Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Food for thought...

Sherlock Holmes, the movie, is one of the reasons that I want to write. If, for some reason, publishers decide not to publish Defender of the Crown, I think I'll take another swing at mystery writing...but I already knew that :)

Anyway, Guy Ritchie, already a director whose work I admire (he directed Snatch, Revolver, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and L4yer Cake), has impressed me beyond measure!

Anyway, I thought you should all know that the movie is awesome, entertaining, and totally worth your time!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2 Years

I didn't post anything yesterday because, aside from several errands that I had to run, I spent the day with my wonderful wife, celebrating our second anniversary. Two years yesterday, I married the woman of my dreams, and I am so grateful for the time we've spent together so far, and I REALLY look forward to the years to come.

In sadder news, less than two hours ago, my grandfather, Harold Thomas Hash, died of thyroid cancer. We found out about it almost a year ago, and by the time the doctors caught it, he was too far gone to send it into remission. So the last eight months were spent fulfilling his bucket list (including a trip to Normandy), and those of us who are left behind were preparing ourselves for the loss.

I don't think it's really sunk in for me yet, but at the same time, I don't know how depressed I could get. Anyway, that's why I didn't post yesterday, and why my post today is rather short.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is it good enough?

As I've been posting my query letter on message boards around the internet, I have been told several times that 81k words is quite long for a book that has as little plot as I describe in my letter. As I read the letter, I definitely agree, and since the book actually has three complete plots that intertwine with each other, I've been looking for ways to make the query letter show larger parts of the plot to justify my word count.

That's not what this post is about, though. That's merely what started a train of thought in my head. So, if you're one of the FANTASTIC author's who looked over my query letter in the forums, first of all, THANK YOU :), and second, this is not at all a criticism of your critiques (since, as I stated earlier, I agree with what you've said). No, my friends, this post is about Young Adult fiction. And while comments on my letter are what sparked my brain into motion, this has been building as I have continued to comb the internet for knowledge on the writing industry. What I have found, from both agents and publishers (well, employees at publishing companies) is that Young Adult books are expected to be short.

Granted, the agent that I'm currently thinking of was talking about books that were 180k words long and should have been cut down to AT LEAST 120k, if not below 100k. And the agent has a great point: debut authors, especially in the YA category, are going to have a lot of difficulty selling that book to a publisher even after they finally land an agent. That's a lot of paper they're selling, which represents a much larger investment in narrative content. There's a lot of room for failure if your story is flat in any way, and because this isn't Vegas, publishers often go for more engaging narratives that may have LESS actual content. Your tome may be one of the best novels ever written, but unless it's a real page-turner (like Harry Potter), you're more likely to get a rejection, especially if your sales pitch makes the book sound like every other book on the editor's slush pile.

But what about the shorter books? The ones that squeak through the 60k word mark? Or even the ones that are only 40k or 50k words long? For a point of reference, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is 77k words; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is a mere 38k, The Lightning Thief is 87k, and Twilight comes in at a massive 119k. Now, I've only read two of these books (though The Lightning Thief is on my list of ones to write), and I'm not here to praise or insult any of them except to say that these books get people to READ!

At last! The reason I'm writing this!

It's come to my attention lately (and it may have been the case for years and years, but I'm only now seeing it) that Young Adult fiction is plagued with mediocre writing. Sure the books I mentioned are YA, and they're popular beyond belief, but what about the hundreds, if not thousands of books that publishers throw out at our children that we've never heard of? I'm sure the same could be said of all genres for all age groups, but in my experience, YA and even Middle Grade writing seems to be filled with books that contain improper sentence structure, passive verb usage, constant "-ing" words, and so many other writing faux pas that you wonder how an editor even let that book go to the copy-editors.

And don't get me wrong. I'm not here to bash anyone. I just want to know, "why?" Why do we insist that, when we write for young adults, it's good enough?

This is something that I'm passionate about! As writers to young adults, we are essentially teachers, whether we like it or not. While I think the content of a book should teach the reader to be morally upright, I'll always leave that decision to the author. But I do believe that as writers we have a moral obligation to, at the very least, avoid teaching bad grammar, sentence structure, and writing techniques to children who are already struggling with one of the most difficult languages in the world.

My wife teaches sixth grade. She's constantly looking for more good books to give to her students. Not just on their reading level, but books that will help them become better, smarter students. If she comes across a book that doesn't do that on its own, she'll tell her kids flat out, "You're better than that book, and here's why..."

This isn't a call to arms to overhaul and revolutionize Young Adult fiction. It's simply a challenge to all of us (myself included) to do the best we can to TEACH our children through the words that we write. Don't cop out and "stoop" to the child's level. They're WAY smarter than we give them credit for. Do the best you can, learn to do a better job, and they'll see it. They may even apply it to their own lives. But even if they don't, would you rather have my wife say of your book, "You're better than that," or, "Here, you should read THIS,"?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Monday

Another work week has begun. I'm still editing my query letter, and I think I'm finally making real progress (and I know I've said that several times already). I'm not at all worried about getting the letter out because many agencies close up shop at the end of this week, and they won't start up business again until the new year. So rather than freaking out and trying to get a bunch of letter in the mail by Friday, I've decided to polish the letter and REALLY sit down and write that Flatiron City short story.

This week I also plan on ordering my new muffler so that when my vacation begins I can replace it, and then I get to take the car in to get the oil pan gasket replaced while my laptop goes in to get the optical drive repaired. Things will finally be working properly again :D

I'm not sure what to show you all for the next location preview, but I'm thinking the Archive from my book or possibly the Azure Serpent from Flatiron City. I'll mull it over for a while, though.

Alright, now I have to get back to that pesky query letter. One more sentence, a post on the forum for critique, and then I think it's finished.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Outlines

So, today I spent half of my morning re-writing my query letter. Not because I hate it, but because I read some advice that suggests taking a serious look at your letter after you've received around 10 rejections. So I posted it on the forums at Nathan Bransford's blog, got some AWESOME feedback, and started rewriting it to make it better!

Anyway, now that I've finished perusing the forums to try to help other writers, I have a question for you. How do you feel about outlines when you sit down to write a novel?

Here's where I'm coming from, and since you're reading this blog, I'm assuming you care. I have read many MANY blog posts by (and had real-life conversations with) unpublished authors who all say the same thing: "I don't use outlines because they limit my creativity." I've read five or six articles by published authors who say that they USED to say the same thing, but they don't anymore (and some of the unpublished authors I follow on the interwebs say that they use outlines, but they didn't used to). As far as outlines go, my favorite author, Jim Butcher, STRONGLY recommends them, to the point where he suggests polishing them to perfection before even sitting down to write the novel itself...and this guy's sold OVER A DOZEN bestsellers.

On the other hand, I can't think of any successful writers who DON'T use outlines (but that's only because I've never read any articles on how to write by the authors who don't use them). Because of how many successful writers exist in the world, I'm sure there are PLENTY of them, and if you know who they are, let me know in the comments so I can check them out!

Now, like many of the unpublished authors I told you about, I USED to sit down and just write, letting the story tell itself, so to speak. But after that failed the first time (I had no cohesive plot), I changed my method. For me, the outline is one of the most exciting parts because I get to erase entire sections of plot and replace them with something else. I can copy and past and cut and drop things into different sections of the book without having take a week afterward to edit everything. The outline is my opportunity to experiment with the characters and ideas for the world the story takes place in. In fact, the section of outline that I wrote last Friday for The Goblin Incursion consisted of a complete paragraph that could make up the first chapter of the book, but when I sat down on Monday to move forward, I decided that I wanted to COMPLETELY change the opening scene, and what I came up with will give me plenty of opportunities to reintroduce characters, concepts of the world, and backstory WHILE the plot of this book moves forward. I could not have done that without giving myself the freedom to erase and move things whenever I want to at this early stage in the process.

One of the other great things I've found is that, even if you have a very specific direction you want to take with your story, once you sit down to write, you don't have to follow the outline if you don't want to! For me, it just provides a direction to head toward while I make sure that the plot is solid. While it can be a road map, using it as a compass gives me the freedom to remain creative as I flesh out the book.

Now, here's my question to you all: How do you write? Outline? No outline? And if you do use an outline, is it a slap-dash, mix-mash of ideas that you want to fit into the book somewhere, or is it very specific and detailed?

Monday, December 07, 2009

What a Weekend!

Okay, not really that exciting. But Emily and I got all of our Christmas and birthday shopping done for this month!

In slightly annoying news, I found out that, not only do I need to replace the muffler on my car (which I can do by myself), I also have a leaky oil pan which needs to be fixed or replaced. That thing just won't stop breaking.

I did get some cool stuff for my birthday, though! (I know, my birthday isn't until tomorrow.)

I don't have much else to talk about today. The querying thing is still moving ahead steadily, and I'm already working on the outline for my second book. Other than that, it's life as usual.

I know that's a bit disappointing, so I'll try to give you guys a couple more updates this week.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

That story I promised

Okay. For those of you who don't know, Flatiron City was built just outside of Boulder, CO in mid 21st century. It's a giant city-in-a-building that with three towers that rise nearly a mile over the earth. Several platforms span between the three towers, as well as trams that allow for easy commutes to and from each building. Hanaka Nippon Tea Gallery is the first location that I actually created for this world, and it's been one of my favorite things to write about over the years.

This particular description is written from the point of view of Henry Slade, the protagonist of the Flatiron Mysteries that I plan to write when my YA series is sustainable. It's not a short story, even though there is a pseudo back-story at work. Enjoy:

Hanaka Nippon is an anomaly of Flatiron City because the kid who runs the joint happens own it. Not only does he own the building the shop occupies, he owns the property it sits on, too. And the property takes up prime real estate in the Skyview Courtyard of the west tower. I heard a rumor a few years ago that FC’s owners owed the kid’s dad a few favors which is why this store is the only property in the city that isn't leased. Although, I hear the proprietor owns a penthouse in Mountain View West.

The famous tea gallery that attracts students from CU Flatiron in the north tower is a squat building fashioned to look like an ancient Japanese-style teahouse. Little trees and patches of flowers surround the shop, and the paved walkway that winds through the park leads to the front doors from three directions. The curved, sloping roof is tiled in red clay, and the builders actually managed to make the plaster walls look like real paper. Red bamboo squares complete the exterior, and at first glance, I would have sworn the place was shipped in from Okinawa. Of course, that was before I caught sight of the swinging glass doors.

When I walked in to the warm building (it’s always a little cold on the upper levels of the city), the lanky Japanese kid behind the counter almost sneered at me. “Look,” he said in a thick British accent, “I keep telling you guys: I’m not selling. I’m still on good terms with the city’s owners, and I’m not giving up my shop.”

I looked myself over, decided there was no way I looked like an organized-crime thug, and then smiled cheerfully. “My name’s Henry Slade. I’m head of security for the city.” I held out my hand and waited for him to shake it.

The kid raised a skeptical eyebrow at me and then slapped his palm into mine, shaking it briskly. “Katsuro Hanaka,” he said at last. “Sorry ‘bout that. There’re some people who want me to sell my store, and they send someone at least once a week to try to get me to leave.”

“Don’t worry about,” I shrugged.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” he replied. “Is there something I can get for you?”

I glanced over his shoulder and tried to decipher the menu board, but three hours of sleep tend to make my brain forget what words look like. “I need something to wake me up,” I chuckled.

“Done!” He ducked beneath the counter and reappeared a second later with an armful of masonry jars. He set them all on the counter behind him, filled up an electric kettle, and then started mixing contents from the jars.

While he worked, I leaned on the counter and took a look around. Even though the outside of Hanaka Nippon looked like a traditional tea house, the only features of the interior that shared the theme were the faux-paper walls with their lotus and swan water-color scenes that invited guests to sit and enjoy themselves. The tables, on the other hand, looked like any other steel-legged slab of wood that restaurants and cafes have used for over a hundred years. Simple black and white tiles checkered the floor, and orange glass orbs glowed in the beams of the roof to provide light for Katsuro and his patrons. It was a simple design, but very comfortable.

A few minutes passed as I took in my surroundings, and the water behind me rumbled in its kettle. I turned around and saw Katsuro switch the kettle off as he deftly picked it up and emptied it into a single-serving teapot. When the near-boiling water washed over the concoction of teas, herbs and spices, a flowery aroma filled shop and took me right back to my first trip to Japan . “It’ll be ready in three minutes,” the proprietor announced. “It’ll keep you up for a few hours, and you shouldn’t crash when the caffeine wears off.”

When Katsuro handed me my paper cup of tea a few minutes later, I breathed in the scents of green and black teas with spearmint leaves, a hint of cinnamon, and several other flavors I couldn’t place. I frowned at him, unsure of how pleasant the mixture could possibly taste. I took a quick sip, decided it didn’t taste half bad, but if it didn’t wake me up, I probably wouldn’t get it again.

Edit 1:35 pm: Thanks to my mom for showing me some mistakes that I missed in the editing. It's been an exhausting week, so my brain isn't quite up to speed.