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.