Notes to Self: The Cunning, Chapter 3

Sometimes when I'm drafting, I have to do a quick outline or write other notes to myself to figure out what happens next. I guess I could just write the draft and change the stuff that doesn't work, but these notes help me brainstorm. They're also a way to trick my inner editor into thinking I'm not really writing, and therefore don't need his "services."

This bit's from the chapter I recently finished in The Cunning. Suriya and her aunt move to Chiang Mai after the villagers in their last home became frightened of Suriya's strange powers. Suriya's aunt hopes that a big city will be easier to hide in.

The beginning of this scene needed to show the passing of time, what happened for Suriya in her three months living in the big city. I didn't want to start with exposition, but I had to write it out just so I knew what happened. So I did it in a quick outline. As you can see, I didn't trick my inner editor at all (yes, these are my actual notes):

  • Suriya learned a lot over the next three months, perhaps more than she'd ever learned in her life.
    • She learned that Thai food only cost twenty-five Baht.
    • She learned Kham Muang, and enough English, German, and Chinese that she could avoid the kinds of problems so-and-so, the other server, had on the first day they came to the guest house.
    • She learned what a bargirl was.
    • She learned how boring this exposition was. Why? She's just happy and learning stuff, but NOTHING'S HAPPENING IN THE STORY!

Troubles in Thailand

You may have heard about the protests going on in Thailand right now. Basically one group (the "red shirts") wants the prime minister to dissolve parliament, step down, and call for new elections. He's not, obviously, and a few days ago the protests turned violent. Twenty people were killed, hundreds hurt.

Most of the trouble's in Bangkok, so we're largely unaffected. But I did read one story saying protesters had gotten a hold of Chiang Mai Provincial Hall. If so, that's kind of a trip because we just went there to announce Anica's birth. You can learn more about it here or from the video:

It's the same mess that started years ago when the military took the government from Thaksin. Very little has changed except who's in power.

Not to make light of it, but one really eerie thing is that I wrote a scene just like these protests about a day or two before they happened. I really hope I don't have that power. If so, I'm done writing modern-day fantasy right now.

Taking Writing Seriously

Every writer looks at writing differently. Some do it because they love to create. Some do it to express themselves. To entertain. To become famous. To make money. Etc. Most of us write for a combination of these. With the exception of fame and money, these goals can be accomplished without too much trouble (other than, you know, the trouble of actually writing). Becoming famous, in particular, is out of most of our control, so I'll leave it alone.

So what if you want to make money by writing? In that case, you need to take your writing more seriously than most. You need to understand that this is a business. You need to consider yourself a pro.

This was the situation I found myself in a year and a half ago. If I wanted to take writing seriously, I couldn't be subject to ephemeral whims like "desire" or "inspiration" to write. I had to treat it like my job. What would my boss do if I said, "I'm not feeling it today. I'm not coming to work."? Or what if, when asked when I would finish a task, I replied, "It depends on when the muse hits me."?

(I should pause to point out that I still very much am subject to ephemeral whims. Every single day. All I'm saying is I'm not supposed to be.)

And I couldn't sacrifice my real job for writing. As many of you know, my real life is not a job I can walk away from. There will not come a day when I can quit my day job to work on writing for 8 hours a day. Because of that, I need to know that my time is being spent wisely. Of course all of my writing is worth it to help me improve, but when I start selling things, will it be enough to justify disappearing from my family for 2-4 hrs/day?

Like, I've made $7.20 on my Twitter fiction. While it was extremely cool to get paid for writing, I can't sell enough to justify the time. My BCS story got me $220 for about 30 hours of work. That's more worth it -- if I focused all my time on short stories, I could probably justify that amount of time (even if it wouldn't be enough to support my family).

Unfortunately, I want to write novels. Not having sold one, I limit my time. I look at what author's make (on average). I examine my process and keep track of production speed, constantly trying to improve until the day I can produce a novel in (what I consider) a reasonable amount of time. I'm kinda harsh, but I have to be. I want to do this, but there are some costs I'm not willing to pay, you know?

What about you? What are your goals in this writing thing (for those of you who are writing)? What are you willing to give up? Perhaps more illuminating, what aren't you willing to give up?

I've Never Been This Excited About 4,400 Words

First off, a HUGE thanks to agented author and writer of ninja fiction (among other things) Natalie Whipple for the revamped blog header you see above. She has an amazing knack for matching people to fonts. She's like the eHarmony of graphic design. Anyway, the header was the last tweak this blog needed.'s PERFECT.

Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it.


You also may recall somebody bought a short story of mine set in the Air Pirates' world. Well the date has been set, and on April 22nd you'll all be able to read "Pawn's Gambit" at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (yes, all of you -- it's free).

That's less than two weeks. I am disproportionately (though understandably) excited about this. It blows my mind that somebody liked something I wrote so much that they paid me money for it. I'm still unconvinced that anyone else will enjoy it, so I'm planning a contest to swindle all of you into reading it. Nothing big -- I'm not arm wrestling my sister or anything -- but I am going to give away a free book, so you should pay attention.

Until then, you can get a taste of the story here at the BCS website. Or you can check out the poor man's book trailer: the wordle!

Honestly, if you get anything out of this, I will be both shocked and awed.

Are you excited yet?!!?!


Admirable Sacrifice (or Why Kirk's Death was Stupid)

I hope I don't have to explain who Captain Kirk is. If I do, it's possible you're on the wrong blog.

I will go into how he died a bit though. First, you should know we're talking about the old Kirk -- William "Priceline" Shatner. Shortly after retiring, Kirk is asked to attend the maiden voyage of the USS Enterprise-B (this is Star Trek Generations, btw). On that voyage, they receive a distress signal from two ships caught in a strange energy ribbon. The Enterprise is able to save them, but becomes caught itself in the ribbon. To free them, Kirk has to go engineering and alter the deflector shields.* He is successful, but just as the Enterprise escapes, the ribbon makes contact with the engineering section causing major damage. When the crew recovers, they find a gaping hole in that part of the hull, and Kirk is gone.

That was Kirk's first death. It's not bad (we'll talk about why in a second), but it wasn't his real death. See, the ribbon imprisoned Kirk in a time nexus.* Decades later, Captain Picard finds Kirk and convinces him to return to the present to help Picard stop a madman from destroying the sun of Veridian III. Kirk goes with him and together they are able to distract the villain long enough to thwart his plans. In the process, however, Kirk is wounded (or falls off a bridge -- they tried a couple versions) and dies.

* Star Trek science.

Before I go into why Kirk's death was lame, let's talk about what makes a character's sacrifice work. It's not enough that a character dies for someone (or goes to prison for them, or gives up their chance at becoming a rockstar, or lets them have the last tater tot, etc. -- sacrifice can mean a lot of things). If you want the reader to admire the character's compassion, their sacrifice has to be IMPORTANT, it has to be RIGHT, and it has to be NECESSARY.

The character has to sacrifice for something important. It has to matter, and it has to be in proportion to what the character is giving up. If Jack risks his life so that his buddy Bonzo can win the National Texas Hold 'Em Tournament, that's not very admirable. On the other hand, if Bonzo needs to win the tournament so the mob won't kill him and his family, Jack's sacrifice is a lot more worthy.

The character has to sacrifice for what's right. Readers sympathize with characters that are doing the right thing. Jack's sacrifice for Bonzo's family might be important, but if his "family" is a child prostitution racket, well... no one's going to give Jack any awards.

The character's sacrifice has to be necessary. If there was an alternative, but the character chose sacrifice anyway, no one will admire it. If all Jack had to do was loan Bonzo some money, we're going to think he's stupid, not noble.

Let's look at Kirk's deaths now and see if we can figure out what went wrong. First his death on Enterprise-B. Important? He saved the lives of many people, so yes. Right? The people he saved were (so far as we know) good people. Check. Necessary? The movie set it up such that Kirk had to be the one in engineering (at least, there wasn't time to explain it to someone else -- in any case, if he sent someone else to do it, he'd have been a jerk). Check.

It was a good death for a character as big as Captain Kirk. Later, when you find out Kirk's alive, it's kind of cool. He survived! That's just what such a great captain deserves, right? But then he died again. Was his second death important? Technically. He saved lives, though we were never really made to care about the Veridian people, so it's arguable. Was it right? Again, we were never really shown any Veridian characters. While we assume they are innocents, to the reader they are faceless. Yes it was right, but only technically. Necessary? Arguable. Kirk knew what Picard was asking was dangerous, but from a story standpoint, there's no reason Picard needed Kirk to pull it off.

Kirk's second death hit the right points (important, right, necessary), but it hit them weakly. After all the dangers he had been through, readers expect a death in proportion to the character. A minor character dying for the same reasons might have been a worthy sacrifice, but this was James T. Kirk. It was made worse by the fact that we already thought Kirk had died, and his first death was more worthy than his second.

But it's okay, because we can learn something from it. If you want a character to be admired for their sacrifice, make it important, right, and necessary. And if you bring a character back to life, make sure his second death is more important than his first.

J. J. Abrams, I'm looking at you.

Jonathan Coulton, Re: Your Brains

(Re: my previous post on your ideas never (ever) getting stolen, Writer Beware has some helpful information on copyrights. Of particular note: all original expression is copyrighted the moment it is fixed in tangible form (including all your posts and comments on the internet)).

Okay, so if you already know Jonathan Coulton, just skip to the video and enjoy.

For the rest of you, Jonathan Coulton is very important in the geek world. He's a singer/songwriter in the legacy of Weird Al, but he tends toward original songs more than parodies. His songs are geeky, weird, and often hilarious. If you've been around the internet a while, you may have heard his folksy, acoustic cover of "Baby Got Back." Or the ending credits of Portal -- that was also him.

Probably better than telling you is showing you who he is. This song is about a horde of zombies trying to get at some humans in a mall. One of the zombies is a former coworker of a survivor -- the kind of coworker you want to blast in the face with a sawed-off shotgun (even before he was a zombie).

Here, just watch (lyrics below the video):

Re: Your Brains

Heya Tom, it's Bob, from the office down the hall.
Good to see you buddy, how've you been?
Things have been okay for me except that I'm a zombie now.
I really wish you'd let us in.
I think I speak for all of us when I say I understand
why you folks might hesitate to submit to our demands,
but here's an FYI: you're all gonna die screaming.

All we wanna do is eat your brains!
We're not unreasonable. I mean, no one's gonna eat your eyes.
All we wanna do is eat your brains!
We're at an impasse here, maybe we should compromise:
if you open up the doors,
we'll all come inside and eat your brains.

I don't want to nitpick, Tom, but is this really your plan?
Spend your whole life locked inside a mall?
Maybe that's okay for now, but someday you'll be out of food and guns.
Then you'll have to make the call.
I'm not surprised to see you haven't thought it through enough.
You never had the head for all that bigger picture stuff,
but, Tom, that's what I do, and I plan on eating you slowly.

I'd like to help you Tom, in any way I can.
I sure appreciate the way you're working with me.
I'm not a monster Tom, well... technically I am.
I guess I am.

Got another meeting Tom, maybe we could wrap this up.
I know we'll get to common ground somehow.
Meanwhile I'll report back to my colleagues who are chewing on the doors.
I guess we'll table this for now.
I'm glad to see you take constructive criticism well.
Thank you for your time. I know we're all busy as hell.
And we'll put this thing to bed
when I bash your head open.

Your Ideas Just Aren't That Great

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken, designer of the first automatic computer.

A lot of wannabe authors out there are living in fear. They're afraid someone is going to steal their idea and hit it big before they get their shot. I understand this fear, even shared it at one point. But I am increasingly of the opinion that this is a silly thing to be afraid of.

First of all, there is no such thing as the "Killer Idea". There are great ideas, sure, but no idea is so amazing that it (a) hasn't been done before or (b) can't be done again. Child born in obscurity destined to save the world? Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, Ender's Game, The Matrix. Witches and wizards secretly living among us? The Dresden Files, Witch Hunter Robin, Harry Potter again. Aliens as predatory monsters? Yes. Aliens as friends? Many times. Vampires among us? I think you get the idea.

These are all good ideas, but they've been done before. And whether you like them or not, they'll be done again (I'm doing a couple of them right now). Why can they be done again and again, each time different and many times really good? Because if you give two authors the exact same idea, they will write two completely different stories.

What that means is, even if someone did steal your idea, the novel they'd end up writing will look nothing like yours. And that's assuming they take it in the first place. Cuz you know what else? Anyone with the skill and motivation required to finish a novel already has ideas of their own. Lots of them. And they are probably more in love with their own ideas than they will ever be with yours. Finishing a novel is hard enough, but can you imagine working on an idea you weren't excited about? For a year or more?

Mind. Numbing.

Not convinced? That's fine. Let's say you actually have a killer idea. It's amazing, totally unique. It's going to blow Harry Potter, Twilight, and every James Patterson novel ever written to the clearance bin. Odds of that: 0.5% (that's really generous, guys).

Then someone sees the idea's obvious genius and steals it. Honestly, just saying that kinda makes me laugh. I mean, (a) even the professionals don't know what will and will not break out and (b) potential thieves probably won't even agree with you on what's "good". Not to mention the reasons I've already stated. But I'll be generous again. Odds: 1%.

They write the novel faster than you and better than you. We'll assume we're dealing with a pro here, so odds: 90%.

Although their novel is very different from what you were going to write, it's close enough and successful enough that it ruins the market for your novel. Again, this kinda makes me laugh. Do you know how many Twilight clones are still selling? Generous odds: 1%.

So the GENEROUS likelihood of someone stealing your idea such that you can't do it anymore is 0.000045% -- about the same as the odds of you being crushed to death. And you know what? If this hypothetical thief did all that, I think they deserve the results of their labor. Seriously, coming up with a great idea takes all of 5 minutes. Turning it into a bestselling novel takes years.

So don't be afraid of people stealing your creativity (or of being crushed to death). Publishers don't sell ideas, they sell books. While a good idea can grab a reader's interest, the best idea in the world can't hold that interest for 300 pages if it's executed poorly.

What I'm saying is: worry less about what other people might do with your idea and more about what you're going to do with it.