Monday, May 31, 2010

Who ate all the pies?

To quote from the article Amanda mentioned yesterday...

‘Turow began with authors' fears about piracy and lower income: 25% of net in "e" is less than a traditional 15% royalty. Newberg made her first point: "What are publishers doing to justify not giving authors 50%[*note]?"

Miller countered that "terms differ from publisher to publisher". Newberg shot back, "some terms are much better than others and we'll have to go public and some of you will look bad".'

Now, expressly stating that I am not implying in any way the people reported are paedophiles or anything like that... but am I alone in having the vile little image of some creepy individual saying ‘It has to be our little secret. If I tell anyone you'll be in _trouble_.'?


Let's just clarify something: there is NO ADVANTAGE that I can see for writers _or_ readers in secrecy about what writers earn or royalty percentages or numbers sold. It all needs daylight, openness and not threats and secrecy. It's NOT 15% - that's BEST rate offered on hardbacks - Most midlisters won't see that and few NYT best-sellers will average that.

Here are typical rates: newbie paperback 6% of cover price (up 100 000 copies hahahahaaaaa, and then increasing 8%) (and 4000-6000 copies would be what you might sell, unless there had for some reason been a mighty large laydown, with a lot of copies in a lot of stores. This is not something that the writer has any control over. In 1970, apparently that figure would have been... about 40 000 copies. Yes. Newbie income has been decimated.)

midlist PB 8%

Hardbacks start 10% for first 5K, 12.5% 5-10K, 15% 10K+. And 17K can see you on the NYT best-seller list.

Yes, some authors do sell a LOT of books. But the reality is that's only 5%... of the best-sellers - or perhaps 0.5% of the authors not in small press. Include small press and you can make that 0.001%

I'm a great believer in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiment. Society's mirror - which lets other people see our conduct and pass approval (which is sweet to us) or disapproval (which makes us, a social animal, uncomfortable) - works. We also base our valuation of people to society on how much they are approved of. With society becoming larger and more amorphous this is often measured by the rewards that society gives to individuals (one of the reasons for the display of wealth and symbols thereof). Given the above, can anyone tell this dumb bunny here why secrecy might be of any benefit to either authors or readers?

If we love and respect an author we are pleased if they are well rewarded. I certainly don't have a problem hearing that Terry Pratchett is rich. I am, au contraire, delighted.
Or perhaps it fulfils a need to pretend that we're approved of -- whereas if society knew we were earning $4000 as an advance (quite typical for a newbie) for a book that took us a year to write, well, that says society doesn't value us much. Perhaps if you're into self-deception this works for you. I really don't think this is a major reason OR reflects in any real way what society thinks the author is worth.
So what does that leave? Well, I suppose authors who are overpaid (and yes, they exist - industry darlings who get enormous advances they never get near to earning) wouldn't like it much, and neither would those who overpaid them. But, pardon my insensitivity, I (and 99.9% of readers and authors) really couldn't give a toss about their inadequacy being exposed. I fail to see why it benefits the rest of the authors or readers.
The only other reason I can see is that if it was public knowledge, the next publisher would have no incentive to offer a better deal. On the other hand if everyone's deals and sales numbers were public knowledge... well, that becomes irrelevant.
Of course I am avoiding mentioning the three elephants in the room. Because they like to stomp authors who hold ‘our little secret' up to society's mirror.

I've just got the bill for my 3 cats and 3 dogs month in quarantine - $7000. - 6 animals one month - average it out about $35 a day...

Which when I look at the $7500 advance that I will get for the current book (I contracted this a while ago and I am a co-author and only getting a share of the money. My advances now are higher, but still around 50 cents a copy I sell (Hardcover+pb + e-sales I find the final figure averages around $1 per copy sold - and that's because I get a reasonable e %. People do worse) And I always earn - and Baen pay - royalties) and the time it has taken me to write it (which is long for me, but normal for many) ... that's $35 a day. Based on the previous books this will sell, eventually, about 30-35 000 copies, and I will earn a little extra. But for now... that's it.
Or if I take my yearly income and divide it by hours worked $6.00-$9.00 an hour. I earn enough to scrape along on by working a LOT of hours.

So there we are, society.

For this book this author is worth the same as dog-kennelling for one by that measure. Or about 5 paperbacks (in the US), or 1.3 hardbacks a day.

Is this realistic?

Does something have to re-adjust? Is it the amount books cost, the amount e-books will sell for, the transparency of the system, or...

Is this what we value our authors at? 6% of cover price? (because they also have expenses, like... dogfood. You can't say that is all profit, any more than the other 94% is all profit) What do we value the rest of the process at? Given the distribution of the money, what can be cut? More of that 6%?

Are we prepared to have very, very few full time authors and the rest with second jobs or supported by partners (which both are not good for my writing, to be blunt)?

Do we want new authors fed into the system? (Because that costs, and will need to be subsidised by something. Or we have to be prepared to place near zero value on them.)

Do we readers want to choose what we like and that to finally decide what becomes a best-seller, rather than have someone who takes marketing and distribution decisions decide what we might like and can be allowed to choose from?

What do you think?

Who ate all the pies?

[* 50% in this case refers to of the publisher's net. Which translates 50% of the profit after the publisher takes their costs and expenses out. The author does not get 50% of the net. His gross is 50% of the publisher's free and clear pure profit - out of which he has to pay his agent, taxes, expenses. What's left (if anything) is his share of the profit. If you want real 50% then the author would have to add his expenses in too, and the remainder would be equally split. Oddly, I don't think this will happen ;-)]

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Inmates are Obviously Running the Asylum

(Before I get to today's post, I want to take a moment to thank all the men and women who have given their lives in the service of their country. Tomorrow is Memorial Day here in the U.S. I tip my hat and offer my sincerest thanks and prayers to those who have served, those who are currently serving and to their families and loved ones. Thank you.)

Anyone who has a Kindle, or who has been following the never-ending saga of the Agency Model proposed by certain publishers, knows that Amazon and Penguin Books have finally come to an agreement. The terms of this agreement haven't been released. All we know for sure is that Penguin books published since April 1st are finally appearing in the Kindle store. Oh, we know one more thing -- a number of these books have prices that aren't just surprising, they are absolutely unbelievable.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is now available as an e-book. Now, my first question about this is that it is advertised as the "Centennial Ed. HC) edition. Well, last time I looked, a book on the kindle was made up of nothing but a bunch of electrons and was not -- could not -- be hard cover. But it gets worse. The Kindle version is listed at $27.99. Yes, that's right, $27.99. Now, I have to wonder what Penguin Publishing was thinking when they set this price since the school & library binding version is $14.88, the tpb is $15.82, mmp is $9.99, the audio version is $23.07.

Okay, maybe this is just a fluke and Penguin hasn't completely lost its corporate mind. So let's look at some others. The Help by Kathryn Stockett has been out for almost a year and a half. That means it is out in paperback at $10.20. The Kindle version -- $12.99. According to Kindle Nation Daily, this is $3.00 more than it had been offered in the Kindle store prior to the Agency Model blowup. (Check out the KND post. It has a lot of good information not only about the possibility Penguin is giving Apple preferential pricing but also how we, as consumers, can let our voices be heard.)

Jim Butcher's Changes, which is offered as a hard cover at $10.95 by Amazon is being sold as an e-book by Penguin for $12.99. This is $3.00 more than the paperback price announced for the same book. (In fairness, I'll note here that the pb won't be out until next year.)

One more example: Sue Grafton's U is for Undertow has been out since December. I can buy the hard cover from Amazon for $18.45 -- less than that if I buy from one of the Amazon associates and not Amazon itself. Yet, if I want the Kindle version, I'll have to pay $14.99. This is almost twice as much as they will be selling the pb version when it comes out later this year.

To be fair, this oddity in pricing isn't reflected in every Kindle book being released by Penguin. Sarah's No Will But His is listed at $9.99 for the Kindle and the tpb is being sold for $10.20. That is reasonable for an e-book being released at the same time (relatively speaking) as the tpb or hard cover.

If you think Penguin is only trying to slow down the sale of e-books, think again. In my opinion, to kill those sales, check out this article. Penguin's David Shanks says this about e-books: "more than 90%" of the business was still in paper. "We need to protect as long as we can the apparatus that sells physical books." While I agree that we need to promote bookstores and find a way to let them remain in business -- especially the independents -- you can't put the genie of e-books back into bottle, no matter what the publishers want.

To me, this paragraph sums it all up: In the end, while Prichard spoke of ours being "one of the most exciting times," Galassi [Jonathan Galassi from Farrar, Straus and Giroux] spoke of it being a "scary time".

Unfortunately, it is scary for all of us, and for authors in particular, because of the way publishers are burying their heads in the sand and, on the whole, refusing to adapt to new demands and desires from their readers, new technology and changing times.

So, what is your tipping point on prices for e-books. How much will you pay and why?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Why I Write (or not) -- by Tedd Roberts

(Let's give a big welcome to our guest blogger, Tedd Roberts. After reading his post, tell us why you write. What drives you and how do you balance it with the rest of real life? -- Amanda)

I read my first SF book nearly 45 years ago. At the grand age of 6 I had a book I dearly loved, entitled "Our Sun." For a grade-schooler it was fairly typical, large dimensions, nice pictures, not too many pages. However, for a first grader it was unusual. There were a lot of *words* on those pages, and was well beyond Early Reader quality. You may have guessed that it wasn't *meant* to be science fiction, but it was science, and so much of what was in it was speculation of what we would find when humans ventured to those other mysterious planets in our solar system, that it fired my imagination in much the same way as SF.

Over the years I read voraciously, to the point of having read *all* of the SF books in the school libraries and got first dibs on new books even before the librarian had a chance to check them out. ["Time Enough for Love" and "I Will Fear No Evil" *must* be okay for kids because Heinlein wrote all those nice juveniles!] At college I loved the fact that the campus bookstores had great SF paperback selections.

From an early age I just *knew* that I could write those stories. Just ask my parents and sister - they'll tell you how I tried! Then, just over 10 years ago I found myself recuperating from a near fatal illness. I spent 6 months in a hospital bed, and found that I had time to write (and the combination of medications and disrupted sleep schedules provided such vivid dreams on which to base my stories). During that time and over the next few years as I tried to find ways to occupy my mind during long-distance travel, I wrote well over 100,000 words toward novels. Yes, plural. I should have finished at least *one* Great American SF Novel if only I had been writing just one. Alas I was trying to write three totally disconnected novels, and was less than halfway done with each one.

Fast forward the rest of the ten years and I have since refined my style and better learned how to approach writing. Right now it's mostly short stories, and I am building up at least one novel-length story as a series of shorts. I've scrapped most of what I wrote in the early days but have kept the outlines. They still are demanding that I write them, it's just that I've changed my approach to the plot as I've studied and practiced my writing.

But at the same time I've learned another important thing about my own writing mode: how - and when - not to write. You see, I'm a scientist, a research and academic professional, for whom scientific writing is my career. Unlike Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan I can't dash off 100 books of nonfiction and expect people to actually buy them. My field isn't like that, and I don't have the Asimov/Sagan arrogance of considering myself an expert in everything. Also unlike the scientists portrayed in the novels of "Doc" Travis Taylor or Dr. Gregory Benford, I can't cogitate on a problem for a few days, then sit down and write a 50 page paper in half as many hours and send it off to Science or Nature and expect it to be published as-is. Nor am I near retirement like Dirk Wyle, the Pharmacology Professor-turned-author who began writing mysteries as his academic duties wound down.

Scientific writing is a painstaking process. In my field it consists of about 1-2 years of data collection, then a three month process of analysis, preparation of graphs and figures, writing, editing, revising the figures, re-running the analyses, rewriting the text, then finally submission - usually late on a Friday when I had been *certain* the manuscript was complete the previous Monday. After about a month in review, the editorial and peer comments come back, and the whole process of editing and revision starts over, usually taking another month. Since professors are expected to publish 3-5 articles a year, that means there's another article or two in preparation at the same time and it's a never ending process.

But the real problem is the mindset. Scientific papers require a detail-oriented approach. Facts, measurements, statistics. The language is stilted, passive and formulaic. Contrast this with writing scientific grant proposals. Proposals require the same facts, but the approach is one of persuasion. As a proposer I must convince my peers that not only do I understand all of the known facts, but that only *I* have the means to discover the (appropriate) new facts.

A totally different mindset is required for review. Sooner or later my penance for being a published scientist or funded researcher is to participate in peer review. Whether manuscript or grant proposal review, the reviewer has to put themselves simultaneously into the roles of reader and author, understand the facts, find the flaws, and most importantly: provide coherent feedback so that the editor/funding agency can make a decision, and so that the author/proposer can revise if appropriate. There are certainly many scientific authors who are poor reviewers, just as there are poor authors who are excellent reviewers. It is a different approach to writing even if the topics are the same.

So, for a scientific professional that wants to be a fiction author, there has to be a mental switch. As a reader I do *not* want a physiology dissertation in my fiction, and while a certain amount of persuasion or critique are valuable, I want my fiction to entertain. On the other hand, there are purists in the scientific publishing world that insist that *any* infringement by popular or colloquial style is unscientific, and has no place in professional publications. For an author/proposer/reviewer, it is even more imperative to separate the different mindsets. For me, I have to have a switch that says "*now* is the time to write that story." Furthermore, as long as that switch is set, I *cannot* work on any of my professional scientific writing, and I cannot let go of my story idea until I get all or most of it down in a way that captures the essence of my inspiration. It is why I have recently concentrated on short stories, blogs and popular science essays. For when that switch is set to fiction or popular mode, I *have* to finish what I am writing before I switch back. Each story costs me a couple of days, and I write from about noon to about 2-3 AM until I am finished.

As I gain skill I suppose I will learn to write chapters and scenes while the switch is in Fiction mode, and come back to write the next one a few weeks later when I can afford to set aside the scientist for a day or so. The only problem with doing so now is that unless I am fully in fiction mode, the scientific author in me wants to go back and keep revising the prior chapters even though the novel is not finished.

It is past midnight as I write this. The concepts I am writing about have been nagging me for two days until I could no longer resist, and the mental switch was set to Blog mode. Now that I am nearly done, I feel the mindset reverting back to Scientist mode much like a scholarly Dr. Jekyll to my literary Mr. Hyde. Until researchers such as myself perfect a direct brain-to-machine linkage to get these stories quickly out of daydream and into print, I will continue to keep my different modes of writing separate, lest I find myself submitting short stories to Nature, and scientific papers to Analog.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Beyond the End (The Other Side)

What lies on the Other Side?
Does this question conjure up creepy images of the afterlife? The shadowy realms that border graveyards? OK, ignore me, its my horror frame of mind at the moment as I contemplate a Brisbane ghost story.
What I really had in mind was probably something equally horrific - well at least for me. And that is what lies on the Other Side of my last work in progress.
I usually conceive the story before I start. I might fill in gaps as I go, and everything certainly comes alive, but by the time I am steaming toward the end I am picking up some appreciable pace. By the time I write to the end (I'm talking first draft here, not all the other thousand times I rewrite it) I am sometimes so pumped that I can hardly sit in the chair. I guess I'm a finisher - which probably explains the trouble I have with beginnings. Or starting something.
Once I've finished a project, I have a pretty massive creative crash. Going from that level of immersion into a new project is tough for me. I know this is the absolute opposite of many others, but facing the first, blank page of a new world is like sitting on the floor after harakiri contemplating my entrails in a state of mortal agony. OK. Might be getting a little dramatic. I guess you probably realise I am there right now. Related to this is my problem of holding onto things way longer than I really should.
Don't get me wrong, starts are exciting as well. Its fun being able to leap conceptually in any number of directions and give birth to something completely new.
So how do you face The Other Side? The period of completion after your creative project? Do you jump for joy, light up a cigarette and crack a bottle of champagne? Do you crash mentally and emotionally? Do you breath a sigh of relief and reach excitedly for the parchment?
What is the Other Side like for you?


Or: why I quit facebook and don't tweet.

A couple of weeks back I deleted my facebook account. I don't miss it. I hardly ever used it, and each new "update" just made the web page more painful. Besides, I really don't like the "all your data are belong to us" attitude betrayed by the steadily less private privacy controls.

Which brings up a question: we writing types tend not to be social butterflies. We're not going to write a novel in tweets or facebook updates. Heck, most of us won't write one in blog posts (and we won't mention my collection of dust-gathering blogs...). Where that gets fun is the ever-increasing requirement of publishers that their authors do their own publicity.

That's not the question. The question is this: in a massively networked future society, what happens to the introverts who don't want to be networked every which way? While there's always been an element of "who you know" to success, it's been possible to slip past that gateway and do well anyway, whether by luck, competence, or some other factor. When it's all networked together and your network is what determines if you can be trusted with anything from a McJob (if they still exist) up, what happens to the person who doesn't have and doesn't want a network?

It's an interesting thought, isn't it? For me it comes down to the question of whether the future that seems to be approaching at speed is one where I have a place. And that's before you consider the question of control - which is a minefield all by itself.

I like instant messaging because I can control who I see and who sees me. I'm not splatting something to the entire world. If I make a blog post, I know beforehand it's going out to the whole wide world (or the portion of it that's interested in what I write, which is a rather smaller group). I like knowing which is what, and having control over how much of it random strangers can reach. Or maybe that's just illusory - but the issue of virii and hacking is a different one again.

Is this a writer thing, or is it a geek thing? (Geeks will often choose to have more control even if it means more complexity, where the general population tends to go for simplicity at the expense of control). Or is it an introvert versus extrovert - or, just possibly, a Kate-weird thing?

What do you think? What do you want out of the facebooks and the twitters and whatever replaces them?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wrestling with an angel

No, I’m not trying out titles for the latest WWF-romance (Shut up you, if Amish-romances are all the rage, you can too have WWF romances as a sub-genre) and I’m only referring to Jacob’s fight with an angel in an allegorical sort of way.

What I’m talking about here is trying to “close” a novel. Oh, I know Dave and I have both talked about the point when everything magically comes together and you just coast to the end. You hit this point where you’re in a special frame of mind and a particular “state of grace” and you just seem to coast through the hard stuff. I’ve heard of painters and musicians describing this state, too. It’s like your subconscious has been doing all the hard work, and suddenly it all meets and is perfect.

Only sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. Sometimes – and this is usually when the novel, for whatever reason is important to you, or significant in some way – you struggle right up to the end. And I end up locked with it, in single combat, feeling like either I finish it or it will finish me.

And when this happens – Gentleman Takes A Chance; Heart and Soul; Darkship Thieves – I am always terrified I’m doing something mortally wrong. So, in addition to the novel itself, I’m wrestling with my fears and my lack of understanding of my own writing.

I am starting to believe that this effect, which seems to grow strong with each of my last five novels is the result of my refusal to compromise.

You know what I mean. To bring the novel to the paper, you compromise a little. You give here, you pull there and you say “Yes, yes, a scene with a cast of thousands and a hundred elephants would be nice, but damned if I know how to write it, so I’ll do the guy and his friend and they just TALK about the elephants and the crowds.” I’ve done this for years. Only suddenly, it’s not enough. I want the noise and surge of the crowds – metaphorically speaking – the heat of the day, the smell of unwashed bodies, the plop of the elephants’... Well, you get what I mean.

So – what should I do? Is it worth wrestling with the angel, even if you know in the end a part of you is going to be lost to this book, a part of you injured or captive in the text? Or should I let it go and learn the art of the possible? Do you ever finish books and feel like it flinched off what should be a “drag me kicking and screaming” ending? Or do you feel that the ends should just tie lose ends and sort of let you down easy?

The question, my friends, is do you want the end to come at the climax, like a clap of thunder and a clash of cymbals? Or leisurely and quietly like an apres-l’amour cigarette? Are there endings you prefer for a certain type of book? Why?

Let me know what you think. I’ll be right here, wrestling with an angel.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Core of Characterisation -- by Rowena Cory Daniells

(Rowena is away from her computer, but she left this for us. Enjoy!)
It always comes back to characterisation, for me. Whether it is a movie or a book, I have to care about the people, otherwise why would I keep reading/watching? If a book is really memorable, I find myself thinking about the characters for days afterwards.

I’ve always loved the artwork of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and when the British TV series came out, I looked forward to watching it with some reservations. I loved it.

It wasn’t historically accurate, but this didn’t worry me because I think it distilled the passion and the excitement of being involved in an art movement. Having lived as a starving artist in Melbourne, I can relate to this.

Instead of staid, stiff Victorians, the brotherhood came alive as young men, their lives full of passion, rivalry and self doubt. Characterisation again!

The web contains lots of useful tips on writing craft, here’s an article on characterisation that covers the nuts and bolts. Top 10 Questions for Creating Believable Characters, by Ginny Wiehardt.

Richard Harland has written 145 pages on the craft of writing with a whole section on characterisation.

And here, from the Writing Room, there’s an article on How to Write Great Characters.

What made the TV series about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood come to life for me was their character flaws. They were whole people. They made mistakes, they embarrassed themselves, they cared passionately, they failed to see through things and they tried to repair mistakes – they were human.

Whenever I run a workshop on characterisation I cover all the usual things. Then I ask the attendees to come up with two words to describe their character. The words have to be conflicting. So we end up with a Cynical-Romantic, or a Faithless-Priest. Once you distill your character into two conflicting words, you have the core of their inner conflict.

And just to show how important characterisation is:

Have you seen any movies or read any books recently, where the characters lived on for you afterwards?

Monday, May 24, 2010

There's a whole world in my reader's mind

Reading is a form of enchantment.

Perfectly simple really. It is a kind of magic transmuting by means of little black glyphs a bland piece of paper into an entire world, a place so full and rich and with such images in it, that they are REAL (at least while the spell holds).

And yet... we writers are fairly inept magicians. Our attempts at turning people into newts almost inevitably end up with them getting better (even those who were rather newt-like to start with, tend to return to this state.) While this has undoubtably saved a large number of politicians, bank managers and people who were unfortunate enough sign rejection letters from a life of swimming around in small muddy brooks avoiding herons, it does bring one back to the question of just how reading enchantment is done.

And the answer is not so much by what is written by the author as by what is already in the head of the reader. The writer does not so much put the wonderful world there as to allow the reader's imagination and background to paint a picture so rich and detailed it would take a thousand volumes to describe. It can work for backgrounds, it can work actual things happening. Actually that's what put me in mind of writing this piece - I wrote a bit in my Flinders Island blog about a suicidal tree-frog ( )
in which I sort of hinted at the possibility of a heavy sofa being dropped on my head. I didn't actually say it was (it wasn't) but the image was conjured... by what was left _unsaid_. Matapam made a comment on what she'd imagined, and I thought that I must actually talk about this.

Tolkein was probably the grandmaster of this. Here is a piece from his "On Fairy stories" - which in its original form was a lecture Tolkein gave at St Andrews University as his Andrew Lang Lecture explaining how the reader (hearer) 'saw' that magic. "If a story says 'he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below' the illustrator may catch or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene, but every hearer will have his own picture, and it will be made of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word."

Look, cinematography has come a long way. There really is no need for those poorly lit scenes where you don't quite know what is happening, you just catch glimpses of it. Hell, there is more of that now than in 1950 movies. You think that's because directors are all plonkers? (well, okay... incompetant then). No. It's because they have learned to hack into what Tolkein writes about there. They've learned they can NEVER give an actual, precise image which is MORE real, MORE convincing, and nearly as 'wide' as the one you conjure in your imagination... given the cues.

And, dear writer, is the true magic-working of the writer. Not showing the pictures but shaping the reader's imagination to show the pictures. Filling in the pieces of framework, often very precisely, so that the image the reader creates in his or her imagination fits the story. Any fool can describe something precisely. And a fair number of people can come up with colorful language usage to do so... but to take the reader into that magical world, you have to frame and direct the reader's imagination to release it.

The trick is running the fine line between too much and too little. And often little cues like the choice of diction can have disproportionately large impacts.
So who does it well? And had you actually realised it was being done?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's Your Turn

I'm a bit under the weather today, folks, so I'm going to throw open the blog. You can ask a question or post the first sentence or paragraph of a work in progress (but no more than the first paragraph, well, first two paragraphs). The floor is yours. I'll be checking back in every couple of hours to comment. Have fun and remember this piece of advice -- if you have sinus and allergy problems, Dallas is the Spring is not the place to be unless you like living on benadryl.

Edit: Here are a couple of topics I'll throw out:
  • Should you be able to download the e-book of a novel for free if you've already bought the hardcover of the book? How would you prove purchase?
  • What is the deciding factor for you in reading a new author?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Getting it Done

Laura Anne Gilman started her professional life as a book editor for a major NYC house, fitting her writing into the remaining available hours. In 2004 she switched that around, becoming a full-time writer and (in 2010) a freelance editor for Carina Press.

She wrote her first original novel, Staying Dead, when everyone said that urban fantasy was dead. She recently sold the 10th, 11th and 12th in the Cosa Nostradamus series to Luna. Contrary as always, in 2008 she wrote The Vineart War, an alternate-historical fantasy, when everyone was looking for urban fantasy, and sold it to Pocket, where it became a 2009 Nebula nominee for best novel. She thinks being contrary's a pretty good way to run a career.

Find out more at or follow her on Twitter: @LAGilman

Getting it Done.

There’s nothing quite like reading over your WiP and realizing that the opening segment does not exactly lead off from where you left your characters heading When Last Seen in the previous book. Fortunately I was only a few degrees off, so was able to massage things into line with a minimum of cursing and self-loathing.

But I'm not here to talk about that.

I should, I suppose. I could talk about what I did and why, and explain how this is all Totally Normal, but I find myself strangely disinclined to do so. I'm worried, I think, that someone will read it and say "oh, that's not how I do it, I must be doing it wrong" [You may be thinking "oh my god she's doing it wrong, she's an idiot," but I don't worry so much about that.]

Part of this hesitation comes from discussions during the break periods of Word War, the on-line writing workspace I belong to. We have a mixed bag of folk - some multi-published, some just starting out, some in-between, and what comes up a lot is "oh, but how do YOU (a pro) do it?" and its illicit partner "oh, but it's DIFFERENT for you, you're published, I'm not." And I cringe each time a variant of those questions/responses is trotted out, because Process is internal, not external, and nobody's brain works like mine/yours/his/hers, so nobody's process should be exactly the same, either and --

and I'm going to set this apart because I think it's really important --

When a writer starts a new project, nothing that came before matters.

Pro, amateur, hobbyist or die-trying newbie, we all sit there and face the same questions: "how do I do this? How do I tell this story to the best of my abilities, and dear dog, what if nobody likes it?"

The trick isn't to be perfect. The trick is to get past not being perfect and get it done.

The only how-to advice I ever give would-be writers is the classic "AiC" -- put your Ass in the Chair and start writing.

Everything after that? You've got to discover it for yourself.

Someone who has written-to-completion before has (hopefully) learned a few coping skills, some tricks and shortcuts that get them to the desired point with less hesitation...but they picked up new doubts and confusions along the way, because it's all a learning curve, right up to when we cover the keyboard that final time. And, each and every time, we make a new (and hopefully more interesting) mistake.

Different brains, different mistakes...different solutions and different results. And that's good. That's what creates all the different writers, and all the different stories.

So if you're reading the blog or the Twitter or the essay by Famous Writer Dude and think "oh god, that's not me, I'm never going to make it" or "I never thought of that, why didn't I think of that" in a negative, despairing way -- STOP. What works for you is what works.

Or, as I have in the sidebar of my journal, where I see it every day:

You sit down. You tell a story. You do it any damn way it comes out that works consistently for you. You hope people like it. You hope people pay you for it. You do it again. And again. That's all I got. Zen and the Art of Writer Maintenance. You can cheer me on and I can cheer you on, but in the end? In the end it's down to how you get your getting done, done. So get it done.

So how do you get it done?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Who Are You Writing For?

I came across a fantastic quote a few years ago - 'Write first for yourself and then for the rest of the world'. Another way to put this is 'Write first with the door open and then with the door closed'.

For me this means that for the first draft of the story, or the book, you should allow yourself to be free creatively - to flow with the story and write the story you want to see, with the characters that you want to write about. Here you don't have to worry so much about passives, or if the descriptions are all that crash hot, as long as you are experiencing the story. This gives you a narrative drive and a kind of freshness, even if it is raw.

Then, when you open the door up, you are opening it up to critique and feedback from your critique group, editor etc. Here you start to think about what a cold reader really takes away from that prose. The descriptions need to be crafted until they are good enough to evoke that same feeling that you experienced inside the reader. The passives, which were good enough to give you the inside feel of the action, have to be replaced with more direct storytelling - this is the old Show Don't Tell chestnut.

But beyond this, when you are just sitting there alone, either working on the first draft or beavering away on the nth draft of the Great Novel, do you have a sense that you are writing for someone? Is your sweat and toil being directed at a particular reader? Or is it a pure artistic sort of fugue, where you are communicating with some abstract part of the Universe?

Many writers are very deliberate about constructing their stories. They think about the target audience, even the the main gender they want to appeal to. They might study the stats describing the book-buying public with meticulous care and try and be crafty about what they scribe. Mmmn . . . that's definitely not me. But maybe these strategic writers actually have a sort of person in mind throughout the process of their work. I'm not sure.

Who are you writing for?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Utopia-Dystopia: One man's Utopia is another's Hell

Thomas More's Utopia is arguably the first science fiction ever written, because the piece is effectively people living in a perfect world. Plato's Republic doesn't count because it's a treatise on how to create Plato's vision of a perfect world.

The fact that I find both these perfect worlds horrifying is actually not that uncommon: no matter who builds a perfect world, we imperfect humans will always go and mess it up. On top of that, my idea of perfection is not going to be someone else's - quite possibly anyone else's.

So naturally, any kind of utopia is actually going to read as a dystopia to most people.

On the flip side, dystopias have a long history in literary, sometimes as moral lessons of the 'if this continues' type, satires, and of course the mess the heroes have to try to fix.

Okay, this ramble does actually have a point. Just let me find it again. Oh. Yes. Literary utopias are usually a resounding failure because either they're assuming humans... aren't, or because they just can't work with human nature. Or - more usually - both. (Funnily enough this applies to political utopias too. Whodathunkit?)

How often have you read about the idyllic lifestyle of this or that people and thought there was no way that kind of society could work because people just aren't like that? If you're anything like me, it's more than a few - but if we sat down and compared notes, there's a good chance that you'd like some of the ones I hate, and vice versa.

So, let's take a look at what makes a Utopia/Dystopia.

Start with the theoretical one size fits all, which in practice quickly turns into one size doesn't fit anyone very well and doesn't fit some people at all. If you're one of the ones that it more or less fits all right, you can probably live with the place, but if it fits too badly or doesn't fit at all the place quickly becomes sheer hell (this, incidentally, is one of the reasons I loathe pantyhose. I'm in the 'sheer hell' group). Not even clones will flourish in a monoculture - there will be enough experiential difference to ensure that some are misfits.

Now add human nature, which isn't changing any time soon. We're social critters, with all that implies: namely hierarchical and with deeply ingrained enforcement behaviors. Whether they're instinctive or not isn't relevant, because they're so strongly wired that they might as well be instinctive. No matter how you raise your kids, how carefully you keep them from the whole notion of competition and leaders and such, within seconds of meeting a new person they're sizing that person up and figuring out where they 'fit'.

When you watch someone - anyone - meeting a new person, a lot of what goes on in the first few seconds is working out whether that person is above, equal, or below in the social hierarchy. If the two have different ideas of who belongs where, there'll be quite a bit of work on the part of whoever thinks they should be superior (i.e. both of them) to establish superiority in a way the other recognizes. The winner will stand a little taller, the loser slump a bit - and as often as not neither one is consciously aware of what just happened.

That covers the leaders and followers (shepherds and sheep). There's two other very general 'types' you'll find in any large enough group. They're rarer than shepherds and sheep (this is why you need a larger group), and both of them will get attacked by shepherds and sheep if they reveal themselves. Predators (wolves) are kind of obvious. They pretend to be sheep so they can profit from other people. And no, this does not mean profit per se is evil. Using other people is - if you get all the benefit and don't pay any of the costs, you're a predator. If it's a crime with a victim (and yes, this includes running a company into the ground to get everything you can from it then walking away and leaving a bankrupt company and thousands of ruined lives), it's a predator thing. So is mooching off someone all your life - although that could be argued as a more parasitic behavior.

Then there are the goats - the independent-minded explorers and questioners who won't go with the herd unless they've decided independently the herd is the right place for them. No-one likes them: they often identify predators first, they make the sheep uncomfortable, and they question the shepherds. This is why you get a lot of misfits in certain areas - they identify each other and band together for their own protection. (As a side note: the USA is a nation settled and founded by goats. Over 200 years after the war of independence, that still shows - and is why the other 'colony' nations have the most in common with the USA. It's also why a heck of a lot of the inventions that materially changed people's lives originate in the former colonies. Penicillin: USA and Australia, cars: USA, planes: USA, drought-resistant damn near anything, Australia (Yes, I've left a lot off. It's not meant to be exhaustive)).

There is no such thing as a society where even all the sheep are happy. The best thing you as an author can do is build something that mostly takes into account human nature and has a whole bunch of incentives that tend to guide human nature towards improving things for their fellow-humans rather than destruction or power games (trying this in real life tends to end badly. We're perverse critters).

Some of the best fictional societies are - of course - Pratchett's, which take all of the variety and perversity of human nature into account. Sarah covers some interesting ground with Eden and Earth in DarkShip Thieves, and what Dave does to all the cultural myths about who is superior, the noble/innocent savage, the simple religious folk, the - oh, the heck with it, what Dave does to practically every cultural myth ever in Slow Train to Arcturus has to be read to be believed (if you haven't already read it, go and buy it. It's worth it.)

Who else has good fictional societies? Conversely, whose alleged utopias horrify you?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Looking For The Six Fingered Man

So, what if your character is really insane? In my last post I tackled the fact that “then the character went mad.” This “clever plot twist” annoys me so much that it’s garanteed to send the book against the wall.

So, what if your character is insane? Can’t a character be insane? Is there some rule against insanity in characters?

No, my darlings, no. I am not going to exclude people like writers from being characters in books. Oh, don’t quirk eyebrow at me. We are, most of us, certifiable. We spend countless hours playing games in our minds, for a nominal payment that – for 99.9% of us is well below minimum wage. We fret and fume to make things better, even though we know most of our sales are dependent on things we don’t control: cover, shelf placement, printing.

Face it, we completely understand insane, and we completely understand obsession. Or at least, we’d better, or we have no business working in this field.

So, that’s a form of mental illness. The obsessed character. The obsessed character, to the point that his goal obscures all his thoughts, distorts his life, turns everything inside out can not only be eminently writeable but an interesting character. Most of the time, if you’re playing it for laughs, your obsessive will be the hero. Or you can not play it for laughs and make him a truly tragic hero. Or a villain. Or you can give your hero and/or your villain a minor obsession, which is either played for laughs or straight up.

But, you say, isn’t that “And then he went insane?” No. Of course not. PROVIDED you give the character a motive and one we can understand/empathize with. Take Inigo Montoya (please. He’s looking for the six fingered man in my head.) He wants to avenge his father’s death. His father was killed in front of him when he was quite young. Is he insane? Oh yes. Certifiable. But we UNDERSTAND him. Hamlet’s motive is not so much different. After all, he could have lived with the fact his father was probably killed, bided his time and taken over from his uncle. But his father’s death and his mother’s re-marriage obsessed him to the point of mental illness.

What other types of mental illness can you have and still make sense? ANY of them. Provided we still understand the character’s motives, even in the depth of his insanity. Provided it still feels “logical” to us. Provided we can empathize. Obsession is probably the most common and easiest form of insanity to write. But paranoia can work just as well. It could be argued Vimes in Pratchett’s novels is paranoid and a lot of Heinlein characters suffer from a mild form of it.

I’m not sure I could write a schizophrenic, but I’m sure someone else could and do it brilliantly. Who is your favorite insane character? What kind of insane character would you like to write/read?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Renew your Creativity

East Coast of Tasmania (Available from Desktop Pictures).

Jeff Vandermeer has done a post on Revitalising your Creativity in your Private Booklife. This is particularly applicable for me right now. I’ve been working all day marking assignments, then I’ve come home and worked late into the night on the edits of my KRK books. Over the weekend I had a 2am session and a 1am session to get the work done.

This is not good for me as a writer or as a mother/wife/person. If I were my own mother, I would say, It is time to take a step back, Rowena, and reassess your commitments.

Thank goodness, I’m headed off on a holiday for 8 days. My (long suffering) husband and I are going on a driving tour of Tasmania. That’s the little island at the bottom of Australia. It has a population of around 500,000 and almost a million people visit it every year. So that means if you meet 3 people, 2 of them are tourists. I can’t imagine how this works.

I’m hoping that the time in Tassie will allow me to finish the book I’ve been trying to write since January. I’ve only got another 140 pages to go. LOL. I’m also hoping it will give me a chance to think clearly about my work load, commitments and what I really want out of life.

I love writing, I enjoy editing, I can do promotion. Since my publisher thrust me in front of a microphone 10 years ago, I’ve learnt how to speak off the top of my head while on a panel and I can run a fun, informative workshop on writing.

Jeff Vandermeer’s done a post on the value of acknowledging constraints when it comes to Book Promotion. He makes some valid points. One of my good writing friends, Richard Harland is about to set off on a tour of the US and the UK to promote his steampunk book, Worldshaker.

He’s a real performer and loves to do readings. I shudder at the thought of readings. For me, books are meant to be read in the privacy of our heads. If they were meant to be read aloud, they’d be performance poetry or a play. I have to admire anyone who can make them entertaining, like Richard.

Amanda has very kindly agreed to put up my Tuesday post next week. I’ll be back on the Thursday, hopefully refreshed and renewed, ready to be creative!

Meanwhile, what do you do, when you need a break from life?

Monday, May 17, 2010


"Don't cry for me,

Yes... tears on my keyboard (rather than my pillow). "It's not a good movie unless you have a good cry." (but same person will be bitter if there is not a kissy happily-ever-after ending.) Here is my basic contention - truly great books need to upset you emotionally, or at least stir you emotionally. And sometimes as an author I feel like one of those people who pull heartstrings to make the character - and reader puppets dance. The fault with this metaphor is that I dance with them, only moreso. Yes. I have ended up crying on my keyboard. Signy killing her dog in A MANKIND WITCH, (which I found almost impossible to edit, because I couldn't see the screen), the despair and courage of Vlad's sister down in the dungeons beneath Elizabeth Bartoldy's castle... somewhere in most of the books I have written (OK not Karres so much). I find I am so involved with my characters it hard to be dispassionate (which is possibly why I rationalise that it would be a bad thing.) I rage against the wrongness of it, I am torn by the pain. It is very, very hard when you are being god-in-author form not just to leave out/edit away these tragedies (as you can only do in books) because you'd haave to be... odd not to want to fix them. But I think that... would be a mistake. Because without the tragedy that resolution (which is very different from 'it didn't happen') cannot happen. Mind you, I think there is sometimes a desire in readers (and maybe editors?) to be entertained without that. Sort like a book being a hooker that gives pleasure without any of the other strings. I dunno. I can't write that.

So: if we need to do it... leaves us with how does the writer achieve that heart-string dance? I am really not sure how to do this for other people (I am not even sure if I do, or if I am right that it is a good thing. Angst is plainly considered good, but sentiment? Out of fashion, methinks.)
There are obviously evocative words. Powerful themes, love, loyalty, pain... And then there is taking your reader with you into those...
I've always found this is the antithesis of transitions. You MUST show.
But what works for you? Do you want to be emotionally involved? Do you fall for the hero/heroine? Do you want the disaster/misery/ heart-tear fixed?
How do you make yourself (or your reader) care that much?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Family Secrets

First of all, a big thanks to Pam Uphoff for being our guest blogger yesterday. Great post, Pam, and it started me thinking. One of my "escapes" when I can't focus on the writing or -- groan -- when I have hit that point in editing when I know if I have to read one more word of this book I wrote months ago, I'm going to go screaming into the night, is to do a quick on-line genealogy hunt for my ancestors. Sounds simple, right? After all, in this day and age of computers and the internet, you can find just about anything.

Well, the problem is, as I search, I discover I come from a family of liars. Or at least the champions of stretching the truth. Growing up, I was told my great-grandfather left Pennsylvania for Colorado because he was Amish and had a great singing voice and he had to get away so he could sing. Well, no. That wasn't it at all. My great-grandfather was a newspaper man. He went to Colorado and opened his own paper and ran it for years before moving to Kansas and doing the same there. My great uncle, his eldest son, was the youngest linotype operator in the country at the time -- not the dashing World War I spy we'd always been told. But his brother, the "responsible" member of the family, was a businessman, head of the chamber of commerce, etc. What wasn't talked about was his secret. It's a very deep and dark secret and one I may be tossed out of the family for revealing.

I don't know if I dare say it -- My Uncle Herb was -- horror of horrors -- a writer.

Which brings me back to this past weekend. Uncle Herb's daughter and granddaughter were here visiting from Kansas. Clarice, Herb's daughter, is the family genealogist. We were talking and I got curious and did a quick search on the internet and discovered that the family secret is no longer, well, secret. It's there for the world to see if it looks. Listed in the Catalog of Copyright Entries by the Library of Congress are two entries for plays written by "Port Weatherly" and the revelation that Port is -- gasp -- Uncle Herb. It says so right there.

Oh the shame, the horror...the family secret is out. It was bad enough we had journalists in the family. But at least they ran the paper and edited the content. They didn't actually WRITE it. Well, they did, but it was so long ago we can forget it. Besides, those papers aren't really online so people can find them. But this is listed in OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS. What to do, what to do?

I wish I could say I was being completely facetious about this, but I'm not. Like many writers, many of my family simply don't understand the need we have to write. They don't understand that writing is something more than a hobby. It is a job and, for some of us, a need. If we don't write, we go a bit crazy because it is our outlet for frustration, fears, anger, etc. I'm one of the lucky ones -- sort of. My son knows about my writing and is in full support of it. My mother, on the other hand, is different. We have sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" understanding. She tries to act supportive, but the disapproval and the lack of understanding is there. So long ago we reached the unspoken agreement of just not talking about it.

What about the rest of you? Does writing seem to run in your family? Does your family support you as a writer or not? Do you talk to your family about writing? Curious minds want to know.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


*Ladies and gentlemen, aliens and dragons, please extend a warm Mad Genius Club welcome to the were-slushreader, Pam Uphoff.*


We hit the Houston International Quilt Festival a few months ago. It was, as always, terrific.

Quilting is a pretty good metaphor for writing as well. All those little scraps in coordinating _and_ contrasting colors, carefully pieced together to show the larger picture, then padded and stitched over for depth and continuity. Not to mention keeping all that padding in place.

Check out the winner's page. The pictures don't do them justice.

Of course modern quilters go out and buy shiny, brand new cloth and cut it up, just like most of what I write is made up on the spot, at need.

But some of it's been kicking around for years.

Have you ever looked over all those little scraps in your head? You know what I mean. The idea that won't leave you alone until you jotted it down, and then you can get back to what you were supposed to be writing. I've brought together some amazing contrasts, but once you've pieced them together in a pattern, it works.

Especially in a "What's the worst thing I can do to this character" way.

What odd scraps do you have laying around? Can you sew them together and come up with a story?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Spring Cleaning For The Mind

Observing my own increasing trend for writing anywhere but actually in my home office - on the bus, in the park, in the cafe (bad for caffeine consumption!), I started to wonder if there might be something going on.

It could not possibly be the stacks of old Locus, Australian Author and Queensland Writer's Centre magazines, or the teetering piles of books - both read and unread. Nor the archive boxes stuffed with odd assortments, the piles of mouldering manila folders or the half of the office that has its floor area taken up with carefully deposited critique responses (patiently waiting for their turn), some of which may require carbon dating. I mean there is plenty of room to move the chair back - I hardly even even to squeeze through to sit at the desk.

Well . . . OK. The message finally started to sink in that five years is definitely long enough between spring cleans. So began the painful, painful process of trying to sort through all this gumph. Thankfully I managed to pull off a small miracle and use some storage area in a void under the house. But half a ton of paper had to be tossed (don't worry I recycled it).

After a long weekend spent tidying, sorting and dusting, I managed to reduce my office to something approaching minimalist. I could not believe the difference it made. I actually like being in the place now!

It made me realise that over time a kind of psychic detritus can accumulate along with all this garbage. You see all that crap, and somehow it gets bound up with all the negative feelings you accumulate toward your craft (well at least for me). It did me a lot of good to blow away the cobwebs. Physically dealing with this environment helped to clear the mental slate tremendously.

So how do you arrange your work environment? How do you keep the psychic cobwebs from accumulating, or do you keep the poor underpaid cafe workers in a job?

I Demand That You Meet My Needs!

I was wondering what to post today when I came across this piece. It seems the combination of altruism and wanting justice is so deeply built in it can be observed in babies. Me being me I immediately wondered if longitudinal studies would show a connection between the babies with least empathy and sociopathic behavior, but that's a can of worms I'll deal with elsewhere and elsewhen. I don't have time to go chasing those worms today (long story involving Life Gone Feral and Job Gone Feral playing together).

What I'm interested in for today's post is this: how much classic fiction of all flavors involves the bad guy getting punished? Rather a lot, as it happens. It's only recently that the fad for non-judgmental stuff started poisoning the well, and gee, it runs so much against the grain that even babies approve (for baby values of approval, which probably means aren't upset by) of bad guys being punished, and presumably good guys being rewarded.

We, as a species, clearly want justice.

When we can't get it in our lives - which is inevitable, the world being inherently unjust - we use fiction to restore our sense of 'fair'. Especially when anyone who tries to get justice or fairness in life by imposing it is going to end up with megalomaniacal dictators making everyone else equally miserable. It's one of those nasty consequences of human fallibility. You can add it to the laundry list.

Since divine justice doesn't show any signs of manifesting in our regular lives (or at least, I haven't seen any bullying bosses/coworkers/politicians/used car salesmen/insert villain of choice being struck by random lightning lately), we have to meet our needs through - you guessed it - fiction. I'm sure it's dreadfully primitive and barbaric and all to want people who hurt others to be punished, but there you go.

And of course, we can rationalize ourselves into the most amazing places where someone can slaughter millions "for their own good". The last I heard no-one ever conclusively decided on the question of whether, if you sincerely believe that not belonging to religion X will condemn someone to eternal torment, it's justifiable to kill the people of country Y who will never, ever believe what you believe. (Not naming names, but certain people in the Middle East have decided that the answer is 'yes'. So do a few people elsewhere. One or two. And if you believe there's that few I've got a nice bridge in Nevada I'd like to sell you).

Certainly, the books I've enjoyed most have been when the bad guy - whether irredeemable evil (usually those are kind of unsatisfying once they stop being the shadowy figure behind the Bad Things) or one of the ones who's managed to twist and self-rationalize into evil - gets what I feel he - or she - deserves. And of course the heroes of the piece are rewarded appropriately.

My own writing has a funny tendency to spend a lot of time with the folk who walk the knife-edge between having - for whatever the reason - to do horrible things for a good purpose and doing horrible things for a not-good purpose. And of course, a lot of just what makes it good. Or bad. The Vimes's of the world and their darker cousins who can't keep the beast away, so they try to control the damage by aiming it at a greater evil. That's a question that fascinates me.

What about you? What are your most satisfying endings? Do you want the hero rewarded and the villain punished, vice versa, or something in between?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Come to the Dark Side, Writer

I know my colleague, Kate Paulk, has gone into the mind of the villain (come back, Kate, we have cookies. Besides, it’s scary in there) in a few posts, but one of our commenters asked about villains and it occurred to me there are other ways to tackle villains.

Unlike Kate’s, my landing bridge in character-land doesn’t fall naturally in the middle of the evil Lord’s palace, right behind the dark towers and forbidding fortresses. Characters who plot their next coup d’etat while imagining their enemies drowned in bouts of malmsey don’t populate my imagination. On the contrary, for the longest time – forgive me, children, I was young and foolish – I couldn’t really write an evil character. Instead I wrote “and then he suddenly goes mad.” (I said I was young and foolish. Put down your rotten eggs and assorted wilted vegetables.)

And then I found the technique that works for me. While I’m not one of those people who believe everyone is good at heart, I do believe that evil people don’t think that of themselves. They don’t usually walk around twirling their moustaches, rubbing their hands and going nyargh, nyargh, nyargh. And dark cloaks and SERIOUSLY out of fashion.

Put it another way, the most fractured people in our society can’t help having internalized some portion of the common morals and widespread beliefs – stuff like, you don’t kick someone when they’re down. You don’t hurt puppies, children, small defenseless whatever. And we simians are, by nature, likely to want to fit in with our group, so there’s a tendency to cleave to those rules.

But, but, but, you say, didn’t I just say I believe in evil? Am I now going to claim that the people who commit horrors are in fact “just crazy”? Or that society drove them to it?

Put down the rotten eggs again. No, I’m not going to say that. Stop trembling your lip. Here’s the hanky. Do not sniffle in that annoying fashion.

I’m going to say that in most cases – there have been one or two historical exceptions, but those are characters I simply couldn’t write – people do evil by convincing themselves it’s good. It’s either good for the or good for the common people, or good for some grand, imaginary future. (The greatest crimes in human history have been committed in the name of future utopia.)

In fact, a great villain – in books at least – often has the makings of a great hero, except for... some “little” thing. Yes, the bad thing might be a hatred of someone or something. Movies tend to go in for this sort of motive. You’re going to kill the man who raped your mom, or whatever, and your hatred distorts everything out of proportion. The thing though is that though this definitely happens, the scarier horrors are perpetrated out of love.

No you say? Perhaps I should let you sleep at night... Nah, you’re writers and you want to know. The worst villains are the ones who start with a goal everyone would agree is laudable. Say you’re going to rid the world of disease. You start by sending doctors (let’s assume you’re very rich and powerful) everywhere that doesn’t have them. You send enormous amounts of medicine. But little kids keep getting sick because they play in the dirt. And you can’t stand to see them suffer. So you have every toddler killed who can’t be physically restrained from playing in the dirt.

This is an extreme example, and there would be various steps in between, as you trespass more and more on the commonly accepted version of good, but all in the name of a greater ideal. In fact, “the end justifies the means” could be the motto of most villains.

There are the exceptions, too – those who are so full of self-hatred and hatred of others that they “want to see the world burn.” But my penchant is for villains who are doing what they think is for the best and go over a little more and a little more because reality itself – human nature; the way societies work; economics; nature itself – is against them. They see the glimmer of the perfect world before them and they’ll do anything to get there. And they do.

On the flip side of that villain is the hero who sees when he’s doing more harm than good, who accepts limitations and reins himself in no matter how passionate. One of the reasons I love Pratchet’s Vimes is that he is that type of hero. I love the Villains in Phillip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers because they are mostly like that.

What type of villains do you love? Can you see them being tragic heroes with JUST a little difference in their lives? What type of villain would you like to write? Can you make one of your favorite heroes just a little less constrained, a little more ardent and see him become a villain?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Boys Books and Bandits

Who remembers BIGGLES?

Now there were books, unashamedly action books. There's a fan page on Facebook. And a Biggles entry on Wikipedia.

Continuing the theme of male readers that Dave brought up ...

Apparently struggling male readers (4th grade) respond better to female teachers, according to Science Daily.

"Although boys and girls enter kindergarten with similar performance in reading, by the spring of third grade, boys have lower reading scores, which makes this an opportune time for reading intervention."

Now that is a worry. Boys are disengaging from reading as early as the first few years of primary school. See the article here.

And here we have scholarly article on Understanding the Reluctant Male Reader.

"The O'Doherty report (1995) identified various ways boys were significantly over-represented in special language and reading classes. For example, three times more boys than girls were receiving special assistance in New South Wales' schools for reading. Some researchers account for this discrepancy by identifying and defining behaviours associated with learning difficulties. "

Although they did discover that when boys read they read just as well as girls.

"Boys' performance seems to have been facilitated by the high interest material, while girls comprehended nearly as much of the low interest material as the high. Two possible explanations for this phenomenon present themselves: if reading is seen as sex appropriate for girls and sex inappropriate for boys, boys may require the additional incentive of high interest material. An alternate explanation is that girls may have a greater familiarity with vocabulary. This study seems to indicate that some achievement tests may not provide the type of material that encourages boys to demonstrate their abilities. "

And here is a Huffington Post article Dudes Don't Read: The Book Biz's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
He asked if publishers have given up trying to publish and market books that males want to read. He asks:

"Where are the badass young male writers of today? Would Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Vonnegut or Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney or Alex Garland or Chuck Palahniuk even get book deals if their debut novels were written today? How can we make reading novels -- and writing them -- cool again for guys under thirty?"

Having just spent weeks marking movie treatments by young males aged between 17 and 25, here are my observations.

7 out of 10 young males want to read/see movies about young men who have to battle evil men/monsters, with a band of like minded young men. The higher the kill count the better.

The other 3 out of 10 young men are incurable romantics and write about falling in love.

I guess there would have to be some romantic males out there, or the human race would never have survived. And, conversely, we need the other 7 out of 10 males to fight off the saber tooth tigers.

Maybe what writers need to give the young male reader is the same wish fulfilment that a romance gives a female, a high kill count, the respect of his fellow men and a machine gun that never needs reloading.

Luckily I'm married to one of the romantics. So, do you think my estimate is accurate?

Monday, May 10, 2010

'Why men don't read books'

Do men read? And if not, why not? And what should we be doing about it?

Following links can be a route to perdition or at least a large waste of time... And occasionally thought-provoking... look, there was always a small statistical probability it has to happen ;-). It, um, has relevance to Amanda's question of yesterday. Eventually accidents will bring readers to your site. The trick is keeping them.

Anyway - to proceed with my easily derailed train of thought. While looking at this article l (worth reading, but with a little pinch of salt, I think) I happened on a link to this item about another Huffpo item... in Salon. Now anything that called itself ‘salon' does not have much attraction for the hirsute and shaggy fellow that I am, but I read it simply because the title "Why Men don't read Books" is of some interest to me. I want EVERYONE reading. I believe it is vitally important that people do (even if it is not my books that they read. So long as they read).

Now, as a sales pitch for the site, I am afraid the article failed for me, as it's not -- as I was hoping -- a well-referenced and scientifically analytical piece. The only stats Miller gets around to (down in the letters) are rather dodgy as there is none of the required statistical rigor to them - they're a self-selected sample for starters... but it was interesting for the responses it provoked. The curious logic -- in both the responses, subtitle and author's conclusion -- was also quite funny, if you like irony.

Lets start with a few premises here: 1) Some men do read. We're really asking about what they read and why they read that, and why those who don't read, don't, and what the proportions are. Real numbers, real facts. Actually we'd like to know what women read, why, etc., what every possible market/social segment reads. But there is some not very well proven (but I suspect correct) evidence that men are reading and buying less. This really not good news for anyone (even militant feminists who believe all men are EEEEVUL.) It wouldn't be good news if the segment being alienated was Chinese or lesbian or believers in the great Arckleseizure. It's worse-than-average bad news, because if you breed dogs that can bite your head off, having them good-natured, intelligent and thoughtful about possibly doing so is more important than if you're breeding Toy Poms (think about that, if it doesn't make your head hurt too much).

2)There really seems to be no good research on this. One has to wonder why something as fundamental as "why am I not effectively getting to 50% of my possible audience" is not of burning interest to publishers, and not vitally important to the government of any forward-looking society (after all, the social and intellectual capital of any society rests on literacy, and on the literate having a catholic reading habit). Ignorance might keep you in power, but it also means you are in power over a financially weak and socially frail society.

So: what do you think? Is this bunkum, and reading is really distributed normally with the probability of those with an IQ of over 100 being more or less equal?

Is it Okay that men (or pick any other group) read less?

Is this about the money editors earn (Laura Miller's Pink Ghetto theory), or are there other forces at work? Given my own experience - being a writer is mostly terribly badly paid, with most editors living a secure, comfortable life compared to that, and that I would be livid if anyone said that should be any group's preserve, and it isn't. Or that some of the worst paying jobs in the qualified world are in field biology - as bad or worse than writing and far worse than editing (gee, my first direction before blundering into writing - do I detect a trend here?) and it's a very male dominated area (principally I think because it's dirty, physically hard, and badly paid. You really have to love it do do it. There are more women involved now... and oddly pay scales have improved along with that - so rather than getting worse because women are there, its getting better. Which is a good thing.) I can't say I believe pay can be the sole reason. It was a male dominated field once. I suspect careful analysis will show editors then were as screwed as they are now, relative to margins etc. So what other factors could be at work in the editorial gender imbalance? Is there one? Does it matter?

Doesn't diversity proportionate to your target audience make some kind sense - especially when diversity means getting the viewpoint of 50% of the possible audience? If I owned a publishing house aiming at generally accessible fiction it would make financial sense to me to not recruit an editorial board from same gender/ town/ orientation/color as I am. If I had little choice I'd aim for where my market was, surely? Ergo, if I were gay and Japanese, and wanted to only sell books to a gay Japanese market, it would make sense that my staff were gay and Japanese (or at least familiar with that group and culture). If I were trying to sell books to a more general audience, I'd want an editorial staff who at least knew a lot about other sectors, even if they did not have a physical representivity. New York is a very large city, (but still a tiny segment of the US, let alone English readers) but as a statistician the subsection its editors seem come from /live in is not. Is this part of the problem - like Hollywood assuming the world is just like Hollywood?

Leaving the occasional stupid sexist diatribes out (men are not too easily distracted by TV/video games, any more than women's brains explode if they try to read) are there any real concrete reasons why men could be reading less? (I can't say the gender of the writer is big issue with me, but the publishing date is!)

More questions than answers. Is this real, if so what should writers, readers and editors do about it?

Let the riot begin.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Happy Mother's Day!

We've talked some in earlier posts about what we look for in a bookstore, and what we wish wasn't in a bookstore. So here's a new question for you guys. What do you look for in an e-book store or e-book publisher? What would make you visit the site of an e-book publisher or store you've never been to before?

Why, you might ask, do I want to know? It's really quite simple. With each day that passes, more and more people are being published electronically. The majority still come from "legitimate" publishers, be they traditional publishers who also publish electronically or publishers who are exclusively electronic. But with the emergence of Amazon's electronic publishing options for writers who do not have a "publisher", Smashwords, and other similar sites, more and more authors are making their material available for download. Are you willing to try a new author in electronic format if they don't come from a "real" publisher?

When I purchase a book from an author I've never read before, it is almost always in hard copy. I've been enticed by cover art or quotes or the synopsis on the back of the cover. What I've seen from a number of self-published e-books is the lack of professional looking cover art and, even worse in my mind, no cover blurb or plot synopsis.

So, I guess what I'm interested in knowing from the rest of you is why do you pick up a new book in dead tree versions. Do you use the same criteria for choosing an e-book?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ryk Spoor's Road to Publication

*Ladies and gentlemen, aliens and dragons, please extend a warm Mad Genius Club welcome to Ryk Spoor.*

Authors get asked lots of questions.

Undoubtedly some of the most common (besides "when's the next book out" if you're writing a series) are "where do you get your ideas", "Why do you write", and "how did you get published" (sometimes phrased as "how did you become a writer").

I'll answer the last question first, because it's undoubtedly the most interesting of the answers.

Waaaaay back in the misty reaches of time (okay, in 2000), Baen Books was preparing to do a re-issuing of the works of James Schmitz, with Eric Flint doing the editing to bring all the stories together, sort them into priority for republishing, and connect them into coherent wholes.

At the time, I was only vaguely aware of Baen Books (mainly because I generally paid little attention to publishers per se).

I was (and still am) a fixture on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written (having been present since around 1989).

Baen, of course, had recently begun their experiment of creating their own online community, Baen's Bar, and Eric Flint had his own conference on that community.

It is important to understand at this point that James Schmitz was (and is) one of my favorite of the old-time SF writers, someone who started out writing material that bordered on Doc Smith pastiche but quickly developed his own voice, and a voice that -- for his era -- was almost unique, especially in that most of his stories focused on competent, quick-thinking FEMALE characters who were fully as competent as any of the men around them, and showed few of the failings common to other authors' attempts at such characters.

His most famous novel work is undoubtedly The Witches of Karres, but in some ways I consider the Telzey Amberdon novels to be more representative, and his stories featuring Nile Etland -- especially The Demon Breed -- are some of his best work.Someone -- I do not recall who -- posted an excerpt of discussion from Flint's conference on what was being done on the Schmitz re-issue to rec.arts.sf.written.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately -- this excerpt was taken completely out of context, said context being that it was a discussion on Eric's conference between him and those who knew him and understood his discussion habits and tactics.

Taken thus out of context, it made it sound like Eric Flint: 

1.Intended to completely modernize the text, removing "outdated" references Felt Schmitz didn't understand how to properly tell a story
2.Was going to re-edit and possibly even re-write pieces of the stories to make them "better".

I took strong exception to this; in my view, even if the interpretation of that excerpt was exaggerated, the entire concept of "editing" a dead man's work made no sense at all. If you were going to re-issue it, well, RE-ISSUE! Take an old copy of the book, transfer those words, typeset and print. You don't need an editor for that!

Well, this ignited a flamewar the likes of which was rarely seen even on that newsgroup -- which had certainly seen many.

Several separate message threads were created, with over 2,000 posts, with Eric and I shooting back and forth at each other while others took various sides and added their own volleys of fire.

However, even at the height of this flamewar, neither Eric nor I focused on insulting the other PERSON, just their choices or viewpoints, and when one of us DID make an actual error (which both of us did at least once during the debate), we admitted it to the other person and corrected ourselves.

This was a somewhat rare occurrence and caused both of us to recognize that the other guy might be obviously wrongheaded, but sincerely and honestly so.

The flamewar continued in spurts for so long that the first book in the reissue actually hit the shelves while it continued. It was at that point that Eric said to me, paraphrased, "why the hell are you still arguing about what you THINK I said about what I might do to the book, instead of just picking up the book and READING it?"

To which I replied "Because I'm not sure I want to spend money on something I'm not sure I even WANT!"

To which HE answered: ".... that's a good point."At which point, he quickly asked Jim Baen for permission and then proceeded to send me the original files -- with his edits, and commentary on what he'd done, and why, so I could see what did and didn't change, why it had to be changed (in Eric's view) and so on.

To which my response was: "Well, dammit, now you've gone all REASONABLE on me! Now I'm going to actually have to read it and give an INFORMED opinion!"And after reading the original and final versions and Eric's notes, I posted my opinion, which boiled down to: most of the edits were trivial things -- changing punctuation which was not needed, etc.

A few were substantiative, of which two I felt actively damaged the stories in question, and one was a stroke of genius which I was surprised had been missed out on by both John Campbell and Schmitz himself. "But overall these are 95%+ original Schmitz, excellent stories, and well worth owning. If you don't already own them, go out and buy these. It's well worth it."After that, Eric used me for a while as his "loyal opposition" -- sending me copies of other re-issues underway so that I could be there as a sort of third-party reviewer.

During one exchange of conversation, he happened to ask where I lived, to which I replied "East Greenbush, NY" and he said, "No kidding. My mother in law's in Schenectady."

So the next time he came up to this area, he dropped by to visit. And while we were talking, my wife brought up the fact that I wrote (something I would not have done in that context). In Eric's words: "So naturally I had to ask if he had anything finished, and this is where Spoor showed how clever he was, by telling me that all he had was some kind of vampire story. Now, normally I consider anything involving vampires about as interesting as watching paint dry, but Spoor knew my contrary nature would make it so that I'd feel obligated to REALLY give his story a fair try."

Eventually Eric got a chance to read the three connected stories I'd given him, and one day I got a phone call.

Since Eric had NEVER called me previously (except to verify directions to my house) I figured this meant he was trying the personal touch to let me down easy. Instead he said, "This is eminently publishable stuff. There's just one thing wrong with it: it's too short."

He gave the stories to Jim Baen, who agreed with him, and I then bashed out another 60,000 words in about 2 months to add to the first three, tweaked those a little bit, and about a year later I held in my hands my first copy of Digital Knight, which was dedicated in part to The Butcher of Baen, Eric Flint.

Also in Eric's words, and mine: I do not recommend anyone else attempt this route to publication.

There are so many ways this could go wrong.To address the other two questions:I get my ideas from many sources; I read literally thousands of books when I was younger, and there's nothing so convenient as taking a piece of A.E. Van Vogt, connecting it to something from Robert E. Howard, and setting it in a universe Heinlein might have worked on.

I'm inspired by anime I watch, by images -- one entire novel I recently wrote was triggered simply because I happened to see an absolutely magnificent rainbow one day, while driving home -- and by music.

The largest single source for me, though, and the most powerful tool I have to help me with working out my ideas, is roleplaying. I run RPG campaigns and throw pieces of my concepts into the grinder of the player characters, let them gnaw on them, bash them around, and see how well they survive!

As to WHY I write... partly because I can't NOT write. I started writing when I was 6. I have stories that want to be told, and I tell them. But I also write because there's stories I want to read, and no one else writes them.

If there is any actual PURPOSE to what I write, then it is to bring forth the Sense of Wonder, that thrill that widened my eyes and inspired me to dream when I was 11 and first read about the Lensmen and their galaxy-spanning conflict with the implacable forces of Boskone and the even more terrible powers lying behind them, the chill down my spine from first reading "One Ring to Rule Them All, One Ring to Find Them...", the triumph and glory that only words and imagination can evoke and that often seems absent from other fiction I have read. This is the REASON for fiction, to me, to exalt, to lift up the reader and make them see something better, grander, more glorious than anything they have seen... and to, at least for a moment, BELIEVE in it.

Ryk was born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ryk moved with his family to Vermilion, South Dakota, then Atlanta, Georgia, and to Latham, NY before ending up in Schenectady, NY. As an effort-induced asthmatic, he was often confined to the house and spent the majority of his time reading and, as time went on, writing (getting those first million words out of the way early!); while science books -- especially those on volcanology -- were a large part of his reading, the Oz novels by L. Frank Baum were his favorites in early life.

In junior high, a teacher gave him a battered, slightly scorched old copy of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Second-Stage Lensmen, which pegged his sense-of-wonder meter permanently and set him on an inevitably geeky quest to become a science fiction writer. In high school he discovered computers and RPGs, and ran the very first play-by-email (PBEM) roleplaying campaign in 1977-1980; it was during this time he first began using the online alias of "Sea Wasp" which he uses to this day.

Since then he acquired degrees in mathematics and science, psychology, and information science, worked everywhere from fast-food joints to an internet-bubble filesharing company to Borders Books, and now works as the R&D Coordinator for International Electronic Machines. Along the way he became a Usenet fixture, a RPG consultant and writer, an anime fan, and eventually achieved his ambition to be an SF writer when Baen Books published his first novel, Digital Knight. Since then, he has also published the short novel Diamonds Are Forever as a part of the anthology Mountain Magic, Boundary (the latter two with Eric Flint), and his latest solo novel, Grand Central Arena, which is a modern space opera intended as a salute and tribute to "Doc" Smith and the other Golden Age writers; a sequel to Boundary, Threshold, is due out at the end of May.

Ryk E. Spoor now lives in Troy, NY, with his wife Kathleen and four children (Chris, Gabriel, Victoria, and Domenica), and one small poodle.