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.