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Musings

Debut Analysis for Aspiring Writers

After two and a half years of following reviews, I’ve developed a few ideas about today’s publishing scene and I thought I’d share them with you. This is going to be fantasy and science fiction-centric, because I haven’t been following the debuts of other genres long enough to come to any conclusions. I do think the gist of what I’m trying to say will cross genres.

Also, please bear in mind that I’m no expert. These are simply the conclusions I’ve come to that govern the ideas I choose to pursue as a writer. If you think I’m dead wrong, please say so in the comments. I am willing to be convinced.

1) Write something entirely new. You can’t write about elves anymore. Elves were popular during the Tolkein revival of the 80s. When they started to become overdone, we saw the pseudo-elves of the 90s: the lyra, the eika, the other. Call ’em anything but elves. We all knew they were really elves, and we all winked and nodded.

You can’t get away with that anymore. Writers from the 80s can still write their elf stories. Writers from the 90s can still write their pseudo-elf stories. You have to come up with something new. A few of you might get away with spoofs or twists, as Lisa Shearin and Jim Hines did with elves and goblins, but it has to be both new and fabulous.

Aspire to do with Tolkein did with elves, and what Anne Rice did with vampires. Invent a new genre!

2) If you don’t want to come up with something entirely new, ride the wave of a trend. However, you need to be near the crest of that wave in order to succeed. For example, vampires have been popular, and they continue to be popular with established authors. However, there are fewer and fewer debut vampire novels coming out. It’s all zombies these days.

You also have to be quick to ride that wave. Early last year, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out and became a bestseller. They’re even making a movie of it. Nowadays, other zombie books are popping up, but those were the lucky authors, the ones who happened to have zombie works already in the making. Deborah Blake tells me that she recently heard at a convention that agents are interested in zombie romance. If you happen to have a zombie romance lying around, now is the time to get it in front of an agent.

One thing you can do is see what’s popular at the movies, and then write fast. If you go to a popular movie and get inspired, get it done yesterday, and get it submitted. And be aware that lots of other people will be inspired as well. If the movie is the start of a trilogy, all the better. Your novel, assuming it is published, will come out at the end of the trilogy and you can ride success all the way to shore (assuming the movie sequels don’t bomb). A year after the last Pirates of the Caribbean came out, I saw a handful of shipboard fantasy debuts. But I’m already not seeing them anymore. The authors who jumped on this wave now get to ride it.

3) If you’re not quick, find a rising tide instead. The elf fantasies of the 80s were part of a tide. They endured for years and years before people started talking about “cookie cutter fantasies.” That’s when we started seeing pseudo-elves. Now, the phrase is starting to be “cookie cutter urban fantasies”. Expect pseudo-vampires in the near future. Heck, they’re already out there.

The problem is, telling the difference between a wave and a tide can be difficult. We have no moon of popular culture to guide us. If you wait and see, the wave might crash on the shore.

The big exception I’ve seen to all this is in novels written for children. I still see Young Adult and Middle Grade elf stories, and everyone knows how popular YA vampire romances are becoming. In my observation, YA tends to follow adult stories, and MG follows YA. Because of YA and MG, we get to constantly expose a new audience to the popular waves of yesteryear. They read Lord of the Rings and want to read more elf stories. They read Twilight and want to read more vampire stories.

What have I done to follow my own advice? Well my own 80s-inspired elf story is now trunked. I have considered retooling it for MG (actually it would be an entirely new novel), but I just haven’t been inspired enough to contemplate it. I spent too many years on it as it is.

I also have an epic fantasy that doesn’t go anywhere near elves. Instead, I deal with a pantheon of gods and, my protagonist is dark-skinned. Plus, it takes place in ancient times, rather than medieval. I’m hoping gods in fantasy aren’t a tide that has already passed.

Plus, I have a Jane Austen fantasy. There aren’t any zombies in it; it’s a spy novel. Jane Austen has been a tide in recent years, and I’m obviously hoping that continues. The Pride and Predudice and Zombies movie will probably help Jane Austen fantasies, unless it plunges the entire genre into a parody.

And while I continue to submit those, I’m working on something entirely new. I’ve taken the concept of time travel and have given it my own little twist. I’m hoping recent time travel historical successes (including The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is on my to-read list) makes my novel viable. And I’m hoping my twist is as cool as I think it is.

So what do you think? Am I dead wrong? Am I attempting to read tea leaves? Was this topic really worth a thousand words? Did I take my oceanic metaphors too far? Please share in the comments.

On Negative Reviews

There was a bit of a controversy going on last week wherein an author mentioned his favorite quality in reviewers. And no, it wasn’t writing good reviews for him! His name is Mark Charan Newton (Yowza he’s young! Born in 1981! And what a cutie!), and he wrote a post entitled, What Makes a Good Book Blogger (From a Writer’s Point of View). Here’s point six:

6) You can’t love every novel. Loving everything diminishes the power of what you say. There is no way of possibly knowing what is good or bad if you recommend everything. Do not feel pressured to do so by publishers – remember, by reviewing, you’re doing them a favour. And if as a writer I come across your review of my book, I’m not likely to think a lot of it if you’ve loved every single book out there. We’re egoists! We want to feel special.

Another reviewer, Mark Chitty, responded, “. . . as a blogger myself, if I’m not enjoying a book I just put it down and pick up the next. I’m doing it because I love reading – but I love reading books I enjoy and that usually means my reviews are, more often than not, positive.”

I’m the same way, except I’ll usually offer the novel to Superwench or Raven (I also have a guest reviewer coming up, just as soon as I can mail her the book.) If they don’t want it, I’ll offer it to Kat of FantasyLiterature, who lives just down the road. If they don’t want it, well, maybe the library will.

So, that’s why my reviews are mostly positive. These are the books that made the cut. Sometimes, when I’m on a real train wreck of a book, I’ll continue reading just to see if it gets any better. But most of the time, I’m just not interested enough.

Do you think I should blog on unfinished books? I have not up to this point, mostly because of Amanda Ashby‘s You Had Me At Halo. If I had set that book down in the opening chapters, I likely would have written a “what the heck is this” kind of did-not-finish review. Since I wanted to see why other reviewers thought it was so special, I kept reading. And low and behold, it ended up my favorite book of 2007. However, if you want to know about the chaff, I’ll consider blogging on those as well. Maybe I can do a monthly round-up. So let me know!

How Acting Makes Better Writers

Posted by Superwench83

With so many writers here at Debuts and Reviews, and with the popularity which Writer Wednesday enjoys, I thought writing would be a good topic for my first non-review post. I can’t promise I’ll be as wonderful a guest as Justin Allen and the other authors who’ve joined the writing discussions in the past, but I’ll give it my best. And I hope that even if I’m not the world’s most fascinating guest, I’ll at least be mildly entertaining.

As many of you know, I am a writer. But you probably didn’t know that I’m an actress as well. I’m a serious hobbyist, you might say; I don’t usually get paid for my acting, but I do a lot of it. And one of the best things about acting is that it constantly teaches me how to be a better writer. Acting and fiction writing have so much in common. They’re both about character. Yes, there are other things involved, but when you strip them both to their essence, you’re left with character.

The first writing book I ever had summed up the similarites well. It said that when you’re acting, you have to get in your character’s head, while with writing, you have to be in every characters’ head. “So you’re head-hopping all the time.” It follows that one can help you with the other.

Being a serious actor, like being a serious writer, requires you to look deeply into your character and discover what makes him tick, what makes him unique, and what makes him a character to remember. But acting requires you to look at your character in a different way than many writers do. With acting, all your character’s emotions and thoughts must be demonstrated visually and audibly. There is no narrator filling in the gaps. You must walk, talk, think, move, breathe like you are the character because you have no other way to communicate that character to the audience. Have you ever done that with your written characters? Sure, we think about the way they move and talk. We get into their heads. But we generally don’t get into their bodies. We don’t physically become that character, don’t practice walking and moving the way they do. In fact, it sounds kind of strange to do that.

Yet you would be amazed at how much deeper your connection to a character is when you evaluate her with an actor’s eyes. You’ll learn things about your character which you never knew. The act of moving like your character will bring on a slew of new ways to describe the way she moves. It will open up doors that take you to the very essence of your character.

It’s the old principle of “Write what you know.” I know some writers consider these dirty words, btu they hold some truth. You can’t make a character convincing unless you know him. And thinking about your character with an actor’s perspective lets you know him on two levels instead of one. I know not everyone is going to go out and role-play as their characters, but the simple act of being more aware of your characters’ bodies and pretending that you’re in their skin brings out so many facets of character which might not come to you otherwise. Acting has always given me a fresh perspective on the writing process, and I’ve no doubt it will continue to do so. With each show I’m in, I get new inspiration.

It’s always good to look for outside inspiration for your writng craft. I love hearing what writers do aside from write–their jobs and hobbies–and see if I find a reflection of it in their work. I’m sure there are tons of ways for writers to find writing wisdom in the non-writing world. So what about you? How have your jobs or hobbies made you better writers?

Harlequin's Self-Publishing Venture – A Blog Surfer's Journal

I first caught wind of Harlequin’s new self-publishing venture at agent Kristen Nelson’s blog, where I posted a rare comment. Then today, while monitoring the Twitterverse, I noticed that Ann Aguirre was up to something unusual, so when I got home, I checked out her Twitter stream, which led me to this letter from the Romance Writers of America, taking a tough approach with Harlequin. I went back to Kristen Nelson’s site, where I noticed that she had already put up another post with the same letter from Ann Aguirre’s site, along with her reaction.

Thirsting for more knowledge, I turned to GalleyCat. It had a tidbit on Victoria Strauss comparing Harlequin’s self publishing venture to West Bow Press, so I headed there, but it really wasn’t what I was looking for.

However, it had a linkstravaganza upon the subject, so I found myself following a link to Dear Author that summarizes many of the arguments that authors have against this venture. They also have a response from Harlequin.

And since blog surfing can take you in unexpected directions, I just had to follow this post, also on Dear Author’s site, about Angela James’s becoming the editor of Carina Press, Harlequin’s new e-publishing venture, which I am planning to submit to quite soon. Side trip over.

Once I exhausted the Dear Author links (phew! those girls keep busy), I went to my Google Reader to see if anyone posted any more updates. Nope. So I probably have to wait until tomorrow for more reaction.

My take away? Publishing is changing. Rapidly. Self-publishing is losing its stigma as more and more of us know people who we respect who self-publish. And just today, Nathan Bransford said on his blog that “. . . it’s never been more difficult to find a traditional publisher.”

Never. Been. More. Difficult.

I know this from experience. Right now I’m sort of hunkering down and writing my way through this recession, casting out query letters every now and then for one of my existing novels, and re-polishing up the other. I’m hoping when all these changes stop, and when the economy improves, I’ll know what to do with the novel (number 4!) that I hope will be finished by then.

Is self-publishing tempting? Sure. But those publishing packages are expensive — prohibitively so for me. For those of you looking to self-publish, I’d say to examine your novel very closely before you do so. Make sure your book has the enthusiastic support of relative strangers — people who aren’t close to you and who will be honest. But most of all, be willing to write another novel. If you can write one, you can write another. And your second novel is likely to be worlds better than your first.

Because — and here’s the brutal part — it’s damned hard to convince a reviewer to read your novel. I’m one of the more friendly reviewers for self-publishers out there, and even I require a first chapter first. Why? Because many times, the novel doesn’t seem as ready as those published by debut mainstream writers. The first page tells me if you have basic command of grammar and style. If you have that, I keep reading, looking for other things. Is the writing overwrought? This happens often, as the writer tries to use strong language, and often ends up using too many adverbs and adjectives. Does the dialog flow? One of the reasons I read What Happened to the Indians is the dialog in the opening chapters was very well done. In my review, I said, “Mr. Shannon had three marks of a proficient writer. He had a compelling hook. He could handle dialog. And he could write.”

Like I said, the publishing world is changing. Publishers are experimenting. Sooner or later, something will catch on. In the meantime, I’ll just keep reading and scribbling, and keeping my eye on the publishing blogs, constantly hungry for the latest news.

One Month Self-Assessment

Well, I’ve been blogging here for a month now, and so far I am delighted. I love having my own domain, and I love how much more robust the WordPress blogging platform is.

Things I haven’t done:

  • Gotten the danged header to say “Debuts & Reviews” so I can get it off my sidebar. Someone even sent me a helpful hint. I just haven’t taken the time to get it done.
  • Found a decent Archives widget. Any suggestions? The built-in one really sucks, to use a crude term.
  • Attracted all my old Google Friends to this Google Friend Connect widget. Having trouble getting some momentum there, but I’m please with my Feedburner growth, so I can’t complain.
  • Tracked down more debuts. I just set up some weekly Google alerts that might help there. I did buy a rather pricy subscription to Publishers Marketplace, which is helping.
  • Covered other genres yet, other than one debut showcase.

Achievements:

  • Attracted over 250 feed subscribers through Feedburner. I had over 350 through Fantasy Debut’s Google Reader count, but I had to expect that some of them were dead.
  • Attracted more Twitter followers, but I have not paid enough attention to give you an exact number. Maybe 40 or so.
  • Joined Blogcritics and managed to get a good discussion on my first article. I meant to put up a followup article, but the weekend was too full for me to squeeze in another thing.
  • Put up a cool Amazon debut widget. I just hope it won’t be too much trouble to maintain.
  • Added several widgets to improve discussion experience.

In order for this to be a truly world class blog, I probably need to put in more time than I have. Therefore, I’ll put in just enough time to make it fun, and hope that’s enough to keep you happy. If you’ve been popping in every now and then, please subscribe using the Feedburner icon. I watch that number with greedy interest. It’s my favorite number! Oh, and I’m also supposed to be asking you to bookmark this page so you won’t forget about it. So if you’d do one or the other — or join using Friend Connect — that would just be ducky.

Thanks for visiting! Please leave any critiques, ideas, or timesaving suggestions in the comments.