If you’ve finished a manuscript, chances are you’ll self-publish

...and if you haven't even started a manuscript, Digital Book World still calls you an author.  Congrats!

…and if you haven’t even started a manuscript, Digital Book World still calls you an author. Congrats!

Guys.  If you can’t tell by now, I really love surveys.  I love being asked for my opinion, and I love multiple-choice tests, and surveys sit happy at the intersection of the two.  I also love what they can tell us about ourselves as a whole.  Human beings can be so incredibly diverse, but there are such strong rivers of similarity that run through the cold, impartial world of statistical analysis, and I enjoy stepping out of my nebulously subjective, emotionally-based existence to examine the patterns that emerge when you strip away opinions from the hard, cold core of fact.

When it comes to something as deeply personal as nurturing a novel from the first little embryo till it’s ready to ride a bike without training wheels, statistics tell us more than who is making money where.  They tell us about the fear of rejection and the wild, breathless abandon of flinging a cherished work towards a stranger, hoping they’ll care.  They tell us about how people create stories and how they consume them, and how technology helps and hinders the process of understanding ideas that are as old as the first word.

This survey from Digital Book World took a look at 9000 respondents from all walks of the publishing life.  Only 58% of them had actually finished a manuscript (and 8% of participants hadn’t even started one, so let’s take the word “author” with a grain of salt here).  A third have started but not completed their work.

Just over half of the 58% of people who have finished a manuscript have made it all the way to publication, whether through traditional or self-publishing means.  Twenty-six percent have submitted their manuscript to an agent or editor, but without success, and they stopped there.  Basically, of the 9000 people who took part, just 3400 are able to hold a book (or e-book) in their hands.

Now, of those 3400 published authors, 39.9% are traditionally published, and 60.1% are self-published.  You’re 20% more likely to choose self-publishing than you are to scale the walls of the traditional industry.  Additionally, ten percent of self-published authors consider themselves “hybrids,” while 36% of traditionally published authors have gone down both paths.  It’s not rocket science to think that it’s easier to self-publish after getting accepted by a mainstream house than it is to get accepted by a publisher after using KDP, but it is interesting.

Why does any of this matter?  Well.  It’s cool, right?  But more importantly, it gives authors something to be proud of and readers something to think about.  Put nine authors in a room, and only three of them will have conceptualized, written, edited, and polished their work enough to be seen by other people.  Only one (and a bit) of those three will have a traditional publishing house’s imprint on his or her work.  Think about how many times each of those authors has started a novel and thrown it out the window.  Think about how many stories it takes, how many tries, how many months and years and decades of practice and luck and hard work is necessary to make it as far as your local bookstore’s shelf.

It’s both discouraging for those of us who hit the doldrums with alarming frequency and amazing for those of us who are determined to navigate our way out of them again.  It’s awesome for readers who might not realize just how much blood, sweat, and caffeinated tears they’re looking at when they pick up a novel, even if it’s found its way into the bargain bin or the free Kindle books section of Amazon.

I love surveys because they let you see all that work boiled down to a couple of fascinating little numbers, and I love authors for putting in all the effort and love and determination it takes to become part of one of those figures on the page.  So keep at it, my writing fellows.  You can get there if you try.

And readers, don’t forget to show a little appreciation for the people behind the stories that keep you entertained.  This is certainly not a gentle reminder to leave your favorite writers some Amazon reviews or anything.  Not at all.  I’d never do that to you.

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Yea or nay: MS Word book cover templates for self-publishers

If there’s one thing readers complain about when the words “self-published book” enter the conversation, it’s visual quality.  Inside and especially outside, authors who may have a wonderful grasp of the written word often fail to translate that talent into the realm of graphic design.  I’ve talked about cover art before, and I’ve discussed the pluses and perils of the the mysteriously hooded figure and the voluptuous temptress who could really benefit from a professional fitting.  Stay away from the cliché, I’ve always said.  But what if the cliché isn’t entirely what it seems?

Book designer Derek Murphy thinks he’s solved the problem of the generic cover by offering templates customizable in something as simple as Microsoft Word.  Wrote that coming-of-age novel screaming out for a font last seen in the window of Urban Outfitters?  Need a dark and passionate showcase for the pouty, scantily-clad model defining your debut romance?  Want some big, bold block letters to grab readers for your dystopian sci-fi epic?  Fork over 87 bucks, open up Word, drag-and-drop your stock photos, and you’re ready to go.

templates

Now, I have mixed feelings about this, which is why there will be a poll at the bottom of the article.  Many of the templates do look professional, and if they are as customizable as Murphy says, they could help out a lot of authors who can’t afford personal designers.   But something in the back of my head wonders why we want to rely so heavily on our Thinkstock accounts to produce the same cover over and over with slightly different variations of color and font.  Do we really want more templates?

A whole lot of the publishing industry, traditional and otherwise, is built on the prototypes of previous successes.  The Hunger Games does well, so every YA novel for the next five years is a slight variation on the moderately-independent-girl-takes-on-dystopian-evil-with-a-novelty-weapon theme.  We know this to be a truth in nearly every creative discipline.  Creativity defines our culture as much as culture defines what we produce.  Right now, our culture demands wispy sparkles and a hot chick in black leather staring soullessly out from behind spiky bangs.  But I struggle to make a connection with that.  I’m just not sure templates bring us all that much closer to beauty on the outside of a book or truth within its pages.

“The most useful benefit of these templates is that it will give you some creative boundaries,” Murphy says. “You’ll know you’re starting with a strong, professional design basis, and you can ‘color within the lines’ of tried-and-true book cover design that sells books.”  I don’t know, but that just rubs me the wrong way.  That might be because I don’t write books solely to sell lots of copies (and probably wouldn’t even if I tried).  I don’t write commercially, so I don’t usually think of ‘coloring within the lines’ as something to strive for.  I will also admit that I don’t make particularly riveting book covers.

My objections are more philosophical than anything else, and I wouldn’t dispute the value of a service like this to authors who want to give it a try.  Lots of authors need those creative boundaries – or at least they need some creative guidelines for an unfamiliar medium – and to them, this might be the godsend they’ve been looking for.  What do you think?

How to conquer your writer’s block

busybeeWriter’s block is the worst.  Your plot is going nowhere, you want to murder all your characters just to stop their vapid, pointless whining, and you’ve already spent ten pages describing the room where your main character is sitting and brooding on something that has absolutely no relation to the rest of the story.  It’s hot out, you should be doing chores, your laptop is burning your knees, and your children haven’t eaten in days because you’ve been glued to your chair, unable to stop staring at the stagnant, blinking cursor in abject terror and humiliation.

So you google “how to get past my writer’s block” and spend a few hours reading about what famous, wealthy, successful, award-winning authors do when their inspiration dries up, and feel even worse about yourself because at this rate, you’ll never even finish a first draft to stick in the back of your drawer and never look at again before you die miserable and alone.

Sound familiar?  Yeah.  It happens to all of us.  Luckily, your internet searching has brought you to this foolproof, comprehensive list of how to lure your muse back to your corner.  There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, but this is the sum total of everything you need to know.

Write

Yeah, you suck right now.  But you have to do it anyway.  No amount of yoga or illegal stimulants or brisk walks around the block is going to change the fact that your fingers have to get moving.  You can go ahead and do your invigorating handstands or whip up that cocktail of raw egg and Worcestershire sauce and ginseng, or whatever floats your boat.

Take a break, order a pizza for the kids, and think about that blossoming love triangle while you sweep the floors.  Then sit your butt back at the keyboard, shut your mouth, and type.  Eventually, you’ll suck a little less, and you’ll realize that it’s all right to cut out all your lame paragraphs on the second pass.  Your pep will return of its own accord as you pick up steam again.  I promise.

Don’t write

Do you give up?  Are you really just finished with this whole charade?  Are you satisfied with simply having tried?  Then all the motivational speaking, jumping jacks, and Mark Twain quotes in the world aren’t going to change your mind.  When you reach that point, you’re done.  Put it away and shut off the computer.  Godspeed, pilgrim, and well may you fare.

But if that rubs you the wrong way, and makes you kind of squirmy and angry even if you’re not sure why, it’s because you’re not finished!   You’ve just got writer’s block, remember?  Come on.  Shake it off.  Return to Section A.  Read, rinse, and repeat.

And that’s it, folks.  There’s nothing wrong with stepping away for a little while, and there’s nothing wrong with trying new ways of organizing your story, new writing prompts, or just sitting in a different room to switch things up a bit.  There’s nothing wrong with trashing an idea when it peters out and starting something new.  Writer’s block is a deeply vexing but completely temporary phenomenon.  Write, and you have conquered.  Write, and you win.  Just make sure someone is watching the kids.

Do Not Resuscitate

Image055I’m a failure, and I write absolute garbage.  The words come out, and I suppose they’re technically English, and maybe they even obey the rules of grammar and syntax that make them vaguely recognizable as sentences, but they suck.  Plain and simple.  My ideas are crap, my execution is laughable, and there’s only one thing to do with this mindless drivel: banish it to the dungeon of my hard drive, the miserable and haunted DNR folder.

I think we all have one.  I hope we all have one.  If you’ve never thrown anything in the trash, chances are that your ego is getting the best of you.  Even the greatest writers have moments of sheer fury and madness, self-doubt and self-pity that result in torn, crumpled pages on the office floor.  Sometimes they go back to what’s frustrating them and turn it around.  Sometimes they don’t.

And that’s how it should be.  As much as I like to tell people not to give up after the first three pages, oftentimes it’s not an issue of writer’s block or the sudden, overwhelming grip of fear as you realize that 70,000 words is a lot to get through.  Occasionally, you’re paralyzed because your story is crap, and it really shouldn’t ever see the light of day.  The trick is knowing the difference, and there are only two questions you need in order to figure it out.

Does it make me happy?

Do you want to sit down at the keyboard?  Do you want to know what happens to your characters or how the war turns out?  Do you want other people to know?  Are you ignoring this post because you’re flipping back and forth between my blog and your Word document, desperate not to lose a moment of typing time?  Have you forgotten to eat today?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you’re probably in good shape.  I mean, go eat something, but then come back and keep typing.  But if you stop feeling happy…

Did it ever make me happy?

This one is a little trickier, but it’s even more important.  The first flush of inspiration can mask many darker feelings, and it takes time and self-awareness to parse through them.  I worked on a project once that I thought was going to be my magnum opus: it was dark and brooding and emotionally wrenching, full of chaos and fear and heroism and the triumph of love.  It started out with an unexpected death that tore a family apart, and it barely got any more cheerful from there.

It was good, I guess.  It was written well, and there were some scenes that I liked a lot.  But I hated working on it, and it never made me happy.  It never made me skip dinner or stay up past my bed time.  It was a chore from the first page to the middle of chapter four, which is where it came to a sudden halt before being abandoned for good.

I know I’ve complained about The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun making me feel the same way.  It’s a long, intricate story that contains a lot of the same emotions as that other attempt, and there was a lot of history for me to slog through.  But in the back of my head, the fire was burning, and it never flickered and went out.  Sure, it took effort to force out the words sometimes and get past a momentary block, but I wanted to get over it.  I wanted to pick it out of the garbage pail and try again.  I wanted to pursue it, because sometimes it made me very, very happy indeed.

That might be the only difference between a story worth pursuing and an idea that belongs in the DNR bin.  I am proud of what I’ve ended up with (so far), and I’m glad that I was able to stumble through.  That’s the real test.  So next time you’re starting at the screen in a haze of forlorn anxiety, wondering when the words will come, ask yourself.  Is there happiness in pursuing this, or should I move on?

A Worrying Confession

Sometimes I think I don’t like books enough to be an author.

They say the best way to be a good writer is to read everything in sight, including the work of your contemporaries, because that’s how you know what sells and what doesn’t, but that’s just not me.  While I might be familiar with the hottest names in my genre, mostly through Twitter, the agents and publishers that are promoting them seem to have an all-consuming enthusiasm for books that I lack.

lotusI can’t remember the last book I read that wasn’t my own.  I’ve been writing The Spoil for a year solid, and for two years before that, I was so addled by other things that I was unable to keep my eyes on a page.  I have no interest in the paranormal, in urban fantasy, in other people’s characterizations of the perfect kick-ass woman with her uncanny lack of everyday flaws.  I gave away three dozen books while moving without any emotional strain.  I don’t even watch Game of Thrones, nor have I read the books (and I can’t even tell you how much flack I get for that).

My excuse – no, it’s a valid reason, I think – is that I can’t read or watch fantasy while I’m trying to write it.  I can’t have other people’s ideas in my head, because I’ll run with them, and some people call that plagiary.  So I lock myself in a little mental bunker and pretend other books and other authors just don’t exist.  It also helps keep the jealousy monsters at bay, as long as we’re being honest.  Hearing about other people’s successes can be discouraging when you’ve been staring at the same half-formed sentence for six weeks, convinced that you should just go crawl into a hole and cry.

That’s not to say I don’t have a strong literary foundation, or that I don’t know anything about the industry.  I spent my entire teenage decade reading voraciously, soaking up ideas and cadences, myths and sorrows and words and action scenes, living in imaginary worlds that were far more attractive than my 10th grade English class (sorry, Mr. Perry, but you know what you did).

But I also spent those years convinced that I would never be able to write.  Maybe I just didn’t have the discipline; maybe I was afraid.  Of failure.  Of losing my tenuous grip on the real world.  Of being mocked.  Of not being any better than the people I did mock.  I got a B in my creative writing class in college because I couldn’t critique my fellow students’ short stories without being incredibly frustrated and more than a little mean, so I just didn’t hand in my homework.  I have since found a way to moderate myself in such situations and actually be constructive, but that was a lesson that took a lot of time and effort to learn.

Now I write.  I write a lot, and convince myself it’s okay that I don’t read.  But it still bothers me that I don’t spend time in the bookstore, even while desperately hoping that I join all those authors on the shelves someday.  I don’t keep a paperback in my purse to read at lunch.  I don’t have stacks of non-fiction volumes propping up my ceiling.  My Kindle is empty, and gone are the days of sneaking some snacks up to my room and staying awake with a story until 3 in the morning.  Now, when I’m up until the wee hours of the night, it’s because my own stories are filling my head.  I’m producing, instead of consuming, and maybe there isn’t anything wrong with that.  Maybe it’s just one more quirk to add to my list: I can only have the switch flipped one way, while most people can do both.

Am I the only one?  Am I selling myself short?  Or should I just stop freaking out and finish my manuscript already?  Yeah, I think I know the answer to that last one.  I’m almost there.  Really.  Shush, you.

I’m Going to Write A Novel

I’m sure you’ve seen these videos before.  People make them on a variety of subjects to make fun of stupid customers and technology fanboys.  I thought this one, brought to my attention by the Writer’s Digest Twitter feed, was pretty funny.  Sadly, it does accurately represent some of the things I’ve heard first timers (or first time hopefuls) say about the writing process.  Enjoy.

My Bologna Has a First Name…It’s Zykquixa

One of the questions writers in general – and fantasy/speculative fiction writers in particular – are often asked is this: “how do you come up with all those names?”  This is usually closely followed by, “I seriously can’t remember all those names.”

In my experience, that’s one of the things that makes people shy away from fantasy, especially epic or medieval-inspired fantasy, where the likelihood of encountering some good old ‘Murican appellations is fairly low.  Sure, some writers like to take names from the classic Big Book of Dark Ages Names (Except for the Weird Ones), which can work if you mix them in proper proportion with the made up variety,  à la George R.R. Martin.  But it’s tricky, and it depends on what kind of world you’re trying to build.  Sometimes it’s appropriate, but sometimes it’s not.

I tend to shy away from using recognizable names.  I did attempt it in The Earth-stepper’s Bargain, as an experiment, and I’m not sure it’s something I would make a habit of.  I think it can be jarring to the reader to suddenly come upon a character named Bob among all the exotic Z’s and X’s and Q’s that seem to be so popular, and it can give the reader unintended associations, which changes the story.  You’re unlikely to have an Uncle Zykquixa that ruined your 5th birthday party by showing up drunk in his underwear and giving you a dead possum as a gift, even though he had very thoughtfully put a bow on its head.

But when you’re going to make up names, you’ve got to be careful.  You need to have a theme, or several, if you’re dealing with different cultures.  They can’t be too complicated, but they have to be original.  And you do have to remember that your reader hasn’t had the benefit of working with those names for months or years, so being clear about your characters is extra important.  I read a preview of a story the other day where every single person – every one – had a name that started with a Z.  There were like five of them within the space of two pages.  Needless to say, I didn’t get very far.  It was unoriginal and tiresome, although it was also a story about vampires, so I think that goes without saying (sorry, not my thing).

One of my favorite tools is this online fantasy name generator.  I’ve been using it ever since I started TLDTC, when I switched to a Mac and didn’t have access to EBoN anymore (I really miss EBoN).  Sometimes it comes up with some pretty wacky stuff, but it’s great for tossing around some syllables you like and getting inspired.

I tend to pick a starting letter I want, or have an idea for the shape of a name in my head, and then I keep refreshing until I find something that catches my fancy, and go from there.  And then I Google it, to make sure it isn’t a Malay curse word or the name of a famous African singer I haven’t heard of, because that happens sometimes.  Sometimes the name has been used by another author in a work I wasn’t aware of, and that simply won’t do.  But it’s amazing how many arrangements of syllables there are that don’t mean a thing in any popular language.  It’s kind of awesome.

Another helpful hint that can lend an air of authenticity to worlds that are more or less rooted in the Celtic or medieval European mythos, is to know how common names were constructed, back in the day.  You don’t have to be a linguist like Tolkien to get an idea of how that works – there are about a billion lists of names you can find instantly with a simple search.  Adding on a familiar ending to a name kind of bridges the gap between completely made up and instantly recognizable.

I’m talking things like -wyn, -eth, -wen, -ert, -ir, -ann, -ryn, etc.  Some ones I’ve used: Cerawen, Branneth, Seovann, Calebert, Pridwyn.  They’re not so far out there that you can’t pronounce them, but they don’t really ring any historical bells.  That gives you an anchor without resorting to the approach of throwing a lot of high-scoring Scrabble tiles in there and calling it a day.

Personally, I find the process to be a lot of fun.  All people are defined by the names they carry, whether they’re being reactionary against them or not.  It’s an excellent opportunity to impart character traits without being blatantly obvious.  There are certain expectations from fantasy names that can add to the story if you do it right.  It’s like an old Western, where the bad guy was always the one in the black hat.  Evil guys tend to have a lot of harsh consonants; good guys have strong, bold, open-sounding names (and you can automatically make either of them into a girl’s name by adding -ya at the end).

And my number one tip, as long as I’m giving advice?  Include a glossary.  Always, always include a glossary.  There’s no more valuable tool for a reader who’s new to your world.

Yours truly,

Her Royal Highness Princess Ackingasyriqua-et’dedo Jocylee von Doranyryn of the Kingdom of Ineunaxyk-Hatyque-Larashmoosya