New Year’s Eve, Adieu to the Aughts

We still don’t really know what to call the decade that just happened (I vote for the “aughts”, even though the term is archaic; I like archaic terms), but whatever you call it, it’s over tonight.

Or, if you prefer, it ends one year from tonight.  (That, of course, is because the Roman calendar which we use has no year zero, suggesting  a zero year properly belongs to the decade prior.)  On the other hand, that’s not the popular usage, so make of that what you will.

At any rate, I wish you a Happy New Year tonight, and a year full of reading enjoyment and productive, happy writing.

Nesting

Today and the next few days are some of my last days off before the start of the new semester and, in May, the arrival of our new family member.  And there’s still a thousand things that need to get done.  Consequently, I expect to spend much of today working on some of those things.

The room that will become the nursery was our guest room and, ostensibly, our office.  I say ostensibly because we never got the desktop completely set up in there.  But we did keep several bookcases full of books in that room, and a closet crammed full of everything else we couldn’t fit anywhere else.  Our house is pretty small – two bedrooms, one bath, no storage space – and it was a pretty tight fit before.  So adding a baby means that a lot of things have to go.

I intend to spend some time today boxing up some of those books we intend to keep, and getting those we will not keep cleared out.  If it hasn’t already been done (I am writing this post in advance, so I’m not sure what will already be done before today) I’ll need to post a few things on Craigslist or somewhere else to try to clear out things like the desk and old dresser and bookshelves.  (The desk and dresser are a matching set.)

Over Thanksgiving, my wife and I placed an order for the crib and the baby’s dresser (which doubles as a changing station), and they are matching as well.  Both pieces arrived (with some  help from some local friends), and we’ve assembled the crib, and are still working on the dresser.  It has a few parts that need to be replaced, so it won’t be done immediately, but we still need to make space for those pieces.

Since we’re selling the desk, we’ll also  have to get rid of the desktop.  For now, both of us have laptops, which are easier to store.   One problem we haven’t figured out is where we’ll put the printer.  It doesn’t fit where we initially thought we could stow it, so we’ll have to brainstorm some new ideas.

After a long day of nesting, I hope to be able to spend a little time this evening writing.  However, I also have assignments due for the Leadership Development program I’m in at school, so those will have a higher priority than my story does, at the moment.  My deadline to get this story polished up and sent off is fast approaching.  My new semester starts on January 13th.

While I work on getting things ready for the baby, I hope you are able to make time for a little fun, and a little happy writing.

The Serial Authors

My first introduction to fantasy fiction came when I was eight or nine in the form of  a short children’s series called “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander, starting with The Book of Three.  (I discovered the series by accident.  As a military brat, I was living on an Air Force base in Germany, and wanted desperately to see Disney’s animated adaptation of the first two books, called “The Black Cauldron“.  I missed it then, but discovered the novels as a result.  As an aside, I still think the books deserve an updated, live-action take from Hollywood.  I’d be more than willing to sign on as a creative consultant, should that ever happen.) 

The books were hugely influential for me, and eventually led me to many other fantasy novels, most of them parts of series as well.  I read the first ten of Piers Anthony’s Xanth” books, I read Tolkien’s seminal “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I read the Dragonlance trilogies, and many more.  Eventually, I got started on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which I alluded to in my previous post, a book series that now spans twelve very large books.  Friends won me over to read the Harry Potter books.  In all, I can only name a handful of fantasy books that I have read that have not been a part of a series or serial.

And it’s something that crops up outside of the fantasy world as well.  The venerable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned four novels based on his famous detective, and dozens of short stories.  Agatha Christie did the same with a large number of books on her detective.  More recently, we can read several books about Dan Brown’s Harvard Professor, Robert Langdon.  While many of these books can be read independently of each other (unlike most fantasy series), they nonetheless all center on the same main character.

Yet, in most mainstream fiction outside of certain genres – fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, and thrillers, for instance – the book series seems to be a relatively uncommon thing, which I find curious.

Publishers, in particular, have enough motivation to encourage series and serials.  Readers can become attached to the main characters of books they like, moreso than to the authors of those books.  I daresay the name Sherlock Holmes is a better-known name than that of his creator.  When a publisher releases a new book in a series, it is an easier sell.  There is a built-in audience, ready and waiting for the latest book about their favorite characters.  For these fans, just the knowledge of an impending book release is sufficient to guarantee a sale.

Authors, too, seem to grow attached to the worlds and characters they painstakingly craft.  With the work that goes into creating the environments, back-stories, and characters it would seem a waste to use them all just once.

For readers, a new book in a series provides a comforting familiarity.  The reader already knows the characters and the world their story takes place in, so there is no need for any additional mental investment to learn those details anew.  The reader knows he or she will enjoy the book because he’s enjoyed the prior books in the series, so there is no fear for the additional monetary investment.

With all these factors, it’s not hard to see why series and serials are common in genre fiction.  In fact, it leads me to wonder why series and serials are not more common in mainstream fiction.

But there are pitfalls and drawbacks to series as well.  “The Wheel of Time”, for instance, begins fabulously.  The first several books are fast-paced and engrossing, the characters engaging, and the world mysterious, energetic, and full of magic.  But somewhere along the way, the series began to lose steam (and some readers).  Thankfully in the previous volume (and hopefully in the current one as well) that energy has started to pick back up again, paying off for readers who stuck through some of the slower books.

One complaint about “The Wheel of Time” book is that for a long time, there appeared to be no end in sight.  In theory, there would be a final confrontation between the protagonist and the villain of the story, but there was no indication of when that might occur.  I had the same problem with the Xanth books – the series appeared to be continuing on, ad infinitum, and I just lost interest, even though I loved the first books in the series.  Luckily for me, each of those books told a relatively self-contained story, so I didn’t feel cheated out of a big climax by putting those books down.

The “Harry Potter” series, by contrast, began with an implicit promise: there would be seven years of schooling in Harry Potter’s education, with one book for each year.  At the end of the seventh year, Harry Potter would finally confront his nemesis.  In my personal opinion, this was a story-telling tactic that paid off.  But it’s a tricky thing to accomplish.  Author J. K. Rowling was able to do this by use of the “seven years of school” backdrop, but other stories don’t lend themselves to being tied up in neat little packages quite so well.  And even in Rowling’s case, it looks like this became a challenge, as each book in the series got progressively larger, deeper, more detailed and more intricately plotted than the last (much to my pleasure, I might add).

Another challenge presented by the writing of series is one faced in a similar fashion by actors portraying the same character over and over: that of getting typecast.  While the Harry Potter books were fabulous, Rowling has yet to follow up with any work of significant size or substance.  And can we imagine her writing anything else?  There’s a case of sophomore blues of the highest order!  Piers Anthony publishes almost nothing except Xanth books these days, although his career began with other works than these.  Writers are generally an imaginative lot, and long to tell more stories than one.  Getting caught in this situation could be highly frustrating to an otherwise promising career.

Author Brandon Sanderson seems to have seen that trap coming, and started his career off with a stand-alone novel, Elantris.  He followed that up with a quick trilogy before being tapped to complete Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”.  Only recently has he started working on what seems to be a fantasy series of his own with a larger scope before establishing a body of work that can show of his range of talent.

Another potential draw-back, upon closer examination, is that serial fiction is not, in fact, universally liked by audiences.  While serial fiction seems to have gained in popularity in recent days, there remains a sizable portion of the population that prefers its entertainment to be cycled relatively quickly, and prefers something new and different and not at all like what’s come before.  I imagine this portion of the population also prefers somewhat shorter tales as well.  One way or another, this is an audience that needs serving, just as the audience that has a taste for serial fiction needs serving.

Given both the pros and the cons to serial novels in genre fiction, I can’t make any sort of recommendations about whether young writers should try to avoid serial writing, or to dive right in.  Largely, it will be a matter of taste.  Regardless, with a few of these pitfalls detailed out, it may be possible for aspiring writers to find ways to avoid some of the more egregious errors of serial novels in their own work.  If  you plan to write novels in a series, think about these benefits and short comings.  Which of these problems seems most important to you?  How do you plan to avoid them?

The Christmas (Book) Haul

I did a tidy business this year for Christmas, with respect to books.  I received four books as gifts, starting with The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.  I also picked up Mistborn and Elantris, also by Brandon Sanderson, and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.  (Besides that, I also got a hot chocolate pot with frother and a cold-weather running outfit, among other things, which I’m also excited about, but they’re a little beyond the scope of this blog.)  My son, meanwhile (though he has yet to leave the womb), got a shiney new copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I’m very excited by this bounty of books.  I’ve not been reading nearly as much as I’d like this past year or two, due in large consequence to my MBA program eating most of my free time for a hearty breakfast.  I enjoy advancing my education, but I do miss leisure reading.  Most of these books aren’t new – the newest, The Gathering Storm, was released in October of this year – so any reviews I do on them will hardly be timely.  But I’ll probably post my thoughts once I am able to delve into them.

Of these novels, Elantris is a stand-alone book, while Mistborn is the first book of a trilogy and The Name of the Wind is also the first in a series.   The Gathering Storm, on the other hand, is the twelfth book of the long-running “Wheel of Time” saga – so a review of this book is of limited worth outside the context of the series as a whole.  If you’re already a “Wheel of Time” fan, you’re already familiar with The Gathering Storm, and there’s a fair chance you’ve read it already, so any review, positive or negative, is unlikely to have a substantial impact on your likelihood of picking it up.

This all got me thinking about the tendancy for fantasy novels, in particular, to come in a series of books, and of the trend in mainstream fiction, generally, either toward or away from serials and series.  It gives me a wonderful opportunity to segue into another short essay on the topic of novel series and serials, critiquing the pros and cons on the matter, and perhaps providing a little food-for-thought for other aspiring writers.  Stay tuned tomorrow for my short essay on novel series.  Until then, happy writing.

Holiday Post Shortage

I offer my apologies to readers.  My posts have been relatively content-lite these past several days, I’ve missed a day, and the posting has become somewhat irregular as a result of the holidays.  I’ve been celebrating the season with my family, and have had limited time and access to a computer to write.  Rest assured, I intend to exceed my minimum word-count committment for the week this week, but toward the end of the week the posting schedule may become a little erratic again, as the last of the year’s holidays arrives to see out the old year and usher in the new.

In that vein, I wish you and yours an excellent New Year, in all that you do.  Happy Writing.

Happy Holidays

Today is Christmas Day, and so to those who keep this day, I wish you a Merry Christmas.  To those who do not, I hope your Holiday Season has been a joyful one thus far, and that throughout this festive and holiday-filled season you will have found or will yet find time to give thanks for your families and the loved-ones in  your life, and to enjoy their company.  For those who are separated from their families by whatever circumstances may be, my heart goes out to you.

To all: Happy Holidays, and Happy Writing.

Happy Writing on Christmas Eve

The last few days, if you read my posts in a sour mood, might have been a little bit of a downer.  I certainly have no intention of being depressing, but I did find it useful, to me, to put the task ahead of me in a little bit of perspective.  Ultimately, whether I succeed or fail to get published is but a pale reflection of what my capabilities and potential as a writer really are.  I stand by my assertion that I am a good writer, but though I aspire not to goodness but to greatness, I am realistic that few ever achieve true greatness.  It is why I chose to pursue a career in the field I am in, instead of writing, in spite of the difference in passion I have for the two fields.  In business, mere goodness, not greatness, is sufficient to make a decent living and faithfully support a family.  And, for that matter, it has been relatively easy to prove greatness, within the context of the business world, in quantitative ways, in the language of business.  For writing, I’m not sure it is necessarily so, and most writers who seem make a decent living at it are pretty great, and those who become fabulously wealthy from their pursuits are greater still.

At the end of the day, however, writing brings me joy in a way few other pursuits can.  That, more than the allure of fabulous writerly success, is why I write.

I keep that in mind as I work on the short story I’m trying to get ready to submit to a publishing magazine.  Whether I sell the story or not, my true satisfaction will be to get the story in such shape that I can honestly say I can write it no better than what I have written.

Well, tonight is Christmas Eve, so I’ll keep it short.  I, personally, am of the Christian persuasion, so today and tomorrow are days I intend to spend more fully with my family.  To those of you of like persuasion, I wish a Merry Christmas Eve.  To those who are not, I wish to you what I wish to all who visit my little corner of the blogosphere: Happy Writing.

P.S. To my wife: if you’re reading this: No, I’m not going to reveal here what I got you for Christmas!

Buying Your Name

Book buyers these days are an increasingly fickle lot and, anecdotally at least, an ever-shrinking pool of the population at large.  I don’t have data to support these assertions, and they’re not really mine in the first place.  Myself, I love books as much as ever, and I find myself recently developing new interests in new authors based solely on the awesome premises of their books.

But there is evidence that the book buying public has more narrow criteria driving their reading habits.  There is a reason that Stephen King and Dan Brown and their like consistently sell large numbers of their books.  There is a reason that virtually everyone who picks up books to read has either read the Harry Potter series or the Twilight series or has had to make a conscious decision not to read them.  The reasons for the first example and for the second are subtly different, but linked.

The latter is tied to the impetus of a cultural moment.  This is how legends are made.  I admit that, initially, I was reluctant to pick up the Harry Potter books. They were marketed as children’s novels, and I like my fantasy to take itself seriously.  Something intended for “children”, I figured, could hardly take itself seriously.  But at last I relented, and was glad I did.  For all the “silly” trappings of childhood fantasy – flying broomsticks, magic wands, and ridiculous nonsense magic words – there was a maturity and depth and seriousness to the work.  It treats its target audience with respect, and for that reason it is equally good reading for an adult (and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of young adult fiction).  Why, however, did I finally relent?  By the time I read the first book, the series was becoming a phenomenon.  Virtually everyone I know had read it, and the number of positive reviews from people I trusted left me little choice but to investigate their claims.

I have yet to pick up the Twilight books, and can say that I currently find it unlikely I will.  While it, too, has reached the epic status of a publishing phenomenon, I have a few holdups.  It’s clearly marketed toward females, which I am not, and it is about vampires.  To date I have not developed a deep interest in the vampire romance genre.  Be that as it may, the forces that drove the Twilight books to success are the same as those that drove Harry Potter. 

Both books became part of a cultural moment.  I suspect that neither was initially supported by a significant amount of promotional spending on the part of the publishers.  But something about the books was truly good – and it struck a chord with readers.  When sales started to pick up, in spite of low promotional support, the marketers took notice, and the ad dollars began to flow.  Once that happened, the books broke the ceiling, and the skies were the limit.

That promotional efforts took what would have been modestly successful books without and made these books stratospherically successful is part of the same equation that keeps the well-known authors who have been writing for decades churning out bestseller after bestseller.  These authors can bank on their past success.  Readers, who know they enjoyed the last work but that author, have a reasonable amount of confidence that they’ll enjoy the writer’s next book.   Marketers know that, and so they work to make sure that anyone who may have enjoyed one of that writer’s books before is made fully aware that he or she is releasing a new book.  That effort takes a lot of promotional money, and not much is going to be left for the as-yet-unproven author.

Those of us in that category face an uphill battle.  We want to be a household name.   We want to be part of the cultural moment.  But how do we get there?  How do we convince the powers-that-be that investing in us will pay dividends?

Frankly, if I had the answer to that, I’d be using it as we speak.  But what I can say is this: it’s clearly not easy, and if you’re going to make it, it will take work.  The people who are making these investment decisions are usually not doing so based on a narrow set of tastes and preferences.  They are making business decisions, and they want their investments to succeed.  Convincing them is going to take proving in no uncertain terms that a failure to invest in you would be a financial mistake.

That sets a high hurdle.  To meet that bar, you must have more than determination and motivation to succeed.  You need more than just talent and a finely honed skill.  You can’t be just a good author.  You must be great.  You must be among the best.  You must be so good that, once readers get a hold of your books, there cannot be enough printed to sate their demand for it.  Mere rhetoric will not sway the decision-makers.  There must be action behind your words: the action of a reading public clamoring for your books.

That’s the question that keeps me up at night: I know I’m a good writer.  But am I great?  And even supposing I am great, how would I prove it?  They are questions I have yet to answer.

The Rewards of Your Efforts

Last time, I ended contemplating a question: that given a large number of aspiring fantasy and science fiction novelists – and I suspect this may be true of writers of other genres as well – relatively few will ever succeed in actually seeing their work in print.  And of those who do not reach this coveted station in life, there will be many who are talented and determined to succeed, but meet time and again with failure in spite of their talent and determination.  What do you make of this disconnect between effort and the rewards?  I’ve thought and read a little about this.

The job of editors and publishers, I believe, is not unlike that of a casting director for a major Hollywood film.  In that role, you’d undoubtedly be exposed to any number of young, talented, and physically gifted  actors-to-be who lack nothing but for a chance to break out big.  Maybe some of them might even be extremely well-suited to filling the role you are casting for.  And yet, with huge Hollywood bucks on the line, time and again you opt for the big-name stars to fill your roles.  Why is this so?  Because a big-name star comes with a guaranteed box-office draw.  People will flock to see a movie more readily knowing their favorite stars are gracing the scene.  And that kind of certainty is often well-worth the extra cash you’ll have to pay the big stars.

So, too, goes it with the editors of large publishing firms.  The fact is, these firms are only going to print so many books in a year – and they want every one of those books they print to sell.  And so, given a choice between buying the rights to, say, Stephen King’s latest novel, or the rights to some new, unproven author’s contemporary horror, a publisher of horror is going to go with Stephen King every time.  Because Stephen King’s name on a book sells those books.

I’ve over-simplified the situation a little, of course.  There are contractual obligations involved with the big-name writers.  There’s lots of back-room wheeling and dealing.  And slots do open up for new authors in a publisher’s lists from time to time.  Even when that does happen, though, there are still other hurdles to overcome.  A publisher also only has so much money to budget for promotional efforts.  Again, the publisher is incented to devote the majority of that to the Stephen Kings and Dan Browns – because those investments will pay off in book sales in a very predictable way.  Investing promotional dollars on a new author, even one the publisher has chosen to publish, is still a risky proposition.  Sure, some editor liked the new writer’s work.  But it remains to be seen what the reading public will think of it.

Which leaves us with a certain catch-22 for new writers: even if you do obtain the dream, and your manuscript is picked up for publication, your dream may be short-lived if you can’t move copies of your book.  But how is your book going to reach a large audience without the promotional dollars to support it?

The End Game

Besides writing, I also like to draw, though it’s a hobby that I devote almost no time to, these days.  As with my writing, I prefer to draw things that are, by nature, either fantasy or science fiction.  Several years ago, somewhere in the early part of the decade, I posted several of my fantasy pictures to a website devoted to fantasy art called “Elfwood“.

A couple years ago, I was perusing my old elfwood page (which I hadn’t updated in ages, because of the aforementioned neglect of my drawing hobby) when I noticed that someone who had left a comment on one of my pages had passed away.  The person was a writer who had uploaded some of his written work onto the elfwood site.  When I read his biography, it told how he was a career businessman who retired and had started a new career as a fantasy writer.  The year he passed away he was expecting to get his first novel published.

I realized then that this is my fear: that I will work hard throughout my life at a career that ultimately does little to satisfy, and when I am finally freed from the shackles of the corporate world, I pass away before seeing the publication of any of my real work.  A story like the one from the writer who commented on my elfwood page reminds me that this is not an idle fear.  It is a reminder to “carpe diem”, as they say, and to do now what you can do to succeed and make something positive of life.

But if your goal in life is to get published, it’s not that easy.

When I was an undergraduate in college, I decided to pursue a degree in Business Administration.  It was not a subject for which I had any great passion.  But I made that choice with a purpose in mind.  I knew that one day I would be a husband and father and that, as such, I would have a responsibility to provide for the needs of my family.  To fulfill that responsibility, I would need a career with some reasonable amount of certainty, a job with some security and I knew the vagaries of a writer’s life were filled with uncertainties.  Or at least, I had read as much, in advice written by other writers, already successful and of some renown in their field.  And if they, being successful writers, had cause to offer such warnings on the uncertainties of success as a writer, I reasoned, what cause had I to suppose that my own fate in that line of work would be any more certain?

I choice a career in Business because it should prove a sure path to relatively secure and certain employment.

And it has been relatively secure, despite a few hiccups along the way.  But what it has not been is a sure path to self-fulfillment.  For that, I have my family, and I have my writing.

I personally know of three people, not counting myself, who have aspirations to become fantasy novelists.  Of course, I know many more who just enjoy reading fantasy or consuming fantasy and science fiction in various other media.  But I have to wonder: is this an anomaly, or is this normal?  Are there untold numbers of aspiring fantasy and science-fiction novelists, or do I just happen to know an unusual few?  Does such a high percentage of us, comparatively speaking, desire to write?  My gut tells me that this is normal, this is a trend, that there is an unusually high number of people who would be writers, if only they could be.  I’ve seen other evidence of this assertion, as well (the fact “how to write science-fiction and fantasy” books continue to sell – surely I cannot be the only one who reads these – or the number who post sample works online, and still other evidence beyond that).  And that’s a sobering thought.  The fact is, statistically speaking, of the three I know and myself, not a one of us is likely to actually be successful in seeing our work published by a major publishing firm.  Of the countless number of those who would be published, some will fail because they lack the motivation to keep trying.  Some will fail because, frankly, they lack the talent and skill (and I pray that I am not among them!).  But there are many who will have the motivation to keep trying, who have the talent and have honed their skill, and yet will still fall short of that goal.

If they have the talent and the perseverance, then why do they fail?