NaNoPubMo: Day -7 and Counting

Today I gave the go-ahead to a more established cover designer. She wants $250 for a cover, or $800 for a four-book series, which seems reasonable. We’ll start with one cover. If I don’t like it — well, one of the advantages I have (one of several) is that I can blow $250 if I have to. I’d rather not, but it’s not going to mean I’ll be eating Top Ramen.

My light reading-matter at the dinner table these days is Author Publisher Entrepreneur by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch. Yes, an actual paper book (gasp!). Not everything in it is relevant to me, but I look at books of this sort in a simple way: If I find one tip that saves me $20, I’ve paid for the book. Every page doesn’t have to be a gem. In this particular book, I don’t need the statistics on the tectonic shift in publishing, I already know that stuff. And I’m not concerned with their advice to writers. But when they get into the varieties of formatting (for Kindle, iBook, Kobo, etc.), I’m learning stuff.

Tonight I’m starting the search for a web designer. Turns out there are now web design firms that specialize in author websites. Still early days — we’ll see how that plays out.

Today I got back to editing my novel series. I’m now creeping up on halfway through Book III. Fluff it up a little here, nip and tuck there — it’s not a heavy edit. But last night I hit a scene that was boring. I’ve read all of the scenes in the story a dozen times, and none of the others has ever struck me that way. What’s happening in the scene is, the good guys are planning what they’re going to do next. No action, just talking heads. What to do? Inject a pointless argument? Maybe not an ideal solution.

I decided to try something completely different.

Most of the book is in third-person limited viewpoint. If you’re not a fiction writer, you may not know what this means. It means that in any given scene, the reader is in one character’s head, and only one character’s. It’s third person, past tense (“She stared out the window, wondering when Steven would arrive.”), but you can never see or know anything that that character doesn’t see or know. There are, in the course of my four volumes, at least twenty different viewpoint characters, but with only a couple of trivial and carefully structured exceptions there’s only one viewpoint character per scene.

In the boring scene, one of the characters is a spunky farm boy. He’s so fearless, he invited himself along on the heroine’s mad adventure — demanded that she and her friends let him hop up on the wagon and ride off into the unknown. In the boring scene he’s just sitting there while the adults talk about stuff. So I started wondering, what if I switch to first person narration for this one scene, from the point of view of Dunny? Let him tell the reader what’s going on, and give us his unvarnished reactions to it.

In essence, Dunny pushed himself into the narration just as boldly as he pushed himself into the story. The kid is a pistol! He’s a very secondary character, almost lost among six or eight primary characters, but this one scene gives him a chance to strut his stuff.

Switching from third person to first person for one scene in the middle of a novel is, of course, a risky technique. Readers may be disoriented. But that’s one of the advantages of self-publishing! I know darn well a New York corporate publishing house would never let me get away with it. Where we’re at here, it’s totally my call. If I fall on my face, so be it. The way I look at it, in a story of this length, doing stuff that’s different is almost essential to keep the reader engaged. That’s my excuse. Dunny didn’t need an excuse, he just pushed his way in and said, “Here, let me do it.”


NaNoPubMo: Day -8 and Counting

I don’t mind working hard when I have a reason to. Right now my back is aching a bit because I’ve been at the computer all day, but that’s okay. (I do get up to brew more coffee, thanks for asking.)

Today’s NaNoPubMo activities have been fairly rewarding. I emailed back and forth with several book cover designers. A guy I met in a Facebook writers’ group is interested in getting into the book design game, so he’s going to try whipping up a cover for my book for a very modest price. Whether or not he comes up with something great, the dialog process itself has already been helpful. I’m having to think not only about what sort of cover will portray my story accurately, but also about whether the design speaks clearly about the genre.

I’d like to feel I’m sort of transcending genre categorization, at least a little bit. But genre is a marketing category, not a literary category. If people aren’t attracted by the cover because they think the book is something it isn’t, or think it isn’t what it is, everybody loses.

Also: symmetry. I spent a lot of years in magazine publishing, where the cover design always forced the type over to the left. The left two inches of a magazine cover are often all that can be seen on the newsstand rack. (Are there even newsstand racks anymore?) For a book, that’s not an issue, so symmetry is better.

This afternoon I dug into the process of formatting a book manuscript for ebook distribution. The idea is, you never format a paragraph manually: You use paragraph styles in your word processor. I get that. But the Smashwords Style Guide is a little too Procrustean in instructing how to do it. They tell you to copy-all into Notepad and then back, which will strip out all of the formatting. Yeah, but my first attempt stripped all of the italicized words out of my text. For a work of fiction, that’s a disaster. Fortunately, I noticed it quickly and reversed course.

OpenOffice has a bug in the paragraph formatting routine that causes it not to remember that a page break before the paragraph is part of your defined style. I need that break for ebook formatting, so I downloaded Libre Office. It includes the page break properly in the style. I think I just switched to a new word processor. (Still using Scrivener for actual writing, of course.)

I downloaded Calibre, a free ebook conversion program. After a couple of false starts and a suggestion from a guy on Facebook, I tried saving my document from Libre Office in Word’s .docx format. Calibre then stopped being balky and cooperatively converted it to an EPUB or a MOBI. The Smashwords instructions on how to create a table of contents with bookmarks and hyperlinks are in a video — very handy. My test of this feature worked! I was able to load the MOBI file into the Kindle app and click on the bookmarks.

I also downloaded Adobe Digital Editions (another free app) to test the EPUB file. Strangely, that version displays my dummy cover image. The Kindle app doesn’t. There are still a bunch of things to figure out.

Having spent many years dealing with software (and publishing), I’m in a fairly good position to get this stuff working. I really feel for the writer who may have produced a great book but who is a novice (or worse, phobic) when it comes to the technology.

A day of progress. I sort of wish I had done some actual writing or editing today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get back to that. Wearing several hats now.

NaNoPubMo: Day -9 and Counting

Probably most of my two dozen semi-regular readers have heard of NaNoWriMo — National Novel-Writing Month. The idea is to encourage anyone and everyone to write a novel. November is NaNoWriMo. If you write 2,000 words a day, at the end of the month you’ll have a 60,000-word manuscript. That’s novel-length. Whether your novel will be any good — well, let’s not be too fussy about that. Getting people to tackle such an ambitious project is a terrific idea, and almost anyone will learn valuable lessons by doing it.

I already have several novels ready to go, so I don’t need to do any writing at the moment. I am therefore declaring November my personal NaNoPubMo. Self-publishing is more of a challenge for me than writing. I suspect that having the incentive of a successful NaNoPubMo dangling before me will be very helpful.

Today I’m proceeding through the final edits in Book II of my four-volume epic fantasy. I’m also continuing to mull over the perplexing business of cover art for the series. I need to make a decision about hiring a cover designer, and soon.

There’s no shortage of professional cover designers. Prices average in the $200-$600 range per cover. That’s not cheap, but I can afford it, and I want something good. (I’m not a graphic designer; doing it myself would be a tragic mistake.) I’ve emailed a couple of them already to ask about discount pricing for a four-book series.

The difficulty is, I don’t actually like any of the cover art that these designers display in their portfolios. Nor do I like the cover art I’m seeing on Amazon. There’s a distressing sameness to it. If you want your book to stand out in a virtual bookstore, to pique the customer’s curiosity, why would you want your book to look like everybody else’s?

My series is certainly fantasy, and it’s certainly an epic, but it’s not epic fantasy, if you see what I mean. There are no knights in chain mail hacking at one another. The covers for fantasy novels are typically dark. They typically have one human figure, either large and facing forward, or smaller and facing away from the viewer. The background behind the figure is usually ominous or turbulent. The images are always full-bleed, a technical term that means they run straight out to the edge. And the cover type (the title and author name) is almost always centered.

The conventional wisdom in cover-design circles seems to be that that’s what works. But does it really work? If everybody is doing it the same way, where would we get statistics on how well it works compared to other possibilities?

So that’s one process. On channel two, the editing is going well. Aspiring writers are urged to hire a professional editor, and that’s very good advice! I’m ignoring it. I spent 30 years as a professional editor. Of nonfiction, it’s true, and my typing is sloppier than it was when I was younger, so a few odd mistakes may creep in — but honestly, I don’t see the need to shell out $5,000 or more for an edit of an entire four-volume epic. Grammar, punctuation, and word usage I’ve got nailed down cold.

As I go along, I’m taking notes of possible continuity problems. In Book I, Dahilio Rundel (the chief villain) refers to the Lady Siallon as “my associate.” But I’m pretty sure in Book IV it turns out she’s his aunt. My memory is good, but rather than flip back and forth across 1,200 pages, I’m taking notes. When I get to the end, I’ll go back and tidy up a few things of this sort.

In Book II Spindler loses his pistol, but in Book III he definitely has a pistol. I need to know where he got a new one. [Spoiler alert.] At the end of Book I Kyura (my main heroine) is heroically galloping off bareback on a white horse, but a post in the SFWA forum yesterday pointed out that horses are not vehicles. Riding a horse is a skill. What’s worse, I had Kyura jump from the back of the horse onto a moving train. In thinking over her serious lack of skill at riding, it occurred to me that you can’t jump from the back of a horse unless there are stirrups! All you can do is slide off. So I had to change the details of the scene.

That’s how NaNoPubMo is going today. Join me tomorrow for a fresh bulletin!

The Vision Thing

I like a fresh challenge. I like learning new stuff. So the idea of self-publishing my series of fantasy novels (and some other fiction too, before long) is kind of fun, at least if we define “fun” loosely. In between sessions of editing on the story, I’m delving into the minutiae of document formatting and trying to wrap my brains around book cover design.

I’m not a professional graphic artist. I need to hire a cover designer. That much is obvious. But in looking at hundreds of book covers on designer websites, I’m just not seeing anything that floats my boat. Not only that — as I look at the bold and exciting work of a dozen different cover designers, a certain sameness starts to creep in. I’m reminded of the column that Kris Rusch wrote about “serious writer voice,” a phenomenon in which writers all start to sound alike because they’re all striving for the same sort of professional polish.

The covers I’m seeing look generic — and that’s because they are generic. A book is in, or at least is marketed as belonging to, a genre. Same root word: genre = generic.

It’s clear that a book cover needs to be simple. Too many elements will clutter it up. It needs to be eye-catching. Contrasting colors are good. I get all that. But also, most designers of fiction covers today seem to be using stock photos, which probably limits their design choices in ways that are not obvious to the uninitiated. A cover done by an illustrator is going to be either very darn expensive or painfully cheesy. But generic photos do not lend themselves to distinctive originality. Pundits among the design crowd will even tell you that being distinctive is bad. You want to be generic. You want to make the potential book buyer a promise that you will satisfy his or her desires for reading pleasure. If your cover is too weird, you’re promising the wrong thing. You’ll lose sales.

Here’s what one pundit says on his site: “It’s simple: You need a cover that instantly grabs one’s attention and describes what the book is about in a single glance.” Gee, that seems both evident and wise. But as I think about it, I start getting angry. What that sentence is telling me is, my book needs to be about one single thing. The idea that a book might be about several things is — well, I’ve already committed marketing suicide, that’s what it looks like.

Plus, this is a four-book series. (What do you call that, a quadrology?) Am I supposed to envision four related yet distinct cover images all of which convey the same thing?

Further down the page, this self-styled authority (the author of a how-to-write book) says this: “Describe your entire book in one, single, solitary, sentence. … Pick the best possible image to present your book. Consider your perfect readers and ask yourself what would make them ‘FEEL’ something when they see your cover. They don’t need to feel good or happy (or pleased), and they don’t even need to ‘like’ your cover per se, but it’s imperative that they ‘feel’ something. If you have your single sentence and single image figured out that will save you time and money.” [Quotation marks and caps in original.]

I’m in big trouble, folks. My single solitary sentence (okay, it’s two sentences, but the second one is only a fragment) is probably going to be, “Lord of the Rings meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except, no vampires — sorry.” Try shoehorning that into a single image.

The essence of this story, it seems to me, is that it’s multifaceted. In the first volume alone there are ten viewpoint characters (two of them minor). At least another ten are scattered across the remaining three volumes. The story has action, suspense, romance, a little humor, a tiny pinch of philosophy, and plenty of people’s feelings. It has dragons, wizards, elves, horseless carriages, flying machines, imps, firearms, murder, music, texting (magical), a ghost, a not entirely bloodless revolution, prophecies, an invasion, healing, special effects, body-snatching, madness, and a triple wedding. Just about everything except vampires and zombies.

Contemplate that idea of the single image that makes you feel something in the context of this passage (a little teaser here) from Book I of my 4-volume series. By way of explanation, Kyura is the chief heroine of the story (though Meery does some pretty heroic things too). The “it” referred to in the sentence, “Get rid of it!” is the Leafstone Shield, which Kyura has accidentally inherited. That’s the title of the novel — The Leafstone Shield.

Meery Caitledore felt all muddled up. She felt about five different things, all at once. When your best friend, who you’d known practically your whole life, suddenly wasn’t just an ordinary person anymore, when all of a sudden it turned out she was someone amazingly special and important and had been all along, you were supposed to be happy for her! Maybe throw a party. Give her a big hug, for sure. Meery felt happy for Kyura, she really did. It just bubbled over. She felt proud to know Kyura, too, and she admired Kyura (well, she had always admired her) and knew Kyura would be a wonderful High Priest someday — if she lived long enough. And that was the scary part. The amazingly special thing that had happened was also really, really dangerous. Meery still shuddered when she thought about the air dragon, and about how she, Meery Caitledore, had started hitting it with a broom handle without even thinking. Before long there would be something worse, if you could believe the old wizard. It looked like Kyura was probably going to wind up dead before very long on account of it, and Meery was scared for her. She wanted to say, “No! Get rid of it! Put things back the way they were!” But she didn’t feel she could tell Kyura what to do, unless Kyura asked for advice. And even then, she’d probably give bad advice. Or maybe Kyura was so overwhelmed by everything that had happened that she felt too mixed up to ask for advice, even though she would like some if Meery offered it. The old wizard had given her some advice, so maybe it would be all right. But Meery couldn’t begin to guess what was the right thing for Kyura to do, and she was smart enough to know she didn’t know. A little jealousy was mixed in with the happiness and the fear, too. Nothing amazing or special ever happened to Meery. The happiness and the scared part kind of canceled out, and that left her feeling sorry for herself, which wasn’t very admirable and she wasn’t about to admit it to anybody, especially not Kyura, and who else could she talk to? So she was moping a little while she wiped the tables in the common room after lunch.

Okay, so I’m supposed to pick one single feeling for the novel — or worse, for the entire four-volume series — when the opening of Chapter 25 of Book I by itself (a chapter that is mainly concerned with why Meery’s new boyfriend always wears a hat) has happy, proud, admiring, scary, confused, jealous, and sorry for herself all mixed in together.

Maybe I should put a Venn diagram on the cover. (Hint: That’s the worst cover idea EVER.)

The Sausage Factory

Writing is an art (and a craft). Publishing is a business. In the Comments section of a blog (, I found this unnerving passage:

“I just read Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland and it has inspired me. It’s not just a book about outlining, but about finding out what the market wants and how plots and stories satisfy the needs of readers. Only after explaining that does it go into showing how to build your plot to fulfill your readers’ needs.”

If you’re hoping to build a career as a writer, this may be excellent advice. We could have a discussion about its psychological validity (or its “spiritual” validity, if you like that word — I don’t), but as business advice, it seems very sound.

I’m in an odd situation, however. I’m retired. I don’t need to build a career. Sure, bringing in a few extra bucks by selling novels would be swell, but I have no grand ambitions. I would just like to give folks a chance to read the stories I’m writing. If somebody doesn’t happen to like the story I happened to want to write, that’s perfectly fine with me!

This quote refers to “what the market wants.” The market doesn’t want anything. The market is just a pipeline for transactions between writers and readers. Perhaps this is just an example of a poetic device (I forget the term) that’s described as “the container for the thing contained.” But it may be less benign than that. It may represent a reification of the market as a thing — as a sort of Frankenstein monster that rampages across the landscape, ravenously … oh, never mind. You get the idea.

If I can build a plot that satisfies me, that’s hard enough work, damn it! Trying to craft a plot that will satisfy both my needs and the needs of some abstract set of potential readers — gawd, I don’t even want to think about it. That doesn’t mean that I ignore readers’ needs. I insist on conflict and rising action. I insist on plausibility and the characters’ emotional integrity. But I’m hard to please. If I’m satisfied, the reader is likely to find something there, or at least I hope so. And the idea that I would ever plot a book so as to satisfy the reader even though I personally loathe or am bored by the plot — why on Earth would I bother to do that?

Another comment in the same blog says this:

“ALL authors, no matter how the book is published, need a marketing plan. All publishers expect a ‘platform’. … You know your book better than anybody. You know the message you want to convey with your marketing efforts, so you are in fact in the best position to begin creating your ‘brand’ and marketing your work.”

The bitter truth is, I don’t give a rat’s ass about marketing. Marketing is all advertising, and all advertising is manipulative, and I have no use for manipulation. I don’t feel it’s my calling in life to manipulate anybody’s perceptions or feelings in a way that would (a) satisfy my needs and/or (b) be contrary to their own self-interest. Presenting honest information — I have no problem with that. Looking good, as for instance by hiring a good designer to design a handsome book cover — sure, absolutely. But “the message you want to convey”??? A novel is not about a message, for Pete’s sake. A novel is a story.

When it comes to specifics, I have these unpublished novels. I’m hoping to get them out there where people can read them. The main characters are teenage girls, and of course the girls have boyfriends, so there’s a little snuggling here and there. I did sort of write them, I confess, with the YA market in mind. But are they really YA? Maybe not. One set (a four-volume series) is primarily adventure. The other book (a stand-alone) is a murder mystery. So my “message” would have to be something like, “Uh, well, these are sort of YA books, and if you’re a teenage girl you might like them, but maybe not, and if you’re an adult you might like them too, or not, and how would I know?”

Not a savvy marketing message … but it’s all I’ve got.

And then there’s the question of my “brand.” I know this is how the market works. Readers expect a certain thing when they see the name John Lescroart on the cover, or the name Robert Heinlein or whoever. The author’s name is their brand. But I don’t much want to be pigeonholed. My next novel might not be even remotely YA.

I understand that this might impact my marketing efforts by creating a confusing “brand.” But do I give a fuck? I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Another charming piece of advice that I’m having trouble with has to do with social media marketing. I have never tweeted, nor do I follow tweeters. I understand that one of the things modern, marketing-savvy authors do is, they tweet. They have followers. And authors are admonished by those who are in the know (and I’m sure it’s wise advice!) not to endlessly tweet “buy my book.” Nobody likes being spammed. Instead, authors are advised to tweet in a way that shows the kind of person they are, the kind of life they lead, their daily experiences, their happy moments, blah blah blah, with the idea that this will help readers feel warm and fuzzy about the author and therefore more inclined to buy their next book.

Yes, this makes perfect sense. But why would a YA reader of the female persuasion ever be interested in the daily activities of a 68-year-old retired guy who has no family and plays electronic music for fun? Do you see the problem here?

“Raked the leaves in the front yard. Wrists are sure sore now!”

“Just bought GateStorm for my eurorack modular. It’s awesome!”

“Discovered that one of my cello students is tone-deaf. Trying to get him to sing a scale — GLWT.”

“Drove down to Kaiser to pick up my medication. Kaiser is very efficient — love ’em.”

Uhh, yeah, that may not be a primo type of marketing activity. So I need to think some more about this whole topic. One of the self-publishing websites (and there are some good ones) suggests that we need to define what success means to us personally, so that we can work toward our own vision of success. Don’t waste time trying to attract half a million readers if that’s not part of your idea of success.

I think my idea of success, currently at any rate, is fairly simple: (1) Write a good story. (2) Put a nice cover on the front. (3) Make it available to readers. (4) Find a few ways to let potential readers know about it. (5) Repeat steps 1 through 4.

That’s entirely enough work for a retired guy, I think.

Welcome to the Meat Grinder

I should probably just stay away from self-published fiction altogether. Don’t download any, even when it’s free on Kindle Unlimited. Don’t read any. And above all, don’t comment on any.

It’s not that I think the Big Five publishers are publishing all of the good, worthwhile books that are being written — nor, for that matter, that all of the books they’re publishing are good! I’m sure some good books fall through the cracks, and I have bailed out on a number of mainstream-published novels after only a few dyspepsia-inducing pages. Somebody in the publishing house certainly liked these books enough to spend money having them printed up, but maybe the books were the best of a bad crop.

The problem is not bad books, per se — it’s that the realm of self-publishing is so very, very glutted with garbage. I have looked. I have downloaded and attempted to read novels, surely several dozen of them by now. I have yet to find even one that I could be grateful to have found. As a venerable TV commercial put it, “Where’s the beef?” Where is the good stuff?

Today, on a Facebook authors’ group, I stumbled into an awkward encounter with a self-published novelist. He posted a link to his novel, together with a brief, glowing quote from a 5-star review. (I think the brief quote was the whole review, actually.) The quote was entirely generic: It made no mention at all of any specifics of his book. So I went and looked at his book page on Amazon, and sure enough, ten of the twelve reviews (all of them 5-star) were entirely generic. The remaining two mentioned, in passing, one detail each from the novel.

I’m aware that some authors pay money for generic reviews. I suggested to this author that the reviews seemed to be generic, and that the potential customer was bound to suspect that they weren’t genuine. He thereupon took umbrage. He called me a jackass. (Actually, he called me a jack ass. Two words. His grasp of English spelling remains open to question.)

At no time did I state that I was certain they were paid-for generic reviews. I merely raised the possibility. Inasmuch as the purpose of this particular Facebook group is to discuss effective promotional strategies, I felt the topic was within the purview of the group, and should probably be broached. Generic reviews tell a tale that the careful author should not want told.

But no — this fellow insisted that all of the reviews were genuine, and that I was being very unprofessional and a jackass (or jack ass) for suggesting otherwise. In a public forum, he added. I pointed out to him that that’s the nature of a public forum: Some of the comments are valid and some are questionable. I suggested that if he couldn’t take the heat, he might want to stay out of the kitchen.

What I meant by this is that any author who expects to receive nothing but enthusiastic approval in public forums is living in a fool’s paradise. I didn’t put it to him that way, however.

Another commenter in the group suggested that one reason why short, non-specific reviews show up on Amazon is that some of them are surely typed (or entered, or poked at) on tablet devices. Putting details in a review, when the user interface is so constricted, is likely to seem more trouble than it’s worth. So quite possibly I was wrong. Quite possibly all of the reviews were genuine. I’m also a professional reviewer; my standards for reviews can indeed become a source of trouble.

Another author, who will likewise remain nameless, proved some months ago to be just as thin-skinned. That other author has the distinction of having created one of the worst self-published novels I have ever come across. Whether today’s jack ass caller is a fine writer or utterly inadequate, I can’t judge. I have no intention of reading his book to find out. But I do think it’s worth suggesting that from time to time the most thin-skinned among the self-publishing community may be ultra-sensitive owing to their perception, however dim and fleeting, that their published work is not all that they might wish it to be.

Conversely, they may be utterly convinced of the shining worth of their fiction, convinced as well that the world is conspiring against them, and in a pugnacious frame of mind because that’s how they deal with imaginary conspiracies. I’m not in a position to do in-depth psychoanalysis on people I’ve never met. I can only guess.

The take-away here is not complicated. First, I need to give up on self-published fiction. It is gruesomely bad, apparently without exception, and my encounters with it disturb my serenity to no good purpose. Second, if you’re a writer who expects to encounter nothing but praise and approval in public forums, you need to get over yourself.

What It Takes

The world is full of aspiring writers of fiction. Most of them, sad to say, cheerfully crank out work that’s very, very bad. A few of them will improve over time, but most of them won’t.

I’ve puzzled over this phenomenon for many years. Why don’t bad writers see that they’re doing it badly? Why don’t they buckle down and get better? An explanation came to me recently in the form of a comment from a friend. In a different context entirely, he mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect. I had never heard of it, so I had to look it up. (Thank you, wikipedia!)

Dunning and Kruger, working at Cornell University, did some nice statistical research to document the fact that stupid people routinely overestimate their own competence. When they do badly at a task, they think they’re doing it pretty well. Bright people, meanwhile, routinely overestimate others’ competence. We tend to assume that others are just as well equipped to tackle intellectual challenges as we are.

When it comes to bad writing, bad writers literally do not see that their writing is bad. To them, it looks just fine. To them, their own work looks very much like the work of their favorite professional writers — perhaps in need of a little polish, which an editor can easily supply, but certainly not bad.

How can you tell whether you have what it takes? You can’t. None of us can! You have to go with your gut, and your gut may be lying to you. I certainly think I have what it takes as a fiction writer (and my agent seems to agree), but both my agent and I may be wrong.

One difference between a good writer and an inadequate writer, I think, is that an inadequate writer trusts her gut almost to the exclusion of any other source of information. More than once I’ve suggested to aspiring writers that they needed to devote some attention to aspect X or Y of their work, only to have my criticisms angrily dismissed as irrelevant.

Aren’t all writers entitled to write however they want to, they cry? Yes — certainly. I write exactly what I personally want to, too! Couldn’t do it any other way. The difference is, I’ve studied the craft. I have an educated gut. The principles of effective fiction writing that I picked up along the way from an assortment of books on how to write have sunk into my gut. Today my gut will inform me (I hope!) when something isn’t up to a professional standard.

Art Barnes used to be the conductor of the Livermore Symphony. He was an irascible old guy, and probably still is, but he said one thing whose wisdom has stuck with me. One of the wind players would make a mistake in rehearsal. Art would point out the mistake — and then, from the podium, he could see that the player hadn’t picked up a pencil. Art would say, “Write it in the part. Write it in the part! Do you know the difference between a professional musician and an amateur? A professional worries that he might make that mistake again, so he writes a reminder in the part. The amateur thinks he’ll remember, so he doesn’t write it in the part, and then he forgets and makes the same mistake again.”

The details differ, but I’d say a professional writer is one who understands that there are many, many ways to make a mistake, and takes the trouble to learn how to avoid the mistakes. The inadequate writer either doesn’t know that a particular type of mistake exists — a viewpoint shift, say, or the failure to have a character act in a natural, sensible way — or knows vaguely that such a mistake exists and senses dimly that this particular paragraph might not have entirely avoided the mistake, but thinks his or her writing is just so naturally brilliant that the brilliance will overshadow any niggling little slips of the pen.

In the end, you have to trust your gut. But you also need to understand that your gut may be lying to you.

When Is a Hook Not a Hook?

For anyone who aspires to write genre fiction today, it need hardly be pointed out that a novel — or even a short story — ought to start in a way that hooks the reader. The general feeling, among editors and publishers at least, seems to be that readers are so fickle, so impatient, so easily distracted that unless raw meat is dangled under their noses in the very first paragraph, they will fail to salivate. They will drop the book and go on to something that promises thicker slabs of protein.

This is probably less true in the case of literary fiction; I wouldn’t know. It was also less true a hundred years ago, before audiences’ expectations were electrified by film and television. But good writers have always tried to create a strong lead. More than 2,000 years ago, Publius Vergilius Maro (better known as Virgil) began the Aeneid with the words, “Arma virumque cano” — “I sing of arms and a hero.” Dickens begins some of his novels with tongue firmly in cheek, plainly with the hope that the casual reader will be enticed to go on reading: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,” David Copperfield begins, “or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Some thought may be required to create an effective opening hook, and even some well-respected writers occasionally fail. Recently I picked up one of a longish series of fantasy novels written by a fairly well-known and probably successful author. I’m not going to tell you the name of the author or the name of the book, because I don’t like to go out of my way to insult my colleagues. But here’s a thumbnail sketch:

On page 1, the viewpoint character (one suspects he’s a warrior hero) is “lying naked, bound, and bruised on the cold ground.” That’s not just the first page; it’s the very first sentence. A smallish group of nasty guys, we quickly learn, is planning to torture and kill him. There is mention of “tools … heating in the coals.”

Exciting, right? Is your pulse pounding yet? Sure it is.

Nonetheless, I maintain that this is a terrible way to start a novel.

Why do I say that? First, because it’s glaringly obvious that the hero is going to escape from this gruesome death-trap. (And indeed, on page 3 the nasty guys have gone into their shack because it’s raining and sleeting, and then he finds a sharp rock and starts sawing at the ropes, and bingo, he’s free.) There is no actual suspense in the opening: It’s a hoax. If the hero were actually tortured and killed on page 3, there would be no book! So the fact that he is going to escape is never in doubt.

Second, if you start a book with such an intense situation, what’s your follow-up? The writer can’t possibly sustain that level of danger for 450 pages. (And that’s just Book I; apparently there are three books in this particular segment of the saga.) The story is almost certain to sag rather than building.

To be sure, the writer can try to sustain the tension. Flipping through the book at random, I quickly find a page with a mention of assassination, another where the body of a murdered man is carried into a castle, and another where some character’s “wound was hugely swollen and leaking stinking pus.” Such a surfeit of grinding grimness may appeal to a few readers — those who are so numb to start with that only a steady diet of tooth and claw can give them, for an hour or two, the illusion that they’re still alive. But if you aren’t numb to start with, you soon will be.

Personally, I don’t feel that the highest purpose a novel can aspire to is to stun the reader into passive acceptance of extreme violence. But maybe that’s just me. In any event, I didn’t start this little essay with the intention of complaining about violence in popular fiction. I only wanted to point out that the first page of a story should be honest, not a con game — that is, that the problem facing the lead character should last for more than two pages — and that the opening should leave room for the story to develop in some direction or other. If the opening is too forceful, too extreme, there’s nowhere to go but down.

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t YA?

I’ve read a lot of genre fiction over the years, mysteries and science fiction/fantasy mostly. When I go to the bookstore, I’m looking for a book that dovetails with my reading expectations. If I buy a mystery and find that it’s mostly a romance or an episode in a soap opera, I’m peeved.

As a writer, however, I’m not comfortable being pigeonholed. I want to write the story in the way that the story needs to be written. I don’t want to be hemmed in by marketing considerations.

This month, if all goes well, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on the most ambitious creative project I’ve ever undertaken — a four-volume fantasy series. Really, it’s one long story spread across four separate books. And is it or isn’t it YA (young adult)?

I first conceived of the story twelve years ago. The version I wrote then was really pretty bad, and never even came close to being published. Somewhere along the way, though, someone read it (a PDF was briefly available on my website, and if you have a copy, please drag it to the trash right now). This reader emailed me to say, “Have you ever considered recasting the story as YA? You have three strong female characters here. How about if they were all teenagers instead of being in their early 20s?”

The proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. I pulled out the hacksaw and the pliers and started tearing the original version apart. In the version that is now nearing completion, possibly eight or ten pages (out of 600) of the original version remain. The rest is an entirely new story that happens to have the same plot premise and many of the same characters as the previous version.

The young ladies in the story are now 17. They face grave challenges. The dragons that like to eat people are not the worst of it. Somehow, eventually, they emerge triumphant, though not unscathed.

My literary agent is attempting to sell the series to a publisher. We’ve agreed that if it doesn’t fly as YA, she’ll try again with the adult fantasy market.

And that’s the nub of the problem. Is it YA, or isn’t it? Basically it’s an adventure story in which the lead characters happen to be teenagers. But because I’ve been thinking of it as YA, and because I have some rudimentary idea of how that market works, the three girls who are my lead characters all have boyfriends. The plot includes boy-loses-girl (or, in this case, girl-loses-boy). Things are not always rosy in the romance department. But it was clear from the start that I would need romance sub-plots, so I made sure to include them.

Let’s face it: I’m over 65, and I was never a teenage girl. I have very little idea how girls think or feel about boys. I did the best I could with the romance angle, and I think maybe it came out all right — but I was personally more involved in the adventure, intrigue, danger, and magic in the story.

So today I’m writing the big scene in the very final chapter of the final book, and it’s a wedding. Not just a wedding — a triple wedding. Not only do I have to write about gowns and shoes and flower girls, because it would be unforgivable to skip any of that — no, that’s not bad enough. As I’m writing it, I am personally getting all weepy-eyed.

I’ve never cried at a wedding in my life, and here I am, crying over a wedding I made up. So maybe in the end it’s YA after all.

The wedding scene is not exactly boilerplate, though. (Nothing I write seems to come out as boilerplate.) Kyura is being given away by her gruff old Uncle Dulan. Her friend Meery, who is an orphan, is being given away by a volunteer stand-in, the wizard Otano. And Alixia?

Alixia had decided to walk to the altar by herself. “I killed my father,” she reminded them when the topic first came up. “I don’t think I should ask anyone to stand in for him.”

Her father was a profoundly evil wizard, and she killed him in self-defense. Also, she’s kind of flighty at times — yet at this key moment in her life, she’s taking responsibility and standing up for herself.

If you kill your father but then you take responsibility for it, is that YA? I have no idea. All I know for sure is, this is what has to happen in the story.

The wonderful thing about being a writer is, I didn’t have the least idea how the scene would unfold until I sat down to write it. I didn’t know Alixia would look at it that way.

Would I change it in order to fit in with a publisher’s idea of what the YA market wants? Never say “never” — but the editor would have a damn steep hill to climb to convince me I needed to reconsider. When it’s right, you know it’s right.

Almost Perfect

Every author cherishes (or tries to) the fond illusion that his or her work is very nearly perfect. An experienced editor might perhaps suggest a few minor tweaks, but surely not much more work will be needed before the book is rocketing toward the best-seller list.

Even the very weakest, most inept authors tend to think that. If anything, they’re more enamored of the illusion than a seasoned professional would be.

As I roll down the hill toward the final thrilling climax of my four-volume YA fantasy series, drafting 2,000 words a day and wrestling various vexing plot problems to the ground, I find myself clinging to this very illusion. Granted, I have a lot more experience than a first-time author, including two novels that were published by reputable New York publishing houses back in the dark ages before the dawn of the internet. (For the seekers after trivia, those would be Walk the Moons Road, Del Rey, 1985, and The Wall at the Edge of the World, Ace, 1991.) But humility requires that I take a deep breath and not make too many comforting assumptions about the quality of my work.

Naturally I think my series is magnificent — but I’m in no position to be objective. It might be inept, or self-indulgent, or both.

One reason for thinking about the sorts of slimy critters an editor might discover by turning over the rocks (those would be the rocks in my head) is because I’m still waiting, with gradually diminishing patience, to hear any good news from my agent. Okay, I actually have a literary agent. A lot of authors never break through that barrier. She’s trying to sell the series to one of the mainstream publishing houses. But, well, the market is very competitive.

If she’s unable to find a publisher, I’m going to have to self-publish. Or maybe I should put a positive spin on it and say, “I’m going to have the opportunity to discover the joys of self-publishing.”

This is the disconcertingly narrow place at the mouth of the bottle. If I’m self-publishing, should I hire a freelance editor, or should I just say, “Nah, it’s pretty darn good already, and I know what I’m doing”? To edit a 100,000 word novel, a freelance editor may charge $1,500. That’s one quote I saw this week, and it seems reasonable; other editors might be higher or lower. But because I have some solid experience as an author, it would be foolish to waste money on a cut-rate editor. I need someone good.

Multiply that figure by four books, and ouch! That’s $6,000 just for editing. Given the vast sea of tripe through which one is compelled to swim as a self-published author in order to attract the attention of even a modest readership, do I stand to recoup that investment by selling books?

I think I need a business plan. Dropping $6,000 on what turns out to be strictly a vanity project would not be a smart move. And of course that’s not the only cash outlay. An author needs a decent website ($2,000). The books will need cover art (another $2,000). If I earn — let’s pick a number — $3 on average per book sold, I’ll need to sell more than 3,000 books just to break even. And you don’t see sales figures like that if all you do is toss the e-book up on Amazon and cross your fingers. Some heavy lifting will be needed in the promotional area.

There are online companies that offer promotional services to self-publishing authors. Some of them may be quite effective. Others are surely scams.

Oh, dear. Do I really need to spend all that money on an editor? Or is my work pretty darn good already, except for maybe a few minor tweaks?