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Sep 23, 2009


"Ramifications of third level gematrian permutations of the Letter B in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales"

In T.K. Mouser’s methodology, the letter B is represented by 11, typed the PhD student. While this is an improvement over the simplistic Rationalist school’s approach of equating B with 2, it remains a second level permutation, which does not allow the same complexity of third level permutation. In the third level gematria advanced by the New School, however, all attempts at consistency are abandoned and the value assigned to Letter B is determined by random selection of an integer 0-9. The same methodology, of course, is applied to the other Letters, except in Scott’s system, in which Z and X are always 0, but CH is represented as a third level Letter.

After a moment, the student added, “[Note to self: What about TH?]”

Reading the computer screen over the student’s shoulder, the student’s room mate said, “I don’t get it. What does this have to do with Chaucer?”

“The only way to interpret texts such as Chaucer is to use gematria,” explained the student. “The old system was to equate A with 1, B with 2, C with 3, and so on. Then you add up all the numbers in a given word and compare it to other words with the same numeric value elsewhere in the text to find the hidden meanings.”

“The hidden meanings?” asked the room mate. “What about the actual meanings?”

“Only people who read for pleasure worry about that,” said the student. “This is Literary Criticism, not bourgeoisie consumption of literature as entertainment.”

“Oh,” said the room mate.

Indeed, typed the student, the rotating random assignment of a single digit numeric value to a Letter results in unsettling fluidity of interpretation, constantly transgressing the boundaries of conventional Alpha-Numeric dichotomies, contesting and problemetisizing the stereotypes of which Letter constitutes which number, and profoundly challenging the norms of racism and sexism.

“I don’t think most racists and sexists are going to be profoundly challenged by Literary Criticism,” said the room mate.

and heterosexism, added the student.

The student continued typing while the room mate wandered off to drink a soda. When the room mate returned, the student was typing:

…thus, since in this fourth reading of The Canterbury Tales, the word “reeve” had the same numeric value as “nun” but in the fifth reading, the same value as “weeping” this shows that…

“How can it show anything?” asked the room mate. “You just assign numbers randomly to words, and it’s not even the same numbers every time. I can’t believe you can get a PhD writing this nonsense.”

“I can’t believe you’re belittling my career like that.” The student sounded more sullen than wounded.

“Sorry. All I’m saying is, since the original words are just turned into random meaningless numbers, which are just compared to other random and meaningless numbers, and the whole point of the methodology is to prove that all literature is random and meaningless… well, why even bother reading The Canterbury Tales? You might as well just analyze Stephen King.”

A guilty flinch from the student compelled the room mate to lean closer. “Hey! You are just reading Stephen King.”

“Okay, yeeeeesss,” allowed the student. “But it’s still not easy to write this stuff. I have to churn out another fifty pages.”

“I’ll go get you a soda,” said the room mate.

Graduate School

If you've been kind enough to wonder if I've fallen off the face of the earth, I'm afraid I have, more or less: I'm in graduate school now, working on my PhD. Until the holiday break, I won't have much time to blog. For your amusement, however, I'll post a flash fiction inspired by my studies.

Jul 20, 2009

Where Does Your Brain Get Your Ideas?

I think writers are more familiar than anyone with the strange and unpredictable nature of inspiration. Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, a brilliant idea strikes. You might be awake or dreaming. You have to write it down NOW or you risk losing it.

I've always known the best stories arose out of primordial mental chaos. Now, science has proved it.

Networks of brain cells alternate between periods of calm and periods of instability - "avalanches" of electrical activity that cascade through the neurons. Like real avalanches, exactly how these cascades occur and the resulting state of the brain are unpredictable.

It might seem precarious to have a brain that plunges randomly into periods of instability, but the disorder is actually essential to the brain's ability to transmit information and solve problems.

...and write stories.

Jul 18, 2009

Book Sales for 2009

How are books selling in Great Depression II? Just great! As long as you take into account that "flat is the new up"!

Total U.S. book publishers’ net revenues reached $40.32 billion in 2008, up 1.0% over 2007, while 2008 unit sales reached nearly 3.1 billion, down 1.5% over 2007, according to Book Industry TRENDS 2009, the Book Industry Study Group’s comprehensive annual research study.

Jul 5, 2009

Writing Drunk or Sober

Some thoughts on writers and internet addiction:
I am coming to suspect that the internet will be to my generation of journalists, and to any younger ones, what alcohol was to our predecessors': a destroyer first of thought and then of productivity, destructive both of the capacity to reflect, and to react, blurring everything into a haze of talk and endlessly repeated variations on the same experience. Just like alcohol, and even cigarettes once were, it seems an inevitable part of the job, one of the things that distinguishes it from all others. Stories are chased and found on the net just as they once were in bars.

This won't kill journalism, or thought, of course. There were always many journalists who functioned drunk, and some who could not function any other way.

...But the internet has no edges, any more than it has depth. The sudden movement of someone else's thought across a screen is something you can follow far beyond the room in which your thoughts could be confined. There's no tether to jerk you back and by the time your thoughts return, the room has changed: whatever lay in front of the next sentence has disappeared. And so I sit now in a room with a window and no telephone, waiting for the next sentence, patient and pious as a dried-out drunk.

Consider this my explanation for why my blogging has been light of late.

Jun 29, 2009

Novels vs Poems, Integrity of Language

I've found a great way to come up with ideas for new blog posts is to just steal them from The Literary Lab and I've done that again. This post of theirs on revising has been percolating through my mind for some time now:

I consulted a poet friend that I have mentioned once or twice here before. His name is Craig Cotter, and over dinner I asked him why he made certain word choices or phrase constructions in several of his poems....

What I realized was that Craig had initially limited himself to what edits he was allowed to make. The source of his inspiration, the motivation that got him to write this poem in the first place, he felt, was preserved in that first draft, not in the idea of that first draft. That meant that he couldn't revise everything. He couldn't start from scratch with the same idea, because that would be a different poem--one that he could write at a different time.

My gut reaction reading this was to think, "But prose is different from poetry. A novel is different from a poem." A novel -- at least the kind of novel I write -- is all about the idea. The words are merely buckets which I use to scoop it up. I could imagine changing the buckets without changing the idea carried therein.

I also vaguely felt like I had visited this argument before.

Sure enough, I consulted Dancing at the Edge of the World a collection of essays by Ursula Le Guin and found the argument in the essay "Reciprocity of Prose and Poetry." She quotes Huntington Brown, who supported my gut's reaction:

If it be asked wherein a poet's attitude toward his matter diffres from that of a prose writer, my answer would be that in prose the characteristic assumption of both writer and reader is that the subject has an identity and an interest apart from the words, whereas in poetry it is assumed that word and idea are inseparable.

Fair enough, as far as I'm concerned, but Le Guin objects:

...there is in his definition an implication that cannot be avoided and should be made clear: It is the language that counts in poetry and the ideas that count in prose. Corollary: Poetry is untouchable, but prose may be freely paraphrased.

Er, yes. Precisely. What's the problem?

The integrity of a piece of language, poetry or prose, is a function of its quality; and an essential element of its quality is the inseperability of idea and language. When a thing is said right it is said right, whether in prose or poetry, formal discourse or cursing the cat. If it is said wrong, if it lacks quality, if it is stupid poetry or careless prose, you may paraphrase it all you like; chances are you will improve it.

Oh. Quality. Yes, well, that does it explain it, doesn't it. I daresay, you could take all of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and paraphrase it, and as long as you kept the magnificent idea of it, you'd have lost little. But I don't think you could do the same to A Wizard of Earthsea. This is not to insult either author, but simply reflects the fact that Asimov wrote his stories as though they were encyclopedia entries (and as a matter of fact, an encyclopedia entry on the fall of the Roman Empire inspired the entire Foundation series) whereas Le Guin wrote all her prose tales as though they were secretly poems.

Perhaps this is my problem, and why I'm struggling with uneven prose right now. At times, I also wish to gild my novel in secret poems. At other times, I merely want the easiest bucket to slosh it out onto the page. But sloshy words frustrate me, leading me to revise again and again. Each time I revise, I find that I have not merely paraphrased the poor wording, but changed the ideas, proving that words and ideas, after all, are inseparable. And so I've come around to the complete opposite conclusion of my gut reaction, but the same result. I must revise, like it or not, until the prose has more poesy.

Uneven Writing Quality

Even though I am not going to look at it again until I have heard back from my beta readers, I already know one problem with my wip is uneven prose. The first chapters and the last chapter are colored, curled and styled to a chic finish, whereas middle chapters look like a hair-cut by an ax. Even beta readers tend to gloss more over the middle than the beginning, as they suffer from crit fatigue. Does anyone else have this problem? Any solutions or tips?

Jun 28, 2009

Between Old and New

I haven't started writing yet on my Secret Novel (research continues) and I've forbidden myself from even looking at Dindi until I finish writing my critiques for my Beta partners and receive their crits on Dindi in turn. This leaves me with nothing to write or revise and I'm starting to get antsy. I've even -- deities help me -- taken to doing house work! (Desperate times indeed.)

Jun 26, 2009

Why Character Driven Fiction Can Be Subtle

I'm still at the research stage of my Secret Novel. I'm entering new territory with this novel. Dare I say it is literary?

Perhaps -- I've concluded after spying on the discussion over at The Literary Lab -- not.

Although the period of my piece is fairly contemporary, I see it as historical fiction. Some historical fiction is undoubtedly literary, but some must be mainstream. A definition to distinguish the two has been put forth: "what distinguishes literary fiction is what is left unsaid. Narrators may be self-absorbed or unreliable, things are pointed to without being explained." It is what happens "between the lines."

Thinking about a historical novel like The Source by James Michener, I wondered if what happens is between the lines. I decided, not really. The themes are deep and mind-blowing, almost incomprehensible, despite being stated as explicitly as possible.

I think most literary stories are character-focused and the game is all about inferring things about the characters from their actions, and the descriptions. Frankly, I think the reason it is easier to let these kind of stories be read between the lines is because most humans, perhaps especially most readers, have minds designed to understand other human minds. We cannot intuitively understand the passage of 6,000 years -- on the contrary, to be comprehensible, even this must be shown to us through characters. It must be brought to a human level.

When those other factors are not present, the focus on characters can be subtle in the extreme -- because we have (or at least some of us do) exceedingly refined cognitive powers of inference when it comes to unlocking human motives, emotions and relationships.

I recently finished The Favorite by Mary Yukari Waters. I don't often read the literary genre, so I wasn't certain what to expect. Indeed, for the first third of the book, I kept waiting for "something" to happen. All that appeared on stage was a bunch of female relatives taking tea together, going on walks, and talking about their family relationships. Okay, I get it, I thought, the relationshipsare the plot, but even so... I persevered and a strange thing happened. (Don't laugh, I'm new at this!) I truly began to feel I could enter the minds of these people, like a telepath. And I realized the illusion of telepathic powers was so convincing in part because nothing else dramatic was happening. It was as if I could reach in to the ordinary minds of ordinary people and experience their greatest fears, sorrows, joys and memories.

I have a recurrent fantasy, which often occurs to me when I am walking or driving, of acquiring the ability to read the minds of passers-by, total strangers. I wish to experience qualia as another does (the holy grail of philosophers), to become another person, then return to being myself with full comprehension of both.

There are, of course, many telepathic characters in science fiction, and even in wider fiction, but how convincing this telepathy is depends on the skill of the writer. If the writer is not also a telepath/empath, the portrayal can be weak indeed. According to the cognitive science "theory of theory of mind" (sic) we are all mind readers, to a greater or lesser extent. Those of us closer to the autistic side of the spectrum may prefer genres which tend to have flatter, easier-to-read characters, whereas those with highly honed hyper-acute mind reading skills may find flat characters painfully boring. Such readers need meatier fare, more subtly flavored, and salivate at the challenge of discerning every nuance of realistic relationships between imaginary minds.

I would love to be able to cook up such characters -- in theory. But am I really capable of focusing so finely on characters? I'm not sure. I tend to think more abstractly than empathically, and so I am frequently distracted by other sorts of patterns besides mind reading. I gravitate toward histories more than memories, philosophies more than personalities and clever ideas more than realistic characters.

I do want to mind read my characters as deeply and realistically as possible, but, I realize, not for their own sakes as much as for what they can tell me about their societies, cultures and the great events in which they've participated. In always grasping at the larger picture, I worry I may miss many of the subtle details.

Jun 16, 2009

Choosing a Character who Sees Deeply

I really want to reveal the nature of my secret novel, before I make it so mysterious that it becomes a let down when I finally do reveal it.

That said, I'm not ready to talk details yet. As Scott Bailey mentioned in the comments on his blog post about outlining, it's not so much because I'm trying to keep it secret as that I don't feel comfortable jinxing it before I have a draft. So, for now, it's still the secret novel.

That said, I'll still discuss a problem in general terms, if I may. That's choosing a character who can see deeply.

I have several characters already chosen for me, as it were, by the nature of the novel. I know who my four main pov characters must be, at least in broad strokes. I still have to make sure, however, that the personality of these characters is not only sympathetic enough to justify being a protagonist, but profound enough to have insights into their own situations.

This is tricky.

I don't want the characters to be a mere mouthpiece for me the author. On the other hand, there are certain philosophical observations I would like my characters to be in a position to explore. I have to make certain I don't make them all dingbats. At the same time, their pov is going to be necessarily limited by where they are and what they are allowed to see, so I mustn't give in to the temptation to make them all knowing, either.

Unless I bypass my characters and write in omniscient.

I didn't realize how tempting that would be.

Or... here is a strange idea. I could introduce an omniscient narrator who is actually revealed to be a character at the end of the book. This voice over could philosophize along the way.

Hm. Probably I should just avoid the temptation to philosophize altogether.

Is it important to you to have a character who sees deeply, who is intelligent and observant, or do you prefer to work with "naive" characters, who, while themselves innocent of what is really going on around them, allow the reader to see past them, into the real situatoin?

Running Out Of Future

Uh oh, is science fiction running out of future?


Are all the "cool dates" taken?!

Jun 15, 2009

RWA vs Epublishers

An interesting confrontation between the RWA and the world of epublishing, defended here by agent and author Deidre Knight.

RWA’s current stance on e-books is that a publisher must offer at least a $1,000 advance in order to qualify for legitimacy. Never mind that many digital authors far exceed that amount in royalties, or sell more than 5,000 copies of print editions of their e-published titles. The problem with RWA’s simplistic criteria is that it ignores one crucial fact. Our industry is changing radically, with traditional publishers seeking innovative models for overhauling their distribution and content.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about RWA’s position that e-published authors who make more than $1,000 in royalties are a rare exception. As an agent, I have seen a fair number of statements for clients writing for Ellora’s Cave and Samhain. The majority of these writers have passed that $1,000 benchmark within the first few months. I’m sure some of the smaller e-publishers sell fewer copies of titles, but lumping all e-publishers together and stating that most of their authors don’t earn $1,000 a title is misleading. It’s like comparing royalties earned at St. Martin’s Press to those from a tiny print publisher of romances. All print publishers are not created equally any more than all digital publishers are.

If RWA truly wants to protect authors, then it’s time to join the 21st century where the rules of the digital market are changing daily. As I write this, a new initiative between and Simon and Schuster was just announced, a partnership to bring digital content to members of this emerging community. Considering the priority that print publishers are obviously placing on developing digital content, for RWA to disavow e-publishers is a disservice to all their members.
...Consider, too, that e-publishing can be a tremendous beginning point for many authors, leading to even bigger careers with mainstream publishers. Within my own agency, I signed on e-authors such as Rhyannon Byrd, Dakota Cassidy, and Joey Hill, and in each instance, their track record in e-book format caught New York’s attention, as did the reviews they’d earned.

Not only did I sell digitally published authors to houses such as Random House, Penguin Putnam and Harlequin, but their e-readership followed them to print, launching them with a huge built in advantage in such a tough market. In many cases, authors who begin with e-publishers choose to continue writing for those companies, even as they forge ahead with traditional New York houses. Surely, RWA can see the value in these examples, and how e-publishing could potentially benefit their members.

As a third generation entrepreneur, I’ve learned firsthand that you either change with the times by adapting to the market or you are left behind. When the automobile first came along, buggy whip manufacturers saw themselves as being in the whip business, when they should have understood that they were in the transportation business. We are now in the literary content business, and the physically published book is only one of several delivery formats, yet another “device” to hold, much like the Sony Reader, the Kindle, or your iPhone. Like the buggy whip manufacturers, RWA must modify their organizational model or be left behind…their membership along with them.

Jun 14, 2009

Writing and Empathy

I think the basic substance of literature is the exercise of empathy. Some stories stretch our brains more deeply, but all offer the possibility of imagining other lives, other minds, and other points of view.

While I believe we humans create art for art's sake (unlike ants) that doesn't mean art doesn't also enhance our existence in other ways.

We put ourselves into someone else's shoes for the duration of the story. Research has shown "that merely imagining positive contact with members of an out-group can help improve attitudes towards that group."

In an initial experiment, Rhiannon Turner and Richard Crisp had half of 25 students aged between 18 and 23 spend two minutes imagining a positive encounter with an elderly person, whilst the remaining students imagined an outdoor scene. These were the specific instructions for the imagined contact group: "imagine yourself meeting an elderly stranger for the first time. Imagine that during the encounter, you find out some interesting and unexpected things about the person."

Afterwards, the students who'd imagined meeting an elderly person subsequently showed more positive attitudes towards elderly people than did the control group.

Of course, a lot of writing which attempts to do this too clumsily comes across as mere propaganda. And, speaking of propaganda, we know literature and other media can be used to whip up hate and bigotry just as easily as empathy.

Even if stories promote a good cause, the power of stories to model human behavior has always been a two edged sword, both coveted and feared by those who want to push a social agenda. For instance, another study found that watching tv can convince you to donate a kidney.

Participants were asked to watch a selection of episodes from popular TV dramas with storylines that included both positive and negative depictions of organ donation, and then complete surveys that assessed a range of factors related to how strongly the viewer had been influenced by the storylines (and no small potatoes here; more than 5000 people completed the House survey).

The results: viewers who were not organ donors before watching the dramas were more likely to decide to become one if organ donation was portrayed positively and if characters in the show explicitly encouraged it. Viewers who reported emotional involvement with the narrative were significantly more likely to become organ donors. And, finally, viewers clearly acquired knowledge from the content of each drama – whether it was accurate or not.

And that’s the “depending on how you look at it” part of this. The study is really telling us a couple of different things: emotional involvement with narrative affects the way people think, and supplies knowledge that may very well not be true. Most people would probably agree that organ donation is a social good, and if TV dramas encourage it then all the better — but, the troubling part is that the same dynamic driving the good can also serve up the bad with equal effectiveness. Pseudoscience, vaccine alarmism, and quackery of every flavor proliferates just this way.

This also opens a conundrum for writers. Is it important for your story to convey the "right" message, to model "good" behavior -- to combat racist stereotypes, for instance, or teach people to think in a new way? Or is it more important to show the "truth", even if it's ugly or sets a "bad" example? Or do you want to deliberately shock and upset any conventional sense of right or wrong? Even if you do have a message, does trying to push it actually make the reader resist it? Even if you don't have a message, can you really tell any story without conveying a message, whether you want to or not?

Jun 10, 2009

Blending Facts Into Historical Fiction

Back at work on my Secret Novel, I'm working in a new genre -- literary (in my case, perhaps merely psuedo-literary) and historical.

By historical, however, I actually mean "1978-1998" so I'm also facing a new quadary. When I am writing a story loosely based on real people, what restrictions apply? My account is fiction and names and particulars are different, but is there a point at which historical research veers off into obnoxious intrustion into privacy, or even purgery? Is it gauche to base a fictional account on someone's real biography?

How overgrown with fictional elements should a portait be before it is wholly itself? And yet, if it is too changed, does it not betray the realism needed to tell the story?

[Art by Levi Van Veluw.]

Jun 9, 2009

Why Don't Ants Have Art?

Lady Glamis has a series on her blog on the nature of art.

Questions like this tend to send my mind down different lanes. Look at the beautiful sand castle in the picture. I would call it art if humans had crafted it. In fact, however, it's a termite fortress, and I wouldn't call it art. Not because it was created by non-humans, but because it wasn't created for any of the reasons art is created.

If you are like me (I hope, for your sake, you aren't), you spend an inordinate amount of your time asking yourself, "How do humans differ from the social insects? And why?"

Our species has, in some ways, much more in common with ants than with other mammals. No other mammals build heated and air conditioned appartment buildings, share nursery duties on a large scale, divide labor into different roles, wage wars. Ants do.

But ants do not paint, sculpt, write or dance. They clearly could, if they were moved to, just as they weave leaves into homes or build bridges across rivers. They just don't because, after all, what purpose does art serve?

What purpose does art serve? In the essay of Lady Glamis' friend, it's suggested art makes us feel; perhaps it also leads us away from wickedness and toward goodness. (This was a matter of contention in the comments section.) Perhaps. Ants, after all, don't have morality or religion either. Why on earth would we need external, physical objects made by our fellow beings to help us feel? Yes, it's a form of communication, but of such a subtle and subjective nature it cannot be of any use for the usual purposes communication serves.

From the earlies age, children naturally create art. All human beings, and all human cultures, crerate some art. We can argue about who does it better -- perhaps the competition to perform or create superior art is the only explanation for how it evolved? -- but that doesn't explain why we do it at all. Why we need it. Why the thought of a society which suppressed all art is an example of a living hell. Why the struggle to control art is dear the hearts of all who hunger for power over the minds of their fellows.

Suppose you were the last human being left alive on Earth. No agents, no audience. No buyers, no lovers. No reason to create art. Would you?

I don't know about you, but I probably would. It would, in fact, be only through the creation of art I would endure such a situation at all. And that's quite strange, isn't it?

Jun 8, 2009

A Wasted Day

There are many days I can't work because I have other pressing activities. That's frustrating, but it's a neccessary evil. Today, however, I had time to work, and wasted it. That's beyond frustrating. It leaves me deeply depressed.

Of course, I suppose I was depressed to begin with, since instead of working, I stewed the whole day long in stressful thoughts about my inability to face the future with my current resources (mental as well as physical). It was one of those days when my inadequacies pointed and laughed at my aspirations, and even at noon, the sun shone grey. I ate too much, tasted too little.

I scrolled through various Word files on my screen, but typed nothing. I thought about painting, but baskets of laundary were piled between me and my art desk. I thought about doing laundary, but returned to my computer.

Scrolled some more, typed nothing.

Worried some more, solved nothing.

Tommorrow, I am not going to worry, and I'm not going to even try to type one word. I think I'll read. And try to go outside.

Jun 6, 2009

Another Round

I finished another round of revisions in order to have a draft for my later beta readers. In this version, which is still rough around the edges and missing one scene, I strengthened the story line of the hero.

One of the critiques of an early beta reader was that the story made a promise to the reader at the start which was never carried out by the end. I've revised that so that hopefully the reader will see how the story promise has been delivered. (Vague, I know, but I don't want to get too much more specific.)

While working on revisions, I've simultaneously been working on the second book, but I'm now now sure. Should I keep working on book two or should I "refresh the palette" with some work on another book?

I suppose I'll follow my inspiration; if I continue to go strong on book two, I will. But sometimes it does help me to take a break between projects and work on something completely different.

Does anyone else do that?

Jun 3, 2009

In Need of Villains

I have an idea for an Urban Fantasy, but I need an idea for the Big Baddies. I'm tired of demons, werewolves, and vampires. A goverment conspiracy run by a corrupt US senator who wants to sell arms to terrorists? Uh, no. That is so done.

What kind of villains would be original, badass, re-newable (can't be just one dude, I need my heroes to plow through a lot of 'em), something interesting enough you'd like to read it?

Both sf (aliens, robots) and fantasy (demons, necromancers) type ideas welcome. What kind of villain hasn't been done that would be supercool?

Jun 1, 2009

Guest Post on The Literary Lab

The Literary Lab was kind enough to invite me to guest blog. This week they are exploring the strengths and weaknesses of different genres. I've taken the opportunity to jot down a theory I've developed on the appeal (or repulsion) of Epic Fantasy.

May 31, 2009

Passing Time in Fiction

Following my post on middles, I reflected on what it is about the middle which is specifically giving me the most trouble. I've decided it's because the middle is where I need time to pass, without specifically showing it. The beginning runs fairly fast, over a few weeks, and the ending runs quickly as well -- over just a few days in fact. In the middle, however, nearly a year must pass.

You know those sequences in movies? Where they show montages of characters doing things, intersperced with pictures of the trees losing their leaves, growing frosty, then budding into green? How does one show this in a novel? Especially because I want the reader to have a sense of being right there with the characters all along, I don't want to say, "A year later..." because that feels like we've left the characters to their own devices for a year, then returned to them. I'd like to show little bits of scene and scenery every half dozen weeks as the year goes by, then return to the blow by blow action at the end.

And all of this is complicated by the fact that I'm juggling two timelines, because there's a flashback sequence interspliced with the main storyline.

What are your best techniques for passing time that you've used or read? Any ideas?

May 30, 2009

Mush in the Middle

Why do the middles of books, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tend to get so mushy, squished and icky?

I am trying to brush up my book and I think the beginning and ending are adequate, but Chapters 12 and 13 are simply undigestible. I honestly don't know what to do with them.

Some of the problems are:

* too many truncated scenes giving a staccato feel to the chapters
* low tension sub-plots
* time bridges
* scenes which serve to set up later tension but are otherwise boring
* merely cutting or combining scenes results in illogical sequencing

May 29, 2009


I have a major character who is going to make a decision which will turn him from a hero to a villian. (Or as my son would say, "a bad guy!")

I'm torn.

I want him to bear responsibility for his own fall. He makes the choice unaware of the ultimate consequences -- he doesn't become a villain all at once. But he does make the choice.

At the same time, I also want the reader to retain sympathy for him as he descends into darkness, and even when he is called upon to do terrible things, understand why he is doing them (at least, how he justifies them).

Should I have him make his initial choice -- which sends him down the "wrong" path -- already be for selfish reaons, or for altruistic reasons?

May 24, 2009

Bad Guys

My son recently discovered Bad Guys.

Previously, all the stories we read to him and the tv shows he watched had no villains: Goodnight Moon, Barnyard Dance, Go Dog Go, Maisy Mouse, My Friend Rabbit, Theodore Tugboat.

Now he's suddenly the biggest fan of Superman, Batman and Spiderman; and his favorite book is The Lorax. All stories with Bad Guys. (And he interprets the themes quite literally. Hence, he suggested sending Spiderman to stop the neighbors' tree trimmers.)

By coincidence or not, he now also has the concept of friends, both "for real" and "for pretend." Superheroes help each other; bad guys "boom" each other. ("Boom" is always accompanied by an agitated finger gun motion.)

With the introduction of antagonists--and allies--into his story lines, his imaginative play is much more sophisticated.

It's funny, because I've always considered a story with no real bad guys to be the more sophisticated kind of story, albeit very hard to achieve. But I think it's fascinating to see how a child's understanding of conflict matures, and I wonder if this is a necessary stage. Once I would have said no, it was simply a symptom of our binary, dualistic, Cartesian culture, or maybe the military industrial patriarchy or something like that. (The fault of the Bad Guys, in other words). Now I'm not so sure.

One could blame my son's new obsession with Bad Guys on the content of the stories, but I think has as much to do with perception as content. Before, when he watched Cars, the main thing he took away from it was cars driving, and that was enough to thrill him. Now he notices the rivalry between Lightning McQueen and his friends and the Mean Green Car (and Frank, the Monster Harvester).

Meanwhile, my husband and I amuse ourselves during the 164th viewing of Cars by commenting on the deep philosophical meaning of the soul which has lost it's being being like a car which must rebuild it's own road. (Fun Fact: There's a car with the Apple symbol on the hood in the first race.)

Yeah. We've seen that movie WAY too much.

May 14, 2009

To Strive, To Seek, To Find, and Not to Yield

The Literary Lab had a post recently about making each word, each sentence count in a novel. There was some argument in the comments about whether this was possible, or even desirable.

One interesting accusation was that novelists who try to do this are secretly short story writers who haven't figured out the difference between 1000 and 100,000 thousand words.

It may be even worse. It may be that novelists who try to do this are secretly poets.

At times, especially if I've been off my meds for several days, I think of my novel as a ballad or epic of the ancient sort, in heroic rhyme. And why not? Much of the source material, the original epics upon which modern fantasies base their structure, were book-length poems.

When I become stuck in my prose, and everything I type is ugly and repetitive, when all beauty and simplicity escapes me, I fall back on poetry.


I write a scene as a poem. Sometimes even with aliteration and rhyme, though often just with unrhymed metered verse. I write it one line, one word, at a time. I let the rhyme and meter decompose through layers of editing. I rearrange and deconstruct and reconstruct until the bedrock poem is there only as a skeletal structure, disguised by less ornate prose. Consistantly, beta readers rave over these as my best passages--and want to know why the rest of the prose is so unispired and infantile by comparison.

Well, now you know why.

Should I do this with every single scene? I am not sure. There's the danger that taken to extremes, stacking too many such scenes, purple prose could accumulate to toxic levels. But more to the point, I just finished a scene like this and found that, after four hours, I had written... 400 words.

Still, if it takes an hour to write a 100 decent words, isn't that better than spewing 1000 words an hour if those words are worthless and ugly? If they must be re-written again and again regardless?

What about those scenes which errupt like volcanoes, far too fast for poetry, but hot with plotty goodness and juicy character tension?

Ah, at least, though, hot and fast or cool and slow, I remember at such times why I love writing.

May 13, 2009

When Do You Lose Your Voice?

I've been on both sides of the beta read.

In the following hypothetical situations, I've also been the reader making vague or specific suggestions. For simplicity's sake, I'll discuss it from the writer's side today.

I've experienced what it's like to have someone tell me: "This paragraph [scene/chapter/last third of the book] doesn't work. You could probably cut about 10,000 useless words if you tighten this."

My response: That's great, but how? If I knew which words were useless, I wouldn't have included them.

Then again, the beta reader may rewrite the five-page scene where the hero and heroine storm the castle as, "They ate ice-cream."

My response: Wtf? That isn't what I wanted to say, or how I would have said it.

However, frequently I do accept a beta reader's suggested changes, especially of clunky sentences, even scenes, wholesale.

Suppose what I had written was originally, "Laboriously, yet also suddenly and instantaneously the bullet kaboomed and zoomed out of the gun muzzle on the gun she was holding and pointing at him, hurtling through the air like a speeding bullet, which in fact it was, until it began to pierce his broad yet vulnerable chest, fragmenting bone and hurting a lot."

The beta reader suggests, "She shot him."

And I think, "Brilliant! This captures the whole thing in just three words! Why didn't I think of that?"

But then a part of me looks at the stripped down version, and wonders, but has it lost my voice? Did I do more than put out the fire on the roof, did I kill the spark in the lamp?

Do you ever worry about losing your voice during rewrites?

May 11, 2009

The World's Worst Food

I needed a disgusting, yet believable food for a scene in my book. A previous scene already covered the dietary needs of cannibals, and I needed this to be even worse than that.

Little did I know there were so many contenders.

After some thought, I decided to keep the Icelandic name for the chosen dish, an indelicacy which has been declared "the world's worst food": hakurl -- putrified poison shark.

So what does hakarl taste like then? It tastes like crying. It tastes like broken promises. It tastes like the Lord God Almighty ripping the Bible out of your hands and saying, "Sorry, this doesn't apply for you. I think you want "Who Moved My Cheese?" It tastes like the Predator wading into a Care Bears movie and opening fire.

Sadly, I won't be able to use this description of it, much as I would love to.

May 9, 2009

Hearing Back From Beta Readers

Another of my fine beta readers sent comments back to me on The Corn Maiden. This is for the version prior to my current revisions, so I expected to hear about problems.

It's funny, isn't it? Your head can tell you that you want hear what the problems are, you need this information; your heart, however, just wants to hear affirmations. So I opened the email and attached file with rumble-belly dread. How bad is it?

Actually, the criticisms were extremely consistent with what other beta readers said.

(1) To paraphrase: Why is every single character, including your MC, unable to see the Completely Obvious Plot Point? Is everyone in your story world really Too Stupid To Live?

(Answer: Er... not really, no. Just the author!)

(2) The pacing drags in places. (I hope to find out more about which scenes were boring when I read the line-edit comments).

This beta reader also pointed out two new things:

(3) The hero is too perfect; he hasn't enough flaws to seem human.

(4) The opening scene in the story promised one thing, but the main character plot arcs delivered something else; if not for the set-up, the story would have been fine, but after the expectations set by the opener, the story disappoints. Ouch.

Finally, the beta reader made an interesting point, not about how things were wrong, but asking about a change.

(5) There are three major story threads in the book: the main story, a subplot in the present, and a subplot in the past. Each thread, though intertwined with the others, is independent enough to not need the others. This reader found the subplot in the past to be the strongest, and wanted to know why I didn't just make it a book in and of itself, or, alternatively, cut the subplot in the present entirely. Undeniably, either of these actions would take care of my word count problem!

I'm hoping the present revisions address issues (1) and (2). Issues (3) and (4) are both related to the fact (the beta reader recognized the problem), that this book opens a series, and not as a stand-alone novel. I'm not sure what to do about this. My original plan was to go the traditional route and give the first book in the series a "safe" ending, a happy-for-now-ending. That just didn't work. There's no way to end it without a cliff-hanger. And if the reader senses that the real story is just beginning, they're right. (It's comparable in this way more to The Fellowship of the Ring than The Hobbit.)

So I agree with 4 of the 5 criticisms. However, I disagree with (5). Yes, I could have three short, stand-alone novels for the price of one. (Don't think this hasn't occurred to me!) Yes, it would help with my word count if I eliminated one or even two of the subplots. However, the three plots are like strands of a braid. Though they could each work alone, I believe they are stronger together; together, they subtly change the meaning of the whole, making it more than the sum of its parts. At least, that is how it is meant to work, how it works in the books I most admire.

The story is an epic, after all. I find it's hard to convey epic with a single-strand story.

In a story with multiple plotlines, it's natural that some readers relate more to certain characters' story arcs than others. As long as different readers prefer different plotlines, this is not a flaw, but a strength. I've already noticed that some of my beta readers favor certain characters over others, and -- this is the good part -- they aren't the same characters. This is how it should be. If every reader universally panned the same subplot, it would be different, and I would have to consider deleting or seriously revising that subplot. I still wouldn't eliminate subplots altogether, however.

May 7, 2009

Hand, Heart, Mind and Soul

Why do we have genres? Some writers hate genre labels. They believe genres were invented by book stores to shove novels onto the narrow shelves of commercialism.

This is probably true. But it's not the whole truth. I think genres exist because they recognize deep and important differences in novels. It's easy to stop thinking deeply about genre, so here's a different way to look at it.

Is your story a tale of the Hand, Heart, Mind or Soul?

What kind of power does you protagonist need solve his or her problem?

* * *

Hand - Tales of the Hand are action stories. (Perhaps these would be better called Tales of the Foot, but that sounds funny.)  To succeed, the hero needs to run for his life -- or kick ass. Usually a combination of both. The energy in this kind of story is kinetic. Non-stop action. Ticking bombs. Countdowns. Explosions.

The hero of a Hand Tale might not be a brainiac, but he shouldn't be a meathead. Though the problems in this kind of story might come down to a slug fest with the villain in the end, the heroine may also have to be a brilliant problem solver. After all, she has to use all her wits and experience to figure out how to stop the ticking bomb, the enemy spy, the traitor in the government or the shark eating everyone at the beach.

Heart - The heart of the problem in a Heart Tales is a relationship. Romances, of course, are Heart Tales and deal with many permutations: Learning to trust and love, proving worthy to win a love, overcoming misunderstandings to love.

But not all Heart Tales have to be romances. There are other kinds of relationships -- friendships, parent/child and grouchy old man/lovable puppy.

Usually heart stories fall in the romance genre if they involve a love story, into YA if they involve a girl and her horse, chic lit if they involve four feisty female friends and literary if they involve an old man and an acquatic creature.

Just kidding about that last one. Old man and acquatic creature stories probably fall under Soul. See below.

Mind - Stories which make you think are dear to my heart. Most of science fiction and fantasy falls under this catagory, but many mysteries do as well. One way to look at the difference between these genres is to imagine which curriculum would best serve the hero in a story like this. For sf, you'd enroll your hero in physics, chemistry and maybe biology. For fantasy, you'd want her to brush up on your anthropology, history and metaphysics classes. For mystery, your sleuth had better understand psychology. Forensics wouldn't hurt either!

These stories often pose a puzzle, and guide the reader down a path of clues and red herrings until it is solved. But not all Mind stories are genre and not all sf, fantasy or mystery stories are Mind stories.

Soul - What if your story is really a close examination of the human psyche? In a sense, all stories are ultimately a study of humanity, simply because humans are writing the stories, but Soul stories ask not merely what it is to be human (like Mind stories) but what is it like to be this particular human being? I think about it like this sometimes: an Mind wants to know, what does the protaganist have in common with all other human beings? Where as a Soul story wants to know, like the youngest Passover child, how is this human being different from all other human beings?

Soul stories, told well, must have as rich a setting and be as accurate historically as needed to explain the individual life-history of this single soul (or two or three souls). The world built may be on a smaller scale. In a fantasy story, if one shows what the protaganist had for breakfast, the purpose is to show What Elves Eat For Breakfast; in a Soul story, the purpose must be to show how this habit or this meal has gone into shaping an individual. ("I no longer ate eggs at breakfast; even seeing a styrofoam egg container reminded me of my dead wife.") To "solve" a Soul story, the protaganist needs to follow the dictim, "Know Thyself."

All good stories have a bit of Soul, without being Soul stories. The difference is usually one of degree, and of intent. Other stories need compelling characters to keep you interested in the action, setting, relationship or ideas of the story. Soul stories need to have action, setting, relationships and ideas to keep you interested in the characters.

* * *

Of course, it can't be said enough, no book will be wholly one and not the other. Some of my favorite storiese are disguised as one genre, but really something wholly different. Take the spy thriller Dark Star. It appears to be a noir spy story, a class Hand tale of cross and double-cross. It's also a close study of a man crushed by political and personal disillusionment. In fact, however, it is a Mind story with a philosophical historical question at the heart of it: Who was the worse monster, Hitler or Stalin?

May 6, 2009

Baby Steps

My second son is learning to walk. (I wish he would learn to crawl first, but he's stubborn. Clearly, this is something he gets from his father!) There's nothing more humbling than watching the determination of a child learning to walk. He wobbles and falls. He steps and falls. He falls forward on his belly, he falls backward on his butt. He tips over to one side. No matter how or how many times he falls, though, he just giggles and grins and tries to take another step.

Who am I to complain about how hard it is to learn to do something right?

I also should keep in mind, when I am beta reading, that it wouldn't occur to me to chide my son for screwing up at this walking business. Beyond the occasional, "Whoops! Down you go!" I don't sit there pointing out all the things he's doing wrong. I just cheer him on when he gets it right.

I know the most powerful feedback is specific, positive feedback; this is something I need to remember when I give critiques. (I do promise to avoid cooing at my reading partners in high pitched nonsense babble.)

May 2, 2009

The Next Mountain

This time the revisions are going to do the trick. This time, I'll get the book right.

This mountain is the last in the range I have to climb. Then I'll be there.

Or so I tell myself.

I've told myself this before. On the last mountain. In fact, I've been telling myself since the first mountain. Just one more step. That will be enough.

Only, it's never enough. It's still not right. There's a mountain after this one. And another mountain. And another. The truth is, I have no idea how many more mountains I have to cross till I'm over the range. I thought the journey would be so much easier when I started out. If I had known how far I had to go, what a truly awful writer I was and how hard it was to become a good writer, would I have been able to start out on that journey?

Learning to write has taken me the same amount of time -- and effort -- and possibly even money -- as going to med school. For no degree and a lot less profit. If I had known that, might I have just elected to become a doctor instead? (Certainly, this is the point Certain Relatives kept trying to impress upon me.)

What if I had known how bad I was at the beginning, back when only adoring parents and teachers read my stuff and proclaimed me the Best Writer Ever? While highly unlikely it would have launched my medical career, it's possible I would have been too depressed to write. As it was, I had the immunity of youth. I heard people say you had to write a million words of dreck -- the equivalent of ten 100,000 word novels -- before achieving anything even close to mastery. Being a teenager, I assumed I was exempt. Because I was so good, you see. Natural talent would make it unnecessary for me to work as hard to achieve as much as soon as other writers. I still planned to work hard, but more from noblesse oblige than need.

I like to think that, if nothing else, I've learned to be able to hear how much further I still have to go without giving up.

Or maybe I'm just still trying to paint one leaf.

May 1, 2009

The Spandrals of Literature

It goes to show how out of touch with blogging I've been lately that three favorite literary bloggers are collaborating over at the Literary Lab and I completely failed to notice until now. Truly pathetic.

However, I believe my round of close edits is strengthening the book, and I'm only about a third of the way through. There's still a few extremely hard scenes left to tackle; the very last conversation between my hero and my heroine before the end of the book, for one.

Meanwhile, I am ferreting out all the spandrels in my book. These are scenes which I originally included because I had to. You know, I had to logically explain how Person A arrived at Place B and how it connected to Plotline C, but beyond that, it wasn't much fun. The scene was boring but functional. Beta readers didn't always complain about these dull scenes, because it was obviously necessary to keep the roof from falling down on the plot, but no one danced the jitterbug of Oh-Wow-I-Love-This-Part over these scenes either.

My goal is to change all that. My goal is to make these spandrels included on the Highlights of the Cathedral tour, to turn them into panda's thumbs, or even ballistic missiles. I want to take them from being dull but functional to riveting and critical.

One of the marks of a truly good book, I think, is when as a reader you honestly can't tell the functional from the facinating scenes, the veggies from the dessert. Every scene serves a nutritious plot function, and every scene also delivers delicious plot frosting.

Apr 30, 2009


In the show Babylon 5, there was an order of technomages, who used technology to simulate magic. Not surprisingly, there really are technomagicians like this one. His tricks in this video, according to my friend, were "done in real-time, no post-production graphics."

Edits Continue

I continue revivsions. I'm trying to follow Maass's suggestion of making certain each scene has microtension -- mini-mysteries and conflicts embedded at the sentence and paragraph level.

Also, I was stunned to discover Dindi Book 1 lacked cannibals. I've rectified that.

Apr 27, 2009

Blog Lite and Notebook Computer

It's not a notebook computer, it's a notebook which thinks it's a computer.

Blog Lite continues, I'm afraid, as I focus intensively on using the Maass book to strengthen The Corn Maiden. I'm finding book books to be extremely useful at this stage of my editing. I hope the changes I'm making will really help the book.

Apr 24, 2009

The Fire in Fiction

I'm on a Maass kick. I'm now reading The Fire in Fiction. The priciples reprise Writing a Breakout Novel and the Workbook -- this one also has "homework" at the end of each chapter -- but the examples he uses to illustrate the point are all new, so it's worth reading.

You can never read too many samples of something done right.

Apr 22, 2009

Submissions Hollywood Style

All creative people eventually have to sell their work, usually through intermediaries. For writers its agents and editors, for actors its agents and casting directors.

For your consideration, here's a peek into the submission process for actors and actresses.

Ivy Isenberg is a Casting Director with a cool webshow which views actors' demo tapes and then critques them, sort of the Hollywood equivilant of Query Shark.

Apr 21, 2009

Writing the Breakout Novel

I'm going light on blogging while I:

A) Catch up on beta reading -- which is in itself quite illuminating. So often I'll catch some problem, say, overwriting, and realize, damn, I do this too.

B) At the same time, I'm using responses from my beta readers and the Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook to edit my Dindi story. (Yes, again. It still has not compelled five agents to scramble over themselves to represent it, so clearly it still needs work.) I've read the Maass book by the same name, but never read the workbook before. Has anyone else gone through it?

C) Beyond mere editing, I'm still brainstorming like mad to figure out how to fig-leaf the ginormous plot hole in the middle of my series. This is not even something caught by my beta readers, because they wouldn't be able to see it until a few more books into the series. But I believe that through the mystical power of the Great Unconscious, they can already sense the Black Plothole sucking all life from the story, even this far away from the event horizon.

Apr 18, 2009

New York Times Bestseller Bares All

Lynn Viehl
reached covetted New York Bestseller list with her latest book Twilight Fall. And she's kind enough to give us the down and dirty on what this means to one's pocketbook.

My advance for Twilight Fall was $50,000.00, a third of which I did not get paid until the book physically hit the shelf — this is now a common practice by publishers, to withhold a portion of the advance until date of publication. Of that $50K, my agent received $7,500.00 as her 15% (which she earns, believe me) the goverment received roughly $15,000.00, and $1594.27 went to cover my expenses (office supplies, blog giveaways, shipping, promotion, etc.) After expenses and everyone else was paid, I netted about $26K of my $50K advance for this book, which is believe it or not very good — most authors are lucky if they can make 10% profit on any book. This should also shut up everyone who says all bestselling authors make millions — most of us don’t.

She also recieved her first royalty statment (links on her blog):

To give you some background info, Twilight Fall had an initial print run of 88.5K, and an initial ship of 69K. Most readers, retailers and buyers that I keep in touch with e-mailed me to let me know that the book shipped late because of the July 4th holiday weekend. Another 4K was shipped out two to four weeks after the lay-down date, for a total of 73K, which means there were 15.5K held in reserve in the warehouse in July 2008.

Here is the first royalty statement for Twilight Fall, on which I’ve only blanked out Penguin Group’s address. Everything else is exactly as I’ve listed it. To give you a condensed version of what all those figures mean, for the sale period of July through November 30, 2008. my publisher reports sales of 64,925 books, for which my royalties were $40,484.00. I didn’t get credit for all those sales, as 21,140 book credits were held back as a reserve against possible future returns, for which they subtracted $13,512.69 (these are not lost sales; I’m simply not given credit for them until the publisher decides to release them, which takes anywhere from one to three years.)

My net earnings on this statement was $27,721.31, which was deducted from my advance. My actual earnings from this statement was $0.

That could change, if her book keeps selling fast and furious. Though she might have netted only 26K or roughly half, of her advance, she won't see money from royalties until those have caught up with the total amount of the advance.

* * *

UPDATE: An agent breaks it down for us.

Apr 16, 2009

Two Minds

A quote from a book I'm beta reading struck me with particular force.

"Of all the conflicts of the world, nothing can surpass the conflict between two minds wanting sole possession of the same body."

Lady Glamis, struggling with some of the same issues I am in rewrites, said, "I have a feeling that the fabric full of holes might be heavier than I think."

"Write what you know," we are told, as writers. "I'm sick of that phrase," she said. Me too. As if we need only to know a thing, and then expressing it will be easy. Ha.

We don't write to express ourselves. We write to know ourselves.

(Art by thadeoradicarlous.)

Apr 15, 2009

Are You Dancing Or Just Swaying Back and Forth?

Some of you may have already seen one of these links on Janet Reid's blog. More inspiration from Britain's Got Talent.

It made wonder. How can you tell if you should keep holding onto a creative dream? Here are two people who are well into their lives -- one 49 one 60 -- who haven't given up.

But how do you know if the world is crazy for overlooking you or if you are crazy to keep trying?

How do you know if you're dancing or just swaying back and forth?

* * *

Here's what Paul Potts, another Britain's Got Talent discovery had to say:
“I feel like I’m living on gifted time as an artist. You don’t own the time, it is given to you by your fans and public who buy your music and support you. For that I will never stop being grateful and I appreciate the journey I am on even more. In life you sometimes take a turn you weren’t expecting, you don’t know where it leads but you have to take that path. This is what happened with me and Britain’s Got Talent. I still don’t know where this wonderful journey is headed but I certainly appreciate every moment of it.

And if you think suceeding once stills the questions and self-doubt, think again. “The second album is always a challenge, when your first is such a success you cannot be complacent and believe the second will do the same. There is more pressure, you have to work harder, be bigger, better, this is the same for every artist.”

Show Me the Money

I always find it interesting to see how much money authors actually make. We all know that J.K. Rowlings is the exception, not the rule; but real dollars-and-cents figures are guarded more closely than goblin's gold.

I found this breakdown from one helpful e-publisher, New Concepts Publishing, about the average payout over three years for various Romance sub-genres:

Average payout over three years (contract period) $450.00

Science Fiction/Futuristic range: $127.89--$8455.46

Paranormal range: $78.00--$5673.50

Contemporary range: $55.18--$7913.78

Historical range: $75.16--$3863.12

Romantic Suspense range: $124.24--$1977.20

Fantasy range: $44.00--$4774.80

Remember, all of these are actually in the Romance genre, so you sf freaks, contain your jubliation unless your aliens have their sexy on. I suspect mainstream fantasy and sf sell in much lower numbers. If anyone has any real figures, ballpark or specific, I'd be interested.

* * *

Small e-presses are probably the first step above vanity presses in terms of renumeration. (Some snobs would also say in quality, and this is sometimes true, but not always; some small presses are even more particular about their books than large presses, since they have limited budgets and time.) The figures above also refer solely to royalties. (These small presses are usually royalty-only.) What about advances?

What about the big, mainstream presses? Here's what the NY Times had to say about advances (emphasis mine):

In the preface to “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” Dave Eggers broke form by telling the reader he received $100,000 for the manuscript, which — after his detailed expenses — netted him $39,567.68.

...As a payment to be deducted from future royalties, an advance is a publisher’s estimate of risk. Figures fluctuate based on market trends, along with an author’s sales record and foreign rights potential, though most publishers I talked to cited $30,000 as a rough average.

...The numbers can sound much bigger than they are. Take a reported six-figure advance, Roy Blount Jr., the president of the Authors Guild, said in an e-mail message. “That may mean $100,000, minus 15 percent agent’s commission and self-employment tax, and if we’re comparing it to a salary let us recall (a) that it does not include any fringes like a desk, let alone health insurance, and (b) that the book might take two years to write and three years to get published. . . . So a six-figure advance, while in my experience gratefully received, is not necessarily enough, in itself, for most adults to live on.”

To break that down, start with $100,000. Pay your agent 15,000, and you're left with $85,000, divided by 5 years (2 yrs to write, 3 to be published) and you have an income of $17,000 a year, which doesn't include medical insurence or work-related expences -- publicist, anyone? Travel expences for your book tour? Maybe some publishers cover that, but I wouldn't count on it. This breakdown is even more fun if you start with the "industry average" (?) advance mentioned above, $30,000. Pay your agent, and you have $25,500. Divide by 5 years and your income is $5,100 per month.

A minimum wage of $7.75 per hour (the rate in Illinois) translates to $16,120 annually. Now consider the amount of education needed to hold a minimum wage job and the minimum level of education needed to write novels.

I'm just telling you what you already knew, right? The person who seems to have a hard time grasping it is my educational loan officer.

* * *

The cartoon is by this totally cool dude who doodles cartoons on the back of business cards. That is so gimicky. Don't you wish you'd thought of it first? Me too.

You might wonder if you can make more money selling business-card cartoons than blogging or selling novels, and the answer is apparently, no.

Apr 13, 2009

First Person Retrospective

Since I decided to write my Secret Novel in first person, I've been rereading some of my favorite first person novels. There are two major approaches to first person:

Immediate First Person: Sometimes this means first person present tense, which is as intimate and immediate as it gets. However, even first person past tense can feel very much "in the now"; the narrator tells what she felt at the moment she is describing, nothing more. She doesn't "cheat" by implying she knows more about what happens next any more than the reader. If she misjudges someone, this is revealed only when she herself discovers it.

I turned around when I heard the shot, crying, "Edwin, don't!"

My eyes fell on the smoking gun first, then the body, and in my shock it took me a dozen heartbeats to make sense of the French manicure on the hand holding the gun, or the fedora hat soaking in a pool of blood.

Gloria met my eyes. "That's right. I was the one who went to the pawn shop last week. You never suspected. You dismissed me -- just as Edwin did."

Retrospective First Person: Many first person books, however, take the opposite tact. They are written as faux memoirs, in a retrospective mood, in which the narrator of the events slyly or absent-mindedly refers to future events. This kind of narrative voice can compare past knowledge and emotional states with future ones (the "present" of the narrator).

When I first met Gloria, I dismissed her in one glance as a mouse. She spoke only in monosyllebles at that first dinner. Her husband Edwin boomed over the platters of greasy food, and continued to rattle the empty glasses long after the wine ran out. I paid scant attention to his tirades after the first half hour.

"We have to get together again," he promised when I finally begged the waiter to bring the check. He pumped my hand and clapped my back at the same time. "This was marvelous, we have to do this again sometime."

I would have wasted less dread on the prospect had I guessed that would be the last time I would see him alive.

There are dangers of telling too much, becoming too conversational and chatty in any version of first person. Either method, handled well, can work. The question, as always, is what works best with this story?

How does one determine whether a sense of retrospection or a sense of immediacy is preferable for a story?

In my blog about first person vs third person, I recieved some wonderful tips from the commenters.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this too.

Apr 12, 2009

Death's Gift

My adored beta readers are starting to return crits to me on my extremely long manuscript for the story formerly known as The Corn Maiden.

At first, the discovery of fatal flaws in my baby drove me to despair. I planned to hack the whole thing in pieces and start all over. Further thought -- and sobriety -- offered an alternative solution, involving changes to key scenes. Hopefully this will save the whole thing from the scrape heap.

I'm impatient to gnaw on to fresh meat, so I want to get this book cooked and out of the oven.

In honor of the revisions, I toyed with a new title -- which, of course, required new cover art.

Whatdaya all think of the latest title? Is it intriguing? Think it stinks? Prefer the other one? Like the title in theory, but for some completely other book besides the one I've written?

I have two variations:

Death's Gift

Lady Death's Gift

I like the starkness of the first one, but the second sounds more like a fantasy to me.

Any thoughts?

* * *

P.S. I have covers for the Secret Novel too, but I can't show them yet! Damn!

The Secret Nature of Things

Everything looked beautiful, in the freshness of early spring. From a thicket close by came three beautiful white swans, rustling their feathers, and swimming lightly over the smooth water. The duckling remembered the lovely birds, and felt more strangely unhappy than ever.

“I will fly to those royal birds,” he exclaimed, “and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter: better be killed by them than pecked by the ducks, beaten by the hens, pushed about by the maiden who feeds the poultry, or starved with hunger in the winter.”

Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

But what did he see in the clear stream below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan.

To be born in a duck's nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan's egg. He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the new-comer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.

-- by Hans Christian Andersen (1844)

Spring, and the holidays it brings, makes me think of this fairytale. Not just because it involves eggs and ducklings and blooming spring trees and swans, but because it seems to me to speak of older stories as well, of princes who are really slaves, and carpenters who are really princes. How many of the things we see around us have a secret nature, which we too often dismiss or despise? Yet if we looked closer, we would find true beauty.

May that also be true of our writing.

Apr 10, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Literate Civilization

Another typical screed bemoaning the loss of literary refinement in human civilization.

The odd thing about this decline in general literacy is that people are probably reading more than ever. Beyond the obvious ramifications of a much more highly educated populace, the rise of the Internet has upped the amount of time a person spends reading every day. But they’re not reading Sophocles, to be sure: it’s likely that blog posts and Wikipedia, despite the fact that they put more text before more eyes, have actually hurt our cultural sensibilities. Readers accustomed to short Perez Hilton paragraphs have difficulty turning to, say, the long-winded eloquence of Faulkner, and so the good stuff gets pushed aside.

It’s not even that books have been abandoned altogether. In fact, there have been some astonishing literary phenomena in recent years that probably represent the largest shared experiences of reading in history. The obvious example is the Harry Potter series, which has sold over 400 million copies in 67 languages. More recently, the Twilight books have gotten a boost from the related movie and are now seen in every teenage girl’s hands. And the seemingly unending hubbub over faux-memoirs and the accountability of authors would seem to suggest that people still care deeply about literature.

But the literature under consideration is of a deeply impoverished sort. Harry Potter and Twilight are good for a quick thrill and an occasional, broad-stroked lesson, but there’s no comparison to true art. At the risk of sounding too high-brow (and my hesitation indicates the extent to which cultural elitism has been discredited), the majority of what people read today is schlock. There’s something to be said for the pleasure of reading Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, I suppose, but their prevalence pushes aside the great authors.

This always amuses me. More people are reading than ever. How can we make this look bad? Oh, yeah, maybe they're reading but it's all puppy-poop! So there!

So let me get this straight.

Year 1309
Number of Literate People Reading Enobling Philosophical and Religious Stuff: 50
Number of Literate People: 50
Number of People communicating prmirily through the written word: 1 (primarily a nun walled into some little room with quill and parchment)

Year 2009
Number of Literate People Reading Enobling Philosophical and Religious Stuff: 50
Number of Literate People Reading Trashy Genre Books Like Harry Potter: 400 million
Number of Literate People: Apparently more than 400 million
Number of People communicating prmirily through the written word: millions (primarily geeks walled inside little rooms with a computer)

Yeah, reading has really declined in the past 700 years. Cry me an ocean.

There's been no decline, in real numbers, of those who like to read the erudite and uplifting and obscure. Those of us who are interested in flogging our souls with ink and paper are outnumbered by those who like to watch Punch-and-Judy shows, but that's nothing new.

The main complaint here, it seems to me, is that some dofus went and taught the tasteless masses how to read.

I think the entire nature of our society is changing. Consider even the lamest, stupidest trolls on the internet, the kind who post profoundly stupid comments which defy the laws of both logic and grammar.

Twenty years ago, these kind of people would have not dreamed of sitting at a keyboard to read or write something.

A century ago, these people would not even have been literate.

A millennium ago, the majority of the human population vastly superior in intelligence to internet trolls would not even have been literate.

Just consider. Even the idiots in our society now have to be better versed in the written language, just to express their stupidity, than the geniuses of ages past.

Apr 9, 2009

Amazon Sales Rankings

Dave Fortier provided some links to explain the Mystery That Is Amazon Sales Ranking.

Amazon's algorithm for sales ranking is complicated and some recent attempts to extrapolate the data have yielded some basic guidelines.

Discusses approximate sales from sales ranking. Here he mentions that a book needs to sell a copy a year on Amazon, through Amazon direct or a marketplace merchant, to have an approximate sales rank of 2,000,000. Less than a sale a year results in a larger number, or a worse ranking. A book without a sales ranking has yet to make a sale.

Similarly, Brent Sampson yields this list:

2,000,000+ Perhaps a single inventory/consignment copy has been ordered
1,000,000+ Current trends indicate total sales will most likely be under 40
100,000+ Current trends indicate total sales will most likely be under 200
10,000+ Estimate between 1 - 10 copies being sold per week.
1,000+ Estimate between 10 - 100 copies being sold per week.
100+ Estimate between 100 - 200 copies being sold per week.
10+ Estimate between 200 - 1000 copies being sold per week.
Under 10 Estimate over 1,000 copies per week

But again, being listed does not guarantee sales, and potential sales don't pay your bills.

Apr 8, 2009

Internal vs External Motivation

As I struggle with finding the
voice and
for my Secret Novel, I return each time to the characters themselves. Many of you have given me the advice, "Listen to what the characters tell you."

I pondered this wisdom deeply and realized something profound. I have no frickin' idea what my characters are telling me.

Here's the problem. I know the shape of my story well... but only from the outside. I know what happens to my characters. But I don't know what happens within my characters. I realize this is odd. Usually, I know what my characters want before I know what will stop them from getting it. For various reasons, mostly because my secret novel is inspired by real events, I know all the obstacles but none of the aspirations.

My characters have external motivation. Bad things happen to them. But what is their internal motivation? What keeps them going despite the bad things? This is what I have to discover.

I usually write characters from the inside out. This time I have to write them from the outside in.

UPDATE: Apparently, this is Vonnegut's Third Rule of Writing.

Blind Picket Author's Guild

Here's another view of the Author's Guild dispute with the Kindle.

The National Federation of the Blind's Imbroglio with the Author's Guild and their distaste for the Kindle 2's text-to-speech function is heating up. Today they took it to the Guild's own doorstep here in NYC.

Basically the story is this: the Author's Guild raised issue with the Kindle 2's new robotic text-to-speech feature, which can read any Kindle book aloud in a synthesized voice—naturally, a feature that would be an absolute delight for the vision impaired. The Author's Guild, however, saw things differently, stating that eBooks are not sold with "performance" rights and that the Kindle's read-aloud feature would cut into the sales of audio books. And last month, Amazon caved to the Guild, giving individual publishers the ability to disable the text-to-speech reader for specific books.

...We're all about getting people paid for their work, but to cite lost royalties and audio book revenues as the main reason to deprive the blind community from the full Kindle archive —which, if you remember, Jeff Bezos hopes will soon include every book ever published—seems kind of ridiculous.

It's my personal opinion the Author's Guild is wrong on this -- for a number of reasons, though this is one of the more poignant. I say that as someone who would like someday to earn money from selling audio books.

Ending - Twist or Plunge

The End.

I always type those words at the end of my first draft. (Sometimes, if I'm trying to be sophisticated, I type "Fin" instead.) Fins are considered fishy these days, but I still like the taste of them.

There's a lot to say about endings, and Natalie the Ninja has some good advice on writing endings, especially for those who are nearing the completion of a manuscript right now.

My concern at the moment is a little different. My Secret Novel is not yet begun, never mind near complete. As I've mentioned before, I seldom begin a book without knowing how things will end. So, in a sense, this post is actually the counterpart of my discussion of beginnings.

Just as beginnings can be marathons or relays, so endings can be likened to the final run on a roller coaster: the Plunge or the Twist.

The plot of a book is like a roller coaster, full of of ups and downs, twists and curves. At the climax of the ride, you have to decide -- how will the ride end? Some roller coasters climb up a big hill. As your car rachets higher and higher on the track, you know it's going to have to go back down in one huge plunge which will have you screaming your head off.

Or maybe not. Some rides don't end with one big plunge, but with a final gravity-defying twist which takes you by surprise.

Now, all books, if they are any good at all, have some twists at the end, otherwise they would be thoroughly predictable. But this doesn't make them Twist Ending books. Take Lord of the Rings. There's a slight twist at the end involving Frodo and the Golum, but you don't find out that Sam is actually Sauron.

Compare with the The Life of Pi or with Ender's Game where at the end, you realize you have been reading a different book than you thought. All through the story you've seen things in a certain light, perhaps because the protagonist has seen things this way, but now you realize the protagonist either missed or withheld vital information. The revelation transforms your view of everything which went before.

The Empire Strikes Back ended with a twist. (It's become cliche now, but at the time, the boy who seeks to avenge his father but finds his enemy is his father was a marvelous twist.) Return of the Jedi ends with a plunge.

I do already know how my Secret Novel needs to end, and it isn't much of a plunge. The tension rises a bit, perhaps, toward the end, but is it sufficient for a satisfying ride? I'm not sure.

The alternative to a scream-worthy plunge is to throw in a extremely clever twist, so I'm considering that option. Problem -- I have no clue what the twist will be. And this is why I can't start a book before I know the ending, and what kind of ride the book will be.

I have a vague idea involving a postcard.