The State of the Novelist Address: I just sent a book to my agent

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I thought I’d pop in and update things for folks, writing-wise.

First, earlier this week I sent a new novel to my agent. It’s a crime/mystery novel, a genre I’ve been reading for years. This isn’t my first attempt at this style, but it is the first one that I feel comfortable with. Some aspects of it fall right down the middle of the genre, while some are probably all wrong and will make me tear my hair out in revisions. We’ll see! But it feels good to start a book and send it to her in under six months. I’m not usually that prolific.

Which means I’ve returned to revision on my Twenty Palaces novella. I know I’ve been talking about this for a while, but this mini-book has resisted several attempts to write it. At this point, I feel I’ve solved most of the problems and hope to have it on sale before the end of the year.

Once I finish that, I’ll be working on something new. No idea what it will be, but I’m just going to pick an idea that sounds cool and run with it.

Thank you for reading this, and being here.

Randomness for 10/2

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1.

2. How to control Alexa and Google Home through commands that are inaudible to the human ear.

3. A domino run in kaleidoscope: Beautiful. Video.

4. A Quick Beginner’s Guide to Drawing.

5.

6. Roald Dahl’s publisher threatened to drop him for being a jerk.

7. Why is it so hard to judge a screenplay from the movie that’s made from it?

Are you a writer hoping to improve their synopsis, pitch, and query skills?

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Joshua Palmatier has put together a collection of essays on each subject. Remember link farms? Well, we have them again.

Here’s the one on writing a synopsis.

Here’s the one on putting together a short pitch.

Here’s the one on writing a successful query letter.

If you find those links helpful, please feel free to share.

Detective Twitter and the Case of the Unexpected Bestseller

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I spent a fair portion of yesterday watching online amateur investigators look into an unexpected appearance on the NYTimes bestseller lists. Short version: a nerd-oriented site published it’s first YA fantasy, then identified bookstores that report sales to the New York Times and bulk ordered their own book.

It’s a time-honored tradition to try to scam your way onto the Times’s list, and for all the cultural cachet (not to mention the sales boost) that comes from putting “NY Times Bestselling Author” on the covers of your books, the process has plenty of flaws.

The Times itself curates it’s lists, leaving off the romance genre, for instance, because they would dominate any list that was truly fair. It’s a prestige thing, I guess. When the movie Julie and Julia hit the theaters, it bumped Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking back onto the lists several decades after it came out. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, the Times decided they weren’t going to list the books, no matter how well they sold.

The list is fudged in other ways, too: it’s compiled from the sales figures of a number of bookstores around the country, a list that’s supposed to be secret. It can’t accurately chart actual sales, because only the publishers have those figures, and they aren’t sharing.

Plus, book-buying is stronger at some times of the year than at others. You can make the list with lower sales in February than you’d need in July or December.

But still, it’s not a big deal to say that bestseller lists are imperfect. Everything created by human hands is imperfect, and imperfect systems can be exploited.

See also this article by an author who hired a company to buy enough copies of his business book to put it on the NYTimes list. The news articles about it have been vanished or are behind paywalls, but the author spoke candidly about what he did and why he did it.

One thing you notice is that the author wasn’t simply trying to sell more business books. For him, writing books was a stepping stone that would lead him to 5-digit speaking fees. Buying three thousand copies of his own book would be cheap compared to what he stood to make.

And reading through the detective work from yesterday, it concludes by saying that the author was expecting to turn the book into a film, and that she would be cast in the leading role. Once again, it’s not success in the book world these people are seeking. For them, books are a stepping stone.

So, sure, the lists are imperfect, but they still matter quite a bit. Not only are they worth a lot of publicity, they give negotiating power to authors when they negotiate with their publishers. But if you’re going to scam your way onto the list, be more careful than these people.

[Added later:] the author speaks to Huffpo, insisting that she didn’t game the system and that she worked to build buzz at Wizard World Comic Con events. She also claims there’s a bias against “new voices” even though her book bumped a debut novel by a black author that has been getting widespread buzz for months. So, yeah.

Going Big, Going Home, and Missing the Point: The Casual Hatred of Fun

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Yesterday I tweeted this:

It’s not the first time I’ve tweeted that particular book cover, but it had been a while and it crossed my social media again, so I thought I’d make this point again: Don’t hold back. Have fun with your premise. People like fun.

A number of people have expressed doubt that this is a real book, but it is: The Angel Wore Fangs. If it sounds like a fun read, grab yourself a copy. Book seven of a series!

Now, you can glance at the stats on that tweet to see that it sort of blew up, 3700 RTs at the time I write this, and it’s only now slowing down. And my mentions have been flooded with quote tweets from people adding “Wow” or laughing smileys or whatever.

But some people have responded like fools.

First of all, if your first response to that back cover blurb is something along the lines of “And NY publishers won’t publish my books!” as though all mainstream publishing cares about is cheap trash when heartfelt human stories languish in rejection piles, I would suggest you’re learning the wrong lesson.

Simple fact: publishing is large and complex, putting out books for a variety of tastes. If an aspiring author is not writing light-hearted gonzo paranormal romance, the success of such a book has nothing to do with the lack of success Aspiring’s book has achieved. They’re in different markets, aiming for readers in a specific mood.

Instead of moaning, these Aspirings ought to be trying to learn something from it, like “Be fun.” And if “fun” is not your thing, then how about “people like fun.”

Even worse are the people who seem to think the author isn’t in on the joke. They call the description things like “train wreck” and talk as though the author is just piling random obsessions into a story without realizing it will make it funny. Guys, the author is in on the joke. Click the Amazon link above and read her bio. Assuming that she’s not making conscious choices about this is sexist bullshit. Unfortunately, it’s all too common, especially when the woman is writing paranormal romance.

My official stand on that blurb is that I think it’s amazing and hilarious and I’m a little envious. It makes me wish I were a romance fan because then I could write in the genre; the romance readership is HUGE. Instead, I’ve written nine novels, and not one of them has a decent romance in it. I’m stuck with the muse I’ve got.

What did make me happy, though, were the folks who took that blurb as inspiration. Reading that wild description seemed to give them permission to go a little wild with their own stories. At one point, someone tweeted that she wished she could have written that story herself, although it would have been “browner and queer-er.” I had to jump in to encourage her to do just that.

I spent much of last night and this morning skimming through my mentions, looking for people who seemed to need an encouraging word. I hope they go on to write their own.

And I’m sure that I helped Ms. Hill sell a few books. Hopefully, she’ll get a bunch of new readers out of it. (If you’re wondering, all those retweets have done nothing to sell my own books, but I wouldn’t expect them to.)

Anyway, I guess I should sum things up this way: “Fun! People like it.”

Discard Your Hair Shirts: Writers and Professional Jealousy

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You’ve already seen this is you’re part of my Patreon, but here it is for everyone else.

It’s pretty common lately to see writers telling each other to stop being jealous of other writers’ achievements. “Don’t pay attention to them; pay attention to yourself.” is the common wisdom.

Now, I’m not going to argue that people shouldn’t focus on the things they can control; that’s solid advice. But just because professional jealousy can be expressed in toxic ways doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to tell people their thoughts and feelings are bad and wrong.

Professional jealousy is perfectly normal.

Everyone feels it from time to time. Everyone has to learn to manage that twinge when they hear about another writer finding a great agent, landing a publishing deal, making a best-seller list, whatever.

That’s the key. Not “Stop doing jealousy.” It’s “Jealousy is normal; how will you deal with it?”

Let’s break it down.

1. You feel jealous of a friend’s success

* Let’s say a friend has reached some milestone in their career that eludes you, and you’re burning with jealousy. What should you do?
* Do not tell your friend you are jealous. Your emotional responses are for you to deal with. It’s not your friend’s job to manage it.
* Acknowledge your jealousy. If their milestone is not a goal you are aiming for, try to shrug it off. If they’ve reached a milestone that you hope to reach someday, tell yourself you will work harder and smarter so you can maybe manage it, too.
* Then let your jealousy go. Experience it, but don’t hold on.
* Congratulate your friend. Something good has happened to them, and you should acknowledge that sincerely without making it about you.
* Talk to a neutral third party if you can not let your jealous go. Say the words “I’m happy for [friend] but it hurts that I can not manage to do the same.” With luck, your neutral third party will commiserate and you’ll feel better.
* It doesn’t have to be fair. Your friend’s success might be due to hard work and clever marketing on their part, but then again, maybe not. Life isn’t fair. But that’s not your friend’s fault, so don’t burden them with it. Just keep writing.

2. You feel jealous of a stranger’s success.

* Do not tell the stranger you are jealous. That’s weird.
* Acknowledge your jealousy. We all have milestones we want to achieve, and it hurts to fall short. That’s natural.
* Let it go. If you can’t, talk to a neutral third party. Say the same words as above.
* It doesn’t matter if it’s unfair. It doesn’t matter if you think the successful stranger’s work is trite, stuff, precious, derivative, or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you think they suck.

3. You can’t let go.

If you get to the point that you can’t interact politely with your friends and colleagues because of your jealousy, you should find someone qualified to help. It’s no different from any emotion that causes you to act inappropriately.

4. You can use jealousy constructively.

No, really. It’s possible, despite the way some people talk about it. We can use it to goad ourselves into working harder, or daring to try risky things. It can also spur us to venture into new areas, like self-marketing or online crit groups or who knows what.

But what we can’t do is use jealousy to squelch the perfectly natural urge to judge our success by the successes of those around us, or to see their success as a target we would like to reach someday.

So stop telling people not to be jealous.

It doesn’t work anyway, because humans have emotions and emotions can’t be reasoned with. It’s not even a bad emotion. It just sometimes spurs bad behavior.

Better to use your jealousy as motivation.

And yeah, I get jealous all the time. I just don’t make a big deal of it.

It’s how you spend your free time: the power of small decisions

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One of my friends said something really smart on Sunday, and I thought I’d share it.

She and her partner live in Denver, and my son (who is 14) is planning to spend two weeks with them to pick their brains about Photoshop, After Effects, and a number of other programs they use. They make their living using all sorts of fancy software that I don’t know anything about, so he has a lot to learn in those two weeks.

ANYWAY. What she said, which I have to paraphrase because it was during an extended conversation, was: “What matters is how you spend your free time.”

To which I say: Yep.

Her story is that she was in college some years ago, learning software as part of her design class. I think it was Photoshop, but there was some cross-talk. Anyway, it was relatively new, and she and her friend were so fascinated by it that they spent their free time on a deep dive into the program, learning all the things it could do. In not time, the professor realized that she and her friend were more capable of teaching the software and asked them to do so. When she graduated, they offered her a teaching position.

It wasn’t because she was so good in class; it was because she was so engaged outside of it. The same is true of any kind of challenging field. If you want to be great in the arts, you have to cut out time from your daily life to practice and improve. That’s time you could be spending watching TV, going to the gym, sleeping in, playing video games, or making money.

If you click on the Tweet below, you’ll get a thread by comics writer Gail Simone on this very subject.

[Update: she deleted the whole thread. The gist was that people determined to be writers have to make the time to practice.]

I’ve tried to explain this to my son, because he acts like his great ambition is to be the best Overwatch player ever. It’s gotten to the point that I’m tempted to take away his computer games for good, even though he and I built a gaming computer for him just this past January. (Personally, I try to avoid most games because they’re addictive, and I’m vulnerable to that.) Choosing to spend all his free time playing video games is essentially choosing to be a regular joe with a joe job, and the US culture and economy squashes people like that now. If he’s going to be squashed, he ought to have the satisfaction of making art (or something!)

And what of myself? Thinking about spending down time always makes me audit myself, and I have to confess that I’ve been obsessing over Twitter and the election these past few months. It seems like my duty as a citizen to be as informed as possible, but how much of my time and energy do I REALLY need to devote to this? How much can I push off onto other citizens?

Clearly, I need to cut back and focus more on my work. The book I’m revising is complex and I need to get it to my agent so she can sell it. But Twitter is soooo tempting, almost like a video game.

And that’s the power of tiny decisions. Not the big stuff, like Where should I go to college or Should I quit my current job for that new one? No, the really important decisions are the huge clusters of tiny ones that we all make every day. Should I work on my book, or should I watch this tv show/go to the gym/hit the pub/etc?

Obviously no one can spend every spare moment of their lives writing (nor should they) but if you never choose writing over those other things that’s a clear statement of priorities.

[Added later: See also: Twelve Years from Hobbyist to Pro]

Randomness for 10/17

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1) Portugal’s Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin.

2) The Man Who Invented Bookselling As We Know It.

3) Self-Destructive Beverages: a Guide.

4) Creating unconscious emotional responses with shapes. Video.

5) This house could be yours (if you’re looking for a shrine to terrible awful horrifying bad taste).

6) Carrie Fisher’s Legacy as a Script Doctor.

7) How to be Persuasive: Seven Secrets of a Hostage Negotiator

Baby’s First Audio Book

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Today I finished listening to my first audio book.

It was the unabridged Fellowship of the Ring, read by Rob Inglis, and I enjoyed it. A lot.

I didn’t expect to. When the audio book for Child of Fire came out, I found it impossible to listen to it. The narrator’s voice was fine–excellent, even–but it was completely different from the voice I heard in my head when I was writing it, and the dissonance was unbearable.

And the format itself seemed utterly wrong for me. I love to drive but I don’t have a car so I never do. I don’t have a phone to carry with me when I walk. My apartment is tiny, so when would I be able to listen at home? Besides, no skimming? No reading quickly through the exciting stuff?

Hmf, I said.

Then I heard a piece on NPR where a woman said she listened to Rob Inglis’s reading of LOTR every year, and I found it at the library. The first book was 19.25 hours long on 16 CDs! [1] And I just happened to get my copy of Obduction from Kickstarter.

A quiet, Myst-style game and an audio book through the headphones seemed like a perfect combination.

And I loved it.

The game was done before the audio book and I’ve been having trouble squeezing time to listen, but all the things I thought would be bugs turned out to be features. As annoyed as I was when I read Tolkien’s description of hiking through rough terrain (was this really the sort of challenge you want to devote page space to?) being forced to listen to it had the opposite effect. I could visualize the scene. I didn’t feel impatient because I couldn’t skim ahead to the next plot point. Taking away that small measure of control was surprisingly relaxing.

Anyway, I have never enjoyed Fellowship of the Ring quite so much before (although I still say Fuck Tom Bombadil) and I’m wondering how I can find 17-odd hours for the next book. I can’t. It just won’t fit into my life, but I wish it did.

Until I get a car, maybe.

[Update] I forgot to mention that the third book in my Great Way series comes out today in audio book. If you subscribe to Audible, you can listen free. If you bought the Kindle version from Amazon, the audio version is startlingly affordable. The series begins here.

[1] Don’t laugh. I’ve just had to order a new CD player online, because our old one is going wonky and my wife doesn’t want to have to fuck with a computer to play her music while she paints.