Monday, January 31, 2011

Public Library Online -- a very worrying thing.

"Attention! Attention! The revolution has been made aware of a reactionary incursion into the public library."

The public library -- the place where so many readers gained their first taste of the books they now spend money on. The public library -- an institution, which, for all its flaws in places, remains one of the keystones to literary access for anyone -- including those from a disadvantaged background, and those of us with book-habits too big for our incomes.
The public library -- a pet hate they dared not name -- of Big Publishing because, if they paid anything to anyone (besides the initial cover price) it was to those irrelevancies, authors, via PLR (in the UK, Australia, Canada and another 25 countries, not including the US). On the other hand everyone was supposed to support libraries, and paying authors is the publishers' rationalisation for the cover price (yes authors get... well 6% for newbies. But really we publishers exist merely so we can act as a conduit to them. We make a small nett profit (which, like retail, we compare to the authors gross when questioned). And we do such valuable things for our large gross. Buy paper. Pay for printing. Arrange shipping and distribution. Do the accounting... sometimes editing and proofreading also happen! We keep you readers from being drowned dross, because we know what you really ought to want to read. Authors are lucky to have us and we nurture and look after them out of a love for literature, and pure, well, mostly pure, altruism.).

And then along came the e-book. And many of the stated reasons for the cover price being what it is... evaporated. The monopoly on retail access -- at least for the electronic bookshelf -- disappeared. Many authors and wannabe authors saw that the gatekeepers -- who also kept the bulk of the income -- were being disintermediated. Not many private tears were shed for the behemoths who said the e-book price really had to be almost the same as hardcovers to make ends meet and support their noble efforts (including paying for the office in NY and the advances for the various agenda driven publishers pets) although the beast is not dead, (and won't IMO die, and will remain in new forms) so they got some sympathy in the public eye.

But there is more than one way to skin a cat. And while I expect publicity, money-clout, big-business dirty deals and possibly getting government legislation to get used to keep control of retail display access - or at least most of it, this one I did not expect. It amounts, de facto, if not de jure, to false advertising -- like calling your ten fellow power seizing coup d'etat plotters and wannabe dictators "The Peoples Democratic Liberation Army" and the snatching of the moral high ground by means of terminology.

Enter left, with fanfare, "Public Library Online " -- which is neither a library in the normal understanding of the word, nor does it fulfil the intent behind the word ‘public' as I see it - it's a private company with access by subscription only. In fairness, it is ‘online'. One out of three...

Set up by Bloomsbury, but now allowing access to other publishers (one imagines, for a fee/royalty payment) - not the hoi polloi, however, it is a ‘service' offered to those overextended, underfunded and incredibly valuable national treasures, REAL libraries, of - for a fee - online access to a virtual ‘shelf' of e-books (which can only be read online).

For the library that signs up, well, the admin is dealt with, there is no hassle, with a library card number your library members can read (so long as they're online) any of the books on that ‘shelf'. There are new shelves offered every year (or more often?) all for a 'minimal fee' and there is no need to pay the author a PLR (another bit of admin done away with) as they get 40 Pounds for every participating author, for every 1/4 million people that library authority serves. Why, as this article points out authors who the publishers decided to include would earn 1000 pounds per book per shelf a year - the equivalent of selling (according to them) 2000 paperbacks. And many library readers then go on to buy the book... It's a win-win-win... isn't it?

Hmm. I doubt it. I think it's more like asking the fox to guard your hen-roost. And opening the cage so the fox can do the job better!

For starters 1) while libraries will apparently be able to choose their shelf -- they will not be able to choose their books. So we hand choice to the publishers... who have done such a good job of broadening reading and getting more people to buy books haven't they?

2)PLR generally pays according to the number of times your book is taken out. It is, at the moment, possible to donate your author copies to libraries (I do), and thus at least get them into the system, letting people try them, and to get some feedback not related to retail access. It won't be under this system.

3)PLR pays the author. Not the publisher... to hand on a smidgen (no doubt adjustable at the publisher will), and, if you want to be on a ‘shelf' you'd better suck it up, and take whatever terms you are offered. In other words - less books for more money in PLR expenditure terms.

4) We return to the gatekeeper model - where the publisher decides exactly who will crack the nod. And Bloomsbury decides which publishers will crack the nod. So from bad we go to twice as bad, as far as allowing the public to choose what they would like to read. So much for ‘Public'.

5) Being on a ‘shelf' with a popular best-seller will mean a great deal to an author, especially a new one, or midlister. It's almost zero cost to the publisher, but can be used as a powerful inducement/threat to keep writers in line. ‘You self-publish on Kindle, you'll never be on our bookshelf again.'

6) A book once paid for, is paid for. It remains there even if your library has no money spare for new books. Not so with this system. You've _leased_ the books for a year. If you have no money: you have no books. If you have less money... you'll have less books. Not exactly a gift to the public in straitened times.

7) In normal parlance - and in the new e-book retail - a book remains on the shelf many more years - far longer than brick-and-mortar retail access. This allows the book to gradually build a following by word of mouth, removing the ability of publishers to control sales by publicity and distribution. Not with this system. You have a year. When you have no large publicity spend, a year is not enough. When you do, it's plenty.

8) This is nice and easy, we do it all for you.... ergo this a proprietary system we control. You, Joe Author, cannot merely donate your work to it, and once your library is dependent on it, we can do whatever we like to the costs etc.

9) Counting the book numbers on a 'shelf' - if I have this right - 9-10 - means authors get 35-40% of the income - and the library is spending more or less 100 pounds per book. That's NOT a bargain. 60-65% of that is being absorbed by the publisher, who has no returns, no paper costs, trivial distribution and storage costs, and no retail cost, and thus are taking this share (way above what they had for ordinary books) for admin and proof-reading and editing. -talk about gouging ‘the public' - getting your money whether you like the author or book or not by means of your taxes.

10) The effect of this on the value and role of librarians does not seem to be considered. I'm all for libraries doing away with/making simple the stupid donkey work of people who should be there because they know and love books -- replacing books in alphabetical order, and clocking books in and out. But this removes the librarian one step further from the ESSENTIAL functions of good librarianship -- choosing the right books (not ‘shelves') for their readers interest, and directing specific readers to those books. Next thing we know it'll imitate the ‘brilliant' success of taking away local control over these functions in book shops. That worked SO well there, I am not surprised that publishers want to repeat it in Libraries.

I could go on... but I really do not see this as a good thing for readers or authors.

I love and support libraries. This I see as a very bad thing for them, and for readers, and for writers. Publishing has, with some exceptions (and help from Chain retail and education authorities), been in the driving seat for the decline of literate people reading (the absolute numbers of literate people has increased, the numbers of readers in this group has dropped dramatically - the market has increased a hundredfold, the number of books sold... 10 fold.). Are they the right people to hand the exclusive keys to the library system to?

I'm not sure how to counter it. The Baen Free Library is one possible model.
About the only good thing I can say about it is that it is only online - at this stage.
Anyway: your thoughts?
Am I entirely wrong? Are they saints being vilified by bad me?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Knowing the Rules

Apologies for the late post. This past week has been an adventure -- not -- in trying to get online. I'm about to make another call to tech support once I manage to publish this post.

Today's post is going to be a bit different from what I usually post on Sundays. It stems from something I've noticed with a few of the submissions we've received during this submission period at the last at NRP. So, with my editor's hat on, here goes. . . .

Many years ago, back when we wrote with arcane machines called IBM Selectric typewriters -- no, I don't remember stone tablets. I'm not THAT old, although I swear we used ink and quills in grade school ;-p -- and long before computers were something every family had multiples of, I took freshmen English at Baylor University in Waco, TX. Like many freshmen, I hadn't realized how different college was going to be when I walked into that first English class. After all, it looked pretty much like my honors high school English classes. There were about 30 of us, all sitting at our desks, waiting for the professor.

So we sat there and waited, looking around, taking stock of those in class with us. Then, as the bell rang, a woman we'd assumed was simply another student stood and walked to the front of the class. The moment she opened her mouth, we realized things were about to be very different from high school. Long story short, after introducing herself and finding out who had come to class without the assigned textbook, she passed out a single sheet of paper listing what to do to flunk a paper and, therefore, the class.

Two comma faults, you flunk the paper. Two split infinitives, you flunk. Two dangling modifiers, you flunk. Three misspelled words, you flunk. There were more. Remember, it was a page of this, all single spaced. To add insult to injury, any combination of the list meant you flunked the paper. Then, just to make sure we were a bundle of nerves for the rest of the term, if you didn't have a "C" average on the last three papers of the term, you flunked the class.

Remember, this was back before the days of being able to "save" a document and go back in and make simple corrections. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention she didn't want to see white-out or erasures either.

What does that have to do with publishing today? A couple of things -- and yes, that violated another of her rules. I just committed one of her biggest "no-nos". I wrote a sentence fragment. -- The first is that, as writers, we need a working knowledge of the rules of writing. It doesn't matter how good your story is if you turn off an agent or editor because your grammar and punctuation becomes a distraction because it is so bad.

The problem is that our schools, on the whole, aren't teaching grammar any more. Then there's the reality that the rules have changed. Do you put a comma before the "and" in a list of three of more objects (Mary, Fred and Tom went to school.). Do you set off "too" with commas when using it as you would "also"? (That, too, is a good question. I want to go too.)

But it goes beyond the simple rules of grammar. Back in the days before personal computers of every size, shape and flavor, we were told to do a single underline of words we wanted to be italicized and to double underline words that were to be put in bold. Internal dialogue was underlined. Telepathic conversations were set off by either single quotes (or apostrophes) or by colons. It worked because that's what the typesetters were used to.

Today, if you use those methods, you date yourself. The problem comes in that very few style guides put out by agents or publishers tell you not to underline. It's just something you're supposed to know. Making matters worse, not all agents and publishers have made the move from old-style to new.

Then there's the latest debate. Do you put one or two spaces after a period. Based on some of the posts I've seen about this, you'd think it was an earth-shattering issue. It's not. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's a non-issue. Why? Because in this day and age of e-books and some authors or publishers using non-standard fonts, sometimes you need the extra spacing. As an author just submitting a manuscript for consideration, the number of spaces you put at the end of the sentence is the one thing most editors could care less about -- as long as you aren't putting in more than a couple.

So, where is all this going? Simply put, know the rules. Know that plural nouns need plural verbs. Know the tenses. Know how to decline verbs. Know basic sentence structure. It also means you need to know the rules of each individual agent or publisher you are submitting to. Check to see if they have a style guide posted somewhere. If not, check their blogs to see what books they refer to most often. Do they like Strunk & White? The Chicago Manual of Style? Or is there something else they keep on their desk for reference? If there is, get a copy and keep it right there with your dictionary and thesaurus. It will come in handy. Trust me on this.

Most of all, you need to know when it's okay to break the rules.

Just as it's okay to use accents and local vernacular to give your reader insights into your characters -- as long as they don't become a distraction -- it's okay to break the rules. Again, as long as it doesn't become a distraction. When the mechanics of the writing detract from the story, there's a problem. Like it or not, fair or not, when that happens, most editors and agents will pass on the manuscript.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nocturnal Origins

That thud you heard the other day was the sound of my jaw dropping to the ground when my bosses at Naked Reader Press informed me that they'd just done something and really didn't care if I liked it or not. I don't know about you, but when the bosses tell me something like that, I tend to get a little paranoid. Had they just decided to fire me? Reassign me? With my heart pounding, I waited, never expecting what they were about to tell me. It seems that they'd made an editorial decision without consulting me and had added a book to the NRP catalog. It seems they decided, without me actually submitting my novel to them, to publish my urban fantasy novel, Nocturnal Origins. That is when my jaw dropped. So, I'm here to announce that it will be coming out in March -- GULP. I've snippeted the first two scenes below. I hope you enjoy it. Now I'm going to go hide under the bed.


Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. The memory remains, forever imprinted on your soul. It colors your perceptions and expectations. It affects everything you say and do. It doesn't matter if the memory is good or bad, full of life and love or pain and death. That memory remains until the day you die – if you're lucky.

If not, the memory haunts you for all eternity.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knew that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died had changed her life and her perception of the world forever.

It didn't matter that everyone, even her doctors, believed a miracle occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. She knew better. She knew she had died.

It hadn't been a miracle. At least not a holy one. Ask the poor attendant who'd run screaming from that cold, desolate room in the hospital basement, when Mac had suddenly sat up, gasping for breath and still covered with too much blood. He'd been convinced a demon from Hell had risen to come for him.

Mac couldn't blame him. As far as she was concerned, that was the day the dogs of Hell had come for her.

Now, standing in the alley behind Gunn's, one of the most fashionable restaurants in Dallas, Mac closed her eyes and prayed . She suspected what lay ahead. She could almost smell it – not quite, but enough to know what was there. Sweat trickled down her spine and plastered her thin cotton shirt to her back. Her stomach lurched rebelliously and she swallowed hard against the rising gorge. She had to keep control. At least for the next few hours.

Easy, Mackenzie. Just take it slow and easy.

She opened her eyes and drew a deep breath. She knew it was bad. Two uniformed officers, hands on knees, vomited into the gutter. There were no black humor jokes, no conversation, nothing. In fact, other than the sounds of retching, the scene was eerily quiet, so it felt almost like a dream. A nightmare.

She took a few more steps. The harsh, unmistakable stench assailed her nose, warning her what she'd find.

Unless the restaurant had dumped several hundred pounds of raw hamburger out to spoil in the summer heat, a dead body lay at the far end of the alley. That was bad enough. Then she felt as though she were enveloped in blood and her stomach rolled over once again.

Oh, God.

Jaw clenched, she stepped forward. Never before had it been so hard to approach a crime scene. Not even when she'd responded to her first dead body call a lifetime ago. She hadn't hesitated then, not like this.

But she was different now. She knew what sort of horror awaited her. She'd seen it before and it haunted her. Haunted her because it touched something in her very few suspected even existed, something she tried so desperately to hide. The beast within fought for dominance, called by the smell of blood, the sight of raw flesh.

She mustn't lose control. Not here and certainly not now. She blew out a long breath and slammed her mind shut to the horribly enticing sights and smells. Even as she did, the nightmare that had become the core of her existence clawed against her all too fragile self-control as it fought for release.

Focus on the job, Mac. Just focus on the job.

Finally, satisfied she wouldn't lose control – yet – she nodded once. It was time to get to work.


Hidden deep in the shadows across the street, he watched and waited. Anger and frustration seethed just below the surface, held at bay only by sheer will power. He still couldn't believe it. All his careful plans ruined. Now he was forced to lurk in the dark as he watched events unfold across the street.

Damn them!

When he'd first scented the men approaching, he had cursed his foul luck. He wasn't finished. His prey still lived. There had been so much fight in her, so much fear. How that thrilled him. Too much time had passed since he'd been able to play with his quarry as he had with this one. She'd fought desperately. Then she'd done everything she could to escape. Finally, she'd huddled in fear and begged for her life even as he continued to play with her much like a cat plays with a mouse just before making that last pounce followed by the kill.

But it wasn't to be. He had scented the men long before they reached the alley entrance. Their conversation warned him they were police. For one brief moment he'd actually toyed with the idea of killing them. Then memory of his last encounter with one of their kind intruded and forced him to admit the folly of the thought.

Damn them all to Hell!

He'd been forced to kill his prey before he finished with her. Worse, he hadn't been able to feed off her. Instead, he'd slunk away like a carrion eater in the face of a stronger, meaner predator. How he hated that. He was no coward, no bottom feeder. He was the predator and yet here he stood, hiding in the shadows as they swarmed over his kill. That flew in the face of the natural order. He was stronger, more cunning. They should tremble in fear before him. Instead, he played the coward, unwilling to face their greater numbers or their guns.

But they would pay. Sooner or later they would pay for being foolish enough, unfortunate enough to interrupt him. They'd pay the ultimate price and forfeit their lives. However, that had to wait, at least for a little while.

Still, the night might not be a total loss. The circus across the street offered a potential show he'd not hoped to see. At least not yet. An almost feral smile touched his lips and he chuckled softly. He might get lucky after all.

And all because of one woman, one tall, beautiful woman with a shock of dark hair and penetrating green eyes.

His smile widened to a grin and his right hand fisted at his side as his heart gave an excited leap. That one woman had brought him such anticipation and then so much frustration. He could hardly wait until they met once more. It would be a meeting he planned to make their last.

Two months had passed since he first laid eyes on her. Something about her had called to him, demanding he master her. So he'd set out to stalk her, confident in his ability not only to find her but also to make her his for as long as he wanted. What a wonderful plan it had been.

Unfortunately, it hadn't worked out quite the way he'd expected. She wasn't like the others – men and women both – who'd fallen to him in the past. She'd proven to be as tough and determined as she was beautiful. When he thought he had her cornered and ready for the taking, she'd done the unexpected, the unforgivable. She'd fought back, leaving him wounded and forced to flee before she could summon help.

She drew his attention once more. He could hardly wait to see how she reacted to his handiwork. Maybe, just maybe, the evening wouldn't be a complete loss after all.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Fantasy Foliage Dilemma

I have been plotting a new fantasy novel lately, and have run into a familiar dilemma. In describing the natural environment, do I fall back on the typical earthly descriptions i.e. elms, oaks, willows etc or do I create a completely new ecology?

This is a kind of a double dilemma for me because I grew up in the southern hemisphere with wattles, wallum heath, eucalypt forest and saltbush. If I described all these in my fantasy book it would look weird to people who recognised them and would probably just be bizarre to readers from other climates.

The other problem I have is that although I am more than comfortable using my own native flora and fauna in urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy, it does not have a classic fantasy feel to me. All the fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction that I have really enjoyed has drawn the setting from Europe and the northern hemisphere, with oak groves, willows and aspens etc.

Yet as I writer I do not want to just recreate this northern setting, despite how familiar it feels. So am I stuck. If I go the route of creating a completely new ecology, I may have to sacrifice some of the evocative natural descriptions I love simply because I did not have the extra few months of free time needed to create all the name lists and really dream it all up properly.

As it is, I will probably go for an invented ecology, probably sprinkled with a few familiar terms.

How do you handle the Fantasy Foliage Dilemma?

Let's Talk About the Weather

I'm sitting here writing this (Wednesday night) and wondering if my husband will make it home. It's been mixed snow, rain, and every possible combination of the two all day, so the roads are... interesting, and conditions are deteriorating.

Where this gets interesting, and ties into writing, is that a little over five years ago this would have been utterly alien to me. I'd encountered snow maybe twice in my entire life up until then. Now, well... I got home from work this evening, and the first thing I did was get the snow shovel and clear the front path. Now, if you've never shoveled snow before, the stuff is fricking heavy. Shoveling it is hard work, no matter what those damn postcards say. And snow does come in multiple types. There's the soft fine white powdery crap that feels kind of like cold sand, the heavy wet crap which is kind of warmer and tends to happen more when the temperatures are hovering somewhere close to freezing as opposed to below freezing. There's re-snow, which happens on a windy day after heavy snowfalls. Whiteout, where the stuff is coming down so thick and fast you really can't see where the heck you're going. And it's all, every last bloody kind of it, miserable.

It's also unearthly quiet. It's silent coming down unless there's wind, and then what you hear is the wind, not the snow. You hear sleet and rain, but not snow. The wretched stuff also muffles everything else.

As for snow-blindness, well, I knew about that intellectually, but I didn't understand it until the day I saw snow-covered fields glistening silver in bright sunlight.

All of that, including struggling through hip deep snow, is writing experience. Without it, the long march to Constantinople in Impaler wouldn't have been anywhere near as vivid.

One day I'll get to write something that uses some of my tropical weather experiences too, like the warm rain (aka 'liquid sunshine' or 'pineapple juice'), or days where it's gotten so hot that when a storm comes through and the rain starts you get curlicues of mist rising off every surface, or humidity so thick you wiggle your little finger and break out in a sweat. Or the storms sweeping through and people going out into them to get wet and cool down.

In the meantime, of course, the inner writer keeps watching what's going on and taking lots of notes. It's all useful someday.

So what are some of the times where you thought you understood something and then experienced it - and really understood it?

Oh, and a bonus for the Brisbaneites - Before and After pictures of the floods:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Names, I've Had a Few

*but then again too few NOT to mention*
I’ve been aware for some time that I don’t have a fandom as such – I have multiple fandoms. Some number of fans read everything I write that they can locate, no matter under which name, no matter what the subject matter. They will as cheerfully tuck into Darkship Thieves as into Plain Jane. This is the type of fan I am for say... Heinlein or Pratchett. A variant on these fans are the ones who buy everything I write, because they’re fans of the sf, their kids read the fantasy, their sister reads the mystery and their spouse likes the historicals.

These fans are not a problem, of course, except perhaps for their scarcity. (Well, that and I live in fear of writing certain things, like erotica because some of you – you know who you are – would read it, enjoy it, and send me witty comments. And helpful pictures drawn on the back of napkins.)

But then I have fans – rabid, vocal fans – who read only my mystery, or my science fiction. I don’t know any who read only my fantasy, though there might be some. For all I know I might have fans who read ONLY my vampires, which would be sad, because I have only published short stories with vampires.

The publishing industry’s view of this is that this means I should write/market/brand only one thing – I should make sure I’m known only for science fiction. Or mystery. Or...

I’ve never subscribed to this. (Oh, I could be dramatically wrong, I guess.) First, because as a reader I read everything, down to and including, in a pinch, the classifieds or the instructions to assemble a machine I don’t even own. I enjoy almost all fiction and a vast array of non fiction. If you ask me which of those is my passion, I’d have to say “all of them!”

I mean, I’ll confess and openly too that I’m a LITTLE more prone to enjoying science fiction than the other genres, but you wouldn’t know it from my buying decisions. A riveting mystery beats a hum-drum science fiction every time.

So I fail to see why, as a writer, I shouldn’t write everything I have riveting ideas for.

Second because as a writer I find that writing something different is often as good as a holiday. In fact, if you try to make me write only one thing, I probably would stop writing after two books. (I had a heck of a time finishing my third Shakespearean fantasy because at the time it looked like I was locked into “literary fantasy” the rest of my life. And my mind doesn’t like a mono-diet.)

Third because I don’t understand how my writing several different things – at least in the business model quase ante, where most of what you bought came from bookstore shelves – can “dilute” my market. Sure, some people will know me for science fiction, some for fantasy and some for mystery, but absent some sort of prejudice among readers (which I, at least, don’t have) I fail to see what difference this makes. For one, books will be shelved in different areas. So, for instance, my mystery readers will never even see the science fiction.

That was the idea at least. now with the turmoil brought on by ebook publishing I’ve made slight revisions.

I still want to write everything, except maybe men’s adventure, erotica and children’s books. (No, not together. EW. You’re sick.)

However if the market is going to be even fifty percent electronic and split among several distribution centers, one has to take in account that some of the sellers are spectacularly bad at giving descriptions and/or samples of the book.

I would hate for someone who loved Darkship Thieves to download No Will But His expecting science fiction. (Okay, this is a very naive reader. And for the gentleman in the back leering at me, NWBH is the fictionalized biography of Kathryn Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII. That was her chosen motto.)

So, this late in the game, I’m thinking I REALLY need to brand, so people addicted to one form of my fiction don’t accidentally stumble into another. At the same time, I’ll have to remain absolutely open about my misdeeds under various pen names – I already have them on my first page, but maybe I’ll add them here – so those rare, eclectic readers will find all of them. (Sarah’s names! Collect all four![Sarah A. Hoyt; Sarah D’Almeida; Elise Hyatt AND a one-off under the house name Laurien Gardner, though I’m right now negotiating to sell books under Sarah Marques – you decide which one is the fourth.)

(Of course, I’ll always keep in mind you people need your fix of already-started series, natch. In fact, I don’t think I’d have more than four series going at once because of how long I’d have to make the fans wait. And I swear I’ll try to continue the musketeers mysteries despite publishers – I’m negotiating to sell Death Of A Musketeer to NRP and if it sells well there will be more. PLEASE stop threatening to come over and make me write it.)

What do you think? Should I brand more specifically? Limit my wild flights of fancy that make me want to write stuff I never wrote before? Or – now that we’re less likely to be limited by what the gatekeepers will buy – just continue writing as much as I can and in what is pressing at the time? What is your opinion on this whole branding issue? Can a writer write too much for you? (I’d buy a Pratchett daily, if he could write them, but I might be weird.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Running on the spot or Why did I agree to (insert extra obligation here)?

I've joined Twitter. At first I wasn't sure. I didn't see how I could say anything worthwhile in 140 characters. (Not when I write books that are 140,000 words long!).

This is my address on twitter if you're interested. @rcdaniells

But, oddly enough, I'm finding Twitter interesting. It's all the other minds out there, nattering on. It's the pictures that people share. Some funny, some poignant. eg. I shared this one. My daughter photobombing her year 12 students. (she's a great kid).

As well as the funny insights into human nature, there are heaps of links to interesting sites.

I came across this one. It's Robert Sawyer's Letter to Aspiring Writers.
Basically, he tells it like it is, no warm and fuzzies. Towards the end of his post, he has some insights specific to being Canadian

And along the same lines, here is Ian Irvine's truth About Publishing. This is Ian's insight into publishing from an Australian perspective.

What you'll see from these two author pages is that the info you get from us here at the MGC blog is frank and open. Nothing up our sleeves here. No hidden agendas. We'd like you to buy our books, but we're up front about this.

I don't know about you, but I'm scrambling. I feel like I'm running on the spot to:

Renovate the house -We have our bathrooms back. Yay! Next it's the kitchen. Who needs to cook? Not me. I could happily dine out every night. Why is it that my 3 teenage sons' most regular question to me is 'What's for dinner?.

Get on top of the yard - floods, heat, humidity and waist high weeds, trenches and gravel pits, arghh.

Keep up with all my blog posts on three sites, MGC, ROR and my own KRK blog, plus Twitter, plus Facebook, plus guest posts here and there.

Work - I go back to lecturing on the 14th of Feb. Then it will be nose to the grind stone with the accelerated course until a two week break in May and another in September.

Short stories and workshops promised - I promised a story for an anthology and it's brewing. Hope it's cooked in time. Meantime I've been asked to do a couple of workshops, but haven't heard back to have them confirmed.

Oh... and I have to deliver 3 books to my publisher by May. The Outcast Chronicles.

Did I mention that 5 of my 6 children are living at home with various partners staying over?

So, I'm scrambling to keep up with everything I must do, need to do, and want to do, without trying to keep up with what's happening in the publishing world.

This is why I find posts like Dave's one yesterday about E-books and the tipping point so informative. Just like to say thanks to the rest of the Mad Genius Club team for their generosity sharing their knowledge of writing craft and the publishing business and for inviting me along to play in their sand pit.

Is everyone else running on the spot to stop from going backwards?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Comes the e-book Avalanche?

You know with your average avalanche, just before it happens, nothing much seems to be amiss. Maybe a little slip here or there, but generally those tens or hundreds of thousands of tons of snow or rock or mud that will move in a chaos of destruction look as mobile as the mountains themselves (yes I know, they move. All things are relative, including my relations).

There are, of course, signs that it is possible, and others that it is probable and immenent. People make judgement calls on these little signs... sometimes they get wrong and nothing happens, and sometimes they get it wrong and lives and property are destroyed forever.

And in the world of publishing, I am seeing little landslips, hints of a possible chaos under that appearance of stability with the advent of e-books. Of course some of them we've been seeing for years, and some of them we've been calling for years. There has been a fair amount of mockery from the senior figures in publishing and their well-established authors (one of whom I found was actually mocking in public and readying his backlist in private). Still... there have been a few temblors which say to me the face of the publishing mountainside is about to change fast. I have a feeling a few vast edifices will survive, but I think the medium-small - authors, publishers, booksellers, agents - who stay on the slope will be swept away. Of course the prime culprits who have made the slope so unstable with their activities are the megaliths who will -- at least some of them, in some form -- survive -- but that's the way of things. The best we can do is to behave wisely ourselves.

So: what are these temblors?:
Well, the Bookscan data which Amazon made available to all authors is one such. This may of course be pure generosity from Amazon, and kind support to authors to refine their efforts at self-promotion. Or it could be a serious shot across the bows of publishing. I don't, honestly, think there is an author alive who does not at least HOPE is publisher has been cooking the books - and that they are selling a lot better than the publisher claims. Many are quietly certain they've been screwed, but too afraid of losing the work they do have to say a public word. If I've heard one story about authors signing (or getting fan letters from), more readers than they have apparently sold copies to... I've heard twenty. Maybe all of them are wrong. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Self deception. In which case Amazon will have done us all a vast favor, which, logic then states, publishers ought to have done years ago. Otherwise the department of creative sales accounting - shifting sales from one book into another, to justify the advance / promotional spend has just been changed into the department of re-alignment and great care... Anyway, whether this paranoia turns out justified or not (and I suspect a few true and some false, and some just plain sloppy accounting involved) the Bookscan data exposes one thing: It has always been that Publishers control access to retail space and without them, we authors are helpless. That - and the physical cost of the product and distributing it, justifies the fact that publishing, distribution and retail get 92% of a midlist paperback's cover price and the author 8%. What I am seeing is just what I get for that. Sales of DRAGON'S RING in Florida (to pick on one example)... zero, zero, zero week after week. The book is selling elsewhere - although there is no direct relationship with population or any other factor that I can discern. Some lower population areas are outselling New York... where I see what is hard to interpret as anything but, ‘stocked very few, mostly sold out and not restocked'. Florida - to pick on Florida again - is a market of 18 million -- just a little smaller than Australia (where I personally know I've sold at least eleven copies -without it being in a single shop). Let's run some wild guesses here. Assuming that 5000 copies is more-or-less what one might expect to sell (I'm being conservative here, my worst figures have run at well more than that- but for a noob that's quite good, these days) -- and as my distribution is widely distributed (I don't just sell in NY, or the Deep South or to Hawaii) then, at about 1 copy for every 60 000 people (A bit ridiculous, but that's what the publishers would rate a newbies appeal at, it appears), Florida should reflect around 300 sales... not zero. Even leaving out the non-restocking problem in NY... it's pretty obvious that the distribution to retail (handled by one of the US's largest publishers and their distributors) is shall we say, underwhelming.

I can turn around and say that even if those figures reflects my real popularity, then I'm losing at least 30% to non-distribution and more to non-restocking. A lot of authors are going to be looking at their figures and getting quite angry, I think. Historically, they would have had Hobson's choice. Now... I think a lot are going to be saying ‘just what do we lose not having a publisher and just going straight to e-book sales online?' Of course one does lose(sometimes with editing and proofing and even marketing), but it is not, as was historically thought, everything. Actually, you might do better in Florida. You could hardly do worse. And you won't be getting 8%, but as much as 70%. So I think we can say authors are unstable ground.

Secondly: signs of it are everywhere: retail is taking a pounding. In recessionary conditions cheap entertainment flourishes... except it is NOT for bookstores. We could talk about why, but the point is, they aren't. Borders we know about, and that has knock ons throughout the industry. They must owe many medium-small publishers a fortune, which they in turn owe their suppliers. One has to wonder if they can survive that level of non/late payment. And that's just one large group. Many independents and even the Gargantuas are not booming. What publishing has a stranglehold on is access to this retail space. It's a stranglehold on a shrinking resource. So I think we can say brick-and-mortar are unstable ground too.

Finally there is the sudden desire by publishing houses who have sneered for 10 years at the Baen business model -- which was to create a brand identity for the publisher -- to abruptly start to imitate Baen. Historically publishers ‘farmed' the marque of the author, and no reader had any idea who the publisher was. As the author -at least at the bottom and midlist - had little or no choice but to be loyal to their master, there was no need for the expense and effort of a company run chat-forum (like Baen's Bar) and as for e-book sales to the public (shudder) who did they think they were? Suddenly, the publishers are attempting to do Baen's Bars -- because in the electronic marketplace readers search by author name, not publisher. Expect direct e-book sales next. More little landslips...

Three months ago, when I had once again been paid (late) by check, and not as agreed by electronic transfer - meaning a further 6 week delay, I spoke to Eric Flint - my co-author - about other ways of raising money, such as Kindle books. He was, as always, supportive and said why didn't I give it a try? Suggested I talk to Mike Resnick about his experience. Now, Eric is far more successful than I am, and a canny fellow. He is also far more involved in the regular machinery and politics of publishing than I am. Back then (quite recently really) he was not really thinking about doing it himself. Three days ago he contacted me and suggested we put our joint shorts into a collection, and he's doing his own too. Now this joint collection includes the RATS BATS & VATS prequel - A 30K Novella GENIE OUT OF THE VAT and a Novelette set the sequel to that universe CRAWLSPACE. RATS BATS & VATS sold fairly well and has a sold fan base. The prequel just hasn't been available to most people, as it came out in a rather obscure collection. CRAWLSPACE - in JBU 6 - even less so. So I think they have a market. I expected to try to expand them and sell them as books, and Eric and I had talked about it (and it could still happen). But it shows changing perceptions.

So I think things are heading for interesting times soon. I'm thinking of myself and my writing career. These are my list of what I think of as precautionary: 1)I am not signing any long term deals. 2)I am readying e-copies of all my work. 3) Any new contracts will be as much as possible upfront -because that is good practice anyway, but also that's good in uncertain times. 4) I am trying to build my own web presence up. 5) I want to get my website selling - or at least linking to selling my own work.

Any more ideas? Or am I being chicken little?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What do you mean I have to blog today?

Wow, this is new. For once, I don't have anything to say. Blame it on a day spent building databases on Excel. (Hint: if you ever want to see me run for the hills, screaming like a mad woman, tell me I have to work on excel. Worse, tell me I have to set up the template for new databases.) So, I've got nothing for today. There's been no real ground-shaking news in the industry. Sorry, but the continuing drama of Borders and B&N is important, but it's getting boring as well. So, what to do today?

I think I'll do a riff on yesterday's open thread. But, instead of just throwing the blog open for any question or comment, I'm going to change things up a bit. If you have a query you are about to send out but would like some input on before it goes, post it (remember, queries should be one page. Some agents give the general guideline of 250 words). If you want to post the first page of your current project, do so and we'll critique it.

Why am I limiting it to one page? The first is that blogger does have a word limit. Second, anyone who has read slush will tell you that if the first page doesn't grab them, they usually won't read any further. This is especially true with short stories.

If you want to practice your elevator pitch, here's your chance. Don't know what an elevator pitch is? Well, it's that 30 seconds you get to tell an agent or editor what your book or story is about. You have to let them know genre, that the work is finished or not, what it's about and what makes it unique. And you have to do it all in the amount of time it takes to wait for the elevator to get there.

So, that's the blog for today. I promise to have a working brain -- or at least a reasonable facsimile of one -- next week.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Open Thread

Good morning, everyone. Apologies for being late getting this up but I'm moving slowly this morning. In case you haven't noticed over the last couple of Saturdays, we're trying something different. We're going to use our Saturday Morning Posts to help promote our work. What that means is you'll be seeing snippets, con schedules and pictures, giveaways, etc. It also means there will be one open thread every seven weeks. Today is that day.

So, this is your chance to ask any questions you have, to comment on the state of the industry, to make predictions about what's going to happen in publishing, etc.

So the floor is yours!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Slingshots and Cosmic Coincidences

It's easy to get dizzy thinking of humanity reaching out into the Universe. Especially if you have a head full of space opera with FTL drives, wormholes and other 'standard' transportation techniques.

No wonder it feels disappointing in the extreme to watch the progress of us Earth-dwellers into the local space.

Our first steps into the solar system will be much along the lines of what has gone before. Chemical propulsion will likely remain the standard for planetary lift-off for some time to come. If we are lucky, perhaps we can satisfy the EPA and use Nuclear Thermal Rockets, which might double the available impulse. Reentry will remain much more economical with technology used since the space race - i.e. heat shields and parachutes - while space vehicles of the like of the Shuttle will retire to museums.

When it comes to getting around the solar system, again we will probably be relying on chemical propulsion - all the current manned Mars missions are based on this. Again NTR rockets may offer potential in the future if the safety concerns can be addressed. For missions where time is not no much of an issue, electric rockets (ion drives) with their highly respectable exit velocity of 30 kilometers per second are capable of bringing spacecraft to high interplanetary velocities (but their low thrust means they will never get us to orbit).

Here's where the slingshot manoeuvres come in. These have been used to great success in the early interplanetary probes such as the Voyagers. Basically, these rely on the principle of conservation of momentum. The same principle as slamming a cue ball into a billiard ball to get the billiard ball in the pocket. The momentum is transferred from the cue ball into the billiard ball but the momentum of the whole system stays the same. In this case it is the angular momentum of the two bodies movement around the sun that is conserved. The tiny spaceship takes a low trajectory over a big planet like Jupiter, and is shot out of the planet's gravitational field at ninety degrees to its original direction of travel. The spaceship is now on a new trajectory that does not centre on the sun, and its angular velocity has increased by the same amount as Jupiter's Sun-orbital velocity of 13 kilometers per second (while Jupiter's angular momentum decreases by a minuscule amount).

Voyager 1 used a gravity slingshot manoeuvre to get to its present velocity of 17 kilometers per second. (Try not to think about the fact that it would take 70,000 years at this speed to reach our closest stellar neighbours.)

But surfing gravity wells can be taken further than this. If a spaceship can apply thrust during a slingshot manoeuvre it can capitalise on the orbital mechanics even further. If a probe approaches the sun within 1.5 million kilometers along a parabolic solar orbit, then increases its velocity by 2 kilometers per second, it will leave the Solar System at an impressive 41 kilometers per second.

NASA's Mariner 10, which performed flybys of Mercury in 1974 and 1975 relied on Venus gravity-assist manoeuvres to get it into position. The Messenger probe to Mercury - the first probe to visit the planet in 30 years - will be going into orbit around Mercury later this year. It will be the first space craft ever to do so. To get some idea of the crazy orbital scheme required to get it there, here is a diagram of its journey since launch.

Talking about cosmic coincidences, has anyone noticed that the gravity of both Mars and Mercury is 38% of Earth standard? I had to check that twice. Given the fact that Mercury may have water in its dark side craters (its tidally locked), it makes you think of the possibilities.

The other one that always gets me is that both the Moon and the Sun are exactly the same angular size in the sky.

What other cosmic coincidences have you noticed?

The Doomy Doom Doom of DOOM

There's a famous (or infamous) Australian poem, Said Hanrahan, by John O'Brien, which seems kind of... apt in discussions of the publishing industry. The entire text can be found here, but I'll quote the last two lines:
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan
"Before the year is out"

Sound familiar? A little Chicken-Little-ish? If it doesn't, you probably haven't been listening. For that matter, you probably haven't been listening for at least 100 years...

Some trivia - for his first novel, Charles Dickens ultimately received (pound symbol) 400 - which works out to about $240,000 in modern money, give or take. He was paid per installment, in 20 installments of (pounds) 20 each - which works out to about $12,000 a month over 20 months. For his first novel. By comparison, today a first author is doing very well to earn $5,000 total for a first novel. So clearly the cost of paying authors is not the reason why publishers are "rooned".

Some of the other Doomy Doom Doom of Doom cries include "people don't read any more". Sarah's dissected that one a few times, exposing it for the fowl clucking calumny it is. The equation there is pretty simple. When schools use reading to punish - or worse, to push 'worthy' views - schoolkids get fed a turgid pile of alleged message fiction which is worse than sappy Victorian message fiction. At least that had a happy ending. When editors insist of 'proper' messages, well... if the gatekeeper insists on something that isn't what the consumer wants, the gatekeeper gets it - but the consumer stops buying the product.

There's always the Doomy Doom Doom of Doom falling sky myth of "circumstances beyond our control". Let's see... what's outside publishing control when it comes to books? They can't do anything about the cost of paper. They can't control shipping prices outside a fairly narrow band. They can and do control what they pay authors, which of the umpteen gazillion submissions they buy (this is why they're gatekeepers), what they promote and the like. They can control whether a book gets into a bookstore and how many copies get there. They can control end cap displays (by buying them). And there it ends. They can't control whether or not Joe Browser actually decides to pay for the book.

Oh, yes. They can also control (and do) what data outsiders get to see. It's generally assumed that publicity costs are averaged across all books even though they're incurred by a handful of them - because that particular accounting bucket allows publishers to keep more authors effectively "in their debt" and therefore psychologically if not also financially dependent. When an author needs their publisher more than the publisher needs that author, the publisher holds a lot of power - and we all know about power and what happens when people have it.

Ebooks are the current Doomy Doom Doom of Doom du jour - that's been covered all over the place on this blog. Personally, I think the real reason for the Chicken Little act is the effective disintermediation. An author can sell directly to a reader, and leave out all those intermediaries taking their cut - no bookstore, no distributor, no publisher, no agent... Just the author, the website, and the reader. And the website can give the author accurate numbers of sales, broken down by zip code if the author really wants. The data is there - if you're selling off your own site, you can set up to have it. If you're selling through something like Amazon, you may or may not get all the details, but you can bet your boots the site has it.

The question is... are we following Chicken Little clucking about the falling sky, or are we the fox? Or is the sky really falling and we're all Doomy Doom Doom DOOMED! (Or rooned, said Hanrahan).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Wilderness of Mirrors

First and before I go into this post, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe in writing-with-a-message. I am in full agreement with whoever said “if you want to send a message, use western union.” Since everything became infused with “message” which somehow always comes down to politics and since everything local became political, (it never was the other way around. Or at least they never believed it.) they’ve done their best to politicize that most localized of personal events – the thoughts in your head. Which are supposed to be worthwhile and useful and... socially relevant.

The obvious problem with “message literature” is that it requires the message to be open and obvious. It also requires it to be in full accord with the visions of the gatekeepers. In fact, message-literature only invaded the field when the publishers and editors themselves started believing literature should send messages. Since, of course, most of the artists doing message-art nowadays view themselves as counter cultural, there’s a delicious irony there. It’s just that it hurts when I laugh.

However, I also want to point out that of course every piece of REAL art HAS a message (or several). The message might be as simple as “I’ve got a serious Jones for Greco-Roman tradition” (which in itself was fraught with all sorts of subtexts for the culture of the Renaissance, including the implicit assumption that the human body was beautiful) or as complex as “this is how humans grow up, with a foot in reality and one in myth.” (I’m thinking of The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents – though many other books fit this “message.”)

Art creation, at least in my experience, happens somewhere halfway between the conscious and the subconscious, in a war between who we think we are and who we really are, what we think reality is and what reality really is. It is from that tension that real art is born. (I did not consciously put any “message” in Darkship Thieves, but all sorts of people are finding message in it, anyway. And even I can see all sorts of messages in it, in retrospect. Things that shape the artist try to leak through.)

While this does not invalidate self-consciously-aimed messages against whatever the current regime/society is, or stories that echo recent events and TWIST to make you see the artist’s point of view, to my mind art only happens when the subconscious adds yet something else, so the whole book has a deep resonance and doesn’t have that quality of learned-and-regurgitated accepted truth. (For instance, Ursula LeGuinn’s The Left Hand Of Darkness was aimed – I’m fairly sure – as a blunt argument on the nature of sex and gender, but what actually emerged echoes with deeper resonances of the subconscious which I’m sure she (or anyone) could neither have planned nor put in.)

But even when “messages” become art despite themselves few consciously aimed messages remain art after being vetted for ideological purity by gatekeepers. At least, I don’t think so.

Which is why an establishment that requires “message” or an establishment that requires any type of conformity – an establishment that has become concentrated and holds all the power of the purse, in fact – tends to produce very bad art... or good art ONLY despite itself. It also tends to produce a “reaction” art that is vibrant and full of energy... and held at bay as long as possible.

This is perhaps easiest to see in the French nineteenth century where art was encouraged and promoted by the State.

I recently took a course that echoed the methods they used to learn at the time – notably drawing from the cast (a plaster cast of a classical statue). I found it useful, but of course I wasn’t forced to spend year after year doing just this. I wasn’t forced to believe that only classical or biblical themes were acceptable and that color was a dangerous tempting demon. And I didn’t draw the cast over and over again for years, till I learned to see people like that, in the “correct” proportions and NOT as they really were.

Most of all, though, it became a competition of virtuosity. Using the permitted methods, themes and forms, artists vied with each other to make each painting more complex and “difficult.” One expression of this was the paintings with multitudes of people and animals, which given the fact they had to draw from life (or stuffed. Er... animals. Not people. I think.) because they couldn’t otherwise record images, became very difficult indeed. (It was usually done in stages, of course.)

It occurred to me, recently, that a lot of science fiction and fantasy and even mystery have become like that. “And now, for my next feat, I will attempt a completely alien world where the aliens communicate only through their salivary glands!” Okay, that’s exaggerating, but I’ve seen stuff that “reaches” almost as much. There certainly is fantasy set in almost every time period, striving to remain both believable/true to history AND magical. And there are mysteries using every profession under the sun as detectives.

While this might seem like a logical post-modernistic affliction, the result of everything having been said, I don’t believe that’s the case. After all, every creature, by nature, has something new to say – as new and individual as his journey. The thing is that OVERTLY all these books HAVE to say exactly the same thing. That’s why, to keep the artist motivated, they are set in such varying places and have such varying stratagems. They have to distinguish themselves, somehow, but the industry that banned a still-vigorously-selling John Norman AND still brags about it, will not let heretical messages flourish (not that I personally could ever understand WHY Gor should flourish, but then I don’t understand the popularity of its polar opposite type of series, one of which, at least, started a whole subgenre of fantastic literature.)

So in this multiplying wilderness of form and virtuosity, symbolism flourishes too – to get less approved-of messages through the gatekeepers – and as in the nineteenth century painting field, in France, it is sometimes so obscure that only the author “gets” it fully.

The problem with this, as the problem with most French art of the time when the monetary rewards went to those who followed the “correct” form and fashion, is that it’s become a dialogue amid the artists. We might find it fascinating, but the public has largely tuned out. Because art that echoes the establishment is never very exciting. (Gag – Soviet art. Gag.)

So, where do we go from here?

Well, fortunately technology is likely to lend a hand by removing control from a handful of gatekeepers residing in a square mile of terrain or so. But even without technology it would probably have happened – albeit not so fast – since it is part of the cycles of how art “dies” and is reborn.

Note, in favor of my thesis that Baen – which is not in that square mile – publishes a lot of old science fiction and fantasy memes (that’s a topic for another post. In SF/F there is a certain need to ‘reincarnate’ certain types of stories, for new generations) there isn’t a proliferation of the “and now, still more difficult” type of books. Writers write largely for their public, not other writers or the gatekeepers – a lesson I think more and more midlisters are learning in the stuff they put out on their own.

This is very exciting, of course – a fun and terrible time to be alive and writing, the very definition of “interesting times.” And they’ll only get more interesting.

I look forward to writing without trying to aim messages or disguise messages or in general self-consciously head off my subconscious from forbidden subjects and opinions.

I look forward to freedom and an engaged reading public again.

Am I wrong? Is there no great hunger for stuff where the message doesn’t clobber you over the head? Should I just start thinking of a science fiction about aliens who communicate with their salivary glands?

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Plates and other Fun Stuff

Like all needy writers I have a Google alert out on my writing name and King Rolen's Kin, the name of my trilogy. I woke up this morning to an alert letting me know that some nice person has created a KRK facebook page.

Lovely surprise! Last time I looked 6 people liked it. So, if you've read my KRK trilogy and liked it, drop by.

Back to book plates. I don't know if they help sell books. I signed 500 of my KRK book plates and sent them to my publisher. (There was a sale on 1000 book plates for $80, which seemed pretty reasonable to me). I have a background in graphic art and creating a book plate is fun for me. It was only after I had them printed that I realised I'd forgotten to put my name on them. Sigh ...

Then another of my friends had a book come out. Tansy Rayner Roberts' new series is called The Creature Court. It's s daring mix of romanesque festivals and the roaring 20s, set against a dark threat and shape shifting Creature Lords. Tansy is part of my ROR group so I offered to do a book plate for her, too.
As you can see, I remembered to put the author's name on the book plate this time!

Then another of my writing group had the first book of his Death Works series come out. So I offered to do a bookplate for him. Trent Jamieson's series is about an ordinary guy called Steve, who works for corporate death, helping people's souls pass on. It's fun urban fantasy, set in Brisbane. (Trent's name appears in the web site address this time).

And lastly, because I obviously don't have enough to do with my spare time, when Marianne de Pierres' collection of short stories came out, I offered to do a book plate for her. Glitter Rose ( Think surreal, sensual fantasy crossed with SF) was a small paperback limited edition book, so the book plate's dimensions had to suite the book.

In the past I've done book marks. And I've always created my own business cards with my book covers on them.

Does having a book that has a signed book plate in it make the book special for you?

Do you keep book marks? I guess if you have an e-book reader you don't need one.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I've been avoiding writing this...

My 2011 New Year's resolution was that next New Year I'd actually get around to making a real New Year resolution.
Only I am not sure I'm going to be able to keep my resolution. Maybe I'll try this one again in 2011...

Which sort of brings up two issues in my own writing: Challenge and procrastination. My little writer's group like to set challenges. It stirs us up, moves out of the comfort zone and sometimes makes us grow. We try to pick on aspects that we think the others need to work on: I've been challenged to write a bit of dialogue with no colloquialisms, no accents. I'm mildly amused by this because I am a fairly moderate user of regional accents (although I do use them often) but obviously what I am doing, works well enough to convince my little group that I am an incorrigable ‘accenter'. Well. I'm not. What I've learned to do - and work quite hard at is using a few key words and expressions to ‘tag' the speech of different characters. It makes for easier reading, than a real and faithful rendition. And um, more convincing too. I've read - or tried to read books where the author has faithfully transcribed the sounds of Welsh-spoken or Scots-spoken English... and duh, it's hard work and, inevitably because accents are SO specific and regional unless you're writing one know and live in you'll wind up using a West Coast expression in your East Coast accent... or North Usk mixed with South Usk. There is a lot too, in the way of speaking. Queenslanders I have noticed end their sentences in questions, hey? Rather like Canadians, eh?

Anyway I talked about accents merely to put off talking about procrastination. I'd be good at procrastination, if only I could get around to it. Seriously, I am one of the world's worst. Never put off until tomorrow something that can be put off to the next day, I say.

Which doesn't work terribly well for writing (or even submitting). So I've had to try to deal with it. Straight head-to-head doesn't work for me: distraction and I suspect fear of failure get to me -- this from a guy who loves his work, with I think about 20 finished books, and a lot of shorter fiction (so if it worries you now, it's not going away). I've found a number of things that do get me there. 1) Looming deadlines. 2)Not wanting to let other people down. 3)taking it small bite by small bite (a book is VAST project 200 words is not... and if you discipline yourself into doing those 200 words and not a word less... it grows as often as not). 4)Daily goals. I'm on a minimum 1500 at the moment. I was doing a minimum 2K but that was just every second day fail. 5) peer competition. I have a little sublist of pros. We compare daily. 6)Make writing a displacement activity for something else you're trying to put off. That works for me!

So what works for you? And have you noticed any speech mannerisms that ‘tag' specific groups of English speakers?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Before I get into the gist of my post today, I want to encourage everyone to who loves adventure to check out Dave's post yesterday. His novella, Without a Trace, is one of those wonderful stories you loved as a kid and still love now that you're grown. It is also a story all ages can read and enjoy. So don't be turned off by the middle school/early YA tag on it. Okay, end of fan girl squee now.

For Whom the Bell Tolls...It tolls for Borders and, quite possible, a number of publishers as well if they are foolish enough to buy into Borders' latest attempt to save itself.

Much of the news from the publishing world this week has centered around Borders Books and its attempts -- very late attempts -- to save itself from bankruptcy. There have been firings, the announcement that it is closing one of its distribution centers and talks with publishers all so it can get refinancing on its outstanding debt. Is it a case of too little too late? In my opinion, yes. Worse, if the publishers buy into Borders' "solution", I won't be surprised at all to see not only Borders but some of those publishers shutter their doors in the next year or two.

Here's a quick time line of what's been happening with regard to Borders since the first of the year. It started with a new round of firings or resignations in the executive suite. Gone are Thomas Carney, longtime legal counsel, Scott Laverty, the chief information officer, Tony Grant, v-p of real estate, Bill Dandy, senior v-p, marketing, and Larry Norton, senior v-p for business development and publisher relations.

Then came the news that Borders wanted publishers to push back the date for payment of outstanding bills -- ie, Borders wanted to keep books already shipped to them by the publishers but not pay for them. As talks between Borders and the publishers commenced, we learned Borders wanted the publishers to convert this debt into "interest bearing loans". This brought Borders stock tumbling to a low of 84 cents a share. From the same article: "Several publishers said Borders owed them millions of dollars in payments, up to tens of millions each for the larger publishers. Publishers said they had been told by Borders executives that more than two dozen vendors were owed money."

Compounding the bad news is this report of the announced closure of one of Borders distribution centers. This center, located in Tennessee, had already seen layoffs of 200 employees. Now, another 300+ will lose their jobs. This is a cost-cutting move aimed at streamlining their distribution chain. Again, too little too late, in my opinion. This is something they should have realized before opening the center a couple of years ago.

Indicative of the problems facing Borders the announcement that Diamond Book Distributors has suspended shipments to them. DBD is a major source for graphic novels. From "They have informed their clients that since Borders has suspended payments to them, DBD is suspending product shipments and has put the Borders account on hold." Now, you might not think this is major news, but think about it. Titles included in the DBD stable are Streetfighter, Gantz, Shrek, Transformers, G.I. Joe. Darkhorse Comics uses them as a distributor. We're talking comics and manga. This is an entire demographic Borders has lost, for a short time at least, because of their halting of payments.

The latest news is that Borders has given publishers until Feb. 1st to accept or reject their latest proposal. According to the article, Borders is asking publishers to take on somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the company's "reorganized" debt.

All I can say to this is, WTF? I'm sorry, publishers are in trouble. They are barely keeping their heads afloat as is. Now Borders wants them to take on more debt. Where is the money going to come from? Ask most writers and you'll find that advances are down -- and that's when they are able to find a traditional publisher for their books. Some are reporting late and/or incomplete royalty payments. There is a growing discontent linked to the belief royalty accountings are anything but accurate. Book prices continue to go up and sales of hard copy books continue to stagnate or decrease. What Borders is asking these publishers to do is tantamount to suicide for some. "Take on my debt, continue to supply me with books but don't charge me for them, and I get to stay open. Oh, wait, you'll have to close your doors? Sorry, can't help you there. But we'll send flowers to your corporate funeral."

As much as I hate to see any business close its doors -- not so much for the business itself as for the employees -- perhaps it is time to let Borders take its lumps and either close or downsize to a point where it can stay afloat. But it has to be done in a way that doesn't put the rest of the industry in jeopardy as well. I don't have all the answers...not even a few of them. But I do know I don't want to see the major -- or minor, for that matter -- publishers chain themselves to a sinking ship.

For an excellent overview of what went wrong with Borders, check out this article by Peter Osnos.

(cross-posted to The Naked Truth)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Without a Trace

And the skylight is like skin for a drum I'll never mend
and all the rain falls down amen
on the works of last year's man.
Last year's man - Leonard Cohen

Well, you know what they say about a broken drum - you can't beat it.

I thought I'd actually write about what was behind one of my books. I detest sermons-books, or agenda books (especially when they're a reflection of PC rather than thought). Books need to be enjoyable reads and it is a very rare writer who is good enough to carry a sermon and good entertainment. I know I am not that good (and frankly neither are most of the other proponents of this), so my target has always been to write a great story... which just might happen to make you think. Which show -- rather than prescribe how you should feel -- things which I feel strongly about. The conclusions you reach are your own. For example: RATS BATS AND VATS was variously described as "funny, funny, funny (Brian Murphy,, Noirish comedy alien shoot-em-up (Kirkus) . It's also probably the most serious book I have ever written, about socio-politics, and social exclusion. Oh and about conscription and militarism. I doubt if one reader in ten thousand realised all that as they laughed and enjoyed, but I do hope that a fair number of readers found themselves questioning other unsupported conclusions afterwards. It's what Sir Terry Pratchett does, and while I am not in that league, that is my role model. I remain, I suppose, an idealist. One who writes for money, a mercenary, if you like. But there are causes which pay well I could serve, but will not. And being paid for my books is the sincerest affirmation the fact that I do entertain, for all that.

Anyway: WITHOUT A TRACE is in many ways the works of last year's man. It was written in South Africa, at a time when the various militias of the various political factions were increasingly using children as cannon fodder.

It's not something that has gone away (they perpetrated most of the murder, destruction and rapine in Zimbabwe, and are stirring in South Africa now) -- or was new then -- and its tragic consequences, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, or in Uganda with the Lord's Resistance Army are the end point of this. Nor is something that is confined to Africa, as shown by the Hitlerjugend and the Deutches Jungvolk, and their charming Russian equivalent -- where children were encouraged to spy on their parents and turn them over ‘re-education' to merely name two of these pestilences.

I've always felt those using ‘youth leagues' for their political (and often military) ends were engaged in a process not unlike paedophile grooming -- and targeting the children for much the same reason as paedophiles find their targets suitably vulnerable for their depraved desires. I don't hold these organisers in very high esteem, as you might possibly gather. They like their fodder without much experience of a wider world, with discernment and empathy still only partially formed, and in the grip of that difficult hormonal phase (period seemed a bad choice of word). It does mess about with your thinking, especially, I think, testosterone. As someone once said: it's like having to get used to having PMT for life. It's not easy being a teen, and, as I remember it, my head was messed up enough without someone else manipulating it. To be clear: those who run youth organisations aimed at letting kids GET that experience and learn that discernment, and NOT TO USE the kids come under the heading of heroes in my book -- the very inverse of the Hitlerjugend, ANC Youth League or Young (insert political party of choice here) movement.

At the time that I wrote this book both the ANC Youth League and Inkatha Youth League were being used in what could only be called atrocities against their opponents. As another form of less obvious and brutal atrocity -- but none-the-less terribly destructive to society and their future, children - particularly boys - were being driven away from reading by the choices of prescribed reading matter for our schools. These were boring, PC and very agenda driven, slow moving, linguistically difficult/weak and nearly on average as appealing to a middle grade child as a bowl of cold dog-sick. There was little in the way of hope and VERY little in the way of entertainment in these books.

And one of the School Text Publishers decided to have a competition for a new school reader. I decided to take on both issues. I knew my attitude towards them had a snowflake's hope in hell with the gatekeepers, but I've been taking on hell with a fire-bucket all my life.

I wrote WITHOUT A TRACE. You can read the start of the book here.

The book was one the finalists, and retained for publication.
Only then after six months... they chickened out.

I shopped the book around to South Africa's pathetic crop of publishers -- who were divided into Apartheid government subsidy publishers, and struggle subsidy publishers. It took me another 14 years to find a publisher, get an advance... and lo, last year they chickened out.

So here it is: It's a story I believe that still has relevance. It was aimed at Middle Grade Readers... by me. Which means if I didn't think it was good enough for adults to read, it wasn't good enough children.

On the book itself: it is set on one of the most turbulent and wildest coasts in Africa: the appropriately named ‘Wild Coast' - the known grave of many ships and disappearing place of far more. A place of savage currents, vast waves, strange phenomena, fragments of history. It's a haunted coast, visited by centuries of Arab slavers and Portuguese carracks, a place of lost dreams, terrible deeds and of great courage.

It's a Bermuda triangle for Africa if you like. And into that African Bermuda triangle -- a universe close enough to break through into periodically - I plunge my heroes -- two boys, honor, courage, determination and mischief, a sense of humor, and lots of attitude. Just your average twelve year olds... dealing with a world lost in time and space, with remanents of all those lost in it: from pirates to warriors, from wild beasts to wild fire. About cliffs, and raging seas.
I've been there, I've seen it. I've done a lot of what I write about.

It's also about loyalty and hope (no love. No kissy stuff, sorry).

It's a boys book for boys, but I have been told by several young women that was pretty cool too. I dunno. I've never been one. But as a young teen it's the book I would have loved to read.

The e-arc of the novel is up at Naked Reader. If you have been wondering what to put on that Kindle for your middle grade reader: you might try this.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Flooding Images

Hi, everyone. I have been a little distracted this week by the flooding in Brisbane, which is at the level of a National disaster. Thankfully we are high and dry, but many others not so lucky - about 36,000 homes flooded in Brisbane and the flooding has been statewide.

The CBD was evacuated and the city has pretty much been shut down.

Here are some images I snapped earlier in the week.

A view across the river from the Schonell Bridge. The trees in the middle-ground are the river bank, so you can see the river has well and truly burst its bank. This was a day and half before the flood peak.

St Lucia Campus turned into swampland.

Here is a flooded carpark. The water has swallowed the first level.

Here is Melbourne St at West End, now a very large creek.

A view of the Kangaroo Point picnic area from the cliffs above.

View across to the CBD from South Bank. You can see the black pontoon caught against the pilons of the pedestrian bridge (around the middle of the photo).

The Practicing Writer

You all know the old gag - a doctor (or dentist, or some similar profession) is asked "Are you a practicing doctor?" and replies, "Of course I am! How would I get to Carnegie Hall if I wasn't?" (Yes, I am shamelessly stealing inspiration from Sarah. She's got plenty: she won't miss this little bit).

There is, as always, truth in jest. In this case, if you don't practice what you're doing, you don't get better at it. And life being the stone-hearted bitch she is, if you aren't improving, you're getting worse. Standing still ain't an option.

So, here are a few things that I've used successfully for practice purposes, in practice pieces.
  • No adverbs or adjectives. For as long as you can keep it going, write something with no adjectives, no adverbs, or no adjectives or adverbs. As an exercise in focusing on strong nouns and verbs this is very effective.
  • Thesauropod switching. Take a common word, then consult a thesaurus (or . Try to use every listed synonym correctly in a short piece. This exercise really drives home that synonyms aren't things you can swap out at whim.
  • The Bathos Swamp. Take a scene that should be highly emotional - it doesn't matter what the emotion is, so long as it's intense. Write it using the blandest language you can manage without adverbial/adjectival slush. Now rewrite in the most overblown language you can think of. Try not to laugh hysterically at the result.
  • The Plot Derailment. This one is good for when you've written yourself into a corner and you can't figure out what to do next. The main character drops dead with heart failure. What do the other characters do next? Alternatively, the villain has a change of heart, gives away all his/her possessions, and joins an ascetic religious order. Now what?
  • Slashing Fun. You're bored with your work in progress - here's a bizarre cure. Take the two least likely candidates for a relationship, and write a sizzling hot slash scene with them. For bonus points, add kink (A very obscure file name and possibly a password if you share your computer with kids are a good idea here. For that matter, I don't recommend doing this on the lunch break of your paid job. Just saying.)
  • Scenery Salad. Take an image, and write a description of it in the fewest possible words. The idea should be not to literally describe, but to evoke the image so that someone who saw the picture after reading what you wrote would recognize it. For bonus points, do not use any "sight" words - keep the description entirely to the other senses.
What writing exercises do you use in your practice pieces?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


In a post a couple of weeks back, Kate talked about “practice pieces.” Pieces you write and feel free to be as out of it, or as in it as you wish because no one will ever ever ever see it. She also said if you don’t have a practice piece going, you should try to get it.

Now, those of you who know of my strong and indelible aversion to writing only for myself are probably thinking “Ah, bet you Sarah doesn’t have a practice piece.”

You would of course be wrong. Sarahs are that way. This particular Sarah has several practice pieces, ranging from snippets that will never go anywhere to fully developed short stories, to partial novels. I don’t have a finished novel, but I have novels I could finish given a couple of days.

Practice pieces – that are started knowing they will never see the light of day or at least never see the light of day in their present form – are things that I’m not sure I can pull off; I’m sure I can pull off but sure I can’t sell; sure I can pull off AND sell but don’t want associated with me, even at the remove of a pen name (or two.)

They are the equivalent of doodling pieces done by artists, which are never going to interest anyone unless you happen to be Leonardo DaVinci.

So, you’re wondering what is the difference between these pieces and stuff you begin and never finish, the never ending bits and pieces that all of us have in file cabinets, on our desks, or in our drive?

Well, practice pieces are sort of part of a pact with yourself. You save them to a special place, perhaps. The fact you know no one will ever see them but you allows you to try things without your friends/editors/fans thinking you’re stupid or not competent or sick or... I often use my practice pieces to experiment with extreme situations and see how far I can push things before I break a character, for instance. Also to feel the power in that sort of situation and figure out how to harness it for others.

Now, mind you, some of my stories do move from the private file – particularly the ones that are fine, but don’t have a market. Markets change. But at that point they must be stories I’m no longer working on, so I don’t feel like I violated my own trust. (Be still. It’s weird in here. If it’s not weird behind your eyes, you’re not a writer.) At that point it is the equivalent of taking a sketch and fleshing it out into a painting.

But most of my stories in the practice file will remain in there forever, safely locked up.

So, do you have a practice file? What do you keep in it? (General, not violating your own privacy.) Do you find it useful? Would you consider having one?