Ross MacDonald was a master of the hard-boiled detective genre. This week I re-read The Chill and The Galton Case, and now I’m reading Find a Victim. There would be no point at this late date in trying to imitate MacDonald’s style (though a lot of amateur writers try to do that, with results that are usually laughably inept). What’s still relevant for writers today is his pacing.

A MacDonald story moves forward inexorably, like a 20-ton semi barreling down the highway with nobody at the wheel. Detective Lew Archer trudges forward from point A to point B to points C, D, E, and beyond. Every person Archer talks to has a history and an attitude, and each conversation gives him information that leads him on to the next one.

This is probably not how real detectives work. Archer never seems to go down any blind alleys, and he never wastes a moment feeling stumped. Somebody gives him a word or two about a woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he hops on a plane. Sure enough, that woman tells him something that sends him across into Canada. And so on. It may not be realistic, but it’s effective. It keeps the reader riveted to the page.

Lately I’ve been working on revisions for a mystery novel I’m writing. I’ve started to feel that the second half is boring. It sags. And if you’re bored as a writer, that’s probably a reliable signal that your readers will be bored too.

My story is designed as a whodunit. There are suspects. So of course my sleuth has to track down and interview the suspects. Since most of them are innocent, all this activity leads to nothing. Once the true murderer is unmasked, it becomes clear that the preceding 80 pages could have been ripped out of the book with no loss. Agatha Christie could get away with this kind of structure, but it won’t work today. And let’s not forget, Christie was a generation before MacDonald. In the 1950s he was reacting against a genteel standard that she had pioneered in the 1930s.

I have on my how-to-write shelf a book called Writing Mystery and Crime Fiction. It’s collection of short essays by mystery writers, including a few who are well known and a bunch I’ve never heard of. A writer named Stanley Ellin has this to say: “A mystery story … is, in some way, concerned with a crime.” That’s the whole definition. It could be a caper, a whodunit, a psychological study, or a police procedural. It could be mostly horror and suspense, or a dry-as-dust locked room puzzle.

This definition is freeing. In particular, it omits the probably antiquated notion that the murderer must be unmasked as near as possible to the very last page. MacDonald did some very effective surprise endings — and he generally stopped the story immediately after the surprise was revealed. There’s no denouement. But contrast that with a more modern mystery writer, such as Carl Hiaasen. In Hiaasen’s books you always know who the bad guys are. There’s no puzzle at all to be solved. There is deep uncertainty, sometimes amounting to dread, about what’s going to happen to the good guys, but Hiaasen doesn’t write whodunits.

I think I’m going to have to pop open the hood of my own mystery, grab the wrench and the screwdriver, and get my hands greasy. How would the story change if the sleuth figures out somewhat earlier who the murderer is? I can cut some of the deadwood, the pages of investigation that lead nowhere. Cutting is easy. The question that remains is this: What’s going to keep the reader riveted to the page? Where is the impetus going to come from? MacDonald’s plotting — A, B, C, D, E — is still a viable model. It has to be.



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What’s New, Pussycat?

I haven’t been able to track down the quote, so I’m going to summarize. In explaining her famous line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein said that in the early days of poetry, a poet could exclaim, “O moon!”, or, “O rose!”, and the moon or the rose would actually be evoked for the reader. But after some hundreds of years, this effect was no longer achievable. Attempting to evoke the moon or a rose in a poem had become merely a literary device. It no longer communicated with the freshness or urgency that it had formerly done.

Literary devices, that is, get worn out. Writers continue to use them, but the real meaning has leached away.

The art form known as the novel is only about 400 years old. In the beginning, writers were keen to discover what this new medium could do. But by the end of the 19th century, if not before, the novel was a known thing. Writers were still making discoveries about subject matter or ways to treat subject matter, but their governing idea was to fit those discoveries between the covers of “a novel.” In some sense they were engaged in a covert dialog with their predecessors, who had defined the form, pushing a little or pulling back a little here or there to reshape it to their liking but content nonetheless to meander down well-trodden pathways, with only a little side jaunt here or there to pick a flower.

Publishing has been big business pretty much from the invention of the printing press on down. But in the late 19th and early 20th century a combination of changes — social, economic, and technological — created an enormous demand for inexpensive, accessible novels. And not just accessible but predictable. Genre fiction boomed. Agatha Christie. Arthur C. Clarke. Daphne du Maurier.

A hundred years on, these trends have been pushed over the brink by the combined forces of late-stage corporate capitalism and the Internet. Anybody with a computer can now “publish” a novel for free — and tens of thousands of people have done and are continuing to do so.

What these massed and mobilized scribblers are doing is, they’re writing “novels.” This is largely true not only of self-published authors but of well-known mainstream authors, the ones whose paperbacks you’ll see on display in an aisle in the supermarket. Everybody is following a formula. Some follow it brilliantly, some follow it with astounding ineptitude, but the formula never changes. Or rather, there are twenty formulas jostling one another in the “novel” basket, and none of them ever change except in microscopic ways. The novel has become a closed system: The parameters are mapped out and indisputable.

The bloom is off the rose.

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Further Reflections

As I reflect further on yesterday’s dispiriting observations (cover reveals, blog tours, social media strategies, video book trailers, and so forth), I’m coming to feel that trying to do anything at all with my fiction would be both difficult and emotionally exhausting.

Various factors contribute to the situation. Let’s take a look.

First, any attempt at self-marketing will require an enormous amount of effort and considerable expense. This will not only cut into my writing time, it will engage me in assorted activities that I find uncongenial. I’m a writer, damn it! I’m not a marketing whiz, I don’t want to be a marketing whiz — and in any event, the tools for online marketing are mostly controlled by giant corporations that have their own policy agendas and care nothing for small fry like me. Amazon, Facebook, and YouTube can change the rules however they like, and you and I have no choice but to scramble to keep up.

Second, there’s no guarantee that the effort, if I roll up my sleeves and get busy, will have the desired result. I could spend endless hours and thousands of dollars and end up exactly where I am now.

Third, the field of self-published novels is enormously overcrowded, making it very difficult indeed to bring one’s books to the attention of readers. We can blame the Internet for this. NaNoWriMo also deserves some of the blame. Untold thousands of people have decided it would be great fun to write a novel (and yes, it is fun!). Then they discover just how easy it has become to distribute their work, so they turn their first book into a series.

Fourth, most of the overcrowding (more than 90%) consists of very bad writers producing very bad books. In this climate, differentiating oneself and one’s work from the glut is not easy at all. Most aspiring authors have no idea at all how hard it is to write a good novel. They’re clueless, and their cluelessness shines forth on every page. (And yet, this doesn’t matter. See below.)

Fifth, many of those bad writers are using complex, expensive, and possibly effective marketing tactics. In order to compete, one is forced to use the same tactics they’re using, and this makes it even harder to stand out from the crowd. There’s a reason why the blurbs for fantasy novels on Amazon all read very much alike: Everybody has been studying the same playbook — or, just as likely, hiring marketing companies that know the playbook and specialize in fleecing writers by overcharging them for services that are, at best, marginally useful.

Sixth, it’s not clear that most readers even perceive the differences between good writing and bad writing. Quite a few of them are undoubtedly as satisfied with bad writing as with good writing. For that reason, attempting to craft a marketing message that says, “No, look — I really am better than all those other people,” is not going to get you anywhere.

Seventh, the product that one is asking prospective readers to purchase is, in any event, of no real value. The reading of a novel is not essential, and it is not life-changing. It’s a leisure activity.

Eighth, as an entertainment product, a novel (any novel) is competing with films and TV, which are more immersive and can be consumed with less mental effort. Competing also with Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else soaks up people’s time.

Ninth, my own work is not a neat fit with the dominant culture in which we live. Thematically I’m something of an outlier. I don’t do steamy romance. I don’t do vampires or zombies. I don’t do palace intrigue, vast supernatural evils, or huge pitched battles in which knights swing broadswords.

So where do I go from here?

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Welcome to the Septic Tank

Oh, you want to promote your indie-published books, do you? Why not just hit yourself in the head a few times with a brick? That would be easier, cheaper, and just as effective. Less painful, too.

SFWA (the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) started up a mentoring program for YA authors — not for the writing part, but for the other stuff. I signed up. This week I had a nice phone conversation with a SFWA mentor, an enthusiast for book marketing and promotion. I learned a few things — the advantages of KDP, the difference between passive and active marketing, stuff like that.

Among other things, we discussed hiring a “virtual assistant” to handle some chores, thus freeing me up to spend more of my time actually writing. Which is all I really want to do. I know some people thrive on marketing, but I’m not one of them.

Having a virtual assistant sounds like a great idea. And in fact my mentor had a good tip for a possible VA, whom I have now contacted. But what exactly I want a VA to do for me is a question that remains, at the moment, unanswered.

The woods are full of people who would love to help an author (and get paid for doing it). They have websites in which they describe their services. I need to know more about those services, so it’s time to do some online research.

In poking around on the Web, I filled out a request form at a site called Author Imprints. The fellow there, David Wogahn, gave me a phone call. This was a freebie, though he does charge for his services. Nice guy. He then emailed me a list of half a dozen service providers (only one of whom he personally recommended) who help authors with promotion and marketing and stuff.

So I spent a couple of hours looking at these folks’ offered services.

Not to keep you in suspense, the takeaway for me was, “Why the fuck do I even want to write novels? This is appalling!” The fast-paced modern world of indie book promotion is, I don’t know, sort of a merry-go-round on LSD, complete with rubber dog vomit. Or maybe it’s not rubber.

Here’s a list of buzzwords culled from one of these sites’ page of services: “Social media venues, marketing plan, target specific media outreach products, the goal of the package, social media outreach services, electronic promotional materials such as takeovers and parties [???], campaigns, cover reveals, excerpt reveals, blog tours, teaser reveals, release day blitz, sales campaigns, tour packages, advertising campaigns, virtual book signings, social media spotlights via multiple formats, fan participation promotions, focus groups, coordination of reviews.”

Now, bear in mind, you, the author, will be paying for all this stuff. In one scenario, you’re independently wealthy and don’t mind spending vast sums on a hopeless vanity project. In another scenario, you’ve been conned into spending a bunch of money that you would have been better advised to spend on something more useful. In yet a third scenario, you’re actually making enough money selling books that you can hire somebody to do all that shit and still break even. But scenario 3 is a total crap shoot. At the point where you start love-bombing the promotional guru with PayPal transfers, you don’t know whether it will work, or whether you’re just wasting your money.

One site offers to set up book reviewers for you. But who are the reviewers? Where are their reviews published? Does anybody actually read their reviews? These questions are not addressed in the presentation on the site. You’re buying a pig in a poke.

Another service offers reasonably priced packages of services, but several of them start with this item: “Featured on unlimited amount of blogs.” Leaving aside the fact that “amount” is ungrammatical — what’s wanted here is “number,” not “amount” — this catch-phrase is utterly meaningless. It’s vapor. This particular service has actual author endorsements on their home page, which is a good sign, but when I click through to the authors’ pages, it becomes clear that all three of the authors are producing nothing that any normal adult would ever consider reading.

The world, it becomes blazingly clear, is stuffed with thousands upon thousands of very bad writers, all of whom are desperately shrieking, “Me! Me! Pay attention to me!!! Buy my books!” And they’re paying people to amplify their ego-driven spew. It’s a septic tank. It’s raw sewage.

A third service had links to some of their YouTube “book trailers.” Sexy video effects and cinematic soundtrack music, but whoever was doing the text-over for the videos couldn’t manage to avoid typos — and evidently the writers didn’t notice them either. So again, we have a massive promotional effort in the service of bamboozling ignorant readers into buying awful books.

Would it be worse if those videos didn’t help sell books? Or would it be worse if they did?

I think if I were to do a book trailer, it would feature a 30-second closeup of a pencil being sharpened in a pencil sharpener, looped for about 20 minutes, maybe with some added digital noise and bad edits. I mean, seriously.

On a more sober note, I now have an earnest desire to start rewriting my fantasy series yet again in order to make the books a lot more goddamn literary. Insert shit that will drive readers away. The entire effort to entice readers to enjoy your books feels, at the moment, like diving head first into a pool of sewer runoff.

If you really need me to make you want to read my books, if you need to be convinced — if that’s who you are as a reader — then please, get away from me. You may send me money if you like, but please: Do not read my books.

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Who Are You?

Author branding — it’s a thing. You want your faithful readers to be able to find your work, but that’s the least of it. Readers will identify your name as promising a certain type of entertainment product. They will have an immediate expectation when they see your name — ah, here’s a police procedural set on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest, or a bodice-ripper with vampires. If you write and publish both of those types of books, you really do need to have a separate pen name for each of them, so as not to confuse your customers.

For me, author branding has always been in the “yeah, whatever” category. Maybe I need a bigger ego. (No, probably not.) I write fiction, I write about music technology, and it’s all just me. It’s who I am. But this week the author branding thing kind of rose up and smacked me in the face.

I was filling out a form to join a local writers’ group. The form asked for samples of my writing. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll just give them a link to my Amazon author page.” What could be simpler?

Then I looked at my Amazon author page. Prominently displayed is a 64-page “book” that I wrote 15 years ago. The book is called “Fruityloops: The Ultimate Electronic Virtual Music Studio.” The cover is a remarkably dippy cartoon. And there it is. I wrote it shortly after I was laid off from Keyboard and was looking for ways to pay the bills. It is completely out of date and sells, I’m sure, zero copies per year, but on the Internet nothing ever dies.

The Amazon author interface offers no way to delete a book from your page, so I phoned them. (Great author support, by the way — no waiting on hold!) The support person confirmed it: You can’t delete a book from your page. I could withdraw the book entirely if I were the publisher, but the book was published by a German company called Wizoo, which no longer exists. It’s now distributed (if something that sells zero copies can be said to be distributed) by Music Sales, a giant conglomerate. I have no leverage at Music Sales.

What to do? A couple of people have suggested that I publish my new fiction under a pen name. That’s a manageable tactic, but it’s sub-optimal. Thanks to my 30+ years writing for music magazines, thousands of people know my name. I wouldn’t call them fans, but they’re potential customers for my fiction — as are the people who still have copies of my paperback novels from the ’80s on their shelves. Should I toss all of those potential readers overboard in order to free myself from the stigma of Fruityloops?

While discussing this issue with some folks on the SFWA forum, I realized I have a second, semi-related issue with respect to my Amazon presence. Very few people spell “Aikin” correctly. In what is doubtless a genetic quirk bequeathed them by millions of years of evolution, most people can look at that seemingly simple set of five letters and then promptly type “Aiken” by mistake.

If you go to Amazon’s search field and type “Jim Aiken,” you’ll find another hopelessly outdated book that I edited and co-wrote (Software Synthesizers, 2003) and a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with me. You won’t find any of my new e-books. If you just type “aiken”, the results are much, much worse — you’ll get a long list of what appears to be gay male porn by author G. A. Aiken. In principle I have nothing against gay male porn, but potential buyers of my books are likely to be a bit confused, and a few of them may be bothered.

Here again, using “Jim Aikin” as an author name seems to present a problem.

I haven’t yet been able to come up with a pseudonym that feels right. A pseudonym just isn’t me. What happens when I start doing author readings of the Anastasia Swift fantasy series and 70-year-old Jim Aikin shows up instead of the doubtless enchantingly attractive but nonexistent Anastasia Swift? Plus, how will people who know me know it’s me when they see novels written by Oscar J. Blivious (listed, no doubt, as O. Blivious in all the finer online search engines)? If I had been using “James Aikin” all along, substituting “James D. Aikin” would work, but “Jim D. Aikin” is just stupid. Nobody uses a middle initial with the familiar form of a name!

I may go for “J. D. Aikin.” But that still leaves me with the search engine problem. Also, there’s a J. Aikin, M.D., on Amazon already. O. Blivious is starting to look better all the time.

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It’s Endless

After looking into several different options, I’ve decided to go ahead and do the interior layout and design of my paperback editions myself. I’m pretty comfortable with software, so the initial process of learning InDesign and getting the final text of The Leafstone Shield into the page layout file was not terribly difficult.

To be honest, I had rented InDesign a couple of years ago, when I thought I was ready to start doing print books, so this time around I was just refreshing my memory. Master pages, paragraph styles, character styles, text flow, fonts, tracking, Bob’s your uncle.

But then comes the process of making it look nice. A paragraph here or there has the wrong style applied — have to keep my eyes open for that. Are the running heads maybe a little too close to the body text? Yeah, probably. So I make the body text box slightly smaller in the master pages — but it’s important to do this first, because it will affect where pages start and end. That, in turn, could cause a chapter end to flow over onto an extra page. The master page for a chapter start is different from the normal master page for chapter text, so if a chapter start moves to a new page, different master pages have to be applied.

Inserting a discretionary hyphen here or there, to make the spacing in a paragraph more even. Making sure InDesign didn’t lose any material (it didn’t), which meant going through the last ten chapters to make sure every paragraph in the word processor text was still there in the book layout. The last chapters I figured would be important to check, because that’s where I had to add some pages manually and then connect the text flow widgets manually.

Everything was fine, but in the process I noticed that one of my characters had a pistol in an important scene, except in one paragraph, where he had a knife! The knife was left over from a previous draft. When I changed it to a pistol I missed one spot. I found that mistake without even reading the text; it just popped out at me.

It’s endless. At a certain point I’m going to have to just stop and say, “Okay — it’s done.”

And that’s only one facet of the process. Today I talked to a phone rep at IngramSpark about how their program works if I do paperbacks through them for e-books that are already up on Amazon. Learned a few things. I hired a friend to proofread Book 1, and he spotted a couple of dozen little errors (not counting the extra spaces between words in the text file, which I could and should have fixed before I sent him the file). Those corrections are now in the file.

And then there’s the marketing and promotion. I took a look at my Amazon author page and discovered that a couple of very moldy 15-year-old music technology books with stupid covers are still prominently displayed. That’s going to hurt my author branding — but you know what? Amazon won’t let you delete books from your author page. I’m sort of screwed, unless I switch to publishing my fiction under a pseudonym, and that won’t work either, because my two out-of-print novels are listed under my real name.

I’ll have more control over the rest of my online presence — and what that means is, I really need to redo my website. I now have Adobe Dreamweaver, so I can do that myself too. All I have to do is learn Dreamweaver and then design a website. Piece of cake. (Hah.)

Wait a minute — what about the actual writing? What about that almost-finished novel that’s languishing on my hard drive? Can I clone myself now?

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Story Kickstarters

As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. In today’s multimedia maelstrom, a novel that doesn’t start with a bang runs the risk of falling by the wayside.

As I’ve noted before, finding the right place to start a book is not strictly a modern concern. Here’s Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”

That’s more a piece of music than a dramatic opener, but it leaves no doubt that what follows will be both turbulent and meaningful.

Or consider Dante: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was? I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness!” (This is from the translation by John Ciardi.) The “dark wood” is of course a metaphor, but it also presents the narrator’s plot problem quite clearly.

I’m still fiddling with the manuscript of my Leafstone saga. I make no apology for that; Walt Whitman kept revising his Leaves of Grass right up to the end of his life. The story is now in its third version, and for the most part it’s very solid, but tonight I started looking at the very first page, wondering if it maybe needs a little more juice.

In the opening scene, Kyura (17 and an innkeeper’s niece — a very ordinary girl, as far as she knows) is carrying a basket through the market plaza. She’s minding her own business, hoping to buy some fresh fish for supper, when suddenly an ancient statue comes to life and utters a prophecy. Though the wording of the prophecy is oblique, it seems to refer to her personally!

That’s a reasonable opener for a very large and sprawling story. I wasn’t going to start it with a kidnapping or a house being set on fire, though both of those incidents and a number of others just as stirring will be deployed ere long. That would have been cheap dramatics, and would have required too much flashback to explain.

The general rule (and bear in mind, there are no rules for how to write fiction!) is that a story should begin at the latest possible point — the point where something important happens. If it starts too early, the reader will get bored waiting for the action. But if it starts too late, the author will have to back up and explain too much.

I’m confident that I’m starting the story in the right place. The way my opener is set down on the page, though, may be a problem. The first paragraph is a longish description of the market plaza. Kyura doesn’t even show up until the second paragraph. The statue makes its appearance in the fifth paragraph, and then it starts to speak in the seventh paragraph.

I conceived of this in cinematic terms. Imagine a camera hovering overhead. First we see the crowded plaza, where lots of things are going on. Then the camera zooms in and we see a girl shopping. Then we hear excited voices and see people pointing at the ancient corroded statue. The girl edges through the crowd, curious, to get closer to the statue. I suspect that would work in a movie, but that long first paragraph, more than 180 words, may be a deadly mistake in a novel.

Here’s a possible rewrite:

Until the afternoon when the statue in the plaza, stirred awake by some ancient magic, spoke its enigmatic prophecy, Kyura’s life had seemed entirely normal. Before sunset the winds of change had begun to whisper. By midnight, the secure world she had known since she was small had been swept away forever.

In the heat of the afternoon, beneath the unmoving stone gaze of the statue of Tyvik the Wish-Bringer, the market plaza seethed with life. Hundreds of merchants had set up stalls and loudly touted their wares. Farmers from the surrounding districts hawked fresh produce, and food vendors waved sizzling spicy meat on skewers. On tables beneath fluttering awnings, craftspeople had spread their plates and shirts, scissors and shoes, potions and amulets, baskets and jars….

After that, we continue as before. We see the plaza, then we follow Kyura and learn a bit about her, then we hear the excited voices, and so on. What the new first paragraph does, I hope, is alert the reader instantly that, as Sherlock Holmes used to say, the game’s afoot!

My only concern is that it may seem cheap. Melodramatic. It may seem that I’m trying too hard. Above all, readers need to feel that they can trust the author. A narrative voice that tries too hard to achieve a dramatic effect can easily sabotage itself. Maybe I should leave well enough alone.

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