Author Archives: accordingtohoyt

About accordingtohoyt

I am a novelist with work published in science fiction, fantasy, mystery and historical "novelized biography". I also write under the names Elise Hyatt and Sarah D'Almeida. http://sarahahoyt.com/

Stretching Exercises

Both of the posts this week, Dave Freer’s and Amanda Green’s are about not fully being able to anticipate the future.  I thought about them both when we drove past our old neighborhood and I realized the college is expanding dorms massively, now within a block of our old house.

All well and good, and my kids’ college, which is different is doing the same.  Expanding the dorms, making them spiffier, adding to the on site facilities, etc.

At the same time, tech marches on, and as usual, marches in directions that makes these dorms and facilities a supremely stupid “investment.”

It reminds me of five years ago, when, in the first flush of selling ebooks, and frankly not accounting for them too well, all the NY publishers were expanding their quarters, and getting spiffier buildings.  Now they’re firing authors.

The truth is that Education might think it’s immune to the tech stick, because governmental loans have made them fat and sassy, and who will trust an internet educational certificate?

But you know, the change is already in the wind.  The same way that trad publishers made the indie revolution easier by having this idea they could push taste onto their readers, instead of treating them like customers to be wooed, the traditional educational system is cooperating in its own demise by pouring out totally useless graduates, or worse, those who have been actively poisoned against the culture that shelters them.

When things change, they will change rapidly and terribly, as they did for publishing.

Six years ago I thought I was too late to the indie revolution.  And nowadays I live in fear of not catching up to change fast enough.  Other indies and I discuss options all the time.  And sometimes things still blindside us.

In this environment it doesn’t do to be too confident, or to get set in a rut.  And not JUST on how to market.  How to write too.  It helps to scope out the competition and “spontaneous hits.”  (That means those that don’t have push and money behind them.)

Not that you should write what other people write, but you should be aware what is selling, and what style it is, so you know what to do.

One of the things that is important to do, as it’s been borne upon me in the course of my (argh) starting to be long career is to have what Kris Rusch called “as many tools in your toolbox as possible.”

All of us have restrictions, and some of them are internal.  Currently, for various reasons, I’m writing a book I’d never write on my own.  Its structure is not something I would ever conceive of on my own, though I’ve read and enjoyed books like it.  I think I can do it, and hope so, since other people are depending on me, but it’s so new that everything feels “odd”.

Because your first time at everything will feel odd, better to try everything before it’s crucial.  Er… everything in writing.  Step down from the ledge. You only die once.

A lot of your internal stopping points are false ones.  There was a time I couldn’t write female characters.  This wasn’t exactly true but I couldn’t write female characters that made sense to Americans.  (I could write other ethnicities fine.)  However, I wrote Athena, and then I figured out how to write other people.  Kyrie didn’t even feel hard to write.

I’m still working on writing action, but I can see the time coming when it’s natural.

A lot of our stopping points are lack of practice.  Others will always stop us cold.  For instance, I can’t write sex.  Not because I’m prudish, but because I’m not a voyeur.  Described sex holds me out and bores me, whether I’m reading it or writing it.

So, include some writing stretching exercises in your routine.  Take a day a week, say, to write something that “doesn’t count” like, say, a short story, or a chapter of a story you’re not sure you’ll ever write.

Try a pov you’ve never written.  Try a genre you’ve never written.  Try a style you’ve never written.

Give it a whirl.  You might discover it’s not your thing.  Or you might add it to your core competency and enlarge your toolbox, the better to face the future with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Starting Out

This post is inspired by something on my blog.  But it’s also a post about writing.  It’s very much a post about writing.  It’s also a post about life, because life and writing partake one thing: we all start out somewhere.  And we all have something when we set out.  Some will be very fortunate, golden children, and have everything they need to succeed.  The stories on those always go that they end badly.  But that’s stories, and that’s not always true.  It’s mostly a projection of our envy.  However any number of them WILL end badly.  There’s a reason for that.  Of course a lot of us, who come from nothing and got no help, also end badly.  Or often never start out.

I won’t go into the blog, because it was a commenter who inspired this.  I won’t say who or precisely what he said, just that he seemed to think the world had done him peculiar wrong because his parents weren’t very good at parenting and because he didn’t know how to get on with… well, anyone, but particularly the opposite sex.  The thing is, even on the blog, he demonstrated a social style that was simultaneously aggressive and whining.  This is a combination guaranteed to put off most normal human beings.  He seemed unaware of it.  I think he identified it, subconsciously, as “the way to win arguments” at a very early age, and therefore has continued using it, not realizing it’s creating a vast desert around him.

Most of us don’t have ideal upbringings.  Some have less ideal than others.  I’m not going into mine, because it’s none of your business, and because I love everyone involved, including the difficult ones.  I’ll just say that around ten, having realized my brother was the family favorite, I decided to imitate his social style.  Since he’s introverted and thinks manners and fashion happen to other people, this meant I took created my social desert around myself and was very miserable.  Around 16 I started to realized what I was doing, and started consciously changing.  I started paying attention to the popular-but-not-mean girls I knew and figuring out how to interact.  And it worked.  Combined with attention to grooming and dressing, I soon found myself very popular.  And even though some guys ran when they heard long words come out of my mouth, an equal number of them (not all of whom KNEW long words) stuck around and became fascinated.

But wasn’t it terrible, changing who I was, that way?

I wasn’t changing who I was.  Merely the presentation.  Note I still used long words.  I was just using social graces to make the medicine go down.

Of course the side effect of this is that it’s all too easy to become a chameleon and say things you don’t believe/act in ways you think despicable, to succeed.  That is a particular temptation when it comes to hiding your political opinions, when they’re taboo in your field.  That didn’t work too well.  Not for me.  I was getting to the point it was hard to look at myself in the mirror.  Which is why it’s important to remember the line between social style and your core beliefs and motivations.  Social style is and should be plastic, your core should not.  Not if you truly believe what you profess.

But the truth is as an adult, if your social life doesn’t please you, you should identify what you’re doing that makes it the way it is, and you should change.

No changing won’t be easy.  Social styles are ingrained.  It’s like breaking an addiction: it will take time, effort, and extreme self-awareness to get it to work.  But it can be done, and while I can’t tell you that most adults did it, I can tell you most adults OF MY ACQUAINTANCE did it, for good or bad, big or small reasons.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Everything.  You start with certain talents.  You start with certain inclinations. You start with a “writing upbringing” whether that was, like mine, an aged teacher in a one room schoolhouse who delighted in your creativity, or a college friend who said “you should be a writer” or just a delight in long hours with imaginary people.  That’s what you have.  That’s where you’re starting.

NO ONE told you it would be enough, that it would be easy, or that it’s all you can do.  And you should be aware it can change.  In fact it will change, on its own, if you pay it no mind.  It’s better to change it the way you want to instead of to the subconscious demands of your mind.  Your mind is a gorram idiot, who doesn’t know the market.

Of course, marketing is harder now.  It used to be that you marketed to the gatekeepers.  If you were lucky you hit in that thin sliver where readers liked you too, but that was a crapshoot.  Mostly you marketed to gatekeepers, which could be understood as paying attention to what they chose, to the interviews they gave, etc.

Now…  well.  It’s more like being a teen and judging your social style.  You get many inputs.  You have the example of successful peers.  You have to be awake and alert.

If you’re not doing that well at sales, look at who is, and why.  It could be, honestly, it’s not your writing.  It could be your marketing, your theme, your ideas.  So, if it’s those, work on those.

But what if it’s your writing?  Isn’t that who you are?  How do you change that?  What if your type of talent just isn’t marketable?

First of all, I’m not sure talent exists.  Not as neural programming, before birth or something.  No, I don’t believe in tabula rasa.  Obviously, you have certain innate propensities.  But the thing is, when it comes to writing…  Writing is not something that just happens.  It’s not even as simple as speaking, and that’s not simple either.

Your speaking and your writing will be influenced by the language you learned as a child, the style of speaking and writing your family/friends/society valued.  And in turn what they valued might hinge on hereditary stuff in your family/group/society.

For instance, is my talent for lyrical language something innate?  Or is it because dad read poetry to me in my cradle? And did he read poetry to me because he came from a long line of  very successful poets?

Do you know?  Do you care?

The lyrical style, which arguably survived my changing languages, is what I get “for free” in writing.  The one talent.  The one thing.  Freely given.

Unfortunately I realized after my first published trilogy, it also limits your readership.  And if it’s the ONE thing you can do, it restricts it even more.

So I worked.  And learned.  BTW NEVER let ANYONE tell you writing or style or timing or plot or whatever can’t be learned.  EVERYTHING can be learned.  It all depends on how much you want to learn it and how hard you’re willing to work.

But what if you can’t?  Then you’re just making excuses for not being able to work hard enough. Or not wanting to.

I know.  I did it for years.  I told myself my style was unique and special and someone would eventually LOVE it.

It’s not true.  If only two people read you, even if there’s a vast reservoir of readers out there who would love it (and it’s unlikely.  Most such writing has innate defects that are keeping most people away and which you won’t even see till you overcome them) they’ll never find it.  But, like holding fast onto self-defeating social styles, it IS comforting.  Hence “Well, people like romance in their books, and I won’t write that trash” which is one of my own friends’ excuses.  “I’m better and smarter than that.”  Which must be a great deal of comfort, when you need to work menial jobs because no one will buy your books.  And when your great dream of sharing your invention falls flat.

I don’t like cold comfort.  I like succeeding in my dreams.  So I took the other path.  I’m still taking it.  It’s hard, because oftentimes what I must learn is completely antithetical to what I naturally do.  But it’s possible.  And once you do it a few times, it becomes easier.  It becomes an habit, like your previous mode was an habit.

“But should you write to market?  You always tell us not to write to market!”

Waggles hand.  I don’t know.  I know things like Twilight were DESIGNED to be written to a market and to succeed, and they DO.

It comes back, though, to observing the more popular girls and imitating them.  How far should you go?  Do you want to also mimic their opinions and their attitudes until you become trapped in that persona?  That way, I think, lies suicide, real or metaphorical.

But imitating their smiles, their social graces?  That’s okay, and allows people to get to know who YOU are without being repulsed by dysfunctional social modes.

It’s the same thing in writing.  I have a friend who really ADMIRES nineteenth century writing, and tries to imitate it.  That’s fine.  Except no one ever reads the great stories he has to tell.  Our storytelling is different because our conditions are different.  Nineteenth century writing wasn’t competing with TV or games for entertainment and it was self-consciously elitist.  It was leisurely, slow, and often determinedly obscure, so it sounded “important.”  Sure we read authors from that time, but we go in knowing they’re from that time, and adapt our expectations.  Modern authors, we expect other things from, and soon grow impatient with nineteenth century mode, particularly when combined with some newby mistakes (and we’re all newbies compared to the greats who have survived centuries.)

Or you can take your ideas, the core of things that matter to you, that which is exclusively yours and dress it in the right clothes, and put in the right manners, so the reader will actually read and like what you do.

Look, 90% of the books I get from KU hold me out.  I want to like them.  I want to get into the story.  But the writer holds me at arms length by not telling me what I need to get in; by cloaking it all in weird, stilted language; by not researching; by making their opening scene/character/world DELIBERATELY repulsive.

It comes back to being a teen again.  The world is not going to adapt to you.  Not in the ordinary way.  Sure, sometimes you’re so rich, so powerful, the world will.  And if you are a billionaire, you can promote your book until it becomes the “new thing.” But most of us aren’t billionaires. We have to adapt to the world — and the writing world — not it to us.

And yes, even the golden children, the fortunate ones, to whom the gods gave everything in society or in writing need to know these facts, and to learn to adapt.  Our envy notwithstanding, most people I know who succeeded with their first written book hit a wall shortly thereafter and never wrote/published again.

Part of it is that the world changes, and if all you have is what you were given, you don’t know how to adapt.  Say you come in doing spy thrillers, then the cold war ends, and you don’t know how to do anything else.  Worse, you don’t know how to LEARN to do anything else.  Same could be said for horror, or, now, UF.  All of these had times of great bloom, then failed.

Even if you have everything, there are probably details that could be better.  It will be even harder to learn to change them, BECAUSE they’re details.  But if you do it will increase your ability and longevity.

Strive. It’s the best you can do.  And if you’re lucky, it will be enough.

 

 

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Torturing Your Darlings

Oh, no, you’ll say, Sarah has been reading regency romances again.  You wouldn’t be wrong, though Sarah has moved from this to “Biographies of founding fathers” following a line from an article she read for the current (historical) project.

I hit the regency romances whenever I’m under crunch, which I am right now.  Now there are levels in regency romance.  I’d compare Madeleine Hunter to any writer of any genre (even if I flip past the sex scenes.)

Most of the regencies aren’t like that, though. Most of them are fairly light fare, and therefore something good to read while I’m trying to finish a book.  Because the worst part of being mid book is when you get caught by a novel (someone else’s novel) and lose a day of work.  When you’re under crunch deadline, that can kill you.

Sometimes I read cozy mysteries for the same purpose.  But this time what I got caught by was regencies.  Mostly because most of the cozies I start recently have characters that annoy me, not entertain me.  (And yep, a lot of it is political.  It’s fine to call your cat Chairman Meow, but when you explain it’s because you admire the mass murderer on whom the name is based, the book is going to take flying lessons against the nearest wall. (Used, paper book, thank heavens.) And I’m not going to believe you want to solve a murder, because you clearly have NO moral compass.)

So I’ve been reading regencies and most of them are from KULL (Kindle Unlimited Lending Library.)  This is not as terrible as the “tsunami of crap” prophets believed it would be (and romance is the closest you get to their prediction.)  As with most books, I find I reject about half of them.  90% if you count reading blurb as rejecting.  It gets to “Oh, yawn, that, really?”  And the book goes back, or never gets loaned.

However what KULL has more of than other venues is it has a higher proportions of very “new” novelists.  Which means I run into ONE problem that traditional publishers guarded against.  (NO, not spelling or punctuation.  Have you read traditional books lately?)

Every one of us starts at a place our books have virtually no plot.  We think they do, but they don’t.  They don’t even rise to Mary Sue levels.

In Mary Sue/Marty Stu, the character is wonderful and whatever he/she touches is solved/improved/etc.

But in most beginner novels, nothing happens.  At least nothing of consequence.

In most regencies with this problem, for instance, I find myself looking in on the life of a perfect, well behaved miss, who floats through the days going to balls and talking to one or two very well behaved suitors.  If it’s two we’re supposed to care passionately about whom she’ll choose.

Only we don’t.  Mostly it feels like I’m listening to incredibly boring gossip.  I mean, my life is more interesting than theirs.  At least there’s something at stake.

But Sarah, you’ll say, what about escapism?  We thought you were for escapism and ludic enjoyment of stories.

I am, but here’s the thing: books are different.  I’ve told  you before, at least if you took a workshop with me, that the problem with a character opening the book with crying and telling you everything that is wrong with their lives, is that the characters are like strangers who just rang your doorbell.  If a stranger rings your doorbell and dissolves into tears and tells you he lost his job, his girlfriend left him, and his pet aardvark died, you’re going to slam the door in his face, hide behind the sofa, and shout that you’re not home.

Trust me, it’s not any better if your character is telling them about an incredibly complex, non-fraught routine.  I know this experience because grandma to her dying month kept up correspondence with family all over the world.  As in, she wrote to them every week, and they wrote back.  Invaluable while it lasted, since both she and grandad quite literally had family all over the world.  The problem was many of these people had emigrated in HER MOTHER’S generation.  Grandma had an attachment to them because she remembered them from when she was young, and of course their kids and grandkids interested her because she remembered cousin so and so and the brother in law of aunt so and so.  (And the family has bizarre nicknames.  Really Potato Bug?)

To me on the other hand, these were names I couldn’t remember and events I had no interest in, poured at me EVERY week when I came to have tea with grandma.  I endured it because I loved grandma, but my eyes acquired a fixed expression and sometimes I was doing homework at the back of my mind, just to escape.

These books are a lot like that.  These people might be good people and relatively interesting if I KNEW them.  Only I don’t know them.  I just hear about them going to balls and parties, and….  And you know the writer is having so much fun with her (usually) imaginary friends, that she (usually.  There are males who write regencies, but they’re few) doesn’t realize she’s boring the reader out of his/her/its/aardvark’s mind.

So how to solve that?  Easy.  Torture your characters.

No, I don’t mean physically.  While you’ll acquire a bespoke audience, if your round of balls and parties develops sessions with gags and whip– Never mind.  Considering fifty shades of grey, go for it.  Torture your characters that way if you can stomach it.  I just have no more interest in it than in parties.  So moving right along–

What I mean is your characters have to have problems.  You have to put them in a situation where they so much want or need something that they have to bestir themselves to get it.  And it’s not easy to get!

But Sarah, you say, what about escapism?  Fun?

Well, Pride and Prejudice is arguably Austen’s best loved book, (please, not the movie, and not the fifties mini-series in which it’s set in the Victorian era, and where it’s all about the slapstick and hats) and it is escapism, in the sense that it created a dream-regency many women imagine themselves in.  Also, you know it’s going to end well.  I mean, that’s a great advantage of romances.

But good Lord, when it starts out, no one there is in a good place.  If you don’t understand the problem five daughters with virtually no dowry (the estate being entailed away from them) presented, you need to brush up on your regency. The girls were too high-born to be maids or other low female employment, too uneducated to be governesses.  Their mother is herself too low born (and silly) to know how to creditably present them in ANY society.  Their father, even should he save and give them a London season in which to find husbands, knows that due to their mother’s origins in trade, they’re unlikely to be invited to the best balls or get vouchers for Almacks.  This in turn means they will not find the best husbands.  In fact, the most LIKELY outcome for the five girls is ending up spinsters living in extremely reduced circumstances, with perhaps some help from kindly relations.  In fact, the dream outcome is that one of them marries someone on the fringes of “respectable” — say a business man or a minor parson — and can help her other four sisters, a little, so they don’t starve as poor spinsters.

This is what lends interest to everything.  You understand why their mother has been throwing Jane at junior businessmen since the girl was 15.  You understand why Mr. Bingley is such a dream catch, and also why it feels like aiming at the moon. You understand how much Lizzie must have despised Mr. Collins to turn him down.  You even understand Lydia, the youngest and most impetuous sister, risking it all to escape the horrible future that seems inevitable.

This makes it interesting to read about their balls and dinners.  And you can dream that you too, with no connections or fortune, could have captured Mr. Darcy.

But the danger and the need MUST be there, to keep the reader interested in the good stuff.

Remember that.  In every genre remember that.  Start with your character in trouble.

Now I’ve told you before, and it’s true, that the “problem” in the first chapter need not be the problem that carries the book.  Mostly because I want to avoid the “too many problems, I can’t read this” but also because some problems are too complex to put all in the first chapter.

Take Pride and Prejudice again.  (I recommend the A & E series, if you just want to watch it.)  The “Problem” in the first chapter is that rich men have come to town and Mr. Bennet refuses to visit them.  (Probably a combination of introversion and not wanting to see what his wife will do to get their attention for his daughters.)  We only realize the bind they’re in gradually, though we understand it fully by the time the courting is underway. And certainly by the time of major setbacks.

Go through it, either book (It’s a short book) and tally how problems are revealed, from their money issues to their mother’s disposition.

Yes, I know it’s a regency romance.  It’s also a superbly plotted book.  And you can think of your own twists that match those but fit things like… science fiction, or fantasy, and have nothing to do with romance (unless you want to.) Different problems, different solutions, but the way the problems are introduced is important.

Go do it because nothing irks me more than a good writer, with good word and scene sense who fails to have anything INTERESTING happen in her/his/its/dragon’s book.

Yes, character based books are based on the characters.  But the characters never show their range unless they have real problems and something interesting happens to them.  And just having them go to parties, or, in present day, have breakfast and drive around shopping, does not show us their range, their abilities or their CHARACTER.

Plot, which of necessity is the solving of problems (and the problem needs to be big enough to support a long story, when it comes to novels) is the honing stone against which the character is sharpened.  And plot is necessarily the RESULT of the character’s circumstances, hopes, fears and range.  A Sherlock Holmes novel will look quite different if you drop Miss Marple in it.  Pride and Prejudice would be a different beast if all the sisters were as silly as Lydia.

Now go think about how to torture your characters and put their behind in a vise grip metaphorically speaking (Literally it’s that fifty shades thing again.)  And make it good.

 

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Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — a guest post by Nitay Arbel

Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — Nitay Arbel

Thus spake our Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s sensei in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”:

What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Amen. It is impossible to do science (or engineering) without facts, just as it is impossible to write a book without words. But are facts all that is needed? Or for that matter, are words all that is needed to write a book?

Robert Heinlein always liked Renaissance (wo)men, and had he ever met the French polymath Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Poincaré he would have found much to admire. Poincaré’s work in pure and applied math alone would have ensured his place in history.  So would that in theoretical physics: aside from his work on the three-body problem in celestial mechanics (which opened a door into what we now call chaos theory), Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hendrik_Lorentz  arguably stood at the cradle of special relativity together with Einstein — in fact, the very word ‘relativity’ was coined by Poincaré. (Einstein himself paid tribute to both men, especially to Lorentz.)

Yet in his day he was also known as a public intellectual and as a popularizer of science. But unlike the type of facile vulgarization one can see from some TV personalities with the same last name as a boxer and a brand of poultry (cough, cough), Poincaré’s book “Science and Hypothesis” is now regarded as a pioneering work in the philosophy of science. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_and_Hypothesis  (A somewhat dated English translation is available for free on Gutenberg. ) In Chapter 9, we find this gem of a quotable quote:

The Scientist must put things in order. Science is built of facts, as a house is built of  stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.

(My translation of: “Le savant doit ordonner ; on fait la science avec des faits comme une maison avec des pierres ; mais une accumulation de faits n’est pas plus une science qu’un tas de pierres n’est une maison.”)

(As an aside, Poincaré clearly did not grow up with US wood-frame housing ;)) And yes, I have had the dubious pleasure of editing scientific manuscripts that amounted to lots of data, accompanied by prose that amounted to stream-of-consciousness at best and to word salad at worst. (For greater “enjoyment”, such a dish is best served in very crummy English — sometimes written by supposed native speakers.) This brings to mind the Talmudic admonition: “Do not state something unintelligible in the hope that people will eventually figure out what it means” (Pirkei Avot 2:5, my translation)

Now Poincaré’s analogy is not limited to science. Music is built out of notes, but a bunch of notes without any structure (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, compositional framework) is just noodling at best and noise at worst. To be sure, sometimes a composer or improviser may deliberately flaunt structural conventions for effect — but this works precisely because it is a calculated departure from the rule. Take Stravinsky’s repeating a single complex chord with ever-shifting rhythmic accents in “The Rite of Spring”, or the eerie harmonies of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (known to sci-fi fans from the star gate sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), or the “atonal wail” guitar leads sandwiched between the lyrical horror tales in classic Slayer songs like “Angel Of Death” — these have their effect not because “the rules don’t matter”, but precisely because the rules do matter. Darkness has no meaning without light, nor light without darkness.

Similarly, Poincaré’s dictum applies to creative writing. Stringing together 10,000 words doesn’t necessarily create a story, nor 100,000 words a book. Sure, I remember when some “literary” writers in my youth experimented with books that deliberately had no plot, used no punctuation, or were written in one book-long run-on sentence, etc. But for the most part, these were sterile exercises meant to impress soi-disant literati, not to entertain any reader. Without a compelling plot, solid word-building, engaging and realistic characters, solid fact-checking, and all the other elements of a good work of fiction — “nullius in verba” (there’s nothing in [mere] words), as the motto of the Royal Society goes.

And of course, one may deliberately use sloppy prose (or simulated dialect) for a character that would speak in such a fashion; one may purposely write inelegant sentences or use highly unorthodox punctuation to convey a certain mood (what would Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s writing have been without the relentless ellipses?); but like the musical examples above, these are all madnesses with a method behind them.

Allow me to riff a bit more on this real estate analogy. True, it is the big picture structural things that will determine how soundly built the house is — in a book, that would be the story arc/the plot, the major subplots, the world building… At the same time, any good realtor will tell you that the “curb appeal” of a house may be greatly affected by small details that either reveal a high level of craftsmanship, or that appeal specifically to a certain kind of buyer. In a book, the more general equivalents would be the cleanliness and general quality of the prose, the care lavished on fact-checking, the authenticity of the dialogue, and the like. Some people are in general fussier about this than others, who will forgive a lot if they got their main “fix”. The more particular would be those of us spotting that the author, or fact-checker, didn’t do their homework on our particular area of expertise or hobby:  professional scientists cringing about bad physics, history buffs thrown out of a historical fiction or period romance by anachronistic situations or settings (not to mention the backporting of 21st-century ideological obsessions to characters  who wouldn’t understand the first thing about them),… Sometimes this is highly individual: being an amateur linguist, I can get thrown completely out of a story by linguistically absurd character names — such as a Chechnyan terrorist named Kovacs (the Hungarian equivalent of Smith), which is an actual example from a very popular and acclaimed thriller TV series.

Finally, real estate agents will always talk about “Location, location, location” as the three main factors determining sale price. What is the equivalent in a book? Its genre placement and pitch, perhaps. This subject has been covered repeatedly and at length, both by our BbESP and on Mad Genius Club. Allow me just to add that not all readers are alike: there is a small segment of eclectic readers (such as yours truly) who may deliberately seek out genre crossover works that might not work well in the marketplace because they are difficult to pigeonhole.

Perhaps “the poison is in the dose”. Within the overall context of a marvelous space opera/military science fiction saga, the great Lois McMaster Bujold got away with slipping in romantic and psychological elements to the point that “Komarr” and especially “A Civil Campaign” are sci-fi/romance crossovers in all but name. Still, I wonder if her work would even have seen the light of day with a hidebound ‘gatekeeper’ at the Big Five, rather than somebody like the late lamented Jim Baen…

 

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Fractured Mirrors and the Point of Pain

There are many theories of what makes a good book.  The most prevalent/strongest one in our day is the social justice theory.  No, I don’t mean the one propagated by social justice advocates, though they’re linked.

What I mean is that for a long time, what made a book “good” and gave serious people permission to like it was that it had classical references.  That’s how you knew the writer was properly educated and thought deep thoughts.  I think that started in the renaissance and before that it was “books that were good for something” the something being propagating the faith.  Well, things go in cycles.

After WWI put vast cracks in the civilizational confidence of the west and we started doubting our roots, classicism because a mark of being “high class” and high class was, aesthetically and politically right out in the early 20th century.  The trusted men from the best families were responsible for making Europe into a vast abattoir.  Which made literary criticism ripe to fall for the then new and exciting Marxist theory of everything.  (Well, it was actually a theory of economics, one that was disproven by the time it was written, but Marx wasn’t an economist.  However people tend to take one lens and view everything through it, even things it makes no sense to do that with.)

So once again, literature became “good” when it did something “good” in the world, in this case advance change towards the perfect socialist state, just like medieval literature advanced our way to heaven.

I’m not sure this was ever okay, not from a ludic perspective.  Most books informed by this perspective are tiresome, even going back to when they were a new and exciting thing, back in the early to middle last century.  I do understand they were “new” and “exciting” to people who had never read the like, but now, almost a hundred years later, the nostalgie de la boue and the obsessive violating of taboos we no longer hold grows tedious.

And that’s part of the problem, you know? It’s that the only way to keep that kind of preachiness new and fresh is to continuously violate taboos, until you get to the point no sane human being would read these books for pleasure.  And then we get a lot of crap about how we should read them because they’re somehow “good for us.”  I’m sure you can find examples.  Seems like there’s a new one every week.

I know that if you don’t agree with the moral aims of the books they sound beyond tedious, and into the lunatic range.  And then the rate of reading and readers falls.  And then everyone laments.

So, what is a good book?

I don’t know.  I’m a libertarian.  I’ve made a whole career out of telling people I’m staying out of their business.  All I can tell you is what makes a good book to ME.

A serviceable book keeps me entertained for two hours or so while I’m cleaning the house or cooking dinner.  (Sometimes audio books, sometimes “disposable paperbacks” bought for $1 at the thrift store.  Why?)  I call these popcorn books.  I read them in chain, because that’s ALL I do for fun.  That’s my escapism.

These books are fungible, but not … uneeded.  If most of what you do is read for fun, you need a supply of these.  I’ve written books like this (Dipped Stripped and Dead under pen name Elise Hyatt is up on Amazon.)  Some would argue that most books I’ve written are like this, but I’d say that my science fiction, and the shifter fantasy, and maybe even Witchfinder rise above that.  Though I’m not going to break your head if you say they don’t.  I just know what I was aiming for.  Like being unable to watch yourself walk down the street, it’s d*mn hard to evaluate your own books, your own heart’s blood.  For instance, Jane Austen’s own favorite book was Emma, a book that makes me want to sleep and kill things AT THE SAME TIME.

It was brought home to me recently the importance of “writing things that matter”, things that rise above popcorn.  Let’s say that finding out you have a brain tumor (non malignant or at least isolated by virtue of position.  The one thing it affects is my vision, and it might be reason enough to remove it, eventually.  We’re monitoring) and that one of your acquaintances/colleagues has cancer, watching one of the first bloggers you liked die, and watching one of your first mentors (Ed Bryant) die too, all bring home to you the fact that this is passing, and you want to make sure amid the “must dos” and “I’ll write that for money” you want to write something that remains.  Something that is heart’s blood, and will make your voice heard throughout the years, if not centuries.

So, how do you know what that is?

You don’t.  It’s how it hits readers.  Some books I consider popcorn; some books I WROTE as popcorn got me emails from people who said the book had been an anchor and comfort to their dying relative.  Plain Jane, written as a work for hire under a house name, for crying outloud.

You CAN’T tell.  All you can tell is what you feel is a GOOD book TO YOU.  And if it does survive centuries, we will know (though if you will know depends on what you think of life after death, likely.)

Books rise above the average to me when I remember them, think about them, or a phrase comes back to me.  Yesterday it was a sentence from Jim Butcher “You know, lying is not a superpower.”

That’s the first cut.  The book wasn’t FORGETTABLE.

But how do you make it something else, something that resonates and vibrates within you and others?  I don’t know.  I only know me.  I gravitate towards mirrors and the point of pain.

What does that mean?

I was a freakishly big-headed kid (literally, not metaphorically) who spent most of her time with raw sores all over her face, particularly around eyes and mouth, making me look rather like the joker or something out of a horror movie.  I’m forever grateful they went away with the onset of puberty and that they’ve been only on my arms for the great part of twenty years.

I was also a cherished and loved child, and frankly spoiled by dad and his mom.

Going to elementary school was like a betrayal.  I couldn’t figure out why people recoiled from me, and when I figured it out my world shattered, and was never put together again the same.  My perception of self was destroyed, but also my perception of what mattered about me/what the rest of the world saw.

Some would argue that most of my life is informed by that moment.

I hate sucker punches.  I hate it when people are attacked by people they trusted or had reason not to fear, in their place of safety.

I write people whose world has shattered repeatedly.  I write situations that make me question my own principles, and rebuild, over and over again.

Why?  Because in books that’s what stays with me.  Either books that shatter me and put me back together again, or books in which I get the sense the writer did that to himself/herself.

Your mileage may vary.  And I’m not one to tell you what you should do.  Again, made an entire career of not telling people what they should do.

If you’re writing popcorn books, getting paid, and people like them: well done.  You’re making an honest living.  And some of those books you consider fungible might be the lifeline to someone else’s sanity.  You never know.

But for me, when I reach beyond, I reach for the shattered mirror and the pain.  In real life as in fiction, I fight for the person who was suckerpunched by either people or reality, whose world was shattered and who can never fit the shards together quite the same way again.

Maybe that will resonate through the centuries.  Maybe it won’t.  It resonates with me.

 

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I Am The Voice That Cries in The Desert

How many times do I have to say it?  If you’re going to write something, research it.

Sure if it’s historical or science and even if you are an expert on both or either, you’re going to make mistakes.  Partly you’re going to make mistakes because you’re human.  Even say, about Elizabethan England, where I know tons of things, there are things I don’t know, and I’ll come across it and go “Uh, they did WHAT?”

Or take when I was writing the Musketeers mysteries.  This mind you was when the internet was but a toddler, just learning to walk, and not able to say “Dada”.  I found nothing about how laundry was done in the time of the musketeers in Paris.  I needed that for Death of a Musketeer.  So I assumed it was done the same way it was done in the rest of Europe and put that in the book and I’m not going to revise it.

Except… it wasn’t.  Not only it wasn’t, but h*ll it wasn’t.  It was done more like in Portugal in my childhood.  If you gave your laundry out to wash, women would take it to the river and wash heck out of it, including beating it with stones, or sun-bleaching it.

Well, in Paris in the time of the musketeers, it was the same except that there were laundry boats anchored on the Seine, and you had to pay rent to use them.  So professional laundresses rented their facilities from boatmen.

I found this out while reading a travelogue of the time that I didn’t come across till I was on the fourth book.

Anyway…. No matter how much you try to make it right, you’ll get some things wrong.

But seriously — not even trying?

Look, I’m going to be blunt here: whatever you learned in school about a time period is not enough.  Those cute little Writers’ Digest “life in” are not enough, not unless what you’re writing is a short story or a book where only a short bit pertains to the historical period, but for the whole thing?  Too many pitfalls.

Those Writer’s Digest manuals are like one of those cheap booklets that tell you how to ask where the bathroom is, or what the cost of something is.  They’re good for the basics, and even then the grammar will be bad, and a word might not be quite what a native would use. If you’re moving to the other country — and when writing you’re moving to the other country for a while — you need to know more.

Yes, I’ve been reading regencies again.  I do this when I have the flu, because they’re predictable and low effort, being a highly formulaic format.  Thing is, though, all the ones I read had thousands upon thousands of positive reviews.  And yet I rarely found one without an error.

I was okay with minor errors, like having women attend funerals (they didn’t, not in the regency.)  It’s the ones that think the regency was Victorian England, or worse Elizabethan England that get on my nerves.  It’s like people watched a movie, sometime, and that’s the extent of their research.

I’ll even roll my eyes and let it go when they have debutantes wearing bright green satin (seriously, guys, they wore muslin and usually pale colors.) or walking alone with their family’s compliant consent.

What gets me is more stuff where, you know, England is not … the way we expect.  Like, during the regency, Elizabeth will be on the throne.  Or the city of London is divided into two sections, Good Ton and Bad Ton (I SWEAR I’m not making this up) or a girl up from the country and walking alone gets picked up by the queen in her carriage (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) because “you looked sad.” Or….

I’ll be honest with you, maybe this was the ONLY mistake in the whole book, but when I trip on it three pages in, I’m not going to read anymore.

Maybe I’m a minority.  As I said, all these books have hundreds of good reviews (then again, Amazon never was very good at getting rid of all the automated reviews, and there are clubs for this, too) but I will throw them against the wall.

And maybe you think I’m being crotchetty, but I tell you, I am the voice that cries in the desert: get off my lawn.

Before you write something in a time period not our own, in a country not our own, in a discipline you only read about, research.

I do it in three phases, first I get a bunch of general books on the time period (this will often involve one of those Writer’s Digest books.

Then those books, in their biliography will suggest others “for further reading.”  I’ll explore a few of those, then read some biographies set in the time.  AND after I write the book, I try to find a beta reader who is an expert in the field, and I run it by him.

Perhaps I’m fussy, I don’t know.  But I know I wouldn’t go on about the plight of moors in Regency England.

It might not be much, but we must each be proud of what we can.

 

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The Curse Of The Second Novel

I bring you bad news.  There is a curse on a second novel.  To be exact, there is a curse on a second PUBLISHED novel, no matter how many novels you’ve published before.

I’m not sure if this applies to indie novels, I confess, but I think it might, if you have at least had some kind of success on your first book.  Now, it depends on what success is to you.  If you go Martian-big on your first novel (we should all be so cursed) I almost guarantee that you’ll suffer second novel curse on the next.  But it’s possible that if you never at all expected to sell anything at all, and you sell a couple thousand books, you’ll also suffer second novel curse.

What is worse, you can suffer second novel curse when you have “simply” taken a big leap in sales or in PERCEIVED craft.  I know. Ask me how.

So, to begin with, what is second novel curse?

Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.

The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract.  Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption.  As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened.  (For expert mode try, as I did the last time second novel curse struck, being deathly ill and moving three times in a year.  It’s a treat. Most effective block EVER!)

What causes this dread issue?  Beyond its being your second published novel or a novel after a great leap in craft and earnings?

Insecurity.

Yeah, I can see you say no you.  And that’s the biggest issue with second novel curse.  You always think “Certainly I can’t be insecure.  I’ve practiced my craft for years.  I know what to do.”  And yet it is.

Take me for instance: The first novel I sold was my eighth completed novel (three of the others have since sold, one is slated for rewrite because I crammed a trilogy into 100k words.  Knew I was doing it too.  It’s a long and sad story.  And the remaining four are in a world I THINK I now know how to approach, but which was a difficult sale for traditional publishing.)  Surely I knew the dance, right?

And yet, right after I published Ill Met and got a contract for All Night Awake, I found I’d forgotten everything about how to write.  In fact I was so vulnerable, I let my agent talk me into discarding my first draft completely, and following his outline (more or less) resulting in a book that isn’t necessarily bad, but which is completely wrong for that series and which of all my books published so far is the least successful EVER, this including some duds I published with small presses under closed pen names.

As it was, it took me going to a hotel for a couple of weeks to finish that book, because otherwise I kept getting sidetracked by the smallest things.

The reason was a fear — panic — that the novel was bad.  Why?  Why would I feel that way when I had competently finished eight novels, and my first published novel had been accepted on proposal, and then promoted to hardcover when the full manuscript was delivered?  Why would I further take the suggestions of an agent who really didn’t have any success in publishing, beyond a few work for hire books?

Because it had taken me so long to get accepted and the process seemed largely arbitrary.  I was terrified that the second novel didn’t somehow meet invisible standards I couldn’t even figure out.  (In retrospect because these were largely arbitrary and couldn’t be guessed.  They had to do with mood of the editor, meeting her, etc, than with objective quality.  Traditional publishing got so many submissions that it had to go beyond “It’s a good/publishable manuscript” so the selections would be subjective.) It is human to believe there must be rules, even when we can’t see them, and to panic when we can’t see them.

The second novel to give me “Second novel curse” was A Few Good Men.  Not writing it.  That was easy.  It was written in two weeks, and it FELT RIGHT.  I still think it is one of the best books I’ve ever written and only Darkship Revenge felt as “good”.  This left me stuttering while writing Through Fire, because it felt like a “second novel” and I couldn’t recapture/recreate the feel I had while writing A Few Good Men.  It hasn’t, btw, been markedly commercially successful, but as an experienced writer I know that how well it does is a function of how the publisher treated it, the cover, and well… luck.

I’ve observed several friends, both traditional and indie going through this as well, so I know it’s not a personal quirk.

So, second novel curse, i.e. an unwonted difficulty in finishing the book after some achievement, whether the achievement be in sales, selling to a traditional house, or even a perceived jump in craft exists.

What do you do about it?

1- Don’t panic.  Yes, I know you aren’t aware of panicking, but become aware of it and then stop it.

2- Realize your novel is at least as good as your “successful” one and probably better, no matter how it feels.  We grow by doing.  Even supposing that you’re sick, not functioning, and you have the dreaded cleaning lady’s knee, it’s unlikely to be that much worse than your “successful” novel that anyone else would NOTICE.

3- For the love of heaven don’t let your insecurity push you to the point you take random suggestions from random strangers.  Use your normal beta readers, and don’t cave in to THEIR suggestions unless three of them return the same opinion (without coordination, which means they don’t know each other or you trust them not to have talked about it with each other.)  Even then, be aware you’re fragile and don’t take suggestions without deep thought.

4- Just write it.  To quote Heinlein “They don’t want it good.  They wanted it Wednesday.” Do realize that even in indie the success or failure of your novel has very little to do with “quality” — even what YOU perceive as quality — and more with luck/finding the right audience, etc.  I have indie friends who are baffled by the one of their novels that sells and sells and sells, and my own best-selling-book was a work for hire which bored me so much I wrote it in three days.

5 – If needed isolate yourself, grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and make yourself write.  At this phase, I often go to a hotel for a long weekend, and finish the book. Brad found that local libraries often rent “study rooms” which can serve the same purpose, if you book them from library open to library close.  Just changing the location and isolating yourself is often enough to get your subconscious unjammed.  If you absolutely can’t even look at it when you’re done (has happened to me) hire a trusted structural editor (I have recommends) and copyeditors and do the minimum you can do.

6- When all else fails, paint by numbers.  If you’re so stuck that your normal subconscious creation won’t come online (it’s happened to me at least three times, usually due to illness, but panic can do it too) do a detailed outline, and color by numbers.  This is why even if you’re a gateway writer and an extreme pantser, you studied structure and diagrammed novels (right?) It’s so that you can fill in with hard work when the magic fails.

7- Eschew the pernicious myth that some writers only have one novel in them.  This is a favorite thing for people to tell you when you’re down in second novel curse dumps.  It’s also bullshit.
As with most bullshit there is SOMETHING in it.  The something is that at that point in your development there might be only one book you’re competent to finish.
However I don’t know any writer — most of us have lived and dreamed and talked story since… since we learned to talk — who has only one novel or only a limited set of stories in him.  We are story tellers.  We were born that way.  Eventually some future civilization might find a cure for the condition, but until then, we pour out stories by function of being alive.  If there’s only one story you FEEL COMPETENT to write, either you’re so scared of failing you figure you’ll dress your success in new feathers and try it again, or your craft is insufficient (this happens to those who sell their first or second novel ever-written, sometimes.)  The cure is to study how to write.  I recommend Dwight Swain’s work, though Card’s book on how to write Science Fiction is also excellent and unencumbered by the tendency of later “how to books” to be “books on how to sell to traditional publishing editors right now.”

Now stop dithering and go work already.  They don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.  That means you only have a week.  Stop wasting time.

 

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