GENREALITY

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Monday, April 23rd, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Writing For Yourself

I spent this past weekend at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference.  This was my very first full-on writer conference of this kind.  When I was a struggling/aspiring writer, I never went to anything other than science fiction conventions and small-scale workshops, so this was a whole new world for me.  I have some thoughts on what it was like to attend my first conference as an instructor and panelist rather than as an aspiring attendee, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was sitting on a panel with Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Crais, and Joe Lansdale.  I know, right?  Three veteran, accomplished, amazing writers — and me.  I confess to feeling a bit intimidated beforehand.  Fortunately, all three of them are gracious, thoughtful, and generally cool folk to hang out with, so I had a great time.  Plus, the topic of the panel was The Series Writer, which I happen to know something about, so I definitely had something to say.

One of the topics that came up, that we all agreed on, was how you have to be your own first reader.  You can’t listen to your readers.  I think I’ve talked about this before, that when you’re writing a series, you get to a point where your readers have ideas about what should happen next, and they’ll tell you, or write about it online, or whatever.  And you, the writer, simply can’t listen to any of it.

You have to have faith that your readers keep reading because they like what you’re doing, and you have to keep putting you into your books, not anyone else.  The minute you start listening to what people want to you do with the series and your characters, the series stops being yours, and you’ll lose what made your series unique in the first place.

For that reason, I’ve been grateful that I’m usually a couple of books ahead of my readers.  The Kitty novel coming out this summer, Kitty Steals the Show, is the tenth.  The rough draft I’m working on right now — number twelve.  It’s been like that pretty much the whole way through.  That means that I can’t possibly react to what my readers say.  I’ve done things my readers don’t like — but I’ve already moved the story along a book or two, and I can’t go back to change anything.  This ensures that the story I’m writing is mine, and not reactionary.  I think this has been all for the best.

As a corollary, I recommend, that when you sell your series, when you get that two-book contract, and the first book is written and on the publisher’s schedule for maybe six months to a year out — write the next book before the first one is released.  Get it done.  Get your vision on paper before you can possibly get a reaction from the general readership.  That way, you’ll never second guess yourself.

Monday, April 16th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
An excellent bit of characterization

I was on the ABC website, poking around for information about when the next new episode of Castle was going to air (must…have…Castle…fix…).  The site for the show has a lot of cool extras, the coolest of which may be this:  Castle’s Bucket List (opens as a PDF).

This is a list of 50 items, about 15 of which are crossed off.  I got to thinking what a clever document this is.  Not only is it an exercise in characterization, it tells stories.  Some of the items we know about from the show, some we don’t but they’re so true to the character I believe them.  Some items hint at stories that I can’t help but wonder about.  #39, Visit every IKEA, is crossed off?!?  Juggle chainsaws is crossed off?  Castle can juggle chainsaws?  This doesn’t surprise me, knowing Castle, but wow!  Now, I doubt we’ll ever see Castle actually juggle chainsaws on the show, and that’s okay.  It’s enough to believe the character has a life outside the show.  The list is funny, revealing, and poignant:  the last item, “Get married and make it last,” is not crossed off.

I love this, because it shows that even a simple piece of writing, like a list, can be a story, hinting at drama and conflict and possibly unreachable goals, leaving me, the reader, with a longing to know what’s going to happen to this character next.  Great stuff.

Would you be able to make a bucket list for your characters?  Would your character even be the kind of person to have a bucket list?

Monday, April 9th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Advice: the Best and Worst

And that’s our topic this week at Genreality.

A couple of years ago I wrote here about the best advice I ever got.  In a nutshell, the advice I got from my first agent, Dan Hooker, a month before he passed away was:  write the next book, make it the best you can.

It’s worth repeating, and more relevant than ever, because the pressure to spend time on self-promotion is only getting worse, with the rise of social networking and e-publishing.  We are told that we live and die by our ability to promote.  But so many people on that bandwagon forget one important detail:  you need something great to promote.  You need fabulous product.  Write the damn book, make it the best you can.

This is important advice for writers who are working toward their first publication as well:  instead of rewriting the same book over and over again, take what you learned and move on to the next.  Write the next thing, make the best you can.  I didn’t sell the first three novels I submitted.  Probably a good thing, because the fourth was better.  You have to keep working at new writing, you just do.

The worst advice I ever got:  I heard it from various people in critique groups, “how to get published” articles, and so on, and that’s “write for the market.” I can give you lots of reasons why this is a bad idea — lots of other people have.  If you’re writing what’s hot now, you’re actually writing what editors were buying 2-3 years ago, markets change too quickly to chase, etc.  But what it came down to for me was basic happiness.  Was I happy with what I was writing?  Or was I driving myself crazy writing what I thought other people wanted?  Before I’d sold anything, I decided that if I was going to be frustrated and unpublished, I at least wanted to not sell work I was happy writing, rather than not selling work that I’d written specifically to sell — and still failed to sell.  Double frustration, not cool.

I know some of you are thinking that Kitty and The Midnight Hour must have been custom-written and targeted straight at the urban fantasy market.  But it totally wasn’t, because that market hadn’t quite taken off yet, when I wrote the book in 2002.  In fact, I was told by one agent, in 2003, that while he enjoyed the book, he didn’t think he could sell it, so he was passing on it. (A couple of years ago that agent, Jim McCarthy, wrote quite candidly and flatteringly about rejecting me.)    I was extremely lucky and did the thing we’re all trying to do — I wrote the book I really wanted to write, and the market appeared for it.  I anticipated the market without meaning to.  And that reinforced my belief:  don’t write for the market.  You’ll make yourself crazy, and won’t be writing the books you love, that are filled with your heart.  Because that’s the only thing you can offer the market that no one else can:  your very own heart.  Instead of chasing the market, you’ll be helping to define it.

Monday, April 2nd, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
A Day Off

My last roadtrip was to Venice:

I was in Pazin, Croatia, for a science fiction convention (long story), and found out Venice is about a three-hour drive away.  So, we went.  I felt like a Victorian lady on her Grand Tour.  My travel journal is thick with notes.

I got back from Europe last Tuesday and was home long enough to do a load of laundry before heading to Albuquerque, then to Portales, where I was a guest at the Jack Williamson Lectureship.  The theme was urban fantasy, and I spent two days expounding on one of my favorite topics.  (And you should check out Jack Williamson’s urban fantasy novel, Darker Than You Think.)  Again, I had a marvelous time.  Portales and Venice may actually be exact opposites of each other, but that only made the whole journey more fascinating.

It turns out, you can get delayed-onset jet lag.  I fought through it last week, and when I arrived home yesterday it landed on me with the force of a jetliner.  This is to explain why I have no real post for you today.  I will just express the conviction, once again, that I have an awesome life.

 

Monday, March 26th, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
Hey, wait. I liked that movie. Why does it suck again?

Went to see the movie John Carter Saturday with my good buddy, Jay Lake.  I loved the movie.  I’ve read some reviews where people were disappointed, but that’s okay.  I don’t go to the movies to look for critical approval or even correct grammar.  I go to the movies to be entertained.  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t Star Wars or anything, but I found echoes there.  I doubt a generation of new science fiction fans will count this movie as a life changing event.  But I think it is a damn fine way to spend a couple of hours.

What I don’t understand is why this huge pulp/space-opera is doing so poorly at the box office.  Some folks have mentioned a rather odd and awkward ad campaign, which I can sort of agree with.  Some blame it on Disney, and others seem to be apologetic for the fact it’s a huge, pulp/space-opera.

I find this amusing.  It’s got action, it’s got adventure and it’s got romance.  what more could you want?  We go to movies to be entertained, do we not?  I’m not in college anymore where I need to write a critical analysis and earn a grade.  My goal is to settle into a comfy seat, hunker down in the dark and let my mind be taken over by an amazing story.  John Carter did that for me.

When I was in the third grade my grandmother handed me the entire Burroughs John Carter of Mars series and promised me that it would change my life.

And she was correct.  I devoured those books, learning that sleep is for sissies when you have a great book to read.

I knew they had flaws, even at a young age, but I fell in love with the characters, the adventure and the story.  That’s what I’m in it for.

So when I watched John Carter I went in with the expectation of being entertained, wowed by the special affects and stunned by the beauty playing Dejah Thoris.

Afterwards I got to thinking about the value of success and critical acclaim.  As an author, I want nothing more than to connect with readers and sell a lot of books, maybe get a movie deal somewhere and become a full-time writer without losing my house or family along the way.

I find the movie John Carter to be an excellent metaphor here.  I loved the movie, others didn’t.  The sales are not what the studio or the media pundits thought was good enough for the blockbuster budget this film had.  But I know several people who have already seen this movie in the theaters two or more times.  I plan to go see it again, paying the stupid price for the 3D and loving every minute of it.

I’ve seen many reviews that talk about how this movie was true to the books, and true to the Edgar Rice Burroughs vision of the characters, the world and the story.

So is it a  success or not?  I’m sure the film-maker is delighted with his product and perplexed why it isn’t being received better.  And here is a very important lesson for authors.  We cannot control what the audience does.  We cannot control sales, marketing and most of us don’t get a vote on the cover art of our novels.  We may truly love the work we’ve produced, have good art, great editorial support and still the books are not overnight sensations.

Hunger Games is in the theaters now.  I’m sure it is going to break some records, earn some amazing box office numbers –  similar to Harry Potter before it.  But we can’t all get struck by lightning.  We don’t all get to ride at the head of the parade with the prom queen and smile while adoring fans throw roses.

What we get to do is produce another work that shows our obvious love for what we do.  Then we can send it out into the world and hope that there will be people who will fall in love with those things we love.

I’ll buy John Carter on Blue Ray when it comes out.  I’ll also go back and buy another set of the Mars books to read again.  I’ll always love those stories as they formed the foundation of my own journey into becoming an author.

But when I start to worry about whether or not my books are selling well enough, or see a review by someone who didn’t care for my style, I’ll look back on the movie John Carter and remember that we don’t always love the same things.  Nor do we always meet the expectations of others.  In the end, we have to entertain ourselves, pour our heart and souls into our work, and trust that someday we’ll reach a reader and change their lives the way Mr. Burroughs changed mine.

Besides, what do critics know?

 

Monday, March 19th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Lines I Won’t Cross

On two separate occasions, while doing promotional events with other writers, I was asked if I would put on fur and claws and teeth in order to “dress up like a werewolf,” to help with the promotion.  In both cases, I said no.  The first time it happened, I made the mistake of telling the writer who had asked that I thought it would be unprofessional.  I was then told:  “Anything you do to promote your books is professional.”

I beg to differ.  I can think of any number of entirely unprofessional behaviors that one might engage in in the name of promoting one’s work.  I’ve seen some of them in action, and I guarantee you, the people you’re promoting to aren’t going to remember your work, they’re going to remember the unprofessional behavior.

I’m a writer.  I’m not a character, and I’m definitely not my werewolf character.  I like to think I don’t have to rely on gimmicks to get people interested in me and my work.  How do I want people to remember me?  As that presentable, approachable author who had interesting things to say about her books — or as that strange person who was dressed up in fur and fangs?  Maybe not dressing up as requested made me a wussy party pooper, but I don’t think so.  You want to talk about author branding, I can tell you exactly what I want my brand to say, and it doesn’t have anything to do with fake fur and plastic teeth.

I’ve seen plenty of situations where promotions involving costuming are appropriate and effective.  Mary Robinette Kowal has dressed in Regency costumes to promote her Regency-era novels.  The costuming itself gives her a way to talk about her work, and leaves a positive impression.  Many authors writing steampunk (like Cherie Priest) wear steampunk garb to promote their work — it’s an identifiable part of their author brand.  On the other hand, me dressing as a werewolf would make it that much harder for me to expand my audience and be known as anything other than “that werewolf writer.”

I’ve mentioned before, I love costumes and dressing up, but I consider that a different activity than my professional life as a writer — usually.  When have I made exceptions?  Last fall, I was a guest at a pirate convention, and I dressed up for that one — because if I hadn’t, I’d have been pretty much the only person in the building not wearing a costume.  In that case, I dressed up out of respect for the event, which was focused on the theme.  And I didn’t dress as a character — I was me in a pirate costume.  If I can finally get myself to a steampunk convention, I’ll definitely dress up for that one.

What I do and wear at a particular event is all about the impression I want to leave.  The bottom line is if I’m uncomfortable about doing something in the name of promotion, I’m not going to leave a good impression doing it.  I’m better off not crossing that line.

Monday, March 12th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
March Theme Week: Reading Habits

“What do you read, my lord?”

“Words, words, words.”

Hamlet, Act II, ii

I believe it’s safe to say that many, if not most writers get into the business because they love to read.  At some point, reading is not enough, and we have to start playing along.  We can’t just follow the directions that come with the LEGO set, we have to build a weird Rube Goldberg rocket ship instead of a house.  Or something.

So, what do I read?  How do I read?  How does it affect what I write?

First, I don’t read much urban fantasy.  People may be surprised to learn this, given that’s mostly what I write.  But I didn’t start writing about werewolves and vampires and magic, oh my, because I had a particular fondness for them.  I had a story that happened to fit the genre, which then proceeded to take over my life.  I dabble in reading it occasionally, just to see what other people are doing.  But really, the urban fantasy I write is plenty for me.  I get to do it the way I want to, and I’m not trying to rewrite other peoples’ perfectly decent books as I’m reading them.

I know we’re often told to read within our genre to keep up with trends and stay educated about what the market looks like.  Really, though, I’ve found great value in not keeping up with urban fantasy.  I’ve never felt constrained by my impressions of what urban fantasy is supposed to be.  (I’ve heard other writers agonize over getting their urban fantasy “right,” or worry that their book with vampires and werewolves “isn’t really” urban fantasy for whatever reason.)  I just write the stories I want to write, and I’ve never had anyone tell me I’m doing it wrong.  (I may not be doing it the way they like, but I’m not doing it wrong, you know?)

So what do I read?  Anything good.  Kind of wide open, right?  Seriously, I’m looking for the stuff, as Emily Dickinson said, that makes me feel as if “the top of my head were taken off.”  I find it everywhere.  Lately, Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy novels have been scratching that itch.  Lois McMaster Bujold and Robin McKinley are two of my go-to, never fail authors.  I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction.  I’m currently enjoying the space opera of James S.A. Corey.  (Full disclosure — we’re friends, and I’m getting to read the books in advance, which is so awesome.)  One of my favorite books last year was China Miéville’s Embassytown. (I’d tried reading Miéville for years, without success.  But The City and the City instantly converted me into a fan.  It’s something of a detective noir thought experiment.  Crazy, right?  And Embassytown is kind of old school alien/interplanetary SF, with some pretty far-out twists.  Love it!)  Iain M. Banks’ space opera novels are always delightfully mind-blowing.  I feel like I’ll never be able to write books like that — and that’s ultimately why I like them so much.  They’re not something I can do myself, they live outside the places my brain generally goes on its own.  I really love the stretch I get, reading such beautiful and imaginative books.  Maybe someday I’ll be good enough to write something that weird and science fictional and mind-blowing.  My favorite books are, ultimately, the ones that make me aspire to do more.

I read a lot of nonfiction.  The internet is okay for some kinds of research — street maps of foreign cities, building layouts in Washington, D.C.  But to really get into a topic, the sustained narrative of a good non-fiction book is still the best way to go.  I’m always looking for books that can teach me something about writing, and about the world.  If I’m writing about a kind of character or profession I don’t know much about, I’ll try to find memoirs or books written by that kind of person, to better get inside their heads.

Ultimately, reading makes my brain happy.  I read to light the fires that keep my brain happy.  As a writer, it behooves me to keep my brain fired up and happy.