A Thousand Ideas in an Hour


In Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he this thing he calls A Thousand Ideas in an Hour. It's a fun exercise and a great way to get past writer's block. The idea is this. Starting with whatever idea you have, ask these three questions: How? Why? What result?

For example, you've got a princess locked in a tower. How did she get there? Why is she locked up? What happens as a result? Every answer is a branch. Some branches will end quickly, others will lead you into the rest of your story. Toss in a little, "What could go wrong?" and toss out anything that feels too cliche, and you've got yourself a story.

I did this once with a class of highschoolers, and it was their favorite part of the class. It went something like this:
Let's start with something simple. Give me an occupation.


Okay, let's go with the banker. What could go wrong at a bank?

It could get robbed.

Sure. I don't think we need to ask why yet, so how might this happen?

A man walks in with a gun and asks for money.
Some men take the bank hostage.
Someone blows up the safe.
Someone inside the bank robs it.

Okay, great. Let's go with someone inside the bank. Who could do that? Who's inside a bank?

Bank tellers.
Security guards.

How could one of these folks rob the bank?

The guard could let other robbers inside the bank.
The teller could grab some money off the counter when nobody's looking.
The guard could raise a false alarm and, while everyone's distracted, go into the vault.
...or take money off the counter.
...or take money from someone's pocket.

What about the security guard. Why would he do that?

He hates his job.
He's been planning to rob the bank for months/years, and got hired so he could do it.
He needs the money for his daughter's operation.
Around here we had to end the class, but you get the idea. Leading the discussion, I tried to follow paths that sounded more original and had more conflict potential, but any of these answers could be turned into an interesting story with some more work.

Try it out and see what you come up with. Better yet, tell me how you brainstorm to get past writer's block.

Monopoly, Problems with

You may be aware that I like board games. So it may surprise you to discover--especially if you're not into the euro-games--that I don't like Monopoly. I mean I really, really dislike this game. This post is about why it's just not a good game. Objectively.

If Monopoly is like your FAVORITESEST GAME EVAR, I apologize. To each his own, and all that. But I'm still going to tear it apart.

That's a lot of freaking Monopolys

The Lack of Meaningful Decisions. Much like in fiction, games are made interesting by meaningful decisions--choices the protagonist (in this case, you) makes that affect the outcome of the game. In Risk, for example, you must decide where and how to allocate your forces, while in Candy Land you just do what the card says.

Monopoly is closer to Candy Land, unfortunately. There are decisions to be made, but they are few. Do you buy the property you landed on or not? Do you buy houses/hotels? And of course, how do you get your brother to give you Boardwalk in exchange for Baltic and Waterworks? With the exception of property trading, these decisions are usually non-decisions.

Unbalanced Gameplay. Rents begin at $2-50 (in our version), which, with your starting cash of $2,000, is negligible. Rents only get interesting around 2 or 3 houses (which is why "Do I buy houses?" is a non-decision: if you have spare money, then yes). The problem is the rents of 4 houses or a hotel is HUGE on most properties, and it costs no more to get there than to get to 2 houses. All it takes is for some sap to land on your hoteled Indiana Ave once to cripple them. Which leads to the third problem...

The Long, Slow Crawl to the End. So he lands on your hotel and loses all his cash and most of his houses. That's okay, he can still come back if you land on his properties, right? Well, no. He had to sell his houses, so the rent he gets from you now is (as I said) negligible. Certainly not enough to afford your four-figure rent and--whoops!--he landed on it again.

Game over? Well, no. He still has houses to sell, properties to mortgage, math to do. He has to wait until ALL his resources are gone. Why? Because them's the rules.

Of course house rules can mitigate some of this, but Parker Brothers is so convinced of the goodness of their game (or maybe just the money they can make from it), that they haven't changed the rules in decades (or God-knows-how-many Intellectual Property-opoly versions they've made). In fact, they've made it worse recently by adding a computer that knows nothing about your "rules."

So what do you think? Is Monopoly a good game and I'm just missing the point? Enlighten me.

Don't Knock Outlines 'til You've Tried Them

I freaking LOVE outlining. I know a lot of writers like to wing it, and there's nothing wrong with that, but don't knock outlining until you've tried it. That's all I'm saying.

Everything you love about winging it is what I love about outlining. It has the mystery, the discovery, the excitement of uncovering a new story, getting to know new characters. I love the random scenes that pop into my head like a movie trailer. I love sketching those scenes out, then figuring out the plot points that connect it to the other ones.

Outlines are fast. It takes me months to finish a first draft--usually over a year. But I can sketch out a world and an outline in less than a month.

Outlines give me faith the idea is sound. The plot may change during the draft, but at least I know it won't crap out halfway through. You can't paint yourself in a corner if you start with a plan (well, you can, but it's a lot harder).

My inner editor is not involved. See, he thinks all those dialog and scene snippets I'm writing will never make it into the final work. Also he's confused by roman numerals.

And despite popular opinion, outlining does not suck the fun out of the draft. Not for me, anyway. The scenes I'm excited about outlining are the ones I'm most excited to write in the draft. What slows me down are the parts I didn't plan for.

If writing by the seat of your pants works for you, then by all means keep doing it! But if you've never planned ahead before, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised. If it helps, you can think of it like a first draft, but with bulleted lists instead of paragraphs.

Whether you outline or not, what do YOU love about your process?

Waterworld and Other Worst Case Scenarios

I learned some interesting things in the aftermath of the Rule of Cool post. In particular, did you know the underwater future of Waterworld can never happen? Shocking, considering one of the main messages of that (stupidly expensive) film was: "If we don't take better care of our planet, this is what will happen."

In order for the world to be entirely, or even mostly, covered with water, sea levels would have to rise over 8 kilometers.* But if all of the ice in the entire world melted, sea levels would only rise about 80 m. At worst, the Earth would go from this:

To this:**

Interesting. Devastating. But not world-destroying, which, really, is what I was hoping for.

So what's an inspiring author (who wants a world covered entirely in water) to do? Here are some possibilities:
  • Fantasy World. It's not Earth, so who's to say how much ice may or may not have melted to drown the civilization underneath?
  • Ice Meteor. An asteroid made entirely of frozen water crashes into the planet, and then melts. Such a meteor would have to have a radius of 900 km (about a seventh the size of the moon) to contain enough water, and that kind of meteor collision would have other consequences. But we're talking thousands of years in the future anyway, right? A crater the size of Australia wouldn't be a big deal by then.
  • Shrink the Earth. Theoretically, if enough internal pressure were released such that the Earth shrank, the existing water would be enough to cover the globe. Of course the very act of releasing that pressure, combined with whatever catastrophic event triggered the release, would probably wipe out life on Earth anyway.
  • Science Is Wrong. This is my favorite one to fall back to. Science is not often wrong, but considering how much we don't know and those times science has been wrong before, it's always possible. Maybe the Earth is filled with water that comes to the surface. Maybe there's more ice underneath Antarctica than we thought. Who knows?
I'm not saying I'm going to do any of these to my world, but it's fun to think of the possibilities. Speaking of which, this list of risks to civilization is all kinds of awesome, especially for those of you considering post-apocalyptic scenarios that are scientifically possible.

* The metric system is just better, sorry. Do your own conversions.

** The map isn't entirely accurate. The program that generated it just uses altitudes, so places like the Caspian Sea wouldn't actually get bigger like they do in the picture.

5 Twitter Tips I Don't Like (and 2 I Do)

I have kind of a love-hate thing with Twitter. On the one hand, I've gotten to know some awesome people because of it. Because of my random comments to people, I've found crit partners and even read a soon-to-be published trilogy.

On the other hand, it's too much. Too many people to follow. Too many links to click. Too many tips to "maximize" Twitter. With that, I give you FIVE TWITTER TIPS I DON'T LIKE:

1) When someone follows you, follow them back. An effective way to boost your numbers, but I don't know if it's the best way to use Twitter. When I see someone is following 1,000+ people, I wonder what their "follow" means (aside from, "Please follow me back so I can look more popular").

At some point, all those people you follow become just white noise. I realize there are lists to manage the tweets you keep up with, but eventually your "All Friends" list becomes meaningless because you're only listening to the lists you've made yourself.

2) Stop following inactive accounts. Apparently there are tools for this, but I don't care if someone I follow isn't active. I'm almost grateful! The folks I unfollow are the ones who clog my Twitter stream with tweet after tweet that I don't want to read.

3) Join Twitter chats. I was on IRC back when the internet was just a baby, and while I met some interesting people and learned interesting things, I also wasted a lot of time. Chat rooms--even useful, focused ones like #yalitchat--are attention suckers (and that's without the complex processing required to figure out who is responding to what). I say: "Use, but use with caution."

4) Personalize your Twitter background. Honestly, I don't even notice what people's backgrounds are. When I decide to follow someone, I look at what they're saying and what they add to my Twitter stream.

5) You have to interact with people. It's called "social media" for a reason, right? Well, yes and no. I love having conversations with people, but I'd hate to think people were unfollowing me just because I didn't talk to them (I'm trying to manage life too, you know?). Some people don't use Twitter for conversation at all, it turns out. They use it for (gasp!) news and information. Who knew?

I think I'm just rebelling against the idea that you "have to" do anything on Twitter. None of these are bad things, and they'll definitely get you followers. But followers are not readers. Though to be fair, here are 2 TIPS I'M A FAN OF:

1)  Be interesting and/or funny. It's cool with me if you just listen on Twitter, but if you're going to speak, try to write something people want to read (even if it's just a couple people--that's cool, too). Helpful tip: A list of random people with an #FF or #WW tag is not interesting.

2) Learn to do the previous tip in 140 characters. This is more of a writing tip than anything. When I started trying to write things for Thaumatrope, I discovered all kinds of words and characters I didn't need. You don't have to abbreviate, or use 'u' instead of 'you' (in fact, I wish you wouldn't). You just have to use the same economy of language you're supposed to have in a novel.

Also, Twitter is a great place to craft that one-sentence pitch of your story. If you can tweet it, you can promote it!

Enough out of me. How do you use Twitter? What tips have you found useful (or not)?

How to Use Proper Nouns in a Query

A lot of authors (myself included) love to tell you the names of everything and everyone in our stories. The people and places in it matter to us. I mean, when I talk about my wife and kids, it means so much more to me to use their names. I want them to mean the same to you.

But to you, they're nobody--just names. It's a common problem in query letters, where the author figures giving you a name for everything counts as "being specific." But it's not specific. It's actually confusing. Take this, for example:

Sam Draper needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer named Victoria, hiding among the monks at the Monastery of St. Jude -- he reckons Hagai Wainwright is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in to Lt. Rafael Tobin at the first opportunity. But when Victoria says Sam is the key to finding his mother Anna, Hagai chooses Anna’s life over the law.

Kind of a lot to take in, right? And that's only a portion of the query. Imagine 2-3 more paragraphs packed with names like that. After a point, it gets hard to keep them all straight. Result? Confusion. Form rejection.

Using a proper noun is like taking a highlighter to your query. It can make important information pop out and your query easier to read. But used too much, it actually interferes with comprehension, to the point where it would be better to not name anything at all.

So then, in true analytical fashion, I give you 4 tips to using proper nouns in a query:
  1. Any character, group, or place that is mentioned only once should not be named.
  2. If possible, only the protagonist(s) and villain(s) should be named. No more than 3 names in a query!
  3. For characters (etc.) that need to be mentioned more than once, but do not deserve a place of importance next to the main characters, try meaningful identifiers: "his mother," "a group of assassins," "her home planet."
  4. If you must give a character's FULL name, do it once at the beginning.
Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on your story. But let's apply these tips to the example above:

Sam needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer hiding among the monks -- he reckons Hagai is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in at the first opportunity. But when the seer says Sam is the key to finding his mother, Hagai chooses his mother’s life over the law.

If nothing else, it's more clear who the major players are now. If the seer came up again in the query, I'd probably give her name (but she doesn't, so I didn't). Otherwise, who cares about the name of the monastery she's at? And the specific officer Hagai goes to isn't important either, just that he goes to the law (or thinks about it).

Anyway, that's just my take. What do you think?

The Pillar of Skulls

Near the gate between the first and second layers of Hell, there lies a grotesque monument of the damned. It towers over a mile high, howling and writhing with eternal torment--a terror to match any other in the Nine Hells.
It is the Pillar of Skulls, and it seethes with the frustration and hatred of a billion souls, moaning and wailing in endless, hopeless agony.

But it is also the greatest store of knowledge in all planes of existence. Among the Pillar's eternal prisoners lie great thinkers, world leaders, teachers, scientists... the entirety of the world's lore and experiences can be found within.

Once in a great while, a knowledge seeker will brave Hell itself to speak to the Pillar. Should they survive--through the charred wasteland, past endless legions of Lord Bel's devils, beneath the watchful eyes of the five-headed Tiamat--they must still contend with the Pillar itself.

Whenever a visitor comes, the billion skulls fight each other to make themselves heard. The surface of the Pillar billows and pulsates, one skull appearing--howling unintelligible obscenities--then disappearing to be replaced by another.

And should the seeker find the right one--a soul who has the information they are after--there is always a price. For every skull on the Pillar, every soul doomed to live out eternity in the Nine Hells, wants only one thing. "I'll tell you what I know," they say. "I'll do anything you ask. Just, please, take me off this pillar. Please, I...

"I just want to be published."