I am, er, doing things…

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The marketing brainstorming has led to a bunch of insights, some of which relate to “If you build it to be less of a pain in the ass, then you will do it more often.”  So I’m going to be dinking around with the blogs for a bit, so if you see all kinds of mayhem, it’s probably just me and not some virus.

Posted on December 9th 2013 in The General Heap

How to Entertain Unwanted Relatives over the Holidays (A De Kenyon Post)

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(This post was written by De Kenyon, who’s my middle-grade kids’ book persona/pseudonym.  You can find more about De Kenyon books at www.DeKenyon.com.)

Holidays can be a very stressful time for kids.  Yes, there’s Christmas with its promises of presents, but there’s always this threat hanging above your head:  be good or Santa will throw your presents in a fire and stamp on them until they turn into coal, which he will then put into your stocking to torture you.  Even Thanksgiving, where likely all you’ll be called upon is to “be good” for a while then eat, is fraught with peril.  The entire holiday season has low-level background music playing:  one false step and you’re grounded, kid.

Worst of all are the Unwanted Relatives.

The two-year-old with sticky hands and a passion for ripping pages out of your comic books.

The bossy girl who is two months older than you are and who continually justifies her rudness by saying “…because I’m older than you and I know better.”

The adult who thinks you are still that sticky two-year-old and talks to you in the same squeaky tones he uses on his pet chihuahua, which proceeds to wee on your blankets (the dog, not the adult…).

The horror never ends!

And so let me present to you a list of ways to entertain these terrifying intruders, distracting them from your most precious possessions, tricking them out of excessive baby talk and other belittling behaviors, and entertaining yourself in the process:

  1. Identify your safe area. This will be the place you will hide if events become entirely too much for you.
  2. Identify your stash. These are precious possessions that you cannot afford to lose, have destroyed, see in the grubby hands of Cousin Dork, etc.
  3. Place your stash in a safe area, if possible. DO NOT place anything you wish to hide under the bed.  This is the first place anyone under the age of fifteen will look (the first place anyone over the age of fifteen will look is in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, incidentally).  Try the top of your closet, behind the most boring possible books on the bookshelves, in the garage, inside of socks in your sock drawer, taped to the bottoms of shelves, or any other difficult-to-get-to location.  Do not hide anything in a place that would make a good hiding spot in a game of hide and seek, and never hide anything in the trash!
  4. Identify your most annoying targets. Are they young or old?  Tall or short?  Full of energy or really just wanting a nap?
  5. Now that you have a profile of your targets, write down a list of five things they are likely to be interested in. For example, young children might like candy, small dogs, running around in circles for no apparent reason whatsoever, playing hide-and-seek, and eating crayons.  Older teens might like video games, snacks, saying mean and sarcastic things, talking on their cell phones to their friends, and avoiding adults.
  6. Now the fun begins. Take any two or more items on your list…and combine them to inflict maximum distraction on your targets.  For example, you might fasten a wrapped piece of candy onto a small dog’s collar, then turn it loose in the back yard in order to run pointlessly around in circles.  Or you might set up a video game with a pile of snacks next to it in the basement for two teenagers, who will keep themselves amused by saying sarcastic things to each other instead of to you.
  7. Take advantage of the distraction. At this point, you do not need to hide.  It is only once the distractions have worn off that you may need to retreat to your safe area.

Emergency tips in case your original ideas are not distracting or are not distracting for long enough:

  • Get in so much trouble that you are sent to your room (alone).  You may regret this later, though.
  • Find a slightly less annoying guest that you can hide behind/hang out with–and who can protect you.  A buddy next door or a cousin you like can also work.
  • Cough or sniffle a lot, or fake throwing up.  Nobody wants to catch a cold from you.
  • Insult them in a secret code.  Hint: don’t use pig latin on anyone over six.
  • Using actual itching powder is rarely as much fun as mentioning all the baby spiders you found in your room yesterday.  When asked to describe them, say, “Small and black, like a big pile of pepper, and with lots of little legs, and they crawl on you just…like…this…” and then gently tap your fingers on the backs of their necks.
  • Burst into tears and refuse to explain why.  Note:  Only do this if you can really burst into tears; fake tears will just get you more torture.
  • Bring a whoopie cushion into the bathroom with you and squash it every time someone knocks on the door. Then say, “Just a minute” and whine softly.
  • Start helping with kitchen cleanup.  I know, I know–this is torture.  But if we’re talking about a true emergency, this can work.  If you are helping out, then you can’t be dragged off by the teenagers.  Stay in visible, well-populated areas to avoid the really serious bullies and creepazoids.
  • Scream and blame it on the excess sugar, if necessary.
  • Hide in your designated safe area.  You’ll probably be found, but sometimes you just need a breather.  Note:  Do not do this if you’re dealing with a creepazoid or bully; they’re probably hoping that you disappear somewhere quiet…so they can pick on you some more in secret.  In that case, hang out next to the adults.

Remember, the holidays are supposed to be a time of rest, relaxation, and enjoyment, and with a little forethought, you can avoid the torture of having unwanted relatives foisted off on you, just because your parents were obligated to invite them.  If your plans work out, you can even earn some additional brownie points–because believe me, the adults want them to be distracted as badly as you do.

If you enjoyed this useful article, please check out my short story “The Secret of the Cellar,” about a very clever girl who plans ahead for her annoying cousins…by setting up a haunted house in the basement.  You can find it at B&NAmazonKoboSmashwords, iBooks and more.

 

Posted on November 27th 2013 in The General Heap

Flaws & Honesty

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Sorry, this should really be a touching post in which I confess some sort of horrible flaw, redeem myself, and cause you to have empathy with…well, with whatever I decide you need to have empathy with today.  Writing is all about manipulation, after all, even when you use honesty to do it.

But instead I’m going to go all analytical on you.  I was complaining to someone that I have no “heart” as a writer, that I have no idea what “heart” is or how to write it and thus certainly couldn’t give a @#$$%^& presentation on it…but what I could do was discuss flaws in an analytical fashion.  Apparently that counts as “heart,” so I’m testing out the ideas here.  I’m deliberately not using heart-tugging techniques here.  That seems like cheating.  This is a craft post, dammit, not a tear-jerking essay…

But to get down to it:

There are several ways that we have to deal with flaws as writers:

  1. The flaws in our work.
  2. The flaws in our writing process.
  3. The flaws in ourselves.

The first would be something like, “My endings tend to be train wrecks” or “I have slow middles.”

The second would be “Every time I switch to a new setting, I have to fight against writer’s block” or “I am so concentrated on perfection that I delete more than I write.”

The third is the hardest to deal with.

  • What if people who read my work don’t like it…and act like it reflects on me, personally?
  • What if I write about sex and people look at me funny?
  • What if I write about main characters who behave in ways that are immoral or unethical?  Won’t people think I think that way, too?
  • What if I haven’t lived a life of adventure/romance/etc. and can’t write about it convincingly?  What if I want to write about someone fundamentally different than I am–am I deluding myself into thinking I can pull it off?
  • What if I just want someone else to take care of all the problems so I can write?  What if I can’t handle being a professional writer?

We all have flaws.  We all have fears, desires, biases, prejudices–irrationalities–apathies–blind spots.  We can either spend our writerly lives trying to work around them, hide them, overcome them–or we can use them.

From time to time the advice “give your characters flaws” comes up.  If you write perfect characters–those tend to be boring.  Most writers have heard this and heard this and heard this.  But what flaws, and how big should the flaws be, and when should they be introduced?

I recently rewatched Harry Potter 3 with my family.  In that movie, which is my favorite one, Harry Potter is a bad kid.  He sentences his aunt to death for insulting his mother–it isn’t just an accident that he blows her up; it’s that he refuses to try to fix it or call in outside help to do so.  He’s an attempted murderer.  And yet he’s our hero.

Katniss from Hunger Games is intolerant, rude, and looks down on everyone who dares to be nice to her–except the one guy who’s more or less like her dad.  Even the little sister she claims to love is too weak and foolish to be able to take care of herself, in Katniss’s view.

Take a look at your favorite book, the one that’s lasted you through the years:  more than likely, the main character starts out as something of a turd (and may or may not improve after that).  Mine are the Alice in Wonderland books:  she runs away because she’s bored and solves her problems by throwing tantrums.  (Works for movies, too–Luke whines about having to contribute to his family, whines about being shoved into the friend zone, whines about having to save the world…in fact, his major change in Star Wars is that, for one freaking second, when he fires the missiles into the Death Star, he stops whining.  OMG!  A freakin’ miracle!)

The main question isn’t, “Should characters have flaws,” because great characters do. They have huge flaws.   Scarlett O’Hara?  Huge flaws.  Sherlock Holmes?  Pass the cocaine while I insult you, old chap.  The list goes on and on, more limited by my ability to come up with 1001 characters at the moment (Aladdin was a dick…Wolverine, what an asshole) than a lack of memorable characters with flaws.  With a great character, it’s almost like the flaw is more important than the redeeming characteristic.

However, the reason that we, as readers, aren’t really overwhelmed with how crappy our beloved characters really are, is that these characters are presented from the inside.   Sherlock Holmes isn’t an unemotional asshole…he’s a very smart man. Katniss Everdeen is a jerk to everyone around her…but she knows it and is uncomfortable about it, and is even, at times, sorry. Alice is a complete and utter brat with no attention span…but she’s really just reacting to the nutzoids around her. Aladdin just wants to make a buck (off a supposedly helpless old person).  Wolverine lashes out at everyone…but his past…oh, his past…

And so on.

What has this got to do with point 3?

Where do you think those flaws come from?

As a writer, it’s often easier to start with what you know.  ”Write what you know.”  You don’t need to stop there, of course, or else a lot of great books would never have been written.  But you might want to start there–with the flaws that you know.

It turns out I write a lot of characters who think too much and who get lost in their own worlds.  Maybe not the grandest flaws in the world, but something to start with.

Do people judge me for it?

The answer that I’m discovering is that yes, they do (mostly in blog posts)–but they will almost always give me credit for honesty.  You’ll never get credit for satire; you have to be very careful about it, and I have a fairly dry, satirical wit; I’ve been called a racist before because I’ve written from the POV of a racist who thinks himself above racism.  Satire is tricky.  But honesty, taking ownership of one’s flaws in the most naked way possible–that, people can respect (although they may try to fix the flaws for you, which, really, is kind of sweet).

So write those nakedly flawed characters, because mostly we’re okay with that.  Yes, you have flaws as a human being.  But like ladies flocking around a bad boy in a romance, those might be the parts that we like best about you.

All right, now for extra dorkiness…I’m trying to work on marketing (see previous post), so I’m biting the bullet here and saying…if you found this post inspiring or at all helpful, why not check out my nonfiction short book How to Fail and Keep on Writing:  Kill Your Excuses, Combat Naysayers with Facts & Figures, & Mail Your Stories Like a Pro?  You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and more…

WHEW.  And I didn’t have a heart attack or anything.  Thanks!

Posted on November 20th 2013 in The General Heap

Promotion: @#$%^&*@#$!!!!

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My publisher brain put itself on hold recently:  I’m still writing my ass off, but there is no urge whatsoever to put it up.  Granted, I’m working on a couple of novels right now, but believe me, I have plenty of back material that still needs to go up.  So what’s going on?

It turns out that being a publisher requires creativity.  Which sounds obvious, but it isn’t, not when you’re in the thick of it.

Here’s my internal monologue:

  • Okay, covers, covers require creativity…pretty interior layouts…yes, yes…I get very creative with blurbs…
  • Wait, promotion?  Promotion needs to be creative?!?!
  • But I only have so many creativity points today and I want to spend them all on wriiiiting!  (I think this is the place where a lot of writers stop and say, “I think I’ll just hand all this off to a publisher.”)
  • No, wait.  There’s something else going on, rumbling around down there…

There’s something trying to come out from the subconscious.  It’s not here yet.  But, interestingly enough, I can see a little bit of the shape of it.

I ended up at Beth A. Grant’s website the other day, based on a friend’s recommendation, twice removed.  (That means, I read the stuff at the original recommendation’s link, and the original link led to another link, which led to there, which, on second thought, needs a new phrase for it so you don’t have to explain that it’s not a friend twice removed but a link twice removed–”two jumps removed,” maybe?)  It’s a marketing and promotions site.  (Most writers will shudder there.)  But she has some good stuff.  My favorite point so far is the idea that not everyone should market the same way…which she breaks down in a more analytical way into personality types.  It may be foolish, but I love me some personality types.  When I hit the sorting hat in Harry Potter I cheered.

If you’re curious, you start here.  But in short there are two axes–and I end up on the nerd end of the boxes, where I think the best thing I can do is make good content (versus being a good “speaker” or a compelling salesperson).  But this site is all about…providing people a service.  Not about writing and selling fiction–not about hustling art.  So there’s no cut-and-dried plan there that fits my creativity.  (And yes, art provides a service–but if you take a look at the concrete marketing tips, the concept just doesn’t carry over clearly.)

But it does help explain some things.

I have a hard time formulating my “brand” and selling it, because my brand is my content; either you like it or you don’t.  But if I look at it a different way–in a nerdier way, although that isn’t the language she uses–and I’m pretending I’m giving a book recommendation to someone out of my own work, it becomes much easier to identify who should get what.  My kids’ fiction?  Is for smart kids who are bored with reading; it’s very mischievous writing.  You shouldn’t give this to your kid if they are the kind who always obeys rules, if they’re horrified by scary movies, and if they aren’t constantly pushing buttons to see what they get away with.  So if your kid is a brat from 8-12 years old, they’ll probably like at least some of what I write.  Which is, um, a brand, although when I try to fit the two ideas together they just don’t work.

But.

I don’t see any really good “Marketing for Nerds:  The Book” floating around.  There are marketing nerds, yes, and marketers are learning from nerds, but mostly nerds who need to market are treated as people who need a crutch, rather than people who need to find their own voices.  I do like Seth Godin, but there’s something subtly off for me about his work.  It’s inspiring, but it’s not concrete–How do you promote book X?  Rely on the long tail!  Provide good customer service!  Don’t worry, you’ll find a niche!  All great philosophy, but…what do I do about it?  How do I make a jump toward something practical?  Or something fundamental, some core idea that I can use to form a specific plan?

I look at the way other writers are marketing, and…wow, I could copy what other writers are doing (and I have), but is it really a way to stand out?  I could chase the latest “thing,” but…well, no.  That’s not actually what I want.  I don’t want to play the numbers.  I don’t want to calculate the best time of the year to release.  I don’t want to figure out the best sites to put up ads on.  I don’t want to hound people to buy books on Facebook and Twitter.  I don’t want to obsess about new release lists.  I don’t want to go on the Endless Blog Tour.  I don’t want to give away bookmarks and Kindles…I don’t want to bribe people to like my work, and I don’t want to pound them into giving up and buying my stuff in the hope that I’ll shut up about it already.  I mean, I sound really negative about it, but it’s about me, not you.  I don’t like these things.  They might convince me to buy stuff, but I don’t want to be the one doing them.

Yes, I’ve run into the idea that I just need to be (essentially) more woo-woo about the whole process and accept what the universe gives me–but I’m a nerd.  I analyze.  In fact, I analyze so that when I get down to the real meat of the matter, I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m doing the right thing.  I analyze in preparation for walking out into the woo-woo, not so I can avoid doing so.

So I both don’t want to analyze (at least, using the analytical tools that other people are using), and yet I must analyze.  Which means I need to start thinking about new tools.

I don’t have them yet.  Sorry:  I feel like this will be really useful if I can pull it off.  But I got nothing so far.  I’m running through the writers I follow online…and they aren’t the ones that I read, except for Stephen Brust, and the fact that he writes amusingly online isn’t why I first started reading him.  I’ll pick up a book IF another person recommends it to me and IF I like the opening page…but that doesn’t seem to be something that, as the writer myself, I can directly control–other than going on the Endless Blog Tour.  (I don’t mind writing blogs, but I’d rather they be nerdy ones, not interviews about my books themselves.  I wrote it already; my interest has passed on.) I am already working my ass off on writing better (and thus attracting awards and sales and whatnot that will speak for me).  I got that.  If I wrote a “Marketing for Nerdy Writers” book that would totally be a chapter, but it can’t be the only chapter, because it won’t tell you what else to explore, what principles to follow.   “Write better” is a sine qua non, not an action plan.

…And I fully expect that whatever I find will not actually be reinventing the wheel, just rediscovering it personally.  Heh.  I know I have a really good idea if I can trace it back to Neil Stephenson.  He’s a nerd.  I should look at his promotional prowess.

Posted on November 13th 2013 in The General Heap

Coming soon in Black Static…

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Will post further details as I get ‘em.  It’s supposed to be up in the next issue.   Woot!

Posted on November 3rd 2013 in The General Heap

Editing Tips for Editors

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Several editing observations have come up over the last week.  I’m not sure they’re going to do anybody else any good, but at the very least it’ll help me process.  This is coming out kind of rough and mean, I think at least partially because I’m trying to beat myself into submission,  and if nothing else I find my (former?) personal bad habits more than a little irritating.  Sorry.  Maybe I could be tactful about this later.  Like in ten years or so.  Although really I expect by then to be repeating these points, only louder and more rudely, having almost completely forgotten I’ve previously bitched about them here.  C’est la vie.

There’s a difference between the editing that one does in a critique group and the editing that one does for a client.  The editing that one does for a client may not have ego to it.  What you like, as a reader, doesn’t mean anything.  Praise?  Criticism?  You have to do it in a critique group; it’s expected.  Clients shouldn’t have to care if they don’t want to.  Your opinion is a side comment, something that goes in a cover email (or doesn’t get said at all) and not in the document redlines, except on very rare occasions, and then only when it’s praise.  Do you understand what the author’s trying to do?  No?  Then don’t ask repeatedly in the manuscript.  If you dislike a character, then you can disliked them in the privacy of your own mind.  Not in the comments.  You’re getting paid for those comments; they better be a value-add.

Review your comments and remove every single one of them that you can.

Genre matters.  Audience matters.  Context matters.  If your client is writing pulp, don’t edit them like they’re writing literary.  You are responsible to know the difference and to avoid genres you don’t know well enough to edit.  Otherwise, you will just piss the author off, and they will speak ill of you to others.  If you dislike the work, remove yourself as gracefully as possible.

If you never, ever bitch about poor writing again it will still not be soon enough.  Whether you are bitching about a client in particular or “clients in general,” as an editor, you’re kind of like a confessor.  Keep your mouth shut.  If writers were perfect, they wouldn’t need editors.  On top of which, when editors are in editor mode, we’re assholes.  Every piece of writing has issues, even after having been edited.  Even ones edited by a professional editor.  The general public can bitch about typos.  Readers can bitch about typos.  An editor bitching about typos is just someone bragging up their editing skills.  Keep it in your pants or send a private email, buddy.

And just because you know how to write better than the writer does–even if it’s only in one technique or another–that doesn’t mean you get to try to improve the writer.  –I have a problem with this.  ”Oh, let me helpfully teach you how to structure a scene.”  Especially in cases when I’m not being paid to do content editing.  This just gets frustrating on both parts, as more and more time gets sunk into a project, and someone ends up getting screwed.  Let the writer learn at their own pace and back the hell off.  So what if their descriptions could be better?  You might consider telling them once, tactfully, in a cover email.

Look it up.  Ha ha, yes, you’ve been editing for twenty years now, of course you know what you’re doing.  Look it up.

If you see a writer break a rule consistently, remove your redlines and comments about it, unless the rule-breaking may cause the author issues with their readers.  For example, a consistently misspelled word–don’t fix it, unless it’s obvious that it’s not a dialect or slang or some other intentional change.  If you’re feeling paranoid, you can flag it once and go back and fix it if the author says, “Ooh, that’s wrong, good catch.”  Otherwise you’re wasting the author’s time as they dejectedly “fix” a bunch of stuff, then realize they didn’t have to in the first place.  Even worse:  pretend that you’re right even though you’re violating the author’s intentions.

No more hardcopy copyediting.  Ever.  Again.  It’s a lot of work and prevents tact.

Every time you change or comment on something, you’re sucking up a little bit of the author’s willpower, even if it’s a good change/comment.  If you can point out one thing that covers many items–if you can put something tactfully into a cover email–if you can shoot a quick email question before you flag fifty things–then do it that way.  If you’re editing under another editor’s direction (or, in a small press, sometimes it’s the publisher’s direction), then talk to them first.  Don’t drain the writer.  They need to have the willpower to write more than you need to prove that you can spot errors.  Trust me, you’re not impressing anybody with even a lick of experience by bleeding all over the page.

Don’t change the writer’s punctuation scheme.  Yes.  That means you…and you…and you.  And often me.  Change it for clarity?  Yes, but only as  appropriate, and if the author doesn’t use the Harvard comma on a consistent basis, then you will spread your legs and take that extra comma for the team.  Deliberate run-on sentences?  Bite your tongue and think of England.

 

Writers:  There are editors that make you excited.  Stressed, but excited.  There are editors who leave you feeling drained and hurting with a stubbed toe of the mind (or worse).  Sometimes you can’t avoid the latter.  Some will improve a manuscript; others will pick it to pieces and suck the magic out.  Learning to be edited is its own skill.  You win some and you lose some.  If someone else is paying for your work, then you might need to lose a few in order to win the ones that are really important.  Lord knows I have.  But if you’re paying the editor?  You win.  You just always win.  And if the editor gives you attitude about that, then get another editor.

Again, let me apologize to any clients–past, current, and future–whose mental and creative toes I stub, in one way or another.   I am often wrong, cranky while editing, and arrogant.  But you win.  Always.  In the end, you win, and don’t let me tell you any different.  It just makes me a worse editor.

 

Posted on October 23rd 2013 in The General Heap

Aunt Margie

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I’m a writer, so here it is:  My Aunt Margie passed away on Monday, of probably a massive stroke.  Dad called to tell me.  This is Dad:  he always starts out the phone calls, and then Mom takes over.  I think it’s because there’s only so much time he can stand to be social, and he has to work himself up to it.  I’m his daughter, but I don’t think that really makes it any easier to talk on the phone.  He has three daughters and two sons; he came from a family of nine kids.  As the youngest, he’s had some of them pass before him.  Margie is his older sister–if I’m interpreting things right, the one who mothered him, as a kid.

He told me Margie was gone.  And then.  Well, I knew I shouldn’t push for details, but I listened.  And he told me he’d talked to her on Friday, he had a good talk with her.  He’d been going to go over and cut wood for them, but it’d rained, and the wood would have been too wet.  Personally, I’m terrified of chainsaws, but I think he likes them.  He said the last time he went over there to cut wood, he didn’t tell anyone, and she chewed him out for it.  Not…chewed him out.  Said something.   Teased him about it, probably.  We’re a family of teasers and crap-givers.

He called again Monday afternoon, and we talked about the service.  Margie wanted her body donated to science, but they can wait until after the service, he said.  Then we talked about the weather.  As I get older this makes more sense.  Every time you talk about the weather, you’re talking about everyone.  This last couple of years in Colorado, I saw it:  fires that swept over your friends, taking everything from some, barely touching others.  Flooding, the same way.  When you talk about the weather you’re saying life goes on but you have to pay attention to it while it’s going on.

We do have to go on.   I do.   I thought it wasn’t hitting me as bad as other people who have passed over the last few years:  Margie led a good life, both as a good person and as a life that wasn’t lived out in shades of despair and numbness, and believe me, that’s worth celebrating rather than mourning, because I’ve seen both now.  But I’m having trouble functioning this morning, because in order to go on, I have to go on with Aunt Margie, rather than separate from her.  I can’t leave her behind.

It’s a family tradition to tease each other, and I’m sure there’s lots of stories going around about goofy things she’s done.  Or there will be those stories going around, or there should be.  There’s always some story, with them, of some dumbass thing you’ve done that tells everyone exactly who you are. In a group of people plagued with eyeroll-worthy orneriness, it’s probably vital that these things get passed around.  Plus there’s just so damned many of us.  ”Who do you belong to?” was a common question I got growing up.  I ask it at family reunions now.  The stories help keep us sorted out.

I’m sure Aunt Margie had a bunch of stories that she told about herself, embarrassing stories.  That was just the way she was.  She liked to laugh.  But here’s my story for her, one part of what I want to bring with me:

We’d just moved from the farm out to Flandreau.  Because her clan lived out in Madison, I hadn’t really gotten to know her before then. I was in tenth grade and at a complete loss for pretty much everything.  Except for one thing.  And I know that this is going to be both offensive to the family and something that makes them nod because it’s true.  I was relieved to be out of the gossip.

I wasn’t the center of gossip, thank God.  No, it was just that the farm itself was the center of gossip, the geographical ground zero of the Knippling clan and all its drama.  There was always some low-level feud going on between wives.  Some argument between brothers.  Someone calling someone else a fool behind their backs.

A couple of hundred miles away, it was restful.  Peaceful.

I tried to tell this to Margie one day.  I had to tell someone, and my parents weren’t the ones to talk to.  They were going through a lot, good and bad, having left the farm.  And one day we were over at her house for some reason or another, and it just came out.  Horribly, awkwardly.

I’m prettty sure I insulted the people she loved best.  She forgave me.  She said, “You don’t get to pick your family.   You don’t have to like them.  You just have to love them.”

It’s true, and it helped.  I learned to roll eyes with the best of them.  And what she didn’t say, but what I have also taken with me, is that they just have to love me. Whenever I made a choice I knew that would have the gossips all a-flutter, I thought about her words, and went on with what I felt called to do.

She wasn’t a saint, or at least she wouldn’t let anyone call her one.  But everyone who knew her knows that she is one of the pillars of everything solid and merciful in our lives, no matter how much or little she touched them.

For example, I’ve talked to other people who were so filled with despair that they say things like the world is awful and people are crap and why bother. Well, but then there’s my Aunt Margie, see?  I always knew those people were wrong.  It’s not the world itself that’s wrong, because if that were the case, then Aunt Margie would have been wrong.  And she wasn’t.  I just can’t plumb the depths of despair because of her and people like her.  I already know better.

This causes me to get extremely irritable at times; I just want to shake people for being such idiots when it’s just not necessary.  And so I know I can’t be her.  I’m just not that patient.  And I’m not that forgiving.  But I’ll try.

Because I like her.  Very much.

 

 

 

 

Posted on October 16th 2013 in The General Heap

Horror vs. Ghost Stories

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I love old ghost stories.   Mostly late 19th-century British ones.  There are some good American ones, Canadian ones…but mostly British ones.  They’re short, maybe five thousand  words at most, and are not inhabited by ghosts so much as they are by something else.  Yeah, there are ghosts, but not even half the time.  There are ghosts of servants that terrify their masters…people possessed by tiger gods…cancer embodied as crabs…vampires that go about in daylight and invite one to tea.

You could call them ghosts, as a kind of general catchall, but they’re something else.  You have to wonder if, at the time, the British were acutely aware of the Empire falling apart, of history being redefined by other people who weren’t British.  Of things being not what they seemed.

But – I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’ve always wanted to write a good, turn-of-the-centuryish ghost story, but the’ve always seemed to escape me.  I think it’s because I didn’t really understand them.

A couple of weeks ago, at a new thrift store (DAV), I found a curious book.   It’s called The Haunted Looking Glass:  Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey.  It’s just what it sounds like, twelve ghost stories with Edward Gorey illustrations.  Algernon Blackwood, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, and yes, Bram Stoker.  Most of them I haven’t read before.  ”The Monkey’s Paw” I think is the only one, but I haven’t finished the collection yet.

I had just about finished “The Body-Snatcher” by Stevenson last night when I went to bed, which might imply that it wasn’t that interesting a story, but I was very tired, so I stuck in the bookmark and went to bed.

I woke up about two, dreaming of redlines (editing marks) that had ripped themselves off the page and were bleeding freely.  It’s been that kind of week.  They were after me, trying to tell me to do something horrible.  Some serial killers hear gods, angels, demons–I hear redlines muttering madness to me in my sleep.  At any rate, I woke up, tossed and turned for a bit, then got up and wrote a few  pages in my journal, because I couldn’t go back to sleep for worrying.   About money, mostly, but also about feeling like I had grown pettier and meaner recently.  More likely to snarl than laugh.

I wrote.  As I wrote, not before, I realized that the dream with the redlines had been a nightmare so bad that it had woken me up, and that I had kept myself from going back to sleep because I didn’t want to chance slipping back into it.  Simultaneously, I figured out why I was feeling so negative; when I feel like I’m not contributing, I get angry at other people that I feel aren’t contributing, or that…well, someday I’ll write it in a story.  That’s what I do when I find out something so awful that I don’t want to actually confess it about myself, but I need to get it out in the open, more or less.  A story has the benefit of being fictionalized, so you can both distort the truth and let a decent amount of time pass before you have to talk about it with anyone, so you have time to heal over the wounds to your ego.  At any rate, it wasn’t pretty.

Then, feeling tired but not quite willing to go back to sleep, I read the end of the Stevenson story.

It was abrupt, so abrupt that it felt lame.  Maybe it was just…the time it was written…eh.  Whatever.

I went to bed and had a hard time falling asleep, because my head was full of good ideas.  Fortunately I did fall asleep, and I did remember the one idea that was really good.   I worked on it some more this morning already.  I keep going, “Oh, this is good.”   It was such a relief to have the weight of all that negativity off my shoulders that my mind was full of more good things than it knew what to do with.

When I woke up again, I reread the end of the Stevenson story.  Yes, still curiously lame.

But then I flipped back to the beginning.

There was the end of the story.  You had to read the story like this:  Beginning–>End–>Beginning.  If you didn’t read the beginning again, well,  you might have been able to hold the entire story in your head and mentally reread the beginning.  At any rate, the beginning, after I read the end, had changed.

Aside from everything else, this got me thinking about ghost stories.  Not horror.  But ghost stories.

Horror is about pain, and whether you give in to pain, resist it, recover from it…pain.  When you look at Edgar Allen Poe, you’re looking at horror.   You don’t go back to the beginning of an Edgar Allen Poe story and find that it has changed under you.  Sure, “The Purloined Letter” was there all along, but in Poe’s version of ghost stories, it’s all about madness and torture and shock, not about redefinition.

The primary element of a ghost story is haunting.  And what we are haunted by is not ghosts, not things that go bump in the dark, but by our assumptions about  ourselves, which are so much stronger than the facts that we observe about the world…but the world will insist on its not being entirely erased by our notions.

If we could see ourselves clearly, we would not be haunted.

Posted on October 9th 2013 in The General Heap

Free Fiction Wednesday: The Secret of the Cellar

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Not much has changed here – the layout and fonts are all.  Okay, that sounds like a lot.  But really it wasn’t.

Under the basement…down in the dark…

Elly always gets stuck with entertaining her relatives while their parents talk to her mom.  Blah, blah, blah.  It goes on for hours.  But this time, she worked and worked to make a special surprise for her visiting cousins…a haunted house in the basement!  With a super-duper, extra-gross surprise in the spooky cellar.

It should be the most fun that they’ve had in forever…until things start to go mysteriously wrong…

“The Secret of the Cellar” will be free here for one week only, but you can also buy a copy at B&NAmazonSmashwords, Apple, Kobo, Powell’s and more.

The Secret of the Cellar

When the cousins came over to Elly’s tiny yellow house in Michigan, which was shoved in between two other houses so they almost touched and had barely any yard in the front or the back and no parks to go to, her mom would say, “Elly! Take your cousins downstairs and entertain them while we talk,” and she would. Sometimes they would play “stay off the lava” by jumping between the old, stinky, ripped up couches, and sometimes they would play “planet destroyer” by using the white pool ball to knock all the other balls off the pool table, which usually ended up with someone having pinched fingers and them all getting in trouble for making too much noise, and sometimes they would play “hide and seek.” One time Elly followed her cousin Jackson to the downstairs closet under the stairs and locked the door so he couldn’t get out. Then she found all the other cousins and they went upstairs and played tea with snickerdoodles and dolls until it was time for them to go. Jackson was so proud of not being found that he never noticed that he got locked in, because she unlocked the door before she yelled for him to go home.

This time it wasn’t Jackson but the M cousins from Iowa. There were four girl cousins, and their names all started with M: Missy, Mandy, Mary, and Maureen, which Elly thought must be kind of embarrassing at school.

“Just let us know if you need anything, girls!” said Aunt Jane.

“Okay!” Elly said. She led them away from the living room with all the adults to the door to the basement. She had her lucky purple dinosaur shirt on, and her lucky red sneakers, and her jeans with butterflies on the back pocket, for good luck.

“Can we play pretend?” asked Mandy. “I want to be Esmeralda the Elf Queen again.”

“No,” said Elly. They were always wanting to play the same game over and over again, and she wasn’t going to let them. “Today we are going into the basement.”

“We always go into the basement,” said Maureen. She was the smallest. And the whiniest.

Elly had a very small red metal flashlight in her pants pocket, attached to a keychain holder. Now she turned it on by turning the cap in a circle and held it under her face. “Yeah, but then we are going into the cellar.” Click here to read more.. »

Posted on October 9th 2013 in The General Heap

Indie Publishing: Check your page count!

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I think I’m going to just have to add walking (most) clients through their royalty calculators to my interior print layout services.

Because what happens is I ask them, “How many pages do you want the interior to be, approximately?” and they say, “Oh, whatever looks good.”

This is a bad, bad idea.

Okay.  Let’s take this as an example.  You have a 120,000-word book.   (Here’s where the experienced people flinch, because they already know there are some painful choices to be made.)  You decide you want a 12-point font, because it’s important that your text be readable.  You tell your designer, “It’s important that my text be readable.”

Your designer, quite correctly, goes for a 12-point font (or something reasonable, which will depend on the font itself), multiplies that number by, oh, 1.5, and comes up with a good amound of space for the leading, that is, the space between the lines of text.  Single space is 1x the text size (so your text is 12-point text and your leading is 12-point spacing between lines).  Double space is 2x the text size (12-point text, 24-point leading).  Leading at 1.5 is a good starting place for this kind of thing–but the designer should be willing to change this, based on client input.  Designers, until they do all the interior formatting fiddly bits (and you should be approving the design before they start on those), are not married to a strict 1.5x font leading.

By following those guidelines, your designer could hand you off a book that’s over 450 pages in length, at a 6×9″ layout.

As a rule of thumb, you want to make about $2 each on lowest tier of royalties from your distributor.  Because we’re talking indie POD stuff here, your basic options are CreateSpace, Lightning Source International (LSI), and Lulu.  If I have time I’ll double back and look up the info for LSI and Lulu, but here’s the CreateSpace royalty calculator, which is what most of you are going to start out with.

Go take a look at it and plug in the numbers:  b/w interior, trim size 6×9″, number of pages 450.  You have to enter a cover price.  Let’s enter, oh, $9.99.

Those of you who know where I’m going with this, yes, you can snigger.

Enter the price and hit Calculate.

What you will see is that the Amazon royalty is -$.26, the eStore royalty is $1.74, and the expanded distribution (all other places other than Amazon or directly through CreateSpace) is -$2.26.  The number is also a negative in the pounds and euros fields.

Your good intentions plus the designer’s good intentions equals YOU WILL LOSE MONEY ON THIS BOOK.

Generally, you want to shoot for a profit of about $2 per book.  This means a) you make some money, and b) the BOOK SELLERS MAKE ENOUGH MONEY TO MAKE IT WORTH CARRYING YOUR BOOK.  The book sellers make a percentage of your cover price–usually around 40-50%.  If the book is priced too low, they won’t stock it.  Pfft.  They’re not selling books to be noble.  So don’t undercut your royalty by more than like 50 cents, or the booksellers won’t want it, either.

In order for this 450-page book to make $2, you have to price it between $19.99 and $20.99, which makes it a tough sell to readers, even in trade paperback size (6×9″).

URK.

Okay.  Let’s say you looked at those numbers and went back to your interior designer (before you finalized the design, mind you, because if you approved the design and let your designer do all the fiddly bits, you deserve to pay for the additional hours of formatting work over and above your original agreement) and said, “Look, 450 pages is too many.  Can you get me down to…350?”

As you can see if you go to the royalty calculator, if you can get the book down to 350 pages, then you can charge $16.99 for the book, which is slightly more reasonable (for a trade paperback).

Your designer should be able to do this.  They should be able to give you options for cutting over 20% of your page lengths, if they’re starting from a reasonably ideal text layout.  Now, if they start out by saying, “I know this is a long book and you’re going to want to save some pages, so I’ve condensed the layout a little,” then they may not be able to make another big cut to the pages.   I’m just saying that in most cases, there’s a lot of wiggle room.  They may have a hard time hitting an exact page count, but if you give them a range of 25 pages or so, they should be able to hit it.

However, this 120,000-word book will never be anything but a 120,000-word book, and when the text comes back, it will be much closer to single-spaced than it will be to a 1.5 leading, as I discussed above.  The margins may be smaller; blank pages may be removed; you may end up with less open space on your chapter pages.  In extreme cases, you may end up with just a chapter marker, with no separate chapter page at all.   You will still end up with a book that you have to charge more money for.  Because it’s a 120,000-word book.

As the publisher (dear indie publisher), it’s your responsibility to think about these things.   Don’t just say, “I trust you,” even if you have a good designer.  They may do a great job with the layout.  You could have the prettiest interior ever.  But if the page count might kill your sales, then ask your designer for help–ASAP.

 

Posted on October 2nd 2013 in Fiction Links
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