The world in a grain of silicon

I mentioned looking up books on Kindle last time. I’ve got one of the older electronic-ink versions, the one with the keyboard at the bottom.

I love it. I write books for children, and while I like the idea of seeing my work published on shelves in hardcover and paperback, I want electronic versions out there too.

My kids gave me the Kindle for Father’s Day a while back, and I wondered what I was going to do with it at the time. But as I started loading my favorites on board, and realized that I could read any of them anywhere I went, it really grew on me. Having accidentally squished the screen once (and gotten a replacement from Amazon), I got a nice metal-reinforced case from Proporta in England (“aluminium”) and it’s held up under a lot of handling since.

I like to read when I eat. I can turn pages by just tapping the side key, and I don’t have to hold a book open with a weight. I can eat spare ribs, and hit the button with my elbow. The Kindle fits nicely in the inside pocket of my jeans jacket, and I can read in a park, in a waiting room, or anywhere else. The electronic ink screen shows up in full sunlight. I can’t read in the dark, but I hear the newer “Paperwhites” have a screen light.

I like electronic ink. I don’t want my Kindle to be anything except a book. I have no desire to get anything more powerful. No movies, no games, no apps, no “Fire.” I also like that the battery lasts for a couple of weeks. If somebody ever comes up with full-color electronic ink, maybe I’d consider that.

My Kindle has wireless, so I can download new books any time I’m in a wi-fi zone. For a bit more money, you can get one that has cell phone access. You can get at Amazon’s library anywhere you have a signal. There’s no charge, and you don’t even need your own cell phone account. You can get a Kindle cheaper if you’re willing to put up with ads on it (no thanks).

I would have killed for this kind of literary access when I was 10. Say what you will about there being nothing like holding a real book, cracking it open for the first time, smelling that great new book smell, and turning the pages. I’d even agree with you. But there’s a lot to be said about carrying a little leather-covered pad in my coat pocket that contains enough books to fill a large room, with many classics available for less money than a fancy coffee drink. Or even free.

My Dad has one, and loves it. I got my wife a free Kindle app for the IPod she carries around (it contains reference books for her pharmacy work). She took to it like a duck to water. One reason I generate e-books of my work is because she likes to proof it that way. She’s reading an old classic now that weighs about three pounds in paperback. I can buy books and send them to anyone I know who has a Kindle (with permission). I just shot a copy of Half Magic to my wife.

There are other e-readers, of course. This is just the one I own.

So what have I got on my Kindle so far?

All of Nero Wolfe. All of Pratchett’s Discworld books. Six Dune books. A bunch of Heinlein. The Narnia books, and a bit more C.S. Lewis. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. The Garrett Files. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The Complete George MacDonald, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jules Verne. Moby Dick. Heidi. Wind in the Willows. Some Gaiman novels. And a few other odds and ends, including Kindle versions of my own books (only one of which is actually on the market).

I’m just getting started. I don’t have H. G. Wells in there yet, or Shakespeare, the Lewis Space Trilogy, or the Oz books, among many others. I only have the first Harry Potter book. I wish all the favorite books of my childhood were available in this format, but a lot of them are. I’m a kid in a candy store with a shopping cart the size of a dump truck. I tell my family to get me Amazon gift certificates for every holiday.


His grip on my shoulder tightened. “We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across inconceivable gulf between creations–books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them. 

“We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. 

“There is a cube of crystal here–though I can no longer tell you where–no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other. All these I came to know, and I made safeguarding them my life’s devotion.” 

– Master Ulton, the Curator, from Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer.

Magic, Nesbit, Eager, and Lewis

No, not a law firm. It’s like this:

I was looking in my bookstore for a kid’s book under the “E’s” (a whole different story). I didn’t find it, but I did find Edward Eager’s Half Magic. I like to re-read books that were favorites when I was a kid myself, so I picked it up.

While some books in this nostalgia category don’t stand up to the passage of time, I’m happy to say most of them do. Many even deliver entirely new insights and enjoyments to my now (somewhat) adult mind. Half Magic is one of them.

As a bonus, there was a new connection. The children in the book discover a new author at their library, E. Nesbit, and she becomes their favorite (Edward Eager readily acknowledges his debt to this children’s author).

The connection is that I’d just finished C. S. Lewis’s On Stories. In it, Lewis gives many examples of what he considers good writing, and Nesbit is one of them. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never read Nesbit, even as a kid (To be fair, the small libraries I frequented may not have had her work, and until I got to college in the city I don’t think I ever saw books for sale anywhere except at the corner drugstore).

It’s not as odd as the Tolkien-Lewis connection I made today reading The Horse and His Boy (which contains a “prancing pony” named “Bree,”) but it’s a nice one.

Of course, I looked up Kindle versions of Nesbit today. 25 books for $3.95, all in the palm of my hand. Click. Got it. More on Kindle in the next post.

Balancing the pitch and synopsis

You can walk into a room and tell who the writers are by yelling the word “synopsis!” and then watching to see which ones dive behind the furniture.

Writing a synopsis is a royal pain, particularly when so many agents and publishers want to see only one page. Cooking a 98,000 word novel down to one page can be done, and it’s a great learning exercise, but it’s still like shoving an elephant into a spandex leotard.

But once that’s done, there’s another step I have to work on: matching the pitch and synopsis so they’re complementary, and don’t just repeat the same information. Every first draft synopsis I write tends to start with a lot of the same phrases that are in the pitch.

In my experience, every agent/publisher wants to see a pitch of some kind, but not all of them ask for a synopsis. So never leave anything really important out of the pitch and just assume the synopsis will pick it up. (As an aside, the same goes for sample chapters. Not every agent wants to see samples right away, so don’t assume your first three chapters will fill in for your pitch).

Conversely, I’ve never seen anyone ask for a synopsis that didn’t want a pitch too, so the synopsis can skimp a bit on information that’s already in the pitch. Which is good news if you’re still trying to cook the darn thing down to one page.

Use the pitch for important background, character introduction, and your theme. Your pitch is your “hook,” and you shouldn’t need much storyline. Focus on plot and character development in the synopsis. When you’re done, your pitch should be like a line drawing, and the synopsis should be the added coloring.

Easier said than done, right? As far as the mechanics go, I usually print them both out, set them next to each other, and attack both sheets with a pencil. And yeah, a little repetition is okay.

Elephant Bunhead

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

“Pitch Madness”

Now and then someone holds a contest where you submit a pitch, and if you get far enough in the ranks, real agents will take a look at it. Here’s one of them, and I entered it (entries are closed now).

Rules vary, but all of these contests involve severe word limits, which is a challenge to a windy writer like me but very good practice. Some contests ask for 140-character Twitter pitches! This one had a 35-word pitch and a 250-word excerpt (you could extend the excerpt to the end of a sentence).

I entered Roger Mantis and Zorya. A lot of entrants are posting their pitches on their blogs now, so I will too.

Pitch, Roger Mantis: Roger McGillicutty, 12, wakes up one Saturday morning and finds out he’s turned into a five-foot praying mantis. And with school on Monday, and his baseball team playing their biggest rival next week!

Excerpt: As young Roger McGillicutty awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Aw, geeze! he thought.

There was no mistake about it. The drapes in Roger’s bedroom were closed, but the Saturday morning sun was shining brightly outside and the drapes glowed, illuminating the whole room.

Roger stared at his hands, which had been replaced by vicious yellowish claws at the end of spiked, emerald-green arms. Clumsily, he kicked off the covers using a lot more legs than he used to have, and looked down at himself. It was worse than he thought. He was lying on his back. Below his shoulders his middle was a narrow, hard, green cylinder leading down to where four long, spindly jointed legs wiggled aimlessly toward the ceiling. The legs were green too, except the ends, which were more yellowish.

Past his legs was a long, narrow, greenish-yellow wormy-looking thing that was apparently his butt. Roger remembered that this was called an “abdomen” on an insect, and his narrow middle part was called a “thorax.” That was all he could remember right now from that insect chapter last month in his hated seventh-grade biology class. Well, at least “abdomen” was a better word than “butt.” As he looked at his…abdomen, it squirmed and bent as though that end of him was waking up separately.

“Eww! Gross!” he said involuntarily. His own voice startled him. It was a little buzzy, like his art teacher Mrs. Clancy, who talked through her nose.


Pitch, Zorya: 17-year-old Zorya sneaks interested looks across her high-school classroom at David, the strange new boy, the only one in the school who can go out in the daytime…


My name’s Zorya. Mother says I’m named after Zorya Vechernyaya, goddess of the Evening Star. That’s sort of cool.

There were fifteen of us in my classroom that fall—the entire high school senior class population of the Northern California Enclave. And then there was David. Named after David, I guess.

He wasn’t one of us. He was one of them.

I propped an arm on my desk and casually leaned my head on my hand, turning my face a bit to the right. That way, I could look at him without…looking like I was looking at him. Up at the front of the room Madame Stefonia was writing something on the whiteboard, so she probably wouldn’t notice right away that I wasn’t paying attention.

The moonlamps were turned up high so David could see well enough to read and write. Their eyes are really bad—I don’t think they can even see colors at night. On the other hand, I could see him just fine. Unlike me, he was watching the teacher and busily taking notes.

He was blonde, which in a room full of black hair made him stick out like a snowball on an asphalt road. He was almost a year older than me, almost a foot taller, and even skinnier. His eyes were dark brown, which was as weird around here as the blonde hair. His voice had a twinge of accent, Texas I think, and my God, the tan. It was only the third week of school, and he hadn’t been here long enough to start losing it.


I have a third book that’s self-published, so it’s not eligible for a contest like this, but for editing practice I generated a pitch for it anyway:

Pitch, Castle Falcon: Two modern children exploring their ancient and mysterious castle home discover frightening secrets about their father’s history, along with strange creatures and dark forces that could be unleashed onto the world.


Once upon a time, there was an immense castle crouched near the base of a range of low, heavily-wooded mountains.

This was no elegant fairy-tale castle with flag-topped towers spiking into the sky. It was vast and sprawling, with massive turreted outer walls built of gigantic blocks of roughly-hewn stone, black with the patina of centuries and crusted with moss and lichens. Within those walls the castle’s grounds were covered with mansions, halls, outbuildings and scattered ruins, laid out in a maze with no pattern or architectural consistency. Inside these buildings were hundreds of rooms of all shapes and sizes. There were dark catacombs, airy parlors, hidden chambers, attics, quiet cloisters and expansive courtyards open to the sky. There were corridors and passages beyond counting, soaring stone buttresses, and worn slate roofs with brooding and broken gargoyles perched on their edges.

Two children had lived in this castle all their lives, and they loved their ancient home even more than they loved video games.

Katie Falcon and her brother Zach simply called it “the Castle.” In nearby Monte Vista, an isolated small town in the American Northwest, people called it “Castle Falcon” when they were talking to tourists but sometimes called it “The Wizard’s Place” when they were quietly talking to each other.

It was the first really warm day of spring. Katie, who was almost fourteen and eager to be sixteen, had kicked off her tennis shoes and was curled up in a nest of pillows on the cushioned platform of the big bay window in her room.

Roger Mantis “placeholder” cover

My wife (my best beta reader) is going to be proofing my second book, Roger Mantis, after I added new chapters. Now she’s gone all high-tech and everything and wants to proof it in Kindle format on her IPod. My Kindle InDesign plug-in gets crabby if you don’t include a cover image in the output so I whipped one up in Photoshop. The background is the school baseball field in my home town.

Roger Mantis placeholder cover

Yeah, it’s an obvious Photoshop.  I didn’t want to pay for the mesh model to do a decent 3D rendering of Roger, and I haven’t figured out how to “rig” a figure in 3DS Max anyway.

Yeah, it’s a Minnesota Twins cap. I don’t have a photo for the fictional “Highland Falls Falcons.”

And yeah, the cars in the background aren’t from 1977, either (my eagle-eyed wife spotted that instantly in my first printout).

Geeze, it’s just a dang placeholder cover, okay?

Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally _____.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

(Thanks to Emma Coats and Aerogramme Writers’ Studio.)