Friday, July 31, 2015

Victorian Dime Novels

One of the things I did to prepare for writing Rebel Mechanics was to read as much as possible of the literature of the period. That didn't just mean the classics. I wanted to find the "popular" fiction of the time. I wanted to read period fiction to get a sense of the use of language -- what words were in use and which ones hadn't yet made it into the vocabulary -- as well as the mindset of people living at the time.

I've often defended commercial fiction by pointing out that many of the books we now consider classics were the popular commercial fiction of their time. Dickens's books were the Victorian equivalent of soap operas, since they were published as serials. But after having read some of the less classic literature of the period, the "trashy romance novels" of the time, which mostly survive thanks to Project Gutenberg, I have to amend that. Dickens wrote books that were more the equivalent of the serialized quality dramas on TV, like the sort of thing that HBO does. Because I have now read the equivalent of the soap operas.

To give you an idea of what these books are like, I'll recap an example from 1891, Pretty Madcap Dorothy: How She Won a Lover by Laura Jean Libbey. Since you probably haven't read it, I'll warn that there are spoilers, but although you can get this book on Project Gutenberg, I really wouldn't recommend reading it, unless you want to punish yourself.

Our heroine (to use the term very loosely) is Dorothy, a teenaged girl working in a book bindery in New York. She's pretty, prone to stamping her tiny foot, has tiny white hands and, as we're often reminded, golden blond curls. She's been seeing Jack, who works at the same book bindery -- actually, she's engaged to him, since she's wearing his ring. At least, he thinks so. She has her eye on Harry, a handsome streetcar conductor who's been seeing Nadine, her co-worker and housemate. When Dorothy ditches Jack after work, he then sees her getting in a cab with Harry, and when he can't follow them, he heads to her place to confront them with a gun when they get back (believe it or not, this is our hero). Dorothy's friend Jessie gives an excuse for Dorothy and calms him down. Jessie counsels Dorothy to be careful, but Dorothy says Jack's poor, but Harry isn't just a streetcar conductor. He's actually rich and educated and is only working on a streetcar because he lost a bet, and this was the penalty. But then things get heated when she lies to Jack about her plans for Labor Day, since he'll be working. She says she's going out with friends but goes with Harry to a festival on Staten Island. Jack finishes work early and tries to catch up with Dorothy, only to learn where she really went. With his gun in his pocket (remember, good guy), Jack catches the last ferry to Staten Island and catches Dorothy with Harry when they get on the ferry to come home. Jack shoots and misses, but Harry cries out about being hit as a way of trying to get Jack in trouble, but no one notices because Dorothy faints (she does that a lot) and falls overboard. Harry runs off, but gallant (and violently jealous) Jack dives overboard and rescues her.

The doctor brought to tend her recognizes her as the daughter of a woman he once knew who vanished when her child was a baby (I'm not sure how he recognizes a teenager from an infant), and he instantly decides she has to come home with him and live in luxury on his palatial Westchester estate. Poor (violently jealous) Jack, who was also a bit out of it, has no idea what happened to her, and Dorothy neglects to inform her friends. Then guess who turns out to be the doctor's trainee, who'll be living at the palatial estate? Harry! He begs her not to tell the doctor about the streetcar thing or about him running off on her. She falls more in love with him than ever and acts it out by being wacky and madcap. He's more worried about the fact that his childless mentor now has someone else he could leave his huge fortune to. To test his concerns, he plans to ask his mentor for a loan, and he figures that if he's willing to lend money, that means he still plans to leave him something. But before he can finish asking, his mentor has to go off on a ride. Of course, he then has a tragic accident, is mortally injured, and with his dying breath, he makes Harry promise to ask Dorothy to marry him, but then they can't get married until his will is read six months later.

She's overjoyed with the proposal, while he's less happy, but he figures that if his mentor demanded he marry the girl, either he'll get the money so he can support her or she'll get the money, which he'll get by marrying her.  Then tragedy strikes again when they're at a bonfire festival, and a couple of cinders from the fire fly into Dorothy's eyes, blinding her. The housekeeper sends for her orphaned niece to serve as a companion. But the niece, Iris, is a game-playing, man-stealing bitch, the kind who doesn't so much want the men as she wants the thrill of taking them away from other women (I had a frenemy like that in college). She goes after Harry with guns blazing, and poor, blind Dorothy doesn't stand a chance. At a ball, she overhears everyone talking about how Harry seems to be so in love with Iris and flees outside, falls and hits her head. When she wakes up, her eyesight has been restored (yes, she went blind because her eyes were burned, but she gets her sight back from a bump on the head). She heads back inside, comes upon Harry and Iris in the conservatory, hears him declare his love for Iris, and faints. Meanwhile, Nadine (remember her -- Harry's ex he dumped for Dorothy) has tracked him down and has gone rather mad. She's planning to kill Dorothy, but she doesn't get a good look at Iris and tries to stab her, thinking she's Dorothy, and then runs off. Iris's screams wake Dorothy, who comes across the knife Nadine dropped just as Harry sees her, so of course he thinks Dorothy was the one who tried to stab Iris. He sends Dorothy off, then tells Iris it was a falling shard of glass from the conservatory roof that hit her. He then tells Dorothy their engagement is off. Dorothy refuses to end it, and he says either he leaves or she leaves. The next morning, he's surprised to find that both Iris and Dorothy are gone. Iris left a note saying that the doctor who tended to her wound was very wealthy, proposed to her, and insisted they be married right away. Dorothy's just gone. The next day is the reading of the mentor's will, and it turns out that Dorothy gets the whole estate -- but only if she marries Harry within two weeks.

Meanwhile, back in the city, poor (jealously violent) Jack has been in agony about Dorothy's absence. He quits going to work because he's spending all his time searching for her, worried about what might have become of her. He refuses to listen to the people who remind him that the last time he saw her, she was cheating on him, insisting it must have been a misunderstanding. She's his one true love, and he'll never love anyone else, and he says so in many speechy monologues. One day as he's walking along, a sign falls and hits him on the head, and Jessie -- Dorothy's friend -- is on the scene to tend to him, get him home, and nurse him back to health. As she does so, she falls in love with him, but he doesn't notice because he can think of no one but Dorothy. And then Jack suddenly inherits a vast fortune from a distant relative (which happens all the time).

Harry's frantically searching for Dorothy, so he can have his one, true love: the money. He resorts to seeing a psychic -- and would you believe, the psychic is Nadine! Not that he knows this, but she thinks the woman he's seeking is her and that he's looking for her because she killed Dorothy, so she runs away.

And what about Dorothy? She runs away in the night and is considering throwing herself off a cliff into the sea when she sees a man throw in a bundle. She goes down below to see what it is and finds a baby, and it's still alive. She does what anyone would do in that situation: she gets on a train to New York with the baby. Then she has a hard time finding jobs because having the baby around is a liability, until she sees an ad for a companion to an elderly woman, and she's okay with the baby coming along. One problem: she wants a middle-aged woman. Dorothy's landlady used to work in the theater and fixes her up with a wig, glasses and makeup to look older. Then, would you believe, the job is with Jack's mother, in Jack's house! Dorothy starts to realize that she really does love Jack, after all that's happened (I'm sure the vast fortune and Manhattan mansion have nothing to do with that). But Jack is engaged to Jessie. But Jessie is ill, and she refuses to have the doctor sent for. She confesses to Dorothy that she wants to die. She loves Jack, but she knows Jack doesn't really love her and that he's only marrying her because his mother made him promise to after all she's done for them, nursing him through injury and illness and then taking care of his mother through a near-fatal illness. Now that the wedding is approaching, Jessie isn't sure she can go through with it, knowing he doesn't really love her.

She's so ill that Dorothy insists on sending for the doctor. Their family doctor is ill, so his new assistant shows up. Guess who it is? Harry, of course. He says Jessie will need round-the-clock nursing, and his employer has just hired a nurse. Guess who that is? Nadine, naturally. Nadine sees the way Harry cares for Jessie and becomes convinced that he's in love with her, so she devises a plot to gradually poison Jessie. Jessie's near death when the regular doctor returns, gets suspicious, calls in an expert colleague, and the two of them figure out she's being poisoned. They start thinking of who the suspect might be, and the expert sees Dorothy and is like, "Dude, she's wearing a wig and stage makeup." They figure if she's disguising her identity, she's up to no good, and they watch the way she looks at Jack and figure she's eliminating her rival. They gather the household and announce that they've figured out who might want to kill Jessie, and Dorothy, thinking they're going to accuse Jack, confesses, and the doctors then yank her wig off and reveal her identity. She then runs away, completely forgetting the baby.

But outside, Harry catches her, throws her into a carriage, and rushes her off to marry her, since the deadline is coming up. He's driving so fast, he loses control of the carriage and it crashes. When Dorothy wakes up after the crash, a young woman approaches her. She takes Dorothy to her home, and she seems so sad that Dorothy asks what happened. A wicked servant who had been dismissed vowed revenge, kidnapped her baby and said he threw it off a cliff. Dorothy realizes this is the baby she found, and she knows where it is, but she can't go back there because she's suspected of murder. It turns out that this woman's husband is Jack's business partner, so he'll listen if she vouches for Dorothy. They go back to find that Nadine left a note of confession before disappearing, so Dorothy is cleared. Now Dorothy and Jack can marry, and it turns out Harry did fall in love with Jessie while he was tending her, so they marry. Funny, no one mentions what happens to the money since Dorothy didn't marry Harry. So now they all live happily ever after, violently jealous Jack with the girl who cheated on him, and sweet, caring Jessie with the fickle cad.

Now, aren't you glad that while I tried to play on the tone and structure of Victorian dime novels, I didn't draw too much from their plotting and characterization? I'm not even sure airships would have helped this story.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An Ending!

I finished the book last night! Well, sort of. I wrote the ending last night, and it's the ending I want. It needs some adjustments, and I woke up with them in my head, which is good. I'll revise the ending today, then start the final proofreading pass of the whole book, and I'll get it to the copyeditor by August 1 (and she does want it then rather than Monday -- I checked). Then I will likely collapse with my brains dribbling out of my ears, twitching from the high caffeine and sugar levels over the past few days. Then again, I'm fantasizing about cleaning my house because it's starting to get on my nerves and I feel like my life has spiraled out of control.

Plus, I'm supposed to be getting the manuscripts to critique for the WorldCon writers workshop on August 1.

I totally forgot in all the travel frenzy to mention my library event last week. It may have been the biggest book event I've ever been a part of that was in any way about me rather than being an event I happened to be attending. There were a lot of people there, and I didn't even know all of them (though I did know a lot of them because my friends are awesome). There were cupcakes! And jewelry! People wore costumes, including the librarian. I almost felt famous for a little while.

Now I just need to build my career to the point where that kind of thing happens all the time for me.

But first, to finish this book. And then I need to put on the marketing hat and come up with some more ways to push all my books. The response has been good for the new book, but the buzz doesn't seem to be spreading all that much and I'm afraid it's already falling off the radar. I need to think of some ways to give it a good boost.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Starting Points

This week's writing post is inspired by a panel from ArmadilloCon on writing mistakes we've seen other writers make. One I brought up was starting the story in the wrong place, and a question from the audience was when a story should start.

The easy answer is at the point of change -- the incident when the protagonist's life or world is changed. If you're looking at it in Hero's Journey terms, it's the "call to adventure." This is when, in traditional fantasy, the wizard shows up at the hero's home/farm/inn and assigns him to go on a quest. It's the moment when the romance heroine meets the hero. It's when the spy or soldier is assigned a secret mission. The change is the reason you're telling this story. If it didn't happen, there would be no story.

There is room to set the stage a little bit and show the hero's ordinary life before things change, but you want to be careful about this because no one wants to read three pages about someone getting up, eating breakfast, getting dressed, etc., before the story starts. You might be able to get away with a paragraph or two, or else you can weave in glimpses of what ordinary life was like after dropping a hint about the change -- there's a clear indication that something might happen, and it's a sharp contrast to the regular day the hero's having. If you're using multiple points of view, you can show the protagonist having an ordinary day while oblivious to the fact that her world is being changed. One of my favorite examples of that is the original Terminator movie, in which we see Sarah having a typical day as a put-upon diner waitress juxtaposed against scenes of a killer robot from the future killing everyone in the phone book with her name. We know her life is about to change, and we're waiting for her to find out.

One of the most common "starting in the wrong place" mistakes that still shows up in published books is the protagonist on a journey to some place where the action of the story will occur, thinking about why she's going. Unless something happens on that journey that affects the plot -- like bandits attacking or the character being kidnapped and never making it to the planned destination -- the journey itself isn't the point of change, so we don't need to see her on the carriage, plane, train, etc. Depending on the story you're telling, whether it's more about the departure and moving away or more about the arrival and going to a new place, the point of change is either the decision to leave and the departure or the arrival at the new place. That's when things start happening.

Waking up is another popular starting point, and is generally to be avoided unless the character wakes to some change -- he's in a different place from where he fell asleep, she has amnesia and doesn't know who she is or how she got where she is, there's a strange person next to her, he's been turned into a cockroach, etc. You really don't want a scene of someone just waking up, getting dressed, etc., before something happens unless you're juxtaposing that ordinariness with some kind of impending crisis the reader has seen, and even then, you want just enough to build suspense without getting boring.

Even professionals sometimes get it wrong and struggle with finding the right starting point. In the version of Star Wars that was released in theaters, we meet our hero Luke when his uncle buys the droids we've been watching escape from the Empire, and very soon afterward he finds the "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" message. That's the point when his life really changes, when he gets the call to adventure. But there was actually an earlier scene written and shot (it's in the tie-in novel, and there are stills out there) in which we first meet Luke as he notices the space battle from the opening and watches it through his binoculars, then rushes into town to tell his friends, who dismiss it as him just wanting adventure. In a sense, the battle he sees is what sets things in motion to change his life, but his life isn't actually changing yet. He hasn't yet been presented with a decision to do anything about it, whereas finding that message presents him with the dilemma of whether he should do something about it. Someone involved in that movie apparently realized somewhere along the way, after the scene was filmed, that the story started in the wrong place.

It's also possible for a story to start too late, after things have already changed, but I find that to be much rarer, especially for beginning authors, unless they've heard advice about cutting the first chapter from a book and took it to heart, and they were the rare case when they actually did start at the right point and didn't need to cut it. You know you started too late when the point of change has already occurred before the story starts.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Convention Recovery

I'm home from ArmadilloCon, and it was a really good weekend. Having a recent book release makes every convention better. I feel a little less like an impostor, less like I'm toiling away in obscurity (raging insecurities come with the territory of being an author). This is a more serious "literary" convention with a lot of focus on books and writing, so most of my panels were about the business of writing. I did get to moderate panels on the Hobbit book vs. movies and Game of Thrones books vs. TV series, and those were a lot of fun, very lively. The Game of Thrones panel, in particular, could have gone on for hours.

I was moderately social, given that I was trying to get some work done. I got a scene rewritten, with about a thousand new words, and got most of the rest of the book outlined. But I also spent a little time in the con suite, did some chatting in the lobby, hung out at the "meet the pros" reception on Friday evening, and visited some of the Saturday-night parties.

Still, I utterly collapsed when I got home yesterday, barely stirred from the sofa, still went to bed early, and then slept late. But I really must finish the book this week, so today will be a busy work day.

And then three weeks from today, I'm flying to Spokane for Worldcon. Getting the book off my plate this week will give me a chance to get my act together for that trip.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Too Crazy for Insanity

It's crazy day again! I have a library event tonight, I leave for a convention tomorrow, and I still need to finish a book that's due in a week. I have a to-do list, and I've struck all the things that aren't entirely necessary and put everything else into a schedule, so I think I'm good, but I'm not sure I'll be able to relax completely until I arrive at the hotel in Austin tomorrow. I hope to get there in time to relax for an hour or so before my first panel so I won't be completely wired and fried when I have to deal with the public, but I'm not in control of travel, so we'll see how that goes.

I have some fun panels for the weekend, but I haven't even started thinking about what I'll say or what discussion prompts to use for the ones I'm moderating.

In short, between convention and book, I have a lot of thinking to do in the next few days. Ack.

Meanwhile, I'm on the new book emotional roller coaster -- UP from someone posting something positive on twitter -- DOWN from seeing Amazon ranking -- UP from good review -- DOWN from seeing Bookscan report (it only covers a fraction of sales, it only covers a fraction of sales) -- UP from increased number of Twitter followers -- DOWN from zero responses to anything I post -- UP from someone responding -- DOWN when seeing what my publisher (or other publisher) is doing for another book that isn't being done for mine -- UP from seeing my books on the shelves in a store -- DOWN from it not being displayed in any of the places someone might actually see it. And so forth.

Is there any wonder why authors are known to drink? And are a little neurotic?

But I don't have time to be insane today because the day is too crazy for insanity.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Seeing Clearly

I had an eye exam this morning, and although I felt like my prescription must have changed, it really hasn't. The only difference is that while I have perfect close vision without glasses, my glasses to correct my distance vision keep my close vision from being good. If I got new glasses, they'd be the same as my current ones. So I guess I'll stick with my old glasses, and for activities where contact lenses are better, I have very weak reading glasses. I used to mostly wear contacts and used the glasses as a backup or at home, but now I mostly wear glasses unless I'm doing something active, like dancing, or outdoors where I need sunglasses.

So that's one thing off today's to-do list. I can spend the rest of the day writing. I figured out what to do with this ending, but that required rethinking my villain, and that's requiring another pass through the book to make subtle adjustments.

I suppose all this means I won't get to watch Sharknado 3 tonight. Bummer. I thought the first one was amusing in a ridiculous sort of way but didn't bother with the second. As for the third, it reminds me of something my mother used to say when I was a kid about attention-seeking behavior: "First time is funny, second time is silly, third time is a spanking."

And now I must get to work because tomorrow night there's a big event at the library, a steampunk book party with me, Rachel Caine, and P.N. Elrod. And then I'm going to ArmadilloCon on Friday. Which means I'd really like to finish this pass on the book today, then I can work on the new ending over the weekend and then I'll have a few days for a proofread.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reading Slump

So, I visited my book yesterday, and that always makes me feel awkward. I thought more authors did this sort of thing, but the people at the stores always act surprised when I offer to sign their stock. Then they think I want to do a booksigning right then and start talking about setting up a table. I pointed out that there were five books and I could sign them in just a few minutes right there.

If you don't find the book when you visit the bookstore, ask for it. It took me a while to find my own book in a store where I knew there were copies because someone had tweeted a picture of them. I was looking in Teen Fantasy, and it was in Teen Fiction (flashbacks to the Enchanted, Inc. series being shelved in Fiction instead of in Fantasy).

I'm narrowing in on a solution to my story problem. When in doubt, look to the folklore/mythology. There's probably something that will provide the solution.

I've been in a bit of a reading slump lately, and I've finally decided to give up on the book I've been trying to read for six weeks. It's not that it's a bad book. It's just that it's a little too long and slow for the amount of emotional investment I have in it. I'm intrigued by the premise, but it's paced as epic fantasy, which means events are really spread out, with descriptions of every single meal they eat in between each major event. Seriously, what is the deal with food and epic fantasy? I've noticed that most books in the genre really get into food, even when one of the points is that because of the way things are going, they eat the same thing at almost every meal. There are entire scenes comparing whether the fruit, bread, and cheese at this place is better than the fruit, bread, and cheese at the previous place. I don't care about the food. I want to get to the part where they blow things up with magic. Or even where the main character has anything resembling a relationship with another character -- not necessarily romantic, but something that feels like a connection that makes me care about whether or not it continues or where I know she'll feel some kind of pain if something happens to the other person.

So I'm moving on to rereading a lot of Terry Pratchett before WorldCon, and it counts as work! Right now, I'm rereading Nation, which is a non-Discworld book. But I still love it. When I was a kid, I was very fond of shipwreck/survival type stories where the characters had to fend for themselves for a while in some difficult environment. I love it now, but when I was a kid, I'm sure I would have been utterly obsessed with this book, would have read it over and over again, and would have researched (or tried) some of the stuff in it. I'm afraid I'm a bit too much like the girl characters he tended to write. Then again, I'm planning to be Granny Weatherwax in my old age.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Problems without Solutions

I think I've figured out the problem with the book I've been working on. I just don't have a good solution. And I have less than two weeks to figure it out and fix it. During which I have a convention. Eep. So I will be busy. But I think knowing the problem will make it easier to find a solution.

This morning I'm going to go visit my book in the wild. I haven't done any drive-by stock signings, at which I introduce myself to store staff and offer to sign the books they have on hand. It's a great way to get books hand-sold and get booksellers to look at them, but it's also a difficult, draining process for me that requires building up a lot of courage. Plus, there aren't really any convenient bookstores anymore. But I haven't seen my book in any place other than the copy I have, and I know that there's a particular store with copies because my neighborhood librarian tweeted a picture, so I will start there.

One of the frequently asked questions authors get is how the book is doing, and I really have no way of knowing right now. About the only indication I get is Amazon ranking, but even that doesn't directly reflect much because they keep redoing their algorithm, and supposedly they give extra weight to books that are exclusive to them, plus the exclusives that are in the Kindle Unlimited lending program skew things, so there are books with very good Amazon rankings that aren't actually "bestsellers" in the grand scheme of things and books with seemingly poor Amazon rankings that are bestsellers. I just know that I'm getting some enthusiastic response from readers, and there seems to be positive buzz, but I have no way of knowing if that's translating into sales numbers.

I will be working on a proposal for the next book in the series next month, and I've already decided that even if the publisher doesn't want it, it will be published, one way or another.

But first, I must finish this other book to get it to the copyeditor on time. I need a miracle because right now I don't like the ending at all, but I don't know what the ending should be.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Running Away to the Circus

I had a grand day out yesterday. It's been a while since I went to what I lovingly refer to as "the little old lady matinee" at the Music Hall. The Thursday afternoon show tends to be dominated by retirees. There are even retirement home vans in the parking lot. That gets entertaining when the show is a little weird or different instead of being a classic standard like The Sound of Music or Camelot. I still grin when I think of the group I ended up sitting with to see Spamalot. At intermission, they asked me, "Do you understand what this is about?" Though there was one intrepid lady who went and bought the CD at intermission so she could read the lyrics off the liner notes. Her problem was being able to hear and understand the lines, and once she could read them, she was fine and thought it was funny.

Pippin (at least this production, a recent revival) is a pretty odd show because it's one of those show-within-a-show things that gets all symbolic and metaphorical, as it takes place within a circus, breaks the fourth wall a lot, and has some rather racy stuff conveyed in odd symbolic ways. Plus an entire number that gets into some dungeony S&M imagery. So, yeah, watching the little old ladies watch it was rather entertaining, as was listening to the conversations about it on the train ride home. I loved the circus elements. A lot of the cast were actual circus performers, with a couple of acrobatic teams, some jugglers, and some rhythmic gymnasts/aerialists. They used a trapeze (stationary, not flying), some suspended hoops, silks, and poles. Then there were a few numbers involving crazy tumbling through hoops. There's a place nearby that offers circus fitness classes, and now I'm kind of tempted to give it a try.

John Rubenstein, who was the original Pippin in the 1972 cast, now plays the king, and he stole the show (I found myself reminded of the evil lawyer he played on Angel and now want to rewatch his episodes). For a while, I was feeling really bad for the guy playing Pippin. He had the proper Bambi-like look and a lovely tenor voice with a beautiful high end, but I was starting to feel like he was cast for his looks and his voice because he was just so awkward, like he was suddenly conscious of having hands and feet and wasn't sure what to do with them. There was all this amazing movement on stage, and he could barely walk across the stage without looking like it required concentration. But then there was a cathartic scene near the end when he and the Lead Player were alone on stage and started dancing in some pretty tough Fosse-like choreography, and he could really cut loose. So it turned out all the awkwardness was acting and was part of the character. It gradually went away through the show. I guess it shouldn't have been a huge surprise, as there were a couple of moments when he got thrown around by the acrobats and made it look easy (though I noticed all the circus professionals moving into just the right places to spot him whenever he did stunts).

Though I should have remembered that if I like a fictional portrayal of anything taken from history, I should never look up the real history. In this case, the only resemblance between history and the show was the names and one incident, to the point where I think it's all metaphorical and wasn't meant to be at all about Charlemagne and his son.

In other news, I got my final WorldCon schedule, and it turns out there's a reason I just got one programming item. They're also doing a Discworld convention within the convention that was programmed separately, and I'm all over that one. Plus, I ended up with a reading, an autographing, and a kaffeeklatsch, and I'm one of the mentors for the writers' workshop. So I will be very, very busy and will have to stop whining about them not knowing who I am. I bought my plane tickets earlier this week. And now I need to reread all my Terry Pratchett books. For work. It'll be a real trial, let me tell you.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Writing Seasons

So, the book has been out a couple of days now, and the people who've read it seem to like it (though at the moment it has the lowest star rating of all my books on Amazon). I have no way of knowing how well it's selling, but I am getting enthusiastic tweets from people who've read it and are demanding the sequel NOW, and that's one of the main things that matters. I have a feeling that if this turns out to be any kind of hit, it will be of the slow-build, word-of-mouth variety rather than being an instant smash. In a way, that's better because it can be sustained and is more organic than something that gets a lot of hype from a publisher but doesn't have any real foundation to it. It just would be nice to have something be easy, for once. Then again, I do love those difficulty points. It would be a lot more satisfying to have something become a hit on its own than to have one of those books that the publisher makes into a hit by throwing lots of marketing resources at it.

Meanwhile, I'm about halfway through this round of revisions on Fairy Tale book 3, and I'm starting to get some ideas for how to deal with the ending. I've got the cover artist on board and need to get some concepts to her.

But I'm taking some of today off for a day out at the theater. There's a Thursday matinee of the touring company of Pippin, a show I've never seen, and now that there's train service right to the music hall, I can see a weekday matinee without fighting rush hour traffic to get home. I can sit on the train and point and laugh at the people sitting on the clogged freeway. The train will probably be fairly crowded, but as I'll be boarding before downtown, my odds of getting a seat will be good.

Then I'll work tonight. This seems to be more of a "night" book anyway. I'm doing my best work after dark. Since the book is set in late November and there's snow at times, maybe there's too big a clash between a hot Texas summer afternoon and what's happening in the book. Because it takes months to write a book, it's nearly impossible to sync up the time you're writing and the time the book takes place. Even if you start at the right time, unless your book spans months, you'll end up out of whack at some point.

I have noticed that almost all my series start in late summer/early fall. I guess that's because I tend to start new projects around that time -- that sense of "back to school." That's also when I tend to take my research trips, so my sense of the locations is pinned to those times. And fall is my favorite season. The Enchanted, Inc. series starts in September, since that's when I went to New York to research it. The Fairy Tale series starts in late August, since that's when that research trip happened. Rebel Mechanics takes place in September, as well, I think because New York is really familiar to me at that time, and also because that's when I started writing it. Plus, there's that sense of change in the air that's thematic with the book.

I might mix things up in the future. One potential series starter seems to kick off in the summer in my head, and the opening scene for another involves snow, so it's probably at least late fall.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Life Cycle of a Book

Getting a book out into the world can be a long, difficult process. To give a sense of what it can take, here's the life cycle of Rebel Mechanics, my book that was published this week:

Fall 2009: I came up with a story idea that mixed steampunk and fantasy in a technology vs. magic situation. I started reading as much in the genre as I could find and began doing research on the time period and the technology.

Late winter/early spring 2010: I'd more or less figured out my main plot and characters, inspired in part by a trip to an antique show where I bought some old photos that caught my eye.

Summer 2010: I decided I was definitely going to write this book and began researching in earnest.

Late August/early September 2010: I wrote a proposal -- about three chapters and a synopsis -- and sent it to my agent.

November 2010: My agent submitted the proposal to fantasy publishers. I kept writing the book and completed a draft.

Early 2011: The responses from the fantasy publishers weren't encouraging. Some thought there was too much romance and suggested I try romance publishers. Some wanted more magic. Some wanted less. My agent and I discussed options. I read some similar fantasy/romance series and decided that wasn't where I wanted to go with it. I suggested targeting the young adult market, since the characters were young and it's essentially a coming-of-age story. In YA, they don't really divide by genre so I wouldn't get caught in that romance vs. fantasy bind.

Spring/early summer 2011: I revised the book to emphasize the YA elements and tighten the pacing.

Summer 2011-spring 2012: I went through several rounds of revisions with my agent to fine-tune the book for the YA market (while writing another book in the meantime). 

Summer 2012: My agent submitted the book to YA publishers. There were a few "almost but not quite" responses. Oddly, the more genre-oriented publishers thought it was too "literary."

Fall 2012: My agent and I decided not to give up, and my agent submitted to another round of publishers, including some of the more literary ones.

February 2013: Farrar, Straus & Giroux bought the book. (Yay!!!)

Fall 2013-Spring 2014: I went through several rounds of revisions with my editor.

Early summer 2014: I got copyedits on the book and did another round of revising based on the editor's suggestions.

August 2014: I got the cover art.

Fall 2014-Winter 2015: I went through a few rounds of page proofs, making my own corrections and responding to questions and suggestions raised by the proofreaders, then checking to make sure the corrections were made properly without introducing new errors.

Early 2015: advance copies started going out to librarians and booksellers

July 14, 2015: the book was published

Most books don't take this long between idea and publication, but it can take that long. The delays here came in reworking the book after the first round of submissions, with multiple rounds of revision (while also writing other books), and in a publisher with a small enough list that the book was scheduled for publication more than two years after it was bought. I'll admit that I came close to snapping at the fourth or so round of revisions with the editor, since I'd been working on the book for about five years at that point and was on about my tenth draft. Still, every round made the book a bit better.

The key thing to note is that publishing doesn't happen overnight, and the work isn't nearly done when you finish writing the book.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Help an Author

Rebel Mechanics is officially out. And my web site has been updated. I'm sure there's something wrong or broken somewhere in there because it kept undoing itself and I wanted to throw the computer out the window, but it seems to be functional. There are new photo galleries for all three series. I'll be adding more behind-the-scenes stuff for the new book along the way.

People keep asking me what's the best way to buy my book to help me, so I figure it's time to do an updated version of How To Help Authors You Love:

1) Buy the book. It probably helps more to buy one of the print editions (paper or e-book) because the audio version usually comes from a different publisher, and that means the primary publisher won't count that sale when making decisions about buying another book from that author. However, I've had situations where Audible made an offer on a book before a print publisher did, so it's all good in the end. If possible, buy the book in the first week of release. Publishers are getting almost as bad as movie studios about wanting to open big. "Legs" and long-term sales don't count quite as much as a big splash at the start, and a book that makes a big splash up front might get a bit of a promo boost once the publisher realizes they have a hit on their hands.

2) If you go to a bookstore to buy the book and don't find it, ask for it at the store. The book may still be in boxes at the back of the store, and your question could get it shelved faster. The book may have sold out, and your question might get it reordered. It might not be shelved where you expect to find it. Plus, talking to store employees brings the book to their attention, which means they may look into it and start recommending it. Asking one question at the store could end up selling dozens of extra copies.

3) Write a review. Whether it's on your own blog, on Goodreads, or on a bookseller web site. Reviews help get a book noticed.

4) Talk about the book and tell others. Blog, tweet, post on Facebook or tumblr. Talk to real-life, in-person friends. Word of mouth is the single biggest way that books get sold.

So, I hope everyone likes the new book! I decided to wait on my usual running around to bookstores and signing copies because I've found that books often aren't shelved yet on day one, and it's going to be really hot today, and I'm tired from all the web design work and need to get back to revising a book. But go buy books!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Book Day Minus One

I'm staring down a few daunting, crazy weeks, and I'm sure I'll prevail, but I'm looking forward to having one or two fewer things hanging over my head. It's like the run up to finals in college, where you've forgotten what it feels like to have that nagging feeling that there's something you're supposed to be doing.

So, there's the book that comes out tomorrow, though I'm getting reports of people having found it in stores already. That means I need to finish reworking the web site today. That will be priority #1.

I also need to be doing promo stuff this week, online and in person. It's been a while since I had a bookstore book, and I really should make the rounds of local stores, meeting the staff and signing copies. There are a lot fewer stores now than there were the last time I did this, with Borders going under and B&N closing a lot of stores. I will also likely have a lot of tweets and e-mails to deal with, and I'll need to remember to actually promote myself in various relevant venues.

Meanwhile, there's other promo-related stuff. While I watch TV, I'm alternating between signing hundreds of bookplates for a special mailing the publisher arranged and putting together some swag items to hand out.

And then there's the book I have to have complete by August 1. I'm about a third of the way through revising it, and I'll need to make at least two more passes. I also need to get things going with the cover artist.

Not to mention the convention planning meeting this weekend and the convention the weekend after that. I may be signing bookplates during the meeting, and I may be holing up in my room and writing when I'm not on programming during the con.

Oh, and the people who have read the new book are already demanding a sequel and tagging the publisher in their tweets, so I suppose I need to get that proposal written.

In perhaps my last bit of true leisure time for a while, I saw the Minions movie on Saturday, and it was so much fun. I should probably be alarmed that as soon as the movie ended, all my friends said, "Shanna, you need to get a red dress." So apparently they saw a lot of me in Scarlet Overkill. But if I'm wearing that dress, it must have the nuclear armaments built in.

Oh, and if you see it, stay to the end of the credits or you're missing a lot of the fun.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Reading, Writing, and Reading but Not Writing

I may have too many books going around in my head right now. I'm revising/rewriting book 3 of the Fairy Tale series. Then last night there were some interesting WWII documentaries on TV that I was watching for work purposes for a book I have planned. I have this idea for a secondary world dystopia that looks a lot like the darker side of Dickensian England (with a steampunk touch) but that's a totalitarian society like Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. Since in the backstory for this world, the current regime arose less than 20 years ago and in that time has managed to reshape all of society to the point that large segments of the population support the new regime with a near-religious devotion, Nazi Germany is a good model for it. Last night on H2 they were rerunning some documentaries from a few years ago that got into what life was like for ordinary people during the rise and fall of the Nazi regime, using a lot of home movie footage, and it was perfect for the book I have planned to get some ideas for worldbuilding. I ended up taking notes while I was watching, and then once you start doing that kind of thinking, you start having character and plot thoughts, as well, so that future book idea was becoming active. And then during commercial breaks I was reading through a history book on the American Revolution to look for events I could move to a different time and place as I'm starting to develop the next Rebel Mechanics book.

So that's three entirely different books in entirely different series that I was working on in one day. I don't know if that's a record for me.

Though I don't know if I will need another Rebel Mechanics book, considering at the moment Enchanted, Inc., which has been out for more than ten years, has a much better Amazon ranking. Unless it shoots up once it's released, I may be in trouble here.

But getting back to the books in the head … At ApolloCon a few weeks ago, I was on a panel about "What I'd Like to Read but Would Never Write." The panelists decided to turn "I'd" into "I" because the "I'd" implied that it didn't exist and we were looking for it, which narrowed it down too much. I get some of my best story ideas for things I want to read but that don't exist yet. Enchanted, Inc. resulted from me wanting a Harry Potter-like thing about grownups, or else a chick lit book with some fantasy elements. Rebel Mechanics came from me wanting a fun romp of a steampunk story without vampires, zombies, werewolves, etc. I can't think of anything I'd currently like to read that doesn't exist that I don't want to write.

But there are genres I like to read and probably will never write. Or in one case, never write again. The big one for me is space opera -- science fiction stories set on spaceships that are more about the characters than about the science. My gateway to science fiction was Star Wars, and I re-read the novelization dozens of times (back in the days when you had to go to the theater to see a movie over and over again). My parents gave me one of Alan Dean Foster's Flinx books and suggested I might like that, too (we didn't know at the time that Alan wrote the Star Wars novelization, even though George Lucas's name was on the cover). And the rest is history. The way kids in my neighborhood played, it was kind of live-action role playing fanfic, where we'd pretend to be characters in whatever our favorite thing of the moment was and run around acting out stories. With Star Wars, there was just one girl, so we had to create new characters. Sometimes I managed to get to be Princess Leia, but other times I came up with a female X-wing pilot (who was also a princess, because why not?). Over the years, I kept mentally playing with that character, until finally she had very little to do with the Star Wars universe, and then I spun her off into her own universe (which was still rather Star Wars-like), and then I realized that if I wrote down all these mental adventures, I'd have a book.

So my very first stab at writing was space opera, and it was pretty terrible, but I was twelve, so what do you expect? I mostly just had a first chapter, a few later scenes, and a lot of drawings of costumes, but that was the start of me entertaining myself by writing and the start of my ambition to be a writer.

I don't know if I mentioned this on the panel, but I've since remembered that I have actually written and submitted a book that could be called space opera. It was still more Star Wars mental fanfic -- after Return of the Jedi I found myself wondering what Luke and Leia's birth parents had been like, what kind of person Anakin Skywalker was before he became Darth Vader, what kind of woman he'd have been with. I had this whole story line and characters playing out in my head. Then early in my romance writing career, there was a brief surge of interest in science fiction romance, and I figured that this story would be perfect, so I wrote it. The problem was that these were still very much romances with science fiction-like settings, and as I've mentioned, I don't find romance novels very romantic, so it was all wrong and got repeatedly rejected (for good reason). At the same time, it wasn't very good science fiction. I'm not interested enough in the technology and space stuff to write good space opera. All I really care about is the characters.

And yet, my version is still probably better than what we got in the prequels.

Still, I have realized that while I love to read this sort of thing, trying to write it would be a very bad idea. I wouldn't enjoy the process, and it wouldn't be any good.

I suppose World War II novels would also be on my list. I love to read them, I'm fascinated by the period, but I don't think I'd write a serious one. Maybe alternate history in a world where magic works or all those occult things the Nazis were after had real power, maybe a secondary world using elements from that era, which I do have planned, but not a straightforward history story. Or even a time travel, a la Connie Willis. Love them, don't think I want to write something like that.

But with four fictional universes currently playing out in my head (there's one I'm not actively working on that still pops up occasionally), it's probably good that there are some things I'm not trying to write.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

An Epic Trip Down Memory Lane

I took a day off from walking because I woke up with my legs aching, and not just the muscles, but also the joints. I figured my body needed a rest, and it proved it when I went back to sleep right away.

I spent much of yesterday digging through boxes of photos. I finally recalled that I'd had to scan the photos from my initial Enchanted, Inc. research trip because I didn't get them on CD (this was way before I got a digital camera). Then I figured that if I was going to scan some photos, I could do more while I was at it, and in all the trips I've taken to New York, surely I'd have taken some pictures of other stuff that applies to other books. I did find a few new things, but otherwise, I seem to have a very bad habit of taking the same photo over and over again. Going back nearly twenty years, it seems like each trip to New York, I've photographed the same things. That does mean I have some nice seasonal comparisons -- the same bridge in Central Park in snow, in summer, in fall, and in spring. But I don't have a lot of variety.

I also found a lot of old photos of friends I've lost touch with and even forgotten. Oh dear, but there was a lot of 90s hair. I hadn't realized how much the early 90s were really just an extension of the 80s. The day was pretty much an epic excursion down memory lane.

Now I'm looking up vintage photos to illustrate some of the items in the steampunk book. The lovely thing about needing things from the 1800s is that the images are in the public domain, so even if I wasn't there to take photos, there are images I can use. There's also a lot of stuff I made up, so alas, there are no photos or drawings.

Meanwhile, the interviews continue. This one isn't specifically about the upcoming book, but it may still be interesting.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

The Lady of the Levee

I only walked about 45 minutes this morning. My legs were somewhat unhappy with me last night after yesterday's epic walk, so I decided to give them a break. Also, while it wasn't unpleasantly hot, it was too windy to walk on the levee, anyway, so I stayed around the canals, below street level with less wind.

However, I think that if there is a nice windy, misty, gray day, I need to head over to the levee with my floaty white nightgown just before sunrise, then put on the gown, let down my hair, and walk back and forth on the levee in the morning mist with my hair and gown billowing in the wind. The neighborhood lake needs a good ghost legend. I should start rumors about the Lady of the Levee so people are primed for when she makes an appearance.

I really do try to think about the book I'm working on while I'm walking, but this sort of thing tends to come up, as well. Basically, exercise is good for creativity. And evil scheming.

I have most of the website redesign done. Most of what's left is redoing the photo galleries, which is going to entail finding the original photo CDs to make sure I have good-quality pictures. Somewhere along the way, the files on my hard drive seem to have been lost or corrupted, so I only have the versions that have already been altered for the web, and I'm doing something different with them that requires the original. I spent a frustrating evening last night singing along with the Mozart Requiem while digging through my hard drive and sorting things into folders. But this is the hard part. The rest will simply involve writing captions, and the software will do the rest. Then I just need to figure out what new content I'll need to add. I've been lax on putting up bonus features for the Fairy Tale books.

Maybe someday I should pay someone to do all this for me, but I've heard so many horror stories about web designers gone rogue who make it difficult or impossible to get updates done or who vanish with the passwords. The software I have makes it pretty easy. It just takes fiddling a bit to figure out how to do cool stuff with it.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

One More Week

One week from today, Rebel Mechanics will be released. I can't believe it's so soon, and yet it's been forever. Stuff is starting to hit the web, an interview here and a review here.

I think I've taken care of the trickiest part of the web site redesign. Now I'm down to mostly going page-by-page to change the color scheme and then adding some new content for various books. So look for a new site in the next couple of days, depending on how much I accomplish today. I got an early start, but I took an extra-long walk. Though it may have been too long a walk, as I'm already starting to stiffen up. An hour and a half might be too much, but there was about a mile that wasn't planned when I had to backtrack because part of the trail was still under water.

If I keep this schedule up, I'm going to be in trouble for WorldCon, since they'll be on Pacific time. If I'm waking up at 7 here, I'll be up at 5 there. I'll have to bring my walking shoes so I can take morning walks before the convention stuff gets started. It looks like there are lots of riverfront walking trails. Since my room has a microwave, I won't need to bring my teakettle, so that will give me room for an extra pair of shoes.

But first I have to get through this month, with a book to revise, a book to launch, a convention to go to, and 800 bookplates to sign for a promotion. I'm going to pretend it's a massive booksigning with an epic line. Except I won't have to ask people how to spell their names. I may look up and smile briefly after signing each bookplate.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Blue Ribbon!

I'm going to have to update my author bio to include a new honor: champion dessert maker! They had a dessert contest at the church cookout this weekend, and I brought my chocolate pecan pie. Of course, I hoped to win, but I didn't really expect to. After dropping off my pie at the fellowship hall, I got completely sidetracked by having to learn the new music for the service and being one of only two sopranos, so I was having to sing nice and loud. Then after church I went through the serving line, got my burger and was getting settled at a table when someone congratulated me. When I didn't know why (I thought maybe it had to do with singing last week or what we'd done in the service that day), she dragged me to the dessert table, where there was a blue ribbon on my pie.

Though there was a bit of a mix-up when they were announcing names, so I thought maybe it wasn't me, but then it turns out that the person went on autopilot and said a different last name that she usually associates with my first name, and when they saw me they dragged me over after correcting the mistake.

I'm almost embarrassed by how excited I was about this. You'd think I'd never won a prize for anything, but in general I'm the kind of person who does really well but doesn't necessarily win.

In other weekend news, there were fireworks Friday night and I finally saw Inside Out, which basically was about my sixth-grade year. We moved midway through the school year, going from a nice house to an apartment and going from a school where I was the queen bee -- a class officer, in band, in choir, in Girl Scouts -- to a school where I knew no one, where there was no band and they wouldn't let me in the choir because it was already full, and where everyone hated me on sight. I later learned that the teacher had announced the day before I showed up (I had to wait a day after registration) that the class would have to work harder because I was so smart that I'd be competition. Gee, thanks, teacher. I knew we had no choice about moving because it was a military thing, so it didn't do to complain, and so that whole movie was basically what was going on inside my head. Though things didn't get much better for me until seventh grade, and even then, the same people who hated me from sixth grade were still out to get me.

I am impressed the Pixar managed to pull off a fun animated movie about psychology.

It's going to be a really busy week, with lots of promo work to do, the web site redesign, and revisions. I worked out most of my revision issues for the upcoming few chapters on my morning walk, which should help with that.

Friday, July 03, 2015

To Terminate or Not to Terminate

For this morning's long walk (it was really nice out earlier, since it was overcast and not so hot), I headed to the streets those lakeside houses are on. It looks like I'll have to sell lots and lots of books to afford to live there, judging by the kinds of cars in the driveways. There were a couple of cul-de-sacs arranged to maximize the lakefront property, and on the first one I went down, nothing really jumped out at me as my house. Then there was a little circle around a small greenspace that looked rather pleasant, but again none of the lakeside houses struck my fancy. But then as I was heading home, I tried a different street that didn't look lakeside at first, but turned out to be around a little inlet on the lake, and there was a house that had what looked like a Victorian conservatory off the side of it. I tried getting a look at the back/side from the park nearby, but the inlet made it hard to see, though I think I spotted the chimney of an outdoor fireplace. To get a really good look, I'll have to put in contact lenses so I can see details at a distance and walk along the levee across the lake. And maybe bring my binoculars for some "bird watching." But I would be totally okay with living on a quiet inlet with a conservatory and patio with fireplace overlooking a lake.

To make it happen, I'll probably need this next book (or some future book) to be a bestseller, raising the sales of my other books, and then getting me higher advances on future books, plus some foreign sales and a movie option or two. Totally doable! Actually, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Today is going to be my Independence Day holiday. The town near me is doing their fireworks tonight. Then I can spend tomorrow relaxing and redesigning my web site. And baking a pie for Sunday's church cookout.

I'd thought about seeing the new Terminator movie, but the reviews aren't promising. I love the original with a great passion, and most of the reviews say the best parts of the new movie are the reshoots of the original, except they only remind you how pale the new versions of these characters are in comparison, so the movie's less interesting once it moves on with its twists on the original story. I know I'm in the minority for actually kind of liking the last one, but it didn't really undo the chronology, and I just wish they'd gone as far with that concept as they seem to have planned but then chickened out on. I'm less crazy about the highly praised second one, but then emo teens are not my thing, and I became a lot less interested when the story was about John than when it was about Sarah. Basically, I love Sarah and Kyle and the whole star-crossed/time-crossed love thing, and while I'd love to see another movie where Kyle gets to do stuff, he's not the real Kyle and this new guy doesn't seem to hold a candle to what Michael Biehn did in that role, so it wouldn't be like getting to see Kyle live again. I may just dig out my Blu-Ray and watch the real thing again for the zillionth time.

Thursday, July 02, 2015


I've been so very virtuous this week. Not only have I been diligent about doing my writing-related work, but I've also gone for a walk every morning. It started Monday when I went to the library. Then Tuesday morning I was surprised by how pleasant it was outside when I got the newspaper so I decided to go for a walk after breakfast. It was starting to get hot and muggy then, so I thought I ought to walk before breakfast, but I generally need to eat at least something as soon as I get up, so I compromised the next morning. I had toast and some tea -- and got dressed while tea was steeping and toast was toasting -- and then was out walking shortly after 8. I walked for about an hour. Then I had some milk when I got home. Today I slept later, and for a moment I was tempted not to walk, but again it seemed nice when I got the paper, so I got dressed and headed out. I think I came close to an hour again, though I didn't plan to be out so long. It's so peaceful at that time. It's past the rush of people out jogging or walking dogs before work. There are a few other people walking, mostly older ladies in saris, but otherwise it's quiet. I can walk and listen to the birds and think. We're having a cooler-than-normal summer, but it's supposed to get hot next week, so I may not be able to keep this up. But then I can switch to the swimming pool -- one benefit of deciding not to sell right now.

And that appears to have been a good decision. They had a story on the news yesterday about how this is one of the areas where they're recommending renting rather than buying right now because house prices are so steeply inflated that there might be a bubble forming. There's much less inventory than demand, so there can be multiple offers on a house before the sign even goes in the yard. Realtors are joking about how staging used to involve getting everything perfect and adding nice touches like baking cookies. Now all it takes is making the beds and putting away the laundry. Speculators are getting involved and swooping in with cash offers. You have to leap at anything you even kind of like. Since my plan is to find my dream house that I'd like to stay in until I can't live alone anymore, I'd rather wait until things settle down and I'd have the chance to be choosy. And by then I should have saved even more money and have more equity in this house, so I can get something even nicer.

And these morning walks are giving me aspirations. I walked over to the levee yesterday to see how high the water got on the other side (it looked like there had been water in places where there usually isn't water, but it didn't come up the side of the levee), and I noticed the houses on the east side of the neighborhood. There's a small lake there (really a big pond), and there are some nice houses backing up to that lake. It's a non-recreational lake, so no boating, no swimming, there's not supposed to be fishing (but people do), so it's very quiet. The water is currently as high as I've ever seen it and it's nowhere near the back yards, and I couldn't spot any obvious high-water marks to show that it had been much higher. A house there would mean water views while still having privacy, unlike the homes on the canals where there are walking paths going past the back yards. It would be so nice to sit at the kitchen table or in the back yard and watch the sun rise over the lake, or sit at an office window (the office would have to overlook the lake) and watch it rain on the water. Of course, the houses there are larger and more expensive, so I guess I need to make this book a success.

Speaking of which, I've learned that I'm not quite getting the degree of publicity push I was expecting based on my previous experience (though they have been good about distributing advance copies), so I'm going to have to put on my PR hat and get back in gear. There won't be any booksignings other than at the conventions I've already scheduled, which isn't such a bad thing, as those can be painful unless you're famous enough to draw a big crowd. Fortunately, I've got a decent blog tour thanks to a blogger who got an advance copy and contacted me, but I'm open to doing more blog tours, interviews, etc. If you know a place you think might want to know about the upcoming steampunk book or if you have a book-related blog and would like an interview or guest post, let me know. And, of course, tell all your friends, spread the word, leave reviews once you've read the book, etc.

Meanwhile, I have a book to rewrite. I know what needs to be fixed and have made a good start on it.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Finding Balance

One important thing to keep in mind about writing a novel is balance. Not balancing your writing with the rest of your life (though that is important), but finding balance within a story. The key elements of fiction writing are action, dialogue, description, thought/internal monologue, and emotion (not thinking about feelings, but actual physical feelings, like racing heartbeat, lump in the throat, etc.). Too much of one of these things tends to bog down a book.

In a novel, you want a lot of dialogue. Dialogue creates white space on a page and leads your eye down the page to keep reading. Pages and pages without dialogue can look daunting and dense. Dialogue generally reads faster than blocks of text. Also, if there's dialogue, that means there's more than one person in a scene, and they're at least doing something -- even if that's just talking -- rather than sitting and thinking.

But while dialogue is your friend in a novel, you need to have action, as well. Talking heads -- people doing nothing but sitting and talking -- are pretty boring on television and in movies, and you seldom see a scene that is nothing more than just a conversation unless that scene is so emotionally charged that it becomes compelling on its own or unless the scene is laden with subtext, so that what they're saying is in contrast to the non-verbal message. The same thing applies to books. We want scenes about people doing stuff, not talking about stuff. They can talk while they do other things, but a scene that's just talking needs to have something else going on to make the talk interesting.

Thought/introspection/internal monologue can be tricky in a novel. It's the key difference between visual media and books. This is our chance to get into a character's head and understand a person from the inside out. There's no introspection in a movie unless there's a voiceover or the character talks to herself out loud because we can't get into a person's head. All that stuff has to be conveyed in other ways, such as through action, dialogue or acting (facial expressions, non-verbal communication). One reason I used to love movie novelizations was the chance to get into the heads of the characters and read their thoughts. But too much introspection can bog a book down. Do we really want to spend three pages with a character mulling over a decision? It can be a good exercise to think like a screenwriter and see if there's any other way at all to convey that information before resorting to introspection.

Description and emotion are the seasoning of a story. You don't really want huge chunks of it, just enough to give it flavor at the appropriate point. It's best to mix these things into other elements.

The precise balance of these elements will depend on the kind of story you're writing. A romance novel without an external plot is going to have a lot more dialogue and introspection than an action novel would. Romance readers are looking for character interaction and thoughts about feelings, so you'll want to shift that way in that kind of book -- but you still probably don't want that many talking heads. Fantasy readers expect a fair amount of description if the story takes place in another world, so those novels might have bigger amounts of description, especially near the beginning as the world is established.

One way to get a sense of the right balance is to get an extra copy of a book you enjoy in the genre you're trying to write and maybe a recently published and successful book in that genre (but not one by an established bestselling author because the rules don't really apply to them) and a set of colored highlighters or pens. Create a color code for the various elements and go through highlighting or underlining the elements as you find them. If you don't want to do the whole book, do key parts like the opening, midpoint, and ending. Then you can flip through and see at a glance the balance of dialogue, action, introspection, description, and emotion. Next, print out your manuscript or portions of your manuscript and apply the same color code. How does it compare?

I've also made lists of scenes in a book and decided if they were "talking" scenes or "doing" scenes, color coding them, and then deciding if the talking could be folded into doing or if the talking was important and compelling enough on its own. That was because the amount of dialogue looked about right until I realized that all the characters were doing was talking, and that's not good. I've had editors say they'd rather not see any restaurant scenes, even in a romance novel, because that generally means there are just two people sitting and talking. Of course, if the Mafia bursts in and takes hostages or if the place burns down, then you can have a restaurant scene.