Your World is Boring

I'm always surprised when someone who I know loves fantasy (or just books) tells me they have not read The Lord of the Rings. I mean, this book is fantasy. And it's awesome! How can so many people not have read it? I'll give you three reasons: worldbuilding infodumps, long plot-stopping songs, and unintelligible languages.

Now before you Tolkien fans lynch me, hear me out. I know these things make LotR what it is. These are what make the world so big and so real. For you uber-fans,* the world is what you love the most. But you have to understand that for a first-time reader -- someone who is totally unfamiliar with Middle Earth -- these parts are boring.

Tolkien loved his world. And rightfully so; it's amazing. But the truth is that if Tolkien tried to pitch this today as his debut novel, he'd be told to cut the word count in half, split the story into smaller parts,** and for Pete's sake use a 'k' instead of a hard 'c' in your fantasy names!

Sorry. I'm okay now.

Many of us who write fantasy fell in love with it because of books like Tolkien's. We started creating our own worlds with new races and cultures and politics and histories and languages. We wrote a story in that world. But you know what happened? Our story became more about the world than the story. And it was boring.

Now we're full grown wannabe authors. We know about character and conflict. We're good with pacing and tension. But every once in a while, we start our story off with an infodump prologue, or we toss a 70-line poem into our story just because we love it. Even if we manage to keep the world on a tight leash in our novel, it comes bursting out in the query letter.

People don't want to read about your world. They want interesting characters they can root for (or against). They want compelling plot. Give them these things and only then will they listen to whatever you've got to say about the history of the Sidhe (and why it's pronounced 'she').

If you get nothing else out of this post, remember this: readers that love your characters will love your world, not the other way around.

And if you love fantasy, please read LotR. It would make me feel so much better.

* i.e. Those of you who have read all the appendices, can write your name in Angerthas Daeron, and converse in Quenya as easily as Sindarin. You know who you are.

** Oh wait, he was told to do that.

That Thing Where I Draw: Life and Science

Science is the process of putting things in boxes, and so science is itself a kind of box. But life still happens outside it.

A little Photoshop action for the new year. Which was hard because Photoshop Elements 3 doesn't play nice with new versions of Windows. Anyway, happy new year. I expect to be blogging on a more regular schedule starting... well now, I guess.

Self-Promotion (Repost)

(My laptop is nearly fried; my internet connectivity is limited and I have to resort to the touchpad because I can't plug in my mouse. Consequently, working at the computer is less fun than normal. Plus I understand there's some kind of holiday going on.

All of that meant to say: (1) I'm reposting, here are my excuses, and (2) I'm getting a new computer soon (yay!)).

Reposted from November, 2008 (though probably new to you).

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.

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.

On Spoilers

When is it okay to mention spoilers without having to provide a spoiler warning? I have finally solved this age-old (i.e. as old as the internet) problem. Put simply, it is a function of how unbelievable the spoiler is and the age of the work in question. Like so:

If the Spoiler Quotient is greater than or equal to 1, then a spoiler warning is required. The OMG Factor is a rating of how unbelievable a given piece of information is, numbered from 0 to 5.

So "Darth Vader is Luke's father" (OMG Factor: 5, Years since release: 29) has a spoiler quotient of 0.17 and is totally fair game. While "the Axiom's autopilot has secretly been ordered to keep humans in space forever" (OMG Factor: 3, Years since release: 1.5) has a spoiler quotient of 2... which means I should've warned you.

Hm. Maybe this thing needs some more work.

On Priorities

(Fair warning: Posts may be short or non-existent the next couple of weeks. Just saying.)

If you think this means I won't be careful with my Thai, you should know that 6 of those 8 people are my wife and in-laws.

Also, this is not to scale (unless you're a prospective agent/publisher, in which case this is totally to scale).

That Thing Where I Draw: Tee and Heart

I took a break this week (not entirely intentionally), so here's an older drawing from my sketchbook. I couldn't find any dates, but near as I can figure this sketch is from about 4.5 years ago. I drew this during naptime at an orphanage called Im Jai House. That's Tee on the left and Heart on the right.

Cindy and I started working with Im Jai House almost immediately after we moved here. At first we just went in the evenings, but soon we were there all day (minus time we left for language school). It was actually really hard for me. I mean, I loved the kids, but I never felt like an authority or role model. I didn't really know how I fit in their lives.

I don't know what impact I had on them, but they impacted me a lot. Not only did we learn Thai at an insane speed, but I realized that I wanted to have a place in their lives -- not just as the volunteer who sometimes plays/sometimes disciplines. I wanted to be the dad.

Tee, in particular, really got to me. We were there the day he first arrived at Im Jai. He was 6, with no friends, and scared. He hung around me a lot. I don't know why since I could hardly talk to him.

I remember one day I was playing soccer with him. Some older kids joined and soon after -- mostly because I was tired -- I left them to their game. Tee came to me in tears. I tried, in my broken Thai, to ask him what was wrong. Between heaving sobs I understood the words, "I wanted... to play... with you."

It was the first meaningful conversation I remember having in this language, with Tee or anyone.

Later, Cindy and I realized that we couldn't do what we wanted to do at an orphanage with over 50 kids. We gradually lessened our commitments until we had foster kids of our own to take care of, and we left Im Jai House. Tee is 10 now, and living with a family who does what we do just down the road. I see him sometimes, though I don't think he remembers that scene like I do. I doubt he even thinks of me at all other than "that farang I used to play with at Im Jai," but I'll never forget him.

Dang. And here I thought I was just going to say, "These are a couple of kids at an orphanage we used to work at." Well there you go. Merry Christmas.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Someone asked me this the other day. I didn't have a good answer then; I kinda shrugged and said, "Everywhere." I didn't know what to say, or even what he wanted me to say. I mean, where do people think writers get our ideas from? Dreams? God? "Inspiration"?

I think my answer was right though -- we do get ideas from everywhere, but not because there's something special about us. It's just how we choose to look at the world.

Like the other day, Natalie posted on Twitter that she had a freckle on the inside of her left eye. Then her and Jodi spent the next half hour discussing what sort of superpowers the freckle would give her, and how she might obtain access to them.*

I joined in and said my first thought was not superpowers but "alien egg." I expected them to be grossed out, especially Natalie as it was her eye, but she said, "Actually, I was thinking it might be an interesting story."

All those stories -- the various superpowers and the alien -- came from the same thing: a freckle. There was nothing special about the freckle that made it story-worthy. The story came from the way the three of us looked at it. It's because our brains were constantly asking, "How can I make a story out of that?"

I think all creative people look at the world this way, to some extent. Journalists look for news stories. Photographers look for pictures. Comedians look for jokes. Pastors look for object lessons. Bloggers look for posts. And genre writers look for magic and aliens.

So when I'm dry for story ideas, it's not because the ideas aren't there, it's because I haven't been looking for them. Ideas happen around me all the time, but if I've been converting them into blog posts or devotions for the kids, I won't see them.

I keep trying to come up with a good ending for this post, but all I can think of is that alien egg. How does the alien eat after it hatches? How does it reproduce? Maybe if I spend an hour on Wikipedia, something will come to me...

Meanwhile, where's the weirdest place you've gotten a story idea from?

* It sounds like I was eavesdropping, which I guess I was, technically. Then again Twitter let me. Nothing's private on the nets, right?