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Month: July 2013

The Fine Art of the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope

I originally wrote this essay for a now-defunct blog. I’ve updated it with new links and information and am reposting it here.

Most people in their late 30’s and early 40’s learned “say-zee” as their first real acronym. For that, we have the TV show ZOOM to thank. ZOOM was designed as a highly interactive program, something almost unheard of in 1972, and encouraged kids to write to the show with their stories and ideas. Everyone who wrote was told to include a SASE. “What’s a ’say-zee?’” “It stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.”

(And thanks to the program being produced in Boston, I also have that show to thank for my pronouncing that word ON-vel-ope while most people here in South Jersey pronounce it EN-vel-ope.)

The SASE is a must for a would-be writer. It’s the most reliable way for a prospective agent, editor, or publisher to get in touch with you. There are some people who will use your SASE to say “yes” or “maybe,” so don’t think that they’re always negative when they show up in your mailbox.

Back when I was a kid, I had to write my SASE’s by hand. By the time I got to college, I started using pre-printed labels. But when I finally got truly serious about trying to make it as a writer, I needed my SASE’s mass produced. Once again, the wonders of modern technology.

Here’s how to produce a SASE in Microsoft Word (2007 and 2010). Other programs will use similar techniques.

  1. Click on the “Mailings” tab at the top of the window.
  2. Pick “Envelope.” It’s the left-most icon in the ribbon.
  3. Type your address in both the “return address” and “delivery address” fields.
  4. If you have internet postage installed, make sure that the “add electronic postage” box is not checked. More on this later.
  5. Save your file. You’ll need it later when you run out of printed SASE’s.

A few notes on addressing:

  • Make sure your SASE’s are clear and easy to read. I like to use “Arial Narrow” 12 point for my return addresses and “Arial Black” 14 point for my “To” addresses. Easy to read, easy to scan.
  • If your software lets you include “POSTNET” or “Intelligent Mail” barcodes (like Wordperfect does), then use them, at least for now. They’re easier for the post office’s scanners to read than most written ZIP codes and speed up the automation. The Post Office started phasing out POSTNET in 2011 for the new Intelligent Mail Barcode, but POSTNET is still used..
  • Always use your ZIP+4 code. If you don’t know your ZIP+4, then look it up.

Now we come to the most important part of the self-addressed stamped envelope: the stamp. While you could use any old stamp, or even the “netstamps” spit out by (but not the postmarked ones printed right on an envelope!), your best bet is the little wonder called the “Forever” stamp.


Not only can “Forever” stamps save you money in the long run if you buy buttloads of them right before a postage rate increase, their magical staying power serves a more important purpose. One thing to remember is that you have no guarantee how long it’s going to take for an agent, editor, or publisher to respond to you. My personal record at the moment is eleven months, but longer waits are not unheard of. Rate increases come with horribly little warning. There is a fair chance that between the time your prospective agent gets your SASE and when they get around to mailing it back to you, the rate will have gone up.

What happens when your SASE sits in a slushpile while the rates change is as variable as everything else in this game. Some agents will be nice and stick an extra 1 or 2 cent stamp on it and send it out. Some will just send it to you, running the risk of it arriving postage due. Some will just throw it out. Never leave it up to chance. By using a “forever” stamp you ensure that no matter when it gets dropped in the outgoing post, it will have sufficient postage on it. Pick up a pack of “forevers” at your post office or, if you’re agoraphobic, buy them online.

This brings up another point: if the agent asks for a partial with your query, don’t bother sending oversized SASE’s with sufficient postage to cover sending the partial back to you. It’s easier for the agent to just send communication in a normal #10 than to repack everything for you. You’ll also spend more in return postage than it will cost you in paper and toner to just run off another copy. Rejection letters rarely run more than one page, anyhow, so one stamp on a #10 is sufficient; if the agent really needs to tell you more than they can in a single page letter, they’ll probably contact you anyhow.

Another great thing is that SASE’s printed this way are wonderfully lightweight things. My handy postage scale here tells me that my standard SASE weighs less than one tenth of an ounce. If you’re sending out snail mail queries without partials (like most queries are supposed to be), then a single sheet of paper and a SASE will still weigh less than one ounce, sufficient for a single 46 cent (or whatever the current rate is) stamp. Just fold your SASE in thirds as you fold your query, put them both in an envelope with a single stamp on it, and you’re good to go.

Last but by no means least, every snail mail query and every piece of requested material (partial or full) should have a SASE in it. The easier you make an agent’s life, the happier they are.

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How to Plot a Novel, part 1

As I start the heavy lifting on Crush Story, I thought it might be a good time to discuss one of the ways I like to develop the plot of a novel.

There is no “right way” to plot a novel. There are a couple of wrong ways, but even they can yield positive results sometimes. It isn’t even necessary to actually plot a novel, as was the case when I wrote Sidekick. I knew where the story began, I knew where and how it would end, but I left almost everything in the middle up to chance. Yeah, I had a couple of scenes I knew I wanted to include, but how I got to them, and from them to the end, I didn’t know until I actually started writing.

Some stories, however, can’t be done by the seat of your pants. They get intricate and complicated, and you might either leave something out or get your story so tied up in knots that you’d do better to just start over. I expect Crush Story to be that kind of story, so I am going to actually plot it.


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There are a couple of things you will need while you are plotting.

The first thing is a good thing to have handy even if you’re going to try and wing it. You will need notebooks. I used the plural there for a reason. Keep a stock on hand just in case you mislay one of your notebooks, as I have been known to do on too many occasions. Also, carrying them around in your pocket will all but destroy the notebooks pretty quickly, and you’ll have to move on to the next before too long. My local Walgreens recently had a sale on pocket-size “memo books” selling them three for a dollar so I snatched up several. Keep an eye out for bargains like that and never let yourself run out.

Once you have notebooks, make sure you carry one around with you at all times. And a pen or pencil, too. You literally never know when you will have inspiration strike. I was actually riding on a train a while back when an idea hit me that would wind up changing the entire “third act” of the book. (More on that later.) If I hadn’t had my notebook I probably would have forgotten it a couple hours later when I got home. Never be without your notebook!

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Second, you will want index cards. Index cards are wonderfully useful items that let you rearrange major plot developments in no time at all. As you can see in this picture, I’m using two different colors of index card because Crush Story is going to be narrated by two separate POV characters who pretty much alternate chapters. This way I can see which plot points belong in which character’s chapters, and I won’t need to jump back and forth between POV’s more often than I want.

Once you have your index cards, use them. Copy important scenes you scribbled in your notebooks onto them. If you already have more than just an idea or description for a scene you want, add “bullet point” notes on the rest of the card for lines, gags, important things to remember, and so on. Feel free to use both sides of the card.

The other thing you will need, or at least I need, is caffeine. When I do writing marathons (as I tend to do once inspiration has hit me) I need my Pepsi Throwback to keep me awake until the muse stops hitting me over the head.

With notebooks and index cards on hand, you’re ready to start on the plot. You’re going to want some structure, which I will discuss in an upcoming entry.

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De Re Fututa

First, please don’t say “fuck” so often. It kind of loses its impact that way.
– Andy Borman, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine

It’s been a dilemma in Young Adult literature for decades: to ‘fuck’ or not to ‘fuck.’

No, not whether or not to have sex scenes. That’s an even thornier debate and one that cannot be done justice in a blog entry. What I’m talking about is the debate over the use of “foul language” in Young Adult literature with an emphasis on the word “fuck.”

No “bad words!” Bad thoughts! Bad intentions! And words.
– George Carlin

“Fuck” is probably a thorny word because of its many different connotations. It’s always been considered vulgar. It’s extremely aggressive; “fuck you!” can actually be seen as wishing rape upon someone. And probably worst of all in the eyes of parents, “to fuck” literally means to have sex.

The dilemma over the word in YA is rooted in two facts that some people don’t want to accept. Teenagers say ‘fuck,’ and teenagers do fuck.

In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine, I used the word “fuck” (and varaitions on it like “fucked” and “fucker”) 55 times. One out of every 914 words in the book was a variation of “fuck.” This might seem excessive to some people, and it probably is, but there were reasons for it. First off, I wrote Columbine for adults, not “young” adults. It only got classified as YA because of the industry’s need to ghettoize anything with protagonists under 25 as “for kids.” Second, my narrator and his friends are angry, bitter boys and their anger manifested itself in their word use.

Perhaps in overreaction, I took a different tack in Go To Hell. In the entire book, the f word is only used three times, in very specific context. Two of them are from one of the book’s primary antagonists, who is a very unsavory character and uses the word in unsavory circumstances. When my hero, Ryan, turns around and uses it, it’s meant to show that he’s sinking to the bad guy’s level. Plus, he’s despondent and angry and less likely to censor himself at that point.

When the time came to write Sidekick,I made a vow to myself. I was going to watch my characters’ language. Since the story is set in, essentially, a comic-book universe modeled after the old DC multiverse under the Comics Code Authority a plethora of “fucks” would have seemed out of place. I still used the “s” word because I wanted my kids to sound somewhat authentic (one of my favorite lines is still “because she’s all supernatural and shit”) but limited the number of its appearances. One of my critique partners actually said they thought Bobby was too much of a goody-goody because he didn’t use profanity that often!

Still, Sidekick found a publisher where Go To Hell and Columbine had to be self-published for Kindle, so the lesson is not entirely lost on me.

834,620 x 375,002 = who really gives a fuck
– Will Grayson #2, Will Grayson Will Grayson

One major issue in the question of whether or not to use the word “fuck” has to come down to whether it fits the character and the plot. A great example is Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. In Green’s chapters, the straight Will Grayson and his friends use the F word, but sparingly. Some of the places where another character would be called a “fucker” instead use the running gag of “bitchsquealer.” (I won’t ruin the running gag for you by explaining it here, but the more it gets used, the funnier it becomes). In Levithan’s chapters, however, the gay Will Grayson uses it constantly to the point of almost being annoying. But it’s appropriate for Will #2. The anger and resentment he feels, augmented by his clinical depression, are better expressed with vulgar and aggressive language. It feels right, and draws a distinction between the two Wills.

Another one is to what effect is the word used? Is there a purpose to it? In Will Grayson Will Grayson it defines the difference between the two characters, so even if some of it is gratuitous it is there for a reason. Another great example is Dale Peck’s Sprout, where the lack of profanity and teases at the seven deadly words becomes a running gag. It keeps up until Sprout finally uses the F word at exactly the wrong moment and in the wrong circumstances. I really don’t want to go into too much detail over the use of the word because I think everyone should read the book and the use of the word is key to the climax. Suffice it to say that I think it was the most effective use of “fuck” in literature and no other word would ever do.

But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, naturally – what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.

– Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

One of my major problems with The Catcher in the Rye (as I once expounded upon at length elsewhere) is how the book’s use of language makes it archaic. Part of that is probably due to the fact that in respectable books back then the word just was not used. The same case can be made for Robert Cormier’s outstanding The Chocolate War, the book that (along with Judy Blume) really defined the genre of Young Adult as it was coming into being. Cormier’s kids can sound like goody-goodies to today’s readers because of a relative lack of profanity, but his bad guys are some of the most disgusting people in the literary universe. The book is full of violence, sex, and bad intentions, and yet it can come across as overly santized to today’s kids.

If characters in YA don’t act like “real” teenagers do today, they’re going to come across as fake and unbelievable. It’s the same thing with the way characters sound. When adults aren’t listening (and sometimes when they are), kids use profanity. They hear it from others all the time so it feels natural to them. And the “forbidden fruit” aspects of those words make them even more appealing. When a teenager tells his friend to “fuck off,” there’s a thrill of using a word he is “not supposed to” use. It’s a tiny little form of rebellion, and rebellion is the entire underpinning of adolescence. To avoid the word entirely is unnatural.

“Did I just write that? So much for this book ending up in a high school library.”
– Sprout Bradford, Sprout

I think that some of the resistance to the use of the word “fuck” in YA has come from the fear that it will lead to the book being “banned” from schools. But let’s face it, what high school kid actually uses a high school library for anything other than schoolwork? They know that the stuff they find there is going to be Sanitized For Your Protection™. If they want to read something for pleasure they are going to (a) buy the book, (b) borrow the book from a friend who read it, (c) go to the “real” municipal or county library, or increasingly (d) download a PDF or audiobook of it through Bittorrent. At the YA level (compared to the Middle-Grade or younger levels) the school library isn’t really the factor it once was.

In the end, it comes down to the story, the characters, and the way the words are used. If “fuck” is thrown around gratuitously it loses its effectiveness and becomes a distraction. If a character is perfectly straight laced (and nowadays that would have to either be a supporting character or central to the plot) it seems unnatural and would be inappropriate. But if one of your teen characters occasionally drops the F-bomb at appropriate points and uses it in the proper context, it can probably help a certain number of your readers identify with the kids they are reading about.

So if you think it’s right for you, go ahead and “fuck” your readers.

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