Monday, May 30, 2016

The Strangeness of Goodreads

As a rule, a writer shouldn't get too hung up with what happens on Goodreads.  You shouldn't get to hung up on reviews or ratings at all. Shouldn't.  Doesn't mean I don't pay attention to that stuff.  Because I definitely do.
Lady Henterman Announce CardAnd that's why I noticed that Lady Henterman's Wardrobe received a rating.    A four star rating.  Which is pretty strange for a book not yet out, but not entirely unheard of.  Even for announced-down-the-road books, it happens.  Scott Lynch announced titles for all seven of his intended Gentlemen Bastard books, and the four that are yet to be released all having quite a few ratings.  But in that case, there is progression.   Lady Henterman's Wardrobe is a sequel to The Holver Alley Crew, and that not even out yet.  I don't even have the draft for Lady Henterman's Wardrobe finished yet.*  So it is strange that it gets a random rating.
Even stranger?  The person who did it created an account exclusively to rate Lady Henterman's Wardrobe.  So this isn't some exuberant fan who is just rating all of my stuff purely on anticipation.  Their 4-star rating of Lady Henterman's Wardrobe is all they have.  Not even one of my other books.
Why did they make an account just for this.  It boggles me. Are they a time traveller?  Are they sending me a warning from the future, that Lady Henterman's Wardrobe is destined to be a 4-star book?   Do I have a chance to change things, based on their knowledge?  Or am I locked in a predestination paradox?
Or, it's just some strange random thing?
Probably that.
Even still: Lady Henterman's Wardrobecoming to a bookstore near you in 2018!
*-I am on pace to get it done when I need to, though.  So: no worries.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Perils of the Writer: Importance of Blogging

Collage 2Does one really need to blog to be a professional writer?  Well, of course not.  Does one need to maintain some kind of social media presence?  Again, of course not.
But at the same time-- it's not a terrible idea.
Now, I started my blog in 2009, but those early days involved posting in fits and spurts, that eventually dribbled down to nearly nothing, until February 2011, when I decided that the strongest course of action was to commit to a posting schedule I knew I could keep without burning myself out.  Thus: every Monday and Thursday.  It's a good bit of discipline for me, and I've now maintained it for over five years.
(Wow.  I just realized that.)
And, in general, I think it's fundamentally wise for authors to have some sort of platform to make announcements of what they're doing, what's coming out, where they'll be appearing, and so on.  Does it have to be updated with regular discipline? No.  Though it helps build readership if people can count on new content appearing regularly.  If you update once every few months, no one is going to be popping their head in to see "what's new".
Now, the other elements of social media?  I'm of the mindset that one uses them to point readership toward your main platform.  They can be handled in their own way, to each be uniquely interesting (in as much as you have the time and energy to do that*), but their primary function should be to aim toward the center of your online solar system.  Which, for me, is the blog.
That said, I might go on a bit of a blog-hiatus in July.  I haven't decided yet, but that month is going to be packed, and something is probably going to have to give.  Or, possibly, I'll re-run some blogs from the archive.  We'll see.
In the mean time, there's writing work to be done, and it isn't going to do itself.  Down to the Word Mines.
Also note: we've got about three weeks before the deadline to submit to the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop.  A great workshop that is very worth your time and money.
*- I really cannot Twitter. It moves so fast and consumes way too much attention, I can't possibly be active on it AND write. I'm amazed by the people who manage to be on there constantly riffing off witty bon mots AND knock out books with regularity.  Much respect to them.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Writer's Status Report - May 2016 Edition

My brain is a collection of rabbits, running in every which direction, that I am struggling to gather up.
Right now I'm working, in some capacity, on the two manuscripts for 2018, Lady Henterman's Wardrobe and A Parliament of Bodies.  Tied to that-- or at least to Parliament-- is a rewrite of an unsold manuscript. I've turned in a draft of Imposters of Aventil and I'm waiting to get editorial notes on it.  Plus Banshee and Untitled Fantatsy Project both call out, wanting their own attention.  And sometimes the writing brain just wants to play with the map.   The map bit can be especially frustrating, because I've reached the point where I'm messing with a Photoshop file that's half a gig.  It sometimes slows the laptop to a grind.
This is where my brain is right now.  A lot going on, which is, in all fairness, what I signed up for.  I'm happy to do it.
But at the same time, I've got some rabbits to catch.  So I'll get on it.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Perils of the Writer: Readings and Signings

On some level, the problem of "having" to do a reading or a signing is a minor one for a writer.  If you even have the opportunity, in general things are going well for you.
That said, taking the opportunity is something you should do judiciously.  Especially in bookstores.
See, when you do a reading or signing event in a bookstore, they'll naturally order a large chunk of your books, in anticipation of having many on hand to sell.  So what happens if they order 60 books and you only get five people there?  You'll get a lot of returns.  Do that too much, and you get A TON of returns.
See, readings and signings aren't really good events to find new readers.  They are for your existing, dedicated fans.  If you're not even sure if you have a fans in some other city, you shouldn't make a point of traveling there just to do a bookstore signing.
There is a next-level thing where the publisher sends you on a book tour.  I'm not there yet.  Very few writers are.  I'm of the mindset to trust that they'll know when it ought to happen.  To try to make it happen on your own can cause more damage than not.  I met one writer who nearly scuttled his career by trying to do events in every bookstore up and down California. All he accomplished was give himself a ton of returns, making his name toxic.  He had to reboot his career under a pseudonym.
Now, if you're at a con, and they give you a reading or signing time, I say take it and make the most of it.  Even if you only get one person.  There it's not hurting you: you're already there, and there isn't the same risk-of-return.  Getting one new reader, if that's all you get, is worth your time.
Well, it's worth your time if you enjoy doing it.  Personally, I like it a lot, and I think I do it pretty well.  But that's me.  I know plenty of writers who would rather gnaw off their own foot, and only do readings out of a sense of obligation.
So, hey, if we're at the same event, come hear me read, ask me to sign something.  You'll have a good time.
Speaking of, another reminder: I'll be at ArmadilloCon in July, where I'm running the Writers' Workshop.   Registration for the workshop goes until June 15th, so there's still plenty of time to polish that short story or novel chapter and send it in.  Feel free to hit me up if you have any questions about it.
Now, back to the word mines.  See you all down there.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Worldbuilding as a Living Process

Worldbuilding comes in three flavors, in my opinion: Top Down, Bottom Up and Concept Out.  Top Down is, for example, deciding that the world of your story is going to be a fantastical, secondary-world version of medieval Arabia or revolutionary France, and working from that downward.  Concept Out is taking a Big Idea-- let's say, Dragon People at war with Tree Folk-- and building everything out from that.  Bottom Up is taking the physical fundamentals: biomes, climate, flora and fauna, and finding the culture that could emerge from there, growing it over time.
All of these have their problems.  Top Down runs the risk of reading like "X With The Serial Numbers Filed Off".  Concept Out may create a world that only has one story in it.  Bottom Up requires a great deal of work just to get to the point where stories could be found.  
Full World Map Historical Work MapI started a Bottom-Up build, mostly as an intellectual exercise.  I did it to figure out more about Worldbuilding.  And, frankly, I felt I learned a lot in the process.  Which then let me go back to all the worldbuilding and map work I had done for Maradaine, and ask myself, "What can I do better?"
Maradaine's worldbuild, in all honesty, started over 20 years ago, and started in a very top-down way.  Map drawn, nations named, an then a one-sentence, high-concept, "This is what this country is."  It's grown exponentially from that, but there is still so much more that can be done.  But now I know so much more about worldbuilding.  I didn't know, for example, about Fertile Centers of Origin when I started that, or how it could help define a culture.  But I know it now, and that helps create a richer, fuller world.
The funny thing about that is on some level, I don't need to do it.  The city-centric focus of the Maradaine books means that I don't necessarily have to expand out the details beyond the city walls.   I don't have to know the regional distinctions of a country half a world away, or the history of how it went from bronze-age city-states to modern nation.
I don't need to know it, but knowing adds depth and richness.  Knowing means that if, say, I need to bring in an ancient artifact from a foreign or bit of historical background, I have it at my fingertips.  Kaiana can quote a scene from the play Queen Mara because I already know the who's, the what's and when's of Queen Mara.  Someone can mention off hand that the Third War of the Tongues happened in the Second Vitali Dynasty of the Kieran Empire because I already know the whole history of the Kieran Empire and how many Wars of the Tongues there were and what dynasty was when.  I can dig into the multiculturalism within the city-- as I do in both An Import of Intrigue and Holver Alley Crew-- because I not only know where and what Lyrana and Ch'omikTaa are, but the different historical reasons about why someone from those countries would be in Maradaine, and how that affects them today.  Or even why, linguistically, Ch'omikTaa has an apostrophe and capital T.*
This is all to say, no matter where one started with the worldbuild, and no matter how much you think you have, there is room for more depth, and room to bring in the tools of other processes to improve upon the work you've done.  I know I always want to do more, and do it better.  And just because I've already published stories in the world, it's far from meaning that the world is done.  It keeps growing and changing.
*- Glottal stop and retroflex stop, respectively.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Publishing Options and the Real Gatekeepers

The_Thorn_of_DentonhillLet me answer the question "What Publishing Method Is Best?" with the vague answer, "That depends on you."   I can tell you that, for me, the Traditional Publishing route was the best route.  Hands down.  I'm thrilled to have my books with DAW, and all the benefits that gives.  I'm not cut out for the self-publishing game, which requires a larger degree of chutzpah and hustle and salesmanship, let alone having to wear the Editor and Publisher hats.  Not for me.  
"But, Marshall," you'll say, "Not everyone gets that option.  There are the gatekeepers, Marshall!  The gatekeepers!"  Yes, that's true.  I think that's a value-added feature, but for someone striving to get through the gatekeepers to a publishing deal, I can see how it's mostly a frustration.  And thus self-publishing can appear alluring.  You get your stuff out there!  The people will decide!   
AMurderofMagesYeah, it doesn't really work that way, because "out there" isn't enough.  There's the next level of gatekeeping; the quieter, more insidious one.  
The Filter of Who Gives A Damn.
The fact that your book is out there, even with a pretty cover and the sabre of a Big Five Publisher to rattle, doesn't mean much when there is SO MUCH OUT THERE.  
For example, the now-shuttered SFSignal (sniff) would put out a monthly list of All The Stuff they could find that was coming out that month in SF, Fantasy and Horror.  For February, the month The Alchemy of Chaos came out, they listed 229 books.  That's just the ones that have some form of publisher behind them.  And Alchemy is there, at #61.  
But most of the review sites, news sites, blogs, etc. that talk about Genre Lit only have so many that they can talk about.  They have to pick, say, 10-12 each month to highlight as the ones they think are the most interesting.  When it comes to actually reviewing, there's the logjam of how many books the reviewer can actually read and write about.  Even a hyper-prolific speed-reader isn't going to break, say, 50 reviews a month.  
But the thing is, it's not that no one gives a damn, it's that they only have so many damns to give.  Publishing in and of itself isn't a zero-sum game, but the inches devoted to talking about what books are coming out is. 
The Alchemy of Chaos final front coverThe thing is, no one really knows what the magic bullet is for having a book be one of the Books People Are Talking About, beyond that special alchemy of a great book at the right time that gets into the right people's hands.  And even with the power of a Big Five Publisher behind you, they have limited power of what they're going to push, and how much they spent on something is a factor on how hard they'll push.  The book they gave a half-million dollar advance to is the one they're gonna try to get Time or Newsweek to talk about.  Not the twenty they gave $10K advances to. 
And for a self-published book?  Getting one of those limited supply Damns is pretty damn hard.  Not impossible-- just ask Andy Weir-- but pretty damn hard.
 If you aren't a person who can hustle to get one, just getting your book "out there" isn't going to be enough.  
So make good choices, and good luck out there.

Monday, May 9, 2016

I am become Shiva, Destroyer Of Worlds

Worldbuilding, for me, is a long-term process.  I'm kind of in awe of people who can just wing it-- start with some sort of High Concept, and go right to the writing, discovering the world as they go. I could never do that.  And I'm sure some people are "build what I need, figure out the rest later".  Again, I'm glad that they can do that; it doesn't work for me.
In fact, more often than not, I'll start the process, build stuff and go, "This is all wrong".  So there's nothing else to do but tear it all down, then use the previous work as a platform to build something better.
Space-Opera-Sample-MapWhen I first started my Space Opera setting, I had some initial concepts of humans in space, some alien races, and got to work on that.  I mapped out a munch of human-colonies, the space around those, etc.  And then it hit me: I have this mishmash of colonies and other worlds in star systems in close proximity to Earth that bear no relation to the actual star systems in close proximity to Earth.  It'd be like doing a story in which swampland and desert are found right outside New York City.  So I tore it down and rebuilt.
Right now, I've got something cooking that I'll just call Secret Project MSD.  It's very far away from being a thing I can really talk about, let alone have an actual sellable story.  And part of that is I just realized the worldbuilding was extremely flawed.  Short version: I started with a basic thought experiment as the high concept for the world, and took that to the next level.  And yet, at the heart of it-- the central characteristic of it-- there was still a very Brit/Celt/Western Europe core that I should have escaped from.  I'm not sure why I did that, other than thoughtlessness.
Especially since cutting that stale core only helps the overlying high concept.  Digging through those bad presumptions, I'm finding something far more intriguing, far more exciting to me.  And that may be why, despite having a fleshed out outline, I wasn't going any further with this particular project.  Deep down, I knew there was something stale and uninspiring about it.
So I tore it all down.  The outline can stay-- it's solid-- but many of the worldbuild presumptions will have to be re-examined, re-built and made better.
What's funny is how hard it can be for me to get this idea in my skull.  At one point, before I made the realization to rebuild the culture stuff in the center, I actually thought to myself, "It's a shame I can't have X in this world, because I've already established that this is Y."  
"Already established".  
As if the worldbuilding work I had done-- no significant storywriting beyond a few thousand words and outlines of the whole project, just worldbuilding work-- was so set in stone that my hands were tied.  Which was some crazy thinking.  
I know part of that is my mindset that writing it down makes it real, so even knowing that I can tear it apart and build it up again is something I rebel against.  Right now I'm also updating the world map for the Maradaine setting, and as I do things like clean up the coastlines (because the version is so old the coastline is blocky pixels), I still imagine the reality shifting under the feet of the people who live there.  Some fishing village gets eradicated by the hand of God when I move the photoshop eraser along the coast.  
But sometimes that's what you have to do to break out of bad patterns and write something more interesting. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Who Are Your Influences?

So, whenever that question pops up, I can't help but think of Jimmy Rabbit, trying vainly to hold auditions for the Hardest Working Soul Band in Dublin.
It's funny, because when I think about the books that influenced me, I'm kind of at a loss.  I mean, nothing that I read in my youth really match what I write.  I cite Zilpha Keatly Snyder and David Eddings as influences, and it's true.  They both opened my idea of what fantasy could be, and more specifically what it didn't have to be.  
That was important, because on some level I was always dissatisfied with the trappings of 'traditional' fantasy.  Even though Eddings fits in that category, it did it in a way that defied my earlier expectations.  Both Green-Sky and The Belgariad showed me that Fantasy didn't have to fit neatly into the genre boxes.  
I'm kind of thrilled that there is such a wealth of fantasy nowadays that doesn't fit neatly into the boxes.  The stuff that's proliferating today is exactly the sort of thing I craved back in the day.  And I'm glad to be a part of that.  Because the stuff I'm writing is, to a large degree, the sort of thing I wanted to read back then.
Hopefully that will influence some writer of tomorrow.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Hugos, Long Form Editor and Sheila Gilbert

So, the Hugo nominations came out, and to no one's surprise, much of the same mess as last year is happening again.  I'm not going to get into it.  Other people have said what I would say, and said it better, so I don't need to be another voice in that chorus.
Instead, I'm going to focus on the positive: My editor, Sheila Gilbert, is again nominated for Best Long Form Editor.  I'm THRILLED about this.
Now, I see a lot of chatter out there where people say, "What does it mean, 'Best' Long Form Editor.  How do we judge?  What did they work on?"  These are really valid questions, because to some degree, the better an editor's work is, the more invisible it would be.  Now, what an editor works on ought to be a relatively simple matter.  Fortunately, the fine people at DAW have presented a list of the 2015 books she worked on, including two of mine:
Now, I can't speak for any one else on this list, but I will gladly do what I can to help potential Hugo voters understand the editing process, make it as transparent as I can.  So: if you have questions that would help you decide if a "Best Long Form Editor" is deserved, you can ask me. I will gladly answer them as candidly as I can.