Win Free Books

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Anyone following my blog knows that The Way into Chaos is a finalist in the SPFBO, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. If you know what that is, you can skip the rest of this paragraph. If not, it’s a contest where 300 self-published fantasy novels are split among 10 review bloggers. Each picks one standout for the final round, then all ten reviewers read the finalists and rate them. The book with the highest score wins the blog off.

Well, the finalists have been chosen, and for a limited time, you can enter to win all ten. Just drop a comment, with some sort of contact info, here.

Hey, free books! And if you’ve meant to try some indie novels, this is your chance.

Rest in Peace, Ursula K. Le Guin

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Writing in this space, I’ve been pretty clear about my own ambitions. It’s not just that I want to be read by millions of people, I also want to fundamentally change things. I hope to be one of those writers that people point to when they talk about how fantasy fiction has grown and evolved.

As ambitions go, it’s beyond me, really. I knew it was wildly unlikely when I started writing, and it seems more unlikely by the day. Still, it’s the goal that directs the work I want to do.

But a few years ago, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Solitude” and I was humbled and intimidated. Most of the time, when I read an amazing story, I find it inspirational. I want to learn from it and do better. But with that one, I just felt small. Everything in that story just fell together in the right way, and it made me feel like a little boy trying to teach himself to write.

Ursula K. Le Guin passed away today. She was a writer who matched and surpassed all the foolish ambitions I have made for myself, and although all of us pass on, her work will be talked about for years to come. It’s time now to thank her for living the life she led, and for doing the work she did.

She was read by millions. She fundamentally changed things.

Randomness for 1/23

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1) Things restaurant workers wish you knew about being a patron in a restaurant.

2) The Beautiful Science of Cream Hitting Coffee.

3) The 50 Best Good/Bad Movies.

4) The New Republic on JRR Tolkien, circa 1956.

5)

6) Police give out thumb drives infected with malware as cybersecurity prizes.

7)

5 Things Makes A Twenty-Palaces Heavy Post

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1) First, though, did you know that my brother-in-law teaches jazz drumming at a university in Europe? If you like Jazz, check out this interview he did with jazz writer Debbie Burke: Hard Bop Noir from the Michael Lauren All Stars.

2) Just before Christmas I pointed out that The Twisted Path had 18 reviews and I was hoping readers would drive it up to 25 so it would be favorably considered by Amazon’s algorithms, with the hope it would eventually make 50. As I write this, the review count is 66. Thank you all.

The number of reviews for Bad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths: And Other Tales Of Dark Fantasy stands at 14, up from 11 two weeks ago. It’s just a short fic collection, but if you read it and liked it, please post a review.

3) The Twisted Path, at less than 25K words, is about a quarter the length of Twenty Palaces. Actually a little more. I know what 20P earned in its first three months, and I was hoping to make about a third of that with the new novella, despite the lower price. It’s not exactly science, but I wasn’t sure how much enthusiasm there was for Ray Lilly’s return and I wanted to set some sort of benchmark to see how well it was working.

It’s been less than a month and I haven’t hit that benchmark yet, but unless things go very screwy, I expect to. To be clear, sales haven’t been through the roof and I’m not saying I’m swimming in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. The financial considerations here are fairly modest and I expect them to remain that way. Still, if things keep going at this pace, the door is wide open for more Twenty Palaces in the future. However, I won’t even begin work on that until I turn in my current work-in-progress (Working title: Open Enter) to my agent.

4) Speaking of sales, BoingBoing gave a terrific review to The Twisted Path. Check it out.

5) Finally, on a more personal note, we have hit the darkest, coldest part of the year up here in Seattle. Yeah, the days are growing longer, but even a few weeks after the solstice, we’re only getting 8hrs and 45min of sun. Most of that, I spend indoors on a computer, tapping out fiction. The cold and the dark make this a difficult time of year for me, but for the first time I’m armed with a quality SAD light. I’m going to make a commitment to myself to get out more, talk to people outside my family, and stay off Twitter. With luck, I can make it to April without too much unhappiness.

Thank you all once again.

Podcast Review of The Way into Chaos, and an interview with the author

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… Who happens to be me.

The podcast is right here. Podbean. iTunes.

I listened to part of it last night. At one point, I brought my son into the room, played about fifteen seconds’ worth, and said: “Is this how I sound in real life?”

Him: “Yeah, Dad. That’s you.”

Me: “It’s a miracle your mother ever gave me the time of day.”

Him: “Yeah, Dad.”

So, check it out. I talk about the successes and failures of Twenty Palaces, the various seeds that became The Great Way, and a number of other things.

Apparently, I talk earnestly about my work, and am honest and open. Which is how people should be, I think, if they’re going to put a microphone in front of their faces and recording the things they say. Otherwise, what’s the point of making speech noises?

Seeing the Forest for the Algorithm: a Review of Past Edit Notes and a Hard Truth

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In which the author makes an embarrassing confession

One of my little secrets is that, in between projects, I’ll sometimes read a book about writing. It’s always useful to reinforce the basics, and seeing how other writers approach the blank page gives me insights into my own work.

Sometimes I get the impression that I’m supposed to be past all that, but I’m not. I’ve never really felt that I’ve mastered this craft. Some aspects of it, maybe, but I still struggle.

And since I’m brainstorming something new, I took another writer’s casual mention of his favorite book about writing, Stephen King’s On Writing, and borrowed it from the library. I had barely started when I heard a discussion of a different book over the radio. You can listen to that here, if you really feel you have to. It’s not an interview with either of the authors, and the interviewee’s Wired article is more interesting and informative with fewer dopey questions.

The book is The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. Maybe you remember when it came out last year, or maybe the title is enough to guess what the book’s about. The authors created an algorithm to analyze a variety of modern novels, then ran all sorts of books through them: bestsellers, non-bestseller, midlist books, self-published, the whole deal. The algorithm noted the differences, then sorted out the ones that were strongly predictive of bestsellers. According to the authors, their “bestseller-ometer” was capable of predicting whether a book would be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.

It’s correlation, sure, but the authors found nearly 2800 factors that were present in books that made the NY Times list but not present in the ones that didn’t. Yes, the NYT has issues with the ways it manages it’s list and it’s not a true sales meritocracy, but it is a powerful cultural signifier, and Archer, a former Penguin UK editor, wanted to better understand the differences.

The Bestseller Code is an exercise in finding meaning in those differences.

I don’t know if you remember when the book came out last year, but I do. I scoffed at it. Computer analysis? Of a creative endeavor? Please.

But that interview, flawed as it was, piqued my interest, so I borrowed a copy from the library.
It turned out to be interesting stuff.

What we talk about when we talk about luck

First, I want to say that the technology Archer and Jockers deployed—sentiment analysis, topic modeling, and more—was pretty impressive. The field is more advanced than I would have guessed.

Second, it turned out that the way they applied those tools, and the conclusions they drew from them, were entirely unremarkable. (Bolded because I want folks to take note.)

It’s common for folks to talk about success in the arts as part skill, part talent and part luck. I’ve talked at length on this blog about my opinion of “talent”, and at a little less length about “luck.” The effects of luck have been proven experimentally.

My question is always: what are they calling “luck”? What confluence of choices and incidents brought about this fortunate outcome? Because, to me, “luck” is what you call a series of events you don’t understand well enough to predict or control.

But what if we had the tools to look at things more closely? What if we had a better understanding of the differences between what people want to read and what we’re offering? What if we could narrow that gap?

Data doesn’t frighten me. Nihil veritas erubescit.

Besides, I’m a published writer with starred reviews and even, if you can believe it, fans. I already have the skills I need to break through to a larger readership, don’t I?

This is where my agent comes in

As I was reading The Bestseller Code, I kept thinking My agent could have written this.
Let me take an example. Using topic modeling, the algorithm breaks down what each book is “about.” Maybe a certain percentage might be concerned with crime and police work, and a smaller percentage for domestic matters. The next smallest percentage would concern, say, hospitals and medical concerns.

It seemed weird to me that algorithms are sophisticated enough to manage this task until I remembered Pat Rothfuss talking about programs that could handle the task five years ago.

Anyway, the books that sold well had fewer topics (around four), and those topics offered opportunities for dramatic contrast. Books that didn’t sell as well had more topics (around six, if I remember correctly). The subjects were more wide-ranging, less unified.

What’s more, one of the most important predictors of success was that a book devoted a certain amount of time to human interaction and connectedness. If one of the four topics was characters being with the people they cared about, living their lives and dealing with each other, that was a strong indicator of good sales.

Guys, my agent has been trying to teach me these lessons for years. For my whole career, I’ve been trying to establish relationships between characters the way a movie would: with a single, significant gesture or remark. She has been telling me, book after book, to give them more time on the page. To let them relate to each other. To let them bond. It turns out that human interaction in fiction is incredibly powerful, and I’ve been giving it short shrift.

She has also told me—many times—that I need to simplify. Often times I have too many storylines, plot turns, or characters. Especially characters. Too many “topics.” Maybe my work would reach a larger audience if it was more unified.

Another thing the algorithm does is generate plot curves through sentiment analysis. When the language of the book is full of upbeat words, like succeed, kindness, rest, and peace, the plot trends upwards. When it’s full of words like loss, failed, grief, and pain, it trends downward.

What surprised me is that, when the algorithm studied bestsellers, it produced plot curves very similar to the ones writers see all the time. One is quite similar to Freytag’s Pyramid; others matched different but fairly common models.

I’ll admit that I was startled to see a computer pull the old tried-and-true plot diagrams out of bestselling books, and how non-bestsellers seemed so flat. It made me question how well I manage the rise and fall of a plot curve and whether the language I use is appropriate for it.

There were other findings beyond those, obviously. The data was all descriptive, and it covered books that were popular but critically derided as well as popular but prize-winning. Except for a few surprises, like the need for scenes of human connection and a general distaste for sex (::shakes fist at America::) it’s standard stuff. Create a character who really wants something. Have them go after it. Make the plot turns powerful. Keep things focused. Write in a naturalistic style. Hook them in the first few pages.

Honestly, my agent could have written this advice, and as I was coming to the end of the book, it occurred to me that she sort of already had.

In which I step back from my edit notes to examine my edit notes

Just last week, my agent got back to me about a book I’d sent her. The news was bad, I don’t mind admitting, and of course she had some notes to give me.

As I was thinking about how closely the advice in Archer’s and Jocker’s book matched what my agent told me, I got the idea to go back through all her editorial notes for all of my books and look for patterns.

I’ve been happy to take her input—I signed with her, in part, because I knew she’d help make my work better—but I’ve been looking at them case by case. Book by book. It never occurred to me to look for trends.

To be fair, there was usually a year in between each new book, and sometimes more, and I’m a forgetful, disorganized person. It’s easy for me to carefully study a bunch of trees without once considering the forest.

So I opened all my old emails from my agent to review the notes she’d given me. My first thought was that past-me really needed to be more practical with his subject lines. My second thought was that I’d always thought of myself as a slam-bang thriller writer, a guy who could spin out an exciting story. It occurred to me that I wasn’t being exciting enough, because that self-conception wasn’t matched by outside reality. The work I was doing was earning fans and selling books (by my estimation, The Way into Chaos, which was self-published, has sold a little over 13k copies, which would be a fine, fine number for most NY genre publishers) but I wasn’t breaking through to the larger world.

What if I had placed myself in the “Good But Not Good Enough” category, and was missing out because I wasn’t really addressing persistent flaws in my creative choices?

So what were those persistent flaws? Obviously, each book had its unique problems, but there were several that popped up over and over.

Here they are:

  • Book started too slowly
  • Too many characters/plot complications/names
  • Characters not sympathetic enough/don’t have time for personal bonding

The hook must come sooner. More unity. More time for the characters’ relationships.

Honestly, I thought I’d already learned all the skills The Bestseller Code suggested I would need. I thought I was already working at that level. It’s pretty clear that I’m not.

The nice thing is that I’ll have a chance to be mindful of these persistent issues as I start a new book. Will it help? Shit, I hope so. I have ambitions, you guys, and I’m not meeting them.

My agent will still have notes for me, but maybe she won’t have to tell me the same old things she’s had to tell me every other time.

There’s more to say on the subject of computer analysis and the services various tech companies offer publishers, but that’ll have to be next time.

(If you thought this post was interesting or useful, why not share it?)

Moving Past the Trope: Creativity Through Lists

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At the moment, I’m brainstorming for a new novel, and I thought I might help myself along by writing about the process. (And by “help myself along” I mean make myself stop goofing off on Twitter.)

In the moment that any writer looks at a blank page without a good idea of what to put on it, the possibilities are basically infinite. I could write about anything, really, including a random jumble of geometric shapes and nonsense squiggles.

But I don’t, because I’m a fiction writer. And I like magic and crime. And I’m a white dude living in America 2017.

And each of those things narrow that range of infinite possibility, because there are some things I’m more likely to write than others. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes it helps me to think through obvious things.

Other times, I narrow that range with an easy answer. So the question: “Who will be the main antagonist in this book?” could be answered quite easily with a trope: A vampire. A werewolf. A Voldemort. A Lucifer.

And that’s fine. Some people love those tropes and want to play with them. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the intent. For me, it’s not the intent. I’m hoping to find something on the far side of that trope. Something weird or unusual that readers maybe haven’t seen before.

Some readers don’t like that. That’s fine. But for me, the question is always How do I get there?, and the answer is almost always With a list.

I came across the idea of using lists for creative purposes in a book about writing comedy, especially a standup comedy routine, and it’s served me well in my fantasy/horror books ever since. The first step is always to identify the question. The second is to list the easy answers I won’t use in my book

So, “Who will the the main antagonist in this book?”

Possible answers:

1. Werewolf
2. Vampire
3. Voldemort
4. Lucifer
5. Ghost
6. Genius Serial Killer
7. Shadowy Gov’t Agency

And on and on.

I put them on the list because I want them out of the way. I don’t have to think about them anymore because they’re already on the list.

And let me say once more that I’m not bashing these tropes. I’ve written two novels with werewolves in them, so I recognize that they exist to be used and they persist because of the readers who love them. But sometimes that’s not what I want.

Next, I force myself to keep going. I write down terrible answers, like “ghost horse” or “newborn god of public transit who’s sick of waiting for his human sacrifices”.

Eventually, I get to weird stuff, like maybe “super-intelligent hive-mind of wharf rats”. What do the rats want? How intelligent are they? Will they join the longshoreman’s union?

It’s weird. Twenty years ago, if you told me my most creative work would come from a nearly rote exercise of making lists, I would have been horrified. And yet, here I am, writing a book about a rat colony that share a single mind.

(Obviously, I’m just kidding. No way am I writing a rat book. The research alone would give me the heebie-jeebies.)

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.

For God’s Sake, Don’t Talk in the Elevator: The Social Media Pitch

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[Added later: This post has been included on Joshua Palmatier’s blog round up of posts about creating pitches. If you want to read more (after you finish mine, ‘natch) check it out.]

The elevator is a terrible place for an elevator pitch.

The idea behind an elevator pitch was that maybe someday Earnest Hopeful, young production assistant at Big Wig studios, might unexpectedly find himself alone in an elevator with Mr. Big Wig himself! How could he best describe his movie idea so that Mr. Big Wig falls in love with it, gives it the green light, and casts William Powell and Veronica Lake to star. Earnest has to be prepared! His pitch has to be shorter than the elevator ride but compelling enough that Mr. Big Wig invites young Earnest to get off at his floor.

But that’s not why we need an elevator pitch. In my entire life, I’ve never had reason to talk to a stranger on an elevator unless I couldn’t reach the button for the floor I wanted.

No, elevator pitches are supposed to be for the writer, and for social media.

For a long time, elevator pitches were mixed up with the idea of the “log line”. Log lines were the short descriptions of TV shows or movies that appeared beneath the listings in the TV Guide. But, if you went online during the late nineties hoping to find advice that would make you a pro, creating a log line for your story was commonplace advice. In that context, the log line was:

[Protagonist] struggles to [goal] in order to [what’s at stake] to prevent [terrible price of failure].

Or something like that. It was always a little different each time, but the basic Mad Libs of the thing are in that line above.

The point of a log line was to show beginning writers where their story could be found. It was about [Protagonist], not a million side characters. [Protagonist] was in pursuit of [goal] because [what’s at stake] was so important. They didn’t laze around mom’s basement, feeling sorry for themselves. And so on. It’s a fine way to highlight the important parts of a certain kind of story (essentially: stories that are like movies or tv shows, which is where these ideas come from) but it didn’t apply to every sort of fiction.

Eventually, this Mad Libs-ed log line idea merged with the elevator pitch to become the most basic way a writer could describe a story. It told you where to go with the story. It told you what mattered. It was extremely limited and limiting.

But it’s a tool, and all tools are limited. When we teach writing, it’s much easier to gas on about basic story construction than what most new writers really need: the skills and judgement needed to organize sentences and paragraphs in an enjoyable way. That’s what I really needed to study but that shit is hard to teach in a 300-word blog post or message board thread, so instead the internet filled up with “How to make your protagonist compelling” and Freytag’s Pyramid.

So, has an elevator pitch/log line ever been useful to me before I wrote a first draft? Yeah, actually, in short fiction. The format has helped me keep the story from spinning out into an unpublishable length.

For novels, which are a complex, sometimes digressive form, no. Not ever.

After the book is started, I’ve found some use for these pitches/log lines. Has the plot started to wander? Have the characters motivations become jumbled? Does this one particular scene seem to be going nowhere? That’s a good time to remind myself what, specifically, each character wants and what’s in their way. When I’m blocked in something as small as a few lines of dialog, filling in those blanks can help point the way forward.

But really, the elevator pitch is the social media pitch. It’s the short description that fits inside a tweet (oh for the luxury of a five-story elevator ride) that piques readers’ interest. It may not sell the book, but it might get readers to download the sample. I didn’t have one for the Twenty Palaces books, but I did for The Great Way: “An epic fantasy trilogy about a sentient curse that destroys an empire.”

At one point a reader asked me if I hadn’t gotten that wrong: shouldn’t elevator pitches focus on the character? Who’s the story about? What are they trying to do? This reader was focussing on all the log line essentials: Shouldn’t I fill out that Mad Lib? I responded by saying that a pitch should highlight what’s most unique and compelling about a book. If that’s the lead character and their goal, awesome. Going that route is easy enough, and it can be effective. If, instead, what’s unique and compelling is an apocalyptic tone and a weird antagonist, then some other format has to be created. The Mad Lib of a log line is a fine tool to start with when organizing a pitch, but it’s a poor fit for a lot of books. Sometimes the work has to be done without that tool.

For example, the pitch for A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark was: “It’s a pacifist urban fantasy with a hero who’s a cross between Auntie Mame and Gandalf.” Nowhere does that define her goal (which is to solve a murder) or what awful thing will happen if she fails (because she doesn’t know at first and it’s supposed to be a fun surprise) but it does highlight what I think is unique and compelling about that book.

Currently, my agent is shopping One Man, a fantasy/crime thriller, and I’ll have to create a social media pitch for it. That means I take a sheet of scrap paper and list elements that I think are fun/unusual/exciting. Not all of them will make the cut, but lists gives me something concrete to work with. Should I focus on the protagonist, a former golden boy responsible for the deaths of those nearest to him, who now bears unknown magic? The setting, a city built within the skeletons of two “dead” gods (both killed while fucking)? The plot’s macguffin, a piece of forbidden healing magic that might lead to civil war?

Nah. For me, the most unusual and interesting aspect is the stakes. The protagonist isn’t trying to destroy a magic ring, or defeat an evil army, or slay a sorcerer-king. He wants to rescue an orphaned little girl that no one else in the whole world cares about. They’re small, personal stakes for a book filled with fighting, magic, and impending war, but that’s what makes it interesting to me. Will readers feel that same way? It’s impossible to know. Fantasy readers like their stakes to be big. Epic, even. Will pitching the stakes in One Man push people away from a book they might love if they read it?

I haven’t worked that out. But then, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

That’s my take on so-called elevator pitches. Once in a long while, they’re useful during the writing process, but they’ve become necessary after the books comes out to help attract readers. Start with a log line, if you want, and make a list of unique and compelling elements that you believe will intrigue readers. And good luck. None of this is easy.

But please don’t talk on elevators.

Randomness for 8/26

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1) Twenty-five terrible book recommendations.

2) What not to do in a disaster.

3) The rare-book thief who looted college libraries in the 1980’s.

4) North Carolina church accused of luring Brazilian worshipers on student and tourist visas, then making slaves of them.

5) Man kayaks through grounded cargo ship off the coast of Romania. Video. This would be a terrifying horror film set.

6) “What did you think of my screenplay?” a Clickhole quiz

7) There’s a World Championship for Excel Spreadsheets