Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The last week has had two sick teen boys, workmen coming to fix the downstairs bathroom, two books that not only are due at the same time, but are insisting on coming out at the same time AND a con approaching – Penguicon in Romulus MI at which I am Guest of Honor this coming weekend – necessitating packing and all this.
This seems like a wonderful time to talk about two perennial issues of writers – at least of writers who also have to live (and make a living) in the real world.
This week I was asked by one of my fledgelings how one ever found time for writing. Well, he didn’t ask it, exactly, but that was the idea behind his probing. After all, he is in graduate school and he has no.time.at.all.
I run into this all the time with son number one and son number two, who are gifted artists and writers in their own right but who rarely "find the time" and are always "terribly busy." Of course, those two with the artlessness of teens can often be found playing computer games hours a day. I’m sure that my fan/fledgeling is a better steward of his time. Almost anyone is. But life has a way of taking up all your time. It’s why they call it life, after all, not that thing you do when you have time.
I’ve found over time that it’s all too easy to find writing squeezed out of your life by the most trivial of concerns. As the mother of two kids, owned by five cats plus two and having the normal duties of home maintenance and cleaning, I can always find something that needs to be urgently done. Right now. Instead of sitting at the keyboard.
It’s all too easy to give in to this, and I’d like to say I’m strong – most of the time. The truth is that I’m not, and I let real life TM interfere all too many times. There are days I get nothing done in writing. And when I’m managing to do the writing, or on deadline, the house goes to h*ll and I hate that.
There is no magic answer. The best I’ve found is that "you make time for writing and you stick to it."
The downside of this, when you have full time jobs, or other writing jobs, or children, or a family, is that you can fall prey to "tired writer syndrome."
In its milder manifestation, you’ll find yourself telling what should be shown or using a lot of passive voice.
In the worst cases, the story will read – quite without your knowing how – as if you were floating on a sheet of glass above characters and situations. The only cure for that is to go back in and BE there when you write it, no matter how tired, no matter how difficult it is.
No one said this job was easy. You sit at the keyboard, and you open a vein. Ink must continue flowing, even when it should be dry. And if this is what you want to do more than anything in the world, you manage it. Somehow.
Please check back later. Sarah promises to join us just as soon as she can. Thanks.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
(Richard's book that won the Golden Aurealis)
I'm glad I only have to do a blog once a week. My Tuesday slot comes around so quickly I'm left wondering what to write about.
I don't want to blog about how I spent all day running after my children, driving them to and from jobs and Uni, and doing the shopping and now I feel flat.
I don't want to write about how I spent all day doing a final draft of my book, only to discover a flaw in the plotting, so I had to go back 200 pages and rewrite key scenes to explain a certain character's motivation and now I feel exhausted.
Today I have something upbeat to write about. My friend, Richard Harland, has created a web site with 145 pages of writing tips and put them up here.
Richard writes Speculative Fiction, with fifteen books out and his latest book, 'WorldShaker', due out soon. He's been nominated for Aurealis Awards several times and won several times. (I can't remember how many, but he did win a Golden Aurealis).
The tips range across all levels from basic to advanced. There’s (i) Good Writing Habits, getting feedback and revising; (ii) Action, Setting, Dialogue and presenting Inner Thought; (iii) creating Characters and character’s point of view; (iv) Story from beginning to climax, narrative momentum and pacing; (v) Language, style, first-person narration, names and titles; and, last but not least, (vi) Getting Published – how the publishing system works, how to break into it and what happens afterwards.
It is the sort of thing you can dip into when you feel you need inspiration, or maybe to clarify a point.
Very generous, Richard!
Monday, April 27, 2009
That was distasteful, but had to be said.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Louise and Dave’s Posts about genre and sales of hardcover versus paperback books got me thinking about why people buy books and how. So I surveyed the Vision E-list. Since these people are readers and writers of Speculative Fiction, I thought they’d be a good example of dedicated readers.
Here’s a snap shot of readers:
Q: Why do you buy certain books?
Most people buy books on a recommendation or they like the author’s work. Brooke B said she’d buy a book if ‘ the back cover blurb gave me goosebumps’. Lee C is currently buying books to fill in gaps in their reading. And yes, people do browse and buy, after reading the first few pages, then skipping to the last page.
Q: Do you prefer certain genres?
While everyone did have favourite genres, these ranged from two or three related genres, to a broad spectrum, including mysteries, paranormal romances, historical and factual books. In fact, Nicky S described herself as a ‘book omnivore’.
Q: Would you follow a favourite author across genres?
Everyone said they would follow a favourite author across to other genres and Nicky S, bless her, said she has even discovered author’s alternate writing names and hunted up their books!
Q: Do you read books for kids and YA or do you stick to adult books?
Here the split was quite definite, a little less than half read only adult. But, Scott R said, it wasn’t that he didn’t like YA, only that there were so many good adult books around, he didn’t have the time to get through them. The others (slightly more than half) read YA and kids books and loved them. Sally N reads more YA than anything else.
Q: Do you pick a book up because of its cover?
Only two people said no, because they were looking for specific authors and titles. Everyone else said a good cover would prompt them to pick up the book, then it was up to the blurb and the writing to convince them to buy it. Sue B says a bad cover will turn her off looking at a book, and she always reads the first couple of pages anyway. No one would you buy a books for the cover art alone, although Sally N will buy a graphic novel. (Being an artist, I must confess I’ve bought books for the cover alone).
Q: Do you buy most of your books based on the recommendations of friends?(My question was flawed, I should have asked if people had bought some books based on friends’ recommendations).
Satima F said her friends loan books to introduce a new author, or she might borrow a recommended book from the library. Sue B says she always tries to borrow the book first , and has to love it before she will buy it (she’s running out of book shelf space!). Most people would consider a book a friend recommended.
Q: Do you ask bookstore staff for good reads?
I was surprised by the answers to this one, because when I go into our local independent book store (Pulp Fiction), I ask Iain or Ron if there are any interesting books that push the genre, particularly from independent publishers. But most people said they rarely or never ask book store staff for recommendations. Kylie Q found that staff were too busy or didn’t know anything, which is sad. Edwina H said she did read the ‘staff reviews’ on the shelves.
Q: Do reviews (good or bad) prompt you to buy books?
It is just as authors fears. All those review copies our publishers send out don’t reel in the readers. Only a few of the people surveyed would look at book after reading a good review, some actively ignore reviews. Graham S took an interest in reviews but only for scientific non-fiction. And
Q: Would you wait for a paperback version or would you buy hardcover?
Most people were like Karen T, who said she would usually wait and wouldn’t buy hardcover unless she wanted it NOW.
Q: Do you prefer hardcover to paperback?
Four out of every five people said no. Although, Nicky S said she preferred hardcover because HC were easier to read while lying in bed. Edwina H said she preferred paperback because they were more portable.
Would you buy book two of a trilogy if you didn’t have book one?
Many people would definitely not buy book two if they didn’t have book one, or would only buy it by accident. Brooke B said she would buy book two if she was sure she could still get book one. And Edwina H would check to see if book two had a discrete story, before buying it. AJ Kay would buy book two if it was on special, then wait until they could get book one before reading them in sequence.
Q: Would you wait for all of a trilogy to come out before buying it?
Most people were willing to read the books as the trilogy came out.
Q: Would you prefer an omnibus edition of a trilogy?
Most people wouldn’t buy an omnibus because the printing is too small and they get sore wrists because the book is too heavy. I must admit I’ve bought collected works in omnibus form but these tend to be classic editions.
Q: Do you visit independent books stores?
Nearly everyone visited independent book stores. Edwina H preferred them because they had better range and the staff had a good knowledge of their stock. Some people didn’t visit independent book stores due to distance. Kylie Q would have to catch two buses to get to one. Graham S lived even further. His local book store is 150 kilometres away. And Dave F had to drive for 5 hours to get to his nearest independent books store.
Q: Do you mainly buy from chain book stores?
Brooke B confessed she worked for a chain store and gets a discount, so she buys her books there. And about half the people surveyed bought most of their books from chain stores.
Q: Do you buy your books mostly online and get them delivered?
Half the readers don’t buy online. The other half do, especially if they are after something that is hard to get. Living 150 Ks from a book store, Graham S buys on line and gets his books delivered. Sally N orders books on line because she likes looking forward to something fun in her letter box. And Lee C, who prefers audio books, buys these online and downloads them.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
One of the paradoxes of our time is that the world is full of people who want to be fiction authors but fewer and fewer people want to read stories. Jim Baen always used to point out that he worked in a dyeing industry.
To take the first point first, so to speak. What are the motivations of the would-be author? Is it money? We have all read about the vast fortunes paid to JK Rowling and Dan Brown but these people are the literary equivalent of lottery winners. It ain’t going to happen to me, you, or anyone we know anytime soon. I probably earn less than minimum wage for my writing.
Another carrot is the prospect of status. Authors are respected intellectuals, aren’t they? Well no, actually they aren’t. I have lost track of the number of people who look condescendingly on my work. It is not literary so it must be worthless. A chap who writes a novel consisting of the word ‘crap’ tastefully arranged in patterns on each page is an arteeste. The rest of us are hacks. As a BBC producer told me, ‘anyone can write fantasy because it’s easy’. He went on to explain that I should write comedy about three generations of women who live together without men. This was the current fashionable BBC sitcom. It disappeared without trace shortly afterwards. This talentless, Oxbridge, twit (bitter? moi?) went on to reach the very highest levels of the BBC. Who said the Old Boy Network is dead. So my advice is to forget status. You won’t get any as an author. I guess you have heard about the starlet that was so stupid that she slept with the writer.
How about fame? Forget it. Performers become famous for their beauty or style, even occasionally for their wit, but writers – never! Yes, yes, JK Rowling is famous but she won the lottery.
So why do it? The only answer I can give is that I love to tell stories. If I make a few bob as well then that is all to the good but the real kick is when I entertain someone and give them pleasure.
Friday, April 24, 2009
By Jennifer Stevenson
I collect old editions of thesauri, phrasebooks, familiar quotations, and weird specialty lexicons. Some just sit on my shelf, unloved. Others get used every day. Here’s some favorites, many of which you can get very reasonably at online used book outlets.
Best all time favorite:
1. Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, by Peter Mark Roget, M.D., F.R.S.
Grosset & Dunlap New York, revised 1935 edition
This book will not offer “text” as a verb. However, it’ll give you words you wished you knew and never knew existed. Handle it gently. The pages are brittle.
2. Barlett's Familiar Quotations, by John Bartlett. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Toronto, thirteenth and Centennial edition.
I have both the thirteenth (1955) and the sixteenth (1992) editions. Yes, they're different. Just browsing gives you an idea what sort of education the author/editors felt the users would have, or would want to give the impression they have.
3. The Big Book of Filth: 6500 sex slang words and phrases, Jonathan Green ed. Cassell, London, 2002 paperback.
Unbelievably handy for someone whose characters from 1795 through 2010 talk dirty.
4. 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, ed. Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine, 1988.
When you need a name and slash or function slash appearance for a demon, alien, vampire, or just a bizarre character. Superior to, but not by any means completely overlapping with:
5. A Dictionary of Angels: including the fallen angels, by Gustav Davidson. The Free Press, New York, 1971
This is grossly historically inaccurate but full of fun stuff. I use it for a fantasy fiction idea source, definitely not for nonfiction work.
These three have lots of overlap but it’s hard to say which I like better:
6. A Dictionary of Euphemisms, by R.A. Holder. Oxford University Press, 1996.
7. A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk, by Hugh Rawson. Crown, New York, 1980.
8. The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence, by a member of the Whip Club. Studio Editions Ltd., London, 1994.
The third is the real goods, supplying authentic English Regency slang, much of it impolite, from altitudes to zedland.
9. Butler’s Lives of the Saints, concise edition, Michael Walsh, ed. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1985.
This is the short version. Good for many things. Think about it.
10. Backstage Handbook, by Paul Carter. Broadway Press, Louisville KY, 1994, third edition.
When I need stagehand geek stuff and my spousal unit isn’t around to tell me the answers.
11. A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve, F.R.H.S., Mrs. C.F.Leyel, Ed. Dorset Press, New York, 1992.
Written in 1931, edited, in 1973. Handy if you want to poison someone in the country.
12. A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Fashion, by Ludmila Kybalová, Oldga Herbenová, and Milena Lamarová, translated by Claudia Rosoux. Hamlyn Publishing Group, New York, 1968.
Has over 1,000 pictures, all useful, although I could wish for more underwear.
Sometimes you can find gems like these in the dusty, unloved section of a used book store and so save on shipping & handling. But when you gotta know what your Regency earl had under his inexpressables and what he called it, and you need to know before your galleys go in on Tuesday, there's nothing like the online outlets.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
My next novel, The Terrorists of Irustan, came along. This one I knew was science fiction. It has actual science. It takes place on a different planet. Ergo, sf, right? But not exactly. It turns out I had written something called social science fiction. Okay, looking back on other books that carried that designation, I had to agree, because books by Connie Willis, Nancy Kress, Vonda McIntyre, and Suzy McKee Charnas fit that genre.
You might think that by then I knew what I was writing, but I still didn't. And I don't. I wonder if any of us do? When we delve into a story, I suspect a lot of us (the least commercial of us, I'm sorry to say) are thinking about plot and character and what we want to say with our story. We're not thinking about what genre it is. And even if we were, would it make a difference how we write the story?
Genre identification is useful mostly for marketing purposes. The big challenge in publishing is to match the reader to the book, and naming genres is one way to do that. Amazon and other services label books by genre. I'd really like to know how many authors deliberately set out to write, say, paranormal romance, a relatively new and quite popular genre. Or urban fantasy. I wonder if urban fantasist Kat Richardson, for example, just had a set of characters in her head, and a setting, and started telling stories? It might be easier to write to a specific genre, but the danger in that is that the genre we choose might have already morphed into something else by the time the book hits the shelves.
I have a new book coming, and I don't know what genre that one is, either. If pressed, I might say paranormal women's fiction. I might say musical historical fantasy. But I might not say anything, because I keep being surprised by these things. It seems markets and reviews choose the labels, not authors. I just hope my readership is willing to trot along after me as I tread different paths. And I hope they know it wasn't I who put up the road signs.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Life has been particularly active over here lately, in the form of kid's college applications, various monetary transactions juggling and a health crisis with diabetic cat. All this while I'm RIDICULOUSLY overdue with one novel and on the verge of overdue with the other. I feel horribly like I'm shorting the blog, but a reasoned post simply won't happen. Instead, I shall give a smattering of news and promise more on voice and my views on it next week.
The best news first -- I am a finalist, with two books, Soul of Fire and A Death In Gascony for the Colorado Book Award.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Museum, by RD Studio.
My husband is the D part of R & D Studios. He hopes to retire at the end of this year and dedicate himself to artwork and animation.
He squeezes his art around work . I squeeze my writing around my family.
I figure as long as the children have clean clothes, food on the table and they get to school and Uni on time, we're doing OK. But I must admit I resent doing the shopping and the driving.
My days are filled with juggling family, stealing time to go to the gym and read books, stealing time to go the movies with my patient husband and meeting deadlines. Yet I still get a thrill when I find an author who makes me forget I'm reading a book. I still get a thrill when I write a scene that pulls together narrative threads and explores character and Works!
I wouldn't be doing anything else.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Here is the theory HC:PB ratio will be around 1:4
Here is the fact - they range 1:2.1 to 1:7.3
Theory: 95% of sales of a new book occur in the first 3 months
Fact: The Forlorn - 1999 - sold 123 copies in the last 6 months. It's sold more than 25% more than the initial report. It's not on many shelves.
Theory: Sequels will sell more or less 20% less than the first book.
Fact. huh? Whut? sometimes the second HC outsells the first, seldom loses more than 5%, and the paperback figures are all over, but mostly a lot lower... because (theory by Dave proved by his loco... uh, local bookstore ) no one wants to by the second book in a series when the first isn't for sale.
Theory: names draw sales. Actuality - names draw hardcover sales. except A MANKIND WITCH -solo - hardback, with an awful cover, outsold anything by Eric and I combined. The PB on the other hand sold badly, barely getting 1:2.1 ratio. PB sales I think are cover and content driven - and distribution naturally. Actually the distrib might be important for the hardcover sales too.
I can't make head or tail of it. I'll stick to writing with occasional breaks to grumble about it.
OK, this is out of sequence but because I am a wild free spirit I intend to do it anyway.
Although I have lived most of my adult life within the London commuter belt, I am actually from the Westcountry surfing town of Newquay in Cornwall. The Lambshead family come from Honeywell Farm, Ilsington, which is on South Darmoor - Hound of the Baskerville Country.
Westcountry people are Southern English but are California to London's new York. In the westcountry, life is a little slower, more laid back and somewhat wacky.
Wincanton is a small Westcountry market town of about 5,000m people. I now live in a village in Kent of about 50,000 people, to put things inperspective. In the Dark Ages it was frontier country and the site where Edmund Ironside defeated the Danes.
Like many English towns, Wincanton is twinned with a French and a German town. However, it is the only town that I know of in England to be twinned with Ankh-Morpork on the Discworld.
In honour of this fact, this year it named new streets Treacle Mine Road, Peach Pie Street etc.
I like the Westcountry.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
When I go over and sit in the chair, I'm disconnected from all the distractions of the business arena. There's a mug of tea beside me, and the petting couch for my furry muses right next to the chair. I have a shawl to keep my legs warm on cold days. The bulletin board with pictures to inspire my writing is more for when I'm at the desk—an additional enticement to go over and write. I can't actually see it much from the chair.
A window to the right overlooks my back yard, where I've put up bird feeders and am developing a butterfly garden. Mountains in the distance. At night, I like a cozy cave-like environment, so I usually only have the stained glass lamp on.
The chair is a recliner and I write on a laptop. This allows me to avoid the physical fatigue problems that come from working on a laptop with more conventional furniture. My arms and wrists are supported.
My writing laptop never connects to the internet. This is crucial—email is a tempting distraction. Even more insidious is research: "Oh, I'll just look up this one detail I need..." and half an hour later I wake up, having meandered down the primrose websurfing path.
It took me a while to put together this environment for my writing. I gradually assembled the separate writing computer, the side table and lamp, and found the perfect chair which a gift from my dear departed mother-in-law helped to pay for. My writing corner is perhaps eight feet square, and it's one of the most important areas in my house.
Every writer needs a good writing environment. Some like to write in coffee shops, others at the kitchen table. Kris Rusch, in her blog series for freelancers, has some good general recommendations about setting up a workspace. Her advice is not specific to writers but certainly applies, and she describes her own writing environments.
That's where I write. How about you?
Thursday, April 16, 2009
And the conclusion was as dramatic as any I can imagine. The internet became the instrument of an irresistible flood of protest, and Twitter--using #AmazonFail as its byword--exploded with fury. Amazon has apparently been up to these shenanigans for several months, but on Easter Sunday they were forced by this public response to begin reparations.
First Google, now Amazon. I suspect these corporations have just gotten too damn big to think.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
According to a piece I saw the other day romance sales are up 32%. This makes me think the sale of big fat fantasy novels will be going up. After all, having battled the real world all week, what is nicer than to curl up on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a book that's going to take you away to a fantasy world where the villains are recognizable and the world's problems can be conquered?
I'm not saying we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the world. Each week, if I remember, I buy New Scientist and read it from cover to cover. But I can only take so much doom and gloom. I need something to smile about and whether I'm reading the latest Janet Evanovich or a Joe Abercrombie, I'm refueling to go out and face the real world.
For anyone who is interested, Rose Fox has an article here on the way our fiction needs relate to what's happening in the real world.
Monday, April 13, 2009
On Monday night, she and James turned up at Rodomon Street at nine. The road was lined with parked earthmoving equipment. A handful of protesters slouched by a banner.
“How did it go, Mick?” asked James.
“Ace, mate, absolutely ace. We sat in front of the machines, preventing them coming on site, waved placards and generally made a complete nuisance of ourselves. The local press turned out and even the Standard. Someone had tipped them off.” Mick blew on his fingers with mock modesty. “Rayman himself turned up in the end to shake his fist at us. It was glorious. All you two have to do is watch the place until morning. We’ll be back then.”
“Sure,” said James. “They seem to have given up and gone home for the night.”
“You two love birds have a quiet night,” said Mick, with a stage leer.
Rhian found it impossible not to laugh. She and James waved them off and then they were alone. They wandered around the wasteland for a while. The moon came up, casting strange shadows across the site, its reflection rippling in the water. Rhian shivered, the air was cold, this close to the canal, despite the season. James noticed and took her back to the hut. James hauled an airbed from his rucksack and Rhian pulled a sleeping bag out of hers.
“I hate blowing these things up,” said James. “I always get light-headed. Fortunately, I have a cure for that.”
He produced a bottle and two plastic cups.
“I think you will find it a cheeky little wine, with the merest hint of cinnamon, apple and old ash tray. This was the finest beverage that the supermarket boasted, for less than three-pound fifty.”
I’m sure it’ll be lovely,” said Rhian.
They shared it watching the city through the open door, enjoying the wine and each other. Rhian was quite drowsy when they went to bed but sleep eluded her. James dropped off immediately. The city seemed so close; sound carrying easily through the flimsy wood of the hut. She catnapped until something woke her up. She lay listening, wondering if she had dreamt the sound but it came again, the chink of a bottle kicked along the ground. There were also voices.
She shook James.
“What is it?” he asked, sleepily
“There’s someone out there,” she said.
“Stay here while I go and look,” he said.
She followed him, of course.
Five boys stood outside. One of them had a can in his hand and she smelt petrol.
“So a couple of snotty students are still here. Rayman will be pleased. He fancied making an example of someone,” said the lout at the front. “We will have some fun after all.”
“A few more minutes and they would have been fricasseed student,” said the one with the can. The others laughed.
Rhian moved, changing her silhouette against the moonlight, attracting attention.
“One of them’s a girl,” a voice said.
“So she is. We will definitely have fun then,” the lout said.
“Run, Rhian,” said James, giving her a shove. He charged straight at the gang. James hit the lout in the face. James was a big man and the lout went down with a thud.
Rhian couldn’t move. She couldn’t think. She was so scared for James.
James was trading blows with three of them now. Two of the gang grabbed him. The gang leader was back on his feet. He had an iron bar in his hand. Rhian watched it in slow motion. The bar swung high before slicing into James’ skull. There was a crunch like a plastic toy crushed by a hammer and James fell, blood spraying from his head.
Rhian threw herself at the lout, screaming. Her nails raked his face.
“Bloody bitch,” he said and hit her in the mouth with his fist, knocking her to the ground.
“He’s dead,” said a ganger, examining James’s body. “His skull’s all squishy.”
“Then she has to go as well,” said the leader. “We don’t want no witnesses.”
Rhian’s blouse was torn. Blood from her cut lip dripped down her front onto the Celtic brooch. It gleamed in the moonlight and soaked up the blood, like sponge. The silver brooch pulsed red light. It burnt against her skin.
Cramp seized her muscles, the pain making her gasp. She couldn’t scream, couldn’t even breathe and her very bones ached. Her teeth and mouth were pulled outwards. The moonlight shuddered and, what little colour that was left in it, bleached away. The world was monochrome but the world smelt; it was alive with thousands of shades of scent. She heard everything, from the breathing of the gang members to the cars on the distant M4. She howled with pleasure at the beauty of the city.
She rolled over onto her feet and stood up. She smelt fear; the gang reeked of terror. She chuckled deep in her throat but it came out as a growl. Her mate lay still. She loped over to him and she licked his face. James’s head lolled and blood oozed out of his broken skull. The gang backed away from her. One of them held metal in his hand and she could smell her mate’s blood on it.
The wolf did not intellectualise; the wolf acted. She gathered her legs under her and leapt. The prey backed away but her front paws struck his shoulders. He prodded ineffectually at her but the iron bar bounced unnoticed off the packed muscle in her shoulders. She smashed him to the ground with her body weight. Her jaws descended on his face and she bit hard, tasting the rich flavour of hot blood. The lout screamed, the sound fading into a gurgle.
A ganger sobbed and ran but the wolf chased running prey. She brought him down in three bounds and her jaws snapped his neck like it was made from balsa wood. The last three stayed together for protection. Prey often chose the illusory safety of numbers. She prowled around them, forcing them into a closer and closer huddle. She howled and leapt in amongst them, jaws tearing flesh and crunching bone. She tasted blood, so much blood.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Life is good.
I have just dined with my wife, grown up daughters, and their boyfriends in a family meal.
First, we watched the Easter Dr Who Special. This programme is a throwback to the seventies as saturday night entertainment for the whole family, something that is supposed to be obsolete. Dr Who has been an incredible success because it has great scripts, superb performances by actors rather than stars, great direction, and appropriate SFX designed to support the plot not supplant it.
This issue was wonderful, with a London double-decker bus that travels through a wormhole. There was a nod to the Old Programmes with an appearance by UNIT lead by a black female officer - remember that from Sylvester McCoy's days.
Quality is for ever, fads die.
Life is also good because I am within two scenes (750 words) of finishing 'Last Man Standing' that has to be delivered next week - there are time penalty clauses in my contract. I have to produce a publishable piece on the agreed subject, on the agreed date, at the agreed length.
May I wish everyone a happy Easter with their family and friends.
(The picture is of Chilham Church taken in Feb, 2009)
Friday, April 10, 2009
One of the things I’ve worked hardest on as a writer is the meter, pace, and rhetorical impact of individual sentences and paragraphs. I’ve spent more time on this than any other aspect of my craft. In spite of all my efforts, I still end up with paragraphs that sound sing-songy, sentences where a word will be repeated accidentally in different forms, weak sentence fragments, or paragraphs where the most powerful phrase is buried in the middle, not placed at the end where it can kick the reader in the pants.
This comes from my background in poetry. My mother used to read Rudyard Kipling to us when we were kids, and my dad read Robert Service until we could recite the one about “the men who moil for gold,” whole stanzas by heart. These poets wrote ballads—long story-poems where the meter and rhyme were intended to support and emphasize the power of the story. Their poems weren’t about words. They were about story. If they flubbed a rhyme or repeated a word by accident (not for emphasis or for poetic power) it really stood out. Not that they flubbed often.
I learned something more about paragraphing from my music history prof, Ed Kottick, back in Iowa City. He would play a stanza of a Haydn piece and show us the perfect symmetry: how each phrase was the same length, and how each phrase and the stanza itself resolved in both an expected and an unexpected way. Then he played Mozart. Mozart would do three lines of the expected, and then his fourth line, the clincher, the kick in the pants, would be short.
Mozart added silence at the end of his “paragraphs.” Where you expected to hear more, you got less. It made you listen closer. The short line kicked harder.
Because of all this attention to micro-level voice I can now make a sentence roll over, sit up and beg, play dead.
If you want to become more aware of your writing voice on a micro-level, try converting one of your most powerful scenes into iambic pentameter, or even trocheeic hexameter, which is crazy wicked fun.
Here’s iambic pentameter, which should go
“ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM.”
Here’s trocheeic hexameter, which should go
“DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da.”
Each of these rhythms has a specific use in poetry, and real poetry geeks can yuk all night long over somebody’s incredibly witty play upon spondees and double-dactyls in the inverse sestina form. You can skip all that.
Just try to tell your scene in rhythm and rhyme. You may find yourself writing a song, with verses and a chorus that repeats. The chorus may be in a different form from the verse. You may find certain words repeating over and over in slightly different contexts. You may find the scene develops an entirely different feel, and even more power, because you have paid extra attention to the beat. You’ll probably amaze yourself with your own brilliance, and then kick yourself because you don’t know where you can show it off. Don’t look at me. I haven’t tried to sell a poem since the tenth grade.
Well, you can put it in your blog. Or post it here in comments.
Find me on Myspace, Facebook as Jennifer Stevenson, Twitter as JenStevenson, and at BookViewCafe.com.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
BookViewCafe.com is holding its very first Twitter-Fic contest!
The task: To write a complete story incorporating the contest theme in one tweet (126 characters or fewer).
The prize: An autographed copy of Pati Nagle's brand new release THE BETRAYAL.
The judges: A crack team of noted authors: Pati Nagle, Jennifer Stevenson and Sarah Zettel. Stories will be judged on creative use of the theme and the medium.
The Theme: Elf meets Vampire
The timeline: The contest opens at 9 am EST Friday April 10 and closes 9pm Sunday April 12.
Where: Twitter: http://twitter.com/bookviewcafe
1) Up to five entries per twitterer.
2) One tweet per entry.
3) All work must be original to the twitterer.
4) No obscenity. If you can't say it on network TV between the hours of 10pm-12pm you can't say it here.
5) No late entries will be considered.
6) No early entries will be considered.
7) Tweet your entry @bookviewcafe (type "@bookviewcafe" and a space, then your story, into your update box).
All entries must BEGIN with @bookviewcafe.Once the contest begins, the entries may be viewed at http://search.twitter.com/search?q=+to%3Abookviewcafe
New on Twitter and need help? Check http://help.twitter.com/forums/10711/entries/13920
Need more info? Contact BookViewCafe.com: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Contact-Us
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Years ago, a friend who was – then – a beginning writer was on a panel with Dave Weber and managed to ask what words or sentences would make him as a beginner.
Dave Weber’s answer is that you can do pretty much what you want and as long as you have a voice you will carry it through. He is of course right. I’m not going to name names, because the last thing I need is bestsellers upset at me, but we all know people who consistently hit the bestseller lists and who have such clear and obvious “beginner” defects as puerile characters, insufficient research, undeveloped background or incoherent plots. Now, I will confess I don’t know any bestseller who has all of those, but I do know those who have at least two. And it doesn’t matter. In fact, both of them are people I read regularly. Why? Because the flaws will be obvious once I put the book down. But I don’t think of them until I’m done with the book.
I think one of the main components of voice is what one of my teachers, back in pre-history, called “authorial confidence.” What the heck is authorial confidence? Well, it’s the certainty that you know what you’re talking about, the absolute conviction that you’re telling it like it is. A lot of this is internal and hard to fake. It’s a matter of “if you don’t believe it yourself, how can other people believe it?”
As some of you know, I’ve been taking art for about a year, partly to use a different side of brain/rest from writing. I’ve found the process is very similar in many ways and that what can be said for authorial voice can be said for color.
When I first started using color I was very timid about it. Perhaps because I started drawing first in charcoal and you really have to be careful not to overwhelm a face with lines or dark spots, unless the person you’re drawing is about a hundred. So when I started drawing, first in pastel, then in colored pencils (I think I actually do something called colored-pencil-painting, as in, when I’m done, you’re not sure what medium I used and there’s a lot of layering, highlighting and texturing going on, but anyway, that’s something else. I use colored pencils for the same reason I used to do crossstitch in hardanger, because you have to concentrate on each small area which sort of gives your brain time to rest from bigger things. ) I tried to be subtle. The result is that all my people looked waxy-pale and there were no shadows or depth.
At a bookstore signing (not my own) I ended up talking to local artist Laura Givens and – after seeing my drawings – she said my problem is that I was afraid of color and contrast. At the time it struck me as silly, but I had heard from my teachers that lack of contrast is one of the mistakes of the beginning artist, so I was willing to give it a try. I started emphasizing shadows and lines much, much more strongly. At first it felt wrong and strange, but as I took breaks and looked at those pictures again, I came to realize those were the “good” ones. (“Good” because I’m still very much a learner.)
So if there is one voice component that identifies one as a beginner I’d say it is a flatness, a “sameness” and an almost painful attempt at being “correct” and uniform. In my experience this is not how most people – even beginners – write. It’s just that most beginners write their first draft then go over it not with the idea of “how do I heighten contrast?” Or “How do I show this emotion?” or even “Can I make this description more vivid?”
No, in the beginner’s mind, while editing, there is only one thought “Oh, my LORD, I’m embarrassing myself.” With this in mind, anything that sticks out, anything that – more often than not – reveals the inner author and therefore feels truthful and strong, will be “polished” out.
Of course I’m speaking from experience at a whole other level as I only very recently have managed NOT to edit out emotion or embarrassing situations.
So, what is the cure for this? I don’t know. Perhaps when you edit you can edit while pretending this is someone else’s. Or perhaps you just need to keep in your mind that to make a picture, you need the angry greys as well as the pretty pale pink. Perhaps you can give it to a trusted reader, and ask them to highlight the parts they liked or felt best, then compare it to your finished draft and see if you edited most of those out.
Or perhaps you just need to hold a feather and tell yourself that you can indeed fly.
Whatever you do, however you do it, don’t be afraid of your own voice. Ultimately, it’s yours, and no one can tell you that you got it all wrong.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Well, I've just sent my agent the proposal for my new series, The Shallow Sea.
The standard proposal is a synopsis and 3 chapters. I like to include a blurb. Writing a blurb is hard. I heard one author say, imagine two teenagers had been to see a movie of your book. How would they describe it?
This is a gritty fantasy series set in a tropical paradise filled with hidden dangers where the inhabitants battle the elements and each other to survive. The first two books form a duology, which tells the story of a reluctant warrior seeking redemption, a ruthless nomad desperate to save her brother and an unwanted misfit who hates the world, but is the only one who can prove the
WHO is the story about?
WHAT do they want?
WHY can't they achieve it?
HOW to they overcome this?
If you have more than one narrative character, then ask the question about each of them, and weave the threads into your synopsis. The lovely Kim Wilkins once said, think of ten descriptive words about your book and use them to flavour your synopsis. Think of it as a selling tool.
And then there's the chapter samples. Feedback from fellow writers is great, as is feedback from fantasy readers.
Now all I can do is sit back and cross my fingers. Meanwhile, I'll work on another book.
Monday, April 6, 2009
Now Sarah can probably chime in and give some more precise figures, but the odds are the length you will need to provide for the most common markets are 4000 -6000 words, or in general novel terms around 90-120K words. There's stuff like folios and print sizes and shipping boxes... all of which are not your problem but your publisher's problem. However providing a satifactory length book or story does make you a little more popular. I figure I've written about 5 million words of books and stories by now, and I have something of a feel for how long it will take me to tell a specific story. That's very nice for me... but not much use as advice, I hear you mutter, before preparing to pelt me with over-ripe fruit. Well, yes. Fortunately I have a hard head, and washable pelt, but the truth is length is rather specific to the individual. I'm quite terse, so the same story will take me two-thirds of Eric's natural length and so on. The point is you have to practice this and learn it, but there is clear relationship between the number of main characters and the length, and a less direct relationship with scenes. Each writer varies, and you will have to experiment and find your own, but for me it's 10 to 15K for each major character, and for short stories about 1.5-2K a scene (hence my shorts often tend to 3 scenes). That works for me. It won't be the same for you, but it is worth coming to grips with your length if you need to insert extra (or cut more) to be the object of your editors desire.
Here endeth the entendre!
OK, slept well, glands going down, brain semi-funtioning, let's dooooo it.
A little while ago I read a book written by a well known American author, whose work I greatly admire. He is a far better writer than I.
I enjoyed the book as a story. However, the author had overreached himself. He had set the story in the middle of the 20thC and his primary POV characters were upper-class Englishmen. He had the basic historical facts right but wrote them as 21stC Americans. They think in a composite of British and America English - automobiles for example.
The characters have 21stC American politics. The civil servants are scared of 'The Liberals' taking office. That one had me flummoxed. The Liberal Party had no chance of winning an election in the 1940s or 50s. Then I realised he meant The Labour Party, who were socialists, not liberals. There is a difference. Besides, why would senior civil servants want The Conservative Party to win an election? British civil servants of this period were not neo-cons.
It is difficult to write a book out of your cultural perspective. I would have problems writing a book with 1950s upper class Englishmen as my POV characters.
There is an old saying - write about what you know. You will be far more convincing. Agatha Christie's stories are not about detectives but about the foibles of upper-middle class southern English families of a certain era.
PS The pic is of Faversham Creek on the North Kent marshes at Harty Ferry
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Friday, April 3, 2009
The Betrayal came out last week from Del Rey. Sample chapters are online on the website and at Book View Cafe. I'm delighted, and also a bit frazzled, what with appearances, guest blogging, etc. It's all beginning to blur together, but here are some highlights of First Week Frenzy:
- Friends from around the country reporting they've seen the book on "New Fiction" displays in bookstores
- Meeting a reader at a library talk and discovering I was her "first author" (she'd never met one before)
- Getting asked a lot of interesting questions about my fantasy world-building
- Hearing that a reader stayed up late to finish the novel
- Noticing my husband's computer displaying the map I put up on the novel's website (it didn't get into the book)
- Hearing about readers' favorite characters
- Learning what people like about elves
Probably the funniest thing that happened was that I showed up for a reading at a local library with a scene about vampires hunting, not realizing I'd be reading in the children's section. (My audience was half-and-half humans and teddy bears.)
Next week I have a signing at a local bookstore, and I'm inviting folks to come dressed in ælven attire, with a prize to the best outfit. What other fun things have folks seen/done in conjunction with signings?
Thursday, April 2, 2009
I've been working so hard on novels the last few years that I've forgotten how useful it is to write small.If you're having trouble getting your head around that big project, it can flex your writing muscles to write in short bursts.*One of my favorite exercises (works best with a group) is to ask everyone to contribute a starting line like "Timmy sat on his sled at the top of Deadman Hill." Then everyone writes from that starting sentence. Set the timer for five minutes. You're done. Read out loud (no critiquing) then set the timer for ten minutes. Pull the next sentence out of the bowl, and write again. End with a twenty-minuter. I promise that in one hour you will write things that surprise you, and maybe knock your socks off. Some pieces will be clunkers, but the idea is to warm up, not create deathless fiction. Try flash fiction on your own, too. It's fun, and it teaches you to trust that the words will come.
I think I'll try this myself!
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
First of all I want to apologize for being absent for two weeks. You see, it started with Opus (can you hear a crescendo of ominous music?) Opus is a local con which has been on hiatus for a year or two and has now restarted with a new emphasis on the literary track of things.
The program organizer asked me to be toastmaster and I was quite glad to oblige. The guest of honor was the husband and wife writing team of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, who write as Ilona Andrews. I’d never met them, but it turns out they’re very nice people and the con was all around lovely. So how did the trouble start with them, you ask?
Well it wasn’t their fault and to be honest it wasn’t even the hotel’s fault either. You see, I’m deathly allergic to feathers, one of those things that seems to get worse every time I’m exposed to them. So normally I make it a point of checking all the bedding in a hotel for feathers before I go to bed. Only this time we just checked the pillows, and called the desk for replacements. It didn’t occur to me to check the coverlet because it didn’t feel like feathers. It wasn’t till the second night, when I woke up struggling to breathe, assumed it was a return of pneumonia, and was about to ask Dan to drive me to emergency, that I decided to check the coverlet which was... yep, feathers.
The end result of this is that my reaction was so severe I spent the next week recovering. And then we went to Luna con.
It had been planned a long time and I would have written something in advance, except for the allergy in between.
At any rate Lunacon was an odd con for me. Normally – with some exceptions where I attend because I like the place/people – I go to cons with a list of people to meet, business to discuss – that sort of thing. I went to Lunacon to see Dave Freer and meet his wife, Barbs, because NY is ever so much cheaper than South Africa.
As far as that went, it was a lovely con as I got to hang out with the Freers and see friends I hadn’t seen for a good while, like Esther Friesner and Kate Paulk. And I got to meet Sean Kinsell, whom I’ve known on line for some years and who is not a professional writer. (Something I predict will not last long, as he’s halfway through his first novel and he’s that very annoying thing in a beginning writer – a natural.) And I got to visit with my lovely agent, Lucienne, and have a nice meeting with one of my editors, Ginjer Buchanan. I also got to attend the Baen dinner, something that always feels a bit like going home for dinner with mom and dad, because it’s relaxing, friendly and there’s a strong sense of belonging – for all of us, I think.
However with one thing and another – and with the help of such reprobates as friend (and Dave Freer’s agent) Mike Kabongo and his Australian client Chris McMahon who helped us behave at our most interesting and almost get tossed out of the hotel restaurant at breakfast for disorderly-and-no-one-would-believe-we’re-not-drunk conduct – I was in no state to do any work come Monday. Which was good. And bad. Good because I was still on vacation. Bad because Dan had planned the next leg of it: the visit to New York City.
This is where you should hear, in the background, the plangent tones of “Mothers, don’t let your daughters marry mathematicians.” Dan’s idea of a vacation is a time that’s planned to the last second, usually packed with improving experiences or – heaven forfend – “fun.” Which is why I normally don’t let him plan vacations. However, since we had two and a half days to show New York City to the kids (our vacation time being at a premium this year) his style of organization was called for.
It was fun, but also exhausting, and by the time we got home under a blizzard, on Thursday, all of us were walking zombies.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the dog who ate my homework... er... I mean, why I’ve been absent so long.
Of course, I reserved the best piece of news for last. During Lunacon, my older son was looking through the art show and came back to me to tell me the cover for my next Baen novel, the Space Opera Darkships Thieves was in the prints section.
Being me, I assumed he was dreaming it. I hadn’t seen the cover yet and – as the book is scheduled for next January – it was not likely to exist yet. So I made him take me back there and... Yep, it’s my cover. It’s also a gorgeous piece of artwork and so incredibly appropriate to the book I think I was walking on air the rest of the con. (I felt a little bad because I think my publisher, Toni Weisskopf, meant to surprise me with it during the Baen slide show. However, it’s a good thing I’d seen it a day before, as otherwise I’d been speechless and unable to talk during the show.)
I’m very fond of the book – no, it’s not a given just because one writes it – and its characters, and now I’m very happy it’s getting the very best of covers.
In the near future, I’ll be having t-shirts printed with it and giving my fans a chance to win them.
And for now, this is it. I shall return to the business of writing – and making sense – next week.