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.

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)é 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  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.  (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?


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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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.)


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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