Friday, May 30, 2008

The Market

A friend of mine (writing as a sheepish anonymous poster) recently wrote about not writing for “the market,” and thought I might take offense at that. I’m sure he didn’t really think I’d be offended, but was instead referring to a strongly held belief of mine that you shouldn’t try to write what sells unless you hope to sell what you write. Today I thought I’d post about the difference between writing for “the market” and writing “what sells.”

First of all let’s define the two directions. I do not believe there is any such thing as THE (note the effective use of capitalization here) market. There are lots of markets. The romance market, the fantasy market, the middle grade market, the non-fiction market. In fact there are really more markets than there are genres, because you can combine them. How about little old ladies who only buy paperback medical romances? That’s a market. And if you could corner it, you could make a decent living as a writer.

When people talk about writing for the market, they generally mean it in a negative way. Writing a book with the intent to sell a lot of copies. Or selling out for the sake of a buck. For example an author who put extra sex scenes into a book, or profanity, or gratuitous violence, or a profusion of crabapples. (Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.) Let me just say that if all you had to do to sell a million books was insert x, y, or , z, 90% of the writers out there would be writing for “the market.”

The truth of the matter is that no one—not even publishers or agents—know what the next big thing is. Could you have predicted prior to Twilight that everyone and her daughter would be buying vampire books? Prior to Harry Potter, the NY Times bestseller list wasn’t forced to pull children’s books off their main list. Since no one really knows what the market wants, how can you possibly write for it?

The second direction is writing what sells. I know what you’re thinking. “Didn’t you just say that nobody knows what sells?” Yes and no. It’s very difficult to predict what the next big seller will be (other than books by established authors or things like movie tie-ins.) It is much easier to predict what will not sell. Think about it. You may not be able to guess what the next fashion craze will be. But you could probably look at neon green spandex neckties with leather fringe and say, “It ain’t that.”

A certain smaller publisher I know has determined that their bestsellers are mysteries/thrillers, romance, historical fiction, and nonfiction. If you want to write for them, it would be a smart idea to do your homework and not send them a memoir of your first thirteen years living in a beach house on the coast. If you want to write your memoir, by all means go ahead and do so. But just understand, your chances of selling it to this publisher are pretty slim.

One of the first things an agent or publisher wants to know about your book is who you are marketing it to. In one of my recent polls, I asked what type of book you like. The general answer was a story which meets the guidelines of the genre you are reading, but that stands out from the competition. If you are writing a romance, have the two get together at the end, but do so in a unique and unexpected way.

Two recent movies are very good examples of the problem with not understanding the market. Iron Man is a fairly typical super hero flick. Was there really anything in the movie that made you go, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that before?” Probably not. It was somewhat predictable. But it had a solid script, solid acting, and a storyline that was easy to fall into. In other words, it met the needs of the super hero/action adventure crowd.

Next, let’s look at Speed Racer. Even critics who didn’t like the movie admit it had good acting and incredible special effects. The script wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t significantly worse than Iron Man. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while the plot was just as predictable as Iron Man, the style and cinematography was superior. So why did Iron Man rake in the bucks while Speed Racer flopped? Don’t tell me it was because today’s audience doesn’t remember Speed Racer. Today’s audience hasn’t read any Iron Man comics for the most part either.

I believe that the difference comes down to understanding your market and meeting its need. The super hero market is easy to define. It’s been done dozens of times. It’s not hard to see where some succeeded and others failed. But who was the market for Speed Racer? Was it a kid’s movie? Was it a chick flick? Was it an action adventure? Was it a family movie? At different times it was all of those. But the trailers didn’t nail any one target audience.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. First and foremost write what you love and love what you write. If you find yourself adding scenes to make your book more sellable, you are probably not writing what you love. But once you know what you love, read the books in that genre and find out what works. I’m not saying copy. I’m saying study. Learn why Harry Potter succeeded while so many YA fantasies bombed. Read not only to see what has worked before but to give you ideas on what hasn’t been done yet. Understand the rules of your genre and know when and why you are breaking them.

It’s hard enough to succeed in this business. Don’t hurt your chances any more by deciding you will only write what comes from your heart and who cares whether anyone likes it or not. Again, I’m not saying that people who write just for the fun of it are wrong. What I am sick of hearing are people who think that publishers only want to buy what sells. That’s like the authors who whine that their readers don’t understand their work. As an author, my job is to write something that people will read, love, and buy. If they don’t understand my work, that’s my fault not theirs. And if I am so condescending as to think that they should all come around to my way of thinking, I’m in the wrong business.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

ARCs, Mouse Pads, and Marketing

The ARCs are out. After an exciting evening of printing, labeling, signing, stuffing, and sealing, I will be dropping them off to Shadow Mountain for mailing tomorrow. Here are a couple of pics from the blessed event.



Ready to get to work. More or less



Read the name, grab the envelope, apply the label . . .



What I told them to look like after we finished.



What they claimed they felt like after we finished.
(Until we went to DQ and they all perked back up.)



On a second note, I was asked a question yesterday that I thought was worth blogging about. I was talking with a friend about the things I’ve been doing and will be doing prior to the release of Water Keep. In particular, we were talking about some mouse pads that I bought as giveaways for the stores I’ll be visiting, and the cost of gas and hotel. Her comment was, “Why are you spending all this money of your own? Should the publisher do that?”

The answer I gave her was shorter than what I’ll post here, but in essence it came down to the same thing. If you could make a living doing anything you want, what would it be? Rock Star, actress, ship captain, the guy who goes up and down the strip in Las Vegas changing light bulbs? (Hey we all have our dreams right?)

For me, my dream is to make a living telling stories. If Bards were still around—and if I could sing—I’d probably go for that gig. In today’s world, the profession is novelist, script writer, movie director, or something of that sort. The problem is, there are far more people who want the job than actual opportunities. I’ve probably said before that more people make a living in the US as professional baseball players than novelists. So when the opportunity presents itself, you have to jump on it.

Now let’s take a look at what you’re getting into when you sign on for this particular adventure. First of all, it’s a 1099 position, meaning that there is no base, no guarantee, not a ton of job security, no insurance, and a paycheck that hopefully comes twice a year. Not exactly CEO of a fortune 500 company, right? In addition, my book will something like 1 out of 175,000 published this year.

Now the odds are not quite as bad as they sound. First of all, a lot of those books are nonfiction. So technically they don’t compete directly with me. Then there are a large percentage of books that are either self published or published by regional publishers small enough that they will see minimal if any shelf space nationally. Finally, we have to get rid of fiction titles that don’t compete directly with mine—adult, picture books, etc. I’m sure if I was really industrious I could scour the internet and come up with the actual number of YA fiction titles that will be published by midsize publishers or larger in 2008, but let’s be totally random and guess that the number is somewhere around 5,000.

What that means is that in my space alone, there are 5,000 other authors looking to sell enough books to make a living. Obviously, the biggest thing I can do to stand out is write a good book. And hopefully I’ve done that. But how many good books—books you’d really enjoy if you knew about them—come and go without you even knowing it?

So this week, I’m going to hit the road taking my ARCs to stores. In addition I’m taking out mouse pads that I purchased myself. I’ll spend money on gas and hotels. It will look like I’m out making friends, meeting store managers, and promoting my book. And all of that is true. Honestly, I’m really looking forward to spending some time with my wife as we travel from Las Vegas to Denver to Idaho, and everywhere in between. But what I’m really going to be doing is investing in myself. My thinking is this. If I’m not willing to invest time—and yes, money—in myself, why should anyone else be?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ARCs and Letters

Don't worry if you haven't received a letter yet. I was sick over the weekend and didn't get a chance to send them. The good news is that I have 400 ARCs in the back of my van. I'll send you pics of tonight's ARC party. I will send an e-mail to everyone on the list shortly. Thanks for all of your encouragement and support!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

They're Heeeerrree (Said in a Poltergeist Movie Voice)


Okay, the ARC chant did it. The ARCs are here at last! I only got five this morning. But in the next couple of days I should get all the books I need for the blog tour. It's such a cool feeling holding a book in my hand that not so long ago was just an idea in my head. It finally seems real. Of course they aren't the final hardback copies, and I have published other books before. But this is an initial print run of 40,000 hard back copies. It's placement on bookshleves nationwide.


Honestly, until I had the book in my hands, there was still a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering, "It's not real. Something will happen to make it all fall through."


But hey, now it's real! Would you blame me if I sleep with one under my pillow until the final copies show up in about three months?


Funny side note: I told my boys (pictured above) that next week we were going to have an ARC mailing party.

Boys "What's that?"

Me "It means we are going to stuff, label, and insert letters in over 150 envelopes to mail out books to my blogger friends."

Boys (Think for a minute.) "Will there be food?"

Me "Probably."

Boys "Will there be other kids?"

Me "Nope. Just us."

Boys "That doesn't sound like much of a party."

Oh, well. At least I'll be having fun. Which is good, because as much as it pains me to say it, Indy 4 was something of a let down. I'm sure if I hadn't gone in with such high expectations it wouldn't have been as bad. I went in looking for another 10, and what I got was maybe a 6 1/2. The sad thing is, most of the movie was a 12. Classic Indiana Jones thriller. But a few scenes, and the ending in particular, just had us all shaking our heads and asking, "Why?"

That being said, we all applauded at the end. (Well most of us.) And I will go back and see it again. And I will buy the DVD. It is a good addition to the trilogy, but in my opinion it is not as good as any of the first four. Honestly, if I go back with the right expectations, I could probably bump it up to a 7 or even 7 1/2. But I really, really, wanted it to be a 12.

One other funny thing. We left at 10, although it turned out we could have gone at 11:30 and gotten decent seats. The two theaters weren’t even sold out. But that says more about Payson, Utah than the movie. Anyway, without even discussing it, we all brought books to read while we waited. So here are all these rowdy teenagers in line, and sitting on the floor is my me, my wife, and our four kids all reading away. Made me proud

Back on the ARC side, I will be sending out e-mails over the next couple of days with final blog tour details to everyone who has signed up. Last time I sent out an e-mail to everyone on the tour, I only heard back from about 2/3rds. So if you don't hear from me by Monday, check your SPAM filters or send me a message. Can't wait to get these out and start hearing back from you!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Midnight Madness

(Yeah, I know. The resemblance between Harrison Ford and me is remarkable. I get mistaken for him all the time.)

Short post tonight. I'm leaving in about half an hour to get in the line for the midnight showing of Indiana Jones. Somehow my kids convinced me to let them come home from school and take a nap so they can go too. I'm a pushover. Of course my wife is coming too. So it's a family affair.


Oh, and I'm hoping to have something pretty cool to announce tomorrow. Hint it's a three letter acronym.

Monday, May 19, 2008

School Visits and Another Question Bites the Dust

Okay. One school presentation down. Hopefully, many, many more to go. (I actually have a tentative tour schedule for the first two weeks after my book comes out, but can’t post anything until it’s firm.)

So how did it go? Great!

The presentation was at American Leadership Academy, a local charter school. It was a ball. I was presenting to all ages—from grandparents to little babies—but mostly focused on the K-8 graders. I took part with three other authors. Jessica Day George, KL Fogg, and Mathew Buckley. All three of them were great. I had a few minor mishaps in my presentation (the projector remote that they couldn’t get to work and the magicians top hat that only wanted to pop up on one side.) But all in all I thought it came off pretty well. Here are a couple of pics. Looking forward to doing a lot more of these.



This is one of my two assistants "breaking" my good wand. Now I have to go all the way back to Diagon Alley to get a new one.





This is me offering him an alternative. What you don't think a rubber chicken the shrieks wildly when you squeeze it would make a good wand?


On another note, Deren asked me the following question “. . . . to be thrilling, the reader needs to know what's at stake (otherwise the action is meaningless). But in order to know what's at stake the reader needs to understand the fantasy world (which interferes with the action). The problem of finding the right mix of action and information isn't unique to fantasy, but it seems that a fantasy author walks a finer line because of the additional burden of revealing information about a new world.

I'd like to hear your thoughts about striking that balance in general and some of the specific things you did in Farworld (insofar as you can do so without giving away too much.)”

Good question, Deren. And especially applicable to YA and MG fantasy. In adult fantasy (No adult fantasy cracks here. I’m referring to series like Stephen R. Donaldson’s and Robert Jordan’s.) you can spend more time on describing the world and building up to the action. In fact, the reader expects you to give them detailed descriptions of the world they are entering.

YA and MG novels don’t give you that luxury as an author. In fact, I think that’s why so many adults enjoy YA novels even more than novels supposedly written for “adults.” They know a good YA novel will get them into the action quickly and keep the story moving and entertaining all the way through. The most common complaints I hear about YA novels is when they don’t get moving fast enough.

So how do you get around the problem of describing a new world without slowing down the story? First, you try to describe on the fly. For example I have Kyja approaching a tower in the center of town. I could take the time to describe everything she sees, or I could put the description into the context of action. For example:


Kyja raced onto a footbridge and over a burbling creek, ignoring the tiny golden
fish that leaped from the water and buzzed about her head before splashing back
again.

Past the bridge, the flagstone path wound in a spiral up a steep
hill to the base of the tower. Every hundred yards or so, a golden fountain
sprayed colorful patterns of water—one in the shape of a fish, another, a giant
eye that stared balefully at anyone who passed. Between the fountains, statues
of Westland’s most famous wizards and warriors guarded the grounds with stern
expressions.

Visitors to the tower were to stop at each fountain and
wash their hands—purifying themselves before meeting with a member of the
council or the High Lord himself. But Kyja had no time for such niceties. She
cut directly up the side of the hill, ignoring the blades of royal grass that
shouted, “Keep off! Keep Off!” and “No trespassing!” in their tiny high-pitched
voices.

From their spots along the path, the statues turned and gave her
dark scowls. But she ignored them too. As frightening as the statues looked,
they couldn’t actually tattle on her. And by the time the groundskeepers got up
in another hour, the grass would have forgotten all about her transgression.

At the top of the hill, she leaned against the cold, smooth wall of the
tower, panting. After catching her breath, she hurried up the white marble steps
and through the entryway, while Riph Raph broke off and soared up into the sky.
Just inside the massive gate, she stopped and curtsied to a stern looking guard.
“Eggs for the kitchen.”


Look at how much information I present here, without stopping the action. Kyja races across the bridge, cuts up the hill, and rests against the wall. Yet, hopefully, I’ve created a somewhat vivid picture in your head of what things look like. By using a little internal monologue, I can also pass on some other interesting points. The paragraph that starts “Visitors to the tower,” uses a technique called implied history. The reader imagines years and years of visitors passing the fountains and statues, which makes it seem more real.

The problem is, that only works for so long. I’m actually walking a fine line here. These are things Kyja sees all the time. The longer she is in a land she’s familiar with, the more difficult it is to describe things which would be new to the reader, but old news to her. Of course, that’s why we put characters into a world they are unfamiliar with. If I bring someone to Farworld who has never been there before, I can have him discover new things along with the reader. Likewise if Kyja were to end up on Earth. Lots of room for fun discoveries.

As much as I’d like to never pass on information though, there is almost always going to come a time when the source of wisdom must tell the protagonists what’s going on. Think of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo wakes up in the Elven city and Gandalf tells him about the rings. Or even earlier when he sends him on the quest. The key here is to make the story interesting and to keep it from being an infodump.

Your comment about striking a balance is really what it’s all about. Show me cool new things, let me discover the world along with the protagonist, but do it while keeping the action moving forward. The best way I’ve heard of doing this is to give your readers a red pen and ask them to mark any sections of your manuscript where their minds start to wander. I know you will put down my book at some point to eat or sleep. But I want to make sure you don’t put it down to watch I Love Lucy reruns.

Make sense?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Posters, Bookmarks, and Another Question

Before I get to the next question, I wanted to show you a couple of new goodies Shadow Mountain created for my signings and school visits. This is the poster. The words in white on the left side read, “First find the Water Keep. Take Courage—the magic is already inside you.”


The is the front and back of the bookmark.


Read this doc on Scribd: FarWorld Bookmark

Great timing because I’m actually doing my first school presentation tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now on to the next question.

Growing up, I knew one of my grandfathers a little. He was my father’s father, but died when I was still pretty young. I do remember going out to his house in Carson City, NV and looking for arrow heads with him. Also playing horseshoes. But that’s pretty much it.

I knew my father’s stepfather better. He was a tough old carpenter who could start a hand-crank tractor with one hand, calculate how many board feet of lumber he’d need to build a house in his head, and who used to pour turpentine on open wounds to avoid infection. He also used to scare the crap out of us kids by wielding an axe and popping out his false teeth.

The grandfather I knew the longest and the best was my mother’s father. He was an independent sort who never worked for another person in his life. When my mom was born (back when you used to pay cash for medical care and stay in the hospital for a month after the birth of a baby), he showed up and said, “I sold a bracelet. So you can stay in the hospital for another week.” He also used to travel across the country selling oven cleaner he’d made in the bathtub of a hotel to local restaurants. Some other time I’ll tell you about the time he left his new bride standing on the corner while he ducked out for a burger. That took a while to live down!

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because my maternal grandfather gave me some advice relating to sales that also applies to World Builder Robin’s question about, oddly enough, world building. He said that too many salespeople are afraid to get on the phone or go knock on doors until they have studied all their manuals, prepared all their forms, done plenty of research, sharpened all of their pencils . . . you get the idea. He said that you should be prepared, but sometimes you’re better off to just go out and make sales calls.

Daren and Anna gave some great advice. It’s true that fantasy readers want to understand the rules of a new world. How does magic work? What is the currency? What is the hierarchy of the good guys and the bad guys? The civilization. The history. All that good stuff gives a depth that makes the world more real.

You actually can get away with a lot less background information when writing for a younger audience. There are two reasons for this. One is that a younger audience just doesn’t care that much about what makes things work. Mostly they just want to see them in action. The second reason is that the younger your readers, the less patience they have for back story. They would never endure all the filler information of Tolkien or Robert Jordon.

Even with YA or adult fantasy though, you can do too much research. Honestly, many times you don’t even know what you don’t know until you dive into writing the story. The nice thing is, you can take notes as you go and fill in extra details later. And once you do have the information, be careful about how and when you present it. In my opinion, Tolkien would have a difficult time getting published today, because he spent so much time on language, songs, poetry, side stories, politics, history. If you can, it’s much better to present the information in context. Implied history is also cool. If I mention an archive of old scrolls in passing, I don’t have to show them all right now. And remember, if you are doing a series, it may not be necessary to show your entire hand right away. Sometimes it’s better to leave a few things shrouded in mystery at first.

I like to set up information for future books. I have a character hint at what happened when he was gone for a while. But don’t tell any more in the first book. I explain enough of how magic works to satisfy (hopefully) young and old readers alike. But I leave plenty for the protagonists to discover along with the reader. One example of this is a character who wants a magic wand really bad. The wizard tells him that his wand will find him when his magic is ready for it. Not to be a spoiler, but that doesn’t happen in this book. It’s enough that the reader understands the role of a wand in this world, and that at some future point the wand may appear.

I know quite a bit about my world, but there is plenty more I will discover along the way. One thing I am a stickler for—and this is just me—is not starting a series or a book until you know the end. One of the most fun things for me in a series is having things set up in earlier books for later books. Sometimes the things I set up are obvious enough that an alert reader may catch them and think, “Aha! I’ll bet this will come into play later.” Other times the reader won’t even know I am setting something up. But either way, it gives your series a feeling of continuity or circularity you wouldn’t otherwise have.

So, I guess my answer is: before you publish the book, you need a pretty solid knowledge of your world. But sometimes it’s best to just dive right in and figure things out as you go.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Q&A #4

Wow, lots of great questions and great answers as well. I’ve been a little tied up with work and family things the last few days. But let’s see how quickly I can get all of your questions addressed. We’ll do them one post at a time, and I may do more than one post a day.

Anna asked how you connect the fun scenes that pop into your head, and make them part of a coherent story. You can read her whole question here. I’m going to divide my answer into two parts.

First of all, let me say that every author I know has cool scenes pop into their heads. Sometimes they have to do with the book you are working on. Sometimes they have to do with a book you’re thinking about. And sometimes that are just random scenes. What you do with those scenes depends a lot on where you are at with: your stage of writing, any currents projects you might be working on, and how important the scene feels to you.

One of my philosophies is that beginning writers are often pushed too hard to “finish" something. I’m guilty of it myself. When people ask my advice for beginning writers, I usually say, “Finish that book.” This is because many writers quit before they ever give themselves a chance to succeed. They spend so much time and energy worrying over whether the first three chapters are good enough, that they never make it to chapter four.

However, there is another side to the issue. Not everyone is at the stage in their writing where they are ready to write a whole book just yet. They may not even be ready to write a whole short story. Imagine giving a child (or an adult for that matter) a box of crayons and saying, “You can’t start anything new until you finish the drawing you are working on.” Talk about stifling creativity. How do kids learn about art? They draw a bunch of trees. Then they add something that may be a cow or an airplane. Then for a couple of weeks they do stick figures and houses with crooked chimneys.

Writing can be the same way. If you push yourself too hard to make everything part of one coherent story, you can end up turning writing from something that is really fun into a chore. Why not give yourself the freedom to write a scene just for the joy of writing a scene? Work on dialogues for awhile. Move from talking heads to scenes that the reader can visualize. Work on battles. Work on beginnings. Work on deaths (I wish JK Rowling had worked on improving her death scenes.) Give yourself permission to work on your art.

Definitely save them. You may find a place to use them later. In fact, at the end of this post I’ll give you an example of a scene that I originally wrote for fun, which ended up in a book.

The other side of the coin is when you are ready to tackle your first novel. The biggest mistake that beginning—and even experienced—writers make is starting their novel without having a fairly good idea where it’s going. That’s like heading out on a trip without a map. It can be fun, but you may not actually get anywhere. Before you start your book, you should have a pretty good idea of the structure of what you are writing.

I’m not talking about hard core outlining. Many writers outline their books, and many writers don’t. There are pros and cons for both. If you can just throw a bunch of characters into a situation and see what happens, more power to you. But for most writers, you need at the very least a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not the exact details, but enough to carry you through.

Once you have a general idea of where things are heading, it’s easier to write scenes out of order or plug ideas into a coherent whole. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to see if you are ready to begin your novel or if you need to do a little more planning.

Story Overview
How will my story begin and end?
What are my primary storylines?
What are the beginning and end of each storyline?
List 1 to 3 sub-climaxes
How will each character be affected by above?
Where and how will I foreshadow?
What are some of the key plot twists?

Plot
Does your main character have a noble quest?
Will the reader empathize with that quest?
What are the obstacles to the quest?
Do you have more than one story line to carry the plot?
Are the smaller climaxes leading up to the final climax?
Did I start the story at the right point?
Is your storyline broad enough? Is it too broad, so it loses focus?

Character
Do you have a clear main character?
Do you like that character?
Do they have flaws?
What are they going to learn during the course of the story?
Who are the subordinate characters?
Is the main character in jeopardy? Of what?
What are the consequences of failure? Of success?
Are the obstacles to success difficult enough?
Is the character acting or reacting. Readers want a hero/heroine that is actively trying to fix things.

Again, you may not know all the answers when you start. And there is nothing wrong with writing scenes that don’t have a story to fit into yet. That’s part of your writing development. But if you find yourself beginning lots of stories that don’t go anywhere and you feel you are ready to move on, these questions may help you to organize your thoughts.

Okay, I promised a scene. Five or six years ago, I taught a class on three of my favorite tools: isolation, disorientation, and misdirection. To illustrate my points, I wanted to turn a non-threatening scene into something scary. To my wife’s eternal regret, I asked her to name a really happy place. She picked the Small World ride at Disneyland. (My whole family are Disney fanatics.) Using my tools, I created a rather dark version of this ride. This eventually found its way into a rather scary novel that is currently not published. Let me warn you in advance that should you read on, you may never look at this ride the same way. Also, this is a dark scene and a little gory. So if you aren’t into that kind of thing, do not read on.






Consider yourself warned







Don’t go on if you are prone to bad dreams









Last chance to turn back






All right, thrill seekers, please keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times.


Cal was in a boat. He could hear water slapping against the sides of the small dinghy as it rocked back and forth. The dank smell of moisture filled the air and slipped into his nostrils with an almost dizzying power. He ran his fingers along the gunwale. Though he could feel the slick surface of polished wood beneath his fingers, he couldn’t see it—couldn’t see anything at all.

He tried to remember where he was and how he had got there, but for the moment his memories were as unfathomable as the darkness surrounding him. Was this a dream? It had the sense of unreality that dreams sometimes had, the feel of things just beyond his control.

Abruptly the boat jolted to the left, and he had to clutch the side to keep from falling. Now he could just make out a faint glow ahead of him. He seemed to be in some kind of tunnel. The light was growing stronger and he thought he could make out the sound of . . . of singing.

He had a vague memory of being shot at—of pain. Was he dead then? Was he hearing a choir of angels? Children’s voices echoed off the walls that he could now faintly see to either side of the waterway. But it wasn’t hymns they were singing. The tune was familiar, and for some reason it reminded him of Kat.

All at once he realized where he was. This was Disneyland. He was in one of the boats of the Small World ride. It was Kat’s favorite spot in the whole park. She said that no one could ever feel unhappy in Small World.

But what was he doing here? Kat was dead. She would never again watch the hundreds of dolls twirling in synchronized dance, their costumes forming brightly colored rainbows. She would never sing the Small World theme song along with the children in each of their different languages as the boat passed from one country to the next.

Why was he here without her? Without Kat this ride was as pointless as everything else in his life. He buried his face in his hands.

Cool fingers touched the side of his face. “You don’t want to miss the best part, do you?” He looked up and Kat was sitting beside him—her eyes glowing as they always did when their little boat rounded the first bend.

The boat turned, and they entered the bright illumination of the ride. Their boat slipped past the signs reading Welcome in several languages.

“Kat it’s you . . . you’re . . .” Back he wanted to say, but couldn’t. Emotion blocked his throat. “Am I dead? Are we . . .”

“Shhh,” she whispered, taking his hand and flashing him the smile that had won his heart the first time he saw it.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said, drinking in every line of her face. “I thought it would get easier. You know, that I would adjust. But everything I see reminds me of you, and it just keeps hitting me over and over that I’ll never wake up next to you again. Only now . . . now you’re here. Or am I there?”

Tears slipped down the sides of his face, and she reached across to brush them away. As her fingers touched his skin, he knew that he would give everything he had to be able to feel that touch forever.

She turned to look at the singing dolls, her eyes lighting up at the beautiful costumes. But he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was really here. Somehow she was back. He would never let her leave his side again.

Slowlly her smile faltered and her fingers tightened on his hand. “No,” she whispered. “No, this isn’t right.”

He turned and followed her gaze.

For the first time, he noticed the dolls. There was something strange about their faces. They were smiling. Of course they were. Anyone that couldn’t wear a dazzling toothpaste smile every minute they were in front of the public wasn’t long for it in Walt’s kingdom—even if they were robots. But the children’s smiles seemed wrong somehow, almost sly. As if they were just waiting for him to turn away so they could stick out their tongues, or make obscene gestures at him behind his back.

And the singing.

On the surface it was the same old, same old, about one moon, one sun, and friendship for everyone, sung in more languages than even a college professor could master. But the children’s voices seemed to be placing a special emphasis on “a world of fears” and “a world of tears.”

The tempo was off too. It was slower, more solemn—more like a funeral dirge. And just under their breaths, so low that he couldn’t quite make out the words, were they singing something more sinister?

Cal turned to Kat. Her eyes were glassy with fear, her breath coming in quick, short gasps. He took her into his arms pulling her toward him. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “Everything’s going to be all right.”

As the figures continued to whirl and spin, their shadows stretched out behind them like grotesque specters, parodying the joy of real children and turning it into something evil. Were they getting closer? He felt sure that the dolls should be moving in set patterns, up and down around and around. But these children were gamboling, darting off their platforms and leaping down to stand near the edge of the water.

To his left a pair of Eskimo children crept stealthily up behind a cardboard polar bear. As he passed by them Cal was suddenly sure that he had seen them somewhere before. They looked so familiar. If he had just another second, he knew that he’d be able to place them.

The boat left one land behind, rounding into another, and from the corner of his eye he saw a cowboy doll twirling a lasso above his head. The cowboy tossed the rope into the air, but instead of coming down on a cow or a horse, it looped around the neck of a cowgirl and he pulled her screaming toward him.

Their faces. They weren’t doll faces at all, but the faces of children. His gut went ice cold as he realized why they were so familiar.

The cowboy pulling the screaming cowgirl into the darkness was Lehi Rucker and the girl was Amanda Porter. And the Eskimo children—they had been Benjamin Meyers and Theresa Truman. What were the children from the mine doing in Small World?

As if sensing his recognition, the children gave up any pretense of following the script and lined the sides of the waterway, jeering and laughing at him. Something launched into the air, and he turned, startled, in time to see an Indian that looked like a young Dickey Jordan throw a javelin. It glanced off Kat’s head before sinking out of sight into the dark water.

“Kat!” he screamed.

“I’m okay,” she tried to smile. “It’s just a bump.” But it wasn’t a bump at all. Blood was gushing from the wound, dripping down the side of her face.

He ripped off his shirt and pressed it against the side of her head trying to stanch the flow. “I’ve got to get you to a doctor,” he said. He had to get her off this ride. This was a theme park; there would be plenty of emergency medical personnel on staff. He looked for one of the exit doors hidden behind the props, and froze.

They were no longer in Small World at all, but floating along a depthless black river running down the center of a long dark mine. Pick axes and bits of rusted rail littered the ground to either side of them. Overhead an electrical sizzling was followed by a loud pop. The lights went out, leaving the shaft a sickly green.

The boat jerked to a stop, throwing him forward in the boat. As he looked down into the water, a groan escaped his lips. Frankie Zoeller was floating just beneath the surface, his pale white face swimming behind dark glasses. Frankie’s eyes opened and his shriveled fingers reached up toward Cal.

Cal shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he shouted. “I have to save my wife. She’s hurt.”

Kat slumped against his shoulder, and he turned, catching her in his arms as she fell forward. He had to get her out of here. They would get help. This time he’d make sure the doctors looked for a blood clot.

He began to lift her; only it wasn’t Kat lying in his arms. It was Olivia. Her long blond hair was wet with blood, her eyes rolled back in her head like white hardboiled eggs.

“Do you like my new dress?” she asked, running her finger through her clotted hair. “The blue brings out my eyes and the bloody flowers match my hair.”

“Where’s Kat?” he screamed at her. “Where is my wife?”

She smiled up at him, but it was the rictus grin of a corpse.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” she whispered, pointing to the water.

He turned back. Frankie was gone. Now Kat was the one drowning. Her eyes were red with blood. Bubbles exploded from her mouth as she tried to scream. From somewhere in the darkness, he heard Two Bears’ voice say, “There are underground springs in these caves that run hundreds of feet deep.”

He dove for Kat’s hand, lunging across the side of the boat. The ice-cold water closed over his arms and shoulders. He thought he had her—their hands were only inches apart. But just as his fingers began to close around her wrists, something snaked up from the depths, wrapped around her waist, and jerked her down into the darkness where she disappeared.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Speed Racer and Editing

Okay, let me just start out by saying that Speed Racer is pretty much exactly what everyone is saying.

Here are some quotes that I think some up the movie, both good and “bad.”

“There is something freeing about watching this movie because it establishes early on that it's not playing by certain cinematic rules.” Eric Melin, http://www.scene-stealers.com/

“The brutal sensory overload is coupled with a plot that starves the brain, a recycling of the silliness of the TV show unleavened by any saving hint of postmodern irony.” Frank Swietek , One Guy's Opinion

“The arty blockbuster has arrived, and it's as flashy, accessorized and auto-erotic as can be. Which creates a strange sensation indeed, that it's not just the cars that are smoking, but those Wachowski brothers as well, and whatever's in their pipes too.” Prairie Miller,
NewsBlaze

“Speed Racer may very well give your brain diabetes, and I state that as compliment.” Rob Humanick, Projection Booth

Now my take. I loved it. My kids, ranging in ages from eight-year-old son to twenty-year-old daughter loved it. My wife even loved it. Why? Because we didn’t go into the theater looking for a “hint of postmodern irony”—whatever the heck that is. We didn’t go to the movie looking for a deep and meaningful plot.

Speed Racer was a cartoon that lasted for one year. The very fact that so many of us Boomers remember it says something about the show. But it was a silly cartoon. It didn’t have deep meaningful messages. It had car races. It had bad guys. It had fights. It had cool car crashes and neat stuff on the race cars.

The producers of Speed Racer the movie could have taken the tack of trying to turn it into a “serious” movie. After all, these are the guys that brought us The Matrix movies. But they knew that would have ruined the show. Instead, they take a tongue-in-cheek view of the old cartoon and combine it with some effects that literally are so incredible they almost make you sick. (Brian, don’t bring your little brother.) If you go in looking for “sensory overload”, “flash”, and a movie that will both make you laugh and have you gripping the edge of your seat, you will love this movie. I, personally, have never seen anything like it before, and I will definitely go see it again.

My only compliant was that they didn’t play the original theme song until pretty much the end of the credits.

Now to answer the second part of Deren’s question.

I know that many authors hate working with an editor. Writing a book is such a personal thing. You do it privately, struggling to get the scenes that work so well in your head onto the paper. Then it sees the light of day and everyone who reads it finds flaws. For writers with thin skin, that can be almost unbearable. It’s worse than someone saying your kid is ugly. It’s like someone saying your kid is ugly, and she got her looks from you. Ouch!

But here’s the thing. Would you want to watch a movie in which the same person was the director, the writer, the main actor, the editor, sang the theme song, and did the lighting? No. It would be terrible. An artist can get away with doing a painting by himself because it is one scene. And even then it doesn’t always work.

But an author has to deal with multiple characters both big and small, many interlocking scenes, plot, dialog, new creatures and civilizations, grammar, flow, sentence structure, and a million other things. How can you possibly look at all of that objectively when you’ve seen it both in your imagination and on paper hundreds of times. It’s impossible to see your story with completely fresh eyes even if you put it on a shelf for six months.

So you know you need outside people to look it over. But not all readers are created the same. I like paintings. I have purchased paintings. I’ve been to art museums. I could look at two paintings and tell you which one I like better. But I could not at first glance tell you which painting is worth millions and which is worth a hundred dollars. (Good thing I’m not an art investor huh?) So it would be foolish for a painter to bring me her work and ask for my opinion. All I could really say is whether I like it or not. I couldn’t give the artist the feedback she needs to know even if it is a quality piece of work or not. And I definitely couldn’t point out what areas need what type of work.

That’s where a good editor comes in. Now let me give you an overview of what Water Keep has been through since its inception. First I wrote it. I don’t recommend beginning writers edit as they go. Some author or the other said you can’t edit what you haven’t written. So get the thing done first. With that being said, I do edit while I write. Every day, before I begin writing, I read over what I wrote the last day and make changes until it feels right.

After I finish it, I take my writing to a seven person critique group. They often read it in pieces on a weekly basis. But after it’s done, they read it as a whole. Usually there is at least two weeks of rewrites there. Then I gave it to Lisa Mangum. It was through her that my manuscript was given to Chris Schoebinger. But before Lisa gave it to Chris, she gave me a bunch of suggested changes. Then Chris gave me his changes. Then he passed it to a group of kids to read, and gave me even more changes.

Once I’d made all of those changes, I sent it to some author friends who had never read it in any earlier stage. These are authors who read the genre, are comfortable giving me honest feedback, and that I know well enough to trust. After their changes, it went to the committee, and then actual editor. (Lisa had been sick and fallen behind on other projects.) Again more changes.

Reading how many times the manuscript had to be changed, you’d probably think the original writing was a piece of garbage. But the thing is, almost nothing in the main storyline changed at all. There were zero key plot changes. Stephen King compares writing a book to uncovering a fossil. What all the feedback did was give me clues to places where I had not uncovered the fossil as completely as I could have.

Now don’t get the idea that I took all of the advice everyone offered. Or even that most of the advice included actual fixes. It didn’t. The feedback I got was far more likely to be of this sort. “I don’t understand why character A was able to do x,y, and z without a wand.” Or, “I was really hoping that when the [creature name] attacked character a, he would have used a, b, and c.” Or even just, “The beginning of chapter 13 was a little slow.”

As an author, it is my job to look through the feedback, decide was has merit, and then—and this may be the hardest part to do well—figure out what the real problem is. Does my character really need a wand, or did I just forget to include a key piece of information about magic back in chapter 3? Does it help make the story more exciting or detract from the pace if I add more to the battle?

In general, the fixes I tend to look for the most are: overuse of certain words, phrases, or sentence structures, anything even remotely boring, issues requiring more clarification, and any point where success is achieved to easily. It’s hard to catch yourself when you start using one word a lot. It’s like it gets stuck in your brain. It’s also hard to know whether you communicated clearly what was inside your head. Many times I’ve had a reader complain about one thing only to realize the real problem was something else entirely.

For example, let’s say the reader tells me he doesn’t believe my unicorn would really be that unkind to my princess. (These are all just examples by the way. There is no unicorn or princess in my book) When I look at the scene, the unicorn seems very nice. I could make the unicorn sickeningly sweet, I could ignore the comment, or I could reread the scene trying to figure out why the reader thought the unicorn was mean. Upon rereading the section, I discover that I never made it clear that the Unicorn can only speak in riddles at night. That’s why it appeared the unicorn was being rude. The reader found a problem, but I had to find the actual fix.

One other thing I focus on a lot is anything to make the story more compelling. The “wow” factor in fantasy is huge. Think of all the cool scenes you remember from Harry Potter. Almost all of those are “wow” scenes. If I can make a creature just a little nastier, a battle just a little more intense, or a magical item a little more fantastic, I’m all over that.

One thing I have found is that most editors don’t care how you fix the problem. They just want to make sure you recognize that there is a problem and that you address it. For me personally, I like all the qualified feedback I can get. I’m about to put 40,000+ copies of my book out before the public. I want it to me the most highly polished gem it can be. There are plenty of things people can find to dislike, why give them more?

Okay, everyone. I'm out of questions. What would you like to talk about?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Here He Comes . . .


Sorry for no post today, but I just got home from celebrating my daughter's 20th B-day. (Weird since I'm sure I'm not any older than 30 myself.) But I digress. We went out to dinner at a place where the food is only adequate but they have a bunch of guys cliff diving (in the restaurant, no less) in skimpy outfits. Can you guess who picked the restaurant?

Anyway, after the movie we all went and saw Speed Racer on the IMAX screen. I'll post a full review tomorrow, but suffice it to say I had a hard time keeping the minivan under 80 all the way home.

More tomorrow!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Monster in the Closet




Fun Saturday. Ran five miles with my dad this morning. He is seventy years old and still makes me work to keep up. We ran along a trail that follows the edge of the Wasatch Mountains. A lot of people don’t know that most of Utah actually used to be a big lake. Apparently someone pulled the plug, because now much of Utah is desert. The trail is called the Lake Bonneville Trail, and it runs along what was once the shoreline.



After that, my wife and I took our two youngest boys out to lunch and to see Iron Man. Wow, so good! Robert Downey Jr. is a stud actor. Hope he continues to keep his life together now as I’d like to see him in a lot more movies. I also liked the scene after the credits. It gave me a fun idea for the actual release of Water Keep. Have to see what Shadow Mountain thinks of my idea.


Speaking of Shadow Mountain, I have a couple of updates. The ARCs are at press. Hoping they will be back before the end of the month. This also means they are working on the posters and bookmarks. Cool huh?

Also, they are going to do something pretty neat with the inside illustrations. (The illustrations are not in the ARCs.) Since the book is divided into four sections, they are going to do one picture at the beginning of each section. But what I think is really cool is that each picture is going to be a two page spread. It will cover both the left and right pages at the beginning of each part. Now I just have to come up with a couple of possibilities for each section. They need to represent the whole part of the book, but can’t give away too much. Hmmm, this is going to require some thought.

Finally, I received an e-mail from Daren H, with a couple of good questions. I thought I’d answer one of them today and the second one tomorrow. Here’s what he asked. (I’ve edited his letter a little to focus on the actual question.)

You mentioned, in one of your earlier posts, that you started Farworld with Marcus about to be ambushed. I was interested to see that the book actually begins with Bonesplinter's audience.

I have mixed feelings about that technique: On the one hand, it gives the reader a taste of things to come (and presumably an incentive to read through the initial material that sets up the story). On the other, one runs the risk of trivializing the antagonist--a fear you can define is less fearsome than one whose limits are not known.

Did you decide to begin with Bonesplinter in what is basically a prologue (as you mentioned in another post), or did the first chapter come out of the editorial process with Shadow Mountain? If it was the first case, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of revealing the antagonist at the very beginning. If it was the second case, I'd like to hear about your experience in the editorial process, the give and take between you and Lisa Mangum, and what you learned from it in terms of the craft of writing and elements that improve the books marketability.

Actually, now that I've written both questions, I'd like to hear your thoughts on both subjects.


Thanks for the questions, Daren. It’s funny you should ask this question now as I’ve recently had a rather interesting online discussion with several other authors regarding the pros and cons of prologues. I won’t rehash my take on prologues in this posting, but rather I’ll focus on the pros and cons of introducing an antagonist early in the book. And in particular why I chose to do it in Water Keep.

First of all let’s discuss what showing your hand early accomplishes and what it loses. As most of the masters of horror will tell you, the scariest monster is the one that’s still in the closet. The reason being is that, as a reader, you can imagine whatever might be the scariest to you. Once you open the closet door, you risk the reader going, “Oh, it’s only a flesh eating spider with poison-dripping fangs and red eyes? I’ve seen dozens of those before.”

Another good reason for keeping the antagonist hidden is the mystery angle. Who really is the bad guy, and when and where will he strike? A great example of this was the first Harry Potter book. Voldemort is so frightening precisely because we don’t see him until the end of the book and then he is living on the back of someone’s head. Most creepy.

One of the problems with using this technique is the very fact that you must keep the antagonist in the closet. It doesn’t do you much good to hide the monster, only to have it show up in chapter 3. In a movie you could get away with having the creature strike so quickly you can’t see it clearly, or in the dark, or have it kill other characters. You can do the same thing in a book, but it limits your options. I personally like my protagonist to be proactive about fighting against his or her adversary. A proactive protagonist is much more likeable than someone who is always reacting to what’s thrown at them.

Another problem with using this technique is that in a fantasy series, you can really only get away with this trick in one book. Tough to keep the monster in the closet for five books. One way to get around this is to have progressively tougher antagonists to fight in each book. As your heroine grows stronger, so does her adversary.

I think it really comes down to what you’re trying to accomplish, and what each technique buys you. In my case, I had a couple of reasons for showing Bonesplinter early. The first is that Bonesplinter is going to show up soon anyway. Marcus needs to be put on the run early in the book, and the way I accomplish this is by having the bad guys show up.

Another equally important reason is that one of the biggest complaints I hear about YA fantasies is that they start too slowly. We typically first see our hero in rather ordinary circumstances (living under a staircase, in a hobbit hole, at a school.) This is so that we can throw them into extraordinary circumstances. I actually have two protagonists—Marcus and Kyja. Because of the way the story flows, we meet Marcus first. That means my first few chapters must take place on Earth. By showing Bonesplinter first, I accomplish two things. I get to introduce them (the boy and the girl) in the first chapter. And I get to give the reader a brief taste of my fantasy world.

Another thing to consider is that I actually reveal two potentially dangerous adversaries in chapter one, while hiding a third. We meet Bonesplinter, and get a taste of what is really going on in his head, (Can you say power hungry?) while also hinting at his back story. We meet the really nasty Summoners. But there is another baddy who stays in the shadows. What’s really going on in the head of the hidden antagonist? What is the figure hiding in the shadows up to? Of course there is the obvious. But is there more?

When I first thought up this series, I envisioned a story that grew like Lord of the Rings. In the first book we meet the two main characters, a couple of bad characters, and several side characters. There is a quest, lots of danger, several side stories, and a stopping point that wraps up one part of the story while leaving several things open, and introducing the next part of the quest.

As the series progresses, the danger appears on more fronts. We meet more heroes and the danger increases. Bonesplinter is not the only antagonist, and while there is plenty of swords and sorcery, there is also political intrigue, and battles on many fronts.

Could I have kept Bonesplinter hidden? Sure. And it would have worked just fine. But by introducing him early, we turn it from a horror/mystery to a thriller. We know who Bonesplinter is. But when will he strike next, and what might he be willing to do to increase his own power? And in the course of trying to complete their quest, Kyja and Marcus meet many more nasty creatures.

I guarantee you not all of the books in the series will start this way. In at least one of the books, you won’t see the scariest creature until the very end. But that’s another thing I like to see in a series. Surprise me. Instead of giving me five books that are different versions of the same song, take a new angle. I want each book to be bigger and better than the one before it, so I can’t wait for the next one to come out.

Hope that answers your question. Tomorrow I’ll write about the editing process and how it works best for me.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

It's Finally Here!

Sorry I haven't posted for a few days, but I have been waiting because I knew that soon I would be able to show you the cover and the first two chapters. And today it came! So without any further delay, here is the cover and the first two chapters of Farworld Water Keep! Hope you like them.

To view the chapters bigger, you can zoom in or out, or you can click the square in the upper right hand corner of the viewer.


Read this doc on Scribd: Farworld Water Keep Chapters 1 & 2