Monday, September 27, 2010

It's a Question of Character

For me, the story's plot is the most important. I like to work out the details and construct an interesting story with twists and surprises if I can manage them.

But for readers (and publishers) it is the characters that take center stage. Knowing them is what captures the reader's interest and so that is where most sources on writing tell you to start.

So let's look at what knowing your characters means. In a nutshell, you need to know what motivates them. What are their goals, hopes, dreams, ambitions? What are they afraid of? What do they like to do and what don't they enjoy?

Equally important is how they express themselves? How do they show anger, fear, doubt, confusion, or suspicion? Note that by 'express', I don't mean just their dialogue. Facial expressions and body language are equally important.

Frustration is another key element. How they react to it controls how your plot unfolds. For example, character A is frustrated that the guild will not hire him. What does he do? He could work harder to convince them. Or he could practice his craft without their approval (risky and dangerous; if everyone did that why have a guild?) Or he could move on into another part of the realm and see if another guild will hire him. Each of these decisions changes the story. The choice you select depends on what makes sense for the character and the story you are trying to tell.

Keep in mind also that a character can react to an emotion in different ways and still be consistent. It depends on the situation. If setbacks make the character angry and want to lash out, perhaps in one situation he or she is warned against doing this. Knowing this ahead of time permits the character to temper the reaction expressed.

So experiment with your characters. Write small scenes that show your characters reacting to different situations. Use these efforts as exercises to learn about your characters. Doing so will help you write them in a more realistic way when it comes time to put together your story.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Double Standard

It seems to me there's a double standard in publishing. All the small presses I've submitted to reject my work but the work they publish is just as good and in some cases, in my opinion, inferior. And yet others get to live my dream while I'm left scratching my head.

I'm pretty sure my work is good. I've had various people read it. Some are writers like myself. Others are my target audience. How can they be wrong and the publishers right?

The answer is: they aren't wrong. It's the publishing industry that's messed up. They refuse to take risks on new writers. I say this not because I am rejected. I know many writers who had tried to publish but can't. They are all talented and produce good work and yet, years later, they remain unpublished.

I realize, of course, there are a lot of competition. But the law of averages suggests that they should have had at least one success by now.

No one wonder so many people self-publish. Frankly, I'm nearly in that camp myself. I've spent about three years crafting my first novel. If it does not find a home soon I'm going to self-publish and move on to book 2.

I really can't wait for the publishing industry to sit up and take notice. I've got a lot more novels to write.

Monday, September 20, 2010

So What's This Blog Thing All About?

I've been blogging now for four months now and I am still scratching my head over it. Is it really necessary to blog in order to sell books or attract an audience? I'm guessing the answer is yes but it is probably a lot harder without one because the technology reaches deep into our society and our lives.

Another benefit of blogging is, I suppose, based on the premise that if enough people gather round the electronic campfire of their computer screens to read what I have to say, one can assume there's a certain level of interest my opinions and musings.  Although writing fantasy novels is very different from writing a blog; being able to do either does not necessarily mean I can do the other.

I can also see that a blog is a form of self-expression. What better way for someone to prove to others he or she knows what he/she is talking about than to show it? For me, however, the way I prefer to do this is give them a book I've written and say, "Enjoy."

And, of course, there's the rant posting too. I've done a few of these myself because getting my book written, ready for publication, and sold has been a roller-coaster. I've hit potholes the size of  watermelons on more than one occasion and have been angry at the setback. Of course, better to make these mistakes now so that I never make them again.

But these points aside, there is something about blog that bothers me and I'm not sure I can put it into words. In its simplest form, I think what concerns me is this: blogs make private information public, by their very nature.  Depending on the blog, you can find anything from very private posting to items that more befit a newspaper column. And it is the sharing of overly personal information that bothers me. We already have more content to deal with in a given day than we can deal. Sharing personal information inappropriately just adds insult to injury.

There's more to it than that I think. Increasingly I see the average worker is busier than ever before. At the same time, the technology that makes all this social networking possible is everywhere. We are forced to squeeze out social connections in short bursts because we don't have time for anything else. Humans are social creatures by nature; we need to interact with others but socializing takes more time that we don't have. Is it any wonder that social networking is now huge.

And so blogging is one way for the writer to make a connection with his or her readers. The blogger must find a way to pierce the veil of the computer screen can grab your attention in order to connect with you. Ironically, I never know if I succeed. So I keep pitching and hoping at least one of these topics goes over the plate so you can hit it out of the park.

If I succeed, I'll let you know.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Code of Silence

I recently received another rejection on my novel. It was the standard sort of rejection. "Your novel needs work. We are going to pass."

Angry that they didn't say more and curious as to what they thought needed work, I asked to do something I've never done before. I asked for specifics. My reasoning here was simple: if I don't know what was wrong I can't fix it.

They responded and told me what they thought was wrong. I won't bore you all with the details suffice to say it stung, worse than the original rejection. But I thought about it overnight and the next morning got to work on my revision.

As I worked, I realized the comments were correct. And then I got angry again because no one told me this before. Let me pause here to say that my novel has been read by several people, all of whom are suppose to be professionals in the publishing world. One of these people, I've come to realize really isn't very good at his job. But the rest of them should have given me some concrete feedback. They didn't and that just fuels my anger.

There appears to be a code of silence among publishers not to give writers the feedback they need to improve. We are suppose to guess or learn by osmosis or something.

It's ludicrous. I could have fixed my novel months ago if someone, any one, had spoken up. I know why they don't. They don't want to be responsible for crushing my dreams of publication. And I understand that. What they don't realize is that I've been writing for years and rule 1 in writing is you check the ego at the door. The critique is on the work not the person. If the writing is not working, then I need to know, I need feedback, to make it better. Vague replies like, "You novel needs work," are equivalent to not responding at all.

So I am now going to make it habit to ask what is wrong so I can improve my work because for the first time in a long while, it feels like the novel is finally on the right track.

Caution: If you decide to do the same, make sure you can handle the truth. I don't handle rejection well at all and it took me about a day to get past the hurt. And if truth be told, I nearly junked the entire novel and gave up.  What stopped me? My own stubbornness and a few good Facebook friends.  If your support system isn't there you might want to wait or have someone  else read your work. Someone who is tactful but honest. That way, you get the feedback you need and don't give up either.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fictional Truth

Truth in fiction is an interesting idea. It sounds like an oxymoron but it's not. A story needs its own truth: a set of facts that are true. They don't need to confirm to the physical rules of our universe but they need to be consistent by themselves. For example, rules for magic, rules for jump drives, that sort of thing. You also need a consistent history that makes sense.

Once upon a time, I made the rookie mistake of not defining my history before I wrote my story only to find it changing out from under me as I edited. Later I developed a backstory and stuck to it, refining as I went but not modifying it greatly.

How detailed does all this information need to be? Enough so you can answer any question about that might come up. For example, when casting a spell, what happens? Does the spellcaster lose a body part or just gets tired? In terms of a backstory, you should know the major characters, their goals, ambitions, and so on. In general you will need far more backstory than you think. Most of it will be off-camera but it is important because it drives things that are on camera.

Example: In my fantasy novel, the main character fights necromancers. This requires me to develop rules around necromancers. How are they organized? What are their goals? Why is it that never seem to go away? One group is captured or killed and two more spring up. What's that about?

How I answer these questions determines much about the story in which they appear and the reaction and approach the main character takes in combatting them. For example, in my first novel, they seek to steal a magic gem to create a mind control device. But in the second novel, they abduct the local nobility on a hunting trip and have him possessed. Their hope in that case is to have the demon possessing the noble rule the land.

But I chose the title for this post for another reason too. The fiction you want must reveal the truth as well as have it's own truth. As I mentioned in another post, I have a scene with two lovers based loosely on my relationship with my wife. The scene shows the man's reaction much the way I would react, and I think, much the way most men would react, to this woman. In that scene it is universal and most people can identify with because it reveals a truth about relationships.

That's said, I don't often find places to include such scenes. But they do present themselves. Watch for them and take advantage of them. The reader will appreciate it I think.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mommy, where do ideas come from?

Ideas. Few things give me as much joy as a good idea. When a story goes along and there's a such twist that makes sense or the bigger picture is revealed, I usually get a chill and that's the sign of a great idea.

But where do they come from? It varies. Different people are inspired differently. Many people credit their muse. I don't. I have no muse. Or if I do, then she is a sneak thief that comes in the night, wearing all black like some special ops unit. Ninja muse, shall we say.

That point aside, my ideas are the result of my past and my experience; books I've read, movies I've seen, even music I've heard. It is all one and it all comes to bear when I create something. I purposely do research by reading widely. History is critical because I borrow heavily from the medieval period for things like how did government work, how did guilds works, the life of peasants, the size of the population, that sort of thing.

Plots for stories cook in the crucible of my mind. Some arrive fully baked; others skip the cooking process and arrive raw like sushi. For example, the original plot for the Aglaril Cycle, my fantasy series, arrived raw. I've had to put it in a kiln to blast away all the silly bits. One example of this is the main character, Evan Pierce. Originally he was a former demon hunter who was cursed and returned to his home town to live out his life. His former friends come looking for him because they have no idea what happened to him.

On reflection, that seemed silly to me. It is too melodramatic. So I simplified it a bit: Evan is demon hunter. He returns to his home town to rest after a series of hard missions. When he arrives in town he learns something that drives the plot forward.

Other ideas come at the moment of creation. For example, the map of Thalacia, (see the map link in the toolbar for the visual) was a doodle on graph paper originally. I wasn't trying to create a land mass for the stories I would write. In fact at the time, writing wasn't even a twinkle in my eye. Later, when I needed a place to set the stories, I remembered the doodle and filled in the terrain and vegetation.

Like many good writers, I also draw from my past when I need verisimilitude. For example, there's a scene with James and Iriel, a pair of lovers, in my first novel told from James's point of view. Much of his reaction is essentially my reaction to my wife because I gave Iriel, an elf, the same love of animals and desire to help others that my wife has. That's not too much of a stretch for an elf, I know but it fit so perfectly that the scene is great because it feels real. Anyone whose been in a relationship should recognize the feelings.

What will work for you? I have no idea. Everyone is different. You'll need to experience and try different approaches and different techniques. Most likely it will just happen when you least expect it. Suddenly an idea will seize you. Or you'll wake up from a dream and realize you had a great idea. Pay attention to these moments. They are rare gifts; jewels to be savored and enjoyed. Then run with them and see where they take you.

Monday, September 6, 2010

If You Want Something Done Right...

I promised myself I wouldn't blog on this topic but I can't ignore it anymore. There are just too many vaguaries around self-publishing and I am torn about it myself. So I want to layout the facts, list the pros and cons, and assess the results. I'd also like your input. If you've got anything to say on this subject I'd like to hear it.

Let me start by saying that by self-publishing, I mean Print on Demand (POD) using a service like, CreateSpace, iUniverse, or similar service. I am not talking about a vanity press where you pay all kinds of money to get your work published. Print on Demand is better because the reader pays to have the book printed when he or she orders it. Your cost should be very low to set this up. However, if you go to a convention or trade show or even a flea market and order 50 copies to sell there, you'll need to pay for them up front.

It seems to me that the benefits of self-publishing are clear:
  • You retain all rights.
  • You control all aspects of the project so it gets done your way.
  • There are plenty of good services you can use. As I mentioned before, Lulu, CreateSpace, and others let you create a really nice, professional-looking book.
  • There are plenty of distribution channels you can use to promote your work. Smashwords, Amazon, Apple's iBook store, and others let you post electronic version of your book. Lulu also lets you set up a web site to help you sell your book. You will have to convert your book to Kindle and iBook format but that's probably worth the effort to get the book in wider distribution.
  • No rejections; yet least no explicit rejections. The reader may still reject your work and not purchase it.
The drawbacks seem pretty clear too:
  • You control all aspects of the project so if you don't have an eye for detail, quality can suffer. This can manifest itself in the form of poor editing, poor cover art, and poor production value if you go with a service that yields a low quality book.
  • You assume all the risk for the project; if it does not sell you can lose a lot of money. Even using a POD service, you'll probably have to pay for artwork and maybe editing or proofreading and then any copies you order to sell. If the book does not sell, this could cost you thousands of dollars.
  • You miss out on having the experience and expertise that a publishing house can bring to your project. This is a huge one for me. I don't assume I know all the ins and outs of publishing or selling books. Being able to work with folks who know this stuff would be a tremendous asset for me personally and the overall success of the book, it seems to me. I'm sure I could learn much from working with such folks.
  • There is a bias against self-published works; after all if the work was really good wouldn't some publishing house/small press have picked it up? There really a false argument, I know. So let me rephrase that. For many readers, a self-published book is a big risk. What are the risks? That the story meets some general minimum standard of fiction in the genre, that the book has been edited and proofread by professionals. Without these, who knows what you will get?
Let me also dispel a few myths. The following items are not relevant to the discussion because you have to deal with them regardless of how you publish:
  • Promotion, regardless of how you publish, you need to promote your work youself.
  • Reviews, regardless of how you publish, it will not affect your reviews; chances are you will need to give to someone to review.
So what does that leave me? Well, the first two drawbacks I can mitigate. Using Facebook, I found a really cool artist for the art cover and someone to proofread my work. I'm pretty good at editing and proofreading too so these are not issues. 

As for the last bullet point, there's really not anything to be done about it. I can't control what the reader thinks. What I can do, it get some reviews and use the best ones to promote the book. That will show someone else read it and liked it. 

But I can't get passed the third point. I want to work with publishing professional as my first books go to press. I want to learn from them. I think that's the main reason for me not to self-publish. That may be silly and given the way life works, I may have to self-publish so that someone sees how good my novels are. But for now, I think I'm on the path of submitting to small presses and hoping I can sell my work.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Anticipating the Future

Like most major cities, Boston's residential areas are divided into neighbors. As a boy, I grew up in Mattapan, at the southern end of the city. I was happy there for eleven years living in a two-family house. My grandparents upstairs and my father, mother, and brothers downstairs.

The summer before I entered junior high school we moved to a suburb south of the city. There I discovered my ability to weave tales and focusing on writing. It is amazing that I did this because we were not welcome by the town we had moved to. That fall, my two older brothers and myself were harassed mostly for differences in our religious beliefs, but partly also because we were outsiders and the neighbor was quite xenophobic. That Halloween our house was egged and overall we were made to feel very unwelcome.

I remember dreading going to school each day, fearing the harassment I would have to endure. But most of my fears never materialized. One of the curses of having a good imagination is I can always envision something far more awful than reality actual produces. I suppose that's one reason I write fiction; my reality is by far more uneventful than my stories. But I digress.

The moral of that experience I realized many years later: anticipating the future is pointless. Worrying about the future is equally useless because mostly of our fears never come to pass. Life has a way of throwing curves and when you least expect it. These are little tests of character. I usually failure at them but I don't worry about them. I learn from each experience so that the next test is easier to deal with.

I also try to stay focus and deal with the present. If I'm lucky I plan a little for the future too. I don't plan too far ahead because often, when I do, it is for naught. Something happens to make those plans impossible. For example, I plan in October my vacation the following spring. My wife and I decide to go to Atlantic City. But that winter a bad storm damages part of the house and the money that would've gone to vacation must now go to repair the damage.

Moral 2: We need patience. As writers we need a lot of patience because we wait a lot of the time. We wait for stories to be accepted. We wait for them to be printed. We wait for reviews. We wait for our careers to take off. The anticipation can be as crushing as fear or doubt, two of my best friends and two of my worse enemies.

This is another reason why I deal with the present because if I get too far ahead of myself, I waste time planning for things that never happen. However, I must admit I'm terrible at waiting. I really hate waiting  and my only trick to get through it all is not to think about it. That's not hard; usually there are lots of other things that need my attention.

Most of us have a thick skin since we deal with reviews and critiques regularly. We also know how to focus on our work or we'd never gotten anything out the door in the first place. Using those skills, you should be able to cultivate a new one: the ability to ignore the irrelevant. By 'irrelevant' I mean things beyond our control or things we cannot change. For example, once the story is out of my hands and published I am forced to accept the comments of others good or bad. I am forced to accept the publication schedule of the publishing house that I submitted my work to. So there's nothing for me to do but stay focused and keep writing, promote the book, show up for blog tours, or a book signing, or whatever else I plan to do to sell my work.

We need this ability because without it we are likely to stress over things that are out of our hands. And, speaking strictly in medical terms, stress is far worse than fear or doubt. Stress can kill if you do not control it. Stress can keep up at night when you should sleep and stress can eliminate all coping mechanisms you have turning you into a non-functioning mess. Consequently, if you don't have this ability yet, I recommend trying to cultivate it through regular practice.

So stay focused and keep writing. The future will take care of itself.