Monday, December 29, 2014

Story Notes: World Building

Every story lives within its own world. That world doesn't just exist - it needs to be built. The term worldbuilding normally gets applied to science fiction and fantasy writing, but the truth is all stories involves some level of worldbuilding. So what does it take to build a world? What is important for the reader to know. The answer depends a lot on your type of story, but the idea to start with is limitations. We always need to know the limitations of reality to understand the difficulties that face our heroes. Without limitations there is no conflict, and without conflict there is no story.

The Physics

The universe operates on some fairly simple rules. Time moves forward, left and right are equivalent, nothing moves faster than the speed of light. You don't need to spell these things out (you don't even need to understand them) because that's the world everyone lives in so we all know the result - it's our world. But if your world contains magic or technology that allows travelling between worlds or time periods, you need to explain how that works, even if the explanation is a non-explanation.

What that means is that you need to give the reader the sense that there is some logic behind what can physically happen in the world. Not because we crave logic, but we need to get a sense of what CAN happen in order to understand what DOES happen. If your hero is setting out on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy, we need to know that your average magician can't just wave his hands and make the entire evil empire disappear. We need to know if magic can affect everyone, if it takes studying to learn, if it's powered by concentration or by life force. 

The same is true for technologically advanced novels. We need to be told if it's now easy to get into space; if virtual reality is at a level indistinguishable from real reality; if aliens breathe the same air as us. We all know that future technology basically makes past magic real (flying, talking over long distances, visiting the moon). So if we're in your future, we need to know what level of technological achievement we're at.

The level of detail of the rules only needs to match the detail of the story. If you don't have a lot of magic happening, you don't need to spell out that much (Tolkien is a good example). But if the practice of it is essential and your characters are using it, or suffering from it, regularly, you need to give us enough to figure out the consequences (the Star Trek universe). Think of it like explaining baseball to a foreigner who's never seen the game. If you want them to know who won, all you have to say is that teams score runs and the most runs win. If you want them to play right field, you're going to need a lot more details if you want them to do a good job.

The Feeling

Aside from the physical nature of the world, we also need a sense of what kind of place it is. Are people friendly or scared? How many of them are there? Is life brutal for all or only some? What kind of government do we have here? This goes beyond magic and technology but into the basic nature of society. Thus, it's applicable to all stories, not just speculative ones. Once again, it affects how the characters go about solving their problems, how they interact with each other, so it's fundamental to the story.

Once again, if your character is trying to fulfill that prophecy, are there a lot of people who will help her? If she has to travel to the far side of the kingdom, does that take ten days by horse or three months by steam engine? If instead she's repelling an alien horde, how many ships are in their armada? Is the government full of worthless bickering politicians or can the nations of the earth unite for a common cause? Share enough to let us know what options your hero has and why it makes sense for them to do what they do.

Even if your story is a contemporary novel that takes place in the normal world, it still lives in a world of its own. Is it set in a hospital? People act differently in hospitals: visitors speak quietly, workers have their own language, rules structure physical interactions and locations, even the lighting and smells are unique. You want the reader to feel they're part of that world and you have to explain how things work there.


The physics and feelings of a setting are completely up to you, the writer, to design as you wish. But the rules need to be consistent or the reader will feel cheated. Once we've learned the rules to baseball, we'll get upset if the losing team all of a sudden gets double the runs for every score just because their behind in the ninth inning. So your magician shouldn't suddenly perform a spell that would have saved everyone a lot of trouble earlier on. Your computer gadget shouldn't suddenly be able to decrypt the enemy's communication. Rules are about setting limits and you can't adjust them because they limit the writer as much as the characters.

I've found that breaking my own rules often happens on the first draft. You get to a point in the story and you want to do something cool that will solve a problem. That's fine. You just need to go back and evaluate how that capability would affect all the earlier elements of the story. You may want to change the earlier parts, you may want to change the later part, but you NEED to make the rules consistent in both parts.

This principle is probably most important when it comes to characterization. It's not about keeping one character consistent (that's important, but it's not really worldbuilding). It's about keeping the characters in general consistent. If most people in your world are challenges to be overcome, then suddenly having a helpful bystander is inconsistent (it may be plausible and even realistic, but it weakens the story). If everyone in that hospital is a stickler for the rules, don't let them become lax to make your solution possible. If you need that laxness, then make sure you include some earlier, so exception becomes consistent. That's what revising is for.


So how realistic does your world need to be? Not at all. Realistic isn't the measure. Magic is not realistic. Hyperspace is not realistic. The hero never missing a shot while an army of trained soldiers never hits him once - not realistic. But possible? Plausible? Yes, because books have their own rules of plausibility.

Readers want to suspend disbelief. That's a major reason people read - to escape this drab world and lose themselves in a new one that has slightly different rules. They like that giant insects could develop intelligence and don't really care that mass scales differently than strength and a human sized insect would collapse under its own weight. They don't care that time travel is impossible because it violates causality and no amount of logically justification makes it work. 

The genre of your story also affects how much you can get away with. The truth is, most science fiction fans demand more plausibility than the casual reader. They need more justification and expect a consistent level of technology and some explanation for why your universe is the way it is. Fantasy readers will be a little more lenient, but they expect magic to be well limited, because they know that without limits the conflict loses its tension. 

On the other hand, I've found most YA novels to be much looser with their worldbuilding, often to the point of highly improbably and completely implausible future worlds (yes, I'm looking at you Divergent Chicago). I believe many of the readers of YA speculative fiction judge worldbuilding on a easier scale than more traditional fans, focusing more of the other elements of the story. Take that and use it as you will.

There are certain conventions in writing, from using magic to having lucky heroes, that people want to accept and so they do. Read the other books in your genre, the ones creating world at the same level as you, and see what works and what doesn't. Let the readers' reactions be your guide and you'll see that they forgive a lot if you tell them what the rules are and have some consistency. Be thankful but don't abuse it - readers have their limits and punish harshly those who fail them.


All this is well and good, but it's also very important to understand how you present this world you've built. The worst thing you can do is to start a story by explaining your rules, taking the time to lay our all the information that will be necessary at some point in the story. That's called info-dumping and it bores the reader. Yes, they want to know the rules, but only as the need them. They want story first, and only the world as it's necessary for the story.This means that you slip in the worldbuilding as it comes up. You don't need to discuss the limits of magic until someone is using it. 

And even then you don't need to stop and explain things. It works much better to show your world than to tell about it. Show the spell-caster losing consciousness with the effort. Have your laser gun auto-aim for the character. Don't point out the security necessary on a contagious disease floor - have the security guard turn away the wandering Alzheimer patient. 

This is another time when revising is your friend. I find it works well not to spend time trying to explain things and then let my poor beta readers be a little confused. When the first readers point out what confuses them about your world, then you know you need to work in some explaining information. But if they get it, then you already have enough. The common error is over-explaining, so try working from the other direction and you're more likely to come up with a better balance.


Worldbuilding is a large subject and volumes have been written on how to do it. Some authors hate it and some get lost in it. The truth is that all authors do it, whether they realize it or not. There are lots of ways to get it done, and I think it's perfectly fine if you aren't aware of doing it, but you do need to recognize the result. That's what I tried to focus on here - what makes a world successful. But if you want the nuts and bolts of how to get it done, here a a few sites that I think have good advice:

A whole book on the topic: World-building by Stephen Gillet

Worldbuilding doesn't have to be a encyclopedic exercise. For me it's part of the fun of creating any story. Sometimes it's a completely different world that requires lots of thought and careful tracking to maintain consistency. Sometimes it happens of its own accord as my character drives the story. But it's a part of all writing, and every writer should find the level and method of developing their world that works for them.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Timeless Art: Elfquest

I don't read a lot of graphic novels. I probably should, because I've found them to include some great works of art, both visually and creatively. There are some great stories to be found in the format and great art is great art, whatever the form.

When I was young, my older brother was into comics. He still collects to this day. I used to read his when I had nothing better around, but didn't really have any of my own. Except for ElfQuest. I loved ElfQuest. The artwork was so bold and the stories deep and rich. But as a young child I mostly loved the little elves that rode wolves and fought fiercely. That became my vision of elves, an image in my mind that even Tolkien's slender and aristocratic fae couldn't replace.

Well, my brother recently sent me a copy of the newly released ElfQuest Collection, Volume 1. It's just as good now as it ever was, and holds up next to anything that's being done in the medium today. Great stories, great art, hold up in a way that transcends form. And I'm very happy to be spending some time with Cutter, Skywise, and the rest of the Wolfriders.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Booking Through Thursday - Reading YA

It's been a while since I've participated in Booking Through Thursday, but this question got my interest:

Do you read books written for children or teens? Or do you stick to books for adults?

The quick answer is yes, I read Young Adult books. Not only do I read them, but I write them. But I think there's a little more to this question.

First, there's the implied suggestion that some books are written for children and some for adults. I don't believe books are necessarily written for a specific age audience. Young Adult is not a genre, it's not even a particularly accurate description of a market category. Most 'Young Adult' books are read by adults. Most of us who write Young Adult are fully aware of the adult audience and write stories that will appeal to them.

There definitely are stories that will appeal more to teens than adults. YA tends to feature teen protagonists and quite often deal with issues that are more immediate and important to teen readers. But most adults once were teens, so teen issues, and what adults went through in the past, are still relevant and of interest to adults.

Second, there's a hint that adults should stick to books for adults. I'm not sure exactly what is trying to be classified as 'adult' here, but I've seen plenty of pieces that find some standard to say what's 'appropriate' for adults to read - literary fiction, non-genre stories, stuff with SERIOUS THEMES. That's all crap. Lots (if not most) adult books have little philosophical merit to them and those serious themes tend to be lots of silly literary angst. And the most popular category of 'adult' books is Romance.

People should read what they want. There's lots of great quality stories in every genre and age category out there. And there's lots of crap, and it's perfectly OK to read that too (look at the bestseller lists and you'll find plenty of it). Any good writer will write a book that's for readers, and while some topics are not suitable for young children, many teens are more familiar with the dark aspects of life than your average adult. Can't we move past the judgment and labeling already?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Diversity as a Buzzword

There's been a lot of talk lately in the writing world about diversity. This is a good thing. I wholeheartedly approve of the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and I think discussions of difficult or controversial topics are necessary for progress. But I've seen a trend in the marketing of books that has turned diversity into a buzzword, and I'm not as happy about that.

For me, it's all about story. Story is what makes a book good. Story should be what sells a book. Stories can include diversity, and I think that more stories with diversity as a part of them are a good thing for everyone. But sometimes it feels like diversity is seen as a replacement for story. Maybe not in the work itself, but often in the selling of it. It comes from authors trying to 'sell' their book to an agent. It comes from agents trying to sell books to publishers, from publishers trying to sell books to readers, and readers trying to sell books to themselves.

During some recent twitter pitch sessions - where aspiring authors try to attract an agent by describing their book in twenty words - I've seen good and bad examples of including diversity.

A good pitch should sell the story. It generally involves the main character, the main conflict, and the stakes. It takes a framework, like: thief needs to steal diamond to pay off mob; and turns it into something more specific and compelling:

Bisexual jewel thief must pull off the heist of his lifetime to save his estranged girlfriend from a psychotic mafia boss ex-lover.

But I saw a few pitches that went something like this: LGBT thief must steal diamond to save lover from mafia. Diverse cast.

Now, to be fair, the story might be the same in both examples. It could be a great story that represents many diverse characters in a realistic way that adds to the complexity and believability of the storyline. But there's a difference in saying that my story is worthwhile and includes diversity, and saying my story is worthwhile because it includes diversity.

I recently saw an agent touting a successful query for a diverse book, and my honest thought was that the query was entirely generic and bland, with lots of 'save the world', 'must figure things out' catch phrases that mean nothing. But it stated that the MC was queer and that it involved a M/M relationship. I haven't read the book, but the reviews are very positive and digging deeper it sounds like a great story. I just don't like that fact that it's considered a good query because it says 'queer', whereas I'm confident it would be considered an average pitch without that word.

I'm fine with the fact that the gatekeepers in this industry need to be looking for diverse stories, and the only way that minority stories will get represented is if there's a conscious effort to find them and hold them up for attention. But I feel that there must be enough great stories out there with these elements that we don't need to start our bartering with simplistic phrases. I want agents (and everyone) to hold diversity to the same standard as the rest of the ideas that populate books. I'm confident that diversity can handle it, that writers of diversity exist with the same skills and qualities as any other writing group. Maybe the fact that it's buzzing is a step in the right direction. But buzzwords are always a shortcut, and I think we deserve better than that in the end.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fall 1st Page Blog Hop - SYNTHESIS

With the idea that you can never get too much feedback, here's another great opportunity for first page critiques, put together by the very generous Michelle Hauck. Check out her post for the full details - Michelle4Laughs. Basically it's a blog hop where everyone posts their first page and then offers a critique on several of the other participants. Let the games begin:

YA Scifi


I weave through the crowd, a blonde speck of determination in a sea of indifference. A dog-walker and his tangle of mutts blocks my path, a businessman on a phone cuts me off. Even the sidewalks in L.A. have traffic jams. Stupid cracked radiator—no way I’ll make it in time.

I leap over a yapping Pomeranian, spin around a parking meter, but force myself not to run—can’t look sweaty teaching pampered rich kids how to multiply.

Of course, if I hadn’t quit gymnastics, Mom wouldn’t force me to pick up extra tutoring shifts to pay for the car repairs. She gave some speech about learning self-reliance, but I know it’s punishment for deviating from her perfect plan for my life. Control issues much?

The glass storefront with the Haverstein Academy’s faux-Ivy-League logo looms before me. Smile, Emily, only two more years ‘til college and freedom.

A honk and squeal make me turn toward the street where a shiny chrome grill and two headlights hop the curb and barrel at me like a charging beast. On instinct, I do a back handspring, like from one of my old floor routines. My hands slam into the rough concrete, the car hurtles past my toes. I push off, still spinning, a blur of black metal in front of me. The car slams into the building in an explosion of glass and noise. The blast and my momentum throw me to the ground, breath whooshing from my lungs. What the hell just happened?


Let me know what you think, even if you're not in the #Fall1stHop

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Craft of Writing - Knowing the Game

I know a lot about writing. I don't say that to brag, because, honestly, it surprises me a little bit. And knowing about writing is not the same as being a good writer. But I've worked hard over the last four years, studying the craft, listening to what others have to say, sharing my thoughts and getting feedback, and all without spending a lot of money. The internet has been my resource and I'm happy to say that it worked.

I've been an avid reader all my life, and wrote as a hobby since I was in high school. I thought I knew the basics. I did, I just didn't know how basic my knowledge was. When I decided to get serious about my writing, to make it my career, I knew I needed to learn more. I also knew I didn't have much money and that I learn better on my own, at my own pace and in my own way, than in a formal classroom session taught by someone of dubious credentials (and it can be really hard to figure out who's a good teacher merely from their writing bio).

The internet clearly had the information I needed, but like everything on the web it's buried in an avalanche of crap you don't want. Sifting through the sheer bulk of information is the true challenge, spotting the kernels of truth and recognizing who has useful knowledge and who is merely there to make money or inflate their egos. But a little bit of common sense, a good nose for BS, and a willingness to put in time and pay attention paid off. I learned.

How do I know that I know a lot? Because these days, when I listen to other people talk, people who have the credentials and respect of the community, I understand what they're saying. When other people ask questions, I know the answer they're going to get. When I get feedback, it's nothing new. I've heard what the experts have to say, and can repeat it myself, even when they're not around.

I don't know everything. I'm not that egotistical. There's always more to learn and I understand that and continue to learn - though I have found it harder to find new sources of information. And in a way, I don't feel I need to learn more right this moment. I have enough knowledge to write a book at a publishable level. I know enough to start.

And to reiterate, knowing is not the same as doing. Just because you know the rules to a game, doesn't mean you can play. And even if you can play, it doesn't mean you can play well. Let's use basketball as our analogy (and how that relates to writing). There is an actual rule book (Chicago Manual of Style). You can study it, memorize it, know the rules. But that won't even tell you how the game is played. There are a lot of unwritten rules (don't use adverbs, show vs. tell, people hate prologues). The rules say it's a non-contact sport, but the reality is a lot of contact is allowed. You have to watch a lot of basketball to see how it's really played (read a lot of books).

Studying is great, but it's hard to learn in isolation. You pick up a lot of information if you start talking to other basketball fans and listen to their opinion on things (Absolute Write Forums). There's a good chance that many of those fans also play ball, maybe at different levels, but often aspiring to turn pro. That community not only provides information, but gives you a chance to share what you've learned, to see if your feedback is valued or if your ideas get rejected. If gives a chance to coach (critique) a little and see what the results are. For teaching something is one of the best ways to learn it.

It also helps to listen to the what the professional coaches (agents, editors) are saying. Listen to their press conferences (#tenqueries, #askanagent). You'll pick up tips about what is important in today's game vs. what you watched when growing up (start with action). You'll learn the trends, like the importance of a shooting guard that can post up (first person present tense), and the decline of of the point guard's impact (dystopians). You might also see that there's a dearth of small forwards (#mswl), so if that's your position you might want to angle for a tryout now.

And my goal is not to coach but to play, to make it to the pros. For that you need practice time (writing). And practice is different from just playing pick up games - you need to work on drills (short stories), practice different techniques (different POV's), improve your conditioning (NaNoWriMo). You need coaching from multiple sources (critique partners). Mostly, you need dedication and persistence - you don't get to Madison Square Garden overnight.

The point of this post is not that I know a lot. It's that I was able to learn a lot, and that I was able to do it without spending money, traveling to a lot of conferences, or taking expensive classes. If you can get to this post on the internet, you can get to all the resources you need. If I can do it, anyone can. I can't promise that you'll be able to dunk the ball one day, but if you work at it, you'll understand the game and be ready to play when your name is called. Good luck!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Writing, a semi-creative endeavor

The professional world of writing is a world of paradoxes. You need to follow the rules but know how to break them. You need to write everyday but you need to build a platform. You can't chase the trends but those who buy your book do. You must engage with your fans but never your reviewers. It can be tricky for a writer to figure out what's the correct thing to do and which hat you need to where for what occasion. It's far more difficult than simply writing.

This is why I'm beginning to consider writing a semi-creative endeavor. Even the most creative aspect, actually writing a story, has limitations and constraints. And outside writing, it takes a lot of disciplined, plug-in-the-pieces hard work to be a successful writer. The key thing is to find the balance that allows your creativity to shine through, combined with the nuts and bolts that put you in the best position to succeed.

Creativity is about spontaneity. It's about doing what your heart tells you and what feels right. It's a mental state full of joy, anger, exhilaration, frustration, and passion. It's what draws most people to the page, the reason we want to be writers. The realization that it isn't enough can be a let down.

For me, the answer is to learn to love both sides of the equation. Sure, I appreciate a fine meal, a masterful creation of a great chef. The combination of tastes, colors, textures; a unique blend that instills a sense of wonder and delight when the first morsel hits your palate.

But I also love In-N-Out (or McDonalds for you non-Californians). The brutal efficiency of a system that churns out food that's the same every time, put together by high school kids working on an assembly line with little or no thought towards what they're making. It's so efficient and functional that it's beautiful.

The idea of making a master chef follow a recipe book is sacrilegious. The thought of what would come out of a kitchen filled with random kids given no instructions is downright terrifying. As a writer, you have to learn when to cook and when to put your head down and do the job.

I've been putting my head down a lot lately, and after a while your neck gets stiff and it's hard to look up. It's important to stay flexible, to come back to the well that feeds your creative side, and open your eyes to the big, bold world out there. To all you fellow writers struggling with real life, and to those lost in the dreamworld of your own creation, enjoy the ride and find the beauty everywhere.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Non-writer's Guide to Interacting with Writers

Most of my followers are writers, but this post is for those of you who are not writers but might come across that magnificent species as you go about your normal day. It's okay to approach them, but here are some tips to avoid spooking the sensitive creatures.

If you are a writer, maybe you’ll want to share this with friends and family, or even the world in general, so that they can understand us a little better. Writers are a diverse group, but I’ve found it’s very common for us to bond over the treatment we get from the people in our lives who don’t really understand what being a writer is all about. With that in mind, I thought I’d put out a few guidelines for those who don’t understand, because the more you know… well, the more the better, right?

Note: these suggestions don’t apply to people who do know what they’re talking about. If you are a writer, have a deep, intimate connection with a writer, work in the writing industry, or are just a super-smart, well-informed individual, then you’ll know how to treat a writer like a proper individual.

Don’t Patronize Us

The most common reaction when you tell someone you’re a writer is: that’s nice. Either the person thinks it’s a silly thing for a grown-up to be, akin to wanting to be an actor or cowboy, or they think that writing is something everyone can do, so it’s no big deal to say you’re a writer. Both are wrong. First off, writing a book is not easy, and just because everyone can put some words down on paper doesn’t mean everyone can do it. Being able to cut someone open with a knife doesn’t make you a surgeon. Writing is a craft; writing well is difficult; writing a compelling story, a full book, takes so much more than a general understanding of grammar. It takes a vivid imagination to create a world and in depth knowledge of reality to make a fantasy world realistic. It takes a keen understanding of human behavior to create fascinating characters. It takes years of study and practice to learn pacing, scene development, authorial voice, tension elements, theme building, and dialogue that reads like real life (without actually being at all realistic). Unless you’ve actually done it yourself, you don’t understand, and if you start by assuming it’s easy – well, you know what happens when you assume…

And the idea that wanting to be a writer is a silly dream is equally frustrating. Sure, it might be a passing fantasy for some folks, but most of the writers I know take it very seriously and put in the kind of effort to realize their dream that would overwhelm most folks who are too afraid to embrace life to the fullest. We know that success is not easy, and we’re not doing this to become rich and famous (though no one would complain about it). We write because we love it, because it gives us a great deal of joy, purpose, and satisfaction. We've chosen a route that we know is difficult and put all our effort into achieving success. I wish more people would do that with their lives.

Do Ask Us About Our Book

Just like any other professional, most of us are happy to talk about our work. In fact, some of us are hard to stop once we get started. So feel free to ask us what kind of books we write. Ask us where we are in the process and what our goals are for the future - but only if you want to hear the answers. If you met a plumber, you might ask them whether they handle commercial buildings or private homes. Do they work for a national chain or run their own shop? Are they planning on opening branches or happy with their job as it is? Same type of questions apply to writing. But if you don't have the slightest interest in plumbing (or writing), then feel free to skip the questions and just wish us success.

Do Ask What We've Published

It can be a bit of an awkward question, since many writers haven't gotten published yet. But it's a fair question - just be prepared for the answer: nothing. Think of it this way, if you meet lawyer, do you ask them what cases they've won? If they've been a lawyer for a while, that might be okay. If they're fresh out of law school, it's likely to lead to a tense silence.

Corollary: Don’t Ask When Our Book Will Be Out

Most people have only the slightest idea of how the publishing world works, so they assume that once you’ve written a book – poof, it gets published. Writing a book is hard, getting it published is harder and out of our control. The traditional route involves finding an agent – that means convincing a stranger that your book is going to sell and they should work hard to help you, without any upfront payment, in hopes that you are correct. You have to convince them that you are worth their time when the other fifty people who approached them this week are not. Then you need to do the same with a publisher, getting them to spend the money to print and sell your book on the hope that the public will ultimately buy it. Even after you sell the book to the publisher it might take a year or two before it’s actually in print and available in a store. It’s not a fast process and much of it is out of our control. Trust us, we’d like to see our book published as soon as possible, but asking us when that will be is like asking us when the cable guy will show up for the installation. When we get to the point where we have an agent, a publishing contract, and a release date, we’ll be the first ones to let everyone know.

Don’t Suggest We Use Kickstarter

It always surprises me when people start to offer advice on how to publish a book even though they’ve never done it and have no idea what it really entails. Kind of like meeting a teacher and telling them about some article you read on Common Core and what they should be teaching the kids – as if they might never have heard of it or don't know how to do their job. If you are an expert on publishing, if you work in the industry, feel free to share away. Otherwise, trust that we know a little bit about the process, that maybe we've done the real research on the career we're pursuing. Just because your second cousin got their collection of poetry published by winning a local grant from the Kiwanis Club doesn’t mean that will work for our epic fantasy trilogy.

Don’t Suggest We Should Self-Publish

First, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing. But it’s not as simple as that. People offer the suggestion like you can just self-publish and sit back as your book makes all kinds of money. That’s not the reality. Sure, it only takes a few minutes to upload your manuscript and make it available as an e-book. And it doesn’t take much more to do print-on-demand. But then what? It’s one of the half a million books that just sits in the ether and does nothing. To truly self-publish means taking on the job of publishing. It means doing cover design, text layout and typographic setting, marketing and distribution. It can be a great choice for some people and if you do it well you can achieve success. But it’s like telling a lawyer that they should just start their own practice. Unless you know them well, unless you know their specialty, their industry, their financial standing, their career goals, their skills and abilities – unless you know that  and more, you have no idea if self-publishing is a good choice. So maybe you should hold back on the career advice.

Don’t Say You’d Love To Read Our Book

Don’t offer to read our book unless you really mean it. Most people throw it out there the same way they say they’d love to see your new kitchen cabinets. That means they plan to spend five minutes looking at them, nodding appreciatively, and telling you how nice they look while trying to figure out how much you paid. Unless you know what genre we write, unless you read that genre and read regularly, unless you are actually going to put in the time and do it this century, don’t bother shining us on.

Some writers feel like their book is their baby. I’ve never been fond of that analogy, but our books are incredibly important to us. We put ourselves into them. Letting someone read your work is opening up your heart to them and laying yourself bare at your most vulnerable state. If you don’t want the responsibility of taking care of such strong emotions, don’t glibly offer to do so. We’re fine with people not reading our book – we know that it’s not for everyone. But nothing’s worse than someone saying that they’ll take the time to appreciate the months or years of suffering you’ve put into crafting a story, only to blow it off like it’s nothing. Books are not kitchen cabinets, don’t treat them (or us) like such.

Don't Ask How Much Money Our Book Will Make

First, we don't know. Some books make five thousand dollars, some five million. Some never sell and don't make anything. Even those who have sold books before don't know how much the next one will make. And it's always a tacky question to ask how much money someone makes. So unless you want to follow up by revealing your salary, then show a little respect and leave the question of money off the table.

Do Treat Us Like Normal Human Beings

Writing is a job, just like any other. Writers are people who work at that job, even if they don't get paid well (or at all). If you show our career path the same respect you would any other, then we'll get along fine. Don't assume you know about it because you've read a book - just because you drive a car doesn't mean you know how to design and build one. Like most interactions, give a little thought to the other person's perspective before you speak, and everything should go fine. I love it when someone asks about what it takes to be a writer, expresses interest in how publishing works, wants to know where I get my ideas. The chance to explain my world and educate others on something that I think it really cool is appreciated. And as a writer, I'm always interested in learning more about other people and what they do. We're all students, all teachers, and if you approach interactions in both capacities we'll all be the better for it.

Anything Else?

For you non-writers, hopefully this will give you a little insight into where us writers are coming from when we interact. And for you writers - feel free to share in the comments anything I've missed. What would you like non-writers to know about us?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reading as a Writer: Prince of Thorns

I don't normally do book reviews because that's not what this blog is about. It's about writing and my journey in that world. But reading is a part of writing, and working at the craft has definitely influenced how and what I read, so it seems fair game to discuss a recent book that made me think about how my writing has influenced my reading.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is a buzzy book in the fantasy world, supposedly turning everything about the genre on its head and receiving lots of praise as well as a fair share of criticism. Most of both center on the generally evil nature of the protagonist, an anti-hero who kills, tortures, and has little or no regard for morality in any sense of the word. For me, that was a non-issue, and once you get past the apparent shock value of a story following the 'bad buy', there's some really good stuff in there and some things that made me just roll my eyes and want to stop reading. WARNING - SPOILERS AHEAD.

I like books, I like stories, that's why I write them. Some I like better than others, but rarely do I not enjoy reading a book, as long as I can lose myself in another world for a period of time, I'm happy. I've spent the last several years working on my own stories, studying both the concepts of storytelling as well as the art of writing meaningful prose, it's given me a more critical eye and different measuring sticks I can use to judge a book, but in the end it's still a good book if I can get lost in it. That's where Prince of Thorns let me down.

First, I think Lawrence is an incredibly talented writer. Great prose, vivid characters, lovely little details that show his world. I feel like if he tackled something a little more conventional I would have loved it wholeheartedly. But Prince of Thorns is built on gimmick, more concerned with trying to subvert convention than really tell a good story. I was all too often aware of the author using some author trick to accomplish something, rather than the world developing as it should.

The first and most glaring problem for me was the voice. The story is told from the first person Point of View of a fourteen-year-old boy (except when it flashes back to when he was ten) named Jorg. Not once did I feel like I was in the mind of a fourteen-year-old.Now, this isn't your average kid, and his life included some pretty gruesome things done to him and done by him, so a certain world-weariness would fit. But a brutal, psychologically damaged kid is still different from an evil monster of an adult. Lawrence took great pains to explore Jorg's background and justify how he ended up where he was and how he was. And Jorg does have a great voice, just not believable for his age.

This isn't a YA book and I can understand why most readers would give him a pass and just accept that the voice works for the story. But I do write YA; I work very hard to try to make the voice match the age of my characters and it can be incredibly challenging. To me, it felt like Lawrence just didn't want to work that hard. I'm sure it was much easier to create the adult voice of a hard-bitten man and throw it on top of the fourteen-year-old character. The young age of Jorg does add to the story, but it's not a necessary part, it just makes it more shocking - that a kid could be so bad - and shock-value seems to be a lot of what he was going for.

Another problem that I consider lazy writing is the use of multiple deus-ex-machina plot developments. To his credit, Lawrence created a story were seemingly random or incredibly lucky (unrealistic) happenings are explained by 'magic'. A key trait of the main character is his rash nature and constant rushing into danger against all odds and common sense. He always survives, even when he doesn't - he's killed once and just comes back to life because, well, magic. You can get away with a little of this in epic fantasy - we all acknowledge that the 'chosen one' needs some lucky breaks to defeat the stronger enemy. But when that's the core of the plot, that the MC doesn't need a plan, or rational thought, or even to actually survive, then it takes all the tension out of it. Most of the set up seemed to just give the author another chance to point out how immoral the character was and that he survives through strength of will - his evilness/will to power is just that strong.

Again, I write plots, including epic fantasy. I even use magic as an underlying force in some of my stories. But I work really hard to make things plausible, to have the characters act within the rules of their world and for there to be consequences to their choices. Without that, the tension fades. By the end of Thorns, I found myself laughing at the implausible happenings and just waiting for the next silly instance, knowing that it would all work out for Jorg regardless of what he, or anyone else, did. That's not really what you want in a dark and 'shocking' saga.

I think in my younger days I would have enjoyed the book more. Been more willing to overlook these faults, or not even be able to articulate what was wrong. But I'm a writer now, and I hold myself to a high standard. I can't help but hold others to that same level. While I do admire Lawrence's skills, and admit that on many levels he's a better writer than I am, I am a little disappointed in the book and don't plan to continue the series. I'll wait for him to write a good story without falling back on gimmick and shock value - that I'd love to read.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yet another Amazon vs. Hachette blog post

One of the most talked about topics in the publishing world these days is the ongoing contract dispute between Amazon and Hachette Publishing. Only those on the inside know the exact stakes that are being fought over, but enough info has leaked for most everyone to have a sense of the argument - though knowing facts has never been a prerequisite for stating an opinion on the internet. I am not an insider, I'm not involved in this fight in any material way, and I don't think my opinion is really worth adding to the scrum, but I do have something to say about the economics involved.

What has surprised me about the discussion is the fact that so many writers have taken sides, defending one or the other combatants as their champion, as if the fight is actually over the souls of the creative folks it affects. It's not. The fight is over money, profits for million/billion dollar companies. If anyone thinks that either side is on a noble quest, they really don't understand business.

That's not to say that the outcome won't affect writers. It will. And knowing that, it might very well behoove a writer to choose the side they think will benefit them the most and throw their support that way. Like everyone else in a free market system, we're supposed to look out for our own self interest. The problem is that different people legitimately have different interests and thus different (and quite correct) opinions over which side is 'right'.

Now Entering the Ring

The fight itself is over who gets to control the pricing of books, especially ebooks. Neither Amazon nor Hachette is suggesting that writers get that control; both want control of the final retail price of books published by Hachette (price control in general is a different topic - this battle is strictly over Hachette books). It's a simple truth that when a writer works with a publisher, they effectively give up control of pricing in the hopes that the publisher handles the business side of things in a way that maximizes their (the company's) profits which also maximizes the author's royalties. Hachette is fighting to do exactly that. So is Amazon.

As an economics major, I simplify the differences this way. Hachette's model (and that of the big publishers as a whole) is to find a 'select' group of writers, chosen for their quality and money-making potential, and sell their work at a premium that distinguishes it from random fare. Amazon is a retailer, and their business model is to sell as much of everything as possible, at the lowest price possible, to maximize market share. It will generate more revenue but likely distribute it over a larger number of products (thus diminishing the return on any individual product = fewer royalties for each author). Which side is best for you depends mostly on whether you are (or hope to be) in the 'select' group of published authors.

The War, not the Battle

There are some bigger questions at stake beyond self interest that I think are worth talking about, and once again an individual's position is likely to be determined where they stand in relation to the behemoths. It's worth considering how outcomes affect writers as a whole and what type of system we want to have in place to allow authors to earn enough to provide for the continued creation of fine pieces of literature (and by that, I mean good books of any stripe). For the free market is never really free and rarely arrives at the best solution for all of society - anyone who says differently hasn't taken a freshman Econ class.

The problem with the classical publisher model is that there are barriers to entry - the high cost of publishing lots of books - which creates limited competition. This allows publishers to act as gate-keepers and control the product, a good and bad thing. Good in  that it raises prices to a point where authors can make a living and continue to produce quality work. Bad in that it takes the choice of what is considered quality out of the consumer's direct control. As a consumer (reader), I appreciate that a big-publishing-company book is going to have a standard of quality that separates it from the large amount of garbage that gets produced by writers in general (and yes, I realize I'm one of those garbage producers at the moment). I also think that the system could expand to be more inclusive and I believe self-publishing has widened the range of materials available to the market. I think things are trending in a good direction, but ultimately I do want controls on the marketplace and royalties high enough so support those creating decent work - i.e. I want to be able to find high quality widgets made of steel, with good craftmanship, not just cheap plastic ones mass-produced in China.

The problem with Amazon is the future. While cheap prices may seem like a boon for the consumer, the truth is a little darker than that. Amazon has a huge market share and uses it's power to sell books under cost, thus driving out competitors (Barnes & Noble anyone?) and ultimately leading towards a monopoly. Even people who haven't had freshmen Econ should know that monopolies don't create optimum results for society. And Amazon is actually taking control on both ends - they are the single largest purchaser of ebooks from publishers (a monopsony), thus allowing them to dictate at what price they buy, regardless of what price is necessary for the survival of the producer of the goods (authors). Those who back the free market pricing of Amazon need to take a deep look and decided if the company's goals really match that ideal in the long term.
[A simple yet compelling write up of the situation by agent Andy Ross is found here, actually written years before the current situation with Hachette.]

And the Decision goes to...

There's no simple right or wrong here, no one answer that all authors should be fighting for. I just don't like to see authors fighting each other in a battle where the the true contestants are fighting for their own bottom line. Don't for a second think that a corporation ever has your best interest at heart - their only responsibility is to earn profits for the shareholders, and any benefits to anyone else are incidental. While a free market can lead to the best result for society, it's only a theoretical construct, about as meaningful as freshman physics calculations where we ignore friction and a rolling ball never stops. Book-selling has never been a free market and for many reasons it may be best that it not be. The question is what type of restraint ultimately serves the best interest of those interested in writing and reading good books. I'll let each person make their own call on that.


The fight is over. Who won? Who knows. The details of the settlement between Amazon and Hachette haven't been released. Both claim victory. Personally, I think everyone has lost a little, especially us authors.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Story Notes: In the Beginning

My storytelling started when I was a kid, even if it was just to myself. I would come up with a character and take them on adventures in my head, developing long stories over a period of months. I would also come up with a backstory - I knew all about how that character came to be, their likes and dislikes, what happened them as a child, what led to the world that they currently lived in. As authors, creators of stories, it's natural for us to have a grand sense of the people and world we create. The problem is when we try to share all that with the reader.

A story is not a world, it's a discreet series of events centered around a specific happening. A good story needs to stay focused on what is relevant to itself and nothing more, revealing the past only as it comes up and pertains to the present. A story should start at its beginning, not at its set-up. Think of it in the context of history: the Revolutionary War is a story, but you don't need to know how Native Americans came to North America by way of the Bering Land Bridge to understand it. You don't need to follow George Washington through his childhood (that would be a different story, maybe an interesting one, but not fundamentally about the War).

You'd think it would be easy to start a story where it begins, but you'd be wrong. It's so very easy to start earlier, to share all the wonderful backstory with the reader, to give them all the necessary information they'll need to put the events of the story into the context that they need. But it doesn't actually help the story; it doesn't enlighten the reader or draw them in, more likely it bores them. People want to read a story, not world-building.

So how do you do this? How do writers know where to begin? A commonly given piece of advice is to not worry about it. Start writing, tell your story as you want, and then let your test readers point out where they think the story begins. I think that's works for finding the beginning because ultimately the reader is the best judge of a story, but it also makes more work for the author because they need to change that beginning, and possibly a lot of the story after it as well.

You see, all that world-building and contextual background is useful stuff, and often times essential for the reader to understand the story. It just needs to be delivered during the story itself, woven into the present and not delivered beforehand. As a writer, I find it best to be able to do this as I go, hopefully saving some time and effort during the revising process.

Another common piece of advice is to start with action, with something happening. It doesn't need to be spectacular, it doesn't even need to be physical. It just needs to be something that moves the plot forward, something that is part of the actual story. Since I focus on characters in my writing, I think about what is changing in that person's life that makes this the start of a new chapter - the start of this story. What precipitates the rest of the events? Do they meets someone new, lose a job, learn an important secret?

Let's say we're writing a story about a high school girl who goes out for the school play and falls for the lead actor while learning valuable lessons about life. The story could start at try-outs, or it could start in the cafeteria when the lead actress acts all bitchy and our protagonist decides to win the lead role in the next play. It doesn't start on a normal day when she goes to school and we meet her cool friends who are later important; it doesn't start with a breakfast scene where we learn about her troubled family life. Those are things that are important to her life, but their current actions aren't part of the plot for this story. We can meet her family when they learn about her trying out for the play; we can meet her friends when they show up to cheer her on.

Start with something that connects to the core element of the plot, even if it isn't obviously clear up front how it connects. Trust that the reader is okay without knowing all the backstory and they will trust you to fill things in as you go along. Readers want to know that they are on a path to something, that they've started a story, not history.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Lessons Learned from WriteOnCon 2014 - part 2

Last time I talked about what I had learned from the critique forums at WriteOnCon (read that post HERE for a refresher and more info on WriteOnCon itself). I do feel that the critiques were the best part of the conference for me, but I also participated in the Twitter Pitch sessions - sort of. I think I learned quite a bit in the process but my pitch was never selected so I didn't actually get any feedback and no agent ever laid eyes on it.

First, if you're not familiar with Twitter pitch sessions, you're not alone. I've been on and off Twitter for a couple years and never really connected with the medium. I don't like the 140 character limit and while I have come across a lot of cool people and learned interesting things about the publishing industry and agent preferences, in general it's just a giant time-suck that doesn't interest me. I have known for a while that a number of pitch contests exist on Twitter (#Pitchwars and #Pitmad to name a couple) and that they've actually helped people land agents, but I didn't put much stock in those facts. That's the background I brought with me to WriteOnCon.

The general idea of a contest is for people to submit a pitch for their manuscript through a tweet, tagging the appropriate contest so that whoever (hopefully an agent) is following that hashtag will see the pitch and respond. The WriteOnCon version was moderated, so everyone who wanted submitted a Twitter Pitch to the conference and they randomly selected which one would get tweeted and the agent would respond with feedback to each pitch. If yours didn't get chose (like mine), then you could at least see how agents were responding to the other pitches. I think I learned a few things from that process.

I now realize that twitter pitches are a useful and relatively easy way to try to attract the attention of an agent. I also confirmed (in my own mind) that tweets are short and relatively meaningless, showing the arbitrary nature of this industry in its results. It's good and it's bad, but it's part of the game you have to play.

The Good

A well-crafted tweet can outline the basic story idea and show some writing skill. But the responses of the agents didn't really depend on the quality, completeness, or clarity of the pitch. Poorly written pitches that didn't explain anything were shot down quickly, but most of the time the agents seemed to respond to the category of the pitch more than the content. If it was a fantasy re-telling, and the agent was looking for a fantasy re-telling, then they liked it. If it was urban fantasy, and that agent wasn't real psyched on the genre, then it was a pass. The quality of the pitch didn't matter much.

My take away was that it's important to lay out what your cool story idea is. Pretty much everyone has a cool story idea - that's actually the easy part of writing. Executing that story, putting your own touches and flair on an idea, that's the hard part. But you don't need to show that in a tweet. One agent asked for a partial of a tweet that simply said the story was a re-telling of a classic fairy tale, not bothering to share what made this version different. If your cool idea falls into what the agent is looking for, then they'll take a closer look. If not, doesn't really matter how cool you make your idea sound.

The Bad

The bad really goes along with the good - there isn't a whole lot you can do to help your pitch if it's not what the agent is looking for. Let's face it, some people come up with a catchy description that fits in a tweet, and some ideas are easily explained in such a small time frame (Buffy meets Godzilla), but that doesn't work for everyone and everything. I don't feel that writing skill is the same as Twitter catchiness, I don't believe that every story concept really breaks down into a mashup of two popular movies. More importantly, I don't believe that agents really do either.

Because what I saw come out of the pitch contest for the 'winners' was a request for a query and sample pages. Pretty much the same thing you get when you submit a blind query. Yeah, you might gain a little more advantage in that they will (most likely) look at your actually pages, but if your query letter, where you get a full page to explain and impress, doesn't do that job then it's highly unlikely that an agent would be interested in your sample pages anyway. So I'm entirely unconvinced that getting interest in your twitter pitch is that big an advantage and those who've had success through it would most likely have found success through the standard query route as well. That being said, any additional advantage is a good thing, and if it doesn't take much effort then it's worth it.

The Final

So it's worth taking a little time to come up with a twitter pitch for your project. It's worth a little time trying it out in an appropriate contest, but I don't recommend thinking of it as your best shot. It's more like one more arrow you're firing at the target, and the more you put in the air the more likely one will hit the bullseye. Take a look at the agents who might be reading your pitch and make sure they're someone you'd want to query. Clever is good, but really try to get across the basic story element and what makes your idea cool. If they like that, they're likely to want to read more.

In my efforts to come up with a Twitter pitch for SYNTHESIS, the book I'm querying at the moment, I came across an incredibly helpful blog by Gina Denny with 10 tips for writing a pitch. Following that advice, and trusting my own instincts, I came up with several versions. Let me know which one you like the most.

1. Chased by Alexander the Great, aided by Achilles, half-alien Emily wields ancient technology to rescue her mom.
2. Ageless aliens, Alexander the Great, Achilles. Emily half-human, caught between warring factions, wants to rescue mom.
3. Surprise, your boyfriend’s an alien. Your mom too. Half alien Emily is hunted for her DNA while she tries to rescue her mom.
4. Ageless aliens among us. Emily the first human hybrid. Caught between warring factions she just wants to save her mom.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lessons Learned from WriteOnCon 2014 - part 1

WriteOnCon 2014 is officially in the books and I thought I'd summarize a few things I'm taking away from it. This isn't really anything new, and it applies to life in general as much as this particular online conference, so even if you have no idea what WriteOnCon is, these ideas still hold. (But if you write kidlit, you should definitely check it out next year!)

WriteOnCon consists of two major parts (though it had more in the past). First, and opening up a week ahead of the conference dates, are the critique forums, where attendees post their work - a query, the first 250 words, and the first 5 pages. Everyone critiques each other and if you get your stuff up there early it gives you the chance to make edits from the feedback so you're ready for the ninjas. Ninja agents are the other big draw to the forums - industry professionals troll the boards and make comments or even request submissions based on your work. There's a list of agents attending, but you don't know exactly who is commenting unless they private message you. And not everyone gets ninja comments - they pick and choose who and how they want to interact.

The other aspect of the conference are the 'live' events that happen over two days - the actual conference dates. Mostly this consists of twitter pitch sessions with an agent or editor, but they also had a couple of Q&A sessions with industry folks. Both the twitter pitches and questions are moderated and chosen at random, so there's no guarantee your stuff will show up. But you can follow along in real time and read the feedback from the pros for those who get selected.

My twitter pitch never saw the light of day, so I'm going to start off with what I learned from the forums - which really is general advice for critiquing and interacting with other writers.

Be positive!

This is actually a hard one for me - I'm used to critiques that focus on what needs to be improved and can come off as rather harsh. But everyone needs encouragement, especially when you are dealing with what amounts to a bunch of strangers. Not only is it nice to be nice, but people are more willing to critique your work if you've given them a positive critique. WriteOnCon is very good at being a place of support and positivity.

Be Honest

Positivity is not the same as flattery - you should speak up when something doesn't work for you or you see something in another's work that you consider a problem. A good critique is always going to point out things that can be improved. But take some extra time to say what you liked and what they are doing well. Then make suggestions for HOW to improve things - don't just say it sucks.

Be Specific

This is where I feel WriteOnCon can often miss. A lot of the feedback I see is very general - more voice, watch your punctuation. Even if someone wants to improve, they may not know how to do it. I try really hard to point out specific examples of things I think are wrong and then make concrete suggestions of how to improve it. I tell people where I think they should include a more personal expression, or highlight phrases that don't work for me. I don't expect everyone to just take my advice and make every change the way I suggest, but I think it's much easier for them to see exactly what I'm saying and deal with it however they want.

Be Selective

Ignoring advice is an important part of taking critique. Not everyone is right, especially a bunch of strangers of unknown experience and background. Heck, I've even seen agents give contradictory feedback to a person. How do you know who to listen to? For me, I always start with patterns. If lots of people are saying the same thing, then they're probably right. Second, I read the writing of the person who critiques me - if I like their writing then following their advice is likely to help me improve (though not always). But at the end of the day, I'm my own writer. I get to decide what I want my writing to be. The important thing is to understand the suggestions you've been given before you dismiss them.

Be Patient

Another pattern that I noticed this year was in the rate of revisions. Those that made quick revisions, and did it repeatedly, often after a single comment from a single person, normally wasted a lot of time. They would fix one thing but not another; they would change one line and not realize it screwed up the next line; they would spin themselves in circles changing things to please people and end up with a garbled mess. More than once someone would respond to my feedback on their fourth revision by saying that they had done what I suggested in version 2. The format of WriteOnCon, and the deadline to fix things before the agents show up, lend itself to rushing people. But that often creates more work and a worse result. Take in the feedback, wait for multiple eyes on your work, let it digest a bit, then incorporate what you think is best. This is a marathon, not a sprint; pace yourselves accordingly.


Overall, I had a very positive experience with WriteOnCon this year. I got some excellent feedback and feel I was able to incorporate it into both my query and my first chapter in a way that improved my work. I only got the briefest of feedback from a ninja agent - they thought my premise was interesting but I could cut a little voice out of the query (the feedback was definitely split on that point since several folks loved the lines the agent said to cut :), but in the end I came out stronger than when I entered. That's what you want out of any experience.

I also put together my first twitter pitch, even though it wasn't chosen for any of the live events. Now I have that in my pocket and next time I'll talk more about what I got out of those twitter sessions.

Friday, August 22, 2014

WriteOnCon: Fun, Feedback, & Ninjas!

Hey all, I'm busy over at WritOnCon and wanted to make sure everyone's heard about it - and hopefully heading over there as well. It's a fun online conference for writers of kidlit (basically from picture books through New Adult, with the all-important Young Adult in there). The official conference dates for 2014 are Aug. 26 & 27, but the truth is the fun has already started.

The main feature of WriteOnCon is the Forum. In addition to places for general discussions and contact-making, there are specific sub-forums for people to post their queries and samples of their work. Everyone gives each other feedback, which is always nice, but the best part is when the ninjas show up. Ninja agents, that is - undercover agents who read through the queries, offer critiques and perhaps even request a manuscript or two. The chance to get feedback from industry professionals (and it's an impressive list) is invaluable. I have my query, first 250 words, and first five pages from SYNTHESIS up there. It's already helped me tweak things a little and I'm hoping for some ninja attention this year.

There will be more events on the actual conference dates, include twitter pitches and some live sessions with the agents. But even if you can't make those dates, even if you don't get any ninja lovin', it's still a great place to meet some incredibly talented writers and make good connections. And best of all: It's totally FREE! You're welcome to donate to help cover the costs of running the site, but there's no pressure to do so. How awesome is that?

Hope to see folks over there - I'm BBBurke (not too hard to figure out :)

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Birthplace of Harry Potter

I recently returned from a vacation in Scotland which included a couple days sight-seeing in Edinburgh. I spent my junior year of college at the University, and it was fun to visit old haunts and reacquaint myself with beautiful city. It's the capital of Scotland, founded in the twelfth century, with the castle and many buildings on the Royal Mile dating from the sixteenth century. It's role in the history of Scotland, and its present importance to the country on the verge of independence, cannot be over-stated. It's also where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter.

Specifically, she wrote the first book mostly at the Elephant House, a little coffee shop just down from the castle. That fact is now displayed quite prominently on the shop's front window. Quite a number of places mention their connection to Harry Potter, and we frequently saw tour groups being lead by someone in a wizard's robes. These groups mingled with the regular tours at places like St. Giles Cathedral and Greyfriar's Kirk, but the guides didn't point out the nation-changing weddings or historical characters (like Deacon Brodie, the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), instead they pointed to tombstones bearing names that matched fictional characters in the Potter series, or places J.K. was believed to have visited or gained inspiration from. It made me reflect a little on how a children's book will fit into the history texts of the future.

I have to admit, I still don't understand why Harry Potter was/is such a phenomenon. I read the first book years ago and stopped there because it didn't appeal to me. After my visit to Edinburgh I picked up the rest of the series and am working through them - got a long way on the flight back home. I do think it's a good middle-grade book, and the stories are well-crafted, but it seems too simple, too generic and stereotypical, with rather ordinary prose, to be held up as a classic of our times (though I have no doubt it will be considered so if only because of its unprecedented popularity).

Now, I'm not trying to bash anyone who likes the books. I have no problem with adults reading children's literature. Everyone can enjoy whatever they want and I think that Harry Potter expanded the world of readers and has done great things for books in general. It's just the analysis of what makes one book so successful while others languish in obscurity that's so hard to figure out - probably impossible, but worth the effort to learn what I can and bring it to my own writing.

Greyfriars Kirkyard
For instance, Harry is a rather undeserving hero in many ways. He was born to greatness - didn't do anything to earn it. He's got powerful magic right from the first book, even though he doesn't seem to work that hard in school. He's a natural flier, winning Quidditch matches right off the bat. He constantly breaks rules and does careless things that put himself and his friends (and the whole world) in danger. But at the end of the day he shows some moral fortitude and saves the day, so all is well. I see how this appeals to a twelve-year-old, but don't us adults know a little better?

And the rest of the characters are equally thin, especially the bad guys. Could the Dursleys be any more terrible people? Could Malfoy be any more generic of a bully? Why do Ron and Hermione reset to the same personality after each book, showing little growth or change from what happened last year? And why are all the adults so clueless? Even Dumbledore, who, at the end of every book, seems to have known what was happening all along, never figures out all the stupid things the kids are doing that could end in serious harm. Wizards are so clever but they can't figure out how a telephone works or how many stamps to put on an envelope. And how come the best wizarding school in the land has teachers that are totally incompetent or just plain awful human beings when it comes to interacting with students? It's all funny and silly but even as a child I would have been annoyed with the lack of depth and cut and dried good vs. evil message. Magic beans and silly candy only take you so far.

Heriot School (Hogwarts?)
So what is it that broadened the appeal of these books and swept up the world their rush to greatness? What is it that J.K. buried behind simple words and cookie-cutter characters that brings out such passion and inspires tours in a city with so much more to offer? I don't have a definite answer to that, but I think it's how she tapped into several fundamental story concepts that we all know and love. The orphan child whose real parents did love him; the mystery of who is the bad guy and how'd they do it in each book; the dream of an ordinary person who can save the day, not through hard work but just by being himself and so very special; and above all a world of magic that is full of wondrous things, even if they make no sense. A great mix of things to hook different people in different ways.

I do understand many of the elements that lead to the success of Harry Potter, but I ultimately think that success at that level comes from somewhere else. It's random, a cultural phenomenon that has no complete explanation and certainly no repeatable path to follow. Nothing deserves such success, and it certainly isn't earned, but in this day and age there are far worse things that rise to the top in various media. Harry Potter isn't for me, but it's a good book (or several). J.K. seems as good as person as any, and better than many, to be rewarded by the capriciousness of fate. I'll keep writing what appeals to me and hope it merits at least a little success.