The Next Big Thing: My Current Project and Three Awesome New Writers

I’ve now written two stories for Eric J. Guignard‘s fantastic anthologies, and so last week when he invited me to take part in The Next Big Thing, I immediately said yes. It’s a simple exercise, really, just a fun little combination of a questionnaire, self-promotion, and promotion of others, too.

To start off, I’ll answer ten questions about my current project. Then, I’ll tag three other up-and-coming authors, folks who I think you’ll be hearing more from in the next few years. All of them have plenty of novels and short stories under their belts, and may very well end up becoming The Next Big Thing.

I’ve written a fair amount about my first novel, which is on hold pending editing (and coming up with a better pitch). My second novel was largely written as a lark during last year’s NaNoWriMo, so today I’m discussing my third novel, which is my favorite concept yet. It’s still in the early stages of planning and writing, but the ending is stuck in my head, which bodes well for me actually finishing it.

So to start off, some Q & A:

1) What is the working title of your next book?


2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea came at the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat last March. I was doing some brainstorming, when the idea came to me of a siren (a la the ancient, mesmerizing singers of old) living amidst the ruins of a post-apocalyptic world. But as I fleshed out various characters, I realized the origin story of the siren was more interesting, and from there it sort of lost the siren part entirely (although maybe it’ll reappear in a sequel).

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction, with an eye toward the Young Adult audience.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Fallon Ravensong: Isabelle Fuhrman

Regulus: Idris Elba

Ezra: Dakota Goyo

Antares: Vinnie Jones

Warlord Staern: Ben Kingsley

Fallon’s Mother: Charlize Theron

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In a bid to gain her freedom from the court of a post-apocalyptic warlord, Fallon flees South across the harsh landscape of a dead America, encountering fellow survivors as she flees for her life and chases stories of a place known only as The Green.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ll be exploring options, but my preference would be to find an agency.

7) How long will it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I false-started on the original draft, and have been doing some additional planning in order to find a better beginning and overall arc. In the New Year, I’ll be hitting the first draft hard and hope to finish it within a few months. At which point it will have been… a little over a year since I came up with the original idea. Here’s hoping I can stick to plan.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My uber-short pitch for this novel is that it’s The Wizard of Oz meets The Road.

It’s in the same genre (and shooting for the same target audience) as The Hunger Games, but that’s about all they have in common.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Well, the original story was the result of a fairly straightforward brainstorming session. I pictured an interesting character, in an interesting situation, then tried to imagine how she got to where she was. That in turn led me chasing down a tangled web of ideas and themes until I ended up in a comfortable little nook that bore only a vague resemblance to my original starting point.

There are other inspirations, too. I love ravens and crows– they’re some of the most intelligent birds out there, despite the fact that they often get cast as minions of evil or bad omens. So I wanted the main character’s loyal companion to be a raven. Hence the name of the book (and Fallon’s last name, which she earns in the course of events).

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Even though it’s post-apocalyptic, I want this story to be optimistic, to speak to the ability of people to help each other out even in dark times. My goal is to write a story that combines an epic physical journey with an epic emotional one, and to tell the story of a girl who finds her place in a world that seems as if it has no place for anyone.

If all goes well, it will be the first book in a trilogy. Fallon’s scattered family, and the rest of the world, play a bigger role in the later books.

My Three Tagged Authors:

Luna Lindsey

Mark Andrew Edwards

Stephanie Herman

Look for their entries around Wednesday of next week, when they’ll answer the same ten questions about their own upcoming projects.

Trekking Through the First Draft

Or, How Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned From Backpacking the Appalachian Trail

In 2004, fresh out of college, I hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail. It was a 2,183-mile hike from Georgia to Maine, and it took from March 8th to August 12th. It is, to date, one of the crazier things I’ve ever done. When I tell people about it, they usually don’t comprehend the logistics at first. “Five months of hiking?” they’ll sometimes ask. “How did you stock up on food? Did you ever take a shower? Wash your clothes?”

And the answer is, yes, I did all three relatively easily… just less often than at home. Because the fact is, I didn’t go on a five month hike. Instead, I went on a long string of three-to-four day hikes, strung out in series over five months. Every few days, I’d hitchhike or walk to the nearest town, and buy food, take a break, eat at a restaurant– and almost always take a shower, wash my clothes, and spend the night somewhere marginally more comfortable than my tent. Then I’d hit the trail again, refreshed, rested, and restocked.

Explaining that probably makes it sound less impressive. But still, string 40 or so of those shorter hikes together, and suddenly you can say “I went on a 2,000-mile hike!” And that’s pretty cool to say, no matter how you slice the details.

Writing a novel has a lot in common with that sort of hike. It’s a long and arduous journey, usually over the course of months, and it takes a hell of a lot of willpower to finish the thing. In both cases, a lot of people say, “Someday, I want to do this” and then never get around to actually doing it, just because the size of the task is so intimidating.

Most of the advice you hear for novel writing is along the lines of Just barrel through the first draft. Keep writing. If you make mistakes, you can always fix them afterward. Various motivational tools, like National Novel Writing Month, are geared around this idea: shut off your internal editor, and sprint your way through the words. Just get that first draft out on paper.

Twice now, I’ve written novels by following that school of thought. In both cases, I haven’t been particularly pleased with the result.

But wait! I hear you say. It’s a first draft! It’s not supposed to be good! You’re supposed to take it and then write a better second draft!

Well, yes, but, in both cases I feel like the first draft sort of fell off the rails, and I find myself questioning whether it’s worth it to revise them, or set them aside and try to improve my craft by writing something new. And while I still plan to revise those novels into something better, in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder: Is there a better way of writing a first draft? If I had hiked the Appalachian Trail the way I wrote those first novels, then I would have just charged into the woods and kept running until I keeled over from exhaustion. It’s certainly a strategy, I’m just not sure it’s the best strategy.

When I went to the Rainforest Writers’ Village this year, I had hoped to come up with a few short stories, but instead I came up with an idea for another novel. And I thought, Hmmm… this is the perfect opportunity to try out a different way of writing.

This time, I’m not barreling through the first draft. Instead, I’m looking at the novel the same way I looked at the Appalachian Trail: don’t worry about getting to the very end. Just complete one piece at a time. In the case of the novel, each piece is a chapter. I’m working on one chapter at a time, working on getting it into good shape, then moving on to the next, almost as though each chapter is its own short story, complete with a little mini-arc (which, really, is how a chapter should be anyway).

But wait! I hear. How do you prevent yourself from getting bogged down by the editing? What’s to keep you from spending months nitpicking and perfecting every chapter?

The answer is simple: Writers’ Group. My writers’ group meets every other week, and one of the rules I’m following is that I have to submit a new chapter for every meeting. This will, hopefully, help me keep the pace up.

So this is my Appalachian-Trail-inspired style of novel writing. Slow and steady. One chapter at a time. There will still, of course, be editing to do at the end of it, but I’m hoping the first draft this method produces will be a lot more satisfying, and that maybe I’ll be inspired, rather than intimidated, when it comes to writing a second draft.

I actually think my chapter-by-chapter method would work for both outliners and discovery writers. To go back to the Appalachian Trail analogy, there are two ways to resupply over the course of the five-month hike: one, you can buy food at stores in towns as you go, or two, you can actually plan ahead of time what you’ll need, and mail boxes of supplies to post offices along the way. The first method is nicely analogous to discovery writing, and the second method to outlining. It boils down to a simple question: How much do you plan ahead?

If you’re an outliner, then when you’re ready to start a new chapter, you pull the next piece from your outline and keep going. If you’re a discovery writing, you keep brainstorming your way down the trail. I always resupplied by buying food along the way, making up my menu as I went– I suspect this is why I’m also more of a discovery writer. I have a difficult time keeping to outlines; I’d rather make things up as I go. And while it’s nice to have a final destination (i.e. an ending) in mind, you have to have fun in the journey, too.

Of course, all this works for me, but I don’t necessarily expect it to work for anybody else. And to be honest, I don’t know even know for sure that it works for me yet– I’ve only written a few chapters, but I’m on schedule, and it’s feeling good so far. I’ll let you know how things go.

You Are Falling Under My Power…

A couple days ago I became an officially licensed hypnotherapist in the state of Washington. Hypnosis has been a hobby of mine for a couple years, partly because it provides some very interesting insight into how the mind works, and partly because, well, it’s just plain fun.

Admittedly, hypnosis has a dubious reputation. The mere fact that it’s associated with “mind control” means that the field tends to attract a lot of charlatans and con artists. It’s not hard to find sites on the Internet which advertise sure-fire ways to hypnotize your boss into doing what you want, or seducing hot women in twenty-two seconds, or becoming the greatest negotiator of all time. Hypnosis is also still somewhat mysterious and not very well understood, which means that people are even more likely to believe whatever specious claims come their way, and to doubt the real information. It’s hard to know which sources are trustworthy and which aren’t. The science of hypnosis is about as well understood as the science of sleep– in other words, not well at all.

That said, there are a few definite facts: hypnosis exists, although usually in a less dramatic fashion than most people imagine. Put simply, hypnosis is the ability of the mind to enter a trance, and chances are you do it multiple times a day. For example, if you’ve ever been driving somewhere and ended up going the wrong way because you were thinking about something else, or gotten so absorbed in what you were doing that you stopped noticing the outside world, then you’ve entered a state called environmental hypnosis.

Environmental hypnosis happens at other times, too: if you’ve ever been so engrossed in a movie that world around you faded out, and the movie felt real to you, that was a form of hypnosis. Or if you’ve ever gotten so deeply into a book that time seemed to fade, that the words on the page seemed less like words and more like a window into a world that you could see and feel and touch, that’s hypnosis, too.

You heard me: writers, when they operate at their best, are hypnotists. Good stories can actually put the reader or listener in a trance, so that the characters and the setting become totally real in the reader’s mind, if only for a little while. The words transcend being mere words, and become a doorway into another world.

That ideal, more than anything, is what I aspire to when I write. It’s incredibly hard to do, and I’ve found that in addition to having the usual elements of storytelling in place—complex characters, vibrant setting, compelling plot—even the rhythm of the words has a crucial role in setting this up. A single misplaced comma or ill-chosen word can cause the reader to stumble and break that trance, and turn the words on the page from a window back into mere words.

Sometimes this is called transparent prose, or invisible prose. Prose that’s so smooth, so flowing, that the reader forgets they’re reading a story. Some people will say it has to be simple (to which I disagree wholeheartedly), but it often has to be constructed as meticulously as poetry— each word is important, in meaning, in style, in rhythm.

Rhythm in my writing is something I struggle with a lot, not just to achieve, but even to define. What is it, exactly? It’s language that flows naturally in the mind, that mirrors the emotions the readers and the characters are feeling, that uses things like flow, and speed, to enhance the writing in the text. In great writing, it’s not just the words that convey emotion and meaning, it’s the style and the construction of the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters. On every level, the writing has to work in unison.

I love it when writing truly becomes a window, when it transports me to another place and another world, when it creates real characters in my mind whom I become friends with and care about. It’s one of the reasons I became a writer in the first place.

And I suppose in that sense, it’s natural that I picked up an interest in actual hypnosis along the way. I wonder how else I can put it to use.

You are getting sleepy… very sleepy…

You will buy my stories, available soon at major retailers…

Hmm. Maybe not.

Of Stories and Beliefs

So far, there have been two topics that I’ve generally avoided on the blog: politics, and religion. And while I’ve skirted the “politics” rule a few times, now it’s time to skirt the “religion” one, because this is something I’ve wanted to write a post about for a while– not religion itself, but the relationship between truth, stories, and beliefs. Keep in mind this is just one fellow’s perspective on things. That said… onward.

It’s a question that I sometimes hear asked of writers: “how do your beliefs influence your stories?” It’s usually asked in a religious context, but even so, it’s still a broad question. And there are various ways to interpret and answer it, not to mention all the corollaries that spin off, like:

-“Do you let your beliefs inform your works?”
-“Do you try to avoid any appearance of bias toward your own beliefs?”
-“How does an atheist author write a Christian character, or vice versa?”

I generally describe myself as “nonreligious,” which is a more polite word for “atheist.” I’m not a strident atheist; my beliefs are my own, and I don’t begrudge anybody their beliefs as long as they don’t try to foist them on me (see: the religious right). In fact, my own beliefs tend more toward what most people would call “agnostic.” I don’t believe in a lack of god, so much as I lack a belief in god.

But I’m not writing this to debate labels, or to debate the wisdom of my own viewpoint. Rather, I’m writing this so you know where I’m coming from when I talk about how we tell stories.

When I first moved to Seattle, I dipped my toe in a few organized atheist and skeptic groups, looking to meet new people. But I realized that I didn’t relate to most folks there quite as well as I thought I would. Having more or less dedicated my life to creative writing, I was no longer as captivated by the facts of reality, as by the possibilities of reality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that there are people interested in the rational study of how the world works. They become scientists, and researchers, and are responsible for a large chunk of modern progress.

But I’m a writer, and moreso, a writer of speculative fiction: I don’t write about how things are, I write about how things might yet be, or how things might have been, if the world or the universe had been a little bit different. My stories are mostly fiction, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have truth in them. I think fiction, in its highest form, is merely a tool to tell the truth about something: whether about the world, or our own humanity, or love, or… anything, really. All fiction does this to some degree– you can’t write a story without saying something— but in my opinion, the best fiction recognizes and harnesses it, and even amidst the elements of fantasy, it reveals truth.

A lot of religious writing– the parables Jesus tells in the Bible, for example– are fictional stories designed to tell truths. But unfortunately, most religious writing doesn’t present itself as fiction. It presents itself as history. And so the truth of the writing gets lost in a debate about the facts of the writing. Which, in the end, partly helps to explain why I’m not religious any more. Some religious stories do have truths to reveal, but to subscribe to a religion means not just to enjoy the stories it tells, it means buying into an entire worldview, and subscribing to various “facts” that are often only peripherally related to the truths within the stories. I’d rather leave facts to the world’s scientists, and truth– well, I’ll leave truth to the world’s storytellers.

One thing I often do as a writer is to change the nature of reality within a story– perhaps in one story God is a biological entity; perhaps in another God is a pool of consciousness, from which individual souls split off like droplets of water; and perhaps in a third story God doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps in one God is a bad guy. I love to experiment, to change these “starting conditions,” as it were, and see how the people and worlds in my stories are affected as a result.

I suppose, in a sense, this is my own exploration of reality, sort of a hybrid of imagination and rationalism. In the crucible of fiction, I perform experiments with the characters, and my scientific and creative sides blend. Each story is like its own little trial run of reality, a petri dish where I can add a mix of ingredients and see how they grow. And hopefully, in the end, each one will produce a truth– not facts, or beliefs, but little nuggets of truth.

At the highest level of storytelling, that’s what I strive for. Even when I’m throwing chupacabras in the petri dish.

So, if you ever want to have a discussion with me about truth, I’d rather you didn’t talk to me about beliefs. But tell me a story, and listen to mine, and then perhaps we’ll be a few steps closer to understanding each other.

How Chupacabras Saved My NaNoWriMo Novel

For National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been writing a novel called Ghostrunners. And yesterday, I reached 50,000 words, which means I “won” NaNoWriMo. And as a bonus, I finished the story as well! Admittedly, it’s too short to be publishable– to have a shot at publishing it, I’d probably have to stretch it out to 80,000 words. But there’d be so many changes in a second draft that adding 30,000 words is actually one of my lesser concerns.

My original idea, when I first envisioned the novel, was “Sliders meets Ocean’s Eleven with magic.” I set the story in modern day Seattle, to minimize the worldbuilding I needed to do; I developed some good characters; I came up with the outline of a magic system. But I didn’t come up with a plot that really inspired me.

So when I started NaNoWriMo, I was discovery writing. I knew my characters; I knew the setting; I knew some of the conflicts that the characters were involved in at the start. And from there, I was pretty much inventing stuff from scratch every time I sat down to write. Characters often made decisions for which I had only a marginal idea of the ramifications down the road. And they reacted to each other naturally, without regard for whether it would serve the plot. Heck, I didn’t even know what the plot was.

It was a stressful, terrifying, and occasionally exhilarating way to write. When things did come together into a genuine emotional moment, it was unplanned, and in those moments, it was almost like I was reading a good book, except I was typing as I read, wanting to see what was going to happen next. But that exhilaration was tapered by the ever-present fear that I would suddenly lock up, run out of ideas, and the words would stop coming.

When Writer’s Block did hit, I put myself in the characters’ shoes, and thought, “Okay, something has to happen next in their lives. What happens next? Write it.” And I did, without much regard as to whether it would make for a readable story or not.

I did, on occasion, resort to the old ninjas-kick-down-the-door trick: once with police, once with chupacabras, and once with rogue Secret Service agents. In every case it made the book better– especially the chupacabras, who more or less saved me at a point where the book was desperately searching for conflict and I felt like the plot wasn’t going anywhere. In a second draft, of course, they probably won’t be chupacabras: they’ll be creatures that wander between realities, for whom I will probably have to think up another name. But for this draft, and in the spirit of NaNoWriMo silliness, they did perfectly well as chupacabras. Lesson One from NaNoWriMo: Sometimes it pays off to just throw in crazy stuff and try to make it work.

My first novel was a massive, wide-ranging epic fantasy; this novel was a fast-paced action story. And my authorial role model for this type of story was Jim Butcher. In the Dresden Files, he drags his characters through serious pain and torment in every book, and doesn’t pull punches– he’s not afraid to make things worse, or pile even more problems on the characters. And if it all comes together at the end, if connections are made that you didn’t expect and the protagonists win despite everything that was thown at them, the result is often a really, really good book. And I tried to do the same thing with Ghostrunners. Lesson Two from NaNoWriMo: Don’t be afraid to throw your characters into the fire.

Ghostrunners is in very rough form right now– there are a few gems, but most of it is just plain old dirt and rock. A second draft would be like mining the diamonds from the ore; all the discovery-written ideas that didn’t work would need to be discarded, and the ones that did would need to be strengthened and polished until they shone. I’d like to do that with this book– and if it ever reaches “final draft” stage, it will probably only bear a passing resemblance to what I have now.

I haven’t decided what my next project is; I’d like to write a short story, and edit another one, and go back to my first novel and start revisions on that. I also had ideas for about five blog posts that I didn’t write in November because I didn’t want to get distracted. So I’m hoping that I can keep up the writing momentum even with the end of NaNoWriMo upon us. Because in the end, to be a professional writer, it’s not enough to write one month of the year– you’ve gotta keep at it year-round.

So it goes.

A Pre-NaNoWriMo Retrospective

Well, it’s almost that time of year again: November, aka National Novel Writing Month. For the third time, I’ll be endeavoring to write 50,000 words, hopefully in a manner that resembles a single coherent story. 2009 was successful; 2010 (which was actually a continuation of my 2009 story) wasn’t. However, that story (my epic fantasy, In a Land of Wind and Sky) now has a completed 177,000 word rough draft, which means this November it’s time for something new.

When I planned In a Land of Wind and Sky, I started with a basic idea for a plot, then came up with characters who could play the roles in that plot, and then came up with a setting in which that plot could play out. So essentially, I built the novel in order of plot, character, setting. In retrospect, I may have done things backward– if I had done more worldbuilding first, and let the characters be born from that setting, it might have felt more natural to me. Instead, it often felt like I was crafting a world to match what the plot needed, and for some reason that felt like cheating to me. In my head, the world felt less real because too often I was trying to finagle things to match what the plot needed.

This time, I’m not actually starting with a single idea or plot point as inspiration. Instead, I’m starting with a general concept that seems kind of cool. So far, it’s shaping up to be sort of like Sliders meets Ocean’s Eleven in an Urban Fantasy setting.

After writing a very complicated plot, with several intertwined character arcs, with In a Land of Wind and Sky, I decided I wanted to write something simpler and more straightforward. My idea was to write it in first person, and setting it in the contemporary world in order to minimize the amount of worldbuilding I needed to do. Immediately, I thought “urban fantasy.” Plus, I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy in the past year (most notably the entire “Dresden Files” series), and something along those lines seemed like it might play to my strengths, as well as be fun to write.

With that thought, I began to let my mind wander, and began building a world and magic system. That in turns suggested possible character quirks and backstories to me; in addition, I found characters from a couple of stalled short stories years ago who fit nicely into this new world. I’m still looking for the plot, but I do see a lot of possibilities, and as I flesh out the magic and the characters more, I’m letting those be the guide for my muse. So in essence, I’m building this novel backwards from how I built my first one: this time I’m going setting, character, plot. It’s a little more touch-and-go, and I feel like there’s still a risk that I may tear up the whole thing in frustration, but if I can get it working, I think the novel will come together more naturally than my first one. Of course, I already have ten characters just on the good guys’ side… and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to write it in third person… so it’s probably going to end up more complicated than I originally planned… oh, well.

But even if I finish planning this novel and come up with a plot that inspires me, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be successful at NaNoWriMo. I’m on course to start a new full-time job on November 3rd, after a summer of fun-yet-increasingly-broke writing and travel. It remains to be seen how the new job’s going to affect my writing time– since I usually do my writing in two-hour evening spurts at Bauhaus Coffee, my hope is that it won’t affect my writing life too much.

It’s been a crazy past few months. I’ve done the Clarion West Write-a-thon, finished the first draft of a novel, written four short stories, and gone to three weekend conventions. In non-writing stuff, I’ve driven the North Cascades Loop, hiked in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, spent a weekend at Mt. Baker, and conducted and finished a job search. It’s been a productive four months– unfortunately, not the sort of productivity that anyone is paying me for yet. So it’s back to cubicle world for a while, starting right around the time NaNoWriMo begins.

Yup. Gonna be interesting.

Clever Title Goes Here

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on the nuts and bolts of writing, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Today’s topic, inspired by recent struggles, is: Titles.

On the surface, titles seem simple, right? Come up with a few words that describe the story, slap it on the top and that’s that. But a lot of writers have a surprisingly hard time coming up with titles. For my own part, either I’ll know the title from almost before I put the first word on the page, or I’ll be still agonizing over it months after I finish the story. There is no in-between.

Yet despite the headache that titles can be, they don’t get much discussion time on writing podcasts and blogs. I suppose there are more complicated issues of storytelling to be discussed, which is true… but despite being an outwardly simple topic, titles are incredibly important. After all, the title will be what gives any potential reader their first impression of your story.

This is particularly true for short stories– with a novel, the cover art may fill that role, but for short stories (and many novels as well), the title will almost certainly be the first thing the reader notices. A catchy title can make the difference between a potential reader and an actual one. It’s the first, best advertising for your story.

Yet advertising isn’t all a title is, either. A good title can, in some cases, be what ties the story together. Title can be short and catchy, or long and poetic; they can set up a mystery that hooks the reader; they can make the reader laugh; they can be a metaphor that sums up the entire story in a few words; they can use language to craft an image that the reader simply must know more about. If the title ties in to the end of the story, it can create that satisfying “loop” that’s so important for short stories. But a title doesn’t need to be all of those things; in fact, some of those things are inherently contradictory.

The story that got me thinking about this was a 5,000 word science fiction short story that I’ve been doing some final rounds of editing on. As a general rule, I prefer short and catchy titles. The working title of my novel, In a Land of Wind and Sky, is an exception because I like the poeticalness of it. (Is “poeticalness” a word? If not, it is now.) As for the short story in question, here are some titles I’ve gone through:

Family Tree: Short, but not very inspired. It does tie together the main metaphor in the story (the story revolves around the main character’s niece, who’s a botanist), but it probably doesn’t make anyone go, “oooh, I want to know what that story’s about!”
The Gatebuilders’ Daughter: I like the rhythm of the words here, and there’s a little more mystery in the title (who is it referring to, and are the gatebuilders?), but the phrase “the gatebuilders’ daughter” is actually used on the second page of the story. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of titles which are literal lines in the story– although opinions will certainly differ on this.
Memories of Persei: More evocative, although any mystery it has is lost by the fourth line of the story, in which in becomes clear that the main character is reminiscing about the years she spent at a place called Persei. Also, on first reading, the word “Persei” takes a second to figure out how to pronounce– as a result, that may lessen the title’s impact.
The Girl Who Planted Seeds: This is the title I’m going with right now. It works on a literal and metaphorical level, it has rhythm, it flows easily off the tongue, and hopefully has a little bit of mystery to it as well. Admittedly, there’s nothing about it that screams “science fiction”, but if it appears in a science fiction magazine (fingers crossed), that’ll hopefully take care of any need to broadcast the genre in the title.

For short stories in particular, I suspect that a good title, if it’s intriguing and retains its mystery well into the story, can be one factor that keeps an editor reading, especially if they’re in the middle of going through a huge slush pile and are sort of looking for reasons to move to the next story. Is this actually true? I’d be interested to know… I’ll have to ask some editors next time I’m at a con.

Of course, an awesome title also sets the readers’ expectations for the story higher, and if the title is more awesome than the rest of the story, or if the story does not live up to the title’s promise in some other way (for example, if the title is funny but the story isn’t), then the reader will feel let down. In short, come up with an awesome title if you can, but make sure your story is even awesomer. (I’m making up all sort of words today.) And whatever you promise in the title, make sure the story delivers it.

Do you have any favorite book titles? Maybe a title that made you laugh, or evoked an image that you just needed to know more about? What do you look for when you’re reading and writing story titles?

Writing Advice, and a Little Bit of Hero Worship

This evening, I joined about 2,000 fellow geeks at Town Hall in Seattle to see Neil Gaiman do a reading and be interviewed by Maria Headley. I’ve been attending a lot of author signings recently, but this one was particularly special, because if there’s any author working today whom I actually idolize, it’s Neil Gaiman. (I wouldn’t just dress up as any author for Halloween, after all.) On top of that, he’s not just an excellent writer, he’s also a great public speaker and oral storyteller. For many authors, skill with the written word does not go hand-in-hand with public speaking (I suspect I’m one of them), but Neil Gaiman is superb in both arenas, and if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, I definitely recommend it.

Over the course of the ensuing discussion and Q&A session, he gave several tidbits of advice for writers, but one in particular stood out for me. Paraphrased, it was basically this:

There will always be better writers out there than you. But, there is no one else who can tell your stories. So the sooner you stop trying to tell other people’s stories, and start telling your own, the better off you’ll be.

And he’s right. New writers, myself included, do start out by trying (often unconsciously) to emulate our favorite authors. But with enough practice, you eventually find your own voice, and that’s when you really start writing stories that are truly your own. It’s good to remember, because as a new writer, it’s easy to read stuff by great authors (like Gaiman) and think, Oh, geez, he’s such a better writer than I am! I’ll never be able to write the kind of awesome stuff what he does! I’m doomed to failure! And it’s true. You’ll never be able to write like Neil Gaiman. But if you’re true to your own voice, if you write your own stories, and bring to them your own unique set of experiences and passions, then Neil Gaiman won’t be able to write like you, either. The thought made me smile– it’s not about being better, or best. It’s about being you.

So with that in mind, I took my newly acquired signed copies of Neverwhere and American Gods (pre-signed, because an author signing with 2,000 people would just be painful), and headed home to write.

Rumor has it Neil may be back in town in November with his wife, Amanda Palmer, for something involving both reading and music. If so, I’ll definitely be there.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

After blogging about Egypt, I felt like I needed something a little more light-hearted. So I decided to partake in the Romance Blogfest, put on by Jordan McCollum. Her instructions are as follows:

The theme is Love at first sight . . . or not so much. Post a first meeting between two characters who will fall for each other (even if it doesn’t look like they will at the time!).

You may write a new scene on the topic, OR you may post a scene from your WIP.

So for the first time ever, I shall post an excerpt from my 15-months-in-progress novel on the blog. It’s not strictly a meeting, but it’s the first time the female protagonist lays eyes on the male protagonist, and yes, they do eventually fall in love– it’s complicated, of course, but such is the nature of love.

But it’s definitely not love at first sight. The initial emotions are, shall we say, somewhat more acrimonious.


Iliya stood on the roof of a building just outside the castle walls, blending into the crowd. She chuckled to herself. The Emissary would probably not be pleased that she was up here, even though several other people were sitting there casually, including two other women. A bunch of kids were sitting in a row across the front, dangling their feet off the edge, and yelling happily at the crowd that stretched out below them, lining the street. There were thousands of people here; she hadn’t known there were this many people in all of the Ama’s City, but they had come, seemingly out of nowhere, to be here today.

She had tied her hair back into a simple ponytail, so she looked more like one of the villagers instead of a servant of a high-ranking official. She also wore a pair of pants instead of her usual robe. Since there was no business in the castle for which she needed to follow the Emissary around today, she fully intended to enjoy her free time.

Someone taped on her shoulder, and Iliya turned and grinned. “‘Bout time you showed up.”

Erysa stood next to her. “Fahru said to blend in,” she whispered. “The roof is blending in?”

Iliya shrugged. “Hey, I’m blending in.” She gestured to the people surrounding her. “Besides, this is my day off. He can’t order me around today.”

Erysa had also dressed in pants and a shirt, and she chuckled. “Fair enough.” She sat down, leaning her elbow on the slanted roof. “We can blend in together, like a couple of Skylands peasants.”

Iliya sat down next to her. “The atmosphere here is quite a change from when we first got here, isn’t it?”

Erysa nodded. “I don’t see any signs of the Fatigue anywhere. Everyone’s healthy, and happy, smiling and laughing…” she grimaced. “If we were somewhere else, I might join them, instead of wishing for their kingdom to burn.”

Iliya nodded. The mood of the people reminded her of the Spring Rites back home in Elairyn, when the end of the winter storms and the bursting forth of new life was celebrated. Not only did the whole city celebrate, but many of the merchants from the Outer Reaches sailed in with their families to partake as well. The Spring Rites had been the last thing they did in Elairyn before leaving for the Skylands, and for a moment, a pang of homesickness gripped her.

“Look,” Erysa snapped Iliya out of her daydream, and stood up. “Is that them?”

Iliya stood and squinted in the direction her sister was pointing. Far beyond the village, near where the mountain slope turned more gradual as it joined the grassy steppes, she could see a cloud of dust being kicked up by a long line of horses. “Looks like it,” she said. “They’re a ways off. I’d say they’re still a couple miles away.”

One of the kids noticed where she was looking and followed her gaze. Both she and her sister had great eyesight, but the kids’ were almost as good, and the boy jumped up in excitement, barely preventing himself from sliding down the roof. “It’s Satoro!”

Excited murmurs ran across the crowd.


“Where are they?”

“I can see them, on the other side of the village!”

“Are they almost here?”

The excited yelling slowly died down to a steady murmur as people realized that the approaching soldiers were still a ways off. As the soldiers got closer, the path took a curve and she lost track of them, her view blocked by a grove of trees at the edge of the village. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the crowd had mostly grown silent but an excited, nervous energy ran through it that she could feel, and in the distance, she heard the crowd erupt in cheers. The cheering continued and got louder, and then she saw them. Rounding a corner was a procession of soldiers in full battle armor, banners flying tall from their polearms, which they hoisted high into the air. Their armor was painted in black and dark reds, with intricately detailed carvings and workmanship, as was the usual custom for Skylands mages. In front was a man riding a magnificent brown horse, which lifted its hooves high with every step and kept its head raised up, as if it knew it was carrying one of the most important people in the Skylands. The horse’s rider wore a helmet with large, fearsome horns and an ugly mask, and he nodded from side to side at the people he passed. He wielded a sword which he held high, waving it slowly over the heads of the crowd.

So this was the famed Satoro Kei. Iliya felt a fierce anger rise up within her at the sight. Maybe it was the casual arrogance as he rode on his horse and soaked in the cheers of the crowd; maybe it was the sight of the Skylands banners flying high in the air. In her mind, her memory flashed back to that night when her city burned, when another Skylands mage stood over her, sneering at her dismissively: “get out of Elairyn, girl.” She clenched her fist. She hadn’t gotten out of Elairyn; instead, Elairyn had won that battle, and now it had successfully placed assassins in the very beating heart of Sky.

She felt a strong grip on her hand, and looked down. Erysa was also staring at the procession, with the same dark look on her face. Iliya gripped her sister’s hand. She knew they would probably be conspicuous, as the only two people not cheering, but she didn’t care. She wanted to take her father’s sword and slam it through his face mask, the way she had done to the mage who killed her father.

Behind Satoro, armored warriors tromped down the path, two by two. There were sixteen of them in total, a surprisingly small force. Iliya wondered if she and her sister could take them all. Probably, given the element of surprise.

At the foot of the castle steps the procession stopped, and Iliya saw the stablemaster, Jiro, step forward and take the reins. Satoro bent his head and took off his helmet, revealing a young, smiling man with shaggy brown hair. He slapped Jiro on the shoulder and grinned, talking to him for several seconds as the rest of his soldiers rode up. Iliya was amazed at how young he looked; she had pictured Satoro as an older man, possibly with a goatee and an evil gleam in his eye. This didn’t fit her picture at all. As he handed off his helmet to a nearby servant, several kids from the crowd darted up to him, and he knelt down, gathering as many as he could up in a group hug. She spotted Kaena among them, and Satoro tussled her hair as he walked up the steps. He waved at a friend in the crowd, stopping several times to say hi, then at the top of the steps, he turned, and waved his arms one last time, causing the crowd to erupt with a massive cheer.

“For the Skylands!” he cried, and Iliya winced as the resounding cry echoed from the entire crowd.


The only thing keeping her from jumping off the balcony and killing Satoro right then was her death grip on Erysa’s hand. When Iliya finally released her fingers, it took her a few minutes to shake feeling back into them.


Ahh, can’t you just feel the romance in the air?

Here’s hoping you have a happy Valentine’s Day, preferably uncontaminated by murderous rage.

Egypt Part III: Final Thoughts

As those of you who are not Amish hermits already know, on Friday Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak fell from power after thirty years. Like a lot of people, I’ve been glued to the news, and my two primary sources of news have been two places I’ve never turned for news before: (1)Twitter and (2)Al-Jazeera. Without a doubt, searching the #Egypt and #Jan25 hashtags on Twitter gave the fastest, most up-to-date picture of what was happening on the ground in Egypt. Often, things I saw on Twitter would then show up on the Al-Jazeera newsfeed fifteen or twenty minutes later. I occasionally checked CNN or Fox News, but mainly just to see what angles they were taking in their coverage.

I wanted to write one last post as a transition back to the normal content of the blog, where I prefer to talk about writing and science fiction conventions and post interesting pictures. I don’t want this blog to become about politics, or the philosophies of democracy, or the big news events of the day. But three of my past four blog entries have been about precisely those topics, because for the past few weeks, the people of Egypt have been telling some incredible stories.

The story that drew me in the most, as evidenced by my previous two blog posts, was the story of Mona Seif: a 24-year-old activist caught up in the midst of things in Tahrir Square, whose voice alternated between hope and terror as events unfolded. But there have been other stories as well:

Ayman Mohyeldin, Al-Jazeera’s on-the-ground correspondent, who made it into Tahrir Square almost every day and at one point was arrested by the Egyptian Army.
Wael Ghonim
, the Google executive whose arrest was caught on video (at about the 1:15 mark), and whose release several days later sparked new life into the protest movement.
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist living in America who posted almost nonstop through the whole thing, and whose reaction to the fall of Mubarak touched everyone who saw it.

Of course, towering above it all was the story of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian war hero who became a president, who became a dictator, who became a national disgrace.

Those are just some of the stories that I’ve been able to follow. There are hundreds of Egyptians dead, most brutally murdered by their own government, who have stories of their own. Most of those stories, the rest of the world will probably never hear, and that makes me sad.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: these types of stories fascinate me, and draw me in as a writer and a storyteller. Too often, we leap for the commentary, or the larger meaning, or the political implications, and we don’t listen to what the stories of the people themselves can teach us. I said this about the Afghan girl Aisha, back when her story made the cover of TIME. And I say it again now. The real truth of an event lies in the stories of the individuals, not in what some pundit or news anchor is interested in spinning. And thanks to Twitter, the Egyptian Revolution allowed more of us to see more of these people’s stories than ever before.

Another thing I’ve said before, but will keep repeating: stories humanize people. They teach us to have empathy for people who are different than we are; they let us see things through others’ eyes. Maybe that’s why the outpouring of stories from Egypt is so refreshing; Muslims and Arabs are so often de-humanized into stereotypes in the American media, that it’s nice to see confirmation of what I firmly believe: that across the world, people really aren’t so different from each other. And also, that people usually aren’t the stereotypes and simplistic images they’re portrayed as. Especially when there are 80 million of them, as there are in Egypt.

There’s one last thing I want to mention, and it’s on the subject of idealism versus realism. A lot of people have pointed out, correctly, that Egypt has a long way to go before it has a working democracy, and there is plenty of room yet for things to go wrong or even totally off-track. They fear that Islamic extremists will take power, or that a new military dictatorship will take hold, or that Egypt will renege on its peace treaty with Israel and plunge the region into chaos. To be honest, I feel like those people have been paying too much attention to what pundits have been saying and not enough to what Egyptians have been saying. But that aside, there is this deep-rooted scorn of idealism in certain parts of American (and, indeed, world) politics; the beliefs that things do not get better, or that fighting for change is asking for trouble.

But there are enough naysayers in the world, in my opinion. I’ll choose to be one of those people who does believe that things can get better, that the world can improve. Indeed, that it is improving. I’ll stand with Mona Seif and Wael Ghonim, not Matt Drudge and Glenn Beck. And I will usually choose to believe the best in people. It’s the lesson I glean from the stories I hear and read. And if that makes me a naive idealist, well, I can think of worse ways to go through life.

The story of Egypt’s fight for democracy is a long, long way from over; even as I wrote this entry, tensions are persisting, and the military and the protesters are at odds. No doubt there will be problems ahead. But on Friday, the people got to have their say. And I feel privileged that I got to watch it happen. Even it was from 7,000 miles away.