Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Power to the People

I'm supposed to be heading over the river and through the woods today, but it looks like it will be this afternoon, as I still have a few things to take care of. I don't know how much posting I'll get done later in the week, so I'll go ahead and say Happy Thanksgiving today. I've been sticking to my writing schedule so far, but that, too, may get derailed. I know I need to tinker with the parts I've written because getting into that viewpoint character's head is proving to be something of a challenge. I've got the actions written, but I'm going to have to play with the way I describe it, since this character is a total fish out of water in an environment that's totally foreign to her in both place and time -- and it's our world, so that means I have to take a step back and consider all the things about the everyday environment that might be strange to someone who'd just come here, and then think of how that person would describe it all, which means I also have to mentally world-build the place she comes from, even though it doesn't actually appear in this story.

But that's what's fun about writing fantasy.

And since I need to post and run, here's another fun bit about the book biz that I wrote earlier when it was on my mind (I've been doing that a lot lately -- when I think of something that would make a good blog post, I write it and then have it handy for busy days).

One of my oft-repeated refrains is that readers who buy and talk about books have a lot of power in the publishing world. Here's how it works:

My blog has in the ballpark of 300-400 regular readers (based on the number of people who've friended me at LiveJournal and the blog hit count at MySpace). Those are people who, for whatever reason, whether they're my real-life friends, people who read my books or people who like my blog posts, seem to have at least a slight interest in what I have to say. If I wanted to support a TV show, my efforts wouldn't amount to much. It's not statistically unfeasible for none of those 300-400 people to be part of ratings households, so even if I could get everyone who reads my blog to watch that show, the networks wouldn't even notice. These days, iTunes downloads or online viewing might get measured, but the networks still mostly look at traditional viewers as measured by ratings. The only way I can have an impact there is if one person reading happens to be in a ratings household -- and even there, if they're in the right demographic. Even if the people I got to watch were somehow measured, it takes at least three million viewers for a network television series to survive, and 300 people is barely a blip.

On the other hand, in the book world, a midlist trade paperback book (the kind of books mine are) -- and by midlist I mean books that aren't the lead title and that don't get any kind of major promotional push -- generally sells from 5,000 to 30,000 copies, total (so you see why authors freak out when they learn that someone has illegally put their books on a file-sharing site and there have been more than a thousand downloads). In those numbers, 300 sales are a decent percentage of total sales. For a hypothetical but still semi-realistic case study, that book on the lower end is probably one where there may be one or two copies in each of the larger major chain stores, and it may not be stocked at all in their smaller outposts. Those copies will be shelved spine-out in the regular shelves. They won't show up on any of the front tables. The only promotion done by the publisher will be sending out review copies, and that will mostly result only in a few online reviews, with possibly something in the author's hometown newspaper. Say I discover that book soon after its release, think it's the best book ever and blog about it, and say that makes about 300 of my readers decide they have to check it out for themselves (that's probably the least realistic part of this scenario).

So about 200 of those people will go to their favorite bookstores. About half of those may find copies on the shelf. For the other half, someone else may have already bought the one or two copies per store, or else the stores they visited didn't have it at all. For those who find the book and buy it, because the book is still relatively recent, those chain stores are planned to have that one or two copies, so one copy being bought will trigger the system to re-order it. For those who don't find it, say they ask for it and the store special orders it. That means the chains are going to be ordering a total of 200 copies of that book. For simplicity's sake, let's split it down the middle between the two big B stores. It's highly unlikely that the chain warehouses will have 100 copies each of that book, so the chains will have to order more copies from the publisher. Let's say the other 100 blog readers decide to order from Amazon. That many book purchases within a reasonably short span of time (like within a few days) will shoot the book's ranking up, possibly landing it on a category bestseller list. Amazon probably doesn't have a hundred copies in stock, so they'll have to reorder from the publisher. Now this book the publisher more or less flung out into the world and forgot about is getting reorders, all because I was able to get 300 people to buy it.

Then that has a multiplier effect. That many sales in one week is pretty big for a non-bestseller book (to give you an idea, my latest book only sold above 100 copies a week in the major chains (combined) for the first month of release), so the chain stores may start stocking more copies, which means more orders from the publisher, which may even mean an additional print run. More copies mean the book is more visible, even spine-out on the shelves, so more people will notice it in stores. The Amazon rating going up and getting on a category bestseller list means the book becomes more visible, so more readers may see it and look into it, so that means more sales. And then the 300 people I influence may talk about the book and get even more people to buy it. Even if that's a relatively small effect, if a book that would have sold 5,000 copies sells 6,000 copies instead, the publisher and the bookstores will think of the book as a success. It's still not a bestseller, but that could make the difference in the author getting another contract. And that's from the impact of one blog post by someone with a moderate (but easily influenced, in this example) readership.

Are you feeling giddy with power yet?

It's too bad I can't use my powers to promote my own books, because if you're reading this, you've probably already bought them, so I'm preaching to the choir. Maybe for an experiment I need to scout out some lower tier trade paperback book and see what I can do. I'd have to find something going more or less unnoticed that I absolutely love.

The numbers are different for mass market paperbacks, since they are expected to sell more copies at a lower price point and are stocked at more stores (you don't usually see a lot of trade paperbacks, other than bestsellers, at supermarkets), and as I haven't really worked much in that area, I don't know what numbers are realistic. Hardcovers theoretically can sell in even smaller quantities than trade paperbacks, but then the trend these days is that they often don't publish things in hardcover that they don't consider to have bestseller potential, and that changes the numbers and expectations.

Now I need to pack and hit the road.

Monday, November 24, 2008

NaNo Done, and Lessons Learned

I finished the draft of the NaNoWriMo book on Friday afternoon. I didn't technically "win," as it came to just over 40,000 words, but it's appropriate for that kind of book, so I figure I accomplished what I wanted to, and I learned a few things along the way that I can apply going forward:

1) There is something to getting started with the writing as early in the day as possible.
I think this is because it cancels out the procrastination response. Even when I am not procrastinating, when I want to write but there are other, more immediate priorities in the day or when I've made a point of scheduling my writing time later in the day, my brain seems to feel like that means I'm putting off the writing because I don't want to do it. And that makes it harder to do when the time rolls around, so that I really am procrastinating. I'm still not a morning person and I still don't see myself ever being one of those writers who bounces out of bed at five in the morning and finishes my daily word count goal by eight, but it does seem like if I get any writing at all done before lunch, it makes it that much easier to settle down to write later in the day.
Going forward: I'm going to try to keep that up and write at least a little as early in the day as possible, even if my plan is to do the bulk of my writing later.

2) Creativity and work feed on themselves and multiply.
The more I wrote, the more I was able to write and the more great ideas I came up with along the way.
Going forward: I need to keep up a steady production schedule and never let myself get to the "nothing" level for more than a few days.

3) I need weekends.
I did much better when I allowed myself breaks, especially on a busy weekend day. I need that time to recharge and step away from the work.
Going forward: Keeping up the steady writing pace during the week means that I can allow myself weekends off unless I really am on a deadline. I can also allow myself the occasional holiday from work, as long as I'm in the habit of getting right back to work.

4) Both "pantsing" and "plotting" have their benefits.
I'm going to have to do a lot of reworking on this book because I was mostly making it up as I went along. That means there's a lot of what I call "plotting on paper," where I didn't know what the characters should do next, and that means the characters didn't know, so I have lots of scenes of the characters talking about what they should do next. In revisions, I'll have to cut those talking scenes and just jump to them doing what they decided to do. And that means I'll have to come up with more scenes to replace the scenes I've cut. I also struggled with the climax of the book because I hadn't developed the characters well enough to have a clear-cut character arc.
On the other hand, not planning means I'm open for really cool things to just occur to me in mid-stream. For instance, this book contains one of my favorite characters I've ever written, and he was entirely unplanned. He started as a utility character, just part of the scenery -- what in opera they'd call a spear carrier. But as soon as I wrote his first line of dialogue, he sprang fully formed into my head and came to life in wonderful ways that ended up affecting the plot of the entire book. That can happen to some extent even with detailed plotting, but if I had plotted in detail, I might have pushed back against the directions this character started leading me. For a mad moment, I even halfway considered reworking the whole book with this character as the main character and changing the focus and outcome, but then I decided that part of what made him so interesting was the fact that he was something of an enigma to the viewpoint characters and that you got the impression he knew absolutely everything that was going on. He wouldn't be nearly as much fun if we ever got into his head and knew what his deal was. So, I left him alone, but he is a character who will carry over to any sequels, if I get to write them, and if this book ends up not going anywhere, I will rescue this character and use him elsewhere. I may even recycle elements of this character as the hero of an entirely different story. Seriously, I think I might have a minor crush.
Going forward: I have no idea. I think it might vary by book for me. Sometimes I need the detailed plotting, sometimes I need to wing it. I probably work best somewhere in the middle.

5) Concrete goals really help me achieve, but they also lead to overachiever syndrome, where I feel like I've come up short if I don't go beyond the goals to a significant degree.
Having a firm deadline and a specific daily goal helped me to achieve more than I have in at least a year, and I frequently went past the goal. But when I went past the goal, I seemed to reset my mental goal to be whatever I'd last done, and then I went from the point where I was achieving something but still having some balance in my life to going all-out and not having time for anything else.
Going forward: With my next project, I think I'm going to try a new approach, borrowing from something I did in my old job. My last two years in the corporate world, I worked out a deal with my boss to scale back to semi-part time and telecommuting. By working 30 hours a week, I still got full benefits, but as a part-timer, they couldn't make me work more than I was being paid to work (unlike regular professional employees, which meant I actually cut my working hours by at least 20 hours a week). My boss said my 30 hours could come at any point during the week when I had work to do. So, if I had to work 8-hour days earlier in the week, I could cut work off early on Friday.
I think that kind of weekly goal might work for me instead of an ambitious daily goal applied across the board. There are days when I'm on a roll and there are days when I struggle to get much done or want/need to do something else. The new plan is to have a doable daily minimum goal, plus a weekly goal that goes beyond that. And once the weekly goal is achieved, I can take time off. So, say I set a minimum daily goal of 2,000 words a day for weekdays, and a bonus weekly goal of 15,000 words. That means on some days I'll need to do more than 2,000 words, or I might need to work on the weekend. But if I'm really on a roll and get that 15,000 done by Thursday, I get a long weekend. Or I may take off during the week if there's something I want to do, then work on Saturday. Or, just going steadily, that's three heavy work days and two light work days during the week. And if it's just one of those weeks and I can only hit my daily goal without the bonus, then I'll have still made myself put in the time and effort to get some output. I hope that will allow me a few "all" binges while retaining some balance and avoiding the stretches of "nothing."

I also did something different with this book that in some ways made it seem to go faster. I'm not sure what the benefit really is or if it will end up being more of a pain in the long run. I normally write in manuscript format -- 12 point type, double-spaced, and all that. I put in chapter breaks as I write, and I measure my progress in pages. This time, I didn't do any formatting, just wrote in a smaller typeface (12 pt. Times), single spaced, and I just skipped a line if I knew I'd put a chapter or scene break there. Instead of counting my progress by pages, I went strictly by the word count. It may have just been a case of doing things in a different way, but sometimes it seemed easier not to have that sense of pages going by.

I celebrated finishing the draft by cleaning my kitchen, doing some tidying of my living room, and going immediately to work on completing a draft of The New Project. So now I am going to go write a few words before lunch.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Readers and the Doom Loop

NaNo Update (yes, finally, actual progress!): Back on track, with more than 3,000 words yesterday. And if I'm really, really good, I'll get to the end of the story today. I just have one big scene to finish and then the wrap-up scene. I think the first draft is going to come in at around 40,000 words, so I wouldn't have "won" if I'd done this officially, but I will have completed a first draft of a book. The target completed length of a book like this is in the 40-60k range, and I already know of a few characters I'm going to have to go back and weave in, then there are some characters who appear late in the book who'll have to be added to the earlier part of the book, and at least one character who needs to be fleshed out and developed, and all that is going to require a lot of new or heavily beefed-up scenes, so I can see easily adding 20,000 words in revisions. Therefore, I'm not even going to try for the 50k goal in the first draft. The fun thing is that when I started, I wasn't even sure I had a real book in this idea, and now I think I may have something really good, once I've developed it. I've stumbled upon creating one of my favorite fictional characters I've ever written (he's right up there with Owen), and I really love the way this world looks in my head. So, yeah, I'm glad I did this.

In other life news, I think I'm now healed from the cold, more or less. The Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of Imminent Death has been miraculously transformed, after a trip through the washing machine, into the Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of a Cold Morning When I Need to Stay Warm at My Desk. I made it to ballet class last night, and the mean, scary teacher wasn't so mean or scary. He was a stickler for technique, so if we weren't doing something right, he'd stop and correct us, but he did so in a nice, gentle way. And I seem to have discovered inner thigh muscles I didn't realize I had. As my dad would say, I now have a ballet ache.

And now because I want to get to the writing (somehow, I seem to get more done when I write at least a few words before lunch), I've got my last word on the Publishing Doom Loop, something I wrote last week and then got sidetracked away from remembering to post. After all that doom loop talk last week, I thought I'd wrap it up by talking some about what you, as a reader and book buyer, can do to have an influence on the way the publishing world works.

1) Buy what you like to read, regardless of what's trendy, and keep looking for that even if other trends seem to be taking over the shelves.
Part of what feeds the doom loop is the drop in sales for things that aren't trendy, so even if you have to work harder to find what you want, continuing to buy those things may help provide balance. If a book you know exists isn't carried in a store near you, you can have the store order it for you, and that can help subvert the top-down buying and distribution systems because enough special orders will trigger the system to stock the book, and sometimes the local booksellers will be intrigued enough to order enough books to stock their own stores, regardless of what the national buyer decided about that book. Remember that in the book world, every single sale of a new book counts. It's not like in the TV world where ratings are based on a sample. Most books sell in such quantities that a few hundred sales can make a big difference.

2) If what you like is part of the current hot trend, be picky about what you buy, and be sure to look beyond the covers to make sure you're getting what you want.
Let's face it, when something is really, really hot on the market, there's a lot of junk that gets put out. I was as big a fan of chick lit as anyone, and I have a box full of books that made me feel ripped-off because they were either dark family drama with a pink cover or they just weren't very good. I've never been bold enough to return a book that turned out to not be what I wanted it to be to a store, but I suppose if you get a chapter or so into a book and realize it isn't at all what the cover led you to believe it would be, and if you still have the receipt, you could return it, and that would keep it from being counted as a sale. If only the really good books in the trend are what sell, then maybe the audience for those books won't be so diluted when the market floods.

3) When there's a series or author or even type of book you want to support, try to buy the books within the first couple of weeks of release.
Rational or not, the publishers seem to care far more about sales in those first few weeks than they care about overall sales over a long period of time. A lot of decisions get made based on those first few weeks, and that's when a book is considered a success or a failure.

4) The publishers have pretty much outsourced most of the marketing for most books to you, the reader, so use that power.
The majority of books get a minimal marketing budget -- no advertising, no snazzy giveaways, no book tour, no store signage, no special store placement. Instead, they're counting on word of mouth to sell books. In other words, they're counting on readers to sell books for them. Since they've given you that job, you can use your word of mouth power to support the kinds of books you like, whether or not they're trendy. Post reviews to the online booksellers, book communities on social networking sites (MySpace, LiveJournal, Facebook, etc.), book sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari, or your own blogs and web sites. Talk to friends about books (especially if they're not readers -- use peer pressure to make people feel like they should be reading). Read books in public. Mention books in other social forums, the way people might chat about TV shows, movies, music, etc. If there's a bookstore you visit frequently and if there are staff members who seem to care about being knowledgeable, chat with them about what you've read and enjoyed when you visit the store -- they'll probably be glad of ideas for recommendations when other customers come in and need help. So many of the currently hot series (like the Twilight series) took off not because the publishers marketed them, but because the fans were so enthusiastic about spreading the word. Some of (mind you, not all) the Twilight fans can be a little scarily overenthusiastic, but boy, do they know how to market books. They created MySpace and Facebook communities and fan Web sites, they made their own t-shirts about the books, they practically kept their friends chained in the basement until they agreed to read the books. They made it so that you were pretty much a freak if you were a teenage girl and hadn't read these books. Then once it caught on among the teens, that got media (and publisher) attention and bestseller lists, and it spread beyond that initial group. Since a few hundred copies can make a difference in how the performance of most books is perceived by the publisher, if you can influence a hundred sales either through direct contact or through Internet postings, you alone could actually make a measurable difference in a book's performance. Plus, increasing the amount of conversation about books makes it more likely that you'll be able to find the good stuff and not waste money on the bad stuff (see item 2).

(And people who become known for doing a lot of word of mouth on books -- say, they review a lot on Amazon and have a book-related blog that gets a lot of traffic -- tend to get offered review copies from publishers, so if you establish yourself as someone who can really spread word of mouth, you may end up getting free books.)

5) If you like a book (or want to read a book but don't have the money to buy it), request it at your local or school library if it doesn't have the book in stock. If the library has a waiting list for the book, put your name on it. One of my local librarians says she orders more copies of a book once the waiting list gets to a certain length. Sales to libraries count toward a book's overall numbers, and libraries are great ways to introduce readers to books.

6) Give feedback to publishers and bookstores.
Remember that authors have almost zero control over where a book is shelved, which stores are carrying it, how much it costs and what's on the cover. If you can't find a book you want, think that the cover didn't represent what was inside the book or think that the book is misclassified, writing to the author about these things won't do any good (it will just trigger homicidal impulses in the author -- aimed at the publisher, not at you). The author very likely knows all these things and has a bloody forehead from banging it against the wall of the publisher to point this out. Instead, write to the publisher. The publisher's street address is printed in the book, usually on the copyright page (as in most things, e-mails tend to be disregarded, but if someone takes the effort to snail mail, it might get read). If you're boycotting the postal service, the publisher's web address is usually printed in the book, and from there you can usually find some kind of feedback form. If you have trouble finding the books you want in a store on an ongoing basis, the chain web sites usually have some kind of feedback form or customer service address. At an independent store, you can talk to a manager. Again, don't contact the author about this because she can't do anything to help you. You'll save yourself time and energy and get better results by talking to someone at the bookstore.

If you absolutely loved a book and want to see more like that, do write to the author because that helps keep us going, but also write to the publisher so the publisher knows the degree of reader interest in a book and what readers like about it. I'm not sure that reader passion will ever trump bottom-line numbers, but if praise is mixed with feedback about how the reader almost didn't find this book she loved because it had a stupid cover or was shelved in a place that she usually wouldn't have shopped, and if the publisher gets enough letters like that, something might sink in.

7) Remember that you don't have to buy something just because a celebrity "wrote" it.
One of the worst business practices in publishing is the way they throw huge advances at celebrities for ghostwritten books that don't end up being profitable. They sell okay, because this is such a celebrity-driven culture and there are people who are willing to let children read a book written by Madonna (seriously, am I the only person freaked out by that?), but they usually don't earn out that huge advance, which means the publisher loses money, and it's the other non-celebrity authors who end up suffering when their advances or print runs get cut. I forgot to add this to the stages of the Doom Loop, but you know a trend has just about peaked when you get celebrities "writing" novels in that genre -- like Nicole Richie's chick lit novel. Not that all celebrities who write books are frauds. I actually first discovered Hugh Laurie as a novelist, so when House first appeared, I was like, "Hey, it's that guy who wrote that book." However, I don't think he got one of those multi-million dollar (or pound) celebrity publishing deals. Celebrity-"written" books are one category where I have no guilt about telling people to buy them at the used bookstore. That's where most of those books end up, anyway, and it's not like Jerry Seinfeld (the latest mongo book deal) is going to starve if he doesn't earn royalties or get another book deal. Maybe if enough readers rebel, the publishers will learn.

8) If you're an author, write what you want to read.
You don't want to entirely disregard market realities, but one thing that helps drive a trend is the manuscripts that come in. If editors see a definite trend in submissions, it serves as a sign that there's a hunger out there for that kind of book.

And now I'm going to go finish my book.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Doom Loop Barometer

First, a big happy birthday to Mom!

I'm gradually getting better, and having the cough syrup really helped. But I didn't realize that Robitussin was a controlled substance. When it rang up, the cashier had to enter my date of birth (she said she didn't need to see my ID because, as she put it, I was obviously old -- I wasn't insulted because English wasn't her first language and I could tell she didn't mean it that way, and apparently the restriction was you had to be 18 to buy it, and I don't even want to look 18 these days). It seems like kids use this stuff to get high. Obviously, I'm doing something wrong because all I ever notice is that it stops me coughing, and when I've been coughing, I suppose that feels good enough to count as a "high." Otherwise, I've got nothing. You probably have to mix it with something or snort it or smoke it, or generally go to the kind of effort that makes me think that if they devoted that time and effort to actually doing something fun, they might feel even better and not harm themselves. I would say that proves I'm old, but I felt that way even as a teenager when I couldn't quite understand what was so "fun" about hanging out in someone's pasture, drinking beer until you threw up. Reading a good book sounded like much more fun to me.

Speaking of books, thanks for the recommendation of The Thief. It did take a while to get into it, then it really picked up, and then, wow, the last bit got kind of mindblowing. I love a good unreliable narrator. Now I need to read the rest of the series.

I realized that last week when I was talking about how publishing trends work, I forgot to mention my personal barometer for when a publishing trend has peaked: Harlequin will launch a specialty category line related to it. When the first wave of paranormal romance was hitting, they started up a soft horror/modern gothic line, and paranormal tanked. When those single-title contemporary romantic comedies were big, they started up a few different romantic comedy lines. Soon, that trend tanked. When they started a category line that was essentially chick lit in category romance, chick lit died about a year after those books hit the shelf. They've recently launched an urban fantasy/paranormal romance line, so we'll see if the pattern holds true or if there's an exception. Mind you, these are all category lines as opposed to imprints from the parent company, which are often ahead of the trends -- Red Dress Ink was a big driver of chick lit in the US and Luna had a lot to do with establishing female-centered urban fantasy. But they usually dream up the related category lines when something is already hot in the market instead of leading the market, and then by the time they get books bought and then published, the trend is already well established, and about a year after the line is launched the trend will be showing signs of fading. I have learned that when Harlequin announces a new category line that's related to what I'm writing, I need to start making a transition to something else. If I had discovered this rule earlier, I might have pushed to sell Enchanted, Inc. as fantasy instead of chick lit, considering I first discussed it with an editor at the event that was the pre-launch party for Harlequin's chick-lit-like category line, and the fantasy imprint being launched at the same event had just started considering contemporary fantasy. Ah, 20/20 hindsight. But at the time I didn't have quite enough data points to see the pattern. And I did send it to Luna (the editor I was talking to asking to see it was what spurred me to write it in the first place), which rejected it with a form letter.

Incidentally, they're also starting to do a young adult line, but I think it's more of a sub imprint rather than a category line. Still, I'm hearing that YA is not quite as hot as it was a year or so ago ... I'm not sure if the inspirational romances count for or against the pattern, in that they did start with category romances and inspirational books have taken off quite well since then, but the category romances were launched under a new imprint that now also does other kinds of inspirational books. Looking at it strictly as category, it breaks the pattern, but it was part of a new imprint, which verifies the pattern.

And now I am determined to get some writing done today. After getting errands and other projects taken care of yesterday, I had no energy left to write, but I did re-read where I left off to try to get my brain back in the game. I don't have anything pressing to deal with the rest of the day. I'm still wavering about ballet class tonight. It's the first class with our substitute teacher while our regular teacher is on maternity leave, and we don't have class next week, so I don't want to miss, but I'm not sure I'm physically up to it, and I'd probably make an even worse impression if I go but am a slacker. Not that it should matter what impression I make, but this teacher is supposedly the "tough" teacher and the reason that some of the people in our class are still taking the beginner class instead of his intermediate adult class, and I am an overachiever.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Avoiding Mary Sue

I think I'm really on the mend! No more sneezing, much less sniffling. I have cast aside the Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of Imminent Death. However, as Mom warned me, the cold is threatening to move into my chest, so this afternoon I've planned a Target excursion to get some cough syrup and some V-8 for Mom's super-powerful cold remedy (prepared horseradish in V-8 or tomato juice, best drunk warm, and you'll feel like a vampire getting your daily dose of blood), as well as to re-stock the other essential cold supplies so I'll be prepared for the next time (which means I'll be healthy as a horse all winter). I don't think I'll make it to choir tonight, though, since singing doesn't seem to be working for me at the moment and even talking isn't too much fun. I have a ton and a half of things to catch up on now, not even counting being WAY behind on word count. But I'll survive, and I'm even looking forward to writing, which is a sign that I'm better.

And now, for a Writing Wednesday post!

A lot of writing books give advice on how to create a character readers will relate to and pull for or love. I haven't seen any that give advice on how not to go too far with that. Not that it would be a bad thing for readers to love your characters too much. Rather, you don't want to go so far in trying to make readers love your characters that you end up having the opposite effect and create a Mary Sue.

A "Mary Sue," for those who haven't delved into the world of fan fiction, is a character inserted by the author into an existing world (like a new crewmember on the starship Enterprise), and the character is essentially an idealized version of the author or a representation of the author in that world. A Mary Sue is beautiful, often in some striking or unusual way (violet eyes are quite common among Mary Sues), she's good at everything, everyone loves her (and the people who don't are just jealous), she's romantically involved with the author's favorite character, and she saves the day by being more skilled than the existing characters. The male version is called a Marty Stu or Gary Stu. A Mary Sue can be fun to write -- after all, if you're going to play in a fictional universe, you might as well get the guy and save the day -- but it isn't much fun for anyone else to read. In fan fiction, one of the problems with the Mary Sue is that most people who are reading stories set in that universe are doing so because they like those characters, and they want to see those people doing stuff, not read about some Mary Sue who takes over the story.

But even in the realm of original fiction, a Mary Sue can show up. She's a little less obvious because all the characters in a novel are theoretically original, and the main character of the book is supposed to be the one to save the day or get the guy/girl (though I have seen series where the author seems to become enamored of a secondary character who ends up taking over the series while the original hero gets shoved to the sidelines). I would say that a Mary Sue in original fiction is a character the author loves or identifies with enough that she loses the ability to be honest or objective about this character. The author gets so caught up in living out her own fantasies through this character that plot and story fall by the wayside and readers roll their eyes.

Some signs of an author's "Mary Sue" include:
-- The character is universally liked, and if anyone doesn't like her, they're just jealous. Or else certain groups of people universally like or dislike her, like the men all fall in love with her while the women all hate her.
-- The character is good at just about everything she tries to do, better than anyone else around, even if they have expertise in that area. Taken to extremes, this becomes what I call Magical Specialness, and fantasy is rife with it. That's when a character is miraculously good at something without any training or preparation. The first time he picks up a sword, he can singlehandedly defeat an entire squad of trained and experienced soldiers. After five minutes of magical training, the greatest wizard in the world says, "There is nothing more I can teach you."
-- The character has no real flaws, just superficial imperfections like a chocolate addiction, clumsiness or a birthmark.
-- The character may have flaws that readers notice but that the other characters (and possibly the author) don't seem to notice -- she does some pretty awful things, but the other characters all think she's wonderful.
-- Things come easily to the character -- if she isn't able to get or do something she wants, it will somehow come about that it happens anyway for her.
-- She doesn't have to face the consequences of her actions -- if she messes up, it still works out for her.

Not all extremely competent, good characters who are paragons of virtue are Mary Sues. Sometimes they're incredibly likable and readers fall madly in love with them. So what's the difference between a character like this and a Mary Sue/Gary Stu?

1) Go back and add "for no good reason" to that list above), and you'll have what really makes a Mary Sue. If you actually think through why things are the way they are, then you're on your way to creating a real character. Take that tendency for a character to be universally liked, or for all the boys to like her while the girls hate her. Yes, the girls might hate her because they're jealous of all the boys liking her, but why do the boys like her? Some are shallow enough to like her for her looks, but chances are that somebody -- your romantic leading man, I would hope -- will like her for some other reason, and that may be something that at least one girl is going to be looking for in a friend. Build individual character relationships that exist for a reason. If you want to show that a character is loved by others, you need to show why the others love her. You've got problems when you tell readers how much everyone loves a character, while they dislike that character.

For another example, take the "being good at everything" point. Have a reason for your character to have these skills that come in handy for the plot. If you've developed the backstory, that will fall into place -- and it will mean that there will be some things she doesn't know how to do.

2) Give your characters real flaws. A flaw needs to be more than just some negative characteristic. For writing purposes, I consider a character flaw to be a trait that causes the character to make mistakes or poor choices. That includes things like greed, suspicion, jealousy, insecurity, cowardice or laziness. It can also include positive traits taken too far, such as independence or softheartedness. It needs to go beyond merely something that gets the character in trouble to being something that causes the character to make a decision that gets her in trouble. So, clumsiness isn't a real character flaw, even if it does get a character in trouble when she falls into things she shouldn't because it doesn't involve a choice. When the characters do make mistakes or poor choices because of their character flaws, make sure there are consequences that matter. You don't want a character to be able to screw up and get away scot-free.

3) Make characters work for it. Showing the effort the characters have to take to get things makes them more likable. Show the character working to make new friends instead of just being liked by everyone -- maybe even make the first attempt not so successful. Show the character who's the best ever with a sword doing daily exercises and practicing. Let characters have a few failures along the way.

4) Be wary of superlatives (in other words, avoid Magical Specialness). Does the character absolutely have to be the very best, right now? Would it be enough for her to have the potential to be the best, with some work? Is "really good" enough? Of course, you want your hero to be good enough to beat the villain, if it comes to a direct showdown, and the villain has to be pretty good to be a worthy villain. But it's usually not necessary for the hero to be the best ever at first try. If it is necessary for the plot, then you really need to set it up and explain it, and probably have some consequences. There should be a price to be paid for being the best.

5) Be honest with yourself. There's no crime in writing yourself into your own books -- in fact, just about every author does it in some way with almost every character because you're the only person you know from the inside out. If a character really is based on you or the way you'd like to be in that world, acknowledge it to yourself, be aware of it, and then take a step back and make sure that you remember that this is a character, not your own role-playing exercise. JK Rowling has admitted that Hermione in the Harry Potter books is largely based on herself, but I wouldn't call her a Mary Sue -- she's the best student in the school because she does her homework, studies and even does extra reading, not because she's Special. She's severely lacking in social skills and tact (even as she lectures the boys on their lack of tact and social skills). She's a bit of a bossy know-it-all. She's a human being, with all the flaws and frailties we expect to help round out the good parts. (Oddly, the character comes across as much more of a Mary Sue in the films, which Rowling doesn't write.)

Finally, writing a Mary Sue isn't necessarily the kiss of death, especially if the Mary Sue you write is universal enough that a large number of readers can easily step into that character as their own Mary Sue. There are some hugely bestselling books starring characters that are obvious Mary Sues. But I think it's risky to count on that working. It's far better to create a real character readers will love.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sick-Day Entertainment

I was perhaps a tad overoptimistic yesterday when I said that the worst of the sniffling and sneezing was past because it proceeded to get even worse. I did get some rest last night (though with a weird dream that is haunting me for some odd reason, when it's not the kind of dream I tend to dwell on. It was a seemingly innocuous dream, but I woke up with the odd sense that it was some kind of Portent, and I can't shake that), and I don't seem to be sniffling quite as badly today so far. I want to try to write today, but my head is still a little fuzzy, and it's hard to concentrate.

I did not end up going back to that movie. I think I'll try reading the book instead, because what I've seen about the book seems to be something I'd be all over. In fact, since it was around when I was a kid, I can't believe I didn't discover it then. I watched a couple of Pushing Daisies episodes, then BBCAmerica has put up some of the original Monty Python episodes on OnDemand. I've only seen the sketches pulled out as excerpts and haven't seen them in context, which is a shame, as the funniest parts are often the way they flow into each other. I also hadn't noticed how close Michael Palin keeps coming to losing it entirely and cracking up in the first Spanish Inquisition bit. But the part that had me howling with laughter (and then going into a coughing, sneezing fit) was Wuthering Heights done in semaphore.

Finding exactly the right entertainment for a sick day can be kind of tricky. I've discovered that anything that makes me cry is right out, as that only makes the sniffling and stuffy nose worse. In fact, I think a lot of the Sunday morning flare-up can be blamed on a very sweet story that was in the newspaper that had me weeping. So, that rules out just about every romantic comedy because those always seem to make me cry. I'm having trouble staying focused enough to read fiction, though I can somehow manage to read non-fiction. I think that's because fiction is generally about people struggling with various crises and conflicts, and that tends to undermine one of the few good things about being sick: wallowing guilt-free in self-pity. It's hard to huddle up in the Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of Imminent Death, bemoaning your fate in life, while reading about other people who have bigger problems. Or else it's hard to care about those problems when even the super-soft, lotion-infused tissues feel like sandpaper on your red, raw nose (you could even say it glows); when your head feels like someone sprayed it full of foam insulation; when you can't stop sneezing; when you reek of eau de VapoRub; and when your throat feels like ants are marching up and down it if you go for more than a few minutes without sipping hot liquid (which makes it hard to sleep for very long). Then I get like "Who cares if you have to stop the Ultimate Evil before it destroys the world, and the Hounds of Hell are chasing you to the ends of the earth? I hab a code!"* My don't-care-o-meter seems to be less critical for television or movies than for books, so I can lie on the sofa, huddled in the Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of Imminent Death and not care much about what's happening on the screen, while I can't stay focused on a book if I'm paralyzed by not caring very much (to steal a phrase from Spike).

*Translation for those who don't speak Stuffy Nose: "I have a cold!"

I want to try to write some today, but I'm not sure I can come up with anything that makes sense. I keep reminding myself that it's an arbitrary goal with an arbitrary deadline, but then my overachiever self says, "But I'm behind on word count!"

Monday, November 17, 2008


NaNo update: I didn't get any actual writing done on Friday because I had reached a point where I had no idea what would happen next, so I focused on brainstorming and plotting. It turned out that my problem was that I hadn't really developed character arcs, so that was why I was at a loss for the big, climactic scene. That's where the hero is supposed to complete his transformation, and if I hadn't figured out what transformation needed to take place, I couldn't very well come up with a scene where that happens. Once I got that worked out, I made up for the lapse with double the word count on Saturday. And then the sniffles that started on Friday blew up into an all-out cold Saturday night, and I spent Sunday huddled on the sofa in the Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of Imminent Death, eating chicken noodle soup and guzzling large quantities of hot liquids. However, my reading and viewing for the day sort of counted as research for the book, and it gave me some ideas. I don't know how productive I'll be today. If I had a "real job" I would probably have called in sick. The worst of the sniffling and sneezing seems to be past, but I'm just really tired and woozy (I haven't slept well during this) and have that generally cruddy sick feeling. If I feel better after doing some napping or resting, maybe I'll do a little work later in the day. Otherwise, the priority is getting well.

It may turn out to be a good thing that I didn't try to do NaNo "officially," as I suspect I will run out of story before I hit the word count. This is a middle-grade book, so 50K is in the ballpark of what the finished word count will be, and I already know I will end up adding a lot in revisions. It would be pointless to stretch it out just to meet an arbitrary goal, and I would prefer to let the book rest a while so I can be more objective when it comes to rewriting, so I don't want to go back and start adding stuff at the beginning just to meet the arbitrary goal. However, I will have accomplished my goal, which was to draft a novel in the month and establish some better working habits that I can carry forward.

Meanwhile, I met another goal for the year last week. I wanted to read a hundred books this year, and last week I read #100. Granted, some of them were children's books, but others were big, fat fantasies, classics and reference books for which I took a lot of notes as I read, so I think it evens out. Plus, I didn't count partially read books, like references where I only needed to read a part or books I started and didn't finish or just skimmed.

Now I think I'm going to finish a movie I started watching yesterday on HBO OnDemand, and we'll see if I can get through it. It was The Seeker:The Dark is Rising, which I believe some of you warned me about, but hey, it was free and I was bored. I had to quit at the scene where the villain shows up at the boy's house, pretending to be a doctor. I could deal with Christopher Eccleston as the villain when he was all black-cloaked and ominous, but then his doctor guise was so goofy in a remarkably familiar way, and then when he introduced himself as, "Hello! I'm the Doctor!" I pretty much lost it and couldn't see the scene as ominous, the way I'm sure it was supposed to be, with the boy knowing it was the bad guy in his home but not able to do anything about it. I was waiting for the moment when we'd find the blue phone box in the front yard. Hmm, I just read some of the IMDB reviews, and it seems like I should spare myself the misery, or else this may be the only time I can watch it because the misery of the movie may make me forget the misery of my cold -- or a cold-addled brain may be the only way to watch it. Too bad Nanny McPhee isn't currently on HBO rotation. I think I need to get that DVD because it's perfect sick-day viewing. Maybe I'll dig into the Pushing Daisies DVDs instead.

And now, my final word for the day is "Achoo!"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Overachieving Frugality

NaNo update: I hit my target goal but didn't make myself go beyond. I still don't know what the end will be. Now I'm past 30,000 words, which means I need to figure that out.

I think part of my frenzy in writing this comes down to the fact that I'm a classic overachiever. The goal is to write a book in a month? Ha! I'll write one in three weeks. I need to write 2,000 words a day? Then I'll write 4,000. Plus, I am impatient. My agent has mentioned that there seems to be some demand for this kind of book (not that she knows what I'm working on), and that got me excited to have something to give her. Meanwhile, she was really high on the concept for The New Project, and that has me thinking that maybe once I'm done with the NaNo project, I should just finish it so that by the time it sells (fingers crossed), I'll have a complete manuscript, which means it may get released faster. I'm eager to finish the one book so I can get to the other story.

And I think I've figured out why hitting my goal seems to take no time, while going beyond it takes all day. I've been forcing myself to write earlier in the day (though that didn't happen today because I had a slow start this morning), so I'm finished with my writing goal about an hour to an hour and a half before I usually try to start writing. I hit my goal, I do my "I rocked, I rolled" chant that I stole from the gargoyles in book 3, and then I feel free to goof off a while or do other stuff. But then when my usual writing time rolls around, I feel like I should be working, so I set out to work, and then my usual bad procrastination habits kick in, which means it might take me an hour or longer to get around to actually writing. As a result, it ends up feeling like it took me all day.

But I told my overachiever self to chill yesterday and went out to help stimulate the economy. I've felt like I'm kind of to blame for some of the stuff that's been happening, as I haven't been spending money. It's not so much because of national economy fears as it is personal economy. I'm always frugal, and though I made decent money this year, I'm between contracts so I don't know how long the money I made this year will have to stretch. If it comes down to a choice of buying something now or being able to hold off trying to find a real job later, well, it's pretty obvious to me. But my main issue is that I don't really need anything. I'm overwhelmed with stuff. I have shelves loaded with books I haven't read yet and am reluctant to bring more home (the lovely thing about the library is that they store the books for me). I don't listen to music very often, so I barely listen to the CDs I own. I have DVDs still wrapped in plastic. I have a closet bulging with clothes, when I spend about 98 percent of my time wearing jeans, shorts or sweats. Even most of my social life involves jeans. I don't need more clothes. I don't wear jewelry all that often, and most of that is a few sentimental pieces. I couldn't even come up with a Christmas wish list to give my parents. So, most of what I've been buying is stuff that gets used up -- food, toothpaste, soap, office supplies.

In the interest of saving jobs and all that, when I hit Target yesterday, in addition to the toothpaste and soap, I bought the season one DVDs of Pushing Daisies (plus, good DVD sales may help save the show). Then I hit B&N and bought a couple of books. And then I bought groceries. Then I didn't make myself work when I got home.

I will confess that I think the overachieving thing has hit the frugality, too. With the news full of all those stories about stretching your dollar further, I feel like I have to be even better at saving money than everyone else is, and since my baseline is pretty frugal, saving even more pretty much will involve growing my own food and making my own clothes.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

My Solutions for the Doom Loop

NaNo update: I passed the halfway point and hit 28,000 words yesterday. So, yeah, not so much with the balance and avoiding the all or nothing thing. It seems like if I do 2,000 words a day, that leaves me with enough free time that I actually feel guilty about it and find myself doing more work, but doing 4,000 words a day somehow seems to take up most of the day and leaves me with no free time. I'm not quite sure how that works. The story is taking shape, but I'm totally stumped for an ending. I know how it should end -- you know, good guys win, evil vanquished, yay! -- but I'm not entirely sure how that should come about. By this time, I'm so far away from the synopsis I write seventeen years ago that it's of no help whatsoever (and that was a really lame way of doing it, according to the judge, and I have to agree).

I've been talking about the Great Publishing Doom Loop, which is what happens when a trend becomes hot and soon all you can find is books that fit the trend, but then when that trend fizzles out, nothing is left of it as the publishers all chase the next trend. There are certainly business realities that feed the doom loop, but I have a few ideas on how publishers could avoid the worst of it. Mind you, I'm no MBA, but I have worked in marketing and communications and I listen a lot to readers and booksellers and spend a lot of time in bookstores.

So, here's my manifesto on what should be done when the revolution comes (not that I'll be leading the revolution, but I am open to being an advisor):

1) Avoid the all-or-nothing mentality (yeah, I'm one to talk).
Yes, if a trend comes along, then you naturally want to take advantage of the opportunity. It would be silly to ignore it entirely. But you don't have to go crazy, and you don't have to stop doing everything else. Variety is your friend. Sticking with some things that may not be burning up the bestseller lists at the moment but which do sell steadily will probably pay off in the long term. You don't want a whole segment of your customer base to get out of the habit of shopping for books because there's nothing to satisfy them. When a trend fades, it doesn't mean it has to stop entirely. Just pull back to a reasonable level.

2) Don't forget about quality when pursuing a trend.
While you're taking advantage of current market conditions, do so only if those books are books you'd be willing to publish if that subgenre wasn't the hottest thing on the market. Don't pressure authors into writing the currently hot thing because it will show if their hearts aren't in it. If you've got an author you want to keep on board but who doesn't fit the trend, that's where the variety thing comes in.

3) Be honest in your packaging and marketing.
Don't use pastels and funny fonts and breezy-sounding cover copy on a serious book, just because the funny books are what's popular. Don't put a sexy cover on a non-sexy book, just because sexy is hot now. Readers recoil when they feel burned. And it's that variety thing again. You've got plenty of people buying the currently hot stuff. If you've got something different, you want the people who aren't into that trend to be able to easily spot the different stuff. Right now, if I hit the fantasy section and see a book cover that doesn't feature a black-clad, tattooed chick with her back to me, I will probably pick it up, just to see what it's about, because it's different and doesn't look like the books that I know I'm not looking for.

4) Try to understand the trend.
For an industry that is so driven by public tastes, it doesn't seem like publishers do much market research. Harlequin does focus groups and surveys, but I don't know of too many others who've done things like that. Knowing why readers are all over a certain kind of book and what they like about those books could make a big difference in avoiding the doom loop. It could help publishers avoid flooding the market with books readers won't respond to, and even as the trend fizzles, it could help publishers know which books to stick with or which elements they can carry over to other trends so that they can still satisfy those readers. I got the feeling that the publishers never really understood the appeal of chick lit, for example. They just reacted by flinging out a lot of stuff that looked kind of like it until the market was flooded and the trend tanked. There's been a lot of talk about finding the next Harry Potter, but it doesn't seem like they've bothered to look into what the various market segments found most appealing in those books -- and I'll bet that kids were into slightly different things than teen boys, who were into slightly different aspects than teen girls, and then adult men and women were into yet other aspects. You might not be able to find something else that crosses demographic lines to such a massive extent, but finding out what those various groups were looking for could have helped publishers fill that gap within each of the groups. Instead, all they seem to be doing is looking for "boy with magic powers" stories to fill that gap.

5) Look beyond the bottom line numbers to find potential you can do something with.
I think a lot of the doom looping on both the publisher side and the bookseller side is because of the way sales are measured. I don't think anyone actually tracks overall sales by type of book. Stores may track title sales or department sales, but they're probably not tracking sales of, say, urban fantasies with vampire heroes. Likewise with publishers, who track title and author results, and they usually look at total sales, period. They don't seem to have a way of noticing that the same readership is being spread out among more books, and they don't seem to care as much about steady, ongoing sales as they do big bursts that make a splash. That goes back to the research -- if you've got a book that is selling steadily if not spectacularly, that is getting lots of positive reader response, and that seems to have "legs" beyond the initial release date, which is the way a lot of non-trend books seem to go, then it might be a good idea to look into why it hasn't managed to break out -- is the market really limited to the relatively small number of people who are really into that book, or is there some reason why other readers who might like that book aren't finding it? Find a bunch of readers, survey them on their reading habits and tastes (genres they like, which bookstore sections they shop in, favorite authors, favorite books), give them copies of the book, then survey them after they've read it on what they think about it, where they'd look for it in a store, maybe what their impression of the cover is and whether they'd have bought it if they'd seen it. I bet it would be eye-opening to correlate reading preferences to impressions of the book, and my guess is that most of the time the problem is that the book is being marketed badly so that people who might like it don't find it. And that will change the impact of trends because one reason trends get hot is because those books become so easy to find. If you can improve the performance of existing books/authors, trends become less important. For an industry that functions like Big Business in so many respects, it's amazing how non-businesslike they act when it comes to marketing and sales. They seldom do focus group tests on things like covers and cover copy. It's like they expect Big Business results, but the things that really affect results are still done on gut instinct. The closest they come to getting cover feedback is with the major chain buyers, who can trigger a cover change if they hate the cover but think the book has potential.

6) Take moderate risks instead of copycatting.
This is one of those lessons they never seem to learn. So many of the huge bestsellers literally came out of nowhere. They were rejected by just about every publisher around and sold for relatively low advances (see the first Harry Potter book). The initial book may not even have done that well, but sales gained momentum as the series progressed. What's really sad is that often the follow-up books that come in a trend go for far more money than the initial hit that sets off the doom loop. That first book may have sold for only a few thousand dollars, but then when the trend gets hot, similar books during the buying frenzy will command huge advances. Of course, that initial author does eventually earn the money in royalties and will get higher advances for later books, but those later authors will probably not earn out their advances and will end up making more money than the books are really worth. Which is most profitable for the publishers? And yet so many are afraid to step out there and buy something that isn't just like whatever's currently hot, preferring to throw a lot of money at something trendy. Since a publisher has a lot to do with which books become bestsellers (as I've mentioned before), it seems like buying something different for a modest advance and then putting the money into pushing it could pay off far better than buying something trendy for a huge advance and then having to also pay to push it in order to make the book earn enough to make up for the huge advance.

7) Be patient.
This problem probably has a lot to do with the fact that many of the publishers are owned by entertainment conglomerates who are used to overnight ratings and weekend box-office reports, so they treat books the same way. But someone can see a movie on Friday night and tell several friends right away so that those people can go on Saturday, and then they can tell more people, who go on Sunday, and you're already getting word-of-mouth results on opening weekend. Books don't work that way. First, unless it's a highly anticipated new release, it might not even be on the shelf on release day. Even if someone buys it on release day, she may not get around to reading it until the weekend. It may take a few days to read it, so it may be a week after release day before she can tell anyone else about it. Then that person may not read it right away, so by the time word of mouth can spread beyond one level, the book is probably out of co-op placement at the front of the store, and it's even harder for someone browsing the store to see it and realize that's the book her friends were talking about. Plus, they're really bad about not really pulling the marketing trigger until release date. I was lucky if they put up the information about the book at the online bookstores on the release date. Apparently, it was policy that they didn't put up information like the cover copy and reviews until release day, which made it hard for someone who stumbled across it while browsing to be able to decide to buy it or look for it. I can see the argument that you don't want to spend a lot of energy marketing something that people can't just buy right away, but at the same time, if you're expecting most of the book's sales to come in the first two weeks, and if you'll consider the book a failure if it doesn't have big sales in those first two weeks, regardless of how well it sells in the long term, and if you're counting on word of mouth to do most of your marketing for you, then you need to get the conversations about the book going before the release date.

8) Rethink book advertising.
Most book advertising, quite frankly, sucks. It's like there's a generic book ad template out there that everyone uses -- the cover of the book, a few review quotes, maybe a picture of the author if the author is really famous. I bet you probably have a vivid mental image of the generic book ad right now. Publishers like to tell lower-tier authors that advertising doesn't sell books, as justification for not doing any advertising for their books. But then they go and spend a fortune on (really lame) ads for the big-name authors. The only reason those ads work is that those are authors with a huge enough fan base that all it takes to sell zillions of books is just announcing that the author has a new book out. They don't even have to bother with dropping the cover and quotes into the generic book ad template. They really just need to fill half a page of USA Today with "The New Book By Nora Roberts Is In Stores Now" in giant print. I'm not even sure how well those ads work. To a large extent, they're ego sops for the authors. If a publisher wants to retain a bestselling author, they have to demonstrate their commitment to the author, and one way of demonstrating that commitment is by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times book review section. As a result, the majority of a publisher's advertising budget is spent on very expensive ads that may or may not do any good for books that are guaranteed to sell well, even without advertising.

The generic book ad template does nothing to sell books by new or less famous authors because it doesn't say enough about the book to allow people to know if they'd even be interested in such a thing. It would take truly creative advertising that goes beyond the cover-and-quotes model -- something like you see for other products, where the ad has an attention-getting headline and some clever copy that gives at least a feel for the story. I don't think publishers have the budget, even if they did cut back on the pricey ads for bestsellers, to do a real, effective national advertising campaign that could sell books by entirely unknown authors on a very wide scale. But I think you could do a really effective ad campaign online for a reasonable cost -- do the clever headline and the fact that it's about a book in the ad, and have the ad link to a site with all the info about the book, including an excerpt and purchase info. You can really target specific demographics that way and hit a good number of people who are likely to be interested for far less money than a single small ad in a national publication. I know someone whose publisher is doing that for her books, and she saw her web hits and sales really go up when they advertised, of all places, on I Can Has Cheezburger. I've halfway considered doing an ad for my series at GraphJam, since it's focused on office humor, so it's a good tie-in, and is one of the less expensive sites in that group, but I don't have the resources to make the kind of campaign out of it that it would take to really get results. Plus, I'm not sure how widely available in bookstores my whole series is now, and it would be rather pointless to advertise something people couldn't find other than online.

At any rate, it's nearly impossible for readers to discover the majority of new books being published right now, and that doesn't sound like a very good business model to me, to put out products you have no way of knowing if people will like, packaged in a way you don't know will actually appeal to the customers, and without doing much of anything to make potential customers aware that these products exist.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why There's a Doom Loop

NaNo update: I should hit the halfway point today! Yesterday was the first time I finished my target word count early in the day without having anything else I needed to work on. Theoretically, that should have meant the rest of the day was free, but I found myself writing nearly 2,000 more words and feeling guilty when I wasn't writing. I still managed to do a ton of laundry and some tidying, but I need to work on that idea of giving myself free time after meeting my writing goals.

To follow up from yesterday's post, why does the publishing world operate in a doom loop when it should seem obvious to anyone with common sense that it doesn't work?

For one thing, I'm sure I vastly oversimplified the scenario. There are so many people and numbers and books involved that it may be impossible to really see the pattern, especially not from within the company, and changing anything would mean taking the kind of huge risks that businesses usually avoid.

For another, publishing certainly isn't alone. Almost every industry I've dealt with functioned in a kind of doom loop. You see similar things in movies, television and music. Something is successful, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and soon there aren't a lot of other options, so they lose the part of the audience that doesn't see anything they like, and then the remaining audience is spread too thin across what's left until everything tanks, and it starts all over again when someone takes a risk to do something new. Everyone sits around waiting for someone else to be the one to go out on a limb with the new thing, and then they're willing to pounce when it works, but then they kill it when they all go overboard with it because no one wants to be the one to cut back on doing something that's currently popular, even though they're flooding the market.

I didn't work with publishing in the Good Old Days, so I don't know if what I've heard is merely misty water-colored memories tinted heavily by nostalgia, but apparently it used to be a "gentleman's endeavor." Someone with money who liked books would set up a publishing house, and since there were no computers to track the minute details of profit and loss, the business decisions were mostly made on gut instinct and weighing the merits of individual books, and as long as the trust fund was still more or less intact, then all was well. But I suspect that if that model had really been all that successful, those publishers would still be around in more or less that form. Instead, though, they merged or were bought out, and now major corporate entities own most of the publishers. There are about five or six major conglomerates these days, encompassing all the little publishers from days of yore. Names like News Corp., Viacom and Disney are involved, and the groups that aren't owned by entertainment giants are owned by foreign holding companies that may or may not have anything to do with books. That means it's now about the money, and the fast money, at that, because the shareholders want to see their stock prices go up. It's very hard to take a "flywheel" approach in a publicly traded company because Wall Street likes to see activity. Steady momentum doesn't look like activity.

Another thing about the Good Old Days was that they didn't have elaborate inventory-tracking systems and point-of-sale data recording. Bookstores knew what they'd sold when they saw an empty spot on the shelf or noticed the book going out the door. Publishers knew what books were selling and what books weren't when they got returned books from the stores or orders for more books. That could have been months later, and when you don't get sales data until months later, it's really hard to jump on trends. Now they know day-by-day exactly how a book is selling, and all decisions are made on those hard numbers, often just looking at the bottom line instead of considering other data points. With services like Bookscan, publishers now also have access to numbers for every book, even their competitors', so that makes it that much easier to jump on a bandwagon when they see something taking off, and they have all those numbers to plug into P&L projections.

One big problem is that it's nearly impossible to track demand that's not being met. I used to do PR for a company that did supply chain management software (you see why I write books now instead?), and supposedly they could make sure that things that customers wanted would be where they wanted them, when they wanted them by analyzing sales data and feeding that into ordering systems. I stumped a room full of engineers by asking what happened if something someone wanted wasn't in the store, so there was no sales data. They knew what customers were buying and could supply more of the same, but they had no way of knowing about potential sales that they'd lost, either because that item was out of stock that day or because the item didn't exist. And I haven't thought of a reliable way of capturing that. When the helpful cashier asks if you found everything you were looking for, what she means is was there a product that exists that they carry that you didn't find on their shelves that day -- maybe because you didn't know where they shelved it or because they were out. She's not gathering information on what you'd really like to find but that no one makes.

At bookstores, you can ask for books they don't stock to be special ordered, and that often will trigger the computer inventory system to put them in the store's usual inventory. But if no one's publishing what you want to read, there's no real way of letting publishers know that. All they can do to measure public taste is see how well what they make available sells, and that tends to trigger the doom loop because it just feeds on itself.

So, say I'm browsing a bookstore and a helpful bookseller notices me wandering aimlessly around the shelves and frowning. After she catches me in a flying tackle when I try to avoid getting help even though I really need it (I have issues with that), she sits on my back and asks if there's something I'm looking for. She can only really help me if I know a title or author she can type into the computer and tell me if that book is in stock or if she has to order it for me. If she's a really knowledgeable bookseller, she can ask about the kind of book I'm looking for and maybe make a recommendation based on her own observations and reading. So, because she's sitting on my back and won't let me go until I let her help me, I tell her that I'd like to find a fun contemporary-set fantasy novel that's more about magic and wizards and stuff like that in the modern world, and not about vampires, werewolves and all that dark stuff. Something more like Harry Potter, with that sense of whimsy even as the plots got serious, but for grown-ups. And not a paranormal romance, either. I don't mind romance mixed in, but I want the story to focus on the fantasy, not the romance. "Hmm," she might say, "have you read Shanna Swendson?" I'd say that I am Shanna Swendson, and therefore I've read that whole series, thank you very much. I want something like that without me having to write it. If she can't think of anything to recommend, we're both out of luck. I don't find a book, and she doesn't make a sale. After she lets me up, it's not like she can get on the Batphone to corporate headquarters and let them know about the kind of book a customer was looking for that they didn't have. The bookstore chain can't send out an alert to publishers saying "Here are the kinds of books our customers requested this week. Maybe you should publish something like this."

I don't think it would do any good for readers to go directly to publishers and say what they'd love to see. I know I've chatted with editor friends, but that doesn't help, as they can only go with what authors send them, and then there's all that pesky P&L stuff, so that if something like that doesn't exist, they can't get numbers and will have trouble getting corporate buy-in even if someone writes it. They're not going to go out seeking a certain kind of manuscript on the basis of a few readers saying what they'd love to see. I have heard editors at conventions asking people what they'd like to see more of, but a few people who really want something doesn't mean that thousands of people are dying for that same thing. Obviously, there isn't a huge hunger for the kind of light contemporary fantasy I'm looking for or else my books would be selling a lot better, since there aren't a lot of other options out there for readers who want that kind of thing (or, perhaps, the people who really want that kind of thing aren't finding these books because they aren't shelved as fantasy, but that's an old, futile argument).

So, I think that's a lot of the problem. The decisions are made based on which items out of those currently available sell well -- and even there, they don't actually know why they're selling or not selling, so that doesn't help in making other decisions. And there's no way to know who's not buying books and why not, so the trends sort of feed on themselves.

Plus, I don't think the publishers and booksellers take responsibility for their roles in the trends. They act like it's all the readers at fault -- the readers were the ones driving the trend by buying the books and the readers were the ones who rejected the trend when they stopped buying the books. There may be some readers who are heavily influenced by trends and who will only read what's popular, but the majority are most likely reading what they like out of what's available. When a trend takes off, it's not because all the readers only want to read that kind of book. When a trend dies, it's not because readers who used to like that thing have totally changed their tastes and no longer do (though they may get burned out when there's nothing else to read). The trend happens because that's what publishers are putting out there and pushing. That's where they focus their marketing. Because of that marketing, that's what bookstores are buying, and that's what you'll see prominently displayed. And, guess what, people are more likely to buy books they can see. If something is trendy and you like that sort of thing, you can stand at the table in the bookstore aisle and gather an armload of books. You don't need word of mouth to find those books. If what you like isn't trendy, you may have to dig harder to find fewer books to your taste. You'll have to read book blogs or online bookstore recommendations, or dig through the shelves at the back of the store. Which kind of book is going to sell better?

Tomorrow, I'll have my recommendations to whoever wants to spearhead the revolution and change things (actually running the revolution would be too much work).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Publishing Doom Loop

NaNo progress: I topped 20,000 words last night and have more than made up for the Saturday off. However, I sense an "all" binge in the making. We'll see if I give into it or if I hold fast to the idea of giving myself time to have a life and find balance.

Thanks for all the book recommendations. I think I know what I'll buy next time I'm near a bookstore so I can do my part to Save Publishing and I also have a library list. Not that I was running out of things to read. My issue was finding things I wanted to buy. But a list of books to read is always good.

Yesterday, I blamed the publishing doom loop for the reason I can't find much that I want to read right now. That concept came from the business book Good to Great, and I did a whole post on how that book might apply to writers. But I think the doom loop concept applies more to the publishing industry, as a whole.

As a refresher, the ideal is to go with the "flywheel" approach, where you can slowly and steadily build momentum over time until that momentum keeps it turning with minimal effort. That requires consistency and sticking with things rather than constantly changing course. The opposite is the doom loop, where you get into a vicious cycle of chasing after trends and changing direction so that you never end up getting anywhere.

So, here's how I see the publishing doom loop working, based on whatever insight I've gleaned from dealing with this industry.

Stage One:
A book comes seemingly out of nowhere to become a huge bestseller. It's new and fresh, and there hasn't really been much of anything like it before. Quite often, it's a book that was rejected by almost every other publisher, not because it wasn't a good book but because they didn't know what to do with it. It didn't fit into a convenient niche. Because it was new and unique, there was nothing else to compare it to. When an editor makes a pitch for a publisher to buy a book, the editor doesn't just make a case for what a great book it is and how much people will like it. She also has to pull together projected profit and loss numbers about how the book will be expected to sell, and those numbers come from looking at the performance of similar books. With no similar books, there aren't good numbers for the P&L projections, and that means the bean counters and the sales staff will give it the big thumbs down. The publisher that bought the book took a big risk, but that risk paid off.

Stage Two:
All those publishers that originally rejected the bestselling book now want to jump on the bandwagon and publish something similar. Because of the stellar performance of that book, their P&L projections on similar projects all look really promising, so the bean counters and sales staff give a big thumbs up. Never mind that the other things kind of like the original book they rejected earlier may not actually be as good. Every publisher in town wants a book like that, so anything that comes close will likely sell for a pretty high advance and get a good promotional push. Meanwhile, the readers who loved the original book have been looking for something more like it, so they pounce on these new books, and they become bestsellers.

Hollywood notices the trend and starts optioning books for film adaptation. Editors start talking at writing conferences or in interviews about how they'd love to see more books like this.

Stage Three:
All those bestsellers make the publishers giddy. They want even more books like that, to the point that they're buying things they might not have considered previously. But hey, the P&L projections look amazing, so who cares? There's a clearly demonstrated demand for this kind of book, and readers want more, more, more! When they can't fill slots with this kind of book, they find ways to package other, slightly similar books in ways that make them look like they kind of might possibly be books like this. They may encourage some of their current authors who aren't writing this kind of book to try writing one like it. Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer slots left open for any other kind of book -- so that some of those authors already working with the publisher may not be able to sell books unless they try writing this kind of book. Authors who want to break in look at this as their big chance and try writing this kind of book, even if that's not what they read and enjoy. Readers who aren't into the new trend can't find anything to read and may even get out of the habit of book shopping so that sales of other kinds of books drop, and those numbers validate the publishers' decision to focus on this trend.

Things start to take on a look of sameness at the bookstore. The books in that hot subgenre/category reach critical mass, and even the devoted readers who love books like that can't possibly buy them all. They start picking and choosing, and they're seeing a quality drop as the authors who were merely jumping on the bandwagon or who were more or less forced onto the bandwagon don't produce books these readers find very satisfying. Instead of all the readers buying all of the few books like that available, as before, all those readers are spread out over a wider number of books, so the sales numbers for each individual book are lower, even if overall total sales in that subgenre/category remain high.

Stage Four:
Because the way publishers and bookstores track sales is on a book-by-book level, all they see is that sales are dropping. When sales drop on certain titles, that means the comparable numbers for future potential books like that look worse, and the publishers start wondering if the trend is about to end. The bookstore chains order fewer of each title like that or fewer of those authors' next books because they base their orders on previous sales. Meanwhile, readers are mostly still enthusiastic about that kind of book, though they're starting to be even more careful about their purchases because they've been burned on the lower-quality books the publisher flooded the market with or with the books that weren't actually like that but that were given covers and marketing treatment to look like that. After being burned, they learn to go with known quantities and stick to the first-wave authors they've read before and loved. They're leery of new authors.

Stage Five:
Books by authors who weren't in that first wave of the trend start tanking, so publishers are leery of buying any more, and the bookstores don't order as much of the books that are already in the pipeline, which guarantees that the books will tank before readers even get a chance to consider them. The publishers evaluate the situation and decide that the problem was that all those books were too similar. They start looking for books that are similar to the trend, but different somehow, with some kind of twist. They reject anything that's too much like the original books that started the trend, except maybe by that core of first-wave authors who continue to sell well. Some of those authors have grown bored with writing that type of book and try to move on to something else. The more marginal authors who came along at a bad time and ended up being victim to the downward trend have to reinvent themselves.

Meanwhile, the readers are still enthusiastic about that kind of book and buy a lot of their favorites, but there are still too many books for them to buy them all, and they become pickier. The people who work at bookstores and who see the kind of books they ring up at the cash register, instead of looking at the performance of each individual ISBN, think those books are still hot because they sell a lot of books like that.

Stage Six:
The "same, but different" books start hitting the shelves. The readers who've been driving the trend, who liked that kind of book, don't really like the "same, but different" books, so they tank. There was a reason they liked the original books, and these new ones are missing the mark. All that's left of the kind of books these readers wanted are the ones written by those bestselling authors who still have the leeway to write the "classic" books of that type without trying to be different. Those continue to sell well, but the rest of that market totally dies. The publishers conclude that no one wants books like that anymore, and the trend is dead. The bestselling authors from that trend are now considered author brands and not part of the trend. Their books continue to sell well, but publishers won't even look at anything else that looks remotely like the books in that trend, and they've pretty much dropped all their midlist authors who were part of that trend, unless they've been able to switch gears and write something different. Readers get frustrated because they can't find new books by some of the authors they liked. They still like those books, and they bought a lot of them, so they don't understand why they went away like that. The surviving bestsellers can't write fast enough to provide enough books like that, and the readers have gone from feast to famine. When the surviving authors do have books out, they're smash hits. Bookstore clerks continue to think that these books are hot because whatever they get like that now, they sell a lot of, and their customers keep asking for more like that.

Meanwhile, a new manuscript is making the rounds, but most of the publishers don't know what to do with it because there isn't anything like it already on the market for them to plug comparable numbers into a P&L sheet.

Stage Seven:
One publisher takes a chance and buys that book, which becomes a major bestseller. And it all begins again.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Book Searching

NaNo update: I more than made up for the Thursday lapse on Friday, finishing up the Thursday goal, hitting the Friday goal, and then going past that. Then Saturday was a lost day. I was out all day and then too tired to get anything done. I got my target word count plus a little extra done on Sunday, so that extra plus the Friday extra means I don't have to go too far over today's target word count to make up for doing nothing on Saturday. The story is flowing, and I'm really liking these characters. I've already accomplished my errand for the day, and it's a nice rainy day, which means good writing weather and nothing that should get in the way of my writing.

A blog by an anonymous editor had a post last week about some of the current economic challenges in the publishing industry and why a lot of returns right now is bad for bookstores, publishers and authors, and how we could all make a difference and help the cause of books by just buying one book this weekend. As a bookoholic, I'm totally on board with any scheme that requires me to buy a book as a civic duty, in spite of the stack of books I currently have checked out of the library and the towering to-be-read pile that will someday topple and kill me.

So I started browsing the online bookstores to see what might catch my fancy of something that's currently in print and that I might possibly find in one of my local stores. And it seems like the current publishing doom loops are leaving me out in the cold. Apparently, the things I like and want to read aren't what's currently in vogue. The books that caught my eye were all either out of print or not being published in the United States, while no method of searching managed to bring up something that really fit what I wanted to find (browsing by category, looking at the "people who bought this also bought" lists for books I'd liked). That could be why my book buying has been down significantly in the past year (other than the fact that they opened a nice, new library two blocks from my house). I'm reading older stuff from the library that isn't available in bookstores and not finding newer stuff to my taste. Maybe I'm a total oddball and the only one with this problem, but it is possible that the publishing problem isn't purely related to the economics of returns and how people are choosing to spend their money. There could be more people like me who would like to spend money if we could find something to spend it on.

Here's what I'd love to find:

A good gothic, something in the vein of Mary Stewart. You know, spooky village or old house, lots of secrets that put Our Heroine in danger, a man who seems good but who turns out to be evil, and a man who seems dark and dangerous but who turns out to be good. I wouldn't mind it being a little updated from the heyday of the gothic, whether in a contemporary setting or in a historical one, with the heroine being allowed to have a brain instead of just being the damsel in distress, and no cover illustrations of a girl in a white nightgown fleeing a castle while glancing over her shoulder. Some of the romance publishers have done what they call modern gothics, but they've mostly consisted of books about freaky men who live alone in remote mansions bringing about the sexual awakenings of women who somehow get stranded at said mansions. What I'm looking for is that blend of mystery, suspense, atmosphere and a touch of romance.

A lighter contemporary-set fantasy, something in the vein of the Harry Potter books, but for grownups (or, you know, like my books). Yeah, the Harry Potter books got pretty dark and serious in places and had some serious consequences but I still wouldn't consider them truly dark because they always maintained that sense of whimsy and they didn't wallow in the darkness. Harry himself always remained firmly on the side of light. Too much of contemporary-set/urban fantasy wallows in the darkness, without that sense of fun and whimsy (unless you count a wise-cracking heroine). I haven't found anything that really scratches that itch for me. The fantasy/chick lit hybrids have been a little too focused on the romance and relationships (and sex) without the world-building (too much real world), the urban fantasy is too dark, and the fantasy romance tends to focus on vampires and sex and has gone very erotic. Basically, I don't want anything that could use my Halloween costume as the cover illustration. I know this is a really narrow niche, but I can't be the only one writing it or the only one who wants it.

A fun epic or traditional-style fantasy. Not necessarily funny -- I have Terry Pratchett for that -- but more in the vein of adventure romp instead of facing the Ultimate Evil that will suck the entire world down into the pits of hell if the hero doesn't succeed. Yeah, you want the stakes to be high, but that doesn't always have to mean the end of the world. The stakes can be personal and still be high. I think that's why I enjoyed that Doris Egan series so much. The main characters were in peril and their situation was life or death, but they weren't facing Unspeakable, Ultimate Evil. They were caught (in my favorite book in the series) between Overzealous Bureaucrat and Ruthless Outlaw, so their fates were at stake, but the fate of the whole world wasn't at stake. So give me quests, give me dragons to slay, give me corrupt wizards who want to take over the kingdom (rather than the whole world), give me princes or princesses who need rescuing. I want a fun adventure story with magic involved. And preferably without lots of darkness, demons, hell-spawn, etc.

A classic chick-lit novel. The publishing doom loop really struck here. A few funny novels about single women navigating the minefield of bad bosses and worse boyfriends with the help of their friends were hits, so suddenly publishers were scooping up more and more of the same. And then when they had too much of the same old thing, they wanted something "different," but that different wasn't as much fun (to me), and they entirely walked away from any at all of the original recipe. I guess they've never thought of just branching out. Instead, it's all or nothing. So the books filling that slot now tend to be about issues and family woes, etc. Or else motherhood and parenting. Way too many of them have cover blurbs that start along the lines of "She thought she had the perfect life with her perfect husband, but then he walked out/she discovered he was cheating, and suddenly her life was different." I did find a few old books I hadn't read yet (some imports) on a used bookstore crawl, and I'm hoarding them. None of the authors I really love have anything coming out soon in the US, or if they do, they've moved on to the manic mommy/departing husband type books. They're still publishing some of the big names, but the second tier of British authors doesn't seem to be hitting these shores.

A mystery that falls somewhere in between "cozy" and "gritty." The so-called cozies -- the ones without a lot of gore or violence (a la a lot of Agatha Christie) -- have gotten pretty twee, with all sorts of wacky gimmicks, so that the amateur sleuth has to have some entirely unrelated career that lends itself to clever pun titles and things to include in the books, like recipes or knitting patterns. I'm sorry, but I find it hard to believe a cake decorator whose clients keep getting murdered would stay in business for long. On the other end, we have the mystery equivalent of urban fantasy, with hardcore grit and gore, really rough language and graphic sex. If it's a series, I'd like the personal lives of the main characters to actually progress instead of them remaining in a ridiculous holding pattern. Really, I guess I'd like more people writing like Dick Francis. Not necessarily involving horses, but with that mix of action, danger, mystery and a hint of romance (but not in the same way as the gothics). I have a stack of Dorothy Sayers books to get through, and that's right along the lines of what I want, but it doesn't really help in the "buy books to help save the publishing industry" effort.

Is anyone else having similar difficulties finding what you want to read? Of course, any recommendations of any recent/current books along these lines would be appreciated.

If you do find things you want to buy, buying books now could make a difference for bookstores, authors and publishers (and you might not find a lot if you wait much later because they're purging inventory for Christmas stuff). If you want to be strategic about your purchases, support the authors you like because if their books are selling, they may be less likely to be selected to be stripped and/or returned. Support the genre you like so it can maintain its shelf space and get new books in without returns. My guess is that the really vulnerable books right now are those that are on the front tables that aren't bestsellers because once the co-op time runs out, if the books still haven't sold, they'll be the easiest to sweep away to make room for the Christmas displays.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Ruining Childhood Memories

Oh, the new pillow worked like a charm. Normally, it takes me a while to get used to a new pillow, and I wasn't sure I got the right kind, considering there are now dozens of very specific kinds of pillows, depending on how you sleep (and there must be a lot of side sleepers because all the specific side-sleeper pillows were sold out except in king size), but it worked well enough that I slept ridiculously late (I must have been short on sleep) and woke up with full range of movement in my neck, which hasn't happened for a while.

I found out yesterday one of the reasons why I don't manage to write three books a year. Not every day works out to be the kind of writing day when I can easily dash off a couple of thousand words. I did have the hour of writing time, but when the rest of the day is spent dashing about and taking care of Real Life, it's a lot harder to summon the mental energy to write. I might have been able to hit my target word count if I'd done that plotting/planning, but I reached a brick wall a thousand words in and knew I needed to do some thinking before moving on. But I did do a thousand words, and because I've been ahead of my target every other day, I'm still ahead of my planned pace. That just means that today I need to do some brainstorming, and the only bit of Real Life I have to deal with is the post office.

Last week I mentioned finding the final two books in Joan Aiken's Wolves series. I kind of skimmed through them then (along with the one I own that comes before them) just to see what happened, but now I've actually read them, and I think I'm even more disappointed. I believe I said in response to a comment that my problem wasn't that the books got dark, since they started pretty dark, with the first book being about children in a workhouse. I take that back. The next-to-last book involves some pretty graphic discussion about sadistic torture, plus some gory on-stage deaths, some of which are utterly senseless, and one of which was rather disturbing, in that it was treated so callously. The person who died wasn't really a good person, but was the kind of person who never really had a chance to be good. She gets killed while saving the life of one of the good guys (somewhat inadvertently -- she's not planning to sacrifice herself, but she does step between him and the bad guy and gets hit instead) and yet the good guys are all "well, no big loss" and even tell the one whose life she saved not to worry about it because she was basically useless. Mostly, I think she was a Mary Sue victim, in that she wanted the same thing the book's Mary Sue wanted, and therefore she deserved to die. And all this is in a children's book. I'm not one of those people who thinks the precious darlings need to be shielded from everything icky, but I'm 40 years old and was freaked out by this stuff, so I'm guessing it's a bit much for the under-twelve crowd. Or, it should be. I hate the idea of kids that age being okay with this sort of thing.

There may be spoilers in the following rant. I'll try to keep discussion of the latest books vague, but it's hard to discuss the later books without getting into the major revelations that came from Black Hearts in Battersea, so if you've read the earlier posts and were intrigued by that book, move along, there's nothing to see here. And I do still love that book. I'm just planning to negate the existence of the later books.

I'm going to have to assume that the last two books were written when she was rather old and not entirely all there (I think the last was published posthumously) and that the publisher was just glad to get a couple more books out of her before she was gone because I have a hard time imagining an editor not going, "Uh, what?" We've definitely gone from alt-history Dickens-lite to all-out quirky fantasy, now even with made-up kingdoms, flying monsters, magical creatures, and a witch who rides a golf club instead of a broom (which I wouldn't be opposed to if the series hadn't started much more realistically). The plots for the last books more or less consist of the good guys wandering around with no purpose, and then the bad guys tripping over their own feet, so that the good guys win. The main plot for the final book is a quest that is resolved after some wandering around with one of the characters getting a letter telling them where to find what they've been looking for.

Continuity goes right out the window. Granted, timelines were never her strong suit. In the good books she even managed to have conflicting timelines within the same book, which makes me wonder where the copy editor was. Martha the Super Copy Editor would have totally put in a comment to the effect of "You say here that he was eight when this event occurred, yet on page X you say it happened five years ago, and on page X you established that he is now fifteen, which would mean it happened when he was ten. Which is correct?" But by the end, she moves around events that happened during previous books, probably because if you pay attention to the number of years that would have had to pass, all of the main characters would be well into their twenties by this point (and yet, in the final book, she has Simon clearly remembering an event that earlier in the book was said to take place 25 years ago).

And, yeah, Dido remains a Mary Sue, even gaining super special psychic powers. As an author, I can understand wanting to write about the character who most interests you, so she had every right to entirely switch the focus of the series, even if it did disappoint me (however, also as an author, I can't imagine completely changing the life of a character at the end of a book and then having all the consequences of that change take place off-stage without dealing with them at all. Seriously, take a guy who's been living in a cave in the woods and raising geese, who's barely getting used to the idea of sleeping indoors, and have him discover that he's a viscount and heir to a dukedom and send him to live in a palace, and you don't even write that story?). I can also see wanting to pair up your two major series characters, no matter how improbable that pairing is (though if you really want us to feel like they belong together and that it's a real tragedy that they can't be together, it might help to have them actually be around each other for more than five pages per book).

But in the next-to-last book (Midwinter Nightengale) she committed the unforgivable sin, from my perspective: she Marty Stued (or Gary Stued, depending on which term you prefer) Simon. He's one of my lifelong favorite literary characters, one of my biggest literary crushes, one of my Book Boyfriends. I'd just been thinking after re-reading the second book that this was a textbook example of how to write a character who's pretty much a paragon of virtue without him being a Marty Stu, which isn't easy. He's a nice guy who is kind, clever and brave, just about everyone likes him, he can do almost anything, he's good with animals, he has a particular special skill, and he turns out to be the long-lost heir to a dukedom. But he still comes across as a real person. He has very human reactions to things -- he snaps when he gets frustrated, he has a temper that occasionally shows up, he can be smug and cheeky when he's outwitted someone. He's also not the only person who is allowed to have virtues. Sophie is just as nice and kind as he is, maybe even more so (and for good reason, as it turns out), and he does run into a lot of other nice people, and people like him because he's nice to them. He has a lot of skills because he's been fending for himself most of his life, doing a lot of odd jobs, and that tends to lead to a broad skill set. He is a gifted artist, but he's not really Magically Special at it. He still has to go to art school, and the teacher is pretty rough on him in making him work to live up to his potential. He's good with animals because he's probably spent more time with animals than with people, so he understands how to deal with them, and again it's not a Magical Specialness because the animals still act according to their natures around him. He gets attacked by wolves just like everyone else instead of the wolves turning into gentle lap dogs around him. But in the later book, suddenly he's become the flipping Pied Piper, where animals just flock to him and follow him around, killer bears become his friends, his pet owl intercepts carrier pigeons and brings them unharmed to him, and sheep just magically do stuff to make things easier for him. All the while, he never has to make hard decisions, people who threaten him just conveniently fall off cliffs, and he's suddenly next in line for the throne. The last book didn't bother me quite as much because he was so different it no longer felt like it was even supposed to be the same character, but in the next-to-last, he still had moments of being the guy I remembered, so it bugged more.

Now I have to erase those last couple of books from my brain so I can hold onto the memories of what I loved. I used to mock the more rabid Star Wars geeks who claimed that George Lucas raped their childhood in making the special editions and prequels, but now I can kind of understand.

Note to self: Start putting more money away for retirement so I don't have to try to keep writing past the point when I'm not really mentally up to it.