How I Choose a Book

Instructions: If the total number of points are greater than the dollar value of the book, it's worth buying.

Where did I hear about the book?
Independent friend recommendations: +3 each*
Acquaintance/third-party/some-guy-whose-comments-I-respect-on-that-one-blog recommendation: +1
Advertising or media coverage: +0.5
It's one of those books I'm supposed to have read but never got around to: +1

* If friend A and friend B both recommend a book, the recommendations are independent iff A and B came to hear about the book independently (i.e. not from each other). Such recommendations are cumulative.

Do I recognize the author?
Like the author: +3
Love the author: +5
Think I've maybe heard of the author: +1
I stopped reading another book of theirs partway through: -4

What genre is it?
SF/F: +3
Literary: -5
Romance: -5
(I know, I'm a jerk. Sorry.)

Front cover?
Cool picture: +1
Embarrassing to be seen with: -2

Back cover?
Intriguing plot: +1
Cool SF/F concepts: +1
Critic/author blurbs only: -0.5

Still not sure? Read the first paragraph.
Boring: -1
Insulting: -1
Infodump: -1
Bookstore employee has to tell me the store is closing: +7

How about you? How do you decide which books to buy?

Beta Phase Consensus

* Disclaimer #1: The beta phase isn't "over" in the sense that everybody's read it. I'm still getting feedback from some of the betas, and I hope to get more from those I haven't heard from. Even so, I have to move on or this thing will never be finished.

Disclaimer #2: There is no such thing as a consensus. Nobody ever agrees on anything.*** Quite the opposite in fact, as you'll see. All I can do is take what people think and decide to what extent I agree. Now onto the post.

*** Unless it's something stupid, like when I spelled a name "Lushita" and "Lusheeta" in the same paragraph. I think everybody caught that one :-P

The beta phase is over,* and the results are in!** After spending a day or two with the betas' comments and my own thoughts, here are some of the bigger problems I came away with:
  • Hagai's motivation to keep chasing the stone could be stronger.
  • Dorsey's motivation to stay at home, while Hagai joins Sam's crew, is pretty flat. (For those who aren't beta readers, Dorsey is Hagai's best friend.)
  • Hagai is a little too whiny at times.
  • The first 'Sam flashback' chapter is a bit jarring.
  • Something's wrong with the 'Sam in the Navy' chapter.
Let me talk about this Sam flashback thing a bit. One of the things I did with this novel (mostly because I didn't know any better when I planned it) was to intertwine two stories: the story of Hagai's search for his mother and the story of Sam's past and his search for his father. The first 4 chapters are Hagai's, then every other chapter after that. The odd chapters, 5-27, are Sam's.

The betas had mixed feelings about this. Strong mixed feelings in fact, and it's caused me no end of grief. Some people love the two stories, the way each informs the other, the way it never gave them opportunity to get bored. Some people hate them, getting annoyed each time the story "stopped" to talk about Sam some more.

You know what the worst part is? They're all right.

But it's helped me realize, even more clearly, that I can't please everybody. In the end, I have to decide what I want.

So Sam's story is staying, but I'm thinking of ways to make it tighter, more interesting, and also to clue the reader in early on that Air Pirates is not just about Hagai. I've already made plans to do major rewrites of 3 Sam chapters, and minor changes to 5 others. This is in addition to a massive reworking of the first 4-8 Hagai chapters.

So it might take a while, and I don't even know if it will work, but it will be better. In the end, that's all I can do.

Now, to figure out what's wrong with that Sam-in-the-Navy chapter...

Fighting Monks

This week's sketch is actually 3 weeks' worth, one for each character. I'm getting better at inking, which is to say I'm enjoying it more. The hard part is inking lightly. Things like lips, face shadows, and shaved heads came out more prominent than I'd like, but still better than previous attempts.

Faces are hard, but I'm learning why. Humans are so darn good at face perception. So if a nose is slightly large, or ears are slightly off, everyone can tell it doesn't look right, even if they can't say why.

Conversely, things like hands, feet, shirts, and swords are much easier. People can still tell if they're wrong (e.g. if a hand is too big, or a sword isn't straight), but there's a lot more leeway. After repeatedly practicing faces, it's a relief to discover the body parts I've been neglecting don't require as much practice to get to the same level.

Also, I think I'm starting to like drawing hair. This is a big deal.

I might try drawing from imagination again next week. We'll see. Copying pictures/life is fun and all, especially when it comes out good, but it's not what I want to do. I want to be able to draw whatever, whenever, you know?

I think it's the same desire that causes me to write. I've got worlds in my head, and I want to show them to somebody. I want to show them to you.

Good is Subjective

The Lost Symbol is formulaic. Twilight is simplistic, both in plot and writing. Eragon is ridden with cliches. The Shack reads like it was self-published (oh, wait).

And yet every one of these books sold millions of copies.


For those of us who have devoted a significant portion of our lives to the written word, this can drive us nuts. It's unfair, we say. If people knew anything about quality literature, they wouldn't buy this cotton candy nonsense.

But that's just it. People don't know about quality literature. They don't know you're not supposed to start a novel with the weather. They don't know that the farm-boy-as-chosen-one plot is old. They don't know that adverbs are a Bad Thing.

But people know what they like. They know these books are thrilling, engrossing, uplifting. "But they're not!" we cry. "They don't even follow the rules!"

Okay, so here's the thing. I know this is going to be hard to hear, but... all those rules that agents and editors and critique partners keep telling us we should follow? None of them make a story good.

For those of us trying to break into the business, it's easy to convince ourselves that "good" is objective -- that all we have to do is figure out the rules and follow them. The rules increase our chances, but nothing in this business is a sure thing. Nothing.

So how do you break in? Well, not having broken in myself yet, I'm going to go with the stock answer: Write lots. Write well. Get lucky.

Usually in that order.

Another Look at Revision Fears

When I started writing Travelers, it was just to prove to myself that I could do it, I could finish a novel. Sometime during that process, though, I decided (possibly because other people said so, though I don't remember now) that Travelers might be good enough to get published.

That was before I knew anything about the publishing industry. Before I'd read Nathan's FAQ, the Questions and Face Lifts on Evil Editor, or every single Query Shark query. Regardless, once I got that idea in my head, whatever I was working on became The One That Would Get Me There.

This was mostly a good thing. It made me work hard and write with confidence. But now, as I plan my third novel and prepare to revise my second, I'm discovering this idea has a dark side. The newest novel is the one that will get published (in my head), therefore my old novel -- the one I have to revise -- is not.

I'm wondering if this is the real reason I stopped work on Travelers even though I'd gotten a couple of enlightening personal rejections. Because I'm looking at the work it will take to get Air Pirates to a place I'm happy with, and I wonder if it wouldn't just be easier to write novel #3.

It wouldn't, of course. I'd get to the end of The Cunning, send it to beta readers, and the cycle would start again with novel #4. Nothing will get published if I don't revise it, usually multiple times.

Plus, I really, really like Air Pirates. It's a world I want to write at least a trilogy in, if not more. That, more than anything, is why I will polish that thing until my spit hurts. Really, all this self-doubt is just because I haven't started yet.

Talk Like an Air Pirate

Heyya, mates. Adam asked me to send the post on account of it's Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I reck I'm the only pirate he knows.

Oy, where are my courts? Name's Sam Draper, and I'm what some folks (derisive folks, mind you) call an air pirate. I ain't flailing though; jacks and govvies all stoke the same, so I reck it must be true as truth, aye?

Here, now. I'm supposed to be teaching you how to speak skyler. Speaking skyler's a bit -

What's a skyler? They're the ones sailing the skies, aye? Merchers, gunners, jacks, runners, pirates... anyone working an airship is a skyler. Everyone else is just a groundhog.

Anyway, skylers talk a bit different from the pirates you know. We ain't got a lot of ye's or me's or be's, and there ain't no mizzenmast or foresail on an airship.

A lot of what we do is in the skies, aye? So if you want to ask if someone understands you say, "We breezy?" To tell them no worries, you can say no worries or say it's "birds in the wind." If you mean what you say, tell them "sure as clouds fly" or "I ain't drumming you," or you can quote the JI: "true as truth."

The JI? That's... you know, we ain't got time for that flack.

Another thing skylers billy with is dark water. The dark is just a patch of ocean black as shadow, but it'll pack you, sure as clouds. I've seen big men - men you could stab in the gentlemen and they'd complain of an itch - fall to the dark and scream like a baby girl. It's a fate I wouldn't wish on any man, not even my uncle, breezy? And it colors our speech as much as the sky.

The dark is trouble. You see something's wrong with your mate? You ask him, "What's the dark, mate?" Someone who don't flail much when there's trouble, you might say they'd "float in the dark." It goes the other way too, aye? Say the jacks blow a boiler just when they were on your keel. You'd call that "a spot of blue in the dark" or just "a spot." Can't see the good in something? "Where's the spot in that?" you'd say.

Anyway, that's the whiff of it. I'd give you some words to say for when a merc'ing piker tries to throw you over, or I could teach you how to jape a gobby 'fore he grubs your coin, but I reck I got you shiners scatty as it is. Anyway, jacks are on me like ducks, so I best be blowing. Thanks for reading, aye?

Geek Still Life

Early sketch this week because Saturday is Talk Like a Pirate Day and, as the self-proclaimed liaison between the air pirates' world to ours, Friday has something different.

After I drew the fan art, I wanted to draw something that wasn't a face. I also wanted to try something with complicated shading, as that was the most difficult thing for me to ink properly. So I went and got my dice bag.

Of course it wasn't enough for me to draw just the dice bag. I had to find something that went along with it. Unfortunately, I've given away my D&D books, so instead I found the next best thing.

How to Plan a Novel

How did people get anything done before flowcharts?

I know what the title says, but this flowchart is really just how I plan a novel. Actually, it's an incomplete version of the way I plan today. Take it as you will.

Some further explanations:
Ask Questions: For any element of the story, ask: (1) How does this happen? (2) Why does this happen? (3) What happens as a result? Repeat as necessary. Orson Scott Card's idea, not mine.*
Throw Rocks: Make life difficult for the characters. Test them to the point of failure. Add tension. Ask, "What's the worst thing that can happen here?" and do it. Then ask how, why, and what result.
Event Outline: What happens in the world/lives of the characters. Not necessarily the layout of the novel. The event outline may begin before the novel does, and it may end long after. It may contain events that are never shown or even referred to in the final manuscript.
Chapter Outline: How the event outline is shown to the reader, and from whose points of view. If you haven't already done so, think about different story structures.

Obviously this is over-simplified. I ask questions, detail chapters, and fix weak spots constantly, even after the draft is finished. In general, though, identifying and fixing problems earlier in the process makes for much less work. At least that's the idea.

* Now that I think about it, none of these are my ideas. I just put them all together into a definable process.

Fan Art

I'm sure most of you haven't noticed but (a) I'm giving you more than one sketch a week and (b) I haven't been uploading "What I Drew This Week." Part of that is I'm still evaluating this whole show-people-my-sketches thing, so I'm just trying things out. The other part is that I haven't finished a sketch for a few weeks, so in lieu of showing the current one, I'm sort of catching you up on what I've been drawing since I decided to draw (>=) once a week.

The first is a piece of fan art I drew for Natalie Whipple's Relax, I'm a Ninja (for which she now has an agent, if you hadn't heard). Readers of Natalie's blog may remember a couple months ago when she found the perfect actor for Tosh. Well that's who I drew. I love this sketch. Every time I look at it I go, "Woah. I drew that?"

The second piece of fan art is for my daughter, Lutiya. If you don't already know, my wife and I live in Thailand where we take in children who have nowhere to go. Lutiya is one such child and has been with us for 2.5 years now. (I recently wrote about Lutiya on our other blog, if you're interested).

This was my first try at inking. Personally, I like the pencil a lot better, but of course I have more practice with pencil. I'm going to keep inking things for a while and see what I learn. If nothing else, the inked sketches last longer.

Talent, a Dirty Word

I don't like the word talent. See, we use this word to say someone is good at what they do, and that's fine, but the word "talent" implies they are good because of some natural ability. It implies they did not work hard to become good -- they were lucky, not persistent, blessed, not persevering.

It also implies a division: between the talented and untalented. It implies that, regardless of what you want to do in life, if you haven't "got it" you'll never be good enough no matter how hard you try.

I know what you're thinking. I'm making too much of this. You don't mean all that crap, just the compliment, right? The truth is, I'm not bothered so much by talent as a compliment. What really bothers me is the thought that comes after: I could never do that.

The thing is, I've quit so many things in my life because I saw someone amazing and thought, "I'll never be that good. Why bother?" I quit piano. I quit sports. I stopped writing and drawing for years.

I quit because they had something I didn't. To quote Leia, they had a power I didn't understand and "could never have." Without talent, I thought, I'd never be good enough, so I didn't even try.

I regret those years. I could've learned so much if I'd known what I know now. But you know what? Regret is useless too. All that matters is what I want now. I can do anything I want to do, and I can be really good at it, if I'm willing to put in the work.

So can you.

It's true, not everybody's starting block is in the same place. Not everyone has the same hurdles. But nobody gets to the finish line without working hard to get there. You find me one person born with professional-level skills, and I'll show you a hundred people just as good, who practice everyday. (And probably that one person practices everyday too).

So don't say, "You're lucky to be so talented." Say, "You must have worked really hard." Don't say, "I could never do that." Say, "I could do that, but I'm working on other things right now."

Or better yet: "I'll get there, too. It's just a matter of time."

Make It Tense

Tension is what drives a story. Without it, a story is just a bunch of stuff that happens. Not just the story, but the synopsis and query too. You need tension everywhere.

Tension is whatever the reader is afraid will happen. Morpheus might die. Greg might lose the respect of his future father-in-law. Julianne might not get married and/or might ruin her best friend's wedding.

In my own writing, I've realized places where I don't know what happens next are boring because there's nothing to be afraid of anymore. The trick is, in every chapter and every scene, to ask, "What's the tension here? What is the reader afraid will happen?" and then crank it up.

Make Me Care
In order for the reader to be afraid for the characters, they have to care about them. Have you ever watched a horror movie and wanted the bad guy to kill every last one of them? That's probably because you didn't care about the characters, so you didn't care when their lives were in danger.

It's the difference between strangers in an accident vs. your wife and kids. To make the reader care about the characters, they need to be believable and sympathetic.

Back Up Your Threats
Good parents know not to make empty threats. A kid who stops when Dad says no is one who has ignored Dad before and been punished.

In fiction, give the reader what they're afraid of, and make it worse than they feared. In Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel wasn't just caught in the act, he was caught in a public place, in front of his boss, his ex-wife, and her boyfriend.

What if you can't back it up? Everybody knows the good guy (usually) never dies. If you want the reader to be really afraid, try this: kill someone the reader thought was safe. Joss Whedon did this in Serenity. George R. R. Martin does it in every freaking book, and now I'm afraid for everybody.

Crank It Up
So the reader cares about your characters, they know you'll back up your threats, now it's time to crank up the tension. Except at the end, and maybe at the very beginning, there should be some tension at all times. The amount might rise and fall throughout the story, but it should generally increase until the climax, when everything goes BOOM.

There are lots of ways to do this. One is by raising the stakes. The Incredibles starts with Bob in danger of losing his job, then his life, then his whole family. Crank, crank, crank.

Another way to raise tension is by putting the protagonist in increasingly precarious situations. Notice how in every movie where the protagonist is pretending to be two people, there's always a scene where both people are supposed to be present at once? This is what they're doing.

If the protagonist is safe at home, force them out. If the last place they want to go is their ex-boyfriend's party, make them go to the party. Never give them a break. Ask "What's the worst that could happen?" and make it happen. Your characters will hate you, but fortunately, they're fictional.

A Pirate, an Author, and a Baby

One sketchbook page today, three pictures. Also a demonstration of the difference between what I draw from life (or, in this case, pictures of life) and what comes out of my head.

I'll save the best for last, cuz I'm like that. So first up is Fitch Mickells, an air pirate whose only loyalty is saving his own keel. It's almost a shame he hooked up with Sam Draper when he did.

Drawing from my imagination like this is fun, but hurts my fear of failure. I never know where everything is supposed to go. So I figure if I draw like a thousand real faces, I'll be better at drawing made-up ones. With that, here's one of my very favorite authors:

And one of my very favorite sons:

Trying New Things

Although I love planning and starting new novels, it makes me a little crazy too. I mean, in addition to all the normal worries (e.g. am I wasting my time? will I ever get published? if the previous novel(s) didn't get me an agent, what makes me think this one will? etc.), I have worries about new things.

I have to try new things. Unless it's a sequel, I need new characters, a new world, and a whole new idea, otherwise, what's the point? But new things are scary.

For example, The Cunning will be the first time I've tried writing a female protagonist.* Not only that, but she's a teenager. I don't know if I can do that convincingly. What if I'm trying something I'm just not good enough to write yet?

And Suriya doesn't even speak English. Am I going to have a lot of dialogue tags with "she said in Thai"? Will Suriya and Anna** have telepathic dialogue the entire time? What about the times Anna tries to speak to Suriya in English and she doesn't understand?

It also looks as though the entire first book (I think in trilogies) takes place in Thailand. I wanted to give this story something unique from my experience, but I'm afraid I'm going overboard with it -- including every little thing I know about this place. Even crazier, what if it does work, everybody loves it, but they're all disappointed because Book 2 takes place in the US?***

What if I can't find Suriya's voice? What if I do and it's no good? What if I can't bring the humor from Air Pirates into this story? What if I force the humor in and it doesn't fit?

I'm being totally stupid, I know (and thank you for caring enough to read this far, btw). Ultimately this is just a fear of failure I need to get over. The truth is if I don't try new things, I'll never know the answers to any of those what-ifs and I'll never get to tell Suriya's story.

I keep thinking that if this doesn't work it will be a year (or more) wasted writing this story, but the only way it would be wasted is if I didn't learn anything. What I really need to do is stop writing to get published and start writing for me again.

Hey, how about that? The crazy's gone.

* No, wait. The original "Joey Stone" had one, but she wasn't a teenager. Also, that story wasn't very good.

** For those of you
following along, Charity's name is now Anna.

*** Think that's crazy? I'm also thinking, "What if I can't write Book 2 because I haven't lived in the US for 4 years?"