Saturday, February 18, 2012
Sensawonder: Can Mystery Have It?
Scott D. Parker
My son is a storyteller. His imagination overflows with great concepts and tales that only can come from a young person unfettered by adult knowledge. Be it Lego people, stuffed animals, or things he just made up, he is always telling stories, sometimes with only the school day getting in the way. There have been a few times when we've walked to school and he's telling me some important detail about something and he has to stop when the school bell rings...and, upon leaving school, he literally picks up where he left off in the morning.
His current fascination is with the game Plants vs. Zombies. For those that don't know, this is a basic tower defense game where you deploy cute plants to do battle and protect your house from cute zombies. Since our entire family has beaten the game, my boy is inventing new themed levels that he would like to see. In these imaginings, he goes all out. Zombie Smurfs, Zombie Mario, and Zombie Thomas Jefferson each attack in their own unique way, and, more often than not, there are "a trillion" zombies with which the plants have to fight. There's that rational, now-adult logical part of me that wants to say, "Dude, you can't have a trillion zombies because the plants would not stand a chance. Heck, they wouldn't even fit on the screen." I refrain, however, and allow his young mind to wander as far as it will.
All of us, dear readers, are likely adults reading this essay. (If we got some young people, hello!) Unless we have young people around (our own children, etc.), chances are we've forgotten the sense of wonder through which the young see our world. I'll admit that I, grown-up kid that I am, still forgot things until my being a parent helped me remember the glorious awe through which children sometimes see our world.
The science fiction genre has a term for that: Sensawonder, an amalgamation of "sense of wonder." In many an SF or fantasy book or movie, the hero beholds wonders beyond the imagination, be they alien or man-made. There is a bigness to some stories, an awareness by the hero of things larger than himself. We, as readers or viewers, get to experience that feeling, too. What did you think when Lucy first went through the wardrobe? Or Alice through the looking glass. Or Dorothy in Oz? Or Luke Skywalker when he saw the Death Star? Or Dave Bowman when he saw the monolith? Or when Marty McFly drove into 1955?
I’m currently re-reading the first few Martian tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs in advance of next month’s release of the “John Carter” movie. That, and my SF book club picked them. They are fun reads and, aside from the first volume, I have not read them in over thirty years. That first book, A Princess of Mars, is one of the few books that can simultaneously take me back to a time when I was ten and I can travel there without any adultness in me. That is, I can still feel the wonder I felt back then with all the stuff the intervening three decades brought to me. Oh, and the writer part of me also stays at the door way. Sure, he pokes his head in every now and then to remind me that this was Burroughs’s first book, but he discretely and quietly exits without too much fuss.
Recently, I’ve started to wonder if sensawonder is confined only to the SF and fantasy genres. Can you have it with a mystery? As an adult reader, when I page through a mystery story, my sensawonder is at the prose, the story, the structure, and the author’s prowess rather than the story itself. Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny was a remarkable book written by an author in complete command of her skills, and there were a few scenes where I smiled at the twists, but I’m not sure I experienced wonder. Same for the Boone Daniels novels by Don Winslow. They are fantastic books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and, with The Dawn Patrol, experienced a physical reaction to while reading, but no wonder. And don’t the sensawonder only applies to children reading SF. In the past five years, I’ve read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion and both expanded my mind like nothing else in decades.
Is the setting crucial to sensawonder? Most mysteries are set on earth no matter the year. The J. D. Robb books are set in the future, but they are small enough not too feel too different. Historical mysteries have for me, a trained historian, more a quality of “I wonder if [Insert Historical Person] will show up” rather than wonder. The closest I’ve come to sensawonder with mysteries is Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, both alternate history/mystery stories, the former taking place in a Berlin where Germany won World War II, the latter set in a Jewish country in Alaska. Chabon's book was nominated for both an Edgar (lost) and a Nebula (won). Go figure.
Setting maybe is the crucial ingredient. But I still pose the question: can you have a true sense of wonder in a mystery story?
Album of the Week: Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth.
I'm only a casual VH fan, one who did not get up in arms when David Lee Roth left and Sammy Hagar replaced him. But this reunion with the Van Halen brothers (and son!) with Roth had me curious. It is exactly like you'd expect a Van Halen album to sound. That's both a good and bad thing. A good thing that they are back together, making some great rock music, bad that it sounds like it's from 1984. I"m not complaining about the sound. I'm too busy playing steering wheel guitar and bopping my head. And, while the lead single, "Tattoo," is the song you're most likely to hear, it's a good tune, but not the best on the album. Give it a spin and see if you think that old magic is back.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Plus Ca Change
Back when I started in this crazy business of writing, I was desperate for a publisher. I was looking around for someone who would love me, who would put my words into print. This was the mid nineties, when the internet was beginning to take off big time. As I surfed the internet (in a cafe – remember when people didn't have connections in their homes?) - I came across a lot of publishers who proclaimed loudly that they wanted me. Often for a price. But sometimes not. These were not “Big Six” publishers, but neither were they independent publishers I'd seen in bookstores. They were real low level stuff and while some of them were doing exciting stuff, a great deal were fly by night shysters to be avoided. I almost went with one once until I got some advice from someone who'd previously been stung. I wouldn't have known what to avioid if I hadn't been warned.
This last week or so there have been horror stories about similarly hungry writers being stung by a similar fly by night operation. The more things change the more they stay the same. It seems as though the lessons we used to learn about fly by night print publishers have been forgotten in the age of “e”.
Think carefully about your publisher. Research them and their writers before submitting. Look at their covers. The principle of cover design is still the same. Does it match in quality what you see from the big boys? Because small doesn't mean cheap. It means budget, yes, but it doesn't mean that innovation in design and originality go out of the window. Clunky fonts, clashing colurs, poor picture quality (especially on the internet) are all danger signs. But may not on their own be enough. After all some reputable publishers can be poor at cover design. But its a pretty good signal.
The other one is this: have you heard of their authors? I mean, not just guys you've seen who are at the same stage as you, but do their authors have some kind of track record, however modest? Do they get good reviews from reputable resources? Or are all their pull quotes unnatributed and/or only from “Amazon” (Amazon reviews are good for sales, but are notoriously fickle, too. A pull quote from another author or indeed a well known review site/blog/newspaper adds some gravitas).
Check their subs guide. Do they give good solid guides or do they beg for your subs? If they beg – and worse, if they start to say that they can make you the next (insert bestselling author X here) then run. Run as fast as you can. No good publisher will promise this and no publisher can guarantee that your work will make it. They want to have as good a chance as possible though, which is why a good publisher will be very exact about what they want and generally how they want it sent.
And speaking of their guides, look at the website. Is it clunky, like it was designed in the mid nineties? Is it little more than a free blogger template? If they can't design a website, how can they create an ebook that's better than what you could do yourself? That's why you want a publisher – they can be more professional, better connected, in a position to help you sell your books. Yes, they can't guarantee anything, but at least they can give you a fighting chance. A good publisher is a good partner. They do not make vague promises about “promotion”. They actually do it. Look at what they do to get the books out there. Is it merely a message board only available on their site? Do they interact with zines and other blogs and so forth?
There are good epublishers out there. Two that come direct to mind are Blasted Heath (look at how professional their site and their covers are) and Snubnose (look at the sheer quality of their books). But what has become evidently clear is that things have come full circle. E is only a new delivery method. It is not a fix all cure for the old ways. And a poor e-publisher is every bit as bad as a poor legacy publisher. Where a good epublisher will give your book every chance and do the best work they possibly can. So do your research, do the work and attract an e-publisher who will do your and your book proud.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Epic Blog Post
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Of Commodes and Commodification
You know all those RED CARPET shows they have for the Grammys and Academy Awards and all? How they devote all that time to the packaging of the thing being sold? I kinda get the feeling that's what we're doing with our recent discussions about books.
Look at those shoes.
Did you see what she said about 99c ebooks?
Print or digital? Paper or plastic?
We're talking about books, not writing. Not stories. I mean "we," here and not "you people."
But for a second, maybe we can worry a little less about price-point and a little more about plot.
Here's why we talk about ebooks and pricing and self-pubbing -- it's quantifiable. It's easy.
We can have arguments about ebooks. I can say a thing about PDFs being more available than pieces of paper. I can say something I know I'm right about. It's provable. I think that's probably why we've got so many blogs and tweets and updates about a thing we can get our hands around -- because we can get our hands around it.
We're talking about moving widgets, after all.
I didn't start writing so that I could read blog posts on marketing. I didn't get up early in the morning, crack open some Raymond Carver, and dream of the day I could post my thoughts about price point. But this is where we are. And it's goofy.
Is it important to know that lowering your ebook from $4.99 to $2.99 will increase your revenue by increasing total sales? Damn right it is, especially if you give a damn about the revenue. And you should.
Is it important to know whether a blog tour helped more people find out about your debut romance? Damn skippy. You're devoting your time, your effort, your writing to this thing.
I'm just hoping those of you with talent spend as much time writing your fiction as you do tweeting links to your blogs about ebook market strategies. Heck, I hope we all at DSD do, too.
So the next time you're getting worked up about some publishing crisis, as Dave mentioned yesterday, you might want to think about taking that time and energy and devoting it to that story you never have time to write. I'll try to do the same.
Not for me to spend 5,000 words blogging about how you need to write your opening sentence, but using the same energy to get our own stories written.
That said, I think some of the best work we can do out here on the Internet is to point folks to books they should read. That in mind, check out the newest (Feb 14, 2012) from Hilary Davidson, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL.
"An atmospheric mystery with an ending that packs a punch. Lily Moore is a passionate and tenacious heroine." - Meg Gardiner, author of The Nightmare Thief
"Hilary Davidson knocks it out of the park. If this book doesn't get your motor running, have someone check you for a pulse." - Reed Farrel Coleman, three-time Shamus Award-winning author of Hurt Machine
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Sports Radio on the Damage... WDSDDDDDD New Jersey
I need to start looking at the publishing news and Twitter the way I look at Sports Talk Radio.
If you didn't know, I'm somewhat of a sports junkie. I am a Giants fan, a Yankees fan and a Rutgers athletics fan. When I was younger, I got caught up in Sports Talk Radio. Used to listen to it all the time, hoping to catch some glimpse of news. Some nugget that got me to look forward to the upcoming game even more.
But, usually what you get is a bunch of nonsense. A bunch of people calling up the stations, with little knowledge spouting off about whatever they can. Usually the calls would boil down to "NOooooooOOOooo, JETER." People would call to argue with the host... just to argue.
And that's what Twitter, Facebook, and blogs have done to publishing. Every day there's a new publishing controversy (well, more like every two weeks), and even if it's something small... people try to blow it up. People argue just to argue. And mostly what it boils down to is "NOooooooOOOooo, E-books!"
And for a while, I got really irritated. This wasn't what I wanted to see. I wanted real news. I wanted something to discuss intelligently.
But it wasn't coming.
It was just people shouting into the wind.
So I've decided to do what I do with sports talk radio. Unless someone I really trust... someone in the business has something to say (think... an interview with Phil Simms), I look at it with an eye to comedy. It's funny.
So, people, the thing is... it's just publishing. Long term? It's going to work itself out. There's no need to panic.
They're going to figure it out.
And if not?
You'll be putting out some shoddily edited e-book.
And keep making me laugh.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Why Your Debut Novel Shouldn't Be Self Published
What sustains the career of an author is the ability to swallow your pride, identify and learn from past mistakes and grow as a writer.
I've had to think about this a lot lately, for a number of reasons. For one, I've worked with a lot of aspiring writers, and sometimes, they've still got the blinders on. They can't see through their love of the ideas and their own words to correct common mistakes. Another reason is that I recently re-read my debut novel, to format it for trade paperback publication.
Suspicious Circumstances was not self-published, yet the re-read was a critical learning experience. I've talked to authors who go over their books with a red pen after they received the published copy.
Serious writers understand that, considering the volume of words in a novel, mistakes can slip past us all. Professional writers also understand, as I've learned over the years, that sometimes the mistakes come in after you've finished with your part of the editing process. Barry Eisler is a serious writer who makes every effort to get his books right. He takes corrections so seriously that he has a whole section on his website devoted to explaining mistakes. Personally, I think that's commendable, and realistic. Authors who try to pretend they never slip up will probably continue to make mistake after mistake, because they're unteachable. In Barry's case, I do recall questioning a point of confusion in my review of The Last Assassin. On his website, he explains:
Four times on pages 22-23 of The Last Assassin, Delilah thinks of her first love, a man called Dov, but the text says Dox. A proofreader screwed this one up after I'd signed off on the final pages. It's fixed in subsequent printings.
Yes, sometimes the author isn't responsible for the mistake. It's not uncommon for people to try to squeeze things in, change a word that they think is wrong (and as a result, as in the above case, become responsible for a mistake that affected thousands of printed copies). And yes, there have been times when I've read something of mine that's been published, and checked against my files, and realized something was changed after I'd signed off on it, making a mistake in some cases, or making the text more confusing.
At the end of the day, the author stands or falls, and this is why having the best team of professionals behind your book - particularly your debut - is critical. Typically, the greatest part of the learning experience for writers is over the course of the first few books they write and publish.
And part of that learning experience happens when you work with an editor who can identify weaknesses in your writing style and text and help you improve.
I did not start out as a self-published author, but I did have such a small press, it no longer exists, and inexperienced editors. In particular, they lacked genre experience necessary to help shape the story into the best story for the genre audience. They were okay with a story being over-told. On my own, with guidance from another author as a major motivator, I cut over 20,000 words from the text.
Did I cut too much? Not enough?
I also learned a lot from the review process after publication. I learned what worked for readers, and what didn't.
The entire process was a learning experience, and remains such.
In re-reading Suspicious Circumstances, I came to a lot of conclusions. One is that I'm glad that I can look back and identify weaker spots in my writing that I know I've improved since. I may wince a bit when I read SC, but it isn't necessarily because what I did was bad or wrong. I can just see how my own writing has matured.
I can see that Lara was a bit more smart-mouthed than I really thought of her being. And I can see how my use of past tense and present tense was one of my critical weaknesses.
As I reviewed the master files, I realized that in some, the issues had already been addressed, but in the print file I needed to use for the trade paperback version, there were mistakes that hadn't been corrected.
Since all these files were made from the same Master that came back from the publisher, I don't know how that happened, but it did, and at the end of the day, I take the credit or the blame for what went right and what went wrong.
I'm my own worst critic. I can look back on just about anything I've written and consider a different way to say what I wanted to say.
Part of being a professional writer is knowing when what you're working on is a mistake you need to keep revising, and knowing when what you're tinkering with is subjective, and you need to let go.
In the end, re-reading Suspicious Circumstances was ultimately reassuring. I was afraid it would be humiliating. I liked the characters, I liked their development, and I believed in them. I'd started that manuscript with only a few specific goals.
1. To finish a manuscript.
2. To see if I could make a book about the kind of people who really could live next door, that would be interesting to readers.
Literally thousands of readers later, I can say I succeeded with both goals.
My goal each time I go back to my computer to work on a project is to write a better book, to tell a more compelling story, to try to stretch myself as a writer and grow, and I don't think I would have grown at the pace I did if I hadn't worked with a number of editors from book two on, who not only pushed me to do my best, but explained things to me about story development, character development, dialogue, etc.
I didn't get to book 5 on my own. The writer I am is the result of years of good teachers, who actually did teach grammar in school, a school system that rewarded students for perfect spelling, English teachers who weren't willing to say that better than everyone else was good enough, but pushed me to do my very best. Thanks Mr. Denomy - I may have been frustrated by you in grade 11 but when I got As in your class in grade 13, I knew just how much I'd improved.
Yes, I've made mistakes. That isn't a news flash. Nor is it a reason to ignore an assessment by me if I'm asked for a critique. It's because of the mistakes I've made along the way, and learned from, that I can give constructive guidance to writers who don't know what mistakes they're making, or how to improve. I've heard authors talk about their first book being a fluke, they didn't know what they were doing with it and it turned out to be a success, and they go on to try to write a second book with the fear that they won't be able to match that first book. It's why some authors talk about the 'sophomore slump'. Some don't even know what genre they've written in and then find out about reader expectations and try to juggle those pressures along with the demands of writing another novel, knowing that you have editors and readers waiting to see if your efforts will measure up.
The best writers know they still have things to learn, and continue to push themselves. The best aspiring authors don't put the cart ahead of the horse, and seek guidance from people who are going to push them to tell the best story they can.
Nobody wants the first impression they make as an author to derail their career. The end of your first book needs to sell your next book.
I said that I'd been thinking about this recently, for a lot of reasons. One is the writers I work with. Another was my own experience of going back to the beginning. And another was seeing a writer posting about another round of corrections they were making on their self published title after readers had contacted them about mistakes.
At least they were fixing them, but we should all be trying to ensure when our work is available to purchase that it's worth paying for. I had this happen as a reviewer once. I was offered a review copy. After I'd started, I received an email from the author, stating that due to comments received from reviewers they'd re-written the first chapter and attached it to the email and wanted me to print it and consider it with the rest of the book instead.
I stopped reading and didn't review the book. I wasn't asked to edit it for free. I was asked to review the printed review copy I was given, and I was annoyed.
Readers are going to be even more annoyed if they pay for a book that has a lot of issues. That doesn't even mean 1 star reviews on Amazon are a fair indicator that the book is bad. Some readers are impossible, and sometimes it's a question of taste.
But what you put out under your name reflects on you. Even as an author, I know - and other author's know - what it is to discover mistakes that weren't yours that ended up in your text, so this isn't about perfection.
It's about making it as good as it possibly can be and not getting ahead of yourself. In the early days, we're too close to our work to see through it clearly, and the temptation with the ease of self-publishing today is to press 'publish' before the work has been finished.
Surround yourself not with cheerleaders but with motivators who want to see you reach your potential as a writer, and put the time and work in before you make your work available to the world. Yes, work. Writing can be a hobby, writing well can be a talent, but if you're writing to be published and expect people to pay for the privilege, you have a job to do, and you need to take it seriously if you want people to invest in your career, not just buy one flawed book that will turn them off forever.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Life is too short
The last couple of months have been a roller coaster ride. I’ve lost two men I thought of as fathers. My grandmother was in the hospital and subsequently diagnosed with dementia. My son has had pneumonia and another friend from theater days suffered an aneurysm. Yeah – things have been a little tricky. And to be completely honest, as good as the professional part of my life has been lately – and there have been some pretty exciting professional moments—I have had a hard time finding my smile.
Why? Because my friend who has been in his coma for 4 weeks since having an aneurysm woke up. No one expected him to open his eyes. No one expected him to have brain function. He did. He does. There is a long road in front of him, but he is strong and young and hopefully he will triumph over the other roadblocks to come and lead a wonderful life. For as long as life gives him. Because if there is one thing I have learned in the last couple of months is that there are no guarantees.
Life is far too short. There is never enough time in any day or in any year to do all the things we want to. So we look at the things we wish to do and put them to the side saying that some day we’ll have time. Because we really think we’ll have all the time in the world.
But we’re wrong. Each of us only gets so much time on this earth. We only have so many days with the people we love. We only have so much time to accomplish the things that will make us feel complete. And in a blink of an eye that time can be gone.
Cheery thought. Right?
Actually, I’m not trying to be a downer. In fact, I’m looking for the silver lining in that particular lesson. Often we use the fact that we don’t have enough time to put off the things that we should be doing. You know that person you’ve been meaning to talk to or the family member you’ve lost touch with – go find them. Don’t wait. And that story you keep meaning to write or finish or polish or submit? Do it! Don’t wait for the right time. Because if you wait there might not be time. Life is a funny thing. We think there is always going to be another moment. Another day. Another year. And the reality is that life is short. Don’t put off doing the things that really matter because if you do the time to do those things might never come.
My friend who opened his eyes has a tough road ahead of him, but I guarantee you that as he travels that road he won’t forget to appreciate everyone one of those days. He’s going to be happy for the moments he has and take advantage of them. It is a lesson I hope I continue to remember today, tomorrow and in the months to come. I encourage you to remember it, too.