That Thing Where I Draw: Masks or Filters?

I often feel like there's two Adams, and I'm always afraid one of them is a mask. Maybe both of them. I worry about a future in which I meet some of you in person -- or that one of you who DOES know me in person will notice something amiss -- and you find out one of these is a fake.

But the more I think about it, the more I think there's just one me. It's not that I'm putting on a mask; I couldn't put on an act like that for very long if it didn't come from something real inside of me. The truth is probably more like this:

Depending on how I know you, you might get a different version of me. But it's still me. Social Adam is not very social (I can hear my wife laughing). Online Adam is only social because that's the whole point of being online. My sometimes-grumpiness doesn't show up here because I filter it out (usually). In many social situations (like with scary people, new people, situations where I have to talk, situations without food or a movie, or any other time in which I cannot hide from the attention of others), my heavy filters pop up, and what you get might appear very different.

But it's all me. I swear.

Does anyone else get like this?

Books I Read: Silver Phoenix

(Note: It may appear that I'm reading books fast, because I posted a book just last week. The truth is I meant to start talking about books a while ago, but haven't gotten around to it until now. I usually only read a book a month, if I'm lucky.)

Title: Silver Phoenix
Author: Cindy Pon
Genre: YA Fantasy
Published: 2009
Content Rating: R for a scene of almost-rape, a scene of almost-sex, and many scenes of violent action.*

On the day of her (unwanted) betrothal, Ai Ling discovers a strange and frightening ability to hear the thoughts of others. When her father disappears on a trip to see the Emperor, she goes to rescue him and finds that her ability is more powerful than she thought. She has been chosen by the immortals to destroy an ancient evil that has ruled the Kingdom of Xia from the shadows for generations.

I'm sort of a sucker for Asian, or even pseudo-Asian, folklore. This book is like a YA version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Set in ancient China, Ai Ling faces demons, makes mixed-race friends (to which I also have a soft spot, I guess), and talks to the immortals themselves. That was the most interesting part to me: the portrayal of the gods and immortals of ancient China. We just don't get enough of that in the West, and it was weird to read sometimes, but also very cool. Like watching Spirited Away.

At the same time there was something that didn't grab me as tightly as I wanted it to. (MINOR SPOILER): It may have been the idea that Ai Ling was living out someone else's destiny -- actually that of a previous incarnation. I was really curious about the character of Silver Phoenix (Ai Ling's past life) and why she did what she did, setting things up for Ai Ling. (END SPOILER)

Although it may have just been my Western mindset messing things up. Whatever it was, I'm definitely interested in a reading a sequel and staying in this world a while longer.

* I base content ratings on what a movie might be rated if the things shown in the book were shown in the movie. Please remember that ratings are subjective, and I don't always remember/notice things. If you're unsure the book is right for you, do some research so you can make your own decision.

Dealing With the Funk

Writing is hard, at least if you let other people see your work. There are three stages in particular that, for me, are harder than any others: beginnings, critiques, and rejections. I always get depressed about these, but I've learned some ways to get through them.

I talked about starting new stories before. How the new story always seem so crappy compared to the polished perfection of the one you just finished. Ideally you want to push through until you find "the zone" again, but it's not easy.

The solution that works for me is an alpha reader. The point of an alpha, as Natalie says in her own post on the subject, is "to love you no matter what and be wildly enthusiastic about your desire to write."

Don't get me wrong. An alpha doesn't blindly say, "This is awesome!" no matter what you write. That would be mildly encouraging, but it would get old, and it is not helpful. A good alpha reader encourages what you're doing right without making you feel like an idiot for doing things wrong. They see the gold that, when you're starting something new, you just can't see for yourself. They help you through the New Beginning Funk (also the Sagging Middle Funk and the Can't See How My Characters Are Going to Make it Through This Climax Funk).

An alpha reader provides a kind of critique, but you and they both know they're not reading a finished work. Beta readers (and other species of critters) are more critical than that. Sending work to a beta is like saying, "This is as good as I can make it without your help," and they respond accordingly. Sometimes harshly.

I never like getting critiques. I'm not allowed to read them in the hours before I go to bed; if I do, I don't sleep. When I do read them, I need a good hour or two of space just to get over it. Nothing puts me in the funk faster.

But getting out of the Critique Funk is even easier than the other kinds. I don't need an alpha, I just need myself. My solution is to make a plan and get to work. Nothing makes me feel good about my story faster.

Here's the tough one. Alphas see potential. Betas see things to improve. But what do you do with agents and editors who say nothing except, "This isn't for me"?

Some personalized rejections can be treated like critiques. Others are too vague ("I didn't connect with the character enough") or are simply form rejections which cannot be used to improve, no matter how much we wish they could.

Rejection Funk is much harder to deal with, but there are two things you can do: (1) send the story somewhere else and (2) write something new. I recommend both simultaneously. Hopefully by the time you run out of places to send it, the new thing will nearly ready to send on its own.

Of course there is also the time-tested solution of escape. Read a book, watch a movie, eat chocolate, get drunk... These are good, but they are not solutions in the strictest sense. They will help you feel better and can aid in emotionally preparing yourself for what needs to be done next, but eventually you have to do something. I suppose you could also give up and regret it for the rest of your life. But what fun is that?

So what about you? What are the hardest parts of dealing with writing for you, and what do you do about it?

My Writing Process

My amazing wife gives me two hours of dedicated writing time most days. One would think I could produce novels like some kind of ninja cyborg with all this time, but for some reason that never happens. As an experiment, I recorded my writing process to see if I could determine where the problem lies.

1:00 - Unplug laptop and bring it upstairs.
1:01 - Open laptop. Go to the bathroom while it wakes up.
1:03 - Wonder why laptop isn't waking up. Reboot.
1:06 - Open manuscript, writing stats, and all the other things I need to start writing.
1:10 - Start writing.
1:14 - Realize I have no idea where I was. Have to reread what I did last time.
1:16 - Well that's just terrible word choice. I can't leave that there. (Edit)
1:18 - Is that what side his eye patch was on? Let me check...
1:23 - (Reading old scene) Wow, I am a TALENTED writer. What was I doing again?
1:25 - It's been half an hour and I haven't written anything. Crap!
1:26 - Okay. (Typing) Chapter 14 - To Be Titled [enter][enter] [left-justify] Hagai... Hagai what?
1:40 - Realize my mind wandered from Hagai to Sam to the climax to my query letter to what I will say when an agent calls me to what I'll post on my blog when I get an agent...
1:48 - Realize I haven't been thinking about writing for at least 15 minutes now, and the last thing I wrote was Hagai.
1:49 - Okay. Hagai peered over the ship's railing at the ocean hundreds of meters below.
1:50 - Hundreds? How high should they be. I need to look this up...
1:55 - Wow. I didn't know H.G. Wells wrote an airship novel..
2:05 - What time is it? Dang it! Okay. I'm not allowed to open my browser again.
2:06 - "Do I have to?" Hagai asked. "Can't make port with firehooks in the hull," Ren said. "Causes all manner of... of... problems? Anxiety? There's gotta be a better word than that.
2:08 - Boy, Open Office's thesaurus sucks. My real one's downstairs. Fine, I'll open my browser again just to check real quick. No Wikipedia.
2:10 - Anxiety, distress, foreboding... None of these feel right. Is this something I could make up a slang word for? What's a good metaphor for unrest?
2:15 - Hm, an e-mail...
2:25 - Crap!
2:50 - Wrote 400 words. That's good for today, yeah? Maybe I can see if any blogs have updated. You know, like a reward...
3:15 - Me: "Sorry I stayed up there late, honey." Cindy: "Oh, that's okay. How was your writing time?" Me: "Good. It was good. I think I'm getting faster."

(Note to Cindy: some events have been exaggerated for comedic effect. Please, please, please don't take away my writing time. I'm totally good for it.)

Who's Mary Sue?

If you've heard this term, then you're one step ahead (knowing is half the battle, and all that). A Mary Sue is a character that is perfect, the one that has or does cool things just because they're cool, and everybody likes them except for people who get their comeuppance in the end. Mary Sue is the author's wish fulfillment.*

Sue is most common in fan fiction. You know, where the author's character is best friends with Luke Skywalker or Jean-Luc Picard, or the author's favorite minor character becomes the star of the show (e.g. Wesley Crusher and Boba Fett).

There's nothing wrong with having a Mary Sue in these contexts; the purpose of this kind of fiction is to live out a fantasy, right? But if you're trying to get published, you want to do away with Sue. Sue is the mark of an amateur, flat, stereotypical, and -- once a reader realizes what's going on -- totally unlikable.

And I have a confession to make. I don't like making it because it's going to ruin my book for all of you, but... Sam Draper is totally a Mary Sue. He's not as bad as he could be, but: named after a pirate in my family tree, wears a cloak because it's cool, most feared pirate in history, most skilled elite soldier in history, and never loses a fight except against his rival.

Now, I'm not a terrible writer. I realized when I started Air Pirates that I had to give Sam a reason for the cloak and his fighting skills (and I did). I knew I had to make him flawed, so he's proud and bent on revenge to the point of stupidity. But Sue is still there, underlying it all.

At least he's the second character in the story. Because Hagai is totally not a Mary Sue. Hagai is everything I don't (or didn't) like about myself and then some, and he and Sam play foil to each other (in my head at least). With any luck, what Sue-ness is left can be buried deep enough that only the meanest critics will notice.

So. If you've got a character that you just LOVE, ask yourself why. Is Your Character appropriately flawed? Do they ever lose? Do other characters (who aren't jerks or villains, but are likable characters on their own) ever dislike Your Character or treat them badly? Perhaps most telling: when someone says they don't like Your Character, do you take it personally?

If you think you've got a Mary Sue, you need to cruelly examine everything about them and everything they do. Mess them up, make them fail, and ask why they are the way they are.

Who's Mary Sue in the end? It's you.**

* The term 'Mary Sue' was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, when she wrote a parody Star Trek fan-fic starring Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest and most-loved Lieutenant in the fleet. You can read it here. It's kinda hilarious.

** And also Steven Seagal.

Books I Read: The Book of the New Sun

The last two months of 2009 saw my to-be-read pile increase about tenfold, and I'm tearing through them as best I can. I love to read, and I figure most of you do too, so why not talk about the books we like? That's what readers do, aye?

Title: The Book of the New Sun (actually four books)
Author: Gene Wolfe
Genre: Science Fantasy
Published: 1980-83
Content Rating: R

This is a tetralogy consisting of The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch. When MattyDub gave them to me, he said, "I don't know how to talk about Gene Wolfe with someone who hasn't read it. I'm afraid everything I say will be a spoiler." I totally get what he's saying now, but I'll do my best anyway.

BotNS is about a young man named Severian, an orphan raised and trained by the Torturers' Guild. He is exiled for the sin of giving mercy to one of the torturers' clients and travels, well... everywhere. The world is Earth, but it's dying. The sun is so dim that stars can be seen during the day, and only the area near the equator can be said to be truly warm. The Autarch, ruler of Severian's people in the south, is threatened by war in the north and rebellion led by the mysterious Vodalus. Throughout the four books, Severian gets wrapped up in basically everything.

That's about all I can say without ruining anything. This book will blow your mind. Every time you think you've got things figured out, Severian (the narrator) drops a bomb as casually as when he tells you what he had for dinner or that he sharpened and oiled his sword again. It's like watching Fight Club on a loop and being surprised every time. That was easily my favorite thing about it.

On the down side, it was a little slow at points: the beginning is hard to get into, and the story takes a few detours (esp. towards the end) that, while I'm sure had some deeper meaning I totally missed, were hard for me not to skip so I could continue the plot.

Overall, Book of the New Sun is a classic, and it's easy to see why. Gene Wolfe does things that I never knew you could do in prose. Things I'm not supposed to do as I try to get published. But he does them really, really well. It's like nothing I've ever read.

That Thing Where I Draw: Soltree Village

Life has been busy, and I haven't had time to sit down and draw. Plus (and I hate to admit this) drawing something every week stresses me out, more often than not. I may cut back from the once-a-week thing, but I'd hate to stop drawing. Anyway, giving myself more than a week to draw something means I can try some of my more ambitious ideas, instead of slapped-together Photoshop images.

But I still have old sketches to show you. This is the home of my most recent D&D character, Jakk Shadowcatcher:

Unlike most halflings, Jakk has traveled far, trading as a bounty hunter as far west as Dragon's Waste and as far east as Overwatch. But he never forgets Soltree village, where his grandfather raised him and taught him how to hunt. Even though he stays away for years at a time, he still considers it home.

All of Your Questions Were Misspelled (or Here's an Air Pirates Excerpt Instead)

The title is a vacuously true way of saying that you asked no questions. Therefore I have no answers and am forced -- forced! -- to come up with original content. You are devious blog readers indeed.

Ah, but I can be devious too. Rather than write something new, I will post something I've already written but never shown you.

This is the new beginning to Air Pirates.* It's a prologue. Now, I know the taboos against prologues--I've written about them myself, after all. But I'm doing this one for good reasons (or so I tell myself): (1) to clue the reader in that Sam is a more major player than he appears at first and (2) to add tension to Hagai's trip to the post and first meeting with Sam.

Plus, it's short.

* As of draft 5, beta version 2. This is possibly the most boring footnote I've ever written.


Providence, Yesterday

You’ve been here everyday for a week, mate,” said the shopkeep.

Good stew,” Sam said, keeping his face carefully shadowed. He had thought he could say it with a straight face.

You waiting for someone?”

Sam said nothing, just slurped his stew.

The shopkeep eyed him warily. “You ain’t a knocker are you?”

Wouldn’t be a smart question if I were, aye?” Sam met his gaze, like a wolf eyeing a rabbit. Sometimes it was best to let folks think you were dangerous, as showing them only caused trouble. Other times – and Sam could see by the fear in the man’s eyes this was one of those times – it was best to play it friendly.

Sam smiled. “I’m just drumming you, baron. I ain’t gonna kill anyone.”

Course.” The shopkeep laughed nervously. “But you are waiting?”

Sam slurped again. The silence stretched to discomfort, and the shopkeep soon found he had other customers to tend to.

Sam waited. He waited until the post station closed for the day then went back to his ship. When the post opened the next morning, he waited some more. That boy better show up soon, he thought.

It wasn’t that Sam was impatient. He’d waited four years for the stone; he could float a few days until this Hagai Wainwright picked up his post.

No, Sam was patient as the dead. Others less so: the Imperial Navy, Jacobin Savage… The longer Sam stayed in one place, the sooner someone would find where that place was. That’s why it was best to stay friendly. Folks talked about you less if they liked you.

Morning,” said the shopkeep.

Morning,” Sam replied with a smile.

Got your pepper stew all ready.”

He dropped it on the table. Sam picked his spoon out of the spongy, boiled sludge.

That boy better show up soon.

Shout-Outs, Questions, and a Lack of Blog Awards

Some of you may have noticed that blog awards never really appear on this site--especially, perhaps, those of you who have given them to me. I want you to know that it's not that I don't appreciate them or anything jerky like that. I don't keep them on the site because I don't like clutter, and I don't often do the tagging thing because I don't post very often; if I let the blog get hijacked for every tag I got, you'd get bored of my posts right quick.

But I do appreciate the sentiment behind the awards, and that's what this post is about. Blog awards serve two purposes: to shout-out the blogs you like and to get to know the writer you sent them to.

So first to the shout-outs. Not counting industry blogs that don't need my pimping, here are some of my favorite blogs to read:

Between Fact & Fiction, Natalie Whipple. She writes about cyborgs, ninjas, dragons, wizards, and steampunk (though no pirates yet, I notice). And she knows what she's doing. You can get great tips here and be the first to know when her agent--THE Nathan Bransford--sells her ninja story for publication (I've read it; you want to).

Free the Princess, Matt Delman. More steampunk (hm, a theme?), good writing tips, plus video games and a fun community. Check him out.

Kiersten Writes, Kiersten White. Author of soon-to-be-released Paranormalcy and very, very funny. This blog is also the home of the curmudgeonly Laptop, who makes me laugh and also want to hug him, a little.

SM Blooding and Crew. A handful of authors at various stages on the road to publication. Good writing advice and fun stories.

See Sara Write, Sara Raasch. An agented writer who DOES write about pirates. Fun to read, and exciting too as she petitions the internet so she can obtain a picture of Philip Winchester wearing an eye patch. (That hyperlink was for you, Sara. Hope it helps him find you.)

There's more, but I'm running out of space to describe them all! So brief (but no less heartfelt) shout-outs to fellow writers/bloggers/friends: Hilary Heskett, Bane of Anubis, Jodi Meadows (former slush reader), Cindy Pon (of Silver Phoenix), Susan Quinn, fairyhedgehog, and Tobias Buckell (of Sly Mongoose, among others). All of you have contributed to simultaneously speeding and delaying my journey to publication. Thank you.

And just cuz your name isn't on here doesn't mean I don't pop by your blog from time to time. I can't keep up with everything, but I will tell you that every time you leave a comment I'm tempted (and frequently succumb) to follow that link to your blog. When I do it enough, and click with what you're writing, I'll stay. I promise.

Gosh, who knew it was so hard to try to appreciate everybody?

ANYWAY, I said blog awards served two purposes, so if you've come this far with me let's get on with the second: getting to know the recipient of the award. I'm opening the floor up to questions which I will answer in future posts. Just like last time, I agree to answer all of them, however nosy, strange, or inappropriate. I agree to answer with the truth when possible (i.e. when I feel like it) and humor otherwise.


That Thing Where I Draw: Reconnaissance

Inspired by night after night of playing Command & Conquer in the UCSD freshman dorms.

So after an unintentional two week hiatus from writing (which I blame on a broken laptop, a gaming friend come to visit, and (to a lesser extent) the birth of Jesus Christ), I finally got back to Air Pirates this week. That's right, Beta Phase II is over and I have begun the fourth (and hopefully final) round of revision before I send it out.

This round of critiques has taught me yet again that I can't please everybody. I think I've told you before about the dual storyline aspect of the novel. Round 1 had folks that liked both storylines as well as folks who loved Hagai's timeline but not Sam's. Well Round 2 has completed the circle, with betas that loved Sam's timeline but were annoyed with Hagai's.

I suppose I could be depressed about this, but honestly it made me laugh. Obviously SOMETHING is right with both sides of the novel. I just need to figure out how to minimize the annoyance for each camp.

And find an agent who loves both, of course.

A Tale of Two Johns

This is an old story from the computer game world, but there are lessons here for everyone, even writers.

In 1990, id Software was formed by two men: John Carmack and John Romero. Over the next six years, id redefined PC gaming and the first-person shooter genre with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Romero is even credited with coining the term "deathmatch."

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about to this point, here's the summary: Carmack and Romero made really good games; they were kind of a big deal).

The PC gaming world was theirs. Carmack licensed the Quake engine to multiple game developers--including Valve, who used it to make the even more groundbreaking Half Life. Professional gaming began to take off with QuakeCon. Everyone wanted to be id.

(Translation: They made lots of money).

But after Quake hit the shelves in 1996, Romero was fired, though he was going to quit anyway. His plans were ambitious, and he felt Carmack and the others were stifling him. Carmack, meanwhile, felt that Romero wasn't realistic.

(The two Johns parted ways).

Carmack--the technical powerhouse of id--pushed the technical envelope with Quake II and Quake III: Arena. Good games, well-received, and very, very pretty. But where they pushed things technically, their general design stayed the same. To the point where Quake III was little more than a deathmatch arena with no substance.

(Carmack's games were technically beautiful, but not very compelling).

Romero, meanwhile, now had the freedom to be as ambitious as he wanted. He proudly announced his masterpiece, Daikatana, would hit the shelves by Christmas the next year. They would use the Quake engine, so the technical aspect would be taken care of, leaving him and his designers only to design.

(Romero thought he didn't need Carmack's technical expertise).

Christmas, 1997 came and went with no Daikatana. Carmack had released Quake II by then, and Romero realized Daikatana was technically behind. He grabbed the new engine, not realizing at the time that it was so different from the one he knew it would require an entire rewrite of his precious game.

(Realizing his mistake, Romero tried to catch up technically and failed, badly).

By the year 2000, Daikatana had become a joke. It was made worse when the game was released with outdated graphics, crappy AI, and unforgivable loading times.

(Romero's game was super late, ugly, and impossible to play).

There's lot of morals that can be drawn from all this, but I'm going to pull one for us writers.

Carmack's technical expertise is your skill with prose, structure, and grammar. Without it, nobody will put up with your story long enough to see its brilliance.

Romero's creativity is your plot, characters, and conflict. Your prose might be beautiful, but without this nobody will care.

You need both to succeed.

Your World is Boring

I'm always surprised when someone who I know loves fantasy (or just books) tells me they have not read The Lord of the Rings. I mean, this book is fantasy. And it's awesome! How can so many people not have read it? I'll give you three reasons: worldbuilding infodumps, long plot-stopping songs, and unintelligible languages.

Now before you Tolkien fans lynch me, hear me out. I know these things make LotR what it is. These are what make the world so big and so real. For you uber-fans,* the world is what you love the most. But you have to understand that for a first-time reader -- someone who is totally unfamiliar with Middle Earth -- these parts are boring.

Tolkien loved his world. And rightfully so; it's amazing. But the truth is that if Tolkien tried to pitch this today as his debut novel, he'd be told to cut the word count in half, split the story into smaller parts,** and for Pete's sake use a 'k' instead of a hard 'c' in your fantasy names!

Sorry. I'm okay now.

Many of us who write fantasy fell in love with it because of books like Tolkien's. We started creating our own worlds with new races and cultures and politics and histories and languages. We wrote a story in that world. But you know what happened? Our story became more about the world than the story. And it was boring.

Now we're full grown wannabe authors. We know about character and conflict. We're good with pacing and tension. But every once in a while, we start our story off with an infodump prologue, or we toss a 70-line poem into our story just because we love it. Even if we manage to keep the world on a tight leash in our novel, it comes bursting out in the query letter.

People don't want to read about your world. They want interesting characters they can root for (or against). They want compelling plot. Give them these things and only then will they listen to whatever you've got to say about the history of the Sidhe (and why it's pronounced 'she').

If you get nothing else out of this post, remember this: readers that love your characters will love your world, not the other way around.

And if you love fantasy, please read LotR. It would make me feel so much better.

* i.e. Those of you who have read all the appendices, can write your name in Angerthas Daeron, and converse in Quenya as easily as Sindarin. You know who you are.

** Oh wait, he was told to do that.

That Thing Where I Draw: Life and Science

Science is the process of putting things in boxes, and so science is itself a kind of box. But life still happens outside it.

A little Photoshop action for the new year. Which was hard because Photoshop Elements 3 doesn't play nice with new versions of Windows. Anyway, happy new year. I expect to be blogging on a more regular schedule starting... well now, I guess.