Thursday, April 28, 2011

Accuracy in Alternate History: When is Enough Too Much?

So as all of my profiles blare so prominently, I'm a chick with a master's degree in medieval history who's interested in writing alternate history novels. What gives with that anyway, and what kind of special issues doe it lead to?

For starters, let's be clear. I don't mean I'm writing things like The Other Boleyn Girl. I've never read that book, for the same reason that I don't watch most movies set in the crusades, or TV shows like the Tudors. Because they would drive me up the wall with how badly they warp actual history. My 'alternate' world is something more like Naomi Novik's gorgeous tales of the Napoleonic Wars With Dragons, though I don't really hope to match her craft till I've had significantly more practice. The Genevieve novels are set in a world where magic really exists, but it's controlled by the Catholic Church, who explain spells away as miracles. As a massive oversimplification, you could call it a cross between Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels and Harry Potter. For the most part, I don't use real historic figures, save at a distance. My Genevieve has nothing to do with her namesake, who happens to be the patron saint of Paris.

My world of course features differences from traditional medieval Europe; the presence of working magic in the world has caused history run slightly differently. Wars began and ended in different ways and at different times, but the underlying culture is much the same. And that's what I really want to talk about here: how important is maintaining perfect periodicity in something like this?

Of course, you want a novel with any kind of historical pretensions to be as period-accurate as possible, or readers will have fun nit-picking at it. Someone will always notice everything. I've found myself going back and changing things that I wrote without thinking for reasons like "oh wait, that needs to be some other kind of grain, they didn't have corn there then" or "how can I phrase this without using a word that was coined in America 300 years after this is supposed to have happened?" I even find myself using clunky, cludgy phrases to talk about "herbal infusions" and the like, since peasants wouldn't have access to tea, and wouldn't even know the word for it, making me feel awkward about calling something "herbal tea". Accuracy is great, and I'm glad that I have my education to know how to phrase things properly. I'm sometimes left wondering, though: can any phrasing be 'better' if it sacrifices elegance and concision for simple, fairly unimportant historical accuracy? Couldn't I just wave the wand of narrative necessity and pretend that anything that's giving me trouble happened to occur differently in my version of the world?

It's a question that I don't really know the answer to. The problem is that it feels lazy to me, and I'd rather err on the side of keeping things as accurate as possible unless I have a plot-related reason to change them (partly so I can remember what I've changed and what I haven't, to keep myself consistent). I'm trying my hardest to maintain a balance, and to find ways to phrase things so that I can be accurate and still be happy with my writing. It's harder sometimes than others, but I feel like it's worth the effort. I wouldn't say that all writers need to focus on matters like this, because the more fantasy and less history you introduce into a novel, the less need there is for minute accuracy in a world that's already wildly different. On the other hand, though, if you want to write something that you can feel good about calling alternate history, be prepared to make a lot of unnecessary trouble for yourself.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

More Kickstarter Spam and Opinions

Well, my Kickstarter Campaign is up and running. I feel like I've taken a huge step, but I know that this is only the beginning, in terms of actually getting people to pledge me the money. More marketing. Good thing I still have plenty of time to write.

I've been taking a look around Kickstarter at the various literary projects, and I must say that I'm fairly confident about my chances of success, provided I can get the word out in enough places. $625 isn't all that much to raise, and it seems to me like most of the people writing books are looking for much, much more. In fact, I'm one of the only publishing projects currently listed seeking under a thousand dollars.

Why is that? There are a couple of reasons, and frankly, I find them rather interesting. For starters, most of the projects admit that part of the money is going towards living expenses or paying a salary for the authors/artists involved. I can kind of understand that, though it's not something I'd be comfortable with asking for myself. So far as I'm concerned, writing is a hobby and a way to keep myself sane; something that I enjoy doing in my spare time and would love to make my full time job. But I don't feel comfortable doing that until it's sales that I'm living off of. I suppose that I only have the luxury of feeling that way since my book was written in my spare time, and hasn't interfered with my ability to go out and earn a living in some other way. The economy has, but that's another story. Some of these projects had people like artists, photographers, and coders working full time on them, and I can understand needing to pay salaries there. But for just plain books... nah. I feel like sales should be your return for writing a book, especially since they have the potential to far outstrip most normal salaries.

What really amuses me, though, is that another reason why most of these projects are trying to raise so much money is because nearly all of them are primarily focused on paying for a limited print run, usually somewhere from 500-1000 books.

Why? I mean seriously, why? A print run that size is almost guaranteed to loose you money, and it's highly unlikely that it will get you noticed by a New York publisher. My costs are low because I'm sticking strictly digital, meaning I hopefully have a better chance of getting fully funded, and I honestly feel like I stand a chance of getting a much higher return on investment, provided that I can get word out well enough, and that readers like my book.

Maybe I spend a little too much time preaching the gospel of Joe Konrath, but I can't help but feel like he's right. I'm not eager for print books to disappear entirely, and as an ex-academic, I know that they won't, because there are some ways in which they're just more convenient than ebooks. Still, though, being alive now and watching the ebook revolution, I can't help but feel like somebody from around the time of Christ, watching foliated books take the place of scrolls. It's a technological revolution that will fundamentally change the way people read, write, and interact with the printed word. It's an exciting time to be alive.

I just hope that I can carve out my own little section of the revolution. So here, please, take a look.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Self-Publication: My Ideas and Plans

So the good news is that after taking about a year off after writing the first two thirds, I've finally finished my first novel.

The better news is that I'm going to be taking the next couple of months to edit and revise it (with the help of a couple of test-readers), and then I'll be e-publishing it for Kindle, Nook, iPad, and about a million other little devices rather than waiting years for it to get picked up by a regular publisher.

I thought I'd go over the plans and decisions that I've made, so that other writers can chime in with suggestions, or hopefully take away some inspiration.

What got me started on the e-publishing idea? Joe Konrath, of course. My boyfriend found his blog about a month ago when it was linked off of Slashdot, and had to immediately bring it to my attention. I've been working on my novel for about a year, because it was this time last year that I completed my MA in history with an exam rather than a thesis because of certain difficulties in working with my advisor. I've wanted to write for a long time, and have the plans for at least 4 or 5 novels in three very different settings backstocked, but what really got me started on The Nativity of St. Genevieve was the realization that I wasn't going to be able to (wasn't going to be allowed to) write a thesis, and the desire to prove that I could actually manage something of that length, difficulty, and scope. Never mind that a novel is more like a dissertation than a thesis anyway.

Before finding out about the wonderful world of e-publishing, my plans were to get my name out by publishing short stories in periodicals. Not a bad idea, except that the professional-grade, important periodicals don't take stories of the type I was writing. Genevieve is fantasy and alternate history, but recently I've been writing short stories set in my planned next universe after I finish the first Genevieve trilogy. It's Appalachian Steampunk. Kind of a niche market, not the kind of thing it's easy to get published.

In the past, typical advice would've been for me to get over myself and write something that would sell. I'm honestly quite happy that now I can write what I like, and deal with the fact that it won't sell as well by recognizing that all the sales are going to be pure profit for me, and that I don't have to worry about a publisher axing me for it. Steampunk may be a niche market, but it's growing, and the more good stories we can get out there, the faster it will grow. Makes authors happy, makes readers happy. And all we have to do is ignore the publishers.

So, what's my plan, and why have I laid it the way I have?

Sometime during this week I'm going to start a Kickstarter project, asking for $600. This is to cover paying Lucky Bat for formating, cover art, and an ISBN (since you need an ISBN to sell in the Apple store). I'm slightly daunted by the task, but I'll be advertising here, on facebook, on twitter, and at local indy bookstores and coffee shops. When I break down the math, I only need to convince 60 people to give me $10 each, and that doesn't sound so hard. I'll keep updates here on how it's going.

If I have to find a way to raise the money to pay up front, why am I going through Lucky Bat? Why not Smashwords, since they'll format for free and I can get decent cover art on the cheap? Mostly, because I'm familiar enough with computers to be comfortable managing my listings through the various stores for myself, and because I feel like the extra hassle of having to manage those myself is worth not loosing a cut of the royalties.

This isn't to say that I think Smashwords is bad. They're very reasonable in the cut they take, for what they offer, and it's a great choice for authors who don't feel that they have the time or the savvy to mess with all of the set up on their own. Personally, I expect that I'll be going through Lucky Bat for all of my novels, but the short story collections that I'm planning will all likely come out via Smashwords. Partly because I don't expect them to sell as well, so I'm not as concerned about loosing a percentage, and partly because since they're much easier and quicker to put together, I'm less inclined to waste a lot of time and effort worrying about them when I could be working on my next novel. The most likely format is going to be four ~4k word stories bound together as a bundle; I'm not famous enough yet that I see a need to make them available individually, and I intend to primarily market them as fun little side excursions into the worlds of my various novels.

So. Another young author hopes to make her splash in the world of e-publishing, with thought-provoking novels of sorcery and intrigue in the style of Katherine Kurtz and Mercedes Lackey.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Folk Tales as Inspiration

When I haven't been reading novels lately, I've primarily been tucked up with several large books of folk tales and fairy stories, particularly ones from Russia and from the southern US. It's mostly for research purposes; I'm working on a series of steampunk short stories set in the Appalachian mountains which will probably lead into a full-length novel when I'm done with the Genevieve trilogy. Same thing with the Russian ones - I actually feel like those are stories that would take very well to steampunkification, an idea that's been nibbling at the back of my brain probably since I saw the chicken-legged circus cart in Girl Genius.

Reading folk tales always makes me think about storytelling and the various ways in which it's accomplished. After all, it honestly feels a bit odd to sit and read a collection like that. You're acutely aware (or at least, I am) the entire time that these are stories that were meant to be read aloud, not written down. Often, they don't really benefit from being written down, I find that I often stumble over strange constructions that are meant to work best when spoken aloud. There's more repetition, more stock phrases, and more interaction between the narrator and the audience than in most works that were written to be read. My favorite are the Russian stories that end with exclamations along the lines of "It's all true! I know it because I was there, and I drank mead, but it didn't go into my mouth." One assumes, I suppose, that a drunken narrator isn't to be trusted.

It's possible to turn folk tales into novels and do it really well. Neil Gaiman does it all the time. It's easy to dismiss them as trite, over-used, old, dried-up, anything you want to call them, really. The thing is, though, that they offer a great lesson when it comes to what people will always find interesting. Humans have loved these stories since the beginning of time, and in a way that's remarkably culture-spanning. Reading a translation of a 19th century Russian folktale collection, I found a story in it that's clearly an adaptation of the 17th century French version of Beauty and the Beast. These are stories that have stayed current for centuries, if not millennia, and have traveled across entire continents in their spread.

Writers are always concerned about what makes a good story. Boy meets girl, boy has gun, zombie apocalypse invasion, that kind of thing. And while your writing ability and style make a lot of difference, I feel like we all need to remember that story's the heart of the thing, it's why we do what we do. Folk tales and fairy tales, for all that they don't match modern literary sensibilities, remind us that story has always been the heart of the thing, and that humans have been making up stories about things pretty much since we learned to talk. Don't worry if your story has been told before. Chances are, in the course of 10,000 odd years, they all have. Focus on why you want to tell it again, what there is about it that you think is important for people to feel and understand. It's easy to write in a vacuum, but we write for people and about people, and in order to make people feel how we want them to feel. I don't ever want to write a story that I'd be ashamed to share around a campfire.

I'm an entertainer, and I'm proud of it. And while I may not be anywhere near as cool as John Hurt, I'm proud to be a Storyteller.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thoughts on Voice

After I finished the Terry Pratchett book I talked about in my last entry, I picked up Steven Brust's latest Vlad Taltos novel, Tiassa. I plow through most of Brust's books pretty quickly (with certain exceptions I'll get to later), and so I knocked this one out in about half a week. Brust can be very experimental with his style and voice, and in Tiassa, it was especially apparent, so I'd like to take some time to consider what I think about his choices.

I was first exposed to Brust through The Phoenix Guards, which I picked up at a book fair and used as the topic for a book report. In the sixth grade. When I was 11. Anyone who's read The Phoenix Guards or any of Brust's other "Khaavren Romances" can see why I still consider this something of a feat. This entire subseries of books is written in the voice of a fictional historian, Paarfi of Roundwood, who's meant to represent something like the worst (or best) excesses of Alexandre Dumas and the like. Paarfi books...take some getting through.

The Vlad Taltos novels, on the other hand, with a few notable exceptions, are written in an engaging, colloquial, first-person voice. This doesn't mean they're necessarily always easy to read (honestly, I still don't know what was going on in Orca, even after reading it three times, nor do I think I ever really will), but it's a very different experience, especially in terms of how hard you have to work to get through it.

Tiassa is a Taltos novel that turns into a Paarfi romance halfway through. No spoilers, I promise, but it's simply the case that the first half of the book is written in Vlad's voice, and the second half in Paarfi's. Although it's appropriate for this book, given the topic and the characters, it's still a decision that I question, and one that I think I wouldn't have been brave enough to undertake myself. I don't know what Brust's sales numbers are like, but I would be surprised if the Khaavren romances sell nearly as well as the Taltos novels. I can readily imagine readers being thrown by Paarfi's voice if they weren't expecting it, and perhaps being honestly annoyed, if they were expecting Vlad's sharp wit for the full duration and instead got stuck with Paarfi's dry asides for half of it.

I like the idea of switching narrators. When I write, it's typically third person, but I'll go inside no more than one person's head per scene, so each scene either plays out like a movie, or is clearly being understood through the lens of one character or another. I do feel like I can accomplish a lot (especially for an astute reader) by careful selection of who the character in charge of a given scene is. But while I'll display thoughts, I generally don't change my own narrative voice. I don't think it's taboo to change voices, and I've seen novels that make it an important plot element. I would worry about it for novice writers, lest the voices start sliding together, but this can generally be made a non-issue by making the voices distinct enough (Vlad and Paarfi are very distinct). I understand why it's necessary in Tiassa, because there would essentially be no point to the second half of the novel if it were told from Vlad's point of view. On the other hand, since Brust uses only two voices, first one, then the other, it does make for a very disjointed read, and although there are common threads throughout, it almost feels like two novellas bound together, or even a collection of short stories, more than a single novel.

I think that Brust was brave for the experiment he undertook in Tiassa, and that his publishers were brave in printing it. I can't say I'm really certain how well it turned out, but I can't think of a way I'd have accomplished the same way differently. Still, the fact that it got me thinking about voice is a good thing, and I suppose if I ever come up with an answer, it will have made me a better writer, too.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Issues of Genre: Young Adult

I just got finished reading Terry Pratchett's latest Tiffany Aching novel, I Shall Wear Midnight. I generally try not to read those books when I'm actively working on Genevieve, because there are a lot of ways in which Tiffany and Gen are very similar, and I'm afraid of falling into the trap of writing Gen as Tiffany. Still, though, when Brendan found out about it, he reserved it at the library and I figured I ought to go ahead and read it while we had it out.

I love Pratchett's work, and I could go on for pages about his style, but the question that the Tiffany Aching series really brings to mind for me is one of publishing and genre, and it highlights one of the reasons e-publishing is better for anyone with a book that's even slightly nonstandard.

Pratchett isn't known for explicitness in his writing. While there's a certain amount of earthy humor, none of it could even approach being called inappropriate. I don't feel that the Tiffany Aching series gives these issues greater or lesser exposure than any of his other groups of novels. After all, they have Nanny Ogg in them, so they can't be entirely innocent. But since Tiffany is 9 at the beginning of the series and only 16 by this fourth book, these novels are classified Young Adult and shelved separately from the rest of Pratchett's books. Makes them really quite hard to find in the bookstore if you don't know what you're looking for, and I imagine it can have a major negative impact on your sales if you're not as famous a name as Pratchett.

One of my greatest fears when I was still considering traditional publishing for the Genevieve books is that since I'm facing a similar age range (roughly 11 to 19 over a planned trilogy), Gen would also be categorically defined as a children's heroine, and get relegated to the YA section as well. I have no plans to be truly explicit or horrifying in my writing, because I'm not really a fan of gore or sex for their own sake, but I don't consider my writing to be aimed at children. Even if the main character is a child, that doesn't mean that the book doesn't explore themes that would be over a child's head.

Mind, also, that I'm not trying to knock children as readers. I first read Dragonlance when I was 8, and quite enjoyed it, and there's nothing that bothers me more than the assumption that certain things will pass over a child's head. On the other hand, when I was 15, one of my high school teachers recommended that I read A Canticle for Leibowitz. Frankly, I wasn't old enough to read it at that point, and I got much, much more out of it when I re-read it in college, at about age 20.

I intend for Gen to have fairly broad appeal. I wouldn't be surprised if some kids pick it up and enjoy it on a level similar to Harry Potter. On the other hand, I've incorporated themes into it that I don't expect anyone but an adult to understand, and it would be a real shame if it were marketed as something primarily aimed at children. I'm really relieved that self-publishing allows me to make this choice for myself, to do what I think is right by my story. I don't think it's a bizarre experiment to have a child protagonist in a book aimed at adults, nor do I think it's necessarily an unspeakable mistake not to have explicit sex and gore in a book written for an adult audience. It's true that in some ways, the books will mature as Gen does, but I still don't see that as an indication that the first book in the series, or even the first and second, should be considered children's books when future books will be more more clearly 'adult' in outlook. In some ways it's similar to the Harper Hall trilogy, but as a novice writer, I wasn't about to expect as much latitude and support from a publisher as Anne McCaffrey can command.

When I get Gen's first novel up into ebook stores, I will likely tag it as 'fantasy' and 'alternate history', along with a few other denotations, and while I may tag the first one 'young adult' as well, it's only because computer technology means that categories can be searched separately and don't override each other. I'll take young readers, but I don't want to be limited to them, because this story has so much more potential than that. I'm only thankful that in this day and age, I have the choice.