ReBlog: Rick Riordan’s Thoughts on Becoming Published

“My point: no number of connections will get a bad first novel published. The flipside to this may seem radical: A good novel will find an outlet one way or another, whether you know someone or not.”

–  Rick Riordan

*Holding up hands sheepishly* Sorry, sorry everyone, I know I haven’t blogged in weeks! I’m a terrible WordPress user. Unfortunately finals are bearing down on me and I don’t have time to write a post today.

BUT. I just read a fantastic blog entry from Rick Riordan, the author of the bestselling Percy Jackson novels and one of my personal favorite authors. In this post, he describes his journey to publication and his theories on how/why beginning novelists succeed or fail. If you have time, do yourself a favor and read it…the tone and style of the post are almost identical to my own, and the advice gave me a serious confidence boost towards my own publication attempts.

http://rickriordan.blogspot.com/2013/12/if-only-i-had-connections.html

I’ll try to blog soon!

And You Thought It Couldn’t Get Worse (Movie Review: The Sea of Monsters)

“I was brought in after they already had a draft of the script which, quite frankly, didn’t work. With the draft that was originally done, the only thing wrong with it was that it was TOO faithful to the book. So first and foremost, I had to think of a wholly different way of adapting the novel. ”

–  Screenwriter Marc Guggenheim

 

somposterDo you love terrible film adaptions? Then we have the perfect movie for you! The second installment in the Percy Jackson film series will not only lower your opinion of Hollywood’s ability to adapt novels, it’ll squash all hope you had left for the PJ film franchise as a whole!

But wait, there’s more!

This movie goes beyond traditional butchering of source material. What makes it really shine as an abysmal adaption is that it moves on to the other novels in the Percy Jackson book series, picking pieces from the rest of them so as to butcher their content as well.

Doesn’t it sound great?

I don’t mean to sound scathing here, but honestly, this movie sort of deserves it. However, in the interest of fairness, I’ll attempt an objective review of it as a whole.

So, we have the adaption of the second book in the Percy Jackson series, meant to be a sequel to the 2010 adaption, The Lighting Thief. In this, Camp Half-Blood is attacked, and Percy and his friends must set out to find the Golden Fleece, the only thing that can save their camp from…uh, more attack.

Also, Luke is trying to resurrect Kronos, who was never mentioned up until this point in the entire film series. Nor is it ever explained who Kronos actually is. But hey, no biggie.

I’ll start off by listing what I liked. There were exactly two parts of the movie I thoroughly enjoyed.

The first was the opening scene, which features Luke, Annabeth, Grover and Thalia running for Camp Half-Blood when they were kids. Unfortunately, this scene only lasts around a minute, but it was arguably the best minute of the film.

The second was when the trio meets Luke for the first time in the movie. I think Jake Abel, who portrays our favorite villain, really brings him to life and does the best he can with the lines he’s given. His speech to Annabeth, ending with “you disappoint me the most,” was solid.

However, the negatives aren’t to be ignored here.

Let’s see…here are a few good ones: Percy goes to Camp Half-Blood without any attacks; he doesn’t meet Tyson until he gets there and Chiron introduces them; Grover isn’t kidnapped by Polyphemus; Clarisse is included but not in any key part of the plot (she also looks around twenty-three); we still never see Ares; they never go to Circe’s island; and one of the worst, Annabeth and Percy don’t have any of the meaningful one-on-one conversations they have in the book.

Actually, they really don’t have any one-on-one conversations at all, actually. Wait, do they still like each other?

It takes about forty minutes for our friends to set out for the Sea of Monsters. They literally sail for probably twenty-five minutes, and they’re at the Cyclops’s lair. They escape with Grover and the Fleece…

Which Luke immediately takes and uses to resurrect Kronos.

No, I’m being serious. The coffin opens, and Kronos is reformed. Not in the way he is in, you know, the books, but rather as a giant monster-type thing who dies around two minutes later.

Kronos1111

Man, Hollywood, really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t we?

Overall, this movie amused me, because I was sure going in that nothing could be worse than the adaption of The Lightning Thief, which I blogged about earlier. But sure enough, when the movie was over, I could say with total sincerity that they actually did a worse job with this one. For starters, none of the Olympians apart from Dionysus (who virtually has no role) appear. No Zeus, Hades or even Poseidon. I suppose that’s why the removed the word “Olympians” from the franchise title.

Come to think of it, did they keep anything from the first movie, other than the cast members?

chrn

Oh. Never mind.

Hey, at least Annabeth was blond, right?

In conclusion: pretty much everything in this movie is discount except for the CGI. The acting is unimpressive, the dialogue is discountable, and the plot is virtually nonexistent. Good job, team! Can’t wait for part three!

Rate: 2 out of 10.

On Writing: A Chart of Popular YA Novels’ Word Counts

“Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself.”

–  Mark Twain

 

I’m sure there are other charts or lists like these elsewhere on the internet, but I wanted to contribute one as well.

Word count is something you get to disregard if you’re just writing for fun, but any manuscripts which hope to be turned into books should have at least some grasp of their length, at least according to the agents and editors of today’s publishing industry.

I’m not going to talk about official guidelines for word count because that information is already available from far more qualified informants. Plus, the guidelines vary. Some editors say middle grade novels should be between 50,000 and 70,000 words, whereas others might say 60,000-80,000.

My novel is YA Fantasy, most closely resembling Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson stories in terms of age range and the feel of the story. To roughly gauge my target word count, I looked into the word count of The Lightning Thief. That one is 87,223 words long. The final draft of my manuscript totaled to around the same, give or take a thousand words.

That’s kind of a bad example, honestly, because I would’ve been fine if it was off by even five or ten thousand words. Also something to note: I didn’t tailor my manuscript to that length, or any length. I just wrote, made sure the story felt full and complete, then went back and looked at word count. I cut probably two thousand words, but I wouldn’t have hesitated to leave them in if I’d thought they should be there. Like I said, the guidelines are flexible, so an estimate will often do. If I’d written a YA Fantasy that was 130,000 words long—roughly 520 pages—then that would bother some publishers. Not all, but some. Same as if I wrote one that came in at 110 pages. As it is, mine comes in at a healthy average of 324 pages.

Anyway! Enough about me. Should anyone reading this plan to take my advice and look at word counts of popular books, I’ve compiled a chart of some of those YA books here.

The standard formula is page count= word count/250, since most novels generally have 250 words per page. So you can guess any book’s word count by multiplying its page count by 250. That being said, I made this chart with the help of this handy website, which will tell you the exact counts of just about any novel.

Word Counts

On Writing: Can Anyone Become a Good Writer?

“Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one? God, I hope not.”

–  Stephen King

 

Well! I haven’t posted an official “on writing” blurb in over a month. That’s mostly because my writing posts tend to reflect my own progress in the journey to publication, and right now, I’m in the doldrums: agent-query land. But, as the rejections started trickling in (don’t worry, I’ll blog about rejection soon), it occurred to me that while I might not be a brilliant writer, at the very least I’m quite a bit better than I used to be.

Originally, the title of this post was “Can Anyone Become a Writer?” but I changed it, because the answer to that question is simple—yes. By the literal definition, anyone who has the ability to pick up a pen and form meaningful sentences can write. Heck, they don’t even need to pick up a pen…they can type it, or have someone type it for them. So that’s my simple answer. Yes, anyone (with a conscious brain) can write!

End of post!

Just kidding; I wouldn’t end the post at a mere 250 words. Especially because ‘can anyone become a writer?’ is probably not the real question here. The real question people wonder, I think, is, ‘can anyone become a good writer?’

Ah, here we go.

My answer, still, is yes. 

Surprised? Or maybe you think that I’m a terrible writer, and trying to make myself feel better by lowering my standards. That may be, but I have a bit more to say on this front.

Let’s start with a point we can all agree on: nobody can write beautiful prose straight out of the womb. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan and whichever writers you personally think are brilliant…none of them were cranking out Shakespeare at the age of five, or ten, or even twenty. And yet, today, their stories are lauded as being some of the best around. So, what happened?

Let’s examine a quote from Mrs. Rowling herself, taken from her Harvard Commencement Speech:

I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged.”

She and the other authors I mentioned all have some tips for improving on writing. “Read a lot” is the first one, followed closely by “write a lot.” I know from experience that reading good books helps expose you to various styles, throws you in the middle of some of the best works out there. And then, when you go to write, you naturally mesh all of those styles together to form your own.

I don’t know if I’m making sense here. What I’m trying to say is that I believe everyone starts out terribly, and how good we become depends a great deal on how hard we work at it. Remember the expression, “this is 20% talent and 80% heart”? Writing most definitely fits that description.

Stephen King is one of many who would disagree with me. According to his book On Writing, he believes that you either have it, or you don’t. I, on the other hand, think everyone who can pick up a pen has equal chance of becoming great. I can’t prove it, but in an industry where chance is everything, how can anyone? At the end of the day, this is all subjective.

Let’s use an example! Rick Riordan, who started writing when he was in eighth grade, took ten years to write and sell the first Percy Jackson, and that wasn’t until he was forty. And yet, I most certainly wouldn’t complain if I ever got to where Rick Riordan stands now. His books have been translated into multiple languages, he easily makes enough to have writing as his day job, and he’s one of my favorite authors.

But he took ten years to get his story good! J.K. Rowling only took three with hers. Stephen King took less than that. Many would argue they have more natural writing ability, and I would agree with them. Riordan probably had to spend more time building his talent; had to revise his story dozens of times, and had a tougher time getting published than JKR or King. But he did it, same as them. So, what does that leave?

Well, for me, it leaves hope. And it leaves the belief that, to answer the initial question, anyone can become a good writer. It may be harder for some than others, depending on who picks up the talent faster. But I think it can be picked up by anyone who tries hard enough.

I’ll close by using one more example: myself.

I started writing my novel in eighth grade. I’d meant to do it sooner, but put it off because I was afraid it would be bad.

I was right. It sucked, and by quite a bit. So much that even I didn’t like it!

So I read a lot more, wrote a lot more, and revised a lot more. The second draft still sucked. So did the third, but much less so. I read every book I could get my hands on, spent half my Christmas money on writing guidebooks, and even contacted authors asking them for advice (and quite a few responded, including a certain Tom Clancy). I did everything I could to get my writing better. I felt somehow impaired when I thought of all the writers who sold their books in two years; the fact that I was fifteen didn’t strike me as a significant factor. 

And, look where I am now. I might not be published, but I don’t think my writing completely sucks anymore. My book, after years of work, is finally in a place where I’m proud to let people—including literary agents—read it.

And what’s more, you’re reading this. You’re reading words that I wrote, and maybe you even like them! So, even if I’m not a good writer yet, I’ve made progress. Which is why I believe anyone can make progress. And I think that ‘natural talent’ is merely a measure of how fast that progress unfolds.

So, to summarize a long post: if you want to write, don’t give up. Please, please, don’t. It might take a lot of work, and you might have to practice a lot more than other writers, but I think that with enough willpower, anyone can learn what it takes to write well. And I think that even if you start out as a terrible writer, if you keep at it no matter what, you can make yourself into something better.

Believe me, I know.

Book Review: The Mark of Athena

“We’re staying together. You’re not getting away from me. Never again.”

–  Percy Jackson, to Annabeth

 

markofathenacoverI know going into it that this will probably be a fairly useless review…after all, the latest Percy Jackson book was released almost six months ago, and quite a few people have read it since. I even finished it back in November; I just haven’t had time to write a full, thoughtful review of it until now. Sorry about that. However, it would be a crime not to review this novel at all, since it’s not only one of my new favorites, but also easily the best Percy Jackson book to date.

Note: this review does contain spoilers, but I’ll give plenty of warning beforehand.

The third book in the spin-off Percy Jackson series picks up right where book two left off: Jason, Piper, Leo and Annabeth are sailing towards the Roman camp, while Percy, Frank and Hazel are waiting there for their friends.

Let’s talk about the first two books in this series for a second.

I strongly disliked them. Very strongly. I thought Riordan’s humor was reaching the end of its life, I thought the stories were just recycled plots from all the other books, and I initially disliked the new characters. Not that I hated them, but I really missed Percy. And no, his role as main character in book two doesn’t count, because he couldn’t remember anything from his past life.

For those who agree with me so far, fear not. Because while book two cuts off exactly where it starts getting good, this means that book three starts off great. Mark of Athena shines from page one to the ending (which, don’t worry, I’ll discuss).

A rough overview of book three: now, with all the friends reunited, they all sail away on the Argo II towards the land of Rome itself, with plenty to throw them off-track along the way. Meanwhile, Annabeth is dealing with her own secret, which warns that she’ll have to face a powerful enemy when they get there.

This book’s prophecy—easily the coolest to date—reads as follows:

“Wisdom’s daughter walks alone; the Mark of Athena burns through Rome. Twins snuff out the angel’s breath, who holds the key to endless death. Giants’ bane stands gold and pale, won with pain from a woven jail.”

 

What I LOVED about this book:

Whenever people ask me about this novel, the first thing I tell them is that it should be judged on a completely different level than any of the other Percy Jackson books. For one thing, it doesn’t have the same old formula (Prophecy + quest + episodes of snarky monsters + ending skirmish= mucho dinero) that we’ve grown tired of. Riordan shakes it up with twists along the way, fresh scenery, and—most importantly—heavy character development, through use of flashbacks and one-on-one romance scenes.

We also see some of the Olympians again! There’s a pretty sick flashback scene between Annabeth and her mother, which we’ve never really witnessed before. We also meet Aphrodite, who’s every bit as entertaining as back in The Titan’s Curse. One of my favorite quotes from her is, “Love and war always go together. They are the peaks of human emotion! Evil and good, beauty and ugliness.”

I think that’s a good illustration of what really made this book so much better than the others: Riordan demonstrates his mastery as an author. He doesn’t just tell a fun story, he injects serious messages in subtle ways, at all the right moments. His style is clearly elevated, fuller and more developed, so he tells a story that reads solidly for all ages, not just little kids. I’m seventeen, and I was still blown away.

My only complaint? The kids are sixteen, constantly avoiding getting killed, and still none of them have uttered a single cuss word. I understand the marketing behind that, since this is a children’s series, but I’m somewhat of a stickler for realism. I suppose I shouldn’t expect that from a fantasy franchise, though.

And now—here come the spoilers, everyone—the end of the book.

I liked it. Believe it or not, I thought it was a bit less cliffhanger-esque than book two, in which it literally just starts getting good as the story ends. This one leaves me feeling optimistic towards the direction the series is headed, even though Percy and Annabeth died.

Alright, so they aren’t dead dead. They’re just dead by the technical term, as in, they fell into the pits of Tartarus together to avoid being separated again (hence the epigraph at the start of this post). If book four, The House of Hades, is half as good as this installment, I’ll probably squeal like a little girl.

In Conclusion: filled with development of all the characters we love, packed with action and humor, and armed with a superb writing style, this book is more than just my favorite Percy Jackson book to date. It’s one of my favorite books to date. Well done, Rick Riordan.

Rate: 9 out of 10.

(On Writing) The Bad Beginning II: The Return of the Dreaded Opening Chapter

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”

–  Dr. Seuss

 

So two months ago—to the date, coincidentally—I posted on the subject of how difficult it is, when writing a novel, to concoct its first chapter:

“I need to find a good way to kick off the story. And no matter what events I run through my mind to launch it, I just can’t think of one that really grabs peoples’ interests. Nothing unique. Over the years, I’ve re-written the first chapter probably five or six times. And—almost six re-writes and four years later—I’M STILL UNHAPPY WITH IT.”

I ended on a somewhat gloomy note, saying how I could only hope for some random spark of inspiration to hit me where all of the pieces would finally fall into place. I’ve been waiting for that for a solid eight weeks now.

And I think I finally have something.

Correction: I don’t just have something. I have the thing, the exact set of puzzle pieces I’ve been trying to find for years. Or at least, I think I do.

At the very least, I have something like what I mentioned I was hoping to find: something that grabs peoples’ interests, and is unique to this particular story.

But, I’m not so selfish of a blogger that I would use WordPress to only announce my good news to my meager crowd of readers. I figure I’ll comment on this subject a bit more, to try and dissect what I believe makes up a good opening chapter, now that I finally (believe I) have one.

 

Essential Ingredients for a Good Opening Chapter:

  1. We meet at least one character, preferably the main one
  2. More importantly, we get to know said main character, and what makes them unique
  3. The tone is consistent with the rest of the book
  4. Something happens to the main character to, by the literal definition, start the story
  5. Ends with closure, but enough suspense that we must keep reading

 

What I imagine you all saying to yourselves right now: “This boy is a genius! Expound on your knowledge, oh wizard of the written word.”

What you’re probably really saying: “This kid doesn’t know what he’s talking about, is that episode of Big Bang Theory still on?”

As a blogger (and as a writer) I’m forced into a mode of narrow optimism, however, so I’ll assume you want to know more about what I listed above. I’ll explain them best through examples from an author who’s not only published, but successful: Rick Riordan, and his novel The Lightning Thief.

Take a look at that opening chapter, if you so desire. What do you find?

  1. We meet the main character, Percy Jackson, who introduces himself and gives basic info like his age, current surroundings, and present circumstances.
  2. We get to know Percy, and what makes him unique. We learn he has dyslexia, ADHD, has been kicked out of school every year due to strange accidents, and has a mysterious connection with Greek mythology (though we don’t know what, yet. There’s the suspense I mentioned!)
  3. The tone is consistent with the rest of the book. I think The Lightning Thief is a perfect example of this, because more often than not—especially with YA books—tone is what keeps someone reading. Percy’s sarcastic, witty, and informal (but detailed) descriptions of the people and events that develop around him is what made me want to keep reading, back when I started this book. I loved how he described Mrs. Dodds as “someone who wore a black leather jacket, even though she was fifty years old. She looked mean enough to drive a Harley straight into your locker.” Or else talking about the field trip he’s on: “I know—it sounds like torture. Most Yancy Academy trips were.” These tell us that this isn’t going to be an uptight high fantasy tale with formal dialogue and cardboard characters. And might I say, this book in particular shies away from those stereotypes about as much as any fantasy book can.
  4. Something happens to Percy to start the story: he gets attacked by a Fury because Hades believes Percy stole Zeus’s master bolt. Again, a great example of how to start a story. I can’t comment too much on it…in short, the events unfold from there. Picking such a point for my own story is (was) so difficult because of how simple of a task it is.
  5. Ends with closure, but suspense: Well, The Lighting Thief does indeed. After the attack, we’re left wondering why and how it happened, just as Percy is, but the end of chapter one is Mr. Brunner assuring Percy it was all his imagination. This caps off the action while leaving the reader wanting more.

Well, I do believe I’ve spoken on this subject long enough. Now that I’ve found my perfect idea for how I want my first chapter to unfold, I need to start writing it.

Or re-writing it, I should say.

The Three Stages of Editing (On Revision: Intro)

“There’s a hormone secreted into the bloodstream of most writers that makes them hate their own work while they are doing it, or immediately after. This, coupled with the chorus of critical reaction from those privileged to take a first look, is almost enough to discourage further work entirely.”

 –  Francis Ford Coppola

  

Well, I’ve accomplished something, at least: the first draft of my manuscript is done.

The one thing I can say with confidence is that I spent enough time working on it, for a first draft. I started it back in April 2009, finished the story, set it aside for a few months, rewrote most of it, set it aside again, rewrote it again, then set it aside and finally, this past August, rebooted it starting from scratch.

And I think I might have something worth keeping this time.

I followed that annoying rule of writing a first draft; the one that says to try as hard as humanly possible to make it good, all while keeping the firm mentality that it won’t be. Every author I’ve ever read about has said that the first draft of their story was terrible. Nobody is perfect the first time around…nobody I’ve heard of, at least.

And thus introduces the purpose of…revision.

[Insert Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor].

 

Based on what I’ve heard, there are three stages of revision, if we’re discussing a novel (which I always am). None are pretty, but I think together, they’re fairly effective.

 

Stage 1: Plot Revision

I don’t claim many of my personal methods as ironclad, but I think it’s safe to say that you should always revise plot before anything else. Always. You can work on wording all you like, but if the beautiful descriptions fit a stupid storyline that you intend to change later, then it’s back to square one.

When I myself go through “plot revision,” I don’t just look at storyline, either. Yes, my first step is to make sure everything is logical, that there are no gaping holes in logic or unrealistic events taking place. But then I also think through the characters. Are there any that fall flat? I liven them up. Are there any that the story would be the same without? I erase them.

Yep, just like that. I still can’t figure out how extraneous characters work their way into my story (because why would I take the time to invent them if they didn’t have a purpose?) but they do. And during this first stage of revision, I find and eliminate them.

I’ll talk more about this and the other stages in their own posts later, so I’ll shut up for now.

 

Stage 2: Word/Style Revision

After my plot is in place, this becomes the most important phase of revision. Anyone can tell a story, some can tell a good story, but there are only some who can tell a good story in a good way. The difference is a little thing called voice, and it’s one of the most important ingredients of a novel. How different would the Percy Jackson books be if narrated in a factual, third-person POV similar to that of Artemis Fowl or Harry Potter? Or, likewise, if Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter were narrated from the first person POV of their titular characters?

Every word is essential. And the way they’re mixed makes all the difference.

I’ll dump my thoughts on this a little later.

 

Stage 3: Final Read-Through

Yay! The plot is good, the wording is good, and you even found a copy of the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents on sale! Praise Tolkien!

Unfortunately, there’s one thing every author recommends you do with your manuscript before it’s declared perfect. I’m not looking forward to it, but I’m going to do it.

I’m going to read my entire manuscript aloud. Cover to cover.

At first when I heard this recommendation, I thought it was a matter of personal preference. And I suppose it still is. But I’ve heard it from enough successful authors that I think I should do it, and I’d recommend you do it, too.

I agree that it’s a good way to eliminate any final “flow” problems. You’ve fixed plot, you’ve fixed wording…now, this last revision is a way to nail any issues with both.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

Happy revising, to anyone starting it. I’m sure I’ll be distracting myself by blogging more often later.