New Market

Holly Lisle is putting together a new sort of online magazine project based primarily around serials, although with some shorter one-shot stories too, and with issues grouped into “seasons.” She explains it better than I do. ๐Ÿ™‚ Anyway, it’s called Rebel Tales, is starting off as an F&SF market, and she has the preliminary writer’s guidelines up.

The guidelines are worth reading even if you don’t plan to submit; she has a refreshingly blunt, take-no-prisoners attitude toward people who submit without following instructions, or without being able to write terribly well, or without knowing what SF or Fantasy actually are, or even what a story is. I got a few chuckles while reading.

Angie

More Expectations

Remember how I mentioned a couple of posts ago that the universe has been dropping “EXPECTATIONS” anvils on my head recently? I just got another one (Oww!) and thought I’d share.

I’m reading Sparks of Genius, by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, a book about creative thinking tools used by various genius-type people. It’s really good so far, and I’ll probably do a post about it when I’m done.

This bit caught my eye, though:

The mind’s preconceptions can alter our other perceptual sensations, too. A simple example can be found in Zap Science, produced by the Exploratorium science museum of San Francisco. On page three of this stimulating book is a picture of a pizza covered with a removable piece of plastic labelled: “Mystery smell. Peel off and replace.” The picture conjures in most people’s minds the taste and smell of pizza. But, as the text says, “It doesn’t smell like a pizza does it? It smells like… like… like… How come you can’t think of the answer? Because we crossed up your mental wires. We put a picture of a pizza with the smell of a chocolate chip cookie. Messes up your brain.” In fact, many who encounter the pizza picture find the cookie smell nauseating even though they like both pizza and chocolate chip cookies separately. Our mental expectations mediate perception just as certainly for touch, taste, smell, and hearing as for vision. [pg. 43]

That’s pretty awesome, in and of itself. But it’s also a great example of how our expectations can mess with our perception and enjoyment of what we actually get, if it’s different from what we thought we were getting. If people who expected pizza can actually feel nausea at the smell of a chocolate chip cookie, then it’s even less weird that someone who buys a book labelled Genre A will be at the very least annoyed when they read the book and find that it’s actually Genre B.

People involved in marketing should be forced to study these phenomena.

Angie

Sticking the Landing

There’s a Nonymouse over in a discussion on agent pitches at writers’ conferences in Agent Kristin’s blog who just Does Not Get why an agent would require a completed manuscript from a newbie writer. Just does not, no matter how it’s explained. I tried one more time a little while ago and hopefully that’ll make the lightbulb glow, but I’m not betting on it.

This person seems to think that absolutely anybody who sits down to write a novel can finish — that it’s easy, just a matter of having the time. Maybe for them it is, I don’t know. But they’re completely dismissing the possibility that someone who wants to write a novel might actually find that they’re unable to, or that no matter how fantastic their idea is, or how perfect and sparkly their first hundred pages might be, there’s always the possibility that fifty or a hundred pages after that they’ll write themselves into a corner or fall into a pit and be unable to get out. There you go — abandoned manuscript. I think most writers have them. Heck, I have a few myself, and probably over a dozen if you count all the shorter pieces I’ll likely never get back to for whatever reason.

Personally, I’ve yet to finish anything novel length. I’m still cranking away on my current novel-length WIP, and although it’s slowed way down over the last three months or so, I’m still working on it and still have hopes of finishing. But if I do, it’ll be the first time. I have other pieces which were novels in potentia but which will never be finished; I just ran into a roadblock I couldn’t overcome and… there you go. I was headed in the wrong direction, or tangled things too badly to ever straighten them out in a realistic way, or got discouraged to the point where I just can’t bring myself to work on them anymore. I can think of three particularly early attempts (one started when I was thirteen) where I didn’t have a clear understanding of exactly what a plot was when I started writing them; one was actually a series of episodes with whatever connective verbage I banged out before thinking of something new for the characters to do, and another was a lot of characters and motivations who searched hard for a main plot but never found one.

I don’t regret writing any of them, though. They represent tens of thousands of words for the bit bucket, yes — maybe even hundreds; I don’t know because I never kept a tally and I don’t have most of them anymore — but they were all valuable as practice. Every one of those dead ends, no matter how frustrating they were at the time, have contributed to making me the writer I am now. And once I start finishing novels, there’s an excellent chance that the first few of those won’t sell either. As painful as it is to consider the possibility about something I’m currently working on, it is a possibility, and more than that it’s a likelihood. But even if I end up with a novel or two or six in the trunk, completed but unpublishable, those will be practice too, and when I eventually do make it, anything and everything I’ve written will have helped me get there.

Sure, you hear about a writer every now and then who sells their first novel. Sometimes it’s even a bestseller. Maybe Kristin’s Nonymouse will be one of those people, I don’t know. But for the other 99.99% of us, getting good enough to have a novel finished and published is a process, and it includes learning how to actually finish the book. There are a lot of steps in between deciding to try this novelist thing and actually getting a novel published, and every one of them is a necessary part of that process, including learning to get all the way to the end, wrap up the story and stick the landing.

Angie

[ETA: comments closed because of spam-storm.]

Expectations

I’ve thought for a while that a big chunk of marketing (pimping, promoting, whatever you want to call it) is about managing expectations. Recently the universe has been dropping this concept onto my head like a series of anvils — in a review of a book which wasn’t quite what the reviewer was expecting, although she liked it anyway; in a couple of blog discussions about badly-researched historicals; and in a review I did recently for my publisher — so before I go completely comatose from the multiple concussions, I thought I should talk about it.

About twenty years ago, I was a huge Alan Dean Foster fan; I always looked for anything new by him when I browsed the SF/Fantasy shelves at the bookstore. One day I saw a new book of his called Maori. It was set in 19th century New Zealand, which I’d barely heard of at the time, and it sounded interesting. I’d read a few historical fantasies before and this one seemed new and different, so I bought it and read it. And all through the story I was waiting for the “fantasy” part to begin. And waiting, and waiting and waiting. After a few hundred pages I’d gotten kind of annoyed. After all, if this was a historical fantasy, then the “real” plotline probably couldn’t have begun until we actually, like, saw something magical, right? Well, the writer seemed to be taking a horribly long time to get on with it already, and then I got to the end and he never had.

Of course, it wasn’t a historical fantasy — it was straight historical fiction. It was a good historical, but it wasn’t what I’d expected, so I spent the entire time I was reading it waiting and waiting, getting more and more annoyed and confused, and despite its being a good book, I didn’t enjoy reading it because my expectations had been set up for a different experience.

My expectations had been based on a few things. First, it was Alan Dean Foster. I’d never known him to write anything before which wasn’t SF or fantasy, so it seemed reasonable that this was too. Second, it was shelved in the SF/Fantasy section of the bookstore, which is usually a pretty good hint as to a book’s genre. Third, the cover had the words “The epic historical fantasy of the year!” printed on it. So I don’t feel too bad about making this mistake. [wry smile]

In this case, a good book — and once I was finished, I could look back at the book and acknowledge that yes, it’d been a good story and well-written — was ruined for me because the marketing led me to expect oranges and then gave me carrots. They’re similar — they’re both vegetation, they’re the same color, and they can both be described as “sweet” — but when I’m set up to judge a product by its orange-ness, carrots are always going to fall short.

Some historical romance fans don’t know and don’t care that Arthurian-era Britons didn’t use forks to eat, or that Arthur’s knights wouldn’t have worn full plate armor. They’re just looking for a fun romp they can enjoy while kicking back with popcorn, they don’t want to think too much, and what’s fun for them is reading about two hot people having adventures and sex in cool costumes (and no, the women in that period didn’t wear hoopskirts either) and maybe a couple of sword fights. Too much historical authenticity can actually be a turn-off for these folks; they’ve gotten their ideas about what the Middle Ages or King Arthur’s Court are like from Hollywood and they don’t want to be slapped in the face with the grim, dirty, flea-ridden reality of it.

Other historical romance fans are history buffs, or even have degrees in the subject. Having your Regency lady wearing her gloves at an inappropriate time will have them rolling their eyes and writing snarky blog posts. Describing your character as a Florentine Guelph and then showing him cheering the Emperor (unless of course he’s trying to get close enough to slip that dagger between his ribs) would probably get your authorial persona burned in effigy. (And even without the flames, there’ll be more snarky blog posts.) To a dedicated history fan, details are important, and you always have to assume you have readers who know more than you do, so you need to do your research and be thorough about it, and careful to get things right. Perfection is unattainable, of course, but it should always be your goal if you want to satisfy this group of readers.

Both kinds of books have their audience; each kind is preferred by some people and rejected by others. This is good news for authors who like writing one or the other type, but only if you make it clear what you’re writing, so the readers who’d enjoy your book know that it is the kind they prefer. If you fool someone who likes rigorous historicals into buying your popcorn historical, you get their money that one time, but they’re left with a negative experience associated with your name. There’s a good chance they’ll never buy another one of your books, even if you later start writing rigorous historicals. And they might feel iffy about your publisher, too.

Which isn’t at all unfair, because much of the responsibility for marketing the book rests with the publisher, especially if it’s one of the larger New York houses. If you’re writing a popcorn historical and your publisher gives it serious art, and writes the cover copy to emphasize the sweep of historical events rather than the sex, adventure and humor which are its real strengths, the writer is pretty much hosed right along with the readers.

The problem isn’t always a matter of overt marketing, though. Some writers or publishers become known for certain things; if 90% of the books published under a given label have romance plots, then readers will come to expect romance from those books. Even if a book doesn’t have “The epic romance of the year!” printed on its cover [cough] if every other book a person has read by that writer or that publisher has been romantic, then they’ll probably expect the next one to be romantic too. If it’s not, then there’s a good chance that reader will be disappointed, even if the book was excellent for what it was. When this kind of exception to a rule — even an unspoken one — is made, it’s good for everyone, writer, readers and publishers alike, for the readers to have some way of knowing in advance just what they’re getting. If they’re set up for a genre romance and they don’t get one, they’re likely to be disappointed and annoyed. If they’re set up for a mystery or an adventure or whatever the book is, they’re more likely to enjoy the story because they’re not waiting and waiting for the romance while they read, or left disappointed at the end when the main characters shrug and wander apart.

If you’re selling carrots, make sure your sign says “CARROTS” in large, easily-read letters. Make it clear to the orange lovers that you’re not selling oranges, market specifically to people who love carrots instead, and your customers will be happy. If you want to tap into the orange-lover market, get some oranges to sell; don’t try to slip them carrots and hope for the best.

Which seems to be what Mr. Foster’s publisher tried to do, twenty years ago. They knew his main audience was SF and fantasy fans, so they put “Fantasy!” on the cover of Maori, and the bookstores put it on the SF/Fantasy shelves. It went out of print pretty quickly; I don’t know how well it sold, but I’ve never gotten the impression that it was a fan favorite. And that’s a shame, because it deserves to be a favorite of the kind of readers who are fans of historical novels. Even if some bookstores put a few copies over on the Historical shelves, chances are anyone who preferred straight historicals would’ve avoided it because if the “historical fantasy” text on the cover. Mr. Foster and his book were screwed from both sides.

Looking at a list of all his published books, I just realized that after I read Maori was when I backed away from Alan Dean Foster’s work. I still bought some of his books, but I was more likely to stick with series books I already knew I liked, and less likely to pick up his single-title books. He’d been on my buy-on-sight list before that point, and after that I no longer trusted that I’d always enjoy his work. I didn’t even consciously realize it at the time; it’s only now, looking at the timeline, that I see what I did and when. So whoever made the marketing decisions about Maori lost me as one of Mr. Foster’s raving fans, one of the people who bought everything with his name on it. After that, I was only a regular fan, someone who bought his books occasionally. I wonder whether Ace thinks getting my $4.50 for Maori was worth that loss?

What really annoys me is that if it’d been marketed as the historical novel it was, I’d probably have bought it anyway, enjoyed it, and kept buying all of Mr. Foster’s books. That’s my loss as well as theirs.

Angie

[ETA: comments closed because of spam.]

Review of “A Spirit of Vengeance”

Boylove_Addict over on LJ posted a great review of Spirit of Vengeance the other day:

A Spirit of Vengeance by Angela Benedetti
Josh is lost in grief after the gruesome murder of his beloved partner Kevin, until he realizes that Kevin is dead, but not gone. Kevin haunts Josh, because he wants revenge. Yet in staying in the “living” plane, he gives Josh a chance to think, a chance to act, a chance to heal, a chance to say good bye and most importantly a chance to stay alive. Kevin might claim to be an angry spirit of vengeance, but I would say he is a loving spirit of protection.

Angela delivers a poignant story about love and life in the face of tragedy. Those brave enough to go along for the ride will find it entertaining, beautiful and very touching. Just know that it is the ride and not the destination that counts in this wonderful story.

I’m thrilled that she enjoyed it and grateful for the wonderful comments. ๐Ÿ˜€

ETA:ย  Comments turned offย  to cut off a spamstorm.

Angie

Inspiration vs. Perspiration

There’s a discussion going on at Nathan Bransford’s place about what writers owe their readers, in the context of sequels and delays and missed deadlines. It’s interesting in its own right, but what struck me was the thread in the comments about inspiration and the muse and how impossible it is to write anything at all unless the planets are properly aligned, or whatever each individual writer takes as a sign that It Is Time To Be Creative Now.

I’ve run into other writers saying similar things, both online and in writing books and articles. But I’ve also seen writers saying the exact opposite, and it seems to be mostly the full time writers, the ones who pay all their bills with their keyboards, who think that the whole muse/inspiration thing is a lot of hooey and whining. As Mercedes Lackey puts it, all that’s needed is to apply seat of pants to seat of chair and do the work. According to her, writer’s block just means you don’t feel like doing the work, but you get a lot more sympathy and petting if you say you’re blocked than if you say you don’t feel like working.

Me, I’m kind of in the middle. For me, there are times when the words just flow (my fondest writing memory at this point is last October, when I cranked out 40K words of my WIP in two weeks) and there are times when I have to hunt every word down with a flashlight and pliers. I have some techniques I can use to get past a blockage, but they all take focus and concentration, and there are times when I can’t muster either one.

I’m bipolar, which I’ve mentioned before, and my moods (which affect such things as ambition and energy level) are subject to the whims of my wildly veering brain chemistry. When I’m in a low, I can’t scrape together enough ambition or energy to do much of anything at all. When I’m sort of in the middle I’m just like everyone else, and the writing is usually work but I can do it if I decide to, including working through a block.

When I’m in a high, well, it depends what kind. The best kind is what I think of as a productive high — lots of energy and ambition, the confidence to believe I can do anything at all [this is the part known as “mania,” which is where the “manic” part of manic-depressive comes from, and no, it doesn’t necessarily lead one to thoughts of taking over the world ๐Ÿ˜‰ ] and I do some of my best work, no matter what kind of work I’m doing, when I’m in this chunk of my cycle. Some highs are less productive, though, and if I’m irritable (pissed at the world, snappish, no patience of any kind) or if thoughts are racing around in my head so furiously I can’t grab on to any of them, work is pretty much out the window.

[BTW, I have no problem talking about any of this. If anyone is thinking about writing a bipolar character, or is just curious, feel free to post here or e-mail me and I’ll be happy to answer questions.]

Of course, the times I enjoy writing most is when I’m on a productive high. Story ideas pour out, and I have enough focus to concentrate on a single story and make significant progress with it. Even when I’m in the mid-range, though, I can usually manage. I might have to kick my butt to get it into gear, and put in some Seat Of Pants In Seat Of Chair time to work through whatever problems might crop up, but I can do it, and if I don’t it’s my own fault.

Recognizing where I am can be a problem, though. It’s a forest-and-trees thing, where the person experiencing an episode is too close to the issue, and possibly too judgement-impaired, to be able to spot what’s going on. I don’t know how often it’s suddenly hit me that, hey, I’ve been depressed for a while now. Or, wow, irritable high! Sorry, everyone! (The recognition usually hits after the fact, unfortunately, when I’ve shifted back a bit and my judgement is better.) So there are times when I’m trying to make the words come and they just won’t, I can’t focus enough to work on a story because there are six or ten other ideas all shouting at me from behind my eyeballs, and trying to chase them down is just pointless and frustrating. I’d rather do that, though, than not try to work when I could if I only would try, you know? Although I’m not successful at making that happen a hundred percent of the time, either. :/

That’s me. It’s hardly ever boring [wry smile] but I deal with it as best I can, and occasionally I crank out a story I think is pretty good.

How about you? Where does your opinion fall on the inspiration-vs.-perspiration scale, and what do you do about block?

Angie

In the Mail

I just got a cool certificate in the mail today (or yesterday now, I guess) from EPIC, for being an EPPIE finalist. It’s really nice, around 10×13 or so (I’m too lazy to dig up a ruler) on parchmentish paper, with full-color printing. It came in a folder, too, rather than just being stuck into the envelope. I think my husband was more excited than I was, LOL! We’re going to get a frame for it and hang it in the computer room. ๐Ÿ˜€

I didn’t know the finalists got certificates, so it was nice to get. Good on the EPPIE committee for doing this.

If you want to see what the certificate looks like, Cat Grant posted a pic of hers. Mine’s just the same, but with my info and book cover.

Angie

On the Organization of Bookstores

Carleen has a poll over at White Readers Meet Black Authors, asking whether bookstores should have a section for African American fiction. Head over and leave your opinion.

Me, I have a few thoughts, which tend to distill down to “This is complicated.”

Because basically, it’s all about authors wanting readers to find (and buy, and read) their books, and readers wanting to find books they’d want to buy and read. So there’s actually a larger issue here of bookstore organization in general, as opposed to just a question of whether books by Black authors should all be shelved together in their own section. So where will readers most easily find books by Black authors?

Well, if the main criterion readers are searching by is the race of the author, then having a special section for Black authors might be the way to go. Want Black authors? African American section. Want Hispanic authors? Latin@ American section. Want Asian authors? Asian American section. Want gay authors? Gay Studies section. (Which is its own issue, because shelving novels with sociological studies, sex manuals, gay history and gay travel guides does not sell a lot of fiction.) Want white authors? Ummm… well, that’s the rest of the store, basically.

Which is where my main problem with this kind of sorting comes from. Giving each group its own little ghetto-shelf in the store doesn’t do very much to encourage people to buy books by writers who aren’t just like them. And by “people” I mainly mean “white people” here, because a Black reader who wants SF has to go to the SF section, and an Asian reader who wants romance has to go to the romance section; it’s not like there are duplicate stores complete with genre sections for each racial group. They might browse through “their” race’s special lit section too, but they’ll hardly ever find anyone else in that aisle.

Reading other discussions of this subject, I’ve seen people of color, both readers and writers, commenting with about equal energy and numbers on either side of the issue, and there is another side to it. If it’s mainly Black people buying books by Black writers, then putting all the Black writers in one section makes it easier for the target audience to find them. For writers, it’s playing to their core audience, and for readers, it lets them hit one spot in the bookstore instead of rambling all over.

To me, this seems like surrendering to the racial barriers, though. It’d never occurred to me, for example, that there were romance novels with Black characters until someone online mentioned them. Once I thought about it, sure, it made perfect sense that Black women would want to read romances too, and would want to have books about people like themselves. But they weren’t (and even now, still generally aren’t) shelved with the rest of the romances, so readers who just want “romances” without having any particular preference about the race of the main characters won’t find anything but white romances unless they think to go looking in the African American Lit section, or wherever that particular store or chain has the Black romances stashed. Impulse buys on the part of the other 80% of the reader market are forfeited when the books aren’t shelved in the place where most readers looking for a given genre would go looking for them.

The argument, though, is that virtually all the people who would actually buy the book are going to be looking in the “Whatever-American Lit” section, that putting the book somewhere else will forfeit the purchases of people who shop there and not in the genre section (and there are people who do that — I’ve seen them arguing in favor of the special sections on that very basis) while gaining few or no new readers from the genre section. It’s a smaller market, but it’s theirs and these authors don’t want to miss out on a chunk of it by gambling on maybes.

Fair enough.

I think it’s a shame, though, that people who might well be interested in a book by a writer of color, whether they’re consciously looking to choose books by writers with a variety of backgrounds or whether they just think that some book which caught their eye looks interesting regardless of the author’s race, are unlikely to ever run across such books in stores where they’re all sorted away into their “special” sections.

I don’t think this situation can be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, unfortunately. Someone in the comments to Carleen’s post suggested shelving books in both places — the special ethnic section and the relevant genre section. That sounds good in theory, but unless you’re already a pretty great seller, getting a bookstore to stock multiples of your book can be tough. Heck, these days getting them to stock one copy can be tough. And I’ve never worked in a bookstore, but there are probably inventory and tracking issues with cross-shelving too.

Brick-and-mortar stores are just too limited to solve this problem. Luckily it’s not the only option.

This is a situation e-commerce handles perfectly. Since there are no issues around the physical location of the books, it’s just a matter of building your search database to handle any sort of query a customer might have. Want books by Black authors? Ask for a list. Want SF books by Black authors? You can have that too.

Or you should be able to have it — there’s no technical reason why “romance novel ‘Black author'” should be an impossible search. Practical application lags, unfortunately (just try to find those Black SF authors’ books at Amazon, for example) but the potential is there; it only requires making use of the available tools.

If online bookstores realize we want to be able to search this way, then there’s no reason they couldn’t virtually shelve any book in as many “sections” as will help readers find it. Beloved could be in “African American Lit” and “Literature” and “Fantasy” and “Bestsellers” and “Books-into-Movies” and anywhere else anyone can think of to put it. Or rather, it can carry any other tags or keywords anyone can think to hang on it. Any individual book can be found in a dozen different places around the virtual bookstore, giving its author the greatest chance of catching the eye of a new reader or being found by their core audience.

Everyone wins.

Angie

[EDIT:ย  Comments closed because of spammer trash.]

And the Winner Is….

Not me, but then I wasn’t really expecting it. ๐Ÿ™‚ EPIC got the list of EPPIE winners up and Cat 15 was won by Rick Reed for Orientation.

I have to say that I was expecting Rick to win. Oh, not at first. I mean, “Spirit of Vengeance” is one of my favorite of my own stories, and I figured I had a decent chance. I wanted to check out the competition, though — and besides, the finalists list was bound to have some pretty good books on it — so I started reading the other Cat 15 finalists. I thought I still had a decent shot all the way to the end, when I read the last book, Orientation.

Not that it’s last on the list, but it’s the last one I read. Why? Because the plot summary sounds… well, I have to say, kind of iffy. It’s a reincarnation plot, which can go either way, and the (gay male) protag’s lover dies and comes back as a woman, which just has “Train Wreck” written all over it. I mean, you know? Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, or maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of reading, but for whatever reason I’ve noticed that there are certain plots or devices which are incredibly difficult to do well, and most writers who tackle them seem to end up in the weeds. This is one of those plots that a less than stellar writer could smear all over the landscape — I had images of a “straight for you” sort of storyline, where the guy is gay but he loves the soul inside this woman so much that he turns straight just for her or something, which just…. No. You know? The gay community already gets enough crap from idiots who think they could just “decide” to be straight if they really wanted to, and said idiots don’t need any encouragement.

But these problematic plotline types are also the kind that a really excellent writer can turn into gold, and that’s what Rick did. He handles everything beautifully — the characters sound real, the reincarnation device isn’t too twee or completely woo-woo, and it isn’t really the central pivot around which all the characters’ development arcs turn. The secondary characters are appropriately well developed, even the protag’s current lover in the here-and-now section; he’s a selfish little druggie jerkwad who’s completely consumed by and focused on his addiction, but Rick shows us (without rambling on and on about it) how he got that way and who he was before, and lets us see the shreds of the person he was still buried inside him. I empathized with him, and wouldn’t mind seeing a book about him later on; I hope his recovery goes well.

There’s a bit of action, but this isn’t an action book and isn’t trying to pretend it is. There’s drama but it doesn’t go over into melodrama. There’s barely any sexual content, which is fine because what’s there is what the story needs and no more, just the way I like it. There’s just enough of everything, not too much, and it all fits just right and balances. And the last chapter is perfect — I was holding my breath all the way to the end on the possibility of a straight-for-you ending, but Rick didn’t go there, and where he went fits the characters and ties everything off just neatly enough.

Excellent book — highly recommended. I don’t at all mind losing to this one.

Angie