A Lesson on Color

Okay, I know I said we weren't supposed to hate on the haters about the whole Rue and racism thing. And I don't intend to hate, but there was one tweet in particular that, two months later, still nags at me:

So I guess "dark brown skin" is not the same as "all the way black." I'm not entirely certain what color palette they were using, but in the interest of teaching instead of hating, I'm going to give a color lesson.*

Presented here are people with varying skin color. For each image, I have taken both a light and dark average of their skin and placed it next to the colors implied by traditional skin color terms.

This is white:
These are the color averages of this girl's skin:

This is yellow:
These are the color averages of this guy's skin:

This is red:
These are the color averages of this guy's skin:

This is black:
These are the color averages of this girl's skin:

I know I'm not the first person to point out that "black" does not, cannot, literally mean black (shoot, even Drizzt is basically gray). But let's go back to the comment in question.

Rue's description in Hunger Games was "dark brown skin," which a number of people interpreted as meaning "brown but not black," and so were upset when Rue appeared in the movie as "black." Let's compare:

This is dark brown:
These are the color averages of Rue's skin:

So . . . Hollywood actually lightened Rue from her description in the book. Weird.

* If the person who tweeted that actually reads this, I do apologize for the semi-snarky way this is presented. Feel free to chew me out for hypocrisy.

A Common Query Problem (also Kung Fu Panda)

Disclaimer: The only query slush I read is on the internet, but there's a lot out here, and I read most of it. So don't knock it.

Every query letter is different, but I've seen a lot lately with the same problems. It looks kinda like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook.
Paragraph 2: Innocent World.
Paragraph 3: Inciting Incident (often repeating the Hook).
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master, but he gets more than he bargained for when he's mistakenly named the legendary Dragon Warrior.

Po has spent his whole life in his father's noodle shop. Blah blah [his father's a goose] blah blah blah [Po plays with kung fu action figures] blah blah [he doesn't actually want to cook noodles] blah blah, etc.

Until the day it is announced that Master Oogway will decide who is to become the Dragon Warrior. [Po tries to get in to see it. Can't.] When Po crashes a slapped-together rocket chair in front of Master Oogway just in time to find the master's finger is pointing at him, his life is changed forever.
A few reasons why this doesn't work:
  1. The hook is repeated and redundant.*
  2. The reader is forced back in time at the beginning of paragraph 2.
  3. Paragraph 2 is setup and backstory. There is no plot.
  4. The query stops before it tells us the meat of the story.
  5. There is no difficult choice for the MC and, therefore, no stakes.

What you want to do with your query is more like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook, Innocent World, AND Inciting Incident.
Paragraph 2: The struggles that occur as a result, leading up to...
Paragraph 3: The Sadistic Choice

Obviously the three paragraphs are just a guideline (mine had four; your story might do it in two). The point is to start with your inciting incident and end with your sadistic choice. A compelling choice is what will make agents want to read more.

Let's look at Po again:
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master instead of making noodles, but he gets more than he bargained for when Master Oogway names him the legendary Dragon Warrior by mistake.
(See? The inciting incident IS your hook, and you don't need to spend more than a few words on the innocent world. Now the rest of the query is free to talk about what agents really want to know: the story. Moving on.)
Unfortunately, Po suffers from weight and incompetence problems. The Furious Five mock him, and Master Shifu is trying to get rid of him. Even so, Po is determined to learn everything he can, and his refusal to give up eventually earns the respect of the Five, even if his kung fu skills do not.

Master Shifu receives word that the powerful Tai Lung has escaped from prison and is on his way to seek his revenge. He runs to Master Oogway, the only master who has ever beaten Tai Lung, but Oogway insists Po is the one who will defeat Tai Lung. When Oogway passes away, Po must decide if he will risk his life based on the ramblings of an old man, or if he should run away, risking the destruction of the entire valley.
It still needs work of course (query letters are hard, guys), but hopefully you get the idea. Start with the inciting incident, end with the sadistic choice, then connect the dots (all the while being specific and skipping everything that isn't necessary for the agent to understand the weight of the choice -- hey, I said it was hard).

What do you think? Is this helpful? How would you handle things differently?

* The concept of a "hook" paragraph comes from query help sites like this one. It's a sound idea, but often misunderstood.

Who's Your Favorite Villain?

I am a huge fan of sympathetic and redemptive villains. So my favorite villain of all time is . . .


Honestly, he had me at Agni-Kai.

Runner-up villains include:
  • Darth Vader
  • The Operative
  • Lord Ruler 
  • And climbing the charts for me is Jaime Lannister, but it remains to be seen how sympathetic he will become (before George Martin kills him).

So who's your favorite villain?

Uncle Iroh on Revision

When I talked about why I don't hate synopses, some of you were disappointed. I talked about how I got myself to actually write one, but you wanted to know how to write one well, to which my completely useless solution was "Make it sound good."

It's good advice, but not very practical. Drafting is (for me) the hardest part of writing, but revision is where real novels are made. It's something you have to be good at to make it in this business. Unfortunately, it's not something I can give an algorithm for (not yet). But I do have some tips to share with the help of my favorite uncle.

Remember Your Basics
You know all those rules you learned? About commas and semicolons and spelling and grammar? About description and metaphor and not starting a story with the MC waking up? Revision is where you apply them.

Feel the Flow
When you read your story, you see everything you've ever dreamed or imagined. When someone else reads it, they only see what you tell them. As you're revising, you have to empty your mind and think, "Does this actually flow? Or do I just think it does because of all the extra stuff in my head?"

Kill It With Fire
You might not be able to predict when your reader will be bored, but you can tell when you are. If some part of the story (query, synopsis, etc.) is boring to you, it will bore someone else. Insert some voice, connect us with the character through emotions or goals, or just kill the whole thing. You'd be surprised what doesn't have to be there.

Credit: Dark Kenjie
Work Your Belly Off
Revision is hard, and like all hard things, it takes practice. You have to develop a feel for how a new reader will interpret things, an eye for where things slow down, an ear for voice. You can practice by getting critiques and fixing your own stuff, but you can only do that for so long before you run out of material.

If you really want to practice hard, the trick is to critique other people's stuff. You don't even have to network to do it. Just hit up Miss Snark's First Victim or Evil Editor or Critters.org. Work those critting muscles like a fat fire-bender stuck in prison!

Yeah, I know I just said to work your belly off, but you need to relax too. Partly because you need a break from the story to even hope to read it like a new reader, but also because writing is hard, and you need to take care of yourself. A man (or woman) needs his rest.

What are your tips for revision?

Getting better at something is a very, very, slowly, gradually, very, very slow thing

And that's all I have to say about that.

(Totally unrelated, my agent sister Daisy Carter is having a Q&A with our agent on her blog. So if you've got any questions for Tricia Lawrence (and maybe want to win a free book), head on over there!)

Why Should You Get an Agent?

(Remixed from a post over two years ago, when self-publishing wasn't quite the thing it is now. I'm still of the opinion that agents are a Very Good Thing. Opinions on self-publishing can be found here.)

When I first started querying, I didn't know if I should query agents or editors. I was only vaguely aware of what agents did. Based on my experience with real estate agents, I knew they handled the legal stuff and took a cut, that was about it.

I wanted help with the legal stuff, and preferred an agent to a lawyer. I figured I'd get one eventually, but I wasn't very adamant about it back then. Two things tipped me over the edge.

The first (though I don't remember where I read it) was this: say you submit to all the hundreds of agents and they reject your work. You can still submit to the editors.*

But, if you submit to all those editors who accept unagented queries and they reject you, any agent you get afterward will be quite disappointed to find half their prospective editors already said no.

* Though if all the agents are rejecting you, I don't know why you'd expect different from the editors.

The second was Tobias Buckell's author advance survey. I love statistics, and Tobias got some good ones from a decent sampling of authors. If you're at all interested in what authors make, I suggest you read it. But basically: the median advance for first-time authors with an agent was $6,000; the median advance to the unagented was $3,500.

Some quick math: the agent's cut is 15%. For the agented authors, then, the net gain was $5,100. Still significantly more than that of the unagented.

As far as I know, that 15% is the only downside to having an agent. If agents are making back 3x that, while simultaneously haggling for your rights, selling those rights for more money, and generally ensuring you don't get screwed -- all while you are busy with the task of actually writing -- the choice of agent or no seems like a no-brainer.

(From a publisher's point of view, it seems to me that they could save a lot of money by encouraging writers to submit to them unagented. But then Moonrat has a good list of reasons why editors would prefer to work with agents anyway. So there you go).

How I Came to Not Hate Synopses

Synopsesesssssss, we hates them! Curse them and crush them!

But then I had to write two in a row, with no time to procrastinate. I still don't like them, but I no longer fear them. Why?

Because I found an algorithm.

STEP #1: Plan the story. Or write it, in the case where you're writing a synopsis after the draft. Either way works, but writing the synopsis before the draft makes it easier to condense things, I think.

STEP #2: Write the Crappy Synopsis. Just write everything that happens, in whatever order you think of it. Always telling, never bothering to show unless you happen to think of it that way. Always remember: no one will ever see this version.

STEP #3: Make a list of Main Events. Use the Crappy Synopsis as a guide. Just write a sentence or two per event. Try to pick events that are critical (and skip events that are merely transitional), but don't worry if you get too many.

STEP #4: Make a list of Condensed Events. In a new document, take the Main Events list and condense it. Delete every event you can (meaning the synopsis still makes sense without it). Combine the events that you can almost-but-not-quite delete into other critical events.

REPEAT STEP #4 until your list is about as long as you want the synopsis to be. For me, that's usually 2-3 pages. Keep in mind that what appears "critical" in novel form may not be necessary to understand the synopsis. You can cut a lot more than you think you can.

Then again, I like cutting better than adding.

STEP #5: Write the Friggin' Synopsis. Use the Condensed Events List as your guide. This is usually the hard part, but for me, by the time I got here, I was mostly turning each list item into its own paragraph. It was like magic.

STEP #6: Revise. Make it sound good. Make it flow. Add voice where you can.

And that's it! Will it work for you? Heck, I don't know. All I know is my agent liked both of my synopses and now I don't have to write one for a while.

Hm, maybe that's why I don't hate them at the moment.

Legend of Korra

Apparently the follow-up series to the greatest thing ever airs tomorrow. I'm going to have to ask the entire internet to not talk about it until they make DVDs and ship a set to Thailand.

Man, being a commodore sucks.

Why Book-to-Movie Adaptations Are So Freaking Hard

  1. Because you're squishing a whole novel -- which, if adapted scene-for-scene would be about 4-8 hours -- into a tiny, tiny 2-hour box.
  2. Because you're turning words that can describe anything into pure sight and sound. If the characters don't say it or do it on-screen, it never happened.
  3. Because you're taking the individual interpretations of thousands of readers and saying, "No, actually, this is what it was like."
All of which guarantees somebody will be unhappy. Honestly, I'm shocked whenever an adaptation is actually good.

Although admittedly, sometimes even a really bad adaptation can get me to read the book.

What's your favorite book-to-movie adaptation? What's your least favorite?

Other than Lord of the Rings (which was nigh-PERFECT), I thought they did a good job with Watchmen. Yeah, they took away Adrian's self-doubt at the end, but I liked how Adrian framed Manhattan instead of a random alien. It was the first time I thought an adaptation actually improved on the source.

My Favorite Anime

I can't believe this blog has been going for nearly 4 years, and I have barely scratched the subject of anime. Well that ends now! Here are my top 5 anime series of all time.

(If you don't know what anime is, start here, though odds are you've already seen it. Apparently, I was watching it as a kid and didn't even realize it.)

(For my top anime movies, please see the entire collected works of Hayao Miyazaki.)

#5 Samurai Champloo
Genre: Hip-hop historical fiction, samurais
Premise: Two rival master swordsmen are rescued from execution by a teahouse waitress, who makes them vow to help her find "the samurai who smells of sunflowers."
Why I like it: Awesome fight scenes, unique liberties taken with the Edo period, and hilarious banter between the two swordsmen.

#4 The Vision of Escaflowne
Genre: Science fantasy, mechas, dragons, steampunk future-telling devices
Premise: A girl gets transported to the magical world of Gaea, where she must use her psychic gifts to help a dispossessed prince fight off an evil empire.
Why I like it: Mechas, dragons, and clever questions on what it means to know and change the future.

#3 Neon Genesis: Evangelion
Genre: Science fiction, mechas, metaphysics
Premise: A teenager is recruited as an elite mecha pilot by his estranged father, to protect the Earth from a series of increasingly-deadly "angels."
Why I like it: Mechas and clandestine gov't organizations
Why it's not #1: Cuz the ending is weird, man. Really weird.

#2 Naruto
Genre: Fantasy, ninjas
Premise: A ninja orphan, shunned because of the monster that was sealed inside him at birth, is determined to become the greatest ninja in his village.
Why I like it: Ninjas, clever tactics and strategies, ninjas, like a hundred characters with backgrounds and motivations that matter, ninjas, ninjas, ninjas
Why it's not #1: Because it's at 477 episodes (and counting). About a third of those are filler.

#1 Cowboy Bebop
Genre: Science fiction
Premise: Spike and Jet travel the solar system, scraping a living as bounty hunters.
Why I like it: Witty banter, smart characters, mysterious pasts, a tight storyline from beginning to end, and one really smart corgi.

Keep in mind there are lots of series I haven't seen (Fullmetal Alchemist, for example, would probably be on this list, but I've still got over 20 episodes to go!).

What's your favorite anime? And if you don't have one, why aren't you watching Cowboy Bebop right now?

Does Social Media Affect What Books You Buy?

A little while ago, The Intern had an interesting post on how much (or how little) social media promotion efforts affect sales. She challenged her readers to take a look at how many books they'd bought because of social media efforts vs. traditional methods (like, say, word of mouth).

So I did.


Of the books I've actually paid money for since 2008:
  • I chose 45% because I knew the author (meaning I had read one of their books before and liked it).
  • I chose 35% because of word of mouth (meaning a trusted friend told me I should read the book).
  • I chose 20% because of social media (meaning I discovered the book independently, from twitter, facebook, blogs, book trailers, etc).

I thought that might be a little misleading, since many of the books in that first category were purchased after I discovered the author via other means (for example, after I discovered Brandon Sanderson and read MISTBORN, I bought three more of his books). So I looked at how I discovered these authors.

Of the authors I've discovered (and bought their books) since 2008:
  • I heard of 70% from word of mouth.
  • I heard of 30% from social media.

So does social media work? Well, it worked for me, but there's one statistic I haven't mentioned. Why did I choose 2008 as my cut-off? Because I wasn't even on social media before then. Before 2008, 100% of the books I purchased were authors I knew or discovered by word of mouth.

So does social media work for reaching readers? I think it's a starting point. But I don't think it's worth plunging hours and hours and days into.

I do think it's a fantastic tool to network with other writers though. I got my ill-fated referral that way, along with some of the most awesome critique partners in the business. And Jay Kristoff recently blogged about how both Beth Revis and Scott Freaking Westerfeld discovered him and offered to read his book for a possible blurb (which upsets me, because I wanted Scott F. Westerfeld to blurb my novel, but I guess you have to have a book deal first).

Man, this publicity stuff is complicated. Does it ever work? What do you think?

Books I Read: Nowhere Girl

Title: Nowhere Girl
Author: A.J. Paquette
Genre: Middle Grade
Published: 2011
My Content Rating: G

Luchi Ann is an American girl born in an obscure Thai prison. Her mother was an inmate, but when she passes away, Luchi has to go out into the world for the first time. Her fair skin and blond hair mark her as a foreigner, though Thailand is the only home she's ever known. It takes a long journey through Thailand and overseas to discover who she is and what secrets her mother was keeping.

I love this book. I'm not usually one to care about prose, but this is beautifully written. I love the way Ammi-Joan (yes, that Ammi-Joan) uses comparisons everywhere that don't just describe a thing, but also reveal what Luchi is feeling, and also also connect everything to frigging everything.

And as a foreigner living in Thailand, I felt she got the people spot on: the caring grandmother, the kind relatives who still worry about saving face, the well-meaning (but sometimes deceitful) cousin, the girl who is perfectly nice to your face -- and means it -- but is also ripping you off because you're a farang.

I loved all these characters, I feel like I know them (or, in some cases, am related to them by marriage). Shoot, Ammi-Joan even made me want to visit Bangkok again, which is not a feeling I normally have.

If any of that sounds even vaguely interesting to you, go read this book.

How Pirates Are Born

(Again, because I actually write about pirates, I have to specify that I'm talking about the lame kind of piracy today, not the swashbuckling kind. I will, however, use the swashbuckling kind to make my point.)

Before I get into this, understand I am generally against piracy. This is not a post about why piracy is okay. This is a post about why it happens, and what can (and cannot) be done about it.

So, say media producers -- Random House, NBC, Nickelodeon, Blizzard Entertainment, etc. -- are the governor, and their media is their smart, beautiful, confident daughter. Like any father, the governor wants his daughter to marry the right man, and he'd rather not have to pay a pirate's ransom to do it.

Consumers, then, generally fall into three categories: pirates, commodores, and Will Turner.

Real pirates don't actually care about the governor's daughter. They just want the ransom. The governor goes to great lengths to protect his daughter from these ruffians -- sometimes even making life more difficult for law-abiding citizens -- but in the end, if Captain Jack Sparrow really wants to kidnap and ransom her, he will.

These are the guys who will always rip off your media and distribute it for free (sometimes even if it's free already!). It doesn't matter what DRM or geo-blocking you put up, or where you release it, they can and will get their hands on it. These are the guys that make DRM almost worthless.

Fortunately, they represent a very small percentage of Actual People. Also fortunate: because they're never going to pay for your stuff anyway, they don't count as lost sales. That means media producers can effectively ignore them. Seriously, your daughter is fine, just pay the ransom and move on.

Of course the governor wants his daughter to marry the commodore. He's wealthy, has a good title, and most importantly, he always obeys the law.

It's the same in the media world; the commodores will always obey the law and terms of service you provide. They don't know what torrents or VPN services are, and they don't want to know.

Unfortunately, like real pirates, commodores represent a very small percentage of the population.

Will is a really nice guy. He's honest, strong, he works hard, and he hates pirates.

At least, he used to hate pirates, until the governor's daughter disappeared. When he asked the governor about it, the governor just shrugged and shook his head. So Will did the only thing he could do: he turned to the real pirates for help.

I think media producers would like to believe that most people are either pirates or commodores. Unfortunately, that's not true. Most people -- I'm thinking 80% or more -- are Will Turner. We don't like pirates. We don't want to be pirates. But at the same time, we really, really love the governor's daughter, and we'll do anything to see her.

If the media Will wants is available for a reasonable price, then he doesn't have a problem. But when his favorite TV show is geo-blocked, or the eBook costs more than the paperback, or the movie isn't released in his country, it forces Will to choose between the governor's daughter and the obscure ethics of copyright infringment.

And since Will is just a humble blacksmith, and there are a lot of fancy words in those terms of service, he usually ends up infringing.

Once someone pirates one thing, the ethics get fuzzier. The software is still on his computer, and downloading twenty movies is as easy as one. Will's unlikely to turn into a full-blown pirate (since that requires some savvy), but he probably won't see things the same as the commodore again.

What can media producers do? Provide the same service as the pirates, or better.

One of the most common reasons for digital media to be blocked from certain countries is a fear of piracy. "You can't release in Russia! You're just asking to be pirated!"

As game developer Gabe Newell discovered, that is ridiculous. The real pirates are masters of distribution. What you geo-blocked for US only, they have released to the world. Yesterday. When you don't release something in a foreign territory, you are only removing the pirates' competition.

But the pirates are not hurting your sales. What hurts sales is when Will Turner goes to your website or walks into the store looking for a legal copy and is told he can't have it because he lives in Russia or Thailand or Canada (seriously, guys, you're geo-blocking Canada?).

Will Turner (points at self) is your fan. He's willing to sit through commercials or pay a small fee to consume your work legally. Will wants to support you, but you have to give him the option!

When you force people to choose between pirating a show or not watching it at all, many will choose piracy. Your terms of service just aren't as attractive.