Sunday, January 31, 2016

Staying Hard

In the modern age, one of the key questions that plagues writers trying to sell books is whether or not to produce hardcover books.  Years ago, this wasn’t an issue.  You either produced hardcover books or you had nothing to sell.
Today, however, the ebook has made this an interesting question.  Due to Amazon, Smashwords, and others, ebooks are all the rage.  What’s more, they’re cheap and easy to do.  Simply upload your work to the appropriate platform and voila, your book is on the market.
Still, there’s just something about seeing a hardcover book with your name on it.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve long dreamed of walking into a bookstore and seeing a display, preferably up front, where your novel is laid in with the other tomes.  It’s tangible proof of your hard work, and that dream can be hard to ditch.
This is where we need to take the emotion out of it and decide what we’re trying to accomplish.  If your goal is simply to see your book in print, then go for it.  It’s easy nowadays to create a hardcover book and have it shipped to us.  However, if your goal is to have a career doing this writing thing, you need to do a little more analysis.
What is the purpose behind creating a hardcover?  Do you have a distribution channel?  Do you have people ready, perhaps on a distro list or as a set of friends, to buy your hardcover.  Remember, until you’re established, getting your work into an actual bookstore will be challenging, so your work has to stay somewhere while it gets out(like in your garage).
Ebooks are much simpler in the modern market, but not everyone uses them.  Perhaps you want to try a strategy of amalgamation, where you supplement your ebooks with a limited number of hardcovers.  Remember, hardcovers cost more than ebooks(considerably more…this is where cold analysis has to come in to the business side of things as opposed to the emotional joy of just writing).  You have to set up an imprint, produce a proof copy(if you’re smart), get the production cost, figure out a profitable price point, etc.  I know, this is the non-sexy part of writing, but writing is more than good stories – it’s a business, at least if you want to put food on the table by doing it.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Losing It

Random events in life can make me mad.  Like most of us, unexpected curveballs life throws at us that make things harder create triggers of rage in me.  Cut me off in traffic and I’ll let out a stream of curses that would make a sailor blush.  Let me get bumped while I’m eating so that I get mustard on the shirt I just pulled from the dryer, and I have to force the red out of my eyes before I jump up and turn into the Tasmanian Devil.
Why do I bring up how I can act like a two year old when denied a piece of candy?  Because it happens in writing as well.
We live in a world of computers.  In the olden days, a writer sat at a typewriter and belted out reams of physical paper to create stories.  Now, however, we use laptops and tablets and whatever else to create our work.  This usually makes life easier, but not always.  Case in point – I was writing a recent blog post and had just finished what I thought was a great point, so I went to save it.  That was when my computer shit the bed.  As I restarted, the archive retrieval only found half the document, all of which was written before the point I’d just labored over.
Obviously, I was furious.
Typewriters were cumbersome, but at least I didn’t have to worry about losing my work to the electronic ether.  I know, I know…confound that dadburn modernity.
The frustration of it all, of course, is that re-creating exactly what I just wrote is near impossible.  We operate in a stream of consciousness while writing, and getting it exactly as we had it just doesn’t work.  Sure, we can get close, and the basic point is still there, but we’ll never get it as we just had it.  Think I’m wrong?  Go ahead and try it – write a bit of a story, get a blank sheet of paper, and then try to re-write that same story in exactly the same way.  Dollars to donuts(mmm…donuts…) that your second try will be different than the first, even if those differences are only minor.
This is the problem of being a writer.  Something that requires no creative effort can be done over and over and over again.  But the creative process rarely asserts itself the same way twice.  That’s why I save my work in multiple places once it’s complete, for I know that I’ll never reproduce it the same way.  I don’t mind editing, but I despise re-creating.  That just unleashes my inner toddler, and that toddler is as capable of throwing a tantrum as anyone.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


I think all of us want to come across as confident.  After all, confidence draws people to us.  In survey after survey, women say that confidence is the biggest component to being attracted to a man.  In business, we’re all drawn towards the confident(but not arrogant) leader who seems to have all the answers.
Therefore it can be intimidating to us when we look inside and know that we don’t have the same level of confidence that those we look up to have.  What’s wrong with me? we wonder.  Everyone else seems to have it all together.
The largest place this comes into play with us is in regards to our writing.  What if people don’t like my stories?  What if someone says that I’m, no good?  Geez, that last thing I wrote doesn’t seem quite right?  Maybe no one will buy my books and I’ll have to go back to my window washing job.
We all have doubts about this writing thing.  And you know what?  That’s okay.  It’s natural to have doubts, for we’re engaging in an uncertain enterprise.  This is not some union-secured job where we know that unless we screw up in a major way, we’re going to get paid.  Our success depends on others liking and buying our books.  If the audience decides that we’re not interesting enough, then we don’t get paid and no one likes us.
This can be enough to cripple even the most prolific writer.  Some of us go to writing conferences or engage with other writers on blogs, and our fellow writers seem to have it all together.  Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret – they all have the same doubts you do.
Doubting, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing.  The key is to turn that doubt into motivation to work hard and make yourself a success.  Get out there and promote your work.  Do research on what audience will best enjoy your writing.  Get engaged with writing forums and learn the craft even better.
And, of course, do it all with confidence.
What does that mean, especially when we’ve just discussed that we have doubts?  It means to fake it till you make it.  Act with confidence, even if you have none.  I get it – that’s hard.  Doubt seeps into your soul like mold, spreading through your spirit until it feels like it’s everywhere.  Who cares?  Unless you express it, no one can tell, so long as you act confident.
I’ve known some great writers who have egos of crystal.  The slightest thing can crush their confidence, but you’d never know it.  If you need to find a friend to confide in so you can release your emotions, do it, but then put on your happy face and show the world that you know what you’re doing.  It’s not easy, but it will inspire true confidence once you’ve made it.  And you will make it – never doubt that, for if you let those doubts stop you, then all the naysayers were right.  It’s okay to have doubts(everyone does), but it’s not okay to let them stop you.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Defying Description

The writing world is full of contradictory advice – be vivid, leave it up to the audience, write boldly, write subtly, create a supporting cast, don’t overdo the number of characters, etc.  It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in frustration and scream.
One of the areas writers struggle with is how much detail to put into the work.  If your character is running someone through with his blade, how vividly do you describe the action?  Do you run through the sound effects of the gore, like maybe how it sounds like you’re slicing a turkey?  Can you describe the river of blood that splattered upon the floor?  Or do you merely allude to the gore by mentioning a trickle of red and telling how your character’s enemy collapsed to the floor?
Admittedly, one of the areas I’ve struggled with this is in regard to sex.  Sex is an ever-present part of our world, and ignoring it would be like pretending the sun doesn’t shine.  But do we get heavily into it, talking about penetration and bodily fluids, or do we dance around the subject and let the reader’s mind become the porno theater?
The answer will be different for each of us.  For me, I vary between excruciating detail and allusion, and which way depends on what I want the audience to experience.  There are times the story calls for specifics in order to trap the audience in the moment.  If I need to get the reader to hate the villain, I’ll describe his rape scene or murder scene in excruciating detail, for I need to evoke a specific emotion, so I need the audience to know just how depraved the villain can be.  However, if I want to get the audience to experience wonder or a little curiosity, I’ll leave parts out and let the reader fill in the blanks, where what the audience comes up with is sure to be more outrageous than I could conceive.
Pick up any tome on how to write a novel, and one of the cardinal rules you’ll encounter is to find ways to leave out adjectives and adverbs.  Usually, in BIG BOLD WARNINGS, experts tell us that this makes your work hard to read and no one will like it.  However, has anyone ever read Dean Koontz?  I picked up one of his novels recently and found it to be overflowing with added descriptors.  Koontz violates just about every rule on the use of modifiers that exists, yet he has a devoted following and has sold more than most of us will.  So why does he get away with it when all the “experts” say not to do so?  Because he’s found his audience.  His readers like that kind of stuff.
For all the hoity-toity lectures we get about the sophistication of the audience, most folks just want to read a good story.  Getting too flowery or pompous turns off the masses, and that leads to no book sales.  You have to tweak and grow as your writing grows, but don’t stray too far from who you are.  Remember, even experts can be wrong, and writers like Koontz prove them wrong every day.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Daydreaming is held in some contempt in society.  After all, by staring into space and just thinking, you look remarkably like you’re just goofing off, and goofing off is frowned upon.  You’re not being productive!  You’re lazy!
Daydreaming is an essential part of being a writer.  That other people don’t get this is their problem, and one we have to learn to ignore.  How are we to come up with great story ideas if we can sit there and think.  Sometimes we get great ideas we can play with, and other times we have nothing come, but that doesn’t mean either way we spend our time is any less meaningful than the other.  When I’m daydreaming, I never know when that next idea will assert itself, so I never know if five more minutes staring into space will be wasted time or the most productive time of the day.
When we’re kids, teachers, parents, and other assorted “grownups” discourage us from daydreaming.  Get to your math homework! they’ll yell.  Or You’ve got piano lessons!  Most adults seem compelled to shut down daydreaming whenever they encounter it, as if its very existence is an affront to the established order.
However, we have to daydream.  It’s not lazy – it’s creative.  I daydream on walks with my dogs, while I’m sitting down to dinner, or whenever I need a break from my boss(I look interested in what he’s saying, but my mind is fighting battles through some far off nebula).  This is how I develop my stories.
So don’t let anyone tell you not to daydream.  Sure, there are times to not engage in it – during the conduct of open heart surgery is probably not the best time – but it’s not the wasted enterprise some would have us believe.  In fact, it’s as much a part of being a writing as, you know, actual writing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Your Own Universe

I was in a bookstore the other day, browsing the titles as I'm wont to do, and something struck me.  The Star Wars section was on display, still reveling in the success of the newest movie, and I realized just how many titles from that universe were out there.

This caused me to wander the store to see just how many other universes were represented.  Let's just say that they are numerous.

The two best known are Star Wars and Star Trek, but they aren't the only ones.  From Dungeons & Dragons to Zorro, the sheer volume of books set in certain universes is staggering.  I started pondering why such a thing would be so enticing.

I get it - setting a story in an already established universe is easier on several fronts.  First, the characters are already written, so you don't have to spend time developing them too much.  Everybody knows who Luke Skywalker is, so you can go right into the story you want to tell.  Second, there's already an established fan base - write a halfway decent story and the fans of that universe will likely buy your work.

However, I dislike this.  Don't get me wrong - there are many stories like this that are pretty good(chief among them, in my opinion, is the Heir to the Empire Trilogy from Timothy Zahn).  Still, as a writer, I find such things limiting.  For one thing, a character's direction is already set, so you can't do things too far out of the ordinary or people will abandon you.  That's the drawback of eschewing character development, that it allows little room for development you might like to see.  Additionally, you have to abide by the rules of that universe.  It's hard to stray too far outside of what's seen as "normal" in such a setting or you'll also be written off.  Finally, in addition to adhering to the general rules of that universe, there are consistency issues that mean you have to know what has happened in that universe so you don't contradict its history(sure, you can do it, but it creates problems of confusion for readers).

Maybe it comes down to a matter of imagination for me.  I feel trapped by working in something someone else made.  I prefer to design my own story and see if the reader will accept it or not.  Bluntly, I view using another's universe as lazy.  Yes, we all want to see what happens in stories we've already taken a shine to, but it takes a great deal less effort to write in one.  Shouldn't we be seeking to set ourselves apart rather than join the faceless morass of other writers?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lazy Publishers

I've often touted the growing indie movement.  I think it's the wave of the future and that it allows writers to react more to market forces than the oligarchy of traditional publishing.  However, it's having the perverse effect of making traditional publishing both more lazy and more autocratic.

What I mean by that is that while ebooks and technological advances have made indie more viable, they've also helped traditional publishing by eliminating the need for risk taking.  Since many people can achieve success through indie publication, yet still yearn for greater distribution and possibilities from traditional publishing, the traditional houses can sit back and see if an indie book makes waves in the market first before taking the writer on as a client.  They can wait until the public shows interest, and then they can pounce with offers of bookstore displays and high paying advances.  This eliminates the financial risk of pouring resources into an unknown author.

Further, traditional houses can continue to treat newbie writers like crap.  After all, if the newbie doesn't bow down to the demands of the house, that house can just go look in the indie ranks for success.  This Sword of Damocles can force subservience into those so desperate for traditional success that they'll give in to any demand from one of the few remaining traditional publishing houses.

The only counter to this is for indie writers to shun traditional houses unless offers are truly in the favor of the writer.  Traditional houses know the perception most have about how to get rich and famous, and they use that perception to their advantage.  Only if indie writers, and writers chained to traditional houses, understand the power they hold will the power of the traditional house ever be broken.  It's a power balance shift that many don't even know has taken place, or at least not to the degree it has.

Traditional publishing is dying.  But like many behemoths, it's a slow death and the beast still presents the image of vigor.  However, this vigor is an illusion to those who understand it, and it's time we remembered that.  Until we do, traditional houses will have no real incentive to change their habits.  It's time we force that change by holding from them what they need most - our work.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Create Your Own Voice

I often hear writer friends proclaim that they want to be the next Stephen King, or the next JK Rowling, or the next whoever-is-great-and-famous.  I get that attraction - these are authors with proven track records of both success and talent.  Any of us would be fortunate to achieve what they have.

However, don't make the mistake of thinking that theirs is the only path to success.  If you've read King, Rowling, Turtledove, Foster, Zahn, or any great writer, you'll note that each has his or her own distinctive style.  Even within similar styles, each has his or her own voice.  Indeed, it's because each has a voice that is separate that each has succeeded.

The point here is to develop your own style as a writer.  Figure out how to best tell your own story, and how to get the audience to appreciate it.  If that means a great deal of dialogue, then so be it.  If that means frantic action with breathtaking descriptions, so be it, so long as it works for you.  Yes, you'll adjust your style as you write over the course of years, but it has to be something you own rather than a cheap imitation of what someone else has done.

This is not to say that you shouldn't study great writers(yep, here I go again with the contradictory advice).  It only makes sense to look at how the most successful in our field have done things and learn from them.  Where it goes too far is when you try to use their talent as your own.  You should seek to establish your own voice in the writing world, for only then will you be able to achieve great things.  Stephen Curry doesn't try to be the next Michael Jordan - he tries to be the first Stephen Curry.  His mindset is that he wants others to emulate him some day instead of remembering him as a great copycat of the best.  And that should be how each of us approaches this whole writing thing - to be imitated by others one day instead of remembered as an also-ran.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Keep It To Yourself

I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating in our hyper-partisan culture - keep your politics and religion to yourself.  I get that our views can shape our lives, but we have to remember that not everyone shares them.  And in our super-sensitive society, some will use any reason of offense to stay away from our work.

Sometimes we take for granted that, of course, all sane people share our views.  However, we're not the only sane people, and others have perfectly valid reasons for holding a different view on something we see as common sense.  Those among us unable to see that, be they the writer or the reader, will shun those of differing views.

Why does this matter?  Because in our culture, we could potentially alienate half of our audience. Boycotts begin over differences in opinion or religious and/or political opinions thrown around.  I get that we all hold strong beliefs, and if you're writing a book about religion or politics, then it's unavoidable.  However, readers go to fiction to escape the real world, and putting in unsolicited opinions that might be controversial is a HUGE turnoff.  I can't tell you the number of times I've been reading something and I come across a not-so-subtle piece of political preaching.  At that point, I've been know to slam the book down in disgust and scream, "GODDAMMIT!" at the top of my lungs.  When I'm reading a sci-fi epic or paranormal thriller, I'm not looking for an opinion one way or the other on (insert controversial topic here).  It throws off my focus and makes me feel as if the author and I no longer share a world view.

Of course if you want to put in how you feel about taxes, foreign policy, the Presidential race, or whatever else, that's completely your call - just be prepared to lose a large portion of your audience as a result.  A few might be gracious enough to finish reading your book, but many more will put it away(or in the trash).  If you're lucky, the only consequence will be that the reader simply won't buy your stuff ever again.  However, I've seen some readers organize boycotts or publicize the fascist/communist/heathen/evangelical views of the writer and convince large numbers- numbers that might be part of the target audience - to never buy anything ever again.  Given the viral sensations that have ruined people's lives now, it takes very little for one off-the-cuff remarks to forever affect our lives.

Some of you may be poo-pooing me, saying that it's cowardly to avoid core beliefs in your writing.  If that's your point of view, that's fine.  In my personal life, I have no problem sharing my views.  But in business, the intent is to reach as large an audience as possible, thus increasing one's earnings potential.  Shrugging off half the market isn't a good way to do that.  If you want to do that, don't gripe when you aren't as popular as you expected.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Unconventional Narration

I tend to write from the point of view of the main protagonist in the story.  It helps the audience see things through that character's eyes, thus creating a bond between the character and the audience.  I want them emotionally invested in that characters, so sharing their eyes is a good thing.

That said, I recently ran across a technique I'd never really given serious consideration to.  Serious consideration?  Shit, I never gave it any consideration.  That was to tell the story from a totally different point of view, like that of the villain.

I pondered this when I saw someone argue the merits of it recently, and I thought doing so might be fun.  Most of us don't see the villain's point of view, so how would we react to their take on the narrative?  Would it throw us for so much of a loop that we couldn't handle it?  Could it make us hate the story so much we put down the book in disgust?  Admittedly, I have no idea, for I've never done it or read a story like that.

Okay, that's not completely true.  In Salvation Day, there's a small part in which we see the murder of a mother and her daughter through the eyes of her killer, but I did that as a way to demonstrate callousness and show how the tables could get turned in Hell rather than as a serious vehicle for a large part of the story.  After I did it, I discarded the technique as a one time deal and promptly forgot about it.

But I now wonder if I could write a whole book like that.  I think it would be quite a challenge to write from an evil point of view and see if I could maintain reader sympathies in the right places while not causing a mass exodus of fans.  I think that I might try this in a limited way at first - write part of a story from the hero's point of view and part from the villain's to blend the two together - but I want to see if I can eventually stretch myself to write an entire novel that way.  No, it wouldn't be an all-the-time thing, or even a half-the-time thing, but rare occasions could shake things up.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

More On Reality

As I said in my last post, I like to include some reality where I can.  It helps blur the lines between the real world and the fictional one, and that can draw the reader into the story in a more encompassing way.  However, we are writing fiction, so not everything can be straight-down-the-middle real.

In my last post, I talked about how this impacted geography.  But there are other areas, like products and people.  While it would be cool to always include real people and products all of us recognize, like Pepsi or Nike, there are copyright and libel implications that have to be considered.  Most people won't care if you play them up as some genius or hero, they might have an issue with being portrayed as evil or an idiot, and some don't want to be mentioned at all.  This isn't an issue if you're making a statement from a factual or historical perspective, but if you make them a character in your story, this is much more an issue.  Always best to obtain their permission, which means being up front about their role in what you're writing.

Products are similar.  Ever notice that movies don't use CNN or CBS, but rather a stand-in like "GNN?"  Or that hotels are "Best Rest" instead of Best Western?  This is because of the limitations some companies put on their products' use.  The smallest perceived slight can lead to a lawsuit, and most of us don't have the resources to handle that.  I've contacted numerous companies for my novels, and most have been gracious.  Glock and Beretta granted me permission(Beretta had the caveat that "bad guys don't use Berettas," but that's not an issue in my book), as did Philippe The Original restaurant in Los Angeles.  However, one major university explicitly denied me permission to use their name or their campus for anything since my book "contained violence."  A few others were as adamant, despite the fact that their products were throwaway sarcastic lines by the main character under torture.  Regardless, they said no, so I changed what was said.  It was a pain in the ass, but better an inconvenience rather than lost money.

When you write, write without editing, but go back through and check what everyday products you've put into your work.  You'll be surprised by how prevalent it was, and each instance requires someone to approve, unless it's generic and neutral(better safe to get permission anyway).  Readers are likely to forgive you for changing some; just don't go too far.  Ask yourself if your reference is critical to the story.  If not, go generic and move on.  It'll lessen the relatability, but you'll save yourself lots of headaches in the end.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

How Much Does Geography Matter?

I like to be as real as possible in what I write.  If my story takes place in our world, I do the research I can and try to make the setting conform as closely as possible to what the site truly looks like.  However, there are times when geography has to conform to the story.

As writers, we have to be selective with this.  In my novel Akeldama, I think I can get away with bending the geography a bit in places because several of the settings are in out of the way locations that most folks will never go to.  For example, Salina is a great town, but it's also in central Kansas and most people will never get there.  It's along I-70, and as much as it contributes to the book, I can't see great pilgrimages there.

Other areas, on the other hand, require more fidelity.  Granted, hordes of people won't flock to the Vatican to retrace the steps Seth Gendrickson took to confront the head of the Roman Curia, but it is a major tourist destination that people will recognize.  The real images in their heads will override the way you need things to look, so a greater devotion to reality is required.

I suppose the best answer is to bend the geography where necessary, but don't go overboard.  Readers will forgive you for a little fudging, but that forgiveness depends on the profile of the place and the boundaries you maintain.  Since most won't visit Salina, and have a mental picture of a sleepy Kansas town, I can get away with making it a little more rural than it may actually be.  However, I can't turn Los Vegas into a European countryside, no matter how much the story demands it.  Better to reset your location than to go too far.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Getting Outrageous

Blog topics are a bit like trying to hit the 7-10 split in bowling - you can play it safe and get one pin, always knowing you won't get the best score, or you can try something radical to knock both down and risk getting no points for your efforts.

I've written some posts that have gotten a lot of traffic - indie publishing, bits on the way traditional publishers are acting like morons, and my well known antipathy for literary agents.  Each of these posts have gotten lots of traffic.  However, they also present a problem - how do you top the last post?  How do you keep people involved when you just spent your wad on a controversial or engaging topic?

You can't be titillating all the time.  Some of the stuff I get the urge to write about can just be boring.  So, should you swing for the fences every time?  What happens when you continue to miss?  Do people start abandoning you because you aren't as provocative as you used to be, or because your controversial stuff makes them yawn?

I know that I usually ask these questions with a ready retort in mind, but not this time.  I honestly don't have an answer to this conundrum.  I want to get people talking, but I can't be that guy known as Crazy Uncle Joe(you know...the dude trying to talk about the moon landings being fake or how the first President Bush was really from a reptilian alien species).  I want to be legitimately provocative rather than doing shock-jock kind of stuff.  So, how do you do that?  And when you come up with a great topic, what do you do for an encore?  Are you better playing it safe, or are you better being wild?  And just how wild can you be before you drift into loony bin territory?