Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Don't Rush The Ending

As I got close to finishing my most recent novel, I found that patience was an even greater need than it had previously been.  That’s because I was so close to the end that I found myself anxious to finish.  I had to go back and re-write entire sections because they took for granted details that, upon further review, were necessary to create the experience necessary for the story to reach a satisfying conclusion.

This seems to be a trap many writers fall into.  We get so close and want to push to the end that we rush the last part of our work.  I’ve forgotten to wrap up character arcs, put in a key piece of explanatory dialogue, and even pivotal pieces that lead to the final sentence.  All of this rush has led to extra work when I’ve had to go back.

Slowing down and being deliberate are much more crucial near the end of a novel than in the middle.  When we’re 150 pages into writing a 400 page book, it’s easy to stay deliberate because the story is still developing in our eyes.  By the end, though, we figure we’ve said just about all we can say, so we hurry to write the last line, let out a long sigh, and celebrate finishing our latest masterpiece(preferably with an adult beverage).

When you get close, take a break from writing, no matter how near to the end you think you are.  Then go back and re-read the last 20 or so pages.  It should set the mood, and the break will let you find things you never knew you were missing.  I get that completing work as involved as writing a novel is enticing, but would you rather have to go back and re-write, or would you like to be as close to finished while the story is straight in your mind as possible?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Red Lining

I’ve been reading a few posts from others recently about how much more savvy/strict traditional publishing houses are being with regards to contracts.  Kristine Kathryn Rusch mentioned this when she talked about how easy it used to be to get back the rights to your work after a few years.  Now, however, most publishing houses are holding onto them in accordance with the terms of the contract, which usually specify rights pertain to the length of the copyright(life of the author plus 75 years).  This kind of digging in struck me as absurd.  It may be in the best interests of publishers to do this, but it’s not in the best interests of writers.  So here are a few red lines I believe writers should insist on if they enter contract negotiations.

1.  Never, ever, ever forfeit the rights to your work in perpetuity.  If the publisher decides that your work is no longer profitable, you have no legal recourse to regain those rights.  Yes, maybe you’ll run into a nice person who will revert them to you, but that’s unlikely because it’s not in the best interest of the publisher.  There are various ways you can get the rights back.  One would be to insist they be returned to you after ten years.  Another might be to include a clause that reverts the rights back to you if the book fails to sell a certain number of copies in a certain period of time(10,000 in five years?).  This gives you a way to “fire” the publisher and possibly bring your work out independently to see if you can do any better.

2.  Similarly, never agree to a non-compete clause.  These are put in by publishers to ostensibly make it so that your work isn’t crowding out other work by pushing too many novels at once.  I’ve never bought this hogwash because books aren’t fungible.  Such a clause limits your right to earn a living.  As a corollary, right-of-first-refusal clauses indenture you to a publisher since they can hem and haw and never print your work, yet give you the impression they just might.  They can keep you on a thread forever.  If they want right-of-first-refusal, insist that it’s time sensitive, ie – the publisher has three months from the postmarked date of submission to accept or refuse your work, and failure to meet that deadline constitutes refusal, meaning you can look elsewhere to publish.

3..  Insist on being paid more than twice a year.  Most publishing houses pay on a semi-annual basis.  This is ridiculous since they don’t earn money semi-annually.  At worst, insist on being paid quarterly, preferably monthly.  And demand to see the payment statements from your agent so that you know exactly how much the royalty rate is and how much is going where.

4.  Always, always, ALWAYS have the contract reviewed by a third party…and your agent doesn’t count.  The relationship between publishers, writers, and agents is not what it once was.  It is in the agent’s vested interest to stay in the good graces of the publishing houses, so they’ll often tell you things are hunky dory when they’re not.  Remember, they need publishers to buy their clients’ work, and since there are now so few publishing houses, they can’t just take that work somewhere else.  Also, all of these publishers know each other, so if an agent pisses off one house, others will hear about it.  At the very least, have an intellectual property attorney look at the contract and explain it to you.  It’ll cost several hundred dollars, but it’ll be worth it.

5.  Hold onto as many rights as you can.  Traditional publishers are good for getting your hardcover into stores, but they have no more access to the digital market than you do.  You need a publisher for editing and paper, not for the digital medium.  Additionally, seeing as there’s not yet any movie offer, why does the publisher need any movie or TV rights to your work?  Shouldn’t your agent be dealing separately with any studio or producer?  At the beginning of a contract negotiation, publishers will seek out rights that aren’t currently relevant, hoping you’ll either not care or will be so desperate to get signed that you’ll give away the farm.  Don’t do it.  If they insist on grabbing some of these rights, at least demand a higher royalty rate.

Going into contract negotiations can be scary, especially when you’re a newbie who is pining to be signed.  Publishers know this, so they’ll use what they perceive to be a superior bargaining position against you.  You have to be willing to walk away.  Twenty to thirty years ago, the market was more closed, so you had to deal with their leverage, but there were also more of them.  While it could be difficult, you could seek out a different publishing house and try for a better deal.  That’s no longer the case in either instance.  There are fewer houses, but there is more access to the market.  If you won’t walk away when they want to cross one of your red lines, then just go ahead and put shackles on your wrists.  Sorry if that’s harsh, but that’s what you’re doing if you’ll agree to anything just for the sake of saying you’ve been published by a major house.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Going Dark

Just how dark can we go in our stories?  I ponder this question after a text from a buddy of mine.  I gave him Salvation Day to read on a trip, and his first note back to me was “Started reading your book.  Pretty dark so far.”

For those who don’t know, Salvation Day indeed has some very dark parts.  The way I see it, it has to in order for the story to have an impact and make a splash at the end.  It’s full of rough stuff like the main character losing his wife and child, a rape and murder scene for someone sent to Hell, and a drug deal gone bad when we see the first battles between angels and demons.  But how much is too much?

Stephen King is notoriously dark sometimes.  So much so that it’s been called the “dead toddler formula.”  Think about it – in Pet Sematary, King kills a three year old to set the stage.  In It, he kills a five year old to get Bill Denbrough motivated to go after the titular character.  Other novels use ugly things like gang rape and mass shootings.

But is there a limit?  Are there things an audience won’t tolerate, especially in our increasingly PC culture?  As a parent myself, I cringe at anything bad happening to kids.  It affects me so much that in a TV show like The Walking Dead, I’ve vowed to stop watching if they ever kill baby Judith.  So why do these things appear in our stories?

I think because it arouses great passion in us.  When a child dies, a teenager is raped, or a dog shelter is burned down, we feel a sense of injustice, and we long to see such injustice resolved.  Maybe that’s the key – we can show dark things so long as we give off light and hope at the end.  You know, kind of a “the darker the shadow the brighter the light” kind of thing.  I’m not sure audiences readily tolerate darkness simply for the sake of darkness(although King often tries to disprove us on that).  It also depends on our target audience – a group of elderly church women are less likely to tolerate things that a group of late-teen/early-20s college kids might.

I wish I had answers to this, but it’s more an exploration than an explanation, and there’s likely no right answer.  It’s just something we have to figure out ourselves, guided by our inner character and our audience.  Trust me, if you go too far, they’ll let you know, sometimes loudly.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What Makes A Classic?

I’ve discussed before how much I despised reading books I found either stupid or boring in school – Moby Dick, Billy Bud, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, etc. These are touted as literary classics, but I had trouble staying awake while reading them.  Further, they took so long to read because they bored me to tears.

However, they’re considered literary classics for some reason.  So that got me wondering – what makes something a classic?  It certainly not age – we’ve had modern classics like Fahrenheit 451, The Shining, or even the Harry Potter series.  But just because something is a blockbuster, that doesn’t make it a classic.  One Second After by William Fortschen got high on the Bestseller List, yet few would call it a classic.

I think it has to be two things – the impact it has on the culture, and whether or not you go back to it time after time, year after year.  Mention fighting a white whale, and everyone thinks of Moby Dick.  Talk about He Who Must Not Be Named, and images of Voldemort and Harry Potter spring to mind.  Things like being trapped in a hotel during a snowstorm(The Shining) and images of an Alaskan Husky pulling a sled(Call of the Wild) are instant recall when mentioned.  Even very recent stories produce cultural references, like how a current meme on Facebook shows a midget fighting in the Syrian Civil War and being labeled as “Syrian Lannister.”

Going back time after time may be more subjective, but it still fits.  Classics are like old friends you seek out when times get rough.  I’ve read every book in the Harry Potter series multiple times, and I never tire of them.  On the other hand, although I enjoyed The Lost Regiment series, I can’t see myself returning to it over and over again.

I don’t even know that we’re capable of trying to write a classic until after the fact.  Perhaps in the middle of a series that has made an impact(like A Song of Fire and Ice), but usually we just want to tell a good story.  Writing specifically looking for a classic is a bit like going fishing and trying to land a shark – maybe you will, but you’ll more than likely be eaten.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Checking Everyday

I try to maintain this blog pretty consistently.  When I know I’m going to be away from a computer for an extended period of time, I write my posts well in advance so that they appear when they’re supposed to appear.  Unfortunately this often leads to me not checking the site itself for days or weeks on end.

That means I sometimes miss comments.  I love comments on this blog, and I do my best to answer every one individually.  However, if I get caught up in other things, I can miss them, and I feel terrible if I let something go for several days without giving the commenter an answer.

It also means I sometimes miss errors in my posts.  I proofread every post both in its raw form and in a preview page before it goes final.  But hey, I’m human, and stuff gets by me.  That’s not a problem when I check the site every day because I’m pretty good at spotting things eventually.  But when I can’t or don’t check very often, I miss using the improper form of “to” or “your.”  As a writer, it’s incredibly embarrassing when that happen.

At the same time, despite what some may think, this blog isn’t my life.  My wife and children are my life, and, currently, my job is so consuming overseas that that has to take precedence.  Maybe when I start to do this writing thing full time, I’ll be able to check every day.  Until that, though, I have to accept the risks that come with not checking in as often as I might like.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Bringing Back The Dead

As both writers and audience, we grow attached to characters.  We want to see what happens to them, and we mourn when they’re gone.  Unfortunately, our mourning sometimes leads to a phenomenon I despise – bringing characters back from the dead.

I know not a lot of people agree with me on this, but I think it’s cliché to bring back folks who are already dead.  It removes the tension from a story when the characters aren’t in any genuine danger(I define genuine danger as being the chance we’ll never see them again).  Why would I mourn a character or get anxious for the situation they’re in if the author has shown a tendency to bring back those he or she has killed previously?

Bringing folks back may have been novel at one time, just like the “No, I’m you’re father” line from The Empire Strikes Back was once mind blowing.  When the first writers did it, it must’ve shocked readers to the core.  No way!  They were dead!  I wonder what other twists await.  However, that scenario is well played out by now.  There’s no more shock because the technique has been overdone.

This applies equally to characters obviously alluded to as dead.  If a mistress falls overboard, and all we find are her purse and sunglasses, she needs to be dead.  History has conditioned us so well now that we’re expecting to get the character back.  That makes it anti-climactic when it happens.  Imagine how you could shock readers by actually killing off a character in that situation.  Further, imagine the tension it would create for the rest of your work.  Will that character survive?  Are they dead or just missing?  We just don’t know.

I know I’m rambling, but it’s a real pet peeve of mine to use something so trite.  I tend to write off writers who do this, and I wonder at what other boring ideas I’ll find.  When people die in real life, they don’t come back.  If we want readers to take our stories seriously, why should our novels be any different?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Don't Forget To Read

In all the hustle and bustle of writing, it can often be hard to remember to stay up with one of the most key components that makes a writer good – the need to read.

When all we do is write, we tend to get stuck in the mud in terms of style.  We might have a great idea for a story and have a vivid picture of our characters, but this means little if we can’t convey those things in a way that keeps the audience interested.  That’s where reading comes in.

Reading the work of another allows us to stay fresh on what styles are out there, as well as what catches our attention in particular.  Due to the pressures of my job and trying to stay on track with my writing, I sometimes forget to read.  I enjoy folks like Stephen King, William Fortschen, and Harry Turtledove.  I also like to sample new authors I may not be as familiar with because you never know who might catch your fancy.  Doing this helps me stay up on the ways in which different writers catch our attention, which, in turn, helps out my own writing style.

Unfortunately, I’ve fallen behind in this.  Well, no more.  Now that my latest work is complete, and I don’t plan to write another novel for some time(even though I may do the occasional short story so I stay sharp), I’ve dived back into reading.  In a few weeks, I get back to the US and can catch up on one of my favorite pastimes – wandering through bookstores to find what interests me.  Some books will suck, but some will get me.

Reading is an essential part of writing.  Every author I know says this, and I notice an uptick in the quality of my work when I’m reading regularly.  So don’t forget to pick a book off the shelf every once in a while, and make sure you sample new things in addition to going back to old favorites.  Your readers will see the difference, and it will affect your sales.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Schedule Of Release

My first novel, Akeldama, is coming out in May of next year.  That is, to me, an immutable date that won’t change.  I’ve waited too long to put out my first book, and if it wasn’t for a yearlong diversion out of the country, I’d be publishing it this May.  However, my original idea was to publish a new novel every six months for the first few years(I’ve finished the edits on four, and I’ve gotten through the first draft of another five, so the actual writing part of that is easy since most of the work is done).  But now I question that timetable.

What I wonder is whether or not that’s an overly ambitious schedule given what has to go into this.  Since I’m publishing indie, I need to get a cover designed, go through formatting and copy editing, set up an imprint, and prepare a marketing strategy.  Oh, and I’ll still be managing my other novel(s) while trying all of this.  It makes me wonder if I need to slow down and not try to be quite so prodigious at the start so that I can do the business aspect of this properly.

Of course, the biggest part of the uncertainty here is that I’ve never done this before.  Plus, I’ll still be working my day job unless and until my work becomes self-sustaining enough to provide the revenue I need to do it full time.  Maybe I’ll get into this and find out that it’s not as hard as I thought it would be.  That’s possible, but I doubt it.

Writing is a business, and one I want to get right.  I understand I can’t do it perfectly, and a good plan now is better than a perfect one that never happens, but that doesn’t make me wonder at the overall amount of work this will be.  I know writing as a professional will be hard, but I still plan to have a life and time with my family.  Does that mean I’m not ready for this to be my “thing?”  I just don’t know.

I suspect I’ll have a much better idea by the time I publish next May.  I should know roughly how much each step takes, and that will inform my decision on how quickly to proceed to publishing book #2(Salvation Day).  I might very well be able to stay up with a book publishing every six months for the first four or five years so that I can build an inventory, but I’ve got to be smart about this too and remember I’m building a business, not just writing stories.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Mood Writing

You ever get mad?  Hopped up about something?  Just get in a generally pissy mood?  I have, and it occurred to me recently that such a mood can be dangerous when writing.

I refer to it as “getting my blood up,” and it can be caused by a number of different things.  Maybe I read a Facebook post that I vehemently disagreed with.  Perhaps some schmuck was on TV saying something idiotic.  Or possibly I was a clumsy oaf in my kitchen and knocked a plate off the counter, shattering it into a million pieces.  Whatever the cause, it short circuits the divide between by emotions and my logic, making me prone to react instead of think.

Obviously, this can affect how and what we write.  When I’m in a mood, I rarely think about the ramifications of what I’m saying.  Instead, I’ll simply write something off the cuff because it makes me feel good.  This can work while writing…if the character we’re writing about is also supposed to be in a pissy mood.  However, transferring Wolverine’s passion to Spock’s mind rarely produces anything coherent.  It makes a mess of what we wanted, and once we calm down, we have to re-write it.

We’re all capable of getting mad.  However, I strongly encourage you to stay away from your computer when you get like that.  Read a book, take a walk, do something that will let you decompress.  Just as we shouldn’t write an email to our co-workers when we’re upset, we shouldn’t engage in writing a story while worked up either.  We should use emotion as a driving force to get us writing, but it can’t be the main driving force when we’re in the midst of our story.  We’ll forget plot points, character relationships, and a whole host of other things that make our work special.

So settle down.  We all get pissed from time to time.  That doesn’t mean we have to tell the world about it – they usually won’t appreciate our delivery.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Muse At Rest

She lay on the couch, her chest rising and falling rhythmically.  She appeared both exhausted and satisfied.  We’d just finished out most recent work, and she was spent.

Part of me wanted to get up, to go about my business, but another part of me just wanted to look at this beautiful creature that never left my side, even when I left hers.  Her encouragement, enthusiasm, and ideas kept me going as I struggled through my last novel.  I asked her for everything, and she rose magnificently to the occasion.

She looked so peaceful, and God knows she earned her rest, so I got up to leave.  However, as I did so, she said, “Please don’t go.”

Looking back at her, I said, “I should.  There are other things I have to do.  I’ll be back once you’ve regained your strength.

“My strength depends on you,” she replied.  She opened her eyes and pushed herself up.  “Remember what happened the last time you left me?”

Boy did I ever.  I was trying to recover from another marathon session of writing, and I forgot where my Muse was.  She got lost, and when I finally found her, her body was so weak that she nearly died.  Had she not come around, my career as a writer would’ve been over.

“I’m not going for good,” I said.  “I just need a break, same as you.  I’ll come back once I’m up to another go.”

"That’s what you said last time,” she pouted.

“There are things here I need to do beyond mere writing.  Those wonderful stories you’ve helped me create are worthless if I don’t find a way to get them into the public sphere.  They need to be produced, marketed, and sold.  I can’t do those things if I do nothing but write.”

"I understand,” she said, softly.

“It won’t be like last time,” I promised.  “I’ll come back to you for a few short stories from time to time, and if I get any major inspiration for a story, like maybe the sequel to Salvation Day, I’ll come running.  For now, though, I think we could both use some rest.”

She looked into my eyes.  I often forgot just how beautiful she could be.  “Don’t forget me.”

“How could I?  Without you, I have nothing.”

I slipped through the swinging door to the kitchen and made my way to the fridge.  I heard her lay back down, and in moments, she was snoring.  This hibernation would do us both good…so long as I can eventually wake her again.