Weekly Roundup: 9/24–9/30

Gini Dietrich: Control Your Own Destiny

Gini is not in publishing, per se (though she is writing a book). Gini is in PR, and she’s also a business owner and she’s not keen on blaming your shortcomings on the “current climate.” While reading her article, the arguments she was refuting reminded me of common complaints about the publishing industry. She says, “Stop blaming the economy and start working twice as hard to build [y]our businesses”; I hear, “Stop blaming the industry and start working twice as hard on your writing.” Write great sentences; write great chapters; write great books. If you get a pile of rejection letters or your self-published novel tanks, don’t blame your circumstances. Brush yourself off and do it all again, only better. Books are you business. Don’t fall into this human flaw Gini points out: “We’re human beings. We like to have someone/something to blame when things don’t go our way. We’re inherently lazy. And we are always looking for shortcuts and the easy way out.”

(Reading Gini’s blog, Spin Sucks, can also be very informative when it comes to marketing, especially authentic marketing like that championed by a lot of publishing pros. I read it every day, and while I don’t always find something relevant to me, I find relevant posts often enough that I keep reading.)

TABISSO Punctuation LampsTABISSO: Punctuation Lamps

I want one of these lamps. The closing quotation marks are beautiful, but depending on where it was going I might pick the colon instead, because I love colons. (By the way, last Saturday was National Punctuation Day, and I intended to entertain you with a lovely post about the dash family—hyphen, en dash, and em dash—but I was celebrating the first wedding anniversary I’ve spent in the same country as my husband, so I never wrote the post. I’ll write one for you later, because I believe they grant you amazing options for communication and nuance.)

Amazon: The Kindle Fire & Cheaper Kindle Models

You’ve probably already heard about Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the $199 color tablet that was announced this week. My thoughts? If I’m getting an ereader, I want e-ink. I personally don’t like backlighting at all. If I’m going to get a tablet, I would probably go with something other than the Kindle Fire. Currently it appears that Amazon is trying to exert the kind of control over its appstore that Apple has over iTunes, but their submission process has been complicated, flawed, and unhelpful for the app company I work for. Apps get rejected before they’re reviewed and then the company gets reminders to resubmit the app—even though the app is already resubmitted. The system needs ironing out before the Kindle Fire can have the same ecosystem as other tablets.

GalleyCat: Kindle Ebook Errors in Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE

This week Neal Stephenson’s new novel, REAMDE, was released with egregious errors in the Kindle version. From what I’ve heard described, it sounds like the file was probably converted straight from PDF and not proofread afterwards. If publishers are charging a premium on their ebooks, like the price they were asking for a brand-new Stephenson book, the ebooks need to be as pristine as print. That said, if you’re a reader who’s getting pristine ebooks, realize that the publishing house probably put extra work into proofing them in multiple formats (.epub, .mobi, etc.), and don’t squawk too much about the price being the same as the print version, because re-proofing those books is probably worth much more than the $2 is costs to print a hardcover.

Amazon has since mysteriously replaced the copies of the book that had been downloaded, once again proving that if your library is on a Kindle, Amazon has control of it. (Admittedly, it was sort of an opt-in system this time, though cryptic, but Amazon has a habit of doing things that control or obsessively track your use of the things they sell you. Case in point: All your web browsing on the Kindle Fire is tracked, and you can’t opt out.)

Shawn Coyne: Acquisitions P&Ls

Editor Shawn Coyne shares an inside look at acquisitions profit and loss statements (P&Ls). He talks about how to pitch in a way that makes money sense (not just story sense) and gives those who don’t work in a publishing house an inside look at how a manuscript goes from a well liked submission to a book with a contract offer.

Writing Excuses: Writing Assistants

This week the Writing Excuses crew talks to Peter Ahlstrom and Valerie Dowbenko, writing assistants to Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, respectively. They all talk about why hiring a writing assistant helps authors manage their ideas, keep up with deadlines, and accomplish assorted writing-related (but non-writing) tasks. In short, they talk about how writing assistants and other hired help give you more time to just write.

Orbit: Spring-Summer 2021 Covers

Orbit put up a blog post with its covers for the 2012 Spring-Summer catalog. Sometimes Orbit’s covers really delight me (I still practically cackle whenever I see Feed by Mira Grant), but sometimes they don’t quite hit the spot for me. (For example, although Brent Weeks’s Night Angel trilogy has good covers, they are also strikingly similar to Karen Miller’s mage series. The branding for the two has too much crossover for my taste.) Which are your favorite covers in the upcoming catalog?

3 Common Conflict Killers

Cover of Kidnapped by Robert Louis StevensonOne of the panels I attended at WorldCon was “Creating Gods.” The panelists were Brandon Sanderson, Carrie Vaughn, some people they invited up from the audience, and Patrick Rothfuss. The main thrust of the panel was how to have superbeings (and/or deities) in a story without pushing humans or regular Joes into insignificance.

The bottom line for the panel was that you have to create conflict. You can do this by creating a disparity of powers, giving everyone something they are completely awesome at (even if it’s just being totally loyal, like Sam in Lord of the Rings), not letting powers define who someone is, making the superbeing’s power irrelevant to the main problem, or focusing on interpersonal conflicts.

This all boils down to the same thing: no matter what you add to your story, you have to maintain a level of conflict. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve pointed out in manuscript evalutions. Authors either let their conflict falter, make their first conflicts irrelevant to what the plot later becomes, or never really establish a strong conflict in the first place.

Conflict = Story

Conflict is what drives your story. If you’ve got a character-driven book, the conflicts within that character are the thing the reader is reading about. If you’ve got a plot-driven book, the plot is centered around conflicts, whether they are interpersonal, societal, global, or simply fist-to-fist mindless fight conflicts. Allow me to rephrase the first sentence in this paragraph: Conflict doesn’t drive story; conflict is story.

If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have story. If you don’t have story, you don’t really have fiction. (I’d also argue that most good nonfiction has a story as well. But I won’t get into that right now.)

Common Conflict Killers

If you’re writing a story, you’ll want to be on the lookout for common conflict killers. I’ve seen several types of conflict killers in manuscripts I’ve read or evaluated, and here are a few of the most common.

1. The main character doesn’t need to try. This first conflict killer is what the “Creating Gods” panel centered on. If you make a character too powerful, or even just too competent, there isn’t enough conflict to keep things interesting. If I look at your character, then at the situation, and know exactly how it’s going to go down and I know your character won’t lose anything in the process, then what is there to worry about or root for? There’s no suspense.

This doesn’t mean your character can’t be powerful; it just means they need to have skin in the game and something to lose. Take Superman. Kryptonite is a pretty lame weakness; it almost doesn’t count. But he has something to lose. He cares about people who are too weak to defend themselves, and he has Lois Lane to protect all the time. The WorldCon panelists pointed out that a lot of Superman’s identity stems from those he has to save. Even collateral damage can provide conflict. I’ve read far too many manuscripts where every obstacle the character faces provides no threat of loss.

2. A conflict is forgotten or erased instead of overcome. Relationship conflicts threaten a loss of love; many genre conflicts threaten a loss of life; several gut-wrenching conflicts threaten a loss of self or moral standing. That threat of loss drives a reader’s interest. If you, as the writer, then forget the first conflict you introduce and supplant it with another, or magic it away instead of having the characters sort through it, you have made the conflict your reader invested in irrelevant. Do not do this. If the conflict is irrelevant, don’t introduce it in the first place. Ditching conflicts asks your reader to make an emotional investment and get absolutely no return.

That isn’t to say you can’t have multiple conflicts, or that they can’t interrupt each other. They just need to be sustained and relevant throughout your book. For example, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, the initial conflict is that David Balfour cannot wrest his inheritance out of the clutches of his uncle Ebenezer. That conflict gets interrupted when David is kidnapped and ends up going on a book’s worth of adventures with the Scotsman Alan Breck. However, the conflict of David’s poverty continues throughout the book, and the conflict with Ebenezer returns in the final chapters and illustrates David’s emotional growth. The conflict is explicitly overcome.

3. Promising one conflict and delivering another. The last common conflict killer is one likely more subjective than the other two because it centers on what you promise a reader in the opening chapters of your book. If you set up one type of conflict and then provide a completely different one, you can run into a load of trouble. I once read a manuscript that opened with a heart-wrenching revelation to the main character. The way it was introduced promised that the character would need to relearn how to trust herself and others. This conflict didn’t happen. She jumped right into trusting someone she hardly knew and risked all sorts of things for him. Given the self doubt at the beginning of the book, that path didn’t ring true.

This is hard to spot in your own writing because you don’t always know what you’re promising. Get someone to read your manuscript. Most well read people will be able to articulate when they’re getting something other than what they were promised. Also know that this is sometimes subjective. A friend of mine read Kidnapped and thought she was being served a family conflict and felt betrayed when she got a coming-of-age adventure story. I thought I was promised a coming-of-age story, and I didn’t gripe much when it stopped being a family drama and started being a Highland adventure.

Subjective or not, a disjoint between your promises and your delivery can kill your story. My friend hated Kidnapped, even though she could recognize many good things about it. That one broken promise broke the book for her.

So cultivate your conflict. Your readers will appreciate the effort.

Weekly Roundup: 9/3–9/9

Cory Doctorow: “Why Should Anyone Care?”

Cory Doctorow shares his thoughts about working at a bookstore and how that opened his eyes to how the book-producing industry chugs through the years. He also provides some practical thoughts on self-publishing based on his own experience. My favorite quote: “I knew I’d have to do some of the stuff my publisher had done, but like everyone doing something complicated for the first time, I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. ”

Stacy Whitman: “Some Thoughts on Middle Grade Voice”

The editorial director of Tu Books shares her thoughts on voice in general and the middle grade voice in particular (I thought this article would follow up last week’s Wordplay podcast quite well). She focuses on how hard humor is, and why it’s really bad if your writing displays the difficulty of your undertaking.

Nathan Bransford: “Publishers Are Squandering Their Cachet On Imprints”

Nathan Bransford presents a post about how publishers lend credibility to authors associated with their brand name—and why that credibility may be squandered on lesser-known imprints and specialty groups. (I’d like to comment more on this, but I recognize more imprints than most people should, so I can’t really say which imprints are actually adding brand-name power to a book.)

Wordplay Podcast Episode 2: “Character, Plot, & Protagonists”

This week the Wordplay team has Ally Condie, the author of Matched, as a guest on episode 2.They talk about the difference between character-driven and plot-driven fiction, and why you need a balance between the two. They also harangue the idea of a paper cutout villain who doesn’t have believable motives or a certain degree of emotional complexity.

Writing Excuses 6.14: “Suspension of Disbelief”

The Writing Excuses crew has Patrick Rothfuss joining them for a podcast about suspending your reader’s disbelief. Some highlights: don’t make everything too tidy, don’t betray human nature, lay your groundwork, and make use of the slow build to absurdity. Rothfuss also highlights the concept of bathos, which boils down to undercutting serious or weighty things with commonplace events or thoughts.

Jon Schindehette: “Is Illustration a Viable and Productive Art Form?”

Illustration is the art of books, from two-page illustrated spreads to covers. In this post Jon Schindehette (creative director at Wizards of the Coast) briefly looks at illustration as an art form from an artist’s standpoint. He also addresses the viewpoint of an art director or editor. “[Art directors and editors] are responsible for ensure [sic] the artist that is chosen is appropriate for the task at hand, but they are also responsible for communicating the ‘needs of the text’ so that you [the illustrator] understand what success will look like.” If you’re an author looking into being your own publisher, you should also start thinking about what it takes to be your own art director as well.

Kristin Nelson: “In The Author’s Shoes”

Agent Kristin Nelson shares a conversation she had with an author who has recently changed agents. The author pointed out three things every author should be sure of before signing with an agent. Kristin adds her thoughts on each point. These points serve as a reminder that the author–agent relationship should be a partnership, and you should approach it as such. If you can’t ensure they’ll be a good business partner, you shouldn’t be signing with them.