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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Outside Looking In

Tonight, as I stood outside my hotel room for nearly an hour, waiting for the maintenance man to figure why my key wouldn’t open the door (he finally had to bring a huge jack-like tool and pry off the outside of the lock, causing me to have to change rooms), I pondered what I should blog about. Then it occurred to me. Why not blog about being kept out of where you want to be?

It was either that or trying to come up with an analogy about the bathtub that doesn’t drain, and leaks—plink, plink, plink—all night long into two inches of standing water, but you don’t want to call the maintenance guy again, so you just live with it. And bathtub analogies are so overdone these days. You know, bathtubs are like e-book readers. It took a while for them to catch on, but eventually everyone started using them—except people who stink. And because of bathtubs, big publishers and agents became extinct, and the individual could finally decide what was really good without interfering editors.

Like that.

So back to being kept out of your figurative hotel room. Which in this case represents being published. As you stand outside the door—which represents the barriers to getting published (see the bathtub analogy above)—you think about all the good things you are missing. In fact if you press your ear to the door, you can almost hear everyone inside having a good time without you. Of course it could just be episodes of Family Guy and King of the Hill, which you can only watch while you’re on the road, because your wife hates both shows (and yeah, she's probably right.) But either way, you feel like you’re missing out.

And the more you wait in the hallway, clutching your chicken salad sandwich (which you ended up with because you went to some crazy Ohio fast food place that doesn’t actually sell burgers, chicken, or any other unhealthy thing, and has muffins instead of fries for a side dish), the more you start to think you’ll never get past that door. Maybe you’re not good enough to get inside the room. Maybe you should go to the little place down the street that has metal keys—which always work. And a vibrating bed—which only eats your quarters.

You wonder if there’s some trick to getting in the door. Maybe you have to know someone who has connections to the maintenance man. Maybe you have to do something different with your key. Hold the door while you slide it in and out? Slide it fast? Slide it slow? Slide two times quickly?

Every time those little lights flash yellow and red, instead of green and red, you become more depressed, and start eating your chocolate chip muffin, even though it’s supposed to be dessert. You know it’s only the key that’s being rejected. Not you. But you still feel like the door not opening is a direct reflection on you, personally.

But here’s the thing. Yes, knowing the maintenance man can help. But lots of people open the door without knowing the maintenance man. And there really is no trick. And whether or not the door opens for you says nothing about who you are. You just have to have the right key for the right door at the right time. As a very smart agent said to me once, once you reach a certain point, your writing is publishable. After that, it’s just a matter of finding the right person, for the right project, at the right time.

The thing is not to let that big heavy door psych you out. Doors can keep you out, but with the right key they swing open so easily you wonder why it took you so long to get in. But you have to be persistent, and eat the occasional chocolate chip brownie. And once you get inside, you’ll discover that the people in the room are no different than you. Except for Stewie, who really is different from everyone, and not just because his head is shaped like a football. They just happened to get through the door a little before you. But it’s a big room, and there is always room for more people. Especially if they bring more muffins and like strange and occasionally inappropriate humor.

Don’t like the analogy? Just wait till you see what I do next week with airline food!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Worth of a Book

It’s getting very close to a time that is both exciting and nerve-wracking for an author. You’ve written your story. You’ve acquired the agent of your dreams. You’ve gone back and forth, changing, improving, polishing and editing. Finally your agent says, “Wow, this story really stinks!” Okay, that’s not really what your agent says—except in those reoccurring dreams that wake you up weeping on your giant pillow. (Ten points for the movie reference.)

What your agents does say is, “I think we’re ready to send this out.” Which translates roughly as, “You know that book you’ve been eating, breathing, and sweating over for the last nine months? Well you’re about to find out if it has any value in the real world.”

Of course that really isn’t true. Because whether or not the book sells, and even the size of the advance, does not really place an accurate value on a book. If it did, J. K. Rowling wouldn’t have gotten a single rejection. And books that completely bombed wouldn’t have gotten seven figure advances. It’s amazing how many times one publisher turns a book down, and another snaps it up, or the wide variance in offers from one publisher to another. You can’t set a price on a book, the way you can on a say a hot pastrami sandwich with brown mustard on marble rye, with a homemade dill pickle that . . . yummm . . . Sorry, moving on.

But it feels true.

You start having these discussions where your kids suddenly say things like, “Hey, Dad, if your book sells for a lot of money, can we go on a Disney Cruise?” You find your wife pricing a new tile floor and granite counter tops. Your oldest son asks what kind of car you’re buying him when he gets home. And you remind them over and over that you’ll be thrilled if the book sells at all.

But deep inside, you’re asking yourself the same question. Will it sell? Will it be a multi-book deal? Will it sell? Who would be my ideal publisher? Will it sell? Will we retain foreign rights? Will it sell? You tell yourself not to dream, but really you can’t help it. You go from researching all the deals you can find on Publishers Marketplace to bracing yourself on how you’ll handle things if you don’t get any offers. Because even the best book, repped by the best agent, may not sell.

What makes it even worse is a part of you is saying how crazy the whole thing is anyway. “You know what I don’t understand?” says a voice that sounds exactly like Andy Rooney at the end of Sixty Minutes. “Why anyone would pay anything for a story you made up? You can’t eat it. You can’t wear it. You can’t drive it to work. You can’t even touch it unless you spend a few bucks for a ream of paper and the ink to print it on.”

And you know the voice is right. Roughly a year ago you were about to fall asleep when you imagined a teenage demon waiting for a train full of humans who had been cast into Hell. Who would pay good money for a story you dreamed up?

But then you start thinking about all the books you’ve read and loved. You look around your office and realize that between you, your wife, and your kids, you own well over 2,000 books. Even if a good chunk of them are paperbacks (and probably 1/3rd of them are not) that’s still over $15,000 worth of stories. All of them made up in someone’s head. All of them nothing more than words on paper. And even if someone offered you twice that much to take away all of the joy you had reading them, you wouldn’t even consider the offer.

And there are certain books you wouldn’t give up for any amount of money. The first time you read The Outsiders, or Lord of the Flies, and were just blown away. All the times you’ve read Where the Red Fern Grows to your kids, and they never knew you suddenly had to take lots of drinks of water toward the end of the book not because you were thirsty, but because you were trying to keep them from seeing you cry. Lord of the Rings, Ender’s Game, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Something Wicked This Way Comes. All stories that you wouldn’t give up for any amount of money.

And maybe you aren’t Tolkien or Bradbury. But you must be doing something right when you get e-mails that say things like, “You deserve an award winning medal. I have never read books for fun until my teacher, Mrs. Cox, requested this extrodinary book to my achknowledgement. I thought it was some other book. I took a look at the cover and it sparked something inside me. I got two pages into the Water Keep, and it caused a downpour of gasaline on my desire to read.. I read your book for hours upon hours fuiling the fire lit inside me. “

And you realize that regardless of what happens (or doesn’t happen) over the next few weeks, the value of a good book is . . . priceless.

So what books would you never give up, no matter the price, and why?