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 the first page of a black comedy. 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
As I stared at the two little blue lines, my grandpa’s words from a few months before echoed in my head. Doped up and pregnant.

I think adrenaline is produced in the
brain. And it actually enhances your
The memory is a blur thanks to the massive dose of adrenaline my heart shot out when I asked to live with him while working at his competitor’s restaurant. I only remember snippets of conversation and images, like the half deer carcass over his shoulder.

No granddaughter of mine

The cleaver, gleaming in the afternoon sun as he lifted it above his head.

Forty years I’ve run this resort. I know what goes on.

His grey eyes boring into me from over his half moon glasses.

You’ll end up doped up and pregnant, just like all those other poor innocent small town girls

The cleaver again, this time coming down between ribs with a heavy thunk.

Looking at those blue lines,
I could feel adrenaline clouding my thoughts again. Two lines, I thought. Two beings, one body. Me and my baby. My fetus. My... embryo? Whatever. Two. One too many to prove my grandfather wrong.

I'm having trouble parsing this

I like the end line.
I sat down on my creaky twin bed, standard issue in the 50s motel now home to Bear Claw Brewhouse employees, and lit up the joint my roommate rolled for me. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail all the way.

Adam's Thoughts
There's a lot of good stuff here. There's some nice voice and a so-far-compelling character. I like how you intertwined her grandfather's words with his actions in the flashback. This feels like a good start to me.

Be careful you don't over-explain why you're doing things. You don't need to explain that her memory is blurred and in snippets in order to introduce that particular flashback. Most of the time, you can just jump into it. Keep things tight and snappy.

And I know the adrenaline thing is really nitpicky, but that's the kind of thing that can either gain or lose the reader's trust. You have to have the reader's trust, and it starts with the small details. You don't have to research every little thing (I mean, I do, but I'm slow and obsessive), but do get good critique partners who can catch this kind of thing. It's one thing we nerds are good at :-)

How do the rest of you feel about this opening?

Making Up Fantasy Languages

It's impossible (perhaps illegal, and certainly blasphemous) to talk about fantasy languages without mentioning the Godfather of Fantasy Language: Mr. John Tolkien. The guy invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. He wrote the most epic novel of all time just so he had a place to use those languages.

If that's you, read no further. You're fine.

Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English philology. So most of us don't really understand how language evolves or what it takes to create an artificial language that has the feel and depth of a real one. That's why a lot of amateur fantasy languages sound silly or made-up.

So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years determining morphology, grammar, and syntax? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most world-building: steal from real life, then obscure my sources.

Let's take the phrase "thank you." It's a common phrase, often borrowed between languages (e.g. the Japanese say "sankyu" as borrowed English; in California we say "gracias" as borrowed Spanish, etc).

STEAL FROM REAL LIFE. First I need a source -- some existing, real-world language I can base my fantasy language on. I want it to be somewhat obscure, and I want to show you how you can do this without even knowing the source language (which means no Thai), so I'll pick Malay.

There's lots of ways to find foreign words in a chosen language. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd use 2-3 sites to verify, but I'm making up a language, so Google Translate it is. It translates "thank you" as "terima kasih."

Now that's pretty cool on its own. It's pretty, easy to read, and sounds totally foreign. But despite the odds, somebody who speaks Malay will probably read my novel at some point. That's why we obscure the source. Two ways I do that: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing phrase and (2) mix it with some other language.

OBSCURE YOUR SOURCES. For my second source language, I'll pick something from the same family in the hopes it will make my made-up language sound more real. A little Wikipediage tells me Malay is an Austronesian language, and lists the major languages of that branch. I'll use Filipino (just because it's also in Google Translate) and get "salamat."

Then I mish-mash for prettiness and obfuscation. Salamat + terima = salima or salama or, slightly more obscure, sarama. For kasih, I already used the "sala" part of salamat, so I'll take mat + kasih = matak. "Sarama matak." But that feels a bit long for a thank you phrase, so I'll shorten it to "Sarama tak."

And there you go. It was a little work, but a lot less work than it took Tolkien to invent Quenya. If I'm really serious about this fantasy culture/language, I'll keep a glossary of the phrases I make up in my notes, along with a note of what the source languages are (so I can repeat the process to create more phrases that sound like they could be from the same language) and links to the translation sites I used.

If the glossary gets big enough, I might (because I am a bit of a language geek) start converting the phrases into their constituent parts: individual words, verbs, maybe even conjugations. But that's breaching into Tolkien territory where I said I wouldn't go.

Anyway, now you know my secret. Go forth and make cool-sounding languages.

(remixed from an older post)

Top Secret Project is No Longer Secret

Let me tell you a story about a little boy and his dreams. This boy (we'll call him Adam) wanted to make video games since he was 11 years old and Nintendo Power ran a contest to design your own game.* Back then (the late 80's), the only career paths to video games were computer programming and art. Believing he was no good at the latter, he studied computers for the next twelve years.

But Adam wrote too. Oh, God, he wrote -- and designed, because for him it was always about creating the games. Programming was just a means to an end.

In early 1999, Adam got his wish. Feargus Urquhart, head of Black Isle Studios, took a chance on a rookie programmer not quite out of college, and Adam became a scripter on one of the greatest RPGs ever made. And he impressed some people. So much so that when he told them he wanted to be a designer on the next project, rather than a programmer, they happily obliged.

But it didn't last. Oh he loved the job, but the hours were many, and he was commuting 2.5+ hours a day on top of it. When Adam got married, he decided a less demanding (and possibly better paying) job would help ensure the longevity of his new family.

And then he went crazy and left it all for Thailand.

It was all good, though. He'd found a new creative outlet in his novels, and being a full-time dad actually gave him opportunity to write. Of course he missed game design, just like he missed steak houses and the ocean; it was just one of many sacrifices he'd made for the greater good.

But Adam, like so many of us, underestimated the power of the internet and social networking.

Now, this is happening. My old friend, Colin McComb, asked me to be one of the primary designers on a successor to our beloved Planescape: Torment. We're working with Monte Cook (one of the creators of my favorite edition of D&D) and other equally cool people that I can't even mention yet.

We're still in pre-production, and there's always a chance the game won't even happen: big publishers don't want this thing, so we have to go directly to the people who do (BTW, if you're one of those people, we'll talk later).

But just the fact that there's a chance I can do game design again is kind of blowing my mind. We're living in the future, guys. Next stop: teleporters and flying cars.

* Before 11, I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. I blame Iron Eagle.

First Impact: HUNTED by Jessica Hutchison

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 YA urban 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.

A one-sentence logline? I'm wary :-)
Zuza always thought superheroes were cool until she became one.

Oh! You went right on with the plot
instead of backing up. Great!

A lot of great voice here.
Now when her evil step-mother asks her to pass the salt, she can launch it at her head without lifting a finger. And then there's the healing. H: her regeneration power rivals a salamander's. It's that awesome.

Just some suggestions here. Reword
them to taste and, you know, accuracy.
But not everything's that coolit's not as cool as it sounds. She seriously has to worry about bounty hunters from other dimensions tracking her down and tossing her through a portal to the Phantom Zone.

The family issues here feel like
first world problems to me. Focus on
the story.
It's just one more complication in an already complicated life. She's got a weird Latvian name (thanks Dad) and a pregnant step-mother determined to replace Zuza with her own spawn. That would be more than enough to handle, but now there's Raven, the intense guy with lethal eyes and a habit of punching people who try to kiss her. Somehow he's the only one who gets that she's in trouble. That she needs help. Problem is, she's having trouble deciding whose side he's on. And when she learns her superpowers are about as stable as a Russian nuclear power plant, she knows she's almost out of time.

The query shows Zuza's character.
You don't need to tell it.

This highlighted bit is exactly how
to write about yourself (if you're
going to do that).
FINDING ZUZA is an urban fantasy for young adults complete at 96,000 words. It takes a curly-headed, dramatic Felicity-like character and puts her into the fast-paced action and romantic suspense of a Cassandra Clare novel. I've published a few short stories, one titled Lazarus in the short story anthology Bicycle Love (Breakaway Books, 2004). Currently, I teach agriculture-related courses at a small university where driving tractors, shearing sheep and tapping maples are all on the syllabus.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Jessica Hutchison
[address, email, blog address]

Adam's Thoughts
There is a lot of Great here. The voice and the story sound solid enough that you could probably get requests with this as is. But I bet we can make it better.

For me, the threads start to fray in the last plot paragraph ("It's just one more complication..."). Up to that point, I'm totally hooked by the character and conflict, and all I need is to know the stakes -- what she has to do and why it matters. But instead I get dumped back into family matters (which, to be honest, sound a little whiny to me considering she's got telekinesis and healing factor).

Introduce Raven for sure, but be more clear about the trouble Zuza's in. The bounty hunter paragraph makes it sound like it's an ongoing problem, rather than something new and deadly that she needs help with.

Where I really got interested again was how her powers were unstable. That's a great hook and I want to know more about it. What does she need to do before her time runs out? That's what I'm unclear on: her goal.

Those are my thoughts. What do the rest of you guys think?

Failed Olympic Events

The Cat Toss. For the record, I would totally watch this.

From Anthdrawlogy's Olympics week.

What's your favorite failed Olympic event?

The Problem With Self-Imposed Deadlines

The trilemma above is a universal for any project. And I've realized this is exactly why my self-imposed deadlines almost never work. I mean, I'll set them, but then I'll get stuck on something, or a problem will appear that I didn't foresee. And once my deadline is broken, replacing it just feels . . . fake.

My self-imposed deadlines don't work because, in the querying and submission stages, the choice above is made for me:

CHEAP, because nobody's paying me. (The only way it could be cheaper is if I paid for the privilege to write which, really, yuck).

GOOD, because if it's not my best stuff, then nobody will ever pay me.

In a way, it's kind of nice. I don't have to choose! I can take all the time I need to make it right, and it's okay.

Under real deadlines, now, I'm a pro. But that's usually because somebody gave them to me. With money. And an implicit declaration of which of these three is least important to them.

I can do that.

How about you? Do self-imposed deadlines work for you?


I hope you all had a good vacation. Because 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 the first page of a YA urban fantasy from Clarissa. 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
The highlighted bit is a little vague
for me, but okay. I'm curious who
thinks bloodshed is a good thing.

2nd sentence is a bit awkward.
After-hours at the lakefront carnival was a perfect place for bloodshed, especially the kind saddled with revenge. As an assassin of daemonic creatures, Aleera Merrick knew that fun fact all too well considering the shoreline was where she found plenty of her victims and even dumped them in the very handy Lake Michigan. Plus, the high rides and skyscrapers were great stakeout points. 

Isn't a lager a kind of beer?

The longish, awkward sentences are
starting to get to me.
It was past the pier’s midnight closing hour, but teenage lagers in their drunken stumbles were taking forever to leave the grounds. She could hear their hoots and slurred tongues along with the wasted giggles and sloppy kisses of insecure girls. They didn’t see Aleera of course; but the eeriness her mere presence exuded could put more pep in their steps than any vicious canine. She supposed it was wrong, but even after decades of looking like a youngster fresh out of school, abusing her abilities was a habit no rehab could ever break. 

I like these two highlighted lines.
And abuse them she did. Her exhale was the prickly sensations bouncing across their necks. Her intense gray stare burning cracks in their backs was the feeling of a predator on prey. The dark whispers melting from her lips were the voices inside their heads. Like the devilish ones that tell long-face men to kill, kill, kill their loved ones in disgusting ways…but Aleera vowed to never go that far.

And just like that they were gone. 

If she wasn’t careful she could drive folks mad. The extent of her power tugged slyness at her lips. Mundane humans never changed. They would always be so easy to manipulate. It was in their nature; Adam and Eve were proof enough. That’s precisely why she had to protect them from creatures like to her…the untamed ones.

Adam's Thoughts
I don't think I really got into this until the third paragraph. And I think the reason is that there's a lot of thinking and telling here, but the third paragraph is where we really get to see what Aleera can do. And it's awesome and it's creepy.

Not that you can't ever tell. Sometimes that's just what you gotta do. But it'll draw the reader in more if she's doing something, and if we can learn about her through what she does.

I think this is why people say you should start with action. Not because you need exciting openings with explosions, but because we want to do something with the character, rather than read her thoughts.

And it does seem like a fascinating world. Aleera is an intriguing anti-hero, and I'm curious what shakes up her world.

So, what do the rest of you guys think?