Thursday, April 30, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Linda Gerber

I am actually ahead of schedule! I had planned to send the partial of the current project to my agent for a sanity check tomorrow, but it's pretty much ready to go now. I'll still wait to send tomorrow because that's when I told her I would, and that gives me a chance to give it one more look. I'm kind of eager to get started on the next thing, so I'm wavering between letting myself have a minor celebration and jumping right in. I think I can do a little of both by doing a mini "retreat" to shift mental gears and get revved up. That means finding a movie that makes me think of this story and then doing a little reference reading.

Meanwhile, I have another Girlfriends Cyber Circuit guest, Linda Gerber, whose new novel Death by Denim will be released May 14. This is the third "Death By" young adult mystery novel.

Aphra Connolly is being chased by some very dangerous people. She knows her survival depends upon staying far away from love interest Seth, and listening to her mom’s lectures on the finer points of anonymity and survival. But how is a girl supposed to live under the radar and not think about her boyfriend when she’s in Paris—the most romantic city in the world? When her mom’s contact in Paris is found floating in the Seine with a deadly message stuffed in his mouth, Aphra realizes that she will never be able to stop running unless she confronts the situation head-on. Sneaking away from her mom, Aphra tracks down the criminal mastermind in Italy, only to unwittingly reveal Seth’s location. And her mistake has just put them both in mortal danger. . . .

Now the interview:
Was there any particular inspiration behind this story?
Since Death by Denim is the third in the series, the inspiration was drawn mostly from the first two books. By book three, my character Aphra had a few issues to settle - her relationship with her mom, her relationship with Seth, and the constant threat of the Mole on her tail. Those things led the story as it evolved.

When you were a teen, how might you have coped with international intrigue?
I've always loved suspense and thriller novels and movies, so I think I might have enthusiastically embraced the adventure. I mean, I grew up in a relatively small town - a college town in a place we used to call Happy Valley - so we seldom saw much in the way of intrigue. I think I would rushed headlong into any escapade - just to shake things up a little.

Who was your favorite "girl sleuth" to read about when you were a kid/teen?
I had a complete set of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books. I also loved spy/sleuth stories like Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

(Hmm, sounds like we were reading the same things!)

What are you working on now?
I'm switching gears with a YA paranormal about trance writing sisters.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
I've had a lot of fun working on the entire series, but I have to say, Death by Denim is probably my favorite to write because I got to go international with it and to throw things at Aphra that she hadn't faced before. And as a bonus, by the time I was hammering through revisions on this one, Death by Bikini had been released and I was starting to get letters from enthusiastic readers who were looking forward to reading more. It gave me a real boost of confidence - which I needed during some of the more intense scenes. So, THANK YOU, readers, for your support!

For more info, check out Linda's web site. She'll be hosting a blog book launch party May 14-16. You can also pre-order the book from Amazon.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reaching "The End"

I've got another reader request writing topic: How do you finish a book? I'll address this one from two different angles -- getting to the end and then creating a satisfying ending. This time, I'll talk about getting to the end.

Eventually, at some point, in order to be a published author, you have to finish a book. There are some cases of authors who have sold their first books on proposal -- with just an idea or maybe the first few chapters -- but these cases are very rare, and what you don't usually hear is that most of these authors have finished other books. Quite often what comes about is that the author writes a complete book, gets an agent with that book, that book gets submitted and the editors love something about the writing but aren't sure they want to buy that book, ask if there's anything else, and then either the partial or the idea for something else really gets them excited, and they buy that unfinished book. Otherwise, it's celebrities or people who already have established names who can sell a first novel without having written the whole book. To sum up, yeah, it may happen, but do you really want to base your career on that? And then even if you sell on a partial, you'll have to finish the book to get it published (though a contract and a check are pretty good motivators).

So, you need to learn how to reach "the end." I don't think there are any hard and fast rules about working methods or productivity. Some people say you need to plan the story so you won't get stuck, but other people would be paralyzed by that plan. Some people say you need to write at least something every day, but others do far better writing in long binges when they have the time. My tips here are going to be general suggestions to try applying to your own situation. Pick and choose what works for you.

I think problems with getting to the end fall into two categories: the problem is with you or the problem is with the story.

If the problem is with you, it may have to do with your motivation to write, the time you have available, other things going on in your life or your inability to focus. Some things to consider:
-- Focus on just one project and try to get to the end before you start another project unless it becomes very obvious that this project isn't working. If you get a great idea while you're writing (and you probably will because creativity breeds creativity), jot down what you know of that idea and file it away. Don't try to ignore it because that will likely make it take over your brain, but writing it down will offload it and allow you to focus on your main project. That idea will still be there later, if it's any good, and it will probably be even better for having been relegated to your subconscious for a while. It does you no good to have dozens of projects started and none finished (not that I'd know anything about that. Ahem.).
-- Try setting a deadline for yourself. It's harder to force yourself to work when you know that there really isn't any time intensity. If it doesn't matter when you get it done, what will it hurt to skip a day? If setting an arbitrary deadline isn't enough to keep your feet to the fire, look for an external reason to have a deadline -- is there a manuscript contest you could enter once the book is finished? Is there a conference or convention you could attend where you might have the chance to talk to a prospective editor or agent and need to have a finished manuscript? Or you could look for a way to make your arbitrary deadline more time sensitive -- look for a reward tied to completion of the book that connects with a specific date, like a movie opening weekend, a concert or a book/CD/video release date. Share your goal and planned deadline with a friend and ask that person to hold you accountable, or work with a writing group where you all share your progress.
-- Set production goals based on your deadline and writing schedule -- look at how long you have and what you need to accomplish and break that down into how much you need to accomplish in each writing session. I like to keep a running tally of how I'm doing and even recalculate how much I need to do each day every week or so if I'm passing (or missing) my goals regularly I can see how that affects my daily production goal. It's hard to tell yourself you need to write a 100,000 word book, but it's easier to say you need to write 1,000 words today.
-- Make sure your deadlines and production goals are realistic -- not so easy that you breeze past them without effort, but not so hard that you can't reach them and get discouraged. Factor in all the other things going on in your life so you don't feel like you're falling behind.
-- Plan a reward or other celebration for when you finish the book. You can even cut out a picture and keep it handy to remind yourself. Or do positive visualizations, picturing yourself finishing the book, selling the book and seeing it on store shelves.

But sometimes, no matter how motivated you are and how hard you work, it can still be difficult to finish a book. Then the problem may be with the story itself. In that case:
-- Although I usually recommend writing to the end before doing serious editing, especially on a first book, so you don't get stuck in the trap of having to make chapter one perfect before you can move on, if you do get stuck, it may help to re-read what you've written. You may have gone in the wrong direction somewhere in the book that's now keeping you from working things out. See if you can figure out that fatal point, and you may have to start over from there. When there's a fork in the road, daydream a little and imagine how things might have gone if you'd taken the other direction with the story. Play with it in your head before you try writing it.
-- If you've been writing without an outline, try outlining. If you've been using an outline, put it aside and try writing free-form to see what happens.
-- Try mind mapping, flow charts or other techniques to make the story flow visual.
-- Make a list of twenty things that could happen at the place where you're stuck. They don't have to be realistic. Even if one of the items is along the lines of "and then aliens killed them all," another idea might be what you need.
-- Analyze your characters and make sure they have enough strengths and weaknesses for there to be enough conflict. Are there sources of conflict you aren't mining?
-- Brainstorm with someone who's either a writers or enough of a reader to know how stories work. Talking about it can help you see problems more clearly.
-- Sometimes you only discover that an idea just won't work by trying to write it (sadly enough), so you may have to come to terms with the fact that you won't be able to finish the book. If you reach this point, you can consider items from this idea that might be worth saving and using elsewhere, or you could consider colliding ideas to create a fresh story. For instance, if you're trying to write a romance and your hero and heroine keep getting together too soon and you can't keep them apart long enough without it being contrived, then maybe those are characters who belong in an adventure story, where they can save the world together and don't have to worry about staying in conflict with each other. A great character may do better in a different setting, or a great setting might work better with different people in it.

But I would only recommend giving up and starting something else when you've exhausted all other options. You don't want to get in the habit of starting a lot of projects and then quitting when it gets hard. From what I've heard from a lot of writer friends, it seems like most authors reach a point in almost every book when they hate it and don't think it will work, but they get past it and finish the book -- and most readers can't tell the difference between the books from hell and the easy books. You generally need to have a couple of complete books under your belt before you start to develop a sense for when a story just isn't working and when it's simply being difficult and frustrating.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From Project to Project

I think I've finally worked out all the plot stuff with the current project. It was an entire afternoon of hard work and I was exhausted when I was done, but I now have a complete plot, plus all the necessary backstory. I haven't yet written any ballads, but maybe that will happen later. That's probably a final draft thing. Now I just have to go back and fix the things in the part I have written that are affected by my plot decisions, and then I'll have something to send my agent for a sanity check.

And then I'll be starting a new project. I'll be doing a kind of "novel writing month" in May to finish something I started long ago and left hanging. I don't like unfinished things, so I've decided to finish it and see what happens. The difference from an official NaNoWriMo thing is that it's an existing project (I think I have about four chapters written) and the target word count is more in the 100,000 range. I figure that will be a good stretch goal to try to do in about a month (though I will allow a couple more weeks beyond that). I don't have to do any serious plotting because that's mostly done. This is mostly an exercise in carving out serious writing time and getting it done. With luck, that will establish habits I can keep up moving forward.

It helps that it seems like season finale time is coming early this year. We've already finished Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, Life and Friday Night Lights, and then Chuck last night (they had best not cancel that!). And we have the big Mozart performance in choir this weekend, so that takes one more thing off my plate.

Speaking of which, if you're in the North Texas area and like music, you might want to consider the Mozart Mania concert set for this coming Sunday evening (the 3rd) in Coppell. A big combined choir made up of singers (including me) from several organizations will be performing the Coronation Mass. Then there will be a piano concerto (featuring our amazing pianist) and several smaller works performed by guest artists. It starts at 6:30 and shouldn't run much longer than an hour. It all takes place in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church in Coppell, at the intersection of Heartz and Bethel School Road (about a block away from Denton Tap). And, as far as I can tell, it's free (though I'm sure they'll accept donations), so you can't beat the price.

And remember, listening to Mozart makes you smarter (so I'm sure that singing it as often as I have been lately is turning me into a genius).

Monday, April 27, 2009

HBO Monday

After a long drive and a long brainstorming session with Mom, I think I've figured the story out. Today should be a good working day, as it's raining steadily. Really, it's not a fit day out for man or beast, as I learned when I opened the front door to get the newspaper and the golden retriever being walked past my house (without a leash, grrr) saw the open door, apparently decided he'd had enough of being wet, and made a mad dash up my front walk to try to get inside. I have a very short walk, and the owner's ineffectual "Come back here!" calls (why is it that the people who choose to walk their dogs without leashes are the ones who have the least clue how to give voice commands that a dog will actually respond to?) were doing no good, so I had to rapidly slam the door shut before I faced trying to evict a wet, shaggy golden retriever. I did not hear a body slamming against the door, so either the dog stopped in time or the owner did eventually get him under control.

So, yeah, that's how my day started.

I've had some HBO time in the past few weeks, so here's a quick rundown of movies I've watched lately:

Nim's Island -- really cute quasi-fantasy kids' movie. Nim lives on a remote island with her adventurer/scientist dad (Gerard Butler. Yum). One thing they enjoy doing together is reading adventure stories about Alex Rover, an Indiana Jones type. Then while her dad is off on an expedition, Nim sees an e-mail (via satellite connection) from Alex Rover, seeking research help -- and then when her dad doesn't come back and her island seems to be in danger of invasion, she asks her hero to come save her, not knowing that "Alex Rover" is actually a neurotic, agoraphobic novelist (Jodie Foster). With prodding from her character (also played by Gerard Butler) Alex ventures out of her comfort zone to come to the rescue.

Of course, I couldn't identify at all with a novelist who hates leaving the house. However, I am not by any means a germophobe. Since one of my hot buttons is the way novelists are portrayed in other media, I was a bit confused by the situation. Were these meant to be novels, in which the main character and first-person narrator had the same name as the author? In that case, well, that seems a bit odd, and she didn't have grounds to gripe when people were disappointed in meeting her. Here's a tip: if you want to differentiate yourself from your character, use a name other than your own for the character. Or were these supposedly true stories? In which case we've got a literary scandal that makes James Frey look like Honest Abe. But I may be overthinking, as this was a children's movie based on a children's book. And it was a lot of fun.

But speaking of agoraphobic non-germophobes, I caught the HBO version of Grey Gardens, then immediately found the original documentary and read some of the initial magazine articles that inspired the documentary. In case you haven't heard of it, it's about Jackie Kennedy's aunt and cousin who were discovered to be living in utter squalor in a Hamptons mansion that was falling down around them. Apparently, in the 70s, the documentary that showed the two eccentric women living a supposedly "artistic" life became a cult (and possibly camp) hit that was seen as heralding people living life on their own terms. I thought it was terribly sad, as well as an indictment of the uselessness of the aristocracy and what happens to people who are so used to living off money earned by other people and having people do things for them that they can't take care of themselves or earn their own money.

This did inspire me to start cleaning my house, because there is a slippery slope between lazy clutter and utter squalor (however, I don't have cats, so I doubt I could ever get quite that bad).

This weekend, I finally watched the Sex and the City movie. I was never a huge fan of the series because I thought they were all very annoying women who lived shallow lives. I never was able to see them as any kind of feminist icons. In fact, I took the series as a sort of deconstructionist take on the sexual revolution, proving that the so-called liberation was actually confining and that most of their problems could have been avoided if they hadn't given up the idea of sexual morality, but I'm rather contrary that way. The movie was pretty much more of the same. All their problems came about because they were horribly selfish and self-centered. The only person I actually liked was Jennifer Hudson's character, and I would have been far more interested in a movie from her point of view -- the girl who gets a job as personal assistant to this crazy writer whose life is totally out of control. The weird thing about both series and movies is that I always seem to find myself siding with the men in most disputes. There's something oddly misogynistic in spite of all the lip service to "girl power." If you want me to take the women's side, then the women need to actually be right every so often and not just bitchy and selfish and seen to be right just because they're women and the primary audience is women (I feel that way about a lot of romantic comedy films -- it doesn't matter if your audience is all female, the fact that the character is female doesn't make her automatically right).

To recover from that, I stumbled across a fun little kids' movie on one of the HBO Family channels that I'd never heard of, which was surprising because the cast was insane. The movie was called Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (though IMDB just calls it Stormbreaker). It's sort of a James Bond for kids, about a teenage boy being raised by his uncle who discovers that his uncle is a spy and that the guy stuff he and his uncle do together (SCUBA diving, mountain climbing, etc.) and the hobbies he's encouraged to pursue (martial arts, foreign languages) have all been about training him to be a spy. It's all rather improbable, but in good fun. However, just about everyone is in it. I giggled my way through the opening credits because I couldn't believe the cast. There's Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane, Mickey Rourke, Andy Serkis, Damian Lewis, and the list goes on. Half the fun was playing "spot the British actor." It's apparently based on a series of novels written by the guy who wrote the Foyle's War TV series. I'll have to look for the books because they're likely to be even more fun than the movie.

But it is Monday, so no more movies. It's time for work.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Hard Work of Thinking

I spent most of yesterday staring at the ceiling and daydreaming/thinking, and it was one of the hardest days of work I've had in ages. I felt like I'd spent the day digging ditches and was left utterly drained. I did manage to work out my legend, as well as the truth behind the legend. But once I did that I thought of how that would impact my plot, and some of it may bring about some major changes. That was what I had to think about, weighing the various routes I could take and trying to decide which would make the most sense and create a better story. Sometimes I think this part is harder than actually writing the words. I'm still not entirely sure which way I should go. The really difficult thing is that these decisions involve backstory and behind-the-scenes events that will affect the entire book, so it's not a situation where I can wait until I get to that point and see how it goes. I have to figure it out now before I can do anything else.

Even though this kind of work is draining, it is pretty cool to have a job where lying on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn and a Dr Pepper counts as a hard workday. The downside is that I don't know if I'll end up getting paid for this work, and it could be up to a year before I get paid if I get paid. So, there are tradeoffs.

In other news, I've been rather remiss in forgetting to mention this, but if at this time of year you find yourself itching to buy a book by me, I've been part of another one of those pop culture collections. This one is on the series Supernatural, with the book called In the Hunt. I delve into the folklore (urban and otherwise) used by the series in my essay. This one may have broken my streak of killing shows. Usually, about the time a book about a series comes out, the series has taken a horrible nosedive. I could no longer bear to watch Desperate Housewives at the time that book came out. Battlestar Galactica went into "C-SPAN in Space" mode at about the time that book came out (though I think the series did recover). House had sidelined much of the original cast and started focusing on the least interesting of the newcomers around the time that book came out. Fortunately, I couldn't destroy Firefly because it was over before I contributed to that book. But I've liked this season of Supernatural and the last few episodes have been really good. Here's the publisher's web site for more info. I always get a bit giddy when I see the kinds of names I'm included with in these things (and it's rather flattering when they feature me like I'm "someone").

Now I have more thinking to do. My brain is tired.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Legend Behind the Story

I had one of those "writing is haaaaard" days yesterday. Or maybe it's just that this particular idea entails special challenges. I realized that one of the reasons I've found myself struggling is that the story is undeveloped. Sometimes, I can wing it if the characters are developed and things just happen, but with this story, handwaving won't cut it. And so, to get any further with this, I had to create a legend. Part of the plot hinges on the main character having to find something mentioned in a legend, with only the legend itself to go on. And that means I need to know what the legend entails, in detail. I also need to make it feel like a real legend, like the kind of story that would be told around campfires or in songs. To that end, I spent the afternoon researching famous legends of that general region for bits and pieces I could borrow, and then I flipped through Hero with a Thousand Faces because the best way to make the legend seem like a real one is to make it follow the classic hero's journey.

Now comes the real fun: I think I need to figure out what really happened to create the basis for the legend and which parts of the legend have been added, amplified or modified as it's been passed on. And I think there will also be different versions, as there tend to be for this sort of thing. Then I'll need to figure out a way to weave the legend in without infodumping it as backstory. I may need to write a ballad.

All of this has to be figured out before I can take one step further into the plot.

On the up side, if I survive this book and it sells and becomes a hit, then there's the chance of doing some kind of illustrated special edition book of the legend, like that fairy tale book JK Rowling did based on the stories mentioned in the last Harry Potter book. And maybe I can team up with someone who plays an instrument you can sing with (the downside of playing the flute) and work out some music for the ballad and then sing it in filk circles at conventions as a promotional activity.

But first I have to figure all this out so I can actually write the book. My characters are getting impatient with being stuck in limbo, twiddling their thumbs, while I figure out what they need to do next. And this main character is not one I want to have annoyed with me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tackling the To-Be-Read Pile

I may have mentioned that I have a to-be-read pile that I could probably use to build a house. Some of these are books I bought because they struck my fancy at the time but that I haven't managed to read. Most are books that I got from publishers or at conferences or conventions. They aren't books I'd choose for myself, but I keep them because I hate the idea of getting rid of a book I haven't read. What if it turns out I like it and discover a great new (to me) author? Because the pile has become rather intimidating, I've set a goal this year to try to weed through it. I have to at least try to read some of these books, and if they don't really grip me, then I'm giving myself permission to donate or sell them.

I gave myself an easy start with books that I bought. I figure that if I chose them, then there had to be something about them that appealed to me.

Believe it or not, I had a Terry Pratchett book on the TBR pile. It hadn't been there long, just a few months, and I mostly hadn't finished it because it was one of the books about the wizards, and those can be chaotic, so they take a fair amount of concentration to read, and the time I started it was in one of my low-attention-span phases. But this time around I was in the perfect mood for it. The Last Continent is essentially about the Discworld version of Australia and had the usual number of laugh-out-loud moments. I'll probably have to re-read it to catch all the details.

Then I picked up one I've had for a little more than a year, after having it recommended ages ago. When I first met Connie Willis, she told me she was sure I'd love Dorothy L. Sayers and wrote out a recommended reading list for me, in the order I was supposed to read them. The first book on her list was Strong Poison, and wouldn't you know, that was the one my library didn't have. I finally found a copy at a used bookstore (I have no guilt for buying books by dead authors at used bookstores). I was waiting to be in the right mood for an old-fashioned mystery on the proper kind of day for it, and we did get a rainy spell, so I finally got to it. And I loved it. I have a minor literary crush on Lord Peter. I also now get more of the references in To Say Nothing of the Dog. The library does have the next book on the list, but as luck would have it, it's currently checked out. The next one after that is on my TBR pile after I found it at a church garage sale, so working my way through this series will help me narrow down the pile.

There was another one I tried but still haven't managed to get to the 100-page mark, I think because it's written in third-person present tense ("she goes, she does") and that's difficult to read. I may give it one more try before finally giving up. (And I don't name books until I've read them and can recommend them.)

Finally, there was a book that's languished on the TBR pile for about 19 years. I first found Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille the summer after I graduated from college, and the title and cover made me think it was sort of Douglas Adamsy (a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), but it wasn't, and since what I wanted was something Douglas Adamsy, I put it aside. Years later, in the post-Firefly phase, I pulled it out again because it sounded sort of Firefly-like (what with the mix of Western and Chinese), and it's sat there, mocking me, ever since. The cover describes Cowboy Feng's as a pub that offers the best matzoh ball soup and Irish music in the galaxy, and it travels around in time and space, always just ahead of nuclear destruction. It sounds kind of funny and quirky, but it's more of a serious book -- in tone almost like if Charles de Lint wrote science fiction (including the focus on traditional music). On that level, it was an interesting book that became a real page-turner. But I have to admit that I still really want to read the book that the cover seems to describe, and I would have liked it better (and probably read it sooner) if the cover and cover blurb hadn't promised something so different from what was inside. Then again, I'm not sure how you'd describe a book about traveling through time and space in a cross-cultural pub without it sounding funny and quirky.

I went to the library this week for the first time in about a month, so the TBR pile is getting a temporary break. This summer I'm looking forward to more TBR reading, since those are perfect swimming pool books.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I seem to have developed a raging case of spring fever yesterday. As in, I actually finally acknowledged and accepted that, yes, it really is spring. I've given up whimpering and clinging to the electric blanket and teapot while insisting that we could still get another cold snap -- after all, we have had snow in April here before. Now I'm embracing the warm weather and all that comes with it -- the blue sky, the flowers, the green grass, the birds singing. I opened windows and turned on ceiling fans yesterday, and instead of wanting to curl up under a blanket with hot tea I wanted to sit on the patio with iced tea.

What I didn't really want to do was work. There was some thought of frolicking, but I'm not entirely sure how to go about doing that, and I suspect that whatever I did that felt like frolicking might be alarming to the neighbors.

I was having some serious attention span issues, possibly due to the influx of outside world sound from having windows open. So, since I eventually need to plot this book in order to write a synopsis, I settled down with a notebook to do that. And then a new character appeared out of nowhere. This character was probably the missing piece to make the plot work, so he's utterly essential, and I like what he adds to the theme and conflict of the story. It's just weird that in all my planning and development for this book, this character had never occurred to me until now, and yet now I can't imagine telling the story without him. The problem at the moment is that although I know the plot function he plays in the story and what he will do, I'm not entirely sure what kind of person he actually is, what he looks like, how he'll act and how the other characters will relate to him. I have an inkling that's starting to show up when I think about him, but there's a possibility that going in that direction could be borderline silly. Oh, but it would be sooooo much fun. I think this means I have to write at least to the point where he appears on the scene so I can "meet" him since how I end up dealing with him will make a difference in the synopsis.

The song "Gaston" from the Disney Beauty and the Beast is currently stuck in my brain, so that may give a hint as to the direction I'm tempted to go. I'm just not sure that fits in this story. On the other hand, maybe the story needs to adjust to fit this. I haven't been writing it as comedy, and comedy is what I seem to be known for.

However, this is giving me incentive to write because I want to get to that point. It's amazing how motivating a good idea can be. And sometimes I think that the distracted/don't-wanna days may be my subconscious brain's way of getting the conscious out of the way so it can work without restrictions. It does seem like every time I have one of those days when I just can't seem to think, at the end of it I come up with some huge breakthrough idea that changes everything.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Making Stuff Up

It's another Monday, and I think I'm revved up and ready for action, more or less, considering I spent Sunday singing Mozart (one quirk of living alone -- I haven't spoken out loud today, so I don't know if I still have a voice). My choir is participating in a community-wide Mozart festival next month, so we're doing intense rehearsals on the Coronation Mass. There's a lot of high, loud stuff for the sopranos. A long rehearsal is as good as a session at the gym.

To follow up on Friday's post on the way television portrays writers, I do want to stress that it was meant as humor, to be taken tongue-in-cheek.

However, I do want to clarify something:
There's a difference between writing what you know or using elements from your life and doing what most authors on TV shows seem to do in basing their novels on their real lives. Most authors draw upon their own experiences in developing characters, since we're the only people we know from the inside. If it makes sense for the story, there's no problem with making your characters be similar to what you know or live in a world that's familiar to you. That's different from writing your real life directly into your books.

For instance, like Katie Chandler in my books, I'm from a small Texas town. I first visited New York at about the age Katie was when she moved there. I don't know how well I could write a New Yorker who'd always lived there because it would be difficult for me to see it from that perspective (probably easier now that I've spent so much time there), but I certainly could write from the perspective of an outsider who'd come from the exact opposite kind of society. But there the similarities end. Although I was in my twenties the first time I went to New York and had gone to high school in a small Texas town, I didn't exactly have a small-town perspective, since I was an army brat and had lived overseas before moving to the small town. I'd already seen Paris before I saw New York. I'd seen the old Amsterdam before "New Amsterdam." I had to shut off that part of myself and focus on the one aspect that mattered to my story, just drawing upon the parts of my personal experience that were relevant.

To do what the TV characters always seem to do when they write novels, I'd be writing about a character named Anna Swanson who was a novelist who worked at home, occasionally got together with friends who were exactly like my friends and who maybe had minor adventures at science fiction conventions. Yeah, it would probably be the most boring book ever, and even to make it into something like a chick lit book I'd have to throw in a love interest (I'd have to give My Anchorman some role in the book), but you get the idea. I guess if I were a TV character and wanted to be a novelist, I'd have to start solving crimes just so I'd have something to write about.

That one particular TV character quirk really gets to me because the people who write TV series are professional writers, and surely they aren't all writing their autobiographies when they write TV scripts (if they are, then I vote we put a big fence around California to keep the rest of us safe from those freaks). They should know that writers make stuff up. I guess there's just more room for conflict or humor when a character gets a book published and all his friends/co-workers read it and recognize themselves. There wouldn't be much point in a "character writes a novel" plot if the novel had no bearing or reflection on the rest of the story. On the other hand, I have noticed a tendency for people to try to find real life nuggets in novels, as though the books offer deep insights into the author and if you can just decode it, you'll understand everything about that person. If a TV character wrote a truly fictional novel, the others could still be trying to break the code and figure it out, and that would be a lot more difficult (and possibly interesting) if the characters in the book weren't so obviously directly from the author's real life.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Writers on Television

I had a spectacularly unproductive day yesterday -- just couldn't seem to focus on any thought for longer than five seconds. I couldn't even manage to read. I ended up dusting my office, taking apart a fan to dust the blades and washing dishes. But it's raining today, which is always good, and on the way home from ballet last night I figured out the next scene I have to write, which will help me get a running start.

I did a post last year on "TV Laws," on the way things work in the television universe that aren't like real life. I was thinking of some new TV laws and realized there are a whole set of laws applying to writers. Some of these may be part of what leads to the major misperceptions about life as a writer. Where applicable, I'll add the reality check.

1) If a regular character on a television series writes a book, it will be an instant, huge bestseller that immediately makes the author rich and famous. A TV character would never get an average advance and midlist publication, like most authors in the real world. And the book is published (and the money starts rolling in) almost as soon as the character writes it.

Reality: See my post on publishing realities.

2) The writer characters on TV series aren't very creative. The main characters in their books are usually not-so-loosely based on themselves, and all the other characters are based so closely on the other people in their lives that these people recognize themselves and each other in the books. Even total strangers who've read the books will immediately recognize the real people as their characters' counterparts when they meet them. These writers seem incapable of just creating a character out of thin air. Every character has to be based on a real person, and if the writer is blocked on creating a character, all it takes to become unblocked is meeting someone who makes a good basis for a character, and then the writer will have to spend a lot of time with that person to develop the character. If the writer characters work in law enforcement, the cases in their books will all be based on real cases they've worked on. The exception is the rare situation where the cases are made up, but then some deranged fan starts acting them out in reality (and the deranged fan can manage to kill the "characters" since they all have real-life counterparts).

Reality: This does happen, to some extent -- look at all those "assistant to a famous person" books that came out during the chick lit craze, where someone who'd worked for someone famous wrote a novel about someone working for someone very much like the real famous person. But those are special circumstances based on the fame of the people involved. Not knowing the real people involved, I can't say how closely the rest of the characters in those books were based on real people, but my guess is that the non-famous ones were composites or entirely fictional (libel standards are different for people who have "thrust themselves into the public spotlight" so it takes more to prove you've libeled someone who's trying to be famous and living a public life than it does to prove that you've libeled ordinary people who didn't do anything to bring themselves attention). Most novels are entirely fictional, and while authors do sometimes loosely base characters on real people or are inspired by real people, you have to be careful so that the real people can't be readily identified. If you libel a real person who can be readily identified in your work by the general community, that "this is a work of fiction" disclaimer won't be much help. Plus, if you're so creatively barren that you can't make up characters, your book isn't going to be that good.

There are a couple of characters in my books who are loosely based on or inspired by real people. Mimi is a composite of two real people (who utterly loathed each other, which I suppose is ironic in its own way) with a lot of other stuff added in, and a couple of people who worked closely with those people have recognized certain traits in Mimi, but I doubt that anyone who wasn't working with me at the time I worked with those people and who didn't know I worked with those people would ever meet those people and think they inspired Mimi. Her physical description is entirely unrelated to the real people. Mostly, I took some behaviors from real life and put them into a character. They must be pretty common behaviors because I get a lot of e-mail from people who've said they worked with a Mimi. Katie is definitely not that much like me. I certainly didn't intentionally base her on myself, and if I were to talk about her, I wouldn't get my pronouns mixed up.

3) Writer characters on TV have deranged fans who take their books far too seriously, think the characters are real (okay, given the above law, maybe that's not so crazy) and who stalk the writers or the people the characters are based on.

Reality: This does happen, as well, but it's very rare and generally limited to specific genres. I hear about it more in paranormal romance and books of that ilk. It does seem like steamy stuff involving vampires brings out the freaks. I don't know enough mystery writers to know if they get the fans trying to act out their cases. I've yet to have a fan make me really uncomfortable, aside from the men at conventions who come onto me, but I suspect that has little to do with my writing or the content of my books and might even happen if I weren't a writer, given that I'm female, single, reasonably attractive and speak conversational geek.

4) Writer characters on TV are probably writing either a mystery novel or a literary coming-of-age story. A sitcom character may be allowed to try to write a romance novel, but only if it's played for laughs, with the other characters trying to figure out who the hero is (since TV characters are incapable of making up characters) or reading the love scenes out loud.

Reality: the majority of novels published are romance novels. Mystery is actually a fairly small slice of the publishing pie. But I suspect this TV law has something to do with most TV series having something to do with crime.

5) On television, novelists are major celebrities who can get into exclusive nightclubs or who can get impossible restaurant reservations just by dropping their names. And when they give their names, everyone knows who they are. Everyone they run into is a fan.

Reality: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! There are maybe five authors in the world who are that famous -- and even there, I bet you could still run into people who wouldn't know who they were. I have friends who are national bestsellers, and still most of the people I know outside the writing or fandom world have never heard of them. I know people who have had movies made from their books, and I've run into people who saw the movie but still don't recognize the author's name. Sadly, I've yet to be in a non-book-related situation where someone heard my name and recognized me as an author or asked if I was the one who wrote those books. I haven't even had my name recognized at a bookstore when I was paying by credit card and using one of those loyalty cards with a coupon where my name came up. I'm lucky if people in the store know who I am when I show up to do a booksigning. The closest I've come to being "recognized" is at WorldCon, where the occasional random passer-by saw my name badge and said something about my books.

6) Television publishing companies all seem to be based in the city where the TV series is set. They have spacious, plush offices.

Reality: There are publishers outside of New York, but not many, and most of them wouldn't be considered major publishers. There are more agents outside New York, especially since more of them are realizing they can work just as effectively at a lower cost away from New York. I've been in the offices of two major publishing companies, and even the fairly high-up editors have tiny, cramped offices, with just about every surface covered with paper and piles of manuscripts everywhere. A lot of people work in cubicles. In one editor's cube, the "guest chair" was a filing cabinet on wheels with a padded top. It shoved under the desk and then could be pulled out to use as a seat when she had a visitor. I could probably fit three or more New York publishing offices into my office. My agent's office is fairly spacious, but she's not based in New York.

7) Editors and agents on TV shows take a deep, personal interest in their authors' lives and work. They have time to come up with elaborate publicity stunts (like fake crazy fan letters or fake stalker fans), to give relationship advice, to have lunch with their authors all the time (since they all live in the same city), and to provide lots of personal hand-holding if the writer is blocked or struggling. Book publicists sometimes do crazy things like staging crime scenes out of the books to generate publicity. Deranged editors, agents and publicists have even been known to go overboard and commit crimes to publicize books.

Reality: I've generally had friendly relationships with my agent and editors, and we do sometimes talk about our personal lives. I've met my agent's husband. But editors and agents don't have the time to devote all that much attention to any one author, and they're certainly not going to take illegal or unethical steps to promote an author's work. Though perhaps it's different if you're an instant, huge bestseller. I have known a major author who did get the hand-holding and intense attention when she was blocked and on deadline. My agent, editors and publicists have all been total slackers because they haven't staged elaborate murder or crime scenes that are right out of my books in order to get media attention (though that's probably difficult since I don't write a lot of crime or murder scenes), and none of them have killed anyone in a misguided attempt to publicize my books.

(Please note: I was being sarcastic about calling my agent, editors and publicists slackers. I was not implying that they really are because they have not killed on my behalf.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Looks at Judy Blume

The tax nightmare is over for another year! Actually, I don't think it's all that difficult. The time-consuming part is the record keeping because I have bursts of disorganization. However, part of my getting ready for doing taxes this year included catching up on the record keeping and accounting for this year, so if I keep up with that throughout the year, doing the taxes next year should be a snap. And now I have no excuse for not spending a good chunk of the day writing.

One thing I'm discovering is that this book apparently needs Rachmaninoff. I usually write in total silence, but there are books that need music, mostly to drown out the outside world. I don't think I could have written Damsel Under Stress without the soundtracks from Battlestar Galactica and Firefly (even now, a part of my brain thinks it's time to go to work when it hears the opening notes of that BSG prologue -- that part that ran under the "The Cylons were created by man" thing). I've tried a variety of music for this book and have settled on orchestral works by Rachmaninoff (but not the piano concertos -- I can't listen to those and still write). Mostly, it's Symphonic Dances and The Isle of the Dead, but then I found a CD of one of the symphonies that I forgot I had yesterday, and that works, too.

This week's Girlfriends Cyber Circuit book is a fun one because I was part of it. Some of you may remember from a couple of years ago that I participated in a tribute book about the works of Judy Blume. Well, Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl, I Learned from Judy Blume came out in paperback this week, so if you're absolutely dying to buy something written by me this year, here's your chance.

Here's the official scoop:
Whether laughing to tears reading Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great or clamoring for more unmistakable “me too!” moments in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, girls all over the world have been touched by Judy Blume’s poignant coming-of-age stories. Now, in this anthology of essays, twenty-four notable female authors write straight from the heart about the unforgettable novels that left an indelible mark on their childhoods and still influence them today. Drawing on their own experiences of feeling like a Fourth Grade Nothing before growing up to become Smart Women themselves, these writers pay tribute, through their reflections and most cherished memories, to one of the most beloved authors of all time.

Contributors include: Megan Cabot, Megan McCafferty, Cara Lockwood,
Melissa Senate, Laura Caldwell, Stacey Ballis, Shanna Swendson and 17 other acclaimed women writers.

I asked Jennifer O'Connell, who pulled together and edited this anthology, a couple of questions about it (and then you'll get my insights).
What inspired you to develop this anthology?
I was about to begin writing my first teen book, PLAN B, and I sat at the computer and thought to myself, "Everything I needed to know about being a girl I learned from Judy Blume." And so the idea for the collection of essays was born. Because I knew I wasn't the only one who felt like that.

Which was your favorite Judy Blume book as a girl? Have you re-read it as an adult, and how has your perception of it changed?
Deenie. I re-read all of Judy's books before editing the essays in the collection, and Deenie was one of them. I still loved it. And, honestly, the story stood the test of time.

(Me again) Oddly, my essay in the book was about Deenie, but that probably wasn't my favorite Judy Blume book (for reasons that become pretty obvious in my essay). I suspect my favorite was Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, though I might have a different take on Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great if I reread it now (it may have hit too close to home then). I wasn't a big reader of "girl" books as a kid, and my Judy Blume phase came in the very brief window between my Nancy Drew obsession and the time I discovered The Lord of the Rings. I first checked these books out of the library because there was some controversy. Word on the playground was that these were "dirty" books about sex. I was skeptical, since they were in the children's section of the library, and being the stubborn, skeptical sort, I had to see for myself. I was pretty disappointed by how non-racy they were. Some of that was because a lot of it went right over my head (I didn't realize what the controversial part of Deenie was actually about until I re-read it for writing my essay) and some of it was because I'd already heard the scientific explanations for a lot of it and thought that these characters were making too big a fuss about everything. I may owe Judy Blume thanks for helping my journey through puberty be so relatively non-dramatic because in comparison to what went on in her books, real life was very low-drama, so reality was easier than I expected.

What really appealed to me about those books (and maybe I should have written about this, but I didn't think of it until later) was the fact that she captured what it was really like to have friends as a girl at that age (or, at least, what it was like for me). So many of the "girl" books paint this idealized vision of true best friends who do everything together and stick together through thick and thin, but in real life girls that age are incredibly competitive, even with their closest friends. The alliances among clusters of friends within groups are always shifting, and there are subtle rivalries going on all the time. It might not be to the level of a real "frenemy" who just pretends to be a friend while undermining you, but there can be a kind of competition under the surface, sometimes over things you can't control, like who starts wearing a bra first. There are times when you can't stand to be around your best friend, times when your best friend can't stand you, times when you find yourself forced to hang out with someone you don't even like because of that -- and then the realization that maybe you like that person better than the person who's supposed to be your best friend. That's the way the girls in the Judy Blume books were, and it was a huge relief to me to read that and see that it wasn't just that I was somehow doing it wrong because I didn't have a "like a sister" best friend where we wore matching outfits and did everything together, like in so many other children's books.

And then soon after that I discovered hobbits and magical wardrobes that led to other worlds and achieved a new kind of social awkwardness.

So, if you want to see what I had to say about Deenie, the girl who was pretty enough to be a model until she found out she had scoliosis, here's the Amazon link.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The taxes are done and I've even scanned in the finished forms. Now I just need to write some checks and walk to the post office. One upside of all this is that by paying my taxes without being prodded by a media investigation, I've made myself ineligible to be nominated for a Cabinet position, so I'm off the hook for that (rimshot!). Now that it's time for another writing post, I've got another reader request topic: Pacing.

The short, snarky advice on how to have good pacing in a novel is to cut out the boring parts.

But that doesn't really address the issue. It's not so much about not being boring as it is creating an ebb and flow of tension that keeps people reading. You probably don't want non-stop action and tension through an entire novel. That would be exhausting to read, and I suspect that people might put it down because they just couldn't take it anymore. Even the most tense, relentless action films have quiet moments. Take The Terminator -- it's a movie about a killer robot from the future hunting down a defenseless woman, but in between the chase scenes there are character moments where the characters bond with each other and learn about their situation. In order to make readers care about the fate of the characters in the tense, action-type scenes, they need to get to know the characters as people (and, meanwhile, the characters need to get to know each other so they care about what happens to each other), and that usually comes in the quieter moments.

A book should be like a roller coaster, with rising and falling action coming in waves throughout the book, a few twists and turns, and a build-up to a big finish. Generally, you'll want a peak somewhere near the beginning of the book to kick things off, then maybe a lull to establish the characters, some building peaks and valleys as you head toward a big turning point in the middle, a lull to recover from the turning point, and then a big build toward the resolution, with a drop-off after that to tie things up.

Pacing also encompasses the amount of action and the speed at which events happen. You can pick up the pace as a way of making things feel more intense. One way to do this is by using the scene and sequel technique (which is written about in great detail in the Writers Digest book Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham and in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain). As a disclaimer here, I've never really managed to use this technique on purpose, other than when I have a difficult scene to figure out, but I think I do this without thinking about it. This approach divides what I tend to think of as "scenes" into two parts. The "scene" part is the action -- a character has a goal and goes after it, trying multiple approaches until some kind of disaster occurs that definitively answers the question of whether or not he achieves his scene goal. Usually, that disaster is him not achieving his goal, but it can be that he does get it, only to find that it gets him into worse trouble or isn't what he really wanted. Then in the "sequel" the character reacts to the disaster, regroups and comes up with a new goal that drives into the next scene.

Since the "scene" is action and the "sequel" is thinking (reaction), you can manipulate the pace by increasing or decreasing the relative lengths of these parts. If you want a faster pace, you'll want longer scenes and shorter sequels -- more action, less thinking. For a really fast pace, the sequel may come down to being just a line or two, essentially, "Oops, now what do I do? I'll try this." Then to slow the pace and let the readers catch their breath, you may want longer sequels to really get into the characters' heads and empathize with their emotional responses.

Mind you, "action" doesn't have to mean car chases and gun battles. In a romance novel, for example, it might be conversation. Generally, action is stuff other than thinking. There may be moments of thinking in an action scene as the viewpoint character reacts to events in the scene, and there may be moments of action in the sequel, such as if the character does bits of business -- pacing, washing dishes or whatever -- while thinking. Think of action as steps taken toward a goal, so stuff a character is doing while thinking but that has nothing much to do with reaching a goal doesn't count as action.

You can also manipulate pacing by the way you use words. For a faster pace, you'll want shorter words (the words in English that are derived from Anglo-Saxon tend to be one syllable and are often more concrete), shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs. For a slower pace, you might use longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs. Dialogue tends to speed the pace while narrative slows it, which is another reason to have shorter paragraphs in action sequences where there's not a lot of dialogue. You want to keep the eye moving down the page and keep the pages turning more quickly.

Point of view will also affect pacing. If you're staying tight in a character's head, how much is going on will affect how much he notices. If he's running for his life or engaged in a verbal battle of wits with a sassy lady, he's probably not going to notice much extraneous stuff. His focus will be on the things that are immediately affecting him and what he should do about those things. In a less tense situation, the character may notice more, and that's where description can come in.

The ideal pacing is going to vary by audience and genre. Books for younger readers generally need faster pacing. Action-oriented genres like thrillers or some science fiction require a faster pace. The romance genre has entirely different pacing expectations with a much higher sequel-to-scene ratio because one of the appeals of that genre is delving into the characters' emotions. You may even have two sequels to a major scene because you get the scene viewpoint character's emotional reaction immediately following the scene and then you'll get a separate sequel from the viewpoint of the other character so you'll know how that character is reacting emotionally. It's a good idea to read as much as possible in your chosen genre so you can get a sense of the pacing expectations (and if you're really analytical you may think of a way to chart the rising and falling action). But make sure that your research reading is recent. Pacing expectations have changed significantly over time, and today's books are much faster-paced than even those published ten years ago. Attention spans today are much shorter, so that a 20-year-old book practically reads like a Victorian novel in comparison to today's books.

Are there any other writing-related topics you want me to tackle?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Publishing Reality Check

Perhaps because I've been working on my taxes (all that's left it the final forms in ink!), I'm feeling very practical, which brings up today's topic. I've heard that publishers and agents are seeing a lot more submissions these days, with the theory being that with more people out of work, more people are taking this opportunity to write that novel they've always said they wanted to write, and they may be hoping to strike it rich or at least get some income coming in before they find a new job. As a public service to those people, I'd like to offer a publishing reality check.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't take losing your job as an opportunity to write a book -- that's exactly what I did, and it worked out for me. I didn't get rich, but I haven't yet had to go back to a day job. But I do think it's important to know what to expect so you can plan accordingly and so you don't get taken advantage of. I don't mean to be discouraging, but if the reality check does discourage you, then maybe you should be discouraged. This is not the path to take if you're looking to make a quick buck, but it can be a very rewarding path to take if it's something you love to do and if you have the persistence to keep doing it.

I'm not even going to get into the odds of actually selling a book because it's not really a numbers game. You can't look at the number of submissions and the number of publishing slots and calculate your chances. A really good, highly marketable book has a good chance of selling, no matter how many other people are submitting books. Instead, I'm going to assume that the book in question does sell, even though, realistically, that in and of itself is an uphill battle, especially in the current economy.

First, the timeline. This is not a "quick" business. Glaciers honk their horns and wish the publishing industry would get out of the way. Taking our hypothetical book that will sell, it could take months to find an agent. Once the agent actually reads it, she may act quickly, but it could sit in the queue for months before being read. Then once the agent takes on the project and submits it to editors, the waiting time can vary. Editors can take months to get around to reading even agented material, or if someone does read it quickly and makes an offer, then suddenly everyone else will have to jump on it. Once the book sells, it can take more months to work out the contract, and then you generally see money about a month after the contract is signed. It was about a year between the time I finished writing Enchanted, Inc. and the time I received money for it, and I think parts of that process actually went pretty quickly. It only took a couple of months to get an agent because my agent was fairly new in business at that time and wasn't nearly as busy as she is now, so she read it pretty quickly. We took some time to revise the book and get it spiffed up, and then it took about two and a half months to sell. Then it took time to get the contract and get the contract worked out. So, don't count on selling a book as a way to tide you over through a jobless spell, unless you anticipate being out of work for more than a year and unless you have some other way of covering your living expenses in the meantime (I did freelance marketing communications writing). And remember, this timeline starts after the book is complete and ready for submission. I'm not counting writing time.

With a few exceptions (like category romance with Harlequin), I wouldn't recommend trying to shorten this process by cutting out the middleman and submitting directly to publishers instead of finding an agent. When you do that, you generally land in the slush pile, so it can take twice as long to get a project read, if it even gets read. Most major publishers don't accept simultaneous submissions (if they even accept unagented submissions at all), so you wait all those months for a rejection before you can start over again with the next house. An agent can send to everyone at once and play them against each other to encourage faster reads, and agented material almost always gets read before the slush pile gets tackled.

Now, the money. You may hear about all those six-figure and multimillion dollar deals, but you hear about them because a deal like that is unusual enough to be news. Most new (and even established but not bestselling) authors aren't going to get that kind of deal without being a celebrity. There are exceptions, but again, you hear about them because they're unusual. The publishing industry blogosphere isn't going to buzz over an author getting a $15,000 advance for a book -- unless it's an author who used to get millions but whose last book bombed so he had to take a lower advance to get a publisher to take a chance on him. The lowest category of the Publisher's Marketplace deal report is "nice deal," which covers advances from $1 to $49,000. That's a pretty huge range, and it makes it hard to get a realistic sense of exactly where deals fall. Those numbers are also not entirely accurate because they often reflect a multi-book contract and bonus clauses in the contract (extra payments at certain sales thresholds). That one deal may reflect several years worth of work (and income).

Plus, that number is a gross amount. Deduct from that the agent's commission and your business expenses. Unless your book is being positioned as a lead title, you'll have to do most of the promotion for the book out of your own pocket, which can entail travel to conferences and conventions, web site hosting and design, bookmarks or postcards or any advertising you decide to do. Then you also have to pay income taxes and self-employment taxes, which include not only the "employee" FICA contribution that gets deducted from paychecks, but also the "employer" contribution. And, unless you have a day job with benefits or a spouse with benefits, you'll also have to pay for your own health insurance. All that chips away a lot from that advance. My gross income as a writer (before business expenses or taxes) is a bit more than I was making when I had a job, but my net income (my "take home pay") is significantly lower than it was in my employed days, even when I was working part-time. I'm not in this to get rich. I do this because this is the only thing I'm really happy doing, and I'd rather pinch pennies than have a regular job.

Then there's the timing on the money. Generally, the advance is broken into portions. You may get part of it when you sign the contract, more when you turn in the completed book (even if you sell on a complete manuscript, you may be asked to make revisions) and then the rest when the book is published. That means it can be more than a year after you sell the book before you get all the advance for that book.

There is the possibility of earning royalties. The author's payment for a book is based on a percentage of the cover price for each copy sold, with the advance being an estimate of how much the book is likely to earn in a given period (sort of -- advances are crazy things that vary widely). Once it's earned beyond the advance, then you start seeing royalty checks. Some books never "earn out" and receive royalties. This isn't necessarily bad because it may mean your agent was able to get more out of the publisher up front. If you earn royalties too quickly it means they lowballed your advance. Royalties are generally calculated twice a year, and each publisher seems to have its own calendar for this. You get a royalty statement (and maybe a check) a few months after the end of the royalty period. Even if your book is a surprise hit and earns out the advance in the first six months, it could still be a year before you see that money, depending on where the book fell in the royalty cycle. Then there's the "reserves against returns" clause. They won't pay you for every copy sold for a while, keeping some in reserve, in case books are returned unsold by booksellers. Yeah, they get point-of-sale data these days so they know how many copies have actually sold, but that hasn't stopped them from holding onto reserves just in case a bookstore finds an unsold copy and decides to ship it back to the publisher. This means that even if you have sold enough books to earn out the advance and start seeing royalties, it may take a little longer or more sales before you get that money.

Not everything is bleak, though. Depending on your contract, you may be able to sell rights to foreign publishers separately, which is like selling the book all over again. Foreign sales are generally for smaller amounts than US sales, and the money can take forever to arrive, but it creates a nice flow of income over time. And then there's always the chance of selling film rights, but that can also take forever.

In a previous post I busted the myth of the "surprise bestseller," but it's important to remember that there really isn't such a thing. The publisher knows up front if the print run is big enough for it to be mathematically possible to make a bestseller list, and that print run is based on orders, which are influenced by how much of a push the book is getting. If your book has the potential to be a bestseller, you'll know that. Sadly, even if a book with a lower print run sells its entire print run really quickly, that doesn't mean the book will become a bestseller. In some cases, the publisher may realize they might have something that could really catch on and they do something about it, but I've heard of far too many cases where the publisher didn't bother reprinting. They figured that everyone who might want the book already had it, or the major chain stores didn't reorder once they depleted their stock. The two big B chains have a lot of sway, and their automated ordering systems are basically stupid, so if a store hasn't been "modeled" for a title, it won't be automatically reordered once it sells out. It takes human intervention somewhere along the way to realize that something is selling better than expected and to adjust ordering and stocking accordingly. Getting that done may require the publisher to essentially re-sell the title to the chain if it's sold out and not being reordered, and there are times when the publisher doesn't see that as worthwhile. If the two big chains aren't reordering, then it would take a massive groundswell of independent and Amazon sales to make the publisher reconsider.

In other words, if you got a moderate advance and have a midlist book, don't count on it becoming a surprise bestseller that will end up making you a fortune. It has happened, but those cases are rare enough to be news, and they generally involve Oprah. I will confess to having been pretty naive about this. Not that I expected to be a bestseller, but I had a strong feeling about my series, and I knew that there was a good market of people out there who would like it. I knew the publisher wasn't giving it any kind of push and was probably even marketing toward the wrong people, but I had this hope that people would find it themselves and the buzz would start to spread so the book would sell beyond the publisher's expectations. Buzz has been good, and even the first book is still selling, but to really pop, a certain number of copies has to be available where people can find them, and without the high print run or publisher push, that's not going to happen.

Finally, remember that money always flows to, not away from, the author. Self-publishing or subsidy publishing (any kind of publishing where you have to pay money to have your book published, or where you're required to buy a certain number of copies or pay the publisher for marketing services) is not a quick way to bypass the New York publishing machine and make lots of money. It seldom pays off for fiction. You'll probably be out thousands of dollars and end up with boxes of books in your garage that you have to sell yourself if you want to make money. This is yet another situation where it makes the news when it works because it's so rare. Just as more people write books in difficult economic climates, the publishing scams come out of the woodwork in difficult economic climates, but the scammers are the only ones who end up making money in those deals. The authors never do. You should also be extremely wary of any publisher or agent who contacts you. In this publishing climate, they're cutting authors, not seeking them. Unless you become famous, are in the news or have a blog that gets national media exposure, the chances are very, very slim that a reputable agent or publisher is going to contact you out of the blue to ask about publishing your book.

Now, if you still want to write because you enjoy writing, then good luck. But if you're doing it because you think it's a quick path to being rich and famous, I hope this has set you straight. Yes, some people do get rich and famous with their first books, but it's probably best not to count on that or to plan your finances around that hope.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Well, it's back to reality today after a lovely holiday weekend. I won't call it a "lazy" weekend because I had to sing for three church services (one Friday, two Sunday) and I actually left the house and was social on Saturday afternoon. But otherwise, I did mostly take it easy, and I got some serious thinking done on the current project.

The down side is that thinking means I pretty much now have to wipe out two days worth of work. It will be much better as a result, but it's still rather frustrating to realize that a lot of the progress I made last week was actually wasted time. There's even a minor character I created who I think I may really love (there's potential for a lot of fun with him) but who may not belong here. He will have to go into a file to be used elsewhere, either in this book or another one.

Meanwhile, now that I've taken care of all my business bookkeeping, I have to fill out the tax forms. Committing those numbers to paper is always a little scary because it forces me to really acknowledge reality. I may go ahead and finish the whole process today instead of doing the "one bite at a time" approach so I can just get it over with and move on with my life.

That loud screech you may have heard late Friday night (since I had to tape and watch it later) was me reacting to the end of the Sarah Connor Chronicles. They CAN'T end the whole SERIES that way. That would be EVIL. If the advertisers and studio executives watch the show at all, they'll do anything to renew it because they'll want to know what happens next. I know my brain is spinning with the possibilities.

Ah, well, off to work. I'm sure I'll have something much more witty and clever to say tomorrow.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Problem with Sci Fi

The productivity did at last slow a bit. I got more work done on the tax organizing, which also resulted in cleaning out a space. But I came to a crashing halt on the writing when I realized I'd created a McGuffin. A McGuffin, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the object the people in the story are seeking, and the details of what it is don't really matter all that much to the story because the important part is what the people are willing to do to get it. One of the more famous McGuffins is the Maltese Falcon, or else the letters of transit in Casablanca. In spy stories, it's often "the papers," and it doesn't matter much what the papers really are, just that everyone in the story is desperate to get them, and the consequences will be dire if they fall into the wrong hands. But in my story, the nature of the object everyone's seeking does matter because it plays a role in the plot. My problem was that I hadn't figured out all the details yet, so I was treating it as a McGuffin. And then I reached a part where it starts to matter what this thing really is, what it can do and what people know about it. Even worse, it's the kind of thing where there are legends about it, and then there's the reality. So I had to work all that out in my head before I could write another word, and then once I worked it out, I realized I was going to have to totally rewrite the last scene I'd written because a character's reactions were all wrong for the situation (which could partially explain why the villain was being too nice). By then, it was almost dinner time and I had a headache (which could have had something to do with the yellow haze in the sky from the smoke blown here from the wildfires), so I called it a day and figured I'd sleep on it to re-plan my scene.

In other news, it looks like tonight is the season (and maybe series) finale of the Sarah Connor Chronicles and the season finale of Friday Night Lights (which made me bawl like a baby last week -- it didn't help that the big game was played in my university's stadium). But I'll be out singing for a church service. And then Sci Fi starts showing Primeval, which I've already seen, but which I may watch again.

Speaking of Sci Fi, they announced a few weeks ago that they'll be changing their name to "Sy Fy" (or something like that). Part of their reasoning makes some sense -- since "sci fi" is a widely used, general term, they can't trademark it (though you'd think that might have come up when they were naming the network in the first place, and then you do have to wonder about the Food Network, since the word "food" is also pretty widely used in a general sense). But then the rest of their reasoning is utterly baffling. Apparently, they feel that the name of the network is keeping people who might like some of their shows from watching those shows because those people don't think they like science fiction. They seem to think that there were a lot of people not watching Battlestar Galactica, in spite of all the critical raves and awards, because it was on a network called "Sci Fi."

That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. If someone thinks they don't like science fiction and therefore are avoiding a show just because it's on the Sci Fi channel, I don't think they're any more likely to watch something called Battlestar Galactica on any channel (especially not one called "Sy Fy," where it sounds like Sci Fi when you say it). And then even if you change the name of the series to something that doesn't sound like it has anything to do with space battles, they're still going to see the spaceships and robots and figure it out. I couldn't even think of a series description you could put in a TV Guide that left out the science fiction elements and didn't sound boring.

Then there's the fact that, apparently, people who actually like science fiction aren't good enough for the network, and they'd rather make a futile effort of tricking people who aren't into spaceships into watching than make a good network that their audience will watch (which would probably not include wrestling). It's like the nerdy boy in high school who gets a crush on the cheerleader who will never give him the time of day and attempts to change his image so she'll like him, but it doesn't work because she still knows he's a nerd. Meanwhile, he's completely disregarding his cute and nerdy female best friend who likes him the way he is. Ultimately, he'll end up never getting the cheerleader and also losing his best friend who would have liked him. It's like a John Hughes movie from the 80s, as played out by a television network.

Though, actually, I suppose that if it were a John Hughes film from the 80s, the network would be an awkward girl chasing the high school stud while ignoring her dweeby male friend, and she'd actually end up with the stud and still be friends with her friend, so perhaps the problem is that the executives have seen too many John Hughes movies from the 80s.

Memo to the Sci Fi Channel executives: Your network is not Molly Ringwald. You will never catch the "popular" audience, no matter how many wildly creative prom dresses you wear, and when you change your image and ditch your nerdy friends, we won't forgive you and stick around. Give us spaceships and robots with good scripts and acting. Give us Doctor Who (and while we know you have to put in commercials, you don't have to use a chainsaw to do so). I'll even take Mansquito (because that was actually rather entertaining, in a ridiculously silly, drive-in on the TV kind of way). Hire someone in programming who is actually a fan. And we'll be there.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Nice Villains?

I got a late start this morning because when I woke up at what turned out to be my usual time, it was really dark, so I thought it was still night and went back to sleep. Instead, it was just very cloudy, which hadn't been forecast. That's the downside to using the sun as your alarm clock.

I'm still on a roll with organizing and getting things done. Generally, my enthusiasm for this sort of thing tends to wane quickly, but if I can keep it going long enough to become a habit, then maybe some of it will stick. Expect ongoing reports as a way of creating some accountability. I want to be able to report that I've done something, so that means I have to do something.

Then again, I do write fiction ...

It's Easter week, which is kind of busy with choir stuff. I have to sing for a service Friday night, but we're getting a bit of a break on Sunday. Normally, the choir has to sing for all three services on Easter (extra services to accommodate those who only come to church on Easter), but this year we don't have to do the 8 a.m. service (probably because quite often the choir outnumbers the congregation for that service). We only have to sing twice, and we aren't doing a lot of extra music. We had a funny moment at rehearsal last night when we learned that one of the pieces we're doing for Good Friday is one we did earlier this year, and most of us out of habit turned it in after that service, but no one knew where all the music went. That meant the people who had music had to share, so there were three of us reading one piece of music, and at one part that was just the men singing, the director jokingly said to pass the music over to the men. I hope they find the music before tomorrow night (though we sounded pretty good even without music).

On a totally unrelated note, under the "points to ponder" category ... why is it that every automated phone call I get comes at about five before the hour? Whether it's the church's phone tree or a telemarketer, the call always seems to come at the same time. I know that calls have to be going out constantly throughout the hour, but for me they always hit right at the point in any hour-long drama series where the resolution comes, or else they hit right at the end of the noon news when they give the five-day forecast. When I was getting caught up on NCIS, there were episodes I had to see several times before I really got the ending because every single time they were on, the phone rang right at the revelation of who the bad guy was and why he'd done it. I sense a conspiracy.

And now, off to work. I "met" one of my villains yesterday, and I'm afraid I like him. Not enough to not make him a villain. He's just that deceptively charming kind of villain who lulls you into lowering your defenses, and at this point, he has no ill will toward my main character. He only really becomes the villain when their goals clash and when the main character ends up siding with someone he is out to get. Still, it would be nice if I could bring myself to write someone truly awful, aside from maybe Mimi (and I think I managed that only because she was largely based on someone I really disliked. It's hard for me to create truly fictional people I don't like).

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

My Tricky Brain

I had yet another great day of accomplishment -- another tax-related task (the business side of my taxes is almost done), more cleaning (a big refrigerator purge) and more than 2,000 words of writing. I wrote at night for the first time in ages and that seemed to work, but I'm not yet sure if this is going to be a "night" book.

I know my brain is really getting into it because I had the usual writing-related lack of sleep, where my brain decides to keep going after I stop writing, so I've already got the next scene visualized, as well as a few changes to the last scene I wrote. Today I get to meet one of my villains.

I did have a momentary panic with some of my tax organizing. When my agent sends me checks, they come with statements showing what commissions and expenses have been deducted from the publisher payment. Usually I'm pretty good about immediately putting all that info into my spreadsheet, but I knew I had a couple from the end of the year that I hadn't done. I had a vivid memory of a fairly large payment coming at the very end of the year, but I couldn't find that statement anywhere. After tearing up all the places it might have been put, I checked my bank statements, and there were no deposits around that time. A further check of my records revealed that this happened the previous year and had long since been taken care of. I had just somehow remembered it as from the end of last year, and the statements I'd found were the only ones I was supposed to have and there's nothing that hasn't been accounted for. It seems no matter how physically organized I try to be, my brain still plays tricks on me. Which means I need to make even more of an effort to stay organized so I can spot my brain's tricks more easily.

It does look like I'm going to be writing some rather large checks next week. Ugh. I suppose I have to make my contribution to the multi-million dollar bonuses to millionaire financial executives whose companies had to be bailed out (funny, I've never had a job where I got a bonus without the company being profitable).

In the meantime, it is an absolutely gorgeous spring day, and since yesterday's walk seems to have done me a world of good, even if it was just to the post office, I think I need to take another one today.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Magic of Pen and Paper

I was so, so good yesterday. No, I didn't get the refrigerator decontaminated, but I did a tax-related record-keeping task and even got caught up with that task for this year so far. I got part of the living room straightened. I got a head start on my radio scripts for the week. And I figured out what happens next in the book.

It all came down to the magic of pen and paper. The plan was to make a list of the various things that could happen next, and then maybe one of them would jump out at me. Well, the first thing I wrote down seemed pretty good. And so did the next thing. Then those two things collided and suddenly the scene came to life in a way that made the lead-up to the next major event more tense and exciting. I'll need to tinker with it some, but I think the general idea was probably the best choice. It also helped close a potential plot hole I'd been worrying about that created an alternative course of action for the main character. This eliminates the "well, why didn't she just do that?" obvious question.

So, in general, I'm feeling pretty good.

Oh, and I even cooked dinner, trying out a new recipe. I liked it, which is good because there's a lot left over. It said it made four servings, which isn't a huge amount of leftovers, and I like to make the recipe as-is for the first time before I start cutting it down, so I went with the amounts listed. And now I will be eating this forever. I may have to freeze some of it, as there are probably about six servings left. I don't know how they calculate serving size, but I filled what I think is a standard-size bowl and even went back for a little more. I can't imagine eating even more than that. What is the deal with recipe writers trying to feed armies on "four servings"?

For today's excitement, I plan to take a walk!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Fuzzy Beginnings

Well, either I'm feeling a lot better or I've maxed out on even my sloth tolerance level because I'm all revved up today. I want to be Efficient! And take Action! I want to do my taxes, write, and put on the biohazard suit and clean out my refrigerator!

We'll see how long this lasts.

I finally watched my tape of the Colour of Magic miniseries. It was surprisingly faithful to the books in that it followed essentially the same plot and had most of the same scenes, with a few notable exceptions. But they cut out my favorite part, which I'd been looking forward to seeing acted out. It's the part where the druids were building their "Stonehenge" thing, and they were referring to it as a computer, so the guys putting up the stones were the computer hardware engineers and the guys doing the chanting and sacrificing were software engineers, and when things didn't work right, they argued over whether it was a hardware problem or a software problem. I read that book on an airplane, and when I got to that part, I thought I'd need the oxygen mask. I was trying really hard not to laugh out loud, and I think I pulled something from just sitting there and quivering.

I must say there was something surreal about reading one Discworld book while watching a movie made from another (though I did end up putting the book down and just watching).

Now, though, I have to pick up where I left off on my current project. I reached a major turning point, and while I know what the next major course of action is, I'm not entirely sure what should happen in the immediate aftermath of the turning point to link to the next course of action. The last thing I wrote was the kind of thing people have to react to, and I'm still wavering on how, exactly, the various characters will react. I'm also not sure of the tone of the scene, if it should be funny, angry or sympathetic. I've played out a few variations in my head, but I'm not sold on any of them. Which could mean it needs to be something totally different that hasn't yet occurred to me -- something really unexpected. I may do some pen-and-paper brainstorming to see if I can dig up something different.

Normally on a new project, I'm pretty solid on the beginning and the end, and I get fuzzy in the middle. In this book, I know the middle and the very end, but I'm fuzzy on the beginning and the lead-up to the end (the big crisis that sets the stage for the final showdown). So, I know where I'm going, but I'm not really clear on how to get there. Maybe something will come to me while I'm dealing with my science experiments in the refrigerator.

Friday, April 03, 2009

TV Update

Well, I did not end up in Oz. But we did have sustained winds of more than 25 miles per hour here, with gusts of up to 50 mph. Today's much calmer. I wasn't really planning to go out yesterday, anyway, because I haven't been feeling that great. It occurred to me this morning that I feel the way I tend to feel when I'm recovering from the flu, only without the respiratory symptoms -- I've had the achiness, the tiredness, the lack of appetite and the general fuzzy-headedness, but without the fever, coughing and sore throat. I had the flu shot, so I'm wondering if maybe I've had a mild case of the flu that the shot partially deflected. I'd been feeling down on myself for being so out of it, and now that the pieces have fallen into place, it makes sense. Which means I'm totally justified in taking it easy for a couple more days. I'm not feeling really bad. I just don't feel all that good.

On the up side, that means I've had time to read. I've been re-reading some of the Terry Pratchett books I read when I first discovered that series, and now that I've read the earlier books, they take on an entirely different meaning. For instance, when I first read Monstrous Regiment I barely knew anything about Sam Vimes because I hadn't read any of the Watch books, so I didn't really get it when the main character ran into him. And when I read Thief of Time I hadn't read any of the Death or Susan books. I suppose it's odd to be re-reading books in a series when I haven't even read all the books in the series yet, but this is almost like reading new books.

Meanwhile, TV has been making me rather happy. I really enjoyed the Stargate movie last week. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed that series and those characters. I got the sense that everyone involved was having fun with it. I suppose that fits into my category of "brain cupcakes" TV. There's another one on tonight, and I'm looking forward to it. Then next week, Sci Fi starts showing Primeval, which I enjoyed on BBCAmerica. That's getting closer to brain candy, but it's still good for a Friday night.

Friday Night Lights got renewed, so yay. That show has an impressive track record for making me cry in every single episode, and for making me eventually love characters I started out disliking. They take types I recognize and know I'll hate and gradually flesh them out into people I can't help but feel sympathy for.

On Life, I have to confess that I like the fill-in partner (while the actress who plays the regular partner is on maternity leave) better than the regular partner. She has great chemistry with Crews, and it's entirely in a non-romantic sense. I love how amused he is by her ambition and how she doesn't let her ambition get in the way of being willing to learn.

I really have to thank my parents for hooking me on NCIS. One thing I find interesting about that show is that a lot of it is non-verbal. I have to actually watch it instead of reading or doing something else to catch everything, because there's a lot of stuff they just show without talking about it and there's a lot of subtext in facial expressions and body language so that you get an entirely different impression of what's going on from watching than if you just listen. As I have a bad habit of reading or doing crossword puzzles while watching TV because I get bored if I just watch, it's nice to find a show where there's a real reason to watch.

I've sort of started watching House again. The last episode or so have been better, and they've been teasing us with yet another shakeup, though I doubt they'd be so kind as to jettison Thirteen for me. Opposite that (thank goodness for OnDemand), I'm loving Chuck more and more, and as much as I think Jayne Cobb was a wonderful character, Casey may be the role Adam Baldwin was born to play. I love the subtle ways he shows that he's actually thawing toward Chuck while he's still the total tough guy. And somehow he can be hilariously funny just standing still.

Finally, in case you missed it, Masterpiece Theatre is doing a nice production of Little Dorrit. The first installment was on last Sunday, but I think you can still watch it online at the PBS site. There's the usual "spot the British actor" fun, with rather high Doctor Who points, but I don't think I've yet spotted any Harry Potter people.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents April Henry

It's really, really windy -- like, Mary Poppins weather. If you had a sturdy enough umbrella, you could probably go places. However, where you went would be entirely out of your control, as the wind doesn't seem to be going in any particular direction. The birds seem to be having to fight it. A little while ago, one was almost stationary in the air while furiously flapping its wings because it was trying to fly against the wind. And then one came by going with the wind, and I'm not sure it meant to be flying. It was just tumbling around. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a small, furry thing go flying by. Or maybe a mean old lady on a bicycle. It's also really, really loud on my roof, with tiles rattling and lots of gusty sounds. In other words, a good day to stay indoors. I'm afraid my little car might go airborne.

If I don't post tomorrow, I may be in Oz. Fortunately, I already have my own pair of ruby red slippers (though they were silver in the book, and I don't have any silver slippers).

While I'm developing my trapped-in-Oz contingency plan, I've got another Girlfriends Cyber Circuit guest, April Henry, who writes both adult mysteries and young adult thrillers. Her latest release is the YA thriller Torched.

When Ellie’s parents are busted for growing marijuana, the FBI gives her a choice: infiltrate the Mother Earth Defenders (MED), a radical environmental group, or her parents will go to jail. At first Ellie is more than willing to entrap the MEDics, but the more time she spends undercover—particularly with Coyote, the green-eyed MEDic that she can’t stop thinking about—the more she starts to believe in their cause. When talk turns to murder, Coyote backs out, but Ellie is willing to risk everything to save her family—even if it means losing Coyote and putting her own life on the line.

And now, the interview:
Was there any particular inspiration behind this book?
The Earth Liberation Front has long been active in the Northwest. The FBI considers them domestic terrorists. I was driving to work one morning, listening to the news, and the broadcaster said, “The FBI says they have been unable to infiltrate ELF.” And I thought, what else are they going to say? Yeah, we have someone who is working there undercover? And then I started thinking that most Elves are young, and FBI agents have to be at least 23, and they might need an informant.

What, if anything, do you have in common with your heroine?
Ellie is a little shy, a little uncertain. We have that in common. She is much more creative than I am. I'm kind of jealous.

What do you see as the biggest differences between writing for teens and writing for adults?
The writing itself is not much different. The publshing world is completely different. You have a lot longer to succeed, and the measures of success are completley different. There are no state awards, for example, with adult books, and librarians aren't nearly as important.

Chocolate: milk or dark? (question back by popular demand!)
Dark, dark, dark! Preferably with cashews and sea salt.

(Oh, man, that sounds good!)

What are you working on now?
In 2010 I'll have two books out: an adult mystery called Hand of Fate, and a YA thiller that was to be called Shadows Walking Backward but now is in the process of having its name changed. I'm also working on a new YA thriller called The Girl in the Mini Cooper and another adult mystery called either Blood of Innocents or Heart of Stone.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
I have terrible luck with YA titles. Shock Point was originally going to be called Point & Shoot, but then marketing decided it sounded like school violence. Torched was originally called Fire, Kiss, Electric Chair, but they didn't like "electric chair."

For more info, check out April's web site. Or order the book from Amazon.

And now I may have to close my blinds because the movement of the tall ornamental grasses across the street in this wind is making me seasick.