Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received

“You have talent.  Don’t let it go to your head.  Plenty of talented writers are destined to swing from rope.”

~courtesy of a friend of my dad’s, who is a published author, when I was a senior in high school.

I’ve never let it go to my head yet. The morbid simplicity of that statement has been there instead.  Talk about effective writing….

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The Ebook Self-Publishing Revolution: Capitalism in Action

This is the first in a series of articles I’ve been thinking about for a while.  What prompted me to go ahead and write it now was Amazon’s announcement yesterday with their new product lines, including a consumption-based tablet (I’m contrasting this with the  more creation/consumption hybrid use iPad tablet) and two Kindles under the magical $100 threshold of mass affordability.

What Amazon is doing is accelerating the proliferation of the ebook, their streaming subscriptions, and their cloud.  Will any of this hasten the further erosion of the print book market, or at some point will that stabilize and the increase in ebook sales come from people who were not reading and buying print books?  That remains to be seen.  I’ll get around (and possibly back around as the market shifts yet again in a few months) to the various angles—all the ins and the outs, if you will—of the digital revolution.  But I’m going to start with the most basic of tenants:  examining the digital publishing revolution as a grand capitalist moment.

I have seen a lot of articles discussing what a great opportunity there is in epublishing for those besides the large publishers.  Many self-published ebook authors refer to what they are doing as being entrepreneurs or creating a business.  I’ve seen a lot of whinging from the publishing establishment about how Amazon ruined their business model and how terrible a flow of material unfiltered by “gatekeepers” will be for the reading public.  Yet most writers and articles are dancing around the simple point that the ebook revolution is pure, unfettered capitalism, and it is as brutal as it is glorious.

Why is no one discussing it in such terms?  Is it so obvious that no one seems to think it’s necessary to name the force driving the change?  Or is it that “laissez faire capitalism” and “free market” are dirty words to most people? 

I am a free market believer.  Let me be up front about that.  I am not insensible of the fact that some businesses—and the people who work for them and own them—are hurt by this kind of market upheaval.  But that is what business is.  Being an entrepreneur is believing in your idea and investing your money into that idea because you think you will be able to make money at it.  There is risk there.  Embedded in the notion of success is its opposite, failure.  You might lose that money you invested.  That’s the gamble.  You have no way to guarantee that your idea will resonate with other people, and you may not be able to predict an innovation that will sweep society and make the good or service you offer suddenly obsolete.  That’s the danger of the marketplace. 

If you read business and market articles from free market advocates, the phrase you will hear repeated ad infinitum is “Competition is good for consumers and bad for business.” 

I think the ebook revolution illustrates this truth quite perfectly.

Who is benefiting and who is hurting from the rise of ebooks and the attendant fall of print books?  Readers are benefitting, because they have more choices and lower prices than ever before.  Single authors are benefitting, because they have a way to reach their audience directly rather than having to survive the vetting process of the traditional publishing world, and because they can take a much higher percentage of their sales (35-100% depending on what they’re doing) rather than selling distribution rights to a publisher at a return of under 20%.  Online retailers and digital content distributors are benefitting from digital sales and subscriptions.  Tech companies are benefitting as consumers adopt these new devices as part of their lives en masse. 

Publishers are hurting, because they failed to see the change coming in the market and failed to adapt quickly to it—and, in my opinion, also because they tried to stop the change from happening and spent two years in which they could have been adapting the way they have been forced to now (with digital-only and digital-first imprints, viewing ebook sales as an important part of their business, etc.) digging themselves deeper into the trench of irrelevance, angering consumers who had moved to digital with too-high prices and games like delayed ebook release dates, and leaving that void of content, affordability, and ready access wide open to the competition of authors themselves.  Agents are hurting, because they always had a rather undynamic business model that was built on the assumption that publishing as we knew it would never change.  Oops.  Bookstores are hurting, because people buy from online retailers and buy digital content.  They are perhaps the most innocent of incompetence (at least at the services offered level), especially since both Borders and Barnes Noble jumped into the ereader device market long before publishers stopped fighting the digital future–but, again, that is the danger of the market.  Adapt or die.  Offer something people want at the price they think it is worth, or lose your customers to someone who does. 

Before you shed too many tears for the traditional publishing world, think of it this way:  if the old publishing model was actually so fucking awesome for everyone involved, why did the digital revolution and self epublishing take off like this?  Blame Amazon all they want, the publishers are the ones who failed themselves and their customers. 

They could have created a digital format the way they created the book format(s).  They didn’t see the writing on the wall when music went digital, only to get left by the wayside when Amazon—bright visionaries that they are—decided to literally form a new marketplace in this new media rather than continue to play the game by the same rules as the established business players.  Once that happened, publishers could have looked at epublishing and digital editions as an amazing sales tool to go hand in glove with print.  Instead they tried to marginalize ebooks by overpricing them and delaying distribution, and now they are scrambling to figure out how to actually turn a profit off ebooks in a changed market where they no longer compete just with each other and the small presses but also with authors themselves.

For a very long time the physical constraints of production and distribution allowed the big publishers the luxury of resting on their laurels, content with their six-way monopoly on the marketplace.  They got to set the rules, and there was little need to compete.   

It is not Amazon’s fault that these companies were lazy and complacent.  It is to Amazon’s credit as a business that they saw a need in the market and jumped to fill it before someone else did.  Someone else could have created the first ereader.  Amazon did.  They could have failed and lost all the money they put into research and production and marketing of their Kindle.  If their digital marketplace was not attracting customers, it would have closed down.  But that isn’t what happened.  They provided something people wanted, maybe even something people didn’t know they wanted until it was put in front of them.  Amazon out-competed the other book distributors, period.

But they are not immune from competition.  That is the beauty of the marketplace.  Right now, Amazon is hungry, expansive, visionary.  Perhaps one day they will be fat and bloated, despotic king of a paper court, and some young upstart will challenge them and revolutionize the world until they are no longer relevant.  That is the free market.  Good for consumers, bad for businesses.  If a business can’t compete, it will fail. 

And businesses must be allowed to fail.  That is the point.  The market chooses.  The market corrects.  Investing in a business is not without risks.  That’s why entrepreneurs are called risk-takers.  They put something of their own, something that was hard-earned and valuable to them, into a dream because they believe they can create something even more valuable.  Some of them do.  Some of them do not.  The ones who do not must be allowed to suffer the consequences of their failure.  Competition is ugly.  It is not a modern youth soccer game where no score is kept and everyone gets a trophy at the end of the game; the market is hard, and there are winners and losers.  But just because some fail, does not mean that all will fail.  And if none are allowed to fail then what does it mean to succeed? 

Personally, I think the digital revolution is elegant in its brutality.  There will be winners and losers, and the upheaval is far from over.  But what will emerge on the other side will be, I think, a much more dynamic marketplace that allows for more people to succeed than what we had before.  And that will be better for everyone.   

This is the first in a series of articles about the digital revolution in publishing.  I welcome any comments, links, dissension, and, of course, if you liked the perspective please check back for future installments!  I plan to blog about this at least once a week for the next couple months.  Thanks for stopping by! ~Lily 

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“First, We Got to Create…da Mood.”

Or, Music to Write By.

Gratuitous Little Mermaid link (which I would have embedded except Disney has house elves whose sole job is to make sure their property stays where they want it) to put you in the mood.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

I blogged yesterday about using music as one way to put myself in the mood to write.  I thought some of you might enjoy seeing the music that is currently getting me into that blessed state.  If I continue the analogy from the scene referenced above, I guess that makes me Ariel, and my muse Eric, and this soundscape the song Sebastian and all the lagoon creatures started singing to get him past the state of “boy too shy, he ain’t gonna kiss the girl.”

This is copied straight from my iTunes list so the formatting is not the best, but I didn’t want to remove any of the information (which in some cases is still little enough to explain what the track is or who composed it!).

  1. Lacrimosa – Day of Tears    4:06    Zbigniew Preisner    Requiem for My Friend    Classical
  2. Opéra    4:04    Emmanuel Santarromana    Revolver    Soundtrack
  3. Rinaldo: Aria – “Lascia Ch’io Pianga”    4:52    Academy of Ancient Music, Cecilia Bartoli & Christopher Hogwood    Cecilia Bartoli – the Art of Cecilia Bartoli    Classical
  4. Eternity’s Sunrise    10:53    Paul Goodwin & The Academy of Ancient Music    Children of Men (Music from the Motion Picture)    Classical
  5. Work    2:34    Clint Mansell    The Fountain (Music from the Motion Picture)    Soundtrack
  6. Tree of Life    3:45    Clint Mansell    The Fountain (Music from the Motion Picture)    Soundtrack
  7. Death Is the Road to Awe    8:26    Clint Mansell    The Fountain (Music from the Motion Picture)    Soundtrack
  8. The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni), Op. 8 – Violin Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, RV 297, “Winter” (L’inverno): II. Largo    2:01    Camerata Antonio Lucio, Emmy Verhey & Alun Francis    The 100 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music    Classical
  9. Pièces de Clavecin, Book 2: 6e Ordre No. 5 – Les Baricades Mistérieuses    2:28    Angela Hewitt    Couperin: Keyboard Music, Vol. 1    Classical
  10. Bach’s Fugue a La Gigue (1928)    3:18    Eugene Migliaro Corporan & North Texas Wind Symphony    Composer’s Collection: Gustav Holst    Classical
  11. Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351: III. La réjouissance    2:25    Berlin Symphony Orchestra & Isaiah Jackson    The 100 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music    Classical
  12. Symphony No. 23 In D Major, K. 181: I. Allegro Spiritoso    4:41    Academy for Ancient Music Berlin    Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 21 and 23 – Bach, J.C.: Symphony In G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6    Classical
  13. Symphony No. 23 In D Major, K. 181: III. Presto Assai    2:11    Academy for Ancient Music Berlin    Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 21 and 23 – Bach, J.C.: Symphony In G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6    Classical
  14. Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759, “The Unfinished”: I. Allegro moderato    13:42    Slovenian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Anton Nanut    The 100 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music    Classical
  15. Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major, HWV 349: II. Alla Hornpipe    4:10    St. Petersburg RTV Symphony Orchestra & Stanislav Gorkovenko    The 100 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music    Classical
  16. [Violin] Concerto In G Major, RV 310: I. Allegro    2:13    Alison Balsom & Scottish Ensemble    Italian Concertos    Classical
  17. Gloria in excelsis Deo    2:24    Ensemble Vocal Raphaël Passaquet, La grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy. Jean-Claude Malgorie.    Bach: Magnificat. Vivaldi:Beatus vir, Gloria    Classical

And this is what muse and I look like by the time the mix is through:

Minus, it is to be hoped, the unfortunate and devastating interruption just as the mood comes to fruition….

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Eight Ways to Get in the Mood

Or, The next best thing to handcuffing yourself to your writing desk

My impression of “writer’s block” is that it stems from uncertainty about how to move the project forward.  Maybe your enthusiasm has waned because your subconscious has picked up on something that’s wrong with the story that you haven’t seen yet.  Maybe you consciously don’t know where to go next and feel lost and scared of moving for fear it will be in the wrong direction.  At least, those are the most frequent reasons I find myself unable to get work  done when I sit down to write on a story.

I have been spinning wheels for a good two months now, first with a pair of novellas that weren’t coming together well and then with a new story that stalled out after an easy 10,000 word opening.  In the time since I realized I was stuck I’ve seen probably three posts on various writing websites about getting unstuck.  I found one or two suggestions that were helpful, and a lot that weren’t–at least not for me.

This weekend I had a breakthrough, and my enthusiasm for this story, my confidence in where it was going, and my obsession with wanting to follow it down that road, were restored.  Sails are wide, full speed ahead. 

Here are the tricks that helped me reach that breakthrough.

1.  Write a detailed outline. 

I am an outlining kind of writer anyway, but often the outline is either very general–maybe 10 points long–or only mental.  Writing out not merely every scene but every piece of action that must happen within that scene, what the mood should be, how the emotional progression of the characters is moved through and/or as a result of that scene, etc., can really help you start writing again.  Once you have a list of points to address, you know where your scene(s) need to go, so you don’t have to stumble through the darkness and hope you come out the other side in one piece. 

A solid outline also helps you figure out where you are in the story, where you are going, how long it will take to get there, and if you have any blanks on the map along the way.  Those blank spots may not need to be filled in before you can go forward, but now that you’re consciously aware of them you can get them sketched in before you hit one of them in your writing and stall out again.  Here be dragons, indeed

2.  Run your story through the seven point structure analysis.

I saw this on Dan Wells’ site recently and immediately wanted to try it for my stories.  Verdict:  I love it as a clarifying tool! 

I don’t know if the structure would be helpful for those who are still creating their story, but for those who have most of it established and are trying to fill in those blank spots, this kind of analysis is a really great tool for pulling out the salient points.  I would compare it to the rising/falling action structures you study in high shcool literature classes.  If you run this diagnostic before/while outlining, it can help you figure out how much more story you need and where those blank spots are.  

3.  Go back to the beginning.

By this I mean, go back to the idea that made you excited to write this story in the first place. Has that theme/idea/character gotten lost in the shuffle of plotting or writing or scenes that don’t do what you need/want them to do? 

Basically this is just about reminding yourself why you wanted to write this story at all. 

4.  Rifle through your ideas file.

You do keep an ideas file, don’t you?  A collection of moments/character profiles/descriptions/emotions/lines of dialogue/scenarios that you think might be interesting to use in a story, even if you don’t know which story?  If not, why on earth aren’t you?  They are indespensable tools for writers.  Ideas might grow on trees in your imagination, but like trees your imagination can experience a drought season or go dormant in winter. Harvest your ideas when you have them, and stick them in preservative!

Ahem.   

If you have an ideas file, flip through it to see if any of the ideas you haven’t yet used (or maybe even those ideas you have tagged for another project, if it’s not written yet) would work for your story.  Can you fill in one of the gaps in your plot/7-point structure with one of those scenarios or plot twists?  Would one of the character sketches work with a character you’ve put in the story but feel isn’t quite fleshed out, or isn’t working the way you initially drew them?

5.  Skip ahead to a fun/dramatic/important scene.

Not much to expand on with that one. If your current scene is stumping you, see if a scene a bit later will be easier to write, either because it’s more interesting intrinsically or because what needs to happen in it is more clear. Often, once you know exactly where you’re going, it’s easier to see how to get there.  If you skip ahead, when you go back to that scene stumping you, you might find it suddenly obvious and easy to write.

6.  Approach every new scene/chapter like it is the opening of the book.

This is an idea I picked up from another writer’s blog, and if I could remember which it was I would link back, so, if anyone else read this and remembers where, please let me know so I can link to the original!

I was skeptical of this idea at first, but she’s absolutely right–if you want to keep your readers engaged, you need each new scene to be crisp, catchy, interesting.  The reader should be coming in with an angle that makes them look and then look closer.

Better, it keeps you engaged as a writer, because there is absolutely an excitement, an enthusiasm, an energy, about starting something new.  Approaching each scene/chapter opening as if it’s the opening to the book makes every single one an opportunity for you to hook both your reader and yourself into the story all over again.

7.  Put yourself in a position where you can’t write.

This was an accidental discovery, but it works.  I had a houseguest last weekend, when weekends are often my primary writing time, and not being able to write because I was spending time with my guest made me want to.  It’s reverse psychology, but it is effective.  So go on vacation and don’t bring so much as a notebook.  Invite friends to come for a weekend or a week.  Pile so many life obligations (like vet visits, doctor’s appointments you’ve been putting off, getting that car inspected, etc.) into your usual writing time that you don’t have time to choose not to write.  Somehow having that choice taken away makes you want to do it, same as your sibling playing with a toy you otherwise wouldn’t have looked twice at suddenly makes it the most interesting toy in your room.

8. Change something in your writing space.

Or your routine, if you don’t have a dedicated space so much as a dedicated process.

This can be anything from taking your writing to a different space in your house, away from all those failed attempts to write–that would be akin to leaving your bed when you have insomnia so as to keep your bed from becoming a place of anxiety and fear–to changing how you write (typing to longhand or vice versa) to simply adding a new element to the space.  For me, I tried going back to my teenage days and putting music on in the background.  Not just any music, either, but particularly inspiring and emotion-rousing classical/instrumental pieces. My “Tears to Joy” mix, played loudly enough to keep my brain from blocking it out entirely, is an aural reminder to me to concentrate, to keep working, to stay focused.  I don’t know if it would work for everyone, and I don’t know if it will work for me indefnitely–but for now it’s calming my ADD way down and allowing me to keep my attention on the task at hand:  writing my story.

* * *

So there they are.  My newfound tricks for getting through an unproductive phase.  Did any of them work for you?  Does something else?  Let me know!

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Just Because It’s Obvious Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Profound

Or, The song I can’t stop listening to

I’ve been listening to the Beatles a lot lately, now that their catalog finally went digital.  I grew up with them, but hadn’t listened to them regularly outside of maybe five songs since…oh, gosh, junior high?  Half a lifetime ago. 

One of the things that is standing out to me now, is how great they were at stating the obvious in a way that made it profound.  This includes songs like “Yesterday” and “Strawberry Fields” that aren’t love songs, but one of my favorite examples is a love song.  “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” specifically.

Had it been another day

I might have looked the other way

And I’d have never been aware

But as it is, I’ll dream of her 

T0night.

I mean, that is totally obvious. It’s a truth of every single choice that we make, that choosing one path by necessity closes off others, and that we don’t always understand what those others are.

And yet the way they put the song together makes that notion haunting, because it’s this guy glorying in the fact that he’s just met his dream girl, and that he met her by what feels to him a happy accident, and that if he had made just one choice differently than he wouldn’t even have known what he was missing.  But he did meet her, and so we can be happy for him, and with him we can experience that retrospective fear of “what if anything else had happened instead?”

Brilliant.

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“My Fist Is Not the Hammer”

Or, OED: the Historical Writer’s Claw Hammer 

One thing I try to get right in my historical fiction is word use–that is, would that word have been used in that way at that time.  I will admit, I am not exhaustive about this. I don’t cross-compare every word I have used in a manuscript against, say, a database of every word used by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.  (If anyone knows of an easy app for that, though, by all means let me know!)  There are times, however, when I will question my word choice and feel unsure of a term’s appropriateness.  Often this comes with technical or scientific words.

The recent case I had concerned teeth.  Specifically, my heroine was feeling quite feral and dangerous, and ran her tongue over her canine teeth (because that’s what I can’t stop doing when I feel that mood).  But…would teeth have been called by modern terms 200 years ago?

There is one place to go for this kind of question:  the Oxford English Dictionary.  The one thing, as a writer, that I love about my day job is that it gives me access to the OED online database.   It is an indispensable tool for me, and one I would pay for out of pocket if I had to.

So what did the OED have to tell me about teeth terms?  Only that human teeth had been classified to include “canine teeth” since the early 17th century, at least.

Their first explicitly modern-usage reference:

1626    Bacon Sylva Sylvarum §752   The Teeth are in Men of three kinds, Sharp, as the Fore-teeth; Broad, as the‥Molar-teeth, or Grinders; and Pointed-teeth, or Canine, which are between both.

Ta-da!  Validation.  It took me 2 minutes to discover (and that only because of having to log into my work system remotely), and it is one small piece of accuracy that will in aggregate create a mostly accurate whole.  I can’t pretend to fact-check everything, but those details and words that give me pause are always verified.

Interesting trivia I have discovered this way?  Milquetoast is inappropriate for Regency usage because it didn’t actually appear in writing before the 1930s, and the earliest reference to “milk toast” as a dish is in the 1850s.  

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Charles Darwood.

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The Best Feeling in a Writer’s World

…has to be when you get an insight into a story you’ve been tinkering with that is just so potent, so perfect, that it leaves you giddy and giggly and breathless.  That is the best feeling I have as a writer, better even than when I finish a story or read one of my stories back or come up with a new idea.  Don’t get me wrong, those are great moments, and more than enough to keep me working even in the face of self-doubt and fatigue and having to start over from scratch because those 25,000 words just didn’t work

But the feeling that makes me sure I will never stop writing stories is the one that comes when I get one of those aha moments.

I had one today.  In the parking lot of a grocery store, no less.  I had to sit there in my car for a good three minutes just thinking it out, thinking it through, making sure the twist fit as perfectly as it seemed to on the surface. 

What I love about this feeling is twofold.  First, this kind of insight usually happens in an instant.  They come when I am holding one idea in my mind and just tossing out others, and something just clicks, like two magnets or something, and it’s like those pieces of story were always meant to go together and I just hadn’t seen it yet.  It’s synthesis in action, and it’s beautiful. Second, these moments generate so much enthusiasm for the project that they can be enough to carry it to completion.

In this case I had spent the morning hammering out a fairly detailed outline for my Awesome Heroine and putting both her arc and the hero’s into the 7-point structure, and I realized I was missing the crucial second turn.  I knew what its outcome would be–forcing the hero to propose or lose her–but I didn’t know what that force majeur acting upon him was.  As I was driving (because I brainstorm best when it is multi-tasking), I started scrolling through prior plot options I had entertained for this heroine to see if any of them might be useful for this catalyst rather than as the inciting incident.  Lo and behold, in light of all the new information that had come to light in the process of starting and outlining her story, one of those old incarnations of her situation hove onto my missing catalyst and stuck so seamlessly that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it already.

That’s what’s so beautiful about those revelations. Whether you’ve been working on the story two days or two years, the connection seems so natural, so self-evident, that you wonder how you never saw it and also want to dance with joy because you just figured it out!

And if you’re really, really lucky, the enthusiasm generated by the synthesis of your ideas will be enough to carry you through the writing of it.

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