Thursday, October 8, 2015

Quote of the Week: On trends in the Publishing Industry

[Concluding a detailed analysis of sales figures, & rankings in different categories, for various equivalent titles on Amazon]:

"What does any of it mean? I think that chaos is alive and the natural order of the universe."

— Lorina Stephens, Publisher, Five Rivers

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Writing Kids into Your Novel

Do you have characters — or stickfigures

Years ago I attended a presentation by Emmy-winning author, Sean Stewart, in which he explained why there were no children in SF. It is, he said, extremely tricky to keep the action going and the tension up if the heroine running down the corridor is trailed by a toddler saying "Are we there yet, Mommy?" or "I don't like the Death Star, Mommy! I want to go home!" every ten feet. (I thought this terribly funny at the time, but found it less so when I subsequently had children of my own, and recalled Sean's description as my five-year-old kept punching me every 30 seconds because we were stuck in an hour-long line up at customs one 3AM flight, and she couldn't understand why I wouldn't let her leave.) Kids and action adventure stories do not make an easy mix.

Challenged by Sean's talk, I chose to include a 9 year-old in my own first novel—which may partly explain why my first novel took so long to finish. Although a key factor in a couple of scenes, figuring out what to do with the kid for the rest of the book was ridiculously difficult. Arranging for various babysitters to show up so my hero(s) could go adventuring without him wore thin pretty fast, and the biggest flaw my editor identified in my preliminary draft was that I had simply forgotten about the kid for five chapters while the main characters dealt with their current crisis. "And where is her son when all this is happening?" came to be the one editorial comment I dreaded most during revisions. So yeah, I don't recommend including child characters in an action novel unless one is a glutton for punishment.

The biggest problem I see with child characters coming across my desk as an editor, is authors getting the ages wrong. As any parent knows, there are huge gaps in sophistication between an infant, a toddler, a grade 1, a grade 4, and a grade 7. When one has an infant of one's own, one can accurately peg the age of other infants to within a few weeks. By the time our child is in grade school, our accuracy is down to being able to say if a newly encountered child is the grade above or below our own: a mere six weeks makes no difference developmentally, but a year's difference is still sufficiently significant to be obvious. As kids grow up, age becomes increasingly unimportant, with some teenagers, for example, presenting with greater maturity than many of the adults one encounters. As our own children age, our ability to remember what characteristics go with which age becomes less precise, because that knowledge is no longer relevant to our daily lives—at least not until our children start delivering grandchildren.

Writers, however, need to get this right. If one gives a nine year-old character the dialog of a five-year-old, one's adult readers might not notice—it's just a kid talking—but a nine-year-old reader will find it infuriating. It is not just not credible to that young reader; it is highly insulting to discover the author has so little regard for nine year-olds—whose self-image is that of a grown up / sophisticated almost-adult, definitely not to be confused with a five year-old child. That the writer could make such a fundamental mistake is to them an insurmountable barrier to finishing the book, no matter how good otherwise. Could you finish a book that gave the character of a Sudanese immigrant an Irish brogue? If the author can't get the dialect right, how is the reader to take anything in the novel as credible?

Most authors know better than to attempt depicting an accent they are not themselves intimately familiar with, but I am astonished at how frequently they will assign dialog or actions inconsistent with a character's age when depicting children. If one is writing a YA novel, for example, the younger siblings in the novel had better behave in a credible way, or the YA readers will throw the book across the room in disgust. YA readers have a much more accurate estimation of maturation levels than most adults because they either have actual siblings that age, or have best friends with siblings that age; and if they cannot picture their little brother or sister saying or doing that, the story loses all credibility. I don't understand authors who spend months researching police procedure or forensic evidence or the astronomical details of their SF setting, but are three years off the mark in depicting the reactions of a ten year-old. If one doesn't currently have a ten year-old in one's household, or a convenient nice or nephew, then why even have that character in the novel? If there is some compelling reason to add a child, do your research: go find some kids that age to talk to. One needs to put at least as much research into that character as one would any other element of the novel.

I started with a seven year-old in my novel...but have revised the age upward with each subsequent draft as my own youngest matured, because the only sure test I have ever had for the credibility of that character was to ask, "Is this something my kid might actually say/do in these circumstances?" Of course, not living on a starship, I have to do a certain amount of extrapolation, but at least I'm determined to be in the right ballpark in terms of maturation. Am shocked and appalled how often this is not the case with many of the manuscripts that cross my desk.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Being Strategic: Writing for Specific Markets

Cover for Playground of Lost Toys, edited by Connie Anderson and Ursula Pflug

My story, "Hacker Chess" which appears in Playground of Lost Toys scheduled for Dec 1, 2015 release, is a good example of writing for a specific market.

When the call for submissions originally came out for Playground I didn't have anything to hand, or even any ideas for a story I could possibly submit. It was pretty much a topic to which I didn't relate. So, I ignored the call and wrote a story for a different anthology that fit nicely with a couple of the stories on my "in-my-head-and-should-really-write-down-one-of these-days" list. I sent that story off, although I was not completely satisfied with it's ending.

I subsequently wrote a second story I liked even better for that other anthology, but when I ran it past my personal editor (naturally, I never submit anything anywhere that hasn't first been edited) she said, "Hey, this is pretty good. Why don't you submit it to Anderson and Pflug for their anthology, since you're already got that other one in for the first anthology?" And because it is always a good idea to listen to your editor, I did that, even though I didn't see how it even remotely fit their theme at all. And lo and behold, they rejected it by return email because, as they correctly pointed out, it didn't remotely fit their theme. But--here's where things start getting interesting--they thought the story 'clever' and asked if I would rewrite it to make it fit the theme.

I thought about that, and played around with the story a bit to see if I could make it fit. But every time I tried to change something, the whole thing fell apart. So, bad news was there was no way I could bend that story into shape to fit Playground; the good news was that in looking closely at that story again, I realized I could improve the ending to make it both more optimistic and more realistic. I then sent "Age of Miracles" off to the other anthology which bought it (though it's TOC hasn't been officially announced yet, which is why I'm being coy about calling it "the other anthology".)

Which left me with the predicament that I had a couple of editors who actually liked my writing (indeed, Ursula had already bought another of my stories for her previous anthology, They Have to Take You In) and no story for them. So I looked again at the initial call for submissions and at all of their subsequent posts talking about the kinds of stories they were getting as opposed to the kind they actually wanted, and I sat down and wrote the story they said they wanted.

I have to say, that was one of the fastest I have ever managed to write something, because having a specific target made it really, really easy to focus. And I was very happy with the result. Indeed, when I made my daughter read it she was sufficiently impressed to say, "Hey, this is actually really good." (Which, you know, I still can't decide if I should be complimented by her enthusiasm, or insulted by her surprise.) But thus reassured, and with the blessing of my regular editor, I submitted it to Colleen and Ursula.

Who promptly rejected it. They still wanted me to rewrite "Age of Miracles". I thought this one was at least as good as "Age of Miracles", and more on target, but the writer's opinion is not the one that counts in these situations. I had to confess to them that I couldn't make "Age of Miracles" work for their theme and had already sold it elsewhere, so that left me just a day and a half to come up with something else before Playground's final deadline for submissions.

Carefully analyzing what they had liked about "Age of Miracles" and what wasn't working for them in the second story (well, it did take awhile to get to the toy part), I wrote "Hacker Chess" in less than 10 hours. That's an all time record for me. But having a very clear idea of the target and a tight deadline seemed to focus the process wonderfully: no time for the usual angst, no wandering off message, no obsessive rewriting...just a quick turn around from my regular editor assuring me it was up to my usual standard.

I hope you like the result.

Writing for a specific market, then, has the advantage of knowing exactly what the target is, which may both speed and focus the process. The downside is, if you miss, there is nowhere else for those stories to go.

Let's face it, no one wants to publish a story someone else has already rejected (because what would that imply about one's standards?); and even if one were open-minded enough to realize that a story may be rejected because it didn't quite fit the editors' theme rather than for questions of quality, it's quite likely other venues in that genre are going to be inundated by stories on that theme from all the rejected submissions. An editor can only take one dinosaur or flying saucer or 'toy' story per annum, so when 25 toy-themed stories come in the month after Playground closes, only one of those has even a theoretical chance of seeing publication. In reality, once the editor realizes that 25 toy stories are not a coincidence, quite likely to have an allergic reaction to them all.

So I now have two stories in my inventory with nowhere to go. Luckily, the story I wrote specifically for Playground was sufficiently mainstream there's a chance I can pass it off as CanLit. Consequently I shot it off to a mainstream lit mag hoping that its editors sufficiently removed from the genre scene not to instantly recognize it as a Playground reject, and the market sufficiently removed that it won't be the first choice of other rejected Playground writers. If that doesn't work, I'll have to tuck it into a drawer for a couple of years until the flow of other toy stories has ebbed, and it's safe to bring it out again.

The leftover story from the other anthology is probably too odd to go elsewhere with ease. It is part of a larger world I'm developing, so I might just have to wait to incorporate in that collection/novel; or wait for the second volume in that anthology series, should the editors/publisher think there is potential market for a second collection. (I think there is, because fascinating topic, but having a story in hand on the topic may be biasing me.)

One's other option, of course, is to enter the leftover stories in contests, such as the Merril. The Friends of the Merril contest is particularly good one because it has (1) low entrance fees, (2) excellent judges, (3) significant prize money, (4) they accept simultaneous submissions (5) they aren't asking for publishing rights, and (6) the proceeds go to a really good cause, which I would support anyway. Oh, and you get a free Lovecraftian e-book just for entering this year, which is pretty sweet if you're into that at all. Again, danger of the judges being overwhelmed with stories addressing the same theme, but at least my Playground reject has the advantage of being off topic rather than being yet another doll story. Downside, of course, is a lot of tough competition for the one winning spot.

Front and back covers, with backcover blurb.

I would, on the whole, count the experience of targeting specific anthologies a positive one. Two sales to top anthologies (seeing the TOC, I'm pretty happy with whom I am rubbing shoulders!) feels pretty good, and I was slightly amazed at how much easier and faster my process given a clear target. Instead of being a constraint, writing to a theme turned out to be strangely freeing. I recommend giving it a try next time you see a call for submissions, even if the topic at first glance is not one for which you have an idea to hand.