Category Archives: WRITING: CRAFT

Sawdust, chocolate cake, and New Coke

Regarding this item which crossed my desk over drill weekend, it’s typical of the attitude one finds among deck chair rearrangers — the men and women who think the answer to flagging trad pub sales, is to scold the genre for poor marketing while simultaneously scolding the audience for bad taste.

Because the field has evolved, yo. We’ve moved on from Star Trek. Nevermind that Star Trek spawned half a dozen television shows, as well as over a dozen big screen films, hundreds of tie-in novels, numerous kinds of video and paper-and-dice games, merchandising for light-years, and so forth. Star Trek is done, okay? Time for you to update your settings. We, the rearrangers, are here to notify you that the stuff you loved from the old days, is over.

A sales pitch which works wonders — on people who read things out of a sense of political duty.

The rest of us? We’re just looking for a good time. Not a mindless time. A good time. The sort of read which leaves us with a feeling of satisfaction. Because our hours were well spent. The author has properly rewarded our investment.

What constitutes a “good time” is definitely one of those de gustibus questions. Populists and taste-makers have both existed, since the first campfire storytellers regaled us over the flames — dating back to prehistory. Which stories are “worthy” and which stories are not? Can such a judgment be imposed, from the top down? Or will it invariably manifest itself organically, from the bottom up?

My personal belief is that it’s purely organic. Even when there are strong forces working to make this decision for us.

Taste-makers may secure for themselves the levers of academic or institutional power — pressing a kind or style of fiction on largely captive crowds. But nobody likes to be force-fed a handful of sawdust, while being told that the sawdust is in fact a rich, delicious piece of chocolate cake. A few people, wishing to join the taste-making set, may embrace the sawdust. Swearing up and down that the sawdust is, quite simply, the greatest treat (s)he has ever had. (S)he will gobble further handfuls of sawdust, to prove that (s)he has adopted the acceptable and correct values.

But in the end, it’s still sawdust.

Which is why a Hugo or a Nebula short list — in 2017 — isn’t indicative of organic enjoyment. The Hugo and Nebula short lists are created by, and for, the sawdust set.

If I am talking to a prospective audience member who skips over SF/F as a general rule, I know precisely why (s)he feels this way. She’s had too many bites of the sawdust, which masquerades as chocolate cake. It’s the Nutty Nuggets rule. You can’t keep altering the contents, while leaving the packaging more or less unchanged, without running the risk of alienating your readers. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the old contents are wrong, or bad, or outdated, or silly, or need to be revised simply to suit an arbitrary and purely internal sentiment. Remember how New Coke went over? Most of the people who want SF/F to “evolve” and “move on” probably aren’t old enough to remember New Coke — and how it brought a soda manufacturing giant to its knees.

The lesson of New Coke is, nobody asked for New Coke. The Coca-Cola folks were trying to figure out why their sales were slipping against Pepsi, so they cooked up this idea to reformulate Coca-Cola, and it bombed badly with consumers. Only the rapid and dramatic reintroduction of Coca-Cola classic restored consumer confidence. New Coke went down as one of the all-time great marketing and business blunders.

Now, speaking from memory, I didn’t think New Coke was fantastically different from Coke Classic. At that particular time, I was actually more of a Royal Crown consumer, with occasional Coke or Pepsi dalliances on the side. Especially Cherry Coke, which I still like very much.

But the point is: rattle your audience’s faith in your product, at your peril.

For the better part of two decades, SF/F’s rearrangers have been embarked upon their own version of New Coke. The sawdust-gobblers decided that we’d had just about enough of the blockbuster “old way” of doing things, even though the 1970s and 1980s invented the SF/F bestseller. It was time to move on.

And yet, the audience has not followed. In dribs and drabs, the audience has gone elsewhere. Trad pub numbers for SF/F continue to struggle, in comparison to a quarter of a century ago.

Some of this can be blamed on a media-diverse digital entertainment spectrum. Now that people can literally carry movies and television series and video games in their pockets, to watch or play at any time, the era of the paperback — as the single most convenient form of sit-down pass time — is over. Electronic books have also revolutionized the buying landscape, allowing consumers to get their books directly from the author, or from a clearinghouse seller.

But a lot of it — I believe very much — comes down to fans of SF/F Classic feeling burned, by New SF/F.

It’s not that New SF/F is measurably inferior — though some would argue it is. It’s just that the crowds from the high years of the genre’s print popularity, aren’t satisfied with what they’re getting anymore. New SF/F is “off” from SF/F Classic. Could you metric this on a chart? Not really, to the same degree that taste tests with Classic and New Coke yielded uncertain metrics. More, it’s the fact that print SF/F’s manufacturers have — since at least the year 2000 — decided they’re going to mix things up, even though there weren’t a lot of people from the old audience who had demanded such a mix-up.

SF/F Classic was deemed not good enough. So then came New SF/F.

And the trad pub numbers began their familiar decline.

Some of the 21st century’s strident SF/F activist-authors like to misstate the problem — accusing SF/F Classic fans of wanting to dial the genre all the way back to when actual coca leaf extract was in the formula, and it was administered as a pharmacological tonic.

I’m not sure what ground is gained via this line of reasoning, other than to further push SF/F Classic fans away from the very manufacturers who claim to want those fans’ business.

My own fear is that the zealots of New SF/F will so successfully alienate the audience, that SF/F et al will become an academic interest only. Ergo, the major trad publishers will jettison the brand, leaving it for the small presses and for a tiny reader base which is interested in SF/F purely as a political and sociological plaything.

We’re halfway there already.

Though, it must be noted, plenty of indie authors are trying desperately to ensure that SF/F Classic does not depart the digital publishing shelves. And there is also Baen, perhaps the lone holdout among all trad publishers, keeping SF/F Classic alive — with the flag proudly flown high. For these Classic SF/F parties, the taste of the original high-period audience (of print SF/F) is not in need of revision. Rather, it’s that very high-period taste which provides a solid market base.

Sawdust-gobbling be damned.

Which will not, of course, prevent the sawdust set from pushing New SF/F into ever more esoteric and obscure territory. Believing (vainly) that making New SF/F into a political cause, substitutes for returning SF/F to its natural state, as a popular cause.

In fact, there’s every indication that the zealots of New SF/F believe the political is popular, and vice versa.

But then, this is how zealots throughout history have always thought — theirs being the straight-line ramp of destiny.

I’m fairly certain the market disagrees. And it’s the market which always wins, too. It was the market which made SF/F Classic into a money-rich hit in the first place.

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Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART, WRITING: CRAFT

Say what?

In one of my rare breaks from the keyboard yesterday, I went wandering around the internet in search of inspiration for today’s post. I’ll be honest. I thought the search would be fruitless. Why? Because so much digital space was being wasted on conspiracy theories about Envelope-gate from the Oscars or more screaming about politics. Then, there it was. A story that had me looking at my screen, looking away and then looking back, sure I wasn’t reading what I thought I did.

Nope. I read it right. After beating my head, figuratively at least, against my desk, I put the link in a private writer’s group I belong to and waited to see if they had the same reaction I did. It didn’t take long for the responses to roll in and they were all about the same as my own. Imagine a group cry of “WTF?!?” going up, followed by shaking of heads and chuckling and then each of us shuffling back to our keyboards to get back to work.

What, pray tell, caused such a reaction, you ask. The answer is simple. This article chastises indie authors for writing too much, too fast. The author of the article is Michael Cristiano who works in editing and acquisitions for Curiosity Quills Press.

As I started reading his post, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. After all, when someone begins with “I’ve been a little wary of the potential backlash I might face,” you get the impression that he is either going to strike right at the heart of some sacred screed of writing or he’s about to go political. When that is followed by admitting there is no one right way to write, that everyone’s process is different but. . . well, he just foreshadowed how he is going to begin telling us that there is a rule we must all follow and it is his rule.

Guess what that rule is?

We, as indies, are to slow down.

Wait, let me do that the way he had it in the post. We are to SLOW DOWN!

Today in the publishing industry, especially in the indie-author market, quantity is king. I’m not saying that quality isn’t being taken into account, because to some extent it probably is, but there is a new mantra for indie authors like myself: write a lot and publish as often as possible. That means that some authors are publishing three or more novels a year, sometimes as many as ten novels a year.

That one statement is enough to justify the author’s concern that he would take flak for the post. As he should. The chutzpah of assuming to know what drives the indie movement is mind-boggling. I don’t know any indie author who takes their work seriously, who has pride in what they do, who is more concerned with how often they click the publish button more than they are about putting out the best product possible.

Are there exceptions? Of course there are. But they are, pardon the pun, the exceptions and not the rule. But let’s continue.

Apparently, according to the OP, publishing three or more novels a year is a bad thing. Hmmm. Wanders over to Amazon to check my author page. I published three novels, a short novel of approximately 40k words and two short stories, both of which were between 10k -20k words. I guess that makes me a bad author because I write too fast. Funny thing, I have folks who are constantly asking me why I don’t write faster because they want to read the next entry in of series or another. Does that make them bad readers?

Okay, second amendment (and I’ll be generous): I judge authors who release three or more books within a year ESPECIALLY if the three books are not part of the same series.

Wait, what?

So, here is an author who begins his post by telling us there is no one correct way to right who is now telling us there is? Bad Amanda, you have now broken two of his rules. You put out three or more books in a single year and — gasp — they weren’t part of the same series. Oh woe is me. What am I ever to do? I know. I’ll tell the readers of the Honor and Ashes series, as well as the Nocturnal Lives series and Eerie Side of the Tracks series that they are going to have to wait at least another year or three for the next book in their favorite series while I finish the Sword of the Gods series. I’m sure they’ll understand and wait patiently for me to get around to writing the books they like. Oh, and I’m sure they won’t forget about the series at all as they wait years and years for the next book to come out.

NOT!

I don’t know the OP’s writing process any more than I know that of any other writer except, perhaps Sarah’s and Kate’s because we tend to bounce ideas off one another. For me, I need to step away from a series after writing a novel and, perhaps, a short story, for a while. By doing so, it lets me get a clearer perspective on what the plot for the next entry in the series should be. Yes, I could do that by simply not writing anything else for several months after publishing the latest book in the series but I’m a writer. I make my living writing. If I spend months not writing, I am not doing anything tangible to increase my income. So, instead of sitting around, twiddling my thumbs until my head is ready to wrap itself back around the next book in a particular series, I move on to something else, something different form what I just spent the last few months researching, writing, editing, formatting and then publishing.

I’m sorry: a writing career shouldn’t be a puppy mill of stream-of-consciousness vanity projects.

Wow. Condescending much? Even giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that by “stream-of-consciousness” he means pantsing — and I don’t think he does — the “vanity projects” kills me. But it gets better.

I just don’t see how anyone has the time to publish more than three novels a year AND maintain consistent literary quality.

So, because Mr. Expert here can’t figure out how to do it, none of the rest of us can either. And remember, he started out by saying there are no two processes that are the same and no one “right” way to write. I guess that’s right, as long as you also accept his exceptions to those two rules.

He has a series of questions about how long you spend writing, how many drafts you write, how long you edit, etc. Then he comes up with this little gem.

Sure, if you’re a full-time writer and you have a really quick team of beta-reader/editor-robots, you could have a really good, polished manuscript in a year. Eight months if you’re lucky.

Now, show of hands. How many of you are laughing hysterically at this point? For one, I have this vision of robots sitting at desks, red pencils in hand, editing.

What the OP is forgetting is — gee, I think I mentioned this earlier — that no writer has the same process as the next writer. We write at different speeds and in different manners. Some of us are pantsers — hi, Kate! — and others are plotters. Some do a bit of both. Some authors put out a rough draft that is publishable with very little content editing needed — hi, Sarah! — and just a bit of proofing. Not every author needs to do three or four or six rough drafts.

Also, the more you write, the more you study the craft, the better you get. When I started out, I was lucky to get a book out a year. Why? Part of it was confidence. Part was that I needed heavier structural editing than I do now. Part was I couldn’t let go of a manuscript and wound up editing the life out of it. Ask Sarah. She got to the point of threatening to publish my work and then tell me about it because I was doing so many editorial passes.

So, where’s the sweet spot? How many novels should you release a year in order to ensure highest quality? I don’t know, frankly.

Wow, after telling us for how many hundreds of words that he knew and if we were releasing more than two or, at most, three books a year we were doing it wrong, he now says he doesn’t know? Surely there’s a catch. Ah, there is. You see, according to him, a book is like good wine or cheese. It has to age. So, if you haven’t taken enough time — whatever that means — you aren’t putting out the quality of work he wants.

Too bad he judges by the number of books an author releases and not by, gosh, actually reading the book. But I guess he’s afraid he might get the equivalent of moldy cheese and he doesn’t want to ruin his literary palate.

I will admit he is right on one thing. You shouldn’t release novel after novel just to inflate the number of titles you have out there. But to say it is nigh on impossible to produce quality work more than once or twice a year is to insult every indie author — and traditionally published author — out there who does just that.

I assure you, I will continue putting out more than one or two books a year, real life willing, as long as I am satisfied with the quality of the work. I will work on more than one series at a time because that helps keep it all fresh for me. Unlike the OP, I am a working writer, like so many of you. This is how I make my living. I don’t have the time to go backpacking around the world — or the spare cash to do it. So I write. As long as I have people out there wanting to read my work, I will continue doing so.

And so should you. Write at your own speed. Use your own process, as long as it works for you. And ignore everyone who tells you you are doing it wrong just because it isn’t the way they do things.

***

And, just to show I am doing it my own way, linked below is the pre-order page for the second book in the Sword of the Gods series. The first book, Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1), is currently available for purchase.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

Publication date – March 15.

Plots form, betrayals are planned and war nears.

Cait Hawkener has come to accept she might never remember her life before that terrible morning almost two years ago when she woke in the slavers’ camp. That life is now behind her, thanks to Fallon Mevarel and the Order of Arelion. Now a member of the Order, Cait has pledged her life to making sure no one else falls victim as she did.

But danger once more grows, not only for Cait but to those she calls friends. Evil no longer hides in the shadows and conspirators grow bold as they move against the Order and those who look to it for protection. When Cait accepts the call to go to the aid of one of the Order’s allies, she does not know she is walking into the middle of conspiracy and betrayal, the roots of which might help answer some of the questions about her own past.

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: LIFE

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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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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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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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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