Friday, February 12, 2010

Newbie Question #19

19. Do you typically do a lot of research for your books?

I do... though the process is very different if I'm writing science fiction or if I'm writing fantasy/romance.

Remember earlier how I said that a good writer should be reading stuff all the time? When I'm writing science fiction, those things I've read in the past are often at least partially responsible for the germination of the idea of whatever I'm writing (novel or a short story.) Kind of like unfocused, pre-research. :-)

Science fiction often requires a person to have friends in specialized fields. I actually think that it's very difficult (though some do it very well) to write in your area of expertise. Physicists often make crappy science fiction authors because they know too much about how things really work and they have a hard time breaking outside of what is TRUE, acceptable or fact. Apparently, William Gibson famously wrote his cyberpunk novel NEUROMANCER on a typewriter. Often I think it's best if you know "just enough to be dangerous."

Because out there just beyond what is true, acceptable and fact is where the fun stuff lies. Here there be Dragons....

On the flip side, I think that books (science fiction or fantasy) come alive when you fill them with the bits of arcane knowledge you've gleaned over your lifetime. Like all those mysteries where the heroine is a knitter or a scrap booker or what have you, and your reader gets a glimpse into the life of whatever it is you're into. Because people read for a lot of reasons -- escape, yes, but to experience someone else's life, more, IMHO.

So it really helps make a book have life if you can offer up real bits of things. I once took a gun safety course so I could feel what it was like to shoot a big old gun as a smallish five foot something woman. People always talk about recoil, but I didn't experience it the way I was expecting and so being able to have an actual sense impression of spent casings (particularly smell), etc., I think added an extra dimension to my description. This is also, btw, how you avoid cliches in your writing. Cliches are shorthand for experiences, and if you have something different you can point out about something people have read a thousand times... it breaks through cliche.

Plus, research is fun. Just don't let not knowing stop you from writing. Find someone who knows what you want to know and talk to them, read books by people who have experienced things you want to know about, live a little, and then, make some sh*t up.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Newbie Question #18

18. How long did it take to publish your first book?

It typically takes a year from delivery of the manuscript to my publisher before it hits the shelves ready for you to read.

But, again, I think that's not really the question you're asking. I think what you want to know is how long did it take for me to sell that first book I finished.

Here's some bad news. I never sold the first book I finished. I worked on that novel (Sidhe Promised) for four years. I put it through workshop/critique group; I sent it to a dozen or more agents; I entered it in contests. It never sold.

I still think it's a pretty good book, but it just wasn't the one that broke out. It's in my basement in a file cabinet. Taking the advice of Lois McMaster Bujold who I interviewed at an event at a Barnes & Noble, I started the next book while that one was shopping around. (Her point? It takes a long time for editors and agents to reject you, you might as well do something other than twiddle your thumbs.) So I started writing a science fiction novel I was calling "Dancing on the Head of a Pin" about some angels and a private detective.... it took me about a year and a half to write that one. It later became my first published novel, Archangel Protocol.

The process of what happened once I convinced an agent to represent me is chronicled in my alter ego's FAQ.

Newbie Question #17

17. What should my manuscript look like?

There's a lot of debate about this (much more than you'd expect, and people can get really wound up about it.) HOWEVER, it is my contention that knowing manuscript format *is* the very secret handshake that everyone is looking for.

Science fiction author Vonda N. McIntyre has made you a lovely .pdf in manuscript format that explains manuscript format. People like to argue about this. Do I have to? Courier is ugly! So and so says I can send it however I like on their website. To which my answer is always: suck it up and send it in manuscript format. If nothing else, sending it the "old-fashioned" way shows that you're at least familiar enough with the business of writing to have stumbled across the way everyone used to do it.

The exception being in those rare cases when you're writing for a specific market (I'm thinking of an electronic magazine, like weekly science fiction magazine, Strange Horizons,) which may have it's own rules. In those cases, do what they say.

I confess that I don't much like the way Courier 12 pt, double-space looks either. So I write the book in whatever my current favorite font is (Georgia) -- single space (because it looks more like a book to me, and I just find it more attractive. I've got to stare at it for months, after all). Then, just before I send it in to the publisher I switch over to Courier 12 pt, double-space.

This is one really simple thing you can do to look professional. Why not just do it?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Newbie Question #16

16. Have you ever doubted yourself while writing? If so, how do you get over it?

I doubt myself all the time, just ask the folks in my writers' group. I constantly complain that I don't know what the f**k I'm doing or that my stories suck, etc., etc. I get over my doubt by tapping my support network -- my writers' group and my partner. (Because, if nothing else, my partner will say these magic words: "We need the money." Works for me every time. :-)

But I think this is actually a question about writers' block, which is I think a more delicate and harder question to answer.

There are a lot things about this business that can freak people out to the point that they can't write. Most of the really hard ones, IMHO, come after you publish that first book, but there are a few potential killers early on.

One of the reasons I find writers' critique groups of any kind (in-person or on-line) so vital to a writer's career is because they help prepare you for the first and foremost challenge to your ego, and that is: criticism.

People are going to hate your precious babies your entire career. They just are. (I just stumbled across a rather nasty review of Tall, Dark & Dead just today.) But, before you have the cache of a New York publisher's approval, rejection is even harder to take.

If you can't handle criticism or rejection, surviving as a writer is going to particularly difficult. My advice is to find a writers' group and practice taking those slaps in the face and pulling yourself back up on your feet. It's a skill set you're going to use all the damn time.

The other big one you're going to face is rejection. Publishers (and literary agents) are going to turn you down, early and often. It may take several years and dozens of books before you break in. This is why it's important to love what you do. If you like to write, it's easier to pick up your keyboard after you have that big huge weep fest after the sixteenth rejection for your beloved book comes in the mail (when you were SURE this would be the one).

My advice is to practice this attitude: "OMG,I suck; Damn, I'm a genius!" Seriously, I think you have to be a bit unstable to be a good writer. You have to be able to accept that you suck (so you can LISTEN to critique and learn from it), while simultaneously believing you are the best writer who ever lived (so you can get the morning after a crushing critique/rejection and write once again).

The other things that I, personally, found nearly crippling is the stuff that happens after you publish. The first negative review hurts. There will be one and it will feel horrible. You'll believe every word (when, ironically, you didn't believe a word of the praise in the positive reviews.) If you're me, you'll memorize the meanest thing the reviewer wrote and be unable to forget it. Ever. Ask me if we ever meet. I can still give it to you verbatim.

The other thing is what I call "second book-itis" or pysch out. After the adrenaline rush has coursed through your veins after the sale of that first novel, you suddenly realize you're contracted for another book THAT PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO READ. If you're like most authors, you probably lived with that first novel for years before anyone bought it. You had lots of time to massage it and make it the best novel you possibly could. Usually, too, the publisher has contracted you for another book -- either a sequel or something else. Either way, you're sitting down to write that next book (usually before the first one has come out) and, if you're me, you're absolutely frozen by the idea that it could really, really SUCK and kill your career before it's even started.

That one is the hardest one for me. I don't have any good advice except to say that you'll just have to push through. I tend to get over the "OMG people are going to read this" thing (which I often still get) the same way a lot of actors get over stage fright. I lie to myself. I tell myself that no one is going to read the book but me and maybe my editor. I trick myself into believing this by writing most of my book in something other than manuscript format and in a file named something like "New stuff."

I'm sure there are other reasons people get hit with writers' block, but these are the ones I've dealt with. What about the rest of you out there? What freezes your brain?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Newbie Question #15

Does this process ever get easier?

Parts of it do, but on the whole, not really, no.

For me, every book is a new learning process. I never really have seemed to settled on "how to write a book." And, there's always some point at which I have an ah-ha moment that you'd think I'd have learned years ago.

BUT, that being said, there are a lot of things that do get easier. For instance, I no longer blink at the idea of writing 2,000 words in a day. Sitting down and getting started isn't the chore that it used to be (of course part of that may be because it's my job now in a way that it wasn't before, but I do find that a blank page no longer fills me with a low-grade terror.) I'm not scared I'm going to write myself into a corner. I trust my characters, my instinct, my story-telling, my audience.

One of the most helpful things about writing that I ever read was this idea of "killing your Muse." Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing that if you sit down to write every day at the same time, your Muse will find you. And you know what? He's right. For me, it doesn't have to be the same time of day any more (thank Goddess), but it does have to be every day.

My friend and fellow writer, Naomi Kritzer, and I have talked about the fact that if you get out of the habit of writing something every day, even as professional writers, it can be very hard to start up again.

When I first started writing, I set myself a very minor word count goal. I told myself I needed to write at least 425 words every day. I don't know where I pulled that number from, but it used to sit on my desk. I didn't always make it, life being what it is (and I had a full-time job then). But it was a good discipline to shoot for that. The more words on page, the more progress made.

Also, it helps to know that some days are just hard... for everyone. I interviewed Neil Gaiman for Science Fiction Chronicle several years ago, and one of the things he said that really stuck with me is that he had days when writing was really difficult, but when he looked back at the words he couldn't tell which were the hard ones to write and which flowed like honey from his fingertips. Words are words and words on page are progress forward.

So, no, things don't necessarily get easier, but writing every day helps.