Monday, September 30, 2013

Signing in the Bookstore and Nobody's There

Yes, that title is a complete steal from this superb (and very funny) video that’s been out a few years and tell me this isn’t an author’s worst nightmare: a bookstore talk and/or signing where nobody shows. 

Now, tell me you haven’t been there, done that.

I can completely sympathize with Parnell Hall there.  I actually attended Bouchercon once, years ago, and volunteered to hang in the authors’ hall where they do this mass signing.  I don’t remember the writer to whom I was assigned, but he was relatively new and so, of course, a lot of people hadn’t heard of his books.  He wasn’t sitting next to Mary Higgins Clark, but he was either alongside or very close to Barry Eisler.  So you can imagine the scene.  I must’ve refilled that poor guy’s water glass a half dozen times in the space of an hour and made small talk.  He took it okay, but—honestly—what are you going to do but smile bravely and soldier on?  Having been in a similar situation at several Trek conventions and watched the lines snake out the door for all these other writers—or going now to conferences and seeing throngs cluster around writers whose problems I wouldn’t mind having . . . it’s pretty demoralizing: so much so that you have to wonder why you put yourself through this agony in the first place.
Have I done a signing where no one showed? Yes: my very first Trek book.  This wasn’t my first signing either; I’d actually done one for a couple anthologies at a now-kaput Borders, which went . . . meh.  At least a few people showed who weren’t relatives, you know?  But that time,  I remember the store owner gamely hovering and offering me cookies while patrons went through this little dance: eyed me, eyed the posters, eyed the books, eyed me . . . and then moved on. It was sort of traumatic.  What I’d been really excited about—look, see, my first book; I wrote this!—went out with this horrible whimper. 
It’s a wonder I ever agreed to do signings again, but I did when I went on tour for ASHES a couple years ago.  I guess you could say I was lucky that I--this complete unknown--got traffic at all, but we’re not talking droves here and I know that these bookstore people really tried hard.  So the low turnouts weren't their fault or anything, but I was a nobody.  One place I remember in particular, three people showed--and all were octogenarians.  I’m not kidding.  What was worse was one guy was there because it was hot, and his apartment wasn’t air-conditioned; one woman came thinking I was someone else; and the last woman, who’d been sitting in the little café right next to the space where the store had set up chairs, only perked up when I mentioned the Holocaust.  She also turned out to be . . . wait for it . . . delusional.  I’m not kidding.  My shrink antennae were already up; there was just something about her.  As soon as she started talking about getting special messages from . . . gosh, I don’t remember . . . and how they’d given her ECT and she should be on meds but wasn’t taking them . . . my book signing had morphed into geriatric group therapy.  (The guy was pretty quiet but stayed for the whole thing; it was pretty hot and the cookies were free.  The other woman was . . . helpful?  Sympathetic?  A tad of a enabler, I think, who kept encouraging the obviously psychotic woman to tell us more.  I was able to pull us back around to some kind of topic that was germane to the book . . . but you get where I’m going here.  This was just gruesome.  On the other hand, the publicist traveling with me at the time did say that of all the authors she knew, I was probably best equipped to handle something like this.  Yeah, but I used to get paid by the hour, too.)
I’m not down on book signings, per se; I’ve had some really lovely times with small groups of people, and these are folks who have kept in touch and like my books.  I have met and just adored some very special bookstore owners who went out of their way to make me feel welcome.  But I do wonder about the utility of signings for those of us who, you know . . . we’re not Stephen King or Joe Hill or Lee Child (the latter two of whom I’ve had the misfortune to always seem to be competing against with dueling book events—at least, Child dogged my every step through Ireland, or maybe I dogged his . . . I can’t remember).  I also know there are stories of famous authors who can’t draw a crowd, although I’d love to know who they are so we can have a drink and commiserate. 
But these non-events bring up two interesting problems/points.  For starters, a signing is, for lack of a better word, a form of entertainment.  You’re vying for someone’s time that they might use to watch TV, play a video game . . . you know the drill.  If you, the headliner, aren’t compelling or interesting enough—think of all those warm-up bands (God, I remember when Peter Frampton, who was once a big deal, warmed up some other forgettable band.  Yes; I am that old)—no one’s going to come to that show.  Timing has something to do with it; it’s best not to do these things on weeknights, for example, but a weekend’s no slam-dunk either. 
Which brings me to my second observation: bookstores don’t seem to be places where people really hang out.  This is not a slam; I love bookstores, but I never hung in any.  I came in to buy a book, maybe chat with the owner or ask for a book recommendation, and that was that.  When I was a kid, I sometimes hung in the corner drugstore next to the comic rack until the owner gave me one too many pointed looks, and then I ponied up my twenty-five cents for the comic and another quarter for chewing wax.  (I liked the cherry lips; remember those?)  Even in the age of Borders and B&N and other smaller independents that might offer some frills to encourage you to stay and hang—those ubiquitous cafés, for example—I haven’t seen a bookstore emerge as a viable place for scads of people to congregate and socialize, and this is a problem for everyone. 

Now there are some bookstores that are very skilled in outreach, both to schools and the general community, and create events that draw a loyal clientele; I know people who work in a few of those places, and I’m all for that.  The problem here, though, is that you are counting on and hoping that your name actually means something.  Most often, it doesn’t because we’re not Stephen King, etc.

So what matters isn't only us (although name recognition is huge; let's face it).  What sells the event is the actual bookstore and its reputation.  Anderson's Bookshop is a fabulous example of a bookstore whose owners also have a deep understanding and knack for organizing venues people (and writers) want to attend.  For the last ten years, they've put on a terrific conference on YA lit that I had the great fortune of attending a few years ago and would kill to be invited to again.  Anderson's has singlehandedly created an event where booklovers of all ages want to come--and you'll notice that it's not in the shop either. That's not to say they don't have great events in-store; they do. I also suspect that they've had a long time to work at this and develop a great outreach system--yet, looking over their upcoming events, I'll bet even that experience is no guarantee of a crowd unless the writer's already über-famous.

Which gets us back to the original problem: short of becoming a New York Times bestseller, how do you expand a virtual network?  How do you build a fan base of folks who follow you online and then, hopefully, into that bookstore?  Some writers seem to have a knack, and to be fair, they've also been at it a long time where the blogging and the engagement become a priority.  I’m thinking specifically here of something I heard Maggie Stiefvater talk about at a conference on kidlit and blogging.  Now this is a woman who built up an online presence as an artist for years before she published her first book.  I think she said she needed . . . two, three years to gain a substantial following, and this was just for her art.  So when she started publishing, she had a loyal base already, and that only grew.  She is also very good and skilled at engaging a virtual audience, something that not all of us can (or should) do.  Scholastic had this idea of having her do a signing in the off-season—I think it was June or July—and rely almost exclusively on her virtual reach and word of mouth.  She said that when she drove to the bookstore, she was really nervous and worried that no one would show.  But over two hundred people did because her network was and is that good.
So are we saying that having a broad virtual network of fans who love what you do . . . is that enough to turn a Parnell Hall into a Maggie Stiefvater?  I don’t know because I’m still not sure what draws people into a virtual community to begin with.  I wrote a post a long time ago about blogging being like that proverbial tree in the forest.  You know, sort of like Field of Dreams: if you write it, will they come?  (Or as Julie Powell said in Julie/Julia . . . is anybody there?  Anybody?)  What makes for a successful blog or online presence?  It can’t be just numbers of followers; a few weeks ago, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has a fabulous blog on business, wrote that all those readers did not translate into substantive sales of one of her nonfiction books.  Yet she has a wide following, one she’s made for herself by offering a blog that’s unique.  (I have no idea what her traffic is the rest of time; I’m just talking about Thursdays, when she posts The Business Rusch.)  Clearly, she’s built up a fan base around her business blog.  I have no idea if this translates into wider sales for her other work, but I can’t see that it hurts.
On the other hand, are blogs—in terms of sheer volume and length—really necessary?  That is, do we really need to write a ton?  Won’t snippets do?  Something easily digestible, a couple paragraphs?  An example: for a while now, I’ve done a Sunday Cake.  I miss sometimes—like today because my husband asked if I would postpone baking until Tuesday for a Wednesday event)—but I always post a picture of the cake to Facebook and Twitter . . . and I always, always get a ton of comments.  Always.  I get many more comments and views of my cakes than I’ll ever get from a blog.  (Ditto when I post something about my cats, or my garden.  Or on the environment.)  In fact, people notice when I don't post a Sunday Cake and, sometimes, ask what's going on.  Some have also asked for recipes.  Which is pretty astounding.

Now we can go all chicken-and-egg here.  You could say that no one would’ve bothered about my Sunday cakes or cats to begin with, if they weren’t already interested in me as a writer.  Fair enough; I don’t know how to test that.  But all this does turn on this question: what makes for an entertaining blog?  What piques fans’ curiosity?  What do they want to hear about?  What makes them loyal enough so they’ll spread the word and show up at a book signing (as one example)?  Clearly, food seems to be big; I’ve my own experience with this, and I know many authors (and agents) routinely post recipes.  Or put up pictures of their pets.  Etc.
It all comes down to this: none of us want to end up at an event where no one shows.  I always live in dread of going to a conference and being the only writer whose table no one visits.  So we are talking—again—about marketing and how to rise above the noise, and  I don’t have an answer.  If you do . . . for God's sake, don't keep it a secret.  Inquiring minds want to know.
So, in the meantime, while I go think about this—and continuing writing my next book—I leave you with Parnell Hall who has finally hit upon a way to avoid signing in the Waldenbooks when nobody’s there:

* * *
On your way out, don't forget to enter the Goodreads MONSTERS/ASHES backpack giveaway!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Having A Good Support System


Having a good support system, in real life and in your novels is the key to a successful story and plot. In real life I often hear from people, "Writing isn't a real job." Or, "That's a nice hobby." Which to me is like saying to The Beatles that creating music isn't a real job. If you are passionate about something whether it's writing, singing, dancing, painting it becomes a part of you. A piece of your soul that you know that you can never live without. It helps keep you sane and brings a joy to your life that no other things can provide.

Having people that will support you along your journey to finding out your own unique style of creativity is fundamental. Honestly, I don't know where I would be in life without my family and a few of my close friends. They offer me words of wisdom, and some times snippets of advise that aren't so wise.

When I feel like I have hit a block in the road I know I can't scale or find a way over the words of comfort that are offered by the people closest to me slowly break down the barricade in my head.

 When I have had a bad day and I know my little sister will be able to pull me from whatever stupod I have manage to fall into.

(She is also super cute which doesn't hurt in the making me happy. Just look at that grin. )

When my characters have decided to run wild and do things that are driving me completely mad I know I can always turn to my cousin Morgan because she understands what I am going through and she simplifies the mess in my head.

(She is also very cute. Note the cheeks and the smile.)

And when I have absolutely no clue where to go with a book and I am desperate for some inspiration I look towards my incredible friends that make me laugh until I can hardly breathe and I look like a lunatic.

A good support system isn't only needed in real life but in your stories as well. You create a web of characters that help push the plot along with their sarcastic quips and wise adages. building these characters and the bonds between them and your protaganist are what bring a story to life. The connection between the characters and what they face together or help each other through pulls you into the web of memories.

As the support system for your protagonist is developed so is an attachement that can't be severed between you and the world you are imagining.

Surround yourself with people that inspire you, that make you laugh and enjoy the moments you spend with them. Spend time with people that infuriate you, or that you find strange. Take comfort from your family and your friends and write. Write, take a break to drink some tea and write some more. Maybe the only piece of advise you will find in this is to hang out with cute people. But that's okay.

LLAP my friends. Until next time.

--Lexi Brady

Friday, September 27, 2013

Progress and Regress on Mad Science Sequel

Several months ago, I completed the Mad Science Institute sequel. Then I decided to scrap it and start over. The bottom line is that I’ve now completed a superior version, with the big change being that it features only Soap’s side of the story instead of alternating with other points of view (POVs) as I had done in Mad Science Institute. It’s got 95% of the awesome stuff that my first version had, but delivers it in 65% of the pages (which works out to almost 1.5 times as much awesomeness per page!).

I’ve found that a story can potentially go in any number of directions as it’s being developed. I usually start with a roadmap for the plot, but my characters invariably grab the wheel and we end up exploring new territory together. I say that like the characters have minds of their own because sometimes it feels like they do. That’s fine with me: my characters are encouraged to guide my stories because the process reveals who they are.

Will Soap stick around on campus for her date with Brett, or will she fly to Arizona to investigate the cyborg lab? Will Dean rush in to fight the bikers working for his nemesis, or will he hang back and call his buddies at the FBI? Those are questions for the characters to answer, and it feels like only they can decide those things. I, as the writer, get to decide which questions to ask by putting the characters into situations where they have to make those decisions. I can ask a hundred different questions to tell a hundred different stories, but it’s probably best not to ask a hundred different questions in the same story. It comes down to deciding which ones need to be asked in this particular book.

In the case of the Mad Science sequel, I decided that the questions I wanted to ask about Soap and Dean didn’t mesh as well as they had in the first book. In Mad Science Institute, it’s about misfits finding a home, and they both have that in common even though they come at it from completely different directions. In the sequel, it’s about Soap venturing out into the bigger world and discovering who she is, while Dean’s portion of the story was about grappling with grief and depression. It just didn’t match up. I want to explore both those situations, but I eventually realized that they needed to be explored separately.

What will happen to the Dean portions I removed? Well, he’s still in the book and throwin’ punches at bad guys. A few of his chapters I gave to Soap, and it was amusing to see how she overcame the same obstacles in different ways. Mostly, I think I want to save Dean’s portion of the adventure—or, at least, his character arc if not the actual plot details—for a future sequel. I’m even thinking I might do other novels with different POV characters—maybe Victor, Angela, Choop, and more. But first, at least during her freshman year, the series is going to stay with Soap because she’s got the most growing up (and blowing up) to do.

So, that’s the status of the new manuscript. Unfortunately, it will be a long while yet before this book finds its way to print, because publishing makes glaciers look like cheetahs. Finishing this manuscript has also coincided with my needing to find an agent, so that introduces a few more variables. I feel like a total rookie for not having recognized the needs of the story earlier on, but at least I can honestly say I’m pleased with the final result because it’s better, faster, and deeper than the first one.

For all you writers out there: am I the only one who’s ever gotten deep into a project only to want to start over? How do you avoid or cope with that? For you readers: would you prefer lots of cool details in a novel even if they’re a bit random, or would you prefer a more focused story? I’d be interested in your opinions.

Be good, and dream crazy dreams,

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on and his games on

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Combining Two Worlds: Compare and Contrast

Hi! P. J. Hoover, and I’m back for my final day blogging about world building. It’s been fun, and I hope you guys have enjoyed it.

Anyway, we now have a book with two distinct worlds created within its pages. What can we, as the author do, to combine these two worlds and make them into one compelling story?

My biggest tip? Compare and contrast. I’ve talked about the outer world with its global heating crisis. The government is taking an active role to make things better (or in some cases worse). In the Underworld, there is turmoil and chaos, too. And the council of gods must do their part and act upon this. Two worlds. Same answer. Is the government right in both worlds? Not at all. Remember, nothing is perfect, either above ground or below. Showing these two councils (or at least the repercussions of them will help compare and contrast our two worlds).

Is a dystopian story with the world aboveground suffering so badly from the heat, brainstorm what else can be happening in the other world (in this case the Underworld). What other troubles does that world have? Is the rule threatened? Are the boundaries weakened? Is there a mutiny about to break out?

An important part of comparing out two worlds is to maintain a proper balance between them. Both worlds have plot and crises. Both worlds must be given equal page time. Spending too much time in either of the worlds can risk alienating the reader. But . . . for every scene switch, there must be a believable reason. Simply “wanting to visit” is not enough. Why would a character want to escape one world and go to another? What would draw them to do so?

Keep your yin and your yang in alignment.

So that wraps it up for world building and Solstice. Two worlds in turmoil. One girl who can make a difference.

Thanks so much for joining me, and I hope you’re inspired to build some worlds of your own! 


P. J. Hoover is the author of the dystopia/mythology YA book, SOLSTICE (Tor Teen, June 2013), the upcoming Egyptian mythology MG book, TUT (Tor Children’s, Winter 2014), and the middle-grade SFF series, THE FORGOTTEN WORLDS BOOKS (CBAY, 2008-2010). You can read more about her and her books on P. J.’s website or blog.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When that Snot-Nosed Prince Killed the Handsome Hero

I've been in a few critique groups in the course of my writing career (if you can call it that).  And like any cast of characters, I fit right in with the oddest of the odd.  We all have our areas of passion and we lord over those passions like lions over a freshly fallen gazelle.  In my view this is what makes critique groups so effective.  If you get the blend just right you can cover everything:  emotion, tone, character arc, pacing, voice, plot, POV, clichés, stilted dialogue, typos, passive voice, too many adverbs and the inevitable, "I just don't get it."  Me?  I'm the tension guy.  I beat that drum till my critique mates wonder if that's the only tune in my head.  And I thought I had it down.  Like I really understood tension, how to create it and keep it going.

Then this one event happened that changed everything. 

That one event was the shocking death of what I assumed was the protagonist in George R.R. Martin's brilliant Game of Thrones.  Up to that point I pretty much saw the protagonist as a catalyst for tension, as in what trials will the protagonist have to overcome before either emerging victorious, or dying tragically in the final pages.  In this classic case, tension is created by all the other characters who typically meet some sort of demise in order of their importance to the A or B story.   Before I go any further, know that I am not a fan of fantasy.  I mean if a book weighs more than a sack of flour, then how could it possibly maintain tension throughout?  So rather than read the book, I decided to watch the series on HBO.  And in episode 9 of Season One, when that heroic character was brutally killed by that evil snot-nosed prince--everything changed.

And I mean everything.  For one, I had to read the books, which I did in record time.  For another, the tension went through the roof.  Why?  Because if an author is willing kill off a character that important, that sympathetic, that heroic, that soon, then who isn't he willing to kill?  No one was safe.  If I were a character in that book, I would be scrambling for the nearest castle, filling the moat with oil and piranhas, and barricading myself inside with enough food and flaming arrows to outlast a 100 year siege. 

Once you have that much tension flowing, then you have all the other benefits that come with it.  Trust is out the window.  Treachery runs amok.  Everyone is a potential protagonist and an antagonist. You can write dialogue rich with subtext while uncertain eyes shift from one shadow to the next.  I had never seen or read a landscape so rich in my most valued treasure:  tension.  It dripped from every blade and spike and was the force that pulled me through all the slow spots because I just knew something big was always around the corner. 

So now when I write I am always mindful of that lesson.  Sure, it makes my characters restless and unwilling to work for me.  If I were them, I wouldn't want to be in my book either because they can see in my outline that I am prepared to sacrifice my protagonist if it increases tension.  But there is one problem with this approach.  Maybe it's what 4-H kids feel when they raise a pig like a pet, and then bring it to the county fair where it is sold at auction and then taken to the...well, you know.  The problem is I don't know if I have it in me.  When the time is right, will I be able to swing the axe, or stab the knife, or pull the trigger?  I know my protagonist is betting that I won't.

We'll just have to see, won't we?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Salinger's Making My Life Hell.

As a result of my grand idea to take the AP English III class, I realized that English is the only course that I enjoy; and that most of my friends hate with a flaming passion of a thousand suns. So, I have been tweaking a few essays here and there, leaving me exhausted. I also realized that I am in over my head in literature. We finished Gatsby about two weeks ago and are starting "The Scarlet Letter" on Monday(The custom house must be annotated in full this weekend...), and I decided to start another classic in my free time. My worst decision yet.

I am not going to deny the fact that I am greatly exaggerating my thoughts over "The Catcher in the Rye", but I am going to go on about those thoughts regardless. Being three quarters  of the way through the thing, I still have no idea why this story is even being told. So, I must whine and cry about why I do not understand this novel; not because I do not want to figure it out myself but for someone else to tell me what they think of it.

First of all, Holden Caulfield is a mess. This estranged teenager is making me go crazy because there is absolutely no method to his madness. Thus far, all he has done is attempt to convince people he's much older than actuality, get the life beat out of him, and try to order alcohol then fail miserably. He makes you think he does that all the time, people sell him alcohol just because he looks old enough; the boy is insane. He has this sick delusion of himself that is placed high on some pedestal; all the while judging people intently like a little kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. Also, he has no direction at all. Even the most pathetic of my peer group has some direction, Right? Holden's not even unintelligent, he just has complete disregard for everything in existence. He's completely indecisive about his mindset. He can go from philosophical babel and reading "Out of Africa" to the average thoughts of an incompetent young man who only cares about young women. 

 After finishing those past sentences, I realized that we have so much in common that I could never possibly understand him because I will never understand my own craziness. Is that what Salinger wanted? For me to question a character that is so relatable that it is a bit frightening? I doubt it immensely. Just because the kid has a few gray hairs, he gets one stuck up where the sun does not shine  to call everyone "phony". I hate this word now and swear to myself to never use it again. "Phony". He mustn't understand the meaning of it. It is almost nauseating how much he uses that stupid word; but not quite as nauseating as the phrase "Old Sport" that I had to read over and over, up until Fitzgerald shot it and let it lie in a pool of blood. (Sorry Leo...)

All in all, I will probably finish the book tonight and completely regret ranting about how I have not a clue into the insight if Mr. J.D. Salinger. But, honestly, where is the fun in that?

Friday, September 20, 2013

A News Story with Book Inspiration Potential

Jordan Dane

My husband sends me strange links and records off the wall TV programs for me because he knows how I think about story inspiration. Sometimes a news story could fill out a back story of a character or become the main action or mystery behind a book. Recently he sent me this LINK. This story came from Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy. Who doesn’t love a cold case murder mystery?
Especially one that has a double twist.
Sayre OK news story faces
Jimmy Williams, Leah Johnson, Michael Rios

You would think that discovering the skeletal remains of three teens (who were thought to have run away in 1970) in a rusted car at the bottom of a lake would be interesting enough. How did their car end up in the lake? Why weren’t they found until now? Rumors had run rampant. Locals speculated that the three teens had stumbled upon a drug deal at a rural airstrip and been killed with their bodies dumped, never to be found. Some folks thought the kids ran away to California, never to be heard of again. Most people who knew the kids suspected foul play, but leads went nowhere.
Police found a vehicle (a 1969 Camaro believed to belong to one of the missing kids) while conducting a routine diver training exercise at Foss lake, 100 miles west of Oklahoma City. Score one for the home team. But if that wasn’t enough, the over-achievers found a SECOND car, containing two to three more bodies. (Ew, that they don’t know if they have two or three bodies. That doesn’t mean poor math skills. It could mean they only have “parts.”)
Sayre OK news story
Foss Lake outside OKC - Crime Scene

All the skeletal remains are likely connected to missing persons reports that are still open and unsolved. Unrelated, presumably. The teens were on their way to a high school football game and went missing in 1970. The second vehicle, thought to belong to John Albert Porter, most probably carries the remains of another man and a woman. The grandson of Porter feels certain the find solves the case of what happened to his grandfather.
Both cars were found submerged in twelve feet of water, fifty feet from the end of a boat ramp near the marina. I’m not sure how both vehicles would have ended up fifty feet from the end of a boat ramp. Talk about taking a wrong turn?! Lakes in Oklahoma can be filled with sediment due to the red clay soils. They would make excellent training cases for police divers, but tough for anyone looking for six missing people, apparently.
The bones were sent to the Medical Examiner’s office for determination of cause of death. You can’t just presume drowning, but without flesh on the bones and with all the abrasive sediment, that can’t be an easy job. If the bodies can be identified, that could give six families closure.

But a writer can conjure all sorts of other explanations for a story like this one. Who would’ve wanted to see the kids dead? What had they witnessed? With two cars in the lake, who was using the red dirt lake for a body dump site? Without the flesh on the bones, what if someone in the area was harvesting organs to sell on the black market?
So what do YOU think happened? How would you spin this emotional gut wrenching story for the two vehicles?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Turning Point

A writer friend and I have been preparing for a keynote address that we are presenting together. Keynotes are not usually duets (tell that to the selection committee). Duets take practice and really good timing or they are abysmal, much worse than solos. So we’ve been looking for a tune we can both carry. I’ve neglected to mention that I suspect I might be tone deaf. At least it feels that way when it comes to giving keynotes.

We’ll each be sharing part of our own convoluted writing journeys—I suspect convolution is the norm for most writers. And as we discussed our paths to publication, we discovered a tune we can both carry. We each had a moment during our journey when we reached a major turning point. The turning point I’m talking about isn’t finishing a manuscript, acquiring an agent, or getting that first book contract. Those are BSD’s (big significant deals worthy of celebration), but the turning point I’m talking about happens much more quietly; in fact,  it often sneaks up on you with those little cat feet Carl Sandburg loved and sits on “silent haunches” waiting to be acknowledged.  It’s the turning point in the writing life that makes all the difference. It’s a change of identity. It’s when you start thinking of yourself as a writer.
Let me digress. For a long time I considered myself a poet. I was writing and publishing poetry in well-respected literary journals. I wrote when I had the time, when I was inspired, when there was a contest I was particularly interested in. I was a teacher who wrote poetry. But I had a secret desire, to write a novel. The novel was a BSD that seemed unapproachable. There was no clear trail to the summit.  I began plugging away at a manuscript bit by bit in the odd hours I had. Eventually, and after much convolution, I had a completed manuscript. After many more twists and turns I ended up with a small literary publisher and my book came out without almost no distribution and no publicity. I was published. But I still didn’t think of myself as a writer. 

When did I first start thinking of myself as a writer? I found an agent, wrote another manuscript and it was accepted by one of those NY publishers. Validation helps. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. But I still felt like an imposter. I noticed I was now writing every day whether I felt like it or not. I was paying attention in a different way to my craft and a change was happening on the inside, I was seeing myself as a writer first and a teacher second. I remember two events vividly. 

In the first I was filling out a passport application. The form was routine until I got to one particular question: what is your profession? I hesitated and then with a trembling hand I wrote writer and wondered if my passport would be rejected. Would come it back stamped fraud? The second:  I walked into a coffee shop to meet a person who was starting a new critique group. I was hoping to find at least one other person in a town of engineers and scientists who was serious about writing as a career. Sci-Fi guy was sitting in the disguise of a middle- aged man at a table.
     “Are you the writer looking for a critique group?” he asked.
    “Are you the writer who just started one?” I said.
    I had been in critique groups before. But this time it was different. I was different and this person thought of me as a writer.
     “Yeah, I’m that writer,” I said.

     When did you first think of yourself as a writer?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Letting Go

The other day, someone asked how finishing a trilogy felt.  Sad came to mind although I wasn’t sure if that was exactly what I meant.  Empty is more like it, I guess, but I feel that way after any book, so finishing a trilogy isn’t all that different for me.  It’s one of the reasons that I make like a shark and keep moving on to the next project.  In truth, I didn’t feel quite as sad/empty after SHADOWS because I knew there was more to the story and yet another book to come.  (But I was plenty grumpy; just ask the husband how relieved he was when I started WHITE SPACE.) With MONSTERS now out, there’s a certain finality, a true closing of that chapter, and I feel the end—and loss—of this series much more intensely than I thought I would.  I wouldn’t say it’s more than my standalones; I know that I always wonder what happens next for all my characters.  But leaving this series is definitely tough—and more so, now that it’s actually on shelves. 

I’ve never finished a trilogy before, so I really wasn’t prepared for just how intense the ride and loss are.  Notice that word: finished.  Once upon a time, back in my Mechwarrior days, I was on tap for a trilogy; I’d even written the first two books and was looking forward to the third.  Unfortunately, the line disappeared beneath my feet (or my keyboard, as it were).  That happens.  Imprints go away; licenses aren’t renewed; publishers fold.  I remember being sad then, too, but in a different way because I really wanted to finish this character’s story.  All I could think was, whoa, there she is, little Katana Tormark, with only one friend left to her in the whole wide world . . . and it just so happens that he’s also the psychopath who murdered just about everyone she ever loved.  (God, I loved that psychopath to death.  Jonathan was a gas, so flippin’ fun to write, because he was so perverse.  I mean, we’re talking really really perverse, and in the most deliciously seductive way.  When I was a forensic shrink, I paid attention.)

Talk about an unfinished life.

The same thing happened to me with a character arc and set of stories I was developing—and had already set up in previous novellas—in the Star Trek: SCE series.  Never heard of them?  I’m not surprised.  SCE was e-book only (with compilations released in paperback a year later).  The series editor, Keith DeCandido, understood the importance of e-books before they really caught on, and so the series fell victim to the fact that there just weren’t many platforms and the experience wasn’t so hot.  I think you could read them as pdfs or something; I know I squinted through several on my first little Palm Pilot.  (And how times have changed; go back and watch the first two seasons of NCIS, and see Kate poke her Palm with a stylus.  A decade ago, that was hot stuff.)  Anyway, that series was ahead of its time in so many ways, and was eventually axed by Paramount, even though the paperbacks did fine (and, in fact, the one in which my two-parter, WOUNDS, appeared did extremely well in paperback, and still does pretty fine, all things considered).

Anyway, because Paramount pulled the plug, the fabulous four-book arc I was planning and set up in the WOUNDS sequel/follow-on, GHOSTS never got off the ground.  So Elizabeth Lense remains strained on Earth, a character in limbo—and still pregnant, by the way—and now I’ll never know what happens because I can’t write that character’s story anymore.  She belongs to Trek, not me.

But these ASHES guys are my characters, my babies.  So I guess what we’re talking about here is when and if you finally let go and a character—or characters—leaves your life, which isn’t all that dissimilar to letting go of a kid, a sort of go forth, young man kind of thing.  Some author-parents are better at tolerating that empty nest than others.  Me, I fill the emptiness with other stories and new kids to worry about.  But I can see how, as often happens, writers want to revisit these characters and the story to which they’ve got this incredibly intense attachment.  I’ve certainly read blogs where writers talk about how they wish they could’ve written a fourth book (or more), only their publisher wouldn’t take it, or whatever.  Conversely, I’ve seen a few reviewers’ blogs—not many, but some—where they say, up-front, that they hope that an otherwise fine writer moves on to something new and different.

I’m only talking about myself here, but I think I can understand both sides to this story: the desire to continue versus the need to let go and leave the story as it stands.  I even understand the calculus of an editor or publishing house.  Clearly, if there truly is more to say—or a series has velocity and a writer has the enthusiasm and more story to tell (I think we all know series where there was no more story, but the series was doing so well, that people just kept coming back to that well; and, conversely, how a series was left to quietly die by a house when the story wasn’t even close to being done)—then, yes, writing that next book makes sense.  In a traditional house, you might even have had that discussion with an editor ahead of time, maybe as soon as you realized there was more to say and do.

But I also think—and, again, I’m only talking about myself here—that, after doing what you set out to do, you have to be able to step away for a little while and just wait a bit.  Be patient; let things settle down and all the emotions even out.  Sure, it’s hard.  It hurts.  You feel awful and even worse when people tell you how much they love what you’re doing (and you’re convinced, as I am so often, that you’ll never write anything half that good again).  But it’s a little like deciding whether you’ll call your kid every week, or leave it up to your kid to decide what she wants.  I have two kids; one likes to touch base every week; the other is perfectly happy to talk for hours, but she’s also fine with zero contact for a good long while—and that’s okay.  I’ve left all that up for each to decide what fits best.  I’m confident they’ll talk to me when I want, and vice versa.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that if and when a writer feels the need to revisit a series . . . maybe it’s wise to decide if that’s what the series wants and needs, whether you self-pub or go the traditional route.  Obviously, it’s a lot easier to jump into another book if you self-pub; you don’t have to wait for someone to decide it’s okay. 

But . . . hold on . . . wait a second: are you doing it because the series is just begging for another book, or you are?  I’m serious here.  See, I said good-bye to MONSTERS several months ago: there was the writing of the book and then the revisions and then the copy-edits back and forth.  A lot of months of getting myself all worked up and then crashing every time I finished the book (again) before picking myself up, blowing my nose, and moving on.  Now that it’s hit shelves . . . I’m having to really focus on not looking over my shoulder, not longing for that series—which feels so much more polished (because it is) than the miserable specimen of a book I’m currently drafting for the first time—and not giving in to the idea/temptation/desire to go back to characters I adore and lives with which I am so intimately familiar.  It’s a real struggle.

Now, is there another ASHES book (or two or more) in me?  I want to say yes; I even know what the fourth book would be about and where I’d go from there.  But will I write it?  No, not now and for more reasons than just one.  First off, I have other people/characters/kids I care about, and their books to write.  But I also understand that returning to the trilogy right this second is seductive because it’s familiar and I’m so comfortable with these kids.  Yet I’m not totally convinced that, at the moment, they’ve picked up the phone; that they’re actually dialing and trying to connect.  Before I return, I need to be sure that they’ve called me because they need me . . . not the other way around.

So, for now, let’s say that the next move is up to them.  

Before you go: don't forget to enter the Goodreads giveaway for both a signed copy of MONSTERS and a nifty ASHES backpack stuffed with some nice survival gear.  Give my kids a home, why doncha?
Oh, and in the spirit of moving on . . .  a bunch of you chimed in on those profile pics (and thanks; it was interesting to hear how people respond to a picture).  Anyway, as you can see . . . I've changed the pic because, honestly you really do want to stay away from my cheese.

isle royale