Is This U?

For a few months now I’ve been avoiding the controversy that has been simmering in Unitarian Universalism. The fact that there are no Sunday services does help me stay out of it. Also, I just don’t need the aggravation. I have better things to do. But this week a couple of UU ministers from back east asked if I would be willing to help (in some unspecified way) with a book they’re writing on the subject. So I said, “Sure. Show me what you’ve got.”

For regular readers of this space (all three of you), perhaps I should mention that this post has nothing to do with writing fiction, except in a very, very tangential way. If you’d like to know how to peddle fiction and make it appear fact, you might pick up one or two tips.

I’m not going to say too much about the book these gentlemen are writing, because it would be premature. Having just finished reading one of the chapters, though, I’m happy to say it explains the underlying dynamic of the controversy in a way that I hadn’t quite grasped before.

To recap briefly, there’s a large and active core group in the higher levels of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) that is determined to stamp out racism within the UU community. They have some specific ideas of how to go about this.

I can’t and won’t quarrel with their objective. Overcoming racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, and ableism — all very worth doing. The question is, how are we to go about it? Unfortunately, the tactics this core group is using are toxic, and are likely to destroy the very denomination they’re trying to save, or at least transform it into something vile.

The point I’ve been missing is that the views of this anti-racist group arise out of postmodernism. Postmodernism was a rather silly analytical theory that percolated its way through academia a few decades ago. The theory was that reality and truth are basically unknowable — that all we have are statements in the form of language. Language, or so the postmodernists held (and may still hold, for all I know), constructs what we experience as reality.

This is absurd on its face, of course, but it has a certain charm for the sort of academic pundit who enjoys intellectual masturbation.

The trouble with thorough-going postmodernism is that it eats its own tail (and its own tale, perhaps). If the theory is true, then it has no validity, because any statement of it is free-floating and can be neither validated nor disproved.

What seems to have happened, for the anti-racist faction, and this is a key insight I found in the upcoming book, is that one element has been rescued from the coils of postmodernism and posited as objectively real. That element is oppression.

Now, it’s certainly true that over the past 500 years or so, white male Europeans and Americans have been responsible for the vast majority of the oppression in the world. Nobody would deny that. It’s also the case that white male European/Americans have spent quite a lot of time justifying their oppression of non-whites, gays, and so on using specious and really insupportable arguments. Their feats of intellectual tap-dancing have been virtuosic — we can all agree on that. Their rhetoric has been used to justify oppression by denying the reality of the experience of non-white, non-hetero people.

What has happened is that the “woke” anti-racist bunch has turned this fact into a way of dismissing, using postmodernist thinking, anything at all that white men say. The explicit stance of the anti-racists seems to be that when non-white people describe their experiences, their descriptions are to be taken as factual, without any attempt to analyze them, because the only reality (in postmodern thinking) is what people say it is. If someone says they’ve encountered oppression, then, ipso facto, they have encountered oppression.

Meanwhile, any statement at all from white men is to be taken as a covert (or overt) attempt at oppression. A statement from a white man need not be and in fact cannot be analyzed to determine its truth or falsity, because, again, truth and falsity don’t exist. All that exists, in the postmodern canon, are expressions in the form of language.

The logic is simple and devastating. (a) White men rule the world. Well, most of it, anyway. (b) There is no reality except as it’s expressed in language. (c) Therefore, any statement made by a white man is an attempt to assert dominance and control over non-white people. (d) Conversely, any statement by a non-white person is to be trusted as a full and complete expression of fact. It cannot be questioned.

This is horseshit, but it’s precisely what the anti-racists within Unitarian Universalism think.

This is why the attacks on Todd Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers appear so baffling to the uninitiated. Over and over, his attackers assert that he has caused “harm,” but they never specify a single instance of actual harm. To their way of thinking, they don’t need to. Todd Eklof is a white man. Therefore, any statement he makes, other than in agreement with their agenda, is an attempt to oppress non-white people. Merely by asking reasonable, logical questions, he is (in their minds) doing harm.

I’m not making this shit up, people. This is really what’s going on. If you don’t believe me, put on your hip boots and wade into the report of the Commission On Institutional Change, which was commissioned by the UUA. You can google it if you dare. I’m not going to link to it here. You’ll find it on the UUA website. It’s huge. It’s full of fat slabs of empty rhetoric, there’s not a smidgen of actual fact-finding or reasoned analysis anywhere in it, and it repeatedly attacks individualism. Individualism — the idea that we all ought to think for ourselves — is one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. But the “woke” faction doesn’t want that, because the Enlightenment was, you know, promulgated by white men. The Enlightenment enshrined reason and logic. Therefore, when Todd Eklof recommends the use of reason and logic, the “woke” bunch in the UUA rush to attack him.

As a side note, white men have, in the course of history, quite often oppressed other white men. Burned them at the stake, among other things. So the white/non-white dichotomy of oppression is not nearly as clear-cut as these folks would like you to think. Also, of course, the consistent oppression of gay people over the centuries has been spearheaded (so to speak) largely by the Christian and Islamic churches and has been pretty consistently opposed by the inheritors of the Enlightenment. The Methodist Church is currently being riven, or so I’ve read, by a schism because the African Methodists (who are, how can I put this delicately, black people) oppose the acceptance and ordination of homosexuals. The white Methodists in the U.S. have no problem with it. The reasonable conclusion is that oppression has no necessary connection either with race nor with any specific intellectual tradition such as the use of logic and reason.

But then, I’m a white male. You can’t possibly trust me.

Until I was made aware of the postmodernist subtext, I really didn’t understand how these adult human beings in the UUA could possibly be assaulting a fellow minister for using reason and logic. Now I get it.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. I’m not contributing another cent to my local UU church. Last year I chipped in a thousand bucks. This year, no. The hell of it is, I like the people in my local church. With a couple of exceptions (including, I’m sorry to say, the minister), they’re terrific people! But I still have the vestiges of an individual conscience. This here is a pile of horseshit up with which I will not put.

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If you’re writing fantasy, and especially fantasy novels, you’ll want to devote some serious attention to world-building. If you google “fantasy novel world-building,” as I did this evening, you’ll find any number of blog posts that will offer suggestions. Some of the suggestions you’ll encounter are very good, and there’s no need to rehash them here.

At a certain point, though, the online advice starts to feel a bit generic. Draw a map. Think about food production. What sort of government does your world (or nation, or region) have? Yes, of course — all that is important. But a few other questions are perhaps more basic, and they don’t seem to get quite so much attention.

Why are there humans in your world? That’s the first question that begs to be addressed.

If you’re writing science fiction and the setting is not our Earth, you have an easy answer: They traveled from our world to your imaginary world in interstellar space ships. (Creating plausible physics for interstellar travel is really a very awkward challenge, but let’s not get into that just now.) In a non-Earth fantasy, however, where do the humans come from?

Maybe they came from our Earth via a magical portal. That’s one possibility. But if there’s no portal — if the humans are indigenous to your world, as is quite often the case — the whole question of species evolution is going to leap up from a ditch and attack you with a cudgel. Where are the other primate species? Where are the ruins of the first cities that arose in the local Neolithic era? Are there cave paintings? Human history on Earth is an immensely complex pageant.

Okay, you’ve got your humans. But what about the dogs, the pigs, the horses, the butterflies? The potatoes and barley and trout? Many writers simply grab the entire biosphere of Earth and transplant it into their fantasy world, perhaps adding dragons to the mix but otherwise leaving everything in its well-known state. This is certainly a viable strategy when you’re writing (and hoping to sell) a book, but once you start to think about it, the oddness will creep up on you.

I don’t have an answer; I just think this is an interesting question.

Here’s another: seasons. Our own planet has what is probably a rather unusual axial tilt, on account of which there are summers, winters, and in-between seasons. Many fantasy novels have winter in them, but winter can’t quite be taken for granted if the planet isn’t Earth.

Are the years 365-odd days long? If not, the ages of your characters will have to be rejiggered. “He’s a full-grown man: He just turned eleven.” Your readers are bound to get confused. Are the days 24 hours long? There’s no particular reason why they should be. But making the planet too unlike Earth is likely to confuse readers. There’s a reason why terms like “hour,” “mile,” “bushel,” and “pound” are bedrock. They save the writer from having to provide detailed and boring explanations.

You can’t use kilometers and liters, by the way: The French invented those measures, and not very long ago.

Cultural artifacts can trip you up. I was quite distracted in the first book of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar story when one of the Canadian lads (who had arrived in Kay’s other world through a portal) sat down to play a game of chess with one of the locals. Putting horses in your world is one thing, and things like coins and swords are likely to be found in one form or another in any human culture — but chess is as fully a cultural artifact of our own Earth as the kilometer. Even here on our Earth, there are many different sets of rules for chess, most notably the Chinese and Japanese versions, which are quite different from the European version. How did Kay’s fantasy culture acquire specifically European chess? Through sloppy writing, that’s how.

You probably don’t want to try to create a whole world from scratch. It would take too long, and readers wouldn’t have the patience to wade through your explication of every detail of the fantasy biology. So go ahead, use horses and dogs. Nobody will mind. But be careful. Be aware of the assumptions you’re making. And do think about how you might be able to add a few unexpected details so as to make your imaginary world a bit fresh.

Dragons are not fresh.

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The Wrong and Grinding Load

It’s never a good idea to criticize one’s fellow authors, especially in public. But I’m in a hellish mood today, so I may as well slop a little of it around.

In search of a jolly distraction, I ventured into my book room (small room, shelves and more shelves) and grabbed Dennis McKiernan’s The Dragonstone. Picked it up at a used book sale, I’m sure. I’ve never read any of his stuff. But it’s a fat fantasy novel, and that’s what the doctor (I’m also the doctor) ordered. Great cover art, too — a wizard doing something while two enormous dragons bare their teeth.

One of the very first things they teach in how-to-write books is that the plot advances only when your lead character takes action to solve a pressing problem, and as a result the situation changes. If the character tries something and it doesn’t work, that’s a change, because the character has learned something, but it’s better if the problem gets worse.

If, on the other hand, the story proceeds through page after page of wheel-spinning activity, during which the lead character does not address the plot problem in any vigorous way and nothing in the situation changes, that’s not plotting. It’s bad. Delete it and get on with the story. The example that’s sometimes used is, a man gets up in the morning, showers and shaves, gets dressed, goes downstairs, catches a cab, rides to the airport, gets on a plane, and flies off to Rio de Janeiro — and nothing has happened. Start the story when the plane touches down in Rio; you can (and should!) skip the rest.

Near the beginning of The Dragonstone we learn that a female elf named Arin has had a terrifying vision — the world engulfed in war. The vision is specific as to the bloodshed and the grim aftermath, but we’re given no hint, nor is Arin, about who has plunged the world into war, or why. She doesn’t even know whether the vision portends something that will happen soon, or whether it will happen centuries hence.

She and half a dozen of her fellow elves then set out on horseback, riding hither and yon through a stunningly immense and sparsely populated forest, hoping to find somebody who can interpret the vision. They cross a great river. They ride some more.

Eighty pages later, they’re still searching. And absolutely nothing has happened. There have been, to quote Paul Simon, incidents and accidents, hints and allegations — but the plot is completely stalled out.

What’s worse, their entire quest for information is surrounded by a frame-tale. In the frame-tale, which is where the book begins, Arin is telling two men about the quest. Evidently she has been told in a vision or prophecy that a one-eyed man will help her, and that she’ll find him in this harbor town. She and her faithful female Japanese warrior companion (wait? Japanese? what is a female samurai doing in a world that clearly isn’t Earth? don’t ask me) have now found two one-eyed men, and they don’t know which one is the right one, so Arin is telling the tale to them both. Her tale is spun out over the course of some days, during which imminent danger is quite evidently not lurking. On that basis we can reasonably guess that the story in which they’re riding through the forest for months on end is not going to ramp up to any disturbing complication. And when I say “months,” I’m not exaggerating for rhetorical effect. At one point McKiernan mentions that it’s July. Later, they’re still riding and it’s November.

No, wait. Months with Roman names? Am I going to nitpick about that? Yeah, I guess I will.

Along the way he ladles out plenty of mythic grandeur. The elves are immortal. The trees they planted in the forest millenia ago are hundreds of feet tall. There are silver wolves and silver larks and an ancient fortress. Magical beings are glimpsed among the trees.

What’s not glimpsed is a functioning rural economy. At one point the questing elves, while preparing to depart from a village of some other elves, fill their saddlebags with grain for the horses. Grain is grown in fields, right? But where are the fields? This village is in the middle of an ancient forest! And where are the farmers? Elves don’t farm, everybody knows that.

The elves themselves are flat as to characterization. Even Arin herself is not quite all there. She cries sometimes, but her individuality is tissue-thin. The other elves are described mainly in terms of their hair and eye color, plus ancient titles of respect and frequent references to their height. The business of height is odd; McKiernan uses the word “foot” in what is evidently the modern human sense, without seeming to notice that his elves, who average less than five of our feet in height, would have small feet. By their own measure they would be six feet tall!

The Dragonstone was published in 1996 by Roc, a division of Penguin Putnam, and went through at least half a dozen printings. I’d guesstimate it at about 200,000 words. If there’s a lesson in those facts, it escapes me at the moment. I’m baffled.

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True confession: I have trouble coming up with a decent plot. Sometimes I can do it. Other times I have what I think is a strong plot, but sooner or later it turns out to be weak. One way of saying this is, I know how to write, but I don’t always know what to write.

Right at this moment I have an idea for a novel I’d like to write. I have a fascinating historical setting, some subtly alarming magical creatures, and a young woman who is connected to the creatures in a way that I’m not yet ready to unveil. What I don’t have is a plot. I don’t know why my lead character would do anything in particular, other than live her life.

Brian Eno advised, “Turn your limitations into secret strengths.” Good advice. So I said to myself, “Self, why don’t you think about writing a literary novel instead of plotted genre fiction?” Such a novel would be a lot less likely to sell, but since my writing isn’t selling worth a damn anyway, that’s no great loss.

I figured I ought to read a couple of novels of a literary sort, in order to see how it’s done. I have seven or eight novels by Anne Tyler on my shelf, and she’s all about character. Very minimal plot. So I pulled out Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which I read many years ago and didn’t remember at all.

After a hundred pages or so, I’m realizing it was a bad choice. The characters in this novel are just awful. I mean, they’re vividly and expertly portrayed. Tyler is a master. But they’re awful people. They’re not awful in any big, obvious, plotted-fiction way. But at the point I’ve reached in the story, Ezra, who is 30, has finally gotten engaged, and his elder brother Cody has apparently decided he’s going to try to seduce Ezra’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, their mother, Pearl, is a control freak and a sadistic bitch, but they love her dearly. Ezra has deeply hurt the feelings of the dying woman whose restaurant he inherited. The youngest child, Jenny, entered into an absurd marriage and is now getting divorced and dropping out of medical school. And the whole story is told as a flashback: In chapter 1 Pearl is old and in the hospital dying.

In a word, ugh. But above and beyond these people’s rather startling limitations as human beings, and above and beyond Tyler’s decision to write about them, her narrative seems oddly unbalanced. These people don’t seem to have joys, or even happy days. Tyler is really only interested in documenting their misery. She does a fine job of it — but why would anybody want to read this stuff?

Granted, writing about happy people might be boring. Giving your characters shortcomings, secret yearnings, and maybe an obtuse inability to learn better is almost certainly preferable to writing about a Mary Sue. But life is not just an unending barrage of bad judgment, lack of compassion, and bad manners. The reader will want to see a ray of sunshine once in a while.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, without joy, life would be a mistake.

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Beta, Schmeta

When I was first starting to write fiction, there was no such thing as beta-reading. The term comes from software development, and it’s certainly vital in that area. I have beta-tested other people’s software, and I’ve had others beta-test my software, and if I ever write another text adventure it will be beta-tested, you bet. But I’ve come to feel that the creep of this process over into the fiction-writing community is a colossal mistake.

I did belong to a critique group in the ’80s. We passed manuscripts around and scribbled in the margins, but it wasn’t called beta-reading. It was a cooperative enterprise, and it operated according to clear rules. The criticisms of the stories were no-holds-barred, but there was never any criticism of the writers, that was one thing. Also, it was face to face, and that makes a big difference. Beta-reading for people you’ve never met, or asking people you’ve never met (and whose work you don’t know) to beta-read — that’s just stupid.

After having a couple of aggravating experiences recently when I undertook to do a beta-read of someone’s less than enthralling attempt at writing a novel, I’m giving it up. No more beta-reading. And on the flip side, I won’t ask anyone to beta-read anything I’ve written. I’ll write it, I’ll send it out. It’s time to trust myself. Hell, that was what I did with every single short story or novella I ever sold to Asimov’s or F&SF. And you know what? None of the editors at those magazines ever changed a single solitary word. That’s prima facie evidence that I know what I’m doing.

Admittedly, I have certain advantages in the trust-yourself department. I’m a retired professional editor. I can do my own line-editing and copy-editing. I may hire a proofreader, or not. The last proofreader I hired, I spent $600 for her to find about eight typos in a novel manuscript, two of which I had already found myself after I sent it to her. She also suggested deleting a few optional commas, and I took her advice on maybe 40% of them, but in the aggregate it wasn’t worth $600.

That leaves developmental editing. Three years ago I spent $5,500 on a dev edit of the Leafstone series (those book covers up there at the top! buy them! they’re on Amazon! read them! they’re great!), and I did make some very worthwhile changes as a result. But at this point I’m not sure I’m going to ladle out money for that process again either. By the time I’ve banged my way through three or four drafts of a novel, having somebody come in and say, “Gee, I think there’s too much description in this scene,” would just be insulting.

My writing is good enough. It really is. Beta reading is for people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. So they ask someone who doesn’t know how the fuck to evaluate a manuscript to make random weird suggestions. Does that sound like a worthwhile process? I don’t think so.

Just to be clear: I love suggestions! My writing isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But why should I go out of my way to solicit suggestions from someone who has never written a novel and who is going to spend maybe 1% as much time reading the book as I spent writing it? If you want to participate in my story development process, that’s a different thing — but be prepared for a daily dialog over the course of six or eight months. Otherwise, as Nero Wolfe used to say, Pfui.

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Don’t Ever Change, Dahling

Ah, well. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that. I spent several hours today doing a detailed and thoughtful critique of the opening of a novel by a fellow in one of my Facebook writers’ groups. I emailed it to him, both marginal notes in the file and a long email with some positive observations and some advice about what he needs to work on — and his head exploded. He proved to be extremely defensive.

I’m always happy to try to help aspiring writers. And I make it clear to them that with respect to fiction technique, I’m a hard-ass. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to tell you it doesn’t work, and I’m going to tell you why. I also try to make it clear that I’m coming from standard genre fiction. I don’t know much about literature or memoir. But I do know a few things about plotted fiction. Not everything! But a few things, yeah.

One of my FB friends (who has more or less taken the side of the inadequate writer in this affair) accused me of being dogmatic. But that’s wrong. If you’re dogmatic, you cling to your ideas and refuse to change. I’m certainly opinionated, but that’s an entirely different beast. If you disagree with my opinions, then fine — let’s talk about it! I may even learn something.

This young man has previously self-published a whole fantasy series, which his new manuscript is related to in some sort of long-story-arc fashion. Unfortunately, the prologue of his new book is a dreadful mess. I didn’t use that term, of course. I did point out a number of issues. Stuff like how it’s confusing to have your lead character die and then immediately spring back to life without explanation. Stuff like how trying to shoehorn chunks of the back-story into a prologue is telling, not showing. I also mentioned that devoting several opening pages to a description of your characters’ apparel and weaponry without having started the action is perhaps not an ideal technique.

He didn’t want to hear any of it. He’s up on the authorial empyrean somewhere, breathing the rarefied atmosphere of genius. Or nitrous oxide, that would be a better guess. His email in reply to my effort was downright snotty.

I suppose I ought to know better by now. Bad writers almost never want to improve, that has been my experience. When I suggest things that aren’t working and could be changed, they seldom want to hear it.

It’s very sad, and it’s baffling. Me, I like getting critiques! I may or may not change a passage as a result of a critique, but even a misguided critique can help me understand what my aims are (or aren’t) in a particular passage — and yes, I do routinely make changes as a result of input from others. As a friend of mine says, “I like having been wrong.” There’s always room for improvement. Always.

Also, I make it a rule never to get defensive. If someone says something misguided, irrelevant, or downright bogus, I just thank them and move on.

Maybe I ought to charge for the work. If someone wants a beta-read, I could tell them, “Happy to help. That’s $60 an hour. Send me $300 for five hours and then I’ll get started.” That would cut down on the annoyance factor, for sure. Beyond that, if somebody is paying for a critique, they’re less likely to get all defensive and blow it off.

If you ask someone to read a 160,000-word manuscript and ask them to let you know if they spot any continuity problems in the ending, you’re assuming they’re going to read straight through to the ending. You’re assuming, in other words, that your work is good enough that readers can stand to read clear through to the ending. Sadly, that’s often not the case.

In his email to me before I started reading, the young man said this: “Between beginning and end, I’d like to know principally where it needs fixing, and where it needs more. By ‘fixing’ I mean continuity, character motivation, and if necessary, good taste and potential trigger topics. For positive feedback, I’d like to know where a particular theme, plot or passage could bear more elaboration and exploring. Besides cleaning up what’s bad, I’d like to know what’s good so I can put more of that in.”

There it is. He wants help cleaning up what’s bad. He wants to know “where it needs fixing.” But he already has a clear idea (or what he thinks is a clear idea) about what may be bad. When I tell him there are major things that need fixing that didn’t fall in the categories of continuity or character motivation, he doesn’t want to hear it.

I suspect his emotional freakout was because I tried (at some length) to explain the manner in which aspiring writers so often fail to see the weaknesses in their own work. I’m sure he felt I was talking down to him. Well, okay — I was talking down to him. But he damn well needs some talking down to, so there’s that.

None of us is as good as we think we are. If I were to send the manuscript of a mystery to Michael Connelly or Sara Paretsky and they got on their high horse and talked down to me, you know what? I’d sit there and take it. It would probably hurt, but I’d take it without whining. The problem I ran into today seems to be that the fellow thinks he’s already a big deal and should never be talked down to.

He’s not a big deal. Hell, I’m not a big deal either, and I damn well know how to write.

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The Book Business

As a writer, sitting all alone at your desk or tapping away on your laptop in a coffee shop, you’re in a one-on-one relationship with your book. There’s really no alternative. You can’t constantly be jumping up, dashing over to the next table, and asking a complete stranger, “What do you think of this? Does this work, or am I being an idiot?”

What concerns me today is that this process generates a cognitive distortion that can later turn around and bite you. You finish the novel, you submit it to agents, you get not a flicker of interest, and you end up frustrated or even resentful. The agents, heartless beasts that they are, just don’t understand how special your book is. You know it’s special because you spent a year agonizing over it day after day after day. Why can’t they see that?

This video (please don’t click through to it yet, I’m not finished, but I’ll make it brief) offers a corrective perspective. It’s from Random House in the UK, but the process will be similar at almost any large publisher. The video takes the viewer behind the scenes, if only for a moment or two, in the book publishing industry.

Two things need to be said about the video.

First, all of the people who appear in it are full-time professionals. They are paid salaries. They work in offices that have electricity bills and janitorial services, all of which also have to be paid. The money does in fact have to come from somewhere. And of course it comes from selling books. If the books acquired and produced by the company don’t sell well, these people will lose their jobs. As an author, part of your job is to support them by generating a cash-flow.

Second, these people are in publishing because they love books. They’re not your enemy! If you’re an author, they’re your allies. They need you, because without your work they’ll have nothing to sell. But you need them as well. They’re specialists. They know how to sell books.

Some self-publishing authors are capable of wearing all of the hats the people in the video wear: cover design, proofreading, rights management, overseas marketing, ebook formatting, and so on. Most of us aren’t.

You need these people. And in order to make use of their wealth of experience and expertise, you need to send them a book that they can in fact sell. That is all.

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…and the beat goes on…

This week I’m shopping not one but two mystery novels to agents, meanwhile wondering what I want to write next. One of the two is a realistic historical mystery; the other is a crossover YA/fantasy/mystery set in another world, so I’ve been doing a little research into fantasy/mystery hybrids. Not actually buying any books quite yet — just trying to see what’s happening in the market.

A lot is happening. And as a writer, I need to process it somehow. Do I want to follow a trend, and if so, which trend? Or do I want to go my own way?

Mystery writers tend, almost without exception, to write series. I’ve understood that since I was but a wee sprat. So should I start writing a sequel to one of my books? That’s today’s question.

What I like about the two books I’ve just finished is that in each of them, the central character has to contend with a really difficult emotional predicament. To put it another way, the character has an intense internal conflict. This is, I think, one of the essentials of strong fiction, and by golly I managed to pull it off. Twice.

Internal conflict is not, unfortunately, to be found in most mystery series. It’s not hard to see why. The sleuth in a series is an unchanging character, but solving a terrible personal predicament changes a character. The stories in almost any mystery series you can name, from Sherlock Holmes down to Harry Bosch, can be read in pretty much any order. The details may change — V. I. Warshawski may have a different boyfriend in this book, for instance — but the sleuth and the story setup remain the same.

That’s good marketing, but it’s bad literature.

In my case, the sleuth in While Caesar Sang of Hercules is a young man named Germanus. He’s a slave. He takes terrible risks in order to prove his master’s daughter innocent, and at the end (big spoiler here, not) he earns his freedom and they’re able to marry. If I use Germanus as the sleuth in a sequel, he won’t have anything like that internal conflict. He’ll be just another amateur sleuth on the trail of yet another evil-doer.

To be honest, this idea doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather start over with a different setting and a different lead character, somebody who is grappling with a different impossible predicament. But that wouldn’t be a good marketing strategy! The only top-ranked mystery writer I can think of who got away with this sort of thing was Dick Francis. He generally used a different lead character in every book; the constant element was the horse-racing. That was his signature.

I asked the folks on a Facebook mystery writers’ group to suggest some crossover fantasy mysteries. (Market research.) The authors they suggested included Kevin Hearne, Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, Michael Darling, and Kelley Armstrong. All of these, as it turns out, are plowing the fertile fields of urban paranormal. You know, like the Dresden Files. If you’re pitching a book to an agent, it is very, very useful to be able to say, “My book is a lot like XYZ,” where XYZ is an absolutely rock-crushing best-seller. Or in the case of mysteries, a best-selling series. Agents like to hear this sort of thing, because they only earn money if they can sell your book to a publisher, and the publisher quite naturally hopes to make a tidy profit.

Why would a publisher take a chance on a different book, when five agents are pitching books that are just what the market wants?

Series, though…. While poking around on Amazon, I found a fellow named Robert J. Crane, whose “Girl in the Box” paranormal fantasy series runs to 42 (that is not a typo) novels. The authors I’ve listed above have, in some cases, several series to their name, each with nine or ten books.

How on Earth do they do it? Ghost writers in the sky? Probably not. What they probably do is crank out four or five books every year. Me, I’m certainly capable of typing four or five books a year. I can crank out 2,500 words a day without breaking a sweat. That’s a 90,000-word novel every six weeks. And I’m quite capable of writing publishable first draft. I’ve been doing it for 40 years.

Writing a book that has some emotional depth, a plot that makes sense, and a faintly fresh premise — no, I couldn’t do that in six weeks. Six months would be more likely.

Maybe, instead of dreaming up another eccentric and probably unmarketable book that I take pains over and feel good about, I should slap together three books in a derivative but clearly marketable series and pitch the series to an agent. Vampires and zombies and ghouls, oh my!

Forty-two books in the “Girl in the Box” series. I still can’t quite fathom how he did it. Or why he didn’t die of projectile vomiting somewhere back around book 19. But then, I’m a terrible snob.

I’ve read a lot of mystery series. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books I’ve read about three times each. Stout’s plotting is rather thin. What works about those books is the ongoing tension between Wolfe and Archie. That’s brilliant — and it never changes. Wolfe and Archie are not moving characters. Sara Paretsky, check. Michael Connelly, check. Ross MacDonald, check. Agatha Christie, check. Ellis Peters, check. Connelly’s Harry Bosch certainly has more external conflicts than Miss Marple or Brother Cadfael, but he’s always just good old hard-nosed, pugnacious Harry Bosch. He quits the LAPD and goes into private practice, and then rejoins the force. His daughter grows up and he meets his half-brother, but he never changes.

Forty-two books. A book every six weeks. Maybe I ought to try it.

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In the Dark, All Cats

I’m sure it’s hard to set yourself up as an indie publisher. What services will you provide to your authors? Will you specialize in some particular genre? How will you promote the books on your list? How will you bring in money? The only thing you can be guaranteed of is that you’ll have no shortage of aspiring authors who would love to have you publish their work.

I don’t like to criticize an indie publisher. That’s not part of today’s agenda. I’m an author, and my main interest is in addressing the concerns of my fellow authors. If you’re an author and wondering whether a given indie publisher might be right for you, there are some things you’ll want to look at.

Some indie publishers charge the author up front for their services. That’s not necessarily a red flag. You may need those services, and their charges may be reasonable. Some indies may want to lock up your literary work by offering you a contract with a long-term rights clause. This is less likely to be sensible, but you’ll want to consult a lawyer. I can’t offer advice.

Before you get to the should-I-sign-this-contract stage, I’d suggest you take a long close look at the publisher’s website. If the site starts tossing up red flags — dead links, pages that fail to load — I’d suggest being skeptical of the publisher’s ability to market your book effectively. Having a strong web presence does not, by itself, sell books, but if a company’s site is slipshod, you’re entitled to wonder how effectively they will handle the other challenges of the publishing business.

I’ve been looking at the web presence of a newish company called darkstroke books. I want to emphasize up front that I know absolutely nothing one way or the other about the integrity or business prospects of darkstroke. The folks who run the company may be absolute gems on their way to a brilliant future. All I can judge by is their web presence.

The darkstroke site does say that they don’t charge authors up front, and that’s good. The site doesn’t tell you who runs the company, however, and that’s one of the things to check when you look at any indie publisher’s site. Most of these companies are very small, so it’s good to know who you’ll be dealing with. darkstroke describe themselves as “an award-winning team,” but there’s no indication what awards they may have won. That doesn’t sit well with me, but maybe they’re just being modest.

On the “Us” page it says darkstroke is “an imprint of Crooked Cat Books,” so I took the extra step of doing a search for Crooked Cat. The Crooked Cat website turns out to be a wildly defective shell. The pages for “The Team” and “Publishing with Us” are blank. The “Our Authors” page fails to load. The link on the main home page banner display takes you to a different book page, not the book shown in the banner. The blog page has a placeholder graphic for the banner, and the only blog entries are from 2016.

What could be the problem? It’s hard to guess. I figured I ought to try to find out, so I emailed darkstroke. After describing the Crooked Cat problems, I said, “I feel I need to ask: Who exactly is running your business? Is Darkstroke being run directly by the Crooked Cat people, or do you have your own staff? Does Crooked Cat have any other imprints? What exactly is going on here?”

I did get an email back from them. Here’s their response: “Thanks for reaching out to us. What you’re seeing is the instance of the Crooked Cat site that remains live in error. I’ll investigate why it is that you’re able to see it. Crooked Cat is the company name, and darkstroke is our imprint. It is the case that, from the beginning of 2022, darkstroke will take over as the primary name.”

Their email was signed “-darkstroke”, and the email address was “Rabbit Hole” at darkstroke.

Again I want to emphasize that I don’t actually know what’s going on here. I’m not going to indulge in any flights of speculation, snarky or otherwise. But consider: Two days after I sent them my email (two full business days having now gone by), the Crooked Cat site is still up, it hasn’t been fixed, and their own site still mentions Crooked Cat. And the person at darkstroke who replied to my email didn’t feel it necessary to identify him- or herself.

darkstroke has a longish list of authors, most of whom will shortly be publishing or have just published their debut novels under the imprint. There are a few older titles in their list; I didn’t take a complete inventory. I did find a couple of bad links on the darkstroke site — book covers that, when clicked, took one off to a different darkstroke book on the Amazon UK site.

Another thing you may want to do with an indie is look at a few of their published books using Amazon’s Look Inside. That can be revealing. I looked at one darkstroke novel. I will say only that it’s not my sort of thing.

I don’t often link to other blogs, but I think this piece on warning signs is worth a read.

The temptation, if you’re a new author, is to rush ahead. The desire to be a published author (!!!) may overwhelm every other consideration. The acceptance letter from the indie may be so gratifying that you decide it would be churlish to carp about trivia. And you may be right. After writing a few books for an indie and seeing them in print, you may be motivated to dig deeper into your craft. The momentum you’ve accumulated may turn you into a fine author. Conversely, if you only write the one book, at least it’s out there, and your family will be proud of you.

All I’m really saying is, there are some things you may want to think about. The publisher’s website will be visible, so that’s a good place to start.

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The Curtain Rises

Reading a few of the little essays in Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit got me off the dime. Last night and today I sent an even dozen queries to literary agents to try to find someone who would like to take on my Rome mystery novel While Caesar Sang of Hercules.

But Block’s pep talk about commercial fiction had a downside. I started worrying about the opening of my book.

Like many of today’s novelists, and especially crime novelists, Block is a staunch advocate of starting the story in the middle of the action. Start with a bang!

This is certainly fine advice if one’s primary goal is to sell books. In today’s overheated book market, where readers are (at least in theory) far too eager for thrills and far too easily distracted, keeping them glued to the page — and, perhaps just as important, impressing an agent and a publisher with your firm intent to keep them glued — is important.

Putting the hook of a crime novel in the very first paragraph is almost a sine qua non. The mysteries of P. D. James pretty much define the “leisurely exposition” category, but James has a habit of mentioning on page 1 that there is going to be a murder. After that, she meanders quite shamelessly, but by golly there’s a hook.

In my Rome book, the hook is at the end of Chapter 2, about 7,000 words into the manuscript. Oh, dear. Surely no agent will rise to the bait. I’ve made a terrible mistake! I need to reorganize the opening.

The reality is more complex. In reality, my book begins at the point where it must begin. If the reader hadn’t seen Licinia’s husband warn her sternly about proper behavior at the banquet they’re about to attend, her bizarre behavior when her husband is poisoned and dies at her feet would make no sense at all.

I did try to give some hints of urgency in the opening paragraph. Here it is:

Fingertips groping, confused, at the clasp of an earring. She had worn this pair before, they had never fought with her, but today the clasp twisted away like a snake. They were too large, too elaborate, a dangling confection of garnets and gold beads that would drag her ears down. She would have preferred the pearls — so much simpler — but today was not a day for simplicity.

That seems not entirely bland. We have “groping,” “confused,” “fought,” “twisted,” “snake,” “drag her ears down,” a suggestion that Licinia is not in control of what’s about to happen, and a hint that today will be a special day. Later in the first chapter, well before the murder, there’s an evil omen. The Romans were big on omens, but the savvy reader should have no trouble seeing that this one functions as foreshadowing.

After reading part of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel to wash the Block out of my brain, it seems to me that every novel needs to begin where it needs to begin. The novel itself defines the conditions under which it will need to operate. The opening is important, certainly. One wants to choose the right opening. One wants to set the tone and create a sort of frame that will be filled in by the subsequent action. But an action-packed opening is not always the right choice.

The first book of Balzac’s Lost Illusions was published in 1837. His opening paragraphs describe a type of printing press that was already obsolete in 1790, when his first character, Séchard, took over the print shop. Printing technology is not, I think, a riveting topic for the hook of a novel, nor would it have been in 1837, but this novel had been in print for more than 130 years at the time when the paperback edition on my shelf was released. Clearly, Balzac knew what he was about. His opening was not ill-chosen.

Dostoevsky’s The Double begins with an absolutely classic example of how today’s writers are sternly instructed not to begin a novel. In the first long paragraph, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin wakes up at eight o’clock in the morning. In the second long paragraph he gets out of bed and looks at himself in the mirror. And this is Dostoevsky!

The lesson in this is not, “Hey, if Dostoevsky could do it, so can I.” Nor, conversely, is the lesson, “Well, that was the 19th century. There was less competition then.” What I’m suggesting is that if you truly understand your story, you’ll know where it needs to begin — and that won’t necessarily be at the spot where an agent or editor thinks, by reflex, it ought to begin.

In a week or two I’ll have another mystery (this one a YA with magic) to start submitting to agents. This time the opening chapter starts with a huge bang — a gruesome murder and a young woman who flees the scene before the police can question her. After which, there are 19 full chapters of flashback, more than half the book, in which we learn how she got herself into this desperate predicament. Now, any pundit on writing would readily assure you that 19 chapters of flashback are absolutely deadly. But if the novel were told in chronological order, there would be no hook! What’s worse, the opening would be seriously misleading as to the type of book it is. And in fact the opening chapter has more hook than appears on the surface. It’s by way of being a card trick, which I won’t spoil by explaining it to you.

Here again, the nature of the book itself dictates its structure.

I don’t claim to be a fine writer. Sometimes I think I’m probably okay. But if given a choice between following Block and following Forster, my inclination is to steer closer to Forster. Block is a successful novelist, and that’s a fine thing to be, but at the start of his career he was a hack. As a young man he wrote soft-core pornography for a living, cranking out a novel every month that was published under one pseudonym or another. It would be wonderful to imagine that a hack writer can mature into a fine novelist, that an author of greeting-card verse can become a serious poet, or that an illustrator whose career starts with comic books can become a great painter. I’m not sure how that would happen. But that’s a topic for another time.

I flatter myself that Forster would agree with me about the first paragraph, the first page, the opening scene. A novel needs to begin where it needs to begin. The serious writer ought not to derange it by hewing to the artificial dictates of the market.

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