Tuesday, November 29, 2011

You're Invited

Today, Wednesday, November 30th 2011, I am celebrating the official launch of Theft of Swords, the first Orbit published book of the Riyria Revelations series.  It will be held at 7pm eastern, in Falls Church, Virginia at One More Page Books. (2200 N Westmoreland Street #101 Arlington, VA 22213) Every human living on the planet is invited, and yes, they will be selling the books there, and yes I will be signing them.

One More Page Books is a wonderful little independent bookstore. This “shop around the corner” is owned by Eileen McGervey  whose passion for books and reading is evident in her choice to leave the world of corporate marketing for one of books, chocolate, and wine. This place is a gem and deserves to be noticed.

Two years ago, on October 1st, 2008, I held the official release of The Crown Conspiracy at the Barnes and Noble in Clarendon. About twenty people came. When you realize no one had yet read the book, there was no Internet buzz, and I was new to the area, that was very good.  Sure, most everyone there was someone I knew. They came so I didn’t look stupid, and I appreciated it.

I have no idea if anyone will come tomorrow. It’s not like we sell advanced tickets, and all the people who came to the first launch read the book already. In numerous discussions, my wife and I have decided that at least five people will show. Her and I of course, then there’s my now famous daughter, a close friend and my agent who is traveling in from New York for the party. I’m hoping more will show up, but if becoming an author has taught me one thing, it’s not to get my hopes up.

I’ve done signings at huge books stores where Alan Alda had a line stretched out the door. They had a reserved parking place for me in the front of the store with a sign that read: “Reserved for Author.” My wife saw that and then looked at me as if reassessing my value. Like that Old Spice commercial: Look at the sign, look at your man, look at the sign, look at your man. I thought perhaps I was about to gain a new level of respect in her eyes, and then we went in and it was just me, Robin, and the store clerk all night. Well, not all night. We only hung around for thirty minutes and then gave up and left. The sad part was I didn’t even get to use the parking spot. We didn’t see it until after we had parked in the big garage.  In retrospect it was for the best. I didn’t feel I deserved an author reserved spot. I didn’t even feel I deserved a wife.

So as I look forward to the big event, it is with a degree of trepidation. There won’t be a sign, but I’m sure there will be more people. After all I’m guaranteed at least five, even if I am counting myself as one.

Hope to see you there.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Writing Advice 23—Editing

I was recently asked if a writer should edit as they go or just write the novel and then go back. I think the generally held wisdom is not to look back and just plow through to the end, but I don't entirely agree. I also don't think you should edit as you go. I think you might see why I decided to write a blog post on this. A tweet won't cut it.

Should you, or should you not, edit as you go?

The pitfall of editing as you go is that you end up like a car stuck in the mud just spinning your tires. Editing is a form of quicksand. Nothing will ever be perfect, and you can edit forever. Writers can spend a year working on the first chapter. Then the realization that there are twenty more chapters in the novel can seal the fate of a career. You can also spend three times the hours writing a book only to get half done and realize the plot won't work. If you had skipped the editing, you would have saved months. And then there's the frustration of polishing prose to a fine luster only to discover you have to cut that chapter, now all that work that you made so perfect, and all that time is lost.

So why am I not against editing until the book is done?

Two reasons. The first is that invariably you will get to a point in the writing of any novel where you hit a patch of trouble. This leads to a lack of confidence, both in the work and in your own abilities as a writer. Your mind will play tricks on you, spin you into a depression and cause you to remember everything you've written up to that point as crap. It is very easy to fall into a defeated state and just give up.

The solution to this mid-book doldrums is to go back and read the first chapter again. If you did a good job on it, you'll impress yourself right back into confidence. You'll remember what was great about this idea, and why you wanted to write it in the first place. But, it has to be good.

As a result, I always polish that first chapter as a safety net. Even if I later cut it, it served it's purpose, and that is to ensure I have something in the work that I'm proud of, something that can inspire me to keep writing.

I don't edit much more...until I reach the middle of the book. Once I pass the middle point I will go back and do one light pass—a read through really, but I make corrections as I read. Why do I do this?

When I write I don't as easily commit a story to memory as when I read one. I often forget what it is I wrote until I re-read it. I also tend to forget little things that I put in and thought could be expanded later. Furthermore, in re-reading I get ideas. I see patterns emerging that I hadn't noticed while writing. I see things I want to make certain I take advantage of.

Editing at the halfway point allows me to reorient myself, reevaluate the tone, pace and feel so that as I go ahead, I can better aline myself to conclude the book with the best possible results. It is the same as reading a book and anticipating what will come next, or how it will end. The reader will do this, so I want to do this too, and then either take the book another way, or really hit that nail hard to provide the reader with the best possible reading experience. Sometimes when you re-read you can see that the obvious best ending isn't the way you are planning to go, but because you are only at the midway point, you still have time to make it happen.

The last point of divergence from the wisdom of not editing until the book is done, is that when I sit down to commence writing, I often read over and edit the last page I wrote the day before. I do this just to get myself back into the mood to write, and to get my mind back into the same mindset—to orient my thoughts to pick up where I left off.

Aside from these however, I would advise not editing until the book is done.

Nothing is ever easy...including responding to a tweet about editing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

A couple of unexpected events happened this week with significant impact to the world of Riyria.

Rise of Empire, the second in the Orbit published trilogy, is now available in print and is appearing on store shelves across the country. How is this possible? How is it that both Theft of Swords and Rise are popping up at stories before the official release date? To be honest I don’t know exactly, but from personal publishing experience, I would guess that arranging for books to hit stores on a precise date must be a bit like herding cats on a time schedule—more art than science. Royce and Hadrian don’t have the influence of a Harry Potter, and probably can’t convince stores to sit on inventory, so the books are made available when they arrive. Better early than late, right? The eBooks are much more a science, far more punctual, a flip of a switch and they go. Either way, the books are out there and that’s a good thing.

And since we are on the subject, it is November 23rd, and that means that today—right now—is the official release of my first Orbit published novel. While the print books came out a bit early, the eBooks have just now been made available for download. So it’s officially. Cue the confetti, streamers and balloons. For those of you who waited all night on the cold concrete at your local bookstore it’s time for the hot soup and a good book.

The third bit of news is that The Library Journal has released its Best of 2011 list and Theft of Swords is on the ten best of fantasy/science fiction, alongside George R.R. Martin. I was pleased, of course, as it meant more libraries would carry the books, but it wasn’t until later that the implications of this hit home.

Here is the list of the other authors on the list:

Debris, by Jo Anderton
Leviathans of Jupiter by Ben Bova
Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A.Corey
The Uncertain Places by LisaGoldstein,
Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory
A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
The Unremembered by Peter Orullian
The Quantum Thief  by Hannu Rajaniemi
The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

 Where is Brandon Sanderson? Where is Patrick Rothfuss? Where are all the names of all the authors that came out with books this year that are giants in the field. Okay, so there are only so many slots—ten—but then…why am I there? I think I am going to go with the old Academy Award ploy—that those movies released really close to the judging deadline are more apt to be nominated. Someone just finished reading Theft and had it in their mind when it came time to cast ballots. (Do they even cast ballots?) Poor Pat and Brandon’s books came out too early to be remembered.

That has to be it, right?

In any event, it is good news for those of you who have long lamented the lack of Riyria books in your local library. It is good news for Royce and Hadrian, as they will get to meet lots of new friends, and it shows what Orbit can do that Robin and I couldn’t.

So with all this happening, and in keeping with the holiday spirit, I’d just like to say—thanks everyone.

And happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing Advice 22 — Applied Description

I’ve already covered the basic aspects of description which works fine, but it can be taken a step further. I mentioned how you don’t want to sit down and actually describe things as if you were a scientist recording an experiment, or a coroner working up a report. Such clinical approaches to description is very boring.

The subject was male, five foot, eight inches, twenty-four years old. He was Caucasian, with black hair, and blue eyes. He wore a single-breasted dark blue suit with a white collared shirt and a red tie.

The first impulse is to clean up the data-speak and turn it into something more casual.

He was average height for a white male in his mid twenties. He had black hair and blue eyes, and wore a dark blue, single-breasted suit with  a white shirt and red tie.

This is easier to read but still dull, so the next impulse is to dress up the description using more sophisticated, artsy language.

He was of median height for an anti-chromatic male in his newly minted adulthood. He had raven hair and cerulean eyes, and wore a dark single-breasted suit that enveloped him like a dark shadow, with a red tie like a line of blood slicing down his alabaster clear-buttoned chest.

This is where a lot of aspiring writers get stuck, lost in the clever wording and surprising imagery. It can be like a drug. It’s fun to play with words, to think of new ways to say old things. It is also easy to delude yourself into thinking this is great writing. It has to be, it’s beautiful, and it’s hard to do. It takes a lot more work than just saying something bluntly. A sense of mingling poetry and prose can soon follow and the effects become dramatic.

Mediocre this bleached pedestal of western dominance, this man newly stamped and licensed—legal to drink. Inky black, his raven’s wrath of hair perched indomitable upon his crown shading two cerulean marbles sucked in rolling sockets. His fascist uniform of the new national socialism, blood on snow, on black of death.

This then brings me back to the point of my original post where I suggested describing things using tiny details and general impressions. Here is the same description distilled down to one sentence using the impression method:

Jimmy Davis looked like an insurance salesman, already doomed at the age of twenty-five.

This sentence also uses a bit of something else, which is the real point of this post, and that is involvement and real value. A paragraph of description should never be just a paragraph of description, it should be part of the story, and provide real information that the reader can use. This helps prevent readers from just skipping that large block of descriptive text in which they know nothing will happen—it’s just description.

Too often a writer will introduce a character and feel obligated to describe them. Sometimes however you’ll read a book where the writer offers no description at all to most of their characters, and strangely, while reading it, you don’t even notice until someone points it out. In fact you thought they had, because you have a pretty clear idea in your head what they look like.

How do they do that?

They manage it by building impressions through events in the story. People’s brains are wired to look for patterns, and we have a strong tendency to settle for stereotypes. This is unfortunately why all too often people generalize about whole groups of people, picturing them as having the same attributes. So if a person acts a certain way, or talks a certain way, a visual image forms, and if that is how you want the character to appear, then you really don’t need to waste time describing them. If you portray a character through events as a nervous, sniveling, greedy, fast talking, thief, the visual of a small thin, dirty, beady-eyed, rat-like face will emerge. And then there are subtle hints. If you describe all the other characters as “looking up” at the him, you don’t need to say he’s tall.

Setting-description is a bit more complicated. Failure to provide imagery will leave your reader feeling blind, and in my previous post on description, I mentioned how focusing on just a few precise elements will cast a bigger picture, but this is still just description, and readers find description to be boring. What they like are stories. The answer is to describe the setting through stories that provide real value to the reader—that tell you about the characters or that move the story.

In the middle of the killer’s room was the exact same Wal-Mart coffee table that Detective Gifford had in his own living room.

In this sentence, you are describing the room, but you are bringing the description back and showing how it has personal meaning to the character observing it. You learn a bit about his past as well as the present setting and this makes it more interesting to both the character and the reader. This can be pushed further.

On the table was a stack of souvenir shot glasses, each painted with the names of states. When he was a kid Gifford’s mother used to bring those back to him. He would search through her purse the moment she walked in the door; feeling around like it was a treasure chest and he was Indian Jones. Some, like Florida had oranges on them, and Hawaii had a grass-skirted lady. Gifford was twenty-eight before he thought to wonder why his mother was gifting a ten-year-old shot glasses.

In reading this, no one is going to miss that this killer has souvenir shot glasses on his cheap table because that point was rolled into a little story that was far more entertaining than straight description and also gave you a huge insight into the main character’s past.

This is especially important to do with significant points. I’ve read stories by new writers and I’d have no idea how old the character is, or where they were, only to find out later they said right in the first sentence. The problem is, readers miss things all the time. So if you really need the reader to know something, you need to reinforce it. You don’t want to out-right repeat yourself, or the reader will think you just forgot, which writers often do, and why editors need to watch out for this. If a year, or an age, or the name of the city is mentioned as part of a sentence, it can easily be missed.

It was her first time in New York and she just dumped the contents of her suitcase on the hotel room dresser and then ran for the phone.

It’s not that the reader doesn’t read the words, they just don’t register them if the focus of the sentence or paragraph is elsewhere. That bit of data was just not burned into the reader’s consciousness. In the above sentence, the focus in on this woman in a hurry to unpack, not on her destination.

It was her first time in New York, in fact it was her first time anywhere, and it was amazing. The skyscrapers, their tops hidden by the clouds, took her breath away. And the sidewalks were wide enough to support a two-lane highway, and still not big enough to hold all the people walking. Passing the Empire State Building she eventually entered Times Square, but in the daylight it was disappointing. Still there was the ball perched on top of the building—the one that always dropped on television. Finally, lost in a daze, she reached her hotel room and just dumped the contents of her suitcase on the dresser then ran for the phone.

There is no way any reader will not register where this woman is now, and again it is not just description. Her perspective, her excitement, comes through. This is a place she had dreamed of.

So rather than spending hours creating poetic prose to spice up dead description, that some readers might be inclined to skip, you might find it more effective to write clearly, but make what you write interesting to read by way of the content.

Remember, if it’s boring for you to write, it will be boring for the reader to read. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Drive-By Signing

While the official stated release is November 23rd, copies of Theft of Swords have been surfacing at various bookstores across the nation and the United Kingdom. Recently Robin and I were having lunch at a restaurant across the parking lot from a Barnes & Noble and dared to do a drive-by signing.

Truth be told, it was Robin’s idea. She is devious enough that I question the true motivation in choosing that particular eatery. While there—using her iPad—she tracked to see in what stores the books were in stock. California, Michigan, Chicago, Portland, just about everywhere—Davenport, Iowa was one of the few places that did not have it yet. So with leftovers in hand, she coaxed me into walking over and seeing if they had my books on the shelf. They did.

Theft of Swords, the new split-frame, gold-based, fresh-faced American edition was there right under the Science Fiction/Fantasy sign, on the shelf directly above Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Not too sure how I felt about that. Being near was comforting, even exciting, like being an actor and walking on the set of your first film where you meet one of your idols. But being above just felt wrong. They had four—one spine, the rest face out. Nice.

We gathered them up and walked to the customer service desk. I felt awkward. “Um…I’m the author of these. Would you like me to sign them?”

The desk attendant immediately called for backup.

The supervisor arrived. “Sure, we’d love you to!”

I couldn’t help but think how very strange this was and how trusting our society still is. We still serve food before payment, still deliver goods on credit, and people in bookstores let you sign new books you claim to be the author of, without so much as asking for I.D.

“Sharpie or pen?”

“Pen. Sharpies bleed through. Readers hate that. Learned it the hard way.”

“I feel like I should get a camera,” one of them said.

Trying not to laugh made it hard to sign. Yeah, it’s like Tom Cruise was right there in front of them, except they had no idea who I was, nor would anyone they showed the photo to. No one took a picture of me, until later. After I finished signing, Robin and I put the books back on the shelf, just as they were, and then she snapped the above photo in which I gave my best dopey looking, I-should-be-writing-right-now,-but-instead-I’m-posing-for-photos-in-a-bookstore-because-my-wife-made-me, pose. Still, let’s face it, how could it not be fun? And of course it doesn’t hurt that my book is the only one in color.  

In other news, reviews are also popping up, like this one of Wintertide by Sarah at Bookworm Blues, and a Theft of Swords review by Stefan Fergus at Civilian Reader. Everyone is being very generous. Even Liviu Suciu at Fantasy Book Critic is offering a rerun of his first reviews of my books. Gotta love them bloggers.

And in addition to crashing stores to deface books, I’ve been busy doing both written and live interviews. What I’ve learned is that my computer’s audio capabilities are not conducive to the podcast world, but my wife’s little laptop is. If interested, you can listen to me chat with the zany folks over at Sci-Fi Saturday Night this Saturday I believe. I’ll add a link when I see one.

I did another interview with Tim Ward, but that may take a little while to hit the interwebs as we chatted, along with Robin, for hours, and I’m sure Tim has his hands full with editing. Again I’ll post a link when one becomes available.

Now my only concern is that with Skyrim’s release, everyone will be preoccupied and miss the news that my books are finally on the shelf. Is anyone not playing that game?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Writing Advice 21 — Dealing With Failure

I was at a book convention recently in Baltimore where a young man asked a panel of writers what he was doing wrong. He had written his first novel, edited it, written a good query letter and had sent it to all the right agents, using all the right methods…only he still wasn’t published.  He was baffled. He couldn’t understand what he had done wrong. This isn’t the first aspiring writer that I’ve met who had this perplexing problem. And it isn’t restricted to traditional publishing. Self published authors have a similar problem. They publish their first novel and it just doesn’t sell no matter how much promotion they give it. What’s the problem?

Maybe, as the panel suggested, the young writer just hasn’t found the right editor. One editor might hate a book, while another—even at the same publisher—might love it. Or maybe, in the case of the self-published author, that person just hasn’t managed to find the right reviewers. While these are possible, I have a different thought.

Practice is sometimes a necessary component to success.  

I don’t believe that the majority of authors make a commercial success of their very first novel, and when I say first novel, I don’t mean the first published novel, I mean the first novel you’ve ever written. Many authors have had huge success with their debut novel—the first book they managed to get published—but these were not necessarily the first book they wrote. Brandon Sanderson who wrote Mistborn and is now working at finishing the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series, was working on his thirteenth novel when ELANTRIS, his first published novel was picked up. Coincidentally, I had written thirteen novels myself before Crown was published.

Now I’m not saying that you have to write thirteen novels, but expecting to be successful with your first novel I think is a bit like picking up a tennis racquet for the first time and expecting to win Wimbledon. Sure, it’s possible, just not very likely. So it might be a good idea to play a few games first, get a feel for them, for the strategy, the length, the stamina you’ll need.

The problem is that writing a book takes a long time, and involves a lot of hard work. People often think that writing a book will be fun. They often sit down and enjoy zipping through the first chapter. They might even get into the third chapter before it starts to bog down, before they begin to think, “where was I going with this? Humm. Maybe I should think the story out a bit more before just writing. Okay, so Bob, my main character will discover that…oh, no. That’s not going to work because…crap. Damn, this isn’t working out the way I wanted. Oh look, I got a new email.” And so ends the first attempt at writing a novel.

The second attempt is likely more of the same. This sort of thing happens a lot and then the aspiring-writer finds themselves at a crossroads and needs to decide which way to go:

1) Writing just isn’t for them.
2) Writing a novel needs to be approached with a bit more seriousness than hey, you know what would be fun?

This is the point where the aspiring writer takes a deep breath, rolls up their sleeves and says, “I’m going to do this if it kills me.” They set aside time and they write with a single-minded effort. They know it will be tough. They know it will be hard work so they aren’t put-off when things get rough, and with great determination they finish this epic project.

Then they celebrate. It is like finishing a marathon. They did it! They actually wrote a novel! Then a week, or a month later they read it. Or worse they let someone else read it, and discover that what they made, what they spent months, perhaps even years on, isn’t as good as they hoped. This is actually better than having their friends and family support them and say how great it is, causing them to spend years doing nothing but trying to sell a bad book.  

Now the aspiring writer is at a new crossroads, that looks remarkably like the last, but instead of two choices, now there are three:

1) I suck and need to find a new hobby.
2) Maybe if I re-write it…
3) …

Number three is the true subject of this post, and it is not what writers want to hear, but is what I think is most often the case. The first novel is a learning experience and should be viewed that way. Odds of getting it right on the first try are very slim. To quote The Matrix, nobody makes the first jump.

The writing of a first novel from cover to cover, gains you entry into a new world. You can see what it takes. You know it can be done, and you can see where you failed. You can estimate the length and can pace yourself better. You’ve learned just how much runway you have to get your story and characters in the air, and won’t be so rushed next time. You’ve discovered the practical uses of PoV, and what you can do, and what you can’t do in editing. You’ll see where you’re weak and need improvement, and where you’re strong and how to build on that.

Of course no one ever sees it that way. No matter what the age, we are all impatient to succeed. If you’re old, you’ll feel you don’t have a lot of time left to start publishing, and if you’re young you’ll look at people like Christopher Paolini, who was around 19 when he published Eragon (15 when he started writing it. He is one of those people who I believe made a success of the first book he wrote.) So failing at publishing a first novel is rarely seen as progress.

If you’re unlucky denial will set in, and you will convince yourself that your book is great and others just can’t see it. If you’re lucky, you’ll obtain honest feedback, learn from it, and realize you haven’t failed, you’ve passed your first semester, but that doesn’t mean you get a diploma. Now with this new understanding, all those things you’ve read about writing make a lot more sense.  You know you can do better next time.

With this in mind you set out to write another novel. Much wiser, you pick a different kind of plot, one perhaps less grandiose, less extravagant, one that you feel confident you can handle. You do a bit more research up front, because that was a lot of the problem before, and then you have at it again.

It is still hard. The only thing that keeps you going is that you know you can do it because you did it before (this is something else you learned, this is your edge.) Finally you finish once more, but you aren’t so eager to celebrate. You know there are problems. You wait. You give it time. Then you read it.

It sucks. You can admit that now, your previous honest critiques provides you with this insight to see beyond just what you want to see, but still it is better. You can see that too. You study the problem, analyze where you failed. The problem is that the plot broke down part way. There are five gigantic plot holes you couldn’t fill. Places you hadn’t anticipated going in. Some characters are unneeded, others you added by necessity that were never fleshed out properly. Looking back you can see how you might have worked them into the main line more from the very start. There’s so much that could have been done better, even so, even with those changes, it still would never be great. Not bad maybe, but not great, and “not bad” won’t cut it.

You could try re-writing, but sometimes, and particularly at the start, all the rewriting in the world won’t save a bad idea, and until you know enough—until you have developed enough experience at building novels—you won’t know the difference between one worth saving and one that needs to be put to rest.

A lot of the time you just need to shelve that manuscript and come up with something new. Something better. You’re a veteran of two books at this point and having more than one experience, you can see patterns, draw conclusions about novel writing and how it applies to you personally. You got stuck in the same place twice now. Twice now you failed to create a satisfying ending, or failed to make your main character believable, or you gave away too much, or too little.  You know this about yourself, so it is time to make changes to correct those problems.

Maybe an outline would help to reveal issues before they arise, save months of work by discovering those plot holes early on and what characters are important and which should not even be in the story. It is so much easier to just think of a new approach before you start writing than to completely re-write a novel after the fact.

Once more you write. Once more you finish with less than perfect results. Damn! You relied too much on the outline and the story is stiff and contrived because you failed to let the character’s personalities and the situations dictate the direction of the plot. You re-write, you spot fix, but the story breaks down further because it feels like a patched quilt.

Again. Another novel. And another failure. And another and again a failure. It is hopeless.

“Can I read it?”
“You won’t like it. It’s awful. All the things I write are awful.”
“Huh? Are you kidding? This is good. I like this. It’s better than most of the junk out there.”
Blink. “Really? You actually like it?”
“What about the fact that the car starts when an hour ago it didn’t?”
Shrug. “Cars do that. Didn’t bother me.”
“And that it was his half-brother???”
“Actually I loved that!”
“You did?”
“You should try and get this published.”
“Yeah, it’s great. Ahh, but you might want to proof it better. There’s a lot of mistakes.”
“Oh…well, yeah. I could do that.”


You still might not get an agent with that book. You still might not find a publisher, just as that panel said, it can be hard to find just the right editor who will like your work, and maybe you’ll need to self-publish to get your work out there, to build an audience, but eventually it will happen.

Hopefully it will take less tries than it did for Sanderson and myself, but the thing is, looking back, the failure of that first novel, at the time, felt so terrible. It signified hours, days, months, years wasted. Time thrown into the black hole of a dream that would never happen. But…the moment your first book is published, the instant someone you don’t know reads it and says, “This was fantastic. You’re a genius. Have you written anything else I can read?” Suddenly you realize all those years weren’t wasted at all. That was just the time it took, the practice needed. And all those crappy books you wrote along the way? Looking back at them, you can see with perfect clarity what you did wrong. And some are just awful—what were you thinking? But a few had some good ideas, characters or plots that, knowing what you know now, you can easily rebuild into a great book. The best part—most of the work is already done. Even less time wasted.

Maybe you’ll be lucky and get your first novel published, but if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world, in fact I would think it would be surprising. No one expects you to hit a homerun your first time at bat. The difference between failure and practice, is when you quit.

Next: Applied Description