Endings, Again

I'm only a couple of days out from finishing Air Pirates. It's exciting (obviously). On the other hand, this last chapter has been taking longer than the others because it's the end. It has to be good. To do that, as Natalie said in her post on endings, I have to take it slow.

So obviously I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what makes an ending good. I've mentioned before that I have a problem with endings. I think I'm starting to figure out why.

As a writer, one thing you have to realize is that while you're telling your story, you are making certain promises to your reader. Some of those promises are inherent in the genre you're writing: if you're writing a murder mystery, you promise the reader will learn who did it and why; if it's a romance, you promise the right people will get together in the end.*

But genre aside, every story makes promises, and it's your job to give the reader what they want. That doesn't mean you have to be predictable, but throw in the wrong kind of twist and your reader will throw your book across the room in frustration.

Let's look at an example. Halfway through Back to the Future, everything's set up for a big climax. The two major conflicts (will Marty get back to the future? can he get his parents together so he still exists when he gets there?) are set up so that Marty's only chance at both is at the same time: the night of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. How does this have to end? You might think there are a thousand ways it could end - after all, anything's possible - but the truth is that the viewer is expecting a very limited subset of what is possible.

In BttF, the viewer expects Marty to get home and his parents to get together. Why? Because it's a light-hearted, funny movie. From the very beginning, the movie sends subtle clues that this will be a fun story, which implies a happy ending. There are a number of twists that can happen, but if Marty dies in the end, or gets stuck in the past forever, the viewer will be upset.

BttF also sent signals about what kind of climax it would be. Because there are action scenes (the Libyans attacking Doc Brown, Biff and his goons chasing Marty), the reader expects not just similar, but bigger, action for the climax. Because the movie is funny, we expect a little comic relief from the climax (or at least aren't blind-sided when it happens).

There's more. Marty's dad didn't have to become confident, did he? Could Marty have gone home and found everything exactly as he left it - loser parents and all? He probably could have, but we're all glad he didn't, because the viewer expects the characters they care about will not only win, but win big (or, if it's a tragedy, lose big). It's not enough for George McFly to get the right girl, he has to become more than he was before Marty interfered. Marty doesn't just come back home, he comes back to something better (a new truck, Doc Brown lives and is a closer friend to him than ever).

I'm not saying all endings have to be happy and predictable, but they have to be satisfying. They have to be bigger and better than anything that's happened in the book so far. If you twist it, the twist should be better than the straight-forward ending would have been - don't twist just to be unpredictable (woah, that advice came out of nowhere, and I realize I need to follow it!).

This post is long already, and there was something else I wanted to say about cliffhangers. I'll put it off for another post. In the meantime, ask yourself, what has to happen in the end? Twists and details aside, where do the characters have to end up for me to be satisfied? That's where the ending needs to go.

* These rules aren't strictly true 100% of the time, of course. They can be broken, but if you don't know what you're doing, nobody will put up with you breaking them.

Language Problems

(For WAG #6: Overheard, in which the goal is to eavesdrop and notice how people really talk. I had some problems, as you'll see, and so shattered the rules into tiny, glittering pieces on the floor. Wear shoes.)

I can't understand you. I've lived here 4 years, even went to school to learn your language, but I can't understand you. You're not speaking your language.

I realize they didn't teach me about languages in the US. Oh, they teach the big ones - Spanish, French, maybe Chinese - but nobody is expected to actually use them. When someone, or some country, doesn't speak English, the typical American sentiment is, "Why don't they just learn English?"

I didn't want to be like that, so when I came here I determined to learn Thai the best I could. For you. I've done that, am still doing that, but though Thai is the national language, it's hardly the language everyone speaks.

Even in my own house, Thai is everyone's second language. My wife and I speak English. My oldest daughter grew up speaking Karen. My youngest daughter speaks Lisu with her mom, Kham Mueang with her school friends, and English with me; she only uses Thai with her teachers.

By your rhythms and sounds, I know you're speaking Kham Mueang. I recognize it, even know a word or two, but I don't understand you. In northern Thailand, everyone speaks Kham Mueang. Everyone but me. In the market, if my face didn't already mark me as an outsider, my use of the so-called "national language" would.

It's not really fair, you know? Why can't you all just learn English?


Other participants in WAG #6:

How to Join the Writing Adventure Group

Cora Zane

Christine Kirchoff

Nancy J Parra

Mickey Hoffman

Sharon Donovan

Iain Martin



Jon Strother



Book Trailers

I didn't know there was such a thing as book trailers until a few months ago. They're... weird. Let me explain.

First, some definition. A book trailer is like a movie trailer. It's an ad designed to get you excited about the book so you'll pay for it. The major difference, obviously, is that movie trailers have about 2 hours of existing footage to work with, every second of which accurately portrays the movie being advertised (because, obviously, it is the movie being advertised).

It's because book trailers don't have this that they're so weird. About the only visual both a book and its trailer share is the book cover. So they have to make do with stock pictures, movie soundtracks, actors playing out scenes expressly for the trailer... none of which are a part of the actual experience of reading the book.

There's another weird aspect to book trailers. Due to the ease of making videos and putting them online, there's a lot of amateur book trailers out there - both fan trailers for bestselling books and actual trailers done by midlist authors themselves. Some of them are pans and zooms of the book cover while the author reads the back cover blurb. Some use stock footage to help visualize the narration. Some piece together clips from actual movies.

Some of these amateur trailers are decent. Many are not.

I think the reason I find book trailers weird is because I'm comparing them to movie trailers. On the one hand, it's an unfair comparison - the mediums are very different. On the other hand, the comparison is demanded; most book trailers are trying to be movie trailers. They're even called "trailers."

Which brings me to my question: what should book trailers be? Should they be like movie trailers - a visual representation of the book? Or should they be something else (and what)?

I'm not sure there's one right answer to this. The better trailers I've seen are good more because of the production quality than because of any methods used.

I will say that I'm not sure about the movie-clips-as-trailer method. It looks cool, but I think it sends mixed messages to the viewer. Especially if the clips are from movies I'm familiar with, I get confused as to what's being advertised. Often I find myself, at the end, more excited about the movies than the book.

Travelers on Hold; Air Pirates Nearly Drafted

If you look at the status of my works in progress on the sidebar, you'll notice two things.

First, I have changed Travelers' status from "Querying agents" to "On hold". In truth, I haven't really done anything for Travelers for two or three months now. There are still a few agents who haven't gotten back to me, but given the overwhelming number of negative responses, I'm not optimistic. Some statistics...

Queried: 60 agents
Form rejections: 39
No response: 19
Personalized rejections: 2 (thank you, Ms. Gendell and Ms. Meadows!)
Partial requests: 0
Full requests: 0

From the personalized rejections, I've gathered that (1) my current query letter doesn't suck, (2) neither does my voice or writing style, but (3) the characters in the early parts of the novel are not characterized very well and/or the agents didn't feel as connected to the characters as they wanted to (Arad and Garrett were mentioned, in particular).

I'm leaving the first chapter online for now. I may consider a rewrite later, but I'm not going to think about that until I'm farther along in the query process of Air Pirates and am thinking of my next project.

Which brings me to the second thing. I'm writing the final chapter of Air Pirates (Whee!). It's taken me 1.5 years to write the whole draft. That's a lot slower than some people, but it's about 3x faster than the last novel I wrote (so that means the sequel will be done in 6 months, right? Right?).

I'm excited (obviously, since I'm posting about it before I've actually done it), and I'm ready. I have the query letter all set. I've got a 4-5 month timeline for the beta/revision phase of the project. I even have a first draft of "instructions" for my beta readers. That's right, I'm that neurotic.

I guess that's all I have to say. I'm excited. When the draft is finished, you'll hear it here. When I need beta readers (I have 2, but I think I want a few more this time around), you'll hear it here. Maybe I should give you guys some excerpts or something. I'm just so excited!

Okay, I need to outline the chapter before I have to eat all my words. Words are gross!

Commercial Bestsellers

I don't have a lot of choice in what I read here in Thailand. The English bookstores only carry the very best of the bestselling (i.e. Harry Potter). Instead, one of my friends and I trade what books we get back and forth. He gets random books that friends in the States find for cheap, and I (for the last few years anyway) get a gift certificate once a year from my sisters-in-law.

Lately my friend has been loaning me commercial bestsellers. These are the books you see in Walmart or Ralphs or the very front of Borders. A lot have been thrillers from authors like Dean Koontz, Robin Cook, and James Patterson. I usually walk right past these on my way to the Sci-fi/Fantasy section, so this is kind of a new genre for me.

I was surprised to find that some of them are very good. I read my first Koontz novel with heavy skepticism, only to find that he writes really well. His imagery is vivid, evocative, and ties together the tones and themes of any given scene.

On the other hand, a lot of these haven't been any good at all. The stories are fine; it's mostly problems with their craft - a lot of telling when they should be showing. A lot of unnecessary "As you know, Bob"-style dialogue. Sometimes the action will stop for a paragraph or two to explain the character's motivations ("Despite the fact that the killer had a gun, Jack got angry. It was a problem he had that went back to his overbearing father..."). In one novel, there was a seemingly-major character who did nothing but sit in his office and answer phone calls that explained various aspects of the plot.

A couple of years ago, I don't think I would've noticed these things, but the more I learn about writing well, and the more I get criticized myself on these very things, the more I realize that these extremely successful authors are getting away with total crap, and getting paid very well for it.

At first I didn't mind. I actually felt good about it. "If they can get published with this garbage," I thought, "then I'll be published for sure!" (How innocent and naive I was). Then, as I earned more rejections and criticisms on my own work, I began to get angry at the double standard.

I'm better now. Though I'm not happy about it, I have accepted that publishing is a business, and these authors sell. On the other hand, this undermines one of the major things that publishers supposedly provide, namely credibility. If I can't trust a bestseller to be any good, how can I trust the midlist?

These authors sell (I think) because of the huge fanbase they've accumulated back when they actually were credible. Those same fans keep coming back because they want more of the same, the familiar - and the fans don't care (or don't notice) that the quality of the familiar has declined.

I don't know what can be done about this, or if anything even should be done. It grates against my sense of rightness, but pretty much all entertainment mediums have the same problem. It's just capitalism at work, really. So the question is what can I do about it?

The only answers I can think of are: (1) don't buy the crappy books and (2) don't let the quality of my own writing go down just because I'm rich and famous. Unfortunately I rarely buy books and I'm not rich and famous, so I can't actually do anything. Not yet.

First Sketch of Air Pirates

Natalie finished my prize sketches much faster than I'd thought. She was only supposed to give me one sketch, but she got so excited about it she drew two.

Here's Hagai Dekham Wainwright. He's never done anything braver than put peppers in his stew, but on his 21st birthday he receives a stone from his supposedly-dead mother and sets out to find her. Unfortunately, air pirates want the stone for its ability to give chance visions of the future, and Hagai soon finds himself in more trouble than he thought.

And this is Sam Draper - elite fighter and wanted air pirate. He nicks the stone from Hagai only to have the lad track him down and ask for it back! Sam doesn't give it back, of course, but he learns that the stone works for Hagai. Since Sam hasn't been able to make it work himself, he lets Hagai join his crew. Adventure ensues!

Thank you again, Natalie, for these awesome pictures. If Air Pirates never gets published, I'll still have these forever. And if it does, I can sell them for millions. It's win win!

Free Fall Math and BASE Jumping

Every once in a while, I research something that's just random enough or cool enough or geeky enough to share (like, you know, should you use the definite article when writing about ships, which is way cool).

I'll start you off with the good stuff. Some free fall survival tips:
First of all, you're starting off a full mile higher than Everest, so after a few gulps of disappointing air you're going to black out. This is not a bad thing. If you have ever tried to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you know what I mean. This brief respite from the ambient fear and chaos will come to an end when you wake up at about 15,000 feet. Here begins the final phase of your descent, which will last about a minute. It is a time of planning and preparation.
Read the whole thing. It's both amusing and interesting. Now, here's some cool free fall math:
  • For a person of average weight, in spread eagle position, terminal velocity is about 120 mph (190 kph).
  • An experienced skydiver can attain velocities of 160 mph (250 kph). With training, that can be increased to over 200 mph (320 kph), and the record is over 300 mph (480 kph).
  • It takes about 14-15 seconds to reach terminal velocity (120 mph).
  • In those 14-15 seconds, the plummeter will have fallen a little over 1,800 feet (550 m).
That means in the Air Pirates' world, where the ships typically fly 1-2 km above the ground, it would take 20-40 seconds for someone to hit said ground.

Now onto BASE jumping. After a short amount of research, I realized I didn't know much about this sport. BASE is an acronym that stands for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth: four categories of objects from which one can jump.

It's basically skydiving without the plane, but it's more dangerous than skydiving. The practical minimum for skydivers to open their parachute is 600 meters, but most BASE jumps are made from less than that. Jumpers have far less time to control their jump, and they usually don't even reach terminal velocity.

That brings me to the other cool thing I learned about: the wingsuit. This is a skydiving suit with added fabric sewn between the legs and between the arms and body. With a wingsuit, the jumper's fall rate drops to an average 60 mph (95 kph) and can get as low as 25 mph (40 kph). It also gives the jumper additional control over their fall, almost to the point of gliding. Some jumpers are even trying to set a record by landing without a parachute.

Check this out:

In Air Pirates, there are 3 scenes where someone jumps or falls from an airship (actually there's a lot more than that, but speed and distance only matter for 3 of them - the rest just die). I even finagled a wingsuit in one of the scenes - some of my protagonists are just too extreme for their own good.