Plausible? Impossible!

As a software tester by day, I’m always running headlong into the unknown unknowns. It’s part of the job description: finding this stuff before it goes live – if I can. I know and my manager knows that I’m not going to get all of it. If I can get the worst, we count that as a good job.

This crosses over to writing in several ways. One of the biggest is that a testing scenario is a story, complete with characters and plot. Characters and plot are usually pretty thin by author standards, but there are times when I’m quite sure they’re fantasy.

That testing story can get really fun when I get to go into the more esoteric aspects of the craft, like security testing (“I am Evil Hacker Dood. I am looking for way to make all your base belong to me.”) or load testing (“Just how high can I take this thing before it turns into a denial of service on the company intranet?”). Then there’s the stories I have to tell to convince people who don’t really understand the risks that yes, they actually do need to fix this problem.

Which is where I run right into the issue of something that’s plausible – even self-evident – to me looking impossible to someone else.

For work stuff I can make my case to the manager and he’ll make the call whether to do the thing or not. For fiction it’s not that simple.

To start with, it doesn’t matter if it can actually happen or not: if the in-book setup doesn’t make it reasonable, it’s going to give the book flying lessons. Hence, foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is where you the author carefully and ever so casually drop the little hints that your reader’s subconscious will grab and store away. Lots of little hints. You use Checkov’s Gun, and show the gun over the fireplace that’s going to be used several scenes later. Or in our genre, the sword. Or lightsaber. Or whatever. If you’re really good it’s not functional and has to be used in a non-standard way (I am not gratifying anyone’s feelthy mind, even my own, with speculation about how the hero is going to use the broken lightsaber).

Even better, you include everything to justify what happens later early on, in bits that are apparently red herrings or character development. If you need to explain how something works, you show it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand it and have them asking about it – if all Joe knows about dragons is that they’re big and they breathe fire, it’s perfectly reasonably for him to ask Bob (who, as everyone knows, knows all about everything) how he and his friends should deal with the beast. Have some business (in the theater sense, where the actors will do stuff that’s appropriate to the scene, like flipping through a book, or fiddling with the scenery) going on at the same time, like maybe Joe is sharpening his special-order Plus Ten Sword of Dragonslaying while he’s talking to Bob, or something. Even fiddling with his clothing works, but it’s better if you can contrive something that will be relevant later. Or come back and add it when you edit.

You see how that works? You can embed a heck of a lot of information about how things work and prepare people for your Big Reveal (or Big Encounter or whatever flavor of Big your ending uses). As a pantser of the extreme variety, I can say that you don’t have to be a plotter to do this. Even if you don’t know where the piece is going until it arrives you can foreshadow. It just has to happen in the editing passes instead of in the early drafts – something I’ve grown quite familiar with.

Half the time I find my subconscious has already put in the foreshadowing hooks for me to expand on. It’s a better writer than I am, or at least a better plotter. It’s also better at remembering that if I want people to know what’s going on, I have to actually write it down, not just leave half of it in my imagination.

Not like life which does erratic things like dump a couple of feet of snow less than a week after 70 degree temperatures. If I did that in a book it would meet the wall so fast… Which is a lesson in itself. If you need the snowstorm shortly after really nice weather, then make sure your characters make snarky comments about how changeable it is at this time of year so the snow doesn’t look like Act of Author.

Obvious Act of Author makes books get flying lessons.

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Starting Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does this have to do with writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know?  Do you care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Keeping Track

One of the difficulties writers face, especially when they have several series of books going at one time, is keeping track of everything. Some writers manage to keep everything straight in their heads. Others have complex story bibles that have almost as much information in them as their novels do. Still others have handwritten notes scattered around their work area — and who knows where else. Then there are those who stop writing when they get to something they can’t remember and go looking for the answer in earlier works. As with the writing process, there is no one true way to keep track of your characters, different plot points, etc. The key is finding one that works for you.

And that is something I’ve been trying to find for the last couple of years. I’ve looked at examples of story bibles and, I’ll be honest, most of them take more work than I want to do. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve seen character sheets that have more than 100 questions you are supposed to answer about every major and important character in your book. Sorry, but nope. If I have to do that, I’m not going to do it. Or, if I do, I’m going to be too tired of the character to write them.

I’ve had friends tell me I need to just work out an Excel spreadsheet and fill in the blanks. Well, the first problem with that is I don’t like Excel. I can use it but I don’t want to have to unless I’m figuring out my budget or my expenses.  Besides, it also means coming up with a format that I not only like but that is easy to navigate. Using it with my writing is, well, too much like work. So, nope, not gonna happen.

Other suggestions have been to find a fan who would be willing to go through my books and build the “bible” for me. I’ve done that before — waves at Sarah — and there’s a problem. The author has to be able to tell the volunteer the format she wants or it isn’t going to work. After all, what seems totally reasonable and logical to one person won’t necessarily appear that way to another. Also, the information I might think important to be included might not seem so obvious to the person doing the compilation for me.

So, when a writer friend of mine, Mackay Chandler, posted on his FB wall last week that he was looking for recommendations for programs to build his story bible, I sat up and took note. For one, I figure Mackay wouldn’t want to spend any more time than I would learning a program. For another, I respect Mac as a writer and was curious to see what he wound up selecting.

Several f0lks recommended he do a wiki. I’ll admit, my reaction to that was skepticism. I wanted a program that I could host on my laptop, not on someone else’s online servers. I didn’t want to have to rely on being online to access the bible. Nor did I want to trust anyone else’s hardware to host my work. Still, a wiki did intrigue me but not as long as it was online only.

Someone, and it might have been O’Mike, recommended Zim Desktop Wiki. Based on some very preliminary thoughts on the program Mac had, I went ahead and downloaded it for myself. I spent most of Monday playing around with it and, much to my surprise, I not only like it but have found it easy to set up so it makes sense to me.

The first series I’m using it with is Nocturnal Lives. The decision was sort of a no-brainer since Nocturnal Rebellion is the current work-in-progress. The series consists of four novels and a novella and, I’ll be honest, I don’t remember all the character names and descriptions. So I needed something to keep me from having a manuscript filled with [ ] which is my shorthand to go look something up.

The first thing I needed to do is decide what my basic setup for the wiki would be. After some trial and error, I came up with a pretty basic setup. There is a homepage, a section for the novels, a section for the novella, one for characters and one for special terms.

Here’s a shot of the homepage. Note, all images can be clicked on and they will open up in larger format.

As you can see, there are live links on the page that will carry me to the pages. The navigation pane at the left of the page can be opened up as well and used to go to any of the pages or sub-pages.

For the novels, I set up a section that lists each of the novels. They, in turn, have their own page and sub-pages. When they are finished, the main page for the novels will include the cover image and blurb, along with order links, publication date and other related data. Here’s what I have so far.

For Nocturnal Origins, here is the preliminary page. You’ll note I have links to two sub-pages. The first is locations. This will open to another page that will then link to individual pages where I describe the different locations in this book, importance to the story, etc. The second is “manuscript”. After some thought, I decided I wanted the actual text of the book included in the wiki so I could check back and forth as needed. So, under manuscript, each chapter has its own subpage.

Here is an example of one of the location pages. It describes the basics of Mac’s house (up to Chapt. 10 where I stopped for the day yesterday).

Then here is an example of a character sub-page, again, not complete. You will see some links are present and there are others that need to be put in. I’ll go back and do that over the next few days as I finish setting up the wiki.

Finally, here’s a picture of the first page of the book. The links will take me either to a character page or location page.

This program is extremely simple to use, fairly intuitive. The manual is decent but there are some good videos on youtube as well as third-party sites with how-to’s on them. I’ve spent more time trying to determine how I want the wiki set up than anything else. You can export the wiki, or notebook, as an html file, so you have multi-platform use if you want to play with it that way. You can also then upload to your own site if that’s important to you.

Is this the file for you? I don’t know. That’s a question only you can answer. But, for me and for what I need, it works.

Oh, yeah, the other thing I need to do is a bit of promo. Yeah, yeah, I know. You didn’t come expecting an ad. I can’t help it. I’ve got a book coming out tomorrow — and it is available for pre-order now.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

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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‘Want fries with that?’

Or ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ (being the advice given to many an aspiring writer, by many saddened but wiser authors or people who trod the course before.)

Here’s the thing: chasing down your dream instead of taking the careful course has become fashionable. Who the hell am I to criticize anyone for doing so? I live on an island and write novels as a result of making choices that were not what most people think are sensible. It worked for me.

That doesn’t stop me knowing that many of my choices were really anything but sensible, and having decided to do it anyway.

That’s a very different animal to believing that a degree majoring in Wymyn’s Studies, and Impressionist Medieval Bathroom Décor would lead to a world of opportunity and was well worth getting deep in debt for… and then being terribly unhappy and blaming everyone else, when the most common opportunity (outside of teaching the same stuff others) oddly involves potato products.

It is this whole personal responsibility thing, which I believe is out of fashion.

It is a pity about that, because it works.

Now, all of this post is due to a very successful and skilled writer being asked by a wannabe if the wannabe should – in order to follow her writing dream, take BA majoring in English.

She answered – and I paraphrase slightly:

English Major = “Want fries with that?” Pick on something that will make you enough money to write what you want. *

Of course deeply offended English Majors promptly rushed to the defense of a degree they’d spent a lot of money getting. One even claimed to be a writer earning 6 figures. I’ve never heard of her, but it is possible.

It IS possible that you can be a very successful author with a BA in English. It is also possible that you can be a very successful author with a degree majoring in Wymyn’s Studies, and Impressionist Medieval Bathroom Décor.

Almost anything is possible.

That’s not the question.

The question is: how probable is it? Given some idea of that, you can make rational (or irrational) decisions about your best course toward your goal.

Back in pre-history when killer fax-machines roamed the streets with greasy hair-dos, I made some of my own choices, which did come with having to learn something of the dark arts (AKA Mathematics and Statistics. Yes, I already washed my mouth out with soap), and this forces me to say: the odds on becoming a traditionally published author, making a good living, are such that becoming an astronaut is not all that ridiculous a goal, and neither is winning the Lotto.

And unlike the aiming for becoming the astronaut, where sensible study choices and high intellect can reduce those odds hugely (they’re still very high) luck still remains a huge factor for authors (Yes, good persistent writers are lucky more often than people who write poorly and don’t keep trying). So unless there is a study course which makes you a lot more likely to win at games of chance… study probably isn’t going to be a deciding factor. That’s not say you can’t succeed as a writer having accrued $250 000 in debt doing a BA in English or Creative Writing… or Ichthyology. It’s just a lot of money to spend, and time to invest if your goal is being a writer, not just loving your College course.

“But, but… but… English! You’ll learn all about literature, and understand it.”

You probably will. Or at least to understand what you College Prof thinks it means.

And how, pray, will that make you a better writer? At least ‘better’ for definitions of ‘better’ which include earning a reasonable living by selling books to readers in general. It’s not about how well you bleg on Patreon. That’s a skill too, BTW. Not one of mine, but a skill. It might help you sell more English Lit textbooks to future students. Or – like several of my peers now hastily working on MFA’s – and a couple of Australians taking PhD’s on their own books, it may help to make you a living teaching wannabe writers. One is a little curious here – as this is a fallback position for failing as an author… how valuable would such teachers be? Possibly more value than the English Prof who has never sullied his hands with commerce, let alone spoiled his perfect mind with popular books: but still, this is people who couldn’t do, teaching.

Look, this is a profession where, honestly, failure is MUCH more likely than success. A lot of that comes down to luck.

So the key is how do you improve your chances as best as possible?

I’m going out on a limb here, and will say investing time in writing is going to cost less and pay more to you as a writer than any college training will. Most of the skills you need you can learn yourself, or should have, if you passed 8th grade English (assuming you wish to write in English). Yes, you need to spell, have a reasonable grasp of grammar at least to the level of your readers, and having a clue about structure helps. There are plenty of books which can fill in any gaps. You may find advice on writing sites too.

Secondly, read critically – not as a critic, but to learn the skills and techniques of popular authors. There is no point in studying the average English curriculum of literary works read by other academics unless you want lessons in what not to do (unless they are your audience). The exception may be if you can find a course which actually focuses on popular books and the techniques their writers use.

Thirdly, publicity, whether it is a blog following of size or being a Kardashian, or playing your race, sex or orientation cards, is probably still more valuable than most things. It’s relentless work in almost all cases. Yes, every now and again someone gets lucky or has the right connections, or has sex with the right person… but sustaining public interest is work. You can parley that into commercial book success, even if you can’t write well.

Fourthly, the one thing you can learn from a degree is about the field you wish to write in. So: for example if you plan to write American War of Independence Historicals, it makes sense to study American History, especially that bit. If you want to write hard SF, Physics, Maths or Chem make some sense – and so on. Any subject WILL enrich your mind and help broaden your background (unless it is incredibly badly taught, and you are totally credulous. College SHOULD make a skeptic of you. If it doesn’t make you question what you’re being taught – you’re wasting your time.) Whether the cost and time – especially if it doesn’t lead to other opportunities – is worth your investing, is your calculation. Along with a habit of questioning accepted ‘knowledge’ you ought to learn research skills in academia (I certainly did) as well as bad writing habits that you will have to lose to appeal to a wide audience.

Finally: I know of no degree that focuses on ‘how to communicate entertainingly with people who do not share your expertise or interest.’ That would be a course worth taking, because that describes most of your customers.

So: what’s your opinion? Does taking English Lit qualify you as a writer or as staff at Burger-joint? Is it worth the investment, and why? Is any degree more relevant or useful, to the point that it is specifically worth being in debt for?

*Twitter is a hard environment to be subtle or tactful on. The author since removed the tweet, so I assume she’d prefer not to be named, which is fair enough. It’s not easy advice, but sometimes the best advice isn’t.

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When the message is lost in translation

I’d like to address how we convey our characters’ perspectives, motives, desires, experiences, etc. in our books.  I’ve been prompted to do so by two or three horribly inept portrayals in books I came across this week.  I’m not going to identify them, because I don’t want to single out authors for negative feedback;  in fact, I daresay I’ve been guilty of the same problem in my own writing.  Nevertheless, it’s a subject that deserves attention.

It’s very easy for us to become “proprietary” in our approach to our characters.  “He’s mine!  I invented him!  I know how he ticks!  Don’t tell me how he’s supposed to react!”  I’m sure we’ve all had those feelings internally, and many of us will have voiced them aloud or in print.  Nevertheless, in a very real sense, when we release our work to the buying public, they are no longer our characters.  The public now owns them (literally, by way of the dollars and cents they spend to buy our books;  and figuratively, in the sense that they will interpret them, analyze them, internalize them, and make them their own).

That being the case, it’s important for us to understand how we create characters.  For some of us, it’s unconscious.  We pick a protagonist, or antagonist, who expresses our own philosophies and/or experiences and/or perspectives, and write that person.  Others of us work out our characters beforehand, analyzing why we want them in our book at all, and then trying to “build in” personalities, backgrounds and other characteristics that serve the purpose.  However, in every case, our perspective as authors is influenced by who and what we are.  I don’t believe we can ever achieve a dispassionate balance in creating characters, because every one of them is, to a greater or lesser extent, an extension of who we are.  For example:

  • I don’t think I can “get inside” the mind of a woman, simply because I’m male.  I can analyze, study, and dissect patterns of female behavior, and talk to women to get an idea of how they would react to a given situation, or respond to a given stimulus;  but I can never experience their reactions with their emotions or internal thought processes.  I see this every day in my interactions with my wife.  She’s simply different from me, in a profoundly deep and innate way.  She doesn’t think as I do, and doesn’t react or respond as I do, and nothing in the world is going to change that.  She’s female.  I’m male.  Cat, meet dog.  Dog, meet cat.
  • There are some aspects of life that are so ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible for us to see things from any other perspective.  Take, for example, lightning striking a tree.  You and I, being educated First World citizens, know all about physics, and electricity, and heating, and how they combine to produce that fire.  To someone from an animist culture, the gods of the trees are fighting among themselves, and the god of that there tree just got zapped!  He may have a degree from a First World university, but deep down inside, he’ll never be able to rid himself of that fundamentally primitive reaction.  I know this.  I’ve worked with such people for more than half my life.  He’ll actually look pityingly at us, because our education has blinded our spirits, preventing us from seeing what’s obvious to any “normal” person.
  • Superstitions are ingrained.  How many people do we know who take their horoscope seriously?  There is absolutely no justification for that whatsoever, but I know Ph.D.’s who read it every day, and act on its advice.  Another example:  outside the Stock Exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa, for years I saw sangomas, witch-doctors, selling muti (“medicine”), herbal concoctions guaranteed to bring good luck to traders on the floor of the Exchange.  These traders had degrees (some of them multiple degrees) from top universities… yet they bought their muti every morning, because without it, they knew they would not have a good day at work.  Another example:  popular superstition in East Africa is that albinos are “touched by the spirits”.  They reputedly possess spiritual powers and properties that make them particularly suitable for the production of muti.  Therefore, albinos are routinely murdered for their body parts by witch-doctors, or gangs who will sell their body parts to witch-doctors.  Can you imagine what it must be like, to live inside a skin that makes you a target for murder?  Yet, for thousands of people, this is their normal, everyday existence.
  • Cultural norms intersect with religious norms to shape and form, not just a society, but individuals.  The hideosity of “honor killings” comes to mind.  There are in our midst today, here in American society, individuals who firmly, absolutely believe that it is not only their God-given right, but their duty, to kill their own daughters if they adopt American customs such as dating, choosing their own husband, refusing to permit themselves to be genitally mutilated by so-called “female circumcisions”, etc.  This is happening as you read these words.  These people have taken the primitive superstitions of their place and culture of origin, and transplanted them into our First World society.  When we hold them accountable for their actions, they regard us with contempt, as having no standards at all, and being blind to our duty to God.  “Honor killings” are an extreme example, but there are many others we encounter every day.  Jehovah’s Witnesses who shun their members who dare to think for themselves, and refuse to conform;  Mormon fundamentalists who insist on their right to practice polygamy, regardless of the laws of the land;  Catholics who regard it as, not just their right, but their God-given duty, to impose their solutions to moral issues, such as abortion, upon others whose world view is diametrically opposed to theirs;  and so on.  In their insistence that they have the right to impose their views on others, I submit that all of these groups are different only in degree, not in kind, from those who advocate “honor killing”.  We may, of course, believe that such views are right, proper and appropriate… but we’re doing so from inside those perspectives.  Others will disagree with us… sometimes violently.

By now some readers may be shaking their heads, and asking themselves, “What has this got to do with me?  I don’t fall into any of those extremes.  This has no bearing at all on how I develop the characters in my books!”  Well, actually, yes, it does.  Let’s apply the fundamental incompatibilities of such perspectives with others, to a more typical everyday encounter in our own worlds.

How many of you are aware of the number of criminals – convicts, ex-convicts, and those who’ve never been convicted, but have gotten away with their crimes – that surround us?  I’ve worked for years as a prison chaplain.  I can assure you, the numbers are daunting.  A 2010 study found:

About 8.6% of the adult population has a felony conviction.

. . .

About 20 million people have a felony conviction in America. That works out to about 1 in 12 adult Americans.

Note, those numbers are for 2010. Looking at the growth rate trajectory, we are probably up to around 24 million people today in 2014 with a felony conviction. This means we are probably pushing 10% of the adult population today. Of course, these aggregate percentages include women, which as we all know account for a small portion of all felony convictions.

One other thing to consider is that a large number of would-be felonies are plead down to misdemeanors, so the actual total number of people who were caught committing a felonious act is undoubtedly much higher than these numbers portray.

Think about that.  One in ten people you meet, statistically speaking, has a felony conviction (i.e. for serious, as opposed to minor, offenses).  In some geographic areas or segments of society, that number may fall to less than one in a hundred.  In others, it may approach one in two.  As real estate agents will reiterate ad nauseam, it often boils down to “location, location, location!”  There’s a whole science involved in understanding the criminal mind, and how it differs from normal attitudes and perspectives.  I’ve written about it in my memoir of prison chaplaincy, and recommended some other sources there.

 

walls wire bars and souls cover thumbnail

 

Unless we’ve taken the time and trouble to understand the criminal mind, we cannot and will not write convincingly about them.  We’ll write only our perspective on them – a perspective that will be uninformed, inaccurate, and misleading.

That’s where the headline of this article comes from.  When we write, we’re “translating” images, perspectives, inner realities, from our heads to the printed page.  (Whether it’s printed in ink on paper, or in electrons on screens, is irrelevant.)  The process of translation involves understanding and interpreting the people and situations we write, both as broadly and as deeply as possible.  If we don’t, their motivations won’t make sense to at least some of our readers, and their actions won’t square with their (supposed) motivations.  I’ve read far too many books where this problem is so great that I can’t continue.  The author requires me to suspend my disbelief, but proceeds to write so ineptly and so inaccurately about a subject that I simply can’t do that. I revolt against his words.

A classic example is anything involving military combat.  I know military combat.  I’ve been there.  I know what it is to be shot, and to shoot others.  I know what explosions sound like – more than sound:  they pound in the core of your being, like a physical punch, not just a noise.  I know what a battlefield smells like.  All these things are innate to me, so real that I no longer have to think about them.  They’re at a visceral level.  However, many authors purporting to write military fiction (whether SF, or historical, or whatever) have no idea whatsoever about those realities.  Sure, some of them have taken the time and trouble to research those issues, but that can only substitute for experience to a certain degree.  If they are conscious of, and write within, those limitations, their fiction usually works.  If they presume a visceral level of knowledge that they do not possess, and write as if they do, their books fail.  (An example I’ve used before is to ask someone whether they’d like their daughter to receive sex education, or sex training.  They understand immediately what I mean.  One’s theory.  The other… isn’t.)

Therefore, when we seek to portray a reality that our characters experience, or from which they come, or which influences the outcome of our plot, we need to be very careful to write it, as far as possible, to take into account the unconscious assumptions that we inevitably make.  Those assumptions exclude a large proportion of the human race that doesn’t share them, and can make our work unapproachable to many potential readers.  We can, of course, limit our intended audience in that way (“Well, I’m not writing for people from that background!”) – but once our book is out there, it’s no longer our own property.  “Our baby” has now become the baby of whoever buys it.  We’d like them to cherish it, rather than abandon it in the gutter!

We need to write so that what the reader receives is what we intended to send, and what the reader understands is what we intended to say.  We need to communicate between dogs and cats.  That’s a tall order.  If we succeed, I think we’ll do well.  If we fail… then the message is lost in translation.

 

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Indie does not mean Alone

I was talking with my mother the other day about writing and publishing. Mom is a good writer, and has nonfiction articles published, but not yet her fiction. I’m looking forward to her fiction being complete, and it’s not just that I’m biased toward my mom. But the conversation, and another comment I’d seen on social media, got me thinking. I’ve chosen an independent career, but that does not mean I operate alone.

As I am preparing a book for publication, it has already been read, commented on, edited, and not just by one or two other people. For this book I had an unusually high number of alpha readers. It had three, my First Reader, and two others I could trust not to blow smoke in my *ahem* but to tell me if they saw real problems. Most books don’t need that many – may not need any at all – but for this one where I was struggling with my confidence and inability to distance myself from the story, they are the only reason I finished it.

Once the book was finished in rough draft, I sent it off the beta readers. The comment I’d seen another author make, about only ever using two to three readers, always the same ones, and ones who wouldn’t steal the manuscript, rather boggled me. One, that height of paranoia bordering on arrogance… The manuscript is worth stealing, really?! And further, stealing when there is an easy record of who sent it to whom and when? But besides that pathology, there is a pitfall to using that few beta readers, and never changing them up. If life happens, and it will, you the author are left with even less feedback. And two to three readers is insufficient. Sarah Hoyt taught me years ago that you don’t make significant changes to a manuscript unless three people independently tell you of an issue. And you aren’t going to get that with a tiny reader pool. Also, solicit opinions outside your usual readers. If you can get someone who has never read your stuff before, that’s great! They are less likely to suffer from confirmation bias towards your work and can objectively assess it. I’m not saying send your book to all and sundry. But I am forever grateful to my beta reading pool, who have helped my writing more than they can ever know.

But it doesn’t stop there. From a cover artist, to editors, the Indie Author team is often made up of hired professionals, networked and bartered services, or some combination of those. But rarely does the author work completely alone, and when they do, it handicaps their work. If none but them see the book, they are going to be blindsided by bad reviews.

James Young, a great mil SF author and occasional guest post here, put out a terrific post on cover art, but the process he outlines for working with an artist, from price settings to contracts, is good stuff for working with any professional. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, as author and artist. Let me tell you, it’s not fun to shell out money you can’t really spare for work that never gets done. What he says about the PayPal friends payment, and no recourse? Ever wonder why I wound up becoming a cover artist? I didn’t have a choice – that money was gone, and I needed a cover, but couldn’t afford it at the time. It was a great lesson and led to good stuff for me, but it hurt. I’d rather you learn from my mistakes than repeat them. On the flip side, as an artist, I’ve done work, not collected a deposit, and been out money for supplies and a bunch of time when the author suddenly backed out. Lesson learned: don’t work with certain people and always collect a non-refundable deposit before starting work.

It’s a collaborative effort all the way, what we do. From writing groups to, well, the Mad Genius Club, the great thing about Indie Publishing is that you’re never alone. That’s why I don’t say I’m self-published. I may be pressing the button, but I have a team at my back. Sometimes I am part of that team behind an author. I get silly proud when I see my covers on great books hoping them sell well. I will always be there when someone who is struggling with their confidence about being a writer wants an ear to listen. I have friends who put up with me moaning about how this book is horrible, terrible, no good and will never be finished. In the past I’ve had writing groups and critique groups where I was anonymous (great for developing thick skin towards criticism) and prompt groups… All those people are a part of my path to publication. I’m not alone, and neither are you.

 

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New Author Earnings Report Out!

February 2017 Big, Bad, Wide & International Report: covering Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo ebook sales in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand

While this can’t answer the question individually on whether you should go wide or go KDP Select, it’ll give you the best picture of what the market is doing. That way you can make an informed decision.

Also, a lot of people missed the last “not-a-report” report they put up, with the slides from the Digital Book World 2017 conference. If you haven’t seen that yet, you’ll want to: it’s pretty eye-opening on how much of the print sales have moved online.

Print vs Digital, Traditional vs Non-Traditional, Bookstore vs Online: 2016 Trade Publishing by the numbers

That one has some pretty fascinating numbers, including breakdowns that show some smaller genres lumped in the large “trad pub is still dominating” are actually far and away fast-growth for indies.

Go read!

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