Rewriting, Part 3: The House of Cards

There may be several reasons why I’m not a full-time professional novelist, but the main reason is probably because I like a story to actually make sense. When characters do things, I want to understand why they do them, and I want to believe that the things they’re doing are things they would actually do if they were real people and the events in the story were real events.

I know there are best-selling writers who skate blithely past plot questions that would stop me cold. (I tend to set those novels aside without finishing them.) I’m pretty sure it’s also the case that I have a limited and perhaps skewed view of why people do things. My repertoire of available character motivations may not be adequate.

For whatever reason, tonight I found myself trying to understand why my three lead characters (all of them teenage girls) would invade the temple of a particularly nasty religion and blow up the altar. I’ve already written the scenes where they do this, but in rewriting I’ve discovered that their stated reasons for doing it were — well, convenient for the author, who wanted to crank up the excitement, but approximately as flimsy as a house of cards.

The problem has a couple of interlocking facets, and since this is my blog, I’m going to outline them for you whether or not you care.

Alixia has a personal reason to detest this religion. Her father (who is not one of the faithful) set up an arranged marriage for her with one of the high-ranking priests, and she belatedly discovered just how appallingly the worshipers treat their women. She has now escaped from the marriage (maybe, if she’s lucky), but she has two little sisters. She would really like to torpedo the whole religion so as to save her sisters from their father’s evil schemes and also help a lot of other women escape from their oppression.

Okay, that makes sense. I can understand that. But how does she know that destroying the altar will sabotage the nasty religion? It might not have any effect at all. The god who is worshiped at that altar — and in this novel the gods are quite real — might not appreciate what she’s up to. The god might turn her to a cinder or a puddle of slime before she gets within a hundred feet of the altar. Or she might succeed in blowing up the altar but doing so might have no effect on the religion. Neither of those possibilities can be decisively ruled out, other than by a lot of frantic hand-waving on the part of the author.

Not only that, but her friend Kyura has quite a different agenda, in the service of a different god (who is probably good and kind, although possibly inept or not paying much attention). Kyura is the main character in the story; her agenda is the story. Alixia’s problem is a subplot. So why would my main character take a chance on completely failing in her own quest in order to help Alixia do something that, however praiseworthy, is (a) a side issue, (b) quite likely to get them both killed, and (c) not certain to have, even if they succeed, the desired effect?

If I were trying to support a family by cranking out novels, I’m sure I’d come up with some half-baked explanation, which many readers might swallow even though (to mix the metaphor) it had gaps wide enough to drive a truck through. But I have the dubious luxury of writing, in no small part, to please myself. Yes, I want readers to enjoy the story. But the deal-breaker is, first I have to enjoy the story myself. I have to believe in it.

Right now I don’t.

Rewriting, Part 2

The first chapter of a novel has to do several things. It has to introduce the lead character or characters, and in a way that lets us understand who they are — fighters, beggars, accountants, bored housewives, whatever. If there are two or more characters in the opening scene, we need some understanding of their relationship(s). The opening has to establish the setting. And it has to have some action or tension — a hook — that will carry the reader forward.

In tackling the rewrite of my magnum opus, I’m starting, quite naturally, with Chapter 1. The existing draft does all of the above, and in what I hope is a rather graceful way. We meet Kyura, her Uncle Dulan (who owns the inn), and her friend Meery. In the first paragraph Kyura and Uncle Dulan are arguing; that’s a low-key hook, but I think it qualifies.

Sounds great, right? But there’s a big problem. The chapter is structured backwards. Kyura and Dulan are arguing about something that happened in their world an hour before, but that the reader hasn’t yet encountered. And then the chapter backtracks to the inciting event, which is the arrival at the inn of a family of elves. It’s not even a flashback, technically: The chapter just has two scenes in reverse chronological order.

So I try to put them in the natural order — first the elves arrive, and then Kyura and Uncle Dulan argue about it. And that doesn’t work at all! The exposition that I had cleverly worked into the existing draft can’t gracefully be jammed into the scenes when they’re in the “correct,” “natural” order. And yes, there’s a fair amount of exposition. The reader needs to know that Kyura is 17, that Uncle Dulan owns the inn, that her friend Meery works beside her in the inn, that Aunt Timabara is dead, that Kyura has, up to this moment, had very little contact of any kind with elves — stuff like that.

I’m reminded of a concert I attended, many years ago in San Jose. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks were the headliners. At some point Hicks, who had a notoriously laconic wit, told the audience, “You folks probably think it’s easy, being up here playing and singing. It isn’t.”

The goal of the writer is to make the flow of the story seem easy and natural, but it isn’t. Considerable artifice is involved.

I don’t want to get hung up on Chapter 1, so I think I’ll leave it as is and go on. Either I’ll think of another way of structuring the chapter, or I won’t. Later this year, if all goes well, you’ll have a chance to find out what I finally decided.

Rewriting

All writers, no matter how accomplished, can benefit from hearing a second opinion from a thoughtful reader. For many years, I was the second opinion. My functions at Keyboard included copy-editing, technical editing, and some big-picture critiques as well.

Before my first two novels were published, they were edited. I still haven’t quite forgiven Shelly Shapiro at Del Rey for making me change this sentence: “His people were hers’ enemies.” And no, that apostrophe is not a fleck of grit on your screen. This is a perfectly grammatical sentence that happens to contain an almost unique double possessive.

But all that is prelude. What I’m discovering this week is how useful — and how challenging — it can be to have a novel scrutinized by a developmental (big-picture) editor whose role is purely advisory. She can’t require me to change anything: I still get the final call. But boy, am I going to have to roll up my sleeves and do some more work! My Scrivener file now has dozens of embedded notes [in boldface, in brackets] that I’ll be hacking my way through. Some will require moving chunks of text from one chapter to another and then smoothing over the seams. Some scenes will need to be rewritten.

I thought I was done with this book. (Actually, it’s a four-volume series that tells one long continuous story. Whether I call it one novel or four depends mostly on what mood I’m in.) After I went through the whole thing last fall, tidying it up, I said to myself, “Okay, that’s it. No more edits.” But then I started wondering: Would I benefit from hiring an editor?

We all prefer to think, “Oh, my creative work is just wonderful as is! An editor will just tell me, ‘Tweak a couple of adverbs and delete a couple of commas and it will be a best seller!'” But that’s pure delusion. It’s the ego grinding its gears, nothing more.

I scouted around online — carefully, because editing isn’t cheap — and found someone that I was fairly confident would do a decent job. And indeed, I’m not disappointed. Now that I have her notes on Book I of the series, it’s clear that I made some mistakes and missed some opportunities. It’s going to be money well spent, and I have some serious work to do.

That’s not to say that I agree with all of her comments.”Pare this scene down to what is really essential”? Maybe not. Maybe I like it just the way it is. But even in cases like that, her comments lead me to examine the scene more closely. What do I feel is essential, or engaging, or beautiful about this scene? If the editor thinks it’s boring, why does she think that?

When The Wall at the Edge of the World was being edited in 1991, the editor (and I’m chagrined to have to admit that I’ve forgotten her name) said, “The psychic/dream sequence at the end drags on too long. I think you should tighten it up.” I re-read it and said to her, “No, I think it’s too short.” She was getting bored because I hadn’t focused well enough on what was important. I strengthened it, adding a thousand words or so, and she liked what I did, and that’s how it was published.

The point being, an editor’s gut response may be on the money, even if her suggestion isn’t. She may sense a problem, but it’s still my job to understand what problem she’s sensing.

Back in the present tense, one plot point was simply too huge a coincidence for my editor to swallow. So I’ve written an entirely new chapter with a newly devised explanation of how Spindler (who among his other accomplishments is a burglar) happens to climb in that particular window at that particular moment.

At several points the editor suggested that I needed to delve deeper into my characters’ emotions. And she was right. I’m not an emotional person, so I sometimes just write about what happened and forget to mention how the characters felt about it. (I think Hemingway did that sometimes too, but I’m not Hemingway.)

A central point of her critique, which I’m still digesting, was that my lead character “lacks agency.” This is a slightly technical way of saying that too often events happen to the lead character rather than the character taking action to move the plot forward. To take action, to be an agent, a character needs a clear motivation — a keen desire. My lead character’s motivation tends to flicker and flop around. She dithers.

That’s bad, right? But here’s the tricky bit: The lead character is a 17-year-old girl. She works in her uncle’s inn, where she waits tables, changes the sheets, and mops the floor. She has not the faintest idea that she’s anybody important. Yet suddenly she’s confronted with the fact that a god, no less, expects her to rush off and defeat the forces of evil. Plus, she’s not Joan of Arc, okay? She has no army. And the god seems not to have noticed or to care about that detail. Having discovered that she’s the Chosen One, she’s left in the lurch by this lackadaisical deity.

Should this character have a clear motivation? Should she take decisive action? Should she roll up her sleeves and say, “Yes, by golly, I’m going to take charge! I’ll smite the forces of evil!” Or should she maybe keep changing her mind, suffer feelings of confusion and inadequacy, and try to avoid making a commitment?

Plotted fiction works best when the lead character tackles her challenges head-on. Or so we’re assured by those who teach creative writing. And indeed, I already have a couple of ideas about how to get my lead character to be more active. But I don’t want to over-simplify her character. I don’t want to turn her into a little tin caricature. Hey, Hamlet dithered. Maybe dithering is not such a bad thing.

If I hadn’t chosen to hire an editor, I never would have realized this was a topic I needed to explore. Whatever choice I end up making, the book will be stronger — a lot stronger. Or at least, I flatter myself that it will be.

Death & Transfiguration

In the novel you’re writing, is there violence? Do people die? Do any of the good people die? Every writer has a comfort zone with respect to these questions — and every genre has a loose set of rules, or at least expectations.

Last night I watched a Disney movie, Alice Through the Looking-Glass. It was okay, especially the nice digital effects, but it couldn’t quite decide whether it was Indiana Jones or Leave It to Beaver. Lots of heartwarming stuff at the end — most of the bad guys are reconciled, and turn out to be good at heart. One would expect that from Disney, I’m sure. But it reminded me of a Saturday morning cartoon (not that I ever watch cartoons, but I’ve read about this): There was not a speck of violence, not even a fist fight — and nobody died or was even injured.

Right now a developmental editor is working on my four-volume fantasy series, which I hope to have published within a few months. I’m going to be curious what she says on this topic, because in my story people die, some of them gruesomely. There’s no gratuitous violence, I hope; it’s all a result of the plot. I was striving for realism, not for market positioning.

None of the primary good guys dies, of course. One of them is shot, one of them has her leg ripped open by a demon’s talon, a few things like that. But several secondary good guys die. I felt it would be a cheap Hollywood thing if none of them was ever really at risk. The stakes, I felt, had to be real. And in the end, the main villain is killed by the two characters you would least think would be capable of pulling it off. I’m not going to say who or how they do it, because you might read the book someday. Let’s just say one of my guideposts as a writer, in addition to realism, is to keep things fresh. In a story that spans four books, finding ways to keep it fresh is an interesting challenge.

That’s nothing to do with violence, of course. Violence is not fresh. Violence is, if anything, terribly hackneyed and shopworn. If you feel you need to toss in doses of violence to keep the story entertaining, I’d say you need to rethink the story itself. Or give up writing and take up gardening.

How much violence to use? It’s a balancing act. As Bob Dylan sang, many years ago, “One hand is tied to the tightrope walker. The other is in his pants.”

All the Soap That Fits

At some point fifty or sixty years ago, the murder mystery was invaded and colonized by the Soap Opera virus. I’ll leave literary historians to work out when that happened. All I know for sure is that the books by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are solidly about the crimes being investigated by the detectives. The detectives barely have any personal lives. But today, the crime that is the ostensible mainspring of the action has trouble pushing its way past the writer’s dedicated chronicling of the detective’s personal life.

As Nero Wolfe liked to say, “Pfui.”

In the last Sue Grafton mystery I tried to read, detective Kinsey Milhone (that is to say, Grafton, writing in the first person) devoted page after page to a loving description of, I kid you not, the canapes at a buffet. That was perhaps an extreme case, but it’s not an isolated incident.

This week I tried a new author, Tana French. Her novel Broken Harbor is set in Ireland, and it’s a police procedural whodunit. Aside from one rather glaring unexplained plot problem, the crime part of the story unfolds fairly well. But along the way the reader is expected to wade through page after page about the detective’s kid sister, who is possibly schizophrenic or something — the diagnosis is never clear. There’s also a slab of flashback about how their mother committed suicide. I didn’t even skim-read that part, I just hopped right past it.

Right now I’m about halfway into Jonathan Kellerman’s True Detectives. Kellerman is occasionally good and usually readable. Skimming past the bedroom scenes with amateur sleuth Alex Delaware and his girlfriend is not difficult. But True Detectives is something else again. The main detectives are Moses Reed, a cop on the homicide squad, and Aaron Fox, a black (well, sort of light-skinned black) private eye. They’re half-brothers, and they don’t get along at all. While working on the same case, they aren’t even grown-up enough to share information. We get page after page of family background, including a grade-school playground scene when Moses beat up another boy for making racist insults about Aaron.

And as if that weren’t enough, the book opens with an entire chapter in which Aaron’s father, a cop, is gunned down while Moses’s father, his partner, stands by helplessly.

My theory is that mystery writers peddle this kind of crap because murder is not actually very interesting. Most of the good murder plots were used up by Hammett and Chandler sixty or eighty years ago, leaving only the dregs.

So far, True Detectives is not only larded with thick slices of soap, it’s extraordinarily short on mystery plot. I’m halfway through the book, and all that has been happening so far is that Moses and Aaron are tailing various interesting people around Hollywood and interviewing peripheral characters who probably know nothing of any value. There has been no action at all. Also, no dead bodies.

Two women went missing a couple of years before. Gradually some connections between them are becoming visible, but the connections are, frankly, not very interesting. There’s a Hollywood producer who probably beats his wife, the producer’s creepy son, a movie star who’s a drug addict, a sleazy guy who’s probably a pimp or a drug dealer, one of the missing women’s boyfriends, who seems to be the movie star’s hired gofer — and if you can’t figure out by this point in the book that there was a Hollywood party where bad things happened, you’re not paying attention. Yet after 150 pages, neither detective has even spoken to any of these people! The substance of the mystery, using the word “substance” loosely, finds the detectives tailing these creeps around Hollywood and Malibu and wherever. Also bits of domestic bliss in which Moses hangs out with his girlfriend or Aaron decides what suit to wear today. (Not kidding about that. Aaron is the ultimate clothes horse.)

There is, as yet, not the slightest evidence implicating any of the creeps in either of the disappearances of the young women. And as I said, no bodies. The missing women could saunter into the police station on the very next page (though of course they won’t), and the story would be over. No bodies, but there’s sure a lot of soap.

Coitus Interruptus

There are so many ways to go wrong when writing a novel! One of the nastier ways to fail, I think, is to make an implicit promise to the reader and then not fulfill the promise. When the promise arises out of the emotional core of the story, the failure is all the more galling.

I’ve just finished reading Pompeii, by Robert Harris. It’s meticulously researched, beautifully written, and very suspenseful. And on the very last page, Harris fails. He pulls out without finishing what he started.

I’m pissed off.

The hero of the story is a young engineer named Attilius, who has rather unexpectedly found himself assigned to duty as the master of the aqueduct that supplies water to the towns around the Bay of Naples — Misenum, Puteoli, Naples itself, and of course Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow of water from the aqueduct has suddenly slowed to a trickle, and it smells of sulfur. So he sets off around the flank of Vesuvius to find the problem and fix it.

You and I know what’s going to happen in less than 24 hours, but none of the characters in the story know. That’s a big part of the suspense.

And of course he meets a young woman and is attracted to her, and when the mountain blows up she’s trapped in Pompeii and he has to brave the falling pumice and clouds of incandescent gas to rescue her. You knew that was going to happen. It’s not a surprise, but Harris handles it deftly.

Along the way, we meet a couple of people and are present at a couple of incidents that are historically accurate. Pliny the Elder, who at the time was the admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum, ventured out with a ship to try to rescue people, and died on the beach at Stabiae. That’s in the novel. Not historically documented but flawlessly accurate with respect to Roman culture is a subplot in which the young woman’s father, a rich former slave who is pretty much the boss of Pompeii, tries to bribe Attilius, fails, and decides to have him killed instead. The assassin stalks him to the peak of Vesuvius, right into the crater, and Attilius escapes only a couple of hours before Vesuvius blows its top.

Brilliant stuff, right? But here’s where it all goes south. Attilius has arrived at Stabiae with Pliny, and decides he’d rather die trying to rescue Corelia from Pompeii than live without her. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. He barely knows her, but he told her to go back to Pompeii and obey her father without knowing the whole town was about to be buried under 20 feet of pumice. So he sort of has a moral obligation.

Rocks and ash are falling from the air. He makes it to Pompeii. He finds the girl. Survivors of the first phase of the eruption are wandering around in a daze. The girl’s father and his slaves start chasing the couple, plainly intending to kill Attilius. Attilius sees an incandescent cloud of gas rolling down the slope of Vesuvius toward the town. He and the girl run and climb into the roofed-over reservoir into which the aqueduct flows. We have seen this structure earlier in the story, so we know what’s going on. Attilius has in fact narrowly escaped being drowned in an underground portion of the aqueduct in an earlier scene, after he and his workmen went down into it through a manhole to make repairs.

A cloud of incandescent gas will roast your lungs in a flash — but if you’re in a tunnel that’s mostly full of water, you might have some chance of survival.

Are you with me so far? It’s a genuine happy ending, straight out of Hollywood. Everybody else dies, but against the greatest possible odds, in one of the most awful disasters in history, boy saves girl. Or … well, let’s find out. As we reach the very last page, we get this:

People who had fled from their homes on the eastern slopes of the mountain began to make a cautious return before nightfall, and many were the stories and rumors that circulated in the days that followed … [omitting some stories and rumors here] … Most persistent of all was the legend of a man and a woman who had emerged out of the earth itself at dusk on the day the eruption ended. They had tunneled underground like moles, it was said, for several miles, all the way from Pompeii, and had come up where the ground was clear, drenched in the life-giving waters of a subterranean river, which had given them its sacred protection. They were reported to have been seen walking together in the direction of the coast….

And that’s it. After that oblique description, the curtain falls. We don’t get to see them struggle along the underground aqueduct for miles in the dark. We don’t get to see their joy when they find a manhole cover that’s not weighed down with half a ton of pumice. We don’t get to see them smile at one another as he helps her up out of the aqueduct. We don’t get to see them holding hands as they stroll downhill toward the bay.

This is the sound of Robert Harris failing. He just had to be fucking coy about it. Satisfying the reader by actually showing the happy ending — maybe he skipped that lecture in the graduate-level course on creative writing. Or maybe some halfwit college professor convinced him that showing a happy ending would be cheap, that ambiguity is somehow a nobler goal toward which the author of great literature ought to strive. Or maybe his typewriter ribbon was running out of ink. Who knows?

If you want a gruesome lesson in how to destroy a terrific novel in a single page, buy this book and read it.

Missed Connections

Having concluded, however reluctantly, that I’m Not A Total Genius ™, I’m looking into hiring a freelance editor to do a developmental pass on my four-volume fantasy epic. One wants an editor with relevant experience. One expects to pay good money for the service.

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a nice search engine with which you can find members who specialize in developmental editing of fiction. The output is in random order, so members whose names begin with ‘A’ are not given preferential exposure.

Today I’m weeding through the list. I’ve queried a couple of editors, but that’s not what I wanted to mention. Along the way I took a look at an editor named Kelley Frodel, who provides a couple of excerpts to show off her editing chops. If you scroll down past the copy-edit example, you’ll find a “heavy line edit with substantive feedback.” This is the opening passage of a self-published fantasy novel.

Here’s why I won’t be querying Kelley Frodel: She missed the big picture.

In this action opening, the protagonist, Nickolas, is flying (with wings) across the midnight sky. Okay, that’s a lovely opening dramatic hook — no problem. But that’s just the first sentence in the first paragraph. During the remainder of the paragraph, rather than giving us a clear picture of what it’s like to fly across the midnight sky, the author introduces no less than six items of information, all of them apparently related to the end scene of the previous volume of the saga. Six items of information — six, count ’em, six — while the hero is flying across the sky, and only two mentions of wings, one mention of moonlight, and one mention of cold air. No mention of clouds or stars, no mention of the land below, no mention of straining muscles. (I’m assuming the wings are attached to his arms, though that’s not mentioned either.) The trend continues in the next couple of paragraphs.

Here’s Frodel’s comment in the margin: “In order to reorient the reader into [sic] the story, adding some extra details about people and places, reacquainting them [sic] in the reader’s mind, could help them to remember the first book better and make the transition into the second book smoother. So sprinkling brief descriptions like this throughout the opening chapter will help remind the reader what just happened in the last book.”

To which my response is, “No, no, no, no, no! Do not do this!”

Amateur writers are often instructed that the dreaded “info-dump” is a Bad Thing. In order to avoid writing a paragraph or two of exposition in order to give the reader the big picture, they will labor to shoehorn the important bits into the middle of an action sequence. This, however, is a mistake. What it does is, it destroys the immediacy and concrete impact of the action, while simultaneously forcing the reader to keep track of two things at once — the present action and also a variety of other stuff. And of necessity, the other stuff is not organized in a coherent way; it’s just jammed in.

I have seen this problem over and over again, in one form or another, in self-published novels. And here we have a self-styled (and presumably paid) professional editor advising her client to do more of it.

God bless the info-dump. What the world of fiction needs are MORE info-dumps. Put all of the relevant information into a single paragraph or a sequence of paragraphs. Articulate the points of connection among the items of information — don’t just blast them at us higgledy-piggledy. And above all, get the information out of the action scene! Put it after the action scene (if the action scene is your novel opener) or before the action scene. But do not mix meat and milk on the same dish, damn it.

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate

As foreshadowed in yesterday’s blog entry, I have now identified a couple of small presses that seem legit, and sent them both queries for my YA fantasy series. I’m not going to say which ones I chose, because I’m about to be less than flattering.

One of the bits of advice I read this week was, when evaluating a small press, buy and read a couple of their books. This will tell you if their editors are competent, for one thing. It may also give you a hint about the sorts of things they like to publish.

So I did. The Kindle app is super for chores like this: Click, click, put a couple of bucks on my credit card, and I can start reading.

In the first novel I opened up, the copy-editing is mostly good. The story — well, let’s say I would have wanted to tinker fairly extensively with the concept to beef it up before I even started writing a rough draft. Writers of speculative fiction sometimes fall into the trap of making their made-up worlds too simple. Legions of creatures that are entirely evil and devoted to causing suffering, that type of thing.

Oops — that describes Tolkien’s orcs, doesn’t it? Well, you get the idea.

At the level of sentences and paragraphs, this small press author’s writing just wasn’t taut. Ideas jumped around like beans in a skillet. Excess words could have been deleted to smooth the flow. And in the opening incident, there was a piece of blocking — the theater director’s term for where the characters go on the stage — that made not a lick of sense. It was not remotely plausible. The author inserted a character into a scene in order to be able to include a certain conversation, when the character could not plausibly have been there.

Oh, dear. Let’s set this novel aside for now and look at the other one.

In the other one, I screeched to a halt before I even got to Chapter 1. The drop-cap at the beginning of the epigraph is screwed up. Let’s scroll down. Yes, the drop-caps that start all of the chapters are screwed up. And this is not a newly uploaded file: The copyright date on the book is a couple of years ago. Somehow this publisher, who seems to be one of the standouts, has for two years failed to upload a corrected file. I can think of several reasons for this, none of them entirely innocent. Maybe the entire publishing company uses Macs, and they never thought to check the file on a Windows Kindle app. Any other explanation would, I think, be worse than that.

Before I slink quietly away into the night, I’ll bet you want to know about the title of this blog entry. It’s a quote from Dante. It’s the inscription he describes as carved over the gates of Hell. In English, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Small Is the New Big

Starting back in mid-October, I decided to self-publish my fantasy epic and a couple of other books as well. Two months later, I seem to be trapped in amber, or at least I’m waist-deep in molasses. Nothing is happening. Until I have well-designed book covers, I don’t have books.

Last night it occurred to me that in the jump from the idea of mainstream publishing to the idea of self-publishing, I had leaped blithely over the entire world of small press publishing. A small press might be ideal for me: They will already be working with a good cover designer. They’ll handle various other tasks, such as interior design and buying ISBN numbers. I’ll still have to do a lot of promotion, but working with an existing publisher (who may even know what types of promotion work, and what doesn’t work) would surely streamline the process.

My first stop in researching small presses was the Writer Beware pages published by SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. SFWA members have generously contributed all sorts of horror stories about the malfeasances and malignancies of small presses. It’s a minefield out there, folks.

SFWA bloggers have some very good advice about what to watch out for. You want a publisher who has been around for a few years and has a track record; you don’t want to go with the new kid on the block. You want a publisher who has a human name and some relevant experience: If the website doesn’t tell you who the boss and worker-bees are, it’s a bad sign. Some small presses are actually vanity publishers in disguise — they claim to publish your book for free, but they’ll pressure you to buy add-ons such as a marketing package, an editing package, or a few cartons of books. Some don’t ask you for money, but they fail to pay you the royalties you’re due. Some become abusive when you complain about problems.

And that’s before we even start talking about the nasty provisions in their contracts. One horror story involved a publisher who insisted (as part of the contract) that the author would have to pay them in order to terminate the contract — even if the termination was a result of the publisher’s failure to perform.

Daunted but not dissuaded, I located several online lists of small presses and started plowing through the lists. Even with a list that’s only three years old, a surprising number of the links are dead. The domain name is up for sale again.

Conversely, the fact that a company has been around for a few years may not mean much. I found one site that looked promising until I noticed that their page on how authors can help promote their books was dated 2010. I skated over to their list of authors and checked three of the authors’ books on Amazon. Sure enough, none of them had a new book published more recently than 2011. The website still exists, but is the company active? Apparently not.

Another publisher (Jolly Fish) looked very promising for YA authors until I dug a little deeper. Turns out Jolly Fish was purchased two months ago by a company in Minneapolis called Northstar Editions. Northstar has, as far as I was able to determine from poking around on the web, no track record at all in the publishing game. I also learned that Jolly Fish was losing money before the sale. Why a new company would want to purchase a small company that was losing money is a bit hard to fathom. Northstar may have great plans, and may succeed brilliantly, but as an author I would not want to submit to Jolly Fish for a couple of years.

The award for Turkey Of The Day goes, however, to myinkbooks.com. Their “website” is a wordpress template that they’ve never filled in. At the top it says, “Publisher: Official website of the #1 Bestselling Author.” And below that in bigger letters, “Welcome to the official website of Author.” Considering that this site was listed on everywritersresource.com in 2012, you’d have to conclude that My Ink Books is off to a slow start.

A runner-up for the coveted Oops! award goes to senseofwonderpress.com, whose page for Children & Young Adult includes this disclaimer (and yes, it’s all in caps): “OUR SITE IS UNDERGOING IMPROVEMENT, REVISION, AND RECONSTRUCTION THE WEEKEND OF JANUARY 13-15, 2007 COINCIDING WITH CELEBRATING THE BEGINNING OF OUR 35TH YEAR PLEASE PARDON ANY MESS”. Okay, then.

Another small press says right up front that their contract with authors is non-negotiable. To their credit, they include the contract on their website, so you can see what it is they’re insisting on. The contract doesn’t seem to have any clauses that are red flags, though a few are tantalizingly vague. My suspicion, when a small company says their contract is non-negotiable, is that they hired a lawyer to draft the contract, don’t want to pay the lawyer for any more work, and don’t feel competent to review contract language themselves. That’s not a good sign. I was taught that everything in a contract is negotiable, including the date at the top. If a publisher doesn’t understand the meaning of their own contract language, can you trust them to adhere to the provisions of the contract?

More to the point, perhaps, saying that the contract is non-negotiable is a way of bullying the author into submission. The implicit message is, “We know what’s best for you. We’ll tell you what we want, and you’ll do it without complaining. Your ideas don’t matter.”

I now have a list of eight or nine small presses that look promising. I’ll be investigating further and probably submitting Book I in my series to one or two them, if they pass the sniff test. Good things may happen, or I may still be slogging through the molasses in July. We’ll see.

Amazon and the Death of the LP

The book cover problem is driving me crazy. The rest of the self-publishing process I can do myself, but I’m not a competent visual artist, nor am I up to speed with the latest version of Photoshop. I wouldn’t mind learning Photoshop, but doing so wouldn’t make me a competent cover designer. And even if I were a competent designer, that wouldn’t solve the problem — not really.

Right now I have a fellow working on a set of covers for my four-volume series. He’s giving me a great deal because he’s just now trying to break into the cover design business. I like what he’s doing, but I’m starting to have second thoughts, and it’s taking a long time. We’re still floundering around discussing what objects to put on the cover of Book 3. A friend of mine, a professional designer, looked at the roughs and said, “They’re better than most self-designed covers, but they don’t look professional.” I’m afraid he’s right.

I found a great design team, Deranged Doctor Design, and exchanged a few emails with them. Their covers are high-impact and fully professional. But when I had articulated my desire for a non-traditional, non-generic cover, they punted. They suggested that I go hire an illustrator instead.

I’ve concluded that the elephant in the room is Amazon.

Amazon ebooks are the primary sales outlet for self-publishing novelists, so of course your book cover must look good on Amazon. If it doesn’t, you won’t attract readers. The thumbnail images of book covers on Amazon are one inch wide by 1-1/2 inches tall. That is the amount of space within which you must entice the prospective reader to take a closer look at your book.

This is why today’s book covers, specifically in the fantasy and science fiction area but I’m sure in other genres too, are designed the way they are. You just can’t shoehorn much information about the book into a space the size of a jumbo postage stamp. You got your Big Girl Face and maybe a lightning bolt, and you’re done.

My story (it’s a four-volume series that tells a single long story) is complex. There are about 20 viewpoint characters at one point or another! There are four evil wizards and two other villains (each of whom is the viewpoint character in at least one scene). There’s humor and tragedy. There are dragons, a ghost, an ogre, elves, railroad trains, burglaries, a talking statue, good wizards, a magical flying machine called an aerosphere, people getting killed, a magic wand that turns into a serpent, gods, traitors, healing spells, a woman who turns into a tree, three different girls (the primary characters) all of whom fall in love along the way, the girls’ strange boyfriends — and I’m supposed to convey the essence of this story on a postage stamp. Well, on four postage stamps, but still…

The advice sometimes given to authors who are about to hire a cover designer is exactly that: Boil your story down to its emotional core. That core, that essence, is what we’ll put on the cover.

Well, that list above IS the essence. Deal with it.

Another stock bit of advice is, “Go look at a bunch of book covers online, and tell us which ones you like.” I don’t like any of them. I mean, I like some of them graphically. They’re beautiful. But none of them is even remotely right for my books.

Once upon a time, children, there used to be record stores. You could go into a record store, paw through the bins, and find a record that looked interesting. The cover of an LP was 12 inches wide and 12 inches high. Some covers were simple and elegant, to be sure, but others were quite detailed. One thinks, for instance, of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Staring at that complex collage and trying to figure out who was in the collage was a fun thing to do while you were stoned. Or so they tell me.

Then the CD came along. LPs died. A CD cover is 4-3/4 inches square — less than a fifth as much space for graphics as the cover of an LP. I haven’t done a systematic survey, but I’ll bet the graphics got simpler. Because how could they not?

Just for fun, you might want to take a look at the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s as it’s displayed on Amazon, at 1-1/2 inches square. You can’t even read the name of the album. (It’s on the drum head.) If this were a new product whose cover was being designed today, that cover design would be a 100% failure. No competent designer would produce anything like it.

I want a 12″ book cover, damn it. I need a 12″ book cover!

I didn’t put it to Deranged Doctor Design in quite that way. What I said was, “How do you convey complexity in a simple image? You’re the experts — you tell me.” That was when they said they didn’t want the job. And I can understand why. They perceived, correctly, that I was going to be hard to please. Trying to do my covers would not be cost-effective for them as professionals; it would take too much time.

What’s the solution? I have no idea. Maybe I should have the Deranged Doctors do a set of generic high-impact wonderful-looking covers that completely misrepresent what’s in the books. That feels dishonest, and I wouldn’t be proud to wave the physical books around at a personal appearance — I’d find myself apologizing, over and over, for the preposterous, misleading, embarrassingly generic covers.

Maybe I’d be happy with a book cover that’s an animated collage. But the technology isn’t quite there yet. There are animated .gifs, but I doubt Amazon wants to display them in the postage-stamp size, and they wouldn’t do well as print covers. (Speaking of which, the Rolling Stones did once do an LP cover that included an image that shifted if you tilted the cover. That was in the ’60s.)

I hate this problem.