Category Archives: Industry

Tough Work


Well it has been tough finding time to write this past month.  A new baby and more work on my plate than I can code my way out of has put a dint in my progress.  But I’m now ready to start proofing my query letter for The West Queen.  I’m initially going to send it out to my online writing group and see what feedback I get.  The group includes a couple of authors who have managed to snag an agent and at least one who has books in print.  I’m hoping I can get my letter ready over the next couple of weeks and then send it out.

I’m still not entirely sure The West Queen is ready to go.  I think it may need more words in it and more proof reading.  I also think I may be over analysing it.  I’m not sure how to determine which is true so I’m going to just read it out loud to my wife then start querying agents.  With any luck the first couple of agents (ok, maybe 10) will provide some feedback.  Not necessarily personalised feedback, but you never know.  I may get a hint about book length, genre or similar.  I may get a personalised rejection or a request for partial.  That would be awesome because it would mean better feedback.  At the moment I’m kind of swinging in the dark without professional response to provide direction.

After I proof the query letter a couple of times I may post it up here so others can see what I’ve come up with and maybe someone will point out something that will help me.


Do I Rewrite and Submit?


I’ve written the first book of my trilogy, The West Queen, and at least one third of my way through the second, The Fallen Prince. I had intended to finish book two and get underway with book three before I even thought about reworking book one again. This is because I got book one to a point where I wasn’t reading it any more. It was all so in my head that I used the words only as a type of progress metre so I knew where I was up to. As a result I missed typos, homonyms and some passive voice. Other than grammatical errors, some of the feedback I got was that I needed to go over what was happening more often. A couple of my readers said they felt as if they kept missing things or that they had to go back and reread sections to know what was happening. I had intended to keep the edges a little blurry to give an epic feeling and to make things seem less certain but I didn’t intend to lose readers.

The Point I’m At

So the point I’m at now is that I’ve got a stronger handle on what is happening and what is going to happen than I did while writing book one. While I had a story planned out I hadn’t worked through all the plot points. Now I’ve outlined book two down to the chapter level and got book three down to at least the large events I’m feeling confident in being able to describe the full story. My writing has slowed down for various reasons, one of which is the imminent birth of my second child. I think it might be helpful to go over book one, patch the grammar, patch together Candia’s personal journey from carefree princess to Machiavellian plotter and more often go over what has happened and the implications. If I do that I could start looking at pitching to some agents.

What I’m hoping for

I’m hoping that in completing book one and getting it out to agents that I will either get accepted or at least get some feedback to make the writing more “real”. I’m hoping to be encouraged in my writing and to take that extra step from having written something to having tried to sell it. I’m sick of being a wannabe, I want to be a published author! Yeah, The Simpsons are good for pretty much any situation.


Children’s books


Now I have a child and another on the way I’m wondering what it would take to write a children’s story. I guess I’m talking about a book aimed at eight to ten year olds. It seems pathetically simple to write one of those “see spot run, run spot run” type of books. I feel it is significantly more difficult to write a book that a primary school kid would enjoy.

Themes

I don’t want to write a condescending book nor a book that introduces concepts alien to a child’s world. For example the ideas behind money and banking are a little abstract for even educated adults to grasp let alone an eight year old. I also doubt any kind of sexuality based concepts would strike a chord and complex emotional themes that lead toward cathartic drug use or self harm might be a bit much as well. So what does that leave? I think it leaves a great many things. For example loneliness, friendship and the joy of belonging. Ownership issues are wide open though just not the finer political points. I also don’t think you can be too subtle. It might be a bit much for a youngster to come to grasp with much subtext.

Language

For a story to be understood it must be written in the language of the target audience. That means picking a vocabulary and grammar approachable by a fifth grader. While at that age I’d imagine they understand pretty much all the words you’d want to use, they may not pick up on some of the more technical aspects of grammar. While considering that I think I’d also want to make sure I challenge them every now and then; I don’t want to patronise them.

Imagery

When writing for a young reader you have a responsibility to not frighten or disturb them. I remember I watched a bit of the movie An American Werewolf in London when I was seven and it scared the crap out of me. I had nightmares for years after. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point, I became immune to imagery based fear and suspense. My wife refuses to watch horror movies because she simply can’t bare the suspense. I don’t see what the fuss is. A monster jumps out and rips a character in two and it doesn’t seem to bother me; I’m more interested in how realistic the effects are.

My Idea

I had an idea for a child’s book. It was that a young boy was born into a special family (aren’t they all?). It is a family of half dragons. Somewhere in the family’s past they descended from some legendary dragon who chose to live as a human. The special thing about this boy is that he has no dragon ability at all. Everyone else in his family can breathe fire, shape change a little, speak with lizards and are unaffected by fire and heat. This boy is perfectly human in all respects. Obviously this makes him the black sheep. He even has to go to a normal human school so he won’t be picked on. Well it so happens that his family, and the other half dragons, start to get sick. He is the only one to escape the terrible flu that has put his family and family friends in bed, unable to get up. He has to rise up and find a cure before his family all revert to simple lizards. I haven’t though much more than this, but I like the twist that he is special because he is the only normal one. Being normal of course means he doesn’t get the dragon flu but it also makes it that much harder for him to find the cure.

Maybe I’ll flesh this idea out a little.


I bought an e-book


Well, I got a free e-book. The Intergalactic Medicine Show is a science fiction and fantasy magazine that publishes short stories. They recently released a compilation of their best short stories. For the first couple of days it was available for free from Amazon and so i got it. The stories are really interesting and very entertaining, so well worth it.

All Good

I don’t have a dedicated reader so I just used my Android with the Kindle app. The screen is a little small, but I got used to it. It is really convenient because my phone is fairly small and I carry it pretty much everywhere. I can pull it out, fire up the book and have a read. With a physical book I need a little more planning and lugging it around everywhere is a bit of a chore. This book was free (I think it is $3 now) so very good value for money. I could definitely see myself buying books like this.

All Bad

As chance would have it, I was also cleaning out the spare room to turn it into another nursery (because one baby is never enough). I had to shift a book-case and all the books out. While I was doing it I was looking at the covers and remembering the good times reading them. It was amazing to see so many books all piled up and to think they could all easily fit on my phone. But you know what? Both my wife and I have read all those books. Many of them came from my mum or she has read while staying. My dad also has read most of them and we’ve lent a number of them out to friends. The e-book I have on my phone isn’t really capable of the same kind of use. I haven’t looked into it, but even if there isn’t any DRM I would have to take a bit of effort to copy and send the book and then whoever got the copy would have to some how organise it in their reader. Oh, and being a good little boy I would have to delete the copy from my phone (bollocks the lot of it). Certainly less convenient than just pointing at my shelf and letting my mum rummage to her heart’s content.

Are They Good or Bad?

It an e-book cost the same as a physical book I’d say go for the physical one unless you specifically need it to take no room (you’re travelling) and you didn’t intend to lend it to anyone (that’s theft remember? It’s called copy right violation letting anyone else enjoy the words you’ve read). I would say the e-book would have to be significantly cheaper than the physical version to worth buying. As it happens, in Australia a paperback will set you back about $20 (yes you lovely people in the US, that’s a lot). But when I buy a book I expect at least three people to read it (me, my wife and my mum) so I think an e-book would need to be at most $6.66 so I could buy three copies. But considering I wouldn’t then have the option of donating to the Salvoes or lending to a friend or just filling my bookshelf for my kids to eventually read I would say the upper limit for an e-book would be about $3 if it was any good, $1 if it was only acceptable and free otherwise. Just think of it. I bought David Eddings’ Belgariad to re-read (I originally read my mum’s copies which have since gone separate ways). I stacked it on my shelf and thought to myself it would be perfect for my little daughter to read in thirteen or so years. She wouldn’t need to re-buy it or have a special reader. She could take it from the shelf and snuggle up in bed and read like I did when I was in highschool. Had I bought the e-book version that would not be possible because in thirteen years the format will probably be out of date and I doubt I’d still have it on a storage medium that worked.

How Many Are Lost?

I have to wonder how many wonderful books and other works of art are lost because we are not allowed to make copies of them. Already there are many e-books that are never released in hard copy format. When you buy one of those it is illegal to print it out because that apparently is theft and you wouldn’t steal a car would you? How many books never see the number of readers they deserve because you can’t loan them to another person? That’s also theft. Heaven forbid the words you paid to see are seen by anyone else! Imagine if you accidentally said one of those words out loud? That would be like stealing all the money from a bank and throwing it up in the air wouldn’t it? I think e-books, when combined with ridiculous copy right laws will result in the loss of untold number of books and all the art, culture and entertainment they contain. Will book collectors in the future hunt down old Kindles with first editions on them or will anything not published on paper be lost forever? This is the same for movies and television shows. Because of the length of copy right we have lost many wonderful things because no one was allowed to make copies to preserve the work. Oh well. I think at some point I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is and freely distribute my work so it has the best chance of living on beyond me.


Are Medieval European Settings Passe?


I read a comment, and I’ve heard it before, that vaguely medieval European settings are a bit old hat in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings set the standard, C.S. Lewis did little to break the mould and David Eddings and Robert Jordan took the ball and ran with it. So has it been done to death and is there room for more? Oh, no! The West Queen is set in an essentially European setting with swords and armour and horses. Am I done for?

Short Answer Yes.

The longer answer, ironically is no. Yes, medieval Europe has become a cliché. To such an extent that it is common to find whole books in the setting with little or no world building besides a couple of fantasy sounding names like The Forest of Doom and Zal’Ach-Kador. But I don’t think the rules have ever changed with regards to the setting or story. I don’t doubt Stephanie Meyers was told a vampire love story would never sell, but it did.

The Key

The key is to have something that makes the reader stop, cock their head to the side and squint trying to fit your world together. Meyers did it by having sparkly vampires and by having the misfit at the new school not immediately get bullied to the point of near suicide. David Eddings did it by having literal gods walking about and talking to people and by making everything so quaint as to feel like it came from a fantasy theme park. Jordan took the world’s cultures and mixed them all up so that one racial type wore another cultures clothes and had names and society more similar to another altogether.

The Rules

The rules haven’t changed. It has always been that you should not rely on cliché except to break that cliché. However there is another important factor to consider. One I call the Gardening Australia / Better Homes and Gardens model. Each year Gardening Australia has a segment on how to prune your fruit trees and Better Homes and Gardens show you how to train a dog or paint a wall or something. If you’ve been a regular watcher for years you will have seen the same information over and over. This is much like if you’ve read enough fantasy novels you’ll have come across the same cliché over and over. The idea is that each year there are new viewers, new gardeners, who haven’t seen the pruning segment. If you only catered to the people who started watching the series from the very first episode, by year ten you’d be up to advanced horticulture including latin naming and discussion of the exact bio-chemistry taking place inside a tree. This is also how Justin Bieber succeeds. The current crop of thirteen year olds didn’t live through the boy band explosion of the nineties, the new romantics of the eighties, sugar pop of the seventies and so on. They can’t see that Justin Bieber is a manufactured sweetie engineered to sicken because to them he is original and fresh. Imagine if you could that you had never heard pop music before. Imagine also that you are a young girl as yet unscathed by the harsh realities call “men”. A cute, slightly effeminate and inoffensive boy with a sweet voice who sings catchy rhythm and blues oriented pop would be like seeing Jesus come back from the dead. To me, a man approaching middle age he is just another face stuck to the front of a song writing and promotion team. So yo can write a purely cliché fantasy in a stock medieval European world as long as you expect to catch only the people who have never really read any fantasy before. Each year millions of people enter that market. All those kids growing up and discovering books for the first time or the long time romance reader who decides to take a stab at an epic fantasy will be your market.

The West Queen

Having said all of that I like to think the world of The West Queen has just enough difference in it to lure people in. There is no storyteller guiding a young man to the fulfillment of his destiny. There is no prophecy and no princess to rescue. More or less everyone knows their ancestry and those that don’t aren’t from lost royal lines. The real difference comes from the mysterious and morally ambiguous story. And the insanity of at least a couple of the main characters.


The Hunger Pains


Yay, a pun! I’ve been seeing these strange posters around town on busses for the last couple of weeks. “The Hunger Games” they said. I’d never heard of it so I thought I’d better check it out. It turns out that the Hunger Games is a massivley successful young adult science fiction series. It got me thinking about where the money is in writing. The answer, it seems, is in young adults, especially women.

Why?

Why do I say young women are where the money is? Nothing scientific. From personal observation I see a trend in what sells well. By well I mean in the hundreds of thousands or millions of copies. Here is my top x attributes of a massively successful book / series.

  1. Broad target audience: This seems obvious. The wider the audience of a novel, the larger the market. But it is difficult to come up with a story and characters that will appeal well enough across a large cross section. The most important factor to address is age. The novel needs to be accessible to people (women especially, I’ll get to that) from about fifteen through to sixty (or more).
  2. Romance: You need to have a romance. Some are more obvious and some less so, but if you don’t have romance in your story you’re in trouble. In particular you want a love triangle where no mix or match would seem to work out. This adds angst and I recon (again, no science here, just me) that’s what the teenager in all of us wants.
  3. Alternate setting: The world has to be significantly different to our own so as to offer an escape. Books set in the here and now do well enough, but it is hard to name many that have had runaway success. You probably want to make sure the alternate setting is pivotal to the love triangle. Without the alternate world there would be no angst in the romance.

Bias

Yes, I’m biased. But, though there have been a couple exceptions, for the most part young adult, alternate setting romance wins the day. There is a place in this for woman oriented mystery books too, but they get less rock star treatment.

Me?

Now I’m desperately thinking how I can alter one of my books to be a young adult romantic thriller. The West Queen is about a young woman. She does have some issues with regards to marrying a prince but I think the story is a little masculine in nature. The core conflict arises from monsters attacking a nation entering a civil war. It would probably do me well to at least revise book one to highlight the romantic nature of various elements, but maybe not. Maybe that would weaken the core? I have another two novels still in their infancy that could be pushed into young adult territory. Well I think only one. Danica Straughn somewhat relies on a mature woman. But Angel Bones is about a young man discovering he is a super hero and discovering the world is in peril. I’ve already written a love triangle in. All I have to do is make the hero a little younger, say eighteen instead of twenty eight. Introduce a little more teen angst and self pity and presto I’ll be a multi-millionaire with a series of movies made from my books.

Now, back to women.

Women are an important demographic because they have the time, money and inclination to buy big. Take a walk around your local retial centre (mall). Have a look at who is working and who is walking around. Women. My parents used to own a coffee shop and I worked there on my university breaks (13 hour days for weeks at a time to pay for uni). The other workers consisted of three teenage girls aged fifteen, seventeen and eighteen. There was a more mature woman who acted as manager when I parents weren’t there and a single mum who worked shifts. The muffin shop behind us was a similar story as was the bakery across the way and the icecream store on the other side. I served coffee and cake to hundreds of gray haired pensioners and retirees. All women. Wandering the halls of the department stores in the mall were more teen girls and women. It seemed at times the only men I saw were being dragged around by their wives and girl friends. Oh, the only other guy, other than my father, who worked at the coffee shop was about as gay as it was possible to be without actually being a cartoon charicature of a gay man. My wife was fifteen when she started working. She saved up and bought her own car two weeks before she had her licence. She bought her own computer back when computers cost as much as a car and then she bought her own house by the age of twenty one. What about me and my male colleagues and friends? Penniless moochers the lot of us. So if you are going to produce a cultural product and you want it to be consumed by the largest number of paying people? You produce something attractive to young women and acceptable to older ones too. Justin Bieber anyone? Every guy (well almost) derides the lad and makes fun of those who like him. But who likes him? Fifteen year old girls who have jobs to buy his albums, shirts, videos and go to his concerts. That’s who. And who facilitates all of that? Mums. Who buys all the Stephanie Myers Twilight stuff? Is it forty year old men? Well maybe some. Is it eighteen year old men or fifteen year old boys? Nope. Girls and women. Same with Amanda Hocking and initially J.K. Rowling. I have to retarget my books. Sure, Steven King does well, but then you’ll probably find his largest market is still women. Dan Brown? Also probably women. Likely the only authors who have done really well who don’t target women to one degree or another is Tom Clancy and Grisham. But maybe I’m wrong with them too?


Self Publishing Calls Again


Ah, the sweet siren song of self publishing. I’ve considered it in the past as a way of reaching people. I decided at the time to pursue traditional publishing. But after reading more articles on the topic I’m swinging back. What is the lure?

Control

One of the biggest reasons people site for going the self publishing route is that they retain complete control over their material and thus over most of the revenue. This is a double edge sword, of course. If I self publish I have complete control over my novel, but what do I know about the market for my novel? I am a highly experienced and skilled technical architect and could tell you many different ways to achieve your IT goals. That isn’t going to help sell a book, unless it is about architecting IT systems. By keeping control over my work, I lose the expertise a publisher and agent would bring. I don’t know who the influential reviewers are, where my fans hang out or even what is “popular” in a fantasy story. So I don’t think control over my work is a strong enough argument to lure me.

Feedback

When you self publish, and I’m talking about e-books here as paperbacks are not viable to self publish, you get feedback regarding sales immediately. At any time of the day or night you can log on to Amazon or Smashwords and get a sales report. You don’t have to wait for the quarter to end or for the financial year or whatever reporting period the publisher may use. You don’t have to wait for an agent to work out commission and all the rest. Fans have demonstrated, by downloading the e-book, that they are users of the internet and so you’ll get feedback on your web site and on review sites and so forth. After spending a couple of years writing and polishing your work the thought of waiting for the dinosaurs of publishing to turn into oil before you get paid or before you find out if what you have done is any good sounds like torture. This is a big plus for me. I have made a conscious choice to not encourage or support any business model that doesn’t embrace modern technology. I wouldn’t even consider sending my manuscript in hard copy to an agent and I can’t bear to think of the sluggish movement of physical stock. Not to mention all the poor dead trees.

Success

Agents and publishers are often referred to as gatekeepers. That is because they choose what goes to market, or at least they used to. That can leave you feeling like a top ten contestant on Australian Idol (or any number of other talent shows). They are all in the top ten because they are good, but only one person can win and that person may not be the most talented or become the most successful. Due to the gatekeeper nature of the contest some must fail. So too in publishing. I could write the world’s most amazing novel ever but if for whatever reason I’m not picked up by an agent and / or publisher it will never see the light of day. J.K. Rowling was passed over a couple of times before she was accepted. It is quite possible she may never have been picked up and yet she is probably the wealthiest author ever. Amanda Hocking had written eight novels (correct me if I’m wrong) and none of them were accepted. In case you don’t know, she self published, worked bloody hard at it, and has made millions from her books. She has now signed with a publisher, it just took a couple of million dollars in profit to get through the gate. So the big appeal here is that success is more heavily based on your own efforts and less on the vagaries of the gatekeeper system. I think traditional publishers as gatekeepers is a not a bad thing for the reading public. It ensures a certain level of quality that often lacks in the self published scene.

Getting out there

This is related to the point above. The greatest thing I want to achieve with my writing is to be read. I love writing, but ultimately you have to ask yourself: “If an author pens a novel and nobody reads it, does it really count as a novel?” It doesn’t really bother me how much money I make. I have a day job that I’m quite good at and I love. I want people to read my books and get that mystical feeling of being transported to another land. That feeling that somewhere, even if just in their own imagination, things can work out. That’s what I got from the books I read and I want to share the feeling.

So the main things that draw me to self publishing are the immediate feedback of being plugged in to modern communication technology, the knowledge that success is largely determined by my efforts and the desire to see at least some people enjoy my work. Having a run away success is obviously the dream, to see my work made into a multi-billion dollar movie franchise with TV show spin off and graphic novels… But I’d be happy if just one person wrote a fan email.