Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Good the Bad & the Ugly of NaNoWriMo

Yep, it’s that time of year again. The time when turkeys cower in fear, leaves multiply on your lawn faster than rabbits, costume companies pretend there actually is a reason to take kids’ cartoon characters and make “sexy” versions of them, and last but not least, the time of year when hundreds of thousands of people decide to write a book in a month—I speak of course about National Novel Writing Month.

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, check out their website here. It’s a really cool idea and has picked up amazing steam since it started in 1999. The basic concept is that you and a bunch of other people all try to write a novel (or at least 50,000 words of a novel) in the month of November.

First of all, let me say that I think anything that gets people writing is awesome. So many times people tell me they’ve always wanted to write a book. And I say, “Well then start writing.” And whenever you do anything with a group of people who have the same goals, it makes it a little easier. So, yeah, NaNoWriMo=very cool.

If I stopped my blog right here, everything would be great. I said the right thing to the right people at the right time. Now is the part where I doff my hat and exit stage left.

Except that, while I think NaNoWriMo is very cool for a lot of people, I also think that there could be times when it is actually could be a bad thing.

Here’s why.

Imagine applying the book in a month concept to other activities. Compose a symphony in a month. Train for a marathon in a month. Build ten houses in a month. Perform 100 heart transplants in a month. Have six kids in . . . okay, maybe we will stop the analogy there.

The thing is, different people write at different paces and different books take more or less time. I have written an entire book in close to a month. I’ve also taken a year or more to write another book. Quantity does not always equal quality.

I was recently talking to an editor about an author. The editor thought the author was a great writer, but the author’s work often seemed rushed. The editor felt that the author was hurrying to finish one book after another without taking the time to get each of them right.

I know that NaNoWriMo isn’t about completing a final draft in a month. The idea is that you force yourself to crank out 50,000 words and then come back and edit them later. And that absolutely works for some authors. They do what we used to call in grade school a sloppy copy and then make it better and better as they rewrite.

If you are one of those kinds of people, NaNoWriMo may be a great fit for you. But not everyone can do that. You can’t always “force” creativity. Some stories just take a while to come together. And I worry especially for newer writers that if you start training yourself that writing is like mowing the lawn, you just get up start the mower and get to it, you might be training yourself to be a bad writer.

I think I’d be more comfortable with something where you had to spend x number of hours on your novel in a month. Maybe you create a character bible, maybe you outline, maybe you write that number of hours without worrying about how many words you complete. As an author I’d rather spend an hour writing a great page or even a great paragraph than an hour cranking out 2,000 words that will never be something I’d want to show the public.

I’m not saying don’t take part in NaNoWriMo. If nothing else you will learn whether you are able to write 2,000 words or more a day. I know lots of authors whose first published work came as a result of a NaNoWriMo project.

But if it doesn’t work, don’t feel like you are a failure. Writing is not brick laying. It’s not emptying trash cans. It’s a process that can come together all at once in a rush of inspired storytelling or sweat itself out word by painful word. Sometimes it involves outlining for weeks or months. Sometimes an entire story arrives in only a few minutes with a burst or fireworks and sounding trumpets.

Don’t worry about what other authors are doing around you. Don’t write YA because that’s what everyone is doing. Don’t write a novel in a month because it’s November are you are supposed to. Do what works for you and stick with it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What’s the Deal With Farworld?

At least ten times a week, I get e-mails similar to this one.

“Fire whoever is hindering the progress of farworld #3 & 4 Sent from my iPod”

Okay, that might be a little more vitriolic than some of the messages. But the sentiment is the same. I’ve read both of the Farworld books. I love them. I can’t find book 3.

Up until this point, I’ve hesitated to say much publicly since things seem to change almost daily. Even now, there are a still a few things that could change, but I feel I owe my readers some answers. So, here we go.

1) Why isn’t Air Keep out?

I don’t really know who to blame for the delay. The publisher? The economy? Other projects that have come up since then? Me? All of the above to one extent or another.

I can say that as anxious as many of my readers are, no one is more upset about this delay than I am. Right now, book four, Fire Keep should be out and I should be doing final edits on the last book in the series, Shadow Keep.

Problems started to come up shortly before book two came out. I had just finished spending a year promoting book 1, visiting over 400 schools and signing somewhere in the ballpark of 10,000 books, when my publisher told me there was a chance they might not do book 2. Needless to say that just about killed me. Fortunately, they did release book 2, but with no marketing $ at all.

Since then, book 3, Air Keep, has been on, off, on hold, maybe in paperback, and everything in between. At the same time, other projects have come up. As an author, you can only write what the publisher is willing to publish. However . . .

2) Is there going to be a book 3?

There is absolutely going to be a book 3. In fact, I promise in writing here and now that there will be three more books in the series and they will be written and published. They are, in order, Air Keep, Fire Keep, and Shadow Keep.

I am actively writing Air Keep. There are two other projects that I have to turn in first. But one will be turned in this week end, and the other will be turned in by the end of this month.

Once that is done, I will be working solely on Air Keep.

3) When will book 3 come out?

My goal is still to have it finished by the end of the year. I recently traded e-mails with the artist who did the artwork for the first 2 books. I would very much like to have him do the art for the final three books and he’s excited about it too. If I go through a traditional publisher, they set the release date. But if I self-publish it, which is very much a possibility, book three could be out as soon as the end of this year or early next year in e-book. And shortly after that in print.

4) Do you know what will happen in books 3-5?

Absolutely! I’ve always had the whole series planned out, and that has made waiting even harder. A couple of nights ago, I revealed the first chapter of Air Keep to my writing group and when I got done, there was total silence. Not what they expected at all.

I am so excited to let the rest of you experience what is in my head, that it is just about killing me. I recently discovered that there are no more copies of Water Keep in the warehouse. That means that over 30,000 copies have been shipped out. Along with library readers and people loaning books to other people, I estimate that over 50,000 people have read Water Keep. I think that means there a few people waiting for the rest of the series? Yes?

If I end up self-publishing, expect to start seeing chapters posted here starting in early November. I may do as many as ten before the book comes out. If I go with a traditional publisher, that could change.

5) Where will I be able to get Air Keep?

Regardless of how I publish the next three books, you will absolutely be able to buy both print and electronic versions online (Amazon, B&N, etc) as well as here on my website. I am also talking to a distributor who should be able to make them available in some stores as well (especially in Utah, and surrounding states.)

And since it’s been nearly three years since I did regular school visits, how fun would it be to schedule some more the first of next year?

If you have any other questions, post them in the comment section, and I will try and answer them.

Thanks,


Jeff

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Not So Great Divide

Let me apologize in advance for this post. How’s that for a convincing way to start? I’m pretty sure this is going to be too long, and I’m almost positive it will offend some people. Any better? I do okay in front of a room full of people, and I think I can hold my own writing fiction. But when it comes to writing what’s in my heart, I stumble, stray and stutter with great regularity. There you go. Proceed at your risk.

The thing is, there’s an important issue that I experience almost every day lately, and yet I haven’t seen it addressed to the extent I think it should be. There is a huge divide in this country right now. And it seems to be getting bigger all the time. It separates friends, family, and strangers.

Nope it’s not politics. And it’s not religion. But it is becoming almost as divisive. It’s controversial enough that it’s not something you can bring up at a party without fear of starting a fight. The divide I’m talking about is between self-published and traditionally published authors. The very fact that already I’m going to have people tell me self-published should be indy and traditional should be legacy tells you how far this separation has already gone. It’s creating it’s own PC language.

First, let me give you a little background. Just over ten years ago, I published my first book. It was with what was than called an independent publisher. Small, Utah-based, they were lucky if they sold 10,000 copies of a book. At the time there were no e-books, no print on demand, and audio books were generally stored on cassettes, Self-publishing was almost unheard of because you had to put up $10,000 or more and live with a garage full of books. People like Richard Paul Evans pulled it off, but they were the huge exception.

I also entered a world full of people I never knew about before. People who liked to write as much as I did. It was great. We did signings together, brainstormed marketing plans together, blogged together. Learned together.I also met lots of aspiring authors. I didn’t know half as much as they thought I did and probably 20% of what I thought I did. But I was happy to give them advice and learn from them as well.

Fast forward ten years. I’ve written a little over a million words of prose since then. Probably closer to two million if you include blog posts, articles, etc. I’ve had two agents. I’ve published eight books and have another three coming out by various publishers. I’ve taught about 100 classes.

And man how the publishing world has changed. When was the last time you bought an audio book on cassette. And $10k to print a book? Try nothing at all. E-books, blogs, podcasts, MP3 audiobooks. All of these things have come about since I published my first book. Really one of the only things that hasn’t changed is writing a good story.

During that time, I’ve made hundreds of great new writer and reader friends. But in the last year or so, something changed. I don’t want to single anyone out, but this is the perfect example of what’s happening around us.

A couple of months ago, a woman who I’ve considered a friend for years wrote a blog post about a series of books she e-published. It was a great post. She explained how she decided to self-publish, how she had gone about it, and how much she was making. It was a great post. Although I had recently signed with a great agent and was about to announce my deal with Harper, I was still very interested in self-publishing and had a couple of titles I was considering releasing or rereleasing myself.

So I replied with a comment that was something like, “Fantastic post! Sounds like you’ve found a great fit!” That was all I said. It seemed like a straight forward comment. Except a couple of days later, I got an e-mail from her. She was furious with me, accusing me of being patronizing and rude. I was seriously so shocked, I wondered if someone had hacked my e-mail account.

It turns out that she had misinterpreted my comment in a way I could never have imagined. She thought I was putting her down for self-publishing—saying that was where she belonged. The good news is that I think we managed to patch fences. The bad news is that our relationship was not the only one to suffer from the self-publishing/traditional-publishing chasm. And from what I can see it’s only getting worse.

Hopefully without offending anyone too badly let me try and explain what I am seeing. Being an author and having author friends has always been a little dicey. Someone always has it a little or a lot better than you do. They get released in hardback while you get released in paperback. They have an agent and you don’t. They get a bigger advance or sell more books or make it on a list or get an award.

Many of you know that James Dashner and I have been good friends for many years. When he got a big name agent, signed a big contract, and ultimately hit the NYT list, it just about killed me. I used to joke that it was a good thing we were such close friends or I couldn’t stand hanging out with him. A close friend of mine worded it best when I told her about my Harper deal. “I couldn’t be happier about this . . . unless it was me.”

We’d get jealous of each other’s successes and console each other when we were down. And don’t get me wrong, there were divides even then. I remember doing a signing with a big-six published author who heard about what house I was with and asked in a totally innocent way, “But those authors aren’t very good are they?” Ouch!

The thing was though, we were all on the same path. If we were mad at someone, it wasn’t because we thought they were wrong, but because they’d gotten there before we had. We were all on the same path, we were all climbing up the same mountain.

Then along came easy, free, self-publishing. Within 24 months, we went from everyone wants an agent and a six-figure contract to who needs agents and publishers. In general, I’d have to say I’ve been thrilled with the idea of e-books. Who wouldn’t like a reader to be able to buy your book anywhere anytime with the click of a button? Who wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of telling the agents and editors who have controlled your fate for years, “Hasta la vista, baby. I don’t need you anymore?”

I once told my children that the advances that have taken place in my lifetime: personal computers, the internet, cell phones, digital music and movies, GPS, etc. have changed our culture as much or more than cars, trains, and plains did previous generations. I think e-books are doing the same thing to publishing. Things could change in ways we can’t even imagine as authors right now.

Along with all the good news though, is something I never anticipated. Now there are two paths to publication. Instead of authors marching side-by-side, encouraging one another, we seem to be forming opposing forces. And the two forces aren’t getting along very well.

On the one hand, you have traditionally published authors. We worked our butts off to get agents. We went through dozens or even hundreds of rejections. We wrote and rewrote query letters. We studied our copies of Writer’s Market. we sent out so many partials and got so many not-right-for-me letters we dreaded going to the mailbox. And when we finally got that first offer, we usually cried from all the years of rejection and frustration. We were proud of the fact that after so many years of trying we finally succeeded in achieving our dreams.

On the other hand, you have the self-published authors. Most of them went through exactly the same thing. Queries, rejections, form letters. They got so sick of having to answer to a faceless entity that seemed totally arbitrary, that when the opportunity came, they happily said, “Screw you,” to the people who made their lives a living hell and published their own books. Maybe they’d sell a handful of books, maybe they’d sell millions. But either way, they wouldn’t have to rely on anyone but themselves to say what they could and couldn’t do.

They problem is that these groups speak a different language from each other. And both of them have chips on their shoulders.

The self-publishing group talks about changing price points, hiring cover designers and editors, and churning out two, three, or four books a year. They gloat over the fact that they can sell their books for less than a dollar if they want and still make money. They love the fact that they can publish whenever they are ready instead of waiting years for a release slot. They predict that very soon behemoth publishers and outdated agents will be as extinct as dinosaurs. They hate the stigma of self-published and assume all traditionally published authors look down on them. They hate that it’s almost impossible for them to get into most bookstores. They would like nothing better than to have a big six editor come begging them to publish their books and to tell them, “No thanks. You missed your chance.” They may not say it out loud, but they are afraid inside that they never got a book deal because they weren’t good enough.

The traditionally published authors talk about agents, contracts, and release dates. They get to see their books on bookstore shelves, in libraries, and advertising slicks. They have free editors, free artwork, and often have marketing budgets, They have an easier time getting reviewed by larger publications. They believe that because they have made it past the guards that protect the grounds of the traditionally published—agents, editors, proofreaders, and committees—that their books are generally better than self-published books.They hate how long it takes for their books to be released, but they love the support, advances, and royalty checks that they receive. They may not say it out loud, but the fact that they finally got a publisher helps erase their fears that they aren’t good enough, that they aren’t legit. And they are desperately afraid of that being taken away.

So there we are. Instead of two groups working together toward a common goal. We have two groups of people snarling at each other on blogs. Talking behind each other’s backs. Predicting doom and gloom for the other group. Even though the truth is that both of them have exactly the same goal. They want readers to approve of what they have written to tell them they are good enough. They want to be “real” authors.

A big part of the problem is that whether you are self-publishing or going the traditional route, the publishing world isn’t fair. How many people do you know who complain that they aren’t NBA basketball players? I don’t know any. The reason is that the people playing in the NBA are generally the best players in the world. If you dream of playing basketball, you can get tested from a pretty early age. By the time you have made it to college you know whether you have elite skills or not. And, for the most part, the NBA doesn’t judge you on anything more than how good you are at the game.

Imagine if the writing world was like that. Imagine if you could be judged solely on your talent. If you could know that your book didn’t succeed as well as the one above it because that book was written just a little better. Wouldn’t that make it a little easier? Wouldn’t that motivate you to strive to be better and work harder? Wouldn’t that seem more . . . fair?

But the writing world isn’t like that. regardless of which publishing path you choose, there are books that sell better than you even though your book is better. Publishers choose books for reasons that have nothing to do with quality. Great books get rejected by agents because they don’t like that genre, or don’t know any editor who would like it, or because they had a lousy lunch, or hurried through their query letters. Self-published books get lost in the crowd for no better reason than the author didn’t know how to self-promote well enough.

Where does that leave us? Do we all start wearing buttons that say, “Can’t we all just get along?” It would be nice if it was that easy. I don’t have a pat answer, but I do have a few ideas. I think there are some things we can all recognize.

1) No process guarantees a great book—however you define it. The concept of a perfect democracy where all books are all available online and the best naturally work their way to the top isn’t happening now and it’s unlikely to happen ever. Yes word of mouth helps sell a book. But starting that word-of-mouth snowball requires a ton of marketing or extraordinary luck. Even awards only represent the judgment of a fairly small group of people. The one thing we can take a little comfort in is that really crappy books don’t generally occupy top spots or win awards unless they have a celebrity’s name on them.

2) Price alone is not going to be the ultimate differentiator. I’m sorry, you can price crap at $0.99 and eventually people will stop buying it. And regardless of how good a book is, if you price it high enough most people won’t buy it. Yes, if two equally good books are priced at $1 and $20, more people will buy the $1. But I think that readers care more about how good a book is than if one is $5 more than the other. Low price may get you looked at if you are unknown, but it’s not going to keep people coming back the way a great story is.

3) Someone will always have a better deal than you. Either they will sell more books, get a higher advance, win an award you didn’t, get their name in a famous magazine, have their book turned into a movie. Whatever. If you judge your success on other people you will always end up unhappy. (Unless you make sure to always judge your success by people who are doing worse than you. Hmm. Something to think about.) It’s hard, but you have to find a way to enjoy your own journey. Because really, nothing sucks more than hating a really successful author.only to meet them and discover they are a super nice person.

4) Neither side is completely right. Yes, letting everyone and anyone publish whatever they want with no filter or control is going to generate a lot of garbage, just like YouTube generates a lot of really dumb videos. But there are some amazing authors who, through no fault of their own, never got published through the old methods. E-books have given them a chance to shine and despite having none of the benefits of traditionally-published authors, they have kicked butt. And publishers have kicked themselves and paid big advances for not recognizing that talent earlier.

And much as the indy crowd would like to see it, big publishers are not going away anytime soon. Yes, I know. They have made mistakes. They have been too slow to make changes at times. They publish lame books sometimes and they don’t always recognize great authors. But they are more than willing to change. They already have and they will continue to. They have great editors, awesome art departments, big budgets, and great connections. You can make it without them, but man it’s nice to have them in your corner as an author.

Lastly, we really do need to get along. (Sorry, it just forced its way out of me.) For all our differences, we have much more in common. We love a great read. We crave approval. We’re thrilled when we capture the worlds in our heads and describe them so well that everyone else can see them too. We’d all love to make a million dollars, but we can’t help beaming when even one reader tells us our story kept them up all night, or one parent tells us we hooked their kid on books.

We’re already seeing our worlds begin to blend. Traditionally published authors are self-publishing. Self-published authors are signing with traditional publishers. The big six are selling tons of e-books. Indy authors are selling print books. In another ten years the world may change in ways we can’t imagine yet. But hopefully we’ll all be right there trying to write an awesome story and catch lightning in a bottle.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why Easiest is Almost Always Wrong

It’s been over three years since I wrote about how and how not to begin your book, which certainly seems like enough time that I could get away with writing about it again. Unfortunately I reread my most from 2008 and realized and don’t have a lot to add. The things I wrote about back then still suck the life out of a story and will almost definitely get you thrown out of the slush pile quicker than getting the agent’s name wrong. So go back and read that post if you haven’t.

Instead I’m going to write today about why doing the things that lots of beginning authors tend to do is almost always wrong.

First, as thinking beings, we tend to take the path of least resistance. We take the quickest route to the grocery store, buy the easiest foods to prepare, and look for the shortest line at the check out.

There’s nothing wrong with this at all. It makes sense to do what is easiest, quickest, and well known . . . most of the time. But what if the easiest and quickest—the thing we are naturally drawn to—is not as good? Maybe the food that is quick and easy to prepare tastes bland. Or the shortest route to the store is unsafe or depressing to drive through. Then you have to weigh ease against result.

The problem with following your first instinct in writing is that there is almost always a better way to do it that is harder.Let’s take waking up for example. It’s really easy to start a story with your MC waking up. That’s when the day starts. It’s a natural beginning. As a result, it has become a cliché. Starting your book with a character waking up is nearly as bad as starting with “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s been done so much and with so many variations that it’s impossible to sound fresh.

More than that, though, it’s just not as good as other options. The goal of the first page is to grab the reader’s interest and attention. It’s hard to do that by waking up. Waking up beginnings trend to lend themselves to backstory. MC wakes up, groans, thinks about what a terrible day today is going to be, flashes back to what happened the night before that makes this day so terrible.

Notice that none of this is gripping. It’s the internal narrator in our head saying, “Before I actually get to the story, let me fill you in on where we are.”

Anyone who knows me very well, knows I am not a big proponent of prologues. It’s not that prologues can’t be done well. I’ve read some wonderful prologues. But the vast majority of the time writers use prologues because they are lazy. First chapter starts off slowly? Add an exciting prologue. Need to give a bunch of backstory, but know that’s not the way to begin chapter 1? Prologue to the rescue.

Before you write a prologue ask yourself if your beginning is gripping without it. If not, fix that first. Next ask if you are providing backstory that could be included in the actual story instead. If so, do that. A prologue should be like that awesome filling they put inside cupcakes sometimes. The cupcake is great without it. But it adds a little something fun without taking away from the dessert itself.

Let’s take another example. Character looks in the mirror and describes what they look like.

Mike stared into the water-stained mirror and ran a hand across his stubbly cheek. He was a decent-looking guy. In his late forties. Hair starting to gray, but still full. Women tended to be attracted to his strong jaw—that could actually bench press more than most other men’s arms.

If you haven’t read at least one book with this kind of scene in the first few pages, you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s a cliché. Tons of authors have done it. Why? Because it’s an easy way to tell the reader what your MC looks like. That’s reason enough to avoid it.

But again, there is a better reason. It’s heavy-handed. It stops the story and says, “Let’s pause here for a moment while I describe what my character looks like.”

In programming they talk about “elegant” coding. You could write 200 lines of code that accomplish what you want. But a good programmer realizes that by working a little harder, he can cut the lines to 100 and maybe even create a subroutine that can be reused later in the program. He spends a little more time, and creates elegant code that will make the program run that much faster and more efficiently.

You can do the same thing with your writing. Instead of stopping the story to look in the mirror, have the MC pull on her queen-size panty hose or realize his double X shirt is straining at the buttons. Have her stand on her tippy toes to reach the cereal bowl cupboard or brush a strand of white hair from her wrinkled cheek. You can tell us what the MC looks like, how old they are, how tall, how much they weigh, without ever stopping the story. It’s cleaner, more elegant, writing.

I could go on and on with examples, but the key is to remember that in writing, nine time out of ten, the first option you think of or the easiest option is almost always not the best one. That doesn’t mean to always try to use big words or create complex sentences. Elegant writing can be very utilitarian. But don’t go with your first story idea. Play with it awhile. Don’t stick with a single storyline. Spice up your book with several stories interwoven. Instead of having your MC and her love interest fight because they just don’t get along. Come up with some background, some motives, some twists.

Hamburger Helper can work fine at home. My kids still love it. But in your writing, work from scratch.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Obligatory Contract Signing Picture

You know that little part inside of every author that is sure even the best things will end up falling through?

No? Me neither. Which is why I wasn’t relived at all to get my Harper Collins contract in the mail. The Good Night Gorilla grin? I always smile like that when I sign book contracts. Really!

DSCN0257

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Voice

Last Monday, over on the Wordplay podcast, Nathan, James, and I talked about YA and Middle Grade voice. I think we did a decent job of defining what voice is, but I’d like to take another stab at drilling down a little because voice is one of those things like “high concept” that you hear a lot about, but everyone has a slightly different answer for what it means.

Let’s start with what voice isn’t. Voice is not how your character talks. Or at least it’s not just how your character talks. It’s also not how the narrator talks, although that can be part of it. I almost think that personality would be a better word for it, because voice is a lot like the personality of your book.

Let’s play a game for a minute. I’ll take my turn here and you take your turn there. Think of three very different people you know or have known. When I say different, I don’t necessarily mean strange, but rather different from each other. In fact one of them can be very ordinary.

I’ll start with a boy named John I knew in elementary school, a girl I knew in high school and still know, and a guy I know now. Got your three? Great, let’s continue.

Think of three defining characteristics of each of these people. It could be something about their looks, how they interacted with other people, a driving motivation, someone or something they remind you of. Just think of three things and write them down.

John was the proverbial nerd before the word was even really popular. He couldn’t answer a question without sounding like he’d just run it by the periodical table of elements. He refused to do anything other than read at recess unless forced to, and he was socially awkward. He was extremely smart, but had the whole thick black glasses, weird clothes and slicked back hair thing going on.

The girl was one of my best friends in high school. Physically, she was cute but not drop dead gorgeous. She wasn’t fat, but she was built big. Those things don’t play into how I remember her though. Whenever I picture her, what I think of is the energizer bunny. She was always up. She had this kind of high-pitched voice that didn’t quite fit with how she looked, and she was always giggling, talking, cracking jokes. If you were around her, you couldn’t help but be in a good mood. My one word description for her would be on. Everybody liked her.

The third person reads this blog and will recognize himself right away. He is the kind of person that is usually described as a character. He has slightly longish black going on gray hair, a beard, and in the winter he likes to wear a long leather coat. He is usually driving either a beater car or a motorcycle. He is always telling stories that are very interesting because he has quite a storied background. But even though the stories would be good by themselves, he likes to embellish them. He always has twenty projects going on and another twenty in his head. If he were a TV character, he would be Kramer from Seinfeld.

Now, obviously there is a lot more to each of these people. In fact, you could even say they are stereotypes to one degree or another. I haven’t talked at all about what makes them act they way they do, what their backgrounds are, what they want out of life. But just in those little snapshots, you can probably imagine the people I am talking about. You have a feel for them and understand how they might fit into your life.

Now think of three different books. Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Just like each of the people I described had a unique personality, each of these books does. The feeling of each book wasn’t random either. Of course, each of them were very different stories. But that doesn’t explain the differences. You could write a story about a goofy kid starting junior high and have it read like Mockingbird or HP. And it’s not that the authors could only write in one way. I firmly believe that JK Rowling could write a book in a Wimpy Kid voice or a Mockingbird voice.

So what does all this mean? Well for one thing it means you not only need to consider your plot and characters, but also the personality of your story. I’ve read some great stories that I believe never got published because they had no personality, no voice. There was nothing about the writing that was bad. But it didn’t grab you by the throat and make you want to read more.

Just like all three of the people I described are people you could drop into a book (and I have on more than one occasion), each of the three books I mentioned make you want to read more, but in very different ways. We are in a great place for writers now, with more opportunity than ever. But we are also in a world where there are more books competing against you for readers’ attention. If you want to stand out you have to understand voice and decide what will make your book’s voice unique.

Three quick examples from books I have written. Read the paragraphs and see how much of the book’s personality you can grasp from just a paragraph or two.

One:

Carter jumped to his feet, pressed one hand to his lower back, and shuffled across the room. “Come give your Granny Goulash a big wet smackerooni and I’ll let you have one of my stale oatmeal toffee bars. Or is this something I scooped out of Fluffy’s litter box? Can’t really seem to remember.”

Two:

Welcome to Hell, all ye damned and demented. Please keep moving. Welcome to Hell, all ye damned and demented. Please keep moving . . .

The repeating message begins moments after I reach the top of the red stone platform, hammering the morning air and making me jump even though I knew it was coming. The tips of my fingers tingle where sharp claws try to poke through and I taste blood in my mouth as my fangs momentarily slide over my teeth—the normal Dae’ Ungu reaction to surprise or anger.

Three:

“Bobby has been what?” Brooklyn’s voice sounded sleep-fuzzy and far away. I didn’t know if the static in my head was the phone line or the insistent buzzing I’d been hearing since the moment I found my best friend lying on the floor of my apartment in a puddle of his own blood.

In the first example example I am targeting a MG audience. I want lots of emotion: fright, laughter, tension. It’s all about bigger is better. I’d like this book to feel like watching ET.

The second example is from a paranormal YA. The story mostly takes place in Hell through the eyes of a female teenage demon. It needs to feel dark and a little edgy. I want you to feel like your hands are slightly grimy when you finish reading. It has a kind of graphic novel aura to it.

The third example is from an adult mystery written from the first person POV of a reporter in her mid twenties. As you can see, this book begins with her best friend/romantic interest in the hospital with a life threatening injury. That buzzing in her head is how I want the entire book to feel. She is constantly off balance in this story.

Not saying that any of these are great. Or that you need to emulate them. But hopefully this gives you a feel of what voice means in your story and it gives you a tool you can use when trying to make your book stand out from the crowd.

Now, go write!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Edits Are Not of the Devil

I was talking with another author recently who was complaining about how much they hated edits. I just bit my lip and smiled. I totally get the rewrite hating. Who likes someone telling them their artistic endeavor is less than perfect? I think it hails back to our time in school. Remember when you turned in a paper, hoping for the vaunted gold star, and got back something that looked like the teacher had tapped an artery and bled all over it?

red ink

So, yeah, discovering your gold star story is actually more of a tin star story can be pretty depressing. So much so, that I would literally rather go in for major dental surgery than read a manuscript for someone other than my critique group or a really close personal friend. It’s just so hard to decide what they want back. Are they looking for a real here’s-everything-you-need-to-fix response? Or a hey-good-job-really-like-what-you’ve-got-going-there response?

The thing is, I love edits. I mean LOVE in all all caps, with bold text, and maybe even a heart instead of the O. I was beyond thrilled when my edit letter for Grimville came in the mail. It’s not that I’m a glutton for punishment, or even that I love the smell of red ink. (Okay, now I have to go test that at some point. Does red ink smell different from blue or black? I always imagined the pink ink in the Dr. Seuss book smelled kind of like peppermint.)

I crave praise every bit as much as the next author. I want people to tell me they adore my characters, that they stayed up all night, enthralled with my intricately woven plot, that they laughed so hard at my jokes they cried.

But . . . and this is a big but . . . I want all that praise after my book has hit store shelves. Before it goes out, I want the harshest feedback possible. I want to know every flaw, foible, and fix.

Back when I was in high school I had a friend who was restoring a 64 Mustang fastback. It was a really cool car. But it was completely hammered—rust holes, oil leaks, broken glass, torn upholstery. Every time I looked at that car, I wondered how he could possibly not just pour gasoline over it and send it up in a flaming pyre to car heaven.

image

And yet, every week there he was. Sanding away some rust. Pulling out a dent. Painting on primer. Little by little, I began to see what had been in his head the whole time. By our senior year, he had one of the baddest (which meant goodest back then) cars in school.

Now I’m not saying your story is in as bad a shape as my friend’s car. Hopefully you have something that reads pretty well before you start sending it out for feedback. But these days there is so much competition out there—whether you are self-pubbing or going through the agent-editor route—that you can’t afford to have anything other than your very best work going out the door. The days when an editor said, “I love the story and we can work on the lousy writing,” are almost completely a thing of the past. You absolutely must view your novel as a work in progress.

The reason I love edits so much is because in my mind every change is clearing away a little more rust, or pulling out a dent. Even better, some of the edits aren’t just fixing the bad things, they’re adding things to make the story badder (again meaning gooder.) I’m putting on a spoiler and installing heated leather seats.

By the time I sent Grimville to publishers, it had gone through multiple edits from my critique group, my agent, my beta readers, my friends. And no matter how personally invested I was with the story, I asked them to be brutal. That way, when my editor sent me his suggested changes most of them were high end audio upgrades and fewer of them were, “Um, didn’t you forget to put in the carburetor?”

So what can you do when you are looking to get feedback?

1) View your book as a fixer-upper on blocks, not a showroom demo. It’s much easier to use feedback if you are expecting lots of work than if you are looking for pats on the back for a job well done.

2) As much as possible, let your readers know what kind of feedback you want. Sometimes it’s tough for family members to say anything more than “I liked it,” or “I didn’t.” But if you put together a form they can fill out, that is much easier.

3) Consider things like having them describe characters to see if their view matches your intent. Ask them to list anything that was confusing. Tell them to list three things they didn’t like. Get feedback on both individual scenes and overall story. Ask them what they view as major themes.

4) This is going to sound really weird at first. But, go to sites like Goodreads and Amazon and read negative reviews of books that are similar to yours. This will do two things. One, it will help you recognize problems with your book. “Oh yeah, I did that too.” And, two, it will prepare you for negative feedback.

5) Don’t let anything in your story become sacred. Again, this sounds counterintuitive, but things that you see as the very best of your work, are often the biggest weaknesses. Go into your editing with the resolution that anything in your book can be improved and nothing is untouchable.

So, yeah, that’s pretty much it. You should try and learn to love edits and if you can’t do that at least learn to accept them. Speaking of which, I better to back to work on Grimville. I’ve got these really bad mag rims to install.

Speaking of writing advice. If you haven’t checked out the new Wordplay podcast I am doing with James Dashner and Nathan Bransford, you definitely need to. It posts every Monday and the next two weeks we have Ally Condie, the incredible NYT bestselling author of Matched and Crossed, and my super agent Michael Bourret as guests.

You can go to the site, add it on iTunes, or listen to it right now by clicking on the player below.

Monday, August 29, 2011

New, Wordplay Podcast

Hey, I’m just about done with my post on working with editors. But I wanted to let you all know about something I’ve been working on almost since I sold Grimville.

I’ve really enjoyed so many of the amazing podcasts out there and thought it would be fun to do my own if I could find the right combination of people and content.

We’ll I don’t think I could have asked for a better group of people and I hope content will be pretty unique. So, this morning, I’m excited to announce the Wordplay podcast.

I’m joined by good friend and NYT bestselling author, James Dashner, and super agent turned author and amazing writing blogger, Nathan Bransford, How’s that for an exciting couple of co-hosts?

imagesNathan

This will be a weekly event, posted every Monday morning. It’s aimed at readers and writers of all ages. Every third Monday, we’ll have a “Kids Only” episode targeted at kids ages 8-12 and their teachers, librarians, and parents.

We’re still working out the kinks and getting to know each other in our first episode, but I want this to feel like sitting around the table with a bunch of writing friends after a conference or book event.

Anyhow, I hope you’ll drop by and let us know what you think. Also tell your friends about it. We’re in the process of lining up some really awesome guests as well.

Thanks!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Day After

I know, I know. He signs a big contract and then disappears from sight. Back when I was following author blogs, wondering what it would be like to sign a contract, I imagined the couple of weeks after getting a deal would be spent lying around on the beach and drinking piña coladas. Well let me be the first to say that, in my case at least, that’s definitely not true.

In fact, in a way, it’s kind of anticlimactic. You wait, and wait, and dream, and wish. Then, bam! It finally happens, and . . . nothing. Life goes on. You don’t get the advance check in the mail for months typically. You don’t get flown out to wine and dine with the publisher.

You wake up. You go to work, you check in with your agent, and you wait. It’s even kind of tough to write, because your mind is still focused on the book you finally sold.

Fortunately, things are starting to move again.

In the last week, I got an awesome bunch of books and a Harper Collins water bottle from my publisher, I got my edit letter for Grimville, and I had a chance to meet my amazing editor, Andrew Harwell in person. We had lunch, talked books and writing, hung out, and , well . . . This can probably say it better than me.

Yep, good times!

Tomorrow I’ll post about getting an edit letter!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Getting the Right Agent

My senior year in high school, I asked a girl to Prom. I know, not exactly earth-shattering news. She said yes, which was slightly more earth shattering. Then I discovered she had said yes to at least two other guys—which was seriously earth-shattering. To me at least.

I’m not sure how the other two guys reacted when they discovered this news. Who knows? She was cute. We had been co-leads in Don’t Drink the Water, the school play the year before, so she was fairly popular. Maybe they figured they’d share their prize, or fight it out, or whatever.

For me—and for most people, I suspect—the response was really easy. I dumped her.

These days it seems like there is practically a new formal dance every month. But back in the day, Prom was it. Yeah, there was a Valentine's Day Massacre dance, and a Christmas dance, and the one where the girl asks you and you wear matching farmer clothes. But there was only one dance where you rented a tux, sometimes a limo, and made reservations at a fancy restaurant. Having already, rented the tux and all that stuff, it was a pretty big deal to be without a date that close to the dance. But I would rather have wasted the money than even considered going to a dance with the kind of girl who would do something like agreeing to go with three guys.

Finding an agent is kind of like asking a girl to prom. Or at least it would be if there were thousands of other people who all wanted to take the same girl to prom, and she was very picky, and you had to ask her out in writing with a self-addressed stamped envelope so she could send you a form rejection, or possibly even just assume the answer was no if you didn’t hear back by a certain date. Come to think of it, there probably were one or two girls like that in my high school.

Obviously this is an analogy done more for laughs than reality. True, agents are hard to get, and they are pretty picky, and most of the time—like the popular girl—they say no. But the difference is that if the girl agrees to go to prom with you, she isn’t committing to spend months and sometimes years on your behalf trying to advance your career with no guarantee of compensation unless she succeeds. And she isn’t putting her professional reputation (okay that sounds really bad in the prom date context!) on the line by agreeing to go out with you.

But one part of the analogy holds up surprisingly well. Most kids at my school wanted a date to the prom. And most writers want to get an agent. So much so, that just like a girl might say yes to a geeky guy like me just to have a date, many authors immediately accept the first offer of representation they get.

And a lot of times, that works out fine. Mostly because you generally ask someone you want to go out with on a date, and hopefully you are only querying agents you want to represent you. If that isn’t the case, (in either situation) you should be asking yourself why you are wasting both of your time.

But with all of that in mind, I can think of a half dozen authors off the top of my head whose first agent didn’t end up working out. Sometimes it was a real blow up—an agent that never submitted or didn’t return messages for weeks at a time, or was a complete scam. But most of the time, the differences were more subtle. Maybe the author started writing another genre or the agent stopped repping what the author wrote. Maybe they stopped seeing eye-to-eye on what the author was working on. Whatever the case, they reached a point where the relationship (because that’s what it is, no matter what the contract states) just quick working for one or both of them.

In my case, it was simply that I had started writing for MG/YA and at the time my agent wasn’t repping that age group. But having changed agents and seen other authors do the same, I’ve learned a few things I wish I had known when I first started out. And, being the all around nice guy that I am, I’m going to share them with you.

1) First and foremost do NOT query agents that don’t represent what you write. I remember being younger and dumber than I am now and reading that advice; then completely ignoring it. My thought process was, “Well the worst that can happen is they say no, right?”

Wrong. Yes it’s bad to waste your time and an agent’s time querying them with material they don’t represent. It’s rude—like going into a French restaurant and getting ticked off that they don’t serve Italian food. But, in my opinion, the worst thing that can happen is the agent loves your work so much that they agree to represent you.

Sounds crazy, I know. But if there is one thing I have learned about agents, it’s that a big part of their value is knowledge of the industry. Your agent could be the nicest person in the world, but if they don’t have their finger on the pulse of the genre and age group you are writing to, your chances for success go way, way down.

It’s not just knowing who to send what to. It’s understanding what is selling. It’s knowing who the best fit for your work is and how much is being paid for that kind of work. It’s the ability to tell you not only what house they are sending it to, but exactly which person and why. Trust me when I say that you are better off with no agent than one that doesn’t understand your space.

2) Without going into a lot of detail, my agent and I were having a conversation a couple of months ago. We weren’t disagreeing, but I was asking for clarification. He told me something that I have repeated multiple times since then. “I know you are focused on this one project. But I am focused on your career.”

It was just cool just to have an agent say refer to me and a “writing career” in the same sentence. Much more important than that, whether or not you ever become a full-time writer, you should be looking at your writing as a career. Do you want your life to be about hopping from one job to the next? Probably not. In the same way, your writing shouldn’t be about hopping from one book to the next. You need a direction, a plan. And who better than a great agent to help you focus on that plan?

I know, I know, the publishing world is changing almost daily. And there are plenty of people forecasting the fall of bookstores, publishers, and agents. Personally, I’m not buying it anymore than I bought the idea that all brick and mortar stores would be replaced by internet sites when I was the CEO of a an internet comparison shopping company.

Yes, things are changing. I won’t even pretend that I have the first clue how things will shake out as far as e-books vs. print books or book stores vs. shopping portals. I know that I will always go to book stores. I love them. I can never get out of a signing without buying several books.

But, personally, I’m not concerned about that. I believe a couple of things. Good stories will always have a home. People are going to be buying as many or more books than ever in whatever format. Publishers will adapt and succeed. Having a knowledgeable. industry savvy professional guiding you will continue to be invaluable. When you look for an agent, find one you want to guide your career. Not just sell your book.

3) If you are good enough to get one legitimate agent, you are good enough to get the right agent. Going back to the date analogy again, let’s say you have been waiting for a guy to ask you to prom. (I know that girls ask guys now, but stay with me) Instead of the guy you really want to go with, another guy asks you. He seems okay. He bathes more or less regularly. He either wears matching socks, no socks, or intentionally mismatched socks (‘cause that can be cool.)

What you have to ask yourself is are you the kind of person who is so desperate for a date that she will go with whoever asks? or are you going wait for Mr. Right? Ginger Clark over at Curtis Brown has a great blog post about what to do when you get an offer.

Notice that she says she expects you to ask questions and do research on her. Not she will suffer through it, or try not to be offended. E-X-P-E-C-T-S. Nowhere does she say she expects you to leap at the chance to have her. And she’s a great agent.

Why does she expect you to ask questions? For the same reason I got nervous when I interviewed a prospective employee and she didn’t ask me questions after I finished interviewing her. Do you really care that little about the person who will hold your career in his or her hands? Don’t you at least want to ask who they will send your work to? What they like about it? How they communicate with their authors? Maybe get a reference or two?

Let me repeat. If you are good enough to get one legitimate agent, you are good enough to get the right agent.

Before I ever pitched my YA novel, Demon Spawn (the novel I signed my agent with), I did a ton of research. I started by casting a wide net, then narrowed it down through blogs, interviews, a $20 Publisher Marketplace subscription, and Predators and Editors. I knew I wasn’t submitting to anyone I wouldn’t be willing to work with when I sent out my first query.

When I did get an offer, it was from an agent I would have been thrilled to death to work with. But before I signed with her, I did exactly what Ginger suggests. And guess what? I ended up having four awesome agents to choose from.

What finally sold me on Michael was that his authors love him. He knew right away who he would send to and how he would position my novel. And I loved his vision. I could absolutely have been happy with any of the four agents who offered to work with me. But the difference was that for me and my book, Michael was the right agent.

4) Lastly, let me say this. I completely understand the desire to self-publish. Obviously it has worked well for many authors. And if you choose to self-pub, I hope it works great for you. But even if you are wildly successful, there is still a very good chance that you will work with an agent at some point.

Is an agent a gatekeeper? I guess. In the same way that a prospective employer, or  a future spouse, or a good friend, or a reader is. Like all of them, an agent has to choose who they will work with. But that is such a tiny part of what an agent is.

An agent is a counselor, helping you make good choices along your writing path. An agent is an editor telling you what works and what doesn’t when your best friends are afraid or unwilling to. An agent is an industry professional with access to other professionals in the field. An agent is a supporter, encouraging you when you think the whole world is out to get you. An agent helps you brainstorm the idea, write the book, make the initial sale, negotiate terms, make additional sales—of both additional books and movie rights, foreign rights, etc.And perhaps, most importantly, an agent is a visionary who will help you see the big picture when you are focused on the minutia of a single manuscript.

I know the publishing world (or not publishing world as is so often the case) is crazy. As writers we swing from high to low and back again in a matter minutes sometimes. Many of us have waited for an agent so long that as soon as one finally says yes, we want to snap them up before they can possibly change their mind.

Just remember that behind that scary title is a real person who wants you to succeed as much as you do. And the best way to make that happen is to be as sure as you can under the circumstances that you have made the best choice for both of you. Just like an agent can tell you that you are not the best fit for them, you can do your own homework and tell the agent they aren’t the best match for you.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, I did find another date to the prom.

image

I’m the goofy-looking guy with the long hair and mustache.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Totally Random Story

Okay, this really has nothing to do with anything, except that it made me smile (behind my hand), which probably says something bad about me.

A couple of weeks ago I was in church. (That’s not the bad part, so just stop right there.) Anyway, I was in church, and a little kid in front of me was playing with one of those board things that you lace a shoelace kind of string through. You know what I’m talking about, right? No?

Okay, it looks like this.

(Can I just say how hard it is to find a picture of a toy when you have no idea what it is called? You type in “board that you lace string through” and get a racy picture of some woman’s leg. GET BACK HERE YOU PERVS!)

(It appears the toy may or may not be called a “lacing board” for future reference)

Anyway, the kid, who looked about a year and a half old, was clearly confused on how to use his lacing boards. (See I can be taught.) He would lace his string through a couple of holes in one board. then start in on the holes of another board.

His mother kept unlacing the boards and showing him how to do it the way the toy was designed. But a couple of minutes later, he would pull the string out and start it his way again. Finally she gave up and let him do his thing.

I should have been listening to the speaker, but I kept finding myself distracted by what the kid was doing. After about fifteen minutes of studious work, he had managed to tie four boards and three laces into a device about three feet long.

Quietly, he dragged his creation out to the end of the bench, and, swinging like a pint-sized David about to slay Goliath, managed to hit a lady who looked a lot like this in the head.

Except that she wasn’t smiling like that after she got whapped in the noggin by a toddler with a lethal set of lacing board nunchucks.

Now I know you’re expecting some kind of writing-related message here. Surely I wouldn’t post a story like this simply for its deviant humor.

Okay, message for the day. Just because most of your friends or family think your story should go a certain way, doesn’t make it right. Stick to the vision in your head and maybe you’ll knock someone out. (Figuratively speaking.)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Does Anyone "Deserve" To Achive Their Dreams?


It still feels like a dream. Hope it does for a long time.

It's been just over a week since I got the call, and, yeah, my head is still spinning. You dream of something for years. You come close more times than you want to count, and when it finally happens, it still comes as a total shock. Not that I believe for a second that the ride is anywhere close to over. The challenges are still ahead. This is one of those things where finally getting on the horse doesn't guarantee you anything but a chance to get out of the gate. Still lots of ways to fall off. But that discussion is for another day.

Today, I want to talk about the word "deserve." Since I posted about my book deal here, on Facebook, Twitter, and anywhere else I could call, text, or e-mail, I've received a ton of great responses. And trust me, each and every one of your comments has just made it that much better. The only thing better than getting great news is sharing that news with the friends who have encouraged you all along the way. I know for a fact that I would not have accomplished the things I have without such great friends.

One thing I've heard a lot from people is that they know how hard I've worked for this and that I deserve the success. I have worked hard. I won't deny that. My awesome wife, Jennifer, and I have done school assemblies too numerous to count, edited reams of paper, attended tons of conferences, classes, library events, and all that writelry jazz. And I have no doubt we'll be doing a lot more work to make Grimville Case Files a success. I am a firm believer if you want your dreams to come true, you have to be willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears. The things we appreciate the most are the ones that we work the hardest to accomplish.

But the deserving part makes me a little bit nervous. I know what you mean. And I appreciate the thought. At the Whitney Awards this past spring, I saw several friends receive awards and thought, "Yay! That person really deserves that award." Not that the people who didn't win the awards were not deserving as well. But I really thought the books that won were some of the best I had read that year. They deserved to win because they were really well developed, the prose was excellent, and the editing was great.

But what does saying someone "deserves" to get a national deal mean? Is it saying you worked hard? Because lots of other people who have worked as hard or harder than I have haven't gotten a national book deal. Is it saying their writing is deserving? I've read lots of books that "deserved" to published and didn't. Is it like a kind of reward? Does that mean that people who haven't achieved that success yet are undeserving?

Here's my two cents.

First, I think it does take work to reach the point where you can achieve your dreams. I'm always amazed when someone whips out a first manuscript and sells it right away. I can tell you for a fact that I am a much better writer than I was ten years ago. The stuff I wrote back then did not deserve to get published. Sometimes even when it did get published. But I was determined to get better, and with lots of practice, classes, practice, books, practice, advice, and more practice, both my writing and plotting have improved. If you are willing to put in the effort to perfect your craft, you are more deserving than if you don't put in the effort.

Second, as most of you know, rejection sucks. No matter how much self confidence you have, how strong you think you are, having someone tell you that the art you worked so hard to create isn't good enough hurts like crazy. I've listened to or read a gazillion people talk about handling rejection, and it still sucks. But the people who succeed are the ones who somehow find a way to keep going. One of my favorite poems is The Race, about the kid who keeps falling and getting up. But I've played for years with a sequel called The Day After The Race. Because most of the falling and getting back up doesn't take place in front of the cheering crowds. It's just you, your closest friends, and maybe some family members. So if you've put in the work, and cried over the pain of rejection, maybe you do deserve to succeed.

Third, and this is the toughest part to swallow is that just because you deserve to succeed, doesn't mean you will right away. I can think of dozens of people just on this blog who deserve to live their dreams every bit as much or more than I do. If deserving was all that mattered most of my friends would be celebrating their own book deals right now. After you've perfected your craft, survived rejection after rejection, and persevered, it all comes down to a certain amount of pure dumb luck. Today, I happened to have an agent who recognized something I didn't and an editor with the same vision I had. Tomorrow it could be you.

Some of the best writing advice I ever received was from my first agent, Jacky Sach at Bookends Literary Agency. She told me that once you reach a certain point of writing and plotting skill, you become publishable. Then it's just a matter of continuing to write and submit until the right work gets in the hands of the right person at the right time. I think this advice applies whether you are seeking an agent, an editor, or self-publishing. The best don't always succeed first. But if they don't give up they will.

Since most of us here are storytellers or readers, let me give you a story example. Last week, my family and I went camping. As I walked around the lake, I saw lots of people fishing. Some of them had great gear and obvious experience. Others looked like it might have been their first time out. There were lots of people who appeared to have the right bait, the right equipment, and the right experience. They just happened to cast their lines into a spot where the fish weren't biting. Other people using exactly the same thing cast into a different spot and caught fish.

Do people deserve to live their dreams? Yeah, I think they do. But just because you haven't reached yours yet, doesn't mean you don't deserve to any less than someone who has. It just means you need to keep on casting. Sometime next week, I'll try to share my backstory with you, but suffice it for now to say that the book I just sold wasn't the first one my agent pitched. I started Zombie Kid first and it got a less than glowing review at an editor retreat. I took that to mean I should set it aside and work on something else.

The story I got my agent with was a YA title about a teenage demon who lives in Hell. I still love that story, and I think someday with rewriting it will get published. It would have been so easy to write off Zombie Kid. It would have been easy to decide I wasn't publishable when Demon Spawn didn't sell. But in reality, none of that was true. All I needed to do was cast different bait into a different spot in the lake.

Every time you sit down at the computer, every time you send off another query (or shudder, get another rejection) remind yourself that if you've put in the time and developed thick skin and polished your craft you do deserve to succeed. And you will. It's just a matter of time.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yes, “That” Announcement

I’m not going to be coy here. I’ve been waiting to make this announcement for nearly ten years. And yes it is the announcement almost every author dreams of making. If you’re a really bad person, (or have not read enough Curious George books to learn your lesson) you could skip to the bottom of this post. But humor me, and read this first. I promise I will keep it short.

Almost exactly ten years ago, I had a dream. The dream was that one day I would publish nationally. I have worked hard. I’ve learned so much. I’ve had two agents. I’ve come close more times than I can count. I’ve thought I had it made and seriously considered never writing again—and that was just in the last year alone.

I know you want to hear the news, but first, here’s what I’ve learned.

1) Never, ever, ever give up on your dream. There is always more you can learn, and when things feel the darkest is almost always when you are the closest to your destination.

2) Maybe somewhere, somehow, someone has done it without the help of friends, but I’ve never heard of them. I know that I absolutely could not have achieved my dream without the help of great friends including my family, my critique group, fellow authors, readers, many, many of you here on this blog, and my best friend in the world, my wife. When you are really depressed, friends make all the difference.

3) Patience is huge. No one likes to wait. I think it’s probably the biggest complaint of all authors. But one thing my agent told me recently is that it seems like the people who wait the longest end up getting success the quickest when it does happen. That was the case with me.

4) I totally respect people who decide to self-publish. It’s a different road that hopefully leads to the same place as taking the traditional route. But let me tell you, anyone who claims agents and editors are mean and looking to keep authors down is full of it. I love my agent, Michael Bourret, and I love every editor I’ve ever worked with. They have made me a better writer and maybe even a better person.

5) Finally, never underestimate the power of putting the next words on paper. The announcement I am about to make to you was not the first book my agent pitched. I’ll give you the full story in the weeks to come. But this happened because I was working on something entirely different while the book I thought would sell didn’t.

So here goes. Almost two years ago, I programmed my cell phone to play, “Back in Black” when my agent called me. Three cell phones and two books later, my cell phone finally rang. Of course when I answered, the annoyingly charming Michael spent ten minutes taking about my recent camping trip. Then he said, “Oh, by the way, I have some good news.” And yes it was the news I’ve been waiting all these years to hear.

My middle grade horror series, The Grimville Case Files had sold. Here’s the listing from Publishers Weekly.

Andrew Harwell at HarperCollins Children's Books has bought a new middle grade series, The Grimville Case Files. It stars three monster-obsessed boys who must solve "fiendishly funny" mysteries; the first in the series is scheduled for publication in spring 2013. Michael Bourret at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management brokered a three-book deal for North American rights.

My editor is the totally cool Andrew Harwell who you can follow on twiiter at @andrewasalways. My agent is the rocking Michael Bourret of Dystel and Goderich. The first book in the series comes out Winter of 2013. It’s called Zombie Kid, and it may be the funniest and scariest book I’ve ever written.

I promise to have more info on Farworld book three soon, but for right now, I am celebrating my head off. Thanks for hanging with me all this time. I couldn’t have done it without you.

This paragraph is for all you bad bad people who skipped straight to the end of the post. Go back and read from the top. Those of you who got here win my undying respect and a virtual pat on the back. That is all!       

Friday, July 15, 2011

Who do you write for?

(I’m going to be on vacation until next Thursday, so I am posting now before we leave. See you after a few days of tent and hot dog life.)

First, I won’t give away any spoilers, but let me just say that HP7P2 was fantastic! Everything I could have hoped for and more. Not only was it a great film adaptation, but it made me want to go back and read book 7 again, just to re-experience some things. I’m also curious if the movie actually didn’t a better job of clarifying a few points. This is one I will absolutely see in theaters again. And can I also say what a kick I get out of midnight showings? It reminds me of how we used to go out at midnight to buy the new HP book as a family and then spend the next four or five days reading together every spare minute. Good times!

Second, maybe it’s just me, but I laughed my head off at this article on the most awkward place editors and agents have received pitches. The hotel one would have completely freaked me out!

And now with appetizers and salad out of the way, let’s jump to the main course. (Can you tell it’s lunch time, and I have food on the brain?)

Today I thought I’d tackle a question that gets brought up at a lot of author panels. Who do you write for, yourself or your readers?

I’d love to be able to say that I lock myself in a dark office (but not too dark or I couldn’t see the keyboard) and write purely for myself. It sounds so cool. So noble. And I absolutely believe that lots of people do write for themselves. I’m just not one of them.

When I write, it’s all about the readers. If I write a funny scene, I’m thinking about how it will make them laugh. When I write action scenes, I’m intentionally trying to elicit an “Oh my gosh!” or two. When I reach the aha moment, it’s all about having the reader put down the book just before the big reveal and go, “Aha, I know who did it.”

As a kid, I used to tell stories. Have you ever seen the movie, “Stand by Me,” where a group of boys goes in search of a the body of a missing boy? Remember the scene where the main character tells the story about the pie eating contest while the boys are sitting around the campfire?

That was totally me. Except the stories I made up were usually action adventure—albeit often kind of silly adventures with titles like, “Captain Weenie and the Little Purple Man.”

The whole goal of my stories was to keep the audience amazed and glued to the story. When I got done, the best thing I could hear was, “Tell us another one!”

That’s still how I feel about writing. I could write without getting paid for it. I could write without getting published. I could write even if my sole readership was a half dozen friends. But I would have a really, really hard time writing if I was the only person who would ever read my story.

How about you? Who do you write for?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More Net, Less Work

Right around the time when personal computers were busy becoming a reality in schools and homes, (shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct for my younger readers) I joined the cross country team at a community college in Saratoga, CA. I say joined, but as I recall, it was more like misled. It’s been a few years, but I recall thinking I was signing up for a cross country course to complete some P.E. requirement.

As it turns out, West Valley College had an incredibly good CC team. They had won the community college state championship something like twenty years straight. I liked running, and had actually done a couple of years of CC in high school. But never anything like this. I knew I was in a little over my head when one of the first practices was ten miles of five/sevens. One mile run at a five minute pace; the next at a seven minute pace to “rest.” And that was an easy workout.

Needless to say, I was seriously trashed in every practice, and meets were even worse. I remember buying a big gulp, a 64 oz Sprite, and a bottle of Gatorade after school every day and swigging the three drinks down in a bizarre icy, sweet, salty mixture. I also recall waking up night after night with terrible cramps in my calves.

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I’m not in this picture. I would have been way down around the corner!

It was seriously trial by fire.

But what I also remember was running a 10k that Halloween at under a six minute pace. Something I had never done before. What I discovered was that hanging around people who were really good at what they did, forced me to become better. I not only raised my goals as I tried to keep up with them, it also made me see that real people I knew personally were accomplishing things I thought were out of reach.

This same concept applies to a lot of other things in life—including writing. You hear a lot about networking. Sometimes it refers to getting to know someone who knows someone. Like, “You should really go meet Tiffany. Her editor is here at the conference and maybe you will get a chance to mention your WIP.” Or, “Mike is going to tell his agent about me.” This is also know in certain circles as schmoozing. Some people are better at it than others.

There is also social networking. You know, the woman who has 72,000 Facebook friends, 5,000 blog followers, and twitters, podcasts, and newsletters her way into the homes (if possibly not the hearts) of anyone and everyone who might buy her books.

Those both have their places, (No, I won’t elaborate on where those places might be) and they have been written about quite a bit. But the networking I want to focus on has much more to do with building a net of friends and far less to do with working.

Ten years ago I joined a critique group. At the time, no one had really heard of any of us. Yesterday, I had dinner with that group at a fun little Thai restaurant in American Fork. Over the course of the dinner we discussed an upcoming national release, well known agents, submissions, acceptances, foreign rights, movie options—all from this small group of writers.

I forget the numbers, but together we’ve published something like fifty or sixty books, won multiple awards, have at least three literary agents that I know of, have written movie scripts, nonfiction, novels for all ages . . . you get the point. It’s fun to tell people about my group, because they usually say something like, “Wow! How did you manage to line up such a group of successful authors?”

The truth of the matter is that we weren’t successful when we met. We were just a bunch of writers, trying to get better with each other’s help. I guess you could credit luck or serendipity or something for the fact that all of us have published books since those early days. But I don’t buy it. I think it has much more to do with the net we have created.

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Imagine a big rope net for a minute. It can be useful in a couple of ways. For one thing, it can catch you when you fall. For another thing, it gives you handholds to climb. I like to view friendships that way. The great thing about finding and keeping good friends is that when you are struggling, they are there to support you. More than once I’ve been cheered and buoyed up by my friends when I’ve had a writing setback.

In addition, spending time with people who are accomplishing what you hope to seems to make it that much more attainable. You know the old saying, “Success breeds success.” I firmly believe that is true when it comes to writing friends. It’s easy to see a stranger get a big book deal and think, “Oh, he must have known someone.” Or, “She’s so much better than I ever could be.”

But when it’s the person you’ve edited, critiqued, encouraged, given stupid little joke holiday gifts to, and just rubbed shoulders with, it lights a fire inside you. You realize that the success you are yearning for is maybe not out of reach. That person may be a rung or two higher than you at the moment, but they are on the exact same net. You only need to reach up and pull to get there too.

A couple of years after I joined my critique group, I met another friend. He and I had each published a couple of books at the time. But of us with with very small Utah publishers. His was slightly smaller than mine, so he was impressed with what I’d done. The truth of the matter though was that we both had a dream of being full time writers. I say a dream, but it was more than that. It was a belief. Over the years, we’ve taken turns pulling each other up that net. Not so much by introducing each other to agents and editors—although there has been some of that. But more by encouraging and challenging each other.

Most of you probably know the person I’m talking about is James Dashner. Just before he left for a trip to Georgia, he sent me a text about a manuscript I currently have on submission. It was short and to the point. “It’s gonna happen!!!” To me that note sums up what writing friends are all about. They are the ones who keep telling you, It’s gonna happen, until you believe it yourself.

You can spend all your time chasing after the newest rising star. I’ve spent plenty of time reading blogs of successful writers, trying to vicariously experience book deals, tours, foreign rights, and all the other glamorous aspects of being a writer. But there’s something special about seeing friends like James, Rob Wells, Ally Condie, Lisa Mangum and others succeed from the ground up.

If you are committed to becoming a successful writer, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to find other writers with the same goals and become friends with them. Start building your net now and see how much it helps you climb and pads your falls!        

Friday, July 8, 2011

Finding Your Happy Place

I know you are all like, “What? Two blog posts in less than one week? Who is this imposter and what has he done with Jeff Savage?” Rest assured, it really is me. The thing is, after my last post, everyone commented on how much I depressed them. And while that may be good for certain pharmaceutical manufacturers, I hate it. The last thing I want to do is have a depressing blog.

So here I am again. Not to do some kind of rah-rah post where I tell you how great you are and how you can do anything. (Although you probably can do just about anything if you want it enough.) That would just be too weird after my last post. I think I might come across as some sort of emo cheerleader. “Rah, rah, rah. You can do it! But you won’t make any money. Boo hoo!”

 

Instead what I want to do is discuss the ups and downs of being a writer and how you find your happy place.

I could have sworn there was a Disney movie that talked about finding your “Happy Place.” But either I am a really bad searcher or this is no such movie. Br’er Rabbit has his laughing place. Winnie the Pooh has his thoughtful spot. Disneyland is apparently, “The Happiest Place on Earth.” At least until your fourth day of waiting in long lines, being hot, and paying too much for food. Then it sort of becomes a cranky place. Which is why at that point I bring my laptop, grab a table in New Orleans Square near an electrical outlet, and eat pastries while I write all afternoon. Then I find my inner happy place again. But no happy place movie I could find.

So I’ll do do without the “Disney Movie Analogy” (DMA for those of you in the know.) Instead, I’m going to reference an awesome presentation I saw by a wonderful author and genuinely one of the nicest people I know, Aprilynne Pike.

How can you help but liking someone who sits on random stairways in a neon blue tutu asking passersby, “Hey, buddy, need any writing advice?” And if you haven’t read her YA romance series Wings, you are definitely missing out.

Okay now that I have offended Aprilynne, and hopefully made it up to her. (Did I mention what a great writer she is? And totally hot?) Let me try and get back to my point. At an ANWA conference (this one, not this one, and definitely not this one) a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend tutu girl’s class.

She had about seven pieces of paper that she taped to the wall. I don’t have the exact notes but they ranged from something like, “I am the worst writer who ever existed, and I should never put pen to paper again,” to, “I am the greatest writer ever and I have nothing left to learn.”

Aprilynne talked about how over the course of her writing career, sometimes just days apart, she ranged from one emotion to the other.

I just signed with one of the most successful agents around. I am the greatest writer. Even she couldn’t sell my first book. I am the worst writer. I hit the New York Times bestseller list with my first published novel. I have nothing to learn. I just got hammered in my 13 page editorial letter. I should never put pen to paper.

Through the class she gave example after example of the ups and downs of being even a NYT bestselling author, and how both extremes are equally bad for you.

When you get too down on yourself, you lose the confidence necessary to create your best work. You start to doubt your instincts and instead of going with what you feel, you start to write for someone else. Or, even worse, give up writing altogether.

On the other end of the spectrum, having so much confidence that you stop learning can be just as crippling. I overheard a moderately successful author once say that he no longer needed writing advice because he was too good for that. I cringed when I heard his words and I still cringe now. You might have so much experience and talent that it’s harder to find information which is helpful to you. Or you might have learned a lot of the basic information that is taught in many writing conferences. But the best authors I know are always learning and improving. They are always open to advice, whether they choose to take it or not.

Aprilynne’s point was that the best place for an author is probably somewhere around, “I am a really good author, and I deserve to get published. But I still have more I can learn.” That’s the happy place you need to reach.

So how does that apply to my earlier post about making enough money to write fulltime?

Let’s say you never read my royalty post. On the one hand, you’d still have the starry-eyed optimism that publishing a book would set you up financially for the rest of your life. Optimism is a good thing. It’s what keeps us all writing and striving for success. On the other hand, when you published your first book and discovered the truth, it might devastate you. You might quit your job as soon as you got an agent, or even before. When you realized what a bad financial mistake you had made, it might be too late to change your plans.

Now you know.

It’s okay if your initial response was, “Wow, that totally sucks! I thought it was much easier to make lots of money writing.” There’s nothing wrong at all with being bummed out that the world of publishing is a tough business. But the key is to get over the depression and take a look at the world with new eyes and additional knowledge.

Okay, royalties don’t work exactly the way I thought they did. I now have more information to plan my next move. Maybe you decide to focus less on money and more on writing a great story. After all, that’s something you can control. Maybe you decide that rather than quitting your day job after one book, you might need to wait until three or four. Maybe you come up with a different marketing strategy, a different publishing strategy, or a different timing strategy.

The key is to avoid extremes. Don’t let the steepness of the mountain keep you from climbing it. Instead, use the information about the geography to attempt the ascent better prepared. The fact of the matter is this. Not everyone who writes a book will become a fulltime writer. But everyone who doesn’t write a book will absolutely not. You know the rules. You understand the game. Thicken your skin, focus your energy, and resolve that you are going to be the best writer you can be. Let everything else work out however it will, while you control the things you can.

Okay, so maybe that was a little bit of cheering. So sue me. At least I don’t look like this guy.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fulltime Writer—Reality or Myth?

Along with, “Where do you get your ideas?”, “What are you working on these days?”, and “How do you get published?” the question I seem to get asked the most often when someone discovers I am a published author is, “Do you write fulltime?”

Those of you that have followed my blog for a while or who have studied up on the subject probably know how difficult it is to make a living writing novels. I have done it off and on. Sometime by choice, sometimes not. (Actually, it’s always by choice. Sometimes it’s mine, sometimes it’s my ex-boss’s.)

I’m not sure most people realize exactly how hard it is, though, and why. So today, boys and girls, break out your calculators, it’s math time!

Let’s start with the basics. Since not everyone knows how an author gets paid, we’ll do a couple of definitions.

Royalties—This is basically a fancy word for the money the publisher pays you. It is typically a percentage of sales. It can be based on retail (the price listed on the book) or net (what the publisher actually charges the bookstore.) Hardback rates are higher than trade paperback which are higher than mass market paperbacks. You can also get royalties from movie rights, foreign rights, etc. (See below)

Advance—This is what the publisher pays the author up front. The idea behind advances used to be that you would get about one year’s royalties (based on what the publisher thinks they can sell.) Some publishers have been lowering advances, and lots of smaller publishers don’t pay any advance at all. As an author, you don’t start getting royalties until you’ve “earned out” your advance. More on this later.

Foreign rights: When your publisher buys your books, they are actually buying rights to your work. This means they have the right to publish in certain formats and certain places. If you sell world rights, they have the right to sell and publish your book anywhere. If your sell US rights only, your agent can then sell additional foreign rights to publishers in different countries.

Movie rights: Same as above except instead of the rights to a certain country, this is the right to make a movie based on your book. Typically these are broken into options and actual rights. An option (often about 10% of the rights, but can be much more or less) gives the buyer the option to try and get the movie green lit. The option is usually for 12 or 18 months. If a company options your book and gets the funding to make the movie, then they exercise the option and pay you the rest of the money.

Agent Commission: This is the fee you pay your agent for selling various rights. usually it is 15% for US rights and 20% for foreign rights (split between the US agent and whoever they use for foreign rights.)

Taxes: I’ll bet you already know all about these. And if you are too young to have paid taxes yet, just wait!

Okay, with all the legal mumbo jumbo out of the way. let’s talk numbers. Let’s imagine you’ve just written a great vampire robot urban dystopian fantasy romance. You sent it out to only the very best agents, and, of course, all of them beg you for it. You sign with the top agent and twenty-four hours later, she sells a three book deal for six figures per book. (The aforementioned example may be a slight exaggeration, but we’re thinking big right?)

Yay!

You call your father-in-law and tell him, “In your face, Pops! I DO deserve your daughter!” Then you tweet, blog, facebook, and e-mail everyone you know with the message, “That’s right homey. I’m the real deal now,” and immediately begin pricing boats and lakefront cabins.    

But hold the phone. Before you get ahead of yourself, maybe you should do just a little bit of math, to figure exactly how much money you are really making here.

Let’s start with the basic deal. Three books with a $100,000 advance each. Now, not to bring you down or anything. But this size of advance for a new author who isn’t already a household name is ultra rare. Not that it can’t happen because it does. But most advances look a lot more like this. The average advance, when there is an advance at all, is closer to $5,000 than $100,000. But again, let’s go with the big advance, because that’s what most authors dream about.

So great, 300k. That’s a lot of money. Before you get to spend it, though, we need to deduct a few things. Right off the top, your agent gets 15%. No problemo. She deserves it. She got you this great deal. And hey, what’s $45,000 between friends?

So we’re now down to $255k. Still a lot of money. But don’t forget Uncle Sam (If you don’t live in the US, it might be Aunt Coroline or whatever, but taxes are still taxes.) Ballpark of what you will pay in taxes is 30% of the $255,000 or $76,500. Ouch! That’s a pretty big bite.

But, hey, you still have $178,500, right? Maybe you get a slightly smaller boat and the cabin will have to be a trailer for now. But still, you can tell your family of Doubting Thomases that you are a full time writer.

Except the thing is that you don’t exactly get all that money up front. Best case, your contract looks something like this:

1/3 of your money on signing.

1/3 of your money on acceptance.

1/3 of your money on publication.

Because you are signing a contract for all three books, you get 1/3rd of all books right away (in publisher speaking this is probably 3 months.) So your first check will be for about $60,000 after agent commission and taxes. That’s going to have to last you until your book one manuscript is edited and officially accepted. Then you get the 1/3rd of book one only. That’s another $20,000.

So, yeah. This year, you are probably good to go, with $80,000 in your pocket after taxes.

How does next year look?

Part of that depends on when your book comes out. There’s a pretty good chance your book will be released more than a year after you sign your contract. So let’s say you sign your contract in November and your release date is a year from the following spring. That means you won’t get any more book one money for 18 months or so. The good news is that between now and then you will turn in book two. The bad news is you already got 1/3rd of your book 2 money.

So year two revenue looks something like this:

1/3 of book two money, or $19,833 after taxes.

Wait, really? Is that all? How am I supposed to live on less than $20,000? have you seen my boat payment? What if my father-in-law finds out?

Hopefully there is some foreign rights money coming in. But those often tend to look like $1,233.00 foreign rights Poland. And they take a long time to get. UK and Germany can be pretty big.And there is the possibility of movie rights. But it’s entirely possible that your first two years of income after taxes will be well under $130,000. And to make things even nastier, many book contracts are now spread over over four payments that can take as long as five years to pay out, with things like 25% on hardback release and 25% on paperback.

And that’s on a BIG deal. Let’s say you only sign a one book deal. Now your first two years look like this:

Year 1: $39, 600

Year 2: $19, 800

And if your advance is $20,000 instead of $100,000 . . . well you get the picture. And then there’s insurance, marketing, travel . . .

Is there any shred of good news here? Well yes there is. Remember that advance thing? Once you earn enough royalties to earn that out, you start getting more money. Let’s say your advance on book one is $25,000. And let’s further say that you earn about $2 per hardback. If your books takes off and you sell 50,000 books, you actually earn $75,000 (before taxes and commissions <grin>)

If you continue to write books and if those books keep selling well, eventually you can get a nice little income stream flowing in. Add movie rights, foreign rights, audio books, e-books, and it gets even better.

The fact of the matter is that most writers have a day job. There are a few fortunate authors who can make a full time living writing novels, but it’s not easy and it almost never happens overnight. Those rare instances you hear about where the author gets a seven figure advance do happen, but they are so rare as to fall into the winning the lottery type of odds.

So what do you do? Well first, write because you love to write not because you need to make a quick buck, lost your job, or dream of a cabin on a lake. Second, set your goals and work toward them. It may be true that only a few authors can write fulltime, but the very fact that some do means you have a chance. If that’s what you want, go for it.

And if your father-in-law gives you any crap about how little your writing pays, ask him how much he makes from his hobbies. “How’s that whole golf pro thing working out for you Dad?”

Writing may not be the best paying gig in the world. But the very fact that someone is willing to pay you is pretty dang cool. Though not quite as cool as a huge advance (in case any editors are out there reading this.)