Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Favorite Quotes: 5

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”—Martin Buber
“In all crises of human affairs there are two broad courses open to a man. He can stay where he is or he can go elsewhere.” —P.G. Wodehouse

“Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.” —Phyllis Theroux

“Take the course opposite to custom and you will almost always do well.” —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Drift beautifully on the surface and you will die unbeautifully in the depths.” —Richard Ellmann

“The respect of those you respect is worth more than the applause of the multitude.” —Arnold Glasow

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” —Oscar Wilde

“Patience is a minor form of despair disguised as a virtue.” —Ambrose Bierce

“The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself; for as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.” —Michel de Montaigne

“Anything you’re good at contributes to happiness.” —Bertrand Russell

“Shun idleness. It is a rust that attaches itself to the most brilliant metals.” —Voltaire

“Life is something like a trumpet. If you don’t put anything in, you won’t get anything out.” —W. C. Handy

“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.” —Voltaire

“Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions.” —Gustave Flaubert

“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken.” —David Hume
(For more like these: My Favorite Quotes: 4)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Story First; Explanations Later

“The adventures first,” said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: “explanations take such a dreadful time.” —Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

            Though I didn’t remember the Gryphon’s plea in time to enter it into the conversation, this was what I was getting at during a recent critique session involving a writer whose work I’d not read before. The writer began her story with a page and a half of exposition, conveying all the background information that she considered essential to a reader’s understanding of what came next.

            “No, no,” I said. “Start with action and dialogue. First hook your readers; draw us in with happenings. Then give us the backstory—a bit at a time so as not to slow the pace.”

            “But [unnamed editor] told me to set the scene up front,” the writer countered. “The editor wanted all this information at the beginning.”

            “Maybe that’s a particular editor’s viewpoint,” I rejoined. “But I’m telling you as a reader: I’m only interested in learning the backstory after I’ve been given a reason to care about it. Put your characters in a situation that stirs my concern for their well-being, whether physical or emotional, or both. When I’ve connected with the characters, then I’ll want to hear how they came to be caught in that situation.”

            The writer then confessed that she had originally begun her story with action, but upon the advice of the unnamed editor she had rewritten it to put the explanations first. Too bad she hadn’t gotten a critique from the Gryphon: he would have set her straight.


            Nearly every writer I know has bought at least one critique from a publishing professional: generally the younger editors and agents who populate the conference circuit. I, too, have purchased critiques, with mixed results. Some have been astute and helpful and worth the money. But others have been worse than useless. They’ve offered bad advice, which I might have felt obliged to follow if I’d been less experienced at this game. Fortunately, though, I know better.

            Here’s one example:
            “It’s unclear to me whether Carin is meant to be a mortal living in our reality who inadvertently enters a fantasy realm or if they both [protagonist Carin and deuteragonist swordsman] inhabit the same world. Is she trespassing on someone’s property or on another world entirely? There’s no sense in keeping it a secret, so this should be made absolutely clear in the first chapter.” —Young Nameless Agent 1

            Actually, YNA1, there is every reason to build this question in the reader’s mind. It is a fundamental aspect of the mystery.

            And again:

            “Start your manuscript earlier so that we can better get to know Carin … I don’t yet know her enough to be as invested in her welfare as I’d like. Can you let us get to know her more first?” —Young Nameless Agent 2

            As the story opens, YNA2, Carin herself does not know who she is. She’s a teenager groping for identity and purpose. She is searching for the place where she belongs.

            All told, it takes three 400-page books to finally answer the questions: “Who is Carin? Where does she come from? Where does she belong?” Carving a place for yourself in a world where you don’t really fit: that’s a major theme running through the WATERSPELL trilogy.


            My encounters with these Young Nameless Agents made me believe they require, in their reading, the same kind of instant gratification they’re accustomed to in every aspect of their lives. Want to connect with a friend? Do it by instant message. Need a fact? Find it immediately online. Have a stray thought? Tweet it at once.

            But fantasy, by its nature and at its heart, is filled with mystery. The answers don’t present themselves at the outset. They are buried, oftentimes under layers, deep in the subtexts.

            Getting the whole story from an intricate, multilayered fantasy requires a reader’s patience and attention to detail. It took me years to weave together the threads of my tale. Readers need not expect to get the whole story in the first 10 pages.

            I’m not into instant gratification—either my own or other people’s. I much prefer the feeling of satisfaction that comes with delayed gratification. Wait for it, work for it, invest yourself in achieving it … then enjoy the fruits of success. There’s nothing better.

            Now I’ve committed to memory the Gryphon’s excellent advice: “Adventures first, please! Explanations take such a dreadful time.” I’ll be better prepared to argue for the Gryphon, if ever again I hear of an inexperienced member of the publishing profession contradicting that advice.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cheap Reads

The publishing business appears to be evolving at light-speed. But some things NEVER change.

I’ve been grousing on Facebook about readers who willingly shell out $3 for a single cup of coffee but refuse to pay more than a buck for a novel. Case study: Darcie Chan has sold more than 400,000 copies of THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE, her first novel, after self-publishing it as an e-book. But because she has priced it at 99 cents, she has netted “only” about $130,000.

To stimulate sales, “cutting the retail price to 99 cents from an initial $2.99 was critical,” reported THE WEEK magazine of December 23, 2011.

Three dollars was an entirely reasonable price to charge for a 300-page novel. A bargain, in fact. But sales didn’t really take off until Darcie lowered the price to a buck—practically giving it away.


Another writer who found market forces arrayed against him was Lewis Carroll. In his Preface to the 1896 Edition of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Carroll wrote:
“I take this opportunity of announcing that the Nursery ‘Alice,’ hitherto priced at four shillings, net, is now to be had on the same terms as the ordinary shilling picture-books—although I feel sure that it is, in every quality (except the text itself, in which I am not qualified to pronounce), greatly superior to them. Four shillings was a perfectly reasonable price to charge, considering the very heavy initial outlay I had incurred; still, as the Public have practically said, ‘We will not give more than a shilling for a picture-book, however artistically got-up,’ I am content to reckon my outlay on the book as so much dead loss, and, rather than let the little ones, for whom it was written, go without it, I am selling it at a price which is, to me, much the same thing as giving it away.”
Lewis Carroll, Christmas 1896

In this regard, at least, NOTHING has changed in the book business. Writers and “the Public” can't seem to agree on the true value of our work.

I’m standing my ground for now, keeping the price of my WATERSPELL e-books at $2.99 each — which is a perfectly reasonable price to charge, considering my heavy investment of time and energy, and the cash I've laid out to get to this point. But as Darcie Chan said in an interview: “I did that [cut the price of her book] to encourage people to give it a chance. I saw it as an investment in my future as a writer.”

Is this what the future holds? Dollar books?


If publishing is meant to use the music business as a model, then we need to be comparing apples with apples, not with oranges. A single tune can be bought for $1. The fan who wants the whole “album” or CD will thus pay $10 to download 10 songs.

The analogous approach for books, therefore, would be 99 cents per chapter. That would set the price of my 22-chapter, 400-page novels at about $21.75 — a list price that was once considered perfectly reasonable for long, complex, literary novels.

Of course I wouldn’t dream of charging that much for an e-book. But is $2.99 also too much, in the eyes of today’s bargain-hunting reader?

I shouldn’t think so. A novel, after all, lasts a lot longer than a three-minute song … or a $3 cup of coffee.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Luck Factor: Word-of-Mouth Publicity

On this Friday the 13th, it seems appropriate to consider the role of “luck” in the publishing game. To succeed as a writer takes practice, diligence, determination, experience, skill, patience, and oftentimes a large dollop of luck.

From a pile of writers magazines I’d saved, I pulled out the June-July 2009 issue of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This paragraph particularly resonated with me:
“Like most of publishing, the truth isn’t really out there. It’s all kind of made up. Like a story. Most of us have anecdotal evidence of writers who never earn out, yet continue to receive increasingly enormous advances. Or writers who hit the bestseller lists, and yet their advances stay low. An agent said of a friend of mine, ‘I don’t understand why she doesn’t have a career. Her books are good. She’s got so much talent.’ Then there are books most would agree are badly written that turn their authors into millionaires.” — from “Great Expectations” by Nancy Holder

Luck? Yes, to an extent. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time with the right book. Success can hinge entirely on word-of-mouth publicity. In this age of social networking, getting one’s book in front of the right blogger or opinion leader can send sales skyrocketing.


Of the various hats a writer must wear—creator, storyteller, self-editor, critiquer, file formatter/word-processing whiz, blogger, social networker, e-publisher, advertising copywriter, saleswoman—I am least adept at the last two. I studied journalism, not PR.

I love to write, and I’ve devoted decades to learning how to do it to the best of my ability, producing six award-winning books and crafting a seventh that will also do me proud, I believe, when it comes out this spring. As an editor, I have a reputation in certain circles for magically turning sow’s ears into silk purses.

Social networking, which I initially resisted as an enormous time-waster, now strikes me as kind of fun. I don’t let a month go by without blogging, and I’ve recently joined Facebook and also created an Author page there.

Mere months ago, I was an e-publishing novice. Now I’m something of an expert in formatting files for Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords.

But publicity? Marketing? Those, I suck at. I’ve got my WATERSPELL website and my Amazon Author page. I’ve told just about everyone I know that my first two novels have been published, and the third is in the pipeline.

To reach a wider audience, though, I need reviewers and opinion leaders to plug my books on their websites and to their audiences. I need word of mouth.

If I’m going to beat the odds, I need a little luck. Happy Friday the 13th!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Organizing Book Revision Notes

I spent my Winter Holidays revising WATERSPELL Book 3: The Wisewoman, getting it nearer ready for a Spring 2012 release. While writing and revising Books 1 and 2 (which are available now as e-books and paperbacks—please see, I accumulated a mass of notes: details I needed to work into Book 3, or background that should underpin the third, climactic book.

My habit is to jot down a thought, whenever it comes to me, on whatever scrap of paper is at hand. I end up with sticky-note notes, index-card-size notes, notes scrawled on legal pads, and notes penciled on the backs of envelopes. (See "Notepads, Notepads, Everywhere.") By the time I got to Book 3 of the long and intricate WATERSPELL trilogy, I’d accumulated a rather intimidating mass of notes.

To organize them, I hit upon the idea of separating them into four categories:

This way, I could sort them by importance.

“Plot Issues / Loose Ends” and “Toward the Climax” (notes related specifically to the final three chapters) took priority. These were essential matters: the solutions to mysteries and the answers to questions. Throughout my editing of all three books, I’d made careful notes to be sure of not overlooking anything vital that must be dealt with in Book 3.

“Descriptive Details” were secondary. In this folder, for example, I filed a quote from snake-handler Bill Haast (1910-2011), describing his pain when he was bitten by a blue krait, one of the world’s most poisonous snakes. “I felt like the skin had been stripped from my body, like every nerve in my teeth was exposed, like my hair was being ripped out of my head,” he said. He had hallucinatory visions of lambs’ heads and purple curtains. Nowhere in Book 3 did I have occasion to use Haast’s pain for inspiration (instead, I drew on my own experience of being stung by a scorpion in the tropics), but I’m keeping the clipping in my files. In a later book, I may want to inflict Haast’s pain on another character.

Under “Insights,” I filed this sticky-note to myself that I do not remember writing: “Carin [WATERSPELL's protagonist] had lost her identity, but perhaps never her sense of place.” That idea, I now see, permeates Book 3. In fact, it’s central to the whole story. Early in Book 1 we find this: “Here in the hard-won north, she might find the place where she belonged.” Carin, like most young people, needs to know where she fits in. She’s on a quest to find her place, wherever it might be.


WATERSPELL Book 3: The Wisewoman, a 404-page manuscript, now awaits me on a table near my favorite reading chair. I plan to distract myself with other pursuits (such as promoting Books 1 and 2) for a few weeks. Then I’ll give it a final prepublication read-through. Publication target date: April 2012
While pulling my Book 3 notes together, I remembered an excellent book of advice written by my friend Kathryn Lay. It's chockablock with great practical tips. The Organized Writer Is a Selling Writer is available directly from Kathy. Or download the Kindle e-book.

SELF-EDITING: A Systematic Approach to Editing Your Own Writing

Another resource I'll mention is my own book, Self-Editing: Two Half Brains Make a Whole Writer. It offers tips for (partially) computer-aided editing and for invoking the critical faculties of your logical left brain at just the right time. First use the Find feature to locate predictable problems: “ly” adverbs, overuse of commas, qualifiers that leech the life from writing. Then move on to meatier matters of self-editing: eliminating wordiness, changing passive voice to active, when to show and how best to tell, subtlety, pacing, etc. This is nuts-and-bolts advice for fixing common errors.

E-book formats available: Nook, Kindle, and others.