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Wednesday Updatezzz…

Last night did not go quite as planned, in that I didn’t plan to bring my wife to the emergency room at 11:30, or to stay there waiting for doctors and lab results until 5:30 in the morning.  She’s fine (aside from bruises after five attempts to draw blood) — this was a scare that thankfully started to pass after the third hour of sitting and waiting in the E.R.  But neither one of us are what I’d call fully functional this morning.

So today we do random updates, ’cause it’s what my brain can handle.

Snow Queen is on schedule.  I’m still planning to have the first draft finished by the end of the month.  And I had a happy-dance moment last night where more pieces of the ending fell into place.  I love it when that happens!

Conventions — I’ll be at ConFusion later this month (1/22 – 1/24), doing what looks like seven panels and an autographing session all on Saturday.  (Including a fairy tale panel with Cat Valente and Peter Beagle — eep!)  I’ve also committed to doing Millennicon in March.

Diana Pharaoh Francis is planning to kill me, and it’s AWESOME!  Click over and read the excerpt from her work in progress, Crimson Wind.

And … um … yeah.  That’s what I’ve got.  Sleep now?

Killing Characters

Normally, I don’t repeat announcements here if I’ve mentioned them on Twitter or Facebook.  This one deserves an exception.  Seanan McGuire was kind enough to e-mail me last night, and — after the prerequisite taunting — informs me that The Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is #1 on the Locus Bestseller list!  It’s Snoopy-dance time!

#

So lately, I’ve been thinking about killing characters. Not the redshirts who die to remind us how dangerous the story is.  Not the villains who meet their just deserts in the final chapter.  I’m talking the central heroes.

I’ve read and watched many a story that killed off the good guys.  I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done badly.  Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings is marvelous.  He dies protecting the hobbits and earning redemption.  Well done, Tolkien.

Contrast this to Harry Potter.  I felt some of the deaths in the series worked, but after a while it felt like a publicity stunt.  “Book six comes out soon. Let’s start the betting pool on who she’s going to kill off this time!”  “Whoops, we’ve ‘accidentally’ leaked rumors that Snufflepuff the Privy Elf is going to off Snape!”

Joss Whedon is another one who’s known for killing off characters.  Sometimes, he does it to great effect.  Other times, it feels like he offs a character not because the story necessarily required it, but to show the audience that he’s willing to do it.  (The second death in Serenity struck me that way.)

So … when do you kill off a beloved character?  How do you do it well? The easy answer is that you do what’s right for the story, but what does that mean?

Among other things, it meant I couldn’t kill Jig off in the goblin series.  (I’m assuming that’s not much of a spoiler.)  The goblin books were light fantasy, on the fun, feel-good side.  I cheated a few times, and I killed off secondary characters, but to kill Jig would have been wrong for the kind of story I was trying to tell.

But what about more serious stories?  I’ve been struggling with this for a few weeks now, and here are some of the considerations I’ve come up with.

  • Is it realistic for all of the heroes to survive this adventure?  (I.e., would not killing someone destroy the suspension of disbelief?)
  • Choices and actions in a story have consequences.  Is death the appropriate consequence for the character’s actions in this story?
  • Am I wimping out if I don’t kill someone?  (Am I letting them all live because I like them too much to do what’s necessary?)
  • Will this death make the story better?

That last one is hard.  Does better mean more emotionally powerful?  More memorable?  More engaging?  More marketable (losing readers who want the fluffier stories, but gaining readers who appreciate the gritty)?

And when is it effective to cheat?  Theoretically speaking, imagine an author who killed off a character at the end of a trilogy, but deliberately planted hints that the character might not truly be dead after all.  A better ending, or a cowardly cheat?

I don’t have answers for this stuff, which is why I wanted to open it up for discussion.  What deaths in books and films have worked for you, and why?  What didn’t work?  When, as an author or a reader, does it feel right?

Obviously, there may be some spoilers in the comments.

Link Roundup

Some links that have come up over the past few days…

Writing and $$$
Lynn Viehl: The Reality of a New York Times Bestseller
Tobias Buckell: First Novel Advances
Kimberly Pauley: A Challenge for My Fellow Authors (more royalty/sales information)

Realms of Fantasy Follow-up
Catherine Valente, Sarah Monette, Kat Howard, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Barbarienne weigh in on the All-Women themed issue.
Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons: Fallacies of “write what you know” in terms of race, culture, and privilege.  This was powerful.  My thanks to Rose Fox for pointing me toward it.
ETA: Also, updates from Doug Cohen (addressing criticism of his word choice in the original announcement) and copperwise (Artist’s Gallery columnist for Realms, who first pitched the idea for an article about the evolution of feminine images in fantasy art, which I love).

Just for Laughs
The Eye of Argon: MST3K Version: Exactly what it sounds like.  Because I laugh every time I read it.

Realms of Fantasy’s All-Women Issue

Realms of Fantasy is doing a “Women in Fantasy” issue.  For this issue, they’ll only be accepting stories by female authors.

I’ve got a number of opinions on this, but for once I’m going to keep those to myself, at least to start with.

A deliberate women-only issue of Realms.  What do you think?

PS, That’s right, I can write short blog posts!
PPS, Do read the Realms post for further details from Douglas Cohen.
ETA: PPPS, Per an e-mail from Douglas, they have no intention of rejecting good stories just because they’re written by men.  “If I like it (and more importantly, if Shawna likes it), there’s no reason we can’t use it for a different issue.”

Winners and Sherlock Holmes

So the book giveaway ended up with 66 comments on LJ, 15 on Facebook, and 26 on the WordPress blog.  I used a random number generator to pick three winners.  Congratulations to:

Heidi Santavuori
seldear
sweetlycorrupt

I’ll be getting in touch with the three of you about the details.  Thanks to everyone who entered!  (And for those who want to check out the books but don’t want to wait for my next giveaway, might I suggest putting in a request at the local library?)

Anyway, on to the movie chat.  Amy and I went out on a real, live date yesterday to see Sherlock Holmes.  (Pop quiz — is it a good idea or a bad idea to take your wife to a movie that has Jude Law and a topless Robert Downey Junior?)

My first complaint is that the whole thing is just a ripoff of House.  I mean, really.  Holmes is just House without the limp, and his sidekick Watson is totally Wilson.  Come on, they barely even changed the names!!!

Seriously, I enjoyed it.  Didn’t think it was the most brilliant film of the decade, but it was a fun romp.  I’m not an avid reader of Doyle, so I can’t say how true the film stayed to the book, but it worked for me.  I do wish we had seen a little more of Holmes’ deductions over the course of the movie instead of getting the whole thing explained in one lump at the end, but I understand why they decided to tell the story that way, trying to keep the audience in suspense.

My biggest complaint … involves spoilers. More

Sales Info (with Graphs!)

I’ve written and read a fair amount about authorial promotion, what is and isn’t effective.  Anyone who’s tired of book sales talk can feel free to skip this one, but I figured some of you might appreciate a little raw data to go with the conversation.

This is a graph of the sales for The Stepsister Scheme (purple line) and The Mermaid’s Madness (black line).  Stepsister has been selling for just over a year now, and Mermaid has been out for about three months.

The sales data comes from Bookscan, which isn’t exact, but it’s the best measure I’ve got for week-to-week sales.  All five of my books have followed the same pattern, starting with that nice big spike in the beginning.  After the first three months or so, many of the books are stripped and returned to make room for new releases, and we head into the long plateau.

With all of the signings, conventions, and other events I’ve done, only two factors have ever caused a visible spike in sales.  The first is Christmas.  Having a book on the shelves in December is a good thing!  (Thank you to everyone who bought books for presents!)

The second is the release of the next book in the series.  You can see where sales of Stepsister more than doubled when Mermaid came out.  I saw that same bump with the goblin series as each new book was published.

I didn’t include the goblin data here, because that would have gotten too messy.  But I’ll note that the release of the two princess books did not cause a similar spike in sales of the goblin books.

Does this mean all of those other efforts are ineffective in terms of sales?  Not necessarily.  For one thing, Bookscan isn’t as good at capturing data from independent book dealers and such, which means there’s a good chance all of those dealer sales from conventions aren’t showing up.  And while any individual event or effort doesn’t show up on the graph, they could still be having a cumulative effect over time.  There’s really no way of doing a controlled study to prove it one way or the other.

And that’s it for 2009.  Happy 2010, all!  No resolutions here, but I am setting a goal to finish rewriting the outline (version 3.0) for Snow Queen by the end of the day, and to finish this @!#$^ first draft by the end of January.  Wish me luck!

Follow-Ups

I wanted to thank everyone for the great comments and discussions from last week’s posts — even the people who disagreed with me 😉  Based on your comments, I wanted to follow up on a few things.

Booksignings: I’m annoyed at myself.  Rereading what I wrote, I looked at a number of factors, including the financial, the sneezers, and so on, but I completely omitted one of the other reasons I do these events — to connect with my readers.  Eight people made the effort to come out to Nicola’s Books to see me and get me to sign their books, and I came back and wrote about how sometimes booksignings don’t feel like they’re worth it.

I feel like an ass on this one.  I love getting to meet and talk to my readers. I’m grateful to everyone who took the time out of their night to drive out and see me.  The other factors I discussed are important too, and I still need to figure out how to prioritize my own time and energy, but I apologize for ignoring this part of the booksigning experience, and for any hurt feelings that may have resulted from that.

Publishing Lottery: I wanted to address something that came up in a handful of the comments.  When I say every “successful” author I’ve met worked her or his ass off to reach that point, that does not mean:

  1. Working hard guarantees or entitles you to success as an author.
  2. If you have not succeeded, you are either lazy or you suck.

I don’t believe I ever said or implied either of these things, but they came up here and elsewhere, and I thought them worth responding to.

Every successful author works hard =/= everyone who works hard will succeed.  A lot of the people I’ve seen who stayed with it and committed to improving did eventually break in, but there are no guarantees … except, perhaps, that if you don’t do the work, it’s nigh impossible to build that career.

I’d also say that most of the time, books and stories are rejected because they’re not good enough.  (See Ann Leckie’s post for the potential traps in “good enough.”)  This doesn’t mean that good books are never rejected.  Goblin Quest [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] was rejected more than 30 times.  Not because it was a bad book (I hope).  Not because I was unlucky.  But because it takes time, research, and work to get a book to an editor who loves it.

Are there good books that never find a home?  Of course.  Good books get rejected.  So do an awful lot of bad books.  The thing is, when I was first starting out, I couldn’t tell the difference.  I believed, like so many new writers, that my stuff was good.  Like so many new writers, I was wrong.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t believe in yourself.  You have to — otherwise, where do you get the confidence to submit your work?  But don’t let overconfidence turn you into that guy.  And always work on making the next story even better.

Happy Holidays!

I was hoping to be able to share the artwork for Red Hood’s Revenge as a Christmas treat, but the final cover isn’t ready yet.  However, I can probably get away with sharing this new icon I made today 🙂

I had been worried about switching cover artists in mid-series.  I was scared the characters wouldn’t be recognizable.  You tell me — is this Snow, or is this Snow?

I’ll probably be scarce for the next few days, doing the Christmas thing with my family.  All the best to everyone who’s celebrating, and here’s to a wonderful 2010.

The Publishing Lottery and Other Insults

Dear Anonymous Commenter,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post about Self-Publishing Myths.  While the poor grammar and spelling were annoying, (something you might want to work on as you self-publish that second book), I was struck by this part of your comment:

“Lets be realistic- how many people get published through traditional publishers? When people used to ask me if i was published i would ask them if they had won american idol.
Its not about talent, its about pitching, luck, who you know and the stars aligned!”

I spent way too much time thinking about your words, trying to find a response that would capture the true depth of my feelings.  I came up with the following:

Bite me.

To elaborate, you wander over to the blog of an author who’s published five books with a commercial publisher and proceed to explain that talent and skill and work have nothing to do with it; I just got lucky and knew the right people.  Because the right people will happily risk their careers to publish their friends’ books, even if those books suck.  Is that the line of pseudologic you’re following here?

From what I’ve seen, this sort of nonsense usually comes from one of two scenarios:

  1. You drank the Kool-Aid from one of the scammier vanity presses and bought into their crap about “traditional publishers” being run by evil overlords who live only to crush the souls from peppy young writers like yourself.
  2. You submitted a few times, got rejected, and decided to take your toys and go home.

You go on to say, “My books are good, as im sure a million unpublished books out there are.”  Right.  Much like everyone who tries out for American Idol is sure their singing is good, and that they deserve a major record deal. 

Because it’s so easy.  Because anyone can sit down and crank out a great story.  Heck, my cat hocked his breakfast onto the keyboard last week and produced a dandy little flash piece about zombie squids.  Everyone’s wonderful and brilliant, and it’s just a lottery as the Publishing Gods roll their d1,000,000 to see which of those worthy candidates shall be chosen.

Most of the people who get rejected from American Idol are sent home because they suck.  The ones who make it to those final rounds are the ones who’ve worked their asses off to learn how to sing.  Writing is the same way.  It takes time and a lot of work.  No magic fairy is going to blow sparkly story dust up your butt and transform you into the next J. K. Rowling.

I understand if you’re frustrated.  I know it can be discouraging trying to break in as a writer.  I’ve been there, and so has every other commercial author you so casually dismiss as “lucky.”

You chose to go the self-publishing route.  Maybe because your unique creative vision was too special for the New York publishers.  Maybe you really are as good as you think you are, and the entire publishing industry was just too blind to see it.  Maybe not.  I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care.  I wish you all the best, and I hope you’re happy with your choice.  But if not–if you’re going the passive-aggressive “publishing is mean and out to get me” route to console yourself–could you please at least keep it to the privacy of your own blog?

Thanks.

Are Booksignings Worth It?

Booksignings were always part of my mythic dream of the Published Author.  I couldn’t wait to have my own flyer in the bookstore window, to be sitting there with a stack of my books.  A friend even bought me a fancy pen to use at my first signing.

January, 2005.  That's my 'PLEASE buy my book' face.One of my earliest booksignings was for the Five Star edition of Goblin Quest [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy].  Considering I was pushing a $25.99 hardcover by an unknown author, it went pretty well.  Much better than the one a month  later at B&N, when I sat there for two hours without selling a single copy.

Last week I drove out to Ann Arbor for an event at Nicola’s Books.  These days I’m better known, with five books in print, all available for the more reasonable price of $7.99.

Eight people showed up.  They bought a lot of books, which was great (gotta love Christmas shopping), and I enjoyed hanging out and chatting.  But as I was driving the 60 miles back home, I found myself wondering if it was worth it.

I sold maybe 20 books at that signing.  At $0.48 per book, that’s just under ten bucks.  That doesn’t even cover gas.  Even my best events, the book launch parties I do at the local Schulers, don’t have much financial payback compared to the time and work the booksellers and I put into them.

But it’s important to look at the long term.  I’ve built up a wonderful relationship with the folks at Schulers, and as a result, they stock more of my books than any other store.  I do really well there, in large part because they hand-sell my work.  At Nicola’s last week, I left about twenty signed books which will go back on the shelf.  So even if the signing doesn’t go well, you’re building relationships with booksellers and leaving signed stock that will continue to move after you’ve left.

There’s also the “sneezer” factor.  Tobias Buckell describes sneezers as the ones who get excited about a product early on and talk about it to their friends and family.  Person X might buy a single book, but if they enjoy meeting you and like the book, they’re more likely to go out and spray that enthusiasm all over the place.  I can think of individuals who have sold dozens of my books through word-of-mouth recommendations.

But for every well-organized, “successful” signing, there are others where you and your rapidly-wilting ego sit at a table for two hours while a total of four people wander by, only to have a bored staff member later comment, “Saturdays are usually slow for us.”  (Leaving one to wonder why the store invited you to come out on a Saturday.)  Or the store that ordered only a handful of books that sold out before I arrived.  Or the one where the CRM  doing the event was fired the week before, and they had no books and no record I was even supposed to be there.  (Always call ahead to confirm!)

Basically, the magic is gone.  I’ll continue to do signings, particularly my book launches at Schulers.  I’ll happily do autographing sessions at conventions.  But I’m not going to call every bookstore in a 100-mile radius trying to schedule events, and I’m not going to feel like a failed author if I don’t have at least ten booksignings set up for every new book.  It just doesn’t feel like the best use of my time and energy.

What do you think?  As authors, readers, and booksellers, are signings worth it?

Jim C. Hines