Seven Things I do while Writing

I wanted to update you on some of the promos and other events coming up in the short term before it is too late. New real blog post to follow early next week!

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation on sale

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, my dystopian adult fiction, is on sale this weekend for 0.99 in the US and UK. The countdown promo ends on the 31st, so now is a great time to pick it up if you want it! It is dystopian and apocalyptic, but set in the real world a few years after the collapse. There is romance. There is action. There are raiders and viruses.

Middle-Grade Promo coming up

I am also participating in a joint middle-grade promo for A Pair of Docks on April 6th so A Pair of Docks will be 0.99 on April 6th and I will also be sending out a list of other great middle-grade novels you can pick up that day for a reduced price. Don't forget to check it out!

Tales of Tinfoil ARCs

As you may know, I am participating in the Tales of Tinfoil conspiracy theory anthology edited by the amazing David Gatewood. The author line up is unbelievable and includes Lucas Bale, Michael Bunker, Edward W. Robertson, Nick Cole and Chris Pourteau to name a few. The stories are bold, moving, and wild and include tales regarding Lincoln, Kennedy and Hitler. Fox Mulder would be proud.

I wrote about none other than Elvis Presley and have now managed to convince myself that maybe Elvis is alive. The anthology will be coming out April 17th, but I will have 5 ARCs to give away starting April 3rd for those of you who want them and are committed to leaving an honest review on Amazon on launch day. Don't miss out on this opportunity. If you are interested in receiving an ARC and have left a review for me on one of my previous books, send me an email at jlelliswriting@gmail.com. I will pick the ARC recipients from the first five qualified emailers. Don't panic if you don't hear back from me right away. It is the final freeski competition of the year here in BC so I will be on skis all day.

Seven Things I do while Writing

For those of you not on my Facebook feed, you might have missed my post on seven things I do while writing each day.

As a "prologue" to my writing, I do many of the things that most writers do. I get coffee, answer emails, check FB, check stats, check reviews, check Twitter, check everything, like a bunch of FB posts, and try very hard not to fall into any Internet rat holes.

Once I have opened my WIP and my "writing" has officially started I:

1) Go a page or half a page back into the previous day's work to orient myself as to where I was and what I was trying to accomplish in a scene. Think a little bit about what the "turn" in the scene was or will be and if it is the right turn to move the plot forward.

2) Write in silence trying to get as many good words out as possible (trying not to repeat the "prologue" above too many times as it is an especially bad habit when stuck).

3) Research and fact check as necessary as I go and try not to fall into too many research rat holes. Sometimes this will involve looking at photos of locations or items I am including. Sometimes it will involve reading research papers.

4) Work always to keep the prose fresh. Try to make each character unique with a distinct voice and their behaviour reasonably rational and "in character" (unless they are mad of course - then they can build mechanical dolphins and spend their afternoons hunting for Elvis and Princess Diana). Consistently check for overuse of hads and repeats of words. Consistently check for a balance of exposition and dialogue. Consistently check for appropriate use of dialogue tags and action tags and that I am effectively using physical reactions to convey emotion. Consistently check that place has been effectively acknowledged and incorporated into every scene in a manner that plays on as many senses as possible. Try to axe all purple prose.

5) Try to keep my eye on the plot and whether I am laying down the scenes necessary to execute the grand vision, or whether I am digging myself deep into a methane venting crater (filled with carnivorous mechanical dolphins). This often involves thinking a lot about the motivations of all the characters - who wants what, who is capable of what, and who is where when - and how does that all come together to create the story. It is a bit like chess - you always have to know where all the pieces are. It also involves thinking about the fundamental themes of the book and how I am (or am not) effectively pulling them out through the plot.

6) Hope for those moments of sublime inspiration or supreme luck when my metaphors somehow reflect my theme, or everything comes together, or something you have written or led my characters to matches something neat or exciting in the real world. Decide this is a reflection of the collective unconscious and a message from the universe that clearly I was born to write.

7) Decide everything I have written so far that day is blasphemous, moronic tripe. Guzzle coffee or go for run to talk myself off the edge of the cliff. Repeat #1-6.

I am sure there is more, but the ski comp is about to start and I'm expected on the slopes!

The Pros and Cons of Head Hopping

Apologies for the long boring blog gap, I have been working like a lunatic since January first on the wrap up for a one and a half year research project for work that has taken me away from my writing life more than I would like. Now that I am done, I will get back to the regular schedule of blogging and publishing. After all the Apocalypse Weird hoopla, I wanted to get back to some craft blog posts, although I should mention, the seventh AW novel, Hoodoopocalypse, by Kim Wells is launching today! It is amazing!! So don’t miss out!! I also just launched my time travel short story (well it is more of a novella really), The River, from the Synchronic anthology, as a single.

Point of View

If any of you have been following my blog posts for a few years, you will know that I take point of view (POV) seriously. In order to talk about head hopping, we need to talk more generally about point of view. What is point of view and why does it matter in writing? Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. Generally this perspective is provided by one or more characters, or a narrator, who serve as the eyes, ears, and voice of the story. Hence we talk about point of view characters.

I tend to write from the third person limited POV. Sometimes I will have two to five POV characters in a novel, and sometimes I will have only one POV character. Third person limited POV means that you refer to your POV character as she or he (or by their name) and when you are in that POV you can see, hear, and know only the things that your POV character sees, hears or knows. This is distinguished from first person limited where you refer to your POV character as “I” and place the reader right inside the head of the character.

When you are writing from multiple POVs, there are no rules for shifting from one POV character to the other, but there are conventions. The three most common, and in my opinion appropriate, conventions are:

  • shifting POVs between distinct chapters,
  • shifting POVs between distinct scenes demarcated by a glyph or a line break, and
  • shifting POVs within a scene using a camera panning out/sliding method whereby you start in one character’s head, pan your camera (or words) out to be in almost a more omniscient POV, and then slide into the other character’s POV.

Everyone has different opinions with regard to the best approach. I prefer the first two, but third one, when done properly, is okay too (although I think it borders on head hopping, which I will discuss below). The important thing, from my perspective, and from the perspective of many writers, is that the writer signals to the reader somehow that they are shifting POVs and remains consistent with the conventions they set out at the start of the novel.

The Rise of Head Hopping

Increasingly though, I am seeing many novels that shift third person limited POVs via head hopping. Head hopping is when the writer simply jumps from one character’s head to another character’s head within a scene and does not employ the camera panning out/sliding method described above.

Note head hopping is not the same as the omniscient POV where there is a distinct narrator who has some sort of access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters—in true omniscient POV, you are supposed to be in the narrator’s head, and while you know some of the thoughts of all of the characters, you are not supposed to be right in their heads. In omniscient POV the story is told from a wider, more god-like lens and voice, NOT the voices of the characters. In practice, to the reader, unless the narrator has a distinct personality and the reader really knows what they are looking for, the omniscient POV may seem like head hopping. Moreover, I have seen many writers and readers confuse third person limited multiple (which is, as stated above, when the writer writes from multiple third person POVs but shifts POVs from chapter to chapter or by scene to scene) with head hopping. It is not, but this does show the level of confusion that can be out there regarding POVs.

There are techniques for head hopping that signal the POV shift subtly, such as shifting POV from paragraph to paragraph, or starting the sentence with the name of the character whose POV the writer is now writing from, or moving the first POV character out of the room (and in effect out of the scene for a few minutes). For these to work, they must be applied with absolute consistency, and even if it is done perfectly, it can, in my opinion, still make for a murky reading experience.

As you can probably tell, I have not historically been a big fan of head hopping. I was taught never never to head hop. We have a distinct style of literature in Canada and head hopping is generally not okay. But whenever the topic of head hopping comes up, defenders generally point out writers who apparently do it well, such as Nora Roberts and Stephen King. Moreover, although most writers will notice when another writer is head hopping right away, many readers do not even appear to be aware of it, or care.

Because head hopping is increasingly being utilized, and I am increasingly writing for a more global audience, I decided I needed to reassess the pros and cons of it. Remember head hopping is not the same as the omniscient POV, and it is not the omniscient POV that is under examination here.

Pros of Head Hopping

  1. By moving from one character’s head to another, you can reveal anything you need to (character’s motivations, knowledge and experiences) at any point and you don’t need any contrivances to get your POV character into the right place to learn necessary information. Thus, it can allow for the provision of information in a more natural way. For readers who want to know everything that is going on at all times (which some do), the head hopping technique may be preferred. If you are not head hopping, you have to be inventive. Nathan Bransford points out that in Harry Potter (which is written for the most part in third person limited—although some argue it is omniscient), the invisibility cloak and pensieve were creative ways to allow Harry to know things that he otherwise would not be able to.
  2. Done well, you can let the distinct personality of all the characters shine by sharing their internal dialogue. Readers can develop a relationship with multiple characters and care about their feelings and perspectives. Villains may seem less villainous if their thoughts and intentions are known. Sidekicks can become more entertaining.
  3. Sometimes, when a reader does not identify with or like a certain POV character, or just wants a break from them, head hopping allows them to be in another character’s head for a while (This can be just as effectively accomplished through a straight third person limited with multiple POVs that are switched between chapters or scenes instead of within a scene). If you are writing a series, head hopping can allow you to try out multiple POV characters to see which one readers identify with more (and then you can focus more on these favored characters in future books in the series), without the same commitment to those characters you would have if you went with a more conventional third person limited.
  4. When you don’t head hop and you have multiple POVs, you must choose the POV from which you are going to show a scene or a chapter. Sometimes this is a difficult choice because the details and information you can convey from the selected POV character are different. I have had to rewrite several chapters or scenes in some of my novels when I did not feel that the POV character I originally selected to show the scene was the best choice. Head hopping can get around the difficulty of this choice and the challenges of making the wrong choice.

Cons of Head Hopping

  1. Part of the reading experience is the close bond that readers can develop with the characters, and in particular the POV characters. Being in a character’s head helps readers to empathize with those characters and take the journey with that character. But you can only really experience a close bond with a few characters, and too much head hopping breaks this bond because there are too many characters competing for the reader’s attention and empathy. It can sometimes be unclear in head hopping books just who the main character is.
  2. Allowing the reader to only see the unfolding of events through the eyes of a single character at a time allows for more mystery and surprise. Although some readers want to know everything at all times, there are advantages to letting the reader learn things and be surprised right along with the POV character.
  3. Because the transitions from one POV to another are subtle (or not apparent at all), readers sometimes miss the switch and become confused whose POV they are in. I have had to reread passages several times in head hopping books to figure out whose eyes I am seeing the scene through. This jumps me out of the "narrative dream" and makes me focus on the mechanics of the passage, rather than the story.
  4. One of the challenges of writing from a single POV and NOT head hopping is showing the emotions and thoughts of non-POV characters. Writers must do this through their body language, actions, and statements—they must show the reader. Doing this in an effective way is truly part of the art of writing. When you can head hop, there is greater temptation to simply state what the other characters are thinking and feeling because you can simply jump into their minds. This can make the overall piece more telly than showy. While I am not an extremist on the telling versus showing front, and believe that there are many instances where telling is preferred, I still believe that overall, the writer should lean towards showing, and head hopping might just make it a little too easy to favor telling.
  5. Generally, the POV character for the scene determines the nature of the scene. Everyone sees events from their own perspective. They will observe even the same item or situation differently and pick up different details. A glorious bluebird day could be gloomy from the point of view of someone who is depressed or has just experienced something horrific. A character with OCD will be more focused on the potential fingerprints on a doorknob of the front door than the trim color or size of the house. The overall flavor of the scene should reflect the particular characteristics and outlook of the POV character. When you are head hopping, you do not have precisely the same opportunity to paint the scene.

This has been a useful exercise for me and I now have a greater appreciation for head hopping. Nevertheless, reviewing the pros and cons in more detail has made me more comfortable with my preferred styles: third person limited with multiple POVs switched between chapters or scenes, and third person limited with a single POV. This is just a personal choice, and from what I have read today, for the most part, readers don't know or care whether you head hop or not, as long as you do it well and make them care about the story.

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A Revolution in Publishing

Just a little bit more about Apocalypse Weird this week and then we will return to regular blog post programming about writing craft and book marketing next week. I wanted to let you know about some of the amazing prizes that will be offered at the Apocalypse Weird Facebook Launch Party on February 23rd and talk a little bit about why Apocalypse Weird is a revolution in publishing.

Five new Apocalypse Weird novels will be launched on February 23, 2015. They include: Texocalypse Now by Michael Bunker and Nick Cole, The Dark Knight by Nick Cole, Reversal by Jennifer Ellis, The Serenity Strain by Chris Pourteau and Immunity by E.E. Giorgi. Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of all five novels will be coming available leading up to the launch. ARC readers and reviewers will be eligible for some great prizes before and at the Facebook Launch Party on February 23 from 2:00 to 8:00 Pacific Time. Don't forget to pick up a copy of The Red King, the first of the Apocalypse Weird books. It is already available and it is still free!

Launch Party Prizes

Prizes for ARC readers and reviewers will include:

  • Five signed paperback copies of Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier for the review voted most helpful on Amazon by midnight on February 23. There will be one prize per launch book.
  • Three paperback copies of Texocalypse Now signed by Nick Cole and Michael Bunker. To be eligible, ARC readers must post their favorite excerpt from one of the launch novels on Facebook and tag the author in the week leading up to the Launch Party.
  • A signed copy of pirated print copy of Osage Two Diamonds, by Michael Bunker, which officially does not exist in print. This prize will go to the best review of one of the launch novels on Amazon as voted by the launch authors by 6:00 PT the day of the launch.

The grand prize is a tier two contract for the Apocalypse Weird world of novels. This prize will go to the best pitch as chosen by five launch authors at 4:00 PT on February 23. The winner will have to have purchased, read, and shared on social media at least one and preferably all launch books.

Readers will be notified of ARC availability via the Apocalypse Weird mailing list, and the mailing lists of the individual launch authors. Texocalypse Now ARCs have already been distributed and Reversal ARCs are almost all gone. Make sure you are signed up at Apocalypse Weird and don’t miss a single ARC.

A Revolution in Publishing

So why is Apocalypse Weird a revolution in publishing? Wonderment Media, Inc., the publisher of the Apocalypse Weird novels is attempting to create a world that crosses Marvel Comics with Lost. The initial launch books will be followed by the release of a new book every two weeks for the next several months. In Apocalypse Weird, writers and fans come together to share a world of cross-cutting story lines, triumphant heroes, and non-stop adventure. There will be secret Easter Eggs that interconnect the books and allow readers to delve deeper into the world. Readers will be able to influence which heroes go to the end game and eventually writers will be able to share ideas and characters.

More importantly though for the writers, Apocalypse Weird is the first-of-its-kind publishing initiative designed by best-selling indie authors for indie authors. Wonderment Media, Inc. has developed author-friendly contracts that not only provide authors with more control than they would have in a traditional publishing contract, but also pay authors a much higher royalty rate than writers often receive in traditional contracts. At the same time, Wonderment is still covering the production costs associated with the novels. The goal is to make writing and publishing more a more profitable and collaborative endeavor for authors, while still allowing the authors the opportunity to market their work as part of brand, enjoy the supports of a publishing house, and work with other authors to build their readership.

New writers will be added to the Apocalypse Weird brand as it develops, writing in the worlds created by the tier one writers. The Facebook Launch Party will feature a pitch contest for prospective Apocalypse Weird writers, and other pitch opportunities will be announced over the next few months. With writers from many different countries, including Canada, Apocalypse Weird reflects an international collaboration, and a potential revolution in publishing for the benefit of authors.

Don’t forget to join the Facebook Launch Party hosted by the launch authors and many of the other Apocalypse Weird authors. There will be some great giveaways and lots of apocalyptic fun to be had.

Reversal ARCs Now Available

As most of you who follow my blog know, I have been involved in this cool new thing called Apocalypse Weird for the last six months, and I am lucky enough to be one of the launch authors. The five launch novels will be released on February 23, 2015. The first launch novel Texocalypse Now by Michael Bunker and Nick Cole is already available for pre-order.

I am pleased to announce that Advance Reader Copies (ARC) of my novel Reversal, which explores the polar version of the apocalypse, are now available. Read the blurb for Reversal below. Simply sign up for my mailing list at the link on my home page and indicate you want a Reversal ARC. Existing subscribers can just email me at jlelliswriting@gmail.com and I will send you the links right away. I will also be emailing subscribers the links very shortly.

Note that this is a time-limited offer. Only a certain number of ARCs will be given away, so don't wait. If you download an ARC, we hope that you will leave a review before or on launch day. There will be some amazing potential prizes for readers and reviewers given away at the Facebook Launch Party on February 23rd, including a pitch contest to become a Tier Two author for Apocalypse Weird.

Reversal

Snow, Volcanoes, and the End of the World

Contrary to Sasha Wood’s expectations, the isolated International Polar Research Station on Ellesmere Island turns out to be an incredibly dangerous assignment. After researchers and sled dogs go missing in a freak storm, distress calls go mysteriously unanswered from the outside world. Cut off and stalked by strange killer polar bears, Sasha and station caretaker, Soren Anderson, must search for their missing colleagues in the frozen tundra as their instruments begin to reveal an incredible truth: The feared magnetic pole reversal has occurred and the north has become the south. Psychotic scientists and giant methane-venting craters are just the beginning of a terrible and weird new reality as the leader of a polar research station down in Antarctica walks out of an otherworldly mist from the other side of the earth. Everything is being turned upside down, literally and figuratively. The Thing meets The Core on the plains of Ellesmere Island somewhere lost inside the Apocalypse Weird.

More Coming Soon

I will be doing a post tomorrow about the great prizes you can win at the Facebook Launch Party, the opportunities to be an Apocalypse Weird Tier Two author, and why Apocalypse Weird is a revolution in publishing! But for now, don't wait. Go get your ARC and start reading!!

The Mind of a Writer

A few announcements... Things are heating up on the Apocalypse Weird front. We are now less than thirty days from the big February 23rd launch of the first five books, which will include my novel Reversal. I will be revealing my cover (designed by the super talented Michael Corley) very soon. If you sign up on the Apocalypse Weird site, you will be entitled to receive ARCs of all five launch novels. There will be some great prizes for reviewing the ARCs, including a pitch session to be a tier two Apocalypse Weird writer, so sign up.

I have also been asked to contribute to a conspiracy theory anthology, entitled Tales of Tinfoil, edited by the amazing David Gatewood. I am writing a story about Elvis … and after many days of research I am actually beginning to believe he might be alive. Tales of Tinfoil is coming in April.

The Mind of a Writer ... according to Robert de Niro?

A few days ago, in response to a Facebook post in which I made some comments regarding the realities of being a writer, a friend posted the following photo on my timeline.

At first I thought it was a bit funny and cute (and of course I “liked” it), but then I thought a little bit more seriously about what it was saying, and I found myself mystified. Does Robert de Niro really think he knows the realities of being a writer? How would he like it if I posted the realities of being an actor? If one were to take his statement as truth, writers, it would seem, are unstable, coffee-drinkers with self-esteem issues who do not really churn out a lot of work.

Much of his statement seems to apply to a writing industry long gone by. Writers twenty or even thirty years ago may have had some of these characteristics, but I do not think that most of his labels apply in the slightest today. Crippled by procrastination? What serious writer can afford to procrastinate these days? caffeine-addled? I know a lot of writers who drink coffee, but most of us have the wherewithal not to drink so much as to become “addled”. Writing in an addled state is generally not productive or advisable. Neurotic, yes maybe. But one of the main reason writers are neurotic is because people like Robert de Niro (sorry Robert, I really do love your acting and I think you might have been just delivering your lines to be funny) think that they truly understand writers and the writing profession. And they don’t. But their observations, if not corrected, or worse, if accepted by writers, become part of our lexicon on who and what writers are.

And yet, a quick scroll through the links that come up when one Googles his comment is that many people, including writers, think he was dead on!

The one thing I do agree with him on is that the mind of a writer can be a terrifying thing. (Of course as a writer, I think the minds of most people can be a terrifying thing, but I digress …).

So in the spirit of good fun, I decided to rewrite the comment. I might have gotten a little carried away (which is also perhaps a reflection of the mind of a writer).

The Mind of a Writer ... For Real

The mind of a writer can be a terrifying thing.

Because they must work in one of the most competitive industries in the world where the barriers to entry are low, and the failure rate astronomical, they must be smart, creative, crafty, and strategic. (The logical extension of this is that to be successful, they must work harder than many other people, and they must never procrastinate).

Because more than 95% of writers must work two jobs (their day job and their writing job), they are highly organized, disciplined, sleep-deprived, and a bit psychotic.

Because they are fully aware of their passion (writing), and that the financial odds are that they cannot fully live their passion, they are occasionally whiny, morose and prone to drinking.

Because they can be pilloried for a missing comma, not being aware that rifles take cartridges not bullets, and failing to create characters that every single reader on earth likes and finds realistic, they are methodical, hyper-attentive to detail, and excruciatingly aware of human motivations.

Because they must be attuned to the human condition, they are often sensitive, but because even great writers get some completely scathing reviews for their work, they learn to develop a thick skin.

Because they have a thick skin and are not ever allowed to respond to their critics, they often feel misunderstood, and the reality is, they probably are.

Because they know that most people have no idea what they do and think they are crazy, a bit narcissistic, and sit around in their underwear making shit up and getting paid millions, they are neurotic.

Because they must consistently put on a public face to promote and market their books, when in actuality many of them are serious introverts, they can be, upon some occasions, tortured and mildly hysterical.

Because they have vivid imaginations they often work in possibilities, not probabilities, and can play out all the possibilities of any scenario, they are often fearful and worry lots (like about their kids hucking off cliffs in a freeski competition, say).

Because they work in words, and must, on a daily basis, organize those words into a logical narrative, they are often skilled at argument and negotiation (but because they are introverts, sometimes these arguments and negotiations only take place in their heads).

And most importantly

Because their job requires them to put significant research into how to commit the perfect murder, traffic drugs, and invade entire planets, they know stuff (like how to commit the perfect murder).*

Because they have to write about real people, they are watching you.

Because they are people, they make mistakes, and try to be lovable, and are as highly variable as people in any profession, so generalizing about a writer's mind is risky.

*But because they are writers, they probably won’t do any of these things.

Self-loathing, panic-stricken and isolated? These may be true for some writers, sometimes, on bad days (not good days, thank you very much Robert). But aren’t they true for everyone on bad days?

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What do you think? Do you agree with Robert de Niro?

Cliffhangers - A Good Idea or Not?

I have recently received some feedback from a few readers that they can’t wait for the third book in my Derivatives of Displacement series--which is great. But part of the reason they can’t wait is that I left some things dangling at the end of book two. And a few of my readers were a little frustrated. This made me start thinking a bit more about cliffhangers--are they a good idea, or not?

We all know those books, movies, and TV show seasons that end with a cliffhanger that enrage some fans. Do a search on cliffhangers that people hate and you will come up with a wide range of “cliffhangers” that caused a furor, such as: The Lord of the Rings, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Tower by Stephen King (and a lot of other books by Stephen King), Dallas (the Who shot JR? episode), several of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, Gone with the Wind, Gone Girl, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inception, The Hunger Games, and Catching Fire.

“Cliffhanger” endings can cause varying degrees of rage among fans depending on how the person felt the writer handled them.

I call them “cliffhangers” in quotation marks because they are not all strictly cliffhangers and there are variations in the definition of cliffhanger. In reality, there are various types of endings to books, shows and movies, that are on a continuum from an “every single thing is completely resolved ending” to a true cliffhanger. There are no commonly accepted names for the types of endings that occupy the middle of the continuum, and there is a lot of confusion with regard to which is which, with some people calling anything in which everything is not totally resolved a cliffhanger.

Four Types of Unresolved Endings

For the sake of clarity, I have come up with the following four types of unresolved endings:

1) A True Cliffhanger Ending

The protagonist, or group of protagonists, or key characters are in immediate peril (someone has just been shot but you do not know who, they are teetering on the edge of a cliff), and the book, show, movie just ends. There is a sequel or next season coming. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a perfect example of this.

2) An Ambiguous or Open Ending

The book, show, movie leaves the final outcome a bit unclear and allows the reader or viewer to decide what happened. No follow-up or sequel is planned. This is done for artistic purposes, where the writer has generally decided that the most satisfying ending is one that leaves some questions unanswered or that the reader/viewer knows that the adventure continues. Gone Girl and Gone with the Wind are examples of this type of ending. Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, notes that her ending was deliberate and that there really was no other option for her ending:

“First of all, I didn’t write it as an open ending to set up a sequel at all. It was the only thing that made sense to me, that made sense to what was true to the book and true to the characters. Amy’s not going to end up in jail. She’s Amazing Amy! You’re never going to find the aha! clue because she thinks she’s already thought of everything and that’s who she is. People think they would find that satisfying, if she were caught and punished. You know, when I’m at a reading or something, people will come up to me and are very honest about saying, “I hated the ending!” I always say, “Well, what did you want to have happen?” And it’s like, “I wanted justice!” I promise you, I just don’t think you’d find it satisfying for Amy to end up in a prison cell just sitting in a little box.”

3) A Dangling Plot Lines Ending

A dangling plot lines ending is one that ties up the majority of the story or the main conflict of the book or movie, but there are some (or many) things left unresolved, or there is some sort of tease as to what is to come, and the reader/viewer knows that the story will be continued. The protagonist (or protagonists) is not in immediate peril though—generally the protagonist has reached some generally “safe” location and is taking a breather. It is the writer’s intent to produce a sequel or new season. The Hunger Games has been described as this sort of ending. As one reader noted, this type of ending:

“[only ties] up some bits, but left me wondering what’s going to happen to so-and-so and what’s-his-name, how things will play out for the hero and heroine and why that-guy did what he did.” ~ Gina Bernal

Another reader observed,

“I don’t mind if they still have to finish the quest, save the world, get home or otherwise tidy up a few loose ends.” ~ Mara Ismine

4) A Closed Continuing Story Ending

This is basically a story in which the main story is ended and wrapped up, there are few dangling plot threads, but the reader/viewer knows that “the adventure continues”. So Indiana Jones movies or Law and Order episodes might qualify as this type of ending. There may, or may not, be a sequel coming, and it is not necessary to read or watch it to feel that a complete story was told. This is more like the ending where story is completely wrapped up, and then the phone rings and someone wants the main character to fly to Timbuktu immediately to start the next adventure.

Issues with Unresolved Endings

Even though I think it's pretty clear, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a cliffhanger. For example, some people describe the endings of The Hunger Games and Gone Girl as cliffhangers. In addition, there are some books, shows, and movies that straddle more than one category. The Empire Strikes Back is an example of an ending that could be considered a cross between a cliffhanger and a dangling plot line ending.

Many viewers and readers hate cliffhangers because they have built up their anticipation throughout the story that all will be explained and made clear, and then when they do not get their emotional hit and resolution at the end, they feel ripped off. Many readers also feel any sort of cliffhanger ending is deliberately manipulative and a cop out—that the writer just did not know how to end the book/show/movie, or that they were making sure the reader or viewer has to purchase or watch the next episode.

I do not think many writers are trying to be manipulative (really readers, we love you). Most writers want to give their fans what they want, and there are artistic and legitimate reasons for endings that do not resolve everything. Moreover, as a writer, especially one who is producing a series, in which really there has to be some dangling plot lines from one book to another in order to develop an overall three to five book arc, there is a really difficult line to walk in order to conclude every single book appropriately, build the overall arc, and prevent readers from getting impatient and feeling manipulated. Readers also get angry with stand-alone books because they want more.

Readers often want complex plots and books in a series, and depending on the overall length and complexity of the arc that the writer is trying to deliver, it is necessary to find appropriate break points between books and leave some things unanswered. However even if the reader intellectually understands this, emotionally they sometimes feel that the break point was chosen just to hook them into the next book, just like Scheherazade did in One Thousand and One Nights.

There are no easy answers. The bottom line is that readers want a satisfying ending. But what is satisfying and seems right to one reader may not be right to another. While many readers hate true cliffhangers, some people actually hate ambiguous or open endings more than cliffhangers because with cliffhangers they at least know a resolution is coming in the form of a sequel.

And yet in some ways an open ending (at least to some extent) is life. Unless all the characters die, life goes on and new and different things will happen to them. Sometimes a happy ever after ending is equally disingenuous. Nobody lives happily ever after no matter what the writer says. That happy couple will argue over diapers, who cleans the toilets, and where the new sofa should go.

So there is a balance between providing enough closure and leaving some things hanging in both stand alone books and books in a series. In a series, more things can be dangling, and in a stand alone book, fewer things should be dangling. However some readers will likely be upset no matter what the writer does.

Some people claim J.K. Rowling got it right. She left Voldemort alive, but tied up the immediate threat in each book. But don’t forget she had many plot lines and many questions that spanned the entire series.

Some readers say dangling plot lines or cliffhangers are okay as long as the next book is available immediately, or within three months. Other readers say dangling plot lines or cliffhangers are okay, but they are too impatient to wait, so will only start the series once all of the books are available. Yet others hate cliffhangers and dangling plot lines so much that they simply will not read books in a series. Other readers say that cliffhangers are sometimes okay if they trust the writer.

 How to Handle an Unresolved Ending Well

The degree of success of a “less than completely resolved” ending also depends on how the writer handles it. Some key approaches to handling it well include:

1) Avoid true cliffhangers if you can

Most readers agree that they prefer a story in which the main conflict is resolved, with some dangling plot lines over true cliffhangers. Readers will be far more patient with dangling plot lines as long as you complete the main emotional arc or a major subplot of the story or episode. As one reader observed:

“I want some resolution. I want a warm fuzzy moment. I want to know that the main characters are alive and as safe as they can be. I don’t want something really bad happening to one of the main characters on the last page.” ~ Mara Ismine

2) Consider your genre before you write a dangling plot lines or cliffhanger ending

Cliffhangers are more acceptable in fantasy and science fiction novels, but not in romances or mysteries where readers expect more resolution. Not revealing who the murderer is would be a poor choice in a murder mystery novel.

3) Make sure you have a plan for the larger plot arc and you know how the cliffhanger or dangling plot line is going to be resolved

Readers want to make sure that the writer knows what they are doing and have an actual plan with regard to the larger story arc. They point to movies such as The Amazing Spider Man in which the bit about Peter’s parents was a “placeholder” for the writers to figure things out later. As much as I loved shows like Lost, Fringe and The X Files, I sometimes felt like the writers were making it up as they went along and had no real plan. If you are going to introduce a bunch of questions and plot threads, you do have to resolve all or most of them by the end of the series.

4) If you are going to write cliffhangers or leave dangling plot lines, you had better produce your books quickly… or quicker than George R.R. Martin

Readers talk a lot of about the need for instant gratification and being impatient and that waiting a year for a next installment is too long. So producing the books quickly, or releasing them all at once may be desirable. This does make life difficult for writers as depending on how complex their book is (and for most of us, how much other non-writing work we have to do on the side). There is a time/quality inflection point, and rushing to get a sequel out to satisfy readers can in fact do the opposite if it is not of sufficient quality, so there is an important balance point here too.

5) If you are going to write a true cliffhanger, you had better ensure the sequel delivers

Cop outs such as killing only minor characters, as the writers did after the wedding cliffhanger in Dynasty, or never explaining what happened, irritate readers. If you are going to leave them hanging, it is your job to reward readers for their patience and do an amazing job with the next installment.

6) Ensure that the cliffhangers and dangling plot lines are not gratuitous

The series should end when the overall series plot arc comes to a logical end, and that ending should be satisfying. Tacking extra sequels on just to continue the party does not seem to appeal to readers.

7) It’s also important to ensure that you don’t end things too neatly if there are intended sequels

Diana Gabaldon did this in later Outlander books, making people think that the series was over when in fact it was not, and some people like me, stopped reading. Ahhh... can the writer ever win :-).

Other things that may help to deliver that emotional punch and leave readers satisfied if you plan to leave some things unresolved include: drawing attention to the bits that have been resolved, showing that your hero has a plan, and providing the first chapter of the next book as a teaser after the ending.

But there is no satisfying everyone. Some readers don’t even like cliffhangers within the book from chapter to chapter that keep them reading all night… And I thought writing a page turner was supposed to be every writer’s goal :-).

And cliffhangers or other unresolved endings can work. George R. R. Martin is the king of cliffhangers, and although readers often express frustration with him, he has no shortage of fans. Lost also did not lack for viewers, and Gone Girl does not seem to be suffering for sales.

None of my books have a true cliffhanger ending, and my readers seem keen for the sequels and excited about the unanswered questions, which is great. However at times I have also noted a tone of impatience or frustration in their comments, which was part of the impetus for this post. People often ask me when the next book is coming. I wanted to check in and see what the general sentiments were around unresolved endings and how long people are willing to wait for sequels. I learned a lot from researching this post. I am not sure if I can produce Book three any faster (it is coming in the fall of 2015) due to my other writing commitments and the fact that I want to make sure it is great. Moreover, I do have a plan for the overall arc of the Derivatives of Displacement series. However this post was food for thought in terms of trying to provide that truly satisfying ending while still leaving those dangling threads that pull your readers to the next book.

How do you feel about cliffhangers? Do you write them yourself?

If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for my blog post mailing list so you never miss a post.

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas

Over the holidays, I participated in the twelve blogs of Christmas with eleven other amazing writers including Martin Crosbie, Wendy McClelland, Sara Lane, Helga Zeiner, Dianne Greenlay, Roberta Kagan, M.L. Gardner, Laurie Boris, Heather Haley, Jamie Lee Scott, and RJ Crayton. Each author posted a Christmas blog and on that author's appointed day we all posted a link to that blog post. It was great fun.

This is a compilation of the links to all of those posts all in one place in case any of you are already nostalgic for that Christmas feeling.

Thumbnail Image Photo Credit: estherase via Compfight Creative Commons

On the First Blog of Christmas - RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is the author of the Life First series, a dystopian thriller set in the future, where the government can take your organs if they want, and give them to someone else. Prior to writing Crayton was a journalist and has worked at a variety of publications, including the Kansas City Star, Solid Waste Report and Education Technology News. Presently, Crayton is a monthly contributor to the Indies Unlimited blog and an occasional contributor to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies blog.

The first book in RJ's series is called Life First. Her other books can be found on her Amazon Author Page.

RJ posted about having fun with photos at Christmas. Read more on RJ's site.

On the Second Blog of Christmas - Jamie Lee Scott

Jamie Lee Scott is the USA Today Bestselling author of the Gotcha Detective Agency mysteries, and Uncertain police procedural mysteries. Originally from the Central Coast of California, Jamie was swept off her feet by a dashing Iowa farm boy and moved to the Midwest. After several years of running a restaurant with her husband, she felt the urge to kill people. Rather than going postal, she decided to start writing fiction. No One Knows, Jamie’s short screenplay, was sold in 2012, and made the film festival rounds in 2013-14. No One Knows has been nominated for multiple awards, and won its category at the Bare Bones Film Festival.

Her books can be found at: http://www.jamieleescott.com/books.html

She posted about dreaming of a White Christmas, NOT. Read more on Jamie Lee's site.

On the Third Blog of Christmas - Heather Haley

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The Siren of Howe Sound, trailblazing poet, author, novelist, musician and media artist Heather Haley pushes boundaries by creatively integrating disciplines, genres and media. Her writing has been published in many journals and anthologies including the Antigonish Review, Geist, sub-TERRAIN, the Vancouver Review, FORCE Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia and The Verse Map of Vancouver. Haley was an editor and reviewer for the LA Weekly and publisher of the Edgewise Cafe, one of Canada’s first electronic literary magazines. She is the author of poetry collections Sideways, Three Blocks West of Wonderland, and debut novel, The Town Slut’s Daughter. Her books can be found at on her Amazon Author Page.

Heather wrote about a Yin-Yang Christmas. Read more about Heather on Heather's site..

On the Fourth Blog of Christmas - Jennifer Ellis

It was my turn to post on the fourth day of Christmas. You all know about me! But you can read my bio here, visit my Amazon Author Page, and read my post on my complicated relationship with Christmas here.

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas - complicated and all.

On the Fifth Blog of Christmas - Helga Zeiner

Helga Zeiner is a German born Canadian author. She left her home town Augsburg at age 18 to explore the world. In the following 14 years she has lived and worked in Australia and Asia. Her amazing experiences in those foreign countries are woven into all her thrilling novels. Helga Zeiner has published six novels in German and two in English, including Section 132 and Birthdays of a Princess.

Helga wrote about her Christmas mistakes. Read more on Helga's site.

 

 

On the Sixth Blog of Christmas - Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer and editor living in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. She is also the award-winning author of five novels, including the Trager Family Secrets series. Drawing Breath is her coming-of-age novel about art, love, chronic illness, and human dignity. You can check out the rest of her books on her Amazon Author Page.

Laurie wrote a letter to Santa Claus. Read more on Laurie's site.

 

On the Seventh Blog of Christmas - M. L. Gardner

M. L. Gardner is the bestselling author of the 1929 series. Gardner is frugal to a fault, preserving the old ways of living by canning, cooking from scratch, and woodworking. Nostalgic stories from her grandmother’s life during the Great Depression inspired Gardner to write the 1929 series—as well as her own research into the Roarin’ Twenties. She has authored eight books, two novellas, and one book of short stories. You can check out the rest of her books on her Amazon Author Page and view her website at www.mlgardnerbooks.com.

M. L. Gardner wrote about Grandma's Simple Christmas. Read more on M.L.'s site.

On the Eighth Blog of Christmas - Roberta Kagan

Roberta Kagan is an American writer of Jewish and Romany decent. She writes Historical Fiction and Historical Romance, most of which is set during the holocaust. Although she never discounts the horrors of the time period, the main focus of her work is on ordinary people who prove to be strong heroic characters in unfathomable circumstances. You can check out Roberta's books at her Amazon Author Page or view her website at www.RobertaKagan.com.

Roberta wrote about Bubby's Christmas Angels. Read the full post on her website.

 

On the Ninth Blog of Christmas - Sarah Lane

Sarah Lane is the Canadian author of The God of My Art, a quarter finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and available on Amazon and Chapters. The God of My Art is the coming-of-age story of a young artist set in Vancouver and an imaginary town in northern BC. Lane's other fiction and poetry have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Roar Magazine, and Quills: Canadian Poetry Magazine. Lane is currently writing a psychological thriller about a salsa dancer and her doppelgänger. To be the first to know when it comes out, sign up to her new release mailing list.

Lane wrote a poem entitled Morning Light. Read More on Sarah Lane's Website.

On the Tenth Blog of Christmas - Dianne Greenlay

Dianne Greenlay is the author of the award winning action/adventure QUINTSPINNER SERIES , and also of THE CAMPING GUY , a humorous short story, which is an award winner in its theatre script version. She chose to write her first novel over learning to play the bagpipes, and her husband is grateful. She loves to hear from her readers and you can find her at www.diannegreenlay.com, or on twitter at https://twitter.com/DianneGreenlay or even at her Amazon Author Page.

Dianne blogged about getting into the Christmas spirit. Read more on Dianne's site.

 

 

On the Eleventh Blog of Christmas - Wendy McClelland

Wendy McClelland is a business pioneer; as one of the first small businesses to get online in the mid 1990’s, her first website was chosen by the NY Times as “one of the best biz sites on the ‘net”. She is an award winning entrepreneur as well as a past nominee for “Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year”. She has spoken to over 10,000 people in live audiences throughout western Canada and the U.S. Wendy’s newest project is her book “27 Steps to Freedom – What Learning to Walk Again Taught me About Success in Business & Life” is a story of rebuilding her life after a near fatal illness. You can find her books at her Amazon Author Page and visit her website at http://www.WendyMcClelland.com.

Wendy wrote a Christmas Love Story. Read more on Wendy's site.

 

On the Twelfth Blog of Christmas - Martin Crosbie

Last, but definitely not least, the 12th Blog of Christmas is written by bestselling author, Martin Crosbie, the organizer extraordinaire of the 12 blogs of Christmas. Martin lives on the west coast of Canada and has written five books including Amazon bestseller My Temporary Life and his popular Christmas novel Believing Again: A Tale Of Two Christmases. You can see all his books at his Amazon Author Page or visit his website at www.martincrosbie.com.

Martin wrote about Charles Dickens' self-publishing experience Read More on Martin's site.

Well, the tree is down. Christmas 2014 is over. I hope you all had a very merry one, and we will see you all again for Christmas 2015.

 

On the Fourth Blog of Christmas

When Martin Crosbie first invited me to be part of the 12 Blogs of Christmas with eleven other writers, of course I said yes. I love blogging, I love Christmas, and I love other writers.

However, as the date approached for me to prepare my post, several things made me stop and take stock:

  1. I wanted to write something original and something meaningful - but what can be said about Christmas that hasn’t been said already?
  2. I wanted to write something that compares to the efforts of the other participating writers
  3. A huge number of work and writing deadlines all packed together like coupled rail cars wending their way through my December
  4. The recent deaths of a friend’s mother, and a friend’s son, which reminded me that life does not care that it is Christmas
  5. The usual stresses of winter—ailing mother, geriatric cat, viruses abounding in my children’s school and in our house

Which led me to the the more creeping and interesting question: Do I really love Christmas? Do I love Christmas enough to wax poetic about it in a blog? Or more importantly, what can I say about Christmas that is true to me?

I have always had somewhat of a yo-yo relationship with Christmas

As a writer, both of fiction, and of evaluation reports, research reports, and a whole panoply of other reporty reports, my deadlines are often packed around Christmas as my clients try to close off their projects for the year and move onto new things in January. There is something about the hard stop deadline of Christmas (and of June for that matter) that makes everyone go deadline crazy.

I also get deadline crazy around December

My deadline thinking goes like this: If I can just get this report or this novel finished, I can have two weeks off at Christmas to finally relax a little (usually this just means do half as much work as I normally do). However this glimmering mirage of eggnog, gleaming lights, good cheer, goodwill to man (and woman), and spending days in my skiing long underwear (instead of my pajamas as I usually do) drives me and many others forward to make the first two to three weeks of December very busy, and sometimes stressful.

© Carmen Adams

© Carmen Adams

These days, I look up from my desk around December 20th and realize (although I have in fact known it all along) that I did get all my reports and writing finished (yay!), but I have not purchased a single gift, decked the tree, located a turkey or written a Christmas card. Then begins the mad frenzy of “doing Christmas” that starts on December 21st. This is all accompanied by a bunch of existential meanderings (both vocalized and in my mind) regarding whether anyone should really celebrate Christmas given all of the troubling things happening in the world, the environment, and our community.

On the other hand, when my kids were little and I did not have a paid job, and I had not yet started to write fiction in earnest, I *did* Christmas.

When I did Christmas, the cultivated Christmas tree went up on December 1st. Gift shopping started in November, cards with a family Christmas letter and hand written notes to everyone went out the first week of December and menu planning for the week of sumptuous Christmas meals started in the second week of December. I hosted dinner parties and belted out the Christmas music. No two gifts could have precisely the same wrapping. I was an expert in ribbon application and styling, and I actually wept when my husband forced me to take down the tree in early January.

But *doing* Christmas actually led me to many sad points where Christmas did not fulfill my hopes and expectations, and I could not let go of the fact that many people are less fortunate than me. But this blog is not about that. It is about writing. It is about being funny, and irreverent, because that is what I do best. So I wasn't going to write about the meaning of Christmas or my relationship with it.

I thought of many potential topics for this post

I wanted to write about something meaningful, or funny, or useful, or writerly. I ran through many possibilities.

I considered Christmas gifts for writers

There are lots of those kinds of posts. At the top of my list are those stick-up weekly calendars that go at the bottom of your computer screen, so I don’t completely forget about a work meeting when I am absorbed in finishing a novel, like I did last week. They are sold out unfortunately, for good reason I suspect. Then there is that book Save the Cat about screenwriting, and wool socks—writers in cold climates can never have too many wool socks.

I would add to this list post-it notes of all shapes, sizes and colours. I use them constantly to write down passwords, things I have to do, story ideas, and edits that must be made. Then there are the harder to buy items for writers: sleep, snow (okay that might be only for writers who live in ski resort towns), and readers (anyone who can give me readers is welcome to come for rum eggnogs at my house at any time). But aside from the sold out calendar and the book (which I bought for myself last night), I don’t know if I really need anything. So I nixed this post (but still would be happy to receive socks and post-its).

I contemplated a post about the best Christmas scenes in books

My personal favourites are the Christmas scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and A Christmas Carol. But Martin Crosbie already has A Christmas Carol tied down in his post, and it looks like Stylist magazine agrees with my choices regarding the best Christmas scenes as my two faves are one and two on their list. Check it out.

Having not been a consumer of Christmas fiction, I was amazed to see the number of novels and stories by well-known writers about Christmas. If you want to read about Christmas, there seems to be many options. The Dr. Who episode that replicated A Christmas Carol, as only Dr. Who (and the delightful Matt Smith) can do, is also worth a watch for a lovely Christmas scene. But in the end, I have not read enough books with Christmas scenes to make that the focus of my post.

I was going to do a post about writing over Christmas

Because as you know, many famous writers write every single day, including holidays. I, although clearly not famous, will be writing over Christmas as I have a January 5th deadline on a short story. So I thought about the itemized list I could create for mixing writing, eggnog and ho ho time. However that felt wrong somehow. Although I do have a deadline, I hope to be writing less, and I hope to do the bulk of the writing for that piece this coming week and the first week of January.

So, I think that brings me back to my original focus—what Christmas over my many complicated years of doing Christmas has come to mean to me.

What does Christmas really mean to me?

I am not particularly religious, so Christmas, apart from some vague longing that there is something greater than ourselves that is in more evidence at Christmastime, has limited meaning to me on that front (although I do read tarot cards and inexplicably still weep in churches and at the end of Christmas specials about Santa, Rudolf and Dr. Who). My kids are older, and although they still love Christmas, it is not the pure magic to them that it was when they were three and five. Moreover, I recognize the difficulties of Christmas to many families, who can’t afford gifts or turkey, who have someone sick or no longer with them, who live in a war zone, or who face other challenges. I am not opposed to having belongings or nice things, or things that make you happy, but I am troubled by the commercial frenzy that accompanies Christmas for many of us who really don’t need anything.

Despite all of this, Christmas is still a special time of year to me.

Of course it is a time for giving, offering the potential to give to those less fortunate than you. It is also a time of brief rest, when for one day (pretty much the one day of the year), most stores are closed, and most people (save for those amazing people who provide essential services) are not working. It is a true deep winter's night. It is also a time of transitions--taking stock of the year that has just passed and setting new goals for the following year. And it is also a time when, especially for people who work from home and spend a lot of time on their own (like me), we spend a little more time in the company of friends and family.

So, for everyone out there who has a complicated relationship with Christmas, Happy Deep Winter's Night. May 2015 bring you everything you ever wanted (and world peace and a whole host of other necessary things).

And snow… did I mention snow? Oh right, that’s just for those of us who live in ski resort towns.

I hope you enjoy the contributions of the following authors and check out their websites (I’m gathering links as fast as I can!) so you can learn more about them.

What is this Apocalypse Weird?

So I’m part of this thing called Apocalypse Weird. In fact, I just finished the first draft of my novel Reversal that is expected to become part of the Apocalypse Weird world. I know you’ve heard me mention Apocalypse Weird—but I'm sure you're wondering: what is it? And honestly sometimes I wonder too!

Apocalypse Weird represents a major collaboration among writers to build an elaborate, interconnected world to serve as a setting for our own stories, and as a setting for the stories of other writers in the future. The setting is of course, not surprisingly, given the name, apocalyptic… storms, zombies, magnetic reversal, viruses, voodoo and much more will all be at play in this world.

How does Apocalypse Weird work?

In the first round of Apocalypse Weird, fourteen writers are developing novel-length stories based on a set of rules given to us by the Wonderment Team, our leaders in this venture. We had to pick our location, and our novels have to incorporate certain plot events that will happen in all of the locations. We also have to get our characters to a certain point at the end of our novels. Other than that we are free to develop the characters and stories we want. But there is a master plan for it all and there will be umbrella arcs tying all the novels together under the Apocalypse Weird brand.

The kickoff novel for the whole collection The Red King by Nick Cole is already available. It is free (in the US and UK) and it is a super fun read that is already racking up great reviews. It also contains, I’ve heard, Easter Eggs for novels to come that have been incorporated after the ARC version that I got to read. There are many amazing writers participating in the first round of novels including Michael Bunker, E.E. Giorgi, Steven Savile, Matthew Mather, Kevin G. Summers, Eric Tozzi, Chris Pourteau, Tim Grahl, Weston Ochse, Lesley Smith, Kim Wells and Forbes West.

In the future, as invited by the Wonderment Team, other writers will take up the torch, or torches, and the first round of authors may write further in the worlds they’ve created. As Michael Bunker observed,

“It’s MARVEL meets graphic novels meets Lost meets Publishing meets Stephen King.”

I don't know about you, but I kind of liked Lost.

So what is new and exciting about this?

1)   It is a bunch of authors working together

This is not only fun, but helps to foster creativity, a little healthy competitiveness, and collegiality amongst a bunch of people who usually work at home in their pajamas.

2)   It is a bunch of traditionally published and indie published authors working together

It feels like we are building bridges and letting the world know that the important thing is the fact that we are all writers, and we write great books, not who our publisher is. How cool is that?

3)   It's huge and at this point unlimited in scope

The fifteen initial novels are just the beginning. There will be sequels to The Red King. There will probably be sequels to the first fifteen novels. Other writers will be brought in to develop their own locations and story lines. Other writers will be able to write in the worlds already created by the first and second round of authors. It will be a very big world with a lot of potential for creative stories.

4)   The Red King is great

It’s free. You have no excuse not to check it out. I mean zombies, apocalypse… what else is there? Seriously though, it has a very fresh take on zombies, which, believe me, is hard to do.

5)   It could be a whole new approach to publishing

While some of the details are still being worked out, it could offer a whole new way for writers to publish, be associated with a brand, and still maintain control of their work.

6)   Apocalypse Weird will have lots of opportunities for reader involvement

For example, it is possible that readers will be able to choose which heroes make it to the end game (Back to that healthy dose of competitiveness for the writers. Everyone wants to write a hero good enough to make it to the end game). But best of all, there will be an element of game playing to the reading experience, with the Easter Eggs and some other surprises the Wonderment Team has in store for you. There will also be a WIKI available to readers so they can follow the arcs and story lines and find out what is happening in the AW world.

7) Because, well, Apocalypse

Did I mention the zombies?

So what do you need to do to be part of Apocalypse Weird?

First, if you have not already, pick up The Red King while it is still free. Second, sign up for the Apocalypse Weird email list so you can be kept up to date on what is happening. It will be really fun to see where this goes and what is possible in this new age of digital publishing and marketing. Don't forget to also sign up for my email list if you want to stay up to date on my new releases.

Next up for me is the third installment in my Complicated Weight of Air series, which I might finally release on Amazon once that third installment is finished. The second installment, "Bifurcate", is already available on Kobo and iTunes and in all those good places. Reversal, my Apocalypse Weird novel set at the International Research Station on Ellesmere Island, should be released in February. Then I have another adult novel Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist coming in May and a new anthology announcement coming soon. Whew--it may be time to finally quit my day job in 2015, but more about that later. Sign up for my email list and you will be entitled to ARCs of any or all of these items.

As Long as they are Reading

Before I get to my post on "as long as they are reading", I have a lot of exciting news this week. First, A Quill Ladder is out. Check it out. If you received a Review Copy, I would love it if you post your review. No pressure (I am not a pressure kind of person), but I would sure appreciate it. Also, check out my new Reader Bonuses section of my site. I have lots of great giveaways happening. Second, Tales From Pennsylvania, an anthology to which I contributed, set in Michael Bunker’s Pennsylvania, will be out November 21, and I have free ARC copies for those who are willing to leave a review. Just sign up for my blog or drop me an email. And last but not least, I am writing a short novel to contribute to the Apocalypse Weird world. Sign up to receive a free ARC of Nick Cole's contribution to the Apocalypse Weird world and other exciting stuff. More news is coming on this soon!

The Percy Jackson Problem

Since I am a writer of middle-grade fiction fantasy, an article regarding “The Percy Jackson Problem” by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker recently caught my eye. I had thought the article might be about some of the weaknesses in Percy Jackson, and the general darkness and relativism I find in some modern children’s literature of The Hunger Games ilk that I think taken alone, might be providing not quite the moral and hopeful messages that I think children need to hear at least some of the time. 

Photo Credit:  PIerre Vignau  / flckr/  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: PIerre Vignau / flckr/ Creative Commons

However I was very wrong as to the nature of the article. It started with Neil Gaiman’s claim that as long as children are reading, that in and of itself is a good thing:

“’I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children,’ [Gaiman] argued, adding that it was ‘snobbery and … foolishness’ to suggest that a certain author or particular genre might be a baleful influence upon young reading minds—be it comic books or the works of R. L. Stine.”

But Apparently It's Not...

Mead proceeded to “debunk” Gaiman's assumption based largely on the arguments contained in an essay by Tim Parks that appeared on the blog of the New York Review of Books. According to Mead,

“Parks argued that there is little evidence to suggest that readers will make progress ‘upward from pulp to Proust.’ ‘I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare,’ he concluded. ‘Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.’

Hmm, really? Mead then proceeds to unfavorably compare Percy Jackson to Harry Potter for its “slangy, casual style” and notes that:

“Riordan’s books prompt an uneasy interrogation of the premise underlying the ‘so long as they’re reading’ side of the debate—at least among those of us who want to share Neil Gaiman’s optimistic view that all reading is good reading, and yet find ourselves by disposition closer to the Tim Parks end of the spectrum, worried that those books on our children’s shelves that offer easy gratification are crowding out the different pleasures that may be offered by less grabby volumes.”

Basic Assumptions of the Argument

While I do not disagree that from a writing quality perspective, that Harry Potter is probably superior to Percy Jackson, and I agree to some extent a lifetime of never moving beyond Rick Riordan is probably undesirable. However when I delved further into Parks’ original essay, I was troubled by the sentiments it contained for reading and for children’s literature. I have boiled Parks’ essay down into the following primary assumptions.

  1. There is a stairway of books with E.L. James, Rick Riordan and George R.R. Martin on the bottom and Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Pamuk on the top. I actually had to look Pamuk up—pretty bad for a writer, I know.
  2. We have this illusion by reading whatever they want people will pass up the ladder from soft porn (Fifty Shades) to Crime and Punishment.
  3. We WANT them to pass up the ladder, because the books at the top are in fact “better.”
  4. The evidence simply does not support this passage up the ladder.
  5. In fact, given that genre fiction is addictive like junk food, one might well fall down the ladder instead of up. Parks observes,
“If anything, genre fiction prevents engagement with literary fiction, rather than vice versa, partly because of the time it occupies, but more subtly because while the latter is of its nature exploratory and potentially unsettling the former encourages the reader to stay in a comfort zone.

Therefore, according to Parks, we should reconsider being happy when we see our teenager immersed in George R. R. Martin instead of watching TV.

Yikes!

Problems with the Argument

A key problem I have with the essay is the thin evidence Parks brings to bear to support argument number 4 above:

  1. One essay by W.H. Auden in which Auden says that if there is a detective novel around he cannot resist opening it, and if he opens it, he will not get any serious work done until it is finished.
  2. Parks’ own “powerful experience with this”—a spell reading Simenon’s Maigret novels in which after reading five or six it becomes difficult to distinguish them from each other—therefore it is clear that they stimulate and satisfy “a craving for endless sameness, to the point that the reader can well end up spending all the time he has available for reading with exactly the same fare.”
  3. His own children have chosen to read crime novels, pulp fiction, and fantasy novels instead of Parks’ favorite (and presumably much more accomplished) writers such as Coetzee, finding the latter too disturbing or real.
  4. His students seem firmly entrenched in the world of genre fiction and do not see the “essentially conservative nature of the one and the exploratory nature of the other” and do not understand why the authors they read are not in the same category as Doris Lessing or D.H. Lawrence.

(Really the whole essay was a rather stultifying adventure in literary name dropping. I appreciate that Parks appreciates these writers, but one feels there is more at play with all the names than him simply expressing admiration for these writers).

So coming back to Parks’ point, he concludes that it is evident that reading does not form a continuum whereby one is led from the more simple (Fifty Shades) to the more complex (Crime and Punishment) and that genre and literary fiction engage their readers in different ways (probably not an untrue statement), and scratches his head in confusion with regard to why:

“right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue”

When did these genre book pushers become right-thinking intellectuals? What does Parks even mean by that? But I digress…

He seems to believe that the thinking that the very act of reading is a virtue is driven by publishing houses that want to feel good about pumping out millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, and intellectuals who want to believe that the hoi polloi can be learned up to appreciate Proust. However Parks concludes that “there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction.” Whew! Really? Thank goodness. He just feels that for some reason that nobody wants to accept that reality (Hunh? Most people seem to have accepted that just fine), and observes that those people of his kind, lucky enough to find enrichment in the joys of Shakespeare are just blessed.

While I appreciate Mr. Parks’ dedication to “great” literature, I find his arguments concerning for readers, writers, and appreciators of books everywhere.

Reasons the Argument is Concerning

First, let’s be clear here that I am no fan of Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight or even, although his work is considerably better, Rick Riordan, but why does Mr. Parks have to center his whole argument around comparing one end of the book continuum to the other? There is a whole host of books that occupy the stairwell in between the two extremes and one might argue that there is more mobility up and down those middle stairs than there is between the top and bottom stair. There is high-quality exploratory genre fiction, and more reader-friendly literary fiction, and there is an entire category in the middle of crossover fiction. While many people may never make their way to the top stair and revel in the joys of Pamuk or Proust, they might dabble in Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell and still enjoy a good Louise Penny along the way.

As two of the commenters on the article more astutely observed:

“Impugning the value of all so-called genre fiction by attacking E. L. James or Stephanie Meyer is analogous to dismissing seafood by pointing out the flaws in canned tuna.”

And

One problem with the argument presented here is that Parks implies throughout that genre fiction and bad writers of genre fiction are synonymous, while limiting his discussion of serious literature to the greats. That’s like saying classical music is superior to rock n roll because Bach is superior to Nickelback.”

Second, why do we assume that getting to the top stair and reading Faulkner and Coetzee, is or should be the goal of all readers? I am sorry, I find much literary fiction that Parks has listed on the “top stair” to be dense, overly gritty, and boring. I suppose that marks me as a plebe, but I do not think I approach reading as a complete anti-intellectual. I do have a PhD, albeit probably in what some would consider a lesser discipline, and graduated at the top of my class. I even won fellowships and hold a reasonable job as a researcher. I dabble in all sorts of kinds of fiction on many stairs of the ladder. I have tried to appreciate some of the writers that Parks seems determined to foist on all of us and have found it wanting from my perspective for my tastes.

There is a certain accepted style to much of what is considered great literature, and if that style is not to one’s liking, then I guess one is forever condemned to the lower rungs of literature. As one commenter on Parks’ article noted:

If you want to be one of the literary crowd, you'd better embrace gritty negative realism to the exclusion of all else; if you happen to like a book that has, say, a happy ending, or characters that manage to not cheat on each other or murder their family members, then you're out.”

This seeming obsession of those who claim to love literature with the classics and the narrow confines of deep literary fiction, is in my opinion is one of the worst forms of intellectual snobbery and is a grand disservice to literature and reading. Who has not been at a book event, or hanging with bookish people, only to have at least one of them (the most cultured and learned generally) falling over themselves to list some of the great literature they have read lately, (or at some point in their lives) or discuss the finer points of Melville? There often is no adequate response to their verbal barrage of literary greats, which in my opinion, unless they are obtuse and do not realize most people have no idea what they are talking about, or are just so in downright love with the books that they read, is expressly designed to highlight how well read, how superior, how utterly cultured they are. Or, it is a fear-based response, based on the concern that I may have actually read more and better books than they, and they had better expound on their list first, to make sure I know it.

Gee, that’s great, but I’m reading Gone Girl, and I was thinking of picking up Cloud Atlas, but I might just indulge in a little Percy Jackson with my kids for a bit. Being able to talk passionately about books, and what books one likes, while honestly considering and expounding on their qualities, without fear of being judged, could be one of the first and key steps to seeing some of the flaws of those books and moving up or around on the reading stairway. Nobody is going to do that in the presence of someone who only reads Faulkner.

Reading is not, and should not be, a competition. It should be something we do for pleasure, for intellectual stimulation, for learning, and for a whole range of reasons. To suggest that if one is not reading Proust, one is ensconced at the bottom of the stairwell staring slack-jawed at Fifty Shades of Grey…or shudders, Percy Jackson, is faulty.

Is any reading good reading? Good is a very dangerous term. I would not call reading comics “good” reading, but it is not therefore “bad” reading. It is reading. If kids read comics for pleasure, they are learning the mechanics of reading, and reinforcing the idea that reading is enjoyable. Will some of them then move on to the plebeian joys of Harry Potter? Probably. Will others eventually read Joyce? Also probably. Will some of them never read in favor of reality TV and video games? Again, probably.

My kids barely read. Before you make assumptions regarding the lack of literary guidance in my house, my house literally teams with books, I will buy any book for my children that they request and I read to them so much when they were little that I am pretty sure the handsome librarian thought I had a thing for him. Yes, I prefer that they read something a bit more intellectually stimulating than Captain Underpants, but let me assure you that if they were reading Percy Jackson, I would be over the moon.

There is a real danger of over intellectualizing reading for children at the cost of good plain fun and losing a generation of readers along the way… if indeed we have not already done so. While I do not disagree with trying to steer them to consider a variety of books, and point them generally away from Captain Underpants in favor of gasp the Chronicles of Narnia, or even horrors, Enid Blyton, which Mead confessed was her guilty pleasure as a child, I think most reading is good reading, or decent reading—which is why, bringing me back to one of the original reasons for this blog post, I think you should check out my Derivatives of Displacement series. It is intelligent, fun, and not too dark. But I digress :-).

Moving around up and down the stairway of reading as an adult, and as a child, and understanding the differences between the books on each level, gives one more appreciation of the different styles of literature and the different objectives of different writers. Even Fifty Shades of Grey is an illustrative read of the obvious zeitgeist of the day, and can be consumed, at least partially, with the intellectual desire to understand why it appealed to so many people. Believe me, I have written many blog posts in my head with regard to the dangers of loving Fifty Shades of Grey. I just don’t think Proust and Dostoevsky are the necessary alternatives.

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On Bad Reviews…or #HaleGate

Well, we all know about Kathleen Hale by now, and if you haven’t heard of her, her article on catfishing in The Guardian makes for some pretty concerning reading.

Suffice to say, Hale made some extremely bad choices in stalking and doxxing one of her critical reviewers.

Photo Credit:  RSM ♡  via  Compfight   Creative Commons  

Photo Credit: RSM ♡ via Compfight Creative Commons 

I don’t know why she did it.

Yes, the review was harsh, but her book seemed to be doing fine, garnering both praise and criticism. It was selling well, and she has contract for another book with HarperTeen. Most writers would be overjoyed to be in her position. But clearly, she could not let this one review go. She did make some claims of Twitter harassment, but they do not seem to hold up under scrutiny, which with the ease of tracking almost every interaction on the internet, was easy for the defenders of the reviewer to provide. Maybe she thought her Guardian article would be sufficiently clever to excuse her behavior, or maybe she thought she would hit on some zeitgeist of author dissatisfaction with reviewers. Whatever she thought, it was a bad choice.

Hale is not alone.

Authors getting upset over bad reviews and making very bad choices—like physically attacking reviewers or writing lengthy and public responses to their reviews—is becoming more commonplace in this world of democratic crowdsourced comment on writing. One does not have to look very hard to find examples like this one. Sites like Amazon and Goodreads allow the people who do not like your book to make their voice heard, and if they are creative, clever or sarcastic, they can make their voice heard in a way that is very far-reaching and uncomfortable for the author.

What should authors do?

Writing for The Globe and Mail, Russell Smith claims that the solution is “to admit that Goodreads and sites like it are no place where even a barely literate adult would ever be caught sober, and that we need never go there.” Hunh? I do not agree with this. Many Goodreads reviewers write unbelievable reviews. I always go to Goodreads to check out the reviews before I buy a book or when I want to learn about an author. Indeed, given the degree of effort some reviewers spend on their reviews, and the ability to insert videos and images, many of the reviews on Goodreads have become their own art form, compulsively readable even if you haven’t read the book being reviewed. Even the most scathing one-star reviews often have some truths in them that only the reviewer was perhaps bold enough to say.

So for the record, I appreciate each and every review I have received, good or meh, and I appreciate the very fact that someone read my book and then said something about it. I have made edits to my books based on well-written reviews, and certainly take what reviewers have said about my previous books into consideration when I write new books. So to my reviewers, thank you, I cannot tell you how much I respect the time and effort it took to leave your thoughts.

But as much as writers appreciate reviewers (I do, I do!!), bad or critical reviews and ratings do hurt. Writers generally put everything they can into making their book the best it can possibly be and when someone does not like, or get, your work, it is hard. But writers do need to learn how to cope with bad reviews.

Reviews are complex.

One of the difficulties in ratings, and often reviews, is the fact that it is challenging for the writer to determine whether a reader did not like your book because they feel you are a poor writer and failed utterly at what you were trying to do, or because they just don’t like or understand the kind of stuff that you write. Different reviewers have different standards. Different readers have different things they are looking for in a book. There are lots of factors that go into a review.

There are a lot of books I don’t like…at all. My bookshelf is embarrassingly filled with them. There is a myriad of reasons I don’t like them. They are books that were either too detailed, or slow moving or too simple with flattish characters, or deal with controversial issues in a way that I do not appreciate, or set in a place that I am not interested in or written in a genre I don’t care for. But for the most part, I can appreciate that they were well written, and that they are well- or at least reasonably well-executed examples of what they were trying to be.

For example, I do not particularly like romance novels. However I have read a few lately to help me to understand the genre. I did not “like” them, but I could appreciate that they were good romance novels. If I were to write a review of them, my review would reflect my general dislike of many romance tropes and the notion of a happily ever after ending (although I like "happy" endings... just not the "ever after" partromance readers please do not be upset). But these writers are writing to the expectations of their genre and doing it well.

After the Hale controversy, I read the review in question, and the first bit of Hale’s book. I could tell from page one that I would not likely like it for many of the reasons that the reviewer identified. It was trying too hard, too affected and seemed to portray the characters through a somehow satiric and condescending lens. As an aside, that is the great thing about Amazon’s look inside and sample features. You can now get much better sense of the writer’s voice than you could through a few hastily skimmed pages in a bookstore—which is good because it means my bookshelf may groan less under the heft of DNF (did not finish) books because those books will become DNS (did not start) books instead. Hale’s book for me would be a DNS. I just don’t like that kind of book. At the same time, it is evident that she CAN write. She has a good sense of scene and voice. She is clever—perhaps too clever—and I can appreciate to some extent what she is trying to do.

While some written reviews allow writers to determine where they might have gone wrong in the reviewer’s mind, it is often the rating that writers hang on, and the rating system, by its very simplicity, conflates “poorly executed piece of crap” with “just not for me” whether the reviewer intended that or not. It would be great to have a more multi-dimensional rating system that allows reviewers to give a technical merit score, while at the same time saying “not for me.” As a reviewer myself, I often struggle to rate books that I think were well written, but that I did not love or even like for various reasons. I also struggle to rate books that are the opposite—ones that were not technically well written, but that had a good story and a lot of heart.

But in the end, ratings do not allow for that kind of nuance, and one person’s three stars is another person’s five stars.

Keep calm and carry on.

I think I started this post with the intention of pleading for temperance on the part of reviewers, asking for them to always try to recognize the good and bad in a book, and indicate whether the book is just not their thing or whether there are significant flaws in it. But after having spent the day reading a wide variety of reviews, I think that the vast majority of reviewers already do this, and writers have to accept that receiving some critical reviews, and having some readers who do not fully appreciate their efforts, is just part of being a writer. I’ve been at enough bookclubs to know that what appeals to one reader does not necessarily appeal to others.

So my quick and dirty strategy for keeping calm and carrying on when you get a less than stellar review:

1) Go immediately and read some one- and two-star reviews of your favorite novels. It will make you feel better, I promise. You will also realize that no book appeals to everyone and that even amazing books get critical reviews.

2) Read the one- and two-star reviews of some novels that you don't like. You will see that these often contain some truths that you agree with, truths that maybe only the reviewer was brave enough to say. This helps to remind me that reviews are an important part of the reading world, and that as a reader, it does make me feel better when another reader has the same opinion as I do, especially when the book has been well loved by many others.

3) Check out some of the books that your reviewer really likes. Maybe they prefer to read something totally different and grabbed your book by accident, or expecting something else. I can't tell you how often I have felt much better realizing that my book probably wasn't what they were looking for.

4) If you are still feeling unhappy, check out your reviewer's average rating. Everyone has different standards. Some people give three stars to books they really love, while others give them to books they did not like. Some reviewers are all over the place. Some reviewers are more critical. Some are less critical. Understanding what kinds of ratings and reviews a particular reviewer gives can be helpful for understanding what they are saying about your book. Some people (like me) don't ever finish and therefore do not ever rate books that they really hate. Others are more determined readers, and plow on despite disliking a book. Those kinds of people will tend to give more negative reviews.

5) Consider, really consider, what the reviewer is saying. Maybe there is some truth to it that you can use in your future writing. Maybe there isn'tbut just take a few seconds to check in on this, and be honest with yourself. I am well aware of the biggest flaws in my books, and often reviewers hit upon the things that I was uncertain about, that I had to make a call on, and that I knew might be controversial. Reviewer responses to some of these decisions may hurt a bit, but it is all good feedback for my future work. Even if you don't decide to change anything, reviews might be valuable feedback for how you target your work. I know now that I do not write romances :-), and that some romance readers might not fully appreciate my writing.

6) Do not respond in any way, ever to a negative review. Just don't. Of course, saying a big "thank you" to positive reviewsif the reviewer has reached out to you directly in Twitter or email is okay.

7) Go enjoy your day and keep writing. It's one review and it is not going to make or break your career.

8) If you can't do these things, perhaps don't read your reviews. This is super hard I know, but reviews are a part of writing, and sometimes it is just best not know what people are saying about you.

It is great that so many reviewers write so many marvelous reviews and that Goodreads creates a forum for the discussion of something really important—books. Learn what you can from the critical reviews, always be grateful and gracious to your reviewers, and keep working to improve your craft.

At least that's my approach--what do you think?

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Marketing Your Book – A Primer – Part Eight

A Quill Ladder is almost ready for release, as is the next installment in my environmental thriller, The Complicated Weight of Air. Both will be out in the next four weeks. Review copies of A Quill Ladder are available for a short period of time so if you are interested, please sign up for my email list.

I wanted to finish my series on marketing your book, which I started in the spring and never quite completed—in part because I put the strongest strategies near the front and some of the ones at the bottom of the list are hardly worth talking about because they don’t really work. However, I’ve been meaning to write a post on cross-sales and participating in an anthology, which were on my original list. The two are related as of course—one would hope that participating in an anthology, if the anthology does well, will lead to sales of one’s own books. Normally when I prep these posts, I do as much research on the issue as possible. However in the case of cross-sales of books I really could not find any other data. So this post is based on my own experiences.

Photo by:  Anita Hart  / flikr/  Creative Commons

Photo by: Anita Hart / flikr/ Creative Commons

I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of Synchronic: 13 Tales of Time Travel this spring. I was extremely excited to be in the company of all of the other amazing writers in the group, and most of them are better established in the indie and traditional publishing world than I am. Synchronic has sold well—very well. During a sale, and with the help of a Bookbub ad and a number of other promotions, it reached #16 overall in the Kindle store. More recently, as a result of being a Kindle Daily Deal, it again crossed over into the Top 100 in the Kindle store. These were very exciting days, but it has also sold consistently well between promotions and is continuing to sell well.

In addition, as a result of the Bookbub promotion and sale, and the Kindle Daily Deal, I had the wild experience of being in the top twenty science fiction authors on Amazon—twice. There’s my smiling face there in the screen shot to prove it.

So, what have I learned about cross-sales as a result of being in the top twenty science fiction authors on Amazon and participating in the Synchronic adventure?

1)   Cross-sales are not do not appear to happen on the day or week of release or promotion of the bigger selling item.

When Synchronic was scheduled to come out, I still did not have my adult novel, In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation out. I knew that Synchronic would likely do well on release, so I moved up my production schedule slightly thinking that I would be able to take advantage of cross-sales. There was no need to do so. Synchronic sold well on its first day out of the gates, but it did not contribute to any sales of my own books until about three weeks post-release. People had to first buy Synchronic and read it, and then decide that they liked my story enough out of the 13 to check out some of my other work. Many people did and sent me nice messages indicating that they had found me through Synchronic, and I will be forever grateful, but these cross-sales did not happen on the release day (or any of the promo days). I have found this to be similarly true for my own work. I hurried to get A Quill Ladder up for pre-orders to coincide with a promotion I did on A Pair of Docks. Again there was no need. Pre-orders have occurred, but not in the same week as the promotion.

2)   Cross-sales are probably more likely to occur on books that are in precisely the same genre as the big seller.

Synchronic is a time travel anthology generally geared toward adults. I write time travel fiction for children (although many adults like it) and environmental action-adventures for adults. These are not as aligned with Synchronic as might be useful. People who like time travel fiction in particular tend to be very genre specific and are not necessarily going to be interested in something slightly different. I certainly did not have time to write a novel on time travel for adults to release around the same time as Synchronic, but if I had been able to, it certainly would have been a good strategy.

3)   Being in the top twenty science fiction authors on Amazon does not seem to influence sales at all.

It’s fun though! My sales are usually pretty steady (which is a good thing), but I haven’t seen any spikes at all associated with being in the top twenty. Amazon’s algorithms and inclination to suggest books to people seem to be book associated not author associated.

4)   Appearing in the also-boughts may or may not influence cross-sales.

Everyone gets all excited about the need to appear in also-boughts in order to drive sales. I no longer appear in the also-boughts for Synchronic and in fact, neither do most of the Synchronic authors, with the exception of Michael Bunker and Jason Gurley and two of the others who have had very recent releases. We all appeared in the also-boughts for the first several months post-release. I do believe that appearing in the also-boughts helped my sales through July and August, and although I have noticed a slight drop off since I am no longer there, it is not significant.

Overall, cross-sales are important, but are just another contributing factor in building an author reputation and brand. Synchronic certainly has helped get my name and work onto more people’s radar, and I believe it has positively influenced my sales. However it has not done so in a dramatic way. Nevertheless, I would not hesitate to participate in an anthology again. There were many additional benefits associated with participating in an anthology. It allowed me to build connections with other writers, many of whom I hope to work with again in the future. A writer’s work can be well… a bit solitary, and the camaraderie associated with a joint project is something that writers don’t always get to experience. Writing a ‘long’ short, or novelette, was also a new story arc length for me. And I also got to learn from some masters of marketing, Susan Kaye Quinn, who organized the super fun release day party, and Michael Bunker, who arranged the Bookbub promotion blitz. Observing their approaches to social media has also been very enlightening.

What have your experiences been with cross-sales? Since I'm about to launch A Quill Ladder, the sequel to A Pair of Docks, I will be able to report on buy-through sales on the series soon. I will also be updating my earlier 'Marketing Your Book' posts with more information regarding which promo sites work, and which ones have had limited effect.

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Writing Faster... and keeping it okay

So in the indie world, and really probably in the world world, most of us who write, or create, or do anything really, are under pressure to write, create and do things faster (it was all associated with the advent of the dishwasher I’m sure). Let’s put it this way, I’m pretty sure none of us is under pressure to do many things slower (just ask my poor husband, but don’t mention the wood shed). 

Photo Credit:  Tomi Tapio K  / flckr /  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Tomi Tapio K / flckr / Creative Commons

More Content = More Sales

In the indie world, we are told again and again that more content is the way to make more money, earn a living, and break out of the mid-list, or the bargain basement list, or the complete obscurity list. And in this immediate gratification world, readers are demanding more faster, and the writer who is able to meet that demand might be the one who emerges on top. Producing one book a year, once considered a breakneck pace, is now seen as positively leisurely.

I have pondered this issue previously, especially given Russell Blake’s mega-production process that has led him to considerable indie success. However, fast writers have been around for a long time. Nora Roberts on average produces a book every five weeks, and everyone at the high-brow writing conferences I used to attend joked that James Patterson could not possibly write everything that his name is attached to. But maybe he can. Brian Keene observed that for pulp fiction writers writing fast was a requirement:

“It was common for the pulp writers of old to write 40,000 a day. This is because they had no choice. They wanted to eat. To earn their pay, they were required to crank out journeyman novels and stories to beat ridiculous deadlines and for a low rate. (In truth, not much has changed since then… and I see a whole bunch of mid-listers, ghost writers, and media tie-in scribes nodding silently).”

This issue came back to the fore for me this week when I was asked to participate in a project that would require me to produce a short novel by mid-December. Mid-December!! It’s September. I have a job. I have another novel coming out in three weeks. I have short story commitments. I want to pursue a new genre. I have a life…well I sort of have a life. I’d like to have a life.

But when I broke it down, I realized that producing this novel would require me to write a thousand words a day, which is my daily word count goal, and my usual production pace, anyway. So I said yes, and now that I’ve started (see Declination on the progressometer on my homepage), I think it will be fine. If Nora Roberts can do it in five weeks, by gosh, I can do it in twelve.

How Fast Can You Write a Novel?

But the whole thing and the pressure that I know indie authors are under, made me start to question, how fast can you write a novel? How fast should you write a novel? Are novels written fast better or worse than those labored over for seven years? And most importantly, how do you write a good novel fast?

The answers are more complex than you might think.

First of all, there are many famous and critically acclaimed novels that have been written fast. Very fast. A Christmas Carol, The Sun Also Rises, Water for Elephants and As I Lay Dying were all written in six weeks. A Clockwork Orange was written in three weeks. Okay, so I don’t feel quite so bad now.

So clearly, it is possible. What are the downsides? There are many. Writing so fast you produce a pile of crap is the obvious one, and it has side effects. The big one is obviously turning off future readers. There is also the whole issue of a gradual lowering of the overall quality of our literature. Burnout is another concern and Porter Anderson has a great article about this on Jane Friedman’s site. Still, if Nora Roberts can do it, and we can debate the finer points of the quality of her books, (but suffice to say, it is clear that she has had commercial success and is not writing egregiously bad fiction), then it is clear that it can be done.

How To Write a Novel Fast

Okay, so no crap, try to stay sane. If you want to write fast, super fast, how do you do it? I have compiled the following, in no particular order, from a variety of sites, and my own experience.

1) Outline, outline, outline

I am a big believer in serendipity and going with the flow when I’m writing. I generally start with an idea of where I want to go and build from there. But when I have to write fast, a more detailed outline, and one that I mostly stick to, is an essential tool. I imagine the story in my head for a day or two, and once I am satisfied with the general trajectory and characters, develop it in more detail in Word, and then I leave it at the end of my manuscript so I can quickly add to it when I have additional ideas.

2) Start with a character

This tip is from Joyce Carol Oates, who is a prolific writer. Conceptualize your character in detail and get to know them. Once you know your character they will tell you what will happen next. Getting to know your characters in detail is an essential part of writing whether you are writing fast or slow—it has to be done. So, if it helps speed things up, then it’s probably a good idea to do it early.

3) Write the last sentence

This is also from Oates, and is related to outlining. It is easier to get somewhere if you know where you are going. There is value to a novel that is developed from you driving around aimlessly and seeing where you end up. But if you need to be on time, you might want to Google map your ending.

4) Figure out the beats

Sean Platt, a notorious fast writer, claims that beats speed up his writing. Beats are the answers to essential questions related to your character and plot, such as why is your character living in a certain location, what makes a stranger seem suspicious to your character? Platt claims that once he has the beats, his story is much easier and faster to write.

5) Write like you talk

This one is from Christopher Hitchens, but is echoed in a way by Platt. Hitchens maintains that you should read everything that you write aloud and if that is not how you would talk, then you are probably doing it wrong. Of course, Hitchens’ arguments also seem to indicate that if you are boring when you talk, then you should probably give up writing. Platt observed that writing faster is actually a way to make it more likely that you are writing like you talk—and that you are writing better. According to Platt:

“The faster you write, the more your words will sound like you. The more your work sounds like you, the friendlier it will be.
The friendlier it is, the more likely it is to get read, and hopefully, reviewed.”

6) Write simpler

Novels written in four weeks are not going to give readers the impression that you labored over every word, because well… you didn’t. That is a different kind of writing. And laboring over every word does not always produce better writing. Novelists who labor over every word sometimes produce lyrical masterpieces, and sometimes produce dreary crud. Novels written in a straightforward style, in which you aim for clarity and simply say what you mean, can be produced in a lot less time. This was a secret of Asimov’s and while literary critics dissed his colorless prose, readers bought his books in the millions.

Then there are the obvious tips to writing fast. Minimize distractions. Don’t surf the Internet. Don’t clean the house when you are supposed to be writing. Remember that the first draft is just that—a first draft and you can go back and fix things later. After my twelve weeks, I’ll still have a few weeks to edit, so I’m not even attempting to set any land speed records for writing. Nora’s five-week turn around time includes editing, so I’m going to have to step up my game if I want to compete (I doubt Nora is worrying right now).

Developing an Author Business Plan

I just finished my final edits to A Quill Ladder and it is ready to go to the editor. Yay! ARC copies will be available October 3rd(ish), so if anyone wants to take a sneak peek sign up for my email list (existing subscribers can just send me an email at jlelliswriting@gmail.com).

It is now exactly one year since I decided to go indie, and as a result, it is probably time to be more explicit about my business plan. I have always kind of had an implicit plan - six books in three years at a reasonable budget, then reassess.

I did some research on business plans for authors and found them to be really lengthy and detailed. I am a big believer that for the most part the best business plan for authors is simply "write and repeat," and I am not at a point in my business where I need a thirty page plan. Most of my plan is in the form of post-it notes on my desk and a general schedule and budget in my head. But I thought I would run some numbers, just for fun. So, in the spirit of sharing, here is my business plan for year two of my indie author business. As you can see, I am going for the slow build, but results from year one have been promising.

Apologies for the somewhat wonky looking tables. They are images from my word document. My website editor does not support tables.

Four Year Goal:

Make $30,000/year profit.

Implications: With estimated production costs of $10,000/year (for 2.5 books a year), this will require selling the following number of books at the following price points.

Plan: Work up to this number of sales with continual production, high quality products, and building of fan base.

Year by Year Goals:

Initial Strategy: Selling first 1000 books was first-year strategy based on Tim Grahl's Your First 1000 Copies. (I am thrilled that it took less than 8 months to do so.)

Overall Strategy: Slow build, recognizing that many overnight successes actually took a few years to become overnight successes. If sales exceed targets earlier, great. If not, stay the course.

Products:

  • One middle grade book, one adult book and three short stories/year.
  • Move adult books to slightly more steamy romances for featuring smart women.
  • Reassess products on a biannual basis based on sales and competitors.

Production Schedule:

Words to write and edit in years two and three:

*Note Adult novels for years two and three already half written.

Based on total intended production, the number of words/day required is as follows:

*50,000 words must be added in to editing days for adult novels already written.

Budget:

*FL = full length.

If budget reductions are required, cut proofreading first, then print formatting, and ebook formatting as these are all activities that can technically be done in-house.

Promotional Activities:

Tasks for Year Two

  • Write one blog post every two weeks.
  • Participate in anthologies.
  • Participate in Facebook author groups.
  • Write 4-6 book reviews for Underground Reviews.
  • Tweet (more effectively).
  • Network with other writers.

Education:

Tasks for Year Two

  • Attend one international conference.
  • Take copyediting course.

Budget: $1200

Business Development Activities:

Tasks for Year Two

  • Explore other platforms:
    • Go perma-free with first installment of The Complicated Weight of Air once second installment is complete.
    • Put In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation on other platforms when current KDP enrollment period expires.
  • Explore other review sites including Books Cartel and Library Thing.
  • Continue to experiment with price pulsing.

 So that is it from my perspective. What do you think? What have i missed?

 

Advantages of Using Google+ for Writers

This week while I am taking short breaks from editing A Quill Ladder, which is now available here for pre-order, I am wrestling with the pros and cons of spending more time posting my content on Google+. And wrestle I have, let me tell you. I have now read so many almost incomprehensible articles on the advantages of Google+ that my head is spinning. Editing was far more relaxing.

Photo Credit:  Yuko Honda  via flickr  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Yuko Honda via flickr Creative Commons

Why care about Google+?

I already have a Facebook account, and posted here about the pros and cons of setting up a Facebook author page versus just having a personal profile. I decided to go the route of keeping my personal profile and have added a lot of writer friends, and have done some very successful promotion on Facebook. I also have a Twitter account and have a not too shabby 885 followers.

But I keep hearing that Google+ is better than Facebook and Twitter, and certainly, even with my limited use of Google+, I can see that I have had 2,456 views with almost no effort at all. I find Facebook a bit awkward for book promotion and talking about writing because my non-writing related friends do not always want to hear about my writing, and my writing friends are not necessarily interested in my trip to Oregon, or my son’s habit of wearing filthy clothes. Twitter just seems like a scrolling newscast in which there is too much noise for most people to catch much. I definitely tweet, have a list of tweeters that I watch, and try to engage with some of my writer friends there, but in my mind Twitter is not ideal.

So I decided to explore what Google+ can do for me. You will have to be patient with me as I review the material and formulate my opinion—and this is just a layperson’s view. I am not a super techie or social media expert. But perhaps that will help me to consider some of these things in plain language—or explore where Google+ and its cadre of experts are just not making themselves clear. This week I am going to look at why people think Google+ is the best social media platform for authors. In subsequent weeks, I will talk about my experiences using the tools Google+ provides.

Main advantages of Google+ for writers

1) You can more easily direct your content via circles

Google+ easily allows you to direct your content to the people you want it to go to by allowing you to classify all of your connections via circles. So you can establish a circle for friends, family, writers, agents, and so on. When you share content, you can easily decide who it should go to, and you don’t have to worry about continually spamming your friends with news about your writing. You can also share content publicly or to specific communities. Technically, Facebook allows for the same option via lists, but circles are built in to Google+ and much easier to use.

One downside though is that it doesn't seem like you can share something publicly and to communities at the same time. I like to post to communities such as the Indie Readers and Writers community as I feel that is more targeted than posting publicly, but does that mean that the post does not appear on my Google+ page?

2) You can write longer posts and format them

This, I suppose, allows for somewhat more versatility than Twitter’s short posts and Facebook’s lack of formatting options. But how big an advantage is this? Sure, formatting can increase readability, and you can make it look exactly how you would like it. But is that really going to cause engagement with your post to spike? Isn’t it more about what you say?

One of the posts indicates that you could share an entire chapter of a novel. This would allow you to send it to a single person in one of your circles a chapter to review. Great, but why wouldn’t I just use email for that? The post also suggests you could use Google+ to send a chapter to multiple agents at once. I’ve never heard of agents accepting chapters via Google+. They usually have lengthy formatting and submission requirements, and Google+ is not one of them. If I posted a chapter publicly, would people read it? Maybe. I guess I would have to try.

3) Posting your content on Google+ increases the Google ranking of your post and therefore your visibility

Apparently Google (you know that search engine that so many people use, that google has become a verb), favours posts made on Google+. This is a big one, and honestly might be the most compelling reason to use Google+.

4) You at one point in time could claim Google Authorship for your posts

Google Authorship meant that you ended up with a headshot and byline next to your content in Google searches—which supposedly increased your credibility and click-through rates. And if people stayed on your website for more than two minutes, Google would suggest more of your content to them when they hit the back button. This Copyblogger article contains a lot of reasons why Google Authorship was supposedly great.  

However, Google seems to have announced that it will no longer be doing Google Authorship, as the information did not prove as useful to its readers as it had hoped. Read an article about the announcement here. Maybe this explains why I could not get it to work as it was supposed to, as I described below.

I went through the confusing process of trying to set up Google Authorship up for myself, which involved repeated messages like this from the Google+ team when I tried to click verify in the verification email address they sent: “There's something wrong with the link you clicked to verify your email address. Try pasting the entire link into your browser.” I found a different way to do it, but that did not work either - probably because the whole thing had been cancelled. Either way Google, I love you, but please if you are going to do something like Google Authorship make it easier for people to use.

5) Google+ does not use algorithms to decide what people see

We all know this is one of the major complaints regarding Facebook. People can like a page, but then never see the posts by the author of that page if they have not engaged with the page enough. I have many pages that I have liked that I don’t ever see a post from. Apparently, Google+ does not do this. If people put you in a circle, they will see what you post. Although this does not affect me as much, because I use Facebook mostly to interact with my friends and only occasionally post information regarding my books, it is still confusing to know what Facebook is sharing with whom.

6) According to some of the experts, Google+ is the best place to extend your reach and draw in new potential fans and customers

According to these same people, Facebook is for engaging with the people you already know, and Google+, because of its better reach and searchability, is where you meet new people and create new relationships. Perhaps this is a relevant point. Obviously my profile has been viewed 2,456 times—presumably by new people. I am not sure what impact that has had on my book sales though.

7) Google+ provides automatic hashtagging

I think this may help increase the visibility of posts. However, to be honest I am not really sure how big an advantage it is.

Google+ also offers features such as hangouts and a tool that works much like Google Alerts. I am not going to cover those here, as they are not as relevant to what I do on social media. However they may be worth considering.

Conclusions

So there you have it. My take is that Google+ may be a better platform in some ways, and the fact that it potentially increases your blog page rank means that it is definitely worth pushing your content to your Google+ page, but as a place to spend a lot of time on, I’m not sure. It certainly has its strong proponents, but Google+ still has fewer users than Facebook or Twitter and the people who do use it apparently spend less time there. I am going to start posting more to Google+ and will let you know what I learn.

This article about which is social media platform (Facebook or Google+) is going to emerge as the winner offers a lot of good commentary on the future of Google+, as well as some of the key ways to get the most out of it, which I will consider in the coming weeks.

So what is your take? What have I missed? Which platform do you favour?

Find me on Google+

 

Reading Short Stories (Synchronic on sale)

Just a short post today, as I am officially on holidays (which means I have been carted away from my house by my husband and do not have to do consulting work for two weeks, but I am still editing A Quill Ladder like a fiend).

Synchronic: 13 Tales of Time Travel, the short story anthology I contributed to in the spring, is on sale today and tomorrow (August 14 and 15) in the United States for only 99 cents. For those of you who have not read it, it is an amazing collection of short stories that come at time travel from a multitude of perspectives. Despite the different approaches taken by all of the authors in the anthology, there are some surprising interconnections among the stories in terms of how we view time and what time travel could potentially mean for us as a species.

I have to admit, before participating in the anthology, I was not a huge fan of short stories. I had studied the art of writing them of course, and drafted many for submission to literary journals (which is how Canadian writers are advised to get their start down the road to traditional publication). I had also slogged through many short story collections in an effort to fall in love with them. But aside from a mild interest in Alice Munro’s stories, I had never quite found most of them to my tastes.

Imagine my surprise then, when I read the Synchronic anthology and discovered that I loved most if not all of the stories. I spent some time thinking about why, and why you should consider buying it, even if you have not previously been a fan of short stories.

Why you should buy Synchronic

1) They are long short stories

The Synchronic stories are up to 15,000 words in length. The conventional length of a short story is under 10,000 words. Many literary journals limit their submission length to 5000 words. Thus many of the short stories you have read in the past are really short. Some stories can be told in 5000 words, but some need a little more rope to achieve their arc. This slightly longer format allowed the Synchronic authors the flexibility to consider a wide range of stories and tell them in the detail necessary to make them come alive, which is often only achievable in a novel.

2) All of the contributors have different styles and tell different kinds of stories

Many short story collections feature only one author. I often find I like one or two of the stories, but am less keen on the others because I have already dissected that author’s style. Synchronic allows you to sample a bunch of different authors and experience a many different styles.

3) Some of them have happy endings!

I don’t know about you, but the convention in literary fiction short stories in Canada is to have short stories end with a bitter unexpected twist, or just fade into the mundanity of every day life. Often the more bitter, or mundane the ending, the more likely the story was to get published. I often find this dissatisfying and depressing. That is not the case in Synchronic where the authors were allowed to craft whatever kind of ending they wanted – some of them happy, some of them not, but most of them unexpected.

4) It has lots of great reviews on Goodreads and Amazon

Not sure what else I can add here :-). Obviously other readers have agreed with my sentiments!

So there you have it – some reasons you should consider checking out Synchronic. I would write more but I have just received memo from husband that the vehicle heading into Portland for the day is leaving in fifteen minutes and if I do not want to see the sights in my pajamas, I should get a move on.

My new short story series

Also, for you short story fans, I am planning to post my new short story The Complicated Weight of Air 1 – Manifest on Amazon tonight. It is a 10,000 word short story and the first in a series about life in an industry town and environmental disaster. Here is the short blurb:

James Allenby is a runner and a budding documentary maker. He is also the son of one of the local smelter executives. He finds himself on the wrong side of the tracks when he decides to make a movie regarding Curtis, a local homeless man who likes to issue dire warnings regarding the trains that serve the smelter.

Watch for it! The next story in the series will be coming in a few weeks. Of course posting it will be dependent on whether there are some unknown holiday activities awaiting me today, and the outcome my expected battles with Calibre to format it. This will be the first time I am doing my ebook conversion by myself so we will see. It may end up going live a few days from now. I will do a blog post about my do-it-yourself ebook conversion soon as well (even if it fails).

Update: Do not try to format a book to mobi on your own. I have just spent the last seven hours battling with Calibre with the help of my programmer brother-in-law and we both know some html. We could get the epub to look great, but could never get the mobi quite there - there was always some indenting problem or line spacing problem. Conclusion - let the professionals do it.

Update again: So KDP accepts epub, word, html and pdf files and will format them for you! I can't believe it. I have been paying to get mine done. There must be some catch. I will be investigating further.

The Best Self-Publishing Podcasts

This week I am going to focus on self-publishing podcasts. If you are an indie writer and have not found self-publishing podcasts yet, I highly recommend that you give them a try. They’re great to listen to when you are running errands in the car, doing housework or going for walks, although I generally like to dream up plot ideas while I walk. While I love to keep up on industry news through the many great web resources that focus on indie publishing, the best of which in my opinion is The Passive Voice, I don’t always have the time to read everything I need to and podcasts are the perfect answer. The writers and others who are producing these podcasts are doing a fantastic job. Stay tuned because I’m going to list and talk about my top five favourites below.

I also have a cover reveal and chapter one excerpt up for A Quill Ladder, the second book in my Derivatives of Displacement series. Editing is going well, which is good because it is due in to my favourite editor, David Gatewood, on September 22nd. Look for the release of A Quill Ladder on October 31st.

Photo Credit:  Mingo.nl  via Compfight  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mingo.nl via Compfight Creative Commons

Okay so, on to my top five favourite self-publishing podcasts in order:

1) Self-Publishing Roundtable

The Self-Publishing Roundtable is team-hosted by a myriad of successful indie writers and brings in new guest writers every week to talk about what worked for them and what didn’t. The production quality sucks and sometimes you can’t hear everyone, but the discussions are always frank and the questions probing—and even better—the writers answer the questions. The team hosted nature of the podcast creates some challenges as the hosts sometimes talk over each other, but it also results in some of the best questions of any podcast as the team members all come at the writer from different angles. The discussion is generally super practical and the team always goes for details in terms of sales numbers, costs and the writing process. The banter among the team members is also generally funny and they allow for questions from the listening audience. They get great guests and I’ve learned a ton from every show.

2) The Sell More Books Show

The Sell More Books Show is a new one and I am just starting to go through the episodes. This podcast is very professionally produced and the hosts, Bryan Cohen and Jim Kukral, are entertaining and work hard to make their show as useful as possible. Each show follows a set structure with tips of the week and top five news items. The hosts limit the banter and stay focused. If you can’t read The Passive Voice and want to stay up on industry happenings, this podcast is the one for you. It doesn’t provide the same details that the SPRT hosts extract from their guests but it is always worth a listen, especially if you have a limited amount of time.

3) The Creative Penn Podcasts

Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn podcast has been around for a long time. She often shares tidbits of advice from her own experiences as an indie author and includes an interview with a successful writer. It is professionally produced and Joanna is easy to listen to. I like this podcast a lot, but sometimes the quality of the show is dependent on the quality of the interviewee, and since there is only one interviewer, Joanna can’t always draw information out of less forthcoming guests in the same way the tag-team approach of the SPRT can. There is also a tendency to focus more on the books and creative process of the guests, rather than the practical marketing numbers information that I am interested in. Still it is a great podcast and definitely on my download list.

4) The Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast

I love The Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast too. It is also extremely professionally produced. Like The Creative Penn, this show has a single interviewer, Simon Whistler, and a single guest and focuses in-depth on one writer’s experiences. It really is tied for third in my "listen to" list. Whistler asks good questions, is very diligent, and there have been some great episodes, most notably the one with Hugh Howey. The quality of this show in my experience is linked to the nature of the guest. Although Whistler gets in some great guests, he also gets in some that are more narrowly focused on specific genres, or non-fiction or history. So sometimes I am less interested in some of the episodes than others. But go through the episodes and pick out the ones that you think would interest you. You won't be disappointed.

5) The Self-Publishing Podcast.com

The Self-Publishing Podcast.com is team-hosted by three guys, Jonny B Truant, Sean Platt and Dave Wright. I think that the guys are funny, and have some great advice to offer, and lots of industry insight, but sometimes it takes them a long time to get to the advice. There is a lot of banter, which albeit entertaining, is not always what I am interested in. That said, I am pretty sure that they have a cult following, and if you are a writer in their genres (dark horror, sci fi etc.), this is a must listen. They are absolute originals and if you love them, you love them.

Those are my faves. Are there any other great podcasts out there? Any great episodes of these podcasts to recommend?

 

 

What Makes Great Characters

So I was tagged in a blog tour (again) by Lyn C. Johanson. I seem to be imminently taggable. Maybe that’s because I almost never say no. In fact, I suck at saying no – which probably explains some of my life choices (but I digress). Or maybe someone stuck a “tag me” post-it note on my back. But blog tours are usually fun, and I saw this one about Meeting My Character as an opportunity to both answer the questions, and then consider what makes great characters.

Photo Credit:  Ian Wilson  / flickr /  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ian Wilson / flickr / Creative Commons

Then I had the challenge of trying to actually pick one of my characters. I did consider Robin, the main character in my upcoming Tales from Pennsylvania novelette, which I am exceedingly excited about. I mean we are talking Michael Bunker here. But since I don’t want to risk any spoilers associated with Robin, I decided to go with Abbey, the main character in my fantasy science fiction adventure series (could I add any more descriptors there?), since the second book in the series, A Quill Ladder, is coming out this fall.

Blog Tour Questions

What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Abbey Sinclair. She is fictional. Some people think she is me of course – friends often seem to do that with writers. But I’m not nearly as geeky or accomplished in science as Abbey… well I hope I’m not quite as geeky anyway. (Some of the main characters in my other books are strippers, alcoholics, murderers and adulterers – so I’m hoping that the friends thinking the main character is me is short-lived).

When is the story set?

The story is set in the present day. But it is kind of intended to be timeless.

What should we know about him/her?

Abbey loves chemistry and physics, is fourteen, delicately pretty with red hair, has an IQ of 165 and is sometimes a bit socially awkward. She has a twin brother named Caleb and an older brother named Simon. She also may be a witch, but she doesn’t really believe in that.

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Having just returned from an adventure using the time travelling stones that allow people to see their future, Abbey must decide if she is going to use the list of clues her future self left for her to try to prevent the event that apparently caused the world to split into three futures. But solving the clues would probably mean using the stones again, which she has been forbidden to do. And of course the witches she helped free from Nowhere keep dropping by looking for her help, and offering to teach her about magic, and her mother is sneaking out early in the morning to use the stones herself...

What is the personal goal of the character?

Abbey wants to keep her family safe and prevent the future catastrophic events that she now knows are coming. But she's also very curious and can’t help but want to solve the mystery and learn about her future. Her natural caution sometimes gets in the way though.

Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
It is called A Quill Ladder and I will have a cover reveal and blurb up next week. But for now here is a sneak peek at the cover as I am once again so excited about the amazing work of Andrew Brown at Design for Writers.
 

dfw-je-aql-cover-small.jpg

When can we expect the book to be published?
October 31, 2014

What Makes Great Characters

Okay so which of these are important for writing great characters? Hint: The answers to questions 3, 4 and 5.

It should be obvious that the answer to question 3 is important. Great characters have to have personality, quirks, flaws, and strengths. They also have to be complex and fully realized to be interesting. Abbey’s favourite colour is pink. She has a crush on Orlando Bloom. She is very brave, but she does not believe she is and gets sarcastic when she is afraid. She likes to reason everything through, whereas her twin Caleb operates more on emotion and instinct. It is important for the writer to consider a lot of detailed aspects of their characters, even if those details don’t make it into the novel, such as – what is their favourite book (Abbey would say The Principles of Chemistry, but really it is Prince Caspian), what do they wear to bed (pink polka-dotted flannel pajamas), what are they afraid of (spiders), and do they like bacon (Who doesn’t like bacon? Just kidding. Abbey does, reluctantly, after she failed at being a vegetarian).

Questions 4 and 5 relate to what is driving the character both internally and externally. Great characters have to have motivation and agency, and generally must experience both internal and external conflict. Motivation pushes them along. It is about what they want or need. Agency is how they go about seeking it and responding to the internal and external conflicts. Agency is about being active, not passive. The internal and external conflicts are the obstacles and challenges they experience along the way that act as both inciting incidents, leading them to the initial action, and the continuing call to action.

Not included in the set of questions is another key component of great characters. Great characters also have to be capable of change and growth. Most people read books to see the main character change or learn something as a result of their actions in the book. Books are often not just about the external adventure, which is often the main plot arc, but also that internal character arc. Abbey will change in important ways in terms of how she views science, intuition, emotions and witchcraft over the course of the Derivatives of Displacement series – the derivatives of displacement in physics are ultimately about rate of change over time.

Also not included, but important, is that great characters have to have a history and backstory. They did not just drop from the sky into your book. Unless you begin your novel on the first day of their lives, they had important life-altering events that took place before the time period of your novel. And while you should not necessarily provide your reader with a long and boring description of that backstory, their history should come into play and affect their responses when they are in a wide variety of situations.

Finally, great characters should be mostly internally consistent, but still able to surprise. Writers must think about everything they make their character do. Would their character do that? Is the character acting in character? Readers get upset when characters act randomly, unless randomness was a main element of the character from the start. At the same time, if characters are too predictable, they become boring. It is a fine line and writers have to walk it. You can never allow the reader to be too sure what a character is going to do, but it is also bad to completely shock them.

Of course there are other things that writers believe contribute to great characters such as larger than life qualities, a great and suitable name, a unique look, friends, secrets, and likability, and I could write a whole post on the necessity of writing memorable characters versus good enough characters (and perhaps I will), but the character attributes above are the essentials. Great characters need to be complex, real, motivated and active, capable of change, internally consistent but not predictable and they need to have a history. They also need to face internal and external conflict, because really that is what a story is all about.

I am glad I was tagged in this blog tour as it has been a good exercise in checking in on Abbey and making sure she is as great a character as I want her to be.

I also have to tag someone else in my post so I am going to tag Susan May, an Australian writer, who can be found at http://susanmaywordadventures.blogspot.com.au/ and recently released a novelette, Back Again. Here is the blurb:

A tragic accident takes Dawn’s only child right before her eyes. The following surreal days are filled with soul-destroying grief and moments she never wants to live again—until, inexplicably, she finds herself back again, living that day. It’s a chance to save her son. But changing fate is not as simple as it first appears. Between life and death lies fate.

Back Again is going to be released as a novel in the fall. Check it out!

Reading Like a Writer

I'm participating in the International Authors’ Day blog hop this week. Since the blog hop is for both readers and writers, it was suggested that we talk about reading, such as why we love reading, our favourite authors or how we got into reading.

In that vein, I have decided to talk about reading like a writer.

As a writer, it is critical to approach books for more than just enjoyment, although of course enjoyment is important too! Books represent possibly the greatest classroom for writers, and one that is inexpensive to explore at one’s own pace, focusing specifically on the techniques that one requires the most help with.

Photo by:   beggs  / flikr /  Creative Commons License

Photo by:  beggs / flikr / Creative Commons License

Non-writers can do this too to increase their awareness of literary techniques and the habits of good writers (although readers probably don’t need to do it to the same extent). I think that when the other members of my bookclubs comment that I bring a unique perspective to the club due to my technical understanding of the books that they are giving me a compliment… they haven’t kicked me out yet at least.

When I first started writing, I took a class at the local college and one of the texts for the class was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I was so very excited to get this book as the concept of learning my craft from other writers by simply reading had never occurred to me. Unfortunately Reading Like a Writer failed utterly in its execution, focusing entirely on impenetrable analysis of mostly inaccessible literary texts that taught me nothing of the practical approaches I needed to read like a writer. I read each chapter twice hoping to understand what I was missing, but still came up empty handed (and feeling like I would never be a writer).

However, the concept of reading like a writer is still sound. Every word, sentence, paragraph and chapter in a book represents a choice, or series of choices made by the author. By analyzing the choices of one’s favourite writers, or writers whose technique one admires, even if the book is not to one’s liking, a writer can learn a tremendous amount. Lacking a clear guide, I had to teach myself how read like a writer. So here is my abbreviated (and simple) guide to reading like a writer. Many of these things I have posted about in more detail in the past so I have included links to those posts.

When I read, I now automatically check:

  1. Tense and Point of View (POV). Is it written in past or present tense? How does this affect the pacing and feeling of movement associated with the words? Is it written from first person, second person (rare), third person limited, or omniscient point of view? Does this change from chapter to chapter or scene to scene i.e. is one character written in first person, while another is written in third person?
  2. Number of POVs. How many points of view is the novel written from? A single point of view, two or three points of view, or multiple points of view?
  3. POV Shifts. If the novel is written from more than one point of view, how does the writer shift from one point of view to the other? Does the point of view shift from chapter to chapter? Scene to scene? Does the narration slide from one person’s point of view to the other within scenes without being omniscient i.e. are we only in one person’s head at a time for a period of time? Or is the narration omniscient allowing the reader to see inside the heads of all characters at all times and providing information that none of the characters know? How does the writer demarcate shifts in POV?
  4. Passage in Time. How does the writer mark or handle passage in time? Does the story occur in a short period of time? Or does it summary narration of the passage of days, months or years that are not as relevant to the story, or do not need to be presented in scene form?
  5. Flashbacks. Does the writer use flashbacks? Are they presented as complete scenes? Or just fragments of memory in a character’s mind? How does this affect the flow of the story? Is it jarring, or does it flow naturally?
  6. Word Choices. Does the writer use lots of adjectives or adverbs, or a moderate number of them, or have they pared their writing down to a cleaner style. What impact does that have on the imagery? While adjective and adverb overuse is generally discouraged, stripping them entirely can result in very spare and dead prose. Count the number your favourite writers use per page and compare them to your adjective and adverb use.
  7. Tags. How does the writer tag their dialogue? Do they use dialogue tags such as said, or asked, and if so which ones? Do they use mostly said, or do they utilize a variety of tags? Do they use mostly action tags instead, or no tags at all?
  8. Details. Is the writing concrete and detailed, or more general and lacking specific details? In Can Lit we are taught to always include as many specific and unique details as possible. This is a technique that makes the writing come alive for the reader. It can also be overdone, bogging the reader down in unnecessary information. How has the writer handled this choice?
  9. Pacing and Plot. How is the novel paced and plotted? Does it follow the traditional three-act structure (set up, confrontation, resolution) with the climax at the end of Act Two (confrontation) or does it take a different approach? Does it throw you into the action immediately, or have an introduction that eases you in?
  10. Introduction of Characters. How are characters introduced and named? Do they simply turn up, and it is assumed that the reader will figure out who they are as they go along, or is their full name and some background information provided when they appear?

These are just some of the many things that I look for when I read. Ultimately there are no right or wrong choices regarding many of these things. There are just different choices and they result in different books that are appreciated by different readers. However there are some things that are considered good and bad technique. Random head hopping if you are not writing in the omniscient point of view is usually frowned upon. Using dialogue tags such as drawled, exclaimed, gaped and ejaculated is also a no-no.

But good technique is not the only thing that makes a book great. Sometimes books can become weighed down by the cleverness of their own technique. I’m currently reading a Can Lit book that is technically flawless. But I am not enjoying it. And yet I just finished an indie novel that had multiple technical problems, but it was a fresh fun read that did not seem to be laboring under its own pretensions. Reading like a writer will probably not change whether or not you like a book, but it can help you to appreciate why you like a book or not, and understand that just because you don’t like a book doesn’t mean that the writer is not a good writer (and vice versa).

Of course not to be outdone, Chuck Wendig has his own guide to reading like a writer. It’s a little different than mine, but definitely worth a read.

Ultimately reading like a writer is about paying attention, which you should be doing anyway when you are reading. What is the author trying to do? And are they doing a good job of it?

Many thanks to Debdatta for inviting me to participate in this blog hop.

I also promised a Giveaway as part of the blog hop, so will be providing a free mobi copy of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation to three people who comment on my blog in the next week (it doesn't have to be on this post!).

 

 

Getting from First to Second Draft

I just finished the first draft of the second novel in my middle-grade to adult time travel series (hence the temporary blog silence). After a giddy day of celebration (okay it has been three days), I need to start planning out the second draft. I have a short story that I have to write for anthology (exciting announcement coming soon) by the beginning of August and then I have to do revisions to the tentatively titled A Quill Ladder by September 15 to meet the deadline I’ve agreed upon with my editor.

Gulp…

My two previous books went through a lot of iterations. The second draft period extended out for months, if not years, and there was a lot of fluidity to my drafting process, such that it was kind of hard to pinpoint the end of the first draft and the start of the third. It is entirely possible that In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation went through twenty-one complete and total rewrites over the course of seven years. Now, I did write two other novels in that time and took a year off to work. But, a conservative estimate would be that the second through twenty-first drafting process extended over two years of consistent work – not all day every day, because I still work, but at least two to three hours most days, and long sessions at least once or twice a week. Of course, it was my first novel, and I was revising based on the guidance of a multitude of other writer mentors who were trying to help me find a traditional publisher. It had to be perfect, and it was starting from a lot shakier ground.

But even starting from a much (much) stronger first draft, cutting my second draft process from two years to six weeks. That’s a bit scary. That said, other indie writers write entire novels, first draft through final draft (unbelievably), every four to six weeks. Surely I can do a second draft in six weeks. I know I will do a third and fourth draft, so I don’t have to panic if the second draft isn’t perfect. I also took a fair bit of care with the first draft, spending six months on it, editing a bit as I went and thinking through the plot fairly carefully.

So, how does one write a second draft in six weeks?

While I know basically how one does a second draft – you fix things that need fixing – one can kind of afford to noodle around a bit when one has two years to do a second draft. Six weeks does not allow for noodling. So I went searching for a guide to second drafts. Some writers apparently just fix typos, grammar and word choices in the second round. I am used to a much more intensive rewrite than that.

I stumbled across this marvelous e-book by Darcy Pattison on getting from the first draft to the second. Pattison’s suggestions for 30 things to review and consider are great, and I will definitely go back and review things like my title, chapter length, details of the settings, details of the characters and narrative arc. I will also consider my theme, the strength of the ending, and look for any dangling sub-plots (or main plots).

Hmm… this is sounding like more than a six-week commitment… Perhaps I should have Googled “writing a second draft quickly.” I grew especially worried when I read this post by K.M. Weiland who takes two years to go from first draft to finished product. I get it and Weiland is certainly correct when she notes that writing a novel in three years is fast in the literary world. But things are changing, and many other writers are truly producing four to six books a year. My target of one every nine months seems positively leisurely.

Surely there is some middle ground here.

Tess Gerritsen outlines a six-step process for going from first to second draft:

  1. Make the plot hang together – make sure the set-up matches the resolution. Gerritsen points out that she can make fairly major plot changes that stray from the original plan and then has to go back and rewrite the set-up. I tend to stay true to my original plot plan, and as a check did go back and have already touched up the set-up with minor changes. However an overall step back check of how well the plot hangs together is probably in order.
  2. Refine and deepen the characters. This is a definite must. Although I try to do this as I go, I know that I will need to add more mannerisms, nuances, references to appearance and thoughts in order to make each of the main characters, and some of the side characters, more unique, fresh and multi-faceted.
  3. Heighten the poetry – in other words, work on the words and sentences. Yup. Definitely on the must do list, although in keeping with the fact that I am no longer technically a literary fiction writer, I am going to perhaps do this less than with previous novels.
  4. Clean up the inconsistencies. I also try to do this as I go. If I change something and know I am creating an inconsistency. I will go back and revise every instance of the inconsistency. But I am sure there are some I was not aware of.
  5. Reorder the scenes to heighten the tension. Gerritsen keeps her subplots separate and writes her scenes out of order, so this is a necessary step for her that I can skip – yay!
  6. Figure out your chapter breaks. Gerritsen does not do this in the first draft, whereas I do. However in keeping with Pattison’s advice that readers tend to like shorter chapters I am going to reconsider my twenty page behemoths. Then again, I know that in the printed version they are much shorter, so I suspect some optimal chapter length research is in order.

Ali Luke offers the following five-step process for getting from first to second draft:

  1. Read the whole thing on paper or on Kindle – make notes as you go if you want, but your goal should be just to take in the story as a whole. I am going to go with paper so I can actually make notes. It is printing right now. I generally hate printing as I don’t like using paper. I tried to avoid it forever with A Pair of Docks which created proofreading hassles at the end. So…sorry trees I printed A Quill Ladder! I did convert it to 11 point font and single spaced lines for printing.
  2. Make a list of things you need to fix – like cutting characters, removing scenes, adding scenes and making sure your characters act rationally. This seems to make sense. Time being of the essence, I might just focus on the big fixes for the list and make the smaller notes on my paper copy.
  3. Set up a spreadsheet of each scene with a one-sentence summary of the scene to track things like the time and date things happened, who has important objects, who is in the scene and whose POV it is. While I have heard and tried this advice before, I can tell you, I won’t do it. It’s too tedious and I’m pretty careful about having already made sure the right characters are in the right scenes. However, tracking the time and date, the location of important objects, and things like what a character is wearing is critical for consistency. So while I won’t do a detailed spreadsheet, I will track some of these details somehow. With my last novel I tracked the time and date in my head – and ended up having to do it again and again and again in my head when I forgot and needed to make sure a particular change was okay. I don’t know why I didn’t just write it out.
  4. Don’t get feedback until a third draft because you don’t want them to read things like “Ignore Susie in chapter three. She is deleted in chapter seven.” Given that I take a fair bit of time with my first draft, I am pretty sure this is not going to have it, and I have beta readers that read each chapter as they are produced. So this one is not for me.
  5. Find some way to rewrite that works for you. Luke starts fresh and retypes each scene to make the changes. So she ends up retyping the whole book. Yikes! I know some writers swear by this approach. I know it potentially leads to a better second draft, but I can’t do it. Again though, I think this depends on the nature of your first draft. I may try this someday just for kicks, and I will do it if needed for individual scenes, but with a six-week turn around, not this time.

Whew! By combining the suggestions of Pattison, Gerritsen and Luke, I think I have a plan. I would add that I’m probably going to do the following:

  1. Add details to settings and characters through the use of dreamstorming, developed by Robert Olen Butler, in which I picture the sensory details of the scene in my head.
  2. Make a schedule. Okay, so at 96,000 words over 46 days. I'm going to need to revise 2100 words a day. Hmm… funnily enough, that seems a little more doable. But I really can't miss a day. Should make for some interesting holidays.

What about you? What is your process for getting from first to second draft - quickly?