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When You Hate Your Novel

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’ve been editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here. This is the final one, but you can read others by clicking here.

broken pencil

Writing a novel can be a little like a troubled romance.

Perhaps it started out with a flurry of excitement. Your idea swept you away and fascinated you–this was the one! This was the novel that was going to get finished … or be your first sale … or make a name for you. At the beginning, the characters were endearing or intriguing and the plot opened up before you like a twisty road opens up before a motorcycler on a crisp fall morning.

It’s Not You; It’s My Writing
Yet now … not so much. It’s not that you don’t still love your novel. Of course you love it! Except you also hate it. Writing it is no longer exciting: it’s work, and hard work at that. Worse, you begin to see the flaws in your original ideas and character conceptions, or you begin to worry that the whole thing is dull and unoriginal. You picture yourself plowing untold hours into the book and in the end having a manuscript that gets only contempt from agents and malignant disregard from publishers, or that you put on Amazon yourself and never sell except to your mother and her bridge partner. Ugh.

What happened? Well, of course it’s possible that you veered off the course at some point, that the scene that you thought would be so entertaining has undermined your character’s original appeal, or that you’ve resolved too many problems and now there’s no suspense, or whatever. In a way, though, it doesn’t matter whether the job is to continue writing the draft you have or to go back and rewrite part of it first: in both cases you have to actually sit down and work on the thing, and you are having all kinds of trouble forcing yourself to do that on a regular basis.

(If you never do have all kinds of trouble, of course, that’s wonderful, and this column is not written specifically for you. Congratulations, but please stop gloating.)

Passion, Not Judgment
There are two key questions here, one of which I’ll dig into and the other of which I’ll pretty much ignore.

The question I intend to ignore is whether the novel is good enough or not. That’s a topic in itself, and I’ve tackled it in a separate piece called “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing.”

The question I’ll dig into is this: if you’ve decided that you really do want to finish the book, how do you stop hating (or resenting, or avoiding) it?

Fortunately, the basic answer to this is simple: if you think things about the book that make you feel bad, you will have a hard time writing it. If you think things about the book that make you feel good, you’ll be likely to work harder, more often, and more energetically. You’ll also be likely to think about the project more, yielding better ideas, approaches, and insights.

For example, if I look at a novelette I’m collaborating on with a friend (yurt-living goat afficianado mom and talented writer Maya Lassiter) and think to myself “God, I am a jerk for taking so long to get those edits done,” then thinking about the novelette will consist mainly of me beating myself up for not working on the novelette, which will encourage me to avoid thinking about it so as to not feel so lousy.

If by contrast I think “I can’t wait for us to get that novelette sent out!” then I’m going to be much more excited to work on it.

Your Mental Firing Line
Is it really that simple? Yes and no. Sometimes negative thinking patterns are hard to break, and sometimes they’re extremely hard to break. (For help, see my articles on broken ideas and idea repair.) What’s more, we writers have a ridiculous number of things to worry about as we write: is it too long? Too short? Is the genre a good choice? How’s the style? Are the characters coming alive? Is it keeping the reader’s interest? Is it original enough? Is it so original that no one will know what to do with it? Are publishers buying this kind of thing right now? Are publishers even going to still be in business by the time I finish it?

If you want to finish the book, though, worry about those things only if it both helps the book and doesn’t make you want to go hide under the bed. If worrying about selling the book or about how good the book is prevents you from writing it, then assume it has a chance of being terrific and forge ahead.

Different people have different tolerance levels for this kind of thing, and the final measure is how a thought makes you feel. If you really need to get something done, then thoughts should be rounded up and forced to slave away making you happy so you can do it. Those who won’t go along with the plan of encouraging you to write your book should be lined up against the wall and shot. There will be plenty of time for their children, siblings, and friends to come after you seeking revenge later–when the book is finished.

photo by colemama

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Pamela Rentz on People Running Off to Have a Vision Quest

Society and culture

This is the ninth interview and the eleventh post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s interview we talk with author Pamela Rentz, a member of the Karuk Tribe.

Red TapeLUC: As both a member of a California tribe and a SF writer who writes Indian characters, what needs do you see in SF–or in literature in general–for growth or change? What’s broken right now in regard to Indian characters in fiction?

PAM: When Indian characters show up in stories, too often it’s to act out a narrowly defined role that’s about being Indian. They have to have names with hawk or eagle or bear in them. Some sort of personal spiritual quest is involved. In spec fiction they have to be shapeshifters. To be fair, I remember reading a great story, I think in F&SF, that featured a terrific Indian character and I’ve just spent about fifteen minutes trying to track down the author and title with no luck. But I still see a lot of the magical indigenous person, the spiritual wise one, the romanticized historical Indian. Or, who would have predicted this would develop in my lifetime: the casino Indian. Even in journalism I see the same tired narrative: a non-Indian person has managed to secure the trust of a group of Indians and via this special access is able to share his non-Indian perspective of what “real” Indians are like. The resulting story generally shows terrible poverty and/or something spiritual and exotic.

Where are the Indian detectives and librarians and space mission leaders and zombie hunters?

I’ve been asking myself what needs to happen to bring out more variety and depth to Indian characters and I’ve love to see more Indian writers telling their stories. I’m not suggesting that non-Indians can’t write Indian characters and especially the speculative fiction community tends to be better informed and more likely to do their homework. But, unless you’ve spent some time around Indian people it’s going to be difficult to capture the depth of characterization and unique Indian perspective I feel is missing.

I’m definitely seeing more Indian kids in social media and showing off great talent merging the traditional with the contemporary in fashion, music and art. I’m not aware of much fiction but I’m hoping it’s happening out there somewhere.

LUC: Why do you think that so many writers fall into the trap of Indians as keepers of some kind of secret knowledge or experience that reflects “real” Indians when, ironically, by doing that they’re ignoring the experiences of real real Indians?

PAM: That’s a terrific question. I wonder that myself.

I think part of it is that, not just writers, but most people don’t spend a lot of time with Indian people. I’m trying to figure out the best way to clarify this. Indian identity can be a touchy subject and I’m not trying to pick any fights here. What I’m talking about is spending time with Indians in connection with their Indian communities. Its one thing to have a friend or colleague who’s Indian and another thing to spend time in Indian Country.

Indian communities tend to be isolated and often not especially welcoming to outsiders. It’s tough to get an idea of the culture without seeing the tribal connections. I don’t feel like I really got it until I began working in Indian Country and seeing people from different tribes interacting and similarities in behavior. Things that I saw in my family but never connected to a bigger picture. As a writer, how can you give the Indian an authentic role without observing it yourself?

But then, why not see Indians like everyone else? There are Indian lawyers and school teachers and insurance adjusters. I don’t watch Law & Order but I understand that when Adam Beach (Saulteaux First Nations) was brought on the show his character was a detective who happened to be Indian not they needed an Indian character so they hired him. I saw Wes Studi (Cherokee) in a role once that wasn’t specifically Indian. In movies it seems like Indians show up because they need an Indian, but rarely because the appropriate actor happened to be an Indian. Of course, if you have a character and you cast them as Indian for no reason other than to be diverse, I guess that fails, too.

I think writers fall into traps with Indians for the same reason we often fall into traps when we’re inventing any kind of character. It’s an easy shortcut. The stereotype is universally understood. Why go through the trouble of inventing an Indian character if she’s just going to be turned into a zombie or be the guy on the space ship who says, “Yes, Captain”? You have a noble hero or a badass elder, why not have them save the day with some mystical Indian knowledge?

Every once in awhile I’ll see a description or discussion of something that is “typical Native American.” For example, Native American religion or Native American food. That’s like referring to European religion or European food. It might have value as a general shorthand, but really it’s meaningless. There are over 500 tribes and Alaska Native villages recognized by the US government. There are even more entities that don’t have federal recognition. They’re all unique and most of them don’t conform to stereotype.

LUC: I hope you’ll excuse me for referring to the vampire elephant in the room, but what’s your reaction to the Quileutes in the Twilight books and movies? I can’t help but notice they check off the “shapeshifter” point handily.

PAM: Well, I didn’t hate all of it.

What I liked is that the story had a small Pacific Northwest Tribe that is relatively unknown. It seems like Indians in stories are almost always from the same Tribes, usually Plains.

And in this story, Indians are introduced as regular people who are friends of Bella’s father. At least initially, their purpose isn’t to be Indian.

I also really liked that the tribal members were connected to their lands – the pact was made to protect the Indian lands.

I can’t remember every detail of the story but to the best of my recollection there was no stereotypical corny spiritual aspect such as a medicine man waving his eagle feathers around or people running off to have a vision quest.

On the other hand, Indians as shapeshifters cancels most of that out. It’s awful to see a Tribe’s origin story appropriated and rendered completely silly and then go on to make piles of money for all kinds of non-Native people. There was even Twilight inspired merchandise with “Quileute” designs.

I wonder if Stephenie Meyer had had any notion of how huge and far-reaching those books would end up, would she have done it differently? No way to know. Generally, I don’t think the dominant culture sees it that way. Urban Outfitters needed to be told that the Navajo Nation wasn’t honored to have their hipster panties named after the Tribe.

I’m not as outraged about Twilight as I might have been. The whole story is pretty dopey and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than entertainment. At least the Indians got to be on the winning side.


Pamela Rentz is an member of the Karuk Tribe of California and works as a paralegal specializing in Indian Affairs. She is a graduate of Clarion West 2008 and has been published in Asimov’s, Innsmouth Free Press and Yellow Medicine Review. She’s published a collection of short stories called Red Tape Stories from Indian Country available for Kindle and other eReader devices at Smashwords. She can be found online at: www.pamrentz.com.


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New Submitomancy Site Will Manage Market, Response, and Submissions Data

Writing

Submitomancy

Writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, whom I’ve been fortunate to know for several years through the writing group Codex, has fired up an ambitious project to create a site offering a variety of important writing and publishing information, filling in the gap that’s left by Duotrope becoming an expensive, paid service and adding on a number of coveted writerly items. If you’re interested in checking the project out, hop over to Indiegogo and see where it stands: http://www.indiegogo.com/submitomancy .

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Vylar Kaftan

Interviews

Last week I began posting a series of interviews about inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction–that is, what groups of people are conspicuously underrepresented in fiction based on their race, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, age, ethnicity, disability, or other factors; and why; and what can we do about it?

I started with this interview of Leah Bobet and followed up with a short post about the lack of female villains. Today’s post is an interview with Vylar Kaftan, who has described herself as a “queer white writer” and who has made inclusivity a particular mission in her work.

LUC: A few years ago, I gather you spent about 5 hours putting together statistics on the characters in your fiction in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and class (readers: you can see Vylar’s results for all her characters and for her protagonists. Aliette de Bodard and Marshall Payne followed Vylar’s lead and reported their own results). I think it’s safe to say that in most categories, your numbers were much more diverse than the general run of English language fiction in North America and Europe. Were you satisfied with where you landed? Did anything change after you saw your results?

VYLAR: I thought the results were fascinating, and I’m sure glad I did it.  I was generally satisfied with where I landed.  What I found most interesting was that despite conscious efforts to diversify my characters, I still suffered from a touch of “me-ism” where my characters reflected my own experiences as a queer white woman.  After looking at my numbers, I made an extra effort to increase characters of color, both from my own culture and others around the world.  The results were very rewarding.  I have sold many of the new stories I wrote, and I feel like I learned more about the world as a result of the research I’ve done.  In fact, both the stories I’ve sold to Asimov’s stemmed in part from my desire to include more characters of color.  “Lion Dance,” which will be out in August 2012, has mainly Chinese-American characters; my forthcoming novella “The Weight of the Sunrise” is an alternate history with mostly Incan characters.  My diversity analysis directly contributed to my development of both stories.

LUC: What’s the difference for you, if any, between writing a character from a culture that no one living has experienced and writing a character from a contemporary culture or group that isn’t yours? Do you worry about “getting it wrong”?

VYLAR: The biggest difference is ease of research.  If there are living people in the culture, it’s my responsibility to be a good listener and learn everything I can.  If it’s historical research, I’m forced to rely more heavily on books–but it’s still crucial to read accounts from people who lived in and wrote about their own culture. This question is actually more about primary sources than about diversity; you need to find sources written by people in whatever culture you’re working with, whether that’s the Roman Empire, the New Orleansjazz scene in the 20s, or modern teenagers in Nagasaki.  It’s easier when there are living people to email, because they essentially write some primary sources for you.

Of course I worry about getting it wrong.  If I didn’t worry, I shouldn’t be writing it.  I’m sure I’ll get something wrong, or maybe I already have.  All I can do is try my best. If someone points out a mistake, I need to listen and learn gracefully (instead of getting defensive).

LUC: In addition to races and ethnicities, you identified and measured how many of your characters fell into some other often-disregarded groups, such as seniors, people with disabilities, and people in working class families. Does the issue of racial diversity in characters have a different kind of status or different challenges than some of these others? Do these other groups pose special challenges for writers?

VYLAR: Every kind of diversity has its own challenges.  Some are easier to show in text than in others, just by their nature.  I think many writers are more afraid of writing characters from different racial backgrounds than some of the other “isms,” and I’m not entirely sure why that barrier seems harder than other ones.  I do think that the book “Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl is a great way to learn how to explore these boundaries and diversify the characters in your fiction.  Sorry to have an incomplete answer here, but I think other writers have covered this topic far more eloquently than I.  The Carl Brandon Society is dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the speculative fiction community, and their set of resources will be very useful for a writer looking to learn about this topic.

LUC: How included do you yourself feel in the novels and stories you read? Is it a different experience from when you were young? Is inclusiveness in your writing ever a response to what you’re reading?

VYLAR:I generally prefer writers who make an effort to have diverse characters in their fiction, so this hasn’t been a huge problem for me.  Sometimes I find story ideas by asking myself, “Who’s not being written about?”  And the answer to that stems from what I’ve been reading and seeing in current sf/f stories and novels.


Vylar Kaftan is a Nebula-nominated author, about three dozen of whose stories have been published in places such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy.  She has new work coming out in Asimov’s this year.  She’s the founder of FOGcon, a new literary sf/f convention in the San Francisco area, and she blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net.
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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Where Are the Female Villains?

Resources

My friend James Maxey recently invited fellow Solaris writer Rowena Cory Daniells to guest post on his blog, and her blog post explores the problem of there being very, very few powerful female villains in literature. I don’t know if this idea surprises you, but it does me. First of all, I hadn’t realized there were so few, but she’s right: when I try to think of some, I come up with Disney villains, Madame Defarge and then not much else outside children’s stories, though of course there are always exceptions to this kind of thing.

Second, though, it surprised me to be told that a certain group being underrepresented as villains was a problem. Yet I think Daniells is right on the money: the lack of powerful female villains seems to reflect attributing relatively little power to women. Not only do women seem to be less likely to tote around guns, for instance, but they also seem less likely to shoot you even if they have them.

I recommend the post for anyone interested in inclusivity in fiction: you can read it at http://dragonprophet.blogspot.com/2012/07/powerful-women-factual-and-fictional.html .

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Will Writers Benefit from Amazon Studios’ Success?

Writing

In two recent posts (“Why Amazon Studios Will Succeed, Part 1: Crowdsourced Projects” and “Why Amazon Studios Will Succeed, Part 2: Customers and Distribution“), I’ve talked about the advantages Amazon has in becoming a producer and distributor of movies and series. That’s clearly great for Amazon, and it seems likely it will be great for audiences, too.

How will Amazon Studios affect writers?
What I don’t know at this point is how writers will be affected. My guess is that it will be much like the Kindle Store: some writers will come up with products that catch on and will do spectacularly well while most won’t see any significant success at all. Disappointing as that is for the majority of would-be screenwriters, that’s as it should be: there’s only so much media the world needs, and not everyone who wants to be a screenwriter can be: those who are most persistent, passionate, and hardworking and who make the most effective project choices will succeed.

For better or for worse, I suspect Amazon Studios will begin to suck some of the profit out of the traditional movie and series production channels, which is likely to limit opportunities for writers there. The game changes, and players just shift around. Overall, our hunger for new content is likely to be about the same either way, and I don’t see Amazon changing the total number of successful screenwriters very much, unless they’re successful in getting a lot of niches interested in a lot of niche projects, in which case there will be more jobs for less pay.

However, there’s an argument–one I’m inclined toward, but not ready to back wholeheartedly–that an Amazon Studios system will be better for writers than the traditional routes to screenwriting success. Why? Because instead of a small number of gatekeepers who are sometimes difficult to access, gatekeeping duties instead get assigned to the Crowd. This means that if a story can capture people’s interest, it’s likely to succeed–the successes would be less subject to individual whim, preference, and assumptions of what does and doesn’t work.

On the other hand, a reasonable person could say that this is likely to result in more pandering to the masses, more success of whatever stories take the cheapest and easiest routes to popularity. If a reasonable person were to say this to me, however, I would laugh in that reasonable person’s face. After all, look at movies and television programs now: for every truly innovative or meaningful project, there are a hundred others that are cheap, derivative, or even detrimental to our experience as human beings. It seems likely to me that quirky, meaningful projects that really do have meaning for a lot of people are more likely to succeed in a crowdkeeping environment than in a gatekeeping environment, because the best thing gatekeepers have to go on is past successes, whereas a crowd can give a reliable response directly from the gut.

Then again, the Kindle Store successes to date have tended to be the same mysteries, thrillers, and paranormal romances that crowd the bestseller racks everywhere, so what do I know? Maybe I shouldn’t be so optimistic on that count. In my defense, I did say I’m not ready to fully back that view at this point.

My experience with Amazon Studios
In my case, I have a feature-length film screenplay called Down based on my Writers of the Future winning novelette “Bottomless.”  The script has been out to quite a number of agents, managers, production companies, and contests, but apart from a few mildly encouraging comments has gotten nowhere. For a number of months, it has basically been doing little else than taking up space on my hard drive.

This is a story that I love. It takes place in a vast bottomless pit, lit by a sun-like thread down the center, and populated by villages built on ledges all around its walls. The cardinal rule in this world is that you don’t throw anything into the Pit, because if you do, it’s likely to kill someone somewhere below you. It’s basically an entire world built on fear of heights and vertigo. I really enjoyed writing the story and enjoyed even more expanding it into a feature-length film, in which a young man obsessed with the secrets of the Pit (Why is it there? Is there a bottom or not?) is exiled from his village and journeys deep, deep into Pit in a search for answers–and when he finds them, he discovers a danger much worse than anything he had imagined.

I’ve uploaded Down to Amazon Studios: you can see it here, and even download the screenplay if you like. It has done well so far in Premise Wars, a game anyone can play on Amazon Studios’ home page (just go to http://studios.amazon.com and scroll down to the gold Premise Wars heading), where you’re presented with two brief descriptions of movie projects and you select the one you like better. The top 10 Premise Wars projects as of this writing have won in the range of 53%-71% of the time, while Down currently has won 77% of its Premise Wars battles–but Amazon determines the Premise Wars winners on a secret formula that, as they describe it, makes complex adjustments based on which other premises any given premise has bested. This more or less explains how premises that have lost more than they have won in Premise Wars are still making the leaderboard (though not, at the moment, in the top 10 spots), even though it’s a little hard to believe that they’re doing so much better with an adjusted score than they do with their raw percentage. However, my impression is that being in the top 10 on the leaderboard doesn’t necessarily count for much anyway: it seems to matter much more if people review your script positively or decide to make a trailer for it. We’ll have to see if either of those things develop down the line.

My next post in this series will cover some of the dangers and limitations writers face at Amazon Studios.

Movie shoot photo by jonas maaloe
Down
image by writer Elise Tobler.

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Writing Differently: Picking Up the Scary Tools

Writing

In creating Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Joss Whedon picks up some scary tools of his own

If all has gone well with your writing so far, by now you may have some favorite practices: maybe you always outline your pieces, or have a moment in mind you want to go to, or you scribble a bunch of scenes on index cards and then try to figure out their proper order. You may have a sense of some special strengths and weaknesses: maybe people tell you you have an ear for dialog, or you have trouble with action scenes, or your settings come out convincing and vivid, or you couldn’t write romance if Jane Austen were sitting on your lap.

So, good: you have some favorite techniques to use. This now gives you an opportunity to do something very productive–specifically, to violate them.

Why, you might sensibly ask, would I throw away exactly the things that work for me best? Why put aside the comfortable tools for the scary tools that I’m not even sure I can operate correctly?

First, I’m only suggesting this as an exercise, or a series of exercises. There’s nothing to say that if you’re an outline writer now that you can’t stay an outline writer forever … but if you want to improve both the quality of your prose and your facility in getting the words on paper, you’ll want to up your game, and upping your game generally means not just trying harder, but trying differently. Good writing habits are valuable, and consistency creates them, but variation creates learning opportunities that consistency can’t offer.

Here are some of the advantages of trying differently:

  • You get insights into your process, into what advantages your current approach has and/or why you should start considering other avenues.
  • You may unexpectedly find a new favorite method of doing something. If you’re used to writing one way, you may have avoided another approach because you don’t have the practice at it and feel unsure of yourself. Experimenting with those other ways gives you the chance to try them on for size.
  • You’ll get a better sense of what your available tools and options are. For instance, if you generally write very little dialog and as an exercise trying writing an all-dialog story, you may find yourself working out dialog techniques that you had never considered before. These become new tools on your utility belt, ones that might come in handy if you hit a wall with your usual tools some time in the future.
  • Challenging yourself while writing is a good way to stimulate your brain and improve your chops. We get better at tasks through “deliberate practice,” which is to say challenging work plus feedback. If we fall back on our accustomed writing practices, we’re not challenged and therefore aren’t likely to improve much.

I’ll throw in the example of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which Joss Whedon (and friends) created for the Web during the writers’ strike a few years back. I find it hugely entertaining, although I know some fun and tasteful people who don’t. Regardless, Whedon took a chance not only in what he wrote but in how he brought it out. He had time-tested ways to get his work in front of people; he didn’t have to do something like Dr. Horrible, but he did, and it was brilliant. (By the way, fans, this just in: the sequel tentatively goes into production this summer.)

Those are some of the whys of writing differently; following are some of the hows.

The next time you’re bored with what you’re working on, or need to get warmed up, or have time for a side project, look at one or more of these areas and choose an approach completely different from your usual. Alternatively, get together with several writer friends and take turns choosing approaches from any of the categories below. (Examples: “Outline a short story by writing down a bunch of scenes and then finding an order to put them in”; “Write a very short story longhand based on a tense opening situation”) Mojitos are optional.

While of course it’s always possible that you’ll write something that works magnificently with one of these exercises, I’d recommend caring more about what you learn from the process than about how the final version comes out. Worrying too much about the story not coming out perfectly or being saleable while trying out a new technique can make it a lot harder to really throw yourself into the experiment. As Ken Robinson says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Building your story
Some of us just start writing; others outline; others write scenes on index cards; others gradually develop sets of ideas into a coherent structure using a tool like Scrivener. Consider trying whichever method is least like the one you use now.

The kernel of your story
You may tend to start stories with an idea for an important scene, with a character, with a setting, with a plot idea, or with an initial situation. What methods have you rarely or never used to start a story?

The physical act of writing
Do you always write on a computer? Then what happens if you write longhand, or dictate into an audio recorder or voice recognition system, or try telling the story to a friend (or to yourself in the car) before writing it down? Does your style change? Is the process easier, harder, faster, slower, deeper, more unusual? Are there any unexpected advantages?

Story form
If you usually write novels, you might try a short story or two. If you write short stories, try flash, or even poetry, or just outlining a novel to see what that structure would look like. Consider writing a short stage play, radio play, or screenplay, even if it’s not in proper format, to focus more on dialog (stage), dialog and sound (radio/podcast), or sight and sound (screen).

Genre
If you always write science fiction or fantasy, try a non-speculative romance or a mainstream piece. If your stories are always full of clever talk, try writing a piece that’s mainly action. What kinds of muscles do you need to flex in these unaccustomed kinds of stories that don’t usually get much exercise?

Editing habits
If you tend to write freely and edit later, try writing something in which you concentrate on getting everything right the first time–not because this will necessarily work, but because of the different kind of focus it will create. If you always try to get everything right in the first draft, try writing more freely to see if it offers you better opportunities.

Asking “what else”?
Most importantly of all, consider more options. Many of us have a tendency, when we come to a place where we have a writing decision, to work on that decision only long enough to come up with a solution that works–one solution. Instead of settling for one, try to brainstorm five, say, even if a couple of them are a little loopy. Statistically, what’s the chance that your first idea for a character, plot turn, way of expressing something, etc. is going to be the best one you could possibly come up with? Tell yourself “Sure, that would be one good solution. And what’s a completely different one?”

My intentions here aren’t to derail your writing practices permanently, but to offer some approaches you can take to push the envelope and to develop and expand your skills. As writers, we’ll be tempted by any success to think that we need to keep doing things the way we’re already doing them. Certainly it’s sometimes possible to build a career by doing the same thing over and over, but constantly trying new angles will continue to build a writer’s skills in ways that eventually leaves stagnant writers eating our dust.

This piece is reprinted from my column at Futurismic.

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In the April Writer Magazine: “Instant Writing Motivation”

Writing

The Writer magazine gave me my first exposure to professional writing skills and expectations years and years ago. Now, the latest issue (April 2012) includes my article “Instant Writing Motivation,” my first contribution to the magazine.

My friend Alethea Kontis, author of the novel Enchanted (coming out in May), recently got an enthusiastic review from Tamora Pierce, a writer whose work she’s loved since childhood. In a quieter way, my having something meaningful to contribute to the pages of The Writer means the same kind of thing to me that Ms. Pierce’s compliments mean to Alethea. In both cases, we’d love to be able to tell our younger selves about what we’ve accomplished so far.

In any case, I commend The Writer to you, not only for this one article, but for a wide variety of useful material on fiction and non-fiction writing, the writing life, business matters, and more. If you’re already a subscriber, I hope you enjoy the article and am very much interested in your thoughts on it.

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Finding Your Place in Tradpub versus Selfpub

eBooks and Publishing

Writing for publication has always been tricky–not to mention challenging, exhausting, unpredictable, and demoralizing. Still, for many years at least the path was clear:

  1. You write a book.
  2. You submit the book to publishers and/or agents.
  3. Agents and/or publishers either do or (much more often) do not express interest.
  4. If there’s interest and you’re lucky, you cut a nice deal with someone.
  5. Your book gets released, and it sells badly, decently, well, or ridiculously well.
  6. Depending on your sales, you’re then either able to sell additional books more easily or else you have to go back to the drawing board, possibly with a pseudonym so that bookstores won’t be prejudiced against stocking your titles given your underwhelming performance under your own name.

It was never half as thrilling as the daydreams we have of writing a bestseller that the critics praise to the skies (though even that can backfire: see my comments on Harper Lee in “The Courage to Suck” ).

You could say that none of the above has changed–after all, there are still agents and publishers, and the steps are still about the same with them as they have been for a number of decades. At the same time, there’s this new thing, the eBook self-publishing approach.

Self-publishing used to be easy for me to understand: I’d decided it was mainly for people who couldn’t make it in traditional publishing or didn’t want to put up with rejection after rejection, who wanted the quick and easy path to becoming “a published author” even if it meant shelling out cash instead of getting paid for writing and not having a real readership. It was also for the niche writer who had an audience too small to interest big publishing houses but whose topic and readers were clearly-defined enough that the book could be sold directly.

For someone who has always aspired to writing for large audiences, to me the upshot was that [self-publishing==failure]. It was utterly to be avoided.

The game changes
But then came Print On Demand and Lulu and CreateSpace, and after that came the Kindle. Suddenly the possibility opened up that writers could publish their work to a potentially wide audience with very little trouble or cost. For instance, let’s say I had a modestly successful novel that went out of print a few years ago but that still had loyal fans. If the rights had reverted to me, either through a request to the publisher or though an automatic operation based on how my contract was set up, there was no real barrier to republishing it for the Kindle, and some people out there–an increasing number of whom would have Kindles–might be looking for it and end up buying it. One of my friends has done just this, parlaying a series whose traditional publisher had utterly failed to market properly into ongoing Kindle and POD sales that are providing him a full-time income. The books are making a good deal more selfpubbed than they ever did on bookstore shelves.

Or you might be one of those authors with an established following who decides to publish directly for readers who already know your work, like J.A. Konrath; or even an unpublished writer whose Kindle books catch on with readers to become Kindle bestsellers, like Amanda Hocking.

(Of course there are other places–BN.com, Google Books, Smashwords, and so one–where you can publish your eBook, and you can publish through Print on Demand technology in addition to or instead of eBooks, but Kindle sales are driving this revolution, so I’m focusing on those.)

Two roads diverged in the Interwebs
The point is, there’s now an almost completely new, second career path option available to writers. What are we supposed to make of this? J.A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking are making boatloads of money on their eBooks, but the vast majority of people who have self-published eBooks are selling very few or no copies*. Most of the time, ePublishing your book gets it to about as many people as would read it if it were only available in the form of photocopied manuscripts hidden under an old rug in your basement.

This makes self-ePublishing–I’ll call this “selfpubbing” for short, even though selfpubbing can include Print on Demand books too–both an incredible source of motivation and an incredible source of disappointment. You can selfpub your just-finished or multiply-rejected novel, novella, novelette, short story, collection, or poetry book for free in just a few hours, if you can put together a cover and follow the formatting requirements. Within a day or so, searching for your name on Amazon will bring up an actual (e)book that people can actually buy! Books that have merit but are difficult to categorize, books that were too long or too short or too much like a book that just came out or not enough like a book that just came out can be published and have their chance to find a readership.

Of course, if you just publish the eBook and wait for the cash to pour in with no promotion, as I suspect most selfpubbers do (and I’m not counting repeated pleas on Facebook and Twitter for friends to buy the thing as promotion), you’re likely to be disappointed. If, however, you get reviews and get people to blog about your book, give interviews, find newsworthy angles and pitch them to news outlets, get mentions from people much more famous than yourself, and so on, then at least your book has a chance of reaching someone, and ideally it will reach a lot of someones, and those someones will love it and refer it to a lot of other someones. Unless you’re famous through some other means, you can’t launch a book to success all by yourself, but you can if more famous people or more far-reaching media take up your cause, or if you get readers excited and they start spreading the word.

Wait–why am I still in Kansas?
It’s always possible, of course, that you’ll exhaust yourself in promotional efforts and get nowhere–a few people will buy your book, hardly anyone will review it, and the moment you start to rest all interest and sales will vanish. Does this mean that you’re an awful writer? Or that you’re not cut out for selfpubbing and should stick to the tradpub approach? Or that you just need more promotion? Or different promotion? Or that you should be writing different books? How do you know when to put time into writing and when to put time into social media or contacting bloggers or buying Google AdWords?

There’s no way to tell for certain. If your books don’t sell, your writing may indeed be nowhere near good enough (yet) for people to want to read it. Or it could be spectacular, but you may be no good at promotion. Or maybe the writing and the promotion are great, but your book isn’t packaged properly: the title and/or cover and/or price and/or supporting information are wrong.

A selfpub experiment
Let me give you an example: about six months before this writing, I selfpubbed a collection of 172 flash fiction pieces called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories , which like most collections, sold very lightly. A few months later I got around to putting out a 99 cent sampler that included stories from Bam! plus one new story as a bonus: this I called 17 Stories About the End of the World. A while back, as an experiment, I dropped the price of Bam! to 99 cents, so that the sampler and the full book cost the same despite one having ten times as much content as the other.

The result was downright weird: the sampler has been outselling the full collection by a margin of five to one. At the same price. Through the same venues. That’s the shorter book selling better, now.

To me, this is a clear demonstration of the importance packaging and presentation: clearly people are much more interested in “here are some stories about the world ending! (by some guy you’ve probably never heard of)” than they are in “here are some stories that are awfully short (by some guy you’ve probably never heard of)”. Or they might prefer the sampler’s cover (which I started but which was greatly improved by my friend Elise Catherine Tobler).

So what am I doing? A new experiment: I’ve broken out the book into nine separate samplers like My Friend in Hell and Other Very Short Stories and 19 Very Short Stories of Talking Animals with Serious Issues, which I’ve just released as of this writing. I’ve upped the price of the collection to $2.99, in part to help people who buy the samplers feel like they’re not overpaying by comparison. At the very least, this should tell me whether my End of the World book is a fluke or not, and provide me with some fascinating (to me, anyway) sales information. What kinds of stories will turn out to interest readers the most? [Later update: none of the other samplers did nearly as well as the End of the World one, and I eventually removed them. I suspect the continued relative success of 17 Stories About the End of the World is due partly to the topic and partly to the cover. I’ve tried to coax Amazon to make the sampler free, but they are not biting so far.]

Selfpub isn’t working! What now?
But enough of my example. If you’ve tried selfpub and you’ve tried self-promotion and you haven’t made significant sales, you have three choices.

  1. Choice number one is to relax and keep doing what you’re doing. Statistically, it’s likely that things will stay the same as they are and you’ll never see significant sales, although things could begin to pick up over time, especially if you’re doing some kind of promotion. If you’re writing for the love of writing alone and don’t much care about income or audience, this approach may be for you.
  2. Choice number two is to become a combination economic researcher and marketing maven. Try different covers. Try different pricing, different promotional methods–even different kinds of books.
  3. Choice number three is to say “screw this” and go back to tradpub, which may not welcome you back with open arms, but which probably wasn’t throwing itself at you before, so you probably haven’t lost any ground.

They’re all legitimate choices. My suggestion in choosing among them is finding the method that gets you fired up. If you thrill to an “almost, but not quite” rejection letter (they’re a lot better than a form rejection!) or start feeling queasy when you think of having to dive into Twitter every morning, maybe your path is to be published traditionally. That’s also probably the way to go if you’re not sure of the quality of your own work. It’s all too easy to selfpub something just because it’s finished without really knowing whether it’s any good or not (see “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing“).

If on the other hand, you want to embrace social media but can do so without frittering away all of your writing time on Facebook, and if you’ve gotten enough clear feedback from people who aren’t your mother to know that your writing works for people sometimes, then maybe selfpub is worth a whirl.

Or you could go both ways
Or you may be like me, pushing projects on both tracks at the same time while simultaneously sending out short stories for good measure. I don’t especially recommend this approach because it dilutes my efforts, slowing me down in every direction because I’m constantly exerting effort on several things at once. But then, this approach excites me, and I have a hell of a lot of energy. Ultimately I’m probably slowing down my overall progress, but at least I’m having fun doing it, and I’m moving forward.

I’d suggest that it’s much less a business decision than a decision of the heart. We’re lucky enough, at this point in history, to have at least two viable ways to make a living writing narrative fiction. Choosing the one that makes you excited to write will not only get you writing more, but will get you working more toward finding your audience–and I’ve yet to find a writer who complains about being too industrious at either.

If you’re interested in seeing what I have on offer for the Kindle, here are the titles I currently have available:

[ *My estimates of typical Kindle sales are based on comparing Amazon sales rankings for the total range of Kindle offerings to the rankings of eBooks for which I know specific sales figures through discussions with the authors and experience regarding my own books. ]

This article is reposted from my Futurismic column “Brain Hacks for Writers.”

Photo by Fabio Said

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When a Failed Story Becomes a Great Story

Writing

There are stories that are just not well-conceived, stories that, unless they are completely altered, will never be successful. A story like this might have characters that don’t appeal, events that don’t satisfy, ideas that don’t engage, or they may just never connect emotionally with the reader.

Other stories are rough in early drafts, but with a limited number of changes become very effective. How do you tell the difference? Unfortunately, it’s not easy, and for the most part it’s a problem that’s similar to judging your work in the first place, with similar solutions (see “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing“).

Sometimes, though, it can be very hard to have faith that revision can make a big difference. As an example to demonstrate how it can, consider this account from Writers of the Future and Nebula winner Eric James Stone, originally mentioned on the Codex writing group and quoted with permission.

To understand the context, note that we regularly run writing contests on Codex in order to push ourselves, generate new work, and learn from the competition. Weekend Warrior is a yearly event there in which each participant writes a story of 750 words or less from prompts over a 60-hour period.

For 2009 Weekend Warrior, Round 2, I wrote a story I thought it was powerful and might do well in the contest, but I was wrong: 5.35 average [on a scale of 1-10 — Luc], 8th out of 17, closer to the bottom score of the round (4.06) than the top (7.47). It was my lowest point total of the five weeks, so it didn’t even count in my overall score for the contest. That was my biggest flop ever in WW. (I’ve had lower-scoring stories, but I didn’t think they were going to do well in the contest.)

I put it aside for over a year, then deleted three sentences, added ten, and edited seven. That lengthened the story by about 25% and allowed the powerful story that was in my head to come out more clearly. I sent it out and it sold to the first place I sent it [a major pro market — Luc], where it became one of the most-liked stories of all time (at least on their Facebook page): “Buy You a Mockingbird.”

Now, I’m not saying the contest score was wrong — I had not successfully conveyed what I wanted to convey, and I needed to edit the story later in order to make it work. What I’m saying is that sometimes a flop can be turned into a hit.

If you’re interested in Stone’s work, you may want to check out his story collection Rejiggering the Thingamajig.

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