But saying we want to go PRO is easier than knowing what one actually looks like. To be blunt, there are far more people “playing writer” than “going pro.” Even those of us …
Tag Archives: Writing
How do I feel? About the same as before. I don’t expect overnight greatness from this. I didn’t get it with my first novel, Spree, and I highly doubt it’ll happen with these two books. Just being pragmatic here. The so-called overnight success stories are exceptions to the rule, and are generally no as sudden as they might seem at first glance.
Take Stephen King. His first novel, Carrie, took off like a shot and catapulted him to fame and fortune. It was a novel he threw away and only gave a second chance because his wife urged him to. And he’s stated he still doesn’t really like the book.
Understandable. But he’s also cognizant of what it did for him, so he doesn’t exactly disown it, either.
Either way, Carrie was not his first published work. It was just his breakthrough work. He’d published short stories—a favorite medium of his and one I can’t do well at all—in magazines, most of them men’s magazines such as Cavalier. By the time Carrie came out, he’d been slaving away getting low pay for his work. And all this had honed his craft so that the success Carrie had was well-deserved.
And I’m sure if you read the back story of pretty much any successful author who’s worth reading, you’ll find the same narrative. We may be born with the talent to write—an arguable position—but we still have to work at it to make it better, and we have to keep working at it our whole lives.
And then we have to get noticed.
That’s never been easy. Back when Mr. King was first published, there were gatekeepers—i.e. editors and publishers—who decided whether or not you got noticed. And, quite often, despite the fact they might decide to publish your work, that didn’t necessarily mean they’d do their best to make sure it sold well. One of the many reasons the New York model is falling flat on its face.
Even still, there were lots of books published, and I find them in used bookstores all the time: books by authors I’ve never heard of, and when I crack them open, I see why. These days of self-publishing don’t have a corner on the market of bad writers, necessarily, it’s just that it’s easier for them to see the light of day.
But even when you’re good—and I’ve been told by several people that I am, so I suppose it’s true, at least to an extent—getting noticed is hard. It’s a big sea, and there are a lot of fish in it. Being the one who rises to the top isn’t an easy thing.
So. I have two new books out. They’re available on Amazon. And from me, if you happen to see me. It’s not like I sold out at my release party this past Sunday. That’s the reality of publishing these days, and I’m not looking to quit my day job anytime soon.
But it still feels good to finally have more books out, because that means I’m a bit closer to being able to quit my day job.
And that’s the goal: to tell that day job goodbye.
It seems strange to me, but people who’ll spend ten bucks to go to the latest explosion fest at the theater gripe about the cost of a book and tout it as one of the reasons they don’t read. Maybe our special effects budget isn’t high enough or something.
So let’s look at the math, in a general way.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you spend that same ten bucks for a book. Mass media paperbacks are getting really close to that now, so it’s a semi-valid argument.
If you’re an author with a New York publisher, your cut of that ten bucks is gonna be in the range of five to ten percent. That means for that book, you’re gonna make somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar. Now, if you have an agent, he’s gonna get fifteen percent (based on industry standard. Some may be lower), which means you lose anywhere from eight cents (it works out to 7.5, and I’m sure the agent will round up) to fifteen cents, leaving you with forty-two to eighty-five cents.
Doesn’t seem so bad, does it?
But that’s not all. Now you have to figure out how much you actually made. How long did it take to write the book? You’ll have to break it down into hours, but after you figure in the writing and multiple edits, my guess is, unless you’re someone like Stephen King, you’re not making anywhere near the national minimum wage, never mind what those, um, people in Seattle thought they’d be making with their fifteen dollar an hour minimum.
So where’s the rest of it go? To the publisher. It’s expensive to print books, and if you’re with one of the Big Five, they do print runs based on how many books they project you’ll sell. Most of the time they’re wrong, judging from everything I’ve been reading online, so if they gave you an advance—something that’s shrinking and even disappearing in today’s publishing world—you likely didn’t earn it back. Which is why the Big Five are mostly losing money and are happy to have surprise hits like Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of actual quality.
Things are a little different on the indie/small publishing side of things. For instance, at Oghma Creative Media, our standard contract is a 60/40 split, and we’re able to offer the forty percent to authors because we’re basically print-on-demand (POD). Still, to set up a book with Lightning Source, the premium way to go when it comes to POD because using them makes you look far more legit to bookstores and libraries, costs well over two hundred dollars (I can’t remember the exact figure).
Granted, it’s still not great money. You’re getting four dollars of that ten-dollar book, but since we’re still a struggling company, you’re likely not selling many books. Yet. But would you do better with one of the Big Five? Unlikely. I’ve read and heard that ten percent of Big Five authors get ninety percent of the promotional budget. Which is to say, they’re really only betting on sure things. It’s a system set up to fail, made to fulfill their prediction that new authors are money pits. It’s a closed loop that accomplishes nothing.
So the next time you feel you’re paying too much for a book, keep all this in mind. And remember that the vast majority of us writers aren’t making money hand over fist like John Grisham and Stephen King.
Sometime back, HBO’s Game of Thrones aired an episode that caused some controversy. Of course, this isn’t the first time the show has done this, but apparently some critics took it upon themselves to decide they knew what was in store for the show better than the writers do and decried an incident in the episode as unnecessary.
I haven’t seen the episode. I’m slowly catching up on this show, but it’s not easy. I’m catching up by checking each season out from my local library, and the waiting list is long. So I’m only now going to be able to watch season four after today (July 9). I haven’t read all the books, either, though I started on them way back when the first volume came out. If memory serves, it and the first volume of the Wheel of Time series came out about the same time, and since I love epic fantasy, I grabbed both up.
I long ago gave up on the Wheel of Time. Far too many books. I can’t sustain my interest that long, especially when he overemphasized the whole battle of the sexes thing, in my opinion. I gave up somewhere around halfway through Book Five. And no, don’t comment urging me to finish the series. Ain’t happenin.
Of course, the problem with the Song of Ice and Fire series is that George RR Martin has been writing them so slowly that it has its own form of frustration. Where Robert Jordan fluffed Wheel of Time with the battle of the sexes thing entirely too much, Mr. Martin seems happy to keep his fans waiting, all in the name of “getting it right.” As a writer, I understand that. But getting it a little wrong would be preferable to not getting it at all. Mr. Martin isn’t a spring chicken anymore, and he needs to keep that in mind.
What I really want to talk about here, though, is the aforementioned episode. In it, Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark, is raped off-screen. Now, as I understand it, Sansa is being groomed, or so many speculate, at least, to be the Queen of the North. I want you to keep that title in mind.
She’s being groomed, I’m assuming, not so much by any particular person or group—though I supposed that’s possible, considering the rest of her family is either dead or scattered to the four winds in a world rife with factions vying for the Iron Throne—but by life itself. She’s lost her father, her mother, her brothers, and her sister (as far as she knows). At the beginning of the series, Sansa is a romantic. When she has an opportunity to journey to King’s Landing, she sees it as an opportunity to meet princes and knights and take part in the wonders of court life, never dreaming of the rude awakening she has in store for her.
Sansa’s story is that of a journey not only from the cold of Winterfell to the warmth of King’s Landing, but her opposite journey from that of a warm, romantic girl to that of a cold, practical woman. Or, again, so I assume. Mr. Martin has a way of surprising us, as do the writers of the show, so who knows?
Of course, thanks to Mr. Martin’s slow pace at writing the books, the show is veering away from their course out of necessity. So the show’s writers might have a different idea in mind for Sansa than Mr. Martin does.
But whatever the case, the critics who raised the hue and cry over an off-screen rape really should keep their mouths shut. Their primary criticism seemed to stem from the fact that, in their opinions, Sansa has grown as much as she can as a character. She’s hardened, not at all the girl who traveled south from Winterfell, and having her raped after all the other things she’s been through was just too much. Besides, it was offensive. I have a feeling this last counted for more than their supposed critique of the forming of her character.
Unfortunately, that’s a little too much like the apocryphal quote attributed to Charles H Duell, Commissioner of the Patent Office in 1899, when he said Congress might as well close down his office as “everything that can be invented has been invented.” Nice thought, Mr. Duell, but a bit shortsighted.
I just want to tell them to get a grip.
Yes, it seems contradictory, but we must keep in mind that these are fictional characters, and yet we must make readers care about them as thought they were real. Will we, as authors, need to start putting a disclaimer on our stories that no real people were harmed in the writing of this book? Do the critics think the general population is so stupid they don’t know the difference between what they see on TV and what’s real?
The development of characters in a story, just as with us in real life, is a complex and daunting task. As writers, we owe it to our readers to make our characters as real and authentic as our skill allows us to do and then some. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is brutal. It’s not the world of, say, The Princess Bride or a Disney movie. It’s brutal, and cruel, and the idea that Sansa could have her romantic notions even as she grew up in the cold north is something of a miracle in and of itself. That she could hang onto such fanciful notions in a world such as this means she’ll have to have some really nasty things happen to her in order to disabuse her completely of her notions.
Being the victim of rape—on top of all the other things she’s had to endure—is more of the writers forging of her new outlook in life. Now, the thing to me is, this could go one of two ways (and probably more, since others out there can see other outcomes for this): either Sansa Stark will become a cold, ruthless queen who will manage to bring Westeros—or at least the north—together in time to resist the Wildlings from beyond the Wall, or she’ll unite the nations when she remembers what it is to be a victim and she’ll be able to rally the common people behind her cause, thus winning enough support to protect the Seven Kingdoms.
Or, knowing George RR Martin, it could be some other outcome altogether. He’s good at surprising us, isn’t he?
Regardless of the final outcome for Sansa Stark, critics who have not seen the entire picture need to hold their criticisms until they’ve seen the end result of all this. Until then, they’re wasting my time and yours with their petty protests, and contributing in a small—or perhaps large—way to the censoring of creativity, because writers will fear taking their characters where they need to go out of concern of some uninformed opinion of their work.
If you read this blog with any kind of regularity you know I’m a Stephen King fan. Not so much of his recent works—Duma Key is one I have a hard time remembering the title, let alone the story, and Under the Dome was something of a disappointment as well—but when it comes to his older stuff… well, that’s where my heart is.
First off, there’s The Stand, probably his magnum opus, at least in my opinion. It is a close second, and a novel I love to revisit on occasion. And ’Salem’s Lot will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s the first Stephen King novel I ever read—after seeing the second half of the miniseries back in the day and wanting to know what happened in the first half. In our book-poor county, I had a heck of a time finding a copy, but once I’d read it I was hooked.
There’s no way I can count up the pleasurable hours I’ve spent lost in Mr. King’s worlds, from his Dark Tower series, to The Dark Half and his short story collections (he’s one of the few authors I’ll read when it comes to shorts), his words played a big part in my decision to be a writer.
Now, whatever you may think of Mr. King and his works, I think we can agree on one thing: he’s a good benchmark when it comes to a writer’s dreams of success. He’s a regular bestseller, and even he has lamented on more than one occasion that he could probably publish his laundry list and it’d be a hit.
Mr. King is good for inspiration, and I won’t dissuade you from reading him. He knows how to string words together in a way that usually makes you want to keep reading (I’m in the middle of Finders Keepers, his newest, as I write this, and it has me reluctant to put it down), and his nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is pretty much at the top of my list when it comes to recommending books, well, on writing.
But you don’t want to follow Mr. King’s methods too closely.
As Inigo Montoya said, let me ’splain.
Stephen King began his writing career in a day when the standards were different. For instance, author intrusion was an accepted way of storytelling that it would be hard to get away with today. The literary landscape has changed, and I won’t get into an argument as to whether it’s for the better or not, because I can see it from both sides (note to self: this might make a good post in the future).
Back in the seventies, when Mr. King and his contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (neither of which I’ve ever been able to get into nearly as much as I did Mr. King) started their careers, author intrusion was normal, even expected. Let me give you an example from page 126 of Finders Keepers:
Pete lay awake for a long time that night. Not long after, he made the biggest mistake of his life.
It’s that last sentence I want you to pay attention to, because it breaks deep POV, and that’s a no-no these days. Writers like Mr. King can get away with it for a few reasons. His readers expect it. It’s how he learned to write, and he became a bestselling author writing that way, so why fix what ain’t broke? And probably most important, see the aforementioned reference to his laundry list. It don’t matter what the boy writes, his fans is gonna buy it.
But I have a news flash: You’re not Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or Peter Straub. You don’t have decades of bestselling books on your résumé. Your name isn’t a virtual guarantee of being on the bestseller list.
You don’t got clout, man.
I know, too, why Stephen King does things like he did in the example above. It’s a form of foreshadowing that heightens the tension a bit. You’re given a tidbit that bodes ill for the character, and that’s why we read books, isn’t it? To see what happens to these poor people and how they deal with it. And we really want Mr. King’s characters to get out of their predicaments because his strength is in his characters. Story is almost second in importance in a Stephen King book. We care about the characters because Mr. King rounds them out so well we can’t help but care about them—even the bad guys, in a lot of cases.
But in today’s publishing atmosphere, if this was his debut novel, an editor would tell Mr. King to go back and find another way to tell us that foreshadowing detail, one that doesn’t tell us something Pete couldn’t possibly know. Because, as much as that little detail heightens the tension, Pete can’t know it, so you can’t tell it to us that way. Mr. King can, because he got that clout I mentioned above.
The clout you ain’t got none of.
And that means you can’t get away with it, unless you find some old-school editor, and I think there must be a lot of them out there, from what I’m seeing in some published works.
And here’s the thing: if you use deep POV properly, the fact Pete doesn’t know he’s about to make the biggest mistake of his life can be used to heighten tension just as much as Mr. King’s little snippet of author intrusion does. One method might be to drop little hints, small clues, that the character (and, by extension, the reader) would see as signs of danger if only he were paying enough attention. And even if the reader sees these things and Pete doesn’t, it still heightens the tension because the reader is screaming at him to wake up and pay attention already!
There are some other authors who break these rules as well—James Clavell and Mario Puzo come to mind, as they do what is commonly called head-hopping, a huge no-no these days—but you’ll notice they, too, are from the seventies.
I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything from these authors. You can learn from any author, and there’s some merit to the argument you can learn more from a bad author than from a good one (if you can get through the book, that is), because a good one makes fewer mistakes. But you don’t want to mimic them too closely (for one, that would be plagiarism) or you’ll be making mistakes that won’t fly with most publishers these days.
And, hey, like I said, Finders Keepers is a good book so far. Last thing you want to do is ignore pleasurable reading, and there are a lot of good things you can learn from Mr. King. Such as excellent characterization.
Just don’t follow in their footsteps exactly.
One of the things—among many, I guess—that I like about writing is the research. I see authors complaining about it, but I’m not sure why. Sure, it takes time away from actual writing, but so what? What’s better than learning something? It’s not like this is high school where you have to research things you couldn’t care less about. If you’re putting it in your story, chances are you’re interested in it in some way, so researching it should be interesting.
For instance, I recently wrote something of an introductory short story for a shared world project first proposed to me by Casey Cowan, Creative Director for Oghma Creative Media and my boss. One of the things we’re doing is trying to revive the western. We’ve made a start on it with the e-zine Saddlebag Dispatches, which is already getting some notice. An article was written about it on nawonline.com, our local news page, and the Western Writers of America, as well as some award-winning western authors, are sitting up and taking notice of it.
Casey and I were sort of brainstorming at his house one day when he asked, “What would attract people to westerns?”
Long story short, we developed a western series idea for multiple authors to write about that we think will attract attention. Our characters aren’t your typical—or I should say stereotypical—western characters. Sure, those kinds of people will be in our story, and our characters even appear to fulfill the stereotypes. But once you see what’s going on, you’ll realize they’re not what they appear.
I don’t want to go any farther until we make an official announcement about the project, but suffice it to say I had to do a bit of research to get some historical facts right.
I’ve always loved history. Most people consider it boring, I guess, judging from the reactions I get when I say I love it, but that’s okay. For me, it helps me learn why we’re where we are today.
One of the periods I’ve always loved in particular is the 1800s. All that expansion into the west, the stories of the men and women who ventured out into what was, for them, the equivalent of outer space (they just didn’t need EVA suits), fascinates me, both on the fiction and nonfiction level.
I read lots of Louis L’Amour when I was a teenager, and his writing instilled in me a love of the west equaled only by my love for fantasy lands such as Middle-earth. For me, the Rocky Mountains, the wilds of Montana, the southwestern deserts, the Indians who peopled the area and posed yet another challenge to settlers, it’s all fascinating, and I can get carried away reading about these people.
Louis L’Amour did lots of research to write his novels, so I feel when I read one of his books, I’m getting an accurate portrayal of people back then. Yes, he romanticizes it, but so what? That whole period is a romantic one, or we wouldn’t have such an endless fascination for it as a nation. It was unique in history, and I doubt we’ll see another one like it until we finally venture out into space.
And that one may well be endless, for all practical purposes. Western expansion was limited by the Pacific Ocean, for the most part. But expanding into the galaxy alone will take us thousands of years, at a minimum. And then there’ll be all the other galaxies out there. And, who knows? If the quantum physicists are right about parallel universes, this could go on literally forever.
But back down to earth.
I went on a small spate of research back a year or so agothat had nothing to do with what I was writing at the time. It started with me watching Band of Brothers. That got me interested in World War II, so I watched The War, the Ken Burns documentary. That got me interested in Ken Burns documentaries, so I watched Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery as well as The Civil War. The man knows how to make an interesting documentary. I’ve just reserved his documentary The West at the library.
So, research doesn’t have to be dreadful. I realize there are times we’ll come across things in our writing that’ll be boring to research, but for the most part, we should be writing about things that interest us in the first place, so the research should be interesting too.
Or maybe I’m just an über-nerd.
Mostly, it’s been psychological, but there’s been a creative reason there, too. Or maybe they’re one and the same.
See, I was submitting Startup to agents, right? It’s what we wordsmiths do from time to time: assault the walls of New York publishing (Nevermore, quoth the raven). I think I’ve mentioned this episode here before, but just in case I didn’t—or just in case I did and you missed it—I actually got feedback from one of the agents. It was still a rejection, but it was feedback nonetheless.
Now, this kind of thing is the fabled two-edged sword, or at least it was for me. We all react differently when this happens, and I’m thinking I had both the major reactions you can have.
At first, I was excited. Yeah, it was a rejection, but this guy—and he’s a major agent, believe you me; if I mentioned his name, you could research it and see—said he liked my writing, he just thought the first part of the novel needed redone because nothing was really happening. My writing was skillful, my characters engaging, so on and so forth (I doubt those are the exact words, but that’s the gist of the letter). Hey, that’s encouraging, right?
But then I had an idea, one I thought was a good one: I wrote back. Told this agent I realized there usually weren’t any second chances in the publishing world, but all the same, if I could rework that first hundred pages or so—and I was confident at the time that this was a trifling matter—would he be willing to give it another look? I mean, this guy is my dream agent. He represents one of the biggest influences I have when it comes to crime fiction. Can you imagine what it would be like to share agents with one of your heroes?
He had an assistant answer and say that, if it passed her muster, she’d hand it on to him.
I was nice, and for good reason. I thanked them for this second chance. I stopped working on the novel I was in the middle of and went back to the first one.
It ended up killing the momentum on both.
And the second submission was rejected as well.
First of all, I think my muse basically spent two years saying, “Hey, we wrote that bad boy already. Move on and get to work on new stuff, man.” Meanwhile, I’m cracking the whip on Mr. Muse, stressing each word with a slashing downstroke to his back: “You—will—fix—this—story!”
Mr. Muse thumbed his nose at me (to phrase it politely), and promptly took a two-year vacation.
Oh, he dropped by to see if I’d given up on my obsession. And sometimes I was able to trap him by baiting the trap with honey: “Look! I have this short story idea! Let’s write it! Oh, this thing in my other hand? Don’t pay aaa-ny attention to that. It’s just, um, and old thing I been lookin at.”
With a wary look in his eye, Muse would sit down and help me with my short story. I’d wait till he was heavily involved, flush with the feeling of victory on penning a good story, and then I’d nab him with the real thing: that bothersome old Startup beginning.
Mr. Muse is gullible that way. He lives to create, and he’s willing to work on something he thinks is finished if, in return, I’ll let him create little stories that’ll fend off my embarrassment at not having worked on my big story for another few weeks. I get to tell the writing group that I have A NEW SHORT STORY TO READ THIS WEEK!!! and he’ll try to come up with something halfway decent to do with that smelly old piece of tripe I keep trying to resuscitate.
In the end, it worked, more or less. With Startup scheduled to be released in June, I come up with something of an outline that utilized various scenes from the six or seven versions floating around on my hard drive, plus a smattering of new material. In return, Mr. Muse have given me…wait for it…A NEW WORK IN PROGRESS.
How cool is that?
I wrote an opening scene for it—a science fiction mystery with the working title of Animal Sacrifice that I’m writing under a pen name—then felt guilty and roughed in the eighth version of Startup (or so I’m calling it; I don’t think there are actually eight versions of it, but it’s damn close). I’ve worked at it on and off, revising scenes to fit into the new continuum, as well as finally getting a good finish on the prequel and sending it off to the editor. I think, as of today, I’m pretty much there. I still need to write a scene or two of new material to fit the revised storyline, but the good news is, in about a week’s time, I’ve added about forty pages to Animal Sacrifice. And it feels so good to finally be creating again!
I’m having to do a log of juggling to get this done. After all, there are still my editing duties for Oghma that I have to perform as well, so I’m creating, editing, editing, creating. So far, it’s going good, so Startup will be out in June—in hardback, at that—and once things are a little more firm, I’ll be announcing a special deal on it that you won’t want to miss.
In the meantime, I’ve got this mystery to work on….