Archive for June, 2016

Who Are You Writing For?

June 8, 2016

Here’s a question that I received from Mab Morris via my Facebook page.  Ms. Morris has done a great deal of writing, has edited for other people, and has even taken the step of self-publishing her novella, The Red Khemeresh (which I’ve read).

Would I Like This?

Would I Like This?

Ms. Morris’ question was complicated.  I’ll paraphrase: “How do I get beyond the frustrating praise of being told I’m a strong writer by agents, while still not knowing what it is about the piece that makes them pass on representing my work?”

Let’s start by taking a look at that important phrase “frustrating praise.”  Frustrating praise is something that writers (and I suspect musicians and other artists) encounter frequently.  The rejection says something like, “This is a well-written piece.  However, it isn’t quite right for me, so I’m going to pass on it.”

Honestly, this sort of rejection is worse than being told “Would you please learn how to write a grammatical sentence?” Or “Your book is obviously a mishmash of Firefly and Game of Thrones.  You need to do more than file off the serial numbers.  Changing Tyrion Lannister to Tyra Bannister doesn’t do it.”

At least these rejections, nasty as they are, give a writer something to work on, a path to follow towards improvement.  “You write well but this isn’t for me” is only frustrating.  So here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Did you submit your work to the right place?

This question applies both to agents and publishers.  A book that would be perfect for Baen Books (which has established a solid audience for military SF, space opera, and traditional SF/F) might not interest a press that specializes in works with a GLBTQ emphasis.  Bigger publishers or agencies deal with a wider range of books, but even there you need to target the right editor or agent.

Just because a story isn’t right for one publisher doesn’t mean it’s a bad story or a weak story.  It only means it doesn’t suit that particular market.  This applies to agents as well, since most agents specialize in a few areas.

Be familiar with your field.  I recently spoke at an event where I chatted with several people who told me they wrote “Science Fiction.”  However, after a very short discussion, it became clear that they all wrote Fantasy and, at that, very different sorts of Fantasy.  Had they submitted their works – no matter how well-written – to an SF market, they might indeed have received a rejection.

Way back in late 2012, Alan Robson and I made a methodical journey through every genre and sub-genre we could think of within Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.  You can find these posts starting here.  Or you might want to take advantage of a free download of most of the Thursday Tangents as an e-book here.

Who Are You Writing For?

When faced with a “nice but not for me” rejection, writers need to ask themselves just who are they writing for.  Mab Morris admits that what she writes does not fit into currently popular slots: “I have a lot of joy in what I write, but it’s not like I write about vampires or YA Post Apocalyptical stuff. I write these weird aggregated world culture/mythos mashes that are allegories.”

Lately, publishers have become very focused on how to market a book.  Books are talked about not for what they are, but what they are like – while at the same time being represented as presenting a completely unique twist.  A good example of this sort of marketing is Victor Milan’s Dinosaur Lords, which was marketed as Game of Thrones meets Jurassic Park.

Since many publishers are thinking in terms of marketing categories, then agents (who make their money by selling books to publishers) are also put in the position of thinking this way.

Therefore, at some point writers need to stop and say, “Who am I writing for?  Why am I writing?”

Many writers choose to write specifically for the market they want to break into.  The more structured the market, the more constraints this will put on the material that the writer can address.  The Romance market is a good example.  In a recent SFWA Bulletin, Jeffe Kennedy wrote an excellent article talking about why characters in love do not a Romance novel make.

I once asked a very popular Romance writer about the number of sex scenes in her most recent book, especially since they didn’t seem to fit the rest of the material.  Her reply was simple: “I know what my audience wants and expects, so I give it to them.”  She’s selling a lot of books, and following expectations doesn’t make her unhappy, so, for her, it’s a win-win situation.

Although the Romance market may have more constraints than many, still it’s important to remember that any work – even self-published – will need to be identified within one or more market areas.  That’s how readers have been trained to look for the sort of book they will like.  However, this means that if you’re going to write stories that don’t neatly fit, you’re going to need to find ways to show how your story has more, not less, appeal because of that.

“Well-written” Doesn’t Mean Perfect.

Consider that although you may “write well,” that doesn’t mean you write perfectly.  Writers are often unable to find their own blind spots.  Finding people who can help you find them can be difficult – especially if you’re relying on volunteers.

Don’t count on an editor to “fix” your story for you.  These days, editors find themselves having less time to edit manuscripts.  Most editors I’ve talked with do their actual “editing” during their commute or at home.  Office time is spent on meetings, e-mails, phone conferences, and such.

This has led to the rise of the “editorial agent.”  However, remember that an agent’s commission is based on selling the book.  Therefore, an editorial agent’s best interests may not be served by helping you evolve as a writer.  Instead, they may be served by making the book as saleable as possible.  If this is what you want, great.  However, if you have a vision for your work that does not involve revising to make it fit the formula of the moment, then an editorial agent’s input may not serve your interests.

I don’t have a simple answer as to how you can find out what your work may be missing.  All I can say is that you’re going to be a step closer to that goal if you figure out why you started writing in the first place.  At least then you’ll be able to say to your beta readers, “What I’m trying to do here is THIS.  Am I managing?”

I know a good many of you are creatively engaged in one or more arts.  Any productive comments to offer?  And any more questions for me?

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FF: Variety is Spice

June 3, 2016

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Ogapoge Reflects with a Good Book

Ogapoge Reflects with a Good Book

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James.  Audiobook.  Good conclusion.  Will probably read more of her work.

Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh.  I enjoyed.

In Progress:

Well of Shiuan by C.J. Cherryh.  Great evocation of wet.  Seriously.  I live in a very dry climate and I found myself “feeling” this place.

When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh.  Audiobook.  Re-read.  Nice, quirky cast.

Also:

The Red Khemeresh by Mab Morris.  Novella.  Good evocation of a fictional shamanistic culture.  As often in novellas, character dimension takes a backseat to setting and plot.  Plot seems a prologue to a longer work, rather than a stand-alone piece.

TT: Food, Glorious Food!

June 2, 2016

JANE: The Good Humor Man led us to ice cream trucks, and from there we went to coffee vans.  Tell me, do you folks have food trucks there?

Food Truck!

Food Truck!

ALAN: Yes, we do – there’s a particularly famous one known as the White Lady  which turns up in downtown Auckland in the small hours of every morning to save the lives of starving drunks. It’s been doing that since 1948.

JANE: And a noble cause that is indeed.

Food trucks seem to be undergoing an evolution here.  In one sense, they’ve always been around.  However, their appearance tended to be tied to specific events: fairs, sporting events, and the like.

One of the things I find interesting about the new incarnation is that, like the Good Humor Man of old, these trucks stalk their potential clients.  They don’t just show up near the ballpark, or buy a vendor’s slot at the fair, they’re alert to opportunities.

As soon as the kiddie soccer leagues begin practice on fields near the library, food vans offering a variety of snacks and treats start showing up.  No kids playing soccer (complete with bored siblings who need to be bribed to behave or parents dying for a hot drink), no trucks.

ALAN: That’s clever of them. I’m not quite sure what ours do (I don’t have much experience of them) but I do know that the White Lady is always in the same place at the same time. It’s never seen anywhere else.

JANE:  An ambitious food truck vendor recently realized that out where Jim’s office is now located, there is nowhere to buy food other than a golf course snack stand.  These people came visiting and did very well by the staff – many of whom don’t have transportation and are bored with brown bagging.

ALAN: Brown bagging? What does that mean?

JANE: Carrying your own lunch.  The term comes from the cheap brown bags that were the usual means used to carry lunch by almost anyone who had outgrown the colorful lunchbox used by children.  Do you folks have a term?

ALAN: No – we’re very boring by comparison. We just take our own lunch. It’s very common for children to take their own lunch to school. Sometimes they don’t approve of what their mother has lovingly packed for them and they just throw the contents away. Jake and I go for our morning walk close to a school and one day he came across a ham sandwich, an apple and a slice of cake. Best walk ever! He still sniffs that same spot hopefully every day, but we’ve never had that much luck again…

JANE: From what you’ve said about Jake, he’d probably have eaten the brown bag, too.

Even where there are restaurants available, such as downtown, the food trucks do good business with office workers who don’t have time for a sit-down lunch, but don’t want a fast food burger.

ALAN: I assume from what you say that these trucks don’t serve burgers and the like? Ours are really just mobile burger places with vast vats of bubbling grease for deep frying. They sell cholesterol on a stick to anyone in need of hard arteries.

JANE: I’m sure those are out there, too.  However, these days, food trucks offer cuisine that is a lot more varied and interesting.

ALAN: So what kinds of food do they serve?

JANE: I did some research and learned that Southwestern food is, unsurprisingly, popular, especially dishes like burritos and tacos, which are easy to eat without utensils.  You can also get pizza and a wide variety of barbecue and smoked meats.

More ambitious food truck vendors venture into specialties.  There’s “Cheesy Street” which specializes in cheese dishes – including a homemade tomato soup with cheese.  Europa Modern Kitchen promises a European dining experience.  I found a listing for a food truck that specializes in Argentinean cuisine as well as several offering a wide variety of Asian foods.

A friend of mine was telling me that in San Francisco, there’s a food truck that serves nothing but various types of crème brulee.

ALAN: Wow! We don’t have anything like that. However, we do have food halls in shopping malls and the like. A food hall has a large number of small counters, each specialising in a different type of food. So you’ll have a choice of sushi, or curry, or Chinese, or Thai, or pizza or… The quality of the food is amazingly good. It’s all delicious and they always do a roaring trade. Your food trucks sound like mobile versions of our food hall counters. Do you have food halls?

JANE: Oh, yes…  Here they’re called “food courts,” and have been around for decades.   Maybe you’re just catching up with us.

Back when you mentioned coffee vans, a thought occurred to me.  I don’t claim it’s deep philosophy, but I do think it says something about a shift in culture, a shift that may go all the way back to the Good Humor Man.

ALAN: In what way? Tell me more…

JANE: It seems to me that all these coffee vans and food trucks reflect a shift toward not only a desire for instant gratification, but an almost childish refusal to plan to have that gratification met.  Farewell to the picnic basket or thermos bottle.  Food and drink shall appear wherever one goes, ready to cater to every whim.

When you think of it, the food court (or hall) is part of the same trend.  Taking the family shopping, maybe to a movie?  No more need to compromise as to where you’ll eat.  Little Jimmy wants sushi.  Fine.  He can have sushi.  Annie wants pizza?  She can have it.

What do you think?

ALAN: I think you are on to something there. A lot of people that I know tend to do things spontaneously rather than planning for them. So once you have decided to do something on that basis, you simply don’t have any time to create food or drink or indeed anything else. I hate that – I’m a careful planner and I’m decidedly uncomfortable with spontaneity, but clearly I’m in a minority on this one.

JANE: I have a whole bunch more thoughts on this, but I think I’ll save them for next time.

Extra Incarnations

June 1, 2016

The other day, I saw a shirt that read: “People who say you only live once have never read a book.”  Needless to say, this resonated with me.  It also made me think about a question that I get asked a lot, although perhaps never in more detail than a few years ago by my friend, Jane Noel.

Some of My Lives

Some of My Lives

Jane asked, “How do you relate to your characters?  Who are your favorites?  What do you have in common with them?  How long do they stay with you after you finish their story?  Are there some that you just don’t like?”

I never really answered Jane’s questions except in the most general sense.  The last of her questions is the easiest to answer.

Of course there are some characters I “just don’t like.”  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I can get into my antagonists’ heads and develop their motivations.  They may know perfectly well that something they’re doing would be viewed by society as “evil” or “wrong.”  However, even understanding that when these characters do something self-serving or cruel, they don’t necessarily see themselves as “evil,” doesn’t mean I need to like them.

Honestly, outside of fairytales, few characters do see themselves as “evil.”  But I’ve discussed that elsewhere, and so will leave the topic behind for now.

Jane’s other questions were much harder for me to answer.  I think I put off answering them until today because I never saw the right way to explain how I feel about my characters.

Unlike some writers, I don’t write protagonists who are thinly veiled, sometimes idealized, versions of myself.  And I don’t write secondary characters who exist only to be foils to the protagonist or plot elements to move the story along.

I’d get bored out of my mind if I wrote only protagonists who were meant to be me (whether in a Fantasy setting or with a switch of gender or species or whatever).  I realize some people write to work out their personal problems or to provide themselves with the satisfaction of being the hero in fiction that they can’t be in reality.  However, until I saw the shirt mentioned above, I didn’t really realize that I write precisely not to be myself, but to explore a whole bunch of different incarnations.

In that light, Jane’s questions become much easier for me to answer.

How do I relate to my characters? I relate to my characters as if they are interesting people about whom I happen to know a whole lot more than you are ever privileged to know about the “real” people in your lives.  Because I know so much about them – often much more than ever makes it to the page – I feel a deep sense of empathy with them, even when they are doing something I don’t really like or think is wise.

“Who are your favorites?”  I don’t really have favorites.  Even though I’ve spent much more time with Firekeeper (six long novels beginning with Through Wolf’s Eyes) than I have with Mira from Child of a Rainless Year, each of them took me places and gave me experiences I could not have had without them.  So I care deeply for them all.

“What do you have in common with them?”  Well, as I said above, I have their entire lives in common with them.  Since this question could also mean, “What aspects of your life do you draw on for specific characters?” I’ll go on and say too many and too varied for me to even try to list.  Something non-writers often forget about characters – even main characters – is that writers don’t create them just by recycling parts of themselves and their own experiences.

“How long do they [your characters] stay with you after you finish their story?”  They stay with me forever.  However, I do develop a certain amnesia regarding the details of how the book or story itself was written.  That’s actually very cool.  When I have had to review older work – as when Tor re-released Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls or when I re-read a bunch of my shorter work to compile my short story collection, Curiosities – I found it was possible to read those older works almost as if a stranger wrote them.

It was very nice to realize that Jane Lindskold the Reader actually is a fan of the works of Jane Lindskold the Writer.

So, Jane Noel (and the rest of you), there’s an answer to the question of how I relate to my own fictional characters.  It’s been fun to have a lot of different incarnations.  I look forward to having many, many more.

Oh…  This is a good time for me to remind you that I welcome reader questions.  I have a lot more fun writing the Wednesday Wanderings when I know that at least one person will be interested in what I have to say.