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.