Too Much Information

What does your lead character know, and when does she learn it? What about the other characters? When you’re writing fiction, this is not a trivial issue — it’s a constant concern.

If you’re not careful (and I’m not always as careful as I ought to be!), you can send your lead character off in some unlikely direction not because it would make a lick of sense for her to think of doing that particular thing at that particular time, but because you, the author, know that she’s going to need to go that direction in order for the plot to develop in a satisfying way.

In essence, you’ve got a character who has been taking a peek at the author’s plot outline, which is how she knows what she needs to do. She has access to privileged information. And please don’t get that smug look on your face and tell me, “I never outline.” If you know in your head where your story is going, you’ve got an outline. If you actually don’t know, then this problem is very unlikely to arise. Other, worse problems will certainly arise, but this won’t be one of them.

Fortunately, my editor noticed that I was falling into this trap, and flagged it. My young heroine has become, by the start of Book 4, the ruler of her native land. (I’m sure you knew she’d make it eventually.) But now foreign powers are threatening to invade and toss her off the throne. I know exactly how she’s going to manage to repel the invading army; I don’t just have a plot outline, I have a completed draft in which it’s all worked out.

The method by which she is able to do this, however, is very much a long shot. My editor referred to it, quite correctly, as a “Hail, Mary.” The fact that it’s a long shot makes the plot predicament more intense, and that’s a good thing. There seems to be no way at all to repel the invasion! But instead of trying to do sensible things, like sending men out to dig trenches, my heroine wanders off and picks up some information that will become a vital component in the eventual solution to the problem.

Not good at all. She has to have that information in order for the story to reach a satisfying ending, but it’s not really very reasonable for her to go looking for it. She’s only doing it because she has been peeking at the plot outline.

Oh, well. I’ll think of something. As I often tell my cello students, “If playing the cello was easy, everybody would do it.” I suppose the same is true of writing novels. If it was easy, everybody would do it.

Sometimes it seems everybody is doing it, but that’s a topic for another time.

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The Writer as Reader

For writers, it’s tempting and perhaps inevitable to notice the nuts and bolts while reading a novel. Enjoying a novel, even a good one, can become difficult, because we’re distracted by thinking, “Is that how I would have done it? Wait, does this character’s motivation make sense?”

I’m pretty sure this is not how most readers read novels. The reader just wants to be swept along — immersed in the story.

This week I reread Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I first read it 15 years ago, and had forgotten everything but the basic plot premise. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much the second time, because I started noticing how very passive the main character is.

When I hired a developmental editor last year to read through my series and make suggestions, she pointed out (quite correctly) that my lead character was often passive — that she (the lead character) did not have “agency,” that events happened to her and around her rather than as a result of her taking action. I spent quite a lot of time and effort fixing that problem, and the story is much stronger as a result.

But would Neverwhere have been stronger if Gaiman’s lead character had been a take-charge sort of person? No. The core idea of the book is that Richard Mayhew is the sort of person he is. Forcing him to have agency would have destroyed the story.

There are two morals in this, I think. The first is that when an editor makes a suggestion, the author has to examine it closely to determine whether it fits. Your editor is reading your book the way a writer would — looking at technique. And it’s not the case that every technique can be applied successfully to every book!

The second moral arises from the first. A novel, any novel, begins with an idea. The writer’s task, ultimately, is to be true to the idea. If the techniques you learned in your graduate-level fiction-writing seminar are getting in the way of your idea, cling tightly to the idea! Apply or discard techniques as needed in order to bring forth the idea.

Of course, it’s also the case that not all ideas are equal. Great writers have great ideas. Inferior writers have inferior ideas. I don’t know if anyone can teach you to have great ideas. Reading a lot of novels will probably help, but if your mind is not swift and sure, you may not learn much from your reading. People like Neil Gaiman and Charles Dickens were probably born with the capacity to become great writers.

Ideas come from the unconscious mind. You can feed the unconscious, and if you feed it and are kind to it, it may grow stronger and produce better ideas. The point of technique is to water and prune the idea until it flowers. If you’re using technique to try to beat your unconscious into submission, it’s very unlikely that you’ll do good work.

Trust your ideas, whatever they are.

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The Editor Is In

Having a little extra income is nice, especially when you’re retired and especially when, looking not too far down the road, you can see what the fascist corporate homophobic racist sociopathic fanatics who are now running (ruining, actually) our government are about to do to Social Security and Medicare. But don’t get me started on that subject.

For some years now I’ve been teaching cello privately, but at the end of this month I’m sending my students off to other teachers. I don’t know how many productive years I have left — a lot of them, I hope — but it’s time to get my priorities in order. Writing has emerged as a more important activity.

I can’t rely on my self-published novels to bring in any appreciable income. My sales figures are, at the moment, I’m sure, in the high single digits. Also, the cost of self-publishing is not trivial. So how about editing other people’s novels as a paid service? Sure, why not?

Getting one’s foot in the door as a freelance editor is not easy. Even finding the door into which to insert one’s foot is not easy. But I don’t need a lot of income, and I’m not in a hurry. So I’ve added a page to this blog (see the menu above) to introduce my editing services.

I’m looking forward to working with a few clients. It’s always interesting seeing what other writers are up to, and I enjoy exercising my skills. I use those same skills to critique my own work, and I promise to be less brutal with others than I am on myself.

Writing well is not easy! We all need a second opinion, a second set of eyeballs, in order to produce our best work and live up to our promise. That doesn’t mean the editor is always right. I might suggest something that a client finds totally wrong-headed or irrelevant. The author is the boss, the editor only a consultant. But you could certainly do worse in choosing a consultant. More than a few of the freelance editors of fiction whom you’ll find online are not published authors. A case could be made that I do in fact know what I’m doing.

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Every chapter in a novel has to start somewhere. While preparing Book 3 (The Heartsong Fountain) of my series for upload to Amazon, I skimmed through the ebook file rapidly, looking for file formatting problems. Found a couple of mis-numbered chapters, fixed the numbers — but in the process, I noticed that I’m a little too fond of starting a chapter by mentioning the time of day. Light coming through a window, that type of thing.

Chapter openers need variety. Too many openers that are similar run the risk of boring the reader. Openers come in various flavors, which one sees over and over, from one author to another, but the action opener is the most common and useful type.

Here’s the action opener of the first chapter in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: “The bells of St. Mark’s were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun.”

Here’s another action opener, from a middle chapter in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass: “She walked quickly away from the river, because the embankment was wide and well lit.”

And another, from Kiln People by David Brin: “I parked by the Little Venice Canal and keyed myself aboard Clara’s houseboat, hoping to find her at home.”

The summary or topic sentence is another standard strategy. A few pages in, Stephenson gives us this: “Bud surprised himself with how long he went before he had to use the skull gun in anger.” Here’s Pullman doing the same thing: “Now that Lyra had a task in mind, she felt much better. Helping Mrs. Coulter had been all very well, but Pantalaimon was right: she wasn’t really doing any work there, she was just a pretty pet.” And Brin: “Moonlight Beach is one of my favorite spots.”

Dialog openers, in which we hear a voice and only afterward learn who is speaking, are a form of action opener, and they’re fairly common. Here’s a chapter opener from The Demon King, by Cinda Williams Chima: “‘Mari, hurry up or we’ll be late!’ Han said. He could hear the clamor of temple bells throughout the city, marking the half hour. ‘And pull a comb through your hair, will you? It looks like a rat’s nest.'”

Or this, from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: “‘Do you drink wine?’ it asked.” Or this, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: “‘You took her with you?’ Dockson demanded, bursting into the room. Or this, from Sabriel, by Garth Nix: “‘The diamond is complete,’ said Touchstone. ‘We won’t be able to move him.'”

Time-of-day openers are not unheard of. Here’s an opener from Sabriel: “By the morning of the sixth day out of Nestowe, Sabriel was heartily tired of nautical life.”

And Neil Gaiman, again in Neverwhere: “It was early evening, and the cloudless sky was transmuting from royal blue to a deep violet, with a smudge of fire orange and lime green over Paddington, four miles away, where, from Old Bailey’s perspective anyway, the sun had recently set.” This sentence is pure sensory description; the character in the scene has not yet been shown.

Very few chapters in modern novels begin with pure description of a scene, and I suspect that such openings, when used at all, are more commonly found in a first chapter. Here is the beginning of Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake. Peake is describing the castle called Gormenghast: “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.” It should perhaps be noted that Peake was a visual artist. His book is packed with detailed visual description.

Here’s an opening from the middle of The Book of Jhereg, by Steven Brust: “The city of Adrilankha lies along the southern coast of the Dragaeran Empire. It spent most of its existence as a middle-sized port city and became the Imperial capital when Dragaera City became a bubbling sea of chaos, on that day some four hundred years ago when Adron almost usurped the throne.” This combines a bit of description with some history. The history and description go on for several paragraphs before the action of the chapter gets under way.

Before closing out this quick survey, I suppose I ought to mention the deliberately perplexing opening. Here’s the first line of The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll: “Never buy yellow clothes or cheap leather. That’s my credo and there are more.”

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Those Fabulous Fakes

We live in a world of fakes — fake boobs, fake eyelashes, fake scandals, lip-syncing musicians, and the ever-popular bare-faced lie. So we shouldn’t be surprised that some aspiring self-published authors resort to fake book reviews. Apparently there are people lurking around on the Internet who offer, for a fee, to post glowing reviews of your book on Amazon.

This is not specifically to influence prospective buyers, though that might be one effect. No, the point is to fool Amazon’s software system. When your book gets 50 reviews, it gets boosted up in the search engine rankings. People are more likely to find it, because it becomes more visible. The added purchases you’ll garner are because more people are seeing your book.

This morning I got into a discussion with a fellow on the Facebook writers’ group where I hang out. He was defending the practice of buying fake reviews as no different from buying ads. To him, it’s just another form of marketing. He’s wrong, of course. The reason product reviews are felt (by potential customers and also by Amazon’s algorithm) to be important is because they’re perceived to be objective — more objective than advertising. When the review is bought and paid for, the person (or algorithm) who reads the review is being deceived. That’s what “fake” means, after all.

This fellow’s stirring defense of fake reviews got me curious, so I jetted over to Amazon and had a look at the reviews for his novel. I’m not going to tell you his name or the name of his book, but let’s have a look at the first half-dozen reviews he has received.

First review:

[The author] has created a fantastic story and world with this debut novel! His prose and dialogue keep the pacing exciting and steaming with an energy that is always bordering on boiling throughout. The settings he’s created have history and scars that bleed onto every page. The characters are alive with flair and a breath that you swear you can feel on the nape of your neck. They have struggles and conflicts that grab you by the collar and hold you like a noose that you can’t quite get you finger in between until that last moment when all almost seems lost. I won’t say he redefines what fantasy is, because who can really say what fantasy is any longer. This is far from your Tolkien, Martin, Brooks and Pratchett’s fantasies. Though their influences can be felt. It has a life of it’s own just like his world and characters and I’m excited to see more of it!

Zowie! Here’s the next review:

I really enjoyed this book. As a great Fantasy/Action novel I feel the writer has really opened up a new world for us to dive into and become obsessed with! I look forward to reading more of what [the author] has to offer.

And another:

Hey. I’ve read some of this guy’s other work and it pretty much melted my face. I’ve been following him for quite a few years so it is really cool to see this book become a reality. The way this guy’s brain thinks is amazing and his ability to create fantasy world is insane. I just bought the book and haven’t finished reading it yet, but from what I know about this author I will not be disappointed. If you stumbled onto this page or you’re reading this review do yourself a favor and buy this book. Seriously. Do it..

This is the author’s first book — on Amazon, anyway — so that opening sentence may come across as a bit odd, but maybe the reviewer has been a member of the same critique group as the author. Maybe. Let’s look at another:

This dude is a genius writer. If you want a story that you can’t put down, then read this one. I have no idea why this book hasn’t made a bestsellers list yet, but I have no doubt that it will shortly! Do yourself a favor and read this thing!

My pulse rate is up! I’m ready to buy! But wait, there’s more:

I finally made it though the book! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!! This book was like a flying squirrel mated with a Rhino! The most hybrid, action packed shiz you can get! [Author], I don’t know who you are, but this book is the cats meow!

Okay, maybe just one more:

Working on reading this book and it’s been great. Easy to get lost in the story line as characters develop and the plot thickens. I love how descriptive the author is. Helps you become invested as you can start to picture the people and places and feel as if you are there seeing the story unfold. Can’t wait to finish reading it. If you’re looking for a great read this is it.

That’s six reviews — enough to give you a flavor. Our first hint that all may not be as it seems is that all of the book’s reviews so far are five-star reviews. I shouldn’t even mention that, because the smart fakers might notice and start sprinkling their fakes with four stars here or there, to make the scam more believable.

But how can we judge that these are fake reviews? If you read closely, one fact will jump out at you. None of the reviews provides a single solitary detail about what’s between the covers of the book. The name of the lead character? Not mentioned. The setting? Not mentioned. A significant moment in the action? Not mentioned.

These are fake reviews.

I can certainly understand that a lot of self-published authors are desperate to do anything — anything at all — that would give their book an edge. We’re drowning in a sea of self-published fiction. But some of us still cling to some tattered vestige of a value system. Some of us still make, or try to make, an ethical distinction between honesty and bullshit.

I try to do that. I try earnestly not to bullshit anybody. I hope you’re with me on that.

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More on Paper

The $400 estimate I mentioned a couple of days ago for the cost of interior book design for paperbacks seems to have been low. I’ve been talking to several people who want to charge $600 or more per novel. And that’s for a design with no text boxes or inset photos — nothing fancy. Considering that the cost of my cover art was only $350 per book, and that I have four books, and that I paid over $5,000 to an editor earlier this year, I’d like to find a cheaper way to do the interior. Maybe a lot cheaper.

Now, Amazon would love you to self-publish your book through their CreateSpace system. To make it easier, they provide free Word templates in various sizes, with running heads and margins already in place. In experimenting with their 6×9 template, I find that LibreOffice (also free, thank you very much) can do a multi-character drop cap at the start of a chapter. This is essential, because a few chapters may start with a quotation mark followed by a letter. I seem to recall that some word processors won’t do multi-character drop caps, so LibreOffice is the bomb, as they say in the rap business.

And maybe I’d like my chapter openers to have a little decorative flourish. So I grabbed some decorative corners from (free download), flipped one 180 degrees in GIMP (also free), and here’s what I have:


I’m sure a professional designer could come up with something nicer than that — but for $2,500? Nah. I think I’ll do it myself. I won’t even have to rent InDesign.

Or — aarrghh! Maybe InDesign is the way to go. Adding more chapters to the .doc template in LibreOffice quickly turns into a nightmare. I don’t understand the page styles setup, and on top of that I’m pretty sure LibreOffice has some bugs in this area, because it’s behaving very peculiarly. When I attempt to add Chapter 3, the page numbering starts over at 1. The LibreOffice online help purports to explain how to deal with this, but when I use the documented method, the running heads on the left and right pages in the previous chapters disappear. The page number being in the footer rather than the header, this is a tiny bit strange, wouldn’t you say?

Oh, well. In other news, Book 2 (The Rainbow Tree) is now out as an ebook on Amazon. All you have to do to find it is spell my name right. Book 3 probably by the end of next week. And maybe paperbacks sooner than I thought.

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Now that Book 1 is available on Amazon as an ebook, I’m mentioning it to a few people. (Book 2 may be out as early as next week.) Today it developed that one of my cello students (or actually, her mother) doesn’t do ebooks. Could be a lifestyle thing, as they’re quite religious, but that’s none of my business. They want to wait for the paperback. So now I’m thinking, how quickly should I move to add print-on-demand to my lineup?

I was planning to wait for a few months. Maybe that’s a mistake.

The difficulty is how to get a good-looking interior design. Looking around online, I didn’t immediately spot any services that give the author detailed control over the design. For $450 or so, I can get a PDF that may or may not look the way I want it to look, and from their website’s description of their services, it’s really impossible to tell what the finished product will look like.

Or I can rent Adobe InDesign for $20 a month and do it myself. Formatting four or five books in one year for a total outlay of $240 sounds like a great idea, certainly better than a couple of thousand dollars for a four-book series — but a lot of fussy detail work will be involved.

Also, I’m not really a professional book designer. I can do margins and drop-caps and running heads. I know how to track paragraphs in and out to prevent widows and orphans. I know how to check the hyphenation. But if I want a nice stylish graphic for a chapter head, how will I avoid going astray?

I’d probably be willing to hire it done if I knew of a service that actually seemed responsive to an author’s needs. Frankly, a lot of self-publishing services seem to cater to authors who wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. “We’ll do everything for you! No worries!” Yeah, well, what if I want to worry?

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