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Halloween Tricks and Treats

This Halloween brings with it the usual tricks and treats in the industry. AAP and traditional publishing is touting a fairly small increase in sales as a huge gain. In the same breath, they crow about the continued slowing of e-book sales (without admitting that slow down is only in trad sales and mainly due to high purchase price). Depending on your point of view, those bits of news can be tricks or treats. Two other news items are definite tricks or, as I like to put it, “What the [expletive deleted] were you thinking?” moments. Fortunately, there are some treats out there.

Let’s look at the “tricks” first.

B&N continues with their efforts to shoot themselves in the corporate foot. It’s no secret they have been behind Amazon when it comes to e-book readers. The Kindle came out Nov. 19, 2007. The Nook e-book reader was available for pre-order for the first time on Oct 20, 2009. That is a delay of almost two years before BN realized it needed to get into the game. It has played a game of catch-up since then and is now throwing in the towel. At least that’s the way it looks. The most recent victim, er indication, is the Nook Glowlight Plus. For those not familiar with the Glowlight Plus, it is BN’s alternative to the Kindle Paperwhite (in a side-by-side comparison, the Paperwhite, the Paperwhite came out on top. The only reason the Oasis didn’t was the price differential.) However, it now appears that BN is phasing out the Glowlight Plus. If you try to buy one, I hope you are willing to pay for a refurbished model because BN isn’t selling new ones. Nor does it appear there is a replacement reader or updated reader coming down the line to replace it. Is this the first tangible example of how BN is going to abandon at least the hardware side of e-books? If so, how will this impact their e-book platform, both for traditional publishers and for indies?

The second “trick” comes from Australia. Gould’s Book Arcade in Sydney has been around since the Vietnam War. Back then, it was a gathering place for antiwar protesters. From what I’ve been able to learn, it’s well-known for its used books as well as remaindered, rare and out-of-print books. But, like many bookstores around the world, it has been facing financial troubles for some time. Now it appears the store has three months before it either has to close its doors or move to a new location. None of this is new in the industry.

What makes this a “trick”, at least in my book, is the attitude of the store owner. Unfortunately, it is an attitude I see all too often in not only the publishing industry but in life in general. Claiming that she is a socialist and “I don’t understand capitalism,” Natalie Gould wants someone to swoop in and save the store. In fact, she would have no problem with local government buying the store, saying, ““If I was (Sydney lord mayor) Clover Moore I’d buy the building. They (the city council) have got plenty of money.”

I would lay good money on the fact Gould has changed little, if any, of the way the store operates over the six plus years she says she’s struggled to keep it open. Reading her comments, it is clear she sees the store more as a place of protest, a gathering place and piece of local culture rather than as a business. She wants to keep having her fun on someone else’s dollar. This failure to adapt to changing demands — or, or perhaps and, in this case the change in the neighborhood — she dug her heels in. Now she wants someone to come in a bail her out. Doesn’t this sound a lot like traditional publishing and it’s failure to adapt to changing consumer demands? Traditional publishing (the Big 5, especially) dearly wants things to go back to the way they were decades ago. Instead, readers are looking elsewhere for their reading enjoyment. They aren’t paying the high prices for e-books from the Big 5 and its ilk, instead turning to indie authors.

Now for the treats.

I’m a fan of a number of the old horror films. One of my favorites is The Haunting. This 1963 film stars Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn, among others. It is based on the book, The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. The movie airs tonight on 8:30 CST on Turner Classic Movies. This isn’t one of your heavy special effects movies or hack and slash movies. It is one, however, that scared the crap out of me when I was younger and still gives me the chills, especially when it comes to the performance by Julie Harris. I highly recommend it. I also recommend the book, as well as Ms. Jackson’s The Lottery.

Then there’s always Poltergeist. Who can forget Carol Anne saying, “They’re here”?

Finally, I have three titles on sale through today in honor of Halloween.

Witchfire Burning (Now on sale for $2.99)

Long before the Others made their existence known to the world, Mossy Creek was their haven. Being from the wrong side of the tracks meant you weren’t what the rest of the world considered “normal”.

Normal was all Quinn O’Donnell wanted from life. Growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks”, she had been the only normal in the family. The moment she was old enough, she left and began life as far from her Texas hometown as possible. Now she has a job she enjoys and a daughter she loves more than life itself. Their life is normal, REALLY normal, until her daughter starts calling forth fire and wind.

Quinn knows they must go back so her mother can help five-year-old Ali learn how to control her new talents. But in Mossy Creek nothing is ever simple. Quinn’s mother has gone missing. Secrets from Quinn’s past start coming back to haunt her.

And the family home is more than a little sentient.

Can Quinn keep everyone — particularly Ali — safe? And will she ever get back her illusion of normalcy?

Skeletons in the Closet (Now on sale for $0.99)

Lexie Smithson’s family had never been what most folks would call “normal”. They had more than their fair share of oddballs and loners and even crazy cat ladies. Most families in Mossy Creek did, especially if they lived on the “wrong side of the tracks”. But things took a decidedly sharp turn to the left of weird the day Lexie’s sister came home from school, complaining about how Old Serena Duchamp had given her the evil eye. When her mother decided it would be a good thing to confront the town’s resident witch, Lexie knew life would never be the same. How could it when their loved ones began returning to the old homestead the day after their funerals. Lexie knew she should be happy none of her neighbors reported mutilated cattle or corpses with missing brains. But that can be hard to do when your loved ones have passed but not passed on.

Skeletons in the Closet is a novella set in the Eerie Side of the Tracks universe. It is the first of a series featuring Lexie, her family – both living and dead, not to mention furry – and their friends.

Nocturnal Haunts (Now on sale for $0.99)

Lt. Mackenzie Santos has seen just about everything in more than ten years as a cop. The last few months have certainly shown her more than she’d ever expected. She’s learned that real monsters don’t always hide under the bed or in the closet. They walk the streets and can exist in the best of families.

When she’s called out to a crime scene and has to face the possibility that there are even more monsters walking the Earth than she knew, she finds herself longing for the days before she started turning furry with the full moon.

Watch my right hand…

Watch this right hand. It’s doing interesting and strange things…

We all KNOW this stunt.

We all fall for it (or most of us). Every. Darn. Time.

We know (or we should) what is being done. It doesn’t stop it working far too well. Whether it works for contracts or politics, it’s a human instinct. You know – or you should – when someone ‘leaks’ to a friendly media outlet (with its own credibility and possibly legal problems) they’re waving the hand that you’re supposed to see around. It happens in Australia, it certainly seems to happen in the US.

The keep doing it because it still works pretty well.

That’s the real world’s problem. Ours is slightly different. You see… we’re the ones waving the distracting hand (or rather prose) around. But we face a more complex task. You see it’s very rare that we don’t want the reader to – at the right time and right scene – see the other hand. Worse (for us) we want them to realize that they were actually seeing the other hand all the time.

It’s the centerpiece of the modern Murder Mystery, important in a lot of SF and Fantasy and very common in Romance. (I can’t say I noticed it in modern Literary Fiction much). It struggles in modern PC literature of any sort, because the characters are count the tokens and their roles are defined by their position in the hierarchy of victimhood. For example, you can’t have the lesbian token even appearing to be the villain, let alone actually being the villain, without attracting hissy fits.

One of the more common tropes – particularly in Romance, but I’ve seen it – and used it, in sf/fantasy – is the ‘villainous’ hero – the hero who looks like the villain.

Yeah. You’ve read it too. Done badly it is TBR awful.

Done well… it can be exceptional.

So: first off what IS ‘done badly’? Yes, I know. We all know it… and throw it, when we see it. But what makes that difference between bad and good? Quite simply: readers don’t like changing their allegiance to a character (and yes, we all identify with and root for certain characters) because the author says ‘ha ha, fooled you. Cousin Fred is the good guy after all.” If you as the reader suddenly find that Cousin Fred was doing his level best to save the heroine, but the writer was deliberately letting us see his worst characteristics, and his deeds in the most suspicious light (that ‘noisy’ right hand)… and you’ve spent the entire book eagerly waiting for Cousin Fred to get his comeuppance – to instead have him gain the heroine’s love and hand in marriage – you’re not going to be a happy reader.

BUT if from the get-go the deeds of Cousin Fred are colored with just that hint of the left hand… and the writer has slowly built sympathy and even possibly liking for Cousin Fred… a little whimsy desire to see him… at the very least, escape justice… that’s different. It usually works with his inevitable counterpart – the ‘heroic’ villain gradually having his sympathy and the reader’s trust eroded – so when he turns into the bad guy, they are relieved.

It’s NOT an easy trick to pull off well. The common murder mystery trope, where the villain appears innocent and another character appears guilty is an easier one, because you just have to set things up so that the guilty party would be the suspect, were it not for the loud right hand (and the visible but distracted from left, which makes them guilty). It can be simply about the mystery and both the patsy and the villain be rather unlikable (Midsomer Murders does this a lot. Heyer did to a lesser extent in her murder mysteries. When she did it in the romance arena she was a lot better at making us like the apparent villain – even when it was de facto a murder mystery (THE QUIET GENTLEMAN – where Theodore attempts to make it look as if the impetuous young Martin (the heir apparent, who has been ‘done out’ of his inheritance by unlooked-for survival of Gervase, is the guilty party, trying to kill Gervase. Now the hero of the story is Gervase, so the reader thinking Theodore dull and Martin painfully intemperate and impetuous is fine.

The classic example of the ‘villainous’ hero is in her ‘REGENCY BUCK’ –not one of my favorites, but really fine example of doing this cleverly and well. The author pulls off something probably way beyond my ability – She starts off with a moderately unlikeable heroine (which is done with a balance of PITA impetuous behavior, and a somewhat more impetuous and foolishly spoilt younger brother – the heroine is ‘redeemed’ by her high spirited self-reliance, and her care for her brother – and by the fact that the left hand shows (despite the right hand flashy displays of temper and outright foolishness) that she knows her errors. Won’t readily or happily acknowledge it, but knows it. The heroine takes a vast dislike to the ‘villainous’ hero on first meeting, and the author is careful to cast her experiences with him (in the attempts to murder her younger brother) as… ambivalent. In her eyes, he could be guilty. BUT the author lets us see things that the sister is unaware of: the ‘villainous’ hero destroying the debt-vowels that could take money from the younger brother and heir. The real villain – Bernard – allows him to wear the blame for this non-existent loss (but the reader knows it is non-existent) Bernard is thus gradually shown to be cozening rogue, but what the author has done is not so much to change the ‘villainous’ hero as to change the heroine gradually, and therefore her perception of the hero. We see relatively little from his point of view, and that carefully ambivalent – because that would reveal too early. But it’s a really brilliantly orchestrated piece.

Read it – as a study not as a pleasure (you’re better off with the repartee-dialogue in several of her others). But once you realize you’re being shown the left hand, just distracted from realizing it by the pyrotechnics on the right… you’ll understand how to do it yourself.

I wish I could do it half as well. I wish politicians did it worse.

Friction

I bought a frozen lasagna for dinner for the family. I love to make lasagna, and have a great recipe a fellow author gave me, but… There was friction. In other words, it was Friday night, had been a very long week, and I was so tired it hurt. So I did something to reduce the friction, and bought the darn lasagna.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, it relates both to the writing, but more importantly, to the marketing and sales of our work. We want to reduce friction for our readers, but not too much. Frictionless is also a bad thing… But I digress. I’ll come back to that in due time. Friction in the context I’m using it is anything that makes the reader work harder to overcome. We’re going to say our readers have worked a long day and just want a book to curl up and relax with – literary fiction is the very definition of added friction to a book, which is why those are the books people love to say they have read but don’t actually ever finish reading. So how do you reduce friction in a book? Like sanding a piece of wood – you start out with the obvious of removing typos and poor grammar, then you switch to the finer grit of making sure you’re historically accurate, or consistent through the book with a character’s development, or… you get my drift. At the end you have a smooth, polished work.

But not too smooth. Here’s the thing. People remember ‘sticky data’ that doesn’t just drop through the colander of their brains. We all have colanders for brains, this isn’t an insult. We have to: we’re constantly bombarded by input, and if we didn’t learn how to filter all – well, ok, most – of that out, we’d be gibbering in the corner with our hands over our ears and our eyes squeezed shut. So the input pours through the colander, but sometimes something is too big or too sticky to just fall through, and that we pay attention to and remember. You don’t want your book to be so frictionless it falls through and is instantly forgettable. We want, to return to my wood carving metaphor, the grain of the wood to show through and give it some character, some unique qualities. Your book should still reveal your voice, the unique way that you write. If – and really, this should be when – you hire an editor, keep this in mind. They need to be helping you polish, not taking a belt sander to it and obliterating the interesting features that are your style.

Friction is, if anything, even more important when it comes to sales and marketing. Let’s look at two ways: in-person bookstores, and online bookstores, to begin with. When was the last time you went to an in-person bookstore, a brick and mortar? How far did you have to drive? That was a lot of friction, wasn’t it, before you got to the books. Now that you’re in the store, how easy is it to find the book you want? Or the section you’d like to browse to find a book, at least? Last time I was in a bookstore they didn’t have the fiction sorted by genre and it was a little annoying to say the least. Fortunately I wasn’t there for fiction, I wanted comic books, and I browsed the antique section of the store while I was there because I love beautiful books. But those aren’t organized at all, just ‘this looks old’ and shelved. So it adds a lot of friction to my shopping experience. Why do I go back? Because this store offers a ‘free book’ coupon and that reduces the friction on my bank account.  Note: I’m talking a used book store, here. Their books are mostly $3 and comic books are a buck. My kids adore them, and frankly, so do I. Now, the last time I was in a ‘new’ bookstore was the local Barnes $ Nobles, which is a fifteen minute drive from the house (good) in a very congested shopping area (bad) and we only bought one book, from the bargain rack, because I refuse to pay full price when I can hop on Amazon and get the discounted rate. But the authors!! you’re saying They need to be paid! 

No. Here’s the thing. As a businesswoman, I like supporting fellow small businesses. I’ll buy books at full price from fellow Indie Authors. Heck, if it’s an option I’ll read the book through KU and then buy it, so they get paid twice (if I really like the book, this is a nice way to say thanks to a creator). As a budgeting wife whose whole goal is to live frugally and not get into debt, I’m out to spend money wisely and plunking down twenty bucks on a (paper) book that may get read once is not a wise decision. I have a monthly book budget, by the way, one for fiction and one for research because I am a writer. So, back to friction. I don’t give a flip about supporting the big fiver publishers. So them? I buy discounted or even used.

Most Indies have already figured out that a great way to reduce friction and get more sales is to lower the prices of their books. Not having ritzy Manhattan offices to keep up appearances, they can afford to set their trade paperback prices around $15 and their ebooks around $5 for a novel. Now here’s where we get to the inverse effect of friction: if you reduce the price too much, or make the book free, you remove so much friction the buyer mentally discounts the book in their head as being less worthy. Free ebooks have a very, very low read rate. You might give away thousands of them, and maybe hundreds will get read (if you have a good cover, but that’s another post).  Ebooks, in case you haven’t already realized it, are perhaps the ultimate in friction reduction for not only book reading, but book buying. Above I asked about the last time you drove to a bookstore, and the time and hassle involved in that. For online shopping? Pull up Amazon or your favorite ebook site, and click, you’re done and reading two minutes later. I was doing this last weekend when I was stuck in bed with a pinched nerve, trying to keep my mind off the pain. Binge reading, what a drug. You don’t have to get dressed – not even into jammies, if you don’t want to – to shop online. You don’t have to risk your life in mall traffic (suck it, B&N, I’m never coming back again). You don’t have to (Shudder) put up with people to make a purchase.

Friction, by the way, is why you shouldn’t limit your sales outlets too far. I’ve seen anti-Amazon advocates calling for selling books just through personal websites. That adds so much friction that I’d be surprised to hear of them making sales. Any sales. There are reasons why aggregator sites work, just like big department stores. Personally, I’ve chosen to add friction by not having my books available through Nook or Kobo and it wasn’t just that I saw the writing on the wall for the Nook years ago when I first compared a nook and a Kindle side-by-side. I’ve added that friction in order to reduce friction by having my books available through Kindle Unlimited. It’s not perfect, but you have to admit it’s very darn close to being frictionless for the reader, which means that if they are enjoying the story, there’s nothing to break them out of the reading trance as they march through an entire series. KU lowers the entrance hurdle for new readers to your work, and that reduces the friction, too.

Speaking of which! The anthology I have a story in, the one I was snippeting last week, is available for you now, and you can get it in paper, ebook, and read through KU. Just click here and you’re there! How’s that for frictionless?

 

 

 

 

Sharkskin and Rhinohide

A while back, we (by which I mean somebody who actually does stuff ‘round here, like Amanda or Sarah) asked for suggestions for topics, and I’m swiping one from the compiled list.  One or more of you, our valued readers, asked how a newbie writer could become part of an established community when uncertain of the quality of their output, how to get feedback, and how to start feeling real. Well, be warned: perspective incoming.

 

The writing side of publishing may well be the least organized industry in existence. Do you write? Words, strung together into phrases, used to cast spells to vaporize the unworthy convey meaning from one thought-having thing to another? Congratulations: you’re one of us (one of us, one of us, one of us). Like most quasi-social organisms, we tend to agglomerate into loose communities.

 

Unlike more regimented industries (i.e. those with established lines of training and accreditation) and owing to our own, often peculiar natures, writers (as well as other artists) tend toward the odd, and often the Odd. Which is reflected in our communities.

 

All humans do this, but in writing, the strange little in-rules that govern human social group interactions are what organize (Hah. Hah.) how our industry works. For a given value of works. So what you’re asking is really, “how do I become good enough friends that a group of writers won’t ignore me?”

 

I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but we’re more or less cantankerous, and really only seek out social contact so we can abuse each other in print. *reads the preceding, looks at his half-full mug* Ok, that coffee was too dark. Gimme a minute.

 

–One dollop of cream later—

 

Much better. My apologies. What you’re looking for is how to become accepted by writers, when what you need to be doing is looking at befriending lonely, often curmudgeonly, and always strange individuals who happen to interact on a somewhat regular basis.

 

The secret, speaking from experience, is this isn’t actually very hard to do.

 

The biggest part is just showing up. Odds are good you already know a writer. Or several. If you’re here, you rub elbows with several, of varying degrees of success and notoriety (not the same thing), and frankly, the MGC is a good place to start. The method is the same as any community: find where your interests and the community intersect, and participate. A few years back, I decided (based on some interactions at a convention) that I wanted to expose myself (shaddap) to more of what a handful of writers did that wasn’t just their fiction. I started frequenting blogs, and (here’s the trick) commenting on a regular basis. This was more than a little emotionally risky. I don’t often have much of great wisdom or insight to offer. I’m not nearly as well read as a lot of our readers, let alone my fellow Mad Genii (can’t put that back in the bottle). I can, however, turn an amusing phrase now and again, and that kind of repeated presence establishes you as a regular. It led directly to me posting here at the MGC. In short, pay your dues. Become part of the community by becoming part of the community.

 

Now, as to quality of writing, I don’t have anything new. You may well not have anything “good” when you first become accepted by the rest of us crazies. On the other hand, you could be the next sliced bread of the publishing world. For most writers, success seems to come much later than quality of prose. We’re an industry founded upon preference (specifically, the taste of others), and as the ancients had it, in matters of taste there can be no dispute, though you wouldn’t know that from the state of, well, anything. At least on the internet.

 

Is your writing any good? Well, beyond a certain basic level of craft – past the rules of good grammar, can you put together a story in ways that don’t have readers putting your words through virtual walls – whether your writing is any “good” depends less and less on what you can control that the question becomes meaningless. Becoming a better businessman helps, I’m told. Though again, success seems to depend a great deal on luck. And from my industry contacts, luck looks – over time – more and more like hard work and persistence. So, keep at it. Keep writing, keep showing up, keep learning, keep pushing your personal limits. That’s how you get better at anything, and writing – being a skill – is no exception.

 

Now, on being real. Insert a math joke here. And another, because I’m pushing limits. This is where the title comes in. You have to consider yourself a real writer. Nobody is going to do it for you. At least until you have fans. Decide what Real Writerness is going to look like, and work toward that. Is it an author page on Amazon? Or a Real™ book that you wrote in your hot, little hands? What about a publishing contract with a Real Publisher™? Or a regular income from a handful of successful series?

 

I know authors with multiple novels by multiple publishers who aren’t considered real writers by some readers. Usually for obscure emotions linked to emotional issues. I freely admit that – at this point in my life – I’m more than a bit of a dilettante. It’s not that not a writer, but I don’t keep to a schedule, I don’t meet deadlines, and the whole endeavor looks more like a hobby than a business. In my own defense, I have toddlers, and looks can be deceiving.

 

And that’s the thing about being a writer: it’s complicated. On one level, you determine whether you’re a writer. Do you write? That counts. Do your peers accept you? That counts, too. Do you have readers? That also counts.

 

The best approach seems to be more or less what I’ve already described: join a community of writers, practice the present imperfect of the craft, and develop a hide thick enough to shrug off the proverbial slings, arrows, and fiery darts of the naysayers. External and internal.

 

 

Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

I’m in the last couple of weeks before my first time as a professional presenter in a testing conference (TestBash Philadelphia for those who are wondering) so what passes for my ability to focus is split between that and – as ever – the day job. Which is suitably Lovecraftian, or at least the code is.

So, without further ado, another instalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide and yes, I’ll probably be on mostly-hiatus until after the conference. I may not fully surface until Thanksgiving, just because it usually takes me a bit to let go after I’ve been wound tight for a while.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

As an extreme pantser, I work in fits and starts. There’ll be a lot of words going down fast, followed by dry spells while I try to figure out what’s supposed to happen next, then another splat. Often, I’ll take notes that end up at the bottom of the story file, as reminders of things that need to happen at some stage. Depending on the story, I’ll have a lot of these, or next to nothing.

Impaler had very few notes, mostly on things like the date of Easter that year, the date of Passover, and various other major dates and festivals that would impact the plot. Easter also presented a challenge – Vlad had to conquer Constantinople before Easter because otherwise the pivotal scene that I knew happened in the Hagia Sophia couldn’t happen. Mostly, though, Impaler’s outline was “what is in Vlad’s campaign”. The actual events around that happened as I wrote them, quite literally in more than a few cases.

In that book, my dry spells happened because I needed to do more research – I’d know what needed to happen next, but not have enough information to describe it properly. So there’d be a flurry of web searches, reading assorted odd snippets, looking at reproductions of very old maps, and so forth, until the next set of scenes had its ‘clothes’.

ConVent went slightly differently because it started as pure piss-take and acquired a loose mystery plot as I went on. For it, I had a murderer, and a list of corpses that had to happen. Some people volunteered to be corpses, for which I’m grateful, and the ones who gave me bizarrely detailed death scene wish-lists really made life interesting (Hello, Basset, anyone?). ConVent also acquired a list of characters, mostly pastiche of observed behavior from several sources with a healthy dose of warped imagination, a few special request tuckerizations (Hello the Hoyts), and of course the main characters. The list was written more as a way of keeping the requests in check, including who to cast as corpses and how they wanted to die, but got added to so I didn’t lose track of the details.

The piece I’m working on at the moment, which may or may not finish, has no notes, no planning, and I’ve only recently worked out how it ends. What it’s got is a character with a strong voice and a determination to be heard. This is extreme pantsing at the pointy end. There are already (at a smidge over 10k words), several subplots making their presence known, and I’ve got a fair idea where the main stages of the plot fall. Beyond that? Nada. This character operates on a “need to know” basis, and I don’t need to know. Like everything I write, it’s advancing in intermittent spurts as I work out what the next bit needs to be.

Essentially, the extreme pantser is on a journey. The next part of the path might be clear, and maybe the distant goal, but the rest of the journey is still something of a mystery and only the subconscious has the map.

It’s An Heroic Quest

Okay, to review and so no one is confused since I’ve had some truly strange comments in the past, including people who thought I was trying to dictate to you which points to hit: this review of genres and subgenres is not to teach you how to write them, so much as to help you classify what you’ve written, so you can publish it in the genre/subgenre that gets you most readers who won’t leave you nasty reviews saying “do you even read this sub-genre?”.

Now, here we are on slippery ground as with say “fantasy that’s not technically set in a bit city but is set in the present day.  Is that urban fantasy or not?”  Since Amazon doesn’t have a category for “modern day not urban fantasy” it’s tricky, because putting it in urban fantasy means a good part of the crowd who downloads it will be upset at you, because there’s no dangerous romance element etc.  (And heaven help you if the paranormal romance crowd downloads it.  They like their sex explicit.)

Everyone who reads fantasy knows what I mean when I say “heroic or quest” fantasy, but you know, Amazon doesn’t have a category for “like Tolkien.”  Someone at Amazon doesn’t have a huge grasp on things, so they decided to just have historical fantasy, which frankly doesn’t even fit alternate history fantasy like Witchfinder, because their history is not parallel to ours.  In fact, I’m fairly sure I put it under general fantasy which is stupid, because the “feel” is historical, so I need to go look and change it, but I don’t have access to the publishing computer today.

What you do for this is compensate by going into the key words and putting in things like Wizards, elves, dwarves.

Don’t btw take my word for the words to use, because I don’t have access to the publishing computer right now.   No, wait, I found it.  The closest they have is Sword and Sorcery, which if I remember was the 70s term for this.  https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G201216150

Note there’s really no sub-category or keywords for even things like Game of Thrones.

So, it’s hard to figure out how to make it so your book discoverable, but I’ll be honest, in these circumstances one often puts the name of the most distinguished/best known practitioner in the field as a key word.  So you could put it in Sword and Sorcery and put in the key words as Tolkien.  Or G R R Martin, if that’s what you actually sound like.

Anyway, quest fantasy: your group of heroes is looking for the McGuffin.

It has always amused me that quest fantasy is intrinsically similar to a subset of science fiction novels we don’t see much of today, but which were a favorite of mine growing up: colonization science fiction novels.

It has a lot of the same touchstones: it’s a group novel, with a set of personalities.  There is often at least one romance (and for the love of heaven don’t list your novel as romance under fantasy, just because there’s a love interest and some romantic subplot.  Remember romance means a genre, not romantic love.) Sometimes more than one.  There is usually a traitor and a couple of red shirts.  And there is a hidden prince, or in science fiction “the guy who survives against all odds.”

Now it’s been years since I read colonization novels, but I felt at the time that I could tell who would die and live within the first few chapters, and I often feel the same way with fantasy novels of this type.  I don’t have the time to cover every cliche of the field, though if you’re an RPG player you probably know most of them.

The world these are set in is usually “vaguely tolkienesque.”  Yeah, each one has variations, and some people are very creative, but there’s still some of the traditional races and struggles we met in Tolkien or in Norse Myth/Celtic Myth in general.

To compensate for what I don’t have time to cover, I highly recommend you buy and read Diana Wynne Jones “the tough guide to fantasy land”.  It not only will give you the “if you have this, you should class it as” but also some of the things to avoid, such as bicycle horses or stew.

Anyway, it’s a quest and along the way your characters are tested, and some die or are judged unworthy, etc.

I’d distinguish heroic fantasy, which might have SOME elements of the Tolkien world, or might not.  It might be an historical “feel” world with magic, but its creatures can come from completely different mythologies.  It’s where I’d class G RR because it often involves clashes of civilizations in the face of an impending supernatural doom, etc.

Both of subgenres are very much “not of our world” and both hard to place in Amazon categories.  (I have to ask Amanda S. Green how she classified Dagger of Elana.)

One recourse is to look at books that are like yours, see how they’re classified, then figure out how to achieve it.  And no, I’m not that bright, either.  It just now occurred to me I should do this with DWJ’s Chrestomancy and classify Witchfinder accordingly.  Well, it’s a project for this weekend, hopefully.

Again, neither of these subgenres are my own preferred poison, either written or to read, but mention had to be made of them because they’re such a big part of the field.

Completely open if someone chooses to explain how they back engineered the sub-classification.

 

 

Who is to blame?

Last night, I started my usual prowling through the internet, looking for a topic for today’s post. Nothing resonated with me until I came across a discussion about indie authors. Even though the discussion remained civil, the disdain and condemnation was obvious. I’ll admit, I had a knee-jerk reaction where I wanted to go wading into the discussion to give the indie side of the argument. I didn’t because it would have gained nothing. The people taking part in the discussion are so entrenched in their beliefs, they wouldn’t have listened, no matter how convincing my arguments might have been.

You see, like so many who have been traditionally published, this group simply can’t fathom the speed with which a number of indie authors write. More than that, they can’t accept you can write, edit and publish a book in a month or two. They can’t wrap their minds around the fact that the year or more between books most authors experienced by traditionally publishing was an artificial delay in the production line. But, because this is the system they are used to, it is the only one they feel is valid.

Yes, that is a bit of an oversimplification. They understand that authors write at different paces. It is the rest of it that blows their minds. They have a hard time realizing it doesn’t take months to get edits back and have them finalized. They forget that indies don’t have to wait for publication slots to come open for release dates. Even so, when they start saying they fear for our industry, they point to the speed with which indie writers are putting out their product and assume the product must be inferior because it didn’t go through the same process their work did.

One of the authors pointed out that they had published something like 10 books in a little more than that many years. The author’s view was no one should be able to put out a quality product quicker than that. After all, there’s all that research that must be done, the careful selection of words, the crafting of the story, etc. No one should be able to put out multiple books a year, much less a book every month or so. Mind you, she had no idea how long the books were the indie author who published monthly put out. She simply assumed, just like she assumed they were poorly written.

That particular author’s attitude isn’t new. It’s something indies have had to deal with since Amazon first opened their KDP platform to us eight or so years ago. They’ve complained that we aren’t “real” writers because we didn’t go through traditional gatekeepers. They’ve decried the quality of our writing and editing. They do so, more often than not, without reading our work. They simply join their voices to the cries of outrage coming from the rest of the flock.

What did catch my attention in the discussion, however, was a comment that basically said that instead of focusing on the “bad writing” of indies, they needed to ask why the public is reading such crap. They pointed to 50 Shades of Grey as their examples, pointing out it had sold many more copies than the “classics”.

What that comment failed to note, possibly because it wouldn’t fit the narrative, was that 50 Shades did start out as an indie novel and then it was picked up by a traditional publisher. That traditional publisher put mega bucks behind the push for that book and its sequels. It even contracted for a new book in the series, this one from Christian Grey’s point of view.

The answer to that person’s question is simple. There are those who appreciate the classics and literary fiction but they are not the majority of the reading public. The majority of those who buy books or borrow them from the library read to be entertained. They want a story they can escape into. They want to be able to forget their worries for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. It really is that simple.

A look at this week’s New York Times best seller list tells the tale. Of the combined print and e-book list, four of the first five entries on the list are genre fiction. They are written by authors like Dan Brown, Stephen King (2 entries) and Nelson DeMille. The 5th book is a book of poetry. Looking at the hard cover list, none of the titles are what you might call “literary” fiction. Considering the fact this particular best seller list is determined by push and pre-orders (not completely, but to a large extent), it is obvious even publishers understand readers want something that has entertainment value to it.

Does all this mean indie writers don’t have challenges we need to meet headlong and overcome? Absolutely not. To start, we need to understand we have to put out the best product we can. That means our writing has to be good and it needs to be edited. We need to be prepared to take the slings and arrows of criticism leveled at us by those who have yet to realize there are more paths to success than traditional publishing. We need to develop a thick skin and be prepared with facts and figures when people come at us, telling us we aren’t “real writers” because we didn’t go through the gatekeepers. What those critics don’t understand is that our gatekeepers are our readers. If we don’t do our job well, readers won’t buy our product.

Now go forth and read — and write. If you read a book by an indie author, do them a favor and leave a review. Those help more than you realize. I’m off to find another cup of coffee now and then it is a day of writing. I can’t afford to wait a year or more between books coming out. Guess I’m not a “real writer”.

A well turned ankle

On page three hundred and twenty two, your book contains the vile prurient words ‘In the privacy of her bedroom, with the curtains drawn and shutters closed Purity Smith stole a glance at her well-turned ankle.’ For this disgusting, lascivious piece of prose you are henceforth cast out of literary society and your works all to be destroyed. Such obscenity can never be tolerated.

By Order: The Special Prosecutor The State Council of Public Morality. 

Yes. Well the sight of a lady’s ankle was once considered rather risqué. And for some reason a pretty one was described as ‘well-turned’ – Which puts a whole new twist on turning your ankle —  And history’s worm turns too.

Of course, in reality, people went one with much the same conduct as today. It was just done in ‘secret’ and of course that was much better.

Well, according to some people anyway.

It was a bit like the log-rolling that went on in the SFWA Nebula nominations. Susie, Fred, Joe and Mary would nominate Pat. And then Fred, Mary, Joe, and Pat would nominate Susie. And in another category, oddly, Susie, Fred, Joe and Pat would nominate Mary… and so on. It was a bad joke, a mockery of the legitimacy of the Award. You could see all the nominators back in those days, and it was painfully obvious. A fair number of people – me among them – complained. The then president, John Scalzi, promised to do something about it. And he was as good as his word: he made the names of the nominators secret.

Strangely, the same clique of log-rollers went right on getting nominated. I’m sure it was pure chance that saw those same names on the Hugo noms too. Looking at the ‘me too’ coming out of Hollywood – which will, inevitably affect the writing world – I see the same sort of thing happening. Of course it won’t actually stop the casting couch, or actors and actresses giving sexual favors for roles. That would be hard and take real change. It’ll just hide it, make as if it isn’t happening.

I see a new ‘puritanism’ coming charging down the track at them, and probably us.

Shrug. You know mostly we just ride with the tide of the world. Contrary to the myth, authors rarely make popular opinion. At best we shape it a little. Populism works because… well, because it is popular. The Zeitgeist moves and so must we – or not (that is one’s own choice after all. It can destroy your sales, or, contrariwise, if you’re one of a few standing against the tide, give you enough readers to be able to).

I’ve managed to always write more or less within my principles and I’m not exactly a graphic pron writer, but I’m quite happy for it to float the boats of others. Puritanism will put some challenges up there, especially for the authors who rely heavily on sex or the shock value of sex. Fortunately, this too will change as it always does. My grand-kids will probably be able to enjoy the backswing.

On a separate tack – interesting post here from David Gaughran. It seems that scammers have been screwing with Amazon and that Amazon has come down hard… on innocent people doing promotions – which is rough if that is part of your business model, as it should be. It makes for uncertain ground. I’m honestly not sure what the final outcome is going to be, but it is certainly something that should make every author work on having their own mailing list, and look toward the possibility of selling their own work directly from that before you put it up on Amazon, and well before you go KU. I got an advert from Jetpack about taking payments for physical goods etc. for my WordPress Website, but selling e-books still seems too hard. Still, in small volumes I imagine manually sending an .epub file to individual customers would be a pain in the nether region, but possible. Anyone having better systems to suggest – I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one pleased to hear about it.

Anyway, forgive this being bit short today, but I managed to hurt myself today (just a stupid muscle injury that will get better quite soon) and am taking it to bed.

Blurb Writing Example – King’s Champion

Context: Just after 8am, on a rare morning shift. (I don’t work day shifts. So when I do, I need All The Caffeine.) I settle down at my desk, having accomplished the usual flurry of morning tasks, and am contemplating how best to be the best I can be (or braaaaaaaainsssss….), when I get an email from my darling man. This, then, was conducted entirely by email and squeezed in around the edges of the demands for work. It’s not my best blurb, but it works… and it’s an example of how these things get created and changed.

And yes, I still want to rewrite the final version. But there’s a time to shoot the engineer and begin production – and we’ll be re-evaluating blurb and cover as the market changes, in a few years.

8:02am – Peter
Cedar needs the blurb for the book cover. Have you got one yet? If not, can you let me have a draft by 10 a.m.? I’ll work on one, too, and send it to Cedar later this morning after I have your input.

***
8:34 am – Me
I don’t like the blurb I have; please rework it or shoot me your version.

After twenty years of peace, war is coming. Old men can feel it in the wind, as rumors of black wings bearing death in the night grow.

Osiric, the former king’s champion, stumbles into a raiding party on the way back from a friend’s grave. In the rubble, he finds evidence of old foes with a new plan, and an alliance with darker powers.

Now he’s in a race to uncover their plot, before it buries him!

***
8:45am – Peter
How’s this?

The Kingdom has known decades of peace… but time has eroded its will to defend its way of life. Old foes are stirring, with new plans and an alliance with darker powers.

Owain, once King’s Champion, feels the harbingers of a new threat on the wind, as rumors grow of black wings bearing death and torture in the night. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid.

Now he must race against time to uncover the threat and deal with it… before it deals with him!

Love you!

***
9:01am – Me

After decades of peace, the Kingdom of BlahBlah is an unsuspecting prize for an alliance of its old foes and new, darker powers.

Owain, once King’s Champion, feels war in the wind as he hears rumors of black wings bearing death and torture in the night. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he discovers their reality and fights his way through a deadly raid.

Now he must race against time to uncover their plans, and defend his land and king again!

***
9:11am – Peter
My latest:

After decades of peace, the Kingdom has grown lax. Old foes are stirring, in a new alliance with darker powers. Black wings bring death and torture in the night.

Owain, former King’s Champion, hears rumors of sorcery. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid, and uncovers vital information.

The Kingdom’s enemies know Owain is now their greatest danger. He must race against time to find and deal with them… before they deal with him!

I think this is close to what we want. If you agree, I’ll fire it off to Cedar.

***
9:28am – Me

What is the name of the kingdom? You really want that in there, because that sets a lot of expectations for worldbuilding. The kingdom of Estarria vs. The principality of Al Andalus, or the Celestial Court of Xongshu… “The kingdom” without a name is too ‘generic mock-medieval European’ and will drive readers off because there’s been a lot of bad fantasy that did that… and I can’t remember it.

What do you think of the other minor tweaks?

After decades of peace, the Kingdom of Blahblah has grown lax. Now, old foes are stirring, in a new alliance with darker powers. Black wings bring death and torture in the night.

Owain, former King’s Champion, hears rumors of sorcery. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid, and uncovers coded orders for a larger plot.

The kingdom’s enemies know Owain is now their greatest danger. He must race against time to find and deal with them… before they deal with him!

***
9:46am – Peter
I like it. We’ll go with it.
***
King’s Champion

After decades of peace, war is threatening the Kingdom of Avranche. Its old foes are stirring, in a new alliance with darker powers. Black wings bring death and torture in the night.

Owain, former King’s Champion, hears rumors of sorcery. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid, and uncovers coded orders for a larger plot.

The kingdom’s enemies know Owain is now their greatest danger. He must race against time to find and deal with them… before they deal with him!

An interesting endeavor

I’ve always steered clear of anthologies, having heard stories of the difficulty writing for them. You write up a tale tailored to that particular one, they don’t take it, then what do you do with a story about a purple top-hatted steampunk kraken? Anyway, on top of this, whilst I was at an impressionable age as a writer – just a couple of years ago in other words – I watched someone I know can write a novel at the drop of a hat being forced to gut and rewrite a story, and struggling with it because the editor of the anthology wanted to make more room for someone else’s story but couldn’t expand the size of the whole book.

So I just did my own thing. There was an anthology edited by a friend (you can find the Kickstarter here) that looked like fun, but I couldn’t come up with a story idea that fit into the corporate world and involved Chthulhu in time for it. But around the time I was writing Snow, I checked in at one of my daily blogs, and was surprised to see a call for authors… And I immediately responded.

I’d read the kernel novella JL Curtis had written, that he now wanted to spin off into a collection of tales by different authors, and I liked the central idea, but what struck me was more than the big story, there would be a lot of small stories going on. And I write small stories. In this one, a boy becoming a man in a time of turmoil. It’s a tale as old as time, but worth telling again and again, for my son’s sake.

I have had the great pleasure of not only getting to know this editor and a gentleman online, but in person, so I knew I could trust him with my work. One thing about us Indies (or maybe it’s just me) we’re particular about where our babies go. Also, his guidelines for word count and content were clear and easy to work with. The whole process has been terrific, especially when I got to see the draft and realized what great company I was hanging out with.

 

So to sum up: clear guidelines, light editing touch (he didn’t do much, but it was very helpful), and frequent but not onerous communication. If I do take part in another venture like this, he’s set a high bar! I’ve enjoyed the whole process, although I suspect that it has been an enormous amount of work and investment on his part. Hopefully it hasn’t held up his writing on other series too much (you should check The Grey Man out if you haven’t already).

I’ve read the draft, and there are some wonderful stories, and mine least among them. But mine I can give you a sample of, to whet your appetites.

The Carpetbaggers

Ryan sat at the top of the stairs, and listened hard to the conversation below him. It felt faintly ridiculous – he was, after all, fifteen — nearly sixteen — and technically almost an adult, not a toddler to be sitting here while the adults discussed stuff he wasn’t supposed to know. But what he did know was that if he went downstairs, the conversation would shift, and they wouldn’t be talking about what they were.

It wasn’t the political. He could hardly escape knowing that he was no longer a resident of the Beaver State of Oregon. He was now residing in the bright shiny newness that was Jefferson, a product of the messy split of California from the United States of America. That tear had left ragged edges, like ripping a sheet of paper from a notebook, and the inhabitants of the southern part of what had been Oregon, and the northern part of California, had banded together against all others, and formed the territory. It wasn’t a state yet. According to his social studies teacher, it just had to be ratified into statehood by congress. But according to one of the lively conversations that took place below him in the big great room of his parent’s ranch house, being a territory meant more independence from the Feds, and that was a good thing. They might vote to pass on statehood.

Ryan wasn’t sure where he stood on the issue of independency, to use a word from his mother’s favorite movie. In theory, he liked it. He was looking forward to becoming an independent adult, unlike his friend Brynna whose family had stayed behind during Calexit, and who had just found out that driver’s licenses were no longer available to minors. She wouldn’t be getting hers for two more years, while he would have his in just two months. California had decided that kids could get hurt, driving too early, and it was part of the sweeping Nanny Laws they had passed following their leavetaking from the good ol’ USA. Ryan had been driving since his feet could reach the pedals while he could see out the windshield, on the ranch. The license was just a formality. He remained indignant on Brynna’s behalf, though. She’d been quite vocally unhappy in the group chat they both belonged to when she found out she was going to have to wait. She couldn’t get a job, either. Child labor…

But politics was not the central part of the low-voiced and urgent conversation under him. That, he’d have been down there for. No, this was far more disturbing, and he strained to make it all out.

“… the Wilman’s place was hit hard.” His father’s low voice was gravelly, and hard to hear.

His mother’s voice was higher, and clearer. “I offered Vi and the girls a place, but they are going up to her aunt’s in Portland. There’s a hospital there, although she did finally give in and let the SANE nurse collect samples from them at Medford General.”

Ryan knew Pat – she purely hated Patty – Wilman. He went to school with her. She was a good kid, not girly at all. He was worried about her; he had texted her earlier and no reply yet.

“It was an atrocity.” And that voice, cutting through the murmurs, was Doña Marguerite. She wasn’t formally a Doña, but everyone called her that. Ryan thought he understood. She was regal, a real Lady.

She kept talking. “These Brownshirts are a plague on our land. They think they can come in, and take, and the Law matters not at all to them. My great-great-grandfather would have hunted them down and shot them. Or perhaps strung them up on the routes out of town. He did have a flair for the dramatic. He was also a law-abiding man, and would be horrified to see his race represented so.” She snorted. “La Raza, indeed.”

Ryan still felt a little cognitive dissonance – he rolled the word around in his mind, liking how it sounded – at hearing the tiny Hispanic lady talk about the formerly illegal immigrants who now made up the majority of the California Border Patrol.

“It’s not just the Brownshirts, although I think Don Miguel would indeed be rolling in his grave. It’s the carpetbaggers.” His mother was very close to Doña Marguerite, and Ryan thought it was weird both of them referred to a long-dead Mexican-Californian Don like he was still alive and in the room. He guessed that was what came of having a historian for a mother.

The next morning, Ryan seized the opportunity when he was alone with her. “Mom?”

She looked up from the tortilla dough she was kneading like it had done something to her. “What, Ryan? Is this about riding out on the south fence? Because both your father and I have told you that you cannot do that one alone already.”

Ryan felt a twinge. “I’m not a baby, Mom.” He was taller than she was by half a head, and still growing, she said.

“You’re always going to be my baby.” She looked up at him, her hands stilling and her face softening. “I know you’re near a man grown. But we want everyone to be riding in at least pairs, for now.”

“That’s not what I wanted to ask. What’s a carpetbagger?” He grabbed a piece of the dough, and she made like she was going to swat him.

“You haven’t heard that before? Oh, your school. Bleah.” She sighed, and he could tell she was about to go into the rant he’d heard before.

Ryan held up his hand to stop her. “I know, I know, I’m getting a very watered-down biased view of history and they don’t even call it history any more, it’s social studies…”

She laughed. “I guess I’ve said that too many times. A carpetbagger is a term for people who descended on the South after the Civil War. They preyed on folks who had lost everything, and they forced them off their farms, because they’d been on the losing side. They were like a cuckoo’s egg.”

“What?” Ryan was confused.

“The cuckoo lays their eggs in other bird’s nests, and when they hatch, they push the other nestlings or eggs out, until they have the parents feeding them and only them.”

“So what does that have to do with carpet bags, and farms?”

She covered the dough so it could rest. “Well, the South had spent a lot of money during the War. They weren’t material rich like the North was, so after the war ended, there were a lot of people who were flat broke. It wasn’t about slaves – we’ve discussed that before – it was sheer economic disruption.”

“Ok. What does that have to do with Jefferson? And cuckoos?”

She came and sat next to him at the table. “You overheard us last night.”

“A little. Not all of it.” He was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to have heard any of it.

She sighed sadly. “Jefferson isn’t very rich, yet. We’re trying to abide by regulations put in place when we split off from the FedGov, but they will be ending soon. We had a three-year restriction on mining and five on logging, for instance. Once we can tap into our own resources, then we’ll be able to defend ourselves.”

“From the Brownies?” Ryan used the slang term for the Border Patrol, who weren’t as upright as their title made them out to be.

“And from people who are coming in, offering pennies on the dollar to buy ranches and farms, and desperate folks are taking them up on it. The cuckoo is pushing them out of their nests. But if the rancher doesn’t take the offer…” She shrugged. “Something bad happens.”

“Like their house burns down.”

“Oh, baby…” She put a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, but that’s the least of it.”