Books I Read: Open Minds

Susan Quinn is a regular here at Author's Echo and (I'm proud to say) one of my critique partners. She wrote this book. It comes out tomorrow.

It's pretty cool.

Title: Open Minds
Author: Susan Kaye Quinn
Genre: YA Sci-Fi
Published: 2011
My Content Rating: PG-13 for make-outs, tense situations, and the occasional bullet

In a world where everyone can read minds, Kira is a zero -- a freak who can't read or be read. When she accidentally controls her best friend's mind, nearly killing him, she discovers she's a different kind of freak entirely: a mindjacker. She can't admit the truth, but fitting in means lying and controlling the minds of everyone she loves. It gets worse when she gets in over her head in the mindjacker underworld, and discovers the government knows more than it's letting on.

The best part of this book is the world. A lot of stories have mind-reading as the special power, but here it's the norm. The book does a fantastic job of exploring what that world would be like, and what it would mean to be a zero or a mindjacker.

I also love how there are no easy choices for Kira. Lying is not just about fitting in; admitting she can control minds could get her in serious trouble. But what else can she do? And really, her choices just get worse from there.

If you like sci-fi and/or paranormal (cuz this book is really that, too), check this one out.

Twitter Unfollows and Signal-to-Noise Ratio (Also, a Chart!)

I don't automatically follow people back on social media, but once I decide to follow someone, I rarely unfollow. Unfortunately, it does happen. The likelihood of getting unfollowed can be determined (sort of) from the following chart.

What constitutes signal?
  • Anything funny.
  • News I want to know.
  • Interesting links.
  • Talking to me directly (esp. saying nice things to me or retweeting my tweets).
 What constitutes noise?
  • Follow Friday tweets, thank you's, and any other random list of Twitter handles I don't know.
  • Non-tweets, like "Good morning" or "Good night" or "Eating justice peas again."
  • Spammy links to your blog, your book, etc.
  • Most tweets generated by other applications (e.g. Goodreads progress reports).
  • Retweets.
  • Lots of tweets at once, filling up my timeline.

Now understand, I'm not saying you should have no noise in your tweets. Everybody's got noise (I link to my blog and send retweets plenty). The important thing is to balance it out, or even signalify* the noise by making it funny or relevant.

And perhaps most importantly, there's the Relationship Factor. This is a measure of how well I know/like you. I'll tolerate a heck of a lot of noise from friends, people I enjoy talking to, or Nathan Fillion. In fact, the stronger our relationship, the more likely I am to interpret your "noise" as signal.

How do you build up the Relationship Factor? That's a different post.

I admit, it's a highly subjective algorithm, but it has to be. I'm not going to be interested in everyone's tweets. The point is, if you want to stay in people's timelines, pay attention to what most of your tweets are about. That way when you do have to pimp yourself, people will listen.

* Totally a word. Shut up.

Confessions of an Ascetic Writer

My previous confession proved to me I'm not alone in these things, and I know ascetic writers are more common than analytical ones. But still, I feel the need to confess...

I can't listen to music while I write. If there are words, I sing them (and sometimes type them -- seriously!). If there are no words, I still get caught up in the story the music is telling, and it becomes impossible to tell my own.

Sometimes I can edit with music, but even then, if I listen to an epic song during a soft moment, it severely skews how I revise the scene.

I can't eat snacks while I write. I end up eating them all in the first twenty minutes and not writing anything. Then I get gunk on my keyboard.

I can't drink while I write. It makes me have to get up and pee every fifteen minutes. (I don't understand it either. I drink just as much the rest of the day and only go every few hours. It's only when I have to write.)

I can't be near a window. Because then I stare outside at the neighbors and the gardeners and even the stinking DOGS that walk by.

But the worst thing is, I can't write in the same place with nothing to look at, nothing to drink, nothing to snack on, and nothing to listen to but the ceiling fan. I get bored and start to dread my writing time.

Seriously, I don't know how I ever get anything done.

How do you write? What do you need to be productive?

Stubborn as a Ninja

So. Naruto.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Naruto is a ninja orphan, shunned since birth. He's determined to make the village to notice him, even proclaiming loudly that he will be the next Hokage -- the greatest ninja in the village.

Everyone laughs because it's ridiculous. Naruto is loud, foolish, and pays zero attention. He fails most tests, and when he does pass, it's by some fluke. How could he possibly be a ninja, let alone the Hokage?

But throughout the series, Naruto has one thing nobody else has: he never gives up.

He takes on the guys no one else will. He protects the people everyone else gives up on. When two ninjas knock each other out simultaneously, Naruto is always the guy who gets up first.

He fails a lot, but he succeeds at things others think are impossible. Because he is motivated more than almost anyone else, and because of all his failures, he grows faster than most. By the time he's succeeding more than failing, he's defeating opponents even his teachers couldn't beat.

And from the beginning, even when he fails, he inspires others. People better than him who quit sooner. People weaker than him, who find a strength they didn't know they had to get up one more time.

I know, I know. It's just a frigging cartoon, right? Naruto isn't even one of my favorite characters (though he's becoming so). But man, if I could do this every time I get a story rejected? Or every time I fail at ANYTHING?

Yeah. I want that.

On Description

So, I suck at description. In the previous round of querying and beta reading, poor description was the #1 complaint. It's not that I don't know how to do it, it just doesn't come naturally to me.

But I'm learning. And the fact that it doesn't come naturally to me means I'm a good person to teach it.

Because, of course, I have an algorithm:
  1. Imagine the scene. This sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many times I just don't care what a scene looks like as much as what happens there. So the first thing I often have to do is decide on stupid details like what color the walls are or what meaningless collection of items is on a desk. (It doesn't help that I'm not much of a decorator to begin with).
  2. Write down whatever you can think of. What does it look like, sound like, and smell like? Use all five senses if you can (more if you're writing a paranormal).
  3. Choose 1-3 telling details and cut the rest. Telling details are those that do double duty. They imply something about a character, rather than just tell the reader what the scene looks like. It's not always the detail itself that is telling either, but sometimes the way the narrator perceives it.
So instead of saying someone has a gun, you can show how the narrator feels about that and/or what it says about the gun-slinger. "He held the gun like he was some kind of God damn gangster, except I could still smell the perfume and massage oil on his hands. Who was this guy?"

What tips would you have for description? I need them.

Writing When You Hate Writing

Some days, this is exactly how I feel.

Sometimes it's the novel's fault. As I plow through the draft, crap gets built on crap, building into a gargantuan pile of whatsit that I'm just going to have to fix later. Mistakes and weak plot points devolve into puzzles I no longer want to solve. And I've already used all my stock phrases and have to think of new ways to make people look, shout, cry, and laugh.

Sometimes it's the query process' fault. Being a tad insane, I've been charting my rejections and requests. There is a strong correlation with my mood. Like in August, when I got a bunch of requests and was writing 1,000 words a day, and the beginning of this month when I got some hard rejections and hit a bit of a slump.*

Sometimes it's just life's fault. Social workers come to visit. Kids are home on a day I expected to have to myself. Family issues just send out negative waves.

(It's never my fault, apparently. That would just be silly.)

Whatever the reason, I feel like things will never get better and I'll never get out of it. That's crap, of course, but it doesn't change how I feel.

So what do I do when this happens? Usually I try to plow forward, and sometimes I can. Other times, I have to take a break. Even though I know accomplishing something in writing will make me feel better, sometimes I have to accept that's something I can't do yet.

But what to do on that break? Man, I don't know. Sometimes playing a game works. Exercise. Mostly, though I just have to get off the internet and remind myself what my life's really about.

What do you do?

* I'm better now, but I don't think October will be breaking any records.

Putting Your Hope Where It Belongs

By now, the entire world knows I'm querying Air Pirates and, as a result, am subject to the entire toxic cocktail of emotions that implies. (Seriously, can we nominate querying as a leading cause of bipolar disorder? That's how it works, right?)

But also I have a great many awesome friends both on and off the internet, who constantly tell me encouraging things. Yes, I most certainly am looking at you.

I got one comment in particular I want to share with you. A good friend reminded me that rejected manuscripts mean I'm doing things right (i.e. my query/story/partial is good enough that people want to read the whole thing), then said, "I honestly believe it's only a matter of time for you. If not with this one, another."

It was that last bit that got me. I love Air Pirates a lot. A LOT, a lot. But this whole "getting published" thing is not about Air Pirates. It's about me.

(Okay, that sounds totally narcissistic. But I can't think of another way to say it so I'm writing this parenthetical to let you know I didn't mean it that way.)

(Man, that was so meta.)

This definitely falls into the category of Things I Should Know But Forget Every Time Someone Rejects My Manuscript. I mean, I have 2.5 other novels written and solid ideas forming for two more. I get germs of ideas all the time, and that's not even counting sequels, spin-offs, short stories, or anything else I might come up with using ideas I've already spent time working out.

I believe what my friend said. Eventually, something will click. When an agent rejects Air Pirates, they are not rejecting me. They are rejecting the current execution of one idea I had.

I've got lots more, and so do you. If you can do it once, you can do it again, but better.

Sketch: Everyday Superhero

Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy.

His tweet says, "Had justice peas again tonight. So. Awesome."

Why Aren't You Linking Yet?

It is 2011. The internet as we know it is old. It's older than the Matrix and Star Wars Special Edition. It was born in a time when Michael Keaton was still Batman, Joe Montana was a 49er, and people freaked out because Mortal Kombat was too bloody.

So why are people still writing comments like they've never seen a link before?
Great post! And did you hear they're casting white actors for Akira? I know, right! I blogged about it here:
How many people, do you think, will select that link, copy it, and paste it into their address bar so they can read your post? I'll give you a hint: the nearest integer rhymes with 'hero.'

Look, I know HTML is ugly and non-intuitive, but it's not hard either, and it'll make your comments a lot less ugly than that URL up there. Here's how it works.

We'll start with bold and italics, cuz they're easy. Whatever you want formatted gets stuck between a start tag and an end tag. For example: "I <b>love</b> cookie dough!" becomes "I love cookie dough!" Tags always look the same: angle brackets around the tag name (b for bold, i for italics, etc), and an extra '/' in the end tag.

I see your eyes glazing over. Stop it! This isn't hard, and you'll look smarter and get more clicks to your blog. Keep going!

Links work the same way: their tag pair is <a></a>, but you have to add an attribute to tell it where the link goes. That's what the ugly 'href' thing is about.*

Let's fix the comment above. In the comment box, I type this:
Great post! And did you hear <a href="">they're casting white actors for Akira</a>? I know, right!
It looks just as ugly as the first one, right? Except when the comment is posted, it'll look like this: 
Great post! And did you hear they're casting white actors for Akira? I know, right!

There, was that so hard? Nearly every comment system allows these basic HTML tags. And look! One person actually clicked on the link. Now you can get that warm fuzzy feeling that comes every time your visitor stats go up.

Oh, don't know how to check those either? Well, poop.

* If it helps, 'a' is short for anchor and 'href' stands for hyperlink reference. I'm sure it made lots of sense at the time.

Patching e-books

Apparently, Amazon has been wirelessly updating error-ridden books, and it raises the obvious question: Should e-book patching even be a thing?

I'm torn. I mean, technology-wise, I think this is great, though I can see the potential abuses all too clearly.

Patching is not a new thing. Computer games have been doing it even longer than George Lucas.* Even print books get the occasional story-tweaking revision. So let's not pretend this is some new, infuriating thing that Big Publishing is doing to us. The difference now, though, is that eBooks can be patched immediately -- even automatically without the user's consent.

I'm going to say auto-patching is a Bad Idea because of Potential Abuse #1: Tweaking the story. Imagine a writer with Lucas Syndrome, endlessly fiddling with his masterpiece. You're halfway through his novel when a character references something that never happened -- except it did happen, in the revised version that got pushed to your device after you started reading.

Even without auto-patching, I fear this abuse. We'd all be arguing over whether Han or Greedo shot first, only to find out we were reading different versions.

Computer games show us Potential Abuse #2: Publishing the novel before it's done. In November, 1999, me and my fellow game developers were working 80+ hours/week to get our game finished before Christmas. We were close, but it was buggy -- critical cutscenes didn't play, others crashed the game, memory leaks made the game unplayable after an hour or so, important characters would kill the player for no reason, etc.

It sounds unplayable, and for some people it was, but they released it anyway. If we brought up a bug at status meetings, we were invariably told, "We'll fix that in the patch."

Don't get me wrong, we made a dang good game, but if you play it without that patch, I pity you. And I fear a world where authors release rough drafts of a novel for quick sales, knowing they can always "fix it in a patch."

That said, I think abuse would be the exception. I think most authors, if they updated their novels at all, would only make small changes. I say that because most film directors don't make controversial changes every time a new video format is released. Most game developers release playable games, using patches for bugs they couldn't have foreseen.

If it actually works that way, it could give e-books more value. We all know the things e-books can't do (can't loan, can't resell, DRM, etc), but print books can't be updated to make themselves better. You'd have to buy another copy for that. Mostly, I think this would be a good thing.

What do you think?

* Apparently, the term 'patching' is from the old punch-card days of computers, when a bug fix had to be literally patched onto the cards.

Why Do You Write in Your Genre?

Almost everything I write has some sort of fantasy element to it, something that defies understanding for the people in that world.

And I think the reason is my own faith. Part of my assembly code includes a belief that there's more to this world than we can see or understand. I feel like there must be.

So even when I write a story about a forgotten colony of Earth, something creeps in that is bigger than we are and beyond our understanding. Even when I try to set a story in modern-day Thailand, people start fires with their mind or something.

I'm not sure I could write a non-speculative, contemporary story even if I wanted to. Eventually, some character would discover unusual powers or receive visions of the future or at the very least witness something that may or may not be a miracle.

I can't help it.

What's your genre? And why do you write it?

Is Good Subjective?

(Remixed from a post I did a couple of years ago).

The Lost Symbol is formulaic. Twilight is simplistic, both in plot and writing. Eragon is ridden with cliches (Warning: TV Tropes link). The Shack reads like it was self-published (oh, wait).

And yet every one of these books sold millions of copies.


For those of us who have devoted a significant portion of our lives to the written word, this can drive us nuts. It's unfair, we say. If people knew anything about quality literature, they wouldn't buy this cotton candy nonsense.

But that's just it. People don't know about quality literature. They don't know you're not supposed to start a novel with the weather. They don't know that the farm-boy-as-chosen-one plot is old. They don't know that adverbs are a Bad Thing.

But people know what they like. They know these books are thrilling, engrossing, uplifting. "But they're not!" we cry. "They don't even follow the rules!"

Okay, so here's the thing. I know this is going to be hard to hear, but...all those rules that agents and editors and critique partners keep telling us we should follow? None of them make a story good.

For those of us trying to break into the business, it's easy to convince ourselves that "good" is objective -- that all we have to do is figure out the rules and follow them. While the rules certainly increase our chances, nothing in this business is a sure thing. Nothing.

So how do you break in? Well, not having broken in myself yet, I'm going to go with the stock answer: Write lots. Write well. Get lucky.

Usually in that order.

Breaking the Rules

If you've been learning the craft for a while, you've heard the rules. Don't start with a character waking up. Don't start with dialog or the weather. Don't use a mirror as a device to describe the narrator. Et cetera.


There's a book you might have heard about called THE HUNGER GAMES. You know what it starts with? Katniss waking up.

You may have heard of Natalie Whipple, whose X-Men-meets-Godfather debut comes out next Summer. (If you haven't, you're welcome). About her novel, she tweets, "TRANSPARENT opens with a flashback, then moves on to a mirror scene while she is getting ready for school."

I love that. You may argue that means Transparent isn't good, but then you haven't read Natalie's stuff and you would be dead wrong. I can't wait to read Transparent, and I love that it breaks the rules.

My own novel AIR PIRATES starts with dialog. While it hasn't gotten me an agent yet, it has generated a lot of requests which, if nothing else, tells me the beginning doesn't totally suck.

Listen, the rules are good things. You should know them. But don't be afraid of breaking them. Just know why you're doing it. Are you breaking the rule because you couldn't think of anything better, or is it because that's the best way to do what you want to do?

If it's the latter, I say go for it! What do you think?

(Hm. I just realized Post-Apoc Ninjas starts with the weather. Maybe I have authority issues?)