Monday, June 25, 2012

Greener Grass

I don’t write short stories.

There is a school of thought that aspiring authors should learn their craft by writing short stories, get a few published, and then put out a novel. I think this is analogous to a musician learning to play a violin well enough to stage a few shows, then switching to the piano for a concert. Both require knowledge of music, but these are two very different instruments, and knowing one will help with the other in only rudimentary ways.

It’s not like I’ve never written short stories. My first agent explained she would have an easier time selling my first book if I obtained a few short story publishing credits. I wrote a couple, but my book had been published before I sent those out. And it’s not that I don’t like them, I just have a hard time cramming novel-thinking into 4,000 words. 

Last year, between the disappearance of my self-published novels and the Orbit books debut, there was a few months where I had nothing out. My wife Robin asked me to write a short story to help fill the void. She suggested something like, Royce and Hadrian: the early years. So I wrote about an incident that occurred about a year after the two first met. This was called The Viscount and the Witch. I gave it away, and the story remains free, available in a number of places—including this blog. 

This year something different happened.

I was asked, along with a few other professional authors, to donate a short story to an anthology designed to promote aspiring authors whose works would be chosen by a contest. The theme of the anthology was post-apocalyptic. Robin wasn’t certain I could do a post-apocalyptic short story, so I had to try just for ego’s sake. Over the weekend I hammered out a story I called Greener Grass. Robin was very impressed, but the story wasn’t exactly post-apocalyptic. Technically I think I could make a case for it, but before I bothered, Ray Bradbury died. 

This got me thinking about a tribute story and Robin suggested a tale about the fate of ebooks in a post-apocalyptic future. So then I banged out another short story called, Burning Alexandria.  More post-apocalyptic certainly, and just as good. So that was done. 

But I still had Greener Grass

Robin suggested I publish it as a short. Better that than sit in my drawer. Only it’s not fantasy…its science fiction, and has a distinctive voice of its own and much different than The Riyria Revelations. For those interested, the short is now available (Amazon | Barnes and Noble), and here’s the teaser:
He wanted to escape his problems. He wanted to see the future. He never considered what the future wanted.

Confronted with suffering a painful death from cancer, Dan Sturges, a retired Ford’s engineer, foregoes treatments to try an idea of his own. After reading a theoretical article in
Scientific American on time displacement, Dan builds a time machine in his garage. With nothing to lose but a few months of pain, Dan pins his hopes on a future where cancer might have been cured, or at least a quicker death by electrocution. But what happens after he presses the button is more shocking than the eighteen car batteries he connected himself to.

I'm also running a poll about the short story. It's just a single question and any feedback you can provide would be helpful.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Proud To Be A Nerd

Jean Vallesteros is a nerd, but not just any nerd—a book nerd—or so she proclaims on her website. I don’t know Jean personally, but this June Jean has declared to be Theft of Sword month, and that caught my attention. Authors are easy that way. Astronauts require ticker-tape parades, actors red carpets, but authors are more than satisfied with being picked book-of-the-month.

In this case Book Nerd’s Choice of the Month, or BNC.

The idea, if I understand it correctly from reading Jean’s website, is that she is inviting everyone who walks this planet to join her in reading Theft of Swords and then discussing the story on her blog site. At the end of the month Jean will put up a poll for readers to chose which character they like most, and this choice will determine the subject of art work that an artist will create for bookmarks, which everyone will receive just for participating in the discussion.

Now I was just there and I noticed the comment section was …well…light? Twelve days into June? Granted Theft of Swords is not a short book, but I know there are people who have read it in two days.  Also Jean has invited folks who previously read the book to come and rant or rave as well.

I know someone out there has read this book. Maybe even two or three, and I’m fairly certain some have opinions and comments about it. And while it might reflect poorly on the popularity of my novel, I actually feel bad for poor Jean. She picked a book that she thought would draw people to her site, a book she hoped would be a fun time for all, and instead she has a wonderful concert of crickets.

So if you have a moment, and an observation, criticism, speculation, complaint, or question about Theft of Swords, or me, consider visiting Jean Book and leaving a comment. I’ll be checking in there over the course of the month to answer question I find—Jean doesn’t know this yet, but she should have expected as much when she declared June to be Theft of Sword’s month—like a porch light to an attention starved moth, I swear.

So make a comment and get a bookmark.  Remember, for only the effort of a few keystrokes, you too can help a blogger—do it today.

Friday, June 8, 2012

It’s All Just Luck

Luck is what determines the success or failure of a novel.

I’ve heard this statement a great deal lately, and not only do I disagree with the logic (or apparent lack thereof), I find it a bit insulting to anyone who has ever accomplished any measure of success in any field.

I personally don’t accept that luck even exists, especially with respect to how people often perceive it.

As defined by Websters: A force that brings good fortune or adversity
As per Wikipedia: …good fortune which occurs beyond one’s control, without regard to one’s will, intention, or desired result.

Websters appears to indicate luck is a form of energy that might be measurable. In this sense, which I suspect is prevalent in the mainstream consciousness, luck is a myth, a form of superstition.

In the Wikipedia version, the word luck appears to be a way of giving a name to almost any event that the witness is incapable of understanding. Luck is then another word for magic. Lightning was believed to be magic too, until it was understood.

My take is to argue that luck is nothing more than mathematical probability. Yet because the numbers and variables are so vast and varied, most people can’t calculate a definite  probability for success, so it’s easier to believe the results to be magic, or the more socially acceptable term: luck.

To clarify just a bit, I think luck is actually the mathematical probability of a random event occurring. If you subscribe to the concept that luck is what determines if a novel becomes a success then you should also understand that this same rule applies to everything (because it would be silly to think luck only applies to novels.) Your chance of graduating college, getting cancer, or winning gold at the Olympic games is all a matter of luck.

Consider what the chances are of a person getting a novel on the bestseller’s list if they never wrote a book, sought out a publisher, had any dealings with agents or other literary types, and isn’t famous? I’m guessing most people are thinking zero. However if luck is the only factor in publishing success, then this person who never wrote a book, or had interest in doing so, would stand an equal chance of hitting that coveted list as someone who spent years perfecting their craft, submitted novels to traditional publishers, and even tried self publishing.

At this point I hope it’s obvious that it isn’t JUST luck.

On the other hand, those who guessed the person in the above paragraph has a zero chance, would be wrong. Everyone stands at least a one percent chance. (Even a person who doesn’t play the lottery might find a winning ticket among dead leaves along a curb.) I know this is true because I met a man at Balticon who is being pursued by major publishers and literary agents even though he knows nothing about writing, isn’t famous, and has no interest in writing books. He merely stumbled on something they think will sell, blogged about it, and now it has gone viral. He will likely—through no effort or intention on his part—have a bestseller on his hands. Does this prove luck exists? No, it proves everyone has a base chance of one.

If you play the lottery and buy two tickets instead of one, you’ve doubled your odds. Can buying two tickets make you twice as lucky? Or is it just doubling your mathematical probability? If you buy all the tickets you’ve improved your odds to a sure thing. When you win, will it still be luck? If you write a great book and promote it well, do you think you will stand a better or worse chance of getting lucky than if you write an awful book and never promote it?

Does that mean a person with a great book and great marketing will be a bestseller? No. Just as a person who doesn’t try can sometimes win, so too can a person who does everything right still fail, but the odds of this happening are just as small as a person winning the lottery with just one ticket.

So baring the small possibility that you will hit that one percent of “bad luck” then you can significantly increase your probability by writing and promoting well. The corollary of that then says if your sales are low the fault lies with either the quality of your book, and/or the effectiveness of your marketing. Authors don’t like to hear this. One person recently accused me of being cruel to aspiring authors for stating such. (Not that I deny having been cruel to aspiring authors, just ask anyone in my critique group.) I simply feel that being polite doesn’t help an author make a bad book better. Lying to them, or remaining silent will only leave them floundering in the dark and condemned to an endless prison of failure. Explaining the problem—as unpleasant as it is to hear—grants writers the chance to fix their problems.

The real issue comes up when authors who think they are good don’t know the meaning of that word when it applies to selling novels. There are those who spend significant time and money perfecting their craft and yet get nowhere. These are often people with masters and PhDs in writing and literature who declare success must not be about skill, but rather based on sheer luck—because if it was all about skill, they would be successful. What they fail to understand is that good prose, originality, and wonderful sub-text doesn’t necessarily translate into sales success. Even critical acclaim doesn’t necessarily generate significant sales. Don’t believe me, look up the list of the bestselling novels of all time then compare that to the list of Pulitzer Prize winners.

But not all popular books are good!

I’m not talking about the subjective judgment of good verses bad writing here, (if you want that see my previous post on objectively badbooks,) I’m speaking of successful books. And while an argument could be made that one person’s definition of success is not equal to another’s, I’m willing to go out on a limb and state that the majority of authors see financial independence as the primary indicator of success. An award is nice, but the ability to buy your mother a house in cash, never have money concerns again, and being able to write full-time is priceless. Whenever I speak to writers and ask what their big dream is, the answer always comes back: “A #1 book on the NYT Bestseller’s List.” People would choose this over the wish of eating all they want while magically remaining at their ideal weight. Some may covet critical success over millions of readers, I just haven’t met any yet. I’ve never once heard anyone saying their goal is winning a Pulitzer, Man Booker, Noble, or Nebula. That sort of desire for acclaim might come after financial success is achieved, but by then the writer is already considered successful. So if you concede that the reason a writer publishes a book is for number of readers and money, a good book—in this discussion—is then by definition, a book that sells a high number of copies at a price-point that provides a substantial financial reward to the author. And books that sell a high number of copies are those that strike a chord in readers, not necessarily those containing the best prose or the most original ideas.

Isn’t hitting that chord luck?

No more so than winning the lottery. It’s still probability. You improve your odds by writing what the majority of people will appreciate. Some people know how to do this better than others. Many authors have narrow tastes, and write to that target audience alienating the majority of potential readers, but greatly satisfying a niche of fans. Those who sell big are the authors who can reach a vast audience and touch them on a fundamental level. I suspect they can do this because they are their audience. They write what they want to read, and are not constrained by what they think they ought to write. Neil Gaiman, in his commencement speech in Arizona, (see previous post), mentioned that people often achieve their dreams because they didn’t know they couldn’t. That those who know better, don’t try. If Stephanie Meyers knew the idiocy of writing a cliché ridden vampire romance novel, she likely would not have. If I had known that writing a traditional heroic fantasy filled with exhausted tropes such as elves and dwarves was a roll-your-eyes awful idea, I might have passed too. I suspect a great deal of successful ventures are successful because the creators never knew what they were supposed to do and just did what they wanted to do. Ironically they ended up satisfying themselves and thousands of others. This sounds simple, but it isn’t. For those who constantly manage it, this is a talent despite how much people want to believe it’s mere luck.

So to succeed in publishing you need to know how to write what people want to read, and be able to write it in the way those same people want to read it. Then you need to present it well and advertise it effectively. Then, baring that one percent of failure, your odds of producing a bestseller are similar to your purchasing almost all the tickets being sold for a lottery. The problem is that doing all those things correctly is impossibly hard, and it is made harder when the prevailing wisdom insists success is determined either by conforming to the traditions laid out by unsuccessful writers or by sheer luck.

So you can believe that success has nothing to do with talent, skill, tenacity, or ambition—that it’s all just luck—but if that is indeed true…why even try? The results will be the same no matter what you do or don’t do.

Friday, June 1, 2012

French Art

The French covers for The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartharenamed The Tower of Elves, or The Elven Tower

Obviously as an author book covers are fun, especially when they are good. It's always fascinating to see what you envisioned reflected back at you through another person's imagination. Above are the covers for the French editions, the art done by the marvelous Marc Simonetti—the cover for Avempartha being newly released.

While I had zero input, having never communicated with Mousiour Simonetti, or the the French publisher Bragelonne and its imprint Milady, I am nevertheless, extremely pleased with their fanciful and imaginative depictions of my world Elan. It's enough to make me want to get Rosetta Stone.

I still have to wonder why it is everyone insists on giving Royce a sword. On the other hand I think the scarlet cloak is very stylish.