Steel Breeze is intense at almost every moment. It’s unpredictable and well written and defies you to put the book down. I cannot recall a thriller in a long time that had me so captivated. Douglas Wynne is the real deal and I’m certain we will be enjoying his books for a long time to come.”
–Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Bram Stoker Award Winning Author of BLACK & ORANGE and BOTTLED ABYSS
There’s been a lot of online debate lately about the benefits of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Some of the best summary of that debate can be found at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, and I’ve followed it with interest but haven’t participated much because most of the time it doesn’t look like a debate so much as a food fight or a shit flinging frenzy in the monkey house. Chuck is a braver pen monkey than I. He doesn’t mind putting on the Hazmat suit and venturing in there on a regular basis.
But I might finally have something to contribute.
A radical idea.
A guiding light.
A pole star by which the intrepid up-and-coming author might steer his or her ship.
It’s great that authors have so many options these days in the digital marketplace, but it can be difficult to navigate the world of publishing and I think most writers will find themselves circling around certain questions as they progress.
Should I self publish? Should I seek an agent? Should I submit to small presses? Should I sign with this particular agent or press? Should I blog? Should I write short stories? Novellas? Should I write this idea or that?
Most of the people arguing about Kindle Direct Publishing vs. Gatekeepers, most of the folks trying to interpret Hugh Howey’s author earnings charts like some kind of ink blot derived from a printout of a photo of Jesus’s face descried in the water stain on the ceiling that is Amazon’s Author Central ratings…they’re framing all of the above questions in relation to the Big Question:
Will I make more money if I do X?
Sure, money is important if you aspire to do something professionally. For me writing is a second job that I put a lot of hours into. Hours away from my family and friends. Hours that could be spent playing guitar or going to the dojo, or watching movies. Of course I want it to pay off in the long run, and it’s starting to.
But I suggest that a better Big Question for writers is:
Will it help me up my game?
Take that as your pole star.
Will writing this book or that book next help me up my game?
Will querying agents who will only look at the first five pages of my novel force me to scrutinize those pages and hone them into razor sharp, mirror polished steel? Hell yes, that’s a trial worth engaging in because it will force you to up your game.
Will clicking PUBLISH on Amazon temper your work in the same fire? Ehhh….
Will working with a great editor who had to earn his job with a publisher push me to up my game? Yes.
Will writing short stories or tweets or blog posts help me to hone my craft and up my game? Only you can answer this for yourself, but asking the question might affect your approach to such endeavors.
Will self-publishing and getting my work in front of people who can critique it in reviews help me to up my game? Maybe.
You have to decide how much of your growth you want to do in public, right?
If you are looking to paying customers to provide the pressure that will turn coal into a diamond, you’re also leaving a public trail of your development. I guess any published author who continues to work at improving their craft is also growing up in front of an audience, but I believe that “gate keepers” are valuable because in the early stages of your career when you don’t have a lot of perspective on your own work, it’s kind of cool that the rejections and critiques are kept between you and an agent or editor who knows better.
I’m aware that bad books do get published by big houses, but I also feel sure that Hugh Howey’s Wool would have been a success no matter how it was published because it’s a damned fine story by a writer who had honed his craft before putting it out there.
If you want to be a pro, you should develop yourself before you sell yourself.
Even in the little choices throughout the day, you can keep asking this question. There’s a place for marketing and for educating yourself about the marketplace, but if you have twenty minutes of reading time available to you on a busy day, you might ask yourself what it’s best spent on. Will reading your Facebook or Twitter feed and related links help you to up your game? How about reading a few pages of a great book?
I have musician friends who practice non-stop to perfect their technique, even when they have no intention of gigging, because mastering music is a heroic quest to them. Others may find that the experience of playing in front of people is something they have to force themselves to do because it develops different skills and helps them to master their nerves under pressure.
I remember my Ear Training teacher at Berklee, an old jazz cat, laying this hard-ass lecture on us:
(Morgan Freeman voice)
“You can go on ahead and make music without practicing. Sure. Go on and do it for the love. But don’t book a gig and subject the general public to your lack of musicianship. Don’t make those poor people paying their hard earned cash for a good time on a Saturday night suffer through your not giving a shit about being in tune. That’s just wrong.”
I know this ain’t Medicine or Law and you don’t need credentials to practice an art, but looking at the writing community, I’m often reminded of the martial arts. My six-year-old has been doing karate for almost a year now, and he’s somewhat motivated by the color of his belt. He’ll also tell you that he knows most of the kicks and punches already. And yeah, he “knows” them, but all of the adult black belts I’ve met will tell you that learning the full range of techniques and proving that you can execute them under pressure is just the beginning. When I took my first black belt test I was told that a black belt is kind of like a Bachelor’s degree. It’s a starting point, a basic competence that says you’re ready to embark on the real work of refining your technique and developing your own unique strengths.
I suggest that more writers should view getting published in those terms. A professional editor, publisher, or agent is a kind of sensei. They’ve seen a lot of red belts who thought they were ready for the tournament get the shit kicked out of them. There’s something to be said for finding a sensei who will push you beyond your comfort zone into a new range where you don’t know if you can meet the challenge. There’s something to be said for the day when your sensei tells you you’re ready to go out there and do it for real, and that it doesn’t mean you’re perfect or finished. Because it’s never time to rest on the laurels of your belt color, or your publishing contract, or your audience. It’s just time to keep working.
Keep asking: Will this help me level up? Will this choice challenge and refine me? Is it for my ego or for my craft?
On Sunday night, after browsing for a good horror movie on Netflix and Amazon, I took a chance on Absentia, and I’m glad I did. This indie film does a lot to combine creepy suspense with a few good jolts, using little more than an apartment, a tunnel, good acting and great writing.
The story centers on a pair of estranged sisters who reunite after the younger, Callie, gets out of rehab and moves in with Tricia, who is single and expecting a baby. Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years. She has finally given up on finding him, and is in the process of filing for a certificate of “Death in Absentia.”
The backstory and relationships are efficiently established through dialog and visual cues, along with subtleties of the acting, and it doesn’t take long to be drawn into caring about the characters. The first scares come early too. The missing husband haunts Tricia, and there’s some great tension generated by the psychological aspect of what she’s going through. These are sophisticated characters who would be at home in an indie drama, so it becomes unnerving to watch them grasping at the straws of rational explanations when the weirdness escalates. Tricia has good reason to wonder if her mind is playing tricks on her, burdened as she is with guilt and conflicted about letting go of her lost husband, while Callie’s personal baggage comes packed with the questionable perceptions of an addict.
Much of the POV is through Callie’s eyes, and I’m eager to see what actress Katie Parker does next. Her girl-next-door good looks never undermine her emotional credibility, so that even in the one scene where she’s looking for monsters in little more than a long t-shirt, she manages to defy expectations and avoid cliché’. No small feat in this sort of film.
Another cool theme was the differing spiritual orientations of the two sisters. Callie has recently found Christianity in recovery, while Tricia is using Buddhist meditation to cope with the stress of her situation. Ultimately, neither watered-down worldview is adequate in the face of primordial evil (never mind the impotence of good old fashioned police work), and I enjoyed being ushered into a corner where terrifying superstition becomes the only sane perspective. An undercurrent of irrational dread drones below the reassurances of the therapist and detective characters, infusing the film with an effective Lovecraftian atmosphere.
At a time when CGI has come so far that directors of blockbusters can show us any monster in vivid detail, this Kickstarter funded horror flick reminded me that in horror, less is often more, and sometimes limits can be sources of power. Writer/Director Mike Flanagan leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. When Absentia does show you something visceral, it’s often fleeting and out of focus, but never lacking significance, so that a little goes a long way. Especially at the end. Which is all I’m gonna say about that, because you should see it for yourself.
H.P. Lovecraft knew how to write a hook. Say what you will about his adjective addiction or his lapses into florid prose; one place where he knew how to get to the point was in an opening line. He may have meandered a bit after getting your attention (and I’d argue that’s part of his charm), but in his pulp fiction heart Lovecraft understood the importance of grabbing you right away to earn your patience, and his stories consistently showcase his mastery of the intriguing opening.
I’m currently writing a novel with a strong Lovecraftian influence, so I’ve been revisiting his body of work, and recently, while discussing hooks with a young writer I’m mentoring, I realized that any horror writer, no matter how modern their style, would do well to look at Lovecraft’s openings for good examples of powerful hooks. Here are my top ten favorites from the gentleman of Providence.
10. THE DUNWICH HORROR
When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.
Subtle and atmospheric but for me the hook is that it’s a WRONG turn. You wouldn’t go there on purpose. And that makes me curious about that curious country.
9. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS
I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.
The reluctant narrator. He doesn’t want to talk about this shit but no one will heed his warnings without an explanation? I’m in. Give up the goods.
May the merciful gods, if indeed there be such, guard those hours when no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep.
Um, dude, are you okay? What’s so bad about falling asleep? Could it be the dreams?
7. THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK
Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge.
Dead body introduced by a rational, journalistic voice that you just know is going to suggest that something far stranger than lightning killed Mr. Blake.
6. THE DESCENDANT
In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring.
And I want to know why.
5. HERBERT WEST – REANIMATOR
Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.
All about dissonant juxtaposition. Why would the memory of a longtime friend become a source of extreme terror?
4. THE CALL OF CTHULHU
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
This one’s a classic. A concise philosophical statement that makes you wonder why connecting the dots and reaching certain conclusions would be so bad that your ignorance is the ultimate mercy.
3. THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS
Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.
What end? And WTF did you see, exactly, if that’s your opening?
I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.
Top that! Hard to do, but I believe the man himself did with…
1. THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP
It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.
Possibly one of the best opening lines in all of horror literature. Within 31 words you know that some heavy shit went down. You want to know why one bullet through the head wasn’t enough. Was emptying the gun enough? And how is he not his friend’s murderer? Put a paradox like that up front with highly specific details and visceral language and promise to resolve it in the story that follows, and you have me eating out of your hand.
What do you think, did I miss any of your favorites? Which of Lovecraft’s opening lines hooked you on his writing?
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first draft of my third novel (a cosmic horror/terrorism thriller mashup) is almost finished. Most days I’m having fun with it. There are a lot of cool elements and crazy scenes that I can’t wait to unleash on readers, but the writing process has also been fraught with uncertainty. I mean, it usually is, but maybe more so for this book. Or maybe I just don’t remember the doubts I had about the other books when I was writing them because by the time they’re finished they make sense and it gets harder to recall the days when they didn’t and the times when I struggled to find the path forward. I’m also working faster than I ever have before because now I have deadlines, so that could have something to do with it.
I’m an intuitive writer, a seat-of-the-pants improviser who does a fair amount of revision. I can’t see what’s at the top of the staircase when I put my foot on the first step. For me, that uncertainty keeps the writing fresh and spontaneous. I never feel like I’m just transcribing some preordained plot. But it also means that I arrive at junctures along the way where it’s hard to put words down because I just have no idea what happens next.
At those times I always ask WWCD? What would this character do? Not what should I make this character do to move the plot from A to B or C to D. What would she do next that is most true to her background, personality, hopes, fears and motivation at this moment based on everything I know about her. If I can write a scene in which the character makes her next move based on those authentic influences, then the story takes a step forward on solid footing. And then I pick another character and ask the same question: WWCD? And this person—ally or antagonist to the main character—comes up to bat with all of their own drives and flaws and tendencies.
If I know my characters well enough, if I know what makes them tick, they will inevitably have experiences that involve tension and conflict, love and hate, victory and defeat just by interacting with each other under the pressures of the premise.
As long as the premise and characters are rich with opposing forces, you don’t need to plot. This is nice because the reader never gets that feeling that the characters are just slot cars propelled around a track that was already laid out before the writer pulled the trigger.
Regarding premise, or situation, it’s a well-worn axiom that speculative fiction is born of the question “What if?” But that question is good for more than just starting a story. I keep it in my front pocket all the way through, and the notes of mine that most resemble an outline are lists of what if, what if, what if… Over and over again through various permutations, most of them rejected if they don’t jive with the internal logic of the story or the integrity of the characters.
Some writers get good results from plotting. Their brains just work differently from mine. I think I might try outlining my next book in advance because for once I know how that one will end. The ending came with the concept and I’ll probably have to build back from it to some extent, but the energy of that story still comes from what I know about the characters.
I think most of us read for the characters. To experience extreme empathy within the safe context of fiction, to vicariously escape into different points of view, to wonder what we would do in someone else’s shoes. So my advice to writers who are trying to find the confidence to start telling a story that they can’t yet see the end or even the middle of is Know Thy Characters. They will show you the way. When you get lost, dig deeper into the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever felt my way through a story as intuitively (blindly) as I’m doing with this one, but I’m pretty sure if I let the characters keep doing what they need to do, everything will fall into place. Soon.
Yesterday was my birthday. It was fun. I went out to dinner with the family and ate cake. It might have also been our puppy’s first birthday. The rescue vet records estimated January 13, so close enough. We put a stupid hat on the poor guy and fed him some ice cream.
For gifts my wife and son made me a really cute bumblebee out of pipe cleaners, my son drew me a giant flag of Gondor because I’ve been reading The Return of the King to him (he’s only six, but hanging on Tolkien’s every word), and my wife gave me a keyboard I really wanted. This here Logitec solar powered beauty that can toggle between my computer, phone, and tablet. Thanks, honey, it rocks!
After lobster alfredo and lemon cake, I also got a royalty statement from JournalStone. I was delighted to see the spreadsheet for what they had already told me to expect: my first novel, The Devil of Echo Lake, has earned out its advance (with a little help from a foreign rights sale and my second book), and this month I’ll see my first royalty check for about $400. Yay!
By coincidence, just a couple of hours before I got the statement, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Facebook when Caitlin R. Kiernan posted a photo to her Live Journal of a royalty check for her novel Threshold, published by Penguin in 2001. Her book also just earned out its advance, and this was the first royalty check she has received for it since it was published twelve years ago.
I don’t think she was bitching about that. It’s a pretty neutral post. You can see it here. But she made the pun that it was a “reality check” to show aspiring writers that the idea of retiring on royalties is delusional for most of us who aren’t Stephen King.
Reality Check. That made me chuckle. But I didn’t worry that she’s been living on Ramen all these years because I also knew she must have been paid a nice advance up front for the book. So nice that it took twelve years for her percentage of sales to exceed that amount and start paying royalties.
But it was a little too easy for readers unfamiliar with the terminology to assume she was saying that $82.28 was all she had ever been paid by her big New York publisher for Threshold. So there was a little brush fire of outrage for a couple of hours. She’s a brilliant writer, and some fans thought she’d been screwed, and a man I greatly admire—the big hearted, fair minded Mike Davis of the Lovecraft eZine—encouraged his legions of followers to subscribe to her newsletter to help her out.
Ms. Kiernan soon reminded everyone that yes, of course she received an advance, and most writers live off advances, not royalties, and most books don’t ever earn out, and that’s publishing. To ever see royalties is considered icing on the cake in traditional publishing.
Which, combined with my own royalty statement, got me thinking about advances and royalties in general, and how misunderstood they often are.
I have at least one author friend who says he doesn’t like advances because they make him feel indebted to the publisher. I get it. Many authors, myself included, can relate to the fear that if their book doesn’t earn back the money the publisher put up to acquire it, then they will have become a liability in the publisher’s eyes, and will have a harder time selling future works to that publisher. Fair enough.
While it’s certainly true that a publisher needs to make back their investment in an author and a profit on top if they’re going to view that author as an asset, it’s a mistake to think that the earned-out advance is the threshold (Kiernan pun, sorry) at which this happens.
Of course the publisher has expenses and investments in a book well beyond just the advance. That’s why they get paid first on sales and take a much bigger slice than the author’s 7 to 10%. But a publisher usually starts seeing a profit on a book long before the author’s royalty percentage adds up to the amount of the advance. Unless it was a big advance and the book performed below expectations. And no author wants to be in that boat, even though they get to keep the money. No one lines up to publish your next book if Publisher’s Marketplace told the world about your million-dollar advance and then the book tanked.
Smart authors want their books to be assets, not liabilities. Smart authors want their publisher to succeed and thrive. And smart publishers know that good work comes from authors who can prioritize writing because it pays them. A balance has to be struck, and in the small press world where I work, that usually means modest advances. The fact that I’m seeing a first royalty check fifteen months after DOEL was published and Kiernan is seeing hers twelve years after Threshold was published tells you that her advance was a LOT bigger than my two grand. Penguin made an investment and it paid off.
Here’s the thing, though: as John Scalzi has pointed out on numerous occasions, the advance = the publisher’s skin in the game. You can tell how much confidence a publisher has in a book, and how many copies they expect to sell by looking at that number.
These days I see a lot of small presses offering great royalty splits with authors, and that’s good, it can make for a solid partnership, but most of those presses don’t pay any advance at all to acquire the work. Writers should remember that no money down means very little risk, and it also means that the publisher doesn’t have to be as discerning about the books they accept.
Think about it. A publisher that fronts a few thousand dollars to buy the rights to a book is going to more carefully weigh the merits of that book and view it as an investment. Whereas a publisher who only offers a royalty split needs only to assess whether or not the author has enough friends, family, and social followers to sell beyond the production costs. It’s a different game. Low risk. Any unexpected success is a bonus.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all small presses only offering a royalty split are bad. The good ones can do a better job of production and promotion than a self-published author, and that’s the bar they have to meet to be seen as valued partners.
By the same token, if a publisher pays one author a $5000 advance, and another author a $500 advance, which book do you think will get priority when it comes time to push new product?
So I don’t think authors need to feel guilty about wanting to see proof of commitment in the form of decent advances, especially at a time when we have so many self-empowering options. Authors should value their own work or no one else will.
As for me, I’ll try to be a bit clearer than CRK: I’m very happy with my publisher. JournalStone has treated my books right, and as my birthday wound down and that statement popped up in my inbox, the icing on the cake tasted pretty sweet.
I went into 47 Ronin wanting to geek out on some samurai action. As a practitioner of Iaido, I like to see sword play done right. I’m also a big fan of fantasy, and based on the trailer, I did expect that element to be strong. Sure, this portrayal of the 47 Ronin is only loosely related to the traditional story, but I’m cool with that. It’s almost a shame that the screen writers tethered their cart to a well known tale, because I think the world could use more fantasy epics adorned with the rich cultural trappings of feudal Japan. A story liberated from the traditional structure entirely might have spread its wings a little more. If The Lord of the Rings can put magic and monsters in a world inspired by a version of Medieval Britain, then why not give the same treatment to the knights and dragons of the East?
Overall I was entertained. The mash up of witchcraft, demon monks, monsters, and the samurai code of honor is a chemistry that mostly works, and the film is beautiful to look at. The costumes are gorgeous*, the sets, cinematography and effects all feel cohesive and immersive, and the pace is brisk. Clocking in at just over two hours, it might have been a little too brisk, because where 47 Ronin falls flat for me is in the acting and character development.
The shape-shifting witch, (the true villain of the story) has some of the coolest effects, and could have been a thrilling character. Her concept and design were great. But I couldn’t take the character seriously, as she was totally undermined by bad casting and weak acting. And Kai, the mysterious half-breed sort-of-central hero played by Keanu Reeves, suffers from a similar lack of depth and development. He feels grafted onto the story as a plot device, a cynical way to give Western audiences a Caucasian to relate to.
The canvas may be 3D, but most of the dialog felt 2D to me. I read in Variety that the lines for the Japanese actors were simplified because they had to read the English phonetically, but at times it feels like they did the same thing for Keanu.
Hiroyuki Sanada makes up for a lot of this in the role of Oishi, arguably the main character, even though you won’t find his face on the posters. I’ve enjoyed his acting in everything I’ve seen him in so far (check out The Twilight Samurai for something more authentic) and he really carries this version of 47 Ronin on his back. The story of his quest for revenge feels like it has some weight. The risk and cost to his family actually resonates, but isn’t given enough time at center stage because we’re distracted by a forbidden love subplot between Kai and the daimyo’s daughter Mika. This love story is an element that ends up lacking that same resonance, in spite of overwrought attempts to invoke passion simply by viewing the relationship through a lens tinted with the beauty and poetry of old Japan.
Forgive my harping on the comparison, but if the Hobbit movies are too long (and I think they are, much as I loved the LOTR trilogy) then 47 Ronin may well be too short. Other unfulfilled potentials included the story of how Kai trains and acquires his sword skills on the Dutch island of Djema where we get a brief look at a cool character tattooed with a skull face. Unfortunately, this guy is just another element that teases us in the poster and trailer, but gets little screen time.
After reading the awesome novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell, I was hungry to see more of Djema, and hoping that the filmmakers might exploit the potential for bringing out some of Kai’s backstory there, or at least digging into the rich juxtaposition of cultures offered by the Dutch island, but no. Didn’t happen. By the way, if you want a story that blends samurai culture and Japanese history with subtle sorcery, do yourself a favor and read that book. It does a much better job in the romance department as well.
By the end of the film Kai’s character is as much of an enigma as when we first met him crashing out of the forest with claw scars on his head. An unsatisfying journey to be sure. But I do have to give the filmmakers some credit for keeping to the traditional ending, and guaranteeing that there won’t be a sequel.
*Beautiful as some of the clothes and armor were, they did lack the feel of things broken in by use. For a close up look at some authentic samurai armor, here’s a gallery of photos my wife took at the Samurai Arms and Armor exhibit at the Boston MFA earlier this year.
Issue #27 of the Lovecraft eZine is now up in podcast format. It’s a great issue, and you can hear my reading of William Meikle’s short story, “A Knight in the Lonesome October.” What a fun story. I’m looking forward to recording more of these in 2014. Here’s the link to download the audio.