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.

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Why Hallowe’en? Because we love to see fear in the mirror

By Scott Bury

Image courtesy Things Gunjan Draws http://thingsgunjandraws.blogspot.com

Ebola. Communism. Totalitarianism. Pandemic. Climate change. Terrorism. Jihad.

Judging from hyperbole in social media, we are out-and-out terrified of these things. As evidence of the level of fear, one person seriously advocated carpet-bombing ebola-stricken areas in Africa as a response to contain the epidemic, because he saw it in a movie.

The job we have chosen as writers of fantasy and speculative fiction is to reflect our audience’s fears back to them in symbolic way. Perhaps this is a way to help deal with them, but mostly, it’s because through fantasy, we can take some joy from our fears as well as, well, fear. It’s like riding a roller-coaster: it’s fun because it scares us, but we’re really safe.

A long, grisly, nasty yet honourable tradition

This is what fantasy writers have always done: writing stories about mythical, legendary and magical symbols and themes, stories that give us another way to look at what’s really bothering us. It has a long history in a technological era:

  • Godzilla, the monster awakened by atomic radiation and that could breathe out “atomic fire,” reflected our fears of nuclear war and radiation.
  • Zombies, like those in World War Z, Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead reflect our fear of incurable, virulent and especially contagious pandemics, made even more horrifying and destructive by their ability to instantly render their victims as vessels of further transmission.
  • The Hills Have Eyes, Drag Me to Hell, Saw and other recent horror films and books play on our fears of surveillance, mortgage foreclosure, and of course, the old standby, the Other—people not of our tribe, and therefore a threat.
  • Dracula, the Un-Dead, the progenitor of nearly all the vampire books since, plays on several fears. First is the fear of contagion—Bram Stoker’s heroes thought Lucy’s affliction was a blood disease, after all – but also the fear of being infected with something that will change your nature (becoming a vampire). There is also the fear of the Other, the foreigner, the intruder who by his very nature is dangerous. But mostly, Dracula was a sublimation of the greatest fear of the Victorian era: sex.

Yes, I am saying that sucking up blood was the only way that a Victorian era writer would portray sexual lust without getting banned or arrested. Don’t believe me? The vampire was ultimately defeated by a woman’s sexual attractiveness. Oh, sure, Dracula said he was only interested in her blood. But he was lured to his doom by a beautiful young woman, who invited the vampire into her bedroom and made him stay all night long. Now tell me Stoker was not writing about sex.

Still holding onto that argument? Watch Francis Ford Coppola’s film based on the book and try to sustain it.

Today, writing about fear of pandemic is just too easy. Vampires or zombies with ebola-like symptoms is just too obvious—which means there is already a really bad book or movie, or both, based on exactly that idea in development right now.

But what about Jihad? Terrorism? What sorts of fantasy tropes symbolize those without being overly literal? Now there’s a challenge for this capable gang to take on.

The biggest fear, though, that I can see is the fear of change. Any new idea still evokes howls from predictable corners. How would fantasy writers deal with that? What about fantasy readers? What suggestions or challenges do you have for your favourite writers?

Leave your suggestions in the Comments.

 

Scott Bury is a journalist, editor and writer living in Ottawa. His books include the historical fantasy The Bones of the Earth, the erotic romance One Shade of Red and the historical memoir, Army of Worn Soles.

He has I written articles for newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia, including Macworld, the Ottawa Citizen, the Financial Post, Marketing, Canadian Printer, Applied Arts, PEM, Workplace, Advanced Manufacturing and others.

Visit his

The font of knowledge: a rarely examined trope

By Scott Bury

Last week, Autumn Birt discussed villains and raised some interesting points about whether villains are truly evil, or just have different goals from the heroes.

It would be fascinating to continue this examination of heroes and villains, good and evil, absolutism and relativism. But today, I want to discuss another common trope in all literature, including fantasy, that doesn’t get much attention from critics but plays an indispensible part of almost every story: the source of arcane knowledge.

Keeping any story moving sometimes requires the protagonist to acquire knowledge of remote events, characters or items.

Statue of Perseus by  Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with Medusa’s head

Perseus, for example, had to search for the Grey Sisters or Witches, three sisters who shared a single eye and tooth. Only they could tell him where he would find the Hesperides, who would give him what he needed to slay Medusa the Gorgon.

How the Grey Sisters knew that information is never revealed, and in fact is not important to the story of Perseus. It’s just important that Perseus learns this so he can behead the Gorgon and from there kill King Polydectes and protect his mother.

Gandalf is the source of arcane knowledge in The Hobbit. He gives Thorin Oakenshield the map that shows the location of the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain, and also explains the fate of Thorin’s father, Thrain. Gandalf is also the source for uncounted old tales and background facts.

In Bruce Blake’s Icarus Fell series, the archangel Gabriel mysteriously appears just to give the protagonist, Icarus, little scrolls with the names of the souls he has to transport to heaven, as well as the location to bring them for the journey. How she gets this information, and how souls are chosen for salvation, is never really explained—and anyway, who are we to question archangels?

This structure shows up not only in fantasy, but in other genres as well. In the TV series Criminal Minds, for example, Penelope Garcia is

Penelope Garcia

Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, played by Kirsten Vangsness

a continual source of critical background information that she unearths from any database in the world. The show hints that she has unmatched computer hacking abilities as well as software and skills that allow her to cross-reference all sorts of things in seconds.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the mysterious hacker Wasp provides clues and facts for the protagonists. And at various points, Lisbet becomes both the protagonist and the font of knowledge.

I don’t know how many Hollywood movies feature a character popping up at a crucial point to impart a little factoid that the hero needs. How they get the information is never explained, and when you think about it, you realize how improbable it is that someone would find this information so easily.

But working that out would take a lot of time, and slow down the story. Good storytellers know when to skim over details that would only distract the audience from the important part, anyway.

The point is, the font of knowledge is an important role in any story—as important as a hero and a villain, because without him or her, the story just cannot happen.

Archetypes, with a dash of numerology

Icarus falling from the sky

Daedalus and Icarus

By Scott Bury

In the last couple of blog posts, Autumn Birt and Joshua Johnson have been writing about archetypal characters in fantasy. As this will be my I thought I would take the opportunity to delve a little deeper into one particular archetypal character: the father.

As much of a planner as I am, one thing I have learned from writing fiction is that your characters teach you. Another is that the archetypal role a character begins with can change, depending on circumstances and the needs of the plot.

The father figure is very important in every genre. The good father, bad father, the limited, damaged, drunken, evil or absent fathers all have a distinct yet equally vital impact on the hero and on the development of the story.

Three parts, three fathers

In my first full-length novel, the historical fantasy The Bones of the Earth, the number three plays an important role in its own right. I originally envisioned the book as the first volume in a trilogy called the Dark Age. Each book would be divided into three parts.

In each part of the first book in The Bones of the Earth, a different character is a father-figure to the protagonist, Javor. In Part One, Initiation Rites, Javor’s literal father is the father figure.

I presented Swat (all names are historically accurate) as realistically, rather than mythically or fantastically, as I could. Javor’s father is gentle and kind. He raised his last surviving son more by example and demonstration than through instruction or command. He’s also practical, instead of heroic. He literally holds Javor back from a fight he cannot win.

I this sense, Swat is the opposite of the legendary heroic father figure, the kind who, like Zeus, sets up challenges that will reveal his son’s heroic nature. Instead, Swat acted like I hope I would if my son wanted to attack armed men with nothing but his bare fists (formidable as they may be).

Finally, Swat dies—typical for a fathers in fantasy—defending his family against a foe he could not ever hope to match. But literally backed against a wall,he had no choice. So that part was true to character as well as to archetype.

A character’s shift

In Part Two, Tests, the character introduced in Part One as the Mysterious Stranger, the interloper with arcane knowledge who is both a threat and a guide, fills the father figure role. Photius guides and instructs Javor in fighting, languages, philosophy and in knowledge about the world. He also imparts his own values.

Image of the mysterious stranger

The mysterious stranger

At the end of Part Two, Photius dies protecting Javor. Hmm. I seem to be very hard on fathers. Nothing personal, Dad!

The father-figure in Part Three, The Mission, is the most aloof and formal of all. Austinus is the head of a religious order and, despite objections of his advisors, accepts Javor into this faith family. He is protective of Javor and spends a lot of time teaching him philosophy, history and religion.

Austinus is also closest to the archetypical father-figure of legend and myth. He ensures that Javor learns military fighting skills and brings Javor into danger, putting him in a situation that will bring out Javor’s true heroic nature.

Three stories, three different takes on the father character. They in no way exhaust the subject of the father-son relationship, but I found their creation rewarding.

In my next contribution to the Guild of Dreams blog, I am going to ask the bigger question: do we need archetypal characters, or should we be reaching further and digging deeper when creating characters?

 

Creating worlds

By Scott Bury

One of my favourite parts of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Ring was the maps. I’d spend hours poring over the depiction of Middle-Earth and the details of the Shire, Mordor, the land around the Lonely Mountain. I especially loved Pauline Baynes’ illustrated map of Middle-Earth. The complex and believable map was one of the main reasons that I preferred Tolkien to CS Lewis.

Pauline Baynes' map of Middle-Earth

Pauline Baynes’ map of Middle-Earth, courtesy Geo-Hackers http://geohackers.in/2014/03/monthly-maps-jan-feb-2014/

 

I developed a habit of drawing my own fantasy maps, with little triangular mountains, shaded forests, long, twisting rivers, mysterious seas and sheltered harbours. And I found that the more complex I made the map, the more convoluted the coastlines and twisting the rivers, the more realistic the map looked.

Fantasy writers by definition create new worlds. To reach an audience, the challenge is to find the right balance between fantastic — the reason an audience reads fantasy — and realistic, so readers can identify with the characters.

I think that one way that some fantasy writers succeed in this is by making their worlds big and complex.

Look at a real map and note how complex it is

map of Newfoundland

Newfoundland — a complex coastline Wikimedia Commons

Exploring a new world, through maps or text, is a major part of the attraction of reading fantasy.
And creating a new world is much of the fun of writing fantasy.

Some fantasy writers, like Bruce Blake in his Icarus Fell series, create a world very similar to the objective world that authors and audiences share, populated with a angels and demons, or perhaps impossibly beautiful vampires or werewolves. At the other end of the spectrum is the completely invested world with its own geography and societies, like in Autumn Birt’s Rise of the Fifth Order series.

As a writer, I think I prefer to lean closer to setting the story within the objective world we share with our audiences, and populating it with fantastical elements. My own has dragons, wizards, magical weapons, vampires, short people who live underground and more.

The real world is so much richer, more complex and varied than any imaginary planet or middle-earth-like setting. The world we live in is the product of millions of minds, of sets of experiences, sharing and intersecting and changing at a mind-blowing rate. Its possibilities for stories are endless.

The first advantage for the writer is that you don’t have to invent languages or names. So many imaginary worlds have character and place names that just sound fake. Tolkien’s only have any consistency and believability because he spent years inventing languages that the names come from.

For his Song of Ice and Fire series (adapted for TV as Game of Thrones), George RR Martin made a world that’s a close analog of our own. Place names and character names are the same as, or very close to, names from the shared, objective world:

  • Eddard, RIckard, Joffrey, Tyrion, Martell, Reed
  • Westeros, Essos, Harrenhal, Casterly Rock

Others are obviously invented or based on other fantasies

  • Argon, Drogo, Cersei, Viserys
  • Dorne, Qohor, Qarth, Valyria.

If you don’t have faith, you have to make it

Another advantage to setting your fantasy in the objective world is that you don’t have to invent religions. A little research can reveal beliefs, rituals and practices that are more bizarre, shocking, horrifying, unbelievable yet undeniably real than any you could imagine.

  • Cathars who willingly threw their children and themselves into fire lit by their enemies, so firm was their conviction they were going to heaven
  • blood and human sacrifice rituals of the Mesoamericans
  • sexual rites of the mesopotamians
  • cannibalism
  • worship of every animal from bulls to snakes to fish.

History is complex, constantly changing and debatable

If you’ve ever tried to invent a back story or a history for a character, let alone a world, you’ll probably find there is no convenient starting point. There’s no zero. Every action decision and relationship is the result of something that happened before. Even the Big Bang had something before it.

The history of a nation is the result of relationships, intersections and minglings of millions of individual story lines. People have goals and ambitions formed by so many different forces, and we can see by history their drive toward those goals can be helped by emotions, psychological and physical strengths and weaknesses, friends and enemies. Those relationships can change suddenly. A powerful king can die of a simple infection. The Roman Emperor Justinian was killed by a flea bite that gave him the bubonic plague.

I remember reading a poem in grade school about Richard III, King of England, losing the battle of Bosworth Field:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

Sometimes, the greatest events with the most convoluted back stories revolve on the simplest things.

A lesson for all us writers to learn.

Scott Pic-ScottBuryBury is a journalist, editor and novelist based in Ottawa, Canada. He has written for magazines in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia.

He is author of  The Bones of the Earth, a fantasy set in the real time and place of eastern Europe of the sixth century; One Shade of Red, a humourous erotic romance; a children’s short story, Sam, the Strawb Part (proceeds of which are donated to an autism charity), and other stories.

He is now working onthe true story of a Canadian drafted into the Red Army during the Second World War, his escape from a German POW camp and his journey home. It’s tentatively titled Out of the USSR.

Scott Bury lives in Ottawa with his lovely, supportive and long-suffering wife, two mighty sons and two pesky cats.

He can be found online at www.writtenword.ca, on his blog, Written Words, on Twitter @ScottTheWriter, and on Facebook.

Distractions – Argh!

by Chantal Boudreau

Trying to write this, I find myself facing many of the diversions that usually distract me from my fiction writing, fantasy or otherwise. I thought I’d mention just the top three of many, to give you an idea of the kind of challenges I face, aside from the necessary time consumers like my day job. Just watch and see how quickly these very distractions will side-track me even with this.

1)The Internet – both a boon and a bane, it offers everything from social networking and cool shopping sites to easy-access games and readables. It also allows me easy access to publishers, other writers, potential readers, and permits me to share things like this with the multitudes. But…

If I had no other obligations I would likely spend 75 percent of my waking hours glued to the screen. Not healthy, I know. My latest discovery has been the Thinkgeek.com site that has far too many fabulous offerings to be ignored. I found it while Christmas shopping for my daughter, trying to locate something Amazon.com had but would not ship to Canada. Thinkgeek did. I went looking for one item today and then got sucked in by their winter sale items page. Hey, is that a Game of Thrones plush dragon egg…?

2)Family – Okay, more deserving of my attention in many ways than the Internet (unless we are talking research,) I’m not referring to the really important things like making sure your family is fed, sheltered , exercised, socialized and educated. I’m referring to the extra things, like being invited to play hours of video games with my daughter or having a request from my son to play tickle-fight for the umpteenth time that day. Granted, I do “use” my family as fodder for some of my writing and I owe them my time and gratitude, but there are instances when it gets to be too much, or I have a pressing deadline.

Then something comes along involving my family, something frivolous,that really catches my interest and does threaten to interfere with my writing goals. For example, my daughter got a game for Christmas called Story Wars that looks like it will be a lot of fun (from Thinkgeek – please refer to section #1). I can almost justify spending a lot of time playing it because it involves active, and interactive, story-telling skills. A useful exercise, maybe? Let me read over those rules again…

3)Bookstores – Most writers are avid readers, and I am too. I love books. I own more than I can fit on my shelf space, far more books than I could possibly read in the time I have available for reading, and I’m a fast read. I have made a point to avoid bookstores for this reason. If only it were so simple now.

Even if I disregard online bookstores (see section #1), I’ve fallen into the trap of having my workspace located seven floors above one. I can’t leave the elevators to exit the building without seeing it there, and if I have to go get lunch, no matter what else I have planned for my lunch hour, I end up there. It’s even harder to avoid now that they are carrying copies of Dead North, an anthology I’m in. I have to check in now and then to see how many copies are on the shelf and then I inevitably end up perusing the sale tables. What can I say; more than once I’ve scored close to $100.00 worth of books for less than $20.00. How can a book lover pass up that kind of opportunity?

And once I have those books, I can put off finishing that short story for a day or two so I can get some extra reading in, right?

These are only a sampling of the biggest of distractions, but there are so so so many more. Trying to stay focussed is not just a chore, sometimes it requires divine intervention – and I don’t seem to have much of that right now. Distracted I remain.

But I managed to get this post done, despite the latest smelly monkey by my side. I’m not talking about my son (refer to section #2) either. I’m talking about the gift my sister scent him (pun intended) for Christmas that wafts the odor of citrus my way every few seconds. I can’t seem to get away from it. My son thinks it’s awesome, like the new book she gave me (seriously… it’s The Book of Awesome.)

And I can’t help but pause and sniff. And contemplate reading that book. What was I saying?

Thanks, sis. *sigh*

The Way We Talk

by Bruce Blake

“Hi everyone,” Bruce greeted enthusiastically

“Hi, Bruce,” they replied.

Bruce asked: “How is everyone today?”

“We’re fine. How are you?” the group responded joyously.

“I’m fine, too,” Bruce said.

“Nice day today,” they commented knowingly.

“It sure is.”

In case you haven’t guessed yet, today’s post is about dialogue.391px-quotation_marks_svg1

As an author, I try to be observant of what goes on around me. You never know when an idea for a story or scene might play out in front of you, or someone’s character traits and quirks might inspire you. Part of this habit of observation means I listen in on people talking.

Now you know my dirty little secret…I’m an eavesdropper.

Hearing people’s speech patterns and habits can be quite an eye-opener and lend credibility to a story when used properly, but all writers have to be careful not to fall into the above trap: recreating daily conversations word-for-word. The problem is, many conversations real people have are just throwaways, empty of any real meaning or importance. Authors can’t afford for their characters to have conversations that don’t advance the story or reveal vital information about the speakers, their motivations, or their conflicts. When a conversation in fiction happens the way I began this blog, readers are likely to tune out (admit it, you considered it, too). Might have been more interesting had it gone something like this:

“Hi, everyone.”

“Hi, Bruce,” a few of the readers grumbled; many remained silent.

Bruce’s gaze darted between the faces of those gathered at the edge of the blog, reading their expressions. His enthusiasm waned.

“H–how’s everyone today?”

Sullen stares greeted his inquiry. A drop of sweat formed on Bruce’s temple, but he resisted the temptation to wipe it away. A woman stood, arms crossed in front of her chest.

“You’re late,” Chantal said. Beside her, Autumn nodded, her lips pursed.

 

What do you think? A bit more intriguing? Something’s going on here, isn’t it? Hopefully, you want to know what it is and would keep reading. So what’s the difference? A few things.

1. Tension – as I said, there’s something going on. Why did some of the group grumble and others not respond at all? Why is Bruce nervous about it? Tension is the thing that makes readers want to keep reading.

2. Space – instead of rapid fire, back and forth dialogue (which has its place), there is some space in between. These are called beats and are often comprised of action, internal monologue (character thoughts), or description. They not only open up space for the dialogue to breathe and add pacing, they can reveal more about the story or characters.

3. Attributions – there’s no ‘Bruce Said’ after the first or third lines if dialogue. Why not? Because everything around it lets the reader know who is speaking. Unnecessary attributions are wasted words. Some can be removed completely, others can be replaced by beats. When you do need to use them, it’s best to keep attributions simple–‘he said’, ‘she said’–rather than going over the top and having them call attention to themselves by constantly having your characters shouting, screaming, crying, responding, and the like.

4. Adverbs – I’m not as anti-adverb as some authors. There are those who will tell you that any word which ends in ‘ly’ should be stricken from your manuscript, but I like to give the little suckers a little more leeway. Having said that, you should do whatever you can to get rid of as many as you can…not by chopping them arbitrarily, but by finding stronger verbs or assessing their necessity. If it reads as well without it, then drop it.

5. Characterization – did we learn something about the characters? Not a lot–there aren’t many lines–but Bruce gets nervous very easily and we see the different reactions between Chantal and Autumn. Do these small items tell us something about the characters? Certainly, though we likely have to read on to find out what.

A final note on dialogue and real conversation

DialogueIf you pick up my habit and start eavesdropping, you’ll notice how many people use habit words and space fillers–things like ‘um’, ‘er’,’like’, etc. I’ve noticed the mots du jour recently is ‘literally’, as in “I had too much to drink last night and I was literally gooned!”

Using some of these in dialogue can add layers to your characters, but be careful, some of them aren’t endearing or revealing, some are just annoying. I read one book where the author had pretty much every character’s dialogue littered with ‘ums’ and ‘ers’…it got old pretty quick.

Do you listen in on other people’s conversations? What are some things you’ve noticed that could be used in your character’s dialogue? What do you think about when you’re writing dialogue?

—-

Bruce Blake is the author of three Icarus Fell urban fantasy novels, the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy, and his most recent novel, WHEN SHADOWS FALL (The First Book of the Small Gods). Find out more about Bruce on his blog.

By Scott Bury

This week, my contribution is an excerpt from my novel, The Bones of the Earth. This is a historical fantasy, set in eastern Europe in the 6th century CE, the darkest of the Dark Ages.Bones Cover FINAL FOR WEB

This excerpt  is from Part 2, Tests. The hero, the socially inept Javor, and Photius, the mysterious traveler from Constantinople, have found a village called Bilavod that had been attacked by Avar raiders, and stayed to help them heal and rebuild. On the second night there, the Avars attack again:

Javor swung his sword, but the raider was quick and skilled and engaged him in a terrifying bout. Time after time, Javor barely dodged swipes of the curved blade. He couldn’t connect and was conscious of his own lack of skill and experience.

The other man knew he had the advantage. He hit Javor on the arm, then on the head with the flat of his blade. He drew no blood, but the pain slowed Javor down. He swung his blade again and missed again. His opponent seemed to go for his chest, but suddenly swiped savagely at Javor’s legs, tripping him. Javor went down hard. The amulet fell out of his jerkin then, but its chain was still on his neck, and Javor grabbed it unconsciously. The curved sword struck his back, ringing on the armour, but it didn’t penetrate.

Javor rolled on top of his sword. He tried to get out his dagger, but the raider brought his down on Javor’s chest. The blow winded Javor, but the armour held, ringing.

He sat up and leaped forward at his opponent’s legs, bringing the man down, and drove his dagger into the man’s face and up into his brain. The raider spasmed, then slumped, dead.

Another blow took off his helmet and blinded Javor. He scrambled to his feet, clutching at his amulet. A huge raider, almost a head taller than him, swung a huge sword at his neck, aiming to take his head off, but missed; Javor felt the wind as the blade swept past his face. He lunged forward, using the dagger-to-the-brain strategy again, and it worked again. He picked his broadsword off the ground and ran to a knot of villagers who were trying to fend off ten or more raiders. From the corner of his eye, he saw yet more climbing the walls. It’s hopeless.

Javor reached the knot of fighters and ran his sword into one’s back, pulled it out and slashed at another raider who was about to decapitate Slawko, the refugee from Kletka. Allia was behind him, brandishing a small knife used for filleting fish. She looked terrified and grateful at the same time, but then Javor jumped past her and killed another raider coming up from behind. It’s no good. There are too many of them.

Photius and Mstys were beside him, then, and pulled them toward one of the buildings where a group of people from Bilavod and Kletka had grouped to make a stand. They had bows, long knives, a scythe, axes and a few captured swords. They stood against the low wooden wall of a store-house, facing ten armoured raiders. Most of them were wounded; Mstys was bleeding from his face, another man—Lesek?— from the leg.

Then Javor became aware of something that had been bothering the back of his mind for some time: it was getting darker, but the time couldn’t be past noon. Dark clouds had covered the sky, which had dawned clear and blue. The light grew dimmer and dimmer. It seemed to be bothering the raiders, who hesitated to attack the villagers.

Photius muttered and the end of his staff started to glow again, but before he could do anything, a cry like a huge raven’s came from overhead. There was a rushing sound, and something huge with wings swept above them.

The raiders looked up, yelling in dismay. The raven’s scream came again, and the villagers cowered, looking skyward. Photius and Javor kept their eyes on the raiders. Then came the rushing sound and something big as a large dog with wide feathered wings dove out of the darkening sky and knocked down a raider.

The thing settled on the ground and folded its wings. It looked at first like a monstrous eagle, but it had four legs: the forelegs were like the legs of an eagle, too, but thicker and more powerful than any bird’s, and its body behind was like a huge cat’s. A hooked beak terminated a feathered head on top of the long neck, also covered in golden feathers, but long ears like a horse’s stuck out on the sides. The beak opened and it uttered a loud, harsh scream.

The raiders ran, scrambling over the stockade, leaving behind their fallen fellows. Someone groaned on the ground, but the villagers were frozen with fear.

The creature looked straight at Javor with huge, yellow, intelligent eyes. It took a step toward him and Javor reached his left hand toward the amulet that hung from his neck against his breastplate.

The creature slowly walked to Javor until he could have touched it with an outstretched hand. It reached a front claw out in an oddly human gesture toward Javor’s chest. Javor clutched the amulet in his left hand and drew out his great-grandfather’s dagger with his right.

The creature jumped back, screeched again and launched itself into the air. With two flaps of its wings it disappeared into the lowering clouds. Rain began to fall. Allia, still holding her filleting knife, fainted behind him.

Javor realized his mouth was hanging open. He stared where the creature had disappeared. “What the hell was that?”

 “A gryphon!” Photius exclaimed. “I thought they were extinct since the Scythians were conquered.”

Gryphon in medieval tapestry in Basel, Switzerland. Source: Creative Commons.

Javor turned to him. “What?” he and Mstys said at the same time.

“A mystic creature, guardian of treasure, servant of the sky gods,” said Photius, still gazing at the clouds. “They lived on the broad steppes. I had thought they disappeared centuries ago. And they have never been heard of in these lands.”

“Well, it’s gone now. I suppose we should be thankful that it came at all,” said Mstys. He looked around at the devastation that had been his village.

“They’ve gone!” called a sentry. “The raiders, their horses, all gone! The creature drove them away!”

Javor and Photius slumped down. “Are you hurt, boy?”

Javor checked. “No, other than a few bruises. No cuts, though.”

“I daresay your amulet protected you again. It seems to like you.” He smiled a little.

“That thing—what did you call it?”

“A gryphon. A creature of the sky. A servant of Zeus. Part lion, part eagle …”

“What did it want?”

Photius looked at Javor. “What else? The amulet. But the amulet did not want the gryphon. And your dagger scared it off. Those items have great power, my boy.”

Javor didn’t know what he meant.

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Do we need publishers?

By Scott Bury

The Hobbit. Game of Thrones. The Twilight saga. Harry Potter. Snow White and the Huntsman. Oz, the Great and Powerful. Once Upon a Time.

Hollywood continues to score hits in the science fiction and fantasy genres, on both the big and small screens. There is an appetite for this kind of fiction.

And browsing around bookstores, grocery stores and the immense emporia that masquerade as drugstores these days reveals an appetite among the public for fantasy, too. Like Hollywood, when the Big Six (I accidentally typed “Bix” there — maybe that should be the new short form for the six most over-bloated international conglomerates that dominate print publishing these days) notice something that sells, like sexy vampires, they trip over each other trying to put more of the same out there.

The strategy works, to a point; or it works for commercial publishers, in that it makes money.

But does it work as well for readers? For those who want more of the same thing over and over, I guess so. Personally, I think of it like I do the prospect of eating the same meal for supper every day.

That’s what the commercial publishers do, though. Comprising people with no better ability to predict the future than anyone else, they look at what sells and, in an era of rocketing technological change, shrinking profit margins and markets going digital faster than ice melting in my coffee, look for new books that are the same as the best-sellers of yesterday. Given the gestation period of your average book and the time required for sales figures to come back from the market front, these poor souls are picking products like Perseus aiming his arrow at the Gorgon’s face in the reflection of his bronze shield.

The big lie

Flickr via Creative Commons/comedy_nose

At one time, the publishing company’s business model made sense. Printing and distributing books is expensive. It takes an organization with some capital to take a manuscript to pay all the people needed to turn a manuscript into something that an audience will want to read: at least three different editors, a proofreader and designer. Printing paper only made sense when you produced at least a few thousand copies so the unit cost would be low enough for buyers to pay it. All this has to be done before an audience has bought a single copy.

But back in the day, the model worked, and some authors even got paid an advance on their sales royalties when they gave their manuscript to the publisher.

Because the publisher fronted all these costs, they controlled the process and, to varying degrees, the content, as well. And because they paid the editors, the publishers could enforce their own standards of editorial quality. At one time, a publisher’s colophon — their corporate symbol on the book spine and title page — meant a certain quality. Penguin and Knopf, for example, had a cachet of literature.

Things are different today, and it’s not just because of e-books and Amazon. The concurrent corporate merger dance is at least as important, because with fewer players in the market, there is necessarily less differentiation. That’s just one of the lessons of Economics 101.

And a commercial publisher’s selection of a manuscript from the slush pile doesn’t mean it’s good, either. “Good” isn’t one of the criteria: the publishers are mega-corporations, and Economics 101 tells us that their sole criterion is: will it make money?

You can argue that better books, overall, sell better, and I can point to any number of terrible best-sellers. Whether quality is subjective or not, sales are measured by a different standard than quality. Sales is easy to measure. Quality is not.

That doesn’t hinder the commercial publishers. They keep telling readers — and writers — the Big Lie: that they select only good manuscripts to publish, and that’s why readers have to pay 10 to 15 bucks for a book. Then they’ll give us another story about sexy vampires, or cute dragons, or rip-off of whatever was the big hit two years ago.

It’s time for a new way.

Proposing a new publishing model

Not that kind of model! (Creative Commons: wikipedia)

Writers can perform all the functions of a commercial publisher, and independent authors do so already. Every member of this Guild has proven that.

I suggest a cooperative model of publishing, where authors control the process.

Typically, a writer can also be a good editor, or a good proofreader (these are very different skills). Some are also good cover designers — David C. Cassidy [link: ] designed the cover of my second (non-fantasy) novel, One Shade of Red, for example, and Lisa Damerst  designed the cover of The Bones of the Earth. In return, I edited their manuscripts.

This is an example of the kind of cooperation I want to encourage in the independent publishing world. As professional artists, we writers can trade our skills. We can trade editing skills for cover design, publicity for pre-publishing analysis, marketing savvy for layout or e-pub preparation.

With a large enough group of authors willing to cooperate, we can become a de facto publishing entity — one that leaves control, responsibility and revenue in the hands of the authors.

There are variations of ways this could work: authors can swap duties, like I did; they could negotiate fees for different services; or they could even work for a share of royalties — much like commercial publishers, but with the author in charge of the money.

I’d like to hear from writers, but also readers about this idea. What do you think: do authors need publishers, anymore? Do readers?

Scott Bury is author of fantasy titles The Bones of the Earth and Dark Clouds, as well as the romantic-erotic comedy One Shade of Red. His blog is Written Words.

Tomorrow, yesterday, today

 By Scott Bury

St. Patrick from St. Benin’s Church, Wicklow, Ireland. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert. LIcensed by Creative Commons.

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. For most people in North America, it means little more than an opportunity to drink beer and wear green and act silly — whether you participate in such activities or not.

On the radio yesterday, I heard a man who moved from Dublin to Ottawa remarking about how much North American observances of St. Paddy’s have changed from the origins of the holiday. According to Craig O’Brien (apologies if I did not recall the name correctly), the holiday is more family-oriented in Ireland, far from the raucous, drunken display of mass oafery Canadians and Americans indulge in.

During the introduction to the interview, a reporter asked people “on the street” who St. Patrick was. Unsurprisingly, no one could answer correctly.

Of course, every reader of this blog knows that St. Patrick was the fifth-century Christian missionary and bishop who converted many Irish people. I know I don’t have to remind you that he is venerated as an early primate of all Ireland, and I won’t even bother with the later myths that sprang up about St. Patrick driving all the snakes from Ireland or using the shamrock to explain the concept of a single god with three persons.

In a rut

So, what does this have to do with writing fantasy? Ireland is a favourite setting for fantasy writers. The hills, ruins, legends of Cu Chulain, the history of Druids and kings and Ireland’s long struggles are fertile sources for new stories.

But the persistent and erroneous myths about St. Patrick, likethe hijacking of the holiday by deliberately idiotic revellers, symbolize a creative rut in fantasy writing.

I have read many excellent fantasy and historical fiction novels and stories set in ancient Ireland, or Britain, or northern Europe. Stories about Bridget or the Morrigan, variations and retellings of King Arthur and his knights — they can be well told, inspiring and enjoyable. But what many are not is original.
 Cuinbattle

When writers derive stories from other writers, it gets tired, quickly. Like fan fiction. Writers who don’t dig very deep don’t produce rich fruit. What we get are the literary equivalents of plastic green bowler hats and green suds.

 

A challenge

Another occasion that triggers the imagination fantastic is approaching, too: spring will be here, officially, in five days. New growth, new life, new opportunities that rise from the fertility left by everything created in years past.

Dogwood buds by Tom Rinaldo. Licensed by Creative Commons.

My challenge to all writers and readers of fantasy fiction for this spring is both simple and ambitious: let’s get out of those deep ruts. Let’s dig deep into the fertile soil of history, mythology and our own imagination, look at ancient stories under bright light and start something really new.

There’s new energy all around us and within us, too. Let’s use it, and let’s see a Guild of Dreams Spring of new ideas, new stories, new sources and new readers.

And just to dispel any misconceptions: I won’t chase any snakes away, but I won’t turn down a beer tomorrow, either.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!