Saturday, December 26, 2015

Angst on Toast (AKA 2015 in Review)

At the beginning of 2015 I set myself a single writing goal: Write a Better Book.

The year started off pretty well. I was working on the Southern Gothic/Horror project and cranked out a solid novella in a couple of months. It was weird and a little different from what I'd written before. And it felt... better. I read the prologue and the opening chapter at one of the local conventions and got a very enthusiastic response. It felt strong. It had touched on better narrative skills than some of my other projects.

But I wasn't sure about trying to sell a novella. A Horror novella, no less. I thought perhaps I could take the total story arc (which was conceived as three novellas) and turn them into a novel. So I started working on the second one in April.

Thus began the Great Flailing of 2015. I wrote the first chapter, then set it aside because something wasn't working. I picked up the opening of an unfinished high fantasy/steampunk/mythology redux and hammered out another novella. But it didn't feel right either.

I wrote an outline that heightened the conflict and stakes, but also meant expanding the novella into a novel. That stalled so I set it aside.

I had written the first dozen pages or so of an Original Graphic Novel (OGN) script in May. I picked it back up and wrote the rest in about two weeks. It was good. It was strong. I was excited because I was back on track.

I tackled the Southern Gothic project again. And stalled. Maybe it needed to percolate a little more.

I started working on another older project - the Epic Not Fantasy. Wrote an outline. It seemed a little long for a novella, but that was okay - this one I could handle being a little longer. Revised the opening, making adjustments for new plotlines. Picked up a new thread in the story and added 20k I hadn't even planned on. Still okay because it made it a better book.

I was busy, but still making progress. I loved my characters. I loved their flaws. I loved the things they were trying to do. And then I got to the middle of September and something in my brain screamed "OMG! This year is almost over and you haven't sold ANYTHING!"

It's an uncomfortable thing talking about the slow road to "overnight success". Because we really want to think that if we take the right steps and achieve certain milestones that it's just a matter of time before you can run around the interwebs yelling "SUCCESS! I've done The Thing!" But then the months tick past and you get a nice rejections that talk about how intricate your world-building is or your delicate way with words or the emotion in the romantic subplot but it's still "just not right for us at this time."

And you've done all the right things. You've written the best book you could. You struggled through the query trenches and landed an amazeballs agent (whom you love for loving your books and wanting them to be better just like you want them to be better). You've written other novels and short stories so that you have new projects to go out on submission if the first one doesn't strike the right nerve with the editors.

All the right things and still the months go by and that feeling you've always had, that maybe you aren't as good as you thought, that maybe you're really one of the tone deaf contestants on American Idol singing your heart out and being told there's just no hope that this thing you love will ever be a career.

I wallowed for a bit. Not deliberately. That's just how it is when the depression kicks in. I would try to write and I couldn't muster the energy to do more than open my documents and stare at the words I'd written weeks before. And the end of the year got even closer and the panic got bigger.

I talked to Agent Amazeballs and we agreed that maybe the Southern Gothic novella needed to remain a novella series instead of trying to remold it into a novel. And I should take the lead on subbing it. So it went out.

This was a decision that cut both ways. Putting it out there made me feel active again instead of stalled. But it also brought the total number of projects out on submission up to four. Not including a few short stories I still had in circulation.

I took another week or two to try and get my practical goals straightened out. I found that even though I wasn't ready to write the next Southern Gothic novella, I did (finally) know what I wanted to do with it. I also figured out how to rework the high fantasy/steampunk/mythology redux novella so that it would be longer, stronger, but not a full on novel.

I started writing on the Epic Not Fantasy again after almost six weeks of not touching it. I was scared it wouldn't work, but it all came back. Like I'd just set down the pen (metaphorical pen) for a few minutes and then come back to it. And this time I told myself that even though I wanted to finish it by the end of the year, I would just work on it until it was done. Even if that wasn't by the end of December.

November was NaNoWriMo. I didn't win. I wrote about 20k words. I brainstormed my simple plot for the Epic Not Fantasy into something spectacular. And epic. It's a really wonderful book.

It's not done yet. And thus we return to the point of this review of my year as a writer.

Sometimes things don't go like you plan. One thing I kept struggling with was the feeling that I hadn't accomplished anything this year. It wasn't true, but I was letting the things that weren't working like I'd planned obscure the things I had done.

I'd lost sight of the fact that sometimes success is not giving up. Sometimes progress means not taking a step back, even if you can't take a step forward that day. Or the next.

The end of the year is only days away and I have worked on my singular goal of writing a better book. I haven't met all my individual project goals, but I haven't given up.

And that's success.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Failed Query

I've talked about the query I wrote that resulted in an offer of representation from Bob Mecoy. But what I haven't talked about in detail is the query I tried to write before that which was not as successful.

There were a number of reasons the first query was terrible. First of all, I spent a lot of time looking at other queries. That isn't a bad thing, but not every book requires the same kind of query and there are certain phrases that tend to be particular to various genres, phrases that are hard to avoid (but should be), and a general instinct to try and mimic something that was successful for someone else. Secondly, I tried to use a group of folks to help me refine my query. Again, this isn't specifically a bad thing, but it's important to A) have folks familiar with the genre you write and B) think more or less like you do if you want useful feedback.

So. I researched and the basic advice was "Read successful queries. Write a query for your own project. Get feedback. Revise until everyone likes it." I read QueryShark and dug through the Query Letter Hell at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, then I wrote a query. And then revised it based on well-intentioned, but not overall helpful feedback. That process was frustrating because I wound up rehashing the same stuff over and over again. (There were versions in between the ones posted below that no one saw but me.) Eventually I tried condensing my entire plot into a single sentence and that resulted in my "start with a logline" approach and I haven't looked back. However, it occurred to me it might be helpful to look at that first query and see what wasn't working.

Here's the first take.

Since childhood, Keira Fennel's closest friend has been her father. Despite the long months he spends away – investigating the misuse of magic – Padraig is the most important person in Keira's life.
When Padraig's spring-form heart – a device that warns of danger to the person who built it – breaks, Keira knows there is only thing for her to do: go to London and find him before it is too late to save him.

It doesn't matter that getting to London means running away from the magic school at Ballaghadarreen Abbey, stowing aboard an airship bound for Great Britain, making an ally out of a Scottish shape-shifter and confronting a brutal serial killer who uses magic and silver as his weapons. Da is in danger and Keira will do whatever she must to find him.

As Keira's friendship with Lowen McCrae, the were-wolf Scotsman, grows into something more intimate, they both fall deeper into danger. With her Fey magic bound by an iron collar, Keira tries to do the right thing and her father is killed for it. Desperate not to lose both of the men she loves, she makes a terrible choice to try and save Lowen's life.

Realizing that her betrayal is worse than death, Keira will draw on the darker blood-magic of the All-Father of the Undying and risk the cold immortality as a vampire to save Lowen.

This version is a not-inaccurate overview of the main plot and conflicts. But it had some problems. (That third paragraph is... cumbersome to say the least.) It lacked some of the intrinsic stakes in the story, the things that go deeper than just the main plot and conflict. And it didn't give proper weight to the conclusion of the story. So, I revised and produced a slightly different version. 

Since childhood, Keira Fennel's closest friend has been her father, despite the long months he spends away investigating the misuse of magic.

When Padraig's spring-form heart – a device that warns of danger to the person who built it – breaks, Keira knows there is only thing for her to do: go to London and save him.

It doesn't matter that getting to London means running away from the Spinners School of Magic at Ballaghadarreen Abbey, stowing aboard an airship bound for Great Britain, making an ally out of a Scottish shape-shifter and confronting a brutal serial killer called The Ripper who uses magic and silver as his weapons. Da is in danger and Keira is too stubborn to go home without him.

As Keira's friendship with Lowen McCrae, the were-wolf Scotsman, grows into something more intimate, they confront Devereaux, a man deadlier than The Ripper. He has a plan for Keira – to build forbidden devices crafted from the blood of shape-shifters. To prompt her cooperation, Devereaux murders Padraig and threatens to do the same with Lowen. Desperate to save at least one of the men she loves, Keira capitulates.

When Devereaux proceeds to use Lowen as part of his experiments anyway, Keira draws on the blood-magic of the Undying – risking the cold immortality of a vampire – to save him.

I actually liked version two despite the fact that it was a little long, but the folks who were offering critique did not. Some of this was due to not being familiar with the SF/F genres. In fact, many of the comments focused on the fact that I didn't discuss the relationship between Lowen and Keira enough. Or that there were too many terms that they didn't understand. 

It's possible that if I had sent this query out it would have been successful, but in the end, I felt I could do better. I hammered out a logline. (I actually tried to get feedback on that and was nearly as frustrated that time too. Mostly because a lot of the feedback consisted of "Loglines don't have a place in querying.") Then I worked that out into a solid query letter that I felt really nailed the heart of the novel. 

And then, in the end, I also sent out some queries that only had the logline and my publication credits in it and had an immediate response asking for the full. And two weeks later a phone call offering representation. 

What does all this mean? When it comes to a query you need to do your research on how to write a query. And then you need to follow your gut. 

There is a general structure and format for queries, but in the end you know what your novel is about. You know all the bits that make it special, the character quirks and strengths that make them compelling. You have to make the final decision about what to put in the query, but you are also in the best position to do that. 

I liked my initial attempt at the query, but I didn't love it. I didn't get the sense of satisfaction I got when I wrote the one I used successfully. Maybe it was just a question of sitting with the project a little longer. Maybe the practice writing the failed query helped. But I also learned that the best way for me to write a pitch is to start with a logline to help me see the overall structure of my story. And that was not something I would have learned if I had continued to try and write my query based on the method I had been presented.

In fact, I have come to wonder if the concept of thrashing through draft after draft of a query is perhaps not as helpful as it seems. I've talked to other authors who have mentioned writing dozens of drafts of their query over a year and a half (and still not being finished). But that's the process they've been told is necessary. (And I'm not saying just write one query and be done with it, but in general if you're writing the same thing over and over and over with only minor progress over a period of months or years, you may need to rethink your process.)

So. What do you think? Was I right to scrap this query and go my own way?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The 7/7/7/7 Challenge

Maggie Maxwell tagged me for another Share Your Work blog challenge.

In short, you go to the seventh page of a WiP, count down to the seventh line and then share the following seven lines with your readers. And then you tag seven more people. (I'm still working on the last bit. If you would like to be tagged, let me know.)

From my post-apocalyptic, Steampunk novel-in-progress, Survivor: [Izzy is an airship captain. She and her first mate, Kiirahk - a female gorilla, are checking out the remains of a traveling party that was attacked by scavengers.]

Kiirahk was already rolling the man onto his back, picking over him the way a mother examines a child. She grunted, surprised. /No wounds./

"He's covered in blood."
The gorilla pulled open the stained shirt, prodding the skin underneath with thick fingers. /Scars. No wounds./

Izzy shivered despite the smelting summer day. "Let me see."

(Want to play too? Drop me a comment and I will be happy to tag you.) 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pin-Up Mentality

After college I spent a few years experimenting with the idea of drawing graphic novels for a living. It was fun. I worked really hard and developed my mediocre drawing skills into fairly decent people-drawing skills. Not so much life drawing, but sketching little characters.

I was part of a forum (sadly now defunct) that had some big names as members (folks like Immonen and Francavilla) and I got a lot of excellent feedback and advice while I was there. But, in the end, I don't do well at drawing things. And I'm pretty damn slow at everything else.

For a while I thought maybe I would just focus on pin-ups; drawing women was fun and very popular and I could probably have made some money at it if I'd really wanted to. But I kept finding I wasn't especially happy with only drawing women as... sexy things. And I was still hideously slow so I turned to other pursuits.

Recently though, I've been thinking about pin-ups again. It started with a cartoon I saw on FaceBook (but cannot seem to locate for specific reference so bear with my word version of it.) On the left hand side was a (roughly drawn) woman in a chainmail bikini type costume. (It was generic, and poorly rendered, but it may have been supposed to be Wonder Woman or perhaps Red Sonja or maybe just a woman in a chainmail bikini.) And the caption was something like "When a woman wears this to ComicCon she's strong and empowered." And there was (I think) a voice balloon that said "You go girl!". On the right hand side there was a dude sitting in front of an easel with (essentially) the same sketch of the scantily clad woman on the left. And the caption said "When an artist draws a woman like this he's a sexist pig." And (again, I think) a voice balloon that said something like "Misogynist!". [I tried really hard to find the original to link to, but I don't know who drew it and Google searches under relevant terms were distressing. So, I am paraphrasing and leaning on my (sometimes) faulty memory.]

The obvious thrust of the cartoon was to imply that there's a double standard about how women portray themselves and how men portray women. Especially in SF/F. Especially in the visual arts.

And my initial thought was "This is missing the point." Because we all know that women are sexy sometimes. We are known to wear things that we think make us look attractive. (Even I, on occasion, take off my battered jeans and worn out t-shirt and put on some fancies.) But, and this is the missing thought in the above mentioned cartoon, we are more than just a sexy thing in a chainmail bikini.

The objection to artists who consistently draw women as first-and-foremost sexy/attractive is that they are reducing them, reducing us, to something to be looked at. Admired. Drooled over, even. Praised because of how sweet we look or how luscious our curves are. They are reducing us to objects. Again.

It feels like I shouldn't even have to point that out. But then I see things like Game of Thrones Women as Pin-Ups. (A Google search will turn up a lot more than just those five.) Or Disney Princesses as Pin-ups. (And there are a lot of those too besides the artist I linked to. He's just the most recent to get a write up.) And I see the previously mentioned cartoon and I realize it needs to be said again.

Women are more than just sex objects. We aren't just pretty things who are there for the Hero to ogle and take home as a prize after he saves the world. We are more than a bikini (chainmail or otherwise). More than a pretty smile.

Does this mean that no one should ever draw pin-ups? Or that men should never draw women in a way that suggests they are attractive or desirable?

Of course not.

It does mean that it behooves all of us (men and women alike) to remember that we are first and foremost humans. Sure, our dangly bits are different, but we are defined by more than just that.

"Fine," you say. "But I'm not an artist so why should I care?"

Because this is a lesson for all of our creative endeavors. There are still too many books being written in which the women or the PoC or the LGBTQ folk are just sidenotes - summed up into a single aspect of their humanity. Women as sex objects, PoC and LGBTQ as "other" and foreign and tragic friends who do not get to reap the rewards that the Hero receives. There are still too many books being written in which the Hero is likewise put in a box and distilled down to a handful of characteristics that limit his growth and depth by relegating him to a role which can only be those things which are not identified as a part of Women or PoC or LGBTQ characters.

And this doesn't mean that every book must represent all parts of every spectrum of humanity. Just as it doesn't mean that no one should ever draw pin-ups. But it does mean that consistently seeing a particular group in a specific way will limit the stories you tell and cramp (if not cripple) your skills to present characters that are fully rounded.

Depth of character means depth of skill, depth of perception, depth of understanding.

It means putting aside the pin-up mentality that turns every character with girl-parts into something to be ogled. It means writing not about the Hero or the Love Interest or the Queer Friend.

It means writing about humans. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Irons in the Fire: Update 9.6.15

This year has been different than last in that I keep getting this feeling like I've not gotten much accomplished. To the point that a month or so ago I had a really down moment where I started wondering if I was going to have to write this year off as a complete wash.

Of course, then I started looking at what I've actually done this year and realized I have been writing and finishing things. I just haven't been writing and finishing novels at the pace I was last year. But that's a topic for a different day.

One of the projects I've been working on is an OGN (Original Graphic Novel) script. The project is still in the early stages - the script is finished and I have an amazing artist working with me as we put together a pitch for the book - but this week I got the first batch of character sketches and (with Tony's permission) I'm sharing them here.

First, here is the brief summary of the book.

For nineteen years, Gwen has avoided a future in which she ushers in the apocalypse, and resisted the plans her father, Odin, has made for her. Her unwelcome companions, the ravens Munin and Hugin, nag her to take up Odin's spear and defend Valhalla in the coming war. Gwen's mother coaxes her toward the paths of peace and positive change.

When the soul of Arthur Pendragon wakes up in the body of seventeen year old Tristan Morgan, Gwen reluctantly agrees to help the ravens and finds the warrior-turned-teenager to be an unexpected soul-mate. Gwen can keep her semi-ordinary life and lose Tristan to the magical schemes threatening Yggdrasil and all its connecting Realms. Or she can take her father's place, save Tristan, and become the Champion of Valhalla. With the threat of Ragnarok still hanging in the balance, Gwen clings to the one truth she knows: if you want to change the world, start with yourself.

And character sketches (property/copyright Tony D'Amato 2015). 

Gwen Sinister


I'm incredibly excited about this particular project. Tony is knocking it out of the park as he brings these characters into a visual medium. 

If you would like to check out some of his other work (storyboards and illustrations) you can visit Tony D'Amato Dot Net or his Tumblr page at TD'

In the meantime, I am still working on several other "words only" projects, including finding a home for the Southern Gothic novella trilogy, and finishing up an epic little Steampunk Apocalypse novel. You can also look for more reprinted or new short stories coming closer to Christmas. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Not a Zero-Sum Game

One thing that comes up periodically from certain corners of the author world is the idea that for every book published by one of the Big 5, that's one less book someone else will successfully sell to that publisher. Or that for every major book deal and advance given out, that means a certain number of smaller, debut authors will never get a shot because there is no money for them anymore.

It's an argument used by certain proponents of "traditional" genre fiction when discussing the push to have more diversity in the author pool.

"When you argue for diversity, you're taking food off the plates of other authors who just happen to be straight, white and male!" And then there's usually some twaddle about discrimination and quality and wahwahwah.

I'm not going to talk about that today.

Instead, let me remind folks that publishing is not a zero-sum game. Broadening the author pool also means broadening the reader pool and that means not only more books - as opposed to the same number of books only with different authors than last year - but more money. It means more folks saying "Hey! Maybe this SF and Fantasy stuff isn't so bad after all. Where can I find more books?"

Recently DC announced it was adding a line of comics they intend to be focused more on female characters and in general appeal to the femme comic buyers. Notice, they aren't replacing the existing lines, they are adding to them. More books, not less. New authors, and old ones. More readers. More money. More good.

It's not a zero-sum game. It is a "Let's make money!" game. Although it is untrue that publishers never take risks on books (because they do), the key thing to remember is that it is a business. If they are buying and publishing a certain thing it's because they are reasonably confident it will sell. If they are buying from a more diverse pool of talent, it's because they are reasonably confident that there is a market for those books and those authors and that more money means more books, and more books means fewer authors of any color/gender/orientation subsisting on Ramen for extended periods of time.

Appealing to a diverse readership by default equals trying to broaden the readership. I don't know about you, but I always prefer more readers to fewer readers.

The publishing world is not like your grandma's pie which was delicious and always left everyone fighting over the last piece because there was only so much and you, your brother and your cousins all wanted it. No, this is like a Guinness Book of World Records pie - it can always get bigger next year.

More authors.
More books.
More readers.
More money.
More good.

We all win.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Competent Enough to Compete: Lessons Learned from Competitive Piano Performance

When I was eleven, I decided I wanted to learn how to properly play the piano. My mother had already showed me the basics of how to read music and I could fumble out a few things with right and left hand parts, but I wanted to learn classical music. So, my mother canceled our cable subscription to pay for piano lessons and signed me up with a teacher down at the local conservatory.

Because I had a head start on the basics I progressed quickly. After the first year my teacher suggested I compete in the local music teachers competition. The first year, she said, I would be only competing against myself. If I enjoyed it and wanted to continue the following year, we would see about putting me in the category where I would compete with everyone my own age.

Despite the nerves, I did, in fact, enjoy competing. Not so much for the competition factor, but because the real joy of music, like writing, is in sharing it with someone else. Sure, I enjoyed playing at home and getting lost in the fiddly, rolling-down-a-steep-hill harmonies of Bach's Inventions. But the real enjoyment, the biggest rush was in performing for someone else. Especially in performing for strangers who would appreciate the music without regard for me.

So, after two years of competing only against myself, I entered the local competition along with everyone else in my grade level. This was a challenge. Many of them had been playing much longer than I had. And let me tell you, six years of additional experience makes a big difference - in both the quality and complexity of the work being presented. My teacher and I carefully selected work that pushed my skills and showed off my range. For the remaining five years before I headed off to college, I competed at my grade level. Every year I placed high enough to continue on to the state level. Every year I received good marks at the state level, but I never won or progressed to the regional competition.

I was competent enough to compete. I was not skilled enough to win.

"Why this story?" you may be thinking.

Lately the SF/F realm has been rife with conspiracy theories about secret "liberal" cabals, active bloc-voting by particular "conservative" groups to narrow the playing field to works which they approved and endorsed, and then rejection of those works by a broader fan base. At this point it seems as if the attempts to put forth a complete slate will continue next year. Which also means more bitterness and vitriol and finding out that folks who have been positive about your work in the past didn't really mean "This is good," but rather "This is good for a girl-writer."

And much of it stems from the inability to grasp the idea that you may be competent enough to compete, but not competent enough to win. It is laden with fear about a broadening of the pool of talent to include voices that may not be just different but also better. It is laced with venom over the idea that fandom is bigger than you are, bigger than your group of friends, and in that larger sea you are a smaller fish than you thought. And all of it is wrapped up in an "us against them" narrative that transforms that fear and poison and lack of understanding into a conspiracy against some deeper way of life - the "culture wars" we keep hearing about.

This, more than anything else, is the reason I have no patience for the Puppies (Sad or Rabid) and their movement to "reclaim" SF/F for future generations.

At some point, you have to realize that maybe your work just isn't better than your competitors. And at that point you (and I), have two basic choices.

You can:
Accuse the judges of favoring the Asian-American over you because of a hidden affirmative action agenda.
Declare that the other contestants played newer, more modern work and were rewarded for it while your own more traditional selections were passed over because they are no longer en vogue.
Orchestrate and implement a plan to only allow those who play at your skill level to compete. Bonus if you can limit the works to the same style and content you perform.

Or you can:
Improve your skills.
Work harder.
Be persistent.

"Well," you may be thinking. "You only say that because you've never been nominated for a literary award."

And that's true. I haven't been nominated. I've been eligible since 2012. In fact, 2012-2013 I was eligible for the John Campbell "Not a Hugo" Award for Best New Writer. Those years came and went without any sort of recognition for my work. Aside from, you know, having been published, getting paid, and knowing that folks were reading my work. But even if I had been nominated, I learned years ago that sometimes my very best is not "the best".

I'm okay with that. You know why?
Because, for me, the answer is simple - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I sit down to put words on the page - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I see someone belittling my genre - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time someone implies that even if I were to be nominated it would be for something other than the quality of my work - write a better story.

Because there is only one way to compete - write a better story.

[Disclaimer (because, you know, ethics in journalism): I have been published by two of the Puppies nominees - Abyss & Apex, and Jennifer Brozek. And I split a reading time slot with Jason Cordova last year.]