“Real” books, contracts and “evil” Amazon

I’m neck deep in final edits for Duty from Ashes, the second book in the Honor & Duty series written under the pen name Sam Schall. Because of that, my brain has been steeped in space marines, bad guys and things that go boom and not necessarily at night. As a result, I forgot that it is Tuesday and my day to blog. Fortunately — I think — the demon kitten oh-so-helpfully got me up. After extricating my hand from his claws and staggering into the kitchen in search of coffee, I started scanning my usual sources for topics for today’s post. Oh my, did I find some.

Let’s start with this article from USA Today. I knew from reading the headline that it was probably something that would have my blood pressure rising. After all, how else would I react to “Real books can defeat Amazon and e-books”?

Wait! What? Real books?

Then I started reading and I realize the headline was only the beginning.

The book business believes that Amazon is unfair in the way it sells books. It believes, in fact, that Amazon in its sales practices — pressuring the book publishers to lower their prices and profits — is the enemy. Amazon’s ultimate design, publishers believe, is to ruin them or to wholly shift the center of gravity in the business from the creators of books to Amazon, the dominant seller.

Oookay, yet another journalist — and I use that term loosely — who believes that the publisher is the creator of books. It always amazes me when someone who writes for a living is so willing to hand over the title of creator to the entity that simply distributes the created work. Folks, think about it. Publishers publish. They arrange for distribution and sales channels. They do NOT create the book unless you are looking solely at the printing or conversion into digital format.

But let’s continue.

The book business response has been to protest hotly and try to wage a moral war against what it sees as an immoral competitor — having, for instance, its writers sign petitions and ads.

Moral? Huh? I’m not even sure where to start here. It is moral to keep royalties low and to manipulate royalty reports through the use of BookScan, which does not report every sale or even every sales outlet? It is moral to have their authors sign petitions and ads and then deny that they, the publisher, had anything to do with it? Funny, that isn’t exactly my definition of moral.

I am not surprised that Amazon’s attempt to maximize its profit is seen as immoral. Clearly the article’s author is of the ilk that believes capitalism is evil and succesful businesses should give up their profits in an attempt to prop up the business practices of other commercial enterprises that are killing themselves through poor decision making.

Need you more proof that the author is anything but unbiased in his belief that Amazon is evil and publishers pure?

The curious thing is that while Amazon is undercutting publishers (suggesting, in the case of Hachette, its most forceful antagonist, that both Hachette and Amazon forgo e-book profits, handing them directly to writers), publishers actually have much greater leeway to undercut Amazon.

Funny how he fails to note that this suggestion was made by Amazon in an attempt to help the authors Hachette has been accusing it of hurting. Note also that the author of the article fails to say how Amazon then, when Hachette refused this proposal, offered to pay the authors directly, without any funds coming from Hachette. That, too, was refused by the publisher. But it is Amazon that is evil and trying to “undercut” the publishers.

I will admit, the article does make one or two good points. But my real complaint is its basic premise that only publisher can save books and that e-books aren’t real books and anything coming from anyone but a traditional publisher is not a real book. It is time the article’s author, like so many publishers, come out of the cave and look around. The world has changed and product demand has changed. If publishers are to survive, they have to adapt. All the protestations against Amazon and e-books aren’t going to help.

On a related note, Hachette may have dug its heels in too deeply where Amazon is concerned. While no official announcement has been made — that I have found — sources in the know say that Amazon and Simon & Schuster have inked a new deal with puts in place a modified version of the agency pricing model. According to Publishers Weekly, the new deal will take effect the beginning of next year. The deal will allow S&S to set the price for both hard copy and e-books but will, apparently, also give Amazon some leeway to discount prices. That is the big difference between the agency pricing model that was struck down by the courts. If the story is true, then Hachette has lost some of its advantage by being the first to negotiate a new contract with Amazon. How long it will now take them to reach an agreement probably depends on how much crow Hachette and, to a lesser extent, Amazon are willing to eat.

So we are, again, at situation normal. Traditional publishing — with a few exceptions — and their proponents want to lay all of publishing’s ills at the feet of Amazon. It wants to continue the myth that there would be no books without publishers and anything but a “real” printed book is not a book. I don’t know about you, but I can read an e-book just as easily — sometimes more easily — than I can a “real” book. I can certainly enjoy them the same as I can a “real” book. More to the point, unlike those cave dwelling publishers, I know that there would be no books without the authors. THEY are the creators. Publishers are, at best, distributors these days.

And now, it’s time for me to get back to my not-book. Go write and, better yet, read a book. The author will thank you.

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Changeling’s Island

Well, first the bad news. It’s Monday and you’re stuck with me. I will forgo the obligatory Mwhahahaa. Oh, what the the heck. MWHAHAHAAA!
Now the good news, it will probably be Tuesday one day relatively soon (and that is one day closer to Friday).

On other news, for those of you who delighted in my ‘ordinary’ a while back – in the excerpt I posted of CHANGELING’S ISLAND – the YA novel I have set on Flinders Island — About a city-raised kid who gets into trouble and gets sent off to live with his crazy grandmother on a remote farm on the island.

The wind flurry brought angry drops of rain hissing down the blue-grey wall of the surging swell. It roared up the ramp in a seething ravel of white water and rolling stones. The inky blackness across the water devoured the outer islands, and the horizon had vanished into the rain haze. Suddenly it was back-lit by a tracery of jagged lightnings showing every black billow of the vast, stark, roiling mountains of cloud above the white-capped grey sea.

“It looks a bit ordinary out there,” said Tim, zipping up the red life-jacket. “I’m going to a get little wet.”

The book has been bought by Baen. Tony Daniel asked to see it when I mentioned it in a podcast I did with Eric, and it appears Baen are venturing on a YA line. I said it would be too Australian for them but he seems to think it adds to the book’s exotic charm. I can’t wait for Kate’s take on that. (and yes, that is what sheep say too. It’s too late. We’ve heard all the sheep jokes, and besides, we tell them about new Zealanders.)

I have decided to go with the trad route on this one, firstly, because it is Baen, and secondly because it is YA. I think this is going to change, but it and MG are still areas where authors are going to struggle going Indy. I’ve got a soft spot for Baen and I think, to be honest with you guys that they’re bucking stacked deck here. The SJW brigade have largely taken over YA, and books-in-schools. They’re outright not going to like CHANGELING’S ISLAND, it has a strong male hero (strike 1), with a perfectly good claim on victimhood who utterly fails to whine and blame anyone (strike 2), and makes and shapes his own destiny (strike 3). Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury it lets a battler country hick be an honorable hero, and deals with the very non vegetarian reality of where food comes from and how hard it is, and how valuable that is. And there is complete absence of kinky sex, but an abundance of rugged outdoor adventure. And entirely the wrong attitude to tools.

She looked at the sea. Shook her fist at it. “And yer be off. Don’t yer be coming anywhere near here, or I’ll stick a pitch-fork in you.”

“Who? Who are you talking to?” asked Tim looking at the gray, angry water.

“The seal woman. She’s nothing but trouble.” She pulled a face. “Have you got a knife?”

“Uh. No.” Knives had caused one of the boys at St. Dominic’s to get expelled only the term before. Pupils were not allowed to carry them, and while it had been tempting… Tim had not ever had the spare money, or really been… well, bad enough to get one. He’d wanted… sort of to be bad, to get a bit of respect and to make up for being small and really not much good at ball sports. His life was too full of people who thought he was bad, and trouble and didn’t give him any of that respect, back in Melbourne anyway. Did his gran think he was a mugger and a shoplifter? Why did she think he had a knife?

“Yer need one. Yer never to go near the sea without steel. I’m a fool. I didn’t even think of that,” muttered his grandmother. “Well, she’ll not come near while I’m here.”

They gathered armfuls and then carried loads of stinking seaweed up to the ute. Crabs scuttled away. Little bugs ran out of it. March flies bit at them if they stopped…

And then, when the ute tray was full, piled high, his grandmother said: “I hope yer can move the seat. It hasn’t bin moved since yer father was a boy.”

Tim noticed she never mentioned his father’s name. Hardly ever even talked about him. If she did talk about anyone, it was ‘My John’ and even that didn’t happen too often.

They wrestled with the seat, and got it to move slightly. Then it stuck. “Can yer push the pedals all the way down?”

Tim tried. The ute lurched forward. “Foot off the clutch, on the brake,” said his grandmother.

He got the part about taking his foot off the pedal. “Which is the brake!?” he asked in in panic.

It was rather a long trip back with the sea-weed. Tim was exhausted, but quite pleased with himself. He’d found the concentration of driving a strain. He’d stared hard ahead so much that he imagined he saw all sorts of things out of the corner of his eye that just weren’t there when he looked properly: Potholes, logs, a small hairy manikin in a hat clinging to the outside mirror. That, on a second glance that nearly sent them off the road and into the bog, was a bunch of weeds.

When they got home his grandmother said: “I need a pot of tea. And they deserve some beer. I don’t think we’re ready to try taking the ute into the shed yet. Just stop.”

Tim had got used to his grandmother’s ways by now, or at least the beer for the fairies idea. He set out the bowls. There were two of them to be put out, one in the barn, and one in the corner of the kitchen, each with a quarter inch of beer in them. A bottle lasted a couple of weeks or more. The mice or something must love it.

Only this time he was tired enough to just sit there in the kitchen, and happened to be looking at the bowl. The flat beer was a limpid brown pool in the bowl… and then it began to ripple, as if something was lapping at it. And then, all by itself, the bowl tipped a little. Tim blinked. Rubbed his eyes.

Looked. Rubbed them again.

The bowl was empty. Drained of the last drop.

It must have been a mouse he couldn’t see at this angle… or something. It was enough to creep him out. But Gran decided they’d sat about idle for long enough, so she said: “Come. We’ve got a Ute to offload.” She hesitated for a second. Went to the drawer of the kitchen dresser and rummaged about. “Here,” she said, holding a flat, yellowed object out to him. “It was yer great granddad’s penknife. Useful on the farm. I thought yer must have one.”
It was a solid, heavy piece of steel, with the outside casing made of a yellow, scratched… something.

“It’s supposed to be walrus tooth. Sailor’s knife, been in my family a long time. Must have come from Scotland, somewhere. We don’t have walrus here.”
Tim opened the knife warily. It had obviously been sharpened many times. Once it must have been quite a broad blade. Now it was narrow. He tested it against his finger, and cut himself. “Ouch. It’s sharp,” he said, looking at it.

“Yer keep it that way,” said his grandmother. “What use is a blunt knife? It’s not this new stainless steel, boy. It’ll rust. Yer oil it, clean it after yer use it, and keep it sharp.” She took a deep breath. “And yer keep it with yer all the time. Especially at the sea, or near it. That seal woman doesn’t like iron. I didn’t know she was still around. Yer don’t ever go into the sea without a knife. You wash it in fresh water and oil it after, as soon as you can.”

“But… it’s dangerous. I…I’m not allowed to have a knife.” He could just imagine his mother finding it. Or someone at St Dominic’s. Or the store where he’d been caught.

His grandmother snorted. “Townie nonsense. They got nothing they need a knife for, except to try and pretend they’re tough, and cut each other. It’s different here, Tim, working on the farm. A knife ain’t dangerous, any more than a spade. It’s laid there in that drawer for 40 years and not hurt anyone. It’s what you do with it that’s dangerous, if you’re a fool or child. It’s a tool, not a toy. Don’t play with it. And never test it on yer thumb.”

Tim felt quite peculiar about the old knife. He wanted it, badly. But he was scared about being in trouble because of it. “They won’t let me have it at school.”

His grandmother rubbed her chin, a sign, Tim had learned, that she was considering something. “Fair enough. It’s far from the sea. But the minute you get back here it goes in yer pocket. No going near the water without it.”

Let’s hope there are lots of parents and grandparents who don’t want their kids reading SJW decreed pap, but books with adventure, honor and courange… and responsibility. Baen might be better at reaching them than I am.

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Fantastic Journey through Time

a century of fantasy

Some of the titles I pulled for this post.

We were talking, my First Reader and I, about what to write for you Mad Geniuses. He suggested writing about old hats. Not literal hats, although it is a lot of fun to look at costume through the ages and see how fashions have changed. But what about writing? he asked, how can you pick up something that is old hat, knock the dust off, and create something fresh and new?

I’m not entirely sure you can, but it sparked another thought. Prose styles have changed over the years. What was once eminently readable and made for a book you could curl up with and while away an afternoon now reads leadenly, making it more work to read than it is worth.

I walked from the office into the library (well, sitting room, but it’s where the books are kept in our house) and called for him to follow me. I opened the hutch where I keep my antique books and started trying to decide where to start. The First Reader reached over my shoulder and tapped a spine. “Fantasy,” he suggested.

So we begin with a century-long voyage through time with fantastic tales, to see how prose has changed, and remember fondly stories that we may have outgrown, but affect us to this very day. Before the genre we call Fantasy came into being, there were fairy tales and folklore, like the collected tales that Andrew Lang put into the ‘color’ fairy books. I have a couple of these, and pulled The Red Fairy Book off my shelf. This was originally published in 1890.

“Well, I can’t stand it.’ says Koshchei the Deathless.  ‘I will pursue.’

After a time he came up with Prince Ivan, lighted on the ground, and was going to chop him up with his sharp sword. But at that moment Prince Ivan’s horse smote Koshchei the Deathless full swing with its hoof, and cracked his skull, and the Prince made and end of him with a club. Afterwards the Prince heaped up a pile of wood, set fire to it, burnt Koshchei the Deathless on the pyre, and scattered his ashes to the wind. Then Marya Morevna mounted Koshchei’s horse and Prince Ivan got on his own, and they rode away to visit first the Raven, and then the Eagle, and then the Falcon. Wherever they went they met with a joyful greeting. 

‘Ah, Prince Ivan! why, we never expected to see you again. Well, it wasn’t for nothing you gave yourself so much trouble. Such a beauty as Marya Morevna one might search for all the world over – ad never find one like her!'”

I have in my hands a 1920 edition of Arabian Nights. (If you’d like to see some of the illustrations from these two oldest books in the post, look here).

“The captain of the thieves, with a bag on his shoulder, came close to a rock, at the roots of the tree in which Ali Baba had hidden himself. Then he called out, “Open, Sesame!” Instantly a door in the rock opened; and the captain and all his men quickly passed in, and the door closed again. They stayed there for a long time. Meanwhile, Ali Baba was compelled to wait in the tree, as he was afraid some of them might see him if he left his hiding-place. 

“At length the door opened, and the forty thieves came out. The captain stood at the door until all his men had passed out. Then Ali Baba heard him say, “Shut, Sesame!” Each man then bridled his horse and rode away. 

“Ali Baba did not come down from the tree at once, because he thought the robbers might have forgotten something, and come back. He watched them for as long as he could, and did not leave the tree for a long time after he had lost sight of them. Then, remembering the words the captain had used to open and shut the door, he made his way to it, and called out, “Open, Sesame!” Instantly the door flew wide open!”

Now, despite the rather stiff writing style, I love that later in the story Ali Baba’s clever friend Morgiana boils the thieves in oil, but then again, I’ve been known to be a bit bloodthirsty.

In 1937 a little book called The Hobbit appeared in print for the first time, and the genre we now call epic, or classic, fantasy was born.

“So they laughed and sang in the trees; and pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it. Not that they would care; they would only laugh all the more if you told them so. They were elves or course. Soon Bilbo caught glimpses of them as the darkness deepened. He loved elves, though he seldom met them; but he was a little frightened of them too. Dwarves don’t get on well with them. Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a foolish thing to think), or get annoyed with them. For some elves tease them and laugh at them, and most of all their beards.”

I don’t know when the crossover genre of science fiction so far advanced as to become fantasy was born, but I know my favorite example of it is Glory Road by Robert A Heinlein, which originally appeared in 1963. I’ve quoted the roc’s egg passage recently, so here is a little more playful passage.

“Singing birds are better than alarm clocks, and Barsoom was never like this. I stretched happily and smelled coffee and wondered if there was time for a dip before breakfast. It was another perfect day, blue and clear and the sun just up, and I felt like killing dragons before lunch. Small ones, that is.

I smothered a yawn and rolled to my feet. The lovely pavilion was gone and the black box mostly repacked; it was no bigger than a piano box. Star was kneeling before a fire, encouraging that coffee. She was a cave-woman this morning, dressed in a hide that was fancy but not as fancy as her own. From an ocelot, maybe. Or from Du Pont. 

‘Howdy, Princess,’ I said. “What’s for breakfast?”

Here we see that the prose and story-telling begin to become more informal, more natural to the way people spoke and interacted on a daily basis. Or maybe they really did talk like that back in the turn of the century, but somehow I doubt it.

Bringing the stories up to a much more modern, and funny, standard, I have Terry Pratchett’s Mort in my hand now.This was published in 1987, but his tales of Ankh-Morporkh are somehow timeless, as they capture humanity with all its warts, and sometimes regret that capture, as you will see; his characters are not always housebroken.

“‘And they was kings in those days, real kings, not like the sort you get now. They was monarchs,”continued Albert, carefully pouring some tea into his saucer and fanning it primly with the end of his muffler. “I mean, they was wise and fair, well, fairly wise. And they wouldn’t think twice about cutting your head off soon as look at you,” he nodded approvingly. “And the queens were tall and pale and wore them balaclava helmet things -“

“Wimples?” Mort asked. 

“Yeah, them, and the princesses were beautiful as the day is long, and so noble they, they could pee through a dozen mattresses -” 

Marching forward with time, we come to the book published in , a random one of my Dresden File books, Proven Guilty. Urban fantasy, as Butcher writes it, is night to the day of Tolkein, but still, as you will see, with common threads drawing them together in the genre tapestry.

She prowled across the room to us, all hips and lips and fascinating eyes, looking far too young to move with such wanton sensuality. I knew better. She could have been a century old. She chose to look the way she did because of what she was: the Winter Lady, youngest Queen of Unseelie Court, Mab’s understudy in wickedness and power. When she walked by the flowers that bloomed in Lily’s presence, they froze over, withered, and died. She gave them no more notice than Lily had. 

“Harry Dresden,” she said, her voice low, lulling, and sweet.”

And I said, “Hello, Maeve.”

So what do you all think? Is the old worn out and needing to be discarded? I don’t believe so. Rejuvenated with modern language, perhaps. Retellings of old stories are something I enjoy, as I have done a version of Little Red Riding Hood which I really ought to expand on. And I could keep pulling books off my shelf for hours, but the First Reader is sitting here patiently reading Daniel Hood’s A Familiar Dragon and waiting for my attention. Time to spend some real-life time outside the covers of a book, methinks.

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Don’t Get All Hurt About It!

Don’t Get All Butt Hurt About It!
Pam Uphoff

So you got a bad review? Big deal. Bad reviews come in three flavors. (1) Readers who don’t like your book, (2) People who don’t like you and trash your stuff automatically, and (3) Professionals who have dissected your book.

The first thing you should do is calm down and think. Stop being a fragile flower, and stop taking it personally. Settle down, imitate Spock by turning off your emotions (you can have them back later, none the worse for wear), and take a good hard look at all your reviews.

The first type of review? See if there’s any meat to the critiques, see what specifically they didn’t like. If it is the type of book, check your tags and make sure you aren’t accidentally flagging down readers who won’t like your stuff. Don’t tag it as a romance unless the romance is a very large part of the story.
Do you have multiple reviews that all complain about the same thing? Make note of it. I wouldn’t recommend making major changes to a published book, but it could be something to avoid in the next one. If you are getting constant complaints about typos, commas, and missing words, go check your file. Maybe you need to hire a professional copy editor, or lure in a beta reader with grammar nazi tendencies. But keep in mind that some regular Amazon commenter always complain about typos in Indie ebooks, even when they are at a reasonable level.

Is it only one reader who disliked your book? Forget about it! You will never please everyone.

The second type of bad review? Someone doesn’t like you, or took an instant dislike to the book and just ripped it up in a huge long Amazon review? Ignore them. Do not reply to them. There is nothing to your advantage in doing anything else. You will only call attention to the negative review. Do not whine about it on facebook, it will only call attention to it. Really. Just shrug off the personal animus or pity the obviously unbalanced creature.

It’s really the third type of critique or review that I want to look at today. Because this sort of professional critique can be very useful. I got one of these, last month. And (apart from the relief of having something to blog about) I think it will be useful to me.

Jefferson Smith is doing a study on reader immersion, and what breaks it. His analysis here is really interesting, and I failed altogether to resist sending in a book. His methodology is simple. He reads until his immersion has been broken three times, notes the length of time he read, and the three reasons he stopped. That first report was on his first fifty books, now he’s going for a hundred.

_Fancy Free_ died at the ten minute mark. Here’s his report on it specifically: Fancy Free

This is really useful to me. No point at all in getting butt hurt about it, at all.

It’s clear from his take on the book that I was not very clear who the characters were working for, but he had enough of an idea about it to go on.
The first fail point–I thought I was mentioning a few things so they didn’t pop up out of nowhere later. But it was a distracting data dump, for that reader.

The second fail point? I was being cute, using “it” before my sentient computer consciously realized her mortality and desire to continue, and “she” after. And I had beta readers mention it too me, and I ignored them. OK, so being cute is not a good idea. I will remember that in the future. And if I reload the text file, I’ll probably change that.

And then I hit his internal time check. Ten minutes and he wasn’t immersed in the book.

Bzzzt! Test over.

OK, the first two are dead easy to check stories for. It’s the third one that I’m going to have to really study. Was it just the way I started this book? Or is the hook something I really need to work on?

Keep in mind that these are not anguished heart rending rhetorical questions. These are simply the sorts of questions you have to ask yourself and think about, if you are going to improve at the craft of writing.

OK, I know that as writers go, I’m very thick-skinned. (I have a thick skull as well, but things do, eventually, get through.) I have a pretty inflated healthy ego, so I know I have the Art part of writing hard wired in my soul. The craft, you know, the practical stuff that will carry the fruits of my imagination out to where it is comprehensible to other people? Yeah, the craft still needs some work. (Please, just loose the critiques of my typos its old.)

And that may be the way you need to think about it, to benefit from critiques of your work. Tell yourself that the art, the idea, is brilliant. It’s just the mere craftsmanship that is being critiqued, and everyone knows craftsmanship is a learned skilled, not an innate part of oneself. Constantly honed.
So listen and learn.

But also keep in mind that critiques are not always right, or valid, or useful. You can read them and say “Oh Hell no!”
The least useful critique or review is the one where the reader expected a different genre. If you don’t recognize this class of comment, especially from an alpha or beta reader, before you publish, it can really mess up your rewrite. Genre expectations vary greatly from genre to genre. Learn them. Use them. Check your tags and make sure you’re flagging down the readers who like your genre.

Some professional reviewers have biases. My worst review was from a professional reviewer with a strong Christian background. Again, no point in arguing. No point in getting all tangled up about it. Make a note to not send books there for reviews, because they probably won’t like any of my books.
Likewise, make note of favorable reviews, and why the reviewers seemed to like that particular book, and send more with that same quality to them. Some reviews come out of nowhere, as on Amazon’s customer reviews. If it’s negative, you shouldn’t make a spectacle of yourself trying to get it to go away. But do try to encourage the readers who like your books to post reviews on Amazon and anywhere else that allows comments.

If you want a professional opinion on your book’s starting hook, start here: http://creativityhacker.ca/immerseordie-submissions/

And don’t get all emotionally involved. This is a professional opinion, that will help hone your craft.

How about it? Have you guys had any good or bad or both reviews? Have you learned to toughen your skin, or do you still let them get to you?

 

And let’s not forget the usual push:

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When there is no penalty for stupid the stupid multiplies

There is an old, possibly apocryphal helpdesk tale of a hapless helpdesk operator informing a particularly clueless user (after a very long conversation about her non-functional monitor had progressively revealed that there was a power outage and her UPS system had run out of battery as these things do) that her best course of action was to box up her computer, monitor, and peripherals, take them to her employer’s IT staff and tell them she was too stupid to be trusted with a computer.

If this standard was applied to the Internet at large, the Internet would get a whole lot smaller.

For evidence of this, Google “Gamergate”. Now, apart from the bloody irritating memeology that’s decided that every frigging scandal absolutely must have “gate” appended to it (FFS people, Watergate got its name because of the Watergate Hotel. Gate was already part of the name! If there was a scandal involving an actual gate, would it become gate-gate? Er. Sorry… micro-rant over), the gist seems to be that someone claimed a game developer (female) was trading horizontal favors for good reviews and those reputedly receiving said horizontal favors naturally denied any such thing.

Okay. Fine. Humans are corrupt. Many of us have somewhat wobbly moral compasses (not that we’ll admit this, of course. We’re also extremely good at rationalizing what we do so it’s the “right thing”. This is why I say that with very few exceptions people do not get out of bed and say “What evil shall I do today?”) and will do things that could, when viewed in the right (or wrong) light be thought to be rather, well… unethical. For the absolutely best of reasons, of course. Otherwise the saying “the ends justify the means” would never have been said.

Now, whether this purported trading of horizontal favors for good reviews (damn it, nobody ever offered me anything like that… oh wait. They’d be more likely to offer the good reviews for not trading horizontal favors. Nevermind) actually happened, there’s a flurry and flap over the whole thing that’s spread to apparent death threats, questions about endemic sexism in the gaming industry (folks, we’re talking about a haven of nerds and geeks that makes the science fiction and fantasy convention scene look mainstream, with all the associated lack of social ept one might expect. It’s going to look as sexist and everything-else-ist as hell, but it’s also going to be ruthlessly merit-driven. Unless the Glittery Hoo-Haas have come in to reform it, in which case it’s sexist all right, but there’s no misogyny there. Just misandry) and all the froth and bother one might expect from this.

Two things come to mind immediately. First, one of the most influential females in the gaming industry worldwide has had nothing to do with the mess. That’s right. Rhianna Pratchett has stayed out of it (as far as I know – she tends not to make news that much). Of course, she does prefer to be judged on her merits rather than her equipment. Second, the loudest screams seem to be coming from the social gaming scene (I may be wrong on this: it’s a little difficult to pull accurate information from the screams of outrage).

Frankly, you put three people in one place, you have a hierarchy. We here are all well-acquainted with the relative standings of different genres of books. Why is everyone acting so horribly shocked that casual and social gaming is seen in game development (and game playing) circles as easier than other kinds of games. I’m not that much of a gamer myself, and I don’t particularly care if my choice of game is looked down on by someone else, but I can appreciate that there’s a hell of a difference between a game that you play for a bit of mindless amusement and one that immerses you in a complex environment and forces you to make a stream of tactical, strategic, and logistic decisions. The latter is harder to write, harder to design, and harder to play. Complaining that the tactical gamers (who, coincidentally, are mostly male) look down on casual gamers (where there are a lot more females) is like complaining that chess players look down on people playing Tic-Tac-Toe.

So, yes, a lot of really dumb stuff has been said about all of this. A lot of people who should know better have made “you’re too dumb to own a computer”-level comments about the whole mess, mostly by assuming that the people who are – legitimately – concerned about the integrity of game reviews (let’s face it, a smaller company that releases one flagship game per year can be sunk by bad reviews – and hurt by a competitor getting unwarranted good reviews) are evil sexist bastards who want to get them wimmen out of their man-caves.

Honestly, if you put something like this into a book, you’d get panned by people saying “No one would ever be this stupid!” And, well, the average fantasy world does still have the built-in natural penalty for extreme idiocy that our modern life has largely removed. There are times when I wonder if that’s really a good thing.

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First, Catch an Idea – writing your novel, part 1

*Sorry to be so late.  I am apparently catching this virus every month in slightly more attenuated form.  Last night’s was nothing, really, but enough to send me to bed early and make it impossible for me to write blogs.  Hopefully my fellow MGC don’t kick me out! I’ve been dead weight lately.*

 

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t write a novel without having the slightest idea what in heaven it is about. It would come pretty hypocritical from me, since I’ve done it.

Most of my novels start with a voice in my head, a line, a paragraph, the impression of a character I can’t evade.

But even I, at some point have to stop, step back and go “So, what is this book all about?” Now with some books (Darkship Thieves, coff) that only happened as I read my first draft, but that was a good time because it gave me the opportunity to reinforce it, as I did my revisions.

Still, even if your idea doesn’t come in the form of “this is a novel about the human condition” (that is not an idea, it’s a … condition.) or “this is a novel about a planet that decides to abolish sex differences” or something, you have to have an idea to start.

Now the idea might be where the character is, and what his situation is and a sense of who he is. My idea for A Few Good Men was this:

The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.

            They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.  

            Monsters like me.

So, I knew that he was in jail, and there is a prison break. I knew it was in the world of Darkships, so I knew the break was the break of Never-Never at the end of Darkship Thieves, and I knew that he was unjustly in jail (I don’t write anti-heros) and that somehow they’d got inside his head. And that was it.

His name came next, and then I had to find a possible way he had that name, since I’d killed the one character of that name.

But A Few Good Men was strange, as I literally wrote it a page at a time, having to trust that my subconscious. This is a very unnerving way to write and even though this was my 23 or 24th book, I was spooked. Don’t do a book that way if you can help it.

The one thing I know is that regardless of what form your idea comes in, fishing for ideas is much like any other fishing. About half of your ideas you’ll have to throw back because they’re just not big enough.

This is hard to explain, but after a while you get a sense for what is a strong enough idea, and what isn’t and cut the line before hooking it – i.e. before starting a novel. – Until that blessed time comes, you’ll have a “throw back” rate of about fifty percent.

Now this is not an excuse to leave things unfinished. A “this story isn’t strong enough to be a novel/doesn’t interest me enough for me to write” usually dies in the first chapter or second at most.

Some rules of thumb, though not always right, is that unless there are extraordinary circumstances, if the action takes place all in a day, it’s probably a short story, not a novel. Or if it’s a gimmick/problem story (you know, where the mcguffin must be found, or the mystery solved) and it’s not a mystery novel, and there are no red-herrings, chances are it’s a short story or at most a novella.

If you only have a couple of characters, the world is ours, and nothing/no one else is coming alive for you, you might not have a full novel.

Now, mind you, this is not hard and fast rules. Only one character in the Shakespeare novels ever came alive for me, and I had to steal the plot from Tam Lin. But a novel it was.

“But Sarah,” you say, “What if it’s larger than a novel?”

Well, yes, that is a problem too. If you’re a beginning writer, you usually don’t realize when you’ve hooked a trilogy. And I don’t know how to tell you how to figure it out, because it has to do with how you write plot.

Some writers take longer to write the same events than others. And I don’t mean take a long time (though some do that too) but take more book-time-space. Dave Drake says Bellisarius was the plot for ONE BOOK, until he handed it to Eric Flint, and it became a series.

The only thing I can advise is that if you find yourself passing page 400, you might have more than one novel, particularly if you find yourself passing page 400 and intend to publish indie.

Then there are the ideas you’ll hook which aren’t yours to write. This I also can’t give you hard and fast rules for. This too will get easier with practice.

At my time of the writing life, I KNOW when an idea is spiffy, but I can’t write it. This is why my husband’s “Maybe you should write political thrillers” was met with a scream of “Noooooo” and why the only work for hire I ever turned down (to be fair no one offers me many. I don’t watch TV and most people know that, so no show tie-ins, ever) was one that was “a struggle in the corridors of power.”

The reason is I can’t write it because I don’t believe in it. (Same reason I don’t have lesbian characters, at least none in whose head I dwell. Yes, I have lesbian friends. Yes, I know lesbians exist But my back brain refuses to believe anyone can fall in love with a woman. I can barely write it convincingly for my male characters, and that’s ONLY because I’ve been loved by a guy for 30 years [that still astonishes me, too!] so the dinosaur brain had to learn to cope.

So I could have a great idea for a lesbian romance in congress, but I couldn’t write it. And I know that.

Part of the reason I can’t write “in the corridors of power” novels is that I don’t believe in politics and centralized government. Yes, like lesbian love I KNOW they happen, but rational knowledge is not what’s involved in ”selling” it in story telling. THAT is a gut-knowledge or gut belief. And that you can’t command. Now, if you feel it’s worth it to have years of therapy to write a novel, go for it. I’m still at large and the various psych professionals can’t find me.

You’ll have to find your own blind spots.

Now, let’s say you have an idea, or a character, or half a dozen lines that intrigue you. How do you write this novel?

Stay tuned tour thrilling next episode: Reading The Road Map of Plot.

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Attack of the killer kitten

There is some unwritten law somewhere that writers need cats. Or maybe it is just some cosmic joke played on me by the gods of writing. Whatever it is, I have been in possession of the Kitten from Hell (insert deep, echoing voice here) for the last few months. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he’s been in possession — or has possessed — me. All I know for sure is that he’s made life interesting, and not necessarily in a good way all the time, and has seriously cut into my sleep schedule.

The thing is, I’m thoroughly convinced the kitten is actually a dog in cat’s clothing. He races to the window — or the door — whenever someone comes near. He’s actually on “on point” a couple of times. He fetches in the true sense of the word. But worse, he has adopted our late Rocky’s habit of waking one of us — me — at 4 – 5 am every morning simply because someone drives by in a loud truck around then and it his now his job to protect us from the noise. To do so, he jumps into my window — usually scattering things off the top of my desk — and tries to tear through the blinds to get at the monster making all that noise outside.

The result is I feel like I did when my son was but a babe and still not sleeping through the night. There isn’t enough coffee in the world to wake me up and it has become close to a habit that every morning around 7 or 8, I go back to bed for a short nap. What I’d like to do, other than sleeping all night and not having to get up until a decent hour, is find a way to bottle all the kitten’s energy. I’d make a mint.

All this is leading somewhere, I swear. It’s just that my brain is tired and has decided not to use the mental GPS or even a crudely drawn map to get there.

The kitten, Bubba — short for Beelzebub — can be a loving kitten, usually when he’s asleep. There are times when he will climb up in my lap and demand loving. He purrs and headbutts and circles and kneads. And, just as he’s lulled you into thinking he really has changed and become a nice cat, he oh-so-nonchalantly reaches over and bits the living crap out of you. It’s just his way of letting you know that he really is the one in charge and all you’re good for is an occasional scritch and to open the cat food for him.

Ah! Now I remember where I was going with this.

It sort of reminds me of certain writers’ organizations that try to lull you into believing they have your best interests at heart all the while it appears those in control are simply stroking their own egos and pushing their own social or political or who-knows-what agenda.

The latest is, once again, the Authors Guild. On its homepage, AG bills itself as “the published writer’s advocate for effective copyright, fair contracts and free expression since 1912.” On its membership page, it quickly becomes clear that AG prefers traditionally published authors. You have to scroll down and down and down before you find anything that even hints at AG accepting self-published (or small press, presumably) authors.

Self-published authors who demonstrate that they meet writing income thresholds qualify for Authors Guild membership. The income requirement is intended to assure that the Guild stays focused on its core mission it’s pursued for the past 100 years: serving the interests of those pursuing writing as part of their livelihoods. Depending on your income, self-published authors may qualify as either regular (voting) or associate (non-voting) members. Both categories of membership received full Guild benefits. (Associate membership is a longstanding Guild category for writers with an offer to be traditionally published. It allows our legal department to help writers before they sign their first contract.) Traditionally published and self-published authors become regular members when they meet regular membership criteria.

If you aren’t already turned off by the very obvious lack of enthusiasm for indie authors, you can scroll down a bit more to find a drop-down box where you then tell them how much you’ve made over the last 18 months or so. Of course, this doesn’t tell you anything. It doesn’t say if you can prove you made $5,000 over the last 18 months that you will qualify for full membership in the Guild. No, all you can do is say if you’ve earned at least $5,000 or, if you haven’t met that threshold, if you’ve made at least $500 over that same period of time. The final option is that you haven’t earned $500 over the last 18 months. Oh, and then they want your payment information. Of course, you won’t be charged until your application has been approved.

Wow, makes you feel real welcome as an indie author, doesn’t it?

But let’s not condemn them — yet. Let’s look at their page on “Where we stand.” Before clicking on it, think about what you’d expect to find on that page. Me, I’d expect to see something about how they are working to help protect our copyright protections, not only with legal reforms but in contract negotiations with both publishers and agents. Or how about something dealing with doing all they can to help negotiate better contracts for writers that will give us a larger royalty percentage since technology and demand has changed. Really, does anyone believe the shipping and storage costs are the same now, in this day of POD, as it was when huge print runs were made and then the publishers sat with fingers crossed because they didn’t have pre-order numbers to judge off of? Or maybe something about continuing education or even — gasp — insurance for authors.

Click on the tab. Wow! The page has gone from “Where we stand” to “Advocacy”. Oh-oh. Could we have a bit of bait-and-switch here? Well, let’s not jump to conclusions. Let’s see what they have to say.

And here we come to the reason for this post. This “Where we stand” page is nothing more than a screed against Amazon. At least as far as I could stand to read it. Amazon is evil — let’s forget about the fact that it is the major retailer for most authors, both print and digital. Let’s also forget that they are standing against Amazon in order to “protect” those authors published by Hatchette. What about the other authors who are members of their organization? Funny, don’t they matter?

Where was AG when Amazon offered to set up a fund, first to be backed by both Hatchette and Amazon and then by Amazon itself, to help those Hatchette authors impacted by the contract stalemate? Where was AG when Hatchette refused both deals? Oh, I know. It was hiding behind the curtain, hands over its eyes, doing its best to ignore the fact that Amazon was trying to help its members.

Now AG has tried to convince the Department of Justice just how evil Amazon is. That first entry on its “Where we stand” page is its official statement about a meeting with DoJ officials that AG called in an attempt to take down Amazon. It is all very vague about what anti-trust violations Amazon may have committed. But Amazon is evil, you know.

The Authors Guild’s mission, since its founding in 1912, has been to support working writers.

That’s a worthy mission — as long as that struggling writer happens to meet their criterion. Of course, they’ll welcome you with open arms if you are traditionally published. That welcome might be a bit more grudging if you are self-published.

The Guild has consistently opposed Amazon’s recent and ruthless tactics of directly targeting Hachette authors, which have made these authors into helpless victims in a business dispute between two big corporations. This action has caused thousands of writers to see a significant drop in their royalty checks. The Authors Guild challenges this threat to the literary ecosystem, one that jeopardizes the individual livelihoods of authors.

Oookay. “Directly targeting Hachette authors.” Well, not really. The target is Hachette. The authors are involved because they create the product Hachette sells via Amazon.  I know, I know, they are upset about the lack of pre-order buttons. Well, boo-hoo. Pull up your big boy pants and think about it from a contractual point of view for a moment. If there is no contract between Amazon and Hachette, Amazon faces the possibility that it won’t be able to fulfill those pre-orders when the books are finally released by the publisher. Why in the world should Amazon be held to accepting pre-orders for products it might not have? I guess AG doesn’t care about the customer relations nightmare it would be for Amazon to have to tell its customers “Sorry, we know you pre-ordered the book but we can’t send it to you. Go somewhere else.”

The rest of that paragraph has me asking a very simple question: why does AG assume that Amazon is the bad guy here and that there aren’t parts of the Hachette demands that are just as evil as what Amazon is asking? Oh, I know. Amazon is evil. Hachette, as a traditional publisher, is the writer’s friend. Excuse me while I go wash my mouth out.

The Guild started its own initiative to invite governmental scrutiny of Amazon’s outsize market share and anticompetitive practices in the publishing industry. Last summer the Guild prepared a White Paper on Amazon’s anticompetitive conduct, circulating it to the United States Department of Justice and other government entities. As a result of our request for the initiation of an investigation of Amazon, we hosted a meeting with the DOJ in our offices on August 1 so that a group of authors could make their case directly to the government. . . .

So, Amazon is evil because it managed to build a thriving business. Oh, wait, it killed bookstores. Or did it? There is a re-emergence of locally owned bookstores across the country. It’s the big box stores that are in trouble, but we can’t ding them or demand they look at their own business practices because, you know. Amazon evil.

The Guild has been working closely with the grassroots group Authors United—founded by Authors Guild Council Member Douglas Preston—which will be making another request to the Department of Justice to investigate Amazon for potential antitrust violations.

Grassroots? Huh? I think their definition of the word differs from mine. If it is a grassroots organization, I wouldn’t expect it to be founded by an AG council member. Oh, look, that same “grassroots organization” will be making the same sort of request of the DoJ as AG did. Hmm, wonder just how similar those requests will read? Inquiring minds want to know.

Our mission is to protect and support working writers.

So you keep saying.

When a retailer, which sells close to half the books in the country, deliberately suppresses the works of certain authors, those authors are harmed, and we speak out.

Funny, I thought Amazon was simply not allowing pre-orders of books from Hachette and, yes, has been alleged to be slow in stocking those books. Odd, though, there’s been no real proof of that latter accusation. My question here is if Hachette has been slow in getting the books to Amazon. And, again, Amazon is dealing with the publisher, not the authors. This isn’t the first time a bookseller has been in contract dispute with a publisher and, whether AG wants to admit it or not, it has always been the authors who have been hit because they are the ones who supply the product the publishers sell. It ain’t personal, folks. It’s business and you need to be asking the hard questions of the publishers as well as of the seller.

We will continue to oppose any business tactics, from publishers or retailers, that interfere with working writers’ ability to present their products in a fair marketplace and to flourish within their chosen field. Our goal is to ensure that the markets for books and ideas remain both vigorous and free.

Odd this. I would have thought that the goal of AG was to get the best working conditions, ie pay and contract provisions, for its members.

Anyway, that’s my sleep-deprived rant for the day. Now I’m off to find more coffee and to get back to work. With luck, Duty from Ashes will be available for pre-order from Amazon later today or tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

 

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