Author Archive for



19
Apr
10

100%, 100%

Today I thought I would talk about something it took me 3 novels to learn in the hopes that I can make other people’s lives easier.  I’m a pretty cautious person. I hate gambling, I hate using things if I only have a few left, I hate taking a risk with my money or time or valuables. This caution unfortunately transmits into writing. Say I’m writing a novel, and suddenly I have this great idea. Like, amazing idea, an idea that can carry a series. What do I do with this idea? Or say I had a fantastic world secret. I’d drop tiny hints, never show my hand. Used to be, whenever my brain tossed these gems my way, I would save them, play it safe. After all, I don’t want to put all my ideas in one basket, or tip my secrets too soon.

Back when I was first submitting The Spirit Thief, the criticism I got the most often was that I needed more. More secrets, more world, more cool stuff. This was very hard for me. I had so much cool stuff for the book, but I was holding onto it. After all, these were amazing ideas/secrets, I needed time to set them up properly, I couldn’t just waste them on the first book in a series! But as I got the same criticism over and over again, I finally realized that, if I wanted to WRITE all those books I was saving ideas for, I’d have to make THIS book a lot cooler. So I threw caution to the wind (or, more accurately, released my deathgrip on caution slowly and painfully before lightly placing it on the window sill) and went all in. I stuffed every cool idea I could into The Spirit Thief. I dropped big hints at the world secrets, laid everything out like a Sunday Las Vegas Buffet, lobster and all.

And it worked. Suddenly, everyone really liked my book. They wanted to read more, and so I got a chance to write a second book. And even better, despite all the ideas I crammed into the first book, I still had plenty of awesome secrets and ideas.

What I’m trying to say is that, unlike most everything else in the world, writing does not benefit from caution. Ideas are not a finite resource. In fact, the more secrets and ideas you use, the more you have. Readers read to be entertained, so give them everything. Give them fireworks and grand drama and lobster and the whole three ring circus. Don’t hold back with your novels, don’t save your ideas for later.  Spend them. Use everything you have like you’ll never write another book again. It doesn’t matter, you’ll have more ideas, better ideas. But to really write a book that will thrill and surprise, you can not be conservative or cautious. You have to give 100%, 100% of the time, because that’s what readers deserve. You are an entertainer, and whether you’re working a sidewalk or the Luxor, you have to give every performance everything you’ve got.

Break a leg!

26
Mar
10

Author Toolbox: The Knife Test

This is the first of what I hope will be an informative series on the author toolbox. The little mental story tricks I use when I write to help achieve desired effects.

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The knife test is something I put to all my characters. Nerd that I am, the idea comes from an anime called One Piece, which is just about the greatest show ever. If you can get past its cartoony nature and corny humor there is an amazing story there.

So, in the show there’s a character named Zoro who wants to be the greatest swordsman in the world. Around the end of season one, he comes across the actual greatest swordsman in the world, a man named Mihawk. Now, Zoro KNOWS he is too short for this ride, but he knows he might never get this chance again, so he challenges Mihawk to a duel. (Because, of course, the only way to be the greatest swordsman in the world is to beat the guy who’s already at the top.)

Mihawk refuses at first, but then he sees how determined Zoro is, so he agrees to fight, but only with a small dagger. Zoro is insulted, you’re going to fight swords with a dagger? Mihawk says the dagger is all he needs. They fight, and Zoro goes all out, but is defeated in one stroke. Mihawk stops with his tiny dagger lodged in Zoro’s chest. After the strike, they stand there, Mihawk’s dagger in Zoro’s chest, and Mihawk says,  “This dagger is an inch from your heart. Why don’t you step back? Do you want to die?”

Zoro looks him straight in the eye and says, “If I were to take even one step back, I’d never be able to stand before you again.”

Mihawk says, “Yes, it’s called losing.”

And Zoro answers, “That’s why I can’t step back.”

That’s the knife test. When the knife is scraping your heart and you can either step back, give up, and live, or step forward, not give up, not turn away from your goals, and probably die, what do you do? It’s the ultimate test of conviction, and all my main characters have to pass it, and I have to understand (and more importantly, make the reader understand) why. I put my characters through this test in the initial world building stages, and then again over and over throughout the novel. I keep making them prove that they mean what they say. Because it’s not enough for Miranda to be dutiful, she has to prove that she will put herself on the line for her duty over and over in a dozen different ways. She has to face that dagger over and over again, and always give the same answer, always step forward.

I admire conviction, I think everyone does, and I love it in characters, both the ones I write and the ones I look for in other stories. The knife test gives me a vehicle to show off that conviction. I don’t just say “Character X cares about Y more than his life”,  I make him prove it over and over again.  Though, of course, I try not to actually kill the character, because then the story would be over! But it doesn’t really matter. We all know the hero isn’t going to actually die, but we love seeing how close he or she cuts it and, even better, how on earth they’re ever going to get out of this mess. The knife test is just a tool, a mental construct to help frame tension needed for character development.

Every writer has their own tricks, this is one of mine. I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting!

19
Mar
10

the 7 habits of highly effective authors

First off: finished my third contracted book! BOO YA!

Many years ago, my grandfather gave my then boyfriend, now husband, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. At first we had a good laugh. My grandfather has a habit of giving books out randomly in a “I just finished this and I liked it, here you have it” sort of way. Actually, it’s a pretty awesome thing to do, but at the time it struck us both as sort of weird. However, my husband (then boyfriend) now looks on that book as the greatest present he ever received. It was dropped into his hands at just the right moment in his life, towards the end of college with real life looming on the horizon. It changed the way he thought about life, and thought I’ve never read it (I have a certain aversion to self help books) I might as well have considering how much my husband quotes it.

I’m not going to into all the habits, but there’s one that I keep going back to over and over again, that the promises we make to ourselves are just as important as the promises we make to others.

As writers, we tend to work in bubbles. Deadlines, when we have them, are distant, all or nothing sorts of things that have very little to do with the words we’re actually writing or editing or crying over that day. Even once you land that mythical publishing contract, most authors are left to fend for themselves during the day to day writing struggles. This means managing your own time, and it is a bear. Over the six odd years I’ve been seriously writing, I’ve set thousands of  self imposed deadlines, and missed nearly as many, especially for my first book. What did it matter, anyways? It’s not like anyone knew that I’d missed my deadline but me.

But as time went on and my time began to fritter away, my husband’s repetition of this little phrase from a self help book kept coming back. Eventually, I began to understand that if I was ever going to have the kind of writing career I’d imagined, I would have to start taking myself, and my self-imposed deadlines, seriously.

The first thing I did was cut waaaay back on the number of deadlines I set, especially the arbitrary, unrealistic ones I knew I couldn’t make. Then I picked 3 deadlines I felt I could realistically make, and set these in stone in my calendar. I treated them as I would deadlines for my day job where there were real consequences, and real stigma, for missing milestones. I made a solemn promise to myself that I would keep these deadlines, even if it meant working more than I’d anticipated or missing something fun because my time was already promised. I would write, I would make these deadlines. And I did.

Sure, I still missed a few, and I made myself pay for that with extra work rather than playing like I wanted to. Then I went back and looked at why I’d missed that deadline, making notes so that I could set the next one more intelligently.

It seems like every writer and agent blog tells you that if you want to be a professional writer, you have to treat your writing professionally.  This is much harder than just keeping a schedule. This is keeping your schedule when your book is an unfixable mess and it’s spring time and real life is busy and there are new raids in WOW and the internet is interesting and no one will ever know if you blow off writing and watch Hoarders.

Make promises to yourself, and keep them. Never treat your writing time like free time. It’s your great dream, if you won’t live it, no one will help you. Never make excuses, never let anyone take it away from you.

06
Mar
10

Is that supposed to happen? or How I fixed my first novel

So I am neck deep in untangling the final mess of my third book for its April 1 deadline (so very tempted to send a 1 page manuscript ending with “Rocks fall, everybody dies.” but I don’t think my editor would see the April Fools day humor in that), and I’ve been thinking about revelations. This book has me bringing out a lot of my big guns: world secrets, power players, secret histories, truths that could break up the primary relationships of the series, all that sort of good stuff! But revealing all of this to the reader in a way they can understand and care about has been something of a challenge.

The author is in a unique, omnipotent position when it comes to their work. They literally know everything. If they haven’t thought about it, then it doesn’t exist. If they made something one way and later change their minds, then the thing changes to suit whatever the author needs it to. It’s tempting to see this limitless power as limitless fun, but really it’s a constant liability. I have to think of literally everything, and not just what I care about, but stuff other people will notice is missing if I leave it out (like how my characters never seem to eat, which I mentioned in an earlier post and have taken steps to correct by adding 200% more food to book 3). But more important than crass details like daily caloric intake or the fact that no one poops in fantasy (don’t think about that one too hard) is the information you actually want your reader to know.

At a very simple level, books are the revelation of information over time. Stuff happens which causes other stuff to happen, and you keep reading to find out what. Revealing what happens next in a way that keeps the reader reading is the hallmark of good writing, and there are as many ways to do it as there are books. Great writers make it look so simple, but as with all things worth doing, it’s way harder than it looks. For example, in my first book I had these huge, deep world secrets that were SOO COOOL (to me), and I didn’t want to tip my hand too soon. I wanted the mystery to peek out of the background, tempting people to keep reading. So I dropped subtle hints, so subtle, in fact, that no one got them.  My editor/agent/readers kept telling me to make the book bigger, deeper. I was indignant! I was deep! Didn’t they see all this amazing stuff I was doing in the background? Well, no. I saw it, because I knew it was there. If other people were going to see it, I was going to have to make the writing on the wall a little larger.

Continue reading ‘Is that supposed to happen? or How I fixed my first novel’

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.

31
Jan
10

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 Amazon.com. (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 Amazon.com, 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.

15
Jan
10

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.

01
Jan
10

welcome to the future!

Well… technically it’s not the future until the end of 2010, what with that being the official end of the decade, but screw it. 2010 SOUNDS like the future! And while I am still somewhat miffed at the lack of flying cars and jet packs, I’m feeling pretty bright about the future. So bright, in fact, I’m making plans!

Rachel’s Plans for 2010:

1) Be an actual mom. This includes getting my baby home from the hospital and with me all the time, rather than just an hour a day in the NICU. This should happen very soon, he’s doing really well. I’m very excited!

2) Finish all books under contract. This should also happen very soon, in the next few months. Once I get all my books turned in, I will take a month off, for serious. It will be awesome. Then I’ll start in whole hog on promotion activities. For those keeping score, my books, The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion, and the Spirit Eater, should be out October, November, December 2010 from Orbit (they have an awesome website, by the way. Go check it out if you haven’t already. Our own Nora has a post up at the moment)!

3) Start a NEW SERIES! I’ve been working on Eli and company for 3 years now, and while I love them all dearly, variety is the spice of life. I’ve got 2 more books planned for the series, but we’ll have to see how the first three sell before those get underway. So, in the months of waiting between finishing all the manuscripts and the books actually hitting the shelves, I’m going to be pitching some new ideas to my agent to see if anything sticks. I probably won’t end up as busy as Diana (I think you suffer from a overflowing of blessing there, Diana), but it never hurts to have some extra casseroles in the oven. And I could certainly use a change of scenery.

So those are my big 3 plans, the ones around which everything else revolves. If I can pull those off, 2010 is going to be great.

So, what are you big plans for next year? Any big projects? Goals? Inquiring minds want to know!

25
Dec
09

“I can not die before my book is published”

Well, what a week it’s been.

So, as some of you are only too aware, I was pregnant with my first child. Was. That’s a past tense as of December 20th when my son, Nathan, became much less of an abstract concept and I almost became much more of one. Rest assured, however, thanks to my awesome husband and the miracle of modern medicine I am not posting this from beyond the grave. Both Nate and I are fine (though Nathan is not a happy camper to be here quite this early, but he’ll get over it), and although I’m spending Christmas in the hospital, I’m alive, my kid’s alive, and that’s the best present I could ask for.

What happened was eclampsia, an extreme and sudden case. Saturday night I had a bad headache and nausea, but that’s not so unusual for third trimester, so I wasn’t really worried. I threw up and went to bed… and woke up the next morning in the hospital with my husband telling me the baby is fine and I’m like “baby? what are you talking about?” Turns out I’d had a seizure and woken my husband, who called 911 when he couldn’t wake me. Since the only cure for eclampsia is getting the baby out, I’d had an emergency C-section as soon as I arrived at the hospital.

As the nurse is explaining all this and my husband is hugging me (I have the best husband ever, guys), my brain is going a million miles a second with everything that could have happened. She finishes the story with something like “you’re so lucky to be alive” and my first thought, before anything else is “Of course, I could not die before my book is out.”

Now, I’m not saying my need to see my published book created a miracle. Honestly, I had very little to do with the saving of my own life that night. But I can’t help thinking that deep down, the idea that I had something to see, something I’d worked so hard for that I could not die before realizing, helped to pull me through. When I think about how close I came to not waking up that morning, my brain shuts down and I can’t even comprehend it. All I know is that, thanks to my husband and doctors, I made it through. And let me tell you something, I’m not going to waste their work. I have some awesome ideas for this book you’re not going to believe, and I can’t wait to get back to work and try my hand at this whole mommy-writer thing.

One thing’s for certain, though: at the risk of sounding like a gushing new mom, he was totally worth the hassle.

Happy holidays, everyone! Keep safe, keep writing, and keep what matters close at heart.

19
Dec
09

The unexpected perks of publication

So we all know the obvious perks of getting a contract with a major publisher: a fantastic editor, outside verification of worth, money, your book in print (with a cover and everything!), etc. All of these things are the utmost peak of awesome, but there are other great parts of being with a publisher/having an agent, little perks no one tells you about… For example:

Perk 1: Free Books!

So I happened to mention to my editor at Orbit several months ago that I was excited about reading Soulless. Low and behold, what should appear in my mail box a few days later but a lovely ARC of Soulless! Friends, there is nothing more awesome then getting to read a great book… MONTHS before anyone else.  And that’s just one example. Sometimes books would just appear in my mail, awesome books, FREE awesome books by awesome people like Jeff Somers and Amanda Downum! Seriously bad ass, that’s what free books are.  This is not to be missed!

Perk 2:  Meeting Other Authors!

The first thing that happened when I got my agent (other than me nearly having a heart attack) was getting intr0duced to our own lovely Diana Rowland who, in turn, invited me to come and join her and some other bad ass people on a group blog (which is about to get a large influx of new bad ass people, stay tuned!). This kind of stuff (while not always on the level of awesome as joining the Magic District) seems to happen all the time once your name enters the published pool! My agent has introduced me to authors, so has my editor, my agent’s assistant, my editor’s assistant… it’s like they’re all in on this vast conspiracy to link authors together! Which is great because fantasy authors tend to be pretty awesome and interesting people you want to hang out with. I always thought that meeting other writers was something that happened slowly as you built a name, but it turns out they start you right out of the gate, which is great because your fellow authors are some of your best resources as a rookie. Amazingly awesome.

Perk 3:  Calls from New York!

Maybe I’m a total nerd, but there is nothing that makes my heart go pitter patter like pulling out my phone and seeing a 212 area code, then excusing myself because “I’ve got to take this call from New York.” Maybe it’s pretension, but it’s this stupid awesome feeling of “I’ve made it,” even when the call is just “hey, send us that form” or something equally banal. Bonus points when it’s your editor calling because she had this amazing idea that really is amazing, or because she wants to discuss things like cover art… squeee!

Sure writers don’t get health insurance, paid vacation, flex time, or 401ks, but there are other unique perks to the job that are not to be over looked, including the most important of all: being able to make a living writing stories you love AND having people read them. Can’t beat that with a stick right there.