Category Archives: WRITING: CRAFT

Beginnings, endings and everything in-between

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it here — I know I have over on my blog — but I got jumped about 9 days ago with a new novel. Well, new in the sense that it hasn’t already been written. Not new because I knew I had to write it and had planned to get to it this summer. Oh, yeah, new in that this novel doesn’t remotely resemble the book I had planned in my head. Yeah, yeah, my muse is evil but we all know that.

Now, I don’t have time to sit down and write an entire novel out of my publication order. I keep telling myself that. More importantly, I keep telling Myrtle the Muse that. So, I bargained with her — what, don’t all writers bargain with their muses? And no, it’s not like bargaining with the Devil. Myrtle makes the devil look like a rank amateur. — and we agreed that she would get one week, give or take a day or two, to get the basics of the book down. Then I had to get back to the final editorial check and formatting for Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2). Hopefully, Myrtle is going to stick with our agreement. Otherwise, I may have to murder my muse and I learned long ago that’s easier said than done.

And that, in a way, gets to the topic of today’s post. When I first screwed up the courage to show Sarah something I’d written — and, believe me, it took her pointy boots and threatening not to let me beta read anything else she wrote before I agreed — she looked at me, shook her head and told me I had the dreaded “start in the wrong place’ disease. What I’d written was serviceable but I had started about five pages too soon. Then, on rewrite, I started two pages too late. She finally got me to start it where it needed to begin. Then she nursed — and begged and bullied — me through the next few books with the same issues.

Beginnings are hard. You can spend pages giving your reader beautiful descriptions of the setting and what your characters look like. You can start with the day your character arrives in town. There are so many ways to start but, all too often, those ways fail in the biggest challenge we face as writers — they fail to hook the reader. You have to give enough about your character — and it doesn’t have to be your main character. It can be the antagonist or the victim who won’t appear except as a reference after those first few pages. But you have to give your reader a reason to keep turning the page to see what happens next.

I picked up a book a month or so ago that had gotten great reviews. The writing was supposed to be “alive” and “beautiful”. The characters well-developed. The plot engaging. And I should have known better. The opening pages read like a travelogue. There was nothing in them to give me any hint what sort of book I was reading, what the potential conflicts might be, etc. In other words, it gave me no reason to keep reading.

Another book, one I checked the sample for ten days ago or so had the opposite feel. I knew exactly what I was going to be getting by the end of the third paragraph. How? Because those three paragraphs read like the author and/or editor had a checklist of issues and characters that had to appear in the book and they were all listed right up front. It was a grocery list of social issues. Now, there is nothing wrong with having social issues in your work — as long as you make them interesting for your readers. And that has to be done from page one. Otherwise, you give your readers no cause to go forward with your book. You have to get them interested, have them want to see what is going to happen next. In other words, you have to tease them with the reward that will come as they continue reading.

That becomes more difficult when you write series. You need to offer your reader enough to catch them up on what’s been happening, especially if that reader is new to the series, without your first few pages becoming nothing but a synopsis of earlier books or stories. You need to also give the plot arc a push in such a way you readers, old and new, know something important or exciting or whatever is about to happen.

Even now, after more than 10 novels, I hate openings. I have to stop myself from writing and rewriting them so many times they lose any emotional resonance they might have had. There was a time when Sarah threatened to not let me edit my work at all if I didn’t stop editing the life out of my first chapter or two. I try to keep that in mind but it’s hard at times.

So, fast-forward to this book that demanded it be written NOW! It is the fifth book in the Nocturnal Lives series. I’ve known from the last few books that this book would be where several of the major plot lines would come together and life for the main characters would be thrown up in the air and some of them might not come through it. As I said earlier, I’d planned on writing the book this summer for release in the fall. I even had the basic plot figured out, notes taken and some research done.

I’ve worked on the book a little more than a week now. Today is the last day I’m letting Myrtle drive that particular plot line. So far, I’ve written approximately 25k words. So, I have a good feel for where the book is going — well, not really. Myrtle is making this a true pantsing novel. But at least I’m not screaming in fear — or hate — with it.

I even got up the nerve to send the opening sequence to Sarah to look at. Yes, I caught her at a weak moment. In other words, I caught her when she made the mistake of looking up from her computer screen and then I begged. Okay, I begged that she delete the file without reading it (for some reason, I am still terrified of letting Sarah read my work. I think part of that is I’m afraid she will realize she has spent all this time mentoring me for naught). Instead of deleting it, she read it.

Dum-dum-dum.

And said that, for once, my very rough draft didn’t read like I started it too soon or too late.

I even made her repeat it, just to be sure I heard right. Then I did a happy dance. And then I beat Myrtle and told her that, no, Sarah’s compliment didn’t mean she got to stay out and make me write the rest of the book.

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen the scene yet, here it is. As with everything, copyright applies. Also, this is a very rough draft. No editing, spell checking, etc., has been done. All of which means, things may change before Nocturnal Rebellion is released.

***

The bullpen fell silent as Chief of Detectives, Luis Santiago, moved to the front of the room. The look on his face mirrored how they each felt. Disbelief, sorrow and anger – but mostly anger – burned in his dark eyes. Every cop, not to mention every cop’s family, faced this possibility each time they stepped out the door. But that didn’t make it any easier, especially not when it hit this close to home.

Santiago looked around the squad room, making eye contact with every person there. It didn’t surprise him to find more than just the day shift present. He had no doubt were he to check the other squads under his command, he would find the same thing. When a cop went down in the line of duty, no one worried about vacation or sick leave. Every cop in the department would be doing all they could to find the perps responsible. That knowledge made him glad to be part of the family. Even so, it did nothing to make this part of his job any easier. Fortunately, it was not something he had to do very often but even once was one time to many.

Standing there, seeing how each of those assigned to Homicide waited, hoping he had good news to tell them but knowing he did not, he drew a deep breath. He could have let someone else handle this but that would have been the easy way out and he had never been one to shirk the uncomfortable parts of the job off on someone else. Besides, he owed it to them, and to their lieutenant, to make sure they knew that even though he no longer worked cases on the board, he was still one of them. He hurt with them and he thirsted for the same vengeance they did.

“I’m not going to tell you this gets easier. It doesn’t and each of you knows it. Let’s be honest. This squad has faced more than its fair share of challenges the last two years.” He paused and reached up to rub his eyes, burning with unshed tears, with thumb and forefinger. As he did, he felt every one of the last twenty-six hours he had been awake. Twenty-six hours of sitting vigil at the hospital room and then talking with family members, of briefing the chief of police, Darnell Culver, and of doing all he could to head off any interference by the feds. One of his own had gone down and he was damned if he was going to let the feds or any other agency take over the case. Then he cleared his throat and continued. “Each and every time, you have risen to the challenge and done what was necessary to carry out your duties as detectives for DPD. I know I’m asking a lot now, but I need you to do so once again.

“The next few days are going to be difficult for the entire force, but especially for you. You lost one of your own yesterday. I’ve spend a great deal of time with the family and they asked me to let you know that arrangements have been made. They thank each of you for all the time you have spent with them since the ambush. They have asked that, until the funeral, members of this squad be with them. They know you were all family and they will feel better having someone who knew their loved one with them. Sergeant Collins, I’ll leave it to you to arrange schedules to accommodate this request.” He glanced at the squad’s acting commander and she nodded, her expression grim.

‘In three days, we will lay your fellow detective to rest. I expect each of you to be there in dress uniform, representing not only this squad but the best of the force. Show the city that we bleed blue. Then show them that DPD does its job, no matter what. Find the bastards responsible for the ambush and bring them in to face justice.

“It would be easy to seek vengeance. I understand that feeling because I share it. No one, no matter who they are, is allowed to kill one of our own. But we will not lower ourselves, or the rest of DPD, down to those bastards’ level. Find them and bring them in. We will let the courts deal with them and, when the time comes, we will be sitting on the front row of the viewing chamber when they are brought in for their execution.” He glanced around as detectives, uniformed officers and clerical workers nodded grimly. “Do your lieutenant proud and find those bastards before they manage to kill anyone else.”

As one, everyone present turned to look at the darkened office with its closed door and silence so profound it felt almost alive filled the squad room. Then a tall blonde with short cropped hair, her expression stone-cold but pain reflected in her eyes, stepped forward. The others waited, watching as she approached Santiago.

“Sergeant Collins, the squad is yours,” the chief of detectives said. “Close this case before the feds try to take over. We will not step aside for anyone, not this time.”

The blonde nodded. As she did, she blinked back the tears burning in her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

He nodded once and then shook her hand. Then he turned, leaving the squad room. As the door closed behind him, Pat drew a deep breath. Whether she liked it or not, the squad was hers and she had a duty to do, a duty to the DPD, her former partner and her squad.

“The chief’s right,” she said softly. She did not try to hide her grief. Each person in the room, shared it. “We have to work this like any other case but let’s be honest. This isn’t just any other case and it never will be. We will have the press looking at everything we do, questioning each move and every word spoken. Worse, IAB is going to be nosing around.” She held up a hand before anyone could protest.

“Hear me on this. No one likes the idea of the rat squad poking around. This squad has first-hand knowledge how they can twist things to meet their own needs. So, I want every i dotted and ever t crossed in the investigation. Work this case like your own life depends on it because it very well may. We have cop killers running loose on our streets and none of us are safe until they are behind bars. So, when IAB comes calling, you will answer their questions. The quicker we do, the quicker we get them out of the squad and out of the investigation. Don’t play games with them. If they ask or allude to anything that sets off your warning bells, let me know.

“From now until this case is solved, it is all hands on deck. All vacation time is canceled until further notice. If you call in sick, you’d better damn have a doctor telling me you are on your death bed. Work your contacts and get your CI’s on the street and asking questions. Finding these bastards is our priority now. That said, make sure your other cases are worked as well. Don’t miss any court dates but this is our priority. We will find the bastards behind the ambush and we will be the ones to bring them in.”

With that, she strode across the bullpen. Pausing before the door to the office that had been her partner’s she reached down to turn the knob. As she did, her hand shook. A sob rose in her throat. She choked it down. She had to maintain control until she was behind closed doors. The squad was hers, at least until Chief Culver found someone to replace Lt. Mackenzie Santos, not that anyone could ever fill her shoes as a cop or as a partner and friend.

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: CRAFT

Cleaning Up Infodumps

 

I was at a job fair this last week. It was sort of a waste of my time, but not really. By that I mean there were maybe six prospective employers I matched with, out of some two hundred. But I did have some lovely conversations with people, including the Army Corps of Engineers ladies, who were actually pitching me on joining them, since I’d originally thought they wouldn’t need me (I’m not an engineer, can’t hack the math). We wound up talking environmental clean-up, decommissioning military bases, and superfund sites. One of my professors had been involved in the chemistry of a superfund site and the testing, and another professor had spent half a lecture period talking to us about how a microscopic parasite changed the nature of garbage disposals and dumps in Ohio forever.

Why am I talking about toxic waste, and dumps, on a writing blog? Well, I’ll get to that. First, though, let me tell you the Rumpke story, because as fiction plots go, it has potential. Way back when, before Cincinnati was much of a city, the Rumpke family (as my professor explained) provided a valuable service. They got paid twice: once to haul off perishable garbage from restaurants and stores, and again for the pork they got from feeding that garbage to their pigs. This business was lucrative enough they wound up buying a hilltop far from town, planning to move their hog farm away from the edges of the city and the complaining neighbors, when tragedy struck.

In telling a story, you have to give your reader enough information to keep them in the story. The danger lies in giving them too much information, thereby drowning the plotline, diffusing the tension that will compel them to keep reading, and leading to them setting the book down, or even more fatally on the kindle, closing the file and promptly losing it in the disorganized chaos Amazon seems to think Kindle readers prefer. As a writer, you need to avoid that fate at all costs. Which may mean making some unpleasant choices in digging out your info dumps and cleaning them up, which is what the Rumpke’s were forced to do when Trichinella hit the stage. Pork – especially garbage-fed pork – was suddenly suspect; no one wanted to eat a pig that might harbor the encysted parasites that could lead to illness and death, and the Rumpke family had this empty mountain they had just bought… So they sold the pigs off at a loss, and shifted the focus of their business to hauling garbage away from the burgeoning city. They turned the hill into the first landfill, and a dump saved the family business.

Here, we saw the central characters (names lost to history… I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, but I’m not looking them up right now) adapt to what could have been the killing blow to their little family business, and come out on the other side with an even bigger, better plan. This is what we are often trying to write into our fiction, convincingly. We want to write a battle, and have our hero win it. The problem is, if we drop info dumps into the story, we slow our hero down as he wades through the swamp of description.

I know we’ve all had books we’ve skipped through page after page, trying to find where the hero wandered off to, leaving us lost in the dump. I personally can think of a glaring example of a series I eventually gave up on – not just because of the pages of detailed military weapon minutiae, but the rather condescending alt-hist info dumps that explained what he was doing on an elementary-schooler’s level. When I’m skipping over half the book, past those two elements, it becomes a waste of my time, and certainly not a fun read.

When I’m writing, I try to look first and foremost at my pacing. Not every book needs to progress at break-neck speed. Some shouldn’t. Working in exposition carefully, in a lull between action, works much better than throwing it in the middle of a fight scene. Even here, keep it sparing. Trust the intelligence of your readers, and don’t spoon-feed them every last implied detail. Let them use their imaginations – this is, after all, why they are readers and not film geeks.

And if you go back over your book and discover that you’ve littered up the landscape with dumps, consider how best to clean them up. You can sometimes break them up, leaving small, easily digested lumps of data through the story that will gradually reveal the information you want to convey to the reader. This can be a great way to keep them reading, as they try to suss out what is going on. But don’t suspend them in the grey, either, with no feeling of what is around them, what the characters are thinking or feeling, what the characters are doing and why. No description is probably as bad as too much of it.

Going back to the Rumpke story a bit, I didn’t bother to go look up their names. It’s not relevant to the story I was telling, the reason I was telling it. I could – and just might, because I’m perennially inquisitive – see if there is a bio or history out there with all the details. But research is not necessary for amassing details you must dump into the story. Sometimes it’s really tempting. When I was researching for the Pixie books, and reading massive amounts of mythology, I kept finding stories I wanted to write into my story… except that the pacing in those books was fast, and having these myths in would slow it down and lose the reading momentum. So I set them aside, for another time, another story, and wrote on. As tempting as it is to show off your intensive research, resist the urge to create a dumpsite in your book.

 

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: CRAFT

Q&A

Thanks to those of you who left blog post ideas. Some of you left ideas here and some on Facebook. There were a number of great suggestions and questions. I’ve decided to try to discuss some of then in a modified Q&A format. I probably won’t get to all the suggestions today, but I promise to file the rest away and deal with them in another post.

Q: How to handle multitasking and switching from writing to other types of writing or to editing or layout without getting tunnel vision on any one task?

A: I’ll admit, I rarely edit and write at the same time, at least not my own work. One thing Sarah told me long ago was not to edit my work until I finished the rough draft. The reason she told me this was because I was getting caught in an endless editing loop, something that happens to a number of new writers. Since then, I’ve learned that the only time editing my own work works before I finish the draft is if I have somehow written myself into a corner and can’t find a way out. Otherwise, I wait to edit until the story is done.

That isn’t the case when I am trying to edit someone else. The only caveat I have for that is I don’t edit the same genre I am writing in at the moment. The reasons are simple. I don’t want my “voice” to bleed over into my edits. As an editor, it isn’t my job to give a voice to the client’s work. Nor am I to try to change the voice. It is their story and not mine. In fact, if you have an editor — be it a content editor, copy editor or proofreader — trying to change the voice of your work, you need to look long and hard at what they are doing and why. Yes, there are times it might be appropriate to say a scene would be better from another person’s POV, but changing the voice of a character is completely different.

As for formatting, I tend to write in the format that will be converted to e-books. I’ve built a template that I will periodically tweak for genre and appearance but basically the format I write my rough draft in is exactly the same format you see in an e-book. Also, because I try to make sure my e-books look as close to the print versions as possible, it doesn’t take long to change page sizes and substitute section breaks for page breaks. Then it is just a matter of tweaking it to make sure everything is as it should be for print.

My biggest downtime any more is between projects, especially if I am changing genres. I’ve learned I have to take at least a week after I press the publish button to just recharge the batteries. Otherwise, I almost always have to go back and rewrite — majorly rewrite — what I tried to do before I made the mental switch from one book/genre to another.

Q: What is the importance of print versions of your work?

This is kind of a loaded question where there is no right answer. The truth of the matter is, most indie authors will never sell enough print books to really justify the time, effort and money needed to put them together. Before, when you could get an ISBN through Createspace for $10, it was worth it. But now, it is hard to justify it, to be honest. Yes, having a print book makes you look more “professional” when readers go to a book’s product page on Amazon, etc. However, with more and more readers going strictly digital, I’m not sure how important that is.

Then there is the belief that having your book printed and distributed through Ingram Spark will get you into the bookstores. No, it really won’t. Yes, you are listed in the catalog store buyers (think purchasing agents) see. But it is also, or at least it was, listed at the back in the section for indie authors. And, let’s be honest, most bookstore operators — ie, B&N — hate indies almost as much as they hate Amazon. As for the owners of locally owned bookstores, you have two things you have to do before you can worry about the stocking your book. The first is making sure you have a valid ISBN so you will be listed in Books in Print. The second, and more important, is you have to establish a close relationship with the person in that store who chooses what books they stock. That means spending time in the store — and spending money — as well as getting to know those who work there. Again, it is up to each indie author to determine if that is worth time.

There is one other thing to consider when it comes to print books. If you, the indie author, make the con circuit, having print books on hand to sell or even to just hand out may be a good thing. However, for every author who manages to actually make money selling books at a con, there are dozens more who don’t make the cost of the table rental back. Then you have to consider what the tax laws are in the city/state where the con is. You most definitely do NOT want to run afoul of those.

Frankly, right now, while I do still put out print books, it is more to make the product page look like a pro page. I work through Createspace and use the Amazon ISBN (free or relatively cheap. Haven’t done it in several months, so I’m not sure what it is right now). It will list Amazon as the distributor and will not be assigned to my imprint, Hunter’s Moon Press. But, it is listed in Books in Print and it is listed in such a way the local libraries can pick the book up and stock it if they want.

I am hearing rumblings that audio is really where we need to start focusing our attention. So I am in the process of trying that out.

Q: What is the difference between using beta readers and having your work edited?

This question came from Facebook and I’ve paraphrased it. But it is a good one and one that I see a lot of writers not understanding. A beta reader, for those not familiar with the term, is a lot like beta testers for software or computer games. It is someone who reads your work before the final edits. They tell you if the book works. They should let you know if something felt wrong to them. Some will focus on proofreading and you’ll get a manuscript back that looks like someone bled all over it — hint, I’ve discovered that most of the time when that happens, the person either isn’t as great at grammar and punctuation as they think or they don’t get that, in fiction, your characters don’t have to speak proper King’s English.

Anyway, your beta readers are there to see if there is anything broken in your book. Many times, they will catch consistency errors or science/engineering/weaponry/whatever errors. This is invaluable to a writer.

Where do you find beta readers? Here is where I may upset some folks. I recommend you not use family for beta readers, at least not unless you have several other non-relatives reading the same piece. Why? Because family will often try to cushion the criticism and that doesn’t help. You want someone who will be brutally honest with you. Someone who will tell you what didn’t work for them and why. If they are really good, they might even offer a way to fix the problem.

You can find beta readers from your critique group. You can ask on social media for volunteers. The caveat here is those who volunteer this way often will not get back to you. It really is sort of a trial and error until you find a few folks you can trust to give you solid feedback.

Another way I differ from some writers is I want one beta reader who isn’t a big reader in the genre of the current project. Why? Because I want to make sure I don’t rely so much on tropes that someone picking up the book because they liked something I wrote in another series or other genre will be able to be pulled into the story. If you rely too heavily on genre-specific tropes, you risk not being able to do that.

So what is the difference between a beta reader and an editor? A beta reader will usually only be looking at if the story grabbed them and kept their attention throughout the story. They will come back with suggestions or critiques but it is still based on their enjoyment or lack thereof. An editor has a different job based on what sort of editing they are doing.

As noted above, some beta readers will give you back a manuscript marked up for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. In other words, they will have acted as a proofreader. IF, and this is a big if, they are good at it, keep them. But take them out of the beta reading circle and give them the manuscript after it has been through the beta readers and editing cycle. They are the last eyes save yours you want to see your manuscript before publication. Believe me, you want to do this because, no matter how carefully you check your work, you will miss something and you will eventually get the review criticizing all the spelling errors or bad grammar etc.

Copy editing and content editing are two very different things. Copy edit is the step before proofreading. One of the most concise explanations of what a copy editor does comes from Wikipedia (which I normally hate but it fits here). A copy editor’s job is  “improving the formatting, style, and accuracy of the text. The goal of copy editing is to ensure that content is accurate, easy to follow, fit for its purpose, and free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.” They are your fact-checkers, your person who makes sure you don’t repeat things unless such repetition is necessary, and who removes all those words that really don’t add to the story.

Unfortunately, too many writers and so-called editors think copy editing is content editing and it isn’t. A good content editor will take your book, read it, be able to increase the impact of a scene by rearranging the order of sentences in a paragraph, etc. They are the doctor instead of the technician. Not every author needs a content editor because they have a solid grasp of story structure, pacing, foreshadowing, etc. If you don’t, then you need to consider finding a solid content editor to work with.

Each of these, from beta readers to content editors play an important role in letting us put the most professional product out possible. The more you network, the more resources you will find for all of these. The key is, especially if you are going to pay for services like proofreading or editing, is to get recommendations, to ask to see finished work by the person you are considering hiring and to check to see what you can find out about them online.

Finally, I’d like to add one more note. If you decide you want to go with a “real” publisher — and I’m not talking one of the established traditional publishers but a small press — check them out. Don’t just look at the usual resources like Preditors and Editors. Do a google search to see what you can find out about them. Do they have a website and does it look professional? What is their payment history? Ask yourself what they can do for you that you aren’t doing for yourself already. Look at their covers. Does the artwork look professional? How about the lettering? Do all the covers look the same, even if the books are different series or genres? Finally, don’t sign anything without letting an IP attorney look over the contract. That is a given for any publishing contract you are considering.

More later. Keep posting your questions in the comments to the previous post. I’ll do my best to answer them later.

 

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Filed under AMANDA, MARKETING, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Mad Haiku for Books

I stole this, cackling gleefully, from a friend of my First Reader (and made a new friend in the process, Hi Jonathan!) and the denizens of the book of face have been playing with it. I thought it would be even more fun to challenge all of you and sundry to play along. it’s writing, sort of. But it’s more a way to make you stop and think about words. Poetry is hard, but have fun with it.

So… here’s the thing – write a haiku about your favorite book. I’m not sure, reading the thread of the original challenge, if the point is to stump ’em all, or to be guessable. You decide!

Oh, and if you want answers? Highlight the space beside each haiku’s writer, and you’ll magically see the book’s title.

British spy decides
To fight an occult war for
Control of the djinn

-Misha Burnett (Tim Powers’ Declare)

Alien probe arrives
We travel to learn about them
Three armed they were

-Christopher MacArthur (Larry Niven’s Mote in God’s Eye)

You can’t be crazy
Wanting to leave makes you sane
Fly safely, Captain

-Kacey Ezell (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22) 

I live on the moon
Mike will help me get it done
I want to be free

-Spike Souders (Robert Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress)

Got me a nice raft
Float down the Mississippi
With my best friend Jim.

-Pat Patterson (Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn)

God’s redemption plan
From Old Testament through New
One answer – Jesus Christ

– Nancy Guyotte (The Bible) 

A desert highway
Gonzo American dream
Nothing is the same

-Roger Ross (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson)

orphaned space child
founds new religion
martyrdom

– Alan Couture (Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land) 

one ring is found
a journey begins
the world changes

-Alan Couture (JRR Tolkein, Hobbit) 

A Small Lord
Tries to Become a Bigger Man
Ends an Interstellar Mercenary

-Christopher MacArthur (Lois McMaster Bujold, Warrior’s Apprentice) 

One bad decision
A lifetime running from guilt
Ends as a tuan.

– D Jason Fleming (Conrad’s Lord Jim)

Could I reach orbit
Then I’d be a wanted fan
Leslie has my back.

-Pat Patterson (Niven and Pournelle’s Fallen Angels)

The trunk ate someone
Tourists are quite odd fellows
Falling off the edge

-Joseph Capdepon (Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic or any Rincewind book)

The hero travels
The sword is jumped
He wishes to hero again

-Sanford Begley (Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road) 

Galactic Patrol
Brings the Winter of Boskone
Cleave Through to Helmuth

-Owen KC Stephens (EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman)

Literal flat earth
Narrative casualty
Drives the parody

-Kurt Schneider (Terry Pratchett, any Discworld novel) 

I can’t wait to see what the readers here come up with!

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Topic Round-up

Wow, the New Year has gotten off with a bang — or, perhaps more accurately, the sound of air slowly leaking out of a balloon. Traditional publishing basically shuts down during the holidays. So there isn’t much coming out of the ivory towers to discuss. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. Just the opposite, in fact.

The first to come up over the holidays and, in many ways, the most concerning was the announced closure of All Romance eBooks and its related sites. I’m sure most of you have heard about it by now. So I’m not going to spend much time on it. The basics are ARe, one of the distribution platforms for romance and erotica ebooks, announced it could not continue operating after posting losses during the year. So, giving its authors, small presses and readers less than a week’s notice, it said it would be shutting down the site. Oh, and those folks to whom it owed royalties? Well, if they agreed to something ridiculous like 10 cents to the dollar and promised not to sue, they’d get paid. Otherwise, good luck trying to get anything out of them.

For more information about this situation, I recommend several posts. Start with this post from The Passive Voice. Be sure to read the comments and then click through to the original post from BlogCritics. On New Year’s Day, PG posted two more times about the ARe situation. The first, also from Blog Critics, discusses some court documents that are very revealing about what had been going on behind the scenes at ARe. These documents show just how little authors and publishers know about the distribution platforms some of us rely upon to get our books into the hands of our readers. The second is a link to a post from Kris Rusch. I cannot say how important it is to read both the PG comments but to click through to Kris’ original post. Please, even if you don’t read the first two, read this last one.

The ARe situation is bad for everyone involved. Authors are being stolen from. There is no other word for it. The owners of ARe did not give their clients — authors and readers alike — warning there was a problem. That meant authors, who relied upon ARe to do as they contracted, could not make an informed decision about whether to continue the relationship or not. For readers, it pointed out the danger of trusting online distribution sites to remain up and running and to continue giving you access to the books you bought. This is why so many of us have long preached that you need to download and save to multiple back-up sources/media any e-book you buy. It is another reason why so many of us hate DRM that tries to prevent you from doing just that. So, the lesson for the moment is to download, back up and make your own decision about whether you will try to break DRM or not. I won’t say whether you should or should not because it is against the law in some countries and it does violate the terms of service for a number of sites.

And I would never, ever tell you to do anything to violate the TOS or the law. [required disclaimer]

The next topic I had considered for today came up New Year’s Eve. I’ll admit, when I saw the site where the piece was published, I knew it probably cried for some serious snarkage. After all, HuffPo isn’t known for being a staunch supporter of indie and small presses. I was right. After all, when the headline of the piece is Self Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word, you know exactly how the article is going to slant.

Fortunately for all of us, the king of snark, Larry Corriea, tackled the task before I could. Since there is no way I could out-snark Larry, I wills imply direct you to his post. Read it, enjoy it and know that he is completely on the mark with everything he has to say.

Next up, we have yet another call to have a year of publishing nothing but women. Yep, you read that right. Kamila Shamshie has called for 2018 to be the year of publishing only women. Now, I know what you’re going to say. Look at the source of the article. It’s the Guardian. I know. I know. Another bastion of, well, drivel. However, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen such calls, or something similar. Have you forgotten the calls for readers to give up on reading books by men — or non-people of color or other so-called marginalized groups — for a year?

One of the best responses I’ve seen to the Shamshie article comes from Dacry Conroy. These three paragraphs completely dismantle Shamshie’s argument:

Yes! I thought. We do need to take example from the suffragettes, we do need to stop being so polite and seize our own power, raise our voices and… That’s when she lost me. Because what Shamsie suggested we raise our voices to say to the publishing industry was, essentially, “Please let us in. You’re being unfair. Just for one year without any boys in the way and see if the readers like us. It doesn’t have to be right away, 2018 is fine, but give us a go? Please?”

I don’t see the spirit of the independent presses of the 70s and 80s in that. What I see is a spirit of dependence on an industry that infantilizes writers, making them grateful for any morsel of approval and attention, convincing them that a publishing house is the only way to ‘real’ publication. This seems to be particularly so of literary writers (a group to which I do not pretend to belong) who appear to have been convinced that even though they are the keepers of the “artistic flame,” they would not have an audience at all without the festivals, the reviewers and the awards the publishing houses so carefully close to all but their own.

Surely the lesson from the independent presses of the 70s isn’t to plead for someone else to start a press and offer better opportunities, it’s to stand up, use the technology available and become our own publishers. Many of us are already doing that.

Be sure to check out the rest of Conroy’s response at the link above.

Finally, someone stirred the waters and more and more posts have been appearing on social media about the evils of self-publishing. We need gatekeepers. We need editors. We need to serve our time as journeymen learning our craft the old way. Traditional publishing is the only way to do that. We’re flooding the market and writing books that shouldn’t be written.

You get the drift.

I’ve been hearing this sort of thing since I first stuck a toe into the indie waters more than six years ago. I’ll freely admit there is some dreck out there. Hell, there’s a lot of dreck out there. But it isn’t all coming from indie authors. Remember, there is the traditionally published science fiction (erotica) where the male lead’s genitals are so dangerous they have to be chained. (Kate, quit laughing so hard. You’ll hurt something.) Then there is the traditionally published paranormal romance where the vampire groom marries his human bride in a church, drinks faux blood champagne and then, like a scene out of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, flies off into the sunset with her in his arms. Sorry, vampires don’t sparkle, they don’t do sunlight unless they are really, really old and usually evil or insane. They certainly don’t go flying off into the sunset ala Superman and Lois Lane.

Every argument against indie books can be answered easily. We need gatekeepers. Guess what? The gatekeepers are the readers. They tell us if we are doing something right or wrong. They tell us if they want to buy what we’ve written or not.

We need editors. There are a ton of editors out there we can hire or barter services with.

We need professional looking covers. Easy peasy. We can hire or barter for services. And, btw, have you seen some of the traditional covers recently, especially for romance books? Can you say “stock photos”?

We need someone to format and convert our books. Pardon me while I laugh hysterically. Formatting is simply setting up a template and writing in it. Conversion is nothing when you look at what we used to have to do. I remember having to hand code a novel into html. Now? You can upload your Word file or a mobi or epub file. No problem. And print? That’s a bit more tricky but I can prep a print file in a matter of an hour or two now — the trouble is finding the time to sit down and do it because I would rather be writing.

And that, you see, is the real issue indie authors face. We would rather be writing. So some of us — myself included — tend to slack off when it comes to getting print and audio books out there. It is a matter of disciplining ourselves to do it — and that is my one resolution for the New Year. The other real impediment we have as indies is getting our books into bookstores. However, is that something we really need to worry about? Despite what the “studies” show, how many young people (age 30 and under) really go to a bookstore and buy a print book for themselves? How many bookstores do we have? In my town, none. The closest bookstore is about 8 miles away and is located in a very busy shopping area with lousy parking and even worse access. In fact, if you don’t know it’s there, you would never get off the highway or the main city street to pull into the shopping area to find it — and it is a Barnes & Noble.

As for the complaint that we are saturating the market, possibly. However, indie publishing has proven traditional publishing was not meeting reader demand — either in the number of new books being offered each month or in subject matter. How long have we listened to the old saw that science fiction is dead? Yet more and more indie sf writers are starting to make enough from their writing to consider quitting their day jobs.

What do you think? Are indies an anathema to good writing and reading?

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Listening to your muse, Pt. 2

Last week, I blogged about listening to your muse. Of course, I have a feeling most of you don’t have a muse that is as loud, annoying and evil as mine happens to be. Mine wouldn’t know now to be retiring and quiet if both our lives depended on it. Because of that, I don’t have much choice in the matter. When Myrtle the Muse decides I need to listen, she does her very best to make sure I do. If I refuse, she punishes me. How, you ask, does a muse punish her writer? In one instance, Myrtle demanded that I listen, over and over and over again, to the soundtrack of Mama Mia. The movie soundtrack. The soundtrack sung mainly by folks who should never open their mouths to sing in public. I wasn’t a big Abba fan before then. Now, I absolutely detest the group.

I want to apologize for not responding to most of the comments last week. Between work (writing and editing my own stuff as well as a couple of side editing jobs), family and a nagging injury that is going to require surgery sooner or later, time got away from me. I promise to do better today.

The reason I wanted to talk some more about listening to your muse is simple. The other day, I was talking with another writer, one wanting to go the traditional publishing path, who insisted the only way to get in with one of the Big 5 was to write to the trend. In this case, the author was writing their own version of Twilight. Now, I haven’t read anything but the first book of the series and have studiously avoided the movies. Even so, I know the basic plot and, in the course of discussing John’s (not his real name) work, I commented that it sounded an awful lot like Twilight.

Oh how he beamed. He was thrilled I recognized it. He worried people wouldn’t because he had switched the sexes of the main characters. He had also set it in the Southwest instead of the Northwest. Oh, and they were about to go to college instead of being in high school. Best of all — at least according to him — he had figured out a way for the vamps to be out in the sunlight without sparkling.

Yes, that sound you hear is the echo of me beating my head against the wall.

The first thing we did was talk about how he needed to be sure he filed off the serial numbers. He assured me he had. Still not convinced but knowing that wasn’t an argument I was going to win just then, I let it drop. After all, he was just telling me about the story. I hadn’t read it yet. So maybe he had filed the numbers enough to make the story his own.

While I’m a fan of good urban fantasy and modern fantasy, I’m not a big vampire fan. I think too many paranormal romances, most of them badly written, have spoiled vamps for me. Then there is the whole things about basically making love to a corpse and, well, EWWWW! Of course, I also keep hearing our own Kate asking in her inimitable style about how certain parts of the vampire’s anatomy would work without blood flow. That’s our Kate for you. Always spoiling the dream with a dash of Aussie common sense. VBEG. Anyway, because of all that, I knew part of my resistance to John’s idea might be my own feelings about vampires as romantic leads and, well, wondering why in the world someone who has lived (if you can call it living) for hundreds of years would want to pair up with a giggling, pimply teen.

Finally, I asked John what he planned on doing with the book when he finished it. He had that figured out as well. He was going to submit it to one of the big publishers and make a million bucks just like Meyer did. After all, he was a better writer than she was. He was writing from the male point of view, so he would be tapping an underrepresented part of the market and, after all, YA and New Adult markets were hot, hot, hot.

I did get excuse myself and got up from the table, ostensibly to get another cup of coffee. The reality was I needed to figure out how to encourage him to finish the project — something he has yet to do with any other project — while giving him the bad news that the likelihood of getting a contract was only slightly better than him becoming the next Stephanie Meyer with this particular book.

You see, the problem isn’t that John is a bad writer. He’s not. He is, in fact, one of the most natural storytellers I’ve come across in a long time. Better yet, he has a pretty solid grasp of the mechanics of writing. But, like so many new writers, he hasn’t finished a project, much less sent it out to make the rounds of agents and publishers. He hasn’t done his homework into what the current market is, for both indie and traditionally published books. Nor has he researched the requirements needed to get his manuscript over the transom at the Big 5 and how long that can take.

So, I spent a few moments trying to gather my thoughts. I wanted to encourage him but I wanted him to understand the challenges he faced. And, for a few moments at least, I wanted to be anywhere but there.

I finally asked John why he had chosen to write his Twilight-esque book. The other work I’d seen from him had been solid mysteries. So this departure, not only in genre but in target audience, threw me. His answer was simple and, unfortunately, one I had heard before from other writers. He had thought to write something like Twilight because his kids had all read the series and loved it. All their friends loved it as well. Movies were made from it. If he could write something that would make young people read and make money from it, all was good.

Except the problem with that is he wasn’t writing to his strengths . Nor was he following the current trends for his target audience. Twilight is still selling but not like it did. Other books, Harry Potter follow-ups, science fiction and fantasy are selling better. John still wasn’t convinced. So I pulled up Amazon on my tablet and had him look at the different best seller lists there as well as at B&N. Then I pulled up Twilight and had him look where it was ranking high. His eyes bugged out and he went deathly pale to see it in the top 25 in sub-sub-sub-categories like YA Dating and Sex.

But he had this book all plotted out and he just knew the publishers would want it. It was based on a best seller.

I then pointed him to when the books were published. These books weren’t published a year or two ago. The last book came out, if I remember correctly, at least 4 or 5 years ago. Then, rubbing salt in John’s wounds and not liking it, I had a serious talk with him about how long it can take to shop a book around if you want to go traditional. We talked about how many traditional publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. That means you have to find an agent. That takes time. Then that agent has to shop your book around. More time. If the book is accepted, you have to approve the contract, go through edits and then, if all works out, it will finally be published. None of which happens quickly in the grand scheme of things. So, realistically, he wouldn’t see the book in print for at least two years after finishing the first draft if he managed to find an agent and sell it to one of the Big 5. How far out of the “trend” he was trying to ride would he be then.

However, I reminded him, that didn’t mean he couldn’t write the book. His first hurdle was to actually finish it. Then I asked the one question I’d been fighting. How did he feel writing the book? For a long moment, he said nothing. Then he admitted writing the book had been harder than anything he’d ever tried before. He didn’t understand it. After all, the basic formula was there. All he had to do was follow it. But, every time he sat down to write, his mind went to other things, other stories that seemed a lot more interesting.

Like what?

That simple question brought a smile to his face and he began to talk — and talk and talk and talk. He had another book outlined in his mind. A mystery and one that made sense and intrigued me as he discussed it. As he spoke, it became clear to both of us that this was not a case of popcorn kittens where he was simply being distracted because he had reached a difficult part of a project. No, this was his muse trying to tell him he was doing something wrong. In this case, he was trying to force himself to write something he knew on a subconscious level wouldn’t work. He might not have realized the reasons but the instinct was there, warning him he was going down a wrong path.

By the time we left the coffee shop an hour or so later, he had come to a couple of conclusions. The first was that he needed to write the mystery we’d discussed. The second was that he was still going to write the Twilight-based book but write it in his own way. He would let it sit on the back burner while he wrote the mystery and let the ideas percolate. I have a feeling that, when he gets back to it, his muse will have taken it down a very different path than the one it’s been on.

I guess this is a long and very rambling way of saying that writing to trend doesn’t always work, especially if you don’t properly identify what the current trend is. Even if you do, there is no guarantee it will work for you. That’s especially true if you are going the trad publishing route because of the time involved to work your way through the process. If you find yourself staring at the keyboard, feeling as if something is wrong and you can’t figure out what, talk it out. Or put the project aside for a bit and let it percolate on the back brain. In other words, listen to your gut or your muse or whatever you want to call it.

And, fyi, I do follow my own advice on this. It is how I wound up writing Slay Bells Ring, Witchfire Burning (Eerie Side of the Tracks Book 1) and Skeletons in the Closet (Eerie Side of the Tracks). These three books were not even on the radar a year and a half ago. But they came along at a time when I needed to step back from the different series that I had been working on. I needed a change as a writer and I needed the challenge that writing in a different genre presented. What I didn’t expect was that writing Slay Bells Ring would lead to not only a new series but one that mixed mundane with supernatural. Then there is the romance and the mystery. Oh, and let’s not forget the loved ones who return home after their own funerals — and they aren’t zombies, ghosts or vamps. Thank goodness the local undertaker has figured out special “treatments” for them.

 

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The dangers of critiques

Let me start by thanking everyone for their well-wishes and blog ideas last week. Sorry I didn’t get back with a real post but the headache and sinuses laid me low. Since you guys were so great with blog suggestions, I spent a few minutes this morning going over them again and am going to hit on a couple in this post.

As writers, we are going to see our work critiqued, whether we want to or not. Most of the time we don’t want to. Let’s be honest, no one likes hearing that their baby is ugly and that is what we risk when we read a critique. However, before we ever see our work in print, many of us workshop our work in critique groups or we have alpha and beta readers look it over. Then there are the editors. We trust them to tell us what is good about our work and what is bad about it.

But what do we do with that information once we get it?

That is where a number of authors, usually those new to the field, run into trouble. Do they try to incorporate all the changes their critique partners and beta readers suggested? Or do they simply nod, say “thanks” and move on? Or is there something in the middle?

Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. But there are guidelines. There is also the author’s gut, something the author must learn to listen to.

When I first started getting serious about writing as a profession, Sarah offered me a bit of advice when I was lamenting about how I didn’t understand what someone in a critique group had said. It’s been long enough now I don’t remember exactly what the comment was. What I do remember is that what they wanted me to do would result in basically breaking the character. But this person, who had more experience than I did — or so I thought at the time because of the way they conducted themselves in the group — was adamant that I do what they said.

So, after anguishing over it, I talked with Sarah. She was silent for a moment and then she asked if anyone else had voiced the same concerns about my work. No. Then she wanted to know if, after this person voiced their opinion, anyone else chimed in with an agreement. Again, no. That’s when she told me about the Rule of Three. Unless three people tell you basically the same thing, do NOT automatically decide you need to make the suggested changes. After all, people are different. They read differently, have different tastes and, let’s be honest, they can make mistakes.

Then she went on to tell me that even if three people say the same thing, that doesn’t mean you have to instantly make the change.  But it does mean you need to consider what they said, and do so dispassionately.

Here is an example from my current critique group. My critique partner is a very good writer, very serious about her craft and open to critique. She wants to do whatever she can to make her work better. In a recent meeting she talked about how, in another group, someone had suggested she redo her current WIP so that she was alternating POVs of her main characters. Their reason was because they did not feel like they were learning enough about one of the POV characters and felt having scenes from his point of view might help.

Now, we have all read books where there are different POV characters. Some of those books are written in 3rd person omniscient and some 3rd person limited. Others are written in 1st person. So my crit partner knew it could be done but her question was should it?

Our group discussed the options, as well as the pros and cons of doing it.

So here’s the thing, whether my crit partner needed to do as suggested — and, in my opinion and the opinions of the others in our group, she did not — there were issues with doing it. The biggest is, if you switch points of view, you have to be ready to have a distinct “voice” for each POV character. This is especially true if you are writing in 1st person. There are writers out there who can do that without problem. But it is difficult and not something to do if you, the author, don’t have that second voice firmly in your head.

Sure, there are easy ways to cue your reader that you have switched points of view when in first person. You can make sure each chapter or scene change is tagged in such a way that you actually give the POV character’s name. Or you can have another character call the POV character by name in the first paragraph or so and making it clear it is your POV character responding.

In this particular case, however, the author didn’t need to go back and rewrite a good chunk of her book. The one thing we agreed with the person wanting another POV character on was that we wanted more of a feel for the other main character in the book. So we brainstormed ways to do so. The suggestions we came up with meant a little rewriting, but it was more along the line of a sentence here and a paragraph there. Letting us more into the mind of the POV character and her reactions to him, especially at the beginning of the book.

Now, was the original critique wrong?

Not necessarily but it wasn’t necessarily right either. However, what that person did was offer a concern with a solution and not offer any other ways to address the concern. By raising that person’s concern with our group, our critique partner wound up with a discussion of not only some minor weaknesses we saw in her work but also different ways to address them. What solution she finally chooses is up to her, as it should be. She is the one who knows her book the best and who will be able to determine the best way to fix the concerns, if they really need fixing when the entire book is looked at, without breaking the book or the characters.

Here is another point we, as authors, need to keep in mind when we workshop a book in a critique group. More often than not, our critique partners are seeing only a chapter or two at a time and it may be weeks or months or even years before they critique that last chapter. That means critiques tend to be centered only on the chapter or scene they are currently working on in the group, not on the work as a whole. It means details from previous chapters can and will be forgotten. The flow of the book won’t be there. So, when someone says you need to do something that impacts the entire book, you have to ask yourself if they made the comment with the entire book in mind or just the current chapter and maybe the previous one or two in mind.

This is where your writer’s gut has to come into play. If what the critique partner says feels wrong, ask yourself why. If it feels right, examine that as well. Don’t be afraid to ask that person if they had the same concerns about earlier chapters they had seen.

If I have to point out one rule when it comes to critique groups/alpha and beta readers it would be this: do NOT try to make everyone happy. If you try to insert every change that every person suggests, you will probably wind up causing yourself more headaches and problems than you find solutions. This is, to repeat myself, where you fall back on the Rule of Three. If three folks say basically the same thing, consider what they said and why. If not, make a note, think about it but remind yourself that others did not have the same problem or suggestion.

Most of all, learn to trust your writer’s gut — and when to realize you really shouldn’t have had that three-day-old slice of pizza that hadn’t been refrigerated. Now go forth and write and, if you aren’t a writer, read.

Oh, in case you are wondering what to give your favorite authors for Christmas, here’s something every author would appreciate. Write a review for their work on Amazon. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed. Just enough to let folks know you read the book and what you thought about it. The number of reviews a title gets impacts its visibility. It also helps other readers decide if they want to try an author they might not have read before.

 

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