Self-Promotion (Repost)

(My laptop is nearly fried; my internet connectivity is limited and I have to resort to the touchpad because I can't plug in my mouse. Consequently, working at the computer is less fun than normal. Plus I understand there's some kind of holiday going on.

All of that meant to say: (1) I'm reposting, here are my excuses, and (2) I'm getting a new computer soon (yay!)).

Reposted from November, 2008 (though probably new to you).

I hate the idea of self-promotion. Who doesn't? Who wants to be that kid who says, "Hey, everybody! Look at me!!" Okay, fine, well I never wanted to be that kid. Now I find myself on the outskirts of an industry that requires it.

So I've been researching self-promotion a little. One thing I've discovered is that I've already been doing it. I mean, the missionary "industry" revolves around self-promotion just as much as the publishing one does. Perhaps more so.

How you promote yourself depends, apparently, on how much money, time, and morals you have. If you have a lot of money, hire a publicist. If you have a lot of time, build a website, make profiles on social networking sites, and spend time on other people's blogs, the social net, forums, etc. - all the while linking back to your website. If you're low on morals, this time can also be spent comment spamming and writing fake reviews.

It's like this. Let's measure the amount of time and money invested in self-promotion with what we'll call your Publicity Quotient. The more you invest in self-promotion, the higher your PQ (low morals increase your PQ slightly, with an increased risk of drastically lowering it when you're found out; high morals, sadly, do nothing). With that in mind, take a look at this completely unscientific, made-up chart:

Not terribly mathematical, I know. But beyond the general guideline that the more you put in, the more you'll get out, publicity is largely luck and magic - becoming a breakout bestseller even more so.

Also, anyone who tells you how to promote yourself, without mentioning in the same breath that you need a product worth promoting, is taking you in. If your book sucks, you can sell copies with publicity but it won't do you much good in the long run (see low morals).

That's my take on the whole thing, anyway. I plan on doing self-promotion the same way I've been doing it. I'll provide places for people to get hooked in, I'll get the word out with a non-spamming announcement, and most importantly I'll try to be genuine. That means leaving comments because I have something to say, not because I have something to link to. It means making profiles on social networks that I'm actually a part of (sorry, MySpace, guess that means you're out).

And it means trusting others to do the reviewing and word-of-mouth advertising for me. If it doesn't happen, it just means I need to write a better book next time.

And when that doesn't work, I'll upgrade my spambot.

On Spoilers

When is it okay to mention spoilers without having to provide a spoiler warning? I have finally solved this age-old (i.e. as old as the internet) problem. Put simply, it is a function of how unbelievable the spoiler is and the age of the work in question. Like so:

If the Spoiler Quotient is greater than or equal to 1, then a spoiler warning is required. The OMG Factor is a rating of how unbelievable a given piece of information is, numbered from 0 to 5.

So "Darth Vader is Luke's father" (OMG Factor: 5, Years since release: 29) has a spoiler quotient of 0.17 and is totally fair game. While "the Axiom's autopilot has secretly been ordered to keep humans in space forever" (OMG Factor: 3, Years since release: 1.5) has a spoiler quotient of 2... which means I should've warned you.

Hm. Maybe this thing needs some more work.

On Priorities

(Fair warning: Posts may be short or non-existent the next couple of weeks. Just saying.)

If you think this means I won't be careful with my Thai, you should know that 6 of those 8 people are my wife and in-laws.

Also, this is not to scale (unless you're a prospective agent/publisher, in which case this is totally to scale).

That Thing Where I Draw: Tee and Heart

I took a break this week (not entirely intentionally), so here's an older drawing from my sketchbook. I couldn't find any dates, but near as I can figure this sketch is from about 4.5 years ago. I drew this during naptime at an orphanage called Im Jai House. That's Tee on the left and Heart on the right.

Cindy and I started working with Im Jai House almost immediately after we moved here. At first we just went in the evenings, but soon we were there all day (minus time we left for language school). It was actually really hard for me. I mean, I loved the kids, but I never felt like an authority or role model. I didn't really know how I fit in their lives.

I don't know what impact I had on them, but they impacted me a lot. Not only did we learn Thai at an insane speed, but I realized that I wanted to have a place in their lives -- not just as the volunteer who sometimes plays/sometimes disciplines. I wanted to be the dad.

Tee, in particular, really got to me. We were there the day he first arrived at Im Jai. He was 6, with no friends, and scared. He hung around me a lot. I don't know why since I could hardly talk to him.

I remember one day I was playing soccer with him. Some older kids joined and soon after -- mostly because I was tired -- I left them to their game. Tee came to me in tears. I tried, in my broken Thai, to ask him what was wrong. Between heaving sobs I understood the words, "I wanted... to play... with you."

It was the first meaningful conversation I remember having in this language, with Tee or anyone.

Later, Cindy and I realized that we couldn't do what we wanted to do at an orphanage with over 50 kids. We gradually lessened our commitments until we had foster kids of our own to take care of, and we left Im Jai House. Tee is 10 now, and living with a family who does what we do just down the road. I see him sometimes, though I don't think he remembers that scene like I do. I doubt he even thinks of me at all other than "that farang I used to play with at Im Jai," but I'll never forget him.

Dang. And here I thought I was just going to say, "These are a couple of kids at an orphanage we used to work at." Well there you go. Merry Christmas.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Someone asked me this the other day. I didn't have a good answer then; I kinda shrugged and said, "Everywhere." I didn't know what to say, or even what he wanted me to say. I mean, where do people think writers get our ideas from? Dreams? God? "Inspiration"?

I think my answer was right though -- we do get ideas from everywhere, but not because there's something special about us. It's just how we choose to look at the world.

Like the other day, Natalie posted on Twitter that she had a freckle on the inside of her left eye. Then her and Jodi spent the next half hour discussing what sort of superpowers the freckle would give her, and how she might obtain access to them.*

I joined in and said my first thought was not superpowers but "alien egg." I expected them to be grossed out, especially Natalie as it was her eye, but she said, "Actually, I was thinking it might be an interesting story."

All those stories -- the various superpowers and the alien -- came from the same thing: a freckle. There was nothing special about the freckle that made it story-worthy. The story came from the way the three of us looked at it. It's because our brains were constantly asking, "How can I make a story out of that?"

I think all creative people look at the world this way, to some extent. Journalists look for news stories. Photographers look for pictures. Comedians look for jokes. Pastors look for object lessons. Bloggers look for posts. And genre writers look for magic and aliens.

So when I'm dry for story ideas, it's not because the ideas aren't there, it's because I haven't been looking for them. Ideas happen around me all the time, but if I've been converting them into blog posts or devotions for the kids, I won't see them.

I keep trying to come up with a good ending for this post, but all I can think of is that alien egg. How does the alien eat after it hatches? How does it reproduce? Maybe if I spend an hour on Wikipedia, something will come to me...

Meanwhile, where's the weirdest place you've gotten a story idea from?

* It sounds like I was eavesdropping, which I guess I was, technically. Then again Twitter let me. Nothing's private on the nets, right?

Reasons to Read

There's lots of reasons to give books as gifts. They're cheap, light, small, pretty; the publishing industry needs help; Americans or [insert your people group] don't read enough, etc, etc.

Here's the thing: Books are awesome. Folks who know that want them for Christmas (etc). Folks who don't just haven't found the right book yet, and how are they going to find it unless you give it to them?

So, along with like every publishing industry blogger, I give you my favorite books of (the books that I read in) 2009. (Note: My content ratings are based on what I noticed/remember and are very subjective. Take them as you will.)

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Genre: Urban Fantasy
First published: 1996
Content: PG

Richard Mayhew struggles just to exist in his mundane London life. But when he tries to help a bleeding girl that everyone seems to ignore, he finds that he has ceased to exist entirely. He journeys to London Below, a near-magical place populated with people who have fallen through the cracks of society. Despite his strong lack of qualifications, he seems to be the only person willing to help this strange girl named Door.

This is the book that made me fall in love with Neil Gaiman. It's urban fantasy with Gaiman's flair for turning even the most mundane aspects of our world into something out of a fairy tale. As soon as I run out of new books to read, I'm going to read it again.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Genre: Science Fiction
First published: 1997
Content: R

In 2019, while the UN debates first contact with the newly-found inhabitants of Rakhat, Jesuits send an 8-person expedition to learn about them. Forty years later, Father Emilio Sandoz returns and tries to explain why he's the only survivor, and why he's lost faith in everything that once made him human.

This is not a light book, if you can't tell. But Oh. My. Gosh. Is it good. Super well-written, it deals with the big question: if God exists, why do terrible things happen? More over, can we still trust him? It's not an overtly Christian book either, by any means. If you let that turn you off, you'll be missing out.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Mystery
First published: 1929
Content: PG

A beautiful redhead walks into Sam Spade's office, but what starts as a simple private investigation turns into double-murder, a frame job, and conspiracy. Sam is caught between the police and the villains, none of whom he can trust, and everybody's after this mysterious Maltese falcon. But where is it?

I'm not normally into detective stories, or classics for that matter, but this was a great book. I love the character of Sam. You never know if he's really the good guy or just saving his own butt. I admit the descriptions were sometimes a bit over-detailed for me, but I figure that's okay in a book where every clue might count.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Humor
First published: 1990
Content: PG-13

When the demon Crowley is told it's time to deliver the Antichrist, he's not as enthused as he should be. He's grown kind of attached to his lifestyle on Earth, and he's not looking forward to a war that, by all accounts, he's bound to lose anyway. Even so, it's not his fault the Antichrist got placed with the wrong family, or that nobody noticed until a few days before The End.

Gaiman and Pratchett are two of my favorite fantasy authors, and while their collaboration is not quite as funny as Pratchett alone, or quite as magical as Gaiman alone, it is something unique. Something still very funny and very good.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
Genre: Thriller
First published: 2003
Content: PG-13

Odd Thomas is a young, fry cook content with everything in his life, with the possible exception of his strange gift: he sees the dead. It's not all bad -- Elvis in particular is fun to talk to -- and Odd does what he can to help them set things right before they move on. But sometimes... See, he also sees these things called bodachs that feed on pain and terror. When Odd's small town is suddenly filled with them, he knows something terrible is about to happen. He just hopes he can figure out what before it's too late.

Like detective stories, commercial fiction isn't usually my thing. But I've discovered Dean Koontz is a really, really good writer, and this one has enough fantasy to make my favorites list. The premise is a little Sixth Sense (okay, a lot), but Odd's character is so very likable that I never really noticed.

All right, your turn. What are your favorite books you read this year?

That Thing Where I Draw: In Shadow

I almost didn't have anything for this week. First, I couldn't think of anything. Then my scanner stopped working. Fortunately I got past all that, because I like a lot about this one.

I was going for a kind of story/fantasy vibe. I've been thinking about BCS covers (I can't imagine why) and the guilin mountains. This is my amateur tribute to them.

That's supposed to be a village there in the shadow.

Also if you missed my big announcement yesterday (and my more subtle link to it just now), here it is again.

Query Letter Upgrade

Querying agents is hard. It's even harder for those of us whose credential paragraphs don't actually have any credentials. Like this:

Azrael's Curse is an 86,000-word science fantasy novel, available on request. Thank you for your time.

Now, I know agents pick up complete unknowns all the time. It's all about the story, right? Even so, I'll feel better changing that paragraph to read something like this:

Azrael's Curse is an 86,000-word science fantasy novel, available on request. My short story, "Pawn's Gambit," is due to be published in a future issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Thank you for your time.

Wait, what?

My short story, "Pawn's Gambit" -- set in the same world as Azrael's Curse even -- is due to be published in Beneath freaking Ceaseless Skies!

I'm not normally an excitable person but... Holy crap, this is cool!


Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online, pro-rate (i.e. 5+ cents/word) magazine dedicated to publishing "the best in literary adventure fantasy." Also, their cover art is AMAZING.

False Starts

I started writing The Cunning for real on Monday (so my WIP sidebar will get updated more often for a while, FYI). These are the first new words I've written in months. Yet for all my planning, I didn't plan enough.

I'm constantly trying to find ways to write faster. Things like making comments where I can research later (instead of stopping to research now) or forcing myself to just write even though I hate what's coming out (because you can fix bad writing, but you can't fix what's not there). But it's so hard when I've just come off polishing Air Pirates to a shiny, cast-iron sheen. Especially the beginning.

See, the beginning is the most important part. It's the first thing everybody sees, and it's how they determine whether they can trust you as a writer. So at the end of a novel, you go over it again and again until it's perfect. It's easier at the end because you know who the characters are and you know everything that happens. You can drop hints and make your voice come shining through.

When you start a new novel, you also have to start at the beginning.* But now, even if you planned everything, you don't really know what will happen. You don't really know the characters, and you're probably not even sure of your voice.

Here's the paradox. You go from working on one beginning to the other. The first beginning is as perfect as you know how to make it. The second beginning is terrible; you know it, you don't know why, and you can't shake the feeling that this beginning should be as good as the one you just finished working on.

That's where I was on Monday, telling myself everything I'd learned in the last couple of years. "Just write it." "I can't fix it until something's there." "I hate it, but I don't know why so there's no reason to keep staring at it." "I'll know how to fix it when I've written more of the novel." After an hour and a half of this, I'd managed to pry out 349 words.

I don't have any lesson for you in this. Maybe just to let you know that you're not alone, and this is one reason why starting a new novel is hard, even though finishing the last one was so awesome.

The worst part is, when it was over I went online to research those things I wasn't allowed to while writing. The opening scene takes place in a Karen refugee camp under attack by Burmese soldiers, and it took me all of 5 minutes to find really awesome information that unstuck all the parts of the scene that were stuck.

That kind of thing makes me rethink my commitment to do no research while writing. It's also why I will never win NaNoWriMo.

* Well maybe you don't have to, but I do.

Safe Characters

So, you're watching The Incredibles. You get to the part of the climax where the giant robot knocks Violet out and is about to crush her. Is it tense? Are you afraid Violet might die? Well, a little, but deep down you know that something will happen at the last second to save her. Why? Because she's safe. She's a major character -- and a child at that -- in a movie in which nobody has yet died on-screen.

For The Incredibles, that's no big deal. We don't need the added tension of "somebody might die." It's enough to wonder if they'll win, and how. But what if you want your reader to truly believe that anybody could die at any time, even the protagonist?

If you want the reader to believe that anything could happen, that the stakes are real, you need to build a reputation. Some authors spend multiple books building that reputation and carry it with them in every book they write, but you don't have to be a multi-published author to let the reader know that nobody is safe. All you have to do is kill safe characters in this book.

What makes a character safe? There are many contributing factors. How important are they? How likable? How innocent? The safer the reader believes them to be, the more tension is added when they die. Kill enough safe characters, and by the time the climax hits the reader will believe that nobody is safe.

A great example is Joss Whedon's Serenity (SPOILER WARNING; if you haven't seen it, skip to the last paragraph). Coming off a well-loved TV series, and with serious sequel potential, it was easy for me to believe that none of the main cast would die. Normally this would result in a final battle that -- like The Incredibles -- is totally fun but not very tense because I know everyone will be okay in the end. Then Joss goes and kills my favorite character.

When he did this -- in such a way that it was clear Wash was really, for real dead -- it made the rest of the battle more intense than any adventure film I can think of. Zoe gets slashed in the back, Kaylee gets hit by poison needles, Simon gets shot, and the whole time I really believe they could all die. And while I still think Mal is going to accomplish their goal, I'm fairly certain he's going to die in the process too. If Wash had lived, I wouldn't have felt any of that. (END SPOILER)

Today's tip, then: If you want the reader to believe the main character could die, kill a safe character or two before the climax. The safer, the better. Your reader might not like it, but it's for their own good.

That Thing Where I Draw: Arcadia/Dark Water Mash-Up

If some of you were wondering how much effort I would put into a contest winner's drawing, the answer is: a lot. Behold!

My brother is not an aspiring writer,* but we share quite a lot of the same interests. He couldn't decide between something from the Skies of Arcadia universe and that of Pirates of Dark Water, so he asked for "some kind of mix.... And maybe a monkey bird or something." Hopefully this will make up for all those years I picked on him.

A lot of reference pictures went into this (five, believe it or not), and I did very little modification of my own. So it's not exactly my own raw talent here, but man is it fun! And I put a lot more effort into this, trying things I wouldn't usually try with my own drawings. I guess pressure will do that. I may have to take requests/run contests for you guys more often. You know, for my own benefit.

* That I know of. But our interests overlap so eerily that it would not surprise me to someday find him on the same path I'm on now, just 5 years behind.

You Know That Fantasy Novel is Really the Author's D&D Game When...

  1. It starts in a tavern.
  2. There are four main characters, and it's unclear which one is the protagonist.
  3. There is one protagonist and his three friends, who are different from him in every way.
  4. The main characters are all human. Secondary characters are elves and dwarves.
  5. The only limitation on magic is that, after a certain number of spells, magic users must sleep before they can cast more.
  6. The villain is a human wizard.
  7. The villain is immensely more powerful than the main characters, but despite their obvious bent on stopping him, he doesn't face them until they are strong enough to defeat him.
  8. The main characters are referred to as a "party."
  9. The party consists of a fighter, a thief, a cleric, and a wizard (alternatively: warrior, rogue, healer, and mage; also barbarian, burglar, priest, and sorcerer).
  10. They take on a quest to either save the world or aid the village, for no other reason than that it's right.
  11. Despite the fact that there are many characters more powerful than the protagonists, no one else is willing or able to take on the quest.
  12. Anyone, anywhere, uses "adventure" as a verb.
Got more?