BEA Swag/First Page Test

So on Halloween night when you get home, do you ever take a picture of the collected swag? Or at least dump it on the bed and ogle?

Well I don’t Trick or Treat much anymore, but here’s (most of) my BEA swag, all organized by size.

Mmm . . . free books.

When buying books, I usually avoid the back cover (spoilers!) and go straight for the first-page test. Judging a 80,000-word document on the basis of one page may seem cruel and unusual, but I’ve found that most books reveal a lot about themselves in that first minute. At least, they reveal more than real-live human beings when you first meet them. A human, after all, might just be having a bad day.

So here’s a quick BEA-swag-related First Page Test for your delectation.

Chain Mail, by Hiroshi Ishikazi (Tokyopop)
(fourth from right, bottom row)

I stood in front of the mailbox and cried. Snow fell around me, frosting my hair and shoes, slowly blotting out the words of the test results I held in my hands. Out of over twenty-five thousand test-takers, I had placed first in Japanese, Mathematics, Science, Basic Studies, and General Studies. I had finally made it.

But it was too late. My mother was gone, and she wasn’t coming back. If I had only studied harder, if I had only gotten these results a month earlier, maybe it would have made a difference.

Melting snow slid down my back. I shivered, remembering the sound of flesh striking flesh . . .

Things that brought me in:

1) “I stood in front of the mailbox and cried” is a lovely first sentence. We are somewhere specific, and something specific is happening.

2) I like “frosting” a lot, because it’s being used in a slightly unusual way, and is strong visually. And there’s something perfect about the snow alighting specifically on the character’s “hair and shoes.” Hair, because it reveals that she’s not wearing a hat—she just stepped out to grab the eagerly awaited mail. And shoes, because she’s looking down at the letter, and also because she’s crying—staring at your shoes is not usually a sign of happiness. (I’m assuming the protag’s a girl because of the cover, by the way.)

3) Wait, she’s crying because the test results are perfect? Brain was ready for the opposite. Unexpected is good.

4) The second paragraph sets off a wave of micro-mysteries for the reader. How did her test results make her mother go away? And is her mother dead, or something else?

5) “Melting snow slid down my back. I shivered, remembering . . . ” is a cool way to physicalize the bad memory. And “flesh striking flesh” is definitely bad, bad, bad.

Things that kicked me out:

1) The construction “test-takers” is clunky to me. Like, why not say “students”? I mean, we know this is about testing. You could just say “Out of twenty-five thousand, I had placed first” and it would make sense. Still, the term is probably just a literal move from the more elegant Japanese. Translations get a few extras free passes, because I like the odd feel of an ocassional literalness.

2) Maybe we’re going a little too quickly into the explanation of this little micro-mystery? I’m not a fan of flashbacks that start before we’re fully in a scene, which always seems stagey.

These are minor quibbles, though. I’d definitely keep going.

I’ll be doing more of these soon. It’s a fun and easy way to dispense writing advice. But I won’t be doing any American authors, for reasons that I will soon reveal.

And in fairness, I’ll be putting up my own first page soon . . . Extras‘, that is. So you can mock it to your hearts’ content.

Tale of Quasi-Woe

Hey, sorry I’ve been so lame posting this summer.* But I haven’t been totally lazy. I’ve been writing!

What, you may ask? Well, it’s a secret, and I can’t tell you any details about it yet.**

But here’s a funny thing that happened . . .

Quick note: This would be a good time for anyone who works for my publishers to stop reading. No really. Nothing to see, move it a long, because this is SO unrelated to delivery dates or professional issues of any kind. Okay?


So, all you non-publishing types, there I was, 16,000 words (65 pages) into my shiny wonderful new book. Except it wasn’t wonderful; something was deeply, deeply wrong. The voice, the plot, the structure all seemed to be sucking! No matter how much I edited the writing, smoothed the transitions, caffeinated the plot, or voicified the characters, it all just came out flat.

The whole book gave me that icky feeling of inexcusable lameness, like when they rap on Sesame Street, or when my parents would say “The Led Zeppelin” and “Clash,” instead of the other way around. Or when politicians clap along with the musical act before their speeches. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

My novel was to a good book what this object is to a florescent light:

This was taken by me on a NYC street. Is not that the awesomest? What the heck stepped on that light bulb? Godzilla? Truckzilla?

Anyway, back to my tale of quasi-woe. The weird thing was, I was pretty sure that somewhere, maybe just next door to what I was writing about, something pretty cool was happening. The world of the novel was fascinating, but the novel wasn’t.

So let’s skip past many sleepless nights and screaming writing sessions to a day shortly before Christmas. Justine and I were walking to breakfast, and I finally realized the problem . . . I had the wrong point of view.

The main character, the one whose POV I was writing from, was too smug, too knowing, and generally non-likeable. A certain other person in the story was saying and doing much more interesting things. And worse, most of those cool things were being said and done when my POV person wasn’t around, which meant that the reader was only getting told about them.

Which sucked.

So I tossed those 16,000 words, and started over.

Now, I’d like to say this was easy. Like I’m a fearless and industrious perfectionist, who cares only about the final product. But no . . . it came in slow, reluctant stages.

First I said, “Well, we can keep most of this stuff, just change some pronouns and whatnot, and it’ll all seemlessly become Character B’s POV. Just start the story earlier!”

That, of course, failed to work. After all that smoothing and editing, lame Character A had saturated the prose. So I told myself, “Well, maybe we can have two points of view, and I can keep maybe four or five thousand words.”

And that worked even less. Character A dropped back into the story like a led zeppelin, possibly even the led zeppelin.

So after much toing and froing (mostly froing), only a tiny fraction of those lost 16,000 words have been rescued. And all have come at an editing cost roughly equal to writing them from scratch in the first place. Possibly more.

But I promise, the novel is much, much better, and I am a happier writer-person. More importantly, these next months of effort will be far more enjoyable, and the next forty years of having this book on my shelf much less embarrassing. Also, I got to keep 100% of the thinking I’ve already done, free of charge!

And all at the small cost of one month’s work.***

So my words of wisdom for today are:

“Sometimes tossing out vast quantities of words is better than letting a whole book bleed slowly to death. Don’t give up, just start over.”

Okay, maybe that’s not the feel-good story of the year. But these are:

1. The Last Days and Justine’s Magic Lessons have both been nominated for the Aurealis Awards! Yay to us and the other nominees:

Monster Blood Tattoo: Book One. Foundling by D.M. Cornish
The King’s Fool by Amanda Holohan
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillie

2. After twenty-two months in print, Uglies has joined Pretties and Specials on the NY Times bestseller list. It’s wild for such an old book to appear for the first time on a bestseller list, and it can only mean that you guys are still talking it up to your friends. Yay to you.

3. Last July I blogged about some haiku I wrote for an issue of Subterranean Magazine. This issue can now be downloaded for free. Big yay to those publishers who realize that freely downloadable materials lead to more sales, not fewer.

*Southern hemisphere summer = December to February.
**Don’t even bother asking.
***Okay, maybe two months, if you include Thailand. But seriously, non-publishing dudes, I was chilling in Thailand.


So I had big plans to continue my Elmore Leonard writing rules, but the heat in NY has reached Farenheit 741.5, the temperature at which it is only possible to read manga and graphic novels.

Luckily, other people are blogging about writing and are being extremely funny. Look on in awe as Maureen Johnson, author of The Bermudez Triangle and 13 Little Blue Envelopes, shows what it’s like to be on deadline with a book.

Pretty much like this:

Thanks to Justine for that link. And now I go back to Paradise Kiss.

Breaking Elmore’s Rules

There’s a blog-meme going around about Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. The Leonard Rules are pithy and fun, but I’ve found the meme oddly boring.

Why? Because everyone’s commentary about writing rules is pretty much the same: “Yes, that’s true, except when it’s not.” Or more detailed (and even more boring): “Following this rule would prevent beginning writers from making common mistakes, but many fine writers have eaten this rule for breakfast and shat gold before lunch.”

(Pardon my French on that last bit, but I spent last week in New Orleans. Mmmm . . . gumbo.)

So I thought I’d move beyond these generic comments and look specifically at how I break the Leonard Rules in my books. With examples!

Let’s start with Leonard’s opening caveat:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Of course, most writers who set down rules start with something like, “These may work for you or not.” Well, duh.

But Leonard is saying something much more interesting, that every set of rules has an agenda. That’s the whole point of rules, actually: to ingrain some sort of aesthetic into the style of your prose. Leonard’s rules are designed to allow him to “remain invisible.” That is, he doesn’t want you thinking about the writing or the sound of his voice, just the characters and their situation. This makes sense, given that he’s writing hard-boiled crime fiction, where flights of literary fancy clog up the works.

So one of things I’ll be looking at below is how much I want to remain invisible as a writer. Short answer: I’m not writing tough-talking gumshoe fiction, so I don’t want to be as invisible as Elmore Leonard. But I don’t want to be slathered across every page, either.

Another nice feature of Leonard’s rules is their explanatory notes. These tend to get left out (sort of like that “well ordered militia” bit in the Second Amendment), so I’ve included his clarifications where I think they’re important.

Okay, here we go. Note that bold is Elmore Leonard, italics are quotations from my books, and normal text is me jabbering.

Rule 1. Never open a book with weather.

Hmm . . .

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

Yeah, baby! I not only start with the weather; I start quarter-million-word trilogies with the weather. That’s how I roll.

But at least it’s weird weather: cat-vomit clouds! So you can already tell something funny is going on . . . probably in the point-of-view. Or as Elmore goes on to say in a well-armed-militia moment:

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

Aha. And as Uglies continues in paragraph two:

Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold.

Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.

See? I’m not even breaking Rule 1. This cat-vomit sky is in someone’s head; the sky is actually quite beautiful, but Tally’s depression turns it ugly (so to speak).

And to return to Leonard’s overall agenda, starting with this glimpse of the weather through Tally’s eyes is probably more invisible that saying, “Tally was so depressed that the sky looked like cat-spew.”

Although that would have been funny too.

Rule 2. Avoid prologues. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

Yep, that’s me. I never start my YA books with prologues. I generally start with a big action scene of some kind (crashing a party, fighting a vampire, having time freeze) and then drop back to explain what’s going on during a lull in the action.

Of course, I don’t mind info-dumps, as we call them in science fiction. In fact, the even-numbered chapters in Peeps are all info-dumps. And unless fanmail lies, readers totally love that stuff.

As Leonard goes on to quote John Steinbeck, “Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

Aha. That’s pretty much what Peeps does: it has special chapters where the parasite-related hooptedoodle lives. You can skip ahead and read all the parasite-hooptedoodle first, as some readers have told me they did, or skip past the parasite-hooptedoodle and sweep through the story first, as others prefered to do.

But here’s an interesting factoid: When I first turned in Peeps to my editors, the parasite-hooptedoodle chapters and story chapters were reversed from how they are now. That is, the first chapter (and all subsequent odd-numbered chapters) were hooptedoodle-icious. Which meant that the book started with that long description of a snail-eating parasite’s life-cycle: pure hooptedoodle prologue!

Without refrence to Elmore, my wise editors suggested that I swap them around, so that the book started with Cal fighting Sarah, his vampire-afflicted ex-girlfriend. And thus Rule 2 was followed.

It is with these small (but huge) changes that books are made better.

Okay, I’ve gone on a while here, and I’ve certainly typed the word “hooptedoddle” more times than I’d ever hoped to. So I’ll stop for today.

Next time, I’ll do Elmore’s Rules 3 and 4, those old stalwarts: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue and Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

“Oh, crap,” Scott asseverated wolfishly. “I’m in big trouble now . . . ”

But look over there! It’s the freaky yet colorful eye-stalk of a parasitized snail!

See you next week.

Writing Advice 3

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, right here.

Writing Advice 2

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 actually 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.

One quick note
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.

Writing Advice 1

The most common questions I get from fans (other than “when is Pretties coming out?”) are those about writing. Where do you get ideas? How do I get started? How do I keep going? How do you get published?

Of course, it’s not surprising that a lot of people who like to read also want to write. And fortunately, I love talking about the craft and business of writing. But I do find myself answering the same questions and giving the same advice again and again. So I’ve decided to start to put my stock motivational speeches together into a series of posts call, oddly, “Writing Advice.”

To give these posts visual interest and the appropriate authori-tie, I wasted many long minutes designing this exceedingly lame logo:

So let us begin at the end:

Finish everything!

There will always be a part of your brain that wants to give up when characters aren’t behaving, when you don’t know where to go next, when the inspiration has faded. Don’t give the start-something-else part of your brain any extra leverage, or it will win every time. And once it starts winning . . . Well, let’s just say that the not-finishing habit is a hard one to break.

It’s easy to think up logical reasons to stop writing a story. You say to yourself: “This sucks. Why waste any more time? I’ll start something new that inspires me!”

Yeah, well, the inspiration of a new story is exciting. But if you wind up not finishing ninety percent of what you start, guess what happens. After a few years you’ll have written 100 beginnings, 40 middles, and only 10 endings. Which means you’ll be great at writing beginnings, only so-so at middles, and you’ll suck at endings. Which means you will almost certainly keep faltering between the middle and the end of every story, which means you’ll keep giving up and not finishing . . . Rinse, repeat.

And that’s a hole you don’t want to fall into. So finish, even if you know this story isn’t going to win you the Nobel Prize—it’s good practice to type THE END.