Archive for February, 2011

Monday, February 28th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
Writing High

I had a few good writing days last week, which felt absolutely great.  February got kind of mucked up, because I spent a lot of it revising Kitty 10, then wrote a couple of short stories for anthology assignments, but I was finally able to go back to the novel I’d set aside and managed to regain some momentum on it.

Adding a few thousands words in a matter of days got me thinking about the “high” of writing.  I can be grouchy, frustrated, and depressed, but after a good writing session I’m positively bouncing, skipping around the house and singing songs.  I love that.  I think most writers have that experience, when writing becomes something like an addiction.  Like exercise.  Not writing brings out the worst moods.  But write one great scene and you’re flying.

I considered for a moment if that’s why I write — to chase that high.  But it’s not, I realized.  The writing high is not why I quit my day job and was desperate to write full time.  The high of a good writing day is a side benefit.  It’s icing.  Because I write for the story.  For the long-term goal.  To build this thing that’s complete and satisfying.  The writing high may last for a few hours or a day at most.  But living with the story for months, playing with it, picking apart the pieces, figuring out what they mean, creating and building and polishing the story.  That’s what I really love.  The writing high may keep me going day to day, but the work keeps me going month to month, and year to year.  (Not to mention finally getting it published and seeing it in the store, and being able to point to it years later and say, “I did that, it’s mine!”)

Saturday, February 26th, 2011 by Ken Scholes

So it’s Saturday again.  Well, Friday for me.   It snowed last night and though the sky is clear and blue, everything’s quite frozen.  So the daughters and I are staying in today.  I’ve plugged the Battlestar Galactica miniseries into the DVD player and I’m listening to the sounds of apocalypse and toddling twins.  Not too dissimilar, actually.

Still, not a bad day at all.

Last night, I participated in David Farland’s Authors’ Advisory Conference Calls.   It was a good time.  I talked a bit about self awareness and self care for writers and then took questions.  Most of the questions were from folks that I suspect are trying to break into print.  Do I outline?  How do I create the interwoven plotlines of the Psalms of Isaak?  How much planning goes into each book?  How do I develop my characters?  I’m paraphrasing.

The truth is, these are questions I’m asked pretty frequently.  And the more I’m asked these questions, the more I realize that I’m really not sure how to best answer them beyond the one answer that I know is true (which I’ll get to in a minute.)  Because with most of my writing, I’m largely unaware of what I’m doing competently until someone actually points it out to me.  My subconscious mind does most of the heavy lifting.  It feels like a cop-out when I say it, but it’s true.  My editor, Beth Meacham, calls me an instinctive writer. 

I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the four stages of competence, but as a refresher I thought I’d march those tired old soldiers out.

There’s unconscious incompetence.  We don’t know how to do it…and we don’t know that we don’t know.  We all start here.  Making the leap to the next stage is a big one.  I spent a lot of time in this stage.

Concscious imcompetence means we know that we don’t know.  Knowing that helps us learn proactively, filling in the gaps we accept ourselves as  having.  I spent a goodly portion of my time here, as well. 

Then, we become consciously competent.  We are aware of how to do it and are very conscious of doing it.   I think I might’ve missed this stage.  Or maybe I’m just slow. 

Last, it becomes second nature to us and we’re unconcsiously competent.

Now, I’ve heard the last two reversed before, but it does make sense to me that we would become so practiced at something that we just do it unawares.

And that brings us back to the one answer that I know.  Practiced.

When I was 17, I picked up an old Fender electric guitar that was collecting dust in the corner of my trailer’s family room.  I picked up the Paul Simon Songbook and started with Scarborough Fair.  I had to work each chord until my fingers hurt.  By the time I had callouses, there were some chords I could get to without looking at my fingers.  Now, I’m 43 and I’ve been playing for a long while.  I don’t even think about it when I pick up the guitar and play a set.  Most of the time, I don’t even have to strain for the lyrics. 

All that practice made it second nature. 

And it’s the same with our writing.  We start out full of questions about all the things we’re going to learn naturally (says I) by just practicing.  It’s certainly still good to ask the questions…getting information from other writers on how they tick can help us discover how we tick.  And every answer we get to our questions gets filed away, brought out and put to work when we need it to be.  But it’s practice that gets us there in the end. 

We write.  We write more.   We learn.  We learn more.  And really, it never stops.  We keep learning far beyond that milestone of selling that first story or book, getting that first award, making that first bestseller list. 

It’s the only magic bullet.  We just keep practicing, laying down the words, making the path by walking the path.

Eventually, whether we’re aware of it or not, we figure out how to do it.

Friday, February 25th, 2011 by Rosemary
Warm Up your Pitching Arm

It’s pitch season coming up. No, I’m not talking about baseball. I’m talking about the rounds of writing conferences coming up. Even if you’re not going anywhere that you’ll be pitching your novel in person, to an agent or an editor, the heart of a winning query letter is essentially answers the same question:

What’s it about?

When trying to score a request for your manuscript, the trick isn’t to outline or summarize the whole book. The key is to tell “What’s it about?” in a few short sentences. Imagine that you’re trying to convince your significant other to spend $25-$30 on a movie date (not including dinner and a babysitter). You wouldn’t describe the whole movie plot to him. You’d say the most exciting part.

It’s about a guy….

Because we’re human, we’re most interested in what the human is going to have to do in the story. (Well, there are always the exceptions.)  Generally, when we answer the questions “What’s it about?” we start with the hero.  If you can get some good character hook in there, his most defining characteristic, so we get a mental image of him. “It’s about John McClaine, a NYC cop…”

Then we say what he or she has to do. It has to be something hard, and it’s a good idea if we can give some idea of what’s going to keep it from being a walk in the park for our hero.

It’s about a guy who has to do this really hard thing, with this really big obstacle stoping him…

Now what we want to know next is what’s going to happen if he fails? What’s at stake for our hero? It may be the fate of the world, or it may be the girl of his dreams, but it has to be vitally important. We don’t care if he doesn’t win “Miss Nice to Pass the Time With.” It has to be “Miss My Life Will Be Bleak Forever Without You”

It’s about a guy who has to do this really hard thing, with this really big obstacle, and if he doesn’t, because this really vital thing is at stake.

If only it were as simple as a game of mad libs.  A good pitch paints a picture for the agent or editor, so they start to imagine how that story might play out. A few words can get a character in their mind, and a few more set up the big goal and conflict. “It’s about a survivor of an alien attack who leads a platoon of space marines back to the next of aliens on a colonized planet…”

Play up the things that make your book unique. “It’s about a girl who falls in love with a vampire” may be the kernel of a good story, but it’s going to make anyone’s eyes light up any more. “It’s a bout a hemophiliac girl who falls in love with a vampire…”  Now we’re on the right track.

To recap, a good pitch, whether it leads off your in person pitch or your short and sweet query letter should…

  • Boil down the most unique aspects of your book. What sets it apart from all others.
  • Evoke vivid mental images and make the listener “see” how the story might play out.
  • Have an unexpected twist is emotionally intriguing and “hooks” the listener and says: “there’s a story there.”
  • Focus on a main character who has a compelling goal that we identify with as human beings.
  • Describe the main character by their most defining characteristics and the ones that will make the most impact on his/her journey.
  • Focus on the biggest emotional stakes in the story.

Now go out there and play ball!

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 by Bob Mayer
Resistance is Futile: The Future of Publishing

The future of publishing is now.  I was recently speaking with a science fiction author.  He also does consulting in the corporate world, except he doesn’t call himself a science fiction writer when he does that; he’s a futurist.  And the #1 thing he preaches is that change is occurring exponentially, not linearly.

Publishers might well be ‘juking the stats’.  Publicly announcing 10% e-book sales, while every author I talk to who has actual numbers says it’s between 40-60% versus their hardcover.  PW announced John Grisham’s latest release has significantly fewer hardcover sales, but it was also released in e-book.  My latest royalty statement for my first Area 51 book showed e-book sales were double my mass market sales.

Here are some facts:

The Big 6 Publishers control 95% of print publishing.

Starting in 1995, the print business began contracting.

7 out of 10 books printed by the Big 6 lose money.

10% of their titles generate 90% of their revenue.

Those two facts indicate a reality:  the focus for the Big 6 is going to be more and more on the Brand Name authors and less on midlist.  The problem is:  where is the next generation of Brand Name Authors going to come from?

The decline of the book chains is biggest problem for traditional publishers.

Here’s the conundrum that NY doesn’t want to face:  The book business is the same, but the retail business has changed.  While NY basically operates the same, the way books are sold has changed dramatically.  How many music retailers are left in your town?

The focus is too much on celebrity books in NY and many are money-losers.  Much more so than all those midlist authors.  The bestseller lists are very deceptive.  For example, Kate Gosselin’s recent book sold only 11,000 copies yet hit #6 on the NY Times list.  Someone is playing with the numbers to make it look good, but many of those big deals are money-bleeders for trad publishers.

The overhead for the Big 6 operating out of the Big Apple is way too high.  Heck, even Who Dares Wins Publishing, which we started up in 2010 and operates out of my bunker in WA (lined with aluminum foil so the Borg can’t read my thoughts) and Jennifer Talty’s office in NY, has overhead.  We could never operate brick and mortar out of a NY office.  So that’s something that’s going to have to be addressed.  I see further major contractions occurring in NY and more out-sourcing of jobs to people digitally.  The acquiring editors will still be in NY with the agents, but a lot of the other parts are going to be out-sourced.

There are two major trends in publishing going on right now:

1.  Mid list authors going it on their own. Actually, this is creeping upward.  David Morrell (not a midlist author, can we say First Blood?) announced he is bringing nine books from his backlist into print AND his newest title on his own, skipping traditional publishing altogether.  This is biggest name fiction writer to do this.  So far.  The perception right now is that overall, the quality of self-published books is poor.  The reality is, most new authors who have self-published are indeed putting up poor quality.  However, there are a number of traditionally published authors who are bringing backlist into print and these are books that have hit bestseller lists.  Readers will separate the quality out.  Thank you.

2.  Digital publishing is exploding.  In January 2010, there were many yawns at the Digital Book World conference.  Those yawns have changed to expressions of shock.  I’ve been predicting that the change from print to digital would be many times faster than most were predicting and I’ve been proved right (slight pat on the back). I predict by the end of 2011 we will be close to 50-60% of all books being digital.   Especially with all the new e-readers that will be under Xmas trees last year.  We’ve seen a bump in Kindle sales most likely due to that.

The problem is this:  the makers of digital platforms like Kindle and iPad want content.  The Big 6 are loath to give digital content to them because they believe it cuts into their hardcover and other print sales and would hurt their own business.  So there is a huge divide between the platform makers, primarily Amazon and Apple, and the content providers.

This is the VOID that will destroy some of the Big 6 if they don’t exploit it.  And also the VOID which savvy writers can fill.

Adapt or die.  Write It Forward

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011 by Charlene Teglia
When the Words Don’t Flow

I know, there are people who claim that writer’s block is like the Easter Bunny, it doesn’t really exist. (Although how do they explain where Marshmallow Peeps come from?) But writing is work, and sometimes the writing muscles tire, the brain gets dull, the words do not flow. Also, writers are people and people do not always perform at peak all the time. So here are ten tricks to turn to when the words don’t flow:

1. Accept that you have bad days. Accept that the words you produce might be utter crap. Lower expectations and write those crappy words anyway.

2. Set a timer. Even on your worst day you can write for five minutes, right? Set the timer and go, writing nonstop. When time’s up, you can go eat a brownie or read a comic book and feel virtuous because you wrote. Then come back for another five.

3. Warm up with a read and polish of what you’ve written so far, or re-read your outline or synopsis to ease your brain into the story. Then begin writing new words.

4. Make a list of five things you could put in the story that would make it fun and exciting. Then try to use as many of them as possible in the scene you’re writing.

5. Get up and move. Take a five minute yoga break, run up and down the stairs, walk around your neighborhood. Get the blood pumping and oxygen moving to your brain. Sometimes this is all it takes to shake words loose.

6. Take a shower. The ions in the water help creative thinking. I came up with a missing piece of a scene today when I put away my laptop and got under the spray.

7. Think grounding details. If your brain feels gray and the words seem equally colorless, try to get very, very specific on sensory details. The creak of the leather seat, the bright red strawberry, the tart lemon, the groaning hinge; specific details make the scene vivid.

8. Write a character interview. Ask him or her what’s wrong. The answers might surprise you.

9. Read poetry. It’ll infuse your prose with new life.

10. Make sure work isn’t all you do. If words aren’t coming and everything is gray, ask yourself; when was the last time you did something fun?

Monday, February 21st, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
Promotional Cargo Cults

Cargo cults are a kind of sympathetic magic, particularly associated with the South Pacific during and after World War II, when military forces brought massive amounts of equipment and supplies to remote islands.  The deliveries stopped when the war ended, and in an effort to bring about a return of the deliveries, local people sometimes built fake landing strips, piers, replica ships and airplanes, and so on.  Such structures had brought riches before, why not again?  (This Smithsonian Magazine article discusses cargo cults in general and a particular cult that persists.)

Wikipedia offers this:  “From time to time, the term “cargo cult” is invoked as an English language idiom to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance.”   And this:  “…the term “cargo cult” also is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony take place but go unrewarded due to flawed models of causation…”

I think this happens in publishing, especially in self-promotion done by authors.  I keep running into authors who do things — make book videos, do blog tours, hand out a million bookmarks, sign stock at every store within a three-state region — because these are the things that you do.  All the lists of things you can do to promote your book say to do these things.  Everybody does them, in the hopes that they will bring forth riches.

And yet, where’s the evidence — the direct, causal evidence — that any of it works?  There isn’t any.  Maybe something worked really well for one person, so everyone else goes through the motions in the hopes that it will work for them, too.  There’s a lot of hope involved in self promotion.

A specific example of a promotional cargo cult is the blog.  Authors like Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Neil Gaiman have generated huge readerships through their online journals.  They’ve been blogging for 10+ years, before anyone else was doing it, and have spent a lot of time and experience building communities out of their online presences.  People point to them and say, “Look, blogging will bring you readers, you have to blog!”  Setting up a blog has become something like building a fake runway in the hopes that a magical cargo plane will swoop in for a landing.  However, the simple act of blogging is not going to turn you into the next Neil Gaiman.  That ship has sailed, and it’s way too late to spend ten years developing an online audience that you can use to promote your writing career.  Move on.  Blog if you enjoy it — not because you think it will magically make you a bestseller.

Unfortunately, lots of people buy into the magical thinking, because you have to do something to promote yourself, right?  Blogging works for lots of other people, why not you?  But if you start blogging without a real understanding of how it’s worked for other authors, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Same thing with book trailers, “viral” marketing (which almost by definition can’t be done purposefully), convention appearances, paying for your own publicist, and so on.

I have a test for what promotional strategies are worthwhile:  Has it ever worked on me, as a reader?  Have I ever heard of the author using that strategy, apart from the fact that they’ve used that strategy?  Have I ever actually bought the book advertised on a promotional bookmark?  (The answer is yes, once — because I also heard the author speak and I picked up his bookmark to remind me to buy the book.)  If an author has paid thousands out of their own pocket to hire a publicist, and I’ve never heard of them apart from the fact that they’ve hired a publicist, I would argue that perhaps the publicist isn’t helping.

Too much self-promotion can be a bad thing if instead of getting people interested in your book, you’re annoying the hell out of people with your incessant e-mailing and Facebooking and Tweeting and so on.  It can also be destructive if it keeps you from writing your next book in a timely manner.  The best promotion you can do for your book?  Write the next book.  (YA author Maureen Johnson’s manifesto on the topic of internet promotion is well worth reading.)

True story:  I hate, hate, hate going into a store cold to sign stock, which is one of the things you’re supposed to do to promote yourself.  I only do it when someone drags me, or I’m with another author who’s doing it.  So, I generally don’t do it.  I buy books from the local stores all the time and I’ve never told them they’ve got my own books in stock.  That kind of interaction really stresses me out, so I avoid it.  And I still manage to sell books.  Go figure.

A couple of things I know worked because readers came back to me and said they worked:  my publisher gave away copies of my first book at several conventions and conferences, and dozens of readers have said that freebee hooked them on the series.  The other thing that works:  word of mouth.  All the readers who’ve said they read the book because someone told them to, or said that they’ve given the book to ten other friends to read.  But you can’t buy word of mouth.  That’s the frustrating thing.  Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was throw lots and lots of money into publicity or jump through a certain number of specific hoops to guarantee that tens of thousands of people would love our books?

And doesn’t that just sound wrong?  I would rather people read my books because they like them, and their friends told them to read them, not because I’ve thrown money at the problem, or spent all my time building fake runways.

Saturday, February 19th, 2011 by Ken Scholes
Do’s and Don’t’s of Goose-Keeping

Today, I’m blogging from Chicago.  I flew out here for a medical procedure that seems to have been Very Effective.  I’ve had a helluva time getting any work done because of my health and now, suddenly, I’m feeling fine.

It’s gotten me to thinking about the self-care of a writer and how important it is that we take care of ourselves. 

I don’t know about you, but my muse is a fussy fellow, distracted and discombobulated by the slightest changes in weather.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do not actually believe there is a  redneck named Leroy who builds my stories for me.  But it is fun to dress the process up like its own little story.  A metaphorical way of looking at creativity.

And Leroy, in a lot of ways, is like the goose that laid the golden eggs.  You know the story…the goose pops out an egg made of gold every day and the greedy farmer, wanting to extract more gold than his daily ration, cuts the goose open to discover that the goose is not only empty, but also now dead.  Dead geese don’t lay eggs.

I think we do the same thing sometimes with our muses.  We push, we force, we reach for our knife.  Or we neglect, ignore, starve our goose.  And we wonder why the golden eggs dry up.

And regardless of my metaphor, we are the geese.

So here are my brief do’s and don’t’s of goose-keeping.

1.  Do take care of yourself.  It’s a hard habit and I still find this hit or miss in my own life.  My goal is to ride my bike five miles per day, five days per week.  Some days, I mix it up by taking a two or three mile walk, pushing 75 lbs of babies and buggy as I go.  But exercise, even though it takes time, gives back energy.  And with my tilting, adjustable, hospital bed table, I can actually do my email, blogging, etc while pedaling like mad.  I found it became nearly effortless once I was actually able to work while riding.  Some days, I even found myself riding seven or eight miles instead of five because I lost track of time.  Exercise, vitamins, diet, hydration, going to the doctor or the therapist (or to Chicago) when you need to, getting enough rest, etc are all ways of doing this.  I certainly don’t get it right all of the time, but I’m making progress.

2.  Don’t Starve Yourself.  Our golden eggs come from a steady diet of the things that feed your brain and heart.  For me, its music, poetry, story through the lens of books, TV, movies, even video games.  Keeping my brain at work by reading up on subjects you wouldn’t normally read up.  Sometimes for me its a Bertrand Russell essay.  Right now, I’m reading Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, a classic in its field.  Good brain food. 

3.  Do Connect With Others.   Introvert or extrovert, we’re all still social creatures.  Take care of your relationships and don’t sacrifice them for all the golden eggs in Aesop Land.  Foster friendships of reciprocal caring.  Find affinity with others who are both like you and different.  I’ve found that despite the fact that people make me tired, I need them.  Even if it’s in small doses.  These relationships have saved me again and again.  As I’ve said somewhere before, “My companions will ever be my saving grace.”   And there are so many ways you can do this.  Conventions.  Workshops.  Your local pub or coffeeshop or the other people that you meet in your neighborhood.  As we used to say in the army:  “Take a buddy.”   

4.  Don’t Forget Who You Are.  Jen and I often will part with the words “And don’t forget who you are.”  I’m not sure where it came from but it’s been in my life longer than Jen has.  It’s easy sometimes to think either more or less of ourselves than is actually true.  It’s also easy sometimes to just dodge the whole self-awareness thing in our mad race to get those golden eggs.  But part of caring for the goose is understanding how the goose operates, letting it be what it is rather than what you wish it could be or wish it wasn’t.

I could go on for a goodly while on this subject, but the sun is shining and there’s a Chicago style stuffed crust pizza (and some walking) that has my name on it.  So I’m going to turn the platform over to you now.

What are some of your Do’s and Don’t’s when it comes to taking care of your golden-egg laying goose?