Halfway Done and Silver Phoenix

Chapters Edited: 14
Scenes Edited: 41
Words Murdered: 2,576 (5.1%)

Visions Hagai has seen in the stone: 5
Visions where Hagai gets beat up or dies: 4
Visions where good things happen: 0


One of my first bosses once told me, "When your boss tell you to estimate how long a task will take, double what you think it will take and tell them that." I found that to be true in later jobs, and it's still true here.

I once said the full read-through of Air Pirates would take me 1-4 weeks. Yesterday was the 4 week mark, and I am now halfway through. So it would seem my boss was right.

In other news (and other references to previous posts), I found a book trailer that I think is kind of cool. It's for a book called Silver Phoenix, about a young girl in ancient China with hidden powers who tries to find and fulfill her destiny. Here, check it out:

This works, I think, because everything seems to fit the tone of the book. There's no weak voice-over. The images look like they would fit in the world without being too specific. The music, too, feels very Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; it helps that the whole story has that Chinese mythical feel about it. I really like the Chinese-to-English text fade they do in the middle, too.

Finally, the only glimpses we get of characters look just like the girl on the cover.

I haven't read the book (it's not exactly carried in my local Thai bookstore), but it sounds like something I'd enjoy. Natalie even said it reminded her of Miyazaki's work, which is like saying to me, "Here, Adam, would you like some crack with that cocaine?" (Note to my mom: I don't do drugs. I do like Asian folklore though, perhaps too much).

This is the author's debut novel, which I like of course because I hope to be in the same place someday. She is doing a contest on her blog, giving away a copy of the book as well as some of her cool paintings for telling others about her book (like I'm doing).

Anyway, I don't get books often, but I do keep a list of what I want, so I don't forget things. Silver Phoenix has made the list, and that's no small thing.

Content Ratings

(No statistics today. Sorry, Natalie.)

Books don't have content ratings the way movies do, but I often think of them in the same terms. The question today is what level of sex/violence/language do you typically write or prefer to read?

There's a lot of action in my stories, and I'm not afraid to write about people beating the crap out of each other. People get shot, crack their skulls on pavement, slit each other's throats, and even die in childbirth.*

That said, I think the violence in my writing remains mostly PG-13.** In movies, the difference between PG-13 and R is not necessarily what happens, but how much you show of it and how much blood there is. It's the same idea in books (or would be, if there were a rating system). If a major character gets a sword in their gut, and you spend a paragraph describing what comes out, or the excruciating pain they're going through, it's the equivalent of a rated R scene. But if a minor no-name gets "sliced" during a battle and "doesn't get up," it's PG-13 - even though the same thing happened.

So I'll write as violent the story calls for, but how much I show will depend on the tone of the story. Most of Air Pirates is pretty light, so I keep the violence light, but it has its dark spots too.

In movies and books, language doesn't bother me at all for some reason. Even so, I keep the language in my books at PG-13 level (e.g. no sh-words or f-bombs, but damn and hell are okay). A lot of that is due to my alpha reader who physically hates reading bad words. It's actually good because it forces me to think before I make a character swear, and when they do, it's far more effective.

Alternatively, I could make up a whole new slang, like I did for Air Pirates. That way my characters can swear all the time without offending the ear (at least the American ear - some of AP's swear words are borrowed/modified from the British). You have to be careful with this though. Made-up swearing is hard to do right. I have no doubt that some Air Pirates' slang just sounds stupid.

I don't like watching explicit sex, and I'd rather not read it in books. They just aren't images I want in my head. (Though having said that, sex scenes in books don't affect me as strongly as the visual images in a movie).

So I almost never write sex scenes either. When I do, it's strictly fade-to-black PG stuff. There's none in Travelers, and Air Pirates has only two scenes that come close. In one, a woman gets attacked - attempted rape is implied, but never said out loud and never shown. The other is essentially: "They kissed. They didn't come out for a long time."

No, I won't be writing erotica anytime soon.

I should add that I'll read anything (hello, Song of Ice and Fire). These are my preferences. Not surprisingly, I tend to write what I like to read. So what about you?

CategoryPrefer to ReadWrite
LanguageDon't carePG-13

* But no knees; I can't stand knees. None of my characters ever get shot in the knee or break their knees. If someday one of them does, it will mean I have grown as a writer and a person.

** I'm using the American rating system. It's the only one I'm familiar with.

Three Truths

Chapters Edited: 12
Scenes Edited: 33
Words Murdered: 2,359 (5.6%)

Times Hagai's life has been threatened: 8
Hagai's brief moments of bravery: 4
People hunting Hagai: 10, plus a pirate crew and the entire Imperial Navy

Fighting monks: 3
Airships destroyed: 5


Only a few of you know me in real life, so we're going to play a game. Below are four facts about me; one of them is a lie. See if you can guess which one.
  1. I am 31 with 7 kids, ages 2 to 17.
  2. Until I was 11, I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. After that, I wanted to write novels for a living.
  3. I don't drink, don't smoke, don't like coffee, and I only swear when I'm talking to God.
  4. I sometimes play a recurring D&D character named Khad'am - an evil dwarven fighter with the constitution and charisma of a brick wall.
This is just for fun; there's no prize (wouldn't want anyone to feel tricked by my wording or anything). I'll put the answer in the comments on Tuesday night, PST. The answers are in the comments, so make your guess before reading them.

And feel free to play along: put 3 truths and a lie on your own blog, or in the comments. I don't read all of your blogs (sorry), but if you put a link in the comments I'll be sure to pop over and learn some things about you.

Yet Another Post About Query Letters

Chapters Edited: 11
Scenes Edited: 29
Words Murdered: 1915 (5.2% - I think I added some while rewriting)

Times Hagai has been in a life-threatening situation: 6
People who've yelled at Hagai for doing something stupid: 7 (oddly, never Sam)
People who've fought with Sam: 9
People who wished they hadn't: 6


So, query letters again.

If there's one thing I learned from Nathan's Agent for a Day contest it's that the perfect query letter will not make agents request your manuscript. "What?!" you say. Yes, I say. At best, the perfect query letter can tell the agent about your story. It's your story that will make them want to read your manuscript.

That means your query letter must be a clean, logical summary of your story. It doesn't have to include everything, but it does have to read well, and it has to make sense. It can't get in the way of the story.

I've been thinking about this because I've been teaching our niece (whom we homeschool) how to write a high school-level book report. The method is essentially the same. Here's what I told her:
  1. Focus only on the main storyline: one protagonist, one antagonist, one conflict, one climax.
  2. Be specific.
  3. Everything in the summary must answer the questions: What happens (main storyline only)? Why does that happen? What happens as a result?
Example: Lord of the Rings (because you can't talk too much about LotR).

Focusing on the main storyline means we're talking about Frodo and the Ring and nothing else. In a summary, or a query, that means we don't mention Pippin or Merry, Legolas or Gimli, maybe not even Aragorn or Gollum! Sauron gets a mention because it's his ring. Sam might get mentioned as "Frodo's faithful companion," but that's it.

Being specific means mentioning the details that make your story unique. Frodo doesn't need to destroy the Ring; he needs to throw it into the bowels of Mt. Doom, located in the center of Sauron's wasteland domain. He isn't chased by evil forces; he is hunted by legions of orcs and tracked by Ring Wraiths - creatures so twisted by evil that they have no will of their own, only that of their master Sauron.

Be careful though. Specifics can get wordy. Choose the specifics that make your story unique but at the same time don't clutter the summary with confusing details. In particular, don't name characters that don't need to be named.

Flowing logically means that the query/summary makes sense to someone who has never read the book. This is the hardest part for us authors because we keep forgetting that things that make perfect sense to us wouldn't make any sense to fresh eyes.

Often, in order to answer the 3 questions I mentioned above, we have to include bits that aren't part of the main storyline. I have to say that Frodo inherits the ring - from who? why? He sets off to destroy it - why? who tells him to do that? why does he agree?

This is exactly why you must focus only on the main storyline. A query that doesn't make logical sense obscures the story behind it and gets rejected. If you include subplots and minor characters, you'll have to start explaining everything, and there just isn't room for that on a single page. Queries that try it become too long or make no sense - often both.

There's more, of course. You don't just want to explain your story, you want to sell it. But if your query is focused, specific, and logical, it will go a long way towards selling itself already.

French Cooking

(No stats this time. The major plot revision, combined with life getting in the way, has slowed me down a bit. I've only done the one scene since last time.)

I've been reading Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle. It's an interesting look at how faith and art overlap. In fact, to hear L'Engle tell it, the two are far more intertwined than most people realize. I'd strongly recommend this book for artists who are Christian, but I think it has something to say to those who consider themselves a Christian or an artist but not both.

This post isn't about faith though. There was a passage about how L'Engle turned ideas into stories. Her method, it turns out, is a lot like mine, though she describes it much more eloquently.

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day's work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping in of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don't remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unself-consciousness, of letting go and serving the work.

Revisions, Major and Minor

Chapters Edited: 7
Scenes Edited: 20
Scenes Completely Rewritten: 3
Words Murdered: 1,959 (7.4%)

People hunting Hagai: 5
Times Hagai puts his foot in his mouth: 3
People Sam has fought with: 1
People Sam has stolen from: 4 (plus many that weren't dramatized)

These are some things I keep finding while I'm editing. If you've ever edited your own stuff, these probably won't be much of a surprise.
  • Lots of unnecessary "Hagai saw" "Hagai watched" "Hagai heard". He's the point of view character. If I write it, of course he's the one that notices it.
  • A lot of "started to" "began to" "almost" and "nearly". Declarative is better. "He ran," not "He started to run."
  • A few (though not as many as I feared) unnecessary dialogue tags: he said, she said. If the tag doesn't add information that's not obvious from the dialogue itself, then it's gotta go.
  • A lot of telling and unnecessary details, especially in the less-planned scenes. I'd write details and ideas as I thought of them. All of those details helped me understand what happened, but most were unnecessary to relay events to the reader. In fact, they get in the way. This happened especially in the beginning, where I had to rewrite two scenes in order to smooth them out (the opening of Chapter 1 is one example).
So far, I've only found one major plot revision that should've been caught in an earlier stage. It was a weak spot in the plot, where motivations became really complex, hard to follow, and consequently weak.

See, after Sam steals the stone from Hagai, Hagai runs into a police officer, Lieutenant Tobin. Tobin wants Hagai to help him get incriminating evidence on Sam, while Hagai just wants Tobin to tell him where to find Sam so he can try and get the stone back. When Hagai finds Sam, and Sam doesn't give back the stone, Hagai thinks he can get Sam arrested and get the stone back that way, so he tries to get the evidence Tobin asked for (in this case, gold coins from a certain bank). Sam says he'll pay Hagai in gold if Hagai does a certain job for him. But while doing the job, Hagai is told that Sam is the only one who can lead him to his mother, so he changes his mind, but the police are already set to arrest Sam so Hagai has to betray them and help Sam escape, but...

Messy, right? I can hardly follow it, and I wrote it. So I scrapped it and replaced it with something simpler. Hagai goes to the cops, but now he's up-front about the stone and agrees to help them arrest Sam. Hagai still does a job for Sam, but his motivation is more clear: to trap and arrest Sam. Until, of course, he learns that Sam is the only one who can lead him to his mother, and Hagai must decide what's more important: the law or finding his mother.

Well, it'll be better in book form. Anyway, that change required a scrapped scene and some medium-sized changes in two other chapters. Natalie's post on malleability is timely, for me. I'm sure there are major changes needed that I can't see yet, but the first step is not being afraid of the ones I see.

The Germination of a Story

Chapters edited: 5
Scenes edited: 16
Words murdered: 1,320 (6.5% - either I'm getting lazy or my writing got better after chapter 4)

Times Hagai nearly dies: 3
Times Hagai puts his foot in his mouth: 3
Times Sam gets in a fight: 1

Ideas are cheap. They're everywhere, but they're not enough to make a story. They need to mix, ripen, maybe bake (dang, now I'm hungry). The path from idea to story can be a long one. I want to show you what the path has looked like for me so far with Joey Stone.

It started because I wanted to write a school story with fantasy/spy/ninja elements, a la Naruto. A friend asked me to write a short story for her, so I fleshed out the idea with some psionic rules I'd made for an e-RPG, created a skeleton world (near future), and put some characters in it. I squeezed out a mediocre short story called Joey Stone.

I liked the characters and the powers, but there was nothing to the world and no story big enough yet for a novel (besides which, I was still writing Travelers), so I let it sit for a while.

Last summer, I watched Witch Hunter Robin and really liked the idea of using psions to hunt other psions. I also liked the connotations of "witches" better than "psions." I got that feeling again when I read the back of Marie Brennan's Doppleganger and mistakenly thought it was urban fantasy instead of the regular kind. Something about modern day witch hunters appeals to me, obviously.

A few months ago, I had a dream about a group of people who required technology to use their powers. One of their enemies discovered how to cancel out their technology. They were left powerless, until a young man was born among them who could use his powers without artificial aid, and he taught them how to do it themselves. This dream, combined with actually reading Doppleganger, got me thinking about the society of these "witches" and what it would have to be like for them to survive and stay hidden.

At this point, all these ideas were mixing together in my mind. The world was starting to take shape. I started thinking how to set the story at least partially in Thailand. I wanted to give the story a unique flavor and write what I know, but at the same time not seem too gimmicky (e.g. "It's X-Men in Thailand!").

But I still didn't have a story.

The other day I saw Babylon A.D.* It was okay, but I loved some of the future/tech ideas. It got me thinking about an America that's very hard to get into (hm, just like real life), and the story idea got stronger:

A Thai village girl discovers she has special powers. She is hunted for them, trying to understand them herself. She is rescued by a woman named Charity who explains the girl is one of the Cunning - people with extraordinary powers - and that there are those who would like to see all the Cunning Folk burn. Together, they fight their way into America where the girl will be safe, she hopes.

It needs a lot of work, and I'm not 100% certain I like it yet, but it doesn't matter. The idea is there, germinating, ripening, waiting for the next idea to hit my brain pan and make it better than it was. I have two more Air Pirates stories to write first, so there's plenty of time. Probably by the time I get to drafting Joey Stone, it'll be entirely different. Again.

What about you? Where do you get ideas, and how do you make them into a story?

* You'll notice I often steal ideas from other stories. There's nothing wrong with this, so long as you're not lazy about it. Steal what you like and make it your own. Amateurs imitate. Professionals steal.

Chapter Titles

Chapters Edited: 3
Scenes Edited: 9
Words Murdered: 1,017 (about 10%)

People hunting MC: 4 (that he knows of)
Times MC nearly dies: 2
Airships destroyed: 1

I have no intention of telling anybody how to do chapter titles. The opposite, actually. What do you like in your chapter titles? If you're writing, how do you do them?

I've seen them done a thousand ways. Short title. Long title. Chapters titled with the name of the POV character. Titles by date or location. Straightforward titles. Obscure titles. No titles (numbers only). No titles (not even numbers). No chapters at all.

Personally, I like numbers and relatively straightforward titles. It makes it easier to flip back and find some piece of information on page 32 that is suddenly relevant on page 337. It also helps me remember the plot of the book better. But that's just my preference. I'm not going to hate a book because the chapters are titled by POV characters (George Martin) or because there are no chapters at all (Terry Pratchett).

When I write, I tend to title chapters by my preference too (numbered, straightforward). In fact, I was flipping through the books on my shelf, and I realized I have been completely influenced by Orson Scott Card in my chapter titles. In every book of his I have, the chapters are numbered with short, often one-word titles. Likewise, all my chapters:
  • are numbered.
  • have short, descriptive titles.
  • sometimes, but not always, have titles with more than one meaning.
That last one makes naming chapters fun for me. I love throwing out chapter titles that get the reader excited about reading the chapter, but also misdirect a bit. Like I'll have a chapter titled "Betrayal", and the reader goes (hopefully), "Ooh, plot twist!" And maybe there is an important betrayal that occurs in the chapter, but it's not the one the reader expected when they read the title.

You know, stuff like that. I actually don't know if Card ever does the double meaning thing, and I don't know if readers even notice things like that (I probably wouldn't), but I do it anyway. It's fun.

And if an agent or editor ever says to me, "These chapter titles are dumb. They all need to go," I'll say, "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I thought so too, sir. Would you like some more coffee?"

Air Pirates Status and Excerpt

I've fixed everything that needs fixing (for now) and am on to Stage 6, the full read-through. It might take a while, especially in the beginning. Whoever wrote these first chapters was a terrible writer. I've had to destroy one of every four words.

The beginning is better now - not great, but better. Good enough that I'm willing to show the current version to you. Feel free to offer critiques, if you like. I... I think I can take it.

Chapter 1 - Hagai

Hagai woke with a book attached to his face. Peeling it off, he found his glasses where they'd fallen nearby and put them on. Page 91 of Lushita's City was ruined. It was wrinkled by sweat, the words faded - probably imprinted on his face in reverse. Aunt Booker wouldn't be happy with him, but who was?

With a groan, he stood and shuffled to the dresser - the only furniture in the room other than his sleep pad. He took out the neatly folded shirt and pants from their respective stacks and put them on. While he buttoned his shirt - a routine he did deliberately slow - he stared out the window. The suns were up already - the amber was even near peak. It was going to be a hot day. With luck, he wouldn't have to be out in it.

Far below, the town of Providence bristled with work. Past that lay the sea - glittering blue for the most part, but out past the reef, the water was murky, almost black. The skylers called it dark water. The worst fate for a skyler was to have their ship fall out of the air over a patch of it. It was about the only thing nobody pretended to be brave about.

Aunt Booker's voice hollered from downstairs. "You done buttoning your shirt yet, Haggie?"

How did she always know?