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>Open Thread

>Today’s an open thread day here at MGC. Ask your questions, give us your opinions, let us know if you’ve seen an interesting blog/article about the publishing industry. The floor is yours.

>The Great Gender Divide

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First let me confess I am a romantic at heart. Hence the reference to what I think of as Georgette Heyer’s romances. (Yes, I know these were from Jane Austen movies. I prefer Heyer to Austen because of Heyer’s sense of humour).

I’m not a feminist as such more a people-ist.

There is no denying, men and women are different. When my eldest daughter was born I dressed her in blue overalls and gave her cars and trucks to play with. When she turned two, she would wearing nothing but hot pink. Her brother was born with boy-behaviour firmly encoded in his brain. After that I gave up fighting gender preferences.

All this is leading up to how different male and female brains are and how we, as writers, dare to write from the Point of View of the other gender.

Louanne Brizdendine has done a post on Love, sex and the male brain over here. She talks about the male tendency to become territorial:-

‘The “defend your turf” area — dorsal premammillary nucleus — is larger in the male brain and contains special circuits to detect territorial challenges by other males. And his amygdala, the alarm system for threats, fear and danger is also larger in men. These brain differences make men more alert than women to potential turf threats.’

That comes as no surprise. She also talks about testosterone and what it does to the male brain. She says:-

‘if testosterone were beer, a 9-year-old boy would be getting the equivalent of a cup a day. But a 15-year-old would be getting the equivalent of nearly two gallons a day. This fuels their sexual engines and makes it impossible for them to stop thinking about female body parts and sex.’

And then there’s this bit that made me smile.

‘When his mate becomes pregnant, she’ll emit pheromones that will waft into his nostrils, stimulating his brain to make more of a hormone called prolactin. Her pheromones will also cause his testosterone production to drop by 30 percent. These hormonal changes make him more likely to help with the baby. They also change his perceptual circuitry, increasing his ability to hear a baby cry, something many men can’t do very well before their wives are pregnant.’

So, if men and women think so differently, how do we dare to write from the other gender’s perspective? Well, if there was a Ven diagram men and women would overlap far more than they were diverge.

Can you think of male writers who write females really well and, conversely, can you think of female writers who do really good males?

>Why stop now, just when I was hating it?

>http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2010/03/voice-of-the-fans-what-books-have-you-stopped-reading/

Books I have stopped reading… This is one of those fascinating ideas that every author, agent, publisher and even retailer should be investigating and at the very least thinking about ‘why?’ Now the above blog article obviously doesn’t come under the heading of serious research, (it’s nearly as systematic and statistically relevants as say… raw bookscan numbers. The sort of thing that might act as a vague pointer, but needs to be taken with thought and care, because it’s pretty obvious that this is a small self-selected group, not necessarily representative of readers in general) but it’s the best I have right now, and there are a few interesting things to be gleaned there. Keep in mind that one man’s meat is another man’s poison (and SUCH small portions).

Let’s take some the things that kept cropping up: Didn’t like the characters. What the commentators by in large didn’t say was why they didn’t like the characters (well, okay some did say ‘cardboard’ and ‘stereotyped’ – which, um, hasn’t stopped various authors being very popular even the ones no admits reading or liking but everyone has (often repeatedly). David Eddings for example.) But having read a good few of the books mentioned what I felt was that the characters failed to be ones readers could identify with.

Heavy ‘literary prose’ – well now there IS a shocker! Who would have thought it? It’s plain however that if you’re an agent or an acquiring editor – if you actually NOTICE the prose – it’s a bad buy. And if you’re an author wordy-prosy might get you a literary prize but it won’t attract many readers. On the other hand it does seem to get bought, despite this. So… maybe if you can fool both sides? Editors, agents and readers? Hmm. Maybe.

Difficult styles/voice – as above. But it isn’t always wordy/prosy/literary. I must admit for eg I struggled to read (although enjoyed the story) the early Cherryh books. It took a while of sitting analysing line-by-line to get the style – and – despite admiring the author’s ideas and work, deciding I wasn’t going to go there.

Boring story – this came up time and again. I think the message here for us writers is that a structural editor can be a lifesaver. For the record I work on no more than one non-action at all chapter (of no more than 7 pages) in a row. I sat and analysed a lot of books to reach this figure. Therefore it’s probably wrong – or at least there are authors who can get away with breaking it. But I think that failing on this one – dead simple though it may be, has crashed a lot of authors into the ‘boring’ wall. YMMV.

Books with series inflation – aaaaaaaaargh. Rule I made up for myself (and this is HARD for me too) each book may not be longer than the last. I don’t know if it works, but I’m trying it.

And the most important question: why did they try to read them in first place?
I’m not going to try and answer that one. It’s over to you to think about. But I think it has a lot to do with why our industry is in trouble, not – as it should, by all historical precedent – be making an absolute fortune out of the economic downturn. (Cheap entertainment is historically counter-cyclical, going up when other economic indicators go down – and the reasons why also should be something all authors, agents and publishers are thinking about.)

So: books you couldn’t finish? TBARs? And what it was that got you to try them and drove you to abandon them?

>E-Books and a Certain Act of Piracy

>By now, most of you know my stance on e-books. I love them, but I hate DRM. I don’t think they will totally replace print books, but they have their place and it’s time publishers recognize it. That said, I have little use for websites that knowingly and willingly put up copies of e-books that are currently under copyright for download without proper permissions.

I am not talking about the Baen free library, Joe Buckley’s The Fifth Imperium, Suvudu or the like. These are all legitimate sites authorized by the publishers and their authors to make available for free downloads of certain books. I love these sites. I’ve found a number of new authors to read because of them.

No, what I’m talking about are the torrent sites and other websites that don’t give a damn about authors’ rights. These sites, and their operators, are pirates. I’d use stronger language, but I don’t want to be kicked off the blog. Yes, my feelings about these bottom feeders are that strong.

What, you might ask, brought on this tirade? Very simply, I read a blog entry by Nancy Kress and her “discussion” with one of these parasites. Not only does he refuse to remove her books from his site, but he claims there is no “ownership” of words, ie books. Worse, this person claims to be a librarian, someone who ought to at least be willing to protect the rights of those who write the books in his collection.

I won’t repeat the conversation (actually a series of emails). You can find it here. Normally, I wouldn’t do that much, because you can find the link to this person’s website. However, this time I’ll make an exception. This person knows, or should know, what copyright is. On the site, he specifically says this is to gather, and allow for download, books that do not qualify for inclusion in Project Gutenberg. He includes books from authors like King, Atwood, Grafton and many others. Oh, he couches it in terms of “loan” and “limited number of downloads” per time frame. But then he turns around and asks for donations. Oh, and then there is the “free” DVD you can get — as long as you “donate” the appropriate amount and then tell him where you want the DVD sent. Sorry, that’s a sale.

Now, before someone pipes in and says that everyone who has ever busted DRM is also a pirate, no. We bought the book. We removed the DRM so we could read it on another ebook reader. We aren’t — or at least none of the folks I know who break DRM — are out there giving the now DRM-free books away to the masses. Nor are we charging for those books, making money off of them to the detriment of the authors who wrote them.

And, no, this isn’t the same thing as selling a hard copy of a book to a second hand book shop — or going to one and buying the book. Publishers and authors might not like the fact they get no royalties from these sales, but at least they know the book was originally bought from a legitimate retailer. We don’t know that with this particular site — nor, frankly, do we know it with any of the sites that allow for illegal downloads of books. In fact, I’m confident in saying that a number of the books on his site were not originally purchased as ebooks. If you read the list of books available (currently more than 2,000) and when you read his explanation of what his site is, you will see that there are books available that are not currently offered in electronic format and that he has scanned them in AND he encourages others to do the same.

Bottom line, folks, if you want an ebook, there are plenty of legitimate places where you can find thousands of them for free. Go to Amazon. Go to Barnes & Noble. Go to Fictionwise. Go to Baen’s free library or webscriptions. Check out Teleread for a list of places. Or even wikipedia. Just don’t go to these sites that aren’t affiliated with legitimate publishers or that operate without publisher or author approval. If nothing else, respect the writers you enjoy reading enough not to visit these sites. And, when you do find these sites and see books you know aren’t out of copyright yet, let the publishers and authors know.

Me, I keep an eye out for these sites with regard to several authors I know and give a yell when I find their books on them. I’d like to be able to do more, but the authorities frown upon stakes and boiling oil. So that does bring up the question of what should be done about these pirates? I think we all agree that the government and music industry have shown how foolish it is to try to fine and jail those who illegally download. But what should be done about those who put the books up for download, knowing they have no legal right to do so? Should anything be done? Tell me what you think.

>Interview With Lucienne Diver

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As many of you, if not most of you know, my agent is Lucienne Diver. She’s sort of easy to spot at conventions by the trail of drool left by assorted male admirers. However, she’s not all — not even mostly — image. I’ve worked with Lucienne for six (?) seven (?) years now, and I’ve found she’s smart, well informed and helpful in the marketing of my books. Imagine my surprise when I found out she also is an author and a dang good one.

Anyway, I’ve twisted her arm and got her to give me an interview on both of her careers and on the field today.

Q: You’re known in the field as a tough and smart agent. Now you’re also becoming known as an outstanding writer. Either of these is enough of an achievement for normal human beings. So, other than your secret magic keyboard that allows you to do this, (though you can reveal that too, if you wish) how do you manage it? And why? (Beyond a love of books.)

A: As, shucks, I’m blushing. Really, it’s not just the scotch. Seriously, it is a love of words. I grew up knowing two things with absolute certainty: that I wanted to write and that I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. (Okay, and that John Stamos was/is a fox, but that’s hardly relevant here.) I was a voracious reader, and borrowed from the library, from my mother, father, aunts, uncles, grandparents. I read cereal boxes, tooth paste tubes, newspapers, street signs…you name it. Give me five seconds without words and I’d start reading tea leaves. I just can’t help myself. I started writing in the fifth grade, where a class short story assignment turned into a 110 page “novel.” My teacher was wonderfully encouraging, and I was hooked. Also, I found that it was more socially acceptable to write a story and allow my characters to talk to each other rather than talk back to them myself.

Q: What are the differences in thought pattern and interest between the two roles? Do you find sometimes one bleeds over into the other? Does agent Lucienne sit on the shoulder of writer Lucienne and quip about what she’s doing? “That will never sell? Do you know how hard it is to sell vamps these days?” If so, how do you get her to shut up?

A: Oh, Lord, yes! My agent side is every bit as dominant, if not more so, than my author side. I know, shocker, right – a dominant agent? I’ve actually had to ding dong ditch my agent self by waking up before she does to write. I set the alarm for oh-my-god-it’s-early and wake up before my inner editor so that I can hear my characters’ voices and not my own. I can edit in the evenings, once my inner editor has her copious amounts of caffeine and awakes to her musty, crusty self, but my flow is best in the mornings. Really, I’ve a bit of a split personality where writing is concerned. I joke, but that’s really the way it is. I can’t write during the work day…even if I wanted to. My brain automatically switches over to all my agently chores…submissions, haggling out contract language, talking career strategies with my authors. I’m not the same person. My agent-self shuts down the voices in my head—and thank goodness!

Q: Your main character in Vamped is a beautiful, tough young girl. I loved the way that she can care about clothes and makeup and hair and yet not be a bimbo and have feelings that are much deeper than the surface. Having seen you being followed around by starry-eyed males at cons (and not just those who want representation) how much of Gina’s fashion sense — and how much of her tough and caring personality — is autobiographical?

A: If you’d seen me in junior high and high school, you’d laugh yourself silly at the thought of me writing a fashionista. I was far more like my hero, Bobby – a geek in every sense of the word. I was a brain who played D&D, entered speech competitions and the science fair every year without fail. I did theatre and chorus. I love the show Glee, because it’s so me, except that I got severe stage-fright whenever it came time to sing a solo. (And Kurt…I used to do his eyeliner for him in homeroom, only he went by a different name .) Now, though…well, now I’m a bit of a clothes horse. I’m confident and much more the kick-butt and take names kinda gal. Gina definitely gets that from me. Mostly, though, I thought it would be a blast to play with a character as unlike me as I was in high school as possible and put her through her version of hell. I mean, a fashionista without a reflection, with no way to fix her hair and make-up—now that’s horror!

Q: I went out and bought your book — Vamped (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Vamped/Lucienne-Diver/e/9780738714745/?itm=1&USRI=vamped) — after hearing you read the beginning at Lunacon last year. Do you have an mp3 on line so other people can share that delightful experience? I know you were a theater major. Does that help with the reading and appearances?

A: Aw, you’re the best! I’ve thought about doing a reading that I can post and actually had my husband film it, but I hate the sight of myself on video. (I think it harkens back to my old, insecure days.) I never thought of doing an audio file. I’ll have to get on that! The theatre experience does help in doing speeches and all as an agent. I give my agent “persona” free rein and can talk all day. As an author…it’s a little more nerve-wracking, because I’m putting my creative work out there and risking ridicule. You probably remember from that Lunacon reading, which was my first ever, that I was pretty apologetic about the whole thing. The audience was doing me such a favor just by listening. I wonder if I’ll ever stop feeling that way.

Q: As an agent — gives Lucienne time to change her hat — in a field in turmoil, how do you feel about the future of the profession?

A: I think that if anything, agents are more relevant than ever. There are so many things for writers to consider, so many directions and so much advice out there (good and bad) that in addition to being an author’s advocate, we’re important to guide an author’s career on the straightest path to success. Whether we’re talking about electronic, audio, film, foreign, serial or initial print publication rights, we’re talking about contracts, terms, definitions like “net” sales, non-compete and reversion clauses…all kinds of things that it’s important to get right so that a writer doesn’t find him or herself boxed in down the line.

Q: In a world in which it is increasingly easier for the writer to reach the public directly, what do you think of the traditional role of mediator between agent and publisher?

A: Yes, authors can reach the public directly, but they have to be writer, editor, designer, publicist, marketing guru and more all in one to do so successfully (or pay someone to take on these tasks). Even then, sales don’t reach the same levels as with a publisher that can get the books into the brick and mortar stores, the chains, supermarkets and airports, Walmart and Target. They have deals in place for e-books with Apple iPad, Amazon’s Kindle, Sony e-Readers, etc. Publishers have the resources and contacts to reach readers and reviewers that are difficult to replicate directly.

Q: Do you see agenting changing and growing other “value added” side functions?

A: A lot of agencies, like The Knight Agency, take an active role in promoting their authors’ work as well as in selling it and negotiating terms. For example, we have a very active website and blog where we run giveaways, organize chats, promote forthcoming books, post author interviews, book trailers and links, etc. We have a monthly newsletter. Several of us have our own blogs.
Links: The Knight Agency website: http://www.knightagency.net/
The Knight Agency Blog: http://knightagency.blogspot.com/
My blog: http://varkat.livejournal.com
Nephele Tempest’s blog: http://nephele.livejournal.com/

Old school, though, one of our value-added functions is that we also work editorially with our authors to make their work the best it can be prior to submission. There’s so much competition out there right now, even for published authors, that this can be the difference between an auction, a sale, or silence.

Q: We keep hearing the market is dying, if not dead already. Is this true?

A: Absolutely not. Publishers are cautious right now. The number of hoops editors have to jump through to offer on a project has probably increased, and as a result of that and the lay-offs within the past few years, response times are down. However, publishers are definitely still buying and still on the look-out for hot new fiction and non-fiction.

Q: What do you look for in a new client? What attributes make a manuscript (or query, or proposal) pop out of slush at you? Conversely, what characteristics in a manuscript, query or proposal make you “throw it back in the water” no matter how good the rest is?

A: I find that what often distinguishes the fantastic from the good is voice. Two people could write very similar stories and one could feel fresh and phenomenal and the other lifeless all due to the originality of the point of view. I really love a unique voice. I love a good story, well plotted and paced. I like to be surprised. Predictability, cardboard characters and/or over-telling will all get me to set a manuscript aside, as will a voice or plot that doesn’t sound convincing and authentic.

Q: As both a writer and an agent, what do you think of self-promotion? I came into the field at a time when publishers at best ignored authors’ efforts and at worst disapproved of self-promotion. Now they seem to expect it. What do you think of this, and how do you think it will change going forward?

A: Self-promotion has become increasingly important, especially with the proliferation of social media and networking sites as a way to connect writers and readers, libraries, bookstores. Publishers work with so many writers that they generally have a standard process they follow – a particular list of reviewers who receive advance copies, publications where the books get advertised, etc. For their bigger authors, they may arrange tours, expand the scope of their ads, do novelty promotions, trailers, etc. Generally, though, it’s up to the authors to take up where the publishers leave off and publicize their own work through blogs, blog tours, appearances and signings at conventions and the like (though often if you’ve got local stores, etc. in mind for signings, your publisher will help you arrange them). It’s also important for writers to let local publications, alumni newsletters, etc., about their upcoming releases and to make the most of any contacts they have, coordinating efforts with their house’s publicist, of course. For anyone interested in more about promotion, I went into a little more depth over at Barbara Vey’s Beyond her Book blog for Publishers Weekly. (http://www.publishersweekly.com/blog/Beyond_Her_Book/29594-Ask_the_Agent_Lucienne_Diver.php)

Q: Anything else you’d like to share with us?

A: Hmm, you’ve covered a lot of ground here already! I guess I’ll just leave you with some links for anyone who wants to hear more.
My blog: http://varkat.livejournal.com
My author website: www.luciennediver.com
My agency website: www.knightagency.net
My character’s blog (because it’s not enough that she talks non-stop to me, she wants to talk to you too): http://ginasgems.livejournal.com

I hope you enjoy!

>What Drives Your Plot?

>Yet another thing I rarely think about consciously, but should. What is driving the plot?

Is it a mystery? Conflict? Is it the appeal of the character themselves? Is it the setting, weaving through the whole story as though it itself was a character, drawing us in with its own presence. Action? The beauty of the prose (I wish)?

I usually go for a bit of a combination. Typically, I do rely on action, particularly in fantasy, with overt conflict. But I like to have (hopefully) a good hook into the character and their journey from the start. Then I try to build in some key mystery that the characters need to solve. I like to have internal characterisation of both the protagonists and the antagonists to help build up the sense of danger and raise the tension in the conflicts.

I think conflict can be a very powerful way of driving a plot – but it will only work if you have drawn the characters well. That’s one thing that people forget, action only works if you have first hooked into the character. Otherwise who cares if they are suspended above the Pit of Doom by a thread of silk?

Whatever it is, it needs to dovetail with whatever is hooking the reader at the outset, and also consistent with whatever expectations are set up at the beginning of the book. For example, if you are promising a character-driven book, don’t suddenly sideline the PoV character and introduce a cast of thousands with a mystery. If you start with the hint of a major conflict, don’t have the Evil Overlord suddenly vanish and start a literary exploration of circular thinking in cool cafes.

What is your favourite way of driving a plot? What are your favourite examples of plot driven books?


>When ignorance meets ego

>You get things like the alleged first chapter I saw yesterday.

I was going to talk about writing from the POV of the truly evil, until this thing derailed me. It is an amazing demonstration of just how bad something can be when written by someone who has so little knowledge of the writer’s craft they can’t tell that what they’re doing isn’t a masterpiece. By about the same margin as the Pacific Ocean isn’t wet.

This is, incidentally, a well known principle. The incompetent have no idea they’re incompetent because they don’t know enough to realize. By comparison, the most skilled are also the least secure in their skills, because they know their abilities so well they focus on their weaknesses instead of their strengths. Short-short-version – if someone tells you they’re the greatest writer since Shakespeare (or anyone else), run. Fast.

This piece has so much wrong with it it’s difficult to know where to start. It opens with someone arriving at the ER of a hospital – by taxi – after having been run over by a bicycle messenger at the presumably nearby airport, and he’s hauling his luggage. Despite a broken wrist. Apart from the clunky prose, there’s no mention of the injuries the messenger must have suffered – because anyone who gets hit by a cyclist hard enough to break a wrist is sending that cyclist ass over apex to land on a rather unforgiving surface. The gentleman with the broken wrist is certainly not going to get up and hail a taxi. He’s going to be evaluated on-site by the airport security staff, who *will* call an ambulance to get him and the cyclist treated either on-site or at the nearest hospital.

This, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is why we need to use a little intelligence when we work out what happens in a scene of our novels and short stories. If you need your character to arrive at a hospital with a specific injury, first learn what kinds of actions cause that particular injury, then figure out a way to have it happen without any complications you don’t want. While you’re at it, do a little research into what happens when people are admitted to hospitals, and how critical cases enter.

Yes, the author got that wrong, too. Firstly, any half decent hospital with an ER facility has a separate entrance for ambulance arrivals than the one walk-ins use. There is no horde of uniformed doctors and nurses in white coats milling around the door waiting for a critical case. There will be an organized path aimed at getting the incoming patient from the ambulance to treatment at the fastest possible speed, usually involving the paramedics and ambulance drivers running while carrying IV gear and anything else needed. They don’t stop to gossip about the casualty, they don’t let any bystanders get close enough to potentially infect the casualty, and they sure as hell don’t accept the word of random patients awaiting triage about offering to donate organs. More likely, said random patient would be in for a quick trip to psych eval after a dose of knockout juice and treatment for broken wrist. Anyone who doubts this would be advised to read this from start to finish. As well as the graveyard humor, there’s a lot of information about how hospitals operate buried in there, and testament to the dedication of ER and other medical staff.

That’s the plot of the chapter the author posted – and absolutely everything is wrong. In the middle of it all of our putative hero with the broken wrist reminisces about how much he likes being a school teacher (and speaking as a former teacher, I guarantee you THAT is wrong, too), and infodumpuses about a particularly vile serial killer due for execution (in a state notorious for not holding executions, no less). Neither has any noticeable connection to the alleged hero’s actions, or to the reason the prison chaplain is brought in with injuries that amount to DOA, not ER (knifed in BOTH kidneys, open head wound leaking spinal fluid and brain plus assorted other trauma? Not unless he got those injuries right outside the hospital carpark).

How can anybody think this is how things work? Or am I just too damned optimistic in thinking this sort of thing is too stupid for words?