A thousand little decisions

[Another repost! This one's from 2008.]

One of the things I used to HATE was having editors ask to see a rough draft of something. I'd always warn them, It's a rough draft, it's going to suck! I'd ask if I could avoid doing this, and they would assure me that they totally were going to understand.

And without fail, I'd always get this really intense reaction of surprise and displeasure because it was a rough draft, and therefore, it sucked. (I also got really hilarious questions, like, Was I going to take care of the part that reads, "XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX FIX ME XXXXXXXXXXXXX FUCK FUCK"? No, I just figured it could go into print like that.)

Polishing is really key, and it's what separates the good stuff from the rest of it. And it is polishing--you rough out the main points, and then you go back and make it good. So people want to know why what you're giving them isn't shiny and smooth and beautiful, like the stuff you usually give them after you've had time to polish, and it just makes me want to scream. (Let's just say, when Joss Whedon let us crazy Browncoats get an advance peek at the rough cut of Serenity, and some people were like, Why does it suuuuck? Why isn't it great like his finished product always is? I really, really felt for him.) Do you pull a cake out of the oven halfway through and then complain about the texture?

Anyway, the inspiration for this rant is the movie La Femme Nikita, which I finally saw. I saw the English-language remake Point of No Return when I was in my 20s, and I totally did not understand why people were so excited by this whole Femme Nikita idea. The two movies aren't very different in their bold strokes, but it's the million differences in the way they were polished that make La Femme Nikita such a better movie, from the opening shot (four junkies walk down a nighttime street; one holds an ax, and they are dragging a fifth junkie by her feet) to the decision NOT to have the boyfriend be a complete moron.


[So, I've been feeling guilty about neglecting this blog--less guilty about neglecting Trust, because that home-improvement project is chugging along nicely--and I figured I'd do the lazy thing and repost an old entry from 2007, back when this blog was mostly about working in a place where sexual harassment and exhibitionism were considered good things. (I mentioned that we worked with children? Yes, I did, but I'll mention it again--we worked with children.)]

I subscribe to Netflix, and since my queue is typically maxed out at all times, I'll hit these really weird runs of movies because 500 titles ago, I got curious about a particular director or actor or genre.

So recently I saw two Tupac Shakur movies, first Gridlock'd and then a few weeks later, Juice. In Gridlock'd, I thought Tupac was kind of what you would expect from a whatever-turned-actor--just a little unpolished and unnatural, a little stagy, a little exaggerated with the gestures and expressions, and clearly someone pretending to be a character rather than someone who really gives the impression of being the character. In Juice, though, he's perfect--very smooth, very natural.

The thing is, Gridlock'd was made five years after Juice. I don't know if it had to do with the subject matter or the director or the other actors, but I find it interesting that Tupac became a worse actor over that five years, rather than a better one.

That's a phenomenon that really creeped me out when I read City by Clifford D. Simak. It's a classic sci-fi book that is a collection of interconnected stories. The last story was written many years after the earlier stories--if I recall correctly, it was written by Simak once a decision was made to publish the stories (which had appeared in magazines) together as a book--and in my opinion, it's by far the worst-written of the lot. This terrifies me, because you really are supposed to become a better writer with time--I suppose it's to compensate for you losing your looks or something. With Simak, I think I know the reason--he spent the intervening years working as an editor for some dry-as-dust publication, and it infected his writing so badly the last story has all the verve and excitement of the product warning on the back of a bottle of vitamins. (I still think the book is well worth reading, just don't expect too much from that last one.)

What writers can learn from America's Next Top Model

Sometime around the time I was in journalism school--like the summer between the spring and fall semester, or shortly after I graduated--I came across the reality-TV show America's Next Top Model. To the extreme amusement of my friends, I got hooked for a season or two, before the general lack of intelligence among the contestants (NOT the actual professional models, but the wannabe model girls) became too frustrating for me to watch.

Why did I find the show so interesting? Because learning to be a good model is exactly like learning to be a good writer.

Are you insane? you scoff. Models are superficial and vapid! Writers are deep and profound! Well, I say, I may be insane, but you should be careful about stereotyping, because it will blind you to certain truths.

And the truth is, there are many more parallels there than you might expect between the would-be model and the would-be writer. Your typical would-be model, in all likelihood, is not just a pretty girl but a Pretty Girl--she puts a lot of effort into her looks, people compliment her on them all the time, and a big hunk of her identity depends on her being the Pretty Girl.

Likewise, the would-be writer is Deep, Profound, and Talented. They are (cue ponderous music) Putting a Piece of their Soul onto the Paper. Their Deep, Profound, and Talented Soul.

So, Pretty Girl goes on ANTM. She takes a bunch of pictures--prettily! She goes in before the panel of judges and...they tell her her pictures SUCK. She's not holding her body right. She's doing weird things with her mouth. She has a double chin. She's a wreck.

At this point, one of two things happen (at least, they happen if the girl is bright enough to understand spoken language, which is not always the case):

SCENARIO 1: The girl says, Oh, OK, how can I take a better picture? She works on her posture, relaxing her mouth, holding her chin up, whatever.

SCENARIO 2: The girl says, HOLY CRAP!!! THEY THINK I'M UGLY! Instead of, you know, trying to take a better picture, she is devastated. Her entire identity is threatened. She bounces back and forth between deciding that the judges must be wrong and deciding that she must be ugly.

The girl in Scenario 2 either eventually sucks it up and puts herself into Scenario 1, or she stays in Scenario 2 for photo shoot after photo shoot, spiraling down into self-loathing and despair until she is ignominiously eliminated.

Guess what would-be writers do when they first receive harsh criticism?

Is it easy the first time? Hell, no. I did very well in college writing very academic papers, and then I went into children's publishing. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that academic writers don't make good children's authors. The first time I wrote a book, I was crucified. The editor made no pretense: She thought I was a horrible writer, and she was openly skeptical that I had it in me to become a better one.

And I wrote down every bit of constructive criticism that editor had (rest assured, she had quite a bit that was less than constructive), and I completely revised the book. The editor was both very pleased and extremely surprised.

In a way, I was lucky--I had a job that I wanted to keep. If you're a professional writer, you'll follow your Muse right to the unemployment line if you can't take criticism. In some ways, I think things are harder for amateur writers, because if your book sucks, you can always tell yourself that you are simply misunderstood--there's no one with a big stick forcing you to do a better job. But really, what you are doing is choosing to write a bad book, because it is easier than writing a good book. And I have a hard time respecting that.

And by the way

The Norwescon ad didn't really do anything--I got some more page views on my Web site, but nowhere near enough to justify the cost. Good to know--given that Norwescon is a big con with a literary focus, I feel safe is assuming that program advertising at sci-fi cons isn't worth doing again. I may still advertise in Locus once Trust is published, and I've read good things about an advertising service called Project Wonderful.


This writers' group is paying off already, because looking at how to improve other people's stories is actually quite helpful when you are trying to improve your own.

Case in point: I've read two parts of novels that both face a similar issue--an exposition dump. You know, a spot in the story where the action grinds to a halt so that the narrator can tell you about a character's history, or about their appearance, or about some other background-attribute type thing that the writer thinks the the reader needs to know. And the reader does need to know it...eventually.

That "eventually" is key, because I think in both cases things would work better if the information was withheld for a little bit. In one story, there's a spot where the character dramatically reveals some of his history to another character, while in the other story a character walks into a room and greatly excites another with her appearance. But in both cases it's not so dramatic or exciting for the reader, because we already learned all that about them back at the exposition dump. So, in both cases my advice has been to yank the dump, restoring the flow of action (I know, my metaphors are getting mixed here--just be happy I'm not resorting to digestive ones), and then surprise the reader with the character's history/appearance at a dramatic moment later on.

And THAT made me think about the first few chapters of Trust. I've already split up some of the exposition, but I realized that I can actually do this to dramatic effect. Instead of just saying, Yea, yea, this guy did this really bad thing, I can tease the reader--This guy did something, it was really bad, HERE'S WHAT IT WAS!

In the land of the blind...

So, I've been on hiatus, but I think the hiatus is going to end soon, mainly because I'm getting kind of bored. (And yesterday the hiatus consisted entirely of barfing, thanks to something I caught cleaning my niece's barf out of my car. Childcare is always a joy.) I actually interrupted a home-improvement project back in January when I started all this, so I'm going to make myself actually finish it (or, you know, most of it) instead of interrupting it again.

In the meantime, I've been proofreading the better part of a novel for someone in the writers' group--his response to my being nit-picky with the chapters I read for group was to be delighted and want more. So you can chalk that up to his masochism, or you can chalk it up to what I personally consider one of the harder parts of being an indie author--the lack of contact with editors, copy editors, and the like. I mean, when you write for a publication as a staffer, you literally sit in the same room as your editor, so you always have that guidance and support (at least you do if your editor is any good). Even as a freelancer you get a lot of guidance and feedback, but nowadays in book publishing it seems that all editors get to do is to say "yea" or "nay," and in many cases they don't even get to do that--the marketing department does.

The irony is, I don't consider myself a good proofreader/copy editor. At my first job in publishing, I was actually skipped over the copy editing job: Typically the promotion trajectory was editorial assistant -> copy editor -> assistant editor (unless you were such a superior copy editor that you'd stay in that department), but I just went editorial assistant -> assistant editor. I'm sure some of my co-workers thought that was meant as a big compliment, but I regarded it as recognition that 1. I can't spell 2. I was never taught any grammar in school and had to learn it on the job (that job, in fact), and 3. I used regional colloquialisms like "made hash" without any notion that they were not standard English.

Many years later, when I was in journalism school, I was proofing a student publication, and one of the journalism professors said, "OK, we've got our ringer." So at that point, I was clearly better proofreader, but I was also being compared to other journalism students and not to professional copy editors. The personality attributes that make someone a good journalist (think: Foxes. Hyperactive foxes) are pretty much the opposite of the personality attributes that make someone a good copy editor (HEDGEHOGS). And copy editing is just taken much more seriously in the publishing world--a newspaper will throw a reporter onto the copy editing desk when they get too old to run around like a hyperactive fox, regardless of the person's suitability for the job.

Now, of course, I'm dealing with writers in a writers' group that is not based in NYC, and the members of that group pretty much all make a living in non-writing fields, so now I guess my copy editing skills are quite exceptional. And when I mentioned that I laid out Trang by myself, one of the group organizers immediately asked if they could pay me to lead a seminar on layouts. I laughed, and she said, "No, I'm serious." I said I'd do it, but they don't have to pay me. I mean, for God's sake, I never was remotely an art person! But I suppose in a way that's an advantage: A real designer would tell you to buy Quark XPress already--it takes an amateur to do a book layout in frickin' Word.

Dropped the price

I dropped the price on the e-book to 99 cents just now--I was only going to do it for the week, but some of the blogs I've read made me decide to make it a permanent thing. I'm a "new" writer (that always cracks me up, because hello, I've been writing professionally since 1992. But I am new to readers of fiction), and Trang is the first book in a series, so I'm going to have to encourage people to take a chance.

I liked it!

So, I went to my first meeting with a writing group today--I was feeling pretty good about it because the works we were supposed to read and critique were good. And I think it was a good group. Maybe a little biased toward the uncritical "I loved it!" but since I, too, thought the submissions were high quality, I can't really claim that was way off the mark.

Of course, I came to group with the professional's attitude, which can be summed up as: Of course it's good! I don't need to tell you it's good! If it wasn't good you wouldn't work here! Let's focus on what's wrong! I my need to adjust that, because I wound up tossing in the compliments at the end, and people were visibly relieved to hear that I liked what I read. Also, apparently I need to mark up the writing with an eye to giving it back the person, which means that 1. I need to write legible notes, 2. I need to write less random notes, 3. I need to stop using black ink, and 4. I need to not print things out on the backs of bills or other personal financial papers. Maybe I'll use a post-it for the general notes.

Also, I am reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Drop whatever you are doing and go read that book--holy Moses, it is good. (ETA: OK, the ending's a little weak. But overall a VERY strong book.)

Maybe I'm taking this hiatus a little too seriously

I received the proofs of the hard copies with the new covers today, and I was like, Wow, that really does look much better than the old cover, how nice. And then I stuck them on my bookshelf and skipped merrily off to do other things. It wasn't until about 10 minutes ago that I realized, I need to approve these proofs if books with the new cover are going to be sold. Oh, right, they weren't just sent for me to admire....

Random idea

So, here's a thought, if you are stumped for story ideas: A series of horror tales geared to the middle aged. Instead of sexy vampires or whatever, these would deal with things that truly strike fear into the hearts of ordinary folks.

Possible titles include:

"The Mysterious Noise Coming from the Toilet: A Story of Suspense and Terror"
"Refrigerator Dripping"
"The New Stain; or, A Call to a Roofer"

The platforms that...matform?

In the comments to Henkel's post on Konrath's blog, someone took him to task rather sternly for not having "a platform." By which they did not mean a structure made of wood that people could stand on, but rather an Internet presence that was not strictly about marketing his books. Yes, said the person, you are on Twitter, but your posts are all just "Buy my crap!" and that's not enough for people! You've got to open up and reveal yourself!

I don't know about that--isn't it enough for Henkel to, you know, write stories? I mean, I obviously think Konrath is doing a real public service with his blog, but he's on a mission--he started the blog because he felt that authors needed help figuring how to make money, and he's clearly been putting in a lot of effort into that thing for many years. Not every author has that kind of fire for something that is basically a sideline to their real work--and some who do are like Barry Eisler, who has a passion for politics and therefore has a blog that he is fairly certain alienates a good portion of his potential readership.

I'm also quite leery of the whole "you've got to reveal yourself" thing. I agree that that can be compelling, but honestly, do I want readers to like my writing or to like me? Being in my line of work, quite a number of my friends have been published, and of course I support them in that, but far more often I know nothing about a given writer when I read their work, and that's fine with me. I'll judge them on their writing, thank you very much.

The more crucial issue that I think often gets ignored in these debates is the one of stalkers: Writers of any renown get them, and I've had my share already just by virtue of being female, reasonably attractive, and generally civil. So, you know, I'm not going to open up here about things that aren't related to writing, or post where I live (along with pictures of my house, like I've seen some young female bloggers do--what are they thinking?), or anything like that.

All of which is basically of a long way of saying, I'm still on hiatus. Spring is a busy time....

Why "fucking romance"?

Thinking about that previous post, you're probably wondering why I dislike romance novels. There's basically two considerations here: The first is that, as a writer, I know I don't have one in me, so there goes that road to publication.

But as a reader, I have to confess that I tend not to like romance novels, or the romance aspects of novels. (It should be noted that many novels classified as romance for sales purposes are actually murder mysteries or historical novels that happen to have a lot of sex in them--keep it between two people, and it's romance. Expand the field, and it's erotica.) There are exceptions: When Mr. Rochester confessed his love to Jane Eyre, I cried. Because it was so romantic. (Yes, yes, he wasn't very nice to his first wife, but God struck him blind for that. Whaddya want, blood?) I liked Pamela quite a lot until Pamela got married and rich and smug and boring. I even bought into the longing of the romance in Little Green Men, despite being reasonably certain that the long-ee was going to kill the long-er.

But mostly, I don't like romance novels. Part of it is the fantasy aspect. While I think the criticism of Twilight is overblown, the book is certainly not the only one to package unhealthy behavior as romantic. I recently read The Hunger Games, which is a great book, but there's this teenage boy with an abusive mom who latches on to a five-year-old girl (after his father indicated to him that she was desirable) and fixates on her. All the time he's "in love" with her--which is over a decade--he never actually speaks to her until circumstances force him to do so. I don't know about you (and I don't know how this is treated in the next two books), but I don't read that and think, "How romantic!" I read that and think, "That kid's going to become a serial killer!" Then there's the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, which won its author a Nobel prize and is considered a groundbreaking historical romance: It ends when the woman finally succeeds in berating her husband/love object to death. How romantic! (Seriously, that trilogy was described as "absolutely delightful" to me by the person who recommended it, a person who not coincidentally was going through a violent divorce.)

I also am more likely to dislike romance novels written in the modern era. Look at the basic plotline of romance: Boy and girl fall in love, there are obstacles to that love, the obstacles are surmounted. In days of yore, those obstacles were most often based on class--Jane Eyre is a lowly orphan, Pamela is just a servant. In order to overcome these class barriers, those gals need to have a LOT of spunk--they have to be natural aristocrats, otherwise (especially to the audience for which they were written) they're just gold-diggers.

But nowadays, the class thing doesn't work. I was telling my sister about Pamela, and I had to explain that Mr. B. was actually a decent guy, because even though he kidnaps and terrorizes Pamela, he doesn't rape her, which in that time was what upper-class men did as a matter of course in that kind of situation. Not shockingly, she was not impressed with his character--but in the 18th century, she would have been. Morality has simply changed too much--at best, we look at the upper-class character who won't marry the maid and wonder why he's such a snob.

So instead, even with historical romances like the Lavransdatter trilogy, the barriers have to be internal, and more often than not, they are neuroses. Bella can't believe that someone as perfect as Edward would love someone like her. Kristin Lavransdatter hates her husband and wants him dead because she can't accept his (totally obvious and readily advertised) flaws. These neuroses can get really contrived, with someone running off at some key point because they have some extremely convenient irrational hang-up. I just lose patience with it--I can't root for the woman, and I can't even hope she gets what she wants, because I can't believe a new boyfriend is going to solve anything for someone who is so damaged. That's not the way life works, and I, who have no problem suspending disbelief when it comes to aliens and vampires and demons, cannot suspend my disbelief for that.

Better does not equal paradise

Konrath recently had this guest post on his blog by an author named Guido Henkel who has self-published a series of old-timey horror novels that aren't selling. He made a bunch of changes...and they still aren't selling. So he's been forced to conclude that the market for this kind of book just isn't there, and he needs to write more-contemporary horror if he wants his books to sell.

And I think that's something important for would-be writers to keep in mind: When it comes to selling books, genre still matters. Probably the two best-selling come-from-nowhere self-published authors these days are Amanda Hocking and H.P. Mallory. Guess what they write? ROMANCE. Romance, of course! Romance, oh, romance, that most commercial of genres! (Fucking romance, if you're me.)

But I still think Henkel is in a better position than he would be had the Jason Dark books simply been rejected and never been published, or had been published by a small press and then not sold. He can move on to another type of book without anyone telling him they won't publish him because his last book sold so poorly. He acknowledges that writing the series made him a better writer, and he's being published in Fangoria now, so his career is definitely moving forward. I think eventually he will hit on something that resonates with readers--and once he develops a fan base, he'll have ten additional books to sell people.


OK, the new cover(s) has been uploaded to CreateSpace. Oddly enough, I can't upload it here--look over there or just take my word that it's basically the same cover, except that the portal is larger, hopefully looming somewhat menacingly.

So I'll have to order proofs again and go through that whole rigmarole, which is fine, and then I'll have to convince Google Books and Amazon's Search Inside the Book feature to use the new cover, which will probably be kind of a pain. But THEN I'll really, REALLY be done!

It's always something!

I'm redoing the covers for the hard copies, and since I was changing the cover anyway, I decided to tighten up the jacket copy a little. Since I put the jacket copy in the e-book descriptions as well, I looked them over to make sure they were consistent.

Well, guess what's full of typos? Not the jacket copy--that I checked and re-checked. But when I decided to put it into the e-book descriptions, I just typed down what was on the jacket, because it's hard to pull text from a picture file. And I didn't check it. And it's all screwed up.

Ai-yi-yi. Of course that's what got sent out to reviewers. Of course.

Wrapping things up

I don't know why this is, but I seem to work best doing one thing at a time--if my focus is fractured, I have a hard time actually accomplishing anything. So while I've gotten some editing done on Trust, I haven't been nearly as productive as I know I could be, and I think a big part of it is that I keep having to do stuff for Trang.

But at this point? I may tweak the new cover a little, but I like it enough that I told that artist (who did get back to me) that I wouldn't be using his images after all--I'm going to use the new cover on the paperbacks. That's not because I think my work is prettier than his (it's not), but I think the portal is a distinctive visual that can be used on other covers in the series as well as in advertisements. I also think the description and the formatting issues have been largely put to rest.

So basically, once I finish everything with the cover and drop the price, Trang will be REALLY done. I've got some more decent marketing ideas, but the thing is, at this point, I think the best thing I could do for Trang is to finish Trust. There is tremendous reluctance to read the first book of a series when the other books haven't been written, because a lot of authors crump out after the first one and don't ever finish the series (there are review bloggers who refuse to read books from unfinished series for this very reason). And if I have more than one book, I can do things like hook readers in with freebies or get the books into a less-populated category.

I tend to get wrapped up in the DO MORE NOW MORE MORE NOW NOW!!! mentality, but looking at things objectively, I think if I spend money advertising Trang now without a second book out, that's going to be money that could be more effectively spent after Trust is released. One of Joe Konrath's mantras is, "self-publishing is forever"--it's not like traditional publishing, where you have to sell sell sell in the first six weeks or you're screwed. I can let Trang sit, and it's not going to hurt anything.

So I think what I need to do now is 1. put Trang to bed, and 2. take a break! I've been dedicating an awful lot of my waking hours and head space to this, to the detriment of some other things I also enjoy, and I'm beginning to resent spending so much time in front of the computer. I think a short vacay is in order, and then I'll (hopefully) be all over Trust.

Why you DIY (or at least DO YOUR HOMEWORK)

OK, I know I bitch and moan, and I just figured out how to edit an ePUB file (did you know they're really zipped files? Wonders never cease) in order to add cover art to the Nook version, only to have B&N reject the final product as being The Wrong Sort of ePUB file. (Snobs.) So, it's not like this process is without its little frustrations.

But then I read this WSJ article about how this one digital publisher is going to resurrect backlist books via electronic and print-on-demand publishing, and it makes this all worthwhile. For one thing, the authors are getting a 50% royalty on the e-books, which, yes, is twice the industry standard, but it's also less than 70% you can get by doing it yourself.

Thing number two is that the books are really expensive. The e-book of Midnight Guardians is fricking $14.99, but don't worry! That's still waaaay less than the POD paperback, which is $23.08.

Holy freaking Moses! I'll just point out that the book is 210 pages long, which is not long, and $23 for a 210-page paperback is just ridiculous. This is, in fact, the big criticism that used to be leveled against POD publishing--the resulting book is so expensive that you price yourself out of any market. Nowadays there's no need for the book to be that expensive--Trang is 370 pages, $14.99, and I do make a decent royalty off that (on Amazon, anyway).

And it's not like there aren't plenty of other published authors who have self-published their backlists profitably and are eager to tell you how.

Oh, and the digital publisher releasing those costly books? Made a million dollars (on 420 titles, so we're not talking Amanda Hocking levels of sales success here) between May and December--but still hasn't turned a profit.

I realize that it is normal to pay for convenience. Don't want to thrash around like I have, trying to create cover art? Pay someone to do it for you! Want someone else to deal with the formatting headaches? Hire someone! Pay someone to do your social media and videos, if you feel that's key to sales. I could totally see ponying up for all that if you really don't want to stretch. But I don't ever see giving up all control over pricing and 50% of your revenues (AFTER the publisher recoups their costs) when you're not getting any advantage from a distribution standpoint. Midnight Guardians isn't in Wal-Mart or Target--it's on Amazon, just like everybody else.

ETA: In other words, to quote Konrath, "[I]f you’re going to be one of these two animals, don’t be the frog. Better to be the monkey."

Climbing up that learning curve

OK, you know how when I was trying to figure out how to put a table of contents in an e-book, and it turned out that it was easy to do--as long as you downloaded the right software and got comfortable editing HTML?

Well, tonight I decided to tackle including the front cover art. And, gee, yes it is easy, assuming you download Mobipocket Creator and get comfortable creating a MOBI file. Of course, that only takes care of the Kindle. Smashwords claims that if you just add an image to that Word file they insist on, you'll be set--I guess we'll see once they finish processing it, but if that's true, they get ease-of-use points for both the embedded cover art and the table of contents. [ETA: It's true! Point to Smashwords!] Nobody seems to know how to do it for the Nook.

Seriously, if anyone is ever wondering why not all e-books have all the bells and whistles, it's because IT'S A PAIN IN THE ASS. Actually uploading your book file is relatively easy (deceptively easy in Amazon's case, because it turns out that the Word-to-Kindle conversion is far from perfect), but the rest of it? Let's just say that, while I am comfortable using software, I never had any ambitions to actually go mucking around in its guts. And yet, here I am. I guess this is growth.

P.S. Oh, and allow me to roll my eyes, because the cover won't show up in Amazon's preview tool. Again, it works with Mobipocket, so I can only hope it works with a Kindle.