Saturday, July 31, 2010

Open Thread

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Saturday morning open thread. This is your chance to toss out questions, comments, and all sorts of stuff. Just remember, no spoiled fish or other stinky things. It is so hard to get the smell out of Blogger when you guys do that. Any way, there's been a lot of news in the publishing world this week if you want to talk about that. Or if you have a specific question you want to ask, here's your chance. One other thing, if there's a specific topic you want us to cover in depth, let us know.

And now, before I crawl away to find more coffee, the floor is yours!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Warm Ups

I've gone back to exercising recently after a bit of a break, and despite my best efforts ended up tearing a muscle.

I blame the Brisbane City Council bus service.

Getting home and back out in time for Tae Know Do training is tight at the best of times. I usually end up five to ten minutes late, but thankfully the instructor is flexible (no pun intended). This time the damn 114 bus never turned up. After 40min waiting, myself and another frustrated bus goer hoicked it to the Myer Centre to catch the 120 - which of course, was also late. At least it arrived. On the other end I had a 10min sprint to get to my house, change then race for the training hall. All in all I was just over 40min late for a 1 1/2 hour class. Now that would have been fine, but this particular, cold rainy Brisbane winter day, my muscles did not agree. I did some quick stretches, then tried to do a fast series of front kicks to warm myself up for sparring, on the fifth kick. Ouch!! I had torn my left calf muscle. My first muscle tear. Instant invalid. I've been hobbling around ever since (slight consolation is female sympathy, women now hold lift doors open for me:)).

So that got me thinking. OK. Warm-ups are important, especially if you have done a lot of training in a short period of time and your muscles are fatigued (which is what happened to me - too much training without enough rest trying to 'get back into it'). Why should writing be any different?

I often chastise myself for sitting down at the computer and finding it hard to flick a switch into creative flow, like I should be some sort of creative machine - a literary Spock. But what about the warm-up?

Perhaps juggling a few adjectives? Lifting heavy metaphors or running a tight course through some tricky punctuation?

Take some new words that have caught your attention (this week mine all start with 'p' - pernicious, pusillanimous) and construct a few fun sentences. Try writing about something that has been teasing at your mind, maybe a few ideas, or describe something that caught your attention (absolutely awesome mist in Brisbane this morning. Looked fantastic across the trees of nearby Toohey Forest. The airports were closed).

How do you warm yourself up for writing? Or do you regularly tear your writing muscles and limp from paragraph to paragraph? Got any suggestions for fun writing warm ups?

Of Eminence and Grease

Quick question: who is the most influential person in a typical company? Hint: it's not the boss. It's not the owner (unless the company is very small). It's probably not you, because the people who read this blog are mostly not into the whole making friends and influencing people thing, and people tend not to want to employ subordinates who are smarter than they are.

If you look closely, you'll find the real power usually lies with the boss's secretary (or personal assistant, or whatever they call it). If there's no-one who formally fills that role, look for someone who talks to pretty much everyone and who everyone goes to for the news about anything. There'll be one who the boss listens to. And if you're employed in that company, do not, under any circumstances, piss that person off.

It's pretty simple if you know what to look for, and it happens wherever there's a power structure that's too big for the person at the top to follow (or there's too much information out there). The CEO, or President, or King, or Lord High Thingamajig ends up with someone filtering out all the little things that someone else can handle, and passing on the important stuff.

A gatekeeper, in other words. If the King never sees your petition for justice, he's not going to grant it. And if the boss never sees your wonderful work, he's not going to reward it. Same principle, similar results. From such are bureaucracies born...

This is where the grease comes in. If you can't convince the gatekeeper on the merits of your situation, there's a long, long history of convincing the gatekeeper by means of a little palm-greasing. Leading to those that have getting more while those that don't have get less, since the noble with the biggest purse can afford the best bribes and get little things like laws adjusted to his favor (side note of trivia: privilege is derived from the Latin for 'private law'. There really are two sets of law, one for the super-wealthy and one for everyone else). Uncorruptibles are few and far between, and usually won't be found working for any government of any color.

Even so, eventually the gatekeeper's load gets too much, so he acquires a set of advisors/assistants. Enter the beginnings of a bureaucracy that's founded on keeping people away from the top, not "serving" the populace.

Yes, I'm cynical. The thing about bureaucracies is that as long as they exist, they're important in all the wrong ways. Never piss one off - it's not possible to go through life without dealing with them, and angry bureaucrats have all sorts of untrackable ways to take revenge. Files get 'lost'. Or end up on the bottom of the queue. Or some obscure rule no-one's ever heard of before applies to you. You can run into this even without upsetting one of them: all it takes is a body of law so complex it has cracks and the misfortune to fall into one.

And grease applied to the eminence is the way around the entire mess - worse, it tastes lousy, even with ketchup. I think it might even be one of those universal truths.

p.s. For those who are wondering, this whole post is born from a bit of punnage involving the term 'eminence grise'. Personally, I prefer greasy eminence.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

Appropriate to do this, of course, on a day when I’m late posting. It’s not that I didn’t leave enough time to write last night. I did. My mind just refused to cooperate.


I’ve heard no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. With me, no plan seems to survive contact with the real world.

One of the things that amuses me is looking back, say, on my college years. I took a degree in languages and teaching. Now I’ve done many things since leaving college but I only used my degree for about a year and a half and even then a lot of the translation I did was Portuguese to English which I could have done without a degree and German to English, which I could have done after highschool.

Then there was the kid thing. We waited a year before having kids because we were going to have a large family and wanted to have a year for ourselves first. Six years of infertility treatment after that first year, we produced one child. And then we said “That’s it. We’re not having more treatments, so that is our large family.” Four years later, I found out I was six months pregnant. And then we said “Oh, it fixed itself. Now we’ll have one every year.” Do I need to say there’s been no third child?

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Well, plans are particularly funny when they are made about writing. At least for me, they are. Most people I know have some sort of contact between plan and career.

I started writing science fiction. I was going to be a science fiction writer. Twenty years later, I was published in Fantasy, Mystery and Historic Fictionalized Biography with multiple books in each when my first science fiction book (written 13 years before) came out. Now I start when I hear myself called a “science fiction writer.” For years, that’s how I thought of myself, even as everyone else called me a “Fantasy writer”. Now it seems too late.

However at this point I’m not taking any bets. It’s entirely possible that if I should end up being remembered by the future it will be for something I haven’t even yet written. Maybe the future will consider everything I’ve done so far my apprenticeship and will consider me a great writer for ... scripts. YA romance. Techno-pop-Fantasy. Or some other genre yet to be invented.

So, what’s my point with this, other than depressing you?

To tell you not to be depressed. To tell you to give yourself permission to fail, sometimes and to leave enough room in your plan to adapt to the unforeseen. To tell you in the distance view, this will all make sense, even when it doesn’t. And that if you keep trying, something will come of it.

Take the above – when no one would take my science fiction, I could write fantasy because I’d uh... done a couple of novels in it. I could write mystery because I’d read as much as fantasy and science fiction. If I’d refused that early offer on the fantasy novel and said “I’m a science fiction writer” chances are I wouldn’t be published in either today.

I’m not saying sometimes it doesn’t break your heart. I broke my heart over the cancellation of the Musketeer Series. But I took the opportunity to write a contemporary mystery, which seems to be doing well.

Oh, look, I know what it’s like to have plans fail and fail and fail. Did you think I INTENDED to write for nine years before I sold a word of what I wrote? Or to sell a short story four times (and never see it in print, btw) before I sold another? Sometimes it seems as if your heart is so shattered you don’t have a heart anymore. This is what my grandmother called a good time to turn your guts into a heart and forge on.

The thing is, if you read anyone’s bio, you’ll find the same sort of thing. And even if you look at the shelves of your favorite authors’ works, you’ll find there’s some books you don’t care for. If that were the only thing they ever wrote, how would you judge them? Do you realize sometimes those were their own favorite books, the ones they thought would go big? (And sometimes did. You just hate them.)

So, gird your loins (don’t grill them! Well, unless they’re not yours) and start walking down that old glory road. There’s gold in them there hills. Or maybe the other ones a bit to the side. We’ll find out when we get there. Plan but stay ready for serendipity. The way to do this is to plan on what YOU are going to do, not on the response. Don’t say “I’m going to write a bestseller” say “I’m going to write three novels and submit them. And if they don’t sell, I’m going to write three more.” However, keep your mind on the dream, on what you’d LIKE. It’s my firm belief that you’ll get there, if you only keep it in mind and remain flexible and working.

And because at this point you’re not nearly depressed enough, one good way to focus on your long-term dreams, without making them into plans that make you unable to react to here and now is to write your epitaph. Leave out your date of death and – if you wish – manner of death (though amusing ones are welcome) and other personal details, but write what you’d like to be remembered for.

Here is mine – you can write yours when you stop laughing –

Sarah A. Hoyt, aka Sarah D’Almeida, aka Elise Hyatt, aka Nikita Marques, aka Carolina Haute, died yesterday after being nibbled to death by ducks. It appears she ran out of bread and the ducks took revenge.

She is known to fans of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror and romance. She will however probably be most remembered for her science fiction. In a career spawning almost sixty years, she created a vivid and compelling “future history” to rival Heinlein’s. (Whom she was always very flattered to find herself compared to, even if it was just “oh, look, they’re both carbon life forms.”) Into that history she wrote men and women of extraordinary courage, who face their world and its changes unafraid, and whose example inspired a generation of men and women. She will be remembered by her husband, children, cats, but mostly by those ducks.

Your turn!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Battle of the Apostrophe!

Warning, Rant.

What happened to teaching basic grammar in school?

Many people seem to think that the possessive apostrophe is optional. Or they use it everywhere, just to be sure.

'He see's a problem!' Gahhhh!

Even if you weren't taught grammar in school, it is easy to learn. There are many helpful sites on the internet. Like this one. It has lots of sub topics so you can chase down exactly what you want to know.

Or Daily Grammar which was put together by someone even more obsessed than me. Or the Grammar Monster , a free online reference for business writers and students. Or this one where, if you have the internet, you can learn English using their tutorials. Did you know that a 'Gerund' is a noun made into a verb by adding 'ing'.

How about that Google? We say I googled it. I am googling it. I will google it. I have googled it. He is going to google it. The tenses go on and on.

And then there are the tricky words. I am constantly correctly 'affect' and 'effect'. Here is a site with an explanation of commonly confused words. And here is the Research Haven, with a list of words that are commonly mixed up. This is one I correct all the time.

Its is the possessive for it. (The dog ate its supper.)
It's is the contraction for it is. (It's another cold day.)

And then there are the times people just accept spellchecker without switching on their brains.

The creator made the earth in seven days, it is the 'crater'!

The thing is, if you are trying to write you are trying to say something specific. If you get your grammar wrong, it changes the meaning. If you choose the wrong word, it changes the meaning. And that is without even trying to create a distinctive voice, or convey the nuances of character.

It's been a long day, I'm going to make myself a strong cup of tea, now. Is it just me and I'm being overly obsessive?

Monday, July 26, 2010

May you stay forever young

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is supposed to be 15. And seriously the one thing our genre needs is the youth. It's been heading into the silver age, and rapidly toward the bald and toothless age for years now -- something evidenced by where money is being made: out of hardbacks. They're expensive, not something that your young, experimenting audience is buying. So when they get to being your main source of income... you have a problem - you can come up with all sorts of arguments saying it just ain't so, but, well follow the money. On another list I belong to a rather predictable old chestnut came up from some of the younger writers, who, as something completely original which has never ever happened before, reckoned it was time the old geezers who were blocking up the ladder to the stars get bumped off to retirement so they can rise and bring some young audiences along with them. Some peeps then predictably said it wasn't happening and really there was no greying of the audience, and xyz authors were young and exciting and appealing to the youth... The youths cheered and added a few more names of young Turks appealing to the t'yoof o' today. A happy little bit of stick-in-the-mud un-hip granny-and-gramp writer (you know - old, like... over 40) bashing ensued. They really are terrible and so out of touch, these fossils... should NEVER write teens or YA, yadda yadda....

And then some miserable elderly curmudgeon RUINED the party, by pointing out that of the list of ‘young hip examples' were ALL over 40 when they wrote the books, and several of them wouldn't see sixty again either. I was keeping a low profile but shaking my elderly gray head and thinking that I'd beat the young whippersnappers to death with my Zimmer frame just as soon as I got it out of the kayak. I'd have bitten them too, only I left my dentures drying next to the spear-gun. See... I've read some of the work of the youth who thought they'd attract a young audience. Some of it is quite good. But none of it really appeals to an entire young audience -- I'd say it appeals to that subsection (principally female in their case) young audience who wants to be thought old and sophisticated, and you know, adult (like, you know, like 23). It's got fashion and sex and teen angst (which is pretty much like angst from any age group) and... well that's about it. It's a real audience. And they're reaching it. But it's not ‘the youth'. It's just a fragment of the whole young audience, the wanna-be adult section, who perceive that sort of thing as the essence of adulthood. I'm happy they have writers that appeal. No one ever will get the whole audience, but well, for boys anyway, James H. Schmitz would do better on the appeal. He's been dead some years, and, um, would be little long in the tooth by now. But here is the point: his writing isn't. It's still full of a boyish enthusiasm and fast moving adventure. It's accessible, easy to read, and um... entirely free of angst. There's not much sex or fashion either, actually. And herein lies my theme for today: There are authors who are themselves good at relating to younger people -- I suspect I am one of them, at least for the kids who don't desperately want to be adults, (I dunno. Ask Chris's kids) but who love the joys of fish, mud and a fire on the beach. There are a small subsection of kids 5% of teen males and maybe 20% of teen girls I have huge difficulty talking to. Boring brats trying to pretend to be grown-up without the experience or intellect to make them more than cardboard cut-outs of what they think adult is, IMO. But then I never really got this whole adult bit too well myself, so maybe it's just me. There are other writers who do the teen-angst well - Misty Lackey really gets through to them. It's REALLY truly nothing to do with the biological age of the author.

But that's my two cents. So what does the genre need to get more readers involved in the Golden Age? Sex? Violence? Tech savvy? Adventure? Language? My youthful writer friends say that as by 15 50% of teen girls are sexually experienced it's got to have more sex. Grittier and kinkier they think will work. While I can believe that might have more appeal to that 50%, I would like to add a couple of small caveats - firstly most of us are liars about sex (the average 15 year old pimple-face who tells you he's getting lots is a prime example), and secondly even if 50% is the real figure, if you had to take the kids who will ever read for pleasure and do the same analysis... I think you'll find readers are often in the other 50%... which is why they have time and inclination to read. For some it will be wish-fulfilment. But it is a very broad and segmented audience, a lot of whom did not read Harry Potter for the sex.

So - repeat - how do we get that young audience?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's an Odyssey

The general definition of an odyssey is an extended adventurous voyage or trip, or an intellectual or spiritual quest. If you've kept up with news from the publishing world this week, you'll probably agree with me that this profession is on an odyssey right now, on odyssey of exploration of new technologies, new relationships and -- unfortunately perhaps -- new conflicts as the struggle for domination continues between the traditional and the innovative.

All right, I hear you asking how this week has been any different from the last year or so. Two things stand out, in my opinion. Both of these are indicators that the business of publishing has changed much faster and in ways that are rocking the traditional publishing business plan so badly that the little leak in the boat has become a flood. How the "agency plan" publishers react very well may be the make-or-break point for them.

The first item that caught my eye in the last week or so was Amazon's announcement that the first quarter sales for the year saw more e-books being sold than hard covers. Specifically, it announced a ratio of 143 e-books sold for every 100 hard covers. In the last month, the difference has increased to 180 e-books sold for every 100 hard covers. Is this the tipping point for e-books, I don't know. I think if it isn't, we are almost there. And, yes, that slight tremor you feel is the "Agency Five" quaking in their boots and trying to hide it.

To put that into perspective, the American Association of Publishers has released its May sales stats. Books sales increased in May 9.8% and sales are up 11.6% for the year. That's the good news:

The Adult Hardcover category was up 43.2% percent in May with sales of $138.5 million; sales for the year-to-date are up by 21.7% percent. Adult Paperback sales decreased 2.2 percent for the month ($110.7 million) but increased by 15.7 percent for the year so far. Adult Mass Market sales decreased 14.6 percent for May with sales totaling $54.6 million; sales were down by 7.3 percent year-to-date. . . E-book sales grew 162.8 percent for the month ($29.3 million), year-to-date eBook sales are up 207.4 percent. [emphasis added] Year-To-Date E-book sales of the 13 submitting publishers to that category currently comprise 8.48 % of the total trade books market, compared to 2.89% percent for the same period last year. . .

So, e-books for these 13 publishers total less than 9% of the market. However, if we were to take into account all books bought in this country, I have a sneaking suspicion that number would be much different. But that is just supposition on my part. However, the rate of growth for e-book sales by the 13 publishers who reported to AAP is telling. Yes, that tremor we felt earlier is getting stronger.

Finally, the news that turned the tremor into a full-blown quake has certain publishers threatening dire consequences. In case you haven't heard, Wednesday, Andrew Wylie announced an exclusive deal with Amazon to bring out 20 "modern classics" as e-books. Among the authors involved are: John Updike, Salmon Rushdie, Philip Roth, and Vladimir Nabokov. You can just imagine the roar that went up from the offices of publishers throughout New York. "These books are still in print. They are still under contract. They are ours! Oh, wait, there's no clause in the contract for electronic or digital rights. Well, that doesn't matter. There is language there somewhere that will cover it. We know there is. So, Andrew Wiley, you can't do this."

Yes, I'm being facetious here. But it does point out the problem facing publishers, authors or their estates with the changing of technology. These contracts written years, sometimes decades ago are out-of-date with the times. And the publishers aren't renegotiating. So agents are looking for alternatives for their clients.

And there is, in the short term at least, going to be fall-out not only for the publishers but for the agents and their clients, even clients who aren't involved in the Odyssey 20 deal. “The Wylie Agency’s decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this agency as our direct competitor,” Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said in a news release on Thursday. “Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.”

In Mr. Wylie's defense, if he needs to be defended, he noted in his announcement that the deal to bring out the Odyssey books was limited to those books where the publishers did not have the digital rights. “The fact remains that backlist digital rights were not conveyed to publishers, and so there’s an opportunity to do something with those rights.” This has been, in my opinion, an issue since the onset of e-books. If the publisher has the digital rights to an author's backlist, then why not bring them out, if for no other reason than as promotional tools for the newer books?

Needless to say, the industry is standing up and paying attention to what happens next. The "Agency 5" publishers are taking the hard line and saying that Wylie's actions are wrong and injurious not only to the authors but to the publishers and the industry as a whole. Some traditional booksellers are worried that this action is just the tip of the iceberg and will further erode their business. Agents are watching closely to see what happens -- some are probably acting like sharks attracted by chum, circling to see if any of Wylie's 700 clients jump ship -- while others are thinking about how they can follow Wylie's example for their own clients. Then there are the writers. We are a wide and diverse lot. You'll find any number of reactions from us. For myself, I applaud Mr. Wylie and his agency for what they have done. My only fear is that this will cause publishers to insert clauses into their contracts that give them digital rights -- no biggie here if there is reasonable compensation for the author. The key term being reasonable -- but that they will also amend the term "still in print" so that as long as a nominal number of digital copies of a book are being sold, it will considered "in print" for all forms of the book, thereby all but preventing the rights from ever reverting back to the author.

Some other links about this issue:
Galley Cat
Jason Pinter

So, what do you think? Did Wylie make a good move for his clients, all of his clients, or will this wind up backfiring? Should publishers be able to claim the digital rights for books that are "still in print" but were contracted before the advent of e-books and for which they have not executed contract amendments? Is this the tipping point for e-books?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Throw a fit

(Let's give a big welcome to our guest blogger Pam Uphoff. Pam is a geologist, mother, Texan -- all right, I know. I should have put that first -- and is best known by those who frequent Baen's Bar as the slush reader extraordinaire.)

Tessellation. It all has to fit together. There's a pattern and a method to it, which I had a lot of fun with last weekend. And another nice set of parallels with writing.

Just because it follows rules on how it is constructed doesn't mean the end result isn't pretty darn individual. And even though each tile has to have the same shape, and relate to the other tiles just so, doesn't mean that the artist can't play around with what's inside them all she wants.

And the artist can break the rules, so long as she does it where it doesn't break the whole. In this case, at the edges.

And you think you have trouble with characters dictating things in your head? The way the angels and demons were insulting each other, I was lucky there wasn't blood shed.

But what, you say, must stay the same in writing?

Well, the World for starters. Even if you're planning on introducing a big tech change, the World must be shown to be one that will gleefully adapt, or reject in horror, innovations. The civ that considers color TV the work of the Devil isn't going to have universal cell phones in ten years.

And unless the character is taking speech therapy, the accents. The quirks of speech. The tendency to rattle on when nervous or to be silent when upset. Mid-book personality transplants are bad.

The rules of magic. And physics, biology and chemistry. If you're going to break those, you need to only play around in the frontier areas, where even the experts have their late night doubts about String Theory or Dark Energy.

What should not be the same? Each character needs to be different. You should not be able to swap the names and have a conversation sound equally valid. The characters will feel differently about the same experiences. Men aren't going to react the same as women. People who are insecure, jealous or nervous won't see the same act in the same way a self-confident, mellow type will.

What can change? The POV, the mood, the pace, the setting of each scene.

What ought to change? The characters. They need to mature. Fall in love. Learn skills, gain confidence. Get beaten up, collect a few scars. Some of them die.

So, in writing, what is your worst problem? Fitting the pieces together properly? Too much or too little change? Breaking the rules in the wrong places?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Holiday Writing

OK I'm not talking about travel writing, where intrepid backpackers write to Lonely Planet about how the rice-wine is in the bamboo hut accommodation of the Cambodian rain forest. I'm also not talking about the writing you might do when you are on holidays - which for me is usually a combination of describing things I've seen during the day that caught my eye, or scribbling down ideas and other snippets that have popped into my mind.

The sort of holiday I'm thinking about is the sort you get when you change jobs - the 'out of the frying pan into the fire' sort of holiday when people nod knowingly and say - 'Ah, yes. A change is a good as a holiday!'

I've been editing large novel projects for years now, seemingly in an endless loop. Recently I've broken that pattern and written the first three chapters of an Urban Fantasy. Writing something that was completely contemporary was a lot of fun, and I got a chance to describe bits of Brisbane I grew up in as well. But following that I really felt like I needed a break from novels - so I gave myself a holiday. A writing holiday:)

I did not actually go anywhere, what I did was let myself go completely into a fantasy idea that has been floating around for a while. With nothing more than the proverbial smell of an oily idea and no concept where the whole thing was going to end up - I just unleashed myself. It was great fun, and fantastic to let myself get that far mentally into a first draft exercise without scrutinising myself to severely. The project ended up coming in at just under 18,000 words - a supremely unmarketable length! But I love it.

It made me realise how much fun it is to let the brakes off, to let yourself get right into something that is grabbing you by the heart.

It was nice writing holiday. Now that I am back I have to edit it. Damn!

What sort of writing holidays to you give yourself?

A Walk on the Shady Side

A couple of weeks back, SFWA placed Night Shade Books on probation for a year, after authors who were having problems with the publisher contacted SFWA for help. What that means for hopeful authors is that we can't use novels published by them as credit for SFWA membership if we are bought in the next 12 months.

What it means for the industry as a whole, well... It shows that at least with smaller publishers, SFWA has teeth. The list of SFWA-credited publishers is more or less the 'default' list of legitimate science fiction and fantasy publishers. That doesn't mean that those who aren't on the list aren't legitimate, but it does mean an author who's talking to someone else could be looking at a much higher risk of problems ranging from late communication to outright fraud.

Those of you who know the industry may stop laughing hysterically now. I did not say there was no risk with the accepted publishers, merely that it is lower. The simple fact is that a closed system is always vulnerable to abuse, and while authors have no access to sales figures (however accurate they may or may not be) from any source other than their publisher, while distribution in the USA is concentrated into an effective monopoly and the publishing houses themselves are almost all owned by one of a handful of mega-conglomerates, authors will get screwed. It doesn't help that the people who choose which books to publish have less business nous than your average rock.

So, back to Night Shade. After months of putting off agents and lawyers, the SFWA penalty induced a fulsome apology. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a certain amount of cynicism about the timing of the apology.

What is tragic is that good faith - that is, believing Night Shade's assurances they had the e-rights - has smeared Baen's Webscriptions as well: the author of Mall of Cthulhu (a book I enjoyed reading) not unnaturally accused Baen of being complicit. He hasn't posted anything - yet - to say that Baen has apologized and taken action (they have - there have been questions on the Baen message boards asking why the book is no longer available), and a reader would have to check through the comments to his posts to learn that Baen took any action at all. The guilt by association is still there.

It's a mess, isn't it? But it gets worse...

You see, Night Shade is different from the rest in exactly one regard. They got caught. Listening to authors at cons - the unofficial chats you can't help hearing when you sit down to rest and you're not all that noticeable - is quite the eye-opener. I'd be surprised if there are many authors who actually believe the numbers in their royalty statements. There are complaints about having to get ebooks taken down from multiple sites, multiple times, but never seeing a penny in royalties from them. About signing more copies of a book in a couple of hours than the royalty statement says sold in three months. About discovering a book is a best seller in a foreign country - when the author had never known the book was translated. Worse, I've heard a lot of authors complaining that they can't actually do anything about this because if they do, no-one will buy them again.

And yes, that happens even to bestsellers. I can think of several authors who had a lot of books on shelves and then suddenly vanished. Overnight, as it were. You've got to be in the Stephen King league to be 'safe', and by then, well... You're generally too busy writing to want to waste time and money going after the industry's lax accounting practices and many other failures.

So the problems lumber on and accumulate until...

What? Sooner or later something will give. The question is what, and when. The answer? I have no idea.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

True confessions

My name is Sarah A. Hoyt and I’m a first person pov writer.

For many years, I’ve been driven by society to hide what I am and not to be true to my own self. You’ve heard the hateful lies, as well as I have: first person is an amateurish way to write; first person sounds contrived; first person means you’re just writing yourself; first person limits your scope.

For years I forced myself to write third person and hid my light under a bushel. But since my last two series forced themselves on me as first person, and since both Darkship Thieves and the Daring Finds mysteries are doing better than anything else I wrote, it is time to admit... I’m sorry. I simply write first person better than I do third. It’s easier for me.

Now, I know it’s not easier for everyone, and I’m not going to advocate doing it for everyone. I read and enjoy a lot of third person, just like I read and enjoy a lot of first person. It seems to be only third person writers who are determined to make sure that no one writes in a pov other than third – but perhaps that’s my perspective.

Most classical SF was written in first person. I grew up with Heinlein and Simak, both of them doing the bulk of their work in first person. Most UF is first person. A lot of legendary mystery – some Christie, most Rex Stout – is written in first person. Very few of these sound like the first person is a reflection of the writer.

There are some things you can only do in first person, such as bring the character’s personality across full force. Oh, sure, you can have some of this with third person in dialogue or direct thoughts. But if you pause a third person narrative to convey such interesting insights as Athena’s “A girl’s best friend is a high powered weapon,” say, you’re as likely as not to annoy the reader. While because a first person story reads as “narrated” there is space for some explanation done in a quirky fashion.

Now, mind you, narrated is not the same thing as told. How do I explain this? If you tell your friend what happened to you today, you’ll condense, ellipse and make it shorter and higher-level so you don’t tell him a story that lasts three days. Your concern is not so much with making him FEEL what’s happening as with getting done with it and moving. But when you’re selling a book with a story, you’re selling the experience.

Consider one of my free stories, here: Neptune’s orphans.

If you’re telling that story to a friend you’d say “Dude, we were asleep in our dorm, and these guys came in and started killing everyone.”

If you’re showing the story to a reader, you ARE there, you immerse yourself, you narrate each event, action, reaction, as if it were happening to you at that moment, so the reader can feel it too: Before the first burner singed the air, I had jumped. * I didn’t know why. Perhaps I wasn’t truly asleep and heard strange steps in the hallway. Or perhaps a voice whispering what was planned for us. I don’t know.
Whatever warning there was fell into my sleeping mind and made my body react.* I woke up half way through my jump-and-dive, dragging with me my brother Pol, who slept in the next bed. We thudded together into a too-narrow space between his bed and the wall.
It saved our lives, because the blinding flash of the burner swung in an arc which sliced my bed in two, setting it on fire. Still half asleep, dazzled by the brilliance of the light, the acrid smoke in my nostrils, I pushed Pol further back and down, shoving him right next to the wall and pressing close to him, close, my heart beating a deafening rhythm.
“Cas, what–?” he said, his voice barely audible, because in addition to the sizzling sounds of the burners there were now screams and gurgles, moans and cries for mercy. *I recognized the voices of my dormitory mates, and I didn’t want to recognize them. I’d never heard them sound like that.*

Note the bits between asterisks are “narration” or what I’d call explanation sentences. They’re essential for you to get the narration, and they can be used – if your character is mouthy like Athena – to convey the personality of the character.

There are first person weaknesses: Like... describing your character; or showing something your character doesn't know; or having your character lie. Do you have any questions about how to overcome first person weaknesses? I’ve worked at all of them and might be able to answer. Or we might be able to figure it out together.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Doing the Happy Dance!

Amanda posted about Milestones.

As writers we put in a lot of hours with the occasional Red Letter day few and far between. So when they do come around we get verrrry excited.

Advance copies of KRK book to have arrived. (The Uncrowned King). Here is Sassy cat investigating the books.

AND ... drum roll, my wonderful agent, John Jarrold, has sold my new fantasy series The First T'En to Solaris. Yaaay! They'll be releasing the books in 2012.

The other thing that's got me doing a Big Girl Squee is this:

"The King's Bastard is currently is in the top 20 of the UK's paperback science-fiction and fantasy chart."

See Solaris's full post here.

As fellow writers you all know how many years go into writing a trilogy, how you pour your heart and soul into your work, never sure that the books will ever see the light of day. So you know how thrilling it is to achieve publication.

It is like a big hand reaching down out of the publishing sky to pat you on the head and say 'There, there, you weren't kidding yourself all these years. You really can write!'

To paraphrase a well known advertising campaign. It did not happen overnight. I had written 10 books before I was 25. (Thankfully none of these will ever see the light of day. Blush). And in the last 8 years I must have written another 11 books.

How many completed books do you have sitting on your hard drive?

Monday, July 19, 2010

My adventures with Cassandra and the ex-Soft Skull

I was up in Hobart last week, although with the Cassandra GPS leading me from traffic light to traffic light, and then up and over Grasstree Hill, it felt more like Hobart was up me (and it was not a pleasant experience) at a seminar on digital publishing. I was there to give input as an author who had actually done it, and took it as an opportunity to point out Baen to an Australian audience.

This was a lot more interesting than I'd expected, to be honest. The Guest Speaker (besides me as a sort of minor aside) was a fellow called Richard Nash, formerly boss of Soft Skull Press. If you'd asked me if I'd have more time than basic politeness for a largely literary press editor... I'd have told you avoid buying stuff on that particular street corner in future. I'm a pragmatic ex-scientist, who likes empirical evidence, logic and common sense, appealing to readers and selling books because people love them... ideas which sometimes seem to be outré in the larger world of publishing, and let's be frank, particularly in the literary fringe. The Luvvies know that us dirty Great Unwashed don't really know what is good for us, and they network to make sure that we'll get a choice from Ms Hobson. Why, the Great Unwashed might read books by people like David Drake or Weber or even Kratman, which besides being that sf-trash, might influence them or support their worthless ideas, which are not right and they ought not be allowed to have.

Of course, being a lowlife simian myself, with lowbrow tastes, I assumed this to be the case. I thought I'd hear a lot pro-establishment stuff about how publishing was fostering the arts, and how necessary high prices for DRM loaded, leased media were. (As the official rebel I came and I am still the same: The establishment these days may largely be run shall we say 70's liberal arts college grads who labelled themselves as anti-establishment... However: When you are in charge of the system: you are are the establishment, no matter what your back-history was. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish their conduct from that which they once loathed. ‘Be good little proles and stick with our status quo, because we know what is good for you'... which has never been something I was much good at accepting.)

Okay so I was wrong. Sorry.

Both Kate Eltham's (from the Queensland Writer's association) presentation and Richard's made a lot of sense. And Kate was possibly less flattering about DRM than I would be (although more professional and dispassionate about it. Hey, I'm just an author, outspoken, opinionated and really silly). And Kate is even more enthusiastic about the need for REAL data than I am. I LIKE that!

I am still not sure just how Richard hopes to make money out of his company, Cursor, but I found a lot of common ground, and some refreshing ideas. I was amused to see his ideas of about advances and the negative effect these have on both sides of the equation (which I wrote about only last week). His idea of copyright only being for a 3 year period was... stunningly refreshing. (3 years as an initial grant and thereafter renewed annually -- makes sense to me -- my publisher is doing a good job, I'll renew. The book has taken off -- let's look at new terms. The publisher demanded every right under the sun and sold none of them, wasting opportunity and reducing my income? Goodbye. The book didn't make much, and is barely selling -- they want out? Fair enough.)

Perhaps because he was talking to writer-audience he was pitching this at making business sense for writers -- and in an electronic publishing world where traditional publishers are not, shall we say, offering much added value for what they want back, and appear lining themselves up to be the weakest link for most established names... perhaps he is the future -- publishing where publishers make themselves attractive to writers for reasons other than just access to retail space and an advance.

I think he was quite similarly taken aback that Baen had years head start on many of the ideas, and that yes, his ‘new' ideas were Jim's ideas. But he seemed to be taking notice.

Some of the concepts - like there is not enough piracy :-) - are startling enough to make me sit up and take notice. And I have been saying some of the same things for years too -- we're NOT getting most of the potential market out there. True - he was talking in price points, I'm talking about ‘what various reader niches want to read' and matching them to writers - but that too he does start to address by the idea of social recommendation networks (Something Ori has brought up here).

So: how long should copyright be sold for?
How long should it be?
How can publishing move to be an essential part of recognised names business (besides, well, making cutting them out illegal or collaborating with retail - which seem to be the possibilities being explored, eh)
How do we get those social recommendation networks up?

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Milestones happen in everyone's life. The day of your first communion, your first date, your first kiss, your wedding day, the birth of a child, that child's first step, the death of a loved one -- well, you get my drift. Milestones are important dates in your life, dates you never forget and that are tinged with emotions good and bad.

Milestones happen in our lives as writers as well. I hadn't really thought about it too much until this week. But these milestones are what keep us writing. Some of them are also what keep us sending out our work, allowing us to forget the pain of rejection much like the joys of watching our children grow up helps us forget the pain of childbirth -- okay, guys, you don't have the pain but every woman out there knows what I mean.

So what are these milestones? For me, as someone who hasn't been in the business very long, they are easily identifiable.

The first is that day when I finished a book and knew it was something the was publishable. I'd written a number of other "books" before then. Fan fic, not-quite-fan-fic and others that will never see the light of day. They were learning experiences for me. They were outlets of various sorts. But they were never meant to be read by anyone else. But this book, well, it was different. I knew it and, heaven help me, I told Sarah about it. Then she, of the famous pointy toed boots, told me to get off my duff and send it out. Hence the milestone. That sense of fear and excitement, panic and pride as I checked my formatting and spelling one last time before hitting the SEND button and off my baby went.

The second milestone is, logically, getting that first rejection. Oh how it hurts. Someone didn't like your baby. A lot of people never get past that first rejections. They don't persevere and get stubborn. Well, I was born stubborn. I was also born inquisitive. When that rejection came, I instantly reached out to some people in the industry I know and trust and asked what the rejection meant. Had I been wrong about my baby and it really wasn't as good as I thought? These wonderful people walked me through the different levels of rejection notices and reminded me that just because my book wasn't right for one editor or agent didn't mean it wouldn't be right for someone.

The third milestone for me was also a rejection. But this was a very special rejection in my eyes. It was the first one I'd gotten that had a handwritten note from the editor not only encouraging me to keep trying but telling me he liked my writing and wanted to see my next story. Let me tell you, there was no depression over that one. No, I was on Cloud 9 for a couple of days after that. When an editor takes time to add a handwritten note to a rejection is the time you know that you not only made it out of the slush pile, but also that your story actually got read by someone other than an intern or editorial assistant. Whee!

The fourth milestone is the big one for me. The first professional sale. Any sale is a big step, but that first one meeting the "professional" level is huge. At least it was for me. Maybe because it was for a short story and those are foreign to me. I've never been comfortable writing short -- ie, anything less than 60,000 words. Maybe part of it was because the short story was going into an anthology instead of a magazine. So it would be part of a book...a book! That sale had me grinning like a loon for three days or more.

Another milestone is that first fan letter you get. I received one this week. Well, you might not classify it as one, but I do. The letter was from someone who had seen my request for a beta reader for a novel over on Baen's Bar. She'd responded and I'd sent her the novel. That was about three years ago. She had just finished reading the novel for a second time when she emailed me to ask if the book had been published yet because she really, really liked it and wanted to buy it so I'd get some money for it. That's heady stuff, folks. Has the book sold yet? No. But it is sitting on an editor's desk waiting to be read. So my fingers are crossed -- as are my toes, my legs, my eyes...well, you get my drift. ;-p

So, why are these milestones important? Because they are your signposts of your journey to being a writer. It doesn't matter how long you've been in the business, there is always one more milestone for you to achieve. Whether it is making the best sellers list or seeing your book go into the fifth or tenth or 100th printing, or seeing your book turned into a movie or TV series, there is always something up ahead. Sometimes, the milestone is a bump in the road. When that happens, you get a day or two to deal with it. Then you have to get back behind the wheel and continue your journey. It is all part of the process.

I've told you my milestones. What have been some of yours? What milestones are you aiming for?

In other business, I promised to announce the winner of the title contest from last week. The winner gets a line by line edit/critique of their first chapter or first 5k words (please limit it to 5k words even if your chapter is longer) of a novel or short story. There were some great entries and I thank all of you for taking part. Now, drum roll please. The winner is "By My Hand" from Linda. Linda, if you'll email me at amandgreen-at-gmail-dot-com we can get this ball rolling.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Historic Fixation and Stagnation

(Let's give a big welcome to agent-extraordinaire Mike Kabongo. Mike, or O'Mike to those who know him from Baen's Bar, is the principal of the OnyxHawke Agency and represents both Dave and Chris. You can find out more about Mike and his agency here. -- Amanda)

One of the stumbling blocks of the science-fiction fantasy spectrum I’ve seen as a whole is knee jerk rejection of new material based purely on someone else having used similar materials before. It’s something I’ve heard, read and seen across more than a decade of interaction with both fans and professionals. This fixation is killing the genre.

Michael Z. Williamson was flogged from pillar to post in text for daring the sacrilege of naming a book in homage to Heinlein novel. Farnham’ s Freehold was an inspiration for Williamson’s Freehold, but to compare the two stories, or call Williamson’s a derivative[i] work is not only a diminution of Williamson’s Freehold, but also a mischaracterization of Heinlien's. Both are anti-war novels, both deal with major social issues but word count alone will tell you it’s not done the same way. The 1994 reprint of Farnham's Freehold was a lithe 304 pages, essentially a running back among novels. 2004 saw the paperback advent of Freehold at 688 pages, making it more of an offensive tackle. RAH’s world works around the then contemporary issue of rising black Muslims, MZW’s world deals with mega-corps, universal government and the issue of freedoms versus safety and individual rights versus societal dispositions, in a detailed showing vs RAH’s style which lay closer to telling.

Same ingredients, different results. Think about it for just a minute. Hollywood has a lot of faults, but one of the most compelling virtues of that part of the world is the willingness to take a concept, a character, or a well loved story and make it their own. One need only compare the different versions of Batman starring Adam West, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale to see how different one character can be when molded by different hands. Temporally, Keaton and Bale were closest in their portrayal of Gotham’s guardian, but the two just don’t imbue the role with the same air. West is in an entirely different area when playing Bruce Wayne, than either of his heirs, but all three when invoking the avatar of street justice are undeniably Batman. I like all three movies, I’ll watch all three in different moods.

Originality is a great thing, like gold or platinum, it’s also far rarer than either. A story of star crossed lovers isn’t exactly a jaw dropping departure from the norm. But if we’re going to discredit the authors of today and tomorrow for telling such a tale, we need to equally discredit Shakespeare and Bernstein for their tales of lovers caught in the cruel fingers of fate, since Homer clearly beat either to the punch by a good thousand years or more. It’ also remotely possible that someone between Homer and “the Great Bard”might have crafted a similar tale.

Imagine if you will, Lois Bujold, Dave Freer, Elizabeth Bear, Robin Hobb, John Scalzi, Elizabeth Moon, David Drake, China Meiville, and Cory Doctrow all coming together for a charity event. For the event each is going to write a novella starring a character named Sam, who is a little under-tall, who will be traveling with some friends and get into a big, big fight towards the end of the story. All the novellas will appear in one big anthology which will be distributed in the name of a Big Name Charity and get them oodles of time under the eyes of millions and millions. Among Sam’s friends will be at least one non human, and at least one human, someone in the group will have a heaping helping of ability to do things that none of the others in the group can. Just pause right here, think about the possibilities for a few minutes. Go ahead, get pausing I’ll wait.

Go ahead, kiddies, raise your hands if you think there just might be a few differences in execution amongst this group, even starting with the same base. Question one: Will all the Sams be the same gender? Question two: What variety of non human(s) will we see? Question three: What genres will we see from these writers? Freer and Bear have written across the whole spectrum of speculative fiction, Bujold and Drake have each written space opera and epic fantasy. What about language? Lois Bujold and China Meiville are both known for their language use. Tone? Robin Hobb’s books have been a touch darker than most of Freer’s work, and neither of them have the same resonance as Scalzi. As for socio-political schema, just try imagining David Drake and Elizabeth Bear portraying a political establishment the same way as each other, much less in the same manner as Cory Docorow, really. I do however suggest that you don’t try and convince any mental health professional of this who has read any of these authors. As for the way Sam is portrayed, both inside his/her own skull, and from the point of view of others, will they be a trickster, a slime ball, a military officer, truly bonkers, sympathetic, an anti-hero?

I suppose what it comes down to is execution. Not what is done, but how well. I and many, many others love Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, but that doesn’t mean I’m never ever going to love another young, effusive, military mad, pseudo-aristocrat with health problems. A good lampooning of “classic literature”as is done in Rats, Bats, and Vats, is never, ever to be discounted and I will undoubtedly adore anything that can make me laugh at the absurdity of holding up the mental meandering of pre-electric prudes as the model upon which society should be built. The starscape of vampires and how they are done is enormous, some sparkle in sunlight and make me gag at their mere mention, others like Saberhagen’s and Thurman’s are simply various people in bodies with different needs.

Do I want to see someone glue a sheet of plastic wrap over the serial numbers on Slow Train to Arcturus and send it to me with little more than the names and times changed from the original? Of course not, no more than I’ want to read a copy of Urban Shaman that was relocated to New York because the city was ‘ore accessible’ or a retelling of Hobb’s Liveship Traders books to be more positive and discourage promiscuity. I want to see a writer telling their story, not a writer telling the story they think (rightly) is demanded by the publishing powers that be. Unfortunately, what I think is so much alcohol through the kidneys. I don’t control the publishing houses, only the Shadow has any idea who’s in charge of the book chains, and those are the people who keep demanding “more of the same only different” regardless of actual quality because they will at least know how to market something they’ve already seen a dozen time with only the authors name changed.

What we’ve seen over the last several years is an abandonment of some of the more fun aspects of the SF/F continuum. Namely the exploration of what might happen in favor of some gewgaw of a plot point or world type or social stance that gets run into the round, through the crust, into the magma and out the other side. I have a positive love of (well executed) urban fantasy, but I’ kill to have two new space opera series appear on the book shelves this year that I could fall in love with and read (and reread) for the next fifteen years. At one time our genre set its compass on exploring all the implications of a certain change, the good, the bad, the prudish, the puerile, the inane, the insane and sublime. I’d love to see an epic fantasy world with horizons as broad as in Feist’s Magician, and science fiction novel that challenged the precepts of the age in way like unto Ender’s Game. Do I expect publishing to change today, tomorrow or next year for the broader, the bolder, and better bastions it once held? I suppose not, but then I’ve always preferred to view life from a base of facts and fun from great speculative fiction.

A special thanks to exobrain of the day Kate Paulk for helping find the right words when I only (sorta) knew what I meant.

[i] In the lingua franca of the genres most strident historiphiles a classless attack on the “riginal”work. [a slur, sometimes even politely intoned]

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nature in Fiction

I love nature. When my head is swirling around there is nothing better than going for a walk. One of the nice things about Brisbane is that its quite green, with plenty of trees and flowering plants and larger sections of forest accessible to most suburbs. I live near Toohey Forest, a large area of native open eucalypt forest on Brisbane's south side. Being in contact with living things and seeing that beauty is a welcome tonic.

That expression of nature is something that I also love in fiction. Its probably no accident that many of my favourite fantasy books feature characters that live in remote locations, with plenty of treks through the forests and anxious chases between hunter and quarry through the mountains. David Gemmell's books often featured a loner hero, living in the cabin in the woods. The wild country was a real part of the setting with most of his books, and the Rigante series is a good example.

A lot of the books that I have read depict European or northern hemisphere ecology - oaks, elms and holly, deer and rabbits etc. I have always enjoyed this setting in fiction, but when it comes to writing I am often torn about what to portray.

In contemporary fantasy, I describe what I see around me - the Australian forests and animals - and their magical equivalents. However, when the setting is a completely constructed fantasy world, the choices become less clear cut. Describing the typical Australian natives in this sort of imagined world would probably lead to bafflement on the part of non-Oz readers and perhaps even a feeling of discomfort for some of the Oz readers as well. Fantasy readers love familiar settings (yes, different enough to get published, yet familiar all the same). Sometimes I have taken the middle road and tried to create my own plants and animals, but this soon gets exhausting, and if the background setting is not going to be a feature of the books (e.g. Michael Swanwick, Neal Asher etc), then it is annoying and distracting for the reader.

So how do you handle natural settings in your fiction? Do you think it is essential or just backdrop? Who do you think has done it well?

Keeping Pace in the Middle

It's probably poor form to write a post that's basically "what she said" and point at Sarah's latest post, so that's where I'm starting. So, "what she said".

Now to get into the meat of things - every story has its own rhythm, but there are quite a few things most of them have in common - unless you're writing "literature" of the suckitudinous "crap happens, but you don't care anyway because there's nothing admirable and nothing really matters" Pulitzer Prize-winning flavor (Seriously? Has anyone ever read a Pulitzer-winning book? The titles are enough to make me gag).

Think of your plot kind of like a backwards rollercoaster, where the lows are the quiet points, and the highs are where stuff really gets going. The beginning introduces the characters and problems, kicks the characters out of their normal life, and gets things rolling. This is the only place where you're allowed to use Deus Ex Author, although it's better if you can do it by Act of Antagonist or Act of Dumbass Character. If you do use Deus Ex Author, try to make it something that's a more or less expected or predictable thing in the universe of your story.

Everything after that should be caused by one of your characters, however indirectly, and there should be a series of heights and lulls. The slower sections are where character development and even stopping to admire the scenery can happen (although it helps if the character admiring the scenery is doing so for a purpose, like scanning for enemies or admiring the lady who's providing human scenery). They're also where you drop in the foreshadowing and the threads that push towards the next height.

What I've found is that there's usually a semi-climax partway through - anywhere between 1/2 way and 2/3 of the way through. Up until then, the heights get higher and more intense, and the lulls get shorter and offer the main character less respite. Typically, the semi-climax should be the most intense point apart from the climax, and the drop after it should be pretty steep and leave the main character in a state where there seem to be very few choices. This isn't what the Hero's Journey terms the Black Moment, but more of a pre-taste of it. Things are bad, there doesn't seem to be any hope, but the main character pushes on for whatever the reason. He/she should lose something that matters here.

After the semi-climax and the Swamp of Despair, there's a longish lull - not as long as the start, but longer than there's been for a while, then the cycle of ever-increasing heights and shortening lulls resumes, usually with steeper downslopes after the heights, and dips back towards the Swamp of Despair. Meanwhile, the climax looms ever-larger - it needs to start looking steep and ugly during this section.

Somewhere around the last 1/4 to 1/5 of the book or thereabouts, you move into the part where all hell breaks loose. This is the Black Moment where everything seems lost and there's no way out. The undead are everywhere, the cavalry's not coming, and you're alone. You get the idea. Here your character decides that he/she can't back out now, regardless of the cost. In romances, it's when it seems impossible that the couple can ever be together.

Then the climax should hit, hard. You're into the final battle and there's no time to breathe. This is the highest peak, the big climb, and right at the top is when finally it goes right. The rest is rather the like the afterglow, where you tie up the loose ends, clean up the mess, and leave everyone satisfied and - hopefully - happy but wanting just a little bit more. For sequels, rinse and repeat, but with higher stakes.

A few good examples: the first three Anita Blake books. The pacing in these is pretty much dead-on, if a tad predictable (Yes, I looked at how much book was left and figured all hell would be breaking loose within the next few chapters). Dave Freer's A Mankind Witch - note how the crises get bigger, and how Dave handles the quiet times. The first three Harry Potter books.

I should add that I haven't really studied this kind of thing: for me it's more of an instinctive thing. I can feel when I need to up the pace, and when I need to slow down and take a breath. I suspect it comes from reading damn near anything I could get hold of and absorbing plot structure more or less the way I absorbed spelling (one of my nicknames is 'walking dictionary' - but I sometimes need to see the word to know if it's spelled right). It's a bit like riding a bicycle or learning to drive - after a while you build a feel for it and your subconscious can short-circuit the conscious reasoning and just do the thing (Yes, I also have a lot of practice writing crap. I suspect most of my million words of crap were written before I ever got hold of a typewriter, back when I was writing longhand in notebooks. And going through pens like they were going out of style - and yeah, it is crap. I was cringing less than six months after writing a lot of it).

So does this way of looking at it work for you? Who else do you think handles middles and pacing well?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Firm Up Your Middle

Most writers I know are sure upon starting out of what they want to do with beginning and ends, but have clue zero what goes in the middle.

In fact, in all my years of mentoring, I can honestly say I have never, ever, ever had a beginner come up to me and say “I have this great idea for a middle. Now if I only knew how to begin and end it.”

I think to most of our brains, novels are like a journey and in journeys we usually know where we’re starting from and where we end. And then the middle somehow connects it.

Unfortunately, particularly in raw beginners’ novels, but sometimes in pros’ , what connects it is to some degree or another mush.

Say your character arrives at a planet. You know in the end he’ll be crowned king. What goes in the middle? Some of us read enough myth and fairytales as very young children that we have a vague idea he should make a pattern of increasingly more important acquaintances until, finally, he is in a position to claim the throne. Others might be political and/or social science mavens, who merrily will set about replicating some ascent to power. (This second is dangerous, unless you’re good at knowing how to isolate the essential in a true story to make it a good fictional story.) But most of us will fill it with the equivalent of “Alarums and excursions.” And count ourselves lucky if we reach the planned end.

Now, I’ll admit, as with a journey, the middle is not as set in stone as the beginning or ending. You can take the highway, the scenic route or the mountain curvy path and still get at the same end, faster or slower, and still get there.

However, in a novel, the middle ends up being most of it, and therefore most of the experience the readers pay you for. And a mushy middle can be the difference between another sale or the person never reading you again.

So, how do you firm up your middles?

A) avoid repetition. If you consider the middle unimportant, you will find yourself having endlessly looping incidents, some of which will resemble the others.

B) make sure whatever happens is motivated by your character. I.e., no elephants suddenly falling from the ceiling and crushing the poor critter flat. If you must have externally-activated events, then make sure you foreshadow. A lot.

C) Build – this means there should be a crescendo in the challenges your character meets, leading to the climax.

For extra credit
D) make one or more of the incidents in the middle serve as foreshadowing for the big battle.

E) thread the theme of your novel into these incidents, reinforcing the impression you want your reader to take away.

F) use this time to grow your character to face the big bad.

G) lay clues as to who the big bad is, if there is a doubt, and shows us the worst he can do, so we’ll be anxious for the character.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? What do you do with your middles?

* for a good exercise take your three favorite books and make a plot outline from it, chapter by chapter taking note of what facts/clues/plot work is advanced in the chapter, and what other subplots and introduced or disposed of. I bet the structure will surprise you!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Author as a Performer

Yesterday I did a post about the Author as Performer over on the ROR blog. It’s tough when you have to not only have to write a book that requires research, dedication and a year of your life, but then you have to promote it. This is especially hard as most authors are introverts. Why do you think they like sitting alone with their computer communing with the characters in their heads?

There’s another thing I’ve noticed. The average Australian is very uncomfortable about jumping up and down and saying Look at Me! In our country we have thing called Tall Poppy Syndrome, which is the tendency to cut off at the base, any one of our fellow Australians if they get too big for their boots.

Here’s a quote from Deep Pencil’s blog that sums it up neatly.

When Australian exports make it big overseas in the fields academia or entertainment, they often find it difficult to return home due to the huge amount of criticism levelled at them. Our ex-pats like Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Paul Hogan, Mel Gibson, Clive James, and Kylie Minogue, seem to move away and never look back - nice place to visit, but hard place to live if you are doing well.

Australians like to deflate the pretensions of those they perceive to be "flaunting" their success. We like to pull down those who attempt to distinguish themselves by ridiculing them. It's the Australian way, and if you don’t like it get out! Then we wonder why there’s a "brain drain" and a "cultural cringe".’

(Yes I know they are tulips and not poppies. I couldn't find a picture of poppies that was copyright free).

So asking an Australian author to promote their work or to ‘brand themselves’ is really asking them to go against the norm of our society. With so many sources of entertainment clamouring for readers’ attention writers have to wonder if anyone will read their books. Publishers expect us to promote our books. It is just part of the equation now days.

Maureen Johnson talks about author branding here. She says:

‘I am not saying that it is a bad or dishonest thing to try to sell your work. It is not. What I am saying is that I am tired of the rush to commodify everything, to turn everything into products, including people. I don’t want a brand, because a brand limits me. A brand says I will churn out the same thing over and over. Which I won’t, because I am weird.’

Which is a valid point. After all, we might take a small step sideways into a cross-genre or decide to try our hands at writing in another genre entirely. Sometimes the story dictates the genre. It wants to be told a certain way and it won't let us go until we tell it.

Tansy Rayner Roberts has written a post here on the topic of author branding. According to Tansy:

‘promoting a business becomes a whole lot stickier when your business is in fact yourself. You do have a responsibility to yourself, your family, your publishers, and so on, to promote your work effectively.’

She goes on to talk about where you draw the line. How do you keep your family private?

And here Colleen Mondor talks about branding and how publishers are encouraging authors to promote themselves. She says:

‘…the world would do well to remember just how long Neil Gaiman was writing when he started his blog. He already had the fans before he went online; the blog (and twitter) were just icing on the cake for him and his readers and trying to duplicate that miracle without putting decades into writing is beyond silly.’

So what does a writer do, when their book is coming out and they hate to think of the poor little thing sitting all alone and unloved on a bookshop shelf somewhere?

I decided rather than have a physical book launch, I’d just offer copies of the book to lots of book blog reviewers. This could of course backfire, as they may not like the book. But I think reviews and how to survive them should be a post for another day.

So back to the author as performer. When my first trilogy sold I was terrified of talking in public. I asked someone what I should talk about. And they said - do your research if you are asked onto a panel, but the important thing is to be sincere, speak from the heart. So that is what I have tried to do.

When you see authors at festivals and conventions, what do you remember afterwards? Is it the ‘brand’ or is it sincerity?