The Reality of Dungeons & Dragons

As a kid, I was taught that D&D is of the devil, but the reality is much, much worse.

Yup. Good times. Good times.

I realize it's Christmas Eve, and you're probably not even reading this right now. If you are, then know the blog is going dark for the holidays. (And if you aren't reading this . . . weird). I'll be back with a First Impact post on January 2nd.

Have a good break!

First Impact: TALIHINA GRACE by Randal J. Brewer

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments this month is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have a query letter for a commercial literary novel. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

I wasn't sure if these were part of the
query, or here just for me. If the
former, write it in paragraph form and
round the words to the nearest 1,000.
Talihina Grace - The hard place no one plans for and the person that meets us there.
93,451 words/complete
Commercial literary fiction

Make sure line breaks between the
paragraphs make it into your e-mail.
After Yola Hernandez kills her abusive boyfriend in a sudden rage and flees in a panic, she finds herself stranded in a small Eastern Oklahoma town with nothing but a new name and a young daughter. It’s a temporary stop; just a place to hide and save a little money before moving on; not a good place to become connected to the people, and not a good place to fall in love.

You should mention the name of the
town in para 1. It's not clear this is
the same town Yola's in.
Vivian Greene has moved from the city into her grandmother’s mountain home and opens a café in Talihina. Her pending divorce feels like freedom to her, but has placed her teenage daughter in the same unhappy situation Vivian once lived through.
Cale Williams has tried to fill the void left by his wife's death by working, raising twin boys, and pastoring a small church, but the arrival of two new women in Talihina has thrown off his careful balance. He is attracted to Vivian, but conflicted by his position as her pastor and the proper counsel he should be giving her. He is equally conflicted, perhaps even tormented by the visions he has of the beautiful and secretive waitress at Vivian’s café whom the folks of Talihina know as Teresa.

See here for why I cut this. And you
can talk about future novels if/when
the agent considers representation.
I have no writing credits or education to offer other than a time as a sports editor for small local newspapers. I am self-taught, and Talihina Grace is my debut effort. I am very proud of the result, and the sequel (Talihina Hope?) is underway. I plan to make these the first of many future novels.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this letter and for your your time and consideration,
Randal J. Brewer

Adam's Thoughts
The meat of the query, the story, is not bad at all. It shows me you can write, and it sounds interesting.

I want a little more though. Maybe connect the three characters sooner (for example, you could tell us Yola is working at Vivian's cafe in Yola's paragraph, maybe). And I really want a sense of the plot. This is a good setup, and I would read the sample pages, but I still don't know what happens. What compelling choice do these characters need to make?

Writing a query highlighting three different characters can be difficult. So another thing you might consider is sticking to a single point of view and focusing on fewer characters.

Lastly, in your submission you said that TALIHINA GRACE has already been self-published. This is something you need to mention in the query. Rachelle Gardner wrote a post on this topic that you definitely should read. I don't know whether it will hurt your chances (probably depends on the agent), but if you don't tell them up front, your chances will still be the same and the agent might be upset you didn't tell them. No need to risk that.

What do the rest of you guys think, about the query in particular?

When Is Piracy Okay?

It's been a while since we talked about piracy. I don't have anything new to say on the subject, but I thought we could have a little discussion starter. So first, a poll: When is it okay to pirate something?

The question is about ethics, not legality. The legality answer is easy and objective (for most countries, the answer is "never").

1) Never. Self-explanatory, I think.

2) When there is no way to get it, even with money. For example, your favorite TV show is geo-blocked and is not available on iTunes. Netflix and Hulu are likewise geo-blocked. You couldn't pay for a copy even if you wanted to.

3) When there is no way to get it, except with a lot of money. The publisher of a book you want refuses to release an e-book version. You could get a paper copy, but within shipping it'll cost like $40. For one book.

4) When you've already paid for one version of it, but you want another version as well. You bought that TV show you want on iTunes, but you want a DVD so the kids can watch without tying up your computer.

5) When you could get a version of it, but it's not what you want. You don't actually want it on iTunes, since iTunes sucks on Windows and you'd rather watch it on your TV.

6) When you could get what you want, but the owner of the property is a money-grubbing corporate tool. Why pay for it when you can stick it to the man?

7) Whenever the heck you want. It's a free country. Also self-explanatory.

Feel free to elaborate your answer in the comments. It's a sticky issue, after all.

I'll be honest: I answered (2). We try very hard to lean toward NEVER (seeing as we are not, in fact, poor mountain villagers that eat only rice and chilis), but we also have a So You Think You Can Dance addiction that Fox won't let us feed :-(

On Covers and Curse Workers

I just finished reading RED GLOVE, the second book in Holly Black's Curse Workers trilogy.

And GAH! This trilogy!

Understand: I LOVE the stories. Love the characters, love the cons (oh my GOSH, the cons), love the powers, love the world. I think I liked WHITE CAT better than this one (the big con felt . . . connier in the first book), but RED GLOVE was still very good.

When I read WHITE CAT, my only problems with it were a minor plot issue and the cover.

Guess what my problems are now.

So, the minor plot issue is really minor. More of a world-building nitpick than anything: If everyone wears gloves all the time -- and the murderer was wearing gloves when she was caught on camera -- why would Cassel need to wipe prints off the gun? (And do police even use fingerprinting if everyone wears gloves all the time?).

But the cover. It's better this time -- it's not whitewashed, for example. Actually, it's a pretty cool design, but . . . I dunno. See, I think boys would love this book. Crime bosses, con artists, murders, brothers. What's not to love? But the cover's PINK, man. Even I was embarrassed to read it in public.

(Okay, so I'm very easily embarrassed. But still, it'd be nice if the cover could be more...neutral.)

First Impact: DEATHSIGN by C.A. Schmidt

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have the first page of a cool-looking YA fantasy. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

First Page
I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

But every night it’s the same. A young man’s scream. A shattering blow and a white flash. Then the wizard comes to me through the gloom, wearing a sleep tunic and shabby sheepskin slippers. “Just a dream, Lina.” He hugs me, beard prickling my forehead, and I gasp. He’s real, he's Barba Luc, an old man with corkscrew curls and eyes of profound blue. The young man is just a dream. I clutch the rough wool of my blankets as my cheeks begin a slow burn.

I'm not following this yet.
Because, really.

I’m the tyro, apprenticed to one of the world’s seven wizards. Fifteen summers old and now, as Barba Luc steps beyond my canopy, utterly mortified.

Because I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

Suddenly, she doesn't seem so
It’s a cold morning, just past Spring Smallfire—the Games ended yesterday—so I pull on a tunic and wrap my cloak around me. The cloak is pale gray lamb’s wool, lined with fleece so soft it’s like wearing a cloud. I love the the way it drapes around my shoulders, the way it makes me look, reflected in my little bronze handmirror. Squint a little and I might look wizardly.

Or not. A thin face and dark-but-not-quite-black hair. A bruise splotching my forehead and freckles dusting my nose. I blame that bruise for my nightmares and my memory lapses, but the freckles and I don’t get along, either. As for the hair, well, hair’s hair. I drag a comb through it, then push my way through the canopy and out into the cottage.

Seven shuttered windows and an enormous bearskin rug. The hearthboy is chopping goatbites for breakfast, his open-backed tunic showing a shaggy black mane down to his waist. He grunts “morning blessings” without even looking at me. Typical. No respect.

I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

Adam's Thoughts
The writing is good. You've got a great handle on craft, and there's some good voice in here (I particularly like the line: "well, hair's hair.").

I have two concerns here. The first is a first person POV technique so common it has become cliche: describing the narrator in a mirror. Now I, personally, have not seen this trope enough to be bothered by it, but I'm certain other people have (that's how I know this is a cliche).

But also, the reason the mirror trick usually doesn't work is because it's artificial. The narrator has been wearing this same cloak, and seeing this same face, all her life. Why is she thinking about them now?

The second concern is also a common trope: starting with a dream. The reason this usually doesn't work is because the reader isn't grounded yet, and a dream is ridiculously hard to get grounded in because we know it's not real. I don't even know the gender of the narrator (I'm guessing about the "she"), let alone what her conflict is: why is it so terrible that she has nightmares? Why does she gasp when the old man (whom I also don't know) hugs her?

These are things the narrator knows, so the reader should know them too. We don't need to know them right away, necessarily, but the conflict and tension currently in the open are lost on us because we don't know what's going on yet.

(Also, I'm pretty sure the young man is going to turn out to be real, to be someone she meets, and (if I'm right about the "Because, really" line) to be a love interest. That's another problem with the dream trope: if it's prophetic (they often are) then it's also predictable, and you don't want that.)

What do the rest of you guys think? Do these things feel cliche to you?

The Science of Persuasion

A friend directed me to this great video on persuasion. It's about the psychology behind why people make decisions, and how you can ethically apply these concepts to persuading people to do what you want. This is ridiculously useful if you're trying to get somebody to buy something (like, say, a book you wrote), but it also applies to things like getting people to follow your blog, critique your manuscript, or blurb your novel.

(You can use them unethically too, of course. That's the problem with scientific principles. Con artists, for example, make use of these tricks all the time. For the record, I don't endorse this.)

In case you can't watch the whole thing, here's a summary on six shortcuts people use to decide whether or not to say yes to somebody.

1. RECIPROCITY: People are more likely to say yes to someone who has done something similar for them. It works best if you give something FIRST, and if that giving is PERSONALIZED and UNEXPECTED.

2. SCARCITY: People are more likely to want something that is about to be unavailable.

3. AUTHORITY: People are more likely to go along with something suggested by a credible expert. Apparently, this works even if the expert obviously benefits from whatever is suggested.

4. CONSISTENCY: People are more likely to do something consistent with prior commitments they have made. Even if that commitment is something minor (like hosting a guest post for a blog tour of your upcoming book), it can increase the likelihood of more major behavior (like buying your book when it comes out).

5. LIKING: People are more likely to do something for people that they like. And some of the main reasons people like someone are: (1) that person is similar to them, (2) that person compliments them, and (3) that person is cooperative with them.

6. CONSENSUS: When people are unsure about something, they are likely to look at what others are doing before making their own commitment. This is probably why bestsellers take off like they do. It's also why shills work.

Many of these seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how effective they can be when you use them intentionally in a marketing campaign (and ethically; sock puppets have a way of backfiring).

What do you think? Have you seen these work?

Query Letters and That Pesky Bio Paragraph

If you've done any research into writing query letters, you've probably read that you need (1) a hook, (2) a mini-synopsis, and (3) a paragraph about you. I see a lot of confusion about what to put in that bio paragraph. Hopefully we can clear that up here.

(NOTE: This is specifically for fiction queries. In non-fiction queries, the bio paragraph is a lot more important).

RULE #1: If you're not sure what to write about yourself, write:
Thank you for your time and consideration.
And NOTHING ELSE. Seriously. The agent is interested in your story. Nothing you write here will change their mind about that.

The bio paragraph is frosting. Yes, frosting can be very pretty and tasty, but if the cake sucks, the agent isn't going to eat it. Conversely, if the cake is awesome, but the frosting is . . . weird, the agent MIGHT scrape the frosting off. Or they might decide to go with one of the other equally awesome cakes topped with plain vanilla. Which brings us to . . .

RULE #2: You are not a special snowflake.
I mean, you are. Of course, you are. But so are the other tens of thousands of writers who want their book published (that's why they call it slush, cuz, you know . . . all the snowflakes).

And you know what? All of them were born with a pencil in their hands too. Or were published in local writer's journals. Or have a critique group. Or head the local chapter of SCBWI. Or came up with the idea when they traveled to Ireland. Or were inspired by God.


None of these things mark you out as special. For agents who have seen them over and over, they mark you out as someone who doesn't realize how not-special they are. And since you can't know what they've seen over and over, see, Rule #1.

RULE #3: Include professional publishing credits only.
"Professional" means you were paid professional rates for it, typically 5 cents/word and up. If all you got was half-a-penny per word and a copy of the magazine, chances are the agent hasn't heard of the publication. And if the agent hasn't heard of it before they read your letter, they're not going to care when they do.

RULE #4: Include previously self-published books if you sold more than 20,000 copies.
Less than that isn't as important as you'd think.

RULE #5: Mention if you share some background relevant to the story.
Like you have a degree in whatever skill the protagonist uses to solve his problems, or you live in whatever exotic location it's set in (Canada? Not so exotic. The Ozarks? Surprisingly, yes).

RULE #6: You can include something unique about yourself. I guess.
I don't want to tell people not to include stuff like this -- it's memorable and unique, and I've seen it done in cute, writerly ways that made me laugh.

But you won't ever look bad if you follow Rule #1. I mean, what could be more unique than living in Thailand and raising 10 kids? But I didn't say any of that in my query, and it didn't hurt my request rate any. In the bio paragraph, less is more.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments.

First Impact: MY SISTER'S DATING A SERIAL KILLER by Carolyn Chambers Clark

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where I take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

Congratulations to commenter PATCHI! The gods of probability have favored you for November's prize!

December's prize will be the same: either $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me (seriously, guys, I've had ZERO time to think of/hunt people down for better prizes; I can't imagine why). Anyone who leaves their thoughts in the comments is eligible.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

This week we have a query for a YA thriller from Carolyn Chambers Clark. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, everything here is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Opening sentence is a bit long and
awkward for me.

I laughed a little imagining her tying
corpses to her sister's boyfriend ;-)
Junior year could be her last for sixteen-year-old Cammie Carter who knows her big sister's dating a serial killer, but she needs more proof. Cammie races to find a couple of dead bodies and tie them to her sister's boyfriend before he puts Cammie and sister on his To Murder List.

Don't need to repeat her name & age.
Sixteen-year-old Cammie Carter appoints herself amateur detective in her town when the local police in Sleepy Valley, SC, spend more time drinking beer and playing cards than paying attention to evidence.
How does she catch him? What does
she see?

What's her plan?
After she catches a guy in what she's sure is attempted murder, she tries to stop her sister from dating him, but big sis, her parents, and the police all tell her she has an over-active imagination. No one listens to Cammie excerpt her over-the-wall Nana, but that just makes her more determined to find evidence the guy's murdering people. Based on the TV mysteries she watches, she devises what could be a foolproof plan ... unless her sister's boyfriend catches on.

MY SISTER'S DATING A SERIAL KILLER is a young adult thriller, complete at 60,000 words.

Contests: Unless they're HUGE and
PRESTIGIOUS, cut them.

Publications: Unless you got paid pro
rates for them, cut them.

Critique group: Cut it.
I won 2nd place for YA fiction from the Florida State Writing Competition and first place for YA fiction from the Utica Writer's Club Competition. PALM PRINTS, the University of South Florida's writer's journal and RIVERWALK have each published one of my short stories. I've been extremely active (top 7%) for a couple of years at, critiquing others' work and having mine critiqued.

Thank you for considering my work.

Carolyn Chambers Clark

Adam's Thoughts
I like a good thriller, and this has as much potential as any, but I'm afraid there's not enough meat for me to tell.

I think you did the thing where you start with a hook paragraph and then back up to tell your story. I've talked about why this is a bad idea before. Short version: Get right to your inciting incident (Cammie saw her sister's boyfriend dumping a dead body in a lake!), then use the rest of the space to lead into your compelling choice (if Cammie exposes him, her sister will hate her forever, but if she doesn't, her sister will die!).

Obviously I made up an incident and choice, but I had to. That's another issue I had with the query: I wanted more specifics. Tell us how she knows the guy's a killer, what (specifically!) she plans to do about it, and what the stakes are if she fails.

Also, some folks may take issue with my last comment (the one that basically says cut the whole bio paragraph). I can understand that, but you can save your issues for Friday. I'm going to write a post on that particular topic.

Otherwise, what do the rest of you guys think? Your comments are at least as valuable as mine.

Books I Read: Neuromancer

Title: Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk
Published: 1984
My Content Rating: R for sex, language, and violence
Cliffhanger Ending: No

Case is a washed-up computer hacker; a toxic enzyme from some folks he double-crossed ensures he can never jack into the matrix again. He spends his nights trying to get himself killed in the seamier side of Japan when he's approached by a mysterious man named Armitage and his muscle: a woman with mirrors for eyes and blades in her fingers. Armitage says he can give Case his life back, but he needs him for a job tougher than any hacker has ever faced.

Case is so totally in.

This novel is what cyberpunk is, guys. You have no idea how much science-fiction is influenced by this story, from Shadowrun to The Matrix. I once put this on a list of 10 sci-fi books every SF fan should know, and it has earned that spot.

And it's totally fun on top of it. The only thing that bugged me at all were the descriptions of cyberspace, which were a lot more amorphous that I would have liked. But it's surprising how well Gibson's imagined tech almost 30 years ago holds up to what we have today.