Friday, May 13, 2011

We've Moved


We vamoosed. We blew the joint. We's out of here.

Having acquired an Url (I thought we should hold out for a duke, but the other guys don't got no ambition) we can now be found at

Ladies, gentlemen, dragons and ladybugs, grab the children and reset your bookmarks. We're waiting for you!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Writer's Toolbox - The whys and wherefores

Just as no artist would consider working without a toolbox - including physical items like paints and brushes, but also non-physical things like techniques the artist knows and a mental library of what works with which surface or set of conditions - no writer should work without a toolbox. In some ways writers are fortunate: almost all the tools a writer needs can be carried inside his or her skull. We don't need special ink, special pens or special paper (unless we're writing in the Myst universe, where somewhat... different rules apply...). But we do need tools, and some of them aren't all that intuitive.

I'm going to digress a bit here, because there are some terms I'm going to be using in a uniquely Kate way that I should define before I start. When I talk about talent, I mean an innate, potentially inherited and inheritable, ability to do something (anything) better or easier than the norm. They're pretty common - just about everyone is better than the norm at something (although sometimes the something is relatively useless, like tuned flatulence). Skills are things you've practiced at and made better than the norm. Sometimes there's overlap: if you've worked at something you're talented at to make it even better, it's become a skill as well (in which case you got a head-start. Aren't you lucky?). Other times you started from the norm or below the norm and worked at it until you got to be good at it. Generally speaking, the only difference between someone who's developed a skill from scratch and someone who started with a talent for it and built the skill is that the second person got there faster. Otherwise, there's no difference to speak of. The third piece of the puzzle I call gifts. These are phenomenally rare and involve a synthesis across skills and talents that defies logical explanation - and can't be learned. Ever. If you're lucky enough to have one of these, treasure it, nurture it, and build the skills to support it - because while it can show without the associated skills, it won't truly shine until you've gained the skills it needs.

If that seems a bit abstruse, here's an example (and homework, sort of) for you. If you take an example of Luciano Pavarotti at his peak, you will hear one of the world's great tenors with a truly magnificent voice (Singers have it rough - their most important tool, their voice, is born. If you've got a crappy voice, nothing you do can make it great. Only less crappy - speaking from experience here as a not-quite-professional-level soprano with a voice that no-one could ever claim was good. The instrument just isn't there). Now listen to Placido Domingo at his peak, singing the same song. Domingo's voice is darker, and not as good an instrument - but when he sings, there's magic happening. He has the gift: Pavarotti doesn't. No amount of training or practice could give Pavarotti that instinctive sense that allows Domingo to make the most of the emotional punch in the music. The most Pavarotti can do is learn to sort-of imitate the sense that Domingo has. Think of it as a blind man imitating the actions of a sighted one by rote learning, and you're getting close. Now, if Domingo hadn't worked and trained his voice, that gift would never have been enough to take him to the top of his field. But its absence didn't stop Pavarotti. The real difference that I see is that the best you can do without the gift isn't quite as good or as satisfying as the best you can do with it. Incidentally, I have the musical gift, albeit not terribly strongly. What I lack is the talent and the skills (and the desire to develop them).

In writing, there are some very popular and high-selling authors who don't have the gift. There are others who do. In cases like Pratchett, you can see it grow as his skills develop: just read his books in order of publication. Some highly skilled authors with the gift are stuck in midlist hell - or unpublished. The point being, that whether you have it or not doesn't matter except that if you do have it you'll be forever second-guessing yourself because this weird shit you never planned on keeps showing up in what you write and making your work better for it.

Okay, here endeth the rant. Now back to the toolbox.

Ours is - mostly - not physical, although in the case of writers who plot by sticky-note, a plentiful supply of sticky-notes and a large wall space is essential (for those who know software development methodologies, I am resisting the urge to call this "agile plotting". Long story, not one you want to hear. Trust me on that). What that virtual toolbox shares with the physical ones is that it needs to contain a range of tools from the most basic to the most sophisticated, and from brute-force to ultra-precision. To go back to the painter, spray paint or rollers count as brute force, where brushes with diameters measured in fractions of an inch would be ultra-precision. Finger in paint - basic. Computerized pattern spraying - sophisticated. You get the idea.

Into the toolbox go all the techniques, all the skills, and all the bits and pieces that writers need to actually do their job. Most other artists work with a mix of a physical and a virtual toolbox - we mostly get to put it all together. Usually it's kind of disorganized, too. How do you separate words from spelling, for instance?

Next post will be on basic tools: the things a writer needs before developing skills. Some of these basic tools can be talents (spelling is one of mine), which gives the fortunate possessor a free pass in that tool. Most of them are so basic we usually don't even think about them, much less consider them as tools. Which is why I'm starting there - everything else builds on the basics.

Next week (assuming my life doesn't explode) - the basic tools.

Learning To Whisper

What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers. ~Logan Pearsall Smith, "All Trivia," Afterthoughts, 1931

I’ll confess that much as I would like to sound incredibly erudite, I’d never heard of Logan Pearsall Smith until I read this quote. Having read it, I’m of two minds about it.

The reason I’m of two minds about it is that I have a tendency to “whisper” in writing, something that I’m sure will surprise a lot of people who have met me in person (i.e. who’ve been exposed to the woman who needs not microphones) as well as a lot of people who have read me – in person or not. But what you see in my books is not always what comes naturally. Naturally, I have a tendency to elide a lot of the emotion and what I would call “the embarrassing stuff.” My style of narrating is to assume the reader already knows a lot of this and it doesn’t need to be emphasized. That, as I’ve learned, is wrong. There is such a thing, yes, as keeping a stiff upper lip, and it is very important in a human, but not always in a writer. Since readers read for the emotion, the stiff upper lip undercuts the power of the writing.

On the other hand, there is a way of whispering in writing – there are the things not said, but which come across just fine. This is a higher type of writing, and one that I frankly don’t know if I can do. I try, but it’s hard to judge, with your own work, whether you landed perfectly or fell on your face. Only the reader can tell.

This type of whispering is subtle and haunting. It’s the little things about the character and the world that remain in your mind, sometimes years later, the little things that aren’t always stated, but that you return to, are sure of, wish were written about.

Entire websites full of stories echo with Jane Austen’s whisperings, particularly in Pride and Prejudice. “Did other people know what they were feeling better than they did? When did he realize he loved her?” Etc. The same goes for Georgette Heyer. Most of the sexual tension in her romances is never even mentioned. Take Venitia, one of my very favorites – they joke, they recite poetry, they make repartee sometimes on risque subjects, but there’s no kissing, no fondling, nothing beyond an embrace and that at the end. However, the sexual tension is scorching. How much more powerful does it make the book than the modern romances which tell me what went where and how many times, sometimes with shocking anatomical improbability? Then there is Heinlein. Take The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Nowhere does the main character tell us he’s fallen in love with Wyoming Knott. Except it’s in everything he says about her, and how he says it, so when she marries into the family and ends up in his bed before the trip to Earth, it’s expected. It’s been whispered throughout the book, even though explicitly they’ve done nothing more than flirt. And there’s Pratchett. Most of the romances, like in Making Money and the relationship between Sam Vimes and his wife. But more than that, there are hints about Nobby Nobs that you honestly don’t want to think too deeply about.

But it is those whispers, those less-brightly-illuminated scenes that give the book the feel of roundness, of completeness. Look, if you walk down a well lighted street, you expect to pass boarded up stores, and others that are dark and alleys that you only see the opening to. If those are truncated, not there, you know the street is a fake, a Hollywood scene made of painted boards with nothing behind it. At the same time, if al those side avenues are brightly illuminated, you get dazzled, stop paying attention to where you’re going, and get lost in a side street. Or, to make the metaphor more consistent – if you hear only one loud, clear voice, you feel like there is no one there, just perhaps an electronic simulation of a human voice. As – in TMIAHM – Heinlein noted, behind a real human voice there are other sounds. Breathing. Adjusting yourself in the chair. A door slamming somewhere.

We don’t consciously hear them, but they are there, and they convince us this person is real. Of course, in the same way, you don’t want them to be so loud they drown out the voice.

You see the point and the dilemma? It’s something I’m trying to learn, as I said, but I’m not sure if I can, except by studying those who’ve done it well and learning to imitate. And you? Do you know who does it well? Do I even explain what I mean clearly enough for you to understand?

I hope I do. I want to catch your attention, and I hope I’m learning to whisper.

Crossposted at According To Hoyt

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Polishing that Manuscript

Here I am, sharing the cover of book two of The Outcast Chronicles. And here I am, plunging into the clean up of book three, so I can hand the books in to my publisher at the end of May. Which brings me around to polishng that manuscript.

Here Kate Elliot talks about revision, part one. She says: 'When I think about what I have learned and how I have improved in skill and experience as a writer, most of that improvement revolves not around coming up with ideas or characters or even necessarily interactions between characters. While I hope I have the experience of age in being able to see more nuance and layers in human behavior, I do not think I am “better at” coming up with “ideas” (depending on how you define what an “idea” is in the context of fiction).

What I know, however, is that I have a better grasp of the revisions process.

I know how to look at a scene, or a conversation, or some element or detail within a book, and identify that it needs work or, at the least, that something about it makes me twitchy and uncomfortable, which means it needs work. Then, I can often pick it apart to the point where I can sort how it isn’t working and, through trial and error or in a single flash of authorial brilliance, figure out how to fix it.'

I would have to say that this is what I've discovered. It's partly experience from editing my own work over the years, but it is also all the hours I've put into marking treatments for UNI (What's wrong with this? What isn't working?) and the hours I've put in reading my fellow ROR writers' manuscripts to give feedback at one of our weekends away.

I will generally have a feel for what is wrong. Sometimes I have to go off and clean something or mow the yard for the core problem to percolate up from my subconscious mind, along with the answer. That's the thing about being creative. It's not like accountancy, where the sums always add up to the same answers (if you're lucky).

Kate talks about accepting imperfection and moving on, because none of us write brilliantly the first time we put the story down on paper. Here Kate Elliot talks about revisions part two and how she tackles them. She divides them into large scale, medium scale and small scale.

And here is a post I did over at the ROR blog where I talk about revisions and editing (and I quote the inimitable Sarah Hoyt from the Mad Genius Club. LOL).

I like the editing process. It's when I add the layers and the extra nuances. By the time I come around to editing I know the characters so much better and I know what they are trying to hide. I like to plant clues for the reader. With King Rolen's Kin I'd had plenty of time to clean up the manuscript. I was able to print it off and give it to my husband and son who both read fantasy, to look for plot holes and inconsistencies. I won't get a chance to go to that length with the new trilogy.

Which do you prefer first drafts, or the revisions?

Monday, May 9, 2011

The 99 cent book

"He sold his first story to Wonder Stories in 1931 when magazines cost a dime and you could get 12 ounces of Pepsi for a nickel" Harry Harrison writing of Clifford Simak in the introduction to the 1977 edition of Ring Around the Sun.

I read this and got a dose of perspective. So... back when pulps had their heyday - in the Depression, they cost two bottles of soft drink. They ALSO had circulations that most 'bestsellers' now couldn't dream of. A name built on a pulp readership could make your novels successful right out of the gate. Now those 'pulp' descendants have moved upmarket in price and sometimes in quality... and are outsold by an average midlister, and have a sadly tepid marketing value.

Things have changed since then. For example: We've increased the number of books being published enormously... and we've also changed the distribution mechanism and structure. The distribution curve for sales has become ridiculously attenuated, with 97% of books selling less than 10K and 2.8% selling between 10-100K and 0.2% selling into the tens of millions... as opposed those days when there were far less books published, but perhaps 30% of books sold less than 10K, and 69.8% 10-500K... and 0.19 getting to million, and 0.01% did better.

Lets face it, 2011 has a fair amount of frightening commonalities with 1931. The one trend that isn't running in tandem is entertainment. In the Great Depression books and movies did well. They provided cheap escape from a grim reality. They also provided uplift and hope for depressed people in hard times. I can't say that a lot of 2011 books are cheap enterainment, or good escapism or uplifting. And the industry has been hurting, badly. I can't really believe that no-one in the publishing establishement can see this, but I suspect it's a case of vested interests who would rather aim straight for the icebergs than change from their course. The content an I suspect especially skewed distribution model plainly has LOST readers/buyers. So I think has price, particularly with e-books, where electrons are cheaper than cheap pulp paper ever was. However: Where the behemoths lumber on their preselected paths, it does look as if independents with e-books are challenging this (I note some very cheerful - humor too - books which publishing ignored are doing very well thank you.) I also note that Pulp pricing is BAAAAAAACK... 99 cent books. Many of them probably at the same level as much of the material in those pulps, and I suspect the escapist and uplifting ones will do well. I'm unsure if they're going to return to the distribution curve of sales - simply because the entry is easier. But I have a feeling a solid 'midlist' will develop driven by reader demand not the marketing department -- a LOT healthier for a diverse reading audience and actually growing a reading market. Oh and as another aside, I see Apple's challenge seems to have been a fashion statement rather than having any real impact on e-book sales. Curiouser and curiouser.

So what do you think? Is it worth doing a 99 cent book? Is there a sea-change underway, to fit our society to a more austere but more hopeful model?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do Your Homework

We all know that writers have to do their homework. No matter what we write, there's some research involved. Whether it's knowing the street layout of the town where our story is set or getting the science right for our space opera or knowing the appropriate mythology for our fantasy, we have to do our legwork. Otherwise, our story or novel will not be as good as it can be.

What we sometimes forget is that our homework doesn't end with the writing. We have to research where to send it when we're done and we have to research what the agent or editor wants when we do. That's where we have to go looking for the guidelines and then we have to make sure we follow them. It doesn't matter how good our book or story is if that agent or editor doesn't see it because the query or submission was kicked for not following the guidelines.

This is something I've become more aware of since going to work as an editor for Naked Reader Press. I have a new appreciation for some of the frustrated comments I've seen from agents and editors about writers who don't follow the guidelines. Until I started working forNRP, I could sort of see what they meant but still thought they were making a mountain out of a mole hill, especially in this day when most submissions are made electronically. After all, how hard is it to do [ctrl + a] and then change the font size or type or line spacing?

Then I put on my editor hat and start looking at some of the submissions that have come across my desk. Up front, these are the minority and not the rule. We've had some very wonderful submissions come to us and others that might not have fit our needs, but would be good fits with another publisher. These submissions have, as a rule, followed our guidelines to the last detail. These are the submissions we really appreciate.

The flip side are those writers who don't even give a hat tip to the guidelines. These are the ones without cover letters with the requested information. These are the ones that don't include the short synopsis of their novel. These are the ones who submit genres we don't accept. These are the ones who don't know -- or don't understand -- basic manuscript format rules. These are the ones who start off with one strike against them because they didn't do their homework.

It starts with the cover letter or query letter -- I say "or" because if you are submitting to a publisher like NRP where we accept submissions without queries first, you don't have to do a formal query letter. However, much of the same information you put into your query letter needs to be in the cover letter. Things like the genre of your work, how many words, and if it's been published before or not. (This last is especially important because, whether you realize it or not, editors and agents do google you and your work.)

A short blurb is also good -- and required if you are sending a query. This isn't the synopsis nor is it an excerpt from your submission. This is similar to what's on the back cover. It is a hook to get the editor or agent interested enough in what you've sent to actually open the file. This is the one place in the cover/query for you to be creative -- but not at the expense of another author. Guys, you don't know if the editor or agent reading your cover is a huge fan of that author you've just called a hack. So don't shoot yourself in the foot before you get out of the starting gate.

Once you hit send, take a deep breath and go have some fun. Then get busy on your next project. You won't hear back from the editor or agent that day or the next. See what the standard response time is and then wait a reasonable period after the expiration of that time before sending a follow-up. And, please, unless you realize you hit "send" without attaching a file, don't keep resending every time you find and correct a typo.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: if you start submitting your work to agents or publishers, you need to finally admit to yourself that you are a writer. That being a writer is your job. It may be your second or third job, but it is still a job. So you need to treat it as such. Agents are your headhunters and publishers are who you enter into contractual agreements with. I won't say employers, because they aren't. But, just as you don't keep sending resumes every day to the same human resource professional, you don't keep sending revised queries or full manuscripts to an editor or agent when all you've done are minor cosmetic changes.

If it seems like I'm harping on the issue, I am. Some of the larger publishers and, I suspect, some agencies, have gone to a service that vets queries long before that agent or editor will. This service simply weighs the queries against the guidelines of that particular agent or editor. If you haven't followed the guidelines, it's rejected out of hand. It doesn't matter how good your query letter might be. It doesn't matter that your book might be the next best seller. A computer program has just rejected it because you didn't do your homework.

Is it fair? As a writer, I'm inclined to say no. But then, I sort of feel that way about having to send a query letter without a writing sample. After all, someone can write a wonderful query letter and their novel may suck eggs. Conversely, I've read awful queries but the accompanying novel is wonderful.

But as an editor, I can understand why the larger firms and publishing houses have gone to this automated vetting process. It takes time to read the cover/query. If that cover/query doesn't contain the information required by the guidelines, it takes time away from another author's submission to open the accompanying file and start reading only to discover the original submission is a genre we don't publish. I know how many submissions we get and my mind boggles at how many the larger companies that still accept unsolicited submissions must get.

So, as a writer and as an editor I remind you to do your homework. Be sure to read the guidelines and do your best to follow them. Don't start off with a strike or two against you because you haven't followed directions. Remember, if you have a question, e-mail is your friend. I've never had an agency or publisher not answer when I've asked for clarification of something.

Well, I've run on long enough. Just one more thing. For those of you who have been following the "outing" of the English teacher in PA as an erotic writer, here's a great interview with her from Publishers Weekly.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Go Read

Today is Amanda Green's day to publicize herself, but she is going to be busy away from the computer all day, so she asked me to do something. I have no idea what she meant by "something" and she knows I suck at internet comedy routines and if I tried to dance on tables, the tables would probably break. Then, since the table at Mad Genius Club is owned in common and sort of round (well, it would be round, but since three of our members are in Australia, it turns into kind of a weird shape as it crosses the space/time continuum and... well... read And He Build A Crooked House (Heinlein's, not Christie's) for reference as to shape and perils) trust me when I say my attempting to dance on it and breaking it might bring about the end end of the universe as we know it.

So, instead, I'm going to encourage you to go read Amanda's novel, Nocturnal Origins, out from Naked reader press.

This is a review for the book:

And you can buy it here:

If you need it, you also have my personal recommendation. I've now read the book three times, which is a rare compliment, as I seldom read anything but my "comfort books" more than once.

Amanda has made noises about writing a sequel, and trust me you want to encourage this by bumping up her numbers. Now, go and read. And be glad I didn't dance on tables.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Coming Up Blank

The wonderful thing about writing is that you can always make something out of nothing. It really is the original perpetual motion machine!

If you have a bad day, or a crap interaction, it immediately becomes fodder for your work. Inane conversations on the bus become a lesson in realistic dialogue. Annoying health problems or injuries suddenly manifest in your character and increase the depth of characterisation.

Today I was really stuck for something to blog about, then I realised I could blog about the fact I could not blog about something:)

All writers seem to approach their work from a different angle, and be inspired by different things. So what to do when you come up blank?

Some writers are inspired by natural settings, by the feeling of the landscape itself. I know for myself, some very weird characters and magical ideas can emerge from a quiet natural landscape, especially during storms and at twilight. At the very least it injects some reality into descriptions of scenery and setting.

Others are driven by the ideas themselves (this is very true for me). I can get inspired by interesting non-fiction, good books, films, and other weird ideas or what-ifs that occur to me in my more wistful moments.

Another thing that often gets me going is to plot out maps and put together drawings of the cities where the story takes place. Others might paint characters (I am total crap at drawing) or spend time imagining the settings of the story to get enthused. You can look for movies, books, pieces of music or art that inspire you for the piece you are writing.

I know many writers who write to music. Many take it even further than this - one writer friend of mine has collections of music for different types of scene. If there is an action scene coming up he puts all his 'action' CDs into the player.

Of course to be creative, you also need enough sleep (a challenge for me I can tell you) and to be in good frame of mind. The quality of your food, the amount of rest you get. Health is often neglected by writers, but has a huge impact energy levels. What do you do for stress reduction? That's important as well. How about exercise? Small amounts of low impact activity have been well demonstrated to have large positive effects. Walk the dog.

What do you do when you look for inspiration? Or do you subscribe to the notorious Idea of the Month Club?

Intersection of the Soul's Darkness

Sarah and I have been having an intermittent blogversation about writers, writing, and madness, which got started with my post Dancing in the Shadows of Madness. The next two posts in the series are The Shadows Within, and Voices in the Dark. This installment of the blogversation should be pretty much independent, but I hope a few people decide to read the earlier posts anyway.

I personally - not that I'm at all opinionated - think that the kind of creativity capable of generating novels that feel 'real', like the kind of creativity capable of creating great and intense art, music, theater, or for that matter new insights in science, is actually the same thing as madness, just better controlled. Or perhaps better focused.

To conceptualize something that doesn't actually exist vividly enough that you can bring it into a form of existence and make it temporarily real for other people takes a mind that works very differently from the norm. It took me a while to work this out: like most people I thought I was pretty much normal. Yeah, right. And just what is this 'normal' anyway?

It wasn't until I was well into my teens that I realized 'normal' doesn't seek isolated corners to build imaginary cities out of whatever came to hand and devise tales of how the tiny residents lived. 'Normal' doesn't write obsessively (no, nothing from that time of my life is publishable. I was in full angsty-teen by then, and I had no idea about certain techniques like... er... point of view. Not only did I head-hop in the same paragraph, I did it in the same sentence), nor does it read anything and everything it can get its hands on.

Perhaps more to the point, 'normal' doesn't think about everything, much less question most of it, even the most basic assumptions about how things should be. People who knew me then got to dread the question, "Why?". Sure, it was usually asked in a nasal whine - at least partly the legacy of six months of non-stop tonsillitis when I was four, during which I learned to speak nasally because my throat hurt so damn much - but I still wanted to know why things were how they where.

Why? is probably the most useful question in a writer's repertoire, closely followed by, "What then?". Between those two, you get conflict, which drives plot.

To dig out of that little diversion, it's not mentally healthy to question the fundamentals of your society. People build intricate mental models of how the world works so they don't have to think about the things they need to do - because if you stop to think about the mechanics of, say, driving, you're going to get yourself into all sorts of trouble. Upending those models causes chaos, and makes it more difficult to function in the world that generated them.

When the models in question are things like "how my society works", well... It's not hard to see where breaking that one leads. I should add that you don't have to like something to have a mental model of it. It's just that breaking it means you're back to dealing with things from observation and thought, which isn't easy.

Insanity can be considered as the mental state of broken/non-functional models. Sometimes it's chemical: there's a malfunction in how the intricate biomechanisms running the brain work (see Speaker's Lab Rat's Guide to the Brain for a whole lot of information about that). Sometimes it's situational: some circumstance overloads the models and forces them to break down. Usually people recover from the second one, but the first is something you live with, sometimes - like me - with lots of pharmaceutical assistance.

Not everyone can deal with that level of dissonance. I suspect that those who can are what gets labeled creative - they've learned to channel the dissonance into socially acceptable forms and to pretend normality well enough to more or less 'pass' (some better than others. I've become rather better at passing in the last few years. That or ceasing to care what other people think of me is delightfully liberating and no-one is daring to tell me I'm not socially acceptable).

At any rate, the kind of mind that can simultaneously live in ancient Rome with magic, this world, and eldritch battlefields facing all the demons of Hell, is not the kind of mind that gets the stamp of approval from whoever it is that decides what 'sane' is.

Having been given the option of mental hospital (I refused), I know what it's like to have everything break. I wonder sometimes if there's a better way to handle those who can't focus the weird into something acceptable, so long as they're not going to endanger others (if the voices are telling you that you need to kill someone, you do need to be on the wrong side of locked doors for everyone else's safety - unless you kill them in effigy, the way I do in my writing when someone has irritated me enough). I'm not sure that there's a nice easy dividing line, either. Hell, I know there isn't. Depending on how things are doing, I range from 'can pass' to 'needs suicide watch' (that hasn't happened in a long time thank God), and I'm far from alone in that.

The question that disturbs me, though, when I look at how savagely conformist the trends are at the moment (just ask Sarah about the state of schools in the USA), is whether we're killing the creative types before they can learn to channel their differences. Not much can give me nightmares, but the thought of a world without writers, artists, and the like does.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Going Deeper

As some of you know, I’ve lately been reading romances.

Now, in a woman who’d come no nearer romance than Austen and Shakespeare until her late thirties, this must be understood in the way of a daring expedition into unknown and somewhat strange territory.

Picture me, in fact, in helmet and safari suit, led by a troupe of – possibly pink-attired – natives, penetrating impenetrable jungles.

Only as far as that goes, I would be a terrible explorer. Rather than penetrating deep (it’s so wrong to use this expression with romance, I know) into the contemporary swamps, I mostly stay around the edges of regencies – i.e. near the native villages of historical, which I have visited before.

Part of the reason for this is the reason I no longer read mysteries in the way I now read romance. Growing up I considered Science Fiction and Fantasy “real” reading, while mystery was what I read when otherwise out of “real” books, and/or, later on, as “popcorn.” Popcorn books are read without studying them and without any necessity to feel like I’m competing with them.

As it’s probably obvious part of what chased me out of mystery is that I started writing it. But the other part is what makes contemporary mystery – and a lot of science fiction and fantasy – odious to me.

I’m perfectly willing – no, look, I’m used to – skipping the political screeds in the middle of books. That’s fine. They’re particularly funny in older mysteries which assure me that such and such event/policy will destroy all life as we know it by... well, earlier than now. So, cool.

But while I’ve my entire life worked on the principle that everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, I do take offense to people being entitled to their own facts and both in mystery and SF and for that matter contemporary romance, I run across an awful lot of stuff where I go “Well, now. I’ve never met a woman who worked THAT way.” Or “Yeah, you know, I refuse to entertain the idea I found the only man in the universe who is not an abuser.” And in the last ten years or so, either I’ve got more crotchety (Hey, you kids, get off my literary lawn!) or the instances of this type of nonsense have gotten WAY thicker. I’d suspect both, as the older I get the more I have trouble suffering fools – gladly or otherwise – and as we’re churning out generations of women who have been taught an entirely imaginary history, not to mention sociology and economics. (You need to be exquisitely educated and exceedingly brilliant to believe that much nonsense.)

Anyway, so I ended up reading mostly historical mystery but some years ago the publishers decided historical mystery was out. (No, don’t tell me it didn’t sell. It was a niche, like anything else is, practically. Mostly it didn’t sell because the publishers wouldn’t get it on shelves. They decided all that needed to be pushed was what I call “sex and the city” mysteries, which is fine, but I’m simply not that interested in shoes. Oh, and craft mysteries, which are the resurgence of the cozies they also decided wouldn’t sell about twenty years ago -- but the fact I write those about furniture refinishing should tell you how ‘with it’ I am about crafts.)

I still need popcorn books. These are things read when cooking or cleaning, and usually not remembered at all. The things I consider ‘vacation’ because I can retreat into them and not think about much of anything. Ideally they’re the books I read while walking around amusement parks in the wake of the boys.

So I started reading romances. (They’re also great recessionary reading because I can buy a used book for a dollar pretty consistently, and then I can trade them in, four for one more book. And it is only after two of these transactions that I have to head to the used bookstore with thirty dollars again. So, a month’s worth of popcorn reading might cost me fifty.)

Unfortunately, you can take the writer out of her field, but you can’t make her stop being a writer.

So lately my mind has been turning on what makes some of the regency-popcorn I’ve been ingesting particularly tasty, and what makes some of it a snort-giggle fest.

We’ll eliminate genius from the equation, first. I should point out what led me on this primrose (or at least pinkish) path to hell to begin with was Dave Freer making me read Georgette Heyer. I’ll say it right now: Heyer is not like any other regency romance. Just isn’t, period. That’s genius.

So, I’m fairly sure I’m not a genius, and that’s where THAT analysis ends. Now, onto the other ones.

Like with any other genre I plunge into, I started noticing stylistic and character building stuff in some of the books I buy more or less blindly (no, really blindly sometimes. As in, I tell my friend at the used bookstore “grab me thirty regencies, put in a bag, I’ll pick them up in an hour.) So I started making “friends” – i.e. “I like her style, I’ll look for her name.” – and “enemies” – “oh, my freaking Lord, I’d pull out my eyes rather than try to read anything else by this woman” lists. We’ll leave those aside too. Right now my hatreds are way more violent than my loves which mostly rise to “oh, okay, she’s pleasant.”

Instead, let’s say that in the mass of books I get I get any number of “category” romances, as well as the more complex – better covers, far more push – “bigger” romances.

It wasn’t till this weekend I realized I could tell which one I was reading and would be able to even on kindle, with no cover or weight to tip me off to which it was. And then it occurred to me you might be interested, as I suspect this applies to all books.

A lot of the category romances are painless enough to read. None has made it to my hate list. On the other hand, none has come close to the love list.

What I will say for them is this – none of them is very deep. Now I think a lot of people have made this observation and in usual the cure for it from editors – who are not, after all writers, and who are, most of them university graduates in the fuzzier fields – is “let’s make it relevant.” This usually results in the injection of the sort of ideas that could only pass as facts on a college campus. I suppose that makes them feel “deeper” or more “relevant” if you either agree with them and/or you’ve been living in an hermetically sealed chamber for the last fifty years and the idea that someone would write a book positing women are the equals (or even the superiors) of men is a mind blowing thought. For the rest of us it amounts very much to a yawn.

No, what makes these books – as opposed to other regency romances – lighter or less relevant or, let’s face it, less interesting is more difficult to correct and I’d say it’s this: the writer studiously avoids the big emotions.

I realized this last night as I was reading one where a young girl “ruins” herself by attending a masquerade and being recognized. In one of the “bigger” books, this would be a serious thing (whether historically accurate or not is something totally different) and the subplot of her finding true love despite this would be if not the secondary subplot (she’s the supporting-role character) to the entire book, at least the subject of the second half of the book. It would require some soul-searching and changes on her part. You’d see character growth. In this book it is merely a diversion on the way to something else, and a reason to go to the country for a few days and you know that the problem will be solved in the way other problems in this book are solved: through luck.

In fact, we already know how it will be solved because, behind the back of the character, we hear that the guy who bragged of seeing her is not really believed since, what young lady of proper upbringing would go unmasked at a masquerade? Coincidence also helps a character follow another character who elopes, because someone with a carriage just drives by. In other words, it is too easy.

Is that all, you say, and you’ll remind me Heyer also employs coincidences. Well, sure. But because not everything is easy and passing, you don’t feel the coincidences are unwarranted. In this book the coincidences mar a plot punctuated with irrelevancy.

What do I mean irrelevancy? Well... take the disgrace above, even though we’re assured it won’t matter in the long run and the girl is none too worried about it and doesn’t seem to give it a thought, this is the reason the main male character chooses to throw a hissy fit we never saw coming, and the reason the girl then chooses to elope with someone she never looked at twice before, and who in fact doesn’t want to elope with her. Uh?

In the better romances, they start with something the character wants desperately (and usually it’s not JUST love) and then wind love and other contretemps around it, TIGHTLY never letting go until the climatic moment.

What this means is that people don’t acquire emotions and discard them simply to move the plot forward. If they want something they’ll continue wanting it until they either get it or are convinced it’s bad for them. The emotions don’t LET UP. They continue going deeper and deeper throughout the book.

If you do that, then even a fluffy romance can touch the heart of the human condition. I know it’s uncomfortable and it requires putting a lot of yourself in, to go into the emotions – but trust me, it’s the only way to make your book memorable and rising above the general stream of pap. And it doesn’t matter what field you write in.

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Doing the Happy Dance!

We writers spend most of our time in the 'writing cave', head down living in our imaginary worlds. We send out the stories we've slaved our, poured our hearts and souls into, never knowing if they will be accepted by a publisher.

And, even if they are published, there is so much that is beyond our control. We don't know if the cover will do the book justice, if it will say 'Pick me up, I'm fantasy and you love fantasy!'. We have no control over things like bookstore chains going bankrupt and leaving our book sitting in a warehouse somewhere, not that this has happened so me, as far as I know. But I once heard of a romance writer whose books were sent via train and the train was derailed.

So when we get a good cover we do the happy dance! Here is it The Outcast Chronicles book one cover. (Yes, I know there is a typo in the title. I didn't see it. I think the publishers and I were so preoccupied by the design, we didn't see the misspelling).

Your publishers will ask you for cover suggestions. Don't expect the artist to read your book. Have a file prepared. I have a Resonance file with pictures of what the city/country is like, how the people dress etc. I also write up a description of the main characters so that the artist can capture their personality. And I surf the internet to see what kind of covers are currently out there and collect covers that I admire to show the kind of look I'd like.

What had you done to prepare a Resonance file on your current manuscript?

My computer has been playing up so my DH is going to reformat it. I may be out of contact for 24 hours. (Hopefully, it will be less than that as I have deadlines).

Monday, May 2, 2011


Well, I'm feeling very cheery to hear my favorite villain Osama bin liner is dead. There is something cathartic about finally getting the bad guy. Of course Kate's post some time back about the complexity of villains springs to mind: this was a man to whom life, innocent babies even, were chaff, to killed without qualm or guilt. The sort of human being who is model villain... but who convinced millions that he was a wonderful man and a great leader, and that somehow, just because he told them to do something which any human with a shred of decency or fellow feeling for anyone else would find abhorrent, and justified it in terms of their predjudices, he was worthy of their worship and unquestioning loyalty. The parallels with Adolph Hitler, Stalin, and even Mugabe are obvious. Some humans have a weakness for villains, and, even if it is not a majority of humans with this weakness , the minority following these pieces of snake excreta are most earnest and brutal in their following and unquestioning dumb 'loyalty'

It's a real challenge to get right in your writing. Because, yeah, the real major villain has people who believe in him (or her) and think their actions are heroic. And the trouble with doing it too well is of course that the book can become a masterpiece of realism... and an excercise in Mick Jagger (I can't get no...)
Because yes, it's not inevitable and it's not every book, but WE LIKE TO SEE THE VILLIAN GET HIS. It leaves us satisfied. It's as much of a delight that the noxious Dursleys get it Harry Potter, or Reacher Gilt fail to look at the door he's stepping through and all his greedy little cohort go down.

So what books left you feeling "YES, that sorted the Bastards!" and which didn't - but you still loved?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

And the winner is. . . .

Drum roll please. . . .

Stephen Simmons.

Steve, email me or leave a comment here about what prize you want. You can have any two e-titles from NRP or one print novel (Nocturnal Origins, Impaler, Death of a Musketeer, or The Calvanni by Chris McMahon).

Congrats to Steve and thanks to everyone who entered. You really made it hard for the judges to decide a winner.

So here's the question. . . Would you like to see more contests on MGC? If so, what sort?

(Sarah said to tell you she has t-shirts with the world's worst cover, guaranteed to become collectors items, she'll be glad to donate to the cause.)

Sunday Morning Thoughts

An announcement first. The winner of the writing prompt contest will be announced later today. We apologize for the delay, but several of our judges are fighting deadlines right now and are running behind. So, check back later this afternoon or this evening to see who won.

As I sit here this morning, staring at the computer screen and trying to figure out what to write, a lot of things pop into my head. I could do a follow-up to the on-going debate about Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea. Or there is the Borders bankruptcy and their "need" for another $50 million in financing even as they give their executives bonuses. Or there's the latest insanity -- the witch hunt in Pennsylvania where a group of parents are trying to force a teacher to choose between teaching their little darlings high school English or continue writing erotica (see here and here).

All of those are good topics. They just don't call to me this morning. So, with your indulgence, I want to expound on something Sarah commented on in her last post.

One of the questions she addressed was if e-books are "merely paper books transformed to electrons". It would have been easy to answer "yes" and go on from there. Instead, Sarah brought up the so-called "enhanced" e-books we see advertised in the iBookstore and, to a lesser degree, at Barnes & Noble. For those not aware of what these "enhanced" e-books are, they are e-books with active hyperlinks, video, author interviews, etc., included with the book. Think of it as the director's cut of a DVD. You get the book plus all these extras.

I'll admit, I'm torn about the enhanced e-books. Part of it is as Sarah said. Someone clicking a hyperlink and navigating away from the book may not return. If they don't return, they don't finish the book. If they don't finish the book, they don't buy my next book. See the problem?

The enhancements such as hyperlinks and embedded video might work for non-fiction works, especially text books. I know having that sort of reference at the touch of a finger in college would have been wonderful. However, I don't want it for my fiction. Either the writer has crafted a story strong enough to pull me in or they haven't. Adding music and video and links will only distract me. I shouldn't have to hear the theme from Jaws to know the main character is in danger. The words on the screen should be enough. Remember, the words paint the picture.

Mind you, this is coming from the girl who loves tech toys. Maybe that's why that particular question struck me. I've spent a good part of this past week looking at tablets -- no, not the iPad or the new Galaxy Tab. As much as I'd love to have either one, they are outside of my price range. So I've been doing my research. Part of that was to look at the Nook Color. Here's a tablet most folks will think of as an e-book reader first and that led me to think about enhanced e-books.

My question is if these enhanced e-books will last or if they are just a flash in the pan. My gut feeling is that they will last, in some form, for textbooks and reference books. But I don't think we'll see them long term for fiction. This is simply because the latest figures I've seen about people who actually read using their iPad are dismal. I'll bet if a comprehensive study was done, that would be the trend for all tablets. People see them more as computing devices and not as reading devices. But it is actually more fundamental than that. Enhanced e-books cost more than regular e-books and we all know about the controversy surrounding e-book pricing. Will readers willingly pay more for a book with an author interview and active hyperlinks than they will for "just" the book? Will enough readers do so?

Who knows? All I can say is that it will be interesting to see where things go from here. Fingers crossed it's "interesting" in a fun way and not in the proverbial "may you live in interesting times" way.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

e-books, upcoming and present

Given that no one (big publishers, little publishers, individuals, stray elephants) has really mastered the internet equivalent of paying for a big fat book dump at the checkout counter, or paying for end displays, or massive print and distribution strategies to put the book in front of buyers in ever bookstore, etc or any of the other way that publishing cheated and gamed the system (to readers, authors and indeed publishing's eventual loss) we're still in a situation where e- book buyers are looking 'other readers also bought' and where a pre-existing name/series and of course sheer volume of offerings count, I have decided that I have to stretch a little and get some more work out there.

At the moment we have THE GOTH SEX KITTEN, CRAWLSPACE AND OTHER STORIES and forthcoming from Naked Reader, WITHOUT A TRACE.

THE FORLORN is also OOP and out of contracted grant of rights - I've asked for my rights back, and will give it its original ending back - and a new cover. At the moment it is available - for free - from Baen Free Library. It will be fascinating to see how many people buy it.

A MANKIND WITCH also appears to be OOP and I've asked for those rights to revert too. At last I will get that book a cover it deserves. It's a part of a series, but as i am sole author, it's sucked hind teat and been allowed to go OOP.

And finally, I've had SAVE THE DRAGONS sitting at Baen for (mumble) many months now. Patience is not my strongest suite, so that will very shortly be going up too.

It's going to be interesting to see what (if any) impact 6 books(rather than 2 collections of shorts) have on visibility. Personally I am of the opinion these need to approach 20, and include some new novels, in series to be effective. I am thinking of a Rats Bats and Vats book, which will go directly to Kindle.

Interesting times. What do you guys think? How many books do you need out there? Are books (new) more effective than old material? And what do you want to see?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Catching Waves

Hi, everyone. It's good to be back at MGC after a nice Easter break.

Thanks to Amanda for running a great Friday slot! And plugging my upcoming novella in the Yos universe - Flight of the Phoenix - which is coming from Naked Reader in May:)

We took the whole family and the dog up to Currimundi beach on the Sunshine Coast, just north of Brisbane. We had a nice time catching waves and running about on the sand.

While the surf was not excellent, the water temperature was perfect. It made it worth getting in even when it was a little windy or overcast.

Catching waves - body surfing - is a favourite pastime of mine from way back. My family used to own a fibro holiday shack at Palm Beach on the Gold Coast (Queensland), and we used to go down in late spring every year.

Learning to judge a wave is really an art. The way it looks, the feel of the water drawing back across your legs and body. You get the feel of the power of it, when and how it will break, and whether it stands any chance of taking you down to the edge of the sand.

There are those perfect waves - the ones where all you have to do is get yourself in the right place at the right time and jump on board. You need to do little but enjoy the ride.

Then there are the rest of the waves. Some just do not have enough power to take you anywhere, but there are a lot of waves that may not have enough power to pick you up, but will get you through the surf if you give them a bit of a hand - paddle and swim furiously enough to stay on board until they break and the water gets shallow enough to give them extra speed.

I think publishing - and success in general - is a lot like catching waves. What you start out looking for is that perfect wave. Being in the right place at the right time. Some people get lucky and actually catch it. They sit back and enjoy the ride. And there is nothing like whizzing past all the other people in the surf with a wave like that at your back - you feel like a king.

Then after the perfect wave fails to appear, or for one reason or another you were in the wrong place to catch it, you realise that the real way to get back to beach is to catch any damn wave at all and just swim like hell!

At one point I was watching a television documentary about the 'hot' actors of the 1980s and 'where are they now'. It was fascinating. All these guys were at the top. Most were talented.

Yet the ones that really stayed at the top were the ones who worked. They might have had even more flops than the young guns who ended up in B-grade - but they had twice as many that worked! They were not afraid to take roles, and even if the role stunk they damn well gave it there all. They put away the pride and did not let the fact that they were 'hot' stop them from experimenting, taking risks and generally putting their hand up for just about everything - even if their 'hip' contemporaries sneered at similar roles as being beneath them, or not lucrative enough.

Anyway. I guess what I am trying to say is you never know where a particular piece of work or project might lead. At one point I sweated for months over a SF novella - The Eyes of Erebus. Like everyone else I dreamed of publication in Asimovs, or maybe Analog. In the end I could not sell the damn thing anywhere. Then I got an offer to publish it electronically in the Daikaiju series put together by Robert Hood and Robin Pen. I really vacillated. Then in the end I just thought. Why not? It's getting it out there.

In the end the editors decided to publish it in print in Daikaiju 2: Revenge of the Giant Monsters. The story then went on to be short-listed for the Aurealis Award in the SF category.

Have you ever been surprised by a story that led to unexpected success?

Why I don't interview my characters

The scene: a more or less anonymous location somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind. I'm looking more than a little bit frazzled. My interviewee, on the other hand, is quite relaxed. Note to self. Never do one of these when your character is more composed and at-home than you are.

Me: So, what next? (Quickly, before I can get fobbed off - again - with an accurate but totally useless reply) I mean, you've got Constantinople, but there's enemies on either side, and Mehmed is going to be practically frothing at the mouth.

Vlad: (Is that a smile or a smirk? Probably smirk, knowing him.) I certainly hope he is.

Me: So how are you going to stop him coming after you?

Vlad: Killing him first is generally considered good tactics in this situation.(It's definitely a smirk. You haven't seen smirk until it leans against a wall with its arms folded and adds in a kind of pitying, condescending 'don't worry your little head about it' look).

Me: That isn't an answer.

Vlad: (Smiling) You really are taking this far too seriously. You know where I intend to start. You will be informed as the need arises.

Me: (sourly) Gee, thanks. I know how that works. Hours of bloody research or bashing my head against a wall before you tell me what you think I should know.

Vlad: (raised eyebrow - you'd be surprised how cold it can get in here: I'm trying not to shiver, suddenly)

Me: I'm the one writing your books. You want good books, you need to tell me all of it so I don't screw up.

Vlad: (I think my language amuses him) If you would only sit down and write, I would tell you all you needed. You know that.

Me: (speechless)

Vlad: (laughing)


The sad thing is, he's right. The sadder thing is, I've got way too much else I'm trying to juggle. For starters, I don't dare try to edit ConVent while I'm dealing with Kaziklu Bey (the sequel to Impaler). The two are so different I really don't need to have the voice of one leaking into the other. Maybe when I'm a better writer. But then, given Sarah's blogging, maybe not. Maybe it's always like this.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Writer Answers

*Sorry about this, most of the post seems to have got cut SOMEHOW when this first went up. So, let's do this properly this time.*

Partly because I wasn’t sure what to write about, and partly because I think we keep trying to do articles on specialized points while there is a vast under-store of ignorance there that we aren’t even scratching, (mostly because today I got yet another nice email from a nice young man asking me to help him get published) I figured I’d ask my fans what I should be answering.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to certainties. I find that in casting my eyes over most of the entries, most of them are things I’d have answered unwaveringly a year or two ago but of whose answer I’m not absolutely sure now. Because ebooks are changing the way business is done, I can give you the “official” – i.e. this is how I did it/would have done it till recently – answer, then the answer I SUSPECT is true now. The caveat for those is please remember I broke in THIRTEEN years ago, and the new realities of the market are not something I’ve experienced first hand. I might know a little more than you, but only because I read blogs and listen to friends. I don’t know for sure.

I’ll use the questioner’s name for the question, then OA for official Answer then BG for Best Guess.

SS:To agent, or not to agent? And, if yes, *how* to agent?
What the heck is a "query", and how does one go about concocting such a beastie?

OA: You have to have an agent to get published with a big publishing house. I suggest writing a query for your best novel (no one agents short stories). Then ask published writers for recommendations to agents and/or snoop on authors blogs to figure out who their agents are. Read the agents’ descriptions for fit with your work. Before sending queries to your picked ten or so, check preditors and editors to make sure you didn’t pick skunks. Send out. If one replies, then send out whatever they ask for, no more no less. Do not send out proposals or manuscripts to more than one agent at once. Wait for an answer. If the agent offers to represent you, watch very carefully to see how enthusiastic they are. You want an agent who LOVES your work.
A Query is a lot like the blurb in the back of a book, with a difference, you actually tell the agent/editor how it ends.

BG: Someone I respect greatly in the field just said it’s stupid to have an agent these days, that in the current publishing climate an agent gets you nothing. I don’t fully understand her angle unless she’s counting out all of big publishing, but she’s not the first much-more-established-writer than I that I heard it from, and when she says stuff like that, I wonder.

JD: Contracts: What’s fair? What’s a Trap? How far to trust your agent?

OA: At the most basic, contracts should establish that money flows to the writer. Anything requiring you to pay is unacceptable. Beyond that, there are many things that are traps, things that you should be able to figure out with common sense: contracts that get the rights to all your characters, or where you transfer copyright to the publisher. (This might be all right for SOME short stories, like using other people’s characters per invite. NEVER for a novel, unless it’s a media tie-in.) Other clauses to watch for will say things like, you can’t work for anyone else until your story is PUBLISHED. Since you can’t control the date of publication this could tie you up forever. Sometimes they just say you can’t work for anyone else period. Anything like that, run very fast. And if your agent tells you it’s okay, run from agent, too.

CDC: Keeping track of query letter and sent manuscript submissions and responses.
OA: I haven’t done this in very, very long. It’s far more important for short stories, when it climbs into the dozens. But I suggest a spreadsheet program, or else one of many specialized programs available. I’m blanking on names, can someone in the audience help. I’m thinking of Write Again. Not sure if that’s true.

MB: Alpha readers, beta readers, writing groups, and all that. I just had someone fretting about "losing their ideas" if they participate in a writing group -- I told them they were more likely to never find their ideas if they didn't participate. But... there's that running fear that somehow talking to people will ruin you, somehow?
OA: You need reality checkers. I’ve covered writing groups in several columns, and the importance of finding a writer group that works for you. If a writer group isn’t doable, at least find two critique partners you can trust and trade manuscripts.
No, you’re not going to have your ideas stolen. And no, no one can change your writing style, or at least not permanently. It is human to influence each other, but life also influences you. To grow you have to change and you don’t live in an hermetically sealed bag.

SS: In the absence of a co-conspirator with remarkably pointy shoes, how to recognize when one has reached the point of "polishing the cannonball", as we called it in the Navy, and firing off a submission rather than endlessly re-reading and re-revising ...
OA: Ah. I do this too and I went through long years without co-conspirators. It’s hard. My advice is that when you feel like you’re adding more errors than you’re removing (you find the subplot you just added in doesn’t mesh with an earlier one, for instance) or when you feel you’re being particularly clever (no, seriously, this is usually a symptom) or when you go above 200k words, it’s time to let go. Otherwise, establish an arbitrary number of passes, say, five. After five passes it leaves the house. (I can only do three or I kitchen sink it – I throw in EVERYTHING plus the kitchen sink.)

BG: If you’re going to self-publish as is an option this day, hire a trusted copy editor. I don’t care how good you are, you’ll drive yourself insane proofing and stuff will still escape you.

OP: As a former wannabe writer, I'm more interested in the business aspects. They are more relevant to my life. Your opinion of the right mix between paid writing and freebies that hook people in, for example.

OA: in general business “coverage” – I was told that you should quit your day job when you were selling fifty percent of everything you sent out. I’ve been there for years but if I had a day job I wouldn’t quit it. I’d guess right now, with the uncertainty, you’d have to be closer to eighty percent. Also, I would advise something I’m just now implementing: have multiple income streams, say novels and short stories and articles and whatever else you can get. If one of them can be regular pay, like a paid blog, that will give you some security. As for mix between paid and free – the freebies I give away that are fiction are usually already-published things. There’s also blogging and mine for my three base blogs (my own, my group blog and the other group blog) are still mostly free, but I’m starting to branch out into paid blog articles. Look, you need the exposure, it’s all there is to it, but if you find it taking most or even half of your time, you’ll have to cut back. Only you can find your balance.

EM – ebooks. Are ebooks merely paper books transformed to electrons? (like the early TV shows were just televised plays) or is there more potential in this medium? Hyperlinks, embedded video, embed sound effects,.....what else?
BG: I don’t know. I find that a book is a book is a book. Once you put in hyperlinks and embedded video, you’re running the risk of people not coming back to the story. Maybe my opinion is influenced by all those examples I’ve seen of this sucking badly. However, I still think a book is a book. But things that can improve the book while just a book are available in e – like the ability to search for a character name/word. That can really help when you want to go back and check on something.

SB – How about baby steps for the very beginning writer, such as how to find someone who can say "you've got potential" or " was that suppose to read like bad Twain?"
OA: I find that “potential” or “talent” is one of the worst lies writers buy into. We have a great desire to write and we want to believe it’s somehow meant to be. Look, the only thing I’ve found “natural talent” or “potential” good for is to give you some things “for free.” In my case it’s characters. I understand Dave Freer got plot for free. The rest we had to work for. What most laymen will tell you is that “you have potential” based on LANGUAGE. Language is easy. It’s the story telling that’s difficult. I am telling you now that if you really want to write, and are willing to study how to, including grammar and expression, you have enough talent. How to find critiquers, OTOH is a problem. Ask at your local library if there’s a writers’ group and then screen them for experience, right field, etc. Alternately, grab a few friends you know are readers and make them read your stuff. (Paying in chocolate works!) This has the advantage that you presumably know your friends’ idiosyncracies.

AKD: Years ago, I had an agent who convinced me to write a truly appalling cover letter cum proposal letter (yes, same document). Which was mailed to every publisher in the world, and was rejected. I parted ways with the agent, but I still have great faith in the series that was rejected. However, I can't even bring myself to do anything with it, because I'm convinced that it was so appallingly presented that my letter is still be laughed about in the publishers' offices. Should I just kill the whole idea? Change my name?

Okay. Breathe. First of all 99% of the submissions or queries sent in by a low-status agent don’t even get read. I’m assuming this was not an A lister with offices in NYC, so, chances of it having been read at all are zero. Second, even if it was read, if you got back a standard rejection, it was read by an under-editor or an intern. These stay at the houses a maximum of a year, according to my experience. The chances of anyone now at publishing offices knowing or remembering this letter are zero. Honestly, if you’d done slush, you’d realize what it takes to be memorable in the bad category: death threats, live animals, body parts and nude pictures MIGHT do it. A bad query is as unmemorable as a oh, hum face in a crowd. Don’t change your name. Don’t kill the idea. Just send it out again

BG: or, alternately, publish it yourself on Kindle. *At this point, for certain genres this might be a better way to break in.*

RE: not just tell, SHOW it, if he's a nose picker have him do it in a scene where it's funny or inappropriate while being given instructions or mission orders and all he can think about (along with the reader) is where to put the booger.
OA: Okay, this was part of a longer ramble on a different suggestion for another post, I know, but I MUST insist RE go on over to my blog and read the post called Ick. This is an example of something memorable to have the character do that... serves no purpose and makes me instantly go “ick” and fling the book away. Unless you’re writing “gross out horror” for which the market is very limited, you can’t get away with having the VILLAIN do this, much less the hero. Remember your character is supposed to be someone we want to spend time with (if only to see him coming to a bad end.) Evil might fascinate. Gross will just make us look away.

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Fun Side of Writing

We writers spend so much of our time, working away in a back room somewhere for years to produce the books we love. Then comes the day when we get a contract and ... gosh ... a cover!

Here's a sneak preview of one of the covers for The Outcast Chronicles. The is the front and back of a bookmark I'm producing (with my publisher's approval). I sent the proofs to the printer on Thursday. I've seen the cover art for the three books and I'm just waiting for the text to go on and permission from my publisher to show the world. Very exciting!

I'm still neck-deep in the clean up of the trilogy, which I must send to the publisher by the end of May. I've been through book one and there were moments when I got shivers.

The books are long (about 700 pages each) and I've been writing them for ages. The first draft when off to my ROR critique group in 2007 but the books were written in pieces over the last 10 years, so it has been a challenge to pull them all together. And this means that sometimes as I turn the page to edit, I don't remember what's coming next. I get the same surprise a reader would. This is a funny position for the author to find themselves in.

It also means that the big rewrite I've done over the last year has been a real challenge because I've had to unify the pacing and the tone of the story. I threw out whole scenes or completely rewrote them from a different perspective. In some ways it is harder to rewrite an old piece than to write something fresh. There's been a lot of work gone into these books.

Which brings me back to the Fun Side of Writing, when all that work pays off and you see the covers and start producing the bookmarks! (I plan to give these way at Supanova).

As writers how do you keep yourself motivated during the long hard slog, before the fun stuff happens?

And here's an update. My new Blog Banner for The Outcast Chronicles page.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Input and changes...

So my week has had a couple of interesting developments (Besides watching Kris Rusch's blog with... interest. The potential shakeout from this could be a whimper. Could be. Or it could be the first domino. Interesting time to be in this this business.) Firstly I've been asked for input into my covers for CUTTLEFISH and THE STEAM MOLE (which have been bought by Pyr). They asked me for detailed descriptions, and also sketches of the submarine and tunnelling machine. Now Bob Eggleton, who did the cover DRAGON'S RING asked me for input. But it's a novelty having this from a publisher. I'm not actually sure it's a good thing - I can't tell them ideas suck in so many words, and also, I'm a writer, a fisheries scientist, a weird little hairy guy who lives on the outer fringes of nowhere. Writers are possibly good at writing. Fisheries scientists are good at fantasy and sometimes also at math and fish. Neither of these skill sets automatically qualify me as an artist or as a cover designer. And weird little hairy guys on the outer fringes of nowhere are a poor sample of the potential market. We (I presume there is at least one other) are not a good target market, and it matters not a jot if it appeals to us or not. Finally, it's a time sink of note. I could have written a short story in the time I've taken do ONE set of very bad sketches. So what do you think: is a good thing? How much input should authors have into covers?

Secondly I got an e-mail from Toni Weisskopf (The boss-lady at Baen) asking me if I'd do a short story set in DOG AND DRAGON'S universe (for which they will pay me 5 cents a word) as a promotional tool for publication on the Baen Website. This too is a new development. BTW DOG AND DRAGON is tentatively scheduled for April 2012, so don't hold your breath. It's a new development, and, depending on the contract I get for it(ie, how soon the story reverts) I think it a good one. What do you think? Should all publishers follow suite?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Controversies and a Squee

Let me start by wishing everyone who celebrates it a Happy Easter this Sunday morning. Be safe and enjoy family and friends.

Now down to business. This week has seen a couple of controversies in the world of publishing. The first began last Sunday night with the 60 Minutes broadcast. One of the stories centered on the facts of Greg Mortenson's best selling "memoir" Three Cups of Tea. In case you missed the story or the follow-up articles, questions have been raised about the accuracy of some of the claims Mortenson made in the book, including whether he actually became separated from his group and wandered into the small village on his own, needing medical assistance and the villagers nursed him back to health. Another part of the book that was questioned was Mortenson's claim he'd been kidnapped by the Taliban. The 60 Minutes piece also raised questions about how much of the money raised by Mortenson's charity -- monies that are supposed to be used to build schools in Afghanistan and other areas -- is put to use.

I don't know whether the inconsistencies raised by 60 Minutes are the result of conscious fabrication by Mortenson and his co-author, editing issues or what. But it does point out a problem that isn't new when it comes to memoirs. Who bears the responsibility for fact-checking and for determining if the book is a non-fiction memoir or a fictionalized memoir?

Remember this isn't the first time this sort of situation has arisen. Oprah got burned by James Frey and his book A Million Little Lies. There was Matt McCarthy’s Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit. When the so-called facts in the book were challenged, “Carolyn Coleburn, the vice president and director of publicity for Viking, which is an imprint of Penguin Group USA, said, “We rely on our authors to tell the truth and fact-check.” Herman Rosenblatt’s memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived was cancelled after it was revealed that, while he was a Holocaust survivor, he’d fabricated the details of how he met his wife. There are a number of others, including Clifford Irving's supposed bio of Howard Hughes.

I detailed some of the responses to the 60 Minutes piece here. One response that came out after I initially wrote about the episode reminds us that the real scandal here -- if there is a scandal -- lies not with the publishing industry but with the charity. While that is true, at least to a degree, the fact that this sort of problem continues in publishing is a scandal. Publishers have to take some responsibility for ensuring that the book they are selling to the public as a non-fiction memoir is just that -- non-fiction. It would have been very easy for Viking to contact some of the people named in the book to see if what Mortenson claimed happened did and in the way he detailed. They need to take to heart this comment from Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic: "At some point, publishers are going to have to start fact-checking memoirs. At least a little bit. No disrespect to my editors, but I know having done a memoir, that it is shockingly easy to create fiction and claim that it's real."

But that wasn't the only controversy of the week. After it was announced that Jennifer Egan had won the Pulitzer, the shine was tarnished some -- not by critics decrying that her book shouldn't have won, but by Egan herself. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Egan took what appears to be a potshot at genre fiction and the authors who write it. Also, she has an opportunity to condemn plagiarism and doesn't; in fact, she appears to tacitly give a hat tip to it -- as long as you do it to the right authors.

Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?

Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.

For more on this, I recommend you check out this post at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Read the post all the way to the seems this isn't the first time Egan has taken shot at the author of The Tiger's Wife and the fact she didn't plagiarize the right sort of authors.

Finally, a squee. Nocturnal Origins, which has been available as an e-book is now available in print. You can order it from Amazon and it will soon be available through B&N and elsewhere. If you want to get it at your local bookstore, it should be available for them to order within the next few days.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

On with the motley

In other words, I can't be trusted to remember when it's my week, and my reminder service glitched. So instead of a nice, planned out post, I'm winging it. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

Anyway... Impaler moves closer to the dead tree edition. It should be there Real Soon Now - watch for the deafening squee when this happens. As is, the kindle edition is sitting in the mid-60k range of the Amazon rankings, which for a new author's book with zero promotion is pretty good. I'm pleased.

My con schedule for the rest of the year is set - Discworld Con in July, Capclave in October, and Philcon in November. Details to come as the time gets closer.

Now, did Amanda's challenge scare people away? Really... Let's up the stakes a little. Instead of two free ebooks, the winner can choose one of NRP's dead tree books - Death of a Musketeer, Impaler, Nocturnal Origins, Without a Trace, and The Calvanni. Is that sufficiently awesome to attract new entrants?

Don't make me go into the comments section with a non-entry example. Just don't. It's too scary to contemplate (Remember, I'm the woman responsible for Impaler, ConVent, AND the Knights in Tarnished Armor. This is not someone you want running around uncontrolled).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Morning Prompt

Good morning, everyone. Chris is away today and left me in charge....bwahahahahaha. I thought we might do something a bit different today since we had an open thread not too long ago. So I talked with Sarah for a bit yesterday and she came up with an exercise for us. Well, an exercise and a contest. I'm going to give you two writing prompts. Choose one of them. In the comments post up to 1,000 words. It doesn't have to be an entire story. What we're looking for is something to hook us enough that we want to keep reading. The only caveats are to keep it PG and to watch the language. Anything that steps over the line will be deleted (if you need to check on ick factor-ness, read Sarah's post yesterday on her blog.)

Prompt #1: Choose three words from the following list. Two of them must be central to the story.
  • motley
  • signal
  • estate
  • glitter
  • cut
Prompt #2: Use the following specifics to build your story. All three need to be included in the 1,000 words.
  • character -- apprentice
  • setting -- the beach
  • problem -- fecundity
You have your challenge. All entries must be posted by 0600 EST Sunday morning. You can enter twice -- once for each prompt.

Now, I guess you're wondering what the winner will get -- and the winner will be decided by a group of MGC authors. The winner can choose any two titles from Naked Reader Press. This includes Chris' upcoming novella Rise of the Phoenix.

Any questions? Post them in the comments. Now, have fun and see where your muse takes you.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing the Magic Moment

The first time the Magic Moment became clear to me wasn't a book: it was an opera. Les Miserables, in the original Sydney production, which was very closely based on the original London production. Since a Magic Moment is a lot easier to describe by example than definition (it tends to be one of those "you know it when you see it" things), allow me to describe it as it occurred.

This was quite early in the Sydney season, so most of the audience were seeing it for the first time. For those who aren't familiar with Les Miserables, one of the pivotal sequences is the barricades battle: Parisian students throw furniture and whatever else comes to hand into the street to create a defensive barricade of sorts. Their mini-revolution is a dismal failure: the students are killed almost to the last man (and woman). After his friend Marius is shot, the iconic leader Enjolras takes the red flag and climbs to the top of the barricade, where he waves the flag in defiance until he is shot multiple times and falls forward, over the barricade and out of sight of the audience. It's important to note that Enjolras is wearing a scarlet and gold waistcoat over a white shirt - he's one of the few splashes of color in the musical.

One of the key staging devices used in Les Miserables is a rotating section of stage. Soon after the Enjolras falls, the stage rotates, slowly and majestically. Here is the Magic Moment. The dead are scattered in front of the barricade and draped over it. Enjolras is in the center, head down, facing the audience, with his arms splayed out rather like an inverse crucifixion. The bright waistcoat and white shirt against the backdrop of his red flag pulls your eyes to him: he is absolutely the focus of attention. The audience gasped. In that one moment, the waste and pointlessness of the whole attempt at revolution came into brilliant clarity, with fiery, charismatic Enjolras as the symbol and centerpiece of the devastation.

That is my first memory of a Magic Moment, where something immensely moving and profound hits with the force of a sledgehammer and nothing is ever quite the same again.

There aren't many of them, and I've certainly never been able to write one deliberately. I think I may have managed one in Impaler, but I'm not sure. Even Pratchett only has one or two. The moment in Thud! when the terrible tragedy of Koom Valley becomes clear. The secret of the Grandfathers in Nation. They're that rare - and that precious. They also only ever have the full impact once: the first time you hit them.

Here's my attempt at a definition: a scene or image in a narrative work (i.e. opera, musical, book, play) where a number of plot and character threads connect to illustrate a deeper sense of meaning than expected.

Pretty lame, yes? But when one hits you, you know all about it. It's personal, too - because what goes into that illustration of deeper meaning is also all your experience up to that moment (which is why they only ever hit once - after that you know it's coming and the power of the moment is lost).

Here's some of the things I've identified in creating a Magic Moment:

- foreshadowing in buckets, but subtle. In Thud!, for instance, there are hints all along that Koom Valley is a lot more than we know, but Pratchett sets up an expectation that the truth will still be something more or less expected.
- strong interaction between character and plot. I've never seen a Magic Moment where the characters weren't central to the plot as it unfolded. The Koom Valley revelation in Thud! would not be the same without Vimes being present and being who and what he is.
- one or more characters is fundamentally transformed by the event. Again, in Thud!, Vimes is transformed into... well, himself. He sheds the various layers of social expectation, and in that moment is more quintessentially Vimes than we have ever seen him - and he understands and accepts that this is who he is.

I suspect there are more requirements - for a Magic Moment in a book to work, a single word that doesn't quite ring true will kill it. But when it does work... well. In all the examples I've given, I was left shaken, deeply moved, and with the books I couldn't hold them properly. My hands shook too much.

What are some of the Magic Moments you've found?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It Came From The Slushpile!

I’ve beat up on editors for unprofessional behavior towards writers, and I’ve beat up on writers for being wussies about rejections. Today, girls and boys, dragons and butterflies, we’re going to look into everyone’s favorite punching bag... The slush pile.

Or rather, we’re not just going to look into the slush pile. We’re going to look into beginning writers and why they really, really – really, really, really – need a second opinion. And not just from their dog or girlfriend. Particularly in these days when anyone can just throw their work on Amazon or self-publish for nothing. Because you run a risk of making a really big – not to say huge – mistake if you do it without vetting.

There is a peculiar arrogance to a beginner writer, a particular certainty that their work is the best thing since sliced bread, peanut butter and the invention of the rotto tiller – the sort of brass faced “read me, I’m wonderful” that nine times out of ten means this person can barely string a sentence together, has half a dozen words in the first paragraph that don’t mean what he thinks they mean, and is either playing with a world/idea that has been done to the point of nausea or most of the world is still in their heads and what’s on the page is a disjointed mess.

Conversely, the beginner writer who slips their work at me reluctantly and only after I asked to see it is, nine times out of ten either already publishable or very close to it.

I thought this was a peculiar curse of publishing, which makes the current system – dependent on self-confidence and self promoting – a peculiarly counterproductive one. But it turns out it’s actually the curse of any task whose completion doesn’t show immediate and concrete results, at least according to this article:

For those of you unwilling to click through, the idea behind that article – which is research supported – is that the less skilled you are at a task susceptible of personal evaluation (i.e., not whether you mowed the lawn or not) the more likely you are to think you are extremely competent at it.

The thesis is that until you gain basic competence you don’t see your own errors. I have to say I have found this to be true for myself at any variety of crafts (from crochet to embroidery) as well as at art and writing. It is not till I learn SOMETHING about the tasks that I start seeing all the errors I made in the early projects that, when I did them, seemed perfect.

Apparently this correlates to the four stages of competence theory, which can be summarized as follows, in progression:

1- Unconscious Incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit.

2 - Conscious Incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit.
3 - Conscious Competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration.
4 - Unconscious Competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. He or she may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

These four stages correlate completely not only with my writing, or my progression in art – where I am, at best, in stage 2 – but with such tasks as fine-chopping an onion without either cutting myself or being excruciatingly slow.

Unfortunately confidence seems to move in inverse progression through the set. People in the stage of unconscious competence, often assume that they’re not very good at all because they still see how much further they have to go. This unfortunately means that if you get to stage four without showing your work to anyone, you’re not going to have the courage after that.

It also means that slush piles might drive most if not all editors insane. I’ve read some of these and the sheer volume of unadulterated, imaginably bad... Raw sewage that hits those is almost unbelievable. A lot of it is literally incomprehensible. And then there’s any number that’s just understandable enough to be repulsive.

Oh, come on, Sarah, you’re saying. Surely writing doesn’t fall to incompetent-but-unaware. I mean, people have been reading their whole lives, so they know what makes a book/story.

Uh... yeah, theoretically. But the problem is when it’s your book/story you have to be playing chess on both sides – to learn to be both the writer and the reader, and not to read into your stuff more (or sometimes – ick, trust me – less) than you put in. Until you get there you’re often unconscious incompetent. Very, very incompetent.

Unfortunately this is also, often, the bane of writers groups, because there is an effect associated with that. As you’re going through the stages (as the first article mentions) you’re not capable of evaluating anyone who is above you. This means unconscious incompetent will rate down conscious competent who will accept it because he/she underrates him/herself. This is one of the reasons I’m STRONGLY against anonymous or semi-anonymous, large online critique groups: after a while a certain tyranny of hte unconscious incompetent rules and destroys anyone who might have had a shot. Writers groups should be small and personal and you should be able to evaluate the person’s opinions in relation to where the person is on the writing journey.

And then you won’t risk letting your little monster into the wild, trailing excess adjectives, incoherent sentences and unresolved plots and making half of the readers scream “Oh, no, it came from the slush pile!”

Do you see yourself in those stages at all, or is it just me? Do you see the stages in others? How do you think this affects self-promotion ability? And do you have any slush horror stories to share? (I brought some slush-tentacles, if pressed to share mine.)

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*