Travelers on Hold; Air Pirates Nearly Drafted

If you look at the status of my works in progress on the sidebar, you'll notice two things.

First, I have changed Travelers' status from "Querying agents" to "On hold". In truth, I haven't really done anything for Travelers for two or three months now. There are still a few agents who haven't gotten back to me, but given the overwhelming number of negative responses, I'm not optimistic. Some statistics...

Queried: 60 agents
Form rejections: 39
No response: 19
Personalized rejections: 2 (thank you, Ms. Gendell and Ms. Meadows!)
Partial requests: 0
Full requests: 0

From the personalized rejections, I've gathered that (1) my current query letter doesn't suck, (2) neither does my voice or writing style, but (3) the characters in the early parts of the novel are not characterized very well and/or the agents didn't feel as connected to the characters as they wanted to (Arad and Garrett were mentioned, in particular).

I'm leaving the first chapter online for now. I may consider a rewrite later, but I'm not going to think about that until I'm farther along in the query process of Air Pirates and am thinking of my next project.

Which brings me to the second thing. I'm writing the final chapter of Air Pirates (Whee!). It's taken me 1.5 years to write the whole draft. That's a lot slower than some people, but it's about 3x faster than the last novel I wrote (so that means the sequel will be done in 6 months, right? Right?).

I'm excited (obviously, since I'm posting about it before I've actually done it), and I'm ready. I have the query letter all set. I've got a 4-5 month timeline for the beta/revision phase of the project. I even have a first draft of "instructions" for my beta readers. That's right, I'm that neurotic.

I guess that's all I have to say. I'm excited. When the draft is finished, you'll hear it here. When I need beta readers (I have 2, but I think I want a few more this time around), you'll hear it here. Maybe I should give you guys some excerpts or something. I'm just so excited!

Okay, I need to outline the chapter before I have to eat all my words. Words are gross!

Commercial Bestsellers

I don't have a lot of choice in what I read here in Thailand. The English bookstores only carry the very best of the bestselling (i.e. Harry Potter). Instead, one of my friends and I trade what books we get back and forth. He gets random books that friends in the States find for cheap, and I (for the last few years anyway) get a gift certificate once a year from my sisters-in-law.

Lately my friend has been loaning me commercial bestsellers. These are the books you see in Walmart or Ralphs or the very front of Borders. A lot have been thrillers from authors like Dean Koontz, Robin Cook, and James Patterson. I usually walk right past these on my way to the Sci-fi/Fantasy section, so this is kind of a new genre for me.

I was surprised to find that some of them are very good. I read my first Koontz novel with heavy skepticism, only to find that he writes really well. His imagery is vivid, evocative, and ties together the tones and themes of any given scene.

On the other hand, a lot of these haven't been any good at all. The stories are fine; it's mostly problems with their craft - a lot of telling when they should be showing. A lot of unnecessary "As you know, Bob"-style dialogue. Sometimes the action will stop for a paragraph or two to explain the character's motivations ("Despite the fact that the killer had a gun, Jack got angry. It was a problem he had that went back to his overbearing father..."). In one novel, there was a seemingly-major character who did nothing but sit in his office and answer phone calls that explained various aspects of the plot.

A couple of years ago, I don't think I would've noticed these things, but the more I learn about writing well, and the more I get criticized myself on these very things, the more I realize that these extremely successful authors are getting away with total crap, and getting paid very well for it.

At first I didn't mind. I actually felt good about it. "If they can get published with this garbage," I thought, "then I'll be published for sure!" (How innocent and naive I was). Then, as I earned more rejections and criticisms on my own work, I began to get angry at the double standard.

I'm better now. Though I'm not happy about it, I have accepted that publishing is a business, and these authors sell. On the other hand, this undermines one of the major things that publishers supposedly provide, namely credibility. If I can't trust a bestseller to be any good, how can I trust the midlist?

These authors sell (I think) because of the huge fanbase they've accumulated back when they actually were credible. Those same fans keep coming back because they want more of the same, the familiar - and the fans don't care (or don't notice) that the quality of the familiar has declined.

I don't know what can be done about this, or if anything even should be done. It grates against my sense of rightness, but pretty much all entertainment mediums have the same problem. It's just capitalism at work, really. So the question is what can I do about it?

The only answers I can think of are: (1) don't buy the crappy books and (2) don't let the quality of my own writing go down just because I'm rich and famous. Unfortunately I rarely buy books and I'm not rich and famous, so I can't actually do anything. Not yet.

First Sketch of Air Pirates

Natalie finished my prize sketches much faster than I'd thought. She was only supposed to give me one sketch, but she got so excited about it she drew two.

Here's Hagai Dekham Wainwright. He's never done anything braver than put peppers in his stew, but on his 21st birthday he receives a stone from his supposedly-dead mother and sets out to find her. Unfortunately, air pirates want the stone for its ability to give chance visions of the future, and Hagai soon finds himself in more trouble than he thought.

And this is Sam Draper - elite fighter and wanted air pirate. He nicks the stone from Hagai only to have the lad track him down and ask for it back! Sam doesn't give it back, of course, but he learns that the stone works for Hagai. Since Sam hasn't been able to make it work himself, he lets Hagai join his crew. Adventure ensues!

Thank you again, Natalie, for these awesome pictures. If Air Pirates never gets published, I'll still have these forever. And if it does, I can sell them for millions. It's win win!

Free Fall Math and BASE Jumping

Every once in a while, I research something that's just random enough or cool enough or geeky enough to share (like, you know, should you use the definite article when writing about ships, which is way cool).

I'll start you off with the good stuff. Some free fall survival tips:
First of all, you're starting off a full mile higher than Everest, so after a few gulps of disappointing air you're going to black out. This is not a bad thing. If you have ever tried to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you know what I mean. This brief respite from the ambient fear and chaos will come to an end when you wake up at about 15,000 feet. Here begins the final phase of your descent, which will last about a minute. It is a time of planning and preparation.
Read the whole thing. It's both amusing and interesting. Now, here's some cool free fall math:
  • For a person of average weight, in spread eagle position, terminal velocity is about 120 mph (190 kph).
  • An experienced skydiver can attain velocities of 160 mph (250 kph). With training, that can be increased to over 200 mph (320 kph), and the record is over 300 mph (480 kph).
  • It takes about 14-15 seconds to reach terminal velocity (120 mph).
  • In those 14-15 seconds, the plummeter will have fallen a little over 1,800 feet (550 m).
That means in the Air Pirates' world, where the ships typically fly 1-2 km above the ground, it would take 20-40 seconds for someone to hit said ground.

Now onto BASE jumping. After a short amount of research, I realized I didn't know much about this sport. BASE is an acronym that stands for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth: four categories of objects from which one can jump.

It's basically skydiving without the plane, but it's more dangerous than skydiving. The practical minimum for skydivers to open their parachute is 600 meters, but most BASE jumps are made from less than that. Jumpers have far less time to control their jump, and they usually don't even reach terminal velocity.

That brings me to the other cool thing I learned about: the wingsuit. This is a skydiving suit with added fabric sewn between the legs and between the arms and body. With a wingsuit, the jumper's fall rate drops to an average 60 mph (95 kph) and can get as low as 25 mph (40 kph). It also gives the jumper additional control over their fall, almost to the point of gliding. Some jumpers are even trying to set a record by landing without a parachute.

Check this out:

In Air Pirates, there are 3 scenes where someone jumps or falls from an airship (actually there's a lot more than that, but speed and distance only matter for 3 of them - the rest just die). I even finagled a wingsuit in one of the scenes - some of my protagonists are just too extreme for their own good.

I'm a Terrible Writer! Hooray!

Finally, my inability to write good endings pays off! Natalie over at Between Fact & Fiction recently ran a contest to see who could write the worst ending, and I won!

For your reading pleasure, and because I can't help but show off bad writing, here's my entry:
Frodo screamed as the twisted creature bit off his finger - the ring with it.

"My precious!" Gollum chortled and danced in ecstacy at having reclaimed his prize, paying no attention to the precipice behind him. The edge crumbled, and he fell to the burning lava below.

Suddenly a voice hissed from the darkness, "Accio Ring!" The ring leapt out of Gollum's clutch and flew towards the waiting grasp of a snake-faced man holding a wand.

"Who's that?" asked Sam.

Frodo shrugged. "Sauron?"

Before the wizard could hold the ring, it halted in midair. Without warning, it flew the opposite direction, over Frodo and Sam's heads, to a tall man dressed all in black armor. "Impressive," the armored figure said, "but the ability to control the rings is nothing compared to the power of the Force." Suddenly the armored figure howled. He fell forward; the ring flew upwards out of his hand.

Behind him stood another man, strangely dressed in a tight-fitting vest and leggings. His eyes were hidden behind a black pair of spectacles. He caught the ring neatly and said, "Tell me, Mr. Anderson, what good is a ring if you're unable to speak?"

"Master Elrond?"

The new arrival looked at Sam, stonefaced, and said, "No."

"Avada Kedrava!" A ray of fire shot from the dark towards the newest owner of the ring, but he avoided it with inhuman speed. The armored man got up suddenly, drew a glowing red sword, and attacked as well.

While the battle raged, Sam looked to his master. "What do you reckon we ought to do, Mister Frodo?"

Mount Doom was getting crowded. Even Gollum had scrambled back up the cliff face and was even now clawing at the back of the snake-faced man's head.

"I'm tired, Sam," Frodo said. "F--k the ring. I want to go home."
There were a lot of good entries (most of them not so long), and you can read them in the comments. Also be sure to check out Natalie's tips on what makes a bad ending.

As a prize, Natalie is going to draw me a full-colored sketch of my Air Pirates' protagonists. Woohoo!

Free Stuff

I have a theory that for any given thing I want to do on the computer, somebody has written a free program for it. As it turns out, that's pretty close to the truth. Admittedly, the free software isn't always as powerful or intuitive or functional as the pay version, but it's rare that I need more than the basics. In most cases, I'd rather have the basics for free than a couple of extra features for hundreds of dollars.

Here's a list of some of the free software I have on my machine, most of which I use on a regular basis. I bet you can find something here you can use.*
  • AdAware/SpyBot - After cleaning spyware from nearly a hundred machines, I now install these two together by default. I've yet to find a piece of spyware that one of these won't catch.
  • Buddi - Budget software. Not as good as Quicken, but infinitely cheaper.
  • Skype - Free video phone via the internet. Surprisingly good quality even from Thailand to Mexico.
  • ZipGenius - I got tired of Window's lame "compressed folder" nonsense. I need something that can handle zip files like zip files, as well as jar, gz, rar, tar, war, and z files, without telling me my trial period is over. ZipGenius is the best program I've found for this yet.
  • PrimoPDF - I know Macs deal in PDF by default, but Windows doesn't (unless you pay $450 for Adobe's solution!). This program fixes that. I love PDF. It means I can send a query package to MattyDub across the Pacific and he prints it exactly like it's supposed to be.
  • DeltaCopy - A reliable backup program capable of scheduled, incremental backups.
  • FileZilla - An FTP program that doesn't complain about being a trial version and supports drag-and-drop.
  • SketchUp - A 3-D modeling program that's easy to learn and fun to use. I designed my house with this.
  • Audacity - High quality recording/sound-editing software.
  • Metapad - A slightly better alternative to Window's notepad.
  • NetBeans - For programmers. A free, feature-full IDE for Java programming.
The following programs are also free and seem very promising, though I haven't yet used them myself. I think it's only a matter of time.
  • OpenOffice - Microsoft Office for free. And better. As soon as my copy of MS Word (2002) becomes useless, I'm switching to this.
  • yWriter - Novel writing software, created by an experienced programmer/novelist. I haven't switched over yet, because I have a system and it works, but I get closer with every project.
  • Picasa - Photo organization software. I've seen it in action, and it's a lot better than my "name the directories with dates and hope that's good enough" method of organization. I just haven't taken the time to load all my photos into it yet.
  • Avidemux - Video-editing software. For when Windows Movie Maker just isn't good enough.
  • Clam AV - I have my own anti-virus solution for now, but this is the best free one I've seen.
What about you? Anything you like better than what's on this list? What other free software do you use?

* Unfortunately, while these are all available for Windows, some are not available for the Mac. I love Macs, but the open source movement doesn't always extend that far. That was actually one of the reasons I chose a Windows machine the last time I had the choice.

Characters We Hate

(Side note: I've updated the Night Sky in Chiang Mai post to link to other writers who did the same exercise, if you're interested. Now back to our regularly scheduled blog entry...)

Last time, I gave a list of 10 things we like in characters. The short version was:
  1. Courage.
  2. Fair Play.
  3. Humility.
  4. Draftee/Volunteer.
  5. Dependable.
  6. Clever.
  7. Victim.
  8. Savior.
  9. Sacrifice.
  10. Goals and Dreams.
The things that make us hate a character (also derived from Characters & Viewpoint) is almost, but not quite, the opposite.
  1. Liar: Cheats, lies, breaks their promises. Their reasons for lying matter just as much as the lie itself, of course.
  2. Self-Centered: Brags. Readily takes credit for accomplishments. Takes criticism poorly. Blames others, complains, or whines about their problems.
  3. Self-Appointed: Puts themselves in a position they did not earn, where they are uninvited or do not belong. A usurper.
  4. Arrogant: We like clever characters, but a character who knows they are smarter or better than other people (or worse, simply thinks they are) is despicable.
  5. Bully: Makes others suffer for their own enjoyment or to exercise control over them.
Like the other list, these are only guidelines. Real people, and therefore real characters, are a lot more complicated than this, as are our feelings towards them. The real world can't typically be separated into "good people" and "bad people." In the same way, not every story has identifiable heroes and villains. I think it's important for writers to know what makes the reader love or hate our characters. Often the reader won't know themselves. In such cases these lists might be useful.

This is also not a checklist. It's rarely a good idea to give a villain all these traits. Just as the most lovable character is mostly good with some flaws, the best villains are the ones who are mostly evil with some sympathetic traits as well.

Above all, any good villain - any good character, actually - is the hero of their own story. No matter how evil or comical or insane somebody is, they believe that what they are doing is right. If the reader is allowed to see their version of events, they may not like them, but they will respect them and, more importantly, they will believe in them. That's the real goal.

Characters We Like

Last week, Nathan Bransford talked about what he feels makes a character sympathetic. He gave this formula: "charisma - action = redeemability" and suggested that if a character's redeemability dropped below a certain base line, that character would lose the sympathy of the reader, and if that character is the protagonist, or any other character that's supposed to be likable, the story's in big trouble.

It's a good way of looking at it, but from this author's point of view it's a little too vague to be workable. So I present to you this almost-checklist derived from Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint.

10 Things We Like in Characters
  1. Courage: Does what's right even if it's risky.
  2. Fair Play: Doesn't cheat. Isn't sneaky or underhanded.
  3. Humility: Doesn't brag. Is modest or shy about praise. Doesn't argue to defend themselves when criticized. Takes responsibility for their mistakes. Doesn't whine or complain about their problems, but tries to solve them.
  4. Draftee/Volunteer: Related to humility. If a job requires great courage, but won't bring much glory or reward, the sympathetic character will volunteer for it. Conversely, if a job will bring glory and reward, the sympathetic character needs to be drafted.
  5. Dependable: Keeps their word as much as possible.
  6. Clever: Thinks of smart solutions to difficult problems.
  7. Victim: We pity a character who is a victim of suffering or jeopardy, but you have to be careful. Too much of a victim seems weak; after all, a real character would do something about it. This works best if we know the character has tried their hardest and still can't get out of the situation.
  8. Savior: Rescues those in need. Readily defends someone who is being criticized unfairly.
  9. Sacrifice: A character who sacrifices themselves for something is hugely sympathetic, but only if the sacrifice is necessary and if it's for something important and worthy. Otherwise, we'll think the character is just stupid.
  10. Goals and Dreams: In general, sympathy will increase with the importance of the character's goal and the amount of effort they've already expended to try to attain it.
Of course, there are no hard rules in writing. Like everything else, these are guidelines.

It's also not a checklist. If you try to imagine a character with all these qualities, you may find yourself sickened of them. A perfect character becomes unbelievable and unlikable. The best characters - our very favorites - are ones who are mostly sympathetic, the ones who have some small, understandable flaws that make them real and (strangely) lovable.

There's also a very fine line for some of these. For example, a character who is clever is likable, but a character who knows they're clever, and acts like it, is just the opposite. I'll talk about that a little more in the next post: Characters We Hate.