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We are all products of our time

Everyone here at MGC is thrilled to welcome Rowena Cory Daniells back for this guest post!

No matter how much we try to avoid it, we see the world through the lens of our upbringing and current events.

As writers of speculative fiction we make a point of being able to conduct the mental gymnastics that allows us to step into the shoes (or tentacles) of an alien species. But you only have to look at SF written in the 50s and 60s to see how much the attitudes of the characters have dated.  After re-watching Bladerunner, I bought a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, only to find that the story felt quaint.

Then I came across a site called The Art of Manliness. Kay and Brett McKay were going through old photos to illustrate their site and put this collection together.  What I find interesting is that these photos were considered perfectly normal. Two men could be friends and they could love their male friends.  To our modern sensibilities we find these photographs unusual.

When I was a child women were paid less than men for the same work. I grew up on the Gold Coast, where young women wore gold bikinis and put coins in meters so that the tourists didn’t receive parking tickets. TV game shows had a male host who read the questions to the contestants and one or more female hostesses whose job it was to wear nice clothes and point to the prizes while smiling.

 

This looks quaint and dated to us now. So we can take it that the books we are currently reading like Joe Abercrombie’s gritty fantasies, will look ‘quaint’ to us in fifty years.

When I set out to write The Outcast Chronicles, I tried to put myself in the position of characters who lived in a stratified society, where their lives were constricted by birth and gender. I wanted to immerse the reader in a world that felt rich and evocative, alien and different yet was still accessible through the characters.

To do this I created the characters of Sorne and Imoshen. I call this the 13th Warrior device. (For anyone who knows the movie it is about a southerner going off on a quest with twelve northmen. We come to understand their culture through him). Sorne is the half-blood son of the king. His father disowns him and sends him away to be reared as a spy. We see how the ordinary people live through his eyes and why they resent the gifted. Imoshen is the secret daughter of a brotherhood leader. We see how the gifted people live and why the males and females lead separate lives.

I was trying to do a lot of things with this trilogy. It was challenging technically and a bit of gamble. So it was with great relief that I’ve read the reviews so far. (Disclaimer here, I am sure there will be bad reviews). Elloise Hopkins at the British Fantasy Society web site says: ‘Once the intricacies of the relationships between the different races and genders have been explained sufficiently, however, we are left with a book that becomes addictive and really ups the ante towards the end, building to a conclusion that has set this up to be an expansive and fulfilling trilogy. If you like epic fantasy it does not disappoint.’

Maybe in fifty years, if my books are still being read, they will appear quaint and dated. Who knows?

Rowena has a copy of Besieged to give away to one lucky commenter (open world-wide).

Give-away question: I was watching the first season of the West Wing recently and it made me realise how much the world has changed in the last ten years. What have you read or seen recently that made you do mental gymnastics?

Follow Rowena on Twitter:  @rcdaniells

Rowena’s Blog: http://rowena-cory-daniells.com/

You can find a trailer for Rowena's latest here.

Gems

 Running late today – getting an internet connection has been a little tricky. Of course I am completely relaxed. BTW do you like my new profile shot to the left there?

I was thinking about writing craft and how as writers we gradually extend our skills and accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge. Anything of worth seems to come pretty hard indeed. The question I was asking myself was – what is the single best Gem I have learned? It’s a hard question to answer, and probably impossible because everything in writing seems to be interrelated. The knowledge and realisations that will enhance one person’s writing may be unhelpful for another. Each writer approaches their work from a unique perspective. Each will do some things instinctively, struggle with others and have unique blind spots.

After a bit of consideration, I decided that just going chronologically would be the easiest approach. For me, the first Gem was understanding the importance of plot. My first novel draft was written off the cuff with just the smell of a story. That was fun, but it quickly derailed into a mess that was going nowhere. I binned it. After that I spent more than four months writing out (by hand) a sketch for every single scene, right down to key pieces of dialogue and movement. This enabled me to play with subplots and get a sense for overall arcs. I don’t go to that level of detail anymore, but I do plan the whole story by chapter and scene.

After that, the biggest penny drop was at a short workshop on story writing. The presenter outlined a simple framework of three interrelated elements: CHARACTER, SETTING, CONFLICT. That really enhanced my writing, particularly short story writing. I think this was when I realised that Setting has to be integral to the story – so integral that the setting cannot be removed from the story. The acid test being that if the setting element can be removed from the story then it is not supporting it – a capital crime for a short story where every element must pull its weight.

Then – and this was derived after a long, slow slog, rather than a lightbulb moment – I understood the role of point of view. Over a long period of time I learned to control it and use it. I learned to convey what a character was thinking from another character’s PoV through gestures, hesitations and leading dialogue.

I have increased my understanding of creating both emotional resonance and character sympathy – hook – but I think I’m in for a long haul before I have the mastery I need. This is what I really want to understand right now.

What are your greatest Gems? What do you want to learn next? Better still – what are your killer tips on creating emotional resonance and hooking a reader?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons Web Blog.

The Icky Bits

(Cue Gregorian chant) Let us all give thanks unto Ceiling Cat, for after several weeks of whine, there is finally a post about writing. (End cue)

Or maybe curse Basement Cat, because for reasons known only to itself, my fried excuse for a brain is stuck on the question of how to handle the icky bits – and I’m not talking about the naughty icky bits, either.

The thing is, unless you’re writing for specific audience segments where there’s an expectation that ick will either not happen, be soft-pedaled, or be gracefully skipped (and these segments are getting smaller and fewer which is not necessarily a good thing), most of the time in F & SF there’s an expectation that the usual nastiness that goes with whatever you’re talking about will happen. Which is a really wordy way to say that if you’ve set up that your bad guys won’t hesitate to kill someone slowly, you’d better have some example of the fact there somewhere, and probably also have your hero or someone important to them facing the prospect of the bad guys doing their thing to them.

If torture is normal in your world, it needs to have some visibility in your plot. No, this does not mean an obligatory torture scene. What it does mean is that somewhere that norm must impact your characters. If you can’t write it, don’t try: instead consider the impact of your characters finding what’s left of a friend after they got tortured and killed (the two aren’t necessarily synonymous, but for plot purposes it tends to work that way) – or nursing said friend back to health and dealing with the fallout (this is why for plot purposes “and killed” often happens absent miracle-level technology or magical healing).

Similarly in a violent society, there needs to be violence. And bloodshed, because violence rarely happens without it.

That doesn’t mean you need to do the gross-out thing and lovingly describe buckets of blood or injuries that leave internal organs in places where internal organs were never intended to go. That kind of writing has a place, but the place isn’t necessarily your book. Rather consider your characters and their level of experience. Then show their reactions to what they see, hear and smell (only the sick bastards go tasting and touching the results of extreme violence – although a sufficiently strong smell can be tasted). If your hardened soldier sprints for the loo to empty his stomach, that shows that what he’s seen is pretty damn horrific. At this point nothing you describe will live up (or down) to the imagination of your readers, so don’t even try. A few references to blood spattering way further than it should have and… bits… will usually give the impression of a horrific bloodbath without you needing to make yourself queasy figuring out exactly who did what to whom.

This method is actually more difficult than the detailed descriptions, but it has a lot more impact if it’s done well. I used it a lot in ConVent and – to a lesser extent – in Impaler. ConSensual (I have seen a cover draft. It’s almost there….) uses the same technique as well, although like ConVent, I added in the twist of playing it for laughs. That’s harder. For that it helps to have a completely unshockable character, or as close to it as you can get. I guess a vampire who’s thousands of years old and has seen damn near everything that people can do to each other is pretty close to unshockable – although I still manage to rattle him a fair bit.

If your plot requires a major character to suffer something horrible, it works better if you don’t shy away from the horrible, but you can still give the horror its full impact without the every-drop-of-blood level coverage. For that kind of thing I’ll build up the emotional impact on the character as they realize they’re in deep trouble and begin to understand what’s about to hit them. If I’m writing a major character who gets tortured (which happens, particularly when writing medieval-ish fantasy – not that SF doesn’t include that particular peril), I’ll often write up until the ‘fun’ starts, then end that scene with a bridging sentence that makes it clear things get a great deal worse. Then change scene. If I’ve got multiple points of view I won’t come back to that character for a while, partly because the POV of someone who’s unconscious or delirious tends not to be terribly useful from a plot perspective, and partly because I’m evil and I want my readers wondering if the poor sod is going to survive – or if it would be better if he didn’t.

When I do return to that character, I focus on their emotions as much as their injuries, and usually don’t go into specifics because someone in that state is going to be paying more attention to the logistics of “It hurts” and “I need out of this mess” than to what’s been broken, burned, crushed, cut off or the like. If they’re able to escape under their own steam, the difficulties attached to said escape get shown. If not, I’ll often have them pass out again about when the rescuer shows up, then switch to the rescuer’s POV – which will show the rescuer’s reaction to the state of their friend, but mostly focus on the challenges of getting said friend out of their predicament.

When I’m writing from the villain POV, I take a rather different tack. Even if my villain is outright evil (who am I kidding? Most of my characters including the heroes are outright evil), I focus more on their goals when they’re causing mayhem than on the actual bloodshed, and on whatever gratification they get out of it. If the villain is driven by a lust for power, the power over the captive is what drives them. The sadistic sorts I focus more on the emotions of the victims than on the physical suffering. The ones that get off on it, I tend to aim for just enough shown that readers can guess the rest. If anything this is where I flinch, not because I have issues with what’s happening, but because I know damn well my ick settings don’t get triggered until just about everyone else has run screaming into the night.

What I tend not to do, no matter what, is describe everything in loving detail. Partly because it’s not helpful to the plot, partly because readers who are turning interesting shades of green aren’t reading my book, and in all honesty? Mostly because it’s boring. Seriously. One set of human innards is much the same as any other set of human innards, and if it’s not inside the skin where it ought to be, that’s usually enough for any moderately imaginative person. Who wants to read a scarlet-tinted anatomy lesson when the hero comes across the aftermath of a gruesome battle?

I, You, They

One of the typical questions I get from newbies is “What person do you write in?”

Of course that’s NOT what they’re actually asking. What they’re actually asking is “What person do I have to write in so my fiction will be accepted by publishers?” or in the new age of indie possibly “So my fiction will be professional?”

I have bad, sad, horrible news to all you newbies out there. There is no answer to that. There are authors – and editors – who confuse their personal preferences with a law of nature, but wishing don’t make it so.

I always find it very funny when people who have decent careers and should know the history of the field come out and opine that “only newbies write in first person” or “first person is the mark of the amateur.” Pleeeeeease!

Just because you’re not good enough not to Mary-Sue when you use first person, don’t project your weaknesses on other writers. Go look at… oh, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Go on. I’ll wait. Yep, first person. And if you have a low opinion of that book, that’s your prerogative, but you’re also not a very good evaluator in my opinion and the opinion of the millions of people who made that book an international classic of SF. In fact, most classic science fiction writers operated mostly in first person. That is just a fact of life.

It is also a fact of life that most of classical mystery – Agatha Christie, Rex Stout – was written first person. Most urban fantasy still is.

Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes. Stop that, they might stick that way. Look at that again. You might have literary pretensions and think you’re all that, but go look at the data and how it tracks. When genres are at their most popular (they don’t call it golden age sf because the covers had foiling) they are written first person. The most popular genre now is – arguably – urban fantasy, which is first person.

So, while you personally might not like it, there seems to be a strong market preference for first person.
Perhaps, of course, you write for political commentary or intellectual acclaim. Fortunately I’m a philistine, I write for cold, hard cash. I think critical acclaim comes afterwards, when you’re dead and your kids are still getting rich off the royalties and sub-rights. And I’m willing to wait.

Does that mean that you must write first person?

Not necessarily.

I’m a natural first-person writer. This is because that is the closest to how I experience the story as my subconscious core-dumps it. I.e. I get the story “told” to me and know only what the main character knows.

Yeah, I fell for the same thing y’all did. “I must write third person to be professional.” Or rather, I didn’t, but

I knew – back then – most editors had. If they saw first person, particularly if it was the same gender as the author, they assumed you were Mary Sue-ing. I knew better. For one most of my first person isn’t the same gender I am. (For another… All those of you who think I’m Athena, I had a disturbed teenage-time, but not THAT disturbed. For heaven’s sake, the woman has a natural sense of direction and special memory. I have neither. And I was never that self-confident.) I just get the character in my head, speaking in his/her voice.

But I had to learn to write third person to break in, and I did it.

Is it better? Is it worse?

It is DIFFERENT. There is no “right” person to write in. It’s like asking me “how long should a story be?” The answer to THAT is “as long as it needs to be” and the answer to the voice is “the voice it needs to be to tell the story.”

First person lends itself to coming of age stories and to stories that have an unreliable narrator, though the second requires a REALLY GOOD narration so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when he realizes he’s been taken along for a ride.
Third person is good for action that requires a multiple povs and a rolling narration with cameras following various
narrators.

Take my Shifter series. The action is carried by a group and they might be and often are under attack from multiple fronts. Sure I could do first person from Tom and/or Kyrie’s perspective, but you’d miss what is happening with Rafiel, except in cumbersome retelling. Easier to roll from one to the other of them, as the action leads.
Witchfinder, the novel I’m putting up for free one chapter at a time (on Friday’s) over at According to Hoyt is also the same type of narration because, again, multiple fronts, multiple characters. Same for that mater with the Musketeer Mysteries.

So… if there isn’t a right one, which one is easier?

Normally? Even though I’m a natural first person writer, third person is easier. Third person is WAY easier if you’re uncertain about the plotting, because you can show what the bad guy is doing and the pincers closing on your good guy, which helps timing. It’s much, much, much easier to do it in multiple voices.

However there are special circumstances. The last three novels I wrote were first person. I’ve been having the devil of a time with Noah’s boy, and it just hit me that I REALLY am not having a problem with the book – I’m having an issue with the different feel of switching back into third after first. THAT I can cope with. (Mostly.) It hit me because I’m having the same feeling as with Witchfinder – I’m insufficiently grounded in ANY character, is what it feels like, and it’s just because of habit established in my most recent work. Anything can become an habit.
I recommend you experiment with both third and first, and if you can become proficient at both. Kris Rusch calls this “enlarging your toolbox.” The more tools you have, the better the work you can do.

So, why limit yourself? Instead of raging at first – or third – as sloppy or unprofessional, put on the student cap, read some good examples and learn to do it. People seem to prefer first, but there’s enough bestsellers in third to show sometimes it’s needed. Just learn to use it. Refusing to is like saying “I’m a carpenter, but I’ll never use a hammer. It’s all staple guns for me.”

The one exception I’d make is second, and that’s because it annoys me as a reader. It’s a personal thing. But I’ve written a couple of shorts in second person, and it can be done. And if you’ve never done it, you should try it.
There is no right voice. There’s the right story, and the right writer.

Before my head explodes

There are some days when I wonder how my head keeps from exploding because of the sheer idiocy that seems to be pervading so much of publishing. It’s not enough that we have publishers trying to kill mass market paperbacks because they make more money per sale for a hard cover book. Nor is it enough that they think they can convince readers that it costs as much to make an e-book as it does a hard copy edition of that same book, especially when the digital and print versions come out at the same time. I won’t even go into the archaic form of hand-wavium they use to justify either of these actions or how they report out sales and royalty figures to authors. Now we have Bob Kohn of RoyaltyShare filing yet another comic strip brief with the court in opposition to the already approved settlement between the Department of Justice and three of the publishers named in the price fixing lawsuit.

Yep, you read that right. A comic strip brief. His first brief, all five pages of what he called a “graphic novel” brief, was dismissed by the court. Kohn has filed yet another comic brief. I don’t know what gets to me more: the fact that Kohn is getting publicity from all of this — and that I’m adding to it this morning — or the fact that he has so little regard for our justice system that he thinks filing a comic as a pleading document is appropriate in any sort of lawsuit, much less one that has the potential of impacting an industry as much as this particular suit does.

Frankly, I can’t help but wonder if the only reason Kohn is continuing to take this tact is because he sees it as a free source of PR. Especially since it seems to be working…sigh. Mr. Kohn, grow up and quit acting like a self-indulgent child. If you have an argument you want to be taken seriously, then you need to take it seriously yourself. Presenting it as a comic isn’t the way.

Since my head is already threatening to explode because of the antics of Kohn with regard to the price fixing law suit, we might as well keep with that general topic. “Apple and/or the publisher defendants” filed a motion to subpoena Amazon in the class action lawsuit that’s been filed against Apple and the publishers. Amazon has, of course, filed a motion to quash the subpoena. While we don’t and can’t know all that was included in the filing of the subpoena, what it does show is that in this suit, as in the price fixing suit, the defendants are trying to play a game of smoke and mirrors by casting Amazon as the big evil that has to be protected against, even if it means breaking the law to do so.

Look, this tactic isn’t anything new, but that doesn’t make it right. We can’t allow businesses, or individuals, to go around breaking the law because there is the possibility that a competitor might, at some unknown point in the future, do something that might be bad or illegal. That sort of logic sends my mind spinning. It reminds me of the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report”. In the movie, “criminals” are apprehended before the crime based on information provided by precogs. Of course, it is assumed that the precogs are infallible and that what they’ve forecast can’t be changed. I don’t know about you, but I have a real problem with this sort of thinking, especially when you assume that something is going to happen NO MATTER WHAT THE INTERVENING CIRCUMSTANCES MIGHT BE.

My concern is that Apple and the non-settling publishers will manage to so confuse the issue that the underlying allegation against them in the DoJ suit will be lost. That issue is whether or not they colluded to fix the price of e-books. Contrary to what these same defendants and so many publishers, editors and, yes, even authors would have you believe, it isn’t about whether or not agency pricing is legal or not. It boils down to a simple of question of if the named parties communicated, either in person or via other means, a plan to set prices for e-books across the board in a way that did away with competitive pricing. It is the collusion that is the heart of the DoJ’s lawsuit, nothing more and nothing less.

Just as the named defendants want us to think the real enemy to publishing and to readers is Amazon, they don’t want us looking too closely at their own practices. If they keep us focused on the evil that Amazon might do at some point down the road, we don’t look at their own practices. Practices like using Bookscan to report sales figures because, gee, they can’t use a simple computer program to know how many books they printed, how many were sent to bookstores and how many were sold/returned. Instead, they rely on a sampling of sales from certain stores to report. Are the figures accurate? Hell no. Not when you can walk into a bookstore and find a book still on the shelves two or three years after it was printed — which means that book is selling and being reordered time and again — and yet the publisher says there aren’t enough sales to continue the series.

Authors, if you want to get angry over anything, get angry at your agents and publishers for allowing this farce to continue. Quit giving in to the knee-jerk reaction instilled by years of knowing the only way to have legitimacy as an author was to bend over and take whatever the legacy publishers did. They aren’t the only path now. There are any number of respected and successful small presses out there, all more than happy to treat you with more respect than you are getting now. The self-publishing road is no longer the kiss of death it once was. There are, in short, other players and you need to know them and understand what they can offer you, especially since legacy publisher are not doing the jobs they promise.

Ask yourself, when is the last time your publisher actually promoted your work (assuming you aren’t a best seller or literary darling). Ask yourself when you last got a royalty statement not only on time but with numbers that made sense based on what you are seeing in the local bookstores and hearing from your fans. Ask yourself why it is publishers think they are the most important part in the book creation process and not the person or persons actually responsible for writing the book.

It is time for authors to take control of their careers and realize there is no longer any reason to kowtow to legacy publishers. Amazon is not pure as the driven snow, but it most certainly isn’t the big evil Apple and others are trying to make it out to be. Nor should it — or any other business for that matter — be punished for something it might do at some point in the future. C’mon, guys, apply a little common sense not only to what is happening regarding the DoJ price fixing suit but to your careers as well. It’s past time to take care of yourselves and to remember that, without you, publishers wouldn’t exist. They should work for you and not the other way around.

Leverage

I see JK Rowlings is getting a fair amount of publicity about her new ‘adult’ book. It’s one of the truisms about publishing that if you don’t need publicity, you’ll get it, and if you do, you won’t.

A well-known author who had just had the butter-boat emptied on him, tried to explain this as the the publishers being cash-rich and personnel-poor. The strategy was all about introducing him to new readers… So he went to patches of fandom. Made perfect sense, really.

Put in military terms publishers are like a country fighting a war on five fronts… four of the armies are so under-equipped they have to steal ammunition from their foes. They have no boots. They’re outnumbered two to one by their foes, and they need the resources and support of mother country just to survive, let alone win. And some of them are still making a fight of it. The fifth front is commanded by a wealthy, influential general and the motherland has given his men the very best equipment, and the largest army and large stocks of food and ammunition. His forces outnumbers the foes he faces. So the parliament of the country so at war, facing extinction… has a small stock of ammunition, boots, and a few thousand reserves. So they send all of it to the fifth front, where the general has attractive offers to change sides, and promises to match every bit of materiel and manpower he has been given. The embattled country is just bound to win with this strategy, isn’t it?

The reality of course is while publishers have historically had cash, and some of them have made a recent pile selling e-books off their backlist (some of which they may have the rights to… or not, as e-books did not exist or were not included when the contract was signed. A successful challenge will bankrupt them), they’re really not cash rich either- not for the vast costs of a Spanish Armada that the sort mass-tactics that they use on their ‘popular’ authors – not for everyone. They may be personnel-poor too, at least while they continue to do business in manner they always have (ie. lots of meetings, which – and your mileage may vary – can chew a vast amount of time for little added value). The truth is they’re -outside of Baen – also Brand-recognition poor (ie, no one buys a Tor book or a Del Rey book or a Simon & Schuster book because they love the publisher’s choices, and trust them to provide good reading. No, they trust author names.) They’re quality sales-data poor too, meaning they know nothing about their customers – and about the market and those who don’t buy their product, but could. They also seem contemporary marketing skill poor too, and this is a field that is changing fast and in which the old techniques of flooding bookstores are perhaps 1/3 as effective as they once were.

Now, logic says if you’re poor in all these fields you need to make best use of the few resources you have, and you need to leverage off them. The one way would be to gamble and hope that by investing heavily in one author you could make a huge profit (your fixed costs – editing, proof-reading etc, for a bestseller are not (at least in theory) very much bigger than for noob. Of course as you’re sales data poor too, this is a gamble, plain and simple. And as the importance of the traditional marketing channels (selling to brick-and-mortar chain bookstores) decline, so does their ability to cook the odds. The information available from Bookscan is such poor quality, that basing decisions on it is the equivalent of reading entrails for answers. Publishers know its a gamble… so they bet ‘safe’ – which means the authors they paid a lot for, and where reaching a new audience is hard… it’s safer, but unlikely to give more than a minor win. And a minor win… is not enough.

The one thing you don’t do is spend money ineffectually. Spend ideally has to get you maximum leverage for the lowest cost, and ideally has to improve all the areas you are resource poor in. Spending roughly half the advance (a typical measure, apparently) on promotion for say… Sir Terry Pratchett, is the equivalent of flushing money down the tube – firstly the chances of your reaching new readers to pay more than tiniest fraction of your costs are miniscule, and secondly, his fans do a much better job than you can. Rather like the powerful fifth army, the only way it pays real dividends is if you can use the popularity and success of that author to improve your other regions of poverty – So, if you send the resources to the strong but direct them to relieve the hard pressed, and make it worth their while. If you do spend on say David Weber – but you use that spend to build your Baen brand awareness (meaning you have something to offer to to authors), and to piggy back other authors – and to collect some sales data while you’re at it (sign up here for our new notification list, and we’ll tell you a fortnight early about the new e-ARC and you can get at a 20% discount -meaning more profit for us, actually, and a saving for you. And here is a free first book of Fred Funnyface’s new Space navy novel with every purchase. If you can’t leverage off that, then looking for authors who make ground despite your non-support and sending them help is common sense.

The most valuable asset authors have is their brand, and fans of that brand. Publishers need to leverage off that — and that realistically means paying for it. Authors invest heavily – mostly in man-hours and talent, but also in money, building that. It’s theirs, and they’re not going to use it to benefit other authors – or their publisher – without quid pro quo. Now there is an idea that would work, but also be unpopular with them.

End Games

There is often a lot of discussion about crafting the beginning of a story – the first line and following paragraphs. There is no denying a good beginning is essential to hooking a reader or prospective editor. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) “The End”.

A good beginning combined with an attractive character might net a sale despite the book’s other faults. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation (super-cool protagonists can carry a story through loose or even illogical plots), or that support themselves on superior prose style. But for the other books that lack that well crafted ending, are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending? For me it’s emotional punch and a simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation. A feeling of emotional resolution. When the character arcs have reached their end in a satisfying climax of drama and action that leaves the protagonist changed for the better. I know this does not work for everyone, perhaps seeming too ‘formula’. Some prefer unresolved endings, particularly in short fiction. I think everyone enjoys a surprise ending to mystery that is built well from the beginning (i.e. not ‘the gardener you saw for one paragraph on page 4 did it’).

What books have you read that have left you in a state of sublime happiness? A surging feeling right down in your gut that your life has somehow been enhanced? The knowledge as you lay that book aside that something truly wonderful has passed from the writer’s psyche to you?

What do you think constitutes a good ending?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

So, I’ve done a lot of whining and ranting lately. Amanda’s post this week pretty much nailed the reason: I’m burned out. The amazing thing is I’m still functional at all.

Here’s the short-form list of what life is throwing in my direction right now:

The Husband’s mother has cancer. It’s responding well to treatment, but each time she needs a chemo shot it’s a co-pay of over $500, which we fund because she doesn’t have it. Because of that, my con schedule… isn’t. Next year I’ll be going to the Discworld convention and Worldcon, but that’s probably going to be it unless I get invited to attend. The budget needs recovery time.

My job is beyond feral. It’s got so that there’s no way I can do everything that needs to be done, but since this is software testing for a fairly small company I’m living with the possibility that anything I don’t manage to do could be bad enough to send the employer under. The one “bright” point there is that it looks like the team lead has – finally – managed to convince the pointy-haired ones that the problem is not that the testing team is “broken”. It’s that they could double the team and have just barely enough people to avoid going backwards. Oh, and the company is now at six straight months of operating losses, which really helps a lot. Not.

My mother has pretty much given up. She’s basically sitting around waiting for something to happen, be it good, bad, or indifferent, and she calls me periodically to tell me how miserable she is. Yes, this is immensely helpful.

The Husband’s job is rapidly heading towards feral, although at least they appreciate him there. The problem is it’s a distribution center servicing retail outlets, and he manages shipping. Plus they closed several nearby centers and consolidated to where he is a few years back, and volume is now at the point where they’re overflowing into a second warehouse, and he’s doing well when the overtime doesn’t include Sundays. Saturdays are pretty much a dead loss for him, particularly now with them shipping for the holiday season. That’s not going away until somewhere in November, at best.

Oh, yes, and every time we think we might be getting a break, something else lands.

I’m sure that sounds familiar to everyone here. It’s also effectively impossible to escape – every single stressor here is an external thing, and I’m already doing everything I can to keep it from dragging me down. I’m even succeeding to a certain extent: I’m not in full breakdown, which I would have been under similar pressures a few years ago.

What bites, and what I’m not finding an answer for, is that I don’t have the energy for anything. I get home, and I’m useless. It’s an effort to think of something to eat, much less actually get up and fix it (which is why the eating out levels are creeping up to levels that are not good for either us or the budget). By the end of the week, about all I can manage is to fall over and sleep for a while.

Writing-wise, the only thing that’s going anywhere is Overlord fanfic, which… while I can have fun with it, and experiment with techniques, it isn’t really getting me any kind of sellable body of work. But when I open any of my serious works in progress, I stare at them and my brain turns off, or worse, I can’t even look at them. They’re… blood from stones that have already been squeezed dry.

I know this sounds depressed, and I’m pretty sure I’m borderline at minimum right now. Not fully into an episode – if I was at that level, I wouldn’t be posting. Just… barely hanging on, with nothing left for anything but essentials and maybe a bit of fluff that acts as an anesthetic. And, well, since this is Overlord fanfic, some recreational evil.

So. Anyone got a miracle hanging around? Or a lottery win? Enough to replace the job income would go nicely right about now. Failing that, a working space/time portal that I could use to duck off to some alternate dimension and sleep for a couple of weeks would be good.

Dialogue – a lesson with Fred and Mary

Yes, I’ve done this before, but I found while teaching a workshop that I couldn’t find it in the archives, and anyway, I’ll do it again from a different angle and maybe it will stay in people’s heads. It really is n many ways, when it comes to writing, what separates the pros from the amateurs. I mean, it’s not the only thing, but it is often the last to fall into place and while you’re doing this the amateur way it will slow the rhythm of your work and gum up the machinery of your narrative even if everything else is professional. On the other hand, professionally rendered dialogue covers a multitude of sins.

A caveat. You can – and should, if you have any interest – look at it and figure out what I’m doing (since it’s a demonstration lesson) BUT unless you’re one of very few people (I’ve met a couple) who can learn a skill by reading the instructions, you won’t know this and start using it until you practice it. It is something that becomes an habit of mind and/or fingers.

“Dialogue,” Mary said.

“Yes?” Fred asked.

“How does one do it?” Mary said.

She looked up at him, her blue eyes filled with anguish. Around her the room fell deathly silent.

“By doing it, mostly,” Fred said.

“Yes, but the tags,” Mary said. “Don’t you get tired of saying said and said and said and said. I mean I know
they say it’s invisible. But after a while it grates on my nerves.”

“Not really,” Fred said. “It is still preferable to admitted, exclaimed, exhorted or… ejaculated.”

“That’s not what you sa– Oh, you mean as a dialogue tag,” Mary said. “But it gets rather like watching a ping-pong match, doesn’t it?”

“Fine.” Fred smiled. He winked at Mary. “Then do it with action tags. You know, the sort of thing that gives your characters a body and shows that they’re in a physical world. Know what I mean.”

Mary blushed. She tugged her neckline closed and looked away. “Sort of. You mean, they can do things in the middle of the conversation?”

“Sure.” Fred grinned broadly. “Though frankly, if you only have two people talking, you really don’t need to tag the dialogue except to show emotion or other things not conveyed in the dialogue.”

“Not tag… You mean, not say who said it?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, if you only have two people talking, and you tag the initial one, you only have to tag every other one if that.”

“But don’t people lose track eventually?”

“Of course, that is when you have an action tag.”

Mary rose from the table, walked to the window and looked out at the flower garden. “You mean like this?” she asked.

“Like that,” Fred said. “Is a good action tag.” He got up and went to stand beside her, at the window. “Mary, I’ve been meaning to tell you, all these months together, in the writing group, I…”

“Yes, Fred?” She turned to look up at him.

“I love your clean cut sentences; the way you eschew passive verbs. I love your action sequences and how they chain on each other to a peak of emotional surrender. I pine for your sample chapters, and I don’t think I could live without your short stories.” He looked down at her, his eyes filled with mute inquiry.

Mary sighed and smiled, and wiped her own moist eyes. “Yes, Fred,” she said. “I will marry you.”

New, or at least renewed, beginnings

In a number of ways, this is a very difficult post to write. While I’ve had no problems over the last several years opening up about my feelings about the state of the publishing industry and where I think we’re going, I haven’t written much about what goes on in my life. Part of that is because I’m a very private person. Part is because being in law enforcement earlier in my life, I learned not to share personal details on a public forum. Today I’m going to break that rule, sort of, as well as do my usual schtick regarding publishing.

As most of you know, I’ve written before about hitting the wall with burn-out. Now, I can hear those nay-sayers would will tell you there is no such thing as burn-out. That when we think we have it, we should just push through. They are right and wrong. A lot of times when someone says he’s got a case of burn-out, he doesn’t. Yeah, he’s tired. Yeah, he’s having a hard time focusing on whatever his current work in progress is. But that might not be burn out. It might be that he’s writing something he shouldn’t be, whether it’s because there is a fundamental flaw with the book or the book is scaring him because his craft is taking one of those unexpected leaps forward. It might be because he’s at that part of the book where it is just hard to keep going. For a lot of writers, that’s the middle of the book. That sort of “burn-out” is what you can push through.

But real burn-out is something you can’t push through. Not really. Oh, you might fool yourself for awhile and manage another few days or weeks before you not only hit the wall but the wall falls on you. This is the mind-numbing, body-breaking burn-out that makes it hard to do anything in your chosen profession. It is often accompanied by either family stress, work stress from your outside job or illness or all of the above. When that happens, it takes time to get over it, time you may not realize you have to take.

This is all a roundabout way of explaining what happened to me. I’ve been on a leave of absence from Naked Reader Press for the last three months due to some potentially very serious medical issues that needed to be dealt with as well as some personal, but not nearly as serious, personal issues that I had to get a handle on. During that time, writing stopped. Work stopped. Life, in a lot of ways, stopped.

But, out of it came some good on several different levels. The first is that the medical issues, while not completely over, have been dealt with and did not — knock on wood — turn out to be as serious as they could have. The family issues are well in hand and weren’t serious at all. And NRP, well, we’re behind as any small business is when one of the few full-time employees is off for an extended period of time. But that also meant we, the owners and I, spent time discussing how to make NRP better and how to handle such situations should they arise in the future.

So, on the NRP front, we are bringing onboard two new editors. I’m thrilled to welcome Taylor M. Lunsford and Charles Martin to the company. Taylor will be helping set up our new romance and mystery lines and Charles will be heading up the non-fiction line. They will also be helping us get caught up on slush. So, for those of you who have been waiting for an answer, it will be coming shortly. What makes both Taylor and Charlie excellent fits for NRP is the fact they understand the fluid nature of publishing right now and they aren’t afraid to try something new, whether it is tech or figuring out what the next literary trend might be. You’ll learn more about them and hear from them about what they are looking for over at the Naked Reader site starting next week.

As for me, I’ll be continuing with NRP but my workload will be more manageable with the additions of both Taylor and Charlie as well as our own Sarah who is now our art director. It’s amazing how much that helps and I can’t thank each of these wonderful folks for believing in NRP as much as I do.

There’s another indication for me that the burnout is finally over. I’ve been writing again. Not just a few hundred words here and there but writing, real writing. In the last few weeks, I’ve managed a little over 55,000 words. They might not be my finest work, but it’s still first draft. They key here is not only that I’m writing, but that I want to write. It’s been a long time since I’ve really wanted to.

And, what I’m learning, is that I’m not the only writer/editor/etc who has been feeling this way. The turmoil in publishing has taken a toll on most of us. The push to find alternatives to traditional publishing, trying to decide if we are going to utilize these alternatives exclusively or remain with traditional publishing only or try a mix of both has been difficult for most of us. And it has taken a toll. When you add in the normal stresses and strains of life and it is little wonder there aren’t more walking dead among writers.

Any way, now that I know my health is only compromised and will, in all likelihood, return to normal and the other stress is working out, I am ready to hit the world running — or at least limping along. The ride may be bumpy at times, but that’s what makes it exciting.

Now, as for the publishing world…If you haven’t seen it already, HarperCollins has renegotiated its contract with Amazon and is no longer using the agency model to price their e-books. Yes, there are also the boo-birds out there condemning Amazon for it and forecasting doom and gloom for publishing because, gasp, best sellers may be priced below $10. Of course, these are the same naysayers who want us to believe it costs as much to produce an e-book as it does a print book and, by the way, they also tell us it costs that much even though there has been a print book produced. According to them, there is additional editing, copy editing, proofreading, etc., that has to go into the creation of the digital version of a book produced for print. When someone tells you that, call them on it because that is WRONG. You don’t have to edit, etc., again. Yes, you need to format but that is a matter of running the copy through a conversion program and then checking to see it converted properly.

These are also those who would have you believe that the DoJ’s suit is against agency pricing and who so conveniently forget that it is against price fixing. In other words, DoJ says that it isn’t agency pricing that is inherently wrong but how it came about that was. The alleged conspiracy between the five publishers and Apple is the issue. The fact that three of those publishers have agreed to terms with the DoJ, and that has been approved by the court, is not Amazon’s fault. Amazon isn’t some grand puppet master standing behind the scenes manipulating everything. What Amazon is is an innovator. Yes, it is the 800 pound gorilla but, for the moment at least, it is a gorilla that is in my corner and I will take advantage of what it offers, not only for myself but for the authors who come to NRP. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep a close eye on what the gorilla is doing. I’m not that foolish. But I won’t condemn myself to much fewer sales by not using Amazon simply because Amazon might do something I don’t like at some point in the future.

So, how do you tell if you are buying a book that is a product of the agency pricing mode or not? That’s really easy on Amazon. Go to the product page and under the price you will see one of the following: either a listing of the just the price points for the various versions of the book or the publisher’s name and “This price was set by the publisher” or “sold by: Publisher’s name”. If you see the first alternative, you know you are buying a book that was published by an author or publisher who never took part in agency pricing. The second alternative is our old friend agency pricing. These are the publishers who have yet to enter into new agreements with Amazon. The third alternative is what you will see post agency pricing.

Is the agency model gone? I doubt it. For one thing, the only publishers being forced to abandon it right now are the three who came to agreements with the Department of Justice. What happens with the other two, and with Apple, remains to be seen. For those other publishers who negotiated with Amazon and are currently using the agency model, the question remains open as to if, when their contracts come up for renewal, the agency model will be continued. My opinion is that we will see a hybrid of some sort.

In the meantime, I will continue checking not only prices but publishers. There are very few e-books I’d pay more than $10 for, especially when I know how little authors get for those traditionally published e-books. There is no way in heck I’ll by $19.99 for an e-b0ok and, yes, if you look at the best sellers this morning you will find one at that price. My question is why? Why are you paying that much? Especially when the publisher is loading the book with DRM and limiting how many devices I can have it on and when that publisher doesn’t believe that $19.99 allows me to OWN that e-book.

My money can and will do my talking for me. And now I need to go wade through some more email and start smoothing my way back into the swing of things at NRP.