The Reality of Dungeons & Dragons

As a kid, I was taught that D&D is of the devil, but the reality is much, much worse.

Yup. Good times. Good times.

I realize it's Christmas Eve, and you're probably not even reading this right now. If you are, then know the blog is going dark for the holidays. (And if you aren't reading this . . . weird). I'll be back with a First Impact post on January 2nd.

Have a good break!

First Impact: TALIHINA GRACE by Randal J. Brewer

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments this month is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have a query letter for a commercial literary novel. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

I wasn't sure if these were part of the
query, or here just for me. If the
former, write it in paragraph form and
round the words to the nearest 1,000.
Talihina Grace - The hard place no one plans for and the person that meets us there.
93,451 words/complete
Commercial literary fiction

Make sure line breaks between the
paragraphs make it into your e-mail.
After Yola Hernandez kills her abusive boyfriend in a sudden rage and flees in a panic, she finds herself stranded in a small Eastern Oklahoma town with nothing but a new name and a young daughter. It’s a temporary stop; just a place to hide and save a little money before moving on; not a good place to become connected to the people, and not a good place to fall in love.

You should mention the name of the
town in para 1. It's not clear this is
the same town Yola's in.
Vivian Greene has moved from the city into her grandmother’s mountain home and opens a café in Talihina. Her pending divorce feels like freedom to her, but has placed her teenage daughter in the same unhappy situation Vivian once lived through.
Cale Williams has tried to fill the void left by his wife's death by working, raising twin boys, and pastoring a small church, but the arrival of two new women in Talihina has thrown off his careful balance. He is attracted to Vivian, but conflicted by his position as her pastor and the proper counsel he should be giving her. He is equally conflicted, perhaps even tormented by the visions he has of the beautiful and secretive waitress at Vivian’s café whom the folks of Talihina know as Teresa.

See here for why I cut this. And you
can talk about future novels if/when
the agent considers representation.
I have no writing credits or education to offer other than a time as a sports editor for small local newspapers. I am self-taught, and Talihina Grace is my debut effort. I am very proud of the result, and the sequel (Talihina Hope?) is underway. I plan to make these the first of many future novels.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this letter and for your your time and consideration,
Randal J. Brewer

Adam's Thoughts
The meat of the query, the story, is not bad at all. It shows me you can write, and it sounds interesting.

I want a little more though. Maybe connect the three characters sooner (for example, you could tell us Yola is working at Vivian's cafe in Yola's paragraph, maybe). And I really want a sense of the plot. This is a good setup, and I would read the sample pages, but I still don't know what happens. What compelling choice do these characters need to make?

Writing a query highlighting three different characters can be difficult. So another thing you might consider is sticking to a single point of view and focusing on fewer characters.

Lastly, in your submission you said that TALIHINA GRACE has already been self-published. This is something you need to mention in the query. Rachelle Gardner wrote a post on this topic that you definitely should read. I don't know whether it will hurt your chances (probably depends on the agent), but if you don't tell them up front, your chances will still be the same and the agent might be upset you didn't tell them. No need to risk that.

What do the rest of you guys think, about the query in particular?

When Is Piracy Okay?

It's been a while since we talked about piracy. I don't have anything new to say on the subject, but I thought we could have a little discussion starter. So first, a poll: When is it okay to pirate something?

The question is about ethics, not legality. The legality answer is easy and objective (for most countries, the answer is "never").

1) Never. Self-explanatory, I think.

2) When there is no way to get it, even with money. For example, your favorite TV show is geo-blocked and is not available on iTunes. Netflix and Hulu are likewise geo-blocked. You couldn't pay for a copy even if you wanted to.

3) When there is no way to get it, except with a lot of money. The publisher of a book you want refuses to release an e-book version. You could get a paper copy, but within shipping it'll cost like $40. For one book.

4) When you've already paid for one version of it, but you want another version as well. You bought that TV show you want on iTunes, but you want a DVD so the kids can watch without tying up your computer.

5) When you could get a version of it, but it's not what you want. You don't actually want it on iTunes, since iTunes sucks on Windows and you'd rather watch it on your TV.

6) When you could get what you want, but the owner of the property is a money-grubbing corporate tool. Why pay for it when you can stick it to the man?

7) Whenever the heck you want. It's a free country. Also self-explanatory.

Feel free to elaborate your answer in the comments. It's a sticky issue, after all.

I'll be honest: I answered (2). We try very hard to lean toward NEVER (seeing as we are not, in fact, poor mountain villagers that eat only rice and chilis), but we also have a So You Think You Can Dance addiction that Fox won't let us feed :-(

On Covers and Curse Workers

I just finished reading RED GLOVE, the second book in Holly Black's Curse Workers trilogy.

And GAH! This trilogy!

Understand: I LOVE the stories. Love the characters, love the cons (oh my GOSH, the cons), love the powers, love the world. I think I liked WHITE CAT better than this one (the big con felt . . . connier in the first book), but RED GLOVE was still very good.

When I read WHITE CAT, my only problems with it were a minor plot issue and the cover.

Guess what my problems are now.

So, the minor plot issue is really minor. More of a world-building nitpick than anything: If everyone wears gloves all the time -- and the murderer was wearing gloves when she was caught on camera -- why would Cassel need to wipe prints off the gun? (And do police even use fingerprinting if everyone wears gloves all the time?).

But the cover. It's better this time -- it's not whitewashed, for example. Actually, it's a pretty cool design, but . . . I dunno. See, I think boys would love this book. Crime bosses, con artists, murders, brothers. What's not to love? But the cover's PINK, man. Even I was embarrassed to read it in public.

(Okay, so I'm very easily embarrassed. But still, it'd be nice if the cover could be more...neutral.)

First Impact: DEATHSIGN by C.A. Schmidt

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have the first page of a cool-looking YA fantasy. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

First Page
I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

But every night it’s the same. A young man’s scream. A shattering blow and a white flash. Then the wizard comes to me through the gloom, wearing a sleep tunic and shabby sheepskin slippers. “Just a dream, Lina.” He hugs me, beard prickling my forehead, and I gasp. He’s real, he's Barba Luc, an old man with corkscrew curls and eyes of profound blue. The young man is just a dream. I clutch the rough wool of my blankets as my cheeks begin a slow burn.

I'm not following this yet.
Because, really.

I’m the tyro, apprenticed to one of the world’s seven wizards. Fifteen summers old and now, as Barba Luc steps beyond my canopy, utterly mortified.

Because I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

Suddenly, she doesn't seem so
It’s a cold morning, just past Spring Smallfire—the Games ended yesterday—so I pull on a tunic and wrap my cloak around me. The cloak is pale gray lamb’s wool, lined with fleece so soft it’s like wearing a cloud. I love the the way it drapes around my shoulders, the way it makes me look, reflected in my little bronze handmirror. Squint a little and I might look wizardly.

Or not. A thin face and dark-but-not-quite-black hair. A bruise splotching my forehead and freckles dusting my nose. I blame that bruise for my nightmares and my memory lapses, but the freckles and I don’t get along, either. As for the hair, well, hair’s hair. I drag a comb through it, then push my way through the canopy and out into the cottage.

Seven shuttered windows and an enormous bearskin rug. The hearthboy is chopping goatbites for breakfast, his open-backed tunic showing a shaggy black mane down to his waist. He grunts “morning blessings” without even looking at me. Typical. No respect.

I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

Adam's Thoughts
The writing is good. You've got a great handle on craft, and there's some good voice in here (I particularly like the line: "well, hair's hair.").

I have two concerns here. The first is a first person POV technique so common it has become cliche: describing the narrator in a mirror. Now I, personally, have not seen this trope enough to be bothered by it, but I'm certain other people have (that's how I know this is a cliche).

But also, the reason the mirror trick usually doesn't work is because it's artificial. The narrator has been wearing this same cloak, and seeing this same face, all her life. Why is she thinking about them now?

The second concern is also a common trope: starting with a dream. The reason this usually doesn't work is because the reader isn't grounded yet, and a dream is ridiculously hard to get grounded in because we know it's not real. I don't even know the gender of the narrator (I'm guessing about the "she"), let alone what her conflict is: why is it so terrible that she has nightmares? Why does she gasp when the old man (whom I also don't know) hugs her?

These are things the narrator knows, so the reader should know them too. We don't need to know them right away, necessarily, but the conflict and tension currently in the open are lost on us because we don't know what's going on yet.

(Also, I'm pretty sure the young man is going to turn out to be real, to be someone she meets, and (if I'm right about the "Because, really" line) to be a love interest. That's another problem with the dream trope: if it's prophetic (they often are) then it's also predictable, and you don't want that.)

What do the rest of you guys think? Do these things feel cliche to you?

The Science of Persuasion

A friend directed me to this great video on persuasion. It's about the psychology behind why people make decisions, and how you can ethically apply these concepts to persuading people to do what you want. This is ridiculously useful if you're trying to get somebody to buy something (like, say, a book you wrote), but it also applies to things like getting people to follow your blog, critique your manuscript, or blurb your novel.

(You can use them unethically too, of course. That's the problem with scientific principles. Con artists, for example, make use of these tricks all the time. For the record, I don't endorse this.)

In case you can't watch the whole thing, here's a summary on six shortcuts people use to decide whether or not to say yes to somebody.

1. RECIPROCITY: People are more likely to say yes to someone who has done something similar for them. It works best if you give something FIRST, and if that giving is PERSONALIZED and UNEXPECTED.

2. SCARCITY: People are more likely to want something that is about to be unavailable.

3. AUTHORITY: People are more likely to go along with something suggested by a credible expert. Apparently, this works even if the expert obviously benefits from whatever is suggested.

4. CONSISTENCY: People are more likely to do something consistent with prior commitments they have made. Even if that commitment is something minor (like hosting a guest post for a blog tour of your upcoming book), it can increase the likelihood of more major behavior (like buying your book when it comes out).

5. LIKING: People are more likely to do something for people that they like. And some of the main reasons people like someone are: (1) that person is similar to them, (2) that person compliments them, and (3) that person is cooperative with them.

6. CONSENSUS: When people are unsure about something, they are likely to look at what others are doing before making their own commitment. This is probably why bestsellers take off like they do. It's also why shills work.

Many of these seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how effective they can be when you use them intentionally in a marketing campaign (and ethically; sock puppets have a way of backfiring).

What do you think? Have you seen these work?

Query Letters and That Pesky Bio Paragraph

If you've done any research into writing query letters, you've probably read that you need (1) a hook, (2) a mini-synopsis, and (3) a paragraph about you. I see a lot of confusion about what to put in that bio paragraph. Hopefully we can clear that up here.

(NOTE: This is specifically for fiction queries. In non-fiction queries, the bio paragraph is a lot more important).

RULE #1: If you're not sure what to write about yourself, write:
Thank you for your time and consideration.
And NOTHING ELSE. Seriously. The agent is interested in your story. Nothing you write here will change their mind about that.

The bio paragraph is frosting. Yes, frosting can be very pretty and tasty, but if the cake sucks, the agent isn't going to eat it. Conversely, if the cake is awesome, but the frosting is . . . weird, the agent MIGHT scrape the frosting off. Or they might decide to go with one of the other equally awesome cakes topped with plain vanilla. Which brings us to . . .

RULE #2: You are not a special snowflake.
I mean, you are. Of course, you are. But so are the other tens of thousands of writers who want their book published (that's why they call it slush, cuz, you know . . . all the snowflakes).

And you know what? All of them were born with a pencil in their hands too. Or were published in local writer's journals. Or have a critique group. Or head the local chapter of SCBWI. Or came up with the idea when they traveled to Ireland. Or were inspired by God.


None of these things mark you out as special. For agents who have seen them over and over, they mark you out as someone who doesn't realize how not-special they are. And since you can't know what they've seen over and over, see, Rule #1.

RULE #3: Include professional publishing credits only.
"Professional" means you were paid professional rates for it, typically 5 cents/word and up. If all you got was half-a-penny per word and a copy of the magazine, chances are the agent hasn't heard of the publication. And if the agent hasn't heard of it before they read your letter, they're not going to care when they do.

RULE #4: Include previously self-published books if you sold more than 20,000 copies.
Less than that isn't as important as you'd think.

RULE #5: Mention if you share some background relevant to the story.
Like you have a degree in whatever skill the protagonist uses to solve his problems, or you live in whatever exotic location it's set in (Canada? Not so exotic. The Ozarks? Surprisingly, yes).

RULE #6: You can include something unique about yourself. I guess.
I don't want to tell people not to include stuff like this -- it's memorable and unique, and I've seen it done in cute, writerly ways that made me laugh.

But you won't ever look bad if you follow Rule #1. I mean, what could be more unique than living in Thailand and raising 10 kids? But I didn't say any of that in my query, and it didn't hurt my request rate any. In the bio paragraph, less is more.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments.

First Impact: MY SISTER'S DATING A SERIAL KILLER by Carolyn Chambers Clark

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

Congratulations to commenter PATCHI! The gods of probability have favored you for November's prize!

December's prize will be the same: either $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me (seriously, guys, I've had ZERO time to think of/hunt people down for better prizes; I can't imagine why). Anyone who leaves their thoughts in the comments is eligible.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

This week we have a query for a YA thriller from Carolyn Chambers Clark. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, everything here is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Opening sentence is a bit long and
awkward for me.

I laughed a little imagining her tying
corpses to her sister's boyfriend ;-)
Junior year could be her last for sixteen-year-old Cammie Carter who knows her big sister's dating a serial killer, but she needs more proof. Cammie races to find a couple of dead bodies and tie them to her sister's boyfriend before he puts Cammie and sister on his To Murder List.

Don't need to repeat her name & age.
Sixteen-year-old Cammie Carter appoints herself amateur detective in her town when the local police in Sleepy Valley, SC, spend more time drinking beer and playing cards than paying attention to evidence.
How does she catch him? What does
she see?

What's her plan?
After she catches a guy in what she's sure is attempted murder, she tries to stop her sister from dating him, but big sis, her parents, and the police all tell her she has an over-active imagination. No one listens to Cammie excerpt her over-the-wall Nana, but that just makes her more determined to find evidence the guy's murdering people. Based on the TV mysteries she watches, she devises what could be a foolproof plan ... unless her sister's boyfriend catches on.

MY SISTER'S DATING A SERIAL KILLER is a young adult thriller, complete at 60,000 words.

Contests: Unless they're HUGE and
PRESTIGIOUS, cut them.

Publications: Unless you got paid pro
rates for them, cut them.

Critique group: Cut it.
I won 2nd place for YA fiction from the Florida State Writing Competition and first place for YA fiction from the Utica Writer's Club Competition. PALM PRINTS, the University of South Florida's writer's journal and RIVERWALK have each published one of my short stories. I've been extremely active (top 7%) for a couple of years at, critiquing others' work and having mine critiqued.

Thank you for considering my work.

Carolyn Chambers Clark

Adam's Thoughts
I like a good thriller, and this has as much potential as any, but I'm afraid there's not enough meat for me to tell.

I think you did the thing where you start with a hook paragraph and then back up to tell your story. I've talked about why this is a bad idea before. Short version: Get right to your inciting incident (Cammie saw her sister's boyfriend dumping a dead body in a lake!), then use the rest of the space to lead into your compelling choice (if Cammie exposes him, her sister will hate her forever, but if she doesn't, her sister will die!).

Obviously I made up an incident and choice, but I had to. That's another issue I had with the query: I wanted more specifics. Tell us how she knows the guy's a killer, what (specifically!) she plans to do about it, and what the stakes are if she fails.

Also, some folks may take issue with my last comment (the one that basically says cut the whole bio paragraph). I can understand that, but you can save your issues for Friday. I'm going to write a post on that particular topic.

Otherwise, what do the rest of you guys think? Your comments are at least as valuable as mine.

Books I Read: Neuromancer

Title: Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk
Published: 1984
My Content Rating: R for sex, language, and violence
Cliffhanger Ending: No

Case is a washed-up computer hacker; a toxic enzyme from some folks he double-crossed ensures he can never jack into the matrix again. He spends his nights trying to get himself killed in the seamier side of Japan when he's approached by a mysterious man named Armitage and his muscle: a woman with mirrors for eyes and blades in her fingers. Armitage says he can give Case his life back, but he needs him for a job tougher than any hacker has ever faced.

Case is so totally in.

This novel is what cyberpunk is, guys. You have no idea how much science-fiction is influenced by this story, from Shadowrun to The Matrix. I once put this on a list of 10 sci-fi books every SF fan should know, and it has earned that spot.

And it's totally fun on top of it. The only thing that bugged me at all were the descriptions of cyberspace, which were a lot more amorphous that I would have liked. But it's surprising how well Gibson's imagined tech almost 30 years ago holds up to what we have today.

A Free, Easy Backup Plan

You need to backup your stuff. Not because your computer might get stolen or your house might burn down. But because your hard drive WILL fail within a couple of years. Someone in your house WILL, somehow, put a virus on your machine. You WILL accidentally-but-permanently delete your work in progress.

I am the most tech savvy, obsessively careful person I know, yet all three of these things have happened to me. They'll get you too.

I'm also supremely lazy. So if my backup plan requires any maintenance from me, it just won't happen. Here's how I do it then.

You guys know about Dropbox, right? You can store 2 GB for free online with very little work. That's not enough to keep all your pictures and music, but it's more than enough to protect your writing.

Make an account and download the app to your computer. That's it. After that, Dropbox will auto-upload anything you put into the special Dropbox folder, anytime it changes.

"But wait," you say, "Don't I have to manually copy my stuff into that folder as I work?"

Well, yeah. One solution is to work directly within the Dropbox folder, but you don't want to do that (especially since Dropbox can sync two ways -- if somebody hacked into Dropbox, or you had multiple computers linked up, you might lose everything accidentally again). The other solution is this:

Create Synchronicity is this nice little program that will automatically copy files from anywhere to anywhere, on a schedule. It's free, lightweight, versatile, and smart enough to only copy files that actually changed.

Just install it on your machine and set up a profile to copy your important files wherever you want them -- an external hard drive, another computer on the network, or (in this case) your Dropbox folder. Schedule it to run once a day and bam, you never have to think about protecting your work again.

Is this helpful to you? What's your backup plan?

First Impact: JUMPING ANTS by Lori Goldstein

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

Here, in Lori's own words: I'm submitting two takes on a pitch that would go in my query letter for my upmarket novel, Jumping Ants.

These posts aren't usually double-pitches, but I did say anything under 300 words, so let's get to it! Remember, this is all just my opinion, so take it or leave it, as you will.

Query Pitch #1
If he was already unpaid and broke
anyway, why do his parents suddenly
get fed up just because he's fired?

I get lost at the "older, rounder
version of himself." Can't tell if it's
literal or not.
At twenty-nine, the charming but aimless Max Walker is too old to be an unpaid intern at a Manhattan advertising agency. He’s also too old to be single, broke, and living with his parents. But he is. When a raunchy photo of a drunken night between the sheets with the busty HR assistant gets him fired, Max’s formerly indulgent parents kick him out onto their suburban New Jersey lawn. A chance stop at a fast-food drive-thru presents Max with a much bigger problem when a stranger opens his car door, puts a gun to his head, and orders him to drive. The weekend-long adventure with this desperate, older, rounder version of himself leaves Max with a black eye, a crush on a feisty bartender, and the truth that the unfazed grin he’s been honing hasn’t fooled anyone, least of all himself.

Query Pitch #2
The opening question made me laugh
(though maybe because I just read
Pitch #1).
Who gets fired from an unpaid internship? The charming but aimless Max whose has a talent for self-sabotage that gets him hired, fired, and evicted from his parents’ house in the same week. The twenty-nine-year-old is waiting in line at a fast-food drive-thru assessing which friend’s couch he’ll now call home when a stranger opens his car door, points a gun at him, and orders him to drive. The weekend-long journey with this older, rounder, more desperate version of himself leaves Max with a black eye, a crush on a feisty bartender, and the truth that the unfazed grin he’s been honing hasn’t been fooling anyone, least of all himself.

Adam's Thoughts
First, a query basic: paragraph breaks. These both need some.

So, personally, I like the second pitch better, primarily because it doesn't raise the question of why his previously-indulgent parents suddenly get fed up with him. (Remember that, guys: When people have problems with your plot or your world, sometimes the best solution is to cut whatever raised questions.)

But both of them have the same last sentence, which is where I have a couple problems. A minor problem is the one I mentioned in my comment: I can't tell if the "older, rounder version of himself" is meant to be taken literally or figuratively. Likely this is due to all the spec fic I read, so you might be able to ignore it.

The more major problem is that this is all setup. His firing and eviction is the inciting incident, with the gun to his head as the turning point. But that leaves 3/4 of the novel that we know almost nothing about.

I've noted before this is a common problem. The solution is to get to, and through, your turning point as fast as possible, then use the rest of the space to lead up to a sadistic choice -- two compelling things Max must choose between that will make the reader go, "What will he do?!!!"

What do the rest of you guys think?

When You Open Your MS for the 1,000,000th Time and You LOATHE It

Thank you for indulging my forced vacation last week. I actually didn't mean to time it with Thanksgiving (I often forget about American holidays out here), but sometimes things just work out, don't they?

So. You sit down to write. You open the Word doc that you've opened a million times before, see the chapter heading or title page and . . . you hate it. You hate that chapter title, that opening paragraph, that scene that you've revised twenty billion times.

This happened to me a little while ago. I've been revising Post-Apoc Ninjas for like ever, and I was so frigging sick of seeing this screen every morning:

Single-spaced, 10-point font, baby. That's how I roll.

But hey, writing's hard, right? We just gotta deal with it and move on.

But this was affecting my mood (and my predilection toward distraction) every single day. It was making a hard thing harder. So with the help of some basic psychology, I fixed it. Now I see these instead:

Emo Billy, but lots cooler.
Alternate view: a map prettier than any I could ever draw.
I found pictures related to my story, pictures that got me excited about it, and pasted them all over the first page. Now I don't have to see any text until I'm ready (and with the Document Map, I don't have to see the opening text at all, if I don't want to).

So that's your tip for today: When you open your manuscript for the millionth time and you LOATHE it, drop some awesome pictures on the first page to remind you why you still love it.

What about you? When you hate your manuscript and don't want to see it ever again, what do you do about it?


I'm taking a week-long break from blogging for this reason. Things should return to their regular schedule next Monday.

Here's a picture of Batman riding an elephant.


Probably my favorite muppet (with the possible exception of the Swedish Chef). Here, have a drum solo. Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy's Muppets week.

Who's your favorite muppet?

First Impact: A QUESTION OF FAITH (first page)

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

Last week, we had a YA paranormal query from Nicole Zoltack. This week, we're looking at the first page of that manuscript. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. Everything here is just my opinion. As always, your mileage may vary.

First Page
I like this image.
The attic door was always secured and padlocked, but now the stairs hang down into the hallway like a lolling tongue from a particularly dark and dusty mouth.

"Crystal! Why aren't you doing your homework?" Mom stands at the top of the stairs, her arms crossed, two trash bags dangling from her hands.

My chance to finally see inside the attic thwarted. Of course. Mom's the attic ninja.

"I wanted to see—"

Mom hurries down the stairs. "Can you take these bags down to the living room for me?" She forces a smile.


She hands me the bags, then lifts the steps, closes up the attic and locks it before I can even get a glimpse inside it. Now I'm even more curiositycurious to go up there.

Not sure if this last line is supposed
to be internal thought or what.
After another glance at the attic, I do as she asks and drop the bags near the living room desk. Wonder what's inside them.

My temple tingles. Great. A headache. What else could go wrong today? I rub my eyes and sit down in front of the computer when Mom comes into the room.

"I'm sorry for snapping. You just caught me by surprise." Dust is sprinkled throughout Mom's dyed hair, covering her strawberry blonde strands with gray.

"What were you doing up there?"

"Just a little cleaning. There's so much crud up there it isn't funny. I don't know why I kept so many doubles of pictures… We're lucky the house hasn't caught on fire, but at least I'm making some progress."

"Do you want me to help?" I ask eagerly.

"Oh, hon, you don't want to go in the attic." She shudders. "There are mice up there."

Ah, the mice. Her mMom's reason for locking the attic. Or excuse for keeping me out.

Adam's Thoughts
This is a great opening, Nicole. It's got a clever voice and just enough tension to keep me reading.

I . . . can't think of anything bad to say. If the next few pages move as well as this starts, I think you've got the beginning of something good.

But who knows, maybe one of our more-intelligent-than-me readers can give you something to improve. Thoughts, guys?

What's Your Personality Type?

You know the Myers-Briggs personality type, right? If you don't, take this (strictly non-scientific) test and look up your type here.

Me, I'm an INTJ.

From Urban Dictionary: "Otherwise known as the Mastermind. INTJ's are emotionless juggernauts that have no respect for you and don't care if you don't like them."

Also this via Wikipedia: "Personal relationships, particularly romantic ones, can be the INTJ's Achilles heel ... This happens in part because many INTJs do not readily grasp the social rituals ... Perhaps the most fundamental problem, however, is that INTJs really want people to make sense."

The really scary thing is I understand that diagram.

Now you know what you're dealing with.

What's your type?

Using Foreign Words in Foreign Settings

On the post 5 Tips for Using a Foreign Language, Linda asked a very good question: "[What] if the characters are only speaking/thinking one language which is not English but the narrative is in English[:] which words should be in English and which, if any, should be 'foreign'?"

One of my very first writing tutors was Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I'm pulling straight from that. If you're a world-builder of any sort, I highly recommend finding a copy of this book.

Technically, any story outside a modern English-speaking setting requires all dialog and narrative to be "translated." This is obvious for a story set in modern-day Japan (where the characters are speaking and thinking Japanese), but it's just as true for stories set in a fantasy universe, medieval Europe, or any setting more than a few hundred years in the future. So this is a common issue.

Tip #1 in my previous post was that someone speaking their native language doesn't throw in foreign terms unless it helps them to be understood. It reads as pretentious. So:

If there is an English word for what you want to say, use the English word. If hobarjee means "duck," then your narrator and characters should say duck.

Only use the foreign word if it refers to a concept for which there is no English word. If hobarjees look and act like ducks, but later on in turns out they shoot laser beams from their eyes, you are fully justified in calling them hobarjees. The word has meaning now that cannot be expressed in our language.

Though I guess you could call them "laser ducks."

Photo by Richard Bartz, released under Creative Commons
Frigging hobarjees

First Impact: A QUESTION OF FAITH by Nicole Zoltack

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Thank you so much for your submissions and critiques in October. Through randomology, I have determined that the critiquer who wins a 15-page critique from Jodi Meadows is Fiction Writer!! Send me an e-mail, and I'll put you in contact with Jodi right away.

November's prize will be winner's choice: either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me. Anyone who offers their comments on First Impact posts in November is eligible.

This week we have a YA paranormal query from Nicole Zoltack. Thank you, Nicole! My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. Everything here is just my opinion. As always, your mileage may vary.

This first line is nice, but I feel like
the rest of the paragraph wanders a
bit. Could we skip tracking down the
witches and go straight to the truth?
Fifteen-year-old Crystal Miller isn’t a Bible thumper, but how can she not believe in God when He answers nearly all of her prayers? Learning her birthmother sought the help of witches to conceive her shakes her previously unwavering faith. Since curiosity isn't a sin, she tracks down the witches and learns she's the incarnation of magic. Supposedly, that makes her the only person whose magical potential is limitless.

BIG paragraph. Better break it up.

I don't understand how this is
nonsense. She gets whatever she
asks for, right? Sounds cool to me.

I think you can trim this paragraph.
It flows, but it feels more synopsis
than query, and I'm not clear on why
certain events are happening.
Crystal can’t believe her birthmother fell for such nonsense and vows to forget about magic, but when her boyfriend’s mom is seriously injured, she’s tempted to do more than just pray. Surely God won’t mind if she’s using magic to help people. After her boyfriend's mother miraculously recovers, Crystal doesn't know who saved her. Despite worrying her magic will damn her to Hell or, worse, that she doesn’t even have a soul to condemn, she sets out to master her power. Unfortunately, flying and playing with fireballs attracts dangerous attention. When a witch hunter captures her boyfriend and shamans snatch her aunt in an effort to control her, Crystal can no longer ignore who she really is. But she’s still new to magic and if she can't figure out what she's capable of, forget about saving those she loves--she just might start the apocalypse.

A QUESTION OF FAITH is an 87,000-word YA paranormal novel with series potential.

I am the author of a fantasy romance trilogy, Kingdom of Arnhem - Woman of Honor (2009), Knight of Glory (2010), and Champion of Valor (2011) published with Desert Breeze Publishing. Fifteen of my short works have appeared in various anthologies, including Mertales by Wyvern Publications, and many collections by Pill Hill Press, with one more to be published next year, as well as another novel from Desert Breeze Publishing.

Nicole Zoltack
~Where Fantasy and Love Take Flight~
The Kingdom of Arnhem trilogy: Woman of Honor, Knight of Glory, and Champion of Valor
Available from DBP ~ Amazon ~ ARe ~ B&N

Adam's Thoughts
I like the opening line. It made me smile and got me intrigued. 

But I think I interpreted it wrong. I thought that God answering nearly all her prayers was actually her magic powers manifesting. But Crystal's later conflict between her powers and God got me confused.

Does God really answer all her prayers? I'm having my own faith crisis right now wondering if I believe that or if it sounds like fantasy (and wondering what it says about me that my first thought was that was part of the fantasy). If God does answer her prayers (and it's not magic), I think this might raise the same question with other people, which distracts from your story.

If it's not really God (if it is her magical abilities manifesting), then I feel like her inner conflict of staying faithful vs. using her powers is a false one. They're the same thing. Shouldn't that be her inner conflict (i.e. are these powers from God or have I been believing a lie my whole life)?

The story sounds cool, but I'm not sure I'm clear on the central conflict. It's sad (and like I said, crisis-inducing) that I let this one phrase confuse me so much. I wonder if it's just me. What did the rest of you guys think when you read this one?

State of the Writing

It's been a long time since I've given you guys anything like a regular status update. I mean, there's my Works In Progress tab, but (a) who reads that? And (b) that only covers things with names.

So here's where things stand.

AIR PIRATES (being the novel that got me my beloved agent) is on submission. I've gotten some very pleasant-sounding feedback, but you know. When I have an announcement here, you'll hear it.

POST-APOC NINJAS (being the novel I talked about last month) is being revised. Of course the novel I drafted the fastest would take the longest to revise, but at least it's moving.

EVANGELION-ISH is a sci-fi novel I'm going to write after the Ninjas are revised (and the Pirates, if necessary). It has an outline. The two people who have read that are excited, so I guess that's a good thing.

SECRET FANTASY PROJECT is something I can't talk about yet. But it's cool. Unfortunately it's also back-burner, which means I'm spending as much energy trying not to think about it as I am actually working on other things.

TOP SECRET PROJECT, the nature of which I cannot even tell you. But rest assured it's awesome and exciting, and with luck I'll be able to talk about it in a couple of months.

This is on top of getting kids to school, making them food, and sometimes sleeping. I don't know how I got so many projects all of a sudden, but at least it increases the odds you'll get to read one of them eventually. Though it does mean a lot of drawing and remix posts. Sorry :-/

(And to answer the question "How do you do all that?": awesome wife + very poor single-tasking*).

So what are you up to?

* Being the more accurate term for "multi-tasking."

Stormdancer Sketch

A scene from Jay Kristoff's STORMDANCER, based on the excerpt you can read at

This is one of my sell-out sketches, drawn trying to win an ARC of the book. I didn't get the ARC, but I did get a copy of THE LITTLE STORMDANCER, which is easily the next best thing. My kids love this little book.

If you haven't heard of STORMDANCER, here is everything you need to know about it: Japanese steampunk with griffins.

Yeah, that's how I felt about it too.

First Impact: MIST OF KAVALA by Carolyn Abiad

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start, and we're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who leaves a critique in the comments is eligible to win a 15-page critique from INCARNATE author, Jodi Meadows. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful.

This week we have a sci-fi query from Carolyn Abiad. Thanks for submitting, Carolyn! My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. Everything here is just my opinion. As always, your mileage may vary.

Dear Mr. (agent),

The 2nd sentence feels misleading to
me. I'm sure he feels responsible, but
I wouldn't say he is.
In the biodome of Kavala, fifteen-year-old Taner is a pacifist who worships the goddess Tyche, like the rest of his outcast family. No one suspects he’s responsible for his father’s violent death. The Shadowcloak’s fatal shot was meant for Taner, who was pocketing the thief’s artifact.

I like the term mods in this sense.
A mix of guilt and vengeance drives Taner to defy his creed and secretly train to fight the Shadowcloaks. He activates the artifact, hoping to find the thieves, but what he discovers is not a portal or a passage. The artifact mods things, literally changes them. Taner mods his weapon, an auto-aim scope appears out of thin air, and the action alerts Tyche’s rival god, Mithra.
I'm having trouble tracking which
god is which here.
Mithra’s Elite Guards give Taner a choice: follow Tyche from his prison cell, or use his instinctive military skills to capture Shadowcloaks with the Guard.

Whoops, you lost me here. This
sounds like a cool reveal, but in the
query you might need to keep it
At Guard boot camp, Taner follows a raiding thief into the Shadowcloak dome, and discovers nothing he knows is solid. Biodomes are holographic, driven by Mithra’s exploitive codes. Mods are part of the fight to control reality. And the Shadowcloaks once followed Tyche.

Clear stakes. Good.
If Taner doesn't stop Mithra’s manipulation, the Shadowcloaks and everyone he loves in Kavala will be destroyed.
Linking to your website is great, but
I doubt agents will be interested in
the background of your book.
MIST OF KAVALA is a 59,000-word YA science fiction novel. Kavala’s world rules draw on Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing games, the mods that plague them, and the ancient military cult of Mithra. More information about the mythology in the book can be found at carolynsnowabiad (dot) com.

I believe you might like my YA sci-fi, MIST OF KAVALA (because).

Thank you for your consideration of my work.

Carolyn Snow Abiad
Women’s National Book Association
- Charlotte Membership Chair
SCBWI Member

Adam's Thoughts
This sounds like a cool world with a clear plot. I haven't actually played an MMORPG since 1989, but as a gamer I would totally read this.

I do think the query gets a bit confusing when it comes to the gods of the world. Part of that is I didn't realize the gods were actual characters until Mithra was introduced (usually gods are non-participants in a story), so I wasn't paying attention.

Actually, you might be able to skip mentioning Tyche entirely just to simplify it. Something like: "When a thief kills Taner's father, Taner leaves his family's pacifist religion, secretly training to fight the Shadowcloaks." But better, you know?

I like that even though the story is based on MMORPGs, it doesn't feel like a game-turned-novel. And who knows? You might find an agent who likes MMORPGs as well.

What do the rest of you guys think?

It's Okay to Write Slow

J. K. Rowling took five years to write the first Harry Potter.

It's okay to write slow.

Those of us who take a year or more to draft a novel are tempted to believe we're doing something wrong. Like we're too lazy, managing our time wrong, editing our words too much, or (God forbid) not meant to be writers at all. Some of those things might be true, but slow writing doesn't prove it.

(Terry Pratchett wrote his first novel at 400 words a day.)

You might be climbing a learning curve. My first novel took me 5 years to draft, 2 to edit. My second took me two years total. It's still slow, but I'm getting better. You will too. That's what practice does.

(The Harry Potter series took an average of 2 years per book to write.)

You might be a planner. Natalie Whipple can tell you that fast drafts don't mean finished products. They need a lot of editing after they're "done." Not that slow drafts are perfect, but sometimes slow can mean cleaner.

(George R. R. Martin took 6 years to finish the latest Song of Ice and Fire book. I still bought it.)

You might be unpublished. There are really only two reasons you have to write fast: (1) you signed a contract with a deadline or (2) you write to put food on the table. The rest of us have the freedom to write at whatever pace we want, learning as we go.

(Susanna Clarke took 10 years to finish her debut novel, which won some awards and got optioned for a lot of money.)

You might have a life. Maybe you have a full-time job, a family, and an X-Box. Kids are a full-time job on their own (I know, I have ten) and worth more than a publishing contract. Not that you shouldn't go for the contract too, but if you're sacrificing writing speed to play Guitar Hero with your daughter, I call that a win.

There are reasons writing can take a long time, many of them good.

Live life. Write slow.

(remixed from a guest post I did for Natalie Whipple)

5 Tips for Using a Foreign Language Without Sounding Like a Prat

Foreign languages are hard to use in fiction. Probably because most of us don't use them in real life. Here are some tips for helping the reader get that foreignness is happening, without feeling hit over the head by it.

1) USE LANGUAGE TO BE UNDERSTOOD. First and foremost, the purpose of speaking is to communicate ideas. So if a character is fluent in both English and Thai (say), but her listeners understand only English, she won't toss Thai words into her speech. If someone did that in real life, we'd think they were just showing off their knowledge. And (big surprise) that's how it comes off to the reader too -- like the author is showing off some language they picked up on their trip around the world.

2) THINK LIKE THE CHARACTER. If the character isn't fluent in English, then there will be words for which their native language comes to mind. Such a character may correct herself, which not only sounds natural, but gives you a natural way to translate what she says:
"Come on! We have to hurry to catch the rotfai. The train."
If her listeners are also bilingual, she wouldn't correct herself at all (this is called code-switching; it happens in our house a lot). In this case, you'd have to provide the translation some other way, either through direct telling or (better yet) through context -- assuming you need the translation at all.
She clapped her hands. "Children, our guests will be here soon. Gep your toys. Reoreo!"

3) DON'T MAKE THE READER READ UNINTELLIGIBLE GIBBERISH. What if you've got a character who only speaks Thai? Is it cool to drop a whole string of Thai on the reader then? Take a look at this example and see what you think:
The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" one of them shouted. "Lukkheun diawnii!" She didn't know what they were saying, just put her hands on her head and sobbed. "Tah mai lukkheun diaw ja ying kah man. Ow mai! OW MAI!"
This isn't bad until that last sentence. Shoot, I speak Thai, and even I got bored parsing it. And if you don't speak Thai, you'd get no meaning from it at all. Let's revise it so it still conveys foreignness and Bernice's terror, without forcing the reader to slog through a bunch of meaningless phonetics:
The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" One put a gun barrel to her temple, shouting in a language she didn't understand. She didn't know what to do. She put her hands on her head and sobbed, but it only made him scream louder. What did he want from her?

4) PUT FOREIGN WORDS IN ITALICS. This goes along with not making the reader work. Italics signal the reader that these are words they don't necessarily have to know (also that they're not typos). This even goes for words that you think everybody should know.* A good rule of thumb: if it's not in the English dictionary, italicize it. For example:
"You're hungry? No problema, I'll pick up some burritos."
* I've noticed this problem especially with Californians (like me) who assume everyone took Spanish in high school (like me). Also with British authors and French. Guys, I'm American, I don't speak French.

5) USE FOREIGN ACCENTS SPARINGLY. You've probably read stories where a character's foreign accent was annoying or really hard to read. It's hard to do right, but the general rule is: be subtle. Imply the accent rather than hit the reader over the head with it.

TO SUM UP, if you're using foreign languages in your fiction:
  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.
Got any other tips? Annoyances with how some authors handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.

(remixed from an older post)

First Impact: FATHER'S DAY by Hilary Swann

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start, and we're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who leaves a critique in the comments is eligible to win a 15-page critique from INCARNATE author, Jodi Meadows. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful.

We have a short one this week: a picture book query from Hilary Swann. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. Everything here is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

I think even with such small word
counts, you're still supposed to
round to the nearest hundred.
Mia wants to celebrate Father's Day, but with two moms and no dad she doesn't quite know how. When her mom suggests making the day special, Mia has brunch, goes ice skating, and meets other families: some with dads and some without. Father's Day is story about embracing your family no matter what shape or size. It is 567 600 words.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Adam's Thoughts
I have to start by saying I haven't seen a lot of picture book queries. I believe you usually submit the entire manuscript along with the query, and so the query is more like a cover letter. Mary Kole over at seems to agree with me.

But that doesn't mean the query isn't important. This looks really short, but I have to admit, I like this concept and would read this.

The only thing I think you could add is a little more meat about the middle. Does she have brunch and go ice skating by herself? Does she do anything with the other families? Don't go crazy, because I think this already does its job: entice the agent or editor to read on.

What do the rest of you guys think? Would you read this?


I'm in a mountain village (this one), and far away from my computer. So here's a picture of a cat.

I love the internet.

First Impact: GRIMOIRE by Marcy

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember, anyone who leaves a critique in the comments is eligible to win a 15-page critique from author Jodi Meadows.

And this feature can only continue with your submissions! If you have a query letter, first page, or even back cover blurb you'd like critiqued, send it to Details here.

Thank you, Marcy, for letting us take a look at your YA Historical Paranormal. As always, this is just my opinion. You are welcome to disagree.

Chapter One ~ February 1805

The last sentence threw me off on my
first read. I think the problem is the
first sentences are a bit misleading.
It was a fine day for a sale, brisk but sunny; -- a good day for traveling, as evidenced by the crowd in the lane. Most came to buy. Some came out of curiosity. But none of them noticed her sitting in the hall, left with nothing but a single trunk.

I love this paragraph. Great voice.
Great emotion. Totally draws me in.
Arlen watched them, blinking back furious tears, winding her fingers together so tight it hurt. She itched to slap their hands away from whatever they touched, snatch back what they'd bought. How dare they? These were her things!

Except they weren't.

Not anymore.

How long ago did this happen? How
fresh is her pain?

This last sentence is a bit awkward.
It had been an accident according to the coroner. Her parents, coming home from a dinner party in nearby Saxton Greene, were killed when their carriage careened into the pond at the entrance to the property. They were found with their driver all frozen and stiff the next morning when one of the kitchen maids walked in from the village.

And according to Mr. P. T. James Esquire, Ssolicitor to her father's estate, there was no money, therefore, nothing to bequest bequeath. In fact, the estate's debts were such that everything would have to be sold.

Now all the pretty things her parents had collected, the baubles and crystal lamps, the paintings in their gilt frames, the plants in the conservatory - even the lovely gown she was supposed to wear for her coming out ball - were walking out in the hands of strangers.

It was all she could do not to scream.

Adam's Thoughts
What a horrible day for Arlen. This is such a great start -- I'm feeling Arlen's pain and wondering what the heck is going to happen to her (does she become Batman? Please tell me she becomes Batman).

The only major thing I want to say about this is about the opening paragraph. It feels tricksy to me, but not in a good way. I like the irony of it -- that it's a nice day for a sale, but the sale totally sucks. But I don't like feeling like I was tricked into believing one thing, when the story's about another.

I also noticed a lot of little errors here and there -- misplaced commas, bad capitals, misused semicolons, etc. Not so much that I think you can't write (you obviously can, and well), but enough that I noticed.

On the one hand, I understand you shouldn't have to worry about these things until the meat of the story is polished. I get that.

On the other hand, I consider them to be our katas. Ultimately, we should be so familiar with them we don't even think about them anymore. We just do it right. I say this for everyone, myself included. Learn to care :-)

What do you guys think about this piece? Does the opening paragraph work for you? If not, how would you fix it?