Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Like Grains of Sand

It's said that a few grains of falling sand can set an entire dune face into motion, even create a catastrophic slide. And similarly, a relatively small change in a novel can have enormous effect as they percolate through the storyline.

As I've been rewriting The Steel Breeds True, I did a little tweaking related to the majors of several of the key characters. At the time I didn't think it would have much impact -- but as I've been working on it, I keep discovering places where I have to rethink whole scenes, including the rationale for those characters to be present at a given place.

As a result, it's turning out to be a lot harder to rewrite this thing than I'd expected. I'm starting to wonder how much longer it's going to take.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fear Is the Mind-Killer

Years ago, when I first discovered Dune, I was blown away by the intricacy of the worldbuilding and the depth of the concepts. In many ways, it completely rearranged my worldview, to the point that I began seeing my everyday life in a completely different light.

And recently I had an experience that made me recall Dune and the ideas I discovered in it. I was working on a short story for a contest, on a tight deadline, and the words didn't want to come. It was almost as if the story were fighting me. I tried the usual tricks -- writing by hand, jumping ahead to the next scene, etc. and while I'd get progress for a while, soon things would jam up again and I'd be staring at page or screen, unable to get things flowing.

Finally I was down to the last hour before the deadline, and I had a couple of scenes that I just couldn't get to write. It was like the creative part of my mind had frozen up solid.

And then I realized I was literally afraid to write them because they touched on a Sensitive Subject. Not the SJW issues that the notorious Requires Only That You Hate used to reduce writers to gibbering wrecks at the keyboard, but I was still afraid that they would bring down the terrible hammer of disapproval, the accusation that I hadn't just written badly, but also revealed myself as a Horrible Person.

The story's set in an alternate timeline in which the Apollo 1 astronauts got out in the nick of time, and although they bore the scars of their narrow escape for the rest of their lives, they got to have lives. It's now several decades later, and the Second Mars Expedition is returning to the Earth-Moon system to spend their quarantine period at the moonbase -- and the mission commander is Roger Chaffee. And deep in my gut, I was afraid that someone would see that as gratuitous, a thoughtless slap on an old wound, that by showing the world in which he survived as one with a more advanced space program, I was saying that he died for nothing, and therefore I was a horrible, thoughtless person.

And once I realized that was what I was afraid of, I faced it squarely, told myself that nobody had ever said anything of that effect about A Separate War or Holovideo. I'd even made combox posts on various blogs to the same effect without anybody bringing down the hammer of condemnation, so surely I wouldn't get attacked for a story. And then I was finally able to write those scenes and get the story in. Not my best effort, but in by the deadline.

So yes, fear is the mind-killer.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Working with Old Materials

Right now I'm looking at very similar problems with both of my current novel projects -- in both cases, I'm working with old materials. I'm trying to write Holovideo from an outline I wrote in the early 1990's, an outline in which I assumed a lot of stuff that never got onto the page, but have since forgotten. And while the current text of The Steel Breeds True was written in 2001, right after the 9/11 attack, the storyline goes back even further, all the way to the second half of the 1980's. As a result, there are a lot of unexamined assumptions in that text, things that I carried over from the earliest versions of the story without really thinking about.

So while on the surface it might seem like most of my work has already been done for me, there are ways in which it's actually almost harder to work with this old material than writing afresh might be. I'm stuck on Holovideo because I reached a chapter in the outline in which there's just no there there, nothing to unpack into text. And The Steel Breeds True is turning into a real uphill struggle because of the continual fear that the whole story is rubbish and there's just no salvaging it, and if I do put it up on KDP, everybody will laugh and point.

Which means that I'm having to put a lot of emotional energy into overcoming my own doubts and keeping pushing forward. As a result, I really fell behind when I was having to deal with two back-to-back conventions and all the bookwork that comes with selling at them.

However, we're now out of convention season, and as I'm switching our sales to online mode for the winter, I'm hoping that I can get some serious forward motion happening on both fronts.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Stuck

If you've been following Holovideo on JukePop Serials, you may be wondering when the next chapter will be coming out. It's going to be a while, because there's a problem. I'm stuck.

It's not the kind of stuck where the writer has no idea what happens next. I have a complete chapter by chapter outline. The problem is this: it's twenty years old. I originally started writing Holovideo way back in the early 1990's, when I was working at a community college and a local collector brought in a bunch of memorabilia from the early days of television. That got me to researching, which led to a number of story ideas, Holovideo among them. I wrote out a complete outline and the first several chapters, then lost interest and moved to another project.

So when I decided earlier this year to pull it back out and serialize it at JukePop, I thought it would be an easy task. After all, it was a pretty straightforward story, so all I'd need to do was unpack each chapter from the outline into a developed text, polish it, and post. What troubles I did have in keeping to my publishing schedule mostly involved external crises -- a death in the family, conflict over the estate, business activities taking over my schedule and leaving no writing time.

Once I got those out of the way, I thought I'd be back on track. Chapters seemed to be flowing reasonably well, even if I didn't seem to be getting all that many +votes. And then I started in on Chapter 20, and looked at the outline and realized there was just no way I could get a complete chapter out of what was there. Obviously my twenty-something self had an idea there, but my forty-something mind could no longer get into that headspace.

Which means that I need to take some serious time to re-reading the existing nineteen chapters, figuring out where the story needs to go, and reconstructing the outline to get me to that end. And that means some serious unbroken thinking time, which has been scarce on the ground of late.

I'm hoping that once I get these last two conventions of the year done, I may finally get the time I need. It may depend on what the Thanksgiving holiday is like, but with a close family member in precarious health, I may end up spending a lot more time visiting with them than writing. So I'm not guaranteeing anything in terms of schedule, just that somehow I am going to see this novel through to the end. It may take me a month or two to fight my way through to the end, but I'm not going to just leave it dangling forever.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

When It All Looks Like Crap

Right now I'm at the worst part of the revision process with The Steel Breeds True -- the point where everything looks like crap, and I'm starting to wonder if the story itself can even be salvaged, or if it would be better to just toss the whole thing and try something else. That dreadful moment when I fear that if I do offer it for sale, everyone will laugh and point.

It's a longstanding problem for authors. I remember several of my favorite authors telling about coming to a point in the writing of a novel when they felt as if it was the biggest pile of crap ever gathered in a single place, and were seriously considering giving up on it. Yet they all persevered and often the novel in question turned out far better than they feared -- in some cases, even won awards (back when awards still meant something, and hadn't been politicized into worthlessness).

But all of those writers had one thing going for them -- the knowledge that their work would receive editorial oversight. If it really was as bad as they feared, if it were so stupid and badly written that everyone would laugh and point, it would never reach the shelves. The editor would either reject it outright or require substantial revisions to bring the work up to a presentable standard.

However, with the rise of indie publishing, authors who are going that route don't have the safety net of editorial oversight. They can hire an editor, but that requires money, and when you're first starting out, the availability of the necessary funds isn't a given. And of course you have to be sure that the freelance editor you've hired is familiar with the genre you're publishing in, and is willing to understand your vision of the work you're trying to write rather than imposing their tastes and views of what it ought to be. You do have the option of firing them if it doesn't work out, but there's always the risk that you won't realize it isn't working out, especially if they're pleasant to work with -- after all, this person is an expert, so there's a tendency to defer to their opinions even when your gut is telling you that their advice is taking the novel in the wrong direction.

If hiring a freelance professional editor simply isn't in your budget, there's also the option of getting it looked over on a volunteer basis by a trusted beta reader. You want someone you can rely upon to have a good eye for problems, but not to try to take the story over and force it into their mold. This person doesn't have to be a writer -- sometimes a person who is just a very avid reader can make the best beta reader, for the simple reason that they don't try to rewrite the story for you, but instead will be able to identify the places where they lost interest or became confused.

The worst situation is when you can't afford to hire a professional and can't seem to drum up any interest in being a beta reader among the people you feel comfortable in approaching about it. Because then you really have only two options -- muddle through as best as you can and trust your gut as to when it's ready to put up, or put it away. And there are arguments in favor of both. The argument for the first route is that at least you put up something, and if it gets a bad reception on the market, you always have the option of either rewriting it and republishing it (something which is particularly easy with e-books). The argument for the second is that putting up a bad book has a very real potential to damage your brand in a way that can be very hard to overcome with future books.


Friday, November 07, 2014

Do the Anti-Amazon Voices Have a Point

Over at Mad Genius Club, Peter Grant has an essay on whether there is some truth in the complaints against Amazon by various publishers and authors' groups.

We’ve seen the fun and games between Amazon and the Big 5 publishers, most notably Hachette.  The ‘old guard’ of the publishing world derides Amazon as a ‘monopolistic’ enterprise (which is clearly not true, as anyone with a dictionary can tell you after looking up the definition of the word ‘monopoly’).  The pro-Amazon lobby (of which I count myself a member) derides the Big 5 and their hangers-on (agents, ancillary businesses and all those who are on the ‘other side’) as dinosaurs opposed to progress.

Unfortunately, it’s not that  simple.  There really are serious concerns over where our current technological revolution is taking us, particularly as regards entertainment.  Books are only one part – and a relatively small part – of the entertainment spectrum.  Movies, games, music, theater, etc. also fall under the ‘entertainment’ umbrella.  We have to accept that in this day and age, where digital access to any and all of these elements is a mouse click away, we’re competing for the same audience and the same dollar.

 One of  his most salient points is that Amazon views authors as essentially interchangeable widgets, all effectively replaceable. There's no need to support authors or build their success. Just sign them up, let them upload their books, and collect the fees as the sales roll in. If an author doesn't see any success and decides to pack it in, no problem. There's plenty more where that one came from.

While this is technically true, it overlooks the fact that the support a publisher gave an author comes at a price. Most obviously, the publisher tied up your rights to that book, and depending on how options clauses were drafted, any number of future books you might write. You were under the authority of the editor and expected to treat that editor as right by definition, even when wrong. And while some editors might have excellent insights into your book and help you make it better, you could get stuck with a dud who didn't understand what you were trying to achieve with your book, or worse, someone trying to make you conform to a political agenda. Worst of all, your editor might leave or be fired, leaving your book and your career orphaned. And all that for a royalty that's a few percentage points of the book's sales price.

By contrast, Amazon's handling of rights is far more generous to writers, and editorial oversight is pretty much non-existent. There are a few topics that are prohibited, but most of them are pretty squicky stuff such as certain kinds of taboo sexual activities in the erotica areas. Even then, writers have often been able to get their books relisted by making relatively minor changes so the stories become edge-play rather than the actual taboos (near-incest with a step-relative rather than actual incest with a biological relative, for instance).

Of course the lack of editorial oversight means that authors are on their own to make sure that they are producing good copy, which may feel like having no safety net for some writers. However, being on your own doesn't mean you have to do it all yourself. You can pay a freelance editor for any level of editing -- continuity editing (does the story make sense? are there plot holes big enough to fly the ISS through? does characterization remain consistent throughout the story? etc), copy editing (spelling errors, grammar errors, etc), proofreading (ferreting out typos and other errors in the final copy to be presented to readers) -- or you can find a beta reader to do it on a volunteer basis, usually through a writers' group.

The most important thing is that Amazon is effectively acting more like a distributor than a publisher. In fact, many small presses and micropresses are using Amazon's CreateSpace system to produce paper copies of their books, and the Kindle program for e-books. As a result, a number of people have taken to advising that you should create your own imprint name when publishing your books, rather than having them listed as Kindle Direct Publishing in the publisher line, because it will help make your books look that much more professional.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Serializing a Novel

One of the neatest things about the digital publication revolution is the wealth of new options that are available for writers. And sometimes the new ones are in fact old ones made new again by what the Internet makes possible.

Serialization dates at least to the Victorian Era (Gilded Age here in America), a time when mass literacy meant a strong increase in the demand for recreational reading, but most of these new readers in the working class couldn't afford to buy an entire novel in one purchase. However, they could afford to buy the inexpensive broadsheet newspapers that were coming out with greater frequency as the result of the development of steam-powered rotary presses and automated typesetting. As a result, their publishers didn't limit themselves to publishing self-contained short stories, but also printed novels chapter by chapter, one per issue. It was a sort of buying the novel on the installment plan.

By the middle of the twentieth century serialization had fallen into disfavor. Part of it was an economic shift that made books more affordable, and part of it was an association of the serial with gimmicky plots and cheap cliffhangers that often turned out to be stupid tricks played on the reader to create artificial suspense.

However, the serial is making a comeback in digital form. Several well-known authors have had reasonably good success posting chapters of their forthcoming novels on their blogs, often promising a copy of the corrected final version to everyone who subscribes with a financial contribution. But as the creators of JukePop Serials note in a recent blog entry on starting a web serial, it's not necessarily a good approach for a relative unknown. If you already have an established flow of traffic, you'll get readers -- but if your blog is on one of the back roads of the Internet, you're apt to be disappointed. You can self-promote, but you've got to be careful how you go about it, because just yelling louder and louder about your blog and your wonderful novel is apt to turn people away instead of getting them excited about it.

The alternative is serializing it through a serialization platform. Since this is the creators of JukePop promoting their own platform, they're quick to tout the advantages they offer over other serialization programs, including their program to get high-performing serials into libraries and to get writers connected with publishers for other types of contracts. However, they do also provide links to several other serialization platforms (a friend of mine is having some success serializing a novel with WattPad), acknowledging that other options do exist.

Some authors even go with multiple platforms. Generally you promise exclusivity for any given novel when you sign up with a given serialization platform (yes, some authors run the same novel on multiple platforms at the same time, but they're running a serious risk of getting caught out and banned for violation of the Terms of Service), so you'll be putting different novels on different platforms. If you want to take this route, you need to ask yourself whether you are prolific enough to keep up with a reasonable schedule of new chapters for all the different novels. Letting too much time go between installments can lead to loss of reader interest, which you may not be able to regain when you publish your next installment. If you've already written one or more novels and they've been languishing in a trunk somewhere, it may not be as much of a problem as if you're going to be writing chapters pretty much as they come out, but you really do need to think about how prolific you are. If you're going to be serializing multiple novels, each on a different platform, you also need to think about how well you handle juggling multiple storylines -- will you be able to keep them separate and clear in your mind, or will material from one novel bleed over into the others to the detriment of all of them?

One thing to remember, as with all self-publishing ventures, is to keep your expectations reasonable. Yes, some authors have readers come flooding in almost as soon as they start serializing, but most authors start slow and have to build their audience over weeks and months of careful self-promoting and networking. Sometimes it can be discouraging to go for weeks with only dribbles of interest.

On most of the established platforms, you will be competing against a lot of other authors for the traffic coming through the site. I've noticed over almost a year as a JukePop author that +vote distributions seem to follow a power law or Pareto Principle pattern. That is, about 20% of the serials published on JukePop get roughly 80% of the +votes, while the remaining 80% of serials have only a small number of +votes. If you sort by number of +votes and go to the very bottom, you'll see pages and pages of serials with only two or three votes,

If you can get about 20 +votes, you can rise above a substantial number of the novels being serialized -- which is where persistence really pays off. If you have only three or four chapters posted, each new reader you acquire will give you only three or four +votes when they first discover your serial. But as you get more and more chapters posted, each new reader you gain and keep reading through all your posted chapters gives you that much more of a boost in your +vote ranking -- a boost that's always heartening to see. However, to keep those readers going, and keep them telling their friends, you're going to need to keep posting chapters on a regular basis -- which means that you need to make a regular commitment to write and post, which can be difficult if you hit one of those periods when it seems like your readership dries up and you're just not getting new +votes when you put up new chapters.

Serialization may not be for everyone. Some authors may find the prospect of needing to write a chapter every week, or every other week, or every month, just too daunting. Others may find that regular commitment just what they need to get moving. If it's the right thing for you, by all means look into it.