Length matters…

school ruler for blog

…or, another ranty essay about word counts.

Rant Part One: A couple of weeks ago, a 54K novel of mine went out on submission. It got some kind notice from some important people, all of whom said the same thing: ‘It’s good, but too short for print. Can it be 85K?’

Oh, but I hear the chorus calling, ‘What about all the new e-pub fantasy imprints? What about established romance publishers? All of those will take shorter books!’

For this novel (and possible series), I want to aim for mainstream SFF print publication from the start. In fantasy, that’s still where the strongest buying market and best publisher support intersect. The good news is that I can probably do 30K on this novel easily, since I trimmed a lot from the original short story so many years ago. The bits that still actually do work in the story (advance plot, refine character development, or set backstory without infodumping) are going back in.

Oh, yay, that only means that I have a target of around 90K to write on three separate manuscripts in about three months. I naturally write enormous books, so I’m used to gutting my word counts and constantly revising chapters and scenes as I go. This will be an experiment in ‘write first, revise later’.

Rant Part Two: Dear self-published authors, I suspect many of you need a primer or refresher course on word counts in genre fiction.

In order to classify SFF works’ eligibility for the Nebula Awards, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have this handy word count chart:

Short Story: less than 7,500 words;

Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;

Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words

Novel: 40,000 words or more.

Whether you are writing mainstream fantasy, adventure thrillers, YA romance, or XXX dinosaur porn for Amazon Kindle, these wordcounts and classifications are going to hold generally true across the whole publishing industry. Some publishers will call them slightly different things. And yes, e-book authors on Amazon, I’m talking to you specifically, since you seem to be the worst offenders.

What does this mean for e-book authors?

If you have written and self-published a work of fiction up to 7,500 words, that is not a novel. It’s a short story. Be proud that you’ve written and published one, or a hundred of them – but please don’t call them ‘novels’. They would barely be novels if they were written for the Middle Grade kids’ market, and heavily padded with illustrations.

Calling these works ‘novels’ indicates AuthorFail on a couple of levels.

One, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and are showing your breathtaking ignorance about publishing terminology. For in-the-know readers, that may indicate you’ll be failing at editing and writing, too. It may also indicate, in a reader, someone whose opinion I might take less seriously. (A reviewer of one anthology called the short stories ‘novelettes’. When I know damn well that the editor worked with most of the authors to trim stories to well under 7K. Ergo, this was a reader who was spouting off, and using terms they didn’t really understand.)

Two, if you charge more than jack for a short story when the readers are expecting a longer novel, they will get angry with you. That will lead to more negative reviews from readers who think they’ve been somehow cheated. They’re right. The most notorious author mills and vanity publishers routinely ‘pad’ works with larger print and format tricks to make a shorter book seem longer. Readers eventually figure it out.

Three, if you stick exclusively to short-format works, you may be depriving yourself and your readers of a richer writing/reading experience. Novels are bigger than short stories because more stuff happens in them.

Rather than hide your actual word count behind claims of novelhood, take a lesson from erotic romance publishers, who describe their shorter offerings in terms like ‘Lust Bites’ or ‘Quickies’. Celebrate the fast read and the short story! Done well, they are just as tricky to write as a 100K epic. Readers reared on PowerPoint and text messages may not have time for long chapters in a giant book, but they’ll make time for short stories from a writer they trust.

Plotting and Planning, by Suz deMello

Here’s a new writing how-to book from author Suz deMello, for the rest of you poor fools trapped in NaNo-land. (I am, too, I’m just not formally keeping a wordcount on the three manuscripts I’m trying to hammer out over the next 45 days.)

I have two reasons for giving blog space to this one.

1) I passionately agree with the author’s assertions about characters, conflicts, and plots. It took me too long to learn, but I got there. (I’m the idiot currently turning a 54K novel into an 85K novel. How? Characters building plots, that’s how.)

2) Suz is one of the many Ellora’s Cave authors left wondering if they’ll ever see rights reversions, proper treatment, or even royalty checks out of the ongoing death-spiral that appears to be Ellora’s Cave. A few weeks ago, I made the promise that, while I would not review EC titles while this court case was going on, I would be happy to give EC authors blog space to promote their non-EC books. That offer still stands, and will continue until EC either drops their case against Dear Author, goes bankrupt and the authors get their rights back, or the EC backlist is sold to a responsible third party with a clue about publishing.

Now onto today’s offering. Here’s Suz’s intro, in her own words:

***

Suz book plotting and planningPlotting and Planning–a #Writing Manual, Just in Time for #NaNoWriMo! (@suzdemello #MFRWAuthor #iamwriting)

Hey there, aspiring authors! Ever wondered how an author plots and writes a book?

Wonder no more! Suzie deMello is here to tell you the secrets, or at least a few of them.

Plotting and Planning is Suzie’s second writing treatise, following the best-selling Write This, Not That!

Here’s the blurb:

Another engaging, witty writing primer from Suz deMello, whose Write This, Not That! was an Amazon bestseller. Plotting, point of view, character creation, conflict and much more are examined in this brief but pithy writing manual.  A must for the serious writer who wants the basics without boredom.

Says bestselling author Kylie Brant: “Sue has written a concise manual that is valuable for both beginning and seasoned writers. Going to write a book? Read this first!”

From Silver James: “Suz deMello’s PLOTTING AND PLANNING is a concise, informative, and entertaining look at writing a novel.”

Here’s an excerpt to pique your interest:

How does an author write a book?

Unfortunately for aspiring authors, this is not an easy question to answer. It’s tantamount to asking, Where do authors get their ideas? which, believe me, is our least favorite question. I often tell people I get them at Sears—they’re sold by the dozen in the basement between the barbecues and the bikes.

In reality, I get my ideas from almost anywhere. Maybe a magazine article about a place or event. Perhaps someone I meet or something a person says may trigger a train of thought that will eventually lead to a book. Maybe travel to someplace new ignites the creative spark that will inspire me.

Here’s a better question: What are the building blocks of plot and story?

CHARACTER AND CONFLICT

How important are these? Quite simply: No characters, no conflict. No conflict, no plot. No plot, no story. No story, no book.

It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Without characters with solid inner and outer conflicts, there’s no story, because your story is the journey that the characters travel to solve their conflicts. This journey may be physical, with characters actually going somewhere (Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz), or it may be emotional (Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird).

Diane Farr, a multi-published Regency and teen novelist says, “Conflict arises from character and plot arises from conflict. The most basic level is interesting people in an impossible situation.”

Plot and story should flow naturally from the characters and their conflicts. Otherwise, the story and the events in it will seem forced.

***

If you like what you read, here’s where you can buy the ebook:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00P87TRFO/indie01-0002-20

About Suz deMello:

Suz venice maskBest-selling, award-winning author Suz deMello, a.k.a Sue Swift, has written seventeen romance novels in several subgenres, including erotica, comedy, historical, paranormal, mystery and suspense, plus a number of short stories and non-fiction articles on writing. A freelance editor, she’s held the positions of managing editor and senior editor, working for several including Totally Bound and Ai Press. She also takes private clients.

Her books have been favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, won a contest or two, attained the finals of the RITA and hit several bestseller lists.

A former trial attorney, her passion is world travel. She’s left the US over a dozen times, including lengthy stints working overseas. She’s now writing a vampire tale and planning her next trip.

Check out Suzie’s site: http://www.suzdemello.com

And her blog: http://www.TheVelvetLair.com

 

 

 

Sneak Peek Sunday snippet: Moro’s Shield

(Six paragraphs from my current WIP, the sequel to my debut novel Moro’s Price. I’m posting them on Saturday night because I intend to be comatose on Sunday morning. Enjoy.)

***

“Dear girl, I’m sorry deprive you of fresh berries,” said the articulated, eight-foot-high steel skeleton waiting for Syene in Fortunero’s docking bay. Benny’s exo-chassis was Camalian military stock, a burly war-bot he’d bought at auction years back. He’d be more terrifying if he didn’t still have a white and red-striped fabric apron around his waist and gleaming chest. A legacy of their customary post-landing breakfast. He couldn’t ingest food, but his taste and smell sensors were remarkable. Sy was a lackluster cook, so she was happy to eat the more savory leftovers of Benny’s experiments.

“If you’d let me upgrade our hydroponic booths, I could grow them,” Sy said as she hopped out of the hovercraft. She grinned up at her employer. “I didn’t say berries. You were listening in! Having doubts about Dolan’s Rock, Captain Fortunero?”

Benny wrangled the last crate onto the hovercraft. His deep masculine voice routed out of speakers in his shoulders: “Hardly. I knew Dolan’s great-grandmother when she was an infant. We’re not upgrading the booths. Who would take care of them?”

“I will, as long as you cook. Think about it. Blackberry pie,” she intoned.

“Ah, Syene, you won’t be with me forever. Should I interview all my new candidates about their gardening skills, too?”

Sy clenched her jaw to keep from blurting out: I’m not going anywhere. Benny always spoke of her moving on to better employment. She meant to spend the next few hundred years out here. She might even make the final choice Benny had, and upload her consciousness into an AI-driven robot chassis. Then the silence in her mind would be complete. Would that be worth giving up a flesh and blood body?

***

Read more Sneak Peak Sunday snippets here.

What it feels like…

Nasa gif for blog

…To know a manuscript (that has earned an almost career-wrecking place in my life, that I spent a ridiculous amount of time writing, and that I wonder if anyone besides me, three beta readers, and my agent will even care about when the dust clears) – is going out on submission this week.

To people whose work I’ve admired for as long as I’ve been writing.

It’s terrifying. (OMG, what the hell are we thinking?)

It’s embarrassing. (It really shouldn’t have taken me that long, or that many revisions and rejections, to write. Added 11-8-2014: triply embarrassing, since I just realized that those last-minute-changes caused a minor formatting glitch I didn’t catch until today. Ugh.)

It’s exhilarating. (I’ve done everything I could on this end – now it’s up to the mms and the people seeing it for the first time.)

In a few hours my emotions will be tempered once more by hard-won pragmatism.

Twenty years ago, if this gambit failed at the mass-market paperback level, I’d have to expensively self-pub the damn thing in print, or inexpensively put it out in ‘zine format. Now I have self-publishing options galore, and many digital vendors to choose. I’d still be out the money and time spent on marketing or packaging, but there’s a lot more hope and room for new authors.

But I’m not quite to the point of ragging on the publishing industry as some kind of dinosaur* out of touch with the real world. The large genre imprints and their smaller independent cousins still have a lot to offer authors: great cover artists on staff, brilliant editors, dedicated marketing, and the aegis of a respected imprint ‘name’ to give an unknown author at least a little boost. I adore my agent (who is tough, smart, and experienced in this game, which is why I work with her) and I want to see what she can do with this project before I hit the ‘Upload’ button to Kindle.

Excelsior!

* Yes, I chose the heading GIF for a reason, with full awareness of the comparisons between space exploration and publishing. Especially this week. Still, go here to see the original NASA photo and some other incredible shots.

 

Genderfluidity

Emily Asher-Perrin has a great post concerning the Marvel Comics Universe Loki’s apparently-canon genderfluidity. Emily brings up the point that gender is not about sex acts but identity. Loki-as-a-woman is not presented in the MCU as a guy who sometimes seems to look like a woman – but simply is female, a person who refers to herself as ‘she’. And so does everyone around her. Even Odin, in a line that actually made me sniffle when I read it.

I have an authorial stake in this, well beyond my fannish explorations of things Loki. In my original fiction, I have several genderfluid characters. Making the distinction between sex and identity becomes very important for plot reasons. Take Singer in Rhunshan, the fantasy novel soon to go out on sub: Sfassa is always thoroughly female, and Eridan is male no matter what species he is that day. But Hayfern can be either – or none-of-the-above – depending on mood or political expediency.

The fact that Disney now owns a huge stake in Marvel – and Loki – may mean we are finally getting away from the infamous Disney tendency to codify many villains as gay. Or maybe not. The studio handling of the Loki arc in Thor II was shameful and idiotic. Let’s not forget that studio execs were fully prepared to actually kill off Loki at the end of the movie, before Tom Hiddleston’s masterful and hilarious moment at San Diego ComicCon convinced Disney they had lightning in a bottle. They rewrote the script, apparently.

Jury’s still out for Disney’s future handling of the issue. But those of us who like and write gay and genderfluid characters are getting more ammunition in the mainstream genre markets.

 

The manuscript game pt 2

I love the digital era. In the great old days I’d have typed everything, made carbon or photocopies, and spent way too much in postage. I’d have waited months for news on a manuscript. Now, for the most part, I deal with Word doc format files and rapid email communication.

Such as this morning, when I got an email request for seven tiny changes* on the fantasy mms, to be done ASAP. I know why, too – though I’m not jinxing that development by talking too much about it here. It could lead to something wonderful or fizzle out, and it’s too early to call. My cynical self is of course planning alternate options in case of fizzle, while my inner five-year-old is Snoopy-dancing.

Of course I fixed the errors and sent off the corrected draft within two hours. They were reasonable requests, and I was neither insulted nor traumatized by them.**

And now I’m eyeing my version of glass slippers.

* Seven errors out of a 53K mms is pretty good for a working final draft. That probably represents fifteen years of on-and-off writing, at least twenty revision passes, five submissions to shorter fiction markets, and over 46,000 added words from the original story. If a publisher is interested in this beast, there will be more edits and revisions. It’s a horribly inefficient way to write. Welcome to my mind.

** I’m still amazed by the number of writers who balk at all change requests. I have seen abusive and/or clueless editors, but I’ve also seen authors who viewed their errors with the fervent adoration of a Biblical literalist. If someone else can show me a better way to say something, I’m happy to learn from them.

This episode proves once more to me that an idea is like raw ore, but revisions are where alloys are smelted and forged.

Fan fiction and original characters

Apparently, there’s a hot fan fiction debate I’ve missed. I’ve accidentally avoided the fracas on Tumblr and non-AO3 fansites, and I don’t engage that much on Twitter and other ‘instant’ social media.

People seem to hate original characters (OCs) in fan fiction. The mere inclusion of a tag of ‘OC’ in a story somehow seems to bring out the worst calls of ‘author insert!’, ‘Mary Sue!’ or ‘Marty Stu!‘ The assumption is that, most times, OCs in a fandom story tend more to indicate the author’s lower skill and wish-fulfillment fantasies, rather than heralding a coherent and entertaining story.

That assumption is not baseless, in my opinion. I can tell within five paragraphs or less whether a fan fiction story with prominent OCs is going to be tasty reading or a waste of my effort. Many times – though I haven’t bothered to numerically organize the data – the presence of OCs can be an indicator of an awkward story.

But my benchmark isn’t whether or not an author uses an OC, it’s whether or not the author can write. Period. I’m thrilled to read fan stories with well-written OCs who act as great plot movers and foils to the canon characters. I cringe when I see yet another clumsy author-insertion of the bright, brave girl (or boy) swooping in to save the denizens of Hogwarts – or Lothlorien or Avengers Tower, or whatever fandom – from themselves. Especially if there are other signs of sloppy writing.

Fan fiction has a structural advantage in that the worldbuilding is often complete already, and writers only need to plug in their variants of characters and situations. In such settings, original characters not only have to be well-written themselves, they have to ‘blend’ with the canon characters. This isn’t easy to do for newer writers.

Currently, I have two benchmarks for great original characters, at least in Avengers fandom. I’ve written about these stories in my fan fiction rec list, but here are specific reasons I love them:

Lucy Piero from Scifigrl47’s ‘Fairytales and Clockwork Hearts’. Lucy is a brilliant, quick-thinking young engineer: fiercely passionate about science, deeply aware of her luck hinging on an internship at StarkIndustries, and caught up in a plot of shapeshifting and magical revenge. All because she’s had the bad sense to fall in love with a quirky boy who is much more than he seems. She has a boss speech about the legacy of survival that any minority reader or writer should learn and internalize, and some of the best lines in Scifigrl47’s already amazing Toasterverse/Tales of the Bots epic series.

Alex Richardson from VenusM’s ‘Born From the Earth’. Alex is an Omega like his universe’s version of Tony Stark, but utterly unlike Stark in key areas. Alex is playful but deadly, having turned his sweet nature into a weapon. His loyalty to Tony is unswerving, his friendship to Captain American deep and honest, his recognition of the utter hell his society visits on Omegas answered by his black-market crime-ring attempts to make their lives better through illicit chemistry, corporate espionage, and some targeted assassinations if necessary. Alex, in the world of BFtE, is as real a character as Tony Stark or Steve Rogers – and that’s what makes him strong enough to carry his own part of the story.

These are just two examples that I can think of in scribbling down notes for this post.

#

I love fan fiction not only because it is a guilty pleasure, but because it keeps challenging my fossilized assumptions. In 1991 I assumed all fan fiction was the horrible Trek stuff, slavish MZB Darkover stories, or treacly Misty Lackey-inspired Valdemar author-insertion pieces I’d seen at media conventions. I even wrote an anti-fan fiction filk song about it, though you’ll never find a recording of ‘There Are No Black Companions in Valdemar’.

Then a friend introduced me to fan fiction I could handle, much of it astonishingly well written. A few years later, I even crafted poems and artwork* for several Lackey fanzines. I learned to set aside those first assumptions in the face of overwhelming evidence that, yes, fan fiction was real writing.

VenusM’s ‘Born From the Earth’, as I’ve explained earlier, completely shredded my disdain for much of the Alpha/Beta/Omega fan fiction and original erotic romance I’d seen before. Rather, I still loathe the bad stuff, but now I see how the concept can be handled flawlessly.

My ultimate point: quality should matter. I’m tired of lower standards, in fan fiction or original fiction.

We shouldn’t a champion a bad story just because it contains our favorite tropes. (Like the Chocolate Effect: horrible domestic chocolate is only good when that’s all you can get, and loses ground after one discovers single source chocolate and the better examples of the chocolate world.)

We shouldn’t excuse bad writing for either canon or original characters.

* To firmly establish 1) my bad art and 2) my two decades of messing about in fan fiction, go here and look at the cover art for the first group of Companions’ Grove fanzines.

More authors behaving horribly (adult language, graphic violence)

(Sigh.) I’ve written about this before, but two stories that made the rounds this week have made an update necessary.

riker-notthis

As new authors, we’re told “Reviews are for readers, not authors. Don’t read your reviews.” Or we’re told: “Read them, learn what positive stuff you can, then let them go, and be a damn adult about it.”

Hint: Being an adult does not involve intensive stalking or physical violence.

A few days ago, author K@thleen H@l3 got an essay into the Guardian, ‘documenting’ her reaction and response to a critical reviewer on Goodreads. (Summary: she doxxed and stalked the reviewer in some very creepysad ways.)

It’s uneasy reading for me, since I believe both author and reviewer behaved worse than middle-school girls fighting over who was more popular that week. (An aside for adults writing YA: write it, please don’t live it.)

The resulting freakshow adventure thus proudly documented is hard going, and worthy of many facepalms and repeated mutterings of ‘I can’t believe I’m reading this’.

A Jezebel article points out that H@l3 has done some awfully juvenile things before, and has powerful supporters in her court, raising the specter of acquittal by nepotism. Whatever. I don’t care, since I’m unlike to read anything in H@l3’s catalog or follow what that Goodreads reviewer thinks. I’m providing the links as cautionary examples of the following rule:

Goodreads is fun, but it shouldn’t ultimately matter. What people think on Goodreads, or Amazon, or Wattpad, or AO3, or wherever – shouldn’t matter. A one-star review might briefly drag down sales, or backlash into many sales as other readers take issue with the reviewer. Whether careful or clumsy, ‘gamed’ five star reviews stand out like hired ringers in a late night infomercial, and have about as much validity.

Reviews are only useful in aggregate, if they show positive or negative trends an author should notice. Good reviews are a source of happy ego-boosting, but even those should be taken with some skepticism.

If you are an author – especially an emotionally fragile author – take a lesson from TeddyGate and do not respond to negative reviews.

You probably shouldn’t respond strongly to positive reviews, either. (Once upon a time, Chris Brashear was Jaid Black’s biggest fan, was instrumental in the founding of the erotic romance publisher Ellora’s Cave, and went on to be a major force behind separate erotic romance publisher Samhain. The Brashear/Black friendship shattered in a lawsuit in the late 2000’s. Working for/with your friends and fans can be very dangerous, if you don’t take mutual steps to protect yourselves. You shouldn’t need to read Stephen King’s Misery to guess that.)

Which leads to one of the most shocking incidents I have ever seen (and I remember an agent being stalked on FourSquare): After Paige Rolland reviewed a story by Rich@rd Britt@in, the latter traveled several hundred kilometers to physically assault her. (Warning: the photos in that link are graphic accounts of a serious head injury.) Moreover, Britt@in apparently has a history of attempting to shout down negative reviewers, and seriously creepy stalkerish issues.

I halfway expect self-published authors like Britt@in to lack the emotional distance to ignore bad reviews. I don’t expect people like H@l3, with strong industry connections and experience, to behave the same way.

Chill, folks, chill. And grow the hell up.

Update to the update 1-23-2014: Now Salon.com has looked at the matter, with some interesting analysis of the YA writing/reading culture.

 

courtesy of http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/bad-parking-job-shamed-hilarious-graffiti-article-1.1755683

courtesy of http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/bad-parking-job-shamed-hilarious-graffiti-article-1.1755683

It must be a rule of nature and traffic that the driver of the biggest SUV in the grocery store parking lot absolutely has to do one or all three of these things:

1) Stop their vehicle right outside the doors in the walk zone, even when there is plenty of parking out in the lot. And stay there, idling while their passenger goes in and leisurely shops.

2) If they do park in the lot, they must take up at least two parking spaces.

3) Once leaving the parking lot, they must try to turn left into rush hour traffic, away from a traffic light.

 

 

 

fun with traffic

The manuscript game

Bad: suddenly realizing there’s a logic error in the manuscript I just sent out.

Worse: not remembering where or what the error was.

Honestly, at this stage of writing I just hope the agent and editor will find it. Because I’m going quietly nuts trying to figure it out.

I shouldn’t, because I have done this with every single art and writing project I’ve finished and released into the world for the last two decades. Whether the project has huge mistakes or not. I cringe at the flaws I know about but didn’t fix. I obsess over the ones I didn’t find. I startle art critics and editors with my joy and gratitude when they find my gaffes. Because that proves I wasn’t imagining things.

Do sane people do this, too?

 

Liesmith, by Alis Franklin

Author note: I was provided with a free Advance Reader Copy of this book from NetGalley. This review is my personal opinion, and is otherwise unsolicited and unpaid.

liesmith cover

 

Many modern media interpretations of the god Loki leave out some of the more obscure, problematic, and often gruesome details of his stories in the Norse Eddas – and most often, the existence of Loki’s wife Sigyn.

Not Alis Franklin. In her debut novel LIESMITH, she takes on and fearlessly adapts the myths of Sigyn, in an urban fantasy/horror/romance tale that establishes its own unique view of the Loki mythology.

Sigmund Sussman is a young IT professional coasting through an obligatory job in a high-tech city that seems to be a slightly-sideways version of Canberra crossed with Silicon Valley (and given its own darkly intriguing backstories). Sigmund is also a gamer (with vast familiarity to game and fantasy culture tropes); an important plot-point navigating around the usual ‘denial of magic’ themes found in many older urban fantasy novels.

You can read plenty of synopses of this book already. I won’t waste time with them. So beware, there are spoilerish things ahead.

What I didn’t like: precious little, to be honest.

While this book can be partially classed as a M/M romance, it’s a sweet one. There’s nothing explicit here. (Regular SFF readers, if you can handle Lynn Flewelling’s Seregil and Alec, you might enjoy reading about Sigmund and Lain.) Franklin gives plenty of good reasons for her star-crossed boys to take things slow. This may put off M/M romance readers wanting more overtly erotic fare, but I’d say be patient with the characters and the story.

Some of the action scenes can be a little jarring, but they’re meant to be. This book has a strong horror element in it, one necessary to the plot and character development.

There are several stories and viewpoints woven into this book, taking place in different timelines and realities. I could follow them (because I’m kind of a freak, that way), but readers accustomed to a single storyline might have to stop and reorient themselves every so often. Do it. It’s worth the payoff.

The cover: it’s a tiny bit of nit-pickery, but I bristle when image-collage covers don’t quite fit the story. Sigmund is perfect. The font choices are wonderful. That spear? Poor job, Random House. Photoshop covers do not have to be cut-n-paste! The text doesn’t describe quite that kind of weapon in that particular moment of the story. Any propsmaster or illustrator in NY could have created the ‘right’ spear in actuality or in Photoshop, in a few hours, especially given the filters applied to the imagery. This was a credible effort to get the ‘feel’ of the book, so I’ll hope for a better effort on the next cover. (Whattaya want? I’m an art geek, okay?)

What I loved:

Sigmund being not only a gamer geek and an IT guy, but somewhat pudgy and very much a Person of Color, and being unsure enough about himself to be somewhat asexual, to boot. I loved Sigmund’s unerring knack for hearing truth and lies.

Lain, Sigmund’s love interest. I adored Lain’s characterization, and the sneaky, underhanded way Franklin showed very early that there was Something Very, Very Wrong with Lain – I knew it, saw part of it coming, and the author still snookered me. I love it when I’m utterly surprised by plot twists.

I really liked the supporting characters: Sigmund’s friends, who show a sensitive but no-nonsense portrayal of gender-neutral expression (as well as a lot of very fine humor and true friendship). Sigmund’s dad, who has his own character arc and poignant backstory. An Artificial Intelligence who is the second-in-command of one of that world’s most powerful companies, and still has major flaws. A snake named Boots. A Valkyrie’s sentient automobile.

And last but certainly not least, the Godmonster. He’s tough but fragile, inhuman but personable, an (anti?)hero swept up into machinations that he can barely control. If nothing else, he proves that Alis Franklin and I both have high esteem for feathered theropods. Franklin’s portrayal of the Godmonster reminds me very much of this Wallace Stevens poem, in tone and imagery.

Is this a perfect book? Nope. But for an ambitious debut novel that attacks on several fronts, it’s far better than many recent urban fantasies by established authors.

I wouldn’t give this book a pass just for containing an open M/M romance published by a mainstream SFF imprint. (My interests have been recently burned by other mainstream authors who tried but had no idea how to write convincing M/M fantasy romance.) Even from seeing the early synopsis, I knew LIESMITH had to fulfill all the previous promise I saw in Franklin’s fan fiction stories several years ago. And judging from those? She’s just getting started. I look forward to the journey.

Buy links and official synopsis here.

 

 

‘Ants’ by Gringa

Warning: pure, unrepentant silliness ahead, which I am posting late at night.

Point 1: I am a book artist, which means I am very interested in manipulations of text and blank space, and I celebrate great examples when I find them.

Point 2: Central Arizona’s recent deluge of storms, plus slightly milder temperatures, has produced shockingly green deserts in October and a sudden increase in the insect population. Some of this is benign but annoying (gnats!), some startling (scorpion in the bathtub, eek!) Thanks to some strategic planning, I don’t have my neighbor’s problem with ants, but that doesn’t mean the little pests aren’t daily hammering the house defenses.

Point 3: Which is why I remembered this AbsoluteWrite post from a member named Gringa, documenting her struggles with a recent ant invasion. As minimalist expression, it’s right up there with Alex Lifeson’s thank-you speech at Rush’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. As text art, it’s a masterpiece of word arrangement and spacing. And it’s hilarious – at least to me. I’ve been told my sense of humor is questionable, so count that as a second warning.

I bring you ‘Ants’, by Gringa

***

Ants

Ants

Ants

ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants

 

ants

 

ants

 

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Why I won’t read therapy writing*

*Unless it’s great writing, first and foremost.

I am not downplaying the importance of therapeutic writing. It’s a valuable tool whether self-directed or used in a more formal recovery program. I’ve used it, myself.

But I’m not being paid to read what other people write, and then evaluate it in terms of their recovery from (insert applicable trauma here).

I’m just a reader – of original fiction, fan fiction, and nonfiction across many genres. When I read, I want to fold my entire attention into reading. I love the luxury of trusting an author to have nearly transparent writing. However they achieve it, whatever their style, their writing should vanish into the story.

That means no glaring errors or sloppy writing, which are guaranteed story-stoppers for me. That means strong (if not damn near perfect) characterizations, dialog, action, and worldbuilding. Fiction and non-fiction both should contain accurate facts. If not, the nonfiction should be ashamed of itself, and the fiction should give me a good excuse.

That means I usually never bother to read more when someone’s tags, blurbs, introductions, and sample texts make a big deal about their use of therapeutic writing…and even the front-matter writing is *awful*.

I feel for those writers. They’re often at the stage where even the act of writing is a triumph. Whatever comes out, however technically and artistically awkward, is a true expression of their pain and their adaptation to it. Outside criticism of the writing seems like a slap at *them*. They don’t have the emotional distance to separate themselves from their art. They may never gain it.

I’m not their therapist. I don’t know their history. My critique may hit them at an especially vulnerable time and trigger a setback. If they’re not ready to overhaul their writing, my observations are probably a waste of time for both of us.

So I don’t assess bad writing that appears to have been created at that part of a recovering author’s life. I don’t directly critique it online. I won’t beta-read it for possible publication. I try not to even get into explaining my reasons for avoidance, because that alone could further antagonize such writers.

I’m delighted to read stories from recovering writers who can actually write and tell a compelling story. I’m thrilled when they weave deep and powerful observations into what might be a bit of fluff, whatever the genre. I love it when writers of deep and powerful tomes are able to pull back and give me some lighter, sparkling moments in contrast.

But I won’t bother with more than a test page of bad writing, whatever its origin.

Ellora’s Cave and Elephants in the Room

Or why it is not enough to research publishers once, at the start of your writing career. Diligent authors need to keep tabs on the industry at large, especially on already-established publishers. Because you never know when one is going to melt down…

Anyone who has been involved in romance publishing for the past few years has followed the apparent downward spiral of erotic romance publisher Ellora’s Cave (EC). I’m not going into the charges, countercharges, previous actual court decisions, judge’s comments, author comments, editor and cover artist comments, social media responses from EC principals Tina Engler (aka Jaid Black) and Patty Marks, or the very real phenomenon of the Streisand Effect.

Since EC has already demonstrated a willingness to threaten bloggers, authors, and other critics with SLAPP lawsuits* to silence their concerns about the company, I’m keeping this post quick and my opinion only.

I’ve loved many EC books in their time. EC authors are among my closest friends in the business. EC inspired me toward my first halting attempts to write original erotic fiction publishable in their genre. By last year, I’d already stopped querying EC for my own work, but that was simply because I felt that EC and I were probably not a great fit.

I’m now adding my tiny voice to the groundswell of social media protests against how EC is handling criticism of its apparently unstable empire.

I will no longer buy EC books in digital or print form, nor will I borrow their available books from libraries.

I will not review any future EC titles until such time as the company has either gone out of business and reverted those books to their authors, or until EC comes to its senses and evolves into a responsible business again.

I will not beta-read new or reprint novels that I know for certain are being aimed at EC, though (as per Filigree’s Rule) I will not attempt to dissuade those authors.

I will look for non-EC books by EC authors, and give their work special consideration for reading and/or review.

These are my perfect rights and opinions as a private reader. The fact that I’ve documented them on social media does not make them a crime in a capitalist society.

Here are links to relevant and interesting commentary on Ellora’s Cave.

The Digital Reader comments here: http://the-digital-reader.com/2014/09/26/elloras-cave-sues-dear-author-book-blog-defamation/#.VChmAPldU1I

And here: http://the-digital-reader.com/2014/09/26/elloras-cave-sues-dear-author-book-blog-defamation/#.VChnW_ldU1K

The original Dear Author post that started this round of lawsuits and threats: http://dearauthor.com/ebooks/the-curious-case-of-elloras-cave/

The Dear Author response to EC’s suit: http://dearauthor.com/misc/elloras-cave-sues-dear-author/

A good overview of romance reader/reviewer responses: http://thebookpushers.com/2014/09/28/our-reply-to-elloras-caves-recent-actions/

The AbsoluteWrite.com’s huge-but-worthwhile thread on Ellora’s Cave (starting with the most recent page as of this post): http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=808&page=25

For EC authors and supporters who need to share more detailed info, here is this great link: http://deirdre.net/elloras-cave-author-exodus-support-thread/

* Update 9-29-2014: that lawsuit is widely viewed as ill-considered on EC’s part, as the defendant is a lawyer – and has engaged the services of a very skilled legal firm. No one in their right mind at EC would want the case to go to discovery, let alone a jury trial, considering EC’s prior legal mistakes and the earlier and chronic complaints from authors.

General opinion is that EC therefore brought the suit not necessarily to win again the Dear Author blogger, but to create a chilling effect on all other criticism.

That has failed. Check out the Twitterverse for #notchilled to see the latest comments.

Update: 10-22-2014: Courtney Milan has a link to a PDF of the defendant’s brief filed by The Randazza Group here. It is a thing of beauty, and not so steeped in legalese that ordinary people can’t follow it. It also appears to eviscerate the claims of Ellora’s Cave principals. On several levels.

Ms. Milan also has a long and informative blog post about where the case is at at the present (10-22-2014).

Wordcount milestones

According to SFWA guidelines, the fantasy novella has been a novel for the last eight thousand words.

Huh.

That means I’m working on two novels and two novellas this fall.

Eeep.

***

Update, September 26, 2014: the provisionally-titled Singer in Rhunshan is finished at 53,200 words. I’m not going to pretend there are no typos, tense errors, or other gaffes in it, but it’s fairly clean (one benefit of editing-as-you-go, it weeds out a lot of problems.)

I glanced back at my worklogs, for this project’s history.

Started in March 1996; 5.5K short story finished and pitched to three fantasy magazines in fall 1996. Obviously, no sales. Story trunked until 2003, when I noodled on it a bit and brought it up to 6.5K. Approached another two markets to no avail. Trunked again. Reworked yet again in 2010 for several writing contests and magazines – leading to a 12K version, personal rejections, and the same critical points: not enough description and emotion, characters’ motivations so subtle as to be opaque. Placed on hold while I played with the erotic romance concepts that eventually became my debut novel.

Story reworked again in early 2013, with an eye toward self-publishing. Pulled before release of a 17.7K version. In early 2014, I enlisted three beta readers, my long-suffering agent, and a NY editor to at least glance at the damn thing.

In the meantime, I built this cover:

Singer cover for blog 7-19-14

More critiques followed: finding logic errors, lack of worldbuilding, lack of vivid character description and interaction. I plunged back in, and this time I think I got it right.

It was certainly as wrenching to write as the erotic romance novel, so I’m fairly sure I have the emotional quotient in place.

As I’ve said in other posts, it will be a stronger book for the extra work, whether I self-pub it or send it to a commercial publisher.

What a long, strange trip.

***

Update: September 27, 2014. For those of you who have never mailed a paper manuscript before, this is what they look like.

Singer mms for blog

This one’s a lightweight at only 215 pages, counting mms, synopsis, and cover letter. Just shipped it out to the agent. She’ll use a digital file as well, but she likes a hardcopy for that first, brutal read-through.

Let the red ink bloodbath commence!

Real women, real armor, and worldbuilding

I’m blabbing about art and armor today.

When I really began reading fantasy and science fiction in the late seventies and early eighties, I didn’t pay much attention to the different portrayals of men and women on book covers.

I loved those cover artists equally, shrugged off their foibles, and learned some basic principles of art from them. I grew up accustomed to covers and illos by Frazetta, Vallejo, Rowena Morrill, Don Maitz, David Mattingly, Darrell K. Sweet, Michael Whelan, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Stephen Hickman, and all the other D&D artists who came out of the TSR camp. Some were better than others at showing real people in more-realistic outfits.

For the most part, SF&F cover art men were brawny heroes. Either brazenly loincloth-clad, or shielded behind armor/spacesuits/heavy clothes. Women were often near-naked or in skimpy outfits. If they carried weapons, they did so in excruciating and impractical poses. (Jim Hines has a fab sendup of this dichotomy, which persists to this day.)

While worldbuilding the massive folly that is the Lonhra Sequence, I took early cues from several favorite fantasy writers (among them Steven Brust and C. J. Cherryh). I decided that the humanoid Sirrithani race of Lonhra would have female/male cultural and political parity – if not outright matriarchy. The gender bias might shift more toward assuming a female has higher rank than the males around her.

I’m neither a lesbian nor a militant feminist of the old-school sort. I did this as a thought experiment. Partly a deliberate shrug at the old gender-bias in the English language. Partly solid worldbuilding: I extrapolated that the Sirrithani societies were amalgams of Terran colonies interbreeding (with serious genetic engineering help on a semi-godlike scale) with the local sentient Sonnaroi aliens…who were unalloyed matriarchies. I have a bit on it in the Moroverse Glossary in the pages on the left sidebar; scroll down to ‘Sonnaroi’ if you are interested.

So, in my story arc the Sirrithani have High Queens, female Warleaders, genius female inventors, merchant-baronesses, and canny female ship-captains. (Along the way, I was pleasantly surprised when far more brilliant writers like Melissa Scott and Scott Lynch came to similar conclusions.)

Most Sirrithani societies (by their version of the late Renaissance) don’t cloister and protect their adult males the way Sonnaroi societies tend to do. Sirrithani men can do any job a woman can, right up to ruling a city-state…though they might have to prove they’re not a placeholder until someone finds the ‘right woman’. Sirrithani women, especially among the aristocratic swordcaste, are expected to fight and if necessary die in the ritual battles that take the place of unchecked war between nations.

So my Lonhran women, of any caste, have to be tough cookies. Their society extols a feminine ideal of strength and practicality, with beauty a widely varied attribute across cultures.

One of the main characters in my fantasy novella is a seven-foot-tall+ female mercenary whom I shamelessly based on early readings of the fabulous and endearing Taura from Lois Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan’ series. My Sfassa is a mystery even to the love of her life, the much-smaller Master-Singer Eridan. I really, really need to draw Sfassa in all her guises, because she is so much more than her trope.

So imagine my joy when I found this site last year: Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor – now I have references, inspiration, and encouragement when I’m fleshing out my female characters.

 

The Collections Agent, by A. G. Carpenter

I occasionally make digital art covers for other people, when I have time and my intermittent art abilities function properly.

Collections+Agent cover Kobo

Here’s one, with text layout by A. G. herself. I think we did okay, for a creepy little spec-fic steampunky-sort-of-story. It’s only 28 pages, and under $2 on Kobo and Itunes. Go check it out.

Blurb: Milton Jones collects the things people can no longer afford to keep. Magic. Skills. Souls. And, sometimes, a heart.

Buy links here and here.

Here’s the art by itself. Specs: worked in Painter 12 with custom digital airbrush and blending brushes, images drawn freehand and heavily modified from public domain contemporary and historical photos. Wing filigree based on stamped brasswork feather ornaments in artist’s collection; costume from several Steampunk websites. Final JPG file 2400 x 1600 dpi.

Collector Cover 4 final blog

Self-publishing and Hybrid authors, pt 2

Continuing my last post: let’s talk about marketing self-published works, and why hybrid authors may have advantages that self-pub-only authors might not have.

The hard, cold truth? Most unknown, first-time self-published and indie-published books don’t sell very well. Their authors have a rough time reaching enough of a buying audience to make the equivalent of a living wage. E-books have been the great equalizer, opening up new genres and opportunities for many authors – but they still fall into the visibility trap.

How do readers find new books? Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective methods, when it works well enough to go viral. Large-scale advertising to book-industry buyers (not end readers) is another possibility. Great reviews from reader-trusted sources help, too.

There’s a whole ‘support’ industry built around display sites and organizations who claim to boost indie authors’ visibility. Some are better at it than others. Here as everywhere else, research pays off.

Be skeptical of all claims. Ask for proof. Independently verify that proof as best you can. Learn how to verify information, and how to detect the weasel-words that might indicate a less-than-professional guru, mentor, public relations agent, literary agent, or publisher. This is your career, if you want it to be. Put in at least as much effort as you would researching college choice, your home loan, or your next car purchase.

Self-publishing gurus and cheerleaders (and the vanity publishers who follow them like remoras, hoping to pick up disillusioned or naive self-pub authors) have long played off commercial publishing’s scorn to advance their own causes. And they’ve been right. In the past, commercial publishers and commercial authors have sneered at their self-published peers.

What many self-pub champions either don’t know – or don’t want to say – is that the industry they love to vilify largely died off or changed half a decade ago.

It’s still changing. What they describe is more of a straw-man travesty of the current situation in commercial publishing. Self-publishing is here to stay and it’s only going to grow. The Big Five publishers wouldn’t have set up shameful deals with vanity publishers, unless they wanted to court the best of those self-published authors. Best-selling authors wouldn’t be making waves as they moved from commercial contracts to informed self-publishing.

The key word here is ‘informed’. While it can be easy, cheap, or good, self-publishing is rarely all three. Like any business decision, quality self-publishing requires some serious research and effort. Some gung-ho self-publishing advocates may not like to hear more objective information, and may even reflexively equate it with criticism.

Marketing 101: make other people do it for you, until you learn how.

Yes, all authors should do some basic promotions themselves. Have a relatively informative and/or entertaining website, FB page, Tumblr account, whatever. Participate in online and realtime discussions about your genre with authors, editors, and agents in your genre. Join useful and respected professional associations when you can. Go to genre conventions if you can afford them.

Please, please don’t run off and post eighteen variations of ‘Buy my book!’ on Twitter every day. That tends to make people like me NOT buy your book. If this is what your ‘publisher’ thinks is author marketing, your publisher is either ignorant, incompetent, or making bank off you in other ways. Social media marketing is an intricate ballet of associated and peripheral content hopefully leading to increased reader engagement. Most of the time, the best social media interactions are probably not about your books at all.

This is where hybrid authors have a real advantage. A commercial publisher’s backing is a great incentive for choosing a commercial contract first. Corporate publicity machines are much bigger and far-reaching than most single authors’ best efforts. Especially for very shy authors who aren’t used to relentless-but-savvy self-promotion. Using a publisher’s marketing departments for a few years is a great way to build a known market presence, before you either strike out completely on your own or blend careers as a hybrid author.

A commonsense warning: please don’t forget your publisher(s) on the way up and out, unless they’ve been utterly reprehensible business partners. Good publishers want to keep your profitable backlist. You want to expand your market reach. These don’t have to be contradictory goals. Be an adult, make compromises that benefit you both.

Many hybrid authors have already built up a backlist in well-received commercial fiction. They can self-publish older works as the contracts expire, and bring new self-published works to their readership. I’ve seen several romance and SFF authors who are doing this right now with commercially-abandoned projects. Backlists and orphan works no longer have to die on the vine – they can reach new readers! I know two older SFF authors who admit they were circling the lower midlist drain in 2000, and have now reinvented their careers via self-publishing as well as commercial expansion into new genres. I know many younger romance and SFF authors getting into self-publishing on the ground floor, even while they are writing separately for commercial publishers.

Most of us won’t make Patterson, Rowling, or E.L. James sorts of revenue off our writing. We’re nowhere near the 1% who have actually come out of this recession with higher earnings off capital income in the form of stocks, bonds, and corporate dividends.

But we have something that wage-slaves likely don’t: access to the possibility of royalty income. The last six years have taught us to never have all our financial eggs in one basket. It makes sense to diversify, and look at all publication methods with enlightened self-interest.

 

 

 

Self-publishing and Hybrid Authors, pt 1

I had a long, involved email exchange recently with some writer friends scattered around the world: print authors, digital authors, authors working for commercial contracts, authors who’ve gone almost exclusively to self-publishing. We all came to mostly the same conclusion:

We think the future, or at least the near-future to five or ten years out, is hybrid.

Commercial AND self-published. Digital, print, and multimedia. A mix of genres and platforms, opening up new opportunities and responsibilities. Some of us are more ready than others, I think.

In the commercial publishing industry, there’s been a knee-jerk loathing of self-publishing for at least the last thirty years, often equating it with vanity (author pays all costs) publishing. With the high-profile successes of some self-published and small-press-published authors, there’s a new awareness of self-publishing’s validity. Platforms like Amazon Kindle/Createspace, Smashwords, D2D, and others have made self-publishing far easier and cheaper than when I started writing in 1987.

Even formerly conservative, pro-commercial online writing sites are now showing real insight and efforts to include useful self-publishing information.

Self-publishing done right can be an incredible boost for a writer, and far more lucrative per-copy than many commercial contracts could ever be. It can be a faster process than most commercial publishing. But, just as in commercial publishing, there are no guarantees.

Self-publishing’s main downsides: market readiness and effective marketing.

This first part will discuss a manuscript’s readiness to be published.

Readiness

I’ve written about this before, but it needs repeating for emphasis:

A lot of self-published writing is crap. It’s just math, folks: more stuff being published + ease of publishing = a large proportion of substandard products.

A staggering amount of text and imagery is self-published every day on many different platforms, especially as digital e-books. A great deal of it would probably have never survived the slush pile at a major literary agency or a commercial publisher. I dare you to read lots of sample chapters on Kindle or Smashwords, and tell me differently! I frequent half-a-dozen online writing sites, and I’m always saddened whenever I hear some version of ‘Down with the gatekeepers! Down with the haters! They couldn’t see my genius! I’ll show them and self-publish!’

In my personal experience, those claims usually are not backed up by genius. The claimants are often floundering in both Golden Word and Dunning-Kruger Syndromes, with an added dose of paranoid outrage that keeps them locked in the bubble of their own delusions.

When writers publish too early, without useful information on how various forms of publishing work, they tend to do several things that might ultimately swamp their writing career. They rely on readers to be editors who point out mistakes via reviews, after which the writers publish new editions. (No, please don’t do this. Your readers will give up on you when you keep waffling through the same book.)

Such writers tend to pick unprofessional cover art and fonts, further eroding reader interest. (No matter how much you love them, script fonts are not always your friend.)

If they don’t self-publish, they tend to pick low-quality small publishing houses on the theory that ‘they’re the only ones who will take me’ and ‘at least the work will be out there’.

When called out in bad or neutral reviews, unprepared authors can lash out in the most spectacularly career-damaging ways. (Not all publicity is good publicity.)

I can’t post snippets from it, but I just read an honest and fearless discussion from one author who realized what she’d done wrong and how it negatively impacted her writing sales. Being a literal sort, she took the advice ‘Build a backlist and make money from it’ without analyzing a personal strategy. Over five or six years, she published dozens of self-admittedly substandard works with small publishers who had abysmal track records in editing, cover art, marketing, and sales histories. She grew as a writer, but found those early books were giving her a lackluster rep in the market. She was making less and less money on new sales and her backlist. The only solution was to regain rights for the oldest books, ruthlessly edit them, and self-publish them while aiming new work at the best possible commercial houses. Time will tell if she can pull her writing – and its income – out of its disastrous stall.

Writing for publication means editing for publication. Most of us are not immediately qualified to know when we’ve effectively polished a first draft, let alone edit it. Those skills take time to learn, hubris to outgrow, and money to outsource.

I can give my own boring example.

In December of 2013 I was ready to self-publish a 17K fantasy novella. I’d signed up with Amazon, Omnilit, and other platforms. I’d mucked around with a potential cover. I knew I needed editing, so I contacted a very skilled and legendary editor familiar with the genre (based on a contact I’d made through a writing contest years earlier). She gave me a sample read and a great price break, along with a gentle warning about some of my writing. It wasn’t ready for a final edit. It needed structural work first, and I probably couldn’t afford her help on that.

I backed off from self-publishing, did a partial rewrite, and sent the piece out to two commercial markets. This was sneaky and horrible, because I had a feeling neither would take the piece – but I wanted more information. Both editors said no. Both gave me what I really wanted: short but personalized crits that told me I was on the right path, just not ‘there’ yet. (I don’t advise this as a constant or early strategy. Do this enough times and editors will begin to remember you as a pest.)

I contacted two very strong beta readers, who told me the same thing in more detail. I contacted my agent, because a major SFF publisher had just launched a novella imprint that might make it worth her time. My agent read my work and concurred with the beta readers and the two magazine editors. Even better, she gave me precise areas where I needed improvement. Too much telling, not enough showing, not enough emotion, not enough worldbuilding and too much infodumping of what was there…the list was brutal but accurate.

That novella is now nearly finished at 48K, and far stronger than the piece I would have self-published last year. Even if it goes nowhere in the commercial market, it will be a much better self-published piece for the extra time I’ve spent on it.

And yet, I see so many self-published authors avoiding that same work and publishing things too soon, then wailing about bad reviews and low (or no) sales. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say in IT coding. Start out with the best manuscript (and cover, and marketing plan) you possibly can.

If you can’t tell what that is, enlist qualified, experienced help…and please learn from them. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Be suspicious of cheerleaders on both sides of the self-pub/commercial debate (they often have their own agendas which may not involve helping you!) There are no guarantees in this business, but your best efforts can help you far more than no effort at all.