Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another year's progress, 2013 edition

I don't usually get retrospective at the end of the year -- I have random attacks of it. I suppose it's reasonable that randomness would line up with year's end once in a while. 2013 has been a busy year.

Looking back on a year's journey.
Photo by Sara Moses, available @ sxc.hu
Self-published two books.

Made major changes in my life.

Spoke as a writer, for the first time, at a workshop.

Started offering my services as a graphic designer, ebook converter, and proofer.

Wrote two novellas, two short stories, working on a third novella, and made major revisions to manuscripts from previous years. 160,000 words written in 2013 may sound like a lot... well, it is a lot, okay, but it's only about half what I wrote in 2012. I lost at least a month over the summer to hang-ups with my second publication, and was in the doldrums through the autumn. Still struggling for focus, to be honest, with my WIP.

But it was a good year. In 2014, I intend to...

Keep critiquing over at Unicorn Bell. My next week at the helm starts on the 6th -- get your 1,500 words in! (see the sidebar for where to send it)

Keep participating in the monthly Indie Life blogfest. I want self-publishers to have an accurate idea of the work involved -- and the rewards too. Those are in here somewhere, lol.

Self-publish at least two books, plus the Disciple Half-Omnibus. Look for that on February 1st and Disciple, Part IV on March 1st.

Send Hawks & Rams around to small presses and see if there's any interest.

Finish my WIP, revise it and the other two Jupiter Frontier stories, and see if I can get the idea codenamed "Bloodmagic" into a writable shape (it's feeling like a monster, but considering how I write that may just mean it's an actual novel, not a novella.) Tackle some of the hibernating ideas like "Continuum." Who knows. Anything could happen.

See you in the new year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Announcing DISCIPLE, PART IV


Today's big announcement is over at my book blog,
Disciple of the Fount

And to properly credit the artist in the above banner, 
that is Alejandro Martinez whom you can find at DeviantArt.com
Check out the "painting speedies" folder in his gallery for more like this!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Seeking a new unicorn


As you may know, I'm one of the regular moderators over at the Unicorn Bell blog. UB is a group effort by (currently) five writers who have one thing in common: we write. We hail from different genres and different parts of the US. We're self-publishers, small-press published, or unpublished. Our experiences and perspectives run the gamut, too.

Each of us hosts Unicorn Bell for a week at a time, in rotation, and each of us has our own approach to it. Personally, I offer long form critiques -- up to 1,500 words -- with my bitter, cynical eye. Other ladies prefer to crit first pages, or interview authors/agents/editors.

We're looking for more moderators. Writers who've been blogging regularly and are looking to get their name further out into the blogosphere. Can you spare a week every other month or so? Got an idea for a weekly blog theme?

If you're interested, email me at blankenship (dot) louise (at) gmail (dot) com.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Indie life: Fell down the rabbit hole? Or crawled?

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

I posted sales numbers last month, so this time I'll talk about more abstract things...

Maybe this falls under "being a moody writer," but I go through phases. Sometimes I wake up wanting to engage the world, to see all that it has to offer, to suck the marrow from life (as Thoreau said...) and sometimes the world is just getting in my freaking way. It's just distracting me from the scenes I need to write and the notes I need to get down.

Sometimes once I manage to get the real world out of the way, my story's world is nowhere to be found.

That illusion of standing beside your characters and writing down what they do can get so fragile. It's especially frustrating when I know I've been deeper in the narrative dream than I am now. Writing Disciple was a breeze, in comparison to my current WIP. Feels like this story's fighting me, wandering off at the least provocation, fading like a dream that made me get out of bed and put my shoes on.

We all fear writer's block. Staring at an electronic sheet of paper with our minds as blank as it is. There are many supposed treatments and cures for writer's block, but I think it comes down to a much older bit of advice:

Know thyself
What gets your brain burbling? What inspires you? Is inspiration even how you power your writing? We all come into the writing world with preconceived notions about how writers (or artists in general) work. Those notions are based on movies, stories, biographies -- but the truth is, art is different for every artist.

You have to find your own way. To do that, you'll have to experiment and explore. Curiosity is a writer's best friend, IMO (and nosiness is a close cousin, lol.) Try new approaches, rearrange your schedule, meet new people. I once spoke briefly to a painter and he said something I've since realized was true: the universe will give you what you need for your art. (more thoughts on that) It may not arrive gift-wrapped, though. Go looking for it.

Some days, you don't fall down the rabbit hole. You have to jump. Or even crawl in on your hands and knees, scuffing your knees and elbows all the way.

And on a related note:

Be patient with yourself
This all takes a lot more time than it seems like it ought to. Ideas need time to develop and solidify, like a butterfly's wings after emerging from the chrysalis. Sometimes an idea will spring from your forehead full-grown like Athena, but more often ideas arrive in a lumpy mass that needs shaping and trimming.

That isn't something you hear professional artists talk about much, but in my experience it's the way ideas usually arrive. What the pros are good at is quickly shaping the raw ideas into a workable form. They can do it on the fly, in just the space between their brain and their hand (paint brush, mouth, feet, whatever their art requires.)

For the rest of us, a stream of misshapen ideas pouring through your head like, dare I say it, diarrhea, can feel a lot like failure. Like you're not producing anything worthwhile. Wasting time, paper, and effort you could be investing in other things.

Cut yourself some slack. And write down all those messy, newly-hatched ideas. Spend your dedicated writing time studying them like random puzzle pieces you found on the sidewalk and see if they fit together, if they're from different puzzles, or if they fit into another puzzle you're already working on.

It's work. There's nothing easy about art. But keep at it.

These are things I've been needing to remind myself of, lately. How about you?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Writing exercise #2: character via setting

Continuing my writing exercises, this one goes to the other main character in my sci-fi WIP. 

This exercise comes from Fiction Writer’s Workshop (ISBN 1884910394) by Josip Novakovich. Chapter 2: Setting. #12: One page. Make a character visible through her surroundings. (he lists some examples of how) Objective: to learn the power of setting as a means for character portraits. Bits of environment are your tubes of paint. 

Lena dropped into her VR recliner with a sigh. A few crumbs from the morning’s coffee cake lingered on the arm. She flicked them off one by one. Then she picked up her jack and plugged it into the socket under her left ear. Virtual reality slid down over what her meat eyes saw.

Green and amber status lights on her rig winked. Custom-built, of course. A steel rack of quantum processors, another of wireless hubs for various frequencies, the third rack for her secret-ingredient hardware, and a private bubble fusion plant so the draw on the station’s power grid wouldn’t give her away. Everything was cabled to reduce snooping and the extra wire color-tagged, neatly looped, and zip-tied.

The rest of her apartment’s front room was a tangle of dirty laundry waiting for the multi-washer and boxes from the grocery delivery service that she hadn’t broken down for the recycling chute yet. She had two tall stools that stood before the kitchenette counter — or at least two mountain peaks in the field of clutter.

Front door had a clear swath in front of it, though, and a second, vertical deadbolt that Lena had added well above the standard one. Wouldn’t stop anyone determined to get in, but it’d give her time to get out the fire door.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Writing exercise #1: inner peace

I've been writing this blog for over two years now and I find myself short on things to say... partly because I hate repeating myself and I've never liked short blog posts that don't say anything meaningful. So let's try something different this week.

The internet's full of writing prompts and exercises, and I've never used them. It hasn't been how I write: for me, it's a very deliberate process where the spontaneity is limited to the moments that I'm standing beside my characters writing down what they do. I thought I'd try a few in the context of my current (hard sci fi) WIP, which has been giving me some trouble. 

This writing prompt comes to us from Poets & Writers: Fiction writers know that conflict drives plot. Tension and drama imbue life into our characters and propel their stories forward. Human nature, however, craves tranquility and clarity. Write five hundred words describing your protagonist at peace—truly one with the universe, even if only for several seconds. Perhaps your character is sitting on a park bench and staring at a bruised cloud, or on a crowded subway car listening to the rails below, or walking out of a cemetery with a beer in hand. Peace is unique to everyone.

“Hang me, this time,” Shen said as he dropped to his knees. “Like you hang Radovan.”

Jezebel tossed down two of the skeins of rope and unwound the third slowly. She measured out several long loops before answering. “Are you ready for that? I’d have to bind your wrists.”

His nerves skittered under his skin. The snug embrace of rope, though, and the freedom of the air… it had been too long since he’d been in null gravity and felt that. “It’s the closest to zero gee I can get.”

The rope softly hissed, sliding through Jez’s dark hands. She nodded. “We’ll try it, then.”

Shen spread his arms and closed his eyes. The first loop of rope settling across the back of his neck released a sigh from him. First time Jez had bound him, she’d put a loop around one wrist and fear had lashed up out of him. Animal fear. Primal need to escape. He’d suffered too much while zip-tied by his wrists.

But the familiar progress of snug coils of rope looping around his chest and knots drawing them snug eased Shen’s mind. The gentle pressure evened out his breath and dropped his heart rate. His skittering nerves, still antsy at the thought of binding his wrists, slowed.

He could trust Jez. She only tied him as he asked. Checked on him to be sure he was comfortable. Freed him before there was any risk of limited circulation. It would be the same with his wrists. He was strong enough to let his hands be tied. Didn’t fear his own helplessness anymore.

Jez had never beaten him, even when she first bought his indenture and he was just “a pile of broken glass and frayed wire,” as Radovan had said. Shen trusted her.

When she reached Shen’s waist, Jez dropped the remaining rope and fetched a set of D-rings. Those had to be worked into the harness, one at the small of his back and one between his shoulder blades. Jez ran the ropes under the crotch of Shen’s shorts and up his back, lacing them into the coils there and anchoring the second ring.

“Let’s try a dragonfly sleeve, rather than Radovan’s arrangement,” Jez murmured. “Arms before you.”

Shen held out his long arms, fists touching. Jezebel began with loops over his shoulders and worked slowly. Fat knots anchored pairs of loops at precise intervals. The loops bound his upper arms together. Then his elbows.

He closed his eyes when a broken-glass blade of fear slid past him. Felt Jezebel hesitate. He held steady, safe in his snug harness, and she continued. Two more knots and loops, one for his forearms and one for his wrists.

Jagged bits of memories rumbled inside him. Pain from kickings, from tasers. The grind of hunger and fear. The rope stifled those bits. Dulled their edges.

Distantly, Shen felt the carabiners click into the two D-rings on his harness. A motor purred and lifted him off his knees. He rocked to horizontal, facing the floor, and swung gently with his bound arms hanging downward.

Zero gee, or close enough. Close enough to free.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Indie Life: Sales numbers for ordinary folks

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Real-world sales numbers
We've all read self-publishing success stories. I just published my book and sold a thousand the first week! I'm #1 in my category at Amazon! 

These stories happen. They get talked about a lot because they're unusual. Predatory companies selling overpriced packages of services to "help" self-publishers like to trot out stories like these.

Meanwhile, we mere mortals are looking at very different sales numbers. We say generic things like: I'm thrilled with my sales! They're getting better all the time! Much more realistic. But what are these thrilling numbers?

Behold, the sales numbers for Disciple, Part I, II and III from October 2012 through October 2013.* Am I thrilled? I'm incredibly awful at hyperbole, so let's be realistic. Thrilled, no. Grateful, yes, very much so. Encouraged to continue, yes.

There are some interesting things in it, I think. You can see the impact of new releases on sales of all the Parts. You can see that it took five months for sales to reach zero the first time, and six months the second time. In general, my sales are increasing. It's a gradual trend but it's there.

Did these numbers surprise you? These are the sales of someone who doesn't have much presence in social media. Someone with very little advertising money to burn, but who keeps plugging away at self-publishing. Disciple is a gritty fantasy with blood and guts... and romance, too. There's a niche out there for Disciple, it's just a matter of finding it. I have plans for the remaining three parts of Disciple and I have more irons in the fire as well.

So I'm going to keep going. Tune in next year for an update. :) Well, maybe six months.

*Does not include Storybundle sales of Part I in December of 2012. That was about 1,800 copies but apparently not many of those folks have come back for more.

Cover & blurb for Disciple, Part IPart IIPart III

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Drat, it's not Indie Life day yet

So far, moving my writing time to the afternoon has been working out. I'm not exactly zooming along, but I'm making progress.

And I have surprisingly little to say about it, thus far. The transition from my fantasy voice to my science fiction voice is in progress. I've got a lot of uncertainties about how this story will be structured -- there's a lot to tell in flashbacks, and that's a bit outside my comfort zone. It may be a chance to play with telling the story in a less than linear fashion, but that's not something I had really considered doing.

My life is full of distractions, too. Despite having taken steps to simplify my life, things are now more complicated. Or at least more time consuming. It figures.

Anyhow, tune in next week for Indie Life. It's been nice to get lots of page hits from those posts, but I'm not sure what I'll talk about this time. Is there anything related to my self-publishing experiences that you'd like to hear about?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Regaining discipline

My writing habit is the best skill I have. I've said that fairly often, and talked about how I have a two-hour block set aside each night for writing or working on projects. There was another two-hour block that I frequently added on, in the afternoon. Last year, I churned out a quarter million words using this system.

Because of publishing Disciple, personal life upheavals, and the reality that most people's free time is in the evening... my writing habit has taken a serious hit since July.

I've found myself falling prey to various forms of cat-vacuuming, aka cat-waxing and other amusing names. These are the semi-pointless things you do to avoid having to sit down at the computer and write. Not entirely pointless, of course, or you couldn't justify doing them at all. But they don't need to be done by any stretch of the imagination.

Checking email boxes. Wandering into Reddit, AW, or PersonalityCafe. Watching the year and a half of Law&Order SVU that I've got piled up in my Hulu queue. (Formulaic, rote, mental potato chips. Somebody stop me. Please.)

It's time to get my discipline back.

Eliminate distractions
Normally, I'd say "Quit out of the browser" but I really do need a Wikipedia page open for quick reference and I keep my photo pin boards at Linoit.com (check them out -- it's a real pin board unlike Pinterest, and it's private so fewer copyright worries.)

I need to toss all the other tabs, though. Log out of email accounts. Close other programs. Ignore the phone and the cats when they pester me for attention.

Focus on the rituals
These are the things I do just before sitting down to write. They tell my brain that we're going to write now. I pour myself a drink, take off my shoes, make a pit stop at the bathroom, and pick the music for today's writing. These have gotten a bit muddied, for various reasons, and I need to start doing them again.

Think outside the box
It may be that I need to move my writing block from after dinner to after lunch. I can write in the afternoon, but it will require juggling the things I've been doing then. It would free me up for social functions in the evening, though, and I'd still have the morning for errands and other daytime chores. Blogging and surfing the web would fill in the evenings that I don't go out (most of them.)

When do I start?
No time like the present. I've already put it off for too long.

How do you juggle your schedule to fit everything in?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cutting the story flab

I've talked about major reconstruction of story lines before (here) but this one's a little different. I was revising a short story recently and had the feeling that it was longer than it really needed to be. It was clocking in at just over 9k -- which is a hard sell in the market, too -- and writing it had been kinda fraught with insecurities for various reasons.

Being a world-builder, I'm always itching to do it. My gut kept insisting that the gender politics needed more explaining... but this is just a short story. You don't have to explain everything. (You don't have to explain everything in a novel, either, but that's a different post.)

It's been a while since I've used my revision avatar.
Anyhow, I singled out one scene that could definitely be cut. Why? Because it's mostly me caving in to the world-building itch. My MC is being shown around and explained to, rather than doing/realizing/progressing. Onto the chopping block the scene went.

But: that's not to say there was no useful information at all. I didn't want to make a hole or leave readers confused.

What to keep
Before cutting the scene, I looked through it for:
  • new characters met
  • first descriptions of people or places -- a subset of world-building, true
  • character arc moments -- questions raised, answered, realizations made
  • plot developments -- usually the scene's being cut for a lack of these, but check for them anyway
  • essential world-building -- see below
In my case, there were some detailed first descriptions and some minor character moments that needed to be salvaged. Then I tossed hundreds of words of tension-less world-building (read: infodumping.)

None of it was essential? Correct, because this is a short story. I was only introducing things that would be seen later, in my case. Were this a novel, that could be given a little leeway. This is a short story that's already on the too-big side, though. The reader can meet these details as they happen during a plot-relevant moment. Anything that doesn't happen during a plot-relevant moment isn't strictly necessary.

What to do with them
So I had a handful of scraps that I needed to work into someplace else. I went looking for:
  • relevant conversations, or ones that can be steered toward the topic
  • descriptions at more relevant moments that could be expanded a bit
  • if there'd been new characters to meet, a better place or possibly drop the character entirely
Overall, I cut 1500 words and worked about 300 back in. Net savings: 1200 words. It's still big for a short story, but we'll see if there's any use for it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Plotting scenes out: more recursion

Recursive plotting #3
Appropriately enough, this is a topic I keep coming back to. Original post here. Follow-up here. That makes this number three in the series.

Plot structure holds across a series of books, across a single book, and within the book too. I'd say it reaches down into scenes, but at this scale you're even less likely to actually see it from start to finish.

What do I mean by that? At any scale, the entire plot structure (inciting event, plot points building to a climax, resolution) needs to exist. That does not mean that the reader will see all of them. It's the literary equivalent of a photo of four paws being a photo of a cat -- you know the rest is there without seeing it. If the rest wasn't there, it would be apparent in something wrong about the paws.

Chapters and scenes have inciting incidents, points building to a climax, and resolution. Small ones, since they are themselves the building blocks of a larger plot structure. Maybe the reader doesn't see the structure start to finish, but the writer sees it.

An example
If it helps to look at an example, here's the entire first scene to Disciple, Part I. It's got pretty much the entire structure showing: inciting incident (Kate's teacher fetching her), points building (hints that something important is about to happen) to a climax (the king objecting to her presence) and a resolution (the king is overruled.)

End of scene. I could've continued into what happened next, but at that point the scene had done exactly what it needed to. Its structure had finished and it was a "complete thought." Therefore, the scene ends and we pick up again at the next scene.

That being said...
...all rules are, of course, made to be bent and twisted into balloon animals. (Don't break them. Broken balloon animals are no fun.) This is where voice, style, and pacing come into play.

Jacqueline Carey, author of the many Kushiel books, doesn't write scenes. Each chapter is a segment of the story cut off at a moderately comfortable point.

Stephen King has been known to write one-scene chapters -- where the scene is only a sentence or two long. (Salem's Lot, IIRC.)

There's a correlation between scene and chapter length and the perceived pace of the story. Carey's Kushiel novels are languid things, even in the middle of a war. King's older horror stories moved fast, even when not much was happening. Cutting a scene down to just the climax, if you can, totally changes its impact.

What if that first scene of Disciple had begun with the king identifying her and objecting? Starting with a confrontation puts a more violent spin on the story. It would raise questions about who Kate is and whether she's a victim or a danger. For some stories, that's a great place to start.

Conversely, if I'd started long before the inciting incident -- say, with Kate tossing and turning in bed, giving up on sleep, and dressing -- that would have been a quiet and slow beginning. It can be difficult to hook a reader with that sort of thing. That would require good language and very fast explaining of why she's too stressed out to sleep.

Do you pare your scenes down? Stretch them out? Juggle the structure?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Indie Life: Keep writing

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Moving on 
I don't know about you, but I had Disciple kicking around in my head for years and years before I had it fully figured out and my writing chops were on the level that it needed. I've only self-published the first three parts, so far, but all six have been written. For me, the story is finished.

And to be honest, we were all happy to be done -- the characters and I. But now they're taking a well-deserved break and I'm at loose ends.

Starting over from scratch 
When you had years to nibble at the world-building and character development, it didn't feel so big. You can eat an elephant, after all, if you do it one bite at a time. You had time to learn your characters' life histories, explore all the nooks and crannies of the world, and even develop all the second-tier characters.

But now you've got a few books on Amazon and you know how important backlist is when you're a self-publisher. You don't have five or ten years to write the next one.

That elephant starts looking kinda big.

Recycling
Have you ever groused about how an author's characters are all essentially the same? Ever got tired of every story involving New Orleans somehow? How some writers keep going back to the same characters in the same universe and never let them have a "happily ever after"? (How many times can the same person save the universe, anyway?)

You can do that, of course. And if you love telling a certain kind of story -- traditional romances, for example -- there's no reason you shouldn't and there's even a gigantic market for it.

Personally, I think it's interesting to see patterns in your own writing. Lately, I've been reacquainting myself with one of my science fiction characters and realizing how much he has in common with one of Disciple's characters. They're the same MBTI type, if you've read my posts on that, but they are quite different in their execution.

But I don't want to tell the same thing over and over, with the same or only slightly different characters. I want to challenge myself. I have a writing bucket list. Do you?

Write everything down
You should already be doing this, actually. I use Scrivener (it rocks, buy it) and I have a file called the Brainstorm Zone where I write down all the scraps of ideas that seem substantial enough to work with -- a paragraph or two, at least. When I'm starting from scratch, I go over all those notes and see if anything might fit. Or, might fit after a little mashing up and re-tooling. You never know.

Never throw stuff away
I have dozens of trunked novels and novellas. Many of them have been lost to obsolete file formats and exist only as a tractor-feed, fanfold printout (I kid you not.) They are never going to be seen by anybody in their current state because they're clumsy, poorly written, and sloppy... but there are little interesting bits in there.

Don't throw your crummy old stuff away. Nobody will know you took a half-baked idea, finished baking it and added a few new gadgets.

Don't cut corners
I've built worlds from scratch, and I'll do it again. Just because I need to keep producing, as a self-publisher, does not mean that I should lower my standards or let things slide as "good enough." I am the only person holding me responsible for the quality of my work.

My readers deserve the best I can do. They're hard-won and priceless.

Have you started eating a new elephant recently?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

At the intersection of Voice and World-building: names

Names are wonderful, powerful things. Handle with care.

Baby name books are a must for any writer -- or at least they were before the internet came along. Personally, I find a book quicker than slogging through baby name sites hell-bent on clogging the page with banner ads. I have one that's organized by ethnicity and lists language origins and meanings for everything. That was great when I wanted German names that were pure German, not rooted in Latinate languages or the Bible/Hebrew.

Sometimes, you want to be that particular about the names in your story. Sometimes you don't want a name that sounds modern, familiar, or is easily traced to a particular ethnicity. Maybe you want something with a particular "sound" to it. Something smooth, something harsh, something with r'a'ndom punc'tu'ation. (Makes my eyes roll every time. Establish that it's a glottal stop, or that contracted names are culturally acceptable, or don't do it.)

It has long been noted that it's a good idea for names (human, geographical, etc,) in a story to be consistent -- as in, follow set patterns for each ethnic group represented. Names are, of course, a result of a group's language and traditions, and convey certain ideas to the reader even if it's on a subtle, subconscious level. Consider: John, Jean, Johannes, Ivan and Ian. All the same guy? Slightly different?

The master at this is, of course, Tolkein, but most of us don't have the chops to generate entire languages to back up our nomenclature. Still, since an author should do nothing accidentally there are easier ways to build this into your world.

Short of building whole languages, here are three ways to synch up your names: use an existing pattern (language) to generate names, use your own pattern, or play it by ear.

I've collected a fair number of links to fantasy name generators, over the years. Here's my list. If you know of more generators (not just name lists), post them in the comments!

Random or pattern-based:
Yafnag  •  Totro  •  Rinkworks

Ethnicity-based:
Lowchen  •  Behind the Name

Multiple generator sites:
Springhole.net  •  Donjon  •  GameDecor  •  Serendipity  •  Seventh Sanctum

Using existing languages
Existing languages do provide a fairly consistent "sound" for names. Google's translator covers an impressive number of languages, and you can use those words straight up as names or mash and mangle them as you please.

If you want something that's not on Google's list, there are online reference dictionaries out there. They aren't as easy to use as Translator, but they're better than nothing. For example, I used this Anglo-Saxon dictionary while I was writing Hawks & Rams.

Pronounceability
Say the names aloud. Yell them like a mom who's just found her favorite vase broken (that will require a full name, the universal sign that you're in big trouble.) Cut them down to the shortest possible nickname. Or the rudest possible.

Unpronounceable names have their place. But if you're going to saddle a major character with one, recognize that there has to be something short, sweet and pronounceable that other characters can yell across a crowded room to get their attention.

That's my ultimate test for a name. In the real world, anything three syllables or more will get cut down to one or two. Heck, two-syllable names often get cut to one. If anybody knows of someone who acquired a nickname longer than their actual name, I'd love to hear about it.

Do you play it by ear?
Where does naming consistency fall on your priority list? For me, it's tied into voice and world-building -- and you know how I am about world-building. :) I've been doing some of that recently, so this has been on my mind.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fixing it in revision

I'm a plotter. When I start writing a story, I've already worked out the sequence of events, the character arcs, etc., to some degree of detail. There's always room for changes within those plots and outlines because it's not unusual for characters to inform me that they're going to misbehave. Things generally stick to the outline, though.

Well, except for Hawks & Rams. That one went straight off the rails and tore cross-country for a few miles. The outlines bore only a slight resemblance to the first draft.

Fix it in revision
That's what I said while I was writing it. Now it's time to do it.

Scale to fit
Since I was coming off writing Disciple, I wrote out four different plot/character arcs for H&R. That sort of complexity isn't at all unusual for a big series of fantasy novels.

Hawks & Rams is much smaller, though. I wasn't sure before I wrote it, but now I know that it really is a novella -- not a novel. I know which character has to make the big choice at the climax, and how he gets there. While the other characters have their own trajectories, they don't make the personal changes that my main character does.

Therefore, I only need to lay out one character arc and one plot. I know what paths the other characters will follow, but it's not the standard inciting incident, build to a climax and then resolution that my main character faces. The main plot -- the series of events that drive Heathric toward his personal crisis -- needs some improvement too...

Raise the tension
More challenges, more complications, more tension are always better. Well, within reason. Toward the end of Apocalypto (terrible movie, sadly) the climactic scene for one character consists of her being trapped in a well, which is rapidly flooding due to the rain, balancing one screaming small child on her head (because the water's neck deep) while simultaneously giving birth to the second that she's carrying... I was just waiting for piranha to show up. For a kitchen sink to fall on her. You know, something that would actually be a challenge. (/sarcasm)

Raise the tension without tipping over into ridiculousness. It helps to go through the sequence of events with a fresh mind (because you put the story aside for a few months and worked on something else) and re-consider why things played out that way. What would've been uglier/nastier/messier? What would've been completely unexpected? What would've been ridiculous, so that you know where your boundaries are?

Trying to write a query letter for the story and getting feedback on that can help too -- a fresh pair of eyes and questions from a different perspective can bring up ideas you wouldn't have thought of.

Devil's in the details
The trickiest part of revisions is, of course, all the little things that shift when events change. People are at a different emotional point, they say different things, topics drop out of conversation that needed to be brought up for something down the line... get out the fine toothed comb!

Have you fixed a story plot recently? What did it need?

IN OTHER NEWS: I've landed my first speaking gig! MRW is hosting a half-day writing workshop on October 26th, and I will be talking about world-building and character development.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The brutality of a muse

There's been more drama than usual in my personal life since my father had his stroke. He's home and doing well -- back to knitting -- but he's got a noticeable gap in his mid-range memory. He has no trouble with short-term memory tests, as long as he maintains his focus (we're all absent-minded types, in my family,) and his long-term memory is fine, but he honestly forgets things like the trip planned for late next month or that there are no cigarettes in the house for a good reason. The writerly side of my mind has been taking notes, of course.

Another source of drama that's somewhat relevant to my writing life is that I -- acquired? -- a muse. I'm not sure what the right verb is; that's like saying I acquired a bolt of lightning. My muse wasn't so random as lightning, though. Unexpected, but not random.

Classical Greek muse, courtesy of sxc.hu
If you're not familiar with the term, a muse is a person who incites artistic inspiration. The most recent fictive treatment of muses that I recall was a storyline that Neil Gaiman included in the Sandman series. In that story, a man was holding one of the Greek muses captive and using her to fuel his career. Sandman freed her, and punished the man with such a flood of inspiration that it amounted to a curse. It amounted to madness.

My experience with this muse has been closer to Sandman's curse than anything else. I had this idea that drawing inspiration from people would be a happy, exciting process -- rather like the brainstorming I did with fellow writers while at Viable Paradise.

No, this verges on frightening. Obsessive. Every thought, however tangentially related to my muse, throws out tendrils and sprouts into a story idea, like accelerated grapevines intent on choking my mind. Genre doesn't seem to matter: sci-fi, dark fantasy, urban fantasy... dammit, I don't even like urban fantasy*... And while that's difficult enough to wrestle with, I dread its end and the wound my muse will leave.

Dread and crave; what a peculiar masochism creativity entails.

Most of the posts I have seen about inspiration talk about drawing it from other books/films/music, or personal experiences that set off "what if" cascades. I can't remember anything about real-life muses. So if you have any experiences to share, I'd love to hear them.

*I kid you not, a few thoughts about my muse in order to write this and an urban fantasy idea spins out of nowhere. Had to stop and jot it down, since it came with enough details that it might work. Not all of them sprout that far on their own, but they all come with this urgent potential.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Indie Life: No guarantee of success, but...

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Common question #43
Another question that often turns up when writers are looking at self-publishing: can I make a living at this? how long does it take to start making money?

From what I've seen, after almost a year of doing this, the answer involves a few factors
  • do you have a supportive family? Do they read your genre?
  • do you have friends online and/or IRL who read your genre?
  • how effective is your advertising?
  • do you have a backlist? (more than one publication?)
  • what genre are you writing in?
  • oh, and is your story any good?
Can you earn money by self-publishing? Yes. Will you earn back the money you invested in editing, cover art, etc.? Maybe. Will you do that and be able to pay your phone bill/rent/etc. with your earnings? That's a bigger maybe. Will you be able to quit your day job? ... well... uncertain shrug...

Will you earn money hand over fist like E.L. James or Hugh Howey? That's pretty much a no. Though it does happen, the statistical outliers are the ones that get touted as proof that self-publishing is the land of milk and honey. (Needless to say, it's not.)

Got supportive family and friends?
More importantly, socially active family and friends. Word of mouth is the best, but hardest to get, advertising. The support you get here really is priceless.

Got effective advertising?
Do your homework when picking an advertising venue or promotional service. Check the Promotional section at Preditors & Editors. Check the Bewares forum at Absolute Write. Information about promotional companies is spottier than for freelance editors, agents, or predatory book "publishers" but it is out there.

If you're considering buying a spot on book recommendation sites, look for the ones with acceptance standards and high traffic. BookBub, for example, has been reported to get good ROI, but they have minimum review/star ratings requirements and limited acceptance rates. I don't even qualify to apply to BookBub yet.

Backlist and genre
Having several published titles implies that you write well enough to keep publishing, that you're going to keep writing, and it offers readers a block of material to dive into. We all know how fun it is to devour a series of novels by an author you just realized you like.

Some genres do seem to work better for self-publishers. The big example is erotica, both straight and gay. Romance moves a lot of self-pub... but romance moves a lot of titles anyway. Urban fantasy seems to still be going strong, as do YA and the new NA designation.

Quality writing
Speaks for itself, and this is a whole 'nother blog post that I'm not going to write today. I'll also skip the part where I rant about how well crap sells (because crap does sell, and everyone needs to get over it.)

Be ready for the long haul
That's what self-publishing is. Don't expect big sales numbers. Stop checking your Amazon ranking and keep writing. If you can earn more money selling widgets, do that too.

I'm involved in the self-publishing community over at Absolute Write and of the people who regularly post their monthly sales, I'm consistently at the bottom. Yes, it's discouraging. Yes, I'm envious. Yes, I notice that people who post numbers like mine tend to disappear.

...but I haven't disappeared. Stop the violins. Let's get back to work.


Yes, Disciple, Part III is on sale now! 
More samples? Part IPart II

The gritty fantasy romance will continue...
Part IV (of VI) to follow in 2014.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Various announcements

Disciple, Part III is on sale!
I have survived the launching process, it would seem (pats self looking for wounds.) The official announcement post is here and I have a topic for next week's Indie Life.

Halfway through publishing Disciple -- wow, it feels like it's been a long year! I will definitely be dividing my life into "before publishing" and "after publishing." Will I be able to keep up the pace? My writing production is down substantially for this year, so I don't know. At least Disciple's finished and only needs polishing.

Next up: polishing and preparing Fire's First Kiss for my Kickstarter supporters. Hopefully I will finish this untitled short story I'm working on. Then... hmm, we'll see.

QueryCon!
QueryCon at Unicorn Bell begins Monday, September 9th. For the first week, there will be interviews, posts about querying and submissions, and introductions of our judges. The second week, submissions of queries for critique will open up. Send yours in for posting or drop by to crit other writers' queries. Third week is the contest.

There will be two Google hangouts to talk about queries and anything else you like -- Charity will be hosting the west coast hangout on the 11th at 8pm (Western). I will be hosting the east coast hangout on the 13th at 8pm (Eastern).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sigil vs. hand-coding ebooks

Sigil is a free piece of software for building EPUBs. I heard lots of raving about it at Balticon, so I decided to give it a try for generating Disciple, Part III's ebooks. Previously, I had been agglomerating all of my text into one document, stripping it down to a naked .txt file, hand-coding it using jEdit, and converting the resulting HTML file into EPUB and MOBI with Calibre. (My PDFs are generated from the print layout because Calibre sucks at making PDFs.) I talked about that process a bit in this post.

Things I liked 

  • Sigil let me import separate text files into the EPUB. Thumbs up on that one.
  • Sigil automatically generates a TOC for you. If you use their header tags, that is -- it won't let you choose custom tags. A minor problem, okay, I can make that work.
  • Sigil automatically replaced all the em dashes with the appropriate code. Nice. But it didn't catch the odd characters, í & ü & ä, so I had to search & replace those. Good thing that writing this made me think to check the ellipses, because it didn't do them either. On the whole, not much improvement over doing that by hand.
Yeah, these are the good points and I'm already complaining. To be fair, if you aren't familiar with HTML markup, Sigil does have a nice, word-processor-like interface to help you with that. Being me, I went straight to looking at the code and didn't use the word-processor side much. It was convenient when I got the revisions back from my proofreader and had to make some minor edits.

Things that were annoying
  • I'm running Mac OS 10.7.5. Sigil's current version is for 10.8, isn't backwards compatible, and there isn't a user's manual specifically for the 10.7 version. So the manual I used occasionally referred to functions that didn't exist in what I was using. Feel the love.
  • Their vaunted Regex search function crashed Sigil a few times, then mysteriously began working. Regex is a method for searching and replacing HTML tags and other bits of code that are surrounding text that you don't want to change. Why do you need need a whole search function for that? Because…
  • Importing files into Sigil generates a lot of junk tags which are redundant once I apply my Disciple-specific CSS.  This offends my aesthetic sensibilities. It's annoying to have to do several searches to clean them out, too.
  • Having done all the necessary cleaning and coding, I opened the resulting EPUB in Nook and... the cover art did not show up in the bookshelf view. None of the spacing I specified in the CSS had been applied. Grumble, snarl, wtf.
Calibre to the rescue, as usual. I converted the EPUB to an EPUB and lo and behold, it's fixed. Also generated the MOBI (for Kindles) using Calibre, but that was to be expected.

On the whole, color me not so impressed with Sigil. Then again, I'm a bit of a control freak (as you know if you're a regular reader) so take that with however much salt you like. :)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Busy, busy, busy

I'm trying to get Disciple, Part III together for publishing on Sept. 1, so no post this week. This time around, I will be trying out Sigil, the ebook coding software, so look for a report on how that goes... in a couple weeks.

After I finish Part III, I will be working on Fire's First Kiss, which is the thirty-thousand-word "prologue" to Disciple. Look for a cover reveal and more info on that, soon. FFK is only available through Kickstarter campaigns, so if you've missed your chance to buy a copy, keep your eyes peeled for my next Kickstarter.

When will that be? Don't know. My editor just raised her rates by 50%, so... :/

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Indie Life: Quality control

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Editors, line editors, and proofreaders
Do I need to hire an editor? It's a common question. Sticker shock is a contributing factor -- trust me, I don't have that kind of money burning a hole in my pocket either.

I know my grammar isn't perfect. Typos sneak through. I live on a budget, but I scrape together the money and hire an editor/line editor and a proofreader for each part of Disciple. Why?

How many chances do you get to make a first impression?

Consider the truth behind the accusations leveled at self-published books: poorly written, badly punctuated, terrible grammar. I've looked at plenty of book samples and chucked them for those reasons. Those writers won't get a second chance to make a first impression.

People treat me in proportion to how I present myself, I've found. There's a huge backstory about being shy vs. projecting confidence there, but I'll skip it for now. Short version is: I present myself as a professional artist so that I will be treated as such. That requires maintaining a standard of quality for everything attached to my name. Maybe I come across as a hard-ass when it comes to standards, but I'm the only one who can make me stick to those quality standards.

So how do you maintain high standards on a limited budget? Good beta readers and choosing your freelance editor carefully.

Beta readers
I'm sure we all agree about the importance of beta readers and the revision process. What makes a good beta for a given author is as unique and personal a question as "what's a good writing process?" -- IMO, it falls under the same trusting-the-universe umbrella as where I get my story ideas in the first place.

How do you know beta feedback is good? Because it feels like a hammer hitting a nail right on the head. You know that their suggestions will make the story better, even if it's a difficult thing that requires murdering some darlings.

How do you know if it will make the story better? That's part of the learning-to-write process. Keep reading well-written stories to see how it's done (and poorly written stories to see how it's not done) and keep writing so you get the hang of how you're going to do it.

When is a story ready for a professional editor?
That's something each writer has to gauge by how their betas' feedback changes over the course of drafting their novel. By which I mean fresh betas reading later revisions, compared to what other betas said about earlier drafts. I wrote a post about that, and how I decided I was ready to publish Disciple over at Unicorn Bell, last year.

Choosing an editor
Choose with care. Read books they've edited, or books they've written if they write, and critique them as you would any writer you're studying. Check their references.

If they offer a sample edit, take advantage of that -- especially if you're looking for a line editor. It's on you to know grammar's rules and how to bend them, but do their edits make sense? Are they making your story clearer while maintaining your style and voice?

In short: work with somebody whose work you respect. For me, that's Debra Doyle.

Is it worth the money? 
Yes. What you're buying is objectivity and experience. As hard as I can be on my own writing, deep down I still love it. As insightful as my beta readers are, we're all at a similar experience level, writing-wise. IMO, if I want to maintain a high quality standard in my self-published stories, I need to find the money for my freelance editor.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What's SF got that fantasy doesn't...?

Science fiction has a long history of offering critiques of contemporary society, and of deliberately wrapping social issues in fictional trappings to make it "easier" for the audience to think about the issue at hand. This is known widely enough, apparently, that I recently heard that from a friend who isn't even much of a genre fan. (His opinion being that you should face the real issues in all their painfully unjust glory. He has a point.)

Fantasy does not have this tradition. A handful of writers have a reputation for social commentary within fantasy novels -- such as Terry Pratchett -- but it's not common. Or, at least, it goes unnoticed and unremarked-upon.

I've heard it said that whereas science fiction looks "forward", fantasy looks "backward" and is a re-imagining of how things "used to be". Perhaps it's some essence of human nature that makes it easier for us to relate the future to the present. Maybe we're thinking of how to get there from here even if it's only in the most abstract way.

The past doesn't seem to provoke that sort of analysis of the present. If you present a minority population living in segregation and repression in a science fiction story (such as District 9), people notice and comment on it. If you do it in fantasy story... hmm, having trouble coming up with an example. Which is part of the problem, admittedly.

A lot of fantasy stories center on princes, nobles, the "gifted" who've risen above poverty -- whereas I've always been fascinated by the lives of ordinary people in fantasy worlds. Melusine has an MC who was still hacking out a living as a ghetto thief, there's an example. Personally, I want the stable-boy's perspective, I want to hear about why a woman has to take in laundry to pay her rent -- or the nail-biting dangers of putting herself on the street corner to do the same. What does a ghetto look like, in high fantasy? What stories happen, in there?

Why does fantasy always focus on the rich and powerful? Because everyone else is too busy keeping body and soul together to go on amazing quests and save the world? As if those are the only stories that matter...

I want to shout out to Chris Gerwel here, because of his recent blog post about realism and the quotidian fantastic. I'm thinking I'm going to be guilty of writing a fair amount of quotidian fantasy (lol, love the pretentious name) in my writing career. It's definitely an interest of mine, and in fantasy more than science fiction.

Disciple's main character is a peasant girl who has worked hard to become a healer. In Hawks & Rams, one MC is a shepherd boy and the other's a border patrol Ranger. Recently, some more thoughts have been bubbling up and I've codenamed them "Wharf Rats" -- you can guess why.

Those thoughts are coming in response to real-world stories I've been hearing of late (from that friend who doesn't believe in disguising issues). Which doesn't surprise me because I've found that the best genre ideas come from outside the genre. The further outside, the better.

Are there any fantasy stories you'd point to for their social commentary?

ps. Writing the tweet announcement for these posts often gooses me with things I didn't think of. Would social commentary in fantasy be too... boring?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Always learning more

It's been at least a year since I looked at my science fiction. When I put it down, I knew it needed work but I was fairly confident in the plot and the action. Well, I'm still confident in the action, but the work it needs is glaringly obvious now.

That's not unusual. If you haven't already heard the advice: you should put a story down for a while and work on something else, then come back to it with fresh eyes.

When I was writing in high school, I did all my revising on paper with a red pen and every single manuscript came away looking like a murder scene. Didn't matter how many drafts there had already been, it seemed. Red ink everywhere, rewriting, adding, deleting useless paragraphs.

My dad said it was because I'd learned so much more about writing since the last revision pass. Which was true.

It's also because when the story is fresh in your mind, you remember exactly what you meant to put on the page. Which isn't necessarily what got onto the page, of course. Things are always lost, in converting vivid hallucinations into little black symbols, but you're always learning new ways to translate.

These days, my revisions aren't so drastic as back in high school. There are a lot of reasons for that: awkward sentences get re-worked in progress, useless paragraphs don't get written in the first place, my outline and scene notes keep me on target, and my awareness of the vocab I'm using is much sharper. When my gut tells me something, it's easier to figure out what it's saying and whether I should trust it. (This has applications outside of writing.) All of that is the result of years of practice, years of writing, and there's no other way to earn those.

And after all these years of writing, I'm still learning the craft. Frankly, I hope I never feel like I've mastered it. If I did, I'd have to assume it would mean I've fallen into a rut or gotten my head stuck up my ass.

So I've been looking at the science fiction I put down a year ago and thinking about how to apply what I learned in the process of writing Disciple to it. I'm thinking this will be a murder-scene-level revision; time to get out that chainsaw.

What's the longest you've put a story down for? How did it look when you came back?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Stories, stories everywhere...

...and never time to write.

My father had a stroke last week. Being the reliable child (a frightening thought), I made the journey to New England to help my mother. I spent about a week chauffeuring her to the regional hospital and watching my father make a recovery so fast that he amazed all his doctors. The brain scan revealed minimal damage, and he's regaining movement on his left side. Within a couple days of his stroke, he was sitting up and alert enough to ask for his knitting.

Not what you expected a 70-year-old man to be asking for? It makes a good segue into what I want to think out loud about here.

It's a hallmark question of people who don't write, or are very new to it: where do you get your ideas? The short answer is: they're everywhere. You're constantly tripping over them.

Hospitals are especially packed with stories. Simply walking through an ICU -- trying not to look into the other rooms, because people have a right to privacy, but incapable of not stealing a glance or two -- threw plenty of ideas at me. 

In one room, a young guy flat on his back, on a ventilator, with an officer standing by his bed. Later, I saw the officer walk by and caught "Correctional Facility" on his shoulder patch.

A kid, under ten, with half his/her head shaved and the other half making a bed-head punk of him/her.

A silver-haired man with a strawberry nose* struggling with big knitting needles and fat yarn -- his left hand can't grip, and the stitches keep slipping away.

A good chunk of "being a writer" is the ability to catch the little snapshots of stories that are blizzarding around us all the time, every day, and build them into something unique and fascinating. Don't get me wrong: they're tough to catch. It's tough to catch the right one, the interesting one, and ask yourself the right questions.

A prisoner in ICU. A punk-ified child. An old man asking for his knitting. How? Why? What are the consequences of failure? What is failure, in this situation?

Another thing that got my brain burbling was watching the nurses go about their business. How would this be done in another place or time? Such as prepping a wheeled recliner chair for my dad to sit in, and the entire process of sitting him up, getting him on his feet and shuffled around to sit down. How would the process be different in a fantasy world? A science fiction one? During World War II?

So, that's why I didn't post last week: I was called away by a family emergency. Fortunately, my dad has a guardian angel, or a lot of good karma stored up (he doesn't knit for himself, only for others), or whatever form of good fortune you espouse. He was driving behind an ambulance when the stroke happened, and the EMTs had him in the ER lickety-split. The car sat on a side street, unlocked and full of stuff, undisturbed for the two days it took us to find it.

And that's my dose of talking about personal details for the year. :) Be well, everybody...

*Yes, my dad's nose has turned into a strawberry. It's been a strange transformation to watch. I fear for my own.

Tiny Plug: the Blogger Book Fair is going on over at Disciple of the Fount. So is a raffle of Disciple, Part I and Part II! Ends July 26th.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Indie Life: cover art


Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

This month, an offshoot of my thinking about how the larger sexism and racism controversies in SF/F can trickle down to even little self-publishers like me. Have you seen Jim Hines' spoofs of the silly poses women are put into, on book covers? How about the "girly" versions of famous (male) authors' covers?

I follow Lousy Book Covers -- though not too closely, it's depressing -- and also some "beautiful book covers" Tumblr feeds... it should come as no surprise which one has the most traffic.

I've been a graphic designer for 15 years or so, and I know enough about advertising to say that there are reasons why marketers package books the way they do. I've seen enough data to agree that even while we object about the gratuitous sex, violence, etc., we still buy it. It's a deep and complicated problem with plenty to unpack from it... and that's too big a topic for here and now. I want to think about what goes into a book cover. As a self-publisher, I try to take all of these things into account when giving my cover artist instructions.

The primary purpose of a book cover is to give the viewer an idea of what to expect from the contents. Among the things the cover tells the viewer are:

My book's cover:
Fantasy, non-Earth, monsters,
dark/grim/gritty, adventure/travel,
girl looking tough.
What do you see?
Genre
There's a stock of images associated with every genre, whether it's spaceships, aliens, and electronics for science fiction, or dragons, swords and castles for fantasy. The vocabulary's large, and there's overlap to some degree, but it's easy to classify a book by its cover.

Sub-genre
Those stock images can be very specific (a cybernetically enhanced person), or combinations of them can indicate a specific sub-genre (vampire plus teenaged girl). Also, the cover can indicate any unexpected overlaps with other genres. If you've got steampunk with dragons, or a spy thriller with supernatural elements, the cover art is a good place to alert readers to that.

Mood
Darkness? Humor? Idealism? There's an equally large stock of associated imagery with all of these things. Lighting and color palette can convey this, too, independent of the images.

Major themes
With the rise of ebooks and the need for covers to look good as thumbnail images, there's been an increasing abstraction in the artwork -- simplifying it down to a single image, maybe two -- which can be powerful. But it can also be vague. It's perfectly valid for a fantasy novel to have just a sword for its cover art. But that doesn't tell the reader much, unless it's a very distinctive sword.

What do I mean by "major themes"? All of those cheesy romance covers of a woman languishing on Fabio's shoulder do convey the theme very efficiently: ROMANCE. A World War II novel with Mustangs dogfighting on the cover: ACTION. It's in how the genre-related elements of the cover are interacting.

Interesting details
The cover is a chance to intrigue readers with unexpected combinations or fun details. Bear in mind, though, that a viewer knows absolutely nothing about the story inside, so only the most general things can be conveyed here. If your characters have a cool gadget, its presence on the cover will be entirely as a cool gadget. Its magical powers or time-travelling capabilities aren't easily explained. Which means it had better be pretty darn cool, to be on the cover. Tread with care.

Characters
What quintessential aspect of your character can you tell the reader, in the book cover? That he's tough? That she's frightened? If there are people in your cover art, this is not optional -- the viewer will see personality in them. Choose carefully.

Symbolic vocabulary
How do you know what elements communicate what? To some degree, you already do; we've all been drenched in advertising symbolism all our lives. We all love books here, as well, so we have plenty of chances to study their covers.

And to some degree, you've worked on this vocabulary as part of mastering the craft of writing. Yes, we use words but what we convey to the reader are images. You've hooked your readers and drawn them into your story by way of powerful images.

How have you translated those into cover art?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Things nobody wants to talk about

I follow KKR's business blog posts, because I'm serious about trying to make a living at this writing thing. This week, her post talked about the impact of personal disasters, health insurance, and how unpredictable a writer's income is. During this, she mentioned the terrible accident that befell David Farland's son and how people are trying to help with the enormous medical bills.

It just so happened that I had been semi-scheduled to appear on one of David Farland's conference-call writing chats when this disaster hit. Needless to say, that's on hold indefinitely. 

Nobody likes to think about disaster striking and how it can ruin you physically and financially. But these things happen. Having medical insurance, in America, doesn't mean you'll be able to walk out of a hospital financially intact. Personally, I pay too much for insurance that won't pay for anything useful -- I'm in debt because of it, don't get me started -- and I have no illusions about what would happen if I got hit by a bus. 

And speaking of getting hit by a bus, KKR's posts about estate planning for writers are something else that provoked a great deal of thought in me. I haven't drawn up a will yet, but I wanted to talk about part of it here for what it's worth. 
  1. There isn't anybody I could bequeath my copyrights to who would be able to take care of them. At least, not as of July, 2013 -- who knows, that could change. 
  2. A self-publisher's worst enemy isn't piracy, it's obscurity. Assuming I'm still obscure when I die, my copyrights may not be worth much.
  3. I have a great deal of respect for the open-source movement, and I'm thankful for all the free software out there. 
Love this photo, let's use it again: Parisian catacombs.
Photo by Atif Gulzar, available at sxc.hu
So. Until further notice, if I am hit by a bus and they pull the plug on me -- they will have to, I'm poor -- then the contents of my "Scribblings" folder (currently over 2 gig, wow, didn't know it had gotten that big) will be made available in a public Dropbox folder under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. Links will be posted here when I die. Not yet! 

If you want to write something in the Saints of War universe (or the Jovian Frontier, for that matter) before I die, hey, email me. We can talk. 

Have you made plans for your writing estate? You should. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Choices made: sexism, racism, and self-publishers

Arguments about sexism and racism in science fiction (and, by extension, fantasy) have been smoldering along and occasionally breaking out into wildfires for the last couple years. It's not a discussion I've felt like I had much to contribute to, aside from planting my flag firmly on the all-inclusive side of the line.

And these are not issues I've wanted to write about in any sort of activist sense -- but at the same time, when I was writing Disciple it crossed my mind that someday somebody may loudly object to the gender- and race-related choices I made therein. It's not likely, since I'm a self-publisher, but you never know. The advice I got at Viable Paradise -- do nothing accidentally -- is well taken, though, and I'm willing to explain and defend my choices should I ever need to.

These sexism and racism arguments apply to book covers, also. I've followed (with amusement) Jim Hines' attempts to mimic women's poses on various book covers, and the re-drawing of comic book heroines with male characters to point out how ridiculous the poses are. Recently, it was brought up that the publishers of Throne of the Crescent Moon made an explicit commitment to not whitewashing the cover... which is all well and good, but it's frustrating that this needed to be explicitly stated.

Added later -- this is the cover!
More about
Disciple, Part III here.
That note about Throne, and all of the racism/sexism posts of late, combined with the weekly discussions of "to self-publish or not to self-publish?" over at Absolute Write, combined with my own discussions with my cover artist about the cover of Disciple, Part III, led me to ponder: 

I'm putting an "Arabic" man on my book cover, and I can do that because I'm self-publishing. 

Arabic is in quotes because there is no Arabia in Disciple's universe. He's ethnically equivalent, though, and yes it was intentional -- I put a brown guy in a position of tremendous power to steer these blonde, white-bread kids through the perils of war. Why? Because he's the one with the intellect, motivation, and experience to do it. And he kicks some ass along the way, which was fun...

(There's a post in here about designing your own cover art. I'll talk about it in the next Indie Life installment)

Would Saint Qadeem have been on a cover, if Disciple's six parts were published by one of the big houses? Would the marketing department have objected to his role in the story? The editor? Would they have also objected to the fact that my main character, Kate, is a 16-year-old girl who is not only deflowered in full view of the reader, but also does it:
  • without being married
  • without angsting about it
  • without being raped
  • in fact, let me spoil this for you: Kate isn't raped in any of the six parts of Disciple
Would they have put Kate on the cover in a lovely banquet gown, twisted into some pose that can show off her butt and boobs? (eyeroll.) Maybe she can be clinging to Kiefan's arm while he heroically keeps shadowy monsters at bay. (shirtless, of course he'd go into battle shirtless, isn't that as logical as her silly dress...?)

I was the only person pressuring myself, when it came to Disciple's content and packaging. Admittedly, I'm quite capable of pressuring myself -- but I'm also free to avoid sexism and racism both on the book cover and in the story itself.  To the best of my ability, at least.

I decided what the consequences of Kate's sexual experiences were, and nobody pressured me to make them more draconian so as to avoid scandalizing the more prudish side of the audience. I decided the skin color of everyone in the book, and some of the "good guys" are brown, some of the "bad guys" are pasty-white -- and they all have their reasons for being what they are.

In a roundabout way, I'm trying to say this is one advantage of self-publishing: not having to fit into a publisher's preconceived notions about salability or what the audience wants. Yes, it cuts both ways and maybe I will lose readers by putting Saint Qadeem on my book cover, or by not slut-shaming Kate.

It's a risk I'm willing to take. Is there some controversial aspect of your story that you might have to defend, in the future?  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Antagonist POVs

I'm close to the end of Hawks & Rams and I already know that I'm going to need to put it down and think for a while before I get into good enough shape to call it a first draft. (For me, first draft = first draft that I'm willing to show to anybody.)

One of the things I need to think about is my antagonist. I've had a habit, for some time, of my antagonists being organizations rather than individuals. In Disciple, it's a whole empire -- though one person does emerge to take point, eventually. In my science fiction novels, the "enemy" is also nonspecific. One of them is a heist, in essence, so the characters are up against a system rather than a person.

But in Hawks & Rams the antagonist is, most definitely, one person. And because I tend to under-write my first drafts, on my to-fix list is a proper introduction of the antagonist. I need to be sure the reader is clear on:
  • Why he must be dealt with
  • What he's capable of
  • His motivations
Because antagonists are characters, just like any other. The tricky part will be getting this across through the interactions he has with my two POV characters.

There's a certain tradition of using the antagonist as a POV character... which works if you want the antagonist to be sympathetic and the story's dealing in shades of grey rather than clear lines of good and bad.

I've been leery of doing that myself because -- heh, this is kinda funny -- long ago I read The Shining, which includes the dad-who-goes-crazy as a POV character. Thing was, by the end of the book I thought his wife was a bitch and his kid was a brat and when he picked up an axe I was glad.

Yeah, the ending was a disappointment for me. I wasn't a very sympathetic character myself, as a teenager.

I doubt there's much chance readers would be upset by what happens to the antagonist in Hawks & Rams, admittedly. Maybe I should consider including him as a POV character. What are your experiences with antagonist POVs?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Indie life: lessons in self-promoting


Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Self-promotion
It's not easy. I've been self-publishing since November 2012 and I've learned this much, so far:

Blog tours
Now that I've done several of them -- one through a paid service, the rest on my own -- I have to say that their effectiveness is questionable. I've only had one or two sales that I'm fairly certain were because of my blog touring.

Neither were because of the paid service, either. I am very skeptical of those. The one I used posted my interviews on public-reporting sites that generate metric tons of mediocre journalism daily -- sure, big name news agencies occasionally glean something from there, and sure there's a tiny chance somebody would stumble across me. But, seriously?

I am a member of both the Magic Appreciation Tour and the Blog Tour Exchange. Through them, I get contacts to blogs of people with similar interests to mine. The exposure is good, and meeting fellow writers is even better.

Review sites and book bloggers
Many of them will not accept self-published books. Those that do are often overwhelmed and put up a "Not accepting submissions" note.

If you find one that's accepting self-published books, read the submission guidelines carefully and follow them just as you would when submitting to an agent or editor. Use your query letter or back cover blurb (which you have lovingly polished through many revisions and beta feedback, right?) in your submission email.

I've found a few indexes of reviewers and book bloggers, which might be helpful:

New Releases
It's true: your new book release is excellent promotion for the rest of your books. I saw a little sales bump when I released Disciple, Part II. Soon I'll be making announcements about Part III.

So when I heard the idea of a multi-writer crossover anthology over at the Magic Appreciation Tour, I jumped on the chance. Fifteen of us sent our main characters to a besieged fantasy city to defend the last remnants of humanity. I'd say they were kicking ass and taking names, but who cares about the names.

The Battle of Ebulon is now available at Smashwords for FREE! I sent Kate (from Disciple) to help however she could.

Fifty thousand orcs at the city gate and they sent us a f***ing handmaid...?! You know she showed them what for. No spoilers -- go read it. There's a sample of my story over at my book blog.

Google Hangout tonight!
Yup, I'm still going to do it regardless of whether anybody shows up. 10 - 11:30 pm, Eastern (US), open to anybody to talk about anything writing-related. My webcam will be on, but don't feel like you have to turn yours on. We can just chat in the sidebar if you prefer. I will practice reading aloud from Disciple, since everyone talks about enjoying author readings and I have never done one. (I'm too chicken.)

Where?
It'll be a public hangout, and if I'm not in your circles on Google+ you can find the hangout on my profile page.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Liebster award: 11 random facts

I've got that sinking it's Tuesday and I don't have a post drafted feeling... there may be a post coming about the dreaded "saggy middle" of a story as I have recently been suffering that, but I haven't written it yet.

Meanwhile, Crystal Collier gave me an award! Thank you!


I've gotten this once before, but the icon has greatly improved since then. Here are eleven random facts about me: 
  1. I've been living near DC for 15 years now, and I still hate the summers.
  2. Perhaps as a result of that, a large chunk of Disciple happens during wintertime! I didn't do it on purpose. Really. 
  3. Lately, I've been finding new music through Noisetrade -- they feature a wide variety of styles,  and you can download albums for free with the option of leaving a tip for the artists.
  4. I feel really bad that I can't afford to leave tips, but money's been tight for a long time. 
  5. Partly because of that, when one of the musicians whose sample album I downloaded announced a Kickstarter, I pledged. (He's almost to his goal and there's only three days left!)
  6. Having run two Kickstarters myself, I have this bit of advice: always have a Plan B.
  7. I drink iced coffee -- with half-and-half, no sugar -- every day, but I don't need to.
  8. I'm an early bird, and one of these people who can just roll out of bed and be wide awake.
  9. Because of that, I tend to turn into a pumpkin at midnight. 
  10. I'm ashamed to say it, but I don't read enough. My own stories are always horning in and distracting me from what I'm reading, so I have trouble fully engaging. Since I'm not fully engaged, I have no trouble putting books down and forgetting about them. 
  11. That's why I rarely post reviews here. 

If you've gotten this far in reading, consider yourself tagged. Fact #12: I'm not so good at "rules."

We're almost halfway through 2013 already: what exciting developments are you looking forward to in the second half?
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