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Yesterday —

I spent all day talking to class after class of students at Francis Howell High School, west of St Louis. It was fun! Hopefully at least some of the kids thought so at least some of the time! There were sure a lot of ’em! My high school was roughly a quarter the size of FH.

I did not lose my voice, but I don’t know why, because I’m not used to lecturing five hours almost straight anymore. And it was like lecturing, because you know what? Most of the time, when you ask a large group of high school kids: “Any thoughts about that? Questions? Comments?” there is no answer, so you have to just go on. I guess come to think of it that that is pretty typical of a college classroom, too.

I’m sure this is not news to any teachers out there.

So luckily I can keep talking anyway even without too much feedback, but if you’re one of the kids who asked a question? Or nodded? Or looked interested? Thanks! That makes it significantly easier.

Questions I can answer:

Where do you get your ideas? (long and involved, but I can answer this!)

How long does it take you to write a book? (2 to 6 months depending on whether I have a deadline or get interrupted or whatever, then another 2 to 6 weeks to revise and cut)

Do you often use your own experiences from your own life to write a book? (no)

Questions I can’t answer:

What will the publishing process look like five years from now?

Wish I knew!

Do people want to hear about the writing process or the publishing process? The latter, mostly. (This is true for every group I’ve ever spoken to.) And here we are with no idea how the publishing process is going to change, except it will be a Very Big Change and probably happen really soon.

In some ways it’s almost as hard to talk about the writing process, though, because that’s so very different for different writers. Like, Angie Fox says she writes all the dialogue first and fills in the description mostly later, which is SO WEIRD. When you are talking to other writers about the writing process, you have that reaction (You do what? That is SO WEIRD!) all the time. So when you’re talking to a group about writing, it’s important to constantly say: “Now, for ME, it’s like this . . .” You don’t want to imply that it should be like that for them or else they’re doing it wrong.

I can sum up the universal truth about how to write a book pretty easily, though:

a) Read a lot of books.
b) Learn to tell the good ones from the bad ones.
c) Sit down and put words in a row until you have not only started but also finished a book. Preferably a good one.
d) Revise.

Random observation:

Man, that high school library had a LOT of great YA books that I would love to read! Wish I had access to a library like that!

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Nathan says —

About internet jerks:

If you mock and belittle someone who has done something wrong you’re not helping them learn from their mistakes, you’re being a jerk.
If you’re knocking someone down to make yourself feel better you are absolutely being a jerk.
If you’re knocking someone down period you’re being a jerk.

Yeah, what he said.

I’ve also seen this as “We need to be nicer to children who do stupid things on the internet” and at the time I thought, WELL ACTUALLY we need to be nicer to everybody who does something stupid on the internet.

Actually Nathan is especially talking about people who, for example, call a book a piece of trash. Not nice, says Nathan. Well, of course that’s true, but I don’t care if one or two reviews of my books are negative. (Well actually, I probably care a little). But you know what I hate? I and some other authors were talking about this at Archon and you know what we REALLY hate?

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because the publisher says it’s 400 pages long and really it’s only 384 not counting the “extras” at the back. Really? And for this you go to the trouble to write a bad review that gets averaged with real reviews?

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because they don’t like the cover.

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because they think the back cover copy was misleading.

I mean, hello? The back cover copy is
a) hard to write
b) often not written by me
c) sometimes written before the book was finished
d) sometimes written before the book was started (seriously)
e) NOT RELATED TO THE QUALITY OF THE BOOK

So I hereby declare that if you write and post a negative review based on anything but the actual quality of the book, you’re being a jerk.

But I mean that in a nice way.

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How apropos —

A post I stumbled on today in the INTERN’s archives:

The 14 Stages of Critique Acceptance

I found this the very day I sent my newest just-finished twice-revised (so far) WIP to a handful of readers.

Here they are (summarized — go read the real thing because it’s funny!):

Stage 1: Anticipation — the critique is back from the readers! Oh yes!

Stage 2: Dread — Wait, what if my critiquers thought my ms was a “cheesy overwritten trainwreck?”

Stage 3: Elation — The first paragraph of the critique contains words like “brilliant”! Yay!

Stage 4: Dread — whoops! The rest of the critique contains words like “confusing”.

Stage 5: Panic
Stage 6: Paralysis
Stage 7: Avoidance
Stage 8: Re-dedication
Stage 9: Grim determination

Stage 10: Surprise — When you realize your ms is actually getting better!

Stage 11: Second guessing — Is this feeling of “great betterness” all in your head?
Maybe you’re actually making things worse?

Stage 12: Wonder — You realize the feeling of betterness is based on reality after all

Stage 13: Dread — send ms out again, wonder if it really is no kidding better.

Stage 14: Elation — get it back again and LO! EVERYONE AGREES IT IS GREAT!

I’d say this is actually pretty darn accurate. With luck there are relatively few words like “confusing” and the stage of grim determination is relatively short, but yep. The INTERN pegged it.

BTW, I think agents and editors take a special class in letting authors down gently. Because that first paragraph of their critiques does indeed always contain words like “brilliant” and “loved it” and “love your writing” and “such a beautiful job” and “only a few tiny changes”. Which, yes, I do re-read those paragraphs multiple times and I believe every word, too. Praise is indeed an excellent motivator.

THEN they tell you which bits are confusing, repetitive, slow, etc. Which, with luck, really ARE pretty tiny. Though I guess that’s not actually a matter of luck.

Least amount of time it’s ever taken me to do a revision: about four days.

Greatest? About two months (I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic and there wasn’t a looming deadline and it was a pretty extensive revision.)

Number of times the editor thought the book was perfect and made such trivial suggestions they all got dealt with at the copy-editing stage: one. So it does happen! But this was after revising according to my agent’s suggestions.

Most appreciated suggestions: those tiny picky very specific changes the editor suggests after you have already revised? I always like those. I really appreciate a perfectionist attitude in my editor!

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Archon —

Is not the biggest convention, but it is always well-run, and a pleasure to attend from the pro’s side, and I always enjoy it. And for a change it’s only a little over an hour from my house, which is very nice.

Archon is an interesting convention in other ways because it’s really meant to draw in prospective writers. They’ve really emphasized that side of things for several years. Lots of panel topics and workshops meant to appeal to that audience. I like being on panels and I don’t mind participating in workshops, so I like this.

Since I don’t mind taking off a day from work, I volunteered for Friday morning panels. I’m on three or four panels this time (total, not just on Friday) and I’ll be helping with at least one four-hour workshop, but I like to keep busy so that’s all good. Plus I’m free most of Saturday, so that’s my time to hit the art show and check out the venders and all that stuff. I’m always looking to buy something at the art show, so I hope I see something I really love that’s in my price range.

The part I’ll give a miss to? The late-night movies and filksinging and parties. I see on the schedule that various things keep running till 2:30 in the morning! I’d be in a coma by then!

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From the comments —

So, Mary Beth comments —

Your book-reading break seems like an excellent way to celebrate (and, assuming it’s proceeded by a period of book-abstinence, to keep your work on your manuscript free of other authors’ influence.)

And this is a good point! And psychologically interesting! And worth discussion!

Do you want to prevent yourself from absorbing another writer’s voice while working on a manuscript of your own?

Yes! No! Sort of! It depends!

At least in my case.

I don’t know how it works for other people, but suppose I’m writing a story and I want it to have a fairy-tale feel to it, like CITY. (I would indeed like to write another story with that kind of feel, though not in the same world.) In this case, I would definitely read a lot of Patricia McKillip and also I would re-read Sharon Shinn’s THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE and maybe some Robin McKinley and anything other books I could think of where the prose has that lyrical fairy-tale shimmer to it. I have no problem absorbing their voices! It is a plus! The more the better! I just don’t think it’s possible (for me, at least) to go too far and fall into a copy-cat voice. “Strongly reminiscent of” is possible and is exactly what I do want.

The problem would be purely one of distraction: if I start a McKillip book, I’m going to finish it, and if I’m reading that book, I’m not working on one of my own. So I would read a lot of the “right” style of book before I started working on mine and then (more or less) give up fiction for the duration.

But, if I am trying to write this particular kind of story? I would avoid CJ Cherryh like the plague, both while writing my own book and immediately before starting. I once bought four books by her as they came out and owned them all for at least a year before I read them. For me, her voice is VERY invasive, and since it does not suit a lyrical story, I have to put her books in a lead-lined casket and bury them eight feet deep in the garden while working on that kind of story. (Barely exaggerating).

Can I read fiction at all while working? Yes, sometimes. I just re-read all my Ngaio Marsh’s in the past few months. Ngaio Marsh was a great stylist, but for me her voice is not the least bit invasive and also I have read her books many times so they are not too terribly distracting. I can pick one of hers up to read for an hour and then actually put it down again. Usually. Well, frequently.

Nonfiction is always safer. I usually add to my cookbook collection while writing. Or a fairly dry treatise on the Ottoman Empire is, for example, perfect.

And letting myself loose on my increasingly huge TBR pile in between working on projects of my own is indeed VERY celebratory. Even without the chocolate.

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Diverse settings?

So one of the things we hear all the time (relatively speaking) is that

a) publishers won’t buy fantasy that has other than a medieval-European-esque setting, and

b) this is because readers won’t buy other than same.

For example, from a comment here:

“I once heard a fantasy author talk about the fact that there’s so much pseudo-European/Tolkienesque stuff out there.

She said that basically, it comes down to the economic realities of the publishing business. The publishing houses who put out fantasy novels want to go with what they believe will draw their biggest audience, and 99 percent of the time, that’s European/Tolkien-style fantasy. She’d said that she once wrote a very detailed, dramatic novel set in a fantasy analogue of Egypt. After reading it, the publisher said, “This story is great, but the one thing we’d like you to change is the setting – we need it to be something more like medieval Europe.”

So, after a week or so of being upset about it, since she needed to put food on the table, she went ahead and reskinned the story as something with a more Norse/medieval flavor; and they published it.”

I don’t know. I like a good medieval-European-esque setting fine, if it’s well done, but I love a more exotic setting. Ever read BRIDGE OF BIRDS, for example?

And the thing is, many many many reviewers also say they love exotic settings. Every reviewer who raves about EON/EONA, for example.

So I don’t know. How much of this publishing / readership bias is real and how much is perceived? If I want to write a fantasy in a sort of Ottoman Empire-esque setting (which I do) should I? Or should I put that off in favor of a story with a more European setting? Or (worse) should I expect a publisher to want the story, but only if I change the setting?

As evidence of something or other, the nominees this year for the World Fantasy Award are —

a) ZOO CITY (Beukes), set in a near-future South Africa
b) THE HUNDRED THOUSANDS KINGDOMS (Jemisin), with a fantasy setting that is hard to categorize (if you’ve read it, how would you describe the setting?)
c) THE SILENT LAND (Joyce), with a contemporary European setting
d) UNDER HEAVEN (Kay), set in a barely-alternate 8th century China
e) REDEMPTION IN INDIGO (Lord), a Senegalese folktale retelling
f) WHO FEARS DEATH (Okarafor), set in Saharan Africa

What are we to make of this?

That publishers like exotic settings, as long as the books are good? It would be nice to think so.

Or that exotic settings may be a tough sell to publishers, but reviewers and award committees love ’em once they’re out? That seems believable to me.

Can we make any kind of extrapolation from this to what readers prefer? (My guess is maybe not really) (But hopefully many readers prefer great stories regardless of setting?)

I’ve ordered a) c) and e). I’ve already read b) and d) — both were great, but I’d vote for THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS over UNDER HEAVEN, which in my opinion had a weak ending. I haven’t ordered f) and don’t really plan to, because I read this author’s first book and just never really connected to the protagonist — though I did love the setting.

I really hope I love all the nominees and that none of them were nominated just because the exotic setting appealed to some committee somewhere. But this list does make me feel more like starting work on my (wonderful! fun! long and involved! with underground cities! and dragons!) Ottoman-esque fantasy, in the hope that publishers will turn out to agree with me that exotic settings are a great idea.

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Changable e-books

Nathan points out that e-books are not fixed into their final form the way print books are. Should there be a final version? he asks. Does the tinkering even help books?

a) Yes. I would love to get rid of typos, repeated words, and that dratted scene where a character stands up twice. I would love to be able to fix these things without waiting for a new printing or new edition.

b) NO! NO! NO! By God, there needs to be a point where you call it done and put it aside and quit worrying about it! How could you ever move on to the next project?

c) What if the author changes her mind about something big and makes an important change, only you as the reader loved the original version? To make a somewhat exaggerated point, can you imagine Robin McKinley deleting BEAUTY from your e-reader and substituting ROSE DAUGHTER?

c) Worse, if the book can be fiddled with, what would prevent third parties rather than the author fiddling with them? What if some nameless Amazon employee suddenly decides to mess with MY BOOK? If Amazon could delete books other people bought, what would stop them from fiddling around with books other people wrote?

Legality?

Amazon’s published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content. . . . Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle.

I would REALLY be unhappy to have ANYBODY BUT ME make changes to any book I ever wrote — and almost as uncomfortable giving even the author the right to make any change bigger than fixing an obvious mistake.

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Computer Solitaire is your friend

Solitaire is an invaluable aide to the writer. It really is. Why? Because it is intrinsically boring, that’s why. How is solitaire put to its natural use?

1) Need to get some work done but totally unmotivated? No problem! Just tell yourself: “I’ll just turn my laptop on and play a couple of games of solitaire — I won’t even open the working file.” But after a couple of games of solitaire, you will be bored enough to at least OPEN the manuscript file and LOOK at your manuscript, and then you will wind up fiddling with something or other, and then since you’ve started you might as well get a little work actually done — and poof! An evening that is at least moderately productive.

2) Or how about if you ARE working on your manuscript, but you are not enjoying it. Like you are working on one of those annoying boring transition scenes and you know you will probably end up cutting it anyway and yet you have to write it to get to the scene you want to write? (Surely this isn’t just me?) Or maybe you are working on some aspect of revision that particularly annoys you, like you are making sure a character is bald as an egg ALL the way through the manuscript, a very tedious job I assure you.

Solitaire to the rescue! Because you can promise yourself one (or two) games after every chapter! And even if the one (or two) games stretch out to five or six as you put off getting back to work, fundamentally solitaire is BORING and so you will be driven back to work eventually!

3) On those evenings where you actually DO play solitaire for an hour straight? Without winning a single game? You have actually used solitaire as a diagnostic tool, possibly without realizing it! You would NEVER have been able to tolerate such a boring hour if your brain was actually functioning. You were too tired to get any work done. This is confirmed because you LOST all those games. If you were coherent enough to write, you would have won at least some of the time. Since solitaire is BORING, after losing a lot of games in a row you will probably be able to tear yourself away from your computer and go to bed.

Notice that in order for solitaire to be used most effectively as a writing tool, it’s important not to have any games on your laptop that are actually fun to play. It’s also wise not to hook your laptop up to the internet.

[Yawn.] Naptime! Bye!

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Manuscript revision —

Sometimes not my favorite thing.

Sometimes I kind of enjoy it! Depends on the type of revision — huge sweeping alterations, like turning curtains into play clothes in The Sound of Music; or little fiddly detail-changes like re-hemming a pair of pants by 1/4 inch?

I once went through a huge manuscript, making the main character plump and bald. This was veeery tedious. (Do not wonder whether you have forgotten a plump, bald main character in one of my novels. That one is not yet published, though it someday will be.)

In contrast . . . I have started to get almost kinda enthusiastic about making an important revision to one of the main characters in KEEPER. So tonight I think I will go back and revise chapters 2 and 3 yet AGAIN.

Well, I’ll start that tonight. Probably finish it, eh, Thursday maybe. After that it should be less annoying to keep going with this revision because I’ll be able to actually move forward.

Meanwhile!

Found a neat post on this topic from The INTERN, first posted early this year. Here!

Friday, March 25, 2011
Special Topics in Calamity Novel Repair

INTERN has seen countless first drafts which are littered with redundant scenes—scenes that unwittingly make the same point or convey the same information over and over again without bringing anything new to the story.

… common culprits for redundancy include “getting-to-know-you” scenes, training montages, and scenes showing characters falling in love. Taken individually, any one such scene can serve an important function in your story. But when you show your characters twirling around a skating rink holding hands, then lying in a field of daisies laughing, then snuggling on a couch watching movies, and nothing is changing or moving, then you’ve got yourself some redundant scenes.
How do you recognize when your scene is critical to the story and when it’s redundant?

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. What does this scene actually DO?

(show the characters falling in love/show MC’s deepening dedication to becoming a basketball star/develop conflict between MC and her rival/etc.)

2. Do any other scenes do the same thing?

(yes/no/sort of/yeeeeees, but that scene where they lie in the daisies is just soooo sweet)

Obviously, it can take more than a single scene to fully develop a relationship or conflict. But the key word here is develop. That means in each scene, something important will have shifted. Instead of six “getting to know you” scenes, you’ll have one “getting to know you” scene, one “getting to hate you” scene, and one “getting to find out you’re my long-lost twin” scene.

Once you stop writing redundant scenes, you will be delighted to find that your novel will mysteriously develop a greater sense of tension, conflict, and forward motion. Hurrah! Calamity fixed. Well, the first one, anyway…

Yep, definitely been there. Character-has-revelation / character-has-same-revelation. One of the two has to come out! Character-visits-cousin / character-visits-cousin . . . again, cut one!

This is the sort of thing that makes it SUPER USEFUL to take a break between finishing a novel and sending it off to be read by real live other people. Taking a month or so and then coming back to a book can make redundant scenes leap out at you. I think I’m getting better at spotting the suckers when they leap and twirl and wave flags and scream DELETE ME.

When I’m working to a major deadline . . . eh. That’s where my agent becomes invaluable, because SHE’S the one who points to the flashing neon flag and suggests gently that perhaps only ONE of those scenes is strictly necessary.

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Five days . . .

To revise Ch. 3 in my WIP (KEEPER). Five days. Five. Mostly because I just did not want to work on it and thus spent oodles of time drifting off to do other stuff.

Aargh.

Plus, I thought of something I could do with the secondary protagonist that would . . . probably be a good idea and add coolness to the book. Also, require more revision.

I would like to get this revision finished by the end of September.

It is the 19th.

I have another show next weekend and Archon is the weekend after that and that will take me into October and will I get this revision finished? I’m thinking probably not.

This is turning into one of those crazy Neverending Revisions From Hell. The kind where the end is always in sight and yet never seems to get closer.

Did I already say Aargh?

Question (rhetorical): go back and revise chapters 2 and 3 given the new idea that just struck me? Or move ahead and read chapter 4, which should require essentially zero work, as a reward for getting as far as I have?

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