Friday, September 23, 2011

Follow Friday (9/23/2011)

Welcome, fellow bloghoppers! My review blog is actually over here, but I like to keep it reviews-only. So, the hop post goes here, on my personal blog. Feel free to visit and follow both, though! ^_^

This week's question is:

Q. Do you have a favorite series that you read over and over again? Tell us a bit about it and why you keep on revisiting it.

Truthfully, I don't re-read a lot. There are always more stories out there, and I always want to be on to the next. One series I do go back to occasionally is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, because it works on multiple levels: Light and breezy comedy and existential meditation on the chaos of life and man's place in the universe. Also, it's just plain fun.

And now, a question for you, fellow bloghoppers: Do you know of any blog hops specifically for author blogs? because I've been trying to find one better suited to publicizing this personal blog, and they've been somewhat elusive.

Thanks for hopping by! Hope to see you next week. ^_^

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Speaking Up and Speaking Out

I'm late to the party here, sorry. I blame the day job.

About a week ago, an article in Publisher's Weekly made waves in the blogosphere. A pair of writers with a novel, Stranger, were told by an unnamed agent that they had to either remove or "straighten" a gay character before he would represent them. They blew the whistle on PW, cited a few other instances to make the point that this is not an isolated incident, and then argued that this indicates that YA is too white-bread.

If you follow stories like this, by now you've heard a dozen or so bloggers crying out about what a horrible thing this is, an offense against tolerance, free speech, an author's right to write whatever they want, etc.. I don't necessarily disagree, but rather than repeat what they've all said already, I'm going to play devil's advocate.

First of all, note the sequence of events recounted: after the agent proposes the change, the response from the authors is an emphatic "no way", saying that the matter is "a moral issue." After some further attempts at discussion, the authors curtly thank the agent for his time and hang up the phone. You can read whatever motives you want to into the agent's argument. In fact, any motives you have to be read into him by you, because the authors never though to ask why this was such an issue.

But who cares, it's a matter of principle, right? Well, maybe. Consider that perhaps the agent was giving them a kind of Old Hermit's Test. Maybe what he really wanted to know is "how will you react when someone takes issue with your work?" When the editor asks for changes, will you be amenable to discussion, or turn up your nose at anyone else trying to tell you how to write? When some Amazon reader gives you a poor review, how likely are you to make like Anne Rice and chew them out publicly? Are you going to be a brilliant and cooperative client, or a client who is brilliant but very difficult to work with? This could have been an opportunity for the authors to demonstrate grace under fire. Instead, they give a rather confrontational answer, refuse to discuss the issue, and hang up. And the agent probably thinks, "Well, I dodged a bullet there."

A bit too fairy-tale for reality, perhaps. But regardless of the agent's motives, it's clear that both sides of this little spat are better off without each other. Politics or morals has nothing to do with it. Communication does. The agent/author relationship is just that, a relationship, and they have to be able to talk to one another. The authors in this story demonstrated a stark unwillingness to listen, immediately going on the defensive when changes were proposed. They decided it was a moral issue, put their feet down, and made no effort to understand their agent's point of view. That is not the sign of a healthy author-agent relationship.

But even disregarding a Trickster-Mentor act, there are a number of reasons the agent could have wanted a gay character removed or made straight, some of which would boil down to good writing practice. Maybe, for example, there's no readily-apparent reason for the character to be gay. For example, take Andrea Cremer's Nightshade: Calla's friend Mason is revealed to be gay early on, and in a clandestine relationship with another character, Neville. They met in a support group, which at least one other character also attended. All of this is woven into the plot and very important to the story. It informs the attitudes, priorities, and relationships of all three characters throughout the rest of the novel.

On the other hand, in the sequel Wolfsbane, we're introduced to a lesbian couple, and their sexuality hardly matters. Their relationship becomes apparent when we see them kiss and wave off some teasing from mutual friends. Twenty pages later, with little further development for either, one is dead and the other spends the rest of the book in mourning off-page. Both characters are irrelevant to the story.

When you put a minority character in your story, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. The former example is the right way. The latter is the wrong way. Putting a character in the story for the purposes of diversity only to have her accomplish nothing can send the unseemly message that they don't matter at all, even when present. Like the metaphorical black dude who dies right at the start of the movie, as savvy audience members groan. And yet, if you've read the Nightshade books, you know exactly why it happened. While an excellent writer, Andrea Cremer overstuffs her stories. Both books present the readers with piles upon piles of characters, backstory, history, and so forth. There's simply not enough pagespace to properly develop everything, so the less important stuff gets pushed aside or cut entirely.

The saying among authors is "murder your darlings." You may be absolutely in love with that scene, that plot twist, that character, but if it's not contributing to the story, it has to go. Keeping a character around just to make them an irrelevant token minority serves no purpose whatsoever. Whether or not this is the case with Stranger, I can't say. I haven't read it. But the authors mention that a number of agents have recommended cutting the gay character with no explanation, and that the story itself has five viewpoint characters. A number of book bloggers I follow have trouble dealing with just two viewpoint characters in a book. Perhaps the real problem here is that there's too much going on and the gay character's story just happens to be the weakest?

Finally, consider another reason that the agent might have had problems: the character in question may be a flaming stereotype. This happens a lot with minority characters, sometimes not by intent. Often an attempt to bring diversity to the cast will backfire when the author instead falls back on cliches and shortcuts, revealing his true ignorance. I'm currently reading a book called Lunatic Fringe, which was pitched to me as a lesbian werewolf story. Early on, the main character gets involved with a sorority of lesbians who are strongly feminist, openly flirtatious with each other, and live, essentially, as a polyamorus commune. In other words, they represent every obnoxious porn cliche about lesbians. In this case, it seems intentional -- I haven't finished the book, but the author is clearly setting them up as hypocrites with delusions of their own importance -- but I can easily see a reader who doesn't get that throwing the book across the room and cursing the author's name. If an attempt to show a group respect winds up being disrespectful, it's not working and better to cut.

So, what was on this agent's mind? I don't know, and neither do these two authors, because they never asked. And there's some irony for you: They throw about accusations of ignorance when they themselves jumped to conclusions and hopped up on their soapbox to talk about under-representation and author's rights. The author does have the right to write whatever he wants, but that right is tempered by a responsibility: to make it the best story he can. Criticism can be hard to take sometimes, but it is far better to listen to your critics then to stamp your foot and declare something a moral issue on which you will not budge. After all, if you don't find your critic's argument convincing, you can always discard it after hearing it. But to off-handedly dismiss ideas you find disagreeable as the fruit of ignorance is evidence of your own ignorance. A writer is much better served by an opportunity to understand what he is doing wrong, thereby learning how to write better. And for this, we need a question, "Why?", rather than an answer, "No." Speak up before you speak out.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Making Time

This is harder then I thought.

Last night I was supposed to wrap up Nocturne for the review blog, then dive back into the agent search, unwind for an hour or two, and then bed. Instead, my girlfriend called me with a minor personal crisis on her hands. Priorities changed, and I was off to hold her, and listen to her vent, and then put on Bubba Ho-Tep to uplift her spirits. She's important to me, and I'd do it again in a second, but the work didn't get done.

Today I planned to get up early, take care of laundry, deal with some obligations midday, and then wrap up what I was supposed to do yesterday and get on this blog post. It being Saturday, I overslept, and once I got up I was dealing with mother griping at me to clean the bathroom today. So, I took an hour to work on my review, went to that thing, got back, scrubbed the bathroom, and then postponed dinner to sit down and write this. After I'm done with dinner, then it's on to laundry, and... the rest will have to wait for tomorrow. Where I'll also have church and a date later in the day to attend to.

I was unemployed for a while before I got my current job, and I forgot just how much strain it puts on your schedule. In the 5-6 hours between dinner and bedtime each day I have to deal with a lot of stuff, including but not limited to writing, reading, blogging, agent-hunting, and keeping myself sane. Then get up the next day and do it all over again. Wait for the weekends to get a break... and then spend that break doing crap you couldn't get done over the week, because shit happens and stuff came up.

So you prioritize. Work first, queries second, everything else when possible. Increasingly, "everything else" includes blogging and "when possible" means "never". You may think this isn't a problem, but it is. My blogs are not recreation, they're career building. Making intelligent posts and promoting the blog itself is supposed to get my name out there, which will help me to sell my book. Especially if I decide to self-pub after all, because then I won't be able to share the workload with a publisher's marketing division. But the time crunch means I'm unable to promote my blogs the way I'd like to, which holds back my writing career, such as it is. But I keep at it as best I can, because there's nothing else I can do.

I have a feeling there are a lot of very good writers which we'll never know about, because writing is a B.S. career to start. You need to put in full-time hours to make it work, and at the beginning you're doing it for nothing. Hand the average individual a job where entry level pays a big goose-egg and advancement to a better salary requires beating out 1,000 other aspirants, and he'll flip you the bird and become an accountant instead. But the ones that a truly devoted to it hang on, and eventually get there.

... which I suppose means I'm being a whiny bitch. Spending an entire post griping about having to pay the same dues as any published author.

Don't get me wrong, I'll pay them. But there's nothing that says I have to be happy about the situation. Working for free is B.S. by any standard.

And now, I've put off dinner for too long...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Follow Friday 9/9/2011

Been a while since I've participated in these, but a new blog is a great excuse to get back in the habit. Hi to all new followers! ^_^ 

This week's question:

Have you ever wanted a villain to win at the end of a story? If so, which one??

Not really, but two books came close: Kelley Armstrong's Bitten and Rachel Vincent's Stray. You can learn how I feel at my review blog, but basically, these books depict oppressive societies as the good guys. The lead character of Stray is a woman stuck in a chauvinistic world where she's treated like little more than a sex object, while the wolves in Bitten are oppressive to wolves outside the pack and prone to keeping their secrets through murder. The authors are both savvy enough to recognize the problem and make the bad guys worse, but it's very hard to root in favor of such an uncivilized bunch.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Step one

Step one of any venture is always preparation. Hence, I get this:

Accept no substitutions. I actually have the 2011 edition already, but times change and you always want to have the most up-to-date info. The 2012 edition just out on the 6th, so that's pretty damn bleeding-edge. Finding it was annoying, in large part due to the rain LI got this past week. Barnes & Noble had ordered one copy, which was snapped up before I got there. The closest available copy was in the city, and no way I could go that far, so I just think "F it", and grab it off their online store.

For my trouble, I wind up getting home from the day job at 7, cranky from all that driving in the rain. And now I've got to wait three days for it to come in the mail. Totally the worst of both worlds.

But I've got it, and hopefully I have a somewhat better idea of how to use it than last time. During my initial agent search, I browsed through the whole 2011 edition, picking out about 40 or 50 agents that looked promising. I copied down names, agencies, and URLs, putting them in a spreadsheet. Then I ran what I had past Preditors and Editors, because a few scammers always slip by the screening process. After that, I started to overdo it. I looked them up on Publisher's Marketplace, and rated each of them on how many books they'd sold recently, how much money they brought in, and how in synch they were with my subject matter. That turned out to be a lot of wasted effort because, realistically, you're going to query them all anyway.

Querying is not like applying for college. I was treating it that way the first time, applying to inferior "safety schools" that I could fall back on if I got rejected from the big agents. However, an incompetent or dishonest agent is worse than no agent at all, because your book will sit with them and never get sold. And once you've weeded out the incompetents, prioritizing the remainder is pointless. You don't know what kind of offer you'll get from them until they present it to you, and you're a fool if you just assume you'll have more than one offer to consider. You won't. The market so glutted with manuscripts seeking representation that you're lucky if you can attract the attention of even one legitimate agent.

Fortunately, all you need is one good one. Getting her to notice you is the problem...

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Blogging the Journey

My name is LupLun, and I'm a starving artist.

For the record, noone sets out to be a starving artist. Well, some unbearably pretentious types might, but they're probably more interested in sponging off gainfully-employed parents and smoking pot. The first thing any artist wants to do is make at least enough from his art to keep food on the table. No, you become a starving artist either because you're not very good, you can't connect with your audience, or you can't connect with the people that are supposed to get you to your audience.

About six months ago, I finished my first novel, Bonds of Fenris. It's about a pack of werewolves desperately trying to control their bestial urges and keep hold of their humanity. I then set out to find an agent, a task which continues to this day and which I have utterly and completely failed at. I've queried about 30 different agencies. If that seems low for a six-month agent search, it's because I wasn't querying constantly. The whole "starving" part means a day job, which means not a lot of time. And when you're out of work, it means job hunting, which is even worse. But it's also low because about three months into this quest, I got demoralized. I would send out a batch of queries, and about a third of them never came back. The remainder were rejected: sometimes the same day, sometimes after months. I got two requests for the full manuscript, both of which eventually led to rejections as well. This causes a sense of hopelessness to build up, the idea that you're not getting anywhere and never will.

I don't know what the problem is. I have a number of theories, but no way to determine which is correct. When an agent rejects you, they tend not to give a lot of feedback. I don't blame the agents. They've got large workloads, and don't have time to compose letters detailing why the books they're asked to represent don't work. Especially when the rejected author will most likely be an egotistical, entitled prat who will then start an argument over how you Don't Understand His Masterpiece. But nevertheless, the problem remains: I don't know what's going wrong, and try as I might I can't figure it out. I believe that I am a decent writer at the very least, and that I could make a career out of it. But I can't seem to convince the people I need on my side that this is the case.

It's occurred to me that maybe I should stop trying. Maybe I should forget the runaround and dive bravely into the uncharted wilderness of self-publishing. I'm fully aware, though, that this approach has problems all its own. You're playing without a net, taking all the responsibilities on yourself and taking sole blame if it fails. It could make me a career, or it could prove I'll never have one.

I am a storyteller, and this blog is a story that is still being written. In the end it will be one of three stories. It will be the story of a man who took one last shot at his dream, and finally made it. Or it will be the story of a man who, frustrated with an industry that stymied his attempts at success, struck out on his own and proved to a skeptical world that he had what it took. Or it will be the story of a man who tried his best to succeed both inside and outside the system, failed on both counts, and finally abandoned his dream in disillusionment. I don't know which it will be, but all of them start the same way: with that last grab for the brass ring.

Today is the 5th of September, 2011. Labor Day. The end of summer, and the time to get back to work. For the next three months, I'll be querying. If I haven't succeeded by Thanskgiving, then it's time to go independent. And what happens then, I don't know.

Let's you and I find out together.