Choosing the Right Picture

This blog is going quiet for a couple of weeks for obvious reasons. Not that Thailand celebrates Christmas, but our family does, as do the 7+ relatives/friends here to visit.

I should be back on January 3rd. Until then, enjoy this undoctored screenshot of CNN.com, and meditate on the importance of choosing the right picture to go with your words.

Figuring Out Query Letters

Every aspiring author, at some point, wishes someone would tell us how to do query letters right. Just tell me what to write, and I'll write it!

Ahem.

But it's not that simple. For one thing, there is no Right Way to write a query. There are, however, a hundred wrong ways that agents see over and over. One of the best ways to learn, then, is to read other query letters -- hundreds of them, good and bad -- until something clicks and you get a sense for what works.

What? You thought it would be easy?

To help, here's a list of places where you can do exactly that. Many of these links provide free critiques -- both peer and professional. For most the wait is long, if your letter gets chosen at all. But the real value of these sites is not getting comments on your own letter. It's in learning from, and critiquing, the mistakes of others. Read enough of these, and you may actually figure out the answer to "How do I write a good query letter?"

Even if you can't put it in words.
Know any good places I missed? Share them in the comments!

Overthinking Dr. Seuss

I read a lot of Dr. Seuss (9 kids will do that to you), to the point where I've caught myself thinking about the story behind the story, wondering if the good doctor ever considered these angles.

What do you mean I'm over-analyzing?

The Zax -- Evolution or Cruel Experiment?
"Never budge! That's my rule. Never budge in the least! Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!
I'll stay here, not budging! I can and I will if it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!" 

A North-going Zax and a South-going Zax bump into each other during their long, seemingly pointless journeys, each stubbornly refusing to step aside for the other.

Are there more of these creatures? And are these the first to ever run into each other on their (presumably, magnetically perfect) paths? This appears to be a potential evolutionary problem.

Or is it intentional. One mentions a South-going school. Is there some genetic scientist who has trained them and set them on colliding paths, just to see what they would do?

The Sneetches -- The Economy of Beach Bums
Then, when every last cent
Of their money was spent,
The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up
And he went.

And he laughed as he drove
In his car up the beach,
"They never will learn.
No. You can't teach a Sneetch."

Plain-belly Sneetches live oppressed by their star-bearing brethren. Until a con man convinces them to change their stars back and forth, taking all their money and leaving the Sneetches poor and confused.

But where did they get this money? In the entire book, the Sneetches have neither homes nor jobs nor clothes (it's cool, they're birds). Maybe their economy is just never shown, or maybe they are the world's most successful beach bums, spending vast welfare checks only on marshmallows and frankfurters.

The Sleep Book -- A Message from Big Brother
We have a machine in a plexiglass dome
Which listens and looks into everyone's home.
And whenever it sees a new sleeper go flop,
It jiggles and lets a new Biggel-Ball drop. 

From one perspective, the Sleep Book is about the bedtime and sleep behaviors of various creatures as the countryside goes to bed.

From another, it's subtle propoganda composed by a totalitarian regime. The message? "Everything is fine. All are sleeping peacefully, except you. We know."

Five Stages of the Science-Fiction Author

STAGE 1: Idea
I'll write a book about time travel! Nobody's done that well yet.

STAGE 2: World-building
I wonder if I should relate the history of the war between Morlocks and Ferengis here or in chapter 2. Oh, I know! I'll add a prologue!

STAGE 3: Characterization
Let's see... I've got the absent-minded professor vs. the mad scientist. Oo! And how about an android struggling to understand human emotions. Screw it, I'll just do an ensemble cast. What should I name the Asian character?

STAGE 4: Craft
How many l's are in "mellifluously"? Never mind. I'll just say "dulcet-like".

STAGE 5: Career
I wonder how many Nebulas you have to buy before they just give you the Hugo?

The Real Reason I Outline

I'm nearing the end of The Great Air Pirates YA Revision of 2010, and I discovered something. For years now, I thought I outlined because I'm an obsessive compulsive planner. And I am. But the real reason I outline, as it turns, is because when I draft I'm a wimp.

See, in Air Pirates there's this character that dies. I mean, a lot of characters die, but there's this one in particular. I really liked this character, but as long as they live, the protagonist has no motivation for change. Not a very interesting story.

So I killed the character in the outline. It was easy. Just a quick sentence: "So-and-so dies. Protagonist goes nuts." No problem.

But when I got to that spot in the draft, I froze. Did they really HAVE to die? Did I have to write the words that killed them? I didn't want to do it, and I was sad when it was done. But I did it because I outlined it that way, and I couldn't think of a better solution (also I didn't want to re-outline half the book just to accommodate the suddenly-living character).

That was in the first draft. Then the means of this character's death had to change for the YA version, and I had to kill them AGAIN. It took me like an hour just to type the words that made it real, and if I hadn't planned it, I wouldn't have done it.

So there you go. I don't outline because I'm afraid to wing it. I outline because, if I didn't, my characters would just win all the time. While that's lots of fun for me (I do like my characters), anyone I swindled into reading it would get bored fast. And since my characters can't pay me, I guess that makes my choice easy.

The Dragon was the Best Part

It's important to choose your protagonist carefully. In general, they should be the character whose choices and actions move the plot forward. If the protagonist is also the narrator, they should be present for most, if not all, of the key events.

Sleeping Beauty, for example, is not the best choice. She doesn't make a lot of decisions, and she misses all the good parts. Pretty much her whole story is like this:

Sleeping Beauty (from Aurora's Point of View)

I was born today. Don't remember much. I think Mommy was there, some scary people, and -- Oo! Sparkly!

[Time passes.]

So after 16 years of being sheltered by my godmothers, I finally met somebody. And he's HOT! I can't wait to tell the old girls I'm getting married and they don't have to take care of me anymore. Wonder if Sir Hotty will let me talk to other people...

Okay, so my godmothers have been lying to me for, like, ever. I can't marry Hotty McHandsome cuz I'm already engaged. Screw that, I'm outta here.

Hey, a needle. OW!

Not sure what happened. I ran away, cut my finger, and then...Sir Hotty was making out with me? (Still don't know his name, btw). Turns out I was engaged to him the whole time. Oh well, works for me.

A Blog Post, Bob, As You Already Know

BOOK: That young man's very brave.
MAL (whatever): Yeah, he's my hero...
BOOK: Give up everything to free his sister from that... place... go from being a doctor on the central planets to hiding on the fringes of the system... There's not many would do that.
MAL: Suppose not.

-- from Firefly, Episode #2: "The Train Job"

This kind of dialog is known as As You Know, Bob. Where two characters discuss something both are familiar with, but in a way that anyone listening (i.e. the reader) will understand what's going on.

TV shows do it all the time. They have to so they don't lose channel surfers, viewers coming in after the commercial break, or new viewers who didn't see the previous episodes. (Or, in the case above, because Fox aired episode #2 before episode #1 so NOBODY knew what was going on).

Books do it too, but it's less forgivable.

"There it is, Piter--the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke's headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?"

-- from Dune

AYKB dialog is a subtler, but no less lazy, form of infodump. The novice author knows he's not supposed to bore the reader with expository backstory, so they try to hide it with "action," which in this case means two people talking.

Although it's true that dialog is more interesting than exposition, this kind of dialog is about the same. Most readers can tell that something's wrong, even if they don't know what. The problem is real people don't talk like that. They don't say, "Remember your birthday party two weeks ago, where you got so drunk you danced half-naked on the pool table?" They'd just say, "Remember your birthday party?" and then "Yeah, that was awesome."

"All this 'You-Know-Who' nonsense -- for eleven years I have been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort."

"But you're different. Everyone knows you're the only one You-Know- oh, all right, Voldemort, was frightened of."

-- from Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

So how do you fix it? The same way you fix any infodump: with carefully-placed, telling details. Here's a 4-step program for you.
  1. Write the crappy As You Know, Bob dialog. All of it. If you don't write something, you'll never get anywhere.
  2. Cut everything that is extraneous information, that neither character would bother saying because they both know that they both know. (Paste it somewhere else, though, so you know it).
  3. Read the dialog again. If it would still make sense to a new reader, leave it.
  4. If there's information a new reader must have to understand the story at that point, find places to insert it. But keep the info-bits small and as realistic as possible.
You might have to invent reasons for the explanation. Introduce a character who must have things explained to them. Or drop the characters in a situation where the information is necessary to have, so the reader doesn't mind a little expository infodump (though not in dialog, unless it can be done realistically).

Sometimes the solution is simple: move it out of dialogue. So instead of:

"God, you're such an idiot. You're acting like I never went to that assassin school last summer."

Try:

"God, you're such an idiot." He acted like I'd never been to assassin school.

More often, the solution is even simpler, but we don't want to believe it: just remove the information. You'd be surprised how far a reader can go without all the backstory. And if they have a question, or get confused, well that's what beta readers are for.

Poll: How Do You Feel About Maps?

Everyone has their own opinion on maps in a novel. Some people despise them, considering them a cheap form of infodump. Others will buy a book just because it has a pretty map, regardless of what the book is about.

Of course it depends on the quality of map and how (or whether) the story uses it, but in general how do you feel about maps?


Personally, I LOVE them. I can't read Lord of the Rings without flipping to the map every time a place is mentioned.

But because of that, I'm kind of a map snob. I'm disappointed if the book takes place in a single undetailed location, or in places that aren't even on the map (I'm looking at you, Name of the Wind). I get upset if the map is wrong (it's happened!). And while I do love flipping back to the map, I don't want to HAVE to.

My favorite maps do four things:
  1. They are not required to follow the action (i.e. they can be skipped).
  2. They include most important locations mentioned in the book.
  3. They don't include too many places that AREN'T mentioned in the book.
  4. They enhance the experience for those who want to study them.

I have a map for Air Pirates (I don't see how you could write fantasy without one), but I don't show it to my beta readers. So far only two have asked if there was a map, and nobody said they were lost without one. I take that to mean I'm doing a good job. Though if this thing gets published, you better believe I'll be pushing for a map. I mean, assuming I get any say at all.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) maps? Why?

Unexpected Convergence

Something I noticed the other day when my daughter asked if she could listen to music on the way to school.

Firefly (and Other Murdered TV Shows)

Firefly
Malcolm Reynolds and his crew live on the edge of the law, preferring to do jobs -- legal or not -- on the outer planets where Alliance influence is weak. Things get sketchy when they unknowingly take on two Alliance fugitives: a doctor and his genius little sister. The Alliance had been secretly experimenting on her, and they desperately want her back.

Half a season, 14 episodes. Fox killed this one partially by airing the episodes out of order. Fortunately Joss Whedon is the leader of an online cult with the motivation and power to finish the series. Though I think all of us would prefer if it never ended.

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
Brisco County, a Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-bounty hunter, is after the infamous bandit John Bly Gang that murdered his father, Marshal Brisco. It's a western, but with sci-fi and steampunk elements thrown in. Oh yeah, and Bruce Campbell.

Fox (once again) gave up on this one after 27 episodes. Fortunately the secret of John Bly had been revealed by then, but still.


Nowhere Man
On a date with his wife, photojournalist Thomas Veil returns from the bathroom to discover his life has been erased. Nobody knows who he is, not even his wife. Every trace of his identity is gone. He discovers it's somehow related to a picture he took years before, but he doesn't know why. He must keep the negatives safe from a mysterious organization out to get him, while at the same time trying to learn the truth about what happened to him.

The defunct UPN canceled it after the first season, 25 episodes. Long enough to find out some cool things about Thomas' past. Not long enough to find out what they meant, dang it.


Pirates of Dark Water
Ren, the exiled prince of a sunken kingdom, is charged with finding the 13 Treasures of Rule to stop the ever-hungry Dark Water from consuming the world of Mer. He has an "unlikely but loyal crew of misfits" on his side, but the Pirate Lord Bloth is after him, trying to take the treasures for himself.

This one died on ABC after 20 seasons (although it started on Fox Kids -- a trend?), after Ren had found only eight of the treasures.


All of these shows had hardcore fans and critical acclaim, but they didn't make it. If there's a lesson for writers here, it's that everything's subjective. Though at least in writing, if you have fans and acclaim, you can self publish.

What were your favorite murdered shows?

Books I Read: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Title: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Author: Mark Haddon
Genre: Mystery (sort of...more like literary)
Published: 2003
Content Rating: R for language

Chris Boone is an autistic 15-year-old living with his working class father. When the neighbor's dog is killed, Chris decides to find out who is responsible. In the process, he learns things about his parents he was never supposed to know.

I'm not normally a literary kind of guy (you may recall the literary genre loses points with me),* but I loved this book. I read it in like 5 days which is some kind of record. I loved the mystery, even though the book's not really about who killed the dog. I love the methodical, logical way Chris went about it.

For that matter, I love the methodical, logical way Chris thinks period. He has a near-perfect memory and likes order. If he sees 4 red cars in a row on the way to school, it's a Good Day. He can explain the Monty Hall problem with complex combinatorics and a diagram that's simple to understand. He reasons that if there are aliens, they would be totally different from us and might use something like rainclouds as a spaceship. Almost every other chapter is an exploration into one of these (mostly very interesting) digressions.

And craftwise, this book is genius. It does nothing normal. The chapters are prime numbers. Every few pages has some unimportant diagram (though it's important to Chris).

And not a single description is given of the other characters feelings. Chris doesn't understand tone of voice or body language--he doesn't even look at people's faces. He simply records what people say, word for word. And yet we are given enough context, and the occasional telling gesture, to feel what the other characters are feeling.

As a writer, I'm in awe.


* Then again I loved Life of Pi, so maybe I'm kidding myself?

Sketch: Phoenix Fan Art

If you haven't heard, Cindy Pon got a box of ARCs for Fury of the Phoenix, the sequel to her debut novel. Now she's holding a contest to giveaway at least one of those ARCs. I read Cindy's debut last year and really enjoyed it, so I had to do my best on this one.

So what do I love about Silver Phoenix? The action, yes, but mostly the Asian setting and mythos (I wanted to draw the gods or immortals, but this scene was hard enough as it was).

I don't know why, but rice fields make me happy.

I tried a lot of new things with this (I really want that ARC!), so I screwed up a lot of things too. But watercolor pencils? My new favorite. I found a pack (Disney brand?) with the stuff that came with our four newest kids. They don't know how to use them, so I figured I'd learn.

They're so cool. Like painting, but without the abject fear that I'll get it wrong (because I can pencil everything in first). If I keep fiddling, I'm going to have to get my own high quality pack.

Anyway, there you go, Cindy. Congratulations on getting not one, but two novels published, and thank you for writing them. If any of you guys want to get in on the contest, there's still time. It doesn't close until December 1st (and you don't have to draw to win).

James Patterson is an Evil Genius

FACT: For every 17 hardcovers sold in the US, one of them is a James Patterson novel.
FACT: James Patterson has published an average of 4.5 novels per year since 1995.
FACT: He is the second best-paid author in the world.

But have you read any of his books? The prose is awful. The villains cartoonish. If an unknown author tried to break into publishing with stories like these, they'd be kicked out on the street.

Or would they? It's true that a lot of the reason Patterson novels sell is because they're, well, Patterson novels. But a brand like that -- even a very big one -- can only carry a crappy product so far. I submit that if James Patterson wasn't doing something right, people would stop buying his books. As Nathan Bransford once said, "Every popular book is popular for a reason."

And I think I understand now. The last book of his I read suffered from everything above: lame villains, deus-ex-machina climaxes, prose that looked like he just wrote what he thought as he thought it. Bugged the heck out of me, and yet I read the whole thing. Why?

I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't understand all of how he did this, but here are some things I noticed that worked:
  • Short Chapters. Very short, like 2-3 pages. What this does is it makes the reader less afraid to read just one more (I can always put it down after the next one, after all). It's a cheap trick, but it works.
  • Effective Chapters. The chapters were short, but something happened or was revealed or was cliff-hanged in every single one.
  • Mystery. In spite of myself, I wanted to know who the villain really was and why they did what they did. Patterson sets up the mystery from the start and gives you little crumbs of information all along the way. Just enough to keep you interested.
  • Plot Twists. I haven't read a Patterson novel yet that didn't have some wacky, heart-wrenching plot twist at the end. Imagine if the Scooby-Doo gang solved the mystery and got Old Man Jenkins sent to jail, then Daphne kills Velma and reveals that she's been the mastermind behind everything. That's the kind of twist I'm talking about. And dangit if it doesn't make me want to read the next novel.

It's not cheating. It's the "What happens next?" factor. It's what makes the reader turn the page, perhaps even against their better judgment. I don't care if you write fantasy or romance or literary or academic textbooks -- you can learn from this. (Although textbooks may have a problem with the plot twists).

Fear of Failure and Revisions

I have a problem with a fear of failure. I guess most people do a little, but I feel like mine affects everything I do. I mean, I'm even afraid to talk on the phone or exercise because I might do something stupid.

It affects writing and drawing too, of course. I stare at the blank page until I convince myself to sketch something fast and light, reminding myself it doesn't have to perfect. Once I have something sketched, I'm afraid to darken or ink it because it already looks good -- what if I make a mistake? And once I ink it, too, I'm afraid to color it.

It's stupid, I know. My wife called me on it the other day. "At least you can always erase and redo a drawing. It's not like you only get one shot."

I know she's right, so why am I so afraid then to put my pencil (or ASCII characters) to the page?

In performance, like dancing or singing, you don't get to revise. Once the moves or notes are out there, they're permanent. But for some reason I'm not as afraid of performance. When I am afraid, I practice -- that, after all, is how you get your body to do the right thing when performance time comes. And I don't mind screwing up in practice because, hey, it's just practice.

So why the heck can't I do that with drafting and sketching? The delete key's only like two inches from my pinky!

Not sure I have a conclusion to this one, so I'll throw it out to you. How do you struggle with fear of failure? How do you overcome it?

Sketch: Hidden Pushers

Susan Quinn of Ink Spells won second place and a sketch in the Demotivational Contest we had last month. This is her prize, a scene from one of her works in progress:

Although everyone now reads minds, sixteen-year-old Kira Moore can't and never will. When she almost kills her best friend by accident, she discovers she can control the minds of others and is torn between passing for normal and exposing the hidden pushers of her world.

In this scene, Kira meets a young pusher named Laney, while on their way to deeper trouble.


I've only read the one scene, but already I want to read more of this. Thanks for letting me draw some fan art, Susan!

Nobody is Perfect, Not Even Me

Until a year or two ago, we homeschooled one of our kids. It was hard sometimes, especially when I had to tell them they got something wrong. They beat themselves up so much about it, I felt bad. But I told them, "Nobody, NOBODY, gets 100% the first time. Not even me."

When it comes to critiques of my own work, though, I'm just as messed up. Especially when I was first starting, I didn't send my work out for critique so much as I sent it out so people could tell me it was good.

It doesn't work. Cuz when they tell you something isn't working, it DEVASTATES you. "I suck at this!" you say. "I'll never be a good writer. I should just quit right now."

Maybe you don't say that, but I sure did. But really it was my fault. I mean, when I say, "Tell me how good it is," even subconsciously, the only room for deviation is down.

"But what if they do tell you it's good?" See, that's the other thing. If someone tells you your work is perfect and you shouldn't change a thing, they're either wrong or lying. Nobody is perfect, and no book is perfect. Or if there is a perfect book, I haven't read it. I certainly haven't written it. Nobody gets 100% the first time.

With our homeschool student, it wasn't that they got problems wrong. It's that they expected to get them all right. Same thing here: I can't send my work out to be told it's perfect, I send it out because it's NOT perfect, and I need to know where. When people tell me something's off, I need to thank them because that's exactly what I want to hear.

Hey! Writing's Actually Useful!

I love writing, but aside from crafting novels doomed to obscurity, it's a skill I rarely find useful. Knowing how to write a query letter doesn't keep my boys from killing each other. And being able to describe the smell of coming rain doesn't help when the toilet's clogged (that requires a different scent entirely).

But every once in a while...

So my wife teaches dance. You probably didn't know that. I love seeing her do something she loves, but of course I can do nothing to help her since all my dance knowledge comes from watching Center Stage.

But the other day she was trying something new. She wanted to choreograph something with sort of a story, about a girl with no self-confidence, who fails no matter how hard she tries. To me it felt a lot like Hagai's story (the song she's using was even part of my own inspiration).

She had a problem, though, because what she had so far made it look like the girl was just trying to fit in to the rest of the group, even succumbing to peer pressure. I suggested she do what I do when one of my good guys looks like a jerk: show them doing something nice. Make the group sympathetic by showing them trying to help the girl -- that it's the girl's choice to give up, not the group excluding her.

My wife loved it, and we started talking about other ideas for the dance. I got so excited I didn't realize I was trying to outline the whole thing for her. I completely forgot that anyone who's seen a single season of So You Think You Can Dance is more qualified to choreograph than I am.

Fortunately, she forgave me.

I don't know if she'll use everything we talked about, but for that moment I felt useful. Like I had exactly the skills needed to help her. Who knew fiction was good for something besides, well, fiction?

Have you ever used your writing skills for something other than writing?

Crash Bugs

Fresh out of college, and knowing very little about the Real World, I got a job making computer games. I learned a lot there: how to estimate schedules, why I should make smart goals, how taking a vacation during crunch time can get you fired.*

And I learned about the computer game equivalent of beta reading: playtesting. I remember one tester reported a bug that crashed the game, but none of us could reproduce it, meaning we couldn't fix it. So we let it go, until one day our manager asked us about it.

KEN:** What's with this crash bug? Tester reported it like three months ago.
DEVELOPER 1: It's a random bug. Nobody can reproduce it, but it doesn't seem to happen very often.
KEN: You guys need to track it down, top priority.
DEVELOPER 1: Even Tester doesn't know what causes it. You want us to work nights on a bug we might never fix?
DEVELOPER 2: It's not a big deal, Ken. There are like ten playtesters who've never had the bug, and nobody can reproduce it. It probably won't be a big deal when the game goes live.
KEN: Then think of it this way. If the game crashes for one out of ten playtesters, then when we sell 100,000 copies that's ten thousand people who will get mad and return our buggy game.

Long story short, we fixed the bug, and I learned a valuable lesson about percentages.

This is why it's important to listen to your beta readers too. If only one of them says your villain is a cardboard cliche, it's possible they just don't get it, but it's also possible they represent a significant percentage of your future readers. (And anything two betas agree on is a virtual certainty).

So in general, unless you KNOW why you wrote something a certain way and you KNOW the commenter is wrong, listen to your betas. Chances are they're not alone.


* Not me. Another guy. And it wasn't so much the vacation that got him fired as the fact that his code never worked, no matter how much he insisted it did.

** We had 2 or 3 managers over the course of the project. They were all named Ken. Not joking.

The Creative Process

From Virus Comix. Click to enlarge. Find yourself.


I'm in the editing loop, trying to ignore the short cut.

Spoiler Camps

There are two extremes when it comes to thinking about spoilers. On one side, there is the ALL SPOILERS ARE BAD camp. These folks seem to believe that once a story is spoiled, it's not worth experiencing. I once saw a Facebook comment that said, "Any Ender's Game film will be a disappointment--imagine watching The Sixth Sense if you'd read the book first!"

I can't agree with that extreme. I'd love to see an Ender's Game movie, even knowing how it ends.

The other camp says THERE ARE NO SPOILERS. In Stephen King's words, "You might as well say 'I'm never gonna watch Wizard of Oz again because I know how it turns out.'"

It's a good point, after all we re-watch movies and re-read books all the time. But the first time you saw Wizard of Oz you didn't know how it would turn out. And I think a lot of the reason we revisit stories we love is to re-feel what we felt that first time.

Obviously I fall in between these camps. I think experiencing a story spoiler-free increases the emotional impact. The second and third viewings not only remind us of that impact, but also free us to see more in the story than we saw the first time -- clues we didn't catch, subtle hints that show the author knew what they were doing the whole time.

Spoiling a movie essentially skips that first viewing. We are half experiencing it for the first time and half watching for the clues that hint at the twist. But the emotional impact is gone because we know it's coming. At least that's what I think.

So I believe there are spoilers, but just because you've seen a movie before (or read the book) does not "spoil" it the second time.

I suspect most of us fall in between the camps, but I don't know. So where do you stand on spoilers? Have you ever had a book or movie ruined by spoilers (or the opposite: heard spoilers but still loved the story)?

Screw the Muse

The muse. Writers depend on her for inspiration. They wait for her, seek her, even honor her, all in the hopes she'll give them that spark they need to write something really great. But you know what?

I'm tired of waiting.

I put my butt in that chair everyday. Where is she? Not at work, I'll tell you that. The muse comes and goes as she pleases, striking me whenever the heck she feels like it.

Screw that.

I'm the one plotting and planning, drafting and revising. I'm the one getting critiques and rejections. Yeah, I get cool ideas out of nowhere sometimes, but they're just as likely to be contemporary YA or a freaking board game as they are to be something I can actually use. Something I can get paid for.

So here's the deal, muse: you work for me, not the other way around. I'll be at work Monday through Thursday starting at 8:30. If you want credit for this job, you'll be there too.

And if you're not, screw you. I'll do it myself.

Demotivational Winners

You guys are hilarious. The number one reason I wish I had more readers is so I could have more hilarity to enjoy and share with you guys. Maybe when I hit 200 followers or something we can do this again (even though followers aren't readers).

Enough talk. To the posters!

First, the honorable mentions. Most Likely to be Put Up in My Office goes to "Monday" by the recently wed L.T. Host, and Late But I Still Like You goes to "Courage" by K. Marie Criddle (who has her own contest going on, by the way). Click these entries to enlarge.


The winners were chosen entirely based on how hard they made me laugh. Third Place goes to J.J. Debenedictis, who provides the best reason for exercise EVER.


Second Place is Susan Quinn, who made excellent use of the ubiquitous internet cat images (not an easy task!).


And First Place with both barrels is Emmet Blue. Both his posters made me laugh so hard they both win. What can I say? The man knows his judge.



I'll contact the winners to figure out your prizes. Congratulations, and thank you everybody who played!

Talk Like an Air Pirate 2: All the Swears

Heyya, mates, Sam Draper here. Adam asked me to teach you shiners how to curse like a skyler, so here we go, aye? (And if you're thinking, "Oy! Who's this swabber, and what's he flailing about?" You oughtta read this first. It might keep you from getting scatty.)

First off: bleeding. I'll be bled if I know where this came from -- maybe some monk story -- but it's bleeding everywhere. I don't give a drop if you're a skyler or a groundhog: you can't bleeding swear without bleeding 'bleeding.'

'Piking' is another good one, but it's usually reserved for when you get thrown over by a pack of sodding dog-lickers. As in, "You gave me half what this junk's worth, you piking bastard!" If you ain't being cheated, I reck 'sodding dog-lickers' is good too, aye?

You'll be needing oaths too. 'Flack' and 'flot' are okay, being words for human muck. Though like as not you'll be wanting a pronoun in there: bleed it, pike it, soddit (or 'suit it,' if you're aiming at respectable -- not likely in the skies), and tullit (for when you just don't drink the wash some loony is pouring).

Now that's all good and well for your general swearing, but if you're gonna mix words with an air pirate, you'll need something a bit more direct. Lucky for you, skylers' got no end of offensory insults.

Someone too smart for their own good is a nummer. The opposite (with less smarts than a tumor on Tuesday) is a nimbus. A piker what stabs you in the back is a bleeding merc. And for govvies what leech off their constituents, we call them a willyguv. Then you got your maggot, blighter, dog-licker, bullock, swabber, rat orphan, coal monkey, or feckless lump, for when it don't matter what you call the gunner. And feel free to make up your own, aye? All the best pirates do.

I reck that's good for now. I'll be back later, see if you got any questions for me, breezy?

Demotivational Contest!

It's been a while since we've done a contest around here. So here's the deal: you make a demotivational poster, and my three favorites will each win a prize.

(I can't take credit for this one. The internet is a treasure trove.)

THE PRIZES
These are not in order. First Place will get to choose first. Second Place chooses second. Third Place gets what's left. (In the event that Third Place cannot use what's left, I'll figure something out. Don't worry, you'll still win something.)
  1. $4.00 credit towards eligible Amazon Video On Demand movie and TV purchases (US only).
  2. A sketch of anything you like (almost).
  3. A query critique from a one-time published writer (that's me).

THE RULES
  1. Make one or more demotivational posters. All you need is a picture, a title, a caption, and this website. Though feel free to get more creative than that, if that's your thing.
  2. Send them to me before Wednesday, Oct. 27, 5 PM Pacific. You can use any method available (e-mail, link in the comments, Twitter, Facebook, etc).
  3. Come back on Friday to see some of the best ones and to see if you won a prize.

WHAT THE HECK IS A DEMOTIVATIONAL POSTER?
They're parodies of those inspirational posters you might see in the office -- the ones with an inspiring picture and a caption about perseverance, effort, or "customer care". My favorite demotivationals mimic inspiration with cynicism, like these on motivation, teamwork, and uniqueness.

Or they might mock something, like this one on priorities or this awesome one on exercise. Or they can be just plain funny, covering topics such as pirates, ninjas, steampunk, or regrets.


WHY THESE PRIZES?
The $4.00 because I have the promotional code in my inbox from an Amazon purchase, but since I don't live in the US, I can't use it. The sketch because nothing gets me drawing like outside pressure. And the query critique because aspiring authors like that sort of thing, and I'm occasionally a nice guy.


THE CATCH?
None. You don't have to follow the blog. You don't have to give me your e-mail. You don't have to promote the contest (though if you did, it would just make it more fun for everybody, and it would make me smile -- you want me to smile, don't you?).

Love Stories, the Maturation of the Male Writer

STAGE 1: Ignorance
"There are girls in Lord of the Rings?"

At first, the subject is aware of love stories in general, but has either never read any or is unaware that he has. Attempts at bringing romance to the subject's attention may result in discomfort, interrupted thought patterns, or an irrational desire to play Splinter Cell. 

STAGE 2: Avoidance
They were close enough to feel the warmth of-- "BO-RING." *flip* *flip* *flip*

In the second stage, the subject exhibits an acute awareness and dislike of romance. He will sometimes go out of his way to learn about popular series with romantic storylines just so he can deride them. Studies show a strong correlation between writers in this stage and bachelors.

STAGE 3: Tolerance
"I like the rest of this story. I guess I can put up with a kissing scene or two."

Often triggered by a well-written adventure/romance novel, or a series of real-life break ups, writers in the third stage begin to actually read romantic subplots, if not enjoy them. This is provided, of course, that the main plot involves terrorists, aliens, pirates, serial killers, or some other form of mortal terror.

STAGE 4: Curiosity
"Women read a lot, and they seem to like this stuff. I bet if I can fake it, they'll read my stuff too."

Writers begin to see romance as a means to "trick" women into reading their book. They pay more attention to love stories, trying to see "how it's done." It's important at this stage that they learn from fiction, because even after thousands of years of studying women in real life, men still have no clue what they want.

STAGE 5: Secret Acceptance
In the last stage, the subject comes to terms with the fact that romance is a part of life, and therefore a part of fiction. Although certain cultural pressures still apply.

In public: "I don't care who she ends up with. I just want to see her blow stuff up!"
At home: "Why can't she see how much Gale cares for her?" *tissue*

What Doesn't Have To Go in a Query

On Monday, we talked about what must go in a query. Really only 3 things need to be clear: character, plot, and basic statistics. These are a couple of optional query items, commonly confused as required:

(OPTIONAL) PERSONALIZATION
This doesn't mean using the agent's correct name (you should always do that!). I'm talking about the little sentence at the beginning that says "I'm querying you because..." or "I've been stalking you and think you'd be a great agent."

Basically, only personalize it if you mean it. "I enjoy your blog." "I'm a big fan of [client's name whose novels you've actually read]." Don't lie or even stretch the truth. It won't tip the scales in your favor, and it's a lot more obvious than you think (meaning it's more likely to tip the scales against you). If you don't know anything about an agent other than that they represent your genre, it's okay to say nothing.

(OPTIONAL) COMPARISONS
I know a lot of agents say they like it when writers compare their novel to others; it shows they know their novel and the market. But not every novel lends itself to easy comparison, and a bad comparison can make it look like you don't know your novel or the market.

So like, if you set out to write "Twilight meets Survivor," and the finished story essentially matches what you envisioned, then it's probably okay to say so. But if you believe your story combines the writing style of Neil Gaiman with the characters of George Martin and a plot device you saw on Stargate...that's not really a good comparison.

If you're not sure, don't say anything. Comparisons aren't necessary, and if you described the story well, the agent will make their own connections.

(OPTIONAL) CREDENTIALS
Most aspiring writers have no credentials, but we feel we need to prove ourselves. So we mention our Christmas letters, our corporate status reports, or the fact that we've been writing since we were five.

Writers higher up the tier want to believe that no-pay or very-low-pay gigs count because there was a submissions process, but the bottom line is if the agent hasn't heard of the publication, it probably doesn't count. And sometimes dropping the name of that 0.5-cent-per-word e-zine can look like you're trying too hard. Just like with personalization, stretching your credentials won't tip the scales in any good direction.

That's just what I think. Your thoughts are most welcome in the comments.

What Goes in a Query?

Query letters can be frustrating, but I think they're much simpler than we make them out to be. Really a query letter only needs three things to be made clear: character, plot, and basic statistics.

CHARACTERS
No more than three (and if you name that many, one should probably be the antagonist). More names than this becomes hard to keep track of. Of these, only one should be the main character. The novel may be about multiple people, but it's hard to tell all those stories in just 200-300 words. Choose the most important character and tell their story, starting with what they want.

PLOT
Now that you know what your MC wants, show how they try to get there. That means the conflict (what keeps them from achieving their goal) and the stakes (what happens if they achieve it? what happens if they don't?).

STATISTICS
Title, word count (rounded to the nearest pretty number), and genre.

And that's it. I mean obviously you want to include more than that -- details that make your story unique, aspects of your voice, etc. -- but if the characters and plot are unclear, then your query will be unclear. So include those details, answer the obvious questions you raise (e.g. why does your MC want what they want?), but in doing so be careful not to lose the story.

On Wednesday, I'll talk about a couple of optional parts of the query, commonly confused as required. In the meantime, got any query tips you wish you knew starting out?

The Women of Naruto

I really, really like Naruto. The story arcs (when they're not filler, of course) are clever and powerful. Almost every character has a unique personality, backstory, powers, and secrets.

But I've been watching the show for over 300 episodes now, and I'm starting to get tired of swooning, ineffective female ninjas. I didn't really notice until someone pointed it out to me, which is sad (I'm such a white, privileged, heterosexual male that way; sorry).

A quick briefing for those who haven't seen the show. It centers around the ninjas-in-training of the Hidden Village Konoha, most especially Naruto (the Goofy Boy Trying to Prove Himself™) and Sasuke (the Awesome Hawt Boy™). There are dozens of other characters, though only a few major women.

Sakura is part of Naruto's original team along with Sasuke and their sensei. She's super strong, but usually we only see her strength when she's hitting Naruto for being rude. She's also a medical ninja who is in love with Sasuke.

Ino is Sakura's childhood friend and rival. She can take over someone's mind, but it's rarely effective (her most awesome moment was in a fight with Sakura, of course). She's also a medical ninja who is in love with Sasuke.

Hinata is part of a very powerful ninja clan, but she is its weakest member. She suffers from a lack of confidence, being overshadowed by her older brother. Also she's in love with Naruto.

It seems like the only cool, kick-butt women in the series are villains, and even then... I just finished an episode where Sasuke teamed up with what looked like an awesome villain ninja. Two episodes later, she still hasn't fought anyone (though Sasuke and others have), and what do you know she's in love with Sasuke.

Sigh.

The only major female character who isn't in love with someone is Tsunade, who becomes the leader of Konoha Village. Unfortunately, since she became the leader, she hasn't fought anyone and has only used her super-strength to...hit Naruto for being rude.

For a show with such awesome characterization, this is really disappointing. In your writing (especially if you're a guy), this is something to watch out for. It's not like every woman has to be kick-butt and super awesome, but if none of them are -- if all the interesting stuff is being done by men -- it's a red flag that something is wrong.

Not that Naruto doesn't have it's moments. There was one episode where an enemy ninja was mocking Sakura for being a weak girl. The enemy had Sakura by her ponytail, gloating over how wussy she was. Sakura snapped. She grabbed her knife, cut off her hair (a big deal for her), and kicked the enemy's butt. It was awesome. I wonder what happened to that Sakura.

That Thing Where I Draw: Angry Suriya


I don't want to say much about this scene. Even though Cunning Folk is T-minus-infinity years away from being published, I don't want to spoil it. (Though now I wonder how negative numbers fit into the spoiler formula).

All I'll say is Suriya finds herself betrayed and gets mad. Like many fledgling super-powered humans, her powers go a little nuts when she's upset. On the plus side, there's no one left to mess with her when she's through.

So after a year or two of asking people what kind of pencils they use, and searching in vain for Prismacolors (they seem to be the brand of choice, but good luck finding them in Chiang Mai), I finally found colored pencils that actually blend. My previous attempts with colored pencils -- even the better ones -- never felt like this. It's like I've been playing a two-string guitar and someone said, "You know there are supposed to be six?"

The Problem with the Gun on the Mantle

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
-- Anton Chekhov

This is good advice. By putting a loaded gun on stage (or on the mantle, in the other version of this quote), you are making a promise to the reader. If that gun doesn't go off, it's not only wasting words but it's kind of a let down. If a storm is brewing, it better hit by the end. If there are embarrassing secrets, their keepers must be embarrassed!

But there's a problem: if the gun always goes off, then as soon as it's introduced, the reader knows what will happen.

I noticed this while reading Duma Key by Stephen King. There's some early foreshadowing that basically told me how it would end and drained some of the tension. I respect Stephen King, so I won't spoil his novel by using it as an example. Instead, I'll spoil Avatar.

Jake learns the ways of the Na'vi -- a super tall, blue-skinned race of nature-loving aliens. One of their rites of passage is to bond with a predatory bird they use for transportation and war, which Jake does. But he's almost taken down by an even bigger predator called the Turok.

Jake's girlfriend tells him the Turok is the biggest predator on the planet. "It has only been tamed five times in our history," she says. "Those riders became legends. They brought all the tribes together, bringing peace to the world."

Gun. Mantle. You don't have to see the movie to know what they do with it. Foreshadowing is good, and Chekhov was right about using all the elements you put on stage. But if you're not careful, it becomes obvious and predictable.*

The trick? One trick is to be subtle. Subtle foreshadowing is the stuff you don't realize was there until after the gun goes off, then you're all, "Holy crap, it was there the whole time!"

Another trick is to foreshadow things so that the reader has to know how it happens. The Turok wasn't interesting because we knew the result: Jake would prove himself legend, bring the tribes together, and use their combined might to fight the humans. Contrast that with the other Avatar: the final showdown between Aang and Ozai is forecasted from episode 1, but you have to see it because (a) Ozai has to be killed and (b) Aang doesn't kill anybody.

If you must foreshadow plainly, then twist what the reader expects. The gun goes off, but it backfires on the shooter. Jake fails to bond with the Turok, but his girlfriend rescues him and she becomes the legendary rider.**

Like anything in writing, be intentional. Keep your promises to the reader, but don't stick to the letter of the promise. A predictable climax can be just as bad as a gun that doesn't go off.

* My only real complaint with Avatar was its predictability -- there was a lot more than just the Turok.

** Then the movie might not have been so much like this 20-second summary.

True Neutral

From a conversation I had on Facebook. Make your own motivational posters here.

5 Secrets to Keep You in the Game

The writing game is really, really easy to quit. Maybe it's because your first novel always sucks but, like an American Idol first-rounder, you have no idea. Maybe it's because you need to write a million words before you start writing good ones. Maybe it's because you get rejected 100 times before something clicks and you understand why.

I don't mind if people quit -- less competition for me. But since you guys keep coming back and saying such nice things, I'm going to tell you a few secrets to keep you in the game.

It's okay to rehash old plots. I quit for almost a decade because I rewrote The Fellowship of the Ring without realizing it. Granted that novel would never have sold as written. But I could have worked the story and reworked it. I could've injected it with other rehashed plots, original twists, and my own voice until it was something fresh. Everything's been done and will be done again. Don't let that stop you.

Your first draft will suck. Write it anyway. Everything bad can be made good with revision. Even something good can be made better. But you can't revise a blank page.

Everything can be deleted. That clever turn of phrase? Gone. That supposedly-important chapter? Don't need it. That boy you thought was the protagonist, but actually this girl over here is far more interesting? Delete him. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is necessary. Everything can be cut. Try it and see.

Your first story will not be published. Harsh? Yeah, but it's better for you to know now. Don't let it stop you. Try and get published anyway, because the stuff you learn from failing will help you too. Who knows? You might get lucky. But don't be surprised when your dreams are shattered, cutting your bare feet on the floor.

You have more than one story in you. A lot of folks learn the previous truth the hard way then get bitter, decide the game is rigged. It's not rigged, it's hard. The only way to keep your hopes from piling up on a story that can't sustain them is to write another story. And another one after that. If your dream is to get published, then keep writing until it happens. Who knows? Maybe you can pull that first story back out of the gutter, rinse it off, cut it up, and try again.

How about you? Got any secrets?

That Thing Where I Draw: Novice Suriya

No, this isn't Aang (though she does live at a temple, and she is, for all intents and purposes, firebending). I've paused work on Cunning Folk to implement Air Pirates Plan B, but Suriya's story is still bouncing around my head in pictures like this one.

So after fleeing the villages and ditching Anna (a decision she's still not sure was the right one), Suriya takes refuge at a Buddhist temple in the countryside. It becomes almost a home to her, the first place she has felt safe since she was little. But it's only temporary -- someone will find her eventually.

When she sees a vision of bounty hunters burning the temple to the ground, looking for her, she wonders if she should trust the monks with her secret.

5 Things I'm Proud Of (Sort Of)

  1. Won a 99-minute round of Super Smash Bros. (MattyDub and I played only because that's how high the timer went, and we wanted to see if we could do it).




  2. Watched all three Lord of the Rings' movies in one sitting (extended versions).




  3. After a 3.5-day fast, finished an entire El Champion plus chips and salsa. (Though I didn't eat anything else for another 24 hours).




  4. Can play the theme songs of Laputa, Crystalis, and Firefly.




  5. Once out-ate a guy twice my size on a trip to Mexico. I finished his dinner for him too. The next morning, while he was cradling his belly and waving off breakfast, I made a fat burrito and ate it in front of him with a smile.

So that's mine. What lame accomplishments are you proud of?

The Slow Death of a Literary Agent

Average American
You are an average American. You sleep 8 hours, eat 2.5 hours a day, work 40 hours a week, and commute a quarter of an hour each way.* The rest of your time is split pretty evenly between things you Have To Do (cooking, cleaning, fixing things, buying things...) and things you Want To Do (watching TV, reading, playing guitar, having a social life, etc).

* Those last two are actually below average, but I'm being generous with the numbers in this post to make a point.


No Response Means No
You decide you want to be a literary agent. That means, in addition to your regular work hours which make money, you have to read query letters. Thinking a query letter is something like a resume -- you send it out widely and only hear back if you get an interview -- you adopt a "no response means no" policy.

Still, it takes you an average of 3 minutes to read and make a decision on each query. Getting through 200 queries a week, plus partials and fulls, means 12 extra hours of work. Fortunately you weren't very good at guitar anyway. And you probably don't have to see a new movie every week.


Form Rejections
Writers, you discover, are needier than the average job seeker. Without a response, they pester you endlessly wondering if you've gotten to their query yet. After talking to your agent buddies you adopt a form rejection policy. Copying/pasting everything, including the author's name and their book title, takes an extra minute per query -- over 3 hours more each week. No big deal, but it does mean you have to stop watching those reality shows.


Improved Form Rejections
After a few years of interacting with writers on your blog (which you do now instead of going out Saturday night), you decide form rejections aren't enough. You're eager to give writers what they want, so you personalize your rejections -- not all the way, of course, but since a query usually gets rejected for one of a few reasons, you create five "personalized" form rejection letters.

What you didn't realize was how difficult it is to stop and analyze every query for why it doesn't appeal to you. And some queries don't even fit into your categories. It ends up taking another 2 minutes per query, leaving you with only 4 hours of "Want To Do" time a week. You survive though, trading sleep so you can play Halo or read a book occasionally.


Personalized Rejection
It's still not enough. Instead of being thankful for your help, the writers are arguing with you over why you didn't like their story! Years later you'll learn it's just human nature, that it's hard NOT to defend your work even when faced with hard evidence. For now, you decide you'll write truly personalized rejections. It takes a while -- about 10 minutes per query, actually -- but it's worth it if it helps writers improve their craft.


Of course everything you eat is ordered online now, weekends are something that happen to other people, and cleaning is right out (and you can't afford a maid, of course, because you're not getting paid for any of this). But finally the writers will be satisfied.

Won't they?

Books I Read: The Graveyard Book

Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: YA Horror/Fantasy
Published: 2008
Content Rating: PG for scary situations

An orphan grows up in a graveyard, raised by ghosts, but is the man who killed his family still after him? (This, by the way, is what we call a high concept novel).

I love Neil Gaiman. Love, love, love, love. He's got this gift of turning the mundane into something magical, while simultaneously making the fantastic seem perfectly reasonable. So even when the climax felt slightly predictable -- essentially each element of the boy's life came into play to help him win -- it was so much fun I didn't care. (Besides which, the resolution mattered more to me than the climax. It's not like I ever thought Bod would lose.)

I'd recommend this to pretty much everyone. I'm even going to read it to my kids, but... probably not until they can handle scary better. I'm still having trouble telling the Passover story in a "this is scary but it's okay" kind of way.

The 3 Laws of Critiques

Often I'll have doubts about some section of a story, but I'll send it out for critique anyway. I hope it's good enough and nobody will say anything. The First Law of Critiques tells us why this doesn't work.

#1: If you think a story has a problem, others will too.

Other times I send out work too soon because I secretly want my critiquers to do my work for me. Just tell me all the problems -- those I know and those I don't -- and I'll fix them. But no critiquer can identify ALL the problems of a manuscript. In a story plagued with bad characterization, a critiquer won't notice subtle plot holes, and they'll completely ignore line-edits (that will likely be rewritten anyway). Thus we have the Second Law of Critiques.

#2: A single critique can only tell you about the most glaring problems.

So a critique comes back with problems you knew about. You just fix them and send it back asking for more, right? Well, no. You already know that when you've worked on a story for too long, you become blind to what's wrong with it. The same thing happens to critiquers who are asked to read the same story over and over.

#3: A critiquer's usefulness decreases with each revision they look at.

This is why it's a good idea to have multiple critique rounds, with different critiquers each round. But there are only so many people in the world willing and able to critique your stuff, which leads us to the point of this post.

Corollary: If you fix all the problems you can BEFORE sending out your work, the critique will improve your story and your craft beyond what you are able to do alone.

If you don't, you're wasting both your time and your critiquer's.

* NOTE: Professional editors and agents are capable of reducing the effects of the Second and Third Laws. Though, I would argue they are still subject to them, in the same way space shuttles are subject to gravity.

Nothing Like a Fat Man Dancing for His Dinner

For some reason, our culture has it in our heads that when we give somebody money, they are then in our debt. If I deign to grace a restaurant with my service, they sure as heck better do everything I ask. My taxes pay the salary of my kid's teacher, so they need to give my kid a break when I tell them to.

And I've invested time and money into [Famous Author's series], so they'd better deliver the story I want.

Guys, it's not like that. All the restaurant owes you for money is food. If you don't like the way they serve it, you leave. If you don't like the way your kids are being taught, you take them out of public school (or suck it up, because seriously, the teacher also pays taxes; that's just like the worst excuse for entitlement ever).

And if a book disappoints you, or a sequel isn't out and you've been waiting for years and oh my gosh doesn't the author realize how much you personally have invested in this series and WHY THE HECK ARE THEY BLOGGING ABOUT A BASEBALL GAME WHEN THEY SHOULD BE WRITING?!

Sorry.

You get it, right? The author does not owe you anything. They are not your personal entertainer singing for their dinner. Unless you paid them a four-to-six figure advance, they're going to write what they want to write, and you are welcome to buy it or not when it's done.

And if you don't like it, return it. I mean, as long as that stupid system is in place, might as well use it, right?

Sketchbook

It's been a couple of months since I posted any drawings up here. I haven't been drawing a lot in that time, but I started practicing again recently.

I've been watching these amazing how-to videos by Mark Crilley. They've really made me want to draw again (although every time I see what I come up with, I get that same stupid, "I'll NEVER be as good as he is!" feeling; I hate that). Among other things, I'm learning that there's no One Way to draw -- not even to draw manga. There are thousands of ways to draw a face, and they're all right!

It's very freeing, and (as I've said before) a lot like writing. Anyway, here's what's been going on in my sketchbook lately.