Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Young Man and The Sea

I have a lot of memories of my father and I fishing. Now there is one important thing to note about this - we never, ever caught anything.

My father used to fish with his father, and my Dad had a some sentimental notion of how nice it was to sit and fish. The difference was my Grandad was actually someone who knew how to fish, and no doubt took Dad to his own secret spots at exactly the right time to catch something.

So when my Dad retired, he went and brought himself some fishing gear and together we went to the closest patch of water and threw in a line. Something wrong with this picture?

Well for a start there were no fish. Nothing wrong with that. The thing is we sat there, for hours and hours - with nothing biting or the bait being taken. Discouraging to say the least - and not all that inspiring to confidence either.

Its taken me all the decades between then and now to actually have the experience of getting a fish on the line. Thanks to my visit to Flinders Island and the experienced fishing guide Dave Freer. It's a hell of buzz to get something, then reel that sucker in!

What has this to do with publishing? Well - I feel like my early fishing experience has kind of given me a bloody-mindedness that makes me slog away at something when I should be packing up the writing tackle and moving to another fishing spot! I have worked and re-worked material or sub and re-subbed to various markets that I should have just written off long ago.

If there is one thing I learned fishing - its that if the fish are not biting Move On!

So how do you decide where to sub material and when to give up on a market? When to give up on a project? Or better yet - how do you pick a likely fishing spot!

Process and the Writer

Like pretty much anyone who works in just about any kind of paid job, I get a lot of stuff about process, methodology, and of course "best practices". At the same time, the posts here illustrate that for a writer, these concepts just flat don't apply. It's not that hard to understand: writing lives very firmly with the arts, and each piece a writer does is unique. The only place for process, methodology and best practices is with the middlemen who do the job of turning that work of art into a whole lot of identical widgets (i.e. books) by the magic of file copy and possibly the printing press.

Or is it?

Fiction tends to fit one of a very small number of templates (depending on who you ask, anything from three to twenty), so there's a structure. Writers tend to fall into three broad camps - the plotters, the pantsers, and the plantsers. Each camp has similarities in how they work, and there are also similarities across the whole field: the general dictum that you have to plant butt in chair and write, the notion of setting targets for wordage, be they "something" or "five thousand words" or anywhere in between. (Would someone please pick up the fellow in the back? I think he fainted.) Writing routines are popular, too.

So is there a set of writing processes and practices that can help?

Actually, there's probably several per writer - because while they can fit into some broad categories, they're still going to change around a lot with each project. Or maybe not. Take two of mine (Please. I'll say really nice things about you if you give me lots of money for them). Impaler had plot and structure on it imposed by the history I was working with. The piece I'm working on at the moment, Wether Fakawi Blues, is completely different in tone, structure and may be different enough to need a different name on the cover.

Both of them started with minimal outlining: I had about three to four pages for Impaler, and for Fakawi I had a previous piece (unsold) that's getting ripped off and mostly recast, so the basic plot is more or less the same but a lot of the motivations, minor characters and so forth are changing around, and the final sequence is going to be nothing like the original. Both of them got "research on the fly" - which for Impaler was a heck of a lot more intense as I broke off what I was writing to go digging through my biographies of Vlad Draculea, Googling for old maps of eastern Europe and Turkey, and so forth - and both got written in the gaps between the rest of my life when I had a bit of brain to spare.

And both, as I got closer to any given scene, would get talked over with my first readers. I torment them with snippets, email them chapters as they're done (Yes, they get to suffer through my raw, unedited first drafts. You see why I value them?), and discuss the next scene or next chapter with them. And that is my process, such as it is. It works for me. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.

What are your writing processes? Is there a common thread to how you work through a book and get your plots sorted out, or does each book impose its own patterns on you?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Taking It To the Streets

Dave talked about how to promote ourselves. Well, my blog tour seems to have helped with my current books, at least looking at Amazon numbers, for what that is worth.

But I’m looking for ideas. I always am. When you’re a midlist writer in this economy, you have to do what you can and sometimes what you can’t.

So, I’m going to float some ideas and you guys can tell me what you’d like to see or not, and other ideas you might have.

Things that are right out – I’m NOT giving away my cats for promotion. I’m not giving away my kids for promotion. No naked pictures and no bikini pictures unless and until I lose another forty pounds.

Things I can do and have done:

Blog posts


Blogs for my characters

Give away stories/books

Have comics drawn for my books -- like this one:

The problem is that sooner or later my blog posts will offend everyone. It’s the type of opinions I have. Contests – there’s only so much I can give away. Blogs for my characters... that one is a doozy. I simply don’t know what they should write about. Particularly Athena. What the heck would you like her to write about?
For give away stories and books my problem is time to write them in addition to the paying properties. Oh, yeah, and printing the comics and distributing them gets expensive.

Other things I’ve considered:

Live chats/either typed or voice/with camera/not. Possibly with my fellow mad geniuses, and other special guests. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Chat” type of thing. And “Mad, Mad, Mad readings.” But also cafĂ© klatches of sorts. Prime Crime has these with their authors the month before their books comes out – typed chat in chat room, only, but with interaction with readers and other writers.

Would anyone be interested in that sort of thing? It might be tricksy what with our antipodean members, but fun too.

Another thing is having virtual chat/signing, in which, after it’s done, we collect addresses and send off signed bookplates. (Of course, small bookstore owners encouraged to participate.)

Yet another thing is doing a webcomic about the writing life. I can draw enough for that, and it occurs to me it could be very funny.

Ideas? Comments? Suggestions? Remember we’re all more or less broke and overworked. But we’re willing. Very willing. :)

UPDATE: Just put up a free electronic collection of all my Elizabethan Era short stories, which include alternate history, mysteries, fantasy and... sigh... vampires. (yes, I am very sorry. You may kill me afterwards.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Teachers who inspire us!

In Australia last weekend was a long weekend. I spent the Saturday at my daughter's school (she's a student teacher) helping her clean her classroom/office. She is a specialist music teacher so she gets a little office to teach her students in. It's a lovely room, in that it has air conditioning and a new view of the oval. But it is boring with standard carpet, standard desk, standard windows and standard pale green painted walls.

So, once we'd cleaned it, we went to Spotlight (material and craft store) to do up the room. We bought pale blue chiffon for the windows. Rainbow chiffon to make a fabric rainbow, sparkly butterflies to put on the walls and curtains, stickers of birds and flowers for the walls and stick-on little green frogs to hide in corners and give the boy students a thrill. She rang me this evening to say that the kids loved the class room!

All this is leading up to how important teachers are. They can turn a fascinating subject into a chore or they can inspire us. When I was in school, every Friday afternoon we had to write a composition (essay). The teacher would give us a topic and we would write a story. I LOVED this and looked forward to Friday afternoons. No matter how staid and boring the topic, I always found a way to turn it into something interesting. Aliens taking over the world? Sure, why not? Kidnapped by a space ship? Sure, I can do that.

And every Monday I would get my marks back. Not one word about the story, just an irritated admonishment to spell the words correctly or I would never get anywhere in life, with a list of spelling words I had to write out ten times.

Contrary to my teachers' warning, I went on to write and be published!

So did you have any teachers who inspired you to be creative?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Favorite bookshops

I remeber all to vividly that allure... that sheer voluptuous abundance, that could just never be mine. Oh how I desired it. Lusted for it... I am talking about a bookshop of course - as 21 year old South African staring into the wonder that was Forbidden Planet in London. There were more sf/fantasy books in that one store than in all of South Africa's shops put together (at that time - back when your parents rode to work on their dinosaurs and businesses were pretty spiffy if they had a fax machine - half a shelf of sf books was a lot). And not only did they have books by all my favorite authors, but they had OLD books of theirs. And they had shop assistants who loved and knew SF. I was going climbing for 6 weeks in a small one man tent with my girlfriend Barbara. We had about as much spare space as there is in a church-mouse's cheeks and were roughly as well-off as same church mouse (some things are a natural state of being, I guess). I still came out with 5 books - 3 of which I still have (movies have almost no retention time compared to books. The influence sphere of books goes on and on.) And they got wet and battered and re-read... and re-read.

I dreamed of going back there - It's gone bust, been sold and retail isn't what it used to be. Soulless chains full of other non-book garbage, shop assistants who can't read, let alone have read my kind of books, or, possibly worse are English literature students at the local Uni scared of being tainted by 'enjoyment' in books. Backlist? What? Order? huh?. And out of this a chaos the internet bookstore was born - which has some positives but has played havoc with the independents. But there are still are some - Here's an article a few in the UK

Which brings me to what I was going write about, as a sort of follow on to Dan's post. Because at the end of the day we need some way of matching readers with writers... because basically, all of them from Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs to the CEO of McMillian are wrong. It's actually not about price - or only minorly. It's about volume. And volume only works when you match customer and product. And it's no use having a book stashed somewhere in case the customer asks for it. The customer doesn't know he wants that specific item - the customer actually has to make contact, pick it off the shelf, and like what he reads. There are what? 400 million? English first language speakers out there. And for at least half (the other half need ipods that say "breathe in-breath out" or they'd drop dead from suffocation) of them there is a book they will love, and hunt for anything else like it or written by the same author IF they find it. So... how come the entire publishing edifice is being maintained by maybe a million book a week or more regular readers? With the runaway bestsellers being maintained by the book a year people... who still at best are maybe 10-20 million. So it's an industry that simply fails to serve 90% percent of its possible customer base at all, and in fact is only working in any semblance of 'properly' for about 0.5% of its capacity. At full volume, prices of books could reflect a tiny margin per book and still be profitable. Which loops back round to bookshops and how writers interface with readers... because without that interface the system becomes even more inefficient (hard to believe). We can do without publishers... but not without that interface. Now, the logical answer to making more money out of books, is not the agency model, or even gypping authors out of more of the tiny piece of cover price they get now. It's increasing volume. And logically, the internet should make it possible. But it's a vast sea and getting the right readers to FIND the right writers for them is very very difficult. At the moment, as I see it we're reliant on bookstores (for the pick up and browse factor) and Amazon for the I know more-or-less what I am looking for match. Apple have come white-knighting to make sure publishers continue to dominate the access to retail.

So: favorite bookshops - what do they do right? And how do we match the reader writer. And what are the best options for alternative retail shop-windows?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Round-Up

I love this time of year. The trees are green. The grass is starting to grow. Wild flowers line the roadways. It's not so hot the kids in the neighborhood have taken refuge inside with their video games. However, there is a downside to it as well. My allergies are running rampant and that means my brain has taken a vacation and left my body behind. So, no serious blog this morning. Instead, let's take a quick trip across the blog-o-sphere and see what's been going on.

If anyone doubts that e-books and e-readers such as the Kindle and iPad aren't here to stay, this week should have convinced you otherwise. First, the Kindle showed up in the Crankshaft comic strip. Beginning on the 25th and running for several days, it showed the resident curmudgeon receiving and learning to use -- and enjoy -- his Kindle. The Kindle also shows up in the movie Date Night. Then there is this post from agent Kristen Nelson where she decides the tipping point for ebooks is very near, if not already here:

When I’ve got an older grandmother expressing unabashed enthusiasm in owning an eReader, I can’t help but think the tipping point is near—even if current electronic sales only equal about 2% of the market right now (statistic via a recent PW article). I think a lot of us assumed the older generation would be the luddites where this new technology is concerned but through my anecdotal experiences, I’m not finding that to be true…

So, what do you think? Are we reaching the tipping point? I have to think Agent Kristen is probably right and we are based on the interest I get whenever I have my Kindle out in public as well as the number of "sightings in the wild" of e-readers of all shapes and sizes and makes and models.

At Bookends, agent Jessica Faust posted that -- gasp -- agents want to represent books that will make money. "I’m in the business of selling books for my clients to make us all money. I agent because it’s my career. Sure, it has the added bonus of being something I love, but I also need to feed myself and keep a roof over my head. So criticize all you want, but the truth is that good agents will only represent books they think will make them money. That’s called a job." You'd think that would be a given and be understood by everyone, especially writers. But no, all too often she -- and other agents as well -- receive responses to their rejections, accusing the agent of being in the business only to make money. My question is this, would you really want an agent who is in the business of representing authors who write books that will never sell, either to a publisher or to the buying public?

Caveat here: In the current market, agents are in as big a state of flux as writers are. Because no one knows what is going to happen in the industry over the next few years, fewer and fewer agents are taking on new projects. That includes projects being sent from current clients. As a result, it is even harder than it used to be to get an agent. That doesn't necessarily mean your project is no good and won't sell -- and I keep telling myself this on a daily basis. What it means is that, right now, agents are taking fewer risks than they used to. If you doubt it, look at the number of agencies that have cut staff and the number of small agencies that have closed their doors the last two years.

Caveat #2: Just to show there are agents out there with a great attitude despite the gloom of the industry, check out this post from Lucienne Diver: [M] my process with this new work I’m so excited about went something like this:

“Darn, it’s really good. The writing is fabulous. Maybe just a few pages more.”

“I mean really, really good. Love the concept, love the characters. So intriguing.”

“Well, crap, I’m more than halfway though, I might as well finish. Yes, yes, I have a policy of not taking manuscripts with me on vacation, but I HAVE to finish this one.”

“What, the ending’s brilliant too? Okay, I’m screwed.” . . . I present this, in all its absolute honesty to say that no matter what gloom and doom you hear about the industry (and there’s been a lot within the past year or more), this is what happens when we love something. Oh, sure, some of us you don’t have to drag kicking and screaming to the alter. But when we really love something, there’s just no talking ourselves out of it. There will always be room for fantastic works.

What does that mean? Simple, if you get a rejection, look at what you sent and see if you made any glaring errors. See if there is something you need to do to make it that something special an agent is looking for. Then send it out again. Just because one agent, editor, whomever, didn't like it, it doesn't mean every one will. We're writers. Rejection is part of the job. That's why we have to be stubborn, persistent and always working to hone our craft.

Finally, here's an interesting article about four danger signs to search for before sending out your manuscript. Go take a look and let me know what you think. The post is similar to others we've discussed in the past. What rules do you try to keep in mind when writing? Or, more importantly, what do you keep an eye out for in the editing process?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Publishers On Notice

The only time I've ever been involved in a car accident that left a car totalled, I was asleep. A drunk in a Corvette managed to slam into the back of my full-time 4WD Jeep Wagoneer while it was parked on the street at 3:00 AM, pushing it forward about twenty feet. As anyone with a full-time 4WD vehicle knows, this is no easy feat. One of my neighbors witnessed the whole thing, including our arrival on the scene in our bathrobes, and called the police, who arrived to find this drunk guy swearing up and down first that my car had backed into his car, then -- when it became obvious even from cursory examination of the evidence that my car was parked at the time -- that someone else had forced him off the road. My neighbor reported to the police that there was no other traffic at the time, and the police noted that the guy's blood alcohol level was well beyond the legal limit, so I didn't think there would be any problem.

Two weeks later, I got a call from the guy's insurance agent, telling me they were no longer going to pay for my rental car. I pointed out that they still hadn't paid me for my totalled car, and that my return of the rental car was dependent on that payment. They informed me that there was "still some question about whose insurance company would be liable for the payment," as there was "still some question about the possibility of another vehicle that may have caused the collision."

I was livid. I pointed out that the police report -- the OFFICIAL source of information in this case -- held no such question, as a reliable, impartial witness said there was no other traffic, and drunk, extremely partial drivers such as their client, were not typically well regarded for their veracity. I went on to tell them that it didn't matter to me, in any case. Any way you looked at it, I was owed the totalled cost of my vehicle and it would be their company that paid me, regardless of what company ultimately bore the cost. If the insurance companies wanted to play "place the blame" and sue each other
for the costs, how did that concern me?

The drunk driver's insurance company paid up.

The ongoing battle between publishers and retailers -- notably Amazon, recently -- reminds me of that insurance company. They seem to have lost sight of the fact that authors still need to get paid a fair amount.

Some time ago, it dawned on me that there's a disconnect between authors and publishers regarding our words. We authors view the words we put down on paper to be the novel. Judging by the rapidly growing popularity of e-books, readers do, too. One would think that publishers would understand this, yet they seem to view the finished book as their product, one that includes only a minor contribution from the author. That product could be considered the sum of the following parts and services:
  • Words on the page (provided by the author)

  • Cover art (provided by an artist)

  • Saleable quotes (usually on the covers)

  • Excerpts (usually on the back or dust jacket flaps)

  • Author bio (optional; usually only for hardcovers)

  • Author picture (optional; usually on hardcovers of bestsellers)

  • Cover design (to ensure the artwork is pleasing to the consumer)

  • Editing (to ensure the author's words are pleasing to the consumer)

  • Marketing (to help sales staff and retailers to sell the product to the consumer)

  • Distribution (to ensure the product is available to sell the product to the consumer)

  • Sales (to ensure the product is physically available for the consumer to buy

As you can see, those little words on the page are only a small part of the whole package, which is why publishers feel justified in generously granting a mere 6-8% of the revenue to the author of a mass market paperback novel.

To be fair, the way the system works is that an author gets paid an advance against royalties before the novel ever gets to the marketplace, available for consumers to buy. And the reality is that few authors these days (except mega-bestsellers) ever see a dime beyond that advance. Once upon a time, when publishers and retailers were on the same page, books remained on the shelves for a lot longer, which kept an author's backlist of previously-released novels in print and available to the consumer. Sadly, it rarely works that way any more.

So, given that the author's advance is realistically the only payment, the effective royalty rate is dependent on the number of sales. With e-books, that number is straightforward, since e-book sales are non-returnable. With print publishing, the product can be returned, so publishers try to account for that by holding back payment for a projected number of returns, which they call "reserves against returns." What this means to the author is that it's impossible to determine the actual number of copies sold until ALL copies are either sold or returned, the book goes out of print and there's a final accounting. Until that happens, we can only estimate.

Last year, a New York Times bestselling author, Lynn Viehl, posted her royalty statements. I couldn't find her third statement, for the period ending Nov 2009 (which is understandable, as they're just now reaching authors), but the bottom line for her first two statements shows her estimated actual sales copies will be between 44K (net units shipped) and 65K (net units plus reserve, assuming no more returns). She earned $50K up front, and she doesn't seem to expect any additional royalties beyond that (and her statements support that, which -- at the risk of sounding conspiratorial -- seems a bit suspicious) . If she's right, her effective royalty rate on her $8 mass market paperback will be between roughly 10% ($50K/65K/$8) and 14% ($50K/44K/$8).

Compare this to Amazon's current 35% effective royalty rate. If an author with Lynn's numbers were to sell her new e-book at $5, she would only have to sell about 29K to earn $50K. With Amazon's new 70% option, starting at the end of June, the author would need to sell less than 15K copies to earn $50K. That's roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the paperback audience. Is it reasonable to expect the author to reach that audience and entice them to buy her new e-book? For an established author, it's possible, and the fact that there's no time limit for offering the e-book makes it extremely likely.

Which brings us to the midlist author, a species which has gone by the wayside under the current print publishing model. Advances I've read about recently for a solid midlist author are more like $15K, with net sales of 15K -- about a third of Lynn's numbers, which means established midlist authors only need to sell 5K e-books under the new Amazon model to earn as much as from a traditional print publisher, and they can offer the e-book to the consumer for less.

Remember that list of the parts and services going into a novel? For a midlist author these days, the publisher has been asking (and sometimes requiring
in the contract) that the author provide or perform nearly every item on that list, excepting only the cover art and design and distribution. What added value does the print publisher offer, then? Cover art? For an established author, is that really worth the difference in royalty rates?

Think about it. As an author, which is more attractive: 5K sales to net $15K, or 15K sales to net $15K? As a reader, which is more attractive: $5 for an e-book, or $8 for an e-book?

Publishers, consider yourself on notice. Shape up or ship out. It's your choice. And stop drinking behind the wheel of your Corvette.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Idea of the Month Club

One of the things that non-writers find it hardest to grasp is that ideas are not the problem. Its worse when you come head to head with someone who perhaps doesn't read all that much, or does not read in the speculative fiction area. You start rabbiting on about your book, and ten minutes after you should have stopped (about the time that glazed look appeared), they stop and ask 'But where do you get your ideas from?' or 'And you make all that up?'

My Dad was as black and white as they come. He was a policeman for more than forty years and imagination was not his strong point. Time and again he would fix me with a perplexed look, the frown of concentration would appear and he would say, 'And you make it all up?' Ahh, yes Dad. 'But where do you get all the ideas from?' He could just not concieve that I could do it.

As most writers know - the ideas are not the problem. Its the craft, the packaging into a vehicle for them i.e. a story. The problem tends to be TOO MANY ideas - pocket books overflowing, scraps of paper with tiny scrawls etc.

After too much frustration with this response I started telling people that I subscribed to the Idea of the Month Club. Yes, there was this woman in Sydney who would send out a newsletter packed with ideas for a modest fee. I thought it would be amusing when they got the joke - but the sad thing is these people actually believed it! Then I felt terrible misleading them. Sigh.

But the other thing writers know is that the flow of ideas has its own rhythm, and can sometimes be very lean indeed. The whole creative font seems to run to its own strange designs. I know that getting inspired by books and film really tends to get my creative juices going. Reading books on topical science really gets the SF ideas flowing.

What ways do you use to get inspire the flow of ideas?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Doing Battle With Demons

Much as I would like this to be about writing actual warfare with demonic entities, it is alas rather more metaphorical. The demons in question are things that I live with on a day to day basis.

Everyone has their personal demons. For some it's all things alcoholic, for others their health. Life - or perhaps Someone - appears to have gifted creative people with a disproportionate share of personal demons. There's certainly no shortage of musicians, artists or authors with tragic life stories and the kind of self-destructive behavior that usually goes with losing to one's demons.

Mine have been... loud lately. It happens. I can go months, even years, with the medication cocktail keeping everything under control. Then something shifts, shakes my balance a bit, and they're back, whispering their perverse little notions into my mind and trying to convince me that the world would be a better place without me in it.

It's not that bad yet. I've gotten better at recognizing the early warning signs and doing something about it. One of the somethings is - surprise! - splatting to everyone I consider half-way friendly about what's going on, on the grounds that the more I talk it out, the more chance there is something someone says will be the right trigger to chase them off. This time.

I even know what's causing this outbreak - it's work-related. I'm mentally and emotionally worn out. Unfortunately, I'm also not getting any kind of time away until September when I'm going to be exhausting myself visiting Australia. Since the layoffs were announced at the start of the year, there's been no letup in the constant grind of too much to do, not enough time to do it, and everything is more critical than everything else. Add in project scope blowout and a whole bunch of other work stress factors, big and little, and I've run out of me.

The real problem with this, at least as far as the Mad Genius Club is concerned, is that it plays havoc with my writing when this sort of thing hits. I can go weeks without writing anything when an episode hits - or worse, everything I write turns darker-than-dark.

How do you get past these crashes? What - if anything - helps you to dig out of the hole and get back on the level again?

Oh, and self-pity doesn't work. Chocolate does, at least until the pounds start piling up.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Should I Look Older Just To Be Put On Your Shelf?

(Doctor John Lambshead has chosen to step down from the blog because he is overcommitted. I can't say how sorry I am to see him go and hope he comes back often to post as a guest blogger. We do understand, though, that his health is more important and the last thing we ever intended was to cause him additional stress. Without John, we judged it best to use Saturdays for a "Saturday Morning Post" in which we hope to bring you interesting guests and sometimes just one of our team posting something. And so, I'm back on Wednesdays.)

Due to the extraordinary interest in my “the road to publication” post for Darkship Thieves, I thought I’d do a quick “how they got sold or didn’t” post for books.

Why you ask? Because I’m an exhibitionist masochist. I want you to see my pain.

No, seriously, the reason I want to do it is because when I was just breaking in all this was a mystery to me. I had a vague idea books got bought, but I had no idea why or how. For all I knew, the sky opened, a flock of angels came out and anointed the chosen one.

I know what you read in the books. Forget what you read in the books. Actually forget what I tell you too, as far as a model for your own career goes. I broke in ten years ago. It is not that I can’t give you useful advice, it’s that my advice might be so outdated as to be counterproductive.

Take e-publishing for instance (seems like everyone is, one way or another.) For years now, I’ve told my fledglings not to go that route. I told them it’s a waste to throw away their first publication on that. Ditto for self published, small press, etc. But lately I find the books that sell to the big houses with a big budget and plenty of promotion ARE the one whose authors first established a name in one of those venues.

It was like when I was starting out and all the older professionals AND most how to books told you not to look for an agent till you’d sold two or three books, to show you were a “going concern.” Realistic in the seventies when most houses kept and read a slush pile. Not so much in the nineties when the only way into most houses was through an agent, any agent. And that, even I figured out after perusing the writers’ market.

The only alternative I know to having an agent submit for you is to attend a lot of cons and workshops where editors are and pitch directly to them. Of course, if they say they want to see it, you can send it in. It’s no longer unsolicited. I don’t know. I’ve yet to see an elevator pitch work. Even when editors give a writer an opening, it’s so hard to sum up a book in two lines that if you manage it it often has nothing to do with the actual work, and that gets rejected. Seriously, I know buys from elevator pitches happen, but I don’t personally know of any.

The technology and business policy change and things change with them so fast that any experience in this field is only passed on in the default. In fact, if you try to replicate my experiences, it is sort of like preparing perfectly to fight the last war.

However, while particular tactics and weapons can’t be taught, the feel of it can. And it is the feel I find it harder to instill in my fledgelings, as I stick them in their little biplanes and tell them to take off in the face of a storm of rejections.

I hate to sound like an old timer, but I am one, and war stories do serve a purpose. The business might change in the details, but the facts of what it takes to make a career in this field remain central, short of a wholesale collapse. (And I’m not that pessimistic. Yet.)

First, a disappointing, sobering fact – ninety percent of careers in this field last ten years or less. And always have, as far as I can figure out. I can tell you why or at least give you half a dozen good guesses.

The field is too demanding and yet you get no respect – try explaining to your barber, your minister, your mother (MY mother!) that you labor in a skilled trade. “But anyone can write” is likely to be your reward, closely followed by “I have this great idea for a book.” Done properly the field eats your life. You breathe, eat, read and experience in order to write. It’s somewhat like a marriage without the sex, like a vocation without the religion. It isolates you from friends you’ve had for years and who simply don’t “get” it. In the end you find that, like sufferers of some dread disease, the only people you can truly talk to are other people who share your condition. You have “dinner” and “movie” and heaven knows what parties, but all you do is talk. About what you’re working on, what the conditions of the field are and how it’s changing.

Oh, yeah, and top this off with the fact that once the product leaves your hands it is totally out of your control. The cover, the placement, the push behind the book account – easily – for 80% of a book’s success. Your twenty percent is still vital. When someone picks up that book, you have one chance to hook them, so it better be your best work. Even if most people will never see it on a shelf or know it exists.

Children, the sane people never GET into this field. The ones who can sort of see sanity if they squint leave within ten years. Me, you, the rest of us... we charge giggling past that sign that says “Abandon all hope.” So, listen to my tale about the sudden fires and the rodents of unusual size. Oh, yeah, and bring over your tankard. It’s hard to cry in your beer without it.

I started, lo mumble years ago, on a bright sunny day. It’s all my husband’s fault. I’d always said I liked to write, and sometimes even called myself a writer, kind of like you might call yourself a genius, but never, ever, ever have to prove it.

And then – mumble, mumble mumble – I married this evil man who one day told me “I don’t believe you’re a writer. Writers write every day. "

Well, you know, you can’t tell a woman stuff like this. I had to either give up that writer name – and I worked really hard for it too. Sometimes I wrote ten pages a year – or put my typing fingers where my mouth was.

We’ve already determined I am not sane, so in I marched, flags flying and cannons blazing. Into a brick wall. You see, it’s sort of like being in a strange country (say, Portugal to me at this point) and being told “go buy a toothbrush” (would you believe in some places in Portugal the logical establishment to acquire said object is... the pharmacy? No, neither did I.)

So, I bought the Writers’ Digest magazine and the Writers’ Market and anything else that had WRITER on the cover. (Still don’t know how to assemble the genuine WRITER perpetual motion machine!) And I read.

Children, I was SO green that for a time I finished my stories with a “30" because some book told me to.

But I wrote. Sometimes a whole three shorts and a novel a year. And I ... Well, I sent the short stories out. To the magazines listed in Writers’ Digest as publishing science fiction and fantasy. Which is how I got my first rejection.

I was twenty three – please remember this, and promise not to hurt me, if you should find me in a dark alley – and I wrote my first – I THOUGHT – publishable short story. My husband told me it was good and a guy who read Gor hated it. So I figured, winner.

Out it went. And... back it came. But it came back with a handwritten letter from the editor. Yes, handwritten. Telling me that the story was good, but not at all what they published. So he... – PLEASE don’t HURT ME – sent me a free copy of his magazine. From Great Britain. At his expense. And asked me to submit again.

I was twenty three! I didn’t know! I thought “Umph. If my story were good, they would have bought it ANYWAY.” And the story and the magazine went into the drawer.

And then I wrote a novel. No. I wrote six novels in quick succession. All in the same universe. I learned a lot on these novels. Or at least I like to tell myself that, because they are – all of them, collectively – unpublishable. No, not only unpublishable. They are unpublishable with bells on and a hand outstretched and a little voice calling “unclean, unclean.” And it’s not even that I wasn’t reading what was being published at the time. When we were first married books – and particularly sf/f books – were a huge part of our budget. Plus I visited the library twice a week. It’s just that I separated what I wrote and what I read. I didn’t think they should touch. After all, writing was all pure inspiration and what I wanted to do, right? And if it was good enough they would buy it.

Seven years of this, on through the swamp. I learned about POV and how to make my characters likeable, and that you can’t have twenty voice characters in a novel that’s only two hundred pages long. I learned misdirection, indirection and things that put readers off. All on a series whose concept makes most people run screaming into the night. Fortunately, much of the time, I couldn’t afford to send these novels out, anyway. So I wrote everyday, obsessively, including when I had full time jobs, and then I put the manuscripts in a drawer.

And then I had my son and with my son some approach to sanity emerged. Not on purpose as such. I’d been “researching” Rome for seven years it was a really good excuse to buy books. Well, after three days in labor, an emergency Caeserean and a uterine infection that kept me in the hospital for a week, I woke up in my own bed, high as a kite on morphine, and with a vampire short story in my head. I hadn’t written a short story in... Eight? years, but I strapped the baby on my chest and crawled on hands and knees (morphine makes me dizzy) up the hallway and into my office. Where over the next seven hours, I typed my short story Thirst (available free as part of my collection Crawling Between Heaven And Earth at Baen Free Library: Which ended up being the first thing I sold. But... not yet. I wrote a few other shorts then, Plaudit Cives among them.

The next two years were fraught and I didn’t send anything out. Two years later, I was living in Colorado Springs – renting a student apartment downtown – and I knew no one and had no job beyond looking after a one and a half year old. So I made it an habit of sitting down and writing when he took a nap.

Because the latest book told me to, I started writing short stories. Lots of them. And because we were slightly more flush and there was a post office RIGHT across from my door, I sent stuff out. And they came back just as fast. At this point one of the few times I’d sent the novel out caught up with me. It was three changes of addresses ago, but it found me – it was from Ginjer Buchanan at Berkley – a hand written rejection – and it said she hated my world, my characters and my premise, but she liked my writing and I had potential. She also suggested an editor at DAW (which at the time was not taking unsolicited, I think.)

During this year came my first glimmers of hope. First, I found a poster downtown – while wandering around with baby in stroller – about Imagination Celebration and actually had the nerve to send in an entry. It placed, too. Second place, admitting me to the world of other writers as a peer. No sale, but heady stuff.

Also, at work, my husband met this guy Alan Lickiss, whose wife also wrote. I already knew my friend Charles, who wrote. I’d started attending meetings of a city writers’ group, but they weren’t very good on science fiction and fantasy, so Alan’s wife, Becky, and Charles and I and a few other stragglers started our very own writers group, meeting weekly at my house.

And I got my first acceptance, for Thirst from an Australian magazine named Bloodsongs. Apparently they actually published my story, but it didn’t even come to my hands because the printrun was confiscated and destroyed. It was five years before I found out that Thirst had made it to the offices of The Year’s Best Fantasy And Horror, and got an honorable mention.

Another two years, another kid. More stories sent out. This is the period at which I tell people I often got 100 rejections by March of every year. I kept them in one of those gigantic plastic bins people store clothes in. And most of them were standard.

Thirst sold two more times. Once, it killed the mag, another the publisher. Never printed in the US until the NEXT sale.

I wrote a mumble genre novel, under the name of mumble and it won second place in mumble national contest, but it was too weird for them to publish.

So, I forged on. New house, and older kid in kindergarten, and I was – by 96 – getting personals from almost everyone, and editors signed with their first names. And then I decided to send out a story from the same vintage as Thirst. Plaudit Cives. I sent it to Absolute Magnitude. And I was SO SURE it would be a rejection that I read the acceptance through three times before it hit me that it was an acceptance. And then I screamed so loudly our babysitter came running, convinced I was having a heart attack. Six months later, I sold Thirst to Dreams of Decadence. And then I started selling, fairly regularly, a few short stories a year. And I turned to novels.

1998 was Annus Horribilis as far as novels were concerned. I submitted EVERYWHERE. And everything came back rejected very fast. I entered EIGHT entries in a contest. And none of them survived the first cut. I wrote fanfic for a while, but it lost its flavor. I wanted the real thing, dang it all.

In 1998 or 1999 (my memory is foggy) my friend Becky Lickiss more or less pushed pulled me and dragged me to the Oregon Professional Writers Workshop and I met Ginjer Buchanan who had no memory of sending me a rejection. I had two novels – one done, one almost done – ready to sell to her. Of course the one she bought was what was published as Ill Met By Moonlight, which was a workshop exercise. “Write a novel proposal overnight.” Was this something I was burning to write? Not exactly. But it was okay and I knew the subject and she thought she could sell it, so I wrote it. Gave it to my then agent – I did mention I had acquired an agent, right? – and told her to send it to Ginjer. My friend Becky also sent hers in. It was bought in a month. NOTHING on mine.

And then Kris Rusch emailed me. She’d seen Ginjer at worldcon and Ginjer wanted to know if I’d lost interest in the project. “WHAT?” Call agent. Agent tries to dissuade me from selling this novel to this house. “It won’t go anywhere. It’s not their type of thing” etc, etc. For all I know, she might have been right – who knows? BUT she wasn't sending it anywhere else, either AND hadn’t told me she wasn’t sending it to Ginjer. And that is a fatal strike. I demanded she send it and she did. Three days later, I’d sold a novel.

Then I set about finding another agent, which involved actually going to World Fantasy for the first time in my life.

Got new agent. He sold two novels for me, which he insisted should be sequels. I’m not going to complain on that. (Shrug.) I could take the idea and make them mine. I am however going to complain about the fact that he made me rewrite my second novel to his specifications. It was the first of my novels to go out of print, and the one that sold least.

And that brings us to 9/11 and the debacle of my first novel, which sealed the series’ fate. I’ve told the story often enough. It simply wasn’t unboxed at most stores. I think people returned it who’d never even seen it.

Agent number 2 meanwhile had refused to send anything but those sequels out. And now lost interest in me completely. So, I talked to friends and got recommendations to agent number three. (If anyone is keeping score, I've now been with the incomparable Lucienne Diver, agent 4, for seven years. My requirements are very simple -- I don't wish to be lied to, and I want to have more say over my career than my agent does. Why did it take me till number four to find this? who know.) I’ve also told that story here. When, after two years of nothing, Baen offered me work, she said it was Baen or her. I clearly chose Baen.

I’ve also told the story of Jim asking me for Draw One In The Dark. Which I sent to him. And which sold in twenty minutes. Now, the idea for Draw One In The Dark was a dream in which I was signing a pile of books and one of the women in line told me she had discovered me through my shifter series. Of course, in the dream I assumed all the books were in that series. I might have been wrong. So I read the back to see what the story was. (Same thing happened with Plaudit Cives, btw. I dreamed I was reading it in a magazine. Then I wrote it.) I have no explanation for this. I refuse to think too hard on it. That way lies madness.

And then I got sick, was looking at my old unpublished novels and found the percursor for Darkship Thieves. And rewrote it and started posting it in diner. Toni bought that.

At the same time I had this Victorian fantasy series making the rounds and I SWEAR it had been rejected everywhere, when out of the blue Lucienne called (I was frying mushrooms. Why do I remember that?) To tell me we had an offer. And Berkley couldn’t publish anymore Shakespeare but asked me for proposals for historical series. I sent three, of which they bought one – The Musketeer’s Mysteries.

Meanwhile, during the second Annus Horriblis – 2003 – when I couldn't give my writing away, I’d been asked if I was interested in writing for hire, a novel about a wife of Henry VIII and which wife did I want? I said Anne Boleyn. I was told someone else had it. Did I want Jane Seymour?

They were offering money. I was broke. I wanted Jane Seymour. This is the book that was written after I fell and hit my head. The concussion postponed it, and I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I wrote it in three days. A week, counting research. After I finished it, I demanded to be taken up to Denver, to a hotel, for two days – which I spent crocheting, sleeping and taking bubble baths. Who knew typing could be so tiring?

With Plain Jane I submitted a proposal for No Will But His, the story of Kathryn Howard. I heard nothing on it.

The musketeer series died. We won’t go into that. I was asked to send a contemporary mystery proposal. I sent in the proposal for Dipped, Stripped and Dead. I was also asked to put it under a “white bread” name. The suggestion of “Rye” was shot down.

Plain Jane, after being issued in mpb came out in tpb. It did well. Paid royalties. Then I got asked if I still wanted to do Kathryn Howard.

All of which brings us to yesterday -- when I'm working on an historical vampire, on spec, a space opera on spec, have proposals at Baen, and have been attacked by a romance I'm trying to fob off with a proposal only -- and has you scratching your head and going “So you write it, they buy it?”

Well, no. The Years Undone, my novel of the Red Baron is still unsold. As is Hell Bound, my urban fantasy. I have this fairy tale – the Rose series – which I can’t give away. Then there’s the New Age shop mysteries. Oh, yeah, and the Jane Austen/swan maiden tale. The Leonardo Da Vinci mysteries. And another half dozen projects.

So, what is the point of this long disquisition? Two points. First, there’s persistence. It seems to be the one thing to get through this war still “alive.” The second is that epublishing JUST might give me a chance to “publish” some of my darlings no one would touch. They might have no audience but... who knows? In most cases I think they’re just mismatched with the gate keepers, not the public. And it's always worth a try.

A third point – we tend to think if we just sell the next... short, novel, series, we’ll be happy. Maybe. Perhaps.

Never happens. You sell and you trade up to bigger issues. You trade up to a knife balance of “and now how do I promote?” “What can I do if the bookstores don’t put my books on shelves?” “What if my editor has taken an unreasonable dislike to me?” etc, etc, etc. The really big bestsellers I know worry that the writing sales will dry up, because they support their families from them. I hear Stephen King keeps his teaching certification up to date.

Every time you get a rejection, rejoice. A) you’re a rejection closer to an acceptance. B) These are the GOOD old days. Once the acceptances come, your stress will only increase. Yes, the rewards too, but the stress inescapably.

You want security, buy an alarm system. You want money, buy a lottery ticket. You want to write... ah, you poor fool, welcome to the club. Put your helmet on, here’s your keyboard. Forward, march.

Be aware of what’s being published and write something publishable but not like what’s being published. Make it something you want to write, but also something you want to read and more importantly something strangers will want to read. Make sure you have first readers who tell you the truth about your writing, but who aren’t so brutal they’ll squish your drive and desire. Take advice from elder pros, but don’t believe everything they tell you. Their times and their process are/were different. Work like a fiend, but don’t let it take over the other stuff that makes you a full human being. Keep some hobbies, spend time with your family, and write ten hours a day. Oh, yeah, and keep up field reading. And remember the ludic pleasure of reading, even though it's become work. Believe your work is vital and important and also a piece of crap you can discard if no one buys it. Learn constantly and integrate it, even as you’re writing. Keep an agent and let them make suggestions, but don’t let them run your career. Oh, and learn about advertising, epublishing, whatever in heaven’s name is going on with publishing now – but never forget you’re a writer.

And for your next trick dance – dance, you fool, you lostling, you... writer! – dance a tango on a high wire, with an invisible partner! And keep on going. The only way through is forward. There is a con bar waiting in heaven, and we have to earn our way into it.

Questions? Comments? Suicide notes?*

*your suicide notes WILL be graded.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Words are Fun!

This is a rough for a book plate I'm going to have made up to help promote my new series. They'll be stickers which I sign then I'll post copies to the specialist books stores. Must brush up on my signature. Why did I choose a double barrel last name? LOL!

I've been at work all day marking UNI assignments so I plan to have a bit of fun with this blog tonight. It is amazing how many ways a student can abuse the English language. But then I have to remember that they aren't natural writers. They weren't born with a love for words.

Ever since I was a kid I've loved words, loved finding out their origins and playing with them. One thing that fascinates me is how the meanings and usage of words change over time. Once upon a time, we had collective nouns for groups of animals and birds because we needed them.

Here are some of my favourites:

A murder of crows.
An exhalation of larks.
An ostentation of peacocks.
A parliament of owls.

So descriptive and emotive. If you want to read more collective nouns take a look at the list on Wikipedia. (I tell my students you can't reference wiki but it is so useful for quick answers!).

By chance at college the other day we were talking about collective nouns and how they could be updated for the modern world. We came up with a few. And while I was preparing this post I found this site where they had fun with collective nouns.

An ambush of widows.
An attitude of teenagers.
An audit of accountants.
A fidget of altar boys.

These are the ones the other lecturers and I came up with:

An ignorance of students. (You can tell we'd had a bad day).
An exuberance of school students. (Especially at the end of term!).
A snoot of lecturers. (Yes, we can laugh at ourselves).

Now it is your turn. Can you think of a collective noun for readers, SF fans or bloggers?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Just a couple of things...

...Lurking, peering up out of the swamp.
That's things for you. You never know when one of 'em is going to leave a trail of wet footprints, a bit of duckweed, and a complete absence of Rover.

(It's not easy living with my mind) Now, to resume normal programming, I've had a few things on my mind lately (some with duckweed) and I was trying to decide just which to write about. Decisively, I have gone for both!


Which is the 35% offer from Amazon. The higher one... is reputed to have more than just duckweed. It's lawyerese, a language which fills me with a (totally irrational I am sure) desire to attach the speaker/writer to a slab of wood (by means of six inch nails through the feet) and to suspend the same slab over a crocodile pond, until they learn to speak straight non-evasive English. The Baen contract, and the Tekno contracts should be used as standards - if it's more complicated (in Flesch terms if nothing else) it's over the crocodile pond with you. Still, there are a lot of you reading this blog, so if you want to have a look and leave comments about death-traps and nasty sneaky servitude for your children clauses that I might have missed I'd be grateful.

Secondly, the perennial issue of how the hades you get your work noticed. Let's face it: unless your publisher paid through the nose for your book (An advance of at least 25K but realistically closer to 100K - in which case they'll work hard to get their money back) you're effectively the only person who will market and push your book. You can argue about how right or wrong this is, or how wise or stupid, or if it actually works at all in anyone's favor, but that is the status quo. Whether you sign up to lawyerese above, go your own way, or get a publisher... your new book is one among tens of thousands. It's probably not even on display in 9/10 of bookstores, and it probably won't be re-ordered unless customers ask for it. That's the reality for 98% of us. You can either sit and whine about it... or at least work on it to the best of your ability. I've chosen the latter, in my best ineffectual style, and, of course perpetual ragged edge of disaster finances. I'm not much good at it, but hell, I try. So what possible ways are there?
Well... there is the I think DD prescript of forget about it and work on getting a lot of books on the shelf. People do notice that.
Then there is CV altnernative of everything from live shows to poetry. How she finds time to write I don't know, but I admire the effort. I am not sure about dividends or just how long haul practical this is. (and of course my famous Vogon poetry skillz do limit this option.)
There are cons and give-aways. which is very nice if you can get to cons, get anyone to come to your readings who isn't a reader already, and um... the cost and effectiveness of giveaways. I did what I could afford (which was VERY little) but if it had any effect, I am yet to hear of it.
Then there is our own Rowena's trailer - which is good but how could I get many people to see it, assuming I could do one?
Charlie Stross held forth a while ago about the only answer was blogging... which is all very well if you got in early and got a blog audience before there were 10 zillion to trawl through. Still, I am persuing this as best I can. I suspect I am nearly as naturally good at it as I am at childbirth. I'd noticed Ilona Gordon (who is good at it) mixes giveaways with hers, and guest blogs. I'm up for more ideas... besides persistance, that one I have got.

So there we are, friends, ladies, gentlemen, mantlepieces and others. In my inimitable style I now await your brickbats and comments on the Kindle thing and of course, how to get your book noticed. I'd prefer ideas that involve staying out of jail and alive, if it is all the same to you. And no duckweed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Readers and Writers and Parents, Oh My!

I'm a little late posting this morning and I apologize. My brain is still a bit fogged from a trip to Texas A&M University yesterday to attend my son's awards luncheon. It was a great trip and it is a wonder to see how grown up my son is. I look at him in his midnights and wonder where that little red headed boy chasing the dog has gone. And, as often happens with parents, seeing my son as a grownup, respected and liked by his peers and preparing to start a career he's excited about, I found myself remembering past times and wondering where all the years have gone.

And that brings me to today's post. The ALA (American Library Association) has announced the 10 most challenged books of 2009. Some books that have been on the list for years have been replaced. Others are still there. But the message is still the same. There are books in school libraries and that are required reading that parents feel aren't appropriate for their children to read.

Now, I am not and never have been a proponent of censorship. The quickest way to get to me is to start talking about taking books off the shelf or burning them. Nor am I saying the parents who challenged these books were right in doing so. I know too many people who object to books and feel they should never see the light of day simply because someone else told them how evil the book is -- the Harry Potter series is a prime example of that. The number of times I've had people challenge me because I let my son read those books that "encourage the practice of witchcraft" are too numerous to count. Worse, most of those telling me that had never read the book.

That said, I do take issue with the educators and professionals who feel they have to "prepare" our children for adulthood by having them read books that aren't age appropriate. These books more often than not are written for high school students and deal with issues most high schoolers are familiar with. Yet, they suddenly become required reading for 5th and 6th graders. Worse, in a variation of the mistake some parents make when they condemn a book without reading it, teachers assign the book without reading it because it comes from the "approved" list.

This was rammed home for me the summer between my son's 5th and 6th grades. We were on vacation and he was reading the last book on his summer reading list. Imagine my surprise as we lounged in our room at my aunt's house in Cleveland and he started reading aloud an attempted rape scene that would make most adults blush. Gone was the nice gothic mystery we'd been reading together. For more than a dozen pages, the author described the attempted rape and subsequent killing of the villain -- in graphic detail. Now imagine my reaction and the conversation I had with the English teacher as soon as we returned home.

That is when I discovered that the summer reading lists were prepared by committee, members of which were librarians and businessmen and not teachers. Nor were they librarians from the districts where these lists were being used. This particular book had been written for high schoolers. Not for kids entering the 6th grade. But that apparently didn't matter to the committee. They wanted to teach about rape and abstinence. Just as they wanted to teach about drug abuse and mental illness with the other books on the list.

So do we, as writers, have a responsibility to keep in mind that what we write might be used in ways we don't anticipate? What can we do -- or should we do anything -- if we discover a book we wrote for an adult audience with adult situations is on a middle school or high school reading list?

Saturday, April 17, 2010


*Guys, sorry to be so late. Something was trying to land on me yesterday and by the time I went to bed I'd forgotten what time it was. By the time I woke up I was two and a half hours late. SORRY.*

Everyone has a different process, of course. I know saying that seems like a given, but strangely, it’s not. I spent at least the first ten years of my career trying to fit the process of whichever advice book I’d just read or whoever had just spoken to our writers’ group. Considering how many people who write these books or give lectures talk about “the one true way” the idea of “more than one process” is probably more arcane than I thought.

But it gets worse than that because at least for me – how it is for you guys out there? – each book has its own process. Yeah, it might be close to the last one. At least I usually try the same “point of attack” because it usually works for me. But there’s the occasional book that just won’t “talk to me” and will keep me trying new things till it unlocks.

My older son, who is quite smart – smarter than I at any rate – is now writing his second novel. It took him almost two years to actually get going on it. Why? Because he couldn’t figure out what was happening in it. And he couldn’t “just write” till he figured out what the plot was because if he did that “everything will be trash. I’m not a pantser, I’m a plotter.”

I kept telling him “Some novels don’t tell you till you’re halfway through” (meaning of course, your subconscious doesn’t allow you to unlock whatever it’s come up with till you’re halfway through. I’m not under the illusion novels TALK) and “Just start it and find out.”

Of course he refused to for two years, which is why he’s only now doing it and finally figuring out what the novel is all about, etc.

With short stories my “process” is more consistent. Originally – though I never fit the “know everything about it before you put a word on paper” – I started with a short story outline. It went something like this (if I find the original, I’ll post it.)

POV Character:



Reason POV Character can’t obtain goal easily:

First attempt:


Second attempt:


Internal realization/mirror moment/story goal flip:

Third attempt:



Having this skeletal sort of outline allowed me to write the short story very quickly. The first time I found out there was an issue with it was when I got halfway through a story (Traveling, Traveling, sold to Analog) and realized it was complete. At that moment, I started suspecting my process was out of kilter. I think I still outlined a couple more, but after that, I found I had the entire short story completely in my head. No need to outline.

Does this happen to novels? Sometimes. That’s more insane because then I need to write very fast, before I forget all the twists and heaven helps me if I have to take a break because of an emergency.

So, how do you do it? Do you try to fit someone else’s process? Do you have your own? Does it change? Have you created your own? Did you take it from someone? Do you experiment? Does it vary by book?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Open Thread

Today is open thread day here at MGC. Now's your chance to ask your questions, give us your opinions, and let us know about any interesting blogs/articles about the publishing industry you've seen. The floor is yours!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Apocalypse Cometh, and Armageddon Sick of It

We are, as a rule, inordinately fond of catastrophe, so long as it happens to someone else. How many people slow down to gawk at a car smash? Don't all answer at once. Tragedy - preferably somewhere else - is ratings gold. And of course, destroying the world, and in ambitious cases the universe, multiverse, or the whole of reality, is something of a staple in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. Horror tends not to destroy it so much as populate it with all manner of unpleasantness and turn humanity into 'dinner'.

Naturally, any evil overlord worth his spiffy black cape (sorry, evil overlording tends to be mostly a male job. For whatever the reason evil overladies are usually just skanky bitches and not all that evil) has some kind of grand plan to destroy the world, often with a certain short-sightedness - after all, he's got to live there too, and if he destroys it, where's he going to live? Well, unless there's a convenient Death Star hanging around.

It used to be a pretty simple thing - the fifties are full of evil overlords of one sort or another rubbing their hands together with evil glee while preparing to kick of nuclear armageddon and forgetting that even their super secret base is going to get contaminated. Before that there was the notion that enough dynamite would do it. Then there's the potential for nuclear mutants - who usually end up getting some kind of bizarre super-powers instead of super-cancers, and never acquire extra limbs from damaged DNA. There's been the Dr Moreau style of animal-human cross-breeds on an isolated island.

In the sixties and seventies John Wyndham was remarkably imaginative in the ways he destroyed if not the world, then at least civilization as he knew it. There were the Triffids taking advantage of a mysterious meteor shower that blinded most of the Earth's population, massive ocean level rises (not caused by humans but by something that deliberately parked heaters at the ice caps), nuclear war (everyone's got to do it at least once), and perhaps most terrifying, spiders.

Yes, spiders. Super-spiders, intelligent, capable of swimming, and working in packs - or swarms if you prefer. If you want alien intelligence, that certainly qualifies.

I don't think anyone's been quite that prolific about destroying civilization since.

Thing is, people read them and enjoyed them. We like to watch Armageddon happen - to someone else. But we also like there to be some hope at the other end of the apocalypse. From The War of the Worlds to Independence Day, between and beyond, the most popular destructions of the world either end with or show the plucky survivors working to build something from the ashes, or the threat is averted (often at the very last minute) and life goes on. We even jokingly refer to snowpocalypse (the Northeast USA and the succession of major storms that dumped snow in places that usually don't get much, if any), pollenpocalypse (every spring for me) and the like.

Some of my favorites are the Apocralypse of the Discworld, which may or may not be apocryphal, the Whitewashing end of the world in a wave of absolute Good in Eve Forward's Villains By Necessity (in which the world narrowly escapes destruction due to the efforts of - of course - a mismatched band of villains), and as I mentioned before, the implied death-by-intelligent-spider in John Wyndham's Web.

What are your favorite literary apocalypses, and what makes them interesting or different from the run of the mill?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It's a Beautiful World

I had intended to write a heavyweight post explaining how the Mayans were right and how human civilisation was doomed over the next 50 years but, you know, I can't be arsed.

My wife has been on holiday, the fickle English weather has given us beautiful days, and we have been touring Kent.

Working eighteen hour days until my health broke down has taught me something. In the long run we are all dead and no man died wishing he had spent just a bit longer at the office, just taken one more flight, written one more paper, closed one more deal, earned one more pound.

With hindsight, I regret being out of the country so often when my children were growing up. Each day not spent on things that matter is a day wasted and what matters is your family, the laughter of your kids, the welcoming smile on your beautiful wife's face.

I took the above picture a few days ago at Hole Park in Kent.

It's a beautiful world - enjoy it in the short time you have.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Prologues, do you skip them?

I've sent book three back to the publisher with the edits done and I'm rolling up my sleeves to get back into my new WIP (work-in-progress). Because you know, you can never really stop writing. It just sucks you in and before you know it, you're writing another book.

Right now I'm struggling with a difficult decision. I've started the new series with a prologue. I've never done this before, always just jumped right into the story. But this book seemed to need the prologue to set up the story. I'm 240 pages into it now and I'm beginning to think it was a mistake.

I'm one of those impatient people who always skip prologues. I just want to get into the meat of the story.

According to Lital Talmor you have to ask yourself these three questions:

• Do you really need a prologue?
• What does your prologue do?
• And finally, Does it get the job done right?

Read the rest of her article here. I think my prologue does set up the story. Vickie Britton says 'a prologue (or epilogue) can help explain a complicated story'. Read the rest of her article here. And my story certainly is complicated.

But what if the reader is just going to skip the prologue?

Maeve Maddox says, 'beware the back story disguised as prologue'. And she comes up with three reasons to ditch your prologue. See the full article here.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Jewel thinks 'a prologue should be a last resort, used only when there's absolutely no other effective way to convey the information. Note, I did not say easier way, I said effective way. Writing is hard work.' (She wasn't kidding about the hard work). See the rest of her article here.

So it all comes back to me again. My prologue does reveal information which is back story, but it helps make the opening chapters easier to understand. I'm veering towards taking it out and seeing if my test readers think I need one. I'll be taking it to a ROR writing retreat in September.

Funnily enough, I don't mind an epilogue. I like dropping back in on characters to have a cup of tea and catch up, especially if nice things have been happening for them.

What about you? Do you skip prologues? Do prefer epilogues to prologues?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Do you love me or is it just my clothes?

The conventional advice given to authors (by agents and indeed by publishers in that they hate to buy out of that niche) is "If it works DON'T ever leave that niche or even series."

I've often wondered about this. Is it the niche? really? So any other plonker who wrote quest stories with a representitive cast of elves and hobbits and wizards, or a emo sparkly vampires or boy wizards at boarding-school would be a run-away success? Yes, well that kind of thinking does seem prevalent or there would be no trends... to fail. Because they all do. Sooner or later readers explain to agents that no, it's not a ring - quest with a substitute gnarlstone, or emo sparkly vampire with a new home-town that they actually wanted. It was more JRR Tolkein or Stephanie Meyer. Which of course is not what they got... The typical response of the gatekeeper fraternity in response to this is 'there must be a new trend'.

There are trends... but I suspect they are an effect rather than a cause. The cause is a good piece of writing intersecting with reasonable distribution, a good cover and something in the public zeitgeist of the time. And these are not equal in proportion, but all are required to make it work. Of course the proportions are what seperate the sheep from goats. Think about it: Think of your favorite author -- be it David Gemmel or Terry Pratchett -- would you read their work if the wrote outside their niche? (if the answer is yes, then their work's success is not a result of distribution, cover or the zeitgeist. It's no use using them as a 'trendsetter'(if you're an agent or publisher) because that's not why they're popular.) Of course some authors did/do some niches better. Heyer wrote better Regency than detective. But as often as not authors are forced into adopting psuedonyms (which because the distribution/cover/zeitgeist thing is a lottery often fail). Yet readers do follow names.

So: Should writers stick to their narrow lasts? Are trends even worth guessing at?
would you follow your favorites into another genre? I'm thinking about writing a non-fiction foodie/self-sufficiency type book. Would you read it - assuming you enjoy my fiction?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Help! I See Plots.

Yesterday, Sarah wrote about being attacked by a novel and how it can happen at the most inconvenient of times. I think a number of us can identify with that. It pushes you away from everything when it happens, demanding that you put fingers to keyboard -- or pen to paper -- and write. I love those days, even if they do mean postponing the chores I really needed to do or not going to the movie I wanted to see.

Then there are those times when being a writer means you look at things a bit differently than most everyone else. At least I hope it's being a writer and I'm not turning into a conspiracy nut ;-)

An example of this, and how it happens to me, is yesterday's crash of the TU-154 in Russia that killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife and more than 90 other people. Many of those killed held positions in the Polish government. They were on their way to Russia to take part in a tribute honoring the thousands of Polish officers slain by the Soviet secret police in 1940 around Katyn forest in western Russia. If I remember correctly, there were several thousand officers killed. In total, more than 20,000 Poles died during that time at the hands of the Soviets.

As horrible as news of the crash was, it was the details of it that sent my mind racing, looking for cause and effect. The first thing to catch my eye was the initial report that one person who was supposed to be on that flight didn't make it on board. Maybe nothing, but the writer in me starts wondering if, perhaps, that person knew something was going to happen. Did they have a premonition? What caused them to decide not to board the jet?

Then there was the fact that the jet went down in Russia. Russia, long an enemy of the Polish state. An enmity that goes back longer than the existence of the communist state, long before the events leading up to World War II. Still, that part of my brain that tries to think logically most of the time kept telling me I was reading more into it than was there.

But, I reminded myself, let's not forget that the jet had been serviced just a few months ago -- in Russia. What if something had been done -- or not done -- to the jet then. Could this all be some sort of plot aimed at striking at Polish leadership?

Mind you, there is no proof to any of this. I'm not saying the deaths of President Kaczynski and all those others was anything but an unfortunate accident. What I am saying is that my mind took those leaps yesterday and started spinning the threads together to form the basis of a story.

I know part of the reason I made those leaps of logic -- and, no, I'm not saying it was real logic -- is my age. I don't remember the Cuban Missile Crisis but I do recall President Kennedy's assassination. I remember the drills in elementary school when we practiced what to do in case of a tornado -- or nuclear attack. I remember seeing the signs on buildings and highway overpasses/tunnels letting us know where the shelters were in case of attack. So I might be a bit more predisposed to think of the events surrounding the crash as part of a plot than others would be.

What I do know is I do seem to look at things and have a part of my mind thinking about how I can use it in a story. Whether it is something like the horrible crash yesterday or watching the men take down the 50' pine tree in my front yard, seeing how one of the men worked bottom to top as he took down the limbs, leaving footholds as he went and how he carefully trimmed each limb before he cut it down so it wouldn't tear up the ground when it dropped. Then there was how he all but communed with the tree, carefully circling it, studying it, almost talking to it as he figured out where to cut so the trunk would fall exactly where he wanted.

How about you? What sort of leaps does your mind take when reading the news or watching something happen? Is it the same sort of leap you see from those around you or different? Or should I just accept the fact that I see plots -- and possibly conspiracies -- around every corner?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

It Came From The Fictional Side

I have recently been attacked by novel, (they lurk in dark places and jump out on me when I least expect them. While walking. Ironing. Innocently doing dishes, once or twice in the type of situation where they SHOULDN'T) and I’m feeling the consequences. Things I had planned to do, that I had lots of time to do, now highjack me out of the blue.

Take today for instance – please! – I sat down to work on the novel and realized I had to take the cat to the vet and had a short window if I wanted my son Robert to go with me. Not that Robert is much help, mind. The poor thing has inherited my sense of direction. Which means every time we go somewhere together it’s an adventure. Indiana Jones type adventure. Only instead of dodging Nazis and reading Latin or Greek (that would be easy!) we’re dodging weird drivers (WHY do they love the blind spot, anyway?) and trying to figure out why the GPS wants us to do a U turn in the MIDDLE of the highway.

This, however, is easier than when I go alone. Because when I go alone the combination of no sense of direction and TOTAL lack of visual memory hits. I end up on a side street having a panic attack because not only do I have no idea how to get wherever I was going, but I know I’ll never ever ever get back home.

So I had a limited amount of time to go out. Meanwhile, my younger son having called to ask for money for a field trip next Saturday (to see Othello, in Denver) I had to stop by the ATM – which was fine. For emergencies, I – of course – put the phone in my purse, after charging it.

So far so good, right? Except that I got to the ATM and couldn’t remember my – newish – code. So I reached in purse for my phone, because my husband might know it. And the phone wasn’t there. Right...

Get to vet. Drop off cat, ask to use phone. And realize I don’t know husband’s (newish) phone number at work. No problem. I’ll call his cell phone. Only the only cell number I can remember is my younger son’s who isn’t answering because he is in class. Finally Robert remembers cell phone number. I call. A puzzled husband gives me code.

Get money from ATM. Come home with son who by then needed to go to college. Come to my office to put money in envelope for younger son. Have message from CoffeeTimeRomance and More asking if I was doing the blog after all. Look at date. Yipes. How did it get to be the ninth? Oh, yeah. Was writing.

Phone, BTW, still plugged in, on desk.

Get blog in, tell lady I’ll be gone for an hour. Run to school. While there remember was supposed to get a form this week. Well, it’s still this week, right? Try to remember name of form. Inexplicably gone from head. End up playing charades with TWO counselors before they figure it out. I can tell they think I’m a lunatic. I can’t say “sorry, it’s this novel. I remember all their names and what they had for breakfast ten years ago. I just don’t remember my own middle name.”

Get form. Come home. Organize husband picking up cat from vet. Try to work. Realize about to miss date for return of interview questions to another site. Return interview questions. Try to work. Oh no, time to make dinner...

The above would not be nearly so frantic if the novel didn’t fill up my mind and push out anything unrelated to it, including deadlines, routines, food, and bathroom breaks. Because it behaves this way, though, writing a novel is a succession of crisis I try to ignore long enough to write.

How is it for you? And how do you cope with it? And does anyone have any idea where I left my brains?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sandboxes and Romance Arcs

I've made it to Flinders Island, and am happily playing in the sandbox and re-discovering my inner child (as you can see from the attached photo).

Now what has been puzzling me has nothing to do with fishing for wrasse at Trousers Point (caught my first fish but had to throw it back - dang!) or struggling in and out of Dave's spare wetsuit - but romance arcs. I can't say I am all that into romance books per se, but I am a fan of romantic comedy movies. Something about them has niggled away at me and I thought it was time to throw this one out to all the romance experts out there.

OK. Here it goes. The movie starts out with the two romantic leads unknowing, or perhaps at odds with each other. Perhaps they are also separated by some sort of hurdle to the culmination of their ultimate romance - status, other commitments (i.e. already getting married) etc. Gradually as the movie progresses, they come closer together then 'find' each other. Things are great, then along comes something to separate them again - it might be the same thing mentioned above, or perhaps something different - this is the 'losing' phase. Gradually they work their way back together again and 'find' each other again, despite the odds and by bridging the gap of what has separated them up to that point.

Right. Straightforward so far. All the romance writers are asleep. What gets me is that in the typical romantic comedy, the ultimate point at which the two realise they are destined to be together, one of them (usually the woman) has to bare their soul in front of a huge audience. There is this in built end part of the whole arc where the final declaration and expression of feeling has to be public - i.e. the woman is at the isle about to be married, then along comes the romantic interest 'I object!' and in front of the shocked (but strangely accepting) former fiance and the whole church (who presumably got all dressed up for nothing), the erstwhile bride declares her feelings.

Now this last public expression and declaration. Is this a traditional part of the romantic story arc? Or was this added by Hollywood? Perhaps more importantly - does this serve a function in the romantic story arc, or is it just a cliche'?

OK you romance experts out there (I can see you there Rowena - and Sarah:)) What is going on?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Harbingers of Paradigm Shift

Yes, it's another post about ebooks. No, it's not the same path we've trodden before - this time is something new, I promise. I'm not going to talk about what should be happening with ebooks or publishing, but instead what ebooks represent.

They and their parallels in the entertainment industry are the very tiny tip of a new paradigm, one humanity is utterly unprepared for. It's going to be a wild ride.

Here's the thing - until very recently, there was not one single resource that was completely unlimited. Nothing. There might be a huge amount of solar energy reaching the Earth, but at any given time, that amount is finite. More to the point, the amount of it we can convert to usable energy is even more limited. Everything we eat is finite - plants grow, but once you harvest part of it, there is no more until the plant has grown more or until you've grown a new plant from seed. A cow (or any other milk animal) can hold only so much milk at any given time. A chook lays a finite number of eggs. If you eat the animal, you can't get more until you get another animal - and if you eat all of them, too bad. There will never be more. Well, unless you get hold of some extant DNA and then make clones of your extinct animal.

We're intimately familiar with scarcity. Everything in every human society is built on scarcity - the idea that all things are finite. Supply and demand reflect this: if there is a low supply and a high demand, prices go up. Where the supply is much greater than the demand, absent intervention prices will fall. Most people understand this at a level that's almost instinctive, probably because until maybe a hundred, 150 years ago in the West, and still now, a scarcity in staple foods (a famine) meant the difference between living or dying.

There are two basic, interlocking rules of supply and demand in a world of scarcity. First, the greater the supply, the lower the cost. Breathing and sunlight cost so little energy they might as well be free - and breathable air and sunshine are both, while finite, sufficiently well-supplied we haven't managed to run out yet. Food is rather more difficult to come by, and costs us in money and energy expended (ultimately money can be considered to represent energy expended, via a number of abstractions I'm not going to go into - well, apart to point out that we wouldn't have so many figures of speech relating to hard-earned money, working for something and so forth, if that abstraction didn't exist). Second, the more effort required to get something, or the more difficult it is to create, the lower the supply and hence the higher the cost. Live concerts are both rare and represent a one-off combination of artist, music and venue, so are much more expensive than a recording of the same music by the same artist. Silk, as the product of a relatively rare animal with an extremely limited diet, and requiring careful treatment and processing, is far more expensive than nylon, which can be mass-produced for much less effort and expense per square foot of cloth.

ebooks and their cousins MP3s overturn these rules. Now after the initial creation there is a genuinely unlimited supply. Our understanding of supply and demand says that this should mean they cost us very little, if not nothing. However, the cost to the creators is quite significant - an author might spend months writing a novel, then the manuscript must be proof-read and edited. A band creating a music track will need to first write the music (not exactly a trivial exercise), then hire studio space and/or high-quality recording gear, and often spend much more time mixing and editing tracks than was spent recording them in the first place. Not surprisingly, those who front these costs expect to be paid for their investment. Also no surprise, they'd like their costs repaid as soon as possible - which is at least in part the motivation for what seem to readers and listeners to be artificially high prices. I should note that I'm talking about electronic-only items here, not items released in hardcopy and electronic formats. There's a reasonable argument that the electronic copy there is a bonus item.

Just to complicate things, since most of the places distributing electronic media are corporate groups rather than individuals, there are rules relating to how long a loss can be carried for tax purposes (as a general rule, you can only consider it a loss in the year you spend the money), and what the accounting is supposed to look like. Putting something up for sale for almost nothing because you'll keep getting money from it forever gives accountants hives. As for what the tax people think, it's best not to go there.

So, we have our unlimited supply ebooks and music tracks out there breaking the supply and demand laws. As soon as you put the infinity symbol into any of the standard economic equations, you get nonsense. You can't calculate your running costs as a proportion of expected profit when you don't have any meaningful way to calculate expected profit, and worse, you can't calculate expected distribution because once someone buys they could make as many copies as they want and give them away. Guess where the much-loathed notion of DRM came from? It's ultimately an attempt to impose some kind of limit on supply so that normal business models work. After all, with electronic media, the concept of a limited edition is meaningless.

The DRM arguments, the Amazon vs Macmillan mess, the Google Books settlement - they're all problems arising from our inability to deal with abundance. And it's only going to get worse.

There are already 3D printers that are capable of reproducing everything needed to replace themselves. Right now the open source RepRap model is pretty limited in what it can do, but the tech is improving, fast. It's not going to be long before they can output almost anything from an input of almost anything, and do it fast. Quite possibly it will be available in our lifetimes - and you can build one of these for a relatively low cost. How long will it be before we can create an entire house worth of 'hard' furnishings with one of these things? How long before they can make cushions? Fabric? Food? Water? Breathable air?

When this happens (and it's not a case of 'if', it's 'when'), what allows those who create stuff to make a living? For that matter, what constitutes a living in this environment? Artists, authors, musicians, designers... the people who produce something new from what wasn't there before, they'll have a place. People being people, there'll always be leaders, or would-be leaders. Services will remain popular - but when you can effortlessly reproduce money, what value will it have? If everyone can produce the "stuff" they need and want, what will have value?

This is the big paradigm shift - and in a sense, a true singularity, in that we're not capable of understanding or imagining what life will be like afterwards. I personally find it incredibly difficult to imagine a world where most of the necessities of life are available in unlimited supply. I've focused instead on the relatively few things that do have limitations.

What books - if any - have you read that deal with this in a way that makes sense? And what do you think will happen when most goods have an effectively unlimited supply?

(p.s. The Darth Vader mask was made on a RepRap - I imagine that after polishing and painting it would look quite impressive)