books

Put It On The Shelf

…or, the best way to fix your “baby’s” ugliness.

Ben’s post from last week resonated with me a lot for various reasons. Right now, I’m finishing up a B.A. in English so naturally I’m being exposed to piles and piles of papers written by other students. Sometimes, those papers aren’t bad. Other times, they would best serve as kindling.

This fact was most apparent in the “Writing Fiction” class that I took. I have no illusions as to the quality of my writing, but some of this stuff…

Anyways!

As a writer, there are so many different suggestions for how to go about self-editing, but one of the most effective ones that I’ve used to the suggestion to take your finished manuscript and put it on the shelf for some period of time. The most common suggestion is 6 months, but I’ve found that even 3 months can be enough if you have sufficient work to do elsewhere and you can change your focus.

With the end of the semester approaching, I’ve had so much on my plate that I’ve had no choice but to put The Hydra Offensive on the shelf. But with my time freeing up, ever so slightly, I’m back at the keyboard, editing Hydra.

I’ve found that leaving the manuscript alone and doing other work has given me a different perspective on the prose and has allowed me to make edits that I might not have made otherwise.

Do you use this method with your writing? How does it work for you? Any other suggestions for solid editing methods?

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).

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.

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?

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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.

n12850

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/

Vlog and Podcasts – the future for online writers?

by Autumn M. Birt

A recent article over on NY Times bestselling author Joanna Penn’s blog the Creative Penn said that blogs with video capture more interest and retain visitors much longer than those with only prose.

My first thought was…

 

– Autumn writes novels set in worlds without cell phones, internet, or video. OR if it technology does exist, she finds ways to blow it up. She likes it there. 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. And now on video. Good gods.

Research

It’s A Mystery: Research and The Evolution of A Writer’s Method

One thing I never really imagined changing was my writing routine. I write pretty consistently (every day, in fact, unless I’m in the midst of a massive editing project, and even then I try to squeeze a few hundred words in just to say that I did), but the level of planning and preparation I need for a new writing project — aka the “pre-writing” work — has never been that much.

For science fiction (like my recent release, The Last Acolyte), I usually come up with a list of all of the major alien races, planets and pieces of technology, and if necessary I’ll write a few paragraphs about the major concepts in the setting in order to maintain consistency. Once that’s done, I create a rough outline, and then jump right into writing.

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For fantasy and epic fantasy I tend to do less outlining and more world building, since that really is the bread and butter of that sort of work. I go overboard drawing maps, writing timelines, (badly) sketching new weapons, writing up bios for major characters and monsters, etc. I absolutely LOVE world building, and with as much effort as I put into building, say, Malzaria (from The Skullborn Trilogy) or Earth After the Black (from Blood Skies), the actual stories practically wrote themselves.

Basically, in both cases I was able to do lots of world-building and very little advanced plotting, but the world building was so detailed and complete I had no trouble writing the actual novels from the seat of my pants (aka “pantsing”, for those of you playing the home game).

Now, I’m writing a mystery novel…and it’s an entirely different ball park.

Sport

I’m still doing quite a bit of “world” building for this project (in this case it’s “setting” building), though not as much as usual. My as yet unnamed novel is set on the fictional island of Raven’s Gate, a community north of the San Juan Islands and off the western coast of Washington State (an area I know pretty well), but since I based the place on an amalgam of a few different very real locations I spent a great deal of time researching realistic weather patterns, temperatures, fauna, tree life, history, etc.  I had to come up with a believable demographic, determine what would be the size and make-up of an appropriate police force, and tried to calculate what sorts of resources an island that size would have available.

But wait, there’s more! Since it’s a murder mystery and the world has grown so savvy with CSI-fu, I, too, have been pouring through Crime Scene and Forensic texts and learning all about securing a crime scene, the shortcomings of fingerprints, how to take a mold from a shoe print and other fun stuff I’d never really thought about before. I’ve learned a lot about illegal drugs, which prisons are the worst, the truth about the modern mafia and how hard life would be as a cop in Philadelphia.

Oh, and since one of the main characters is Black (which, I shamefully admit, I am not) and the other is a German hacker (which I also am not), I did yet more research to try and make sure I present realistic characters.

Malcolm StoneLara Richter

(My main characters, Malcolm Stone and Lara Richter, kindly portrayed by Idris Elba and Antje Traue. Hawt.  Check out my Mystery Project Pinterest Board to see more inspirational images for the new project.)

Finally, prior to starting this project I hadn’t actually read a lot of mysteries, so guess who’s been binge-reading novels about Matt Scudder, Walt Longmire, Cormoran Strike and Inspector Gamache?

Oh, and the whole “plot as you go” thing I was able to do with science-fiction and fantasy? Not going to fly with a mystery novel. Dropping random bits and details I can tie together later isn’t going to work so much, because when writing a mystery you have to know exactly where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and why you’re going there in the first place. For the first time in my writing “career”, such as it’s been (this will be my 12th fully written novel), I’ve had to lay out a fully detailed plot before I even sat down to write, complete with thorough notes.

Now, there’s still room for pantsing (especially with character details and interactions, subplots, stuff like that), but the amount of work I’ve had to do prior to even starting this novel has been, in a word, insane.

But I’m loving it.

Research

So maybe I need a shove every now and again to get out of my wheelhouse. Maybe I needed to take on something I never thought I’d actually do (which, in this case, is writing something totally out of my normal genre). My writing routine was starting to feel a little stale – I was still enjoying the work, but I felt like something was missing for me personally in the act of the actual writing. Maybe this is just what I needed to spice it up.

Will I completely change my writing routine now that I’ve tried things the “Prepare and Plot” way versus using the diploma I acquired at Pantsers University? We’ll see. But writing has become fun for me again, and that’s got to be worth something.

 

About the Author

Steven Montano is actually a Bond villain, so don’t piss him off.  You can, however, check out his work at http://steven-montano.com/

The Multi-Verse

by Joshua Johnson

Recently, I started work on a second series set on the world of Zaria. It follows a new set of characters and a new plot.

One of the aspects of fantasy worldbuilding that I’ve never really had a chance to explore (for one reason or another) is the concept of multiple storylines built out of from a common base.

Many of my favorite authors have done this in one degree or another, and I’ve always been interested in doing it. So I’ve started.

I’ve found it very interesting to begin planning multiple novels or series using common worldbuilding, without having them directly related. This approach has many benefits but many drawbacks.

I’ve found it convenient that I can use a lot of the same basic world information (length of the year, seasons, geography) when I’m plotting out the new series. I also have a lot of basic information about the nations of Zaria that I’ve been able to expand.

On the other hand, trying to manage multiple storylines has proven to be a challenge. While the new story doesn’t happen directly parallel with my existing story, there’s enough information that I’ve had to adjust the planning several times. I think that the biggest challenge has been managing multiple timelines and deciding where along the technology timeline each story is going to be and why.

So what authors have you read that have used a common worldbuilding base to write multiple stories that do or don’t intertwine? What do you think makes these kinds of worlds better or worse than linear or consecutive storylines within a series?

On Resilience

Did you ever think of deleting your work?

I do.

Often.

There’s a way through this swamp of sadness (that’s A Neverending Story reference, by the way), and it starts with resilience. Resilience, as defined, is an ability to bounce back from difficulties, often emotional. Resilience is something that has to be rebuilt into a person because, believe it or not, as kids we were really good at it.

As adults, we suck.

Take for example the problem of learned helplessness. I went through a whole slew of posts on motivation and how learned helplessness can kill a person’s desire to move forward with a project. But if that helplessness is not dealt with in an effective manner, there is little doubt that resilience will suffer.

Think of a rubber band for a moment.

It is elastic.

It is resilient.

Now, stick that rubber band in the sun for a few days and bake it.

Resilient?

The longer the rubber band is in the sun, the more brittle it becomes. When you try to pull on it after a few weeks, it will probably break.

That sun is like the negative reviews or poor sales you might see as an author. It bakes your brain and turns your resilience into a brittle round thing of rubber. When a person pulls on it after a while, it’ll break.

Ray Bradbury once said that writing is like jumping off a cliff and building your wings on the way down. He later admitted that as a youngster growing up and writing, he was awful. So what made him continue to write?

Resilience, or something he called “a love of writing.”

Building back the resilience you had as a kid takes time and effort. You can’t do it by snapping your fingers (or buying a new rubber band). You have to take it one step at a time.

This post has some tips.

Here’s the gist of it all, though: You have to enjoy the trip down the cliff as you build your wings.

A sage once told me to walk toward the horizon and not to stop until I got there.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I get the point.

Keep walking. Enjoy the journey. You’ll get there.

Stephen Crane (who I think I may have been in a past life) said this regarding resilience and the need to keep walking:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

Morla, the Ancient One

Morla, the Ancient One