Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Agents and Reading Fees, or Why Publishing Is Quite Cuddly Really

I set up this blog a long time ago, and posted sporadically for a few months. Then something happened that really caught my attention, and sparked a post that I just had to write - and that post was what turned me into a regular blogger.

The issue was the Harlequin Horizons (now DellArte Press) debacle of 2009. A sizeable chunk of that post is summary, or a declaration that I have no special knowledge of the industry. But I became a blogger because I wanted to make this point. Gentle readers, please bear in mind I hadn't really mastered brevity then ;) :

I read a lot of agent blogs, and I have read many posts from agents who believe that their posts aren't reaching as much of their intended audience as they should. Periodically, agents will post revised submission guidelines, or say 'People querying me keep doing [insert annoying or time-consuming habit here]. Kindly stop. And I realise if you are reading this, you probably aren't the ones doing it. Sigh.'

So, by their own admission, the advice given on agent blogs is reaching a self-selecting sample - the kind of people who do research (or the kind of people who get bored in work and google things a lot). The kind of people who do research aren't as likely to be suckered into an 'author solution' that isn't right for them (and again, let me stress that self-publishing is right for lots of people. I'm not sure Author Solutions is right for anyone, but it might be). And it seems to me that the main issue that the publishing community has with this development is misrepresentation - the idea that less-informed writers may be persuaded to part with money in exchange for what they believe to be a path to traditional publishing success. Once again, the people reading the advice are the people who need it the least.

This is a generalisation, and obviously there are tons of exceptions, but as a rule, the kind of aspiring writers who do poor research into publishing options are the ones who - fairly or unfairly - are most likely to be shoved to the very bottom of the slush pile because they didn't follow the guidelines, or they queried someone who doesn't represent their genre, or something similar. And we all know that potentially excellent writers sometimes don't succeed, not because they're poor at writing but because they're poor at hoop-jumping, or rule-following, depending on your perspective.

So the entire publishing community is currently up in arms about the interests of a group of people, most of whom they are relatively unlikely to ever make money from. Not one person has said 'A quick Google search will throw up all the blog posts and controversy about this. Anyone too naive or stupid to do that deserves to be conned.' I feel this point of view would be unfair, because we have all blindly followed paths because we thought they would lead to the things we've dreamed.

And I think it's rather nice that no one has presented that counter argument, and that an industry is responding with concern for people who aren't their cash cows. That is all.

And now, I see something similar happening again with the re-opening of the reading fees debate. Victoria Strauss's excellent post on reading fees is here. Those people within the industry who are against reading fees are against them because it damages the interests of a group of people they may never make money from. Victoria Strauss also makes the point that reading queries, partials and manuscripts that are not accepted is essentially unpaid time, as those submissions will never generate income for the agent.

Once again, all these months later, the same point that prompted me to become a blogger is asking to be made again. No industry is perfect - publishing certainly isn't. But it's one of very few industries willing to go so far to protect people that are inessential to their operations.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Betas

There's an interesting post over on Pimp My Novel about beta-readers.

I've been a beta-reader. Writer Friend recently gave me a trilogy of fantasy novels to read, handwritten in hardback A4 notebooks, and my bus journeys haven't been the same since I closed the last one. That's the most extreme example, but I have read various bits and pieces for other friends over the years and I always enjoy doing it.

It is tough, though, trying to be honest but gentle. I find that trying to keep it as personal as possible helps - 'This bit didn't work for me,' 'I tend to find characters who do that annoying but it's just a pet hate, someone else might feel differently. . .' etc. Because to be fair, there are certain things in books that drive me nuts. Characters coming back to life drive me insane, but I'm sure there are times (apart from HP7) where I could enjoy it. And so far, none of my friends have inflicted that upon me.

Anyway, Writer Friend has agreed to beta-read my current project (and beta-read most of my last one), which I'm looking forward to. We read each other's work a lot, and I find it motivating - I need to get it finished so I can get feedback!

But I have heard horror stories about beta readers (one of my blog readers had their work plagiarised) so I think I'm really lucky to have several personal friends that I can ask to read my work - and trust. How do you guys feel about beta-readers? How do you choose them? Fellow writers, avid readers, loved ones, blog-friends, critique groups. . .? Do tell :)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Writing Fight Scenes

There's a Snoopy cartoon I like that I can't find online - describing cartoons tends to suck the humour out of them, but let me try.

Lucy shows up while Snoopy is writing and suggests he makes his main character tougher (then fecks off, as is her wont). Snoopy ponders this for a moment and types 'He hit him again!'


That is exactly how I tend to go about writing fight scenes. I'm working on something at the moment that is likely to have a few of them. I can't manage with less than three - and one of them has to be climactically kick-ass-y, just to add to the fun - and I feel that to jack up the tension, a few others might prove necessary. And swords are involved in some of them. I have never, as far as I can remember, held a sword.


My current fight scene reads something like this:


F thrust his sword at G, who quickly parried. F struck again, veering to the right this time, but again G had anticipated this and deflected his blow easily.

This happened about twenty or thirty more times. Trust me, though, the tension mounted quite a bit throughout, as G was clearly losing his grip on the slick handle and his movements grew jerkier, less graceful, more frenzied.

Finally, F slashed wildly at G, catching him off-guard. F's sword was changing direction so fast that it looked like a streak of light. G tried to block him but was too late - his sword clattered from his grasp and fell to the ground.


It's that bit in the middle I have the most trouble with. How on earth do you describe what is essentially a very similar set of actions, repeatedly, without it getting boring? Imagine trying to describe every part of a good meal - 'I speared another prawn, and it was even more delicious than the last. And look! Seven more prawns on my plate! Maybe it was time to mix it up a little with some yellow peppers. I had the prawns to spare, after all.' Fun to eat. Tedious as all hell to read about.

Fights are extremely tense and interesting to watch, but writing about them is just so - blah. I've been trying to get deeply into the mind of my protagonist and show exactly what he feels during the fight, and that is working OK - there is a lot more of what he notices, which allows me to draw back from the actual mechanics of the fight while he observes that the opponent is tiring, or growing stronger, or whatever. But that's difficult too - you can't zone out too much because in a fight, a person will be pretty focused. They don't stop to essay upon the quality of light on the leaves overhead.

Can anyone recommend books with well-written, tense, interesting fight scenes that don't flag in the middle? All help appreciated on this one!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Loving Books on a Budget

Nicola Morgan writes today that she's deeply unhappy about the state of publishing. Reading her blog post, it's hard to feel any other way.

The best thing we can do for our industry is to buy lots of books. But that big recession that's making it hard for publishing? We all know it's making it hard for us too. It isn't easy to find the money to buy new books, especially if, like most writers, you have a big pile of unread books in your house.

There's a post here by Lisa Schroeder, about how to help writers when you have limited finances. As book bloggers, we're probably all already doing most of them. But it's no harm to refresh our memories.

One thing I am lax about is linking. I blog about books quite often (although the authors are frequently dead - Dodie Smith, Kathleen Winsor et al) but I never link to them. In future, I will link to somewhere where the books can be bought (I hate to put temptation right there, but you never know who might surf in and decide to buy if I make it a little easier, right?), and if the writer has a webpage or a blog, I will link to that. I usually buy a lot of books as Christmas gifts (my family are all big readers) but I'll make more of an effort with birthdays. I recently spotted a book that I haven't read myself (Gail Carriger's Soulless - see what I did there?) that I wanted to buy for Writer Friend, and I didn't - because I hadn't read it and couldn't endorse it. I've read enough reviews of it that I now think I should have taken the risk.

Anyway, I hope there's a few things in Lisa's post that make you all think - and that we can all come up with more ideas, and new ways to keep books moving and publishers signing contracts :)

Monday, June 14, 2010

In Praise of Followers

When I hit fifty followers, I didn't post about it, even though I was really happy. I'm superstitious (some would say 'paranoid and insane') and I was sure that if I posted to say 'Yay, fifty followers!' I'd suddenly lose a bunch of followers and everyone would think 'She can't count, poor dear. . .' (I can't).

But as Donna Hosie recently hit 50 and made a post about it, I felt a bit bad about the lack of follower-love around these parts.

I like to follow the blogs I like, because I often surf into a blog, read one entry, really enjoy it and then realise I'm late for something else and have to dash out of the house. So I click 'Follow' to make sure I can find it later, and then I find I have a delightful feed of content onto my Blogger Dashboard every day. I also generally follow people back once they follow my blog (if you think we have something in common, you're probably right). If you follow me, and I don't follow you, it's just because I haven't gotten around to it yet.

I would like to say thanks to everyone who has taken the time to click 'Follow', or to read an entry, post a comment, visit one of my followers - because a huge part of this whole blogging thing is finding people and connecting.

I started my blog because I read so many writing and publishing blogs, and I had thoughts on them, and I wanted to post my thoughts somewhere, rather than just commenting on what other people said. Also, I was coming back to writing after some time away from it, and I wanted to post honestly and openly about the challenges we can face, to offer some sort of comfort in the face of those geniuses who spew out magnificent words all day and drive the rest of us to despair. We are not all like that, I wanted to say. Some of us spend our lives finding new ways to mess stuff up.

I have found, though, that the best thing about blogging isn't having space to vent, or 'platform-building', or even changing the layout five times a day before reverting to the original one. It's the people, who are constantly fun, engaging, interesting and compelling. It's great to post saying 'This disaster happened to my novel!' and have someone post back saying 'Oh, you too? I thought it was just me. . . .!'

All readers are great. Followers are great. That is all. :D

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jenny Cruise Gets Poetic About Rats

Guys, if you are writers, stop what you're doing right now and read this.

Or if you don't have time, just read this bit:

What’s the worst that can happen? You never get published or the book of your heart tanks, and you never reach your goal, but at the end of your life you look back and say, “I had a dream and I fought for it, I believed in myself and my work, and I never, ever gave up.” That’s a life well lived, folks, a helluva lot better than, “I had a dream but it wasn’t realistic so I quit and watched television.” Do not let reality push you around, do not be sensible and kill your own dreams, and for the love of God do not let people who are only guessing about what’s going to happen next tell you that you’re a fool for believing in yourself and your stories.

If you want to write, or worse again, if you realised when you were young that you wanted to write and like an idiot, actually told people - then you'll be familiar with the awful phrase 'Yeah, but what do you really want to do?' That drives me especially nuts, because it goes beyond suggesting that doing it is stupid - it implies that dreaming of it is stupid.

Not so much, actually. Someone has to make it. And if we're one of the 99.9% who don't, who cares? Once we tried, once we went for it, who can say that it's a waste of time?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Happy Bookshop News

Irish bookshop chain Hughes and Hughes closed in February.

Now, apparently, five of their branches have reopened. I haven't checked if the one nearest my office has reopened (although thankfully their Costa Coffee outlet with the nice caramel slices is still going) but I am hopeful!

I really noticed the loss of Hughes and Hughes about a month ago. I was looking for the latest Alice Hoffman, or failing that, any Alice Hoffman I hadn't read. We used to have four bookshops in the area - one secondhand, one heavy on the holiday reads, one adequate but small. In the absence of Hughes & Hughes, I had no luck. I'm not saying Hughes & Hughes would definitely have had it - but they did have a large shop floor (which contributed to their downfall apparently. Rents in Ireland are high) so my chances would have been better. As it was, the secondhand shop had the widest range.

I don't have many Irish readers so most of you probably don't care very much - but I'm going to take a leap and say you're probably all in favour of more bookshops :)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dispatches from the Thingie

Rather successful writers' group last night, even if we were all slightly giddy and giggly for much of it.

Achievements

1. Lunchbox is now a verb. And it doesn't refer to making packed lunches, or anything dirty :)
2. We have secured access to cute pictures of cygnets. I will post one with the photographer's permission when I have one.
3. It was our six-month anniversary!
4. One tube of Jaffa Cakes was demolished by two people. Fine example of cooperation in action.
5. Some writing got done.
6. I have a plot!

Writers' groups are fun.

And I have a plot! Here's how I found it, just in case it might be helpful to someone stuck:

I opened my notebook and started a conversation with myself. I wrote this by hand - it's more effective for me when I'm brainstorming, because I'm always loath to scribble things out, but I delete constantly when I write on a computer. But typing could work really well for this too, because it's so quick.
My opening sentences were 'OK then so how can I work it that these two guys were killing people??? Or hurting them or something, they have to be doing something pretty bad.'
Somehow, twenty minutes of similar drivel later, I had a plot.

Not quite all of it - if I knew exactly what was going to happen, I couldn't write it. But I have a fairly solid plot up until about halfway through, and then the final half depends a lot on how my character responds to what I'm throwing at him. That should be fun to discover.

So yes, overall a great evening. Toffypops always help.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Plots, and How To Find Them

I am currently chasing an elusive plot. Stalking it through the undergrowth, if you will.

I have lots of elements. I have two very nasty people in league with each other. One is dead. One is alive and continually thinking up worse stuff to do (although I haven't quite figured out what that is yet). I have vicious rumours circulating about the dead one. And I have two people who want to know what's really going on.

There is a plot in there. I'm just having some trouble finding it.

I am a seat-of-pants writer. I ponder and ponder and then, when I have a clear enough picture of where I want to go, I dive in and hope for the best. This works for me most of the time, but when it doesn't, this happens.

And it's very hard to be productive in a situation like this. When I'm dreading a difficult scene, I just have to bite the bullet and write it. But it's hard to bite the bullet and think of a plot.

'I'll just do the washing up,' one decides. 'And then I will sit down and have a good hard think.'

You do the washing up, then you go to the couch and sit down for your good think. You may even assume the Thinker pose, just to get your mind in the right place. And then you say to yourself 'Right.'
'Here we go.'
'Time to think.'
'OK.'
long pause
'OK.'
long pause
'OK. What have I got to work with? Character A, dead to begin with. Character B, baddie. Character C, protagonist. Character D, protagonist's love interest.'
long pause
'They all ought to do something.'
long pause. Make tea.
'Something compelling. Something really interesting. Is that mould on that bread? I just bought it yesterday. I'm never shopping there again.'
Sip tea
'Actually, I should clean out the kitchen. There's a few things in the fridge past their best.'

See? This thinking lark is bloody hard.

The only realistic way to approach it is to try to sneak up on your brain. Distract it with books, chocolate, episodes of 30 Rock and Glee, and whenever it sighs and says 'Hmmm, that plot problem. . .' you instantly shush every other thought so you can tune into that one. Then it gets self-conscious and goes quiet, so you sigh and go back to the telly.

This has been going on for a while. It has come to a head today, though, because I have my monthly writers' group tonight. The writers' group I'm in is about meeting up and writing together for motivation, rather than for critique, so I am spared the shame of showing up with no pages.

However. We do actually write together when we meet up, which is almost worse, because all I can do at this point is - well, think. Which, to a casual observer, looks astoundingly like slacking off.

I'll end on a practical note, though. I am planning to spend tonight's Writers' Thingie (the name has kind of stuck. . .) free-writing about my characters. This has worked for me before - pen on paper, brain on autopilot, and hope for the best. The downside is that you end up with sentences like this:
He's all about darkness, really, isn't he, I mean when you actually stop and think about it, that's what he is. So I should use that. Maybe there could be some kind of scene in a graveyard although I'm not sure where that would fit in.
In spite of that, though, if I can force myself to sift through the crap, sometimes free-writing can turn up some things that were hovering just below the surface of the mind and needed to be coaxed out.

Wish me luck :)