Monday, December 27, 2010

What Does the Future Hold?

Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, Chanukah, or whatever you and yours celebrate at this time of year. The Savage household has been busy visiting, sharing gifts, playing new games, watching movies, and eating the amazing food prepared by the gorgeous and talented Mrs. Savage.

The trend among author blogs this last few months seems to be writing blogs posts about what advice you would give your younger self if you could. I always find the line between hindsight and foresight so interesting. I want to tell things to my younger self, and I also want to ask things of my future self.

For a long time, my wife and kids and I used to go camping at the same place every summer. Every time we unpacked and set up the tent, we would discover things we had accidently left in its many inside pockets. Flashlights, change, receipts, paperbacks. Each year, I would think that I should write my predictions of what I thought we would be doing the next summer and slip them into the tent like a mini time capsule. Because invariably, my guesses at where I would be in a year would have been wrong. Even cooler would have been if I could open the tent and find messages from my future self.

Many people wonder if they would have been willing to take advice from their future selves. On the one hand, we have plenty of people with experience who we don’t listen to now. Would we really listen to our older and “wiser” selves?

I wonder if my current self should even be giving advice to my previous self. I imagine one of the first things I would have told my former self is to focus more on grades and get a degree. Not having a degree has been a major barrier in my life at times. And I’m definitely encouraging my children to finish college.

But would it have been the best thing for me? If I had gone to college, earned a degree, and landed a solid job with a big company, I certainly wouldn’t have spent a year cleaning out toilet drains. Our family might not have experienced the financial ups and downs that seem to mark many of my holiday memories.But would I have started writing books? What a terrible tradeoff it would be to gain financial security, only to lose something that has brought so much joy to the lives of my family and me.

A couple of years ago, I was laid off from the company I’d worked at for about four years. I made a huge decision, not to look for work in 2009 and instead to pursue the dream of writing fulltime. At the time, if I could have asked my former self one question, it would have been something like, “Will this decision work out financially?” The answer? A resounding no. It was an incredibly stressful year, constantly on the brink of financial disaster. Always trying to book the next school event, and sell a few more books. It put us in a hole we are still climbing out of.

Had I known then, what the results of my efforts would be, I would have taken the first job I could find. And the result would have been that the Farworld series would have almost certainly died. I’ve received over 3,000 e-mails from readers asking when the next Farworld book is coming out. That date is still a little up in the air, but there wouldn’t be a next Farworld book, or most of those e-mails, had I known then what I know now.

If I could give advice to my former self, what would I say? Would I tell me to get another job? Would I have explained how hard that year would be and about the financial ramifications? Or would I have said, “Suffer through the trials, for the sake of the future?” I don’t know. If I had told myself everything that was going to happen, I might not have been able to promote the series with the same energy and excitement that I needed to put in those kinds of hours. In retrospect it was probably better that I did what I did without knowing how the future would turn out.

Our family likes to go see movies together. We are also part of the weird group that stays all the way through the end of the credits (to the total annoyance the employees waiting to come in a start cleaning.) Mostly we like to stay because we believe that it is kind of an homage to all the people who made the movie possible. But sometimes we also get rewarded with an Easter egg—a little scene that doesn’t play until the very end when almost everyone has left. It’s a little thing.

The people who left before seeing it don’t feel like they missed anything. It’s not a key part of the movie. But sometimes it can be one of the most enjoyable parts for us. When I look back at the year of doing school visits, a lot of what I remember is being sick all the time and watching every penny. At times the difficulties seemed almost unbearable. And if I had known that at the end of the year I would be back searching for a job, I might very well have given up.

Then I think back about the amazing friends I made. The fun my wife and I had traveling to schools as small as twenty students. How much time we spent laughing. The fun of bringing our kids with us when we could. Eating in tiny little restaurants in cities many Utahans have never even heard of. The overall experience was incredibly trying, and certainly not what I thought it would be. But like the Easter Eggs at the end of movies, the little things made it so wonderful.

I have no idea where I’ll be next year. When will the next Farworld book come out? How will The Fourth Nephite series turn out? Will Demon Spawn sell? Will writing become a bigger part of my life, or will it take a smaller role? I’d love to ask my future self these questions. But it’s entirely possible that even if I could, my future self would refuse to answer. You’ve probably heard the saying that the journey is more important than the destination. I would add that sometimes what makes the journey so enjoyable is not knowing exactly where or what the destination is.

As you finish up the year past and head into the dark and unknowable future that lies before you, I hope you can keep from being overwhelmed by the big picture and enjoy the little things along the path you follow. Best wishes and happy New Year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Critique Groups

Okay, this video has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with today’s post, but It makes me laugh every time I watch it. So, yeah, that probably makes me weird. But consider it my white-elephant gift to you.

Once again, I find myself in a position to do a meaningful holiday post, full of seasonal wishes and good cheer. And once again, I am thinking, “I'm not as funny as blogger x, as inspired as blogger y, as smart as blogers I and Q." Instead, I’ll leave the holiday stuff to my fellow bloggers, and write about, well, writing.

Yeah, I know not all that exciting. But wait, I have an excuse. Recently Julia (Not Julie) Wright e-mailed me and asked if I would post something about critique groups. Being the hero that I am . . .

. . . I was like, “You know I have a really good piece I did on marketing a couple of years ago. Or I could repost something of Rob’s.

And she was like, “No. You’re the best writer I’ve ever me. And the coolest. Please write something about critique groups.” (I may have taken a few small liberties with her exact words.)

How could I argue with that?

So, here goes.

When I first started writing, I had no ide what a critique group was. I wrote a book, had a few family members read it, sent it to a publisher, and six months later got a phone call that they had accepted it. Way too easy right? It was and is. But at that time I had no clue publishing was supposed to be hard. The good news was, my book got published. It just so happened the first book I ever wrote was a high-tech thriller. And the first publisher I sent it to was looking to add “guy books” to their line.

The bad news was, my book could have been much better. The first two chapters had pretty much every mistake you can make. Shortly after my first book came out, as I was finishing writing my second book, I moved from California to Utah. A whole bunch of great neighbors helped us move all of our stuff into our new house. I told one of them that I had just published a book. She immediately said, “Oh, you should join my critique group.” Again let me say that although I had published a book, I didn’t know the first thing about writing. I seriously thought she was trying to get me involved in a multi-level marketing scheme or something.

Once I figured out it was a kind of writing group, I agreed to come. It was right across the street and I didn’t know very many other writers. As if that wasn’t enough, it turned out that it was a group composed entirely of intelligent, attractive women, and I was the only guy.

I felt a lot like Snoopy in the above picture. At least I did until one of the women told me she didn’t think my first book was very good. Ouch! Then I discovered that the way things worked was that each person read aloud from their latest work in progress for six minutes. In those six minutes, you were supposed to read along on your own copy, and not only keep up but actually jot down useful comments that made sense.

And let me tell you, these women were brutal. There was the Grammar Queen. When you got your pages back from her it looked like James Bond had killed a room-full of nuns and blotted up the blood with your writing. Black white and red was everywhere.

There was the Inquisitor. “I don’t think he could fire a rifle while holding onto the back of a horse with one hand and hugging the hot blonde with the other. And you can’t laugh a sentence.”

The informer. “Ghosts don’t actually touch human skin. If they are going to choke your hero, he will have to be wearing a sweater with a high neck.”

And they were all good writers. One women was writing a romance set in Scotland in the 1400s or thereabout. I was afraid to make any comments about her work for fear I just didn’t understand the dialect. Another was writing a mystery that she made up as she went along. We’d ask something like, “So are you foreshadowing the death of the grandmother?” And she’d say say. “I’m not sure. I guess if the grandmother dies, I probably am.”

It wasn’t all stressful though. Every once in a while we’d discover a line that was so unintentionally funny that we couldn’t stop giggling. Like the woman who discovered her mother’s smelly chest. Or the investigator who urinated in the bushes while wondering if there was a leak. Or the rape victim who couldn’t decide because she felt torn. (Yeah, I know. That last one is really bad. But honestly, if you came across that line in a room filled with writers, could you keep a straight face?)

I had no idea at the time, that although a few of the members would come and go over time, nine years later, I would still be part of the group. By now, I think we have something like twenty books published between the six of us. We’ve added another guy, although he’s kind of a sissy, so I don’t know if that counts. More than anything though, we’ve all become much better writers. With nine years of critique experience, here are a few of the things I’ve learned.

1) It’s not as important as you might think to have everyone writing the same genre. It’s actually quite useful to have a romance writer, a historical novelist, a non-fiction writer, and so forth. Each of them can give you feedback that helps your work. Rob told me that my Hell in Demon Spawn needed to be “helled up” more. Several of the women told me what worked in my kissing scenes and what didn’t. Most books have a decent spicing of all genres combined.

2) It’s not even that important to have everyone writing at the same level. Admittedly it’s tough to combine a writer who’s still learning the basics together with more advanced writers. But the fact is that the newer writers either catch up quickly, or decide the group isn’t right for them. And while one writer may not know the difference between an em-dash and a hyphen, they might be an expert on the old west. The more important thing is that each writer is willing to listen and learn. Becoming better writers is what it’s really all about.

3) Location is a pretty big deal. When we first started our group, we all lived fairly close to one another, with several of us in the same town. Since then, we’ve spread out so that now, there’s a good forty-five minutes between those in the south and those in the north. That definitely makes it harder to get everyone together.

4) You learn as much from editing the work of others as you do from having your own work edited. One of the hardest things about being in a critique group is learning to give good feedback. One of our members is a great detail person. She really finds all the little punctuation flaws that I would totally miss. I’m more of a big-picture person. I’m kind of known for saying, “Okay. I just have a couple of things,” and then destroying a chapter. Personally, I have found that reading other member’s work critically has helped me find flaws in my own work. I tell someone what I think is missing in their writing, only to realize I’ve done the exact same thing in mine.

5) You have to be friends first. It can be hard to find a group that is both helpful professionally and good friends. I was really lucky that the people I joined were exactly the kind of people I would like to hang out with anyway. Sometimes you may join a group only to discover that you don’t get along with them. If that is the case, I’d suggest finding a new group. The reason I say this is because the actually feedback can be pretty grueling. There’s nothing like having a chapter you knew might need a “little” work, get dissected until you realize you have to write it completely over. That’s the hard part. The good part is being able to laugh at a really bad chapter, and encouraged to go back and make it better. Knowing that the members of the group are your friends first and last, makes the hard parts not as hard and the good parts even better.

6) Make sure you share more than just the critiques. This kind of goes back to the friendship thing again, but it’s about more than telling each other what works and what doesn’t in their manuscript. It’s about sharing joys and pains. About commiserating and celebrating together. Of course writing is what first brought us together, but sometimes we’ll spend the first hour just talking about what’s going on in our lives. We all have time when we don’t even have anything to bring that night, but show up just to enjoy the company of other writers. Writing can be a lonely business and you need good friends to share it with—friends who understand the ups and downs of writing and publishing.

7) Do what works for you. Our routine is pretty basic. We try to meet once a week. Each person brings enough copies of their manuscript to hand out one copy to everyone there. The first person to arrive goes first, the person who is hosting goes last. We hand out our pages, read for about six to ten minutes, and then get feedback in clockwise order. We write our notes on the pages we have been given and hand them back after giving our feedback.

Other groups work differently. Some do everything on-line. Some do an entire manuscript at a time. Some focus on just one genre. Some have a different person than the author reading. Mostly, you need to find what works for your group and then feel free to modify that as members and abilities change.

8) Find your niche. I will never be the king of grammar. I don’t do motivations as well as some. What I am good at is taking a chapter as a whole, and spotting what doesn’t work. Big picture stuff. I’m also pretty good at query letters. Don’t worry about not being able to do all things. The point of a critique group is to give enough quality feedback that the author can see for themselves what is working and what isn’t. If you are really good at creating realistic dialogue, use that. If you know romance inside and out, use that. It’s important that every member gives as well as receiving, so find what you are good at giving and focus on that.

I know critique groups are not for everyone. Some writers start with a group and outgrow it. Others feel like they don’t want feedback until a book is done. All I can say is that my group has and still does make me a better writer and a better person. At this time of year especially, I am so grateful for their talent. But even more I am grateful for their friendship. I can’t imagine any level of success, or lack thereof, that would make me leave this group of wonderful friends and writers. I truly hope that if you are looking to find a group of your own, you are even half as lucky as I’ve been.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to shout them out. I’ll answer what I can, and I know this really awesome group of writers who are happy to answer what I can’t.

Here's a shout out to the members of my group.

Annette Lyon

Heather Moore

Lu Ann Staheli

Michele Holmes

Rob Wells

Sara Eden

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask. I’ll answer what I can, and I know this really awesome group of writers who are happy to answer what I can’t.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Retro You-Are-Not-Alone Friday

(Every Friday, that I remember, I post a song from a classic rock band of my youth. Sometimes I include thoughts. Sometimes I’m luck to remember to even post.)

Sunday I was in an airport. Along with Monday, Wednesday, and an hour of Thursday. (I wonder how many blog posts I start with a story that happened in an airport. Way too many would be my guess.) Anyway, I was on a layover in Denver, when I found my gate filled with military personnel. Okay, fine, soldiers.

They were all dressed in their camouflage, and obviously waiting to ship out. Most of you probably don’t know that I did a short stint in the Army Reserves. I didn’t fight in any wars, and the farthest away from home I ever got was basic training in Fort Jackson, SC. But I can still remember the training as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

Seeing that huge group of active military, my first instinct was to move down to sit at a different gate. Not because I don’t like soldiers. Some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met have been in the military. It’s just that it felt like entering a club I wasn’t a part of anymore.

My memories of basic training and skills training after, are so vivid, that I still have dreams about it. Only in my dreams, I find myself back in the military, but I clearly don’t fit in. I am older than the other recruits, I can’t find half of my uniform, I’ve missed my briefing. You know the kind of dream I’m talking about. Whether you’re dreaming about a play where you can’t remember your lines, or a class where you haven’t studied for the big test, you are there, but you aren’t “there.”

My hair is cut short enough that it could be military. I know most of the military speak. I know they are good people. But I wasn’t wearing BDUs and no matter what experiences I’d had, I’d never sat in an airport waiting to be deployed to hostile territory. I didn’t fit in.

I’ve talked to a lot of other writers who feel that way about the author crowd. You attend the same events, you know their names, you’ve read a lot of their books. You’re pretty sure you both turn on the computer the same way and have to go back and delete extra adverbs the same way. But when you are around a lot of them, you don’t know if you really fit in.

In fact, you’re not even sure if you should call yourself a writer at all. Doesn’t calling yourself that imply certain things? Like that you’re a “good” writer, or a “published” writer or a writer any of them might ever have heard of. You can get yourself so worked up about not being a part of the group, that you actually convince yourself they are probably all snobs who look down on you, and that you really don’t belong.

But here’s a secret that I suspect you already know deep down inside. Almost no one looks down on newbies, because we’ve all been there. And nearly every writer finds himself or herself intimidated at one time or another. Think about any group you’ve been a part of for a long time and you’ll realize I am right. The regulars know each other. They have inside jokes. They’ve been through a lot of the same ups and downs. They know what a newcomer still has to go through. But except for the people who are jerks no matter what situation they are in, the group usually welcomes new members with open arms.

I was part of a recent library event where Scott Westerfeld was the keynote speaker. You know the bestselling Scott Westerfeld who wrote Uglies, Midnighters, Leviathan, and a ton of other great series? Yeah, I was intimidated. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was on a fantasy panel with the other two authors being NYT bestsellers. See how comfortable you are speaking up in that situation.

But you know what? Every one of them was as nice as could be. And it turned out I actually did have some things I could add to the conversation without looking like a total dweeb. So here’s a little advice for the next time you start to feel like you don’t fit in.

Any specialized group tends to use a lot of terms ordinary people might find unfamiliar. In the military it might be MRI, MRE, BDU, or SOP. With writers it might be infodump, head-hopping, POV, or character arc. These aren’t designed to keep you in the dark, they are just terms that we use so much we forget other people might not understand them. If you hear something you don’t know either ask someone or Google it. Stick around long enough and you’ll be using them too.

If you spend enough time doing any one thing, you start to know people in the industry. It’s not that we are all part of a secret society you aren’t a part of. We’ve just been to a lot of the same events, met a lot of the same people, and are members of a lot of the same e-mail lists, or users groups, or whatever. My dad knows a ton of people I’ve never met that all do Geocaching like he does. Are some writers snobs? I think you know the answer to that. The same way as if I asked you whether some people in your neighborhood or church or school are snobs. The best way to get to know everyone and start learning the inside jokes, and cool gossip, is to go meet people. If someone is a jerk to you, just ignore them and move on. You’ll probably discover down the road that everyone knows that person is a jerk and doesn’t really like him anyway.

There is no official definition of a writer. Any more than there is an official definition of a soldier. If you are in your first day of boot camp, you can call yourself a soldier. If you write, you can call yourself a writer. There will always be someone who knows more than you do, has sold more books than you have, and uses bigger words than you. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to anyone else.

That being said, it’s probably not a great idea for a brand new private to start telling a four star general how to do his job. As a new writer at a new event, you should probably spend less time talking and more time listening. That doesn’t mean don’t socialize. And it definitely doesn’t mean not to ask questions. Spend lots of time talking to other writers. Ask for all the advice you can get. But before you start spouting off about what a terrible writer you think so-and-so is, it might be wise to discover so-and-so’s wife is sitting next to you. But be a sponge as much as you can and you’ll be surprised how much you pick up.

Lastly, understand that unless you are the best schmoozer in the world, it will take a little while to fit into any new group. Don’t be scared off by the inside jokes, or the new phrases. Just like when you moved to a new school in third grade, be friendly and play nice, and pretty soon you’ll feel like you’ve been doing this all your life.

And if you discover after sitting with a bunch of soldiers for about fifteen minutes that you are actually at the wrong gate. Just stand up casually, stretch, and stroll toward the right gate like you really do know what you’re doing. 

In honor of not fitting in, here’s one of my favorite 70’s/80’s bands singing the ultimate “I don’t fit in” song.   

 

The Logical Song by Supertramp

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reetroe Frydae (Mispelled Verzion)

Recently Jen and I introduced our two youngest children to the joys of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adveture.

Bill: I'm Bill S. Preston, Esquire!
Ted: And I'm Ted Theo-
[realizes *he's* holding the camera]
Ted: Hold on. Bill, here. You take it.
Bill: Okay.
Ted: And I'm Ted "Theodore" Logan!
[Bill puts the camera on the table]
Bill, Ted: And we're... WYLD STALLYNS!

As part of watching the movie, we got into discussing whether Bill & Ted intentionally misspelled their band’s name, or if they just weren’t all that smart. So in honor of Wyld Stallyns, I thought I’d share songs from three classic rock bands who intentionally misspelled their names.

Let’s start with a classic. According to legend this band got it’s name, led Zeppelin, when Keith Moon and John Entwistle, of The Who, said that a band made up up themselves, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck would go down like a lead zeppelin. The ironic thing is that they dropped the 'a' in Lead at the suggestion of their manager, Peter Grant, to prevent "thick Americans" from pronouncing it "leed".

Probably their best known song is “Stairway to Heaven.” But I really like this one too.

Next is a group, that that was named after a band Joe Elliott made up while writing reviews of imaginary bands in his English class. Gotta like that English teacher. (I’m sure it was an actual assignment right?) Interestingly, Jeff was a big Led Zepplin fan. The original name was Deaf Leopard. But they changed the spelling to Def Leopard, because . . . well because they could I guess.

Last of all is a band that named themselves Leonard Skinnerd after a PE teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, Leonard Skinner who was known for strictly enforcing the school's policy against boys having long hair. They changed the spelling to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and later invited the teacher to introduce them at a concert.

Free Bird was another classic at dances back in the day. And any kid with a guitar and a dream of being a rock star had to learn Stairway to Heaven and the Free Bird guitar solo.

There you go! Who says you have to be a good speller to be successful?

Monday, December 6, 2010

It’s Hip to be Square?

No this is not one of my Retro Friday blogs posted early. I actually want to talk a little more about e-readers. But first some author news. Good friend Ally Condie’s book, Matched, came out November 30th. I had a chance to read an early ARC, and let me just say that if you liked The Giver, you will love Matched. It had that same Utopian/Dystopian feel, that same enchanting writing, and a nice dash of romance. No vampires or arenas of deadly teens, but a great read! Good write-up in Entertainment Weekly.

Also, if you didn’t see this article, looks like the Maze Runner movie is moving forward quickly with a well known director. My understanding is that the part about James doing the screen play adaptation is not accurate. But still totally cool.

Now where were we before I started drooling over the success of my friends? Oh, right e-readers. Interesting feedback on my last e-reader post. My post actually goes to two different blogs, Goodreads, Amazon, and Facebook. So I get quite a bit of feedback.

I would have expected my younger readers to be on the cutting edge of e-books. After all, they were the ones raised reading newspapers, magazines, articles, etc, on-line. Instead, it looks like the people buying most of the e-books are in their thirties or older. Maybe because they are the ones who have the $? But nearly everyone wants an e-reader.

What this got me wondering is whether e-books could possibly make reading cool again. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved reading. And I know a lot of you have too. But even in books, the kids who read a lot are usually positioned as the nerds. I mean think about it. Hermione Granger. Big reader. Big nerd. In Stephen King’s novel, IT, the kid who spends all of his time in the library is the fat kid no one likes. Of course they also tend to be the smart kids—but nerdy none-the-less. The nerdy kids stay at home and read books while the cool kids have adventures.

Yeah, okay, I didn’t look that nerdy (I hope) when I was in school. But I was one of those kids who spent a lot of time in the library. For one thing, it is VERY tough to get beat up in the library. The librarians were pretty strict about screwing around. And I’m not sure the bullies even knew it was there. As a side benefit, I discovered that the library was the prefect place to cut class. No one ever came up to a kid reading a book and asked him why he wasn’t in biology.

Over the last few years, several things have happened to make reading a little cooler. Harry Potter was so huge that even the kids who thought reading was lame got sucked in. Then Twilight did the same thing. Girls that wouldn’t be caught dead with a book had to be a part of the “cool” crowd who debated Edward and Jacob. Shoot, even Hermione—the ultimate bookworm—ended up looking like this.

If that wasn’t enough, books have now gone high-tech. Think about it. Cool kids have MP3 players right? Cool kids have smart phones, and skateboards, and videogames. Could it be that cool kids are going to be buying e-readers? And if so, could reading take its place alongside snowboarding, mountain biking, and fighting Voldemort?

I’m not sure if it will really happen. And if it does, will it last? Do we lifelong readers even want it to? As an author, I’d love reading to become as popular as going to movies. I’d love the release of the next big novel to get as much exposure as, say, the Super Bowl.

But as a reader, I don’t know how I feel about that. I have to admit there’s something a little smug about knowing so many people have no idea how good Hunger Games is, or that “LES MISÉRABLES” was a book before it was a musical. I mean, come on, isn’t there a part of you that gloats just a little when you say, “It wasn’t as good as the book.”

Maybe we should just keep the secret between you and me that:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Retro (On Submission) Friday

If you are an unpublished (or even a published) writer, or hope to be a writer someday, you absolutely MUST read this post by author Natalie Whipple. Then you MUST read this follow-up post, also by Natalie.

Read the first to give yourself a true reality check. When I signed on with my first agent about six years ago, I was positive I had achieved the pinnacle of success. Finally, I didn’t have to be the one selling my book. My agent would take care of everything. And the book WOULD sell. It was being submitted by a great agent at a great agency. Yeah, well, that doesn’t guarantee anything. In fact, in a way, it’s even worse. You think, “If she can’t my book, I must be a total loser.”

Of course that’s not the case at all. While I still might be a total loser, agents obviously can’t sell everything they take on. Not because they are bad agents, or because the book is bad, but because there just isn’t always the perfect fit. If an agent could sell everything they took on, they wouldn’t have to work nearly as hard as they do, trying to find perfect matches.

Reading Natalie’s post back then (had it been written) would have given me a least a sense that I wasn’t quite over the hump. We all need to learn these things our own way and at our own pace. But it would have been nice to have at least a dose of reality splashed on my head.

Read the second, because it will remind you that no matter how many trials you go through, no matter how difficult life seems at times, you are the one who can choose how you will respond. Will you quit or will you fight on. I’m so dang impressed with Natalie, and have no doubt she will succeed.

I’m “On Submission” myself right now. And just like she says, it is a stressful time. Every time the phone rings, your first thought is, “Could that be my agent?” In fact I’ve given him his own ring tone, so I stop freaking out. “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Even though I’ve published books, the stress is just as real. So I try to enjoy the ride, and hope it will make for great stories down the road.

In honor of Natalie, today’s retro Friday song is by one of my favorite 70’s bands. Whether it’s The Worst of Times or The Best of Times is totally in how you respond to setbacks.

Monday, November 29, 2010

All I want for Christmas is . . . an e-reader?

We have a rule at our house. No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. It’s not that we don’t like Christmas music. It’s just the whole one holiday at a time thing. If you’re going to start playing Christmas music halfway through November, why not have your Turkey dinner before Halloween or shoot off fireworks in June?

Next thing you know, you’ll be buying your wife gifts and taking her out to dinner before Valentines Day. I mean . .  um . . . okay, never mind.

However, now that the dinner has been served—along with numerous follow-up sandwiches, we can discuss the big holiday. With that in mind, I want to to talk about something near to my heart. Something that fills our spirits with joy, reminds us of the real meaning of the holidays, and warms us inside and out.Of course I’m speaking of e-readers.

Without giving away my age, I remember when the big things to get were MP3 players, CD players, cell phones, computers, DVDs, CD players, Sony Walkman (men?), VCRs (both Beta and VHS), eight track players. Yeah, I think that’s far enough back.

Each of these had a perceived and a real impact. Eight track players made it easier to put more music on one tape and access it more quickly. VCRs were going to kill free TV by letting people skip commercials. MP3 players were going to kill record companies. And to some extent all of these did happen. But at the same time none of them completely did.

As I talk to people about e-readers and e-books, I get the impression that this is Christmas/Chanukah/gift-giving holiday of your choice of the e-reader. Lots of people buying, receiving, or hoping for e-readers of one kind or another.  

While I’m convinced e-readers are going to become as commonplace as MP3 players, I’m not completely convinced physical books are going away. Obviously that’s just my opinion. Spend a few minutes browsing the internet and you’ll find plenty of people predicting the demise of everything from bookstores, to publishers and agents, to hardbacks/paperbacks, to libraries.

As an author, I’m excited about e-books. I love the idea of presenting at a conference, school, class, or other event, and having people be able to start reading my latest book before I’m done presenting. I like the idea of people reading about my book on a blog and downloading it within seconds. I like the idea of people buying more books because they cost less. If they like one of my books, they can buy more without paying shipping, tax, or waiting for days. It’s the ultimate impulse buy.

As a reader, I can’t see myself giving up physical books anytime soon. I love physical books. But I also love the idea of carrying lots of books in one little device. I imagine I’ll get an e-reader, but still buy my favorite authors in hardback and paperback. I’ll still prowl used bookstores and visit the library. I think there are enough people like me that bookstores might change, but won’t go away completely.

So my question to you is, are you planning on getting an e-reader in the next 12 months? If so, will you give up buying paper books completely? Do you anticipate buying more books? Will having an e-reader change the way you buy books? Do you think you’ll download many free books by authors you haven’t heard of? Will you choose a $2.99 book over a $12.99 book, or will you focus mainly on authors you already know and love? If you aren’t getting an e-reader, is it a stance against them, the money, not a priority, or something else?

Tell all. I promise it will stay between you, me, and everyone else who reads this blog!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Retro Friday

Hope you all had an awesome Thanksgiving including lots of great food, family, football, and my favorite, naps!

Wow, so many possibilities for today’s Retro Friday. Paint It Black by the Stones. Um, the one about Turkeys, or um football, or gratitude, or naps.

Okay, so maybe there aren’t as many Black Friday rock songs as I thought. I personally stayed home today and recovered from a great day with family and friends, only going outside long enough to have lunch with a couple of friends. But in honor of all you who braved the wilds and crowds to go shopping, here’s one of my old favorites, “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

This song came out in 1970, when many of you weren’t even born yet, and I looked something like this.

Young Jeff  

Stylish, no?

Although many people thought this song was about the Vietnam War, it was actually about violence at home in the US. It has been featured in several movies, including:

Rude Awakening (1989)
Air America (1990)
Rudy  (1993)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Radiofreccia  (1998)
Tropic Thunder (2008)

And it is the song Jack and his best friend, Richard listen to as they cross the country in a wolf-chauffeured Cadillac at the end of The Talisman, written by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Black Box

I know it’s just around the corner from Thanksgiving, and I should be doing a post on all the things I’m thankful for. I might even do that in a couple of days. But I hate doing those for two reasons. First, they always sound like you just accepted a major award. I’m thankful for my parents, my family, my agent, my cleaning lady (no, I don’t actually have a cleaning lady.) Second, it always feels a little weird to make a list of everything you are grateful for because, really, can you put your family, your health, and double-stuff mint Oreos on the same list without sounding a little whacked?

So instead of telling you everything I’m grateful for, I’m going to write about something that is near and dear to my heart at the moment. Acquisitions. I’m not going to talk about where things stand with my latest book. It doesn’t make sense until things solidify, and besides, my agent would shoot me and delete the post anyway.

But I can talk about the acquisitions process. A lot of people (including me) wonder about the mysterious magical method of deciding which books are accepted and which are not. It’s this kind of supernatural black box. You put in a novel or work of nonfiction, stir, wait what always seems like far too long, and—tada!—out pops either a sale or a rejection. But how does it really work? Who decides? How do they decide? Today, I will do my best to open the black box and take you for a tour inside.

Before we delve into its mysterious depths, let me warn you that I am more of a guide than an expert. I have sold books and talked to editors and publishers about the process. But not being an agent or an editor myself, I have never been there in person. Also, different publishers do things differently, but I’ll point out some basics. Okay, put on your hardhat turn on your flashlight and let’s head in.

There are two different ways your book ends up in the hand of an editor. Either you send it directly if the publisher takes unsolicited manuscripts, or it is sent by your agent. Either way, the process is pretty much the same. Your manuscript is typically sent out to a number of different agents. The great thing about having an agent is that a good agent not only knows which editors represent what, but they also often know these editors’ personal tastes, what they have purchased recently, and what they are looking for. Bigger publishers have many acquiring editors, smaller publishers usually have a single person known as the acquisition editor.

Once the editor receives your manuscript, they read through it. I used to think this sounded like the best job in the world. Just sit around all day reading books. Unfortunately that is not the case. The same editor who reads new manuscripts also spends their day editing existing manuscripts. In fact, often, the only chance they have to read new manuscripts from authors who aren’t already publishing with them is on the train, at night, at home, during lunch, etc. (No, I don’t know if they read while on the toilet or not, and I’m surprised you would even ask.)

In the past, if an editor loved your work, they could take it directly to the big cheese of the imprint, usually called the publisher, for approval. These days it’s mostly done through committee. If the editor likes your work, they can either request changes, or put together something called an Acquisition Proposal, depending on how strong they feel your work is. I know it seems odd that an editor might ask for changes before agreeing to publish your book. But this actually works in your favor, because the editor alone won’t be making the decision. It still has to go through the committee who can kill a deal even if the editor loves it. So having your work be as strong as possible gives you a better chance for success.

Author, Harold Underdown, has created an awesome sample proposal here. It’s a good thing to look at either before you begin writing your book or before you start editing, because it’s probably the closest thing to a blueprint you will ever see of what makes a strong proposal. One of the things you might notice is that it’s not all about story. Things like competitive titles, profit and loss, and target audience are every bit as important as how well the story is written.

Starting to feel like your story is a product on a conveyor belt? It’s probably good to see it at least a little bit that way. You don’t want to think like this when you are writing the book. Don’t create your character’s attributes based on what you think will sell, or your story will stink. And even a story that hits the marketing bullseye will not do well if the writing is poor. But once you’ve written “the end” you need to start thinking about things like marketing, positioning, etc. Because to a large extent, you, your book, and your editor, will be judged based on how well your book sells.

So back to the process. Your editor sends the AP to the other departments and editors—marketing, sales, accounting, art, publicity, other imprints, etc. Depending on the length of the manuscript, they may also get an entire copy of the manuscript or a partial. Your editor is looking to get other people’s input and to get their backing. From what I’ve heard some of these meetings can get pretty heated. Your editor obviously wants to publish your book. But sales may not think it is unique enough to get attention. Marketing may not be clear on what genre it actually is. Accounting may think it doesn’t have a big enough audience to be profitable. The process of selling a book can take anywhere from a few days to a year or more. Typically an agent is going to hear back quicker than you will if you submit yourself.

At the end of the day, only some of the books taken to committee will be accepted. If yours is lucky enough to be one of them, the next step is putting together an offer. This is where things like royalties, rights, amount and payout of advance, hardback or paperback, marketing, territory, etc, are all negotiated. And again, this is where an agent can come in really handy. Very small publishers may not have a lot to offer as far as marketing or big advances. But even then, it helps to have someone on your side who knows what is normal and what is not. With a larger deal you may keep foreign rights and movie rights, get a $50,000 advance per book on a three book deal, paid out in four parts, be published in trade paperback, and have x amount of marketing dollars committed. With a smaller publisher, there may be little or no advance, and pretty basic rights.

If more than one publisher makes an offer, your book can go to auction. Generally this is a good thing because publishers who really like your work may make better offers. Of course it can also scare off a publisher who was still on the fence about the project. Deciding what offer to take is not always about just the upfront money. One publisher may offer a larger advance, while another lets you keep foreign rights and agrees to make your title a major release with more marketing.

One local publisher here in Utah, Covenant Communications, has a similar process, but after the Acquisitions Editor approves it, they send it out to Beta Readers and decide whether to proceed or not based the feedback forms they fill out. I’m sure there are other smaller publishers who do the same thing. Once you’ve agreed to a specific deal, your editor will begin going over your manuscript again in more detail to put together an editorial letter.

And there you go. Maybe not perfectly clear, but better than that black void, right? The thing to keep in mind is that once your manuscript is sent out, there’s not much you can do other than move on to your next project. It’s agonizing to wait—especially when you don’t even know if anyone is reading your manuscript or what they think of it if they have. But you have to find a way to take your mind off of it, and writing something else is a great way to do that.

On the other hand, when writing (and editing) your work, hopefully, remembering what lies ahead for your baby will make you think a little bit more about creating a story that is both well written and unique. Maybe you’ll take a little more time checking out the market, reading comparable books, checking reviews to see what readers liked and disliked about a particular title. And most of all, every time you read a book, think about the acquisition process and ask yourself what it was about this title that got it through the door. If you do all of that, your chances of getting your own book through should increase dramatically.

Here are some other helpful links about the acquisition process.

http://www.underdown.org/acquisition-process.htm

http://bloomabilities.blogspot.com/2006/06/do-you-remember-your-first.html

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/08/how-book-gets-published.html

http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2006/08/perspective-from-publishing-house.html

http://bluerosegirls.blogspot.com/2007/08/how-do-book-auctions-work.html

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Retro Friday (on Saturday)

Have I told you that I’ve got more weird plane stories than anyone I’ve ever met? The time a flight attendant got caught in the cart elevator and they had to reroute to Japan? The time I got stuck in the last window seat next to a guy who needed two seatbelt extenders, and a lady got knocked out by a metal briefcase halfway through the deboarding? The guy who forgot to take his meds and starting preaching about Jesus until he was removed? The list goes on and on.

Yeah, well, last Friday wasn’t exactly a plane story. It was actually more of a rental car on the way to the plane story. I was driving back to the Westchester, NY.airport with my boss, but we were running late and his flight was first. So I dropped him off and went for gas. So far so good (except for the price of gas in Greenwich, CT. They must have tiny bits of diamond in the gas there to justify $3.39 for regular unleaded!)

The problem came when I decided to put a few things in my suitcase before driving the five minutes back to the airport. I opened the trunk. put the things in, closed the trunk, and got back in the car. But when I went to start the cars, my keys were gone. Oh, shoot, I must have left them in the trunk! But no worries. I’m in the car. All I have to do is push the open trunk button.

I push the button and nothing happens. Weird. I open the door and immediately the horn starts going off. Whaaaa? Apparently—and no one can explain exactly how this happened—the alarm somehow got pushed on the keys. How that happened while the keys were in the trunk, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a new feature. Lock your keys in the trunk? No problem. We’ll automatically set the alarm so you can’t get them out. Anyone who has a new Nissan Sentra, I’d love to know if you can figure this out.

Anyway, I still had an hour and a half, and the airport was only five minutes away. Here’s where things get crazy. It seems that Budget car rental is named budget for a reason. As in, “I’m sorry our budget is too small to send anyone to help you from five minutes away.” I spent, no lie, forty minutes explaining what happened and asking this crazy woman, to send someone to get me so I wouldn’t miss my flight, which was the last Delta flight of the day. I had to fly to Sacramento to attend a library event the next day.

So yeah, that was too much to ask for. Every single item was like pulling teeth with her. She must have asked me ten times how to spell Greenwich, Connecticut. She couldn’t find the Westchester airport. She didn’t believe that the gas station I was at was only listed as Merritt Pkwy North, and didn’t have a street address, even when I had the gas station attendant tell her. At one point she suggested I call the police to get a ride. Five minutes after I hung up with her, another employee calls back to see why I told her I was going to call 9-1-1. “I didn’t tell her that. She told me!” “Oh, yeah, she’s an idiot. Never mind.”

They finally told me to leave my car there and call a taxi. Except the only taxi company in town had a guy who knew only one word of English. Taxi. I have no problem with people for whom English is a second language. Some of my most entertaining conversations have been with taxi drivers from foreign countries. But the guy whose job it is to get a taxi to you? Really?

“ghg kkjjuyhs kkhkm,;c taxi”

“Yes, I need a taxi. I am at the Mobile gas station on the Merritt Pkwy North and I have to get to the airport in time to catch a flight by 4:30.”

“lljjkjk nkndkjdd jiggtysn taxi”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that.”

“hhgftml jskkjky nijidi buzz buzz taxi.”

“I’m having difficulty understanding you. Are you sending a taxi? I’m in a big hurry here. My flight leaves in forty-five minutes.”

“ghgghgr gyggd piggly wiggly taxi.”

“Did you hear me? Are you sending a taxi?”

“vermin chow, tingle broom, taxi.”

(I’m not sure if he actually starting saying real words or if I was just piecing them together to form words in my head. But it still didn’t make any sense.)

“Is there someone else I can talk to? I really need a taxi.”

Click

I guess he couldn’t understand me any more than I could understand him, because a taxi never arrived. And when I called back, the phone just rang and rang. Just when I was sure I had missed my flight—it was exactly 4:00, and my flight left in thirty minutes—an amazing, awesome, incredible tow truck driver showed up. I’m serious, one day this guy is going to show up in a book up mine and he’ll be the totally awesome hero, who tows cars and kills vampires with a silver crowbar.

I’m still not entirely sure how he did it, but using some kind of slick oily spray, a state of the art tow bar that could actually turn sideways, and amazing driving, he slid my front wheel drive car away from the curb, hooked, it up, and drove me to the airport in amazing time. And this was after trying about a dozen ways to open the trunk.

I got to the counter at twenty after and somehow made it past them, through security, and onto my plane in ten minutes flat. Only then did I call my wife who had spent the day driving the boys to California on her own, and say, “Well, I had an interesting day.”

Of course, on my last leg of the trip we had a woman go into labor—yeah really. But that’s another plane story.

So in honor of my mishaps, I’m posting a song about when the band was scheduled to recorded at a casino in Montreux, using the Rolling Stones Mobile studio. Before they could get there the Casino burned to the ground when a guy shot a flare gun into the the ceiling at a Frank Zappa concert. (I know how you feel guys.)

This classic song, is one of the few tunes that you know just from the beginning guitar riff. Bum, bum, bum. Bum bum, ba dum. If you ever looked like this, you heard it at pretty much every dance you went to.

(Yeah, that really is me in the blinding yellow track suit, with the long hair and mustache. I especially like the “Families are Forever” pillow behind me.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Right Fit

(Friday, when I should have been posting my latest Retro-Friday, I had a rather annoying incident involving a rental car, a taxi dispatcher, inadvertently placed keys, and the last flight of the day. Never fear though. This week we'll do Retro-Tuesday and Retro-Friday. Bonus!)

Back in what feels like an entirely different lifetime, I opened a couple of computer stores in Northern California. For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, I failed pretty miserably inside of a year. Suffice it to say that I was a great salesperson, an inexperienced manager, and a terrible accountant. When the dust had cleared, I found myself in a position where I would be forced to close both stores and lay off all of my employees in only a few days.

At the very last moment, a possible miracle arrived in the person of two men who offered to take over the stores. A meeting was set up where we were to discuss various options over lunch. My first clue that something was not entirely kosher should have been the restaurant. It was a dimly-lit, rather shabby, Chinese food place (and no this is not a kosher restaurant joke) where the men seemed to be very well known. Clearly this was not a real top-notch place, and just as clearly, they were regulars here. Imagine one of those Italian places mob leaders meet in all the movies, but change the ethnicity of the food.

At first they said all the right things. We want to keep the stores open. We don’t want to lay off any employees. We have lots of experience doing this. You didn’t do anything wrong.

But the longer we talked, the more uncomfortable I began to feel. They seemed . . . slimy. They didn’t answer my questions openly. They avoided specifics. They didn’t have any references I was comfortable with. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have walked away immediately. Except these weren’t ordinary circumstances. If I didn’t work with these men, my stores would close and my employees would be out of work. I had to decide if this solution was better than no solution at all.

I recently read this article http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/69474/ about an author who reminds me a lot of these men. He appealed to authors who felt desperate. They had no money, no prospects of getting published, lots of debt. He seemed like a way out. And not only that, but he was a smooth talker. He knew people. He offered “connections.” The only catch was that essentially you had to give him all recognition, all control, and your complete trust. The students he spoke to had to decide whether signing a contract to write for him was a better choice than signing no contract at all.

A lot of times the publishing world feels this way. Do I sign the first agent to offer me a deal—even if I don’t have a good feeling about her? Do I publish my book with a publisher who has a terrible contract and a bad record? Do I go with the publisher that maybe even charges me to publish my book? Do I give up on publishers entirely and create an e-book on my own?

What makes these decisions so difficult is that often there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. If you don’t go with the agent who doesn’t seem like a very good fit, you may not get an agent at all. If you don’t publish with the publisher who wants a $3,000 deposit, maybe no one will publish your book. At least if you create an e-book it will have a “chance” of someone buying it.

The thing is, you have to step back and look at the big picture. If your book really is good enough that a legitimate publisher will accept it, there’s a good chance another publisher will be interested too. If not this book, then maybe the next one. If one agent thinks your writing is good enough to sell, isn’t it likely others will too?

On the other hand, if the publisher isn’t legit, or the agent isn’t very good, are you really better off signing your baby into their hands than not signing at all? Once you’ve published your book with a publisher who may sell only a handful of copies—if that—or who doesn’t do any marketing, or who may never pay you a cent, you’ve lost the chance to sell it to anyone else. Once you’ve had a bad agent get rejections from all the major houses, it’s difficult or even impossible to resubmit to them. Not to mention the time and energy you’ve wasted.

Going back to my original story, the men at the meeting pushed me to sign a contract then and there. When I told them I wanted to think it over, they began threatening to cancel the whole deal. That was enough for me. I got up and left the meeting. Of course, once they realized I was really going, they made me take the contract with me. Looking it over later that day, I realized I was giving them all of my inventory and assets, while they were guaranteeing absolutely nothing. They didn’t guarantee to keep the stores open. They didn’t assume any leases or debts.

As I talked to other people, I discovered these men had pulled this same scam many times. As soon as I signed the contract, they would have taken all of my assets and disappeared. Signing a deal with them was actually worse than not signing anything at all. Any time a publisher or agent asks you for money up front, I guarantee that you are better off with no deal at all.

I’m not saying all bad fits are scams. There are lots of smaller publishers who just don’t have much in the way of resources. There are agents who are simply not the best fit for your work, or don’t have the types of connections other more successful agents do. And maybe they will work out just fine. You might do perfectly well in either of those situations. Sometimes an imperfect fit is better than no fit at all.

But if you decide to sign a less than ideal deal, make sure you are doing it because it’s the right solution for you, and not because you feel it is the only solution. A good agent once told me that when you reach a certain point of writing, you are publishable. Then it’s just a matter of finding the right fit at the right time. Don’t be wooed by someone telling you how incredible you are, or how you have to sign right away. Of that this is your only chance at success.

If this opportunity you are considering isn’t the right one, have the confidence in yourself and your work to walk away—knowing that down the road you will find the right fit, and that by saying no now, you are getting that much closer to the yes you are looking for.

So how do you feel? If you had the chance to sign with an agent, even of that agent wasn’t very good and didn’t have the best contacts, would you do it anyway, figuring, “Hey, at least it’s an agent.” If you got an offer to publish your book by a publisher most authors were unhappy with, would you go ahead anyway? Or would you wait for the best match for you and your work?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Not Me!

When I was in school (you know back before computers, DVDs, whiteboards, felt tip pens, cars, fire. Okay maybe not that long ago, but you get the idea) I was often accused of thinking that the rules everyone else had to follow didn’t apply to me. I talked in class without being called on. I stared out the window and daydreamed. I had swordfights with dull scissors. I left school grounds to look for fossils during recess. I wrote on my desk. I taped up a sign that said class had been canceled due to a heating failure.

This didn’t help my grades (or my mother’s health) most of the time. My teachers constantly told me how much better I would be doing if I just paid attention and followed the rules. Interestingly enough, many of the things that got me in trouble in class have helped me in my writing. Having a vivid imagination, envisioning epic battles, having way too much to say, and a desire to explore unknown territory are great ways to come up with creative story ideas.

Not coloring inside the lines can be great for an author. But just as it was a detriment in school, believing that the rules don’t apply to you as an author can have disastrous results.

It might sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth (an expression I’ve never completely understood since speaking out of only one side of your mouth makes you seem odd at the least, and highly suspicious of some nefarious activity at the worst.) How can not following the rules be both good and bad?

Thinking differently is a good way to find a new perspective. When I was imaging Demon Spawn, I started with the basic assumption most people have that angels are good and demons are bad—with humans falling somewhere in between. But what if you saw the world through the eyes of the demons? Might angels be bad? How would demons view Hell—their home—and the humans damned to spend eternity there? Not sticking with the usual rules helped me see things if a different light.

But one thing I see a lot as I teach writing classes and attend conferences is people who believe the things they are being taught don’t apply to them. Prologues don’t usually work? Mine does. Beginning your story with a dream sequence is a bad idea? Mine doesn’t count. Head-hopping within the same chapter or section is generally a bad idea? But look at this great author or that one who got away with it.

We agree with the rules that we followed in our books, but the ones we broke are really more like suggestions. It’s okay for us to break them, because they don’t apply to us.

Here’s the thing. Every rule has been broken by a good author who knows what they are doing. I recently read, “You,” which is written in present tense, second person. “You see this. You do that.” See what your creative writing teacher thinks of that idea. I’ve read books by famous authors that start with flashbacks, dreams, flowery descriptions. I’ve read books where absolutely nothing happens for the first hundred pages. If you want to disagree with a writing rule, you can find an example of pretty much anything.

Sports are the same way. There are amazing basketball shooters who launch the ball off balance, from one side of their body, while falling away. There are batters who stick their elbow out, or bounce their arm up and down while the pitcher is throwing the ball. There are quarterbacks that throw sidearm. Superstars break all the rules and get away with it. Does that mean coaches should teach young athletes to imitate those styles?

Those athletes get away with these flaws because they are so incredible. They succeed despite the fact that they are “doing it wrong.” They’ve managed to teach themselves to hit the ball or make the shot, while compensating for the errors that you or I could not get away with. If we tried to imitate them, we’d fail miserably.

Can you break a rule and still write a great book? Of course. Does that mean you should ignore the rules? Definitely not. If you fill a chapter with back story and infodumps, 99.9 times out of a hundred you are wrong. Can you make it work? Maybe, but the odds are hugely stacked against you. The rules are there for a reason. Before you break them, ask yourself if there is any way you can avoid it. Do you really need that flashback on page two? Even if it will probably get your novel rejected? Is your story really strong enough to survive a protagonist that doesn’t learn and grow during the story?

Breaking rules is inevitable, and sometimes it is the right thing to do. But the rules are there because the vast majority of the time, breaking them will make your story worse, not better. Every time you are tempted to break the rules, do three things.

1) Make sure you understand what the rule is and why it is there in the first place.

2) Examine your story and see if there is a way to accomplish what you want without breaking the rule.

3) Try writing your prose while keeping the rule and see which version your beta readers like better.

If after all that, you still want to break the rule, go ahead and swing away. Just make sure you hit the ball.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Retro Friday

Last week I started a new feature called retro Friday, where I introduce readers younger than me to some of what I consider the classic rock music of my teen years. I always liked rock. But I don’t think I really started paying attention to the bands themselves until I was maybe in seventh or eighth grade. I think maybe my interest at that time came from how much you were identified by your music. You were either a metal head, and listened to Metallica, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, etc. A punker—the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, The Clash. A discoer which required you to be a better dancer than I ever was. Or you listened to Barry Manilow and got beat up a lot.

Mostly I leaned toward heavy metal. (Okay, I might have had a Carpenters album or two, and I thought Billy Joel was pretty cool.) But I had a lot of friends who had the whole spiked hair, safety pin through the cheek thing going on. I honestly was not a huge fan of most of the music they listened to. It sounded like a bunch of screaming for the most part. But every once in a while, I’d hear a song that I really liked.

About the time I started high school, a new phrase was becoming more popular. New Wave. A lot of time it still referred to punk bands. But over time New Wave bands started to separate themselves. The cool thing about New Wave was that it didn’t sound like anything else out there. It wasn’t metal. It wasn’t punk. It wasn’t the slick rock of bands like Styx, Queen, and Boston. It had its own sound. Bands like the Knack and Talking Heads had a combination of interesting lyrics, a cool new sound, and an attitude that was still punk anti-establishment, but with less of a head banger mentality.

Right about then, a friend of mine whose dad owned what seemed to be a million real estate offices in Northern California introduced me to a band called The Cars. I loved them as soon as I heard them. There are a few bands whose sound is so unique you know a song is by them as soon as you hear it. The Cars were one of those bands.

Here’s one of my favorite songs off that first album he played for me that day.

This video was made by a fan, but I love it because it captures exactly who amazed I felt when I first heard the song. Here's the URL, in case the actual video doesn't come through on all of my links.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1sO6CH2bwM


Sunday, October 31, 2010

What Makes an Author?

Had a ball Saturday. Spent the afternoon at the Provo Library Teen Book Fest. Really well done event with lots of readers, authors, and tons of cool events. Sat on a fantasy panel with Brandon Sanderson and Brandon Mull. They suggested maybe I should change my name to Brandon Scott Savage. I’m totally considering it. I think my favorite part of the panel was when I mentioned (regarding B&N creating a separate section for Teen Paranormal Romance) that even Mull put romance in his Fablehaven series. His response, “Even thirteen-year-olds want to get it on,” drew audible gasps and a suggestion that we put a mute on his mike. Very funny stuff. Scott Westerfeld gave a great presentation. I think the Provo library is posting a video in case you missed it.

That evening, Jen and I got to make up our youngest two sons as The Grim Reaper and a zombie for Halloween. (I know Halloween was actually on Sunday, but here in Utah, most of the kids go out Saturday night when the holiday falls on Sunday) I think the coolest part was using latex to create bloody peeling sores on Jake’s face. Man why didn’t I know about latex when I was a kid? So yeah, good times. I also discovered the band I plan on posting about this Friday, for retro Friday, is reuniting for their first new album in twenty three years. I won’t say who the band is, but the announcement was made less than two weeks ago, and I can’t wait to hear the new album.

Staying mum on Demon Spawn except to say that it should be out to publishers by the time you read this. More news soon on Farworld, The Fourth Nephite, and Dark Memories.

I had several ideas for today’s blog. But a question I was asked Saturday made up my mind. The question sounds pretty straightforward. What does it take to be an author? I guess the answer could depend to some extent to how you define an author. Do you have to publish something? Do you have to complete a book, story, article? Is it what you believe or what others believe about you?

I’d love to get your opinions, but to me being an author is all about belief.

Writing is good, but alone it doesn’t make you an author. Anyone with a pencil and a piece of paper can string words together. Getting published is a wonderful feeling. But there are plenty of people whose words have shown up in publications, who are not—in my opinion—anywhere close to being authors. And I know some incredible authors who haven’t published a single word.

I also don’t believe it matters what anyone else thinks about you. I published my first three books with a Utah publisher probably no one outside of Utah, Idaho, and maybe a few other western states had ever heard of. I often write when I am on planes. Occasionally people would see what I was doing and ask, “Are you an author?” I hated answering yes, because the next question was ALWAYS, “Have I heard of any of your books?” The truthful answer was something like, “Not unless you’ve ever heard of Deseret or Seagull book stores.”

When I answered no, they probably hadn’t heard of my books, they always gave me this kind of pitying look. So I started saying, “Oh yeah. I’m sure you’ve heard of Cutting Edge and House of Secrets.” Of course they would nod. “Yes, that does sound familiar.” It was win/win. I felt good about myself and they could tell all their friends they sat on the plane next to a famous author.

The thing is, it didn’t matter whether they thought I was an author or not. It didn’t change my accomplishments, my talent, my desire, or my belief in myself. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered there are people I never might have imagined who had actually heard of and read my books, and people who hadn’t heard of authors I knew were New York Times bestsellers.

I didn’t become an author when I got an agent. I didn’t become an author when Shadow Mountain agreed to publish Farworld. It didn’t make me an author when I had a book sell over 20,000 copies, and I won’t be any more of an author if I sell a million copies.

What made me an author was the day I decided I was going to take my writing seriously. When I decided I was going to study other authors and see how they did what they did. When I committed to improving my craft to the very best of my ability, learning every marketing tip and trick I could, and working as hard as I could to accomplish my goals.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but being an author comes down almost completely to state of mind. Writing can be a great hobby. It can be a way to relieve stress. There’s nothing wrong with starting a story and not finishing it; any more than there’s anything wrong with not finishing a drawing or guitar lessons or making a batch of chocolate chip cookies. (Okay, that may be going a bit too far. There is something morally wrong about not finishing chocolate chip cookies. Unless, you let me eat the cookie dough, in which case I’m down with that.)

There’s nothing wrong with dabbling in any of the arts.

But if you want to cross the line to being an author, the first step is inside your head. I’ve met lots of people who after receiving constructive criticism on their books, decided that editing was too much work, and found someone who would publish what they had written. Maybe they consider themselves authors. They wrote a complete book. And if you are willing to spend the money, you can get a copy. But to me a real author is the person who wants to make their book the very best it can be. The day you decide that writing is a craft that requires study, practice, and lots and lots of works—and then start putting in the time and effort that requires—you can rightfully begin calling yourself an author in my book.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Retro Friday

Looking around the blogosphere, I’ve found that everyone seems to have certain topics for certain days of the week. Myopic Monday (Where authors ignore the whole story by focusing on when and when not to use “the”), Terrible Tuesday (where you get to blog about the people who were really mean to you as a kid and how you are going to make them the villain who gets painfully killed in your next novel). Flatulent Friday. Anyhow, you get the idea.

I’m definitely not the punctuation king. In fact I occasionally throw in a few extra commas, in case I haven't used enough. And I try to make sure I have at least one semicolon every few pages. (For those of you as punctuation illiterate as me, a semicolon is NOT what you are left with after intestinal surgery.) And I don’t have enough friends to do Make a Friend Monday.

What I am pretty familiar with is awesome rock songs of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Interestingly enough, a lot of those songs are showing up on commercials these days. My two youngest kids occasionally hear one of them, look at me in amazement, and go, “You mean that’s a real song, Dad? You didn’t just make it up?”

Heh, heh. Punks!

Anyway, as a writer of novels that are often read by younger generation than my own, I often get introduced to cool new bands. So I thought it might be fun every Friday, to introduce you to what I consider to be some of the coolest songs of my generation.

Therefore, every Friday until I get tired of doing it, (or enough of you throw virtual tomatoes) will be Retro Friday. Where I introduce my younger readers to some songs I think they need to add to their music vocabulary.

Today’s song “Stray Cat Strut” is not nearly as old as say, classic CCR, or the Doobies, but it is just so dang cool. You can’t listen to this without wanting to put on your shades and walk slowly (and suavely) down Main Street.

Stray Cat Strut

This came out in the early 80’s. And no I didn’t have hair like that, ever!

I couldn’t embed the link to the original music video, but you can find it here. Until, next Friday, enjoy..

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Four Things

First thing: A big shout out to my friends at Two Rivers High School. Thanks so much for an awesome night. I had a great time. Cassie Cox and the folks at Olive Garden deserve a huge thanks for putting on a great event and introducing several of us YA authors to some truly amazing kids. It was a wonderful time and awesome company!

Second thing: If you have some free time this Saturday, and live anywhere in the Utah County area, I'd love to have you drop by the Teen Book Fest at the Provo library. Scott Westerfeld--one of my all time fav YA authors will be there along my buddies Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson, Ally Condie, and with a ton of author awesome teen authors from here in Utah. I may actually even wear a costume. More info here.

Third thing: The charming and lovely author, Krista Lynne Jensen, gave me this spiff blogger award, if I promised to quit stalking her.

Along with the aforementioned stipulation, I think I am also supposed to list five of my favorite words and pass this award on to two other deserving people.

1) Miasma--A noxious atmosphere or influence. I think I learned this word when I was about twelve and reading a Peter Straub book. I love it.

2) Meander-- To move aimlessly and idly without fixed direction. I may have learned this word at about the same time. It showed up regularly on my elementary school report cards, along with daydreamer. I like it because it sounds like exactly what it is.

3) "Dicked in the nob."--A regency phrase meaning silly or crazed. Okay, I know this is actually a phrase, not a word. But I learned it from one of my critique group members, and it has become a staple of conversation since then.

4) Truculent--Disposed to fight. Pugnacious. Don't you just love a word whose definition is another cool word? My son isn't bad, he's just truculent. You know, pugnacious. It almost sounds cute. (And for the record my sons are much more inclined to ducking and running than truculence. It comes from their dad, who joined the Army and went, "Wait, why did I do this again?")

5) Nominal--Along with several other definitions, insignificantly small; trifling. Don't you get a kick out of when people use this kind of word in contracts or ads when talking about fees? Because if it's really such a nominal fee, why don't we just waive it altogether? Eh?

And finally, I will pass this award on to Annette Lyon and Lu Ann Staheli, two of the most literate people I know.

Finally, the fourth thing: My favorite Halloween joke. What did the skeleton order at the bar? A mop and a broom. Yeah, I know, not exactly scintillating humor. But it always cracks me up. My ten year old son, who says he wants to be a sit-down comedian when he grows up, tells me I need to work on my routine.

Have a great Halloween, and come by the library if you get a chance.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Knowing Your Audience

Several recent posts got me thinking. In this post on agent, Nathan Bransford’s blog, Livia Blackburne talks about a test in which men and women had different reactions to seeing others in pain. Here, agent Sarah LaPolla talks about what a strong female character is to her, along with links to what a strong female character means to a YA author, and an editor. Finally, my own agent, Michael Bourret, talked about B&N rearranging their teen book section to focus on popular genres.

What do all of these have in common? Audience. You know, the people you actually write your books for.

As a reader you may not think about audience a lot until you discover someone else hated a book you really loved. Or the other way around. Maybe you have a discussion over lunch where your best friend gushes on and on about a book that totally didn’t work for you. Or maybe you see a Goodreads review where a fellow reader lambastes a book you adored. You ask yourself how it’s possible for someone else to have such a completely opposite reading experience as you did.

If you’ve been an author for very long, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The same day someone tells you how they raced through your book in one day and immediately started to read it again, you get a review from someone else who says your plot was full of holes, you characters weren’t even deep enough to be called two dimensional, and your ending was weaker than your mom’s cherry Kool-Aid (the kind where she tried to get by on half the sugar and only one envelope of mix to stretch it out.)

Obviously the story didn’t change from one reader to another. So why the difference? Part of it can be chalked up to expectations. Maybe Reader A went into the book expecting nothing more than a quick, fun, romp. While Reader B, was looking for something packed full of meaning and deep insights. I’ve been surprised more than once by people telling me how much they loved a book that technically at least, I knew wasn’t very well written.

More often, though, it has to do with what we call tastes. What you like, want, or expect in a book is affected by your background, previous books you’ve read, your mood, the genres you lean toward, your age, your gender, and dozens of other things. You don’t give it much thought when you are reading a book though. You either like it or you don’t.

For example, I started reading Twilight when the buzz was just beginning to really build. I knew it was a vampire book. I’d heard it was a “chick book.” And I knew that it was selling like crazy. That was about all I went in knowing. I soon discovered there were two groups of vampires. The good guys and the bad guys. As an action adventure, fantasy loving, paranormal reading, testosterone pumped guy, I immediately began anticipating the big battle. Good vampires + bad vampires = climatic battle near the end of book. I won’t tell you the words I blurted out when I discovered the entire battle takes place while Bella is knocked out and we don’t see any of it. But they weren’t, “Gosh, let’s get back to the smooching.”

Now that doesn’t mean I didn’t like Twilight. I thought it was a cool romance. For all the back and forth about whether the series was good or not, Myers nailed her characters and obviously appealed to the target audience. But it wasn’t the right story for me. I wasn’t that audience. In my version of the story, the battle would be great. Bella would kick butt, and drive at least one stake through the heart of the bad guys. After which I would have been fine with more sparkling and smooching. With the same expectations, Hunger Games was the perfect book for me. It worked on all levels as I devoured it.

As a reader, it’s pretty easy to adapt to the books that interest you. Generally you discover certain authors and certain genres. You read the kinds of books you like. You learn which of your friends and which blogs share your tastes and you pay closer attention to their recommendations than say, The New York Times book review. Hopefully you occasionally dip your toe in unknown waters, but when you do, it’s with the understanding that the water there might not be what you normally like.

As an author, it’s a little trickier. You have to understand your audience and write, if not specifically for them, at least toward them. You have to know what other books your audience has read. What kinds of characters they like. How big of twists they expect. What types of endings they are willing to put up with. And on and on. Yes, you can write for yourself. But if you do, either make sure you only expect you to buy your books, or that there are plenty of readers like you buying books.

So how to you write for your audience?

First of all, remember that all book reading audiences are readers first and foremost. The biggest complaints I see from readers involve slow moving plots, flat characters, and disappointing endings. Before you even consider what kind of story your readers will enjoy, you need to nail those three things. Yes, big name authors have gotten away with slow beginnings. You can’t. You have to grab your readers early with a gripping plot, and keep them hanging on every chapter. Your characters MUST have depth. They must be proactive. They must have a goal. They must have flaws. They must learn and grow. I teach a two hour hands-on class that barely touches on all the things your main characters must have. And finally the payoff has to be big. Your readers have hung with you for hours at least, and possibly days or weeks. Don’t wrap up the story in a couple of paragraphs unless you want your readers screaming for your instant tarring and feathering.

Once you’ve got that down, make sure you understand exactly the age and genre you are focusing on. Read books for the same target audience. The Chosen One and Uglies are both books about teenage girls, but they are very different genres. Can the same people enjoy both? Absolutely, but neither book would have worked if it had been written in the style of the other. If you don’t know what books are written to a similar audience or haven’t read them, stop writing and spend a little time reading what has worked in the past.

I’m not saying to copy another author’s voice or style. What I am saying is to study why certain books worked. What was it about Twilight that hit such a nerve with romance readers—especially younger ones? What made Scott Westerfeld’s world so compelling? Use that knowledge to make your unique story stronger.

As an author, I know exactly the reader I am targeting with each book I write. I hope that my story is universal enough to be popular with a wide range of readers, but if I can’t hit my target group dead on, I’m already starting with one huge strike against me. With Demon Spawn, I targeted teens, both male and female—especially those who liked dystopian urban fantasies like Uglies, Hunger Games, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and others. I had strong romantic elements with both angels and demons for those who enjoy paranormal romances like Fallen, Hush Hush, etc, combined plenty of action and adventure. I had a strong female character, who takes chances, but who is naïve when it comes to guys and believing everything she’s been taught. I gave her plenty of room to grow as the story unfolds.

As you plan and write your novel, remember who will be reading it, and make sure that you give them a story and characters that will resonate with them. Make your story your own. Make it something that stands out from the crowd. But also make it something that will be loved by readers in general and especially by “your” readers.