Saturday, July 23, 2011

Recursive Self-Homogenization

I frankly don’t know who Shawn Coyne is, other than he’s pissed me off. I hope he isn’t terribly powerful with connections that could forever keep me unsuccessful. (I have a feeling I can take care of that myself, thankyouverymuch.) But I think he’s doing a disservice to literature and I need to say something about it.

I came across an old interview with him where he was talking with Amy Brozio-Andrews of AbsoluteWrite about his publishing company, Rugged Land. He explains this so-called dirty little secret of the publishing world:

“3 out of 5 books published by the big companies lose money. So you have 40% of the list paying off the debt of the other 60% and, on top of that, holding up the companies overall profitability. Not exactly a great business enterprise to jump on.”

Coyne’s solution to this is that his house puts out only 6 paperback and 6 hardback books per year, and aims to have nearly 100% of his books be profitable. He thinks that’s a better model.

Well, perhaps it’s a better model for business, if making money is the single biggest thing you care about. But if you have an interest in supporting literature as art, expanding people’s minds, leading the edge of creativity, or being a tastemaker, perhaps the 40/60 model of the big guys is a worthwhile endeavor.

What really got my blood boiling was this piece of “advice” Coyne tossed to all the AbsoluteWrite readers: “Figure out who will buy the book. If you can’t figure out who will, then stop writing.”

Stop writing. Amazing, sir. The model you promote is to identify pre-existing audiences and then write for them. Identify a large group of people who already like something and all like the same thing, and then write something like they like so they’ll like it.

I call this the “recursive self-homogenization” of literature. Instead of writing the great new breakout novel, you’re only supposed to write something just like previous breakouts. Let someone else create the audience, and you just piggyback on top of that. If you’re successful too, then someone else will figure out what your book had in common with the breakout, and repeat it. Then someone else will repeat it again. The same audiences keep reading the same books, so the same books keep getting published. The stories become copies of copies of copies, each less vibrant than the previous until you they’re barely anything at all. All the YA fantasy that followed Harry Potter. All the paranormal romance that followed Twilight. All the dystopian fiction that will follow the Hunger Games. But at some point, the quality gets so low, audiences are forced to turn to something new.

Coyne says don’t write it if you can’t sell it. The converse is, if you can sell it, write it.

I say, write what moves your soul and worry about the markets later. Don’t be a copy of a copy of a copy. Don’t perpetuate the homogenization. Your audience is out there. It’s just that they’re not all hanging out together. They’re waiting to be found—by you.

What do you think? Do you write to be successful in the markets? Or is your measure of success something different?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Titular Angst

I finally had a cover layout that I loved. I even showed a few people. I was totally ready to post it on my website, get postcards printed, and start the full court marketing press.

And then I changed it.

The reason? I changed my title. I am more than a bit torn up about it. This is the biggest "darling" I've murdered, after years of attachment. I love the word “Secernere”--the way it sounds like a secret. What it means and the mystery it reflects. I think it’s a great title in the tradition of gothic romances, like Glenarvon, Vastarien, or Malpertuis. It also looks just gorgeous on the cover in all lower-case—all the round letters, the repeating e’s. It’s a very symmetrical, attractive word.


But I’ve come to realize that I would be making a bad choice to continue to use Secernere as the book title. The number one reason is that no one can pronounce it. Everyone seems to have a slightly different take on it. If you can’t pronounce—hell, if you can’t spell it if you hear it pronounced—how are you going to ask for it in a book store? How are you going to look it up on Amazon? It’s not memorable, because there’s a high probability people will remember it wrong.

I just imagine the conversations:

“Tell me about your book!”

“Oh thanks for asking! It’s historical fantasy with a nod to the old gothic romances. It’s called Secernere.”

“Come again?”


“Sesser huh? Can you write that down for me? I’ll never be able to remember that.”

Later, while searching on Google… “I think she said it was something that started with an S? Oh well. Maybe I’ll buy the next Steig Larson.”

I need a title that is easy to pronounce, easy to remember, unmistakable, and—above all—isn’t taken by someone else! (All I need is for someone to end up buying the wrong Surfacing. Thanks, Margaret Atwood! Just kidding.)

So, the book has been retitled. Tentatively. Tentatively retitled. But herein lies the problem: This new, longer, four-word title, which includes such ugliness as an apostrophe and a small article, does not look nice in place of Secernere in the cover I so painstakingly designed. It's not as simple as a find+replace. So it’s back to the drawing board (back to the InDesign screen…).

I hope I arrive at a cover I love as much, and I hope I grow to love the new title. It's a good title. It's sturdy like a milkmaid. It is a textbook title (if your textbook is Save the Cat, like mine has been recently). It has double meanings and is thematically relevant. It describes the hero and has a twist of irony. But it's still not Secernere, something I hope I will get over with time. This has by far been the most frustrating task of the publishing experience so far. I understand now why people outsource the cover. Then again, I would have been in the same boat as I am now: great cover, wrong title.

Stay tuned for the big reveal. As soon as I stop having nightmares about bad titles and awful graphic design, I might be ready to release the cover to the public. Maybe. Perhaps I should have just gone with the Gothic Title Generator.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Revisions Matrix: My Approach to One-Pass Novel Revising

I wrote earlier about how my excellent beta gave me terrific groundwork for a plan to revise my novel. I have a good framework there. I have all the characters there, and the plot works, without—as I’d feared—any gaping holes. What I’m doing now is, as the late great Blake Snyder puts it, “pulling the arrow back.”

(Side note: I’ve been reading Save the Cat! and finding a lot of it very applicable to novel writing. I highly encourage writers to check out Black Snyder's website. There’s also a great interview with him over at Writer Unboxed.)

Pulling the arrow back means setting up your protagonist at the beginning of the book so that she is in a position to make the longest trajectory to her "new" self at the end of the book. Think about an arrow you don't pull back in the bow very far. It goes only a little wobbly ways before it falls flat to the ground. Now think about the arrow pulled back so far and so hard that it strains your every muscle. That’s the arrow that’s going to make the best flight.

My plan for revision is to pull back the arrow of Lady Aurora of Cavalcata, my protagonist. I’m asking myself, why is this the greatest adventure of her life? I need to make it so the stakes can’t get any higher. I also need to make her choices stronger, so that she is more active in the change she undergoes in the course of the story. And then there are some housekeeping things to attend to: enhance the presence of the war in the story, refine the minor characters, balance the flashbacks between the first and second halves.

So here’s what I did: I figured out the top ten or so major things I need of which I need to be vigilantly aware during the revision process. These are questions I need to ask myself, thematic arcs, things I can enhance to make each scene and character work harder. Examples:

  • How is the war present in this scene?
  • Is this character acting true to type? Or purposely going against type?
  • "My life has changed for having met another” (this is my thematic arc)

I took these things and wrote them in fat, green Sharpie marker on index cards, which I taped all over my desk. All I have to do is glance up and remember what I need to be paying attention to. This isn’t the time to be mulling over word choice or paragraph length. I need to be focused and targeted on the ways I am enhancing the book, and these index cards keep me on track.

The second thing I did was to create an enormous spreadsheet, my Revisions Matrix. Going down the left side, I have every single scene in my book. Across the top, I have the following:

  • Chapter number – helps me see if I have tried to stuff too much or too little into a single chapter
  • Scene number – for identification purposes
  • Time – helps me ensure that the timeline matches up across the whole arc of the book, including flashbacks
  • Plot – again, for identification purposes
  • Character change – what is the arc of the character in this scene? These are opportunities to “pull the arrow back” in a small way.
  • Opportunity (Character) – what opportunity do I have here to enhance the characters in this scene? Are they serving the themes? Are they being true to their essential selves? Are there parallels to late scenes that can be leveraged?
  • Opportunity (Conflict) – what is the tension in this scene? Can it be enhanced? Am I making things too easy on my characters? Am I pulling the arrow back far enough as I aim at targets later in the book?
  • Opportunity (War) – how is the war present in this scene? Did the characters seem to forget there is a war going on? How can I drop in bits of history and details that make it seem more like a character in itself?
  • Theme Stated – In this final column, I take one sentence from the Chapter that sums up the theme for that chapter. This helps me focus the chapter and make sure everything is serving the mini thematic arc. If there is not a stated theme, I have a problem, and I need to address it. One of my favorites: “Sometimes locks are to keep things out.”

When this matrix is complete, it will be my scene-by-scene blueprint for revision. It makes life easier for me because I’ve gotten all the thinking out of the way first. When I get to each scene, I just have to write to my plan. And because I planned it all out ahead of time, I’ve mitigated the risk of introducing something new or making a change that will cascade to other parts of the book in a way I haven't planned for.

The plan now is to revise one chapter per night according to the matrix. Then I print out a hard copy and do my red-line edit. The theory is that, when I get to the end, all I’ll have to do is input the red-line changes and I’ll be done. Pretty sweet! Let’s just see if I can stick to that pace for all 39 chapters…

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Tocking Clock

I am sorely behind schedule.

I’m sore about it because I’m bumping up against these milestones I’ve set for myself in order to meet my goal of publication in December, and also because if I can’t find the time now to do the work, why do I think it’s going to get any better later?

I’m realizing that, once you remove the find an agent/find a publisher piece of the equation, an indie pubber’s timeline is not that different from a traditional publisher. There is a tremendous amount of work to do! And because so much of the work includes sequential tasks, and not parallel tasks, it really stretches that timeline out.

I set my release target as early December. That’s in part because I will turn 30 on December 11th, and in part because I want to grab at least a piece of the holiday sales action. It’s also in part because that’s about the soonest I thought I could get to where I need to be. Backing out of the date, I need time to get the books printed and shipped. Before that I need to do a round of Advanced Readers Copies (ARCs) to send to reviewers and blurbers in an effort to secure some of those elusive back cover quotes. So before that, I need to have the exterior and the interior done, and at least once-overed by my proofreader. To get the interior done, I need the narrative LOCKED DOWN. I can’t be tinkering with it—at least not in any major way—once it’s layout time.

So where in my schedule do I have “narrative locked down”? Um, August.

Hello, August. I can see you because you are a mere two weeks away. Care to delay your visit for a few weeks while I nail these revisions?

I thought six months of lead time would be ample, generous, even under the constraints of doing all this myself. Add to the work of the actual book itself that I’m planning a Kickstarter campaign and a book trailer, and I need to do a pre-release marketing push: I’ve made myself into quite a busy lady.

Can I make the December deadline? Probably. But I’m not sure I can do it without sacrificing the butt-in-seat time I need to do the revision that will make Secernere shine. I mean, it’s fine now. But I want it to be awesome. My revision plan calls to revise, re-read, and red-line one chapter a night. That plan will take me deep into August, approaching September—and I’ve already missed four days in a row. I’m hoping I can use weekends, holidays, and a few days off to double-up and get back on track. But we’ll see.

There’s always January. Cold, bleak, January, when people just want to curl up beside the fire with a good book. …and spend the Amazon gift cards they got for Christmas.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beta Testing: When's the Right Time to Bring in Outside Readers?

The most current draft of Secernere has been re-written three times, then line edited twice, and I’ve read the entire thing out loud to myself. But I know it’s not quite done yet. I can feel it. I also know I am too close to the manuscript at this point to see the flaws a fresh reader will catch immediately. That’s why I enlisted beta readers—and why you should too. But it’s essential to bring them in at the right point in the process.

My first betas were ill-chosen. Do not ask your nearest and dearest to read the novel you’ve been slaving over for years. Don’t give it to your mother or significant other. One of three things will happen: 1) They will fall in love with it—and you won’t get any helpful feedback as they gush about how great you are. 2) They will find problems with it, and you will try to take it as constructive criticism, but your feelings will secretly be hurt and you will resent them. 3) They will be too busy to read it but will accept anyway out of guilt, and it will make you both feel awkward and resentful.

An ideal beta reader is someone with whom you are acquainted—or even friends with—but who also has an expertise that will help you improve your writing. This could be someone from your creative writing group, a friend who happens to be a professional editor, or someone who reads extensively in your genre. After my ill-advised first beta round, I chose wisely for my second: three friends who are, respectively, a fellow writer, a professional editor, and a filmmaker.

A couple days ago I got the first comments back, these from my writer friend, Jes. Jes is much like me in that she is very well educated in creative writing technique and she is also a structuralist. She’s a recent convert of the Save the Cat! techniques and has been showing me the ropes. In her email, she let slip that she had taken 20 pages of notes as she’d read Secernere, but thankfully she distilled her final “book report” into just 8 pages. 8 pages still panicked me. But I printed the pages out, took them, home and carefully read every word.

Reading a detailed account of someone else’s reading of my work caused in me some of the strangest feelings I think I’ve ever had. Suddenly, the characters, the plot, the setting were no longer wholly mine. It was as if Pandora’s box opened and everything in my book is now free in the universe, existing alongside other fictional characters into whom life has been imbued by readers. It all feels so much more real.

Jes’ comments were absolutely stunning in how helpful they will be as I work through my revision. She didn’t point out (as I thought betas would) character names she didn’t like, or anachronistic foods, or other details that are rather inconsequential at this stage of revision. Instead, she identified my thematic arc and sub-themes, described the major characters’ traits, and discussed her impression of the time, setting, and backdrop of war. Then she indicated ways in which I could strengthen theme, character, plot, setting, by leveraging ideas already in the book. She didn’t point out weaknesses, but pointed out existing strengths that could be made more poignant with small changes.

I was ecstatic. I had imagined I would be greeted with comments of everything that was wrong, and I would be forced to make hard decisions that would adversely affect other passages, domino-like. I had imagined tearing it all apart, then having to scrap the whole thing because I couldn’t put it back together. Instead, my friend has created for me a plan of action that will turn a good book into a great book.

So my conclusion is to choose your betas wisely, and only bring them in after you have done your due diligence of rewriting and revising. It’s not fair to ask someone to read your first draft. Ask them to read when you’ve solved all the problems you can identify yourself, when you know something’s still lacking, but you need the help in figuring out what. Your betas are not there to help you make a rough draft into a decent draft. They should help you make a good book into a great book.

I’ll be writing more about my revision strategy soon. Hint: it involves index cards and an enormous spreadsheet…

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Virtual Interview

Sarah Allen just posed a list of questions for writers on her blog, so I thought I’d turn them into a virtual interview. It’s practice for when people actually ask me for my opinion, haha.

There were two types of questions: some about writing and some about marketing/networking. I’ll tackle the writing questions in this post, and go back to the marketing ones later.

-Plotter or pantser? And how do you specifically go about doing your plotting/pantsing?

I would say I’m a bit of a hybrid, with a heavy lean toward plotter. I blame my day job. In proposal writing, it’s mandatory that you be in compliance with what’s called the Request for Proposals (RFP) document. The way you get in compliance is to create outlines and checklists and plan, plan, plan. Basically, you have to put all your information in little (figurative) boxes that are laid out for you ahead of time—but it still has to be compelling, unified writing in the end.

From this, I’ve learned the value of having boxes to fill. Pre-planning your writing makes the writing go easier, and you can jump from box to box if you get stuck with one. Planning helps eliminate writer’s block.

I say with great caution that planned structure is your friend, because I know so many writers who think that “formula” is the other F-word. But structure can be as simple as the three-act structure (i.e., beginning, middle, and end) to the more complicated 15-beat structure (Word doc) from Save the Cat!. Sometimes I like to self-impose complicated structures to my writing as an interesting experiment. I once wrote a short story in the form of a sonnet, where I replaced the end-of-line rhyme with different characters’ POVs. It failed, but it sure was fun!

But I do think it’s dangerous to try to plot out specifically what happens, and this is where the “pantsing” comes in. If your characters are strong, they will develop wills of their own, and they won’t necessarily end up in the situations you want them to. So when you plan, it’s much better to plan changes and circumstances.

For example, you might say in your outline/writing plan, “at this point, something will happen that changes Cassie’s opinion about Bob.” Your characters of Cassie and Bob will show you what that event will be when you get there; but in order to move your plot and character arcs forward, you have to know that the change is necessary and figure out when it’s necessary. As another example, you might say in your outline, “Cassie is trapped somewhere and has to do something against her nature to get free.” This situation could be a million different things, from a literal trap to an emotional one. But this moment will be an important development in your plot and character arc.

-What is your writing schedule like? Morning? Evening? 3:47-5:02 AM?

I have a day job that can be very mentally fatiguing, and I spend a large chunk of my day writing—technical, not fiction. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the energy to write fiction before or after work and for this reason, I don’t write regularly.

Rather, I tend to rely on very condensed, very intensive writing sessions, such as National Novel Writing Month, the 3-Day Novel Contest, and planned vacations that I devote to writing. I also plan writing sessions with friends, where we get together and write for a couple hours. These types of gimmicks serve to force me to be very productive and to write very fast, often resulting in decent first drafts that I can then edit at my leisure.

For me (and certainly not for everyone!) writing works best in long, intense, consecutive sessions—living, breathing, eating the work for that period of time. Editing works itself out in the short bursts I can afford during the rest of my life.

I do dream of someday having a regular writing schedule, but nothing else about my life is regular or scheduled, so a dream it remains.

-Do you listen to music when you write? If yes, what music?

I do like music, but it’s very important that the music not be distracting, so I tend to listen to the same music over and over again until it becomes basically white noise. My favorite go-to album is Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, which I have listened to hundreds of times while writing.

Sometimes I use soundtracks from movies to write very intense scenes. The score from an action scene in a movie can really put you in the mindset to write a great action scene in your book!

-Do you have a daily/weekly word count goal, and what is it?

Because I write the way I do, goals fluctuate greatly. During NaNoWriMo, my goal is 1700–2000 words per day. During the 3-Day Novel Contest, I put out 7000–8000 words per day. When I write on my days off, I usually aim to get 1000 words down. I like round numbers.

-What character types are your favorite?

My favorite types of characters are the ones who I can’t wait to get to know. They’re the ones who never do what you want them to when you’re writing because they have minds and personalities of their own.

My favorite character recently has been the male lead from Secernere, Storey. Storey is probably one of the most complicated and compelling characters I’ve ever written. He’s a pacifist who is forced to facilitate violence in order that he can achieve peace for his country—and for his soul—in the longer term. Storey has become someone who I sometimes forget doesn’t actually exist, which is kind of sad because I think he'd be pretty awesome to hang out with.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Under Cover

I just re-read my last post, and I feel that I must wrap up the loose end I left about how I would feel after signing the paperwork to license the cover photograph for Secernere. I signed the contract late last week, paid the fee, and downloaded the final high-resolution TIFF from the lovely and talented photographer (who I believe is also the model in the photograph).

I tell you I did not feel one single twinge of regret. Not one pang. The only thing I felt was a fluttering heart, much akin to the feeling when one receives a note from a new lover. Owning the rights to this perfect image has solidified Secernere in my mind as more than just words on a page, as more than a manuscript. The paperwork, the signature, the out-shelling of money, the filed-away invoice as a statement of business expense: this was my first real move down the independent publishing road.

Over the weekend, I finished the layout to my cover, including the spine and the back, on which I posted draft sales copy and an exorbitantly laudatory (fake) blurb. And I am so happy with it. It's this perfect little decoration that I will wrap around my interesting little story and turn it into this nebulous idea called a "book."

On the Awl yesterday, I read a quote from Mark Jude Poirier that summed it up so well: "The cover of your first book is like your wedding dress if you’re a woman: You want it to represent who you are, but you want it to make you look much better than you normally do."

Now I'm not all that into weddings, and I don't put much time into daydreaming about a wedding dress, but my first book cover is shaping up to be a pretty good goshdarn stand-in. Timeless, classic, simple, muted but memorable. (Too bad it probably won't make my mother quite as happy.)

But oh my gosh, I can't wait to share it! Stay tuned.