Friday, April 30, 2010

You Are What You Read

The old saying “you are what you eat” has some meaning for me as a writer, but I believe it’s more like, “you are what you read.”

Here is a list of my top 10 writing inspirations, the authors I admire and am thankful for, that I read and hope that in the end that some of their awesomeness has rubbed off on me and my writing.

Ten Authors That Inspire Me and My Writing

10. Neil Gaiman. I started reading his work with the SANDMAN graphic novels (OK, the art drew me in too), but I’ve enjoyed his screenplays, novels and short stories, too. What I like most about his writing is his ability to blend the real world and the supernatural into his works. He also looks good in black.

Advice from Neil:

9. Harlan Ellison. Any of you remember that show on the SciFi channel (not the hideous SyFy channel of today) called SciFi Buzz? I loved the segments Harlan did on that show. I also love his dark short stories mostly because they drip with attitude and secondly because the man can turn a phrase. Recommendation: “REPENT HARLEQUIN!” SAID THE TICKTOCKMAN.

Harlan's impressive credentials:

8. Kurt Vonnegut. I had the pleasure of hearing Kurt talk at my alma mater years ago. I still remember some of the things he said. Almost everything that came out of his mouth was quotable—and isn’t that something a good writer should be? Here is one statement he made that night that cracked the audience up, “If you really want to hurt your parents and don’t want to be gay, go into the arts.” My fav book by him: SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.

7. John Steakley. His books ARMOR and VAMPIRE$ (the latter made into a mediocre movie by John Carpenter) have a fabulous sense of adventure and bigger than life characters (and also some fun dialogue) which is why he’s here on my list.

6. Michael Crichton. In his autobiography “TRAVELS” he talked about how early in his life he wanted to become a doctor, write books and direct movies—and sure enough that’s what he did, in about that order. Any author with an iota of the drive of Mr. Crichton had would go far. My fav book by him: EATERS OF THE DEAD (made into a movie I have to watch anytime it’s on TV, THE 13th WARRIOR.) And of course, where would we be without JURASSIC PARK ?

5. Christopher Moore. What can I say? Any author that can make people laugh is doing his/her job right.

4. Cormac McCarthy. A writer so good he can get away with anything. When I bought THE ROAD I couldn’t put it down, reading it after work on two consecutive nights. The thing I think I admire the most about this story and this author is that the details are so sparse, yet the story is so compelling. Cormac doesn’t even bother naming his characters (the Boy and the Man), he doesn’t get specific on the location or the year or exactly what happened to the world—and most of the book he seems to shun most common punctuation that gives this book an almost dream like quality.

3. Dean Koontz. Oh to master pacing and character like Mr. Koontz, or to be as prolific (I was aware of about 50 of his books, but it sounds like he may have written over 70). My fav of his works: WATCHERS (best dog character ever)

On creating ODD THOMAS:

2. Stephen King. I’ve written about Mr. King on this blog before, and last Halloween I walked past his house in Bangor, Maine. To say I’m a big fan is an understatement. The reasons why? Again, to be so prolific (and sell so many books) would be an honor. He claims to write every day (something I aspire to but manage only 50% of the time). But I think it is his mastery of giving me characters I like and care about so much is what most inspires me about this writer. Upon completion of two of his books (at least), THE STAND and IT, I found myself a bit bummed out—because I wanted to know what was going to happen to those characters next—and the book was over.

Advice to writers from King:

1. Ray Bradbury is at the top of my inspiring authors list. His books of short stories like THE OCTOBER COUNTRY and THE GOLDEN APPLES OF THE SUN were some of my first forays into science fiction and horror—and the imagination and poetry of his work has made a lasting impression on me. A few years ago I had the great pleasure to see him at an opening for something he believed in—a new library in St. Cloud, MN. After his reading that day I was literally the last person in line to see him and he stuck around, announcing an hour into the signing portion of his appearance (much to my relief) to all the waiting fans that he’d stay as long as it took to chat with everyone there to see him. When it was finally my turn in line he shook my hand and joked with me. I gave him a fan letter, thanking him for all his inspiration he’d given me over the years, me the novice writer. Six months later I was shocked to find a message on my answering machine from no other than Ray, wishing me a happy Easter and thanking me for the letter. A few days later an autographed copy of his book ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING arrived in the mail to me from him. All authors should be so gracious and generous to their readership let alone be so talented.

Ray's thoughts on books, writing and life:

Thanks for reading!


Monday, April 26, 2010

If it works, it works

I’ve been writing all my life. At the start, my cousin and I filled yellow legal pad after yellow legal pad with a rambling Dungeons and Dragons type Sword and Sorcery story; it went on and on and on. I hesitate to call it a novel, at this point, since it had no real over-arching plot, but hey… at least we were dedicated to it.

What I’m saying is: Writing has always been something that I do. It’s been natural and flowing and carefree, but ever since the four or so years ago when I decided to get serious about my favorite pastime and try to turn it into a career, the idea of a “suggested” word count length has hung over my head like a guillotine ready to drop. In fact, if I had to choose, the “suggested” word count would be the one thing I really worry about.

Everywhere you turn, the numbers shake out about the same:

90,000 to 100,000ish for a first time novel.

120,000 to 130,000ish, maybe, if it’s a genre book.

And what was my final draft before this last batch of edits?



But here’s the problem: I’m just telling the story. Sure, I have since gone back and cut extra words and a few scenes that never really did what they were supposed and a few moments that repeat themselves, yadda, yadda, yadda, but still, even being generous, in the end, let’s guess that I’ll end up cutting about 25,000 words, give or take. That’s a ton, true, but once all of the dust and the hoop-la settles?

Final word count: 152,823

That’s still in the stratosphere as far as the commonly held belief goes. But what options do I have? I consider myself very open to suggestions, critiques, and edits, at least… I try to be. My end goal here is to put out the best product I can, and I recognize that you need outside eyes to accomplish this, but I’ll be honest with you…

After this initial 25,000 is gone, I do not believe there will be a significant number of words left to still cut out. And another 20,000? No way. Not without cutting the story too deep and sacrificing in a “bad” way, in my opinion. At that point, I think I’d be risking the book’s soul, doing more harm than good. It’s a fine line, I know, between being cautious and being obstinate, but really, I’m honestly trying to walk on the side of angels here and I don’t see how it can be done.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it can’t be done. Can Not.

Ballsy? Yes, but that’s me, baby.

Anyway, I’m paranoid enough about this, this goddamn word count thing (and don’t people say it so snooty to? Like it’s fucking gospel? “Oh, it has to be 100,000 words or no one will even look at it, blah, blah-blah…” Ass.) …anyway, I’m so conscious of it that it is consistently the one thing I do not do, despite the fact that the majority of agents request that the word count be included in queries, but fuck that. No way am I just showing my ass like that.

Why would I?

Agents and publishers are very busy, they’re swamped with requests from people who look, walk, talk, and act just like me, and they will straight out admit that the first round of cuts is based off of arbitrary first impressions and what is more arbitrary that the “preferred word count”? So yeah, no way am I going to just hand them a free “Denied” card like that. If they ask, I’ll tell them, but otherwise… Mum’s the word.

Besides, like all how to get published “rules” go, there’s a big old BUT attached at the end and that is, in a nutshell: “If it works, it works.”

And that gives me hope.

Case in point: Joe Abercrombie.

Joe writes fantasy books, dark, bloody and brutal, they are epic tales of well drawn “real” characters in a fantastic world of magic and murder and massive armies. 100% good time. Loved ‘em. I devoured them. And here’s the kicker:

The Blade Itself? 190,000 words.
Before They Are Hanged? 195,000 words.
The Last Argument of Kings? 230,000.
Best Served Cold? 225,000.

Now sure, the later books will usually give an author more leeway word count-wise because they have established themselves, but still… Look at that! First book, 190,000 words, but it reads like a house on fire! Blistering, baby.

But how did that happen? How did that monster manuscript land on someone’s desk (and probably break it due to the weight) and then actually get read despite its size? Short answer? I don’t know. Right day, right time, right person, luck and magic (shrug). The point is, it did get read and it got published.

So here’s hoping…

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Philosopher's Stone

Take a look. Take a good look. Especially if you're reading this from somewhere in the U.S.

Yup. You see it now, don't you. Someone's been mucking about with the title. Everyone knows the first installment of the Harry Potter heptology is called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. What's this Philosopher's Stone business?

Well, I'll tell you. This cover is a British cover--sporting J.K. Rowling's original title. Yup, you heard it here. The ORIGINAL title. (Okay, who am I kidding? You probably know this already, right?) Rowling's title was changed at the request of the U.S. publisher.

Well, excuse me. (Yeah, really, just give me a sec so I can climb up on my high, high horse...)

Alright then: So, if you've been following my posts, you know that I'm a philosopher. And so I have issues with the switch from a philosopher's stone to a sorcerer's stone. I get that some words don't translate well from British to American English. Pretty sure I would have been confused if I'd read that Harry et. al. ate potato jackets for dinner, followed by a dessert of quivering mountains of lime jelly, one peak of which unfortunately toppled and messed up their scarlet and gold wooly jumpers. So, yes, translate away. But, whereas British 'jelly' means American 'Jell-0', we are not dealing with a mere issue of clarifying meaning here. When the Brit's say 'philosopher', they're not referring to what we North Americans are referring to when we say 'sorcerer'.

In case you aren't aware, the Philosophers' Stone is a reference to the as-of-yet-unfinished philosophical/alchemaic project for discovering how to change base metals into gold. (We're just on the brink of a major breakthrough. I swear.) Also: an Elixir of Life, and producer of Immortality. In other words, something Voldemort *shudder* would love to get his scary, claw-like hands on.

The sorcerer's stone? Never heard of it.

So, why did the U.S. publisher want to change the title? Apparently they thought kids wouldn't be interested in a book with the word "philosopher" in the title. So, what we have here is a snub (remember I'm sitting on a very high horse right now. But I'm getting off it. Right... It used to be that after I first started teaching and people asked what I did for work, I'd tell them I was a professor. I'd dread the question I knew was coming next. "Neat," they'd say, all bright-eyed and interested, "and what do you teach?" There'd be a pause, while I clenched and unclenched my jaw. Eventually I'd have to tell them. Invariably, their eyes would lose all their glorious, shiny sparkliness and they would say, "Oh." We'd stare at each other for a minute. They'd realize that their drink needed refilling and they'd wander away. Or they'd say, "I took a philosophy class in college." And then go on to tell me about how it was either their worst class EVER, the worst prof they'd EVER had or the worst grade they'd EVER gotten.

If that were the end of the story, then, yeah, it wouldn't make much sense to put the word philosophy on the cover of a book you wanted to have any parent buy (unless that parent was a philosopher--and you'd be reaching out to pretty small market there.)

But something's changed. Now when I tell people what I do, they smile. They want to know more. They want to know what books I would recommend, who my favorite philosopher is. They tell me they majored in philosophy. Oh my, people seem to really like philosophy.

I'm hoping so anyway. Coz' it works best when you write what you know. And one thing I know something about is philosophy. So philosophy filters through my writing. I've got characters who are inspired by real philosophers. I've got ideas and conflicts that are inspired by philosophers. And I'm hoping that kids and their parents will be open to the word 'philosophy' and come to love my characters, conflicts and ideas as much as I do.

Although, at this stage, I'm mostly just hoping that an agent and then eventually a publisher will be open to the word. But more on that in my next post.

Right now I've got to get back to the philosophy lab. I'm quite confident that next time I'll be posting as the new and improved, *sparkle* Immortal *sparkle* Lisa. No wait, the new and improved, immortal Lisa who has her pockets jam packed with pretty, pretty gold nuggets.

Pretty sure you'll want to be my friend then, huh?

Monday, April 12, 2010

A few thoughts about self-publishing

I just I just linked to this stunning article from the Wyrdsmiths site: Serious disruption just over the near horizon.

There's all sorts of juicy bits in there but there are a few of Mike Shatzkin’s comments I would like to focus on:

“If by the end of 2012, 25% of sales for a new book are digital, then about half of new book sales will be made through online purchases if we count the print book sales made through online retailers (mostly Amazon.)

Online print sales can be served through inventory generated on demand. So, if these estimates are right, we are less than three years away from a publisher (or author) being able to reach half the market for a book without inventory risk!”

Mr. Shatzkin’s article goes through and enumerates several ways that this is a tectonic shift in the publishing industry but there's one that really stood out in my mind:

“Self-publishing strategies for entities that can do the marketing become much more compelling. It is no secret that an author can make more money on each copy sold managing her own publication through Lulu or Author Solutions or Bookmasters. If half the market is directly available without regard to the effectiveness of a field sales force then we can be sure, at the very least, new title acquisition will be more challenging for established publishers.”

Now, I have been keeping a relatively close watch on the recent developments in the publishing industry and the primary reason is because I have always been intensely curious about the possibility of being able to self publish my book someday.

It has been clear to me for several years now that the day would come when self-publishing would be a viable option but I have always felt that self-publishing wouldn't be feasible until two critical pieces were in place:
1)    e-book adoption reached a “critical mass” 
2)    There was a mechanism by which authors could reach their audience

I think #1 is well on its way to reality.

As for #2, one of the biggest advantages to going with a traditional publisher has always been “books on the shelf.”  How else would one get found?  Yes, it has been possible for several years now to sell an e-book through various websites, but just putting your book out on the Internet is no guarantee to sales. In fact, I would say that strategy is a guarantee for almost no sales. Having a book in the New Release section of brick and mortar store means your book is in competition with maybe 50 other books. But putting it on the Internet and letting it sit? That's the proverbial needle in a haystack.

So let's revisit my second quote. “Self-publishing strategies for entities that can do the marketing become much more compelling.” The key word in there is marketing, or as I stated earlier, reaching your audience.  IMHO, that is one of the few barriers left to those are interested in self-publishing. Worried about editing? Hire a freelance editor. Worried about having physical copies of your book? Use one of the print on demand houses like Lulu. Worried about not having an agent? I may be going out on a limb here, but I would guess that as the number of good authors who choose to self-publish increases, so will the number of agents willing to work with them.

In the end, however, it all comes back to marketing. You have to be able to reach your audience.

I'll save my thoughts on that topic for my next post. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Am I half crazy? Completely over the edge into Looney Land? Let me know!

Friday, April 2, 2010

An answer

There have been a few stumbling blocks that have popped up on my road to getting published. Questions, concerns, confusions... at times I wasn't even sure what question I was asking exactly, just that I knew I needed an answer to something. The post-completed manuscript process itself was generally a mystery, I'd never gotten that far, so I'd never bothered to concern myself with what happens next. I figured: "I'll worry about it when I get there."

Well, I got there... and I was lost.

Luckily for me, there are many folks out there who are more experienced than I, both on the Internet and off, (like the Wyrdsmiths and the Loft, for instance) and for the most part, they have been ridiculously generous with their time and more than willing to entertain every rambling and unfocused question a noob like me can come up with.

But there was one little thing that no one really seemed to know:

The E-mail Query Format

Now, everyone I talked to had the snail mail format down pat and it was pretty much the same across the board. But when it came to E-mail queries, everyone just shrugged and said: "Use the snail mail format." The general consensus seemed to be: "Don't over think it too much. Format is important, but honestly, it's only really important that the information contained within is clear and concise. The order and margins and what-not aren't that big of a deal."

And judging by the insane amount of Agent's blogs out there, this seems to be pretty much true, but still... I didn't like ad-hoc feel of it. It felt like e-mail queries were still so relatively new, that they were still unknowns, and that this was still the time when shit was still being decided and I didn't want it to be officially established somewhere and then miss the information and then send in some incorrect queries and have my lack of knowledge erroneously attributed to a lack of professionalism and have my Query rejected as a result... you know... your basic litany of writer neurosis, it was kind of like the Domino Theory, but not as paranoid and insane.

The worst part was the fact that the usage and acceptance was all over the place. Some Agencies don't even accept e-mail queries, as in: snail mail only! (Which is so insanely anachronistic... I mean, WTF... Where is this Agency located? 1910?) Others are just now getting onto the e-mail band wagon (welcome to the 21st Century!) and they caution writers on their Geo-cities-esqe website that they still prefer snail mail. One place in particular wanted the first 50 pages included, but NO attachments! 50 PAGES! PASTED IN! Pretty much guarantees your formatting is shot to hell... And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, some Agencies accept ONLY e-mails. A few have even gone so far as to install plug and play templates on their websites for all submissions.

So the question remained: What does the e-mail query template look like?

And then I found this on Nathan Bransford's Blog (reprinted below for the link lazy.)

Dear Blog Readers,

This is how you format an e-mailed query letter. Note that I did not begin with the recipient's address or my address or the date, as that is not customary for an e-mail. I also am not indenting because indenting and e-mails do not mix.

I am using block formatting. I double space between paragraphs but otherwise the query is single-spaced. It is written in a default font, it is left-justified, and the font is a normal size. If I have copied from a word processing program or past e-mail I am careful to make sure the fonts and sizes match. I haven't added pictures or tried to get fancy with anything because I want the agent to see that I'm confident in my words and don't need any gimmicks to make my query stand out.

Believe it or not, less than 25% of the e-queries I receive are properly formatted. While you won't get rejected if your query is incorrectly formatted, if you accomplish this simple task correctly you will convey an indispensable aura of professionalism. And remember: the amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you're finished.

Nathan Bransford (note that I didn't leave space for a signature since it's an e-mail)

My address
My phone number
My e-mail address
(optional: my website/blog)

Now, I don't know if this is going to be the all around accepted format in the future, but for now, its clean simplicity appeals to me and I intend to re-format my future queries (should I need them - fingers crossed...) to reflect this style.

What do you think?


Also, Fellow Scribblerati Agent Mark Teats and myself will be attending the Loft Query Letter Class. If you're in the area and are dying to meet us/heckle us/watch us serendipitously from afar and swoon, that's where we'll be. Be warned: We attack, often unprovoked.