Thursday, August 30, 2012

GUTGAA? Gearing Up to Get an Agent

I'm fairly new to the writers' world on the internet. I've been joining forum discussions and searching around for information/support/entertainment on blogs and websites. It's an attempt to connect to the wider world of writing which I want to be part of. So far it's been great. I've learned a lot, met some good people (I assume they're people - hard to know for sure on the internet), and I do feel more connected. WriteOnCon was an awesome online conference that garnered me some agent feedback on my story idea. Here's another event that I recently discovered and am looking forward to: GUTGAA

Deana Barnhart

GUTGAA stands for Gearing Up to Get an Agent. It's a blogfest/contest/event/month-long celebration in September 2012. It's a chance for authors to get together and help each other work towards getting an agent - a significant step on the path towards publication. Deana Barnhart has set this up and while I'm not sure exactly what to expect, it sounds like it will be fun. Lots of great agents so we'll see if I can get more feedback. Every little bit helps.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The blank page - friend or foe?

One of the most daunting things a writer can face is a blank page (or blank screen these days). That pure white represents the ultimate freedom, a canvas waiting to be drawn upon. But where to start? What words do I put down? What if my brush strokes are clumsy and halting. The whole world lies before you while also being on your shoulders. It's a freedom and burden that is exhilarating and terrifying. So how do you handle that? Here's my experience, draw upon it as you will.

When I got serious about writing I started with short stories. It was good practice and I could work out most everything in my head. Then I'd sit down and just type it out. No problem. Once it was all done I could see the complete thing and make changes and edits. The screen never worried me.

When I was ready to start my first novel I again had the whole idea worked out in my head. But for a novel, this just meant the plot. I couldn't work out all the little details - that would be too much to hold onto. But I figured all I needed was the story, so once I was confident in that I sat down to write. That's when I realized my mistake.

The first scene was the two main characters meeting. In the scope of the plot, that's all it was about. But when I tried to write it, I didn't know what to write. I knew where they were meeting, I knew all about each character, but that was it. Was it day or night? Did they just say hello? Was it an average day? Was one of them busy or stressed? What were they wearing? How much information would they share with each other? I just didn't know. So the blank page won that round.

I stepped back and went to my outline. No longer was it a simple fleshing out of the story. I refined it, made it more detailed. I broke it into chapters and developed a summary of what, exactly, happened in each. It became a series of short stories that interconnected. But I could handle a short story; I could wrap my head around the individual chapters one at a time. So when I sat down to start the novel the next time it was easy, just write the first chapter; it was all set in my head.

But after completing that first chapter I realized it wasn't very good. The character's voice was off. It didn't convey all the complexity of thought I wanted. It didn't lead me where I wanted to go for the next chapter. The facts were right, but it didn't read well. Basically, it sucked.

So I tried to rewrite it. Not edit it, but start over. Again, same result: weak writing. I didn't want to go on until I got it right. The start is the most important thing - everyone know that. Why write a whole book when the opening will lose any potential readers. The page was no longer blank, but I was still defeated.

Then I came to the great epiphany. Not that this will be news to any experienced writer, but it was a major breakthrough for me. My writing sucks, but that's OK. Don't worry about it, just keep writing. And as I wrote I started to find my character's voice. Each chapter got better, and my outline allowed me to fly through them. When I finished the whole thing (in two months) I came back to that first chapter and erased it. I now knew what I wanted to say and where it needed to go. I rewrote it with the experience and history of an entire book behind me and it worked.

     A bead of sweat rolled off his brow, down his cheek, and caught on the mask hooked behind his ears. He tilted his head to get the following drops to flow to the side as he tried to block out the wail of the boy’s mother. He couldn’t see anything through the flow of blood and he knew this wasn’t going to work. He needed help.

So now I don't let blank page intimidate me. I can fill it up with anything. As long as I'm writing, it will improve. And anything I wrote in the past I can change. The world does lie open before me and that's a wondrous thing.

"That blank page is a magic box." J.J. Abrams, TED Talks

Thursday, August 23, 2012

First sale!

Well, I was going to wait a little bit until I have everything sorted and time to deal with it, but I just can't wait. I made my first sale today!

I've self-published a series of fantasy novellas as eBooks (Necessary Evil). The first in the series is free, the next two are $2.99. I uploaded them to Smashwords first yesterday morning. Then I uploaded them to Amazon in the afternoon. Smashwords is immediate, but Amazon takes a while to check the books, get them listed, creates an author page, etc. And then I had to update my website with all the new links. So I wanted to wait until Amazon is all set before I announce everything to the world.

But apparently I didn't have to. In the first twenty-four hours I've had about 70 free downloads at Smashwords (Amazon doesn't let you set the price to free, but they hopefully will match the free price at Smashwords sometime soon). And now I've had my first paying customer buy the second book in the series (The Cost of Life). It's only a couple bucks in my pocket, but I'll take it.

I'm going to be out of town and busy for the next couple weeks, but I expect to devote a bit of time to getting the word out on these when I can. But it's nice that the process has already started without me.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Self Publishing a Novel

There's a lot of different opinions out there on the whole self-publishing vs. trade publishing debate. And the self publishing world is changing very quickly. What it means now, and it's potential for success, is quite a bit different than five years ago. No one really knows how things are going to look five years from now. And I certainly don't have any special insight. But I am working on self publishing some stuff, so let me tell you why and how and maybe that will be instructive as a single data point among the many.

I have no connection to the writing world. I don't hang out with famous authors, I have no formal literary education, I haven't done any writing workshops or attended any conferences. Truthfully, I'm not very interested in networking. I just want to write. Publishing is simply a way to pay for what I want to do. It's a necessary evil in my opinion, and I understand necessity. Luckily, the most important thing for getting published is writing a good story, which is where I like to spend my time and focus.

But you can write til the cows come home. How do you break into that publishing world? I talked about that in a previous post, but the traditional route all involves gate keepers - people you have to win over before they decide to get you published. It's not an easy thing to do, and having a good book doesn't magically open doors. It takes a lot of time and effort and some luck along the way. But self publishing avoids that. It allows you to decide when your work is ready. It puts your work directly in the hands of the public. And it gives you a greater cut of the revenue since there aren't as many fingers in the pie.

Self  publishing can mean a few different things, but ultimately they all mean that you, the writer, are the one who decides to publish. You can upload an electronic book, you can create a print on demand (POD) book, or you can pay to have someone print copies of your book. You do the work and/or pony up the money to make it happen. But as long as you're willing to do that, no one can stop you. But then you also have to do the marketing and the distribution, which is where the traditional publishing houses have a huge advantage. Self publisher doesn't mean you're a writer who uploads their stuff to the internet; it means you have to take on all the responsibilities of a publisher and do them well if you wish to succeed.

So how do you know if you should self publish or if you should try to get with a trade publisher? It depends on your goals, your time frame, and what it is your trying to publish. Let me use myself as an example. The first novel I wrote is a contemporary love story. It's very commercial and mainstream. I think it could be very successful if it was marketed correctly. Thing is, I have no real good way to market it. I don't have connections in that genre. And by its nature it would need a very wide distribution. It's a good book club book, but some unknown author self-publishing their first book isn't going to get it in any book clubs.Neither would I be able to get it reviewed in any major journals, or have it read by other authors for endorsement. Quite simply, I lack the resources to publish this book in a way that would maximize its chances for success. So I'm trying to find an agent for it who can help me get it to a publisher who does have those resources.

But I've also written a series of fantasy novellas (Necessary Evil). They're too long to sell to magazines as short stories, but no trade publisher would waste their time on something too short to be a novel. People just don't buy single novellas at the book store, and the collections they buy normally come multiple authors or well established ones. So trying to get these stories published through one of the big houses would be a waste of time.

On the other hand, I can publish these novellas myself. Novellas do better in electronic format - they can be priced cheaper and there is no print cost to worry about. Fntasy is a smaller genre with it's own rules and conventions and I do belong to some fantasy writing forums, so I have some avenues to publicize my books. And I know lots of people who read fantasy. Ultimately it's word of mouth that sells books, so if I can get it started, and people like what they read, then there's a good chance they will sell. And if not? Well, it doesn't actually cost anything to self publish eBooks. It just takes time and effort, which I can afford to throw around these days.

In addition to marketing, you have to do some of the other publisher stuff as well. I've designed the covers for these books myself. They are simple, but in the eBook world that's not a problem. As long as they clearly represent the type of book they are, people will accept it. Print books need to be more eye catching to hook people in the store. Editing is another task that falls on the self-publisher, so I've spent a fair bit of time on that end and I'm confident my work is as error free as possible. Could a professional editor do better? Probably. But will the reader of a cheap novella care if the prose is not perfect? Not really. As long as the typos are gone and the language flows well, the story is what matters.

The current novel I'm working on is a Young Adult book. Which way will I go with that? I'm not sure yet. Again, it's a concept that I think could do very well with a marketing department behind it and a distribution through the major stores. But young adults are well known to buy things through the internet, and they have a nice tendency to share what they like with their friends (read: potential customers). But again, it's getting the book out there in the first place that is the challenge so I will have to see how I feel about my networking/marketing abilities in that particular genre when the time comes.

So I'll be making my foray into the self publishing world any day now (just need to format the novellas properly and get them uploaded). I don't expect immediate success. Most self published books sell less than 200 copies. But I don't see any down side to trying with work that I would never be able to get published by an actual publisher. And I do like the idea of being able to control the whole process myself, of not having to change the ending to make it sell in Topeka (there's some darkness in these books), of getting it out directly to the public right away and hearing what they think. It's going to be an interesting experience and I expect to learn a lot. That alone will be worth it and I'll share what I learn right here when I learn it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Internet, argument and rhetoric

So one of the most useful things I've found for learning about the craft of writing is internet forums. Learning from the experiences of others who have gone there before me (a couple general ones I like are Absolute Write and Creative Writing Forums). But sometimes internet forums degenerate into, well, internet forums. People misconstrue each others' posts, short replies get edgy, feelings get hurt, flame wars begin. I try to stay out of such things, but one recent topic stuck in my head. Not so much the topic it was on, but the nature of arguments themselves. Since my thoughts are tangential to the thread I didn't bother to share them - I didn't want to get hit by any shrapnel. But since this page is all my own, I will take the space to ramble on.  This is going to get a little philosophical and academic, so turn back now if that frightens you.

The particulars of the post are not really relevant. It generally goes like this. Someone poses a question. Someone else gives their opinion. Someone else gives a different opinion. Someone takes offense that their opinion is being questioned (doesn't really matter who or where in the chain this happens). They emphasize that it's just their opinion and they are entitled to it. Someone else accuses them of misconstruing the offending post. Someone points out that the offensive post is offensive regardless of the poster's intention. Now someone is offended that someone else is offended. Everyone tries really hard to show that their opinion is right. No one knows what the original question was.

The key really lies in the approach to an argument (even the word is loaded: argument. I could just as easily say 'discussion'). Most people enter an argument/discussion with an honest attempt to just share their opinion. But secretly we all want to be 'right'. People don't have to agree with our opinion, but they have to admit that our premise and argument are 'correct'; that we have a factual basis and thus our conclusions are logical and right. But that's simply not true. Arguing what's logically true is called rhetoric. But the problem is that rhetoric does not lead to what is 'right'.

Logic can be used to argue for (or against) anything. The secret in rhetoric is to set up your basis, the facts that are 'given' and then proceed from there. If you choose the right basis, you can logically lead anywhere (examples below). The problem with internet debate is that each person is starting from a different basis but no one realizes that. Everyone thinks they start at the same point, the original question. So we should all end up at the same place. But everyone secretly (and unknowingly) brings their own bias to the basis, so once the argument ensues we are all making logical statements that are true for us but not the others. It's an intractable problem.

There are two good ways to handle this (and lots more really bad ways). You can 'win' the argument by getting people to agree to your basis. It's easier than you might think - you just have to spell it out and present it clearly. People agree to it because it isn't instantly obvious where it will lead. If your basis is accepted and you follow your logic you will come to the desired solution. You win. But it won't convince anyone (no one gets won over by logic, not on the internet). So ultimately it accomplishes nothing. But it can be fun.

The other (better?) option is to realize that the goal is not to win. At least, it's not to beat the person you are arguing with. The goal is to state your basis and your logic so that anyone who agrees with your basis will agree with your conclusion. The goal is to show what the logical outcome of an assumption is (there are no facts - bases are always assumptions). Even better, try to understand the basis of your opponent. If you can understand how they are right, then you fully understand the question. Then you can decide what is your 'right'. People will always choose what they want to be right, but if you know how you got there you will be much more confident in it (and much more likely to change it when needed). Because 'right' is a fluid thing, and those that understand that and can follow it will be much happier and less likely to need to argue.

Example 1:
Men are better than women. And I can prove it. Start with a basis: men are different than women. Do you accept that? They have different anatomies, different brain structures and organs. They are generally taller and have more muscle mass. All scientific facts. Society treats them differently. They are more likely to engage in sports, more likely to be soldiers, etc. So yes, they are different. Can you compare two different things? How about apples and oranges? Which is a better breakfast fruit? Which has a higher acidity? Which generally has more pesticide exposure? Which has more calories? Which is sweeter? Easiest thing in the world to compare. So if two things are different, and you have a rubric, you can measure them against each other. So I'm trying to win a race, let's say a 100m dash. And to avoid individuality, let's say I want the top thousand (or million) people. Should I choose men or women? For this, men are better than women.

Example 2:
Women are better than men. And I can prove it. Again, men and women are different. Women's brains are structured differently. They have a larger limbic system (emotional response). Studies prove women are more adept at non-verbal communication and more likely to use the full brain for problem-solving (as opposed to a left hemisphere, task orientated approach that men take). And the section of the brain that handles language is proportionally larger in women. So yes, they are different. Can you compare two different things? See apples and oranges above. So I'm trying to find a large number of people to negotiate a treaty with space invaders who don't speak any human language. For this, women are better than men.

Example 3:
Dogs are better than cats. Discuss...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cult of Popularity

This post of part of the Absolute Write blog chain. Thanks to all for letting me play. Please check out the fellow bloggers linked below.

The theme is Fire and Ice. I could go hot (it is 106F outside). I could go cold. But I'm going cult. In case you're not familiar with it, Fire and Ice is an animated movie from the 80's. It's cool, in an 80's barbarians/maidens in bikinis sort of way. But more importantly, it's achieved cult status. Cult status is that special, undefinable thing that means a work of art is incredibly popular among a very small group of people. It means that something is regarded as brilliant in some category, perhaps one that the creator never intended. And it means that it didn't make much money. (Fire and Ice made less than $1million). By definition, a cult success cannot be a popular success. For the other part of the equation for cult status is that it cannot be appreciated by the masses.

So is cult status a good thing? Is it something we should be striving for? Or is it a sign of commercial failure and the inability to connect with the larger audience? Well, that all depends on what you want to get out of your art and what, specifically, that your art possesses to attract the cult following. So let's examine how to go about creating a cult masterpiece.

The first thing is, you can't try to create a cult masterpiece. This is going to be a hard one to overcome, but let's forge ahead. One thing that connects cult works, regardless of medium, is the undeniable belief of the creator that they are creating something special. Not something cult, but something of true genius. There's an honesty and sincerity in that belief. You have to sacrifice thoughts of broad appeal, but also thoughts of any type of appeal. You need to create for the sake of creation and let that be enough.

And with that thought, you have to create something new. Cult classics appeal to people because of something particular, something that sets them apart from others. Fire and Ice is no Disney movie. You can use a familiar medium, even a familiar story, but there has to be something unique to really get people to fall in love with it. And that's what cult is all about: people loving it. Not just liking it, not appreciating it, but loving it with a passion.

But you have to be careful. If everyone loves it, it's not a cult hit. Not that that's a bad thing. I think of the Matrix as a great example. Everyone loved the first movie. It was original and breathtaking. But it's not really a cult hit because it's so well known and popular. Part of what people love about a cult movie is that loving it separates them from the masses and they can share something special with a small group of people. It's human nature to divide ourselves, it helps us feel we belong and somehow see something that others cannot. The second two Matrix movies could have been cult hits - they certainly weren't loved by everyone - but they were overexposed because of the popularity of the first. You just can't be cult if everyone know about you.

Finally some good news: you don't have make something good to have it be cult. It can be downright awful. Plan 9 From Outer Space, Foxy Brown, these are not good movies. But they are great examples of particular types of movie. And their creators believed in them completely. They weren't trying to make quality, they were going for something more specific. And the ones that achieve cult status are the ones that succeed in this. So really, it's no easier to make specifically bad art than it is to create great art. The proof is the fact that there is tons of bad art out there and almost none if it makes cult status.

So, yeah, I guess it wouldn't really work to try to create a cult hit. But if you just believe in what you do, and do it to the best of your ability, you might just achieve it. But if you're lucky, too many people will like it and you'll have to settle for commercial success.

Participants and posts:
orion_mk3 - (link to this month's post)
Ralph Pines - (link to this month's post)
areteus - (link to this month's post)
Catherine Hall - (link to this month's post)
bmadsen - (link to this month's post)
pyrosama - (link to this month's post)
meowzbark - (link to this month's post)
BBBurke - (You are here)
writingismypassion - (link to this month's post - coming soon)
wonderactivist - (link to this month's post - coming soon)
SuzanneSeese - (link to this month's post - coming soon)
randi.lee - (link to this month's post - coming soon)
Proach - (link to this month's post - coming soon)
BigWords - (link to this month's post - coming soon)
magicmint - (link to this month's post - coming soon)
tomspy77 - (link to this month's post - coming soon)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rough Draft complete!

Just wanted to say that I completed the rough draft of my latest novel today. On my birthday! Yea for me! This WIP is a YA SF at 64k. (This Work In Progress is a Young Adult novel with a sub-genre of Science Fiction. It comes in at 64,000 words).

Side note: we all love our jargon. Every group, every subculture, uses it's own terms and phrases to communicate with each other. Supposedly, this is for ease of communication. Acronyms save time and space, technical words are more precise. But really, this language is used to separate us from others. It allows us to connect with our group and identify who belongs and who doesn't. It makes us feel like we belong, like we are in some way special and distinct. And that feels good. So I use jargon to prove I belong, but I try to make sure that I don't use it to exclude anyone. If I ever start writing on this blog only for those on the inside, then I've definitely lost my way. Feel free to call me on it if you see that happening.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Goal Oriented

If you ask a writer 'why do you write?', you tend to get some version of this: because I have to, it's a part of me, I would die if I couldn't write. That's fine and noble and all, but not necessarily insightful. Having a little clearer idea of why you write, what you want to get out of it, I believe will make you a happier writer. So maybe you want to take a closer look at yourself and be honest about why you write. Don't worry about justifying it to anyone else, don't worry about making it sound romantic. Just think about what you get out of writing, and perhaps how to get more of it.

I think when you examine it there are several different goals we each have as a writer, some of them perhaps contradictory. And most of them valid and worth honoring. I's very important to realize that some are more important (to us) than others and some are harder to control than others. And just because one person has a specific goal that is different than yours does not make them any better or worse as a writer. But  understanding what your true goals are will allow you to do your best to try to achieve them. And it also helps you filter the many pieces of contradictory advice you may receive from folks who may have different goals than your own.

So let's start with those who just write for themselves. If that's true, that you just enjoy writing, then you can write whatever you want. But are you writing because you enjoy creating characters? Or do you get excited about crafting intricate plots? Or is world building your thing. What exactly is it about writing that you enjoy? If you like completing a story then short stories will be more gratifying than epics - you'll complete a lot more of them. But if it's the challenge of working out complicated threads that come together to form a beautiful tapestry, then epic novels might be the way to go. So really think about what aspect of writing it is that gives you pleasure (or it may be more than one) and write for that. You don't have to worry about what anyone else thinks or suggests. Be happy doing what makes you happy.

But what if you want other people to see your work? I think many writers write because they want to share their ideas. We want others to see what we see and (hopefully) experience some of the joy and wonder we get when we look at the world we create. Part of this is validation - we want others to appreciate what we do. Perhaps some would look at this as a weakness, but if so it's a common one. Most of us want to be told that we've done a good job and that our efforts have in some way given others enjoyment. I don't think that's a bad desire at all. But another part of this is simply the challenge and satisfaction of creating something inside someone else. It's an incredibly powerful thing to be able to create something outside of yourself, and sharing your writing can do this. When an idea that was once yours now belongs to the readers, something that they can even share among themselves and others, you have done something special in this world. If this is your goal, then you need to take the audience into account when you write.

Now 'audience' could mean different things. It could mean your writing group, it could mean your friends and family, or it could mean the thronging masses.Whoever it is, you need to write for them as much as yourself. Writing for yourself you can use bad handwriting, obscure abbreviations and awkward grammar - you'll still understand it. But if you want to convey your ideas to others, you need to present them in a format that is easy for the reader to understand. The grammar has to be clear and enjoyable, you have to explain more while still entertaining. You have to be cognizant of who they are, what they expect, and ultimately what you want to create in them. This will, and should, influence what and how you write. There is nothing wrong with that- you are still writing for your goal: to share your ideas with others. Their enjoyment and appreciation will be your reward.

If you want your audience to be the general public, then you need to take into account how you're going to get your writing into their hands (and heads). So you also need to think about what it takes to get published. If you want to sell your book to a big publishing house then you will increase your chances by knowing what they are looking for. What genres are hot? What are the standards in that genre? What's the word count they prefer? These are things that make it easier to sell a first book and that will get it out to the people.

If you want to self publish then you don't need to impress an agent or publisher. But you still need to attract the readers. You need to make sure your cover is appealing, that your description is clear and inviting, that the start of the story will grab the reader and have them dying to finish the whole thing. So once again, you need to consider your audience and write with them in mind, not just throw words down on paper that make you happy.

And what if you want to write in order to make money? People need to make a living somehow. Most writers (or aspiring writers) don't seem to have a problem with getting paid for their work. But there does seem to be a suggestion that if you start looking at the financial aspect of things instead of simply writing 'the best book you can write' that you are putting the cart before the horse. But if your goal is to make money off your writing then you should do whatever is going to maximize your chances for success. And that may include writing what's popular, writing what's most sell-able, and sometimes even jumping on the bandwagon. Realizing that up front will ultimately make it easier and save you some grief. As long as you put your best effort into it and enjoy the uphill battle, then go for it.Writing may be a calling to some, a noble art that is pure and above crass considerations of the marketplace. But I myself have nothing but respect for those who are actively trying to make a living doing something that they enjoy.

The truth is we all have multiple goals and get different things out of different types of writing. I write some things that I will never share - they are just for me to enjoy (I like these 'cause I don't bother editing). Some things I write with a very focused eye towards being able to sell them. Some things are ideas I like and expect others might as well, but probably a small subset of the larger population. Sometimes I write simply to improve my writing so that I can enjoy the other writings more - it's the equivalent of running laps so I don't get so winded when I go skiing. I enjoy it all, but I always try to be aware of why I am writing right now, and try to get the most out of that that I can.I write with a goal in mind, even if I lose myself in the middle of the process. Because sometimes getting lost is the goal.

So why do you write? (and whatever your answer, good on ya for doing it)