Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pulling The Rug Out(aka - Twist Endings)

I think there's this push/pull dynamic at work for most writers.  We want to be edgy and unpredictable(to a point), but we don't want our audience to be screaming for our head.  It's this dilemma that plays into how far afield we take endings that aren't in line with the way we set things up.

Twist endings can be great.  So long as some of the seeds are planted along the way so that a discerning reader can go back and say, "Aha!  I missed it, but it's right there!," then a twist ending can make a good story great.  Unfortunately, so many of us get so caught up in wanting to make an impact that we create twists simply for the sake of twists, and we end up looking stupid.

Readers have certain expectations.  When reading a mystery, they expect to not necessarily see the end coming.  Absent that, though, they want to see things like the main character's love life resolved or for grandma to save her farm.  Undercutting them leaves them without closure and usually pisses them off.  And remember that pissed off readers rarely return.

I'm not saying to get all predictable where any five year old could see what you have in mind 400 pages down the road, but don't swerve just because you're feeling froggy.  M Night Shyamalan has become a joke because he does almost nothing but twist endings.  It was fine with The Sixth Sense, but it got tiresome after a while because audiences started trying to figure out the twist that they knew was coming.

That's another part of the point - by being "unpredictable" all the time, aren't you becoming...unpredictable?  Surprises aren't surprises if everyone expects them.  You need a good reason to occasionally throw a curve, and it needs to be so overwhelming to the audience that they forgive you for not fixing things up the way they wanted.

The best advice I can give on this is to not be a douchebag.  Give your audience closure, and save your twists for those rare works you want to stand out.  Otherwise, you'll be shoved to the back by your readers.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

I recently ran across a few articles about a writers conference in Brisbane, and some apparently controversial remarks made by Lionel Shriver.  Shriver is most famous for the novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, a book about a disturbed young teenager who commits a shooting spree at school.  The novel has received critical acclaim and was even made into a movie.

At the conference, several writers criticized Shriver and her remarks about cultural appropriation.  They said that only a person from a particular background can write about characters of that background.  Many complained that their own works were being outsold by others not from their ethnicity and that Shriver, and others, should stick to their own ethnic groups when creating characters.

Pardon me while I say...what the fuck?!?!

Okay, maybe I'm violating one of my own rules by wading into the cultural/political arena, but this one concerns one of the very essences of writing, making stuff up, and happens to be absolute bullshit.  Writing about others is the soul of writing.  Does anyone seriously believe that you should only write about people that look and talk just like you?  Do any of these namby-pamby-offended-all-the-time social justice vigilantes know what such stupidity and separation would've done to literature over history?  Would we have ever gotten Carrie, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Madame Bovary, or even any of the Harry Potter books(after all, JK Rowling isn't a teenage boy)?  We're writers; we make stuff up.  We borrow histories and people from other cultures all the time - that's what we do.  To limit yourself to only those you look like would constrict writing and make the world both dull and separate.

I wonder if those who were upset that Shriver outsold them ever considered that maybe she's just a better writer.  The market decides these things - if people like your book, they'll buy it.  If they don't, then they won't.  It's that easy.  Unfortunately, we seem to live in a world where everyone is looking to get all butt hurt because people don't do exactly what we say or adhere to our ideology and have the temerity to be public about it.

"Cultural appropriation" is a complete farce, and it's a form of separatism and prejudice.  It's a way to gather unto yourself all that is yours and can only be yours, and others better not try to play in your sandbox.  It's infantile and reminds me of a toddler screaming "MINE!  MINE!  MINE!"  If writing about something with which you're unfamiliar crosses the line, then the market will let you know, but these holier-than-thou PC freaks need to let this stuff go.  Part of cultural diversity and inclusion is allowing others into your circle.  It brings us together when we look to other cultures and try to form bonds between them.  Writers have to look outside their own experiences in order to write stuff that appeals to more than a few people.

In other words, to those who got mad at Shriver(and others like her), take the fence pole out of your ass.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

On Shrinkage And Being Overwhelmed

I wish it hadn't come to this, but I have to reduce my number of blog posts for the time being.  With my work schedule being what it is right now, keeping up three blog posts a week is a bridge too far.  I've also found myself repeating topics, and I know it's hurting the quality of this site.

Therefore, for the next three months, I plan on doing only one posting per week.  Don't worry - I'll still be here; it'll just be a little less often.  Since my book launch for Akeldama begins in earnest in January, I'll get back to three postings per week at that point since I'll have more material.  However, expending the energy at this point, along with a work schedule a lot more intense than I thought it would be, would be crushing.

I know some of you may think that this is the beginning of the end.  You'd be wrong.  I first have to put food on the table for my family, and I want to be sure I'm ready when the march towards May 18th really begins, so I've got to scale back.  It won't be for long, but I have little choice.  I'll put up a new post each Monday morning so you'll have something to read for the week.  Hopefully it'll make Monday a little less boring as well.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Clichés To Avoid

Clichés are sometimes unavoidable, but that doesn’t make them less annoying.  Usually, clichés are the hallmark of a lazy writers, something used to appeal to a reader without making him or her think.  I thought I’d review the clichés that need to be avoided, if at all possible.

- Prison stories that involve male-on-male rape.  Yes, this plays to nearly every guy’s primal fears, but it has been done to death.

- Clean cut bad guys.  It seems that the only people you can make villains nowadays are bankers dressed in three piece suits.  Anytime I pick up a mystery or crime story now, it’s pretty easy to find who the bad guy is going to end  up being – I just look for the neatly dressed guy who has been successful while everyone else around him is poor.  Stop it.

- The rogue hero with a heart of gold.  This is almost standard in every cop drama or war novel,  We like to see guys with a rough exterior that we can peel away into a teddy bear.  I guess this goes to our notion of how we can change things for the better.  For a twist, make the rough guy really be a rough guy.

- Brilliant doctors/scientists who have an amazing epiphany at the last possible second.  Look, I get the need to build drama, but I can’t tell you how many times it’s that last second insight that solves everything.  Aside from being a lazy catchall, it makes me wonder why this supposedly brilliant person couldn’t think of it earlier.

- The hurt athlete.  It seems that every story involving a great athlete has that person get hurt in order to “find themselves,” as if tragedy is required for greatness(or maybe that we just hate jocks).  Perhaps an athlete should sometimes just be an athlete.

- The government conspiracy is behind everything.  Good God I get tired of this one.  It seems we’re so afraid of offending anyone that we resort to the eeeeevvvvvviiiiillllllll government(almost ALWAYS being the American government), as the catalyst for every villainous thing out there.  The complete lack of creativity involved in this makes me want to drill a hole in the side of my head so I can get the idiocy out.

These are just a few, but if you’ve seen it over and over and over and over again in either print or on your favorite TV show, find a different way.  Sometimes it can’t be avoided in order to stay true to the story, but most of the time it makes you look like a hack.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Muse At Rest

She lay on the bed, her gown strewn lazily over her chest.  Her breath rose rhythmically as her nostrils took in the warm summer air.

She’d been asleep for a while now.  Sure, I’d go stir her every so often in order to avoid the near-catastrophe I encountered a year and a half ago when my apathy nearly killed her, but I mostly let her rest.

My Muse hasn’t been too active as of late, and that has been by design.  The projects she worked with me on now need their own time to rise, and her constantly whispering into my ear would be distracting.  That was a distraction I simply couldn’t afford at the moment.

Still, every once in a while, I just liked to sit here and watch her.  Part of it was to make sure she was still with me; I nearly lost her once, and even that memory brought on chills.  The other part of me was to just appreciate her beauty.  My Muse was there for me in the darkest of times, nudging me towards certain paths in ways even I was unaware of.

Of course, I couldn’t let her sleep too long.  She might slip into a coma if I did, and that’d be as bad as her disappearance last year.  No, she needed to stay just active enough that she’d be there when I needed her.  Even rousing her from time to time wouldn’t brush off all of the cobwebs when I really needed her, but it would make the process much easier.

So I watched as she snoozed, a soft smile still on her lips.  This wondrous masterpiece served as an outlet for me, so I let her rest…for now.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What's Behind My Agent Antipathy?

I have a well-documented dislike of literary agents, especially as they exist in current form.  Some have asked what I have against them.  Is it that I was once turned down and am now bitter?  Is it that I don’t like that you have to have an agent to get picked up by a major publisher?

Let me first start out with an admission of full transparency.  In my early days, before I knew anything about the publishing business, I had the same visions every newbie author has, to get signed by an agent and hit it big with a major publisher.  I even submitted query letters to a few agents regarding Akeldama.  Several ignored my inquiry, and I got a standard form letter rejection from a few others.  A couple were even gracious enough to give me a personal rejection.  However, nobody took me up on my submission.

At this point, I know many of you will stop reading and write me off as an embittered hack who just didn’t like people telling me I wasn’t good enough.  That’s okay.  If you’re in that crowd, you wouldn’t hear anything else I had to say anyway.

As time progressed, and I did more research regarding publishing, the less I liked the traditional process.  Thirty years ago, there were dozens of presses to get published at; now there are five.  I also started learning things I didn’t care for, like how I found no agent with a background in contract law(most had literary degrees).  Although understanding good literature is great and necessary to sell novels to publishers, appreciation for that is so subjective.  However, contract law is not, and aren’t I looking for someone who knows that so I can get the best deal I can?  How does an MFA qualify someone to know the language behind torts, payments schedules, opt-out clauses, and various other aspects of a legal contract?  Wouldn’t the ideal agent have a background in intellectual property law, with either a minor in or an appreciation of good writing?

Then there’s the inbreeding of it.  In order to stay relevant, agents have to stay cozy with publishers.  That’s great…except I don’t want my agent to represent publishers – I want them to represent me.  This system makes it far too likely that the agent will have the publisher’s best interests at heart instead of mine so they can stay in the group and have continued employment.  It’s hard to get the few publishers that remain to listen to you if you have a reputation as a hardass.

There are other things too, but that’s the basic framework.  Sure, no one likes to get rejected, and it’s entirely possible there’s some personal animus directed to the group as a whole, but I don’t think so.  Were it not for indie publishing, I’d have to swallow my pride and become part of the system, if possible.  However, the changes in the current market make agents relatively meaningless.  I’m sure they work great for some folks, but I’m sure an enema works great for some folks too, and I don’t want one of those either.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Don't Forget To Read

We all get caught up in our lives.  There are bills to be paid, kids to go to sports, decks to be fixed, etc.  This can leave us all hardly any time for our true passion of writing.  Therefore, when we get a free minute, our tendency as writers is to sit at the keyboard and start cranking away on our work.  But have we forgotten something?  Have we forgotten that to write, we need to read?

“Wait!”  you shout.  “How am I supposed to read when I have dinner on the stove, baths to give, grass to mow, and drinks to drink with co-workers?”  Yep, life can be hectic, but if we don’t read well, our writing will suffer.

Good reading is a cornerstone of good writing.  You can observe techniques and tricks for writing that other authors use, and you can either figure out they don’t work or that they might be useful to you.  Further, you maintain a sense of literary awareness by reading good stories written by successful authors.  I liken it to playing chess or basketball – you may still remember the fundamentals, but the absence of actually participating will dull your skills and reduce your muscle memory.

Don’t forget that you can learn as much from poor writers as you can from good ones.  No, I don’t stay with a novel that makes me want to claw my eyes out, but it reminds me stuff not to include in my writing:  don’t overdo the very bad poorly horrible adjectives and adverbs that announce in BREATHLESS! and over-the-top ways the action; don’t have character conversations that sound like two teenage girls on Facebook; description is fine, but make sure it sets the stage rather than is the stage; stop with all the damn clichés(if I read another crime drama that starts with the main character squinting into the sun after a drunken night, I think they can write their next novel about me because my rage will become murderous).

Reading is essential to good writing.  Just as an NFL quarterback can’t be great on the field without studying tape, writers can’t be great in writing without reading.  Besides which, it’s a fun break away from the tedium of life, and it helps remind us why we got into this aggravating fantasy to begin with.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Different Authors, Same Universe

In some of the more popular fictional universes – Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer, etc – it’s not uncommon for multiple authors to publish stories with the same setting.  It gives us lots more stories about our favorite characters than we could get otherwise, so fans will flock to them, but is this necessarily a good thing?

The difference in the quality of writers is the most glaring weakness in this.  Let’s take the Star Wars universe, for example – following Return of the Jedi, there was little left in that realm.  Most of what had been published was done prior to the last movie, and the spark seemed dead.  Then, in 1991, Timothy Zahn revitalized the franchise with Heir to the Empire.  It was an instant classic, drawing fans back in with a zeal similar to the original movie.  It led to a whole host of new stories and new writers writing them.

Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, Zahn was far and away the best author out there for this type of work.  I found others that followed to be dry and uninspiring, mostly relying on boring old clichés and worn settings that they couldn’t breathe life into.  I often wondered whether the Star Wars universe would’ve been better had those other writers come in first and let Zahn be a later spark, or would it all have died before ever getting off the ground.

The second issue I have with multiple writers in the universe is consistency of story.  I have a hard enough time keeping my own story straight – keeping it straight over several writers and several books may be all but impossible.  And believe me, fans will find those inconsistencies.  I’ve read a few books that play fast and loose with the canon, and it’s frustrating.

Third…are we really so out of ideas that we have to borrow from another?  Maybe I’m being an old codger here, but I find writing so much in an already established universe to be lazy, especially when taken from one so prominent.  My ten year old daughter could write a story in the Harry Potter universe; do we really need folks not named Rowling to do that?  Where has the creative spark for creating your own world gone?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Monetary Expenses

Part of the process in this whole indie publishing thing is getting started, and as with any venture, it can be expensive.  But just how expensive?  And how much into debt do you need to go in order to put out a decent product.

To start with, any fool with a computer and access to the internet can upload his or her work and call it an indie novel.  If success was that easy, there’d be a lot more Hugh Howey’s out there and fewer (insert anonymous writer’s name here).  The challenge here is to appear professional, and whether we like it or not, that’s something that matters in this business.

There are obvious expenses, like getting a good cover.  Don’t – repeat, DO NOT – simply put your title on a solid background, upload it, and think you’ve done anything other than shoot yourself in the foot.  Covers draw us in, and you need a good one, especially when you’re an unknown.  These can run around $500 for something decent, but this isn’t an expense you should skimp on.

ISBNs are next.  If you want to be taken seriously, and someday get into bookstores, you need your work to be available through an ordering catalogue, and you have to have an ISBN for that.  The number you get depends on how many versions you offer.  No, not versions where the hero is an albino in one and a lion in another, but rather your hardcover, paperback, foreign edition, ebook edition, etc.  Each of these requires an ISBN, so consider just how many formats you really want to be involved in.  Good thing is that ISBNs aren’t prohibitively expensive – about $50 a piece, and some bundles are available that reduce that cost in bulk.

Then we start getting into really expensive stuff.  Editing comes in many forms, and none of those forms is cheap.  Content editing is far and away the most expensive, and it will run you several thousand dollars for a competent job.  I use beta-readers for this since I think editors are usually no better than the intended audience for this.  That said, copyediting isn’t cheap either, as I found out recently on another project.  A good copyedit will cost over $1000 for anyone of competence, so the question necessarily becomes how much you need it.  I think professional copyediting is a must, especially for first time writers, but this one is difficult due to expense.

All of this comes down to expense versus profit.  How much do you think your project will reap?  If you’re not going to recoup your original investment, why do it?  Are you just looking to establish a fledgling base?  I set aside a little each month and have a nice little nest egg for publication, but it’ll cover maybe two books.  If my work doesn’t start to take off after that, further expense will be hard to justify, which will, in turn, harm the next product.  Threading this needle is much more difficult than writing the book, which while rewarding, isn’t exactly easy.

I never said this would be easy…just expensive…

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Clubs

I’ve never belonged to a book club.  However, a few of my friends are part of one, and that got me thinking about using that channel as a marketing technique.

As a brand new author, few of us will have the street cred of a JK Rowling or a Stephen King.  The reputation of a new writer, and thus the potential for new/increasing sales, is based in large part on word of mouth – someone will read a book by a person they’ve never heard of and then pass along to a friend how much he or she liked the novel.  But how do you do that?  How do you get your work into someone else’s hands and know they’ll read it?

If you have a friend in a book club, that is an approach.  I approached one of my friends and asked her if she would be willing to have her group read Akeldama and critique it.  No, not as beta-readers, but after publication as an actual novel.  If I can get a fan or two from that group, perhaps my base will spread.

As indie writers, I think we need to be creative in how we market our work.  I can’t afford a full page ad in the New York Times, and no bookstore is going to give me a large display at the front of the store.  Therefore, we need to figure out how to generate buzz.  Book clubs are designed for those who like to read.  They’re usually such passionate readers that they’ll talk about what impacted them in the literary world, and they may be able to turn on others outside of their club.

So seek out alternative avenues.  You never know where your wave of success could begin.