Archive for February, 2010

25
Feb
10

The many faces of plotting.

At the moment I’m between books. That is to say, I know the book that is coming next, but I’m in that between-book funk where I don’t know enough about it to start writing yet. I have a basic plot, but the first quarter of the book, (for me, always the hardest to write), is a hazy collection of images and character ideas that I have to sort out before I can get going. It’s like looking through a heavy fog. You can see bits and pieces of your surroundings – a character here, a scene there—but how it all connects together is frustratingly obscured.

So what I thought I’d do is show how I get from this stage to the point of actually writing the book. A caveat, though: I’m very disorganized. So the process I go through might not work for you. (But if you can take anything away to apply to your own planning, then that’s great.)

First off, I know the basic premise for my next book. (The Twilight Court.) It’s the third book in The Invisible Order series, so I know which characters are supposed to be in the story. I’m pretty comfortable with them by now, and I know how they relate to each other. (Although I may want to shake that up a bit. Make sure things don’t get stale.) I also know what the basic plot is. Actually, that sounds too definitive. I don’t know the plot. I know what the plot will revolve around. Big difference, with lots of off-shoots and sub-plots to sort out and trim. Also, because this is the last book in the trilogy, I’ve set up certain things in books one and two that have to pay off in this one.

That’s where I am right now. A few ideas that are constantly changing, a few events that are set in stone because of what has gone before, and my characters. Much as I’d like to simply start writing, I know from past experience that this is a bad idea. I’ve tried, and it never turns out well. (And usually involves much rewriting.) All I can do is keep the book in my head as much and possible and wait for my subconscious to click on an idea and send it bubbling to the surface.

This is the ‘muddling’ stage of writing a book. And although I don’t want to force anything at this point, I can help my subconscious along by doing research. In this case that means reading everything I can about Victorian London and faerie lore. I also spend this time watching movies, playing computer games, going for walks. Just generally filling my mind with as much stuff as possible. It all goes into the melting pot, gets swirled around a few thousand times, and if I’m lucky turns into something useful.

During this time, I’ll be jotting down ideas and snippets of research material I think relevant. I have a hardcover, spiral-bound A4 book, plus an A5 moleskin notebook for when I need to get out the house. The notebook gets filled with hundreds of scribbled notes. I’ll probably only use a fifth of the ideas I write down, but I still need to get them out of my head.

When I think I have enough to work with, I take a blank page of my A4 notebook and number the lines 1 to 30. Next to number 1, I write in a brief description of the opening. Next to number 30, I write in a brief description of the ending. If I know the turning point in the middle of the book, I write that in as well. Then I go through my notes and add in any other events where I think they should happen. I like using this technique at the beginning stages of planning because I have to keep everything brief, and I can see the whole book on one page.

After I’ve filled in enough of these lines and feel like I want to break it down more, I’ll open up a file in my mind mapping software. (I use Mindmap Pro but there are lots of free programs out there .) I write the central premise in the center of the page, then on the right side I add in character names and locations, and any loose ideas that I don’t have a place for yet. At this stage I can unpack these one-line ideas into a lot more detail, and again, because of the visual nature of the mind map, I can see my whole book right there in front of me. This is what it looks like:

Once I’ve done that I create chapter topics on the left side of the screen and fill these out with what I’ve written down on the A4 page, adding sub-topics for character growth or character conflicts. (It’s hard to do this on a laptop screen by the way. The mind map soon grows so big that you need a larger screen to keep everything in view.) This is sort of what it looks like, although this is an early stages screen shot. As you can see, I’ve only planned out the first five chapters. (Please excuse the blur. Didn’t want any spoilers for The Fire King.)


Now, however much I wish I was a meticulous planner, I’m not. I’ve tried planning out an entire book before and it before and it didn’t work. I spent months working on an outline that ended up getting scrapped halfway through the book. So what I tend to do is get the first ten chapters pinned down, then start writing. My paranoid side usually starts screaming at me at this point, because even though it didn’t work in the past, he still wants the whole book planned out in minute detail before starting. But that’s just the insecurity talking, worrying that I won’t have anything beyond chapter ten. I’ve learned to ignore that voice, because I know that as I write, events and characters will define the course of the story as it unfolds. For instance, in The Fire King, book two of the series, I had done all of the above steps, started writing, and then in chapter one a supposedly minor character developed into one of the most pivotal characters of the plot. This wasn’t something I’d planned in my outline, but something that happened during the actual writing. And it gave me a lot of answers for the blank spaces beyond chapter ten, (and gave me a new, much more exciting ending for the story as well). If I’d waited till I’d planned out the whole book before starting to write, that idea might never have occurred to me.

So as you can see, my process is a bit of a mess. It’s an uneven cross between planning as much as I can, then simply writing and frantically praying that the ideas will come as I progress. With every book I have the same fears that the ideas won’t come, but so far I’ve always been proven wrong.

It’s certainly not the best method of writing books. In fact, on re-reading this post I briefly considered deleting it because I don’t know if there’s anything helpful here. But the process works for me, so maybe it will for someone else.

25
Feb
10

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are GO!

It’s Launch Day! Launchy Launchy Launchy Launchy Launch!!!

I’m sorry. Here I am popping up after two months of silence, only to babble incoherently because HOLY CRAP MY BOOK IS OFFICIALLY OUT! I tried to think of something intelligent to post here, but my brain is pretty much full of WOO HOO WOO HOO right now.

So. Rather than try and rein in the Loony Tunes in my head, I will direct you toward a couple of posts over on my author blog that I think Magic Districtians might find interesting. The first is from a couple of days ago at the start of my Launch Week countdown, wherein I mention a few things that readers can do to help me out this week, if they feel so inclined:

  1. Buy the book.* (Please. Mama’s got student loans to pay.)
  2. Read the book. (This is kind of necessary for the next step.)
  3. If you like the book, tell everyone you know. This includes everyone on Goodreads, Library Thing, and all the retail bookseller sites, especially if they let you post reviews. (The Amazon “post your own review” feature is active now, BTW.)
  4. Under the category of “tell everyone you know”, blog about the book. You’d be surprised at how useful word-of-mouth is to authors.
  5. *If you cannot afford the book, that’s OK. Put in a request for it at your local library. Readers often think this won’t help authors, but it does! The more requests a library receives for a given book, the more likely that library is to order more copies of the book. More copies = sales for me, and you get to read it for free. Everyone wins! (Then please tell everyone about the book, blog about it, etc.)

To this I’ll add one more suggestion. I live in New York, as many of you know — and while I’m not doing a schmancy Big Name Author book tour or anything like that, I am willing to travel to places within a 2-3 hour drive to do readings, signings, etc. So if you’d like me to do a reading/signing in your town and you’re relatively close by, and you make the arrangements — no private homes, please; public places only — and you can promise me a crowd of 20 or more, then holla, and let’s see if we can work something out. (In fact I’m doing just such an event next week, at Flights of Fantasy up in Albany. If you’re in upstate NY or western MA, come by for a visit!)

The other post I’ll point you at is a thinky one on what constitutes epic fantasy — i.e., how should we define it? Some interesting answers there already.

Anyway, I’m off — got a launch party to prepare for, guests in town, guest blog posts to write, and miles to go before I sleep. But since you guys have been with me pretty much since we started this blog, I just wanted to pop in and share a little of the WOO HOO WOO HOO with you. WOO HOO!!

24
Feb
10

Confessions of a Twisted Mind

I am not what most people would consider “normal.” I’ve been blessed -– or cursed, depending on how you choose to view it –- with an overactive imagination. Okay, so that part isn’t uncommon. The uncommon part is that my imagination skews to the Dark Side, and I mean Stephen King-level and beyond. It’s a great resource when you’re a writer…and a guy…not so much when you’re considered “a good girl” in the South.

My love affair with all things dark and disturbing began at an early age. I was six when I saw the 1932 film adaptation of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Vampires instantly fascinated me. The next time Mom took my brother and me on our monthly pilgrimage to the library I checked out as many books on the subject as I could, including a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel. From there I progressed to werewolves, demons, ghosts, fairies, aliens… You name it, I probably read about it.

As I got older, my interest in the supernatural continued, but I also developed an interest in psychology, particularly abnormal psychology. I read books on psychopathy, sociopathy, serial killers, cults –- pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I also read books on history, anthropology, and religion. This is all in addition to reading the fiction of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft.

Books weren’t the only fodder for my imagination. Films sparked all manner of ideas, especially when I was younger. My older siblings let me watch scary movies when our parents weren’t around. Not a good idea. The Exorcist gave me nightmares for months, and after seeing Poltergeist, I was convinced there was a dimensional portal to Hell in my closet. (That was three weeks of hell for Mom that much was certain.) Then there was that unfortunate clown incident at the circus…

So, where does the twist come in to all this? The twist is that all these little things have accumulated in my brain over time and made me who I am.

For example, my husband and I live in Mobile, Alabama but my family lives in Mississippi. When we travel from Mobile to visit my family, the route we drive takes us past a couple of very lovely marshy areas. Mark, my husband, sees these marshes and says, “That would make a cool photo.” I see them and say, “That would be a cool place to hide a body.”

Another example: An innocent trip to the home improvement store takes a dark turn when I’m around. Others see common household and garden tools. I see murder weapons.

Even a walk through the toy section of a discount store gives me ideas. All those plastic ties that hold dolls and action figures in place in their packages? Others see annoyances that have to be removed quickly in order to stifle the demanding screams of a child. I see effective restraint points for a psychopath to use during a torture session.

My mind never completely shuts off, and I’m constantly composing scenes in my head for whatever book I’m working on at the time. The smallest thing can spark a full-blown creative fit. Does this make me “a bad person?” No, I don’t think so. Maybe a little creepy, but not “bad.”

So if you ever have an opportunity to meet me, and I seem to space out for a second or two, it’s nothing personal. I’m probably just thinking of ways to hide your body.

23
Feb
10

Rants, whines, vents, and moans–we all haz ‘em

Happy release day to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! 

Yes, I have a backlist of TWO books now! World domination is next! As of today, Blood of the Demon is available at fine booksellers everywhere. And probably some not-so-fine ones as well. And, I’m cool with that.

Now, on to my post!

*** 

I’m fortunate enough to be on a couple of email loops or private groups with a number of published authors–some with extensive credentials and years of experience. This is terrific for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the chance to learn from authors with decades of experience in the industry.

But sometimes the best aspect of the email loop is the chance to vent, complain, bitch or just plain whine. As an author, it’s often considered bad form or uncool to make any sort of complaint or negative commentary about certain aspects of the business. Make one comment about the stress of meeting deadlines, and it’s guaranteed that some aspiring author will come back with something on the order of, “I wish I had your problems! At least you have deadlines!”  And, sure, yes, many of the problems or issues we have are great to have since it shows we have contracts/deadlines/editors etc. But, damn, sometimes it really does feel just like any other job, and it’s frustrating to not be able to vent, complain, whine, etc. Even if only for a few minutes.

But today I’ll share a few of the tidbits (anonymized and generalized) that can piss an author off. (Note: these are not necessarily MY rants or vents, but they’re ones that I hear quite a bit.)

Early releases.

Let’s say that your book is scheduled for release on June 1st. Now, if you’re a BIG NAME author, it’s most likely that you’ll have something called a “hard” release. What this means is that the release date of June 1st is firm, and booksellers are NOT allowed to sell it before that date, or they’ll suffer all sorts of dire consequences. (Don’t ask me what the dire consequences are. I have no idea. But they must be dire for the booksellers to abide by the whole thing.)  The reason for this is that the publishers of BIG NAME AUTHOR want as many as possible of the sales of HOTLY ANTICIPATED BOOK to fall in the first week of its release, because the bestseller lists look at the sales one week at a time. If a book sells 10,000 copies in a week, it’s more likely to hit a bestseller list than if it sold 20,000 copies spread out over many weeks.

However, unless you’re a BIG NAME AUTHOR, you’ll most likely have a soft release, which means that there are no dire consequences for early sales, and thus the booksellers will usually put the books out on the shelves as soon as they get them in. If this happens a few days before the scheduled release, it’s not the end of the world. But, if this happens more than a week before the release date, this can often kill an author’s chances of hitting a list, since the sales will be spread out over a couple of weeks. I’ve been lucky so far in that my books seldom hit the shelves more than a couple of days before the release date, but right now I know of a couple of authors who are having FITS because their books are being shelved more than two weeks before the release. What can be done about this? Not a whole lot, unfortunately. But, as with anything else, venting to understanding ears helps a little.

The Fan Who Loves Your Characters. Too Much. 

(Yeah, we’re getting into Misery territory here!) Best way to piss an author off (and end up in their killfile) is to argue with them about the direction the plot is going, or the actions and motivations of their characters. Trust me, NO ONE knows the characters better than the author. It’s one thing to write a review and point out flaws in plot/pacing/characterization or whatever, but writing an author and saying, “[character] would NOT have fought [bad guy]. She’s not that sort of girl!” is a great way to earn the wrath of an author. Most authors I know create extensive character profiles for their major characters, including backstory, hopes, fears, desires, and all sorts of good things that will never actually make it into the book, except in the way the character acts and reacts to events as they happen. Again, it’s very possible that the author slipped up and didn’t write a scene to make the characters actions believable, but, as much as you might love an author’s characters, trust me–no one knows them better than the author!  

The “ebooks should be free because there’s no associated cost” argument.

Holy crapsoly, but this one makes me grit my teeth. Yes, there’s no printing or distribution cost….  but that accounts for about a dollar of the final price.  The rest of the price of the book goes toward silly stuff such as paying the author, paying the editor, paying the copyeditor, paying the marketing/publicity/sales departments… Oh, and the bookseller usually wants a cut–whether it’s Amazon, or Fictionwise, or Barnes & Noble. I’m not going to get into an argument here about what the specific pricing of ebooks needs to be, but just know that there IS a cost in producing them.

Anyway, my point (I think I had one…LOL) is that yes, being an author is pretty damn wonderful, and yes, there are many people who would kill to be in our shoes, but just like any other job, there will always be things that drive you crazy. 

It’s still the coolest job I’ve ever had. And I’m very glad I have a few places to vent on those rare occasions when it’s less than completely cool. :-)

18
Feb
10

Written. Edited. Published. Now What?

The second book in my Haven series, TWICE DEAD, was released last week. The writing for that particular book is done. The words are set in stone–okay, ink, but still, there is no more editing to be done. The book is out there for all the world to see. So, besides work on the sequel, what am I supposed to do now?

Tell people about it, of course! But how?

I’ve been guest blogging and holding contests to celebrate the release and get the word out. Blog tours, signings, and convention appearances all give writers an opportunity to not only interact with our very awesome readers, they also (hopefully) expose our work to potential new readers. Giveaways are fun, though not always easy to come up with. The hope with a giveaway is to get people excited about the book, but there are a lot of mixed opinions among authors about what is good to give away. In the picture here, you can see a Twice Dead notebook and mug I recently offered on my blog.

At signings and conventions, I keep hundreds of bookmarks on hand to give out and to leave in places where they might be picked up. The bookmarks tend to be well received; I’ve even had readers ask for them because they can’t see me in person. I do wonder if they are useful promotional material though. Personally, I love bookmarks and have picked up books by author’s whose bookmarks I’ve snagged at conventions. But then, I’m a big dork and if I know I have the bookmark, I typically search it out to use in that book because well, that seems to make it even more special. (See, dork. ^_^)

The thing about getting the word out is that I’m not sure how people find their books these days. Observing my own book buying habits can’t be considered standard anymore as I now know many of the writers I read. I talk to them on the SFWA forums or RWA loops, I sit on panels with them at conventions, I share an agent with them, or I blog/guest blog with them. That changes things. I’m not exactly the typical reader anymore.

So, here is my question for everyone out there. How do you find new books/authors? Do you peruse the shelves at brick and mortar stores looking for covers/titles/blurbs that catch you? Do you use the ‘recommended for you’ or ‘customers also liked’ suggestions in online stores? Do you read reviews? Go on friends’ recommendations? Run across authors on blogs or at conventions and take a deeper look into their books if you’re interested in what they say? Something else entirely? What do you think is the best way for an author to get the word out about their books?

I hope everyone is having a great Thursday!

17
Feb
10

Writing a plot synopsis for a query letter

For a writer, a query letter is hands-down the most important letter you’ll ever write. I’ve been a professional writer since I graduated from college — marketing, advertising, business, public relations — so I’ve written my share of business letters. But no one letter stressed me out as much as my query letter. I would say, as I’m sure every other writer does: “If they’d just read the first chapter of my book, they’d love it! I’m an author, not a letter writer!” And I was a business letter writer, and I still thought this.

I made the mistake of thinking that a query letter was different than any other business letter. It is and it isn’t. It is different in that you’re pitching your book (and you have to summarize it). It isn’t different in that you want to be as professional as possible. Agents love dealing with professionals. So as much as you may want to, keep the unseemly begging, pleading, and angst-filled prose in your computer where it belongs. Believe me, I know, this is hard to do when your budding writing career is on the line.

But how did I write my synopsis paragraph for Magic Lost, Trouble Found? I did what everyone else does — I tried to include everything. I soon found out that “everything” doesn’t fit in a paragraph, and it just made my book sound like a jumbled mess. What I had to get at, what I had to dig down to, was the core of what my book was about. Here’s the link to my agent, Kristin Nelson’s analysis of my query letter. I did a brief intro of why I was writing to her, got right to the pitch, and then did a brief, professional wrap-up. In my pitch, I used the tone and voice of my book (my big selling point), and hit only the high points of the plot. A good exercise to do this is to gather up your favorite novels that are in the genre in which you write. Now read the jacket or back cover copy. That’s what I went for: a combo of big-picture plot summary and marketing promo copy. Give it a try with your own pitch paragraph and see if it works for you.

13
Feb
10

getting it right vs. getting it done

/* Special note! I just got my copy of Nora’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and it is awesome! The book is beautiful and the story is fantastic so far. If you aren’t reading it already, do yourself a favor and check it out! You won’t be sorry, promise! */

I just recently turned in edits for the second book in my series for Orbit. When I first got the manuscript back from my editor, I estimated it would take about 2 weeks to go through and get the book into publishable shape. Boy, was I wrong. The deeper I got into the text, the more I realized the text had problems. Nothing huge, but there were lots of small discrepancies, little matters of timing, congruency, and continuity that had to be adjusted. As I worked I was very aware of my approaching deadlines. I had a third book to get out, after all. I couldn’t afford to be sitting here nitpicking timelines on a book that was otherwise completely fine.

And yet… I couldn’t just be sloppy. This was my book. This was going to be purchased by my fans (I’d assume, since they would have had to have read the first book and liked it to care about the second), they deserved a good story, the best I could give them. So these two needs go back and forth, getting the book right vs. getting it done, finally coming to a head in a scene towards the end of the book.

First off, it was a pivotal scene for one of my favorite characters, one that I’d been thinking of for a long, long time. I could not afford for this scene to suck. I’d thought I’d gotten it good enough, but rereading it, I realized it wasn’t what it needed to be. And yet, it was just one scene, a thousand words, and I was so close to finished and pushing my deadlines already. So I sat there, going one way, then the other until, finally I gave in and rewrote the stupid thing. It took me 2 days to get it right. Two days! For a thousand words! But I got it right this time, or as close to right as I could get.

This constant tug-of-war between getting the book finished and getting it right is actually good for both book and writer. If it was all about getting it done, my books would be sloppy and dull. If it was all about getting it right, I’d never finish anything. Between the constant pulling I end up with a book that’s good, not perfect (let’s face it, there will always be things I’d wish I’d done differently), but good enough that I’m proud to put my name on it and delivered to the publisher in a timely fashion so people can actually read the sucker, because that’s what this is all about.

Now that I’m finished editing and the novel is turned in, I can sit back and revel in the feeling that I’ve written the best book I could have written. Not the best book I’ll ever write (because how depressing would that be? Peaking this early in my life), but a book that I’m proud of and that was delivered within the appropriate amount of time. I feel I’ve created something worth reading, and even if it isn’t perfect, I couldn’t be happier. This time I won on all fronts, I got it done and got it right, and that’s good enough for me.




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