Writing

Bookscan

Busy day, so this is gonna be quick.

Agent Andrew Zack blogged the other day about Bookscan, a service to track and report book sales: The Lie that is Bookscan.

My own agent, Joshua Bilmes, has posted his own thoughts, disagreeing with Zack’s assessment: A Bookscanner Darkly

Personally, I tend to agree with Joshua, and not just because he sells my books.  As far as I know, most writers, publishers, and agents know perfectly well that Bookscan represents a percentage of total sales, and that percentage could be anywhere from 70-80% for one author but under 50% for another. Bookscan seems to capture a lower fraction of mine, since I do better with independents.

I don’t think Bookscan ever claimed to report ALL sales. It’s more data than anything else I’ve seen, save from the publisher itself, but it’s definitely not 100% of my sales.

A publisher using Bookscan as the sole criterion for rejecting an author (as described in Zack’s post) is troubling, but I see that as a problem with the publisher, not with Bookscan.

(I do still track and graph my Bookscan numbers every week to fulfil my neurotic validation needs, of course. They don’t tell me actual sales, but they do help me see trends.)

Day in the Life

I talk about wanting to quit the day job some day and write full time.  Every once in a while I get a weekend with nothing planned, and I get to see what that might look like.  It ain’t pretty, folks.

Done so far:

  1. Wake up to a little boy crawling into the bed with us.
  2. Take care of dogs and cats.
  3. Quick home repair job, thanks to dog’s chewing habit.  Grumble.
  4. Front lawn mowed.  Back lawn procrastinated until tomorrow.
  5. Lunch for kids.  Lunchtime already?  Dang.
  6. Finally, some actual writing!  3000 more words on the final (for now) rewrite of Red Hood’s Revenge.
  7. Dinner break, courtesy of my wonderful wife — thanks, babe!
  8. Short story feedback for the writer who won my critique in the Brenda Novak diabetes auction.
  9. Start working on an interview with a tight deadline.
  10. Break to watch old Transformers episode while doing the 4-year-old’s nebulizer.

Still to come tonight:

  1. Page proofs for The Mermaid’s Madness.
  2. More work on the interview, hopefully.
  3. Read through notes on Red Hood to figure out the next chapter so I can do it all again tomorrow 🙂

Can someone please explain how 8:45 pm snuck up on me like that?  Seriously, what just happened?  Where did Saturday sneak off to?

On the bright side, I’ve got 12,000 words on Red Hood after four days.  If I keep up this pace, I should have no problem making my deadline.  On the down side, this is not my natural pace.  if I keep it up for a month, I’m likely to go a little nuts.  But I want to get a head start before we head up north on vacation.  I’ll be taking the laptop, but I doubt I’ll be doing 3000 words a day while we’re there.

Series vs. Standalones

Why are all the SF/F writers doing series these days?  What ever happened to the good old standalone novel?

I can’t give you a thorough answer on that one, but part of it is simple economics.  Let’s start by comparing Goblin Quest and Stepsister Scheme, and please forgive me for geeking out with math and graphs.  Nothing here is all that complex or life-changing, but I tend to obsess a bit.

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Get a Real Job

It’s an interesting paradox. As a writer with four novels in print, one of the most common questions I get is “When are you going to quit your day job?” On the other hand, take a writer who has done just that and runs into financial trouble. One of the first questions they hear is “Why don’t you just get a real job?

Writing “professionally” is a real job.  It’s more work than any day job I’ve had.  There’s the actual writing, the rewriting, the communication with editors, agents, and fans, the paperwork (contracts, taxes, etc.), and that’s before you decide to go to that convention or booksigning, or try to do some publicity for your work.

The real question is “Why don’t you get a safe job?”  One that would provide you with stable income, health insurance, and everything else you needed to avoid this mess.

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Workshop Wisdom

Okay, “wisdom” might be an overstatement.  But at Penguicon this year, it occurred to me that I’ve been doing writing workshops for a long time.  As a participant, I’ve done creative writing class discussions, the Writers of the Future workshop in ’99, Critters, and then several years with a local group until they dissolved.  Eventually, I started cofacilitating workshops, helping to run them at ConFusion, ConClave, and now Penguicon, among others.

That’s a lot of fiction feedback, and after a while, you start to notice patterns.  I figured it might be helpful to list some of the more common feedback I’ve given and received over the years.  Like all “rules,” some of these can be bent.  Others can be broken.  Our job is to learn them well enough to know when and how.

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Canon Fodder

Terribly Twisted Tales [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] came out last month.  This is an anthology of twisted fairy tales, so I’m sure you’re all shocked to learn I contributed a story.  But for some reason, I’ve been nervous about this one.  I wrote “The Red Path,” which gave me a chance to explore the origin story for Red Riding Hood from my princess books, but I wasn’t sure it really worked.  So I was happy to find a review listing it among the best stories in the anthology.  (Kelly Swails also gets a shoutout.)

I’m left with another question, however.  I wrote “The Red Path” a year or so back, before even starting Red Hood’s Revenge.  Now that I’m writing the book, I find myself adjusting details of Roudette’s (Red Riding Hood’s) backstory, particularly when it comes to the hunter’s role.

So here’s the question.  Having published this story and written in the author’s note that this character will appear in Red Hood’s Revenge, how bound am I to keep the details of that story?  Given sales numbers on most anthologies, far fewer people are going to read the short story than will see the novel.  Am I allowed to alter published backstory if it improves the book?  Or am I pulling a major Lucas here, violating my own canonical history?  (Red Riding Hood shot first!)

I could use the unreliable narrator approach.  Roudette was a child at the time of that whole wolf/hunter incident, after all.  She probably missed a lot that was going on.  But even then, I find myself adding wordage to the book to explain why her original account was wrong … wordage that doesn’t need to be there for anyone who hasn’t read the short story, and thus will be dead weight for most of the novel’s readers, and should probably be taken out.

I don’t know.  I think my obligation is first and foremost to make Red Hood’s Revenge the best book I can, and if that means compromising the short story, well that sucks beanstalks but I still need to do it.

What do you think?  How would you feel knowing the hunter in “The Red Path” isn’t the same as he is when we get Roudette’s “real” backstory in the book?  What would you do as a writer, and what do you prefer as a reader and fan?

Why Books as Children is Just Plain Creepy

From a random author interview:

“My books are my children.  I love them all, and could never pick a favorite.”

Same author, different interview:

“Oh yes, I trunked several of my children back when I was starting out.”

The author at a booksigning:

“Psst.  Hey, you.  Want to buy one of my kids?  Take two, the older one and the newborn!”

The bookstore staff three months later:

“Time to clear some shelf space for the new arrivals.  Get out there and start stripping children.”

The library, where anyone can–  On second thought, I should probably stop.  I think we all get the idea.

Is Your Book Appropriate for My Child?

This is one of my least favorite questions, and the one I’m asked most often.  The best times are when parents tell me they’ve read the book, but still ask me whether it’s appropriate for children.  Yes, this has really happened.  On more than one occasion.

Should your kid read my book?  How the frak should I know?  Some parents let their kids read the pop-up Kama Sutra at age six.  Others think The Cat in the Hat will turn their children into drugged-out hippies.  (Some of Seuss’ more adult works, on the other hand … but that’s another topic.)

I understand parents are busy, and don’t have the time to prescreen everything their children read.  Heck, I wouldn’t have wanted my parents to limit me to books they had read first.  But as an author, it’s a lot easier for me to answer the parent who asks “Does your book have any graphic sexual imagery in it?” than it is “Should my kid read it?”

The first parent is asking about my book.  The second is asking me to make a parenting decision for his or her child.  I have no problem trying to help, but for all our sakes, please don’t be the second parent.

Clear enough?  Groovy.  Because now it’s time to list all the answers I’d like to give, but probably shouldn’t….

“Should my child read your book?”

  • Can you prove that’s really your child?
  • Yes, but only the odd-numbered pages.
  • You mean the kid standing there playing Grand Theft Auto on his Nintendo DS?
  • No!  She should read my books, plural.  How do you expect me to quit my day job if your lazy kid only reads one?
  • Yes.  When he’s finished, he can let you know whether or not it’s appropriate for grown-ups.
  • How do you feel about nose-picking injuries, pixie pee, and gay fire-spiders?
  • I’m sorry, Jim left an hour ago.  I’m his decoy.  His protection.  His loyal bodyguard.
  • Not without a prescription.
  • Wil Wheaton said my book was cool!  If you don’t buy it, he’s gonna march down to this bookstore and start throwing critical hits on your ass.
  • Make sure she reads it backwards so she gets all the subliminal Satanic messages.
  • You must be this tall to read Stepsister Scheme.  But he can read the goblin books.
  • Print is dead.
  • Everyone knows kids prefer to read books about younger characters.  Here, try this one by Nabokov.
  • Sweet Zeus, what are you saying?  Nobody can read these books!  We have to keep the words trapped in the pages.  Can’t you hear them screaming?  Always screaming and plotting their horrible, horrible revenge.  Don’t open that book!  Don’t let them see you!!!

Please feel free to add your own.

Writing is Hard

Practice is supposed to help you improve, right?  The more you practice a process, the easier it becomes.  Yet I’ve talked before about how each book seems to be more challenging than the last.  From speaking to other published authors, I know I’m not the only one hitting this apparent paradox.

So just for fun, I thought I’d break down the books and figure out some of the major challenges and lessons I had to learn from each one.

Goblin Quest: 1st published book.  Just trying to write a publishable work!

Goblin Hero: 1st sequel.  Had to figure out how much to summarize from book one.  Also added a second PoV character, with her own plotline.

Goblin War: Left the goblin lair and went out into the world, which required a little more worldbuilding.  Had to learn how to conclude a series.  Had to learn how to incorporate backstory and intertwine it with the current storyline.

Stepsister Scheme: New series with a somewhat more serious tone.  New world, new characters, new everything!

Mermaid’s Madness: Four PoV characters, each with their own plotline.  Eep!  Massive sailing/ocean research.  Larger worldbuilding (multiple nations, cultures, etc.) than anything I’ve done before.

Red Hood’s Revenge: Stepping out of the pseudo-European fantasy feel into a different cultural context.  Working with sustained plotlines and character developments that carry through 4 books.

Having thought about this stuff way too much, it’s not that writing gets harder the more you do it.  Instead, I see two factors.  (Okay, two and a half.)

1.  I’m writing more ambitious books.  Goblin Quest was a blast, but it’s not the most complex plot, and there’s only one PoV character.  I suspect that if I were to go back and write a similar book, it would be a lot easier than the current work in progress.  (Being stubborn, I suspect I’ll just keep getting more ambitious until my brain explodes, though.)

2.  I’m more aware of the different aspects of writing.  Compare it to karate.  The first time you go, you learn some basic moves.  “Look ma, I’m punching and kicking!  Go me!”  But the more you practice, the more you become aware of things like stance, breathing, the proper way to make a fist, how far to extend your punch, the snapback after an attack…  With time, a lot of that becomes instinctive, of course.  But for every aspect that becomes automatic, you discover three more new things.

2.5  My family situation has grown steadily busier since I wrote Goblin Quest.  So basically, I’m writing more challenging books with less time.  Whee!

Please understand that I’m not complaining.  I love what I do.  I’m just trying to understand this phenomenon.  I’m still young in my career, so I don’t know how things will evolve over the next 10, 20, or 30 books.  (Yes, I’m an optimist!)

Have other people found the same increasingly steep curve?  Or maybe it’s my memory playing tricks on me.  This novel always feels like the hardest one to write because it’s the one I’m doing right now, and I forget how hard the last one was.  (I’ve heard there’s a similar phenomenon with pregnancy and childbirth, actually.)

The Author-Reader Contract and Backseat Writers

I was originally going to call this entry “Neil Gaiman is my bitch,” but decided against it. Controversy is fun, but I don’t know if I could survive the hordes of Neil fans coming to rip me apart. There’s also, as cissa* pointed out, the misogynistic/sexist aspect of the whole “my bitch” slang.

Anyway, last week I linked to Gaiman’s post about readers and entitlement when it comes to things like completing a series on time. Being an author myself, my first response was “Hell yeah!” I haven’t missed a novel deadline yet, but it’s likely to happen sooner or later. So I tended to side with Gaiman on this one. Most of my reading list seemed to feel the same way … but then, a large part of my reading list is made up of writers.

Prompted in part by comments on my post, I decided to step back and take another look at this thing.

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Jim C. Hines