Thursday, May 26, 2011

Playing the Devil's Advocate

I just wrote a post contemplating the benefits of self-publishing e-books against sticking with the more traditional methods of finding an agent, getting a contract with a publishing company and eventually seeing the book in print.  I'm still considering it, but I'm not entirely sold either, and the reason is that doing things the traditional way does have its advantages.  Big advantages.

First, as author and former agent Nathan Bransford writes, traditional publishers bring a lot to the table that the author simply can't do himself.  They provide editing and copyediting, and both are invaluable to a writer.  One of the quickest things that will turn me off a book, especially one written by an unknown author is a slew of typos, bad writing, and poor editing.  You don't want that as a new author.  You need every advantage you can to sell your books.  Well established authors will sell millions of copies just based on the fact they are who they are.  Stephen King sells books based on name recognition alone.  Jonathan Dalar, with the possible exception of a handful of friends and family, does not.

Another thing publishers provide is professional design, printing, and packaging.  They make the book look pretty - prettier than I'd be able to do as an author, or at least without spending the family fortune, however much that may be.  They have these services in house, as part of their standard package of doing business.  It's all part of the process, not something I'd have to figure out on my own and hope I got it at least semi-right.

Publicity is yet another area that publishers are well versed in.  They use their own already well established vehicles of marketing to push your book.  They help set up the tours and reviews and all the other work necessary to get your book out there, stuff that usually resides well below the radar to the average reader.  They're the ones who buy space on that highly visible rack right inside the door of the bookstore that you see when you walk in.  They're who determines which books get put on the end caps of the shelves, at visible eye-level locations, or stuffed spine out along with the rest of the books.

And speaking of those bookstores, the publisher is the one who gets your book into the stores.  Most bookstores, and virtually all the larger ones, will not even consider stocking a self-published book, no matter how well it's doing.  The publishing companies have a long, well established track record with them, the bookstores know they're going to get good titles when they buy their books, and there is far less to gamble on doing business with them than with an unproven author on his own.  The previously unpublished author who's going it himself can't begin to compete with a similar author who's backed by Simon & Schuster or the Penguin Group.

This doesn't even cover the advance.  As I said in my previous post, you can earn a lot more of a percentage with royalties doing it yourself.  And selling enough books, you can earn above and beyond that advance by a lot more than with the 15% traditional methods offer.  But that's the catch.  You've got to sell those books.  And $10,000 advance from the publisher is money you don't have to give back, no matter if you only sell a handful of books.  That's pretty damn enticing.

As I've said, self-publishers can break into the market in a big way, as evidenced by Amanda Hocking and others.  It's an incredible long shot though, and it still took a lot of hard work and a ton of luck.  To sell a lot of novels, you have to have several things going for you.  You have to have a lot of exposure to people likely to buy your books.  You have to create a large, growing audience of dedicated readers - people who will go out and buy your next book just because your name is on the front cover.  You have to be not only a great writer, but a great marketer as well.

There has been some very interesting news along these lines recently.  The poster child for indie publishing, Amanda Hocking herself, just signed with St. Martin's Press.  That's right, she's switching to traditional publishing when she had already made a solid name for herself (and a lot of money) by publishing on her own.  And doing almost the exact opposite, author Barry Eisler, who has been quite successful publishing the traditional ways, tuns down a $500,000 advance to self-publish.  Yes.  A five followed by five zeros.  What to make of this?  Which one is right?  As David Gaughran explains better than I could, each appears to be making the right decision for themselves.  For more on this subject, author Tracy Marchini weighs in, guest blogging for Nathan Bransford.

But where does that leave me?  What's the best option for me?  Sadly, I have no $500,000 advance to turn down and try my hand at self-publishing.  I also don't have the massive success in the indie market to garner such attention from the large publishing houses.  I'm starting from the bottom here, and it's a long, tough road.  In spite of the odds, traditional publishing may indeed be the best way to go.  They just have so much to offer, it's hard to overlook it all.  We'll see.

The fact of the matter is that times, they are a-changin', and nobody knows exactly how.  No matter what the future holds, it's important for us authors to get in on the change because it's our future too.  Like my old granddad said, "I dunno where we're goin', but there's no sense bein' late!"

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why do I write?

I've been asked that many times before, and the answer's easy.  Almost too easy.  Because I have to.  I have stories that simply have to be told, have to be written down.  But certain changes and shifts in the publishing industry have me questioning myself in this regard.

Why would I question my need to write, though, no matter what's going on in the industry?  Well, the answer isn't easily definable, but I'll give it a shot.  The short version is that it shifts focus from the writing to the end product, or at least it seems to for me.  It's caused me to look longer and harder at different schools of thought regarding publishing, and how it affects the author.

Which brings me back to why I write.  If it simply needs to be written down, then problem solved.  Done that!  Many times.  I have amassed quite a large amount of written work over the past several decades, and I've seen huge improvements in both style and storytelling ability.  And if it were just that, I'd be content to keep tapping them out on my computer for my own enjoyment.  Just to get them out of my head and into print.

But there's more to it than simply getting them out of my head.  I'd like to see them published.  I'd like others to read them as well.  That's the other side of things, the part of me that wants to sell a million copies and see my name plastered high on the New York Times Bestseller list.  That would be simply incredible!

But truth be told, that's a pretty tall order.  More along the lines of a pipe dream.  It can happen.  Relatively obscure debut authors broke through huge, such as Sara Gruen with Water for Elephants.  The Harry Potter series also turned into quite the empire for J.K. Rowling.  It's been done before and will certainly be done again.  It certainly isn't the norm, which means that reality is probably somewhere in between these two extremes.

So, with the shift to digital, things get a little muddled for an author struggling to break through in today's market.  As it stands, they say there's about a two percent shot at making it the traditional way, and that's pretty much at the 'getting an agent' level.  To get an idea of the odds, Jennifer Jackson, of the Donald Maass Literary Agency keeps up with the odds in her blog with the 'letters from the query wars' posts.  Check them out; they're shockingly educational on how amazingly hard it is to really get a reputable agent.  And those odds are pretty similar throughout the industry, in case you're wondering if it's just her.  Suzie Townsend of FinePrint Literary Management posted her stats for 2010.  According to her colleague Janet Reid, 10 new clients from 5530 queries is 'a lot'.

Which brings us full circle again to self-publishing.  I've been against it from the start.  Vanity or subsidy publishing, that is.  I've even written about it here on the blog.  It's a cop out.  Taking the easy road.  And those who know me know I generally don't take the easy road for, well, anything in life.  I'm a die-hard Seahawks fan for pity's sake.  That ought to tell you something about me taking the hard road.

But there's more to it than that.  Author David Gaughran recently wrote a very interesting piece on his blog on the market's shift toward digital, titled Why Traditional Publishers Will Go The Way Of Travel Agents.  Seriously, who uses travel agents anymore when you can book your own vacation online through any number of sites and tweak your vacation however you'd like to yourself?  I know I don't.  And he thinks the giant industry of publishing is headed that way too?  No one knows for sure, but thing is, he's probably right, and that is a gigantic paradigm shift for everyone involved.

E-book sales are rapidly growing.  According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books outranked all other categories of trade publishing this last February.  E-book sales accounted for $90.3 million for the month, or a 202% increase from their sales a year ago.  And although adult paperback and hardcover still rank number one and number two overall, e-book sales have risen dramatically to date.  Every indication is that digital is the wave of the future, and that future is now.  Every day we see more and more authors, such as fellow author Carolyn Arnold, going this way instead of the traditional route.

Another reason e-books are a good fit for authors is the percentages they earn in relation to traditional royalties.  The industry standard for royalties from a traditional publishing house is 15%.  This normally includes a $5,000.00 to $10,000.00 advance against those royalties the author keeps no matter how many books sell.  That's a tidy sum for an author just starting out, and compared to shelling out his own money to get a book published, being offered ten grand instead seems to be a no-brainer.

But e-books can earn far higher royalty percentages for an author.  After all, there are no huge publishing costs to cover, and in fact, the publisher is completely taken out of the picture.  At a rate of 70% royalties from Amazon, selling a book for less money than via traditional publishing will net the author far more far quicker.  That tidy advance that seemed so tempting a moment ago suddenly pales in comparison, especially when you figure that once that advance sum has been reached (by selling fewer books), you're still earning 70% per book instead of 15%.

However, the one big advantage the publishing industry has over do-it-yourselfers is professionalism.  After all, they're the professionals in the business.  They provide the badly needed editorial process, they handle the book's ISBN and formal copyright issues, the cover, the distribution, marketing, and a lot of other great services which contribute to the book's success.

But much of that can still be done by the author, if he puts enough time, effort and attention to detail into things.  Attention to detail is the bread and butter of the military, and I'm pretty sure that with twenty years of experience with it, I could probably figure out how to do it correctly.  There would be up-front money involved, certainly.  To come up with a professional quality cover, invest in proper editing and layout, and such would certainly cost.  And to a reader, that's usually really all it takes.  When was the last time you bought a book based on who published it?  Did you even notice the publisher?  Or did you look at the cover, the title, the back cover blurb and over all appearance of the book's quality?  My guess is it was the latter.

So if an author can accomplish this without going the traditional route, it stands to reason he'd be about as successful on his own.  Maybe more so, maybe less.  But where do you draw the line with success?  Is it the New York Times Bestseller list or bust?  Or is a modest run of 5,000 to 10,000 books good enough?  A person can cripple their odds of getting picked up by a reputable New York literary agency by churning out a self-published book that sells four hundred copies.  After all, if you don't spend the time and effort, or your work is just so shoddy, that you have to publish it yourself, how is that going to be a selling point to an agent?  It has in fact, the exact opposite effect, and with good reason.

5,000 to 10,000 copies in print, however, is a modest success, and is a credential worth mentioning to an agent the next time around.  At that many copies, you've done better than many folks who went the traditional route and simply didn't sell through their advance.  And you probably have a much better chance of getting picked up than they do, because publishers are leery of giving a second chance to someone who didn't come through the first time.

So it all boils down to doing it right, no matter how that is.  I'm still sending queries out, still trying my hand at the traditional methods, but I can't help but look at the alternatives, especially when they seem to be the immediate future of my industry.  The reasons I write have a lot to do with the methods I chose, and may well influence a change in how I approach things.  Stay tuned, folks, it's going to get pretty interesting!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Getting in your Character's Head

You've got a solid character in your story.  You've given them a name, a background, likes, dislikes, goals, motivation and anything else you can think of.  But what makes them really tick?  What's really going on inside that head of theirs?  Finding that out makes them less like a cardboard cutout and more like a real person.  In this post, I'm going to take one of my own characters - the antagonist - and dissect her a bit.  I've already interviewed her, in the 'My Work' tab here, but this time I'm going to really try and get in her head and show you what makes her do the things she does and why she reacts how she does to the other characters in the story.

So let's sit down and meet Camellia, shall we?

Before we do that, though, it's essential to go over a few things.  First of all, she is a young lady born in the year 2159, and she was born with a crippling handicap.  She was born without the nanobot-implanted atomic chipset allowing connection to the Plexus, the entire virtual world of communications, media, and every other type of social interaction imaginable.  The majority of communication is via the virtual world, so it's essentially the equivalent of being deaf or blind nowadays.  In 2186, the physical world and the virtual world are so interconnected that it is nearly impossible to interact in society without such a connection.  Legislation of the day makes such a connection mandatory, putting her in quite a difficult situation, and this is the one thing the medical community cannot fix.  The connections to the Plexus are created in the second trimester of pregnancy, while the brain is developing.  Once a baby is born without those connections developed, they cannot be added.

The easiest solution for her would be to consent to connection by proxy, where she would be implanted with data rods to allow rudimentary connection to the Plexus.  It would allow her to perform basic daily tasks, such as virtual communication, obtaining licenses and registrations, receiving a standard education, and the like.  It would not, however, make her normal, by any stretch of the imagination.  She would not see the virtual world as others saw it, and would have to input a proxy code at every step, instead of threading the connection to her mind, eyesight, and hearing like is normal in that time.

That is the root of Camellia's mental disposition.  She is proud, with a stubborn streak the size of California, and refuses to connect via proxy.  She would rather be a non-entity than to be so handicapped.  She would rather be non-human, so to speak, than to be sub-human.  It's a small distinction, but a very vital one to her.

Part of why she is so stubborn stems from how she grew up.  Her mother, a destitute Off-Plex herself, died and left Camellia to the streets at a very early age.  Her father was never in the picture.  Camellia was forced to grow up without ever knowing about the Plexus.  The only inkling she had of it was from watching other children she had occasional contact with.  She knew they were communicating in ways outside of what she could sense herself, but didn't know how to learn their methods.  She grew up mimicking them, at first to appear like she fit in, and later to mask the fact that she was an Off-Plex, and thus outside the law.

She's found a niche for herself, but it's come with a heavy price.  She secreted herself into the Institute of Dimensional Research and made away with a time strata jump craft, and makes a living jumping back in time to retrieve rare literature and sell it on the underground.  It goes without saying this is highly illegal, but as she's grown up under the radar her entire childhood, dodging agents trying to track her down is simply a part of life.  She's smart, she's confident, and she's good at what she does.  At times it almost becomes a perverse game for her.

She's almost completely an alias now.  Even her name is a pseudonym.  She was born with a different name and only began using Camellia as an attempt to cover up who she really was.  Now she is simply Camellia; her old self almost completely ceases to exist.

So it should also be obvious she's very cautious about trusting anyone, almost to the point where her distrust cripples her actions.  Trusting someone must be a conscious choice, and only after all options and possible outcomes are carefully weighed and considered.

In spite of this, she's very human, and maybe even more susceptible to the need for interaction than anyone.  After all, she's spent a lifetime trying her hardest to fit in, while still disguising the crippling difference that prevents her from being completely normal.

And that is perhaps her one greatest wish, to become normal.  Not to connect via proxy and be forever reminded she's different, but to really connect, as normal as the next person.  She would give almost anything to do that, but it's the one thing that is completely out of her grasp.

So that begs the question, why doesn't she just relent and accept the government's program of connection via proxy?  What would be so bad with that decision?  It's not like she isn't acutely aware of her differences now.  What difference would it make to just consent and live life as normally as possible?  Others older who were born before such implantation have had to make the adjustment.

Well, don't think she hasn't thought about it.  She almost did it a couple of times.  Came really close, as a matter of fact.  But in the end she just couldn't do it.  She knew she couldn't live with herself if she'd have done it.  And it's not that she couldn't have had it reversed on the underground.  Lots of folks have.  Of course, they're Monochrome.  That's what they call the crazies and conspiracy theorists who are far enough out there on the edge as to cut off fingers and gouge out whatever other body parts they know or believe have data rods embedded.  Some of them are even blind or deaf because of the extremes they've gone to.

And that is probably the number one reason she hasn't gotten connected via proxy.  She simply can't face the thought of becoming Monochrome, and everything that implies if she should change her mind, rather than just being an Off-Plex.  Besides, she's too all-or-nothing for that anyway, and with the success she's had eluding capture, she's more emboldened than ever.

But the more we get to know her, the more we understand this is all a façade.  She's grown up that way, putting on a front so others will think she's something she's not.  It's become almost second nature for her.  It's ingrained in everything she does, so much so, she'd be hard pressed to show anyone her true self.

As the story progresses, we find out that she's not the invincible, completely confident woman she appears to be.  There's more to her incredible luck and consummate skill at avoiding capture than meets the eye, and instead of being always one step ahead of everyone, we find she's narrowly avoiding disaster at every turn.

She's unaware of some of this, but acutely aware of it at times, leaving her wondering just how much is her skill and abilities, and how much of it is just pure dumb luck aided by the actions of others.  This further goes to eroding at her confidence while reinforcing her need for a tough, capable façade.

In the end, her efforts to remain an Off-Plex coincide with her sharp desire to connect to the Plexus in a perfectly normal way.  One would think offhand that would be an oxymoron, but it's not.  It simply reinforces the all-or-nothing mentality she has and causes her to stick to her course of action even harder.

But let's look at her personal life for a second before closing.  That plays a big part in her persona as well.  She's been ostracized and shunted to the edges of society, forced to hang out with Monochromes and other unsavory characters "like her".  And while that's largely because of choice, it doesn't mean it's had any less of an impact on her.  She still needs people.  She needs contact with other human beings, perhaps more so than normal.  She longs for it, even though her first thought is to push them away.  Her self defense mechanisms conflict strongly with her psychological needs for human interaction, as limited as that might be with her lack of connection via the Plexus.

So when someone comes along offering that much needed human contact, she's torn.  On the one hand, her defensive senses are tingling with the fear of opening up too much and exposing herself to danger.  On the other hand, she experiences feelings and emotions that although still quite foreign to her, are badly needed on a psychological level.

And she evolves as the story progresses.  Her interactions with the other characters, each with his own set of motivations and beliefs, cause her to rethink what she really believes in and how she views the world around her.  And because she interacts with people not only from her own time continuum, but throughout several centuries of history, their perspectives are very different, and cause more change in her than might have happened otherwise.

All in all, she's a very complex character.  Quite unpredictable at times.  And there's more to her than first meets the eye.  So much so that it takes quite a while for us to see the full extent of her emotional range as the story progresses.  We keep peeling back layers to find an even greater set of complexities until we finally reveal a person quite unlike what our first impressions of her were.  In the end, we're left with quite a different character than we'd started out with, and different still from how we'd perceived her in the beginning.  We see not only how she's changed, but how our perceptions of her have changed through the story.  She's gone from being the villain to being a sympathetic victim to finally being the hero, at least in our own minds.  And that part of her wasn't the part that changed.  What changed was simply her perception of others, and of societal norms.

And so in the end, we're faced with loving the character we thought was the villain when this all started.  We empathized with her from the start, but that should be the case with any good antagonist.  It was when we realized she'd made the gradual, subtle change from villain to hero that things got weird.  We saw her completely different than we did at first, and were faced with the realization that we'd probably changed more than she had throughout the course of things.

And that's not a bad thing, after all.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Plot-based vs. Character-based

This is an interesting discussion, and while I'd like to point out that a great story had better have both great characters and great plot, there is a definite difference between the two in storytelling.

Let me explain.  First, let's get the basics out of the way and describe what makes a story plot-based, and what makes one character-based.  The essential difference is seen when we look at what drives the story along.  In one that is plot-based, the plot itself is what drives the story to conclusion.  Point A naturally leads to Point B, which then uncovers Point C, which leads us to the eventual Point D.  Things that happen along the way are what point the tale in the next direction.

But how is that different than any story, you might ask?  That's what plot does, after all.  Yes, that is what plot does, but it's not always what drives the story.  In a character-based story, it's the characters' decisions, based on who they are as a person that drive the plot.  It's their interaction with each other that makes the plot come together, not just what they must accomplish along the way.

Well, that's fine, you say, but characters interact with each other.  It's kind of their job as characters.  Again, yes.  But in this case, they're what pushes the plot along, not the other way around.  Let's look at a couple of examples.

The first story we'll look at is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  While each character is unique, and brings a different perspective to the story, the story itself is plot-based.  There is a goal to achieve, and it really doesn't matter who is achieving it, the desired end result is the same.  Certain requisite tasks must be completed to satisfy the plot.  Sure, certain characters must do specific tasks, but it's still very task-based, not something that happens as a result of specific character interaction.  Frodo Baggins must return the ring to Mordor, and that is because of his unique character.  The thing is, anyone possessing that specific character trait would have made a fantastic substitute and the plot would have remained the same.

Now let's look at Alexander Nabokov's Lolita, a very character-based story.  The entire plot is driven by the interaction between Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze.  Sure, there was an end goal in Humbert's mind, but it was specifically the interaction between him and his Lolita that caused the tale to go as it did.  Substitute a different Humbert and the story would have been much, much different.  Substitute a different Lolita, and she would also not have reacted the same way Dolores Haze did when confronted with any of the situations she was.  And each of the characters in the novel brought a different twist of the plot into the story with the way they reacted to what was going on.  The entire story revolves around how they react to each other's desires and motives with their own.

There is a theme here.  Many stories of action, suspense, and horror genres are plot-based, while many dramas are character-based.  But that's not to say there's a line drawn in the sand firmly separating each into respective sides.  An action piece can easily be a character-driven story.  I'm writing one right now, and it's firmly in the character-based camp.

Sometimes it isn't really all that obvious which a story is until you think about it.  They do overlap.  The way a character acts often drives the plot as much as anything, and many times things outside the realm of a character's motives influence the plot.  It really didn't dawn on me my latest sci-fi time travel romp was character-based until well into the story.  You might not tend to think of science fiction action stories as being all that character-based, after all.

The television series Firefly was, though.  That story was all about how the characters interacted among themselves, and you know if you were to have substituted any other character for one of them, things would have gone quite differently along the way.  It's the epitome of a character-based story.  And when you compare it to Star Wars, for example, the differences between what drives the action in both stories are obvious.  "Defeat the Empire by becoming a Jedi Knight, destroying the Death Star, and confronting Darth Vader" sounds far different than "Our previous contact had some serious issues with how we handled the last job, and that is having a direct impact on our current job".

Now that's not to say that characters are simply interchangeable in a plot-based tale either.  Hardly so.  The Indiana Jones movies are all very much plot-based, and I dare you to replace that iconic figure with anyone different and have it turn out nearly as well.  One could argue that same point with a number of great characters in plot-based stories.  They're great characters for a reason.  They just don't drive the story, the plot does.

If it isn't terribly obvious which side a story falls on, take a look at what causes the conflict or action.  Many times a plot-based story relies on a plot device to cause the action.  Two characters are fighting over the same thing.  Two characters want different results for the same quandary.  Compare that to a plot that hinges more on the action and reaction of the characters based on who they are as characters rather than simply their goals.  Another way to think of this discussion is in terms of a story being motive-based rather than goal-based.

So what's the best type of story, plot- or character-based?  Of course that's completely unanswerable.  At least I think so.  They're both great in their own way.  I like characters with a little more meat on their bones.  That is to say well rounded, and less cardboard-y.  That doesn't mean that plot-based stories lend themselves to cardboard characters, and it doesn't mean a good plot that really pulls the story along isn't necessary for character-driven stories either.  Both are essential elements of storytelling.

My bottom line is I use whatever moves the story in the right direction.  If it's the necessity of getting from Point A to eventual Point D, then I roll with it.  If it's letting the plot flow based on the interactions of the characters, their motives and decisions, then that works too.

Go with what works for your story.  If you figure out which type yours most closely follows, you might have an easier time figuring out what to do if the story stalls, but in the end, it really doesn't matter much.  As long as something pulls the plot along and makes it go somewhere.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Importance of Keeping Notes

I get a lot of my inspiration from dreams.  I get it from random musing and what-if scenarios that come to mind.  I get it from talking to friends, family, total strangers, and from pretty much anything else one can think of.  A lot of the inspiration doesn't amount to much.  Some of it turns into interesting story prospects.  And some of it turns into absolute gems.  From those gems, I've written some of the best stories of my life.  So far.

Most of those stories wouldn't exist, in any form, if I hadn't written down the ideas when they came to me.  Starting when I was still in high school, and for many years afterward, I slept with a notebook beside my bed.  I'd wake up from a dream - or sometimes a chilling nightmare - with inspiration, and write it down in the notebook.  Now in the virtual age, I do the same thing with a computer.  I still have the notebook, though.  It's around somewhere, and it's pretty interesting to leaf through it from time to time and chuckle over some of the random ideas and thoughts written inside.

I keep a word document for my story ideas now.  I update it from time to time with those ideas and flashes of inspiration.  In fact, a couple of years ago, I couldn't power my computer up fast enough to get the images of an incredible dream down in some semblance of coherence.  I normally leave the computer on, so it's easier to access quickly, but this time I was away in a war zone and it wasn't possible.  When I'd finished writing my thoughts, I'd written about 500 words, and I powered my computer down, got up and ready, and went out to save the world.  Those 500 words have since turned into a really great novel that I'm currently querying to agents.  If I hadn't have written them down, they would have faded away and that really great novel would have been nothing more than an obscure and blurry memory of a really wild dream, where the details dance annoyingly out of reach and disappear.

I know some folks don't do this.  They'll tell you if a story is really that good, and really destined for greatness, they'll remember it.  If it fades from memory, it was never meant to be.  I don't know why someone would do that.  Certainly an author would want to use every resource at his disposal to turn great ideas into great stories.  I would.  I can't imagine losing the story that was based on that wild nightmare.  And I can't imagine anyone else would either.  Of course, that's just my two cents.  It's still a great habit to form.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Right Format for your Manuscript

First of all, there is no 'right' format for a manuscript.  Everyone says something a little different.  No one wants it exactly the same as anyone else.  Let me say that right up front.

Let me also say that I'm not the expert here.  I'm trying to figure things out just like all the rest of the starving authors.  But I have learned a few things along the way, and I figured I'd share them with you.  For what they're worth.

So while there are no absolutes in what agents and publishers want from an author in the form of a manuscript, there are some basics, some standards, and some general rules of thumb that you'd probably do well to follow.

Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford wrote a really nice blog entry on the topic, as did Moira Allen in her article on Writing World.  Chuck Rothman, writing for SFWA wrote an excellent article on the subject.  Daily Writing Tips has even more advice - sixteen manuscript formatting tips, to be exact.  And if you read down into the comments of that article, you'll find people divided all over the place on the 'right' way to do things.  And this just scratches the surface of the subject.  A little more research will provide you with additional voices, each with their own advice on how they think it should be done, or what the 'right' way of formatting is.

The agent or publisher wants to be able to read your manuscript easily, make notes where necessary, and not have to work around excess garbage to do it.  It's their job to read manuscripts.  If they read everything in 10-point Lucida Calligraphy, they'd be blind by the end of the week.  Even reading something only slightly difficult to read puts a tremendous strain on a person.  Which is why they have guidelines for the type of formatting they'd like to see.

Font is the first major bone of contention.  Some folks say Times New Roman.  Some say Courier New.  Others are less picky, and include fonts like Arial, which is a sans-serif font.  Advice I've seen says that most editors don't like those fonts.  Generally, the two most preferred fonts are Courier and Times New Roman.  Now you may have some folks who mandate one or the other - and I've seen examples of each - but they're both simple and easy to read.  And you're probably not going to receive a rejection based solely on font choice.  Change the font to whatever the agent's stated preference is and send it to them.  If they don't say, I pick either one of those two and roll with it.

As far as layout goes, almost everyone agrees on some standards here.  Generally they want to see your manuscript double spaced, printed on one side of the paper only, left justified, with one inch margins.  Again, you're going for 'easy to read' here, not 'looks like a published book'.  It's your job to provide content, the actual words written down on the page.  It's the publisher's job to provide style, what they actually look like when it's finished.  You may be adamant in your ideas of how you want it to look, but frankly, they really don't care about that.  It's supposed to look like a manuscript in the manuscript stage - they want something they can work with.  Remember, you're paid for your ideas and how eloquently you put them into words.  They're paid for how the book looks when it's sitting on the shelf in Borders.

Avoid the cutesy fancy stuff.  Just open up the word document, set the spacing and margins and font and begin typing.  That's all you need to do as an author as far as formatting goes.  You may think it looks cool to try and give the story a more interesting font, or that it helps with the theme of the story to provide it with an appropriate title font.  You may think it helps with your creativity and ability to get the words down on paper.  Whatever.  If it works for you when writing, knock yourself out.  But when you format it to send to the professionals, it needs to be professional too.  And that means you axe the Comic Sans for Courier, and take out the extra spaces and neat characters that signify the end of chapters.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of neat characters, almost every piece of advice I've heard says to simplify here too.  Lose the 'smart quotes' feature, the 'em' dash, and any other auto-formatting feature, especially when e-mailing your submission.  Characters like that tend to lose something in the translation of documents, and you really want them to see what you wrote, not some squiggly messed up character that converted wrong from ASCII.  This is especially true when sending work via e-mail.

The only formatting an editor generally wants to see is for words you want italicized.  The catch is, they almost never want you to italicize them.  They'd rather you underline them instead.  In the publishing world, underlined text is almost always understood as italicized.

It all boils down to presenting an easy-to-read document that conforms to general industry standards.  It's a simple matter of making their work easier for them, and thus making it more likely they'll want to work with you and publish your novel.  Find out the particular way a particular agent or publisher wants it and give it to them that way.  If they're not specific enough in their submission guidelines, follow as close to a standard format as you can and you should be fine.  The more professional your work is, regardless of how close it looks to a 'real book', the better your chances are to turn it into a real book.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Less is More

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."  That was what the great Ernest Hemingway wrote when challenged to write the shortest story he could.  That story says so very much in just six short words.  You can feel the crippling sadness behind the words.  You can sense the heartbreak.  The loss is palpable even though there's nothing actually written about loss.

You know what happened.  Hemingway told you the basics and your mind instantly filled in the rest.  Whether with tragedy or just a case of giving up hope, you know the baby that was expected or hoped for isn't going to be there.  He threw a few words at us and made us write the story in our own minds.  I could only hope to do that.

Oftentimes writers go out of their way to tell the reader too much of the story.  I'm as guilty as anyone.  Readers are smart.  They can see where we're going with something, sometimes before we writers can.  Problem is, we think they can't see it, and so we try to spell it out for them.  We try to get them to see it exactly the way we do, because that's the perfect way.  At least in our minds it is.

And that leads to over-writing.  We put so much into a scene that we fill it up, jam-packed to the brim with excessive wordage.  We want it perfect, and so we smother it to death with attention instead of allowing our readers to provide their own picture the way they will.

A good friend of mine recently shared some advice on sales that I think is appropriate to writing as well.  "Show 'em as little as possible," he said.  "A person wants to believe the best, and so if they're missing information, their mind will fill the void with the best possible scenario."  That's great advice, and it came to him from a vagrant hitchhiker, of all places.  Give 'em a tiny taste and let their minds create the rest.

I try valiantly to use that advice in my writing.  I usually fail miserably, but I'm sure it helps take out some of the unnecessary verbosity I've been known to display.  I try even harder to adhere to that with my queries.  It's difficult.  The shorter the written work is, the harder it is to write, and the more important each and every word becomes.

So whether from one of the greatest writers of our time, or a random hitchhiker, the advice is sound.  Write more by writing less.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Deus ex Machina

If you've written a story or two, you're probably guilty of using it.  I know I am.  I hate it, and try to avoid it at all costs, but sometimes it happens.  It's called deus ex machina, Latin for "god out of the machine", and it's a plot device used all too often to solve an issue or problem the author just can't quite wrap up the way he or she desires.  We see it all the time in books and movies.  We get right to the end of the story, and in order to resolve the issues in a satisfying manner, some kind of new event or character needs to intervene and set things right.  Who the hell is this guy, and where did he come from to save the day just in the nick of time?

Shakespeare used it in several of his plays.  Many other famous and talented writers have used it.  It's not just reserved for hacks and less talented writers.  It is common, though, and employed by both the talented and hacks alike.  In fact, it's probably more common than you might think, especially in today's Hollywood, where plot takes a backseat to special effects and viewership numbers.

It's been called pure laziness.  Shoddy writing.  Personally I can't stand it, and heckle it any chance I get, even if I am guilty of using it a time or two.  To me it signifies an author hasn't spent enough time crafting the story to a better outcome.  That the author doesn't care enough about the story to fix those issues correctly, or let the story end how it will.  The characters should determine the outcome of the story, not the author.

I think the problem stems largely from our desire to have a happy ending.  Nobody likes coming to the end of a good tale and finding out the characters they invested so much emotion in during the story die at the end.  Nobody likes being slapped with a healthy dose of reality after reading or watching a fantastic tale that allowed them to escape that brutal reality for a while.  It's inherent in who we are as humans, and it's probably never going to change.

So aside from giving in and settling on an ending that nobody's going to like because your characters got in over their heads, how does one avoid using deus ex machina as plot spackle to make it all better?  If I knew that answer, I'd probably be a lot better off than I am now.  That doesn't mean I don't have a few thoughts about how to avoid it, though.

The easiest way, as I mentioned earlier, is to just let the plot work out the way the characters make it.  It doesn't always end happily that way, but then, neither does life.  Sometimes people die, or get hurt, or get in trouble over their heads.  Sometimes things don't turn out the way we planned them to.  That's just the way life is.  It's not the sexy ending, but it is realistic.

But it doesn't have to be that way.  Your characters are resourceful.  They're well rounded and experienced.  They've probably got the answer somewhere.  You just have to get it out of them.  Experiment with them a little.  Tweak their reactions to something a bit.  Don't just go with the first reaction they might have and write it down.  Follow one reaction to its logical conclusion and switch it up a bit.  Chances are, you'll find some kind of combination that allows the conflict and tension you need in the story and the resolution you need to wrap it all up with a happy ending.

The stakes don't need to be all that high either.  We see more and more stories where all-or-nothing scenarios are played out.  The hero must save the world from imminent destruction in order to set things right, save the girl and live happily ever after.  Or at least until the sequel.  The problem with these types of scenarios is that they don't leave a lot of wiggle room for the writer.  If it's an all-or-nothing problem, the character really doesn't have a choice to make, meaning that the reader should already be well ahead of the game of figuring out how things are going to end.  If the reader has the ending figured out, the story either ends predictably, which is lame, or it has an unexpected twist.  And if the twist isn't set up right at the beginning, enter deus ex machina to save the day.

The same holds true for the fates of your characters.  If the hero and villain are put together in such a way that only one will walk away alive, there again isn't much doubt about how it's going to end.  Creating a storyline and characters who can interact with each other and live to tell about it sets up future conflict.  It also mitigates the need to make more and more bad guys to throw at the good guy as the story progresses.

If the stakes aren't as high, there are probably a number of ways the situation can be resolved, meaning there are far more options to the author, and greater suspense for the reader.  Yes or no questions pose an ultimatum, and create a situation with only one feasible ending.  By using open ended questions for plot construction, you've given the characters more ways to interact and get themselves back out of the pickle they've gotten themselves into.

But what if you really want the stakes that high?  After all, it's more exciting when there's more at stake in the story.  Giving the readers a good apocalyptic tale does have its advantages.  And you can still do that, if you set up the rules of engagement in the future to allow multiple possible happy endings.  You've got to delve into the plot more than just superficially.  You've got to spend some time running decisions in the story to their logical conclusions.  It takes a lot of hard work and careful thought to come up with a good plot that follows through clear to the end.  But doing so is rewarding.  If you're willing to spend the extra effort to avoid letting deus ex machina save the day for you, your story will probably be a whole lot better.