Monday, September 30, 2013

On Pace

Here I am today, minding my own business over lunch after a typically harsh Monday morning, and an article crosses my view on pacing in storytelling.  Hey, interesting topic!

Well, it is.  No, really.

One of the first--not the first; that honor belongs to On Writing--books I read on the craft of writing was Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel.  I mean, who wouldn't want to write a breakout novel, right?  The breakout novel is, after all, the one that makes you rich.  It's the one that makes it so you can choose to, or you can choose not to, quit working your day job to focus on penning the next successful novel (that by that point everybody is going to want--hey, another bonus!).  It's not necessarily your first, unless your first happens to be about sparkly vampires or repetitive kinky sex.  With Dan Brown the breakout novel was his fourth, in fact.

Hey, I'm on--hmm--number four!  What a coincidence.  Hmm....

Anyway, there was a lot of good stuff in Maass's book, but one of the key things that stuck with me was his exhortation to build tension.  Tension is, after all, what creates conflict, which is in turn what makes plots go 'round, and it is ultimately what makes readers keep reading.

Tension.  Got it.

Maass's assertion is that writers need to put tension on every page.  It's a good assertion, I think, because tension on page 88 makes me want to turn to page 89, and tension on that page in turn makes me want to turn to page 90.  I can't tell you the number of times I've put down *cough cough*'s books (if you've read any series about wheels of, say, time, then you'll know who I'm talking about) because I got bored reading pages of description about the grass the horses were walking on.

Tension!  More tension!

Rebecca LuElla Miller has a great post that summarizes Maass's point about tension better than I could.  Since I don't generally like writing something that somebody else has already written, I'll point you over there for more info.

But can it be too much?

What caught my eye today was a blog post over on David Farland's site.  In it, he suggested kinda the opposite of Maass: "I see a lot of trends in today’s literature. Perhaps the biggest one is that every writer seems to be in a rush. Many new writers try to keep the pacing blazing hot. They’ve heard that in today’s world, kids are trained to think in “sound bites,” and anything longer than a television commercial bores them."

Farland's recommendation?  Slow down.  "Your job as an author is to pace your story," he says.

Uh oh.

I feel like drawing out one of those cartoon scenes, the one where the guy is running, slowing way down the whole time, and eventually is moving in such slow motion that he's almost standing still.  Meanwhile he's saying something that turns into a long drawn-out call: in this case, "more tennnnssssssssionnnnnnnnnn!"

In other words, I feel like I'm pulled two different directions.

But is it really two different directions?  Maybe not.  It's possible, as I've been finding out in my own writing, to lengthen the work and add to the descriptions and background information, while still building tension, often because what's being described is, itself, a source of the tension.  In fact, the opposite can be the case as well: it's possible to leave out description and in so doing to lessen the tension.

Yes, I did the last bit, myself.  No, I didn't do it on purpose.  It's just the normal newbie mistake.  We like action, after all.  When we're writing, we like to write action.  And the god whipped around with the big fireball, and blam!  Now that's some action, right there.  And I, as the writer, already know all the crap that's going on in the background or in the guy's head as he pulls the trigger on the gun pointed at the robot's head just before he learns the robot is actually a person.  What's that?  You (the reader) don't know it?  How come?

The trouble for the author will always be the pacing, honestly.  I was guilty early on of the sin of not giving my readers enough to work with, because I focused entirely on Maass's recommendation of keeping the tension going while missing the point that it didn't have to be direct, actionable, tension.  As I've gained experience I've been learning how difficult it is to strike a good balance between not telling the reader enough and losing tension, telling the reader just enough to keep it tense, and telling the reader too much and losing tension.

I've started calling it "singing" because that's the best simile I can come up with.  When something is singing, it's more than just one note followed by another.  Singing makes us want to hear the next bit.  When the prose of my work is singing to me, it's got a pace and a rhythm that feels right.  But that's not a feeling you can develop on your own, because of your key handicap in already knowing all about the story.

You have to let others read it, in other words.

Only by seeing your story through others' eyes can you truly come to understand pacing.

And yes, I consider myself to be still working on this lesson.


Friday, September 27, 2013

A Little Poem About Life

There is a herd of buffalo I pass by every day,
They flit and fly within a park I drive through on my way
To work, I go each morning and return home every night
At work it seems that often nothing goes just right
But work, we must, for rent and food and power must be paid,
Without which life would really not be grand, we're afraid.

The early morning brake light glow is really not that cute,
At times it feels like we're the ones who ramble through the chute.
The buffalo live free and clear without a bank or bill,
Their days consist of to and fro and relative free will.
All day they watch us passing by from deep within their pen,
I wonder who is luckiest, the buffalo, or men.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Technology, Efficiency, and Effectiveness

Modern technology is awesome!  With it we can be ineffective and inefficient way faster than we ever could before.

My Facebook friends were treated to the above quote on my feed this morning.  I won't claim original sourcing, because surely someone else has run into the same concept before.  It just twanged me pretty hard today.

There I was, heading to our branch campus to preside there for a while.  No, I'm not the President (who, thanks to etymology, we'd expect to preside); he's away at a business meeting, as is the manager of the branch campus.  The main campus, where I'm installed as Dean, has plenty of chiefs for someone to be "in charge" at any given time, but today the branch campus needs one.  I'm available via cell, via email, and so on, but somebody still needs to have feet on the ground.  Because, you know, sometimes technology doesn't solve our problems. 

On the drive over here I started thinking about this business meeting the college leadership is away at, and specifically about one of the conversations they're likely to be having: scheduling "improvements."  Now, when I started doing academic scheduling it was decidedly old-school: post-it flags, markers, and a large white foam core board with columns for days and rows for classrooms.  I tried migrating the system to Excel, but that didn't make the  process better in any measurable way. 

I mean, scheduling is scheduling.  The trick is to get every class that students need (within reason) into a classroom in a time slot with a teacher without requiring either teachers or students to be in two places at once or having two classes in the same classroom.  Simple, right?

Apparently not.  My next college implemented a piece of modern technology that was designed to schedule for us.  Ah, let's hear it for efficiency!  Can I get a great big ole' woo hoo whoop-whoop from you?  "It'll schedule 85%; you just assign the exceptions manually" was the byline. 

Yeah, right. 

I'm not sure how they were measuring the 85%, but the majority of what the to-remain-unnamed software turned out was a pile of steaming, unadulterated crap.  The whole thing was one big funky-smelling exception, and using the software made my job harder, not easier.  "More efficiently" somehow required twice as much time. 

Luckily I fled quickly enough from there and landed in the safety and relative sanity of a different college group.  There, the approach to scheduling was "um, yeah--just make more classes."  It was a hot mess when I got there, but I was able to jimmy up a spreadsheet to look like my old reliable foam core and I soon had 'em scheduled like a pro. 

New college group now.  They've been scheduling efficiently, near as I can tell, for years and years, all by hand at a single, half-hour-long, quarterly meeting.  Coolest part about it, for me, is that my only participation is in scheduling the meeting--I could get hit by a bus tomorrow (God forbid, of course) and the campus would still be able to figure out what classes to offer next term.  Yay! 

And now somebody in the home office wants to introduce the same "modern technology" that provided me with such aromatically scheduled piles of feces before. 

Yeah, right.  I gave my boss what should be sufficient rhetorical ammunition to battle the beast of technology, to skewer the siren of software.  Hopefully he'll come back with a trophy.

It's not just scheduling, though.  Not even close.  Remember back in the 90's, when people grandly predicted how paperless we'd be by now?  How efficiently offices of the 21st Century would run?  Yeah, right.  Crap is what it is.  I see more filing cabinets in the offices now than I saw way back when, as a kid running around in my dad's place.  I'm not gonna say that his office ran efficiently, because I honestly have no idea, but I will say that if what we have is more efficient than what he worked with, then I feel really, really sorry for him and his coworkers. 

Thing is, back then we knew that filing was a resource.  A company had to maintain certain records, and generally had to do it within a certain number of cubic feet.  People went to school to learn how to efficiently run an office--how to run that cool mimeograph machine, how to use comb bindings, and yes, even how to set up a filing system.  In fact, the latter bit was one of the more important parts.  People even used to put "filing" on their resumes, remember? 

Now, it takes me all day to find a form sometimes, because I have to search in the various places on the Sharepoint site, looking through folders that are all over the site but all named "forms," and when I don't find it there I go look through the S: drive, and if I strike out there, there's always the T: drive and the U: drive to search, and by that point I've chewed through yet another mouse cord in frustration and then asked my assistant about it, only to learn that it's actually in the first place I looked but called something different by file name.  Called something I'd've never guessed in a million years. 

Something like "Evaluation Form," when the top of the document clearly says it's an "Instructor Observation Form," which is precisely what I wanted to use it for.   It's under the Es, not the Is, in the great big flooded sea of MS Word-based computer files. 

True story, that.

Gotta love modern efficiency, right?  But you know what?  The qualities that make an office run effectively and efficiently haven't changed.  They haven't changed since my dad's time.  They haven't changed since before then, either.  It's still the same basic thing: accessing information and using it to make decisions and effect change.  That's it.  Sometimes technology helps, but more often it just makes us faster at being ineffective and inefficient. 

Writing is like that (yes, once again--you knew I was eventually going there, right?).

Back in high school, I was Editor in Chief of the little paper there, called the "Tyro Times."  It was a job I was grossly underprepared for, having only written occasional articles for the community section of the San Bernardino local paper, but I'd applied, and so had the guy who'd been with the paper for the entirety of his high school years, and I showed up for the interview and he didn't.  Thanks to my presence, I was granted (for one semester only--I ceded the position to him at Christmas) the unique privilege of being go-between for all my "reporters," who couldn't type, and the typesetter, who required stuff to get to her in a typed format.  Thus, I learned to type at really fast rates of speed, mostly so that I could still get some sleep the nights before an edition release. 

Back then, publishing took a while, which was pretty much okay.  We typed our stories and submitted them to the typesetter, who would block everything out and get it set to print.  It would then be printed and delivered.  Total time was a few days.  The pros, who had typesetters and printing presses on site, were able to turn it around overnight, and that was pretty cool. 

Today, if doesn't have a blurb about an explosion over in the Middle East within a few minutes of it happening, we as a society start going nuts. 

Question: are we that much more informed as a result?  Not really.  I mean, people still apparently think India is mostly populated by Arabs. 

I read an interesting anecdote once, placed at the end of one of his Incarnations of Immortality books, of how the great Piers Anthony transformed his writing techniques from the ancient typewriter he'd always used to a modern computer.  It was fascinating, reading about the machinations he went through, including mapping a Dvorak keyboard over the IBM one and then re-mapping keys to do specific stuff.  Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating. 

And here's the deal.  When asked in an interview what the impact was on his writing, he didn't gush about how much better it made him.  It was a simple mechanical productivity improvement, because he only had to type it once instead of twice.  That's it.   

Now that we have technology, nearly everybody is a writer.  All it takes is a word processing software package, a matter of however many hours it takes to put your story onto paper, and Internet access, and blam!  You're a published author.  Sort of.  But now, there are hundreds of thousands of books available in a space where twenty years ago we wouldn't have had a tenth the number of choices.

And you know what?  The overall quality hasn't improved. 

Now, I'm not saying anything bad about Indies.  I love my fellow Indies.  Some of what they've turned out rivals the quality (in a good way) of what the traditional publishers have done.  Some of what the traditional publishers have done, just like some of what the Indies do, is a great big smelly pile of crap, too. 

Because you know what?  The basic qualities of a good story haven't changed.  They haven't changed since the days of Piers Anthony's typewriter banging.  They haven't changed since the days of Mark Twain.  They're the same basic stuff: conflict, character, plot arc.  That's it. Sometimes technology helps, but more often it just makes us faster at producing crap.

Y'all have fun today!


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

That One Intersection

Every commute has it--that one intersection that frequently/occasionally/sometimes/often gets our blood boiling.  That, if we're not slipping through it with white knuckles wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, head swiveling both directions, breath fearfully rapid and shallow.  One way or another, you've got it.

Granted, every intersection was like that during my winter commutes in Alaska--white knuckled, breathless, and thanking the patron saint of bobsledding every time I made it safely to work.  But that's what a statistician might call an outlying data point.

My new commute here in Memphis has that intersection, despite it being the shortest commute I've suffered in years.  In this case, it's a pretty benign-looking road connection where a two-lane road cuts down through Shelby Farms and meets the four-lane mega-path that roars past one of the larger hospitals and then deep into the heart of Memphis.

It's a simple three-way intersection.  A simple intersection with, it turns out, a propensity for accidents.

I'd wondered why I saw accidents there so frequently.  "Oh, look, another accident" quickly became a weekly or biweekly mantra.  They were always on the same corner of the intersection, too, which was an observation that didn't seem all that important at first since three-way intersections only have two corners.

Ahh, nothing brings the blood pressure up to professional work environment levels like the morning commute, right?  There's always something going wrong.  If you leave at precisely the right moment to arrive on time, you'll hit a few traffic signals wrong and thus arrive a few minutes after the time you were shooting for.  Leave five minutes early and you'll get behind somebody who drives slow enough that you're still a few minutes behind.  Leave fifteen minutes early and you'll get into something else, and yes, you'll still end up a few minutes behind upon arrival.  Leave over an hour early and you'll have the smoothest commute ever, only to arrive at work wondering what the hell you're gonna do for the extra hour that you could've been in your pajamas at home during.

Add to the timing thing the nature of our fellow drivers.  Now, there are some out there who do, in fact, practice good ole' Southern hospitality.  These are the folks who, though waiting in line to pass through a stop sign, will slow down to let someone out of their driveway into the flow of traffic.  They're the angels.  They're also only about 10%, if that much, of the Southern drivers here in Memphis.  No offense to my fellow Memphis-ians, but most folks here will speed up just to keep you from being able to pull out of your supermarket parking spot.  On the road, in a commute?  Fugeddaboudit, y'all.

Back to topic, though: there are several special things about this special little intersection.  One is that just a few hundred yards before it, as I'm headed through the park and to work, there's a merge.  It's the dumbest merge spot ever, if you ask me, and nobody here did.  Some people apparently like their mornings spent with nature and all that crap, so as the two lane road makes a sixty degree (ish) turn, another two-lane road from the park itself cuts in.  There aren't any signs or anything, just a rather large herd of buffalo standing there laughing at us.  The traffic going toward the stoplight moves, as single-lane stoplight traffic often does, in fits and spurts.  The traffic coming the other direction is similar; there'll be nobody using that lane for a long while and then a long string of cars passes by at about 45 mph.

Generally there's one or two health nuts coming from inside the park to merge with the slow flow of regular coffee-guzzling commuters, and so it's always a matter of timing and kinda random decision-making as to whether I'm going to let one in.  This morning there were not one, and not two, but a dozen cars waiting to get in.  Nobody in their right mind is going to let a dozen people in, and if you slow down for just one there's a (kinda likely) chance that three or seven are just plain gonna nose their way in ahead of you.  It's that Southern hospitality thang again.

See what I mean about blood pressure?

So as I was sitting there in an idling car watching the dozen morning park people also idling, I looked toward the light and saw the reason we hadn't moved in a while.  This little red pickup down the way was also idling.  The problem with his movement, or lack of, was that everybody ahead of him had got up and gone.

It was like he was awaiting a special invitation.  From God.


Finally--finally!!!--he pulled one body part out of his other body part and put the truck into gear. Everybody else slowly followed.  You know how traffic starts back up after a stop, right?  Somebody moves, and then the next person eventually moves, and if you're several cars back you can--and just might--eat your steering wheel in the time it takes the "eventually moves" inertia to get back to you.

But finally--yay!--it got to me, and I moved, and the people behind me moved, and the people in front of me accelerated, and we were off like a single-file herd of turtles.  Yippee!  Forward, on to the light!

Now, whoever designed that light messed it up.  The two-lane road that ends there gets a green light for both right and left turns, and that's what we were going on.  Once that green light is done the road's occupants get a red light while one side of the four-lane road gets to make a left onto the two-lane.  That happens for about half a minute before the straight-through and always-full four-lane occupants get to slam their accelerators down to the floor boards.

So this morning we were rumbling toward the stoplight and it turned red.  No biggie; the folks turning right onto the four-lane (which is most of us, since that's toward Memphis) still have about half a minute while people are turning left before the straight-through people get to go.  Instead of stopping or even slowing down, then, we all know to accelerate!

Except one guy.

Who was three cars in front of me.

Screech!  The person two cars ahead of me managed to stop.  The one behind him managed to stop.  I managed to stop.  Everybody behind me managed to stop, believe it or not.

We stopped, and we got hot.

Remember what I said about Southern hospitality and patience?  Nah.  The collective blood pressure of the line went up by at least a thousand.  Horns were blaring.  People were growling like a dog defending its hydrant.  And can you blame us?

How dare some idiot stop at the red light?

And that's why there are frequent accidents at that corner.

I did have a correlation for this topic to writing to make, but I'll be darned if I can remember it.  Any ideas?


Monday, September 23, 2013

Only A Little Farther

I left work a little early today to go for a special walk with the family.

Now, don't growl at me for it.  I had to leave work a little early, because if I leave work on time there's this sensor that goes off as I pull out of the parking garage and alerts all of Memphis: "he's on his way."  At that point the entire driving population of Memphis and surrounding areas, including up toward Nashville and into Arkansas, rush to the East side to clog up the one four-lane road I need to be on. 

Okay, maybe that's just my overactive making-crap-up (aka "author") muscle creating that reality.  But the fact really is that if I leave work by 4:45 then I'm home by 5:00.  If I leave at, say, 6:30, I'm home by 6:45. If I leave at 5:00, though?  Not gonna see me for a few weeks, hon.

The walk was cool.  I mean, literally--it's cooled off a lot since I did the same trail last summer, back when the Tennessee outdoor thermometer was set just above "melt most rubber shoe soles" and just below "make Satan sweat."  I chose to rent a house right across from one of, if not the, largest urban park in the nation on purpose--I want to get back into walking and maybe even jogging and bicycling.  I used to be into it; heck, I ran a marathon about *mumble*dy-five years ago.  The Huntington Beach Triathlon was conquered soon after that.  The only race I've ever left unfinished was around then, too: the Kaaterskills Spring Rush, iron man style.  It, near as I can tell, doesn't exist any more, so it'll stay unfinished forever, I guess. 

But it's been a lot of years, and right about a hundred extra pounds, so it might take me a while to build up there.  Let's do some walking first.

For this trip, I reminded the fam why they shouldn't trust me.  We've been doing a few walks a week, mostly in the mile and a half range.  But there's this path that I took once this summer that's really awesome.  It's just a little bit longer (*snicker*) than the ones we've been taking, but it goes past a few scenic lakes as well as a lineup of identified trees.  It's a few miles long, but hey--it's just a little bit longer, right?

"Only a little farther" quickly became my main line.

I don't think they'll believe me any more.

We got to the first lake.  "It's only a little farther" led us around it and to another lake, which we also walked around.  "It's only a little farther" then got us to the Visitor's Center, by way of a beautiful little spot where we stopped for a minute to watch a fawn eat with its mother.  "Only a little farther" then motivated us through the gloomy evening light to the lily pond, which is close to the epic children's play area.  Which was, I must point out, closed by then.

See, they close the park at sunset.  We knew that already from the little green signs, but once the sun sets you no longer need the little signs, as there are ranger trucks driving around blaring at you. 

"It's only a little f--" "The park is now closed.  Please make your way to your vehicles."

"Only a little farther."  "The park closes at sunset, which occurred today at six forty-nine pee em." 

"It's only a little--"  "Oh, shut up."

We made it out as true darkness descended, and then I treated the weary family to a nice meal of burgers (sans buns for the celiacs).  McDonald's, it turns out, is only a little farther than the park.

Writing is like that.

(you knew I was gonna bring it around to my favorite topic eventually, right?)

No, really.  It is like that, at least for me.  I get into a story and think that I'm nearly done, and then as I close it up I realize there's more I want to add.  Then I add it, thinking it's only a little farther, and I read what I've got and still have more to add and change. 

I walked into the Memphis Meetup group on Saturday just as proud as I could be, toting a 404-page manuscript of the Dragon Queen book.  It's only a little farther, after all....  Then on Sunday I started reading it aloud, and boy, do I still have some work to do. 

At least that park doesn't close.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

An Author's Tools

It hadn't occurred to me, till I walked into the Memphis writers Meetup group last night, that I might at some point be the most experienced guy in the room.  Not experienced with writing, certainly; there are people everywhere who've been writing for years and years, who've earned entire college degrees on the topic, whose knowledge of the craft dwarfs my own.  No, I'm talking about the processes involved with commercial writing: getting a novel done, getting it out there, getting people to buy it. 

See, at this point this blog has a total of well over 35,000 hits, and I have over 800 Twitter followers, and I've had over 10,000 copies of my works leave the "shelves" at Amazon and enter a reader's Kindle.  I got nuthin' on, say, Kevin Anderson (just picking somebody at random out of the fairly large group of commercial giants whose circles I'm trying to join), but sometimes--often--the groups I find myself in don't have them in there. 

Those times, I find myself repeating a lot, in quite a repetitive fashion.  It struck me last night as the thing to do to make a blog post in which I list out the tools I've had luck with so that in the future I can point to it and then go on with conversations. 

Standard disclaimer: Your mileage may vary.  I am not in line to gain anything financially from any of the links provided herein, unless, say, somebody at one of the companies just feels jolly enough to toss a few coins my way, and I'll happily accept those.  Technology changes nearly as fast as the algorithms at Amazon, and so what I say may not hold water about three point two seconds after I click on "Publish."  Items that have been in the microwave are hot.  One side of the duct tape is very, very sticky and will therefore stick to things, like hair.  And so on.

First: Build A Network

No, I'm not talking about marketing your book to people.  I'm talking about wrapping yourself into like-minded writers who can help you over rough spots and give you advice.  There are some great writers groups on the ground out there--if you're anywhere near Richmond, VA, I highly recommend James River Writers for the personality as well as the activity level of the club.  Try several groups.  Online there are even more: on Facebook I'm a member of Indie Author Group, as well as a few other, smaller groups.  Join some and try them out.  Remember that you're not looking for somewhere to sell your book! 

Writing Tools

There are two kinds of novelists out there: pantsers and outliners.  I'm a pantser, and as a result I love, love, love my Scrivener.  Why, you ask?  I started on MS Word, for one thing.  Now, I'm a fan of Word, also, but only for short documents.  As the document gets longer, Word handles it less efficiently, and so you get memory issues and glitches all 'round.  Plus, once you get over about 25K words scrolling backwards becomes a royal pain in the tuckus, and that's one thing we pantsers do a lot of a lot of.  The Find feature in Word is nice and advanced, but believe it or not the Find feature in Scrivener is even better.

Scrivener takes care of the scrolling problem by putting each chapter in its own page.  You start a new chapter just by putting a new Text in, and you title it, and then you sally forth with writing.  If you need to go back in the story you just click on that chapter in the window on the left side and there you are.  Plus Scrivener has places on the left to organize not just the chapters but also your character information as well as references to outside resources you're using. 

What sold me on Scrivener was the little pictures of 3x5 cards that you get when you ask for it.  Each chapter is a card, and there you can delete a chapter (no!  don't!) or just mark it for exclusion from the book, or rearrange the chapters to your heart's content.  Hey, who wouldn't want Cinderella kissed by the prince before she goes to the ball, right?

There are plenty of other features, like this little word count tracker that on one screen gives you not only total word count but also whatever you've done that day, but I'm already at "too long" length.  

If you want to check out Scrivener without the financial commitment, wait till November.  That company is generally a major supporter of an excellent exercise of excellence known as NaNoWriMo, and during the month itself you can generally download a free copy that works till the third or fourth day of December.  Once you've participated in the month's activities, you can get an official copy for 20% off if you crash and burn fail prove yourself unworthy don't complete the 50K words, or if you do, for an unbelievable 50% off (so, twenty bucks) if you "win" (another term for finishing 50K words in that one special month). 

It's not like it's competitive or nuthin.  Just--well, just win.  Okay? 

Oh, and if you do decide to go with Scrivener, for goodness sake, go through the tutorials first.  Not only will that teach you the terminology the software uses, but it'll also get your whistle wetter'n hell to get started rockin' the word count. 

If you're an outliner, you'll probably like Scrivener as well, but you should also check out yWriter.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it's the right price to check out (it's free).  Second, and more conclusively to me, the fact that I absolutely cannot use it probably means you'll think it's the bee's knees, whatever that means.  The reason I can't use it, by the way, is that it expects you to start from the outline of the work, which, well, I ain't got but I'm sure you do, and you can just take it from there.

Editing Tools

There aren't any.  If you trust your authoring career to the little green squigglies that MS Word gives you, you're doomed to fail.  The only reliable editing tool out there is the combination of two eyeballs and one brain that you and the professional (more or less, in varying degrees) editors have. 

You shouldn't get to the point in your novel where you're ready for an editor without knowing which editor you're going to use, anyway.  It takes weeks--months, in many cases--years, in others--to write the darn thing.  Do some research while you're writing. 

Research where?  Well, first thing I did was jump into the acknowledgments pages of my favorite novels and see who my favorite authors were using.  Then I looked them up on the web.  Then I coughed a bit at how much that option cost, and I went looking for others. 

Join groups, both on ground and on Facebook, and ask folks about editors.  Some are expensive, and some of those are worth it, while others, especially those who're just starting out or who're only doing you a friendly hand on the side, are less expensive.  My advice?  Go with the best you can afford.

Should you hire an editor if you're going for traditional publishing (which presents their own editorial staff for your torture pleasure)?  I'd say yeah, if you're a newbie.  You've got several acceptances to gain before a trad-pub editor's going to lay eyes on your work, and the cleaner your book is the more likely you are to get them.

Publishing Tools

Paperbacks: my advice?  Just don't.  They don't sell worth a crap.  I know a guy who bought $30,000 worth of copies of his first work, and he still owns about $29,900 worth of them.  I know another guy who invested far less, about two grand, but he still ended up walking through the writer's group handing copies to anybody who didn't snarl at him for doing so.  Yes, yes, I know we all love physical books.  We all hate that ebooks are taking over the market.  We all wish that we could bring back the old musty-smelling bookstore.  If you'd rather sit and dream of what you wish would be than make money, then fine.  G'head and print and buy a few thousand copies. 

But...but...but...why?  The problem is that even publishers can't produce a paperback book that can bring anybody along the line a profit for a final sale price of less than six or seven bucks.  You, using a print on demand service like Createspace or Lightning Source, have to sell each copy for twelve bucks, minimum (based on size, number of pages, number of goofy colored spots, and so on), to make a few pennies.  If you're John Grisham, go for it--I bet people will buy your works in large volume for even higher prices.  If your grandma doesn't even know you're a novelist yet, then you probably don't have any business trying to sell books for that kinda money. 

Stick to ebooks.  They'll get your name out there, or not, much more ably than paperbacks.

So, let's say you're going to ignore me.  Fine.  Which POD service do you choose?  Well, as with most other things, it depends.  If you're just selling (paperbacks) in the U.S. and aren't worried about making them shippable anywhere else, and you don't want to invest much up front, and you don't convulse in aversion when somebody mentions the trademark Amazon, go with Createspace.  They're pretty simple, with a wizard that guides you through the process.  They don't require you to come with your own ISBN either, which is a cost-saver right there. 

The downside of Createspace?  Well, for one thing, don't expect many Indie bookstores to carry your book if it's a Createspace work.  For one thing, it's an Amazon brand now, and Indie bookstores generally despise anything and everything related to the A-word.  More crucially, though, the Createspace model isn't built for the kind of discounts bookstores need to make your book available while still paying salaries and light bills and such. 

The other option?  Lightning Source (  It's not as user-friendly, I think, and they do require you to bring your own ISBN, a thing that our buddies at Bowker will gladly help with.  It ain't cheap: $125 for one ISBN, which is about $120 more than you can expect to make from sales of your paperbacks over the shelf life span of the work.  For a skosh more money (as in double) you can buy ten ISBNs.  Why would you need ten, though?  Not planning to write ten novels?  Shame on you!  But seriously--every major revision you do to the one novel will need another ISBN.  Planning both hardcover and paperback?  That's two just by itself. 

That brings us to ebooks.

Amazon, all the way.  Lookit, I know people love to hate the A-word.  But you know what?  I've had the same book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords before, and the sales at Amazon dwarfed everything else.  Jeff Bezos and company didn't go without a profit for five years, reinvesting every penny they made into research in and creation of the ultimate Internet marketing machine, for nothing. 

It's quite simple.  Just go to the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) page, sign in or create a free account, follow two pages of prompts, and boom whiz bang, you're published. 

But what about the covers?  Yeah, let's talk covers.


Covers are tough, man.  The worst thing you can do, I think, is to end up on one of the "Covers That Suck" pages.  That said, there are as many differing opinions about what makes a great cover as there are about what makes a great novel.  What sucks to you may be pretty snazzy to someone else. 

I'll get it out of the way and just say that I do my own because I'm a cheap bastard guy.  I've worked a long time at figuring out the hows and hownots of GIMP, and it's my (free!) image manipulator of choice.  If you're going this route, Youtube will be your best friend, because all the wisdom of the tremendous user base for the software package is contained on that one video site.  If you're not sure how to, for instance, put a black border around blue letters, look up "gimp border text" on and watch the experts at play. 

Why did I pick that example?  Because it's one I have to look up every time I do another cover, because the makers of GIMP didn't put a "border the text" button in the stupid toolbar.  It's amazingly frustrating surprisingly simple to do once you figure it out, but you have to figure it out first.  Youtube is your friend.

There are probably as many cover artists as there are editors out there, with just as much of a range in pricing as well as quality.  Try asking around in your groups.  You can find cover artists online that will do a custom cover for a few hundred bucks.  Some on Facebook have a "friends and family" discount.  There are also "pre-made" cover sites where you can browse things that they've already created and are ready to smack your title and name onto; these range from $5 (I've seen one for that, I'll say, but I won't vouch for anything quality-related) to $45 or $50 a cover. 

Then there's marketing services, but I've already gone over my word limit by a few (hundred) so I'll write a separate post about those.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Writers and Physicists

Writers and physicists are like two brothers from the same mother.

No, I'm serious.  Both folks are generally highly intelligent and also, believe it or not, very creative.  Yes, I know physics is a science, not an art, but have you seen some of the crap problems they work?  To survive in physics, you have to be a creative sort.

The similarity runs deeper than that, though.  The two groups even have the exact same divide.  One reason I love Big Bang Theory so much is that they accurately portray the divide among physicists.  On one side you have Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a highly intelligent and quite competent theoretical physicist.  Sheldon is driven by the science itself; his chief reason for going to work every day is the discovery that the geeky little bits of math and Greek symbols bring along with the potential for both enhancement and enlightenment of the human condition.  That, and the hope that some day the Nobel committee will recognize the enhancement and enlightenment of the human condition he's brought about by awarding him a prize.

You who've watched the show have heard him mention that prize a time or two, no?

Despite a strong personal friendship, Sheldon looks down professionally on his colleague, Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, for "selling out" to the commercialism of industry.

Meanwhile, Leonard is a highly intelligent and quite competent experimental physicist.  He wouldn't mind a Nobel Prize, certainly, but he's gotten cozy long ago with the idea that his pursuit of physics is extremely unlikely to ever go there. Instead, he tests the theories put out there by eggheads like his buddy Leonard, and he's quite content with his job thanks to the salary it commands--and, along with the salary, the ability to do practical things like pay rent, own a car, and buy nice things for a very sexy girlfriend.

It wouldn't be good fiction if it didn't touch on truth, and the fiction in this case pretty much mirrors reality perfectly.  When I was in physics grad school the divide between experimentalists and theoretical physicists was clear and obvious.  It even got to the point where one highly competent experimental physicist professor told me to quit going to a highly competent theoretical physicist professor for help, because the way he showed me to work the problem was roundabout, overly involved, and eggheaded.  There was, he explained, a practical way of going about it.

Writers have the same divide going.  Granted, they don't do much theory or experiments, so they don't call it that.  Instead, writing groups are split along the terms commercial versus literary.  The literary folks are those like Franzen, and they're perfectly comfortable only writing seven words in a day so long as they're the right words.  Eventually the literary writer wants to write the perfect piece, the one that will both enhance and enlighten the human condition and, in doing so, earn the accolades of either the Pulitzer committee or the Nobel (literary) committee.  Those darn commercial writers, to a literary writer, have sold out to the industry that just wants to keep pumping out pap on pulp to readers who don't seem to care about being emotionally or intellectually moved.

Commercial writers, meanwhile, look at seven words a day as a sneeze.  The Stephen Kings, Danielle Steeles, and James Pattersons of the world indeed do care, as do the Doctor Hofstadters, about the quality of the work they turn out, but to worry about it so much that they don't produce solid salable content is unthinkable.  Eggheaded, even.

Don't believe me?  Join a writers group and watch.  I saw this divide to a certain extent in the James River Writers, though that group was big enough that it kind of self-regulated into camps.  Tonight I attended a smaller Meetup group in Memphis, and the divide was also clear, and it was also not self-regulating.  On one side you had the guy talking about wanting to help people just finish, and about the importance of getting multiple shorter works out there for sale.  Right next to him was the guy who'd been working on a book for twenty years, who had finished things (things like paragraphs, I gathered) by gosh and seemed (at first glance--remember, this is the first time I've met them) perfectly sincere about not caring how fast the book got done as long as it was well done.

The one guy insulted the other guy with a "just finish" comment.  I couldn't help but grin, watching the invisible divide at work. 

Writers and physicists.  Who knew?


Friday, September 20, 2013

How I Finish A Novel

Hi, y'all!

(practicing my Southern voice to make sure my novel is consistent)

Sorry about all the time I haven't spent writing blog posts recently.  I flipped creative writing into high gear with the Dragon Queen novel, and as a result it's nearly ready to go, but that took away from blog writing time.

I'm so excited!  This is going to be my best book to date!

I admit, I did write a post a few days ago, but it wasn't about writing and so I decided not to publish it.  It wasn't a bad post, really; it just wasn't about my primary topic, and I'm going to try to refocus myself on my primary topic: writing and authorpreneurship.

Well, and maybe a little humor too.  But just a skosh, okay?

Anyway, I'm headed toward being done with the Dragon Queen, and now, thanks to some pretty intensive experience I've gained over the past couple of years, I'm aware that I'm headed toward being done, if that makes any sense.  I thought I was nearly done with Cataclysm four significant revisions of that work before I actually was.  That one--version number 5--was what I queried with, eighty times, and in major part since I wasn't aware that I wasn't really done with it, I received thirty rejections and fifty instances of being ignored.  Now, I think it's a pretty darn good book, and were I to query it today I'd probably have better luck.

But I'm not planning to.

Will I query Dragon Queen?  Probably.  It's a different series, and a slightly different market, and it's worth exploring the option of professional publishing with it.

I just have to finish it first.

What does finishing entail?  Well, first you have to finish the rough draft, which is more difficult than it sounds in and of itself.  For one thing, it is a simple fact that you learn somewhere in your 50,000-hour apprenticeship to the craft (that most new novelists don't even realize they're doing) that the first draft is going to suck.  Writing stuff that sucks--well, it sucks.  Sometimes you just plain don't want to finish the scene you're working on, because you know it's not really working.  And some authors will tell you not to write it, but I won't.  Write it.  Let it suck.  Get it down on paper so you can....

Phase 2: have someone else read it.  Preferably, I add, it's someone who already knows it's going to suck.  My lovely bride is great at that for me; she'll read it and then gleefully and proudly identify for me the parts where I suck, and she'll also tell me the parts where I did great.  Find someone who can do that for you and you're golden.

Phase 3: incorporate the changes that come about both from your reader's comments and from your second reading.  This is, believe it or not, the fun part.  Like I said, I knew that the first draft of Dragon Queen sucked.  I knew the book needed to be longer than the 68K words that Scrivener told me it contained.  I knew that I'd worked the reader up to a plot arc climax, resolved it halfway, and then left the reader in a puddle of goo at the end.  I knew all that, but I wasn't certain how to fix it at that point.  Thanks to both the time between finishing and revising and the conversations I've had with my chief reader, I gained that certainty.  I've been spending the last couple of weeks fixing the problems.  The novel is now over 91K words, with much more text at the end to--um, to resolve things.  

I've written before about the novel "singing" to me.  It really seems that way, once I get it working.  That's why Phase 4 involves me printing it out and reading it aloud to my wife.  Yes, she already knows all the main plot spoilers, but that's okay with her (and thank goodness it is).  This phase is when you really get to make it sing.  It's the most important part, actually, because in reading the book out loud you get to hear where the difficult sentences are.  You get to hear where the voice is good, and where it's inconsistent.  You see exactly where words are repeated repetitively.

You get to feel the music of the writing.  And that, my friends, is why I write in the first place.

Phase 5 is all the other stuff, either writing a bunch of query letters or getting a professional editor and cover artist's help to get it ready for Indie publishing.  By that point, though, the writing part is pretty much done.

And that's how I finish a novel.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tying Up Romantic Loose Ends

Now, I know what the dirtier-minded of you are thinking.  Yeah, I was thinking it too.  No, this is not about S&M novels or erotica.  Sorry.

One of my fellow authors on Facebook recently asked the question of how a (stand-alone) novel should end.  Specifically, should a plot point be left hanging open?  The example she gave was that of Gone With The Wind, in which we read all the way to the very last words printed inside the book, and then all the way down to the bottom of the back cover, without ever knowing whether Rhett and Scarlett get back together.

I started with an easy, short answer, but I failed at writing that because it's not an easy issue.  As I was revising what would become a multi-paragraph response yet again, then, I decided, "Ah, heck--let's make this a blog post."  It's an interesting question, and the answer is of some substance, so why not, right?

So should a plot point be left hanging open?  And should we have been told in the text of Gone With The Wind whether the ill-fated couple would reconcile their differences and be swept away in the--well, crap.  I was about to toss out a metaphor that's so sickeningly sweet I couldn't even type it.

They're two separate questions, though, aren't they?

The plot point in GWtW, after all, wasn't whether they grew old together.  The issue, and one of the key conflicts in the story, was the nature of their relationship and the tragic love triangle it supported.  It was a relationship that started off on rocky enough footing and quickly headed South, so to speak, and so quite honestly the fact that they split up is the resolution I was looking for.  All sorts of things can happen later on, to be certain: the pair can get back together, or they can not.  She could have gone and forced Ashley to love her through some dark magical trickery--or, um, she could not.  A giant meteor could have struck Atlanta followed by Earth's enslavement from Mars, causing all possible future loose ends to become moot.


My point, I guess, is that there's no way for a novelist to tie every conceivable loose end up.  It would take too much paper, for one thing, and it would also be boring as crap to read.  As someone else once said: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn what else might happen."

Or, something like that.

Now, on the broader question--when should a novel end?  I'm not sure anything renders such differences in opinions from readers.  I've sat through several conference sessions where the topic came up, and some readers love an ending that ties all the little loose ends up into a tidy bundle, while some love an ending that, in one author's words, "comes right before the real end" and thus makes a reader wonder and use his or her imagination.

Some readers love to have to use our imaginations, and others don't, I suppose.  If only every reader were the same, all wanting the same thing, then our job as novelists would be much, much easier, wouldn't it?

Yeah, and much, much less interesting, I'd argue.

The trick, then, comes in figuring out which plot points the reader is going to want you to close.  It's not always easy, though.  I panned Inheritance, the last book of the Eragon series, for the fact that it does pretty much the same thing GWtW does: leaves us hanging on the core emotional conflict/relationship of the series.  I don't want to spoil the plot for anybody, so I'll just say that the ending of the book (which we as a family listened to on audiobook on one of our long drive weekends) left us all screaming in reader-rage.

But it's not the same thing if you really think about it.  GWtW has the emotional conflict build then resolve slightly, then build then resolve slightly, then build then resolve slightly, and then bang!  Finally it resolves in a climactic scene that is permanently etched on many movie-goers' retinas as well as embedded deep within our ventricles.  We don't like the way it resolves (at least, those of us who like happy endings don't), but it does resolve.

Compared to that resolution, and again avoiding any plot-spoiling, what happened in Inheritance was just a warm sizzle which then fizzled.  But wait! you cry.  That's how elves are, romantically: heat, heat, heat, fizzle.  True, but Paolini wasn't writing the book for elves.  He was writing it for us, and we expect there to be a grand staircase scene at the end rather than some keening wailing of a mysterious nature.

What do you think?  Do you prefer to know more or less about the resolution of emotional conflicts?  Is there a difference between what you expect of emotional conflicts and what you expect of other types?


Monday, September 9, 2013

The Professional Publauthographadisher

Note: This is meant to be gentle fun-poking.  For the love of all that's holy, don't take it too seriously.  I mean, I know all y'all reading this are smart people, but I also knew that nobody would read a book about Greek gods coming back to power and write a negative review because it's not a Christian book.


So, I've glanced over at the blog of my friend way over there at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig, fairly often.  I like his writing and his humor.  I don't always agree with him, but I don't always disagree with him, either, which places him well above most political commentators on my list.

So today, he wrote about being an "Author-Publisher."

He doesn't like the term "self-published," it turns out, because it leaves out the fact that those who self-publish are generally also authors.  Then again, that's the main point--I don't know anybody who self-publishes anything written by anybody else, because then it would no longer be "self" publishing.  But I admit that the term itself is absent the nod to the task of writing, which would be objectionable to me, also, if I used it by itself.

I don't.

No, it's true.  I never answer the question "what do you do" with "I'm a self-publisher."  That just sounds dorky.  "I'm an author" can sound a bit pretentious, as Wendig ably points out, but the way I generally put it is "I'm a self-published author."  There--it's a nod to the fact that I write stuff, and also a nod to the fact that I then go through the work of publishing it all by myself, all while avoiding sounding all pretentious and crap.

Isn't that cool?

He also makes a point about his fondness for hyphens, which is an addiction I can no longer support.  See, I've freelanced.  When you freelance you're working at the whim of those with the checkbooks who may or may not know the correct rules for hyphens, semi-colons, and other moderately complex crap like that, and since hyphens are way over-used, they're generally looked down upon for that very reason.  It was thus that I started using fewer hyphens, and with the diminished frequency of use I've found I enjoy not using them as much.

It's kinda like when I stopped using tobacco and realized I could taste other things again.  Cool!

But Wendig is right to point out that we who do the work to make our writings available to the public all by ourselves deserve credit without the stigma of all of the "see, all I have to do is push this button here to get my quasi-readable crap to appear on Amazon" self-published authors.  Fact is, though, that's more than publishing.

Publishing is what you do when you press that button there to get your writing, readable or not, to appear on Amazon.  That's the simple part.  We're also distributors, advertisers, graphic artists, office trash removers, and all sorts of other stuff as needed.

Thus, I would like to propose a more complex term to fit the greater complexity of the job.  I am still--yes, still!--an authorpreneur, mind you, but only those who've looked at how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur of any sort realize what that term implies.  To get that complexity across in the most straightforward manner possible, I am now....

Stephen H. King, TOSK, Ph.D. and Publauthographadisher



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Interview With A.B. Westrick

Boy, do I have a treat for everybody today!  I know, I know, I've missed a few days of blogging recently, but that's only because I was saving up for something really, really cool.

Today: an interview!  And not just any interview, either.  It's an interview with A.B. Westrick--Anne, to everybody in the James River Writers.  Way back in October of 2011, a fledgling-author TOSK attended my first writing conference, the JRW Conference at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.  A terrible newbie, I wasn't sure which sessions to attend, but it turned out that the ones I selected were just about perfect for where I was in my writing life at the time.

One session I attended was "One Novel's Journey," a panel discussion featuring a moderator, an author, and the author's faculty advisor for her MFA program.  Anne was the author, and I found her story both fascinating and compelling.  You can read my session notes here:

Next week, the novel the session was about will finally hit the shelves, and I'm incredibly excited to be able to talk to Anne about it just prior to the novel's release, now at the other end of the publishing journey from the October morning.

Without further discussion, here goes:


Today I’m interviewing A.B. Westrick. Her debut novel, Brotherhood, is historical fiction and will be released on Sept. 12, 2013, by Viking (Penguin Books for Young Readers).

Please tell us a little bit about your book.
Brotherhood is the story of a fourteen year-old boy, Shadrach, who joins the Ku Klux Klan when it forms as a brotherhood just after the Civil War. By day, he apprentices with a tailor and sneaks off for reading lessons with Rachel, a freed slave, at her school for African-American children. By night he runs with the Klan. When his two worlds collide, he finds himself trapped between his pledge to the Klan and what he knows is right.

What is the book’s genre?
Historical fiction for young readers (middle school and up).

Is this the only genre in which you write?
I only write for young readers, but I don’t write historical fiction exclusively. The period of Reconstruction is the setting for Brotherhood, and in the book I’m now drafting, the time period is contemporary.

What is it about this genre that interests you?
I love writing for young readers! I like to remember what it felt like to be thirteen or fourteen or fifteen—a time when you’re making sense of the world and finding your place in it. I choose issues that interest me as an adult, and write about them from the point of view of a teenager. I love the passion teens bring to the world, and their sometimes irreverent view of the status quo. I especially love the way they question authority. Writing for young readers makes me a better adult.

How did you come up with this latest plot?
The plot in Brotherhood grew organically from my characters. I started writing scenes from the point of view of a boy who was stuck in some pretty tough circumstances (an impoverished family, the defeated South, widowed mother, bully of an older brother). Once I had a complete first draft, I restructured the novel so that a late-occurring scene (the arrest of his brother) would appear first, providing a motivation for Shad to head out into the world (he sets off on a mission to get his brother released from jail). Once I had this clear desire-line in place, I wove in the backstory, revealing Shad’s complicity in his brother’s arrest, and the many ways that this boy who had been such a good boy got caught up in some very bad things.

I need to give a shout-out to author Kathi Appelt,, for the suggestion that I restructure the novel in the way that I did. Kathi was my faculty advisor in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. When I eventually got a contract on Brotherhood, my editor at Viking also offered suggestions, which I used to make further improvements. But I don’t think my editor would have acquired the manuscript in the first place, had she seen the less-compelling pre-Kathi version in which the story was laid out chronologically.

What is your writing routine like? 
I write fiction six days a week, from about 6 AM until early afternoon, eating breakfast and lunch at my desk. Late afternoons, evenings and Sundays, I write everything other than fiction: blog posts, email, etc. On some days, circumstances force me to change this routine, but I stick with it, as best I can.

What is the most rewarding thing about having finished this latest book? 
I’m thrilled that I finally have a novel coming into the world! I’ve been writing fiction for so long that friends and neighbors have stopped asking when I’d have a book coming out. It took years to hone the craft and get my writing ready for publication. The learning curve is steep, the rejection letters plentiful, and when you finally get a book contract (in my case, from a traditional publisher, which was my goal), the feeling is very, very sweet.

What’s next in the writing queue?
I’m working on another novel—this one with a fifteen year-old violinist at a summer music camp. So far I’ve written about twenty-five chapters, but only two or three of these will make it into the finished novel. I write scenes to get to know my characters, but until a character does something to set another character off, I don’t have a plot. Right now I have the beginning of a new plot, and I’ll keep writing scenes to see what these characters do. The story arc that emerges with the fastest pace, I’ll keep, and the rest I’ll throw out.

Newbery Award-winning author Richard Peck describes Brotherhood this way: “A boy struggling to come of age in a ruined world reaches in all the wrong directions for being and belonging in this story that uncovers a trove of hidden history.”

A. B. (Anne Bryan) Westrick grew up in Pennsylvania and later moved with her husband to Virginia where she spent hours walking Richmond’s brick streets, wondering how her Southern ancestors had fared during and after the Civil War. Her first novel, Brotherhood (Viking 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection, grew from those wonderings. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, she received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011. She and her family live near Richmond, VA.

Book Trailer!
View the wonderfully-done book trailer (53 seconds long) here:

How can we buy your book?
Before Sept. 12, it’s available for pre-order, and you can choose from many booksellers listed on my website here: From September 12 forward, it’s available wherever books are sold.

And now, some fun questions: 
1) Favorite author? So many! When I was younger, I’d have said John Fowles or Ken Follett; nowadays I’d have to say John Green.
2) Favorite character in a book you’ve read? Ahhh… again, there are so many! I just finished a book with a character I loved: the protagonist (Ari) in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
3) Favorite vacation? Asheville, North Carolina
4) Coffee or tea? Coffee (with a splash of half & half, and a sprinkle of cinnamon)
5) Favorite color?  Green
6) Favorite dessert?  Cheesecake