Monday, December 14, 2009

Technophobia

For those of you who noticed I didn’t blog the last couple of weeks, I had quite an adventure. I was up in the mountains celebrating the completion of my newest novel. Driving back toward home, I ran into a terrible snow storm. My car slid off the road and when I woke up, I was in Florida. The good news is that I was alive—and warm. The bad news is that I discovered I’d been kidnapped by a crazy giant female mouse. She demanded I write her another Shandra Covington mystery novel. When I tried to escape, she put me through sheer torture. I had to climb a mountain and face a Yeti. I was thrown over a waterfall and into a briar patch. I was shot into space, launched through dizzying loops, nearly killed in a malfunctioning elevator, and fed to dinosaurs. I barely escaped with my life.

For those of you who didn’t notice—you go on the bad children list.

But I’m back and trying to reacquaint myself with all this cold white stuff. As I was being shaken, rattled, and rolled last week, I thought about how much our industry has changed and is continuing to change. For example:

1) When I started publishing, one of my biggest complaints was the SASE. I didn’t have a problem with paying the price of a stamp. That’s a cheap cost for having a quality agent look at your work. I just didn’t like the idea of including a self-paid rejection envelope. Now most agents accept e-mail queries and many don’t even send out rejection forms. If you haven’t heard from them by a certain date, consider yourself rejected.

2) About ten years ago, I attended an internet CEO conference. The two main speakers were a representative of the music publishing industry and the CEO of a hot startup called Napster. The CEO argued that music file sharing would happen no matter what the music industry did. He was right. Now the same thing is coming for authors. Will the book publishers be any wiser than the music industry? Will it make any difference?


3) My newest contract with Covenant, (the publisher who does my Shandra Covington mysteries) included an e-book section. When I started with them, they were just moving from cassettes to CDs.

4) Ten years ago, self-publishing was so cost prohibitive that people who published their own books could get them into many stores. Now you can e-publish your book for free and sell it on the Internet. Talk about cutting out the middleman.



5) When I started publishing, people were just starting to hear about this new YA fantasy series about a kid who goes to magic school. Almost no one was reading vampire books, dystopian, or fairies/zombies/werewolves. Steam punk was homeless kids who hung around the sewers of New York. The New York Times bestseller list was even broken out by adult and children’s hard cover. Edward was just the name of your great uncle.




6) Very few authors had web sites. Social networking meant hanging out at a bar. Tweeting was what birds did. Blogging was for geeks. Now we have blog tours and if you don’t twitter, you are out of date. Kids assume you have a blog and want to know what kids of games it has.




7) The big question was whether you would buy your books on Amazon (which was still trying to get its legs) or a brick and mortar store. Not whether you buy your book in print or electronically. Kindle? Nook? Never heard of them.




8) Goodreads? Shelfari? Librarything? If you wanted to hear what people thought of books, you went to the library. Now you can actually have an author come to your school or book club all done over the internet.
9) Google had not only NOT started scanning books, but most people didn’t even know who they were. The top search engines were Yahoo!, Lycos, and MSN. Now Google is actually a verb.

Yeah, okay, so I’ve probably spent too much time in the carousel of progress. (Which by the way used to be in Disneyland, not across the country in Florida.) And I really have no conclusions to make, other than that things have changed in ways author couldn’t have imagined. I expect they will continue to change. As authors, we may feel out of control or left behind. You may find yourself wondering, “Do I twitter or facebook? Should I write about zombies or are they out of style? Will people buy audio books or e-books?”

I’m sure publishers are worrying about all these things. But somehow I’m sure they’ll continue to find ways to make money. And if they do, authors will as well. We definitely need to try and keep up with technology. Even if we don’t twitter, our readers do. We may feel weird about accepting “friends” on facebook that we don’t know. But our readers are all over it. But don’t let all this change scare you. Long before any of us were born, the story was what mattered. And it will long after we’re gone. A great web site will not make a lousy novel into a bestseller. But if you write a great enough story, your publisher will be help you get all the tweets, blogs, blurbs, and friends worked out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Decision

Thanks for all the well wishes. A big part of me wanted to not say anything about signing with an agent until the book actually sells. If it doesn't for whatever reason, (and trust me, getting a great agent does not guarantee a sale) it will be annoying to admit that. But most of you have been with me a long time. I want to be able to share with you all of the ups and downs of this writing life I've chosen. When I do make a sale, you will be the first people I celebrate with. When I don't, I'll painfully admit it here. And the thing to remember is, even if you don't sell your first book through your agent, you still have a great agent. And something WILL get sold.

Which is not to say, I think Demon Spawn won't sell. In fact I can't remember ever being so excited about a book before. I love the story, the characters, and especially the setting. All of the agents who were interested in this have really raised my hopes about how this book could succeed.

This was an incredibly hard decision. I would have been happy with any of the agents who offered to represent me. I lost a ton of sleep. But ultimately the agent who I thought had the best chance to sell Demon Spawn is Michael Bourret, of Dystel and Goderich. Michael has an incredible track record--especially in YA. He has done very well with foreign rights. He really seems to know the industry inside and out. And he is a great guy from everything I've seen.

For those of you who don't know, Michael represents three other Utah authors: Sara Zarr, Emily Wing Smith, and . . . James Dashner. I know, I know. This was actually a pretty big concern for me. James and I are great friends and he has been an incredible support on everything I've been trying to accomplish. But there was a part of me that knows people will be saying, "Oh, look, he's just riding James' coat tails. That's why he got the agent."

The truth of the matter is that if I was going to ride on anyone's coat tails, James would be an awesome choice. I have learned a ton about the industry from talking to him. His feedback definitely played a big part in deciding who to go with. I know that Sara's feelings were a big part of the reason James chose Michael as well. But it's also true that knowing an author who is represented by a certain agent doesn't get you a special "pick me" card. I know this for sure, because I pitched another project to Michael several months ago and was rejected. It's still about the work.

So there it is. The plan is to write and polish over the rest of the year, as most publishers tend to take the holidays off, and start submitting in January if all goes well. In the mean time, I have just a few other books out there. So go buy them for your friends! And stick around. I'll keep you updated.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What to do When the Answer is—Finally—Yes!


Most of us have had plenty of experience with what we do when an agent says no. We pout, cry, pound our fists, and after [choose one or more: __eating, __running, __screaming,__ stabbing stuffed animal repeatedly ], we get back to writing. (Side note: If you checked off number four, you are one sick puppy. Get help immediately and/or stop writing/submitting.)

But what do you do when an agent says yes? Or even tougher when more than one agent says yes? Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve begun submitting proposals for my YA novel, with the working title of Demon Spawn. Here’s the “pitch” section of my query letter.

Blaze, a sixteen year old demon spawn, thinks her biggest worries this year will be fitting in at academy and getting used to guarding the humes damned to a lifetime of servitude in Hell. That’s before her close friend, Jazz, a third year, is involved in an attempted hijacking of the J-trans that bring new humes from Judgment every month, and an injured seraph shows up in the dorm room of Blaze and her best friend, Cinder, asking for help. In order to clear Jazz’s name, the three friends agree to help the Seraph return to his home before the atmosphere of Hell kills him. They are joined by a mute hume who seems to have memories of the outer circles of Hell and what dangers lie on the way to the mountains of Judgment, and the woman who translates for him.

On the journey, Blaze and the Seraph become attracted to each other—to the point that he lowers his blinding aura enough that they can touch and even kiss. When they finally manage to reach the city Blaze must decide whether to stay in Hell with her friends or live a life of hiding with the man she thinks she loves. But all of that is about to be turned on its head when she learns the real truth about Judgment, Hell, and the identity of the Seraphs.

Of course the day after I e-mailed out my query, I received two rejections. One was a form, the other said that the first chapter didn’t live up to her hopes. Form too? Maybe, it was hard to tell. Of course I immediately did one or more of the above listed actions and convinced myself that my story was lousy, my writing was lousy, and I’d be better off selling shoes in the mall. Then, an amazing thing happened. Several of the agents asked for the first fifty pages. And then, an even more amazing thing happened. A wonderful agent offered to represent me. Hurray! Right? So I let the other agents know I had an OOR. (Publishing speak for Offer of Representation—with caps and all!)

Then I got another OOR. And another. Wait, what? More than one agent is saying yes? Great news. But also kind of scary news. I know what to do if all the agents say no. Cry loudly. I know what to do if an agent says yes. Dance joyously. But what do you do when multiple agents says yes? I got on the phone, checked the Internet, talked to other published authors, and learned a few things. Now—assuming you kept reading after I told you about my great luck, as opposed to cursing me and punching the computer, because Savage of all people doesn’t deserve this good fortune—I will share my gained wisdom with you.

1) When you finally get an offer of representation, don’t immediately say yes. Talk to the agent and let them know you will consider their offer carefully while you let the other agents you have queried know that you have an offer. Ginger Clark, of Curtis Brown has a great post about this, here, http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/10/guest-blog-ginger-clark-on-how-to.html.

2) I assume if you are like me, you will want to know how many books each agent has sold, what type of books they have sold, and maybe even the range of the advances. You would then like to be able to compare one agent to another to see who might be the best match. There may be some magical free site to do this, but I couldn’t find it. However, there is a magical fee-based site which provides a ton of useful information. It is http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/ and for the agent researching author, it is a godsend. Best twenty dollars a month I ever spent! You might be surprised at how some of the top selling agents in your genre are not with the agencies you’ve heard of the most.

3) With all your stats, comparisons, and research gathered, it’s time to talk to each of the agents who has offered to represent you. I know you are scared to death. These are conversations that could change your life. Believe me, I was pacing like a caged panther as I awaited the time for each call. What if I say something dumb? What if it’s a mistake and they think I am someone else? Please tell me they really like me, and, even more important, that they like my work. You need to set aside those fears, and remember, you are interviewing them. They are people like you. Write down all your questions so you don’t forget any. You’ll have your own questions, but here are a few I asked:


What about my work appealed to you?

Who do you see selling this to?

How do you handle foreign rights?

Can I speak to some of your other clients?

How will you communicate updates to me?

Do you feel this is ready to send out now or are there changes you think I should make?

What types of manuscripts like this have you sold lately?

Do you have other clients with this type of story?

How could that help or hurt me?

How can you help me shape my career?

4) Talk to other authors represented by this agent. Make sure you get their dislikes as well as the likes.

5) Remember that each agent has their own way of doing things. If you get conflicting ideas or proposals from one agent, contact the other agents and get their thoughts.

6) Be careful of being blinded by the bright lights. One of the agents I spoke to worked for an agency that has some extremely well known clients. But when I talked to her, I found that she had a way of doing business that I wasn’t comfortable with. Nothing unethical in any way, just an approach that felt less like a team approach to me, and more of being on trial. I want an agent who is with me 100% and will put in the time and commitment to provide me with the best chance of success.

7) Finally, give yourself the chance to think rationally and calmly before making a decision. It’s easy to get swayed by one conversation. But you have to weigh all of the pros and cons with no pressure from anyone else. Remember, you are tied to an agent for life contractually, but hopefully they will be with you for the rest of your career. So choose for the long term.

Tomorrow. Who I chose.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fun in the Sun

Heading down to Southern Utah and Mesquite, NV for some additional warmth, and lots of fun visiting schools. Drop by the St. George Barnes and Noble at 5:00 this Wednesday the 18th for a book signing if you are in the area.

Speaking of schools, a big shout out to my friends at Valley and Kanab Elementary schools. You guys were great! I had an awesome time making up stories with you and talking about writing and reading. And Canyon books totally rocks!

And speaking of Kanab, I've lived in Utah for over eight years and never visited the Coral Pink Sand Dunes until last week. I am not exaggerating when I say it absolutely took my breath away. If you haven't been there you need to go. The pics below don't come close to doing it justice!













Finally, things are starting to move forward with Demon Spawn, a national project I told you about a couple of months ago. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, November 16, 2009

You Have to Convince Yourself First

Saturday night, I had the chance to a speak to a NaNoWriMo group. (For those in the non-writing crowd, that’s National Novel Writing Month.) We talked about a lot of things, but one thing that we discussed has stuck with me since. The question was asked, “What advice can you give us that will help us push through writing 50,000 words in a month?”

Of course there are many answers relating to outlining, plotting, perseverance, etc. But the thing that occurred to me first is belief. As an author, you are going to have to sell your work to a lot of people. You sell it to your agent, your agent sells it to an editor, the editor sells it to the committee, the publisher sells it to the reps, who sell it to . . .

You get the idea. All along this path there is not only the chance—but the likelihood—of multiple rejections. Unless you are the very rare exception, you are going to have people tell you, “This story did not work for me.” How are you going to react to that?

Depends on what you believe. When I was twelve, my family moved from the bay area of northern California, to New Jersey. I wasn’t the most confident kid, and for whatever reason, moving to the East Coast only exacerbated the problem. By the time I started high school, I had almost no friends, and lost myself in books. I believed I was quiet at best, and probably a loser. Does it surprise you that most everyone I knew looked at me the same way?

Fast forward to the summer before my junior year. My family moved back to California—San Jose to be exact. I was painfully shy, and had very little confidence. But an odd thing happened. The second day of school , everyone in drama had to try out for the Fall play. Amazingly, I landed the male lead in the Woody Allen play, “Don’t Drink the Water.” I was the exact same kid I had been three months before. I didn’t grow six inches, or learn to dance, or discover I sparkled in the sun. But getting that part flipped a switch inside me. I viewed myself differently. I wasn’t the shy, quiet boy, who always had his head in a book and got beat up way too many times to count. I was the guy who got the lead. I was part of a group. Because I believed in myself, other people believed in me too.

Writing is a funny thing. The creation of a story is done in the most private of places—your head. But then you have to take it out in the bright sunlight and show it to people who often will tell you, “Meh,”, and much, much, worse. How much, “meh” can you take before you start looking at your own work and saying, “They’re right. This stinks. I’m a lousy writer?” And once you tell yourself that, how long can you keep on writing? And if you do keep writing, how much can your own voice come through?

Good writing requires confidence. It requires forgetting what the “good” writer in your critique group sounds like. It requires ignoring the voice inside you that warns you to you’ll never be as good as the writer of the book on your nightstand. Good writing requires a belief in yourself that nothing can shake. A belief so strong that even when your writing feels like it’s not the best, you keep going. If you believe in yourself enough, you’ll stop trying to copy whatever you just read and listen to the voice inside you.

So how to you start believing in yourself, when the voices inside you have some serious doubts? Here are a couple of ideas.

1) Stop comparing your first draft to the polished novel by the best-selling author you love. For one thing, that best-selling author probably wrote some crap before they got that good. For another thing, the book had three, four, or a dozen rewrites. It went through some of the best editors money can buy. Comparing your work to a best-selling novel is like comparing a chunk of rock to a polished diamond.

2) Give yourself permission to write some crap. You are not going to paint a masterpiece the first time you pick up a paint brush. So why should your first manuscript be the one that sells for a million dollars? Unless you’ve produced some garbage, you won’t be able to recognize the good stuff when you write it. The person who goes back and rewrites every chapter to death, will never finish a novel. And the person who does not finish their novel, can never make it better. The time will come when you can sit down and write a couple thousand words and say, “Yep, that’s pretty good stuff.” But it won’t come without practice.

3) Go to Goodreads or some other book review site and find a scathing review of an author you admire. Print it out and put it on the wall next to your desk.

4) Beside the review print out a page of your very best work. Every time you start to feel depressed, look at the bad review and remind yourself that no one can please everyone. Then read your page and remind yourself that the person who wrote that has real talent.

5) Give yourself permission to skip a section or a chapter when things aren’t working. Stuck on what should happen after the butler find the dead body? Write a placeholder that says something like, “Put something really cool here.” Then move on to the chapter you do know. Pretty soon an idea will come for what should go back where you put the note.

6) Don’t set word goals when you are struggling. Set scene goals. If I told you that you had an hour to write a thousand words right now, could you do it? Would you feel pressure? If you only wrote 700 words would you feel like a failure? What if I told you to write a scene where a boy and girl discover that their father has been killing and eating their pet rabbits. If I gave you enough details and dialogue, could you write it? Do the same with your work in progress. Instead of saying, “I will write 1500 words,” decide exactly the scene you want to write. Sit at your desk and see the scene in your mind. Then write it to the best f your ability.

7) Finally, find what works for you and stick with it. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that starting a chapter cold is like starting a bike ride in 12th gear at the base of a hill. It’s much easier to get going if you have a little start first. Same with writing. Instead of stopping when you finish a chapter, write two hundred more words while you’re in a groove. That will give you a head start when you sit back down the next day.

Writing can be a tough business. None of the questions are right or wrong, and all the “teachers” grade on different things. For every gold star placed on your forehead, you’ll find a dozen red check marks on your paper. You are going to have people who tell you you stink—and maybe you even do, we all stink at times. But if you can sell yourself on the fact that you are a writer who will one day be published, sooner or later other people will believe it too.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Happy One Year Anniversary

I got a call today from a previous co-worker congratulating me on a year of writing full time, or as we in the industry like to call it, living hand-to-mouth. Wow, has it really been twelve months since I put my family’s finances in the hands of the American book-buying publics? Apparently so. In honor of that, I thought I would list the top ten things I have learned from a year of writing fulltime.

10) Nothing comes as easy as you think. And if it did you probably wouldn’t appreciate it. Many years ago, I read a Q&A with a fulltime author who hadn’t held a “real” job since he was in his early twenties. He stated that writing is just like any other job. What? Really? Are there a lot of other jobs out there with no commute, that let you set your own hours, that pay once every six months, with no guaranteed income, and that are up for renewal pretty much every year? Do those jobs allow you to decide what you will do that day and pay you for thinking up crazy ideas? If so, yeah, writing is just like every other 9-5 job.

Clearly this guy did not appreciate the struggle of working full time and then coming home to your “other” job. He either didn’t experience or had forgotten the pain of rejection and the fear of never making it. Yeah, I know it’s tough trying to break into the market. And it isn’t magically perfect once you get there. But it’s the pain of the journey that lets you appreciate the destination.

9) Full time writer is not an occupation for people without a lot of internal drive and willpower. When you only have an hour to write, you have to get to it. You don’t have time to waste. You dream of how much you could accomplish if writing was your only occupation. Then when it is, you suddenly find a million things to do other than write. If you don’t treat writing with the same dedication as a full time job, it won’t stay one for long.

8) For most fulltime writers, the actual writing is less than a third of what you do. The rest of the time is spent on all the marketing efforts that actually sell what you write. Yeah, I know most people know of a writer whose publisher takes care of all the marketing details, but those are the small minority. And even they spend a lot of time on blogs, tours, conferences, e-mail, and all that good stuff.

7) You need to make a lot more money than you think to make ends meet. That’s because you are paying everything your company used to pay: insurance, social security, office equipment. Plus every time you travel or eat on the road or make a phone call or print a post card or send a letter, that comes out of your pocket. Plan on needing to make 1 ½ times as much as you used to make.

6) Some of the things you least expect end up being the greatest experiences. Like:




Going to a school where a boy is painted blue and has white hair because he is a character from your book.








Meeting a real Land Elemental







Meeting a bunch of junior high students that are actually excited about reading and writing.









Getting invited to play a game with the student who made it, and . . .












Realizing it's the game of Trill Stones from your book!







5) It’s still cool as heck to wear the same jeans and t-shirt to work for three days just because you can.

4) You get to receive e-mails like this:
Dear J. Scott Savage, hello! This is Sarah, from xxxx Junior High School. I was your hero in your story when you were telling the audience how to write their own stories? Well, you had my best friend, a zombie, kill me! Ha Ha Ha just kidding. Anyway, I was just writing this email to tell you that I am very glad you cam e to our school. You came to my school last year, xxxxx Elementary. But I just wanted to tell you thank you for inspiring me. When you cam e to my school last year, you got me thinking, "I can write my own story and possibly become an author?" Wow, that was a huge surprise. I had no idea that a small town girl like me could do something that big. Since that time you told me that, I've written 1 book, it's called "Seventh Grade Secrets" and it's more of a realistic fiction book. I'm working on another book, it's a fantasy book. I am so happy that you were able to tell me that. I was talking to my homeroom teacher about you, and I had realized that you had been my inspiration all along. Thank you so much, for helping me gain courage in myself. I hope I can meet you again.

3) People ask all the time if your hand cramps up from doing long signings, but having done tons of “signings” where I signed no books at all, I will never ever complain about a signing that goes for three hours.

2) A lot of times you forget that the rest of the world is still going to work every day. You forget how lucky you are to get paid to do what you love, even if the pay is not as regular as you’d like. But every so often you have absolutely magical moment where you get up, have a glass of juice, head into the office and go, “Whoa my job today is to write something that will make people’s jaws drop. How cool is that?”

1) To quote somebody or the other, “There must be a better job than writing, but I’m having too much fun to spend time looking for it.”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Distracted Living

Saturday night, I learned that, Heather Christensen, a woman who had previously been the band director at my children’s school passed away when a bus she was riding back from a band competition in, crashed and rolled over. If you live in Utah, you probably read the story or saw it on the news. When the driver passed out, Heather leaped forward and tried to take the wheel. It was while she was trying to save the children on the bus that she was thrown out the window and killed. Over the last few days hundreds of students, friends, and family have stepped forward to say how much she meant to them, and what a great, friend and teacher she was.

Sunday, a friend of mine was talking about an incident that took place when he was much younger. He was a college student driving down an empty highway on a beautiful day. He had put the car on cruise control and was trying to read a book while driving, since the road was empty and he thought he could do both at the same time. What he didn’t realize was that another driver was also out driving on a road that crossed the highway. Not having cruise control, the other driver had propped a knife against his gas pedal. As he reached the highway, the driver tried to pull out the knife, but it was stuck. My friend was looking at his book when he heard a terrible screech of brakes, and realized what a huge mistake he’d made. It was only sheer luck that the other car and he did not collide directly, killing them both. Instead, the car ripped off the left side of his bumper.

At first blush, these two stories don’t have a lot in common. They both involve car crashes. But in the first case, the driver of the bus appears to have had some kind of medical condition, and Heather was doing all she could to avoid an accident. In the second case, both of the drivers were at fault, doing stupid things that distracted them from safe driving. When I thought about the two of them together, however, it occurred to me how fragile and fleeting life can be. I thought about the dangers of distracted driving and then the phrase “distracted living” came to mind.

Distracted driving involves doing things that take our focus away from what’s important when we are in a car. Changing a radio station, talking on a cell phone, eating, reading, talking, shaving—these are small things, but they can easily take us off course and change what should be a simple trip into a life changing experience. What is distracted living, then? In my mind it is letting small things that are really not important in the long run, take our lives off course.

It occurred to me to ask myself, “If something happened to me today, what would people say about me?” This week, students and families are holding candlelight vigils in honor of Heather. People are saying things like how much Heather enjoyed what she did, how she was a friend to everyone, how much she cared, how much she taught, how much she loved. She focused on what she wanted to do in life and she did it well. From everything I can tell, Heather Christensen didn’t live a distracted life. She did what she loved as well as she could and shared that love with others.

One of the questions I get asked most as an author is how writers find time for writing—especially when they have families, full time jobs, and the rest of life to deal with. The answer isn’t giving up on jobs, families, housework, yard work, etc. (Although I admit, my yard is not Home and Gardens material.) It’s about getting rid of the distractions. There are a ton of reasons people have for not finishing their books,

“I didn’t have time”
“I didn’t know where to go with it”
“My writing was crummy”
“I started something else”
“The idea dried up”
“It didn’t work out”
“My characters weren’t interesting”
“I lost my excitement for it”
“It didn’t go where I wanted it to go”

But in the end, those are all distractions not reasons. If you really want to finish your book, it’s time to put your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and your foot on the gas. The only thing that can keep you from doing what you want to is yourself.

If your goal is writing, start today. Make yourself sit at your desk until you put 1,000 words on paper. If you’ve already written your book, send out ten queries. If you’ve already published your book, contact five stores. And if writing isn’t your thing, ask yourself what you want to be known for when your time finally comes to leave this Earth. Then ask, what kinds of little things are distracting you from doing what you want. There are enough hours in the day to have a family, a job, a yard, a (kind of clean) house, and what you’ve always dreamed of doing IF you just stop getting distracted by the things that don’t matter.

I don’t know how many books I’ll publish in my life, if I’ll hit the New York Times list, or win awards, or even continue to be a full time writer. But I hope that when my life ends, people will be able to say that I lived it fully and that I died doing what I loved. Heather, I know a lot of people will miss you. But I also know that you will continue to live through the lives of those you affected. You did not live a distracted life.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Land Keep is In! & Reading Books as a Writer

This isn’t going to be a hugely long post, but I wanted to say first, that Land Keep copies just arrived at the warehouse! Whoo hoo! Can’t wait to see them. I am going to run up to Salt Lake and grab a box before going over to James Dashner’s launch of Maze Runner at The King’s English tonight. Pics to follow! This means the books should be hitting store in the next week or so. Let me know when you start seeing it.

I also wanted to make a point that came up while I was doing a class recently at the UVU conference. As writers we often read a book and notice the flaws. I can’t tell you how many writers have told me that they started writing because they read one or more books and thought, “I can do better than that.”

Okay. I can buy that. I always tell people that I motivate writers to get published because they say, “If that dweeb can do it, anyone can.” And almost all books do have areas where they could be improved. But let me make a suggestion. Instead of reading a book and saying, “How did that get published?” Ask yourself, “Why did that get published?” I know. It’s a small distinction on the page. But it’s a big one to your future writing success. Because the truth of the matter is, the book did get published. A publisher, and editor, and probably an agent all thought enough of the book to accept it. You’re probably not the only one to see the book’s flaws, but despite those flaws, it was sold.

Of course if you’re already selling all the books you write to the publisher you’ve always wanted, and making more sales than you know what to do with, it doesn’t really matter. But if you are still climbing the mountain like the rest of us, it might pay to realize that something about the book you just read appealed enough to make someone pay the author good money for it. It’s easy to point out what doesn’t work. (And it’s good to avoid those things in your own writing.) But what you really need to look for are the things that do work. Noticing those, and thinking about how you can use that information to make your own work more publishable is far more useful that counting how many “ly” adverbs JK Rowling uses in one sentence or how many times Edward caresses Bella’s jaw.

A few examples. Twilight gets hammered for a bunch of reasons. But something about the writing made millions of readers buy into the characters so much that they agonized over what these fictional people would do. We can only hope to capture a character that well. JK Rowling spent a third (okay maybe not that much, but it felt like it) of book seven sticking Harry and Hermione in a tent wondering what to do. And there wasn’t even any serious snogging to keep things moving. But her world was so fantastic, her characters so real, that we read every word. Stephen King writes tomes that could easily be pared down by at least 1/3rd. He has little old grandmothers use language that would make a sailor’s eyes water. He writes some really gross scenes. But his mastery of the English language is like watching a great artist brush the canvas. His understanding of human character is incredible, and he knows how to get that across.

I know it’s not easy. I can think of a couple of books that I have absolutely no idea how or why they were ever sold. But almost always you can look at even a book you hated and see some of the things that made it stand out to the editor who accepted it. And if you start looking at books that way, you’ll have an easier time of writing those kinds of books yourself.
One last thing. I’ve had a lot of bloggers contacting me about getting ARCs of Land Keep. Unfortunately the schedule was such that we did not have time to print ARCS. But if you run a book review blog and want to request a review copy, you can contact Patrick Muir at Shadow Mountain at this e-mail pmuir at deseretbook dot com. Note that Patrick does not take submissions. He is in the marketing department. So only contact him if you are requesting a review copy or other marketing materials. Thanks and have a great week!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lost Data, Lost the TV Show, and Lost Characters


First of all, I just want to say my laptop is working again. Huzzah!!! According to HP the power adaptor hasn’t shipped yet. But we’ll just keep the fact that I got it the end of last week between you and me. Let me also at this point give a big, big, nudge to anyone who doesn’t have all of their important files backed up daily. Do it. Do it now! When my laptop bit the dust I was in the middle of revisions on two books. Both of those books were past deadline. There was no way to get the files off my laptop for over two weeks. But because I had my files backed up every day, I was able to keep right on working. Ask yourself what you would do if all of your files suddenly became inaccessible this very minute—for a day, a week, a month, or forever.

I highly recommend that whatever you use to back up your files be automatic and either cheap or better yet, free. It’s too easy to forget otherwise. There are lots of solutions out there. I use Mozy. You can get 2 gig for free or pay $5 per month for unlimited storage. The thing I like best about this solution is that it’s so easy. It takes about five minutes to set up and then it backs up when you computer is not in use. Easy! And if you use the link above, I get extra storage or something. Win win!

Okay, that’s my advertising pitch, (but really do back up with something starting now if you are not.) So, many of you know I have started watching Lost. Yeah, the series has been going for five years, and yeah I’m only on season one, but I hate watching a series and getting left hanging when the network cancels it halfway through the first year. So anyway, I just finished season one. My grade? B+. (Better than Rob, not as good as Kerry! Just kidding Rob. Kind of. ) In general, I am impressed with the series. I thought it was going to be X-files meets Survivor. While there is some of that, I am really impressed with how much characterization takes place. With as many “main” characters as there are, I feel like I know all of them well enough to care, without a lot of over lapping or “seen that” moments.

Of course, I still feel like there are too many moments that are made weird or left hanging (the numbers, the polar bears, the security system that seems like a monster, the magical healings) just to make the viewer go “Whoa!” But that’s part of network TV. There’s always a little too much soap opera for me. The thing about books and movies is that the is a clear beginning and end. A TV series can just keep milking it without giving the viewer any real closure. But the strength of the characters has definitely pulled me in.

Which brings me to my final point today. Don’t go with your first thought when you are making up characters. Ask yourself questions. Find the character behind the character. Give the minor characters a chance to grow. Often we focus on the “story” to the exclusion of the character. This is the story of a police detective who finds out that someone has stolen the Mona Lisa. Okay, so far so good. But then we concentrate on who stole the painting. We throw in red herrings. We offer clues. All the while, the detective is just a detective. The reporter is just a reporter. The housewife is just a housewife. And at the end of the day, the reader goes, “Meh. The story was okay, but I didn’t care about the characters.” It’s not that we can’t write good characters. It’s that we settle for stereotypes because we are focusing on the plot. Forgetting that if the story is the forest, the characters are the trees. If you create interesting and unusual trees, the forest will build itself.

For example, let’s say you have a main character who is a single. What are the typical reasons she might be single. Husband died. Never married. Divorced. Yeah, that about covers it. So we go with divorced. Why? Husband cheated. Husband was gone all the time. Husband was boring. Do any of these excite you? Do they sound new or original? Maybe you really stretch it and the husband, “mysteriously disappeared.” Wow, groundbreaking! Why do we settle for these, because we aren’t focusing on character. It’s simply a placeholder in the grander scheme of who-done-it.

But what if we took as much time with characters as we did with story? What if the heroine is divorced because she views men as weapons? Tools to be used to help her climb the corporate ladder and then tossed aside. What if she tried to do the same thing with the next man in line only he turns the tables on her? Now I am not suggesting this is the main storyline. I am suggesting that it is a single character in the rest of the story. It is the cumin in an already exciting main course. It is the twist that raises your story to a new level. Going back to Lost, I expected a story that was all plot. But what really made things hum, was the depth of each of the characters. That’s why probably half of the first season was showing us who everyone was.

In my second Farworld book, I knew Marcus and Kyja would meet a man who would send them on a variety of quests. I didn’t know much about the man—or even if he would be a man. But instead of making the character take a back seat to story, I let him reveal his true self before I started writing. Mr. Z, as he introduced himself to me, was not what I expected at all. As a result, he became an integral not only of this book, but I expect books to come. Here’s a little snippet to show you what I mean.

“Quiet, you two,” said a squeaky voice. “Things are about to begin.”

Two large piles of books slid aside on the desk, and Kyja found herself looking at a tiny man with a blob of a nose and enormous red ears. The man was wearing a pair of gold-framed glasses too big for his face, a long, black coat, and a battered felt hat that looked dangerously close to falling off his head. He perched at the top of a tower of books that wobbled every time he moved.

As she watched, the man reached into the pocket of his purple vest and pulled out a horn no bigger than his pinkie. He put it to his lips and blew a surprisingly loud trumpet.

“Isn’t this exciting?” the man said, putting the horn back into his vest and clapping his hands. “Ullr the challenger is a fine specimen, fleet and strong. But the champion, VĂ¡li, is a veteran of many battles, wily and trickilicious.” Resting his chin in his hands, he set his elbows on the desk and stared at its wooden surface.

Marcus looked to Kyja, but she had no more idea than he did what was going on. Stepping carefully around the books, she and Marcus approached the desk. “What are you talking about?” she asked timidly.

“Hmm?” the man replied without looking up. “Sport, of course. Man against man. Beast against beast. Strength versus speed. Mind over muscle.”

Marcus leaned across the desk to see two brown shapes no bigger than walnuts. “Are those snails?”

“Yes, yes.” the man chirped. “Look at them go!”

Kyja glanced from one snail to the other. “They don’t seem to be moving.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” the little man said, tapping the side of his head and nearly knocking off his hat. “They’re sizing each other up, probing for weaknesses. It’s a thinking man’s sport.”

“And what sport would that be?” Marcus asked. As far as Kyja could see, the snails hadn’t moved at all. In fact, she suspected at least one of them might be dead.

“Snail jousting, of course!” the man snapped. “The sport of kings and noblemen.”

“Seriously?” Marcus leaned across the desk until the tip of his nose was almost touching the snails. “I don’t see any lances.”

“Lances?” the man leaned backward so abruptly his pile of books swayed like a tall tree in a high wind. He rubbed his glasses furiously with the sleeve of his coat and glared at Marcus as though he were crazy. “Do you have any idea what a lance would do to these beautiful shells? What do you take me for, a barbarian?”

“I thought if they were jousting . . .”

“Lances.” The man said, giving Marcus a stern shake of his head before returning to his snails.

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Kyja said. “Could you tell us who you are? I’m not sure we’re in the right place.”

“Who am I?” the man said, as though asking himself. “When most people ask who you are, they really want to know what you are. Are you famous? Are you powerful? Are you wealthy? Are you someone who can help them get what they want, do you stand in their way, or can you be dismissed out of hand?”

He looked left and right from one snail to the other as though watching an especially exciting tennis match. “Titles are quite useful that way, aren’t they? How about Commander of the Fleet? No, too forceful. Master of All Things Inconsequential and General in Nature? Too stuffy. Merciful and Benevolent Ruler? Too self-serving. High Executioner? No.” He shivered. “That won’t do. How about Her Majesty the Queen? I’ve always favored that one.”

Marcus twirled a finger beside his head, but Kyja gave him a quick elbow in the ribs.

“Actually, I was just wondering what to call you,” she said. “I’m Kyja, and this is Marcus.”

“You want a name? How unusual.” The man scratched a thatch of sparse, gray hair. This time, he actually did knock off his hat. But as it rolled from his head, he caught it with the tip of his left shoe and kicked it into the air, landing the hat right where it had been. “How about Zithspithesbazith? It’s actually quite fun to say and allows you to spit freely on whoever you say it to.”

“I don’t think I could pronounce that,” Kyja said, unable to stifle a giggle.

“No? Why don’t we stick with Z then? It has a certain letter-like quality to it.”

Of course not all of your characters will be this odd, but if you take at least as much time with your characters as you do with your story, you will find the story becomes that much stronger.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gotta Love HP

I really haven't disappeared off the face of the Earth. I am just waiting (not so) patiently for the power adaptor HP promised me over a week ago. The one under warranty. The one I paid for. Yeah, well thanks to the wonders of outsourcing, I am kept up to date with e-mails like this.

"Thank you for contacting HP Total Care.
Reviewing the entire interaction I understand that we have created service order for your notebook AC adapter but still you have not receive AC adapter.
Due to lack of AC adapter we are unable to send you AC adapter but now we have got stock, so we will be able to send AC adapter of your notebook very soon. I apologies for the inconvenience cause to you. I hope that you understand our limitation and scope of support. If you need further assistance, please reply to this message and we will be happy to assist you further."

Of course that was after they sent me an e-mail addressed to Annie regarding a computer I'd never heard of. Followed by this e-mail.

"Thank you for contacting HP Total Care.

We apologize for the inconvenience caused to you from our end, as the e-mail which you received was sent to you due to some tool issue or by mistake. We regret for the inconvenience caused.

This should resolve the issue. If you need furtherassistance, please reply to this message and we will be happy to assist you further."

Yeah, so never mind that this is the laptop I use for my books, my school visits, my blog, my facebook. I'll just sit here with my friends and go quietly insane.




Thursday, September 10, 2009

What Are We Teaching Our Children?

I don’t discuss politics on this blog. There are two main reasons for that. One, I tend to be too liberal for my conservative friends and too conservative for my liberal friends, and I’d like to keep all of them as my friends. More importantly though, I’m a fiction author. Presumably you come to this blog expecting me to post something about writing, reading, or other authorly (is that a word?) type stuff. There are plenty of sites either promoting or criticizing whatever your political views are.

So I want to point out in advance, that while you may disagree with what I am about to say, don’t disagree based on your political views. This is not about whether you are right or left, democrat or republican, Greenpeace or NRA. This is about teaching our kids to use their brains.

Tuesday the President of the United States gave a speech to school children all across the nation. If you are a parent of school-age children, you don’t need me to tell you this. You don’t need me to tell you because, all across the nation, parents and schools chose whether or not to air the speech to their children. Of course the views for and against tended to tie to whether or not they were for or against this president. The exact same way people were for or against speeches made to school children by previous presidents.

My children’s school—in fact the whole school district—chose not to air the broadcast. I was incredibly disappointed by that. Not that I don’t believe children and parents should have a choice in what they watch. And not because I thought Obama’s speech was so vital, my children would be hurt by missing it. But by the fact that the school district decided for me that my children should not watch something they might disagree with.

Let me repeat that. I fully support the right of any parents to say, “My children aren’t going to watch that so-and-so.” Totally your right. But a school—a place that is supposed to promote free speech, free thought, decision making, and open-minded analysis—decided my children weren’t intelligent enough to watch the President of the United States talk about working hard at school, without becoming brain-washed. They told my children in essence, “Don’t listen to points of view that might differ from your point of view.”

Excuse me? Does that make sense to you? Are we so closed minded that we don’t want our children to ever listen to—or read—the thoughts of people who disagree with them? I get asked a lot by parents what I think about children reading certain books. Harry Potter supposedly promoted witchcraft. Twilight teaches girls to let guys spend the night in their beds. The best response I ever heard to that was from a man I respect a great deal, Orson Scott Card. At a conference where this was brought up, he said, “Read the books with your children so you can discuss the parts you agree and disagree with.”

What an idea! Teaching our children that it’s okay to read or listen to things that might go against their views or beliefs and then deciding for themselves what to make of it. Please don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying all movies or books, or speeches for that matter, are appropriate for all ages. Personally I don’t think Twilight was ever written for ten year old girls. I think some of the later Harry Potter books were very dark for younger children. You as a parent have the absolute right and responsibility to decide because of language, violence, themes or whatever, that a book is not appropriate for you or your children. But do we have so little trust in our children that we think the first time they come across a girl with a wand they are all going to run out and become wiccans? Do we believe that because our children listen to a fifteen minute speech by the president that they will all begin worshipping at the Obama shrine? And if we really do somehow believe all that, wouldn’t it be better to watch it with them and explain why we disagree with it?

As I said at the beginning of the post, I am not here to discuss politics. And if you really believe strongly that JK Rowling wants your kids to start performing pagan rituals, that is your right. But we are raising the next generation of leaders. There are hard decisions that are going to be made—decisions that will require study, thought, compromise, change. Your kids are going to grow up. They are going to go to college or join the work force or enlist in the military or travel to other countries. They WILL be exposed to beliefs different than their own. You can’t control that. What you can control is whether you have taught them to think. Whether you have taught them to respectfully listen to the views of others and not only consider those views but intelligently explain and defend their own views as well.

I love my kids’ school. I love the teachers and the staff. I wouldn’t want them anywhere else. But I will be watching Obama’s education speech on-line with my children. I will be discussing the speech, the man, his views, my views, and what I think our country is doing right and wrong. When I found out my school wouldn’t be airing the speech, I asked my sons what they thought about that. My eleven-year-old said, “That’s stupid!” When I asked him why, he explained with a very earnest expression on his face, “Because he is the President of the United States.” I hope that in the future, my children’s school will not bow to parent pressure. I hope they will remember that I send my children there not to be indoctrinated, but to learn how to think.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is There Really Any More to Say?

I mean really, is there anything more to say?



Okay, maybe this!

What, you were looking for something to do with writing? Come on didn't you know that sports relates to everything?

Okay, I've got you covered.

First quarter: McKay Jacobson is playing front of all his famiy and friends since he is from Texas, where the game is taking place. In front of a national audience, broadcast on a giant screen that goes from twenty yeard line to twenty yard line, he fumbles a punt reception. Not only does he fumble it, but he loses it. A couple of minutes later, his mistake turns into an Oaklahoma TD.

This lead holds up until thiree minutes to go in the game.

What is going through this young man's head? What would be going through your head? Imagine getting your work reviewed on the biggest stage possible and failing miserably. Would you give up writing? Would you decide you didn't have what it takes? Would you curl and in a ball and cry?

Or would you pull in the winning touchdown catch with those same people watching?

From the musical Seesaw

If you start at the top, you're certain to drop.
You've got to watch your timing;
Better begin by climbing up, up, up the ladder.
If you're going to last, you can't make it fast, man,
Nobody starts a winner, give me a slow beginner.
Easy does it my friend, conserve your fine endurance,
Easy does it my friend, for that's your life insurance.

It's not where you start, it's where you finish,
It's not how you go, it's how you land.
A hundred to one shot, they call him a klutz,
Can outrun the fav'rite, all he needs is the guts.
Your final return will not diminish,
And you can be cream of the crop.
It's not where you start, it's where you finish,
And you're gonna finish on top.

Hey it's labor day. So get to work writing!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How Does the "Best Manuscript Ever" Get Rejected?

I know, blogging three days in a row! What’s up with that? It certainly isn’t that I don’t have enough other projects going on. Must have hit a hot button with the agent thing or something. After my last post, I received an e-mail asking about rejection. Basically her point was that if you tell yourself you are the best writer ever, how do you handle it when your manuscript is rejected by an agent or editor?

Good question! This is actually one of the biggest conundrums of being an author. You have to believe in yourself 100% to get the book done and have the confidence to send it out. But then you have to prepare yourself for the fact that most people will tell you your story isn’t good enough. The truth is that rejection is never, ever easy. It wasn’t easy when you got picked last in kickball. It wasn’t easy when no one wanted to sit next to you in class. It wasn’t easy when the girl you asked to prom said no. So why should it be easy when an agent or editor says they don’t want to represent your work? Lots has been written about handling rejection, so I’ll just give you a couple of bullet points to consider.

· Write your book as if it is the best thing that has ever been imagined. Put all your love, blood, sweat, and tears into it. But once you are done, realize that as much as you love it and as good as it is—no one but your mom will feel the same way initially. We all think our book is the greatest thing since Shakespeare put pen to paper. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “What do I do if I get twenty agents who all want to represent me?” The answer is, “Wake up and turn off the alarm.” Remember that even JK Rowling was rejected like fifty times before being accepted. Why should you be any different?

· Okay this one is going to be really, really hard, but separate yourself from your work. The agent isn’t rejecting you, he’s rejecting your story. I know, that’s like saying, “The girl didn’t reject you, she rejected your car, hair, clothes, laugh, etc.” But the truth is you can’t let someone not liking your work make you start feeling crappy about yourself. This business is too hard to take every no as a direct hit to your self-esteem.

· Remember that once your book is polished enough to be publishable, it is all a game of timing and luck. You can have the best bait in the world, but you still have to get it in front of a fish that is hungry for that thing at that moment. Keep putting it out there.

· Don’t fall into the self-pity trap of thinking the game is rigged or that everyone knows a secret you don’t. I know the feeling very well. It seems like everyone around you is selling a book and you aren’t. There must be a secret handshake. You have to know someone. The market is too full. The economy is down. Only published authors are getting deals. Going back to the fishing analogy, it’s like sitting in the middle of the lake not getting a nibble while all around you people are catching fish. None of it is true. The publishing industry is not any more rigged than any other industry.

· Which leads me to my last point. Be patient. We all hear the story of the author who writes their first book, gets a huge deal, a movie, sells more books, and is on every magazine. Yep and every week someone wins a lottery somewhere and makes millions. Does that mean you stink if you didn’t win a million bucks? We all here about the rock star, because they are the exception. It’s not that there work is so much better, it’s that the stars all aligned for them. The far more common story is that after submitting ten books, an author finally gets a small deal. Works her behind off, and gets another deal, and after ten years of writing, might be able to make a career out of it. If you need to have a career that promises overnight success and boatloads of money, you really should consider something other than writing.

So that’s it. No magic answer. No silver bullet. Write a lot. Keep submitting. Polish your craft. Meet other authors, agents, editors. And remember, in the words of author JA Konrath, “There’s a word for a writer who never gives up . . . published.”

And if that’s not enough to keep you going, remember that I am probably the most ordinary guy in the world. I barely graduated from high school, didn’t graduate from college, tell really stupid jokes, completely screw up the words to songs, and always got picked last for kickball. I’ve actually got quite a few of my Santa Teresa High School friends on facebook who can testify I was a total dweeb. If I can get published, you definitely can.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Follow up to Yesterday's Post

I know, I know. I just posted yesterday. But a friend of mine sent me a message about the article that made me have to write again.

Here is her message:

I read the interview with those four child-like agents, and now I'm so depressed I can barely look at my keyboard. What were you thinking? What was I thinking in believing I could compete in a world where a single grain of sand on an endless southern California beach needs to stand out so significantly just to be published ... or at least know somebody in the mainstream literary business to have a chance of being noticed? Those young agents are getting referrals from friends or family, or prestigious university professors, and getting very few, if any, clients from the only way that I can try to reach them—with a query letter. “I’d buy a shopping list if it was written by Steven King,” said one of the elite youngsters. If they are a cross-cut example of contemporary literary agents then I need to moth-ball my computer and concentrate on another talent, something visual, something that doesn’t require a commitment to reading.

This comment made me wish I had gone ahead and written my own post yesterday anyway. What I was going to write was something to the effect of, “It’s not about who you know. It’s not about how famous you are. It’s not even really about how good your query is. It’s about the writing. It’s about the art. It’s about capturing a story so well that when you let others read it, it feels like showing them a fairy you caught in a jar.”

YOU are a writer. YOU are a great writer. YOU have a story inside you that the world wants to hear. Every day when you get up in the morning you say to yourself, “Today I will create something so cool that when other people read it, they will wish they had written it.” And you will. Maybe not on your first try. Maybe not even on your second or third. But eventually you will write something that shines. And when you do, you will want to know that agents are looking for your work.

So here are four of the biggest names in New York. These are agents most writers would kill to have selling their manuscripts. And what do they have to say? Read these quotes.

“I think everybody's looking for a book that you can't put down, that you lose yourself in so completely that you forget everything else that's going on in your life and you just want to stay up and you don't care if you're going to be tired in the morning.”

“But a really gifted writer will make me see things I've never seen even though I may have walked down the street a thousand times.”

“I generally find myself liking books that are not set in New York. Give me a weird little small town any day of the week.”

“I get most of my fiction through slush.”

“I found The Heretic's Daughter in the slush pile. The author had never written a novel before. She had never been in a writing class or an MFA program. She came out of nowhere.”

“The Squaw Valley writers conference.”

“I got a query through Friendster once. It was a good query, so I asked to read the book, and I went on and sold it.”

“That's exactly right. Clients come from everywhere and anywhere. And I think that's one of the biggest misconceptions about agents that some writers have. They think we're off in our ivory towers and our fancy offices in New York City. But the truth is that we're looking for them. We're waiting for them to come knock on our doors.”

WE ARE WAITING FOR THEM TO COME KNOCK ON OUR DOORS! Who is it they are waiting for?

In the words of Bill Murray, “Me. Me. Me. Also me.” Or in this case, “You, you, you, you!” You are a great writer. You have a story to tell. If you don’t believe that, you need to look in the mirror and repeat this mantra over and over. “I am a great writer. I have a great story to tell. The world is waiting for me.” Keep saying in until you remember why you started writing in the first place. Then get out there and sell your story.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What Agents Want

So I had a great post I was going to write today about finding and working with the right agent. Then I came across this interview and went, "Here is pretty much everything you need to know." Imagine sitting down for dinner with four, young, exciting agents and asking them everything you always wanted to know about the industry. Well this is it. It ran February of 2009, so it's even fairly up to date.

Read it and let me know what you think.

http://www.pw.org/content/agents_and_editors_qampa_four_young_literary_agents

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Back to Visiting Schools

It's been over three months since my last school assemblies. But tomorrow I start up again. I'm really looking forward to visiting two elementary schools, a middle school, and doing a book signing at the Morgan library. But tonight it suddenly dawned on me. "Wait! Do I still remember my school presentation? Long 45 minutes if I don't. I'm hoping it's like riding a bike, but I'll let you know when I get back tomorrow."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Creating Fantasy Names

A few days ago I did a link to a movie trailer where a Sci-Fi author talks about how to come up with fantasy names. Jessica Day George (whose hair really isn’t big) sent me the clip because it’s hilarious and it’s a question we get asked a lot. The thing is, I got a ton of hits from people wanting to know how to come up with fantasy names. So what the heck, I thought I’d do an actual post on creating fantasy character names.

Creating names can really be as simple or complex as you want to make it. Terry Brooks says on his forum that he gets most of his names from baby name websites. “Most of the names I pick, probably 90%, are picked by going through the various baby names websites out there. I choose a name by associating it with its older meaning. When I find the right one, I know it immediately.”

That’s okay for “Earth” names. But what about names that are from different worlds, or different species?

Going around to Elementary schools, I got asked all the time about how to come up with fantasy names. So I came up with a fun and easy way for kids to create “cool” names. Basically you take a household item or common name and play with the letters until you find something you like. For example:

Radio
Tadio
Tadia
Tazia
Yazia

You get the idea. It’s nothing unique. But it works at a very simple level. Jessica gave me a lot of crap about this at the Provo Library event a few months back—with good reason. The truth is, there really is a lot more than playing with letters when it comes to naming a character. It seems like every author has their own approach.

The first thing is to make sure your names are consistent. Tolkien actually invented his languages first and then used the words in the languages to create the names. For example the Elvish name Eowyn means something like “horse joy.” Bormir means, I think, faithful jewel. You may not want to make up your own language, but you should notice that Tolkien also made sure that you could tell the origin of name just by hearing it. Consider these names from Kingdom of Rohan: Eowen, Eomer, and Theoden. Notice how they sound much softer than the Gondor names: Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor? Although apparently sometimes Tolkien liked a name so much that he changed the language or wrote a new story to explain how that name would fit in.

However, you also have to be careful about having names sound too similar to each other. Avoid names that start with the same letter: Tom, Trey, Terry. Also avoid too many names that have the same number of syllables: Tiffany, Bethany, Anika.

Brandon Sanderson has a great article on his website about how he creates languages and names. “When a reader runs across a name in the book, I want them to be able to instantly determine which country that name came from. However, the names can't be too similar, otherwise they will become a jumbled mess in the reader's mind.”

When I wrote Farworld, I wanted it to be fairly clear which names were Earth names and which were Farworld names. Farworld names are names like Kyja, Therapass, Rhaidnan, Olden. Earth names are Marcus, Chet, and Pete, as well as nicknames like Squint, and Beaver.

Dean Koontz talks about how he uses names to represent certain themes or moods. ““The names of characters are not always symbolic, but they are always important and need to ring true, and they have to resonate in a particular way in each story, supporting mood if nothing else.” For example he named a doctor who wanted to let one of his patients die, Jordan Ferrier–Jordan the river between life and death, and a ferry driver takes the dead to the other side.

Another thing to consider when you create names is the “feel” of the word. Different letters have different meanings depending on the language they are part of. Margaret Magnus, who wrote “A Dictionary of English Sound” talks about this on her website.

“For example, these are the common monosyllables that begin with /r/ and refer to running or walking.

Initial Position:
race, raid, range, reach, rip, roam, roar, romp, rove, run, rush.

Notice that these words all concern fast movement or movement over a large area or distance. These themes of high energy, high speed run throughout all the words that contain /r/. But the running and walking words that contain /b/ all begin with /b/ and concern departure:

All Positions:
back(off), bail(out), beat(it), blast(off), blow, board, bolt, book, boot, bounce, bow(out), break, brief, brush(off), buck, bus, butt(out), bye”

Based on this, if you have a character who is fast and powerful, do you want to make up a name like Rugnan or Bleag? In writing Farworld, I wanted the reader to feel like they were entering a world unlike anything they knew—where things could happen that didn’t fit fantasy rules they might be used to. As part of that I created creatures no one had heard of. Here again, I tried to make the sounds of the letters fit the type of creature. Zethar the frost pinnois is snooty. Even his name sounds snooty. The dark wizards are called Thrathkin S’Bae. If you knew a guy’s name was Thrathkin would you want him babysitting your kids? Galespinner sounds light and fast.

You also need to make sure and Google unusual names before you put them into your books to make sure they aren’t already famous from another book in your genre (unless you are giving a “nod” to another author. In the first draft of Water Keep, I came up with what I thought was a unique name. I’d never heard it before and I really liked the spelling. Raoden. But when I searched it I found it was the main character in Elantris. What are the odds? I hadn’t even read the book or met Sanderson at that point. In Land Keep, I called a group of people charged with political crimes Crims. Until I found out it was used by Scott Westerfeld in his Uglies series.

Babynames.com has some great suggestions for writers on creating names. Among them are:

• Make sure you name is age appropriate. Don’t name a second grader Agnes unless there is a specific reason given.
• Make sure fantasy names are pronounceable--especially if they are used a lot. No Xrnidth
• Try combining two common names to make a new one. Jennie and Linda become Jenda.

Or you can just let your characters make up their own names. Like this character from Land Keep.

“Who am I?” the man said, as though asking himself. “When most people ask who you are, they really want to know what you are. Are you famous? Are you powerful? Are you wealthy? Are you someone who can help them get what they want, do you stand in their way, or can you be dismissed out of hand?”

He looked left and right from one snail to the other as though watching an especially exciting tennis match. “Titles are quite useful that way, aren’t they? How about Commander of the Fleet? No, too forceful. Master of All Things Inconsequential and General in Nature? Too stuffy. Merciful and Benevolent Ruler? Too self-serving. High Executioner? No.” He shivered. “That won’t do. How about Her Majesty the Queen? I’ve always favored that one.”

Marcus twirled a finger beside his head, but Kyja gave him a quick elbow in the ribs.

“Actually, I was just wondering what to call you,” she said. “I’m Kyja, and this is Marcus.”

“You want a name? How unusual.” The man scratched a thatch of sparse, gray hair. This time, he actually did knock off his hat. But as it rolled from his head, he caught it with the tip of his left shoe and kicked it into the air, landing the hat right where it had been. “How about Zithspithesbazith? It’s actually quite fun to say and allows you to spit freely on whoever you say it to.”

“I don’t think I could pronounce that,” Kyja said, unable to stifle a giggle.

“No? Why don’t we stick with Z then? It has a certain letter-like quality to it.”


Or you can go to a site that will come up with fantasy names for you.

Fantasy Name Generator lets you pick from things like funny names or scary names
Seventh Sanctum will generate anything from a cat being to a pirate ship
Or The Forge which lets you tailor a name to your exact specification

So there really are as many ways to come up with names as there are to come up with stories. But the important thing is to give some thought to your characters names. It’s one of the first things readers will have to judge them by.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Prologues are Like Onions

I love creamed onions. Little ones about half the size of a golf ball. My wife makes them every Thanksgiving, mostly at my request and I scarf them down. But even though they are one of my favorite vegetables, I wouldn’t bring them as a side dish if I went to a friend’s house for dinner. That’s because not everyone likes creamed onions. In fact, most people I mention creamed onions to give me a funny look—like maybe I’m talking about something really odd; say chocolate zucchini mousse with potato chip crust or something.

That’s the same way I feel about prologues. Most writers who have spent much time around me think I don’t like prologues. I’m definitely mean to them. I call them names, pick them last for kickball, occasionally even stick their sentences in the toilet and give them swirlies. So you can understand why people would get that idea.

The truth is, prologues and I are actually good friends. I always, always, read them in books. I have used them several times in my own books. I have used them in both of my Farworld books (although I called the one in Water Keep, “Chapter One” and the five I spread throughout Land Keep “Interludes.” I believe they are almost required these days for epic fantasy. So why the hate fest when prologues and I are out in public?

Let’s start with the beginning of a novel. When most beginning writers finally start the story they’ve been waiting their whole life to write, there are certain things they tend to do. I call it “setting the table.” They know they have a great meal (story) coming, but before we are ready to eat (read) we need to get our plates, silverware, seating assignment, etc. In a story these settings come out as background information. What does the setting look like? Is it an ocean villa? A dense jungle? A world where everyone dances, or sings, or does magic? Who are the characters? Why are they there? What do they look like? If it’s a new world, we need to know that the village is located at the banks of a rushing river that originates deep in the bowels of a forested mountain populated by dark creatures that sit around fires making evil brews. If it’s a mystery we need to see the bad guy strangling an innocent. If it’s historically-based we need to see the main characters ancestors.

Right? I know this is true, because I talk to beginning writers all the time, and I browse local bookstores and read books by authors who I know have new books out.

But what does the reader want? Immediacy. Action. Intrigue. They want to get sucked into the story so completely that they can’t bear to put the book down for a minute. Of course, even most beginning authors know that a book needs to begin with something interesting. So when they read their own beginning, they have to admit it really isn’t all that gripping. What to do?

The right answer here is, fix the problem. Gut the first chapter. Take out all the flashbacks, infodumps, flowery descriptions, history, etc. Get rid of the whole first chapter if you need to. Start where the story is so gripping that any reader would have to keep reading. So what if they don’t know where the story is going? So what if they might be a little confused at first? So what if they don’t know why the main character wakes up in a jungle or how the plane crashed on the island, or even that he is a doctor at first? If the story is gripping enough, they will read on. They will find out. That’s your goal as an author. And as a reader, you know that you love books where you are thinking, “Okay this is cool, but what’s going on here?”

The easy answer is to throw in a prologue. Tim Travaglini, editor at Putnam spoke at a writers conference I attended last year. He called prologues and flashbacks lazy writing. I’m not sure that everyone understood what he was saying. My take on his comment was that many writers realize they have the problems mentioned above in their first chapter. But instead of fixing the problem, they try to band-aid it.

A friend of mine asked me to look at his first chapter a couple of months ago. Since we are friends I felt that I could tell him the truth. His writing is very good, but his first chapter sucked rocks. Nothing happened. There were lots of thoughts, back story, information—even a little heavy-handed foreshadowing. But zero story. When I pointed this out to him he thanked me. A week later, he sent me a very slightly altered first chapter. But to fix the problem, he added—get ready—an exciting prologue. Arghhh!!!!!! This is why I tear my hair out when writers bring up prologues. A prologue isn’t a fix. It doesn’t change the fact that your baby is still ugly. It just puts a little eye shadow on it and calls it good.

“What’s the problem?” you ask. The prologue is exciting enough. People will open the book, read the beginning pages, get hooked, and keep reading. That’s like saying a crappy movie beginning can be fixed by an entertaining animated short before the feature starts. Your book is still starting in the wrong place. If it won’t stand on its own, you to get back to work and fix it.

But what about prologues that give background information necessary to the story? Maybe what happened two-hundred years ago? That is so far back that it has to be a prologue. So what happens if the reader skips the prologue and misses the vital information? WE don’t skip prologues of course, because we are good readers. But poll after poll has shown that lots of readers do skip the prologue. So they’ll never see your “vital” information. Or what if you have the opposite problem? What if your first chapter is exciting, but your prologue is not so much—because it’s giving all that background information? What happens if a good reader picks up your book in the store starts with the prologue and puts it back because the story isn’t gripping enough?
Trust me, I speak from experience here. Eight years ago I wrote a high-tech thriller called, Cutting Edge, under the name Jeffrey S Savage. It was published by a medium sized Utah press. My first chapter was all the bad things I just talked about. The second wasn’t much better. I was a beginning writer. I hadn’t attended any writers conferences. But I recognized the problem just enough to create a really cool prologue with FBI agents discussing something really dark and exciting.

You know what happened? The book did get published. And it did sell. But over and over people said, “After the first couple of chapters, your book got really good.” Critics caught the problem right away and pointed out—rightfully so—that the prologue was unnecessary to the story. If I could rewrite that book, the first thing I would do is rip out the first two chapters. The second thing I would do is trash the prologue.

So what’s the moral of this story? That prologues are bad? Nope. Like people, prologues can be bad. But they can also be interesting, funny, charming, witty, and even useful on occasion. So do try this. Write your book without a prologue on the first pass. Make sure that all the information necessary to the story is in the book without a prologue. Then, when you are completely done with writing a book which can stand on its own, carefully consider how a well written, exciting prologue might add to the story. You can then write your prologue (if you still want to) guilt-free, knowing that it doesn’t matter of people read the prologue or not. The book will still stand on its own.

Here’s a quick example from an idea I’ve been playing with lately, called Demon Spawn. It’s a YA adventure with dystopian and sci-fi elements. I won’t post the whole first chapter because it’s quite long, It may not be the best example in the world, but it's mine so I can publish it without any copyright issues. What I want you to look for is how the reader discovers things, like where the story takes place, what the characters are, and what’s happening, through the action of the story. This book will not have a prologue.

* * *


Welcome to Hell, please keep moving. Have your identistamp ready for inspection. Welcome to Hell, please keep moving . . .

The speakers started booming their repeating message when I was still six blocks from the immigration station and I nearly bolted out of my skin. How could it be that late already? The J-trans would arrive before I got there; I’d be kicked out of academy on my first day. I broke into a terrified sprint—searching the sky for silver tracks and listening for the rumble of approaching engines—before realizing Cinder was standing perfectly still thirty for forty feet behind me, laughing. Her black eyes shined with wicked humor in the early morning darkness.

“Oh, girl, that was great. You should have seen yourself. Priceless.” She clapped a palm to her mouth.

One by the one, the tentacles of panic unwrapped themselves from my brain and I realized the J-trans couldn’t be arriving yet. Although the messages continued to batter the air, thousands of feet overhead the cavern roof was still hidden from view. It would be at least another hour before the stone began heating to a faint dusky red that would eventually blaze to orange. The air that would be broiling by mid-day was actually cool enough that I felt chilled through my snug leather uni.

“You knew that was going to happen didn’t you?” I said, waiting for my heart to stop racing. Cinder was my best friend, but at that moment I could gladly have wrapped my hands around her throat and shaken her until her pointy little teeth rattled like dice.

Her tail twined itself around her waist as if trying to hold in the giggles that slipped through her fingers. “Your eyes got all buggy. Your mouth went wahhh! I swear if your horns weren’t connected, they’d have shot fifty feet straight into the air. Funniest thing I’ve seen in weeks.”

Turning away, I stomped toward the station. I was sure I’d see the humor in it all later, but right now I was so nervous I hadn’t dared to eat breakfast. The last thing I needed was to think I was late for my first day of duty.

“Wait, Blaze.” Behind me the sharp click-clack-click of cloven hooves echoed off the densely-packed apartment buildings on either side of the street as Cinder ran to catch up with me. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to stop laughing and failing miserably. “It’s a tradition. Every newbie freaks out the first time they hear the speakers start up.” She put a hand on my shoulder and I allowed her to turn me around.

“You could at least have warned me,” I grumped. “When I heard the message, the only thing I could think of was explaining to my parents how I’d been kicked out of academy my first day on the job.”

Cinder nodded and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I know, I know. I was the exact same way when it happened to me three months ago—sure I’d read my clock wrong or something.”

“Why do they start the message so early?” I asked, folding my arms across my chest to keep warm.

Cinder shrugged and we began walking again. A brief gust of wind caught a foil coffee cup and sent it dancing into the unsteady circle of illumination cast by a buzzing lamp pole. Across the street a fist-sized blue imp darted out of a crack, sniffed the inside of the cup, and dragged it into the darkness.

“Who knows? Maybe it starts when the J-trans leaves Judgement. Or maybe the halos just want everybody to know they’re coming so we have plenty of time to drop down on our knees and get ready to worship at their golden feet.”

Instinctively I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was listening. “One of these days you’re going to get in real trouble talking that way.”

“Huh.” Cinder stuck out her tongue as if nothing scared her. “No one around here but humies.” To prove her point she shouted, “Hear that, everyone. All you halos can kiss my shiny red butt!”

I couldn’t help grinning in spite of my nervousness. “Hate to break it to you, but your butt’s not all that shiny.”

Two stories above us a light went on and a pale white face pressed itself to the glass. Cinder unclipped her move-along from her belt and triggered a sizzling bolt of blue fire into the air. “Go back to bed, humie.” The face darted from sight and the light went out

“See, I told you nothing—”

Cinder’s voice cut off in mid-sentence as a hulking figure appeared out of the shadows. A pair of bright white lights pinned both of us to the soot-covered brick wall. “Drop your weapon, demon spawn,” a deep voice commanded.

Cinder’s move-along fell from her limp fingers, bouncing off the cracked sidewalk with a metallic clatter and rolled into the gutter. Her face went from pink to red as the blood drained out of it—her eyes so wide they looked like bottomless black pits.

“You too.” The spotlights moved to me and I had to squint to keep from being blinded.

“Don’t think so,” I said. I held out my hands, palms up. “Guess you’ll just have to take me in, big bad demon.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Great Review of Water Keep on Fantasy Book Critic Site

Hey all, heading out for one last weekend of camping, so I post again on Monday. But Kirk Shaw, a good friend and great editor, forwarded me this review of Water Keep that Cindy Hannikman just put up at Fantasy Book Critic. These are the kinds of things that make you sing and dance all day as an author—when someone really “gets” your book. Have a great weekend and I’ll try not to sink our new six person raft!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fantasy Names

The charming, witty, and lovely, and large-haired Jessica Day George, pointed out this hilarious movie trailer to me a couple of days ago. We especially liked the part where he teaches the students how to come up with fantasy names, because we get asked that a lot. I like combining his endings with common household items. For example, Tosteranous.

How about you? What cool fantasy names can you come up with by combining common household items with his endings?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Goodreads, Lost, & Chapters

I’m going to be all over the board with my blog today, but the good news is that if you don’t like one topic, you can move onto the next.

Goodreads:

Last week, a friend and fellow author forwarded a funny exchange between the author and a reader who ripped his book on a Goodreads review. The exchange was actually very lighthearted and humorous for both the author and reviewer, but it spurred a discussion on other reviewer experiences that were not so lighthearted. In fact, some were downright spiteful by the authors whose books were reviewed.

As an author, I love Goodreads. I know some authors can’t stand to see bad reviews of their books. I’ll admit, I get a sick feeling in my stomach when I read a really bad review. But at the same time, I would never in a million years give up the chance to see good, honest feedback. Goodreads provides not only ratings, but lots and lots of personal feedback from the people I am trying to appeal to. I am a Goodreads junkie. On Amazon, I have about twenty reviews. On Goodreads I have over a hundred and many more ratings.

As a reader, I also love Goodreads. How cool is it to be able to see thousands of people rating a book you might not have read? And these aren’t just any people. These are my kind of people—our kind of people. People who not only read a lot of books, but care enough about them to go on-line and list and rate what they’ve read. These are people who talk about books the way most people talk about sports or movies. I LOVE these people. It makes me so happy that I’m not the only one who feels this way about books.

So what’s the problem right? I love Goodreads as an author and as a reader. The thing is, I don’t love Goodreads as an author who is also a reader. Why? Two problems. First, when I review a book—especially a contemporary book—I am reviewing my co-workers. I am placing a star rating on people I may run into at a conference or in a league or on an on-line board. I read a national YA book the other day that I really didn’t like. But in a roundabout way, I know the author. I’ve never met the author before in person, but a friend of a friend, kind of thing. And, assuming that author is a Goodreads junkie like me, that author might see my poor review, notice I am an author too, and remember me when we bump into each other. (Ouch!)

Which brings me to my second problem. I want honest reviews. I know of many, many authors who get a bad review and immediately go to their friends and ask for good reviews to be placed. I personally HATE that. Not that the authors want good reviews. We all do. Or even that they ask their friends for good reviews. But that the review process is now being corrupted. We are rigging the game. It would be like a sports star asking his friend to let him score an extra touchdown because he got blanked the week before. Even without the issue of me reviewing other people’s books, I worry that if authors regularly respond to Goodreads reviews, readers might start to be afraid to post honest reviews. As much as I don’t want bad reviews, I do want honest reviews. I learn a lot from reading the negative and positive reviews of my books and others. It makes me a better writer to see what some people don’t like.

So the questions is, do I remain a Goodreads author? It’s great to make friends, have discussions, post my blogs, do contests, etc. But are people less likely to review a book honestly of they see the author is also a member of Goodreads? Are you less likely to give a poor review to an author is a member of Goodreads? If you are an author, how do you feel about reviewing books by other authors you know?

Lost:

Okay, this is going to make me look like a total dweeb, but I am not a fan of the TV show Lost. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I dislike it. I’m saying I don’t watch it. At least I didn’t watch it. James Dashner and Jessica Day George would kill me on the spot if news of my dark secret got out—so don’t tell them, okay? There is a reason I never started watching Lost. If Lost was a book or even series of books, I would have read them at once. A book or series has a set lifespan. The author chooses how long the series will be and should know in advance how it will end. A TV series is not like that. It can end any time the network decides viewership is too low. Or it can go on as long as people keep watching. I don’t want to get caught up and hooked only to be left hanging or dragged along after the series should have ended.

With all that said, I am now a Lost junkie. I discovered Hulu.com and watched the first episode. And like any other addict, I see all those other episodes just calling to me—almost commercial free—and I click. Since most of you who are Lost viewers have seen all the episodes I am just now discovering, and those of you who haven’t watched it probably never will. I feel like I can review the series without giving away spoilers.

Having watched the first episode through the eyes of an author, I am impressed. Most people would think of Lost as a plot driven show. People are stranded on an island with some really freaky stuff going on. Even I knew that, and I hadn’t seen a single episode until last week. But where do we start the show? Through the eyes of a doctor who I assume will be the protagonist. He wakes up disoriented in the middle of a jungle. He runs out of the jungle to find a beach filled with burning plane parts and crash survivors. For the next third of the show. We meet different characters through a series of action scenes. The pregnant woman. The mysterious couple who are only looking out for themselves. The slow-witted but nice guy. The aging musician. The helpful lifeguard and his snotty girlfriend. The love interest. The man with his son.

We get to see just enough of each charter to place them and generate some interest without getting completely confused. In fact the writer goes out of his or her way to not introduce very many names very early. I love that the protagonist is out there saving everyone, and it’s not until he feels things are under some control that we learn how bad his injury is. Authors take note here. We didn’t see the plane crash at first. We didn’t know exactly what was going on. We started in the middle of the scene and expanded from there. The very fact that we didn’t know what was going on kept our attention. Next, we focused on characters. If we don’t know who to care about, we won’t care. But we did it through action scenes that were showing us who the characters were, not telling us.

Not until we knew the basic cast (with plenty of other players we will meet later I assume) did we see something huge moving through the jungle actually knocking down trees. Yes, the show is about weird stuff going on, but it only matters because we care about the people the weird stuff is happening to. Finally, once we knew the cast and saw that something weird was going on, we sent the protagonist and the protagonist’s love interest into the jungle. By separating them, we can focus on who the writer wants us to focus on.

I’ll watch more this week and let you know what I think, so if you are a big Lost fan, don’t tell me how full of it I am because this or that happens in the next episode. But feel free to tell me what your reaction to the first episode was. Or if you are not a fan yet either, hope over to Hulu and watch it on-line with me.

Chapters:

I promised last week I would post the first two chapters of Land Keep. So here they are. I considered telling you why I started the way I did, just like I reviewed the beginning of Lost. But I think I will let you give me your feedback, before I tell you why I did what I did. Enjoy!

(Click on the fullscreen button to make the document more readable)

Farworld Land Keep, first two chapters