Thursday, February 27, 2014

Genre Writing and Honesty

So let me talk a bit about Arrow, which is probably my favorite show currently airing on network television.  And it's certainly the best superhero-genre show, well, ever.  A big part of why it is lands on how it handles its subject matter.

Usually when superheroes go to TV or the movies, there are two ways it gets played: one is the Dark And Gritty method, launched with Batman Begins.  Everything is played with as much gritty realism as possible.  It isn't a terrible approach, but it doesn't always work.  Case in point, the recent interesting failure that was Man of Steel.  It treats its subject matter seriously, but does so by attempting to undercut the source.

The other way is to go full out, but with a bit cynicism.  It's as if the project knowingly winks at the audience and says, "Yeah, this is dumb, but roll with us here."  And, again, you're undercutting the source.  A prime example would be when the show Smallville first started.  The producers went on record saying, "No flights, no tights".  This was an explicit promise: don't worry, we won't be doing that stupid stuff as part of our Superman story. 

What Arrow does is own its source material with honesty.  This isn't the same as being grimly realistic.  Hell, it has a WWII-era Japanese experiment called "mirakuru" that gives its recipients super strength and healing, but at the expense of their sanity.  It has introduced Barry Allen, including the accident that will give him his super-speed as The Flash.  But it does all this as if these elements are simply part of their reality.  Taken seriously, fully owned.

And that's part of the secret of strong genre writing.  Write every element as if it's simply part of the reality the characters live with.  It's not fantastical or science-fiction to them, even when they learn about some element for the first time.  

Approach it with honesty instead of apology.

And so we're clear, I do think writing a exposition-heavy beginning, or even a prologue, can be a form of apologetic weak writing.  When done poorly, it becomes something like, "OK, I know this is silly, but here's a bunch of stuff you need to know to understand what's going on, and I'm sorry, but let's get through this bit, and then stuff will get good around, like, chapter five or so."

Screw that.  Write it real, write it honest, and you won't need to do that.  Trust your reader, that they're willing to get on board with you, and hit the ground running.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Cult of Self-Publishing

I’m not going rail against self-publishing, in and of itself.  If you honestly think it’s the best choice for your project, fine.  I’d urge you to do it well, but still: fine.  Enjoy!  If you want to put out a poorly-written bit of nonsense with a cover that looks like a World of Warcraft screenshot, hey: that’s your name on it, not mine.  It doesn’t hurt me.  And if you put out something outstanding that becomes the Next Big Thing: great!  It still doesn’t hurt me. 

But self-publishers themselves can be highly annoying, at least the ones who have made themselves into a cult as far as their faith in self-publishing.

From what I've seen, it really is a cult.  I see the advocates preaching articles of faith, telling others that their path is the one true way, reciting verses of dogma, and attacking non-believers.

And that's where I have a real issue with it.  Often they treat it like publishing is some zero-sum game, and that in order for them to get respect as self-publishers, they have to TEAR DOWN the traditional model.  It's not enough to do well on their own.  They have to prove that going the traditional route is the way of the dodo.

A lot of this is based on bad numbers, statistical analysis of only the successful end of the outliers, and a soupcon of good, old-fashioned bitterness.  Yes, bitterness.  Because much of the tearing down of the traditional publishers (or "legacy" publishers, as they like to say) is based on the idea that since they couldn't get through the gatekeepers (or, perhaps, didn't really try because they bought into the impossibility) it cannot be done.  It shouldn't be done, and all you're doing by trying is buying into the system.

I've even seen it going so far as telling people whose success came from their traditionally published book that they should have self-published, because it clearly would have done just as well, and they would have made more money or something. You know, you can make your own webshow on YouTube or Blip.TV, but you never see anyone tell someone who has a show on USA or HBO, "You should have put that on Blip.TV instead!"  Of course not. 

This all comes from wanting self-publishing to be taken seriously, and they feel that can only happen if the traditional industry is supplanted by their method, rather than supplemented.

It's really quite simple: if you want to be taken seriously, do great work.  Period.   The rest will take care of itself.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mark Your Calendars: ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop

So, I haven't quite started bulking up my Con appearances yet-- I'll save that more for the back end of 2014, and expect to see me attending several in 2015, at least in Texas. 

But I will definitely be attending ArmadilloCon (July 25th-27th) , in part because it's my local con, and in part because I'm running the Writers' Workshop with Stina Leicht.

I've spoken before of the workshop, and if you followed my Path To Publication posts, you saw that I attended several times before "graduating" to the other side of the table.  So I say as a former student, this is a very valuable resource for an up-and-coming writer.  Now, in being responsible for it, it is of great importance to me to maintain that level of quality.

Think about it: for $70, you A. get full attendance to ArmadilloCon plus B. get the workshop on Friday.  A full day of panels and interactive critique of your work by writing professionals.  For the aspiring professional writer, that is invaluable.

So: Friday, July 25th for the workshop.  Deadline for submission is June 15th.  If you can attend, I highly recommend it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Path To Publication: The Journey Always Goes On

So, I have to confess something: I'm not very pedantic.  In fact, I frequently use the phrase "begging the question" in the "wrong" way.  If you're not familiar with this particular bit of pedantry, here is the "wrong" use:
"So the job went without a hitch?"
"It did, but it shouldn't have.  Jake went through before Stark was able to disable the alarms."
"But the alarms didn't go off." 
"Exactly.  Because the alarms were already disabled.  Which begs the question: who disabled them?"
This is wrong, but I use it this way all the time.  And I think it's fine, because while being "wrong", it makes perfect sense.  That something happens, or an argument is raised, that makes the follow-up question so obvious that it begs for it to be asked.

The "right" use, on the other hand, makes little sense to me.  To be clear, what it means makes sense to me as a logical fallacy-- namely, to form an argument in which the conclusion is assumed as evidence of itself.  The idea that this concept is a logical fallacy makes sense, and that it should exist as a typical logical fallacy isn't something I have an argument with.  I just don't get how the phrase "begging the question" breaks down to mean that, and I've yet to see a discussion of this correct use that adequately addresses why it should.  Though from what I've seen it involves taking the original Ancient Greek phrase and translating it English.  But that's really not important.

This is all my very long-winded way of saying that the typical arguments I see for self-publishing-- but more specifically against traditional publishing-- beg the question in the "correct" sense of the term.

Namely, the argument is that one ought to self-publish because it's a given that getting through the gatekeepers of traditional publishing is impossible.  Since it can't be done, why do it that way, when you can go around it?*

Except it can be done.  It isn't easy, but it can be done. 

Other arguments are similarly flawed.

As I've said in the past, I've nothing against self-publishing in and of itself, but I don't think it's some sort of panacea or revolution.  And more to the point, it's not for me.  It never was, because it involved different fights and struggles that I wasn't interested in.  I had plenty that I wanted to fight, I didn't need more.

More to the point, now that I'm here, with two books that will be published, will be actual physical books that you can buy in bookstores, as well as e-books that you can get on your kindle, and who knows what else in the future... I'm glad I didn't take the other route.  This was my path, and it wasn't an easy one, but it was the one that I needed to take.  The one I'm still on, and will continue to walk as I write more and more.

But, as with all things, your mileage may vary.   Walk the way you need to in order to get where you need to go.

*- The other big "begging the question" argument I've seen involves statistics of sales from self-published e-books, where it takes the sales figures of best-selling self-published e-books to demonstrate that best-selling books make money.  I don't doubt that, but that's still using Olympic running times to prove that everyone can be an Olympic runner.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Path to Publication, Part VIII: The Art of Patience

This process involves a lot of waiting.  And doing more while waiting.  The waiting is not a bug, it's a feature.  The slowness of the industry gives you time to work and get better.

When I rail against self-publishing, it's not because self-publishing is, by definition, bad.  It's because most people do it out of impatience, and thus do it badly.  This series has been loaded with stories of doing work that wasn't good enough and striving to do better.

A friend from my theatre days would say, "Any problem can be solved with money or time."  Time is your friend in this business.  Use it. 

This is all my way of saying that my re-write of Thorn didn't immediately lead to my agent signing me on.  It took him a while to get back to it, and he waived his claim to exclusivity in the process.  I explored other agents, had a few other full-requests, and walked pretty far down the road with one before she passed.

I even went to a conference to pitch to agents.  This was a great experience, which I recommend if you can swing it, and here's why: just about everyone attending is in the same place as you.  At a lot of genre conventions, you've got fans who are there to be fans, and pros who are there to promote... and there's not a lot for the aspiring writer.  Pitch conferences are for the aspiring writer, so you find a lot of camaraderie. 

In fact-- at this point I was querying both Thorn and Holver Alley, and had finished a draft of Murder of Mages.  Like I said, use the time, keep working.  My scheduled pitch was for Sunday morning, and after some vacillating I had decided to pitch Thorn.  Saturday at around 5pm, I checked my email and saw I had received a form-letter rejection to my query for Holver Alley.

From the very agent I was pitching to the next morning.

Needless to say, I was a mess.  And this is where the camaraderie comes into play.  One of the volunteers, who was also pitching her own project, spotted me and immediately realized Something Is Very Wrong.  She more or less dragged me over to her table, pried the problem out of me, and then proceeded to shove me in a secluded corner with another agent.

Now, neither said corner shoving nor the following morning's perfectly fine scheduled pitch resulted in me getting signed-- that happened a couple months later with Mike, so it all worked out well in the end-- but in that moment, it was exactly what I needed.

And, hey, two months later I had an agent.  So that meant I had made it, right?

Yeah... still a ways to go.

IF I HAD SELF-PUBLISHED AT THIS POINT: Both Thorn and Holver Alley would have been decent, even moderately successful books on the growing Amazon-Kindle market, I bet.  But would that have really given me what I wanted?  Especially since I would have had to have paid for an artist to make a good cover or something.  At this point it wouldn't have been bad, but it wouldn't have been right.

BUT DID I LEARN ANYTHING BY NOW?: To ride it out, because good things did come with patience. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Path to Publication, Part VII: Buckling Down and Working

So, as I approached the end of 2009, I had a "polished" 70K draft of Thorn of Dentonhill that I was querying.  I had a rough draft of Holver Alley Crew.  I still had a delusion that any given project I was working on, I would be able to finish "next month".  I had now gone to the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop two more times, using the opening chapters of those two projects. 

In 2008, the opening chapter of Thorn prompted the pro writer I worked with to tell me, "You're really close with this."

In 2009, the opening chapter of Holver Alley prompted an editor from Tor to tell me, "You have a lot of real talent."  Yeah, I floated on that for a while.

Queries for Thorn were getting some hits, but nothing sticking.

And I sold a short story.  A REALLY short story.  Specifically, to the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, and my story was only 21 words long.  But it was a sale, in a real book that was going to be in bookstores.

And then I got an email from the man who would, eventually, become my agent.  He had read Thorn, and loved it, BUT at 70K, it was too short to sell. I needed to beef it up to the 90-100K zone.  You know, novel length.  Something I had missed in my process.

I wonder how many agents quickly dismissed my query letter because of the word count.

So, I dove back into Thorn.

IF I HAD SELF-PUBLISHED AT THIS POINT: It would have been a welter-weight version of Thorn, which might have gotten some attention on the Amazon self-pubbed Kindle market.  But it wouldn't be the stronger, better book that sold now.  And it certainly wouldn't have benefited from the editorial insight that it's getting before being released.  That is a priceless benefit.

BUT DID I LEARN ANYTHING BY NOW?: You mean, besides the "novels really should be closer to 100K?"  But that was crucial to learn, because I had gotten the idea in my head that 70K was good enough.  Also, it taught me something crucial about editing, that it's possible to add depth without sacrificing pacing.   Adding more story, muscle and bone, rather than just padding. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Path to Publication, Part VI: Structure and Plan

It's taken this long to get past the "flailing around and talking about writing something and actually writing" phase of things.  But even though I had gotten through the darkest part of this journey (so far), I was far from out of the woods.

As I was finishing Crown, I started to come up with the core ideas that would eventually evolve into Thorn of Dentonhill and Murder of Mages  (as well as Holver Alley Crew and Way of the Shield).  Now, these were especially rough core ideas.  A sense of the characters, and what kind of stories they would be.  I had now figured out that I needed an outline to break a story down before I got started with really writing it.  So my next step was figuring out how to properly outline a whole novel.

Frankly, a lot of advice out there on the subject is not a big help.  I've railed on the flaw in "three act structure" before, and will do so again, but core of it is "Act Two" is usually left to "rising action", which tends to boil down to "more stuff happens" and it's not particularly helpful. 

So I got to work, instead of looking for advice on outlines or analysis of stories*, analyzing stories myself and figuring out how they were structured, and applying that to developing a structure for myself.  I used novels, of course, but also TV series and comic books.  These two were actually quite useful in thinking about how to keep hooks in an audience, how to use episodic events in service of a greater story. 

And with that, I designed my Twelve-Part Outline Structure**. And from that, I was able to put together a rough draft of Thorn of Dentonhill

IF I HAD SELF-PUBLISHED AT THIS POINT: I had a "cleaned up" version of Crown by now, and still hadn't given up on it.  It would have been a better thing to self publish than the one from a year before, but still not good.  And the version of Thorn that I had at that point was a long way off from the version that was sold.  For one, it was easily a third shorter, as the "novel length" target I was going for was just too short.

BUT DID I LEARN ANYTHING BY NOW?:  Plot structure, finally.  Thorn wasn't ready, but it actually was a story, as opposed to "hanging out with some characters while stuff happens."  And I had used that knowledge, that structure, to plan out Murder, Holver Alley and Way of the Shield as well.

*- Here's the problem I've found with using story analysis-- like the Hero's Journey, for example-- as an outline structure: they tend to skip the step of converting the tools of analysis into a tool of structure building.  As a simile: it's as if an architect, instead of studying other buildings as a process of learning how to draw blueprints, decides that simply using photographs of buildings is an acceptable substitute for blueprints.  The tools for analysis are not the tools for construction.
**- Structure.  NOT "FORMULA".  Crucial distinction.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Path to Publication, Part V: Crash and Epiphany

By 2007, I had attended the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop twice.   I have my "finished" novel The Fifty Year War, and a handful of fits and starts, including Crown of Druthal, which had been moving forward with a snail-like pace.

Because I wasn't working with diligence.  Hell, there were many days in which even the act of opening the Word document was more than I could manage.

I was miserable.

I won't go so far as to say I was clinically or chemically depressed.  I don't think I was, in any sort of official diagnosis.  But I was unhappy, mostly with the fact that I was working a job that felt utterly pointless, and couldn't muster up the energy to do something more pointy with myself.

I had to make a change.

I made some investigations about changing jobs, but I began to realize that was really just trying to put a band-aid over a gaping chest wound.  Something more radical needed to be done, and I had to really interrogate myself of what I wanted and what I was going to do to make it happen. 

So I quit the job.

Radical.  And fortunately I have a wife who, after her initial shock, was very supportive of working out a new plan. You know how most acknowledgements in books thank their spouses?  Truth to the infinite power in my case. She backed me then and continues to back me out of a faith that this was something I really could do. But part of that meant I had to stop being a dilettante about the idea of writing and treat it like real work that I was striving to be better at. 

This involved really starting to investigate how I wrote.  I realized I couldn't just sit and jot out whatever came to mind and see where it went.  That might work for some writers, and if it does for you, great, but it definitely does not work for me.  So I sat down and really worked out the outline of where Crown of Druthal was supposed to go. 

My last day of work at that job was August 2nd, 2007.  The rough draft of Crown was finished by the end of that month. 

And it was a hot mess, of course, but I was fired up now.  I was going to clean it up and sell this, no matter what.

You notice how my announced sale is not for Crown of Druthal?  And how that was almost seven years ago?  Yeah, this is a story of patience, persistence and self-awareness.

Crown of Druthal has some really good bits to it.  It shows a certain degree of burgeoning talent that, in the John-Campbell-at-Astounding era of SF writing, might have found a mentor figure to shepherd it-- or me as a writer-- to the next level. 

I did do my research on agents and publishers, and despite it not being ready (which I didn't realize at the time), I started querying Crown.  My query letter was probably as not-ready, as I didn't get a single response.

But I was fired up, and not about to stop.  Because already at this point, I had realized I needed to think long game.  I needed to think with breadth.

IF I HAD SELF-PUBLISHED AT THIS POINT:  I would have put Crown directly to market.  I was even tempted, looking at services like Lulu or Xlibris.  And given that the responses of both my query attempts at the beta-readers I sought were so tepid, it's best that I did nothing of the sort.  Crown has some good bits, but it's mostly a plotless meander, a travelogue novel where what happens is dictated by where I wanted to take the characters on their tour of the worldbuilding work I did.  A self-published Crown of Druthal would have been a disaster, and I'm glad I trusted those voices (internal and external) that told me not to do it.

BUT DID I LEARN ANYTHING BY NOW?: I was finally getting a handle on how I wrote.  I had dropped any romantic notions of "just sit and write and see where it takes me."  It took me nowhere.  I learned that I needed to come up with an outline, and more than that, started to get the idea that a novel structure with a plot was crucial to writing something dynamic.