Is that your Fantasy Trope Smashed and Bleeding on the Floor?

Today is the day! (Well, yesterday, actually, but you get the point). Cindy Pon's novel, FURY OF THE PHOENIX, is out in the world, and to celebrate I'm giving away two copies here today.

The first copy, by random drawing, goes to....

J.J. Debenedictis!

And the best bad dialog--winner of both FURY OF THE PHOENIX and the prequel, SILVER PHOENIX--is the one that not only mocked As You Know, Bob sequel dialog, but it tore apart every single fantasy trope at the same time.

Seriously. I have to rethink my own WIP now.
        "Let's go. We must hurry to Mount Sin."
        "Varen, you mean so we can find out you if you are not really the son of your father who is a farmer but may in fact have royal lineage flowing in your veins, and your mother died because she kept you secret because the evil Lord Goranthianolian received a prophecy from a wandering gypsy who said a child with a glaring star birthmark on their forehead is the only thing that could destroy his evil empire at the solar eclipse sixteen years hence, which just happens to be this summer, but your fake mother, who is actually your mother's nurse maid who ran away with you on your real mother's order to save your life kept this great secret from you for unknown reasons until now, and we only know about it because of Moira, who we thought was a boy but is a girl who was dressed as a boy so she could avenge her father's death and whose death may be from the hands of Lord Goranthianolian's most trusted war leader and chief commander, Tim, and is only exceeded in evil by the great lord himself, and for a little bit we thought she was related to you, but that turned out to not be true, which is a good thing for you, and now we have to travel across hundred of miles to Mount Sin and seek the wisdom of an old shaman woman who lives on a volcano for no apparent reason and see if you truly are the star child of the great prophecy, and we have to do it before the month wears out so we still have time to assemble an army, make new friends, probably pick up a talking cat, and a couple of side quests along the way to deter us, oh, and Moira will probably be kidnapped at some point as well and we will have to rescue her, and do it all in a logistically impossible short amount of time, and save the world?"
        "Yes, exactly. Saying it like that makes it sound horrible. Please don't ever say it like that again."
        "Yes, young possible lord."

It also may be the single longest sentence in the history of bad dialog. Anyway, congratulations Heather Zundel! If the winners could e-mail me at with a shipping address, I'll have their prizes shipped straight away.

As for the rest of you, are you sad you didn't win? A bit jealous, maybe? Well get your own copy! You know you want to.

Quick and Dirty World Building

They say you should spend a lot of time crafting your world--the history, traditions, cultures, language. I think that's true. The more detailed your world is, the more it will feel real. But do you really have to flesh out everything?

The correct answer is yes. Yes, you should. So don't tell anybody that I sometimes use the following tricks to speed up my world-building process.

Have you ever noticed how fractal geography is? You can zoom in on any part, and it generally looks like any other bit of land. To use this to your advantage, go to Google Maps, find a relatively obscure bit of geography (i.e. don't use Long Island or the SF Bay Area, or anything) and zoom in until it looks like something you can use. Take a screenshot, change the scale, and voila! One fantasy continent.

If you can tell me where in the world these maps are from, you win a custom sketch. Not even joking.

It turns out history is just as fractal as geography: zoom in on any point, and you can find something to use for your world. Need a war? Take your pick. How about a revolution or a realistic-but-obscure form of government? Wikipedia (and the internet in general) is full of stuff like this. Just change the names and dates, perhaps a few key details here and there, and you've got your own semi-original history.

The same thing applies to creating a civilization. Do a little research on some unknown people group, then mix and match their traditions and values with some other culture you're into. Choose a technology level, flesh it out by asking how, why, and what result, and pretty soon you have a viable society with relatively little work.

Does this sound unoriginal? Like plagiarism? It's not, really. Stealing from our own world's history, geography, and cultures is no different than creating characters by mixing and matching attributes from yourself and the people you know. Just like making up fantasy languages, the trick is obscuring your sources.

And I'm not suggesting you build your entire world this way. Use this as the foundation, then tweak and twist things as you go. Ultimately the parts you care most about will be the parts that are most originally you, while the rest of the world still feels fleshed out because it has a strong, realistic base behind it.

Anyone have any other quick-and-dirty tips on building a world? I'd love to hear them.

Dear Hollywood: Asians are Cool

Dear Hollywood,

It has come to my attention that a live-action version of Akira is being made (YAY!) starring white actors (BOO!).

Look, I don't have anything against white actors. I love them. But if you're going to adapt one of the most well-known (in America) anime movies of the past 20 years, AND you're going to give the characters Japanese names, shouldn't they also LOOK Japanese?

Now, I didn't say anything when you made Dragonball, and I had different problems with The Last Airbender. But this is getting ridiculous. From 2000-09, you released like 1,000 movies. Of those, 13 had Asian leads. There are 13.8 million Asian Americans in the US, and over half of those live in your state. I know they're not all computer programmers. Surely some of them are actors?

My friend Emmet asked me, quite appropriately, "Aside from Jet Li and Rain (Ninja Assassin), who would you have cast in Akira?"

My first answer was I didn't know. And I didn't know because YOU NEVER CAST ANY, HOLLYWOOD. Google wasn't a lot of help either (fair or not, I blame you again for that), but I managed to find/remember a few.

So here are some Asian American actors for you to cast in lead roles. If not in Akira, how about Ghost in the Shell, Escaflowne, or Evangelion? You know you're going to remake those eventually!

John Cho, most recently appeared as Sulu in the new Star Trek.

Sung Kang, appeared in Fast & Furious and War.

Ken Leung, appeared in Lost and X-Men 3.

Dante Basco, best known as the voice of Zuko on the good version of the Last Airbender, but I saw Take the Lead. He can act too.

And even though he's not American, I'd like to suggest Ken Watanabe for all your older Asian role needs. Because basically, I can't get enough of this guy.

So come on, Hollywood. Asians are cool! Can you please stop pretending America doesn't have any?

Your friend (for now),
Adam Heine

PS: These are just a few examples. I'm sure my friends will have more suggestions for you in the comments.

PPS: It's not directly related, but Keanu Reeves as Spike? Seriously?

Fury of the Phoenix Giveaway!

Cindy Pon's latest book, Fury of the Phoenix, is due to come out next week. I love the ancient-China-like world Cindy has created, and I really want to know what happens after Silver Phoenix! From the website:
When Ai Ling leaves her home and family to accompany Chen Yong on his quest to find his father, haunted by the ancient evil she thought she had banished to the underworld, she must use her growing supernatural powers to save Chen Yong from the curses that follow her. Part supernatural page-turner, part love story, and altogether stirring, Fury of the Phoenix further heralds the arrival of Cindy Pon as a stellar author of paranormal romance and fantasy.
Want a copy of this book? Here's what you have to do.

TO WIN 2 BOOKS: Fury of the Phoenix and it's prequel, Silver Phoenix, you must write some bad sequel dialog in the comments. See, when an author writes a sequel, they have to somehow catch new readers up on what came before. Clearly the best way is to have the characters talk about the prequel for the reader's sake. For example:*

     "You remember that time the evil Dr. Shiv nearly killed us all with his plan to clone razor-toothed marsupials?"
     "Oh yeah! We would be his slaves now if you hadn't discovered your latent ability to cause animal shedding just by singing Bad Romance. Thanks, by the way."
     "No problem. It's too bad I never figured out who I love more: you or your twin brother."
     "I know, right? I was meaning to ask you about-- Hey, is that Dr. Shiv on the news?"

The one I deem funniest will win. Length is unimportant (though you know: brevity, wit, etc). The sequel in question can be fake, as above, or for an actual novel, whether a true sequel exists or not. Heck, even for a movie, I don't care.**

Alternatively, TO WIN A COPY OF Fury of the Phoenix, all you have to do is comment on this post, and I will randomly choose a winner.

Winners will be announced next Wednesday, March 30. An entry to the 2-book package is automatically an entry to the random drawing (though you can't win both). Contest is open internationally. Spreading news of the contest is encouraged, but not required.

I can answer any other questions in the comments. Have fun!

* The nature of this contest is in no way related to actual Fury of the Phoenix dialog (I haven't even read it yet!). I just thought it would be funny.

** If you do write fake dialog for an actual sequel, keep in mind that I might not have read the books in question. I'd hate for a great joke to be wasted just because I never read Pride and Prejudice or something.

Space Travel for Writers

Five basic rules for space travel in science fiction. Sci-fi writers probably know these already, but I'm still surprised how often they're ignored.

(The NRI, or Nerd Rage Indicator, is an estimate of how likely you are to get flak for breaking a given rule. 1 is the least likely (e.g. that guy who runs your local comic shop cares, and only that guy). 5 is the most likely (e.g. Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi publicly destroy your sci-fi cred)).

RULE #1: There is no sound in space. Sound means fluid (air, water, etc.) vibrating against your ear drum. No air, no vibrations, no sound. This happens more in movies than novels, but you should still be aware of it before describing that "bone-shaking explosion that ripped the skies."
NRI: 1 (as important as it is, most people don't notice until it's brought to their attention, especially in prose).

RULE #2: Astral objects are really, really, really far away from each other. The moon is 384 megameters (it's a thing!) away. At our very fastest, it takes us 10 hours to get there. Not so bad? Try Mars. At the same speed, it would take 2 months to get there at best. Jupiter? Almost 2 years. The nearest star system (which may not even have planets)? More than a century. Mostly this means your spaceships either need fuel and provisions for the whole trip, or they have to go really, really fast. The latter, though, raises other considerations (see Rules #3 and #4).
NRI: 5.

RULE #3: Spaceships can't travel faster than the speed of light, no matter how much we want them to. Unless science is wrong, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object to the speed of light. There are ways you can mess with this (see Rule #5), but you should at least give a nod to the rule before doing away with it.
NRI: 4 (I figure Wil Wheaton can't complain too much since the biggest violation of this rule is Star Trek's "warp speed").

RULE #4: If you travel fast enough, you have to deal with the weirder effects of special relativity. In particular: time dilation. Effectively, the closer you get to light speed, the slower time moves for you. So if you fly to Jupiter so fast it only takes you 2 days, then decades will have passed back on Earth (and probably faster spaceships will have been built, which is pretty interesting in itself).
NRI: 3 (Star Trek totally ignored it, and most people have a hard time getting their heads around it. I'd say you're 50/50 for getting flak on it).

RULE #5: You can bend the rules, even make them up, but you must be consistent. Wormholes, hyperspace, jumpgates, folding space--these are all viable (and mostly-scientific) methods of faster-than-light travel. The details are entirely up to you, but once you make up the rules, don't break them. If you use a jump gate to get from Earth to Epsilon Eridani in five minutes, you can't say later, "It'll only take three hours for the Eridanis fleet to come through that gate and destroy us all!"
NRI: 5.

A lot has been done already in science fiction, which actually makes things easier for you. You don't have to explain jumpgates or wormholes much to include them. But even if you don't explain them to the reader, you need to know what's behind them. Not the science, necessarily, but the rules that govern it.

Are there any rules I missed? To the comments!

What is Your Work Worth?

There's an interesting article here on why Zoe Winters upped her self-published e-book prices from 99 cents to $4.95. The bottom line (though you should read the whole thing) was she felt the low price attracted readers she didn't want--readers who expected low-or-no prices, and who weren't really the kind of loyal fanbase that grow a career.

Personally I think this is a smart move, but there's been some debate. The arguments seem to be of two general camps: (1) Don't you want to sell as many copies as possible? (2) Don't you want to get your work to as many readers as possible? Both sound reasonable, but let's take a closer look.

Makes sense, right? The more copies you sell, the more money you make. Well, anyone who's taken a HS economics course can tell you that's not exactly true. By that logic, you should sell your books for a penny apiece (or free!), but you'd have to sell 500 copies just to buy a Happy Meal. If you managed to sell 10,000 copies a month, it might cover your electric bill. It is easier to sell more copies at lower prices, but there is a point below which it's not worth doing.

Zoe mentions this in the article:
When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut.

I’m not saying that everybody or even most indies will be able to make a living anyway, but if it’s your goal, 99 cents might not be the way to go. You only have to sell 677 ebooks in a month to make that same $2,300 if you are selling at $4.95. . . . the math just doesn’t favor 99 cent ebooks for anyone hoping to make a living.

But what if your goal isn't money? What if you want to reach readers? What if you want to build that ever-elusive platform, so you can sell more books later?

It reminds me a lot of a debate about a year ago when John Scalzi blasted a magazine for paying fiction writers 1/5 of a cent per word. A lot of people felt like he was shutting down "the little guy's markets." As though aspiring writers needed low-or-no-pay markets to break in, work our way up, and build us a platform.

Scalzi's response (paraphrased): If your work is good, then it's worth good money. If your work isn't good, then giving it away for cheap isn't going to make it better, nor will anybody notice.

In the original article, Zoe noted that the 99-cent buyers were largely people looking for bargains, or who hoarded books intending to read them "later." These buyers placed as much value on the books as they had paid for them. Because they paid little, they also paid little attention. These are not readers who will remember you, who will watch for your latest novel in the Kindle store, who will tell their friends they have to pick up your book.

But what if they do? What if your book is so good it rivals Dan Brown and J.A. Konrath, regardless of the price? If that's the case, why the heck are you selling it for 99 cents?! Seriously, if your work is that good, isn't it worth more than that?

I'm assuming, of course, that what matters to you is earning a living. If you write for the love of writing, then sell for whatever the heck you want.* Otherwise, you have to ask yourself what your work is worth to you. There may be a point at which 99 cents makes economic sense, but I'm not sure.

It takes me a year or more to finish a novel. If people don't want them (and so far, they haven't), I'd rather figure out why and get better, not spend my time promoting a mediocre work for a couple hundred bucks. My opinion: if $4.95 a book isn't selling very much, write better, not cheaper. Don't settle. Your time is worth more than you think.

* Though if you write just for the love of it, why are you selling at all?

A Thousand Ideas in an Hour


In Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he this thing he calls A Thousand Ideas in an Hour. It's a fun exercise and a great way to get past writer's block. The idea is this. Starting with whatever idea you have, ask these three questions: How? Why? What result?

For example, you've got a princess locked in a tower. How did she get there? Why is she locked up? What happens as a result? Every answer is a branch. Some branches will end quickly, others will lead you into the rest of your story. Toss in a little, "What could go wrong?" and toss out anything that feels too cliche, and you've got yourself a story.

I did this once with a class of highschoolers, and it was their favorite part of the class. It went something like this:
Let's start with something simple. Give me an occupation.


Okay, let's go with the banker. What could go wrong at a bank?

It could get robbed.

Sure. I don't think we need to ask why yet, so how might this happen?

A man walks in with a gun and asks for money.
Some men take the bank hostage.
Someone blows up the safe.
Someone inside the bank robs it.

Okay, great. Let's go with someone inside the bank. Who could do that? Who's inside a bank?

Bank tellers.
Security guards.

How could one of these folks rob the bank?

The guard could let other robbers inside the bank.
The teller could grab some money off the counter when nobody's looking.
The guard could raise a false alarm and, while everyone's distracted, go into the vault.
...or take money off the counter.
...or take money from someone's pocket.

What about the security guard. Why would he do that?

He hates his job.
He's been planning to rob the bank for months/years, and got hired so he could do it.
He needs the money for his daughter's operation.
Around here we had to end the class, but you get the idea. Leading the discussion, I tried to follow paths that sounded more original and had more conflict potential, but any of these answers could be turned into an interesting story with some more work.

Try it out and see what you come up with. Better yet, tell me how you brainstorm to get past writer's block.

Monopoly, Problems with

You may be aware that I like board games. So it may surprise you to discover--especially if you're not into the euro-games--that I don't like Monopoly. I mean I really, really dislike this game. This post is about why it's just not a good game. Objectively.

If Monopoly is like your FAVORITESEST GAME EVAR, I apologize. To each his own, and all that. But I'm still going to tear it apart.

That's a lot of freaking Monopolys

The Lack of Meaningful Decisions. Much like in fiction, games are made interesting by meaningful decisions--choices the protagonist (in this case, you) makes that affect the outcome of the game. In Risk, for example, you must decide where and how to allocate your forces, while in Candy Land you just do what the card says.

Monopoly is closer to Candy Land, unfortunately. There are decisions to be made, but they are few. Do you buy the property you landed on or not? Do you buy houses/hotels? And of course, how do you get your brother to give you Boardwalk in exchange for Baltic and Waterworks? With the exception of property trading, these decisions are usually non-decisions.

Unbalanced Gameplay. Rents begin at $2-50 (in our version), which, with your starting cash of $2,000, is negligible. Rents only get interesting around 2 or 3 houses (which is why "Do I buy houses?" is a non-decision: if you have spare money, then yes). The problem is the rents of 4 houses or a hotel is HUGE on most properties, and it costs no more to get there than to get to 2 houses. All it takes is for some sap to land on your hoteled Indiana Ave once to cripple them. Which leads to the third problem...

The Long, Slow Crawl to the End. So he lands on your hotel and loses all his cash and most of his houses. That's okay, he can still come back if you land on his properties, right? Well, no. He had to sell his houses, so the rent he gets from you now is (as I said) negligible. Certainly not enough to afford your four-figure rent and--whoops!--he landed on it again.

Game over? Well, no. He still has houses to sell, properties to mortgage, math to do. He has to wait until ALL his resources are gone. Why? Because them's the rules.

Of course house rules can mitigate some of this, but Parker Brothers is so convinced of the goodness of their game (or maybe just the money they can make from it), that they haven't changed the rules in decades (or God-knows-how-many Intellectual Property-opoly versions they've made). In fact, they've made it worse recently by adding a computer that knows nothing about your "rules."

So what do you think? Is Monopoly a good game and I'm just missing the point? Enlighten me.

Don't Knock Outlines 'til You've Tried Them

I freaking LOVE outlining. I know a lot of writers like to wing it, and there's nothing wrong with that, but don't knock outlining until you've tried it. That's all I'm saying.

Everything you love about winging it is what I love about outlining. It has the mystery, the discovery, the excitement of uncovering a new story, getting to know new characters. I love the random scenes that pop into my head like a movie trailer. I love sketching those scenes out, then figuring out the plot points that connect it to the other ones.

Outlines are fast. It takes me months to finish a first draft--usually over a year. But I can sketch out a world and an outline in less than a month.

Outlines give me faith the idea is sound. The plot may change during the draft, but at least I know it won't crap out halfway through. You can't paint yourself in a corner if you start with a plan (well, you can, but it's a lot harder).

My inner editor is not involved. See, he thinks all those dialog and scene snippets I'm writing will never make it into the final work. Also he's confused by roman numerals.

And despite popular opinion, outlining does not suck the fun out of the draft. Not for me, anyway. The scenes I'm excited about outlining are the ones I'm most excited to write in the draft. What slows me down are the parts I didn't plan for.

If writing by the seat of your pants works for you, then by all means keep doing it! But if you've never planned ahead before, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised. If it helps, you can think of it like a first draft, but with bulleted lists instead of paragraphs.

Whether you outline or not, what do YOU love about your process?

Waterworld and Other Worst Case Scenarios

I learned some interesting things in the aftermath of the Rule of Cool post. In particular, did you know the underwater future of Waterworld can never happen? Shocking, considering one of the main messages of that (stupidly expensive) film was: "If we don't take better care of our planet, this is what will happen."

In order for the world to be entirely, or even mostly, covered with water, sea levels would have to rise over 8 kilometers.* But if all of the ice in the entire world melted, sea levels would only rise about 80 m. At worst, the Earth would go from this:

To this:**

Interesting. Devastating. But not world-destroying, which, really, is what I was hoping for.

So what's an inspiring author (who wants a world covered entirely in water) to do? Here are some possibilities:
  • Fantasy World. It's not Earth, so who's to say how much ice may or may not have melted to drown the civilization underneath?
  • Ice Meteor. An asteroid made entirely of frozen water crashes into the planet, and then melts. Such a meteor would have to have a radius of 900 km (about a seventh the size of the moon) to contain enough water, and that kind of meteor collision would have other consequences. But we're talking thousands of years in the future anyway, right? A crater the size of Australia wouldn't be a big deal by then.
  • Shrink the Earth. Theoretically, if enough internal pressure were released such that the Earth shrank, the existing water would be enough to cover the globe. Of course the very act of releasing that pressure, combined with whatever catastrophic event triggered the release, would probably wipe out life on Earth anyway.
  • Science Is Wrong. This is my favorite one to fall back to. Science is not often wrong, but considering how much we don't know and those times science has been wrong before, it's always possible. Maybe the Earth is filled with water that comes to the surface. Maybe there's more ice underneath Antarctica than we thought. Who knows?
I'm not saying I'm going to do any of these to my world, but it's fun to think of the possibilities. Speaking of which, this list of risks to civilization is all kinds of awesome, especially for those of you considering post-apocalyptic scenarios that are scientifically possible.

* The metric system is just better, sorry. Do your own conversions.

** The map isn't entirely accurate. The program that generated it just uses altitudes, so places like the Caspian Sea wouldn't actually get bigger like they do in the picture.

5 Twitter Tips I Don't Like (and 2 I Do)

I have kind of a love-hate thing with Twitter. On the one hand, I've gotten to know some awesome people because of it. Because of my random comments to people, I've found crit partners and even read a soon-to-be published trilogy.

On the other hand, it's too much. Too many people to follow. Too many links to click. Too many tips to "maximize" Twitter. With that, I give you FIVE TWITTER TIPS I DON'T LIKE:

1) When someone follows you, follow them back. An effective way to boost your numbers, but I don't know if it's the best way to use Twitter. When I see someone is following 1,000+ people, I wonder what their "follow" means (aside from, "Please follow me back so I can look more popular").

At some point, all those people you follow become just white noise. I realize there are lists to manage the tweets you keep up with, but eventually your "All Friends" list becomes meaningless because you're only listening to the lists you've made yourself.

2) Stop following inactive accounts. Apparently there are tools for this, but I don't care if someone I follow isn't active. I'm almost grateful! The folks I unfollow are the ones who clog my Twitter stream with tweet after tweet that I don't want to read.

3) Join Twitter chats. I was on IRC back when the internet was just a baby, and while I met some interesting people and learned interesting things, I also wasted a lot of time. Chat rooms--even useful, focused ones like #yalitchat--are attention suckers (and that's without the complex processing required to figure out who is responding to what). I say: "Use, but use with caution."

4) Personalize your Twitter background. Honestly, I don't even notice what people's backgrounds are. When I decide to follow someone, I look at what they're saying and what they add to my Twitter stream.

5) You have to interact with people. It's called "social media" for a reason, right? Well, yes and no. I love having conversations with people, but I'd hate to think people were unfollowing me just because I didn't talk to them (I'm trying to manage life too, you know?). Some people don't use Twitter for conversation at all, it turns out. They use it for (gasp!) news and information. Who knew?

I think I'm just rebelling against the idea that you "have to" do anything on Twitter. None of these are bad things, and they'll definitely get you followers. But followers are not readers. Though to be fair, here are 2 TIPS I'M A FAN OF:

1)  Be interesting and/or funny. It's cool with me if you just listen on Twitter, but if you're going to speak, try to write something people want to read (even if it's just a couple people--that's cool, too). Helpful tip: A list of random people with an #FF or #WW tag is not interesting.

2) Learn to do the previous tip in 140 characters. This is more of a writing tip than anything. When I started trying to write things for Thaumatrope, I discovered all kinds of words and characters I didn't need. You don't have to abbreviate, or use 'u' instead of 'you' (in fact, I wish you wouldn't). You just have to use the same economy of language you're supposed to have in a novel.

Also, Twitter is a great place to craft that one-sentence pitch of your story. If you can tweet it, you can promote it!

Enough out of me. How do you use Twitter? What tips have you found useful (or not)?

How to Use Proper Nouns in a Query

A lot of authors (myself included) love to tell you the names of everything and everyone in our stories. The people and places in it matter to us. I mean, when I talk about my wife and kids, it means so much more to me to use their names. I want them to mean the same to you.

But to you, they're nobody--just names. It's a common problem in query letters, where the author figures giving you a name for everything counts as "being specific." But it's not specific. It's actually confusing. Take this, for example:

Sam Draper needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer named Victoria, hiding among the monks at the Monastery of St. Jude -- he reckons Hagai Wainwright is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in to Lt. Rafael Tobin at the first opportunity. But when Victoria says Sam is the key to finding his mother Anna, Hagai chooses Anna’s life over the law.

Kind of a lot to take in, right? And that's only a portion of the query. Imagine 2-3 more paragraphs packed with names like that. After a point, it gets hard to keep them all straight. Result? Confusion. Form rejection.

Using a proper noun is like taking a highlighter to your query. It can make important information pop out and your query easier to read. But used too much, it actually interferes with comprehension, to the point where it would be better to not name anything at all.

So then, in true analytical fashion, I give you 4 tips to using proper nouns in a query:
  1. Any character, group, or place that is mentioned only once should not be named.
  2. If possible, only the protagonist(s) and villain(s) should be named. No more than 3 names in a query!
  3. For characters (etc.) that need to be mentioned more than once, but do not deserve a place of importance next to the main characters, try meaningful identifiers: "his mother," "a group of assassins," "her home planet."
  4. If you must give a character's FULL name, do it once at the beginning.
Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on your story. But let's apply these tips to the example above:

Sam needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer hiding among the monks -- he reckons Hagai is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in at the first opportunity. But when the seer says Sam is the key to finding his mother, Hagai chooses his mother’s life over the law.

If nothing else, it's more clear who the major players are now. If the seer came up again in the query, I'd probably give her name (but she doesn't, so I didn't). Otherwise, who cares about the name of the monastery she's at? And the specific officer Hagai goes to isn't important either, just that he goes to the law (or thinks about it).

Anyway, that's just my take. What do you think?

The Pillar of Skulls

Near the gate between the first and second layers of Hell, there lies a grotesque monument of the damned. It towers over a mile high, howling and writhing with eternal torment--a terror to match any other in the Nine Hells.
It is the Pillar of Skulls, and it seethes with the frustration and hatred of a billion souls, moaning and wailing in endless, hopeless agony.

But it is also the greatest store of knowledge in all planes of existence. Among the Pillar's eternal prisoners lie great thinkers, world leaders, teachers, scientists... the entirety of the world's lore and experiences can be found within.

Once in a great while, a knowledge seeker will brave Hell itself to speak to the Pillar. Should they survive--through the charred wasteland, past endless legions of Lord Bel's devils, beneath the watchful eyes of the five-headed Tiamat--they must still contend with the Pillar itself.

Whenever a visitor comes, the billion skulls fight each other to make themselves heard. The surface of the Pillar billows and pulsates, one skull appearing--howling unintelligible obscenities--then disappearing to be replaced by another.

And should the seeker find the right one--a soul who has the information they are after--there is always a price. For every skull on the Pillar, every soul doomed to live out eternity in the Nine Hells, wants only one thing. "I'll tell you what I know," they say. "I'll do anything you ask. Just, please, take me off this pillar. Please, I...

"I just want to be published."