Saturday, April 30, 2011

e-books, upcoming and present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Catching Waves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I don't interview my characters

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

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

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

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

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

Me: That isn't an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

Me: (speechless)

Vlad: (laughing)


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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Writer Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Fun Side of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 25, 2011

Input and changes...

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

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

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Controversies and a Squee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 23, 2011

On with the motley

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Morning Prompt

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing the Magic Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It Came From The Slushpile!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rewriting and Editing

When I handed in the King Rolen's Kin books, I'd had time to clean them up, print them, give them to my son and husband to read, then clean them up again. I'm not going to have that much time with the new trilogy.

Currently, I'm on a count-down to clean up the three books of The Outcast Chronicles and submit them by the end of May. It seems like the world has been conspiring against me. I had planned to get a lot of work done over the summer holidays but we had a major flood and I spent a lot of the holidays digging trenches in my yard to prevent the water from flowing in.

Since then life has become complicated with an elderly relative needing somewhere to stay and work taking up a lot of my time, so I am really looking forward to the next week. Because of the Easter Holidays and Anzac Day I won't be at work again until Thursday of next week. A Whole Week in which to write. I feel giddy with delight.

The funny thing is that I am up to page 430 of book one but I keep jamming up because I'll be reading away and then realise that I need to insert either a new scene or a paragraph to illuminate a character's change of heart or realisation. I do have a list of Things to Fix with each book and I'm working my way through them, but I find the things I am fixing are things that come to me intuitively. I will wake up in the morning with the conviction that I need to add a line to a scene.

I work with the manuscript open on one screen and the chapter outlines open on the other. This means I can find exactly the right scene because I know which page it's on and I have all the POVs colour coded, so I know if I have been neglecting a character. This give me the illusion that I am in control.

How do you approach your rewrites? Do you have Things to Fix list? Do you find that you wake with the awful knowledge that you need to add another scene?

Monday, April 18, 2011


What is it about Mondays? They're low, vile, underhand, snarky, sneaky beasts that leap out on poor unsuspecting authors* what hardly ever did anyone any harm, and beat you about the lugholes.

Which is odd because I never get to that biblical injunction about a day of rest, so why should Mondays be worse and sometimes worser**?

Still, despite the running chaos I do have some positive news to report: You may remember I posted a snippet here about a coal-fired submarine? Got some good advice on that from a reader here... and lo and behold, the proposal has sold -- CUTTLEFISH along with its sequel - tentatively titled 'the Steam-Mole' have been bought by Pyr Books. I think the book could fairly be described as Alt-history meets Steampunk and probably not the clean fit into steampunk it could be. The book does not leave out the enormous environmental impact of coal-burning (far worse than oil, IMO, because of the carbon black) or exist in a quasi-Victorian in which the social impacts and stratification of Imperialism is glossed over. So while we have the Victorian/Edwardian costumes, and the weird steam and smoke and brass and cogwheel world of typical steampunk, I am afraid we don't quite manage to gloss over women's logical place in this Alt. Hist. And no. Mrs Pankhurst did get clapped in irons, but as millions of women did not go out to work in the factories of WW1... the world isn't quite as liberated as ours is.

So I have my heroes travese a world turned into an eclogical disaster area by 20th century industrialisation with coal instead of oil, and in which WW1 was a very brief thing and King Edward VIII never even met Wallis Simpson, but married a Prussian princess to heal wounds between England and Germany. The Empire endured... at least until this book. And it ain't pretty, least of all if you're Irish, Indian, or Australian for that matter. Or not part of the upper class, actually.

I have a feeling I should probably rather have gone with the tide with this, but it's too late now... It irritated me.

Anyway almost all subgenres have their tropes that irritate someone: These are some of mine.
Historical fantasy - what are these 21st century urban-dwellers doing in this rural feudal setting?
SF - What happened that FTL suddenly got so easy? Why are biosystems not at least double redundant?
Urban fantasy - who is that A-hole with sparkles? Where is my stake?
Paranormal Romance - what is this thing with man-titty?
YA - why is so much YA chicklit?

And what are yours?

*and other life-forms, proving that at least they'll your equal-opportunity oppressor.
** It is too a real word. Just not English... yet.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ooooh, Shiny Book

(Disclaimer: No books were harmed in the writing of this post. No vampires were made shiny and no werewolves were turned emo. Had either of the latter two occurred, said vamps and wolves would have been humanely extracted from the world of the written world for their sakes as well as for the sake of all readers out there.)

I must start with a confession. I am an e-book addict. You all know that. I've made no secret of how I love being able to put hundreds, thousands of books on my kindle or iPod touch and carry them with me. I love the convenience of being able to use my kindle to shop directly if I suddenly feel the need to have a new book and I just can't wait on it any longer. Besides, why would I work for a digital press if I didn't believe in e-books, right?

So what, you ask, do I have to confess? Well, I fell in love the other day. No, not that sort of love, although I did want to sleep with the new object of my affections. (Quit laughing, Sarah) Ah, I can see the looks of puzzlement in some of your faces and I see Kate covertly trying to find the number for the men in the white jackets. No, I haven't lost my mind. But I have discovered something many others before me already knew.

Thursday I received the bound proof of Nocturnal Origins. It was like Christmas morning all over again. My hands shook as I ripped into the box. My breath caught as I carefully lifted the book from inside and turned it over. There, finally, one dream come true. I actually held a book with my name as author.

And it was soooooooo cool.

That isn't to say I was more proud of the hard copy version of Origins than I have been of the e-book, because I'm not. But there is something about holding a book in your hands and seeing the physical manifestation of all your hard work.

Does this mean I'm not as big of an advocate of e-books as I was before Thursday? Absolutely not. But that feeling reminded me of something -- there really is something special about "real" books. For those folks who are tactile, physical books will almost always be more enjoyable than e-books. What we are going to see over the next few years is a balancing out of the industry -- I hope. E-books will gain more respectability while physical books will be ratcheted back some. I think we'll see more of the POD hubs cropping up in bookstores and other outlets so stores don't have to keep a lot of stock on hand. The customer simply orders the book while in the store, goes to have a cup of coffee or something, and comes back later to pick up his book. Technology like this may very well be one of the saviors of the print end of publishing.

In the meantime, however, let me have a moment to just go, "SQUEEEEEEE!". I promise to be back to normal -- or as normal as I ever am -- next weekend.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Open Thread

Good morning! Today is Open Thread Day. This is your chance to ask any questions or talk about what you've seen in publishing news recently. You know the rules: no politics and no in-your-face posts.

The floor is now yours. Have fun!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Training Tips

One of the things I do to let off a bit of stress and keep myself healthy is run. I have often amused myself with analogies between running and writing. Both take dedication, both require you to push through 'barriers of pain' to reach the end goal.

After years of slogging away at around the same pace 'do or die' I have recently been changing my approach. I have started to incorporate some smaller, quicker runs as well as sprints. I have been amazed at how this has shortened overall times. The other thing, which has been something of a breakthrough, is incorporating nutrition around what I do.

For years I have been a big believer in a low carb diet, and I pretty much went off for extensive runs without eating much of anything - before or after. My theory was my body would 'burn fat'. Well, it probably did, but I always found it a struggle energy-wise, and experienced massive physical drops afterwards. Typically, I just kept doing it, soldiering on.

Then, after talking with some friends who do marathons and other runs, I tried incorporating some key nutrition around the runs. Taking a sports drink beforehand to provide some calories as well as magnesium for muscle function. Then immediately afterwards have a good meal or supplement with both protein and carbohydrate. Then eating again after two hours. I can not believe the difference!

My muscle recovery and energy recovery is so much faster, and my overall performance has taken a leap. My body just burns this! Metabolism kicking into high gear.

Basically, in the old training scheme I was breaking down muscle - but not giving my body anything to build back with. And I was not supplying the muscles with the sugars they needed for Glycogen recovery.

So - how does this relate to writing? Well - I think as writers we need to think about what we put into our writing 'bodies' and when we do it. I think we need to be inspired by story, we need to be exposed to language - good language! It's probably just as important as carbo-loading! Getting exposed to the right genre forms to excite your interest, to create a flow of ideas. Trying different things to use your writing 'muscles' in different ways. All can increase performance, but also help to stop the 'massive drop' you might get after a particularly intense writing period.

Have a favourite book or movie waiting as key nutrition when you get back from a critique group roasting. Allow yourself to excite your imagination - that is our stock and trade as SFF writers.

How do you keep your writing 'body' in good nick?

Conformity, Diversity, and the state of things

Yet again, Sarah's got me thinking... Yeah, I know. It's dangerous.

Anyway, some time back, Howard Bloom in Global Brain described societies as being composed of conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resource shifters and intergroup tournaments. Ideally, the five elements are more or less balanced, with the resource shifters (which don't need to be people) "rewarding" the successful (for whatever value of success) and "penalizing" the unsuccessful, and the inner-judges constantly evaluating where anyone stands in the social hierarchy. The intergroup tournaments are - metaphorically - what shakes the hierarchy and changes the internal rankings.

Ever since then, I've been seeing the effects everywhere - and Sarah's post is a pretty good summary of what happens when the conformity enforcers have absolute control. One fits the prevailing model of what should be, or effectively does not exist.

Most people are conformist - it's the human norm to want to be part of a group, any group. Conformity also offers a lot of mutual support and protection. What tends to happen is that rewards within a group flow to those who conform to the group's norms, unless the diversity generators happen on some new source of wealth or inter-group success and either spawn off a new group (colonize something or create a new press) or shift the norms of the old group.

It doesn't matter how big the group is, either, or who's in it. If you gather all the innovators and put them in a group, you'll quickly get a new set of conformists.

What does that have to do with publishing and writing? Simply, after a long period of decline masked as stability, there's an explosion of change in process. The last two conventions I attended, micro-presses were respectable. So were ebook-only presses. Most of the low-end mid list authors I spoke to are involved with small presses in some way - some editing for them, some running them. And what used to be the mainstream was hardly visible at all.

In Bloom's terms, the diversity generators have broken past the wall and are actively trying out anything and everything they can think of. Some of it will work, some won't. There's no way to tell which experiments will work out - and there won't be for quite some time.

All of which is a really roundabout way to say that we're in the middle of "interesting times" and they're only going to get more interesting. The only thing that's obvious is that the losers will be the ones who were on top in the old system.

Thoughts, comments, raspberries? (with cream, please).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Dave Freer wrote about anger almost a year ago. Mostly he wrote about the incredibly self-destructive anger that comes with being a writer.

I can’t improve on what he said particularly the part about how every crash is assume to be driver’s error even if the wheels came off the publishing effort before the driver took the wheel.

A few years before Dave wrote that, I stumbled on a book on burnout, because I hit a wall of sorts, where I couldn’t motivate myself to write, even when I wanted to write. (This wall is endemic. It comes, I fight against it. It comes again.)

The book on burnout was, of course, not directed at writers. It was actually a book on escaping the situation that caused the burnout. And the first thing it identified was the situation that almost inevitably causes the worst burnout – what they called the perfect storm.

Apparently people are able or at least willing to withstand working their hearts out at things where the outcome can’t be under their control (i.e. no matter how excellent they are or how hard they work, they can’t guarantee the outcome will be good.) They can survive this situation given, ideally, two things – recognition (pats on the back, prestige, the sense that what they’re doing is special and needed) and very good pay. The lack of control over their position will still tire them, and they’ll need vacations and cosseting. Now, if you remove just one of those compensations – the high pay or the recognition – you’re going to make it more likely that burnout will happen. If you remove both the compensations, so you have someone with no control over the outcome of their work, no high compensation and no recognition you’ve just created a mid list author... er... I mean the perfect storm for burnout.

Or perhaps “the reason my dentist thinks I should wear a mouth guard at night because of tooth-grinding.”

(Their advice, btw, was to run away from such a situation at all costs because it will kill you in a short time. Of course, for writers, at least up till now, the escape hatches are few.)

I happened to re-read Dave’s post last week, while looking for something on MGC and this brought to mind the book on burnout (remind me I need to find my mouth guard) which in turn came to mind again when I read a post by a friendly colleague about her extreme depression, brought about by... lack of control of the outcome, lack of recognition and lack of money. This post touched me greatly because there but for the grace of Baen go I. I was saved from being exactly where she is, by Jim and Toni giving me my own conference in the Baen bar oh... six? Years ago. Which in turn resulted in my hearing directly from Baen fans, so that even if the establishment doesn’t know my name, I do get people asking what happens next, and talking about my characters like real people, and that recognition keeps me going, even through all the worry about money and book distribution and my wretched attempts at publicity.

And then yesterday, while writing on rejections, it occurred to me that there is something there that links in with both Dave’s post and this colleague’s plea for help and that is – they treat us like children or fools.

Now, I mentioned this to a friend who said she knew many stores that treated their employees like that. Yeah, I’m sure she does. I know some computer shops that do the same. But it’s not an industry wide syndrome. Exploited employees can usually walk down the street and get something new. (Well, maybe not in the present economy.) In writing – though there are quite a few exceptions – the norm seems to be for anyone in an editorial position to treat the writer like dirt beneath their chariot wheels.

Crude, rude and overbearing rejections are not rare. Making generalizations about writers being like children are not rare. In fact, anywhere that industry professionals gather, writers will often be treated like idiot children.

My friend suggested perhaps this is because – though the number of writers who fit the stereotype is very small – there is a stereotype that writers are unstable.

I don’t think so. Look, the stereotype for postal workers IS that they’re unstable. Hence the “going postal” and I don’t see a supervisor treating a carrier this way – say, taking a professional of twenty years and telling him “you don’t know how to distribute mail. You can’t drive that car properly” or anything like that. Why not? Because they are afraid the postal worker will go berserk.

On the contrary, I think the general rudeness and unprofessional belittling of writers comes from the fact that until recently, to quote my grandmother’s expression for these situations, the publishing side of the equation had both the knife and the cheese. If you were so much as rude to them, or they just didn’t like you, you could be shut out of publishing. It didn’t even take any formal blacklisting. I personally observed one of these cases up close and personal (no, not me) and despite excellent sales all it took was putting word about that the writer is “hard to work with.” (Which isn’t even true.)

Even beyond that, if they didn’t actively like you/your book and get very involved in it, your distribution would suck, and failing all that if, by a miracle, you still sold, they were in control of your statements and you couldn’t see your numbers, so they could p*ss on your neck and tell you it was raining.

So you had to approach them cap in hand, and bow and tug on your forelock. You had to stay in their good graces to keep working, and your entire livelihood was dependent on this handful of interconnected (with some exceptions, like Baen) people.

Did this breed contempt? Good Lord, yes. I mean, seriously, it doesn’t surprise me that people with the ink barely dry on their fine arts diploma would presume to tell professionals how to do their job. What surprises me, under the circumstances, is that they didn’t feed us to literal lions for their amusement. (We won’t mention the metaphorical lions.)

What is the point of this? Other than venting my anger?

Well, writers are starting to acquire other channels. Not as viable as mainstream publishing yet, I’ll give you that. For all but a lucky few, it won’t support us... yet.

But things are changing very fast. And long before it is viable for a writer to make a living from self publishing, it will be possible for enough exasperated writers to walk away or die trying. (And no, I’m not ready to yet. Read about where I got a conference from Jim and Toni. And also, things seem to be finally starting to sell. And also, at this point I'm practically down to editors I enjoy working with. But there are a lot of people where I was a few years ago.) And for enough competing offerings to be available to take money from the publisher’s bottom line.

In other words – long before we can live without them, publishers will find they can’t live without us.

And then they’ll run up against that anger Dave mentioned.

I’ve long ago preached about writers growing up. Don’t bitch at an editor. Don’t tell them they’re stupid because they rejected you. (I’ve been on the other side of that desk. Most people who do that are not people I want to work with.) If an editor offers politely expressed non-ludicrous comments, consider them before you dismiss them. (But don’t rewrite unless they’re paying you or at least agreeing to read it again. As for ludicrous, if I get one more rejection critiquing a three page synopsis as though it were the whole book... I’m going to find my mouth guard.) Accept in your heart that no matter how good you are, some books are simply not what the editor (or sometimes anyone) is looking for. Be willing to move on to the next book.

Now, hark, for I’m the voice that cries in the desert, and who doesn’t expect to be heard until ... a year or two from now, when the desertion of the midlisters (and lower) starts hurting. And even then, it might take a while.

But perhaps it’s time for editors (and some agents) to consider (this just from things that happened to me I’ve heard much worse, and I’m sure our readers have too):

- Not telling the writer that you have read better things from your three year old son;

- not telling the writer that you disapprove of his/her moral stance and he/she must be “depraved”;

-not spending hours thinking of belittling ways to describe the writers’ work (the one that stuck in my mind was ‘flipping voices like a cook flipping pancakes in a cheap greasy spoon’ (12 years ago, from an agent for... Darkship Thieves.);

-not sending a rejection saying “your novel was terrible” when the only thing the author ever sent you was a request for guidelines (and the author hadn’t published yet, so chances of your having seen one of her novels are small to none.)

Editors should instead – particularly when they’re dealing with authors who have published more than one or two books – treat them as professionals treat other professionals. Oh, sure if there’s a chance you’ll buy the book if they fix a detail or two, point out what they got wrong. If they’ve got some egregious error of science of history (or grammar, like the lady who had a character with a “copulant face” in a story I read for a slush pile long ago. I was forced to point out “I think you mean corpulent, and that’s still wrong.) you can mention it politely.

Of course, if the author doesn’t behave like a professional, THEN you may take your gloves off, but don’t preemptively assume you’re dealing with the mentally unstable. It takes a degree of fortitude and work to produce readable work. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but truly, anyone off the street CAN’T do it.

See, now you might still have the knife, but the writers have the cheese. You’re going to have to behave as if they matter, because they do. And you won’t survive without them.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Looking Forward, by Looking Back

Here I am, back from Supanova (Brisbane and Melbourne). To say it was heaps of fun and totally exhausting would be accurate. Here's a picture of Marianne and I working hard at the coal-face (bookshop).

Here's someone climbing out of the Delorean from Back to the Future. I was chatting with someone today about the number of people who came to Supanova (26,000 in Brisbane, not sure of Melbourne). When I went to Melbourne way back when I was a teenager, I met the SF fans and found people who talked about the kinds of things that interested me. But we were a minority that the mainstream didn't understand and actively mocked.

When Starwars came out in the late 1970s and it was so incredibly popular, I can remember SF fans saying Soon we won't be marginalised any more. We'll be mainstream. It took a bit longer and a lot more successful movies and TV shows, but the day has come.

The basic concepts of SF stories are understood by the average person and the staple devices of SF are everyday accessories. A communicator that takes pictures, connects with a knowledge base and reminds you of where you should be? Sure!

It's funny to sit at the bookshop stall and see Doctor Who walk by, Manga characters, computer game characters and more, and know that many caught public transport to get there. I'm sure there are similar events in the US and the UK.

I'd like to raise a glass of cyber champagne to all those fans who kept the dreams of SF and F alive for so many years when they were marginalised. What are your memories of discovering the genre and getting involved in fandom? And where do you see our genre going from here?

Monday, April 11, 2011

The wedding guest

I feel* -- at times -- like the ancient mariner in search of a wedding guest to hold with my glittering eye. You see this is the crucial phase and stage in ANY good writer's process: to see if they can take the reluctant reader away from the feasting and merry minstrelsy** and bind them to their tale, that, willy-nilly they must read. Must finish, somehow.

Now, of course, if the reader is not reluctant, and you are a name they recognise and trust to give them an entertaining read, they'll sit down on the stone and be hypnotised, even if you take your own sweet time about it, and tell them all about the setting and the weather first. For the rest of us, you have an 'elevator pitch' - a paragraph, maybe a page or two if you've been fortunate enough to be granted a good cover, and a bored wedding guest.

However, seeing as I am back on the amatuerish side of ancient marinering, I've found the need to hypnotise wedding guests starts long before the book is on the shelf. It actually starts before there is a book. You see, I have a head with serious decay issues. Ideas ferment up in it like - well, like a fermenting brain. Yes, that was an image you didn't need. It produces WAY too many ideas, and many are best left alone. And the trouble with a lot of these strange ideas is that that 1)I don't really understand them or the story implication behind them myself. 2)Many of them seriously lack the glittering eye to hold an audience, but are more like the glistening something else. So I need a winnowing system - a reluctant audience. It's a worth trying process: if an idea appeals to me, I find an unsuspecting soul(and preferably hoping to rush off elsewhere, poor victim) and I try to explain it to them. If they hit me with sharp objects it was a rotten idea. If they are late for wherever they're going and still keep asking me questions... it's a winner.

I can sell that Albatross.

To put this in slightly less artistic terms, what actually talking the idea through with another person (one who does not know what you am talking about) does for you is to force you into the situation you will be when giving the concept to your agent, publisher, and most importantly to your reader. It forces one to actually formalise and condense the vague, grand concept in your head. Finally it does something that all too few writers do: forces you (well, me anyway)to build a far far broader background to the story in your head, because, inevitably the wedding guest starts asking questions (and not just 'when can I get out here?'). For each of us, of course, the process varies, but this is where I get a real handle on a story.

So what works for you? Do your ideas stay a dark secret in your head until you write them? Do you write them out? Formalise them?

Or have I merely given you a reason to run a mile when you see me on the horison?

Here is my current one:

"I can't cope any more!"
My mother said that about twice a day.
Usually about me.
Huh. I couldn't cope with me either, and I've got no escape. I didn't fit, and I didn't belong and I didn't like it.
But this time she was shouting it down the ‘phone line to my father in Oman. And she normally won't even speak to him. Keeps it to snarky e-mails about money. I know, I looked. Her password is so lame.
"He's a changeling, Tom! He's not normal."
I couldn't hear my Dad's answer to that. But I bet my mother didn't even know what a changeling was. I kinda wished I was one. It had to beat ‘loser'. Maybe Faerie glamor let you look taller, cooler, like you had an I-phone. Maybe it let you get away with shoplifting without getting busted.
"That won't work. The school has asked me to remove him. I don't know what do, Tom!"

*I might feel like one, but it is a tactile illusion, created by the smell. Please stop touching me. It's so embarrassing.
**It is SO a real word. If it was good enough for Coleridge, it is good enough for thee.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How not to behave as a reader

Last weekend, I wrote about bad behavior by one very passionate but unwise author as well as a publisher behaving badly. This week, I want to talk about things readers do that have repercussions on authors they might not think about.

Over the last week or so, there has been a great deal written about the number of one star reviews Michael Connelly's latest book, The Fifth Witness, has received for its digital version. Now, it's not unusual for a best seller like Connelly to have a few one star reviews for a title. There's always that one person who buys the book and reads it, expecting something the book isn't. But we're not talking a few readers who aren't satisfied with what Connelly wrote. No, we're talking about hundreds of readers who have given the book one star reviews -- and who very well may not have read it.

If you go to the kindle page for The Fifth Witness, you'll see that there have been 167 customer reviews that average out to a 2 star rating. Specifically, there have been 38 five star reviews, 4 four star reviews, 1 three star reviews, 4 two star reviews and a whopping 120 one star reviews. While the B&N rankings aren't quite as one-sided, they do show the readers' frustration.

Why all the low rankings? Well, when this book first came out, it cost more for the e-book than for the hard cover. Yep, that's right. On amazon, you could get a copy of the hard cover for $14.28 while the e-book was $14.99. At bn, the prices were $14.73 for the hard cover and $14.99 for the e-book.

Needless to say, the discussion boards went wild. And so did the negative reviews. I understand readers doing this to protest something the publisher has control over. (For the record, the publisher of this book is one of the publishers following the agency model of pricing for e-books. You can always tell if a book is affected by this because Amazon adds the following under the price -- This price was set by the publisher.) The problem is, when you give reviews based solely on price, you are hurting the author. There are people out there who might not read the reviews but they do look at how many stars a book has. When they see a disparate amount of one or two stars as opposed to four or five stars, they make a decision not to buy the book. And that is how it impacts the author.

Now, surprisingly, the publisher did listen to the readers who protested the price. A check of both Amazon and BN this morning shows that the price for the e-book has been lowered to $12.99. While that is still more than what a number of e-book purchasers see as the upper limit on what they will pay, it is lower than the physical copy of the book. But the damage has already been done. The bad reviews based on price are there and the only being hurt by them is Mr. Connelly.

I'll admit, I might not have paid as much attention to what happened to Mr. Connelly but for a review one of NRP's short stories received. This particular reviewer either posted the review to the wrong title -- there is another title very similar to ours that is a novel where our title is a short story -- or this particular reviewer didn't pay attention to the file size when buying the title. Why, you ask, do I say this? Because the reviewer complained about having to pay for something that was, in his opinion, nothing but a "review" of a book. That review, coming around the same time as the kerfluffle over Connelly's book, really made me start thinking about what damage such reviews can do.

Is there an easy answer? Sure. Sellers such as Amazon and BN can add another level to their review process, one where you rate the price of the book that is separate from the review of the content. Will it happen? Doubtful. So it falls into our hands as readers to be responsible. Review the book -- read it and write a thoughtful and thought out -- review of the contents. Then add any concerns you might have about the price of the book. Publishers aren't going to be hurt all that badly by the loss of sales for one author's books. But that author will be. Numbers are everything in the publishing world. Authors don't have control over what their publishers price a book -- paper or digital -- at. So don't punish them.

If the price is more than you want to spend, then pass on the book until the price comes down. Speak up about the price on your blog, in discussion boards, in emails to the author and to the publisher. Email amazon and bn and other e-tailers asking them to change their review system to allow you to rate the price as well as the content. That, to me, is a much more fair approach.

In the meantime, let's hope the agency model of pricing falls by the wayside in the near future.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

This And That And The Other

So, today is my day to promote, again, which makes me feel rather on the spot. Since we last talked, I’ve sold a short story (An Answer From The North which will come out in Courts of The Fey, edited by Russell Davis.) Wrote another which I’m in the process of cleaning up (hopefully) for acceptance. I delivered a book – A Fatal Stain – to Prime Crime. I’m hoping to get the sample chapters for that up this weekend. The samples for the other two are here. And I had a few things come out with Naked reader.

First, I want to call your attention to Death Of A Musketeer. Excerpts are here. The trailer video is here.

There is also A Touch of Night, written by Sofie Skapski and myself. The reason we wrote this – Pride, Prejudice and dragons, oh my – is that my Magical British Empire Series wasn’t selling, so we did this to use the world. For fun. An unedited and shorter version is out at Of course, the minute we’d written it, the MBE sold to Bantam Spectra.

I have also attended a steam punk con. Yeah, that’s what the picture is all about. It was surprisingly fun. First, possibly because I hadn’t dressed up in years. Second because though it took place on a college campus – though, you say? Though, I reply – the attendees were all bright, engaging and interested young people who actually seemed to read for fun. Why is it “though”? Because with notable exceptions, a lot of young sf fandom seems to be more media and games based. My excuse to be there, of course, was having written the Magical British Empire Trilogy. Samples for which are here. It is a chase for the eye of the goddess in a magical land in which the industrial revolution is underfoot in a way you’ve never seen before, and all shape shifters are illegal and subjected to being killed on sight.

And right now I’m working on finishing Darkship Renegades, which is the sequel to Darkship Thieves. Excerpts for Darkship Thieves live here. Darkship Renegades starts this way:

Out Of The Frying Pan

I was a princess from Earth and he was a rogue spaceman from a mythical world. He saved my life three times. I rescued him from a fate worse than death.
We married and lived happily ever after.
Ever after comes with an expiration date these days. We’d been married less than year when Kit got shot in the head.

And if you're totally at loose ends, let me remind you I give away some short stories and even a collection. If you haven't tried the short stories, read them or download them here. As for the collection, please visit the Baen Free Library and look for my name. Happy reading.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, and the occasional dragon (thought I wouldn't see you, lurking there at the back, uh?) have a good weekend. I shall go imbibe massive quantities of caffeine and work.

(The Picture is courtesy )

*Due to serious lack of caffeine as well as fact I am finishing a book, this post being echoed over at According To Hoyt*

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Judging Your Own Work

Now this is something I find almost impossible to do.

Every single time I sit down to write I make the journey from 'My God this sucks' to 'this is starting to hang together' to 'I'm liking this!' and back to 'this is total crap.' Somewhere through that process I actually get a buzz - usually when I forget to think critically at all.

I've won prizes and been shortlisted for genre awards. Other writer friends say I write well. Every now and then I will get a shock when a dedicated critiquer who does nothing but criticize me and my work introduces me as a 'fine writer.'

It seems that I have no capacity for objectivity. When I look at the work that I have done I see the prose through a microscope (showing ugliness usually) and the story from a lightyear away - focused on the shape of the whole thing and its various subplots.

Getting critique is one way to get feedback. Reviews on published work are another. I'm not sure which one is crueler, probably the reviews since they are public and liable to effect sales.

I got a mixed review on The Calvanni from one of the Asif reviewers when it came out in 2006 (the other one loved it). She went on about unnecessary complexity etc When I met her some months later at a convention she said. 'You know I really liked the book.' Well why the Hell couldn't you have said that in print!

On a day-to-day basis, how are you supposed to get any sort of handle on your work?

I guess writing is a never-ending series of judgements you make - is the sentence too long, is there enough description, should the clown really kill the president, how big are his shoes etc. Yet when the high of actually being in the flow fades, all I am left with is a sense of unease.

How do you go about judging your own work as you progress? Is it actually impossible?

You wouldn't believe it

Most writers end up bitching at fate sooner or later, usually along the lines of "if you put it in a book no-one would believe it". Weird news is good for this. So is politics, and a pretty hefty chunk of everyday life. And bureaucracy. Or perhaps especially bureaucracy.

I got a prize example of that one - the bureaucracy side - today, courtesy the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Basically, they charge an $8 toll to cross a particular bridge. I got there and and didn't have the cash because what bloody toll bridge charges eight bucks to cross? Oh, and they don't take credit cards.

So, the attendant tells me I'll get a bill. That's - sort of - what arrived today. Only it doesn't say "bill", it says "Notice of violation enforcement action". And includes, in big letters, a $50 fee. Everything on the notice refers to the amount due as $58.

It's not - not unless you take more than 2 weeks to pay up. But the way the form is set up, it reads as though you'd better pay $58 or there'll be all sorts of nastiness. I have to wonder how many people pay up the full amount when they don't need to: guaranteed they don't get refunded the $50 they paid when they didn't need to.

If I wrote a bureaucracy that did that, no-one would believe it!

Office politics is another one. My opinion of office politicking isn't something you can repeat in impolite company, much less polite company, but for various reasons I've been watching the goings on at work. Much, much more that you wouldn't believe if you put it in a book.

What other situations in life would be unbelievable in a story?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Listening to Voices

Lately I’ve become a consumer of audio books. I’ve done this before, years ago, when I was working on getting a house ready for sale. Mind you, I’ve always read while cleaning or cooking, but it’s pretty hard to read while painting, hence the audio books.

The latest spree isn’t painting related (though it could be soon. I mean, all of this house needs painting, but I’m waiting for summer.) I’ve just taken up long walks, and audio books help.

It has also caused some strange shifts in my reading habits, as I’ve discovered that just like reading authors in Portuguese then in English isn’t the same. I don’t know if it’s extraordinary translators or simply ideas more suited to being expressed in one language than the other, but I loved some authors in Portuguese that I can’t read in English and vice-versa.

So, that’s the first:

1- not all my favorite authors translate well to audio books. Though so far I’ve found I’ve got a greater tolerance for books in audio than in reading. Some language issues that bother me in reading sound a lot more plausible in voice. I think that this is because hearing things spoken makes them somehow more real than reading them. Hearing is believing. (In this it might help to know I grew up with radio news, as opposed to TV news, so maybe I’m conditioned to consider spoken things “true” I guess.)

1a) I cannot listen to F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series, one of my absolutely favorite series, and one of the very few I buy in hardcover. Mind you, I can’t listen to horror, either, but I don’t read horror. Repairman Jack is a thriller with horrific elements. I can read it fine. In fact, when it comes out I usually read it in the evening/night. So why can’t I listen to it? I dream about it. In detail. Graphically.

There is a second find:

2 - I’m more likely to get subtexts in a book listening to it read.
Well, either that or I simply don’t function well while reading and washing dishes, and making sure the book doesn’t fall in the water. But Terry Pratchett, for instance, is infinitely “richer” in audio books.


3- I’m more likely to catch the voice of the book while listening to it audio. I mean, I’m more likely to start speaking and writing like that book. This means I CANNOT listen to Georgette Heyer while writing space opera. Otherwise, my space people will be going “Handsomely over the bricks, my dear. What can you possibly signify?” OTOH once I caught this mechanism, it makes it easier to stay on voice. I listen to the book with the closest “feel” to what I’m trying to write.

But the fourth and most awesome discovery is that I feel MUCH closer to the writer’s personality when I listen to books than when I read them. I can feel the person, there as it were. And the realization suddenly hits me:

4- I’m listening to the author tell a story. When these are the voices of a dead author – like Heinlein – or even an author who was much younger when he wrote something – like Pratchett’s early work – it feels like the narrator captured a moment in time and brought it to me, still alive an pulsing.

To my mind that’s a form of magic.

So, what are your experiences with audio books? (I don’t ask about movies, because we all know what they do.) Any fun anecdotes? (Oh, yeah, like the time the kids came in and I was – years ago. Got books from library, so had to go with what they had – painting and listening to a Nora Robert’s ahem scene. To this day they talk about me listening to porn.) HOW do you feel about audio books? Are they – to you – a legitimate translation of the story? Or do they feel somehow wrong, and like a completely different thing? And is it just me who reacts differently to the same book, read versus narrated?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fun stuff for a change!

We all work so hard (and I am still up to my neck with UNI marking and publisher deadline) that we forget how important it is to have fun. This is a no-holds-barred fun post.

I spent the weekend at Supanova, a massive pop culture event. And tomorrow I fly out to Melbourne for next weekend's Supanova. You should see the costumes, everything from Manga to Doctor Who and Predator. Here I am being threatened by a Stormtrooper.

Took over 200 copies of my books along and sold out. Yay!

Now I know what it feels like to be a celebrity. The guest bus arrived and when we got out people cheered and flashes went off as they took photos. I thought I better enjoy this. It's not like I'll ever experience it again. LOL

Funniest moment: Going over to the venue in the bus and two of the Buffy stars doing an on-line Buffy quiz to see if they knew the answers.

So that is where I'll be next weekend. Hope my books sell out again!

Have you let your hair down and had fun recently?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

One of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones, has died. DWJ is generally regarded as a 'children's book' author, but you'd have to search long, hard and far to find a better example of 'if it's not good enough to be read by adults, it's certainly not good enough for children.' I forget who said that, and I para-phrase, but it's pretty close to fundamentalist religion to this author and parent. She was clever, funny, warm and sometimes tragic in her writing (Dogsbody made me weep. It doesn't stop me reading and re-reading it). The other thing that shines through her characters is just how real and 'ordinary' and accessible her fantasy characters are. She stands out because wrote amazingly fallible characters... that you still liked. There was a certain warmth and indomidability of spirit about them -- she knew these people and in many cases, was them. I've just been reading her autobiography and it is obvious, fairly soon, as you recognise places and people, that DWJ's writing was shaped by a razor sharp memory (and a razor sharp mind) and curiously, an ability to cruel - both to herself and the illusions we humans like to cling to about our parents and background. The distances and sometimes weakness of parents come through strongly - in Archer's Goon for instance, where, to be honest Venturus's step- parents made me long to give them a clip around the ear-hole. It took me a while to realise that it was this that made DWJ stand out in the 'urban fantasy' sense - in an era where families were portrayed as either perfect or detestable - hers were neither. They were fallable, and often likable despite it. In Fire and Hemlock, in which DWJ mercilessly details the breakdown of Polly's family, you keep reading, because 1)there's Polly - and it is hard not to care about her, and 2)in both her parents - Reg and Ivy (but particularly the weak father) there are moments, when as an adult anyway, I found myself in sympathy with him. Grannies, we note, do tend to get a soft billet :-). Reading the autobiography - and knowing the books - it is fascinating to see how the places and people of her youth keep coming into the books.

The other aspect that shines through DWJ's fantasy is the feeling that many of her fantasy worlds convey - of a complex, vast, and very 'alien' but real universe. Part of this is her sheer magic - from whence it came, besides inside her, who knows. It was just... special. Part of it is of course that she had a vast background in mythology (which, if you know the myths, make the books even more like opening one of those layered gifts). Books such as The Spellcoats, the Power of Three or Black Maria fill you with a feeling strangeness - as if you've been lucky enough to catch of fleeting glimpse of something truly magical, on the edge of the dream.

And yet... she makes me laugh. And the books send me out stronger. Read her books and learn. Buy them for your kids, buy them for yourself. Treasure was never so cheap.

Respect. One of the great has passed beyond.
A glass for the living and glass for the dead.