holiday. For one month they are not accepting query letters, but rather first chapters (as Word attachments, no less!).

I'm kind of excited about this because I queried them in my first transport, which means (1) I thought they looked like a really good fit for me and (2) they received my crappiest query letter and sample pages. So I'm glad for this second chance with them.

If you also want to get on this, do it fast. I only just found out about it, and the month-long query holiday ends January 15th. So get there fast!

UPDATE: I just noticed their website calls this their "first annual" query holiday. So I guess this is going to be a recurring thing, which makes it even cooler.

My First Published Words

A couple of weeks ago, I announced my debut on Thaumatrope. Multiple people informed me that this makes me a professional writer, but I just remembered that a small piece of my writing has already been published for payment long ago.

In a past life, I was a scripter for the role-playing game, Planescape: Torment. A scripter is like a programmer, except instead of writing complicated graphical algorithms, I wrote simple scripts that told each character and creature what to do. Perhaps the simplest example being:

IF See( PC )
Attack( PC )

I was also responsible for putting the levels together. Designers designed them and wrote the dialogue, artists drew everything, and I put the pieces together so it worked. On one level, I required a piece of dialogue to inform the player that he'd have to leave his party behind before entering the Immortal's Tomb. The designer told me to write it myself. I present to you the first 72 words of my publishing career (click to enlarge):

It's wordy, I know. I mean, I wrote it ten years ago. And anyway, in a game that contains an estimated 800,000 words, seventy-two is negligible. But these are my first words written and published for money.

So I guess I've been professional for a decade now and didn't know it.

Air Pirates Query on Evil Editor

Evil Editor has done a critique (slash-parody) of my latest query letter for Air Pirates. No, the novel isn't finished, but I followed my own suggestion and wrote the query early to help me focus the novel. Evil Editor mentioned being nearly out of queries a little while ago, so I figured I'd see what he and his minions thought. What the heck, you know?

Some notes on how Evil Editor works. At the beginning of the post, he does a "Guess the Plot" feature, where various minions (i.e. blog readers) send in fake plots based solely on the title. Evil Editor then puts his critiques (and sometimes pictures) in the query letter in a different color so you can see them. These are mainly just to be funny. The really useful information comes in Evil Editor's notes at the end and the minions' comments afterwards.

Anyway, go ahead and read it. Let me know what you think, either there or here.

Bad for Borders

Depending on what cross-section of the internet you pay attention to, you may or may not know that things are bad for Borders. Really bad. Like, there-might-not-be-any-Borders-in-a-couple-of-months bad.

It's scaring some people in the publishing world. The blogging agents I read keep saying don't worry about it, people will still read books. I tend to agree with them, and as an as-yet-unpublished author, I'm not worried. Not yet. I can't find the link, but one blogging agent said that unpublished authors should push harder than ever, because by the time their books are selling (i.e. in a year or two) the economy will have turned back again and people will want things to read.

Anyway, here's a couple of other recent links on this topic. Agent Joshua Bilmes points out a few stores that are closing post-Christmas (the beginning of the end or not?), and Agent Jenny Rappaport talks about what "the end" may or may not look like if Borders does go under.