Who is Your Dream Agent?

I realized something today: I don't have a dream agent. I mean, I have agents I like, agents I've heard of, agents who represent authors I love and/or write like me. But the truth is I'm too analytical to have a dream agent.

My dream agent has to be perfect: I like them and they like me, they love what I write, their revision process meshes with the way I work.* But it's impossible to know all that until you meet someone and actually work with them.

But lots of other people have dream agents, so I'm throwing it out to you. Who is your dream agent and why? What do you like about them? (You don't have to name names, of course. I've queried a bit. I know how it is.)

And if you already have an agent, that's even better! Tell us what you love about them in the comments.

* Also they have the ability to get me a six-figure, three-book deal within a week.

How to Write a Terrible Sequel

Brought to you by 17 years of Disney direct-to-video animated sequels.

LOWER THE STAKES. Make the conflict less important and less exciting than the original. Like in Cinderella 2, in which Cinderella stresses about throwing the perfect party for her new father, the king. Wonderful!

CREATE CONFLICT OUT OF NOWHERE. Conflict should never arise naturally from the original's conclusion. It should appear as though you made it up on the spot, just so you could have something to write about. Like in Kronk's New Groove, where Kronk wants to impress his father who was never proud of him--a conflict and character not even hinted at in the original.

INTRODUCE A WHOLE NEW SET OF CHARACTERS WHO FOLLOW THE SAME EMOTIONAL ARC AS THE ORIGINAL ONES. That way you avoid TWO common pitfalls: giving the audience more time with the characters they love AND giving them a unique story as interesting as the first.

Do it like they did in Little Mermaid 2. Ariel('s daughter) desperately wants to be a mermaid instead of a human (see what they did there?), so Ursula('s sister) tricks her into a deal to get her hands on Triton's trident. They even replaced Sebastian and Scuttle with a comic relief penguin and walrus. Genius!

TURN A PREVIOUSLY SYMPATHETIC CHARACTER INTO SOMEONE THE AUDIENCE HATES. In the original Mulan, Mushu is the victim, mocked and despised by Mulan's ancestors until he can prove himself by aiding Mulan in her quest. But in Mulan 2, the writers gave us an unexpected twist. Mushu is now the taunter, treating the ancestors like his servants. When he discovers that Mulan's upcoming marriage will mean he doesn't get pampered anymore, he tries to break them up. How can you not love that?

And a bonus method, brought to you by midi-chlorians and the planet Zeist:

IF THERE WAS A MYSTERY IN THE ORIGINAL, PROVIDE AN EXPLANATION THAT IS LAMER THAN ANYTHING THE READER COULD'VE COME UP WITH THEMSELVES. This is the crowning achievement of a terrible sequel: when it is so bad, that it makes the original suck even more just by being made. Where the reader has to pretend the sequel never happened in order to enjoy the original again.

If you can do that, you no longer need my help.

5 Reasons You Should Read Dune

I noticed some of you haven't read Dune. That's okay. I mean, there's TONS of books I haven't read. But because Dune is one of my favorites, I thought I'd give you a few (more) reasons to read it.

Sandworms. In the desert, these ginormous creatures follow any vibrations that feel like life. One of them will swallow you whole before you realize those are its teeth rising out of the sand all around you.

Fremen. They're like desert ninjas. You know the sandworms? These guys ride them.

Spice. It turns your eyes blue, enables faster-than-light space travel, sometimes gives visions of the future, and tastes like cinnamon. What more could you want? Well, maybe something less addictive, I suppose.

Sting. Okay, so he's not in the book. He was in the movie (that you should never see), but you can imagine him while you're reading.

Arrakis. Imagine a world with almost no water at all, where you need a special suit to reuse as much of your body's fluids as possible, where massive sandstorms rage across the surface, rivaled in their destructive power by only the monstrous sandworms that prowl the desert. It should've been a useless world, except for one thing: the spice. Without it, travel between the worlds is impossible and the Galactic Empire crumbles, and the spice is only found on Arrakis.

He who controls the spice controls the universe.

Have you read Dune? If so, what's your favorite part about it? If not, why the heck not?

The Peeta Complex

So there's this book called THE HUNGER GAMES. If you don't know it, go read it now. Seriously, it'll be worth it (the book, that is--I can't promise the same for this post).

You like it? It's one of my very favorites. That's important to know, because I'm about to bag on one of the characters, but do understand: I love this book.

So, Peeta. He's perfect, isn't he? Strong, sensitive, artistic, and willing to do absolutely anything for the girl he loves--even though she's never shown any affection for him (the opposite, actually) and has few redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Not that I don't like Katniss. She's an awesome survivor, and she takes care of those she loves. I just don't see what Peeta sees to make him repeatedly sacrifice everything for her.

It's not just Peeta. I've read a number of recent YA novels in which the protagonist inexplicably gains the affections of the Perfect Guy, and keeps them even though she's very clear that she loves someone else, or at least doesn't like him. Sometimes he wins her over, sometimes she feels she doesn't deserve him, and sometimes he tragically dies for her. Oh, so tragically.

It doesn't matter what happens to him, though, the point is HE IS IMAGINARY.

Just like real life Bad Boys are not often redeemable (sorry, ladies, they're just jerks), so real life Nice Guys will not wait years and years, sacrificing everything they have until the girl who obviously doesn't like them comes around.

Sorry, girls. There are nice guys out there, but we're not all strong and handsome, and most of us will move on once we've been spurned. (We're nice, not perfect.)

If you love the Perfect Guy trope, or you're writing it, don't worry. It's not Wrong, and I've never hated a book because of it, just rolled my eyes sometimes.

It's not hard to fix either: give the boy flaws. Peeta's problem was he was too perfect. His greatest weakness was his inability to see how perfect he was (which: really? not a flaw). Real guys are sometimes a little arrogant, a little vindictive, a little dishonest. It doesn't make us jerks or bad guys, it just makes us human, believable. Believe it or not, it works in fiction, too.

Have you noticed the Peeta complex? Does it bug you, or (like most things) is it just me? Let me know!

Books I Read: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Like dystopia?* The Alliterati are giving away 4 YA dystopian novels over at the Secret Archives. Check it out!

* See what I did there?

Title: The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Author: Carrie Ryan
Genre: YA zombie dystopian
Published: 2009
Content Rating: R for zombie violence

All her life, Mary has only known the village--the Sisterhood that rules it, the fences that surround it, and the ever-hungry Unconsecrated trying to get in. Life is...okay--restricting, depressing, and the boy she likes is marrying her best friend--but things get worse when Mary learns secrets about the Sisterhood that threaten to destroy them all.

This book hooked me pretty fast. Even the cover and the title make me want to read it (plus I have a thing for zombie apocalypses). The writing--something I rarely care about in favor of a good story--is fantastic. It's beautiful, creepy, and tense.

I did have a problem whenever Mary did something stupid. I know, she's been through a lot and doesn't have much hope, but it was hard for me to excuse her occasionally-risky behavior in a world where the smallest risk can get you zombified. Other than that, I thought this book was great. The zombie scenes were properly scary, and the world was properly interesting.

I've read some folks who were upset that not all secrets were revealed, nor all questions answered, but that didn't bother me at all. They gave the information I cared about, and I can fill in what I like pretty readily. If you like zombie stories, check this one out.

5 Things to Know About Multiple POVs

  1. It's a normal and common structure. I know folks who aren't sure if multiple POVs are okay or not. They are. Some examples: Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN, Gaiman's NEVERWHERE, most of Terry Pratchett's DISCWORLD novels, Sanderson's MISTBORN trilogy, Card's ENDER'S GAME (those snippets of conversation at the beginning of each chapter constitute a separate POV), and many, many more.
  2. Multiple POVs can be used with any narrator except an omniscient one. Third person limited is the most common, but in theory it could be done with first person too. Though I suspect it would be more difficult to signal whose POV it is.
  3. Switching POVs is jarring. Readers get used to being in someone's head, and it's easy to forget what's going on when they rejoin an old character. You have to signal to the reader not only that the POV has changed, but who it has changed to, where they are, and what they're doing. Some ideas:
    • Switch only at chapter or scene breaks.
    • Switch consistently (e.g. alternate every other chapter between two characters).
    • Get the POV character's name and situation as close to the first sentence as possible.
    • Give each POV character a unique narrative voice.
  4. Switching POVs is a chance for the reader to put the book down. That means, in addition to signalling to the reader whose POV it is, you also have to make each POV shift start somewhere interesting, with a hook to immediately draw the reader back in. Every. Time.
  5. Each POV character should matter. Don't use a character's perspective just because you need to show certain interesting events. Use that character because they are interesting, because they have their own arc and crucial decisions. Ask yourself, if this perspective were the only one in your novel, would it be worth reading?
Have you ever written with multiple POVs? What would you suggest?

    What Stops You From Reading?

    It's rare that a book bothers me so much I have to put it down (especially if my to-be-read pile is small, an event which happens all too often out here). In 2.5 years I've read over 70 books (thanks, Goodreads) and only stopped 3. But there are a few things that might stop me from reading a book.

    I hate a main character. They're arrogant, stupid, or both, to the point where reading about them makes me feel angry and/or dumb. It has to be pretty bad, though. I mean, I've never stopped reading a James Patterson novel.

    It's boring. Usually this will be because there is some promised tension in the beginning, then pages and pages pass before the tension is ever brought up again. I'll put up with slow books, though, if something else is driving me: a fascinating world, witty banter, or sometimes just a friend who said it was worth the whole read.

    The writing pisses me off. This is really, really rare. I don't normally care about quality prose one way or the other--even when it's not very good, I can still get through it so long as it makes sense. But there was this one book, with a host of featureless characters and As You Know, Bob dialog oozing out of its spine. I stopped that one on page 62 and never looked back.

    So what stops you from reading a book?

    Sketch: Harkonnens on Hard Times

    So Emmet Blue called me out on my Quick and Dirty fantasy map. He made an educated guess (Indonesia), and now I owe him a sketch. Let that be a lesson to the rest of you: before putting a Google Fantasy Map in your book, maybe rotate it, tweak the coastlines, and don't ask Emmet if he knows where it is.

    It's been over two months since I drew anything for you guys, though. Maybe I deserved it.

    The commission was, and I quote, "an Elvis-suited Baron Harkonnen singing karaoke while floating at an odd angle, maybe with Sting backing up on bass. That, or whatever that imagery makes you think of." Here's what you get:

    What Can a Train Wreck Tell Us About the Future of Publishing?

    You probably heard of the Jacqueline Howett fiasco a couple of weeks ago, wherein one self-published author got a bad review, yelled at the reviewer, and then began swearing at everyone who came to the reviewer's defense. In reading it, I understood the train wreck analogy: I knew people were getting hurt, but I couldn't not watch.

    It got a lot of people thinking about self-publishing (and the social psychology of the internet), but to me it says that maybe the worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing aren't as different as we think they are.

    Before I go on, though, a little Professionalism 101:  


    Okay. What was interesting to me about this incident was what happened on that book blog was the same thing agents complain about in the slush pile. Namely, an unprofessional author got mad about a rejection.

    The only difference is, this time, everybody got to see it.

    It's like the slush pile is being made public, along with everything that means--unprofessional authors arguing with rejections, berating reviewers on their blogs, complaining about the unfairness of the system. Except now, "the system" isn't a centuries-old institution trying to make money off authors. It's just people.

    Some revolutionists say this New World, in which anyone can find their own audience, removes the gatekeepers. But seeing a slush-pile-like reaction like this seems to imply the opposite: the gatekeepers are not gone, they're changing.

    A gatekeeper's job is to sift through the slush, separating the good from the bad using the only measuring stick they have: their opinion. Book bloggers, like the one Howett railed against, are among those new gatekeepers. They can't keep people from buying something, of course--just like Random House can't keep me from renting my own printing press and hand-selling throughout the country--but they have a very strong word-of-mouth influence. Many book bloggers even have a very agent-like process, with submission guidelines, queries before full requests--and, apparently, dealing with the angrier members of the slush pile.

    Understand, I don't think this incident says anything about self-published authors in general. For one thing, traditionally-published authors sometimes do the same thing.

    For another, all the indie authors I know are professional, stand-up folks. Howett is an outlier.** My point is that the same outliers are, and always have been, in the query system. What happened two weeks ago is the same kind of thing agents deal with all the time.

    It makes me think the Old World and the New World might not be as different as we thought.

    * I do believe that, in theory, an author could respond to a negative review in some positive way. Something like, "I'm really sorry you didn't like that aspect of my book, but I appreciate the constructive criticism. I'll try and improve that in the future."

    But it's only a theory. I've never seen it done, nor done it myself, so I don't know how it would be received.

    ** Also, Ms. Howett may have been having a very bad day, or any other number of things, that might have contributed to her public outrage. This post isn't intended to mock her, just to take a look at how similar it is to a slush pile.

    Five Things I Love

    I don't remember where I got this meme, but here it is. You may see it again in the future.

    Also, you may notice there's a poll in the upper-right corner (some of you will have to click through to see it). I'm thinking of doing polls this way every once in a while, but probably not if nobody's voting. It's up to you guys.

    Anyway, 5 things I love:


    Rainy Days


    Deep Fried . . . Whatever


    Hook, Hook, Where is the Hook?

    The hook is what you say when your friends ask, "So what's your book about?" It's how you tweet about your book. It is the fundamental concept behind the plot of your story, written in such a way as to make the reader say, "Cool, tell me more."

    But how the heck do you distill 100,000 words into one sentence of cool? It's not easy. The internet has some good tips already, but I'm going to throw my own version into the mix because with something as subjective as a novel hook, you can't have too many ways to think about it.

    I think there are 7 things the hook should have:
    1. Protagonist. Who is the story about?
    2. Antagonist. Who or what is against the protagonist?
    3. Goal. What does the protagonist want to accomplish?
    4. Stakes. What will happen if the protagonist does not accomplish their goal?
    5. Conflict. What is keeping the protagonist from accomplishing their goal?
    6. Setting. Where/when does the story take place?
    7. Theme. What is the story's main subject or idea?
    Figure out that information, then stuff it into a sentence. That's your core. The rest of your query, synopsis, and even your novel needs to be focused around that. For example:

    A cowardly bookworm receives a package from his supposedly-dead mother, so he joins a crew of air pirates to find and rescue her.

    This is the hook for Air Pirates. Can you see the elements? Some are weaker than others, but they're there:

    Protagonist: cowardly bookworm
    Antagonist: not specified, but implied in the word "rescue"
    Goal: to rescue his mother
    Stakes: his mother will be hurt or die (implied in the word "rescue")
    Conflict: he doesn't know where she is, and presumably someone doesn't want her to be rescued
    Setting: implied with "a crew of air pirates"
    Theme: a coward overcoming his fears

    As you can see, not everything has to be stated explicitly, but the more clear the 7 elements are, the stronger your hook will be. (There's a lot to be said for voice, too, but I'm not dealing with that here).

    Also be certain nothing else is included. The more you try to cram in, the more questions are raised. In the example, I didn't tell you about the future-telling stone in the package because, although it is important to the story, it raises a lot of questions. And as far as the hook goes, it doesn't matter what's actually in the package, just who it came from, and that he thought she was dead.

    So an exercise for you. Take a look at the (current) hook below for my Shiny New Idea,* and see if you can find the 7 elements in it. Which ones are weakest? How could they be made stronger? (I'm not asking you to do this in the comments, though you're welcome to, if you want).

    A fugitive ninja must convince a young con-artist to take the throne, before the nobles kill everybody in civil war.

    Then take a look at your own hook and do the same!

    * Post-Apocalypse Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!). Don't worry. It all makes sense in my head.

    (This post is a remix of an older one) 

    Sifting Through Self-Pub Statistics

    It's hard to find good statistics on what's going on in the publishing industry. If you read J.A. Konrath's blog, it sounds like making five figures a year in self-publishing is easy. If you read almost any publishing insider blogs, he's an unpredictable outlier.

    I want to know what the averages look like, not the outliers. Let's see what we can find.

    Disclaimer: I'm working with a lot of averages and assumptions in this post. Feel free to refute them if you've got hard, non-anecdotal facts.

    Traditional publishing is tricky. I've heard everything from 0.03% to 1%. Agents get something like 10,000 queries a year, and take on a handful of new clients each. Of those, only some get published. Probably the number is lower than we'd like to think. Traditionally published: 0.1%.

    Self-pubbed is easy. Anyone can do it, that's the whole point. Self-published: 100%.

    So far, self-publishing looks like an easy pick, but getting published isn't our goal, is it? We want to make money.

    No one likes to talk about advances in the publishing world, except to say that "it varies." Tobias Buckell did a survey a few years ago and found the median advance on a first novel was $5,000. Those numbers are old, but we'll go with it. Apparently most novels don't earn-out their advance, meaning royalties become a moot point. So unfair though it may be, I'm sticking with the simple number (minus your agent's 15%). Traditionally published: $4,250.

    Self-publishing has no advance, but depending on how you do it, you may not even pay for editing, cover art, or printing services(!). On top of that, Amazon gives authors 70% royalties. JA Konrath suggests an eBook price of $2.99 to increase sales, and I have no reason to refute him here. That means $2.09/book.

    But how many books? That's more difficult. Konrath sells thousands of copies per month, hundreds of thousands totals, but that's on many books. Breaking down his numbers, it looks like he has sold, on average,* about 4,000 copies/title. On a given title, then, he made $8,360, almost twice as much as our traditionally published debut author.

    But we're not Konrath, are we? We're Average Debut Author Joe (or Joan). And the average unknown author sells, as near as anyone can figure, somewhere between 100 and 400 copies on a single title. Self-published: $522.50.

    Traditional publishing wins, right? Well, this is still not the whole story.

    If I offered you $10 right now versus a chance to win $80 for rolling a '6' on one die, which is the better bet? You have to look at the expected value. If you take the former, you have a 100% chance of getting $10. If you take the latter, you have a 17% chance of getting $80, for an expected value of $13.30 ($80 x 0.17). So, the $80 is a better bet (though the risk-averse might not care and opt for the ten-in-hand).

    That's what we've got here. Traditional publishing offers more money on average, but it's much harder to get there. From the numbers I've got, the expected value for traditional publishing is low. $4,250 x 0.1%. Traditionally published: $4.25.

    Where as self-publishing gets 100%. So, Self-published: $522.50.

    But it's still not even this simple. These numbers make it sound as if $522.50 is a sure bet (the ten-in-hand, as it were). If that were the case, I'd be working on a random novel generator right now and sell books at $500 a pop! But randomly generated novels will not make you money. In both cases, you have to write something people want to read.

    And in both cases, you have to do an insane amount of work both to write the novel and promote it. Once again, you have to ask what your work is worth. Nothing is certain, whichever direction you go.

    For me, I'm still aiming at traditional publishing because it's not (strictly) about chance, and I believe I can do it. Because I wouldn't be the writer I am today if I had self-published the first thing I wrote, and I want to see how much better I'll be in the future. Because I'd rather hold the novel for some point in the future when I can make it much better, than make a couple hundred dollars today.

    But that's today. Who knows what the future holds?

    What's your route, and why do you do it?

    * I'd prefer the median, since all of these stats are tainted with outliers, but I gotta work with what I got. Anyway, medians would just lower the numbers, not raise them.

    Books I Read: Elantris

    Title: Elantris
    Author: Brandon Sanderson
    Genre: Fantasy
    Published: 2006
    Content Rating: R for action violence

    It used to be that men and women were transformed, seemingly randomly, into nigh-immortal, magical beings. When this happened, they and their families moved to Elantris, the city of the gods. Ten years ago, the magic died. Elantrians lost their power and beauty, becoming like the living dead--unable to heal, enduring pain and hunger so severe that most succumbed to insanity.

    When Raoden, beloved prince of the kingdom, becomes one of the fallen Elantrians, his father covers it up, telling the kingdom he has died. Sarene, his bride from another land, arrives in her new home a widow. Meanwhile Hrathen, high priest of the enemy's religion, intends to convert the entire kingdom, because if he doesn't, his god will annihilate them all.

    The book alternates between the viewpoints of the three main characters. I admit, I wasn't always interested in all three points of view (most of the time I found Raoden's the most interesting, though the political and religious tension were usually on Sarene and Hrathen's side). Also the novel felt like it started slow to me, but then it's epic fantasy. I understand Sanderson has a world he needs to reveal (and it wasn't infodump-slow, just slower than I wanted).

    But by the end, I loved it. One of my favorite things about Sanderson (having read two of his worlds now) is how he reveals the complexities of his world through the story. Not by hiding things from the reader, but by revealing secrets as the characters figure them out. In both Elantris and Mistborn, the characters initially believe the world works a certain way. As they try to save their world, however, they discover there is much to it than they thought possible.

    It's that aspect of Sanderson's fantasy that is starting to make him my new Orson Scott Card (no disrespect to Card--Ender's Game is still my favorite novel of all time). If you like fantasy, and you've already read the Mistborn trilogy, try this one out. You might like it.