Friday, May 24, 2013

Life in Beatty: the other fictional universe!

A long time ago, I spent a few winter months hammering away on a much-different novel than any of The Land of Betrovia iterations. Yes, I literally "hammered" away -- via a manual (not even an electric!) typewriter! Before the advent of "mowing season," nearly 200 manually-typewritten pages were produced ... about 2/3 of a novel. And what is that novel about?

I'm a child of the 1970s. I entered junior high school (a moniker I prefer over "middle school") in 1970 and graduated from high school in 1976. Even though very little of that type-written novel contains allusive material to things I did (or things done to me) during those years, I have to say that the novel is about living in the 1970s.

As I slathered away the hours last winter and spring writing Lycentia: Harrak's Scrolls, I took a few "breathers" from The Land of Betrovia universe to digitize a few chapters from that novel. The final results are the following short stories that I have decided to categorize as parts of the "Life in Beatty" series.

So what is so "important" about the 1970s?

Everything! That's what!

Here's the newest story: The Bird Lady

Another story that is now available as an audio book is That Hoosier's Cap

Another one is A Game of H.O.R.S.E.

And here's Pizza Surprise

Whoa! And another round-ball adventure!: Treading Ice Water

And last but not least: Safety in the Dark

The plan is to kick out 5-6 more Life in Beatty stories ... and maybe something a bit longer will appear someday as well!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Are Serials Bad for the Self-Pubbing Image?

Back when I subscribed to a half-dozen or so magazines (like the 1980s -- many years before the Intrawebz became the "in" way to find something to read!), here's how I would consume said tabloids:

1. Leaf through the entire magazine just to get a quick overview
2. Then go back to the beginning pages and begin to read the shorter articles, etc. that got my attention during the quick overview
3. Then (and this could be days or even weeks after the magazine had arrived) begin to decipher the longer pieces, especially the "stories."

Yeah, that's right! I saved the best parts for last! Eating dessert came last -- like it is supposed to!

Even earlier in my tabloid-consuming career (the early '70s), one magazine I could not wait for every month was Boys' Life, a publication of the Boy Scouts of America! Now there's an eclectic collection of contemporary literature if there ever was one! And I relished the time spent reading and even re-reading the excellent short stories (at least at the time I thought they were excellent!).

But now, and I believe this is primarily due to the immediacy of the Intrawebz, I subscribe to no periodicals. But I still read short fiction now and then. That's right ... I satiate my appetite for short stories by reading ebooks!

And I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but I don't read near as many stories as I did back in my days as a Boy Scout.

But did I read longer pieces of fiction as well? Why of course! In my heyday, I was probably perusing a novel a week! Sometimes for my job at the MFA in Freeburg, I even read some non-fiction magazine articles! And did I even think about which kind of fiction I liked better? Not in the least! I wanted to read and I read ... read whatever was within my reach (to a certain degree, of course!).

So, what do the fine people of the Writers' Cafe have to say about this somewhat-related topic: are serials, as well as short stories, "quality" literature compared to full-length novels? And if they are, is it acceptable for short fiction writers to charge as much for those pieces of literature as others are charging for their novels?

For the sake of clarity, I've divided the commentary into two sections: "shorts are bad" and "shorts are good."

Now isn't that just an amazingly simple way to organize everything?

Short works are bad!

"Today I saw an author on Amazon. They had basically taken what really may have been good as one novel and split it into 4 books which were only 49 pages long and then tacked $2.99 on to each. Result? They had some good reviews but a vast majority of the folks said the same thing. It was too short and from what I can tell most grabbed it when it was FREE anyway. So the question is...
1. Should you just write a good novel that is 250 or 300+ pages long
2. Or chase the money and who gives a rat's *ss about the reader; let's just give them 50 pages of drivel and hope we can snag a few $2.99 sales?"

"I'd never read a book that was cut in pieces unless it was clearly stated that it's a serial. Well, and even then I'm not sure I'd be interested. Given the current eBook market $2.99 for 49 pages isn't acceptable. I would feel cheated if this ended on a cliffhanger, forcing me to keep buying more pieces. To me, it borders on the unethical (again, unless something is marked as a serial). While there are some writers who can churn out quality in very short time, I'm sure they're in the minority. I worry that the "write more books!" mantra is leading some to believe they just have to publish something, anything, and the dollars will come.The mantra should be 'write more good books!' Unfortunately, the slush is piling up and the readers are taking notice. I think this is the reason that some 'gatekeepers' like Bookbub are doing so well. With an overwhelming choice of titles, a lot of readers want someone to vet their material for them."

"My thoughts are:
- a story should be as long or short as it needs to be.
- too many self-pubbers are concentrating on the short term at the expense of the long term.
- Everyone has their own thoughts on pricing, but personally I feel that there is a certain point where XX pages for $X.XX dollars is just gouging people."

"I'm kind of torn on this one, but not for reasons that might seem readily apparent. First off, all of my books are full length books. I do have a couple of novellas I've published, but I've never actually split a book. Until now. Well, not exactly, so let me explain. I wrote a novel some years back that started a series I'll be writing for the rest of my life. It covers 3000 years of history, and each book is about 250 years of time. The first book was called The Tales of Reagul, and it ran about 500 pages. It was told in 'books' which were separated into chapters. But it was still one book. Not too long ago, I realized that the novel needed some fleshing out, so I reexamined it and realized that it could become multiple novels, although it would need a lot more writing. The three novels I split it into aren't just 1/3 of the 500 pages. I've been going through and developing each third into  full length novels that will probably hit the 400-500 page range. So, each book will still be rull length novels. This is the only way I would ever split a book, and I think the series will be that much richer for it. The additions I made weren't just page fillers, but entire adventures and further fleshing out of some very significant characters. At least that's my take on the subject."

"We complain about the old system of gatekeepers, but those gatekeepers were set up by readers in the first place. They knew that if XXXX publishing house put out a book, that it would be a good book. They knew that if XXXX bookstore carried the book, it would be a good book. They knew that if XXXX reviewer liked the book, that it was a book worth reading. Authors had to deal with those gatekeepers on a daily basis, but readers started putting them out of their minds. To a reader, it all blurred into 'if a book is published, it must be good.' Because the gatekeepers kept bad books from getting to readers. Now, we live in a different world. And while many readers are excited that they can dig through the slush pile and find a gem, the vast majority will stick to their tried and true authors and occasionally pick up a book a friend recommends. Most fear (yes fear!) the idea of reading a 'self-published' book UNLESS they can be assured that it is of quality before they pick it up. Who assures quality? (i.e. acts as a gatekeeper). It looks like Bookbub and the like are being set up by readers as the new gatekeepers. It used to be 'if I can get a publishing contract, I have a shot' or 'if I can make it to the NYT Best Sellers list, I have a career,' but now it is 'if I can just get Bookbub to pick up my book.' What we are doing is seeing the building of new gatekeepers before our eyes. We, as authors, see the tearing down of walls which keep us from connecting directly with readers as a good thing. Many readers, however, see the swarming hordes of barbarian writers coming at them through the crumbled walls and desperately want some gates and protectors to keep them safe."

"Personally, I don't like serials, especially with cliffhangers. I couldn't even stand watching TV shows like Lost for that reason. So I don't buy short books for that reason. But as a business strategy, I have no problem with it, as long as they're upfront and readers know they're buying chapters as they go along, then everything is clear. I like books so I do pay attention to page count."

"I hate serials and I'd never buy them because I prefer to have a whole book. I picked up some first parts that were free and none of them felt complete to me. It was just a book butchered into pieces that weren't even interesting. Now I mostly avoid serials. There are thousands of full books out there, so it doesn't matter. Actually, I'd buy one part of the serial if I knew the story was complete somehow and if I didn't have to read the next one just to get the ending for the first. I'm sure some people prefer serials, so I'm glad there's something for them too. I laugh at the idea of quality, though.  Who can define what quality is? Traditional publishers? Maybe, but they accept all sorts of books that they know will sell. Bookbub? Maybe, but they promoted books with homemade covers and without professional editing too. In the end, the only thing that matters is what people want to buy, so if they'll buy each part of a serial for 2.99$, give them serial. Who am I to complain? Can't blame anyone for offering serials. No one is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to purchase them."

"I've been told by every editor I've had that my second draft is basically what most publish. And I have been releasing the equivalent of one novel every six to seven weeks since I started at this 23 months ago. Perhaps I'm the exception. But as one, I take exception. I have done two serial trilogies. I will never do it again. My current one, The Delphi Chronicle, gets panned by readers who don't understand what a serial is. They just don't know. So they get annoyed. Astoundingly, they mainly get annoyed at the thought they would have to pay for the rest of the story. So they don't mind the form, they mind not getting all of it free. So that's a sense of entitlement wherein they want 160K of story for free, and get pissy when they only get 60K of it or so. I personally believe that's a very vocal and tiny minority, but who needs the problems? I don't. It's not worth the heartache, at least in my genre. Never again."

Short works are good!

"I also object, very strenuously, to the idea that short works are necessarily drivel. This is insulting to a lot of writers here, frankly. Plenty of readers and writers like shorts. They are particularly popular in certain genres, such as romance and erotica. Novels are not the only quality writing out there. Isaac Asimov wrote wonderful short stories. So did Daphne du Maurier, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury... the list goes on and on. 'Short' does not equate to 'drivel.'

"I like serialized stories as long as I know that's what I'm paying for. 2.99 seems fine to me. I pay more for a cup of coffee from McDonald's."

"Splitting up a book is not the same as writing a serial. I've written several books and I'm near the end of my first serial, and believe me, they are quite different creatures. At my price of $0.99 for 40-60 pages per episode, readers seems willing to buy and I don't get complaints about the price."

"Serialised fiction has been extremely popular in the past. People like ongoing stories featuring the same characters set in a persistant world. The Kindle, and other ereaders, are a nice distribution platform for this kind of work. Check out the Perry Rhodan series for something that takes it to the extreme... well over 2000 novellas published weekly. A lot of vintage science fiction was serialised in magazines before being released as novels and many classic victorian novels were first published as serials. There is precedent for this kind of thing. I quite like serials in some genres. For science fiction there is an element of nostalgia. I bought Wool (some people may have heard of it) as a collected volume after the fact but I would have loved to have been buying each volume as it was released. For an author who is engaged with their fans I think the shorter release cycles can be fairly exciting and fun and lead to a more intimate dialogue between author and reader. If each volume has some substance and a narrative arc and isn't just the equivilent of some chapter pulled at random from a larger work. I don't find the $2.99 (£2 for me) price point objectionable. I read for an hour a day over a coffee that costs me £2.20 and takes me half an hour to drink. On Fridays I get a cake as as well, that costs around £2.50, that takes me about 5 seconds to eat. If a short part of a larger work can engross me for two or three of those lunch breaks £2 doesn't seem like an unfair price. Of course if the complete book is available and works out cheaper I'm going to buy that, but I do quite like (good) serials, especially reading them as they are released and anticipating the next one and I don't object to paying a little more to consume books in this manner.... of course that's only if I enjoy them. Another advantage of serials is that the first part is often cheap or free, so if they're not good no one is going to fork out for the second and subsequent parts!"

"Robert Crane wrote, what, six books last year? I've read them and they're good (his Girl In The Box series is kind of what the X-Men comics would be if the X-Men didn't suck) and he earns around 25K per month on them. This year he plans on publishing ten books. He's a damned fast writer and he puts out quality stuff. The speed=crap myth is just that: a myth."

"I put my word and approximate page count CLEARLY stated on anything that isn't over 50k/full-length novel. Be less concerned with what other people are doing, and you'll be happier. Unless it looks like an awesome strategy you want to try. I'm doing novels now, but my serials were the first thing I ever put out that actually sold well/i.e. demonstrated that demand for that particular sort of thing exceeded supply."

"Most of the self-published books I've picked up are actually books I enjoy.  The ones that are crap, I can pick up a sample first and tell that it's crap within just a few seconds of opening that sample.  I love the variety and originality that self-publishing brings, because now I can read books that surprise and excite me, rather than the cookie-cutter stuff that comes out from New York. In my experience, people who complain that vocally about price were never really interested in picking up the rest of the story.  Taking a novel and splitting it into arbitrary chunks without a distinct beginning, middle, and end, that I can understand (and it's something that NY used to do all the time, especially in Epic Fantasy).  But if you've got a series of shorter works, such as novellas or novelettes, and each one is a self-contained story that takes exactly as long as it needs to tell it--I don't think that that's somehow 'drivel' just because of the length. If you're really trying to judge a book's value by looking at the dollars to word count ratio, sort of like the cents per ounce ratio at a grocery store, you're probably not into the story all that much to begin with anyway."

"Some readers like series, some don't. Some readers like serials, some don't. Some readers only read novels, some are more eclectic in their taste. Writers are the same ... they like to write different stories of different lengths. Some actually write the type of things they like to read as readers. But writing shorter works does not equate to 'chasing money.' Some of us are actually writing shorter works of quality. As long as the writer is up-front about what the reader is getting, I don't see a problem. There's room for all types and lengths of fiction in this world. After all, part of the advantage of having 'indie' works out there is that readers can get stuff that they wouldn't be able to read otherwise."

"The readers are the gatekeepers. If they want to buy a 40 pg story for 2.99, then they will buy it.  If they don't, they don't.  That's on them. Why censor ourselves?  I say write what you want, how you want, how long you want, and price it how you want and let the readers decide if they like it or not. I can write fast and I do.  I put out novels, novellas, and short stories as I see fit.  I'm in this to write what I want, when I want, and make as much money as I can doing it.  And I won't apologize for it either."

"Using Amazon's page metric, 40 pages is approx. 13000 to 14000 words, i.e. novelette length. I sell novelettes (i.e. between 7500 and 17500 words) for 2.99 and so do many other authors. And yes, they do sell. In erotica, there even are people charging 2.99 for a 4000 word short story and those sell as well. In my experience, genre is a far better predictor of sales than price. A lot of people don't like short fiction just as a lot of people don't like serials. However, plenty of people like short stories and plenty like serials and they are willing to pay for it. As long as the author is clear about what the reader is buying (e.g. I always put wordcount and approx. page length in the blurb), there's no problem."

"There are some authors or series for which I would (and do…) pay $2.99 for a short story or $11.99 for a novel. There are others whose work I wouldn't even pick up for free. Also, time ≠ indicative of quality. There was a video on here not long ago covering someone's cover design. If you looked at the time stamp, the artist put that cover together in an amazingly short amount of time, but that's not indicative of the final quality—it's indicative of the artist knowing what they're doing. The same concept applies to writing. While I agree that authors shouldn't rush in seek of a quick buck, there's nothing innately wrong with serials, or with splitting up a novel, or with posting all but the last three chapters and a blog and making folks have to buy to read the end. If readers dislike it, they'll vote with their pocketbooks."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Description that is Essential compared to being Frivolous

How to write descriptively without boring the reader

Eight years ago, when I started to work on Betrovia (which at that time was going to be a novel and not a trilogy), I was also editing a dystopian/sci-fi action/adventure novel for a friend. Actually, he wasn't really a friend: he was a guy I met via a NeverWinterNights public server. He said his name was Dan Brown (no, not THAT Dan Brown). How playing multi-player NWN led to us chatting about our shared hobby, I really can't say. But I do know that slogging through his book, revising and deleting text at-will, gave me a great sense of power. Did I ask him to read/edit/revise Betrovia? Not hardly! The book was still in the outlining stage. Did I at least give him any idea of what Betrovia was about? I'm pretty sure I did.

One thing I remember enjoying about editing/revising his novel was deciding what was "essential" compared to "frivolous." Dan's novel was interesting, for the most part, but quite a few paragraphs of frivolous dialogue and description ended up on the cutting room floor. In about a month, maybe a total of thirty hours of editing/revising, I finally shot "my" version of the novel back to him. A few days later, Dan responded with a polite "Thank you" and that was about all that I heard from him about it. I gave up playing NWN not long after that and so our communication ceased.

Zooming back to May 2013.

Ahank: Edelin's Revelation is one chapter away from being drafted. Right now the novel contains nearly 110K words. In comparison, Betrovia, book one of the trilogy, is around 94K while Lycentia, book two, is around 77K. The plan is to pare Ahnak back to around 100K. So that would mean saying good-bye to 10K words, or -- in paperback terms -- anywhere between 20-25 pages! Whoa! Does Ahnak contain that much "frivilous" stuff?

So, concerning the topic of essential vs. frivolous, what do the fine authors who frequent the Writers' Cafe have to say?

"I don't know. I tend to waffle on a bit when I get really into a scene. I like to use a lot of words when I could use a few words, but I kind of like it that way. I think it's good to, occasionally, cut loose and just really describe something. And, you know, sometimes I go overboard a bit. That's fine. Sometimes I'm kind of like... oh, okay, eww. Yeah, I could do that better. But far more often I find that cutting away this wordiness reduces the story. I know we're supposed to encourage the imagination, but I think that things like describing a sunset should take up a lot of words; it's beautiful, it has the character's attention, it's got ambers and purples and all manner of things. Some of the editing suggestions I'm getting back, in some of my recent work, feels like I'm cutting things down to the bone. "The sun set." Yes, it most certainly did, but that's... hideously boring. If the characters are going to enjoy a romantic evening together watching that sunset, I think the reader should be there with them too, right? I don't know. Maybe there's room for wordiness in books. Is there? Do we have to reduce everything to stage directions? Walk here. Sit. Talk. Sun rise, sun set. Get shot. Bleed. Die. Can't we use some of our words? Is it all just a race for the smallest word count?"

"I have the same issues. My WIP was 180K words fleshed out. I've cut the hell out of it and have it down in the 150K range and now I'm condensing two chapters into 1 to make it a little more phrenetic in that stretch, but it's getting dangerously close to being too much. Yeah, if the sun's gonna set, don't just tell me it's setting, give me some colors. Give me the mood."

"I have the problem of not being "wordy" enough... I tend to get bored when I read books with excessive descriptions of the mundane or a back history of a character I could care less about. Maybe that's why I avoid it."

"I think I am the same. My son is into the role-playing forums online and he wants me to add so much more description then feels comfortable for me. I struggle with who is right?"

"I know that when I'm reading and I hit a spot where the author is delving into needless (at least to me) description, I tend to start scanning the paragraph, searching for the point where he/she's done and the story resumes.  So, because I'm like that, I tend to skip over it when I'm writing. One of the worst ones guilty of this is Dean Kootz.  In his book, The Husband, he's pulling out the purple prose in the middle of a chase scene."

"I feel that the secret is in choosing what to get wordy about. Set pieces and moments like a sunset at the right moment are great times to break out the loquaciousness. The problem comes when you're describing rugs and drapes that nobody cares about and you do it every time someone goes into a new room. That's the point where you're not adding production values, you're hindering the flow of the story."

"Wordiness isn't defined by a specific number of words used. It's defined by using more words than is needed to convey the emotion you want to convey. Wordiness is that point where you stop invoking emotions and start treating the reader like an idiot who is incapable of getting the point. You may only need 20 words to describe a sunset in practical terms, but need 200 to describe that sunset in emotional terms. Use the 200 words. Wordiness is when it takes you 2000 words to describe a sunset and the reader is sitting there thinking: 'Alright! I get it! It's pretty! Moving on...'"

"I've seen lots of sunsets. This one had better be different if it's going to be worth 200 words. What's important to me as a reader is what this particular sunset means to the characters, and that can be anything from a sentence to a paragraph to a chapter to a novel."

"Waxing on about a sunset or something during an action scene probably isn't the best idea, but there is an audience for precisely detailed action. People love Lee Child and he uses a very detailed and quite detached style for much of his action. Clancy is another example with more mixed results when he veers from the action to spend a couple pages writing a Wiki article on the tech in use--but some readers eat that up too."

"I think it is like the rule 'show, don't tell'. For a novice writer (and I am definitely a novice writer), I think it means something different than what you anticipate at first. Descriptive exposition is not the breaking of the rule "be concise", but is the results of the rule being followed carefully. A example of this was when I went to go see The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater. When the first image of Hobbiton came on the screen, one of my friends whispered 'How did they take the image from my head and put it onto the screen?' The words that Tolkien used to describe Hobbiton were so precise and clear that everyone had a similar idea of what the Hobbit town should look like. He was able to put the image in his mind onto the page in such a way that readers could easily recreate it in their own minds. That is skill. And while some might say that Tolkien broke Strunk's rule of 'Omit needless words', are the words needless if they suit the function? Describing a sunset, for example, can be done in a perfunctory way. But if the intent of the scene is to show the beauty as the character sees it, then words that describe that beauty are not needless.

"Readers are not goldfish; we know that the girl's eyes are green and the guy is blonde. You can stop telling whenever she blinks or he shakes his head."

"Depends on voice how many words to use, but not a one should be wasted."

"There's two things.
1. Is this the right time and place for those words? Don't have big descriptions in a chase scene. Don't have too much purple prose in thriller. Don't have too much exposition at the start. etc.
2. Are all the words doing their job? Can a simpler sentence replace a longer one and give the same description, feeling and tone? Can a word replace a phrase? Are there any sentences that are repeating something already said?"

"Two of my favorite authors are Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote Anne of Green Gables and (if you were looking for something more . . . robust) Richard Blackmore who wrote Lorna Doone.  Taken out of context their descriptions would be the purplest of purple.  But the thing is, their main characters would be thinking about their environment in those ways and they would be thinking about them at the time the author is talking about them.  Blackmore doesn't interrupt battle to describe the frost on the fields and Anne doesn't muse about Barry's Pond when she's fighting with Gilbert.  But the descriptions of the world are what makes these books more than just a schlocky romance and a stock coming of age book for girls.  Or look at Jane Eyre- the descriptions of the environment and of the characters' physical appearance are actually integral to the plot.  I think it's only when the story comes to a screeching halt that description gets tiresome.  If it's part of the flow, not separate from it, I don't think readers have too much of a problem.  Of course, there's always Dickens to mess that theory up though.  He just alternated chapters, one description, then one action, repeat.  But then, he was making money per word, so who can really blame him if he got away with it?"

"I know the voice of the narrator is not the same as the voices of the characters, but I also think they can't be too dissimilar or it seems jarring.  If a wordy description is on the same page with a terse character, that might be the problem.  Similarly, descriptions work best when the character has some reaction to whatever is being described.  If the lovely sunset brings him comfort or makes him feel even worse about his dismal life or if he's the sort that hardly ever notices such things but the scene is showing that he's changing, then it earns more words than if the author thinks Joe should care but he really doesn't (or the author just gets carried away writing descriptions of sunsets)."

"I'm with those who say use as much as the situation calls for - the same sunset needs to be handled differently in a romance than in a thriller, and differently if the POV character is sitting admiring it than if the only importance is that the light faded. Skimming description is a habit of mine too, but books that have none, where characters seem to be interacting with people who are nothing but names against a colorless background don't do it for me either."

"Honor every word. Use them where they count."

"Nothing wrong with wordiness as long as its interesting."

"My personal ideal # of adjectives per sentence: 0 to 1. Sometimes you need to use 2 or 3. Let those sentences be the exceptions. There's an awful rhythm to work that has 2 adjectives in many sentences, but never 1 or 3. The dog was tiny and fiesty. Her bark was sharp and strident. My head felt woozy and foggy. The afternoon was pointless and bleak. Better: The s***flake dog's barking sapped my will to live."

"There are times you can dwell on things, times when you can really indulge. But it has to be something your readers will eat up as well. Asimov can spend a good page or two describing the mechanics of something, or the politics of a world, and I'm good with that because it's that type of thing I 'want' from him, and it's what he excels at. If I grab a book by RA Salvatore, and he spends three pages describing the local vegetation, I'm going to get annoyed and wonder why Drizzt isn't killing anyone yet."