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He Beats Me But He’s My Publisher

By Sarah Hoyt

First let me point out no one beats me. Not literally. For those of you who’ve read Athena (Darkship Thieves) this should not be an incredible surprise.

The title is denoting of the relationship existing in traditional publishing between the writer and the publishing house. It is also the sort of thing I heard many women say about their husbands in the village where I grew up. Portugal, like most countries whose cultures were strongly influenced by Islam, had a streak of wife-abuse running through the poorer or more culturally backward classes. Since in the village where I lived my dad was one of the very few white collar workers, this meant my mother and my grandmother were forever saving women who ran away from home when they were two steps from landing in the emergency room… Only to see them go back to their husbands because “He beats me but he’s my man.” Or “He beats me because I’m not good enough.” Or “He beats me because he loves me so much.” Or even “Whom should he beat but his own.”

Needless to say, the one thing my family told me, from – I think – before I could toddle (I could talk before I could walk. No. Don’t ask.) was “If your husband ever so much as slaps you, you leave. That day. And you don’t go back.”

Unfortunately my family never knew about publishers and the status of the mid-list author.

I wasn’t going to talk about any of this. I wasn’t. I like at least one of my publishers immensely, and I do understand how their hands are tied. On the other hand the last few days have been very trying. First, is it my impression or are all the establishment’s blue eyed boys going out of their way to tell us how we’ll starve in the gutter without traditional publishing? They remind me of my first agent, who btw, ONLY made official the sale I had already made to the publisher, and who then told me I’d die in the gutter without her, when I fired her. (Yeah. That… didn’t work as she thought, curiously enough.)

But then yesterday, in the Baen bar, someone posted that he sent letters to WRITERS complaining about their publishers’ DRM policies and pricing for ebooks because, I don’t know, the Kool-Aid man is red? Oh, wait, no, it’s more nonsensical than that. Because and – clears throat – I am quoting: writers choose their publishers. I want them to choose publishers who don’t do these things.

And that pushed me over the top. Call it hormonal, all right? I’m getting to be the same age when my mom was more likely to take off with the cast iron frying pan to talk to one of the abusive husbands than she was to simply bandage the woman’s wounds.

So, to begin with, let me tell you right now that the chances of a midlist author dictating terms to his/her publisher are about the same as those of a village working class woman finding a man who doesn’t beat her. She might get lucky. She MIGHT. But she can’t count on it. In fact, a village woman once told me “If you think you’ll find a man who doesn’t beat you–” (And let me say, yes I have.)

Heck, as some of you know I have a lot of friends who are bestsellers. The way the market is right now, the chance of a bestseller dictating terms to his publisher are close to nill as well – unless he’s one of those blockbuster bestsellers that defy all classification. In our field you can probably count those in the fingers of both hands and have some fingers left over. And unfortunately none of them are close enough friends for me to ask if they, too, are worried.

Now, let me describe to you how much power the typical author has. Let me tell you how traditional publishing works for the unconnected, the non-fashionable and the doomed.

First of all, it’s a buyer’s market. Since the mega mergers of the eighties, there are five overarching houses. There might be more imprints, but, at least when submitting through an agent, you can’t submit twice to the same house. (Well, at least not using any agent I’ve had.)

Second, for each slot available on the publishing schedule there are thousands upon thousands of submissions. Even assuming the vast majority of those are either horrible or “don’t fit” the publisher’s “needs” there have to be at least ten books that would fit the slot at any given time.

So, let’s say YOUR book takes the editor’s fancy. Or maybe they owed your agent a favor. Or maybe they liked the title better than the other ten. Who knows?

You’re a brand new author, and they pick you out of slush. Oooh. Oooh. You’re in the money now, right?

Um… maybe. But first let’s talk about the important considerations: how powerful is your agent? How much does he/she believe in you? And do you know anyone in a publishing house? If all those are negative, you have one more chance at the big money – are you a “sexy package”? Part of this is literal. Are you cute and young? Can they count on displaying you and having people tumble over themselves? Part is metaphorical – do you have a hard luck story? Do you have something interesting about you? Do you perhaps have a well-followed blog? Or are you a politically correct refugee? (When my first series tanked the publisher told me she would buy me again and “make me a bestseller” if I wrote an autobiography. I was thirty eight. I’d done nothing but get married, have kids and write three failed books. So… she wanted me to write about my childhood in Portugal and make it “sexy.” No, I didn’t. What, am I stupid? No. I respect my family and friends there too much. I want to sell my books, not my unremarkable self. Also there are other reasons which are none of their business. Or anyone else’s.)

Let’s suppose you’re either white-bread American and unconnected to the publishing industry in any way. (Or you’re not white American but are stupid or honorable enough not to let them make a big deal of your life or treat you as an oppressed minority.) Let’s also suppose you wasted your twenties trying to break in, and in your thirties you’re blousy, somewhat overweight, with two small children.

Ah, my dear, welcome to hell. Here’s your accordion.

Having looked at this, your editor “forecasts” your numbers. I have it on good authority this doesn’t involve the bones of sacrificed animals. What they do is go “White, American, unremarkable and not sexy.” And you get the standard beginner’s advance. It used to be the princely sum of five thousand dollars (what, you can’t live on that for a year? Foolish you. Appliance boxes are free, and there are some nice underpasses. You can write at the library.) It is now three thousand.

Now the book and its advance pass on to the marketing department. Who… barely glance at it. To get back the money they invested in you, they don’t really need to do anything. No, look, I know what you’ve heard. They say that printing the average book costs 100k or some fantastical sum. But that’s because they’re charging to every book the same percentage of editor/publicist/secretary/etc salaries. (Many books at this level, if bought on proposal, never get READ in full. Except presumably by the copyeditor. That’s how much time you take of those salaries.)

Next, you get assigned to someone – probably someone’s secretary – who procures a cover for you. Usually you get a beginner artist (and some are darn good) but they might also use some form of out of copyright art – like my first three books. And then… and then you go to copyedit. And thence to the marketing department again.

I’ve been privileged to listen to a book reps spiel back before I was published, at my favorite independent bookstore, while I was waiting to ask the manager a question. Back then this was done with a huge catalogue with covers, and one or two books in actual advance printing. First these came up. They were either bestsellers or those the publisher had slated as bestsellers. They got handed to the bookstore manager and the manager was told “Well, we have strong confidence in these books. You’ll want to take…” twenty of each, I think, at a minimum. Might have been fifty. It’s been a long time. Then came the books in “second slot” for that quarter. For these the rep had the covers. He’d hand them over, do a little song and dance, and say “you want to take” – five or ten of these. He’d tell you how the publisher was promoting these books this way or that, or how interesting the life story of the author was, or what have you.

AND THEN, at the end, he’d say “You also can take these.” THAT, Mr. or Ms. Whitebread, is where you are. And if your cover is exceptionally pretty or the manager recently watched a movie that sounds somewhat like your book, they might take one or two.

At that point, you’re in the midlist zone. You’re also more than likely in the sales death spiral (no, I’m not going to explain that. This would run to ten pages. Google Books and Death Spiral.) After that, any book you sell, those numbers will be brought up. Can you escape the midlist, once you’ve been cast into it? I don’t know. One hears stories, but those are usually from before the computer number system. Perhaps, as with hell, you can swim out of it but I doubt it’s on a sea of tears of true repentance. More likely you’d have to marry a movie star, or perhaps run for president.

Note that SO FAR the writer has had exactly zero choice. Oh, he can chose NOT to sell his book and remain obscure forever. Does how good his book is influence anything? Well… it could. Supposing that word of mouth got going among readers. Except that, for all but one of my publishers (yes, you know which one) until very recently, it was one print run, one time, it sells out and the book is no longer available in any format. Too bad so sad. One of my publishers until the last two books made it a point of taking the books out of print at the year mark or when the book started earning royalties.

This meant the chances of your being discovered in back inventory were… you’re right. Zero. (I know through my fanmail a lot of people are NOW discovering my Shakespeare series which came out eleven years ago. I get no money for those, because they’re out of print and either used or remaindered. I don’t even get statements for them anymore. And there weren’t enough of them printed, so even if they all sold twenty times, my name recognition would be limited.)

In fact, if your book had been completely blank, or a compilation of nursery rhymes, it would have got exactly the same distribution and sales as it got with your words in it. You didn’t choose the cover. You didn’t choose the price. You didn’t choose the push. You didn’t choose the distribution.

More importantly and more than likely, the person who chose these things chose them NOT based on the book – which they might or might not have read – but on YOU and their perceived marketability of YOU. (And let me tell you, as a reader, that’s many shades of wrong.)

Most people don’t know your book even exists, and therefore they can’t ask for it. And if they do, they might get told it can’t be ordered.

And then… and then the fun starts. When the numbers are in, you’re told your numbers are only “midlist” and barely good enough (if you’re lucky) for them to buy the next one. And the next. they all get the exact same treatment. You might grow your fans, but it will be very slow. And even if you sign with a publisher who wishes they could do more for you, at that point the publisher is hamstrung by the numbers in the computer about your previous distribution.

You might (or might not) be asked to change your name again and again and again (one of my publishers has a fetish for this.)

And all along you’ll be told the fault for your lackluster sales is … yours. Yep. You wrote the book, and if it doesn’t sell, it’s ALWAYS your fault. No matter how demonstrably it ISN’T.

And under the old model, you swallowed and took it. You did what the village women did when I was a kid. You bandaged your worse wounds, and you made up stories. “I fell down the stairs.” “I bumped into bad sales figures in the night.” “I am so clumsy.” “It’s all my fault.” “They beat me because they love me.” And you crawled back. Because the alternative was unthinkable. The alternative was to never publish again.

And if you complained – if you so much as opened your mouth and said something along the lines as perhaps the crash of the books wasn’t ENTIRELY your fault (I’m not a conspiracy theorist, for instance, but I’m100 % sure that the crash of my first book was exacerbated by coming out exactly one month after 9/11 and while I’ve done many weird things in my life I’m SURE I never committed any terrorist attacks. But those numbers were SOLELY my fault, as far as the industry was concerned.) you got told how grateful you should be to the house for continuing to publish your worthless self, how each of your no-good books cost them 100k to get to the printing stage, and how they only did it out of the goodness of their hearts. And you had to swallow it, no matter how nonsensical it was.

THIS model. THIS MODEL is what the bright eyed harbingers of the establishment, the blue eyed boys of privilege want me to get maudlin about. Both as a reader and as a writer, let me say RIGHT NOW that I’m not going to.

No, I don’t know where the buck will stop in digital publishing. No, I don’t know what will emerge or what shape it will take. I do know just being able to say “It wasn’t my fault. I’m not the world’s best writer, but there’s something mighty weird with the system.” Or “I will not be grateful for hind teat” is good enough for me.

A biography of Marlowe claims that among his last words were “Just to tell the truth once, would be worth dying for.” This, it turns out, is also true when the result is the metaphorical death of a career. Particularly when there are alternatives.

No, I will not eat what’s put before me. No, I’m not the world’s most wonderful writer – every year I look at what I wrote the year before and cringe, so I know there’s room for improvement – but I KNOW I’m not a million times worse than J. K. Rowling. Sorry, that’s not just impossible. That’s obscene. I also know that until Pratchett got a new agent and editor, he was lost in mid-list hell in the US while a bestseller in the UK. His writing did not change. His marketing did.

Will I continue selling to big houses? Only if I like them. I write for a house I like, and there’s one other house I wouldn’t mind writing for.

As for the rest of them, they can go to hell. I’m going Indie.

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

What drives Writers to write?


Rowena here …

Following on from Dave and Amanda’s posts, I came across Chuck Wendig doing his 25 things on the topic of Self Publishing. You have to hand it to Chuck, he doesn’t pull his punches.

It’s funny how things come together. Over the weekend I was on a panel where we writers were talking about Resonance and the things that help us get into the zone to write. For most writers it is music and for a lesser number it is visuals. The panel was really interesting because it gave me an insight into the many different ways a writer can come at a book.

But one of the writers talked about writing from a Dark Place. This person had undergone terrible events in their childhood which would have crippled a lesser person. It was these terrible events that helped them to create truly frightening scenes in their books.

By chance, I spent this evening helping my daughter put together lesson plans for year 10 English students on Roald Dahl’s autobiography. He was sent away to boarding school where he was bullied and mistreated, and he was utterly miserable. But look at the wonderful whimsical books he wrote. In a completely different way he triumphed over his childhood.

One of the audience at the panel asked if you had to have suffered in life to write. (Show me someone who hasn’t suffered in life). But their point was, if you’ve lived a relatively normal life, what can you bring to your writing to give it depth? Will it have the highs and lows? Will it have verisimilitude?

I think some people are like the colour on the old TV sets, you could fiddle with it and turn it right up or down. Some people feel intensely and they don’t need earth shattering events to go from ecstatic to angsty.

How much of our writing is us trying to figure out the world?  Sure, we dress it up in story with characters, but we’re exploring themes that trouble us. I keep coming back to discrimination and persecution. I’ve been to the primary sources and read biographies. I’ve researched the psychology of it and I still have trouble getting my mind around it.

Where does your writing spring from? Is it a dark place? Do you tackle it by responding with satire or whimsy? Some of the funniest books spring from the darkest places. Do you find yourself coming back to the same theme over and over again?



Run Away! We’re all doomed!

By Dave Freer

RUUUUUUN! The water main has burst under the instant mashed potato factory… or something of that sort.

Oddly several people seem to think that I am about to be overwhelmed by vast gurpling seas of fake mashed potato and that Ewan Morrison is just the fellow to tell me to run to high ground or at least the tender gentle clutches of the nurturing publishing industry.

It is quite possible I will drown in fake mashed potato. Or, as a worse fate, have to learn to eat it.  But I can’t say I have even begun lacing up my running trainers, let alone letting panic wipe out any semblance of common sense when I read his grim forecast for my livelihood and chosen profession. Maybe I’m just a sceptic  or just a nasty blockish brutal fellow who deserves extinction.  But go ahead, read the article and tell me what you think.

Here is my deconstruction:

Firstly before we panic let’s look at where this comes from. Hmm. The Edinburgh Arts Festival (a typical spot for your average unpretentious reader) as reported in the Guardian – the newspaper of the Champagne socialists of the UK. Now it takes all types to make a world, and that’s a good thing, but it is also true that this is pretty much (as in NY publishing) where the bulk of the publishing industry fit.  This is their mouthpiece and they are the establishment.  So: we can conclude this is pretty much their viewpoint, or at least written for them.

And then… Who is it coming from: According to Wikipedia, Ewan Morrison is an Arts graduate, who sometimes writes for the Guardian, who has written three books exploring alternatives to monogamy, and has been in line or won some some literary type prizes, and been a Unesco writer in residence.  In other words – an Arts establishment man, who, to quote him, feels writers deserve to be ‘paid a living wage.’

We differ slightly on this: I feel authors ought to be able to _earn_ enough to live on. But yes, I do think authors need to be able to work full time and not write on cardboard in their own blood while starving and freezing under bridges.

He goes on at length about the demise of the paper book. I don’t think it’ll be that fast, or that complete, but yes, I agree. E-books are the future.

His first point is the Retreat of the Advance and the reaction of writers to it.

Perhaps the world was very different for the Arts establishment man publishing literature: “The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.”

As someone with I suspect far more sales than the average literary writer, I can assure you the framework was pretty dead when I sold my first book in 1999, and it’s pretty close to moribund now.

Let’s just have a quick look at the entire concept of the advance. Why does it exist at all? Well, because back in the days of chipping out books on stone tablets (or about 3 years after) it of necessity took a very very very long time to produce a book and to pay for it.  It was written by hand, transported by horse or mail-coach, hand typeset, printed, and then distributed by wagon. Every six months they would hand count the number of books still in the warehouse, and then manually do the tallies, and write the author a check. And the process could drag on for a long time. Needless to say, the doing away with every one of these impediments has made the time taken to render payment… longer. I’ve had the process take 3 years from signing to first royalty (which only occurs after a full 6 months reporting period – which as they are always 3-5 months late in paying, and a book can have 5 months of the previous reporting period – up 16 months after a book comes out), and it took me two months to write the book.  I know several writers who can turn out a novel in a month – a good book too – deliver it electronically, and the editing and proofing and cover do not need to take as much as another month.  Returns on e-books are immediate, records are immediate… in other words there is no reason why the author should not be paid immediately (even by Amazon, who settle quarterly – much better than most, but still could improve), or at leas monthly.  So: the advance system is a legacy system which exists largely because the royalty system is so bad. Fixing it would go a long way to making life much better for authors. Far more than maintaining the old system. Trust me. Try paying your monthly bills when you get paid erratically in lumps. It’s not fun. Most authors would be much more productive if they could log into their account and see what they’d sold today, and what would be electronically debited into their account at month end. This is not hard, but no publisher has yet even inched towards it.

So to return Ewan Morrison’s bemoaning the shrinking advance on royalty (which as I said, shouldn’t need to exist, and not having it would free books to earn what they earn, not to prove the editor guessed sales right (getting it right is most unlikely. Statistically improbable in the extreme.  Getting it wrong could get you fired. So oddly… it is so often just… Goldilocks! Why do these editors not just pick lotto numbers? They’d be able to publish exactly what they liked and we’d just have no choice… oh, wait…) “In reaction to the removal of their living wage, many writers have decided to abandon the mainstream entirely: they’ve come to believe that publishers and their distribution systems are out of date; that too many middle-men (distributors, booksellers) have been living off their work.”

Come to believe? Hang on. I’ve looked at my Bookscan figures per State.  I KNOW my distribution sucks rocks.  I earn on average 10% (and as little as 6%)  of the cover price of books sold in the US.  My books sold in Australia get me around 2% of the cover price.  Do I perhaps feel that others taking 90-98% of the income generated by my work for seconds per book of often shoddy effort is providing too many middle-men with a living instead of me? What an ODD idea!!!

And now the long tail, which our Arts Establishment writer believes is just so bad for writers…  Well, if you were one of the cool kids, the darlings of the publishing establishment, who got you books into every bookstore, on the every shelf, and who lavished money on promoting you in an environment they controlled… it must be pretty awful. You see the long tail is wagged by word of mouth, which, yes, they can influence. But it’s a lot harder than their command economy model. “Ve vil decide vot you vil read, Ja. Unt how many copies ve  vil print Ja. Und take it or leave it!” (which, of course has resulted in many readers leaving it, to the detriment of authors, the industry, society and even the human race).  For the rest of us… well, it means we get a small chance at succeeding on merit. And yes, word of mouth can still spread to a lot of people.  Also, if I don’t get 2% but say 70% of the income, I don’t need to sell as many copies to earn a living without sharing it with people who add little value to my work.

But of course according to Morrison we must live in fear of the demon ‘free content’. He starts by quoting examples of various legacy industries where the primary producers have carried a vast weight of other beneficiaries, who very often added little value for their cost, and who are now in trouble – largely, in my opinion, as a result of this.

Firstly the standard pirate bogey. Quoting: “The Motion Picture Association of America lost 6.1 billion (75% higher than they expected).” Really? How _do_ they arrive at these figures? I’m only a statistician,  I’m sure these geniuses would never assume that 1)they could actually predict sales without cheating. 2)that piracy represents lost sales. As we OUGHT to know piracy is a bunch of Somalis taking over your ship at gunpoint, but petty data theft is only a loss if the thief would have bought the product. And that, considering the price and often quality and nature of the product, is a lot less than likely.

Then the music bogey-man. I had to laugh at these.

“shows that for a musician to earn the minimum wage in the US, per month, he or she would have to sell either 143 self-pressed CDs, 1,161 retail album CDs or 4,053,110 plays on Spotify (with a 0.0016 percent royalty.”

So – after costs – the muso would have to sell 10% to make the same money? I’d heard they were often lucky to see 2%. Doesn’t prove his point well does it?

Martin Hodkinson states that “Hundreds of people have ‘downed their tools’ in the music business, through no choice of their own. The total income of the industry dropped by 25% between 1999 and 2008 and is expected to fall by 75% by 2013.”

So… run this one past the maths department. The industry, which at best paid the muso 10% is supposed to drop to 25% of it’s 1999 position.  I suppose it would be naive to say to the middlemen well, as you were taking 90% + of the income, and without the musos you get a nice zero… and they can make a living on their own, maybe you need to face taking 15% instead of 90%? Or even 10%.

and so on.

Then we go a Google-bashing (because that’s what the cool kids do.) It’s not about quality content it’s about advertising – this has to be one of the stupidest misinterpretations yet made.  Duh. If the content is good the readers will… you know, do this weird intolerable thing. Tell others they liked it.  And then you know… that bit of content will attract readers and that in turn… will never get noticed by advertisers. Give me a break!

Which leads of course to the big pet zombie always fished out as the final get out of jail free card by the various middlemen in every industry.

“Piracy and competitive discounting – the race to the bottom

Back again to books. In all of the cases above, digital industries have been pushed towards zero price by two factors: (1) mass piracy and (2) the consumer demand for massive discounts. Book piracy has only just begun but it is now very simple to break through the DRM protection systems set up by publishers and to illegally download books in less than 60 seconds.”

Sigh. 1)Piracy is work. Almost no one knocks off a cheap, easy to get legally, well-supported product. See Baen webscriptions for proof.  Yes, there is a bottom limit to what people are prepared to work at and hassle for.  And no, no matter how discounted your prices are… when you reach those thresh-holds, it’s too much like hard work.  Anyway, a vast amount of the cracking is done to ‘take the challenge’.  If there is no challenge, and the book is available in good order, easily, and at a reasonable price – say under $5 for a novel, and you’ve done your homework as the publisher — made sure that the reader knows what share goes to the author, and made sure that readers know ‘no money-no writing happens’, and each reader feels like a patron. And they feel good about it too. But you can’t do this if everyone but the creator — the only person valued by by the consumer — is taking 90% of the income.

2) If DRM can be cracked in 60 seconds (and costs a fortune and stuffs up the product) why bother?

Which brings our friend Ewan to conclude that there are no simple answers…

Which not my conclusion at all. I can see a number of ways, even in his Arts Establishment world, to make the system work.  Of course it would have to change (oh the horror!). Publishers would have to compete with Amazon et al. Authors could do serial books again. Publishers could start working on finding out what readers really wanted and trying the weird… actually nurturing it in partnerships that were worthwhile to stay in for authors. And those are just a few possible ideas.

And the awful future: “it will contain millions of would-be-writers who will labour under the delusion that they can be successful in the way writers were before, in the age of the mainstream and the paper book.”

Iffen  Ah don’ laff, I’s sure as hail gonna cry. No. The cool kids were, Ewen. The rest of us did a thankless job, largely for the benefit of others, who treated us like replaceable widgets.

“There is no simple solution. All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content.
Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to “go it alone” in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.
This is something that publishers are well aware of, but still seem powerless to do anything about. As Sarnoff, CEO of Bertelsman has said, “… as things switch to digital there is the danger that a lot of value can leak out of the industry, and that our authors, our artists won’t have enough revenues there to pay for their best work and that we won’t have enough revenue to pay for our own infrastructure.”
Yep. And that’s it. They won’t have the money for things that add no value to the reader’s appreciation of the book.  Like a NY office.  I’ve broken down as best as possible on Steam Powered Cuttlefish what the vital parts (editing, proofs, covers) of publishing actually cost. Those need stay. The disposable bits… like, um, CEO’s and NY offices don’t. Guess what they’ll try and keep. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
“If the connection between publishers and writers splits completely, if they fail to support and defend each other, then both will separately be subjected to the markets’ demand for totally free content, and both shall have very short lives in the long tail. The writer will become an entrepreneur with a short shelf life, in a world without publishers or even shelves.”
SHORT? Well, it’s easy. The part that gets 10% can’t crimp and don’t have to.  So that leaves the part that gets 90% and needs the creators… maybe an office in Detroit’s rust belt for the CEO? I hear they’re very cheap.
“The only solution ultimately is a political one. As we grow increasingly disillusioned with quick-fix consumerism, we may want to consider an option which exists in many non-digital industries: quite simply, demanding that writers get paid a living wage for their work. “
Oh boy. What a Guardian solution.  Political.  Can you imagine just who would the official writers getting the mandated wage? It wouldn’t be me.
Can you imagine what we’d get to read?
And you thought the choice used to be bad?
UPDATE (this is Sarah Hoyt) — Welcome Instapundit readers and thank you Glenn Reynolds for the link.
Update to the update — those wondering if Dave is as much fun in his fiction as in his non fiction, look here  Dave is an amazingly layered and underappreciated writer.  Go look at this books (and stories.)

Who is the keymaster and where is the gatekeeper?

by Amanda S. Green

No, I’m not talking about Ghostbusters.  Although it might be time to watch the movie again.  This post has been bubbling around, trying to take form for several weeks.  Kate’s post this past Sunday, and the comments to it, brought it to life.

A little background first.  When I first got my kindle, I was a skeptic.  I love books.  I love the feel of them, the look of them, etc.  I couldn’t imagine reading on anything like the kindle.  For one thing, I spend so much of the day sitting before the computer that the thought of reading on some sort of device simply didn’t excite me.  Then I got the kindle and very quickly realized that I preferred it to physical books — at least when reading for entertainment.

It didn’t take long to realize something else.  The errors in spelling, punctuation and formatting I’d started seeing in hard copy books seemed to leap off the digital page.  There is something about reading on my kindle — or on my tablet — that seems to accept the errors that have gotten past the copy editors and proofreaders.  Was it because there were more errors in ebooks than in hard copy books, or was there another explanation?

A figurative stroll through different e-reader related forums quickly revealed I wasn’t the only one asking these questions.  Even now, two years after receiving my kindle, the question is asked in the kindle forums almost weekly.  Speculation runs from laziness by legacy publishers to too many people thinking they are the next great writer waiting to be discovered and who are taking advantage of the ease of self-publishing digitally.  The truth of the matter is a bit more complex.

When it comes to problems seen in e-books put out by publishers, the first occurs when titles are scanned and then digitized.  This process often creates OCR errors where letters are altered.  This usually occurs near the margins and is easy enough to spot — if the file is proofread.  Unfortunately, it appears that many of these titles aren’t proofed before being put on sale. I’ve seen a couple of examples where the OCR errors were so bad, the text was almost unreadable.

The bulk of errors in e-books seem to come from the lack of proofreading and, to a lesser extent, copy editing.  This occurs, despite what a lot of the complainers in the different fora believe, in both indie and legacy published titles.  It occurs in indie titles, especially those that are self-published, because authors are, on the whole, their own worst editors.  It occurs in legacy published titles because they have cut back on their employees so much that they now rely on the authors and agents to do much of the editing and proofreading that editors used to do.

So, how does this relate back to Kate’s post and what are we, as authors, supposed to do?

Simple, we follow the guidelines, especially the one that almost every publisher includes: make sure your work is as close to publishable as possible.  That means more than having a good story.  It means making sure it is formatted according to guidelines.  It means having beta readers who know to look for more than misspelled words and comma faults.  It means, if necessary, hiring an editor to go over your manuscript before submitting it.

There are reasons for guidelines that go beyond making it easy for the editor to read the submission.  First — and this is very important — your ability to follow the guidelines is the editor’s first impression of your work.  Take the guidelines for Naked Reader press for example.  The very first thing listed under “guidelines” is the fact that we have set submission periods.  So, if you send something outside of the submission periods, I know you haven’t read the guidelines.  The same goes if you fail to send a synopsis of your novel or if all you send is the synopsis.  We want both.

Now, back to Kate’s post and some of the comments.  Part of any publisher’s guidelines are how to format your submission.  NRP uses standard manuscript format:  double spaced, one inch margins, 12 or 14 point Courier or Times New Roman.  Simple, right?

Apparently not.  We get titles that are single spaced.  We get titles without first line indents.  We get titles where there are additional spaces between paragraphs.  We get submissions that don’t have a cover email with the information asked for: name, contact information, publication credits.

NRP hasn’t gotten to the point yet where we are refusing to look at submissions that don’t meet our guidelines.  I know of a number of other publishers and agents that have.  I will tell you, though, that a manuscript not formatted according to guidelines starts with a strike against it.  Why?  Because I have to wonder about an author who doesn’t care enough to follow them.

So, it is up to the author to make sure he’s followed the guidelines just as he’s done all he can to make sure he is submitting the best story he can.  Frankly, this is true whether the author is submitting a title to a publisher or he’s publishing it himself.  If there is a reason for not following the format guidelines listed by a publisher, tell them.  Or at least send an email and ask if it’s okay.

I hear you saying that you have decided not to submit to a publisher but are going the self-publishing route.  After all, you have a great novel.  You’ve done your homework and know there are free programs out there to help you create your e-book.  So why worry about format guidelines and submission processes when you can take your e-book directly to the public?

As an author, I understand the sentiment.  It’s hard to get a publisher these days, especially a legacy publisher.  It’s even harder to get an agent — something you need to get your foot in the door at most legacy publishers.  It really is easy to understand why so many writers are choosing to do it themselves.

What many of them seem to have forgotten is that the same rules for submitting to a publisher apply to self-publishing.  You have to have a well-edited, proofread manuscript in a format readers are used to.  That means beta readers, proofreaders and, if necessary, professional editing.  It also means cover art and GOOD cover art.  Readers will tear you apart on the boards for bad cover art, or for generic cover art.  If they don’t like the font you use for your title, they will let you know.

Despite what you hear from a lot of bloggers, despite the fame of some indies like Amanda Hocking, there is still an onus about self-published work.  If you doubt it, read the boards.  See how many people won’t buy a novel originally priced at 99 cents because they know it’s by an “indie” and won’t be any good or will be so poorly formatted as to be unreadable.  Check out threads like those asking why indies keep shooting themselves in the foot by not having their novels professionally edited or formatted for e-books.

Don’t get me wrong.  As quick as they are to condemn a poorly written or poorly edited/formatted book, they are just as quick to praise one.  So, what does that mean?

It means he writer is not only the keymaster — the creator of the story — but is also the gatekeeper.  It doesn’t matter if the novel is going to a legacy publisher or is being self-published.  It needs to be as clean — as well written, edited and proofread — as possible before submission.  You are the master of your story.  Don’t be afraid to act the role.

In other news around the industry, check out what Kris Rusch and Joe Konrath have to say about the future of traditional or legacy publishing.

What do you think about the keymaster/gatekeeper roles and about the future of publishing?

Oh yeah, everyone be sure to wish Dave a happy birthday!

Cross-posted to The Naked Truth and to my blog.

The voices in my head are driving me crazy!

by Amanda S. Green

I want to start today’s post with fingers crossed and good thoughts for everyone in the path of Hurricane Irene.  Keep your head down and stay safe.

I’m hip-deep in work not only for NRP but my own writing as well.  Because of that, it often becomes difficult to turn off the editor long enough to write.  I’ve always had problems turning off the internal editor, especially when writing outside of my comfort zone.  Add in the pressure of trying to finish two novels, two very different novels, and pull together proposals for a couple of others and it really is a wonder I haven’t run into the night, screaming like a madwoman.

Part of the issue is being able to keep the “voice” of the two novels different.  The first novel is lighter than what I usually write.  The main character isn’t exactly fluffy or an airhead, but she isn’t the “kick-ass and take names later” sort of character I like to write.  The only problem with that is I find myself wanting to strangle her half the time.  For the first time, I understand why Sarah whines and moans when she writes Dyce (Dipped, Stripped, and Dead and French Polished Murder).  These characters who never want to find trouble but who somehow manage to fall into it head first are fun to read — if written well, something Sarah does.  But to write them, OMG, it drives me crazy.  For one thing, this book is written in first person.  Which means it is like having it dictated to me.  The only thing that could make it worse would be if the main character was smacking gum and talking like a valley girl.

Don’t get me wrong.  Annie, like Dyce, is no Mary Sue.  She has a brain and she isn’t afraid to use it.  It’s just that she doesn’t always have the common sense of a flea.  Nor does she always think before acting.  In other words, she’s human.  That means she makes mistakes and she has bad luck on occasion.  She doesn’t instantly size up everyone around her, infallibly figuring out who is the good guy and who’s the bad.  Given the right triggers, she can and will do something foolish.

Part of the problem is, as the author, I know who all the players are and what their roles are.  So, when Annie does something foolish, I want to throttle her.  The reason is simple.  I’m scared to death the reader will know everything I do and think Annie is too stupid to live.  Hopefully, when the book is done and to my editor, he’ll tell me I’ve been worrying needlessly.  Until then, I’ll fight the impulse  to hit the delete button.

The other part of the problem is the other book I’m working on.  Nocturnal Serenade is the sequel to Nocturnal Origins.  Mackenzie Santos, the main character, is the “kick ass and take names later” sort of character I love to write.  She has flaws and fears, but she does her best not to let them keep her from doing her duty.  No, I have a different set of problems — and fears — with these books.

When Origins was making the rounds, I received feedback from a couple of agents and one publisher that had me scratching my head.   They were confused because there was no sex in the book.  Sure, the groundwork had been laid for some in subsequent books.  But this was a book about a bunch of shapeshifters.  There had to be sex.

Uh, no.  Origins isn’t paranormal romance.  It’s an urban fantasy.  If you took away the shifter part of the book, you’d have a mystery or police procedural.  Putting the shifting back in, the plot focused on Mac’s investigation into a series of murders AND her learning how to cope with the fact that she has just learned the monsters of her childhood are real and she has become one of them.  Frankly, for her to jump into bed with someone she doesn’t know well would be going against character and would not advance the plot.

But that doesn’t mean there doesn’t need to be sex in the subsequent books.  For Mac’s character to grow, she has to start coming to terms with who and what she is — and with her feelings of betrayal because she hadn’t been warned by her family that this could happen.  She also is drawn to another character introduced in Origins.  As she comes more fully to term with being a shifter, as she comes to trust others like her, she forms relationships with them.  One of these is a romantic relationship.  That means sex at some point.

So the question becomes how much to stay true to the character without turning the book from urban fantasy into paranormal romance.  Meanwhile, I have Mac in my head, rubbing her hands together gleefully even as she reminds me that she’s been good and celibate and is now ready for a really good “roll in the hay”.

Save me from my characters and their voices in my head — especially when I’m tired and Mac suddenly starts sounding like Annie or vice versa.

Clocking Out

by Chris McMahon

After a furious period of activity finishing off and revising the draft of my new SF novel, Foreign Elements, I have taken a week off writing. I feel nervous just writing that!

The main reason is I have been experiencing a variety of unpleasant symptoms ranging from vertigo and nausea to missed heartbeats. So far the best the doctor can come up with is ‘they appear to be a range of symptoms associated with stress and anxiety’. In any case I have let myself off the hook for this week, which means not doing anything on job#3 – managing the business my wife and I run, or job#2 – writing in the morning before work (or in any other crack I can find). Job#1 of course grinds on regardless.

The break from writing feels inordinately strange. I have been experiencing some very serious internal thumb twiddling, which has become more frantic as the week has progressed. I never realised what a damn word junkie I was.

Of course the writing is still going on, but more at the ideas level. I have also been thinking a lot more ‘big picture’ in terms of overall approach and strategy. All in all I think it will be one Hell of a relief to get back into it next week. Not that I really want to start cutting my sleep again.

The break has got me thinking about what is ‘normal’ or ‘reasonable’ in terms of having a break from writing. People approach this very differently depending on their writing method. Some people tend to write in intense blocks, and are happy taking big chunks of time off. I get unsettled by this. I tend to be a ‘slogger’. Mind you, big blocks of time worked great for finishing the first draft of Foreign Elements.

I think there is something to be said for letting the field go ‘fallow’ and renew its fertility. To get enough space to rejuvenate and get inspired. Not everyone agrees with this – some writers and writing teachers are fanatical about writing every day.

How do you approach your downtime? Do you structure it? i.e. give yourself a day off a week? Work in blocks with big blocks off? Or are you ad-hoc, with both up and downtimes coming at the behest of the muses?

Editing for the Incompetent

Kate Paulk

Namely, me.

I’m an extreme pantser, with almost everything emerging from my subconscious. One of the things that’s extremely difficult for me is editing: I often simply can’t see where there are problems – or worse, I see problems that aren’t there, and break things when I try to fix the non-existent problems.

With the able assistance of Sarah’s pointy-toed boots, I’m learning.

So for other extreme pantsers out there, and anyone else who finds editing difficult, here’s some tips I’ve figured out for myself. This certainly isn’t a complete list, and it’s anything but definitive. As a general rule, give it a try. If it works for you, great. If not, try something else until you find a collection of techniques that work for you.

  1. If you have an ebook reader, use it. Particularly if it’s one that lets you add annotations or highlights. One thing I’ve found incredibly helpful is that with the kindle I see things I’d never have picked up reading on-screen.
  2. Read through with the ebook reader/printout/not-your-normal-format (when the layout looks different, it’s easier to see where the problems are) and take notes on everything you see that’s out of place. I don’t even try to make changes during this pass: I note anything that strikes me as clunky, incorrect, names that need changing, whatever (oh kindle note-taking how I love thee), until I get to the end of the piece.
  3. For line-edit passes, starting from the end and taking a sentence at a time is effective (it’s also a royal pain in the anatomy for a novel, but it’s worth if it you really need to clean up your sentences).
  4. Once you’ve got all your notes in, have the annotated whatever where you can see it, and the file to edit on your computer ready to go. From here it’s a case of going through to each bit that you flagged, and making the changes. Sometimes there’s back and forth, sometimes you’ll decide that no, you don’t really need to make that change after all.
  5. Do not ever overwrite your original file. I’ve made this mistake. If you change something you shouldn’t have, and you overwrote the original, you’re SOL. My habit these days is to start by saving the edit file with a new name before I put any changes in. That way, my original is safe.
  6. Take as many passes as you need. For me, it’s usually two or three – but each time I’m focused on something different, and I don’t look for anything except what I’m focusing on. I also find it’s much easier and less painful to do a note-taking pass followed by an edit pass, particularly with a novel. With short stories I’ll often skip the note-taking pass, but for novels if I try to do that I’ll do something horrible.
  7. Listen to your betas. You do have betas you can trust, right? Sarah’s posted a lot here and over at According to Hoyt on the importance of good beta-ing: I’m not going to try to repeat that.
  8. Spill-chuckers aren’t much use. I use mine while I’m writing to catch the words that I always misspell. Otherwise I ignore it. If I was to do anything so exotic as to teach it Feegle, it would then try to Feegle-ize everything I ever wrote. Nuh-uh.
  9. Global search is your friend. Global replace usually isn’t. Do I really need to describe what happens when you replace every occurrence of “dick” in your manuscript with “penis”? Penis Van Dyke would like a word with you in that case.
  10. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Punctuation usually gets mangled by house styles anyway (unless you’re a serious comma-abuser like me, in which case it gets unmangled), so does spacing, paragraph indentation and the like.
  11. Don’t try to do it all in one big session. I’ve found I get much better results if I can space it out, doing maybe an hour or two at any time. Much more than that, and I start losing focus. You’ll find you’ve got your own internal time limits: work with them, don’t fight them.

All of these help me to see what needs fixing – something I need a lot of help with. Anyone who has any other suggestions, feel free to chime in.

Art And Craft — Can This Marriage Be Saved



As I’ve said before, right now there is a novel dictating itself to me, hampered and slowed only by the time I take away to do research.


Why research if the novel is dictating itself?


Well, because for me at least, it doesn’t work effortlessly. Actually, I don’t think it works for anyone. The character of my novel is not a writer. He knows his story, but he doesn’t know how to tell it. Or if you prefer – I prefer too, if it keeps the men in white coats from knocking at my door – my subconscious has latched onto this story, this voice, these large movements of events and characters, these principles that guide the characters. But my subconscious hasn’t spent the last twenty years carefully analyzing the techniques writers use to get a story across.


I’ll grant you my subconscious is along for the ride when I’m reading – of course – and it is what gives me the indication of what thrills me and what speaks deeply to me (which is very important. I’ll why explain later). But it doesn’t go “oh. Look how she avoids going THERE and fully explaining what happened as he died, to keep it sad and not gross.” Or “Ah, that sentence is enough to tell us he’s noticing the woman. More would be a plot-slowing infodump.”


My conscious knows that. My conscious knows more things too. It knows that I can’t write a book in which the characters consciously and in very different circumstances try to recreate the American revolution and finish the revolution in one book. Look, beyond the initial impetus, there were wars for independence over years, and the system of government wasn’t really stable for a long time (some would say till the Civil War but I’m so not getting into that argument, particularly since I have very definite – and if you know my politics – predictable ideas on centralized government and it’s a pointless argument and one that in fact that was mirrored at the founding of the nation. I can do it better with fiction.) And the American revolution was taking place in thirteen small (population wise) colonies, which had no real experience of self-rule in terms of nations, even in a limited sense for the last few thousands of years. While my book takes place in all of Earth, administratively united but culturally and even politically fractured.


Realistically? This revolution will take centuries to work itself through the system. It will go well in some places and very badly (as in buckets of blood) in others. It will end in freedom in some places, economic freedom in others, and in insanity in not a few. Other places will devolve into dictatorship, even while the stragglers are still freeing themselves.


How do you write that? Well, you do it only in portions. The struggle of people we don’t know anything about is as interesting, of course, but as humans we care most about ours and our friends’ struggles. So it starts there. Pick – to begin with – an interesting place and an interesting character – preferably one who can’t help fight the current regime, because otherwise he’s going to be dead. Then have him free as much of that area as he can reach. Then let the dominos fall. Take one of his associates from quite a different area. Push….


My subconscious however, thinks in terms of “and then they killed the bad guy and the whole world rejoiced.” My subconscious has watched too much Star Trek and fails to understand that whole worlds are too complex a thing.


So I’m sitting here, studying strategy and approaches, and it is merrily dictating along. And I’m slowing it down enough to let me study.


This is btw where the legal pads come in. I can’t write in them, long term, because my mind goes much much faster than my hand in handwriting. OTOH I can write in them for three pages or so to get a voice that’s not flowing right or to find just the right words to open a book or a chapter. And I DO write, draw and sometimes doodle on them while trying to get the PLOT right. I do also make notes along the lines of “Make sure there is a similar incident to x” while reading for research.


Anyway, art and craft intertwine for me. Art is the rush of excitement and interest when an idea first appears. I can’t explain it. It’s a little like falling in love.


Sometimes the idea isn’t even clear in my mind. I don’t know who the main character is, or what he wants. I have clue zero where she lives. I don’t know if it is even human. BUT I get a feeling for the character, a sense of what he/she/it is trying to do or overcome. It’s like… glimpsing someone across a crowded room and catching the movement of the head, the sweep of the hair and thinking “wow.” Then you start crossing the room to meet the person or start allowing the idea to shape.


Does it change sometimes, and do you lose interest after a while. Sure. Sometimes the person isn’t for you. Same with ideas. One of the things that seem to be universal is that not everyone can stay with an idea no matter how good. I used to write down all my ideas when I first started writing. After about a year, with some experience, I realized about half weren’t for me. Oh, they were my ideas, I’d just never write them. And if I wrote them, I’d never make them good because they didn’t make me that excited.


This is like teenagers who fall in love with everyone. It is only when they start considering people in terms of marriage or at least long term relationships, that they realize a lot of those people simply aren’t compatible. Or they don’t like those people enough.


Take me for instance – in my ten years as a professional I turned down exactly one assignment, even though I wasn’t doing anything else at the time. Yes, it was write for hire. Yes, I’ve done very few of those. But if that book had been something I could do, I’d have taken it. You see, I had a refrigerator to replace.


But the book took place in DC corridors of power. It was all about lobbyists and ambassadors and what not.


So, Sarah, you say, you do books set in Tudor courts. Why couldn’t you research the power machinations in DC? Because they don’t interest me that way. They interest me passionately in terms of “what are they doing to us?” and “How fast are the founders spinning in their graves?” but not in terms of writing. I hate books set in that type of place with that type of plot. I don’t read them. Forcing myself to write one would be torture. And it would show.


There are other books I can read but not write. I’m not saying which because they’ll attack me and try to make me write one. (NO, I’m not crazy. I’m just a little unwell. Or I’ll be after writing a fashion mystery, say.)


Anyway, so a year or so of writing practice rendered half of my list moot.


I watched a lot of my fledgelings go through the same process and I can tell you it seems to be universal. There are some characters and settings you can’t write, or at least can’t finish because you don’t care enough.


In the same way there are characters each of you finds irresistible. Mine seems to be the Fallen Caryatid type of character as per Heinlein’s quote: This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods…and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.


But she’s more than just good art denouncing bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women—this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage…and victory.


Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn’t give up…she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her…she’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit.


They can be male or female, but they tend to have at least a little of this in them. (Yes, even Athena.) This is not volational. It’s simply the type of character that makes me interested and passionate.


My son, Robert, seems to go for… well… weird. He’s written intelligent cats who drink tea. He’s written intelligent pterodactyls. When dealing with human characters he pits them up against … zombie dinosaurs or intelligent vampire shopping carts. Weird is his muse and what makes his heart sing. (Yes, I do live in fear of the Weird-in-Law I’ll inevitably land.)


My friend Kate Paulk, otoh, goes for evil sobs. I’m not going to say they’re lovable evil sobs, or even redeemable (though some are) but that she makes you interested in them even as you’re thinking you need to take a shower.


And I think Amanda Green invented strong women. Or if not at least she makes it sound like she did. And look you, they’re real strong women, not the shrews screaming their way through plots that most of Hollywood thinks mean “strong.” They’re strong despite their vulnerabilities and they take honor as seriously as any man.


Dave Freer … well, Dave writes outliers who steal your heart and misfits that make the whole work for the non-outliers. And he writes good people. Good but not sappy. (Yes, there is a difference.) You can be good without being nice. And he layers them. And uh… I’m just going to stop there because I shouldn’t be required to analyze the work of someone that far out of my league. It’s cruel and unusual and I’ll decide I am a hack who shouldn’t even be writing, if I try.


I could take one of their character types on, I could – but it would just end up as another fallen caryatid.


The same goes for every element of story, from setting – I tend to the Mediterranean type setting. Look, it’s what I was surrounded with growing up. If I say “Wall” in my mind it’s a stone wall, a little cracked, with plants growing in the cracks. It was a shock to me to see Elis Peters mysteries on TV because they had so much wood where I expected stone. Other people’s preference varies. My futures tend to have gritty sides of town and people who live by manual labor, because I like cities, and I like the working class part of cities, not just the scenic for tourist parts.


So, when a story starts circling, first I determine if I love it enough to stay with it till the end. And then… And then I start trying to figure out accommodations and ways we can live together. “No, I’m not writing a hard science fiction story about the moon landings. I’d have to study it for three years to get good enough to fool the experts. So… we’ll set it in an alternate world. There will be… humans on the moon. And…”


Sometimes in the middle of that, as in A Few Good Men, a character emerges from the swamp of my fervid mind, and is definite and strong enough to feel like “someone else” and to start dictating. And in this case, Lucius is very definite that he knows his story and why am I dawdling. Then the trick is to write just enough to keep him going, but not enough to overrun what I know I need to research, fix and plot.


And that is what I’m doing this week. (Which explains the lame but rather long post.)


And don’t send the men in white coats. I’m too busy writing. Besides, Lucius is one bad dude, and I can TOO send him to deal with them. See if I can’t. Then he’ll leave me alone long enough to figure out the secondary inciting incident in the story……


*If It’s Wednesday, this must be crossposted at According to Hoyt*


The Agony of Writing that Cover Blurb!

It happened – the thing all writers dread (other than writing the synopsis) – I’ve been asked to write the cover blurbs for The Outcast Chronicles.I find  cover blurbs really hard to write. For one thing they need to be very short. The hard part is not sounding generic, because you break any book down to the bare bones and pack it into a few sentences it begins to sound generic.

Pull any book off the shelf and flip it over … go on. Now count the words in the blurb.

Death Most Definite – Trent Jamieson – 144 words.

Changeless – Gail Carriger – 120 words.

Cold Magic – Kate Elliot – 139 words.

The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie -137 words.

There you have it. Sum up a book of 100,000 to 150,000 words in less than 150 words, while making it sound interesting and intriguing. Gah!

I have a short blurb for the whole series.

The Outcast Chronicles – a fantasy family-saga, follows the fate of four people linked by blood, love and vows as they struggle with misplaced loyalties, over-riding ambition and hidden secrets which could destroy them. Some make desperate alliances only to suffer betrayal, and some discover great personal strength.

Now that’s 48 words and it gives you an idea of what the trilogy will be about. But the thing about cover blurbs is that you need to get the reader interested in a character. They need to identify with, and be intrigued by the character/s enough to open the book and start reading that first page. So this means I need to do the 4 Questions:

WHO is the book about?

WHAT do they want?

WHY can’t they achieve it?

HOW do they overcome this? (Of course in a blurb you don’t give this away. The reader has to buy the book to find out).

Well this slows me down  right away because there are four Points of View. So I start with Imoshen.

WHO is Imoshen?

Ruler of her people. Not their queen, because they don’t have queens and kings. She’s an elected leader. A reluctant leader. There, now that’s a nice conflict.

Imoshen, reluctant leader of the mystics …

WHAT does she want? To save her people. She’d do anything to protect her infant daughter.

Imoshen, reluctant leader of the mystics, must save her child and her people from …

This is the ‘WHY can’t she achieve it’ bit. Her people are persecuted by those without mystical gifts, who turn on them and lay siege to their fortress city. OK, here goes:

Imoshen, reluctant leader of the mystics must save her child and her people from vindictive King Chald, who plays on the ordinary folk’s resentment of the mystics and the noble’s greed for their lands and riches. When he raises an army and lays siege to the Celestial City, Imoshen seeks a solution but …

Now I need to introduce the next layer of complexity …

I’m going to stop there, because I really do have to get a draft written tonight, but I think you get an idea of the complexity of the task.

Take a look at the book you are currently writing, or have just finished.

Can you encapsulate it in less than 150 words without it sounding clichéd?

Can you introduce the main characters and make them sound interesting?

Can you make the core of the plot sound intriguing?

What to avoid? Jargon. Don’t introduce too many invented names or terms. Keep it simple, go for the emotion.

OK, let’s see your 150 words.

A kind of Magic

By Dave Freer

Magic I suppose lies at the heart of fantasy, at least in theory* Science Fiction has at its core (it is a heartless thing, which merely reacts) science, possibly also only in theory. Well, a nod and a wave at science anyway.  However Fantasy always has the magic, even if it is merely confined to magical creatures.

In a way, it’s much easier, because the number of real magicians running around turning authors and publishers into newts because they got it wrong… Oh wait. Much is explained about the publishing world!  And some lionesses saying (yet again) ‘15% of 70% is such a good deal, how I am reassured!’ has to… um. I seem to have strayed from my thesis again. Perhaps some kind of mind controlling spell…

So, magic. It ranges from the badly thought out get out of jail free card, to the very structured — A good example of the latter was Lydon Hardy’s  Master of the Five Magics, which does as good a job as any of codifying the possible forms of magic (I think this was the first attempt to set this out in fiction, and you see ‘echoes’ of it throughout later fiction. He is a Physicist writing fantasy. It shows.).  Of course if you are really determined you can research Bonewits ‘Real Magic, Dion Fortune’s  Applied Magic,  Starhawk’s  ‘The Spiral Dance’  for ‘modern’ takes on this. If you want a lot of the source material for that you wade (and if you thought the above were hard going don’t even start) on Israel Regardie’s  The Tree of Life, and the Golden Dawn.  I failed fairly miserably with Aleister Crowley although many consider him to be source of much of modern occultism. My own favorite influence is Sir James Frazer’s  The Golden Bough (this is an anthropology tome attempting to tie the threads of religions and mythology and the ‘magical’ beliefs derived from these together.

I did eventually conclude that science is a lot less like hard work,  easier to understand and more reliable than magic ( so if I show up as Godzilla tomorrow, you know it was the newt that went wrong…)

However, I have my own set of touchstones in writing about it. The principles of sympathy and contagion** are fundamental to a lot of magical practice. As a result symbolism is very much part of the entire process. If a lot of what you read has echoes of High Church practice you’re probably not being fooled by the heavy layer of BS it is plastered with. A lot of the current ‘magical practice’ derived from the only forms of  esotericism  the founders knew, but rather like Urban Fantasy they they twisted the expected.

Religion – or at least the calling on higher powers,  (depends on your point of view: gods, angels or demons, or something in between), or to take another step common to the mythos of many cultures (Greek, Slavonic, Mongol, Norse – to name ones I’ve worked on) which have inanimate (or unintelligent – like trees) – storms, waves, rocks… objects possessed of anthropomorphic  ‘spirits’ which can be commanded, often by the possession of the ‘true name’ (an idea I suspect originally came out of India and spread across Europe – but has other variants elsewhere. It’s either an unbelievably old meme, or has arisen independently all over the show.)

A fascinating take on this is of course the Ancient Egyptian one which I wrote about in Pyramid Scheme.

The other area of course is what borders on telepathy and telekinesis or other possible mind-use concepts – which criss-cross from magic to science depending on convenience. Illusion, flying, precognition, mental control over others… I have to admit this is one of my favorite bits of ‘magic to write about. Sometimes it adds bits from the other areas…

Another form of  magical ‘usage’ common in fantasy relates of course to magical beings – which has a lot of cross-over into mythology, and some into ‘Just so story’ type interpretations of phenomena like dinosaur bones as ‘dragons’, and of course intelligence seems to go along with these, and some of the ‘mentalist’ powers.

So: tell me about magic?  Why does it appeal? What forms of it interest you. What suspends your disbelief. Why?

*Theory is a place rather like Ultima Thule, only more French.

** I am sorry you have caught it.