Thursday, May 31, 2012

Writers' Misperceptions About Themselves

In my last post, I talked about the funny things folks think about those of us who write.  However, in the interests of fairness, let's turn the tables and talk about the ways we writers (sometimes wrongly) perceive ourselves.  Yes, I'm breaking yet another cardinal rule and potentially offending a large part of the audience, but these things have to be said sometimes.  And they can be just as entertaining.

1.  Every writer views himself or herself as the next great voice of their generation.

There are some truly humble writers out there, but let's be honest - those are the exception.  Most of us, myself included, will try to put up a good front, but part of the reason we got into writing was because we felt we could tell a story better than others.  The perception of writers as arrogant didn't spring ex nihilo.  If you're anything like me, you're constantly correcting some of the things your friends wrote, or even mentally rewriting parts of books that you just know would be better if they added your twist to it.  Each of us believes we are destined for greatness if only someone in power would recognize our talents.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Writing can be a brutal business - your work is constantly being read and critiqued, so you have to have a thick skin to survive.  A certain amount of confidence is not only proper; it's required.  I just wish that more of us would acknowledge this trait in ourselves.  No, we don't need to go around shouting how wonderful we are, but perhaps we should can the false modesty when someone praises our work and simply reply with "thank you."  After all, most of us secretly believe we deserved that praise anyway, and it's part of why we got into writing.

2.  Our writing flows flawlessly from us.

This dovetails with the point above and is usually limited to brand new writers or those who won't go anywhere in the business.  Usually.

When I first began taking this whole writing thing a lot more serious, I knew my prose stood out above other people I knew.  I figured I was probably in the top 25% of people when it comes to writing.  Unfortunately, the top 25% ain't gonna cut it if you want to be successful in being a writer.  You need to be in the top 1%.  Or maybe the top half a percent.

Finding out that a lot of our stuff is crap is a very hard lesson to learn, especially at the beginning,.  We've gotten by for all these years by standing out above our peers.  However, what we fail to realize is that those "peers" include the boy down the street who won't take his finger out of his nose, as well as that girl who writes nothing but poetry about how she's going to kill her parents.  To break out and into something more requires a realization that we, that we need to get better.  Put simply, we're trying to get the public at large to like our stuff, not just our English teacher.

3.  Everyone wants to hear our stories.

If you're anything like me, you'll tell your tales at the slightest hint of an invitation...or none at all.  It sounds so interesting inside our head, and we usually have such passion about it that we can't imagine other people not wanting to hear or read more.  Hey, aren't they sitting there and listening, nodding at all the right places?  Doesn't that mean they want to hear more?

Not necessarily.  Sometimes they're just humoring us.

This is another hard lesson for us.  Yes, if we're any good, there will be tons of people who will want to read what we've written.  Unfortunately, not everyone likes the same things we like.  It takes maturity to accept that not everyone is a sci-fi or romance fan.  Most people will be nice about their disinterest, but some will be pricks, and that's okay.  Since people are as varied as the oceans, no writer in the world appeals to everyone.  Once you realize that, you wonder if any out there will like your stuff.  However, the upside to so much diversity is that someone, somewhere, will enjoy our stories if they're told well enough.

4.  The reason I haven't made it is because (fill in the blank) is against me.
No agent liked my work.  Amazon buried my book.  Negative reviewers have it out for me.  Everyone is jealous of my talent.  We know we're talented, so obviously the reason we haven't caught on as writers is because there are evil forces out there holding us back.

Again, for those who are successful, the smack of reality on this can be painful but necessary.  Perhaps in the old days we could claim that publishers have blacklisted us or are standing in our way to protect their own investments, but that doesn't apply anymore.  With the advent of e-books and the explosion of self-publishing, there really is little excuse for not making it.  Can't get an agent?  Go to a conference and meet one.  Work not finding success with a traditional publisher?  Self publish.  Your novel not getting the market attention you think it needs?  Well, what have you done about it?  Have you cultivated contacts on college campuses, established a presence on social media, or reached out to your fellow bloggers?

Trust me - if you can't break out, the only thing holding you back are your own excuses.

These misperceptions aren't unique to writers.  Every person who dreams has a variation of these hidden in the dark recesses of his or her mind.  And these are surface misperceptions that can be overcome and even turned to our advantage, but we have to be willing to confront stark realities if we are to do so.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Misperceptions About Writers

From my experience, the public's ideas about what a writer is and is not can be startling to those with a little "inside baseball" knowledge of the way things really work.  In fact, to those of us who write, such misconceptions can provide a great deal of entertainment.  Let's discuss some of the more prevalent, and quite wacky, things that people believe:

1.  Writers are pretentious snobs who look down on everyone while wearing tweed.

Writers rarely look like some antiquated version of Ernest Hemingway.  Most are normal (looking) people who are as varied as anyone else in a hundred different professions.  Some like to consider themselves frumpy, while others like to write wearing nothing but a bathing suit and a smile.  I personally wear jeans and a t-shirt most of the time, usually because that's what I find to be most comfortable.  I know my wife wishes I could be a little more stylish and fit the fashion stereotype others think about when they hear the word "writer," but I'd feel about good about it as I would if I'd jammed a pair of fishhooks into my eyebrows.

2.  Once you get published, your working days are over.
More than once, I've heard that "once you get published, you'll never have to have a 'real' job again.  Pffft, must be nice."  A couple of points here.  First of all, I can assure you that just writing in and of itself is hard work.  It may be wonderfully exhilarating work that you enjoy every day, but it's still work.  You have to prepare the story, put it on paper, and then adjust and readjust it so that you can get the right wording.

Further, writing a book is only part of the profession.  After it's done, you have to get it in the hands of people who might plop down a few bucks to enjoy it.  Without paying customers, you may be a writer, but you're going to get awfully cold in the winter when your pipes freeze(no heat) and you have zero body fat(no food).  There are contacts to cultivate, covers to help design, schedules for publishing and touring to create, and readings and signings to be a part of.  Although a writer might love what he or she does, trust me - it's work.

3.  When you get published, you finally have financial security(aka - how does it feel to be rich?).

This has to be the most laughable stereotype of them all.  So many people, none of them actual writers, have told me that I'll have it made when I get published.  They usually say this while drooling and with a jealous gleam in their eyes, envious of the riches that are to come my way when a major publisher picks up my novel.  Here's a news flash - MOST WRITERS DON'T MAKE ENOUGH WITH WRITING ALONE TO COVER THE RENT.

Yes, the best of the best of the best get a great deal of attention.  Stephen King famously makes about $40 million a year.  JK Rowling owns a castle in Scotland for chrissake.  And Stephanie Meyer went from being a receptionist to selling over 50 million copies of that puke-ridden sparkly vampire crap nearly overnight(to be fair, most of us are jealous of her success; we think she's a crappy writer and believe she's got next to no real writing talent, but we'd shove our own mother off a bridge to have half the success she does).  Unfortunately, these are the very rare exceptions.

Of course we'd love to have the riches these writers do, just as any schmoe who plays a pickup game of basketball would love to get the same money Kobe Bryant does, but the odds on that are long.  We strive, but few get there.  Most writers have second or even third jobs, and this whole writing thing is something they do on the side because they love to do it.  A real writer will tell stories whether anyone ever reads them or not, but that doesn't mean people will fork over tons of cash to hear them.

4.  As a writer, you'll have legions of adoring fans.

Again, there are exceptions, but most writers toil in anonymity.  Even for those who've made it big, they can usually go out and get a latte without too much trouble.  Be honest - can any of you really pick James Patterson out of a crowd?  Or Harry Turtledove?  Or Dean Koontz?  I'm sure if they cut you off in traffic and they didn't have a big "I'm Nora Roberts!!!" sign on the back window, you'd give them the finger just as quickly as you would anyone else.  Screaming fans who fall over themselves for a peek at their favorite writers are rare.  JK Rowling may have trouble with people fawning all over her, but most people wouldn't be able to pick Alan Dean Foster out of a lineup.

5.  Once you've been published, you're in like Flynn.

It isn't all gravy once you've been published.  Do you have any idea how many writers write one novel and never have that level of success again?  Until you have a proven track record of selling books based on your name, each novel you write has to pass muster with the publisher all over again.  Sure, being published gives you a foot in the door for that second work, but if it sucks as bad as that God-awful new Charlie's Angels series that (thankfully) never got off the ground, you've got as much chance of selling it based on your previous track record as I do of becoming a male model based on my stunning good looks.  Most new writers lose money for their publishing houses.  If the publisher feels you don't have further potential to expand their base of sales, I promise that they'll drop you as fast as McDonalds got rid of the Hula Burger.

These are just a few of the misperceptions I've noticed people have about writers.  Which ones have you encountered?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Make Your Readers Cry

As writers, we all want our audience to connect with our work.  We imagine someone pouring breathlessly over what we've written, turning pages with the zeal of an alcoholic looking for a shot of Johnny Walker Blue.  So how do we get people so involved that they can't put our book down?  Quite simply, we get them emotionally invested in the story.

I've talked before about setting the right mood, but this concept goes beyond that.  Setting a mood is hard, but evoking an emotion is even harder.  It goes beyond the reader just understanding what the characters are going through.  Instead, if you can get an truly emotional response from your readers, it shows you've connected with them.  This has now become more than a simple story - it has become something they are now invested in.  Whereas before a reader may have wondered how the plot would resolve itself, emotionally connected readers now want to know that the characters are going to come through everything.  They laugh when the main character makes a joke, and they cheer when that same character overcomes adversity to win the day.
With Salvation Day, mood was very important, but I also needed the reader to understand why Mike Faulkner was doing what he was doing.  Faulkner does some pretty heinous things during his corruption, and it was important that readers sympathized with his plight, even secretly cheering him on.  I knew I'd gotten to at least a little bit of my goal when a couple of beta-readers told me that they should have kept tissues by the computer when they read the second chapter(that's where Faulkner views old videos of his daughter and then re-lives her death and the helpless emotions connected with such an event).

Think about the stories you loved the most and kept going back to re-read - they all got an intense emotional reaction from you, from Marley and Me to The Shack to Black Beauty.  These tales got readers so involved in the characters that their sadness became the readers'.  Readers saw people they cared about going through tribulations and kept turning pages in the desperate hope that their favorite character would be able to overcome the tragic events in their life.

As I wrote Wrongful Death, I knew I needed to create a similar dynamic.  Christian Gettis, the main character, sees it as his mission to haunt and torment Barbara Millings, the woman he has been told is responsible for his death.  However, the opening scene where Christian wrecks his car and is killed is intentionally vague.  Why, this could've been an accident, and any one of us could've panicked in the same way Barbara did.  So what could I do that would make Christian seem like less of a bastard for what he does to her and more like a spirit whose anger is justified?

I had to show the ripple effects his death caused on those he cared about most.  I wrote about the downward spiral his girlfriend was going through, as well as the indignation with which his friends would react to insults towards Christian by people who didn't know him.  However, it's the interaction with his family that was critical.

Christian has the type of relationship any teenager seeking his own independence has with his father, which is to say that it's complicated.  At the beginning of the book, he refuses to call his father dad, instead addressing him by his first name, Walt, probably because this would annoy any father if his teenage son did that.  Christian felt his dad was an uncaring overlord, sitting on high and ruling the family with a stoic demeanor that glossed over anything deeper.  Even after death, Christian refused to budge an inch on the man he felt had the emotional range of Mr. Spock.

However, he eventually got to see behind the curtain and witness his father's grief over losing a son.  If you have trouble imagining your own parents breaking down to the point where they'll sleep with an old photo of their son like it was a teddy bear, then think about how you'd react to the death of a child.  Christian witnesses this, and trying to get the reader to understand this level of sadness has been one of the hardest yet most critical parts of the book.  If I can get the reader to feel for Christian and his father - it's no small point that after witnessing this, the main character starts referring to Walt as dad again - then it'll build up a well of sympathy the main character will need when he does some truly vile things to the woman he believes to be responsible for his death.

Most of my work tries to play on that element of connection, and some of it is more successful than others.  It's hard.  You can't just say, "This is where you should shed a tear."  If you're too heavy-handed, you'll turn the reader off and he or she won't connect in the way needed to keep turning pages.  And if you lay off too much, the reader won't appreciate it when the main character overcomes the obstacles and triumphs over his or her adversity.  But when you can make the reader feel the emotion along with your characters, then you've created something special, and hopefully something that person will come back for again and again.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You'll Never Write the Same Way Twice

The last post talked about cutting your words for content, but what if you had to re-create your words out of nothing?  What if you spent hours and hours on getting the paragraph just right, only to find that you had to start all over again with just your notes to guide you?

Some people will laugh at this absurd scenario.  Meanwhile, back in the real world, the rest of us are well aware of the ultimate nightmare - you've lost your work and have no backup.  All the magic you've created has vanished.
Admittedly, this was a much bigger problem in the days before auto-recover.  It used to be that you had to be diligent in saving your work, page by page, because if that dreaded power outage came and you hadn't backed your stuff up in a while, you were out of luck.  However, that doesn't mean it can't still happen.

This usually occurs when you back your stuff up on a CD or thumb drive, and the data becomes corrupted(plus, like a moron, you backed it up in only one place).  Has this ever happened to me?  Um, of course not...what would give you that idea?  No, no, no, I'm very meticulous and such an amateurish thing could never happen to a brilliant mind like mine...ok, so it could.  What's it to you?

The point is that we've all lost things.  What I've discovered through the years is that in trying to re-create it, I've never written things the same way twice.  I may have my notes and known the general direction I wanted to go, but I never quite recapture the magic I had before.  Words will change, descriptions will be different, and even dialogue won't remain constant.  The longer and more detailed the piece, the less like the original your new creation will appear.
I've mentioned my first attempt at a novel a few times before, but what I've never said is that I re-wrote the intro to that awful piece of garbage several times.  My first attempt was in my sophomore year of college, on a notepad.  That original masterpiece fell by the wayside somewhere, so I wrote it all over again.  A few years later, when that intro was lost within the dungeon of unpacked boxes at my first apartment, I re-wrote it yet again.  I probably did this half a dozen times, and although the basic plot stayed constant, the intro was never the same.  Even the one page prologue - one page, people! - changed from version to version,  Sometimes it improved, and sometimes it didn't, but it amazed me how things that were constant in my head morphed when I tried to put them on paper.

Never rely on memory to hold your writing in a "forever format."  Even when you are within minutes of the action, as I usually am when I'm expounding on a point on Facebook and I lose my connection, you don't get it the way you once had it.  This can be liberating at times, but it's mostly just annoying.  When I can't rely on auto-save, I've taken to copying and pasting key points I want to make into a blank Word document so I can put them back down later if the need arises.  And when I finish a story, I save it multiple places - my home computer, my work computer, my home email address under saved files, etc.

Remember, it's much easier to edit and improve on work you already have than it is to start from scratch and try to get the magic back.  Sometimes you're successful, but most of the time you're just retaking the same ground.  As General Patton once said, "I don't like to pay for the same real estate twice."  And if you lose your work, you won't just pay for it twice; you'll pay for a different piece of land altogether.  Little is as frustrating to a writer, and don't we have enough frustrations already?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cutting for Content

I've said before that editing is one of the hardest and least enjoyable parts of writing.  When you're creating a story from scratch, the process is exciting and fun.  Anything can happen, so you try to capture everything you want the reader to feel.

However, once the story is done, you start editing.  The first two types of editing are hard enough, but they don't make too much of a dent in what you're saying.  First, you try to make sure that what you've put on paper doesn't look like it came from a 3rd grader.  All the words should be spelled correctly, at least within the given context(in other words, if something is misspelled, you better have meant it that way).  Further, you should have the basic rules of grammar and punctuation down so the person trying to follow you can move easily from one point to the next.

After that's done, you move on to removing unnecessary words.  These are usually the adjectives and adverbs that sounded great in your head but now seem cumbersome.  To try and capture the spirit of the words, you may even re-write parts of the text.  "He ran quickly" might become "He sprinted," and "Jay stared hungrily at the voluptuous blonde model" might become "Jay leered at the blonde bombshell."  You get the idea.

You can remove a lot of stuff you don't need with this approach.  When I edited Salvation Day, I removed nearly 32,000 words through this.  Beyond that, things get dicey.  You now have to look at what content you should cut.
The truly shitty part of this is now you have to destroy part of what you created with your sweat and toil.  The story looks so perfect, and you need everything in there so that the reader will get what you've been trying to impart.  Unfortunately, back in the real world, this can lead to a long and meandering story that people will get bored by.  You have to comb back through what you've written and decide what is essential to move the story along and what is just window dressing you can do without.

I'll admit that I haven't mastered this yet and probably need help.  As a writer, I don't want to remove anything.  It feels like I'm being asked to cut off an arm or a leg, and, dammit, how am I supposed to go on like that?

An editor comes in handy in a time like this, and preferably someone you don't know and who doesn't give a rat's ass if you live or die.  Your friends and family (hopefully) love you and will have difficulty pointing out things they feel the novel could stand to lose, even if they try tactfully.  They don't want to see that crestfallen look on your face that says they've just pulled out your heart and run it through a meat grinder, so they'll tell you it's all perfect and would lose something if you cut out that little blurb about the time the main character had the runs.

An editor, on the other hand, can look at things objectively, from the point of view of someone who might buy your book.  They'll pick up more easily what can be left out, and they should have little compunction about saying that to you.  If you can't get a good editor, or are too cheap to afford one, a group of beta-readers can come in handy.  Honestly, I'm looking for a good beta-reading group right now to help me with this, so if anyone out there knows of one...

Ultimately, it's your decision on what content to cut, but ignore suggestions at your own peril.  One reader pointing out something means it should be examined and adjudicated; two or more who highlight the same points should be heeded.  A pattern of people is more likely to be right, so while you may feel free to argue a little with one point of view, you should lose that self defense tactic in a larger group(something I wish I took more to heart sometimes).

No, editing is not sexy, and cutting for content isn't fun, but it's necessary if you want anyone beyond yourself to read what you wrote, or even better, to pay for it.  People like stories that stay focused, and no matter how much you just know that this particular dialogue or background is vital to what you've written, if your readers can get the same message by you removing it, do so.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to hug my manuscript one more time before I hand it over to the butchers...

Sunday, May 20, 2012


I write fiction, therefore I can make up anything I want, right?  After all, readers have willingly given me carte blanche to create something out of nothing, so I can invent anything that comes to mind.

Well, not exactly.

Writers exist only within a narrow bubble.  Although readers want to be dazzled with tales that would make your hair stand on end, they only have so much capacity to suspend disbelief.  A story still has to at least sound credible.  Although relativity says that there's no way to go faster than light, science fiction writers break that rule every day.  However, their spaceship can't just use conventional rockets and continually speed up or sci-fi readers would abandon the book.  Instead, the writer has to delve into fantasical theories about warping space or traveling through black holes, and the only way to do so credibly is to have a modicum of knowledge about black holes and what physics says about folding space.

This is one of the aspects of writing fiction that most who aren't writers don't understand.  There's more to a story than just getting it down on paper.  You have to get the stuff behind the story, the magic behind the curtain.  The amount of research I needed to conduct was one of the more surprising things I've discovered since I became serious about writing.

A large number of important characters in Salvation Day are demons from Christian lore.  The Council of Satan is comprised of those in the highest levels of the demon hierarchy.  In order to make that more believable to the reader, I had to research demon mythology.  It became necessary to understand the various names of the devil - Ba'al, Mephistopheles, Dioboles, Lucifer, Samael - as well as the female in the highest circle(Lilitu).  And you'd be amazed at the amount of information out there on the physical layout of both Heaven and Hell.

However, that amount of research was nothing next to what I had to do for Akeldama.  That novel rested largely on the framework of the Catholic Church.  Unlike some stories where the reader will give you a fudge factor because they don't know the technicalities either, there was no wiggle room here.  There are nearly 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and an even larger number who know a great deal about Catholicism.  Unfortunately, most of what I knew revolved around snippets on TV that were about as in depth as the thought put into the second season of Jericho.  I had to learn about the Roman Curia, the Swiss Guard, the various cities that had Archbishops in the United States, and even that the seat of Catholic power is not St. Peters, but rather the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran that technically lays outside the boundaries of the Vatican.

To top it off, the hunters that work for the Catholic Church have to interact with hunters from a different church - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons.  Here was something I really didn't know anything about.  I went through reams of material on the governing structure, from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to the First Presidency, plus quite a bit about the Mormon faith itself(truly amazing the amount of distortion out there).

There were a multitude of other things that I won't go into, but let's just say that I learned quite a bit, all of which was necessary to write credible fiction.  No, a practicing Catholic might not know or care about the inner working of police stations in Japan any more than a Mormon would know about the menu of Phillipes on North Alameda Street in Los Angeles, but a person who knew something about any of these apparently disparate elements would laugh at obviously untrue portions.  They would likely either put the book down, or they'd spend the rest of the book finding other parts that didn't match reality("The True Crime Section of the Richard Riordan Library isn't on the 2nd floor," they'd scoff.  "It's in sub-level three.")

Dan Brown did so much research for The Da Vinci Code that it took him nearly two years to write the novel.  Tom Clancy's research for The Hunt for Red October was so in depth that he almost got arrested for espionage.  But it's these elements of the stories that make them so compelling.  Even an absurd premise, like using a time portal to go back to 1958 in order to stop the Kennedy Assassination in 11/22/63, becomes a better story if the author can tell us what the correct price of a root beer was in a dime store in 1958(Stephen King did meticulous research for the book and later said he was surprised at how much he had to look up).

Believable snippets of information woven into an otherwise insane tale help the reader get into it.  "I can totally see this happening!" they'll shout.  The ability to break that barrier is the difference between Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South and L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth.  It can also be the difference between a book that sells and one that looks pretty gathering dust and rejection letters.  Either way, to write good fiction, you have to do the research needed to make stuff up.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Muse is a Bitch

OK, time to get back to talking about writing...
This woman is one of the biggest pain in the necks of writers.  She sometimes sits on her high horse and withholds information we need to make a living.  Sometimes she speaks so much we can't shut her out.  Either way, we're stuck living with her.

I'm talking about the dreaded Muse, the one who gives us our material.

Of course, boiled down to its essence, this is nothing more than our own imagination.  What can we come up with today?  Do we have enough to work with?  We may have a great idea, but if we can't put the meat on the bone, then our idea is hollow and won't stand up.

The Muse is a fickle creature.  There have been days when the writing just gushes from my fingertips.  When I'm really feeling it, I can write upwards of 7000 words without batting an eye.  In fact, the biggest worry at that point is not to overdo it, because running too fast can burn out the engine.  At the same time, I've had days where the Muse won't say a word.

How often have we sat at our computer, knowing we needed to punch out 2000 words for that day, but the screen simply stares back at us?  We have no idea what the heck is going on, because yesterday we were in the zone and our words flowed out effortlessly.  Today, however, there's nothing.  We begin to bargain with the Muse - "Please help me figure out the way this scene is supposed to go and I promise I'll donate my organs to needy kids when I die" or "If you'll help me write, I promise I'll devote more time to it."  Of course, these pleas never work, but that doesn't stop us.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the Muse is when she'll give us inspiration in fragments, spitting out a paragraph here and half a page there, before shutting up again and giving us the silent treatment.  I've gotten halfway through a riveting scene when I'll suddenly stop, uncertain of what the next step should be.  This is where an outline helps, because you can refer back to it and say, "Oh yeah, that's where I was going."  But what if you've outwritten your outline?  That has happened to me before(in fact, it just happened with Wrongful Death), and isn't a problem if you're in the zone.  However, if you hit a wall - either you ran out of material or you made the mistake of stopping for the day - you're stuck staring at that blank screen again.

I wish there was a magic potion that imbibed us with all the imagination and prose we needed, but even the most prolific writers have prayed to the Muse, only to find her silent(Stephen King complains about this all the time).  Until then, we simply have to press through and try to force her into speaking.  Sometimes that requires sitting in front of our computer and waiting(to the layman, this looks remarkably like daydreaming), because we'll rarely know if sitting there will be another hour of wasted time or the most productive hour of the day.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


When you hire someone, you probably expect them to work for you.  The relationship might be contentious at times, but you expect that the two of you will work together to advance mutual goals.  Were the other party to go behind your back and do things that cost you money, you might get just a little bit upset.
I've written a few times about agents.  We've often been told that it's near impossible to get published without an agent, so most of us go off in the hope that we can find someone who will help us realize our dreams.  Underlying that assumption is that our agent is supposed to represent us to those big bad publishers, since we're just too rube to figure out all those complex contracts ourselves.  Those who are published breathe easier knowing that an agent has your best interests at heart.  Or do they?

I'm certain that there are wonderful agents out there who work tirelessly for their clients, re-working deals to make sure the writer gets everything they can.  However, recent events make it appear that not every agent is so awesome.  I discussed in my last post, the DOJ is in the process of reaching a settlement with the Big Six publishers over allegations of price fixing.  Part of this stems from a way of selling books to distributors called the Agency Model.  The particulars of this are a little on the boring and technical side, but at the end of the day, authors made less money in royalties on their books than they used to under the Wholesale Model.

The part of this that sucks is that a group of 13 agents, including a couple that I had queried at some point, wrote a letter to the DOJ where they defended the publishing industry for allegedly fixing prices.  They even defended their clients making less money on the specious claim that doing so would allow the book industry to survive.

This is a free country, and you are free to support or oppose anyone you wish.  However, I expect agents to represent their author clients, not the publishing industry.  The ones who wrote the letter are agents and are hired to represent writers but chose instead to go to bat for a publishing industry that looks out more for themselves than for its authors.  To a certain extent, I expect that - publishing is a business where a company is, naturally, expected to do what it (legally) can to increase its bottom line.  If it could get bestselling material for free and keep every ounce of cash, I'm sure the publishing industry would do just that and not bat an eye.  However, as writers, we expect the shield between us and the industry to be the agent we hire.  They should be looking out for our interests and doing all they can to increase our bottom line, not the publisher's.  A lot of the time, ours and the publisher's bottom line are related, but if there is a dispute between who should take home more money, I would think the agent we hired to look after our best interests would come down on our side.  That 13 of them have chosen to side with publishing practices that earn their clients less money is appalling.  Why would this even happen?

I think it stems from the fact that these agents know which side their bread is buttered on(mmm...butter...).  An agent named Janet Kobobel Grant recently said that, "except for regular-selling authors with momentum building, authors can be replaced. And crowds of new writers are working hard to do just that. So, really, how valuable is an author?"  On the other hand, there are only six big-time publishers from whom you can truly pick to sell your clients' work to.  Writers with googly-eyed dreams of making it are practically knocking down the door of every agent they can find, so it's not like agents are hurting for clients.  But if they become known as "that pain in the ass who always tries to renegotiate our contracts" to the publishing world, they could find themselves shut out of the circle of trust, never to sell another thing.

Agents could have an enormous impact on what their clients got paid if they stood together.  No, I'm not talking about collusion, but if one courageous individual decided not to take such treatment for their clients, thus setting an example to others, and those others then joined in, they could have an impact as a group.  Unfortunately, no one wants to be the first to stick his or her neck out because they know that a lot of others will be all too willing to fill that void.
I know that there are many agents out there who are working hard for their clients, but these 13 who claim to speak for all 475 members of the AAR, although I find that claim dubious at best, are working more for publishers than for writers.  Don't pick up a pen and go off to fight for a publisher - believe me, they have more than enough money to defend themselves.  Instead, fight for those you are supposed to be representing - writers.

On one last note, now that I've completely shot myself in the foot by criticizing agents in a published post, anyone have a guess as to which way I'm leaning when it comes time to get my work in front of readers?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Troubling Situation

This might not be the smartest post I've done, especially seeing as I'm a newbie who has yet to get any serious consideration from the publishing world.  In fact, I might be committing career suicide just by bringing it up in the way I do, but I wouldn't be me if I stayed quiet.

I recently ran across two blogs by writers that I've just added to my blogroll - According to Hoyt by Sarah Hoyt, and A Newbie's Guide to Publishing by JA Konrath.  Both are fairly well established in the Author Universe, and both have recently brought up a situation that I was unaware of.

There are a few small, independent publishing houses out there, but most of what we see on the shelf is controlled by the "Big Six" publishing houses - Random House, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan.  These companies have divisions within their firms - Random House, for example, has familiar names like Doubleday and Crown Publishing as part of its American division - but that only makes it seem like there are more companies out there than actually exist.  Trust me, if you've bought a book in a Barnes and Noble or the now defunct Borders, you've more than likely bought it from one of these giants.

Most writers I know dream of being published by one of these companies.  To be so would make the author seem as if he or she had made it to the "big time."  That's right - we'd be in the major leagues, or dreams of professional glory only inches from our fingertips.  We'd have finally arrived.

Unfortunately, there is a teeny tiny problem.  Whereas there were once dozens of firms out there and prospective authors had greater choice, these six control the industry and have squeezed out competition.  This in and of itself wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if they still competed aggressively against each other, which would, of course, keep the market vibrant and help the consumer.  Alas, these six have begun to act more like an oligarchy rather than separate firms focused on their place atop the market.  How could that be?  Well, it seems the Department of Justice is in the process of reaching a settlement with these big boys due to allegations of price fixing with regards to e-books.

The e-book phenomenon is changing the industry.  This should be good - thousands upon thousands of people who wouldn't normally be avid readers can now download the latest title and not be burdened with a cumbersome load of books they won't look at again after they read them.  This, one would imagine, would overjoy both authors and publishers since it should open up fresh new markets.  However, one side of that equation isn't happy with everything, and that side is publishers.

It seems publishers are upset they're having difficulty charging the same amount for e-books as they do for traditional books.  You see, people won't pay $12.99 for an e-book.  When the market is allowed to react to this, prices would normally come down to what consumers would pay, and a new equilibrium would be established.  However, this would mean that the Big Six would lose control and not be able to overcharge people, so they allegedly got together and have tried to force distributors - mainly Amazon - to charge a certain price.  Were one company to do this, there'd be little problem.  Amazon could simply tell them, in a very businesslike way, to "go screw themselves."  However, when all six do it, it becomes an illegal infringement on the market.

The cry of the publishers is that Amazon, by cutting prices initially when they were sold this stuff wholesale as opposed to the Agency Model the Big Six wanted, has jeapardized the existence of books themselves.  I've spoken before about the changes the industry is currently undergoing, as well as the fact that publishers have to find a way of adapting, or they'll go the way of the horse and buggy.  But it seems that instead of changing, they'd rather ride that plane all the way into the mountain.

Simon Lipskar of Writer's House has written an open letter to the DOJ where he tried to make the case that this isn't all that bad.  In this, he makes several flawed arguments that treat the average reader like an idiot.  Mr. Lipskar writes that the alleged collusion harmed no one because although it wants to force e-book distributors to raise the prices on some books, the prices of others would fall, so we'd all be able to meet in a happy middle.  I thought about this for a moment before asking, "What if I just want to read certain titles and don't care to read the ones you want to reduce in price?'

This is where the next, in my opinion, laughable argument comes in.  Mr. Lipskar's letter claims that books are "fungible."  I had to look that up, because as learned as I am, that word escaped my vocabulary.  When I found out what it means, I shook my head - it basically means that you can substitute one for another and there's no discernible difference.

Have any of you ever been reading Harry Turtledove and suddenly thought, "This is just like a Nora Roberts book!"?  When I decide to read a particular book, it's because I'm attracted to that book, not because I think it's just like every other book.  In fact, it's the differences that make me want to read them.  For a supposed industry expert to claim something so absurd means he either honestly can't tell the difference between Gone With the Wind and Ramona the Pest, or he thinks we're all such stupid sheep that we'll be placated by anything put in front of us, and, dammit, we'll like it because our masters have told us to do so.

By doing these kinds of things, publishing houses are unwittingly driving more and more people into the arms of self-publication.  Amazon has made it very easy to publish an e-book, and by trying to get the online company to charge unrealistic prices, publishers are driving people away from the market.  If an author can't sell, he or she makes no money.  A 15% royalty on 0 is still 0, but if that same writer publishes an e-book for $2.99 and gets to keep around 70% of it, well that might open up the market.  Further, the allure of traditional publishers has been their brand name and ability to get the author's work in front of a larger audience, but the Internet has started to bridge that gap.

I've remarked on my own decision process currently underway on whether or not to self-publish, and this tale, stacked on top of some true horror stories I've heard about how the big houses treat their newer and less established writers, has gone some way towards pushing me even further in that direction.  Price fixing so folks can't sell, and then treating the consumers like morons, isn't the way to increase market share.

So yes, by writing this critique, I may have slit my own throat in the "traditional" world.  If that's the case, then so be it - I might as well go in all the way.  Wait until my next post which will discuss a disturbing letter written by a group that is supposed to represent writers, but seems more interested in maintaining the status quo.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


A lot of people, myself included, have difficulty getting rolling.  Our writing struggles to break the inertia of nothingness, and the first 15 minutes or so can be the hardest part of the process.  However, once we can break that inertia and get going, our writing picks up steam and seems to move of its own accord.

This is where, in a way, a daily word count goal can actually hurt you.  A number of writers will write to their word count goal and stop.  They'll figure, "Whew!  I made it to my 2500 words for the day, so I can stop."  I've made this same mistake over the years, and I kick myself now for not understanding that when you get up a head of steam...DON'T STOP!

When you're on a roll, for heaven's sake, stay on that roll.  There is little better feeling than to be hitting your stride on your writing, although this also applies to outlining, and you just know it's going great.  You've hit the zone and your words are almost writing themselves.  Unfortunately, too many of us then get to a certain point and then slam on the brakes.  We've reached our daily goal and feel like we can pick back up where we left off tomorrow .  However, most of us don't realize that we didn't really slam on the brakes - no, in order to stop, we ran ourselves into a wall.

Stopping so suddenly not only halts our momentum, but it makes it difficult to even figure out where to begin again.  That's why, the next day, we find ourselves right back where we were the day before - staring at a blank screen, desperately re-reading yesterday's prose in the hopes we can regain that spark we once had.  At that point, we'll usually smack ourselves in the head and ask, "Why in the world did I stop yesterday?  Things were going so well, but I had to get to the store to pick up that last batch of microwavable corn dogs before the national supply ran dry."

I could go on for a while, but I trust you get my point.  So long as you have the time, don't stop just because your goal for the day has been reached.  Pat yourself on the back for getting there, but if the words are flowing, don't stop the spigot.  As your work becomes less nebulous and more real, you'll find that spigot harder and harder to turn back on.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Someone Interviewed Me!

This is a special emergency post.  Please check out Vanessa Eccles blog, The Writer's Block .  She has posted an interview with yours truly, and I feel both honored and humbled for her to have done so.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Problem of Too Much Imagination

What is the one thing writers like to believe we have in more abundant quantity than anyone else?  Imagination.

It's imagination that drives us, that creates these crazy stories we just have to share.  Some of us even like to brag that our imagination is so over the top that our friends and families would have us committed if anyone ever got a real peak inside our skulls.  Unfortunately, there can be a problem when one's imagination begins to intrude a little too much on our lives.

Yes, some of us are so enamored of our ideas that we jump from one idea to the next without ever pausing to put an entire story down on paper.

That's where my weakness lies.  Writing is, for lack of a better analogy, daydreaming on paper.  Honestly, it's one of the best things about being a writer - I can stare into space and let the loony tunes play out in my head, and when someone asks me what I'm doing, I can respond with some bullshit excuse about mapping out plotlines or developing my characters.  Since a story that stays in my head can spin off in any direction I want, I like to leave it there sometimes, play around with it, and then maybe come back to it later.  That way we don't write ourselves into a corner where we have to rip up 75 pages worth of stuff to get back on track(not that that's ever happened to me...mine come out perfect...fine, believe what you want).  However, to those of us who like creature comforts - like food and shelter - we need to find a way to get others interested in our insanity, so much so that they'll actually plop down a few bucks to get the whole thing from us.

I'll be writing a great story, and yet, as invariably happens to all of us, I'll hit a road block at some point, or it'll seem a bit stale.  When that happens, my brain wants to say, "I know what'll keep us fresh.  We'll just create a new story and you can play around with that for a while!"  Of course, we'll get to a part in that story where we'll get bored, and our brains will try to distract us again.  This endless loop has been  the bane of a lot of writers, many of whom have a few dozen half finished manuscripts lying around that'll never get finished, much less see a book store shelf.

I've enjoyed writing my current novel, Wrongful Death.  However, the potential sequel to Akeldama kept popping into my head, so much so that I even wrote a query letter for it.  Keep in mind that I'm working on something else, and this potential new book hasn't had the first page written yet.  I thought, Well, maybe I could just write a few pages to get it started before I go back to what I should really be working on.  What could it hurt?

Here's what it could hurt - the completion of Wrongful Death.  And this isn't the only time with this book, or with other works, that this has happened.  I have a faucet full of ideas that want to flood the bathroom of my mind, so I've had to shut it off at the source.  I'm intentionally shutting down new ideas until my current project is complete, including initial editing.  I'll be walking my dogs and something interesting will come into my head, and I'll force it out.  Yes, I might write down a keyword in my journal to remind me to expound on it later, but I deliberately leave it nebulous.  I did the same thing during Akeldama and Salvation Day as well.  I have ideas for full length novels for at least another five stories, plus innumerable more that could be short stories.  However, if I let them take over, I'll never finish what I start.  My mind might have all these great ideas, but if I can't finish one at a time so that someone else wants to hear them, I might as well sit in a corner all day, drooling and babbling incoherently to myself.

On the other hand, that's not much different than what I do now...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Page Count Versus Word Count

When I first began to write, one of my chief concerns, shallow as it might sound, was will my book be "long enough" to be an actual book?  I think a lot of newbies have that concern, and it makes us a little more, um, verbose than we normally would be.  We tend to draw out minor plots points in an attempt to give our ideas sufficient girth.

Of course, I did absolutely no research on the average length of a novel and based it solely on what I thought it should be.  I wanted something around 500 pages, for surely that would let people know I was a serious writer and knew what I was talking about.

I set about doing this by having a page count goal.  Of course, I failed to note that not everyone writes in size ten Arial font.  The type and size font can skew the number of pages, but I didn't want to be bothered with such mundane things when I had a story to tell!

Once I was done, I tried to figure out if I had a good size book.  Believe it or not, I actually picked up several books and counted the words per page to get an idea of how many were usually on each page(note - average count was 329).  I felt relieved - my pages had between 520-600 words per page.  Wow, I thought, this was going to be easy to turn into a "real" book.  After all, most of what I'd written was around 250-300 pages, so doubling it to account for the difference would give me a 500-600 page book.  Then I started researching the industry - a bit belatedly - and found out that an unpublished author probably shouldn't shoot for a War & Peace epic.

When Salvation Day first came out, it meandered at 175,000 words!  Imagine my consternation when I found out that this was more than double what most agents or publishers wanted from an unpublished author.  They insisted that readers wouldn't tolerate this kind of thing from an unknown.  As much as I might disagree with them - I think one of the reasons The Stand or Executive Orders does so well is precisely because the book has the depth readers want - agents and publishers control all of the gates, so one must conform, at least a little, if one is to break out.  Anne Rice or JK Rowling can defy this convention, but they've long since established themselves.  Those of us who don't yet have a following have to play by the rules until we're famous enough to write our own rules(both Rice and Rowling have clauses in their contracts that forbid further editing from publishers...with a track record of sales, I guess they can dictate that).

Discovering the rules for word count has made things easier, once I broke through the mental barriers surrounding them.  I can now tell my stories without worrying if they're big enough.  Believe me - I write stories of sufficient girth that they'll meet the criteria without needing to pointlessly wander down paths that are only marginal to the overall plot.

Instead of trying to write four pages a day now, I'll stick to 2000 words at a time.  It gets me to the goal a great deal easier and with less stress than before, and I don't have to guess at how thick my work will look like on the shelves.  And I promise that the next time I want to feel good at the number of pages I've written, I'll increase the font size to 20 and pretend what it'll look like next to The Shiva Option.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Progress Report #2

I promised a progress report on my new novel in this post, so here it is!

In the middle of March, I had 10,000 words and no title.  As of today, not only do I finally have a working title - Wrongful Death - but I have also completed 56,000 words.  My goal is to get to around 75,000 words, from which I will likely cut between 10,000 and 12,000.  That should give me a decent size novel without going way overboard.

To recap, the novel is about a high school senior named Christian Gettis, and he is killed in a hit and run accident in the book's first chapter.  Immediately thereafter, he gets met by Alexander, his designated spiritual mentor, who tells him he's not quite ready to move into the afterlife due to the unexpected and violent nature of his death.  Christian's spirit must come into balance before he can move on, and Alexander tells him that the only way to do this is to avenge himself on the person responsible for killing him.

I'm trying a couple of different things with this novel, one of which isn't terribly out of the ordinary, and one that might be considered a bit unusual.  The first plot device is that I'm telling it from a first person limited point of view.  I speak as Christian throughout the book, and everything is seen through his eyes.  The second, and a little different, plot device is that since I'm telling the story through Christian's eyes, you get to experience a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost.  One of the hardest things is describing how the main character interacts with the physical world but still keep things a little suspenseful.  How do you make it scary when the ghost is describing what he's doing?  I'll admit that it's a challenge and involves more allusion than description.

Of course, another challenge is balancing the need to keep Christian likeable with the need for him to do some things that might make readers uncomfortable.  He does some pretty evil stuff, and I've got to make the reader understand the motivations behind them.  If I go on too long without revisiting how he died and the ripple effects on everyone in his life, Christian will come across as less sympathetic and more as a bastard.  So I throw in visits to his family, friends, and girlfriend.  His relationship with his father is a key point of the plot, so I had to let the reader understand the normal rifts between a teenager and his dad, while at the same time bringing to the surface a growing regret over not making amends.  Christian watches his dad try to hold his family together in the midst of the grief, and if I've done my job right, it should be the most emotionally powerful part of the story.

Where I've left off is the key part of the whole thing, and the main character is now being forced to confront possibilities that will change his perception and make things much more complicated.  He wishes things could remain as simple as they appeared when he first arrived at his haunting spot, when all he had to do was worry whether or not the person who supposedly killed him could perceive his forays into her life.  However, he has gotten new information that makes him wonder if his own perceptions are skewed and what he should do if he discovers the truth.

I'm hoping to begin the first round of edits by mid June because I would like it ready to go by the Hawaii Writers Conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Labor Day.  I promise to reveal more later, but first I have to figure out the resolution of the plot myself!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I'm Baaaaaaaack!

I have returned from the beyond!

I told you guys I'd be gone for a while.  Although I'd hoped to have enough Internet access to do at least a couple of posts from the Philippines, there were issues with the bandwidth, and it just wasn't practical.  In fact, there was barely enough capability for me to write my wife and daughter.  However, my business trip is finally over, and I returned this afternoon.  So, of course, one of the first things I had to do was get back to my blog.

The Philippines is a beautiful country, but every time I leave the United States, I am reminded of how good we have it here.  So many of life's daily comforts we take for granted.  That shouldn't be an issue for me for a while.  A simple thing like air conditioning is much more appreciated now.

So, during my down time, what did I manage to accomplish?  Well, I'm thrilled to report that I made fantastic progress on my new novel.  I started the trip with 10,000 words, and I'd have been happy to have gotten to 30,000.  Therefore, imagine my happiness at now getting to 56,000 words!  It's amazing what you can accomplish when the only things you have to do in a day revolve around either work or writing(I don't consider writing work, mostly because I enjoy it).  There was no TV, no one to drag me to Outback, no one to try and get me sloshed against my will.  Nope, once work ended for the day, there was writing...or bed.
In addition to another 46,000 words on top of the 10,000 I'd already written, I also came up with a working title - Wrongful Death.  True, it might not make to publication, or even to the query process if something better comes up, but it gives the book a more real feel than simply seeing the Word file A Haunting.

My goal for the first draft is to be around 75,000 words, and I imagine cutting 10,000-15,000 words during the editing process.  Given my pace - when I sat down, my goal was around 2,000 words per day - I'd like to tell you that the first draft of Wrongful Death will be done by the end of May, but we both know that's a pipe dream.  Now that I'm back, there are a bazillion(yes, it's a real word - look it up and leave me alone, okay?) distractions out there, so just forcing myself to sit down and knock it out will be a chore.  However, I hope to have it done before the 4th of July.

I promise in the next update to give a more complete report on where Wrongful Death stands, but for the moment, bask in my triumphal return!  Ok, ok, just please read my blog - that'll do for now.