Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Thanks to PLC for the honor! And thanks to all of our readers for sticking with us and for taking part in some wonderful -- and lively -- discussions.
Into every beginner writer’s life, at some point, a little convention must fall.
I confess I’m a very bad person to talk about this because I never attended a convention until after I sold my first book. However, for the record, if I had to do it over again, I would have started attending conventions about... oh, fifteen years sooner, right after I finished the first novel. Do I think it would have made a big difference? Oh, heck yeah. I think I might well have broken in back in the eighties instead of 2000.
Though conventions are waning some in importance – there are now authors’ forums and agents’ forums and editors’ forums and online meeting places and other ways to make contact with the professionals – there is still very little that can beat meeting someone face to face. If you made a good impression on an editor or agent, they’re more likely to be straight forward with you and tell you why they’re rejecting the novel, for instance, or even give you an opportunity to rewrite. So, instead of “Dear Author, thank you, but–” the letter will read “Dear Agnes, I find the concept of your novel intriguing, but you lost me when you got to the part with the alien sex. I know, you’re a very nice woman and I think you’re holding back too much. Perhaps you can rewrite it and send back.”
Now this sort of thing is not going to happen – usually – after a single meeting – unless you shared some special bonding time, like, getting stuck in the rain with not a cab in sight and having to walk six miles back to the hotel, or something like that. It will take two, three, sometimes five conventions of meeting casually before the professional will remember your name and/or consider you a friend or at least a friendly acquaintance.
It’s also not going to help if you barge in to where an agent is talking to her client, or an editor is surrounded by friends and start pitching your novel. Remember in many ways publishing is stuck in the nineteenth century. There is an etiquette and a way to do things.
So, without further ado, a rudimentary convention primer:
1 – which con should I attend? Well, most of us always attend our local cons (defined as our hometown and within about three hours drive) anyway. Yes, you should do that even before you’re published. It will get you known to the local fandom which is an invaluable help when you’re pushing your first book.
Unless your local con is IN NYC or at least within reach by bus or train of NYC, you won’t have many professional editors attend. If you’re lucky, there will be one or two under editors. If you’re really lucky, they will have the ability to purchase your stuff. More likely there will be a round dozen small press and micro press editors. Yes, I know what I said about sometimes this being the best way to break in, but unless you have time to INVESTIGATE the house’s reputation, don’t. Just don’t. – the exception to this is Toni Weisskopf who does a lot of cons in the South. If you can and Toni is the editor you wish to meet, then your local con might do fine.
As for trying to buddy it up with the authors’ GOH... well... there are limits to what an author can do for you. This doesn’t mean it’s nothing at all. Published authors can mentor you and teach you tricks of the trade. They can introduce you to their agent/editor. They can tell you how things stand in the industry. But unless your best buddy is Rowling or Meyers, a writer cannot give you immediate entry into the profession.
Also, two caveats. As one of the authors who does mentor, we get a LOT of touches. And a lot of the people who try to buddy it up to a published writer are, let’s face it, flakes. Another number of them you get the distinct impression only like you because you’re published. It doesn’t even have anything to do with liking your books. If you friend someone to use them, you’re morally questionable. Sooner or later the writer will figure this out. After a while, heck, we get a sense for who is using us. So... For published writers, I’d do what I do – though I started after being published – go to cons attended by authors whose work you genuinely like. Approach them at signing. Talk to them as people, not as demi-gods (most of us aren’t.) Treat them as you’d treat anyone else you like and would like to be friends with. If something develops, great. If not, let it go. No one likes an obsessive stalker.
Frankly, if you’re a beginner, serious about breaking in, I’d recommend one of the larger cons like Worldcon or World Fantasy (I’d live off the mega cons, like Dragoncon and Comicon until you are fairly well published. You just get lost.) Alternately a writers’ conference if there’s one in your area and you like the guests.
2 - Plan ahead
Did you think you were going to the con for the panels, foolish child? No. Oh, surely, if there’s a panel with an author you adore; if you want to know your prospective editor/agent think about electronic publishing or something like that. But if you lay down your notes and go in and spend the whole time listening to panels, you’ve wasted your money.
So, you know who your quarry is. Plan. The plan can be as simple as “want to meet x” or as convoluted as “want to try to find out the secret party where you’re allowed to pitch.” (Answer, there isn’t one. And if there were, you wouldn’t be invited. Heck, most of them I wouldn’t be invited) For your first con, content yourself with “want to meet/exchange a few words with....” and then a list.
However, be prepared. You’ll wander into the lobby and someone you met while checking in (and whose name you don’t know, but you shared a pretty funny joke about sparkly vamps) will say “Hey, we’re going to dinner. Wanna come?” and next thing you know you’ll be sitting at a table with three executive editors and four A list agents. Can happened. Has happened to me. Remain flexible and open at the con, and remember you’re there to see and be seen. Like a debutant of old, nothing is going to happen if you sit by the wall and refuse all offers to dance. And if the editors you made contact with are not the ones you planned, it might still be the making of your career.
The exception to the panel thing is RWA nationals. The panels are often tremendously informative and even I learned tons of stuff, after ten years in the business.
3- There’s a time and a place
So there are you are at the dining table, with all these agents and editors. CAN you avoid blurting out, “you know, I have this novel about intelligent butterflies”? Sure you can. Unless you want to have everyone give you the cold shoulder and never talk to you again.
The table conversation will likely be a) gossip about people you don’t know. Say nothing about that. b) gossip about bestsellers. NEVER say anything bad about people who are way ahead of you. c) and more likely – or at least part of it – harmless anecdotes about where they live, their pets or their kids. This you can join into. Yeah, I know you’re a species of troglodyte. Pretend you are your most outgoing character. Be charming. Be sweet. DO NOT be overbearing.
It is possible that during the conversation, an editor or agent will ask, “So, you said when you were writing, you mistook your cat for a hat. Do you write science fiction.” This is the time to blush and say “Science fiction, fantasy, a bit of horror. Romance with purple aliens....” whatever you do write. THEN if the editor asks what you are working on at the time, you may give her/him an elevator pitch. More on that later.
The point is that people you have fun with will remember you and think of you pleasantly. You don’t need to be on all the time and you should never be pushy.
Sitting there in utter, stony silence and/or hiding under the table are also highly discouraged.
4 - Grab the opportunity by the short hairs.
The time will come – trust me – when an editor or an agent will ask you “So, what are you working on?” It might be the first time you meet them. or it might be at your third/fourth dinner with them.
It will help of course, at this point, if you have looked at trades and websites on line and know what these people publish. Say your opus is a magnificent YA or a mystery, pitching it at Toni for Baen is probably going to leave both of you cold. (Unless it’s a borderline thing.) We’ll assume you’re smart enough to do this.
When the professional asks what you’re working on, be ready with an elevator pitch – so called because these conversations sometimes happen as you bump into an editor in the elevator. And the pitch has to be short enough to grab the editor between the two floors.
Usually these are done in short-hand. Two movies. Or a standby of the field and a movie. So you might say – for my current between hands work – It’s Friday meets the Lives of Others, but with a really positive spin. (Cut me some slack, this is off the top of my head.)
“But my book ISN’T anything like...” Yeah, well, my book isn’t anything like those above either. Fortunately I’m a published author and I can say “It’s a lot like DST but a little darker, about 300 years in the future and the love angle involves a spy and a female secret agent.” But if I had to do an elevator pitch, I could also say “It’s Brave New World meets Revolt in 2100, with a romance thrown in.”
Just find the most likely thing and use it. Preferably use two movies that are intriguing or which don’t seem to make sense together. “The Graduate. In Space. On Skates.” Keep it short. Try not to use movies that tanked. For instance, “My book is just like Movie no one heard of but better” won’t get you any benes.”
If you’re lucky – my luck with it is about fifty fifty – the person you’re pitching to will say, “Oooh. I just saw this movie about skaters in space. Tell me more.”
This is when you have a little prepared thing. Keep it to a paragraph or two. “Spaceman Shorty has just finished his training at the academy, but no one wants to hire him. He’s hanging around his father’s house, falls back into his skating hobby from childhood, gets involved with an older null grav skater. This is when he finds out she’s really a spy bent on killing the king of Skate city. And to make things worse, he falls in love with her daughter.”
If you’re really lucky, the agent/editor will say, “Wow, tell me more.” Or even better, will slip you her business card and say, “Send me an outline and the first three chapters.”
(I hope you’re not foolish enough to pitch something you don’t have at least that much for. Which brings us to three caveats:)
a) Watch for signs of eye-glaze/disinterest. It happens to all of us. If the editor turns away and starts talking to someone else, DO NOT GO ON. If the eyes glaze DO NOT GO ON.
b) Tell the truth. If the editor/agent says “send me the book” DO NOT say “okay” if all you have is the first three chapters. You’re not going to finish writing it in a week! Instead, say “Well, it’s not finished, but I have the first three chapters and an outline.”
c) When you get home, follow through. You might take a month or so – hey, I know I do a final typo hunt – but then SEND it in.
5 - That’s it. With a few random caveats thrown in.
a) Don’t drink if you can’t hold your liquor. Heck, even if you can. You might just think you can. And drinking will loosen your tongue. don’t.
b) If you’re there as a pro or a wanna be pro, wear appropriate clothes. Yeah, that really cool steam punk jacket and skirt is fine (at least if it’s decorous) and you can’t go wrong with business casual. Not torn clothes, dirty jeans, etc. though. Authors usually dress one level above fans at any given con.
c) leave your politics and religion at the door. No, not even if you wish to violently endorse what the publisher is saying. Well, not unless you and the publisher are already on friendly terms. At any rate, do not go on about it to the public at large. Why would you want to alienate half of your potential fans?
d) If asking questions/giving answers to panelists don’t start with “in my novel” if your novel is unpublished. No, trust me, seriously. Ninety nine percent of these novels are wretched and, for reasons unknown to me, set in medieval Japan.
e) Just as with the liquor, watch yourself with the sex, okay? It’s okay to be flirty, but it’s not okay to be flirty in professional situations. And watch yourself with staying up past your sell by date. The good parties are late at night, but some of us become slap-happy late at night.
f) Do not hang out in parties where nothing is happening, unless the party itself is fun. Otherwise move on, it’s a chance to meet your targets.
g) if you’re going to one of the big cons, wear comfortable shoes. Most convention halls, etc. are enormous. You’ll walk a lot.
Any questions? Comments? Suggestions?
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
I want more 'me' time.
I used to be a stay at home mother of 6 who also volunteered for state and national arts organisations. I set up a national writing competition, a national workshop and I helped on a national award among many other things. During this time, I had around 30 kid's books published and a fantasy trilogy.
I used to think when all the kids get to school I'll have more time. Only by then the eldest ones started coming out the other end of the school system. They had part time jobs and studied part time I spent all my time running them around to things.
I used to think when some of the kids leave home (this has only happened in the last 6 months) I'll have more time. But I'm teaching part time (during marking weeks it is full) and we're renovating our house. And three of the 6 kids are still at home with the others dropping by, so I'm still running people around to things.
I've edited my three KRK books in the first few months of this year (that's three levels of edits on three books over 100K at the same time). And I've written a new book which I'm madly trying to do an edit on before the end of the month to send off to my ROR colleagues so they can give me feedback on it. (And I'll read their books in August and give them feedback before World Con in September).
I LOVE writing. But trying to get this book finished has been a really hard slog. The joy of writing hasn't been there, except on odd ocassions. One night I couldn't sleep, got up at three am and wrote until 6am when I had to start marshalling kids for work and school. Those three hours were heaven. No interruption.
I think it is the lack of mental space in my head to mull over character and plot and let things gell organically. I really miss that private space in my head.
Here I am, home from work, writing my blog post, trying to juggle work family and writing, and wondering if I can squeeze in an hour or two on the book. I just want to write.
Is anyone else tempted to run away and join a monastery to get some 'me' time for their writing?
Monday, June 28, 2010
I've finished my current book, so a rather long post: an exercise in economic comparison and predictiveness.
"There's gold in them thar hills..." And the old coot gets trampled in the rush. After a while he gets up and heads very sensibly in the other direction.
Oh yes... it's the dream-chase, and sometimes it wise to step back and look at those dream chases and work out... just who did get rich (or successful) and who actually made them rich.
Is it miners? Staking a claim and striking it rich... it happens. In the first two weeks. After that the incidence slows and eventually the only finds of mining riches come from very large companies. Oh, individual miners find the gold nugget/ diamond but the claim is owned by the company. The finder may get a generous reward, but it's the company that gets rich.
And the of course just after the miners comes the traders, offering all you may need from floosies to flop-houses. At a price naturally. They're giving their chance of getting rich to serve you! Oddly they get rich, and the miner just goes right on dreaming and getting nowhere. Actually, quite a lot of the money going to the middlemen is from elsewhere and not the little gold they find, anyway. The miners and their other, previous jobs, are subsidising the middlemen.
Which brings me to a study done the economics of crack selling gangs in Chicago. Oddly , yes the two have a lot in common... You see: Selling drugs must be a way to get rich...
Except its not. Turns out that the gang-foot-soldiers are earning... around $3.50 an hour, and it was twice as likely you'll be killed as it was for a soldier in Iraq at the height of the insurgency. For which they got... About the same as at the time they could get for flipping burgers at MickeyD. And, um, it turned out that quite a few of them were moonlighting at MickeyD...
Of course the higher tiers of gang hierarchy do get rich. Well, in the middle not really rich. They do as well as an engineer... and the top end got VERY rich.
So: why are they doing this...? It's quite simple really. They hope to get to the top. And once this was possible. If you got in with the first bunch. Turns out just like the gold-rush miner, the time to get rich and move up in the hierarchy was 30-40 years back, and this is what people still believe may happen (and um, the upper parts of hierarchy, who hand down their power and mantle and money... to... not one of the foot soldiers - go to some length to foster the dream). The crack-selling gang members are living on dreams (and not quite in the way you might expect).
This obviously has parallels in many industries, including our own.
Along with Gutenberg we had gold rush. And then again I suppose with the cheap paperback. And then again with the Internet and social networking (Cory Doctrow and Charlie Stross being good examples of early adopters). And on each occasion the equation worked very similarly. The miners/writers who got in quickly and were hardworking and lucky too were successful. The chances were not great, but they were a lot better than they became (where moonlighting at MickeyD also became a necessary survival strategy). Like the gold mining industry, or the crack-selling one... it's not that very large amounts of money (as measure of success) don't come into the business, it's just that most writers don't end up getting it. In actual fact, just like the parallels, many of them are subsidising the industry by working for less than they can live on.
We're in the middle of a new paradigm shift right now. A new prose-spectre just rode into town on a swayback mule with a few bags of ‘ooooH! Shiny!' in the shape of e-books and net-distribution.
And the new gold rush is on. A few people like Baen Books got in early, staked a claim and have a ‘mining company' working the new reef. The rest of the traditional publishers -- the Anglo Americans and Billitons of the publishing world -- see the new reef and the possibility that their dominance may be lost and are trying to decide what to do. They have started by trying to block or at least slow the access of other middlemen. In the meanwhile new entrants are pouring in to scene. Soon the market is (as Amanda pointed out) going to be very full of hopeful self-pubs, and small houses/co-ops.
Some of these are going to be much better than others. Some of these will be running slush disasters. Some will be typo central. Others will be 'good story needed editing'.
And a handful will be the new leaders of the writing world, really there on merit, loved by readers, unique, fresh and wonderful. Um. And selling books and making pots of money And other miners... authors, with experience and skill but who have always been the ‘workers' making a living - possibly by cross-subsidising their publisher by working at MickeyD - will arrive from the old companies to try and do the same.
And this gentlefolk, is when the fur really starts to fly. Because... their present employers are effectively middlemen. They used to do lots of the jobs in the middle but these days they do one very powerfully: they gate-keep access to retail space - or in crack-gang comparison, they control access to the turf and you're not gonna sell anything much without them.
The turf just got a lot bigger. And there is a _lot_ of bad sh*t going to be sold... Which was fine when THEY were selling it, because it was the only stuff to be had. A few companies had carved out a reputation (brand) for ‘their' stuff being good, but mostly publishers relied on not their reputation, but their ‘dealer'/authors reputations. The author couldn't go anywhere but to the territory of rival publisher -- where the deal was pretty much the same. The author was, to a large extent, dependent on the publisher for quality control (and promotion, and size of turf he was allowed to operate in) - although of course he did have some control over how good it was to start with. These publishers didn't bother with brands. They had a stable of trademarks (authors names) they controlled. You don't search Amazon for a Harper Collins or Warner Aspect or Bloomsbury book. You search the Author's name. Most readers don't know who the publisher was anymore than a jewellery buyer knows her gold ring was made from gold ore dug up by Newmont. Of course the exception proves the rule - Baen established themselves as BRAND that did quality trademarks. And promoted the brand along with the trademarks... which means in the new expanded turf, where anyone can play, their brand has value and recognition. Harper Collins has, for example, to readers, far less - but HC has deep pockets and a stable of relatively captive well-known trademarks.
So: I don't see business-as-usual trad-pubs being threatened by self-pubs or trying to stop them much. I don't see them willing or able to really build brands (that's hard expensive work) What I DO see is them getting very aggressive about 'keeping their trademarks' ie. their established authors. You see, these authors have a reputation to trade under already. If they fulfil their last contract, and go to Kindle... or a Co-op - they have an audience buying from electronic booksellers and possibly from their own web-sites. And it doesn't take a degree in higher math to work out that even if e-books (which sell mostly online, and not in the exclusive access turf) sell 1/3 of the volume of their traditional paper sales, but they earn 70% (or 60% less the cost of editing, proof and cover) as opposed to 10% (if they're lucky) they're going to double their income. And what's more they'll have CONTROL of quality, which means a lot to us. Actually, as I work it out, break even point is 16.5% of present volume. Depending on who you believe - that's either next year, or four at the most.
So: If you're unpublished... now is probably the time to get in. Quality is only going to get worse, you need your audience established soon before the slush flood puts them off. And make sure it is edited, proofed and has a quality cover. If you are published and have an audience: I think you will find restrictive clauses in contracts wanting your name in perpetuity. Don't do it. Don't sign these sort of deals - not unless they put up your share of e-books 50% + of retail. In the meanwhile do your best to establish either your own brand or join a co-op. Otherwise... your situation will remain as is, or get worse
Otherwise, if you just want to do well financially it's probably a good time to start a publishing venture, or co-op or offer proof reading. Remember who did well out of the Gold-rush.
OK - am I out of my tree again?
Sunday, June 27, 2010
But all the time working outside gave me time to think about the state of the publishing industry and some of the blogs I've read lately. Maybe folks in the industry are doing the same thing because con season is now in full swing. Maybe it's because Amazon's new payment scheme goes into effect in just a few days. Whatever the cause, the blogs are alive with thoughts about where publishing is going, whether or not the public is ready for the "inevitable" flood of self-published authors and what the next big thing is going to be.
Before getting into the heart of my post this morning, I just have to share this. I've made no secret of my dislike of sparkly vampires and emo werewolves. I'm a traditionalist at heart when it comes to ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. So, imagine my glee to read that Stephanie Meyer, she of the Twilight series, is tired of vampires. All kidding aside, I have to applaud her desire "not to write it badly". So she is waiting until she can be excited about the story again. While she does, will someone please step in and write some non-sparkly vamps for YA and adults? Please?????
Laura Miller has a wonderful article that asks if the public is ready for the influx of self-published books that are already hitting the online stores:
One thing is true: Aspiring authors have never had more or better options for self-publishing the manuscripts currently gathering dust in their desk drawers or sleeping in seldom-visited corners of their hard drives. Writers can upload their works to services run by Amazon, Apple and (soon) Barnes and Noble, transforming them into e-books that are instantly available in high-profile online stores. Or they can post them on services like Urbis.com, Quillp.com or CompletelyNovel.com and coax reviews from other hopeful users. If a writer prefers an old-fashioned printed copy of his or her opus, then all of these companies (and many others) would be more than happy to provide print-on-demand services, producing one hard copy at a time whenever one is needed.
"Digital self-publishing is creating a powerful new niche in books that's threatening the traditional industry," a recent Wall Street Journal report proclaimed. "Self-published books suddenly are able to thrive by circumventing the establishment." To "circumvent" means, of course, to find a way around, and what's waiting behind all those naysaying editors and agents, the self-publishing authors tell themselves, are millions of potential readers, who'll simply love our books! The reign of the detested gatekeepers has ended!
She goes on to point out that what the public will find itself faced with is a huge slush pile. Freed from the need to find and agent and go through the submission process, there are fewer checks and balances on quality of craft and quality of formatting. What this will mean, in the long run, is still up in the air, in my opinion (and I'll have more on this below). In the meantime, it really is a situation of buyer beware and be aware when purchasing an e-book if you don't check to see who the "publisher" happens to be.
Agent Lucienne Diver has an excellent post this week on "The Next Big Thing". As writers, we are always trying to figure out market trends, what the public likes and doesn't like, what is getting bookstore placement and that always elusive critter -- what does the editor want to see. "Deciding what to focus your attention on is a necessary part of the business, and one of the reasons it’s good to have an agent on your side to brainstorm and do career planning with you. However, you need to keep in mind two things: 1) where your strengths lie and 2) you never know when family sagas will come back into vogue. . . The point is, if a saga, or a thriller, or a science fiction extravaganza is where your heart lies, if it’s where your strengths lie…not just based on your opinion, but those of critique partners or professionals around you…you should go for it." (the family saga was her example of what a client might be wanting to write.)
According to Ms. Diver, you should write what calls to you because if you, as the writer, aren't engaged by the story, there's a pretty good chance the reader won't be either. Remember, the books on the shelves right now were bought months, even years ago. She suggests reading the trade magazines to see what is selling now. Check out the post for a list of several very good magazines to watch for market trends. The caveat she throws out is, "I’m not saying that you should be deaf to the markets, either. If you’re writing within a genre, it’s important to know what’s intrinsic to that genre. . . It’s important to have an awareness of which market you intend to be your primary. Publishers can only put one thing on the spine, which helps bookstores decide where the books should be shelved and readers decide whether your book suits their tastes. Books that are not quite one thing or another pose a bit of a problem. There can be quite a bit of genre blending, but in the end, it’s the focus of your novel…is it saving the world or getting the girl, for instance…that decides it."
So, back to how this all fits together. There are authors bemoaning the advent of more and more venues where people can go to self-publish that book they haven't been able to get out through traditional means. There are others, like Ms. Miller, wondering if the public is ready to delve into the slush pile that will result from the influx of self-publishing options in this digital age. I'm not sure how the dust will settle. What I do know is the readers on the Kindle boards are starting to demand that Amazon put in place some sort of editorial minimum for anything published on the Kindle. Amazon has been known to pull e-books if there are too many complaints about poor formatting. To be included in the "premium" catalog at Smashwords, there are certain formatting requirements that must be met. Other e-book outlets such as Fictionwise require a minimum number of previously published books or a publisher or author with a minimum number of authors or pen names AND at least 10 books (iirc) to be offered through Fictionwise for inclusion in their catalog.
What does this mean? It means that some sites are requiring some minimum level of quality control already. I have a feeling we are going to see sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others slowly requiring editorial minimums as well. But what I really think we'll see is the level of proof-reading will improve over time. Why this and not editorial requirements? Two reasons. First, for whatever reason, it seems easier to pick up on the oddly formatted paragraph or page, the misspellings, etc., in an e-book than in the paper copy. Or maybe it's that we are less forgiving in an electronic format because it is easier -- and cheaper -- to make the correction digitally than in recalling hard copy books, reprinting and redistributing them. The second reason is, in my opinion at least, one of the reasons the print book is suffering now and why so many e-book readers are willing to try small press and self-published e-books. There are too many books on the shelves now that aren't entertaining, aren't well-written and -- and this is what is inexcusable, in my opinion -- aren't well edited.
Will we, as readers, have to wade through a bunch of slush in our quest for good books? Sure we will. But we do that now. E-books have an advantage here. Most e-tailers allow you to download a sample of a book before you buy it. It may be a few pages or even a few chapters. That's more than enough to know if you like a writer's style and if the plot is going to grab you. All I know is that I've discovered a number of authors I'd never have read by checking out the freebies offered for the Kindle and by downloading samples of authors recommended by other readers on the kindle boards. As readers, we're going to have to educate ourselves to what is out there and the best way to decide who and what we want to read without wasting too much money. As writer, we're going to have to educate ourselves on the best way to reach and keep our readers.
I'm actually excited about the changes in the industry. Will there still be a need for agents and editors? Absolutely. They are, as we've said in the past, the gatekeepers. However, there is room in the industry for those authors who publish through small presses and who even self-publish. What do you think?
Saturday, June 26, 2010
For the first paragraph, a couple of general comments, first. Most of you went waaaayyyy beyond one paragraph. Also, a couple of them were very good except for a tendency to ricochet between present and past tenses.
Among those who disqualified themselves through length but whom I wish to mention as very, very good are Brendan and Behind The Pyramids. Among the verb tense disqualify the best was Ori's.
So -- now, the winner and the runners up. Email me at sahoyt - at- hotmail - dot - com for what your choice of my book is. The first place gets one of my books and Dragon's Ring. The others get one of my books, excepting the Shakespeare trilogy AND the first of the musketeers' mysteries (sorry, guys, but I'm down to two copies.)
First place -- Synova, for your first entry. You really couldn't improve on that!
Then Pam and Mike (for Mike's last. The others were way too long)
Now, Rowena's contest -- the winners are fourth guy and Brendan. Please email her at rowena -at- corydaniells (dot) com with your snail mail.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Are writers able to absorb all these things from others despite their lack of personal interaction and bring it forth in a convincing way (in a variety of mediums), or am I just outing myself as a social misfit, and most other writers have huge circles of friends?
I was re-reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone the other day - the first JK Rowling HP book. You know that old Harry - greatest wizard in the world - does not actually do a single magical spell in the whole book? It's true. I checked. He does accidental magic at the beginning. He hops onto a broomstick and finds that he is an automatic natural at it. And there are vague references to him learning spells as part of his schoolwork, but you do not actually see him wave his wand and do a spell.
What you do see in the HP books is tons of stuff on relationships. A lot of time is spent on the building of relationships and the testing and proving of them. I think someone said once the HP books were like 'Famous Five with magic'. It's about the gang, not the magic - that is almost setting.
So, anyway. The portrayal of relationships and friendship is crucial to the success of fiction, and is a strong element in bestseller YA.
How can we, as lone wolf writers, learn to do this so well? Or are we just continuing our relationships with our imaginary friends from childhood into adulthood?
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The Evil Prince has yet to show himself, although I have the weird feeling that he's there, he's just still buried somewhere in my subconscious. Based on past experience, this probably means I'll wake up one morning with him kibitzing with some of my other villains - all of whom are certifiably evil psycho bastards (so are most of my heroes - the difference is the heroes tend to fight it rather than revel in it). This does not reassure me at all - and anyone who knows what my villains are like will be cringing at the prospect.
Monday: So after days of silence, I get a major dump courtesy Subconscious Data Delivery - a service about as reliable as a two-bob watch - when I start drifting to sleep. It proceeds to haunt my dreams, and I'm still processing what emerged.
To start with "Seraph" is the royal family name - only it's actually a corruption of a much older title that related to the ship that crashed on the planet in the first place. I have no idea what that title was, but it applied to the people who had been genetically engineered to have the Engineering gift - the rapport with machinery. There's a vague sense that the gift was essential to keeping people alive initially, so those who had it became a kind of nobility during the time the accidental colony struggled to survive. It's translated to a sense that it's very wrong to have any kind of "useful" ability and not use it in the service of one's people.
His Royal Horribleness is a little clearer: physically he could be Milord Alvar's twin. They're cousins through most of the branches of the family lines back to the common ancestors, although it never got closer than second or third cousin, I think. The royal family has full time geneologists keeping track of who is where in the accepted line of inheritance. It doesn't help that they all tend to use the same given names - generally honoring particularly notable ancestors. Who, of course, are shared all over the family trees of the extended royal family. The Emperor is His Imperial Majesty Arthur James William Seraph, Twenty-Fifth of the Name, Forty-Second of the Dynasty, Lord of Eldarsund, Defender of the Holy, etc etc (the full list of titles goes on for half a page or thereabouts).
The Evil Prince is only "Royal", not "Imperial" because he's not confirmed as the heir, only presumed to be as the closest male line relative.He rejoices in a similar list of titles, most of them courtesy titles attached to being the heir presumptive. The names that matter are William James Albert Seraph. Milord Alvar shares all but one of them - his family name is William Arthur James Seraph. Without all the extraneous titles, he's generally known as Will Seraph, Lord Alvar - or just Lord Alvar. I think he's a little older than HRHorrible - no more than a year older.
HRHorrible is straight out of Evil-Bastard-Central - which seems to be where my subconscious lands no matter what I do. Even in my lighter stuff there's elements of it. Hell, Milord Alvar is just as much a product of Evil-Bastard-Central, only he chooses to control that aspect of his personality where HRHorrible doesn't.
Millie is the catalyst. She's the wild card that kicks off the whole sequence, and to some extent part of Milord Alvar's redemption. Oh, and she's the cause of the ending of book 1. She's found one of HRHorrible's 'playhouses' and - naturally - goes in there to free the women (in a permanent and lethal fashion if necessary. Yes, HRHorrible is that perverted. I'm not sure how I'm going to make that work without overdoing the ick or backing off too much from it). Milord Alvar finds out, and goes charging in to "rescue" her - not only does she not need rescuing, she ends up back-to-back with him fighting off MRMorrible's henchmen. While the whole place is sinking into lava, since the only way Millie could get the slaves out was to disable the damping systems in the complex. Several of the henchmen find out what it's like to become a carboniferous anomaly in a volcanic deposit.
Of course - as those of you who know how my mind works have probably already figured out - HRHorrible isn't the main villain. I'm not sure who is, except that it's someone who's around in a minor role in book one, apparently something of a non-entity. I'm not sure Milord Alvar and Millie know who he is by the end of book one: only that he exists.
HRHorrible... think cold, arrogant, superior, convinced the rest of the world exists to serve him. Constantly looking for something to "entertain" him - and growing more depraved and decadent with each new amusement he contrives. Nucking futz, but in that kind of cold, rational, self-interested way that's a hell of a lot more frightening than ranting and raving crazy. The only thing I'm sure about is that the Ultimate Nasty is worse. The Ultimate Nasty is convinced he's doing the things he does for the Greater Good...
Religion. This is a religious society. I'm not sure they were terribly religious when they crashed on this world, but they sure as hell are now. Something about surviving by the grace of god and the quality of one's mechanical expertise will do that. The general ethos is along the lines of God helps those who help themselves mixed with if God gave you the gift it's a sin not to use it for society. Sorta-kinda-Christian based, although not really recognizable as such any more - although the hellfire and brimstone part is very familiar, since they live with it all the time. At some point the idea that they're there to "redeem" their world crept in, so there's a lot of social value attached to "improving" the land by siphoning energy off the everpresent volcanic substrata to power all manner of mechanisms, by speeding up the process of turning lava to productive soil (which in turn leads to a voracious demand for more improvable land and an outwards expansion of the Empire), and so forth. Think the words of "Jerusalem" - "And we will build a new Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land": that's their notion of Heaven. Greenery, pleasant climate, and real night and day. Most people believe God intends them to build it themselves.
Tuesday: Now I know why HRHorrible gets involved with all of this - it's Millie. She's seen too much, but while she was still a street brat it was too much trouble to track her down and eliminate her. Besides, who would ever listen to a street brat? If the information comes via Milord Alvar, it's much more credible. Also, Alvar has the resources to dig up evidence that can't be covered up: the pair of them are a risk to HRHorrible's existence.
Ah. Yes, the little lightbulbs go on while I'm writing this. The ultimate Big Bad is someone in the Academy. He recognizes the threat Millie poses to HRHorrible and passes on the warning. I'm still not entirely sure what he recognizes, since to him one street brat is much the same as any other, but whatever it is Millie has no idea about it. It's not appearance or her name... so it has to be something she says without realizing what the impact could be. Oh. (Cue little lightbulb again - I just love the way my subconscious works). Alvar wants to know why she's so skittish with him. She tells him he looks just like the man who killed her mother (trust me, it's not nearly that simple or clean). Big Bad hears the conversation - and since he knows what HRHorrible does for recreation, and is working his way towards greasy eminence, he naturally warns HRHorrible.
Wednesday: I need to find a new name for book 1. Twilight would be perfect if not for certain sparkly vampires, and this book does not have sparkly vampires. It doesn't have vampires, period. Shadowlands is also out, courtesy a rather better book that's also too well known. Since I suck at this kind of thing, any suggestions would be welcome.
Oh, and for those who might be wondering, no I'm not worried that anyone is going to steal my idea. I could hand this set of notes to a dozen people and ask only that the names change, and get a dozen totally different books - with everything from horror to hysterical comedy and all points between.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
When #1 son was learning to sing, we had the hardest time getting him to “let out his full voice.”
This was not helped by the fact that #1 son has a very powerful voice – like my parents who used to sing at local celebrations in a pre-microphone age – and that his... um “very nice” music teacher taught him to suppress it so he wouldn’t overpower the other students in the choir.
When doing solos, the kid was still suppressing. Throttling back. Closing the spigot somewhat. Because the alternative was too scary. Mind you, he still sang very nicely when holding back. It was pleasant, not bad to listen to, and we never felt the need to tell him to shut up when he sang around the house. But on the few occasions (for various reasons he no longer pursues music) we convinced him to let out the full power of his voice, you got a voice and a song of operatic dimensions. It filled the house and probably the block, not just with volume but with richness and it made you vibrate with the emotion in it.
We often talk about voice in writing, though of course, it’s in a more metaphorical sense. Or is it? I’ve been in enough writers groups that I can tell you that most writers have as much of a natural voice range – expressed or not – as most singers: a voice range that can be forced but won’t sound good if you go out of your “natural range.”
How could it be otherwise? The physical limits to your voice are like the physical limits to your writing. One involves vocal cords and hearing apparatus (the reason younger son and I ARE told to shut up if we start singing,) and, to an extent, personality which dictates what you’ve listened to and practiced, which in turn affects your vocal cords and lungs and all that. The other involves brain pathways, the way the individual experiences the world (a neurological complex akin to hearing, if far more complex), and personality, which affects what you chose to read and learn and practice writing, which in turn affects your brain pathways and the way you experience the world.
This doesn’t mean you don’t grow or change. Like #1 son changed in his singing through his choir experience (no, we won’t go there) writers learn what they can’t write or can, and this expands their tool box, their ability to use certain ways to turn a scene. But it means you have a certain range. One of my friends seems prone to write mostly dark – psychological and/or physically dark – she does it very well, NATURALLY, even if she holds back more than she should. Another friends writes naturally light comedy, hitting all the right notes. She does it very well naturally. If you tell one to write what the other does, you can have some success to a point (and there’s a lot to be said for broadening your palette and expanding your toolbox, if only to learn how far you can go.) But if either of them tries to write the extreme of the other, you get a falsetto or a flat drone. It is simply NOT in them to FEEL or express that range. The voice doesn’t reach.
Now I’m not saying this to give you an excuse. That is something you should rid yourself of at the very outset. No excuses. If you’re unpublished – or even if you’re not! – at some point every writer thinks there are things they can’t write and these things are usually stupid. For instance, for years on end, I thought I couldn’t write women characters, until a workshop exercise forced me to. That type of thing is silly. I hope you understand I’m talking about a “higher level” of ability or inability. To illustrate: imagine Laurel Hamilton or Jane Evanovich attempting to write Pratchett. Look at ALL the people who have tried to imitate either Pratchett or Heinlein or Ray Bradbury. We had a saying that “The literary road is littered with the corpses of people who tried–”
This is not a judgement of quality, btw. It’s a judgement of range. I read and enjoy at least some of both Hamilton and Evanovich. But both their ranges are markedly shorter in echoes and tones and palette than Pratchett’s. This is not a criticism. If the man were an opera singer, he’d be one of those that go down in legend, able to hit the bright high notes and the deep, dark ones perfectly, often in the same phrase. Most people who try to imitate Heinlein, likewise, can hit one or two things right – the action, or the future history, or the “attitude” or (for later Heinlein) the sex (I’ve yet to see one who could even attempt to hit the way in which Heinlein’s characters are profoundly human) – but I’ve yet to find one who can hit ALL the notes.
As for Bradbury – listen. I’ve met a lot a people who dismiss him as one of those “literary” sf and fantasy writers. This is wrong. I don’t know which came first, though I think he did and the others are imitators. At least I hope so. But at least he managed something that the others aren’t but a shadow of – the man can write a plotless story that captures a fragment that is only incidentally “future” or “fantasy” and stir the reader’s deepest emotions. His range is not wide. In fact, I’d say it is rather limited. But what he does, he does extraordinarily. It’s like someone who sings in a range that very few people can achieve without sounding contrived, but he does it beautifully and hits all the right notes.
So, it’s not the matter of your range that determines quality. It’s whether you’re singing out with your full voice, or merely obediently trying to hit the notes the way the choir teacher (editor, publisher, agent or more commonly your own perception of the market) tells you to. Whether you’re singing as yourself or a pale imitation. Whether you’re filling your chest and letting it all come out, or holding back.
Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. Though likely you don’t.
There is some level of holding back we all do. There is some level of holding back inherent in writing. I often feel as though writing is trying to paint on canvas using ONLY fog. Or like pinning a beautiful butterfly to your collection without killing or hurting it.
You are aware of that level. Everyone who’s ever finished a novel is. It’s a compromise with ourselves. “There’s no way I can show her full personality without making the book incomprehensible. She’s the villain. I’ll show her being nasty.” My pathway from unpublished to published followed that. I started getting published when I concentrated on ‘giving the reader the right signals.’ Likely most of you have figured that out. And know you’re holding back that much. And go “um. But if I let that out...”
That is not what I’m talking about. That is the equivalent of your learning to sing to the music, instead of doing what kids do and just belting out the words at the top of your lungs, not caring if there is a melody behind. Yeah, it’s discipline and in that sense “holding back.” But it’s not the holding back of anything that hurts your performance. It’s more learning to fit the form.
But in the process of learning that, you learn to sing with the choir, too. You learn to hold back, because otherwise you’ll stand out too much and the choir teacher – editor/publisher/market – will never buy/like/accept it. And you’re not even aware of those barriers. Well... most of you aren’t. I wasn’t. For the last ten years, I have been desperately trying to reach for my full voice, knowing I was falling short, but not knowing where or why.
Part of this is because a lot of the barriers were erected before you even learned to form letters. Look, like a kid with a strong voice – oy, don’t I know this – you get told some things you don’t do. “Use your indoor voice.” Or in my – and apparently Synova’s – case “grown ups don’t cry.” Or “don’t make a fuss.” Or “this is not something people show or talk about.” And by the time you reach your writing maturity you are consciously avoiding what you think are socially unacceptable actions.
I think in my case it was reinforced by being of the generation that came after the boomers. When you watch the younger adults in your life “letting it all hang out” – when you have to read a short story in literature class where the whole point seems to be that the character has diarrhea, because this was never written about in the past, so the author must (pardon the image) rub the reader’s face in it – your tendency is to go the other way. Preferably go the other way very fast. And stay there. Because you realize, after being forced to read a few of these things that this is not art but a toddler’s “I can get away with this” self satisfaction.
So, if you think I’m telling you to let it all hang out, I’m not. That’s no more art than keeping it all in. Primal screams aren’t songs. Art is the way we convey emotion but to be art it must be conveyed in a controlled/purposeful way. Preferably a way that intensifies it and makes it more real than reality to the reader.
So, what in heck am I telling you to do? Ah, I’m telling you to do something much more difficult. I’m telling you to let your full voice out in a professional way. Whatever your voice is, let it shine through. Don’t worry about trying to be dark when you’re naturally light. Don’t worry about trying to be serious when you’re naturally funny. Try the “other side” every once in a while, but don’t FORCE yourself.
Mostly, though, stop “dampening” the notes of your song. Look, you know as well as I do what I mean. How many times do you have a character cry? This is one of my favorite examples, because even though most of us were trained not to make a fuss, we often have the character cry rather than describe/feel/express his emotions. Why? Because it feels “real” but it isn’t. It certainly isn’t more real than real. Nina Kiriki Hoffman, in a workshop, said that if the character cries, the reader doesn’t need to. More importantly, if the character cries, the writer doesn’t need to. So we do this instead of crying. “She cried” or even “Tears dropped down her face.” is a cop-out. An escape hatch, when the writer feels uncomfortable. If you refuse to write that and instead scratch the surface and write what’s going on in the character’s head that makes him/her want to cry, the scene will be much more powerful. For those of you who’ve read the last fifteen pages or so of Draw One In The Dark, I was in danger of shorting my keyboard with tears. And Kyrie doesn’t even realize she’s in pain.
That was the beginning of my ripping off the thin crust of ice over my writing voice. I did more/more intensely of it in Darkship Thieves, partly because the character forced it on me. She is so locked in herself that you need extreme events to rip it out. A friend recently told me the scene where Kit makes the choice of surrendering to Earth is one of the grimmest he ever read, and he’s a hard core horror addict. The reception of that book has told me that my full voice might not be there, yet, but it’s starting to shine through. Same with the Daring Finds mysteries. There the full voice is “full on zany.” In the second book – French Polished Murder – the editor tried to get me to take out the part where one of the characters writes the rats’ names on the rats with laundry marker. It felt to her like a bridge too far. But I’ve gotten more fan mail about that passage than any other. Why? Well, it’s “full voice zaniness.” It stands out from the choir.
And then there’s the just-completed Sword and Blood, which has sexual overtones. These make me uncomfortable, not the least because the sex involved is to put it mildly “odd” and I’m afraid people will think it’s my particular kink. (It’s not.) I realized I was stopping fully before any chapter where sex needed to be and then ‘got around it’ by TALKING about sexual feelings. Because that was rationalizing it, and I’m more comfortable with rationality. But the character is not rational about this. In fact, that’s a great part of his challenge. So I had to pull my damper out of it and go in full voice.
Is this scary? Oh, heck yeah. It’s terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous about my agent reading anything of mine as I am about Sword And Blood. The first time you try to let a part of your voice full out, it’s easy to lapse into primal scream. And you won’t know at first which one you’ve done – scream or sing. You’re just not used to it.
So, how do you know if you’re singing full voice? How do you avoid dampening it? My guess is if you allow yourself to think/feel about your work, you’ll know full well where you’re falling short. You’ll know where you got squirmy and went “but I don’t write that” or “But what will people think” even though you know full well it’s needed for the cohesion of the novel. One good way to think about it, is that you need to give us the low notes as well as the high.
One way to break through it, for me, is to read stuff I normally don’t read, stuff that goes where I normally don’t go. Erotica, for instance. Or some incredibly violent, graphic account of violence and murder. Or the biography of someone who went through unimaginable trauma. Or a violent thriller. That teaches me to listen to those notes. And learn to put them in.
Which ways have you found? What would you like to try? What do you think would work? Or do you think I’m completely off my rocker?
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Well the books are here and I've had a chance to catch my breath. Now I'd like to give away two copies of 'The King's Bastard' to two of the loyal Mad Genius Club blog followers.
I'm going to ask a question and the answer will be cleverly slipped into my blog, so listen closely Grasshopper.
Some things stay with you. When I was about 10 my family went to play tennis at a set of courts in the back blocks of the Gold Coast. This was in the days when the holiday strip was not as gaudy and glitzy as it is now. My parents loved to play tennis and they told me to watch my little brothers, 8 and 5 and my sister 3. Behind the courts was a stretch of land backing onto a creek. There were white sand dunes, scrubby trees and it was the perfect place for us to play (in those far off days when kids ran wild most of the time). This photo is me at 11, thinking I am very cool.
As the eldest I was used to organising the games and I always saw myself as a sort of hero character so we'd play these long involved games with my younger siblings as my army, following orders, fighting great battles against enemy foes.
While running down one high white sand hill through the hollow into the next we left my little sister behind. Halfway up the next dune I turned around to find she'd run through the deepest part of the hollow and the sand, which appeared to be solid, had given way. She was knee deep in some sort of sticky sand-clay mix and couldn't get out. Having seen plenty of Tarzan movies, I immediately thought of quicksand.
A real emergency! I told my brothers to stay back, afraid that they'd get trapped too, and edged forward. The sand's surface broke up under my feet. It was cold and smooth and wet, and I didn't know what was under there. My eight year-old brother (who was almost as big as me) came and grabbed my arm to pull me out if I got stuck. I managed to grab our little sister's arm and hauled her out of the sticky sand-clay which did not give her up easily. Meanwhile the five year-old brother danced on the edge of the danger zone in desperate to help and likely to get himself into trouble.
End of story, she was fine and we kept on playing. I don't think we even told our parents about it, because by the time they finished playing tennis our game had moved on and that was old news. But I will always remember that sense of something under the ground opening up and proving dangerous.
In King Rolen's Kin power seeps up from the land's heart, infecting people and animals. Only those trained to contain this power go near Affinity Seeps. Now you see how a childhood adventure can be the inspiration for something in a story many years later.
These days I don't order my younger brothers and sister about to play out my great battles, I have a cast of characters and they play out the battles in my books.
The giveaway question is -- In King Rolen's Kin what are the places called where power seeps up from under the ground? Answer in the comments on this post. We'll give it until Saturday and then put all the right answers in a virtual hat and draw two out. Dan can announce the winners on the Saturday Post.
Meanwhile, have you used events from your childhood or adult life as triggers for stories?
Monday, June 21, 2010
Ok I am feeling fundamentally silly, because after the long, long haul with Save the Dragons et al... finally my dearest beasts arrive here tomorrow. Wednesday and the cats are in Launceston, Roland and Puggle arrive with her tonight, and the lot fly over with the mailplane tomorrow. So today has been frantically tying to finish the fence, because we thought there was another day.
And THE TEARS OF IT ARE WET appears to be gasping its last. It might have been over today, except that the fence intervened. And in the process I have done a nice hole in my finger. Frodo must have had a hell of a time, typing.
During the week someone called my attention to a very old article - (part of discussion about a publisher insisting on world rights - because this might possibly impact on their e-sales. Curiously enough the same publisher has been pushing prices up to restrict e-sales eating hardcover sales. Kind of dog-in-the-manger process. 'We don't actually want it, we're not going to do anything with it, but we really don't want you have it, in case you do something with it.' Sigh. I have yet to have my publisher to sell a solitary right of any sort, so it does irk me, especially as I know this can be 2/3 of a writer's income, and that's for writers who sell less than I do. Maybe in some wonderful future authors Utopia contracts would all have use it or lose it clauses. - anyway - the article makes two wonderful points about 'piracy' - that terrible pervasive fear that so many authors dread or blame. Over the years I've noticed there seem to be an example of inverse square law in 'piracy fear' - The less it matters to you if you are pirated, the more rabid you are likely to become about it. This applies for instance to Josepha Nerverherdover (who is so invisible any notice is good - and she'll never earn her advance anyway -so even if pirated copies were lost sales, which they usually aren't, she lost nothing) and the Rowling-in-it extreme who really are going to be bankrupted ha ha by a handful of pirate downloads (because, surprisingly to people in charge of large corporate publishing houses, our readers are remarkably honest and actually like to reward their beloved favorite authors. I'm actually a bit taken aback by Ms. Rowlings attitudes - but then I don't bother to buy (and I don't 'pirate') her books after the first couple. I'm very grateful that she got lots of kids reading old-fashioned fantasy. I wish mainstream publishing would realise how popular it could be) O'Reilly does a good job of debunking the obscure author's fear. And I'm with him. I wish I was popular enought to be a 'pirate' target. I could use the publicity. That's why they're up for FREE at the Baen Free Library. And yes, he's quite right too. By the time you're getting the vast bulk of publishing's effort and publicity and push -- the tiny 'loss' you'd suffer from from having someone swipe copies is not relevant - and based on my experience with SAVE THE DRAGONS, if readers knew you were getting it (or most of it) instead all the middlemen... and moreover, if they know you need it, fair numbers of readers do pay, with no incentive to be honest at all.
The point I found most interesting in the article was lesson 6: Free is eventually replaced by a better quality paid alternative. And how right that is. The first fix is free.:-)
So: how do we move forward? How do we make e-books a big seller - especially ours!? And how do we stop people worrying about 'piracy'?
I am sorry this is all over the place tonight. But my head is.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Now for the blog, or the lack of a blog, today. I swear when folks talk about computer viruses, they don't know the half of it. Somehow, I've caught whatever Sarah has had...and that's hard since there are whole states between where she lives and where I do. Of course, she says she caught it from Dave and we won't begin to count how many states, an ocean and countries separate the two of them. Any way, I'm sick and have been all weekend. So I'm going to open the floor to you guys. Any writing related questions you have, toss them into the comments section and we'll do our best to answer. If you want to post the first paragraph of a work in progress for critique, do it -- but one paragraph only and NOT the paragraph you are submitting for yesterday's challenge. Next week, I'll get back to the news around the internet. But for now, I'm crawling back into bed to sleep some more. Maybe then I'll feel human.
Update: I just found this story in one of the local papers and want to post it as a cautionary tale for everyone who might be considering the self-publication road. It hit all my hot buttons because kids are involved. Basically, a group of kids at a local middle school wrote a book and, with the help of their teacher, school and parents, raised the $2,000 needed to print the book. This included securing the ISBN for the book as well. I'll let you read the article, but it doesn't have a happy ending. These creative kids and all who supported them were taken. Your thoughts?
The floor is yours. Have fun!
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Write an opening paragraph that includes the following:
- a guillotine,
- a ray gun
- a pink feather boa
- at least one stiletto heel
- a gnome
- and a flea
Remember, one paragraph only. Grab us and make us beg for more. The winner will be announced next Saturday. Good luck and get writing!
Thursday, June 17, 2010
I guess 'less is more' is often a good rule to follow. The problem is things like that can be very hard to judge. This particular author had removed a lot of the casual description and attribution you might find between dialogue. That's fine from the PoV of the author, but what seems alive and accented to the peculiar viewpoint and personality of the character within the author's mind can read very flat indeed to an objective reader. In this case I found that the scenes dominated with dialogue offered me very little. I could not tell from the dialogue whether the character was being sharp, dim, sarcastic, excited or whatever - and there was not enough else to propel the story.
I know that very clever writers can manage to convey all this personality through the dialogue itself in the absence of all but the most minimal attribution.
For myself, I am very tolerant of description. I like to get atmosphere. I like to get a direct line to what the character is feeling. What starts to gripe me is long backstory infills on the geopolitical setting, or scenes that seem to have no point - except the fact that I am supposed to be in so in love with the character I really want to see them walk through the docks for two pages.
So what are your thoughts? How much description is enough? And how do you tell? Is it even possible, or do we all need a savvy test reader?
Thursday: Characters begin to emerge. Two of them, one male, one female. Definite sense of a romance subplot. He insists his name is Alvar Seraph, which is... somewhat ridiculous. Arguments over the name begin. She is Millie - possibly short for Amelia or Millicent, although she's being rather close about that.
He's noble and might be willing to accept "Alvar" as a noble title rather than his actual name. It's got to be there, though. Yes, it's weird, but characters will not cooperate for me if I don't have their names right. Long white-blond hair, dark blue eyes - the kind that look like they could be black until you get close - carries a sword-cane. Early twenties, but has had responsibility for a whole lot of things since 14 or 15. His manner isn't so much arrogance as assurance: yes, he really is that good.
She's a street brat. Mama was a whore, and died of her pimp getting pissy. She figures begging, picking pockets and running whatever errands she can get paid for - and pretending to be a boy - is safer.
Okay, so we've got a massive social differential here. Fine. Possibly a Pygmalion aspect.
There's some bioengineering way back - probably from Earth for the spaceship crew, although no-one in story-now knows anything about it. They see an inheritable gift which allows the person who has it to feel the workings and effectiveness of machinery. They 'know' when everything is going well, when something needs maintenance, and when something is going to break. They need training to be able to consciously focus on the gift, and to actually do something about what they feel. They're in two classes: Mechanics can diagnose and fix when told what to do. Engineers can do all that as well as design new machines. Both groups are highly regarded.
He is - of course - an Engineer as well as a nobleman. She has the gift but was never talent-scouted even though the Imperial Academy of Mechanics and Engineering is supposed to find everyone with the gift and train them up: well-maintained machinery is essential to their survival, especially the dampers that keep volcanos from developing in the middle of the cities and the steam turbines that provide power to the cities - powered by diverting water into the volcanic regions to generate said steam.
Opening involves her sensing before he does that a set of dampers under a busy square is about to go, realizing he's got the gift and is more likely to get people out of the way than she is. She'd run away after that, only he's not letting anyone that talented get away from the Academy. The dampers go, but his orders prevent any deaths when a rift opens up across the middle of the square.
He drags her to the Academy - thinking she's the boy she looks like - and goes to arrange a team of Engineers to upgrade the dampers.
Friday: Okay, I was wrong. Milord Alvar is definitely an arrogant sod. Millie is an imp. Sarcastic, self-assured the way street-brats can be (think Gavroche from Les Mis the musical). She's going to cause chaos in the Academy, especially since the Dean of Admissions is one of those unsackable incompetents who gets shuffled to where he can do least damage. Said Dean has problems with well-born girls having the gift, thinks that low class boys who've got it must have got it from a noble ancestor somewhere, and can't possibly learn to be Engineers, and as for low class girls, well they must only be after one thing.
The Academy Arch-Chancellor is one of your ineffectual avuncular types, and really hasn't got a clue how to run things. He's there because he was the most senior staff member when the previous Arch-Chancellor died. Negotiating Imperial political appointments and talented students from the full social range is beyond him. He'd much rather be buried in designs for new mecs.
Social structure/culture is probably most like the British Empire towards the late 1800s, although the colonies have rather more representation than they ever did in the Brit Empire. At this point I think the story is entirely within the capital city (I don't have a name for that yet), but there is a much larger world out there. The Nightside barbarians are a constant threat to the outlying colonies. I'm not sure what/who they are yet, except that it's rather more than just 'barbarians'. I know that at least some of them are exiles and descendants of exiles.
And the little light-bulb just went on to inform me that Milord Alvar and Millie are going to be exiled by the end of this - hence book 2, Nightside.
Weekend: Conflating all of the weekend's news into one piece...
Milord Alvar is still being unfriendly about his name. Millie is a brat. She managed to give all the stick-in-the-mud types collective conniptions in very short order and ends up being taught by Milord Alvar who is amused by her antics rather than horrified - I'm not sure why he finds her amusing, but I imagine I'll find out eventually.
The ending of book 1 involves the Crown Prince, who is the grandson of the Emperor and a nasty piece of work. I'm not sure yet what he's into/up to, but at minimum there's slavery (which is supposedly outlawed) and attempting to arrange granddaddy's murder so he can have the throne. I'm not sure why he ends up crossing swords with Milord Alvar and Millie, but he does, and he dies in a spectacularly ugly fashion - which is why they end up more or less exiled (as in, they're not sure they'd get a fair trial and decide that discretion is the better part of survival).
Monday: His Imperial Majesty is getting to the end of a long life, and outlived all his children. He's still mentally with it, enough that he's got his heir tied up in layers of bureaucracy and is quietly looking for a way junior can have an unfortunate accident. That's not a problem. The problem is that it's kind of difficult to classify "sword cut from navel to chin" as an accident - which means he has to try and convict the culprit.
Tuesday: Well, well. Milord Alvar is in the line of inheritance - distantly, but close enough that if His Imperial Majesty chooses to select an heir rather than appoint his closest male descendant his heir, Milord Alvar is in the running. I think His Majesty hopes that after a suitable absence he can blame junior's death on someone who's already going to die - or already dead - and appoint Alvar his heir. It's not an option that gets used a lot because it causes civil wars: imperial princes tend to get a little upset when they're passed over for the distant cousin they never thought was worth considering.
Wednesday: Weird synchronicity. In the MMORPG I play for decompression I just got to the final world. The 'feel' of it is exactly the feel for this piece - advanced civilization corrupted and dying/dead. Oh, and parts of the cities crumbling into lava. No dragons, though, more's the pity.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Years ago, while in a religious retreat – deal with it – they had us pick a sentence out of a box which was supposedly Himself’s gifts to us. This type of thing makes me beyond squirmy, because – well – it seems too touchy-feely for words. And if you’re a believer you believe that however He worked, He that created the sparrow also created the lion and the Yersinia Pestis bacillus. It doesn’t seem the sort of mind simple enough to give you gifts via picking a phrase on paper out of a box.
But we’ll leave theology aside – c’est pas mon metier – and my squirmy discomfort with it. If I didn’t know the organizers couldn’t in any way control who got what sentences, I’d have suspected them of a joke, because the sentence I got said something like “I give you silence, so that in it you can hear His voice.”
If the organizers had done this, it would be justifiable. Those of you who have had the misfortune of meeting me, particularly on a day when I’m caffeinated enough and not sick, know that my tongue runs on wheels. I learned to speak in sentences at one and a half and – according to my mom – never stopped since.
However, recently – as in the last month – I’ve been reminded of how much I need the gift of silence, and how rarely it comes.
The silence I need is internal. I’m one of those people who can’t meditate because it’s never quiet in there and no technicque works to make it silent.
Even before the kids and the career, my head went a mile a minute. This is not a brag. I suspect it’s a form of ADD. Most of the time it sounds rather like the chat in a doctor’s waiting room. “Oh, I wonder how bad this is.” “By the way, on the way home, remember to do groceries.” “The cats threw up in the living room again.” Sometimes there’s more worrisome chatter “my LORD the public debt. How will we survive this?” Or “Haven’t talked to dad in a week, wonder how he’s doing.”
At any given time there’s two or three worries – and often five or six – foremost in my mind, plus the fact that I am for all intents and purposes the household planner on behalf of kids, husband and the house/repairs itself.
So, what does all this have to do with writing? Well... that’s another layer of “chatter”. Someone once asked Nora Roberts what she did between books and she said “Sometimes I get a cup of coffee.” Now, I’m no Nora Roberts who is – for those who haven’t read her – a d*mn fine writer, but I daresay her books are a lot more like each other than mine are. I don’t know if that makes it easier or harder, but I just flipped from a layered, textured 17th century book to a fast moving (if also textured) space opera set around AD 3000. This makes life... interesting. And I’m having trouble focusing on the new book.
What I’ve found is if I try to “force” it my mind runs into the easiest (often very silly) channel. To keep myself “there” I need mental silence for at least a day, and then I “find” the story track. This hasn’t happened yet for this book.
In fact with the last five books, I found to pull it all together I need to physically go away (usually to a hotel) for about a week. The first day is mostly devoted to sleeping/decompressing. Sometimes the second too. By the third day the writing starts.
But doing this is disruptive to me and my family and costs money, which when a book is on spec is hard for me to spend. So...
What are your suggestions? How do you call down peace and silence to your mind, so you can concentrate on writing? Do you have the same problem with the mind that runs on trivia? How have you dealt with it?
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Good dialogue is a pleasure. Bad dialogue can make you cringe.
I have the Prince Bride poster because some of the best dialogue in a movie came from this film. Here's a site with the memorable dialogue.
In the movie business, if the dialogue is bad they say it is 'on the nose'. For a look at dialogue in computer games for secondary characters,see this post. Chris Breault is talking about NPCs (non-player-characters). They jump out, take aim and scream -- 'Die, you capitalist pig!' -- or something similar, before you shoot them.
'The persona's behavior is generic, so their character must also be generic. That's why these lines usually suck.'
And that's what the problem is with poor dialogue in any medium. If you don't know the character, you fall back on generic archetypes and this shows in bland dialogue.
I find on my first draft of the book there will be patches where the dialogue feels weak. But I know, by the time I get to the end of the book, I'll have grown familiar with the characters (their quirks and blind spots) and the dialogue will come to life. They'll simply refuse to say something, if it isn't true to them.
Here's a snippet of Princess Bride dialogue for you.
Buttercup: You can die too for all I care.
[she pushes him down a high hill]
Man in Black: AS... YOU... WISH.
Buttercup: Oh my sweet Westley what have I done?
When I ask him to do something my husband will sometimes say, 'As you wish'.
So, dialogue. Do you struggle with it? Do you find characters saying things you don't expect?
Monday, June 14, 2010
So what got me onto this track? Well, the Wiley saga Amanda posted, and a little letter I got on Friday from the publisher that I sold the African print rights to a teens/YA sf novel I wrote. Contracts are of course something authors have to deal with. There is a sort of inverse square law here: simply - the closer to a good bargain it is, the shorter the document is. So for example the short story contracts I have had from Baen and Tekno are less than a page. They're good, fair contracts, sign them and both parties get a good bargain.
The next rule is: the more legalese the more certain you can be that this is no bargain. When the breakteeth lawyer words arrive, get the vaseline and bend over. The truth is a publishing contract is really quite simple (or at least potentially so). Intrinsically, it contains an agreement for the publisher to use the material for a specific purpose for a specific period, for which they will pay you xyz. You probably need to gaurantee that the material is yours to rent to them (this is what it this is: renting a property) and they probably need to provide some mutually agreed accounting mechanism (if the sum is likely to be large enough to warrant either party giving a damn - with a short it's usually money up front, and that's it. I've had one short pay me a royalty - out of 25. I suspect if I trawled through the rest I would come up with a few more dollars owing to me. Shrug.)
This can very easily fit in half a page of clear text: you have that, you have probably got a good bargain.
The other clear indicator is that the language in any covering letter is neutral. Do you believe and can you trust the that glib bloke on the Telly saying ‘The Best deal! Order now at the low, low price of $230 000 and get one FREE'? Well if you do, you deserve to fall for "Good news" or "I don't think it would be fair to keep you hanging on any longer" (to quote the little letter I got from the South African house I sold the African print rights to YA book I wrote to). Now in the case of the South African house I'm mildly amused because to be frank it's actually a win for me of sorts, because their own legalese and evasions have tripped them up. My hackles went up when I got the ‘let's be considerate and fair part' and I went and had a long look at the very dense legalese contract: They're legally obliged to publish and market the book at their expense ‘within a fair and reasonable time' -- there is no ‘kill'clause (and thus no punitive kill fee) - they baulked at that, so by stating that it isn't fair to keep me hanging on and I am free to look elsewhere, they've stated that they're in breach of contract. If I had money to waste or this was a first-and-only book, well, so long as I don't try and resell the book... I could take them to court and make them print and market it. What this boils down to is that the book was bought by a previous editor, has been handed down to one who doesn't know/like/believe in the value of speculative fiction (ergo she calls the story ‘fantasy'... it's science fiction) and if she can get me to huff off, the company is off the hook. Lesson: do not react in a hurry (or without a lot of thought and circumspection) to any contractual matter. If it sounds like normal business language, consider it carefully. If there is even a hint of ‘we're being nice to you'... back off and get professional advice. Your mum, partner, friends or kids are nice to you. You can be friendly with publishers, but it is a business relationship.
For your delectation I provide you with another snippet of the same letter
"In the light of this, I revisited your contract that was drawn up when [edited out] was in charge of this project. I see that the royalty agreed upon was 17½ %. We are not offering anything like this on current contracts and in the light of the recent recession, I am not sure that if we did publish it we would be able to sell enough copies of your book to make it viable."
Now, dear readers, 17.5% is of NET not of cover price. To run that through the calculators... that's probably somewhere around 8% (which yes, I had to argue them up to). That's about a standard paperback rate, and allows no escalation. There was a slim chance that the book would come out in paperback, so actual fact the net rate should be something like 25% to equal hardcover rates. In other words -- anywhere but in that very small exceptionally asymetric pond -- that's already a very good deal for the publisher.
It's also mildly amusing in that Ms Neweditor assumed the contract was the same as most would-be South African authors gets stiffed with and didn't bother to read the whole thing... or she'd have noticed something that would have given her conniptions. I went into this as an author published in the US with I think 15 contracts at that time. And when we got to a certain part of the negotiations they said ‘we don't' and I simply copied the relevant page of my most recent contract and sent it to them and said ‘with me you do and this is actually normal and how business is done.' Lesson: experience counts. Sometimes you have to get shafted getting it.
You see: According to a friend of mine who is professional illustrator and who knows just about every poor sap-author in this little arena... I am the only South African author she's ever heard of EVER getting an advance - and the advance they paid me - while small by US standards, means that actually the company is going to be substantially worse off not publishing, than publishing. Lesson: always try to get some form of advance (as big as possible), or something enormous in leiu which they stand to lose. It keeps them working on the book, and the more they've spent or risked, the more effort they'll put into getting at least that back. If you can't get an advance (and this may be be true in e-pub), get a clear, short timeline on publication and payment, preferably with a kill-fee. And the rates then go up, up a long, long way.
So long as they're in breach of their contract, I get to keep the advance. Actually, maybe Ms Neweditor may have been smarter than I thought. All she had to do was get me to breach contract and they could ask for it back. But I don't think so.
Now seriously, a book published in my old country would have been vaguely satisfying, especially while I was there. I could have sold quite a lot of copies (almost certainly enough just to my fans to pay the advance), aside from any effort they might have made. It was of course a neat subtle stab in the PC-back of South African political correctness, so it would have had a good social purpose too... On the other hand I've probably earned as much as I was ever likely to from the company. I'll be honest, I got a free coffee cup at their imprint launch and a month or so ago it came to light (the imprint launch BTW had maybe 40 or so staffers, and bunch of guests and the MD left in a brand new merc - someone makes money out of publishing in South Africa, just not the authors) and vaguely wondered if it would ever happen, but I never bothered to fuss about it. They might have made a good thing out of it if they'd tried, but forcing them probably isn't worth it. I've kept the E-rights, and rest of the world print rights bar Africa. I'm hoping to have it out as an e-book before Christmas (this has been on the cards for the last month or so, long before this). So: while I'll let it fester for a few more days I'll probably play the game right back... saying that it is terribly considerate but I'd need a letter revoking all their rights before I could even think about it. And then do nothing of the kind. Trying to resell the Africa print rights is near worthless. World rights are different matter. So are POD rights (which are mine).
Or what do you guys think?
How do you feel about ‘big 6' publishers working in what appears to be a ‘cosy'fashion?
What do you think a contract needs to say?
What are things we need to make a good bargain?
What do both both sides stand to gain?