Saturday, April 30, 2011

Stomping “Scoop” Yeti

Strange title, I know. It’s like three completely unrelated words, and what’s with the quotes?

Some time ago I was approached by a blogger for an interview. That’s been happening a lot lately. This one was focusing on my republication through Orbit.

Two days ago the post went up, although I only saw it today.

At the site, Stomping on Yeti, Patrick posted the interview…and he also posted images of the new Orbit designed covers for the trilogy. As far as I am aware, these have never been made public. I have no idea if Patrick knew he was outing them when he put the piece together, but I suspect he got the art by scanning the newly minted Orbit Fall/Winter catalog where the Riyria Revelations has a nice two-page spread. I never revealed the new art because I was waiting on Orbit, who enjoy unveiling new covers on their site.

I don’t suspect this is a problem as from what I know, Orbit was on the verge of releasing the covers anyway. I should mention however, that the images on Yeti are not the final art, and Patrick was good in placing captions to this effect. Back when Orbit first showed me the covers, I discussed some changes I thought should be made, and at last report, Orbit was working on them. I actually haven’t seen the final product yet, I just know there will be subtle changes to correct obvious mistakes that I know readers will jump on.

So now I hope you understand the title, and hope you like the covers as well.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I wonder how many of you know who Maxwell Perkins is. He died in 1947, so it is not like he’s been in the headlines lately. If you are a writer, a fan of such authors as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, or Wolfe, and certainly if you are an editor, you might know the name.

Max Perkins is considered the most famous literary editor of all time. His job was to take manuscripts and untangled them into works of art. He mentored the likes of Hemmingway, helped shape The Great Gatsby, and legend has it, spent huge amounts of time pouring over Thomas Wolfe's prolific writing, which the author would drop off in a battered trunk. This apparently was back in the day when publishers were comprised of oak furniture, paneled libraries, and a cashier’s cage where bookkeepers calculated royalty statements in longhand. It was also a time when editors spent years helping to develop the work of an author.

I didn’t know who Max Perkins was, and I didn’t really know what editors did exactly. I assumed they looked for spelling errors, or the occasional missing word, and very likely checked the grammar of sentences. As it turns out, these are actually the focus of a copy editor. Apparently editing comes in several flavors, such as acquisitions editor, production editor, project editor, executive editor, and so on, but the two significant ones to an author are the “editor” and the “copy editor.” These are certainly not their actual titles, but it is how authors tend to define them. The copy editor handles all the detail stuff, such as the punctuation, sentence structure, and spelling, and the editor deals with the story. The editor then is the one who everyone blames when a book is a thousand pages long and only enough significant events occur to support three hundred. Max Perkins was clearly one of these, as he fought with Thomas Wolfe to get him to cut 90,000 words from one of his works—about the length of an average novel.

Max was famous for finding hidden talent and mining it out of a bedrock of submitted words. Wolfe later lamented that people felt he was only successful because of Perkins, who had a way of seeing where a story should go, even when the author couldn’t see it themselves. This sort of editing requires a good deal of structural talent. While copy editing is relatively objective, story editing is a hazy murk of opinion. And for a writer who labored over each sentence, the story editor is a frightening person.

What if they aren’t any good? Everyone has worked at a job where someone in a position of authority didn’t deserve it. What if they are merely focused on the commercial aspect? Their job is subject to the amount of sales their books make. Are they going to force an original masterpiece to conform to the established moneymaking standard, because it isn’t worth risking their livelihood? What if they don’t get it? Everyone has had jobs they didn’t want to do, dropped in their lap. It is the nature of business. What if they normally like one kind of story and yours is another? Will they try and force it to be more along the lines of what they like?

I’ve heard horror stories about new authors signing with major publishers and being told they had to make sweeping changes to their novels or they would not be published. Now, I should mention here that I’ve seen quite a few raw manuscripts sent by new authors to publishers. My wife runs an indie pub after all, and from time to time she will have me look at the more promising submissions. Almost all would greatly benefit from story editing. You can kind of see where the author was trying to go but never quite got there, or their style changes midway, or there are whole sections that don’t need to be there. Some are just plain confusing and need straightening out. I’ve actually done a bit of “fixing” for some other authors, and it is very hard. Not the actual restructuring, but rather it is the explaining of the what and why to an author that’s hard. It can easily be taken as an insult, which is why I don’t like touching other people’s work. I imagine that editors at large houses must feel similarly.

From this, you can imagine my trepidation when I received the first edits back from Orbit, the publisher who will be publishing my series in trilogy form. I am a bit protective of this series, and given the response I have received so far from readers, I’m not going to be too keen on altering it to suit someone else’s vision.

There were a lot of edits. Several comments were scattered here and there questioning everything from how the series begins to suggesting that the world building be expanded, or that terms such as Earl and Duke, be made more unique to my world. Reading the list of changes I began to panic. Why did they agree to publish the book if they wanted a different one?

A bit miffed, I prepared to do battle. Only the first thing I was told was, “Did you read the cover letter?” I did of course, but did not understand why that was being brought up.

“Did you see where it was written that these are only suggestions you might like to think about?” I had, but I assumed that was just polite talk for, “Make these changes or else.”

Turns out the editor meant it literally. I didn’t have to make any changes if I didn’t want to.


It still took me a day or two to completely wrap my head around that one. When at last I convinced myself they weren’t joking I looked at the changes again. Some made sense, particularly those that reflected the same comments that readers had mentioned. Most writers don’t have the benefit of having their series product-tested by more than fifty-thousand readers before deciding on the final text for publication. This made my decision process much easier.

So I did make a few changes, like for instance the excess of phonetic dialect that a number of you indicated was annoying. I weighed the benefits of how the characters sounded against the difficulty in reading. As it had always been my mantra to make these books as easy to read as possible--which is why I don’t use fancy phrases, archaic language styles, or hard to pronounce names (we’ll not too many)--I determined that losing the phonetics was in the best interest of the books. Instead I conveyed the same idea by altering the sentence structure and dropping words. Erandabon will still sound very odd, but readers shouldn’t need to pause to sound out words anymore.

A number of readers had also pointed out that the beginning of the series was off-putting, in that it doesn’t start with the protagonists. People begin reading about Archibald Ballentyne and are repelled by the idea of reading a whole book with him as the main character. The result has been that many people put the book down at that point. I always liked the book-ending concept of having Crown start and end in the same place, but if this stylistic nuance is preventing people from ever reading the series--that’s a problem. When the editor also mentioned this, I decided to add a scene introducing Royce and Hadrian in advance of Archie’s scene.

There were a handful of other changes, several of which had nothing to do with comments from the editor, but rather from readers. I have taken this opportunity to fine tune the stories based on two years of comments and observations by devoted fans. Long standing complaints were addressed, and corrections made.

The books have since gone on to the copy editor. Again my pre-conditioning left me very nervous when the edits began to come back. As it turns out, the copy editor is incredible. Their attention to detail is amazing. They don’t just look for spelling errors, or grammatical missteps, but also study the plot, and in this case managed to find a few incongruities—leftovers from when the plot had shifted and all the loose ends were not found. Most of these corrections I suspect readers will never notice, but for an author it is as if someone pointed out the toilet paper stuck to my dress shoe, and the piece of spinach on my front tooth.

In conclusion, the series will be better than ever, and yet hardly changed at all. Which is more than I suspect I will be able to say if a movie is made.

“How do you feel about making Royce or Hadrian a woman and giving the story a romantic comedy twist?”

That’s a problem for another day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Plotholes #4

Monday, April 18, 2011

Song of Bias and Prejudice

When I was in eighth grade I was caught with a copy of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring in shop class, by another kid. This “kid” who I will refer to as “Richard,” because that was his name, had been my best friend in sixth grade. Richard had just moved to the area that year and didn’t know anyone, and I adopted him when he was shunned by everyone else. After settling in however, Richard traded me for a better, cooler, best friend the following year. One of the ways he endeared himself to his new circle was by using what he knew, from our best-friend-years, to belittle and humiliate me, which always plays well to a group of twelve-year-olds trying to establish themselves as superior to anything. So when he found me reading a book, his eyes lit up with new potential.

He snatched the paperback and leafed through it. Then formulating his plan of attack declared: “It’s fantasy!”

He let out a laugh more easily associated with a DC comic villain who had a superhero strapped to some Rube Goldberg torture device and about to unleash his ultimate monologue. “You read fantasy!” He said it like I had given him a gift of untold value. “Sullivan reads fantasy books!” He continued addressing the class with a mocking tone. The other students, less worldly than either of us, could not quite see the significance of this discovery. I suppose they were confused by the fact that I read books at all--this usually being a sign of intellectual superiority to the average twelve-year-old male. Nothing to be proud of certainly, but not something to be obviously embarrassed of either.

Irritated at the lack of understanding, Richard turned to the most learned in the room…the shop teacher. “Sullivan is reading a fantasy book. Fantasy books are stupid, aren’t they? Just made up crap. Right?”

I felt my heart sink. He had me. Even at that age I knew fantasies with dwarves and elves weren’t going to have the legitimacy of say, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or To Kill A Mockingbird. Not in a teacher’s eyes. And this guy was a shop teacher, one intellectual step above the gym teacher who got drunk after hours and tried to light the school on fire.

I was doomed.

“Actually,” the teacher began, standing before the class sagely in his knee length gray lab coat. “Fantasy novels are known for often conveying greater truths about the world and the human condition than more realistic novels. And fantasy books make up a large portion of the great classics of literature.”

It was at that moment that I discovered several things. First, that shop teachers aren’t shop teachers because they're too stupid to be anything else. Second, that fantasy books are a lot cooler than I ever thought. Third, that Richard looked really dumb with his mouth hanging open and his face turning red. And fourth, that a lot of people have a tendency to denounce fantasy novels because they think it is cool, and will somehow make them look superior.

Today two kids in a shop class stood up and made fun of George R.R. Martin’s new HBO series. Not so much because it is good or bad, but because it is fantasy. Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, and Troy Patterson of Slate, both attacked Martin and fantasy in general in the guise of reviewing a television series.

Not wanting to offend anyone, least of all those that might love Martin, I must confess that I'm not a huge Martin fan. His style and mine differ greatly and while I appreciate his talent, it's just not my cup of tea. But these people are not making intelligent comments about his work, or even about the show--they are merely displaying an open prejudice for alternate-world fantasy as a concept. They are standing up in shop class and trying to make themselves look cool.

Martin and the producers of the show don’t deserve this kind of pre-meditated judgment and crucifixion from reviewers who could have written the bulk of their articles in advance of seeing the show. And I find it disheartening to see that same mentality I faced in eighth grade still prevalent in the minds of adults in positions to sway a population’s thoughts.

I’d just like to apologize to Mr. Martin on behalf of those who don’t know enough to realize they should.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Living The Dream

I’ve posted before about writing milestones, those waypoint markers that writers use to gauge their legitimacy and success. Unlike many careers, there aren’t defined ranks, or pay grades to authors. It is all rather fuzzy and hard to define how well you are doing as there are several ways to define success in this business. Just finishing a book length manuscript is a milestone. Getting anything published is huge. Getting someone else to invest their money in publishing your work is even bigger. Getting good reviews , fan mail, foreign deals, a traditional deal with an advance, etc. To writers looking for their place in the misty void of the literary soup, these are signposts we anchor to. But in evaluating all of these, the biggest one for me, the dream achievement, the defining moment of all, came this Friday.

If you read the three-part Writer’s Wife posts (1, 2, 3,) you’ll know that my wife supported our family most of our married life. With the exception of our first year and the twelve years we ran our ad agency, it was her income that we lived off of. She’s worked continuously since she was fifteen and has done very well (earning six-figures for 15 years). Friday was her last day. It wasn’t her last day at her job, it was her last workday…ever (I hope).

I have a friend who was shopping his book around and it looked as if he was about to get published. His thoughts soon turned to life after publication, and how wonderful it would be for him and his wife to give up their day jobs. I had the regrettable task of informing him that most reasonably successful traditionally published writers only make around $10,000 a year (double that, if they have a few foreign deals.) And if he planned to continue living in the DC area, he might want to keep his day job--as I have learned most authors do.

I never expected to make much off my book sales, just a supplemental income that might pay for the odd bill, or a vacation, maybe an iPad. All that changed in October after the release of Wintertide. Sales rocketed, and continued to soar through the holidays and even after. I actually became a bestselling self-published author--I found this out recently through the new publisher catalog advertising the series as a trilogy. I might have passed it off as marketing hype, except that my income has jumped. Not just a little, but enough to make it so that not only am I making a living wage writing - but I can give Robin the break she deserves.

Doing so was always the dream. Like an immigrant to the New World, she paid my passage and my job was to be successful enough to bring her over. I never thought I could do it, and I felt awful on those cold, icy mornings when she had to march off to work and come home exhausted. She had no time for herself, no time to exercise, to eat right, to enjoy her life. And I felt guilty that I didn’t have a job, while she worked two--her day job and promoting me. This anchor dulled any pleasure I felt as a result of success. Unless I could free her, what good was it? Only half of me could ever be happy.

All that changed yesterday when I hit the one milestone I most wanted to achieve, the one I was convinced was way beyond all fantasies. I am now an author who can support his family.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Plotholes #3

Monday, April 11, 2011

Adjusting the Scale

I remember watching the Jetsons where one family member or another would sigh and complain about having to do a task like make dinner, or clean the house. They would drag themselves out of a chair and with heavy feet reluctantly walk to a wall where they would press one button and the job would be done for them. Still they collapsed as if they had worked ridiculously hard. This is one of those jokes that are funny or memorable, because they’re true. People have a tendency to find something to complain about or to regret, even when it appears absurd to others with different situations. If the worst thing in your life is that you are only five-eleven and a half, you might find yourself miserable because you aren’t six feet tall. People, it would seem, require a scale to know good from bad even when bad isn’t really all that bad.

For an aspiring writer, being published is the grand goal. Being published through a major traditional house is just about the best possible achievement. There is a magic to it. You might write stories for years and all that time is wasted--a practice in stupidity, like buying a lottery ticket each week, or saving a collection of artwork by a neighbor hoping one day he will be famous. It amounts to nothing, besides the enjoyment of the writing--until you are published. Instantly, the moment you are, all that time is not a waste, but an investment--the time it took to hone your craft. It was all worth it. Play money is magically turned to real money as if by the wand of a Disney fairy. Like Pinocchio, you are now a real-author. This is the odd thing about real-life, because that’s usually where there story ends in fiction, along with the obligatory, “and they lived happily ever after.” In real-life, you keep going.

Initially there is the disbelief, followed by the shock of reality changing. People forget you were an idiotic dreamer, so full of yourself that you actually thought you could write a book and get it published. With the flash of that fairy wand, suddenly they always knew you were talented and destined to make it. “It was only a matter of time,” they say. In-laws, aunts, uncles, friends and acquaintances, all look at you with new found respect, and your “little hobby” becomes the moon landing. You go from couch potato to brain surgeon overnight--a genius with the rank of author, where before was a normal human being with no super powers at all. People call you, sir, and assume your time is too valuable to speak to them. It is amusing to see. You watch as a bystander thinking how crazy all of these people are, not knowing you’re the crazy one. Things have changed, you just don’t know it yet. Like Peter Parker, you think it’s great to have spidey-abilities, but until Uncle Ben is murdered, it doesn’t sink in.

There are several levels to a career in writing. The first is just playing around. You aren’t sure you’re serious. You aren’t sure you’re good enough. You achieve something, win a contest and you knuckle down. You study, attend groups, read how-to books, listen to authors and get an agent. This is a bad time. You’re committed. You’re investing time and money, and there is no real chance of making any of it back. It could all be for nothing. Then you get published, either through an indy or self. There is a great sense of accomplishment, but it is diluted. Being published doesn’t mean quite what it used to, and perhaps it never did. Being the author of a book no one buys isn’t much better than being an unpublished author. So, of course, being a published author who makes a living wage or better, must be Nirvana, but if you remember the Jetsons, everything scales up.

When you’re in the first stage, when you are just playing around with writing, you can do anything. No one cares, and you have all the time in the world. I know people who took nearly a decade to write one novel. There’s no pressure, no expectation, no concern. It’s just a hobby. Then suddenly you’re published through a big house. You have a dedicated fan base, and your wife is thinking of quitting her job because you can support the family with your writing. Sounds great…sounds wonderful…sounds like success at last.

But Uncle Ben is dead.

You now have responsibilities. Fans expect a certain quality, a certain type of story. What you write is limited. Taking your time is no longer an option. Not only will fans be upset, but your bank account can’t afford it. This is a job now, with all the weight and baggage that comes with that. And of course there are the distractions. Contracts, meetings, interviews, conventions, email, favors, and with it all comes stress. Stress associated with politics and appeasement. Even stress that was never before part of writing. Can you do it again? Now that the spotlight is on, can you capture lightning in a bottle on cue? The more successful, the more everything else gets in the way and time devoted to writing is limited. This just increases the pressure. Soon you need the literary equivalent of Viagra just to break the cycle.

So yeah, it sounds absurd, and no I wouldn’t ever trade positions with myself from two years ago, and sure it beats the hell out of roofing in August or power line work in January, but life is never perfect because the scale shifts. So if you are an aspiring writer, remember that there are good things about not being published yet. That’s about as convincing as a sixty-year-old telling a twelve-year-old to enjoy the time you have being a kid. It really is better being older, but there are still some unexpected tradeoffs that you might look back on wistfully forgetting the fear and anguish of an unknown future. Things like the chance to spend a summer day running through a sprinkler, or the freedom to write anything you like in anonymity without pressure or interruption.

Author gets up, drags himself to the wall and presses the button.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Plotholes #2

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Writer's Wife Part 3

Robin and I were once suckered into a trip sponsored by a timeshare seller. It was one of those things where you have a fun paid weekend, but you have to sit and listen to the pitch of a salesman who tries to get you to buy a yearly week in a vacation home. The salesman’s pitch was statistics that revealed the average couple only spent 8 minutes a day together. That with all the demands of careers, kids and housework, husbands and wives were ships passing in the night. Robin and I exchanged looks that said, “which one of us is going to start laughing first?”

After we left Vermont, (where Robin had gone from grunt programmer to president of the company,) she sold the company and we resettled in Raleigh, North Carolina. With the kids older, we both got jobs at the same software company--her as a product manager and I as the one-man advertising division. A year later I started my own advertising agency and we continued to work together when I asked Robin to be the president. We got up each morning, had breakfast together, rode to work together, worked together, had lunch together, rode home together, made dinner together, tucked the kids in together and then watched television together until we went to bed together. And this guy was trying to tell us that we needed to buy a timeshare in order to see more of each other?

This wasn’t the first time we worked side-by-side. Robin worked with me when we first started out and she was still going to college. The reality is, we’ve always spent most of our time together. We’ve never gotten tired of each other’s company, but we do tend to become very miserable when separated, much the same way I suppose most people have no trouble having their right arm with them, but it’s pretty traumatic having it torn away. The two of us fit together much like puzzle pieces. Where she is weak, I’m strong, and where I can’t multiply six and eight, she does trigonometry faster than a calculator.

So just as when we owned the agency, I did the creative work and she handled the business end. She did formulas, research, technical writing, and all the publicity. I just tried not to insult the customers and frequently failed, but somehow we made it work. Over the years we’ve come to realize that when we work together nothing is impossible.

So when I decided to seriously try and get published, I knew I could never do it on my own, but if I could gain her help we had a good shot. Being the crafty fellow that I am, I wrote an awful query letter to an agent and asked her opinion. There is little that Robin hates more than incompetence in an area where she is gifted. Soon I was shoved aside as she took over the process of getting an agent.

When my first publisher failed to continue putting out the series, we joined forces again to produce the second book. We got it done in less than a month with Robin handling the research and business end, while I did the book designs, and covers.

She built a publishing company picking up other authors left adrift by their troubled publishers. She wasn’t looking to make money, just to help others like me. Which is why Ridan’s business model is the opposite of most publishers, and why she gives free lectures each month to packed rooms of would-be authors and maintains a blog to assist new writers. And all this while still working her day job and suffering from the pain of a shattered kneecap and two only partially successful surgeries on her back that literally cause her to scream out loud on occasion.

In addition she works tirelessly to promote my books. This was a life saver as while I’m not shy, (at least not anymore,) I’m just not comfortable self-promoting. Robin on the other hand has never had any trouble telling others what she feels about me. And just as I was taken in by her that night over ding dongs and milk, so too were members of Goodreads and other sites where she mentioned her book writing husband. Somehow I always look better in her eyes than I really am, which is why I always look best when people are introduced to me through her. To Robin I’m a genius, and to me she is the fulfillment of the prophecy--my other half--without which I can never be whole. When she is with me, I am never homesick no matter where I am. And if some of this story sounds a little familiar with parts you might have read in my series, there’s probably a reason for that.

Years ago, before we were married, Robin was listening to Elton John’s Your Song and said how she wished someone would have written her a song. It was an offhand comment, but she made it more than once. Perhaps it was one of those dreams teenage girls have, but I never forgot it. And you might have noticed that the dedication to each book is to many people, but always to Robin first.

The last book--Percepliquis--you will discover is unusual in that it has only one dedication. And I will end this series of blogs with an exclusive preview of book six--the dedication. It will read:

This book is entirely dedicated to my wife Robin Sullivan.
Some have asked how it is I write such strong women without resorting to putting swords in their hands. It is because of her.

She is Arista
She is Thrace
She is Modina
She is Amilia
And she is my Gwen.

This series has been a tribute to her.

This is your book Robin.

It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done,
I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.
-- Elton John