Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Is it that time of year again? NaNoWriMo

For those of you undertaking National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, I remind you of the daily tips I published (with the help of writer friends) in 2011. Please check them out if you need inspiration. There are tips and links to online resources and a list of good how-to books on writing craft.

I've been writing continuously since 2000 and published in 2011, and for what it's worth: like everything else in life, the longer you've been doing something, the more your practices are likely to change. It's not a bad thing but a natural thing. You learn from experience, learn to trust your instincts and to distrust your tendency to procrastinate. I still believe writing is mostly done by putting in the time, that it's like a muscle and after three days away it's awkward when you first sit down to type, but within three days you're generally back in the swing of it. Don't be afraid of a terrible first draft, if that's what it takes to get back in the flow. 

You don't know if you have a real story until you get into it, see where you run into walls, where plots fall apart; when characters really start to get interesting. Many stories are abandoned along the way. It's the natural order of things. The trick is to keeping looking for the next idea and to always work on your craft..

For those of you who are hoping for a career in writing, I thought you might find it interesting to know what's it been like for me since the last book was published. In the past few years, I've written one complete novel and started a handful of others. (The agent didn't think it was worth trying to sell the novel at this time, which tells me that it probably needs more work.) I've started one novella and have ideas for a couple more simmering in the back of my mind. I'm currently working on a project that I don't have the green light to talk about--yet. 

As tends to happen with blog posts, I'll end by petering out rather than with a strong point. Please feel free to leave a question or observation about writing in the comments.

Friday, September 25, 2015

My Capclave Schedule

Here in the Maryland-DC-Virginia region we're blessed with multiple celebrations of the book, and one of the most enjoyable is Capclave, the Washington Science Fiction Association's annual convention. Unlike many science fiction-fantasy cons these days, Capclave is literature-focused, not media focused, definitely heaven for writers. This year it's being held October 9-11 at the Hilton Washington DC North (in Gaithersburg).

My schedule at Capclave this year is extremely limited due to personal reasons (which the Capclave programming committee was so nice to accommodate). I'll only be there on Saturday, October 10th.  Here's where you can find me:

12-12:50 PM Urban Fantasy & Paranormal Romance
        Much, if not most, of urban fantasy are either mysteries with magic, romance with a paranormal, or combination of the two. Has paranormal romance completely taken over the urban fantasy subgenre? What effects has the rise of paranormal romance had on the fantasy field? Is this limiting the field? Is the subgenre in danger of becoming a self-parody? What authors and works should people be reading?

2-2:50 PM   The Epic Blockbuster
        In the 1950s and 60s, 200 page novels were common (and told a complete story). Today my bookshelf is groaning under Weeks (800 pages) and Sanderson (1000), and these doorstoppers are only part of a series. What changed? Do readers prefer long books and longer series? Are authors using these longer page counts to tell a deeper story with multiple points of view and better characterization? Or is much of this padding and a lack of editing? What books are worth the extra page count?

5 PM-5:50 PM    Writers on Writing Style
        How do writers develop and refine their style? What makes one writer more literary than another? How can they improve? Did you deliberately work on your style or did it emerge naturally from experience? What sf/fantasy writers have the best style and what did they do to develop it?

If you've never been to Capclave and you love science fiction and fantasy, you're missing something special. Hope to see you there.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Outlander vs. The Taker

Outlander: Men in kilts
Readers, I'd like your opinion on this.

Are you familiar with Diana Gabaldon's series, Outlander? Historical fiction that goes deep into Scottish, British and American history, a romance that defies time, with a fantasy element running through it. I'm a fan.

I have a conundrum. As you probably know, Outlander has been made into a television series on Starz. It's about to kick off its second season. I'm wondering if I should advertise The Taker to Outlander fans. I've seen a lot of Outlander fans asking, "what should I read next?"  

On one hand, comparisons have been made between the two series by reviewers and readers alike. It's the combination of history and fantasy, I think. And while The Taker isn't time-travel, it creates the sense of it as the characters go back and forth in their own timelines.

On the other hand, fans of a series can be fiercely protective. They can see any approach to the series' audience as an attempt to poach and may want to prove their loyalty by driving off anyone seen as encroaching on their territory. I don't want to offend anyone. I only want to make potential readers aware of my books.

What do you think I should do? Should I try to approach Outlander fans or are the series too dissimilar? Is the Outlander TV series all about the men in kilts--in which case they likely won't see the similarities between the two series of novels? Do you have any suggestions from how I might connect with Outlander fans? Please comment below. Thank you!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Writer's process & tools: paper notebooks

Writers are obsessed with each other's process. We always want to know how other authors do it, capture lightning in a bottle. Why we're obsessed with it, I'll talk about in another blog post. Today we're going to talk about tools.

For a while, a presentation on online tools for writers was a staple at many writers' conferences. There are still classes on Scrivener, of course. And I once saw a great class taught by mystery writer David Hewson on electronic tools he uses to manage all the reference work and imagery he needs to write his location based books.

Today, however, I'm going to talk about paper journals. Not because I'm anti-electronics but because I grew up in the era before computers, when creativity was mostly paper-based. I took notes by hand in school and college and to this day, my memory is keyed off the act of having written something down. Even though I write all my drafts on the laptop these days, I think through plotting and character on paper.

And anyone who uses paper to capture a creative process knows that it is an unsatisfactory medium, because inspiration doesn't come in a linear manner. Before long you have handfuls of loose scraps of paper with a few words written down on them. Pages of meaty stuff but what you need is to take bits of meaty stuff off this page and that page and put them together, and jettison the rest. I keep scratch Word documents of notes and snatches of dialogue and descriptions on my laptop but then it becomes hard to incorporate them into the paper notes. What is a creative person to do?

I tend to use spiral bound notebooks but then you're stuck with the order in which the pages appear. Three-ring binders seem too clunky to carry around, and then there's the dreaded rings themselves, always threatening to grab your fingers.

For a while, I had my hopes pinned on this little thing, called a Sorta. It's a binder without rings that lets you reorganize pages. You can get different kinds of paper for it: blank, lined, grids. It really looked promising but the company that makes it suspended production, I've been waiting for months and months for the product to go back on sale and, alas, I can't wait no longer. Which led me to this . . .

I read about these notebooks on Design Milk. Designers are know for using journals and notebooks to capture their creative thoughts as well as to plan new products or keep track of things for projects. The Action Method was designed by the Behance design/promotion company. According to Design Milk, "In essence, it’s the process of breaking down a project into three primary components: action steps (specific tasks; “do this”), reference (notes, sketches, research, links), and things on the backburner (“for later, but worth keeping”). It’s a creative procedural and organizational system designed to navigate brainstorm sessions into executable tasks – the equivalent of wrangling a chaotic ant swarm into a focused line." It started out as an online tool for designers but now exists only in the paper form. See the line of notebooks here.

Then there are plain paper journals. There are a lot of lovely options out there: Baron Fig, Leuchtturm (I bought some of these a few years back while in Europe; comes in a lovely assortment of colors); Piccadilly (which are a less expensive alternative to Moleskins, I've heard); Fiorentina (bought one in Italy to give to an artist relation); not to mention Field Notes (cute but a bit skimpy for writers).

Okay, now it's your turn: do you have a favorite notebook?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day: What is love?

There was love in a hay field in The Taker, too.
Valentine's Day, that most peculiar of holidays. The day we celebrate the idea of being in love. 

I have said that The Taker is an anti-romance. One of the reasons I wrote it is because I was horrified by the way our culture overemphasizes the importance to being in a relationship. Young people are pressured to be paired off with someone before they even know what it means to love. I had young nieces planning their dream weddings, down to the designer dress and the perfect place to have the reception, without spending one-thousandth the amount of thought put towards the kind of person they would marry. I saw women turning themselves inside out to hang on to indifferent men. The price of giving your heart can often be high--few loves will never go untested. Love is a precious thing but we try to mass-produce it, stamp it out in red and hot pink plastic instead of gold, make it ubiquitous. 

Well, saying that sort of thing is like pinning a target to your back. Some people get it, but most accuse you of being a sour, joyless old thing. So once a year, I like to remind people that it's a writer's job to tell the truths of the world and that I am hardly alone in my view of love:

If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it.
--Ernest Hemingway

Often it is just the most deserving people who cannot help loving those that destroy them.
--Herman Hesse, Gertrude

Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. 
--CS Lewis

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.
--Fodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamozov

This month in 2012: my Italian book tour. A writer's career is a fickle thing, but they can never take this away from me. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Is it a film yet?

Red Riding Hood: a stinker
The question I get asked the most is whether The Taker books are going to be turned into a movie or television series. It's pretty natural, when you like a book a lot, to think of it in terms of something visual. After all, you've played it in your head as you've read it, you can just picture what it will look like, and so having it made into a movie seems like the next logical step.

While it seems that it's the norm for books to be turned quickly into a movie or such, it's worth remembering that this isn't always the case. It took Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (a book The Taker has been compared to many times, I'll add) 26 years to be made into the series on Starz. I haven't watched it but have plenty of friends who adore it, and so it seems it was well worth the wait to have a producer come along who was going to do it justice. An even better example is Game of Thrones, George RR Martin's epic fantasy. GRRM himself said he never thought the books would be make it to the screen. He'd been a screenwriter and knew the constraints of the media, but he wanted to write something very big and sprawling and rich, knowing that it would be too expensive to capture in a movie or series. Luckily for us, someone at HBO wanted to give it a try and perhaps changed the playbook on what makes successful television.

We had early studio interest in The Taker but no sale. My agent at the time passed along that he'd been told, which was that the story, jumping around in history as it does, is hard to make work in a film. Also, historicals are expensive and so Hollywood doesn't like to make them. And lastly, for some unknown reason, as it was being discussed in Hollywood it got associated in some way with the 2011 film Red Riding Hood. Why, who knows: perhaps because it was dark and fairy tale-ish. I understand this happens: as producers discuss a book, they come up with some movie that they think is similar in some way. Only Red Riding Hood bombed. So suddenly no one was interested in The Taker anymore.

I only bring this up because, as I said, there is always interest in whether there's going to be a movie. I have to admit, this question always irks me a little because I would (of course!) love to be able to tell readers "yes". And if there ever is a deal, believe me, you'll hear about it. But I'm afraid some people make judgments about a book if there isn't a movie deal, and that couldn't be more unfair. Because--as we've seen with Game of Thrones and Outlander--it might be that the most difficult books to make into film are the ones that are most worth it, but you have to be patience and wait for the right visionary to come along, the one who can see exactly how it must be done. Then it will be well worth the wait.

Friday, January 30, 2015

No guarantees in book publishing

You may remember that a while back I wrote about a book I was working on, a historical novel about twin highwaymen and a young maid who falls in with them and what happens to poor outlaws in a world ruled by the rich. I finished the book, turned it into my agent and--was told that there wasn't a strong market for it right now. So it went back into the (metaphorical) drawer, keeping a few other manuscripts company.

Like most authors, I get asked a lot about the book business and people are often surprised to hear that not everything I write gets snapped up by a publisher. Maybe that happens with very, very successful commercial authors--James Patterson, say, Stephen King or JK Rowling, people who could write a grocery list on a napkin and get a million dollar advance--but for most authors (and that includes NY Times bestsellers) just because you wrote a book doesn't mean anyone is interested in putting the money and effort into printing and marketing it. Somehow the idea got out there that once you get published, you're on easy street. If that ever was the case, it certainly isn't true now.

There are lots of reasons why a book doesn't sell to a publisher. It could be the wrong time: the reading public's tastes have changed, or too many books like it have come out and done poorly. Or the market is saturated. (Generally, if a book is salable but has some flaws, you and your agent will work on correcting those flaws to try to sell the book.) It could be too radical a departure from your normal sort of book. Or it could be not radical enough. In other words, there are hundreds of reasons why a book won't sell and only one reason why it will: because an editor loved it and believed he or she could sell it to readers.

What that means is that writing a book is a crapshoot for the author. You can sink a year (or more!) of time into something that isn't going to pan out. You don't know until you try and the circumstances may have changed completely by the time you're done (vampires are out! contemporaries are in! psycho chicks a-la-Gone-Girl are in! and so on). Them's the breaks.

This is why you must love writing to be in the business, because the writing is often the only reward. By "love" I don't mean hearing bells in your head, giddy happy all the time love. I have said on Twitter that some days writing feels like you're pulling barbed wire out of your ear. Every word is agony. You'd rather be anywhere than chained to your laptop. But you must love the challenge of putting a story together, or making the words you put down today better than the ones you put down yesterday, of honing your craft, because without that there's often no reward at all.

Yes, that's what it means to be a writer.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Where does character come from?

I have a friend who has recently begun trying his hand at writing fiction. He wants to write character-driven fiction. He believes--and I agree--that the best fiction has deep, round, believable characters. The trick for the writer is knowing how to create characters like this.

Authors get asked a lot where their characters come from. Surely we must know someone just like this character or that one, and we patterned the character after him. This might be true for some writers but it's never been the case for me. As a matter of fact, that's the death of a character for me: I can't just fictionalize someone I know. They always come out boring and wooden. Ironically, the character has to come completely out of my imagination to develop the qualities of a real person.

I told him that the way to develop your character is to put him or her in a situation and see what they do. Then do it again and again and again. At a certain point, the character 'clicks': he is suddenly real to me and I know what he will do or say in any situation. At that point, he or she is like a real person to me.

There was a time when Lanny, Jonathan, and Adair were as real to me as my brother and sisters. I'd spent so much time with them--ten years for the first book, another three for the next two, every day spent following them around and chronicling every single thing they did. As I wound down the books, I started to miss them. I started to panic, too, wondering who I would hang out with. Maybe not every writer is like this, but I spend so much time by myself that I don't have much time to spend with real flesh-and-blood friends. I liked Lanny, Jonathan, and Adair. They were interesting, they were fun. I wondered who was going to take their place.

Back to writing advice. Some people believe you should interview your main characters to get to know them better. That you should ask them all sorts of questions that will reveal their true natures to you. It doesn't all end up in the book of course, but some of it might. Some of it might lead you to find out really interesting things about your character that could deepen your story--for instance, an aversion to heights that gets woven into the plot. Just don't be too hokey or transparent about it. 

Here's an example of such a questionnaire: this one is a list of questions that Marcel Proust was asked about himself. And if that seems too precious, here's a list from the Gotham Writers Group


Friday, January 16, 2015

So You Want to Be An Author

The last event I did was a talk for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as you may know it) at Gum Springs Library in Virginia, and it quickly went from a session on creating and sustaining conflict in your story to what book publishing is really like. I'd say this is true of almost all of my book events and it's understandable: that's certainly what I was interested in when I was trying my hardest to be published.

So I thought I'd post some links to some of the most sober and honest thoughts I've seen recently on the book publishing business. Now don't get me wrong: the writing comes first, the writing should always come first (meaning you should be writing for the joy--painful as it is sometimes!--of writing) but often in the process we let our minds wander from the keyboards to wonder what it would be like to sign a contract and have a book put out by a major publisher. The truth is that it's a business and you'll be a much better business partner for a publisher if you are clear about what you're getting into.

Best-selling author of "Prep" Curtis Sittenfeld gives the real low-down at BuzzFeed in "24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing". Among her nuggets of wisdom: "Unless you're Stephen King or you're standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody has heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised" and "The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career."

The awful truth: This post, "The Ten Awful Truths--and the Ten Wonderful Truths--About Book Publishing" was written in 2012 but a lot of it is still true, if not even worse. If you want to get a book deal with a major house, you have to be able to accept a fact like "A book has less than a 1 percent chance of being stocked in an average bookstore" and know what you're going to do to overcome such odds. Because the author is the major reason for a book's sales success or failure.

Chuck Wendig is known for giving clear-eyed advice about writing and publishing, and his post "25 Hard Truths About Writing and Publishing" is no exception. 

Matt Haig (author of "The Radleys") is both clever and insightful in his "30 Things That Every Writer Should Know" such as: "Authors shouldn't go to book fairs any more than chickens should go to Nando's" and "Being published doesn't make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones."