When I was writing Travelers, I usually only had a couple of documents open: the manuscript and an outline. I'd open other files as needed, like if I needed to find some old notes or update my word count statistics, but it was rare.*

The other day, I was working on Air Pirates, and one of my kids came up and said (as teenagers will), "Wow! You've got a lot of stuff open!" I have the taskbar expanded to double, and at any given time it's packed with manuscripts, world docs, outlines, brainstorming notes... Well, let me just show you an example:

I mean, just in that screenshot, I've got 2 time management docs (TODO and Writing Statistics), 4 story docs (manuscript, timeline, outline, character bible), 6 world docs and notes, plus the directory they're contained in and Firefox. That's normal. Sometimes I'll also open "Details to Remember,"** "Random Passages," or any of 100*** other files containing various notes on different story-related topics.

I don't feel disorganized yet, but I can sense that I'm getting close. If I have to write three books in this world, I may have to find a better way to manage all of this stuff.

* For example, at the time I only kept track of word count each time I finished a chapter. Travelers only has 11 chapters and an epilogue, and it took me three years to write. So I only got to open this file about once every 3 months.

** An increasingly obsolete document in which I attempt to keep track of little details, like how much money the protagonist has on him, and which leg was broken of a particular minor character.

*** One hundred twenty three, at the moment. Character notes, maps, old dead stories in the same world, old drafts, early outlines... I even have a flash animation of the world, its 3 moons, and 2 suns.

Elements of Fiction: Why?

I've been reading this book, Blue Like Jazz, where Donald Miller talks about his Christian journey in decidedly non-religious terms. It's refreshing, and I highly recommend it, whatever your beliefs.

At one point, he talks about a lecture he went to on the elements of literature - setting, character, conflict, climax, and resolution - and he (and I) began to wonder why? Why do stories have to have these elements? Nobody invented them. Nobody said, "This is how it shall be done," and so we all do it that way. These elements are in the core of our being. Humans of all cultures identify with stories that contain these elements and have trouble with stories that do not (literary fiction, I'm looking at you).

The real reason (and this isn't my idea, but Miller's) is that these elements speak to things inherent in the human condition. Let's take a look at them.

Setting. This one is obvious. The fact that we exist means we exist somewhere. We cannot experience life without a setting in which to experience it.

Character. Likewise, there is no life but it has characters in it. Even the most secluded hermit has himself in his own story.

Conflict. Life sucks; it has hard things in it from the beginning. Pain. Loss. We want something, but there are always obstacles. There is no life without conflict.

Climax. As we face more conflict and more obstacles, eventually things come to a make-or-break point. Will I ask her out? Will I try out for the team? Will I propose? Will I win the contest? Will I have a baby? We must make a choice, we must act out that choice, and the experiences and decisions we've made up to that point all play a part in determining how each climax plays out.

Resolution. Whether the climax was a success or failure, the resolution is what happens as a result. Questions are answered. Loose ends are closed. Cliffs are left hanging towards the next climax.

The fact that these are inherent to life suggests some things too. Perhaps our lives build towards a climax and have resolution - maybe death is not an abrupt end to the story, but some kind of climax itself. Perhaps also there is something after death, with conflict and climax of its own (though of what kind, I cannot possibly imagine).

Because if there is one thing that is true about all stories, it's that they never end. After one scene reaches its climax, the conflict-climax-resolution cycle starts again in the next one. A few such scenes, and you've got a chapter. Many chapters, each with their own climax, make a book. Many books make a saga. Sagas make life.

And then it all starts again.

A Classical Education: 10 (or more) Sci-Fi Books You Should Read

A while ago, Nathan Bransford asked, "What book are you embarrassed not to have read?" A lot of classics were mentioned (and a lot of people haven't read Lord of the Rings, which astounds me), but it made me think: What books should a science fiction author(/critic/fan) have read?

Some caveats: (1) this is not a top 10 sci-fi novels of all time, nor is it my favorite 10 sci-fi novels; (2) I haven't read all of these (in particular, I haven't read #7, and #5 is waiting on my shelf); (3) I totally cheated because I couldn't pick just 10, so I'm giving you some options.

Without further ado, here's my list of 10 (or more) novels any sci-fi fan should read:
  1. Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. The first father of science fiction, Verne thought of things that didn't happen for 100 years, but they happened. That's like the heart of science fiction.
  2. The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, or The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. The second father of science fiction. Apparently also the father of table top war games.
  3. 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Classics in dystopian fiction. Really, you ought to read both.
  4. Dune by Frank Herbert. I consider Dune to be the Lord of the Rings of science fiction, largely for its scope and themes. Unlike the other novels above, Dune is more about the characters and the story than the science. It's one of the best examples of what character-driven, epic sci-fi can be.
  5. The Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. As mentioned, I haven't read these yet, but they're on my shelf. I have read very little Asimov, and I know this series is a must from a great science fiction author.
  6. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury or Red Planet by Robert Heinlein. If Wells and Verne are fathers of sci-fi, Bradbury and Heinlein are like their sons, or grandsons or something. These two classics explore the colonization of Mars before we realized there was nothing on it. (Alternatively, try Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land).
  7. Neuromancer by William Gibson or Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I haven't read either, but I've heard so much about them that I want to read both. Both books deal with the idea of cyberspace before "cyberspace" was a word my mom used. A lot of ideas seen in sci-fi since have come out of these stories.
  8. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I couldn't make a list of sci-fi books without mentioning my very favorite. Like Dune, Ender's Game is more about the characters and psychology than it is about science, but that doesn't make it any less scientific. I don't care if you're a sci-fi fan or not, you have to read this book.
  9. The Giver by Lois Lowry. More dystopian fiction, but more contemporary and accessible than either Orwell or Huxley. Plus, I have a soft spot in my heart for young adult fiction. It's a good book. Try it out.
  10. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. One thing about science fiction is that it's often really, really serious. Adams takes care of that, and I think any fan of sci-fi ought to be exposed to the funnier side of the genre.
So I guess that's over 20 books. That's fine, they're all worth reading. But hey, this is just my opinion, and any top 10 list is going to be missing something. So what do you think? What books would make your list?


I hate the idea of self-promotion. Who doesn't? Who wants to be that kid who says, "Hey, everybody! Look at me!!" Okay, fine, well I never wanted to be that kid. Now I find myself on the outskirts of an industry that requires it.

So I've been researching self-promotion a little. One thing I've discovered is that I've already been doing it. I mean, the missionary "industry" revolves around self-promotion just as much as the publishing one does. Perhaps more so.

(Speaking of which, those of you reading this from Facebook might like to know that this is being imported from my other blog - my writing one. I'm still importing the missionary blog such that it appears on my wall, but not into my notes anymore. I hope that's okay.)

How you promote yourself depends, apparently, on how much money, time, and morals you have. If you have a lot of money, hire a publicist. If you have a lot of time, build a website, make profiles on social networking sites, and spend time on other people's blogs, the social net, forums, etc. - all the while linking back to your website. If you're low on morals, this time can also be spent comment spamming and writing fake reviews.

It's like this. Let's measure the amount of time and money invested in self-promotion with what we'll call your Publicity Quotient. The more you invest in self-promotion, the higher your PQ (low morals increase your PQ slightly, with an increased risk of drastically lowering it when you're found out; high morals, sadly, do nothing). With that in mind, take a look at this completely unscientific, made-up chart:

Not terribly mathematical, I know. But beyond the general guideline that the more you put in, the more you'll get out, publicity is largely luck and magic - becoming a breakout bestseller even more so.

Also, anyone who tells you how to promote yourself, without mentioning in the same breath that you need a product worth promoting, is taking you in. If your book sucks, you can sell copies with publicity but it won't do you much good in the long run (see low morals).

That's my take on the whole thing, anyway. I plan on doing self-promotion the same way I've been doing it. I'll provide places for people to get hooked in, I'll get the word out with a non-spamming announcement, and most importantly I'll try to be genuine. That means leaving comments because I have something to say, not because I have something to link to. It means making profiles on social networks that I'm actually a part of (sorry, MySpace, guess that means you're out).

And it means trusting others to do the reviewing and word-of-mouth advertising for me. If it doesn't happen, it just means I need to write a better book next time.

And when that doesn't work, I'll upgrade my spambot.

No More Crichton

This is kind of out of the blue for me. I didn't even know he had cancer, but apparently Michael Crichton has passed away.

Michael Crichton is one of my early, and still present, influences in writing. It started with Jurassic Park which I read as a teenager, after which I went on to read practically everything he wrote. Though I didn't mention him before, Michael Crichton taught me that a novel should read like a movie. Ironically, I learned that from reading Sphere, which is a great book but a terrible movie - sorry, Michael, it was.

Premise and Adam's 3 WIPs

Under extreme duress, I've added the followers widget to my sidebar. Two of you have already noticed it. Feel free to make use of it, and know that seeing little boxes up there makes me happy.

At the end of my first mission trip, we spent a few days preparing for reassimilation back to the States. One thing our leaders told us was that everybody would ask the question "How was your trip?" but not everybody wanted to know everything. We had to be prepared to answer that question, lest we just say "Good" or else ramble on until we noticed that our listener had walked away some time ago.

The leaders suggested we have three answers to the question: a 5 second answer, a 1 minute answer, and a 5 minute answer. Each answer was meant to be concise and informative, giving the listener the information they really wanted (you can usually tell who wants a 5 second answer vs. 5 minutes), yet hopefully causing them to ask questions and start a discussion.

Your novel is the discussion you want to have with someone. Your synopsis is your 5 minute answer. Your hook is the 1 minute, and your 5 second answer is your premise.

The premise is everything the story is about in one sentence, less than 25 words or so. It's the one-line blurbs TV Guide uses to describe the movies in their listings, the tagline at the top of Amazon items, the first answer to "What's your book about?" It sucks to write because you have to cut out everything, but it's a great place to start before writing a query.

Today I'm going to elaborate on the status of my works in progress, and give you a 20-word premise of each.

Premise: A father and son must rescue an extraordinary girl from an immortal tyrant in a post-apocalyptic future to save humanity. I've put the first chapter online.

Status: I've sent out 50 queries, and received 33 form rejections. Fun, huh?

Plans: I have another 8-14 agents to query. After that, I'll try revising the query at AQConnect and Evil Editor some more before querying big publishers directly. If that doesn't work, small press.

AIR PIRATES (working title)
Premise: A future-telling stone makes a young man join an air pirate crew on a quest to find his long-dead mother.

Status: Tentatively titled "The Curse of Samhain." I have just finished chapter 14, putting the manuscript at 50,000 words.

Plans: The current outline calls for 29 chapters, maybe 110,000 words. I can't yet estimate when it will be done though. During the first six months, I wrote at 2,700 words/month, but in the last six I've more than doubled that. If I can keep it up, the draft might be finished in another 9-10 months. But take that with a bunch of salt, because (a) I'm getting faster all the time, (b) life gets in the way a lot, and (c) my wife and I are still trying to balance my writing with my life/job, and the net effect of this balancing on my writing speed is unknown.

I have a three-book story arc planned for Air Pirates.

JOEY STONE (working title)
Premise: A girl who controls fire with her mind joins an academy for her kind and learns about trust and sacrifice. (Give me a break, I haven't even figured out a plot yet!)

Status: Still brainstorming. Whenever I have ideas, I jot them down in a Word document set aside for that purpose. Otherwise, I leave it alone.

Plans (such as they are): The powers in the story are largely psionic in nature, but I may decide to refer to them as mutant or witchly.* The powers are based on a PBeM world I created in another life.** I was going to set the story in that world too, but now I'm thinking about leaving it on Earth, maybe modern day or near future. Heck, if I can figure out a way to place it in Thailand, I will. You can see how nebulous this story still is.

I very, very loosely have three books planned for this story. I don't know if I will start it after finishing Book 1 or Book 3 of Air Pirates though. Right now, Joey's just a seed that I'm interested in, but not a story. That seed has to bounce around my head for a while before it really sprouts.

* And you thought that other post was theoretical. Ha!

** In the world before 9/11.

The Imaginary Line

There is an imaginary line dividing science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction is space and aliens and the future. Fantasy is magic and elves and dwarves. Right? As a reader, I'm glad it's not that simple, but as a writer, trying to find where I fit, I wish it would be a little easier. We categorize books so that readers can find what they like, and so publishers can find the right folks to sell to, but so so many books defy categorization.

Example: Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The book is no doubt science fiction what with Martians, space travel, a sole survivor of a defunct colony on Mars, etc. But halfway through, and most peculiarly at the end, there are characters both major and minor that have become angels in Heaven. That's not science, is it?

How about McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern? It has dragons, telepathy, medieval societies... but if you've read farther you know that Pern is a colony of Earth, and dragons the result of genetic engineering. The series appeals to fantasy fans, but the author insists it's sci-fi. If there's a line between science fiction and fantasy, then Anne McCaffrey is sitting right on top of it.

Now try this. I'll give you the premise of a story, and you tell me if it's sci-fi or fantasy: "New students arrive at a private academy for witches whose highly-trained agents must oppose a powerful terrorist witch organization."

Fantasy, right? Maybe urban fantasy (the words "agents" and "terrorist" suggest modern-day). What if I told you the sentence originally said "mutants" instead of "witches" and is, in fact, the premise of X-Men?

X-Men is science fiction, but merely by changing the perceived source of their powers - not changing their powers or the story or even their costumes one bit - the genre of the movie suddenly slides towards fantasy. (In fact, Marvel 1602 does just that, calling them "witchbreed" rather than mutants, leaving their powers unchanged).

Granted, if we altered X-Men by calling them witches, the story should change, at least a little. But it doesn't have to change a lot for it to suddenly become urban fantasy. It's all in perception.

What's my point? I don't know if I have one. Just that with every story I write, I find myself sitting on top of that imaginary line and wondering how to sell the story. I wish we could call it all speculative fiction and be done with it, but it's not to be. I know.

Anyway, here's to steampunk and science fantasy. My favorite blended subgenres that will never see their own sections in a bookstore.