Saturday, April 30, 2011

Quick Note about May Dare

I realize that April is almost over -- so I should at least post some goals.

While I didn't do that much in terms of meeting the word count on the dare, I did write rough drafts of 7 stories. I only hit 8000 words out of 30,000 however. We'll see how much I add tomorrow.

For May, I'm just going to roll over the existing dare goals: 30,000 words for the month, on any project which suits me. The first two weeks will be awful because of the day job, but I should be able to make up for it in the latter part of the month.

For my goal of publishing something every month: I haven't decided on my May project yet. I suspect the story I would like to do won't quite be ready. However, I would like to get a paper copy of Have Gun, Will Play out. I have the interior laid out and uploaded. I just have to do the cover and proofs.

I also want to get some of the stories I wrote this month out to magazines.

Friday, April 29, 2011

eBook Experiment Update - Better Than A Poke With A Sharp Stick

I really haven't set the world on fire with my ebook publishing. I haven't even done as well as I'd hoped. But I haven't done all that bad either. In February, the most recent month for which I seem to have full data, I sold 81 books across all channels (not including freebies). I think 33 of those were at Amazon.

When I started, a little over a year ago, I knew that I couldn't expect Konrath-level success. So I sought out people who were more at my level. I have published a lot of short fiction, and had a certain amount of "almost" interactions with editors and agents on books. I also worked as a first reader, script reader and competition judge.

But I have not won out in comparison with these colleagues. After a year, I'm at the lower end of the spread.

However, I do believe I set my sights artificially high: Let's face it, the people who are quickest to tell about their experiences are those who have had the best experiences. Those who aren't doing so well don't really want to talk about it. (This happened when I was writing for eHow too -- everyone had an inflated idea of how much money an "average" article would make for members. When we did polls, we found out the actual average was lower.)

Maybe it's my ego speaking, but I suspect I'm a lot more average than it seems, and for that reason I figure I should talk about it.

And while my ego is speaking (so take this with a grain of salt) I'll look back on the year, and what I've observed, and tell you the reasons I think I haven't burst into the stratosphere:

1.) I started with the wrong book.... or did I?

The people who have done really well at indie publishing are mainly people who write a marketable, commercial book, and have a consistent body of work -- in other words, the same books and writers who are likely to do well at traditional publishing. Sure, a lot of them had a hard time getting published anyway, because it's a crowded market, and publishers thrive on scarcity. Each publisher will publish only so many paranormal romances, even if the audience is hungry for them.

It's really easy to match those books with that hungry audience, even if the author is pushing the envelope this way or that way. And once the book is matched with the audience, it's up to the book itself to sell.

For me? Last year, the future was still very hazy, and traditional publishing still looked like a good idea for my more commercial books. So I decided to test the water with my non-commercial books. My "what the heck genre is this anyway" books which I never intended to even try with traditional publishing.

So why would that be a problem for my whole career? Well, when I put out my more commercial work, any audience will find these other books confusing. Will they like my other stuff? Should they try it? And if they were to try it and dislike it, would they then be turned off everything I write?

So why would this NOT be a problem? Because everything I write is somewhat hard to categorize. Everything is a little bit non-commercial. I might as well start with the hard stuff.

And that is a nice segue into the next reason:

2.) I write in inconsistent and dead genres (and not even all the same genres).

It isn't that everything I write is not salable, it's just that everything I write is not what people expect. It's hard to raise anticipation when people can't tell for sure what something is. Is a mystery western going to be too westerny? Is it going to be western enough? Is there going to be a history quiz, or should we expect John Wayne? And the silly title... does that mean it's going to be Tarantino silly, or Bugs Bunny silly? Am I going to be wincing during the shootouts? Or am I going to be bored with how sanitized they are?

In the mean time, I have learned something over the years about my writing: editors and fellow writers, etc., always start out thinking I did certain things by accident. Then they realize I did it on purpose, and they have a moment of confusion. I meant to do that? And then they get it, and ask for more. (Or run screaming away.)

The reason it's hard to get at first is not because I am too different, but because I'm not different enough. I like to color close to the lines, and when you do that, people expect you to stay inside them. They think you made a mistake when you slip just outside the line. If you meant it, you'd go further...wouldn't you? That bugs people. At first. Until they get it. (If they get it.)

And I'm not going to stop doing that, because it's fun. (I do it when I'm driving too. I like ruts, but I don't think they should be so well defined. So I drive on the edge of the rut.)

3.) I can't afford a cover which would please me, so I'd rather be displeased with my own free covers.

Covers are important, and I'd definitely do better with better covers. But given points one and two, a really great cover will probably mislead the audience anyway. (For instance, Harsh Climate has a cover which looks more commercial, more serious, and less quirky than the story really is. Is that a good thing?)

4.) Since my books are not so easily marketable, I have chosen a much slower path toward fame and fortune.

I don't have a book in a hot genre, so there really isn't a point in getting a slick cover, pricing at 99 cents and promoting the heck out of it.

My sales were higher when I did more promotion. But the time and effort spent was not at all worth those results. If my body of work were more standard, I might put in more effort on that front. I do believe that under the right circumstances, promoting the heck out of your work and spending money and lowering your price and all that can pay off in dividends later. I don't think I have the kind of books which benefit from that, (and I don't know that even the kind of books which can benefit will always benefit).

Some of my books are commercial enough, though, that when I have several that go together, regular marketing will be more worth my time. But I'm not there yet.

So what is my strategy going forward?

Given what I've said above, it's pretty clear that I've got to get people used to my style. Which means:

1. Go back to basics; You must write. Good Old Heinlein and his rules. Get a lot of work out there and spread it around. That means I will be doing a lot of short fiction, as well as finishing up my novels and working forward on the next.

2. Get the work out there. I will be submitting fiction to commercial markets again, and also looking for guest post opportunities for short fiction. And, of course, the Story Sunday here, which will include excerpts sometimes, but I really want to commit to having fun short fiction here every week.

3. Stop worrying about strategy. Which book is next? Should I do this or that? I've got too much to do to take time to fret. If I put that energy into writing, I'll get to all the books faster. (And when I get enough books done, my body of work might start making sense.)

4. Keep working on the art. Whether it's buying a cover, or working on my own skills, a cover reflects your brand.

5. And speaking of brands, this blog is important to building a relationship with readers. This is the most comfortable way to put myself out there.

So for this week, we finish up the Hemingway's Baby Shoes competition -- the deadline is Saturday at midnight EST. I might be a little lenient since I don't have many entries yet.

I will post a list and links to all the entrants on Tuesday -- and if I don't get flooded with last minute entries, I will post the winner then too. (If I DO get flooded with last minute entries, I'll let you know Tuesday when I expect to announce.)

In the meantime, I will post my usual Story Sunday (an excerpt from The Curse of Scattershale Gulch, I think) then the story notes on Monday.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Story Notes - Alphabet Soup

A long long long long time ago, I wrote a story for Highlights for Children. (Not this story -- another story.) I had read their guidelines and I could not believe you could write a story that short. Under 400 words? That's short.

So of course, I took it as a challenge and wrote one. It sold. Highlights wanted "Work For Hire" rights, but I figured okay, because I actually did write the story for them, and they were offering me $100 for it, I figured it was a really cool professional credit.

A few years later they started reselling the rights to that story to educational publishers, and sending me a cut of the take. And again and again. I've made more money on that little story than I have on anything I've written since. I still get regular checks, thirty years later.

And it was SO easy.

Can I replicate that effort to save my life? No. That one idea for that one very short story that happened to be educational and have the right reading level and be fun -- that was it. It's the only suitable story I've had for Highlights. Ever.

It isn't even like I submitted a bunch of stories and they rejected them. I just couldn't come up with anything that fit the criteria to submit. But I tried.

"Alphabet Soup" was one of the attempts.

I have always liked this story because, even though it's not a Highlights story, it's very much a me story. Maybe it's the influence of all those silent movies. I learned from Buster Keaton that inanimate objects can be very contrary.

And the lesson of a story like this? There isn't one. Just like a Buster Keaton movie. We dig ourselves in to holes and sometimes, improbably, we manage to fall out of them. All we can do is survive, and mean well, and sometimes eat our words. That's not really a Highlights kind of story.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cutting Back on Posting for A Couple of Weeks

I have a cold, I'm feeling burnt out, everybody around me is sick, and it's the end of the semester when day job issues ramp up to a fever pitch. Therefore I'm going to cut back on posting for a couple of weeks (until the semester is over).

I will do five things each week:

  • Story Sunday
  • Story Notes Monday
  • Character Wednesday Interviews (but not this week)
  • Friday Update

And I'll update my progress every night in the "Current Dare Progress" widget in my sidebar.

I'll skip this week's Character Wednesday, because I haven't actually contacted the author with the edited post yet.

I will post the Story Notes for "Alphabet Soup" tonight, and on Friday, we'll have an extra spiffy edition of the update: I'll take a look back at my eBook Experiment, and update you on where that stands.

I expect to start back on the regular schedule on May 15.

Plans Gang Agley

Had to deal with an emergency tonight. All is going well now, but I did not have the Story Notes post done, and so I'll post it tomorrow.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Alphabet Soup - a little fable for writers

This week for Story Sunday, I give you "Alphabet Soup." I wrote this originally as a children's story but, like a lot of my fairy tales, this really seems more like a fable for writers. Sometimes stories really do act like this.


"Alphabet Soup"
by Camille LaGuire

THERE ONCE WAS an author who ate a lot of soup. Like many authors and artists, he lived in a garret, which is a cold little room in an attic. In his garret he had a bed, a chair, a table, a stove, a pot and a shelf. On the shelf he kept the books which he had written.

He had written a lot of books, though nobody had read them. The words inside the books felt they were quite special anyway. After all, none of the other things in the room could think. The words could think a lot, and they thought mostly about themselves.

"We are the most important things in this room," they thought. "Words make up ideas, and ideas are the most important things ever to exist."

They were very proud of themselves.

The author, however, was not very proud of himself. Nobody ever read his books. Every time he showed them to someone, it seemed like the words had moved around, and the story was not as good as when he wrote it. People did not buy many of his books, so he was very poor. He never had much to eat.

One day he had nothing but some broth. It was very thin broth, almost all water. He heated it up on his stove and took a sip to see if it was ready. It was so thin that it did not have any flavor.

"This soup is just going to make me feel worse," he said, and he decided to go to bed without eating it.

The words inside the books were worried. Why was the author so poor? Why, they wondered, did no one buy them and make him rich? They started to talk about it, but soon they began to argue. (Because, after all, arguing is what words to best.)

"Our book is the best book ever written," said the words in the first book. "The rest of you are so bad, it must be your fault that nobody wants to buy us!"

The other books, of course, all said that they were the best books ever written. They argued and argued. Then the chapters within each book started to argue with each other, each saying it was best. Then the paragraphs began to argue, and then even the sentences. Pretty soon each word was arguing with every other word. They got so noisy, that they woke the author up. He sat up in his bed and looked around. He could not tell where the noise was coming from.

Then the words began to break apart, and the letters began to fight with each other. They couldn't really argue anymore once they weren't words, but they could make a lot of noise.

"Rrrrrrr!" growled the r.

"H h h h," panted the h.

"T t t t!" tisked the t.

Then the capital A kicked the small h with its foot, and the h swung its top around to hit the A back. It missed and knocked the dot from the top of the small j. Suddenly every letter was fighting with every other letter. They poured out of the books and onto the shelf, piling into a great battle that amazed the frightened author.

The shelf began to shake, but the letters didn't even notice. Then the shelf broke and spilled all the books on the floor. The letters fell into the pan on the stove.

The author jumped out of bed and picked up his books. The pages were empty. Not one letter had stayed in the books. He felt terrible. He had spent his whole life writing those books, and now they were gone!

His stomach growled, and he remembered how hungry he was. He looked at the soup on the stove. That's when he saw where all his letters had gone. They were in a thick jumble. He would never get them back into order.

But now his thin broth was thick soup.

He was hungry.

Oh well, he thought. I might as well just eat it. At least I will have a full stomach. He ate the soup, which was very satisfying, and then went back to bed. All night he digested the letters, and when he woke up he began to write the books all over again.

This time the books really were the best ever written, because the letters had learned their lesson, and this time they stayed where the author put them.


I hope to put a few more of these fables for writers together, and maybe make a collection some day. In the meantime, read my Story Notes about "Alphabet Soup" tomorrow.

You can read more of my fantasy fiction in The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic at all Amazon Kindle Stores: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon DE. As well as at other ebook retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Nobel, Apple iBookstore, Nook, and Sony.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Woolgathering, and Chocloate Donuts with Sprinkles

Somewhere in the second act of the movie The Fugitive, Marshal Sam Gerard (played by Tommy Lee Jones) catches his junior deputy woolgathering.

"What are you doin'?" he says.

"Thinkin'," says Newman, the poor innocent junior deputy.

"Well think me up a cup of coffee and chocolate donut with those little sprinkles on it, while you're thinkin'," snaps Gerard.

I love that line because it's so unexpected... and so right. Gerard has already been established as a real unforgiving guy. We know he sets people up, and what you answer to any question might be a trap. In an earlier scene he rips the prison guards and local cops solidly for their incompetent reactions.

So when the newbie is caught woolgathering, we expect his head to get bit off.

But it turns out Mr. Sam "Hyper-Competent" Gerard is not dismissive of thinking. He's a thinker himself. If the kid had said "nothing" he would have ended up a smear on the pavement, but since he claimed to be using his head, he was given a task to use his head on.

So don't stop thinking ... but while you're thinking, think up something tasty.


...perhaps think something up for the Hemingway's Baby Shoes Microfiction Contest! (How's that for a segue?) We have one more entry this week:

Check it out, and if you're thinking about entering, there's not much time left. The deadline is midnight EST on April 30.

How To Find (Other) Places To Publish Your Fiction

I notice that a lot of indie writers don't know how or where to submit stories for publication these days. Which makes sense. If all you're going to do is self-publish, you don't need to know how to find markets....

Unless you want to use them to help promote your work. Traditional magazine and webzine publication is a place which will pay YOU to display a multi-page ad for your work (otherwise known as a "story").

Or maybe I convinced you in yesterday's post, that you want to start your very own rejection slip collection.

How do you find magazines to submit your fiction to?

The first thing to realize is that there is no such thing as an up-to-date or complete market listing. Markets change constantly.

So even though there are some great market databases listed below: the very first thing you must always do when you find a new market, no matter where you get the info about that market, is find the market's website and look that site over thoroughly. Find their writer's guidelines. Read them. Obey them. (I mean, yes, I said you want to collect rejection slips, but you don't want the story to be rejected out of hand if you can help it.)

It's also a good idea to read a few stories if they have them published on the site. And not a bad idea to buy a sample copy or two if they don't.

The Market Listings:

DuoTrope: DuoTrope is currently the best known of the free online market databases. They don't have every market, but they do have a heck of a lot. They also have a search engine to help find different genres or pay rates or other criteria. Some anthologies list here.

Ralan's Webstravaganza: Ralan is a little like DuoTrope, with perhaps an emphasis on science fiction, fantasy and horror, but covers everything. Some anthologies put out calls here.

Gila Queen's Guide to Markets: Gila Queen is a paid subscription newsletter with themed issues. Lots of anthologies and other temporary and changeable info. Lots of news about markets closing down or the movement of editors. It's put out by Kathy Ptacek, a really hard working woman who has been doing this for many years, and very much worthy of your money.

Writer's Market: Writer's Market is a huge enterprise, with books, websites, more books, magazines. WM has always suffered from being very popular and very out of date. However, they are now completely online, which means their database is more regularly updated. It's a subscription service, but if you are cash strapped, you can subscribe for just a month (or even use their 14-day trial) and use the heck out of it to gather lots of market ideas. You won't find anthology calls here, though.

Writer's Organizations:

The Society of Children's Bookwriters and Illustrators, and the Science Fiction Writers of America are both famous for their rosters and listings. I was a full member of both of them and I can vouch for the useful info I got from them. There are lots of other organizations out there, and the only downside is that most of them cost money to join... and many have membership criteria to meet. (Although most have an "associate" sort of membership for those who don't have full professional qualifications.) One that doesn't have a membership fee or qualifications is the Short Mystery Fiction Society -- which was formed to promote the genre at a time when short mystery fiction was on the wane.

A few others I know off hand: The Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America. I never belonged to these organizations, so I can't tell you about the quality of their rosters and lists -- but I can say they have lots of good info for everyone (not just members) on their websites.

Finally, you can talk to writer friends -- and watch for where they have published! Get "Best of" anthologies and look where the stories were originally published. If there are listings of stories nominated for awards, odds are you can find the magazines which all the stories put forward were first publsihed.

You can even use Google. Search for magazines and site which publish fiction you want to read. (And it's a good idea to read them too.) Most of them will have guidelines posted on the site.

Of course, if you're looking for exposure rather than rejection slips, you can also look for blogfests (such as the Hemingway's Baby Shoes Microfiction Contest I'm sponsoring - only a little more than a week left), and sites which take guest posts. Or you can do as I do and publish some short fiction or poetry or jokes or songs on your site regularly.

Preferably you'll do all of the above.

Tomorrow I'll post a little on the value of woolgathering as well as links to at least one more entrant in the Hemingway's Baby Shoes contest. Then on Sunday, a fable for writers....

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I'm Number One! (in Germany, sort of)

We interrupt this blog to bring fun news:

THE BELLHOUND IS NUMBER ONE (in English language fantasy anthologies in Germany).

These ratings tend to roll over fast. I'm enjoying the glory as fast as I can. (Danke, Deutchland!)

Find The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic at all Amazon Kindle Stores:
Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon DE
As well as at other ebook retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Nobel, Apple iBookstore, Nook, Sony

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Miss Rejection Slips

Maybe I'm weird.

When indie writers talk informally, one thing they seem to agree on is that it's nice to be free of the dreaded rejection slip. We all have funny war stories about the rejection slip that came back so fast it must have been mailed before they even saw the story, or the form rejection printed on the back of a subscription slip, or the many strange reasons for rejection. ("We don't publish religious fiction" when the story has nothing religious about it at all.) Or my favorite, the manuscript returned without a slip at all, just the word "No" penciled on the top of the first page.

Me? Rejection slips are probably the biggest thing I miss about traditional publishing.

When I first started, I heard that you have to acquire at least a hundred rejection slips before you get published. It was just a random number, but it seemed about right when we all compared notes. We all first published when we were at least getting in the upper double digits. Maybe 70 or 80.

Sometimes one of us would get a lucky break earlier, but then it often took longer to make the second sale. Even those who delayed submitting stories so that they would be better writers still found they had a lot of rejections to collect. (Although it went faster, because they had a lot more stories to submit, and when they got rejected, they could follow up quicker.)

We saw rejection slips as a badge of honor, like scars of war wounds. It was a posture, a way to display toughness and take the sting out of it... but in reality it's a lot more than that. And I think underneath we all knew that.

Rejections don't make you a better writer. Not directly. Yes, some editors send suggestions toward revision, but unless they offering to buy the story, those notes are of limited value. Because unlike writing class, the real world is not built on an absolute scale of quality. Editors look for stories that suit their markets. They make suggestions that suit their magazine but don't necessarily suit anyone else's. Still you learned something from them.

But what you really gain is maturity. Seasoning. Forget the badge of honor, forget the individual little lessons and realize that rejections are also progress markers. They're like hatch marks on a fighter plane, or the marks a mother draws on a wall so her children can see their growth. They just say that you've done something. It's what you've done that makes you a better writer.

What have you done?

1.) You wrote. You can't acquire a lot of rejections without writing a lot of stories.

2.) You did research to find markets to send stories too -- thereby becoming knowledgeable about what is available and popular.

3.) You studied writer's guidelines for those markets, and you checked out what else they published... so you became aware of what readers were used to and what they liked, and what was old hat and what was new.

4.) You took a second look at any story which was rejected to see what could have gone wrong -- not so you could revise it, but so you knew what to do better next time. And a lot of rejections means a lot of looks at each story.

5.) You talked to other writers, especially those who had successfully sold a story, and you got their opinion on why that editor didn't like that story which seemed perfect. In other words you got advice relating to your story, not just your pricing and marketing and where to advertise (which is the advice most indie writers seem to seek from each other).

Note that all of those things focus on your writing and on gaining a wider perspective of how readers react to it. You learn to see you work from other points of view, and to recognize who your audience is. And not just on a theoretical basis. Instead of getting wisdom as a summary of truth, you see it in detail in it's infinite variety.

And you get to see it in action. In all that variety, in all it's extremes. This is what it really means to be sophisticated. We tend to pretend that sophistication is the the acquisition of certain sophisticated attitudes, but what it really means is that you have a lot of experience that allows you to more quickly see how something new works. How to look past the surface and poke it with a stick in just the right place to make it jump the way you want.

While I think surface sophistication is highly overrated, real sophistication -- knowing how the world works and having a lot of in depth experience -- is to be prized above chocolate. Prized above chocolate, bacon, and oyster sauce (which is the bacon of the Asian world -- it makes everything taste great).

Self-publishing has traditional publishing beat in terms of the rewards, but it just does not compare in terms of gaining experience and sophistication. Part of the problem is that it's too accelerated. It's great for the advanced writer, but for the beginner, it's a terrible way to learn. You don't have to do any of the things listed above before you have your work out there in the world. You only have to write one thing, and you can publish it without learning anything except how to format.

So if rejection slips are a badge of honor -- which show what you've done and that you've behaved heroically and professionally in putting your work out there in front of a specific critical audience -- then you have to think of self-publishing as an act of faith. You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if anybody will notice it or read it. It's like leaving your manuscript on park benches and wondering if anybody will notice, or if they'll just throw it away. You kinda, sorta learn from the experience, but it takes longer and the lessons are more vague.

Every now and then indie writers become frustrated at the the whole uncertainty of the business. They see readers looking at us with mistrust, and hear the criticism of old pros and reviewers -- most of which is vague so it's hard to tell how much applies to their own work -- and they think, it would be nice to have some sort of independent seal of approval. Maybe we could have an organization of some sort to certify things? That proposal always gets shot down, because in the end, who's going to create and run and set the standards for such an organization?

In the end, the debate about that is pointless, because we already have a system by which we gain experience and get a seal of approval.

We call it "Traditional Publishing."

You don't have to give up on indie publishing to realize that traditional publishing still has a lot to offer the writer... especially in short fiction. Or even articles and poetry and jokes. There are markets out there for your work. If you can break into them, they will not only pay you, but they will give you exposure to a new audience....

And they will give you rejection slips.

No matter what kind of writer you are, you haven't really proven yourself until you've collected at least a few rejections.

Tomorrow I'll talk about how to find some of those markets so you can start your own rejection collection.

Character Wednesday: Laura Lond

This is the second of our series of interviews with authors about their favorite secondary characters.

Today, Laura Lond will tell us about Lord Farizel Narr, a court jester who was once a respected nobleman, in The Palace (the second book in her fantasy trilogy The Adventures of Jecosan Tarres, which began with The Journey).

Camille: Laura, why don't you start by telling us a little about Lord Farizel.

Laura: Lord Farizel Narr makes his appearance in The Palace, the second book of my fantasy adventure trilogy. A highly educated nobleman, former personal tutor of the princess, he gets demoted to the position of a court jester “for inappropriate presentation of history,” as he puts it.

Camille: That sounds like a fun attitude (and one likely to get a person into trouble). So what made you create Lord Farizel?

Laura: Whenever I read historical adventure novels, I become fascinated with the themes of honor and disgrace that often run through them. The ideas of keeping, losing, restoring one’s honor are not something most people talk much about today, but I don’t think the concepts are outdated. Through Lord Farizel, I wanted too weave these themes into a story of my own.

Camille: Stories of redemption are always relevant. Does this theme reflect themes in the main story, or are you using it more to add something stronger or of more depth to the main story?

Laura: A little bit of both, I think. It adds more depth, and also echoes the main theme of staying true to your calling and keeping a good heart.

Camille: So, what makes Lord Farizel special to you?

Laura: His courage, intelligence, humor, and manners. He has it all -- and he manages to keep it all after the disgraceful demotion that would have crushed most people’s spirit

Camille: Do you have more planned for him?

Laura: Lord Farizel also appears in the third and final book of the trilogy where his story comes to a satisfactory conclusion. But if I ever decide to write another book set in the same world, he will certainly be there.

Laura Lond is an internationally published author of several novels and a collection of short stories. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. Having worked for 2 years at a literary museum, Laura entered the world of business, working for large international corporations like Xerox Ltd. and Fluor Daniel. After moving from Europe to the United States, she has been self-employed as a freelancer.

Find all three books in the
Adventures of Jecosan Tarres trilogy at Amazon: The Journey, The Palace, and The Battle. (As well as at other online retailers, such as Smashwords.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Coming on the Blog This Week

I meant to include this in the update, but I was woolgathering about a story....

Coming this week:

For Character Wednesday, Laura Lond tells us about an unusual court jester in her fantasy series.

Then I tell you why I miss rejection slips, how you can get your very own rejection slip collection, and then point out the positive connection between woolgathering and donuts. (Hint, it involves sprinkles. Extra point if you have any idea what that means....)

And we'll finish up the week with a Fable for Writers called "Alphabet Soup" which will explain a lot to those of you who find your stories don't quite say what you meant them too.

See you in the funny papers!

Tuesday Update

Last weekend I got some good writing done, but this week was mostly rewriting and editing and prepping a book for publication.

"The Curse of Scattershale Gulch" is successfully published on both Amazon and Smashwords, but it will be a while before it reaches all the other sites, so I'm going to hold off on promoting it until then.

Besides, I am unhappy with the result. The cover I worked so hard on, and tested at multiple sizes, looks like crap on both Amazon and Smashwords, after they ran their own compression to do the thumbnails. So a lesson learned, just because a jpeg shrinks and compresses well when done right, doesn't mean it's going to compress well with whatever tool online retailers use. I have a few more things to test, and the cover template still needs a lot of work anyway...

So that's a learning experience.

In the meantime, when I look at my 59,238 active writing projects (okay, okay ... it just seems like that many), I see they are swapping lengths with me again. I'm beginning to wonder if Old Paint is really a novel, or just a novella. It seems to want to simplify rather than go deeper, and maybe that's why it keeps stalling. In the meantime my novella Devil In A Blue Bustle (which is 20k and seems three quarters done) has some plot holes that could benefit from some fun subplots.

I'm thinking Bustle might be a better follow up to Have Gun, Will Play, too. It has a closer tone, in terms of the development of the relationship. Also more opportunities for Mick to make a fool of himself. (Old Paint, though, has opportunities for Casey to make a fool of herself, and maybe would be a better third book anyway.) Still, unless one of those subplots really takes off, Bustle will be a short novel.

So part of this week's goal will be to pull that out and brainstorm to see what will work with it. I might get started on it right away, but I think I'll mostly save it for next month, while I continue with short fiction for this month.

Tomorrow we have another installment of Character Wednesday, with an interview with Laura Lond about a court jester with much more to him than jokes.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Story Notes: The Burglar's Dilemma

If you haven't read the flash story I posted yesterday, "The Burglar's Dilemma" go read it now (if you care about spoilers).
THIS IS ONE of the three stories I wrote in a quick sitting last weekend. I had intended to just scribble some notes and ideas, when I realized that I had taxes to do, and I would not get a chance to write for the rest of the day. So I just started writing, flat out.

I had full plot ideas for two of the stories, and rough drafts of both went pretty quickly. But for the third I only had a concept: I have wanted, for a while now, to write a series of short stories about a "Fairy God-Burglar." The concept is that a skilled burglar can do things that seem like magic. Nobody knows he's there. He can get into places nobody else can. He can make things vanish or appear or move.

But as I sat there thinking "What next? What next? What next...?" I forgot any ideas I'd already had. I just thought "burglar helps people." I grabbed the first idea that came into my head: a burglar can witness and interrupt a crime.

Perfect, because it introduces an automatic dilemma: the last thing a burglar wants to do is to reveal himself OR get involved with the cops. And most burglars are not very confrontational. (That's why they're burglars.) Not exactly your fighting tough guys. And that's what gave me my real hook, and his motivation.

He's shy.

He doesn't like hurting people, and he doesn't like seeing them hurt. And because of those things he's going to armor himself as much as possible. Like wearing a disguise. And the disguise would enable him to resolve the case without really being tough. Cool.

So I typed out the bare bones of the story, which allowed me to discover my kicker. The burglar, of course, is not a con man, so he isn't practiced at pretending to be someone he's not. He's still got to pull of his own escape. He's got to worry about whether to abort his own crime so nobody will be after him, about how and when to slip away. Plus he's out of his element now -- in the social world, and he knows he can't pull off his impersonation of a cop long.

The fall back on claiming he's really a stripper is one of those fate things. I did not plan it to strike a chord with the fact that he's shy, but once it was there, I saw that it was the perfect ending. He's a thief disguised as a cop, and a shy person disguised as a stripper. I suppose the only other irony that could take this even further is if he were shy and gay (what with coming out of the closet and all).

These are the discoveries that turn an incident into a story.

This story could certainly use more polishing before I do anything else with it, but that's the core that will guide me on rewrites. And it will resonate with future stories I write with Rod, the Fairy God-Burglar.

Tomorrow, I'll give you an update for the week's progress, including more info about "The Curse of Scattershale Gulch" which is now online with both Kindle and Smashwords. Then we'll have an interview with Laura Lond for Character Wednesday.


You can read more of my mystery and suspense fiction in the short ebook collection: Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup! Five Mystery Stories.

Available for 99 cents at the Amazon Kindle Store, Kindle UK, and in multiple formats at Smashwords. Also available at the B&N Nook Store, as well as the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony and other e-retailers.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Burglar's Dilemma, a short crime comedy

For Story Sunday, I offer a new flash story, written last week, and still not polished. I've always liked crime stories about likable crooks, like Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr stories or Donald Westlake's Dortmunder stories. I may make Rod into a regular character....

* * * * * *

The Burglar's Dilemma
by Camille LaGuire

ONE NIGHT, WHEN Rod was making his exit from a jewelry store, where he had acquired some heavily discounted diamonds, he cut through a another shop on his way out.

This shop sold costumes, and they had a whole rack of uniforms; cops, security guards, soldiers. And since it was night and there was nobody there to stop him, he paused to check them over for one that looked kinda like a cop, but not too much, so that he couldn't get in trouble for impersonating an officer.

Because he didn't want to impersonate an officer. Rod was a burglar, not a robber. He liked acquiring things, he didn't like scaring people. He didn't even like talking to them, really. He was shy.

So this idea of wearing a security uniform when he went on jobs seemed just right for him. People avoid looking you in the eye when you're an authority figure. Most of the time, they don't look at you at all and all they saw was the uniform.

Rod liked not being remembered.

A couple of days later, Rod waltzed right in to an old apartment building, behind somebody with a key to the security door. They glanced at his chest, not at his face.

The apartment itself was full of nice things, but he didn't touch most of them. Rod wasn't greedy and the plan was not to draw attention to himself. Fact is, most people don't check their safes every single day, so if he was careful, they wouldn't even notice he'd been there until a long time later.

And besides, what would a cop or security guard be doing hauling down a bunch of electronics or art objects? Then people would look at him. But if he just walked out the way he walked in, nobody would remember a couple days later.

So Rod cracked the safe and only took the best pieces of jewelry and some cash; things that would fit in his pockets. Then he shut the safe and cleaned up after himself. There. Perfect.

As he got to the door, though, he heard a sound.

The sound of a key in the lock. Crap! The people had come home.

The door was already opening. He had no time, so he ducked into the closet beside the door and hoped they weren't wearing coats or carrying tennis rackets. If he was lucky, he could slip out when they went into the bedroom or something.

The people, however, stopped right there in front of the door and talked. An argument. Rod sighed and realized he might be in for a long night. He held still, and tried not to listen, but of course he had to, because he needed to know if they were going to open the closet or go in the other room and have make up sex....

The thing was, they weren't really arguing. The guy was using a voice like you argue with, nasty and mean. The woman, though, she didn't say hardly anything.

Then he heard a smack, like somebody got slapped. And the woman made a sound then, like she was the one who got smacked, even if the was the guy who was saying things that should have got him smacked. There was a sound like she fell against the closet door, and he could hear what she said next clearly.

"You won't get away with it," said the woman. "They'll know you did it."

"I'll blame it on a burglar," said the guy.

Rod stood up straight. No! He'd done such a good job of covering his tracks. And this guy.... Wait a minute, this guy was talking about killing the woman!

"I've got to tie you up first," said he man. "They'll know if the rope burns came after death, after all."

"No!" cried the woman.

"If you fight it will just help my story," said the guy, and he pulled her away from the door and Rod heard them go into the next room. Rod reached for the door knob, and pictured the position of the main door. He could get out fast.

The woman was crying now.

Rod didn't like hearing people cry. It bothered him. And you can't afford to be bothered about people's feelings when you're a crook.

But what could he really do? If he jumped out and intervened, the guy would still kill the woman after he left. It's not like he could wait around for the cops to arrive, and now the guy would have a real burglar to blame.

No, he'd have to hurt the guy, and help the woman escape. Then she could testify and the guy couldn't kill her. Just the word testify gave Rod the heebie-jeebies. He clutched at his belt as he thought how he could end up testifying too.

And he felt the gun in his belt. It was fake, but it was a pretty good fake.

He took a breath and lept out of the closet. He drew his weapon and roared like the voice from his own worst nightmares:

"Police! Drop it, asshole!"

The guy was so startled he not only dropped the rope, he fell right over. He started to get back up, but Rod shoved him back down.

"Hands on your head! Cross your ankles!"

He had the guy down like a pro. The handcuffs were fake too -- they just had a button you could use to release them -- but they were metal and probably felt right to fool the guy.

"You, lady," he said as he snapped them on the guy's wrists. "Go down stairs. Call 9-1-1- for back up!"

She scrambled to her feet and started to run for the door, but then paused to look at him.

"Wouldn't it be faster to use your radio?"

What do you say to that? Claim it's on the fritz? And now she was looking closer at the gun, and the cuffs, and his uniform. Rod was a fast thinker. He had the guy restrained now.

"Uh, I can't," he admitted. "I'm not really a cop, I'm a... a stripper."

"A stripper?"

"Yeah, I saw you in the hall and I didn't like the look on his face so I followed you up here. Maybe you'd better go to a neighbor's to call the cops in case this guy gets away from me."

The woman looked him over, and Rod was grateful that he had been working out lately, because the way he had looked last year, he would not have passed for a stripper.

She picked up her purse and pulled out a card and wrote something on it. Then she handed it to him.

"Call me," she said. "I may want a stripper for my divorce party."

She left the apartment while Rod used the rope to tie the guy up good. He considered putting the money and jewelry back, or slipping it into the guy's pocket, because frankly, that divorce party sounded interesting.

But he was shy, and they'd expect him to take that uniform off, so he kept the jewels and made his exit.


* * * * * *

Stay tuned for tomorrow's Story Notes on "The Burglar's Dilemma."

In the meantime: you can read more of my (published and award nominated) mystery and suspense fiction in the short ebook collection: Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup! Five Mystery Stories. For 99 cents!

Available at the Amazon Kindle Store, Kindle UK, and in multiple formats at Smashwords. Also available at the B&N Nook Store, as well as the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony and other e-retailers.

Friday, April 15, 2011

First Entries in the Hemingway's Baby Shoes Microfiction Blogfest

The first entries in the Hemingways Babyshoes Microfiction Contest have arrived!

Check them out:

Green & Gold by Mike Miller

Door-Stepping by Jez Watts

And more:

He Wore His Son's Baby Shoes by Kaye Linden

Goodbye, Kids! by Uddhav Parab

I started this contest not to promote my blog, but because I want to see more free fiction on the web. Writers need to be read, and fiction writers need to be writing more short interesting fiction on their blogs -- and not just writing about writing.

As Heinlein says: you must write, you must finish what you start, you must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order, you must put it on the market, you must keep it on the market until sold.

Or in other words, in the modern Web 2.0 age, "put it on the market" means you must follow through and get your stuff read. You need people to get to know you through your fiction, and not just through your dazzling blog and twitter personalities.

So to those who are readers, I hope we can provide you with some fun. To those who are writers: get cracking. Remember the deadline is April 30, midnight EST. (Check out the rules here.)

Every Saturday before then, I will post the links of any new entries I receive.

Tomorrow I'll post a couple more flash stories (although no more about baby shoes -- I don't want to compete with the contestants.)

See you in the funny papers.

Novella, Novelette, Page-Count and Word-Count

Most people these days are used to two definitions for length in a story. It's either a novel or it's a short story. There are longer and shorter versions of each, but nothing in between.

It wasn't always this way. People used to know what a novella or novelette were. This was back in the days when magazines and newspapers would print all sorts of lengths. And book publishers were also more flexible. However, the cost of printing and paper make it more expensive to produce those shorter lengths, and they have slowly died off as the big distributors and big box stores began to dominate the publishing industry.

With ebooks, all those odd lengths are back. And some report they are thriving. So maybe it's time to define some terms, and explain a few things about "length."

But first we should talk about how to measure the length of a book reliably:

Most readers think of books in terms of page count, but that's the very worst way to judge the length of a story, because the number of words on a page varies widely. You could have anywhere from 150 to 800 words on a page in a printed book.

In the publishing industry, they need a standardized way to measure things, and they use word count. Yes, word count does vary too, but not nearly as much. (Plus the way you used to figure length included calculations for all those variables. It's one of the reasons why standard manuscript form used to use Courier font, and why Hollywood scripts still do -- it's a standard, mono-spaced font.)

The standard length for a manuscript page is 250 words -- and that's pretty much the ONLY standardized measure in length out there. That's what Apple appears to use to estimate page count on ebooks in its iBookstore. Mass market paperbacks are a little higher, but not always. Trade paperbacks and hardbacks vary all over the place.

Because 250 is a nailed-down standard, I think a good argument could be made for authors to use it in their book descriptions to help the reader know what the length is. It's reasonable to describe a 25,0000 word novella as about 100 pages. However, since most readers don't know the standard, I'm a little torn. In a regular paperback, 25,000 words probably wouldn't take up quite 100 pages, so would it be deceptive to say that? But since there is no standard, how is any number not deceptive?

I go back and forth on which is better, 250 or 300 words per page, but in the end I think we just have to pick a standard and stick with it. And we should give both numbers. "This novella is 25,000 words, or about 100 pages." By doing this the readers can get a good idea of just what word count means.

Now as to length definitions:

The Science Fiction Writers of America uses these definitions for its Nebula awards, and most people consider them to be pretty standard:

  • Short fiction: under 7,500 words
  • Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up

Shorter stories use different techniques, and have different kinds of subjects, so the Short Mystery Fiction Society subdivides the shortest categories further for their Derringer Awards:

  • Flash story: up to 1000 words
  • Short short story: 1001 - 4000 words
  • Long short story: 4001-8000 words
  • Novelette: 8001-17,500 words

Beyond that, SMFS doesn't consider it to be short fiction, and there are many who do consider a novella to be a short novel. There have been a lot of novellas published as stand-alone books.

One other note about measuring length -- with the advent of ebooks you do hear a lot about file size and "locations." These are even less accurate than page count. Files might have illustrations and added features which bloat the size. Furthermore, a file can be full of hidden junk. Programs like Word like to tuck in useless things like a listing of all the fonts on the user's system, or remnants of things that were deleted, or complicated encodings for simple layout features. All of that junk not only affects the size of the file it also affects how Kindle sees its own internal measuring system of "locations."

The best measure of length is word count, and if we authors start putting word count in the descriptions of our stories, it will help readers understand what it means. Sometimes it isn't possible -- sometimes we are limited in the amount of information we can put in a description for instance. Sometimes we forget. But it's worth the effort.

I hope this post has helped both readers and writers out there to sort out the length issue.

See you in the funny papers.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Covers: Is a Picture Really Worth (Several) Thousand Words?

(Note: I eventually revamped all of my short story covers and went for a different look.  You can read the follow up: My New Short Story Covers.)

I just spent, over the past few weeks, more time on the cover on a 99 cent novelette than I probably spent on the story itself -- thereby tripling my production "costs" on the darn thing. Since 99 cent ebooks get half the percentage of higher priced book, I will not likely recoup my wages from it for a very long time, if ever.

Frankly, I think it needs a lot more work, but I am nonetheless pleased.

For one thing, I am going to use this cover as a model for future Mick and Casey novellas and novelettes -- to build a brand, as they say. Three quarters of the work I did on this (finding and selecting fonts, playing with the design, etc) will be already done for future books in the series. And anything new I do to the design will be easy to go back and change on this one.

I don't have the money to invest in building a brand right now, but I can do the sweat equity. Especially when it's fun. I really do enjoy browsing for reference photos (see my Images and Inspiration post) or doodling, while listening to podcasts of Garrison Keillor's News from Lake Woebegone, or to Keith Olbermann read stories by James Thurber.

I modeled this one classic pulp covers. The pulp publishers were masters of creating a quickly recognizable brand for the readers, via layout and fonts, and colors. The audience knows at a glance they're getting a fast fun read, and also can spot their favorites quickly just from the layout and colors.

But aside from branding, and having fun, there is another important business reason to spend so much extra time and effort on this cover:

99 cent ebooks are a "gateway drug." You could even call them an advertisement for your other works. A novelette may be short and cheap, but it's also a quick, enticing read. When people buy a book, they're making a commitment in time, attention, energy, and yes, affection. Samples may help, but they aren't a complete work -- more of a tease. A shorter work is less of a risk, and it also pays off fully with an ending and everything.

So why not make an e-booklet the most enticing thing you publish? Why not make it a real appetizer, and do it right, both in contents AND presentation? Like great sushi.

Besides, I want to do covers on into the future, and maybe even some illustration. My illustration skills are not strong, but the more you work on something, the better you get at it.

You know, just like writing.

(And, btw, The Curse of Scattershale Gulch should be available soon. I have a little work on the last edit of the file which I hope to get done by tomorrow.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Character Wednesday: Ellen O'Connell

I love secondary characters. I admit this freely. When I was a kid, everybody else wanted to play the hero, I wanted to play the sidekick. The hero had to carry the burden of the story. The sidekick (or the villain or the comic relief) could and did do anything: Say outrageous things, be cowardly, be bold, be silly. He or she could be a mentor or a stooge.

Today we start a series of interviews of various authors - which I'll publish each Wednesday - about their favorite secondary characters. And we begin with Ellen O'Connell, writer of mystery and western romances.

ELLEN IS GOING to tell us about Jaime Francisco Rodriguez y Candelaria, a character from her western historical romance, Sing My Name. "Roddy" as he's known to his Anglo companions, is a gunman born in Texas just after it became part of the United States.

Camille: What made you create this character?

Ellen: The hero and heroine in Sing My Name meet and fall in love very young. They are then separated for 8 years before meeting again. I wanted to "peek" into each of their lives a few times during that separation so that the reader would know what they went through and how it affected them. The hero, Matt Slade, falls in with a group of gunman. I needed those gunmen to interact with Matt in ways that showed and developed his character. Roddy became one of the two I primarily used to do this.

Camille: Tell me what makes Roddy special to you?

Ellen: When I first conceive of stories, the main characters quickly become clear in my mind, but the secondary characters often remain enabling shadows until I actually write them. That’s how it was with Matt’s gunmen cohorts in Sing My Name. As soon as I began to write him, Roddy developed from a shadow into a man I sympathized with and liked, maybe because under all Roddy’s prickly pride is a sardonic sense of humor. Roddy starts out as an arrogant, angry young man and develops into one still very proud but showing the beginnings of coming to terms with what has happened in his life and what he may want from the future. I ended up wanting a better life for him and daydreaming a bit about what that might look like.

Camille: You said Roddy helped you show and develop Matt's character. How does he do that?

Ellen: Except that both were orphaned young, Roddy is a total contrast with my hero. Roddy was born to a wealthy, aristocratic Mexican family. Matt is the son of poor Texas settlers. Roddy took to the gun at 16, hunting down men who murdered his family. Matt joined the Confederate Army at 16 hoping for 3 square meals a day and decent clothes (the “biggest mistake I ever made,” he says to the heroine). Matt doesn't decide the only way he can earn a living is with a gun until after he gets out of prison as the result of the events in the first part of Sing My Name.

When we first meet Roddy he looks at Matt with disdain. He is all too aware of his own superior background and education. Although he practices no religion, Roddy considers anything not Spanish and Catholic barbaric and has become hardened close to the point of amorality. In the years they ride together, Matt becomes more self-assured and worldly because of his association with Roddy and Beau Taney (the other gunman whose character becomes important). Yet Roddy and Beau are affected in more basic ways by Matt's unflinching refusal to compromise when he believes he’s right, regardless of the consequences. I used Roddy's POV for several scenes and believe the interactions between Matt, Roddy, and Beau seen through Roddy's eyes show Matt's character in a way I couldn't have achieved staying in Matt's head.

Camille: Do you have more planned for Roddy?

Ellen: Yes. Although I have two more standalone romances outlined already, I plan to at some point write a separate romance for Roddy and another for Beau Taney.

Camille: You write both romance and mystery. Some consider secondary characters to be less important to romance fiction, or even a weakness if there is too much emphasis on them. Can you say a little bit about what you see as the role of secondary characters in romance, and how it differs from mystery?

Ellen: As you know, the trend in romance today is toward series where secondary characters in the first novel are the hero or heroine of the next, and next, and next. However, readers still want the main emphasis in a given romance to be on the hero and heroine and the relationship. The role of secondary characters is mainly to approve/disapprove or help/hurt the developing relationship. If the romance is of the drawing room type, that may be all. If, like mine, the romance is also something of an adventure story, secondary characters may have larger roles as supporters, enemies, or villains. Secondary characters provide an opportunity to develop aspects of the hero or heroine's personality, for instance, a cruel parent or needy younger sibling can explain an action of belief of a main character.

For the type of mystery I write, cozy, secondary characters are, in my opinion, more important than in most romances. They are often quirky and appealing and help develop the atmosphere that cozy fans like me enjoy. In a cozy series, a secondary character often develops almost as much as the main character does as the series progresses. Secondary mystery characters don’t usually get their own books the way romance secondaries do, but it happens. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole books usually feature his friend and partner, Joe Pike, as a secondary character, but Crais has written a few in the series where Joe is the primary and Elvis the secondary. In the same way as in romance, mystery secondaries are used to highlight elements of the main character by their interactions with her. Secondary characters are also important sources of the clues the amateur sleuth needs to solve the mystery. The murderer is a necessary secondary character.

Ellen O'Connell currently has three novels available as ebooks and paperbacks: Rottweiler Rescue, a mystery for dog lovers; Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, a western historical romance, and Sing My Name, a western historical romance.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Progress Update and State of the Blog Address

The writing progress this week is, um, not what I'd like, but I'm doing more now that I've decided to revamp a few things in my life and in this blog (more below).

I wrote a fun scene from Thorny's point of view in The Misplaced Hero yesterday, and I wrote three (count 'em, THREE) micro-fiction stories today. And yes, you'll see one of them this weekend, and the other two may pop up on some other blog soon.

I did not feel like writing those stories, but it went like this: I go to Taco Bell a couple of times a week to gather my thoughts and maybe write or sketch. (Why I go to Taco Bell is for another blog post.) I did idly think of a story idea on the way there, but I was just going to take some notes and get on with plotting and planning and getting my head out of the business of the day.

But then I realized that I had waited one weekend longer than I had meant to before doing my taxes. Whoops. So I knew I would not be writing tonight. Which meant any writing I did at Taco Bell was it as far as meeting my goal for the day. So I set aside everything and started writing the first story, and then wrote another (which was inspired by a folk tale, so it was easy) and then I wrote another for which I only had a character and not an idea.

Knowing that your opportunity is limited does indeed concentrate the mind wonderfully. Yes, it's true, it can also freeze you up -- but I can say that when I realized I needed to really write, I did not want to write any idea I had. I didn't feel like it, but because that was my only opportunity, I didn't have much trouble at all.

State of the Blog: I'm still working on ways to improve this blog for both you and me. I've been blogging mainly off the cuff, and I find that is time consuming. I really need some structure to keep me from blathering on, then changing my mind and blathering on differently. Adding the Story Sunday (and Story Notes Monday) has helped a little to give me some structure, but I still have a hard time adhering to any other kind of plan.

So I'm going to nail down another day of the week with an external commitment: On Wednesdays (published late Tuesday nights, that is) I'm going to start posting mini-interviews with various authors about their characters. I've already got quite a few good interviews lined up. We'll call it Character Wednesday for now.

I'll start tomorrow with Ellen O'Connell, who will tell us about a character from her western romance, Sing My Name.

The other two things I'm going to do is update my dare word count in the side bar every day, and do a progress update every Tuesday, like this one. I'll use those Tuesday posts to tell you about how things are going on the ebook experiment as well.

And later this week, I'll probably tell you about my adventures in cover design.

See ya in the funny papers!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Story Notes: A Horse as an Important Supporting Character

Yesterday I posted an excerpt from The Adventure of Anna The Great. It was part of a subplot about the horses in the stable -- in particular Sea Sprite, the nemesis of all of the stable boys except for Anna.

SEA SPRITE WAS based on a real horse. He was a Morgan named Shadow (although his registered name was something longer that I don't remember).

When I was a kid we had three extra box-stalls in our barn, and we boarded horses. Shadow had a special stall -- one with an upper door as well as a lower one, so he wouldn't reach out and nail you as you walked by. Even with the door there, if anyone, horse or human, came close to his stall, he would hurl himself against the wall and bare his teeth and roll his eyes. It was often quite a shock to someone who didn't know him, because just before he did it, he was usually standing so quietly you'd hardly notice him. His owners believed he had been teased by someone at one of his previous boarding stables, and I can certainly believe it.

I do know from simple observation that they didn't teach him to do that.

But I think his orneriness was also partly due to the fact that he had the excess energy of a star performer. He was retired when I knew him, but he still liked to be fed cigarettes, and I heard that in his champion days, they used to feed him a pint of whiskey before a show to calm him down. (I don't know if the story was true, but doesn't that sound Hollywood to you?)

And as with Sea Sprite, you could always get on Shadow's good side by holding up his bridle. He liked action. Driving or riding, he didn't care, he just wanted to GO.

Sprite's story, of course, follows Anna's story in terms of theme. Like any good secondary character, Sea Sprite has an important and ongoing role in the story, even if he isn't the main horse. Overtly, Anna has two role models -- a good guy who is too straight-laced to have fun (the marquis) and a bad guy who has lots of fun, but who is destructive (Tybalt). But you could say that Sea Sprite is a third role model. He's like Anna, a creature of too much spirit who lives in a restrictive world, and has become a nasty, dangerous old crank because of it. Nobody knows quite what to do with him.

Anna instinctively understands him, and admires him. I didn't make it overt, but Anna is aware that Sea Sprite is living the life she sees ahead of herself. As a girl in a Victorian society, she will always be restricted and controlled, and bored. To Sprite that race is what Anna's whole adventure is for her -- a temporary relief. (This is why the book is called "The Adventure of" rather than "The Adventures of." Anna goes on this adventure figuring it's her only chance. She leaves it, determined to continue.)

* * * * *

If you'd like to read more of The Adventure of Anna the Great, you can find it in ebook form at Amazon's Kindle Store, Kindle UK Store, Smashwords. and Barnes and Noble's Nookstore. Look for it at Apple's iBookstore, Sony, Kobo and Diesel, too.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sea Sprite - an Excerpt From The Adventure of Anna the Great

Today we have another excerpt from The Adventure of Anna the Great, a story of adventure, intrigue and horses.

Context for Today's Excerpt: Anna disguised herself as a boy, Albert, and set off looking for adventure. She found it and a job in the royal stables. Sea Sprite is an angry and dangerous horse whom the rotten head stableman, Wilhelm Bloch, uses to "punish" the stable boys. Anna has been watching the noblemen have tournaments and competitions all day long and is itching for some action, when Block decides that she needs to be taken down a peg... and he tells her to exercise Sea Sprite.

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An Excerpt from Chapter X - Sea Sprite
(In which Anna and the meanest horse in the stable agree wholeheartedly on their next course of action....)

I REALIZED THAT I was supposed to be frightened at the prospect of riding Sea Sprite, but I could not help but be thrilled. Sea Sprite was a gorgeous horse, and I could not imagine anyone keeping such a horse at the royal stable, in a loose box no less, if he were not a great horse.

“Hi, Sprite. Want to go for a ride?” I called. Sea Sprite dashed his body against the wall and raked his teeth across the bars. Even with the solid wall between us I took a step back. Maybe I was wrong about being thrilled. Aunt Elfie always said I was too impetuous. Oh, well. I went to get his bridle and my saddle.

When I returned I thought I ought to get his bridle on him first thing so I could control him. I opened the top door of the stall and held the bridle in front of me like a shield.

Then a remarkable thing happened. Sea Sprite’s ears came up. I had never seen them up before.
He came forward and lipped the bridle, practically taking it out of my hand. That was a good sign. He liked his bridle.

He did not try to bite me at all while I bridled him, and only once when I saddled him, and that when I pulled the girth up too tight too fast. Otherwise he was very cooperative.

“You want to go, don’t ya boy,” I said, scratching his neck. I think boredom affects horses more than people. People, after all, are not usually shut up in a little stall all day. No wonder he had been so grumpy. He wanted to go.

I wanted to go too, and I have to admit, when he resisted going into the ring and pulled for the park and its long trails, I gave in to him. I did not want to ride in a boring old ring either.

I also gave him his pace, a fast, big striding trot. Even at that pace he pulled. He wanted to run. There were still a number of people in the park, so I held him back as long as I could. Then when we got into the open I let out a whoop and we charged across the field.

It was a fast full exhilarating gallop. There was a breeze off the mountains, and our speed made it seem a gale force. Wind made my shirt flap and my hair swirl. That was a good feeling, being away from the barn, and my hair was short and could not get into my mouth and eyes.

I rose out of the saddle and let out another whoop of encouragement. I grabbed a handful of mane and closed my eyes, riding on feel as we flew over the gentle dips and rises of the park. I had been right in the first place. It was thrilling to ride Sea Sprite. Even if it was foolish, it was thrilling.

I urged him on some more and opened my eyes. A small knot of people had wandered out onto the green. They were standing with their backs to us, admiring the scenery of the mountains.

I sat down hard and pulled on the reins. It made not the slightest bit of difference. Sea Sprite galloped on unchecked. Most horses avoid trampling people, but I was not certain about Sea Sprite. I let out a yell of warning and pulled on one rein, bracing my other hand on his neck, in hopes of turning him, or at least getting him off balance. It did slow him down, for two paces. He galloped sideways a moment and then shot off in a new direction.

Well. First crisis overcome. It seemed we could come to a compromise. We would go where I wanted, but at his pace. That was a relief, since I really wanted to go fast myself anyway. Unfortunately, while I made sure we trampled no pedestrians, I failed to notice where I had guided him. I looked up to see that we were but one stride from a dense bit of forest.

I flattened myself against his neck to avoid low branches and we plunged in. Something hard struck my knee, and all parts of me were whipped by leaves and branches. The denseness of the undergrowth slowed Sea Sprite considerably. He broke stride and settled into an excited trot. It was the ideal time to gain control, but I was afraid to look up for fear of the branches. It was hard to regain the reins too, since the twigs kept snatching them away, and my hands were soon covered with scratches.

I finally did get a proper hold on him, and at that moment the forest began to clear and I could sit up. We had reached one of the cross country trails. We cantered to the left, this time with me firmly in control. I wanted to be sure, however, and when the path widened out to a clearing I put him through some figures at an easy trot. Sea Sprite was no dressage horse, and he had no will to become one. Running was all he really liked to do, it seemed.

I pulled him to a halt and patted him on the neck. His ears pricked up, and he looked down the path. I heard the pounding of hooves. In a moment two horsemen, galloping neck and neck, appeared on the trail, then disappeared over a fence further on. One of them was the marquis, and the other I thought must be Captain Kohlman. The horse race. I had forgotten.

Sea Sprite jumped to go after them, and I did not hold him back. Although there were no silver spurs waiting at the end of the race, the whole day of longing to win something had got competition into my blood.

We raced after them, no question this time about control. Horse and rider both wanted the same thing. My heart seemed to pound with his hooves. I hardly noticed the first jump as we flew over. My attention was on the two tails about twenty-five paces ahead. I urged Sea Sprite on as the trail swerved left onto a downgrade. He laid himself flat out, not letting up around the curve, or even on the downslope, which said a lot for his courage. Horses do not usually like to risk going head over heels. We were closing the distance.

Near the bottom of the hill was another fence. I do not much like jumps on a downgrade—it is a little like running down stairs and skipping a step. Sea Sprite, however, took it smooth and fast. He wasted no energy jumping up, but out and long. We were at least another stride closer, and he laid himself out again.

On the flat we could not gain much, but over each jump and around each bend we shortened the distance. Sea Sprite jumped big, and long, and he threw himself around the curves. He seemed experienced at this kind of race. Soon his nose was up with Captain Kohlman’s flank, the marquis having pulled a length ahead. They both must have known that another horse had joined the race, but neither looked to see who it was.

Over one more jump and we were up with Kohlman.

“Go, Sprite, go!” I hissed and urged him on. Sea Sprite could not increase his speed much, but he tried, and we began to pull away from the captain, and up on the marquis.

We were heading back toward the palace now. There were spectators lining up in the open spaces. I caught sight of Hans and Philip up ahead, waving, or perhaps gesturing. I was not sure and had no time to notice. I was just about up with the marquis.

“Go!” I said once more to Sprite. The marquis glanced back. Then he sat up straight and looked back again, as his pace slowed and he fell back.

“Good God, it’s Albert!” he said, and he urged his horse on again. Sea Sprite was too far ahead now, though, and it was irritating that we had got there because the marquis had let up. We would have been ahead by our own efforts over the next jump, if not before.

That next jump lay ahead of me. It was a water ditch with a bank in front of it. I did not know much about the strategy of taking a water ditch. We had a creek at home and that was as far as my water experience went. Sea Sprite had seemed to know what he was doing so far, though, so I gave him his head and grabbed a handful of mane, prepared to follow whatever he did.

As we got closer I saw that the water was too broad to jump. Apparently we were to jump off the bank into the water, and gallop through. That seemed straightforward enough. I prepared myself for the downward plunge as we approached the bank.

Then something white flew by, just in front of us. A lady’s parasol, caught by the wind. Sea Sprite started sideways, but I kept going forward. I tried holding his mane and hooking my knee on the saddle, but as the momentum carried us both up the bank I found I could not stop our parting. I rolled through the air, slamming flat on my back on top of the bank and skidding over and down.


The water was muddy, and I got some in my mouth, but I could not cough. All the air had been knocked from my lungs by the impact. I struggled to my feet, wheezing a little. Hans and Philip were already there, pulling me out of the water. The marquis was just behind, flinging aside his reins and running to help.

I rolled over on the bank and lay a minute. It seemed as if the whole city were there looking at me in a crowd of concerned faces.

“Are you all right, Albert?” asked the marquis.

I was all right, perfectly all right. Never better. But when I tried to answer, the sound that came out of my throat was rather like a long dead frog’s ghostly death curse.

“Crooaakk!” I said, trying to sit up.

“No, no, no,” said the marquis. “Lie down.”

“He’s all right,” said Tybalt, casually poking his one unconcerned face in at me. “Just got the wind knocked out of him.”

I nodded and pointed to him.

“I think he’s right, your grace,” said Philip, looking me over. He started to feel my collar bone and poke my ribs.

“All right,” I said, my voice beginning to come back to normal. I pushed his hands away. “I’m all right.”

The marquis breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, Albert,” he said. “Let’s get you back to the stable.”

“Wait a minute,” said Tybalt. “He should get back on the horse and take that jump again.”

“Really, Stenbau,” said the marquis. “I think that if Albert gains a little fear from this experience, he could use it.”

“I wasn’t thinking of the boy,” said Tybalt with a grin. “It’s the horse. He’ll never take that jump again it he doesn’t go over it now.”

“I don’t mind,” I said. I was feeling a little stiff, but I could ride a horse. I could always ride a horse.

“No,” said the marquis and Philip together.

“I’m okay,” I said, getting up unsteadily. “I can ride.”

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Tomorrow, I'll post a little more about the writing of this clip.

If you'd like to read more of The Adventure of Anna the Great, you can find it in ebook form at Amazon's Kindle Store, Kindle UK Store, Smashwords. and Barnes and Noble's Nookstore. Look for it at Apple's iBookstore, Sony, Kobo and Diesel, too.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Blogging My Process: A Character in a Setting with a Plan

So, continuing the series of posts illustrating my creative process (read Part 1 and Part 2 if you want background):

To review: I wrote a set up, like Indiana Jones getting the idol. And now I've got to get on with the story. And we've established that I need my hero, Alex, to be proactive, because this is not a thriller, it's an adventure.

This brings to mind the definition of "story" that I got from Algis Budrys at Clarion so long ago: A story begins with a character in a setting with a problem. The middle consists of repeated attempts to resolve that problem, which fail, though the character learns something from each attempt. With the final failure the character learns the real nature of the problem and is able to resolve it. (Or learn definitively that he/she can't.)

A character in a setting with a problem has always been my mantra since then. It's particularly useful for those writing without an outline because problem drives the action.

However, that leaves too much room for the character to be too reactive rather than proactive. I've come up with a better mantra.

A character in a setting with a PLAN.

When your character has a plan, even if you don't explain what it is, even if its just subtext, the story has something that makes it MOVE. The audience can anticipate movement. Anticipation = good.

When the character doesn't have a plan, the story drags or even comes to a dead stop. You can heave the story forward by throwing problems at your character, but that doesn't give you momentum. When the immediate problem is over the energy is gone.

This is what I meant by complications which are like a string of beads. This is really common in "pantser" storytelling, because it's a natural way to imagine a story. So if your mystery plot is just the characters discover one clue, and then another clue and then another, until they have all the pieces and then they solve the case, that's a one-beat story. They're mystified, they're mystified, they're mystified, and then they know.

If your characters have a theory -- a plan -- then the plot moves forward. They investigate based on the theory developing it more as they learn each new fact, until they learn something that changes the theory radically. That will usually be at the end of an Act. And that info will be dramatic. So then they form a new theory and plan and move forward on that.

The problem Alex seems to have as he stands on that riverbank is also a one-beat problem. He doesn't know how to get home, and if he knew, he could just go. As a matter of fact, he probably will in the next few minutes, or perhaps in a couple of hours, because that's not the problem of the story.

My problem, as the writer, is to get the audience past that as fast as possible. But my instinct, when I'm writing off the cuff, is to see this as the audience does, and I mistake this problem for the main problem. So I get myself stuck trying to prevent him from going home, because going home is easy. All he has to do is jump back in the water.

He doesn't know that, but he has enough information to think it just might work. Sure, he has lots of reasons to fear that it will go wrong, but he's got guts and he's young enough to try foolish things. There is no really GOOD reason to keep him from trying it, except one.

Thorny is passed out, and the river nearly killed them a moment ago, so if jumping back in the water doesn't work, Thorny could drown. And job one is keeping Thorny from drowning. That's how they got in this mess in the first place.

But it's got to occur to Alex that this might work for two reasons. One is that it has probably already occurred to a portion of the audience, and it's aggravating when the character is dumber than the audience. Another is that the best way to move on from something it so settle it.

I was going to have Alex cleverly realize water could be a way to escape bad guys later on -- and be desperate enough to try it in spite of the dangers. But I need him to have a plan, and I need him to have it now. And I came up with two possible solutions. And here's what I mean by compounding problems rather than just beads on a string.

Option 1 -

Alex considers the idea that the ring and the water somehow interacted to transport them between worlds. He goes to the water's edge, looks in, and sees a double scene reflected back at him just as he did back in Michigan. He can see trees and a dorm from the banks of the Red Cedar, as well as the forest and rocks of the place he's in. He gets a hit of vertigo. He falls in.

And he comes up in the Red Cedar River in Michigan. Close to where he had gone in, but not the exact same spot. Wow! Cool! Oh, shit, he left Thorny back in that other world. He dives back in, and does indeed come back up in the river in Awarshawa -- this time exactly where he just dived in. And Thorny is not there....

This is generally what I think the main plot of the story actually is, saving Thorny. That's how it started. It was why Alex jumped into the river in the first place, and it's what heroes do. Especially when they feel semi-responsible for the predicament the other person is in.

Option 2 -

Not as good as the first, but it has some advantages: Alex considers the ring and the water, and also the danger of dragging an unconscious and drunken man into a dangerous river on the off chance it might get them home. He decides to wait until Thorny is awake and maybe sober and has have a chance of swimming to save himself if things go wrong.

Then he hears voices. He is jazzed about this whole deal and wants to know more about this place he has come to. He sneaks over to spy and sees some peasants talking. He recognizes the language he had always thought his Aunt made up. He even understands a few words, and realizes that these people are frightened. Thorny wakes up and joins him, and is too drunk to be freaked out about being in another world.

They may or may not interact with the peasants, but then the bad guys arrive, everyone runs, and Alex and Thorny have to run away from the water... and they also witness someone captured by bad guys, and Alex knows he must go to the rescue.

Okay, I said this was weaker than the first. In particular: until Alex decides to intervene, he still doesn't have a plan which leads him to act. Furthermore, he isn't an idle gentleman on holiday, so the decision to intervene doesn't feel right. This is the serious flaw of this second option.

The advantage of the second option is people. People are the stuff of drama. They ramp up the energy fast. They make things interesting. They provide conflict. The first option just delays the moment when Alex runs into people, and that weakens it.

Also, even tough Alex assumes he is in this country his Aunt told him about, assumptions do not constitute dramatic revelations. Hearing real people talk this language he always assumed was made up is a very dramatic revelation if he hasn't already been thinking about this.

Can I combine the options? Sure, I can even drag in more options. The point here is to make them build one on the other. Don't let them be beads on a string. He's got to get Thorny back home without drowning him. He's working on the plan when he falls in. Then he gets back to Awarshawa and finds that Thorny is gone. Option 2 then becomes something he can use to help him in finding Thorny and getting him back.

I originally wanted to go the other way for reasons of dramatic revelations -- learn something, have the villain enter, interaction with Thorny, some action, and then have things slow down again long enough for Alex to consider the whole water thing, and THEN fall in and come back to find that Thorny has been captured....

And I could work to make those events flow and build in tension, but I would have to do it artificially. If I start with option 1, they flow naturally one from the other.

I may simply have to distract Alex so that he hasn't really thought through where they are yet, so I can still feel like the moment he first hear people speak is dramatic.


So that's all I have to say about that right now. The question is, was this useful to you? Would you like an update on this story as it goes along? Would you like it if I posted the rough draft chapters as I went along, and then talked about the issues I had in writing it?

Doing this as I write is very different from doing it later. I remember things better, for one thing, but it can get long and boring.

In the meantime, tomorrow morning I will post another excerpt from from my other Ruritanian adventure story, The Adventure of Anna the Great. See you in the funny papers....