Orison Release and Lessons From First Novels

Square-OrisonHi! In case you haven’t heard, Orison’s release date is today! It’s available on Amazon and BN, as well as directly from the Nine Muse Press store, in ebook format. (Paperback coming soon!)

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been blogging much at Surly Muse lately. I was working hard on making Orison the best book I could make it, and that took all the time and energy I had to do so. Flash fiction, blogging, and even supporting other authors as much as I wished to all went by the wayside. But it’s over now, and in the breath between this book and the next, I’d like to tell you a few of the things I learned along the way.

Between June and now, I’ve felt much less prescriptive about writing advice, so take them as my experience, nothing more. Here are the lessons I learned from my first book:

You must sacrifice. For over a month, I did almost nothing but edit. I managed to keep up with my day job, but only barely. Friendships, social gatherings, games and TV all had to go. I needed every ounce of focus and drive to get this book out the door. The book ate my life. I looked back on the lackadaisical months and years I spent procrastinating and stalling on previous books and realized just how wrong I’d been doing it. This is a lot of work. That first draft you’re so proud of? Only the beginning. It’s like Frodo and company getting to that little house at Buckland and having a beer. You’ve still got Mordor to go, and the road is long and hard. So get moving.

Revisions can take all your energy. On the up side, I have never enjoyed such black and dreamless sleep as when I was in the throes of edits. I would shuffle to bed at the end of each day and collapse, my brain utterly exhausted. It made me grouchy and terse. Few noticed, because I’m always grouchy and terse, but that’s beside the point. People ask “hey, how are the edits coming along?” and I would grown and slam the phone handset back into the cradle, or would have if I still had a landline, or if people called me on the phone.

Planning and detail are key. Finishing Orison made me less of a pantser than ever before. Why? Because every detail needs to be consistent, every plot needs to come together, every foible and behavior of every character must add up. If they don’t, readers will notice, and the more planning you do ahead of time, the more intimately you know your characters and your plot, the less work you’ll have to do on the back end. No disrespect to anyone who can just improvise their way through a novel. But I’ll never write that way again.

You need people. Beta readers, reviewers, artists, and friends — you’ll need them. Remember that Lord of the Rings analogy I was making earlier? Yeah. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam. You’ll need support, and advice, and caution, and praise, and someone to hold your hair while you throw up. Okay, maybe not so much that last one.

When you think you’re done, you’re not done. I sent the “final” draft of Orison to my publisher with the thought that it was really close to done! Nope. It was still so very far from done, and I didn’t even realize just how not-done it was until the third round of revisions. After a full rewrite. Revisions will bring to light new and exciting flaws you’d never noticed before! Thrill as you realize your plot has a huge hole! Marvel at the way your characters change without said change being evident to the readers! Dread fixing it! Know you can’t avoid it! Throw away passages you loved because they no longer work! No time for tears, it’s revisions!

“The best you can make it” and “the best it can be” are two different things. This was a tough one. More than once, I hit a dark patch in my revisions where I considered rewriting the entire book from scratch. (I also considered setting my computer on fire, but I’m fairly certain I wasn’t serious about that). There were still a few problems. The themes weren’t quite as resonant as I wanted. The supporting characters could use more development. The scope could be a bit bigger. More, and better, and this change and that change, and soon I was looking another rewrite in the eye, and I couldn’t face it. I realized it’s terrifyingly easy to just tweak and edit a book forever because you want it to be perfect, and it never will be.

When you hate your book, it’s finished. Before it was over, I all but loathed poor little Orison. I wanted it, and all the characters in it, to die. Mostly because I was tired. Tired of trying to perfect every moment and nuance, tired of trying to bring every emotion and note to the page. When I finally finished my revisions, I had a really solid book… but boy, was I ever sick of looking at it. That’s how I knew it was done. I still loved it, of course, but in the way you love a child who has been playing a game called How Loud Can I Scream for two months solid.

Marketing can bruise. Promoting your book can be rough. Getting attention is difficult. You worry about irritating people. And guess what, you’ll almost certainly irritate somebody. And if your release has taken a long time (like this one has) even the well-meaning jokes can start feeling a bit face-slappy. You just have to get through it. Thick skin, and all that. But remember to retreat and take some time out when you need to.

There is only the next work. People kept asking what I had planned for the big release day. The truth? I just want to work on the next book. Turns out sitting back and reflecting on my accomplishment (singular) isn’t really my style. I couldn’t make Orison perfect, but I think I did make it damn good, and now I’m excited to make the next book even better. I hope you’ll come with me on that journey. After all, Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t have gotten here without the help of Anna Loy, Gina Swensen, Angela Goff, Ruth Long, Eric Martell, Tracy McCusker, Khairul Hisham, Lisa Tomecek-Bias, Aaron Engler, Matt Kessen, Christina Ramey, Paul Ramey, and many more. Thank you all.

(P.S. my book bears little resemblance to Lord of the Rings. Just wanted to be clear about that.)

Why Hunger Games Isn’t the Future of Writing

The other day, Jeff Goins posted a blog entry titled Why the Hunger Games is the Future of Writing. I respect Mr. Goins, and am sure he’s a fine fellow, but I disagree with him on this issue, and now I’m going to list the reasons why.

Please note, these are only my opinions — I make no claim to authority or market prescience, nor have I published a bestseller. (I say that only because I note Mr. Goins busted out the ol’ “oh yeah, how many bestsellers have YOU written?” zinger in his comments section.)

So, without further ado:

1) No, it isn’t.

Hunger Games isn’t the future. It’s now. It’s the Latest Big Thing. The market is already flooded with YA titles trying to cash in on the success of Twilight, and editors and agents are plumb sick of it. Thanks to the success of the book and the movie adaptation, soon the market will be flooded with YA titles trying to cash in on the success of Hunger Games, and editors and agents will be sick of that. You don’t embrace the future by imitating the last known success.

2) I don’t believe we are all “scanners.”

Call this a bias if you like (and you’d be right to do it) but I did a little informal poll of my fellow readers / authors, and not one of them self-identified with Goins’ idea of “cultural ADD” and the notion of scanning. Of course, Goins implies in another other blog post that authors should aim for a functionally illiterate audience, because no one reads. Do you really want to aim your book at people who won’t read it?

3) Mass success is not the only road to writer satisfaction.

Granted, Goins is talking about the road to blockbuster success with the YA crowd. Within those parameters, he has a point. I don’t agree with his thesis that “we are all YA,” in no small part because I find most YA titles I’ve read simplistic and not terribly interesting (and yes, I’m sorry to say that includes Hunger Games).

I’m not convinced that the success of one series of short novels has suddenly shattered the mold set by, say, something like Harry Potter. Readers have no problem sitting down and devouring an 800-page doorstop in a matter of days. When Hunger Games comes within spitting distance of Potter’s multi-billion-dollar success, then we’ll talk about whether it’s “the future.”

4) Books are not movies, the Internet, or television.

Goins posits that to succeed as writers, we must appeal to the shortest attention spans possible, since the written word is in direct competition with the Internet and various electronic forms of entertainment. While I think some people certainly might approach a book the same way they would a blog or a Facebook post, I don’t think most readers work that way.

Also, the key to maintaining reader interest? Good writing. Not big fonts, short sentences, or simplistic storylines. I believe Collins succeeded because she had a compelling concept, a great protagonist, and knows how to manage tension. Those things aren’t a function of story length.

Maybe Goins is right and the future of the novel is the pamphlet. All I can say is, I don’t think so. And I certainly hope not. And since I have no interest in writing in a style or genre that I dislike, I’m going to be fighting against this trend all the way, uphill or not.

What do you think?

[Guest Post] Self-Pub Corner: I’m Choosing CreateSpace

In the next month, I am going to self-publish my second manuscript of poetry. Pop the champagne cork. Reserve a balcony suite on Hollywood Blvd. This LA writer is going to be hob-nobbing with the big dogs, because with this forthcoming second book, I will not be a one-hit wonder. I will have arrived.

Or I would, if poetry in any way counted like novels do. If I could count on more than 50 sales in a year. This is not sarcasm, just a careful reminder that this article comes from the concerns of a poet. And this poet, after a week of research, decided to launch her second title out by way of CreateSpace.

In 2011, I published my first book, Letters From Nowhere, on Lulu.com. My experience with the publishing process with Lulu was relatively painless.

Lulu offered to walk me through the layout process with templates, offered to convert word files into pdfs, gave me the option to generate a cover in separate pieces. I turned down all of the hand-holding options. Lulu’s templates for poetry–centered lines–were off-putting. Nearly all well-designed books of literary poetry favor left-justified, ragged-right formats. On top of that, my book called for different page layouts: some poems were justified blocks (prose poems); many were left-justified; a few required specific stanzas layouts.

Poetry is just as much experienced as a visual object as it is read as a text. So these layout details mattered. Lulu gave me the option to do everything myself and upload a completed pdf once the manuscript was completed.

Once the book was uploaded, it only took about two weeks to finalize the details on Lulu, receive a proof copy (and then receive another proof-copy when I discovered the cover was pixellated badly, rushed to me), and set the book for its final edition. I received a smattering of sales, cut my first royalty payment through Paypal.com, and spent my hard-earned cash on fountain pens and their attendant catalogs. Fountain pen catalogs, it should be noted, are questionable erotica to me.  Basically, I turned the cash from my first book into gratification money.

I was getting paid. I was happy with my service at Lulu.com. The book listed on Amazon.com after a couple of weeks. But after the opening burst of sales, the title went silent. There were no online sales in the last two quarters of the year. The Lulu store is not set up to sell to poets. And in all due deference to fellow poets on Lulu, their “bestselling” titles were pretty dreadful.

What I found was that I was making more sales directly. I would buy copies from Lulu, and sell to people in person. Poetry has long been a market between beggars. At poetry slam events, books get sold to other poets. Readings set up for the author, ones that actually attract attendees, can move a lot of merchandise. Selling copies from an author website–through mailed checks, requested works, old school commerce–happens more than rarely.

Amazon, on the other hand, made me a grand total of two sales.

For this shiny new manuscript, I decided to do a little research on my self-publishing options. Ebook publishers only like Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing were immediately struck from the list. My main business has been hand-to-hand sales, and an ebook doesn’t suit that type of commerce. I reconsidered Lulu.com for its good service to me, but with its author copies for a skinny 96 page chapbook at more than 6 dollars a pop, I knew I could do better.

The self-pub blogosphere raved about two options: CreateSpace and Lightning Source. The best review of the three options side-by-side is from Blogthority, which makes a good case for publishing directly with Lightening Source. However, as Blogthority notes there are some up-front barriers: you must create a corporation (Lightening Source is a printer, and it does not deal with individual “authors”). Lightening Source requires a cash investment up-front to list the book, and a book of poetry may sadly never recoup the one hundred dollar up-front cost.

CreateSpace seemed like the natural choice. Its low author-copy cost (which can be pushed even lower with an up-front cost) is exactly what I was looking for.

As I design and create my own book interior pdfs and covers, I wasn’t concerned with anything beyond cheap author copies. But I decided to look a little deeper at its offerings, to see if I might recommend CreateSpace for authors who don’t do their own design work. Like Lulu.com, CreateSpace boasts a Cover Creator for authors; they offer templates for books. One enterprising book publisher even decided to use Lulu’s pdf tools to create his CreateSpace book interior. A tool is a tool, after all. As for the peripherals, CreateSpace has grown to include professional services that you can purchase for editing, interior design, cover design, and others services also offered at Lulu.com.

As for its negatives: CreateSpace has been indicted for its difficulty-of-use; it’s withholding of non-US royalties at the rate of 30%; and its inability to handle premium sized prints (at 8.5×11). There is continual buzz swirling about whether CreateSpace (and Amazon) withhold royalties for book sales. It should be noted that most reputable sources say that Amazon reports royalties more fairly than the big 6 publishers. So I take complaints about royalties with a grain of salt.

The negatives, I felt, were ultimately things that I could deal with (if they turned out to be true), so I said “yes” to CreateSpace.

I am currently halfway through the publishing process. The project sits at the “upload manuscript” step. I take my time with this stage. The manuscript will be a physical object in somebody’s hands; I endeavor to make it look professional. The poetry market has a series of specifications that are different from other markets. US Trade size–6×9–is the most common size for poetry chapbooks. Chapbooks published by living poets tend to be smaller that the massive collections of well-respected (and dead) poets–in the 80 to 120 page range. Pages of poetry are pretty sparse compared to their prose brethern. Collections may try to jam more than one poem per page, but most chapbooks take the “one poem per page” route. Design considerations for these kinds of pages are mainly confined to the following set of questions. How should a poem sit on a page, so that its words are away from the spine when it opens? How should page numbers look? Does the book need running headers? Where should they be placed vis-a-vis the poem so pages look balanced? What font should the poems be set in? Should titles be set in the same font? Below are two page layouts based on how I thought to answer these questions.

It’ll be a few weeks before I’m back knocking on CreateSpace’s door to finish the project. So far, my experience has been positive. CreateSpace has already allowed me to choose from four different sources for my ISBN number. Each source has their own benefit/drawback–and I decided to go the low-cost path of choosing a CreateSpace ISBN. This level of customization has already made me appreciative of CreateSpace’s flexibility. Should I be bitten by the Kindle Direct Publishing bug, CreateSpace’s integration with Amazon will make it easy to port the work onto the KDP platform.

But, ultimately, I know that hand-to-hand sales will make up the majority of my next book’s revenue. With a lower cost for author’s copies, and a potentially even lower cost for a small investment of cash up-front, there are two benefits that accrue to this project.  One, I can earn more royalties percentage-wise. Two, I can offer my new book at a lower price-point (8 dollars instead of 12) and still make a good chunk of money.

Well, good money for poetry.

For those of you publishing, how many of you have gone with / are thinking of going with a meatspace publisher? Are ebooks more appealing to your demographic? What would make you choose one self-pub over another?