Tag Archives: Peter Grant

Self-Insertion

Every time I see this phrase, I feel like it’s a little dirty.

“Oh, go self-insert!” 

Yeah. Sometimes my brain is a 14 yo boy (although admittedly my 15 and 16 yo girls would make a sailor blush at times. Dinner conversations are frequently… interesting.) Anyway, I was talking about writing, not sex. Although….

Robert Heinlein famously said about writing to do it in private and wash your hands afterward, a clear parallel to a much more intimate act. If we follow that line of thought through, we come up with writing being a pleasurable act for the author (we’ll leave the other side of the equation out of it for a moment) which seems reasonable, because why else would we inflict this kind of effort and angst on ourselves? So yes, in a sense we the writers are, ah, F*&ing ourselves. It’s all a mindf*&k, though.

But does that make the main characters of our books a self-insertion? The more common, less literary term would be Mary Sue (or Marty Stu), which is outlined by TVTropes (here be dragons, or at least TymeEaters).

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

The problem is that while somewhat obviously this is a deeply flawed, highly cliched character, it’s not always the case when a critic snubs a book for containing a self-insertion. A Mary Sue lacks a growth arc, first of all. She (or he, in the case of the Marty Stu) springs onto the scene perfect, and being practically perfect in every way, has no desire nor need to change and grow into the role the author has set them into.

Chuck Gannon has been criticized for his main character, Caine Riordan, being too skilled, and obviously a wish-fulfillment character. I can see why – Caine, in the books, is a very competent person. But I’ve also met and talked with Chuck and I know that he is a brilliant man, behind a humble approach. And I know that he has friends who can do everything Caine can, and more, so for him to write this character came naturally. Where it stretches readers beyond belief is actually in the fact being stranger than fiction department.

Our own Peter Grant caught flak for his Steve Maxwell character being a ‘golden boy’ who could make no wrong moves. Peter thoughtfully considered the criticisms, and added flaws to Steve, but thankfully he didn’t break his hero in the process. It took me a while to put a finger on what I liked about Steve, but it finally clicked in a recent conversation about favorite superheroes, and why so many of us like that other Steve, Captain America.

Captain America (I unequivocally reject the Hydra version) is a nice guy. He’s a superhero, yes, but he’s also a guy you feel like you could sit and have a cup of coffee with, telling stories, and that he’d get up to go rescue a kitten, and it wouldn’t come across as too-good-to-be-true, he’s just that nice a guy.

Coming back to the pleasuring oneself aspect of authorship, yes, simply writing a character we could insert ourselves into ,and escape the humdrum world into a more perfect place would be a masturbatory experience. However, I’d like to think that ideally, writing is more akin to a shared pleasure experience. We’re not creating a book we’ll be taking to bed, after all. No, we dress it up, straighten the seam on it’s stockings, and watch it sashay out the door… and waltz into the arms of a reader. That is the goal of writers who are publishing. A two-way street of mutual enjoyment.

I’ll not take this too much further… just know that if I can write something that makes my readers happy, it makes me happy. So yes, I am inserting some of myself into my work. And writing a heroic main character who wins through the obstacles placed into his path, growing and developing into a better person as he does so? My fans like that kind of thing. So do I. I don’t like dark, brooding characters for whom nothing ever goes right, and the universe is out to get them. I’m sure there are readers out there who do. Hopefully they can find the writer for them, because I’m not the one.

Writing is perhaps the ultimate mindf%$k. Was it good for you? Because it was good for me…

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Conversations

I’ve had a series of conversations I took part in this week, and in them answered, or helped answer, some questions that I thought applicable enough to repeat them here. Writing, publishing, cover art… it’s all fodder for the blog, right?

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who is also a writer (at some point I need to sit down and tot up how many of those I have) and we were talking about world building. He was telling me he was going to make me blush, because he’d been talking to his wife about my work and they concluded that I build my world around my characters while he writes a world and then peoples it. Both work, he pointed out. I sat back and pondered on this. He’s a long-time gamer, and furthermore, the DM for his group.

A DM, Sanford tells me, runs the game. He sets up the situation and determines whether the actions of the players are successful and what the reactions of the encounters are. I can certainly see how this would translate very well into storytelling. Probably with a lot more control over his characters than I can possibly have. I’m a pantser. I fly through my worlds by the seat of my pants, no IFR available. For the non-plane types in the audience, that means Instrument Flight Rules, opposed to Visual Flight Rules, and it applies rather well to my style of writing.

I can’t outline very much. I can do a little, rough out the framework of the terrain that lies ahead of my characters. But most of the time I am writing what I ‘see’ and hear in my head. This can be a challenge if I have a character who isn’t talking to me for some reason. And yes, my worlds do revolve around the perceptions of my characters. I have a tendency to not know more about the world my character lives in than they do – since I write largely SF and fantasy where I’m making up the worlds.

The question was posed in one of the groups I belong to on facebook, “Do authors here have author-blogs or websites? How essential do you think it is for a newbie to get their own site early (before publishing)? Also for those of you who have established sites, could I get a link to check them out?” I’ve written at length here on the Mad Genius Club about the way I blog, and my motivations behind it. Some of that is formed by a conversation I had with Peter Grant when we first met at LibertyCon 25. He was telling me that he’d blogged for a few years (I can’t recall the exact number, 3-4 years I think) before releasing his first book to build a large fanbase of people who wanted it. I think that’s an excellent idea, but it’s predicated on a couple of things. First, Peter was giving his readers good content. The blog he runs, Bayou Renaissance Man, is very interesting to follow as he dances from gun geeking to social commentary to just plain funny stuff. It is rarely on ‘writing and publishing’ and the few posts I can remember seeing on those, he admitted up-front that it was inside baseball and possibly not of interest to his readers. Because here’s the thing. We’re fascinated by all topics connected to writing and reading. We’re writers, after all, or working on it. That’s why we come to the MGC (that, and the sparkling wit and scintillating commentary). Ahem…)

However, unless you are marketing to writers, filling your blog up with posts about writing is not going to build a terribly big fanbase. I modeled my current blog schedule (and went to a daily post soon after talking to Peter, although it wasn’t consciously connected)  on this thought: building a broad base of people who come to my site to get interesting material. I give them value for their time, and in return, they have a trust relationship with me that means they are far more likely to lay some money down and take a chance on my writing. I blog on writing once a week, and vary it enough that I hope it’s not boring. I also blog on food, art, social stuff, and random bits that catch my attention as they flutter by (shiny! and if you doubt that, take a look at the list of topics on a day I do link round-up based on my open browser tabs! LOL) with the occasional book snippeting thrown in for good measure.

I’m a big fan of what I jokingly term the Jim Baen school of marketing: the first hit’s free. By snippeting the first quarter of the book, I should have hooked (or I need to hang up my author hat in disgrace) the reader well enough that on release day they are waving green folding stuff at me. But just snippets won’t bring the readers in, either. So, all the other stuff that I blog on does serve a purpose. The acronym WIBBOW, would I be better off writing? is yes. Blogging is writing. It’s just not paid writing, in a direct sense. Do you have to blog? No, you don’t. It will make building and maintaining a fanbase a little more challenging, but it can be done and blogging regularly isn’t for everyone.

Speaking of which, I have paying work to go do. So I’d better get my gear tidy and head out there… I will be back this afternoon to check on you all in the comments, so keep the sparkling and scintillating down, you hear? I don’t want to find this blog had burned down when I was out.

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Fading Flower or Why Bestselling Self-Published Authors Are Just Better

Donald Maas puts it that agented selected traditional published ‘crème de la crème’ bestselling authors are the first class of books, the midlist being economy or coach class, and the ordinary self-published Joe is freight class. Hmm. Obviously he is as skilled in logic as he is in his understanding of the word ‘cull’. I do understand with a background in the rarified world of NYC publishing that such vulgar agricultural matters may not come his way much, despite the vast quantity of male bovine excreta produced there. In fact, as I will now attempt to prove in terms of that other obviously agricultural matter which obviously isn’t well known in NYC publishing circles, logic — in terms of talent, on average, agent-selected, traditionally published authors are… third class bestsellers, and quite possibly of less value than even midlisters, or largely indistinguishable from those.

Hugh Howey’s excellent data-crawl analysis here included the star rating of Indy and other including big five bestsellers. It’s noticeable that the big five bestsellers had lower average star ratings, which Howey puts down (quite kindly IMO) to price expectation. After all if you pay a Rolls-Royce price, you expect Rolls-Royce quality. While I appreciate his effort and find most of his post accurate, (Update, they are now saying further examination shows price-point for price-point Indy still licks the big 5) on this I must differ. This is not price expectation. This is the Bumiputera effect*. This is why Donald Maas’s big five bestseller clients are, on average, not as good as the Independent bestsellers. This is why on average independent bestsellers – or even those achieving midlist sales, are better than I am.

Maas and his fellow travelers inform us that as they filter, it means that what gets to the top (through them) is better at the top… because it is filtered first. But the final measure of quality is not what it went through to get to the top, it is being at the top of the sales. To put it in slightly different terms. Many skiers wish to get Olympic medals. Three will get medals. The final measure of quality is the medal (a bestseller), not the process that got them there. (A million writers will put their books up for sale, a hundred will become bestsellers). The million entrants and their origins and methods are irrelevant. What counts is that they are bestsellers (or medalists) NOT the run-up to that.

One skier may have been picked up by a talent scout (literary agent) at a minor competition and had all their training and support at the expense of the state and more sponsorship than they can spend (publisher’s dahling), and the best equipment and training money can buy.

Another skier was self-taught, and got there by sheer determination and endless self-training, won competition after competition without sponsorship and without support, and had to sell his home to be there. They’re both in the Olympics. They both win medals. Which had more talent? (Odds on the self-taught got the gold, but that aside.)

On average, the independent bestseller is a better writer, works harder, and deserves more credit for their achievement (and generally seem nicer, more supportive of others, and less insecure too). They had a bigger mountain to climb and needed more skill to get there. Given the degree of support that the Big Five dahling had, the average Indy midlister would eat their lunch. Being an agent’s pick, a Big Five dahling… is NOT the imprimatur of quality that being an Indy bestseller is. Actually, all it may be is the mark of a spoiled brat or a good kiss-up artist. It’s something I’d love to see those in that position show they can rise above, show independence of mind and generosity of spirit, but alas, so many fail. So, in the interests of not being one of them, and with a reputation for insanity to keep up… (I was told I was insane to promote other authors and not myself. Hey, what can I say? You’ve blown my cover.) Here are some Indies that have shown me what hard work and good writing are. (The pictures are links to Amazon) I can recommend all of them, and they cover all types for all tastes. There is something there for you unless you like bleah grey goo.

A-pleasure-to-read sf series. At last.

Our Kate at her snarky best. If you ever went to a sf/fantasy con… do not read in front of a keyboard with liquids.

I wrote cover copy for it. I do not write cover copy. Do I have to explain?

Yes, I know. It’s a dirty job but someone has to write decent shapeshifter/urban fantasy/romance-ish stuff. And a lot of people like it.

As for Maas’s ‘luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd’: Yes, this is quite an accurate assessment of the future of publishing. Only I wouldn’t call it a ‘luxury’ so much as a ‘total disaster’. And we may differ about what we see as the ‘the herd’ — I see as those well-domesticated cash-cows who are ‘farmed’ by NY publishing, rather than indy writers, who don’t placidly get herded into cattle trucks . Culling the prize cattle – killing the future breeding stock — certainly seems to be what they’re heading for. You know where that ends, don’t you? Just as bankers are finding out the boring bits of banking exist for good reason. They’re reliable and work. Gambling is just that. (Gamblers who are consistent winners or even above break-even aren’t ‘gambling’, believe me.) Maas’s weird daydream that: “Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves” – and then somehow give this for love to help poor little agents and the publishing industry, without it costing said Industry more than they can make without them, is straight delusional. Firstly, I’ve yet to meet an author who chose to do their own publicity because they enjoyed it, and thought that seeing it was so much fun they’d write a book. It may happen, but it’s not just a black swan, it’s a Higgs-Boson black swan. They chose to do it, because they had to. Some are good at it. But having borne that expense and put in that effort, they know what they can reap from it. They will only agree to a deal with a publisher (who 10:1 is from an industry that rejected them) for a serious multiplier of their own effort and income. And they will be setting tough terms, often only possible for a publisher by robbing Peter – existing authors, to pay the new Paul. What is Peter going to do about this, if he can?). In short, the only clients that agents (who, contrary to popular belief, do not, by-in-large work for authors, but are little more than slush filters that publishers generously allow authors the luxury of paying for) can look forward to having, and being eager for publishers to exploit in the traditional way… are losers. Those with no skill, who can’t sell without publisher push, or no self-confidence, will still want the third-class validation.

There are going to be some culls happening, but methinks not quite where you thought they would. Don’t forget that SASE with your resume.

*The Bumiputera Effect – as displayed in Medicine in Indonesia, where historically, most of the Doctors were ethnic Chinese. So in effort to make the society ‘indigenous’, hurdles were put in front of ethnic Chinese students, meaning it was far harder for a non-Bumiputera (look it up, Google is your friend) student to get in to medicine and to graduate, whereas Bumiputera had fantastic support and needed lower marks to proceed. The end result of this was if you were really, really sick, or had a precious sick child or partner, or parent, you took them to a Chinese doctor, because while Bumiputera Doctors MIGHT be good, Chinese ones almost had to be brilliant, because it was so much harder to get there. Yes I know, the entry to making a book available for sale has no barrier for self-publishing, and a huge barrier through an agent. But we’re comparing SALES, not availability. And authors who have been accepted by an agent and a big 5 publisher, even if they’re no better than one who hasn’t, have a substantial bookstore exposure, and supposedly professional help with covers, publicity, editing and proofing. If you’re a dahling, push with promotion and marketing too. If someone who hasn’t had that, has equaled or bettered your sales, they’re more popular with readers = better than you are, in that sense, and that’s the sense the world measures, not Hugo awards.

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