Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tape Measure Tricks

Always remember: Everybody is good at something.

Link via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 28, 2009

If You Want To Be A Writer, You Must Write

In this post, Michael Hyatt said something I found interesting:
A study orchestrated by K. Anders Ericsson who looked at musical prodigies found the common denominator for mastery and success: 10,000 hours of practice. “The emerging picture from such studies,” says neurologist Daniel Levitin, “is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert--in anything.”
10,000 hours is 5 years' worth of full-time work, i.e. 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, with 2 weeks of vacation per year.

Thank freakin' goodness you don't need to be "a world class expert" in order to write a saleable book. Most of us can't write full time, never mind doing it for five years without seeing any financial return.

However, if you consider someone who is making a living with their writing, and who does do it full time, five years isn't very long--only five years to becomes "a world class expert". And really, I would agree someone who can make a living at writing for five years has valuable expertise they could share with others.

If you're serious about a writing career, you should probably be striving to become a "world class expert", but in order get there, you need to be saleable enough to get the luxury of time to practice writing for 10,000 hours.

How many hours did you write for today?

Every little bit counts and helps, so never beat yourself up over that number; just make sure you're making steady, daily progress. It's going to take some grit to get to 10,000 hours. Keep chipping away.

This is why the first rule of writing is "Butt in chair, hands on keyboard." If you want to be a writer, you must write.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 21, 2009

Meaty Mondays: The Need For Justice In Story Climaxes

In Jim Butcher's sadly-defunct-but-still-useful Livejournal, he has this post on story climaxes.

One of the things he notes is that a satisfying story climax includes poetic justice. The villain gets their comeuppance; the hero gets their reward.

This is interesting to me because I decided a while ago that one thing that typifies human beings is the concept of justice.

Think about the knee-jerk rage you feel when you see injustice. Almost nothing propels people to action faster than seeing someone hurt an innocent or destroy a public resource for their own selfish profit. This instinct is hard-wired into our brains, and human society would fall apart if it weren't. We're all programmed to fight for what's fair.

And because we humans are so sensitive to the idea of fairness, readers aren't satisfied with a book's climax unless all the main characters get justice, whether it be a punishment or a reward. Nothing nettles us worse than to see someone worthy overlooked or someone vile getting away with their crime. In the end, we want balanced scales.

In fact, arguably that's the reason why people get sucked into stories. The inciting incident is so often an injustice being perpetrated, and a great deal of the tension that keeps the reader hooked comes from their inner yearning to see that injustice made right.

When I saw the movie Sweeney Todd, the story delighted me. It was all so neat--as in tidy. Everyone who did evil got the perfect punishment for their crime; they didn't just die, they also lost whatever they had craved most.

If the title character's fate had been handled any less skillfully, however, it could have ruined the story. Sweeney Todd was driven to evil by his need for revenge--in other words, by his need for justice. If the climax had simply killed him off, I would have been dissatisfied, but I would have been even more unhappy if he had gotten away with murder unscathed.

In the end, Sweeney Todd gets both his comeuppance and his revenge. He is both punished and rewarded, and the story felt exactly right, because it was exactly fair--bloodthirsty and horrifying, but fair.

Sweeney Todd thus provides a warning to writers. If your hero does evil--even a small act--they should be punished for it. If your villain has goodness in them, they should be rewarded. Your audience is human, and that means they crave fairness. They aren't blindly cheering for your hero and hating your villain--they're looking for you to give them a solution that feels like justice.

If you don't give them that, you risk provoking a very primal and genuine anger in the reader that will poison their opinion of your book's strengths.


What do you think? Should serving poetic justice to your characters be a rule of fiction, or are there stories that work better when justice is not served? Real life isn't always fair, and there's a strong argument to be made that fiction should mirror life. At the same time, if you want your story to resonate with your audience, you need to care about what they will and will not stomach.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 14, 2009

Meaty Monday: The Road Map To a Plot

A plot can be anything; it can go anywhere and do everything imaginable to your characters.

That said, a good plot must accomplish certain things if it's to be satisfying to the reader. Thus, it is possible to outline a road map for a good plot, even though it's impossible to wrap a fence around all plot possibilities.

In this post, I'm going to talk about my understanding of what the road map is, but there are a thousand other ways to think about and describe it. This is just my opinion.

1) A satisfying plot is about change.

Your protagonist starts in one state. By the end of the book, they should exist in a different state. This can mean a changed world, a different mental state, or some combination of the two.

2) Every scene must contain a turning point.

First, the definition: a turning point is a moment of irreversible change.

For example, if Paula and Mike fight and break up, kiss and make up, and then repeat that cycle, it's not a plot. It's only a series of events. Both characters are experiencing change, but it's reversible change. Nothing stops them from going back to their initial state.

If Paula and Mike fight, and Paula blurts out, "I'm seeing someone else anyway,"--a revelation that hurts Mike deeply--that's an irreversible change. The couple might still find their way to a happy ending, but their relationship will never be the same. It is impossible for them to get back to their initial state.

Every turning point is a point of no return, although some of them are smaller in scale than others.

A variety of story events can act as a turning point. These can include (but are not limited to):
- A decision (Harry Potter decides to enter the Chamber of Secrets)
- An action (Julia passes Winston Smith a note that says, 'I love you.')
- A discovery (Soylent Green is made from human corpses)
- A revelation ("Luke, I am your father.")

I would argue turning points fall into two main categories:

Self-directed Turning Points

These are turning points the character creates, usually by acting or making a decision.

In the wake of a setback, your character must decide what to do, and their decision and/or action constitutes the story's next turning point.

Surprise Turning Points

These are turning points inflicted on a character by outside forces. They're often due to reality not matching up with the character's expectations.

Most of your character's setbacks will be Surprise Turning Points. Note that your protagonist's Surprise Turning Point is often also your antagonist's Self-directed Turning Point, i.e. the villain acts, and the hero is surprised (in a bad way.)

3) The story's inciting incident is the moment when the protagonist's life first swings out of balance.

The story truly starts at the moment when the protagonist feels compelled to try to fix a problem. The problem is usually their own, but it can be someone else's if the protagonist is a person committed to helping others.

The protagonist's goal, initially, is usually to bring their (or the victim's) life back into balance. As the story progresses, the goal can become larger, more complex, or alter completely, but at the beginning, the character simply resists change and tries to get things back to normal.

4) A character acts (creates a Self-directed Turning Point) in hope of achieving their goal.

Within your character's mind, their decision/action makes perfect sense as a way to get to their goal. Your character may be honestly deluded, or may be in for a nasty shock, but Self-directed Turning Points need seem logical to the character creating them.

5) A story consists of a series of turning points that move your character irreversibly from their initial state to their final state.

Your scenes will seem like random events unless they progressively step the character toward a different state of being.

Even in stories whose plots are externally driven, your characters must undergo personal growth. Here's why:

When your character suffers a setback, they must make a decision or take an action (i.e. they must create a Self-directed Turning Point.)

These decisions should increase in magnitude, risk and cost. This is because stories are about change, and every time your character gets smacked with another irreversible turning point, that experience changes their world and hence the character themself.

And they learn from it. A story with no personal growth arc doesn't feel believable, because if the character already had all the skills they needed to succeed, why did it take them 300 pages to do it?

Your character may become braver, or more cruel, or absorb the lesson taught by their last bitter experience, but they must incrementally become a slightly different person. Every scene--every turning point--forces them into it.

How many scenes should a story contain? As many as it takes to move your character from their initial state to their final state. This involves both completing their personal growth arc and changing their world in order to bring back balance.

6) The most satisfying Surprise Turning Points are the ones the reader doesn't see coming either.

Surprise Turning Points shock your character. If they shock the reader too, you've created a worthy and memorable plot.

Note: You can end your story with either a successful Self-directed Turning Point or a fortunate Surprise Turning Point. The latter case is the trickiest, as you must be careful not to create a deus ex machina ending, but it also holds the most potential in regard to point (6), above.

When ending on a successful Self-directed Turning Point, your character acts--and they finally put enough personal grit into their action to achieve success.

When ending on a fortunate Surprise Turning Point, however, your character acts with the expectation of pain, loss or failure, but for once, events conspire to surprise them with success.

To avoid the deus ex machina ending, you need to adequately foreshadow that those surprise events could logically happen.

However, to make this type of ending effective, the events must surprise the reader as much as they surprise the character--you need to adequately foreshadow the shocking turn of events, but you also want your reader to realize that the signposts were there only in hindsight.


This post is already wicked-long, so I may as well append an example of how to create a plot using this road map. I'm pretty much pulling this out of my butt the air.

All the Surprise Turning Points (setbacks) in this example consist of reality turning out to not be what the protagonist expected it to be.
I'll use the following abbreviations:

Self-TP = Self-directed Turning Point
Surprise-TP = Surprise Turning Point
Self-TP 1) Bob is happy. He plans to ask his girlfriend Wanda to marry him. He expects her to say yes.
Surprise-TP 1) Wanda doesn't say yes, because...
- Why doesn't she? The best answer is the one the reader doesn't expect either, so avoid the obvious answers like lack of love or the presence of a rival.
...she has decided to go to Africa for a year to build water wells. (Note: This is the story's inciting incident; Bob's life has just swung out of balance.)

Self-TP 2) Bob has a goal: he wants to keep Wanda. He decides to dig within himself for the courage to tell her how much he loves her and wants her to stay. He expects her to change her mind.
Surprise-TP 2) Wanda doesn't change her mind because she gets angry. She says this is why she needs to leave; she doesn't want to live a complacent life where she is concerned only with her own happiness, and she knows living with Bob would lull her into it. To fulfil her own goals, Wanda breaks up with Bob entirely. (Note: Bob's Surprise Turning Point is Wanda's Self-directed Turning Point.)

Self-TP 3) Bob sacrifices his current life to go to Africa and convince Wanda he can live generously also. Note his commitment is still essentially selfish. His expectation is Wanda will take him back.
Surprise-TP 3) When he arrives, Bob discovers he's been sent to a different village than the one Wanda went to. He doesn't know where Wanda is at all.


This progression of Expectation/Surprise continues until Bob completes his personal growth arc. As each Surprise Turning Point clobbers him, he is forced to dig deeper within himself to overcome his obstacles, but the act of digging changes both his character and the nature of his goal, until...


Self-TP Last) Faced with either meeting up with Wanda again or helping the villagers he has come to care for save their livestock from a sudden flood, Bob chooses to stay and help. He expects to lose Wanda forever.
Surprise-TP Last) Wanda hears of sudden flood in a neighbouring village and blows off her meeting with Bob to go help. When she discovers Bob did the same thing, she realizes he is now the kind of man she wants to be with.

At this point, the couple can have their happy ending, but note they have not ended in the same state they started in. They may be together again, but they have both changed, and the life they'll build with each another will be very different than the one they would have had if Wanda had accepted Bob's original marriage proposal.

And this works, because stories aren't about events working out neatly; they're about meaningful change.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blogging Haitus

Jen's Early New Year's Resolution: Lay off the frickin' internet, particularly during this season of festive visitations and merry socialization opportunities.

In other words, I'm going to take a blogging holiday for the remainder of December. Meaty Mondays posts are canned and waiting for you in the fridge queue. I shall be back in January (because there's no way I'll keep my paws off the computer once I'm back at work.) Everyone play nice in the comments!

And if you see me skulking about, despite my best intentions, try not to razz me too hard.

Or then again, razz me super-hard so I go back to behaving. Your call.

Happy holidays to all of you, and I wish you peace, love, health and merriment, and a fantastic next year!

PS to Koalas, Dire and Feared: I'll be outlining the next WIP on paper, but resisting the urge to login and post my progress, since I haven't the willpower to keep my paws off the internet once I'm technically on it.

Consider me on post-WIP vacation, although I will still be working. Honest! Goblin's honour!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Light and Comfy: Ideal For Today's Arm-Chair Warrior

Chain mail made from the tabs off beer cans.

Oddly awesome and oddly dorky, all at the same time.

Link and image via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, December 07, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009; Scenes That Can't Be Cut, by Donald Maass

This is the last of my posts for SiWC 2009! I hope they were useful to you.
On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Scenes That Can't Be Cut, by Donald Maass
This was a genuine workshop in that Mr. Maass would give us an exercise, then prompt the audience to spend a few minutes scribbling. This post summarizes the exercises and outlines the extra advice given. If you want the whole story, pick up Mr. Maass' new book on writing, The Fire In Fiction.
Workshop begins:

Middles are so often where a book falls down. How do you make every scene riveting?

Turning Points

Scenes that tend to fall flat are often travel scenes, aftermath scenes, and interrogation scenes (in crime fiction.)

In your scene, identify the turning point, which is the moment when things change. This can be a moment of recognition, discovery, or awareness. The scene can't exist without this turning point, so let's consider whether we could be doing more with it.
Exercise 1A: Start at the turning point, and imagine going backward in time with your protagonist by ten minutes.

Ask your protagonist: Who are you right now? How do you see yourself? Where are you in your journey?

Exercise 1B: Now imagine going forward in time with your protagonist to the point ten minutes after the turning point.

Ask your protagonist the same questions.

This change is the inner turning point that accompanies the scene's external turning point. This gives the scene gravitas.


The following three exercises should help you increase the impact of your dialogue in the scene.
Exercise 2: Re-write your scene's dialogue as an exchange of insults between the characters. Have them say what they need to say, but confrontationally. Strip out all the attributes and description in your scene. Just include dialogue.

Audience question: What if one character is comforting the other?
DM: Have one person be impatient with the other.
Writing the scene as an exchange of insults helps you increase the level of conflict in your scene.
Exercise 3: Now rewrite what you have as rat-a-tat dialogue. It's okay if that means you need to add more lines, but keep the dialogue snapping out in short, taut sentences.

Writing the scene as rat-a-tat dialogue helps you streamline and get rid of extra words. It lets your dialogue do more work. The extras are what we write when we aren't sure what the characters will say next. That waffle should be removed when you edit.
Exercise 4: Now try re-writing the scene in such a way that one person speaks once, briefly, and the other person replies only non-verbally.

Writing the scene this way helps you 'show, don't tell'.
Exercise 5: Consider your character's goal--what do they want, need, need to learn, need to avoid, etc? Are they going to get their goal in this scene?

If they will, write three indicators that suggest the character won't.
If they won't, write three indicators that suggest the character will.

The reason for doing this is we want to contradict what the reader is anticipating. The reason why? It's dramatic.
Exercise 6: Write three details of the setting, but choose oblique things--things that are unusual or unexpected, things you'd notice only if you took your time to really look.

E.g. The pattern the carpet suggests, the quality of the silence, a small detail of appearance, the changing light.

The reason for doing this is small, interesting details will help the reader imagine the scene much more vividly than lots of description of mundane items.
Exercise 7: Write a new last line for the scene. What's the lasting image that you're leaving with the reader?

Write a new first line for the scene, with one rule: It can't address the character's arrival. Look for something intriguing, puzzling, wrong, unusual, disturbing or unexpected to focus on.

The reason for doing this is that the first and last lines of a scene are important tools for propelling the reader along. You should work as hard on the first and last lines of your scenes as you do on the first line of the entire manuscript (and we all know how important that is.)

You've now finished the exercises. Re-write your scene as you would like it to appear, but draw upon the best of what you've created here. Is the scene better? Tighter? Is there more tension? Is your dialogue doing more work? Are you getting more oomph out of your turning point?

Workshop ends.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, December 05, 2009

In Which Paris Hilton Is Deemed Wise

My favourite blogging literary agent, Janet Reid, has a very good post today about how an author's online self-marketing can lead to sales.
10 Things Crime Writers Can Learn From Paris Hilton
Don't let the title of the link scare you; Ms. Reid is referring to a funny post, also worth reading, on Do Some Damage (a crime writers' blog) wherein Brad Parks explains the wisdom of Paris Hilton (which, of course, would require translation.)
Faces Of the Divas
Here are my favourite bits from the latter article:
1. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: People need to believe your life is better than theirs.”

Out of the mouth of a babe comes great wisdom. Is there anything worse than hearing some mid-list author gripe about how their publisher isn’t doing enough to “push” their latest book? Let’s face it: For however far down on the list we are, there are still about a million people out there who would gladly swap places with us. We should act accordingly.

2. “Never have only one cell phone when you can have many. Lose one all the time. That way, if you haven’t called someone back, you can blame it on the lost phone.”

Now, I don’t care what line of work you’re in. That’s just good advice.

9. “Dance with no self-consciousness. You only live once.”

Substitute “type” for “dance” and you have some of the best writing advice ever given.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, December 04, 2009

So How Do We Explain the Inanity Of That "I'm Blue" Song?

Here's an intelligent article delving a little into the science of how mood affects your writing.

The punchline? A slightly negative mood leads to more careful and persuasive writing.

Is a Happy Writer a Lousy Writer?

Link via Nathan Bransford.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Want. These.

Image via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Neutra Face: An Ode On a Typeface

This is a funny and very well-put-together parody of Lady Gaga's Poker Face.

Link thanks to K. C. Dyer's Twitter, found via Sandi Olson.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Cool, but very weird.

Turn your sound off; someone swears rather loudly in this video, but the visuals are worth it.

This is from a beard-growing competition.

Link via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 30, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009 Panel Discussion; Surviving the Econopocalyse

On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Panel: Fiction During the Econopocalyse

I use the following abbreviations to denote who is speaking:
Mod = Don McQuinn, moderator
DM = Donald Maass, literary agent
SH = Sally Harding, literary agent
LR = Lisa Rector, Editor
AR = Abby Ranger, Editor
One interesting thing about this panel is it turned extremely interactive, with the audience taking a very active role in the discussion. I haven't recorded every little point, but people got involved (and passionate.) It was great!

Question: In publishing, what rules have changed due to the economic downturn?

- technology is changing rapidly
- publishers are trying to figure out how they'll be doing business in 2 years
- lots of editors have been fired
- people/publishers are afraid of risk
- that said, don't stop trying things that are difficult or different; publishers need to take SMART risks

- less able to take risks
- greater competition for safe things, i.e. dependable money-makers
- more budget gets spent on writers who are established, and there are fewer new writers
- to take on a new writer, it has to be a book you're passionate about
- a new writer must bring whatever they can to the assest side of the equation
- publishers are concerned over who they'll publish in 5 years; they know it's short-sighted to not be taking on new talent
- agents must watch like hawks to ensure authors/books aren't being neglected by the over-worked editors who kept their jobs
- the 2nd books of a 2-book deal, if it didn't sell well enough, will now often get cancelled if the author blows their deadline. The publisher is looking for any excuse to cut fat

Unfortunately, at this point, I had to run off to my very encouraging Blue Pencil Cafe session. What follows is what I recorded after I got back; the discussion mainly focused the impact of new technology on publishing.

- there used to be distinct hardcover and paperback editors, 5 years ago. Now, the jobs are beginning to intermingle

- ebooks will become very common, will become a bigger market
- I predict a lower return on them for the author

- ebooks have been around for 10 years but they're only popular now
- ebook sales in general are miniscule
- some authors sell significant numbers of ebooks, but they're bestsellers already
- ebooks are not a tool for success. They're an enhancement of what already exists
- it isn't changing how writers build an audience
- ebooks are a convenience for the subpopulation of readers who happen to want to buy their books that way
- re: price wars - the Profit and Loss statement for an ebook is about the same as a traditional book. I.T. is almost as expensive as printing dead tree books

- once the system is in place, I.T. costs will come down

- the web creates too much change for I.T. to keep up

- but there are no returns for ebooks
(JJ's Note: "returns" refers to the fact bookstores can return unsold copies of books to the publisher, at the publisher's expense. This is a monumental financial hardship for the publishing industry.)

Comment from audience:
- except Amazon "returned" copies of 1984 from owners of the book
(JJ's Note: Earlier this year, Amazon reached into customers' Kindle ebook readers and removed illegal copies of the book 1984. Before they did that, no one even realized they could. It caused quite a flap.)

- write a great book. That hasn't changed [when it comes to finding success]

- the Nook ereader is a different business model
- Amazon keeps your book on the Kindle only
- Nook takes any file; it's versatile
- you can loan your ebooks to a friend with the Nook
- I consider Kindle a bad business model

- will kids' books be more affected by the new technology, since kids are so savvy about new gizmos?

- little change, because little kids don't own ereaders

- what about for young adult (YA)?

- no. iphones, but no ereaders, in that age group

- spoils the theory that the new generation will champion this

- that may be the future. Just not yet.

Comment from audience:
- a book is an interactive experience between a young child and a parent, turning pages and reading together. The parent isn't going to remove themselves from the equation by buying an ereader for the child

- even in a weak economy, people still buy children's books. We don't stint on our kids.

- it is the one solid market [in publishing]

- YA has established itself as stable too

- publishers are looking hard at what they're doing. Do they want a new imprint? A new YA list? They're considering new things. [i.e. the challenging economy leads to innovation and new thinking]
- new YA imprints are springing up right now, and they're hungry for books

- the royalty structure on ebooks is not lower
- there are great fears about piracy, but shoplifting in brick and mortar stores is currently a far greater concern
- books aren't what people want to steal most [on the internet]

- it's the Bible that gets stolen most from libraries!

Question from audience:
- what do you think about the proposed Kindle enhancement that would allow the device to read the book aloud? Why were agents so opposed to that?
(JJ's Note: The agents got quite punchy about this one, not at the technology, but at corporations making sweeping changes without consulting anyone first.)

- the distribution system is dictating rights structures to agents
- my blind brother didn't like the idea of a reading Kindle because he didn't want audio books to die out. The performance adds value.

- the arrogance of Amazon sticks in our craw
- Google's arrogance [referring to the Google Book project] is another example. They just blasted in and did that, and it turned into a huge mess.

- the Google Book Settlement touches on every legal issue of ownership

- Google and Microsoft are lobbying to change patent laws so they can rip off small users and take/incorporate applications
- the good news is Google still can't write a book

- the biggest threat to fiction is video games
- video game makers are now targeting women aggressively [women being the largest buyers of books]

- I've written stories for video games
- the audience they're aiming at is mothers, over 45 years of age

- video games are large, but they won't kill books

- but we're competing for leisure dollars

Question from audience:
- will interactive books, i.e. sound, video, come into the market?

- it already is

- there are a lot of video games taken from books, e.g. Harry Potter

Comment from audience:
- VCR didn't kill theatre, as predicted
- I'm making a network of authors that intends to sell ebooks independently
(JJ's Note: I know the person who made this comment popped by the blog recently. If you do again, please drop me a comment and I'll add contact information for your project here!)

- I know someone who published on Kindle and now has a traditional publishing contract

- it happens less than you think
- erotica is very popular as ebooks, much more so than it is in paper
- so many cross-genre books are difficult to place because no one knows where to shelve them. There's no clear solution for such problematic books, but ebooks may be what they need

- that "greyness" is often what you can use to get people interested in that sort of book, however
(JJ's Note: Robert Dugoni said essentially the same thing in another panel discussion)

Comment from audience:
- I've bought 87 books on my Sony reader this year, which is more than I've bought in paper [per year] before I got the device. I love it.

Comment from audience:
- DRM (digital rights management) is stupid, however

Comment from audience:
- I feel a great indifference to readers due to my pleasure at the tactile pleasures of a book

- getting an object, a physical book, has worth to people too

- why is everyone so focused on ebooks? It hasn't changed things for the writers

Question from audience:
- how much should we be concerned about establishing a presence via Twitter, Facebook, etc?

- you can wait until after you're published to create a web presence
- it's your choice, but we prefer you do it because we don't want to take on any more risk than a new writer already represents
- we want to hear you'll do all you can to help attract readers

- if it's not your thing, don't do it because you'll just do it badly

- when was the last time you bought a book because of Twitter?
- fans connect with you via your web presence AFTER they become fans. You can cultivate your existing fan base with a web presence. I'm not convinced it sells books
- if you're just starting out, don't worry about a blog
(JJ's Note: Josephine Damian relates a comment DM once made to her at a conference in this post: he said blogging can be bad because it scratches your writing "itch", and then you don't end up doing your real writing)

- in nonfiction, you need a platform. For fiction, I think it is a matter of fan cultivation only

And at this point, they had to staple our lips shut and shovel us all out of the room so the next workshop could begin. It was a very lively discussion!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Child of Fire, by Harry Connolly

First, the FTC can kiss my rosy red rump.

Second, I don't usually do reviews on my blog, but this is a debut novelist and I only have good things to say about his work, so I think I should do it publicly.

Child of Fire, by Harry Connolly, is freakin' great--one of the best urban fantasy books I've read.

The cover accidentally-on-purpose resembles one of the Dresden Files books, and I'd say that's a fair tactic, because if you like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, you'll probably like Child of Fire. There's less humour, but the mystery is creepier and more skilfully-wrought, and the action is definitely on par. Also, the protagonist, Ray Lilly, is engaging in many of the same ways as Harry Dresden: He's on dubious footing with the law, but not morality. He repeatedly puts himself in harm's way to protect the weak, and he works with insanely powerful people who not-so-secretly would like him dead.

What sets Ray Lilly apart from Dresden, however, is that while Ray deals with an onslaught of bad magic, he has almost none of his own. His only weapon is a glorified piece of paper; his only defence is the protective tattoos his boss gave him. Through repeated violent encounters, he survives mostly with ingenuity, action, and the tools at hand.

This is a great book, and the start of what looks to be a fine urban fantasy series. I do recommend you check it out.

Friday, November 27, 2009

About That Man And His Wicked Math†

This is for the science geeks:

Nikola Tesla: Badass

*swoon* What girl can resist a true mad scientist? Pity he was asexual.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

† The title of this post is a lyric from the song Edison's Medicine by rock band Tesla. Nikola Tesla once worked as an assistant to Edison, but the two men spent much of their lives as bitterly antagonistic rivals. The band Tesla also recorded an album named The Great Radio Controversy, which is a reference to the court ruling that found Nikola Tesla, not Guglielmo Marconi, to be the inventor of radio.

God Thinks the Burj Dubai Is a Bit Much

I'm going to see this building in a few weeks. Suddenly, the thought of going to the top doesn't appeal to me quite so much.

The photo links to the original article on Geekologie, which has a few more photos and a video.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MemeMemeMeme? Show Your Thanks

CKHB has a fantastic idea here on the brink of the American Turkey Appreciation Day: Show what you're thankful for.

In other words, don't tell us what you're thankful for, paint a scene that shows us.

I'm not American, but as Writtenwyrdd recently pointed out, taking a moment every day (or throughout the day) to stop and feel thankful is one of the most effective things you can do to pull yourself out of a spiral of negativity.

So here's three things I'm thankful for, shown rather than told:

1) Several years ago, I was having a patch of ill health, and I got way too skinny. I also had a new boyfriend (who I would eventually marry), and he was obviously a really nice boyfriend because, y'know, I wasn't exactly looking my best at the time.

One day, we were trying a new brand of cranberry juice. I only like cranberry juice if it's sweet enough; if it's tart, the natural bitterness of the berries is pretty offensive to me.

This brand of juice was almost too sugary and also a little watery. My boyfriend asked what I thought of it. I said, "It is sweet; it's just a bit thin."

He smiled and said, "Like you."
2) My sister has this giggle, an little gurgle of noise that broadcasts delight and is quietly virulent. She doesn't do it often, but when she does, you remember it.

My brother has a smile that's borderline movie star, but shades very noticeably toward imp. It also blooms in an instant, and often.

When my mom laughs, it's from the heart, without reserve, and it gives open invitation to anyone to join her.

When my dad laughs, the sound is quite reserved--but that's okay, because it's the delight on his face that lights the room.
3) I have no friends who have been 'disappeared' by the secret police. I have never lost a child to leukemia. I've never had a family member killed in a terrorist attack. No one has ever beaten me.

I'm noodling on the internet with a mug of tea and the rain chattering on my windows, and the only thing I have to complain about right this instant is that my nose is runny.

If you like this idea of "showing" your thanks, please propagate it on your own blog. Also, please add a link to CKHB's post and perhaps the blog of whoever you got the idea most directly from.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Muppets + Queen = Love

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

You Wanna Piece Of Me? First You Gotta Get by BROCA.

The geek in me loves this post, on literary agent Rachelle Gardner's blog, written by marketer and author Jim Rubart:
You Must Shock BROCA
The idea here is the Broca area of the brain is what makes the difference between a person (such as an agent/editor) tuning out because they've heard your idea a million times, or tuning in and remembering you.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 23, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009; Terry Brooks, Bob Mayer

On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Terry Brooks - Let There Be Light
Bob Mayer - The Warrior Writer

Before I begin, let me first warn that I didn't get as much out of these two talks as I would have liked because I had to leave for a pitch appointment in the middle of Mr. Brooks' talk and Mr. Mayer talked so fast I couldn't even keep notes, or I would have missed too much.

Hence, I'm combining the two in one post, and I'm only going to list the points I think most interesting, rather than trying to reproduce the content of the talk as I have been in prior weeks.

Terry Brooks - Let There Be Light
Mr. Brooks' workshop was mostly an outline of how he builds a book, but he started by stressing that every writer is different and has to find what works best for them.
This is an idea. It might be something that pisses him off, or some idea he wants to explore, or a 'What if...?' question.

His next question is whether the spark is big enough to build a book out of, and whether it's a good-enough idea. The latter he determines just by seeing whether he can get it out of his head. If he isn't still thinking about it a day later, then he figures it isn't worth keeping.

The next thing he comes up with are the elements of the story:

Plot - He decides how many story threads he wants to include

Character - He decides on the POV and on the character's voice

Setting - He decides both on the world and on the mood for the book.

Note if the world is unfamiliar to the reader, as often happens in fantasy, then the setting becomes a character, i.e. it must be properly introduced to the reader.

Mr. Brooks started outlining after a run-in with an editor who was not afraid to insist he rewrite hundreds of pages. Mr. Brooks would write one paragraph per chapter and make a list of things he thought needed to come out, at some point, about the characters.

He doesn't outline anymore. He has found in the past ten years that this doesn't work well for him anymore. Now, he will get a grip on the first few chapters and figure out his ending, but everything in between he comes up with as he writes.

Method of Writing
He polishes every scene and chapter completely before he moves on. He is very linear. He is also quite paranoid about finishing things, since Sword of Shannara was the first of many books he had tried to write that he actually finished. He notes you can't build a career if you can't finish your books.

Unlike the rest of the planet, Mr. Brooks pronounces it 'SHAN-ar-ah', not 'sha-NAR-ah'.

However, since he believes that the story that bloomed inside the reader's head is the only one that should be important to the reader, he isn't bothered that other people pronounce it 'sha-NAR-ah'.

(JJ's Aside: J. K. Rowling pronounces her villain's name 'Voldemor...', i.e. with a silent 't', like a French speaker would pronounce it. Like Mr. Brooks, however, she doesn't mind that the English-speaking world has decided to call him 'Voldemort'.)

General Advice
Don't give everything away. The reader wants to engage with the story, imagine the backstory, and picture the characters. Furthermore, the experience of reading the book will be more personal to them if you give them blanks to fill in. (JJ's Note: Yeah! That's what I say!)

Bring big stories down to a personal level. If you're writing about the end of the world, yes, that involves everyone, but focus on what it does to, e.g., one family.

Every character is crippled in some way, and vulnerable characters are more compelling than super-people.

Bob Mayer - The Warrior Writer
Again, this one is incomplete. Most of what you'll read is my understanding of what Mr. Mayer said, rather than an accurate summary of his words. For the complete story, consider picking up his book, Who Dares Wins. I plan to soon.
When someone says something about your writing, and it makes you angry, pay attention to that because it means they just hit a nerve. They just said something you know is true, but which you desperately don't want to have to admit is true.

In other words, they just shone a light into your blindspot. This is incredibly valuable! Your blindspots are by definition the things you can't see. Next time it happens, turn off your anger and listen hard. You're learning something you really need to learn.

Most of what people do in their lives is habit. If you're not at the place you want to be, either in life or in your career, then you must change. You must break habits. All change brings discomfort, and that can cause fear.

When you sit down at your computer and check your email or blogs before you start writing, you're letting your fear get in the way of your writing.

Fear is often a person's primary need, in the sense they will make a priority of avoiding or ending fear. However, you can't grow a writing career without experiencing fear, so you must acknowledge it and PLAN for it.

Define what you're really afraid of. (Failure? Success? Rejection? Revealing yourself? Criticism? Not being good enough?) Then, factor your fear--and the conquering of your fear--into your plans. Every day, do one thing you dislike but need to do. Action is the only way to grow courage. The more you move into your courage zone, the greater your comfort zone will be.

'Lean' into your fear. Write not just what you know, but what you're afraid to know. Living in fear is ultimately worse than confronting it.

Grit is more important than intelligence or talent when it comes to being a success. 'Grit' is ability, plus zeal, plus the capacity for hard work.

You must cultivate a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. You need to be willing to learn and to admit you are wrong. (JJ's Note: In the panel on genre fiction, Mr. Mayer noted that 95% of people refuse to change when they are confronted with their weaknesses. They will rearrange the same errors in their manuscript but not fix the problem.)

Set goals, and put a time lock for achieving them. Examples:

I want to be published in two years.

I want to have a New York Times bestseller in five years.

I want my book in my hands in six months.

Next, decide what you need to do to get to your goals. Write down a plan, and include time lock for achieving your goals.

I want to be published in two years.
--finish book in three months
--find an agent within three months of that
--always return rewrites to editor within two weeks of receiving editorial letter

I want to have a New York Times bestseller in five years.
--go to library this weekend and check out five bestsellers from the past two years
--read them all within one week, analyse what made them bestsellers
--repeat this for the next five weeks
--over the next year, write a book capable of being a bestseller

I want my book in my hands in six months.
--this week, research self-publishers for the best deal
--place order by end of month

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, November 20, 2009

To Your Health!

Um. Wait. Wrong word.

Anyhoot, behold the bacon chalice:

Why yes, that is cheese sauce inside.

Image found via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Rejection Bingo!

With apologies to Kameron Hurley, of Brutal Women, who thought of it first:

Thanks to Karen L. Simpson for linkage to Kameron's version!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, November 19, 2009

And, Abruptly, I Have a First Draft

I just finished the last scene of my WIP.

The knowledge I might hit this benchmark before the end of the week has been tip-toeing around my brain for several days. Like anything that might give my inclination toward slacking off an idea, I tried to ignore it.

Now I'm done, I can give myself permission to relax and even to talk about the work--I tend to not do much of that, because I'm bashful about anything I write that isn't fully polished yet.

What I really want to talk about, however, is doing things you always said you'd never do.

You know when you read a book, and it ends, and the story's not done yet? And you have to wait a year for the next book? Yeah, I really hate that.

Yeah, I just did that.

My novel has a cast of fourteen major characters; it's an orca of a story. Several months ago, I realized there was no way I was going to finish it in one volume--not unless my agent could convince a publisher to make an offer on a 170, 000 word book. By an unknown author. In this economic climate. Heh; ye-ah...

So I located a good place to break the story, and that's the point I wrote up to tonight.

My next steps are to outline the second book, edit this one completely, then send it off.

But oh man, it bugs me I actually ran afoul of one of my own pet peeves! The book's even got a cliffhanger ending. I loathe those.

But I really like my story. And I believe in it. I also know a lot of things I don't like about (certain) series books don't bother other fantasy readers one bit. It's really not a problem for me to have written a two-book story.

I'm just going to have to roll with it, so please raise a brick of chocolate with me and toast the birth of my new novel!

Like all newborns, it's still pretty weird-looking and stinky, but that's okay. Tomorrow, I give it its first bath!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Art... you the impression that it breathes. Therefore, these sculptures qualify.

Driftwood Horses

Thanks to Julie Weathers for linkage!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 16, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009; Psych 101 For Fiction, Eileen Cook

On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Pysch 101 for Fiction, by Eileen Cook

This workshop focuses on Emotional Intelligence (EI). Studies find the smartest people are not necessarily the most successful. We all know smart people who make poor decisions. Emotional intelligence is the non-cognitive abilities that allow a person to adapt, cope and function, and while IQ is static (other than the fact it does decline with age), EI improves with time.

In fact, on EI tests, children rate as psychopaths. They just haven't learned the world isn't all about them yet.

The following scales rate different areas of EI.

We'll discuss each, and I'll offer a few ways you might use this to flesh out your novel's characters. One fruitful tactic is to think in terms of your character having a weakness in one of the following areas, and their growth arc consisting of them learning to do better in that regard. Remember, EI is not static; it tends to improve. Therapy is one way to improve it, but life experience can accomplish the same.

* Emotional self-awareness: You know what you feel and you know what caused that feeling.

Examples of poor emotional self-awareness:

1) A child is injured, and their parent is yelling at the doctor. The parent isn't really angry, although they think they are--they're terrified. This is poor emotional self-awareness because they don't know what they are feeling.

2) After a lousy day at work, you shriek at your spouse/child/room-mate over a small infraction. This is poor emotional self-awareness because you're not accurately identifying what caused your anger. It wasn't the infraction; it was the bad day prior to that.

You can use poor emotional self-awareness to create conflict. The victim of the emotional outburst probably knows the reaction is misplaced and thus will feel persecuted.

* Assertiveness: The ability to non-confrontationally stand up for yourself.

With respect to your characters, consider: At what point would they finally stand up? And would they stand up for someone else but not for themself?

* Self-regard: Generally liking yourself.

Note part of this involves having insight into both sides of yourself. You recognise both your strengths and weaknesses. It is possible to have too much self-regard, and too little.

Consider what your character is ashamed of--their dirtiest secret. If they have too much self-regard, they will try to hide and deny it, even to themselves. If they have too little self-regard, they will try to hide it but will also berate themselves over it.

* Self-actualization: Realising your potential and pursuing what gives your life meaning.

Do your characters know what gives their life meaning? Are they pursuing it?


1) Scarlett O'Hara thinks she loves Ashley and must have him. She pursues him. In fact, he's a stand-in for what Scarlett really wants: to be like her mother--the classic Southern Belle that Scarlett idealizes. This is poor self-actualization.

2) Scarlett O'Hara will do anything to keep her home. This gives her life meaning, she knows it, and she is willing to do quite distasteful things to keep it. This is good self-actualization.

It is possible for a person to be good at this in one area of their life and poor in another.

* Independence: Being self-directed in one's life without being insensible to external wisdom.

Examples of poor independence:

1) Someone who has to ask fifteen different people for advice before they manage to make a decision.

2) Someone who not just ignores advice, but fails to comprehend its worth in the first place.

Note that women tend to score better overall than men on EI tests, but independence is one area where they tend to score poorer. Women are more likely to distrust their own judgement.

* Empathy: The ability to understand what triggers emotion, and the ability to recognise emotion.

Examples of poor empathy skills:

1) Person A is being passive-aggressively angry. They slam cupboard doors and stomp around. Person B asks, "Are you okay?" Person A says sarcastically, "Yes. Fine." If Person B believes that statement, then Person B has poor empathy skills. They don't recognise emotions.

2) Person A says something blunt to person B, who then takes offence. Person A cannot understand why, since it's not something that would upset them if the situation were reversed. Person A thus has poor empathy skills; they don't understand the ways their actions can provoke emotion in others.

* Interpersonal relationships: You can establish and maintain mutually-satisfying relationships (note this involves more than just romantic relationships.)

If your character makes bad relationship decisions, try to come up with the reason for why she can't see that fact.

* Social responsibility: You're willing to do something that doesn't benefit yourself.

Are there causes your character cares about? Something that matters to them? Something they'll sacrifice for?

* Problem solving: Ability to identify problems and implement effective solutions.

How does your character cope with problems? Do they know what their problem is, or do they mistake it for something else?

Examples of poor problem solving:

1) A woman thinks she needs her ex-boyfriend back, but what she really needs is to get over her anxiety about doing things on her own. This is an example of not knowing what your problem is.

2) A man wants his ex-girlfriend back, so he tells lies about her to scare off other men. This is an ineffective solution; he doesn't comprehend how this is counter-productive to making his girlfriend want him back.

* Reality testing: What you experience is not necessarily reality. "Reality testing" refers to how much you let your inner beliefs/insecurities/mood colour what you believe to be true about the world.

Ellis outlined the following to describe the relevant mental process:
A = Activating event
B = Belief about that event
C = Consequences

Person 1 and Person 2 like each other but are shy and insecure. Person 1 bribes his friends to--while they are standing in front of Person 2--act excited over a party Person 1 is throwing. This is so Person 1 can oh-so-casually (and without risking rejection) invite Person 2 to the party.

Person 2 assumes Person 1 is just being polite because she happened to be there when his friends mentioned the party. She doesn't believe Person 1 could really like her, so she doesn't attend the party.

A = Person 2 is invited to a party. This is fact.
B = Person 2 interprets that invitation incorrectly. This is belief.
C = Person 2 reacts to her belief, not the fact, and this affects reality.

Another manifestation of reality testing is that people look for things that reinforce their own beliefs. For example, you can predict what news stories will stick out in a person's mind after they read a newspaper if you already know what their political beliefs are. (JJ's Note: I noticed this about myself while at the conference. When a presenter mentioned something I already believe to be true, I really sat up and noticed that.)

As an interesting aside, brain scans show that if someone says something you disagree with, you will stop listening to the rest of what they say and begin thinking about your rebuttal instead.

Poor reality testing is useful for creating misunderstandings in novels. Something happens, a character interprets it incorrectly, then acts on that understanding, which leads to consequences that affect reality.

* Flexibility: You can adjust emotions/thoughts/actions to suit changing situations.

How important is security to your character? Do they melt down over an unexpected flat tire, or whirl into competent crisis-management mode?

Note a person can be flexible in certain areas of their life and not in others.

* Stress tolerance: Just what it sounds like.

How do your characters cope with stress? How does stress manifest itself in them? People sometimes don't realize they are under stress until they notice physical symptoms of it, such as headaches due to hunching their shoulders.

You can give the reader indicators of stress that allow them to sense the character's emotional state even before the character has done so.

(JJ's Note: Stress reveals a person's inner character, too. You find out if someone is nasty, whiny, or valiant when you put them in crisis. During Bob Mayer's talk (yet to be posted), he mentioned part of the training for the special forces is to be put into lose-lose situations repeatedly--not to torture the soldiers, but to see their inner character revealed. Do they have what it takes to be in the Green Berets? Their opinion isn't relevant; you need to see their inner mettle by putting them in crisis-mode.)

* Impulse control: Choosing your actions based on what you predict the consequences of your actions might be.

The frontal lobe may not fully develop until 25 years of age. Thus, teens who are convinced the whole world saw their latest embarrassment, or that their life is over because their crush is dating someone else, or who simply show poor impulse control and don't know why they do the stupid things they do, may be manifesting the fact their brain hasn't grown into the EI skills of a mature adult yet.

* Happiness: Contentment and the ability to have fun.

What does your character like? What's fun to them? What makes them happy?

Would others describe your character as happy?

* Optimism: You believe, in general and even after set-backs, that things will work out or even get better.

Note THIS is one of the biggest predictors of a person's success! Optimists tend to keep going, because they believe set-backs are not permanent, and this persistence is what gets them to their goal. (JJ's Note: Bob Mayer also stressed that "grit" can trump talent and intelligence when it comes to reaching your goals.)

In closing, people ALWAYS do things for a reason, even if that reasoning seems insane to other people. Examine your character's EI, and try to find the reason behind them acting the way they do.

Extra note:
WANT versus NEED:

WANT is the engine that drives the story. It's your character's goal. NEED provides the underlying emotional issues. The reader doesn't care about your character getting what they WANT; the reader cares about the character getting what they NEED.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Great Interview

Meredith of The Writer's [Inner] Journey posts an excellent interview with editor Gina Frangello. The whole post is both informative and intelligent, but this was my favourite line:
All editors are familiar with the experience of rejecting a story or collection or novel only to find it later taken on by another editor whose opinion we greatly respect, seeing that work garner acclaim, and then wondering why we let that manuscript “get away”...but if it doesn’t punch you in the gut, you were not the right editor for the project.
(Emphasis mine)

Thanks to Lisa Voison for the link!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

I gots me some linkage!

You've all read the post already, but I'm still tickled to report that Robert McCammon's webmaster contacted me and asked to reproduce last week's Meaty Monday post on Mr. McCammon's website.

If you want to re-read the post with different background colours, voila:
Meaty Monday Redux

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

A Ka-Boom of Birds (That's the Technical Term. Really.)

I have no idea how one counts birds in a flock, so I'll just blindly believe the claim: Here's 300,000 starlings flying in a windstorm.

The patterns they make are fascinating--very reminiscent of ink in water, or the shock wave produced by a jet when it goes supersonic.

Linkage found via Geekologie.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mystery Google - The Russian Roulette of the Internet

You get the search results of the person who typed something in before you.

Mystery Google

(And based on what I found, people are already using it for self-promotion. Oh, humanity. Don't you ever change.)

Linkage found via Geekologie

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Now this is a Chinese proverb I can get behind!

"Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it."

Thanks to
Linda Grimes and Kathy Chung and for linkage!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 09, 2009

Last Day To Be Devoured By Cthulhu! (Vote Before You Get Slurped.)

Just a reminder that today is the last day to vote in Writtenwyrdd's Cthulhu Horror Contest!

The race is extremely tight and could use some tie-breaker votes.

Yes, I have an entry in there. No, I won't tell you which, because all the stories are so good I'm already composing my gracious loser speech sincere congratulations for the winner.

Please go vote! A plushie Cthulhu's fate hangs in the balance!

Meaty Mondays: SiWC 2009; Panel: Bestsellers Deconstructed

On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Panel: Bestsellers Deconstructed

All the authors have been New York Times bestsellers.
I use the following abbreviations to denote who is speaking:
DM = Donald Maass, moderator
TB = Terry Brooks
MS = Michael Slade
DG = Diana Gabaldon
AP = Anne Perry
RM = Robert McCammon
RD = Robert Dugoni
RS = Robert J. Sawyer
Funny stories first:

- Terry Brooks came in early, decided he wanted to sit beside someone he hadn't met already and swapped his name-tag on the table. Then, out of pure mischief, he began swapping all the other name-tags around, including promoting Michael Slade to moderator.

- Michael Slade is a loose cannon and hilarious, and he apparently is a talker because both the moderator and other panelists teased him, throughout the workshop, about keeping his remarks short (which he actually did.)

- Michael Slade, Robert Dugoni, and Terry Brooks were/are all lawyers by training. At one point, Terry Brooks joked that of the three of them, the guy who writes about elves is the sanest.

- Anne Perry and Robert J. Sawyer got into a brief, energetic argument about the health care debate in the United States. Amusing, since neither of them is American.

Panel starts:

DM: Talk about your beginnings.

- I knew from 10 years old I wanted to be a writer
- I knew fantasy was a good fit mainly because Sword of Shannara was the first book I actually finished

- all you need to succeed is a great agent

(audience laughs, because DM is AP's agent. DM steps over and pats AP on the shoulder with a very smug expression.)

AP: (continues)
- I knew mystery was a good fit for me because the non-mystery books I had written previously were weak. My first mystery had a stronger plot
- I wanted a soapbox or a pulpit; since a woman couldn't be a minister at that time, I became a writer

- I wrote Jurymaster and was rejected--including by you, DM

- so you keep reminding me

- then I wrote a non-fiction that was published
- this led to Jurymaster finding a home

DM to RD:
- you were a lawyer--did you write what you know?

- I didn't know much, so no. I wrote what I could learn, not what I knew

DM: Did you do it for the money?

- never do it for the money.

- write books you care about
- I became a journalist to make a living at writing, but my boss refused to let me write anything for the paper. It was a dead end job, so I realized I had to do something else, and I wrote a novel

DM: Where do your ideas come from?

- I don't know

- (waves hands vaguely in the air to tease RM)

- They're natural to me. I grew up on ghost stories and the Southern Gothic vibe. Towns down there are built around cemeteries

DM: How do you pick your protagonists?

- my heroes are a compilation of the 1000s of cops I have met
- I represented, and got acquitted, the first prostitute charged with solicitation in Canada (after the law was redefined from vagrancy to solicitation). Word went out among the prostitution community, and I ended up representing 500 hookers in my first year of practise
- I used to ask them to describe their weirdest john
- my story's villain was a compilation of about 250 of the worst stories of sexual predation I heard from these women

- I overheard DM once describe MS's books as novels which first make you read until 3AM and then make you throw up

- (chortles and seems delighted by that description)

RD: (sitting beside MS)
- Can I change seats?

- how did he get paid [by those prostitutes]?

- Ahem. We were talking about protagonists, remember?

- my book is about the world wide web becoming sentient and our fears of technology
- a book must have something of intrinsic interest in it to hook the reader. Even your grandma doesn't really care you wrote a book. People care about what's in the book, not you.
- I chose my protagonist because she's so different from me. I wanted it to be hard for me to write in order to keep it interesting for myself

- choosing Lord John as a new protagonist was an accident
- I tried to write something that was less than 300,000 words--a short story
- I mentioned to my agent and editor I had almost finished, and my short story would be 90,000 words. They exchanged glances, then pointed out that's the size normal books are. Hence, I have a new novel coming out.

- my protagonist is based on a member of my family who died before I was born
- my protagonist is a chaplain in WW1 faced with offering comfort in circumstances where there is no comfort. He finds the only thing he can offer the soldiers is: "I will not leave you."

DM: Outliner or intuitive writer?

- intuitive
- I have signpost scenes, a roadmap of sorts. I know my beginning, middle and end. Otherwise, I just write
- (describes a scene from Mr. Slaughter where an elegantly dressed man in a powdered wig jumps through a 2nd floor window to escape justice)
- that image sums up the savagery and elegance of the age, which is what the book is about

- outliner. My outlines are 50-60 pages; they used to be 100 pages
- A murder starts with a motive. The motive bifurcates into many elements of evidence
- I find the motive, sort out the psychology, then map backward to the story's victims
- every scene guides you toward the killer's motive
- profilers look at evidence, then decide what sort of mind would leave that pattern
- I don't see how anyone can write a mystery without knowing the motive ahead of time

- outliner

- also an outliner, but not the way I used to be
- in the last 10 years, I've started only with the beginning and end of the story laid out ahead of time. Between, I write intuitively

DM: All of you write books with a high-impact effect. How do you know when a story is big enough?

- when I can't stop thinking about it

- in the film industry, they ask you to sum up what your story is about in two sentences
- whatever it is about, YOU have to care passionately about that

- for me, stories form like sugar crystallizing out of a solution. I start, and they grow until they are big and deep enough

- you must have great faith in the process

- (she essentially says she trusts her abilities)

- like TB said, when I can't stop thinking about it, it's a big enough idea
- when I tell the concept to my friends, and they sit up all night talking about the ramifications of it, I know I have a winner
- I check for news stories that relate to it, and ask myself: how much of the zeitgeist of this idea is resonating in the culture right now?

- when my authors get a new idea, they immediately start FINDING all sorts of connections in the culture

- it can't be topical, however, because a book takes three years from idea to bookshelf
- (he makes a comment about the US health care discussion being over in two years)

- Really? Two years?

- it will succeed or fail by that point, yes.

(They argue.)

- (stops the argument) As you can see, these people care deeply. Great passion typifies great writers.

- readers don't care if the writer cares deeply about something. They care if the PROTAGONIST cares deeply about something
- if I write about something that touches on, e.g. the Iraq war, I'm not really writing about the war. I'm writing about the characters whose lives have been touched by the war.

- but why set your book in a hot button zone at all, if you think that's not really what you're writing about?

- my book is about the lawyer who can't lose taking on a case he can't win
- (he explains how American law prevents people injured in conjunction with their military duties from suing the government, then notes how sweeping that is--a woman raped by fellow soldiers can't sue, a man experimented on with drugs without his knowledge can't sue, etc.)

- (I really can't reproduce this adequately. Michael Slade launches into this insane, hilarious and very mercenary explanation for why it's okay his book about the Vancouver Olympics is coming out six weeks before the Olympics actually start. His rationale boils down to: "Vancouverites hate the Olympics and will thus buy my book about a serial killer wreaking havoc upon the Olympics out of shadenfreude.")

- in other words, if you're angry enough [about something], your book [about it] will be gripping

DM: How do you keep testing a character to the limits when you're deep into a series?

- take away the thing your character loves most

- the essence of a character stays the same, but they do change with time. I re-imagine my protagonist regularly, so I can find new ways to test her.

DM to RM:
- do you (an intuitive writer) know what will happen to your protagonist deep into your planned 10+ book series?

- Yes. I can see it.

- see it?

- I can see a few scenes from those books now

Audience question:
- What do you love about writing now? Is it the same as when you started? What keeps you going?

- that I'll get the next novel RIGHT.

- that I'll top myself

- my favourite book is always my WIP or my most recent, because I like to think I'm getting better

- ditto, regarding topping yourself

- (makes a joke about what that means in British slang, i.e. cutting your own throat)

- I've always wanted to be a writer. It was the books I read as a kid that convinced me.

- (to audience as well as panel) aren't we all inspired by the irresistable books we read as children?

- Agatha Christie did it right. She closed off all the threads before she died. I want to do that.
- Also... (tells a story of a woman who told him she had put off suicide to read his latest book. He made a pact with her that if she continued to put it off, he would keep writing (i.e. not retire) for her. She still comes to all his Vancouver signings, so he knows she's keeping up her end of the bargain. He intends to also.)

Audience question:
- What has been your biggest obstacle?

- my first books were bad--

- you actually refused to let your first four books remain in circulation, correct?

- yes. I was lucky to get published, but it had its downside. I had to learn to be a good writer

- self-doubt. My father was an economist and brought me statistics to back up his assertion that writing was an unwise dream to pursue
- I view myself as trying to minimize my death-bed regrets. Even trying and failing would have been better than never trying at all.

- self-doubt coupled with a big ego
- craft is an important part of writing, and I had to learn that

- I had huge debts, and a daughter, and I switched to writing in the middle of this. Everything rested on this one roll of the dice. I sometimes wept with fear and self-doubt because if I failed, I knew I was completely screwed
- to keep myself going, I remembered this: when I was a kid, I created a book in my room and took it to Bill Duthie, who opened the first independent bookstore in Canada.

He took the book and said he would read it. When I came back the next week, he claimed to have lost it. I kept coming back to ask about it, and when I was almost hysterical, he produced the book--bound professionally with my name on the spine.

He said, "I wanted to see if you were serious about writing. You're published now, but this is a print run of one. You have to do better. I want to sell your books on my shelves someday."
- In my moments of self-doubt, I dug that book out and kept telling myself, "I can do this. After all, I've already been published once!"

DM: (To audience)
- These people are not motivated by money. They are motivated by their passion. They infuse their stories with conflict and emotion. And they have all struggled with self-doubt. (pauses, smiles) Sound familiar?

Panel ends

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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