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/

Editing the Novel

I’ve just emerged from an experience I REALLY don’t want to face again, which is why we hope we won’t have to move out of this house for decades: I had to get a book that had been written through three moves, one half move (son out), one international trip, and one very serious illness, ready for publication.

The problem with this is that like Kris Rusch I tend to write books very fast because that’s as long as I can hold the shape of the outline in my head.

Shape of the outline?  Oh, yeah, here’s the thing: some people plot on paper, sometimes outlines so complete that you only have to add dialogue.  I’ve done that myself, with say the Magical British Empire Books (yes, I am eventually going to issue them.  Right now my time for page proofs and typesetting is very limited, particularly since I’m still the “Publisher” for the whole family.  No, I DON’T actually need you to tell me the sheer insanity of having the main writer in the house also be the publisher.  It’s just that I learned more about how to do it, from covers to typesetting, to converting to ebook — partly because I was too ill to write for a long time — and also that Dan has two jobs, Robert and Marsh have crazy demanding time consuming educations, and my profession LOOKS more elastic, since I can write whenever I’m not asleep or doing something else.  Anyway, right now it’s the publishing and particularly the reissuing that are getting pushed to the back.)  Those books had 100 page outlines, each.  And what I found is that those are deceptive.  They distort the “pacing” of the book and make you misjudge foreshadowing.

I can eventually do a post on roadmaps, and what works for several people when it comes to pre-plotting, but for now let’s just say what works best for me is a rather loose outline, maybe ten pages, handwritten, which then shifts and I go deeper in the book, and realize the precipitating incident won’t work, say, or that the character as she’s emerging would never get that worked up over a snub, or…

In ideal writing conditions — which have happened for maybe ten of my published books — I get a month to write the book.  Half of that is research, particularly for historical, though right now there are two science fiction books causing me to learn way more about brain damage than I ever wanted to know.  Then I have a loose plot, which often just has something like “someone betrays him” for an entire section.  And then I immerse myself in it for two weeks and breathe, eat and drink the novel.  At this point I’m a lot like Star in Glory Road, while she was getting impression of past Emperors.  My food tastes change, my temper is different, my speech and cadences change, and let’s say that my husband has loved some of my characters and despised the others from living with them second hand.

If left undisturbed for this time, the book at some point produces an Eureka moment, at which I’m racing backward to make sure the foreshadowing is there, and forward, to pin the feel of the ending down before it escapes me.  (Like a butterfly, if you pin it disastrously, you’ll ruin it.  In either case, of course, it dies and stops shifting, so you have to make sure you pin it where you want it.)

This is normally when my computer gets a ton of little sticky notes pinned all around the monitor.  My kids, when they were little called it “porcupining” as in “Mom has porcupined the monitor.  She’s doing the final day on a book, and she won’t be herself.”

This book, Darkship Revenge, got interrupted about 1/3 in.  TWICE.  And btw both times I lost half the book, in a cd which disappeared in the move.  (I have now of course, found one.  The other is still missing, but yesterday we located my publishing cd which has been missing for two years.)  And then it’s been near-closing since June.  Except we had one international trip with weather so hot we could not sleep either night or day, then unpacking, then a couple of house and cat emergencies, then younger son moving out, and then in December, when I was maybe three days from finishing, my body thought it would be a rousing idea if I collapsed in the shower.

The resulting doctors appointments (still going on) resulted in novelus interruptus so much, that the entire feeling and sense of the novel changed while I was not writing.  And then I had the Eureka moment and realized that though I bring the characters to upright and locked position and there’s a victory at the end, this book is part of a two-book plot arc.  And that the guy I had planned sequels with had to die.  (Of course.  My subconscious hates me.)  If this weren’t a much better configuration, I’d have forced the end I had written down.  But it was better.  So I spent January fixing the book to fit the new ending.  It is now at Baen, and I have a checklist for editing a fractured novel.  My novels don’t usually need all of these (though some they do, like, are similar scenes always happening in similar places?) but I know other people are messier writers, and Kate is a radical pantser, and her rewrites/edits often involve what I had to do.

So, for people who might need it, here is a non-exhaustive checklist:

1- Is your ending the strongest possible?  I.e. does it leave the most lasting emotional impression in the reader?  If not:

a) Whom does what happened affect/change?  Can you make sure you are in that person’s head at the end, or you get his/her feelings on it?

b) Did you drop an elephant from the ceiling?  Even the most meaningful of deaths or love affairs means nothing if you didn’t foreshadow it.  I know, I know, everyone talks about how it should be a surprise.  Sure it should, but not so much of a surprise, no one saw it coming.  Then it’s just “and then a meteor (or an elephant) killed them all, the end” and the reader is left thinking “well, I wasted my time.”
Go back and foreshadow in such a way that the reader is hoping or fearing the event, but never sure it will happen.  Yes, I know, easier said than done.  But it gets easier with time.

2- Do you have a lot of nonsensical running around?  This is what I refer to “and in the middle of the novel something happens.”  It’s where, unless I’m reading it as an editor (I edit for close friends even though I hate editing, and even though I’ve been very bad lately) or as a beta reader, I just put the book aside and wonder off.  I like action as much as the next person, but the action must be meaningful to the plot, or it’s just filler because you were short on words.  How can you tell, when you’re close to it, if that’s what you were doing?

a) look at the scenes.  Do they advance the plot, either physically or emotionally?  Do your characters get closer to their goal?  Do they learn something that will help them attain it?

b) if not, can you change the scenes, so they push the character towards the goal?

c) if not, can you write new scenes that will do so?

Think of the middle like the three encounters in a fairy tale.  The tasks your character is set by the evil fairy or whatever might seem meaningless, but they must be changing and learning through it, so they can win.  If they’re just random, it will not satisfy the reader.

3- Is the final climax satisfying?

Yep, yep, I know.  You try.  You really do.  But sometimes you lose focus, and the final battle either almost doesn’t happen because you already know who’ll win, so why bother describing the minutia? OR it gets lost in a trailing morass of minor squirmishes.

Lately I’ve found myself having a weirder problem (though not with this last book) in which the final battles are two or three.  This is fixable (but annoying.)

So:

a) what if your final encounter with the big-bad is not a bang but a whimper.  You have been building to this battle for 400 pages, and suddenly it’s over in 3, because, well, the big bad got scared of your hero’s armor of righteousness and imploded.

… your readers will get mad.  I know because some of the authors I read consistently do this, and it drives me bonkers.  So, go back and imagine that final confrontation in greater detail.  Start with “the big bad just pretended to implode… and now…”  For inspiration read the final confrontation in Terry Pratchett’s Thud.  Now go and figure out what to do.

b) Your big battle gets lost in a lot of little battles.  This is particularly common with multiple POV novels.

Choose one, and make that take longer/be more difficult.  Punch it up a lot. If in multiple POV novel, weave your other battles around it, so it starts first and ENDS last.

This is very important.  Your big climatic battle should be the lest one, before the characters are brought to their upright and locked position.  In the epilogue (don’t call it that)/cigarette moment (don’t call it that either) chapter you can give a summary of how the other, little battles went if needed.  BUT the big battle should be the important one, the one in which the central evil or more terrible menace faces your principal character/s.

4-Then there is the rest of the checklist, which is less important but will at times drive you insane:

1- Make sure your character arc is consistent.  Even for minor characters.

2- Make sure any large changes/idea shifting is foreshadowed and given lots of reasons to happen.  “And then he went crazy” is not very satisfying.

3- Make sure all your scenes don’t occur in the same type of location.  If your characters are always having arguments in the bedroom, make them argue in the car.  Maybe they’ll see something that helps.

4- Don’t kill a character twice unless he’s some form of undead.  Even a minor character.  Even in a series.  And stop laughing, this has happened in long running series I read.

5- If you have a brilliant idea and it’s a series, make sure it’s consistent with what went on before/will come after (this is mostly me, I think.  I plot by fits of brilliance.  Or “brilliance” at any rate.)

6- Make sure you have your character’s description consistent throughout.  Particularly minor characters (I’ve found this in published books too.  As in, the tall blond, who was really a tiny brunette.)

7- If it’s a series, make sure that someone encountering book 7 or 9 can enjoy it and go look for the others.  Also be aware this is not always possible.  I think in Darkships I’m hitting the point it’s not.  People who read Through Fire first were apparently, occasionally, bewildered, and the ones who read Darkship Revenge first will be somewhat confused about emotional resonance, I think.  But do what you can without turning half the book into “when last we saw our heroes.”

There are other things you should watch for, such as are your characters always sipping wine?  (One of my early unpublished books had the characters drinking so much coffee that they should have spent most of the book in the bathroom.)  Or “Is my character’s obsession with his hair annoying?” and “Is it meant to be?”

But if you just take care of the above, it should get rid of the MAJOR problems.

And now I’ll go and edit another novel, because life is like that.

First though I drink a lot of coffee, because I’m allowed and I’m not a novel character.

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How to Build A Web Presence

The short answer to this is “Danged if I know.”
I was very shocked at being asked this by an old friend who started writing at the same time I did and who has NOW decided a web presence in the key to her selling.  The fact that she thinks it’s more important than covers is just proof of my theory of writers: we are all just barely sane enough to function, but we have blindspots in which we compete with patients in padded rooms. I love the woman dearly, but her blindspots are wearing blindspots who have seeing eye dogs.

Leaving that aside, I didn’t answer her email. Not because it was out of order, but because it took me weeks of thinking about it to even come up with a glimmer of an answer.  Because it’s not that easy.

I was once at a dinner party wtih Glenn Reynolds of instapundit, the blog whose circulation more or less rivals the New York Times, and he was asked how he became “instapundit.”  His answer was “Like most things in my life, by accident.”

That is, at best, what could be said about my blog.  It has a fairly impressive readership (less now, because this week I’ve hardly been there) of 2 to 4k a day, which isn’t shabby for someone who started after everyone knew blogs were out.  But how I got there is… complicated.

I started it because my agent told me to.  Mostly she was right (sort of) as SOME webpresence is needed to sell at all.

My first two or three years were nothing much.  I was in the political closet, and also trying not to reveal anything about our family life, as the boys were in elementary and middle school at the time.

This meant most of the time I couldn’t think of anything to write about.

This couldn’t go on, so at some point I took gloves off, first about writing and second about politics.  Though if you’re looking for a political blog, that’s not what According To Hoyt is.  It is mostly whatever crosses my mind.

Whatever crosses my mind is often political or shades that way, because my mind was bent that way often by the turmoil that was the seventies in Portugal.  You had to know if someone had scheduled some big thing or if someone was setting fire to cars in an area, because that might be your normal route to school or shopping.

From that wanting to know WHY was a step and developing opinions that didn’t fit anywhere on the Portuguese spectrum was a very small hop for me.  Because I’m me.

What this meant is that in our early days of marriage, where we could barely afford food, we subscribed to three daily newspapers and at least five political magazines.

It’s who I am, and it’s my interest and the lens through which I view the world.  But there are others and they also come out to play in the blog.  Anything from literature and theories on what literature SHOULD be to history to weird science and futurism.  My blog is hard to define, except by its community which is great. EVEN if Alexander Pournelle calls it the Hoyt Home For The Tragically Gifted.

Somehow my blog led to Glenn Reynolds asking me to substitute for him (as one of a team of 6 back then) while he was away, and then to my joining the team permanently as the night dj (NO I haven’t quit or been fired.  I took a week and a half vacation due to trying to finish a book while having a bad head cold.  I’ll probably go back tonight, or tomorrow night at the latest.)

All this, plus Facebook (which I’m trying to cut back on because it’s a people eater) means I have a fairly large web presence, which my kids call “very stompy” (whatever that means.  They turned 22 and 25 and I stopped understanding a word they say.)

How did I get there?  No clue.  How can you duplicate that success?  Boiled if I know.

I can, however, give you some hints that I know helped:

1- Be you.  Don’t try to sound educated, or professorial or anything of the kind, unless that is who you are, naturally.  Just be you.  I swear readers can smell “Phony” a mile off.  Don’t be phony.

2- Part of one: talk about things that genuinely interest you, but not things that are so obscure they will only interest physicists or left handed seamstresses, or something.

3- talk of something other than writing.  Yeah, writing too, it’s who you are, but give value to people who aren’t writers.  MGC, I think, trails behind all our personal blogs in hits, because it’s a writers’ blog.  Like left handed seamstresses, that’s a specialized niche.

4- if you can, particularly in the beginning, get promo from people who have bigger platforms.  Links at insty (instapundit) are good for 4k or so hits in one night.  And some of them will stay.  Try to have one once a month or so.  BUT if you don’t have levers to get to somewhere like that, try for the giants of YOUR niche.  Passive Guy, say.  Or whoever it is who stomps it about where your interests live.  If you have friends who have bigger blogs, offer guest posts, and at the end put something saying “I normally blog at” with link.  I blogged at Classical Values, for a while.  Few bloggers (blogs eat your life too) will turn down free guest posts.  If they do, they’re either bad, you pissed them off, or they have a bad memory and you didn’t remind them.

5- be funny or at least amusing and cultivate a voice, just like you would for novels.

6- Post EVERY DAY.  If, like me this last week, you have to go AWL, have guest posts.  You’ll still lose readers and some of them won’t come back, but it’s better than dead air.  (Trust me.)  I don’t know why post every day works, except through “be habit forming.”

7- Police your community.  I actually have had to ban very few people, but remember the “drunken uncle at the wedding.”  If a poster is just there to attack and is making other people uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to ban him.  He might not be doing anything wrong, but his right to express himself doesn’t trump your right to have your normal commenters enjoy themselves.
Also, if the community gets in an unpleasant rut, nudge them.  My commenters once, while I was asleep, misunderstood something someone posted and attacked.  He got defensive and they ran him off the blog.  You don’t want that, particularly if it’s someone interesting.

People who say they’re not responsible for the tone of their comment sections are disingenuous or clueless.  You can police just enough, intervening to break up things just enough that you keep it from becoming a snake pit without neutering it.

8- It takes time.  So plan it.  I haven’t, and it’s more or less eating my life, so I’m now trying to learn balance.  Remember it’s part of your job, so schedule an hour or so and a visit at lunch, but don’t let it stop your  writing.

9- Is it worth it?  Particularly if you’re political, does it lose you more readers than it gains you?
I don’t know.  I go through periods of thinking so.  Then I get ten people in an afternoon at a con, all of whom started reading me because of instapundit, and I go  “Maybe not.”
I know that I’m selling way better than before I had a web presence and that friends who help people sell tell me that if you don’t have a web presence you just don’t sell.  But you have people like Doug Dandrige who have a sporadic blog and mainly hang out on face book, post amusing memes and the occasional book promo. And he ain’t hurting.  I guess you need to do what works for you.

10- Oh, yeah, don’t over saturate.  By all means, let your blog readers know you have a book coming out, but dont’ do this more than once every couple of weeks, and don’t become like the energizer bunny “buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.”Even at instapundit, where my value is news and commentary, but I can get away with pushing books (mine and others) I know (I see my amazon account) if I link my books, be they new releases or sales more than once a month, people start tuning it out.  So, be sparing with the naked “BUY MY BOOK” even if you think you’re SUBTLY weaving it in your posts.

There was this guy who used to be on panels with me at mile hi who no matter what the theme of the panel was, strong women, made up religions, brass asses, always made the same answer, “In my book, I handled brass asses with a polishing cloth, on page thirty five.  I think I did the right thing, because–”  Don’t be that guy.  Our response to him was between tuning him out and daydreaming of beating him to death with a brass donkey.

So, how do you build a web presence?  I don’t know.  But if you try, you’ll find a way, provided you’re authentic, post every day and don’t bash people over the head with promo.

Good luck.

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Sad Puppies, Gate Keeping, And We DID Build this

I shouldn’t be writing this right now.  I had planned on doing a blast from the past.  I am on deadline, trying not to wreck my publisher’s schedule because my idiotic body decided it was a good idea to collapse in the shower over a month ago and precipitate me into a fun happy time of doctors and tests.

The next test up involves drawing spinal fluid, which MIGHT give me a two week headache.  Which means two overdue books and one that’s not overdue but is due need to be done by the time of the test.  I’ve found interrupting books in the middle makes them almost impossible to finish, so now that we’re done with moves I’d like not to interrupt books.

Which is another reason I shouldn’t be writing this: I’m in the very final part of the book, the time when everything falls in place and comes tumbling down.  I call it “the ahah moment”and anything like, you know, writing a chunk of non-fiction in the morning runs the risk of killing the mood. Sure, I can finish it with paint by the numbers, but it will take longer and not be as good.  When painting by the numbers you miss little things.  Most of all you miss opportunities, as the moment when everything comes together in your mind never happens.  NO, it’s not a perfect method, but it’s the one I have.

So why am I doing this?

Yesterday when I woke up I decided I wasn’t going to go to Facebook.  But I had an email telling me I’d missed a link at instapundit.  (It’s something Vivaldi seems to do.  I put the link in and when I press schedule, it loses it.  I normally notice, but the display was being funky, so I missed three links in one night, which is a record even for me.)

One of the links I missed came from a secret group on Facebook.  I belong to about a dozen of them, and it’s none of your business.  Most of them are science or neat geek stuff.  A few are politics.  This link was at that edge, that it could have been in any of the groups.  So I went looking.  And in one of my normal hangouts I found someone had echoed his post, which was something like “It’s time to make a list for Sad Puppies 5”.

I don’t know how much of this is intentional, and how much was just the poster being stupid, in the sense that his blog posts are normally so scattered you have to read tea leaves to find out what he’s saying.  I have to assume he didn’t know the impression he was giving, or else he doesn’t know me very well, after being with me in various places on line for several years.

On the other hand, this same person had approached me, multiple times by proxy and in person, being very ah, delicate, I’m sure he thought, and asking me if I wanted to share the burden of Sad Puppies, or perhaps off load it completely to him. The fact he even thought this was appropriate as well as his tendency to blog posts his own mother couldn’t interpret is the reason he would be the very worst person for it.

I don’t talk about it, normally, but I berserk.  Berserking is fine, if I’m in a place I can break things and not kill anyone.  This is not often the case.  Most of the time I know I’m about to berserk because the immediate “you can’t do this here” kicks in.  Berserking isn’t an awesome gift, unless you live in the sort of primitive violent society where it serves to make people afraid to attack you.  It might have been useful once or twice in the late seventies when chappies with machine guns thought they owned the world I lived in.  Most of the time it’s an infernal nuisance, and you learn really early to control it before you find yourself holding a desk over the teacher who was mocking you crying and shaking.

Crying and shaking is the result of trying to control it.  And it feels like hell.  So usually I deal with my own emotions in such a way whatever the hell trigger that activates “berserker” doesn’t get pushed.

When I saw that post I went from zero to berserker in no time flat, and while shaking and crying, penned the most scathing answer I’ve ever even anyone.  The core of it, which I’ll expound on later is: Leading Sad Puppies won’t help your career.  (It might not hurt it, either, but it won’t help it.)

But then an amazing thing happened.  Yeah, you won’t believe this amazing thing that happened.

Which is why I’m writing this.

Even before I got to that post, and later in the other post that made me almost berserk again (I don’t think I’ve done this twice in one day since my teens) a friend had commented on how he gave the wrong impression and he should stop it already.  Later on there were also posts on a bizarre theme, one of which (the comments) is what caused the second berserk attack.

The theme was like this: Sad Puppies said they were against gate keepers, but now they’re trying to be gatekeepers.

There are so many missteps in that statement it’s hard to unpack.  First of all, no, Sad Puppies wasn’t against gatekeepers.  Sad Puppies was against the secret maneuvering that went on behind the awards.  (BTW it was never really a secret. When I was coming in, my mentors told me it was all log rolling and I had to roll the logs.)  And which people denied until they stopped denying it, in favor of shrieking at us to get off their lawns, and making up horrible lies about us.  (Unless, of course, you believe I’m a Mormon male.)

Second, in what way were we trying to be gatekeepers when we told an unauthorized person to stop pretending he was leading SP 5?

We were as much gatekeepers as, say, Baen would be when it told you you couldn’t call your indie publisher Baen Books For Real.  It might or might not violate a trademark (fairly sure it would) but more than that it’s false advertising and it violates the right of people to what they have built.

Sad Puppies was started by Larry, true, and he lent it much of its gravity, but he proved what he wanted to prove with SP2: that is, that it had become a log-rolling award.  (I’m still astonished that most people apparently didn’t know that.)

I was supposed to pick it up next, but I was ill and Brad did.  All the same, I dragged myself from bed, after surgery, because I and Kate and Amanda had been in it as much as Brad after SP1, and we could help defend the guys.  SP ate most of 2015 for me, the part that wasn’t devoted to scraping floors and painting walls.  (And keep in mind that “this won’t help your career.”  It really won’t.)

It still ate some of 2016, event though Kate took it, because I’m far more interesting to attack and attempt to discredit.  And 2016 was the year of four moves and one international trip.

To the extent that SP is a recognizable thing beyond the fake news of us being racist, sexist and homophobic, it is so because of my work.  And Amanda’s, and Kate’s.

For someone to say “I’m making the SP5 list” who has had no contact with us beyond writing pseudo-supportive fiction in which he willfully confused Sad and Rabid Puppies is …. astonishing.

And it is more astonishing that a vast number of libertarians apparently believe property rights don’t apply to a movement you helped start, and that it’s censorship when we try to say some Johnny come lately can’t just pretend he’s the leader this year and make it stick.

Seriously.  You believe that everything non tangible is free for the taking?  Go for it.  Let other people put their names on your books and sell them!  Have the courage of your convictions.

While I’m a big supporter of indie and of bypassing gatekeepers, I don’t think I’ve ever said you should have the right to pretend you’re Baen or Tor, or Bantam.

Sure, you don’t need to go through them.  Do your own thing.

This problem would never even have arisen if this eager beaver had called his post “My list for the Hugos.”  (For one, SP is moving away from the Hugos — which is why it’s not a federal emergency that I haven’t the site up yet, but I should have something up by Saturday — and yeah, you can disagree with that approach and want to focus on the Hugos like a laser.  Why you’d want to do that when they’re writing the vote-rigging into the bylaws and have abundantly proved no one not of the clique is welcome is beyond me, but hey, I’m not the boss of you.  You want to continue focusing on the Hugos, you start your own movement.  It’s a free country.  Everyone who has ever run the SP (except Larry whose only answer is “I’m retired”) agrees with the broadening and “unfocusing from the Hugos” view.  BTW, even if you want the Hugos, what I plan to do which a monthly recommendation list, will allow you to warm up for 2018 early on.)  Or he could have called “Neat books I think you should nominate for awards.”

Of course no one cares what he nominates or not, or what he likes or not.  I think you can count his following without having to remove his shoes, which is why it was so important for him to appropriate a name that he thinks gives him gravitas.

And that he’s not allowed to do.  Saying “you can’t take what’s mine, and I helped build” is not gatekeeping.  It is, last I checked, anti-communism.  And if you say — the other side does — that’s what we were trying to do in going for the Hugos: fair enough, except that it wasn’t supposed to belong to any clique.  It was supposed to be the best in SF chosen by ALL the fans.  Now it’s clear it’s the award of a clique, we don’t care about it, and they can keep it with our blessing.

But at the same time we’re going to use what remains of the SP movement to create more word of mouth for good books (including indies, because those tend to have more trouble finding an audience.)  And we’re going to give you material to nominate and vote for the awards you care about.  So they don’t go the way of the Hugo through sheer apathy.

And now if you excuse me, I’m 20k words behind where I should be with this book, and I’m tired of defending what I built from idiots, but let me add that I’m sure this doomed little sycophant thought that if he could only seize leadership of SP he’d become as big as Larry.  Why, we couldn’t ignore him.

Yes, we could.  Larry was Larry before the Puppies.  The reason he’s retired is because the leading of the Puppies (twice) cost him hours he could have devoted to his work.  He could weather that, because it just slowed him a little.  Brad and I, though, have paid for this with a serious slow down in our career.  So has Kate, who is only now writing again.  And in this field, as Brad said in his last post, indie or trad, the best measure of how well you’ll do is how much you write.

Years ago, when I was breaking in, my mentors told me not to run for SFWA presidency, ever.  Because unless you’re one of the darlings who can make it on one book a year, you’re going to regret it.  It will eat your life.  And if it happens at a certain time it might stop your writing long enough to kill your career.

I’ve found that the Puppies is the same thing.  I’m doing it only because I’ve figured out a way to more or less automate it; because I’ll have a lot of support; and because I owe it to the two that took the bullet for me these last two years.

It is not a picnic, though, it is not a publicity coup, and in the end it hurts your writing, which hurts your career.

And what matters at the bottom is your writing.  If your writing isn’t selling, leading the Puppies won’t fix it.  It will in fact make you enemies in the field, including people who want to ingratiate themselves with the gatekeepers and the elites.  I’m fairly sure a stupid hit to my career I suffered last year was a consequence of vocally supporting Larry and Brad.

I’m taking this movement in for a landing and somewhere useful, into a resource that will help fans of the work — not of cons and the right circuits — know what other people are enjoying.  This will hopefully in the future be helpful for the genre and make it healthier, which will distantly benefit me.

But in the short term there is no benefit.  Only trying to do three things at once, and having idiots nip at my heels for being a “gatekeeper.”

Now I’m going to go finish my d*mn book.  Because that’s what matters.

 

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Stopping Points

So, because I’m broke and also in the middle of a book (which means I’m not looking for one-of-a-kind, unforgettable books, but for popcorn mysteries I can put down and work again), I’ve been reading a lot of books borrowed from Amazon’s program.

I’m finding about 50% books that are so good I have to “kill” them by reading the end, so I can work, and I still read the books, anyway.   just not as urgently.  Which is good, because then work happens.

But what about the other 50% (BTW I want to point out that a) I always bought popcorn books for when otherwise really busy.  I don’t do anything else for fun.  I just read.  I’m BORING.  The reason I’m looking for them in KULL is that it’s cheap and convenient.  I used to find just as many from trad publishing, usually used.  b) I actually am finding a higher level of readable here than browsing the shelves, because there’s less fad-following.  If I happened to hate the fad, I often found very little to read.) Why don’t I like the other fifty percent?

Well, ten percent or so are unexplained.  I just don’t get into them.  No, I have no clue why.  Why do you like some dishes and not others?  Why do your tastes vary with season and mood?  I don’t know.

However, for the other 40% I’ve found that there are broad categories of errors, from the massive to the small that just lead me to fling the book against the wall (virtually, since they’re on kindle.)  And I thought I’d post them here, for the benefit (eh) of those of you working the word vines.  I mean, whether you’re going traditional or indie, you REALLY should not pop your reader out.

I do want to point out a couple of things before I start:

A lot of these errors, particularly the horrendous ones with historical research are from books that were formerly traditionally published, so gatekeepers are not the answer — you have to do it.

Also, a lot of these books that make me grind my teeth and fling them away have great reviews, and some even sell well.  So if you want to tell me to go suck on an egg, go for it.

It’s just that I think even those that have great reviews and sell relatively well are being kept back from true stardom by (sometimes) truly stupid errors.

And, hey, if you have a book out there and it’s not selling and you don’t know why it wouldn’t hurt to check some of the more subtle errors, because those, particularly, tend to throw people out without their knowing why.

So, in no particular order, here goes:

1- Anachronisms and bad history.

I don’t think this bothers everyone.  After all the book set in the regency in which an aristocrat shoots a commoner in the middle of London and no one cares, because the dead man is a “peasant” has tons of good reviews, is a previously-published by prime-crime books, and seems to do quite well.

Maybe I’m one of the very few people who KNOWS that such a thing is more suitable to ancien-regime France than to enlightenment England.

And maybe I’m one of very few people who will throw the d*mn thing against the wall, when a female character in a different regency mystery characterizes the father of another character as a “misogynist” because he doesn’t believe women should be highly educated, and thinks women should get married and be mothers.  For the unenlightened, in the regency that is called “normal male.” And it’s still NOT misogynist.  If she’d called him “Gothic” or “conventional” or even “hide bound” all would be fine, but no, this  probable graduate of an excellent college had to lapse into the lingo of her generation.  And this reader for one was popped clear out.

2- Related but beyond the last: DO YOUR D*MN RESEARCH.

Sure Dan Brown got away with not doing it.  (No, the worst possibly is the one involving the secret service.  Never mind.)  However, he had a huge marketing program behind him, which few of you (traditional or indie) will get.  So–

Look, I’ll forgive a lot, particularly if it’s not the area of history that I know really well.  There is a medieval mystery series (medieval oxford mysteries, if you want to look it up) that I SUSPECT kicks small details around.  I can’t tell for sure, because it’s not my main area of expertise, and I don’t want to check because it might ruin the books, which are good.

However, there are limits, and even someone half-aware as I am of these things, will note an accumulation of wrong stuff, which is when my disbelief gets hanged by the neck till dead.

I gave the thriller with a “Roman” part of its story line a long leeway.  I let the nanny named (I swear) Maria pass with “well, maybe they mean Miriam.  Maybe she’s a Jewish slave.”  A few other bits in the scene seemed off but I wanted to read the modern parts of the book, so I glossed over it.  But the other household slave is called Amy, a name I know for a fact is relatively modern (maybe 200 years) and of French origin (from Aimee) and I also know that info is free on Behindthename.com.

But then we got to the little girl being introduced to the high priest, who says her name is Rufina AntoniO Whatever.

Oh, hell no.  Even if she had to have her father’s name in there somewhere, she would be Rufina Antonia, and anyone knowing even a little bit of Roman conventions would know that.  Book got walled.  I still wanted to read the modern parts, but if I couldn’t trust the author, why should I trust anything else they said?

This applies to other things too, and has many applications: I’ve been thrown out by wrong words in a language I know, by mischaracterization of places I know (Oh, yeah, sure, Portugal is a South American country.)  I’ve been thrown out by wrong procedures when one goes to emergency, by wrong procedures in an office, by bad economics of scale in a civilization.

Do your D*MN research.  Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky and most of the rubes won’t notice.  But that’s not the way to bet.

3- More subtly, make sure I’m not going “Where am I? Who am I?” like some victim of a traumatic accident.

Look, there are many books out there competing with yours, and if I get to the end of the third page without being captured, then I’ll put it down and move on.

So a) have an engaging character and an interesting situation on the first page b) make sure I know where I am.

Yes, there are ways to write three pages without anyone having any clue if it’s in the present, in the future, in an imaginary world.

Stuff like “Bornil came running through the undergrowth.  The sky was green and ominous above” could be any of them.  And yes, I’ve found it’s possible to continue in this style for pages.

Do me the kindness of making sure you’re describing the scene in your head, and not a generic scene.

Make sure we have a sense of where and when, but mostly of a problem your character must solve.  This doesn’t have to be an Earth shattering problem but it must matter to the voice character.  It could be something like picking breakfast: “Gia sat at the table, in the cafe, and wondered if she should have the croissant” gives us all the information we need to get on with, though you might want to describe the cafe in the next paragraph and use voice and tone so we know if it’s funny, serious, tragic or strange.

Long ago and far away, I was trained to be a journalist (yes, I ran screaming.  Long story) and learned the Who When What and Why thing.  Do try to apply it to your fiction too.  If I don’t know these, I probably won’t care too much what you’re talking about.

If you have exceptional gifts with wording (careful there, the bar is higher than you think) you might capture my attention with a couple of descriptive paragraphs, talking about the weather or whatever, provided they set the mood and give a feel of what’s to come.  But after that you have to give me something to sink my teeth into.

4- Have SOMETHING HAPPEN.  For the love of heaven, something.  Anything.

This mistake is more common in Romance than anywhere else, perhaps because people who are beginning writers think they don’t really need suspense.  After all we all know the couple will end up together, right?

I mean you can just describe your GOOD GIRL character picking clothes, being compassionate, caring for children and kittens, and the main male character madly smitten and — YAWN.

This would all be fascinating, no doubt, if it were happening to ME.  But it’s not.  It’s a book.  And I’d better have some reason to keep reading the book.

In general this is a reason to hope, fear or worry for the characters.

If you’re writing a romance and want to know how a GOOD GIRL can get in serious trouble without meaning to, read Arabella by Georgette Heyer.  You’ll learn how to keep her interesting and sympathetic, too.

For popcorn books I sometimes go ten/twenty pages of the character doing nothing much, if it’s a nice character, but at some point I set that book aside.  More importantly, I won’t remember the book.  This is fatal, because if people don’t even remember the book, they’ll keep borrowing it and get mad at you, and might give you BAD word of mouth.

But Romances aren’t mysteries, you say.  You don’t need to have “something” happen.  Oh, surely you do.  The test in a romance is how your character interacts with the other main character.  Will she lie? will she cheat to get close to him?  Will he misunderstand her?

Yes, I KNOW you hate to torture your characters.  DO IT ANYWAY.  You can reward them at the end, but it will keep people who don’t have them in their head anyway interested in their fates.

By the way, other genre authors do this too, just less frequently.  If it’s a mystery give us some hint of where it’s going to go — if you’re not going to kill the character in the first chapter — or at least something interesting happening (Rebeca is fascinating, long before we realize there’s been a murder. Its fish-out-of-water character and her fears are interesting and we follow to see what will happen to her.)  If it’s science fiction have the character want, need or care for something beyond “oh, cool, science”.  And it it’s fantasy (the second most likely genre to get caught in this) have something beyond a cool world and magic system.  We’ll love your world building when your character leads us through the world, not before.

5- Make your character interesting.

No, I don’t care if she’s a multiple Nobel prize winner who loves kittens and flowers.  What I care about is WHAT DOES SHE NEED RIGHT NOW that the plot will prevent her from getting, and keep me reading to see how she copes with it, and if she gets what she wants in the end.

This goes beyond something happens.  I have read books where the characters are thrown willy-nilly into the middle of wars, into the middle of murders, into the middle of natural cataclysms, but in which there was nothing to drive me to continue reading.

The something that happens must affect the character’s dearest needs or hopes.  And we’re not talking about “I need a walk on the beach and hope for world peace.”  Please.  This is not a beauty contest.

What the character wants MUST be tangible (possible to picture) and attainable.

So, your character is dying for ice cream when the entire world’s technology gets fried and the world gets very hot.  And your character REALLY wants ice cream.  It’s a memory of childhood, it’s… something.  So she has to do something to obtain it.  That engages the reader.

If you have your character serenely watching everything, that means I yawn and move on.

6- STOP JUMPING HEADS THE WRONG WAY.

What? Ask the SF/F writers and readers, you mean there is a right way to jump heads?

In most other genres, other than sf/f no one cares if you jump into multiple characters’ heads, one at a time, paragraph by paragraph.

Don’t do it in the middle of a paragraph, it makes it hard to read.

BUT there is still a right way and a wrong way to do this.  The wrong way is where you rob the entire story of interest and suspense.

Take a recent mystery.  The scene is simple: man is closing out his bookstore, looks across and sees a taxi hit a child, the child thrown high in the air, and man knows it was intentional and he has to solve who did it and why.  Right?

Except that it takes almost a chapter (I skimmed forward) to find out the man thinks it’s a murder and wants to solve it (and even then we have no reason to agree with him.  It’s a “hunch.”)

In the first chapter we are in the head of the man closing the shop, the little girl crossing the street, the man driving the taxi, another man doing something (don’t remember if customer or employee) in a coffee shop, the eyes of (I SWEAR) a dog walking by, the mind of a woman going out shopping, and a few dozen others, all so fast, that you never get a coherent chain of feelings or a reason why you should care about this scene.

Yes, I do suspect the writer was laying out clues in the way different people saw the accident, but it is VERY important not to forget that your readers are human.  Before they are engaged in solving the puzzle, they MUST want to, and the only reason for that would be being engaged with a character.

In romances too, it is a very bad idea to show that the couple really loves each other from the beginning and that there are no obstacles.  So if the girl sees a major obstacle, don’t remove it in the man’s pov, or else introduce another, and make sure it’s not something that can be overcome by talking if they would.

7- The inevitable infodump.  Dump it.

Seriously, even if your worldbuilding is the best thing ever, don’t give me 10 pages of it, upfront.  Heinlein the information.  Have your characters act as if the world is completely normal to them, and then give us the information by stealth, in dribs and drabs, in one sentence here and one sentence there.

Because this is something I too was very guilty of once upon a time, TRUST me that your readers need far less info than you think they do.  Sure, they need to know where and when your character is, but they can wait to find out her world branched from ours in the thirteenth century.  And even then, it might be hard to mention the Black Death never happened, unless they know of other worlds. You really don’t need to walk us through every detail of divergence.  If the world is solid enough, we’ll read it, and you can save the “raised in a world where the black death never happened” for your Amazon blurb or your cover letter.

Under this heading, no giving us a list of protagonists upfront is not clever.  People will either skip past or throw the book back.  I’m a throw-backer. If your characters are not memorable enough that I need a reference, I don’t have time for the book.

No, a prologue isn’t clever.  Prologues are sometimes needed, but they should be done amusingly (see Pratchett) not just infodumps.

No, maps aren’t clever.  Yes, some readers (and writers) adore them.  JUST DON’T MAKE THEM ESSENTIAL TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON.

Yeah I know, a lot of besteselling and GOOD authors have infodumps, but it’s like the other flaws: if you’re very lucky, you’ll get away with it.

Do you feel lucky? (Well, punk, do you?) Or are you going to rely on craft and remove every stopping point you can between your book and the reader?

I know which I’ll do.

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Titles From A Parallel World

So, since we’re all a little busy with end of the year and (trust me) crazy stuff, I turned younger son and his timo-streamo-thingy-magic loose and he got some titles of members of MGC from a parallel world.  Some of this make perfect sense with the people we know and love.  Others, not so much.  For instance, I’m fairly sure mine comes from a world in which I took that post-grad thing at Brown instead of getting married.

Anyway, I thought I’d give you a few of these, and then you can come up with parallel world titles for your very own and other writers….

shave-legs

This one either comes from a very strange world, or our very own Pam Uphoff is out Chucktingling Chuck Tingle, over there.

cowboy

And all I can say about this one is … WHAT?  And also, maybe “I’m so glad he met Barbs in this world!

sharks

Another one that’s… UH?

police

This one I could almost see.  Almost…

child

Cedar, this is fiction, right? RIGHT?

pixie

This I KNOW is fiction.

space

And this… Kate, are you all right?

bastards

THIS one however, is probably just a sidestep

alien

As for this one… Brad, when are you writing it?

fishing

And now I’m going to er… run before my colleagues see this.
If you need me, I’ll be in my bunker.

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Driving that Truck

At the risk of being called truck-o-phobe again, writing is not driving a truck.  Except when it is.

I was talking to a friend last night.  Both of us are hard workers, perhaps compulsively so, and we were lamenting the fact that we can’t just “put in x hours” and the book will be done.  That’s not how it works.

Oh, yeah, I know, I seem to be contradicting what I told you before.  You know, when I say when it seems like the book is dead and you can’t go on, go on, afterwards you won’t even be able to tell where you were phoning it in.  This is true.  I know there was a place in A Few Good Men (written in 2 weeks) where I came to a stand still for two days.  I honestly can’t remember where it is, and I have trouble finding it.  I reasoned myself back into the book, and then I finished.

I’m not contradicting what I said before.  There is a difference between a major stoppage and a minor one.  There is a difference between stopping and not being able to go on, there is a difference between writing only with inspiraction, and writing when there’s nothing forever.

Let me start at the beginning: I’m not sure I believe in talent — you know that — simply because I couldn’t define it for you.  Nor would I undertake to tell someone starting out  “you have no talent, so stop trying.”  The same way I wouldn’t tell someone starting out “you’re talented, keep on the way you’re going.”

If there is talent, it’s an exhalation of personality and intellect that no one, least of all me can point at and say “There is talent.”

I tell beginners “You’re doing THIS right.  Your weakness is THIS.  The way to combat it is THIS.”  In the rare case I find one that is almost perfect, I say “How many manuscripts do you have under the bed?”

So let’s leave talent aside.  A book or just the act of writing starts with desire.  You desire to write (Heaven knows why.  Maybe our mothers dropped us on our heads?) and you desire to write well (for most people.)  So you work at it, till you can tell a story that people want to read.  And then you continue to work at it.

The individual work starts with inspiration.  The inspiration might be as simple as “hey, I could write a thing like that thing combined with that thing and I bet people would love it” or it might be (often is for me) a presence in the head, a fully formed character with a story to tell.

However it comes, something about that idea makes it compelling to you, and you HAVE to write it.

I once heard that event he greatest saints go through periods where they can sense G-d, where as far as they’re concerned he’s withdrawn from them and from the world, a winter of the soul, bleak and cold.  And they say the way to get through it is to continue working as if they could feel Him, as if they knew He was there.

Writers hit winters of the inspiration as well.  And most of the time the answer is exactly the same as for saints.  You use the craft you learned, and you do the best you know how to continue the story, and inspiration comes back.

Dean Wesley Smith says this happens to everyone once per novel.  Usually in the middle.  Being speshul, this happens to me twice per novel.  One third in, then one third from the end.  (As everyone knows about the novels I was writing in public on these blogs, and more on that later.)

Finding that out was the key to becoming a professional.  For 15 years, I bridged that gap.  I pushed on.  The novel lived again and was finished.

And then about five years ago something went weird.  I could come up with stories (ALL day long) I could even see the story, finished, in my head.  I just couldn’t write it.  It’s like there was no force compelling me to write.  Not even the force of “we’re broke and they’ll pay when I give them this.”

This is where writing isn’t like driving a truck.  I couldn’t.  I’d sit in front of the computer, and nothing happened.  I couldn’t force myself to do it.

Because of when it came, I thought I was just burned out.  But this burn out, if it was that, had weird characteristics.  I could think of the story, but not of elaborations.  Say this is the story of a man who finds a dragon.  Okay, he found the dragon, he’s either happy or unhappy with the dragon.  The end.  I found myself at a loss to give him a family, friends, a dog named George.  I had the concept, and… nothing.  I could write short stories.  They conform this format better.  I could write non-fiction pieces.  I could not write novels.

Through Fire, just started, hit a wall.  I managed to edit Witchfinder.  But the wall was still there.  Ideas came, I jotted them down.  The last book written from beginning to end in a long drive was A Few Good Men, and then gradually things got more and more difficult and the wheels came off.

I could clean the house.  I could do enormous amounts of work in anything that required just physical work.  I could do art.  I couldn’t write except for short stories, and sometimes those were difficult.  Instead of the day they normally take me (unless I’m in the middle of a novel, because “switching heads” takes time) they were taking weeks or months, and it was like passing each word out through a tiny crack in a brick wall.

That problem had physical reasons, which we’re working on.  I was seriously hypothyroidal, which apparently affects ability with words first, at least with many people.  I’m recovering from that.  I’m happy to report the words are back, and I no longer feel like I’m trying to  write word per word.

Now my problems are more mundane.

Writing is not like driving a truck.  Except where it is.

Long distance truckers need to learn things, like not to let themselves be distracted behind the wheel, and also that no matter how heroic you are, you need to rest enough that you don’t crash by falling asleep behind the wheel.

I’ve been having long distance trucker problems.

Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine.  We’ll call her A.  A. was so excited when her first book came out (indie) and made her money, and so in need of money, and had so many books under the bed that she set a goal of two books a month.  I mean, most of them only needed revising.

Then she looked at the schedule and froze in fear.  Which meant she blew the first deadline.  And now she had two books in two weeks….

To make a long story short, she never wrote, that whole year, and it was only when she discarded the insane schedule and gave herself permission to write slower that she started writing again.

I’m having similar problems.  I am so late, I have so many blown deadlines, I want to write everything yesterday.  The results have been less than stellar, particularly over the holidays.

Here’s some things to deal with your trucker problems.  To begin with, trucker problems aren’t like a novel dying in the middle.  They’re more like an extended cat rotating jag.  You’d rather do anything than sit down and write.  Your guilt and shame over the whole thing drive you away from the stories.

If you’re having trucker problems, take a deep breath.  Then take a day off.  No, I know a day off won’t fix it.  But it will help.

Then have a serious talk with yourself.  You’re not a machine.  When you fail, it just means you’re humans.  Reset your schedule.  Go with the sane “I’ll write x number of words a day” — be it 200 or 6000.  I know writers that work at each of those speeds.  Once those are done, I can go on if I feel like it, or I can go read a book and clean the house.”

Read.  You got into this because you love books.  Read.  It helps.

Refill the well, whatever that means to you.  Read a good book, listen to a good song, go for walks, snuggle your sweetie, go to a lecture, sign up for a course on brick laying.  Whatever allows you to feel whole and like you.  You have to have something to pull from before you can pull.  You need to be rested and well, before you can drive that truck.  Or you’re going to crash.

Then work.  And block out the time you’re working — this is the other truck driver issue I’m having.  I keep getting interrupted, yeah, I know, the holidays — and try (good luck, mine don’t) to make your family understand a two minute interruption is going to cost you an hour or so of getting back into the novel, and too many interruptions make it hell to work.

But most of all, remember, you’re not a machine, and you’re not a slave.

Sure you can accomplish amazing things for a while by being an *sshole to yourself, but in the end it stops working.  You break down.  And then you won’t be able to work at all, or to accomplish anything.

Cut yourself some slack.  Take a half day a week off and don’t even think about writing.  Take time to read a book, or watch the kids play.  Let yourself be human and fallible

Because it is your humanity and fallibility that make your work unique. It is they who keep you alive and sane.

You need your full humanity to drive that imaginary truck on a road you invent, to the place where stories live.

Drive that truck!

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Some Hard Thinking About Our Business

One of the puzzling things about the writing business, right now, is that “nobody knows anything” (or in proper vernacular “we don’t know nothing.”

So I am continuously puzzled watching indie authors who are doing better by an order of magnitude than any traditional writer I know succumbing to the lure of a traditional contract.  I’m not disapproving, mind you — who the hell am I to be disapproving of other people’s business decisions? If I had my time again, I doubt I’d have made most of the ones I made.  I’d still want to write for Baen, but that’s about it — I’m just jaw-dropped shocked.  Because they’ll be giving up 90% of their income or so.  But perhaps they want the respectability.  And perhaps they think it will give them further reach.

Is the reach thing true?  For now.  For a time. More on this later.

Is the respectability that important?  Sure, if you want to have some sort of job as a “real writer” such places are starting to choose indies, but not really.  Some conferences too (though we’re not absolutely sure, in this new era how much attendance of conventions contribute to sales, with the remarkable exception of hard copy books [more on that later.]) expect you to flash your “real writer” credentials in the form of  contract.  I even understand it from the social point of view, where when you’re at a party and people ask what you do, the question after you answer “writer” is “so have anything published?” (Or maybe that’s just to me, because of the accent.)  Mind you, you can answer “Sure” and  list your books and not say “indie” but I also know that when I say “Sure, x books with Berkley, x with Bantam and x with Baen” people’s attitude changes completely.  And I can see that when people suspect you’re indie they say “So you published yourself” and dismiss it.  I know that’s a stupid reason to give up 90% of your income, but humans are social animals and I can see “not being embarrassed at parties” making a difference.  I can even see the velveteen writer thing, wanting to be a “real” writer in your own eyes, the wy you envisioned it.

The thing is, that though people sometimes mention reach, most of what they actually mention as a reason is not sane.  They mention “excellent editorial developmental oversight.”  I.e. the publisher will assign someone to help you develop your book or take it to the next level.  I don’t know if this happens to some writers.  It doesn’t happen to ANY writers I know.  I’ve heard stories of it in the 40s and 50s of the last century, but whether that was true or memorex, who knows?  They mention publicity.  Uh… most of the publicity I’ve got, I’ve designed and paid for myself, and I suck like a dyson at it.  If the houses offered anything (other than an ad in locus, which I’ve sometimes got, but like conventions the question is how much it helps) I wouldn’t do it. Baen puts me in the Baen slide show, most of the time, and that’s the most any publisher has ever  done in terms of publicity. I’m grateful, and I’m not discounting it.  Part of the reason I’d still go with Baen “if I had my time again” (I’d go with Baen and put in a drawer for indie anything Baen didn’t want, so when indie hit, I’d be able to put a lot of stuff up that first year.  What? like you don’t plan for being able to send your mind back to your younger body.) is because they have a rabid and dedicated fanbase, and those slide shows help with word of mouth.

But other traditional houses?  I wouldn’t consider it!  Only most of the people doing this have never worked with the other houses, or studied the stories of successful indie who went trad.  That’s fine.  Their career, not mine.  Their decision, their results.

Is this because I think traditional publishing will go away?  No.  I do think however that the current houses are going to mutate. They have to, if they want to survive.

Now, I’ve never been a publishing executive, but I’ve been close enough to have an idea how traditional houses operate, how small/agile new houses operate (I saw the running of two really close up and personal and heaven have mercy on my soul, part of the plan for 2017 is to embark in starting/running a new one. [It’s complicated, but for accounting reasons, I need somewhere to send collaborations, to publish anthologies and to provide a haven to some of my friends [Kate, cough] who inexplicably don’t want to do it themselves.  If we’re going to do that, we’re publishing other friends who don’t want to do it themselves, and we’re hiring someone to deal with it day in day out so I still have time to write. Do NOT send me manuscripts because at this stage they’ll be circular filed.  We have enough for the first year, and after that our manager will set up some process to review — maybe — cold submissions.]

Here’s the thing, the publishing houses, as they currently exist, are the lumbering giants created by the merge-mania of the eighties.  They run several lines over several genres, hire mostly humanities graduates who might or might not have any interest in the line they’re overseeing, and more often than not belong to media conglomerates, for which they are a tiny and relatively unprofitable arm.

It wasn’t always like this.  Publishing enterprises in the — ah — good old days were often small businesses, run by people fanatically devoted to the genre/subgenre they published, and passionately interested in their version of good sf/mystery/whatever.  These enterprises ran at a tight margin and paid book-reps to hit the road, as traveling salesmen, putting books into small bookstores and gas stations and yes corner convenience stores.

All of this is as dead as the dodo, and it was the change in distribution that caused the change in publishing.

When the mega bookstores came in, and, with their discounts and glitzy fronts swept the mom and pop bookstores out of the business, small publishers were out of luck.  You didn’t even need book reps, really, though you still had them.  Their job was now to wine and dine the regional manager of B & N or Borders, or what have you, who in turn chose to place the books the publisher was “pushing” (not all of them) into every branch of the store int he tri-state area.

And this is ultimately what burned the mega stores, because h*ll, the market is different in the same state, say between Denver and the Springs, let alone between Denver and Columbus Kansas.

To make it worse, the agglomeration and conglomeration of the business made it that the people in charge really didn’t read what they were pushing. Push or non push was decided in a business meeting at the publisher’s headquarters.  The rep didn’t read it, and the store’s tri-state manager was an MBA graduate who might never have read a book in his life and who, last year, might have been managing shoe stores, and next year might manage grocery stores.

This worked for a time, both because book addicts are book addicts, and because there was nowhere else to turn for our fix.  The “push” worked too, because if there are a hundred of the book, you’ll stop and pay attention, where you might not if there are two.

But such a model could only work with excellent choices, geared at the fandom of the particular genre, and that was not what we were getting.  It was more the “new new” thing that some NYC office decided to pursue.

And so, as a reader (I wasn’t even published when the decline became obvious) I (and my friends) started referring to bookstore trips, looking for new material, as “I’m going to go and get disappointed by Barnes and Noble, or Borders, or whatever.”  And here we’re talking of people who had a hard and fast trip to the book store a week penciled into their social calendar.

It might have dragged on.  Almost certainly would, see addicts and fix.  But disruptive technology happened. Kindle came on.  And though a few hard and fast (older — more on that) readers are still stuck on their paperbooks, I actually prefer my paperwhite, because of lighting and ability to read next to a sleeping spouse, as well as portability of an entire library in my purse.  Most people seem to.

And here I go into how I have visibility into at least two new-publishers (we should call them agile-publishers) and countless indies.  For every one who says they sell a lot of paper books (and there are reasons usually for those) most people sell a hundred ebooks to one paper book.

You read that right.  A hundred to one.

Which brings us to bookstores.  Barnes and Noble still survives — barely — but I had to go there last month, to buy a gift for a friend (because I’m a derp and was having massive asthma attacks, so I forgot to order.)  They still have books, at first blush.  On second approach you realize a good 50 percent are book-shaped objects.

I’m not dumping on the adult coloring-book craze.  Some of my hobbies are weirder.  BUT I’m telling you that those aren’t books that will help traditional publishers of FICTION.  They’re just books in which traditional doesn’t face competition from Indie.  Yet.

Most of the other books were non fiction (that’s not new) i.e. what celeb x says about how you should run your life, manuals for this or that computing platform, or (and I confess for research I still use paper books) history books, quote books, that sort of thing.  Oh, and a whole lot of lifestyle gifts  “Night lights for the discerning night reader” and “Mugs to impress your colleagues at work” type of stuff.

Mind you distributing to B & N even in their present state is still an advantage of traditional (hence the more later) but how long it will be, I don’t know.  No one knows, at this point, if B & N will survive, or if the pivoting of their business away from fiction books will leave any room for fiction books on their shelves.

Also from grumblings I heard, while trad publishing is still making money in fiction, that part of the business is being subsidized by non fic and “lifestyle and hobby books.”

Which brings us to the part of this post (ah, you though we were almost done, you fools) where I put on my futurist hat.

Remember that making predictions is hard, particularly about the future. However, yesterday I had some news that made me think “All is proceeding as I have foreseen.”

Before we get to that I’ll give anecdata which might or might not be in any way significant, but it’s the sort of thing I do to keep an eye on what is happening in various fields, books included.

Because I am a cheapskate (Everyone say “Noooooo”.  Thank you.  I feel better.) I often shop through craigslist.  I knew vcr tapes were on the way out when people were giving away the cabinets and shelves designed for them.  And I suspect a lot of people are giving up on dedicated TVs (we already have, but we are a techy household) and having large computer screens fulfill the need (which btw, must play havoc with Nielsens because you really watch whenever) because everyone is outright giving away “entertainment cabinets” made for the huge tvs of the 90s.

Which brings us to bookshelves.  I have been a bookshelf hunter for years (now I intend to build up another wall in the library, after I deliver the next three books, and donate/get rid of mine, too) and now, in the last five years for the first time, they’re showing up free or very cheap and in batch lots.  And I hear of more and more people going “electronic” and getting rid of paper books, which, let us face it, for all their sentimental associations, are cumbersome dust traps that make you need twice the house space.

Also, when we moved out of the last house, we put up a batch of 1k books for sale on amazon, and then the bottom fell out, after about a month or two, and I just donated something like 7 k books.

Judging by my own buyer behavior, I only buy 1c used books, and only for things I either can’t get or are insanely expensive in e (I’m not buying a mystery for $14 in ebook.  No.  Won’t be happening.  I’ll buy some of my sf favorites in both paper and e but it hurts like hell.)

And here we hit on the problem traditional houses are having.  They’re not geared for ebooks.  Ebooks offer them no advantage over indie.  (In fact I wish to hell they’d get competent ebook people.  I just bought an e “boxed set” of Miss Marple mysteries, and when I have time I’m going to ask a friend to remove the DRM.  Oh, not so I can give it away, but so that I can put it on my computer and reformat it.  This is a 7 (I think) book collection that has NO WAY to navigate between books.  There’s a table of contents within each book, but not for the boxed set in general.  Also, the indents are about half an inch, which looks bizarre on the kindle, and there are ENTIRE SECTIONS doublespaced.)  They don’t know how to publicize/promote books, beyond the obligatory page on a genre trade magazine, and maybe some talk from their editors in blogs.  They only know how to push books to the super-bookstores and those don’t matter with indie.  I saw them once put an ad for a book they were pushing in a times square billboard.  This was early days of kindle competition.  It doesn’t seem to have done them much good, particularly since the book was a fantasy niche.  I sometimes hear of that book and author, and I judge they’re both about the level I’m at.

They are simply NOT equipped to make the switch from “big push to big stores” to “market ebooks.”  And part of the problem, of course, is that none of us is too sure how to market ebooks.  (I seem to have had some success with DST marketing on comics vaguely related to the book.  I need to look into that again.  The years since 2011 have been too fraught to do anything like that again, but things are calming down.)

Most of what markets ebooks seems to be word of mouth, which intersects badly with the annual-and-done model of big publishers, who at least are no longer taking books out of print on the anniversary of their publication, but also aren’t giving those books any help, while holding onto them.

Compared to the new agile-model long-tail publishers (most of them medium size, not large, sort of like the old publishers, pre mega-mergers.  Or sort of like Baen, though Baen is mixed on this, since it’s larger than these agile-publishers) the traditionals have hellofalot of sunken costs: buildings in NYC, dedicated editors/proof readers/book reps/cover designers who must be paid every month, whether or not the book makes money.  The model I’m seeing emerge from the agile publishers is more a 50/50 (or sometimes 75/25 (with the house taking the greater part and justifiable, depending on what the writer negotiates and how much of the burden the publisher is shouldering, for promo, etc.) with fees for proofreaders, cover artists, finders fees for readers, etc. coming out (as a percentage, say 5% for a proofreader, 10% for a structural editor, etc) of the book’s earnings.

Since there is no advance in most cases, this reduces the house’s sunken costs to pretty much zero.  Which makes them better, faster, leaner, and more able to survive bets on books that just don’t sell.  (This is something that can’t be helped. Even if there were decent customer surveys — there aren’t — it’s impossible to figure out what will catch fire.  See the “nobody knows nothing” in this new ebook thing.)

Meanwhile, these emergent, agile businesses, in the end, provide the same respectability and further reach to indie writers.  Maybe not as much, but they’re changing, and these are the people that traditionals need to compete with.

Dave Freer, in this site, has many times told them “abandon the office in NYC.  Give up the raft of employees that do almost nothing for the books.  Stop with your concentration on promoting bestsellers who would sell anyway.”

They probably won’t do that.  They probably won’t do what I suggest below, too, though I’ve seen some movement in that direction.

Yesterday I heard that Ace, who was an almost-exclusively paperback publisher has now gone all-hardcover.  And I muttered “quite right” except at their decision to shed writers they don’t think “fancy enough” (my wording, not theirs) for hardcover.

Because those are the writers they should be concentrating on.  The ones with a large following, writing popular books, not “prestigious” ones.

From what I’ve seen, both from agile publishers, and from my own experience as a reader and a writer, paper books are becoming, instead of a vehicle for the story, a sort of promotional product, crossed with a souvenir/collectible.

Most of your paper books will sell from events where you meet your fans.  Most of them will be signed.  Even people divesting from paperbooks (even us!) keep signed copies of books they REALLY like.  Because it’s something they can touch and admire and which sometimes reminds them of meeting the author.

So  going hardcover is a brilliant idea, as is (as Baen who is smarter than the average bear is doing) bringing out numbered, signed leatherbound editions of your most popular authors and books.  That cashes right in to the “collectible” market.

The next step to this, which I suspect that traditional publishers will not see their way to doing, would be booths at all the massive conventions (comicon, or more closely related to the book’s content, say gun shows for Larry Correia, or space conferences for me (scientists LIKE pulp.)  Have your author flown to those, have them meet the readers.  Sell books.  Sell more books (and ebooks) by word of mouth, as people talk about how great it was to meet Big Bestseller, how fun he/she is, and how great his/her books are.

So, are there other venues for traditional publishers, where they would have the advantage (being able to fund a booth, which is pricey, at major events?) over indies.

Sure.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the concept of a packager.  In SF/F (and mystery) for many years the late Marty Greenberg was the packager par excellence, and I worked for him for years, off and on, as a writer.  Some years, he was the one who kept the lights on in my house, and certainly the one who kept my then fast-growing sons in shoes.

A packager is someone who comes up with an idea, sells it to major publisher, finds writers to work it, and takes a relatively small cut for his effort.

A lot of Marty’s sales were anthologies (and I miss getting a phone call saying “Sarah, we have a hole in an antho, can you write a short story on fairyland, say about 11k words by this afternoon?”

But there were others.  If a bestseller got critically ill or ran away with his office boy and a  suitcase of turkey feathers, and they needed the book yesterday, people who could imitate styles would get a phone call saying “Can you write this?” and then get very well paid indeed both for the work and for keeping their mouth shut forever.

Sometimes the houses took their own hand at a sort of packaging, too.  I wrote Plain Jane under the house name Laurien Gardner, for what was then for me the biggest advance I’d ever got and — my agent fought like hell for this — a 2% royalty.  That book has now made me double the advance on that paltry royalty share, which means it’s probably a cash cow for the house.

Houses can and perhaps should do that.  Take young and eager writers, and chain them to the house name mills. Have them write in either fantastically successful series, (how successful? Well, Weber might work.  I don’t know if anything below would) or really appealing concepts, or perennials, like say Henry VIII’s wives.

The more inventive houses could hire an actor to play the author at their booth.  Or they could delegate a junior staff member to write the author’s blog, within guidelines.  (NO politics, but you can talk about your dog, Little Tail.)

Another way to do it is shared worlds, either owned or contracted to the publisher.  This is a risky thing.  Sure some shared worlds (163x) do very well, (but it was also started way back, and the original concept-holder kept tight hold on the concept and who gets to play in it) but as Kindle World’s attests, it’s hit or miss, and depends (as all books do) on whether it catches the reading public’s fancy AS A CONCEPT enough to support books by very different authors.  In the sense that each author uses his/her name, it’s fairer to the author, but it is also a big issue in terms of name recognition.  This becomes not “I love that new series by Laurien Gardner” but “I kind of liked what so and so did with x world.”  Honestly, if I were a publisher going that route I’d acquire the rights to some of the more popular gaming or anime series, because you have a proven “I like this world” concept there.

[Addendum I meant to put in: it would also be wise for publishers to start an ebook-only side, and some like Harlequin have.  This could not just be the “farm team” to identify authors who could fly with a little push, but also a way to test “shared worlds” and “packaged concepts” cheaply.  OTOH since having a paper edition is now the mark of “real book” it might be that this would be counterproductive and cause these books to be ignored.  I don’t know.  I just know if I were a traditional publisher, I’d try it.]

The middle option is frankly awful for writers, as they would be laboring in other peoples’ vineyards, with no right of reversal, no name recognition and maybe no royalties.  BUT OTOH if they pay enough up front, it’s a living and new writers could sharpen their skills that way.  Maybe.  (Those who don’t wish to go indie.)

Will the houses do any or all of these?  Yes, I suspect so.  In the long run.  Those that survive.  Because they’re larger organizations, it’s going to take them a while to turn the boat around, but some of them will do it and will thrive.  And some other houses will join in that model.

What I don’t think they’ll ever be again is the primary market for writers of fiction to sell to.  No.  That primary market is and will continue to be the general public, directly.  And that’s an option that opens up new vistas of income and perhaps even of fan-building.

So strap down, it’s going to be a wild ride.  But those of us willing to try new things should be better off in the end.

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