Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pathetic Fallacy

So, we have been known to declaim in our charming *cough*ranty*cough* way about the dangers of adjectival phrases forming misalliances with nouns which they can never modify. For example--

Relaxing on the sofa, the pizza tasted great.

I have never yet met a pizza which was capable of relaxing on a sofa. Structurally, though, that left-branching present participial phrase modifies the subject, pizza. And that's a problem. The concept of pizza behaving this way is nonsensical.

But there are times -- rare times, authors, with an accent on rare -- when a similar construction might be used to achieve a thematic effect. Then, we might call such a construction a form of pathetic fallacy. Pathetic fallacy is a poetic device where, for the purpose of creating symbolic value or another higher-order creative expression, we attribute human emotions to items which don't feel emotions.

Shocked at his sudden appearance, her feet skittered backward.

Now, obviously, feet cannot feel the emotion of shock in the literal sense. But if the goal is to make the emotion come across as almost disembodied, or if there is some other symbolic value or thematic resonance achieved by attributing shock to her feet, then this might work in context.

Pathetic fallacy comes up often enough in creative writing that some simpler forms have become cliches or near-cliches.
Angry clouds
Happy flowers
One lonely tree
And so on. I'm sure you can think of other examples. Obviously, clouds don't feel anger, flowers don't feel happiness, and trees don't feel lonesome, yet we accept these concepts because the emotion attributed to the object creates a context for interpretation.

The danger in pathetic fallacy is the same as the danger in a botched modifier. If not handled appropriately, they can be confusing or even laughably bad. This is why I advocate for using this form rarely, especially when you're still learning the craft. You might not always be able to accurately gauge how your words will come across to your reader, and until you get better at that, it might be safer to avoid anything that might confuse or inadvertently amuse the reader. But as you gain in skill and insight, don't be afraid to try out this form for extra impact from time to time. It can add good things to a story if it's done right.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Brought to You by the Letters R and U

Let's talk about sex, baby. Or, to be more precise, sex scenes. Today at Romance University, I'm giving you three things to consider to integrate emotions and environment into your sex scenes. Come join us!


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Great Analogies

Love these-- great analogies. 

This is almost a poem:

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Creating something from nothing

A really good interview with John Edgar Wideman, whose wisdom for writers (and others) is to consider it a great privilege to create something new. He says so much around us is processed and given to us, especially culture but also (interestingly) the experience of our  own lives, how we interpret what happens to us, and that we are lucky if we are able to ourselves create something new, something that isn't forced upon us.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Defining a Few Terms

We've been talking pros and cons of direct publishing a little here lately. So when Matt Zandstra (@inflatableink) tweeted a link to this Guardian article, it caught my attention immediately. But maybe not for the reasons you might think.

The article is about an author, Polly Courtney, who successfully self-published two books. That landed her a 3-book deal with Avon HarperCollins, a reputable big publisher with one of the best PR machines in the industry. Their publicists are ace. Their marketing is top shelf. So this is why I sat up straight and paid attention when this author announced she was dropping her publisher and going back to self-publishing because of their marketing approach to her titles. How can this be? Is the best in the business no longer good enough? I mean, we all hear about the tailspin every day. Marketing and PR efforts are dwindling, authors don't get good support, etc., etc.

So I read the article. And this is what I read:

"[T]he real issue I have is that it has been completely defined as women's fiction. … Yes it is page turning, no it's not War and Peace. But it shouldn't be portrayed as chick lit.... The implication with chick lit is that it's about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams."

That sound you hear is my mental brakes squealing as my ability to empathize with this author crashes. I say that in full awareness that the article might have been slanted to create this reaction. Perhaps those are not exact quotes. Perhaps the author got it right during the interview, but it was transcribed incorrectly. So I don't blame the author, and I certainly don't hold it against her.* Lots of people would read this article and not have my reaction to it. But those people? Probably aren't all that aware of the way books are marketed in this industry.

And the article's implication is that neither is the author. The implication is that an author who is complaining about her marketing is so unaware of marketing terms that she can't distinguish between them. Knowledgeable people read that and think, "She's cutting herself loose from one of the best teams in the industry because of how they slotted her, and she doesn't even know that these slots she mentions are not interchangeable."

So, I responded to the original tweet from Matt to suggest that there might be a credibility issue here, and we had a nice chat about it, and Matt asked me to define some terms. I attempted to do so in 140 characters, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew this should be blogged. Ergo:

Women's fiction = an umbrella term to define a broad segment of books targeted at women readers. For marketing purposes, this includes chick lit, romance, family sagas, old-fashioned glitz novels, what some call "weepies," and some mainstream and upmarket stuff. It's an important market segment because women tend to buy and read more books than men. (Note: Romance writers tend to use the term "women's fiction" to describe all stories for women which are neither romance nor chick lit. I disagree with that usage, as do some of other publishing pros I've talked to over the years. But it's not a problem as long as you're aware of who you're talking to.)

Romance = a type of women's fiction in which the central plot involves the formation of a romantic bond between characters. These stories are folkloric in both origin and structure (as we've repeatedly blogged about -- just click the structure link in the tag list on the sidebar for a sampling). They are close cousins of fairy tales or wonder tales, which are also forms of folklore. It's an important market segment because romance readers tend to buy and read lots of books, and they tend to buy only (or mostly) romance, so they're good customers. Consequently, before the arrival of chick lit, the overwhelming majority of books for women were romance novels. (And some family sagas and glitz novels, but mostly romance.)

Chick lit = a type of women's fiction about a young woman reaching maturity or coping with adult issues for the first time. These stories are akin to coming-of-age tales given that in our modern world, adolescence typically ends in a person's mid-20s. First real job, first real relationship, first steps toward financial independence, what it all means, a girl's place in the world -- these are the themes of chick lit. Romance can form a part of that, but doesn't have to. These books caught fire in the 90s and sold as fast as they could be printed, proving that women readers were interested in things other than the classic romance. In some circles, they were heralded as a feminist success because they portrayed women's full lives, not just their romantic lives. (That statement misunderstands the nature of romance novels, so please, romance novelists, no need to chide me.)

So maybe you can see why saying, "They defined my books as women's fiction," doesn't state a problem if, in fact, the books are aimed at a female readership. And maybe you can see why defining chick lit as "about a girl meeting the man of her dreams" muddies the distinction between chick lit and romance. Again, this is not meant to be a knock on this particular author, who may have had legitimate concerns about her cover art and other aspects of the marketing, and who for all we know never said these exact things*. But perhaps it should serve as a warning sign. Know the industry. Use terms precisely. If you're going to burn a bridge, be able to explain clearly why you lit that match.


*I suspect that the Guardian misrepresented the author's words, in fact, because they tend to toss around the term "chick lit" as a pejorative to stir up controversy. And their disrespect of romance writers has led to worldwide protests. So I think they probably either screwed up or misquoted her on purpose. And I do still think that the Avon team is crackerjack, despite whatever may have happened here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I love flash mobs in train stations....

How about a whole symphony? I love the agog children.  Bolero in Copenhagen.

Hate to refer to everything as marketing, but really, what a great goodwill gesture, also sure to sell some season tickets.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

New Malady-- writers who don't read

This is a phenomenon I've noticed mostly among poets-- they write but don't read poetry. (I, on the other hand, read poetry but don't write it.)  But this is also about fiction writers. You tell me -- do you still read? Does it help or hurt your writing? I know lots of writers who don't like to read when they are writing. What do you all think?


Reselling Digital Products

If you read my post the other day about why direct publishing will prevail, you will know that direct publishing and traditional publishing are different distribution models. In other words, they present two different options for moving a product from the author to the reader.

So, over the weekend, I heard a common author complaint. She had direct-published one of her books using the usual channels for direct publishing. Her sales were good. She intended to use that good sales record to entice a traditional publisher into taking over publishing duties. Her theory was that they ought to be interested in a title with a proven sales record. Readers were interested. And so should be the publishers.

To her surprise, she received nothing but form rejections and one personalized rejection that said, in essence, that the publisher doesn't think it makes financial sense to re-release the title when the author has already picked off the easy sales to friends in family. (More on this in a moment.) She was baffled that no publishers would be interested in taking over a title that was a proven seller.

But really, why would they want to? Books are neither fungible nor consumable. There is a set number of people willing to purchase a particular title, and they will usually only purchase it once. If those sales have already been made through one distribution channel, you won't re-make them through a different channel. Maybe you can reach new buyers, but why would a publisher want to take on a title knowing that its sales prospects are already limited by a competing distribution effort? "I've already made 50% of the sales this book can possibly make. Now I want you to make the other 50%, but your up-front costs will still be the same, even if your possible gross is diminished." It doesn't make good financial sense, and in this market, publisher have to watch their numbers very closely.

Now, about that publisher who complained that the author had already sold to her friends and family. That statement worried me for a different reason because it betrays a fundamental flaw in logic used by some smaller houses. For a long time now, the conventional wisdom has had it that the efforts of the publishing company will be responsible for 80-90% of a book's sales, and the author's efforts will be responsible for about 10-20%. (I don't know where those numbers come from, but I've been hearing them for years.) That 10-20% are the friends and family sales. I've heard more than one publishing professional at small houses say that the friends and family sales are their bread and butter. They undertake minimal distribution and no promotion, and they throw away the 80-90% of the sales they should be going after, instead expecting the friends and family sales to cover costs and generate profits. For many of these houses, it's a model that works for them. It might not be great for the author -- the author might make more elsewhere -- but if the author complains, the publisher response is, "Do more PR."In other words, maximize your friends and family sales, and hope you pick up some extra sales along the way.

But this is not what I said to my friend who was upset that a publishing house wouldn't take over responsibility for a direct-published title that was selling well. What I said to her was, why do you want a traditional publisher at all? If you're making good money doing it on your own, claiming 70% of retail on every sale, why would you trade that for an 8% royalty? The book is selling, and selling well. Thank the gods of publishing and cash the check. And for the next book, consider whether to direct publish or try to entice a traditional publisher, but do it in the knowledge that either option is more viable for this second book than it was for the first.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Engagement Marketing Video

This is a fantastic presentation on engagement marketing through social media, presented by Sister Diane of Craftypod and I Heart Art Portland. The original audience was small business crafters like Etsy shop owners, but I think the concepts are applicable to all creative professionals. The formal presentation part of this video runs about 20 minutes, and the remaining 1.5 hours are Q&A. It's long, but it's well worth watching. Watch it in pieces, or save it for a time when you're too drained to write or edit.

My favorite part of this presentation has to do with the importance of responding to attention you receive online. I admit, I'm not the greatest at responding to every comment, but I always read and consider everything aimed at me, whether on this blog or on facebook or twitter or other places. And I do respond to probably more than half, if you add up all the comments I get in all places. According to Sister Diane, I ought to be responding to all of them. *vows to do better*

What's your best tip for social media and engagement marketing?


Friday, September 9, 2011

End of line

I heard a lyricist talking about the words in a song affecting the sound, and she mentioned that Oscar Hammerstein (Rogers and...) had mentioned that one song from Carousel, What's the Use of Wondering? , had never "entered the repertoire" like so many of their songs did.  He attributed this to the ending. The last line is "and all the rest is talk," which ironically echoes Hamlet's last words ("The rest is silence").

Hammerstein thought perhaps the problem was that that last line ends on a hard consonant "k" following a short vowel: "talk". It can't really be lingered on or drawn out. In a song about "wondering," it doesn't lend itself to wondering. Too final. Too hard.


Why Direct Publishing Will Prevail

Those of you who've been around publishing for any stretch of time are familiar with the whining about traditional distribution. The same thing happens every six months, right after royalties come out. "OMG, returns! Hate! Hiss!" And yes, returns suck. You'll never hear me say otherwise.

But the thing about that system, the one that let a retailer return books to the distributor and publisher for full credit, is that it allowed widespread distribution of lesser-known authors. Retailers could take a chance on stocking a book that they might not otherwise stock. Small presses couldn't have flourished without this guarantee. The midlist existed in large part because of the safety net provided by returns.

Yes, it was an antiquated system, conceived in the depression era as a way to prevent the collapse of the book trade. Yes, it ate into profits and turned publishing accounting into a funhouse illusion where 80% of books fail to break even. Yes, returns could kill an author's earnings and career. No doubt about any of that.

But it also allowed retailers to have diverse stock in their stores. It allowed publishers to go to contract with new authors with no following or platforms. It allowed new authors to break in and have a shot at readership. And it allowed avid readers to have a steady stream of reading material, and casual readers instant access to the book of their whim.

Which is just to say, that system wasn't going to budge until we found a way to preserve those advantages in a new system. And that's exactly what direct publishing (that is, publishing done directly by the author through the retailer, whether POD or digital) does -- it still allows for wide proliferation of high-risk books, while minimizing the risk to retailers. Now the risk is borne by the authors instead of by the publishers, but the author also reaps much higher benefits -- as much as 70% of the cover price on digital downloads, and a variable amount on POD texts.

And this is why direct publishing will ultimately overtake other distribution models. Now, there is still some advantage to authors to being traditionally published, though those advantages are smaller than they were and continue to shrink. Let's break this down by function, and you'll see what I mean.


This is the function authors probably think of first when they think of working with a publishing house. Which editor will acquire their work, and what kind of editing will she provide? Used to be that an author was pretty much guaranteed good attention from her editor. But then, as a result of the corporatization of publishing, editors began taking on extra tasks, and editing time became compromised. Editors might still have strong editing skills (though there are notorious exceptions), but that doesn't mean that they'll have the time to dedicate those skills to your book.

By contrast, with direct publishing, the author hires an editor and the editor is accountable to the author rather than to the house. The editor isn't saddled with endless meetings or interdepartmental supervision, so she provides editing, and only editing, rather than project management. Trust me -- former acquisitions editor, currently working freelance, so I have worked both sides of this process -- I have more time per project for editing now as a freelancer than I did when I was in-house. (Though I do frequently fall into the role of providing project management advice and other career guidance to my self-publishing clients -- but that's just because I can't help myself.)


In traditional publishing, these roles are sometimes lumped together in one department and sometimes handled separately. Sales is responsible for placing titles with retailers. PR and marketing handle ad buys, interviews, giveaways, and the like. The simple truth is that in most traditional houses, power is firmly seated with the sales team. They tell the editors what to acquire, and the editors have to win approval from sales for their buys. Ever hear an editor at a conference say, "In order to buy a book, I have to show X, Y, and Z to my sales team"? Now you know why. Ever hear publishing insiders talk about whether their house is or is not sales-driven or sales-led? Now you know why. The sales team talks to the retailers. The retailers say that customers are asking for this or that, and that some other thing isn't selling well. The sales team takes this information back to one of the endless staff meetings, and they use it to make acquisition decisions.

Think about it. This means that the current market is driving what will be on the shelves in a year. This means excellent books that don't fit the current market needs might get overlooked, because excellence is not the only criteria for acquisition. Editorial judgment and taste can be trumped by market concerns which will be outdated before the book goes to press. Direct publishing circumvents this issue in two ways -- first, it gets the product to market faster, so that lag between retailer desire and product placement shrinks. Second, it puts the sales decisions in the hands of the end customer -- or, I should say, it's more effective at letting the reader make the decision.

And you know how authors are complaining about how much PR they have to do on their own these days? That's the other side of the PR/marketing/sales department. Used to be that you could count on an in-house publicist to make at least some effort to promote a book. Every title got at least minimal attention, with bigger titles getting more attention. But little by little, these tasks are being pushed onto the authors. Some have to write their own jacket copy. Some have to design and buy their own bookmarks, postcards, and other promotional material. Some have to arrange their own interviews with the press. Some have to coordinate and pay for their own book tours. Book signings, ad buys, promotional packets for booksellers, gifts for warehouse distributors -- all these things used to be routine parts of the book business, and they're falling to the wayside because houses don't do them and authors can't afford to pick up all the slack. (Not at 8% royalties, anyway. At 70%, with steady sales, things become more possible.)


This is one place where traditional publishing still has a big advantage over direct publishing. The houses have established methods for moving titles into audio, translation, large print, film, and so on. And there just aren't equivalent channels available in direct publishing. But I think that will change over time. Not soon, but eventually.


We'll call this one a draw. Accounting is going to be a headache no matter who assumes most of the responsibility for it. With traditional print distribution, the distributor handled a lot of the accounting function, and there were good records kept for each title. (Note: good records. Not perfectly problem-free records.) Now record-keeping is a little shakier in some ways and a little more streamlined in others. This is probably going to continue to evolve as direct publishing grows. But for now, from the author's perspective, it's probably much the same no matter who provides the sales records.

Art and Design

With this aspect -- cover art and book design -- the advantage can go either way. Traditional print processes give a lot more leeway in book design than do POD or digital books. However, there are workarounds on the direct publishing side, for those who have the time, money, and technical skills to make it happen. So a direct-published book can be as good or better than a traditionally published book, but in most cases, a sharp eye will spot deficiencies in the POD product. And a digital book provides very limited design options. The bottom line is that direct-published authors tend to put a little money into cover, little or none into design, and that usually seems to work out okay. But a book produced in the traditional way is probably going to look and feel like a better book in some ways.

So that's how I see this shaking out right now. This is hugely different from any post I would have written as recently as two years ago, when direct publishing was similar to a vanity process. But now, with changes in distribution and retailing, the game is changing, and I expect that any post I write two years from now will also be very, very different from this current post.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Guest Blog: Jenny Brown. Second Book Syndrome

Jenny, a long-time commenter and successful non-fiction writer, has a three-book deal with a major publisher.

A long time ago, at a time when I'd written two novels that had failed to excite anyone in the great world of publishing, Alicia gave me some very good advice, which I ignored. 

She told me to write five more books before I tried to sell anything. Not just because I might learn something about writing that way—which I would—but because making it in Romance isn’t about publishing one book. It’s about building a readership, and that takes writing a lot of books.  Fast. 

It was only after I’d finally sold my astrologically themed historical romance, Lord Lightning to HarperCollins’ Avon Romance, that I learned just how good her advice had been.

Because once you’ve received an offer of publication things change in a hurry. Writing is no longer a private experience, a delicate flirtation between you and your muse that may take many months to grow into a consuming passion. Your new agent and editor will want to know what you’ll be writing next and they’re likely to have strong opinions about what it should be. Even worse, before they mail out your contract they’ll insist that you commit to a delivery date for your next novel that will range from a few months to, at most, a year from the moment they offered you the deal.  

And that’s just the beginning. Though your first book had to be very good to land you that contract, you’ll quickly learn that your next book must be even better than the first, or you’ll end up with a bunch of reviews that say, “Her new book isn’t as good as her debut.”  

If that weren’t enough pressure, not only must everything in your next book be better than the first, it has to be different from it, which won’t seem like a big issue until you start writing and realize you’ve already used this bit of juicy dialogue, that heart-tugging backstory theme, and, yes, even that luscious bit of foreplay—in your first book.

There’s a name for what happens at the moment when you realize you’ve promised to deliver a book you know little about, in a time frame that is half of what it took you to write your first book, to an editor who expects it to be far better and completely different from your first—while fitting neatly into the marketing niche she’s assigned you. It’s called Second Book Syndrome. And sure enough as I set out to write the second book in my astrology series, Star Crossed Seduction, I came down with a classic case of it. 

A large part of why was that when my agent decided to pitch Lord Lightning as part of multi-book deal in which the hero of each book would be of a different astrological sign she had asked me to give her a few paragraph describing the second book in the series before she took it to editor.

Still wrapped in a haze of excitement at having received The Call, I chose a Scorpio hero for that second book and dashed off two paragraphs. I knew Scorpios are notorious for their secrecy so I decided to make him a military man who dabbles in political intrigue. I paired him with a rebellious pickpocket—a good foil to his strong sense of duty. And since the only active war going on in my story’s time frame was in India, I decided to create conflict by having him learn that the pickpocket had been sent to steal a valuable Indian gem that the hero was supposed to deliver to England’s most powerful spymaster.

My agent loved it. My editor bought it. It was only when I sat down to write it that I realized I had described an external plot, not a love story, and that I had no idea who my secretive Captain and his pickpocket were or, more importantly, what was going to make them fall in love with each other in a way that would make my reader feel all warm and happy as she turned the last page. 

I had to write three different partials and five full drafts to answer that question, and each one was written to the accompaniment of the famous Ticking Clock, though in this case it wasn’t my characters under the gun but deadline-phobic me.   

What helped me the most—besides Alicia’s brilliant book, The Story Within Guidebook, which is invaluable to anyone trying to craft a character-driven plot—was an online course on “Crash Revisions,” taught by Holly Lisle. She taught me to print my work and edit it on paper in pencil, rather than fiddle with it on the screen. She also emphasized the importance of reading my draft for themes and revising at the thematic level first, rather than wasting my time playing about with words at the paragraph level. I also learned a lot from another online class Lynn Kerstan taught on how to tighten up your prose. 

It was only after I submitted my manuscript to my editor that I discovered the other difference between writing for yourself and writing under contract. Because my editor, it turned out, really does edit. She pinpointed several structural flaws, wasted opportunities, confusing scenes, and missing backstory that none of my beta readers had noticed. And even better, my editor made very helpful suggestions as to how to fix these flaws. 

By the time Star Crossed Seduction was in proof, I felt confident that I had written the book I’d hoped to write, but I wouldn’t wish the anxiety-laden process that got me to that book on anyone. So now, when aspiring writers ask me for advice, what do I tell them? Write a few books before you query your first agent. You’re likely to end up with a better book, and more importantly, you won’t have to start from scratch when it comes time to write that all-important second book. 

Will anyone take my advice? Probably not. But if they do, they’ll find that what follows publication will be a lot less nerve-wracking. 

Jenny Brown's sensuous historical romances feature heroes each of a different astrological sign. They are published by HarperCollins Avon. She began her career as a novelist late in life after years of publishing sober, instructive nonfiction. It's quite a change.  

Her next book, Star Crossed Seduction, was released on August 30. It tells the story of dragoon Captain Miles Trevelyan, on leave from active service in India, who is heading out for a night on the town when he rescues a beautiful pickpocket from arrest. She's the perfect choice for a few days of dalliance--beautiful, cunning, and completely disposable. But Temperance has no intention of becoming the plaything of a man who wears the uniform of the solders who murdered her lover. Disarming Trev with a kiss, she escapes. But her sultry kiss opens the two Scorpio adversaries to an obsessive attraction that neither can elude--or possibly survive.

Her web site is You can read the beginning of Star Crossed Seduction on Scribd at 

Are You a Triple-X Brand?

Triple-X domain names go into advance release today for trademark holders and brand holders. One purpose of this sunrise period for brands is to prevent cybersquatters from claiming domain name rights to things like "" or to any other brand which the squatter doesn't own. It also gives brands the opportunity to prevent adult entertainers from using their name as a .xxx domain. If you've ever typed in instead of, you'll know why this could be a problem for some. Basically, the folks in charge of teh interwebz are giving brand holders the opportunity to avoid this problem by squatting on their own .xxx domain names.

So, claim the name under your pen name(s) now if you're concerned about this type of brand dilution. It's a one-time fee rather than an annual fee, and it might be worth the $200 or so this is estimated to cost.

If you write erotica, you might want this domain name for actual use, rather than to squat on your own trade name. If you currently have a domain name like, you can take advantage of this early registration period and claim the .xxx version of your domain name. Do it now, before this sunrise period ends. Otherwise, you have to wait for the sunrise period to end before you can register a .xxx domain.

So, those are the two sunrise options: get the .xxx for a domain name you already own, or get a .xxx for your established brand to prevent anyone else from doing so. The erotic romance authors are caught in the middle, but that's no real surprise. Do you want to use a .xxx domain? Some of you might. Or maybe you just want to claim it and have it roll over to your .com site. For those of you who have considered the issue, what do you plan to do?


Monday, September 5, 2011

The case for saying the same thing twice, thrice, frice

I was trying to explain why the reality of fairly simple and successful "direct-to-reader" publishing has unlocked something exciting in my psyche, and I realized that one liberating factor is that I get to say the same thing as many times as I want.

Now I have always believed in traditional publication and have been gratified to have the minimal success at it that I have had over the years. When I was coming up, this was the only credential that counted, and I was glad to have gotten it early in my career. As impossible as it all got for awhile there, I always felt that I'd passed some test, that I'd "graduated." I knew that better writers than I had been ignored by the often-arbitrary marketplace that was traditional publishing, so I could never, like so many trad-pubbed authors, feel superior-- I know very well how much luck is involved-- and I never made enough money at it to feel the least bit smug. I assumed that everyone who was in the know was probably laughing at me and my paltry advances and my ever-necessary day job. However, trad-pubbing allowed me to know that I wasn't just being a narcissist when I thought maybe my writing was better than average. And, in an odd way, trad-pubbing made me more humble that all those who, rejected by the traditional publishers, felt the need to constantly extol their own brilliance. I could hardly entertain the notion that I was "too good" for NYC publishers, since I'd had three of them at that point. Or "too good" for NYC agents-- I've had seven of them, all of them discerning of brilliance (witness their sporadic, temporary, apparently unconvincing yet still extant recommendation of mine :).

Anyway, I cherished the minor prestige and the generally recognized credential, even if, as the years went by, I became more impatient with all the hassles that came along with that.  Eventually I realized that, heck, I'd already gotten about all the cheap benefits (prestige, access to certain contests, etc.) and didn't need to keep storming the balustrades if I didn't want to, and I didn't. At the same time, though, I didn't altogether "trust" the alternative market of a decade or so ago.  I suspected that, for good and human reasons, a whole lot of epubbers weren't being candid about their experience, or epublishers their sales figures, and wiser than most in the ways publishers can screw writers (taking all rights forever for $20 royalties, say; or getting writers to pay for things the publisher usually paid for), I didn't see the reason to go that route. I didn't need the validation of saying I was published-- I already had that.

Well, so then we arrive at the teens, or almost, and wow. The hardware has finally caught up with the software, and we have both dedicated readers (the Kindle, the Nook) which are not just plausible substitutes for print books, but in some ways better. (I stopped being nostalgic about "the feel of a real book" when I got a Kindle and found it was lighter and thinner than the littlest paperback... great on the wrists.) Most of the hassles of "publishing" which the publisher used to do can now be done by the author ("publishing" might take an hour of my time, and the cover I can hire out for not too much, and it's not like most NYC publishers ever did the slightest amount of promo for a silt-sucker like me). And far from boasting about a probably mythical financial windfall, writers who have chosen this "direct publishing" tend to downplay what turn out often to be (to me) impressive royalties, most of which they get to keep to themselves and not share with publishers and agents who take on ownership in a weird way not only of the work but the career.  

Okay, so I'm going to do it, but I'm doing it with a far greater understanding of what it all means, and a confidence that comes from succeeding, however minimally when it comes to the moolah part, the old-fashioned way.  That old credential liberates me to feel that I really don't have to prove myself, you know? And that feels good.

But now I'm thinking of other, intangible and perhaps inchoate benefits to going directly to the reader and bypassing those gatekeepers (editors and agents) who frequently responded to me with gratifying recognitions of my skill but disappointing (and perhaps, for the time, actually realistic) reads of the reading market.  I don't need to worry about them anymore. Sure, if someone wants to offer me a $100K advance-- but you know what? They don't. Traditional publishing has gone in a new direction, one I think of as misguided, but presumably they have reasons they don't need to share with me.

So some benefits:
1) The medium actually doesn't have to be the message so much anymore. That is, when we decided we wanted to be traditionally published, there were two major possible "media"-- hardcover and softcover. Benefits to each, but limitations too. I remember being told that a book of mine which to me just screamed "hardcover" would probably never be published because it actually was hard-coverish, but few publishers would waste a hardcover slot on someone no one had ever heard of, especially someone writing a conventional (if good) story. And it just wasn't a mass-market paperback story, and the fact that I knew that, that I'd absorbed the difference, made it clear... to some extent, my understanding of the media, the forms of delivery and what stories were best delivered that way, and the publishers' reluctance to break that "contract", limited how I wrote, or at least how I published. Now, really, there's a lot more flexibility, partly because the electronic medium is as flexible as the Web itself (I don't actually see a lot of reason to do print in direct publishing, btw, unless it isn't the focus and can be done very cheaply, which it sort of can now). I don't have to mold my books to 'hardcover" or "paperback" expectations, or limit publication because of that.

2) The medium isn't a straitjacket either. Back in the old days, they'd print a few hundred thousand copies (well, never close for me-- tens of thousands, however, yes) in one printing, and if somehow "Napoleon" was misspelled 210 times, or you (or, uh, me) didn't do sufficient ornithology research (back then, children, even Eric Schmidt hadn't imagined Google-- we had to go to the library -- the actual physical library! -- and look these things up in books! And you know what? You don't know what you don't know, and maybe some of us didn't know even what to look up about birds!) to know that certain birds are native only to certain continents. Who knew, huh?  Anyway, if you happened to put hummingbirds in England and nightingales in Louisiana, you were sure to locate a few dozen birdwatchers who could overlook the depth of your characterization and the suppleness of your prose and focus on the all-important "native" issue. (Ha, ha, before the internet, they were reduced to bitching about you in their birdwatching groups and writing you heated letters with painstakingly copied encyclopedia entries. Now they'd give you a 1-star review on Amazon and you'd feel lousy THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, not that I'm speaking of any particular author's experience, you know.)
Contrast that with what can happen with direct publication. So there you are, Innocent Author, absurdly assuming that no one is perfect, except you when it comes to your mysterious alchemy with sexual tension and delicacy of subtext. And you get this email from a birdwatcher, who points out that-- who knew? Well, apparently every birdwatcher in the known world-- that there were no hummingbirds in the old world nor nightingales in the new (I love the designations "new and old world," btw, though I suspect they will and probably pass from the earth soon, since probably all the continents qualify as "old" these days).  NOW you don't have to die a little death every time you see the cover of your Sussex-set romp with that merry bitty pretty little hummingbird!  Because there aren't 200K (I wish) copies of your book on shelves everywhere, testifying forever to your ornithological idiocy!  There's only one file, or maybe a couple (you know, Kindle, Smashwords, wherever you're doing your POD printing...), and you can grab them back and FIX them, changing that hummingbird to a bumble bee. (Smilar sizes, hey, wait, let me make sure there were bumble bees in the old world.....YES!! You know, some people are happy that there are so many cancer cures now, but I smile, knowing there's Google. I love Google. I know, Borg, infodump McDonalds, all that. But... but... it works JUST the way my mind works, and it's good to me in ways no one has ever been. It loves me, and I love it. We're soulmates.) You can even instead of sullenly thanking the birdwatcher, enthusiastically thank the birdwatcher, and tell her that you've changed the acknowledgments page to acknowledge her help, and maybe she can tell everyone in her birdwatching group.  Everything is eternal on the web, but everything can be easily fixed too.

3) I think the wheat is usually (not always) separated from the chaff. There's a lot of bad stuff out there, but the quality stuff generally has a way of being recognized and promoted, and with the almost eternal publication period (compared with maybe a month, if that, on the shelves even now with the old model), there's plenty of time for word of mouth to build you an audience, and for one book to lead your readers to other books of yours. I remember that no publisher of mine ever (I think?) went to a second printing of any book of mine-- there was the bare month on the shelves, and then the dread and soul-destroying grabbing and stripping. No matter what happened to the book, how well-received it was, how well-reviewed, that was it, the one chance.  A couple of my books won major awards, and I couldn't capitalize on them because the publisher had little interest in re-issuing the books, and I write so slow that it wasn't worth it to them to use the award to push another book. NOW, well.  There's a long, long, long tail.  A book that sells virtually nothing for months after publication can be there (because I'm in charge, and I'll keep it there, damnit) for a long time, long enough for readers of my other books to mosey on over and decide they have to-- have to or they'll just DIE -- read every book I wrote.... and every book will sell every other book, if I'm good enough and wait long enough. (I hope.)

My model here is fan-fiction, about which I wrote a long academic paper that no one ever has said anything nice about, so it's probably really boring and stupid, but I totally loved. (I always totally love every word I write until I get a single bad review on Amazon, and then I hate myself, all my work, my stupid mismatched ears and my relentlessly mediocre mind and my life too, and my parents because they brought me into this world, and my friends because they should have warned me that I'm an idiot and should work at some anonymous job and never go out into public and I'm scum, scum, and those NYC publishers were RIGHT never to re-issue my books because the books were really stupid and so am I... okay, really, if after that, you can post a bad review of any book of mine on Amazon, all I can say is, you are really, really, really sadistic, and might want to rejigger your moral compass, you sociopath.)
Where was I?  Oh! Fanfiction. There's a whole lot of fanfiction, and there's no commercial market for it so no "vetting" from any "gatekeeper". Instead, there's evolved all sorts of ways -- niche websites like "All about Spike," contests, award sites, recommendations, targeted forums-- where you can find out where the best "Spike/Xander amnesia baby fic" stories are, and the writers generally accepted as the best in any "niche". You go on livejournal (where a lot of Buffy readers hang out) and ask, "I love fics where Buffy learns that Spike's still alive and that Andrew knew it and she wants to kill him and Spike too, but Spike not until she's kissed him a few dozen times... any recs?" and you'll get considered and thoughtful recommendations, usually with live links.

The same is going to happen with, say, Kindle, plus there are all the Amazon tools, the reviews (the negative ones of which are sometimes entirely soul-destroying and besides will come back to haunt the bad reviewers some day if they have even the slightest vestige of conscience, which, to be sure, they probably don't, being ruthless, heartless sociopaths... oh. Sorry. Back to our regularly scheduled perfectly calm and reasoned analysis) (I actually think bad reviews are important in establishing the credibility of reviews as a decision-aider, but .. well. Soul-destroying nonetheless), the "Customers who bought X also bought Y" algorithm, the keywords, all that stuff I don't yet know about except for reviews.  Instead of one person-- some editor or agent-- deciding whether your book is worthy of sharing with the world, there is a true democracy of access... and an actual means for readers to make plausible judgments of whether they might like your book.

4) Niche is all, and you as an author can have more than one niche. Finally, and at long last, this is what I was really thinking about.  Because the ease is high and the expense is low, the writer can write whatever she wants to write. And that's amazingly liberating. Yeah, maybe no one will want to read it. But this is the internet.  There are probably a few thousand readers who have been longing for a romantic thriller about a medieval knifemaker (hi, Jenny's Peter, not that you're medieval or anything). In fact, there might be some readers who will read ANY novel that's about knifemakers, and they will like some more than others, especially ours, which is not just meticulously researched (or quickly fixed if not) but also uproariously funny, beautifully written, and subtly insightful in its understanding of the psychology of the knifemaker (now see, THAT'S how you write an Amazon review! And click that 5 stars while you're at it).  You can actually write what you want, and trust that you can find a market, rather than write to a generic market ("historical romance readers," you know, like they all want the same thing). Maybe there's no market for it, or maybe you can't reach it, or maybe you'll offend some influential member of the knifemaking community by, I don't know, what is a controversy in knifemaking? By presenting oak as a better hilt material than teak? I don't know. Something controversial. In Buffy fanfiction terms (that I know more about), it might be in suggesting that Faith, not Buffy, was the better fighter. I'm sure there's a similar controversy in knifemaker fics. You really never what effect, negative or positive, will come of your many choices as you write.

But now, with direct publishing, no one is going to be able to keep you from trying to find/create/reach the market of potential readers, as for so long the whole system of publication did.  The entire aim has changed, in fact, from "we're going to tell you what you can read" to "you have to find what you want, but what you want is out there." To tell you the truth, while I think the editors and agents often have really good taste and can recognize high-quality stories, they often have little similar confidence about readers, and frequently used to say things like, "I love this, but it will never sell," or "This is exactly what I like best, but readers are now looking for werewolves, not angels, and quality doesn't matter." Quality actually matters to a certain group of readers. Jenny Brown and I were talking about historical romances, and a certain Very High Quality writer (okay, it's Judy Cuevas/Ivory) who is recognized by most "readers for quality" in romance as one of the best romance writers ever. (She's really good... I remember once realizing I was weeping helplessly because some dumb lamb had died, and it was just page 10, and then thinking, Oh, right, this is Judy Cuevas.... surprised it took so long for her to RIP MY HEART OUT this time.) And we know that both of us "read for quality" -- meaning (for us, not necessarily all "readers for quality" want the same qualities) high-level subtextual prose, a particular delicacy in handling emotion, and more historical detail than in most books. And a theme. Theme=important to us.Well, we're in contact, and if we happen to discover a book we know the other will like? We share the recommendation. Duh. And there are some influential readers (not us, so don't bother to woo us with free books and chocolates-- wait! On second thought, we're totally woo-able, woo away). Point is, we do not regard each other as "generic historical romance readers," as might those editors as they decide to send one of those soul-destroying (you think I have only one soul to destroy?) rejection letters about how they love this book but that 'readers' just want Scottish settings these days.

The niches can get both more narrow and more overlapping-- for example, Jenny might know that I prefer a Gloucestershire setting, but that I'll read anything deemed by someone I know to be sensitive to voice in fiction as having a really good voice, yes, even if it's set in WALES!!! (The sacrifices we make, I tell you.) And she might have picked up that I really like (this is SO embarrassing) dumb heroes. Okay, clueless heroes. Naive heroes. The guys who are great and all and handsome (note to all, I might be really accepting of clue-challenged heroes, as long as they have abs of steel and faces like those of  fallen angels, okay?), but who ruefully admit that the minds of women are terra incognita. Now that's the sort of niche ("clueless heroes") that historical romance readers will chuckle at but allow is a recognizable category. Let's just say, traditional publishing didn't have any imprints for 'clueless romantic heroes", but those of you who read historical romances? You know what I mean, and I'm soliciting recs. And I could start a niche list for "clueless hero" books.

5) Direct-to-reader publishing allows for ever more focused niching, as long as the quality of the writing is worthy of recommending to those outside the niche. Start with the assumption that every reader might have a different set of niches, and that these sets are ever-shifting, and that a member of the "locked door murder mystery niche" might also, who knows why, be a member of the "arranged marriage romance" (though you know, notice what's the commonality-- being trapped?) and simultaneously a member of the "any book at all that has recipes in it" and also dabbles (only in secret!) with "books with main characters who own cats." You think I'm kidding? Wait till you hear just a few of my niches (and yes, recs are appreciated, but remember, prose style and meticulous grammar really matter to me)--

  • Amnesia stories
  • Books that are set in theaters, I mean, live theaters where there are actors
  • Mysteries with old lady sleuths (Miss Jane Marple types)
  • Romances about couples that have been married for a long time
  • Novels set in the Midwest and/or Great Lakes-area Canada, particularly the Lake Huron region, any genre
  • Novels about people who work in restaurants
  • Legal thrillers but with protagonists who aren't top lawyers, in fact, I'd love to read one with a paralegal or legal secretary protagonists, in fact, any book with a protagonist who is a really smart secretary- I love really smart secretaries, all those class and gender issues. Miss Moneypenny has long been one of my favorite secondary characters, and I think it's time she got to star in her very own story!
  • Complicated emotions, depth of interaction stories-- I know it when I see it-- all about how people seldom act in their own best interest
  • Art thieves. Really. Any book where art -- only the good art-- is stolen. White Collar is like my dream show.
  • I also love heroines who are trying to make it as artists in a man's world.
  •  Rock star heroes. I attribute this to childhood Beatlemania (and still extant; please don't tell my husband, but if Paul McCartney needed a shoulder to cry on, well, you know, that's why God gave me TWO shoulders, and Paul, if you're reading this, I'm also a pretty good cook. Do you like bread pudding? Trust me. You will. Just in case, I'll put the recipe in my book with a rock star hero and the heroine caterer who cooks for the band).
  • Books with recipes in them. I mean, novels. I also like cookbooks, but novels with recipes more.

Point is, I intersect with others in one niche or another. And each of the members of each niche intersects with other niches. Just sayin'. If I read and love your mystery about the clueless punkrock drummer on the Bruce (Ontario) Peninsula who is trying to win back his secretary wife who finally gave up on him, well, who knows how many readers might eventually hear about your book? But I will be much, much more likely to recommend it to other niches, like the one for books with recipes in them even if you mysteriously neglect to put a recipe in there, if the book is well-crafted and well-written, so that other readers get not only to be impressed by your lovely prose but also maybe experience the new thrill of the rockstar hero who fakes his own death (yes, I think that's the only way he can win Miss Moneypenny back-- she's too sensible otherwise) (and will join my faked-death novel niche).

So I was thinking, one of the really liberating things about direct publishing is, what the hell, why not keep coming back to that weird thing that who knows why, I keep coming back to. Like I keep coming up with great ideas -- different genres, time periods-- that feature a main character faking his/her own death. Why? I don't know! Do I really have to know? I think it's like the wimp's form of suicide, maybe. But-- no kidding. I have three MIPs where the heroine fakes her own death, and another where the hero, who thought he was a widower, finds out that his despised trailer trash wife who ran off with that damned Greek general-- to save him from arrest and maybe execution, had sacrificed her own future for him (just like PRIMAFLORA!!!! See, Primaflora, I love you even if Lady Dunnett didn't), and is maybe still alive somewhere, having perhaps survived that supposed fall from Greek general's yacht.

It's kind of like live theater, this continued circling back to an oft-told tale or constant theme. There's probably a reason for this, some deep psychological issue. You know how it is in live theater, how they perform the same play night after night, and they think that's interesting? Why? Well, it could be because every time, they're getting closer to understanding something, or they're trying out some alternative interpretation (did Hamlet know during his soliloquy that Claudius and Polonius were listening? Maybe tonight I'll play it like he did know, and tomorrow I'll play it like he didn't know! I got that distinction, btw, from Slings and Arrows Season 1-- a great TV show, watch it). Direct publishing might actually reward authors who care so deeply and understand so deeply and explore so deeply about particular themes, they can cover and dis-cover them in several different versions, each differently intriguing.

Granted, it might take a while before faked-death fetishists find each other and start recommending books and even found online book clubs, but if my book features not just a good faked death but also excellent prose and maybe a big sub-genre theme (murder mystery) and some other fetish motif (rock stars?), the faked-death fetishist reader might be emboldened to rec the book to some other reader circle. All this can take some time from publication to taking offdom, and the greatest advantage direct publishing offers over traditional publication may be time. While my old Regency print books had one count 'em one month on the shelves, the re-edited "Author's Edition" offered (whenever I get around to doing the author edit!) will have perhaps years to draw an audience.

So. Point is. Know your niches. Love your niches. Try not to call them, as I just did, "fetishes," especially if you're going to do a Google search and are easily put to the blush. Start a website devoted not to your wonderfulness as a writer, but to the niche, you know,  Start a Facebook group not of your "fans" but "fans of faked-death novels."

That's what I'm going to do. We can be on each other's blogrolls!

Thoughts? Suggestions? And, oh, never forget that what's important about direct publishing, really important, comes to those who figure out what they want, how they define success for themselves in publication, why not to settle for some default definition of success but rather one that will, in fulfillment, truly fulfill the inner writer.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Wanted to foreground this so Adrian would see and rescue me

Adrian (or anyone, but Adrian had the original suggestion), help me here.


I want to use this sentence model in a class I'm teaching, to show the meaning change when something is 'diminished" or "demoted' from an independent ("but") clause to a dependent ("though") clause.

Can you think of a more active pairing than I have? like:

She (verb), but/though her (noun) was (adjective).
She (verb), but/though she (verb).

Muddy brain here (hay fever halcyon).
Maybe "She walked out, but/though her withdrawal was temporary."

Hmm. Still quite static.

She choked, but/though her nausea was shortlived.

She vomited, but/though... no, let's not go there.

She resumed her seat, but/though her posture was tense.

Why am I so PASSIVE????

Help! Is it that the construction I'm looking for just doesn't call for much action?



Another in a series of really picky line editing examples, where-in I supply your possible protests so you don't have to.

Remember the game "Mad-Libs?" In that, you were given a sentence that had a lot of blanks, and you were supposed to supply words that fit the needed part of speech for some part of the sentence, and when the right p-o-s (part of speech) was inserted more or less randomly, you could get a theoretically hilarious sentence like this love letter:

Dear Wendy,

It has come to my air that you are the fastest girl in the hot dog. My ovary starts setting a catapult every time you speak. I would like to resist if you want to go to the operation with me next Tuesday. If you crane, please whimper me at the Andorra in week. I bicker you and everything about you.


The fun of this has always been that even the youngest language speaker can "parse" the absurdity while "hearing" the rightness of the syntax (sentence) order. While this might seem like merely a silly party game for word nerds, my perfectly normal college freshmen classes love playing this, missing utterly my point, which wasn't to Have Fun (heaven forfend).  This exercise is used by linguists to learn when children start internalizing syntax as a giver of meaning. (Hilarity ensues only if you're able to understand that "fastest girl in the hot dog" is the right sentence order and can for a second envision a bunch of female track stars running around in a hot dog.)

Well, I had that discombobulating Madlibs reaction when I read this perfectly syntactical sentence in an article: The security forces scout and secure locations. 

I was wondering why this sentence was so hard to read, and realized that almost every word could be a noun or a verb or something else. That is, most of the words could be a different part of speech than actually called for in the sentence:

"Security" is an adjective for "forces," but could be a noun on its own, like "cops," and
"forces" could be a verb ("compels"), and as I initially assumed "security" was a noun (so here the subject), "forces" became the predicate of the sentence in my preliminary read:

The security (subject) forces (present tense verb) (something to happen or something to do something).

Scout, of course, is most often a noun (the Boy Scout wore his uniform proudly). If I read "security" as a noun and "forces" as the verb, as I initially did, "scout" would seem like the object. It makes sense syntactically (that is, as a noun, the "right" part of speech to be the direct object), but at that moment, the semantics fall apart, because how can it be the security forces "scout" (no capital, so not the heroine Scout of the Harper Lee novel :) to do something? That's the instant I would have to go back and start re-reading, confused by my initial ("security= subject) mistake.

The confusion doesn't stop there, however. "Secure" can be (and usually is) an adjective, especially when used right before an applicable noun. "Locations" is an applicable noun--  "secure locations" is an understandable adjective-noun unit (locations that are secure), and a far more common locution than "to secure (verb meaning make secure of) locations (places)."

So… a syntactically correct (subject-verb- double direct object) sentence, that read as I first did, makes no sense.

Who is at fault here for the misreading? Well, why bother to assign blame? After all, it's not a moral issue. However, whenever there's a mismatch between what the writer meant and what the reader gets, the writer should "feel" that and go back and see if there's any way to make the meaning clear, to use the syntax to clarify, not obfuscate, the meaning.

The problem is, my initial confusion (taking "security" as a noun, not adjective) set off a cascade of other confusions, and I was well launched into my own misreading before I realized my mistake, and the other double-duty words just kept making the sentence ring plausibly in my head (all words were the right parts of speech for their position in the sentence).

What can be done? Well, it might help to diagram the actual meant-sentence. I can't find a site (can anyone?) that lets us do the cool diagramming diagonal lines we used to do on the board, but here is the sentence diagrammed as meant:

S                                  V                                 O
   forces                  |scout and secure             | locations.
 \The  \security

When I'm forced to diagram, I can see what's an adjective not a noun (articles like "the" and "a" are diagrammed as adjectives), and what's a verb not a noun. And I do see that the article (the) which is only used before a noun (and so is understood to introduce a noun) can just as easily "point" to "security" as the subject rather than "security forces" as the subject term. So an article ("the") is no help, as it might ordinarily be, in "announcing" the subject-to-come, especially with "forces" (a perfectly good singular-for-a-group-noun predicate) following.

Let me stop here and say that I bet those trained in the British tradition or who grew up speaking that other dialect "British-English" might have no trouble understanding this sentence. See, the Brits pluralize group nouns – The town council are going to the restaurant after the meeting—while Americans singularize group nouns unless the group is (are, actually) disputing something, so:
The town council is going to the restaurant after the meeting.
(In dispute)
The town council are disagreeing about whether to fire the constable.
So a Brit would see "The security forces" and assume that if "security" is a subject (group noun), "forces" can't be the verb, because as a verb it's singular while as a noun it's plural (someone explain to me why the "s" means singular one way and plural the other, please).  In Brit-speak, "The security" (group noun) would "force" (plural verb), so as soon as Brits got to that point (third word), they would probably quickly shift to the correct meaning simply because they re-jiggered the opening words to make it the subject phrase, achieving the right meaning albeit for the wrong reason.
Americans would still be going merrily along down the wrong path with the putative group subject (The security) properly (that is, Americanly) taking the singular verb (forces). That is, the wrong reading is still quite plausible to an American even after word three.

So let's go back to the beginning. It's a good idea to start with a word which announces that what follows is the subject, and the best ways are the article (which should work, but doesn't, because "security" is a good noun and "forces" is a good verb), or a possessive noun or pronoun which is immediately visible as a possessive (so "his" or "Bailey's").  That at least gets the reader into the mindset (as the article does) that what follows will be the subject:

His (security) (forces)

Trouble is, as you can see, we still might have the problem of "security" read as the subject. So if I were to rewrite this, I might start there, replacing the ambiguous modifier "security" with a "adjective-only" or the full term with something that can be read only as an adjective-noun unit. Also I might get really specific in my choice of possessive, to subtly indicate an "owner" (possessive noun) that can immediately be understood as someone who has a security force. "His" doesn't do that, but "Governor Bailey's" does. (A governor would have guards.)

Governor Bailey's protective detail

See what I did there? Governor Bailey's protective detail can immediately be read (correctly, unambiguously) as the subject phrase. The whole term is taken in one gulp—"subject (noun) phrase".  Why? It's mostly because "protective" can only be an adjective. No ambiguity. Adjectives aren't always as distinctive as most adverbs (most adverbs, as we all know, have the distinctive suffix –ly – "hopefully" or "angrily"), but there are suffixes like –ive which are mostly used with adjectives, and yes, I realize "adjective" is itself a noun (the suffix that would make it an adjective is –ival – adjectival).

That's the point. To be unambiguous, choose a word that "pings" only as an adjective that would be used (like a possessive) before a noun as part of a noun phrase.  No ambiguity here—even if "detail" could be read as a verb (it can be a plural verb—John and Mary detail my car), the "protective" means I've already assumed that the next word will be the noun "protective" modifies. That is, "protective" can't be read as the subject/noun, so "detail" can't be read as the verb.

That's probably enough to launch the reader on the right meaning, so that "scout and secure" will be read as the verbs, and "locations" as the direct object (that which is scouted and secured).  Still, some fixing might be required when we go from "forces" (plural noun) to "detail" (group noun which, remember, is usually treated as singular in American English)—have to go with singular verbs:

Governor Bailey's protective detail scouts and secures locations.

That Amer-English oddity (group noun taking singular verb) actually helps, because that "s" at the end of each verb renders it unlikely to be mistaken for an adjective (secures locations?).

What else might help? Well, "protective detail" could be replaced with a single word subject like "bodyguard" or "bodyguards," I suppose.

Or we could split apart the dual predicate, giving each a separate object. I'm not sure why this would work, except that the use of an object kind of "back-means" that a word is a transitive verb (transitive verbs take direct objects), so you'd get to "scout," see an immediate noun and assume that because it's a direct object, "scout" must be a verb, and then what follows the "and" is probably a second predicate-with-object.

So… hmm… this would require a bit more thought, and might be more than we need if we fix the subject phrase:

Governor Bailey's protective detail scouts places and secures the locations (might add to what purpose, like "to eliminate threats in advance of the visit").

I notice that I automatically placed "the" in front of locations, probably just to reiterate that "secures" can only be a verb (as we wouldn't put an article between an adjective and the noun it modifies). But with a singular verb (secures) that's not necessary, as "secures" can't be an adjective anyway.

Or I might take that dual predicate and reduce the words to participles (-ing words), which would require a single predicate for which the participles might serve as explanations or elaborations. I'm not really sure if this will help, but it makes the ambiguous verbs ("scout and secure" could be a noun and adjective, remember) more clearly "verbals," maybe:

Governor Bailey's protective detail work days in advance, scouting and securing locations.

I can hear the protests now from the sentence writer:
"But that's too complicated."

No, it's not. It was complicated before because the reader might get confused. Now it's simpler. The process the writer must go through to clarify might be complicated, but who ever said making good sentences would be easy, huh?

"That doesn't mean what I meant."
Okay, then make it mean what you meant. You're the one in charge. As the editor, I'm just guessing what you meant. If you make it clear, I won't have to guess.

"It's an ugly sentence."
Oh, come on. The original wasn't Keatsian in its beauty and truth either. This isn't poetry. Make it clear first, then make it beautiful if you want to.

"But what if I meant it to be ambiguous?"
You didn't. You probably didn't realize it was ambiguous until I pointed it out. Writers generally kind of (not always, not entirely) know what they mean, so they're already biased towards one meaning and can't usually see the other possible meanings unless they try, as with the "Rubin's vase/face" optical illusion.

"But I want to be ambiguous!"
Why? Just to justify being ambiguous? Why would you want to be ambiguous in a declarative sentence about what bodyguards do? But if you do want to be ambiguous, as you well might in a sentence unveiling a character's mixed motives or hinting at subtext (which this writer is definitely not trying to do), you happened on a good technique, to use terms which can be read two ways dependent on what syntactical element it's taken to be.
Be ambiguous because you mean to be, not just by accident.

"But you're messing with my voice!"
Someone has to. Lucky you have me! I accept gifts of chocolate as measures of gratitude. Email me for my address and brand  preferences.

I notice I keep using the part of speech term (like "noun") and having to remind myself when to use instead the term for the syntactical element. I'll just define that here in case I didn't fix all those:

A noun will usually take the role of either a subject or an object in a sentence.

A verb will usually take the role of a predicate in a sentence.

An adjective or adverb will usually take the role of a modifier (respectively modifying a noun or verb).

(These are my definitions, not official ones.)

Oh, and:

Syntax—how sentence elements are placed in sentences, the roles different words and phrases take in a sentence, and the interactions between the parts.

Semantics—what a sentence actually means.