Monday, January 31, 2011

First-of-the-Month Update Time

In case you somehow managed to miss both my Twitter and Facebook posts, Issue 4 of “Dante’s Heart,” featuring my original short story “Ala ad-Din,” is now live at

I even got mentioned in the editor’s note. ^_^ This is the first non-journalism piece that I’ve ever had published, so I’m really excited and hope everybody enjoys it. (Please leave comments about it! I love to hear what people think of my work, even if it’s criticism. Feedback = <3)

Still plodding along on the latest manuscript. For those of you not in critique group, this is Necropolis, a diesel punk zombie apocalypse for young adults. Diesel punk is steam punk’s grimier, younger cousin, with advance technology based around the internal combustion engine and usually set in the 1920s-1950s, rather than the 1850s-1910s. In this case, the setting is Paris in autumn of 1949, six years after World War 2 is cut short by the rise of the undead.

Yes, I’m having a world of fun with this one.

Currently it’s at 60,000 words, and it’s looking to be between 70,000 and 75,000 all told. I’m hoping to have the first draft done in time for the DFW Writer’s Conference at the end of the month, so I’m doing my usual 1,000 to 2,000 words a day.

I’m also working on the most complicated scene I’ve ever had to write, since it’s an in-game conversation that has to change depending on the incidents that come before it…but that’s technically fandom stuff, so I’ll keep it for myself for now.

Once again: Go read Dante’s Heart. It’ll make me very happy.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

And now back to your regularly scheduled blog...

Phew. Well, thank you all for putting up with my little week-long babble on book design. I know I got a little, um, carried away with it all considering that I really don’t intend to ever go into self-publishing, but…well, you see, book design is something of a passion of mine, and I never really get to talk about it with anybody.

Something you need to understand about me: I love books. It’s not just that I love reading, though I love that too. I love the physical presence of books. Hell, I love the physical presence of words in general – a properly-formatted hard copy manuscript makes me happy – but books are the most beautiful presentation of words out there.

This love of mine explains a lot of my eccentric nature. It explains why I happily walk down to the Barnes & Noble once a week just to stand in the teen fiction section and daydream. It explains why I resent e-books and really hate it when people try to defend their presence by saying that a book’s physicality doesn’t matter. It explains why the first thing I do upon starting a new manuscript is standardize the formatting on the file. Hell, it even explains why I didn’t get into Dungeons & Dragons until 4th Edition came out. (Long story short: 3.5’s design is very intimidating, whereas 4th ed’s is inviting.) It’s a big part of who I am.

Again, it’s not that I think the design is more important than the story. Obviously, it’s not. But it is a beautiful thing that deserves to be thought about and admired. Good book designers deserve to be recognized. They’re as much artists as any writer.

So please, if you ever feel the need to gush about the design of a book, come to me. Twitter me. Post a comment here. Stalk my facebook. Whatever. This is something that I really, really love; and I can’t talk about it enough.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Crash Course on Book Design Part 4: Interior Design

Finally, we’re going to look at interior design – an aspect that nobody except me ever wants to talk about. Then again, I am one of those strange people who finds comfort in standard manuscript formatting.

This is where Serif or InDesign is going to come in handy. Both programs let you create master pages, which can be used as a template for the entire design of the book. You’re going to need three separate designs for the interior page – even pages, odd pages and chapter beginnings.

The page on which you can get the most creative on the first page of each chapter. I’d give you some examples of ways that you can do it, but honestly, it seems kind of pointless. There are as many different ways to do your chapter titles as there are to do book covers. Flip through a few of the ones in your genre for ideas and refer to your cover design often – you want them to look like they belong together.

Keep in mind that chapters should begin between one-third and half of the way down the first page, leaving a bit of white space at the above the fancy chapter title font. Also, having page numbers on the first page of each chapter is optional – if you decide that’s what’s best for your design, feel free to leave them off.

However, page numbers in the rest of the book are not optional. The reason that you want odd- and even-numbered master pages is primarily because of page number placement. For traditional book-binding, even page numbers should be in the margin on the left-hand side – preferably at the top or bottom – while odd pages are on the right-hand. This way, when your book is bound, it’s easy to flip through and scan for the page number you need. Alternatively, you can also center the page number at the bottom.

Now once you’ve got that set up you may find that the pages look pretty empty. No worries; you can add simple designs (like lines setting the page numbers apart) to the margins, or words. Generally, you should stick to one simple or distinctive design, and a handful of words, at most. I’m personally fond of the design where the author’s name appears centered over the even pages, while the book title is centered over the odd, but that’s just an example.

In general, interior design should be easy to read and use. Make sure your body text is clear and understandable. Make sure that whatever you put in the margins doesn’t draw your reader’s attention unless it’s needed - you want them to be able to find page 86 if they need to, but not notice it when they’re in the middle of your action scene. And, more than anything else, interior design should be consistent. Remember, the chapters don’t stand on their own; they work together to make a whole book, and that’s how you should think of the design.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Crash Course on Book Design, Part 3: Covers

After I posted the font discussion, I realized that I probably should have talked about this first. You’ll be working with fonts throughout the entire process, of course, but the easiest way to design a book is to start with the cover and work your way in.

First of all: as many have said before me, if you’re really serious about making your book as professional and effective as it can possibly be, hire a professional graphic designer. Book covers are a work of art. So hire an artist. And don’t go telling me it’s too expensive, if you’re serious about making your book good instead of just throwing it haphazardly to the wolves, you will get a designer. Even if that means calling in a favor from an art school friend who’s technically an amateur.

I am not a graphic designer, therefore, I really can’t tell you how to make an effective book cover. All I can do is give you a few quick Dos and Don’ts on the subject of book covers in particular.

First: DO come up with several different ideas and try out several different designs before deciding which one is best for your work. There’s lots of different cover styles out there. Some use human models. Some use illustrations. Some forgo representing humans altogether and instead use an iconic image to represent the entire story. Figure out what suits your novel and your genre and go with it.

However, DON’T imitate the cover of a popular novel that is like your book. One of the things you could say about Twilight is that it had a fantastic cover design; but since then there’s been so many copy-cats that nearly all red-on-black designs with white letters are going to look like is Twilight knock-offs, even if they’re not. (Don't get me started on those Wuthering Heights "FOR TEENS" editions...)

DO make sure you own the rights to the images on and in your book. Either take the pictures yourself or double-check the reproduction/copyright restrictions on the stock photos that you pay for. It’s just going to save you a lot of trouble.

DO make sure that your title works with the rest of your cover. There’s a lot of self-published books that just slap the title over the picture, and it looks really lazy. Try to make sure that the whole cover works together.

DON’T make your author name larger than your title. In fact, as a general rule, your author name should be much smaller than your title, at least by half. Remember, the title is the important part.

I know that there are lots of books out there that have big author names, but those books fall into two categories: 1) The author is a guaranteed best-seller who has proven that even their crappy books will sell, so the fact that they wrote it is the biggest selling point (see: the first edition of Stephen King’s first novel, compared to his more recent books), or 2) we’ve got a major case of Small Name, Big Ego going on here.

In the world of self-publishing, the truth is usually the latter.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Crash Course on Book Design Part 2: Fonts

There is a certain mantra that I’m going to repeat throughout this entire series. That mantra is: think. Think about your interior. Think about your cover. Think about your fonts. Think about how the overall appearance of your book is going to be perceived by the reader. Think about the impact that any change in or variation to the current design will have on that perception. Take some time. Make it count.

First stop: Font choice.

Times New Roman and Arial are used for manuscript submissions because they are generic. That’s the point, to bring all the manuscripts an agent or editor reads to the same level so they can be judged based solely on the content quality. The ability to follow posted directions and standards also serves as a warning sign for the dreaded Super Special Snowflake Syndrome.

That said, once it hits the shelves or the internet, you do not want your book to be generic. You want it to be distinct. Memorable. Interesting. This is why Arial and Times New Roman are poor choices for your interior text and horrible choices for your title and/or cover text.

Pick up the closest book to you and open to a random page. You will notice that it is probably not set in Times New Roman. You may not be able to recognize what font it is, but if you hold it up to a screen full of Times New Roman, it will not look the same. The fonts were chosen specifically for this book.

Check the copyright page at the front – often, it will list what font the book was printed in. The two books nearest to me happen to be The Hunger Games and Zombies vs. Unicorns, both of which are set in Adobe Garamond. Garamond is a good standard font to use for body text because it looks really good in book form and melds well with lots of different title fonts. Since it can be used with so many different title fonts, it’s easy to get a unique feel from a book set in Garamond without sacrificing readability.

Be aware of the implications of your fonts. Know what “serif” and “sans-serif” mean and what they communicate. For the most part, sans-serif fonts like Arial are best used for titles or “quick read” books that are meant to be easily scanned; a serif font makes the reader slow down a bit and consider the words more carefully.

Your goal in choosing a body text font should be readability. As a result, there's not a lot of room for playing around there. The title fonts, for your cover, title-page and chapter titles, are the place where you really get to have fun. Cover titles especially.

Look at that book you picked up again. See how the title is presented on the cover. You’ll probably notice that the title seems to have been specifically designed for the cover that it is on. This is a good thing. Far too many self-published books look like this, where the title has been carelessly slapped on over the photo chosen for the cover. It’s clumsy design, and it doesn’t look good.

We’ll go into cover design later, though. For now, just keep it in mind while choosing a font for your cover. In addition, keep in mind that while this is the worst possible place to use a generic font, the only thing worse than that is mixing font types. Your title and author name do not need to be in the same font (and they certainly should *not* be the same size) but they should be the same type of font, either from the same family (as in the Lucida collection) or the same style (script, serif, sans-serif, etc.)

Be aware that different kinds of fonts also have different implications, in titles especially. As a general rule, sans-serif font titles look modern and sleek, while serif fonts are dignified and traditional. Script fonts, the good ones at least, give a sense of traditionalism or femininity – they’re great for fairy tales, chic lit and romance novels, but not for dystopian futures. When using them for historical fiction, be careful not to use one that’s too modern. Likewise, blocky fonts, especially sans-serif, communicate an impersonality that’s good for science fiction, dystopian and action novels, but would look horrible on Bridget Jones’s Diary.

For the most part, your interior title fonts – chapter titles and the like – should match the cover design. It gives the book a feeling of cohesion and continuity. We’ll get into detail about establishing that when we look at interior design.

All that said, you don’t want to go to the other side of the font choice spectrum either. There are many inappropriate fonts that serve a very specific function and should not be used elsewhere. Do not print your book in Comic Sans. Do not use overly dramatic fonts, such as Chiller or Jokerman, especially not for your body text. Fonts meant to communicate a foreign language – such as Arabic, Japanese, or Hebrew – should probably be avoided just to prevent conversion issues.

Also, be aware of how the fonts look in different file formats, and make sure your chosen fonts are available on all the computers that will be working on the book. I know that Amazon’s Create Space uses .PDFs, which preserve the font choices, but if the service you’re using wants a different format, you should make sure that they support the fonts you want choose.

Do a little research and figure out what fonts go together and don’t. There are some font families, such as Franklin and Lucida, that are specifically designed so that the family members can be used together easily. A little effort can go a long way.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Crash Course on Book Design (Part 1)

I have a lot of complaints about the self-publishing concept, at least when applied to fiction. I think most of the arguments for it that don’t involve academia or niche writing are inherently flawed. But my biggest frustration is poor book design.

Oh, I know, I know, “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” you cry. “It’s the content that’s really important!” And it is true, a book rises or falls based primarily on the quality of the writing. A well-designed presentation will not save a poorly-written book, as so many YA paranormal romance novels prove. But poorly-designed presentation does have the potential to ruin a perfectly good reading experience, no matter how good the book actually is.

Plus, bad book design reflects badly on the book’s creator and on their general level of give-a-damn. After all, if you didn’t care enough about your work to give it the strongest first impression possible, how much did you care about it while you were writing it? This is a good rule even with traditional publishing: smart marketing departments invest their time and energy into getting attention for their prospective best-sellers, so a generic design there usually means a fairly mediocre title. (Naturally, exceptions are made for the sort of series that follow a brand, like the various Harlequin lines; but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of cod)

Self-publishers are not the only ones who fail at this sort of thing, but they are the greatest offenders by far; most of them by virtue of inexperience. Layout and design is kind of a skill, folks. It takes some studying and experimentation to get really good at it. Part of my technical writing education was in learning the basics of it all and, since it fascinates me so, I continued to research it on my own. So I figured I’d impart a little wisdom here in hopes that folks will at least think about their designs a bit more carefully.

Originally, this was just going to be some random advice post, but it kind of…expanded. Into a series. Yeah. ^.^; Expect posts in the next few days about font, cover design and interior layout, at the very least. There’s probably also going to be a case study or two to see how to use these things effectively. Because I am just that kind of nerd. I hope that somebody somewhere will find them interesting and/or useful.

Getting Started:

This is Serif Page Plus. It is a free desktop publishing program. It is good. Having used both, I can tell you that it is equally as effective as Adobe In-Design, which starts at about $200, except that it also does business cards and other office-y type things.

Get it. Use it. Play with it until you know all of its tricks, then put them to work for you. You will thank me for this. Good desktop publishing software is the first step to a good book design.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Timeless - Why I'm Giving Up

Those of you who follow me for whatever reason may have noticed a few snarky YA writing rants floating through my updates recently. This is because I’ve been reading Timeless by Alexandra Monir, as part of my reading list of YA debut authors. Now Timeless is a paranormal romance, which most of you probably know isn’t my cup of tea, but once a year or so I pick up a volume with an intriguing plot to give the genre a chance to change my mind.

Timeless has not changed my mind.

In fact, this isn’t even a review of the book. This is me giving up 40 pages in because I’d rather not waste the time I could spend reading Zombies vs. Unicorns. In fact, I should have given up 15 pages ago, because hitting three “strikes” within 25 pages is just bad quality all around. But, because I’m stubborn, I stuck with it to the end of the chapter and now have four strikes on the tally.

So, for the record and all time, here are the four reasons I gave up on Timeless:

1) Info dump of back-story clumsily “disguised” as an unrealistic economics class lecture. Specifically, the main character is sitting in Ecconomics class and, “To continue our study of commerce” they spend the entire lecture talking about the oh-so-rich family in New York that the M.C.’s mother ran away from to be with her father. It was forced, it was nothing like a real economics class, and it just made me roll my eyes.

2) The MC’s mother is “her best friend.”Oh hell no. I hate it when people do this in writing; that is, I hate it when the mother tries to be her daughter’s BFF, it works and everybody’s so happy about it, like in this book. It’s a whole different kind of author insertion fantasy. I always get the distinct feeling that the mother is being used as a vehicle for the author – “Ah, the MC is my little baby, but I’m still hip and cool so I’d totally be her BFF too!”

Besides all that, this real-life parenting style is so selfish I don’t like seeing it encouraged. Newsflash: No teenage girl wants her mother to be her best friend. She wants her to be her mom. That’s a mother’s job. When mothers sacrifice that, they’re doing their child a disservice.

But I suppose in the end, that doesn’t REALLY matter, because…

3) The mother promptly dies in a car crash. Don’t go telling me this is a spoiler. It’s not. I read the book jacket cover, specifically the part about “a tragedy” and instantly knew that some drunk was gonna run a stop light and kill the ultra-hip mother in her tracks. Lo and behold, as of page 23 I have joined the ranks of the clairvoyants alongside Yahtzee Crowshaw.

And yet, all of this is just knit-picking. It’s still a piece of escapist literature. It’s meant to be read quickly and enjoyed. And I could have totally enjoyed it, falling for the male lead in the heroine’s steed, if it wasn’t for the gigantic, wailing elephant in the room. The final strike:

4) Poor writing all around. Not “bad” writing, mind you, this isn’t The Overton Window or The Legend of Rah and the Muggles. It’s just not good; certainly not good enough to make up for the bad plot elements above.

The description, what little there is, is shallow. I was literally two scenes into the book, less than 5 pages, before my tolerance for clothing description was utterly exhausted. The rest of the narration is pretty much the same, telling us things in broad, superficial generalities but never presenting anything of substance. We’re never shown anything, ever. Subtly seems to be a foreign concept. And the pacing is buggier than the Fallout: New Vegas initial release.

This is always my major complaint with YA paranormal romance. I honestly don’t get this, why is this genre the only one apparently immune from the standards of decent writing? And where does this clumsy writing even come from?

Adult paranormal romances don’t suffer from this, I’ve read several that are well-written and intriguing with good characters, good writing and good plots. Likewise, other YA genres aren’t flooded with poor writing, two-dimensional heroines or paragraphs devoted to wardrobe. Even chick lit writing will have a witty voice that matches the superficiality and therefore uses it to enhance the story.

So what’s the deal, pararomance peeps? Are there well-written books out there that I’m missing for all the Twilight knock-offs, or is there just something about this genre that I don’t “get”?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The possibility of obtaining a unicorn

Here you go, Lisa. My timeline as a writer. I certainly hope it makes you feel better about it all. XD

Age 4 months (approx.): While lying on a blanket in clear view of my mother, I pick up the soft cloth book that my father read to me and start “reading” it myself. The picture that my mother snaps of me later becomes the go-to “submit the graduate’s baby picture to the yearbook” shot for the rest of my life.

Age 3: After reading pictures books in my Montessori class, I begin attempting to create my own by using computer paper and crayons. I do not know how to read yet, or write for that matter, so I create a pictogram language that I am later able to read back to my mother every time. When my mother comments on this to my teacher, teacher says, “Don’t you hassle her about her spelling. You just let her write.”

Age 9: After day dreaming in class, I come home to pound out 4 R.L. Stine-like “horror” books for people my age. They have a grand total of 14 pages all told and are horrible. Let us never speak of them again.

Age 11: I discover fan fiction via a Sailor Moon obsession. After teaching myself HTML, I establish a clumsy Geocities website devoted to my original characters. Good feedback from a thankfully forgiving community leads me to fully develop my first “original” characters so-to-speak.

Age 12: I sign up to FanFiction.Net and start writing Digimon stuff. (French the lama, have I really been on that site for almost a decade? Have I really achieved over 1.1 million words of fanfic? Have I really posted 85 freakin’ stories in 10 different series categories? What the hell am I doing with my life?!)

Age 14: I begin writing my *cringe* first book, hoping to be the next Christopher Paloni. Never mention Paloni to me again. Never mention that book to me again. Never ever mention it to my mother, who has the only copy but is forbidden from ever showing it to anyone ever.

Age 15: My first attempt to sign up for a creative writing class, which is canceled because they couldn’t get enough students interested in it.

Age 16: Finish writing crappy first novel. Send it out a few times, then realize that it’s crappy. Start a new novel. Join newspaper club.

Age 17: Bible class initiated at our public high school with 8 people in class. The 9 of us who’ve been signing up for the repeatedly-canceled creative writing class sulk in a corner of the lunchroom for a week. I join debate. I also take computer animation that year, and am the only student who doesn’t struggle trying to tell a story instead of just doodling.

Age 18: Bullied into newspaper internship after being marginally successful at UIL competitions. Move to college. Decide to give the creative writing thing a shot. Also sign up with the school paper, hoping to be paid.

Age 19: Minor mental breakdown over stress at school paper. Discover that I hate writing for journalism and thereafter devote myself entirely to the writing of my own fiction. Trash the still-unfinished second novel from age 16. It is also crap.

Age 20: For NaNoWriMo I write a new novel, A House Divided. For once in my life, it’s not crap. I spend the next year rewriting it until my head hurts just thinking about it.

Age 21: Begin working on Necropolis. Begin sending out piles and piles of submissions for novels, short stories and memoir. Get buried under form rejections. Keep submitting anyway.

And there you have it: my timeline as a writer. Booyah.

Real post to come tomorrow. I’m writing on location today.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Deadly Vehicles of YA Parent Death

Hey YA authors – it’s me again. Let’s talk about killing off the parents, shall we?

Now I’m not going to rage against killing off protagonists’ parents. I agree, it’s useful, getting the parents out of the way. It forces their children to go off on their own and do dangerous things without meddling adult supervision. It empowers your teenage readers, bolstering their dreams of independence. It adds character development and, when done well, is an easy way to shake things up and get a story started.

No, I’ve got no problem with you killing off the parents. What I have a problem with is the method that is continually used to get rid of said parents.

The car crash.

Why is it always a car crash? Seriously, according to statistics on the leading causes of death in the US, only 1.8% of people die in “Motor Vehicle Accidents.” And yet, according to YA fiction, the average family vehicle is the most deadly weapon known to mankind. What’s more, it’s always the same kind of car crash – “Your parents were crossing at an intersection when another driver (often a drunk) ran a red light and struck them, killing everyone involved. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Admittedly, I can see how a car crash could be convenient. Unlike say, heart disease (the top cause of death in the US) death by motor vehicle accident is unpredictable and therefore a believable way for death to come as a devastating surprise. The fact that the other driver was also killed eliminates the burdensome possibility of harboring vengeance against their parents’ killer. And it’s an easy way to get rid of both parents in one fell swoop.

But it’s just so lazy, not to mention predictable and kind of dull, especially when there’s only one parent involved. There are so many other kinds of accidental deaths that haven’t been done a million times. How come we don’t see more YA parents dying because they…

- Fell down a flight of stairs
- Fell from a ladder while changing a light bulb
- Fell into the path of a subway train
- Got caught in an bank robbery gone wrong
- Were mugged, Batman-style
- Were walking along the railroad tracks and didn’t hear the train coming
- Fell into the tracks of a subway train
- Worked themselves to death by exhaustion
- Had a freakin’ heart attack (heart disease kills 30% of Americans!)
- Got caught in a terrorist bombing
- Or just plain walked off one day and never came back

There are lots of possibilities, and they’re all more interesting and memorable than a car crash. I especially like the ones where it’s possible for them do die quietly at home while the kids are at school. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed, there’s lots of drama to be had in coming home to find your parental unit dead. It’s certainly more dramatic than getting the bad news from a cop.

So all I’m saying here is – think about your form of death. Please. The car wrecks can be done, if they’re done well and/or get really good foreshadowing before hand. But if you’re just trying to get rid of the parents to get the story started, put a little more thought into it. Your family’s deaths should not be generic and cliché.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Go back to high school. Please.

Hey, YA authors – especially you paranormal romance types, who are so fond of doing this – if you’re going to feature your characters attending a specific, ordinary high school class, it’s a damn good idea to go sit in on a few of those classes at an actual specific, ordinary high school and see what they’re like. I know you’re just using it as a “subtle” way to introduce plot points, but at 21 years old with a still-vivid memory of high school, nothing throws me out of a story more than a class that doesn’t feel real.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet for you, just as an example (and yes, all of these “don’ts” are things I’ve read in recent YA novels):

What’s covered: The mathematics and philosophy of economics as a discipline, including lots of graphs, lots of equations, some basic information on the stock market and lots of discussion on things like the free market system.
What’s NOT covered: Long discussions about random rich businessmen on the other side of the country who’ll be really important to the plot later on because oh-em-gee their families are just so wealthy.

What’s covered: Animal and plant classifications, going through the whole species, genus, kingdom, family things. The history of biology as a science. Small animal dissections. Plant or bug collections. Evolution if you’re lucky.
What’s NOT covered: Human “anatomy” or any kind of sexuality at all.
For one thing, that’s not even biology – any discussion of sexual reproduction is based entirely on genetic traits, while human sexuality is more of a philosophical discussion.

What’s covered: Lots of reading, mostly the works of dead white men though each program has its own specifications.There’s also a lot of paper-writing. If you’re lucky, there may actually be some creative writing in there too.
What’s NOT covered: Dramatic renditions of Romeo and Juliet. That’s Drama class people.

What’s covered: Good eating, good hygiene, good exercise. Stay fit and take care of your bodies, kids. It’s the only way they’re gonna last.
What’s NOT covered: Sexuality again. Yeh damn perverts. Have you even been in a high school in the last 10 years? Nobody talks about this sort of thing during the actual education parts! That would be too useful!

Sex Ed:
What’s covered: Tab A goes into Slot B. Here’s why. Here’s what happens during intercourse. Here are all the horrible disease you could get from doing it too casually. Conclusions are either “DON’T DO IT EVER” or “Here are a number of things to keep you safe,” depending on what state you’re in. Usually, this all takes the form of power point presentations and videos. If you’re really lucky, there may be a fake penis involved to show you how to properly apply a condom.
What’s NOT covered: Anything involving lab partners; especially those of the opposite sex. Seriously, that’s begging for a sexual harassment lawsuit. If there’s any sort of research or hands-on demonstrations to be done, they will put the boys in one room and the girls in another.
Also, sex ed last for one week, at most. Not a full semester. Get over it.

What’s covered: Depends on the level of math you’re in. Usually lots of equations and junk.
What’s NOT covered: Actually, I’ve never found a problem in math class depictions. They’re kind of hard to screw up.

1/20/2011 Clarification - I suck at satire. >.>
The point of this post is less to inform about the actual content of classrooms, because that varies from school to school. This is just a commentary on the stupid stereotypes that pop up to clumsily introduce plot points into YA novels. Long story short, if I never have to read another "love interest creepily introduced and/or developed during a class designed to increase sexual tension" scene again, it'll still be too soon. It's creepy, guys.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: The Water Wars

So, my first YA debut authors review of the year: The Water Wars, by Cameron Stracher. A book that's rather dry in more ways than one.

It’s a bit tough for me to describe what I think about The Water Wars, because my feelings on the subject are a bit…beige. There wasn’t much emotional evocation from me one way or the other, which is not a good sign. It’s not a bad sign either, since it didn’t evoke frustration and disbelief, but it’s also not good. It’s just kind of…bleh.

I think the problem might be in the point of view. Like a lot of YA fiction, The Water Wars is written from a first-person POV, namely that of Vera, a young girl growing up in a world where water has become a more scarce and precious commodity than gold or oil. This works very well in the emotional aspect of the book: when we get scenes that are all about Vera and her feelings, like the budding romance between her and mysterious rich newcomer Kai, it’s very realistic and engaging.

However, the exposition about this world and how it works – descriptions of their government system, history, or even things like the illness that’s overcome Vera’s mother – doesn’t feel like it’s written in Vera’s voice. It’s more distant and somewhat off-putting, especially since we spend most of the first 3 chapters in that tone and only get into Vera’s real voice around Chapter 4.

As far as the actual story goes, it’s marketed as being “in the tradition of The Hunger Games,” but that isn’t really true. In fact, it’s more in the tradition of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984; the sort of dystopian fiction that’s about a close and realistic future that warns of the immediate sins of our present, rather than a distant and fantastical one where certain cultural aspects have been allowed to reign supreme over technology and lifestyle.

As such, there are times when its environmental message can be really hard to swallow, especially since it’s shoved into every chapter even when it feels kind of inappropriate. It takes a long time to get a handle of the main characters as well, especially since a lot of scenes that could provide more connection to their personalities are paraphrased, skipped over or just plain discarded.

In short: it’s not a bad book. At all. But it’s not really a good one either. If it hadn’t been for this review, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading it. The moments when I was truly engaged were just too few and far between for it to be worth it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How to make an on-going series that isn't sucked dry

My friend Lisa made a good post today about ongoing series and how they're sucked dry if allowed to go so long. For the most part, I agree, but there is one angle that these discussions always overlook that I think needs to be brought up: series that run season-by-season.

This isn’t a very common set-up here in the West, so I can only think of one series that does it really well – Power Rangers. I don’t know how many people reading this blog know this, but post “Mighty Morphin’” era, Power Rangers began a cycle where they re-invented their concept every season. For the first few seasons they tried this (Power Rangers Zeo, Turbo and In Space) they continued the ongoing story from original series; but eventually they began creating entirely new teams of characters every time.

Seriously, if you want a more detailed account of how well this can work, go watch Linkara’s History of Power Rangers series on; he does it better than I ever could. Other series that pull it off well are things like Digimon, .hack and the Gundam franchise. Each onetakes the same general concept, themes and sometimes locations and explores them in different ways season to season. Often each season features a completely new cast of characters with their own story arcs, which feed back into the growing mythology of the fictional universe.

This is an excellent set-up, and I think more people should give it a try, especially book authors. For example, J.K. Rowling chose to write another few books exploring the stories of Harry Potter side characters – the children, for example; or the parents; or even the concept of wizarding schools in places like America, Asia or Africa – they’d have a good chance of living up to the potential of the original series.

Why? Because the themes would still be expressed, but in a new way that keeps them from getting stale and with fresh characters who aren’t worn down from years of spotlight time.

I haven’t seen this used very often in books. The only examples I can think of off the top of my head are the Animorph “Chronicles” books; Scott Westerfeld’s “Extras” (spun off from the Uglies trilogy) and “Last Days” (sequel-ish to “Peeps”); and possibly some of the “Maximum Ride” books from James Patterson.

But I think it’s a concept worth looking into. After all, if there’s a world that you and your readers want to return to, there’s bound to be a story there without needing to run your characters into the ground.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Review: 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors

I do enjoy a good visual novel. They’re tough to find in the English market. Most of the ones available are basement-made indie with clumsy artwork, unrefined writing, poor use of the game mechanics, or all of the above. “9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors” (now available on the Nintendo DS from Aksys Games) has none of these problems.

In short: it’s pretty damn awesome.

Our story begins with Junpei, our player character, waking up trapped inside an old ship. The last thing he remembers is being kidnapped from his apartment by a strange figure. Soon, he finds that he is one of nine people “invited” to play in the Nonary Game, a deadly contest of mathematics and puzzles spread throughout the ship. If Junpei and his companions make it to the door marked “9”, they’ll escape. If not, the ship will sink in 9 hours and take them all with it. And if they break any of their game master’s rules, a bomb placed in their small intestines is waiting to take them out of the equation.

Now of course, there are two aspects to any visual novel: the story, and the characters, with each taking on more weight depending on the exact genre of novel. Luckily, 999 cinches both. The story – which has six endings (five bad and one true) to pursue – is fantastic, revealing more amazing plot twists with each play-through; while the characters are each unique and memorable, both in design and in personality.

Some western game critics have complained that the game is "wordy." To which I say: of course it's wordy, you twits, it's a visual novel, and a well-written one at that. You should know what you're getting into when you hear that genre.

The puzzles, which take the form of both point-and-click adventure logic and numerical brainteasers like the magic square, are all unique and well-placed; though they do get a little repetitive with repeat games since the individual rooms you explore don’t change. Take notes of anything that involves numbers and it’ll save you a lot of time along the way.

But easily the best part is in the True Ending, when the game makes perfect use of both the visual novel genre (where the primary goal is to unlock all endings with repeat games) and the DS’s unique duel-screen set-up to enhance an already solid and engaging narrative. Any more than that would be spoiling, so I’m going to shut my mouth here.

The bottom line: “9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors” is an excellent storytelling experience and a great game. If you have a Nintendo DS, check it out. And I mean, like, now.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thoughts from the Sea - Part 3

From the first of January through the eighth, I took a break from the internet to go on a holiday cruise with my immediate family. While wandering the ship, I had a lot of time to myself to think. Whenever a thought got to be too much for me to hold, I pulled open a word file and wrote them down. These are those thoughts, unfiltered and unedited. Take them as you will.

I love Saint Thomas. I feel the same sort of breathless pang when I look at this island as I do when I see Dallas. It’s that same feeling of home. If I can’t get a job in Texas, maybe I’ll move here.

Wish I had the internet. I could look up the procedure for moving to the territories…

A note to my parents and other people concerned about my general future: I would be happy to travel abroad. In fact, I would love to travel abroad. But only if I can take my kitty. I don’t care where I’m going, or for how long. If I’m leaving Dallas, I am not leaving Lenka behind.

Mom says that international travel with a pet is hard. Every time she brings it up, I get so upset that I can’t even talk to her – it usually leaves me on the verge of tears. Mom thinks this is because I’m afraid Lenka will die while I’m gone, and she always assures me that they’ll take good care of her. She doesn’t realize that that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

Watching the new Alice in Wonderland on the cruise TV. I love the storytelling in this movie, though I still don’t quite get this cultural obsession with the Mad Hatter. I mean, doesn’t the Hatter/Alice pairing seem a little creepy and pedophilic to anyone else?

I have writer’s block something awful. The fact that there is every single inch of this boat is absolutely crawling with people does not help matters. At all.

Dear girl who just ran into me: Your ginormous fake breasts are too big for that tiny bikini; you look like a pregnant cow wearing dental floss.

Crowds and creative block make me bitchy.

Dude, school of flying fish. Awesome. I feel better now.

Thoughts from the Sea - Part 2

From the first of January through the eighth, I took a break from the internet to go on a holiday cruise with my immediate family. While wandering the ship, I had a lot of time to myself to think. Whenever a thought got to be too much for me to hold, I pulled open a word file and wrote them down. These are those thoughts, unfiltered and unedited. Take them as you will.

I’m a little split right now. My goal has been to finish a draft of this novel in time for the DFW Writer’s conference in February, since I’m going to meet the agent I really want to work with while I’m there. But looking at the draft now, I’m fairly certain that it’s not going to be ready for submission by February, and to try to pitch it earlier than that seems unfair.

I think that, once I’m finished with this draft, I’m going to go back to A House Divided and rework it one more time. Then I can pitch it at DFW and follow the agent to another conference when Necropolis is ready.

At the Welcome Aboard show tonight, the cruise director pulled up this newly-wed who was on his honeymoon 6 months after his marriage. When asked why, he said, “I was in Iraq.” Instantly, almost the entire theatre stood up to applause. I like seeing things like that. It makes me feel good about people.

45,000 words in and I’m officially floundering. I know what needs to be done. I just have no idea how to do it. Shit. Why do my endings always suck?

Just received my order of linguini Bolognese with shrimp. I love the food on this ship. A pasta bar is the best idea ever.

The woman hocking the pasta has a very interesting accent. I think it’s more Eastern Europe than Mediterranean, but she’s just so earnest about it – “How many for pasta? Please, try the pasta!” – that it makes me smile and think of Italy.

Finished “9 hours, 9 persons, 9 doors” today. It’s really a fantastic game, both in being a well-written visual novel and, especially in the true ending, in using the unique game mechanics of its genre and its chosen platform (the Nintendo DS) to enhance the narrative. I really should write a detailed review when I get home. More people need to know about this awesome game.

I still can’t believe it made me play life-or-death Sudoku though…

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Thoughts from the Sea - Part 1

From the first of January through the eighth, I took a break from the internet to go on a holiday cruise with my immediate family. While wandering the ship, I had a lot of time to myself to think. Whenever a thought got to be too much for me to hold, I pulled open a word file and wrote them down. These are those thoughts, unfiltered and unedited. Take them as you will.

You know, Narnia and Middle Earth wouldn’t have been the same if Tolkien and Lewis were American. We don’t have the same cultural themes on the rights and responsibilities of predestined authority figures. Maybe that’s why American high fantasy has never reached the same sort of crucial and literary acclaim as its British counterpart. It’s not in our cultural nature.

Someday, I’d like to write a Western hemisphere counterpart to the traditional high fantasy setting. Native American legends lend to darker and more haunting fairytales anyway.

Well, if I can say nothing else about this first draft, at least I’m damn sure that the first chapter is a much better hook than some of my other stories.

I wish I could describe my father’s scent, especially right after a shower. You know how you walk outside after a light rain, and everything smells really fresh but also really earthy? It’s not really like rain or like clay, but more like the combination of the two has produced something clean. That’s kind of what it’s like when my dad gets out of the shower. Except that he doesn’t smell anything like wet clay.

Does Tale of the Monkey King count as an Eastern equivalent to high fantasy? What about all those stories set in the Sengoku era, only there are demons around? Is there an Australian counterpart? African? Slavic?

Come to think of it, how come I never hear of any Spanish fantasy novels? I know they were Catholic for a long time, but they have to have some sort of cultural mythology to draw on. Of course, this could just be because I don’t speak or read Spanish.

Wound up making a playlist for my new book. It includes the entire soundtrack of the movie 9.