Archive for January, 2010


MacMillan vs. Amazon

So I was going to write about the editorial muck I’m neck deep in, then Nora brought this to my attention and everything else got derailed.

So here’s what happened. Publishing giant Macmillan, parent company of SciFi/Fantasy giant Tor, decided it wanted its ebooks to cost around $15. Amazon, primary retailer for ebooks, didn’t like this at all, and, to show their strong displeasure, have pulled all Macmillan books, print and electronic, from (Though Macmillan imprints like Tor  seem to be fine).

This is certainly only temporary, but it is a pretty powerful statement from Amazon about who really controls the price of ebooks. However, while they battle it out, the real victims (as it always is in wars) are the civilians, in this case, the authors.  These are people whose books have just vanished from Amazon through no fault of their own, and that sucks. Now, of course there are other retailers, but come on. This is, the online book behemoth. This isn’t small change, especially for scifi/fantasy with our tech savvy audience.

This is also a first shot in the coming greater conflict between retailers and publishers as ebooks move from a fringe format to a real money maker. Who really controls the price? What will that price be? It’s a very interesting conflict to watch for signs of what the future holds for ebooks. Meanwhile, however, it really sucks to be a Macmillan author.

What do you think? Would you buy an ebook for $15? Who’s in the wrong here, Amazon or Macmillan?

ETA: Macmillan’s explanation via Publisher’s Lunch (thanks to Nora for the link, she finds everything!)

UPDATE! Amazon has relented! They will be selling Macmillan books again. Their explanation is a bit backhanded, but that’s to be expected from someone who’s been pushed to do something they don’t want.


Writing Funny

Apparently, I write funny. When accused of this, I take “funny” to mean “ha-ha,” though it is possible that the speaker is referring to the fact that my handwritten “I”s are crowned with little hearts or that I WRITE IN COLD EMOTIONLESS CAPITAL LETTERS but that’s another blog post entirely.

Anyway, my most successful stories have been humor, and many high-level short story markets specifically note that they don’t receive enough humor. (This does not mean they don’t get enough submissions that try to be humorous, just that they don’t get enough that actually succeed.) So in this blog post I thought I’d share my years of wisdom with y’all about how to write funny.

  • First, practice drawing little hearts above your “i”s … aha! Got you! That was funny because you were expecting me to start off with some point about writing funny “ha-ha” and instead I gave you a point about writing “funny!” The utter unfunny-ness of the prior notwithstanding, the point I’m trying to illustrate is that humor (like horror) comes from carefully building up a specific expectation in the reader and then swiftly and utterly subverting it. This subversion of expectation triggers a feeling of delight and wonder in the reader, much like one experiences after playing 3-card monte on a seedy street corner in New Jersey and NOT getting mugged in an alley behind the Little Caesar’s afterward. Research indicates that the human laugh response was developed as a way of communicating to one’s primate homies that a situation that could have resulted in serious harm or danger (e.g., slipping on a banana peel) has been resolved without injury (except to the bum of the slippee) and so said homies are safe to lower their guard and relax. Isn’t that interesting? I am not even making that up.
  • Inappropriate emotional responses are totally funny. (This is kind of a corollary to the first point, but you’re living in a fool’s paradise if you think I’m going to start getting all taxonomical and shit. P.S. Profanity is comedy GOLD!) Whether it’s an overly-exaggerated response (think of Ignatius J. Reilly’s hilariously inappropriate attitude toward Myrna Minkoff in “A Confederacy of Dunces“) or a wryly understated response (think of Jeeves’ dry retorts to Wooster’s exuberant outbursts), interactions that are “off” emotionally will generally be taken as humorous or indicative of some kind of serious mental defect in the character. So tread with care.
  • Much of humor is in the choice of words. Words are hilarious. George Carlin did whole *acts* on nothing more than words and word choices. Slang and colloquialisms are a great place to look for humor. There’s nothing funnier than a 41-year old housewife saying “fo’ shizzle.” Ask my 11-year old daughter if you don’t believe me. Also, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no honor in humor. If other peoples’ words have gotten big laffs, then you should consider it your right and privilege to steal the funny right out of them whenever the opportunity arises. WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS? you ask, outraged. If your audience knows what you’re referring to, you have successfully picked the pocket of cool and you can now go buy yourself a hot dog. You’ve shared an inside joke and made your audience feel “with-it” (see “Ironic quotes around conscious anachronism,” e.g., T. Herman Zwiebel … MY GOD, IT’S TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN!) Warning: if they don’t get your reference, they will look at you like you’ve been raping muskrats.
  • Also, the arrangement. Sentence fragments are gut busters. As is overdescription for effect (e.g., instead of referring to “3-card monte” you refer to “3-card monte in New Jersey behind a Little Caesar’s.” Why is it funnier that way? Because New Jersey is ALWAYS funny, and so is Little Caesar’s. However, their pepperoni pizza is great when you’ve got a mighty hunger and just $5 in your wallet.) (See “Non-sequiturs”).
  • Puns are the humor equivalent of muskrat-raping. Shaggy dog stories are the devil’s hemorrhoids.  Feghoots are like farting loudly, and on purpose, at your mother’s funeral while bending over her open coffin. My favorite author from age ten to thirteen was a famous author we shall call Iers Panthony in the interests of anonymity (and because I don’t want to show up in his inbox in the form of a Google Alert, which might cause him to send a cadre of muskrat-raping thugs after me.)  Re-reading certain works by this famous author today, I have a hard time telling what bothers me the most: his casual pedophilia, hyper-creepy sex scenes, or his incessant use of puns. Of course, he’s made himself a nice little career mixing those unholy ingredients in varying proportions, but I encourage the reader to think of him as an anomaly. Do not think you can build a career like Iers Panthony’s in today’s post-Seinfeld world!
  • Pie. And Muskrat Raping. This is only my second “Magic District” post, but I swear to you now … I will mention “pie” in every one of my blog posts. One, because it’s fun to click that clicky box. Two, because it’s a complete non-sequitur and non-sequiturs are quite funny IN MODERATION. Overdone, they’re worse than puns. Finally, repetition is funny, and gets funnier the more times you do it, until you’ve done it too much and then it’s just horribly, horribly lame. Why do you think South Park stopped killing Kenny after Season 3? One, because it was harshing their buzz to come up with new ways to kill Kenny every week and Two, BECAUSE IT WASN’T FUNNY ANYMORE. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine if it was ever really all that funny in Seasons 1-3.

That’s about all I have time for today. What do you think, readers? What are some rules for funny you’ve noticed? The first person to say “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog—few people are interested and the frog dies of it” gets a cadre of muskrat-raping thugs sent after them because that shit is just. not. funny. Fo’ shizzle.


You must answer me these questions three…

Hello! I’m Jeannie, another of the newbies and today I’m going to talk about something every writer (especially first timers) should be willing to do — asking questions.

Why did I choose this topic? Well, mainly because I recently found myself in a situation that required me to direct a lot of questions to my agent. In December, my editor at Bantam jumped to another publishing house. She and I had worked very closely on my book through two major rewrites, and I’d gotten very comfortable with our relationship. Naturally her departure left me wondering just what the heck I was supposed to do about my pending release, not to mention the second book.

I peppered my agent with questions. “What does this mean?” “Is my release date going to be pushed back?” “Is my contract in jeopardy?” “Who’s my new editor?” “Do I even have a new editor?”

My agent was wonderful and answered all my questions. “This means you’ll have a new editor to complete the release of the first book and to work on the second book.” “No, the release date won’t be pushed back.” “No, your contract is fine.” “Here’s the name of your new editor, and yes, you do have one.”

The main point I needed to understand was that a changing of the guard is not unusual in publishing. People come and go. It’s part of the business and we, as writers, have to learn to be flexible and roll with the punches. One of the best ways to do this is by not being afraid to speak up, ask questions, and voice our opinions especially when it involves our careers.

This couldn’t be more vital to a first-time author. No one expects you to know everything going in. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of other authors, your agent, and especially your editor. They are there to support you and guide you.

Above all, remember it’s your career, and you have a right to know where it’s heading.


Writer’s block is a writer’s best friend

Today I’m going to talk about writer’s block.   For me it’s like the honesty of a friend telling you something you don’t want to hear.  You can always depend on your friends to tell you when you screwed up.  Right?  Writer’s block is like that for me.  I know some of you are probably thinking, “Huh?” Others are thinking I must be a glutton for punishment.

Any writer can tell you that writer’s block is not fun. Actually it’s about as far from fun as it gets. But for me writer’s block doesn’t mean I’ve run out of ideas, it means I’ve run down the wrong road. Writer’s block is my muse’s way of telling me, “The bridge is out! Go back, stupid!”

Forced plotting and putting words into your characters mouths is (at least for me) the surest way to contract a nasty case of writer’s block. Listen to your characters. If what’s coming out of their mouths sounds forced or out of character — watch out, you’re about to step into a whole mess of trouble.

Bugs Bunny knew what he was talking about when he said, “I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”

When I get writer’s block, that means I didn’t take that left turn. It means I didn’t see the signs; or if I did, I ignored them. It means I didn’t listen to my characters. But most of all (and worst of all) it means my muse isn’t going to let me go one word further until I find out where and how I took that wrong turn (aka screwed up), and go back and fix it.

So sit back, be quiet, and listen to your characters. Most times they know the story better than you do.


Story Mapping: How I do It

Today, I want to talk about practical magic — how to make a story come alive.  When I first started out writing, I was the queen of the thirty page dead novel – I’d start writing, and then the story would lose its spark and die on me.  After one too many of these, I read up on story structure, but though my drafts got longer, they stayed incoherent.

Happily, once I learned the trick of what I describe in this post, I started completing what I wrote, and selling it soon after.  And I want to save you the time it took me to learn what I describe here.  Of course, process is different for every writer and every book.  I still will write a short story without any outline at all, and have gotten results that way.  But for novel-length work, this is the default process I use, and it has given me something to lean on when I get confused and lost in the fog  🙂

My process is a weird hybrid of the “plotter” and “pantser” methods of writing a book.  Depending on the book itself, I may improvise more or plan more in advance – whatever the book itself needs from me to come out.  But I have a bunch of different tricks that I use to get to “the end.”

First, let me give you some internet resources:

1.  Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal page:  Jim lays out, in commonsense and no-nonsense fashion, one of the best, most concise distillations of story structure ideas I have ever seen.  His essays on characterization, story arc, and story climaxes brought together a lot of ideas I have encountered in a lot of different places:

Just keep reading and scrolling down back through his story craft series of posts – awesome.

2.  Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Guy:  This is the material I found first, and after I started applying his concepts of story-as-fractyl I started selling in short order:

 He has a computer program that helps you to apply the snowflake method to your own projects, but I’ve used the concept w/o the program too.

3. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet:  The screenwriter Blake Snyder (who, sadly, passed away last year) wrote the fantastic book SAVE THE CAT, a practical and down-to-earth primer on how to construct effective commercial stories.  Though his work focuses on the screenplay form, his ideas translate easily to novels.  I read SAVE THE CAT before I found this tidbit on line, so I’m not sure if it will be of use to you without the foundation of the book as a whole.  But his “beat sheet” is a basic outline of the stations a story will hit on the journey from beginning to end:

There’s a list of tools on this page, including deconstruction of movies using the beat sheet. 

 4.  Holly Lisle:  One Pass Revision

I was very, very lucky to find Holly’s site when I was first starting out.  Tons of articles about writing, the life of writers, and the practical nuts and bolts of writing.  This article is very helpful in the revision stage, but I take the section “Discovery” and do it before I start writing:

How do I use the above resources when working on story structure myself?  Here is my process:

 1.  Idea germination:  I keep a little moleskin journal filled with ideas.  When I read a great poem, have a disturbing dream, get a little snippet of an idea, I write it down in the idea book.  There it may stay for years.

2.  When I decide to take the idea and run with it (or an idea grabs me by the throat and insists I write it *now*), I usually start with settings.  I love big settings, I was a history major in school.  It’s where my ideas start growing into a full-fledged story.  In my mind, the outline/synopsis is my roadmap through the country of the story.

 3.  I do the Snowflake process first, but in a very loose and organic way.  I take maybe a week to expand the story idea from a single, tight sentence to three sentences, a paragraph, four paragraphs, a page plus character interviews.  I also sometimes write up a one page blurb of about 250 words as Holly Lisle suggests in her article.

 4.  At this point, I write a very rough synopsis, often in bullet form.  I use the beat sheet list of 15 story points to work up a storyline that takes me from the beginning to the end.

 5.  Once I have that, I write the first 50 pages.  The synopsis is still very rough, so the writing can be “pantsy” and exploratory.  Sometimes the story will veer off in unexpected directions.  I pay a lot of attention to setting, the main character’s motivation, and the initial set up of the catalyst that sets the story into motion.

 6.  Then I write a synopsis in full sentences, usually ending up with a document between 8-10 pages.  I tweak it and the first fifty pages, and then I send it on to my agent to get feedback. 

 7.  As I write the complete manuscript I sometimes read Jim’s livejournal for inspiration and to help me fill in the gaps in the story that I inevitably discover.

 As I mentioned above, no two books are alike, and no two writers are alike.  See if the tools above help, and if they do, adapt them to your own style of writing and make them your own.  Wishing you all the best as you explore the country of your story!


Oh, a writer’s life for me…

Greetings everyone. My name is Paul Crilley, and I’m yet another of the new Magic District bloggers. I’m afraid I’m not off to a very good start. I was supposed to write my first blog on the tenth of January, but that date seems to have come and gone with little to show for it except a couple of extra holiday season kilograms and a desire — no, a need — for the new school term to start. I had a list of excuses ready, the main one being that my internet was down, but truth to tell it completely slipped my mind. I’m terrible like that. My office is filled with post-its, my white board scrawled with barely legible reminders and notes. It’s entirely possible that I did write up a reminder, but I can’t seem to read my writing so we’ll never know for sure.

I suppose a little bit about me would be appropriate at this point. I’m a 34 years old Scotsman living in South Africa with my partner and our two kids. (Who are amazing, despite my aforementioned desire for the holidays to be over. Like, now.) I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since Mr. Davidson, my English teacher, gave me an A for a short story I wrote back when I was twelve. I’d always liked making things up, but that little hint of encouragement made something click in my head, and that was when I decided I wanted to do this for a living.

It took a while though. When I was 16, I wrote a fan letter to Margaret Weis asking for advice. She told me that it takes either a million words or ten years of writing before you can produce something good enough to be published. That number was spot on for me. When I was 26 I sold my first short story to the DAW anthology, New Voices in Science Fiction.

Over the past eight years, I’ve had another dozen or so short stories in print and had two books published. (But I’ve sold five. Three of them are still in the pipeline.) I’ve also written for local television, working on sitcoms and dramas, and even dabbling in soap operas. (Not so much fun, that last one.) Last year I got to do something I’ve always dreamed of when I freelanced on Bioware’s upcoming MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic.

On the prose front, I write the Abraxis Wren series for Wizards of the Coast. The stories are mystery/crime novels set in the fantasy world of Eberron, and Wren is a consulting detective inspired by Sherlock Holmes.  But this year is the year that I get my own stuff out there. The first book in my Young Adult series, The Invisible Order comes out on September 28th from Egmont USA. The book is called Rise of the Darklings and follows the “thrilling adventures of Emily Snow and Spring Heeled Jack as they stumble upon a hidden war being fought between faeries and mankind on the streets of Victorian London, adventures that will force them to stay one step ahead of secret societies, evil faeries, and ancient legends come to life.” Ooh. Doesn’t that sound exciting?I’m really proud of the series, and hope it does well. (Which, I suppose, goes without saying.)

Anyway, that’s enough from me, as I’m starting to even bore myself. Truth to tell, I still feel like I’m incredibly wet behind the ears. I’m learning new things every day, and don’t really feel I know enough to dole out any secrets of writing. I’m still trying to discover that for myself, so if any of you have any secrets to share, I’m all ears. But what I can do is bring you along for the ride, and if anything noteworthy happens on the road to publication, I’ll be sure to talk about it here. And any questions you have, I’ll try my best to answer them.



the writerly life

First off, hooray for all our new posters! Makes me smile all over to read all this awesome.

Sorry for my absence, I can only offer the pathetic “things have been hectic” excuse. But life has been moving faster than I can catch it, lately. However, tomorrow things really ramp up, for tomorrow my baby comes home! After 24 days in the NICU, I am so pumped to finally get him home. This also comes at a time when I’m editing a book, trying to finish a book, doing some freelance CSS work for extra cash, AND trying to keep my house from falling down around my ears. Life! It’s up to my neck.

When I quit my job to be a writer full time, I had these lovely visions of long, quiet hours filled with the clatter of keys as ideas flew from my fingers unhindered by the mundane realities of the work-a-day world. As you can probably guess, it didn’t really turn out that way.  Moving writing from hobby to full time doesn’t make the words come any easier, or make the plot knots less sticky. It just gave me more time to fret about them, and less, because now I’m on a schedule. Don’t get me wrong, writing full time is a blessed, wonderful, luxurious thing. However, in my fantasies I forgot to account for the whole “life marching on” part of life marching on.

What I’m trying to say is that so far, after 6 months of working for myself as a writer, this is what I’ve learned about the writerly life:

  1. I spend about the same amount of time being distracted and off target as I did at my real job.
  2. I am no smarter, wittier, or more eloquent than I was before I dedicated my life to art.
  3. The internet is still interesting, chores still need to get done, and people still call at the absolute worst time.
  4. The first draft of any novel will still suck, whether I wrote it in the mornings before work or spent six hours a day on it.
  5. I do not necessarily get more words now, writing for 6 hours, than I did before I got my agent, when I wrote for 2.
  6. Despite all of the above, the flashes of awesome, of being able to really dig into a scene when you’re going strong without watching the clock, make everything worth it.

I imagine all of these will continue to be true after the kid comes home, only in shorter bursts punctuated by loud screaming. However, I am ready! Bring it on.


Bringing it

Hello there, allow me to introduce myself. I’m M.K. Hobson and I’m one of these new Magic District bloggers you’ve been hearing all about. I was supposed to start blogging all the way back in December 2009 but I was in the midst of being attacked by book edits. This can be likened to death by a thousand paper cuts with copious quantities of Rockstar and other stimulants poured over them. But luckily, once the battle is over (assuming you’ve won) the wounds heal quickly and, even though your ears are ringing from lack of sleep and overcaffienation, there’s a delicious feeling of victory.

The book edits in question are for my forthcoming duology with Bantam Spectra. The first book, THE NATIVE STAR, is coming out later this year. It’s set in a magical America circa 1876, and features stones of power expelled by the consciousness of the earth, biomechanical flying machines, the transcontinental railroad, blood-sorcery, huge slavering slimy beasts called aberrancies, and, of course, young love.

When I’m not writing about biomechanical flying machines, slavering beasts, and young love, I enjoy walking my dog, debating anarchocapitalist political theory with my pinko pal Doug Lain, doing intros and readings for Podcastle (of which I am, apparently, a co-host), and participating in pie-eating contests. (I only added that last one so I could tick the “pie” ticky-box under “Categories.”)

Anyway, I’m excited about blogging here at The Magic District, and am looking forward to, as the kids say, “bringing it.”


I am the Lorax who speaks for the trees . . .

For the last two days I have been absorbed in reading the galleys (aka author alterations) for TWICE DEAD, my February release. This is the very last time I will read over these words and be able to make changes before the book goes to print. The changes I can make at this stage are small, mostly just errors in spelling and punctuation, and this is the point in the publishing game where it always seems to finally sink in that my words are going to be in print. Mostly this realization strikes because at this point, the words are starting to look like a book.

Two nights ago my publisher sent me a PDF file to proof. The title page, dedication, and all extra materials are in the file at this point, and the text is formatted like a book. The only thing that can make it more real will be holding a bound copy with my name on the cover in my hands (which will happen in a little over a month!)

I decided to print a hard copy of the galley. In my experience it is easier to read over mistakes on the computer screen, especially since I have been staring at these word intermittently for nearly a year, and I want to eliminate as many mistakes in the manuscript as my sore eyes can catch. As I was scrounging around my office for enough paper to print the manuscript, I realized that this would be the very first time I saw these words on paper. When I was younger (particularly when I was in school) I used to write everything long hand before entering it in the computer. Then I always printed my drafts to edit long hand, entering my changes in the file after the fact.

The reason for all this printing was that I hated (who am I kidding, I still hate) to read off my computer screen. But as I grew older, and as I started actually finishing novels, printing out 100k words of text became quite an ordeal. Printing was not only costly, but I started feeling rather guilty about all the trees I was killing so I could scribble changes on paper that I had to then put in the computer anyway. So I forced myself to start editing on the screen.

The end result of this effort is that I am now holding in my hands the only printed copy of my story that I’ll see before it is an actual book. Wow. That’s kind of . . . cool. And woot for saving trees!

(Post title is a quote from THE LORAX by Dr. Suess. Am I the only one who tears up when the Lorax is finally forced to leave?)


Why I absolutely, positively must have a plot synopsis

For me, a plot synopsis for every book I write is an absolute necessity.

It’s also an absolute pain in the ass.

Then why do I do it? Writing the little buggers is work. Hard work. No writing project I’ve ever tackled takes me nearly two months to write and polish only 10 to 15 pages. Though it’s not the writing that takes me so long, it’s the brain-cell-killing thinking/plotting. But yet I do it, for each and every book, for two really good reasons.

One reason helps me get book contracts. The other helps me keep my sanity.

My publisher wants a synopsis for my books. They want to know what happens, how it happens, why it happens, and who it happens to before they ask me to sign on the dotted line. They want to know what they’ll be getting for their money. Can’t blame ’em for that.

I need to know those things, too. (This is the sanity-preserving part.) I need to write out, plot out, and figure out my books from the beginning to the end. Those of you who have read any of my books know that I lean toward the complex side of plotting. Nope, I’ve never made anything simple for myself. My books are fantasy adventure, with a sprinkling of intrigue & suspense, a smattering of mystery & thriller, with a dollop of romance. They’re the kind of books that require hints along the way, and I couldn’t drop hints unless I knew where I was going with it. I have to know where the story is going and where it’s going to end up.

The more books I write, the more necessary a plot synopsis is. I’m in the middle of writing my fifth Raine Benares book, and each book builds on the events of the ones before. In fact, the next one essentially picks up where the previous one ended. I’ve got to know exactly where I’m going. That doesn’t mean that I can’t take detours along the way (and I most definitely do), but the framework of the story is always what I write in my synops.

And going through this process doesn’t just save my sanity once I actually start writing — it saves my time. I’ve been writing one book a year — actually one book every 9 months that are published every 12 months. (I’ll save the wacky math involved in that for another post.) I’m writing my fifth and sixth books now. I want to write each of them in 6 months rather than 9. Why? I want to start another series. But my fans want to get their Raine/Mychael/Tam fix once a year.  For me to stand a snowball’s chance in a hot place of being able to do that, I’ll have to speed up my writing process to do two books a year. Combine that with a full-time day job and some simblance of a personal life. 

You see what I’m getting at — I don’t have time to wade through a book and hope my plot hits me over the head. I’ve got to have that worked our before I start writing. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

The shortest length of time between starting a book and finishing it is a plot synopsis. Know where you’re going and you’ll get there quicker.