The Sadistic Choice

One of the things that can make fiction compelling is an impossible, sadistic choice. Like in Hunger Games, when you want both Katniss and Peeta to live, but you know only one of them can. Or like I said about Open Minds, where Kira has to decide whether to lie about having no mind powers, to mindjack everyone she loves, or to tell the truth and put herself in serious danger.

An impossible choice keeps you reading, because you don't know what you would do in that situation, and you want to know what happens. BUT, there are some guidelines.

Erasmo must decide whether to eat mango or papaya for breakfast. If he chooses the mango, the papaya will go bad, wasting his money. But he hates papaya. What will he do?

Compelling? Not so much.

Erasmo recognizes the cab driver as a convicted serial killer, but if he doesn't take the cab to work he'll be fired. What can he do?

How about call a different cab (and the police)? Nobody likes a dumb protagonist.

Once at work, Erasmo's boss forces him to clean the bathrooms with a toothbrush or he's fired!

Neither option is pleasant, that's true, but it's not hard to figure out what he'll do.

Erasmo reads Hunger Games to see who Katniss will choose: Peeta or Gale. He waits. And waits. And waits...

Putting off a decision is valid and practical, but there should be either a reason ("We're at war! Now is not the time!") or consequences ("I didn't choose either and now they both hate me.").* Don't expect your compelling, sadistic choice to carry the reader through your story by itself.

* For the record, Hunger Games did both of these, but I still felt like Katniss was leading the guys on unnecessarily.

After everything he's been through, Erasmo takes the day off. He'll have to make the same decisions the next day, but I don't want to write about it.

I guess this could be a wacky literary ending, but I've never been a fan of those. If you do leave things unresolved, do so very, VERY intentionally (see Inception; seriously, go see it).

At this point, it's important to mention how the Sadistic Choice is usually resolved: with a previously unconsidered Third Option. It needs to be said, because it's easy to drop a Third Option out of nowhere and think you are, by default, being original. You're not.

As soon as you present the choice, your very intelligent readers will be looking at all the options, including the ones you haven't presented as possibilities. Especially the ones you haven't presented as possibilities. This makes it very hard to do something they don't see coming (which is, after all, the goal). How you do that is up to you.

Or else it's another blog post. I don't know. I haven't decided.

Statistics, Milestones, and Statistics

As of this morning (last night for you in the Americas), the first draft of Post-Apocalyptic Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!) is finished, and I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Not because the work is done (far, FAR from it), but because drafting is my least favorite part of the process.

To celebrate, I'm posting these pre-revision statistics on the four finished novels I have sitting on my computer. (What, you don't think statistics are fun? Perhaps you've mistaken this blog for someone else's.)

I also submit these in the hope they will encourage any of you who feel you write slow: It Gets Better.

Time to Draft: 4.5 years, both planning and writing (mostly writing).
Outline: None (GASP!), but lots of notes.
Draft Length: 76,000 words.
Avg Drafting Speed: About 1,600 words/month.

Time to Draft: 19 months.
Outline: 244 words.
Draft Length: 100,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,200 words/month.

Time to Draft: 9 months.
Outline: 5,500 words (if you think I'm proud of that, read on; it gets better).
Draft Length: 48,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,300 words/month.

Time to Draft: 4 months.
Outline: 9,100 words (<--- !!).
Draft Length: 79,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 19,800 words/month.

I'm not quite at NaNoWriMo speeds yet, but I am finally at a place where I feel like I could produce a book a year, if I had to. You know, if someone wanted to pay me to do that (do you think that's too subtle?)

In Which I Map Social Media to High School Like Everyone Else, but with an Actual Map

It's a little frightening to me how well my social media experience maps onto my high school ones. This is a picture of how. Your mileage, of course, may vary (particularly if you hung out in the gym -- for me, that was like one of the Circles of Hell).

 Classrooms: Where we did Actual Work. This is why we were at high school, but nobody wanted to admit it. And for sure nobody wanted to hang out here. If we could, we would've hung out outside all the time.

Rally Court: Our quad was loud, busy, and everybody could see what everyone else was doing (which was how some of the cheerleaders knew me as "one of those guys who plays cards all the time" (spoken with trademark patronizing giggle, of course)). But for the most part, it was easy to catch up with friends here.

For me, Facebook is like this. There are lots of people there, including old friends I thought I'd lost touch with. But mostly I go there to hang out with my family and real life friends. It helps that many of Facebook's features make it easier for me to maintain conversations across timezones.

Cafeteria: Like the Rally Court, this place was loud and crowded -- even more so because it was enclosed. You could never tell if someone heard you or not. But as I became more socially adept, I had new groups of friends who didn't hang out in the Rally Court, and this was where I found them.

Twitter. It's loud, crowded, and I never know if anybody's listening. But some of my best friends are there, and I like how quick and easy it is to follow people and read updates.

Academic Quad: This place was exactly like the Rally Court, but with fewer people. Occasionally a couple of us would wander there to get away from the noise, but mostly nothing happened there.

Maybe Google will figure out some magic feature to make everybody switch over, but I suspect that what most people dislike about the other social networks is caused -- not by privacy issues or odd features -- but by the sheer quantity of people. If Google+ ever goes big, it wouldn't surprise me to hear a bunch of the early adopters complain about it.

Library: This was where I preferred to be, though not for the reason you think. We played D&D in there. It was relatively quiet, and mostly only people who actually wanted to hang out with me came in there, much like this blog.

In truth, I think the particular features of a social network don't matter nearly as much as who is on it. At least that's how it is for me. If everyone I know suddenly migrated to Bebo or Wooxie or (God-forbid) back to MySpace, I'd be over there too.


So am I the only one who played games all through lunch? What was your high school like?

On the Art of Socializing

(In which my wife Cindy and I discuss taking our five boys to a local playgroup)
Cindy: "I don't know if I want to go to playgroup tomorrow. But the boys would love it. I feel bad."
Me: "They have snacks at playgroup, right?"
Cindy: "Yes..."
Me: "I'll take the boys."
Cindy: *smirks* "You'd have to socialize with people."
Me: "You'd be surprised how rarely you actually 'have to' socialize."
Cindy: *laughs* "Yeah, you'll just sit next to the snack table with your book, not even checking to see if the boys are getting in trouble."
Me: "I'd watch the boys!"
Cindy: "See, this is why you don't get to go."

(A little later)
Cindy: "I guess I'll go, but I'm so tired. I don't know if I want to talk with anybody."
Me: "You want some tips on blowing people off?"
Cindy: "Sure."
Me: *gets excited* "Okay, first you need to look like you're doing something."
Cindy: *chuckles* "Like your book?"
Me: "Yeah, you take a book or a notebook or pretend you need to discipline your kids..."
Cindy: "I could talk to you on the phone."
Me: "That would work. Or headphones! Headphones are great, because you can pretend you don't even hear the person. And if someone doesn't get the hint, you make them stand there until they call you three or four times, then you make a big show of taking your headphones out and blink at them and say, 'Did you say something?'"
Cindy: *stares*
Me: "I've never done that before."

How Needles Almost Killed Me, and How I Got Over It (Mostly)

I'm waiting to have my blood drawn as I write this. There's little else on my mind.

I hate needles.

I always have. Even in my late 20s, I had to look away and hold my breath while the nurse said, "This will only pinch a little."

When we were preparing to move out here, we had to get a couple of vaccinations. One time in particular, I was so freaked out I couldn't eat breakfast or even sit down in the waiting room. I just wanted it over with. Well, they gave me the shot, but on our way out the door, I nearly blacked out.

I thought maybe I had just gotten up too fast (I did sit down while my wife got her shot), so I put my head between my knees until it went away. I didn't black out, but I wondered if it had something to do with what they shot into me.

My wife needed some medicine, but in the line at the pharmacy, I started sweating like crazy. My wife told me to sit down while she got what she needed. While I waited, it got even worse. I had trouble breathing, and my hands were tingling. I watched my fingers curl into a tight fist, ignoring every message my brain was sending them otherwise.

My breaths came shorter, but I managed to call my wife and she called the doctors. I thought for sure the shot had killed me, like I was having an allergic reaction, or they put the wrong stuff in the syringe or something. Meanwhile, the doctors were calm as a desert.

After a while, my hands began to unclench and I could breathe again. The doctors told me it wasn't anything terrible. I just had a panic attack.

And I felt like an idiot.

The whole thing was in my head. Made-up. Pretend. I could've prevented it, even, if I'd just eaten something beforehand and sat down for the shot (which they patronizingly had me do next time).*

It's seven years later, and not only am I not freaked out (well, a little bit), but I can even watch the needle go in and my blood come out. I don't like it, but at least I'm not dying.

I don't know exactly what changed me, but I like to give the credit to my kids. I didn't want them to grow up so afraid of needles that they believed the doctors were killing them. So I tell them over and over again that getting a shot does hurt, but only a little, like getting pinched. I even pinch myself and them to show how little actual pain there is.

And somewhere along the line, I started to believe it myself.

Anything you're afraid of?

* Although the patronizing might have been all in my head, too.

Travel Times: A Reference

I frequently find myself having to calculate how far away things are when I'm writing. "How long would it take him to walk there? Can a horse run that far? Who would get there first?"

This is a reference for myself, but I figured you could probably use it too. The numbers here are averages. Actual speeds and endurances will vary.

HumanHorse w/ Heavy LoadHorse w/ Light Load
Walking Speed5 kph
(3 mph)
6 kph
(4 mph)
10 kph
(6 mph)
Distance Traveled in a Day (8 hours)40 km
(25 mi)
48 km
(30 mi)
80 km
(50 mi)
Hurried Speed10 kph
(6 mph)
15 kph
(9 mph)
22 kph
(14 mph)
Distance Traveled (1 hour)10 km
(6 mi)
15 km
(9 mi)
22 km
(14 mi)
Running Speed24 kph
(15 mph)
30 kph
(19 mph)
44 kph
(27 mph)
Distance Traveled (5 minutes)2 km
(1.2 mi)
2.5 km
(1.5 mi)
3.7 km
(2.3 mi)

Walking Speed: A basic, slow walk that can be maintained for hours at a time.
Hurried Speed: A jog or canter that can be maintained for about an hour.
Running Speed: A sprint or gallop that cannot be maintained for more than a few minutes.

Again, these are just averages. There are horses that can gallop at speeds of 70-80 kph (40-50 mph), people can be forced to walk for more than 8 hours a day (with consequences), and some folks couldn't maintain a jog for longer than 30 seconds (*raises hand*). But for me, these averages are useful in figuring out how far apart things are in my worlds, among other things.

Feel free to correct my numbers, if you know better, or to request other means of transport for me to add.

Blogging for Your Target Audience

Unpublished writers' blogs are a strange beast. They're part community-building, part writing practice, and part planning for a hopeful future in which we need a platform. It's that last bit I want to talk about today.

Aspiring writers who blog are sometimes told they shouldn't write for other writers. I can understand that. I mean, you want to reach your future target audience (who is interested in your books), not other writers (who may or may not be). But I wonder why my future audience (who wants to read my books, but doesn't write themselves) would be interested in my blog if I don't actually have any books (especially with all these parentheticals)?

Here's the thing. Your target audience is, in fact, a moving target.

I'm not saying there's no merit in expanding your blog topics to other things. There is, but I don't think Professional Aspiring Writers should feel like they can't blog about writing either. Because at the moment, the writing community is our target audience.

Tobias Buckell ran down his readership stats the other day, and one thing that interested me was that, early on, he lost over half his readers when he became published. He says it's because he was no longer talking to "writers trying to sell a novel (large pool), but to writers who had already sold a novel and were trying to figure out what to do (very much smaller pool)." Gradually, he shifted his blog to broader topics, tangentially related to his novels.

Could he have avoided that drop by shifting his blog sooner? Maybe. Or maybe that new audience wouldn't have been as interested in his opinion before he was a published author. Also maybe those early years of blogging to aspiring writers was needed networking for him.

I don't know. My point is that, either way, it's okay. I think the platform-building (future audience) is a good idea, both for practice and laying the groundwork. I think the community-building (current audience) is also good for networking and (in my case) general sanity.

So don't feel like you have to blog one way or another. Do think about your future audience, but don't stress about them, because if you're like me, you have an audience here right now. Maybe it'll change one day, but you can change with it. It'll be all right.

Earning a Reader's Trust


When we read something, anything, we want to know that we can trust the author. If we trust that the author knows what they're doing, we'll give them more grace when they make "mistakes" like using unnecessary adverbs or telling when they should be showing. We trust that eventually they'll explain whatever we don't understand.

If we don't trust the author, those mistakes will stick out like they were written in sparkly red ink. If we don't understand something right away, rather than say, "I'm sure that's there for a good reason," we say, "That's stupid. It doesn't make any sense."

But trust is hard to come by, and worse, it's subjective.

We trust authors whose work we've read and liked before. We trust authors sold at Barnes & Noble more than self-pubbed authors peddling their works online. We trust authors recommended by friends.

We trust authors that we know personally. This is why referrals work. This is why agents and editors are nicer if you've met them in person. This is also why it's so hard to get honest criticism of our work, and why agents don't care if your mom and ten of your best friends said the manuscript was "better than J.K. Rowling."

So if you're unpublished, unknown, and you don't know the reader personally, how do you get the reader to trust you? All you've got left, then, is your first impression.

Your first impression is your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and in many cases, your query letter. This is why it's so important. It's not that the agent/editor won't read on if they suck, it's that they decide -- often subconsciously -- whether you're an amateur or professional based on the first thing they read. Everything they read afterward is colored by that.

If they see amateur mistakes straight off, then the fancy prose they see later might be seen as "trying too hard" or at best "potential." On the other hand, if they decide they're in the hands of a soon-to-be professional, then occasional sloppy prose they see later might be interpreted as "mistakes I can help them fix."

So don't tell them what your mom and ten best friends thought. Don't tell them you're the next Stephanie Meyer. Don't infodump. Don't try to describe every single character and subplot in a 250-word query.

Do find a critique group. Do read Nathan Bransford's comprehensive FAQ on publishing and getting published. Do read as many of the posts as you can at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Miss Snark, and any number of other agents' and editors' blogs around the web. Do whatever it takes to find out what first impression you're making.

Then make a better one.

Sympathetic Characters: The Struggle

One encouragement I keep hearing, regarding my querying, is that I "deserve" an agent. I like hearing that, for sure. But the last time I heard it I thought, "They haven't even read my novel. Why do they think that?"

And I think part of the reason is because you guys see me fighting for it.

Because there's something we love about a person who fights for what they want against all odds, who never gives up no matter how many times they get knocked down. This is why I love characters like Naruto and Zuko. This is why I like dancers like Twitch and Hok and Wadi, who try out for the competition two or even three years in a row.

Believe it or not, this post is about writing. You know how you want readers to root for your characters? This is one way to do it. Give them a goal, make them work hard for that goal, and make them fail.

Then make them get up and do it again.

If the reader believes in the goal and the character's attempts to achieve it, they will struggle with the character and root for them like nobody's business. And when they finally succeed, you will have a reader who stands up and shouts, "Yeah!"

And that is what you want.

Blog Schedules: Do You Even Notice?

You may have noticed that Susan's guest post went up on Tuesday -- normally an off-day for Author's Echo -- but also that there was no post on Wednesday. Or maybe you didn't notice! That's what this poll is about.

See, I've seen conflicting advice on the subject of blog schedules. Most professional bloggers say you need a schedule so your audience knows what to expect. I get that. That's one reason I blog M/W/F (usually).

But other advice says don't worry about it. E-mail subscriptions and feed services like Google Reader make blog schedules superfluous. I get that too, considering I don't actually know what anyone's schedule is. I just read whatever's in Google Reader whenever it's there.

So what about you?

Guest Post: Why My Critique Partners Are Smarter Than Me

Susan Kaye Quinn is a regular here at Author's Echo and one of my critique partners. She writes, she blogs, she mothers, and I understand she once politicked and rocket scienced (it's a word now -- shut up). Her new novel Open Minds, which I talked about yesterday, is out now, and to celebrate, Susan wrote like a billion blog posts.

Her book is awesome because it's about a world of mind readers and hidden mindjackers (who control minds). This guest post is cool because it talks about how smart I am. You should probably read both.

Oh, also, she's giving away prizes as part of her virtual book launch party. Information after Susan's post.

This title probably sounds like I'm kissing up to my critique partners. And while they are awesome and deserve all the praise I can give them (especially the ones that critiqued Open Minds), that's not quite what I mean.

Robert McKee, in his screenwriting book Story, talks about how the collective IQ of the audience goes up 25 points as the lights dim down. Every sense is tuned to the visual, verbal, and musical cues on the screen. Years of storytelling in the form of movies, books, and TV have trained the audience's intuition. They know the tropes by instinct, and while they probably couldn't tell you why, they just KNOW that the creepy character in the first act is going to come back and be the villain in the end.

Have you ever watched a movie where you "totally saw that coming"? Yeah, me too.

Writing a story that can keep that hyper-attuned audience in the dark until just the right reveal is an extremely difficult task. The writer has to plant just enough clues, but not too many. Provide just the right mood, but not sloppily slurp into cliché-land. Give just enough romance and meaning and depth to move the audience and not so much that it makes them cringe.

Critique partners are the movie-preview audience of the novel world.

When I was writing Open Minds, I went through round after round of critiques from different sets of writer friends who were generous enough to add their expertise to help make the story better. If you read the acknowledgements page, you'll see what I mean. A LOT of writers helped craft this story into its final form and each contributed an important insight into the story. Any reader can give feedback about whether a story "works" for them, but writer-readers are extra helpful in that they can help pinpoint how to fix it as well.

When I return the favor of a critique, I try to give feedback to my writer friend about how the story would be received by a hyper-tuned reader. But I also try to make suggestions for improvements. Sometimes I leave it vague ("more emotional connection needed here" or "I'm not really liking this character—is that the reaction you want me to have?"); sometimes I get more specific ("Reorder this scene to put the high impact point last" or "We need a kiss here"). When I'm very lucky, a crit partner will ask me to help show how to reword or rewrite a small scene. Somehow these scenes always seem to be kissing related, and I joked with a critique friend that I was changing my business card from "Author and Rocket Scientist" to "Author, Rocket Scientist, and Kissing Consultant." (Note: Yes, there are kisses in Open Minds, but nowhere as many as Life, Liberty, and Pursuit—that was a love story after all.)

I relish these times that I can pay back a small bit of the help I get from my brilliant critique partners.

When my critique partners read my MS, they are hyper-attuned like the readers that I hope will someday read the book. Those readers, as soon as they crack open my book or switch on their e-readers, will become savvy, impossibly smart story consumers. Don't underestimate them. They will see your plot twists coming. They will want to be surprised, moved to tears, made to laugh out loud. If you want to deliver a great reading experience for them, if you want to light up their imagination in a way that will rival two hours in a dark theatre, make sure you pretest your novel with critique partners. They will help you find the sluggish plot points, the stereotyped characters, and implausible action sequences before your readers do.

And if they suggest a kiss, let me know if you need a consultant. :)


When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep.

Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can’t read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can’t be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf’s mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she’s dragged deep into a hidden world of mindjackers, where having to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.

Open Minds (Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy) by Susan Kaye Quinn is available in e-book (Amazon US (also UK, France and Germany), Barnes & Noble, Smashwords) and print (Amazon, Createspace, also autographed copies available from the author).

The Story of Open Minds (linked posts)
Ch 1: Where Ideas Come From: A Mind Reading World
Ch 2: A Study in Voice, or Silencing Your Inner Critic
Ch 3: I'm finished! Oh wait. Maybe not.
Ch 4: Write First, Then Outline - Wait, That's Backwards?
Ch 5: Why My Critique Partners Are Smarter Than Me
Ch 6: Facing Revisions When It Feels Like Being on the Rack
Ch 7: How to Know When to Query
Ch 8: A Writer’s Journey - Deciding to Self-Publish Open Minds (Part One)
Ch 9: Owning the Writerly Path - Deciding to Self-Publish Open Minds (Part Two)
Epilogue: Finding Time to Write the Sequel



Susan Kaye Quinn is giving away an Open Books/Open Minds t-shirt, mug, and some fun wristbands to celebrate the Virtual Launch Party of Open Minds (Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy)! (Check out the prizes here.)

Three ways to enter (you can have multiple entries):

1) Leave a comment here or at the Virtual Launch Party post

2) Tweet (with tag #keepingOPENMINDS)
  • Example: When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep. #keepingOPENMINDS @susankayequinn #SF #YA avail NOW
  • Example: Celebrate the launch of OPEN MINDS by @susankayequinn #keepingOPENMINDS #SciFi #paranormal #YA avail NOW
3) Facebook (tag @AuthorSusanKayeQuinn)
  • Example: Celebrate the launch of paranormal/SF novel OPEN MINDS by @AuthorSusanKayeQuinn for a chance to win Open Books/Open Minds prizes!