Up and Interpretations of a Story

Chapters Edited: 20
Scenes Edited: 67
Words Murdered: 5078 (6.6%)

People whose butt Sam has kicked: 42
People who've kicked Sam's butt: 2

People whose butt Hagai has kicked: 0


Last time, I chided George Lucas for revising Star Wars after they'd been released to the public saying, "Once it's out there, it's no longer yours." What I mean is that the story you write, and the story someone else reads (or watches), are two entirely different things.

Here's an example. My wife and I went to see Pixar's Up last Friday. Up is about a retired old man named Carl. His wife and childhood sweetheart dies; they couldn't have children, so he's alone now. For her sake, he decides to go on the adventure they always said they would go on but never did. Along the way, he learns that the seemingly boring things in life are what make memories - they're the real adventure.

My wife and I had different reactions to it. Superficially, I liked the airships, and she didn't like the talking dogs, but then we started talking about it and discovered we had different ideas about what was important.

I liked that Carl pursued his dream, doing what he'd always longed to do. I also liked the relationship he formed with Russell, the young boy who went with him. These are themes I'm commonly drawn to: doing what you're born to do and fatherhood, which says a lot more about me than the movie.

Cindy, on the other hand, was more interested in Carl's relationship with his wife. To her, the fulfillment of the wife's lifelong dream was more important than anything else, so when Carl chose to set the dream aside in order to rescue a bird that had become important to Russell, she kind of lost interest.

And the thing is, she's not wrong. She latched on to what she had brought to the movie, just like I did. In both cases, we got things out of the movie that were not its primary focus - were maybe never intended by the creators at all.

That's what I mean. Once someone else reads your story, it becomes something different, something that belongs to them. You can revise it, but in doing so you may wipe out the story they thought they had read. If it's a beta reader or something, they'll understand. If it's a fan of 20 years[, George,] they won't.

Sigh... I liked that Han shot first. It made him cooler.

Making It Good Enough

Nathan Bransford recently asked: How do you know when your novel is done? The trick, I think, is not to make it perfect, but to know when it's good enough.

When I was a programmer, I was taught that you can accomplish 80% of a task with 20% of the work, but the remaining 20% of the task (i.e. trying to make it perfect) will take another 80% of work. Once you've hit 80% of perfection, each percent after that is harder to earn. This is true of any creative task, I think.

The real trick is knowing there is no 100%. You can't write the perfect book, but you can write the best book possible at your current level. Once you've done that, you need to put that book down and write another book, a better book, at your new current level.

Some authors are good at this. You can tell by reading their backlist and seeing how they've improved. I don't know any authors who are bad at this, but I am going to pick on one example of what not to do: George Lucas.

Lucas has made at least two major revisions to the original trilogy since they were first released 30 years ago. Whether you like the revisions or not, they made a lot of people very angry. Why? Because the originals were good enough.

The big lesson here, of course, is not to change something that's been released to the public. Once it's out there, it's no longer yours. But even for those of us who haven't released anything, there's an important lesson: Move On. It will make you a better writer.

Getting Critiqued

Chapters Edited: 19
Scenes Edited: 60
Words Murdered: 4493 (6.5%)

Cliff Dives: 1
BASE Jumps: 1
Bungee Jumps: 1
Motocross Flips: 0 (gotcha)

Times I've had to delete the words "He took a deep breath" before a character does something scary: 8 (I'm a fan of breathing, apparently)


I've talked before about how poorly I deal with critiques. It's one of the things that keeps me from thinking like a pro.

I'm thinking about this again because serious critique time is coming. When I've finished editing in a few weeks, I'll have to send this out to beta readers and take whatever they dish out.

I got a taste of that the other day at Evil Editor again, where the beginning of Air Pirates went up (along with a humorous continuation in blue text). I don't mind the comments on grammar, on not telling things twice, on the fact that almost everyone took the first sentence literally - those are easy changes. I see those comments and go, "Oh yeah, how'd I miss that?"

It's the big comments that are hard to hear. The ones that suggest the opening is boring, nothing happens. At first it's hard to hear because I never want to hear what's wrong (which is stupid - that's the whole point of being critiqued in the first place). But once I get over that, it's still hard because I have to figure out what to do about it.

Natalie pointed out to me, quite rightly, that these are opinions - not every book has to start fast and furious. There was even one commenter who really liked it. And I like it, sort of, but only a few pages in, when the slow start pays off.

At the same time, if a lot of people have the same opinion, then it's something I need to consider changing. Can I start closer to the action without losing any of the character development? Probably, but I don't know how yet.

I've also joined Critters, an online critique group for SF/F/H, where I hope to find some beta readers (don't worry, I'll post a call for beta readers here too). It's cool because I'll get practice critiquing, which is helpful for so many reasons even though it takes time. But, like all other requests for criticism, it's really, really scary.

Geez. The things I do to satisfy this dream of mine.

Dialogue Algorithm

One of the common problems I've found while editing is an imbalance in my dialogue tags.

Early in the manuscript, I had too many tags - extraneous 'he said/she said's that (I know now) clutter the writing. I think I thought they added rhythm.

Later on, I found a lot of strong verbs. These aren't inherently bad, but there shouldn't be one on every line (as per my own advice).

Towards the middle of the manuscript, it seemed like every line had a dialogue tag inserted midsentence (this one I know was for rhythm).

It's like, every time I learned some new thing to do in dialogue, I got all excited about it and did it too freaking much.

Okay, so here's my "Less is More" algorithm. We'll see how well this works:
  1. Write dialogue such that the speaker's identity, emotion, and expression are clear without the need of dialogue tags.
  2. If it is impossible to make the speaker's identity clear through dialogue alone, add a simple tag (e.g. he said, she said). Add the first one on the end of the sentence, the next one in the front, the third in the middle. Alternate "Sam said" with "said Sam".
  3. If it is impossible to make the speaker's emotion or expression clear through dialogue alone, add an action sentence to the dialogue.
  4. If an action sentence is inappropriate or inadequate, use a dialogue tag with a strong verb (e.g. "he shouted", "he challenged").
  5. If the English verb does not exist to express the appropriate emotion or expression, use an adverb (e.g. "he said happily").
  6. Never use step 2 three times in a row.
  7. Never use steps 3, 4, or 5 twice in a row.
  8. Just to be safe, don't use steps 2, 3, 4, or 5 on every other line either.
I know (and I hope you do too) that even these are just guidelines - although it would make for a pretty decent novel-writing computer program. Hmm...

Anyway, I already see problems with this. What about establishing place? What about rhythm? This is still very much an art, but maybe with this algorithm I can come up with better dialogue on a first run than I (apparently) have been.

Believing in a World

Chapters Edited: 15
Scenes Edited: 47
Words Murdered: 2904 (5.2%)

Confirmed Kills: 1 (Geez, that's it?)
Mutinies: 1
Authority figures Sam has a problem with: All of them


A writer has to believe in their story. That's a given. A writer has to believe in their world - that's a corollary. But how far does that go? Tolkien wrote about immortal elves that left our world behind. Orson Scott Card described a future endangered by buglike aliens and saved by a pre-teen genius. But they didn't believe these things were really true.

Or did they?

When I was planning Air Pirates, I discovered that, while the worlds I created didn't have to be real, I needed to believe they could be.

The Air Pirates world sprung out of science fiction. I needed a world that was like Earth, but wasn't. At the same time, I didn't want to just take Earth and rename it. If names, cultures, and languages were going to be like Earth's, there should be a reason, I thought. I wanted the people of Air Pirates to be from Earth.

And so they are. They're distant descendants of Earth, whose ancestors arrived on the planet via a generation ship, though they don't know it. Nearly all of their knowledge was lost when the generation ship crashed into the sea.

Here's where it gets weird (or where I get weird - take your pick). The survivors lost everything - technology, history, even theology... and that was my problem. I'm a committed Christian, and so believe that God created us for a purpose, with an end in mind. The traditional end being, of course, the horrors and glories found in Revelation, when Jesus returns and God ends this world.

But I've read lots of stories that don't fit - and in many cases, outright reject - this worldview, and I've never had a problem with it. My capacity for belief-suspension is pretty dang high. But for some reason, I couldn't write about a world where clearly the Bible was wrong. My heart wasn't in it.

So I included God in my world. Not just by giving them religion, but by imagining how a forgotten colony could fit into God's plan. If a remnant of humanity left Earth, wouldn't God send his Word with them too, somehow? Though all their history was lost?

Enter the Brothers and Sisters of Saint Jude. Decades after the crash, when civilization had stabilized and the first generation had almost passed away, a group of people came together and tried to reconstruct the Bible. Knowing their project to be imperfect, they named the result the Incommensurate Word of God.

Air Pirates isn't about all this stuff. The monks only show up in one chapter, and their history is only briefly mentioned as world candy. The origins of the world aren't even touched on (in this book).

But they're there. They have to be, for me.

Anyone else get weird about their world building like this? Or maybe you have your own (less weird) world building stories to share?

Halfway Done and Silver Phoenix

Chapters Edited: 14
Scenes Edited: 41
Words Murdered: 2,576 (5.1%)

Visions Hagai has seen in the stone: 5
Visions where Hagai gets beat up or dies: 4
Visions where good things happen: 0


One of my first bosses once told me, "When your boss tell you to estimate how long a task will take, double what you think it will take and tell them that." I found that to be true in later jobs, and it's still true here.

I once said the full read-through of Air Pirates would take me 1-4 weeks. Yesterday was the 4 week mark, and I am now halfway through. So it would seem my boss was right.

In other news (and other references to previous posts), I found a book trailer that I think is kind of cool. It's for a book called Silver Phoenix, about a young girl in ancient China with hidden powers who tries to find and fulfill her destiny. Here, check it out:

This works, I think, because everything seems to fit the tone of the book. There's no weak voice-over. The images look like they would fit in the world without being too specific. The music, too, feels very Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; it helps that the whole story has that Chinese mythical feel about it. I really like the Chinese-to-English text fade they do in the middle, too.

Finally, the only glimpses we get of characters look just like the girl on the cover.

I haven't read the book (it's not exactly carried in my local Thai bookstore), but it sounds like something I'd enjoy. Natalie even said it reminded her of Miyazaki's work, which is like saying to me, "Here, Adam, would you like some crack with that cocaine?" (Note to my mom: I don't do drugs. I do like Asian folklore though, perhaps too much).

This is the author's debut novel, which I like of course because I hope to be in the same place someday. She is doing a contest on her blog, giving away a copy of the book as well as some of her cool paintings for telling others about her book (like I'm doing).

Anyway, I don't get books often, but I do keep a list of what I want, so I don't forget things. Silver Phoenix has made the list, and that's no small thing.

Content Ratings

(No statistics today. Sorry, Natalie.)

Books don't have content ratings the way movies do, but I often think of them in the same terms. The question today is what level of sex/violence/language do you typically write or prefer to read?

There's a lot of action in my stories, and I'm not afraid to write about people beating the crap out of each other. People get shot, crack their skulls on pavement, slit each other's throats, and even die in childbirth.*

That said, I think the violence in my writing remains mostly PG-13.** In movies, the difference between PG-13 and R is not necessarily what happens, but how much you show of it and how much blood there is. It's the same idea in books (or would be, if there were a rating system). If a major character gets a sword in their gut, and you spend a paragraph describing what comes out, or the excruciating pain they're going through, it's the equivalent of a rated R scene. But if a minor no-name gets "sliced" during a battle and "doesn't get up," it's PG-13 - even though the same thing happened.

So I'll write as violent the story calls for, but how much I show will depend on the tone of the story. Most of Air Pirates is pretty light, so I keep the violence light, but it has its dark spots too.

In movies and books, language doesn't bother me at all for some reason. Even so, I keep the language in my books at PG-13 level (e.g. no sh-words or f-bombs, but damn and hell are okay). A lot of that is due to my alpha reader who physically hates reading bad words. It's actually good because it forces me to think before I make a character swear, and when they do, it's far more effective.

Alternatively, I could make up a whole new slang, like I did for Air Pirates. That way my characters can swear all the time without offending the ear (at least the American ear - some of AP's swear words are borrowed/modified from the British). You have to be careful with this though. Made-up swearing is hard to do right. I have no doubt that some Air Pirates' slang just sounds stupid.

I don't like watching explicit sex, and I'd rather not read it in books. They just aren't images I want in my head. (Though having said that, sex scenes in books don't affect me as strongly as the visual images in a movie).

So I almost never write sex scenes either. When I do, it's strictly fade-to-black PG stuff. There's none in Travelers, and Air Pirates has only two scenes that come close. In one, a woman gets attacked - attempted rape is implied, but never said out loud and never shown. The other is essentially: "They kissed. They didn't come out for a long time."

No, I won't be writing erotica anytime soon.

I should add that I'll read anything (hello, Song of Ice and Fire). These are my preferences. Not surprisingly, I tend to write what I like to read. So what about you?

CategoryPrefer to ReadWrite
LanguageDon't carePG-13

* But no knees; I can't stand knees. None of my characters ever get shot in the knee or break their knees. If someday one of them does, it will mean I have grown as a writer and a person.

** I'm using the American rating system. It's the only one I'm familiar with.