Choosing the Right Picture

— December 20, 2010 (8 comments)
This blog is going quiet for a couple of weeks for obvious reasons. Not that Thailand celebrates Christmas, but our family does, as do the 7+ relatives/friends here to visit.

I should be back on January 3rd. Until then, enjoy this undoctored screenshot of, and meditate on the importance of choosing the right picture to go with your words.

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Figuring Out Query Letters

— December 17, 2010 (8 comments)
Every aspiring author, at some point, wishes someone would tell us how to do query letters right. Just tell me what to write, and I'll write it!


But it's not that simple. For one thing, there is no Right Way to write a query. There are, however, a hundred wrong ways that agents see over and over. One of the best ways to learn, then, is to read other query letters -- hundreds of them, good and bad -- until something clicks and you get a sense for what works.

What? You thought it would be easy?

To help, here's a list of places where you can do exactly that. Many of these links provide free critiques -- both peer and professional. For most the wait is long, if your letter gets chosen at all. But the real value of these sites is not getting comments on your own letter. It's in learning from, and critiquing, the mistakes of others. Read enough of these, and you may actually figure out the answer to "How do I write a good query letter?"

Even if you can't put it in words.
Know any good places I missed? Share them in the comments!

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Overthinking Dr. Seuss

— December 15, 2010 (7 comments)
I read a lot of Dr. Seuss (9 kids will do that to you), to the point where I've caught myself thinking about the story behind the story, wondering if the good doctor ever considered these angles.

What do you mean I'm over-analyzing?

The Zax -- Evolution or Cruel Experiment?
"Never budge! That's my rule. Never budge in the least! Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!
I'll stay here, not budging! I can and I will if it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!" 

A North-going Zax and a South-going Zax bump into each other during their long, seemingly pointless journeys, each stubbornly refusing to step aside for the other.

Are there more of these creatures? And are these the first to ever run into each other on their (presumably, magnetically perfect) paths? This appears to be a potential evolutionary problem.

Or is it intentional. One mentions a South-going school. Is there some genetic scientist who has trained them and set them on colliding paths, just to see what they would do?

The Sneetches -- The Economy of Beach Bums
Then, when every last cent
Of their money was spent,
The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up
And he went.

And he laughed as he drove
In his car up the beach,
"They never will learn.
No. You can't teach a Sneetch."

Plain-belly Sneetches live oppressed by their star-bearing brethren. Until a con man convinces them to change their stars back and forth, taking all their money and leaving the Sneetches poor and confused.

But where did they get this money? In the entire book, the Sneetches have neither homes nor jobs nor clothes (it's cool, they're birds). Maybe their economy is just never shown, or maybe they are the world's most successful beach bums, spending vast welfare checks only on marshmallows and frankfurters.

The Sleep Book -- A Message from Big Brother
We have a machine in a plexiglass dome
Which listens and looks into everyone's home.
And whenever it sees a new sleeper go flop,
It jiggles and lets a new Biggel-Ball drop. 

From one perspective, the Sleep Book is about the bedtime and sleep behaviors of various creatures as the countryside goes to bed.

From another, it's subtle propoganda composed by a totalitarian regime. The message? "Everything is fine. All are sleeping peacefully, except you. We know."

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Five Stages of the Science-Fiction Author

— December 13, 2010 (10 comments)
STAGE 1: Idea
I'll write a book about time travel! Nobody's done that well yet.

STAGE 2: World-building
I wonder if I should relate the history of the war between Morlocks and Ferengis here or in chapter 2. Oh, I know! I'll add a prologue!

STAGE 3: Characterization
Let's see... I've got the absent-minded professor vs. the mad scientist. Oo! And how about an android struggling to understand human emotions. Screw it, I'll just do an ensemble cast. What should I name the Asian character?

STAGE 4: Craft
How many l's are in "mellifluously"? Never mind. I'll just say "dulcet-like".

STAGE 5: Career
I wonder how many Nebulas you have to buy before they just give you the Hugo?

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Humbled at the Hot Springs

— December 10, 2010 (7 comments)

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The Real Reason I Outline

— December 08, 2010 (9 comments)
I'm nearing the end of The Great Air Pirates YA Revision of 2010, and I discovered something. For years now, I thought I outlined because I'm an obsessive compulsive planner. And I am. But the real reason I outline, as it turns, is because when I draft I'm a wimp.

See, in Air Pirates there's this character that dies. I mean, a lot of characters die, but there's this one in particular. I really liked this character, but as long as they live, the protagonist has no motivation for change. Not a very interesting story.

So I killed the character in the outline. It was easy. Just a quick sentence: "So-and-so dies. Protagonist goes nuts." No problem.

But when I got to that spot in the draft, I froze. Did they really HAVE to die? Did I have to write the words that killed them? I didn't want to do it, and I was sad when it was done. But I did it because I outlined it that way, and I couldn't think of a better solution (also I didn't want to re-outline half the book just to accommodate the suddenly-living character).

That was in the first draft. Then the means of this character's death had to change for the YA version, and I had to kill them AGAIN. It took me like an hour just to type the words that made it real, and if I hadn't planned it, I wouldn't have done it.

So there you go. I don't outline because I'm afraid to wing it. I outline because, if I didn't, my characters would just win all the time. While that's lots of fun for me (I do like my characters), anyone I swindled into reading it would get bored fast. And since my characters can't pay me, I guess that makes my choice easy.

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The Dragon was the Best Part

— December 06, 2010 (16 comments)
It's important to choose your protagonist carefully. In general, they should be the character whose choices and actions move the plot forward. If the protagonist is also the narrator, they should be present for most, if not all, of the key events.

Sleeping Beauty, for example, is not the best choice. She doesn't make a lot of decisions, and she misses all the good parts. Pretty much her whole story is like this:

Sleeping Beauty (from Aurora's Point of View)

I was born today. Don't remember much. I think Mommy was there, some scary people, and -- Oo! Sparkly!

[Time passes.]

So after 16 years of being sheltered by my godmothers, I finally met somebody. And he's HOT! I can't wait to tell the old girls I'm getting married and they don't have to take care of me anymore. Wonder if Sir Hotty will let me talk to other people...

Okay, so my godmothers have been lying to me for, like, ever. I can't marry Hotty McHandsome cuz I'm already engaged. Screw that, I'm outta here.

Hey, a needle. OW!

Not sure what happened. I ran away, cut my finger, and then...Sir Hotty was making out with me? (Still don't know his name, btw). Turns out I was engaged to him the whole time. Oh well, works for me.

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A Blog Post, Bob, As You Already Know

— December 03, 2010 (8 comments)
BOOK: That young man's very brave.
MAL (whatever): Yeah, he's my hero...
BOOK: Give up everything to free his sister from that... place... go from being a doctor on the central planets to hiding on the fringes of the system... There's not many would do that.
MAL: Suppose not.

-- from Firefly, Episode #2: "The Train Job"

This kind of dialog is known as As You Know, Bob. Where two characters discuss something both are familiar with, but in a way that anyone listening (i.e. the reader) will understand what's going on.

TV shows do it all the time. They have to so they don't lose channel surfers, viewers coming in after the commercial break, or new viewers who didn't see the previous episodes. (Or, in the case above, because Fox aired episode #2 before episode #1 so NOBODY knew what was going on).

Books do it too, but it's less forgivable.

"There it is, Piter--the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke's headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?"

-- from Dune

AYKB dialog is a subtler, but no less lazy, form of infodump. The novice author knows he's not supposed to bore the reader with expository backstory, so they try to hide it with "action," which in this case means two people talking.

Although it's true that dialog is more interesting than exposition, this kind of dialog is about the same. Most readers can tell that something's wrong, even if they don't know what. The problem is real people don't talk like that. They don't say, "Remember your birthday party two weeks ago, where you got so drunk you danced half-naked on the pool table?" They'd just say, "Remember your birthday party?" and then "Yeah, that was awesome."

"All this 'You-Know-Who' nonsense -- for eleven years I have been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort."

"But you're different. Everyone knows you're the only one You-Know- oh, all right, Voldemort, was frightened of."

-- from Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

So how do you fix it? The same way you fix any infodump: with carefully-placed, telling details. Here's a 4-step program for you.
  1. Write the crappy As You Know, Bob dialog. All of it. If you don't write something, you'll never get anywhere.
  2. Cut everything that is extraneous information, that neither character would bother saying because they both know that they both know. (Paste it somewhere else, though, so you know it).
  3. Read the dialog again. If it would still make sense to a new reader, leave it.
  4. If there's information a new reader must have to understand the story at that point, find places to insert it. But keep the info-bits small and as realistic as possible.
You might have to invent reasons for the explanation. Introduce a character who must have things explained to them. Or drop the characters in a situation where the information is necessary to have, so the reader doesn't mind a little expository infodump (though not in dialog, unless it can be done realistically).

Sometimes the solution is simple: move it out of dialogue. So instead of:

"God, you're such an idiot. You're acting like I never went to that assassin school last summer."


"God, you're such an idiot." He acted like I'd never been to assassin school.

More often, the solution is even simpler, but we don't want to believe it: just remove the information. You'd be surprised how far a reader can go without all the backstory. And if they have a question, or get confused, well that's what beta readers are for.

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Poll: How Do You Feel About Maps?

— December 01, 2010 (14 comments)
Everyone has their own opinion on maps in a novel. Some people despise them, considering them a cheap form of infodump. Others will buy a book just because it has a pretty map, regardless of what the book is about.

Of course it depends on the quality of map and how (or whether) the story uses it, but in general how do you feel about maps?

Personally, I LOVE them. I can't read Lord of the Rings without flipping to the map every time a place is mentioned.

But because of that, I'm kind of a map snob. I'm disappointed if the book takes place in a single undetailed location, or in places that aren't even on the map (I'm looking at you, Name of the Wind). I get upset if the map is wrong (it's happened!). And while I do love flipping back to the map, I don't want to HAVE to.

My favorite maps do four things:
  1. They are not required to follow the action (i.e. they can be skipped).
  2. They include most important locations mentioned in the book.
  3. They don't include too many places that AREN'T mentioned in the book.
  4. They enhance the experience for those who want to study them.

I have a map for Air Pirates (I don't see how you could write fantasy without one), but I don't show it to my beta readers. So far only two have asked if there was a map, and nobody said they were lost without one. I take that to mean I'm doing a good job. Though if this thing gets published, you better believe I'll be pushing for a map. I mean, assuming I get any say at all.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) maps? Why?

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