Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chelsey Blair's Current Query

The other day I received an email from a reader. She wanted to know what the rules were for getting her query critiqued here on The QQQE. I had to think about it for a minute before answering her. As you all know I've done plenty of critiques here on the blog, most for friends I've known for a while, but I did also help my friend Shannon Whitney Messenger with a query critique contest she held, here.

The bottom line is, all you have to do is ask - and be willing to take my feedback publicly here on the blog. Now I hope this doesn't open me up to a deluge of query critique requests, becuase although I do love helping other writers, I don't have time to critique more than about one query a week. And the other thing is that I'm really no expert. I've learned a lot about query letters since I bungled my own several first attempts over a year ago now, and I have gotten to the point where I can write a decent one, but there is a lot of advice out there better than mine.

Anyway, today I'm sharing Chelsey Blair's current query for her WIP novel BACKGROUND VOCALS. Today is really just for introductions, so please save your feedback for tomorrow. Before I put the query up, please visit Chelsey's blog, and become a follower. She's relatively new to blogging, but she's very nice, and you won't be disappointed.

Here's her current query:

Dear [agent]

[Personal details]

Seventeen-year-old guitarist Meridian is sick of being mocked by her classmates at Fernsgrove High School, where her tendency to lapse into French when she’s pissed off has earned her the nickname Madame le Freak. They don’t care that she grew up in Paris, or that they’ll regret taunting her once she’s a star, and she plans to make that a reality sooner than anyone expects. She’s packed to leave when her cousin Natalie’s gymnastics accident changes her plan. Fourteen-year-old Natalie is the only one in Fernsgrove who understands Meridian’s rock-star aspirations. Natalie needs support to deal with the lifestyle changes that come with a prosthetic leg. Meridian has no choice but to damn herself to suburban hell for the foreseeable future.

For the summer, the girls retreat to Harvard Square in Cambridge, where it’s easy to hide from their nightmares amongst the living statues. They’re safe there, away from the divorce war-zone of their house, and the neighborhood bullies. While Natalie searches for a new passion, Meridian finds a place in the music scene. For the first time she experiences the safety that comes with letting people in. Maybe she can wait to run after her dream of stardom.

Or maybe not. She’s busking the line of a a late-night gig and an intoxicated concert-goer pulls a knife on them. She and Natalie make a narrow escape, and she blames the incident on her desire to showcase them on the streets, where people aren’t as accepting of their differences as she thought. Determined to find somewhere she can fit in without consequence, she demolishes the life she’s made for herself in Massachusetts and takes off for New York But playing solo isn’t as easy when you’re used to having back-up, and she may have alienated all of hers.

Background Vocals is a 81,000 contemporary dual-narrated young adult novel in the vein of Maureen Johnson, John Green and Sarah Dessen.

I am studying for my MA/MFA of Children's Literature at Simmons College, and I'm a member of SCBWI and an active participant at YALITCHAT.

Thank you for your consideration,

Chelsey Blair

So that's it for today. Don't forget to visit Chelsey's blog and say hi. And please save your constructive criticism for tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Recently there have been a couple of flame wars in the blogosphere.

Last month it was a self published author complaining about book review bloggers on her blog. It wouldn't have been as huge a deal if she hadn't named them.

The other day it was a book review blogger who reviewed a self published author's novel on his blog. It wouldn't have been such a big deal if the author hadn't showed up and started getting angry in the comments, literally swearing at almost everyone.

This kind of behavior is unacceptable. It's also rather embarrassing. Look, I get it, it hurts to get rejected. It hurts anytime someone doesn't love your writing. I mean we pour our hearts and souls into our stories and if someone doesn't connect with what we're trying to say ... it stings. Sometimes it stings more than others. Like when it's done publicly.

That doesn't mean you should respond. We need to be above all that. We need to grow thick skins and move on. The fact is: not everyone is going to love our work. There are people who don't like Tolkien. I have no idea what's wrong with them, but they do exist. There are people who don't get Cormac McCarthy. That I can actually understand, even if I don't agree.

There will always be some people who don't like your writing, or don't care for your story, or just don't get your characters. It cannot be avoided. It will happen. We have to accept that and move on.

There are three main things that piss me off about these flame wars and the behavior of these authors (and no, I won't be linking you to the posts, they're beneath this blog, and I'm sure you heard about them already):

First, it gives self-published authors a bad name. I have friends who are self-published, who are incredible writers, and who conduct themselves with the utmost professionalism on the internet and in their real lives. Please stop making them look like hacks. There is a reason people give self-publishing the stereotypical assumption of being not good enough. That reason is these authors taking part in these flame wars.

Second, it takes attention away from positive, uplifting posts that deserve the traffic that these flame wars get. The most recent one got over 300 comments, and brought more visitors to a brand new blog than any inspiring post has ever done. I understand it's human nature to stare at a train wreck, but it's sad, really. There are plenty of bloggers writing posts that deserve that kind of traffic, and never get it.

Finally, well ... I forget what my third reason was, but if I thought about it for a minute I could probably come up with ten more. Just don't do it, it's not worth it.

If you want to know more about flame wars, trolls, and internet etiquette, you can read this Wikipedia article. There is also a proposed Blogger Code of Conduct.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

String Bridge Trailer

As usual I'm a day late to the party. My good friend Jessica Bell, also known as The Alliterative Allomorph, has her debut novel, String Bridge, being released this fall by Lucky Press, LLC. As exciting as that is, it's a little ways off.

Today we're going to celebrate something a little more immediate. The book trailer for String Bridge was recently released, and it's rather incredible. It features Jessica herself, singing and playing guitar, and performing a  song that was written by her mother.

Jessica is holding a great contest to celebrate, but before we get to that, let's watch this awesome trailer:

I think it's gorgeous, powerful stuff. I hope you all feel the same. I've actually been lucky enough to have the privilege of reading some of String Bridge, and I can tell you that the beautiful, haunting quality of this trailer matches the melancholy of the story and the lyrical poetry of the prose quite well. I'm looking forward to getting the chance to read the entire novel.

So, to get down to business, Jessica is holding a contest to spread the word. Details are available here, at her original post, but basically you can win free books just by linking to her trailer. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Writer's Forums, Your Blog. Do whatever you can to get the word out, and you will have a chance to win some very cool books from Jessica.

Just go visit her blog to get the details, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Help Your Own Child, Help the Children of Japan

This post is in support of my friend Lisa, of In Pencil, and her husband Ben. She did all the work, and it's a great cause. Can't beat that!

From March 24th through April 4th Ben Boswell, MD will be donating 50% of the proceeds from his new parenting e-book, Too Much Love, Too Much Discipline, to Save the Children in order to help the children displaced by the recent earthquake in Japan.


In a March 13, 2011 press release, Save the Children stated the following:

“We are concerned for as many as 100,000 children who may have been displaced because of last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. Many of them will have lost their homes and been forced to take refuge in unfamiliar places like evacuation centers that might cause them to be afraid and anxious,” said Stephen McDonald, who is leading Save the Children’s relief efforts in Japan.

“There is also a risk that some of them will have become separated from their parents and family members because of the disaster. It is important we provide support to parents and children who are struggling to cope in the aftermath of the disaster,” said McDonald.

"Save the Children has a team in Sendai, one of the worst-affected areas, establishing an operations base to help the most vulnerable children and their families.”

Help your own child and the children of Japan at the same time by purchasing a copy:
Too Much Love, Too Much Discipline: The Perfect Mix for Changing Your Defiant Child’s Behavior and Restoring Peace and Harmony to Your Life and Family

Available in the Amazon Kindle Store (click here to purchase)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quote for Friday

I wasn't going to blog today, because my awesome little sister is in town and I took the day off! But I ran across this quote yesterday and it was too awesome not to share:

"You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
- C.S. Lewis

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Fighter

Last night Kelly and I watched one of the best film's from last year. This David O. Russell directed drama about the life of Lowell Mass Welterweight Boxer Micky Ward, his family, and especially his older brother, himself a former boxer, is as moving as it is exciting.

It technically a boxing movie, and there is enough ring action to satisfy enthusiasts, but that's not really what this movie is about.

Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, comes from a salt of the earth, working class family in  New England. I've been to Lowell, on the New Hampshire border,  and it is certainly an industrial town.

The film tells the story of Micky's return to boxing after a severe dip in the success of his career. His brother, Dicky Eklund, played by Christian Bale, was a famous boxer himself, once going 10 rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. He is Micky's trainer, but he's also a crack addict, a criminal, and a pretty poor excuse for a brother.

The boys' mother, Alice, played by Melissa Leo, is Micky's manager, but throughout the beginning of the film it's clear that his family is holding back his career. The external plot is about his return to boxing, and how he eventually becomes the world welterweight champion.

But it's the internal plot that really makes this movie. At it's heart it's a love story about two brothers, and what addiction can do to relationships between family members. It's just as devastatingly sad as it is inspiring. Christian Bale gives the performance of his career, for which he won an Oscar, and proves that he is much more versatile than only being able to play whispering super heroes.

Melissa Leo also won an Oscar for her role as Alice, and her performance might be a little outshined by Bale's, but it's really no less impressive. Amy Adams plays Ward's girlfriend and wife, and she is cast completely against type as a tough New England bartender. This is not your friendly neighborhood Disney Amy Adams. Mark Wahlberg is Mark Wahlberg, and while he may be more famous nowadays for his executive production acumen, his status as a Boston native and his commitment to the art of boxing make his performance more than adequate.

I can recommend this as a must-see film. It's perfect for couples because the boxing is fun and exciting for men, but this movie is really full of heart, telling a much deeper tale beneath the surface.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Jen Daiker's Current Query Critiqued

Okay. So here it is. If you didn't see Monday's post, or yesterday's, please check them out, below.

Here is Jen's query again, along with my thoughts, in red. Please feel free to add your feedback in the comments.

For twenty-four year old Jules Ausborn, Relationships aren’t exactly built on trust – or even reality, for that matter.

First off I just want to say that I think this whole query is very close. You've got the tough parts covered: it has great voice, and it's funny.

This opening hook is pretty good. We have a decent sense of character, which is the most important, and we have a hint of what kind of conflicts will be coming up. I would like to see even more character though, if possible. Even just a couple additional words could tell us a lot. Is Jules a shy barista? An ambitious student? An over-zealous journalist? Who is she? What kind of life does she lead?

I would also drop the "for that matter." It's not a huge deal, and is probably just a matter of taste, but I think the funny/snarky/slightly disturbing idea about reality has much more punch if it ends the hook all by itself.

She’s used to receiving unsolicited, and frankly awful, dating and self-improvement advice from her overly critical mother. That’s a normal day for her. She’d much rather seek guidance from celebrities she admires than the same help from her own family.

I like this too, it sets up the stakes and a little bit of backstory without going into too much detail or using too many words. I do think it could be reworded though.

Could you say "a normal day is full of unsolicited, and frankly ...?" The way it's written here feels backward, like it making up a normal day for her is an afterthought. And I noticed someone on yesterday's post didn't like the "frankly." I have to respectfully disagree. I think it fits with the voice here. It's not a word a young woman would likely use, but I think it goes with the subtle snark and hidden wit that I suspect Jules has.

That just goes to show you how subjective all this is.

I also think you should cut "same help;" it's redundant and therefore unnecessary.

What starts as a new years resolution and an infatuation with Paula Deen, slowly turns into a quest to straighten out her dating life. But when Jules takes things too far, blocked numbers and restraining orders produce a pile of trouble for her. She’s not exactly someone celebrities would normally befriend.

This is where we get to the vagueness that has been discussed. First off I love the bit about Paula Deen, living in the south I find her hilarious, if a bit pervasive. But, as funny as I think it is, I don't totally get it. What is the resolution? Does it have something to do with food? Or is it about men in her life? Don't be afraid to get specific with stuff like this. Just a few more words would make it a lot clearer.

I like the blocked numbers and restraining orders. I still think that line needs its own paragraph, and it should come later. It's hilarious, it's sad, it's scary, and it really wraps up the stakes pretty well. I would also like to see the bit about the guy next door coming sooner after the part about straightening out her dating life.

When you mix together misinterpreted dating advice, family pressures to be in a relationship and a hot next door neighbor who wants to be that guy, Jules finds herself on a wildly unexpected ride, seeking advice from Carrie Bradshaw’s sex talks and her fairy Godsister, Anne Hathaway. Jules has to decipher what advice she should heed, and when to let her own heart lead the way. Her Journal is the only one who knows the whole story.

I think this last paragraph is great. It really sings. It sums things up nicely, has great voice, and is pretty funny. I think if you moved the neighbor to the paragraph before, and then made the blocked numbers and restraining orders line a one sentence paragraph just before this one, that would improve things a bunch.

IN THE MIND OF A CELEBRITY STALKER is a 60,000-word epistolary, chick lit novel.

I know what epistolary means, and you can probably get away with it because technically this is the housekeeping section, and not the "story" part of your query, but I actually think it fit the voice of the rest of the query better when you said "told in journal format." You could also say "told as entries in her journal."

I'm a genre idiot, so I'll let the readers comment on how they feel about chick-lit versus Women's Fiction or Commercial Fiction.

The first five pages are included and a synopsis and the complete manuscript are available upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Jennifer Daiker

So that's it. Please let Jen and I know what you think. You are strongly encouraged to disagree with me if that's how you feel. I'm no expert, and we all know how subjective this all is, so please let Jen know what you think.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jen Daiker's Current Query

So, hopefully you read yesterday's post, in which I set this up. If not, go read it.

Here is Jen Daiker's current query for IN THE MIND OF A CELEBRITY STALKER. I will share my thoughts and feedback tomorrow:

For twenty-four year old Jules Ausborn, Relationships aren’t exactly built on trust – or even reality, for that matter.

She’s used to receiving unsolicited, and frankly awful, dating and self-improvement advice from her overly critical mother. That’s a normal day for her. She’d much rather seek guidance from celebrities she admires than the same help from her own family.

What starts as a new years resolution and an infatuation with Paula Deen, slowly turns into a quest to straighten out her dating life. But when Jules takes things too far, blocked numbers and restraining orders produce a pile of trouble for her. She’s not exactly someone celebrities would normally befriend.

When you mix together misinterpreted dating advice, family pressures to be in a relationship and a hot next door neighbor who wants to be that guy, Jules finds herself on a wildly unexpected ride, seeking advice from Carrie Bradshaw’s sex talks and her fairy Godsister, Anne Hathaway. Jules has to decipher what advice she should heed, and when to let her own heart lead the way. Her Journal is the only one who knows the whole story.

IN THE MIND OF A CELEBRITY STALKER is a 60,000-word epistolary, chick lit novel.

The first five pages are included and a synopsis and the complete manuscript are available upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Jennifer Daiker

Jen obviously adds her contact info and so forth, but we don't need that here. Please remember to save your thoughts for tomorrow, when I will put my feedback in the post.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jen Daiker

This week is Jen Daiker week on The QQQE. Okay, no. It's not actually going to last all week, but I will be featuring Jen, and her query, for a few days, and I won't be blogging this Friday (my sister will be in town, yay) so Jen will be making up three out of four posts this week.

It's awesome, I know.

So before we get started, I just want to make sure you all know who she is. I know she's one of the most popular bloggers on the internet, so I realize that the chances that you know me, and don't know her, are very slim, but you never know. Man, that's a lot of knowing.

Jen is the charming young lady and wonderful writer who runs the blog Unedited. Please go there and make sure you're following her. You won't be disappointed.

She and I started blogging around the same time last year, yet she has more than twice the followers I do. That's because Jen is one of the most giving and supportive bloggers out there.

Anyway, she's at the point where she is nearly ready to begin querying her novel. Jen has asked me to feature her query here, on the QQQE, to see if we can't all help her polish it until it shines. I have to say her query is quite good already, but I think we can get it a little bit better.

I'll be sharing her query tomorrow, in its current format. Then on Wednesday I'll be giving Jen some feedback, and asking you all to do the same. For now, just make sure you follow her blog, and let us know if you have any questions.

Friday, March 18, 2011


It's Friday, I've got things to do, but first I'm going to review this movie for you.

NightWatch (not to be confused with Nightwatch or Night Watch) is Timur Bekmambetov's dark paranormal fantasy film from 2004. Timur is a Russian/Kazakh director who is also known for Wanted, and is currently in production for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The only version I know of is in Russian, with English subtitles. It works perfectly, and over-dubbing is useless and annoying anyway.

It's a story about the "Light Others" of the NightWatch versus the "Dark Others" of the DayWatch which are essentially just good and evil vampires who vie for control of the human world.

This is not your average vampire film. There is no romance. There is no eroticism. In fact, nearly everything is dark, gruesome and incredibly visceral, but the film is very well done, and incredibly entertaining if you are a fan of horror and unique special effects.

The cinematography and production design are impeccable, and are probably the very best aspects of the film. It takes place in "present day" Moscow, and the feel of the setting is very genuine.

Here is the trailer:

I can definitely recommend this film for any fan of all things dark and twisted, but it's not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for children.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fun with Hashtags

First off, I've reached a couple of silly blogging milestones that don't mean much.

I like to celebrate the little things, though, so I'm still going to tell you about them.

This is my 250th post. I know that's a pretty arbitrary number, but I like to think it's a small thing to be proud of. Blogging has done a lot for me, and there's something to writing nearly very day, even if it's usually only nonsense, very short, or utterly ridiculous.

I also recently reached 25,000 total page views for my blog. I'm still not exactly clear what the difference between a hit and a page view is, but apparently page views are cooler, and generated less often. You can read more about nerdy stuff like that, here. Of course, 25,000 sounds like a lot, but since that's really only like 20 people, coming back over and over again, it's not that fresh.

There is also something about the 2 the 5 and the 0 in both those stats that feels kind of Zen to me.

And now to the point: I'm a Twitter noob. I'm never on there, and when I am, I rarely get it. But Simon C. Larter, my good friend and critique partner (and Twitter Guru), and I had a great time last night playing around with the hashtag #zombieproverbs.

Some of the tweets are better than others. Check it out if you're in the mood for a laugh.

Happy Thursday!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I Like Mandarin

my cousin Jason ... or my cousin David.

Today's post is in support of the release of Kirsten Hubbard's novel, Like Mandarin. In Kirsten's own words:

In Like Mandarin, 14-year-old Grace Carpenter would give anything to be like 17-year-old Mandarin Ramey -- the bold, carefree wild girl of their small Wyoming town.

This is sort of a non-tour blog tour, in that it wasn't really planned ahead, and participation is totally optional. I actually don't know Kirsten as well as I do some other bloggers, and I haven't read Like Mandarin yet, but I love to lend a hand to other writers, and I keep hearing wonderful things about this book, so I thought I would play whatever little part I could.

You can visit Kirsten's blog post about the non-tour, here, but you should definitely follow her blog if you aren't already anyway, so I'll wait a second while you do that ...

... and you're back. Excellent.

So the idea behind the tour is to talk about someone in your own life who you looked up to in the way that Grace looked up to Mandarin.

My mom died when I was eleven years old. Dad was out of the picture, so my little sister and I moved to Minnesota to live with our aunt and uncle. The first year I was there I shared a room with my cousin Jason, who was a senior in high school.

He was oh so cool.

He was a linebacker, captain of the football team, popular beyond comprehension, and well liked by what were to me, countless beautiful women. I wanted to be like him so badly. Jason went on to attend the Air Force Academy, play more football, and eventually serve our country. Not a bad role model.

I spent my summers in Atlanta with another aunt and uncle. My cousin David was the one I looked up to most down there. David was an intellectual. He got his bachelors of political science from Duke University, worked in the Peace Corps for a few years, then returned to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt. David also worked at a cool independent bookstore, played D&D with me, and loved hanging out, even though I was probably a really annoying little punk.

What about you? Have you read Like Mandarin? Do you follow Kirsten's blog? Is there anyone you looked up to the way Grace looked up to Mandarin?

Monday, March 14, 2011


As I watched the announcement of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on CBS last night, it dawned on me that making the tournament was a bit like getting published.

There's a lot of hard work involved, sure, and a lot of waiting for other people to make decisions that you have no control over, and frankly sometimes seem ridiculous, but honestly, it's sometimes entirely inexplicable why some teams make it, and others don't.

You have automatic qualifying conferences, at large bids, and a bunch of other formulae and reasons why certain teams make it, but they're generally quite hard for most people to understand, and there is inevitably someone left pissed off for getting skipped over. This year it's the University of Colorado, Virgina Tech, St. Mary's, the University of Alabama, and I'm sure several others.

Then you have the teams that probably shouldn't have made it, but did. I'm not knowledgeable enough about college hoops to judge this one for myself, but all the experts say that UAB, VCU, and USC don't belong.

Anyway, this needs to be a quick post today, but I think this sounds a lot like publishing. All my published friends say that first you have to write a good book, work really hard, and then there must be a sort of a perfect storm of timing, luck, and fundamentally subjective taste. I don't have any reason to doubt them.

You've got authors like James Patterson (think Ohio State), who can essentially write anything, and it will be published, and be commercially successful. Then you've got authors like Brunonia Barry, or Christopher Paolini, whose road to publication did not go through the normal routes, but who still found success (think Butler, last year). Finally, you've got authors like Amanda Hocking, who find incredible success without entering the traditional publishing waters (I'm not sure I have a perfect basketball analogy for this one, but maybe this would be the winner of the NIT).

What do you guys think? Am I nuts? Did anyone get left out of the tournament that you would have liked to see make it? Is there anyone who made it that you think does not belong?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Research for Writers Level Five: Experts

I used to be a member of the IATSE in Seattle, which is a labor union for stage employees and film crews. Certain jobs in the trade still carry the age old tradition of categorizing the experience level of the worker.

A new worker has no title. They might be referred to as a skilled laborer, but otherwise they would have no title. Once they gain some experience they can become an Apprentice. Historically an Apprentice would have to be tied to a particular Master, but currently that is not necessarily true. Once an Apprentice has learned enough to become proficient at a craft he can become a Journeyman. One can spend years as a Journeyman before ever being considered a Master.

When I would work for the Seattle Opera, I would often work for the Master Carpenter. At the Paramount Theater, I often worked for the Master Electrician. These titles are a bit misleading because in the theater a carpenter actually just builds the sets and does scene changes, while an electrician deals with lighting. The point is, you cannot be considered a Master until you have years or even decades of experience in your craft.

You can read more about the Apprentice-Journeyman-Master model at the Wikipedia article.

The point as it relates to research for writers is that if you really want to dig deeply into a topic, there is no better research than seeking out a Master of the craft. A person who has spent their entire life perfecting their skill will posses such a depth of knowledge regarding the subject that it will boggle the mind.

That kind of first person source cannot be matched through reading, or even experiencing, something yourself. Jumping out of an airplane once, or even five times, does not make you an Airborne Ranger. There are nuances to such things that can only be understood through living them for a lifetime.

This is not the kind of thing many writers can manage to accomplish. I for one have never interviewed a Master regarding a topic that I wanted to write about, but I know the option exists. Potentially it could be extremely difficult and expensive to do, depending on what you need to know.

If you need to travel to Quantico to speak to the FBI behavioral science experts about profiling serial killers, and you live in California, you'll probably have to be a very successful writer to be able to afford it. However, if I really wanted to, I could probably find Master Blacksmith somewhere in the state of Georgia who I could meet and interview for no more than the price of gas and lunch. And probably beer. A lot of smiths seem to like dark beer.

It all depends on what you're looking for and how much detail you need. For WARRIOR-MONKS I don't think it's necessary. I've learned enough from books about forging a sword that I think I've created the scene in an authentically believable way (assuming you're willing to believe in a little magic). I don't really think there is anything so specific in my novel that it would require speaking to a Master to do it right.

Yet, I would love to one day write a story that did require the knowledge of a Master. If I did, there would be no better source than a person who had spent their life gaining a mastery of their skill, craft, trade or art.

Yes, that is the Osensei Morihei Ueshiba up there. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Research for Writers Level Four: Experience

They say write what you know, and I suppose writing about things you have already done wouldn't really be research, but you could always go out and do something, have some new experience in order to be able to write about it better.

Writing a crime novel? Ride along with the cops. Writing about skydiving? Go jump out of a plane. Writing about Aikido? Go study the martial art at the local dojo.

Personally I would love to take Aikido lessons as a way to research for my book, but I'm way too fat and out of shape, and between the soul-sucking day job and fatherhood, there really isn't time.

So this will probably be the shortest post in the research for writers series. There isn't a whole lot to say about experience except to go out an live. Travel. See exotic places that will inspire exciting settings. Do things you have never done before that will give you plot ideas. Meet people you would have never otherwise met so that they may inspire unique and original characters.

Be sure to take notes. Dig deep in to your experiences so that you may glean the most from having had them. Nothing familiarizes you with the details of a craft or art more than doing it yourself. Want to know how truly difficult it is to do battle with a sword? Do it. Want to know how nearly impossible it is to escape the Polizei on a motorcycle in Frankfurt? Okay, don't do that, but you could rent a motorcycle if you've never ridden one.

So technically for WARRIOR-MONKS I did not go out and do anything new to research for the story, but I did base it off of some things I had already done, which is sort of like the past participle of research.

When I was 16 I was sent to reform school in Idaho for being a knucklehead. They didn't have magic, and they didn't have martial arts, but it did provide the setting for most of my novel.

While I was there at school I spent 6 weeks living out of a tent and a backpack in the Cabinet Mountains in Montana. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had, and yes, it inspires a few scenes in the novel.

As I have written about before, we took part in Sweat Lodge ceremonies, and went on an informal Vision Quest. Both those things made it into the book.

Have you ever had an interesting experience that you adapted into a story? How far would you be willing to go to experience new things in the name of research?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Research for Writers Level Three: Books

Okay, so for level three, we're going to cover books. That post title should really say: Books, Librarians, and Libraries, but that's too damn long.

Like yesterday's post about websites and the internet, using books to do research for writing novels is an incredibly broad subject, one that is almost impossible to cover without getting incredibly specific.

Before I go into my own specific example I just want to cover, for a moment, how to find books on the topic you need. Obviously you can use Wikipedia, as we covered on Monday. The References listed at the bottom of most articles usually point to some excellent books about the subject. You can also search or B&N, or even Google, just looking for a specific title. Google used to even have a great tool for shopping, called Froogle, but it looks like they've changed it to just a tab across the top called shopping now. Anyway, there are countless ways to find books on a specific topic, but far and away the very best is to go to your local library, and talk to your librarian.

Librarians are Masters of Books. They've spent their whole career gaining and maintaining knowledge about books, research, reading, and even sometimes, writing. If you have never talked to a Librarian about research for writing I highly suggest you do so as soon as possible. There is no better method, no better technique, no better experience in existence. You absolutely cannot compare the value of human ingenuity, especially when someone has spent most of their life mastering a craft, even when compared to the power of something like Google.

If, like me, you live in a small town, still go to your local library. The Librarian there will usually happily point you to a bigger library if necessary, and even if they don't stock the books you need, they can still help you find out that the books exist. Which is a start.

If, like I used to, you live near a big city, I highly suggest that you visit the main downtown library. There is nothing quite like the main library in a large city. You may not be able to track down the head librarian, but almost every librarian in places like those is a genius.

So, now that my library rant is over, let's cover my specific example.

WARRIOR-MONKS contains a scene in which the characters take part in the forging of a steel sword. To be more precise it's a traditional Japanese Katana, but when researching how to write this scene I wanted to cover the art of blacksmithing in general as much as I could.

Hands down the very best book I found on the topic was The Craft of the Japanese Sword, by Leon Kapp, Hiroko Kapp and Yoshindo Yoshihara. I actually heard of this book in the acknowledgements of a novel I read, so that goes against my points above, I suppose, but it doesn't really matter.

It was the only research book I bought to keep, but I checked out several other books on smithing, sword-crafting, metallurgy, and other topics that seems related, like polishing steel, scabbard making, hilt making, armor, and so on.

Here is a list of several other books I looked at. I did not necessarily check all these out, and it was a while ago now, so I don't remember for sure which ones I used the most, but each of these books deserves a look, especially if you are interested in swords or blacksmithing:

I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point. The blacksmithing scene was by far the one that required the most research, but there were several other things I had to learn more about to write my novel. About half of the books listed above were suggested to me by my librarian, the other half were found by plugging the names of the books she showed me into Amazon, and letting it suggest similar titles.

I didn't necessarily have to read every single one of these books. Many weren't available, but by getting a look at the first few pages, the cover art, and the title, I was able to tell with decent accuracy how much help a particular book would be.

Questions? Thoughts? Have you ever rocked your nerd card this hard and went so deep with research on a topic that you had fun with it? Lost your mind? Gave up on the scene?

Don't forget to come back tomorrow for level four.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Research for Writers Level Two: Websites

Today we have the second entry in our series on research for writing fiction. We'll be covering the internet.

The internet is a big place. There is no way we could cover it all. Instead we'll go through some specific examples of how to find what you're looking for, and cover some great resources that have worked for me, in very specific situations.

Yesterday we discussed Wikipedia, and it's a great starting point, but I strongly encourage you to dig deeper into the web to find the detailed information you are looking for. One way to get there, as we covered, is through the References and External links at the bottom of a Wikipedia article.

Another is a Google search. Or I suppose you could use Bing, but no matter how many annoying funny commercials they put out, Microsoft will never convince me that they're as cool as Google. Google is the best general search engine on the web, and is very good at narrowing results by searching for images, or news. You can also narrow you searches even further, but that's a whole separate post. You can see Google's basic search tips, here, or read some more advanced ones, at

There are also some other basic alternative search engines, like Yahoo, Dogpile, Yippy, and one of my favorites, because it's so old: Metacrawler. I also like that it sounds like a Lovecraftian horror, but that's another post as well.

Then you have search engines that are intended for a specific use, and will only return specific results. IMDB is essentially an engine that searches only information in it's own database, which relates to the entertainment industry, and is an incredible wealth of knowledge regarding, films, television shows, actors, production crews, video games and fictional characters. Technorati is similar, but only searches blogs. is for publicly searchable government records. There are several other examples, but I'm sure you're all familiar with them.

At this point is is difficult to get much more specific. After the basics everything is going to depend on what it is you're looking for, and how much information you need about it. Let's use some examples from my own novel, WARRIOR-MONKS.

The story is set, mostly, in the panhandle of Northern Idaho. For specific reasons that we won't get into here, nature plays an important role. I've been to the place I'm describing, so of course that helps (and is part of level four) but it's been years, and there is no way I could remember everything I saw there anyway. So I had to research the land, focusing on the flora and fauna. After extensive perusing of the internet, I found this website, the Idaho Native Plant Society. The wealth of information and depth of detail they have regarding the local flora is ... well, it's out of control. I'm sure there are many other great resources for this topic out there as well. For animals it's a bit tougher, but the University of Idaho Extension site has some good resources.

For one more quick specific example, something that features heavily in my book is the Japanese martial art Aikido. I have never studied it myself, except for reading about it extensively, so I had to research it. I won't go into every resource I looked at here today, but one thing that was of great use during fight scenes was the website Expert Village. As of the writing of this post Expert Village has apparently been acquired by There is also an Expert Village Youtube channel. Both of these sources can be used to find videos related to very specific topics. For example this basic wrist grab technique instructional video is very useful:

You can go much deeper and get far more specific than this simple example, trust me.

So that's it for today. One more real world example I want to give you about using the internet for research is just to point you to my friend Lydia Kang's post from yesterday. Her Medical Monday posts are always awesome, but yesterday's featured an excellent set of examples of the websites she used to find her information. You can read it here. Scroll to the bottom for her sources. Lydia is also a doctor, but it still helps to find more sources than your own knowledge.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Research for Writers Level One: Wikipedia

There are those, like my buddy Steve, who would tell you that Wikipedia is not really research.

They're right.

That's why it's only level one.

Wikipedia, although it is a great resource for certain things, cannot be trusted to the point where you should use it as your exclusive source for information. The nature of a wiki means that it can be edited by almost anyone, and therefore the reliability of the information is low. You'll find, if you read and use Wikipedia often, that certain types of articles are more reliable than others.

Articles on a place, like the main Kyoto, Japan article, or articles on a historical event, like the main American Civil War article, tend to be based on facts that cannot be disputed, and therefore are usually relatively reliable. Articles on a person, especially one who is still living, and even more especially one who is politically or religiously active, tend to be incredibly unreliable. For example, the Jeremiah Wright Controversy article, being both political and religious, is one of the most highly edited pages on Wikipedia.

All that being said, Wikipedia does have its uses, even when it comes to research for writing fiction. My favorite use of Wikipedia is as a way to check my memory. I'm the type of guy whose head is filled with useless facts that I have no idea why I remember. Some of them are accurate, others are not. I often use Wikipedia as a very basic reference to check whether I remember something correctly.

Another great use is to discover some of the articles and websites that we will cover tomorrow, in Research for Writers Level Two. Wikipedia has two sections at the bottom of almost every article that will lead you to better, more detailed information. References will lead you to books, using their title and ISBN, that were either referenced in the writing of the article, or are heavily related to the topic covered. External links will take you to websites that are outside of Wikipedia, and are related to the topic in the article. The quality of these external websites and the information they provide can vary widely.

So that's it for today. Be sure to come back all week for the series on research for writers. We're not done with tropes yet either, I just have to do some more, well ... research.

Friday, March 4, 2011


I didn't even realize it until last night, but yesterday was my one year blogiversary. It's incredible, really. I can't believe I've been doing this for a year.

I've met the most amazing people, corresponded with published authors, and even communicated directly with a few literary agents and editors. It truly has changed my life.

This picture to the left is one I may use come April. I'll be keeping the pink hair up for the rest of the month to support my good friends Lisa and Laura in the release of  their debut novel, Liar Society. I blogged about it earlier this week.

There's not really a whole lot else to say. Thank you all. Thank you anyone who reads this blog, but especially those who follow and comment. Interacting with other writers has made a huge difference in my life, and has completely turned my writing career around. A year and a day ago I was about to give up. Now I have a critique group, a viable novel (almost), a query that wins contests, and 551 of the best friends in the world.

I won't go on any longer, but I'll try to link you to a couple of the best posts I've written over these last months:

A Goodbye to Nathan Bransford as he Left Agenting.
SPEAKING Up for Laurie Halse Anderson.
Comparing Writing to a Waterpark.
Sometimes it is a Matter of Life and Death.
Interview with Andrew Smith.
A Blogger's Manifesto.
Interview with Bryan Russell.

Anyway. There's no way you're going to have time to read all that. But that's okay. I heart you all like slugs love mud. Let me know if I forgot about any of my best posts.

Thanks! Have a great day, and a great weekend!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Across The Universe Review

I finally finished Across the Universe, by my friend Beth Revis. It's been over six months now since I read that powerful first chapter, and I want to share with all of you how much I enjoyed this book.

Before I get to the story, I want to talk about the level of production and design that went into this novel. I'm a bit of a detail and design freak, so I noticed some special things in this book. And I'm not talking about the cover. Sure, the cover is beautiful, and it's reversible too, which is pretty amazing. But the cover has been oohed and ahhed over before. Not that it doesn't deserve it, but I'm not going to go into that here.

I have two hardcover copies of this book. One I bought on the release day, and the other Beth signed and sent to me as a very kind thank you for my launch day post. Except for the signature they're both the same. The cover of the book has an embossed symbol, kind of a stylized Eagle:

Beneath it says GODSPEED OS v1.2. This is not something you often see on a book's cover, and I find it to be very unique, and extremely well done. Next, after the title page, there is a quote from the Lennon/McCartney hit song of the same title. Having owned a record label in the past, I know that you don't quote from a Beatles song without permission, and permission does not usually come free, or even cheap. I don't think the quote really changes the story much, but I think it says a lot about Razorbill/Penguin's opinion of the book, and how committed they were to making it a success.

Finally, once the story begins, the page layout is one of the most interesting I have ever seen. The chapter heading font, and the POV character font are both beautiful. Futuristic enough, but not cold or clinical. I'm not sure what font the normal text is typeset in, but it feels appropriate and there are several spots where different fonts come in to play to go along with specific situations. The title and page number headers are also beautiful, featuring a greyscale gradient background that gives just the right taste of technology.

Now on the the story.

I don't want to talk about the plot really, because at it's heart this story is a mystery, and it is full of wonderful twists and surprises that I don't want to ruin. I will only say that you will not be disappointed. Whether you like romance, whodunit, sci-fi, or adventure, there is something in this story for you.

It's often called a dystopian novel. In fact Beth is a member of The League of Extraordinary Writers, a group blog for published authors of dystopian fiction. I believe they all write YA as well, but I would have to double check that. I would argue that AtU is not exactly dystopian. I consider it more of a microcosm of dystopia. I mean the ship certainly has elements of that kind of society, and the Sol-Earth they left behind sounds like it was probably pretty far gone, but it works even better, in my opinion, because the population of the ship is so small by the time the story begins that you don't get overwhelmed by the idea of this society which cannot possibly be resisted. I thought the whole thing worked very well.

There are two main POV characters, Amy, and Elder, and they contrast each other interestingly, as well as going together perfectly at the same time. I won't go too deeply into things, because again I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that Amy and Elder start out at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to knowledge of, and trust in, the society aboard Godspeed, and it sets up their relationship in an excellent way.

The writing reminds me a lot of Suzanne Collins. It is direct, without a lot of flowing or detailed description, and yet Beth seems to have that same gift of saying so much with so few words. Here is a passage I found particularly intriguing:

Steela catches my eyes with her cloudy ones, the color of milk mixed with mud. She looks warily at me for a moment more, then her wrinkled lips spread into an even wrinklier smile. Her teeth are stained and crooked, and I can smell onions on her breath, but still it's a nice smile. It's a true smile.

It's subtle, sure, but the strength of meaning is there, veiled by the power of simplicity. Beth writes very well for young adults because she conveys powerful ideas without getting things too complicated, and yet there is still enough high concept thematic background that I never once felt bored or lead on, or like she was trying too hard.

This really is a Universal book that will appeal to just about any reader. Well done Beth! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and am so happy to bear witness to your success.

I know most of you have already read this, but if you haven't, get it. Now. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Things I Love: Rankin/Bass

I watched the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit this weekend, and then last night I came home from a long day at the office to find Kylie watching our copy of The Last Unicorn. These are both classic animated films from my childhood that were produced by Rankin/Bass Productions Inc.

Technically Rankin/Bass is probably most famous for the animated holiday specials they made like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which incorporated their own unique brand of stop-motion photography, which the films were iconic for.

However, in my own heart and mind it is the animated Rankin/Bass films that are nearest and dearest. The Hobbbit, The Return of the King, The Last Unicorn, The Flight of the Dragons, and The Wind in the Willows are the ones I remember best. There was an ethereal quality to the animation and artwork, especially the landscapes, that was unlike anything else I'd ever seen.

The reason for this is that all these films were actually drawn and mostly produced in Japan. They're sort of an early example of Anime/Japanimation from a time before such things were popular. I mean before Akira, Anime was nearly unheard of in America, in comparison to today.

The wealth of original music produced for the animated films was impressive as well. The Last Unicorn featured a beautiful soundtrack by the band America, and the theme song from The Hobbit, by Glen Yarborough, was just haunting enough to fit.

Have any of you seen any of these films? What did you think of them?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Liar Society Blog Tour of Awesome!

Visit the website for more info!
Today is the release date for Lisa and Laura Roecker's debut novel: The Liar Society, from Sourcebooks.

Please join me in congratulating these amazing ladies on the success of their writing. They are some of the kindest, funniest, and truly most entertaining people I know.

Their blog, Lisa and Laura Write, is a must read for me. Every. Single. Day.

They're also the reason my hair is pinkified. Well, digitally at least. I love them like Apple Computers loves the lower case letter i preceding an upper case letter P.

So. Anyway. I'm having Lisa and Laura over here as guests today, in order to celebrate the release of The Liar Society, and I've asked them to talk about something I think about a lot as writer:

SEX, DRUGS and ALCOHOL in YA Literature.

Of course they put their own Roecker spin on it, in true Hilton sister fashion, except much smarter, and slightly less trashy:

Laura: So what's our stance on sex, drugs and rock and roll in young adult books?
Lisa: Um, we're supposed to have one?
Laura: Well, yeah. We're writers.
Lisa: Crap, you're right.
Laura: So...any thoughts?
Lisa: Yes.
Laura: Yes, what?
Lisa: Just...yes.
Laura: Meaning, "Yes, sex, drugs and rock and roll?"
Lisa: Well, sort of.
Laura: Explain, oh guru of vice.
Lisa: I mean, it totally depends on the book, right?
Laura: Yeah, that stuff doesn't really work in LIAR SOCIETY.
Lisa: Right. But think about books like THE DUFF, the sex is so important, so real. Teens need those kinds of books.
Laura: Could not agree more.
Lisa: So we're pro, sex, drugs and rock and roll?
Laura: Yeah, the reality is that teenagers are doing all kinds of crap their parents don't want to think about.
Lisa: Exactly. Isn't it better if teens read these books and their parents read them and everyone maybe, kinda, talks about it?
Laura: Oh God, are you advocating for the sex talk right now?
Lisa: Maybe. I mean, it might be a little less awkward if you could work through it using fictional characters.
Laura: So. True. But will you still feel the same way when your kids are reading this stuff?
Lisa: I sure hope so. I love that Mom and Dad let us read whatever we wanted.
Laura: Totally. That's why we're readers and writers, you know?
Lisa:, drugs and ROCK ON.
Laura: Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

If you want to enter The Liar Society Blog Tour of Awesome contest, and really, who wouldn't want to enter!?! There's a $100 Amazon gift card up for grabs! Just click here and enter the super secret password, SISTERHOOD, for an entry. Remember you can enter one time for each stop on our blog tour, so be sure to click here and see where else we're visiting this month to maximize your chances of winning.

Audi, Vide, Tace,

Thanks ladies! That's how I feel about it, er - basically. I'm so glad to get to be a part of your blog tour, since you're two of my very favorite people. Congratulations on all your success.

Pink is the new black, and The Liar Society is the New Dope.