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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.