Unsolicited Advice

Over the past several weeks I’ve found myself engaged in numerous conversations about the craft and business of writing, and it got me thinking about how I started out and how I fumbled around because of all the things I didn’t know.

(There’s still a ton of things I don’t know, BTW. Indie authorship still is and I suspect always will be a learning process. If I feel I’m not learning anything new, that’s the time to start worrying.)

So I decided to jot down various points I’ve discussed with other authors, established and aspiring, as a sort of living master post of advice to writers — and I’m going to stress now that these are all my thoughts and opinions and they should not be taken as gospel. In fact, I’ll make that my first point…

  • No one’s rules of writing are the be-all and end-all and should not be taken at face value. What works for one writer might not work for another, so figure out what does work and adopt it, and ignore any advice that doesn’t work for you.
  • You do NOT have to write EVERY DAY. Get that out of your head now. I know authors love to throw that one out — “You must write every single day! Even if you don’t feel like it!” — but it’s BS. Artists are not machines. Our creative energy ebbs and flows and it is not limitless. Sometimes what you need is to step away from your project, go do something else, and clear your head. It is okay to not write every single day.
  • That said, you do need to write. I know that seems like an absurdly obvious statement, but I’ve met so many aspiring writers (emphasis on aspiring) who spend more time building their social media presence (more on that later) or world-building or polishing their outlines than actually writing their book. I don’t know if they have a serious procrastination problem or a fear of failure or what, but they seem destined to always be in pre-writer mode and will never actually finish a project. Don’t be that person. Write your story.
  • Cover art featuring CG pseudo humans. My god, don’t. They are always, always terrible and cheap-looking. Note that I am not talking about digital art as a medium, I am talking specifically about anything that features a fakey, cheesy, PlayStation One-era video game cut scene-quality figure. I don’t want to pick on any one cover as an example, so instead I’ll send you over to Lousy Book Covers so you can bask in the awfulness of the site’s “pseudohuman” tag.
  • When you’re looking around at publishers and small presses in particular, remember the Neil Gaiman rule: money flows toward the author. If you’re asked to shell out money for anything — editing, formatting, cover art, printing, distribution — you’re either dealing with a shady publisher or a self-publishing platform masquerading as a publisher. When dealing with any entity calling itself a publisher, your sole responsibility as the author is to write the book, not finance its production.
  • On a related note: there is a predatory cottage industry that’s sprung up around indie authorship — everything from writing contests to pay-to-play fake awards to marketing and publicity services, all designed to capitalize on authors’ desperation to succeed. Be skeptical of anyone who asks you for money, and question the value of whatever they’re offering.
  • Sending press releases about your book to the media is the second biggest waste of your valuable marketing time. I say that as someone who worked in the media for 15 years. Large outlets don’t care about Joe Nobody releasing his self-published book because they have bigger fish to fry, and smaller outlets need to be convinced to care because a lot of people are competing for not a lot of space, so the outlet is going to be very particular about what they give free publicity to. Besides, even if you do get some ink, chances are you’re only going to reach a tiny fraction of your target audience. It’s just not the best ROI.
  • The biggest waste of your marketing time? Throwing up promotional posts on any Facebook page that claims to connect writers with readers. They don’t. They’re all just echo chambers, nothing but authors all shouting “Buy my book!” to other authors too busy also shouting “Buy my book!” to give a toss about what everyone else is pitching.
  • Speaking of social media, there is this (to my mind) baffling philosophy among new writers that before they release their first novel, they first have to create a massive online following so they have a fanbase ready to scoop up their book when it drops. If you’re an as-yet-unpublished author and you’re spending as much time on establishing an online presence as you are on finishing your first book, STOP DOING THAT and finish your damn book. One, publishers and agents considering your work are going to consider your work, not how many followers you have on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Two, if you’re going the indie author route, you can only string people along for so long. If your release date is weeks away, and is firm, and you have good stuff like excerpts and cover art to post to rev up interest, then go for it, but you can’t start talking yourself up months or even years in advance and expect everyone to stick around until you finally get off your ass and finish your book.
  • Part of this job is talking yourself up, but you can do that without sacrificing honesty or indulging in puffery and self-aggrandizement. Getting a positive review from one guy in Australia does not make you an “internationally renowned author.” Receiving a pay-to-play award from some nonentity does not make you an “award-winning writer.” Cracking the top twenty of some tiny, obscure subcategory on Amazon does not make you a “best-selling author.” You should be able to promote your work based on its merits rather than front-loading your pitches with artificial accolades.
  • Also? Avoid backdoor promos of your work. I belong to several online writer groups and some of them have a strict “no self-promotion” policy to keep the spam down, but there is always that one guy who starts every post with, “As the writer of the Such-and-Such Trilogy, I think…” There’s a time and place for self-promotion; the time is not all the time and the place is not everywhere.
  • Writing the middles of stories sucks. Beginnings and endings, when you’re setting all your pins up and then knocking them down, have an energy to them. Middles, when the ball is rolling down the alley, are boring. I always struggle during the second act, as do a lot of writers. If this is you, take heart — you are not alone.
  • Quality, not quantity. It’s true that indie authors need to be fairly prolific, and putting out a decent number of books in a relatively tight time frame can be very beneficial, but it’s not a contest to see how many books you can churn out. Stephen King, considered one of the most prolific writers of the modern age, has produced 59 novels — over the course of 44 years. That’s about 1.3 books released per year. And he has the luxury of being able to do nothing but write. Not everyone can be Terry Pratchett.
  • Do not ever dub yourself the King/Queen of (Insert Genre Here). Just don’t. It’s pretentious and presumptuous as hell, more so if you’re producing crap. Let someone else give you an impressive sounding title after you’ve earned it.
  • Test readers. Get some. Use them. Listen to them. Having test readers is not creating art by committee, as I’ve heard some claim. As the author, you quickly grow blind to your own story’s flaws and faults, and the best thing you can do is get fresh eyes and outside opinions on your work. That does not mean you have to implement every suggestion you receive — you are still the ultimate arbiter here — but test readers are your eventual reading audience in miniature; their issues with your book might well reflect issues others are going to have with it.

Have any tips or advice for writers? Post them in the comments section!

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Requiem for a Trunked Novel

Years ago, long before I was remotely capable of competent prose and I was still beholden to worn-out tropes in my characters and plots, I wrote a novel.

That novel was called Bostonia – The Secret History of the City on the Hill. It was an urban fantasy tale that tapped a lot of bizarre little tidbits of life in Massachusetts, past and present to bring to life a world in which supernatural creatures and magic existed, more or less out in the open. It has so much going for it. It had solid characters, cool concepts, a personality that would speak strongly to anyone who grew up in and around Boston, and a character who remains to this day one of my favorite villains I’ve ever created.

I also learned a lot while writing it. Not about the craft so much as the process. I punched out the first act easily and thought I’d finish the book in the course of a few months, even though I was writing part-time (very part-time; I was still working at the newspaper full-time so my personal writing time was limited).

And then I hit the middle of the book and had no idea where it needed to go.

That’s not entirely accurate; I knew where it ultimately had to go, but I didn’t know how to get it there. I wasn’t sure how to connect the dots I’d set up in the first act with the dots waiting for me in the third, and I stalled out. I thought I might never finish it, and worse, I thought it was a sign this whole fiction writing thing was another dead-end dream.

And then I happened across Neil Gaiman’s blog, and at the time (2007 or so?) he was discussing his progress on writing The Graveyard Book — specifically, he was discussing what a pain in the ass it was to write the middle of a story and how he struggles to get through second acts.

That was a revelation. Here was this writer who I absolutely idolized admitting he had the exact same problem I was having — and that it was completely normal. Reading through other entries, I realized that writing was not the formulaic, one-size-fits-all exercise I thought it was, that everyone had their own methodology and idiosyncrasies and hang-ups and it was okay to have them.

While that was encouraging, it didn’t help me with my block. Bostonia sat untouched for months.

And then one day, I got back to work on it. The middle was still a pain to write, but I wrote it. I finished it in 2012. And I was happy with it. And then I got to the third act, which I powered through. And I got test-reader feedback, and I revised the book, and I went through the process of shopping it to agents and publishers, and after a round of rejections, I put it aside to work on other projects — namely Action Figures — intending to one day re-visit it, polish it up a little, and finally release it.

It’s time to admit this book will likely never see the light of day.

Every so often I think about pulling it out and doing a fresh draft. There are a LOT of problems with Bostonia that are a result of my skill level at the time, problems I could correct with a lot of re-writing — as in, I don’t go in and make changes in the existing manuscript, I trash the whole thing and start writing it all over again from scratch, using the previous iteration as nothing but a loose guide so I don’t subconsciously recreate the flaws I’d be trying to correct.

The thought of doing that is intimidating, but that’s not why I’m thinking it might be time to admit it’s never going to happen.

I have two series going right now. One of them isn’t going to be finished for four years at the very least. I have an urban fantasy trilogy idea I’ve been dying to start working on. I have a horror novel concept I want to tackle. I have plenty of existing and new projects keeping me going. The notion of putting them on hold so I can try to recreate an old story simply does not appeal to me.

It’s time to, as writers say, formally “trunk” Bostonia.

It saddens me to do so. I put literally years of work into that novel. I love the things I got right. I learned so much from writing it. But I have other things to do.

The day may come when I decide it’s time to look at it again and give it another chance. I just don’t see that day coming anytime soon.

A Writer’s Anti-Scam Checklist

I’m writing this as an indirect response to a Facebook scammer who made an appearance on one of the writers’ pages I follow. She (if she was indeed a she) asked people to PM her if they were interested in an easy writing job that promised big money in return.

I was instantly skeptical and smelled a scam in the making. My instinct was confirmed to my satisfaction when I visited the poster’s FB page and found it curiously empty. I posted a warning to fellow page members. This prompted a brief exchange between the OP and me, and soon thereafter the OP was banned from the page as a scammer — after at least two people took the bait, unfortunately.

Scammers like this prey on aspiring and novice writers and depend on their naivete and inexperience to score some free labor and maybe a quick buck or two before vanishing into the Internet aether. Fortunately, having encountered quite a few of them, they’ve shown themselves to be fairly obvious if you know what to look for, so as a service to my less experienced fellow writers out there, here are some key warning signs that someone might be a con artist.

1: They ask the mark for money.

Neil Gaiman has a simple rule when it comes to writing professionally: money flows toward the writer.  Someone offering a writing job should never ask you to cough up any kind of fee or to cover costs associated with the publication of the end product (your writing). If any part of a writing gig involves you paying them for anything and getting reimbursed later, it’s a scam.

Similarly, a legit publisher shouldn’t ask an author to cover the cost of anything, from editing and cover art to distribution costs and comp copies to — and I’ve seen this before, no kidding — office supplies allegedly used in the course of working with the writer. All those expenses are supposed to be recouped from the sale of the writer’s work, not from any up-front charges to the author.

2: They ask for personal information.

If someone posing as an employer says they need a Social Security number as part of an application process or a bank account number so they can pay you via direct deposit, cease all communications immediately. Give them nothing and, if it’s a conversation over social media, report them.

3: They are stingy with details.

The FB post I referred to in the opening read something like this: “Want to work from home, control your own schedule, and earn big money writing? Contact me privately!” When I asked for specifics about the job, the poster got rather pissy (more on that later) and refused to say anything about the jobs they were offering — not the nature of the job, what kind of pay they were offering, not the name of the company — nothing. Even when asked directly she refused to say anything. Well, almost…

4: They behave unprofessionally

When I asked for more information, the OP became immediately defensive. I was told to back off, berated for expressing my doubts about her legitimacy, and shamed for not letting the adults on the page “make their own decisions.” The OP even threw an implied threat at me that she would wield “the power of my pen” (actual quote) against me if I gave her any more grief.

Despite what our recent presidential election might lead some to believe, responding to simple questions with belligerence is not mature or professional; it’s a warning sign that this person is offering nothing and knows it and didn’t expect resistance, so now he’s doing what teenagers trying to buy cigarettes at a convenience store do when asked for ID: they feign indignity to try and scare and intimidate the cashier into giving them what they want.

5: They have no distinct identity.

I checked out the OP’s Facebook profile and it immediately smacked of a fake account. There was no personal info, the profile pic was a stock photo (“professional woman with laptop”), she had all of 15 friends from several highly disparate geographical locations, and the page was only two weeks old, indicating that it had been set up very recently. Scammers regularly set up fake profiles for the express purpose of pulling a hit-and-run scheme, so if you’re suspicious about someone, look for telltale signs that a profile page might be bogus.

Added FYI: if someone’s profile photo looks a little too slick and professional, try using Google’s image search feature. Just right-click over the photo and choose “Search Google for image.” If a stock photo comes up, you know you’re being duped.

6: The company has no online fingerprint.

Someone might claim to represent a company, but far more often than not this is a Vandelay Industries type of thing. Run a Google search and see if the alleged business has full website rather than just a Facebook page or a Twitter account, which are much easier to set up for a quick con. If it doesn’t have a full-fledged website or any kind of serious online presence, be suspicious.

7: It has an online presence, but not the good kind.

I regularly advise neophyte writers looking for job opportunities, agents, or publishers to Google their prospects with the terms “writer beware” or “water cooler” attached, which will bring them to the Writer Beware and Absolute Write websites, which are great resources for ferreting out scammers and less-than-reputable businesses. Scammers either don’t realize writers talk to one another, or they hope that their current target is too naive to think of conducting a due diligence check.

ConnectiCon – Day Two

The con-centric shenanigans continue!

Your humble narrator as Phil from "Better Off Ted."
Your humble narrator as Phil from “Better Off Ted.”
My wife in her stealth Pepper Potts cosplay.
My wife in her stealth Pepper Potts cosplay.
The first "Orphan Black" cosplay I've ever seen. Why is this not more of a thing?
The first “Orphan Black” cosplay I’ve ever seen. Why is this not more of a thing?
An excellent Prince Oberyn (with head).
An excellent Prince Oberyn (with head).
Don't know what this was from, but the wings were awesome.
Don’t know what this was from, but the wings were awesome.
Catbus!
Catbus!
Hodor and Tyrion -- who were two separate attendees who just happened to be in my wife's booth at the same time. Hodor had a backpack with Brann, too.
Hodor and Tyrion — who were two separate attendees who just happened to be in my wife’s booth at the same time. Hodor had a backpack with Brann, too.
My friend Monica as Delirium, and her friend (whose name I totally forget) as Death.
My friend Monica as Delirium, and her friend (whose name I totally forget) as Death.
My favorite from Saturday: two ladies as Hawkeye and Hawkeye.
My favorite from Saturday: two ladies as Hawkeye and Hawkeye.

The Action Figures Diversity Report

I’ve been a cautiously optimistic fanboy this week, due to the news that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is in development as a series. American Gods is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I’m curious to see how it translates to the screen — even more so after reading that Neil has asked the producers not to whitewash any of his characters of color.

That got me to thinking about the diversity of the Action Figures cast of characters, and whether I was doing a good job of representing a variety of genders, sexual orientations and identities, and races. As a bit of an internal exercise, I went through the main and prominent secondary characters and tagged them, and here’s the result:

  • Carrie/Lightstorm: white female
  • Matt/Captain Trenchcoat: white male
  • Sara/Psyche: white female
  • Stuart/Superbeast: male, quarter African-American
  • Missy/Kunoichi: female, half-Japanese
  • Concorde: male
  • Mindforce: white male
  • Nina Nitro: Hispanic female
  • Dr. Enigma: white female, bisexual
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: male
  • Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: female
  • Meg Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male

You’ll notice that only one character, Dr. Enigma, has a distinct sexual orientation. Three other people on the list are homo- or bi-sexual, but their respective reveals are tied to story and forthcoming (if not in book three, definitely in book four).

You’ll also notice that the cast is primarily white. Eight characters are explicitly described as white, nine if you assume at least Rockjaw or Doc Quantum are white (which is a natural assumption, considering the kids are described as pale-skinned with very light blond hair).

If I start adding prominent tertiary cast members (the kids’ parents, recurring supporting characters), things don’t necessarily get more colorful, so to speak. Missy has a Japanese father, Stuart has one half-African-American parent, but the rest of the parents are white (implicitly if not explicitly). Much of the supporting cast is of unspecified ethnicity, which can be good or bad; readers can fill in the blanks and assume these characters are people of color if they like, but I could also take a bolder stance and say “Character A is a person of color.”

My concern with establishing as canon that a character is someone of color is that it would wind up as little more than paying lip service to diversity. I realize it could be argued that simply having a person of color present is enough, that it makes them a presence in the story, but I want the character’s ethnicity to matter, to the character or the story, and not become a throwaway element — but, as the writer, it’s incumbent on me to do just that, isn’t it?

I am pleased with the gender balance. Of the above-listed characters, half are women, and two are in leadership roles (Carrie and Doc Quantum). Additionally, the male characters are portrayed as comfortable with that, and I’d like to think that sends a good message all around.

If I were to give myself a grade for diversity in my novels, I’d give myself a solid B-minus, at best. I could definitely do better, and hope to as the series progresses.

Monday Musings

Some quick bits of no major significance…

First, made a little more headway on final Action Figures edits. I have maybe a quarter of the book left to go through, and then I can begin the process of turning the manuscript into a file suitable for publishing. I’d love to have this wrapped up within the next week or so, but that’ll depend on how quickly others get their work done, and I’m the sort who prefers having things done right over having things done now.

***

The Neil Gaiman talk at the Museum of Fine Arts was great. He spoke about the role of mythology in modern fantasy fiction and how it informed his own work, then treated the audience to a sneak-peek reading of a new story, based in Norse mythology, that will be part of a project he’ll be working on throughout 2014. Can’t wait for the finished product!

PS: Got front-row seats. Score!

***

Finally, this collection of two-sentence horror stories got posted by a few of my friends, and I got a kick out of reading them. Some of them were very effective. For fun, here’s one I came up with:

Stan decided that, of all his children, little Timmy was his favorite. He took another bite.

Neil-ing At The Feet Of The Master

Not much to report on the Action Figures front right now. I received a new batch of editing notes earlier this week and plan to go through them tomorrow or Sunday, and that’s about it there.

Saturday I get to spend part of the afternoon with none other than Neil Gaiman, who will be holding a talk at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts entitled “Myth, Magic, and Making Stuff Up.” I am beyond excited to be attending this. I’ve been to one of his book signings before, in Cambridge, during his Anansi Boys tour, and he was funny and charming, and after he signed my copy of American Gods with what he deemed the worst signing of the name “Michael” ever, he apologized profusely and made sure my name was very tidy when he signed my wife’s copy of Anansi Boys.

The man himself. Image gakked from the MFA website.
The man himself. Image gakked from the MFA website.

I am oddly proud to own a book signed with one of his less graceful inscriptions.

Anyway, book signings are one thing, but to attend a dedicated lecture on the craft led by Neil is thrilling beyond words. I don’t care if he doesn’t answer questions, mine or anyone’s, or if he doesn’t stick around to say hello to people personally, I just want to sit there and soak up whatever he has to say. I want to learn from someone whose work I love and, in a way, has served as a long-distance (and unknowing) mentor.

Through his blog I’ve picked up on some interesting and valuable lessons about the process of writing that have helped me immeasurably.  Best example off the top of my head: back when he was working on The Graveyard Book, he wrote one day how he was stuck somewhere in the middle of the story, and how middles tend to confound him. The beginnings of a story were easy, he said, because that’s when you’re laying down your ideas and introducing characters, and endings, while intimidating, were about bringing all the pieces together and reaching the climax of the creative process.

Middles, however? That’s when a lot of stuff has to happen to connect the Point A of the beginning and Point B of the ending, and drawing that line isn’t as fun or easy.

As it happened, I was in the middle, literally, of my Bostonia manuscript, and having a mother of a time getting through it. I knew important stuff was happening, but writing the middle third felt way too much like work. The words didn’t flow. The ideas didn’t flow. I worried something was seriously wrong, that my creative mojo was suddenly gone, or that the story was revealing itself to be a dead end and I would never finish it. I didn’t know struggling with the second act was not unusual…not until Neil said so.

It took a long while — several months, in fact — to get through that rough patch, but after reading Neil’s blog post, I stopped freaking out about it. I’d work on it as much as I could, until I felt I hit a roadblock, then I’d walk away, let the manuscript sit and let the story percolate in my head for a while, and hit it again when I was ready.

If I get even ten seconds to speak to Neil directly, I plan to use the time to thank him for his advice. I know he’ll have no idea what I’m thanking him for, but I’ll know. Good enough.