If the Baby is Ugly….

You know that thing you do, that thing where you justify the reactions others have to your work?

I wrote a book once. Well, actually I wrote several books. None of them sold very well, and I took to saying “It is because my genius is not knowable.”

Have you ever said that? Really, now. You know you have. Maybe not in those words, and maybe not aloud, but you know what I’m talking about. People just don’t get it.

You know what that is? It’s the use of self-affirmation to ease the pain of what you perceive as different from what you expected. We practice this technique quite a bit, but some of where it starts is with the dissonance we feel when what we say may not be what we really mean.

Cognitive dissonance, defined, is “an internal state that results when individuals notice inconsistency between two or more attitudes or between their attitudes and their behavior.”

In English, man!

In simple terms, it’s that slightly uncomfortable feeling you get when the baby is ugly but you say “He’s soooooo cute!”

uglybabyIf the baby is ugly, the baby is ugly. Why do we say it’s not? Because the parents are friends and we don’t want to upset them? Yes, that’s probably the motivation behind the lie.

It’s the same with reviews, you know.

Think about that for a moment: Why say “This book is the greatest ever written!!!!1!” when you know the writing is horrible, the story doesn’t go anywhere, and you would rather watch paint dry than read another chapter?

You know why.

It’s cognitive dissonance and what you’re saying right now (“They are writer friends and I want to help”) is self-affirmation. You’re saying something to cover your butt, to make yourself feel better for leaving that five-star review on Amazon for a book that should be one (or fewer stars).

Who are you helping with that?

Are you disillusioning the writer or are you making yourself feel better by “helping” someone else out who is an independent like you?

If the baby is ugly….

Bruce Blake, who might be known to some here (*wink*), once edited a manuscript of mine. It had errors. There were problems and inconsistencies and “farthers” where there should have been “furthers.” Between his edits and Scott Bury’s (who might also be known to some here (*wink*)) were kind enough to say “you know, this baby is ugly.”

You know what I did with that knowledge? I edited my manuscript, breathed a little, and still published it. The book sold little, and in my head I thought “it is because my genius is not knowable.” So while there was honesty in the reviews, I still thought what others had to say was off the mark and practiced self-affirmation when I should have practiced rewriting draft 52 (or 53…I lost count).

So what is needed in our industry? What is needed, I think, is a bit of honesty. If a manuscript sucks, regardless of how many other published manuscripts an author has or the size of their publishing house, the writer needs to know their baby is ugly.

I wrote a two-star review of a David Morrell book once. It felt good. I didn’t lie.

Will he care? He’s Rambo. Of course not.

But if an up-and-coming writer really wants to improve, if they really want to give the baby plastic surgery so-to-speak, they need to know the truth and we (as readers and writers and reviewers) need to be able to tell them that truth.

Cognitive dissonance is a thing. Self-affirmation is what helps ease the discomfort.

In the words of Bob Newhart: “Stop it.

If the baby is ugly….


Benjamin X. Wretlind ran with scissors when he was five. He now writes. He is the author of A Difficult Mirror, Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors, and Sketches from the Spanish Mustang.

He also gets up before 4am to milk (words, not cows).

The Hidden Benefits of Being a Writer

by Autumn M. Birt

Ask any author the reason they write, and you’ll likely hear about overflowing ideas, addiction to that ‘aha’ moment of discovery as a plot unfurls, or a desire to create for someone else the love of discovering new worlds and people that they found hidden between pages.

But have you ever heard anyone mention they understand people better because they are a writer?

death of fictional characterOr a reader – of fiction specifically. I’m not making this up. There have been scientific studies, as outlined in this great article Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Still Read Fiction, that show readers are more aware of others’ emotions. Though it was only readers in the study, I bet that writers would show even stronger connections to heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex. Whether we’d show more empathy is difficult to predict. We can do some very cruel things to our characters… but we feel their pain!

And I really agree with this. Writing emotions and working on ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’ really taught me to analyze body language and facial expressions (how to make movie watching ‘research’). Which resulted in learning to read emotions better in friends and family.

And that led to the realization that not everyone reacts the same way to an event. In fact, no two people – or characters – should exhibit exactly the same emotional impact. Responses are really a part of who a character or person is: some cry, some throw punches. That lesson helped improve the depth of my writing.

Discovering greater emotional variation and understanding is definitely one of the hidden reasons I enjoy being a writer. But it isn’t why I write. Nor any of the reasons I listed above, though all are accurate to some degree. I realized a while ago that I write because I like who I am better when I’m writing.

How does your emotional state play into your writing?

emotioncapture-300x201I know I’ve had some really sucky days where I end up thinking, “boy, this is going into my next novel.” Bad and tense days make great fodder for dark writing. And I leave the page at the end of it feeling purged of a lot of ick.

More than that, my mind is sharper when I’m working on a novel and developing a plot compared to when I’m surfing through life, just trying to juggle the day to day crap. I’ve joked that when I’m not writing my mind is like a little 4 cylinder engine where the valves are out of tune compared to when I am writing and I’ve got at least a well-tuned V8 humming away. Yeah, I like writing.

Can you get that out of reading? I think so, especially if you are reading a thriller or mystery and trying to unravel clues. Reading engages different areas of our brain compared to watching television. Do you ever think about what an actor is smelling on screen? Do you think about the crispness of a cold morning on exposed skin just because you see two people camping in the fall on a TV show or movie? Probably not. Not to mention when you read, you need to make up the scenery based on small details in the writing. And you can’t judge emotions based on the musical score… unless a newly emerging trend to incorporate music into ebooks takes hold (to which I’ll be muting my speakers…).

670px-Get-Over-the-Death-of-a-Fictional-Character-Step-1I’m very happy that people are still reading despite the multitude of other ways to immerse themselves. Not just because it means someone might buy my book, but because it means the world is potentially filled with slightly happier, emotionally more responsive people, who may even be more clever than average! I wonder if I can include questions on most recently read book the next time I have to hire someone? Hmmm…

So writers and readers make better friends. Even if they ignore you occasionally for the imaginary people in their heads or their favorite book. But hey, they’ll notice when you are upset!

Autumn tries not to take too much delight in the perils she throws at the characters in her novels, knowing if the situation were reversed she wouldn’t do half as well as they manage! Learn more about her epic fantasy series the Rise of the Fifth Order and check out her newest release, the beginning of a military dark fantasy series Friends of my Enemy, at AutumnWriting.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Real numbers: The truth about self-publishing

By Scott Bury

Last January, Digital Book World reported that nearly 80 percent of self-published authors and more than half of traditionally published authors earn less than $1,000 a year from their efforts.

That report has generated a lot of debate. Some very honest and brave independent authors have put their own statistics up against this argument:

Hugh Howey — arguably the most successful indie author these days — and another, anonymous indie author compiled statistical research and put the lie to the DBW claim. They point out that the DBW report is so broad as to be useless — it includes books of all types, and does not include ebooks sold by Amazon, the biggest book retailer in the world.

Howey and his unnamed partner dug deep and found that e-books account for 86 percent of all genre fiction, and that  independent authors outsell the Big 5 commercial publishers combined in genre fiction.  There’s a lot of analysis in the report, and I recommend you read it.

Toby Neal, bestselling author of the Lei Crime series and paranormal fantasy Island Fire, candidly revealed her own sales, revenues and cost figures on her books. While Toby treats the writing as an art, she approaches publishing as a business. She invested $12,000 in editing, design, production and marketing of her first book, Blood Orchids, and netted over $100,000. She still makes money on that book, and views all her nine books (with one more coming in March).
Independent author Jami Gold blogged about two more analytical reports that took apart the DBW claim about most independent authors making under $1,000. Jami’s original post was reblogged by book consultant Kristen Lamb. It turns out that professional independent authors, those who use professional editors and designers, market their books as a business and continue to publish several titles, make considerably more money.

 

About 50% of respondents make more than $10K when they have 4-7 self-published books available, and 20% make more than $50K. At 12-20 books available, over 50% of respondents are making 50K or more, and 30% are over $100K.

In short, independent writers who treat writing as a business or profession, rather than as just a hobby or game, can make a comfortable living at it.

What’s a professional writer?

Being professional means:

  • publishing regularly, developing a catalog of titles
  • using a professional editor – someone with background experience in the publishing industry
  • using a professional cover designer
  • marketing and promoting strategically and using professional services appropriately.

Getting into the category will cost money, but not as much as the 90% of book sales a commercial publisher takes, and certainly not as much as forking out thousands to a vanity publisher or something like one of those “become a published author” scams. And it won’t cost as much as you give up by not doing these things.

I have to admit, I’m remiss on one dimension: the regularity of my publishing my own books. It’s been a year since I published my last novel, Army of Worn Soles, and it’s going to be at least three more months before the next title is ready for publication.

It’s so refreshing, indeed inspiring, to get this honest number-crunching from some people who are making a profession from being independent authors, and showing us all there is a business model and a path that work.

Want to find more indie fantasy authors who are working the dream? In addition to those mentioned above, check out:

And many more that I just don’t have time or space to list here, and many I haven’t had the chance to read, yet. But keep coming back to the blog for reviews and interviews with independent authors.

Pic-ScottBuryScott Bury is a journalist, editor and writer living in Ottawa. His articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

Visit his bio page on Guild of Dreams.

Snowed in and Snowed under

Snapshot_20140802_2by Chantal Boudreau

This year, the weather has brought me ample fodder for story concepts. Be it imagined scenarios of the aftermath of a bus crash during an April snowstorm or co-workers sharing ideas of snow monsters taking over the world when winter never goes away (not someone who writes stories herself,) the massive snowfalls we have endured here in late winter/early spring seemed to have inspired some unpleasant icy fantasies.

But that’s the thing about fiction – genre fiction in particular. The stories are found in the unusual, not in the norm. You’ll rarely see a “day in the life of…” kind of tale when exploring the speculative unless it’s presented in such a way to highlight the differences between our mundane existence and the strange alien planet, or the magical fantasy realm or the dystopian future society. Everyday life doesn’t tend to make for an exceptionally interesting story unless there is something exceptionally interesting about the protagonist(s)’s everyday life. Even in literary fiction, characters tend to have their eccentricities and are moving toward some point of self-discovery or self-destruction not just adhering to the status quo.

The entertainment value of a fictional story comes from events that wouldn’t typically happen. They might be used by the author for some sort of social commentary or moral point, something not likely to happen as the result of a protagonist sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. Whether a character’s involvement is proactive or reactive, the story results from challenges, accidents, ambitions or extremes – something beyond the average.

I’ve been subject to the extraordinary for years, accused of being a weirdness magnet and of knowing everybody everywhere on more than one occasion (because I always seem to bump into acquaintances in the strangest of places.) I think that’s why, unlike some writers, I don’t cringe when people ask “where do your ideas come from?” I’ll gladly tell them. My life has always run so far outside of the norm, even when I’m trying to be just your average old boring accountant/mom, that I can’t escape new story ideas. I see them in my family, my friends, my co-workers, my environment, my goals, my fears and my trials and tribulations. Sometimes they even show up in the floors, doors or walls. With all this plot material building up in my head, if I didn’t write the occasional story, it might just explode.

So despite my unhappy mutterings about the record-breaking snowfall we’ve had this year, it’s really not all that bad. It’s just another one of those unusual experiences I can file away to break out when I need fictional inspiration – as the urge strikes me.

Something to keep me busy the next time I end up snowed in or snowed under.

The Same Old Argument

By Bruce Blake

—–

I did something unusual this weekend…I had a Saturday off. If you heard angels singing, now you know why.

While it’s not typical for me to have a day off from the ole day job on a Saturday, it wasn’t a surprise. Mainly, it didn’t surprise me because I asked for the day off. Those guys sure  know how to reward good work.

038575440XI took the day off because a friend of mine who is a traditionally published author was doing a book signing at a local book store. My friend–Jordan Stratford, author of the fantastic Wollstonecraft Detective Agency books for young readers–has a very interesting story that we can all feel jealous of (check it out here), but that’s not the subject of today’s post. No, today’s post is inspired by the conversation Jordan and I had regarding the differences between being self-published or published by one of the Big 5. As many of you might recall, I’ve recently signed on to have my Small Gods series with a publisher, but that is a ‘small press,’ so I kinda still count that as self-published (but with a great deal of help).

Now let me qualify first…I don’t want this to degenerate into a ‘which is better’ post. My conversation with Jordan simply highlighted a few differences, so here they are in no particular order.

1. Editing – when I send my finished novel off to my editor, I generally have it back within a week. In that time, she  reads it twice (have I ever mentioned how much I love my editor? Ella is amazing!), makes notes and suggestions, and sometimes manages to make fun of me to keep my head from ballooning. Jordan told me that he sent the third book in the series to his  editor in August and recently found out it hasn’t been read yet.

2. Timelines – I write a book, it gets edited, it gets published. When I was writing full-time, that entire process might have taken only two months. It’s longer now that I’m back at work, to be sure, but I think 6 months wouldn’t be an unreasonable estimate beginning to end. The second book of the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series was finished in 2013 and is set for publication in August of 2015.

3. Money – he got an advance. He even gets to use phrases like ‘earn out.’ I didn’t and I don’t. Need I say more?

4. Promo – I don’t know what they do, but I did notice that Jordan’s site lists two publicists–one for the US, one for Canada. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t have a publicist.

5. Contracts – contracts?

6. Reporting – I can obsessively check the sales of my self-published books as many times per day as I want. Jordan can check his rank on Amazon but otherwise uses his time wisely for other things…like writing. A definite win for the big guys.

7. Media attention – When I Googled Jordan (unbelievable that Google has become a verb), I found articles publishedth1 about him and Wollstonecraft on such places as CBC (that’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for you non-Canadians out there), Yahoo news, Huffington Post, and Reading Rainbow. Google me and you find my blog and a nice note my  mom once wrote about me. Too bad, I’ve always wanted to be on Reading Rainbow. (It should be noted that, when Googling Jordan, I also came up with a story titled “Daredevil Stratford Pilot Becomes Jordan Princess.” I chuckled at that).

I’m sure there a ton of other differences, but those were my observations. You can easily argue one way or the other–both have their advantages and disadvantages. I think I like this place I’ve found in between–the small press. Maybe we’ll tackle that in another post. Or maybe I’ll see if we can get it right from the horse’s mouth.

What are your thoughts on self- vs, trad publishing?

—–

Bruce Blake is a writer.

EddardStark

How Flawed is Too Flawed?

(This post is partially inspired by this post at i09 “10 Authors Who Wrote Gritty, Realistic Fantasy Before George RR Martin”)

The dark, dangerous, and flawed characters of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series haven’t always been the yardstick by which characters have been measured. Fantasy and Sci-Fi characters have not always had such a “realistic” feel to them. In fact, some of the first and most recognizable SFF characters started out barely flawed if at all (see: Superman).

But as society has developed, so too has our understanding of the Human condition and our desire to have our fictional characters mirror, in some way, our own reality.

On the one side of the matter is the “Flawed Hero”. This character is defined by their positive traits, but it is their character flaws that make them interesting and give them depth. The good-hearted scientist who has an anger problem and turns into a hulking green monster, the “Chosen-One” who sets aside his destiny until the very last minute in favor of exploration and freedom, or the hot-shot pilot who smokes cigars and has a temper. All are modern characters who have flaws that define them.

And it’s not always bad traits that are character flaws. Take Ned Stark from ASOIAF. In a world built on deception and back-stabbing, his loyalty and honor are his character flaws.

But what happens when character flaws go too far?

For those fans of The Walking Dead, Shane’s overly aggressive approach to situations and willingness to sacrifice anyone makes him a character whose flaws carry him into unlikable territory. Or Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica; his drive for self-preservation and willingness to do anything necessary to save his own skin leave him in a place where viewers have a hard time empathizing with him.

On the other side of the coin is the Anti-Hero, who’s reality comes from their good traits rather than their bad. The Punisher being the poster child for the Anti-Hero, followed very closely by Deadpool.

So where is the line between “Flawed Enough to Be Realistic” and “Too Flawed To Like”? What are your thoughts on the current trend toward seriously flawed characters and realism?

Interview with Peter V. Brett, Author of The Warded Man (The Demon Cycle)

by A.M. Justice

51hu1K5f9LLAbout eight years ago, my husband came home from work and announced that his coworker Peter had given notice so he could become a full-time fantasy author. Curious and skeptical, I bought the coworker’s book, thinking, “Let’s see what this guy’s got.” I quickly learned he had the right stuff. From the opening lines about a community gathering together in the wake of a strange fire, New York Times Bestseller The Warded Man hooked me, and I’ve been a loyal follower of Arlen, Lessa, Roger, Renna, Ahmann, and Inevera since. My copy of The Skull Throne, Book Four of The Demon Cycle, published by Del Rey, will be delivered to my Kindle today, and I look forward to reading it on an upcoming family vacation.

I admire Peter’s tight prose, inventive storytelling, and nuanced characterizations. Arlen is one of my all-time favorite fantasy heroes, and Lessa, Renna, and Inevera hold their own among fantasy’s growing pantheon of strong women. I was thrilled when Peter agreed to do an interview for the Guild of Dreams—so without further ado, here’s our Q&A.

 The Interview

The-Skull-Throne-US-Cover1Let’s cut right to the chase. The Daylight War ended with not just a cliff-hanger, but a cliff-fall. At the risk of spoilers, can you tell us whether we’ll travel into the demons’ domain with Arlen? How about Jardir—does he survive that fall?

Both these answers have been on my website for years now, but I don’t like to answer them in questionnaires. Everyone is welcome to see for themselves right here: http://www.petervbrett.com/excisions/skull-throne-chapter-1-the-hunt/

One of my favorite things about your work is how you show us the hearts of all your major characters. You provide readers with sympathetic, complete portraits of everyone, including those initially presented as villains. Will you be introducing any new points of view in The Skull Throne?

Yes. There are two new POV characters in Skull Throne. The first is Ashia, the niece of Ahmann Jardir who was introduced to readers in Daylight War. There is one flashback chapter of her life to give readers insight into her character, but most of her action is forward moving in the series “now” as she bears witness to some of the massive power shifts in Krasia following Jardir’s disappearance.

The other new POV character is Briar Damaj, a half-Krasian orphan first introduced in the short Demon Cycle story Mudboy, which later became the novella Messenger’s Legacy, which went on sale earlier this year. Messenger’s Legacy gives Briar’s heartbreaking life story, that of a six-year old child forced to survive alone in the demon-infested wetlands near Lakton. The novella ties directly into Skull Throne, and Briar’s story picks back up in the second half of the book.

It isn’t necessary to read the Demon Cycle novellas in order to enjoy the novels, but I really believe the shorter tales add a great deal when read in conjunction with the longer works.

The Krasians and Thesans loosely resemble medieval Arab and European cultures, respectively. Can you tell us why you chose those models, and whether your work is meant to comment on some of the conflicts we see in the real world

Personally, I see Thesa much more as Little House on the Prairie American Midwest than medieval Europe, but I take your point. I deliberately draw on both. For the Krasians, “Arab” is a little to narrow. I drew in part from ancient Greece, medieval Japan, ancient/medieval Persia, and Old Testament Judeo-Christian.

But that said, while I used those initial building blocks, both cultures, Thesan and Krasian, have evolved past the sum of their parts and taken on a life of their own in the series. I try to give both cultures around the same air-time, illustrating how there are complicated characters on both sides who honestly want the best for the world, even if they disagree on how to get there. If I’m saying anything about the modern world, it’s an attempt to remind people to try and see both sides of a problem/person before you judge.

On this site we talk about world-building a lot, and whether as authors we set the stage for our work before we write, or we create as we go. How have you approached the construction of Arlen’s world? Did you encounter any surprises?

I am very much an architect when it comes to worldbuilding. Certainly there was some discovery/creation as I was telling the story, particularly in the early books, but I tend to work from a very detailed story skeleton when I write, stepping out all the actions and much of the dialogue in a book before I begin writing the prose. So by the time I am at that level, most of the story problems have been solved and the events predetermined.

Then comes the hard part. Showing how the POV characters feel about said events, and trying to make the reader feel it, too.

What is your favorite scene or event in the series, and why?

It’s so hard to say, because so many of them have deep personal meaning to me, almost like great triumphs that actually happened in my life. But there are two scenes that never fail to choke me up. The first is Arlen’s encounter with Mother Elissa in The Desert Spear, and the second is the wedding that occurs in Cutter’s Hollow during Daylight War. I expect anyone who’s read that book knows what I mean.

(AMJ’s note: I get choked up thinking about those scenes too.)

Who are your favorite authors, and also your greatest influences?

Too many to properly name them all. I love CS Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy, and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks is an amazing book, as is The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan.

The most recent books I have loved are Uprooted, forthcoming from Naomi Novik, Half a War by Joe Abercrombie, and The Martian by Andy Weir.

Is The Skull Throne the last volume in the Demon Cycle, or is there more to come?

The next book, The Core, should close out the Demon Cycle quintet. I have a broad story ARC for what happens and how it ends, but with my upcoming travel schedule promoting the imminent Skull Throne launch (www.petervbrett.com/appearances), I will likely not begin writing until May. If previous books are any indication, The Core should be done approximately 18 months after that.

Do you have any other irons in the fire you’d like to tell us about?

I am contracted for one more book after The Core. It doesn’t have to be a Demon Cycle book, but it almost certainly will be. Either a standalone set in Tibbet’s Brook taking place right after the events in The Desert Spear, or the start of a new series taking place a generation after the events in The Core. There will also be several more Demon Cycle novellas to come.

Many thanks to Peter for taking the time to answer my questions! For more information on Peter’s work, visit his website http://www.petervbrett.com.

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Parts, Chapters, Breaks: How Structure Affects the Reading Experience

Ever notice how some books are divided into Chapters, and some aren’t?  How some books break things up into “Parts”, “Books”, or even “Acts”?  How sometimes there are Prologues, Epilogues, Asides, and Interludes, but sometimes there are none?  Sometimes the Chapters have titles, sometimes they’re just numbered, and sometimes they’re time-stamped?

What’s up with that?  Further, how does the structure of a book affect the reading experience?  And, most important, why the hell am I blogging about this?

Well, I’ll answer the last question first: I love looking at book structure.  I’m a bit of a weirdo in that respect, I know, but I really enjoy breaking a novel down and examining its form, its layout, even its chapter length, because whether an author intends it or not (and I honestly think they rarely do) the layout of a novel affects the reading experience just as much as the content, even if that impact is more subtle.  So let’s break it down.

Chapters

Breaking a book up into chapters is not only the standard for modern novels — it’s pretty much expected.  Chapters allow the reader to pause during reading, often (though not always) having reached a temporary halt to the narrative.  A Chapter is usually a miniature story in and of itself, a brief snippet of the larger narrative: if the novel is about a journey to a distant land, a single Chapter can chronicle a day of travel, an encounter, or reaching some landmark along the way.

Depending on author preference, Chapters are sometimes titled, and sometimes just numbered.  I, personally, have done both, depending on the tone and flow of the story.  Chapters with names often highlight a smaller event that begins or is resolved in the course of that Chapter, while Chapters without titles are sometimes indicative of a more flowing narrative.  Ultimately, it all depends on the author.

In novels with complex structures, Chapter titles can help call out setting, time or character POV (Point of View) to help indicate to the reader what’s going on.  George R.R. Martin, who uses a large number of character POVs, uses this approach to identify which character the reader is with for that chapter; Gillian Flynn used a similar approach in Gone Girl.

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Sometimes books don’t have Chapters at all, and this stands out because we as readers are so used to having breaks in the narrative (if for no other reason than to tell our brains to check our watch and remind us that we shouldn’t stay up all night reading…).  Books without Chapters sometimes do so for a purpose: in The Road, Cormac McCarthy is describing a post-apocalyptic world where time has essentially lost meaning, and life has become a fugue of repetitive travel from one dreary locale to the next.  Reading the book without Chapters (just breaks in the text) puts us into the mindset of the characters, and by the end of the book we’re just as exhausted as they are because we’ve been trudging though a (metaphoric) landscape, just as they have.  In Molloy, Samuel Beckett takes a similar approach to highlight the monotonous and stream-of-consciousness nature of an investigation by telling an 80+ story in only 2 paragraphs (the first of which is just 2 pages long).

the-road-cormac-mccarthy

Parts/Books/Acts

Just as Chapters are ways of organizing the narrative components of a novel, Parts (or Acts, or some other title the author may decide to impart based on their personal preference) are often a means used to organize the Chapters themselves.  If a novel is extremely episodic or divided into large story arcs, Parts 1, 2, etc. might be used to divide those sections of the story; similarly, a Part of a novel can sometimes be used to mark major story shifts when the narrative switches geographic locations, periods of time, etc.

John Marco’s excellent “The Jackal of Nar” is a fine example of this structure, breaking down the story into several Parts: Richius’ days in the war, his journey to meet his emperor, his eventual return to the land where he lost someone important to him, etc.  Just as each chapter tells its own small story, each “Part” tells a single arc of the novel’s plot, so that in the end it almost feels as if we’ve read several tightly connected novellas in a series.

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The number of “Parts” or larger sections in a novel depends entirely on the overall plot.  Highly sectioned and episodic tales can benefit from this structure, while novels that are more stream of consciousness or whose stories aren’t divided into a tidy plot don’t normally make use of “Parts”.

Sometimes, a Part – which generally contains several Chapters – becomes a Chapter in and of itself.  Russel Brand’s The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of a school bus accident from the points of views of five different characters, but rather than switch back and forth between those characters over the course of the novel (as is the norm for a book with multiple POVs), Brand’s book has one long chapter devoted to each character’s POV, and each section of the novel tells the same tale from an entirely different perspective.

Prologues & Epilogues

There are some pretty serious feelings about whether or not Prologues or Epilogues should even be used in novels anymore, with a great number of people saying “Hell no, I never bother reading them”, but with most authors I know stating “I use them if necessary”.  Most “How to Write” books tell you NEVER to use Prologues, yet writers like Robert Jordan generally had Prologues numbering 50 or more pages in every book in his series.  (The argument that always follows is “When you get as popular as Robert Jordan, you can use Prologues…until then, don’t do it.”)

I still know many readers (my wife among them) who simply skip Prologues altogether.  I tend not to be a huge fan of them unless I feel they serve a purpose, like setting up interesting (but not necessarily vital) background info on the setting, or if the Prologue happens to be the only chapter not told from the main character’s point of view.

Epilogues are seen even less seldom.  Most of the important stuff is wrapped up in a novel’s last few chapters; an Epilogue, to me, is more like an afterthought, the fate of an interesting secondary character or the solution to the last piece of unresolved plot, not so important that the reader is on edge waiting for it but interesting enough that the author feels its inclusion is warranted.

For the most part, readers I’ve met either skip the Prologue/Epilogue or else don’t really care about them.  They both seem somewhat old fashioned to me, but I’ll still use them if they seem necessary.

What sorts of novel structure do you find enticing/off-putting?  Authors, what’s your tendency?

About the Author

Steven Montano is the author of Red Tide at Morning, The Last Acolyte, the Blood Skies series and The Skullborn Trilogy.  He and his family live in Michigan.

Learn more at http://steven-montano.com/

Do They Write What You Read?

I had a question the other day while working out the details of a character in my head: how often do writers develop characters who write and how often to readers get to read what they write?

I have no statistical answer to this question, but it has now been nagging me for a few days. Honestly, I’m not talking about the Mort Raineys or Paul Sheldons or Jack Torrances, who are all author-characters (or is that character authors?). These protagonists were designed to be mirrors of the actual author and likely a catharsis for the real; writing about writers is often therapy.

What I’m really referring to are the characters who dabble in poetry or song, who may be hunters or lawyers or mathematicians or magicians in sum, but have tangential creative bits that really, really, really flesh them out.

When an author drops in a bit of poetry that the character has “written” or they drop in the lyrics of a song (without the obvious and impossible to pen melody), readers are treated to something: an opening of a vein, a glimpse into the tender side of a hard ass, a glimmer of hope.

Sometimes those poems or song lyrics are ties which bind a story like an iron thread running through the pages to keep disparate thoughts together.

Sometimes those poems or song lyrics are just glimpses of whimsy.Writing-Poetry

Whatever the case, how often do readers really get to see that side of a protagonist/antagonist they have either grown to love or grown to hate?

Think of Bilbo Baggins and his whimsical songs.

So in my head, I envisioned doing a little research on this topic as a reader. It may take a while, but I’m going to look for the creative side of characters to see what they have done. Believe it or not, I would–as a reader–pick up the “Collected Poetry of Hobbiton” if such a think existed or maybe the “Whimsical Writings of Susan Pevensie.”

But I’m a geek.

Anyway, one of the characters I have been working on of late has a creative side. He’s asked to write something by a therapist as a way of getting in touch with the boy he had been.

With all that said, here is a part of a piece by Mark Allen Haines, protagonist of a work in progress:

On a street called Intention the spirits sigh;
Horse-drawn carriages bang over cobbled stones
As dirt covered urchins toss a ball
In front of shops and carts.
There is a ragged man,
There is a Bobbie,
There is a newsboy with tidings of joy
On a rag that costs two pence.
A bell chimes as a door opens
On the corner of Intention and Meaning.
A child steps out on the stoop,
Dirty face,
Adjusts his apple cap,
Looks at the beggar in the gutter and whispers a prayer:
“Let one live.”
In the boy’s grimy hands, a note:
“Take care to watch for toolers and nobblers,
As you cross to Intention and Sense.
Two tokes from the baker.
Skip home in haste.”

In the stillness of questioning there are wandering eyes,
Dirty faces, fake smiles,
And piercing gazes that probe
The soul of a boy who may be a man.
The child, afraid,
Hands in pocket,
Jangling coins,
Walks head down, feeling judged by all,
Trapped in a box of his own making.
“That’s a good job, but…”
Words that float like steel razors
Slicing the edge of esteem like teeth in meat.
“That’s good work, but…”
A voice, harsh, unkind,
Yet full of wisdom, age, what to be,
What he’s not.
What he is, the beggar in the street
Holding hands out for a halfpence,
A praise without condition,
Something never given, only wished.

Benjamin X. Wretlind ran with scissors when he was five. He now writes. He is the author of A Difficult Mirror, Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors, and Sketches from the Spanish Mustang.

He also gets up before 4am to milk (words, not cows).

Leaf by Justice

Leafpainting

Lizzie Harper. Botanical Illustration – Tips on painting sketchbook-style studies of leaves – May 4th 2013

J.R.R. Tolkien, the father of the fantasy genre, wrote a short story called “Leaf by Niggle” (look for it in The Tolkien Reader). When I was a teen, just beginning to write my own stories, this story struck me as “true,” and it resonates even more strongly now. The first half of the story is about an artist named Niggle whose only work is a massive painting of a tree. The painting is never finished, and he continues to scrape away parts of it and paint them anew, because they never quite reflect his vision. Niggle’s neighbor sneers at Niggle’s lack of industry (as he spends his time painting a plant and neglects the real ones in his garden) and plagues him with requests for help running errands and doing home-maintenance projects. Niggle grudgingly takes time away from his art to fulfill these everyday tasks.

Niggle dies mid-story and goes to something like Purgatory, where he slowly learns how to perfect his art. After he makes peace with the annoying neighbor, who has joined him in Purgatory, he moves on—we presume to Heaven. Meanwhile, the painting of the tree is torn up and recycled as roofing material, except for a single, perfect leaf, which ends up in a museum with the placard “Leaf by Niggle.”

Anyone who creates art can appreciate Niggle’s grouchiness in response to his neighbor’s lack of understanding. Friends and family members often think artists and writers spend their time lazing around daydreaming—they don’t see our work as work. They barge in, claiming our time and attention. The child wants a snack (or lunch, or dinner). The spouse wants help with a household chore (or lunch, or dinner). The boss wants a progress report on the project that’s due next Tuesday. Each request more irksome, we want nothing more than to slam the door of our workshop and perfect that damn leaf.

I’ve been working on the same leaf—and tree—since my teens, which is another reason “Leaf by Niggle” means so much to me. The Woern Chronicles began as a teen’s fantasy about being kidnapped by aliens (fortunately, that manuscript is buried in a landfill somewhere). In my twenties I began rewriting it, and the first half became the revenge and empowerment story Blade of Amber. In my thirties (and yes, it took my entire thirties), I wrote A Wizard’s Lot, which bears no resemblance at all to the second half of the original teenage fantasy featuring characters with the same names. In my late forties, I wrote Scion of Sovereigns (a branch I’m still painting). Given that I’m turning 49 this spring, I expect Legacy of the Sacrifice, the final chapter of The Woern Chronicles, will be written in my fifties.

BladeofAmber_final_sized for SWYet not only have I slowly added new branches to my tree, I’ve also scraped away twigs and leaves and replaced them. The version of Blade of Amber currently available for sale is the third version of that book, and I’m not done with it yet.

You read that right: I’m scraping that limb off the canvas and repainting it anew. A revised edition—leaner, meaner, and a better realization of my vision for that story—is in the works. I’m dropping some scenes and adding new ones, and I’m tightening and tuning the prose. A lot of writers (and perhaps some readers) might ask, why would you do this?

First, I received some very good suggestions from a friend who gave the book the clear-eyed beta-read it should have gotten before I released it. She said to me, “there’s a really good story in there, but it’s buried in a lot of unnecessary detail.” Second, and more importantly, Blade never was as good as I wanted it to be. Too often, the prose fell flat where I wanted it to soar. This branch of the tree was overgrown and burdened with dead wood, and my friend helped me see where it should be pruned. The rewrite is also letting me fix some inconsistencies with the later books, and strengthen the foundation for the entire series.

Previously on this site, I wrote about big word counts, making the point that every word should count. The new edition of Blade will be about 25% shorter than the currently available edition. I hope that in the new version, at least one of the leaves will be perfect.

A.M. Justice writes fiction about distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. For more information about her work, follow @amjusticewrites on Twitter, like her Facebook page, or drop by her website and register as a Citizen of Knownearth. She also blogs at A.M. Justice Journeys Through Time and One Year of Letters.