Monday, October 3, 2011

When do I become a Real Author?

I had an interesting and rather eye-opening occurrence last week. My first e-book was published about a month ago, and I had finally gotten around to announcing the news on Facebook. I tend to sadly under-utilize Facebook, as I don't have as many followers there as on Twitter, and I find process of digging through all the updates somewhat tedious. In any case, somehow, the HR coordinator at the company I work for found out about it, I think via a mutual friend. On her daily visit to our unit a few days later, she insisted on gathering all the other employees around me for a round of applause for "getting my book published".

Maybe I shouldn't try to be a writer. I don't do well with attention. I get embarrassed, I blush, and in this particular case, I wound up stammering something about how "It's not like I actually got it published, it's only an e-book."

Only an e-book? Wait a minute. Some of the best-paid authors in the world right now are selling nothing but self-published e-books. So why am I belittling my own accomplishment, encouraging people not to take me seriously? Partly, I think it's because I don't expect many people outside the indie books movement to understand that this really is the future of publishing. And so it's easier to downplay my achievements, and those of e-books in general, rather than face the jeers of people who don't know what's going on, who might think that I'm getting a stuffed head over something with no real legitimacy.

But that's just it. What's legitimacy? It's not in the hands of the publishers anymore, thank god, because I've read too many published books that were total crap. Is it in writing something that people will like, and will buy? Maybe that's why I'm still inclined to keep the fact that I'm a writer on the down-low; the book's only been out for a month, it's not even on Amazon yet, and I haven't sold that many copies. But then at what point will I feel legitimate, if I judge by sales? When I sell my hundredth copy? My thousandth? When sales reach a certain monthly volume? Knowing me, as I reach each mental milestone, I'll find a reason to keep pushing it off, to keep considering this hobby of mine just a hobby, and a waste of time.

When will I, and when should indie authors start thinking of ourselves as "real authors"? The moment the opus gets uploaded? Or should we continue to allow others (via sales, etc.) to confer legitimacy upon us? If you look at it that way, the whole idea of allowing readers to serve as gatekeepers will wind up inducing the same kind of Stockholm Syndrome that has been such a problem in the death throes of print publishing. The same kind of elitism that we faced over signing, agents, bonuses, imprints, will still exist, it'll just be based (admittedly, more honestly and transparently) around sales, instead. Should anyone who's written and published something feel comfortable calling themselves an author, or should only people who can actually support themselves on their sales call themselves authors?

Honestly, I'm inclined to go with the former. It takes a lot of gumption to put your work out there for others to look at, and a thick skin certainly helps. But even though sites like Smashwords are flooded with a lot of stuff that frankly... isn't that great....everyone who's up there should still be recognized for the process that they went through. They wrote, they edited, they formatted, they made or hired cover art, they put a large piece of themselves into this work that they're now hanging out on a shingle in hopes that somebody will like it. They are real authors, even if they aren't very good ones. There are gradations in every profession, and we need to get used to that in writing, as well. Without the hurdle of getting accepted by a publishing house, we're just finally going to see more of the spectrum, which admittedly has both good and bad sides.

I'm going to focus on the good, though. I am an author. I can acknowledge it to myself, but I need to work up the self-assurance to start saying it to more people than just random names on the internet. I need to be able to tell everyone I know. There's no shame in calling yourself an author, no matter how you were published, and no matter how many books you've sold. And I hope that all the wonderful, friendly, and supportive indie authors I've met out there can say the same.

Incidentally, if you've read this far and you want to help, go to Smashwords or Apple or Barnes and Noble. Check out the book, even via the free downloads. Boosts to any of my numbers will make me feel good. And if you like it, tell your friends about this new author you know.....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So I'm Published: Now What?

The Nativity of St. Genevieve was published in August via Smashwords. I paid attention and did the formatting correctly on the first try, so I got into the Apple and Barnes & Noble listings within a week or two. Since then I've sold maybe 4 or 5 books. Pretty soon though, I'm going to run out of close friends and aunts and uncles. So the question is, what now?

I've been reading all the advice about self-pubbing for the last six months or so, ever since my boyfriend saw an article about Konrath on slashdot and said, "Hey, you remember that novel you were writing?". So I have something of an idea of what I should be doing. Let's look at the list of recommendations, and see what I have done, what I haven't done, and what I think about it all.

First of all, the publishing itself. I used Smashwords, and I have to say I'm pretty happy with it so far. Somehow, I had missed the fact that they don't have a deal with Amazon yet, which I'll admit I'm slightly miffed about. On the other hand, given the ridiculous ease of use, I'm pretty glad I didn't actually pay someone $300 to format my book. In the future I might go that route, since Smashwords does take royalties, but paying up front for the conversion wouldn't have been a winning proposition until I've sold a lot more books than I have so far. Quite honestly, I think they're a great starter place, especially for people in a situation like the one I'm in: I work for (not very much of a) living, and I don't have the time or money to deal with this stuff. Writing is a de-stresser, something I do in my spare time. If I can make money from it, great. If I can make lots of money from it and quit my job, even better. But things are going to have to go in that order - writing can't be my primary job until I'm making enough at it to quit my actual job. I know that some people would argue that an attitude like that means I'll never make it, but it's just the way the truth stands at the moment.

Now that my books are at two of the three major retailers though, what I really need are some reviews to draw readers in. My sure-fire plan for accomplishing this is to offer review copies on twitter to try and get people to read and post their opinions. We'll see how well this works, though most of my ~200 followers are other authors, most of whom seem to be a really nice bunch when it comes to donating time to other indies.

Speaking of Twitter.  200 followers isn't nearly enough, from what I understand. I know some of the steps I need to take, it's just more time consuming than I realized it would be. I need follow a lot more people, in all of my primary interest communities: writing, steampunk, and crafts. I need to divide these people up into lists and actually take the time to read what they're saying and reply, get involved in conversations, make myself part of the community. Wonderful part about this? I'm chronically shy. Blogs are fine, because there's an anonymity to the reader - I don't have to actually approach someone and push myself at them, I just write things and put them out there for people to happen by if they decide to. Using Twitter effectively is going to take a lot of effort on my part, but it's something I need to put the effort into.

The one thing that does bother me about Twitter is the tendency of some authors to turn their accounts into little more than spam bots that spew out Amazon URLs every few hours. I honestly find that kind of thing vaguely offensive, and while I do follow a few groups that are specifically for that sort of promotion, I tend not to pay very much attention to them, which makes me wonder about their efficacy. I have mixed feelings about joining networks like that, but I expect I may find myself more and more drawn to them as time goes by. If anyone has specific groups that they've had good experiences with, feel free to leave notes in the comments.

Twitter isn't the only way to make oneself visible in the social media spectrum; there's also blogger and facebook. I intend to start writing in this blog more often (work and editing kind of ate my life in July and August), though that may mean that the topics get more and more eclectic as I look for things to write. On the one hand, that may be to the good, as I might attract more varied readership. On the other hand, I might have trouble maintaining a regular readerbase if I'm only writing about something that interests any given person every three weeks or so. We'll have to see how that works out. I've actually seen recommendations that writers not write blogs about writing, but it's on our brains so much I'm not sure how we can avoid it. Facebook... well. I made the mistake of making both a private page and an author page, and now it seems that most people (including myself) can't really tell the difference. Not that I ever intended for the personal page to be really private, but it's a bit frustrating having to double-post to make sure everyone gets information, while knowing that it means some people will get double the spam. This is something I'm going to have to look into how to fix in the future.

The one final thing that I'm doing is spreading my work far and wide. Although I put most of my effort into finishing Genevieve over the last few months, I've also been submitting short stories to various sites, contests, and collections. My hope is that (if accepted) this will help to get my name out there, especially with some of the larger collections I submitted to, like the second Machine of Death compilation from Dinosaur Comics (and dorkily enough, Blizzard Entertainment's annual fanfic contest). If people like those stories, they might look for more that I've written, and they ought to find Genevieve.

As for where I'm going from here? I've noticed on Twitter that people seem much more interested in my Appalachian Steampunk concept than in another alternate history fantasy world. So my next self-publication is going to be a collection of four steampunk short stories, which should be available by Halloween. After that, I'm beginning work on my next novel, which won't be the sequel to Genevieve, but rather the first (as yet untitled) novel in the Mountaineer Free State series, a steampunk concoction set in Civil War Chattanooga. That's the last important thing to remember for bolstering ebook sales: if you haven't got stuff for sale, people can't buy it. So I'm gonna keep on writing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

There Are No Girls on the Internet

I mostly talk about writing here, but I'm not just a writer. I'm also a girl who plays video games. The two topics are more related than you'd think, as video games are nothing more than a slightly fancier, more interactive means of storytelling than your typical book. And so I think about storytelling and characterization in video games quite a lot.

I'd been meaning to do a post about heroines, and what actually makes a strong female character. Then this article popped up, and made it almost imperative, because while I understand the need to assert yourself as a woman in an almost exclusively male genre/community, I feel like she's got it completely wrong.

I don't care what characters look like. I'll admit, I was pretty amused a few years ago to read an article suggesting that an inordinate number of YA novels features redheaded sidekick characters compared to the number of redheads in the population, as well as to those that feature redheaded protagonists. I understand that for some people, the way you interact with a story can depend on how closely you identify with the characters, and that it can be frustrating if you never, ever see a character depicted heroically who looks anything like you. Oh, believe me, I know. I grew up fat. But the thing is that it's still characterization that's more important to me.

I see these lists of "Top 10 Ass-Kicking Female Characters" on video game sites, and they make me sigh a bit. Because in response to the complaints about depictions of females in games, most companies have decided that if they depict women who are physically powerful, they've addressed the issue. And besides, if they're that well-muscled, they'll look really hot in whatever you decide to draw them wearing. It's not the outfits that bother me. It's the lack of nuance.

You know who my favorite female characters are? Kitty Pride. Kaylee. Willow. They're all women who are powerful in non-standard ways, and they all look different. They're not super-sexy, but they're not your typical Mousy McSit-in-the-corner female geek character, either. I can't stand Penny, or most of Felicia Day's characters, for that very reason.

I really feel like the woman who wrote that article about Mass Effect is missing the point. For one thing, I find it hysterical that the only difference between the two comparison screenshots she uses, claiming that one is much better than the other, is the haircut and color. Same body, same face, even. She's claiming that people are shallow for picking the blonde when all she's done is discard it for the exact same reason in reverse. I agree with Tycho. It's still Shepard, either way. And because female Shepard and male Shepard are identical in terms of story options, I frankly think she's one of the best deals going at the moment for people who want heroines.

Maybe I'm taking it too personally. I'm blonde (blame my northern European descent), and I have inordinately straight hair (blame the Native American descent that nobody in the family will talk about). Her suggestion is therefore that I must be a bimbo. I've grown up all my life making blonde jokes about myself (being a percussionist as well didn't help), and I've never really been offended by them. But to see someone who's claiming an interest in gender equality immediately dismiss a section of her own gender due to personal prejudice? Not cool.

Judge character on character. Write good characters, and nobody should give a flying flip what any of their physical characteristics are. We're all just sentients.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Religion as a motivating factor: When is it too much?

With the release of The Nativity of St. Genevieve immanent, and with me hoping that my short story "Witchcraft" will be taken up for the second Machine of Death collection over at Dinosaur Comics, I feel like it's time to talk about something that's been worrying me a bit in both stories.


I knew from the start when I set out to write Genevieve that I was going to catch flak for it. If Rowling gets people upset at how supposedly satanic Harry Potter is, I know I'm in for it. Then again, if I get even a 20th of the attention that Harry Potter did, I'll be ecstatic enough to deal with the trolls. Genevieve is set in a universe that is remarkably like our own medieval Europe (hah, how surprising is that, since I'm a trained medievalist?), except for the fact that magic is real and it's controlled by the Catholic Church, who train all natively-born magic users into monks and nuns so that their powers can be explained away as miracles. This was inspired by stories of miracles that I ran across in my graduate research (such as nuns randomly being surrounded by columns of blue flame whilst singing in Choir one day) that sounded to me a lot like descriptions of typical fantasy magic. The thing is, that what with my insistence that the magic is actually a natural power and not what the Church claims, and with the depiction of the Catholic Church as an institution that's trying to take away free will for these people, I know I'm going to get people thinking I'm anti-Catholic. Especially since as close as I get to a villain in this first book is the village priest.

This is a problem for me, because what I really want to show is nuance, and what faith is capable of inspiring in people. Father David does what he does because so far as he knows, it's the right thing to do. He makes choices that are very difficult for him, but he always errs on the side of his faith. The same thing is true in "Witchcraft". The main character, a traveling revival preacher named Haggerty, continually puts himself into what he knows are dangerous situations because preaching and salvation are what he's taken on as his mission in life.

I'm not afraid of people thinking that I'm anti-religious. That, I can deal with. What I'm more afraid of is people thinking that I'm too religious. I'm not really certain how to get out the message (other than hoping people see this here) that religion and faith are simply serving as handy motivators for me, ways to put the characters in the situations I want them in, to make them do the things that they need to do. While it's interesting to me to see the things that faith can drive a person to do, I'm equally as interested in other motivators like lust, or greed, or True Love. Yes, True Love has capitals. Go watch the Princess Bride. My own personal opinions on faith and religion are my own damn business, and nobody else's, and I don't want what I've written to be taken as standing in for them.

The only reason I'm worried about this is simply because the first two stories that I hope to have any kind of wide impact are fairly similar in that faith is one of the main themes and motivating forces. I don't want people to think that I'm someone who writes about religion all the time. In talking with friends about this dilemma, most have told me that I don't really have anything to worry about. I hope not. But that's part of why I'll be releasing another collection of short stories as soon as I can, one that doesn't feature any stories with religious themes.

I don't object to people who want to write religious or inspirational stories. But those books need to be advertised as such, and they're not what I do. What I do is write about people, and why they do the things they do. Religion is just one of the many things that makes us more than monkeys, and it's fascinating as a motivating force. So are lots and lots of other things, so forgive me for not using it in more moderation, at least at first.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Event vs. Character driven stories

Why do some books seem to get bogged down halfway through, or meander around aimlessly, or simply fail to grab the reader's attention in the first place? There can be a lot of reasons, from poor plotting to a bad narrative structure, or even just because characters didn't wind up as interesting as the author intended them to be. There are a lot of things for an author to keep in mind, but it's come to my attention lately that one huge point of potential derailment isn't even on most writers' radars. That point is whether the story's plot is meant to be driven by characters or by events.

Imagine a book, or a series of books, where the main character(s) go through various adventures, have all kinds of wild things happen, but come out of it fundamentally the same people, reacting to things in the same way, so that you know the issue will be just as much rollicking good fun. That, my dears, is what you call an event-driven story. So far, we've seen them primarily in thrillers, mysteries (Sherlock Holmes is a classic example), and other genres that tend to feature serialized copy about a single protagonist or group of protagonists. As a writing style, it also used to predominate in sci-fi, back in the days of Phillip K. Dick and Asimov and Heinlein's short stories, which were all about exploring how completely interchangeable human beings reacted to the new technologies emerging around them. Truth be told, though, it's easier to maintain an event-driven writing style over a short story than an entire novel.

The alternative is something that's character driven, where the story focuses on the internal struggle of the character; where the main driving force of the plot consists of watching the character's evolution from one state into another. As writers, most of us are more familiar with this style: we put our characters through hell so that they can become beautiful butterflies. And the writing process is all about coming up with new and more inventive ways to do that, and trying to figure out what events would induce the changes that we need and want to see. This style of writing is more prevalent in genres like fantasy.

The real reason that I want to bring these differences up is because although they're something we internalize from reading stories written in the different styles, I don't think most authors are capable of articulating the difference between them very well at all, and that can lead to problems. Especially if an author who is more used to one style tries (knowingly or unknowingly) to write a story in the other style.

This is something the steampunk writing community needs to be aware of. Most of us are coming out of fantasy or sci-fi, both of which are currently quite character-driven genres. But while character-driven steampunk is possible and can be quite good (c.f. Stephen Hunt), the models that we're trying to match, books by authors like Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, were almost exclusively events-driven.

Some authors are trying to match that and doing it well. George Mann's Newbury and Hobbes adventures manage to evoke the Holmesian events-driven feel that most London-fog steampunk authors are looking for. Others try to match it, perhaps without realizing what exactly they're doing, and without the knowledge to guide what they're doing, it just falls flat. Much as I hate to pan a book by an otherwise excellent author, I feel as though this is much of what happened with Cherie Priest's Dreadnaught. Her Boneshaker was quite good, but Dreadnaught feels like it can't decide which is more important - the train and the politics surrounding it, or the people riding it. It feels like she's tried to make it a character driven story, and there are some clear attempts at showing Mercy's evolution and growth. The only problem is that Mercy is such a flat and opaque character to begin with that any changes occurring to her seem disjointed and rather random. She grows over the course of the story, but it's in an unpredictable, unfathomable way, and the reader is often left wondering whether the scene that just occurred was meant to be important or not.

Every scene in a book should be important, and every scene should feel important. If you don't know what or who is in the driving seat of your story, though, this gets supremely difficult to pull off. Having multiple foci adds depth to a story when done well, but diffuses and mystifies it when done poorly. Just like sci-fi, I think that steampunk is going to divide (or possibly already has) into hard and soft sub-genres. And like sci-fi, the best hard steampunk will be events-driven, while the best soft will be character driven. Authors need to know what they want to write, and what that means they're getting into before they start. I hope that this brief disquisition will help with that.

Monday, June 20, 2011


It's been a crazy month.  I'm trying to get Nativity out the door, though it looks like I'll be delayed a few more weeks as my beta reader flaked on me (this is why you should never use friends and loved ones, no matter if they're wonderful editors and have the best narrative sense of anyone you know; it's entirely too disruptive to domestic harmony if something doesn't go right).  I'll be taking steps to amend that soon, but there are a couple of changes I know have to be made before anyone else can see it, and I need to find the time to make those changes.

Hopefully it'll happen this week. I intend to ask for volunteers on twitter, and get the files out to them as soon as possible. The only thing is that I'm not entirely sure when I'll have time to get serious writing done; I start a new job today and I don't really know yet what my schedule will be like.  I'm happy, and excited, because it's better than the old one, but really anything would have been, and things aren't ideal yet.  Well. They won't be really really ideal until I'm a famous bestselling author, but back-up plans are important after all, and since my MA in History is making it hard to get a real job at the moment, my intent is to supplement it with an MLS in a few years and become a subject librarian, or an archivist.  Over the next year, while I'm waiting for the application/acceptance cycle to come back around again, I'm working.  This new job is better than the last, but the schedule is still going to be somewhat erratic, so I may have to learn to write at different times of day.  I'll manage, but it means things are somewhat erratic at the moment, and will be for another couple of weeks as I settle in. 

It's kind of struck the blog as well, I know, and being under stress I haven't been as active on twitter as I probably should.  Working on it.  I already know what my next post will be, I just need to find the time to sit down and write it. Again, that's going to depend on this schedule that I don't rightly know yet.  Not the best thing to have happen right while I was trying to publish a book.  Things happen, though, and we deal with them.  Nativity may be delayed a little bit into July, but it's coming.  And so are a few other things I have up my sleeve, which hopefully will please and delight.  I'm looking forward to sharing them soon! 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bad-assery part two: The Villain equation

So the other day when I was at Barnes and Noble I finally picked up a copy of The Osiris Ritual, since it's come out in paperback (I know, I know, what kind of e-author am I that I don't own an e-reader? A poor one.). I'm not done with it yet, but between it and having re-read Dune last month, it got me thinking on the topic of villains.

I've seen other authors talking about how fun it is to write really over-the-top villains. Guys that you love to hate. And it seems to me that they're quite common in steampunk as a genre. No steampunk story seems to be truly complete without some megalomaniacal monstrosity pulling the strings to send their Legions of Doom (tm) at Our Heroes (also tm). I've seen it in both of George Mann's lovely books, in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, in Boneshaker, and in pretty much all steampunk made for TV or the movies. Not that I mind. There's a certain pulp-fiction aspect to steampunk that can be quite appealing, depending on what kind of story you're looking for. Somebody once described steampunk to me as "A cross between Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard," as good a definition as any I've heard, and which you must admit calls for something pretty special in the villain department.

The thing I'm wondering (and slightly worrying) about is, is this necessary? Can you write a good steampunk novel where the villain is just a normal person who happens to be acting in a way that brings them into conflict with your protagonist? Where conflict is driven by something other than the stuff in the last three chapters of a college Psych textbook? For example, I have to admit that I really didn't like Dreadnought as much as I did Boneshaker, despite their being by the same author and set in the same world. Is it because there's no central villain in Dreadnought, no force that Mercy has to fight against except social pressures and environmental conditions, happenstance? I feel like Mercy is a much flatter character than Briar is; is that because the conflict just isn't arranged in a way to show her to her best advantage? I have to admit I'm not entirely sure.

I'm concerned about it because I'm still in the planning stages for my own first steampunk novel. I intend for the antagonists to be Union and Confederate generals, along with (possibly) a rich businessman trying to protect his vested interests. I suppose there's room there for making one or more of them into a slightly insane mechanical monstrosity for the sake of making the story more 'steampunky', but I kind of quail at doing that just because I think it's what the audience expects rather than because I'm convinced it would improve the story. I suppose that's the problem with writing in historical periods as someone with historical training; I dislike changing things just for the sake of change. Maybe it's something I had better get used to. Goodness knows I'm not above changing political history - not in a world that contains the Union, the CSA, the Republic of Texas, the Mountaineer Free State, and the Cherokee Confederacy, among others.

It's something I'll be putting a lot of thought into over the next few weeks, as I get my outline pulled together. Does steampunk require a supervillain-type antagonist? Will it help the world attain that feeling of adventure and uncertainty that I'm aiming for? Would they even train cyborgs at West Point? Or should I go with my gut and feature a world that has slightly less extraneous tech, people on a more human scale, but still plenty of steampunky gadgety goodness?

We'll see. And I'll keep y'all posted.