Category Archives: artist woes

Three steps forward, two steps back

So my publisher is dropping me.

I get it.  I do.  My book hasn’t exactly been flying off the shelves since it came out.  I don’t know exactly how many copies have been bought, but I know my numbers are low.

And it wasn’t even my publisher’s choice.  Winlock is an imprint of Permuted Press, so when a decision comes down the pipeline… well, you don’t exactly get to say ‘no thank you’ to the people who own your company.

I am a little bit frustrated because they’re making this decision before putting my book out in print, even though I have explicitly stated that most of the promoting that I’ve got planned requires physical copies of my book.

Even so, I get it.  If a book isn’t making money, it isn’t making money.

The question now is whether I should continue focusing on the ghoul books, and either look for a new publisher to put them out or self publish… or should I turn my attention to a new project?  I’ve got a couple of ideas.  There’s a dystopian space opera I’ve been toying with for a while now, and I’ve got an idea for a multiverse saga that I think could be a fun read.  I’ve been toying with a Y.A. story-line for a while now, I could go that route… or I could go back to the very adult oriented superhero chronicles I was working on a few years ago.  And there are always the artificial intelligence stories.

But a big part of me feels like I should finish what I started.  The truth is, I’m quite proud of the Corpse-Eater Saga.  I’ve got some nifty ideas in there that I wouldn’t mind playing with some more.

I don’t know.  I guess I don’t have to know.  If they’re ending my contract, I guess I don’t owe it to anybody to decide just yet.

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Promotional Project Woes

So, as I’ve mentioned before, my book sales are not exactly where I want them to be at the moment.  My publisher and I discussed a couple of promotional things that I can do, and I’m hoping that as soon as my book becomes available in print, as well as just online, my sales figures will start to rise.  But in thinking over what I can do to draw some attention, both to my book and to myself as an author, I remembered an idea I had a few years ago.

It’s pretty much a perfect fit with my current series, and I while nothing is guaranteed, it at least has the potential of drawing quite a bit of attention.

The downside is that it basically centers around my writing another book.

That’s right, to promote one book, I’m going to need to write another one.  And how do I promote the second book?  I’ve got a few ideas on that front, but i’m going to be playing it all a little close to the vest for right now.  And that isn’t the point of this blog.

The thing that’s giving me trouble at the moment is that writing this new book involves a complete style change for me.  I’ve spent years learning to write a particular way, and now I have to make massive adjustments in how I approach my new book.

There actually isn’t all that much to write.  Where one of my novels will typically be around eighty thousand words, this new project might get up to ten thousand.  But I’m struggling with it more than I do when I’m writing a novel.  With a novel I hit maybe one or two walls in the first half of the book, five or six right in the middle, and one or two as I approach the end.  With what I’m working on now, it feels like every paragraph is its own wall.  I find myself lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to sort through one more line.

In the end I expect it will all be worth it.  Even if this doesn’t work as a promotional tool, it’s a project that is forcing me to practice writing skills I don’t usually use, and I’m a bit believe in that.

But in the here and now, I’m starting to get frustrated.

Thanks for sharing, now please stop

The other day an older relative of mine came up to me and told me that he had an idea for a book.

I smiled politely, listened to the idea, and tried to give him the impression that I appreciated the idea and would certainly keep it in mind for the future.

I’ve already forgotten the idea.

I’m sure that it happens in all of the arts, people coming up and telling you what you should do next, but I honestly think that it’s worse for the storytellers.  Whether you write books, plays, movies, commercials… whatever it is that you do, everybody, an I mean everybody, has at least one idea for that medium that they think is pure gold.

Here’s the thing people: your idea might very well be brilliant!  It might be the greatest story idea that anybody has ever come up with in the history of mankind.  It doesn’t matter.  I don’t want to write your story for you.  In a few select cases, for very close friends or people in the industry, I might be willing to try writing a story with you, but by god, I’m not going to make that journey on my own.

Why?

Because the idea is the easy part!

Yes, you heard me right, the idea is the easy part.  I know you’re skeptical.  You’ve read books based on stupid ideas, you’ve watched movies where the plot is so thin it would fall apart if you blew your nose on it.  There are plenty of terrible ideas that somehow come into the light of day.  Given.

But it’s still the easiest part of the process.

I’ve got plenty of ideas.  I could spend the rest of my life writing the books that are currently sitting in my mental queue.  Okay, maybe not the rest of my life, but well over a decade, trust me on this.

The hard part of telling a story isn’t the idea, it’s bringing the idea to life.  The reason writers go to conferences and read books and join critique groups and hire editors has nothing to do with fixing our ideas or making them better: It’s all about getting what’s in our head onto the page in such a way that somebody else can appreciate it!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that my relative knows that I’m a writer and wants to talk to me about the things that I’m interested in.  I’m happy that when he thinks about books and stories he thinks about me and wants to be included in that part of my life.

But I do rather wish that every time we talked he wasn’t trying to put a new project on my plate.

How much realism is too much realism?

So there’s a science fiction story that I kind of want to work on that involves a crew living in a stellar system where a large number of the planets and moons have been terraformed.

Brief sidenote, I found out recently, the reason our solar system is a solar system is because our sun’s name is sol.  So if you’re in another stellar system you apparently either have to call it a stellar system, or use whatever name it has.  I’m currently planning on their sun Luyt, thus making it a luytar system, but I digress.

Anyhow, one of the things that’s frustrating me is determining the weather on these worlds.  I mean, in order to have them survivable I’m just basically going to pretend like humans come up with some kind of system of custom building atmospheres so if you live closer to the sun, it reflects and refracts a lot of the light, and if you live a long way off, they build up the greenhouse gasses to keep as much heat as possible in the atmosphere.  I’m willing to make that leap, or more accurately I’m wiling to assume that my readers will take that leap of faith with me.  But even so,there are questions that need to be answered, like what would the sky look like on a world that has to block out that much sunlight?  Probably opaque and light colored?

But let’s forget about that, the big question, the one that’s driving me nuts, is what life would be like on a moon.  First off, it’s going to spend half its time behind the planet it’s orbiting.  It won’t necessarily be hidden from the sun for all of that, but for some of it, certainly.  Especially if it’s orbiting, let’s say, a gas giant.  And what would the weather and seasons be like?  The earth tilts back and forth creating the seasons, right?  So what would a moon do?  it would tilt even more because of its planet, but it would also be moving closer and farther from the sun as it circles the planet.  Would that make it notably hotter and notably colder, or is the only important question how much sunlight it’s getting?

Part of me wants to ignore these things.  I certainly haven’t read anything about it in any other books I’ve come across, and even if i do figure this out, I’m honestly not sure if it will play a part in the story i want to write, but dammit, it could be incredibly important!  And how the hell do you find something like that out?!

The unreliable narrator

In my ‘Corpse-Eater Saga,’ I wanted to push myself a bit with my writing.  I try to do that as often as I can.  In this case I did a couple of things that I don’t normally do.  The first thing I did was give myself a narrator who relies less on his eyesight than the rest of us.  That has actually been much harder for me to handle than you’d think.  Recently i went back over book one and I found several things I should have done differently if I really wanted to make that detail stick.

But the other thing I did, the thing that I want to contemplate right now, is use an unreliable narrator.

As a rule, the unreliable narrator is not my favorite tool.  Mostly it goes back to my own gullibility.  As a rule, when somebody tells me something, my first instinct is to believe them.  Even after having been lied to many times, and having discovered that I was given an obscenely one-sided story, when I talk to people and they tell something, I have to make a concerted effort not to assume that their recitation is the literal truth.

I have used unreliable narrators before, particularly in short stories.  Having someone who is misinformed or unable to perceive the truth of a particular situation is quite useful for twist endings.  But in ‘Awfully Appetizing,’ I am trying for something a bit subtler with my character.  I’m trying to write the story of somebody who is dishonest with himself.  Giving quiet hints that his perception of the world is skewed has proven more difficult than I anticipated.

Part of the problem may be that I’m going for something a little bit too subtle.  Or maybe he’s not dishonest enough with himself.  Is he really an unreliable narrator, or is he just uncertain?

Maybe I failed to make him unreliable and only made him conflicted.

One of the tricky things when you’re looking at writing a series is that it’s hard to maintain what you perceive as a flaw in your narrator over the course of years and years, and books and books.  You see the flaws in them so clearly, you can’t imagine how they could completely miss it in themselves.

Well, if that’s the case, at least he should pick up some of my own personal flaws, the ones that I’m blind to.

Reviewers vs writers

I’ve been thinking a bit about reviewers lately.  Mostly it’s because I’ve been sending out oodles of requests for people to review my book (Awfully Appetizing).  There’s a longstanding love/hate relationship between writers and reviewers.  It’s kind of a parallel between the love/hate relationship between writers and publishers.

By the nature of what we each do, we are dependent upon one another.  Obviously reviewers need writers so that they (the reviewer) has something to do, while reviewers are able to present a book to a group of people who, otherwise, might never have even heard of it.  One might assume that there was a symbiosis between the two, and in a way there is.  But there is also a rivalry.  The rivalry is, I think, based upon an imbalance of power.  For every reviewer out there, there seems to be a thousand authors.  Or perhaps its just that every author is trying to contact every reviewer.

Whatever the reason, the effect is the same: the reviewers are inundated with requests from desperate authors.  When, inevitably, the reviewers find themselves unable to read every single book, the result is a collection of annoyed authors who feel that they’ve somehow been stiffed.  Not all of us, some of us have been around long enough to know that it isn’t personal, but when nine hundred people didn’t make the cut, some of them are bound to be resentful.

It’s an interesting situation.  And, frankly, it highlights some of the problems with the way the writing world works.

That Itchy Feeling

Human beings have a lot of skin.  I mean, a whole lot of it.  As it happens, I have a bit more than your average bloke on the street, partly because I’m taller than average ,but mostly because I’m… well, wider than average.

Anyhow, we’ve got a lot of skin, and our skin is feeling a lot of stuff pretty much all of the time.  And most of the time we don’t even notice it.

But if you want to find out just how much your skin is feeling all the time, all you really have to do is find one bug on your person.  Just one.  Maybe it’s a caterpillar that dropped into your hair as you were passing under an old oak tree.  Maybe it’s a beetle that was passing by and decided to land, just for a moment, on your arm or the nape of your neck.  Maybe, if you’re fast enough and have good enough vision, it’s a flea that was lying in wait as you happened to walk past some poor mutt.

Whatever it is, once you find one of them, your body goes on alert.  Next thing you know you’re getting information about EVERYTHING that could POSSIBLY be another insect on you.

Occasionally it’s actually in insect.  Most of the time, though, it’s not.  It might be a tiny sliver of grass that’s stuck to you, or a thread that’s hanging off your shirt and brushing against your skin.  Or it could be the wind catching the hair on your arm and tugging it just so.

You could go days without even checking to see if you’ve got a mosquito on you, but the second you catch one, you’ll spend the next four hours checking yourself every twenty seconds.

I recently sent a manuscript out to a bunch of my beta readers, and now, thanks to years and years of experience, I know that I cannot check that manuscript until I have at least half of them back.  Because if I find one thing wrong, one misspelling, one piece of bad grammar, one wrong comma, I will be spending every waking minute from now until I get those copies back searching for anything that could possibly be wrong in my manuscript.  And I’ll be e-mailing all of my beta readers with up to the minute updates.  “Found another comma splice, sorry about that folks.”  “Crap, subject verb agreement problem on page 155!”

So even if I’m pretty sure, pretty damned sure, that I forgot to take care of something in the last chapter, that I left a tiny little plot point open that I meant to shut, I cannot, cannot, cannot actually go fix it.  Not yet.

No, I have to accept the itch.  Just endure it.  Endure it just a little while longer…

Sometimes you have to go forward, to go backwards, to go forwards

So I’ve got an idea for a book.

Okay, I’ve got oodles of ideas for books… for those of you who have writer friends and you want to tell them an idea you had that they could write about?  They’ve got plenty of ideas.  Ideas are the easy part.  But we’ll set that aside for now.

So, the problem I have with the idea that I want to write about right now is that it isn’t a FULL idea.  I don’t have all of the pieces.  I have an idea that I think will work well to hook the audience in, and which will force me to be more creative in the way I address certain things.  I have ideas for characters that I like.  They’re complicated, three dimensional (well, most of them) and well flawed.

The story itself I’m still working on, but that isn’t the hard part…

The hard part is the world building.

Please… don’t give me any advice, I’ve built worlds before.  Plenty of them.  I know tricks and tropes and techniques and… and… stuff.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that I’ve got a fairly vast world, to which I have made a number of deep changes.  The way time is measured is somewhat different than what we’re used to. The kinds of currency that are used is different.  Certain expressions are very different.

All of which would be fine if I were writing this more traditionally, but I’m doing something a little bit different with perspective I’m writing this from.  In order to introduce the narrator correctly, I sort of have to ask the reader to take a couple of leaps of faith with me.

But you can only ask for so many leaps of faith.  You have to give the reader a place to start, a foundation from which to understand the story.

In the end I realized that the only way I could figure out where to begin, was to start in the wrong spot, go as far as I could go, then look back and figure out where I should have started instead.

It’s kind of frustrating.  I’m going to write three or four chapters that will all be thrown out just as soon as I figure out what I need to figure out here.  But it’s exciting too.  I can really go for it, I don’t have to worry about making everything comprehensible, or getting the terms just right.  I just have to pick up the bat and swing for the fences.

Go forward, so I can go backwards, so I can go forwards.  Maybe I’m biting off more than I’m ready to chew, with this project.  Maybe if I waited a couple of years and tried again it would flow perfectly and easily.

Then again, you never make progress if you only do what’s easy.  The more you struggle with a project, the more you have to wrestle all the details into place, the more you learn and the better you are when you start something new.  Right?

Reflecting as I promote

So, one of the great conundrums in the world of promoting art is how you seek out your audience.

There are places, both real and virtual, where fans of particular kinds of art congregate.  For the sake of this blog, I’m going to focus on the fans of my kind of art.  Science fiction and fantasy books.

The problem is that the places, both real and virtual, which have the largest gatherings of potential readers are well aware of their potential value.  Places like comic book conventions, and io9, where my possible readers come together regularly and in droves, know that have created the perfect place for writers and the like to peddle their wares, so they charge for the privilege.  I don’t begrudge them that, after all they put a lot of time and energy into what they do.  It makes sense that people looking to take advantage of it should have to pay for it.

The problem is that for writers who don’t have an established fan base and can’t count on a certain number of sales, or cannot easily come up with the money required to rent a table, each purchase is a calculated risk.

So instead, when you don’t have the cash flow to buy a spot at one of the big places, you have to look for the little places.  Like blogs.  A few days back I found a list of blogs where people reviewed urban fantasy stories.  I went through them, checked each one out, and whenever I found an active site that looked like they were interested in my kind of story, I sent them an e-mail asking if they’d like to review my book.

The thing that interested me was just how many of the sites were defunct.  You had to keep your eyes open, check out how long ago the last post had been put up.  There were places that looked perfect for my kind of book, it just happened that the last time they’d done anything on their site was 2011.  Funny.  And kind of sad.  A bunch more just weren’t taking reviews at the moment, so, all told, of the hundred and fifty blog sites that I looked into, I think I sent off just a little under twenty five requests.

But man, there were a lot of dead sites.  In a way, looking at all of the review sites reminded me a lot of writers.  There are a lot of writers and would-be writers out in the world, trying to make a go of it, desperate to be seen, desperate to be heard.  We tell ourselves that this is our calling, that this is what we want to do with our life.  But somehow, the longer you go, the more ‘bodies’ you start seeing on the side of the proverbial road.  Eventually most people quit.  And I can’t fault them for it. Pursuing your dreams is a rough road to travel.  You take a look around you and you see the people who’ve made it, you see the io9s and the comicons, and you know where you want to end up, what you want to be.  But at a certain point you just sort of realize that you’re not going to end up there.  You can do well for yourself, potentially you can become  a great niche artist, but your name will never reach the acclaim of, say Stephen King or Jim Butcher.  It’s a bit troubling, when you have to readjust your aim, shoot a little lower.

Rules for Reviews

A few years ago I was chatting with a writing buddy of mine who also reviewed books.  He told me something interesting: apparently he doesn’t give bad reviews.

Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean that anything he reads automatically gets a good review, but if he reads a book and he can’t give it at least three stars (I think it was three, it might have been four) he just doesn’t review it at all.

A year or two before that, he’d confided something similar to me when we was judging manuscripts for a writer’s conference competition.  In that particular instance the potential score for a book had ranged from zero to, I think, eighty.  He told me that he never gave a score below sixty.

In that particular instance it rather made sense.  A score of less than seventy by one of your judges pretty much knocked you out of the running for winning the competition.  My friend felt that giving a score lower than sixty was basically just adding insult to injury.  Kind of like if an editor sent you a rejection letter that said ‘you should really quit trying to write.’

But while I agreed with him about the contest scores, I couldn’t help but feel that his rules for book reviews were a little less logical.

Mostly it’s a question of who you are writing the review for.  If you’re writing a review for the author, then the rule makes sense.  I have, on several occasions, read a book by someone I know, or a friend of someone I know, intending to write a review for them.  But when I get to the end of the book and find that I can’t give it four or five stars, I generally don’t do anything at all.  Because I went in to this planning to help them.  Writing the review that I feel the story deserves would be like slapping them in the face, and I just can’t do that.

But most of the time, if I read a book and it just sucks, I mark it like I think it deserves.  Because, as long as I don’t know the author, I’m not writing the review for them.  I’m beholding to the reader, and I don’t just want to put good books into the hands of readers, I want to keep bad books out of their hands.

My friend has been a writer even longer than I have, and he’s more sociable than I am, so I think that on some level he feels a greater kinship to other writers.  And perhaps he’s been burned by more cruel reviews than I’ve had to face, or more low scores without any explanation.  I do know that those are incredibly frustrating.

But maybe another part of the problem is that we can’t agree on what the various stars mean.  I remember looking at the goodread stars one time.  It turns out that, from their perspective, only one star reviews are ‘bad.’  One start is for ‘didn’t like it’.  two stars is supposed to mean ‘it was okay.’  three start is I liked it, for starts is I liked it a lot, and five stars is “I loved it!”

But when I’m scanning for books to read, what do I usually look for?  Four stars and above.  A 3.2 star ranking isn’t very impressive even though it means, if the star system is to be believed, that on average people liked it.

Or maybe they don’t.  When I take a survey with five answer slots the slots are usually ‘strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree.’  I’ve sort of always done my reviews the same way.  After all, if I read a book and think it kind of sucks, I don’t want to recommend it, but I don’t want to give it the same score as a book that I think is unreadable.  If I had my druthers (whatever a druther is), I’d change the way we do reviews.  get rid of stars, come up with a scale that made sense.  Something…