Nano Tip #9: Meta-Documents

As you probably know, Justine and I are doing writing tips for every day of NaNoWriMo. She’s doing even-numbered days, and I’m doing odd. Her tip from yesterday about the glories of square brackets reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while. And I think it’s going to be a multi-day thing.

So here’s the first of several essays on the subject of meta-documents! (And don’t forget to check below for my NYC appearance this Tuesday.)


Sometimes in the headlong fury of trying to make our word count, we writers forget to keep track of our characters’ scars and bruises, of their eye and hair colors, or even what day of the week it is. We forget, in short, to make meta-documents.

So what does this fancy term mean? Well, the main document your working on for NaNoWriMo is, of course, the Novel itself. But in order to keep that novel coherent, you almost certainly need meta-documents. That is, documents about the main document.

Think about it: novels are at least 50,000 words, and can be three times that length or more. That’s a huge project, and you, dear novelist, are the Project Manager. You need a clipboard with you at all times, or you will start forgetting stuff.

Of course, the most famous type of meta-doc is the Outline, the chapter-by-chapter plan of how the Novel will unfold. Some of us writers love to outline, some find it a chore, and some find that outlining is a novel-killer, destroying any need to tell the story at all. Finding your own place on that continuum is the job of every writer.

But heed this well: Just because you’ve given up on outlining, don’t think that you can throw aside all other forms of meta-documentation. The outline is actually quite an odd meta-doc, in that you usually work on it before you start writing. But most meta-docs are things you maintain while you write. They are maps of where you’ve been, not of where you’re going. They are the keepers of consistency and realness.

Trust me, the sooner you start making meta-docs in the writing process, the less you will be pulling out your hair later on.

So for the next few odd-numbered days, I’ll be giving descriptions of some meta-documents that I use while writing. Today, I cover the mighty timeline . . .


Timelines are possibly the most important meta-doc for me. Without them, I have no idea what day it is. And without that, all sort of details get shaky. Bruises heal instantly. People go to school six days in a row. The moon stays full for a week and a half. This makes for an unconvincing novel.

More importantly, emotional reality breaks if you don’t know how much time has past. A horrible fight with your best friend feels very different a week later than it does the day after it happened.

And take it from me: Timelines are extremely easy to create along the way, and a ROYAL PAIN to reconstruct later on. So do them while you write. Start one NOW.

Okay, but what should your timeline look like? In the timeline for the first book in the Uglies series, I started every line with a chapter of the book, and then give a calendar date. (I use a calendar even if the characters never mention dates themselves, just to keep myself on track.)

I also annotate jumps in time and other oddities, especially these three:

1) What off-screen characters (Shay, in the case below) are up to while the main action is taking place.
2) Any cues about time that appear in the text. “three days later” “It’s taking too long”
3) If characters are saying something untrue about time. (In Part II, Tally lies to hide her departure date.) It’s tricky to keep fact and fiction separate, for the reader as well as the writer.

Check it out:

Part I
Chapters 1-3 “New Pretty Town,” “Best Friends Forever,” “Shay”: late June 7
C. 4 “Wipe Out”: afternoon June 14
C. 5 “Facing the Future”: afternoon June 25
C. 6 “Pretty Boring”: afternoon June 28
C. 7-9 “Rapids,” “Rusty Ruins,” “Waiting for David”: late June 28
C. 10 “Fight”: morning Aug 26
C. 11 “Last Trick”: late Sep 2
C. 12-14 “Operation,” Special Circumstances,” “Ugly for Life”: morning Sep 9
C. 15 “Peris”: a few days pass, Peris comes in dawn of 9/12
C. 16 “Infiltrator”: morning of 9/12
NOTE: Shay (off screen) leaves to go to the Smoke late 9/2, and gets there early 9/8, 5.5 days later. (Same as Tally, basically, with a slower hoverboard but with David’s guidance.)

Part II

C. 17 “Leaving”: night 9/12
C. 18 “SpagBol”: night 9/12 through morning 9/13
C. 19 “The Worst Mistake”: starts sundown 9/13
then three days’ travel on bottom p.121
sundown 9/16 on p.122
C. 20 “The Side You Despise”: very late 9/16
9/17 dawns on p. 127
C. 21 “Firestorm”: late afternoon 9/17
C. 22 “Bug Eyes”: sunset 9/17 through wee hours 9/18
C. 23 “Lies”: morning 9/18
Tally arrives at Smoke
She claims she left late 9/8 (night before birthday) and took 9.5 days.
She actually took 5.5 days.
C. 24-27 “The Model,” “Work,” “David,” “Heartthrob”: all 9/18
C. 28 “Suspicion”: on p. 172 two weeks pass until 10/1 morning
C. 29-32 “Bravery,” “The Secret,” “Pretty Minds,” “Burning Bridges”: night of 10/1 except last paragraphs , which are dawn of 10/2

Part III
C. 33-37 “Invasion,” “Rabbit Pen,” “In Case of Damage,” “Run.” “Amazing”: early morning and onward of 10/2
C. 38-39 “Ruin,” “Maddy and Az”: morning 10/3
C. 40 “The Oil Plague”: night of 10/3
p. 259 is daybreak of 10/4
C. 41 “Familiar Sights”:
reach edge of desert during night of 10/4 p. 263
reach sea “three days later” on 10/7
travel for “a few days”
hunker down for storm from 10/10 to 10-14 p. 264
p. 265 is morning of 10/14
reach Rusty Ruins night of 10/17
In this chapter, David predicts they will make it to the city in ten days, but it takes 14 due to the 4-day storm, which is why he says (during the storm on p. 264 ): “It’s taking too long.”
C. 42 “Accomplices”: night of 10/17
C. 43 “Over the Edge”: as darkness falls on 10/18
The book ends 21 days later, the night of 11/8.

See how that works?

One quick note: Tally’s culture doesn’t use days of the week, but normally I keep careful track of those as well, just so no one goes to school/work on Sunday for no reason.

Another great thing about timelines is that they show you how your novel is paced. You might have three chapters in a row all set on the same morning, and then a series of chapters where time flies faster. Maybe this little pattern keeps happening again and again. Now, maybe that’s okay, or maybe it’s getting monotonous. But without a timeline, you might not notice the pattern at all.

Uglies is paced in a very particular way. Each book has a few intense days in the beginning, but then time spreads out as the characters go on a journey, allowing them to absorb the lessons they’ve learned. The timeline helped me recognize that pattern, and use it to my advantage.

Two days from now, I’ll talk some other types of meta-documents.

Take it away, Justine!

Also, don’t forget that I’m appearing with Justine and many other fabulous writers in New York City tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 10 6:00PM
Books of Wonder
Libba Bray — Going Bovine
Kristin Cashore- Fire
Suzanne Collins — Catching Fire
Michael Grant — Hunger
Justine Larbalester — Liar
And me!
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011

Click here for all tour details. And click here to buy Leviathan.

Nano Tip #7: Stealing from Chandler

Just got back from a wonderful mini-tour in Canada. Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, and I had a great time, and Keith Thompson enjoyed a warm welcome into the world of bookstore appearances. I think he will do more!

But now I am SLEEPY. So I’m cheating and pulling another old writing advice out of the e-drawer. It’s from January 10, 2006, so only you old-school blog-stalkers will have read it before.

I promise to do a fresh one for Monday! And don’t forget Justine’s excellent advice from yesterday.

Take it away, me from three and a half years ago:


While I was finishing Specials my fictional brain started to break, so I decided to take some time off from narrative. Fortunately, a collection of letters written by the great hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler leapt from the depths of my Sydney storage unit and into my hands.

Chandler’s technique for writing letters was to stay up at night drinking and talking into a tape recorder (a wire recorder in those days, actually). The next day his secretary would type up his rantings and send them in the mail. This led to many a drunken tongue-lashing, and a fair amount of solid writing advice, being preserved for posterity.

As I re-read the letters, I realized that I’ve stolen a lot of Chandler’s writing techniques over the years, especially his “four-hour rule” (see below), which I’ve expounded to many a writing class. So I figured it was time to ‘fess up and show all of you the source material.

So here is the unalloyed Raymond Chandler on the subject of writing:

1. Letter to Frederick Lewis Allen, editor of Harper’s Magazine
7 May 1948
My theory was that [the readers] just thought they cared about . . . the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things that they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain of his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock at the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

That paper clip image is very goosepimple-making, a classic noir example of the crumpled little guy facing oblivion. Of course, we all know that a guy trying to pick up a paper clip on a hoverboard would be cooler. And like, especially if the paper clip exploded . . .

This next motivational technique is one I always tell aspiring writers to try:

2. Letter to Alex Barris, an interview by mail
18 March 1949
The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing. It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school. If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. B. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.

Put those two rules on your refrigerator and you’ll have a novel within a year. Or at least someone else who uses your refrigerator will.

The letter below reminds me of something Kingsley Amis said: “Sometimes the hardest part of writing is getting the characters out of the pub and into the cab.” Writers don’t just get stuck at the earth-shattering, life-changing decisions that our characters make; the little details of reality management are actually quite tricky and frustrating. Never assume you’re a crap writer just because you can’t get someone across a room—it happens to all of us.

3. Letter to Paul Brooks, a publisher working on a Chandler collection
19 July 1949
When I started out to write fiction I had the great disadvantage of having absolutely no talent for it. I couldn’t get the characters in and out of rooms. They lost their hats and so did I. If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. Give me two people snotting at each other across a desk and I am happy. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.

This letter to Alfred Hitchcock contains fantastic advice for writers as well as film-makers. Just substitute the words “wicked-cool sentence” or “scintillating simile” for “camera shot.”

4. 6 December 1950
As a friend and well-wisher, I urge you just once in your long and distinguished career . . . to get a sound and sinewy story into the script and sacrifice no part of its soundness for an interesting camera shot. Sacrifice a camera shot if necessary. There will always be another camera shot just as good. There is never another motivation just as good.

Beyond his anti-Agatha Christie snark, there is an excellent point below about the difference between novels and short stories. A lot of writers who excel at the story level don’t think to “turn the corner” when attempting the longer form.

5. Letter to Dorothy Gardner, secretary of the Mystery Writers Association
January 1956
The trouble with most English mystery writers, however well known in their world, is that they can’t turn a corner. About halfway through a book they start fooling with alibis, analyzing bits and pieces of evidence and so on. The story dies on them. Any book which is any good has to turn the corner. You get to the point where everything implicit in the original situation has been developed or explored, and then a new element has to introduced which is not implied from the beginning but which is seen to be part of the situation when it shows up.

Speaking of snark . . . bet you didn’t know that Raymond Chandler’s brief foray into science fiction actually predicted the rise of Google as an information search service. Check this out:

6. Letter to H.N Swanson
14 March 1953
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It’s written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Abadabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”
They pay brisk money for this crap?

Yes, Mr. Chandler, they do.

You can buy the collection, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, from Amazon, B&N, or Indie Bound, or from your bricks-and-mortar local bookstore.

Nano Tip #5: Write Your Way Out


I’m on tour in Canada this week, so today’s Nano Tip will be a blast from the past. This post is from early 2005, when this blog was young and tiny. (It got a whopping seven comments, and I was well pleased with that.) And yet its ancient caveman wisdom is as true today as it was then!

So here it is again . . . “Write Your Way Out.”


People in writing groups often ask me, “What do I do when I get conflicting advice? How will I ever decide which way to go?”

My answer is: “Try it both ways and see which works! Don’t just write one ending, write three!”

It’s a medically proven fact: Writing the same scene several different ways won’t kill you.

Take a cue from visual artists. They make a hundred pencil drawings of a subject before even starting with the paint. They paint the same dang pot of flowers a dozen times, with only slight variations. They doodle in their sketchbooks all day, making stuff no one will ever see. But they rarely sit there and just complain about a compositional problem without putting their hands on a brush/pen/piece of clay.

In my second novel, Fine Prey, I actually wrote a scene that I knew wouldn’t be in the final draft, just so I could visualize what had happened “off screen” in the story. Weird, but it worked.

In another case, I lost a short story and had to write it again from scratch. Then I found the original again. (Argh.) Guess what? The combination of the two–taking the best elements of each–was better than anything I would have reached by fiddling endlessly with that lost original. And the experience of writing a story twice and then comparing the two versions helped me understand it in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

You see, paper is magic: Making marks on it changes your brain. So, don’t sit around trying to think your way out of problems, write your way out of them. The best place to find answers is on a piece of paper or a glowing phosphorus screen.

Of course, thinking about writerly issues in the shower or while jogging is a fine habit to get into, because otherwise that’s just wasted time.* Please understand that I’m not against thinking; I’m only against thinking that thinking on its own will get you out of a hole. Shovel also needed.

*Except for the being hygienic and fit, which is somewhat useful.

So there’s my blast from the past. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s excellent tip from yesterday, and she’ll have tomorrow’s tip as well. I’ll be back on Saturday.

Ottowans and Toronto-ites, don’t forget to come see me, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare tonight and tomorrow night. We have buttons!

with special guest Keith Thompson,
illustrator of Leviathan

Thursday, November 5th 7:00PM
Chapters Rideau
47 Rideau Street,
Ottawa, Ontario

Friday November 6th 7:00PM
Trinity St. Paul’s United Church
427 Bloor Street West
(Because this is an off-site event, admission is five Canadian bucks. You can buy the tickets right here. You can also pay at the door, if there’s any room left!)

And over the weekend, I’ll be appearing on my lonesome back in NYC:

Sunday, November 8 1:00PM
Thalia’s Book Club
Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre and Café
Symphony Space
2537 Broadway (at 95th Street)
New York, NY 10025

The Symphony Space series is aimed at young writers. There will be a discussion, a few slides, a short reading, and a creative writing prompt. Then lots of Q&A. I’ve never done one of these, but it sounds like a cool format. Go here to buy tickets.

Want a free ticket? Write me and say why, and I’ll see what I can do.

Click here for all my tour details. And click here to buy Leviathan.

Nano Tip #1: Dialog Spine


Welcome to Nano Tips, a month-long festival of writing tips from me and Justine. We’ll be posting daily, me on the odd-numbered days of November, and Justine on the even-numbered days. This is, of course, all in celebration of NaNoWriMo. (And I think you know what that is.)

So here’s my first tip: The Dialog Spine.

Many writers use the so-called “dialog spine” as a way of mapping out a scene. As a sort of “zero draft,” they write just dialog, with no setting, action, or even attribution. It’s a quick once-over of conflict and resolution in a scene, without any tricky bits to slow you down.

This, of course, assumes that you find dialog easy. For some people, writing the action/description/whatever first might make more sense. In any case, you don’t have to make your dialog (or whatever) perfect. It’s just a way of mapping out the main beats in a scene.

But there’s another trick that I use the dialog spine for: blowing out the cobwebs. And by cobwebs, I mean “writer’s block,” “general ennui,” or “an idea that just needs to be written down, but I don’t have time.”

For example, over the last three days I’ve had a small but persistent short story idea. Of course, I’m on tour and just about to start doing revisions on Behemoth, book two of Leviathan. I don’t have time to write a short story, but I want to get this idea down. Once I write the dialog spine, maybe I’ll realize that there’s not that much to it. Or at least it’ll be on paper and out of my busy, busy brain.

And occasionally, a dialog-only short story is a lovely thing on its own. This falls less into the “novel writing advice” category and more into “a weird writing exercise.” But it’s all useful. Quite often in the middle of a novel, it’s good therapy to write a simple short story.

So here are my personal rules to writing a Dialog Spine Story:

1) Only dialog. That’s it. Zero exceptions.
2) Only two characters speak. Other characters and their dialog may be implied, but their words do not appear on paper.
3) One character’s dialog uses quotation marks, the other doesn’t. (This saves fiddling with attribution, or spending a lot of time creating verbal ticks to tell the characters apart. Remember, the point of this is to be quick and dirty. Not astonishingly artful.)

So what do these stories look like? I thought you’d never ask.

Here’s one I did just yesterday, for Halloween:

Served Cold
By Scott Westerfeld
October 31, 2009

Mind if I sit down?

“Oh, my goodness.”

Sorry to surprise you.

“But you . . . ”

I know. You didn’t expect to see anyone in town today. Least of all me.

“No, I didn’t. But of course it’s wonderful to see you. Please.”

For heaven’s sake, don’t get up! Does that arm hurt much?

“They say it’ll be fine. It throbs in a bit, but I’m full of codeine. Can I get you anything . . . ? Ah. That’s probably a stupid question.”

No, it’s not. Coffee would be wonderful.

“Really? You’re not just making fun of me?”

I would never make fun of you. Anyway, I always liked the smell of coffee better than the taste.

“Yes, I remember that . . . Excuse me, waiter, but could I have a coffee, please?”

Tell him black.

“Black, please.”

You’re very kind.

“Well, it’s the least I can do.”

Don’t be silly. It wasn’t your fault, you know. Just one of those things.

“Really? I mean, that’s what the police said. It was the ice.”

And they were perfectly right. It isn’t safe on those small roads out of town. Goodness, is that gin I smell?

“Yes. A bit early, I suppose.”

But it’s been a long week, as you always say. And look, you’ve hardly touched your salmon. It looks quite cold.

“The salmon is served cold here. But yes, it’s slow, eating with one hand.”

Poor baby. I wish I could hold a knife. Ah, here’s my coffee. Do you mind pushing it across, please?

“Of course.”

Yes, that’s a lovely smell. It’s the little things, you know. Even now.

“I’ve always thought so. Not that I would know anything about . . . ”

No, you’ve no idea. There must be lots of questions you want to ask.

“Of course.”

Well, don’t be tongue tied.

“I suppose . . . the main thing is, is it good? Or is it horrible?”

Hmm. It’s melancholy, more than anything. Like not being invited to a party, and all your friends are there. Speaking of which, you were invited to the funeral, weren’t you?

“Of course.”

And it’s today.

“Yes. It’s just starting now, I suppose.”

Then why aren’t you there?

“Well . . . I could ask you the same thing, you know.”

Ha! I suppose you could. And I was going to go. But you know what they say. It’s not for me; it’s for them.

“Well, maybe I’m not one of them.”

Don’t be philosophical, darling. You are one of them. You’re only here in town because you’re afraid.

“Well . . . not afraid, exactly.”

Yes, exactly afraid. Afraid that everyone will stare. With that arm still in a sling, who could help staring? And they’d ask if it hurts, like I just did. Really, how awkward.

“I’m so sorry.”

Don’t be silly. I told you, it wasn’t your fault. It was a patch of ice.

“Are you sure?”

About the ice? Yes. I took a good long look at it again this morning. It was back again, after melting in the sun yesterday! The roads are quite unsafe. Someone should do something.

“But there’s nothing I could have done, right?”

Well . . . perhaps there was one little thing.


If I’d been wearing my seatbelt, I’d be sitting here properly, wouldn’t I? Having cold salmon with you.

“You hate salmon, and you never bothered with seatbelts.”

I would have put mine on, if you’d asked me. I’d have done that for you.



“But it’s not as though . . . you’re eighteen, after all.”

Ah. You’ve been practicing that line, haven’t you?

“Don’t be crass.”

Sorry. But I was wondering if my parents had asked yet. About why we were out so late.

“No. They haven’t said anything.”

That means you’re in trouble, of course.

“Well, they’re still quite overwhelmed.”

No—you’re in trouble. Just look at you, sitting here all alone, pushing your lunch around with one hand. In trouble and drinking gin on top of your codeine.

“And missing you.”

And missing my funeral, you mean. The nerve of you. They’ll only talk more because you’re not there. It’s an admission of shame.

“I’m not ashamed.”

You were wearing a seatbelt.

“I . . . yes, I always do.”

And I’d have worn one if you’d asked. I did a lot of things for you.

“I know.”

Good. Then you’ll do something for me? One last thing?

“Of course.”

Go to my funeral.

“But . . . now?”

Yes, now. I know it’s already started, but funerals are always endless. Leave right away, and you’ll catch the main event. I want you to be there.

“I . . . I suppose I could still make it. Are you coming . . . with me?”

No, I’ll go ahead. But I’ll be beside you all the way, in spirit. Look, here’s the waiter.

“Check, please? Listen, I’m not quite sure your parents want me there.”

Of course they do. You’re their best friend! And I want you there, so steel yourself, darling. Here, finish your gin, that’s right. Look, he’s got your check already. Pay with cash, it’s quicker.

“All right. Don’t rush me.”

You’ll have to drive fast, won’t you?

“It’s rather tricky, with one hand. Do you really want this so much?”

More than anything. Please be there to watch them lower me. Don’t let me go down there alone.

“Of course. I promise I’ll be there. I’m so sorry.”

Don’t be silly. It was just the ice. Just go.
. . .
Drive safely.

Mwa-hah-hah! Like I said, it’s a quick-and-dirty Halloween story.

Anyway, feel free to discuss what you think is going on in the comments. And behold the power of dialog!

On my next Nano Tip day, November 3, I’ll discuss this story in more detail.

And here’s Justine’s post with Nano Tip #2!

Sort of Update:
Almost forgot the obligatory click here for Leviathan tour details. And here to buy Leviathan.

The Importance of Titles

If judging a book by a cover is bad, then judging a book by its title must surely be worse. After all, covers are pictures, pictures are worth a thousand words, and titles are usually a mere phrase.

But it’s not that simple. Titles name a book, and names are important. A good name can make or break you.

Take, for example, the case of Ziz. Poor sad Ziz, of whom you have NEVER heard.

You see, there was once this trio of awesome creatures. All three were in the Bible [oops, see the update below], rocking out with special dispensations from Yahweh and generally kicking young earth ass. Three unbeatable giant beasties, one of the water, one of the land, and one of the air . . .

Leviathan, Behemoth, and, um, Ziz.


How bad is it to have a lame name? Well, thousands of years after their cameos in the Bible, Leviathan and Behemoth are still both famous. Their names are words in modern English, both meaning, “stuff that is big and awesome and/or scary.”

The word “Leviathan” appears in Moby-Dick, is the title of a famous work of philosophy and a movie, not to mention a record company and a comic strip.

“Behemoth” is equally culture-spanning, including this delightful Polish metal band. (Warning: high-volume flash intro Not Safe For School.)

But Ziz? Ziz has a crappy name, so the creature itself wound up fading into obscurity.

So if names are this important, surely titles are too.

Titles bring the reader into the world of the book. They set them up for what’s coming: comedy, tragedy, farce, or all three. They create inevitabilities (Death of a Salesman) and anticipations (The Year of Living Dangerously), or intensify the poetry of a key phrase (Dude, Where’s My Car?).

Even punctuation can be key. I mean, what if James Kelman’s classic novel How Late It Was, How Late, had been titled “How Late? It Was How Late?”

Totally different story, man.

Which brings us to my next trilogy, the first two books of which are called Leviathan and Behemoth. But seriously, can I call the third book, um, Ziz?

What do you guys think?

As CosmicDog points out in the delicious and insightful comments below, Ziz is not actually in the Bible, but is a part of Jewish folklore. Behemoth and Leviathan are both in the Book of Job (and Leviathan other places), so that part’s right. I got confused because they are frequently pictured together.

Does this mean my point fails? Or does this mean that Ziz has been double-dissed! First by being left out of the Bible, then by being generally forgotten!

Hairy Fruit

I haven’t done a writing advice post for a while, so here’s one for you.

Rambut = Indonesian for “hair”
Rambutan = a hairy fruit, common in Southeast Asia


These hairy eyeballs are one of the fruits that Justine and I like to gorge on while we’re here in Sydney, because you simply can’t find them in New York. (Or if by some chance you do, they’re both absurdly expensive and half rotten.)

How to describe the taste? Well, the only similar fruit available in the US is the lychee, but I never had fresh lychee until I came to Australia, and the canned ones suck. So the rambutan really is a new taste—less acid than citrus, sharper than melon, darker than pineapple.

Or maybe I shouldn’t use comparisons. Rambutans have their own flavor, so I should describe them in their own terms. And that means really tasting them, then thinking hard, then wondering for a while how words can even capture sensual experience. In other words, describing the hairy eyeball means really being a writer.

(Which also means maybe failing at being a writer.)

These little philosophical diversions are something I love about travel: Going new places reminds you how much bigger the world is than you thought. For every kind of fruit you’ve tried in your life, there are a dozen species you’ve never heard of. No, make that a hundred—there are thirty species of pears, for heaven’s sake.

And it’s not just food. For every kind of social celebration you can name, some culture somewhere has ten more that don’t fall into any of your familiar categories. For every kind of person you’ve met, there are probably dozens of other personality types out there, unknown and unexpected, walking around experiencing entirely different aspirations and fears than the ones you know so well. Even the human emotions we think of as universal and primal sometimes come in very different flavors.

“But all people love their children!” I can hear someone protesting in a whiny voice. Yeah, maybe, but talk about different flavors. In various times and places, people have loved their kids by crippling them, beating them to death, or selling them.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you need a time machine or even a jet plane to experience difference. I’ll bet that some very different folks live just on the other side of your town, and for whatever reason (social, historical, economic, accidental) you’ve never met them.

Writers need to remember that. I mean, everyone needs to realize that their little sandbox is not the whole world (or a scale model of it, or in any way representative of it). But it’s especially important for writers to keep hitting ourselves over the head with reminders of this simple fact: The world is SO much bigger and humanity so much gnarlier and more complicated than we assume it to be.

And if we forget that, we wind up splicing ourselves and the few people we know best (in my case, college-educated white folks who geek out on sciencey/numbery stuff and music) into every scenario on the planet. We wind up turning this gigantic world into a small one, and wind up writing small books for small readers.

In other words, we become cowards.

(And for us science fiction writers it’s so much worse, because we’re flogging these same, lame photocopies in the distant future and across the universe. Our bigger canvas means a epically vaster Fail.)

So this is my writing advice for today: When the hairy eyeballs look your way, look back. Taste them, swallow them, deal with their weirdness. Then tell stories about them.

Otherwise you’ll suck, both at writing and at life.

Robin’s Last Post

Scott here. We just got back from the first leg of Justine’s tour. It was a total blast, so thanks to everyone who came along! We’ll be on the road again soon, so hope to see you in Philadelphia, upstate NY, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, and Texas.

Robin, our redoubtable guest-blogger this week, sent me this post yesterday, but I was in aircraft all day, so it’s slightly out of date . . . oops. Just read it and imagine it’s still Friday.

Take it away, Robin!

Is anyone else really tired today? Like crawl-back-into-bed-wait-for-Saturday tired? It can’t just be me.

Anyway, apparently, a lot of bloggers do this thing called the Friday Five. I don’t, because I don’t really understand the point, other than the fact that both words start with an F – but since today is Friday, and since I oh so coincidentally have five things to mention, I figured I’d go with it. I do love me some alliteration. So…

Friday Five!

1. Want to win an iPod shuffle? Enter the SKINNED contest! Here’s how:

Write me a newspaper headline from the year 2060. (Eg: “This Year’s Top Vacation Spot: Venus” or “Apple Announces Record Sales for iJetPack” or “Lichtenstein Declares War on Republic of Disneyworld!” – you get the idea.)

Email me your headline — robin (at) robinwasserman (dot) com – by October 10. Two runners up will get a skin for their phone or iPod. And one winner will get an iPod shuffle!

Winners announced on my blog October 13.

*It’s a random drawing. So don’t stress about your headline.
*If you win, and you don’t want the prize, you can request a B&N gift certificate instead.
*If you don’t want your email address entered onto my mailing list (to receive updates on Skinned, future contests, etc), let me know in your entry.

2. Obligatory self-promotion. Want to know more about SKINNED? You can read an excerpt here or watch the trailer:

3. Okay, end of obligatory self-promotion. You guys have been awesome, sharing some of your obsessions with me, so I figured I’d reciprocate by sharing some of mine with you. Am currently loving:

a. Joss Whedon (Firefly, Angel, Dr. Horrible’s, Buffy!!!) – I want to be Joss Whedon. I hear that job is already taken, so I’ll settle for marrying Joss Whedon. Or being his best friend. Or getting his dry cleaning. Or, hypothetically, sitting outside his house with high-powered binoculars gazing adoringly at his every move. (Um, hi Joss. Hi Joss’s lawyers. That totally wasn’t me outside last night, writing “Robin hearts Spike” in the condensation on your window. Really.)

b. Battlestar Galactica – this show explores a lot of the same issues I do in SKINNED. I’m told by my editor, my agent, my friends, and common sense that I should probably stop telling people the show does it better. So I’ll just say that this show is one of the greatest pieces of sci-fi ever created. Draw your own conclusions.

c. Spring Awakening soundtrack – I just bought this (for rather embarrassing reasons connected to its repeated appearance on the horrendous 90210 spin-off). Cannot stop playing it. Am playing it now. Over and over and over and over . . .

d. Gossip Girl (the tv show) – first you think it’s trash. Then you think it’s trashy brilliance. Then you realize it’s just brilliant. (And then you realize you’ve fallen in love with Chuck. And you feel a little gross about that. Then you love him all the more.)

e. Miscellaneous – ‘sweet and salty’ brownies, Lost, Friday Night Lights, Midnighters, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, WNBA, Gotham Girls Roller Derby, politics, Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Josh Jackson, Robert Downey, Jr, and (this falls into the category of actual, unhealthy obsession) going to B&N on a semi-daily basis and counting how many copies of my book they have left on the shelves.

4. THANK YOU to all of you guys for being so friendly and fabulous while I was hanging out here for the week. I feel like I’ve been house-sitting for a guy with a flat screen TV, 500 channels, a personal chef, and an indoor pool. Suffice it to say, I’m none too pleased to be heading back to my run-down apartment with the broken microwave and the leaky roof. But I hope some of you will come and visit me there — If you’re wondering what I usually post about, well . . . see above.

Seriously, this has been so much fun, and you guys are the best. Scott’s lucky to have fans like you! (Well, I guess we can agree he’s not lucky, so much as brilliant and deserving. Except when he does things like k___ Zane. Why, Scott? Whyyyyyy?)

5. I’ve given it a lot of thought and, while I’m still open to debate on the subject, I feel I have to come down on the side of speed, agility, magical horns, and lack of skin-rotting, brain-eating grossness, not to mention all things being equal I prefer to root for the underdog, so . . . UNICORNS!

First Lines

There is a mini-cult of first lines among us writers. The first line is sort of like the lobby of the book: the first thing you see, coloring all subsequent impressions. It’s one place where you’re truly allowed to show off.

So we writers like to geek out on first lines. We get all excited about collecting and trading them, having top-ten lists and all-time faves. We even reveal our chapter first lines in advance as tiny spoilers.

As many people have spotted, Uglies, which begins:

The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.

pays homage to the opening of William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

I bring this up now because of this article on io9 discussing great science fiction first lines. It’s cool to read all these lines all together, and of course it doesn’t hurt that they include my adult novel, The Risen Empire, which opens with:

The five small craft passed from shadow, emerging with the suddenness of coins thrown into sunlight.

Oddly, io9 calls this line “a little adjective-heavy.” Dudes, it only has one adjective, the word “small”!

So for the sake of deep analysis, here are all my YA novel first lines:

The Uglies Series
“The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”

“Getting dressed was always the hardest part of the afternoon.”

“The six hoverboards slipped among the trees with the lightning grace of playing cards thrown flat and spinning.”

“Moggle,” Aya whispered. “You awake?”

Midnighters Series
The Secret Hour
“The halls of Bixby High were always hideously bright on the first day of school.”

Touching Darkness
“At last, everything was sorted out.”

Blue Noon
“Bixby High’s late bell shrieked in the distance, like something wounded and ready to be cut from the herd.”

The New York Trilogy
So Yesterday
“We are all around you.”

“After a year of hunting, I finally caught up with Sarah.”

The Last Days
“I think New York was leaking.”

Soon I’m going to expand on this post, and talk about why I started books with these lines. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear from you about them

Plus: What are your favorite first lines? Pick any novel you want, except mine!

Extras 0.1

As promised, I’m going to be posting a lot of the early drafts of Extras. Here’s installment #1 in that project: the very first thing I can find on my hard drive.

As you will see, it’s not really a “draft,” just a blob of text that has almost nothing to do the final story. Except that it’s about face ranks and fame, and that Hiro’s in it. I’m pretty sure I wrote it in Thailand.

Now you may remember this post back in January, where I explain that Extras was originally written from Hiro’s point of view. In this ancient draft Aya doesn’t even exist yet; Hiro has no little sister, just an old friend named Terra who’s good at schemes and inventions. (Sort of like Ren in the final version.)

This opening may not make much sense on its own, but it does show how much things can change from first draft to last. Hopefully it will remind you all that there is no good writing, only good rewriting.

Here we go . . . chapter one of “From First Draft to Final: The Extras Story!”


Down and Out

Hiro awoke to a bright sky, the heavy clouds like burnished gray metal. He rubbed his eyes, yawned, and gave the room his usual command.

“Darker, and show my count.”

The window opaqued, and numbers appeared on the wall. Hiro sighed softly as he stared at the digits. Overnight, he’d slipped out of the top ten thousand.

That’s what came of sleeping late.

“Anything on the feeds?” he asked.

The screen flickered for a moment, then coughed up mentions. Season recaps, old arguments about the playoffs bubbling up, a few littlies chattering about his new haircut. No snaps, no video—another day of the border of invisibility.

He took a slow breath, reminding himself that it was always like this during the off-season. While his team was playing—and winning—Hiro’s face count never left the top five thousand. But once the playoffs ended, his personal flock of hovercams flew off to stalk politicians, soccer players, and surge designers. Hoverball stars were forgotten by the time the cherry blossoms fell, and the annual One Percent Party always remained out of reach.

This year, though, Hiro Torrent had a plan to change all that.

“Ping Terra,” he told the room.

A chime sounded a few seconds later, the scattering of bells and bird whistles that was his best friend’s signature. Hiro pressed his palms together. “Good morning, Terra-chan.”

“Morning? Did you just wake up?”

“Um, sort of. Didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Nervous about our little trick today?” Her voice sounded amused.

He frowned, wondering if she could see his rumpled pajamas, the pillow lines on his face. His ring was set to privacy, but Terra had ways of tricking the city interface.

Of course, she might just be reading his mind. She’d known him since they were littlies, and she was generally too clever for her own good. Or Hiro’s.

“Are you sure this will work?”

Terra giggled. “It will unless you mess it up, Hiro-chan.”

He sat up and stretched, seeing the trick in his mind, imagining his muscles making all the right moves. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m not worried, chan. As long as a Certain Person isn’t already awake by now and sucking up all the hovercams.”

Hiro snorted. “Is that supposed to motivate me?”

“As if you need me for motivation. Have you checked your fame today?”

One of Terra-chan’s annoying habit was using the old word for face counts—fame. But the two were different, really. The way the teachers told it, Rusty fame had been shallow, subjective, and bogus more often than not. But a face count was real, like your height or a hoverball score; it was a statistic, not someone’s guess.

Of course, Certain People were totally bogus, no matter how high their face counts climbed. That’s why he and Terra never said their names out loud: the city interface gave someone face every time you mentioned them.

The teachers said it was bubbleheaded to worry about anyone else’s face count. But they didn’t have to play hoverball alongside Yoshi Cloud.

“I just woke up,” Hiro mumbled.

Terra giggled again, like a littlie full of sugar. “Are you lying to me, Hiro-chan? You know you checked your count already.”

“I didn’t say I hadn’t checked it,” he said, rolling out of bed.

“But you implied it.”

“And now I’m implying otherwise. I’ll see you later—when it’s done.” He cut the connection before Terra could answer, then snapped at the window to brighten. The wallscreen glinted, reflecting the bright gray sky.

His count flickered there, right on the edge between two numbers. Finally it settled on the higher one, determining that Hiro Torrent was currently the 10,910th most talked-about person in the city.

Still falling, and the day had hardly started.

Present-day Scott here again: Whoa! This is the first time I’ve looked at that in about a year. Many obvious things are different: face counts instead of face ranks, Hiro’s last name is Torrent instead of Fuse, and he’s still a hoverball player instead of a kicker. It’s almost scary to think how much work had yet to be done, both in writing and conceptualizing the book. It makes me want to take a nap.

Anyway, I’ll be posting more of these, showing the way the book took shape over the next few months. Hope you enjoy them.

And I also hope to see lots of you at Books of Wonder on this rainy Saturday. Don’t forget: 3PM!

Special Feature

Update: I won’t be posting again till Sunday (in the US). Return to your regularly scheduled duties!

You know on DVDs when you get to watch deleted scenes? I always like those, because they teach you a bit about filmaking. As a wise teacher once told me, the eraser is most important part of the pencil.

Well, here’s a whole scene that didn’t make it into Specials. It was supposed to start on page 147, when Tally and Shay are tracking Zane and the other Crims across the wild.

Read it first, and then I’ll tell you why it was in there and, more importantly, why I took it out.


“Look, Shay, I know that I—”

“No, hush, Tally.” Shay’s nose was in the air, her eyes closed. “Do you smell that?”

“What?” Then Tally smelled it too. “It’s smoke, isn’t it?”

Shay was slowly shaking her head. “Yeah, but it’s not some campfire, Tally. It smells big.” She made an interface gesture, then pointed directly upwind. “Look.”

Tally flipped down her infrared overlay and peered into the darkness. In the distance, she saw glimmering streak of orange laying across the horizon. The fire wasn’t only big, it was far away. Tens of kilometers in the distance, it was spreading slowly along a forested ridge line. A ghostly wall of heat rose up from it, turning an iridescent yellow as Tally tuned her infrared.

“A forest fire?” Tally said. “But there’s no lightning tonight.”

Shay nodded. “None at all. Looks like somebody made a little mistake.” She angled her board forward. “Let’s check it out.”

For a moment, Tally hesitated. If the two of them stumbled on the New Smoke by accident tonight, then there’d be no point in letting Zane escape. Their plan for making him a Special would fall apart.

But there was no way to protest without sounding totally random. Forest fires didn’t pop out of nowhere, so this one had been set by humans. That meant that someone else was out there in the wild, farther than any camp-happy city pretty would dare to go.

This was a Special Circumstance.

Without another word, Tally tipped her board forward and followed Shay into the darkness.

The fire had grown huge by the time they got there.

As they approached, the smoke rolled down the valley, too thick to see through and dense enough to choke even a Special’s lungs. It drove them out of the downwind path and around to higher ground. They climbed a nearby hilltop, where Shay paused to watch the .

Even from a few hundred meters, Tally could feel the heat. It sucked the moisture from the air, and the pine needles on the trees looked dry and dangerous, ready to explode if the fire managed to reach them.

The wind was at her back now, pressing her toward the inferno. It had become a ravenous thing, sucking air from all directions to feed its hunger.

“Be careful around here,” Shay said, looking up at the stars.

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“No, I don’t mean the fire. This is a restricted area.”

“Restricted?” Tally asked. “How do you mean?”

Shay didn’t answer except to say, “Just be careful and stick close to me. Move slow, and if you feeling funny, pull back.”

Tally glanced at the sky, calculating the path that had taken them here. There was no place Specials were restricted from, not that she knew about. Of course, she hadn’t gone anywhere on her own since turning special, either.

End of deleted scene.

A forest fire? What’s that all about?

Well, I knew that I wanted all the main characters to come back in Specials. And since Tally was out in the wild, it was the right time to have her run into Andrew Simpson Smith. But I had to make that happen somehow.

My first idea, shown here, was that Andrew would be leading an escape from his reservation by starting a forest fire to burn the “little men.” (Those nerve janglers that keep the villagers inside their borders.) Tally and Shay would smell the smoke and head that way. They would have an action-packed firefighting scene, then meet Andrew, and Tally would get a chance to recall a piece of her pre-Special past.

Action, plot point, character development. What’s not to love?

Well, the problem was, it was sort of whopping coincidence that Andrew would be setting his forest fire exactly when Tally left town. Maybe that was too easy.

This is the sort of problem writers face all the time: You want something to happen, but it’s tricky to make it work without getting your big fat fingerprints all over it. It’s like in the horror movie when there’s a scary noise in the basement, and seeing as how six people are already missing, NOBODY IN THEIR RIGHT MIND would go down in the basement to check. But somebody announces “I’m not afraid” and goes to their doom, because the writer’s too lazy to think of a real motivation for them to.

It doesn’t happen because it make sense, but because it moves the plot along.

Coincidences are just as lazy. So I threw out the 500 words above and rethought how to introduce Andrew.

I decided that Andrew had already escaped the reservation, since he’s had a few months to try since Tally told him the world had no walls around it. By now he was helping the New Smokies with runaways. And given that Zane and the Crims were still hooked up with the New Smokies and were running away, they would know where to rendezvous with Andrew.

Much less coincidence-y. And, as always, the writing gods shower rewards on those who don’t take the easy way out. I realized that Andrew would be giving out directions to the New Smoke (aka Diego). This creates a whole new conflict between Tally and Shay, who must decide whether to follow Zane or Andrew’s locator.

Conflict is always good! And Tally’s choice shows us how she’s still Tally; she cares more about taking care of Zane than taking down the New Smoke.

I still got my action scene (Tally stalking Andrew), a much better plot point, and some character development.

Anyway, that’s my director’s commentary. Hope you enjoyed this deleted scene.

A quick note for the sleepless: I know you’re all dying to win Extras samplers. But I won’t be posting between the hours of 11PM and 11AM US Eastern Time, so you don’t have to stay up all night madly refreshing. Sleep!

Also, I’ll usually post between 7PM and 11PM US EST, which is 9AM to 1PM Sydney time, so that folks in Australia can win too! (Sorry, Perth.)