Thursday, June 30, 2011

The e-Pub War has Begun!

Indie authors outselling traditionally published authors, literary agents jumping on the publishing gig, e-Books taking a huge chunk of the bookselling pie, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria!  It's nuts out there in the publishing world.

There's more news on this subject, and I bet it's only the tip of the iceberg.  Literary Agent Kristin Nelson, of Nelson Literary Agency, LLC has had some interesting observations on the publishing world's reaction to the e-book phenomenon.  Last Tuesday, she broke down Harlequin's move to 25% of net receipts for single title romances starting January 2012.  Yesterday, she continued with this theme, with a post on Random House's sudden (random?) and arbitrary move to do the same this April.

What do these moves signify?  Not sure yet what they mean in the long run, but they're certainly the next volley of shots fired.  And while for the most part, big publishing houses and indie authors have a relatively amicable relationship, I think we need to look at the underlying causes for not only this relationship, but for the moves the industry is taking in the future.

First, the indie author wants to stay in good standing with the traditional publishers.  They're the ultimate goal, after all.  They're roughly the equivalent of his future employers.  The indie author, for the most part, would love nothing more than to pick up a nice contract with a major publisher.  And publishers are always looking for that next breakout bestseller.

But the bottom line is money.  Always has been and always will be.  This industry is no different from any other in that regard.  The author wants his cut.  The publishers line up their business models to maximize profit.  If you think otherwise, compare commonly given advice that no publisher will take a debut novel of over about 130,000 words (and that's stretching it) to the success of books like Stephen King's The Stand, and countless others that push the boundaries into epic territory.  They understand they're not likely at all to make up costs on your gargantuan debut novel, but they know King can easily break into the profit column no matter what he writes.  It looks like hypocrisy, but in fact it's just the bottom line.

The e-book has been turning those profit margins and well established industry norms upside down.  GalleyCat recently referenced agent-turned-author Nathan Bradford's poll on e-book price points in their own breakdown of the various opinions of the subject.  The paradigm has shifted, and nobody knows just yet where it's settled.  The reality is that it hasn't settled yet, and it probably won't for some time.  It's going to take a while for the industry norms to balance.  As evidenced by GalleyCat's post, there is a wide range of opinion on just how much an e-book should cost.  Nobody agrees, and nobody knows who's right or wrong, if there is even a right or wrong now.

This is all about author royalties as well as what percentages agents and publishers are getting from books.  With Amazon's royalties at 70% for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and their traditional 35% for all others, it's no wonder in such a hard-to-break-into industry, so many authors are going this route.

The publishers of course, want a piece of that pie.  Not only don't they make any money off those independent sales, but those sales cut into their own.  A reader is only going to spend so much on books, and if he buys an independently published book, that's one less book publishers are going to profit from.

I'm still on the fence about indie publishing as a whole.  I think it's changed dramatically from where it began, and I also think it's going to become a sizable portion of the industry.  It's here to stay.  There are indie books out there that are just as professional as ones produced by traditional publishers.  If and when I publish a book this way, you can know for damn sure it's going to look every bit as good as something you'd buy from one of the big guys.  I won't settle for less, and that, I believe is the key to success in the indie publishing world.

Price points are something I'm still very much unsure about.  My first endeavor will most likely be a roughly 13,000-word science fiction novella.  One of those in that nebulous no-man's-land of "unpublishable" lengths.  I've seen all lengths of works priced all over the board.  Kindle phenom John Locke proudly publishes all of his novels at 99 cents.  Others price theirs on up, even over the $9.99 threshold Kindle has tried to set for the majority of its fiction.  I've seen short stories for the same price as Locke's novels, and even higher.

An author needs to find that sweet spot for pricing.  Too high and he scares away potential readers who don't want to pay as much as he's asking.  Too little, and folks start to suspect it's in the bargain bin for a very good reason.  Besides the cover and the jacket blurb, the price is really the only thing people can look at when contemplating a book.

Writing is an art.  Writing is fun.  It's the sheer exhilaration of crafting words into entertainment without a thought about how much exposure it'll get or how much money you'll make off it.  It's done for the pure craft of storytelling.

Publishing, however, is a science.  Hitting that correct supply and demand balance to ensure maximum sales.  It's all about the marketing, the publicity, getting word out there and getting your book to move.  It's my least favorite aspect of the whole thing, by a wide margin, but I realize that to be successfully published, you can't have one without the other.  You can't write and ignore marketing and sales any more than you can try marketing a poorly written book.  You may see some success, but you won't have reached your potential, and to me, that's not doing it right.

Maybe I'm a perfectionist.  Maybe I'm just hesitant to really take a chance.  But my bottom line is doing things correctly, whatever correctly is.  I'm working on it every day, and that is why this subject is so interesting.  Hang on, folks, we're only getting started.  There's a lot more craziness in store for the industry!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Family Vacations and Research Opportunities

Just got back from San Diego, California where we spent a few days on vacation, visiting family and seeing the sights.  Had a great time, even though ironically enough, the weather in Seattle was better.  Not that it was bad, but it did give us a greater appreciation for the Pacific Northwest.

San Diego is the scene for much of my largest piece of writing, The Plexus.  Many scenes throughout the first three books are set there, and so visiting again gave me the opportunity to sneak in some more research.  I love doing research in person.  It's much more entertaining and gives a much better picture than research obtained via the internet or through interviews.

© Jonathan Dalar
Right off the bat I was thrust headlong into the right mindset.  I saw that shirt on the left in a boutique in Old Town and instantly thought of the Query Shark.  Some of you probably already know I follow her blogs on a regular basis, so it's not a stretch to think I'd think of that when I saw the shirt.  Yea, I know.  It's a geek thing, but I can't help myself.  I'm a writer.

Anyway, it seemed like a good omen.  It put me into a writing mood, even though I was on vacation with the family and didn't bring the computer.  A writing mood is a good research mood, and that's what I needed.

The Old Town District is a great place.  It's got real ambiance.  It's a touch of nostalgia that hearkens back to San Diego's earliest days.  A great place for doing research for a science fiction novel about time travel, wouldn't you say?

In fact, the whole place was like an instant time machine for me, except that it whisked me away to places in my novels, reminding me of scenes I'd written about and revised over and over again.

© Jonathan Dalar

The old lamp posts in particular were fascinating.  I must have taken a couple dozen pictures of them.  They're all great, but this one is probably my favorite.  I have several that might even make a good book cover some day, as they convey a lot of the mood of the books.

I can just imagine this type of picture blended with science fiction themes.  Maybe the sharp neon contrast of a jump craft in the street behind the lamp post as it blinks back into the past somewhere.  I think it'd make a great cover, but then again, it's probably not going to be up to me.

Spanish architecture is a theme that seems to have woven its way into these books whether I intended it to or not.  I think it's fascinating.  I very much enjoyed poking around in some of the older areas of Southern Spain when I lived there, and in fact, my memories of Cadiz very much helped me write the parts of the story I set in Havana, Cuba.  They have very similar architecture, I've been told, as the Spanish founders of Havana wanted it to resemble their homeland.

© Jonathan Dalar

Even though a lot of my story is set in the far future of San Diego, I think this old architecture will be preserved in some form or another.  Whether as a museum, refurbished, or completely rebuilt in the style of the earliest settlers, it is an essential part of what makes San Diego what it is.  It is also something that has made The Plexus that much more fun to write.

I tried to stay with the family and enjoy things from a vacation perspective, I really did.  And I think I did an adequate job of it.  We did have a lot of fun, but my mind was often a million miles (or a century and a half) away.  At least a lot of the time it was.

For me, the best part of our vacation wasn't Sea World, although we had a blast riding the Journey to Atlantis and getting drenched by the dolphins in the dolphin show.

It wasn't enjoying a plate of fish and chips and a glass of Arrogant Bastard IPA at an outside table along the waterfront of Seaport Village, although it was delicious and nutritious.

© Jonathan Dalar

It wasn't getting to eat at In-N-Out Burger again, something I haven't done in years.  That was something the whole family really enjoyed, but it wasn't the best part of the trip for me.

I might get in trouble for saying this, but it wasn't even the great time we had visiting family there.  It was being completely lost in my story.  Lost to the point where it felt like I was actually there with my characters.  Lost to the point where I felt it, not just remembered writing it down.

All in all, we had a wonderful time.  I had a wonderful time, both in San Diego and lost somewhere in the story of a time traveling misfit who was damned from birth to a life she didn't choose.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bits of You in Your Work

Every author throws a little of themselves into their stories.  The main character may have similar tastes or habits or quirks.  The setting is probably somewhere very familiar to the author, or even if it's made up, it probably has similarities.

Stephen King is famous for doing this.  Many of his works are set in the areas of Maine he frequented growing up.  Even works like The Shining were influenced by places he'd lived or spent time in.  We see hints now and then of his jobs, such as in The Mangler, where he worked in a commercial laundry.

I know I do this.  Many of my stories are set in and around Washington State.  I grew up here, and it's easy for me to fall back on the area in some way, if not outright set my stories here.  Many times I find myself giving a character a background from the Pacific Northwest or some other ties to the area.  It's natural, because I don't have to do as much research to make it accurate and believable.

A lot of times I find the main characters tend to have a lot of the same opinions or views on life I do.  It comes naturally to write them that way.  It's easier to relate to a character that mirrors you.  It keeps you inside a writing comfort zone, and that often helps get words down on paper.

Those things are largely unconscious choices.  Sometimes it's intentional, but usually it just feels natural to set a story in a particular place or give the characters certain personal aspects similar to mine.  Usually it's just what feels right in the story.

Sometimes I do it on purpose.  Because it's fun.  I love to throw little bits and pieces of things into my stories that link them together.  When I can, I'll generally throw a reference to the Seattle Seahawks into stories.  It doesn't come up often, but it's fun.  Usually it's a main character with a background from this part of the country who happens to like the team.  Sometimes it's a more obscure reference.  Often I'll substitute the Mariners or another local team if it's easier or it fits better in the story.

The military, and especially the Navy is another one I'll throw in there somewhere.  With of the best years of my life running around the world courtesy of Uncle Sam, it's easy to see this one.  Sometimes it's background, and sometimes it's just a reference.  I don't write military fiction, so there's not a lot of it in there.  Just enough to spice it up every once in a while.

I put a lot of my own personal experiences in as well.  Not everything is taken from personal experience, even some things you might swear are, but when I can, I like to do this.  Oftentimes other people have been there with me or experienced the same thing, and to me it's fun thinking they'll get that little surprise familiarity reading it someday.  The anticipation I feel writing it is why I do it, knowing that someone out there is going to think, "I was there and did that exact same thing!"  That's an awesome feeling, and it makes writing the story all that much better an experience.

It all boils down to the readers.  It all boils down to the anticipation of their reactions reading my stories.  Knowing they'll relate in some way or another, and being able to shape that reaction based on what I write.  It's just one of the many little things that drive me to write.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Writing Science Fiction

Writing science fiction is tough.  Or rather, writing good science fiction is tough.  Anyone can churn out Star Wars-esque fan fiction.  Writing an original piece, complete with its own logical science and believable steps in technology is a lot harder.  In fact, I'd venture a guess it's at least as hard as any other type of fiction out there.

When I started writing The Plexus a few years back, it started out simple.  Actually, if truth were told, it started out a long, long time before that.  For the first decade and a half, it was nothing more than a cute beginning and ending of a short story, one that went in a circular pattern and left everything precisely the way it was in the beginning.  Sort of a "did this really happen" thing.  I didn't even have the story itself for the longest time.

And when that story came, boy did it come!  The story burgeoned into a novella and then a regular novel.  Then it burped into a trilogy and is now a tidy nine-book series.  Don't worry, each book stands nicely on its own as a story.  There's just a whole lot more to the story, and I can't tell it all in a single book.

The story has been easy.  The story has practically written itself.  It just unfolds as the characters do their best to do things according to their varied and different morals and goals.  It's the technology that's been the more interesting Gordian's knot.

The whole thing is set a hundred and fifty years in the future.  At least that's when the major time continuum is.  Being a time travel piece, the characters obviously use time like Spock and Kirk use space.  Coming up with new, futuristic technology isn't the hard part.  It's bridging the gap between our technology today and what it would most likely morph into in the future that's the hard part.  It's making it a truly believable, logical part of the story that is so difficult.

Many science fiction pieces have hugely fanciful technology, developed it seems from the author's dreams of the coolest, most awesome technology imaginable.  Flying cars, space travel to distant planets in mere minutes, interstellar cruisers, space age weaponry, space stations the size of planets.  The list goes on and on.

My approach was different.  I wanted to create a world that was entirely believable.  In fact, so believable it would make the logical conclusions in the story undeniably frightening because of how personal they felt.  If I took technology from where we are today and projected it into the future using a framework of the pattern of development it's already taken, I'd arrive at a much more logical version of the future.

And that's what I did. I stripped out all the fanciful thoughts of über-cool futuristic modes of transportation such as flying cars, fantastic space age weaponry, and all the other sci-fi standards and concentrated on where things were headed now.

And where is that?  Communications.  The Internet.  Gadgetry.  Electronics.  The basics.  We've seen viewable media go from crackly black and white silent movies in the theater to our own homes, to flat screen HDTV, to portable devices, to streaming through our telephones.  Same goes for communication.  From early telegraphs to the latest Bluetooth technology running to miniature computers we call telephones, it's all going smaller and smaller, and more convenient to use.  That's a no-brainer.  The harder part is determining where it's going from there.

With the advent of hands free devices, we've seen a push toward automation and ease of use.  Our computers advertise to us based on how we surf the Internet.  The auto-correct features automatically correct our spelling, even if at times we don't want it to.  We can speak the name of who we want to call into our phones and they will dial the person for us.  If I really wanted to, I could simply talk my novels into the computer instead of typing them in with my fingers.  Everything is pushing onward toward what we think, rather than what we do.

And that's the logical conclusion.  Yes, it's been done before.  Thought control of technology.  Melding human with machine.  But what hasn't been done, or what has been done rarely, is push that to a societal level, one where that technology is created for the masses being entertained by the latest pop divas instead of the megalomaniac government agents or corporate tycoons in a hunt for absolute power.  It's all about the money.  Always has been and always will be.  And this means that the technology developed will sooner or later end up in Walmart, to be marketed to the masses.

The conclusion is there.  It's getting there from here that is the tricky part.  I'm essentially creating technology before it exists.  Hell, if I could actually do that, I'm in the wrong business!  Luckily I only have to look like I can do it.

The kinks arrive when the technology I've dreamed up starts thwarting my story's plot.  How is the technology of the future going to deal with identity theft?  Find a solution for that and it's going to sound plausible.   Of course, it's also going to throw a monkey wrench into one of my character's ability to actually survive in the world of the future, so I have to create workarounds in the technology to allow her and those like her to survive.  Of course, then I have to respond in kind with technology that addresses those weaknesses, because that's what happens.  That circle is quite vicious, and it's a delicate line I am forced to walk to allow both sides to coexist in the story and still have it make sense.

And then there are the logical conclusions one arrives to based on the technology I've already set up.  Those present other problems.  For example, integrating the virtual world with humanity will logically be done through the body's own optics.  This allows not only full integration with the virtual world, but also the ability for one's mind to interpret the input as needed, such as translating into their mother tongue, overcoming colorblindness, and even tailoring advertizing to suit their tastes better.  It's logical.  And of course, we're back to creating problems some of my characters can no longer overcome.

This delicate balance is absolutely vital in creating a realistic science fiction world.  Too little time is often put into science fiction works, and the authors rush their works off before giving them a look from the position of a harsh critic.  As soon as you start punching holes in the logic of something, especially technology in science fiction, you start having a problem with the story.  We've even seen it with some of the greats in the genre, and that's too bad.  It's tough work, but in the end it's worth it if it makes those elements of the story more believable.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Review: The Black Obelisk

The Black Obelisk is certainly not Erich Maria Remarque's most famous work, nor is it his most widely read.  And while All Quiet On The Western Front continues to remain in print as a classic, I think The Black Obelisk is his best work.

I found my copy buried between the hundreds of old bodice rippers and second hand thrillers sent to service members in war zones as a part of the morale, welfare and recreation efforts back home.  As you can see by the photo, it's a rather beat up copy, so old in fact (Copyright 1957) that it's proclaimed to be "by the author of The Night in Lisbon".

I recognized the author and picked the book up, waiting my turn at the computers in the MWR hooch of our camp in Afghanistan.  I sat down to read and was immediately hooked.  In fact, I'm not sure I even found my way to a computer that evening.  I think I went straight back to my own hooch, curled up in my bed and read the book cover to cover.

And as soon as I finished reading it, I read it again.  It was that good.  Finished the last page and started from the first again.  I read it a couple more times on the plane ride home a couple of months later.  All in all, I've probably read it about a half a dozen times, putting it right up there as one of the books I've read the most.

But what's so special about it?  What made it that good that I've read it that many times, especially back to back?  Certainly being in a war zone with limited reading material contributed to that, but the book stands on its own merits nicely.  It's a fantastic read.

What did it for me was both the setting, and the characters' interaction with each other, which also largely derives from the setting.  It's set in 1920's Germany.  Inflation is a daily, even hourly sometimes, changing part of life.  It's chaotic, fabulous, tragic, and politically and emotionally charged.

The story is written in first person, and follows Ludwig Bodmer, a former German Army corporal and employee of Heinrich Kroll and Sons, a funeral monument maker.  Yes, that's right.  He makes tombstones for a living in impoverished 1920's Germany.

The characters are all colorful and interesting, as they finagle and con their way through their meager lives, but one of the more interesting parts of the story is the role inflation has on everything.  The way Remarque weaves the daily expanding inflation and its effects into their lives is simply amazing.  As a reader, you watch in awe as money that yesterday was enough to buy a tombstone, today is not enough to buy bread.  You see the way they use not only the barter system but also advance payments to make the money stretch further.

They're so embroiled in the sordid soap opera follies of their lives, that each day provides another twist to the complications they've largely brought on themselves.  Coupled with the fact that they are basically forced to take advantage of grieving loved ones after a death to simply make enough money to survive, it's almost too much.

Fortunately, they've got coupons.  Back when money was worth something, one of the local restaurants, in an attempt at advertising for more business, offered coupons for a free meal.  Ludwig and his friend and employer Georg Kroll have bought as many of these as they can, and now have a sizable stash.  Since inflation has basically turned money into worthless pieces of paper, the cost to buy one of these coupons, or a good meal would be enormous.  Needless to say, it's a horribly sore point with the restaurant owner, but they have the coupons and he must make good on them, essentially guaranteeing them a free meal any time they wish.

The book is such a compelling and fascinating look at the world of yesterday that I view it as a book everyone should read at least once in their lifetime.  It should be one of the books read in high school or college literature courses.  It should be in every bookstore in every English-speaking country in the world.

I was going to say that it should be in print.  I was going to lament the fact it wasn't available anywhere but possibly some out-of-the-way bookstore.  I was going to do that, but after checking Amazon one last time, what do you know, it is available!  This is a relatively new thing, too.  I checked not a few months ago and couldn't find it anywhere online.  At any rate, I'm very, very stoked to be able to point you to it in the hopes it will get a little more of the attention it deserves as one of the best pieces of classic literature ever written.  There, I've said it.  And I stand by it.  It is.  I highly recommend it.  And I might just have to order a brand new copy myself to replace the yellowed, dog-eared copy I found in the strangest of places.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Story Length, e-Books, and the Salvation of the Novella

This interesting topic has come up again recently for me, and it's one that has seen quite a lot of heated debate since well, about as long ago as when stories were first published, or even invented.  How long is too long?  How short is too short?  What's the right length for a publishable work?  I feel like Goldilocks and the three bears just thinking about it.

Too short, and your story isn't publishable.  There's just not enough profit to be made over such a small story and it won't cover the costs it incurs.  And while short stories and flash fiction can be combined into anthologies and collections, with some exceptions, even those are not terribly popular and are difficult to sell for all but the most popular authors.

Too long, and your story is again not publishable.  No one will touch it because it will cost too much to put into print.  They won't have the profit margins they need to make the money they need to off the book.  They have strict guidelines in place to maintain profitability, and they need to in order to continue publishing.

But the problem lies in the stories themselves.  A good writer can tweak the story some to control the length of the work he produces, but a story is really exactly the length it needs to be to be told.  If the story is told as it should be in 30,000 words, then so be it.  That's the length it needs to be.

But how to you sell the thing at that length, especially if you don't want to pare it down to a short story magazines will buy, or pump another 20,000 words into it to market it as a novel?  After all, at those lengths, changing the story by that many words is essentially taking half of it away or nearly doubling it in length, and that changes a story to the point where it's essentially a different story altogether.

That's exactly my latest quandary.  I'm still toying with the idea of putting out an e-book, to experiment with the new market, and to gain more experience and a better understanding of the moves the publishing industry may be making in the near future.

I don't really want to put one of my novels out there.  I just don't feel it's the right move to make at the moment.  I thought about bundling 50,000 words of my favorite short stories and putting them out as an anthology, but I don't know about that either.  It might be a good idea, but I'm hesitant to put so many of them together and publish them all at once.  I don't really know why, other than the fact that I'm obsessed with doing things the right way the first time.

Which leads me to my novellas.  I have two of them so far that are sweet middle of the road lengths that are too long for almost every magazine and too short for publication as stand-alone books.  But e-books change the dynamic on things.  There's no length restrictions with e-books, because it takes no more resources to crunch a novella to the proper format as it does an epic novel.  Maybe a few more bytes of memory, and maybe a little more time to save the thing, but really, in today's age of gigabytes and terabytes, that's not an issue.

There may be additional editing expenses for longer works, but for a novella that's not the case.  On the surface it seems like the perfect solution.  If I want to push the envelope on my writing a little further and explore the e-book experience, novellas may be the perfect way to do it.  I can put those stories out for people to read in a medium that allows it, while saving shorter and longer work for the more traditional methods already established in the industry.  And if I ever want to go back and put the novellas in print, I might have a better shot at doing that by bundling two or three of them together as an anthology once I get my career off the ground.

I really, sincerely hope the advent of e-books have changed the dynamic of publishing so much that an entire market for novellas and novelettes has been created.  I hope the floodgates open for these mid-length stories and sales prove they're just as viable as works of other length in the marketplace, and just as important for the reader.  It would be nice to see that, because there's something to be said about a story of that length.  They're fun to read.  They let you in a little more than a short story does, and a lot more than flash fiction.  They allow you a little closer than just the quick peek of shorter fiction, but yet don't take the time and emotional commitment of a novel.  After all, when you buy a novel, you're committing both time and emotional energy to something you don't even know you you'll like.  With a novella, you can get pulled into a really great story without investing the time and energy necessary for a novel.  It's a happy medium.  It's not the day trip, nor is it the two-week family vacation, but the weekend getaway of reading, and I think there's a need for that.

We'll see how things turn out, but for now it looks like the evolution of the publishing industry may have taken a turn for the betterment of stories.  After all, if it allows the publication of those stories stuck in the no man's land of "improper" length, that's a win for readers and authors alike.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Future of Querying

I just had a random thought, inspired partly by author and former literary agent Nathan Bradsford's recent post on query critiques.  It got me wondering, with the recent surge of query critiques, how will that affect the query process in the long run?

Let me explain.  Starting few years ago and continuing today, we have seen the emergence of the query critique, with agents such as Janet Reid critiquing them with Query Shark and her main blog, BookEnds, LLC's agents doing the Workshop Wednesday posts, Kristin Nelson posting advice in Pub Rants.  The list goes on and on.  I could post more, but you get the idea.

The good news is there's plenty of advice - solid, real advice from those in the industry - we struggling authors can find and use.  Unless you're this guy, you probably have a pretty good idea on how to structure a decent query.  Bad news is, so does everybody else out there.  This means that aside from the folks who just aren't ready to begin querying yet, you're competing on a pretty even playing field with queries.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say the majority of queries over the next few years will be formatted correctly, spell-checked, and contain at least a semblance of personalization and professionalism.

Now I've seen a recent post from an agent who ranted there were plenty of chuckleheads out there still throwing astoundingly awful queries out there, but for the life of me, I can't find it again.  I wanted to link it here, because it's a good read.  Oh well.

I think though, in spite of the fact that some people just aren't going to get it right, the majority of authors will continue to hone and fine tune their queries to the point where the queries will be a good deal better than the actual manuscript.  I think that while it'll make agents' jobs much easier to a point, by culling out the obvious bad ones, it'll make it a lot tougher by masking some of the bad ones with good queries.  And I don't know how many of the bad ones will be that much more obvious than before.  Bad writing is bad writing, and a failure to follow submission guidelines has always been a huge strike against anyone doing it.  The fact that there is more contrast between bad and good queries today doesn't make it any easier than it already was to discard the bad ones.

Of course, that's just my musings.  I could be wrong.  I don't know.  I write about the future; I don't predict it.  But I think this push by agents to educate authors on how to write a proper query will certainly affect a resonant change in the way the query business is done.  Couple that with the changing face of e-publishing, and we have the makings of a giant shift ahead.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Character Muses

How do you come up with your characters?  Are they based on people you know?  Do you make them all up from your imagination?  These are probably the most frequent set of questions posed to me by people who don't write.  The answers?  Um, a few different ways, no, and no.  Let me explain.

First, there are a lot of ways I come up with my characters.  Most main characters begin with an idea of the general type of person I want to go on the wild adventure I just dreamed about.  Most of them have a basic outline already in my head, a certain look and maybe some personality attached already.  From there, it's a combination of things.  Some of the time their characteristics come as amalgams of people in my life.  Not close enough so as you'd actually notice, but general traits.  Things like tenacity, stubbornness, sense of sly humor, are what I'm talking about here, not their looks, backgrounds and other more personal traits.  So while someone may have the same serious streak as one of my characters, overall they'll probably be so different a connection wouldn't be made.

From there, however, things go quite differently.  Once I've fleshed out the basics with my characters, they start to take on lives of their own.  And as the story continues, they continue to grow and evolve.  The background I've given them affects them, but their actions in the story also influence how they change.  It's important to do that, because it makes them more realistic, more believable the further into the story you get.  A character that changes allows for more personal conflict to develop, and become more intimately attached to the reader.  There's more at stake when you see the character develop naturally, as you'd do under the same circumstances.  So while there may have been a seed of inspiration from a living muse, by the time the character's life unfolds on the pages of my story, they are far more influenced by their own "lives" than by anything else.

Minor characters are sometimes a bit different.  I think I create them a little more arbitrarily than I do the major ones.  I think it's more out of necessity - more to create a specific character for a specific need - than anything.  I'll often form them as adaptations to particular needs of the plot.  This isn't to say they don't evolve themselves, though.  Sometimes they take on a life of their own and take over the story to such an extent that they're really main characters too.  That's not a bad thing, either.  Once again, it's a great way to bring them to life for the readers.

There's also a lot in a name.  Sometimes I change the name of a character to suite their personality or characteristics better, to make them more identifiable to the reader.  Of course, since this is terribly subjective, it's not much of a science at all.  For example, a name like Katherine can evoke very different images for different people.  Some may instantly think of Katherine Heigl, while others will associate the name with British Royalty, or simply a Katherine they happen to know.  And calling her Katherine will give the character a very different feel than calling her Kate, or Kitty, or Kat, or Kathy, or Katerina.  Each of those variants probably gave you a different image of what that character may be like.  Because of that, it's important to try to get as close as possible to the ideal image you want the majority of your readers to have when reading about her.

In the end, it's all pretty much a matter of choosing a couple of arbitrary details and letting the character tell you who they are on their own.  I may start with details close to my own life, it's the character's life that ends up coming through in the end.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Writing Outside the Comfort Zone

I've been thinking recently about my comfort levels when writing certain material.  A lot of it comes from giving and receiving critiques on both my work and others' work.  Critiques aren't always easy on either end of things, and most of the time a good critique will take you out of your comfort zone.

Am I too harsh?  Am I not blunt enough?  Trying to find the happy medium giving a critique is as hard as receiving critiques that expose weaknesses and faults in your own work.  Neither are too fun on the surface, but I think when you really start to dig and look into them, they can be very constructive.  After all, I want to grow as a writer, not stagnate, being placated by people who pat me on the head and tell me what a good job I'm doing.

But the same thing might apply to writing.  Writing subject matter that makes you feel uncomfortable makes you focus more on the writing.  At least I think so.  It forces you to try and better your writing.  So does writing when you just can't seem to get things done and you're stuck with writer's block.  So can writing a particular style you aren't as comfortable with.  All of these things are opportunities to grow and learn as an author, and I think that's very important.

It may also be why we don't care as much for some authors' later works, or at least we don't find them as riveting as their earlier material.  Maybe that's because they just didn't have to work as hard and kind of let up on the gas.  Maybe one's comfort zone has a lot to do with effort.  It seems to, at least as far as I see it.  After all, that holds true with other things in life.  You get comfortable, you get careless, sloppy.  You don't pay as much attention because you don't need to.

But maybe you should.  Maybe you should try to find that thing that takes you back out of your comfort zone and puts you square in the middle of something you'd rather not write about.  It's probably not a cure-all for bad writing, but I think it just might help.