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Will The Organization Formerly Known As SFWA Need Smelling Salts?

I eagerly await the news of the Organization Formerly Known As SFWA’s response to the latest development in publishing: the traditional contract now with added boilerplate disclaiming any guarantee of hard copy format. I suspect those of the Feminist Glittery Hoo Haa will call for the smelling salts as this latest shift in the quicksand they’ve been claiming for years is ever so stable has the potential to leave the poor dears with nothing to distinguish them from – horror of horrors – independents and self-published authors.

Just think of it – for so many years they’ve had the security and prestige of knowing that their books would be in actual bookstores, making it really easy to tell that they’re real authors, not like the self-published and independent riff-raff hanging out at that horrible, horrible Amazon place. They could sneer at us pleb indie rabble because we didn’t have real publishers who got our books to real bookstores (never mind the speed with which the real bookstores are vanishing), and look through their lorgnettes at us because they were Worthy! Their publishers told them so, and it’s hard to get into the field, so it must be true, right?

Those ever-diminishing sales must be because the genius of their Feminist Glittery Hoo Haas is just too erudite for those redneck yokels out in flyover country. They have awards. They have Feminist Glittery Hoo Haas. All they have to do is waft and the glittery makes everything perfect!

Only… Those ever-diminishing sales mean the horrible accountant types (“Dahling, I have a Feminist Glittery Hoo Haa. I don’t need that icky Math stuff.”) are putting choke collars on their editors, and their editors (“Dahling, nobody told me there was Math involved.”) are trying to cut costs without having – for the most part – the faintest idea of effective cost management. This is trickle-down economics where the stuff that’s trickling down… isn’t gold. It all flows downhill, after all, and authors, especially the not-so-bestselling Feminist Glittery Hoo Haa types, are at the very bottom of a rather deep valley.

Now, the savvy author (who isn’t there because he/she (and in extreme circumstances it) has headed off to the mostly unmarked paths of indie-land) would recognize the opportunities afforded by so much fertilizer and make use of them. Possibly even build a raft out of words to float from the valley on the amazing torrent of trickle-down… stuff. The poor Feminist Glittery Hoo Haas merely stand there looking up in supplication treating each drop, each trickle as it were as manna from heaven. Some of them may perhaps wonder why it no longer smells as sweet down there in the valley, but they’ve spent so long training themselves that all good things come from above that it’s unlikely to be more than a passing thought – if they haven’t trained themselves out of thought altogether.

Meanwhile, the questions remain:

What will The Organization Formerly Known As SFWA make of this latest development?

Will we rabble be treated to a command performance fit of the vapors?

Does anyone who actually read books give a damn? (Yes, I bowdlerized a bit. So sue me. Actually, don’t. It’s not worth the effort and the only winners will be the lawyers.)

Tune in some time in the future for the exciting answers to these and other irrelevant questions you couldn’t be bothered asking.

Writing With Found Objects 2


Reader Wants Cookie!

We’ll start off our series on the uses, abuses, and avoidance of clichés with how they’re really useful and in fact expected.

Again, note I’m not talking about making your entire book a cliché, or making your story utterly unoriginal (we’ll get to that under abuses.)

Rather, the proper use of cliché is to fill in bits – because no one (NO ONE) can create a whole world out of whole cloth, and if you don’t mention some of the clichés, the readers will put them in anyway.

And the fun part of the filling in bits is as a nod to past things in the genre, to genre tropes that every devoted reader knows, to in jokes and things the reader expects.

Kris Rusch calls these “reader cookies.”  I don’t know if the expression is original with her.

Reader cookies are the easiest of all cliché uses (and it’s a good thing I did them today, when I started off late, and I’m doing this on half a brain!) … and the most difficult.  You have to make sure at the same time that you’re doing a nod thing and that you don’t alienate new readers, because for any genre, your book might be the first that this reader encounters.  You also have to make sure that the reader cookie is fun but won’t make people laugh outloud in the middle of a serious scene.  (I might have failed that last with one of mine, and certainly failed pre-edit.)

One way I did reader cookies in the Darkship world is that the titles are allusions to classics of various genres, but mostly science fiction.  When you name a section Stranger in a Strange land, the reader who knows the history of the field will smile knowingly and feel gratified.  The ones who don’t, don’t care.

(The way I almost failed that, is in Darkship Renegades having Ringo shout Live Free or Die and then being shot while wearing a red kilt.  Then there is the follow up I had to delete, because when someone in the final fight says “Oh, John Ringo, no.”  It’s a climatic fight.  People shouldn’t be giggling while reading it.)

But there is another level of reader cookies, one that is almost expected.  If you’re writing a future world, you should have some cool tech for people to admire.  A world that is just like today is not exciting.  In that sense flying cars (and most Heinleinian tropes) are a cliché, but one that your readers will appreciate.

The same for your other genres.

In historical, I found people love little hidden nuggets of research they can verify and find it’s true.  That is a little beyond the cliché, but not really, since it’s something every historical novel writers tries to include.  (Though hopefully different facts.)  At the same time, some historical figures will be portrayed a certain way.  No, seriously, it’s not worth rowing against the current of the reader’s mind.  People are a mixed lot and when writing of real people, I can make Shakespeare a profligate and Kit Marlowe an innocent, but only for a short story.  If I’d tried that for a novel ten years ago, I’d still be buried under complaining emails.

In mystery there are clichés, like the closed room murder – if you’ve read The Musketeer’s Seamstress, how many of you realized that was what I was setting up? And doing that in the form of a swashbuckling historical?  Reader cookie.

In the same way as in SF, a lot of mystery reader cookies are nods to the history of the genre.  Bodies in the library and a reference to the wickedness inherent in villages bring Christie to mind.  Pfui brings Rex Stout to mind.  Elementary invokes Sherlock Holmes…

By having these nods in there – and the same for Tolkien in Fantasy, btw – you’re assuring the reader that you’ve read the genre, that you’re experienced in it.  More than that, you’re telling the reader that you’re one of them and creating a communality.  You’ll be forgiven a multitude of sins when you do that.  No, seriously.

Give your readers some cookies, and they might even fail to notice that you didn’t serve a main course – that is, you weren’t particularly original.

Be original if you can, of course.  Be as original as you can, I should say.  But keep feeding the readers some cookies – hat tips, allusions, or even clichéd and time honored plot points and world fixtures — and your unoriginalities or failures to soar will be forgiven…. More than if you don’t put those in, at least.

Okay – pardon this disjointed post.  Hopefully it got across well enough.  If/when I publish this series as a booklet I have to clean this one up.

And next week: Filler bits and duct tape.

What were they thinking?

This past week has been odd, to say the least. Between company visiting, some medical issues for both my mother and me and trying to do a little work for NRP as well as write one handed, life has often been an exercise in frustration. And then there’s the latest round in a couple of repeat issues in publishing that had me alternately shaking my head and wanting to scream. So, I guess you could say it’s been life as usual, at least until we see exactly what Apple and company claim in their appeals of the agency pricing judgment and how the court rules. Then the fun will all begin again.

Anyway . . .

Yesterday, I went traipsing through the internet looking for something that might inspire me for today’s post. The first item I came across was a FB post by an author linking to an article on Forbes about how Barnes & Noble is “sticking it” to Amazon. In a new article, it was claimed BN was really putting it to Amazon because it, BN, refused to stock books published by BN. You see, that really hurts Amazon because it prevents the online retailer from having what it needs most for its books: a presence in brick and mortar stores.

I have a couple of issues with this. The first is that this isn’t news. BN and others made this decision a year or more ago when Amazon first announced it was getting into the publishing business. While I can’t say why the article author felt this old news was suddenly “new” news, I can say that I’m of mixed feelings about the decision by BN. On one hand, I understand that the corporate bean counters don’t want to do anything that would put more money into Amazon’s pockets. After all, they have long claimed Amazon is the “Big Evil” and responsible for the downfall of all bookstores. Common sense would have you at least considering whether or not you are causing harm to your own company if you put a competitor’s products in your stores.

The flip side to this is that the competitor might have a product that your customers want. The first key to good business is to get customers through your doors. So you have to ask if the competitor’s product is something that would do just that and, if it is, how you can then use that product to entice the customer into buying other items that are from other suppliers/publishers/etc. However, by simply refusing to carry anything that Amazon publishes, you deny yourself potential sales.

There is another facet of the decision the article — and those supporting BN’s decision — overlooks and that is the impact the decision has on authors. Here is a bookseller that claims to have the best interest of authors and readers in mind with this ban on all things Amazon denying authors an outlet for their work and readers the chance to find said authors’ work. But, because Amazon is involved, too few authors have dared question the decision.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying BN should automatically carry everything Amazon publishes and give it prime shelf space. What I am saying is that BN might be cutting off its nose to spite its face here. They can agree to sell books published by Amazon but they can negotiate a contract to do so that is advantageous to BN. That’s what Amazon has done for years with publishers. Since BN is basically the big kid on the playground when it comes to brick and mortar stores, it has the power if Amazon wants shelf space. So serve the ball to Amazon and then see who blinks first.

The second item that caught my eye was a blog post this morning. No, I’m not going to link to it. It’s not that I disagree, at least not totally, with what the blogger had to say. My real problem comes from what some of the commenters had to say. However, a little google-foo and you’ll find the post without any real problem.

The basic gist of the blog was to reframe the role of gatekeepers in publishing. The blogger stated that agents and editors aren’t looking at submissions to see who to keep out of the legacy publishing club but to find projects they liked and felt they could sell. In fact, according to the blogger, they aren’t really gatekeepers. It was a more positive spin on what we’ve been saying here, written from the point of view of a gatekeeper instead of an author.

I’ll even agree with the blogger that most agents are looking for work they think they can sell. Whether they actually like the work is up to interpretation. But they are basing what they think they can sell on what they are hearing from other agents and from editors about what is currently selling and what editors are looking for. Quality of the work does have something to do with the decision but even that isn’t always a major consideration. If it were, how in the world did Fifty Shades ever get published?

But what had my head exploding — and I really have to quit letting that happen early mornings because it is so hard to clean up before coffee — was one of the comments. This person went on about how she and her husband had been discussing errors he’d found in books he’d been reading. She specified that a lot were in the sf/f books he’d read recently and how it was her belief that writers needed to be patient and work their way through the system to be published by a real publisher. If you can’t find an agent and publisher then you have to realize that your work just isn’t good enough and should be abandoned.

Now, we’ve discussed the problems with this stance before but it continues to amaze me how people — both those in the industry and out of it — fail to grasp the realities of legacy publishing. There are only so many slots a month a publisher can fill. Of those slots, some are for reprints. That means only a few slots a month per publisher for new titles. Since a publisher is a businessman — or so they keep telling us. I still have my doubts — the publisher will fill those as many of those slots as possible with authors who already have a track record. The publisher may hold back one or two slots for new authors. But those are few and far between.

Add into that equation that those slots are being filled with authors who have written something that fits into the mold of what the publisher things is the latest trend in publishing or that fits what the publisher thinks is the current message of the day. That leaves out a lot of titles that are well written and entertaining but that simply don’t meet the subjective criteria of the editors.

Does that mean every one else who has written a book should just stop writing or stop trying to find a way to get their book into the hands of readers? Not only no but hell no. It does mean we have an uphill battle ahead of us because there are still those folks out there who believe that anything that doesn’t come from one of the Big Five Publishers isn’t a real book. However, for every one who feels that way, I can show you someone else who is thrilled with the increased number of titles out there, especially in sf/f and all its sub-genres, because of the increased number of small presses and self-published authors.

But the commenter was right about one thing. There are more mistakes slipping through. But this is happening on all levels, from legacy publishers to self-published authors. So to condemn every level of publishing except legacy publishing is wrong. Again, authors, it is a wake-up call to us. We have to take the reins of control for all our work. It means we have to keep better notes about our characters, especially if we are writing series. It means we can’t just assume that book we were lucky enough to sell to Big Publisher Alpha Dog will actually be edited, much less copy edited and proofed. We have to do it ourselves — or hire someone to do it.

All that said, the most important thing we can do is keep writing. Well, that and keep on top of what is happening in the industry and not let our heads explode too early in the day.

nocturnal interludenewIn the meantime, I have to show off the cover Sarah just designed for Nocturnal Interlude, the third novel and fourth title in the Nocturnal Lives Series. Interlude is finished and I’m waiting to hear back from the editor. This book is a bit different from the others in the series and a little darker because some of the issues brought up in the previous titles are coming to a head. It’s going to be interesting to see where the next book takes me as I write it — but that is two titles down the road.


And now I’m off to find some more coffee, some breakfast and painkillers. Then, maybe, I can get some work done.



Twelve oxen under the sea

Twelve oxen under the sea… There is some reason for twelve oxen being under the sea, but unless one knows the whole story, it is at best mysterious and more like meaningless.

But maybe it sounds good…

Building backgrounds into a story is one of the areas that separates great writers from the hoi polloi (which is a posh way of saying blokes wot are like the monkey, and scratch where they didn’t ought to, and in public). It is particularly difficult in any story NOT set in something close to that chaotic mess we call the ‘the real world’ and mostly fail to deal with. We at least have a lot of referents for that. Great fantasy, Alien cultures, not much. (Alternate history is much easier in this sense). Not only is building a new world/universe really hard work – for both the author and the reader, it’s also very difficult to do well (which is why 90% of fantasy is just Hollywood Medieval with a few extra touches). It’s rather worse than dropping your reader straight into life in rural India, because that at least has a few normal modern US referents. A real fantasy world – Tolkien’s LotR for example, is very complex and rather like an oil-painting takes a huge number of layers to emerge as a complete and complex thing. Only it’s a lot harder than mere oil painting, in that the amount of ‘meaningless until you see more of the picture’ that a writer can get away with is very limited. You see, the canvas is the reader’s imagination, built on layer by layer. Fill it useful-later blotches, and… it’s going to bore the reader and have him not wait for those later layers of color.

This is where writing becomes far more art than science, balancing the story against the backfill, engaging the reader while you build up those layers. Doing it is hard, doing it really well… so the picture, complex, detailed and wholly different, develops without the reader being aware of it being done, masterly, beyond most of us.

There are of course variants of cheating to help. You can write the answers inside your shirt cuffs, but this may not be a great help to you or anyone in this type of exam. The key thing to remember (and do write it on the cuff it helps) is that 1) Baring an omniscient point of view narrator (as in the start bits of most Pratchett Discworld stories) your reader cannot know more than your characters. And the only senses and viewpoint you have to carry that to your reader… is that of your character. If your heroine thinks sleeping in the moist tentacular embrace of a sentient parasitic polyp normal… she’s not going to describe her bed as if she’s never seen it before. Moreover she won’t find it, or the little star-shaped bruises from the suckers and the gelatinous slime in her hair unpleasant, or un-usual.

2) If you have a reason to use referents that readers recognize WITHOUT idiocy of logical inconsistency, it makes life a shed-load easier. Blacksmithing is blacksmithing – even if the locals traverse distances by being projectile-vomited by Zwongs. They just won’t make horse shoes. (for heaven’s sake if you’re going to have horses AND Zwongs please give me a ‘why’. Or at least for me your books will receive the projectile part. I know that totally batty woman at Worldcon told Toni that you didn’t have to know or understand any science to write sf, and I am sure she’d include fantasy, and I am sure her audience don’t need it to make sense, but boring people like me do. If you write fiction you make stuff up. Plausible lies. It’s not that hard, and I gather women are better than men. Show me.

3) Do not make the obvious mistake of the tour of the Starship enterprise or as you know Bob. It really is better to focus on action and dribble bits in, than to do this…

OK. Your suggestions? And books that gave you a really different universe without you realizing the author was building it in your head?

Oh a quick question –ended up talking to a graphic artist/cover designer a few days ago – and looking for prices on her webpage. (for the record, she was pleasant, helpful and… a great poker player – um I assume she, could be wrong, but it doesn’t matter. The cover design I thought excellent, the artwork a bit photo-realistic for where I think the market is going, but certainly the artist has the skills to adapt to that IMO. Certainly a contender, if I were buying right now) I asked where they were, eventually. She said it depended on how complex the work was, and that she quoted accordingly. She said she’d had people take advantage of fixed prices, and since she’d taken them down, had more business. Blink. Now, I don’t know if this is a cultural anomaly (quite plausible) or not, but honestly I dread bargaining, and would hate to go into a shop and ask a price to find it too dear for me. If there are no prices, I just don’t buy. I’d like a ball-park at least. How do you feel about the issue?

In Vain I Have Struggled

This will not do.  Unfortunately, I simply don’t have enough spoons to write a chapter today, mostly because like a total idiot I stayed up very late last night playing with covers, now I finished the cover workshop.

I haven’t uploaded them yet, so I’ll put them here later.  AND TRULY I am very sorry.  I’m just… blank minded except for Through Fire.

I’m going to throw this open to ask me any question about writing/publishing you wish to, and I’ll either answer here, or use it as a basis for my Lifestyle columns.

For instance, I’m doing a “how to write proposals/outlines/queries” for PJM this week.  Is there something along those “short” lines you want to know and/or would like to request?

Writing Under Duress

No, I don’t mean that anyone is forcing me to write. Frankly, my muse isn’t even talking to me right now, although my Evil Muse has been trying to help. He’s rather good at it, so I have flickers of productivity… Just not enough. Because the duress is outside life stuff interfering with my ability to write fiction. I can do this – non-fiction for a blog, or for a school paper – but creating uses a whole ‘nother part of my brain and I can’t seem to tap into it lately.

So what to do to keep the pipeline open with stress pinching it off? I have been working on peripheral stuff. Plotting for the novel in progress, writing words in it when I can, and working out “what comes next?” in my head when I can’t. It seems like the words start to flow on long car drives but that’s a different challenge.

I can, and probably should, force myself to sit down in the chair, put on music (which helps me. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but I need to have the music, or every other sound in the house has me getting up to check on it) and just write X number of words a day. For me, that number would be fairly small right now, like 500.

With mid-terms I let the writing go away. Stress suppresses creativity, and until I made a decision this week, I was enormously stressed, and completely unable to deal with it. I’m better now, and Thursday I made fiction words on a page happen, which was a good start. Now in terms of you, the writer, I can’t say what the stressors are, but you can analyze them, figure out how to alleviate, and how to work around them if you can’t eliminate them.

Next semester, for instance, I have signed up for what I’m calling a “sanity” class. I’m going to take a drawing course, and for three hours a week, I will set aside the whole world and all the burdens of life, and just create. I find drawing, painting, creating to be a good thing for my soul. For you it might be something different. But take a little time to do something that heals you, because that will affect your writing. All the nonsense about having to be depressed to write is total BS.

Really. I have been unable to write for years at a time because of depression. Even if I had written anything (poetry I wouldn’t admit to) I would burn it, bury it, make it go away, because it’s not worth unleashing that sort of pain on the public. You can’t write Human Wave when you have no hope. And there is always hope, even if you can’t see it right now.

I had a bad night last night. Just as I was drifting into sleep, I was awakened by a woman screaming outside our house. I immediately had a flashback, and had to go get my partner to hold me until I could sleep again. Stuff of a story, yes… and it will likely make it into one because I was able to go get help, I have hope, and no matter how bad it was, I got through to the other side. It’s not all rainbows & puppies here (thank g*d, I couldn’t deal with the mess of many young puppies!) but it means I can worry about the little stuff. Like how many words a week I’m getting on paper. And whether Human Wave is about writing hope into stories, that humanity has downsides, but mostly, we’re the only species in the Universe that cares, (that we know about right now) and if we lose hope, what is to become of us?

Books and Films Where the Protagonist Dies

Following on from an interesting discussion I was having a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about stories where the key protagonist dies at the end of the book. Always a controversial way to end a storyline, it can be downright book-at-the-wall territory.

I guess it comes down to what you are looking to get out of the books and films you read. If you are looking for the classic hero’s journey, losing that character – that proxy vehicle of your hopes and dreams – can be downright distressing. Then again, if you are motivated by unconventional plots and enjoy a surprise ending then it might be a pleasant experience of difference – ‘Well wasn’t that clever?’

I’ve been wracking my brains to think of books where this happens, but a number of films immediately came to mind, such as American Beauty and Sin City (where the cop – Harrigan? – kills himself at the end to save Nancy). As it happens, I did read Mark Lawrence’s ‘Emperor of Thorns’, last in his three books series. If you have not read this and want to – LOOK AWAY NOW! In the third book the narrator Jorg (and this is all first person) kills himself so that he can find and save his dead older brother in the worlds beyond (and save the world). The final sections are written by a ‘data-ghost’ of Jorg created by the ‘machines of the builders’.

In terms of plot construction and narration, it’s a tricky balance, trying to withhold enough information so the end is not telegraphed. I guess this is in the territory of the ‘unreliable narrator’.

Although I don’t really enjoy these types of endings, as long as the central character stays true to their initially sketched nature and goals, I’m willing to accept them.

So where do you come down in the debate? Can anyone out there think of a book where the narrator dies?

PS: On 9th and 10th November I’ll be at Brisbane Supanova with a whole bunch of copies of Calvanni, Scytheman and Sorcerer, hot off the press. Come and say hello.

You can also find them at on-line retailers like Amazon.

 New Calvanni CoverScytheman CoverSorcerer Cover


Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.


The Blind Leading the Blind?

Sarah’s spoken often enough about the pitfalls and muddles a group of writers who are all at about the same level can get into without at least one mentor there to guide people away from dead ends – or towards non-dead ones. Today, for reasons best left unexamined, I wound up exploring one of those dead ends online.

It’s a modestly active dead end, but as far as I can see doomed to mediocrity as a best case scenario.

Here’s the problem: the format is a pure question and answer forum. Someone asks a question. Others may add comments to clarify the nuances of said question. Anyone who thinks they know the answer can add it – meaning there could be no answers, or there could be a dozen of them. Questions that will be primarily opinion-based aren’t allowed.

I think the regulars here already know where this going.

In what freaking universe is anything outside the most basic basics of writing not opinion-based? Seriously, this is so many levels of wrong it make my head hurt.

The original site in this collection, Stack Overflow, deals with software, specifically solutions to software problems. It’s an excellent source of information about all things programming – and I’ve found that if I have a programming question of the “how do I make this crazy thing do X”, I will almost always find an answer there, usually one that already exists although I have had to post my own questions there once or twice.

For that matter, the eternally-in-beta testing subsite Software Quality Assurance and Testing Stack Exchange is pretty good for ways to deal with knotty testing problems (and just watch them decide to take the site fully live now I’ve called them an eternal beta). But writing? A non-opinion-based question and answer format? Um.

The problems I can see are endless, and they start with little things like academic non-fiction being so different from commercial non-fiction that the rules for one are absolute taboos for the other (and vice versa, of course).  Genre is similar – each genre has its own set of conventions that don’t necessarily apply to (and in some cases are instant death to) other genres. Hell, the conventions for different subgenres in SF and Fantasy can get in each other’s way, tread on each other’s feet, and generally fight over squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom, the middle, or the top. I would be shocked if the same thing doesn’t happen in the various flavors of romance, mystery, horror (although the Powers that Be have never quite managed to make up their mind whether horror rates as a genre), and so forth.

I skimmed through some of the questions and found myself thinking that this was not going to be helpful. Not to me, and I can’t see me being all that helpful there. I might have a reputation on the SQA Stack Exchange for almost all my answers starting with “It depends…”, but in that field it’s possible to go through options because the set of reasonable choices isn’t particularly large. For writing questions though…

Those of you who’ve had the “good” fortune to have me talk plot and character with you in a chat session know what I mean. I’ll feel out some context first, then start throwing suggestions at you until something jars loose. Often it will relate to some hint that your subconscious buried in the  text which I happened to pick up while I was reading for context. Sometimes if it’s getting really frustrating I’ll start throwing absolutely insane and silly suggestions at you, just to break your brain a little bit so that the barrier you’ve got in there cracks open.

As Sarah and Amanda can attest, these sessions have a way of clarifying a lot of things, but there’s no way in any set of realities that anyone would get to that via a straight out question and answer format. It just doesn’t work for something that operates through multiple layers of indirection and frequently has no correct answer. Or even “best” answer. Just something that works well enough for now.

So what do others think? Is the writing stack exchange a case of the blind leading the blind, or is there something of value there that I’ve missed?

p.s: I’m not going to be worth spit until the weekend at the earliest so my responses will be a tad erratic, courtesy a Wednesday all-nighter followed by Thursday and Friday in frantic post-deployment triage and bug fixes.

Writing With Found Objects 1


But I Wanna be Original


A friend asked me to explain how a writer can use reader cookies (the things readers expect in a certain type of book, and which in fact reward the reader for reading the book) and clichés (and the use there of) as well as genre tropes and other expected “set-pieces” in narration.

And then I realized this was not a post but a series of posts.  A mini workshop, if you will.  Something that will allow you to amplify and improve your writing by becoming conscious of the expectations and either playing to them or against them.

To begin with, you’re probably sitting there, scratching your head, going “but I wanna be original?  Isn’t the purpose of a book to be startlingly new?”

Well… no.

Perhaps I’m more aware of this because I came from a different culture as an adult, and had to learn to tell stories the American people will want to read.

All right – eh – we all have to learn that as writers, but there are degrees.  What I mean is that I not only had to figure out how to talk to people outside my head, I also had to learn what the expectations in the reader’s head were for certain genres, so that I knew what I was working with, or dispelling.  And what made me aware of it is that I carried a completely different set of assumptions in my head.

Since I came from a culture in which Romeo and Juliet is almost the ideal romance (to be ideal she should have survived and mourned him all her life) you can see where I expected stories to hit different points, right?

It took my first writers groups and then writing fan fic to get that Americans had different expectations.  Oh, I knew it intellectually, and figuring out, for instance, that Romance was supposed to have a Happy Ever After here, was easy but I didn’t know how to hit the unspoken things in people’s heads.  When I introduced my male character as big and rough, for instance, I didn’t know I was cuing him as the villain in people’s heads.

But I got it.  Eh.  Eventually.  And it made it clear to me once and for all that even the most original of writers is not creating things out of whole cloth, nor is it desirable that he or she should.

I’m not talking here about the sort of copycat stuff that traditional publishing worshipped.  I’m not saying “Twilight sold a bazillion copies, so do run right out and write a lot of sparkly emo vampires.”

I’m not even talking about stuff like “Well, Cinderella stories sell pretty well, so I’ll base all my books on that.  That’s not the level I’m speaking at.  I’m speaking at a deeper, more basic level, like… like if the first glimpse the readers get of your character is when he’s drowning puppies, it’s going to set up certain expectations.

But Sarah, you say, I don’t want to count on what might or might not be in the readers’ heads.  I want to set up my whole world, the full story and explanations, and not have to worry about how they might perceive things. I want my work to be immortal, even if culture changes.

I’m here to tell you that you want the impossible.  It’s sort of like saying But I want to control the weather.

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t setup an entire world inside a book.  You probably can.  It would just take you a century or so to write and be unreadable.  Even books that are set in “the real world” make use of what is in the reader’s head to round out the details and setup explanations.

Say a beautiful blonde shows up in the first paragraph of your book.  She might be a shy wallflower raised in a world where blondes are considered ugly.  BUT until that’s established – and hammered in – you won’t know that.  You will see the typical cheerleader who’s been prized for her beauty her whole life.  You’ll expect that.  And even after that is dispelled, you will always have that knowledge too.  What I mean is, if THE READER had grown up in a world where blonds are ugly, then the feeling wouldn’t be the same as in a world where pretty blondes are prized, knowing that this one lives in a world that isn’t.

The “furniture” in the reader’s head matters, and you have to be aware of it, and make use of it to elicit the emotions you wish to.

To put it another way, you can’t tell the story to a reader that never read a story in his life (or if you can that reader is too rare to sustain a career.)  So you’d best be aware of what stories the reader has read, and what expectations he has, or your story will confuse him, upset him, or lose his interest.

This is why people who don’t want to read in the genre they write because they want to be original are shooting themselves in their collective foot.  Writing is a sort of collaboration between you and the reader.

This used to be more explicit when story tellers stood up at banquets (or on the street corner) and told their tale.  If you’ve ever seen a master storyteller work, you know they take their cues from audience questions, interjections and even body language.  (The best way to get that now is one of the fanfic sites with heavy comments.  I did my time in austen fanfic and advise it to anyone not sure they’re hitting the right notes.)

Now you have to fill in what your ideal reader would think/say/feel.  And the best way to do that is to be a reader of that genre or sub-genre.  (Which doesn’t mean you should like every type of story that fits there, btw.)

Now, no one is saying you slavishly imitate what you read.  No.  You should still strive for originality.  But you need to know why the reader picked up your book, what he expects of the genre and how to satisfy the reader.  Or at least not to disappoint the reader.

Next up “Reader Wants Cookie” next week, same batplace, same battime.



Earlier this week, a story appeared in one of the local papers about a husband and wife who opened and indie bookstore ten years or so ago. Owning a bookstore had been the husband’s dream and, when he retired, he decided it was time to finally live his dream. So he and his wife found a building in the downtown area of one of the small towns outlying the DFW area and were set to buy it and do the renovations necessary to open up. Of course, as is the way of most things, it didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. The city told the couple that the renovations necessary before opening the bookstore surpassed a certain level of the worth of the building. So the building would have to be razed and a new building erected.

That would have been the end of the dream for a lot of people. Instead, the couple looked at their options and amended their plans. Instead of opening a new bookstore, stocking the NYT best sellers, etc., they opened a store that stocks books their local customers are interested in, including used books, as well as books about local history and sites that the tourists coming through town would be interested in. They put in a coffee shop and, in an attempt to keep their profit margins healthy, have started stocking some non-book items that will bring the locals in as well.

In other words, they looked at what the market would bear, and what their customer base wanted, and adapted to it. They knew they couldn’t go into direct competition with the big chain bookstores — or the discount big boxes like Walmart. They didn’t want to use such faux-marketing plans like membership cards for discounts. In other words, they wanted to be what bookstores used to be: responsive to their local market and customers.

And, for ten years or so, it has worked.

As I read the story, it reminded me of the problems that have faced the chain bookstores as well as publishing. The writing has been on the wall for a long time that the industry is changing and for bookstores and publishers to survive, they needed to adapt. We’ve seen one major book seller go out of business. The other two are closing stores at a rate, iirc, higher than they are opening new stores. Publishers have cut entire lines and merged with one another. And still the spiral continues as the gatekeepers fight to maintain their relevancy.

Yet, both parts of the industry have failed to really take into account what their ultimate customers — the readers — want. We see that in the centralized ordering system for bookstores. Someone sitting in an office in NYC (or some other big city) decides what books will be sold in Alice Acres, TX. They have no idea what the citizens there want. Instead, they use some magical mathematical formula to decide on what books go where. So that means you walk into a big box store in Dallas and it will have basically the same stock as one in Boston or LA and, let’s face it, folks in those three cities aren’t the same and don’t necessarily want to read the same books.

Publishers don’t question this. Why should they when they don’t question (read this as being complicit in what is at best a negligent form of theft from authors) the use of Bookscan numbers to report sales and figure royalty payments for authors?

And yet the gatekeepers for both the publishing side and the sales side of the industry are in a panic trying to figure out what’s going wrong with their business model.

Frankly, for me, I love seeing the indie bookstores returning to the market. Yes, we’ve seen some in the DFW area come in, make a splash and then disappear with barely a whimper. There are usually some very fundamental reasons why: they tried to be too big too quickly, they opened up without enough capital in the bank to cover the start up period, they chose really bad locations, etc. But those with a solid business plan, a passion for books, the capital to last out a year while sales build and who also have a passion for books and customer service, they tend to make it. They identify their market and don’t go too small or too large. They adapt as necessary, always listening to what their customers want.

This is a lesson we, as authors, can apply to our own careers. We need to educate ourselves on what the market is looking for. We need to understand that what we read from agents and editors about what they are looking for might not be what readers are looking for. So you have to first decide if you are going to go the traditional route or if you are going to go indie. Then you have to figure out how long it will take to get your product into the hands of your customers, the readers. Once you have that figured out, you have to figure out when to start doing your promotions — and how you are going to do it. And, yes, Virginia, you have to promote even if you go the traditional route.

And you have to adapt. If that novel you’ve been shopping around to agents or editors for a year or more without success is one you really believe in, consider bringing it out indie. Look at what is selling on Amazon or iTunes or KOBO and ask yourself if your novel is something similar. If it is, then why not make the commitment to putting it out on your own? (With the understanding that it will need editing/copy edits/proofing, conversion and a good cover)

Basically, adapt to the times. Adapt to the market. And write and publish. The path you take is yours but don’t close down one path simply because it’s not something you’ve considered before. Educate yourself to the requirements and commitment the path will need and then make an informed decision. After all, no one will ever read your work if it continues to sit in your desk drawer or under your bed.