Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Going with the flow

There is an old saying in publishing. "Money flows toward the author." This used to describe a pretty clear-cut way to distinguish scam artists from legitimate business partners. If money flowed toward the author, whether as royalties or advances or some other payment form, then the deal was legit. If the author had to pay any money for anything, the deal was questionable at best and a scam at worst.

This bright-line test is a little dimmer in the age of direct publishing, but the basic principle still holds true. As an author, you should get paid for your work. You might have to pay someone else to craft the container (the digital files or physical book), but your piece of the package (the writings inside the container) should still earn you some form of payment. You might have to pay another creative professional to make part of the package, such as the cover art, but this is only fair because they, too, should get paid for their work.

Money flows toward the author whether you publish traditionally or through new methods. Does this mean it's bad to give away promotional copies of your book? No, because that is a form of promotion or marketing, and if done correctly and if luck is on your side, it will result in a flow of money toward the author after the freebies are distributed. That is, PR and marketing efforts are not in the same category as paying someone else to publish your work (vanity presses) or handing over copies of digital files to pirates. If an expenditure now can result in your enrichment down the road, it might be a worthwhile long-term investment. But if someone else will make money on your work now, and you are hoping that leads to money for you later, you're probably playing a sucker's game.

What about this blog? We give away our posts for free, after all. Yes, but we sell other things in other ways, and this blog accomplishes two things: it raises awareness of our expertise, and it allows us to build a network within the community of authors. This leads to other forms of payment, such as private editing work or paid workshops. So this blog is a form of PR, in a sense, even though it probably has a low ROI -- so low that it would be fair to say we do it for fun and an occasional cash bonus. 

In any case, the current climate makes it a little difficult to know when an expenditure makes sense and when it is a scam. Some people take a total-DIY approach to publishing because they are afraid of getting taken by one of the many con artists claiming to act for the benefit of the author. Some people take a "fuck it" approach and distribute everything for free on the theory that pirates will steal it anyway. Neither of these approaches make much sense if you're taking a long view of your career.

Money flows toward the author. But this doesn't mean you can release a shoddy DIY product and expect it to prosper, and it doesn't mean you should spend every waking hour policing pirate sites. Today, it means the same thing it meant yesterday -- you will form business partnerships with people who can help you bring the best possible product to the market. In traditional publishing, those partnerships are formed with agents and publishing companies, who in turn form partnerships on your behalf with distributors and retailers. All of you have the same goal, to maximize the flow of money toward the author. The bigger your flow, the bigger their flow.

In nontraditional publishing, those partnerships are formed on different sets of principles, and for some parts of the product, you will pay flat rates for services instead of paying per-copy shares. Yes, this means money will flow away from you during the production phase.The trade-off is that you retain more control over the final product and you keep a bigger slice of the per-copy pie during the retail phase. With luck and work, money will still flow toward you.

So how do you know if you're getting taken? Where does the money go? Where does the money come from in the first place? For example, there are file-sharing sites where authors voluntarily upload their work for free. In theory, readers then show up, download the files, and leave reviews for other readers. Some authors view these sites as a way to build readership. But where does the money come from if the readers aren't paying any fees? From data mining, most likely, and you're not seeing a share of that revenue stream. So you're giving away your work so that someone else can profit from user data. This seems like a bad arrangement to me.

If you want to give away some of your work, do it in a controlled manner designed to reap long-term benefits. Post a free story on your website, or arrange for freebies through a retailer or review site that can generate paid sales after the free period expires. You might be very eager to build readership, but don't be so eager that you sacrifice your career, enrich strangers, and serve as a warning to others.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Interview about characterization

Vince Gilligan is the creator of Walter White, the biology teacher turned meth chef in Breaking Bad. Here are his interesting thoughts about how he set about characterizing this man and charting the way he changed into a sociopath. I found his discussion of the teddy bear in the pool intriguing-- he started with the image, understood it was a sign from the subconscious, and realized he'd have to figure out where the teddy bear came from. (This is, btw, the same way the event is presented in the episode-- that is, our own experience replicates the creation of the plot thread.)

Has that ever happened to you, when you get an image or idea or snatch of dialogue and have to create a storyline to explain it?


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Show and tell: Character

I'm reading a book that I could describe as the "British Kramer vs. Kramer" because (except for the fact it's broadcasting a tragic ending, you know, "I didn't know then that this was the last time we'd be happy...."-- annoying) it's hit almost every event in the film. Anyway, there's something I'm noticing that reminded me of "concreteness" and how important it is in establishing authority (by the author) and trust (in the reader).

I think (I am not sure, because the author screwed up, if you don't mind my saying so) that the intended theme is something like romance is temporary, but love is forever-- love is better/more than romance. And the way this would be set up as a dialectic, very simplified (usually we start with the -wrong- and show it's wrong):
Thesis: Romance is better than longterm love.
Antithesis: Longterm love is better than romance.
Synthesis: Longterm love has its own type of romance.

 The protagonist in this book gets dumped by his wife (for good reason-- his one-night stand) and then by his new girlfriend, and both say the same thing, "You don't really want love. You just want romance, and that doesn't last, and you're disappointed when it does."

An astute criticism, except that... there's nothing in the events or his actions that suggests that. In fact, he seems to love the whole domesticity experience, the just-being-together aspect of a long relationship, the visits-to-in-laws-and-kids'-birthday-parties as the height of excitement. Even his one-night-stand was mostly the result of getting himself into a situation where it would be embarrassing not to stay the night. His women, in fact, are the total romantics, always proclaiming high-flown desires like, "I want a man who will love me totally and only and never ever look at another woman!" "I want a white knight who will always be there and love me unconditionally and rescue me from peril!"

But they keep saying that his problem is that he wants romance and adventure and excitement, not longterm love. This could be ironic, except it isn't. There's no point in the book where he even says, "Wait a minute.That's not me at all."  So it seems pretty clear that the author had in his head the notion that the protagonist just wants romance, but also had in his head a plot where "a man learns to be a father," and never makes good on the proclamation that the man wants romance above all and must learn to value the quotidian.

It occurs to me that this deeply frustrating reading experience is showing me something about writing. As a reader, I can tell there's a disconnect between what is told and what is shown, between the author's idea of the theme, and the actual theme as played out in the events of the plot. This is a good reason to occasionally try to see your book as a reader would, of course!

Anyway, I was thinking--- if I were the one writing the book and wanted to go with that whole romance/adventure illusion problem, what I'd do is make it clearer in the beginning that the character is acting out of a need for romance. For example, this one-night-stand, which was almost an accident, and immediately regretted and no fun at all, could be set up as much more of a product of romantic longing. Rather than just some gal from work inviting him for a drink, she could be someone who embodies his secret dreams of the ideal woman, that he's been longing for, and her "choosing" him could be not just a chance thing, but the culmination of that secret desire. He could be describing her not really in physical terms but in emotional terms-- dream come true, all that. And then there's the shock of returning home and being found out, and his making excuses about true love and romantic fantasy and such, and in that case, her accusing him of wanting romance over love might ring more true.

Point is, if your theme doesn't match your book, you have to change the theme or change the book. Often this won't require a major change to get the coherence you seek. Sometimes it's just a matter of taking one event that is sticking out like a sore thumb as showing something other than the theme and refining that event to make it develop rather than contradict the theme. In this case, the problem was actually in the setup (act 1, the thesis part of the theme) which didn't show him ever acting out the "romance is best" belief.

What's your book theme, and how are you showing it developing in your scenes?


Friday, July 20, 2012

Chaptering and episoding

I'm getting interested in the evolutionary purpose of chapters, and so this article about the reasons not to "binge-watch" TV shows struck me as relevant.

A chapter or an episode is a unit itself, and there is meaning resulting from the very existence of a beginning and end. The pause for the reader or viewer before the next one starts creates a different experience than we'd have if we had no break at all. There's a moment (or a week, for TV) of contemplation, of recovery, of return to reality. And there's also the choice to plunge back into the fictive world. 

I am guilty myself of exactly what the article author mentioned. I watched all of S4 of Breaking Bad the other night when I couldn't sleep. And I remember very little of it. It was like eating a meal in twenty minutes. It all tasted good when I was stuffing it in my mouth, but the appetizer and the entree and the dessert are all jumbled up in my memory (and stomach).

I'm thinking about this because I was noticing how common it's become in books for a chapter to start on the same page the last chapter ended (I mean, no page break between chapters). This is especially weird in ebooks, where paper costs are not relevant.  I realize I like that little break, and am not sure why it's been determined to be expendable.

I remember a friend told me that she never put in chapters in the first draft. I do-- I just "know" when it's time for a new chapter.
Kerouac's On the Road manuscript is on display, btw, at my local art museum. It was typed on one long roll of paper. (Pay no attention to the donor of this interesting exhibit, who will always be known in our town as The &^$% Who Released Peyton Manning.)

Anyway,  I'm wondering how you know when you're writing that it's time to start a new chapter. Scenes are organically determined-- one time, one place, more or less, and they end when they end. But chapter divisions are somewhat arbitrary. A chapter might be three scenes or two or one, depending. Depending on what? What decides for you where to start a new chapter?


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sneaky danglers

Apologies for the grotesque nature of this example. I was too appalled to find such an error in a major newspaper to realize how offensive the subject matter was--
The body was found beneath a pile of bedsheets in an advanced state of decay, the court heard, inside a bedroom full of house flies that had also been sealed with tape.

What was sealed with tape? The house flies? No. The bedroom!

Dangling modifiers can be sneaky. Here's one that is a whole clause (that had been....) which has been misplaced. Relative clauses (that/which and verb-- relative clauses are adjectival usually, that is, they explain or amplify a noun) are easily misplaced. They should be adjacent to the noun they modify, and not adjacent to any other noun. 

I think we need to train ourselves to "listen" for mistakes like this.
I'm not sure how to fix that sentence. How would you revise it to get rid of that dangler?


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why you need to be the smartest person on your team

This appears to be my week to cast a critical eye over the work of others in my field. This time, I was shown some advice given to a writer, and if you know anything about my attitude toward semicolons and present participial phrases, you will understand why this left me weeping in a dark room with smelling salts. Oh, the humanity!

I'm going to change the example to protect the innocent (and the guilty, but that's just a side effect). Here's the advice, in a nutshell.

Semi-Colons join clauses of equal weight. For example a semi-colon can form a compound sentence when used in place of a conjunction:

She wanted to chop down the dead oak and plant vegetables in that corner of the yard.

Changes to,

She wanted to chop down the dead oak; planting vegetables in that corner of the yard.

Okay, breaking it down. Yes, semicolons can be used to conjoin independent clauses, and when we use them that way, they replace the conjunction. That much is correct. But it's a grammar error to use them "to form compounds" in the way described by these sample sentences. This may have been considered acceptable semicolon use centuries ago, but it has not been the rule in living memory. So, barring certain exceptions involving historical writings, we would never do this today.

Yes, you need to work with an editor to make sure your work is as good as it can be. And it's likely you'll learn new things from your editor. Ditto critique partners, agents, and anyone else who is a member of your team. But you have to know your craft well enough to be able to spot their errors, too.

I was going to break down the sample sentences to explain why these are making me twitchy, but in keeping with the theme of this post, maybe you should do it. There are two glaring problems with the revised sample sentence. Post them in the comments!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Leona speaks!

Longtime commenter Leona Bushman has her debut novel out! We asked her to guestblog about her motivations and process towards publication.

Thank you, Alicia and Theresa, for  your irreverent grammar blog and allowing me to guest post today.
Hello, everyone. I know some of you from the last few years, but not all of you. Feel free to introduce yourself in the comments.
I'm excited to be giving away a copy of my paranormal romance, The Ulfric's Mate. Details to be revealed at some point during my rambling.
I'm going to tell you my story, starting at the beginning of when the writing itch became something I scratched. I had cancer. Took years for them to figure it out, but we'll leave that. I had two surgeries at the end of 2007. One to get the huge lump growing and cutting off my airway, the second, because that lump proved to be cancer. I also lost my job within two weeks of that, not related-- my boss just retired.
During the follow-up radiation, where I took a pill and had to be in isolation for a week so my little ones didn't start glowing green, I had time to think. Silly me, I'd thought a week alone in my craft room—with no responsibilities—would be a picnic. No. The radiation just tears your body apart, and I was too drained to do anything but drink my water, sleep, and think. What did I think about?
Writing, art, kids.
What did I want to do with the rest of my life? Spend more time with my kids, paint, and write.
As soon as I was able to be out amongst people again, I began looking up agents. I sent a letter, a seriously bad one, that I now know probably gave the agent weeks of laughter. However, she was kind. She told me to look up queries (I hadn't even known that much!!) and to learn what they were and how to do them.
Over the next year, I had a holy-cow-how-did-this-happen- baby, lost my car, lost my house, lost everything, except my children. I worked odd jobs for money, but through it all, I kept writing. Three novels that first year, all with at least 50k.
Then, I found Edittorrent.
True, I'd taken college-level English in high school, then college classes, but with that thyroid cancer, preceded by seven years of thyroid issues, and the continuing battle to afford my meds, I couldn't remember things I used to know—knew without thinking and doubt.
To give you an idea, I'd read Agatha Christie since I was eleven years old, and all of the sudden I had to work to remember how to spell, how to punctuate, how to do things, I'd taken for granted that I knew. Despair filled me as the struggle to remember simple things became harder. Added to the other things I was losing, I began to wonder if I was crazy or just fooling myself.
From that first letter, I'd had help with my writing career, but Edittorrent saved me when I started to flounder. They made grammar FUN. Jami Gold knows what I mean. But I think my husband has a permanent she's-on-a-grammar-giddy-drunk again eye roll now. I learned so much and had fun in the comments with my fellow readers.
Things have progressed now. I went through long periods of time without internet, and that last baby? Has Down Syndrome. I don't get to read my beloved blogs as I want to, but when I do, this is the place to go!
So, what have I learned on this perilous journey?
1) NEVER EVER EVER GIVE UP~EVER~if it's your dream, read, learn, work to make it happen.
2) Find blogs, writers, etc., who want it as much as you do. Surround yourself with people who'll pick you up when you're discouraged, and be willing, with much caring, love, realness, to return it or pay it forward.
3) LISTEN TO  YOUR VOICE~ I got so caught up in rules, listening to all the bloggers, how-tos etc, that I lost my voice for a while. It (my voice) became sterile.
Don't get me wrong, you need input to grow. But learn to listen to your writer's heartbeat. Look up rules for yourself. You can start by bookmarking the wonderful stuff available in edittorrent archives.
Which leads me to my give-away. This novel has its own history, and only my CP ever saw it before submission. It is the one published. I made it through the fire. I found my voice.
Here's the blurb:  Nolan and Alexandria fight their sexual attraction, but can't deny the pull of being mates, despite a serial murder investigation. Nolan Littlebull is the alpha of the Wahpawhat pack of Werewolves and the lead detective on a series of murders of pregnant women from his pack. Torn between human justice and were justice, he travels deep onto the Yakama Reservation tracking the ones responsible. He is attacked by one of the rival pack, only to be defended by another from the rival pack. Alexandria George is the healer for the Lupins. She defends the mysterious wolf in their territory from her pack's bully and escapes with the stranger.
Nolan and Alex face the complications of being mated and together they must find and identify the killer while facing an uncertain future.
It's available here. That's my publisher's link, which also links elsewhere for you to look/purchase.
I will give a copy away to a lucky commenter. Bonus entries for linking, tweeting, blogging, or on your FB this guest post, or the buy link for my book.  Share on twitter-3 points (please either me @L_Bushman or post the time and your twitter handle in the comments). Share on Facebook-3 points (post link to FB page here or on my author page Share on Blog—3 entries (again, post link here or on my author page).Comment here—automatic 1 entry
You have one week from the posting of this guest post. Also, please, please, please, give me an end tally. My math skills are…rusty and I don't like putting the WD40 on.

Also, Alicia and Theresa did not ask me to in any way shape or form, to plug their blog. You're here; I assume you know how awesome they are. They suggested some ideas, including what I've learned and how I got to the point of publishing. This is the result. J

Saturday, July 7, 2012

POV Choices

I've been trying to figure out for some time now how to blog about a book I'm reading without actually identifying the book. I don't want to hurt the author's feelings because I'm convinced the problems in the book are not her fault. I know her editor. I know the kinds of errors her editor routinely fumbles, and I keep thinking that experience will cure these problems -- she's still a new editor, in her defense, and she's still learning her job. Maybe once or twice a year, I will pick up a book this editor worked on just to see if she has figured out how to repair these things I keep spotting. The books are always brimming with unreached potential, and every time I finish one, I swear that the next time I see this editor, I'm going to take her aside and give her a few tips. Not that I'll ever actually do that -- but that is my standard response to one of her projects.

Without getting into too much detail, this is an historical novel with an actual historical event forming the spine of the plot. There have been other historical novels written about these events and people, both from the points of view of the central figures and from a meta-pov of a non-central actor who was impacted by these events. We probably have passed the tipping point of reader interest about this time and these people, and it would be hard to come up with a fresh angle.

But they tried. They chose as the pov character someone who witnessed the key events without actually being involved in them. With this choice, they were stuck with one inescapable fact. The pov character was a very young person when events began to unfold. We'll call the pov character VYP for Very Young Person. How young? Young enough to lack manual dexterity. Young enough to be incapable of basic daily tasks for the time period, such as riding a horse. So young that the meaning of the witnessed events would escape our pov character.

By the way, they chose first person pov, too. This created some difficulties with the plot because, in first person, it's very difficult to insert information not available to the pov character -- and the pov character in this case would have little ability to provide analysis or commentary. Imagine, for example, VYP at a big family party. Where would VYP naturally spend the party? In the company of other children, not at the grown-up's table, right? VYP might notice that certain adults spoke to other adults without being able to supply insight about the implications of those moments. VYP would be naturally more interested that cousin Johnny found a bug than that rich Uncle Frankie gave the family wastrel a loan. This leads to a problem in the text: how to provide the reader with information that would not be available to VYP.

As I see it, they had two workable options.
1 - Hack off the first third of the plot, which occurs when VYP was too young to grasp the events.
2 - Choose a different pov character.

Instead, they made a mistake I've seen over and over in works handled by this editor. They used narrative compression to try to patch the damage. Long passages -- pages and pages, even entire chapters -- summarize years of events in a sort of viewpointless exposition, with occasional dips into actual scene material from VYP's pov. It's like reading a long essay about the political situation interspersed with short bits where a tall person helps VYP get something down from a shelf. Six pages of family interrelations explained, then a half-page about what VYP ate for dinner.Nine pages about a war happening elsewhere, then a page about someone giving VYP a present.

It doesn't work.

The real-time scene material is too trivial, and the exposition is too compressed, too dense with facts, and too dull. And it went on this way for well over 100 pages. Out of curiosity, I checked the book's reviews to see if ordinary readers reacted the same way I did. Sure enough, in many reviews, people complained that they couldn't get into the story and that they were bored. I saw a few that said they did not finish the book.

We talk a lot about using a pov character who has something at stake in the events. In this case, the character did have something at stake (not much, but something), but lacked the maturity to understand that and the ability to convey it to the reader. So it has to be about more than the stakes. You have to choose a character who will serve as a good medium for the story. The reader will experience the events through the prism of this character's pov, and choosing a cracked prism will only distort the experience.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012


I find myself saying, "I"m from the US," instead of, as I'd usually say, "I'm from America." Not sure why. But in reading student history/poli-sci papers, I find that we tend to instinctively use one term or another, depending on the circumstances. What do you think is the distinction?
When would you use "US" or "The United States" and when "America"?


Monday, July 2, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Steal. Yes, Thou.

I can't believe I even have to say this. Our readers are all writers, editors, publishing professionals -- people with an above-average knowledge of copyright and intellectual property laws. I shouldn't have to say what I am about to say, and yet, it must be said.

DO NOT copy posts from this blog and post our material elsewhere. PERIOD.

What we have written here belongs to us, Theresa and Alicia, and to no one else.

There is one among you who has recently copied large portions of several of our posts and cobbled them together into a post of his/her own on a message board (not for the first time, either). There is another one among you who has copied entire posts from this site and posted them on a site selling shitty editing software. You are both in the wrong. It doesn't matter if you add our names or links. You do not have permission to use our writing either in its entirety or as derivative works.

I'm not talking about fair use. I'm not talking about links. Most people who use small snips and links back to our blog are being gracious and kind and make it clear that we are the authors of the words being quoted. You guys, we love.

I'm talking theft and plagiarism. If you're in doubt about whether something constitutes fair use or copyright violation, plagiarism or proper citation, you could always do the honest thing and ASK US for permission. If we want you running around message boards parroting our posts and pretending you wrote them, we will allow it. If we want to be associated with your shitty editing software, we will allow it. The fact that you neither asked permission nor properly attributed our work shows us that you know what our answers would be.

Stop doing it. Now. We've been generous, I think, about sharing our knowledge and insight and experience. This is not the way to repay that generosity.

Theresa and Her Flaming Sword of Justice

Sheep and lamb, and why they're funny

I'm in England, and kind of astounded by the variety and depth of the comedy here, from the adorably cheeky train conductors who always have a jest as they take your ticket, to the quiz shows and comedy shows and political shows where comedians hold forth. We have some of that in the US, but not nearly as much.

Anyway, I was remembering Robert McKee's observation that English is especially good for comedy, as the history of the language means we have about four words for any thought or object, from the generic (sheep) to the precise (lamb) to the nuanced (mutton, which is the more working class term for sheep meat that's older than lamb, as they couldn't afford lamb). So in English, you could make a play on these terms, or use whichever one is parallel to your actual meaning. For example, there's an insult used in England: "She's mutton dressed as lamb." That is, that woman is pretending to be a girl, or dressing much younger than her actual age. Another "sheep" term that plays on the different terms is "Might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb." That is, if I'm committing a crime and getting caught for it (or committing any offense), I might as well go big rather than little.

That is just one set of terms, and see how many jokes can be created just out of playing with the terminology and the difference between the related words. 
Anyway, I'd just heard the "mutton dressed as lamb" insult (not about me ), and thought how conducive to humor is our absurdly repetitive vocabulary. What other funny lines come out of juxtaposing synonyms? I notice this very much relies on a native speaker's ability to make nuanced distinctions between similar words. Can we be (deliberately) funny in a language other than our mother tongue? Nabokov was funny in English (apparently much funnier than he was in his native language!), because he studied words and wordplay and enjoyed puns. But can you think of other non-native comedians? I bet some grew up bi-lingual, so they could really juxtapose meaning and word.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

New Interview

This Writer's Knowledge Base is kind of a cool resource that one of our readers has created. This month, it includes a short interview with me. Check it out!