Holidays, a Sketch

— December 23, 2011 (8 comments)
Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy's Holidays week. The floating lanterns are stolen from Thailand's Loi Kratong festival, but the scene is actually from Air Pirates (the lanterns are also in Tangled, apparently, but I swear I stole the idea first!).

I don't expect many of you to stick around next week, what with our Earthly holidays and all. And anyway, I thought you'd appreciate a break from the only thing I seem capable of talking about anymore. Have fun. Eat much. Sleep well.

Me? I'll be revising this manuscript (Apparently you still have to work once you get an agent. Did you know this?). See you in 2012!

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The Offer I Turned Down

— December 21, 2011 (25 comments)
If all the posts about getting an agent didn't drive you off, then you know I got another offer before Tricia called. I turned it down because it felt sketchy, for a number of reasons I'll go into here. Though I won't name anybody; for all I know, the agency and the offer was totally legit and it was just the way it was handled that scared me off.

When the Agent still had my full, I did some research on them (I do that sometimes; part of the Crazy) and discovered two things. (1) The agency was listed as Not Recommended on Preditors & Editors. I don't know if I just didn't check P&E when I queried, or if I didn't care. After some Googling, it seemed the rating was based on something that happened years ago. Also, I'd heard of instances where the Not Recommended label was possibly applied unfairly, so it wasn't an immediate "no" for me.

(2) I discovered the Agent was not at the agency anymore. I looked at the full request e-mail again and noticed that it was from someone else "on behalf of the agency." Again, not a definite "no," but since they didn't say anything about it, I was concerned.

So they were red flags, but I didn't think much of it -- most of my manuscripts got rejected, right? When I got an offer though, I had to face them, and the offer itself came with a couple more red flags: (3) The offer came from yet another person (not the Agent, nor the person who requested the full), who I discovered was an intern who'd been with the agency no more than 3 months. (4) It was just a straight out offer, with no mentions of revisions or wanting to talk first or anything.

Again, these were just flags. They didn't necessarily mean the offer was a scam. It's possible the agency was just taking care of the original agent's queries after she had left. It's possible they liked my story so much they didn't need to talk. It's possible the intern was a new agent (like, I don't know, my agent).

But the biggest problem was that, even before I'd talked to them, I didn't trust them. The agent-author relationship is, well, a relationship, and those require trust in order to work. These people weren't telling me much, so I didn't trust them.

But I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I e-mailed them direct questions: Who are your clients? Can I talk to them? Who are you thinking of submitting to? Will we do revisions first? etc. Instead of hearing back from the Intern, I heard back from a fourth person: the Head of the Agency. Unfortunately, the Head answered very few of my questions. The only definite answer I got was that we would submit right away. To who? I have no idea.

I wasn't even clear on who would be representing me.

I talked to a friend about it, and she said, "You can do better." It confirmed what I already felt -- not that I could do better (at the time, I thought that was the only offer I'd get), but that it wasn't the kind of offer I wanted. I walked away.

I'm glad I did, and not just because I got a better offer. Really, the two offers are very similar: they both came from someone I didn't query, who had been an agent only a very short time.

But the differences are telling:

Good OfferSketchy Offer
Joan told me she'd passed the manuscript on and that Tricia would be e-mailing me about it herself.A different person e-mailed me each time, with no acknowledgement of that fact. No one even mentioned the Agent until I said something.
Tricia didn't offer representation until we'd had a chance to talk.The Intern offered without talking at all.
Tricia answered all my questions (most before I even had a chance to ask them).I only got vague answers, where I got answers at all.
Tricia's other client and fellow agents went into detail about how awesome she was.The Head told me his client list "speaks for itself," but never told me who they were, let alone how to contact them. Nobody said anything about The Intern.
Tricia had specific revision ideas and told me the name of at least one editor she was thinking of submitting to. Talking to her, I got the strong impression she really gets my book.Nobody mentioned my book at all except the title and that we'd be "submitting right away."

The lesson here? Think about what you're being offered. It's easy for the Quest for an Agent to slip into desperation, when we just want someone, ANYONE to represent us.

Trust me. You don't want just anyone.

Does anyone else have stories like this? Got any warnings for the rest of us?

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3.5 Years + 231 Rejections = 1 Crazy Author

— December 19, 2011 (13 comments)
(I've been using my temporary insanity tag a lot lately. That's what querying will do to you, I guess.)

So here are statistics on three rounds of querying, including some highlights and A Chart. Let's jump right in!

("Queried From" counts from the months in which I sent out queries; it doesn't count when I got responses. "Rejections" are of the query itself. Consequently, "No Response" are also rejections.)

Queried From: May 2008 - Jan 2009 (8 months)
Queries Sent: 52
Requests: 0
Rejections: 41
No Response: 11
Request Rate: 0%
Representation Offers: 0

Air Pirates (Adult SF/F Version)
Queried From: Feb 2010 - Jun 2010 (4 months)
Queries Sent: 41
Requests: 5 = 4 partial + 1 full
Rejections: 16
No Response: 20
Request Rate: 12%
Representation Offers: 0

Air Pirates (YA Version)
Queried From: May 2011 - Oct 2011 (4 months)
Queries Sent: 140
Requests: 16 = 5 partial + 11 full
Rejections: 72
No Response: 52
Request Rate: 11%
Representation Offers: 2

Obviously, I sent out a LOT more queries for this latest version. Part of that is there are just a lot more agents repping YA than adult SF/F. Part of it is I got excited/desperate sometime around my 10th request, and, thinking I had gold on my hands, started sending queries to EVERYBODY.

It didn't work though:

Air Pirates (YA Version)
Request Rate in the 1st Half of Queries Sent: 17% (12 out of 70)
Request Rate in the 2nd Half of Queries Sent: 6% (4 out of 70)

Across all three rounds of querying:

Slowest Request: 78 days (one of two requests I got after following up on a lost query)

Fastest Request: 3 hours 45 minutes

Slowest Rejection: 1 year 24 days (the query had gotten sent to the agent's spam, but she fished it out along with a number of others)

Fastest Rejection: 55 minutes. That was Michelle Wolfson, who also gave me my...

Best Rejection: In which Michelle said she recognized my name from the comments on Kiersten White's blog. The rest of the letter was a pretty standard form, but because of the personalization, I felt like she meant it. (I also started following her on Twitter. She's fun.)

So, a couple of months in, I wanted to see a graphic of the responses to my query. I'm not sure what I hoped to glean from it -- probably I just wanted to make a chart. Here it is.

(RED = query rejection/no response deadline passed; BLUE = partial request; GREEN = full request; BROWN = partial rejected; BLACK = full rejected; GOLD = offer made).

I did learn a couple of things. (1) Most agents responded on Monday (being Tuesday here and on the chart), with Tuesday and Wednesday coming in second. (2) My emotional state in any given week had a very strong correlation to the placement of green and black circles.

(The chart also makes it look like summer responses are few, but keep in mind, too, that I doubled my query rate in the middle of August)

The fact that I got an agent exactly where the chart ends was completely unintentional, or coincidental, or God telling me something. Take your pick.

Was there anything else you wanted to know? I got all this data here; might as well do something with it.

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How I Got My Agent, Part II

— December 16, 2011 (24 comments)
You've all read everything leading up to this post, right? Cuz if you think querying is all excitement and roses, you should go back and read the last post.

So Tricia Lawrence is my agent, but it may surprise you that I never queried her. I couldn't have if I wanted to: she wasn't an agent until after I'd stopped sending new queries out.

Ammi-Joan Paquette was one of the first five agents I queried, being one who asked to see the YA version when it was ready. She had my manuscript throughout the entire process and sometimes felt like my only hope. (And oh my gosh, if I had known the third query I sent out would be The One, and I could have saved myself the time and pain of sending out another 137 -- Oy! Just . . . kill me now (but don't because then I wouldn't have an agent anymore)).

When Joan upgraded from partial to full, she said she had reservations but wanted to see how it ended. I tried to tell myself (with only a little success) that she would say no. And, in fact, she did. She said the same as all the other agents: very promising, but she wasn't quite passionate enough to offer representation.

But the e-mail didn't end there. Apparently, Joan had passed it onto her agency's newest agent, Tricia, who had read it with enthusiasm. Joan said I should be hearing from Tricia quickly.

Listen, if you thought sending out queries is crazy-making, you should try getting an e-mail like that. I stared at my inbox for hours at a time, tenaciously ignoring the fact that nobody in America was even awake. I was checking my inbox in my sleep. I once checked my wife's e-mail to see if Tricia had somehow E-MAILED HER BY MISTAKE.

So yeah. Crazy.

Finally Tricia e-mailed me. She told me how much she loved Air Pirates, gave me a list (yay, lists!) with specific and awesome revisions ideas, and asked when we could talk on the phone. I looked and looked for the "I'm just not passionate enough" line, but I couldn't find it. It sounded like she actually wanted to work with me on it.

From the phone call, my story sort of devolves into everyone else's agent stories: I was nervous, she loved my story, she asked where I got certain ideas, she wanted to represent me, had editors in mind, etc, etc (but imagine me dancing a little the whole time). It was like every agent story I've ever read, with one exception.

See, when I first got the e-mail from Joan, I heard a tiny, evil voice. It said, "You're not good enough for the 'real' agent so they're giving you to the new one." Totally unfair, I know, and I feel bad even admitting it. But I don't know how anyone could get over 200 rejections and not doubt themselves like that.

Tricia couldn't know that lie had crossed my mind, but she totally murdered it. She told me when Joan had passed Air Pirates to her, she was actually wavering. She almost took it back to represent me. And Joan not only passed the manuscript to Tricia, but also to Erin Murphy, head of the agency and agent for 12+ years.

Honestly, I didn't need to know all that to make my decision; I knew that evil voice was lying to me, and Tricia's professionalism and enthusiasm had already won me over. But when I heard that, it made me feel all good inside and gave me a faith in Air Pirates I didn't realize I had lost.

So next week I will get some querying statistics up, along with some other related posts. I'll try not to bore you with All New Agent Posts All The Time, but, well . . . you know.

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How I Got My Agent, Part I

— December 14, 2011 (17 comments)
I don't know about you, but when I read these stories, I'm always more interested in how long and difficult the journey was (it encourages me when I'm dealing with The Long and Difficult myself). So this first part is everything leading up to the call. The part where Tricia chose me comes on Friday.

2003-2008: I wrote a novel (Travelers). I learned what a query letter is. I got rejected a lot.

2008-2010: I wrote another novel (Air Pirates). I got lots of feedback on it, learned how to delete whole chapters, and queried again. I got rejected less, but still . . . rejected.

(Side note: I also spent some time writing three short stories, getting one of them published, and drafting another novel (Cunning Folk)).

2010-2011: I revised Air Pirates from adult SF/F to Young Adult and, in May, queried it again.

Querying the YA version of Air Pirates started off fantastic. Three agents from the adult round said they'd be interested if I did revisions or had another novel, but more than that, I had the Holy Grail of the Unpublished Author: a referral.

As part of my, ahem, "networking" I lucked into a couple of beta readers who have agents and/or book deals. One of them LOVED Air Pirates (still does, I believe) and thought her agent would too. Her agent requested the full within hours.

Three weeks later, she passed.

She was really nice, and said her client was right to refer it to her, but she just wasn't passionate enough to represent it. And I learned something I thought I had already known: a referral can only get your work seen, not sold.

That rejection hurt the most, I think, because I'd put so much hope in it. Over the next month I got a couple more requests and a couple more passes (always with the same thing: "There's a lot I liked, but I just don't love it enough to offer representation."). I also wrote this post and found myself in Stage 6 of this one.

Then in August I got 8 more requests(!). I thought I was level-headed about it, but I also doubled the rate I sent out queries so . . . maybe not.

In September, my manuscript was with 10 agents. A month later, half of them had passed -- some that I'd been really excited about -- all with the same comments as the others. I was still querying, but emotionally I was in the final stages.

This is another post, because it comes with warnings I think every Professional Aspiring Writer should hear. For now, know that I got an offer that may or may not have been a real offer and probably wasn't a good idea even if it was. I turned it down.

And I realized I was sending my 140th query letter to agents I probably wasn't going to be very excited about even if they offered -- agents I might even have said no to. I stopped sending out new queries.

I was done. Yes, there were still a few manuscripts out there, but I'd lost hope in most of them. I didn't even know some of the agents who had requested them. Would they turn out to be the same as the offer I turned down? I let it go and focused my efforts on drafting another novel.

It was less than 24 hours after finishing that draft when I got an e-mail with some hope in it. (Continued here)

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— December 12, 2011 (38 comments)
Three and a half years ago, I started this blog just so I could type this sentence:


I am now represented by Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency. She's a new agent with a great agency, and she is very excited about Air Pirates. I can't wait to start working on this thing again.

I'm aware, of course, that this doesn't change the game. I've beaten a boss, but there are more levels to come, and the princess is in another castle. But a new level comes with new abilities. I've added a new member to my party, with strengths to match my weaknesses, and . . . some other gaming analogy that I'll think of later.

I'll give you the story and the statistics later (of course, the statistics). If there's something specific you want to know, please ask in the comments so I can be sure to address it.

Until then: DANCE OF JOY!

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On Choosing an Idea

— December 09, 2011 (6 comments)

I've created a label for demotivational posters. You're welcome.

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Sadistic Choices: The Third Option

— December 07, 2011 (7 comments)
So you've got your Sadistic Choice (and hey look, I decided). The fate of the world -- which obviously rests in Erasmo's hands -- is to either become slaves forever to the evil Biebots, or else rip a hole in the space-time continuum, thus destroying the Biebots but also humanity as we know it. How do you, the author, decide what he does?

First, there is no right or wrong answer, but there are potential pitfalls which we'll get to in a second. Like everything in writing, what matters is not so much what you do, but how.

Erasmo might actually choose one or the other. He might opt to become slaves, hoping for a future where they can throw off their oppressors (and leaving room for more books). He might opt for self-annihilation, leaving the reader to ponder big questions about life and existence.

But what if you want a happy ending? Then you do what thousands and billions of storytellers have done before you: you have Erasmo take a Third Option. This Third Option can be almost anything, but there are some pitfalls you should avoid.

PITFALL #1: Deus-Ex Machina. In which the author pulls a Third Option out of their butt. Like if a second alien race -- that has been at war with the Biebots for millenia, but we've only heard about them just at the climax -- swoops in and saves the day. Happy Ending, Sad Reader.

PITFALL #2: Why Didn't He Do That in the First Place? In which the reader wonders why Erasmo didn't just do that the whole time, and why the conflict was a conflict at all, and why they wasted their time with the story. Like if Erasmo had a massive EMP bomb in his garage that would shut down the Biebots permanently. He had it the whole time, but arbitrarily noticed it only at the climax.

PITFALL #3: Underestimating the Reader. The moment you present a Sadistic Choice, the reader will be looking for a Third Option. If there's an obvious one that Erasmo doesn't try or at least address ("I have an EMP bomb, but it doesn't work on them. We tried that back in The War."), they'll decide Erasmo is dumb and not worth their sympathy.

Again, this is all subjective. A Deus-Ex Machina can be managed by foreshadowing ahead of time (maybe Erasmo tries to find the second alien race earlier in the novel, but fails), but even then some readers might complain.

I can't think of a better ending to this post, so as a cop-out, here's Joey Tribiani's take on the Third Option.

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The Enemy of Self-Publishing

— December 05, 2011 (9 comments)
The self-publishers I know personally are really great people. They're kind, open, and smart about why they went with self-publishing. Most of all, they don't think someone like me is an idiot for aiming at traditional publishing. I have no proof, but I like to believe this attitude is the majority.

But, like everything else on the internet, there is a loud, vocal minority of meanie heads.

It feels like most of the self-pubbing rhetoric out there is antagonistic. Like self-pubbing is a side-bunned Princess Leia staring down traditional's Governor Tarkin. A smiling V taking out sleazy Norsefire officials. It treats traditional publishing as the enemy and paints self-publishers as underdog rebels.

Part of this comes from people who see themselves as snubbed or wronged by the big houses. Part of it is a kind of angry backlash to the stigma self-publishing has always had. "Pay attention to us! We're a thing!"

But what the angry rhetoric does is create a new kind of stigma.

The more I hear prominent self-pubbers shout things like, "Traditional publishers are slave owners," and "Writers are suckers. Fire your agents. They do NOTHING!" the more I don't want to be associated with that crowd.

Self-publishing isn't my goal, but it's a totally valid road, and I have nothing but support for those who take it. But if you start bad-mouthing people, then we're done talking. (And if you tell me I can make more money self-pubbing, I'll say, "O rly? Lets do teh mathz.")

I would love to see a world where self-publishing is every bit as respectable* as the traditional kind. But as long as the louder self-pubbers maintain this Us vs. Them mentality, I fear the stigma will continue.

Am I totally off-base here? What do you think?

* Respectable in the writing/publishing world, that is. I doubt Joe Public has ever cared where his novels came from.

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On Overcoming Phobias

— December 02, 2011 (11 comments)
(In which my loving wife tries to reassure me as I leave for the hospital)
Cindy: "How about this? Would you rather get your blood drawn or go to the dentist?"
Me: "That's a mean question."
Cindy: "Well?"
Me: "All right. If it was just a tooth cleaning, then I guess . . . No, the dentist lasts longer."
Cindy: "See?"
Me: "Fine. I'd rather get my blood drawn than go to the dentist. There, I said it."
Cindy: "How about 'Yay! I'm getting my blood drawn!'"
Me: "Don't push it."

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The Sadistic Choice

— November 30, 2011 (8 comments)

One of the things that can make fiction compelling is an impossible, sadistic choice. Like in Hunger Games, when you want both Katniss and Peeta to live, but you know only one of them can. Or like I said about Open Minds, where Kira has to decide whether to lie about having no mind powers, to mindjack everyone she loves, or to tell the truth and put herself in serious danger.

An impossible choice keeps you reading, because you don't know what you would do in that situation, and you want to know what happens. BUT, there are some guidelines.

Erasmo must decide whether to eat mango or papaya for breakfast. If he chooses the mango, the papaya will go bad, wasting his money. But he hates papaya. What will he do?

Compelling? Not so much.

Erasmo recognizes the cab driver as a convicted serial killer, but if he doesn't take the cab to work he'll be fired. What can he do?

How about call a different cab (and the police)? Nobody likes a dumb protagonist.

Once at work, Erasmo's boss forces him to clean the bathrooms with a toothbrush or he's fired!

Neither option is pleasant, that's true, but it's not hard to figure out what he'll do.

Erasmo reads Hunger Games to see who Katniss will choose: Peeta or Gale. He waits. And waits. And waits...

Putting off a decision is valid and practical, but there should be either a reason ("We're at war! Now is not the time!") or consequences ("I didn't choose either and now they both hate me.").* Don't expect your compelling, sadistic choice to carry the reader through your story by itself.

* For the record, Hunger Games did both of these, but I still felt like Katniss was leading the guys on unnecessarily.

After everything he's been through, Erasmo takes the day off. He'll have to make the same decisions the next day, but I don't want to write about it.

I guess this could be a wacky literary ending, but I've never been a fan of those. If you do leave things unresolved, do so very, VERY intentionally (see Inception; seriously, go see it).

At this point, it's important to mention how the Sadistic Choice is usually resolved: with a previously unconsidered Third Option. It needs to be said, because it's easy to drop a Third Option out of nowhere and think you are, by default, being original. You're not.

As soon as you present the choice, your very intelligent readers will be looking at all the options, including the ones you haven't presented as possibilities. Especially the ones you haven't presented as possibilities. This makes it very hard to do something they don't see coming (which is, after all, the goal). How you do that is up to you.

Or else it's another blog post. I don't know. I haven't decided.

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Statistics, Milestones, and Statistics

— November 28, 2011 (8 comments)
As of this morning (last night for you in the Americas), the first draft of Post-Apocalyptic Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!) is finished, and I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Not because the work is done (far, FAR from it), but because drafting is my least favorite part of the process.

To celebrate, I'm posting these pre-revision statistics on the four finished novels I have sitting on my computer. (What, you don't think statistics are fun? Perhaps you've mistaken this blog for someone else's.)

I also submit these in the hope they will encourage any of you who feel you write slow: It Gets Better.

Time to Draft: 4.5 years, both planning and writing (mostly writing).
Outline: None (GASP!), but lots of notes.
Draft Length: 76,000 words.
Avg Drafting Speed: About 1,600 words/month.

Time to Draft: 19 months.
Outline: 244 words.
Draft Length: 100,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,200 words/month.

Time to Draft: 9 months.
Outline: 5,500 words (if you think I'm proud of that, read on; it gets better).
Draft Length: 48,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,300 words/month.

Time to Draft: 4 months.
Outline: 9,100 words (<--- !!).
Draft Length: 79,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 19,800 words/month.

I'm not quite at NaNoWriMo speeds yet, but I am finally at a place where I feel like I could produce a book a year, if I had to. You know, if someone wanted to pay me to do that (do you think that's too subtle?)

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My Nightmares 2: The Maze

— November 25, 2011 (5 comments)
Wait for it...

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In Which I Map Social Media to High School Like Everyone Else, but with an Actual Map

— November 23, 2011 (3 comments)
It's a little frightening to me how well my social media experience maps onto my high school ones. This is a picture of how. Your mileage, of course, may vary (particularly if you hung out in the gym -- for me, that was like one of the Circles of Hell).

 Classrooms: Where we did Actual Work. This is why we were at high school, but nobody wanted to admit it. And for sure nobody wanted to hang out here. If we could, we would've hung out outside all the time.

Rally Court: Our quad was loud, busy, and everybody could see what everyone else was doing (which was how some of the cheerleaders knew me as "one of those guys who plays cards all the time" (spoken with trademark patronizing giggle, of course)). But for the most part, it was easy to catch up with friends here.

For me, Facebook is like this. There are lots of people there, including old friends I thought I'd lost touch with. But mostly I go there to hang out with my family and real life friends. It helps that many of Facebook's features make it easier for me to maintain conversations across timezones.

Cafeteria: Like the Rally Court, this place was loud and crowded -- even more so because it was enclosed. You could never tell if someone heard you or not. But as I became more socially adept, I had new groups of friends who didn't hang out in the Rally Court, and this was where I found them.

Twitter. It's loud, crowded, and I never know if anybody's listening. But some of my best friends are there, and I like how quick and easy it is to follow people and read updates.

Academic Quad: This place was exactly like the Rally Court, but with fewer people. Occasionally a couple of us would wander there to get away from the noise, but mostly nothing happened there.

Maybe Google will figure out some magic feature to make everybody switch over, but I suspect that what most people dislike about the other social networks is caused -- not by privacy issues or odd features -- but by the sheer quantity of people. If Google+ ever goes big, it wouldn't surprise me to hear a bunch of the early adopters complain about it.

Library: This was where I preferred to be, though not for the reason you think. We played D&D in there. It was relatively quiet, and mostly only people who actually wanted to hang out with me came in there, much like this blog.

In truth, I think the particular features of a social network don't matter nearly as much as who is on it. At least that's how it is for me. If everyone I know suddenly migrated to Bebo or Wooxie or (God-forbid) back to MySpace, I'd be over there too.


So am I the only one who played games all through lunch? What was your high school like?

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On the Art of Socializing

— November 21, 2011 (9 comments)
(In which my wife Cindy and I discuss taking our five boys to a local playgroup)
Cindy: "I don't know if I want to go to playgroup tomorrow. But the boys would love it. I feel bad."
Me: "They have snacks at playgroup, right?"
Cindy: "Yes..."
Me: "I'll take the boys."
Cindy: *smirks* "You'd have to socialize with people."
Me: "You'd be surprised how rarely you actually 'have to' socialize."
Cindy: *laughs* "Yeah, you'll just sit next to the snack table with your book, not even checking to see if the boys are getting in trouble."
Me: "I'd watch the boys!"
Cindy: "See, this is why you don't get to go."

(A little later)
Cindy: "I guess I'll go, but I'm so tired. I don't know if I want to talk with anybody."
Me: "You want some tips on blowing people off?"
Cindy: "Sure."
Me: *gets excited* "Okay, first you need to look like you're doing something."
Cindy: *chuckles* "Like your book?"
Me: "Yeah, you take a book or a notebook or pretend you need to discipline your kids..."
Cindy: "I could talk to you on the phone."
Me: "That would work. Or headphones! Headphones are great, because you can pretend you don't even hear the person. And if someone doesn't get the hint, you make them stand there until they call you three or four times, then you make a big show of taking your headphones out and blink at them and say, 'Did you say something?'"
Cindy: *stares*
Me: "I've never done that before."

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How Needles Almost Killed Me, and How I Got Over It (Mostly)

— November 18, 2011 (8 comments)
I'm waiting to have my blood drawn as I write this. There's little else on my mind.

I hate needles.

I always have. Even in my late 20s, I had to look away and hold my breath while the nurse said, "This will only pinch a little."

When we were preparing to move out here, we had to get a couple of vaccinations. One time in particular, I was so freaked out I couldn't eat breakfast or even sit down in the waiting room. I just wanted it over with. Well, they gave me the shot, but on our way out the door, I nearly blacked out.

I thought maybe I had just gotten up too fast (I did sit down while my wife got her shot), so I put my head between my knees until it went away. I didn't black out, but I wondered if it had something to do with what they shot into me.

My wife needed some medicine, but in the line at the pharmacy, I started sweating like crazy. My wife told me to sit down while she got what she needed. While I waited, it got even worse. I had trouble breathing, and my hands were tingling. I watched my fingers curl into a tight fist, ignoring every message my brain was sending them otherwise.

My breaths came shorter, but I managed to call my wife and she called the doctors. I thought for sure the shot had killed me, like I was having an allergic reaction, or they put the wrong stuff in the syringe or something. Meanwhile, the doctors were calm as a desert.

After a while, my hands began to unclench and I could breathe again. The doctors told me it wasn't anything terrible. I just had a panic attack.

And I felt like an idiot.

The whole thing was in my head. Made-up. Pretend. I could've prevented it, even, if I'd just eaten something beforehand and sat down for the shot (which they patronizingly had me do next time).*

It's seven years later, and not only am I not freaked out (well, a little bit), but I can even watch the needle go in and my blood come out. I don't like it, but at least I'm not dying.

I don't know exactly what changed me, but I like to give the credit to my kids. I didn't want them to grow up so afraid of needles that they believed the doctors were killing them. So I tell them over and over again that getting a shot does hurt, but only a little, like getting pinched. I even pinch myself and them to show how little actual pain there is.

And somewhere along the line, I started to believe it myself.

Anything you're afraid of?

* Although the patronizing might have been all in my head, too.

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Travel Times: A Reference

— November 16, 2011 (12 comments)

I frequently find myself having to calculate how far away things are when I'm writing. "How long would it take him to walk there? Can a horse run that far? Who would get there first?"

This is a reference for myself, but I figured you could probably use it too. The numbers here are averages. Actual speeds and endurances will vary.

HumanHorse w/ Heavy LoadHorse w/ Light Load
Walking Speed5 kph
(3 mph)
6 kph
(4 mph)
10 kph
(6 mph)
Distance Traveled in a Day (8 hours)40 km
(25 mi)
48 km
(30 mi)
80 km
(50 mi)
Hurried Speed10 kph
(6 mph)
15 kph
(9 mph)
22 kph
(14 mph)
Distance Traveled (1 hour)10 km
(6 mi)
15 km
(9 mi)
22 km
(14 mi)
Running Speed24 kph
(15 mph)
30 kph
(19 mph)
44 kph
(27 mph)
Distance Traveled (5 minutes)2 km
(1.2 mi)
2.5 km
(1.5 mi)
3.7 km
(2.3 mi)

Walking Speed: A basic, slow walk that can be maintained for hours at a time.
Hurried Speed: A jog or canter that can be maintained for about an hour.
Running Speed: A sprint or gallop that cannot be maintained for more than a few minutes.

Again, these are just averages. There are horses that can gallop at speeds of 70-80 kph (40-50 mph), people can be forced to walk for more than 8 hours a day (with consequences), and some folks couldn't maintain a jog for longer than 30 seconds (*raises hand*). But for me, these averages are useful in figuring out how far apart things are in my worlds, among other things.

Feel free to correct my numbers, if you know better, or to request other means of transport for me to add.

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Blogging for Your Target Audience

— November 14, 2011 (6 comments)
Unpublished writers' blogs are a strange beast. They're part community-building, part writing practice, and part planning for a hopeful future in which we need a platform. It's that last bit I want to talk about today.

Aspiring writers who blog are sometimes told they shouldn't write for other writers. I can understand that. I mean, you want to reach your future target audience (who is interested in your books), not other writers (who may or may not be). But I wonder why my future audience (who wants to read my books, but doesn't write themselves) would be interested in my blog if I don't actually have any books (especially with all these parentheticals)?

Here's the thing. Your target audience is, in fact, a moving target.

I'm not saying there's no merit in expanding your blog topics to other things. There is, but I don't think Professional Aspiring Writers should feel like they can't blog about writing either. Because at the moment, the writing community is our target audience.

Tobias Buckell ran down his readership stats the other day, and one thing that interested me was that, early on, he lost over half his readers when he became published. He says it's because he was no longer talking to "writers trying to sell a novel (large pool), but to writers who had already sold a novel and were trying to figure out what to do (very much smaller pool)." Gradually, he shifted his blog to broader topics, tangentially related to his novels.

Could he have avoided that drop by shifting his blog sooner? Maybe. Or maybe that new audience wouldn't have been as interested in his opinion before he was a published author. Also maybe those early years of blogging to aspiring writers was needed networking for him.

I don't know. My point is that, either way, it's okay. I think the platform-building (future audience) is a good idea, both for practice and laying the groundwork. I think the community-building (current audience) is also good for networking and (in my case) general sanity.

So don't feel like you have to blog one way or another. Do think about your future audience, but don't stress about them, because if you're like me, you have an audience here right now. Maybe it'll change one day, but you can change with it. It'll be all right.

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Earning a Reader's Trust

— November 11, 2011 (4 comments)


When we read something, anything, we want to know that we can trust the author. If we trust that the author knows what they're doing, we'll give them more grace when they make "mistakes" like using unnecessary adverbs or telling when they should be showing. We trust that eventually they'll explain whatever we don't understand.

If we don't trust the author, those mistakes will stick out like they were written in sparkly red ink. If we don't understand something right away, rather than say, "I'm sure that's there for a good reason," we say, "That's stupid. It doesn't make any sense."

But trust is hard to come by, and worse, it's subjective.

We trust authors whose work we've read and liked before. We trust authors sold at Barnes & Noble more than self-pubbed authors peddling their works online. We trust authors recommended by friends.

We trust authors that we know personally. This is why referrals work. This is why agents and editors are nicer if you've met them in person. This is also why it's so hard to get honest criticism of our work, and why agents don't care if your mom and ten of your best friends said the manuscript was "better than J.K. Rowling."

So if you're unpublished, unknown, and you don't know the reader personally, how do you get the reader to trust you? All you've got left, then, is your first impression.

Your first impression is your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and in many cases, your query letter. This is why it's so important. It's not that the agent/editor won't read on if they suck, it's that they decide -- often subconsciously -- whether you're an amateur or professional based on the first thing they read. Everything they read afterward is colored by that.

If they see amateur mistakes straight off, then the fancy prose they see later might be seen as "trying too hard" or at best "potential." On the other hand, if they decide they're in the hands of a soon-to-be professional, then occasional sloppy prose they see later might be interpreted as "mistakes I can help them fix."

So don't tell them what your mom and ten best friends thought. Don't tell them you're the next Stephanie Meyer. Don't infodump. Don't try to describe every single character and subplot in a 250-word query.

Do find a critique group. Do read Nathan Bransford's comprehensive FAQ on publishing and getting published. Do read as many of the posts as you can at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Miss Snark, and any number of other agents' and editors' blogs around the web. Do whatever it takes to find out what first impression you're making.

Then make a better one.

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Sketch: The Train Job

— November 09, 2011 (4 comments)
Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy's Wild West week.

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Sympathetic Characters: The Struggle

— November 07, 2011 (8 comments)
One encouragement I keep hearing, regarding my querying, is that I "deserve" an agent. I like hearing that, for sure. But the last time I heard it I thought, "They haven't even read my novel. Why do they think that?"

And I think part of the reason is because you guys see me fighting for it.

Because there's something we love about a person who fights for what they want against all odds, who never gives up no matter how many times they get knocked down. This is why I love characters like Naruto and Zuko. This is why I like dancers like Twitch and Hok and Wadi, who try out for the competition two or even three years in a row.

Believe it or not, this post is about writing. You know how you want readers to root for your characters? This is one way to do it. Give them a goal, make them work hard for that goal, and make them fail.

Then make them get up and do it again.

If the reader believes in the goal and the character's attempts to achieve it, they will struggle with the character and root for them like nobody's business. And when they finally succeed, you will have a reader who stands up and shouts, "Yeah!"

And that is what you want.

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Blog Schedules: Do You Even Notice?

— November 04, 2011 (12 comments)
You may have noticed that Susan's guest post went up on Tuesday -- normally an off-day for Author's Echo -- but also that there was no post on Wednesday. Or maybe you didn't notice! That's what this poll is about.

See, I've seen conflicting advice on the subject of blog schedules. Most professional bloggers say you need a schedule so your audience knows what to expect. I get that. That's one reason I blog M/W/F (usually).

But other advice says don't worry about it. E-mail subscriptions and feed services like Google Reader make blog schedules superfluous. I get that too, considering I don't actually know what anyone's schedule is. I just read whatever's in Google Reader whenever it's there.

So what about you?

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Guest Post: Why My Critique Partners Are Smarter Than Me

— November 01, 2011 (11 comments)
Susan Kaye Quinn is a regular here at Author's Echo and one of my critique partners. She writes, she blogs, she mothers, and I understand she once politicked and rocket scienced (it's a word now -- shut up). Her new novel Open Minds, which I talked about yesterday, is out now, and to celebrate, Susan wrote like a billion blog posts.

Her book is awesome because it's about a world of mind readers and hidden mindjackers (who control minds). This guest post is cool because it talks about how smart I am. You should probably read both.

Oh, also, she's giving away prizes as part of her virtual book launch party. Information after Susan's post.

This title probably sounds like I'm kissing up to my critique partners. And while they are awesome and deserve all the praise I can give them (especially the ones that critiqued Open Minds), that's not quite what I mean.

Robert McKee, in his screenwriting book Story, talks about how the collective IQ of the audience goes up 25 points as the lights dim down. Every sense is tuned to the visual, verbal, and musical cues on the screen. Years of storytelling in the form of movies, books, and TV have trained the audience's intuition. They know the tropes by instinct, and while they probably couldn't tell you why, they just KNOW that the creepy character in the first act is going to come back and be the villain in the end.

Have you ever watched a movie where you "totally saw that coming"? Yeah, me too.

Writing a story that can keep that hyper-attuned audience in the dark until just the right reveal is an extremely difficult task. The writer has to plant just enough clues, but not too many. Provide just the right mood, but not sloppily slurp into cliché-land. Give just enough romance and meaning and depth to move the audience and not so much that it makes them cringe.

Critique partners are the movie-preview audience of the novel world.

When I was writing Open Minds, I went through round after round of critiques from different sets of writer friends who were generous enough to add their expertise to help make the story better. If you read the acknowledgements page, you'll see what I mean. A LOT of writers helped craft this story into its final form and each contributed an important insight into the story. Any reader can give feedback about whether a story "works" for them, but writer-readers are extra helpful in that they can help pinpoint how to fix it as well.

When I return the favor of a critique, I try to give feedback to my writer friend about how the story would be received by a hyper-tuned reader. But I also try to make suggestions for improvements. Sometimes I leave it vague ("more emotional connection needed here" or "I'm not really liking this character—is that the reaction you want me to have?"); sometimes I get more specific ("Reorder this scene to put the high impact point last" or "We need a kiss here"). When I'm very lucky, a crit partner will ask me to help show how to reword or rewrite a small scene. Somehow these scenes always seem to be kissing related, and I joked with a critique friend that I was changing my business card from "Author and Rocket Scientist" to "Author, Rocket Scientist, and Kissing Consultant." (Note: Yes, there are kisses in Open Minds, but nowhere as many as Life, Liberty, and Pursuit—that was a love story after all.)

I relish these times that I can pay back a small bit of the help I get from my brilliant critique partners.

When my critique partners read my MS, they are hyper-attuned like the readers that I hope will someday read the book. Those readers, as soon as they crack open my book or switch on their e-readers, will become savvy, impossibly smart story consumers. Don't underestimate them. They will see your plot twists coming. They will want to be surprised, moved to tears, made to laugh out loud. If you want to deliver a great reading experience for them, if you want to light up their imagination in a way that will rival two hours in a dark theatre, make sure you pretest your novel with critique partners. They will help you find the sluggish plot points, the stereotyped characters, and implausible action sequences before your readers do.

And if they suggest a kiss, let me know if you need a consultant. :)


When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep.

Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can’t read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can’t be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf’s mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she’s dragged deep into a hidden world of mindjackers, where having to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.

Open Minds (Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy) by Susan Kaye Quinn is available in e-book (Amazon US (also UK, France and Germany), Barnes & Noble, Smashwords) and print (Amazon, Createspace, also autographed copies available from the author).

The Story of Open Minds (linked posts)
Ch 1: Where Ideas Come From: A Mind Reading World
Ch 2: A Study in Voice, or Silencing Your Inner Critic
Ch 3: I'm finished! Oh wait. Maybe not.
Ch 4: Write First, Then Outline - Wait, That's Backwards?
Ch 5: Why My Critique Partners Are Smarter Than Me
Ch 6: Facing Revisions When It Feels Like Being on the Rack
Ch 7: How to Know When to Query
Ch 8: A Writer’s Journey - Deciding to Self-Publish Open Minds (Part One)
Ch 9: Owning the Writerly Path - Deciding to Self-Publish Open Minds (Part Two)
Epilogue: Finding Time to Write the Sequel



Susan Kaye Quinn is giving away an Open Books/Open Minds t-shirt, mug, and some fun wristbands to celebrate the Virtual Launch Party of Open Minds (Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy)! (Check out the prizes here.)

Three ways to enter (you can have multiple entries):

1) Leave a comment here or at the Virtual Launch Party post

2) Tweet (with tag #keepingOPENMINDS)
  • Example: When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep. #keepingOPENMINDS @susankayequinn #SF #YA avail NOW
  • Example: Celebrate the launch of OPEN MINDS by @susankayequinn #keepingOPENMINDS #SciFi #paranormal #YA avail NOW
3) Facebook (tag @AuthorSusanKayeQuinn)
  • Example: Celebrate the launch of paranormal/SF novel OPEN MINDS by @AuthorSusanKayeQuinn for a chance to win Open Books/Open Minds prizes!

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Books I Read: Open Minds

— October 31, 2011 (7 comments)
Susan Quinn is a regular here at Author's Echo and (I'm proud to say) one of my critique partners. She wrote this book. It comes out tomorrow.

It's pretty cool.

Title: Open Minds
Author: Susan Kaye Quinn
Genre: YA Sci-Fi
Published: 2011
My Content Rating: PG-13 for make-outs, tense situations, and the occasional bullet

In a world where everyone can read minds, Kira is a zero -- a freak who can't read or be read. When she accidentally controls her best friend's mind, nearly killing him, she discovers she's a different kind of freak entirely: a mindjacker. She can't admit the truth, but fitting in means lying and controlling the minds of everyone she loves. It gets worse when she gets in over her head in the mindjacker underworld, and discovers the government knows more than it's letting on.

The best part of this book is the world. A lot of stories have mind-reading as the special power, but here it's the norm. The book does a fantastic job of exploring what that world would be like, and what it would mean to be a zero or a mindjacker.

I also love how there are no easy choices for Kira. Lying is not just about fitting in; admitting she can control minds could get her in serious trouble. But what else can she do? And really, her choices just get worse from there.

If you like sci-fi and/or paranormal (cuz this book is really that, too), check this one out.

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Twitter Unfollows and Signal-to-Noise Ratio (Also, a Chart!)

— October 28, 2011 (9 comments)
I don't automatically follow people back on social media, but once I decide to follow someone, I rarely unfollow. Unfortunately, it does happen. The likelihood of getting unfollowed can be determined (sort of) from the following chart.

What constitutes signal?
  • Anything funny.
  • News I want to know.
  • Interesting links.
  • Talking to me directly (esp. saying nice things to me or retweeting my tweets).
 What constitutes noise?
  • Follow Friday tweets, thank you's, and any other random list of Twitter handles I don't know.
  • Non-tweets, like "Good morning" or "Good night" or "Eating justice peas again."
  • Spammy links to your blog, your book, etc.
  • Most tweets generated by other applications (e.g. Goodreads progress reports).
  • Retweets.
  • Lots of tweets at once, filling up my timeline.

Now understand, I'm not saying you should have no noise in your tweets. Everybody's got noise (I link to my blog and send retweets plenty). The important thing is to balance it out, or even signalify* the noise by making it funny or relevant.

And perhaps most importantly, there's the Relationship Factor. This is a measure of how well I know/like you. I'll tolerate a heck of a lot of noise from friends, people I enjoy talking to, or Nathan Fillion. In fact, the stronger our relationship, the more likely I am to interpret your "noise" as signal.

How do you build up the Relationship Factor? That's a different post.

I admit, it's a highly subjective algorithm, but it has to be. I'm not going to be interested in everyone's tweets. The point is, if you want to stay in people's timelines, pay attention to what most of your tweets are about. That way when you do have to pimp yourself, people will listen.

* Totally a word. Shut up.

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Confessions of an Ascetic Writer

— October 26, 2011 (15 comments)
My previous confession proved to me I'm not alone in these things, and I know ascetic writers are more common than analytical ones. But still, I feel the need to confess...

I can't listen to music while I write. If there are words, I sing them (and sometimes type them -- seriously!). If there are no words, I still get caught up in the story the music is telling, and it becomes impossible to tell my own.

Sometimes I can edit with music, but even then, if I listen to an epic song during a soft moment, it severely skews how I revise the scene.

I can't eat snacks while I write. I end up eating them all in the first twenty minutes and not writing anything. Then I get gunk on my keyboard.

I can't drink while I write. It makes me have to get up and pee every fifteen minutes. (I don't understand it either. I drink just as much the rest of the day and only go every few hours. It's only when I have to write.)

I can't be near a window. Because then I stare outside at the neighbors and the gardeners and even the stinking DOGS that walk by.

But the worst thing is, I can't write in the same place with nothing to look at, nothing to drink, nothing to snack on, and nothing to listen to but the ceiling fan. I get bored and start to dread my writing time.

Seriously, I don't know how I ever get anything done.

How do you write? What do you need to be productive?

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Stubborn as a Ninja

— October 24, 2011 (5 comments)
So. Naruto.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Naruto is a ninja orphan, shunned since birth. He's determined to make the village to notice him, even proclaiming loudly that he will be the next Hokage -- the greatest ninja in the village.

Everyone laughs because it's ridiculous. Naruto is loud, foolish, and pays zero attention. He fails most tests, and when he does pass, it's by some fluke. How could he possibly be a ninja, let alone the Hokage?

But throughout the series, Naruto has one thing nobody else has: he never gives up.

He takes on the guys no one else will. He protects the people everyone else gives up on. When two ninjas knock each other out simultaneously, Naruto is always the guy who gets up first.

He fails a lot, but he succeeds at things others think are impossible. Because he is motivated more than almost anyone else, and because of all his failures, he grows faster than most. By the time he's succeeding more than failing, he's defeating opponents even his teachers couldn't beat.

And from the beginning, even when he fails, he inspires others. People better than him who quit sooner. People weaker than him, who find a strength they didn't know they had to get up one more time.

I know, I know. It's just a frigging cartoon, right? Naruto isn't even one of my favorite characters (though he's becoming so). But man, if I could do this every time I get a story rejected? Or every time I fail at ANYTHING?

Yeah. I want that.

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On Description

— October 21, 2011 (9 comments)
So, I suck at description. In the previous round of querying and beta reading, poor description was the #1 complaint. It's not that I don't know how to do it, it just doesn't come naturally to me.

But I'm learning. And the fact that it doesn't come naturally to me means I'm a good person to teach it.

Because, of course, I have an algorithm:
  1. Imagine the scene. This sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many times I just don't care what a scene looks like as much as what happens there. So the first thing I often have to do is decide on stupid details like what color the walls are or what meaningless collection of items is on a desk. (It doesn't help that I'm not much of a decorator to begin with).
  2. Write down whatever you can think of. What does it look like, sound like, and smell like? Use all five senses if you can (more if you're writing a paranormal).
  3. Choose 1-3 telling details and cut the rest. Telling details are those that do double duty. They imply something about a character, rather than just tell the reader what the scene looks like. It's not always the detail itself that is telling either, but sometimes the way the narrator perceives it.
So instead of saying someone has a gun, you can show how the narrator feels about that and/or what it says about the gun-slinger. "He held the gun like he was some kind of God damn gangster, except I could still smell the perfume and massage oil on his hands. Who was this guy?"

What tips would you have for description? I need them.

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Writing When You Hate Writing

— October 19, 2011 (12 comments)

Some days, this is exactly how I feel.

Sometimes it's the novel's fault. As I plow through the draft, crap gets built on crap, building into a gargantuan pile of whatsit that I'm just going to have to fix later. Mistakes and weak plot points devolve into puzzles I no longer want to solve. And I've already used all my stock phrases and have to think of new ways to make people look, shout, cry, and laugh.

Sometimes it's the query process' fault. Being a tad insane, I've been charting my rejections and requests. There is a strong correlation with my mood. Like in August, when I got a bunch of requests and was writing 1,000 words a day, and the beginning of this month when I got some hard rejections and hit a bit of a slump.*

Sometimes it's just life's fault. Social workers come to visit. Kids are home on a day I expected to have to myself. Family issues just send out negative waves.

(It's never my fault, apparently. That would just be silly.)

Whatever the reason, I feel like things will never get better and I'll never get out of it. That's crap, of course, but it doesn't change how I feel.

So what do I do when this happens? Usually I try to plow forward, and sometimes I can. Other times, I have to take a break. Even though I know accomplishing something in writing will make me feel better, sometimes I have to accept that's something I can't do yet.

But what to do on that break? Man, I don't know. Sometimes playing a game works. Exercise. Mostly, though I just have to get off the internet and remind myself what my life's really about.

What do you do?

* I'm better now, but I don't think October will be breaking any records.

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Putting Your Hope Where It Belongs

— October 17, 2011 (13 comments)
By now, the entire world knows I'm querying Air Pirates and, as a result, am subject to the entire toxic cocktail of emotions that implies. (Seriously, can we nominate querying as a leading cause of bipolar disorder? That's how it works, right?)

But also I have a great many awesome friends both on and off the internet, who constantly tell me encouraging things. Yes, I most certainly am looking at you.

I got one comment in particular I want to share with you. A good friend reminded me that rejected manuscripts mean I'm doing things right (i.e. my query/story/partial is good enough that people want to read the whole thing), then said, "I honestly believe it's only a matter of time for you. If not with this one, another."

It was that last bit that got me. I love Air Pirates a lot. A LOT, a lot. But this whole "getting published" thing is not about Air Pirates. It's about me.

(Okay, that sounds totally narcissistic. But I can't think of another way to say it so I'm writing this parenthetical to let you know I didn't mean it that way.)

(Man, that was so meta.)

This definitely falls into the category of Things I Should Know But Forget Every Time Someone Rejects My Manuscript. I mean, I have 2.5 other novels written and solid ideas forming for two more. I get germs of ideas all the time, and that's not even counting sequels, spin-offs, short stories, or anything else I might come up with using ideas I've already spent time working out.

I believe what my friend said. Eventually, something will click. When an agent rejects Air Pirates, they are not rejecting me. They are rejecting the current execution of one idea I had.

I've got lots more, and so do you. If you can do it once, you can do it again, but better.

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Sketch: Everyday Superhero

— October 14, 2011 (9 comments)
Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy.

His tweet says, "Had justice peas again tonight. So. Awesome."

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Why Aren't You Linking Yet?

— October 12, 2011 (16 comments)
It is 2011. The internet as we know it is old. It's older than the Matrix and Star Wars Special Edition. It was born in a time when Michael Keaton was still Batman, Joe Montana was a 49er, and people freaked out because Mortal Kombat was too bloody.

So why are people still writing comments like they've never seen a link before?
Great post! And did you hear they're casting white actors for Akira? I know, right! I blogged about it here:
How many people, do you think, will select that link, copy it, and paste it into their address bar so they can read your post? I'll give you a hint: the nearest integer rhymes with 'hero.'

Look, I know HTML is ugly and non-intuitive, but it's not hard either, and it'll make your comments a lot less ugly than that URL up there. Here's how it works.

We'll start with bold and italics, cuz they're easy. Whatever you want formatted gets stuck between a start tag and an end tag. For example: "I <b>love</b> cookie dough!" becomes "I love cookie dough!" Tags always look the same: angle brackets around the tag name (b for bold, i for italics, etc), and an extra '/' in the end tag.

I see your eyes glazing over. Stop it! This isn't hard, and you'll look smarter and get more clicks to your blog. Keep going!

Links work the same way: their tag pair is <a></a>, but you have to add an attribute to tell it where the link goes. That's what the ugly 'href' thing is about.*

Let's fix the comment above. In the comment box, I type this:
Great post! And did you hear <a href="">they're casting white actors for Akira</a>? I know, right!
It looks just as ugly as the first one, right? Except when the comment is posted, it'll look like this: 
Great post! And did you hear they're casting white actors for Akira? I know, right!

There, was that so hard? Nearly every comment system allows these basic HTML tags. And look! One person actually clicked on the link. Now you can get that warm fuzzy feeling that comes every time your visitor stats go up.

Oh, don't know how to check those either? Well, poop.

* If it helps, 'a' is short for anchor and 'href' stands for hyperlink reference. I'm sure it made lots of sense at the time.

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Patching e-books

— October 10, 2011 (11 comments)
Apparently, Amazon has been wirelessly updating error-ridden books, and it raises the obvious question: Should e-book patching even be a thing?

I'm torn. I mean, technology-wise, I think this is great, though I can see the potential abuses all too clearly.

Patching is not a new thing. Computer games have been doing it even longer than George Lucas.* Even print books get the occasional story-tweaking revision. So let's not pretend this is some new, infuriating thing that Big Publishing is doing to us. The difference now, though, is that eBooks can be patched immediately -- even automatically without the user's consent.

I'm going to say auto-patching is a Bad Idea because of Potential Abuse #1: Tweaking the story. Imagine a writer with Lucas Syndrome, endlessly fiddling with his masterpiece. You're halfway through his novel when a character references something that never happened -- except it did happen, in the revised version that got pushed to your device after you started reading.

Even without auto-patching, I fear this abuse. We'd all be arguing over whether Han or Greedo shot first, only to find out we were reading different versions.

Computer games show us Potential Abuse #2: Publishing the novel before it's done. In November, 1999, me and my fellow game developers were working 80+ hours/week to get our game finished before Christmas. We were close, but it was buggy -- critical cutscenes didn't play, others crashed the game, memory leaks made the game unplayable after an hour or so, important characters would kill the player for no reason, etc.

It sounds unplayable, and for some people it was, but they released it anyway. If we brought up a bug at status meetings, we were invariably told, "We'll fix that in the patch."

Don't get me wrong, we made a dang good game, but if you play it without that patch, I pity you. And I fear a world where authors release rough drafts of a novel for quick sales, knowing they can always "fix it in a patch."

That said, I think abuse would be the exception. I think most authors, if they updated their novels at all, would only make small changes. I say that because most film directors don't make controversial changes every time a new video format is released. Most game developers release playable games, using patches for bugs they couldn't have foreseen.

If it actually works that way, it could give e-books more value. We all know the things e-books can't do (can't loan, can't resell, DRM, etc), but print books can't be updated to make themselves better. You'd have to buy another copy for that. Mostly, I think this would be a good thing.

What do you think?

* Apparently, the term 'patching' is from the old punch-card days of computers, when a bug fix had to be literally patched onto the cards.

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Why Do You Write in Your Genre?

— October 07, 2011 (9 comments)
Almost everything I write has some sort of fantasy element to it, something that defies understanding for the people in that world.

And I think the reason is my own faith. Part of my assembly code includes a belief that there's more to this world than we can see or understand. I feel like there must be.

So even when I write a story about a forgotten colony of Earth, something creeps in that is bigger than we are and beyond our understanding. Even when I try to set a story in modern-day Thailand, people start fires with their mind or something.

I'm not sure I could write a non-speculative, contemporary story even if I wanted to. Eventually, some character would discover unusual powers or receive visions of the future or at the very least witness something that may or may not be a miracle.

I can't help it.

What's your genre? And why do you write it?

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Is Good Subjective?

— October 05, 2011 (12 comments)
(Remixed from a post I did a couple of years ago).

The Lost Symbol is formulaic. Twilight is simplistic, both in plot and writing. Eragon is ridden with cliches (Warning: TV Tropes link). The Shack reads like it was self-published (oh, wait).

And yet every one of these books sold millions of copies.


For those of us who have devoted a significant portion of our lives to the written word, this can drive us nuts. It's unfair, we say. If people knew anything about quality literature, they wouldn't buy this cotton candy nonsense.

But that's just it. People don't know about quality literature. They don't know you're not supposed to start a novel with the weather. They don't know that the farm-boy-as-chosen-one plot is old. They don't know that adverbs are a Bad Thing.

But people know what they like. They know these books are thrilling, engrossing, uplifting. "But they're not!" we cry. "They don't even follow the rules!"

Okay, so here's the thing. I know this is going to be hard to hear, but...all those rules that agents and editors and critique partners keep telling us we should follow? None of them make a story good.

For those of us trying to break into the business, it's easy to convince ourselves that "good" is objective -- that all we have to do is figure out the rules and follow them. While the rules certainly increase our chances, nothing in this business is a sure thing. Nothing.

So how do you break in? Well, not having broken in myself yet, I'm going to go with the stock answer: Write lots. Write well. Get lucky.

Usually in that order.

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Breaking the Rules

— October 03, 2011 (8 comments)
If you've been learning the craft for a while, you've heard the rules. Don't start with a character waking up. Don't start with dialog or the weather. Don't use a mirror as a device to describe the narrator. Et cetera.


There's a book you might have heard about called THE HUNGER GAMES. You know what it starts with? Katniss waking up.

You may have heard of Natalie Whipple, whose X-Men-meets-Godfather debut comes out next Summer. (If you haven't, you're welcome). About her novel, she tweets, "TRANSPARENT opens with a flashback, then moves on to a mirror scene while she is getting ready for school."

I love that. You may argue that means Transparent isn't good, but then you haven't read Natalie's stuff and you would be dead wrong. I can't wait to read Transparent, and I love that it breaks the rules.

My own novel AIR PIRATES starts with dialog. While it hasn't gotten me an agent yet, it has generated a lot of requests which, if nothing else, tells me the beginning doesn't totally suck.

Listen, the rules are good things. You should know them. But don't be afraid of breaking them. Just know why you're doing it. Are you breaking the rule because you couldn't think of anything better, or is it because that's the best way to do what you want to do?

If it's the latter, I say go for it! What do you think?

(Hm. I just realized Post-Apoc Ninjas starts with the weather. Maybe I have authority issues?)

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So You Think You're Ready to Query...

— September 30, 2011 (12 comments)
When I wrote my first novel, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could finish a whole novel. After 4.5 years, I did, and when my one of my two beta readers said, "I can't believe you wrote a novel! And it's good!" I thought maybe I could actually publish it.

It took me 8 months, 52 queries, and 0 requests to realize I wasn't ready. This is the post I wish I had read back then (though I probably would've ignored it and queried anyway).

Is the story basically the same as it was in the first draft? I don't mean prose and grammar. I mean big things: motivations, characters that need to be cut or added, scenes that need to be rearranged. Have you deleted/rewritten entire scenes and chapters? I barely scraped the sentence structure with my first novel, and it showed in my rejections.

Of course, it's possible you wrote something good enough the first time, but it's unlikely. I'm the most obsessive planner I know, but even I have yet to write something where I didn't delete whole scenes and rewrite entire chapters.

Do they love it yet? If not, it's possible they might be wrong, but chances are they're not. Revise it until most of them can't put it down.

And who are your betas? Are they friends and family, or are they writers who are trying themselves to get published? Friends make fine betas, but nobody knows the business like those who have already gotten their butts kicked by it. Network. Swap critiques with people who aren't predisposed to like your work.

I thought I did. I'd read books like Left Behind and Randy Ingermanson's Trangression and Oxygen and thought, "Hey! Christian sci-fi is a thing!" I was wrong.

That doesn't mean you can't write what you love, but know what you're getting into. If Christian SF was my one true love, I would've focused my attention on that market and figured out how to become the exception. But I'm easy. I shifted my focus to secular SF/F and ultimately to YA. I'm still writing what I love, but my chances have greatly improved.

This is assuming you're going the traditional publishing route (although a lot of book bloggers require query letters too -- can't escape, can you?). Have you written one? Have you revised it a bazillion times? Have you read hundreds of examples, both good and bad, and then revised yours again?

Have you had any of your stuff (query, opening pages, etc.) critiqued online by anonymous strangers? It's scary, and you're likely to get conflicting advice and people that don't get it. But this is a good way to see how agents or the general public might respond to your stuff.

If I could do it all over again, I'd join an online critique group and milk it for all it's worth, critiquing and getting critiqued until every beta said, "I can't see anything wrong with this! I love it!" I'd spend hours at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Matt MacNish and JJ Debenedictis' sites reading queries and submitting my own until people were saying, "This looks good! I'd request this!" I'd do it right.

Ah, who am I kidding? I'd do it exactly the way I did. I was so excited. I couldn't help it! I just hope one of you will learn from my mistakes without making them yourself.

Veteran writers, what would you have done differently the first time around? (Assuming you got rejected. If your first novel got published, I'm not sure I want to hear it!)

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