Living With Boys

— February 29, 2012 (7 comments)
When Anthdrawlogy challenged us to do a self-portrait, I admit I kind of cheated. Then again, this is what you're most likely to see if I'm playing with the boys, or if I lie down, or sit down, or step away from the computer for two seconds...

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Why Starting With a Flash-forward is Cheating

— February 27, 2012 (13 comments)
First, definition. A flash-forward is when the story jumps forward from the present time (you know, like a flashback, but the other way around).

Second, clarification. Flash-forwards by themselves are not cheating. They're a perfectly valid literary device that goes in your toolbox with all the others. I'm specifically talking about starting a story with a flash-forward.

Third, disclaimer. Starting with a flash-forward can be done well. This post is about why it usually isn't.

Got all that? Let's move forward.

Here's what it looks like. You're reading an awesome action scene. The MC is hunting the villain, terrified that, if she doesn't find him in time, the villain will turn her little brother into one of his Zombie Ninja Minions. She must be on the right track because she is suddenly ambushed by three ZNMs. She beats one off in an awesome display of intelligence and martial arts, but the other two grab her, force her off the edge of a cliff...

The chapter ends. You turn the page, desperately wanting to know what happens only to discover the next chapter starts weeks before. The MC is with her little brother, both happy. Nothing is wrong. There are no Zombie Ninja Minions. The MC is not an awesome martial artist yet.

Writers will often do this to start with action or to hook the reader. They want the reader invested in some moment further in the story so they'll read through the whole beginning to get there. There are some problems though:
  1. The reader is forced to start the story twice. If your regular beginning isn't good enough, don't add a more exciting one. Fix the first one.
  2. A lot of tension and surprises are gone. We know about the ZNMs, and so feel nothing when the MC first discovers their existence. Likewise with when her brother is kidnapped. And we know that, no matter what horrible things happen to her between now and the flash-forward, nothing permanent will happen to her until then.
  3. Even though the opening is a flash-forward -- and the next chapter is the present -- the reader will feel like everything leading up to the flash-forward incident is backstory. Really, really long backstory.
Now if the reader keeps going, they'll eventually get over that feeling and get invested in this new present. But not all readers will keep going. The trick to hook the reader doesn't always work.

This doesn't mean you can't do it. As I said at the start, it can be done well. Not having done one myself, my tips to do so are rudimentary:
  1. Your second beginning (in the present) has to hook the reader just as much, if not more, than the flash-forward beginning (just like any other prologue).
  2. Be intentional about what you reveal in the flash-forward.
The Firefly episode "Out of Gas" is a great example of flash-forward (seriously, go watch it RIGHT NOW). Part of why it works is because we see so little. We only know that the ship is dead in space and everyone is gone except the captain (who's bleeding from a stomach wound). So not only do we want to know whether the captain will live, but we also want to know how things got so bad to get him in that state. Where is everyone else? Are they dead? Who did this to them?

Have you seen flash-forward done well? Where (and why, do you think)?

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The Perfect Utensil

— February 24, 2012 (8 comments)

For some, the perfect eating utensil is the most elegant, the most practical, or simply whatever they're used to. But me? I want a utensil that allows me to eat the most amount of food with the least amount of trouble. Let's begin.

Like most Westerners, I grew up with the knife and fork. It's the perfect combination for a culture that eats primarily meat (although I'll never understand why manners dictate you switch hands for slicing and eating). Ideally suited for steak, the fork/knife can handle a wide variety of other foods. So it's good, but not the best. Let's look at some other options.

The chopsticks are the choice of the East. They are an elegant utensil, and you're super-cool if you can use them. But cool as they are, they just don't make any sense for countries whose primary dish is rice. I mean, seriously guys, how am I supposed to eat this?

Next up is the spork. The scooping action makes it an ideal choice for rice and small pastas, and the tongs give it the versatility to spear larger chunks of food. The spork is almost perfect, but used alone, it is difficult to get reluctant peas onto the shovel or to slice foods too big for one bite.

Enter Thailand. In Thailand, chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes (sometimes not even then). The preferred combination is a fork and spoon, but you'll have to throw out your Western mindset: the fork goes in your off hand. The spoon is your primary utensil.

The spoon allows you to carry much more food. And the fork allows you to fill the spoon to overflowing with a minimum of effort. You can also use them to cut anything except a tough steak.

But then why are you eating tough steak anyway?

The fork-and-spoon is the best combination I've found yet, to the point where I often ask for a spoon when I visit the States. But there is one eating utensil that tops even these.

The tortilla! This amazing invention serves as a plate, but you can eat it! Pile it with food, roll it up, and shove it all into your mouth. The best part is, when you're done, there's nothing left to wash but your hands.

Geez, I could go for some Mexican food right now.

How about you? What do you like to eat with?

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Reasons to Quit Writing

— February 22, 2012 (15 comments)
A lot of people quit writing because they wrote one (1) novel and were told it was no good.

Now I don't care who told you that -- whether it was agents, editors, Gene Wolfe, or your mom -- that is a terrible reason to quit writing. Of course your first novel is no good.

Here are some real reasons to quit writing:
  1. You actually want to make money.
  2. You'd rather watch Downton Abbey.
  3. There is a contract out on your life, and you have to stay off the grid.
  4. Telling stories is against your religion and/or you have taken a vow of silence.
  5. You hate writing.
  6. Jesus has returned and/or the Mayans were right.
  7. You want to be a doctor, a teacher, or some other job that actually helps people.
  8. Writing would postpone the completion of your freeze ray.
  9. You are part of an alien race that shares a single hive consciousness and, therefore, does not tell stories.
  10. You are dead.
So next time one of you tells me you're not going to write anymore, don't tell me you don't have the talent or you're out of ideas or that Stephen King said you couldn't string two words together with a teleprompter. Those are not reasons, they're part of the game.* They are obstacles to overcome.

But if you finish that freeze ray, let me know. I might want to borrow it.

Can you think of any other good reasons to quit writing?

* Except maybe the Stephen King bit.

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Describing Beauty

— February 20, 2012 (7 comments)
If you don't remember, I suck at description. But that means I learn obvious lessons all the time and can pass the savings on to you!

Today's lesson: describing someone that is beautiful.

My problem was I didn't want to just say she was beautiful (although I did that too). I wanted to show it. But how? What features are beautiful? Long hair? Sparkling eyes? Pink lips?

Turns out (and this will be obvious to most of you, but such are the depths of my sucking) that the specific features don't matter. Like that old cliche about the eyes of the beholder, what matters is how the narrator feels about the character.

And you show that the same way you show any emotion: through comparisons, thoughts, actions, etc. For example:

Sister Victoria was a dark-skinned woman in her forties. She sat cross-legged on her own cushion, wearing the same white robe all the monks wore. Her hair was black as the shadows, curled at her shoulders.

What Hagai noticed most was her eyes. They were alluring in a way that made Hagai uncomfortable, only because she was over twice his age. He shuddered.

"Ten years ago, men would dance naked in the streets just so I'd smile at them. Now," she smiled, "they shudder."
There are all kinds of features here, but we don't really know Victoria is beautiful until the 2nd paragraph.

A red-haired girl in a white robe stood over Hagai. She wasn't much older than Hagai, though she was far prettier. She watched him patiently, her hands clasped beneath large sleeves, a polite smile on pink lips.
 Hagai straightened, scratching his head. "Uh, hi."
This one comes right out and says she's pretty (which is fine too, sometimes), though it doesn't say much about how Hagai feels about her, except that he's a little uncomfortable. Either way, that has nothing to do with her features.

"You're a pirate?" Sam asked her.

"Oy, ain't you the nummer." Then before he could blink, she was in his face with a blade under his chin. "Aye, I'm a pirate. Now give me a reason to cut you."
Bottomless eyes were cents away from Sam's. The smell of garlic and vanilla filled his head. He didn't want her to cut him, didn't want her to back off either.
This one hardly has any features at all (seriously, what does "bottomless eyes" even mean?), but there's no question what Sam thinks of her.

Anyone got any more tips for me?

(And before you go saying, "How can you say you suck! Those are great!" Let me remind you that these passages are the result of gobs and scads of revisions. Whatever good you think you see in them is the result of many fabulous beta readers.)

(Maybe one of these days I'll show you what these scenes used to look like.)

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Sketch: Dogs

— February 15, 2012 (4 comments)
"They're PEOPLE! And they're playing POKER!"

(Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy).

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Good Critiquers Make Suggestions

— February 13, 2012 (12 comments)
Is this controversial? I don't know, though I've heard people say they don't like it when critiquers suggest ways to fix things or (gasp!) try to write the scene in their own words. "It's my novel!" they say. "How dare they try to write it for me!"

Me? I love it. Sometimes it's because the critiquer is a much better writer than I am, and I steal their suggestions outright (with permission, of course). But most of the time I love suggestions because it helps me really see what the problem is.

For example, one early beta reader said some action scenes felt "flat." That alone could mean a lot of things, so I asked if he could give me an example. He came back with a little over a page of my novel, revised and rewritten as he would have done it himself.

I loved it. I kept some of his sentences and phrasing, but also I replaced a lot of his stuff with something that better fit the voice/character/situation. But most importantly, because of those suggestions, I learned. I now understand more of what makes action flat or tense and am able to apply the same lessons to my other action scenes. I couldn't have done that without his suggestions.

When critiquing for someone else, you do want to be careful about making suggestions/rewrites. Some people take it badly, and you need to word your suggested revisions carefully.

But not for me. Rewrite and suggest revisions all you want. I'll take it for what it is: your opinion. But it's better than an opinion because it's specific. And that's what a good critique is.

What do you think? Do you like specific suggestions/rewrites in your critiques, or do they ruffle your feathers?

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When Your Agent Asks You For Revisions

— February 10, 2012 (11 comments)
To me, writing a novel -- trying to make a dozen characters and themes and motivations and goals all fit together in one comprehensible mass -- feels like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube.

It takes years, but then one day I'm all, "Holy crap, I did it, guys! I finished the cube!"

Even better, I show it off to agents, and one of them says, "That's a great looking cube. Can I represent you?" And, well, you know how that goes.

Then my agent says, "Now before I can submit this to publishers, I want you to try and put these pieces in, too."

And I'm all:

Stupid Rubik's Cube.

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In Which I Work Up the Nerve to Edit Something

— February 08, 2012 (9 comments)
There's a lot of waiting coming up in the next few months, in which I have to just hope that Air Pirates is good enough. In which I have to write the next thing. The thing is, I have at least two finished drafts sitting on my computer, one of which probably will be the next thing, but I'm having trouble working up the nerve to edit them.

This is what's going on in my brain, then. Welcome to the crazy.

Brain: Work on Post-Apoc Ninjas. It's pretty good, and it has a lot of the same feel as Air Pirates.

Me: But I'd have to rewrite over half of it. It's so much work! Can't I just work on this New Shiny over here?

You'll have to rewrite that draft, too. It's less work to revise Ninjas.

But what if it's not? What if I write something that's mostly good on the first try?

Has that ever happened before?

. . . But if I rip out half of Ninjas, it'll feel like I wrote it for nothing.

Look at it this way: you still have half of a good novel.

What if I rip out more than half?

It's still part of a good novel. It's more than you had before you wrote it.

But what if I revise Ninjas and it's still not good? All that work will be wasted!

That's what you say before you start every draft.

I'd have to revise it AGAIN!

Look, what's it worth to you to write a good novel?

I HAVE written a good novel. It's called Air Pirates. Have you read it?

And how many times did you revise that?

. . . I hate you.

So long as you finish something.

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Answers (and...nothing, just answers)!

— February 06, 2012 (7 comments)
Susan Kaye Quinn asks: Katniss or Hermione?

Cool as Katniss is, I think she'd be a bit too crazy for me. Plus I gotta go with the book girl, even if she is a bit pretentious about it. Hermione.

maine character says: Your bio says you were a software engineer. Which OS do you prefer, what software do you use for your writing, and can you hack me a ticket to the Super Bowl?
I was a software engineer. I've worked on every OS that matters (okay, that's not true; I've never worked on Haiku, for example). Mac OS is the prettiest and most fun to use. Linux is the cheapest and most versatile. But Windows always wins out as a compromise between price and pretty.

For writing, I'm content with my archaic combination of MS Word, Notepad, and actual paper (the latter usually for maps).

And lastly, if by "hack" you mean "sell you one I got off of e-Bay," then sure!

Matthew MacNish asks: Have you seen Eden of the East? It's an Anime my daughter got me into recently.
I have not. Though the premise looks interesting. Is it good and can I (legally) stream it online?

Myrna Foster asks: Do you raise any of your own food?
Um, sort of. We share land with our friend who is much better at the whole growing-stuff-to-eat-it thing. The only food I really use from our yard is holy basil which, honestly, looks and acts exactly like a weed, except delicious.

Erik Winter asks: What about your day-to-day will change if Air Pirates becomes a massive success?
Is it sad that I think about this all the time? I want to say, "Very little." Taking care of all these halflings is more than a full-time job already, and I can't/don't want to step it down much. On the other hand, the internet has proven AWESOME for connecting with people, and a lot of the halflings will start school in the next year or two. We'll see. I'll work on a "regular" success first though, and build up from there.

"Anonymous" asks: Where are you taking your wife on your date next week?
I'm thinking Coach's Pizza, where maybe we can watch season 2 of The LXD. Sound good, Beautiful?

Boy that's going to be awkward if you're not who I think you are.

K. Marie Criddle asks: Of all the Joss Whedon ladies out there, which one would frighten you the most if you crossed her the wrong way?

This lady:

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Question Time (and INCARNATE Giveaway Winner!)

— February 03, 2012 (7 comments)
The winner of my INCARNATE giveaway is...

Myrna Foster! Congratulations, Myrna. E-mail me with an address and preferred edition (hardback, Kindle, Nook book, etc), and I will get your copy of INCARNATE to you, post-haste!

The rest of you: go buy your own!

Also IT'S QUESTION TIME! Ask me anything you want in the comments -- serious or silly, professional or totally inappropriate, about writing or Thailand or who would win in a fight between the Emperor and the Lord Marshal. Seriously, WHATEVER. They will be answered next week.

For example: "Q: Adam, who were the other finalists in the giveaway?"

A: I'm glad you asked! Here they are:
  • "What kind of defense mechanism is this? A giant cat comes and we turn into YARN?"  -- K.D.Aziz
  • "Ninja Cat skill #2: camouflage."  -- Lori M Lee
  • "I've got him!  Run, run, run!"  -- Angela Brown
  • "The humans told me yarn was for playing. The humans lied."  -- Lexie B.  
  • "It's on my back, isn't it?"  -- Myrna Foster

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INCARNATE Giveaway Finalists

— February 01, 2012 (4 comments)
On Monday, we had a caption contest to win a copy of Jodi Meadows' debut novel INCARNATE. You guys did not make it easy to choose finalists, and I am incredibly glad I decided not to pick the winner myself.

That's your job now.

Without further ado, here's the picture and the finalists:

The poll is open until Friday, when I reveal the finalist's names and announce the winner. If for some reason the poll isn't working, you can vote in the comments.*

ALSO, even though you can no longer enter captions for MY contest, any caption entered on this form is eligible for Jodi's grand prize drawing until Monday, Feb 6th, 11:59 pm EST!

So get voting!

If you refer to the captions in the comments, specify them by name, not number -- the poll randomizes the order each time the page is loaded.

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