At the request of a colleague, I'm spending some time talking to some writers far, far away that she's working with, and I thought it would be useful to collect the presentation in a blog post for them, and for anyone else who might be interested. You can find all the posts in this series here.
I can't possibly touch on more than a handful of topics in a single session, so I'll just mention a few that I think are important:
* Writer Psychology
* Meeting Reader Expectations
* Organizing Your Completed Materials
As question/answers are added during the talk, I'll update this.
I'm Karen Myers, and I've been a writer of fantasy and science fiction books for four years. I came to this late, after an official career building computer software and services companies that lasted four decades.
This is not the only time I've taken on serious work in the arts. I picked up a violin for the first time in my 30s, and a camera in my 50s, so I know what it's like to go from nothing to reasonably competent. I'm finding it's no different for writing fiction, now that I'm a few years into it. You can see some of my other interests here.
Just about all the best advice I've ever gotten came to me from people just a little further along on the same path, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to do the same in my turn.
A little over four years ago, my husband and I were driving to a meet of the Blue Ridge Hunt, one of the many foxhunts in rural Virginia, where we would follow the action by car and I would take pictures. We were chatting about the terrible economy and wondering how we would ever be able to retire, when he said to me, “We should just retire to Elfland. They hunt and fish, like we do, and I bet they have books, too.” For some reason, the notion tickled my fancy and the plot of my first book, To Carry The Horn, was born. In just a few months I had written the story of a foxhunter who passed through a portal into a fae version of the same countryside and ended up running the Wild Hunt.
That was the beginning of my first series. It grew to four books and five stories, and I may add a few more novels to it over time. It was 2012, and the indie-author phenomenon was just starting to gain some attention.
So why did I think I could write a book and build a business? I'd never written fiction before (though I had brought out a self-published music songbook back in 1993). What mattered was that my husband and I are readers. Serious readers. We read hundreds of books in a year (no, really), in many genres. I've been reading SFF since the 1960s.
That matters. It means you understand, at a deep level, what makes a well-formed story in the genres you follow. You might not be able to articulate your understanding, but it's there. And when you write, it will either tell you when something's not working, or keep you from creating the problem in the first place. When you combine that with some basic attention to typical story structures for novels, it keeps you from going too badly off track. (If you listen to that little voice…)
And then, I always knew I would go indie and ignore the traditional publication path of agents and submissions and terrible, terrible contracts. I've built lots of small businesses — building an indie publishing one was no big deal. I jumped on all the direct retailers in the US at the time (Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Createspace) and the one distributor (Smashwords) that promised access to a larger international world beyond the chain retailers. Now I'm much more widely distributed internationally, in ebook and print, and there's even an audiobook.
Today I'm finishing up my eighth novel and second series and will soon launch a third fantasy series. I have some science fiction short stories out on submission, and a series in that genre will probably be next. You can find out more about my books here — the links for each book include the first chapters and typical retailers. *If you can't find my books on your favorite retailer, or the price there seems out of line with similar books in your country, I would be very grateful if you would drop me an email about it.
Series: The Hounds of Annwn
Series: The Chained Adept
Writing is a lonely job. You pour out your scribbles into something you hope has merit, but how can you judge? Certainly it's not as good in your eyes as your favorite works, the reasons you got into writing in the first place.
In my opinion, more writers quit early in their careers because they are frustrated at not meeting the quality standards they aspire to than for any other cause. I am here to tell you that it's like this in all the creative arts.
When I first started fiddling, there were wonderful recordings in my field (Scandinavian folk fiddling) and many excellent musicians in the US. I had a musical background, so I could understand and learn tunes easily but of course I was new to my instrument and embarrassed at the (natural) clumsiness of the beginner. I wanted to become as good as my models, and was frustrated that I never would be.
It took a while to understand that I would never be the match to my models, because they would be forever ahead of me. I could earn their respect, but it was unreasonable that they would suddenly turn from their thrones to embrace my performances, no matter how I improved. But I could be a good fiddler among my peers, and excel in some areas (such as repertoire) where my lack of years of experience was no handicap. I could make a mark in my field and mentor new musicians as they entered it. And as long as I worked at it, I would improve.
When I first took up photography for my foxhunting activities, I had a similar experience. There were local photographers who were quite wonderful, while my execution was weak. I had a decent eye, but needed a lot of learning to bring my technical knowledge up to the same level. I persisted, and eventually achieved a semi-professional status that satisfied me. In other words, I produced photos I was proud of that people wanted to buy. I just didn't try to make my living that way.
In both of these cases, the early years were hard — frustrating, infuriating, humiliating. I had some natural talent (an ear for music, an eye for composition) but that almost made it worse because it made it so clear to me how poorly my own efforts measured up.
But you know what? By the time I took on the writing of fiction, I knew what would happen. There would be this frustrating learning curve at the beginning, but if I stuck with it and refused to give up, I would eventually achieve what I think of as the basic reward — a middle-ground of professional competence that you can stand on proudly and advance from for your entire career in the field.
And in writing, you stand a decent chance of getting there even with your first novel. A readable, respectable, enjoyable first book is perfectly achievable. (Unlike my first scratchy fiddle tunes.)
Ira Glass says it best.
Meeting reader expectations
This is a huge topic, but I'm going to cut it down into three chunks, each of which is also big. Whether or not you're writing commercial genre fiction, all writers want to find readers that enjoy their work. They stand a better chance of doing that if they understand what readers expect.
What readers expect
You need to know what you're writing, and think of it in terms of genres (even literary fiction is a genre with conventions).
Genre is not a dirty word — it's an abbreviation for what a reader is looking for. He wants a horror story to keep him awake, she wants a romance to put her smiling to sleep. Some literary works want to dazzle or astound, and their readers want a challenge. Don't let the notion of cross-genres confuse you — a science fiction work with a romance and a mystery is still a science fiction book, just as a thriller with futuristic elements is still a thriller. You can tell by the focus on plot vs characterization, on motives for action, on what the author thinks is worth exploring for the reader.
Each genre has its own conventions and plays into reader expectations in particular ways. You can certainly overturn those expectations, in the interests of shocking your readers, but do it deliberately, not by blunder. In the US, a romance without a happily-ever-after ending may so upset readers that they may never buy another book from you.
The structure: How to construct something that works for your readers
In addition to the genre conventions as a whole, readers expect certain structures in a well-formed specimen of their genre. There are many useful story structures, and like anything else they can be violated. But someone who reads, say, adventure stories will be puzzled and perhaps dissatisfied by an ending that just fizzles away. A hero who spends all the time investigating and never turns around and takes action will frustrate a reader.
Novels are big. Writing one is a marathon, not a sprint. It's helpful to have a mold to pour them into.
I recently passed my million-word mark, and I feel like it's just the start. I've found a setup that works for me, for my genres. But every writer is different and comes up with a method that suits them — this is just one example. Experiment until you find what works for you.
All of my fantasy and science fiction books are basically works of adventure. I find that the 3-act structure makes my subconscious that has read thousands of these books happy. I think of it as a 4-act structure (dividing the middle act into two halves).
Not only does this make sense to me as a way to tell an adventure story, it also lets me do some nice mechanical things.
My books are typically 100K-120K words. That seems to be the length of story I'm comfortable with, conditioned by all the books in my genres that I've read over the years. At the start of a book, I think of it as 100K words. Then I decide ahead of time where each of those tent-posts will be. I mostly set than at about 25K words each (with act 4 being a bit shorter).
This lets me know, as I'm writing and checking wordcount, that it's about time I reminded my reader of the obstacles in the way (a pinch point) or that my hero had better go on the attack and quit mucking around (mid-point reversal). That's handy when you're down in the trenches churning out events. It keeps things from sagging uncontrollably into an overbaked pudding.
But does that mean I outline the whole story to fit tidily into my structure, in advance?
The filling: Plotters vs pantsers
Once I've set up my mold, I have to fill it. The standard opposing mindsets are plotters (people who outline) vs pantsers (people who write “by the seat of their pants”).
I'm an old computer programmer. Naturally I gravitated to detailed outlines for my first few books, and it worked well enough, though I found myself departing from the planned outlines earlier and earlier as I went along and came up with better ideas in the heat of the writing.
For my second series, I decided to do it the other way. This is also known as “writing into the dark” (no doubt because there are monsters lurking in there.)
It was scary, but it worked out just fine. My subconscious knew how books like this should go. I knew what the big emotional events would be (more or less) for my tentpoles, and something about how it would end, but everything else and all the context suggested itself as I went along, like running a train where the railroad tracks are being laid just out of sight ahead of you around the next bend.
The nice thing about this approach is the plot freedom. For example, in describing a room you might mention an object in passing and then realize a couple of chapters later that it would be just the right thing to turn out to be important for some plot event.
This is a subtle point. It's not that, at point X you needed a clue and made sure it was dropped in the earlier scene. You could do that anytime, and via outlining methods. It's that you hadn't thought about the accidental thing becoming important, and now it is. That's your subconscious acting as a reader, not a writer: “she mentioned that curious oriental dagger a while ago and everyone ignored it but I bet that's going to be important.” Which is another way of saying that your subconscious is telling you: “make the dagger important! That's what it's there for!” Your subconscious understands the genre conventions it's saturated in.
Now, you can violate those conventions, of course — no one wants too predictable a story — but you've gained a story possibility that would never have occurred to you in outline mode.
So experiment and see what works for you.
Organizing your completed materials
Let me save you some headaches now.
When you've written your first book, it's a wonderful thing, a phenomenon. You'll never forget a word of it, and you know where everything is.
Let me tell you that you will end up with a tangled mess of files and unable to find anything once you've got a few more works under your belt, unless you take action now to keep things very clean.
Here are some of the things I do to retain my sanity.
Every work is part of a series, even if it isn't, and has a rigid unique internal name
The novels of the series The Hounds of Annwn are kept in my internal records as ANNWN-N1, ANNWN-N2, etc., and the stories are ANNWN-S1, ANNWN-S2, and so forth. The collections are ANNWN-Cx, the bundles are ANNWN-Bx, and so on. My second series, The Chained Adept, uses CHAIN.
For stand-alone works, I use a genre name. My first stand-alone science fiction story is SCIFI-S1.
You use these internal names in your accounting system, in your hard-drive's folder structures, in the spreadsheets you use to track sales, and as shorthand all over the place. They will always be unique, even if you end up with two stories with identical public names over the years.
At the individual work level, I keep a set of folders for each stage of the process of the original work: manuscript, intermediate formatting work, ebook outputs, print outputs, and so forth. These are institutionalized — for a new work, I copy a blank, already set up, folder structure and rename it.
The next folder level above that captures all the ancillary material — audiobook files, cover illustrations, editorial reviews, and so forth. The “cover illustrations” folder has many subfolders of its own.
But look how elaborate this gets when you get to the top level for the series. All the works for the series — completed, contemplated, in progress — are in one spot.
I keep other things here, too — the Excel spreadsheets I use to track wordcounts, the mindmap files I use to do rough plotting, etc. Everything pertaining to the series is here.
When I look at my work as a whole, I can see everything neatly sorted. I have many more folders in my Perkunas Press folder, but these all start with special characters so that they will sort to the top.
Questions from the session
Do I make my own covers?
I have an amateur understanding of Photoshop from my work as a photographer, but that doesn’t make me a graphic artist. The cover backgrounds for my first series were stock photos by a Russian surrealist who suited the mood I wanted and had lots of work to choose from.
For the second series, I wanted an illustrator (a lot of fantasy titles use illustrations in the US, even for adult work, so it signals “fantasy” as a genre). I auditioned and recruited a cover artist, and he does the background illustration and the illustrated title, but I keep control of the AuthorName and Imprint and BackCover materials, since I am fanatical about consistency in my brand and it’s a level of Photoshop I can handle.
For my new series, the same illustrator has featured a ruinous magical guild house, and most of the books in that series (which I hope will be long) cover the same house but show how its fortunes have changed from book to book — fresh repairs, new roof, charred by a fire, and so forth. That allows him to change only certain layers of his illustration each time, which will help keep my costs down. For more info… Auditioning a cover artist, Final cover for The Structures of Earth.
Do I ever cover taboo topics and what do my readers think about it?
Fantasy and science fiction can be excellent genres to discuss taboo topics. When you create the world and everything in it, you create its societies, too. For example, in my first series, the fae are long-lived and incest taboos don’t matter much to them, when the people involved might not have seen each other often for hundreds of years.
But be careful to avoid turning your stories into “message fiction” — your behavioral choices for the societies should be organic to their structures, not manipulated to make a point, just as your economics of created-worlds should be rational. If you want the illustrated taboo to be taboo in the created-world, too, you can portray its consequences there.
How long should short stories be?
Typically you go into a novel with some sort of plan and some sort of notion about length. But for short stories, I wouldn’t let that concern you. Eventually you can probably make things be the length you want, but in the meantime… Just write the story and let the story tell you how long it wants to be. If it’s very short — fine. If it turns into a novella — also fine. If you’ve read widely in your genre, your subconscious will tell you when it’s satisfied.
Then, once the story is finished, you can figure out what to do with it. In the US, there’s a reasonable market for short fiction. You can see a list of speculative fiction markets (fantasy, scifi, occult, etc.) at Ralan, which lists their rates of pay and the lengths of fiction they’re looking for. I’ve sold a science fiction story, and I’ve only written a few — most of them are still out on submission.
Even if your story is “good enough”, you won’t necessarily sell it. The magazine editors don’t need one of that length this month, or on that topic, etc. You submit the story to each of the qualified markets (each magazine) that pays at a professional rate (skip the cheap or free ones) until you run out of places. That can take a year or two (they each take a while to reply, sometimes months). But if you do sell it, the pay is good (if you stick to the professional markets) and you’ll be able to get it back to publish yourself in 6 months or a year, depending on the contract.
If the story doesn’t sell, publish it as an ebook. Use it as a giveaway for a newsletter. Bundle several of them into a collection and publish that as an ebook (and print, if long enough). Group stories for an existing series together and publish them as a series-specific collection. Group stories from different series together and publish them as a sampler.
Covers for short works are an issue — you won’t want to pay as much as for a novel. For my first series, they were stock photos so cost was minimal. For my stand-alone science fiction short stories, one is a stock photo. The rest are intended for a particular collection, so I paid for the cover for the collection, and each of the individual stories just puts a different motif on the front.
Even if you’re committed to long form work, as I am, short stories are an excellent way to practice the craft of writing. Work on doing better descriptions or setting. Focus on character voice. And when you’re done with the exercise, sell it.
Where do your ideas come from?
Ideas are everywhere! It's the hard work of production that takes time. Collect fragments of things that strike you — dream remnants, some bright idea while you're driving, etc. Make a place to stash them (folders like Story Ideas, Fragments, Backstory for a Novel) so you don't forget them, then go back to your current work-in-progress (WIP).
Eventually people will say to you, “I've got a great idea for a story. You should write about X…”, and you'll smile politely and thank them. Ideas are a dime a dozen; turning them into actual writing is where all the work is.
This website has two blogs. The main one is for my readers. This article is posted in my secondary one: Just for Writers. I recommend going through that and seeing if any of the other topics covered are of interest to you.
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