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Month: October, 2013

Writing Panel Notes, Part 2

On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Publishing is a Sh**ty Business (and That’s a Good Thing!)
Panel members: Allen Jones
Panel description: The traditional model of book publishing may be broken, but this presents opportunities for fledgling writers, and fledgling publishers. Writer, editor, and publisher Allen Jones is author of the acclaimed novel Last Year’s River; an influential consideration of the ethics of hunting A Quiet Place of Violence; co-editor with William Kittredge of The Best of Montana’s Short Fiction, and the owner and publisher of a small book house, Bangtail Press. Join Jones as he discusses how this brave new world opens up room for publishers and authors strong enough to prove themselves in the marketplace.

*Statistics for publishing: new titles published in 2010–328,259; self-published in 2010–133,036. This may be misleading as there are computer programs that automatically publish work. Not all self-published work have ISBNs.

*Growth of traditional publishing 2008-2013: -1.4%; growth of self-publishing since 2007: over 400%.

*In the traditional model: there are five major publishing houses. They also publish textbooks. Most are able to give out significant advances. And they are able to create an author name by force of will.

*In the best case scenario, everyone in the chain agrees: book > agent > editor > publisher > publishing machine > sales and marketing.

*There are a number of careers between the author and the reader.

*Strengths of traditional publishing: professional design/editing, prestige, filter/quality, advance burden on the publisher, brick and mortar channels maximize sales, bookstores like the traditional model (because of returns), review coverage, author can focus on writing rather than curating their books.

*Weaknesses of traditional publishing: nine months between acquisition and publication, thinner margins for midlist writers, payments take about six months, 6-15% royalties (net), less control over design, authors relied upon to promote their books, acquisitions tend to be group decisions.

*Antecedent titles drive the engine of acquisitions. They create comparison types–what similar books have sold? The downside is that there’s less room for creativity in acquisitions. In the market, there could be more excitement.

*Alternatives: partnerships (small publishers), fully assisted pub where you pay upfront, and DIY where authors hire outside help.

*Self-publishing: there are higher royalties and satisfaction of publishing. But does your book bring value to the reader? There’s no filter test. And self-published books could always be better. You need to balance the satisfaction of publishing with the interests of the reader.

*Self-published books that do well: romance, sci-fi. It depends on who owns the ereaders–generally young people. Westerns don’t do well because the older men who read them don’t have ereaders.

*Four companies dominate self-publishing: Amazon, Smashwords, Author Solutions, and Lulu.

*At a small publisher: there’s prestige and filter of a brand, security that someone else finds the book worthy, accounting services, editors/designers, able to address small markets, authors can focus on writing but promotion is similar to self-publishing.

*Promotion tips: provide quality product, build brand, try new tactics, hire a publicist, put up an author page on Amazon, promote yourself on Goodreads, do giveaways, put up a webpage, social medial.

*Resources (for self-publishing): Reading Like a Writer, Publishers Marketplace, The Chicago Manual of Style, Shutterstock, Elance, BiblioCrunch, 99designs, Smith Publicity, WriterCube, Pressbooks

* * *

Q & A Session

Q: How do you formally copyright something?
A: As soon as it’s created, it’s yours. The trick is proving copyright. Permissions are a big deal in publishing. Publishers spend money for permissions. You need permission even for a few lines of poetry. There are draconian penalties for violating copyright.

Q: Can you prove copyright by mailing it to yourself?
A: I have heard of it. It’s okay.

Q: On using names, can you compare something to a Barbie doll in your writing?
A: That’s not a problem.

Q: In historical fiction, if you use a real person, how can you cover yourself legally?
A: For dead people, you can say anything and it is legally fine. But for a living person, it can be slander or libel. It depends on context. If it’s clearly fictional, you’re covered. Celebrities have a different standard. By becoming celebrities, they give up their privacy.

Q: What if a fictional character slanders a big company like Disney?
A: Hard to imagine, but it depends on context.

Q: What’s the future for print books?
A: There’s an explosive growth of ebooks. But recent stats say that growth has slowed. Once it stabilizes, ebooks and print books will occupy their own space. Ebooks gravitate towards edevices–like romance novels. For books that you’re proud to display on your shelf, then you buy print. Bookstores also sell other things than books–coffee, book signings, browsing.

Q: Are small publishers bigger because of innovation?
A: Yes. Some stats say that there are now 59,000 small publishers. Ebooks and POD have empowered small pubs. Before, they needed to be bankrolled, have staff and office space. But now you can hire out, use software and a laptop–and all you need is experience and expertise.

Q: What are the economics of POD (publish on demand)? Is it a higher cost than traditional publishing due to discounting?
A: The POD artifact itself is indistinguishable from traditional publishing, but the per unit cost is higher than the cost of traditional pub. But, for POD you don’t have to pay for warehousing or pay upfront. The risk upfront for traditional is higher. POD has agreements with distributors.

Q: If you get a small publisher to accept you, does this block you from going to other publishers or does this depend on book to book?
A: It has changed. Agents and publishers now look at the self-published. If the self-published author sells well, the traditional publisher has a hard time making their case. What’s important is that the author has demonstrated that they have the platform and sales.

Q: What does it take to get the attention of an editor?
A: Query letter, previous published work (for a magazine), books that are agented (depending on the publisher, especially a big house). At a smaller publisher, you can pitch yourself. Send a couple pages of the manuscript.

Q: Any tips for finding an agent?
A: Everyone in the industry loves books, but agents are more mercenary so it can be difficult. Start with Publishers Marketplace and look for agents who sell books that you write.

Q: Do traditional publishers pick up self-published work?
A: If the book has done well, it’s possible–but more difficult. The book already had its shot so do something else.

Writing Panel Notes, Part 1

On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Romancing the Novel
Panel members: Angela Breidenbach, Janet Fox, Elizabeth Lowell, Kat Martin, Danica Winters
Moderator: Melanie Calahan
Panel description: Every four seconds, it is said, a romance novel published by Harlequin is sold somewhere in the world. And that’s just one publisher. Romance might not get the respect (or the Nobel nominations) that literary fiction receives but it’s a force to be reckoned with. Writers of a variety of “romance” novels—romantic suspense, young adult, historical paranormal, inspirational—talk about their work, their passions, and the power of romance.

Panel: They write romance novels because there’s a happy ending. Romances are “not in the box.” 50% of all books sold are romances. There’s character building in romances. People say that they don’t read romances and that romance writers are writing smut. But people who don’t write romance say that they write people falling in love but there’s also death and killing. Then again, some romance novels also have death and killing…

EL: I’ve been told that I write girly sci-fi–but they said that because I had a man and a woman in the story. At that point, I hadn’t read any romance yet and I had written mysteries with my husband. I had someone tell me that what I wrote was pornographic, but I don’t consider making love pornographic.

AB: Reminds me of the line “you complete me” from Jerry McGuire.

Mod: In the movie As Good As It Gets, the main character is an author who gets the question, “How do you write a woman as a man?” He responds that he writes a man and takes away reason and accountability. So how do you write men as women?

EL: Most people don’t consider it, but characters aren’t based on modernism or existentialism. They’re based in myth and what I value in a man. So I give my characters those values. I can’t think as a man and I can’t expect him to think like me, but there’s overlap and shared views.

AB: I observe and listen to what they say. Men have different verbiage. As an editor, I send a manuscript back if the male character sounds like a woman. Men don’t say “flee.” One guy told me, “We men are brain damaged and don’t appreciate the finer things in life.” Men in general use more vehement, strong words. If I use strong words, then my husband knows something is wrong.

JF: Having a son, having boys in your life is helpful. How boys approach life is different. I approach the story as who the people are. The characters may come from the same emotional place, but then I layer in archetypal differences to present the character fully.

KM: I prefer writing men. When I had been a real estate agent long ago, everyone in the workplace were men. I identify with them so men are the star of my books.

DW: I grew up with alpha men where they stayed in the woods, whiskey-soaked. I think putting them into books is wonderful. Readers like alpha men. And when you get to know them, they’re actually warm and caring. I have a four year old boy who once asked me for a “girl sandwich.” He actually meant “grilled cheese.”

AB: Men are all about the food.

Audience question: Do you plot out your story? Are your stories plot or character driven?

DW: They’re character driven, but you have to plot. You need to know how it ends, especially for those on the panel who write books in four months or less.

EL: I cut out the loops. I begin my stories with the place. If the character grew up in the mountains, they would have a different view of the world compared to someone in the city. They would have different views on silence, noise, and bustle. How the character grew up there is the character’s personal geography. This creates a thoughtful landscape of the mind. Then I plot.

JF: I’m an organic writer and discovered that it is hard to impose structure afterwards. So now I mix plotting and pantsing. The setting is also a character.

AB: In an anthology (Quilts of Love), the theme was, “Every quilt has a story–tell yours.” So I had a character who had a heart attack and looks at a photo and remembers past events. Then I asked, what if the character has a business to lose, etc. Then I take the plot (a short synopsis) where every page of the story is summarized by two lines. I write organically as the scenes come to me.

Audience question: In romance, many elements are similar. How do you keep things fresh?

EL: Why do you come to any genre again and again? For romances, there’s a man and a woman. In sci-fi, readers expect more about the world than the character. In mystery, the characters solve a mystery. I don’t find romance constraining just because there’s a man and a woman. All popular fiction has that core of expectation. People don’t spend money on what they don’t want. If you’re not enthralled with your story, your reader will be bored to sleep.

AB: In romance, it’s said to occur in an intimate place–the mind. Humans are born for love. There’s not a soul that doesn’t want love. Every story is unique to the author.

JF: Each author brings something fresh to the table. You have to love what is on the page and the character. I’m now working in sci-fi and young adult, but they still have romance. If two human beings are attracted to each other, then it’s romance.

KM: I have more plotting. To come up with a fresh story, it also depends on setting. For one story, I wanted to set it in Houston but didn’t know what to write about. Then my husband suggested that since Houston is an oil area, I could write about that and involve the Saudis.

EL: When I get a story idea that strangles all the other ideas, I write that one. It has to be the strongest.

DW: For me, it’s the accumulation of choices for the character. If you read most romance characters, they’re the same, but they make different choices.

EL: Each character needs individuality to come alive. If you think of your character as Joe Schmoe, then the character becomes Joe Boring.

Audience question: Do the power dynamics in your stories shift?

Panel: Yes.

EL: The power balances will depend on the people. But in a bad relationship, they’ll be always worrying about the power balance.

AB: I took a relationship test with my husband and discovered that we were the opposite. In writing, build the character out of their strengths and weaknesses.

JF: Use power words. Drop -ly, -ing. Most writers are psychologists on some level. Power dynamics are always with two people. The dynamics can change quickly depending on topic. In my case, I play the power dynamics as a backdrop. In young adult fiction, there’s not as much range, but it’s all about the psychology of the character.

KM: Power dynamics change as the characters get to know each other and respect each other. They don’t have the same strengths.

DW: As a personal story, when I first saw my husband, I decided that he was the man I was going to marry. Respect came later.

AB: The woman has to like the man. In my book, I had a character who wouldn’t do something. So I turned it around to force them to do it and see how they react.

EL: Emotion is important. You have to have a man who is capable of feeling something other than anger. The man should be able to lean on women. You don’t need your characters to marry, but they do need love.

Audience question: How was your path and process from a non-writing life to a writing one?

DW: I was an archaeologist before, but I’ve written since first grade. At 18 I had cancer and decided that I wanted to write and entertain others with stories that promised a happily ever after. I wanted to change people’s minds with words.

KM: My husband was writing a historical novel and gave it to me to edit. While I was editing, I thought that I could do this. So in my 30s, I had a story–a western–tried it and found what I wanted to do in life. Eventually I sold that first novel after a lot of rejections. Don’t quit.

JF: I had been writing before, but it was just dabbling. Then my mother died which precipitated the question: what was the purpose of life? Now I have an MFA and write young adult. Writing is part of what I do every day. It’s tenacity, willingness to learn, and to keep writing.

AB: It started when I was four years old–I liked sci-fi/fantasy and Disney. English or music. But then I raised six kids and even though I wrote in my twenties, it was dangerous because other people tore me down. Then I went to the local RWA chapter, went to writing workshops, etc., and I was driven to be published.

EL: I’ve always been told that I was a good writer by teachers, but I didn’t consider it. I went into geology instead, but my professor told me that if I went into geology, I would be forced to follow a man in the field, even if he wasn’t as good as me. So I switched to English. When I was pregnant, I read all the books in the library and decided to write a sci-fi book, which got rejected several times. Writing utilized a part of me that hadn’t been used.

Mod: Is every path unique?

EL: If you want to be published, it’s like standing in the rain for a long time before lightning strikes.

KM: Go to writing classes and learn the craft.

AB: Understand the difference between critique and criticism.

Visiting a Ghost Town

Bannack State Park, Bannack, Montana














Deciding on Character

It’s exactly one month until NaNoWriMo and I have an idea. Actually, it’s rather more than a simple idea. I had already started planning in the beginning of September after I decided it would be really cool to do a story inspired by an off-road race across the Sahara called the Dakar Rally. This time though, it wasn’t the world building or the setting or even the plot giving me trouble. It was the characters.

Originally, I thought it would be pretty funny to have sea creatures do a desert race. My main characters had been a sea dragon and a siren, both murderers but guilty for separate crimes. They were going to be executed via hydrothermal vent until the Almighty Kraken gives them a chance to avoid being boiled alive if they enter the Dakar Rally. And win.

This was all well and good–until I started outlining the characters’ backgrounds. While these were interesting characters, they weren’t the right characters for the story. They would have their own conflicts doing the race, but these conflicts would mostly be external. Their internal conflicts, the sort of conflicts that I could use to transform the character during the course of the story, would be better showcased elsewhere.

That’s when I hit upon the idea of writing from the point of view of the car. I’m always looking for new and interesting challenges to do on top of the 50k for NaNoWriMo, especially since I’ve already done the event for over a decade. I’ve never written from the point of view from an object before, so why not try it now?

It was an interesting exercise developing this car character. I wanted the car to talk to the driver so I figured that maybe I’d use the radio for communication. Then I had to figure out how the car got its sentience in the first place. So I came up with this crazy back story of how an Edith Piaf-like lounge singer got enchanted into a race car by an angry club owner/wizard who was pissed off that she wouldn’t sleep with him. And to make matters worse, he gives the now enchanted race car away to a sadistic race car driver who turns his vehicles to scrap metal if he doesn’t win the race.

So for the main character, it’s win the race or get stuffed in a car crusher–never mind about the turning back into human part.

I usually don’t drastically change the characters I’m going to write about and not change the core story, too. But the heart of this story is basically a man versus nature plot (or rather car versus nature). The setting–the desert–is a character and I wanted to create a character who had the flaws and the motivation to make the struggle between the two compelling to me. Otherwise, why even set the race in the Sahara at all?

In some ways, going into this much depth with my character planning for NaNoWriMo is new to me. But then again, it’s not surprising either, especially since my world building and plot has already been set from the get go. A race is usually just a race. But when you start putting interesting characters into it, it hopefully turns into a story (and not a car wreck).