High Stakes

(NOTE: I'm still looking for beta readers. If you want in, let me know soon.)

It feels like editors and agents online are constantly asking "What are the stakes?" when they look at queries or stories. For the longest time, I didn't understand what this meant. I'm still not sure, but I think I get it (though whether I can see it in my own writing is a different story).

It's like playing poker without betting. While it's a mildly interesting exercise in probability, it doesn't really matter who wins. It's boring, because nothing's at stake.

Likewise, the reader needs to know not only the protagonist's goals, but why those goals are important. What will happen if they fail? What will happen if they succeed? Why does it matter? Without that, the story (or query) is just a bunch of random stuff that happens.

Take Cars (because it's what my boys are watching right now). Lightning McQueen wants to be the first rookie to ever win the Piston Cup. That should be stakes enough, right? Well, not really. Winning is something, but just like in poker, it doesn't matter as much without something at stake.

That's why Dinoco is mentioned like 20 or 30 times. Dinoco is the big sponsor for the Piston Cup. They've got the helicopter, the glamour girls, the ritzy parties, everything. Their poster boy is retiring, and they're looking for someone new to sponsor - whoever wins the Piston Cup. This is in contrast to Lightning's current sponsor, an ointment for cars with rusty bumpers. It's gross, it's poor, and it's demeaning.

Those are the stakes. If Lightning wins, he gets fame and the high life. If he loses, he's stuck being the poster boy for old, rusty cars. Take the sponsors out, and the race doesn't have as much meaning. At least that's the idea.

So easy to see in someone else's work. So hard to see in my own.

Wanted: Beta Readers for Air Pirates

Chapters: All of them
Scenes: All of them
Words murdered: All of... I mean, 6016 (6%)

Time I said I'd be editing: 5 weeks
Time I actually spent editing: 12 weeks
Time I spent on this novel so far: 22 months
Time before I send it out: Withholding judgment until I hear what the betas think


It's time! The (1st) Editing Phase of Air Pirates is over. Now to the Beta Phase, for which I need some of you. If you want to be part of my team of Beta Readers, now is your chance.

As a Beta Reader, your task will be to read a 94,000 word manuscript (that's longer than Harry Potter 2, but shorter than Harry Potter 3) and tell me what you think of it within a reasonable amount of time.

Telling me what you think means telling me what's working or not working in the story - whatever you notice and whatever I don't notice because I'm too close to it.

It doesn't mean saying "I love it!" or "This sucks!" It will mean being specific and (preferably) being nice.

It also doesn't mean you have to be an editor or even a writer. If you like to read, then your opinion matters.

A reasonable amount of time, in this case, is about 6 weeks. That's just what I'm asking for. If you miss it, the worst that might happen is I'll move on without your input.

If this sounds like something you want to do, e-mail me: adamheine at Gmail. If you have questions, I'll answer them in the comments.

Almost forgot. For those of you unfamiliar with Air Pirates, here's the current (albeit outdated and kinda rough) blurb:

No one's ever cared about Hagai's birthday, least of all Hagai. So on his 21st he's surprised to receive a stone that gives chance visions of the future. He has no idea why his mother sent it to him - or how, since she was killed eighteen years ago. Though Hagai's never done anything braver than put peppers in his stew, he sets out to find her hoping she's alive. Unfortunately, he's now the target of sky sailors and air pirates who want the stone for themselves. If the sky'lers get it, he'll have no way to find his mother. But to keep it, Hagai faces being crushed by an airship, being beaten to death by pirates, and having his throat slit by a wanted sky'ler named Sam Draper - and that's only the first day.

When Sam nicks the stone, Hagai tracks him down and demands it back - politely, of course, because Sam still has the knife. Sam refuses, but Hagai surprises them both by asking to fly with him. Unable to make the stone work himself, Sam agrees. Now Hagai, who grew up wanting nothing to do with sky'lers, is crew to one and fugitive from both pirates and police. Harrowed by visions of his own death, Hagai is nonetheless determined to change the future and find his mother, if she's still alive.


One of my favorite parts of writing sci-fi/fantasy is worldbuilding. I love drawing maps, brainstorming magic systems, writing legends, determining technologies... It's like playing Civ, except I can't lose.

The hard part is figuring out how to relay this information to the reader. The most common (and wrong) method I see, both in my writing and others, is the infodump. Where the story just stops, and we have to read a page or two of the history of the Elven nation, or a treatise on the Foobarian language, or a detailed explanation of teleportation technology.

It's not our fault. Our favorite authors do it all the time. Like every chapter in Asimov's Foundation and Empire starts with an infodump, and don't even get me started on Tolkien.

Even so, we're told not to do it, or not to do it very much, or to do it in such a way that the reader doesn't realize we're doing it. How do we do that?

One way, I think, is to work with the reader strictly on a need-to-know basis. Don't tell them anything about the world except what they need to know to understand this part of the story. If the entire story takes place on a single planet, don't talk about the history of the Galactic Empire's colonization efforts. Don't describe the detailed rules of magic if the protagonist never has to think of them. Don't discuss the fishing habits of Tartarians just because the protagonist gets on a boat.

It's hard, I know. We spent all this time building this world, and we can't share it with the reader. Sorry, but it's true. The reader doesn't care about the details of our world. They care about the characters and the story. If they love them, then maybe they'll be interested in the world, but usually not the other way around.

It means some things will never be shared. Or maybe they'll only ever be shared in an appendix or on your blog. But it means the story will be shared, and isn't that the main thing?

Making Money with Little Time

Chapters Edited: 25
Scenes Edited: 84
Words Murdered: 5074 (5.7%)

Jailbreaks: 3
Betrayals: 8
Make-ups: 2
Times Hagai wishes he stayed home: I lost count


My laptop's dying. I'm thinking about getting a new one, but because I live primarily on the good will of those who share our vision, I don't have a lot of money to do that with. I made a short list of things I can do, trying to figure out a way to make money in the limited time I have. One of them was freelance writing.

I've never really looked at the freelance writing world before. I found some websites where people can request and bid on freelance jobs. It was kind of depressing. I saw a job to write one-thousand 500-word articles for 5 cents each, and another requesting 20-50 blog comments per day, on various blogs under different usernames. The bidders weren't much better, often promoting themselves with statements like: "I am experenced copyrighter with obvius skill in sentance structure and grammar."

Obviously this isn't representative of the freelancing world, but to avoid writing crap web content for 0.01 cents per word I have to build a portfolio or submit to the slush pile of magazines. My problem with that is I already have a job (foster care), and am simultaneously trying to start a career in another one (fiction writing).

For most(?) folks, when their writing career starts to take off, they quit their day job to devote time to it. I can't quit, and I don't want to. So a lot of this is out.

Ah, but at the bottom of my short list, with no cons to speak of, was "Write short stories." It's more difficult than freelancing (or most of the other things on my list), but it pays better, it uses a skill I'm already actively improving, and, most importantly, I like doing it.

I don't know yet if I will go back to that. My last attempt didn't go so well, but then I didn't really put any effort behind it. If I try again, I'm going to really try.

In the meantime, I'm only 3 chapters away from Air Pirates' beta phase, so... WHEE!

Up and Interpretations of a Story

Chapters Edited: 20
Scenes Edited: 67
Words Murdered: 5078 (6.6%)

People whose butt Sam has kicked: 42
People who've kicked Sam's butt: 2

People whose butt Hagai has kicked: 0


Last time, I chided George Lucas for revising Star Wars after they'd been released to the public saying, "Once it's out there, it's no longer yours." What I mean is that the story you write, and the story someone else reads (or watches), are two entirely different things.

Here's an example. My wife and I went to see Pixar's Up last Friday. Up is about a retired old man named Carl. His wife and childhood sweetheart dies; they couldn't have children, so he's alone now. For her sake, he decides to go on the adventure they always said they would go on but never did. Along the way, he learns that the seemingly boring things in life are what make memories - they're the real adventure.

My wife and I had different reactions to it. Superficially, I liked the airships, and she didn't like the talking dogs, but then we started talking about it and discovered we had different ideas about what was important.

I liked that Carl pursued his dream, doing what he'd always longed to do. I also liked the relationship he formed with Russell, the young boy who went with him. These are themes I'm commonly drawn to: doing what you're born to do and fatherhood, which says a lot more about me than the movie.

Cindy, on the other hand, was more interested in Carl's relationship with his wife. To her, the fulfillment of the wife's lifelong dream was more important than anything else, so when Carl chose to set the dream aside in order to rescue a bird that had become important to Russell, she kind of lost interest.

And the thing is, she's not wrong. She latched on to what she had brought to the movie, just like I did. In both cases, we got things out of the movie that were not its primary focus - were maybe never intended by the creators at all.

That's what I mean. Once someone else reads your story, it becomes something different, something that belongs to them. You can revise it, but in doing so you may wipe out the story they thought they had read. If it's a beta reader or something, they'll understand. If it's a fan of 20 years[, George,] they won't.

Sigh... I liked that Han shot first. It made him cooler.

Making It Good Enough

Nathan Bransford recently asked: How do you know when your novel is done? The trick, I think, is not to make it perfect, but to know when it's good enough.

When I was a programmer, I was taught that you can accomplish 80% of a task with 20% of the work, but the remaining 20% of the task (i.e. trying to make it perfect) will take another 80% of work. Once you've hit 80% of perfection, each percent after that is harder to earn. This is true of any creative task, I think.

The real trick is knowing there is no 100%. You can't write the perfect book, but you can write the best book possible at your current level. Once you've done that, you need to put that book down and write another book, a better book, at your new current level.

Some authors are good at this. You can tell by reading their backlist and seeing how they've improved. I don't know any authors who are bad at this, but I am going to pick on one example of what not to do: George Lucas.

Lucas has made at least two major revisions to the original trilogy since they were first released 30 years ago. Whether you like the revisions or not, they made a lot of people very angry. Why? Because the originals were good enough.

The big lesson here, of course, is not to change something that's been released to the public. Once it's out there, it's no longer yours. But even for those of us who haven't released anything, there's an important lesson: Move On. It will make you a better writer.

Getting Critiqued

Chapters Edited: 19
Scenes Edited: 60
Words Murdered: 4493 (6.5%)

Cliff Dives: 1
BASE Jumps: 1
Bungee Jumps: 1
Motocross Flips: 0 (gotcha)

Times I've had to delete the words "He took a deep breath" before a character does something scary: 8 (I'm a fan of breathing, apparently)


I've talked before about how poorly I deal with critiques. It's one of the things that keeps me from thinking like a pro.

I'm thinking about this again because serious critique time is coming. When I've finished editing in a few weeks, I'll have to send this out to beta readers and take whatever they dish out.

I got a taste of that the other day at Evil Editor again, where the beginning of Air Pirates went up (along with a humorous continuation in blue text). I don't mind the comments on grammar, on not telling things twice, on the fact that almost everyone took the first sentence literally - those are easy changes. I see those comments and go, "Oh yeah, how'd I miss that?"

It's the big comments that are hard to hear. The ones that suggest the opening is boring, nothing happens. At first it's hard to hear because I never want to hear what's wrong (which is stupid - that's the whole point of being critiqued in the first place). But once I get over that, it's still hard because I have to figure out what to do about it.

Natalie pointed out to me, quite rightly, that these are opinions - not every book has to start fast and furious. There was even one commenter who really liked it. And I like it, sort of, but only a few pages in, when the slow start pays off.

At the same time, if a lot of people have the same opinion, then it's something I need to consider changing. Can I start closer to the action without losing any of the character development? Probably, but I don't know how yet.

I've also joined Critters, an online critique group for SF/F/H, where I hope to find some beta readers (don't worry, I'll post a call for beta readers here too). It's cool because I'll get practice critiquing, which is helpful for so many reasons even though it takes time. But, like all other requests for criticism, it's really, really scary.

Geez. The things I do to satisfy this dream of mine.

Dialogue Algorithm

One of the common problems I've found while editing is an imbalance in my dialogue tags.

Early in the manuscript, I had too many tags - extraneous 'he said/she said's that (I know now) clutter the writing. I think I thought they added rhythm.

Later on, I found a lot of strong verbs. These aren't inherently bad, but there shouldn't be one on every line (as per my own advice).

Towards the middle of the manuscript, it seemed like every line had a dialogue tag inserted midsentence (this one I know was for rhythm).

It's like, every time I learned some new thing to do in dialogue, I got all excited about it and did it too freaking much.

Okay, so here's my "Less is More" algorithm. We'll see how well this works:
  1. Write dialogue such that the speaker's identity, emotion, and expression are clear without the need of dialogue tags.
  2. If it is impossible to make the speaker's identity clear through dialogue alone, add a simple tag (e.g. he said, she said). Add the first one on the end of the sentence, the next one in the front, the third in the middle. Alternate "Sam said" with "said Sam".
  3. If it is impossible to make the speaker's emotion or expression clear through dialogue alone, add an action sentence to the dialogue.
  4. If an action sentence is inappropriate or inadequate, use a dialogue tag with a strong verb (e.g. "he shouted", "he challenged").
  5. If the English verb does not exist to express the appropriate emotion or expression, use an adverb (e.g. "he said happily").
  6. Never use step 2 three times in a row.
  7. Never use steps 3, 4, or 5 twice in a row.
  8. Just to be safe, don't use steps 2, 3, 4, or 5 on every other line either.
I know (and I hope you do too) that even these are just guidelines - although it would make for a pretty decent novel-writing computer program. Hmm...

Anyway, I already see problems with this. What about establishing place? What about rhythm? This is still very much an art, but maybe with this algorithm I can come up with better dialogue on a first run than I (apparently) have been.

Believing in a World

Chapters Edited: 15
Scenes Edited: 47
Words Murdered: 2904 (5.2%)

Confirmed Kills: 1 (Geez, that's it?)
Mutinies: 1
Authority figures Sam has a problem with: All of them


A writer has to believe in their story. That's a given. A writer has to believe in their world - that's a corollary. But how far does that go? Tolkien wrote about immortal elves that left our world behind. Orson Scott Card described a future endangered by buglike aliens and saved by a pre-teen genius. But they didn't believe these things were really true.

Or did they?

When I was planning Air Pirates, I discovered that, while the worlds I created didn't have to be real, I needed to believe they could be.

The Air Pirates world sprung out of science fiction. I needed a world that was like Earth, but wasn't. At the same time, I didn't want to just take Earth and rename it. If names, cultures, and languages were going to be like Earth's, there should be a reason, I thought. I wanted the people of Air Pirates to be from Earth.

And so they are. They're distant descendants of Earth, whose ancestors arrived on the planet via a generation ship, though they don't know it. Nearly all of their knowledge was lost when the generation ship crashed into the sea.

Here's where it gets weird (or where I get weird - take your pick). The survivors lost everything - technology, history, even theology... and that was my problem. I'm a committed Christian, and so believe that God created us for a purpose, with an end in mind. The traditional end being, of course, the horrors and glories found in Revelation, when Jesus returns and God ends this world.

But I've read lots of stories that don't fit - and in many cases, outright reject - this worldview, and I've never had a problem with it. My capacity for belief-suspension is pretty dang high. But for some reason, I couldn't write about a world where clearly the Bible was wrong. My heart wasn't in it.

So I included God in my world. Not just by giving them religion, but by imagining how a forgotten colony could fit into God's plan. If a remnant of humanity left Earth, wouldn't God send his Word with them too, somehow? Though all their history was lost?

Enter the Brothers and Sisters of Saint Jude. Decades after the crash, when civilization had stabilized and the first generation had almost passed away, a group of people came together and tried to reconstruct the Bible. Knowing their project to be imperfect, they named the result the Incommensurate Word of God.

Air Pirates isn't about all this stuff. The monks only show up in one chapter, and their history is only briefly mentioned as world candy. The origins of the world aren't even touched on (in this book).

But they're there. They have to be, for me.

Anyone else get weird about their world building like this? Or maybe you have your own (less weird) world building stories to share?