writing life

The Whims of Success

While I’ve been working on ideas for promoting my books, I’ve found myself pondering the nature of fame and success. Quality, fame, and material success, and the trappings of all these, don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

For instance, I know of authors who are making millions with their independently published books, and yet they don’t seem to be at all famous. Their names seldom come up in discussions of those kinds of books. On the other hand, I’ve mentioned how surprised I was to learn that some of the people whose names always come up and who are treated as Big Names in the genre community don’t seem to be making as much money as I am, when I’m mostly unknown in that community.

There are people who started publishing much later than I did who are now big bestsellers and celebrities in the industry, while I’m still mostly unknown, and there are people I read when I was starting out who had really good books that won awards but who have fallen completely by the wayside and seem to have given up writing. I’m sure we can all point to mega bestselling books that really weren’t well written. Some of those mega bestsellers manage to sustain a career, while others don’t seem able to write more than that one story.

But I think this applies to other fields, as well. I was thinking of television series I enjoyed a decade or more ago. When there was an ensemble cast of more or less equally good-looking people, there were some who seemed rather talented and who had a lot of charisma, and I would have thought that those people would have been the ones to go on and become famous elsewhere, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, the least talented person is the one who keeps getting lead roles in TV series and becomes a star while the more talented person with stronger acting credentials ends up relegated to the occasional guest role. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to who succeeds and who doesn’t.

The rather annoying thing about it all — and it is annoying because it’s not something you can plan on, create, or control for — is the role luck plays in all of it. It’s all about having the right thing in the right place at the right time. The only thing you can do is produce enough work of sufficient quality that the odds are better that you will have the right thing in the right place at the right time. You also have to have the goods to back up the luck. Getting that one big book deal because you had what they were looking for at the time they were looking for it won’t help much if you can’t write the next book or if you can’t adapt when the market changes.

Strangely, thinking this way makes me feel a bit better. Doing my part can improve my odds, but it’s not necessarily anything I’ve done wrong that’s kept me from going further. It may just be timing — Enchanted, Inc. came at the end of the chick lit wave but before the urban fantasy wave really got going. A couple of years earlier or later and I might have had a very different career.

TV

Playing with History

I’m the weirdo who actually likes the spring time change. It seems to fit my body clock better. I’ll confess that I wasn’t exactly out of bed at the crack of dawn this morning, but I woke up at about the same time by the clock as I usually do, even though that time was an hour earlier. Tomorrow will be the real test since I stayed up late last night (for me).

The TV series Timeless was back last night, and they put it in the late slot, which shows that they weren’t paying attention last season. This was a show that got canceled and then brought back due to fan support, including some big-name fans (Mark Hamill was one of the big cheerleaders for the series). But most of the fans talked about it being a show they liked to watch as a family and how they used the bits of history as a springboard to exploring those events or people with their kids. So why did they once again put the show on late at night? Granted, it did go to some darker places last night, but still, one hour earlier would be a much better fit for a show that seems to be a family viewing favorite.

Anyway, this is a fun show for people who like history and/or time travel. I love watching the characters go all fanboy/fangirl over the various historical figures they meet, and they’ve done a good job of highlighting people who are generally forgotten by history or who don’t get full credit for what they did due to their sex or race. I feel very smug and smart when they deal with a period, event, or person I’m familiar with because of my own research and reading.

I mess with history by playing alternate history games — what would have been different if the British ruling class was ruling because they had magical powers? — but they do similar things with people interfering in history by using time travel.

But it meant I stayed up later than I usually do (by the clock — I guess I was still going to bed quite early by the time it was a few days ago), so I’m not quite back to my spring schedule.

It’s spring break, but the only way that affects me is that I don’t have children’s choir this week. I’m still working, plugging away at this book.

Publicity

Getting Discovered

As an addendum to yesterday’s post, that “but/and so” thing is a good way to test your book because you can use it to make a kind of outline — the characters want THING, and so they do something, but something else happens, and so they must do something else, etc. It wouldn’t be a pretty synopsis, but if you can’t link the scenes with either “but” or “and so,” you need to rethink the scenes. I managed to fix that problem scene that I needed but that didn’t really fit by making it an “and so” and by having it lead into a “but.” And there was much rejoicing.

Meanwhile, I’m back to pondering publicity. I’ve become increasingly aware that I have an awareness problem. Quite frequently, I’ve noticed people asking for recommendations or making lists where my books would be the perfect fit or where I would think I’d be included, but I’m not mentioned (these tend to be venues where recommending your own works is frowned upon). It seems that people who read my books love them, but there are huge swaths of people, especially within the target markets, who don’t seem to have heard of me at all. And although publicity was my former career, I’m not sure how I can get noticed like that in the book world. The venues I’m able to reach have already been reached. I’m considering trying some new things.

Supposedly, newsletters are a great marketing tool, but to me, that’s preaching to the choir. You’re reaching the people who already care enough to sign up for a newsletter. I don’t subscribe to author newsletters and am swamped with marketing stuff in my in-box. These days, you can’t visit a web site without a pop-up inviting you to sign up for a newsletter, so I suspect the days of effectiveness are at an end. That’s why I don’t do a newsletter. I don’t like them, so I doubt I’d do it well, and there are just so many out there.

I have considered maybe getting into podcasting. I don’t listen to them because I’d rather read information, but statistics are showing that there are a lot of people out there who prefer to get information this way. I have a background in radio news, so I’ve got the skillset. I just wonder what I’d say — the same kind of thing I blog about? Read book snippets? Pop culture discussion? Is that something people would be interested in?

Ditto with videos. Again, within my skillset, but my impulse is that I’d rather read an article with the same info than watch a video, and generally if there is only a video, I’ll ignore it, but I’m probably an outlier there. Would it be kind of like a TV newscast, only about other stuff?

I’m terrible at social media because I tend to treat it like real-world conversations, except it doesn’t work that way. People tend to like those people who sit and listen and nod during conversations, but on social media, no one knows you’re there. I guess the “like” button is the equivalent of the silent nod, but I keep forgetting to use it.

And I’m still not sure how doing these sorts of things would end up spreading the word farther because the only people likely to watch or listen would be those who already know who I am. I must keep pondering the concept of discoverability.

writing

And Then vs. And So

I had a big “click” in my head yesterday that was kind of exciting.

I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of writing, scene structure, etc., and I’ve been to a lot of workshops. I know all the stuff about how a scene needs to have a character goal, then some conflict and then lead into the next scene. I’ve just never been able to make all that work consciously. Yes, I’ve written a lot of books, and most of them have been moderately successful. People seem to like what I write, and I get good reviews. But I think I’ve mostly been doing it on instinct.

That may be the difference between those “gift” books and the ones that are a struggle. The gift books are the ones where my instincts are working and I’m doing it right without thinking about it. The struggle books are the ones where my instincts are failing me.

My click yesterday came from a Twitter thread in which someone was talking about how each scene needs to lead into the next scene with either “and so” or “but.” That means that the actions in that scene cause the events in the next scene to happen in some way. Either the character achieves his/her goal and it causes the next scene to happen or the character tries but doesn’t achieve the goal, and so something else happens. You have problems if your scenes are “and then” because it just means that the next event happens, not that the next event is caused.

I knew that. I’ve heard that a number of times before, but I don’t think it clicked for me until I started looking at the current project, and I realized that the difference between the original draft and the current version is that in the original draft, all the scenes were “and then,” with the protagonist being swept along by events. In the current draft, the thing I changed (not always on purpose) was turning all the scenes into “and so.” The scenes that are still iffy for me that I’m not entirely happy with are the “and then” scenes.

I didn’t actually dance around the room, but I sure felt like it. The clouds parted and sunlight streamed in. There are still other things to fix, but if I can fix that much, it will make a huge difference.

writing

Gift Books

I’m still slogging away through this rewrite. Normally, I’m a fan of writing straight through, then revising, but since this is well beyond a first draft, I figure I need to get it right before I move ahead, and since I needed to make some changes in the past to set up what’s about to come, I figured I might as well go back to the beginning and do another pass.

I think this draft is working. There’s one scene I’m waffling about, though. There’s not a lot of tension or conflict in it, and it doesn’t progress the plot, but the outcome helps take care of a bit of “business” to ease things in the future. I guess I’ll leave it in for now, and I might be able to fix it either by thinking of a way to make it fit the plot or by finding a way around the business part. I also kind of need it to help kill time — the characters have to fill a couple of hours before the next thing can happen, and they’re at a point in the story when I don’t know that I can just say “a couple of hours later …” This scene helps fill nearly an hour in story time (in a page or so) and explains what they’re doing.

Some books are gifts from above. They just seem to spring into existence fully formed, and I feel like I’m merely taking dictation. I don’t have to make a lot of tough decisions about the story or the plot because things just happen and fall into place. Enchanted, Inc. and Rebel Mechanics were like that. Then there are books like this, where it’s more like sculpting a block of marble — I have to find the story that belongs to the concept by chipping gradually away at everything that isn’t this story. I think the core of the plot has been more or less the same the whole time, but the events carrying out that plot keep changing.

And still, I love it. I have to, considering the amount of time I’ve spent on it.

writing life

Meeting with Readers

Yesterday, I did my very first video chat! It’s like living in the future. I was the guest for a junior high book club meeting to discuss Rebel Mechanics, and since they’re in another part of the state, I visited remotely. It was nice because although I did put on a nice top and did my hair and makeup, I was wearing yoga pants and house slippers and sitting comfortably on my sofa. The sad part was that I couldn’t join the students afterward for tea and scones because they haven’t found a way to instantly transmit matter like that. I did join them in spirit with a cup of tea.

It’s fun meeting with readers like that because writing can be very isolating. Mind you, that’s also one of the things I like about it. I love spending my days at home alone, writing. But it’s also good to be reminded that there are people out there reading these stories, falling in love with these characters. There are often so many layers between writers and readers, and you write to please yourself first, then you may need to get an agent to believe in you, and then you need to find an editor who wants to publish the book. You get feedback from a lot of people who are critiquing the book to try to make it better.

With all that going on, it’s easy to forget that the real point of doing this is for the people who read the book, who aren’t looking at it as a means to make money, who aren’t creating a spreadsheet about what money it may or may not make, who aren’t looking for flaws. They’re reading to enter another world, to experience things through a character, to spend time with imaginary people. It’s nice to be reminded of that because the business can be so overwhelming at times.

It’s especially fun with kids because their enthusiasm is maybe less filtered than you get with adults. They’re not experienced at being fans, like you see at conventions. Meeting a real author is still a really big deal for them, and I get to feel like a celebrity.

But now it’s back to work.

Books

Seeking Escapism

A while ago, I mentioned something about wanting the cozy mystery equivalent of fantasy — some adventure, but without anything really bad happening to people I cared about. I know that editors and agents are always looking for books with really high stakes and lots of conflict and tension, but there are times when all that is too much and I just want something pleasant and escapist.

Right now, I’m reading a book that I’m really enjoying, but it’s the middle book in a trilogy, and it’s definitely got that Empire Strikes Back thing going on, where things are getting serious for Our Hero. Bad things are happening all around him, and he’s doing what he can, but he’s powerless to deal with a lot of it, and the people who can do something aren’t listening to him. You can see the train wreck coming.

And it’s almost too much for me to take. I ended up flipping to the end to see how it all came out, and, yep, Empire Strikes Back, where the “happy” ending is that the characters I like managed to live to fight again, but things aren’t good at all. That wasn’t quite reassuring enough, so I went to the Amazon page for the next book in the series to see if that description made it better. And then I found that there’s another trilogy involving these characters, so I checked those descriptions. I now finally feel reassured enough to forge ahead.

I don’t think I could ever sell low-stress reads to a major publisher, but I think I might try to put together some books — probably those fairytale-related romantic fantasies — that I could publish myself and market as what to read when you really don’t want to follow the heroes into hell. There still would be action and suspense, but with stakes that are more personal and less that the whole world is going to be devastated because the people around the incompetent ruler refuse to do anything about it because they have their own agendas.

Though “low-stress reading” probably isn’t the best label. Maybe “Escapist Fantasy.” I know sometimes “escapist” is used about fantasy and “light” reading as an insult, but sometimes, escapist is exactly what I want. I think in general that’s what I write, but it’s very, very hard to sell right now.

Cinderella

Last night I went to see my church’s youth musical production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella. They’ve really changed it in the recent reboot, so it’s not the show I remember watching on TV as a little girl or even the version I last saw at least ten years ago. There’s more of a relationship between Cinderella and the prince than I recall, and there’s a resistance movement going on. I think they may have made it a wee bit too modern because some of the jokes will have to be rewritten within a decade or so, but it was still a lot of fun.

I got a kick out of seeing how many little girls were in the audience wearing their Cinderella costumes, including one of my kindergarteners. I know when I was a kid, I’d have been eating it up. At that age, I had grand ambitions of being a Broadway star (I didn’t actually know what Broadway was, just that it had something to do with those records I liked singing with). Even now, shows like this are the one thing that makes me wish I could rewind and be a teenager again because I’d have loved to do something like this, but I lived in a very small town. I’ve joked/threatened to pretend to be a teen and audition, and have suggested we do an adult musical, but we might have a harder time getting cast members for all the adult roles.

Kids from all over town, not just from our church, can participate, and it’s fun seeing a broad cross-section of kids working together. We seemed to have more boys than usual, mostly seventh graders, so they were tiny next to the other kids (it was pretty obvious in looking at the cast the different rates at which boys and girls mature around that age), but they should have a good crop of high school boys in a few years if these guys stick with it.

Cinderella is probably my favorite fairy tale, and I like “collecting” versions of it. I like that she’s usually not going to the ball to meet a prince. She just wants a night out. She’s also a little more proactive than a lot of fairytale heroines, since she takes steps to achieve what she wants rather than lying there, sleeping, until she gets rescued. She wins because she’s a kind person.

I currently have two story ideas developing at the back of my head that are variations on the Cinderella story. One of them may become part of a series of short novels I’m thinking of doing that are kind of fairy tale retellings. I haven’t had a lot of luck with one of the short stories I wrote, and I suspect, based on audience reactions when I read it at cons, that there’s a readership for these romantic fantasy stories that aren’t exactly groundbreaking enough for the big publishers, but that might serve as good comfort reads.

But first I have to finish the book I’m working on, revise a proposal, and write at least two books and a short story before I can play with new things.

Rewatching the recent live-action Disney Cinderella might be fun for this weekend’s entertainment, though.

writing

Rewriting

I’m really hoping that this last round of rewrites is the more or less final version of this book, other than wordsmithing and fine tuning. I’m trying to make myself stop and dig deep to figure out what happens next rather than forging ahead and then figuring out that I did it wrong.

One of the real challenges with rewriting is disconnecting myself from the previous version. It’s far too easy to just keep trying to make what I’ve already done better rather than figuring out if there’s a better way to go entirely.

I’m at a big decision point for the book, and I was starting to go down the path I’d already taken, just with adjustments to accommodate earlier changes I’d made, but I made myself stop and really take stock. There’s a brainstorming technique I love called the List of 20 (or there are other things it gets called). The idea is that you make a list of 20 things that can happen. The first 10 are usually pretty easy, and if you’re rewriting, those are usually the things you’ve already written. You might be able to come up with the next few with a little thought. To fill out the list, you may have to get a little crazy. What I often find is that items 15-17 are totally wacky and unrealistic, but once I’ve gone off the rails, that jolts my thinking, so that 18-20 have something that might work that I hadn’t previously thought of, and quite often I’ll end up with about 23 things because that starts me really thinking.

One of the things I’m trying to do in this rewrite is make my protagonists more proactive, so they’re not just reacting to events. That’s easy enough to do with my narrator because we’re in her head and know her motivations, but more challenging when it’s people we’re only seeing from the outside. So I made a List of 20 for each of the characters yesterday, just thinking about what they would do in the situation they’re in, with their goals in mind.

I haven’t yet sorted through everything I came up with (since it was choir night), but I think I’ve got some good stuff that I can really work with. The bad news is that it kills a lot of what I’ve already written for the last half of this book. I may be able to salvage a scene or two, but the book is probably going to go in a different direction, which is good, since the previous direction wasn’t working.

While I’m processing all this, it looks like this is a good day for the Epic Day of Getting Things Done, since I have errands to do I was putting off while we had a week of rain. Now I can safely emerge from the house without needing an umbrella, so I need to get groceries and go to the library.

writing

Writing and Knitting

It has occurred to me that my current knitting project is the perfect metaphor for my current writing project.

I’m knitting a big circular shawl from a book of Victorian lace patterns. Oddly, I started it because I had some yarn left over from another project, this pattern has always intrigued me, and at the time I started it, I had a vague idea for how I was going to use it (as a throw rather than as a shawl). But it was troublesome from the beginning. It’s knitted in the round as a big circle, starting with four double-pointed needles, casting on with three stitches per needle on three needles, and one needle for working. It grows from there until you can switch to a circular needle. There were a few false starts because trying to keep it all together without twisting when there are so few stitches is a challenge, but I finally got it going. I’d been working on it for a couple of months before I noticed that there was a problem way back, probably while I was still on the double-pointed needles. I think what had happened was that some stitches might have fallen off the ends of the needles in between sections and I hadn’t realized it. That meant that the pattern made an odd glitch. I’m knitting this mostly just to have something to knit, so I went back and undid the whole thing until I got to the problem spot, starting over from there.

I finally got done with the body of the shawl and went to work on the knitted-on border. Because the circumference of the shawl is pretty huge, this is a massive undertaking, as only every other border row gets knitted onto the shawl. I got a good way into it before I realized that somewhere along the way, I’d glitched and lost some stitches on the border pattern, so that that pattern began and ended with 9 stitches instead of 11 (it makes points, so it grows from 11, then shrinks back to 11). I undid it back to the error and started over. When I was really close to having the border done, I counted out the remaining shawl edge stitches and the number of border pattern rows I had left, and it was nowhere near even, not even off by just one or two. I looked back over the border and found a couple of places where I’d somehow forgotten the middle row — the border grows to a point, there’s a solid middle row at the peak with no patterned stitches, and then it shrinks from there, but I was going from the peak to the shrinking without the middle in a few places. Then I found another spot behind that where I’d done the 9 stitches instead of 11 thing. I ended up spending a couple of weeks undoing almost the entire border before starting again, and then there was a false start where I’d forgotten the pattern while I was undoing it all, so I was doing it wrong when I started again.

And that’s what I’ve been doing with the current book — I’d get into it, realize I started wrong, go back, and rewrite, realize that was wrong, go back and rewrite. Then I’d get almost done, realize it was all wrong, and go back. I finally finished it, then got feedback from my agent and started over again, then went back to the process of getting to a certain point in the book, realizing what I needed to fix, and going back to fix it.

At least with the book, I can save the parts that are right and insert them in, or I can go back and fix something wrong earlier in the book without erasing everything to that point. With the knitting, I have to undo some parts that are done right in order to reach the errors. The trick with the writing is figuring out what can be saved and what should be scrapped, and sometimes it’s easier to just rewrite a scene than to fix an old scene to fit a new scenario.

Maybe I’m being a perfectionist, but the result won’t be a thing I’m happy with unless I get it right. With the book, I’m hoping to get a new publisher who’ll be excited enough about it to actually put some effort into it, which means I have to make it great. With the knitting, since I’m knitting for the sake of having something to knit, I may as well make it something I’m proud of. Undoing and redoing it means I’m not having to buy more yarn to have something else to knit when I’m done.