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Preparing the ground (writing)

You can walk into a piece of virgin bushland and scatter your seed. You can, but other than achieving some snickers at the double entendre, that’s about all you’re likely to succeed at.

Trust me on this: as one of those skilled gardeners who can make one plant struggle to survive where ten flourished before I attempted to grow them, I know. I tried this method in earlier years…

It was a great reason to learn to forage for bush-food, because you can’t feed yourself like that. Not even on plants that are little more than glorified weeds.

And it’s not just the domesticated weeds we eat that need prep to have a better than pure luck chance at success: From engineering to writing the same applies. Different people do this in different ways – my gardening is rather more like letting the war materiel catch up with the advance column as and when it can. This is not a great way of fighting wars and it isn’t too crash-hot for gardening either. I do get results, we feed ourselves and sometimes produce a bit of surplus of life’s essentials, like zucchini.

Oddly, it’s not the way I build (or write) where I tend to spend a lot of time assembling the materials I will need, making sure I have the necessary tools and skills… and then getting it all to go together in double quick time… or at least until the careful planning hits reality and things fall apart. Either new plans and unexpected ingenuity comes into play, or I find myself paused again while the next essential bit that I should have anticipated but didn’t gets bought and delivered to our remote island, because, no, you can’t just nick out to the shops. It tends to color your way of seeing the world. I have not yet learned to build with zucchini, but I am sure it is just a matter of time.

Now this probably hasn’t bypassed those you who have military or disaster-response experience, but that is just about the key feature of any real (or realistic) story. Just as in life, there are unexpected consequences, and no plan works quite as you hope it will (in all too many situations – whether it is a pick-up in a bar or open conflict, or both, as can happen) the other players aren’t pawns and won’t think like you do, or do what you expect them to do. Hell, even the waves and weather don’t.

That doesn’t stop it happening in a lot of books. There are no hard and fast rules for writing, but clockwork plans I would say chuck me out of a book faster than the open-conflict pick-up line does. The problem is, the author is, de facto, playing God for his characters, and of course God being omnipotent could actually have his plans work. It’s a very tempting line to follow.

But this wasn’t actually what I wanted to write about. Preparation is more than just one thing. Ask me. I am trying to do at least 11 different and largely unrelated tasks with our house building project, ranging from tractor repairs to scavenging red ironbark posts, to dealing with expensive and mindless bureaucratic crapola without losing my cool and vaporizing the legislators and administrators, to learning a whole bunch of new skills, to trying to play chess with the effects of each of the steps I take (take down a tree. It will take 20 years to replace if you find you need it there), put in an orchard without clearing the ground properly and allowing room for large machinery – and curse yourself for 20 years). Books are creating a whole damn world, not just a property. You CAN wing it. Many do. I spend a huge amount of time on research. It’s terribly useful at times. I now know for example (as a byproduct of reading about a shipwreck for the WIP) that in 1835 British surgeons’ were treating syphilis with large hypodermic syringes with which they would inject mercury up the patient’s urethra. How could I possibly write without this valuable information?

I think I kinda made my point. That way lies madness, and not just from mercury poisoning and tertiary syphilis.

There is a huge temptation –because you have prepared for a book by doing a Master’s thesis worth of research – to put it all in. Once again I speak with the voice of experience: research is like zucchini plants. You may feel it wise to put in an entire row of five varieties… but you can’t actually use all of it – not without turning your entire family in zucchinophobes (and doubtless the PC police will persecute them for that. You must love the entire alphabet soup, A to Z.).

However, the key here is the same as with disaster-management or when a battle plan meets the enemy: you won’t have prepared right, but in my opinion you will have a better chance to adapt your plans.

Which leads me into the truism that preparedness is a state of mind, not just a stock of canned goods. And this holds true IMO with writing too. The characters, if they’re worth having, WILL stray from the plan (if you have one, which is why sometimes not having one has plusses.) and their interactions with other characters. You have to be prepared for that change. Otherwise you run the very real risk of the reader expecting the change inevitable from the shift in character (often with the 20:20 vision of hindsight) and not getting it. It’s a profoundly unsatisfying experience – and that is something you never want your reader to have.

The Problems of Success

Most how-to tutorials and blogs are aimed at beginners. This makes perfect sense, since the vast majority of people who want to figure out how to do a thing are those who haven’t done it yet.

We have a lot of that here – in fact, we have a nifty compendium on the first steps in a tab up at the top, on Navigating From Writing To Publication.

But while the problems of beginning are fairly well known and hashed out, once you’ve done more than begun, a second set of problems arises: the problems of success. And these can really blindside you, especially when from the slough of despond “success” looks like a rosy promised land filled with milk and honey.

The first problem is taxes. Very few people are truly aware of just how much of their paycheck has been forked over to the federal government before they ever saw it, and are blindsided by having to pay both halves of social security, much less everything else. (The self-employment tax.) Set aside half – yes, half – of your gross income from indie, for paying the IRS. No, it’s not likely to actually take a full 50 percent, but you have two options here: try to calculate it exactly and risk a lot of stress, panic, and heartburn if you miscalculated and the IRS wants their pound of flesh now, or end up with a nice extra reserve when the IRS is paid off that can go toward debt, mortgage, or being a buffer against rising health care costs and tree-through-the-roof.

The second problem is lack of credit. You see, when you become self-employed as a full-time writers, you find out that banks are extremely risk-averse, and don’t like an unsteady income they can’t calculate. It doesn’t matter how much money you have saved if the loan officer is going “Well, you don’t have a paycheck or W-2 to tell me what you can afford for mortgage payments every month, so we can’t offer you a loan.” Just because I strongly urge you to pay off your credit card does not mean I urge you to cancel that credit card. That ability to draw credit will be your buffer when the ER trip hits.

The third problem is learning to budget and guard your time. This won’t totally destroy your life with one big moment like the IRS or the inability to float a new water heater on a credit card while dealing with the insurance company will… but it’ll destroy your productivity and eat your life in little amounts, leaving the same result in the end. When you’re punching a time clock, life is pretty clear: eight to four is on the job, less lunch, plus commute on either side, and evenings and weekends are for chores, home tasks, and socializing. When you’re at home, the distraction of all the things you could be doing eats into your working time, and the “I should be working” eats into your downtime. If you don’t guard it, it mashes together and you never get to relax on days off (because you don’t take them), but you’re constantly distracted and getting a good solid block of work is rare.

Make sure you have down time. Family time is for family, not for sitting there thinking about how to plot your book while your wife wonders why she even bothered to invite you on the anniversary dinner, much less dress up, because you’ve said six words to her in the past four hours and completely ignored the new dress with its cleavage in favor of staring blankly out into the crowd. Make sure you do go on that hunting trip, or range day, or out with friends for dinner… because not taking time off will burn you out when working for yourself just as surely as it’d do it working for someone else.

Make sure you have up time. There are not only internet blocking apps, there are selective-site blocking apps. Stay off Facebook. You know why employers don’t like facebook? It’s because employees spend their time on it, refreshing and chatting and liking instead of, oh, actually working. Well, you’re the boss now – if you want productivity, you better kick the employee off facebook. Turn off email notifications and phone notifications. Then decide you have a window for social media, and when it’s done, it’s over for the day. (You’ll be amazed at how staying off aggregator sites, whether insty, drudge, facebook, or Gab, activates the same anxiety and cravings as trying to cut out coffee or fast. Social engineers are very, very good at hitting that instant-reward link in our brain that makes junkies of us all. The most crushing realization is when you figure out that people have a hard time seeing what’s not there – and if you aren’t on for a week or two, the most you’ll get is “Oh, yeah, I didn’t see you comment in that post you were tagged in.”)

Also, track your words per session, and session times & locations, and anything else relevant. Because patterns emerge from data that may contradict feelings. Peter feels more productive writing in a hotel without cats to distract… but the words-per-day are far lower, because he’ll spend most of the day on whatever we’re traveling to do. I like writing at a coffee shop, but I spend the first 45 minutes getting coffee, a table, eating the food… if I only have an hour and a half, I have twice as much writing time at home as at the coffee shop. So record your data, and come back later to find out what really helps and what doesn’t.

The fourth problem is learning to say no.

You see, when you start out, you feel like you’re on a deserted island, putting messages in bottles and throwing them out into the ocean, hoping to get a response. And every now and then you will, and it’ll be wonderful to correspond or collaborate. But when you becomes successful, all those bottles with responses will start washing ashore at once… and you won’t have time to do everything.

Right now, Peter has a fantasy that should be out by the end of next month if he wants to keep to the time table for the year. He also has (not in order) the third Laredo book to write, the seventh Maxwell, the third western, a short story for anthology with Tom Kratman, a collaboration with an awesome author that’s being planned, his own blog to write…

When he got asked to be in another anthology, one he really wanted to be in, he had to say no. Because he’s stretched too thin. And when asked for guest articles on another blog (over and above the once-monthly blog here), he had to turn them down, too. In fact, most of the above should be considered on the back burner, because he can’t write on six things at once… he can write one thing at a time, with breaks to work on a second when he gets stuck on the first.

The fifth problem is when to end a series. There have been a couple posts here on that, as it’s started to become a series-ous consideration for our authors. Brownie points for the first person to link ’em! (It’s almost midnight and I have to work an early shift tomorrow. You have archives and search tools, we have years of posts. Dig around and discover the wealth of the archives!)

The sixth, related, is when to jump to a new genre, or start a new series, or write a standalone. Because series get a certain number of fans, and an indie author can start to plan on how much a new release ought to bring in. But standalones are extremely hard to market or sell, and a new genre always caries the risk of losing all the readers who like their genre, and like you as a good writing in genre… but aren’t willing to follow you to the new genre.

Avoid getting yourself in a position where you feel you have to crank out your main series to keep the income up. That’s not good for the fans, the work itself, or for you when you feel trapped and stale. (If you want to feel trapped and stale, there are plenty of cubicle jobs I can heartily recommend as reminders that you shouldn’t do that.)

…and note, this is often more a feeling, a fear of failure or of reduced income, than it is an actual data-driven decision. Man is a rationalizing creature, not a rational one, and we often use data as an excuse for our made up minds.

Seventh… I know I’m missing some. What problems of success have you seen or dealt with? How do you mitigate these?

Erdu

I’ve been reading science journals a lot, while I’m waiting for reactions at work. I need something to do, and mostly they are work-related. But I came across an article which delighted me, and I had to share it with you all. There aren’t many places where I can really let my inner book geek hang all out, but this is one of them! 

 

It used to be that in order to test a book for science, you’d have to destroy a little bit of it. Somewhat obviously, museums and collectors reacted to the thought of this with horror. However, with the advances of technology and ability to get down to the molecular level with testing, it’s now possible to use erdu for determining what skins vellum was made of…

 

Well, maybe not vellum. It depends on how you define vellum, versus parchment. In general, vellum was higher quality, formed from calfskin, and was believed to have been most sought after from stillborn or newly born calves (3), which modern science has shown isn’t necessarily true. Instead, through studying the proteins, scientists learned that technology of the Middle Ages was better than we assumed it was. They were able to form onion-skin thin vellum from animal skins, leading to a proliferation of ‘pocket bibles’ in the 13th century. We talk about print runs, in this era of automation and mass production, so to put this in perspective: they postulate that 20,000 of these pocket bibles were produced. That’s an amazing amount of work, and animal hide. Scholars have wondered for years how they managed to sustain that level of production, until they were able to apply science to the books. This disproved both the theories about vast herds of cows being depleted through abortion of calves for making books, and other theories about the use of rabbit or squirrel skins (2).

 

I love that word: erdu. It’s so cool and weird and it means the little bits you have left when you use an eraser on paper. Mostly, the bits are made up of whatever the eraser is made of (they are not India Rubber any longer as they were in the days of Kipling’s schoolboys, which is sad, but manmade polymers like PVC), and whatever was on the sheet of paper the eraser was rubbed across, gently lifting up and encasing in the erdu. That ‘other’ material is what scientists are testing from old books.

 

It’s not that they are erasing anything from the page, simply using what is called a ‘dry cleaning’ method to remove the built-up crud of centuries, by creating an electrostatic attraction with the PVC eraser that lifts away the molecules. The book the article highlights dates back to the 1300’s and that’s a lot of time for stuff to accumulate. From the erdu, they were able to learn that this one book was made up of the skins of two species of deer (the cover), 8.5 calves, 10.5 sheep, and a half of a goat (1). Which is pretty amazing, but also weird.

 

It gets weirder. I was vaguely aware that in some religious ceremonies, you kiss the book. Which action, as you can imagine, leaves a residue of bacteria behind. Can you imagine having the kiss it right after some guy with a snotty nose? Ewww… From these pages, scientists are able to isolate species of bacteria they associate with human hosts, and also DNA (1). However, the pages are ones with oaths on them – you swore, and then you kissed the oath to prove how much you meant it. We don’t do things with that sort of gravitas any longer, do we? Of course, we also know those bacteria are teeming around on the page waiting for the next pair of lips to call home.

 

While they can’t extricate individual DNA from those pages used by many to prove their devotion, they hope to be able to from a book that was owned by only one person. This could help them build a profile of the person, right down to hair and eye color. Other scientists are more interested in sampling worm poop – they want to know what species of beetles bored through the priceless books and left only their droppings behind in neat tunnels (1).

 

We have come so far, in these last centuries. From parchment, papyrus, vellum… to rag paper, and pulp paper, and now to electrons leaving a fleeting impression on screens. Even if you all are kissing your computer screens (I don’t want to know!) or slightly less gross, sneezing on them, chances are some as-yet-unborn scientist is not going to be swabbing it for your DNA. Much less being able to tell what you were reading.

 

For fans of my writing, I’m doing a cover reveal with snippet and blurb for my upcoming novella, Snow in Her Eyes. Let me know on my blog if you like the cover! 

 

Citations:

1. Biology of the Book
By Ann Gibbons
Science 28 Jul 2017 : 346-349
Scientists develop new ways to read the biological history of ancient manuscripts.
2. Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting
By Sarah Fiddyment, et. al
PNAS vol 112 no. 49 08 Dec 2015 : 15066-15071
This study reports the first use, to our knowledge, of triboelectric extraction of protein from parchment.
3. The History and Biology of Parchment
By Robert Fuchs
Karger Gazette no. 67 2004
Skin

In the spirit of the thing…

I had one of those nights where I slept like the proverbial rock. Trouble is, I’m still scrambling to get a couple of brain cells to rub together. I’ll be back later with actual thoughts. In the meantime, what’s everybody working on? How’s that going?

 

UPDATE: The littles conspired to prevent writing time, tag-teaming naptime and requiring ALL of Daddy’s attention. So, no post, but I’m pleased everyone is doing well.

Disconnected Ramblings of the Crazed Writer

I’m not sure if Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) loves me or hates me. I’m having a solid case of Murphy’s law for writers and most other beings right now.

  • I notice the typos and other issues only after I publish
  • I mention a topic and immediately things happen to make it impossible for me to follow up on said topic (yes, last week I posted about critical thinking and writers and this week I cannot brain. I think the damn thing is on vacation. It won’t send a postcard either. It never does. Selfish bitch, having cocktail thingies on some tropical beach without me).
  • None of the usual targets is active or even noticeable today
  • And I currently have no ability to remember.
  • Not to mention I’m damn near sleep-typing again.

Welcome to the life of the writer, those of you who aren’t actually writers yourselves. The rest of you are probably making little mental checkmarks and going “yep”, “yep”, “that one too”, and possibly “Holy crap, do we share a brain or what”.

There is a reason the teeny-tiny group chat of a few of us writer-types got called the group mind before long. The running joke became trying to figure out which of the members currently had custody of the shared brain. Although in my case, the answer was always “not me” because what passes for mine appears to have gone on semi-permanent hiatus.

Ah, well.

I shall have to content myself with warm fuzzy wish-fulfillment thoughts, like, oh, getting together with a group of friends to TP a certain trad publisher’s HQ. Just because it would be fun and make a statement about the quality of their offerings. Or maybe winning the lottery somewhere along the line and doing the whole “take this job and shove it” routine (I wouldn’t. Despite the evil that lurks within what passes for my soul, I’m actually cripplingly, horrifyingly… nice).

Or ordering these  for the bathroom (er… while there’s nothing really bad, it’s likely to hit all the work-safe filters, so follow with caution or even better, wait until you get home). They even have three colors – one of which is smurf, which says that somewhere out there there’s a smurf who modeled for these and is really an overachiever.

Okay. Maybe I should stop the mad ramblings for now and try to be more sensible next week.

The Right Slot

Okay, so, we’ve been talking about genre, and what genre to allocate your work to, and I realized that some of you are very confused about what defines genre.

I’m going to give you a handy dandy table of reference, and then we’re going to talk about things like structure and feel too.  Some of you seem to think that these “cue” genre and they don’t.  They can help you find the audience and give them the right cookies, or they can make your intended audience scratch their heads and go “uh” but they have nothing to do with the main compartment you place your novel in.

Kris Rusch says genre started as a marketing ploy; a way for booksellers to know where to shelve books, so people who like similar books would find them.  Because of this, at least seven years ago, she thought genre would be irrelevant in an electronic market place.

I don’t always agree with Kris, particularly on careers and trends, but I rarely say what I’m going to say right now: she was wrong.  Completely and irrevocably wrong.  I attribute this to the fact that seven years ago we were all very new to the new e-marketplace, and also possible to the fact that though, like me, she reads across genres, she might read DIFFERENTLY across genres.  I.e. they might be irrelevant to her.  To me, they’re not.

When I’m shopping for a book, I usually have a genre and often a subgenre in mind, as what I “need” right then and there.  And I get very upset when i get the wrong thing.

Think of it as though I eat roast beef and chocolate, I’d be very upset if I bit into my roast and it tasted like chocolate.

Most people are worse than I honestly.  Mystery readers in particular tend to get very upset by unnanounced supernatural in their mystery.  Romance readers are perhaps the most eclectic, but again, unless clearly marked as supernatural romance, some of your readers are going to get VERY upset if your historical romance suddenly and without explanation has wizards or vampires in it.

I have found myself horrified when the answer to an historical mystery was “demons” (because it violated the “this is a puzzle, and logical” mystery rule.)  I’ve returned half read a “mystery” which turned out to biography of Kit Marlowe (and for those who know me, yeah, that is weird, since it was well written and biography of Kit Marlowe is RIGHT up my alley.  But I wanted a mystery.  Etc.

So–

The SUBJECT determines genre.  A non exhaustive list of genres and subgenres and subjects (this is off the top of my head and I’ll miss some.  If you guys want an exhaustive list it will take a long time.)

Fantasy – Anything that is technically impossible in our reality, by our physical rules, including but not limited to supernatural beings, all the creatures of Tolkien, etc.  Often draws on the myths and legends of mankind.

Has subgenres:
High Fantasy – Tolkien-like.  Also often known as heroic fantasy.

Alternate history – usually where magic works, but still related to our world.

Urban fantasy, which might of might not be a subgenre of alternate history.  It’s not just “fantasy in a city.”  Although both F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack and Larry Correia’s monster hunters are technically urban fantasy, as is my Shifter series, it would be more honest to call it “contemporary fantasy.”
Urban fantasy has a structure added to the theme and location, and that often involves a young woman with powers, a love interest on the dark side, etc.  Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Paranormal Romance – Like Urban Fantasy but way more in the romance and sex side.  In fact, it’s more a subgenre of romance, really.

Science Fiction – Deals in the realm of the theoretical possible.  And before you start yammering about FTL being fantasy, pfui.  With a side of pfui.  If you go far enough into the future, you CAN logically posit humans finding a way around that.  Even if we now think of it as impossible.  Think of a caveman looking at an airplane.

Has subgenres:

Hard SF – there goes your FTL.  You pretty much run by the close extrapolation of what we know today.

Space Opera- We make looser with the extrapolation and yes, I can have antigrav wands called brooms, and laser/antigrav (want to fight about it?) guns called burners.  Because. That’s why.
The rest should still make some kind of sense.  Humans still behave like humans.  Laws of economics, etc. still apply.  Laws of physics still apply, or you’d better do your handwavium faster than a fan dancer in a whirlwind.

Time Travel – it involves someone going back in time, or someone changing time, or.  Enough said.

Alternate history- pick a point in history, go differently from there.  There you have it.

There are subgenres to the subgenres, but for now, we’ll leave it at that.

Historical (as a genre)

Usually novels set around a person or even in the past.  Sometimes hard to distinguish from popular non fiction written as a novel.  (Usually the lack of footnotes gives it away.)

Mystery – There is a murder or theft or other crime, and the characters are solving it.

No, you cannot get away with “there is a death/murder” and no one is trying to solve it.  There is a series currently on Amazon calling itself mysteries, which is like this.  I think it was under this heading that someone shoved a biography of Kit Marlowe under mystery.  This is bullshit.  No, seriously.  You can get away with it in short stories, simply because the classical mystery structure works very badly for short stories.  BUT in novels, the crime is at the center of the novel, and it must be solved.

It has genres:

Cozy – think Agatha Christie (no, don’t care her descendants don’t like the term.  Also pfui) – the point of the murder is why it occurred and the relationships of the people around it, NOT the nitty gritty of blood splatter and how the murder happened, physically.

Has subgenre – craft mysteries – which came about when the main publishing houses decided cozies were not really mysteries and they weren’t going to buy them anymore.  Because it was a top down decision and many people still wanted them, cozies made a comeback as “craft mysteries.”  The early ones were (don’t argue, I read them) appallingly written, but now there’s some fun stuff there.  The idea is knowledge of the craft either brings detective in contact with murder or allows him/her to solve murder.

Noir – puts the emphasis on the things that cozy ignores.  Blood, guts, the world is a dark place and the detective is the one man of honor, etc.

Hardboiled – same with more shooting and less fatalism

Procedural – by the book mystery solving, often by police, think CSI.

Historical – Mysteries in the past, often solved by historical figures.

Not really a subgenre, but more of a side-spur – thrillers.  there is someone in peril and the bad guys have to be stopped and the clock is ticking. Usually present day or near future.

Romance-

Romance has so many subgenres I REALLY am not going to attempt to define them.  Keep in mind two things: not all romances are about the sex.  In fact some don’t have any sex.  Those are published as traditional/clean/sweet romances and have an audience, too.

What you have to remember when writing romance is that while you can have mystery, fantasy or even science fiction as additional “genres” on your romance, you should be concentrating on the ROMANCE.  If you’re paying more attention to the murder or the whatever, you’re not writing romance.  And I don’t care if your characters fall in love.

Erotica- It’s all about the sex.  You can have sex in any of the above, but that doesn’t make it erotica (in fact some of you would be surprised how much sex there is in all other genres.  It’s still not erotica.)  In erotica the sex drives the plot and the plot itself is a thin (and probably transparent veil.)

Now, on structure: I don’t have time to give all the structures for every genre here.  If you’d like me to, I’ll go into it step by step later.

Suffice it to say that Larry Correia in MHI has a classical Urban Fantasy structure, with all the right beats…. disqualified because genre reversed.  BUT if you reverse genres you’ll see it’s classical.

Darkship Thieves has a classical urban fantasy plot, too.  It’s still science fiction/space opera on account of the lack of supernatural, and tons of spaceships and stuff.

So, don’t tell me “there’s no supernatural in my fantasy, but it’s supernatural because of structure/feel.”  Not enough.  It might make your historical read more like fantasy, but it’s not fantasy unless there’s supernatural in it.  And if you publish it as such, you’re going to piss off a  lot of readers.  (Of course, the real middle ages had prophecies and miracles, and if you work those in, it will feel like fantasy.)

This woefully inadequate explanation will have to do.

I realized years ago I started a series on structure, going genre (and subgenre) by subgenre, but then squirrel and I forgot.  Would you like me to resume that?

 

Time Dislocation

Sorry guys, one of my colleagues just called to my attention that I was due here.  This shouldn’t have been needed (although alert readers will note my own blog is late this morning.)  The problem is that I swear I thought it was Tuesday.

It’s been a crazy week, not exactly bad (like the week before) just loony, with something interrupting the writing every five minutes, so that I’m a little disoriented.

This morning’s emergency involves tile, which will probably eat the afternoon too.  But a post about genre and structure is coming up.