Archive for 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.

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.

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.

Don’t “flatter” yourself


The other day I came across a blog entry from author P.T. Dilloway which all but accused me of plagiarism because I called my hero the Scarlet Knight, and so did he.

Basing the title for his entry on the old chestnut that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he proceeds to tear Sidekick a new one essentially because he’s annoyed that I dared use the same hero name as he.

“Anyway,” Dilloway gripes, “I think what annoyed me the most by the end is there’s no fucking reason he had to call his character the Scarlet Knight.”

Actually, yes, there was. I’ve discussed that before. The “Scarlet Knight” is an homage to a failed sitcom project I undertook with Kris Leeds back in 2004. When I started writing the book I knew I wanted Bobby’s powers to be technology based and not a result of mutation, meta-genetics, or some other weird origin. I wanted his powers to be relatively believable for a teenager. Plus I wanted him to have a big, honking sword. So I took a name that I’d used before for a hero.

My manuscript (then called Squire) was finished on November 29, 2009. Draft manuscript was picked up by my publisher in March, 2012. Final edits were done in the summer of that same year, long before Dilloway’s book hit the shelves. The appearance of both of our books in that short space of time is nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. And had mine hit the bookshelves before you, I wouldn’t have any right to gripe, either, because it’s a coincidence.

He continues: “[T]he name was just some random name the author picked that could have come from some superhero name generator.”

Not really. For this one you have to blame my buddy Jeffe Boats. When he read and critiqued our spec script in 2004, he suggested changing the hero’s name to “Scarlet Knight” from the original “White Knight,” because otherwise people might think he was a Klansman.

Anyway, the only people who have a right to bitch about either of us using that name are the Rutgers Athletic Department. They predate both of us.

Next: “It is slightly gratifying in an evil way to see it only has 1 Amazon review and a lower rating on Goodreads than mine.”

Well, I hate to say this, but Goodreads (while a wonderful social forum for book lovers) is not a way to judge quality. It’s too easy for someone to game ratings there. I’ve seen ratings for books that haven’t even been published yet, so it’s quite obvious that those ratings aren’t actually from readers. Goodreads can help you find your next book by helping you find people with similar tastes and seeing what they said about what’s out there, but you can’t go by star ratings.

As for Amazon, in the end it’s not reviews that matter but the bottom line. As of this writing, Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is ranked #416,374 in the Kindle store. Sidekick is at #158,487. I also have A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine ranking in at #197,265. The only book of mine that Dilloway is currently outselling is the three year old Go To Hell. Those numbers will change and fluctuate, of course. But do not count number of reviews as the end-all-be-all.

Moving on, Dilloway says “Like pretty much all other superhero novels I’ve read, his is aimed at the mainstream people who still associate superheroes with Adam West’s Batman. He’s the Joel Schumacher to my Christopher Nolan in that I tend to take a grittier take on it.”

Actually, I prefer to think of myself as more Denny O’Neill to his Grant Morrison, but I’ll take the comparison as read.

The main problem with this comparison is one basic fact that too many writers overlook.

“Superhero” is not a genre!

It’s a character type. At best it’s it’s a category. Batman stories are not the same type of stories as Green Lantern stories, or Hulk stories, or Legion of Superheroes stories. They are aimed at different readers, different audiences, and different tones.

Sidekick is not a superhero story. It’s a young adult coming of age story where a boy finds his place in the adult world and tries to juggle responsibilities. Bobby’s being a superhero is secondary. That was just how I chose to develop the story. And Brothers in Arms is a young adult story about coping with loss and adjusting to fatherhood. It’s just that this new father wears high-tech longjohns and fights crime.

Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is an adult noir thriller with urban fantasy overtones. There is nothing wrong with that. But it’s a completely different type of story from the one I told. The two can’t be compared. Sidekick could not have been written as an adult thriller. The story would not work. And A Hero’s Journey could not have worked as a young adult novel as written. The two books deserve to be judged on separate terms.

One last topic to touch on, and while I’ve saved it for last it’s the first paragraph in Dilloway’s article. “There are a lot of books out there where I read them and say, ‘Jeez, how did this ever get published?’ Followed closely by ‘How did this [expletives deleted] get published and my book can’t?!’ There is a somewhat similar form of professional jealousy when you read a book that involves similar material to yours and while that book might be more popular you can’t help thinking, ‘OMG, this sucks!'”

I often feel the same way. I felt it myself recently. But the basic question of “how did this ever get published?” I’ll tell you in one word. Persistence. Okay, a second word. Synchronicity.

I spent over two years shopping Sidekick. I sent out 112 queries during that time. This was the nicest response I got:

I think you have a fun premise, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite find myself connecting with the narrative as I would have liked, and I’m just not confident enough that I’m the one to make this stand out in such a competitive marketplace.

What happened is that along the way I’d done some networking. I worked with my friends at YALitchat to fine tune the query and pass it past a couple of agents there. When Month9Books was just starting up, one of the founders remembered my discussion of the manuscript and asked for it. That led to the sale and publication.

Publishing is a very competitive business, and a lot of it is timing. Sometimes good manuscripts get squeezed out by the success of something else. If I’d written Mall Bats a year before Stephanie Meyer published Twilight instead of a year after, for example, I might have had a better chance of selling it. Instead, Meyer’s creations saturated the market for vampire novels and a quirky one like mine just didn’t fit in. So Mall Bats will probably sit in the bottom of my virtual desk drawer forever because the timing was wrong.

To be honest, Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is not a bad book. He’s a good writer. And if he tries his hand at Young Adult I will happily refer him to my publisher. But the lesson is not to wallow in professional jealousy. Keep writing, keep pitching, keep networking. The cream really does rise to the top, although sometimes it takes longer than we would like.

Cut, print. Moving On.


I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
– Douglas Adams

Four months late, but better late than never, I have finally handed off the first draft of Brothers in Arms. It’s now in the hands of my capable editor, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

Feeling a need to get away from “genre” books for a while (since my last four books were genre) I’ve picked my next project: a YA “bromance” called Crush Story. It’s the story of an infatuation triangle (or more of a polyhedron) between a gay boy, straight boy, and the girl stuck between them. It’s a story I’ve wanted to write for the better part of a decade, and now is my chance.

I hope to record a few more chapters’ worth of audio commentary tomorrow, now that I don’t have that huge overdue manuscript weighing me down. Thanks to everyone out there for their support and their patience.